Critic’s Pick: TV Picks: ‘Althea,’ ‘Longmire,’ ‘Experimenting With Megan Amram’


American Masters: “Althea” (PBS, Friday). As someone who follows athletics not at all, but generally understands their appeal and is susceptible to their tropes, I am an exceptionally good audience for sports documentaries -- it’s almost always fresh material to me. Though I may not know a gridiron from a five iron -- well, I do, apparently, since I made that joke -- I do appreciate sports for their metaphorical usefulness and historical significance and for the excellent framework they provide for stories of individual grit, team unity and community uplift. The story of Althea Gibson, not a minute of which I could have related yesterday -- I am somewhat chagrined to say -- is an especially good, exciting and important one, and I am issuing a spoiler alert for viewers who might want to approach it unknowing. (I am giving you this buffer sentence to get out now.) A country-born, city-bred street kid, Gibson was, among other things, the first black tennis player to play Forest Hills; the first to win what is now called the U.S. Open; and the first to win at Wimbledon, which earned her a New York City ticker tape parade. She came at the sport when, as executive producer Billie Jean King relates, “everything was white -- the balls, the clothes, the people, the socks, the shoes, everything”; but she was a stranger too to the black bourgeoisie that supported the sport early on. Gibson had a wild streak and a style she described as “aggressive, dynamic and mean.” (Her father taught her to box on their Harlem rooftop when she was a girl.) Says King, “She had stage presence; you’d feel her.”

In spite of her history-making successes, there was little money in title tennis in her day, and instead of the millions she would have made now, Gibson struggled to get by; a Look magazine profile in 1957 was titled “Tragic Success Story.” She turned to golf and did well -- she was the first African American member of the LPGA -- though was never a big earner; she made records and sang on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (she could play the saxophone, too), but like many a groundbreaking figure, she had to be forgotten before she could be remembered. (The going is rough, but the ending is happy.) Though she’s criticized a little here for her disengagement from the civil rights movement -- “I don’t consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the cause of the Negro of the United States,” she said -- there’s no disputing her heroic, radical example. (Update, Sept. 5: PBS has posted the entire film online; see it here, gratis.)

“Longmire” (Netflix, Thursday). Canceled last year after three seasons on A&E with many loose ends hanging from its cliffs, this solid, satisfying New Old West procedural, starring Robert Taylor as Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, Katee Sackhoff as Deputy Vic Moretti and Lou Diamond Phillips as best friend Henry Standing Bear, returns for a 10-episode fourth season as “a Netflix original.” (With the new season of the Fox-dropped “The Mindy Project” arriving later this month on Hulu, this kind of second life is becoming less remarkable; one business model’s drag is another’s windfall.) Two of the early episodes -- three have been offered for review as of this writing -- are devoted largely to getting the hangers down from the cliffs and answering longstanding questions surrounding the death of Walt’s wife (so many fictional detectives, so many dead wives, parents and partners to avenge); there is also the contextually sudden absence of not-returning Bailey Chase, who played Walt’s deputy and rival Branch Connally, to account for. They feel both mathematical and, as if in compensation, overheated; the plot, and the dialogue that powers it, makes the characters seem unnaturally foolish at times. But the stronger, less serial third (the second in the rotation) takes up an unrelated, episodic mystery and bodes well for a “Longmire” worth sticking with. (All ten episodes will post at once, Netflix style.)


“Empire” 12-hour marathon (Fox, Monday). Your chance to catch up before Season 2 begins Sept. 23. “King Lear” as a hip-hop soap opera, this is the series that taught broadcast television programmers you don’t need white people on-screen to make a show a phenomenon. (What they’ve learned, only time will tell.) Above all, perhaps, it’s the series that made Taraji P. Henson a star, though it’s equally accurate to say that it’s Henson who made “Empire” a hit. Noon to midnight on Labor Day.

“Experimenting With Megan Amram” (Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls/YouTube). Twitter humorist and former “Parks and Recreation” staff writer Megan Amram hosts this Web series derived from her 2014 parody science textbook, “Science .. for Her!” (“I love science, but I also love looking good. I went to Harvard. Let’s begin.”) It’s a little bit “Sound Advice With Janessa Slater” in that she asks questions in character -- a character shallow, self-involved and out of tune with her subjects. Each episode opens with an aborted elementary-level science experiment (vinegar volcano, making “a biological clock out of potato”) before Amram says hello to a real-life woman scientist or science student. (The website includes instructions on how to finish the experiments yourself.)

UCLA postdoctoral fellow Sara Wasserman, asked the difference between the brain of a human and a fly: “Our brains definitely have a lot more neurons.” Amram: “And what’s that?” “A brain cell.” “And what’s that?” “A neuron.” To engineer and Caltech aeronautics professor Beverly J. McKeon, Amram asks, “Have you ever gone into the wind tunnel and taken your hair down and just pretended to be Beyonce?” To Nicole Yunger Halpern, a doctoral student at Caltech studying quantum information theory: “How does quantum theory predict the electricity that I feel when I see Chris Hemsworth without a shirt on?” Swabbing her cheek for cells, she claims that “Q-tips are delicious and are a natural antidepressant”; choreographer Adam Shankman, actor Adam Pally “and an intern that we made legally change his name to Adam to be on the show” answer questions about atoms versus Adams. Hungover, Amram proposes a drinking game to neuroscientist and science communicator Cara Santa Maria: “I drink every time I learn something. Does that sound good, Charlie?” “Cara.” (She drinks.) But real information is also imparted -- this is the Smart Girls Channel, Amy Poehler’s youth outreach -- and the dimness of the interviewer only heightens the dignity of the interviewed. And black holes do turn out to be slimming, as the host hopefully wonders, in their way.

Robert Lloyd does the Twitter thing @LATimesTVLloyd