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Weekend TV in Review: Fringe, Nikita, Birdsong on Masterpiece

Starting this weekend's busy roundup with a few items from TV's cult corner, by which I mean Friday night TV on Fox and The CW, which each offered up an advance screener.

Matt Roush
Matt Roush

Starting this weekend's busy roundup with a few items from TV's cult corner, by which I mean Friday night TV on Fox and The CW, which each offered up an advance screener.
The one I was most anticipating, naturally, was Fox's ever-challenging Fringe (Friday, 9/8c) with another genre-stretching leap — hint: new color-coded credits featuring philosophical constructs in place of pseudo-scientific terminology, with an emphasis on "freedom." (The episode's title, "Letters of Transit," is a nod to the classic Casablanca, a romance of resistance against an implacable enemy.) As is the show's custom, nothing is done by half measures. We get a glimpse of the future, and of Fringe's possible future (fingers crossed), as we are thrust headlong into a dystopian, totalitarian society — think Observers as bald, oppressive, humorless Nazis — where in 2036 a discovery is made bridging the future Fringe division (now performing perfunctory police duties) with one or more remnants of our current team.
Henry Ian Cusick, in a role better suited to his swarthy charisma than the underwritten sidekick on Scandal, is a Fringe agent of the future who's part of the resistance, working alongside the gorgeous Etta (Georgina Haig), who declares, "I love being special," when singled out for her ability to stand up to the Bald Meanies. There are familiar faces and familiar locales, all changed by time, as we once again adjust to a new world, new rules, new surprises and new dangers: in other words, Fringe business as unusual.
The bad news: Coffee is now chewed, not drunk. The good news: Red Vines (also chewable) have somehow survived. The best news: Fringe, should Fox choose to renew it for a fifth improbable underdog season, promises to give us plenty more fantastic stories to chew on.
The Fringe team could use someone as tough and ruthless as Maggie Q's Nikita, the fugitive former assassin who never gets a rest — or a break. The second season has occasionally suffered from juggling too many stories on too many continents with too many back stories (Michael's surprise child, Nikita's turncoat mentor, Alex's vendetta in Russia, and so on), lacking the tight suspenseful focus of when Alex was still a mole within Division being maneuvered by Nikita. This week's episode (Friday, 8/7c, The CW) is a return to form, a bruising experience both violently and psychologically for TV's sexiest super-spy, as Nikita's newly revitalized nemesis Percy (the always entertaining Xander Berkeley) unleashes a brute force of vengeance in the form of a psycho prisoner she put away back in her Division days. In this scenario, payback is a bloodthirsty bastard who takes no prisoners. Well, excepting Nikita. (To draw her out, someone in Nikita's world is going to pay a terrible price.)
The abuse this thug inflicts on Nikita is nothing compared to the emotional self-flagellation she inflicts upon herself, as she recalls her dark period of Division servitude and is forced to acknowledge the evil that lurks within. Maggie Q is at her best here, stripped of the usual stoic bravado to reveal the anguished core of someone who doesn't always like what she has had to become to survive. And when she gets in this condition, heaven help even those who try to come to her rescue. Of course, the real survival at stake here is the show's, having languished all season in a beyond-unfriendly Friday time period. If the remaining episodes stay on this level, I'd make a case for its renewal. And here's a thought: Move it someplace reasonable, like Tuesdays, where Ringer was such a crushing dud.
Speaking of hard-as-nails women, Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) isn't letting up as she nears the end of her run in the final season of USA Network's In Plain Sight (Friday, 10/9c). Ever wondered where her bark and bite comes from? Meet her dad, a fugitive bank robber who deserted the family when she was a child. Stephen Lang, fresh from chewing the prehistoric scenery on Terra Nova, is just about perfectly cast as this sandpaper-gruff con in the first of a two-part episode. As she always promised she'd do, Mary cuffs him at "hello" on their first encounter, and that's about as friendly as this reunion gets — at least until he decides to flip on the criminal boss who led him astray, but he'll only do it with Mary on board. 
Which prompts flashbacks showing us that she was hardly a pushover even as a kid (already sneering about Santa). And while she took some of her pop's advice, she's not so sure about his credo that goes, "Never trust your partner." She's lucky enough to have Marshall Mann (Fred Weller) at her side, constantly prodding her to open up about how all of this is affecting her — good luck with that. Marshall has his own daddy issues, when his preoccupation with Mary's dilemma distracts him from properly chaperoning his own dad's introduction to his fiancée. Marshall's dad isn't the only one wondering where things will end up between Mary and Marshall. With only two more episodes to go after this week, there's not much time.
