Rather than celebrating the Abraham Lincoln myth on his 200th birthday, Looking for Lincoln (Wednesday, 8 p.m., PBS) attempts to find the real man. Host Henry Louis Gates knows that won't be easy, given the granite pedestal we've put him on. Gates sets off on an ambitious journey from Illinois to D.C. and beyond, speaking with scholars, curators, librarians, collectors, even Lincoln impersonators - anyone who can help him sift the evidence.
Gates can't claim to have the definitive Lincoln portrait (this contradictory president will always be open to interpretation), but he does offer tantalizing glimpses of flesh and blood. He paints a picture of a sometimes self-absorbed, sometimes depressive man, one who subscribed to the white supremacist ideas of his time. Gates concludes that, while Lincoln passionately opposed slavery, he did not believe in equality between blacks and whites.
Gates' unflinching approach is not always well received along his journey. At the New Salem historic site, a reenactor playing a 19th century tavern owner threatens to throw Gates out of her establishment for suggesting that Old Abe visited prostitutes.
No, this granite won't chip easily.
Saturday, 7 pm (TNT)
Cuba Gooding, Jr. has lately made a specialty of stupid comedies like Snow Dogs, in which he mugged with a pack of obnoxious sled dogs. That makes it difficult to accept him as a saintly doctor in a biopic falling all over itself to be inspirational.
Gooding plays Ben Carson, who progressed from a disadvantaged childhood to fame as the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. In real life, we would be in awe of Dr. Carson. In this portrayal, we're instantly bored by him, and resentful of the TV-movie clichés shoved down our throats. After 10 minutes, I found myself yearning for obnoxious sled dogs.
Sunday, 7 pm (CBS)
Coldplay and Lil Wayne duke it out for Album of the Year; Coldplay and Adele duke it out for Record of the Year; and Coldplay and Kid Rock duke it out for Best Rock Album.
The Jonas Brothers perform, reminding us that the Grammys aren't, and never were, about quality.
Sonny with a Chance
Sunday, 7 pm (Disney)
Demi Lovato made a splash costarring with the Jonas Brothers in Camp Rock, and now she's rewarded with her own Disney series. She plays a small-town Wisconsin teen who moves to L.A. to join the cast of a sketch-comedy show.
Lovato hopes to become a mega-Disney star along the lines of Hannah Montana's Miley Cyrus, which means eventual feuds with the network, inappropriate photo spreads, and dissatisfaction with her teen fan base. It's good to know in advance how it will all turn out.
Sunday, 8 pm (NBC)
In this miniseries, the first female U.S. president is assassinated. Later, a man (Stephen Dorff) is discovered in the woods with a tattoo on his chest of the Roman numeral XIII and no memory of who he is. He is accused of the president's murder and flees from both government agents and a mercenary called the Mongoose (Val Kilmer).
Does NBC's timing seem a bit off here? Something tells me that America is not in the mood for presidential-assassination fantasies at this particular moment.
United States of Tara
Sunday, 9 pm (Showtime)
I know I just plugged Showtime's United States of Tara, but dammit, I'm going to keep plugging it till you tune in. Diablo Cody's series could end up being as good as The Sopranos. Yep, you heard me right.
After watching the pilot last month, I thought United States of Tara would be an amusing novelty - albeit a brilliantly amusing novelty. Toni Collette plays a wife and mother with multiple personalities: a snotty teenager, a redneck male, a perfect homemaker. The pilot was a snarky look at modern American life in all its nuttiness.
But this week's episode suggests a deeper purpose. The snark is all but gone, and none of the alter egos appears on screen. Instead, we get a portrait of a woman lost in emptiness - the peculiar emptiness of our own hectic, materialistic, faithless, dehumanized time. The laughter dies in your throat as Tara searches in vain for a connection with her husband, her kids and a potential new friend. The multiple personalities are a metaphor for her - our - disconnectedness.
"How can you make a lifetime of memories with someone," Tara asks her husband, "when the person you're spending it with isn't even there?"
Tuesday, 7 pm (Fox)
New judge Kara DioGuardi has been rubbing me the wrong way. I've made fun of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell in the past, but now I just want my old family back, sans DioGuardi.
This know-it-all has an unappealingly blunt way of delivering her judgments. Yes, Simon is blunt too, but he's redeemed by his wit. DioGuardi has no wit - and also none of Randy's hipster charm or Paula's kooky warmth. She often just laughs snidely, like the mean kid in school.
Simon always refers to "The It Factor." To me, DioGuardi has "The Ick Factor."