Based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” chronicles humanity’s fight against its most inexorably fatal foe from the time of the ancient Egyptians to current day, which means it includes a lot of complicated science and many deaths, including those of children whose treatment is featured. Though dotted with hope, triumph and the near-miraculous, it does not have a happy ending or an ending at all. While cures or often effective treatment are now available for some forms of cancer, the disease continues to claim the lives of millions.
That includes narrator Edward Herrmann, who was in the final stages of brain cancer when he recorded “Cancer.” He delivers a final performance, equal in breath-taking courage and beauty, that embodies precisely what allows Goodman to explore the staggering numbers and many defeats without ever falling to its knees as defeatist. Underpinning the series is the astonishing human ability to fight to the end even when there seems no hope of winning.
The topic alone makes “Cancer” the single most personally relevant documentary of this or any year. As the film points out almost immediately, there are few people who live in more than one degree of separation from the disease. One in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with some form during their lifetimes, and those who don’t themselves develop cancer invariably know someone who will. Yet fear still keeps many of us alarmingly ignorant. Though not the social taboo it once was, cancer remains a topic to be avoided until personal circumstances make that impossible. Many Americans are far more conversant about the ins and outs of various fad diets or the history of the Kardashians than they are about the history and state of cancer research.
“Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies” tries to, and should, change all that. PBS, March 30, 31 and April 1, 9 p.m.
"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." I love this show, and I don't care who knows it. With super-powered sky and two versions of SHIELD (welcome, Edward James Olmos), two versions of May (and Skye) and Fitz and Simmons arguing over the value of super powers as we seem to head toward the conflict of "Captain America: Civil War," it just keeps getting better. Grown up, but never stuffy. ABC, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.
"black-ish" After a bumpy start — Is it a comedy about race? About family? About marriage? — "black-ish" is a consistently delightful combination of them all. The kids are endearing yet irritating, the adults are a combination of insecurity and arrogance, the predicaments absurd but in a recognizable way. The marriage between Anthony Anderson's Dre and Tracee Ellis Ross' Bow may be the most realistic since "Friday Night Lights," but the best thing about "black-ish" is that' it's a show the whole family really can enjoy. ABC, Wednesdays, 9:30.