Carrie and more: Some Christmas specials stand out

Carrie Underwood’s new Christmas special is the ultimate in sleek simplicity.
It has no gimmicks, no guests (except briefly). It has no distractions and – this is streaming – no commercials. It simply has Underwood (shown here in a previous performance) warmly caressing each song.
It also reminds us of something else: Even in this crowded, cluttered season, there are some TV moments that are really worth watching – or re-watching. I’ll list some others (and their air dates) in a minute; for a full Christmas TV list, scroll under “news and quick comments.” But first, let’s look at three: Read more…

Remember massive music? Here’s a reminder

For months, show-business has been adjusting to a less-is-more approach.
At times, the result can be splendid. Kelli O’Hara showed that with gorgeous solos during PBS specials for Memorial Day and the 4th of July.
But now there’s a flip side – a reminder that more is more. Viewers will see her Christmas concert (shown here), taped a year ago with the Tabernacle Choir.
“It’s so moving to hear that sound,” she said. “It’s like an ocean wave washing over you.” Read more…

“Bell”: A Mis-spent childhood is redeemed

Tracey Wigfield could have dawdled away her childhood on other things – extra homework or clubs or all the other ideas that guidance counselors talk about.
But she had a better project – watching “Saved By the Bell” reruns.
“It was just always on,” Wigfield recalled. “I watched it every single day after school.”
Consider that to be career preparation. Now she’s made a “Bell” reboot (shown here), which arrives Wednesday on the Peacock streaming service, just in time for the long Thanksgiving weekend. Read more…

“Black Narcissus”: Worlds collide, high in the Himalayas

If you remake a movie every 70 years or so, you can expect some changes.
One example is “Black Narcissus” (shown here), the sprawling mini-series that airs at 8 p.m. Monday (Nov. 23) on FX, then moves to Hulu.
Based on a 1939 novel, this was a 1947 movie that’s well-liked by movie elite: “My wife (Emily Mortimer) had made a (Martin) Scorsese movie,’” actor Alessandro Nivola said in a Television Critics Association virtual session. “He made ‘Black Narcissus’ required viewing for all of the actors in the movie …. I remember loving it.”
The basic story persists: Nuns travel high in the Himalayas, to revive an abandoned mission. Soon, there are culture clashes, plus jealousy and deep loneliness. Read more…

“For Life”: A real-life jailhouse-lawyer story

TV dramas keep returning to the basics – crime, cops, lawyers and doctors.
Still, one variation has been elusive. “People have been trying to make the jailhouse-lawyer show forever and couldn’t crack it,” said writer-producer Hank Steinberg.
His solution was to starf with a real-life example. Now “For Life” (shown here) starts its second season (10 p.m. Wednesdays, starting Nov. 18), making a quick pivot Read more…

“Big Sky” brings Kelley to big-tent ABC

David E. Kelley is finally back where he started – writing and producing for a broadcast network.
He did that for a quarter-century – from “L.A. Law” and “Chicago Hope” to “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Boston Public.” He was the master at crafting intelligent and entertaining TV over 42-minute stretches, plus commercials.
And then he left – until now. “Big Sky” (shown here, 10 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC) is Kelley’s first broadcast-network show since “Harry’s Law” ended its lone season eight years ago.
“I was not anxious to get back to the broadcast world for a lot of (reasons),” Kelley told the Television Critics Association last month. “Mainly the commercials.” Read more…

“Fiddler”: A theater giant, molded from tradition

Some of Broadway’s best minds were trying to say what their prospective musical was about.
It had this dairyman … and his daughters … and the czar’s soldiers … and …
But what, director Jerome Robbins asked, was it really about? Finally, someone said it was about tradition. “Write that!” Robbins said.
That story is told in “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” a richly crafted documentary at 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13), on PBS. The film tells of a musical some people felt would fail.
It didn’t. “Fiddler on the Roof” (shown here) won nine Tony awards and ran for 3,242 performances – at the time, the longest-running show in Broadway history. It’s had five New York revivals, six tours and a movie. Read more…

Trebek was a stately (and silly?) figure

Alex Trebek was the good, grey eminence of game shows– a reassuring sign that there are correct answers and absolute truths.
Trebek died today (Nov. 8) at 80, after almost two years of pancreatic cancer. He had been a TV presence for 58 years – totaling only nine months of joblessness, he said – including the past 36 as the “Jeopardy” host..
“He symbolizes learning and knowledge to (a) second or third generation,” Ken Jennings, one of the show’s all-time champions, told the Television Critics Assocation in January. And he makes “it look effortless,” added Brad Rutter, another all-time champ. “This guy, no matter what he’s going through, just gets better and better.”
There was also a flip side, somewhere under that dignified surface. “I love silliness,” Trebek said. Read more…

Film captures a town’s post-blaze comeback

If Ron Howard had invented “Rebuilding Paradise” as fiction, Woody Culleton would be ideal.
He’s a sturdy, folksy-seeming guy who’s been around. He’ll tell you frankly that he went “from town drunk to mayor.”
And he’s a real person, a handy symbol for Howard’s documentary movi (shown here), which debuts at 9 and 11:47 p.m. ET (6 and 8:47 p.m. PT) Sunday (Nov. 8) on the National Geographic Channel.
That’s exactly two years after the Camp Fire roared through Northern California towns. It killed 86 people, destroyed 8,200 buildings and touched virtually everything in Paradise. A few months later, the town – listed at 26,000 people – had shrunk to just over 2,000. Read more…

Burst of Broadway brightens PBS

Each year, PBS gives us a brief burst of Broadway.
For several Fridays, it has a mix of musicals and plays and such. Most years, that’s important for those of us who live far from New York; this year – no Broadway, no tours – it’s important for everyone.
That starts Friday, with James Corden in a wild comedy. It follows with a documentary … a musical rerun … and a Lea Salonga (shown here) concert, peppered with Broadway and movie hits.
There are flaws here and there. The comedy and the musical both suffer from weak scripts; one is salvaged (mostly) by gifted actors, the other by rousing, Irving Berlin songs. But the documentary is extraordinary – a rich, 56-year, six-nation journey. And Salonga is magnificent. Read more…