Classical pianist Glenn Gould was a genius and an eccentric, and American Masters (Monday, 8 p.m. PBS) spends two hours trying to penetrate the mysteries of his life. In the early 1950s, Gould burst onto the international classical scene out of nowhere (i.e., Toronto), shaking up the established ways of doing things. He had James Dean looks, astonishing technique and a highly personal way of playing canonical music.
Plus, his quirks made great copy. He sat at the piano on a tiny chair, and he sang along with himself in a sort of trance, hair flopping into his eyes. He took to wearing an overcoat and gloves even in summer, worried about getting cold. His approach to music became so idiosyncratic that Leonard Bernstein made a disclaimer to the audience before conducting one of his concerts, insisting that he strongly disagreed with Gould's interpretation of a Brahms concerto.
Gould gave up concertizing at 31, calling audiences "a force of evil." In subsequent years, he insisted on recording an album in a Toronto department store after hours. "I remember walking through the lingerie department that was so strange," says a musician hired for the session.
It's amusing to hear distinguished commentators analyze such nutty behavior with a straight face, as in this hilariously understated observation: "There's no question that Gould's obsessiveness had serious downsides."
Maybe for people who knew him. But for the viewers of this documentary, Gould's obsessions make for two hours of blissful TV.
It's a Wonderful Life
Friday, 7 pm (NBC)
In the 1946 classic, Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey triumphs over evil rich guy Mr. Potter. If they remade It's a Wonderful Life in 2010, I suppose the movie would have to end with Congress extending Mr. Potter's tax cut.
Sunday, 9 pm (PBS)
In "Framed," London's National Gallery floods, and director Quentin (Trevor Eve) decides to move the works of art to a mountain hiding place in Wales. That brings him into contact with the salt-of-the-earth provincials in a Welsh village, including a pretty schoolteacher (Eve Myles) who takes a fancy to him. She teaches the chilly bureaucrat a lesson about people he never would have learned in London, informing him that "the heart has its reasons."
In the United States, we have a technical term for such a production: cutesy TV movie. But the Brits can do this kind of thing much better than we can. The characters in "Framed" are not mere stereotypes, but skillfully etched human beings. The comedy is saved from cutesiness by actual wit. The emotional moments don't make a gaudy grab for your heartstrings, and as a result they're affecting in a modest way.
The heart has its reasons for watching "Framed."
Kennedy Center Honors
Tuesday, 8 pm (CBS)
Every year, I rant about the Kennedy Center's snub of a certain brilliant comedian in its annual awards for contributions to American culture. This living legend is on the level of Charlie Chaplin in terms of genius and influence, and yet the Kennedy Center has shut him out, presumably because someone on the board has deemed his oeuvre too silly.
I promised myself I wouldn't throw another temper tantrum this year, or even mention this man's name, so as not to bore regular readers. Instead, I'll discuss the artists who have been honored in 2010: Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, Merle Haggard, Bill T. Jones and Jerry Lewis…oops, I mean Jerry Herman.
Let's take a look at Herman, the composer and lyricist known for such Broadway musicals as Mame and Hello, Dolly. Is his oeuvre free of silliness? Here's a sampling from Mame:
You're free to honor whomever you want, Kennedy Center. Just stop pretending that your standards are anything but arbitrary.
The Peacemaker: L.A. Gang Wars
Thursday, 9 pm (A&E)
In this reality series, violence counselor Malik Spellman attempts to intervene among rival gangs in South Central Los Angeles. The cameras take us into dangerous neighborhoods where the cycle of retaliation never seems to end. "Tit for tat, that's always how it's gonna be," says a member of the Playboy Gangsta Crips. Or is he a member of the Mansfield Gangsta Crips, the archenemies of the Playboy Gangsta Crips? It's hard to keep the alliances straight, since none of them make much sense to anyone but the participants. And even a few of these guys start to wonder why neighbors who ought to be friends keep gunning each other down.
That's where Spellman comes in. He tries to get the rivals to "chop it up" that is, talk to each other before more dead bodies land on the sidewalks. He's passionate and fearless, though not so fearless that he forgets to put on his bulletproof vest before wading into the neighborhoods. Where some might see heartless killers, Spellman sees "shattered souls," and he has a gift for appealing to their humanity.
When Spellman gets rival gang members hugging each other in a local park, the tit-for-tat theory of life seems due for a serious reconsideration.