John Brown Lives in ‘The Good Lord Bird’

As fiery a figure as John Brown was in American history, Ethan Hawke was surprised there hadn’t been more movies or TV series about him.

“This hasn’t been wildly overexploited,” he told reporters at the TV Critics Association press tour earlier this year. “There aren’t 15 John Brown movies we are talking about.”

That all changes in his surprisingly reverent adaptation of James McBride’s National Book Award-winning comic novel “The Good Lord Bird” (Showtime, 9 p.m.), in which Hawkes also plays the intense, bearded  abolitionist.

Being able “to reenact the raid at Harper’s Ferry and it has never been dramatized,” he says, “it’s so exciting.” 

But there’s far more to McBride’s sly story just before the Civil War.

“In the old days, when I would fall in love with a book, if you wanted to buy the rights to it, you knew you were going to have to throw 80 percent of the book away,” Hawke says.  “You were going to have to turn it into a two-hour movie, right? That’s just how cinema works. It’s haiku. And that was just the only way you would do it.”

Getting to tell a tale over eight hours on premium cable, “with the quality of artistry that’s happening,” it was possible to make a decent version of the book, he says. “We didn’t have to distill it to 20 percent of James’s book, and that is a huge.” 

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Also on Sunday: Inside ‘The Comedy Store’

Comic turned director Mike Binder turns nostalgic in the five-part documentary series “The Comedy Store” (Showtime, 10 p.m.) in which he considers the cultural legacy of the comedy club on L.A.’s Sunset Strip where the likes of David Letterman, Chris Rock, Jay Leno and Sam Kinison developed their craft.

He’s got the space to let others reminisce and even talk among themselves, recalling their favorite remembered jokes. There’s even space for rare video of early bits. The legacy of late club owner Mitzi Shore is part of it, and he goes with Marc Maron and Letterman into her old office to rummage around. It[s a far better salute to the comedy hey day than the network’s “I’m Dying Up Here.”

The longtime nature reporter talks straight about climate change in the new film “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” (Netflix, streaming). 

The new season doesn’t begin until Oct. 21, but the makers of “black-ish” (ABC, 10 p.m.) convened to create a one hour election special, half of which is animated. 

“The Walking Dead” (AMC, 9 p.m.) almost made it to the season finale in April, but had to shut it down due to the pandemic. So the shoe falls in the season 10 finale tonight (though an additional six episodes are to come early next year). Anyway it all leads up to the premiere of the teenage spinoff of the zombie series, “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” (AMC, 10:05 p.m.).

Coronavirus has caused the cancellation of the New England/Kansas City game this afternoon. The Sunday Night Football game is still on with Philadelphia at San Francisco (NBC, 8:20 p.m.). Earlier games include Baltimore at Washington (CBS, 1 p.m.) and Giants at Rams (Fox, 4 p.m.). 

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Saturday TV: ‘SNL’ Back in the Studio

Chris Rock kicks off the 46th season of “Saturday Night Live” (NBC, 11:30 p.m.), hosting from inside Studio 8H in 30 Rockefeller Plaza for the first time in nearly seven months, in front of a limited audience. Alec Baldwin is back as Donald Trump, though any planned debate skits may have to be adjusted to accommodate the president’s hospitalization. But maybe not. 

Jim Carrey dons the aviator shades to play Joe Biden this season, and of course Maya Rudolph returns to revive her her stellar impersonation of Kamala Harris. Megan Thee Stallion is musical guest tonight. The entire cast from season 45 will return, augmented by three new featured players, Andrew Dismukes, Lauren Holt and Punkie Johnson. 

The 10 p.m. “SNL” episode is a repeat of last season’s premiere hosted by another who last played Biden on the show, Woody Harrelson; Billie Eilish sings. 

What other show can boast a 46th season? How about “Austin City Limits” (PBS, 11 p.m., check local listings), which begins with an overview of performances over the years from John Prine, who died in April of Covid-19.

Earlier, the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 is recounted on “American Experience” (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings). 

The comedy “Downhill” (HBO, 8 p.m.), with Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, makes its premium cable debut, as does “Angels & Demons” (Showtime, 9 p.m.). 

One of the entrepreneurs on the season finale of “I Quit” (Discovery, 11 p.m.) wins the $100,000 prize. 

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Friday TV: Sex and Another City

The latest romantic comedy series from Darren Star of “Sex and the City” fame is set in the City of Light. “Emily in Paris” (Netflix, streaming) tars Lily Collins as a Chicago marketing executive who lands a new job in France. 

Alex Gibney’s powerful documentary on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, “Kingdom of Silence” (Showtime, 9 p.m.). 

It plays opposite the final episodes of the engrossing true crime saga “A Wilderness of Error” (FX, 9 p.m.), already closing up shop with a couple episodes. The whole thing can still be caught on Hulu. 

