Laura Ingalls Wilder led three fascinating lives

The three lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder continue to fascinate us.
There was young-Laura, growing up in little houses on prairies. Many girls — familiar with the slightly fictional version in ovels and on TV (shown here) — try to replicate that life.
“They are dressed in their little gingham outfits,” Mary McDonagh Murphy, producer of a new “American Master” portrait at 8 p.m. Tuesday (Dec. 29) on PBS, told the Television Critics Association. “They come on these pilgrimages, because they feel they know her.”
And there was old-Laura, who was 65 when her first novel was published. Seven more followed and she had 25 years of fame. “Wilder transformed her frontier childhood into the best-selling ‘Little House’ series and helped shape American ideas,” said “Masters” producer Michael Kantor.
But what about middle-Laura? What about the first 47 years after she married Almanzo Wilder? Read more…

“Masked Dancer” has Abdul judging anew

Eighteen years ago, Paula Abdul had a front-row seat for the TV revolution.

It was the very front row, as an “American Idol” judge alongside Simon Cowell (shown here, after they settled their differences). The show spurred endless variations – including “The Masked Dancer,” where she’s now a judge.
That starts Sunday (Dec. 27), then jumps to Wednesdays on Fox … which is where this all started.
In the summer of 2002, Fox tried a variation on the British “Idol,” with Abdul judging alongside Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell … whose acerbic comments startled her. Twice, Cowell wrote in “I Don’t Mean to Be Rude But …” (Broadway Books, 2003), she walked out of auditions. “The tension was so tremendous, the bad feeling so strong, that I didn’t know how we could continue together.” Read more…

“The Prom”: Ryan Murphy and stars, at their best

I’m starting to be OK with Ryan Murphy’s Netflix deal.
It took me a while. When he signed it (two-plus years ago), I grumbled that a streamer had stolen one of TV’s best producers, the guy behind everything from “Glee” to the O.J. Simpson mini-series.
But now comes “The Prom” (shown here), the zestful musical that has just arrived on Netflix (and in a few movie theaters). Chances are, few people except Murphy could have pulled it off. Read more…

An epic mini-series finds love and lust in 1951 India

Sprawling across the emotional landscape, “A Suitable Boy” seems to be many things.
It’s mostly Jane Austen-esque, with a late dose of lurid soap opera. It’s indie cinema, expanded to near-epic proportions. It’s the work of two masters, trying something new at ages 63 and 84.
The former is Mira Nair, an indie-movie favorite for decades; the latter is Andrew Davies, who has written many of the best British mini-series. They linked for a tale that reaches the Acorn streaming service ( Dec. 7.; starting with two hours, it then has hours on four more Mondays.
Set in 1951 India, this centers on Lata (shown here), a college student whose widowed mother wants to find her a husband instantly; Austen would approve. But beyond that, it takes a few detours, some bad – oaf-ish villains throughout and some soap-style moments in the fifth episode – and some good. Read more…

Carrie and great Christmas: an update

(Here’s a quick update on my commentary on Carrie Underwood and the very best of Christmas TV. The Carrie part remains the same, but there are a few additions to the list at the bottom – an extra night for the classic “Grinch” … two cable showings of “Wonderful Life” … and a changed night for the Patrick Stewart “Christmas Carol.” Here’s the update.)
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 a great voice, 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.

+ 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…