TV Picks: 'Doc Martin,' 'American Promise,' 'The Amish: Shunned'

TV Picks: 'Doc Martin,' 'American Promise,' 'The Amish: Shunned'
Martin (Martin Clunes) minds the baby in the sixth season of "Doc Martin," which returns to KCET this Thursday. (Patrick Redmond / RLJ Entertainment/Acorn)

"Doc Martin," Season 6 (KCET, Thursdays). The sixth season of this British series, which has become popular here via public television, DVD (from the Anglocentric Acorn Media) and streaming sites, makes its local TV premiere this week. Martin Clunes plays Dr. Martin Ellingham, as capable in his work as he is hopeless with people.

Martin has gotten over the suddenly acquired fear of blood that ended his successful career as a London surgeon and found him working, not quite happily, as a GP in the Cornwall fishing village where he had spent presumably happy summers as a boy. (It is difficult to tell with him) But he is still there, having fallen in love not with the town but with Louisa (Caroline Catz), who would be called the schoolmarm were this an old western movie.


As a couple -- an improbable but also an inevitable one -- they have had their ups and downs, or perhaps more accurately, their downs and ups, but in the fifth season they became parents and at the dawn of the new one are on the verge of getting married.

For all that he is unsociable, he's extremely capable, and sometimes heroic -- he has saved more lives than any small-town doctor has a right to -- a kind of an extreme version of a Gary Cooper sheriff. And in a village chockablock with eccentrics, she is a spot of sweet reason.

We have often been to this place, and met these people, under other names -- the Town called Quirky, the fish out of water, the impossible couple you pray to come together, though now the hope is for them somehow to stay together. (From a certain angle, this is "Northern Exposure" with better weather).

As a hero, Martin, who seems always to be on the edge of undoing whatever good life brings him, can be frustrating to the point of despair. But it's brilliantly handled, and acted, both as comedy and as suspense. Every season builds toward a knuckle-biting crisis, and this season feels especially critical, even by the difficult standards of earlier years. And Port Wenn, with its crooked streets rising from a tightly-wrapped bay, by now just feels like home. (The series has been the best ambassador for Cornwall since "Poldark.")

The great Eileen Atkins ("Cold Comfort Farm") is still on board and much used this year as Martin's psychiatrist-aunt, as emotionally constricted as her nephew but with more sense and perspective. There are a couple of new residents as well, and the return of a couple of old ones. With a revelation or two, and something like character development, the characters' stubborness notwithstanding.

"American Promise" (PBS, Monday); "The Amish: Shunned" (PBS, Tuesday). Two documentary films about family and culture. Each fulfills in its own way the great, mostly unmet, promise of television: to acquaint us with other lives, minus prejudicial comment but with genuine curiosity. In this, they are quite the opposite of reality TV, which is all comment and no curiosity.

Presented as part of the "American Experience" series, "The Amish: Shunned" -- a sequel to the 2012's "The Amish" -- tells the stories of several men and women who have left their communities to try to make a life among the people they call "the English," and what they lose and what they gain. (That's us, car-driving, zipper-using newspaper readers.) It's a subject with which reality TV has also had its wicked way: TLC's ongoing "Breaking Amish," like UPN's 2004 "Amish in the City," turned "Rumspringa" -- a period in which Amish youth are allowed greater freedom, even to live for a while among the English -- into versions of "The Real World."

This is not that. Directed by "The Amish" producer Callie T. Wiser, "Shunned" is deliberately paced, with a floaty chamber score and lots of pretty shots of country life, and it lets people in and out of the life have their say, which is never the same say.

Every story it tells is different, including the should-be-obvious fact that not every Amish community, being composed merely of humans, is identical or identically strict or as unforgiving of the lambs who stray. "Shunning," described here as "the New Testament equivalent to stoning," is, literally, excommunication -- being put outside the community, usually not permanently, as a punishment for rule-breaking -- while the film is more about people who take themselves out of the community, and the heartbreak it can occasion on each side.

It is also about faith and self, God and man, the comfort of tradition, the thrill of education, and the simple joy of driving a truck. "Once I left it was actually not as hard as I thought it would be," says the truck driver. "Actually, I mean it was pretty awesome." Others find it less so.

A dozen years in the making, "American Promise," part of the series "P.O.V.," follows a pair of middle-class Brooklyn black kids, best friends Idris Brewster and Seun Summers, through the whole of their primary and secondary education as they become students at the exclusive and largely white Dalton School on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Seun will transfer after middle school to Brooklyn's public Benjamin Banneker Academy.
The directors are Idris' parents, psychiatrist Joe Brewster and filmmaker Michele Stephenson, whose at-some-point stated purpose is to explore "the black male educational achievement gap"; but what might have been a polemic on the one hand or a glorified home movie on the other, has, like the kids it follows, grown into its own thing, which, like "The Amish: Shunned" is less about ideas than individuals.

Race is, of course, part of the mix, especially at Dalton, in whose drive toward increased diversity the boys were early participants. Seun, whose mother mentions wanting him "to be comfortable around white folks, because I think at this point even I am not comfortable around white folks." Idris tries to brush the color out of his gums at one point and wonders aloud to parents, "If I was white I'd be better off, isn't that true?" He also reports changing the way he speaks around the black kids with whom he plays basketball -- "I think I fit in much better at Dalton 'cause I don't have to change my voice for people not to make fun of me."

But the greater impression is a more universal one, a story of parents and children, and the concern for kids that exists in every healthy family, and the variety of ways, not always productive, in which that's expressed.

Above all, it's a close if not exactly all-encompassing look at the flowering of two normal kids -- neither of them a "child at risk" -- as they move to the verge of adult life. The things they struggle with such as schoolwork, parents, dyslexia, ADHD and the things they revel in will be familiar to many millions. There is a great pleasure in hearing a line like, "The first thing that she said to me was you have really nice eyebrows. I do have really nice eyebrows."

There is much that is not shown, not surprising in a film that compresses 12 years in two families into a couple of hours. We get the merest sense of any characters past Idris, Seun and their folks; not even their siblings are much present, possibly to their relief. (There is a nod every once in a while to the fact that being followed sometimes by a camera crew is not normal.) Indeed, even when tragedy strikes Seun's family, it glimmers on the edge of the frame, with little explanation.

But the narrow focus works, bringing us closer to Seun and Idris. It's a story of identity and the change that takes place within it. And, as with "The Amish: Shunned," it reminds us that the longer you look at a person the less they stand for anything but themselves.