In White Collar (Friday, 9 p.m., USA), a charming con artist named Neal (Matt Bomer) breaks out of prison to find his true love. The FBI man who first arrested him (Tim DeKay) tracks him down again and makes a deal: The con artist can go free if he uses his expertise to help catch other criminals. It's a tempting offer, since Neal has somehow mastered every piece of information known to man. That's an especially impressive feat given that he looks like a young male model who must take significant time away from his scholarly endeavors to groom his hair.
No, White Collar is not set in the real world. USA specializes in this kind of crime-solving fantasy, but the new series lacks the magic of Monk or Psych. In this case, there's not much to compensate for the silly stuff - no comic genius, like Monk's Tony Shalhoub; no sparks between the two leads, as in Psych.
For some viewers, however, it will be enough simply to ogle Bomer in his black turtleneck, dark hair swept back and blue eyes shining like diamonds. If eyes alone could carry a TV series, this may well be the pair.
Sunday, 9 pm (PBS)
It's not easy to make the fall of South African Apartheid boring, but Endgame gets the job done. The epic struggle against racism, the courageous exploits of Nelson Mandela, the dastardly deeds of prime minister P.W. Botha - you'd think the story would have built-in excitement. Endgame, however, is victimized by the tradition of "quality broadcasting." The tradition dictates that the tone be grim and the pace glacial; and that the downtrodden people be saints who speak in righteous epigrams. ("Fear is the first weapon of the oppressors; it blinds them to seeing the humanity of others.")
Most dismaying of all, it dictates that William Hurt be cast as an Important Person. Hurt approaches his role - a white South African professor who agrees to negotiate with the African National Congress - with maximum pretension, speaking in an Afrikaans accent that occasionally sounds Russian.
It's hard to focus on the evil of Apartheid when you're laughing at an American playing a South African who appears to be from Moscow.
Monday, 9 pm (PBS)
Greed and lack of regulation cause a stock market boom. Then comes the inevitable bust, followed by widespread poverty and unemployment. An embattled president tries to harness the power of government to end the crisis.
No, it's not the 2000s, but the 1930s. American Experience puts our own era in perspective with a timely five-part series on that difficult decade. Let's hope somebody in Washington, D.C., has the TV tuned to PBS.
The first episode is "The Crash of 1929," which shows how the boundless optimism of the 1920s went over a cliff and burst into flames. Wall Street fueled the decade's prosperity by offering a whole new way to make a fortune, even for ordinary folks. You didn't need a steel mill or an oil well; you just needed to buy and sell little pieces of paper. The rich got way richer, and everybody else at least got washing machines, radios and other products of the new consumer culture.
The only problem: Wall Street was controlled by a small group of wealthy businessmen who manipulated stock prices with impunity - it wasn't even illegal. And anyone who questioned the system was accused of being unpatriotic.
One of the few critics unafraid to speak up was Al Capone. "It's a racket," the mobster said. "Those stock-market guys are crooked."
The 1920s stock market was too corrupt for Al Capone. Did no one see this as a warning sign?
Wednesday, 7:30 pm (ABC)
Would any sane business try to improve sales by viciously insulting its customers? That's ABC's puzzling strategy with The Middle, a series that suggests that most of its potential viewers are morons.
"The Middle" refers to the middle of the country. People from this flyover wasteland are fat, ugly, stupid and tacky, as we learn from typical specimens in small-town Indiana. We meet a family of grotesques who eat fast food, consider local show-choir performances "Broadway-quality," and express pride in the local landmark, the world's largest polyurethane cow. Mom (Patricia Heaton) has to make her living - get this - selling cars! And the dealership's break room is always stocked with doughnuts so everyone can get even fatter! The scriptwriters amuse themselves with these sneering stereotypes, but I doubt anyone will be amused who happens to live between L.A. and New York City.
The show goes so far as to ridicule the Indiana family for watching a lot of TV. Hey, if switching off The Middle is a mark of sophistication, I bet the residents of flyover country will prove a lot less idiotic than ABC thinks they are.