TV column for Saturday, Feb. 21


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE:
“Countdown to the Oscars,” 8 p.m., and “The Social Network”
(2010),

8:30-11 p.m., ABC.

On the eve of its
Academy Award telecast, ABC offers a handy warm-up. First,
“Countdown” has a preview; then “Social Network” shows us how
good a best-picture nominee can be.

Aaron Sorkin's
script twisted the real-life story. (Mark Zuckerberg, for instance,
had a steady girlfriend throughout the Facebook-creation years.)
Still, it rippled with Sorkin-style wit; “Social Network” won
Oscars for the scrjpt, score and editing. There were five more
nominations, including Jesse Eisenberg bringing boyish charm to
Zuckerberg; sharply directed by David Fincher, this is smart, deep
and fun.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE:
“Bash at the Beach,” 9 p.m., Fox.

On the eve of the
Daytona 500, NASCAR gives viewers – many of them surrounded by snow
and cold – a peek at some Florida fun.

There will be many
drivers, one UFC fighter (“Cowboy” Cerrone) and music fitting the
Southern-party mood: “Little Big Town” reached No. 4 on
Billboard's country chart with “Day Drinking” and No. 1 with
“Pontoon”; Phillip Phillips, the “American Idol” champion,
saw “Home” reach No. 6 overall.

TONIGHT'S
ALTERNATIVE: Independent Spirit Awards, 5-7:30 p.m. ET, IFC; reruns
at 10 p.m. ET.

This has been
another great year for indie films, as proven by the Spirit nominees
for best picture: Four of the five -- “Boyhood,” “Birdman,”
“Whiplash” and “Selma” -- are up for the same award at the
Oscars. (The fifth is “Love is Strange.”) Also, “Selma” gets
the Spirit nominations that Oscar forgot – director Ava DuVernay,
star David Oyelowo and co-star Carmen Ejogo.

Fred Armisen hosts
with Kristen Bell. Presenters include Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig
(his former “Saturday Night Live” colleagues) and Oprah Winfrey,
a “Selma” producer and co-star.

Other choices
include:

“Despicable Me”
(2010) and “Wreck-it Ralph” (2012), 7 and 9 p.m., ABC Family.
Here are two dandy animated comedies for family fun.

“Backstrom,” 8
p.m., Fox. This reruns a flawed-but-fun episode, with a serial
arsonist moving to the edge of murder. It's a tough time for
Backstrom, whose childhood bullies are now firefighters.

“Hawaii Five-0,”
8 p.m., CBS. A rerun finds the entire island on lockdown, after a
terrorist turns drones loose on civilians.

More Oscar-winners,
cable. Two best-picture winners – towering films with macho men at
the core – collide. “Patton” (1970) is 8 p.m. ET on Turner
Classic Movies; “Rocky” (1976) is 8 p.m. on Encore. Also, Denzel
Washington won a supporting-actor Oscar in the powerful “Glory,”
at 7:30 p.m. on USA.

“Scorpion,” 9
p.m., CBS. This rerun finds Sylvester accidentally triggering a bomb.
While his life hangs in the balance, his friends search for the
person responsible.

“And the Oscar
Goes to ...,” 9 p.m. ET, CNN, rerunning at 11. Here's a rerun of
last year's documentary, viewing Academy Award history.

“Essence Black
Women in Hollywood Awards,” 10 p.m., Oprah Winfrey Network. Shemar
Moore and Tracey Edmonds host; winners include Regina King
(“Southland” and “The Big Bang Theory”), Gugu Mbatha-Raw
(“Beyond the Lights”) and seven “Orange is the New Black”
actresses.

TV column for Friday, Feb. 20


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE:
“American Masters,” 9-10:30 p.m., PBS (check local listings).

August Wilson, we're
told here, was the quiet guy in the corner of the bar, always
listening. He grew up in a tiny Pittsburgh apartment, with a mother
and five siblings, then moved to a white neighborhood when his mom
remarried. When a teacher accused him of cheating, he quit high
school.

Instead, he worked
and listened and wrote. Wilson wrote 10 plays (nine set in
Pittsburgh) from different decades, rippling with passion and great
dialog; two won Pulitzer Prizes. He died at 60, of lung cancer; this
superb documentary ripples with his monologs, some restaged for
“Masters.”

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE
II: “SNL 40th Anniversary,” 8-11 p.m., NBC.

