I've done my time with Vincent Van Gogh: read the biographies, seen the documentaries, made the pilgrimage to Arles. But he's never come alive for me as he does in Simon Schama's Power of Art (Monday, 8 p.m., PBS). Schama begins his new series with a portrait of Van Gogh that leaps off the screen, much as the painter's sunflowers and cypresses leaped off the canvas. Schama accomplishes this feat with a masterful blend of dramatization, commentary and location footage, along with generous samplings of Van Gogh's words and images.
As he proved in A History of Britain, Schama is the host with the most. He narrates with emphatic rhythms and cheeky wit, avoiding the decorum of the important-subject TV documentary. He can be flip, but you never doubt his passion for the subject. Here's what he has to say about Van Gogh's final self-portrait: "We get pulled into the vortex of all those whirlpools of paint that coil around his head, writhe through the waves of his hair as if the pulses of some engulfing migraine were throbbing mercilessly through his invaded body, swirling oceans of painted pain."
That description gets you so far inside Van Gogh's aching head that you'll need an aspirin yourself.
Sunday, 9 pm (Showtime)
This new series attempts to create a mysterious community à la Twin Peaks, brimming with secrets and strange behavior. It's about the Brogan family, who move to a development called Meadowlands to escape some inscrutable crisis. They meet inscrutable neighbors and make inscrutable moves of their own.
But there's such a thing as too much inscrutability. You quickly grow impatient with all the unexplained weirdness. Why hasn't the son spoken in four months? Why does the daughter throw herself into the arms of a local creep? Why does the Brogan family turn out to be the Foy family?
"We are off the radar here," says the father. "Nobody knows the Brogans exist."
It won't be long before the TV audience forgets they exist, too.
Age of Love
Monday, 8 pm (NBC)
This new reality series investigates a serious social issue: Do hunky guys prefer older or younger chicks? Of course, NBC isn't presenting it that bluntly. The network says the series is about the search for true love. Tennis star Mark Philippoussis is introduced to six "fun, enthusiastic" women in their 20s and seven "sophisticated, experienced" women in their 40s. From which group will he choose his mate?
If the older women really are so sophisticated and experienced, why are they looking for true love on an NBC soundstage?
Monday, 8 pm (TNT)
When it debuted in 2005, I panned this series about a smart Atlanta detective (Kyra Sedgwick) transplanted to the Los Angeles Police Department. I thought Sedgwick laid it on too thick, and I recoiled from the ultra-violent imagery. But everybody else loved The Closer, and it became a huge cable hit. I figured I'd check in again to see if I'd been wrong.
The 2007 premiere opens at a crime scene, with an entire family slaughtered in their home. "I've counted over 30 stab wounds in the body," says Sedgwick's Brenda, standing over one of the corpses. You'll be able to count them too. The camera lingers over each bloody gash. When Brenda finally turns to the mutilated 12-year-old girl, she...well, I admit I don't know what she does. I bailed.
Mayble I'll work up the nerve to check back in for The Closer's 2008 premiere.
Monday, 9 pm (TNT)
This new series is a soap opera with red goo. Treat Williams plays a brilliant heart-transplant surgeon who takes unconventional risks in the operating room. We watch him manhandle glistening organs, ripping them out of one body and jamming them into another. And we can't help but wonder: Shouldn't transplants be a bit more...delicate?
Swirling around our hero are a conflicted ex-wife, a troubled daughter and many distressed patients. The filmmakers clearly want these characters to touch your heart. But if I were you, I wouldn't let them get anywhere near it.
Wednesday, 9 pm (Bravo)
Top Chef is one of TV's best reality series. It's fun to watch the talented chefs at work, especially in a high-pressure competition that throws all manner of weird challenges at them. Add to that the clash of personalities and you've got an irresistible spectacle.
The third season features the usual mix of buffoons, jerks and prima donnas. My favorite so far is Joey, whose New Yawk tough-guy pose is hilariously inappropriate in the context of haute cuisine.
"I'm the biggest, baddest motherfucker here," he says threateningly. "I came to kick ass."
So he thinks. But I'd like to see him remain a "big, bad motherfucker" when preparing a delicate amuse-bouche with poached shrimp and champagne basil vinaigrette.