Doctorow a Model for WGN’s ‘Manhattan’

manhattanFar superior than their first stab at original drama, the new “Manhattan” (WGN America, 9 p.m.) looks into the making of the atomic bomb in a desert in New Mexico, working on a deadline to beat Germans to the same plan.

The fine actor John Benjamin Hickey (from “The Big C” and Broadway’s “The Normal Heart”) stars as a scientist in the secretive locale. Olivia Williams (of “Rushmore”) is his wife. Though Robert Oppenheimer is part of the group, the others have made-up names, and not just for secrecy’s sake.

“Oppenheimer is the only historical figure who appears in the first episode, and there may be others who wend their way through the story over the course of the season,” show creator Sam Shaw told reporters at the TV Critics Association summer press tour earlier this month.

“But the sort of approach, or thinking, about this show and my thinking from the beginning is that although it is set in a world that is really carefully researched and we make painstaking efforts to be as faithful to history and science as we possibly can be, as someone who is neither an historian nor a physicist, but we keep them around to keep us honest, the model for us in ways, is E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime.’ It’s a, sort of, story that captures the emotional truth and as much of the texture of a time and place, although it’s populated with fictional characters.”

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Also On Sunday: Poirot’s Last Stand

Masterpiece_PoirotS12_lead2_t614Say farewell to David Suchet, doing his final five episodes as Agatha Christie’s great detective Hercule Poirot on “Masterpiece Mystery!” (PBS, 9 p.m., check local listings. In the first he investigates the murder of a Russian chess master.

Alaska continues to fascinate reality show producers, if not watchers. There is a good reason to watch frigid-weather shows, though, in the stifling heat of summer. One new one tonight is about the people of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northweat Territories. The people there call themselves “Ice Lake Rebels” (Animal Planet, 10 p.m.). (I’m guessing there’s not an overload of animals in the series, though).

On the other hand, on the six part “Escaping Alaska” (TLC, 10 p.m.) follows some native Inuit, Yupik and Inupiaq who have had enough of the cold and are moving to San Diego.

The disease is spreading fast on “The Strain” (FX, 10 p.m.), as is word about this entertaining, frightful series.

There are health problems, too, on “Falling Skies” (TNT, 10 p.m.).

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Saturday TV: Big Shark to Tide You Over

MechaSharkIt would be a swell night for “Sharknado 2,” but that’s not premiering until Wednesday (make plans now, I’m not kidding). Until then, Syfy gets you ready with a variant with a return of its giant sized Mega Shark. This time, the government has built a robotic replica that will go head to head with it. “Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark” (Syfy, 9 p.m.) stars Christopher Judge, Debbie Gibson and Elisabeth Rohm.

The other original cable movie tonight is “The Choking Game” (Lifetime, 8 p.m.) starring Freya Tingley as a teen who gets into the dangerous game of cutting off oxygen for kicks. Peri Gilpin of “Fraiser” co-stars as her worried mom in the film based on Diana Lopez’s novel “Choke.”

It’s about time TV movies tackled the central teenage problem of The war to end all wars is also the one to fill all Saturday nights “WWI: The First Modern War” (History, 8 p.m.) shows all four episodes consecutively. The first concentrates on tanks as weaponry; at 9 it’s about chemical weapons and at 10, it’s about military airships.

“Sauce boss” Harley Morensten shifts his cooking show from YouTube to cable with the new “Epic Meal Empire” (FYI, 10 p.m.). His first recipes are for excessive items such as whiskey-laced cheeseburger lasagna, doughnut casseroles and cupcakes made with Jack Daniel’s and Coke.

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Friday TV: A Girl Wants a Bicycle

WADJDA-articleLargeThe simple story of a 10 year girl who wants to win a prize in order to buy a bike is more complicated when she’s in Saudi Arabia and the contest is in reciting the Quaran. Riding bikes is frowned upon for Saudi women but the indomitable spirit in “Wadjda” (Starz, 10 p.m.) it represents freedom and the chance to excel on wheels.