When this aired live
on Sunday, it started strongly and ended weakly. In between, it
ranged from brilliant to lame ... in short, it was terribly typical
of most “SNL” outings.

The highlights
included a wonderful “Jeopardy” (with Will Ferrell confounded by
a changing batch of clueless celebrities) and a coalition of old and
new “Weekend Update” people. The lowlights included botched Eddie
Murphy and Chevy Chase moments and montages that seemed like promos,
spliced too tightly to include the actual humor. Now we can see it
again, this time 30 minutes shorter.

TONIGHT'S
ALTERNATIVE: “12 Monkeys,” 9 p.m., Syfy.

Last week, the good
guys and bad guys scrambled to find the virus ... which wasn't there
after all. But then the villains snatched Dr. Cassandra Railly,
creating bigger problems.

How big? It's
disrupted time, flinging Cole into an alternate future. Now he must
race back to 2015 ... if the time machine has enough juice to get him
there. It's a complex and involving hour.

Other choices
include:

Cesar Millan shows,
7 p.m. to 3 a.m., NatGeo Wild. Here's a Cesar marathon. We see his
love of pit bulls (7 p.m.), his dramatic life story (8) and a snippet
of “Cesar 911,” which returns next Friday (10:28). There's more,
including his amiable one-man (and many-dog) Las Vegas show, at
10:43.

“Last Man
Standing,” 8 p.m., ABC. Mike tries to be a sort of father figure
for Ryan and Kyle, encouraging both to stand uo for themselves.

“Cristela,” 8:30
p.m., ABC. Roseanne Barr returns as the wife of Cristela's rich boss
(Sam McMurray). They both seem to want a divorce ... except she never
siged a prenuptial agreement.

“Hawaii Five-0,”
9 p.m., CBS. Melina Kanakaredes (“CSI-NY”) plays a federal agent,
tracking an arsonist in Hawaii. Also, Amber's abusive ex-husband
intrudes on romantic time with Danny.

“Blue Bloods,”
10 p.m., CBS. When Baez serves a man a restraining order, he holds
her hostage.

“Banshee,” 10
p.m., Cinemax. Nobody does action better – or more cruelly – than
“Banshee.” A long and messy heist scene is preceded by two more
big moments; one involves the on-the-lam giant who killed the
sheriff's lover, the other has some impromptu parenting. Nothing
creates mixed feelings quite like seeing your mom beat up your nasty
boyfriend and all his foul friends.

 

TV column for Thursday, Feb. 19


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE:
“Two and a Half Men” finale, 9-10 p.m., CBS.

One of TV's most
durable comedies finally ends. If it's a typical episode, it will
have some moments that are explosively funny ... and some that are
silly and sophomoric. “Men” is like that, but fun; only six
situation comedies have gone longer ... and that includes cartoons
and shows that changed concepts.

One key character
(Charlie, played by Charlie Sheen) has died, viewers were told;
another (Jake) vanished, but Alan (Jon Cryer) has been first-rate
through 12 seasons. Now – amid rumors that Sheen will show up --
“Men” plays with the prospect that Charlie ia alive; that seems
promising.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE
II: “The Odd Couple,” 8:30 p.m., CBS.

TV shows (including
“Two and a Half Men”) love to throw mismatches together, so why
not return to the ultimate version? From Broadway to a movie to TV
shows, “Odd Couple” has been ideal.

Matthew Perry plays
the ragged Oscar, with Thomas Lennon as the too-precise Felix. That
gives “Odd Couple” a former “Friends” stars and a semi-known
actor (“Reno 911”) who – as co-writer of a dozen movies, both
big (“Night at the Museum”) and small – knows what to do with
humor.

TONIGHT'S
ALTERNATIVE: “Vikings” season-opener (History) or “Fortitude”
(Pivot), both 10 p.m.

TV has two
impressive series set in the far North – and they air at the same
time. “Fortitude” (filmed in Icleland, set in the Arctic) tonight
unravels the elusive past of Elena, the barmaid. That hour debuts at
10 p.m. ET and repeats at 10 p.m. PT (1 a.m. ET), surrounding reruns
of the two previous episodes.

“Vikings”
(filmed in Ireland, set in Norway and beyond) has King Ragnar on a
voyage with his ex-wife (the warrior leader Lagertha) and their
troops. They plan to return to their farming ways ... except, of
course, there's a catch to all this. There's also another battle –
big, bold, bracing and semi-believable.

