Russia: Land of the Tsars
Monday and Tuesday, 8 p.m. (History Channel)
Winston Churchill said that Russia is "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." In Russia: Land of the Tsars, the History Channel attempts to pry open the enigma, unwrap the mystery and answer the riddle. Through scholarly commentary and dramatic reenactments, it takes us from the start of the Russian empire in the 10th century to its collapse in the 20th. Along the way, we meet rulers both great and terrible. Conveniently, they have names like Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible, so it's easy to keep track of who's who.
Hey! I see you reaching for the remote. Put it down, dawg. Land of the Tsars is anything but a dry history lesson. It treats us to images of clashing armies and regal heroes, not to mention fuzzy hats. It thrills us with tales of Viking invaders, Mongol hordes and palace intrigues. It takes us all the way back to a time when, as the narrator says, "history tangled with myth and a nation found its identity in a mystical faith."
Tom Jones Live at Cardiff Castle
Friday, 7 pm (A&E)
Tom Jones was a kitschy sex symbol who crooned "It's Not Unusual" in the 1960s and '70s. In the late '80s he made a comeback as a postmodern joke, singing "Kiss" with the electronic dance group the Art of Noise. Tonight's live show provides the answer to a fascinating question: What comes after postmodern joke?
Saturday, 7 pm (Showtime)
Paul Newman stars as the Stage Manager in this marvelous production of Thornton Wilder's play. Newman strikes just the right note of cranky amiability as he leads us through Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, as it existed in the early 20th century.
In one way, Wilder presents Grover's Corners as a typical town of the era, with mothers bustling in the kitchen, fathers tending to business and young lovers making plans. But in another way, this portrait is anything but typical. The Stage Manager places Grover's Corners in a cosmic context, looking into its prehistory and its future. He shows us how the characters' lives turned out, and even tracks one of them -- Emily, an aforementioned young lover -- beyond the grave.
Our Town is profound, but the death of any production is to emphasize its profundity. Showtime's staging takes the right approach by playing up Wilder's humor, which gently mocks the play's godlike perspective. My only regret is that the production wasn't filmed before a live audience. As a result, the folks watching at home don't get to laugh along with others, and that's a shame. The shared laughter is what helps implicate you and me in the "Our" of Our Town.
My House in Umbria
Sunday, 8 pm (HBO)
An English romance novelist named Emily (Maggie Smith) leaves her villa in Umbria and boards a train to Milan. As she observes the other passengers in her compartment with a novelist's eye, one settles in for a low-key TV-movie experience. But then something strange happens. The scene we'd been seeing from Emily's perspective morphs into a surreal vision, with white light, billowing hair and gorgeously flying debris.
What's going on? We piece things together as slowly as Emily does. She wakes up in the hospital and learns that a bomb had gone off in her compartment. Emily roots out her fellow survivors -- an old English general (Ronnie Barker), a German man (Benno Furmann) and a traumatized young girl (Emmy Clarke) -- and invites them to Umbria to convalesce.
Back in the villa, the characters begin to reveal themselves, and My House in Umbria returns to being a low-key TV-movie experience. But it carries you along with fine acting, as well as the mystery of who planted the bomb.
Monday, 7 pm (Animal Planet)
A young boy's dog is killed while saving the life of an eccentric scientist (Judd Nelson). The scientist decides to reanimate the dog, creating a bionic creature.
Cybermutt is a forgettable TV movie, though the dog is darn cute. And believe it or not, he's not even the production's most notable furry creature. Nelson sports a foot-high bird's-nest hairdo that puts Albert Einstein to shame.
Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin'
Monday, 8 pm (USA)
In this 70th birthday celebration, Willie Nelson sings in a variety of styles with a variety of stars, including Shania Twain, Ray Charles, Toby Keith, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Wyclef Jean and Elvis Costello. Willie's kind of shaky in many of these styles (his blues with Clapton is particularly unconvincing), and, truth be told, he has trouble commanding the stage even in his own country idiom.
Plus, is the star's outlaw persona beginning to feel a bit forced, what with the artfully scuffed guitar and leather jacket? I mean, how many outlaws invite Whoopi Goldberg to speak at their birthday parties?