Even if you adore Sam Cooke songs like "Bring It On Home to Me," "You Send Me" and "Chain Gang," you might not know how culturally important they were in the late '50s and early '60s. As a singer who crossed from rhythm 'n' blues to pop, Cooke breached the color barrier and left an opening through which other African Americans could follow.
American Masters makes a strong case for the importance of Cooke's short career (Tuesday, 11 p.m., PBS). He brought gospel spirit to pop music, pioneering the genre called soul. He also brought a political consciousness, inspired by his work in the civil rights movement. And he created new business opportunities for his community as an African American record-label owner.
Cooke's death in 1964 was so seamy - involving a prostitute, a pistol and a no-tell motel - that it tends to taint his memory. This documentary puts the focus in the right place: his politics, his innovations and his incomparable voice.
The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special in 3D on Ice
Sunday, 7:30 pm (Fox)
The quirky documentarian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) directs a 20th anniversary special about America's representative nuclear family. To do justice to this pop-culture phenomenon, the special will have to put 20 years of comic genius in context while also being genius-level funny in and of itself. No pressure, Morgan.
Sunday, 8 pm (NBC)
Chuck is the droll tale of a nerd (Zachary Levi) who's transformed into a secret agent. It's one of TV's best series, but it almost got cancelled last spring. NBC grudgingly ordered a partial season, which starts this week; but less-than-stellar ratings will spell the end.
My New Year's resolution was going to be about losing weight, but I think I'll change it to watching every episode of Chuck, starting now. I hope you'll join me so we can make this thing a hit. I can live with a little flab in 2010 as long as Chuck survives the season.
Fantasia for Real
Monday, 9 pm (VH1)
Fantasia is one of the few world-class singers discovered by American Idol. She's always had world-class problems, though, most recently family issues and body issues. "I almost lost everything," she says in the premiere of Fantasia for Real. "My house, my career, my identity."
One suspects that a VH1 reality series is not the path to salvation. Fantasia for Real dwells on the tawdry side of the singer's life, such as her dealings with a good-for-nothing brother named Tiny. Her singing doesn't get much screen time, but whenever she does hit a note, we remember why we cared about her in the first place.
How about more songs and less Tiny?
Tuesday, 7 pm (Fox)
I'm still trying to come to terms with the fact that Paula Abdul will no longer be an Idol judge. The singing competition has been fun every single year, and last season was one of the best ever. So why mess with the formula? Unless replacement judge Ellen DeGeneres slurs her words, repeats herself and gushes over questionable performances, the new American Idol will feel very, very wrong.
Blue Mountain State
Tuesday, 9 pm (Spike)
This new series tries to bring the spirit of idiotic college dudes to basic cable. Sadly, it succeeds. A state school's football players get drunk, play stupid pranks on each other, and worry about what is or isn't "gay." Every male character wallows in testosterone, including the team's coach (Ed Marinaro). "We don't just beat our opponents!" he screams (he's always screaming). "We crush their will to live!" As for women, they come in two flavors: won't have sex with the guys or gotta have sex with the guys.
After one episode, Blue Mountain State has crushed my will to live.
Wednesday, 9 pm (TNT)
The con-artist dramedy has grown more campy since I last checked in, but it's still an enjoyable hour of TV. Timothy Hutton's Nate leads a team of grifters who use Mission: Impossible-style techniques to settle scores with powerful scumbags.
In this week's episode, guest star Jeri Ryan joins the team to thwart a couple running a sweatshop. Ryan's Tara poses as a flamboyant Italian designer, hamming it up with a broad accent. The sweatshop owners fall for her act way too easily, but plausibility isn't really the point here. The point is to have fun, and Ryan dives into her role with gusto.
"Admit it, you kind of like me now," she tells the skeptical Nate.
I admit it. How about making Tara a Leverage regular?