People always ask me what's worth watching on TV. This summer I've answered, with arms waving wildly, " Simon Schama's Power of Art!" "Oh, a documentary series on art," they say, sidling away from me as quickly as they can.
Yes, a documentary series on art - though that prosaic description hardly does it justice. In eight episodes on individual artists, each centering on a key work, Schama has given us a fuller understanding of what it means to be human. He's showed us how the greatest works of art reveal something profound about life on earth.
I sense you sidling away from me as quickly as you can. But wait! Schama is not only philosophical, but witty and playful, the most amusing companion imaginable on these voyages into the unknown.
The series' last episode (Monday, 9 p.m., PBS) is the most breathtaking of all, perhaps because Schama makes it the most personal. It begins with an actor playing the host as a long-haired youth in 1970. He walks through a London museum and makes a wrong turn into a Mark Rothko exhibition. That wrong turn, he says, changed his life. "Something in there was doing a steady throb, pulsing like the inside of a body part, all crimson and purple. I felt pulled through those black lines into some mysterious place in the universe."
I could paraphrase Schama's take on Rothko, but that would be a crime. I don't say this often, but a TV blurb can't do justice to this episode. No, you've just got to experience it for yourself. I guarantee that Schama - like Rothko - will take you somewhere you've never been before.
Sunday, 7 pm (PBS)
The 19th-century nature artist John James Audubon is associated with conservation. The conservation-oriented Audubon Society even uses his name for inspiration.
But American Masters shows another side of Audubon, suggesting that the man who painted >Birds of America never met a critter he wouldn't kill in the name of art. It's hard to draw a bird, you see, when it's moving. So Audubon set about massacring tens of thousands of them. "Every day I don't kill a hundred birds is a day wasted," he said.
The documentary relates one grisly scene in which Audubon tried to smoke a caged eagle to death. When that didn't work, he used sulfur. When even that didn't work, he stuck a pin through its heart.
On his deathbed, Audubon's last words were, "Let's get our guns and shoot some ducks."
Perhaps the Audubon Society should change its name to the "Smoke, Sulfur and Slaughter Association."
Ocean of Fear: The Worst Shark Attack Ever
Sunday, 8 pm (Discovery Channel)
Discovery's "Shark Week" kicks off with the story of a World War II incident in which "900 men were lost in an ocean of fear."
No, narrator Richard Dreyfuss is not above using preposterously overheated language. But such language, when combined with eerie music and shocking re-creations, starts to get under your skin. The 900 unfortunate men were sailors on the USS Indianapolis. They headed toward the Philippines when a Japanese torpedo struck, dumping them all into the shark-infested water.
The re-creations are full of snapping teeth and dangling legs, the latter photographed from the sharks' point of view. "Sharks are known to attack bare legs and feet," Dreyfuss says.
At this point, the TV critic discreetly swings his legs off the floor and onto the couch.
Six Degrees of Martina McBride
Monday, 8 pm (ABC)
TV is already full of singing competitions, so how to stand out? This ABC special not only searches for the next country superstar, but tests out a social theory along the way.
Six singers in search of Nashville contracts are asked to locate country star Martina McBride using the Six Degrees of Separation model: asking people they know, who then ask people they know, etc. If the contestants can get to Martina in six steps or less, they move on to the next stage of the competition. The ABC press release references Harvard psychologist Stanley Milgram's 1960s experiments, which suggested that people in the U.S. were connected by approximately six friendship links.
Yes, it's a bizarre combination of reality programming and academic research. But if the show posts impressive ratings, don't be surprised if American Idol jumps on the bandwagon in '08, testing out the Dual Inheritance theory positing that humans are products of the interaction between genetic evolution and cultural evolution.
Welcome to the Parker
Thursday, 10 pm (Bravo)
This reality series takes us behind the scenes at the Parker, a five-star California hotel.
And it took me back to every crappy service-industry job I had in high school and college. You've got the institution's inflated notion of itself. You've got the employees who are servile when guests are around and surly when they aren't. You've got the scowling manager who rules through intimidation. "I have no problem being the bad guy if it takes the hotel to the next level," he says in a joyless monotone.
No, it's not much fun hanging out with these folks. The only pleasure to be had from Welcome to the Parker is a perverse one: chortling when things go wrong. In the pilot, a critic turns up her nose at the Parker's service and much of the food. "A good review can bring a tremendous amount of publicity and business to us," says the nervous manager. "And a bad review can kill us."
Thanks for the tip. Hopefully this bad review will be yet another nail in the coffin.