Tony Robbins is a hulking self-help infomercial guru with frighteningly perfect teeth. And by "self-help," I mean that his empowerment empire is designed to help himself - to glorify him as the man who makes your dreams come true. Note the title of his new NBC reality series: not just Breakthrough, but Breakthrough with Tony Robbins (Tuesday, 7 p.m.).
After showing footage of himself in an auditorium filled with wildly cheering fans, Robbins turns his attention to a couple who've lost their money in the recession. He forces them through a crackpot regimen that will supposedly solve all their problems, including flying fighter jets and living in a homeless shelter. As they experience "breakthroughs" on cue, Robbins barks faux-wisdom at them: "Everything that's going wrong is the most important thing that's ever happened to you!" The final scene is set - who'd have thunk it? in an auditorium of fans wildly cheering Robbins' healing powers.
I guess I shouldn't be so cynical, because cynicism is an impediment to a positive outlook on life. Do you think flying a fighter jet would make me more positive about this series?
The Pillars of the Earth
Friday, 9 pm (Starz)
According to the opening title: "A royal ship carrying the only legitimate heir to the English throne catches fire and sinks off the coast of England. This event will lead to a long war of succession."
They're not kidding about the "long" part. This eight-hour adaptation of Ken Follett's novel is a royal soap opera in which medieval factions tussle for power. You either like this kind of thing or you don't: the swordfights, the bearded guys drinking mead, the profusion of people named Gloucester. The Pillars of the Earth isn't my cup of tea, but I suspect many viewers will enjoy the vivid settings, the tangled alliances and the plentiful monks.
Lay in a few bottles of mead, though, because by hour eight you're going to need fortification.
Saturday, 9 pm (BBC America)
You may think The Twilight Saga: Eclipse has cornered the market on vampires and werewolves this summer. Being Human certainly won't touch Eclipse's popularity, but it's the superior product. There's no corny love story, no amateurish acting, no insipid dialogue. Being Human uses a ghost (Lenora Crichlow), a vampire (Aidan Turner) and a werewolf (Russell Tovey) to tell a poignant story about people - a story that does more than just pushing the usual buttons for Romance, Action and Horror.
The three friends live in a shabby English flat, dealing with the same problems as the rest of us: loneliness, self-doubt, existential anxiety. These problems are intensified by the fact that they're monsters. But really, who isn't a bit monstrous at one time or another? In the second-season premiere, they fret about their careers and their relationships, and almost every scene is brilliantly rendered in low-key psychological realism. I say "almost every scene" because, occasionally, the characters' inner monsters burst forth, as when the amiable werewolf transforms into a snarling, hairy killer.
It's a horrifying moment, but even here the focus is on humanity. He wakes up naked the next morning in a field feeling guilty and disoriented. You can't help but think it's the same way you'd feel if you'd just gone on a rampage without meaning to.
Sunday, 9 pm (TBS)
I wasn't a fan of this sitcom in the early going, but the fourth-season premiere suggests that the actors and writers have found their groove. There's nothing high-concept here: just a bunch of old friends bantering and playing poker, with a splash of romantic and career issues on the side. The appeal is in the sharp insults and comebacks, the rapport among the cast, and the snappy pace.
My Boys includes every classic sitcom convention except a laugh track. I didn't think I was a laugh-track fan, but I do miss it here, to boost one-liners that feel a little airless without an audience chuckle or two.
Luckily, My Boys makes it easy to supply a laugh track of your own.
Tuesday, 8 pm (Fox)
Gordon Ramsay, the demon chef of Hell's Kitchen, premieres a reality competition for amateur chefs. In typical Ramsay fashion, the production is over the top. The background music is a deafening cacophony of brass and percussion, with sonic-boom sound effects. The graphic leitmotif is a nuclear fireball. Ramsay screams at the would-be chefs for their "epic failures" e.g., macaroni and cheese that isn't seasoned quite right. The contestants wail and break down, blubbering about their dreams and hardships.
One thing you can say for Ramsay's shows: They make the mundane act of cooking seem exciting. I wonder if my own family will get more enthusiastic about my macaroni and cheese if I serve it with a soundtrack of pounding percussion and blasting brass.