The best show on Sunday(s)

For two straight Sundays, it will be easy to name the best show on TV. These are in the "Wallander" series -- richly crafted movies starring Kenneth Branagh as a Swedish detective.

Those run Oct. 3 and 10 in most areas, Oct. 10 and 17 in Lansing. Here's a story I sent to papers:



Imagine you're Kenneth Branagh and
you've conquered almost everything.

You've had four Oscar nominations, four
Emmy nominations and more. Onscreen, you've been a king, a prince, a
president, two colonels amd a major general, plus D.H. Lawrence and
Victor Frankenstein.

Is there anything left that overwhelms

“I was directing Tony Hopkins for the
first time,” Branagh said, catching himself. “Listen to me –
'Tony Hopkins.' Sir Anthony Hopkins. And I didn't really sleep the
night before …. I was intimidated.”

That was for “Thor,” with Branagh
as director. Now “Wallander,” on PBS' “Masterpiece Mystery,”
has him as an actor and producer. The two are exact opposites –
except that both are terribly Scandinavian.

“There's something about coming from
those Northern lands,” said Branagh, 49, who grew up as a
carpenter's son in Ireland. “It's a big country, small population.
The seasons and the weather are extreme and the possibility for the
interior life is great.”

That's the life the fictional Kurt
Wallander inhabits. A homicide cop, he feels everything deeply. “You
will see Ken in all his colors as an actor,” said “Masterpiece”
producer Revecca Eaton.

That starts with Wallander's
self-doubts. “He is vulnerable every time,” Branagh said. “He
is compelled by this painful necessity to ask why people perform acts
of cruelty and murder and violence.”

In this season's second film (Oct. 10),
Wallander condemns himself for a shooting; in the first (Oct. 3), he
worries about sub-conscious racism.

“He's not a fully formed individual,”
Branagh said. “He regards the idea of him being any form of racist
as … morally reprehensible. And yet, he's forced to understand
certain knee-jerk reactions.”

He is, in short, a complex character,
for a complex actor.

– “Masterpiece Mystery,” 9 p.m.
Sundays on most PBS stations (check local listings)

– “Wallander” films are Oct. 3
and 10. in the Lansing, Mich., area, however, WKAR (Channel 23) is still catching up from the pledge drive; the first "Wallander" film airs at 10:30 p.m. Oct. 10, the secon on Oct. 17.


Can Fridays be saved? (Part 2)

In the previous blog, I grumbled about the state of Friday TV. Fortunately, there are also temporary solutions on cable.

Earlier, the Independent Film Channel gave eight Fridays to a fairly funny series from The Kids in the Hall. Now comes a new and better show from David Cross; "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret" debuts at 10 p.m. Friday (Oct. 1); here's a story I sent to papers:



In TV fiction, David Cross is forever
immersed in chaos and despair.

In real life, things have been quite
splendid lately. That includes two simultaneous situation comedies, a
gorgeous girlfriend (Amber Tamblyn) and kind words from his

“Everything that comes out of his
mouth is hysterical,” said Jim Vallely, a “Running Wilde”

Cross has a small role in that one, as
Keri Russell's berserk boyfriend, but gets laughs. “What he does is
so above and beyond what was asked of him, in the crazy, most
ridiculous way,” Russell said.

Meanwhile, the Independent Film Channel
is launching a show Cross created, produced and stars in – “The
Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.” His British co-star,
Sharon Horgan, says it deserves to be its own genre: “It's not like
a British comedy or an American comedy.”

Those two styles used to be vastly
different. The British mastered dryness and the comedy of silliness.
“I grew up deeply influenced by Monty Python,” said Cross, 46.
“Huge influence – if you've seen 'Mr. Show,' you can see it

As a “Ben Stiller Show” writer, he
met another Python buff, Bob Odenkirk. Their “Mr. Show” reached
HBO in 1995, ran four seasons and drew two Emmy nominations for its

Elsewhere, there was a flip-flop –
young Englishmen preferring American situation comedies. “I'm part
of that British generation (that was) influenced a lot by American
comedy,” said Blake Harrison, who's in his mid-20s and a “Todd
Margaret” co-star. He cites “Friends,” “Frasier” and
“Family Guy.”

That fondness helps explain how “Todd
Margaret” got started. Cross said he was doing stand-up comedy in
London, when two producers suggested a show filmed there, about a
transplanted American.

The advantages were huge, Cross said.
That included few restrictions (“they just sort of trust”) … an
“insane amount of talent” in the acting pool … and the
advantages of doing only six episodes per season. The U.S. has
assembly-line comedy, Cross said, with 12-14 people in the writers'
room; this series has Cross and Shaun Pye, an Englishman.

