Show of the week
ABC (weeknights, 11:35 p.m. ET)
It would have been lights out for Nightline as we know it if ABC had succeeded in luring David Letterman away from CBS. The long-range future of this 22-year-old news program remains uncertain, but one thing’s clear: We can’t afford to take Ted Koppel for granted anymore.
Before Nightline was imperiled, I had been making it a point to watch only on days when one big story dominated the news. I confess I sometimes changed channels immediately if Koppel wasn’t in the anchor chair. (His current contract requires him to appear only three nights a week.) Recently, though, I figured I’d better start tuning in steadily while I still had the chance. Instead of jokes from Letterman or Jay Leno, I got in-depth reports on subjects ranging from organ transplants to journalists under fire to the pornography business. I found that information is a viable alternative to amusement.
Yes, the program has more authority when Koppel is on duty. There may be no interviewer better at listening, clarifying and following up. Substitute anchor Chris Bury is no slouch, however, as he demonstrated March 14 in discussing the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal with a group of seminarians. Not every Nightline is indispensable; a March 18 look at terrorism lacked clear focus. But the next night Koppel presented a penetrating report that approached the same subject from a different angle. There’s a lesson in that: This is a show to stick with.
Bottom Line: Still a late-night beacon
A&E(Sun., April 7, 8 p.m. ET; Mon., April 8, 9 p.m. ET)
If you think about it, the whole thing was folly. In 1914, at the outset of World War I, Irish-born British explorer Ernest Shackleton set out with 27 men and 69 sled dogs, hoping to reach the South Pole and trek across Antarctica. The expedition turned into a nearly two-year ordeal in which survival, not discovery, became the goal.
Although Part 1 could have spent less time on Shackleton’s fund-raising endeavors, this epic mini-series from writer-director Charles Sturridge (Gulliver’s Travels) powerfully dramatizes the adventure and the hardship of an ill-starred but heroic quest. Shot in Greenland and Iceland the four-hour film will leave you chilled, shaken and stirred. Kenneth Branagh gives a multifaceted performance as Shackleton, brave and indomitable as he leads his crew across an ice floe but shamefaced and speechless when his wife spots him with his mistress.
A worthwhile A&E Biography of Shackleton, which precedes Part 2 of the miniseries April 8 at 8 p.m., includes his three other expeditions to the deep, deep south.
Bottom Line: A pole vaulting achievement
We Were the Mulvaneys
Lifetime (Mon., April 8, 9 p.m. ET)
Joyce Carol Oates’s 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys—a long, layered work about a family of six falling apart under stress—seems an exceedingly literary property to be turned into a Lifetime movie. After all, this is the cable network that gave us Angie Harmon in Video Voyeur: The Susan Wilson Story.
But there’s no point in lamenting the sacrifice of depth and nuance. In fact the teleplay manages to boil down Oates’s story while adequately preserving the book’s essential themes. Beau Bridges delivers a deeply felt performance as the father, whose facade of strength and heartiness crumbles after his beloved teenage daughter (Tammy Blanchard, an Emmy winner for Life with Judy Garland) is raped and her attacker goes unpunished. Blythe Danner is equally effective as the mother, who sends away her daughter and alienates her older sons (Mark Famiglietti and Jacob Pitts) in a doomed attempt to prevent her husband’s self-destruction. The cast’s only weak link is Thomas Guiry as the youngest son and narrator.
Bottom Line: Engrossing family drama
TV Road Trip
Travel Channel (Sun., April 7, 9 p.m. ET)
Which of these sites is most significant in American history? A) Mount Rushmore; B) Mount Vernon; or C) Mount Airy?
If you picked Mount Airy, the North Carolina town that was the basis for The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry, come along for this diverting two-hour special. Wearing an unsightly, untucked shirt that looks like a priced-to-go purchase from some roadside shop, host John Ritter takes us on a tube-crazy tour that covers the proto-Mayberry and much more, including Covington, Ga., where early episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard were shot; James-town, N.Y., birthplace of Lucille Ball and now a veritable shrine to I Love Lucy; and Metropolis, Ill., whose name was just a coincidence until enterprising residents declared it Superman’s hometown. Popping up along the way are Noel Neill (Lois Lane on the ’50s series The Adventures of Superman), Ken Kercheval (Dallas’s Cliff Barnes) and other nonstars who seem grateful to be recognized by faithful fans. Too bad the tone turns reverential when we trace The Waltons’ roots to Schuyler, Va.
Bottom Line: Happy trails