CBS (Tuesday, Sept. 11, 9 p.m. ET)
Brooke Adams has a magical face, an actor’s mask that can be molded to any emotion. She does a lot of face flexing in this true tale of a Canadian puppeteer who took a group of mentally handicapped adults and made them into a professional troupe of puppeteers. The plot sounds frighteningly like a two-hour Phil Donahue Show. Plucky people with low IQs but high esteem prove that they too can contribute to society. That is the story, but there’s more to it: Emotion and grit rescue Special People from becoming a festival of high-consciousness smarm. In the beginning Adams, wearing her charming face, interviews the would-be puppeteers. One of them can’t remember how she got to school that morning, another refuses to talk; none of them can read, write or tell time. When they raise havoc at their first rehearsal, Adams puts on her tough face—looking like every disapproving mother in the world—and shouts, “What do you think this is, summer camp for retards?” When she finds one of her young actresses streetwalking, Adams puts on her concerned face. And when her performers botch their debut, she puts on a face that is enraged and devastated and covered in tears. But there is a happy ending. The puppeteers’ show was a takeoff on Liberace’s act, so Adams bugs the real Liberace—played by Liberace himself—to come see the troupe. He hires them to open his Vegas show in 1975, and they go on to tour China. Now you’re treated to Adams’ biggest smile. She is the captivating center of the show, but she does not try to upstage the real stars. Seven of the original members of the troupe play themselves and do an amazing job of it. They are often more appealing than the professional actors hired to play the other mentally handicapped people. Special People is a very special show.