"Pancake Mountain" (PBS Digital). This week marked the return of a show that at least in my mind is an institution, the indie-rocking, puppets-and-pop-stars, let's-put-on-a-kind-of-kid's-show, dance-party cult item known as "Pancake Mountain." Born in 2004 as a Washington, D.C. cable-access series, with alt-cred instantly conferred by an original song from and appearance by Ian McKaye (Fugazi, Dischord Records), it has been revived under the color of PBS Digital Studios, the online hipster coffeehouse wing of the Public Broadcasting System. The component nature of the original makes it a good fit for the Web: Its sketches and songs and interview segments can each stand alone, or come together at whatever length is convenient to the venue. The original episodes ran a conventional half hour; the first online episode -- which includes Reggie Watts and goat-puppet-host Rufus Leaking advertising their barber shop; a new credits sequence with ex-Distiller Brode Dalle singing the "Pancake Mountain" theme; and Rufus and resident superhero Captain Perfect on a road trip to Hollywood (where "Pancake Mountain" now is made) -- clocks in at under five minutes. Older clips, some now bearing the PBS brand, may be found lurking online, a treasure hunt on which you can easily spend too much time, which will also be not enough time. (Or just go right to this compilation reel, featuring Henry Rollins, Lily Allen, M.I.A., the White Stripes, the Meat Puppets, Lou Barlow, Katy Perry, Tegan and Sara, Eddie Vedder and Rufus and Wayne Coyne singing "We Built This City.") DVDs have also been available -- I own them all, he said, shining his lapel with his knuckles -- and though the official shop appears to be closed for the moment, you can find old copies through the usual resellers. Obviously, I encourage you to do so. (Watch this space for an interview with "PM" creator Scott Stuckey.)
"The Fosters" (ABC Family, Mondays), "The New Black" (PBS, Sunday). "The Fosters," ABC Family's fine family drama about a foster family named Foster, returns for a second season. In the rainbow spirit of our post-millennial media world, it is as blended a family as can be -- in addition to the fostered kids, who are now in the process of being adopted (watch for bumps in that road), there are already adopted twins and a biological child, and they come in many colors and have two mothers: Teri Polo is the policewoman mom and Sherri Saum the vice-principal mom, who is now pregnant. The drama occasionally comes to a high boil -- the first season ended with musician son Brandon (David Lambert) beaten up by a bad companion, and the new begins with the question of whether he'll play the piano again, doctor, and did I mention he slept with his father's girlfriend? And is in love with his foster sister Callie (Maia Mitchell)? Youngest son Jude (Hayden Byerly) thinks he might be gay, and Saum's character is pregnant, and middle son Jesus (Jake T. Austin) has a difficult relationship with his ADHD meds, and so on. On paper, it can sound like a soap opera -- there are secrets and lies and such -- but in practice, it plays pretty much like ordinary life. Polo and Saum make one of TV's more believably married couples (with Polo especially good as the stricter, but still tender, mom); much happens around the kitchen table, when they all manage to get there.
Halfway through the first season, echoing changes in the Golden State (the show is set in San Diego), Polo and Saum's characters got married; that the series, like its fans, treats their same-sex status as being both worth noting and almost entirely beside the point is one of its strengths. Of course, not all the world evolves at the same pace. "The New Black," a documentary film by Yoruba Richen presented Sunday under the aegis of "The Independent Lens," looks at the relationship of the African American LGBT community to the black church, against the backdrop of the campaign to pass Maryland's Question 6, which legalized same-sex marriage in the state; opposition by (some) churches is made more piquant and poignant and paradoxical by historical (and even ongoing) questions of minority enfranchisement and equal protection under the law. The film is made largely of people speaking, to the camera and to one another, and -- though views differ, with one side claiming to know the mind of God and the other only its own collective heart -- most speak reasonably, sweetly, sympathetically. It's oddly civilized, given the national temper; the happy ending is still being written, but, still, it's being written.
"Rectify" (Sundance, Thursdays). Ray McKinnon's luminous, numinous Southern Gothic picks up almost immediately after the first season left off, with freed death row prisoner Daniel Holden (Aden Young) now in the hospital, in a medically induced coma, after a brutal beating. (Resemblance to "The Fosters" story line is purely coincidental.) The show, perhaps the slowest thing on television outside of CSPAN, has a firmly stately pace -- the first season was occupied with the events of a single week -- and is in no hurry to give up its secrets. There's a murder mystery in the background, but it's the deeper, ordinary human mysteries McKinnon most wants to plumb. This is a cold case show as Terrence Malick might direct one, animated by a mystic sensibility, peopled with characters who tremble like leaves in the breeze, and caught up with questions of good and evil, hate and love, guilt and innocence -- in the legal sense, but also the Blakean. Beautifully shot, movingly performed.
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