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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Wednesday TV: Getting to Know the Mule Deer

A001_C008_100222A new “Nature” (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings) checks back in on Jim Hutto the naturalist who raised a bunch of wild turkeys in one popular episode. This time it’s about his relationship with deer near his Wyoming Ranch. “Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch” show his remarkable, slow-building rapport with the local herd and its leader, who not only let Hutto hang around them, but led him to see new fawns one spring, a kind of unheard of thing between deer and man.

He got to know the deer as individuals and developed a shorthand communication among them, involving nodding. Hutto is an engaging character; he’ll play guitar back home or with the deer to underscore his mellow lifestyle. Yet he’s something of a mountain hermit. When he encounters inevitable annual hunters, who kill one of his pals,he can barely hide his disdain. An added bonus to the remarkable hour long film is its wondrous photography.

It begins another strong night of science programming, including a “Nova” (PBS, 9 p.m., check local listings) that looks into how animals use their senses and the differences between wolves and dogs, and the second installment of “Your Inner Fish” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings) that looks into the evolution of reptiles into mammals: toupees, right?

Also returning to TV after a longer absence is Alan Thicke, who has in the past been a sitcom star and talk show host. Now, as he is best known as the dad of pop star Robin Thicke, he reemerges as a reality show star. “Unusually Thicke” (TV Guide Network, 10 p.m.) shows him as a dad not only to Robin but also to a son who distributes medical marijuana, but also as a guy at home doing normal tasks, such as tonight’s premiere, when he cleans out his garage with his pal Bob Saget.

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Ushering Out Two Singers on ‘The Voice’

UsherUsher was the final judge Tuesday to pare down his team for the Top 12 live performances next week on the “Voice.” Picking three of his five member team to advance, he said he was emphasizing soul and R&B.

The epitome of that, he said, was his first singer of the night, T.J. Wilkins, 23, of Los Angeles, who sang the difficult “Tell Me Something Good,” the Chaka Khan song written by Stevie Wonder.

Melissa Jimenez, the singer with her dad’s Mexican band, who has such a smooth pop tone, bravely tried Beyonce’s “Halo” in a stripped down version meant to show every shading of her voice. But it also showed some limitations, so she wasn’t chosen to continue.

Stevie Jo, that weird looking dude with a pretty fine R&B voice, tried on B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” and Usher wondered whether the kid ever really had the blues. He grew up the son of two metal singers, so maybe. Performing with his hair down and parted in the middle he looked a little like TV’s Mayim Bialik. His crouched performance style is unusual as well; Blake Shelton likened it to “sneaking up on a rabbit.” Usher had some tough choices to make, so in addition to the thrill, Stevie Jo was also gone.

So the other two got in: Bria Kelly, the 18-year-old from Smithfield, Va., did a knockout performance of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” itself an inspired choice.
Also in was Josh Kaufman, who pulled all kinds of tricks on his version of Bruno Mars’ “It Will Rain.” Kaufman, the 38 year old family man from Indianapolis had his start on Adam Levine’s team, but was stolen by Usher. He’s got visual gimmicks too: Big glasses, a beard and a fedora, any one of which would be fine. But three?

Of Usher’s group, I’d put money on Bria.

With the end of the Playoffs, “The Voice” moves to its live viewer voting next week. But since they showed footage of performances in the promo, it may be fair to say that while the voting will be live, the singing still won’t be.

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Don’t Dare Miss ‘Fargo,’ the Series

Martin-Freeman-as-Lester-Nygaard-in-Fargo-FXWhat if you could live inside your favorite movie, or simply have it go on longer — maybe five times as long.

That’s the case with “Fargo” (FX, 10 p.m.),the new 10-episode adaptation inspired by the Coen brothers’ classic 1996 film. There was an attempt to turn it into the series before – with a 2003 pilot directed by Kathy Bates and with Edie Falco starring as Marge Gunderson, the Brainerd cop played by Frances McDormand.

