McNamara’s Picks: ‘Last Tango in Halifax,’ ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ more

Gretchen Mol, right, and Ron Livingston on the set of "Boardwalk Empire" on August 2, 2013 in New York City.
(Bobby Bank / WireImage / Getty Images)

“Last Tango in Halifax” -- The best new show of the fall is a rapturous mix of absurdly fairy-tale-romance and frantic modern complications, set in the sylvan drear of Yorkshire and brought to life by masterfully shaded performances.

“Last Tango in Halifax ” tells the story of a widow and a widower who reconnect via Facebook and quickly rekindle a romance that never quite happened. But time, and her grim attendant’s age and infirmity, are not the only obstacles this new/old love must face.

Alan (Derek Jacobi) lives with his daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker), and his grandson, Raff (Josh Bolt), on a sheep farm James Herriot might have serviced. His early love, Celia (Anne Reid) is part of a very different sort of life (i.e. class.). Celia also lives with her daughter, but Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) is, in addition to mothering two sons, the fiercely ambitious head of a prestigious private school.


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Needless to say, neither daughter knows quite how to react to the sight of each other, much less the true love newly ignited in their Aged Parents. But true love it is, deftly and heartbreakingly captured by Jacobi and Reid, performers capable of doing more with a startled look or careful smile than most actors can do in seven pages of dialogue.

Fortunately, “Last Tango” is not all loving glances and relived memories. Though different as chalk and cheese, Gillian and Caroline share a propensity for drama and ill-advised romances that comes in mighty handy, plot-wise. Many things happen, often in laughably quick succession, during the six episodes of “Last Tango” (another season, hurrah, is already in the works) but they are well anchored by the sight of parent and child moving along similar journeys of discovery.

With aplomb bordering on the miraculous, creator Sally Wainwright captures the contradictory, infuriating and glorious mess that is family. PBS, 8 p.m., Sundays

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“American Masters: Billie Jean King” -- Forty years ago, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the most famous tennis series in American history. Dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, the matches made tennis the breakthrough sport of women’s athletics and King a nationally recognized symbol of the women’s movement.

The victory also capped King’s decades-long fight for women’s equality, both on and off the courts, which is the topic of James Erskine’s excellent documentary.

A California girl whose parents believed in equality for all and, she says now, “walked the walk,” King’s early athletic talents had no real outlet until she found tennis.

The sport, she noticed almost immediately, was the most elitist of all, but it was one she made her own, using her success to fight for equal pay, a women’s circuit and girls’ athletics in general.

Despite an unquenchable spirit and a seemingly unstoppable career, all did not run smoothly for King; after the victory over Riggs, she was outed via a palimony suit. She lost all her endorsements but reclaimed her life, becoming an activist for gay rights.

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Drawing from clips, interviews with King as well as her brother and ex-husband, tennis peers and her many fans (including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton), Erskine traces the evolution of an icon. Or at least thus far. At 70, King claims she still has one more big thing in her and, as the film points out, the woman tends to mean what she says. PBS, 8 p.m. Tuesday

“Boardwalk Empire” -- Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is back, having won the war against homicidal bootlegger Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale). But the underworld of post-prohibition Jersey still roils with tension, villainy and, on more than one occasion, sheer brutal stupidity.

Heavy on mood and light on character development, early episodes of Season 4 rely too often on violence and sex, and sexual violence, to prop up a story that wanders where it should stride.

Still, Buscemi remains the thinking man’s mobster, and Nucky’s alliance with Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) deepens, the themes of race relations if only in the criminal world.

Also, this season introduces Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a Harlem gangster with very definite opinions on race, and I’ll watch Jeffrey Wright in just about anything. HBO, 9 p.m. Sundays


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