I love my poodle, don't eat meat and support animal rights. But I admit to feeling uneasy during I Am an Animal (Monday, 7 p.m., HBO), a portrait of Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Newkirk founded PETA in her apartment in 1980 and built it into a $25-million-a-year organization with 300 employees. She has exposed hideous abuses, winning concessions from the likes of Calvin Klein, McDonald's and L'Oreal. But fellow animal-rights activists question her tactics. PETA throws pies and dead animals at the people it's branded as evildoers. It hands out scary literature to little kids at fast-food restaurants. It exploits gruesome Holocaust imagery in its public-relations campaigns, equating slaughterhouses with Nazi concentration camps. It seeks "total animal liberation": no meat or dairy in people's diets, no hunting or fishing, no use of animals in medical research. Even seeing-eye dogs don't make the cut.
Alex Pacheko, Newkirk's former colleague, believes her approach is counterproductive. "The idea is that [outrageous tactics] bring attention to the issue," he says. "The problem is that it's so outrageous it just brings attention to the fact that it's outrageous."
Newkirk emerges as a soft-spoken true believer, lacking any doubts about her righteousness. My original draft of this review called her something more unflattering than "soft-spoken true believer," but my poodle snarled at me menacingly.
50 Greatest TV Icons
Friday, 7 pm (TV Land)
TV Land and Entertainment Weekly count down the top 50 TV icons. They interview actors, critics and, in some cases, the icons themselves, offering an enjoyable romp through TV history.
At least it will be enjoyable for normal people. As someone with an unhealthy attachment to TV, I was seething.
Let's start with the commentary. The producers had access to all those smart critics at Entertainment Weekly, but the best they can come up with are observations like this: "Archie Bunker was a shocking departure from the classic TV father." Kelly Ripa weighs in with this revelatory perception about Lucille Ball: "She had brilliant comic timing." Do tell.
Then there's the list itself, which is weighted absurdly toward contemporary actors. Heather Locklear? Calista Flockhart? Sarah Michelle Gellar? Will they really matter a generation from now? The crime is that they push true icons off the list, including Rod Serling and Edward R. Murrow.
The choice that actually made me throw a paperweight at the TV screen (hey, I admitted I'm unhealthy) is Jimmy Smits. "How does it make me feel to be a TV icon?" he asks. "I am not worthy!"
Well, at least we can agree on that point.
Saturday, 9 pm (History Channel)
Here's the latest bulletin from hell, this one boasting a unique perspective. Baghdad Diary combines two video journals from the Iraq War, one by an NBC cameraman and another by an Iraqi taxi driver trying to keep his family safe. Their images are intercut with George W. Bush speeches from the dawn of the war.
"The security of the world," the president says gravely, "requires disarming Saddam Hussein now."
Okay, so that wasn't true. And here we see the consequences of starting a war on false pretenses: children trembling in bomb shelters, families shattered, U.S. soldiers and journalists blown to bits.
Here's Bush again:
"Peaceful efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime have failed again and again, because we are not dealing with peaceful men."
Look who's talking.
American Music Awards
Sunday, 7 pm (ABC)
Everybody talks about global warming, but no one talks about the crisis in televised music awards shows. They have become incrementally more boring, and I fear we're past the tipping point. MTV tried radically rethinking September's Video Music Awards and fell flat on its face. So what hope is there for Sunday's American Music Awards, with its scheduled performances by Daughtry and Celine Dion? I predict cataclysm on a vast scale, including millions of viewers falling asleep in front of their TVs.
Congress must intervene. Either that or Britney Spears must make a surprise appearance, attempting to "sing" and "dance." True, it's a Band-Aid solution, but at least viewers will wake up long enough to laugh.
Athens: The Dawn of Democracy
Monday, 8 pm (WHA)
You'd expect a PBS special on Athenian democracy to trudge through the pieties. Two and a half millennia ago, Athens laid the cornerstone of Western civilization, creating standards of liberty and equality that we strive to live up to today.
But no - this is a revisionist look at the subject. "Democracy triumphed briefly and was then forgotten," says host Bettany Hughes.
According to Hughes, we've whitewashed ancient Greece, turning it into a democratic fantasy. She shatters our illusions by showing Athens as a city that constantly voted to go to war. It ruthlessly carved out an empire to enrich itself. It championed freedom of speech but couldn't tolerate criticism from within.
And by the way, there's no Santa Claus, either.
Tuesday, 10 pm (TBS)
Every generation has its own impressionist genius, and Frank Caliendo may be ours. His new sketch comedy series features guest appearances by Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, John Madden, Jack Nicholson, Jay Leno and Dr. Phil, or at least close approximations of them.
Caliendo's George W. Bush is especially devastating. This is Bush as Dunderhead in Chief, grinning vapidly during each doomed foray into speaking English. Caliendo's impression is almost as fun as impeachment.