I've always liked Conan O'Brien, but he turned sour at the end of his stint on NBC. Last season, as you remember, the network moved him into the Tonight Show slot while giving Jay Leno a chance in prime time. Neither of those experiments worked, with low ratings for both shows. NBC's proposed solution seemed reasonable from a business standpoint: move the shows back to where people actually liked them, meaning a mere half-hour later start time for Conan.
But O'Brien responded like a bratty child, rejecting the gig even though it was still one of the best in show business. He took to bad-mouthing NBC on the air, as if viewers were supposed to join his multimillionaire's pity party.
I got so turned off that I hadn't really been looking forward to O'Brien's new talk show on TBS, Conan (Monday, 10 p.m.). But a hilarious promo a bit of absurdity about O'Brien driving a car off a cliff - has changed all that. He seems newly inspired after his hiatus, ready to conquer late night once again.
Getting the funny Conan back, sans resentment, could be the best thing that happens to TV this year. And maybe to the United States.
Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood
Monday, 7 pm (TCM)
Part two of this wonderful series chronicles the early days of Hollywood. We hear familiar names like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle, but the real treat is hearing unfamiliar stories from the remote 1910s. Did you know that one of the first complete films made in Hollywood was shot behind a Chinese laundry? That the early movie studios used Henry Ford's mass-production techniques (thus the term "Dream Factories")? That mogul Adolph Zukor stunned the industry by planning to release six 45-minute feature films in a single year? Colleagues warned him that there "wasn't enough talent in the world" to sustain such unprecedented cinematic productivity.
It's true that screen acting talent wasn't plentiful back then. The cowboy star Tom Mix asked his director, "Which expression do you want - one, two or three?" The next episode of Moguls and Movie Stars, which covers 1920-28, will likely feature actors with more expressions to choose from.
Wednesday, 8 pm (PBS)
You can practically smell the sawdust in PBS' multi-part documentary about circus life, with all its dangers and pressures. The series focuses on the Big Apple Circus, in which 150 people come together over the course of a year and form a family albeit a family in unusually sparkly clothes. We meet flyers, equestrians and clowns from all around the world. "A lot of really in-shape people," moans one of the rare out-of-shape people in the troupe.
If you've ever wanted to run away to join the circus, it's thrilling to hear the director of the show urge his forces to "risk more than others think is safe; care more than others think is wise; dream more than others think is practical; and expect more than others think is possible."
The good news is, now you really don't have to run away to join the circus. You can simply run to the living room to watch Circus and get a taste of the lifestyle. All things considered, it's probably the more prudent choice.
Wednesday, 9 pm (SyFy)
This reality series follows the exploits of Joe Maddalena, who hunts down Hollywood memorabilia, authenticates it, and auctions it off in L.A. "When I started my business 20 years ago," Joe says, "everybody told me I was crazy."
Maddalena travels cross-country to find an original carpetbag from Mary Poppins. Now, I myself might get excited about the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz or the snow globe from Citizen Kane, but a Mary Poppins carpetbag? Not exactly one of Hollywood's most memorable props. But Joe is beside himself, predicting a sale of $10,000. "Yes," I thought, "you are crazy."
Turns out the bag sold at auction for $95,000. In other words, Joe's not crazy; the buyers are.
The Fairy Jobmother
Thursday, 8 pm (Lifetime)
In this reality series, an "international career specialist" from northern England arrives to help unemployed Americans find work. Hayley Taylor takes on one struggling family per episode, dispensing pearls of wisdom like: "Self-confidence is vitally important!" Another apercu from her years in the international-career game: "When you're unemployed, you can quite easily become depressed!"
Apparently, we Americans now require a cliché-spewing Brit with a Beatle accent to help us find jobs. If this doesn't shame Congress into taking action on unemployment, nothing will.