Wednesday TV: Monkeys and Surviving

SnowMonkeyNormally I’m not a fan of the kind of nature movie that anthropomorphizes species in the wild, giving them names, imagining family tales, squabbles and epic struggles. But the photography is so striking in the Japanese Alps and the subjects — snow monkeys, with their expressive and too-familiar faces — so compelling it makes for an especially engaging episode of “Nature” (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings).

It follows the tale of one troop of snow monkeys surviving the beautiful snows of winter, and settling into a local hot springs like a bunch of satisfied old men at the sauna. It particularly follows the super cute newborns, who look to their mothers for direction and free rides, though one youngster, Hiro, ups his status by hitching a ride with the grouchy leader Kuro-san. It keeps up interest as winter turns to spring and fall. Liam Neeson’s narration brings a touch of detached bemusement, as if this is a tale we don’t have to take too seriously.

Primates also pop up in the final installment of “Your Inner Fish” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings), the fascinating four-part science series, as Neil Shubin traces human traits to early species in the episode titled “Your Inner Monkey.”

As remaining players get the usual sentimental messages from home on “Survivor” (CBS, 8 p.m.), a new season starts for Joseph Teti and Cody Lundin, teaming up on another rough season finding civilization from remote locations on “Dual Survival” (Discovery, 9 p.m.). I always wonder about those shows where people are dropped into remote areas with nothing — except camera crews. But on the new “Marooned” (Discovery, 10 p.m.), Ed Stafford is dropped into harsh environments, has to find a way to survive and a way out — and has to operate his own camera as well.

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Shakira’s ‘Empire’ Falters on ‘The Voice’

ShakiraIt was a big night for Shakira on “The Voice” Tuesday. She got to perform the title track from her new album, “Empire,” only to see the near-collapse of her empire on the show, when two thirds of her team on the verge of the first viewer vote elimination.

Team Shakira members Tess Boyer, 21, of Glen Carbon, Ill., and Dani Moz (the stage name of Danielle Mozeleski), 26, of L.A., were in the bottom three along with one from Usher’s team, T.J. Wilkins, 23, of Los Angeles, after the first viewer votes were cast Monday (along with complicated iTunes sales credits and other questionable election procedures).

So for the first time of the season, the three had to sing for their lives — not for judges, but for home viewers who would instantly save one. The decision would be made by tweets — or rather those by Twitter subscribers in the East and Central time zones only (the show wasn’t even on yet further West).

Its results, given in the final seconds of the episode, saved Tess — no surprise to anyone who had been watching the vote totals as they were displayed during the commercial break. Except for the first seconds, she had a solid 40 percent or so of the vote the whole time, followed by T.J. and Dani.

It’s been an odd journey for Tess on the show, who was first picked up by Usher in the blind auditions only to be cast off during the first battle round, stolen by Blake, for whom she lost the second battle round — when she was stolen by Shakira. You just can’t keep this girl down.

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Tuesday TV: An Urgent Earth Day Report

am_mast_grn_fire_love_canalThe best way to mark Earth Day probably is to leave the set off altogether.

But since that’s not your choice, may I suggest a concise and eye-opening history of environmental activism on “American Masters” (PBS, 9 p.m.) of all places. The series, formerly a biography showcase for cultural and arts figures is the showcase for Mark Kitchell’s succinct history “A Fierce Green Fire,” named after a book whose althor Philip Shabecoff is among the many who appear.

Broken into five acts, it stretches back to the earliest battles between John Muir and the National Parks Service over dams — the first environmental fight. As late as 1968, there was a real threat to dams closing the Grand Canyon. Maybe more shocking was the deadly effects of toxic waste at Love Canal, near Niagara, N.Y., that led to houswife activists holding EPA figures in custody until they promised to clean things up or move families. Ashley Judd narrates this segment; other celeb narrators include Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Isabel Allende.

What happened to this rich history? The same thing that happened to environmentalism. After a slew of federal laws were signed during the Nixon administration, of all things, it was Reagan who put a stop to it all, complaining of environmental extremists. Now, of course, there’s a real struggle in convincing half the country that climate change is real, despite proof presented by  97 percent of scientists. Ecology is a global concern, so there are reports of saving the Amazon rainforest and Greenpeace’s noble struggles to save whales. At a time when premium networks are presenting their own urgent, celebrity-studded environmental documentaries that stretch out hours, sometimes it’s good to be slapped in the face, as this one does.

It’s accompanied by a new “Frontline” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings) that examines the effect of solitary confinement. Filmmaker Dan Edge found the solitary confinement cells a Maine maximum security prison maddeningly noisy. The prisoners there are among the estimated 80,000 currently held in solitary, a punishment now considered both inhumane and counter-productive. It’s the first of a two film series on prisons in the U.St. Next week’s looks at the sheer number of prisoners in the nation — 2.3 million.