The film by Haifaa al-Mansour stars Waad Mohammed and presents a humane picture at a time of unsettled times. It makes its cable debut in Arabic with English subtitles.

Let’s hear it for the Nebraska outsider artist from outside Stapleton who spent his life creating elaborate “healing machines” in his barns that were widely unknown until long after he died. The life and work of the eccentric recluse are examined in the documentary “Emery Blagdon and His Healing Machine” (PBS, 10:30 p.m., check local listings).

Here’s what Friday needed: More wedding reality shows. The latest, “Bride by Design” (TLC, 10 p.m.) concentrates on the work of custom wedding dress designer Heidi Elnora whose scheme to get women into their own designs is called Build-A-Bride. (The main drawback may be that in the end, they may look too much like bears). It joins the usual suspects such as “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta” (TLC, 9 and 9:30 p.m.).

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Thursday TV: Recalling the Civil Rights Act

CivilRightsSeems worthwhile to dedicate an hour of prime time to mark a landmark anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act “CBS News: 50 Years Later, Civil Rights” (Smithsonian, 8 p.m.) is a live forum from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York to discuss the movement of the 1960s and its impact, with Rep. John Lewis, Harry Belafonte and Rosie Perez among the participants. Bob Schieffer moderates.

Why not have this on CBS though?

The civil rights struggle, as well as the rise of feminism and environmentalism are also covered on tonight’s edition of “The Sixties” (CNN, 9 p.m.).

“Project Runway” (Lifetime, 9 p.m.) returns for its 13th season, with designers having to compete to get into the final lineup. As in a lot of other reality shows, a contestant from a past season returns.

“Black Box” (ABC, 8 p.m.) presents two episodes that represent its season finale.

Jenna Elfman, Dave Foley, Michael Ealy, Seth Green, Monica Patter and Katy Mixon all play a new “Hollywood Game Night” (NBC, 8 p.m.).

The season 12 finale of “Hell’s Kitchen” (Fox, 8 p.m.) is between Scot Commings and Jason Zepaitas, who have to cook five signature dishes for judges and former competitors.

As his son stars in a bad new movie this weekend, Kirk Douglas looks back on his career in the 2009  documentary “Kirk Douglas: Before I Forget” (Turner Classic Movies, 10:15 p.m.) which runs amid a number of his roles, playing Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (TCM, 8 p.m.), as a Bix Beiderbax type character in “Young Man with a Horn” (TCM, midnight), as well as “Out of the Past” (TCM, 2 a.m.) and “The Hook” (TCM, 4 a.m.).

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A Trove of New ‘Basement Tapes’ Songs

BasementNearly half a century after someone dashed them away, like most folks do in their basement, a few boxes of unrecorded handwritten lyrics of Bob Dylan from the “Basement Tapes” era were discovered last year. Instead of shipping them out to historians or auction houses, they were given to contemporary musicians, who were invited to finish the potential songs with their own melodies in the manner that Wilco and Billy Bragg did with the works of Woody Guthrie in the “Mermaid Avenue” series of recordings.

The efforts of that group — Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes — come out on an album this fall produced by T-Bone Burnett, “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued.”

Coinciding with it is a documentary of the same name chronicling the process directed by Sam Jones and using Dylan’s own voice as narrator that premieres on Showtime Nov. 21.

Showtime president David Nevins said the film will explore “the making of ‘The Basement Tapes’ and their continuing legacy in pop culture.”

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Wednesday TV: Music Returns to VH1

soundclash-608x341Once it was the mainstay of the network whose name stood for Video Hits One, but music programming is so rare now on VH1, it’s worth noting the premiere of “Soundclash” (VH1, Palladia, 9 p.m.) a new series of live performance produced by Ahmir “QuestLove” Thompson amid his duties in the Roots and as band member for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (NBC, 11:35 p.m.).

