Suburgatory (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., ABC) runs roughshod through the suburbs, laying waste to the malls and manicured lawns. This new satire stars Jane Levy as Tessa, a Greenwich Village wild child whose dad moves her to suburban hell for a supposedly more wholesome life. Levy looks like a young Julia Roberts and also has Roberts' way with a deadpan wisecrack. Her character is our tour guide through this strange new world of nose jobs and lacquered hair, narrating with city-girl sarcasm.
Tessa can't believe her dad (Jeremy Sisto) expects her to be happy among the plastic people. And she just sneers when he unveils their new suburban accoutrements with an enthusiastic "ta-da!"
"'Ta-da' is what you say when something good happens."
Suburgatory gets every potpourri-scented detail right (believe me, I speak from experience), but its scorn never turns toxic. The filmmakers avoid condescension by giving Tessa a heart under her smug superiority. As a result, Suburgatory is the rare sitcom that crushes its subject while displaying a certain amount of affection for it.
Sunday-Tuesday, 7 pm (PBS)
Documentarian Ken Burns has found another big subject that allows him to zoom in and out of black-and-white photographs from his favorite era, the 19th and early 20th centuries. Prohibition displays all the Burns affectations we've come to know from The Civil War, Jazz and Baseball: the melancholy music played on old-timey instruments, the earnest narrator, and the overly detailed approach that finally wears you out.
But I guess you can't really blame Ken Burns for making a Ken Burns documentary. On the plus side, Prohibition is an ambitious work that attempts nothing less than a history of American alcohol consumption. Burns starts in the early 1800s, when easily available whiskey turned a nation of drinkers into a nation of problem drinkers. On his way to 1920s Prohibition, he explains dissolute saloon culture and the sometimes over-the-top attempts to curb it. We hear of such colorful reformers as Carrie Nation, whose unsubtle approach to temperance involved busting up saloons with a hatchet. Her motto: "smash, smash, smash."
I wish Prohibition had a fraction of Nation's energy.
Living in the Material World: George Harrison
Wednesday & Thursday, 8 pm (HBO)
When you tick off George Harrison's achievements, he sounds like a titanic figure in rock history: the Beatles' brilliant lead guitarist, the writer of classic songs like "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun," the creator of the big rock charity concert, the man who popularized Eastern music in the West and brought spirituality to pop. And yet Harrison was overshadowed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney during the Beatles' 1960s heyday, just as he has been since. That makes him a ripe subject for a two-part documentary treatment by Martin Scorsese, who is able to tell us all sorts of things we didn't know about one of the 20th century's most famous people.
We learn, among other things, that Harrison experienced extremes of anger and serenity; that he overindulged in drugs even as he sought enlightenment through Eastern mysticism; and that he had a weakness for women, even during his long, happy second marriage. For the first time, we see Beatlemania from a George-eye view, with film footage and photographs that will be unfamiliar to the most devoted Beatles fans.
What those fans will really enjoy, however, is discovering that Harrison embodied Beatle virtues to the end of his life, through all his changes in beard length and hairstyle. He thought through his confusing experiences and tried to makes sense of them; he strove to evolve as an artist and a person; and he maintained a childlike sense of the absurd in even the most solemn situations. Ringo Starr recalls that George's last words to him, uttered just before dying of cancer, were a typically dry joke.
Ringo both laughs and cries as he recalls the scene. I predict you will, too.
How to Be a Gentleman
Thursday, 7:30 pm (CBS)
Andrew (David Hornsby) is a fussy journalist who sees himself as the Last of the Gentlemen. He dresses in blazers, opens doors for old ladies, and uses the word "whom." Andrew befriends Bert (Kevin Dillon), an obnoxious slob who represents his polar opposite. "You know everything about bein' a gentleman, but nothin' about bein' a man!" Bert bellows. Cue laugh track.
Given that The Odd Couple already covered this premise, and much better, I don't know who will tune in to How to Be a Gentleman. Or whom.
Thursday, 9 pm (NBC)
Maria Bello will probably grow tired of being compared to Helen Mirren in this American remake of the beloved British crime series. But you can't help it: Mirren gave an unforgettable performance as homicide detective Jane Tennison, while Bello is eminently forgettable as the new Jane, who deals with cartoonish sexism from colleagues on the Manhattan force. Bellow lacks Mirren's gravitas, flashing a 100-watt smile that seems more appropriate for a sitcom than a gritty drama. Her jaunty fedora doesn't help, nor does her constant gum-chewing.
I hate to say it, but I think Helen Mirren could even chew gum better than that.