Katie Stevens, who pretty much disappeared from TV after her stint in the “American Idol” Top 10, returns to co-star in “Faking It” (MTV, 10:30 p.m.) about high school girls who fake being lesbians because they think it will help them be popular in school. A feature I wrote on Katie’s new role can be found here.

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Monday TV: Sweet Soul of Muscle Shoals

muscle1018-5Filmmaker Greg “Freddy” Camalier makes the case that it is the location, alongside the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama that provided the magic to make the perfect setting for a small recording studio that turned out a whole lot of worldwide hits.

More likely it was the determination of dirt-poor producer Rick Hall who created a warm, no-frills recording room and peerless bunch of easy-funky players to back a line of talented singers starting with Arthur Alexander and continuing with Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. In the engaging documentary “Muscle Shoals,” making its debut tonight on “Independent Lens” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings), threads of other big music stories make their way there, from the turning point in Aretha Franklin’s career to a high point in the Rolling Stones’ recording career.

So many names made their mark in Muscle Shoals from Etta James to Clarence Carter, mostly with Hall’s strict guidance. But his iron hand also made him a tyrant to some, so the original “Swampers” studio broke off and kept their own studio, meaning there were multiple world-class places to record in a town of less than 10,000. And its sound of soulful black and white belied the segregation outside studio doors.

The town’s success drew big names there to record including Paul Simon, Traffic and the Osmonds. It’s where Duane Allman soared as session man and Lynyrd Skynyrd first recorded and Bob Seger did his standout stuff as well. Some of the most articulate commentators about the town are outsiders, such as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (but Bono sounds like he learned about most of it from a book). The movie’s trip down South makes for an awfully fine musical journey.

“The Boondocks” (Cartoon Network, 10:30 p.m.) returns after a four year absence without the participation of its creator Aaron McGruder, who originally adapted his sharp cartoon strip into a similarly dangerous Adult Swim show. It will be the final season.

Lana delivers her baby on the fifth season finale of “Archer” (FX, 10 p.m.).

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New Turns for ‘Nurse Jackie’

Episode 602Because of all the tough situations in “Nurse Jackie,” chief of which is the title character’s addiction to pills and drugs, people sometimes forget it’s a comedy until its cast members get comedy Emmys — Merritt Weaver was the latest to do so, last year.

But in addition to appealing characters, there are also a lot of funny lines hidden in each episode, and Sunday’s was no exception. The first guy rolling into ER was “hit by a ZipCar while riding a CityBike.” “Who didn’t see that one coming?” Weaver’s Zoey Barkow says.

Already Frank had invited Jackie to go out that night — to a place he was keeping a secret.

“I hate secrets,” jackie says. But she lives a life of them, mostly surrounding drugs, which look to be getting her into worse situations each week.

Stephen Wallem’s Thor is helping Peter Facinelli’s Coop with his online profile for dating sites, trying to make him seem more sensitive. So “Goodfella’s has to go as favorite movie, replaced by “The Notebook.” “The Shining” has to go as favorite book, replaced by “Catcher in the Rye.”

Thor’s not a great authority on relationships but he knows these websites. And the two have an exchange worthy of vaudeville:

“What happened with you and the mime?” “We never talked.”

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Sunday TV: In This ‘Salem,’ Witches Are Real

salem-janet-montgomery-mary-sibley-wgn-americaThe Chicago “super station” tries its hand at original programming with “Salem” (WGN, 10 p.m.), an overheated return to witch hunting days with the caveat that the witches this time are real. TV series have lately sought to mine pre-Revolutionary times in “Sleepy Hollow” and “Turn,” but while it is understood (isn’t it?) that the Headless Horseman is fictional, the makers of the reckless “Salem” upturn 300 years of history by making the case that the murderous witch hunters there may have had a point.

Stealing historical names from Cotton Mather to Mary Sibley, it blithely upends the entire point of the witch trial stories — superstitious people can be ruthless and more murderous than those they are preventing — into something quite different — paranoids are right. All in the service of dim, entertainment scare value. So not only dark and dumb, “Salem” is also dangerous.

Katharine McPhee of “American Idol” and “Smash” returns to TV in a romantic Hallmark Hall of Fame movie about two people who dream about one another before they meet after drinking from a charmed fountain. “In My Dreams” (ABC, 9 p.m.) also stars Mike Vogel and JoBeth Williams.

On the actual Hallmark channel, they could have called the latest series “Dead Letter” — it would have been more descriptive of its pacing and acting. Instead the odd new show about a team of post office sleuths who do all they can to deliver mail (obvious a fiction) is stolen from Michelle Obama’s favorite song. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Hallmark, 8 p.m.). Eric Mabius of “Ugly Betty” stars as the comically straight-laced head of the division; the network plans to bring in ancient

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Saturday TV: Billy Crystal’s Life on Stage

Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENNBilly Crystal’s first taste of being a comedian was making his parents laugh. There’s nothing unique about that. But, as he reminds us in his one man remembrance “Billy Crystal 700 Sundays” (HBO, 9 p.m.) his dad founded the groundbreaking Commodore jazz label and some of the genre’s biggest stars were guys who hung around the house. He saw his first movie, “Shane,” with Billie Holiday. It kind of blows the mind.