The idea is to weave performance and interviews into the one hour episodes, hosted by the esteemed DJ and producer Diplo. The first outing tonight features the band Fall Out Boy and rapper T.I. along with British trip-hop group London Grammar.

A new batch of celebrity genealogy arrives on the Lisa Kudrow-produced “Who Do You Think You Are?” (TLC, 9 p.m.). First up is Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City,” who may not be related to the former president but does descend to a great-great-great grandmother who killed her husband with an ax to the head.

Bad behavior among the well-bred is likely on the new “BAPS” (Lifetime, 10 p.m.), featuring the black American princesses of St. Louis. They lose no time in fighting at parties in the premiere.

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‘Downton’ Lowdown for Season Five

downton-abbey-2014-tca-panel-getty“Downton Abbey” stars appear annually at the TV Critics Association summer press tour.  PBS is still giddy about its first hit so can’t help continually promoting the imported English soap.

This year’s visitors included Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates) and Allen Leech (Tom Branson), a first time visitor to TCA who was nonetheless the hit of the panel for his wicked sense of humor.

Still, the biggest moment might have been the brief clips from the anticipated five, which debuts on PBS Jan. 4.

In it, Mary seems to be settling for Tony (though this may be a red herring), Edith seems to have some feeling for the farmer on the property who is secretly raising her baby, a shadow still hangs over Mr. Bates and the couple talks about leaving. Branson is still seeing the local teacher; they’re both outspoken at Downton dinner parties. Branson is also still trying to convince Lord Grantham that he didn’t have her over in the house alone last season.

Unlike last season’s start, Lady Mary is over her mourning period whose choice in the clip may not be her final one.

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Tuesday TV: More Network Chefs

FoodFIghtersIn an age of “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef,” “Iron Chef America” (Food, 8 p.m.) “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior,” her’s another entry into the idea of cooking as a competition. “Food Fighters” (NBC, 8 p.m.) is not, as its title might indicate, a show about throwing pies and such. It pits amateur cooks and their cherished family recipes against professionals. Adam Richman, the “Man vs. Food” guy lately known as the Man vs. Social Media guy, is vindicated enough to be the host.

It comes on alight of another food fight, “Underground BBQ Challenge” (Travel, 9 p.m.), which travels to Austin.

The documentary “Slaying the Badger” (ESPN, 8 p.m.) looks at the rivalry in the 1986 Tour de France between the first American to win the race, Greg LeMond, and reigning champion Bernard Hinault, known as the Badger.

Earlier, another Tour de France documentary, “The Armstrong Lie” (Starz, 2:20 p.m.) by Alex Gibney, looks at the deception of Lance Armstrong.

The seventh season starts for “Face Off” (Syfy, 9 p.m.), the competition of special effects makeup artists.

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Monday TV: Manufacturing Bogus Terrorists

Newburgh The boom in homeland security that followed 9/11 had several casualties, one of them justice, especially when it came to encouraging and then rounding up supposed home grown terrorists. It happened in several cities, but because one of the cases that occurred in upstate New York went to trial, filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, who made last year’s chilling “Cheshire Murders,” got access to miles of surveillance footage, showing just how much a shadowy FBI informant entrapped four down on their luck, small time criminals to agree to do terrorist act.

The deal, according to the engrossing “The Newburgh Sting” (HBO, 9 p.m.), involved a promise of $250,000 each — “Change your life money,” according to one of the interviewees. It’s an important, engrossing look at the extent to which the FBI would go to put (fake) bombs in the hands of criminals, in order to arrest them for being bombers (and taking credit in embarrassing press conferences later). The most chilling footage may be in the beginning when the car of the informant is followed by a camera affixed on something hovering above – satellite or drone?

In another documentary tonight, a teenage Dane who dreams of a ballroom dancing career enlists a Russian partner in “Dance for Me” on “POV” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings).

The new reality series “Way Out West” (truTV, 10 p.m.) follows families with outfitting businesses for fisherman, hikers, campers, trackers and horse riders in mountainous Idaho.

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