There are some weird and creepy things going on in the new anthology series “Monsterland” (Hulu, streaming) but there aren’t monsters per se. Mostly strange and unsettling goings on. But the first episode has Kaitlyn Dever, who is never bad in anything. Based on the short story collection by Nathan Ballingrud, “North American Lake Monsters,” it’s not to be confused with, say, “MonsterQuest” (History, 9 p.m.).

Paul Rudd is a producer and narrator on the new nature program “Tiny World” (Apple TV+, streaming)   that concentrates on small creatures. There is probably no crossover with, say, the “World’s Funniest Animals” (CW, 9 p.m.). 

In the new horror comedy “Vampires vs. the Bronx” (Netflix, streaming) teens in a New York borough square off against fanged invaders. Lorne Michaels is a co-producer; Method Man, The Kid Mero, Shea Whigham and Chris Redd make appearances in the gentrification fable.

Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M. and Ty Dolla Sign are among the artists who break down individual recordings in the new series “Song Exploder” (Netflix, streaming), based on the podcast of the same name and from the makers of the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.”

Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson considers ways her 86-year-old father could die in the dark film “Dick Johnson is Dead” (Netflix, streaming). 

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Remembering Mac Davis, 1942-2020

Lost in the news this week is the death of Mac Davis Tuesday at 78. A songwriter (“I Believe in Music” who was hitmaker in his own right (“Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me”), he was even a movie star for a time in things like “North Dallas Forty” and “The Sting II.”

But his biggest legacy may have been as a trusted songwriter for Elvis Presley, helping bolster the King’s career late in his career with classics like “In the Ghetto.”

I got a chance to talk to Davis last year in advance of  TV special marking the 50th anniversary of the Elvis comeback special.

His first contact with Presley cane in his hometown of Lubbock, “ at an outdoor venue, on the back of a flatbed truck,” he said.

The effect was electric. “Oh, he changed my life. It was a life-altering moment. I just decided yeah, that’s what I want to do someday. I want to be that. Between the combination of him and Buddy Holly — I used to go to actually go to the skating rink and dance to Buddy Holly’s music. Between the two of those, that’s what I wanted to do and be, if I could do it. So I started writing songs right then and there. Not very good ones, but I was writing them!”

He was a successful songwriter by the time he saw Elvis perform again in Vegas in 1969. “It was pretty amazing,” Davis said.

It was the session musician Billy Strange who asked Davis to write a new song for Elvis to sing on the special, one that summed up the King’s career to that point. “I had basically a little over 24 hours to write it,” Davis said. So he got in Strange’s office above his garage and came up with “Memories.”

They liked it, put it in the special, and as B-side to the title song of his latest movie “Charro,” it reached No. 35 on the charts. 

“Sometimes that works, when you’re really under the gun,” Davis says. “I’m glad it did, because it sealed a deal with him. He started looking at my songs and wanting to record more of my stuff, which was phenomenal.”

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Thursday TV: Once More, With Puppets

“You’re the puppet!” is something said in the last presidential debates four years ago — you know, the civilized one. Anyway, if you can take it, our political lows are covered in a new satirical puppet special “Let’s Be Real” (Fox, 9 p.m.). While the rubbery puppets look like things from “Spitting Image,” the best thing going for it is the man behind the characters — Robert Smigel, creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and SNL’s “TV Funhouse.”

Another new comedy crafted for the times is “Connecting…” (NBC, 8:30 p.m.) which has a group of friends trying to communicate during the pandemic through video chats. Otmara Marrero, Keith Powell, Jill Knox, Shakina Nayfack, Ely Henry, Parvesh Cheena and Preacher Lawson star. It’s from the executive producer of that laugh riot series “Blindspot.”

Better maybe to relax with the new half hour series “A World of Calm” (HBO Max, streaming), with beautiful visuals and occasional narration from people like Idris Elba and Nicole Kidman.

The British comedy “Code 404” (Peacock, streaming) is about a detective killed in action who is brought back to life using Artificial Intelligence. It stars Stephen Graham (“This is England”) and Daniel Mays. 

In the imported Brazilian series “Good Morning, Verônica” (Netflix, streaming) a police station clerk in São Paulo who witnesses a suicide about the same time another woman calls her for help.

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Wednesday TV: Even More Gloria Steinems

It’s been a big year for fictional portrayals of Gloria Steinem on TV, from Rose Byrne’s work in FX’s “Mrs. America” to Christine Lahti in the filmed play “Gloria: A Life” on PBS. Now there are twice as many actresses playing the feminist icon in Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias” (Amazon Prime, streaming). Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander and two young actresses take up the role in the impressionistic movie first meant for theaters that also stars Janelle Monáe and Timothy Hutton. 

The case of a woman who went missing with her two young daughters in Colorado in 2018 is covered in the new documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door” (Netflix, streaming). 

From Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested comes the new documentary “Blood on the Wall” (National Geographic, 9 p.m.) covering the Central American caravan to the U.S., sidestepping drug cartels and corrupt police. 

Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer star in the Ryan Murphy-produced film version of Matt Crowley’s 1968 play “The Boys in the Band” (Netflix, streaming). 

The series “The 100” (CW, 8 p.m.) ends its run with one final battle. 

The NBA Finals begin in prime time with Game 1 of Miami vs. Lakers (ABC, 9 p.m.).

Prison reform is the subject of the special “Voices Magnified: Locked Up in America” (A&E, 10 p.m.).

“Islands of Wonders” (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings) ends its run with a look at Hawaii.

The former Fox anchor begins his new show “The News with Shepard Smith” (CNBC, 7 p.m.). 

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Tuesday TV: Let All the Shouting Begin

Tonight’s first Presidential Debate (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, CSPAN, Fox News, 9 p.m.) between Joe Biden and Donald Trump may be the most seen political event on TV ever. If so it will have to beat the 84 million who watched the debate between Hillary Clinton and Trump.

They’re not exactly debates, of course, but parallel interviews conducted while the opponent shakes his head. Chris Wallace moderates the commercial-free 90 minute event from Case Western University in Cleveland, available across a broad array of networks. In fact, the only network programming is “Tell Me a Story” (CW, 9 p.m.). 

Jane Lynch has both played a snippy TV character (in “Glee”), and has presided over a network game shows (“Hollywood Game Night”) giving her the pedigree to take over for the brusque Anne Robinson in the new reboot of the quiz show “Weakest Link” (NBC, 8 p.m.) in which she will be able to say “You are the weakest link! Goodbye!” 

The new documentary series “True Colors” (Peacock, streaming) highlights Hispanic trailblazers. 

Baseball’s postseason begins with 16 teams competing in a three-game first round tournament. It starts in the American League with Houston at Minnesota (ABC, 2 p.m.), Chicago at Oakland (EPN, 3 p.m.), Toronto at Tampa Bay (TBS, 5 p.m.) and New York at Cleveland (ESPN, 7 p.m.). 

A new standup comedy special is “Michelle Buteau: Welcome to Buteaupia” (Netflix, streaming). 

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Monday TV: Puppets Recreate the Past

When the Chinese artist Ma Liang, also known as Maleonn, realizes his father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, he creates a stage performance that highlights moments from his past, starring life-sized mechanical puppets.The staging of his “Papa’s Time Machine” performance is the subject of the film by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang, “Our Time Machine,” making its debut on “POV” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings). 

The latest in a series of documentaries on voting comes on a new series “Whose Vote Counts, Explained” (Netflix, streaming). The co-production with Vox is narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, Selena Gomez and John Legend. 

Luke Wilson hosts the new “Emergency Call” (ABC, 10 p.m.), which highlights 911 calls that have come in, both dramatic and funny. 

Night two of the iHeartRadio Music Festival (CW, 8 p.m.) has Keith Urban, Usher, Bon Jovi, Swae Lee, Kane Brown and Miley Cyrus among others. 

Brendon Gleeson dominates the concluding half of “The Comey Rule” (Showtime, 9 p.m.) by menacing Jeff Daniels’ James Comey as a way to win loyalty. 

Sam is shocked to learn about his connection to Osea on “The Third Day” (HBO, 9 p.m.).

On “We Are Who We Are” (HBO, 10 p.m.), a fracture grows among the friends. 

It’s Disney night on “Dancing with the Stars” (ABC, 8 p.m.). So imagine Carole Baskin in a Minnie Mouse costume. She evaded the first elimination last week when Charles Oakley was given the boot. 

“Love Island” (CBS, 9 p.m.) has its final couple elimination; tomorrow’s the finale. 

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A Slight Kennedy Center Reopening

If you were planning the first in-person performance in the Kennedy Center in six months, a kind of historic cultural awakening after the darkness of the pandemic lockdown, you couldn’t go wrong with a double bill of Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams.

The opera diva and the glamorous pop singer and actress, harmonizing and soloing on well-chosen tunes in front of a handful of musicians would represent a triumphant return to the long unused stages there — truly “A Time to Sing,” as the hour-long cabaret show was optimistically titled. 

But the forward-looking concert at the Kennedy Center Saturday, coming the same week that the Metropolitan Opera cancelling its entire 2020-21 season, seemed only premature.

The two, in their spangly blue gowns, weren’t on the Opera House stage at all, but a makeshift 30 x 24-foot platform built over the the front section of seats. Instead of facing the 2,300 red-cushioned seats and boxes of the normally filled Opera House, they faced the stage, where an invited audience of just 40 were temperature-checked, escorted in through the stage loading doors and sat in distanced folding chairs across the boards.

It looked less like a gala homecoming performance than a dress rehearsal for select patrons (their way of saying, no, you won’t be seeing “Hamilton” this year, but what are you going to do?). Everyone else could watch the streaming version (for a fee). And if the internet cooperated.

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