He’s got a lot to jam into his life history that he presents on stage, so he shortens his Yankee obsession, spends a lot of time on deaths (the title comes from the notion that he has about 700 Sundays to spend with his father). He stops just short of maudlin or mawkish, makes fun of uncles with impediments; and has a bit about how ugly Eleanor Roosevelt is.

By now, Crystal knows what’s funny and how to maximize it for an audience. I wish he weren’t operating so much in the “Ain’t I cute” mode that likely served him so well when he grew up. And can we edit a little bit? This thing lasts every minute of two hours with no break.

“Orphan Black” (BBC American, 9 p.m.) which was such a dazzling surprise in its first season, returns for its second. The Canadian drama in which Tatiana Maslany discovers many clones of herself (and does a remarkable job playing them all) is by now so complicated that there is, sadly, no way to drop into the show anew and figure out what is happening. As things begin again, things seem more rote with more cat-and-mouse chases, making it seem a little less special than it once was.

It’s accompanied by a new series “The Real History of Science Fiction” (BBC America, 10 p.m.), narrated by “Doctor Who” writer Mark Gatiss, which begins by exploring robots.

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Playlist 4-18-14

radioCPRThere was a request to keep things down this Good Friday evening — not that it takes a lot of noise to make a radio show. But I took the cue to play generally quieter things at first, before breaking into the springtime and Easter songs, a nod to Glen Campbell, some blasts of soul and gospel and a rock salute to James Brown.

After some country and rockabilly there was an extended showcase of the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller because of the impending opening of the “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” revue (and the quiz I wrote regarding it). And we ended with some Alejandro Escovedo who comes to town next weekend.

Here’s what I played on the radio tonight:

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Friday TV: ‘The Writers’ Room’ Returns

WritersRoomHave they already run out of good TV shows to talk about on “The Writers’ Room” (Sundance, 9 p.m.)? After a first season that began with “Breaking Bad” and went on to include “Parks and Recreation,” “New Girl” and “Game of Thrones,” Jim Rash, the Oscar winning screenwriter of “The Descendants” who is also known as Dean Pelton on “Community,” begins the second season with “Scandal.”

Those behind that awful, overblown, self-satisfied soap (a notion emphasized after seeing its appalling season finale Thursday) get to talk about its low ambitions as if they were producing art. Things look up in subsequent weeks as the writers of “The Walking Dead,” “House of Cards” and “The Good Wife.”

Cesar Millan does what he can to counter the campaign against one put-upon dog breed, which is being out-and-out banned in some communities in the special “Cesar Millan: Love My Pit Bull” (Nat Geo Wild, 9 p.m.). He’s got a dog in this fight, so to speak, his own pit bull Junior.

Flying is in the cards for the presentation on “Great Performances” (PBS, 9 p.m.) of “Peter Pan” from the Milwaukee Ballet, choreographed by Michal Pink with a score by Philip Feeney and starring Marc Petrocci and Valerie Harmon.

A new episode of “Unforgettable” (CBS, 8 p.m.) kicks off another all crime evening on the network, with “Hawaii Five-0″ (CBS, 9 p.m.) and “Blue Bloods” (CBS, 10 p.m.).

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Thursday TV: Finales for ‘Scandal,’ Three Others

KERRY WASHINGTONSeason finales seem to come earlier and earlier, thanks to the tendency of shows to run straight through with fewer reruns and summmer shows beginning earlier in the summer. Four occur tonight alone.

The third season finale of “Scandal” (ABC, 10 p.m.) comes on election day. And in a first for broadcast TV, there is an equivalence of the talking aftershow when show creator Shonda Rimes is the sole guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (ABC, 11:35 a.m.) on an episode called “Behind the Scandalabra,” with a blooper reel and a Spanish language version called “Escandalo.”

“Community” (NBC, 8 p.m.) ends its strange, short fifth season that featured the return of creator Don Harmon, by examining the legacy of a former dean, played by Chris Elliott.

The first season of “The Crazy Ones” (CBS, 9 p.m.) ends with two episodes featuring Brad Garrett and guests Marilu Henner, Gayle King, Melody Thomas Scott. And the fifth season of “Parenthood” (NBC, 10 p.m.) ends with that familial rite of pasage, the driving leson.

With the kind of winter we’ve just had, there may not be much enthusiasm for the second season start of “Life Below Zero” (National Geographic, 9 p.m.). But the compellingly-shot series following four individuals and couples living off the grid in and near the Arctic Circle concentrates, in this episode anyway, on gathering food for the winter. One couple spreads a net before the lake freezes; another devises an ingenious river wheel that does the fishing for them, a guy goes deer hunting and a woman goes out to get a bear before the bear gets her.

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