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Critic's Pick

TV Picks: 'Honest Liar,' 'Grantchester,' 'Saudi Arabia Uncovered'

"An Honest Liar" (PBS, Monday). Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom's twisty 2014 film about the magician, escape artist and buster of psychics James Randi makes its way to the wide release that is television, under the umbrella of PBS' "Independent Lens." To establish his show business bona fides, we're shown him escaping from ropes and cans, hanging over Niagara Falls in a straitjacket, working with Alice Cooper and appearing on "Wonderama" and "Happy Days," but the emphasis is on Randi the crusading skeptic, scourge of spiritualists, mediums and channelers, rather than the Great Randi, the popular performer. It's also, suspensefully, about love, lies and identity.

Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in 1928, Randi left his Toronto home at 17 to join a carnival, where he learned how to work within the cracks of human attention; Houdini was a model, both as an artist and as an investigator into paranormal charlatanry, which Randi regards as both cruel to its victims and a betrayal of magic.

We follow his campaigns to debunk Israeli spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller; to reveal the mechanics of the con perpetrated by faith-healing televangelist Peter Popoff; to debunk channeling by creating a channeler of his own — played by José Alvarez, who would become his longtime companion — who fooled what seems to have been the whole of Australia.

This is hilarious, exciting stuff, but there are human complications. In trying to prove that Geller had been able to hoodwink Stanford's best minds, Randi's confederates — young magicians masquerading for years as young psychics — were not always comfortable with running what amounted to a long con, or at least a trust-betraying prank, and the sad point is made that, for all Randi's shining of lights and pulling back of curtains, people will believe what they want to believe, whatever proof you show them to the contrary.

There is a lot of Randi around on the Internet, as well — many of the clips here you can see there — and this is not the first documentary to focus on him, but the personal element, the love story, is new and very sweet.

"Grantchester" (PBS, Sundays). James Norton and Robson Green make a dynamic duo in this period mystery series, back for a second season on "Masterpiece." Based on James Runcie's stories and set in 1950s semirural England, it features tower-of-ginger Norton as a jazz-loving Anglican priest with a penchant for detection and a passion for old flame Morven Christie, inconveniently married off by her family for money, and Green, a police detective and religious doubter, somewhat worn and rumpled in the "Columbo" mode. (Grantchester is the village where it takes place, a real place, near Cambridge, on the picturesque River Cam.)

The season comprises two independent mysteries, linked by some personal business. The first plays off modern concerns about the priests and sex and the walls the church throws up in front of police; the second is a Cold War thriller. Both comment incidentally, and not without contemporary application, on the limited opportunities and imposed social roles of women, the lot of gay people in the 1950s and the and the accepted abuse of police power. In the small but mighty tradition of Father Brown, Cadfael and that show with Tom Bosley and Tracy Nelson — you know the one.

"Frontline: Saudi Arabia Uncovered" (PBS, Tuesday). A film about the hi-tech medieval theocratic monarchical dictatorship that is Saudi Arabia — our troubling ally, if not exactly friend — composed mostly of footage shot surreptitiously within its borders by activists, citizen journalists and ticked-off kids, a loose affiliation of underground digital cameramen and women born out of the Arab Spring.

It's a battle between the past and the present; between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority; between self-serving tradition and equal rights; between self-appointed guardians of morality (meet the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) and the freedom, like, to play a lute in the park, have a drink or put on lipstick; between women as property and women as people; between the royal family and anything at odds with its own permanent survival and absolute power, where a contrary opinion may be classed as an act of terrorism — which is to say that the government, if you want to call it that, is at odds with a great many of its own people.

The film tracks the kingdom's growing inequality of income — homeless sleeping on the streets, slums with sewage running down the street — at a time when, with oil prices collapsing, the whole shebang might go bankrupt.

Plus, public executions! Director James Jones mixes scenes of protest and oppression with commentary from experts, families of the imprisoned and those working for change within and without this church-run state.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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