Other choices
include:

“The Big Bang
Theory,” 8 p.m., CBS. The big comedy night for CBS starts with the
comic-book store ready to re-open and Howard receiving some shocking
news.

“The Slap,” 8
p.m., NBC. The toughest sort of drama is one in which everyone is
right ... or, in this case, everyone is wrong. Harry (Zachary Quinto)
was wrong to slap Hugo a wildly misbehaving 5-year-old, at a party.
Hector's parents are wrong to build it into a crisis ... while
Hector's cousin tries to insert some moderation. It's another great
hour, with Melissa George excellent as the mom.

“Grey's Anatomy,”
8 p.m., ABC. Ben worries, after his brother is admitted to the
hospital.

“Scandal,” 9
p.m., ABC. As her team scrambles to rescue Olivia, the White House
sees little hope.

“The Blacklist,”
9 p.m., NBC. A cult leader had many wives and many dangerous shipping
containers. Now he's missing and they (the containers, not the wives)
are buried on his property.

“Celebrity Roast,”
9:30-11 p.m., Comedy Central. At the midpoint of CBS'
Charlie-might-be-alive episode, cable inexplicably reruns this 2011
roast of Charlie Sheen. There are some truly brilliant lines from Amy
Schumer and host Seth MacFarlane.

“How to Get Away
With Murder,” 10 p.m., ABC. One of the great actresses returns.
Cicely Tyson has had Emmy nominations for nine different roles
(winning for two of them), plus an Oscar nomination She guests
tonight, when the troubled Annalise (Viola Davis) goes to a
surprising source for comfort.

TV column for Wednesday, Feb. 18


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE:
“American Idol,” 8-9 p.m., Fox.

As its ratings
decline – from sensational to merely very good -- “Idol” keeps
tweaking. Now a change pops up today and Thursday.

Instead of singing
to a supportive studio audience, the 48 singers each do a song at the
House of Blues. We'll see some sent home each night, trimming the
field to 24 by the end of Thursday's hour.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE:
“The Mentalist” series finale, 8 and 9 p.m., CBS.

A seven-year run
concludes, with CBS showing that it has changed tone. At first, this
show – like the “CSI” ones – was often as cold and
calculating as its lead character, former fake-psychic Patrick Jane.

Then things warmed
up. Rigsby and Van Pelt (who return tonight) fell in love and left.
Vega started a maybe-romance with Wylie, then was killed. Now Jane
proposes to his former boss, Lisbon (Robin Tunney). Also, he resumes
a psychic duty in the first hour and faces a vengeful killer in the
second.

TONIGHT'S
ALTERNATIVE: “Nature,” 8 p.m., PBS (check local listings).

Sure, owls seem like
they're always waiting for their photo opportunity. They have the big
eyes, the unflinching faces; what we overlook is that they are also
splendid physical creations.

They're on every
continent except Antarctica, patroling night (what we expect) and
day. Some have an awesome wing-to-weight proportion; they fly so
silently that a decibel meter picks up nothing. They are friendly
(this terrific film sees people raising them from chicks, but they're
also stark predators.

Other choices
include:

“The Mysteries of
Laura,” 8 p.m., NBC. As Laura (Debra Messing) probes a murder
linked to an escort ring, headquarters sends a detective to
investigate her alleged improprieties with Jake (Josh Lucas).

“The Book of
Negroes,” 8 p.m., BET, repeats at 10. This ambitious, three-night
series concludes. In Tuesday's chapter (rerunning at 5:30), Aminata
escaped from owner Lindo ... who then supported her freedom. She
helped compile the book, listing 3,000 blacks heading to freedom in
Nova Scotia. Now she's there, aided by Daddy Moses (Lou Gossett Jr.).
More crises follow, in Africa and in England.

“Gladiator”
(2000), 8 p.m., AMC. Four days before the Academy Awards, cable
offers a pair or films that each won five Oscars, including best
picture. This is the epic one; “The Apartment” (1960, 8 p.m. ET,
Turner Classic Movies) is smaller, filmed in black-and-white, warm
and bittersweet.

“Modern Family,”
9 p.m., ABC. The once-wild Sal (Elizabeth Banks) has a belated baby
shower.

“Nashville,” 10
p.m., ABC. Maddie is being pushed away by Deacon, because of his
secret illness. Also, she may sign with Jeff Fordham ... infuriating
Rayna.

