Game Change (Saturday, 8 p.m., HBO) expertly dramatizes a crazy moment in American history: Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential election. The sagging McCain (Ed Harris) needs a "game-changer" to compete with charismatic Barack Obama, and campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) convinces himself that Palin (Julianne Moore) checks all the right boxes.
Schmidt wants Palin so much that he fails to vet her thoroughly, paving the way for the debacle we all remember. In a subtle performance, Harrelson evokes Schmidt's mounting despair as Palin blows interviews, distorts her past and finally goes rogue by putting her interests ahead of McCain's. When the campaign crashes and burns, she blames everyone but herself. "How the flip did this happen?" she demands, with Moore nailing the nasty note under her chirpy Alaska-hockey-mom intonation.
From this description, you might get the idea that Game Change comes to bury Sarah Palin. In fact, it bends over backwards to humanize her - a radical gesture post-Tina Fey. We're privy to moments of vulnerability and tenderness, as Palin tries to cope with the media onslaught she clearly isn't ready for. The movie is as fair as it can be while letting the facts speak for themselves.
And those facts, it must be said, are devastating. By election day, even McCain adviser Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) can't bring herself to vote for the ticket after spending three months with Palin. McCain's team can only survey the wreckage and wonder how the flip they allowed it to happen.
Sunday, 7 pm (NBC)
If you can stomach David E. Kelley's penchant for mixing the very serious and the very silly, this week's episode - marking the return of the legal drama - is a remarkable hour of TV. On the very serious side, Cassie (Karen Olivo) represents a woman seeking a restraining order against her abusive ex-husband. On the very silly side, Tommy (Christopher McDonald) is sued for having "sex under false pretenses." Somewhere in the middle is a subplot in which head honcho Harry (Kathy Bates) seeks damages from a tobacco company in a wrongful death suit. There's a silly element here, too (the opposing lawyer sees the light after getting a nail stuck in his head), but Bates' savage indignation burns right through the screen.
A colleague accuses her of being "blinded by wrath" in going after the tobacco companies. And that's true, thank God. Bates in angry mode is one of the best things TV has going for it at the moment.
Shahs of Sunset
Sunday, 9 pm (Bravo)
This reality series delves into the L.A. subculture of wealthy young Persians - the sons and daughters of Iranians forced out of their homeland during the revolution. According to Shahs of Sunset, this cohort is obsessed with money, looks, sex, status and partying. In other words, with the same things as the folks on many other Bravo reality series.
But to me, Shahs is a cut above. For one thing, it's much more interesting to learn about Iranian manners and mores than to meet yet another group of familiarly privileged Real Housewives. For another thing, the show's friends and relatives have a certain obnoxious charm - an improvement over reality subjects who are merely obnoxious. Yes, they're given to bickering, pampering themselves and bragging, but they often do so with self-aware humor.
"I'm about 98.7% better than any Persian man I've ever seen!" says Reza, the outrageous gay guy. He's the breakout character here, but he has stiff competition from supercilious GG and out-there artist Asa, who describes herself as an "Aries fire-dragon intergalactic Persian princess."
I proclaim Shahs of Sunset to be 98.7% better than any reality series I've ever seen.
Sunday, 9 pm (ABC)
Amanda (Leslie Bibb), a mom coming off a disastrous marriage, moves back to her affluent neighborhood in Dallas, where she's remembered as the high school mean girl. Even though she's grown out of that, her onetime victims (Kristen Chenoweth, Miriam Shor, Jennifer Aspen, Marisol Nichols) still want revenge. They plot against her in extravagant ways, all while maintaining their public personas as proper Christians. This new series looks for laughs in the contrast between their godliness in church and their bitchiness everywhere else.
If only it had found some. GCB aims squarely for the lowest common denominator, with crude jukes about breasts, gays and fat people. And the sexual politics sets women back to the smutty Porky's era. Amanda, for example, defies all narrative logic by working in hot pants and a tight T-shirt at a restaurant called Booby-licious.
According to one of Amanda's enemies, "God hates failure." If so, he's really going to have a problem with GCB.
America's Next Top Model
Wednesday, 8 pm (CW)
The new season pits British models against American models. The women are split into teams by country, and the chauvinism gets pretty gross. "We're taking these bitches out fast! Get your ass back home!" sneers one of the Americans, as if determined to prove that beauty's only skin deep. Despite such crudity, I think the show wants us home-team fans to jump up and shout "Go American models!"
As always, the judges make ludicrous pronouncements with an air of authority. "She's a blank canvas!" exclaims Kelly Osbourne, intending to compliment one of the Americans.
I don't know about you, but I have a hard time shouting "Go blank canvas!"