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The memory of love pierces the thunderous fog of war in Birdsong (Sunday, PBS, check local listings), a wrenching new Masterpiece Classic that covers some of the same historical territory as this year's Downton Abbey — the terrible toll of World War I — but with a grittier, less schmaltzy, more artful and erotic approach.
Based on the haunting 1993 novel by Sebastian Faulks, and adapted by Abi Morgan (The Hour), this is the story of young Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne, projecting the same sort of emotional transparency he displayed in My Week With Marilyn), a British officer on the front lines in Northern France who seems perpetually lost in thought. "Funny how your head's here, but your heart's always somewhere else," says a plainspoken "sewer rat" (Joseph Mawle) whose job it is to burrow beneath No Man's Land on the Western Front in treacherous tunnels, laying charges under the German enemy. As Stephen's new assignment takes him reluctantly underground, we retreat with him to a blessedly peaceful summer six years earlier, in the French countryside not far from the current shelling, replaying his encounter with the woman who would change his life.
On first encounter with the unhappily married Isabelle (the limpid, lovely Clemence Poesy), Stephen is shell-shocked with longing and desire. The blossoming of their passionate, turbulent romance provides poignant counterpoint to the numbing carnage of war, with its horrific imagery of mud and blood hardening this boy into an aloof leader described by others as a "cold one." If they only knew. As the stories converge at the devastating battle of the Somme, the same river where Stephen and Isabelle made their first real connection during a pastoral boating excursion, we wonder if anything can survive this tragedy. Birdsong is a tearjerker with guts and soul.
HAIL TO THE VEEP: Last weekend, HBO launched a new comedy offensive (in a manner of speaking) with the polarizing Girls, a howl of young-adult comic angst. Its companion piece, premiering this Sunday (10/9c), is more of a hoot, the broadly farcical satire Veep, from Armando Iannucci (best known for his British political comedy The Thick of It, which BBC America will air the third season starting Saturday). Much more conventional than Girls in its savagely profane workplace humor, its bad behavior recalls Curb Your Enthusiasm while the setting is reminiscent of The Larry Sanders Show in its hysterical behind-the-curtain peek at dysfunction and incompetence in high places.
A heartbeat away from unimaginable power, Julia Louis-Dreyfus shines and curdles as Selina Meyer, an image-obsessed, oafish diva of a vice president to an unseen leader who never calls yet somehow manages to undermine her every attempt to grab the spotlight. Her obsequious, ambitious staff of snakes and pathetic dolts (including Arrested Development's Tony Hale as her omnipresent "human teleprompter") guides her through bungled policy meetings and disastrous photo ops. "I need you all to make me have not said that," babbles Selina after a perilous gaffe. Her woe is our delight. With political incorrectness and post-millennial wit, Veep and Girls are restoring must-see vigor to HBO's comedy brand. Whether the audience will follow remains to be seen.
FOX'S FINEST: Hard to believe (in part because I was writing about it as it happened) that it has been 25 years since Fox first stormed prime time, setting the tone with the irreverent anti-Cosby Show sitcom Married... With Children, paired with the wacky The Tracey Ullman Show, whose bizarre animated bumpers would mutate into the network's signature show, the eternal and apparently immortal The Simpsons. In a night-long extravaganza Sunday night, Fox will mark this quarter-century milestone by airing the Married pilot (7/6c), the first full-length Simpsons episode from Christmas 1989 (7:30/6:30c) and a two-hour anniversary special (9/8c), hosted by Ryan Seacrest, recalling the many groundbreaking series that helped put this adventurous network on the map. TV is a more interesting place for having aired The X-Files, 24, Ally McBeal, Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development, Party of Five, King of the Hill, Family Guy and the rest of the Seth MacFarlane empire, Futurama, Aaron Spelling's 90210-Melrose Place phenoms, and many more.
ALL ABOUT THE PLANET: If you'd rather be celebrating Earth Day on Sunday, how better than with Discovery/BBC's epic explorations of the globe. Discovery concludes the spectacular new Frozen Planet by airing a marathon of the series, with the original narration of Sir David Attenborough, starting Sunday at 2/1c, with the finale "On Thin Ice" at 8/7c, in which Attenborough traverses the Poles to discuss what global warming means for the biology and ecology we've become so intimately familiar with the last few weeks.
On BBC America, Attenborough can again be heard narrating the original Planet Earth series, being shown in its entirety for the first time in the U.S. in a two-day marathon starting Saturday at 6 a.m./5c and continuing through Sunday. At 9/8c, a two-hour Making of Planet Earth special airs, narrated by Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens. There's an awful lot of TV to juggle on Sundays these days, but these visually stunning masterpieces are keepers.
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