The new version is not quite as literal. Written entirely by Noah Hawley, it inhabits the same psychic space — honest, shy people living out on the tundra occasionally getting mixed up with the most violent people, with local cops trying their best to sort out the evil. There are no direct correlation between this world and that of William H.Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, but it’s clear that Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard is a small town guy cut from the same Scandinavian cloth.

That he gets caught up with some ugly stuff orchestrated by a bad guy drifting through town — Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo — begins the ball rolling to all kinds of frozen mayhem. Like the original, there is overlap between humor and the shock ofviolence. There isn’t a woodchip involed — at least not quite yet.

While there’s a doozy of a conundrum to start, the story begins to take on some additional tales, like a snowball down a Bemidji hill. And as that happens, the cast gets more and more impressive, with Colin Hanks as a shaky Duluth cop, Kate Walsh as a floozy widow, Bob Odenkirk as a clueless deputy, Adam Goldberg as a henchman whose partner is deaf, David Carradine as a diner operator, Oliver Platt as a local grocery king — and in the episodes to come the comics Glenn Howerton, nearly unrecognizable from  ”It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and both “Key & Peele.”

But some of the strongest cast members are new comers, including Allison Tolman as a Bemidji cop bent on solving what’s becoming a series of crimes. It’s super enjoyable stuff, artfully shot and rich in detail. Like “True Detective,” it’s an anthology in the sense that there will be a new case each season, and each season is limited, only 10 episodes. All the reason more to relish it more.

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Also on Tuesday: ‘The Address,’ ‘Pioneers’

theAddress“The Address” (PBS, 9 p.m., check local listings) might begin like other Ken Burns films, with black and white images and that same old recording of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” starting to play. But soon enough, we find it’s very different. It’s not a film about the Gettsyburgh Address, which he covered well enough more than two decades ago in his “Civil War.”

Rather, it’s about a school full of boys in Putney, Vt., with various learning disabilities, whose task is to learn the most famous presidential addresses. So while there are traces of what it all meant at the time, it’s really about watching boys practice and succeed in their semester-long task. Which makes it eventually a pretty enduring ducument. And the fact that it’s not in 12 parts make it all worthwhile.

Feels strange that the subjects of “Pioneers of Television” (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings) are now getting younger than me and the pioneering days are considered to be the 1990s when Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr were all on sitcoms.

The new “Southern Justice” (National Geographic, 10 p.m.). follows cops in Andy Griffiths teritory, Ashe County, N.C., as well as Sullivan County, Tenn., places where there is probably is no time for any whistling.

“Awkward” (MTV, 10 p.m.) returns for a new season, set in senior year. Seems like the cast has been obsessed about sex since before high school.

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Monday TV: ‘Trials of Muhammad Ali’

muhammadAliThe always fascinating saga of the former Cassius Clay as he became outspoken heavyweight champion, Muslim convert, conscientious objector and prisoner gets a fine retelling in Bill Siegel’s film “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” which earns its power through a wealth of old video along with new interviews with family and friends. Ali became a reflection of the times around him, who suffered as a result, as seen in the compelling story on “Independent Lens” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings).

A knockout documentary at one third the length, the Irene Taylor Brodsky’s “One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp” (HBO, 8 p.m.) joins a camp where kids who have lost moms or dads can meet others with the same pain and share their heart-rending stories.

Cartoon Network seems the chief incubator of innovative funny cartoons for kids. The latest of them is “Clarence” (Cartoon Network, 7 p.m.) an overweight kid with even quirkier friends and a mom who spends a lot of time looking at her phone. It’s from Skyler Page, a former storyboard artist on “Adventure Time,” who also provides the main character’s voice.

The latest “Jackass” spinoff, from Bam Margera is “Bam’s Bad Ass Game Show” (TBS, 10:30 p.m.) which proves, if nothing else, that you can now say ass in a show title.

The top 20 perform on “The Voice” (NBC, 8 p.m.) and eight go home.

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