“The Americans,”
10 p.m., FX. After weeks with fierce action, “Americans” returns
to layers of ethical dilemmas. Phillip remains troubled by his wife's
plans fort their teen daughter ... and about his attempt to
manipulate a troubled teen. In Russia, Nia gropes at a outside chance
to emerge from prison.

“Schitt's Creek,”
10 p.m., Pop. If you missed the terrific start of this comedy, you
can catch the first episode at 10:31 p.m. and the second at 9:30 and
11. This third one (rerunning at 11) finds once-wealthy David facing
a new experience ... looking for a job.

“Man Seeking
Woman,” 10:30 p.m., FXX. Josh finally has a girlfriend and a happy
life. He'll find a way to blow it, while imagining some very funny
“scared straight” and “dating court” scenes.

TV column for Tuesday, Feb. 17


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE:
“The Italian Americans” opener, 9-11 p.m., PBS (check local
listings).

Here were immigrants
facing a double bias – against Italians in general and the southern
half of Italy (including Sicily) in particular. Officials even
designated which half people came from; those from the South found
jobs were harsh and low-paying; solutions were legal (labor unions)
or not (crime).

On the West Coast,
however, there were signs of prosperity. Italian fishermen thrived in
San Francisco. After the earthquake, the Bank of Italy moved to the
docks to make personal loans; it would thrive and become the Bank of
America. This strong opener goes through 1930, then wraps up next
week.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE:
“Repeat After Me” debut, 8:30 p.m., ABC.

So imagine you're
applying for a job as actor Scott Foley's nanny. Soon, he announces
that his 6-year-old smokes; then he's doing role-playing, curled up
in the fetal position and demanding his mommy.

That happens in the
opener, with sometimes-funny results. Ellen DeGeneres produces this
series (based on a bit from her talk show), with Wendi McLendon-Covey
(“The Goldbergs”) whispering odd orders into people's ears. In
this opener, she has Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”), Randy
Jackson and Foley.

TONIGHT'S
ALTERNATIVE: “The Book of Negroes,” 8 p.m., BET; or “12 Years a
Slave” (2013), 8:30 p.m., HBO.

Two projects revisit
some bleak history. “Slave,” based on a true story, was nominated
for nine Oscars; it won for for best picture and for John Ridley's
script and supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o.

“Negroes” has a
tad of real-life behind it: There really was such a book, listing the
3,000 blacks who could flee after the Revolutionary War. That was
spun into a novel about Aminita. In the opener (rerunning at 5:30
p.m., she was kidnapped at age 11 and taken to the colonies. Now
she's an adult (Aunjanue Ellis) in New York, trying to flee. The
miniseries concludes Wednesday.

Other choices
include:

“Zero Dark Thirty
(2012),” 6:30 to 10 p.m., FX. As the Oscars near, here are three
best-picture nominees. This one (terrific, except for its torture
obsession) won for best sound. “The Fugitive” (1993, 7:15 and 10
p.m., Sundance) won for Tommy Lee Jones in support. “Ben-Hur”
(1959, 8-11:47 p.m. ET, Turner Classic Movies) won 11 Oscars, a
record matched by “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings.”

“Parks and
Recreation,” 8 and 8:30 p.m., NBC. In the first episode, Andy
(Chris Pratt) ends his TV show; in the second, he and Donna help Ron
(Nick Offerman) adjust to a life change and Leslie helps Tom (Aziz
Ansari) get ready for a big night. That sets up next week's finale of
this quietly clever show.

“Fresh Off the
Boat,” 8 p.m., ABC. The family restaurant needs to give its
employees a sexual-harassment seminar. When Eddie's mom botches it,
his dad hires a professional instructor.

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. Joe Spano has been a terrific actor since his “Hill Street
Blues” days. Now he returns to his recurring role as Fornell,
Gibbs' former mentor. After his wife's murder, he's ready to implode;
Gibbs must focus on him, even ignoring the search for his nemesis.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 9 p.m., CBS. A petty officer has been killed during Mardi
Gras. Also, Pride must decided whether to tell his daughter about his
strained relationship with his dad (Stacy Keach).

“Countdown to the
Oscars,” 10 p.m., ABC. Five days before the Academy Awards, Robin
Roberts reveals a list of 15 films that transformed Amercan cinema,
including comments from key people.