TV Picks: ‘North America,’ ‘Ghost Army,’ ‘Mad Men,’ Mel Brooks
“North America” (Discovery Channel, Sunday). The latest blockbuster nature documentary to justify your purchase of an HDTV (see also “Planet Earth,” “Life,” “Frozen Planet,” “Africa”) is the seven-part “North America.” There are some hectoring musical passages and the narration, delivered by Tom Selleck, foregrounding the folksy creak in his voice, can run to the precious and dramatically over-personified: Why does the continent need to be “she,” or the yearning-to-breathe-free behavior of wild animals be taken to somehow express “the American heart”? But you can turn down the sound to eliminate that human element and feel all the power and mystery of the wilderness without distraction. (You’ll still know what’s happening most of the time.) The real honor the series does the natural world is to pay it witness, and this it is does exceedingly well: It is gorgeous clean through. The episode I’ve seen hops around the map, from gray whales in the Bering Sea to cute little colorful birds in the Costa Rican jungle; there are bears and sea turtles and mustangs. The usual caveat applies: Nature is beautiful but not always pretty.
“The Ghost Army” (PBS, Tuesday). Rick Beyer’s fascinating, detailed and oddly delightful account of the World War II military camouflage artists whose job was not to hide men and materiel but to create battalions where none actually existed, drawing German eyes and ears to the wrong place. Working with inflatable rubber tanks, a studio-created soundtrack of military activity broadcast through speakers with a 15-mile range, and scripted radio communications, the “ghost army” gave the term “European theater” a new meaning, as they traveled from Normandy to the Rhine on what one veteran describes as a series of “one-night stands,” sewing deception. With art students making up half its ranks — which included the future minmalist painter Ellsworth Kelly, the photographer Art Kane and the designer Bill Blass, even then sketching designs for women’s wear — the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops also drew and painted as they went along; the works shown here have a wonderful, time-collapsing immediacy. Lots of color film footage, too, fans of historical color film footage take note.
“Mad Men” (AMC, Sundays). At the halfway point in the series’ sixth — and, we are given to understand, its penultimate — season, it is safe to assume that much of what we’re being shown relates to what might be called the ante-endgame. Certainly, creator and show runner Matt Weiner is drawing our attention more closely toward Don Draper (Jon Hamm, in a performance worn so close to the skin that some commentators have mistaken him for a bad actor) as if to remind us that, Roger and Joan and Peggy and Pete notwithstanding, Don’s is the story he’s telling. (January Jones’ Betty has been all but invisible this season, because Don’s done with her, for now.) More obviously than ever not the hero some still mistake him for, nor the villain he is to others, he’s a kind of shell with a survival instinct, an intellectual without interests who finds meaning in power but trusts neither. Don sifts the world to sell it things while retaining nothing for himself. (It’s unclear whether there is much he actively likes, apart from the sherbet at Howard Johnson’s.) He seemed to finally make a friend this season — upstairs neighbor Dr. Al Rosen (Brian Markinson) — but he was also, typically, sleeping with his wife (Linda Cardellini, in a guest run for which I’m inclined to send Weiner a gift basket). His one real unclenched moment this was when he took his son to see “Planet of the Apes.” An often exasperating show but an ambitious one; and when it’s great, it’s great like nothing else on TV.
“Make a Noise: Mel Brooks” (PBS, Monday). “I’ve go to admit something,” says Mel Brooks in Robert Trachtenberg’s bouncy “American Masters” documentary. “I don’t really do anything for the audience ever. I do it for me, and most of the time the audience joins me.” It’s worked out well: Brooks, 86, has lived to see even “Spaceballs” become beloved. The new interview footage is a little visually overexcited, as if to capture the hyperactivity of its subject, and anyone who’s been through the recent DVD set “Mel Brooks: An Inspired Collection of Unhinged Comedy” (Shout Factory) will have heard most of these stories. But it’s a bounty of clips and commentary, from collaborators and colleagues, including 2,000-Year-Old Man partner Carl Reiner, Tracy Ullman, Barry Levinson, Nathan Lane and Joan Rivers. You should laugh some, or check your pulse.
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