I don't often use the word "visionary," but it applies to Caprica (Friday, 8 p.m., SyFy), a Battlestar Galactica prequel that imagines every detail of a futuristic society not quite like our own.
The pilot is disorienting at first. That makes sense, since we're in a place - Caprica - that has its own technology, customs, slang and religion. Teenager Zoe (Allesandra Torresani) and her friends hack into a "holo-band" to visit a chaotic virtual nightclub where anything goes, from drugs to group sex to sacrificial killing. A computer genius, Zoe has created a virtual-reality double and endowed her with almost-human qualities.
Zoe is part of a monotheistic cult opposed to Caprica's prevailing polytheism, and she dies in a terrorist bombing before the first commercial. This is the first of many stunning narrative gambits, and I wouldn't dare reveal any more. Suffice it to say that Caprica's music, effects, sets, acting and staging send you somewhere you've never been before. The trip is both exhilarating and scary, so don't undertake it lightly.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Friday, 9 pm (Starz)
This Sam Raimi-produced series is set in ancient Rome, and you know what that means. Gladiators tussle in front of screaming mobs; evil senators in gray bangs drawl with effete British accents in torch-lit rooms; and barbarian hordes grunt through big beards. Before being sent into slavery, the series' hero (Andy Whitfield) makes a head-scratching plea to his wife in Hollywood Roman-speak: "Keep me close to your thighs."
The production tries to freshen up its ancient clichés with ultra-violence and cable-porn-style sex scenes. (Now we know what 1st century B.C. breast implants look like.) For all the blood hurtling toward the camera lens, however, Spartacus generates little heat. The artificial green-screen environments and the incessant use of slow motion (did nothing happen in real time before Christ's birth?) have a distancing effect.
Sorry, Mr. Raimi, but I don't think I'll be keeping Spartacus close to my thighs.
Screen Actors Guild Awards
Saturday, 7 pm (TNT, TBS)
It will be difficult to gather around the TV and make snarky remarks about this year's ceremony, because every single nominee is artistically solid. Luckily, jailbird Charlie Sheen is up for "Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series," so it won't be impossible.
Sunday, 8 pm (PBS)
In 2009, Masterpiece Classic presented new versions of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Now it's time for a new Emma, Austen's tale of a young woman so obsessed with matchmaking that she's blind to her own chance for love. The pace is lively, the tone is droll, and the actors are brilliant, particularly Romola Garai in the title role.
Garai has lustrous blond hair, adorable eyes and a 100-watt smile, and just watching her move across the TV screen might have passed the time quite pleasantly. But she proves to be more than just a pretty frame on which to hang Regency bonnets and dresses. She shows us the character's depths - the painful self-doubt that appears beneath the sparkling surface. And she finds a way to make Emma likable in spite of her abundant failings.
I know it's only been a year, but I suggest that Masterpiece Classic immediately remake Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Persuasion with Garai in the lead roles. An Austen heroine this good comes around once in a generation.
A Girl's Life
Monday, 9 pm (PBS)
This documentary is a touching tribute to American girls between 12 and 18. It's also a terrifying examination of the problems they face, some brand new.
Host Rachel Simmons focuses on four girls trying to stay afloat in a culture that bombards them with images of unattainable beauty. These girls go through puberty five years earlier than previous generations, glean insidious messages about women from music videos, and try to hang onto their self-esteem in the face of cyberbullying and other modern hazards. It's no wonder that most girls say they don't like their bodies, and that twice as many girls as boys attempt suicide.
"Why can't you just be yourself?" asks one of the featured teens.
You can be, and A Girl's Life tries to show how. This program should be required viewing for parents and their kids.