The seven-part Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood (Monday, 7 p.m., TCM) takes a sweeping look at the American film industry from the late 19th century to the 1970s. "From the first flickering images of the 1880s," says narrator Christopher Plummer, "it was a story as dramatic and unexpected and involving as the grandest Hollywood epic."
He ain't lying. Even part one (1889-1907) is thrilling, despite the profusion of grainy footage and hairy, homely actors. In this period, the prominent figures were not stars and directors, but inventors and engineers. They dreamed of creating the illusion of life an advance on the magic lantern shows that passed for screen entertainment in America. Thomas Edison took up the challenge in the 1880s, inventing the peepshow. He caused a sensation with an early film showing an assistant doffing his cap over and over again. (Ah, the easy-to-please 19th-century movie audience.)
If an episode about obscure beginnings is this good, imagine the fun when the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Katharine Hepburn show up. I plan to doff my cap to Moguls & Movie Stars throughout November over and over again.
Friday, 7 pm (NBC)
This new series sets out to "restore pride and achievement to America's schools" by renovating aging facilities. That sounds like a preposterous goal for reality TV. Shouldn't saving schools be the responsibility of local boards and the federal Department of Education rather than a gimmicky show of the Extreme Makeover variety?
I initially resisted this week's episode as it set up camp in a Nashville neighborhood whose elementary school had been destroyed by a flood. The team heading up the renovation project incongruously includes a former Miss USA and a comedian. At times, product placement seems more important than education. "Thank you, Walmart!" a crowd of kids is instructed to chant.
But I admit that School Pride won me over, thanks to the dedicated community members who crowd onto the screen. Their spirit trumps all the contrivances and the corporate self-interest. These folks truly love their school, and it's touching to see their passion for saving it. The kids break your heart, especially a cute bespectacled boy with a speech impediment who has more devotion to the school than anybody. "Education is vewwy impowtant!" he says earnestly.
Hey School Pride do you have room for a TV critic on your incongruous team?
Sunday, 9 pm (AMC)
I enjoy a good zombie picture as much as the next guy: the tension of being trapped inside the horror for a couple of hours, then the relief when it's finally over. In Walking Dead, though, the horror doesn't end. This is a zombie series, featuring week after week of shuffling flesh-eaters and the terrified humans forced to shoot them through the brain. That, I'm here to report, is not enjoyable.
Walking Dead brings nothing new to the zombie genre. You get your paranoid survivors, your horde of extras in sickening makeup, your post-apocalyptic sets. The one fresh element is not exactly welcome: an awful new level of violence for extended basic cable.
Luckily, there's a way to end the horror turning off the TV. I tried it, and it worked like a charm. Zombie problem solved!
Monday, 8 pm (HBO)
I disliked HBO's therapist drama in the early going and gave up on it. But lots of critics do like it, so I decided to give the series another try as season three begins. Nothing much seems to have changed since I checked out. A client undergoes therapy in the Brooklyn office of Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), in tonight's episode an Indian immigrant (Irrfan Khan) with all sorts of family issues. He mumbles about his problems for a half-hour, and Dr. Weston mumbles the occasional question in response. There are lots of pauses and sighs.
The exchange feels like an actor's exercise rather than a fleshed-out drama. I wondered why I should care about the client's anger toward his unpleasant daughter-in-law.
"Express that anger more directly," Dr. Weston counsels. "Try to put it into words."
Okay, I'll try too: "In Treatment is boring and I DON'T KNOW WHY EVERYONE LIKES IT SO MUCH!"
Thursday, 9:30 pm (FX)
FX's sitcom is one of TV's finest satires of the male animal. Friends compete tooth and nail in a fantasy football league, an obsession that trumps marriage, career and other matters of interest to most, you know, adults. The League offers a vision of those men who are still 11 at heart, romping in their own private tribal fantasy world.
Far be it from me to judge: I enjoy romping with them for 30 minutes every week.