Last spring, members of the Jackson family decided to create a reality series. Jermaine, Tito, Jackie and Marlon would reunite the Jackson 5, even though an important member - actually, the only important member, Michael - had opted out. This was garden-variety Jackson tackiness, but they outdid themselves by continuing the project after Michael's sudden death in June. They simply folded the plot point right into their inane story arc - hey, you take your publicity boosts where you find them, right?
The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty (Sunday, 8 p.m., A&E) allows us to watch these four overgrown children bicker, flounder in the studio, and work out 40-year-old issues important to no one but themselves. And how important are these issues even to them if they're willing to air the family's dirty laundry for cable-TV consumption?
The most stunning moment to date is the brothers' whitewashing of father Joe, the tyrant whom Michael blamed for making his life a living hell. "Everything he did for his family turned out to be a success," says Tito, apparently forgetting about several decades' worth of Jackson problems. "So how wrong could it be?"
One wishes Michael were around to provide an honest answer to that question.
SNL Christmas 2009
Friday, 7 pm (NBC)
We've opened the presents, drunk the eggnog, sung carols around the tree, and felt the warm glow of Christmas cheer.
Okay, enough of that. Here comes Saturday Night Live to give Santa a sharp punch to the solar plexus.
Monday, 8 pm (PBS)
We tend to think of Louisa May Alcott as a harmless children's writer, partly because of Little Women, partly because of a sanitized biography written after her death in 1888. This portrait presents a deeper, darker picture. Along with scholarly commentary, it employs Alcott's own words, delivered by a talented actress in period clothing and real locations. This approach draws us close to a wry, troubled, passionate woman - so close that, at times, it hurts.
Alcott spent the first part of her life in poverty, supporting her family through manual labor. She saw a way to make money by writing tales for magazines and threw herself into the project while working as a seamstress. "I sew like a steam engine and plan my works of art," the actress says. Through sheer grit, Alcott eked out a living as a writer, finally becoming rich and famous for Little Women.
But respectability did not change her unconventional nature. She scoffed at the idea that women were suited only for marriage: "I'd rather be a spinster and paddle my own canoe."
Alcott challenged 19th century ideas of women and inspired the likes of Gloria Steinem, Gertrude Stein and Simone de Beauvoir. Let's hear it for a writer who paddled her own canoe.
Men of a Certain Age
Monday, 9 pm (TNT)
Have you checked out Ray Romano's comic drama, like I told you to? I expected the quality to dip after the brilliant pilot, but the series just gets better and better. We're watching a TV classic in the making, my friends, provided the public tunes in. (Hint, hint.)
Men of a Certain Age is about three friends sagging in middle age. In this week's episode, each has a shot at that most elusive of goals - happiness. Joe (Romano) makes progress in his awkward relationship with his young son. Car salesman Owen (Andre Braugher) is determined to satisfy his customers so that they feel like saying "thanks." And bachelor Terry (Scott Bakula) takes an acting gig as a married man and starts to get comfortable in the role.
In each case the glow fades, but it doesn't disappear completely. The episode gives you the sense that happiness is possible, in spite of adult cares and responsibilities.
How rare is that? Like Owen, Men of a Certain Age deserves our thanks.
The 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors
Tuesday, 8 pm (CBS)
Another batch of performing artists gets the official lifetime-achievement stamp of approval. In the past I've complained about the Kennedy Center's decades-long snub of Jerry Lewis, whose quintessentially American humor appears to be too silly for an American institution. But this year's honorees include the equally silly (though less important) Mel Brooks, so now I'm thoroughly confused.
The other recipients are rocker Bruce Springsteen, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, actor Robert De Niro and opera singer Grace Bumbry. If Brooks fails to come out in a horned hat and breastplate to lampoon Bumbry, the Kennedy Center should immediately revoke his award.