Their story has a boss (Will Arnett)
mistakenly put Todd (Cross) in charge of the London office. First,
Todd must break up with someone whom only he thinks is his
girlfriend. Appropriately, she's played by Tamblyn, 27. “It's just
a great way to work with my girlfiend and get (her) a free ticket to

People were informed of their
relationship in the about-the-author note of his book, which
concludes: “He is currently (bleep)ing Amber Tamblyn.”

Yes, Cross said, he did get her
approval for that line. (“I wouldn't drop something like that on
her.”) And yes, the few autobiographic sections in this humor book
are true. That includes passages citing:

– “An unstable childhood in which
my family moved at least once a year, if not more,” centering on
the Atlanta suburb of Roswell.

– Spending a summer, at 15, with “my
fantastically lazy and supremely irresponsible piece of useless
(bleep) of a dad,” in an Arizona apartment. Cross ate only candy,
hocked everything he had, helped his dad skip out on rent, then
returned to his mom “with literally one nickel left.”

It was a painful start for a life that
would later become quite splendid.

David Cross, everywhere

– “Running Wilde,” 9:30 p.m.
Tuesdays, Fox.

– “The Increasingly Poor Decisions
of Todd Margaret,” 10 p.m. for six Fridays on IFC, starting Oct. 1

– “I Drink For a Reason” (2009),
Grand Central Publishing, $23.99

– On video: In particular, catch
“Arrested Development” (he plays Tobias) and “Mr. Show”


Can Fridays be saved? (Part I)

The new TV season began with odd optimism: After giving up on Saturdays (with no new scripted shows) the networks had decided to rescue Fridays.

ABC and NBC would each have one scripted hour on Fridays, CW would have two. Fox would have two strong action shows -- "Human Target" and "The Good Guys." CBS, which always has three, would insert some of its stronger hours, including the new "Blue Bloods."

That's nine hours of scripted, non-rerun shows. TV life seemed good -- even on Fridays. Now, still in the second hour, almost half of them have sputtered. CBS and "Blue Bloods" are thriving, but the others include:

-- NBC's "Outlaw," one of the worst new shows, had one big preview in advance of premiere week. The next week, it sank to No. 77 in th weekly Nielsen ratings.

-- ABC's "Body of Evidence," a fairly good Dana Delany show, is listed at 9 p.m.Fridays, but has never been given a start date. Now there are rumors it might be held for some other night.

-- Fox's plans imploded. "The Good Guys" opened last Friday, promptly sinking to 101st in the ratings. With one look at that -- and the awful ratings for the terrific "Lone Star" -- Fox panicked. It dumped "Lone Star," moved "Lie to Me" to Mondays and gave "Human Target" the spot (Wednesdays, beginning Nov. 17) intended for "Lie."  That leaves "Good Guys" dangling on Fridays, after reruns. This week's episode is kind of fun; few people will see it.


Oh great, bachelor Brad is back

From time to time, I proclaim that this is it: "The Bachelor" has finally screwed up so badly that people will never watch it again.

They still do, much to my astonishment. Now comes their biggest challenge: In January, Brad Womack will be the new bachelor.

Yes, that's the same guy who three years ago started with 25 gorgeous women, ended with two terrific ones ... and chose no one. The whole time had been a waste -- even more than all those times when guys politely waited a few weeks before dumping his choice.

Now he's back, with ABC insisting he's a changed man who will acually make a choice. Then again, ABC says he's a "sincere, sexy, self-made man." On the self-made part: His brother started some successful Dallas nightclubs, then got Womack to run one of them.

This time, "Bachelor" has screwed up so badly people will never watch it again. 





"SNL": Season opens with some laughs (really)

Being in the New York state government, Gov. David Paterson told viewers tonight, is like "Saturday Night Live": It's fun for 10 minutes and then you wish it would be over.

As it happens, he said it on a night when that statement wouldn't fit. "SNL" had been on for an hour before the kind of sketch (this one involiving tiny hats) that makes people wonder why they're watching TV on a Saturday night.

This season-opener started fairly well, then kept getting better. It even mocked the fact that its music guest (Katy Perry) had been deleted from "Sesame Street" for excess cleavage. Perry showed up with her breasts virtually bursting out of an Elmo shirt. In the sketch, Amy Poehler (tonight's terrific host) said, "This episode brought to you by the number "38" and the letters "DD."

There were more good moments, peaking when Paterson finally came on the air to criticize the childish "SNL" sketches that mock him. He was right, of course; those bits.

-- Had virtually nothing to mock Paterson about except his blindness.

-- Were among the many oft-lame bits that break up the crackling-good wit of "Weekend Update."

Tasteless, childish humor, I guess, is defensible; unfunny humor is not. "SNL" deserved the criticism it gave itself -- and should hope future episodes are as good as the one tonight.