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TV Picks: 'Democrats,' 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,' 'El Vato'

TV Picks: 'Democrats,' 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,' 'El Vato'
Douglas Mwonzora and Paul Mangwana take a break from forging a new Zimbabwean constitution inCamilla Nielsson's "Democrats/Soft Vengeance," airing on the PBS documentary series "Independent Lens." (Henrik Bohn Ipsen)

"Democrats/Soft Vengeance" (PBS, Monday). Danish director Camilla Nielsson ("Cities on Speed: Mumbai Disconnected," "Children of Darfur" and "Good Morning Afghanistan") turned her attention to Zimbabwe in this 2014 film, which comes to television this week under the world-covering umbrella of "Independent Lens," just as the biggest protests in a decade against the seemingly intractable rule of President Robert Mugabe, 92, are taking place.

Nielsson's film documents the attempt, during the power-sharing period that followed the contested 2008 elections, to create a new constitution for the country, a process personified by the people charged with making it happen: Paul Mangwana of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, and Douglas Mwonzora, of the opposing Movement for Democratic Change. Most of it takes place at meetings public and private, in conference rooms and country fields, and in moving cars headed from one of these to another. But the scenes gather a dramatic, almost novelistic force, and what begins framed as the story of trying to create democracy within a police state becomes the unexpectedly moving story of two men and their evolving relationship within a country resistant to change.

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Mangwana, delightedly, even openly disingenuous ("Be seen as a man of peace even if you are not — the game of politics is pretending"), at first seems the obvious villain, reflecting his leader's casual arrogance, while Mwonzora, threatened and jailed, appears to be the beleaguered hero — well, he is a beleaguered hero. But something less dualistic and more subtle emerges — sneaks up on you, really — as the ruling party man's growing pride in their new product begins to change him. ("You must be an instrument of change," he'll say finally, "even changing the mindset of your own leadership.") Both men seem remarkably candid in front of Nielsson, who shot the picture over the course of three years. She might have waited long and patiently, like a nature photographer, to get these scenes.

Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper areunlikely devotedroommates in the second season of Netflix's "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."
Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper areunlikely devotedroommates in the second season of Netflix's "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." (Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

"Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (Netflix). With the cancellation of "30 Rock," "Community" and "Parks and Recreation," NBC jettisoned a certain kind of jaunty, allusive, high-style, not necessarily highly rated satire that had kept it cool for at least one night a week — a change in direction confirmed when the network decided not to air this wonderful series, the next project from "30 Rock" creators Tina Fey and Robert Karlock. The show went to Netflix instead, where its second season — maybe even stronger than the first — has just become available. The story of a woman (Ellie Kemper) living in New York after 15 years of cultish imprisonment in an Indiana bunker -- and therefore behind time historically, socially and emotionally but also full of hope and energy and has a resilient sense of self -- it's a paean to difference and diversity; there is nothing on television anymore gloriously life-affirming. (In a less than subtle bit of externalization, the new season actually dresses Kimmy as an elf.)

The series is to be thanked for many things: for returning Carol Kane, as Kimmy's landlady Lillian, to series television, and introducing to it Tituss Burgess as her roommate, Titus Andromedon; and for keeping Jane Krakowski, as Kimmy's sometime employer, sometime friend Jacqueline Voorhees; and for keeping Fey and Karlock's voice alive in series television. As in "30 Rock," there are jokes inked in around the edges — a sign reading "Coming Soon: 9 banks!," a pile of remaindered instructional drum DVDs, "Own the Skins With Jeremy Piven." Plus, for the art majors jokes referencing Barbara Kruger, Rem Koolhaus and Ed Ruscha.

Conflicts arise, naturally: "You are just Mr. Sassafras Jeans today," an exasperated Kimmy tells Titus. "That's a dumb name for how fierce I'm being right now," he replies, fiercely. And the city and its "moral relatives," as Kimmy gets that wrong, can seem cruel and indifferent — "Am I the only person in this city who doesn't do whatevs, whenevs?" she wonders. But it's also a wonderland, where silverfish might be the catalyst for a romantic moment and where the train runs "late on purpose so people can find each other in romantical fashion," and you can work in a store where it's Christmas all year round. It is full at once of mockery and love, at no cost to either.

The Mexican pop singer El Dasa (Dasahev López Saavedra)plays a singer out to make the big time in the L.A.-set "El Vato," the first original scripted series from NBC Universo.
The Mexican pop singer El Dasa (Dasahev López Saavedra)plays a singer out to make the big time in the L.A.-set "El Vato," the first original scripted series from NBC Universo. (NBC Universo)

"El Vato" (NBC Universo, Sundays). The first scripted series from the Spanish-language network — Spanglish-language network, more precisely — is a kind of a telenovelistic take on "Entourage," but with a slant and of flavor of its own. Set in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but also in Whittier, the 10-episode miniseries is almost entirely in Spanish, with a little bit of English; and though there no subtitles, its narrative practice is so firmly rooted in established principals and narrative tropes that even for one who speaks little Spanish, it's easy to tell who is who and what's going on. You could turn the sound down, in fact, and still have a fair idea, but then you'd miss the music.

Mexican pop singer El Dasa (Dasahev López Saavedra), who was discovered in Los Angeles in 2011 working as a driver by King of Ranchera Music Vicente Fernández, plays the Mexican singer El Vato, who has come to America following that major-label dream. Accompanying him are Mariana (Cristina Rodlo), who writes the songs; Brandon (Richardo Polanco), who takes care of business; and El Pollo (Gustavo Egelhaaf), who is, you know, Turtle. But while the "Entourage" analogies do seem intentional, the new series feels less caustic, more rooted in traditional values and a sense of family. That El Vato is paid by his record company with a bag of cash — literally, a bag of cash, which they set about spending on Rodeo Drive — does not seem to strike any of them funny, but these wouldn't be the first kids made blind to common sense by show business and to ask questions later, if ever. The series also features Mauricio Martinez as Marco, the established star whom El Vato coaxes into a duet at an industry party — a kind of mirror image of the real-life moment when Fernández invited the unknown Saavedra to sing with him at the Gibson Amphitheater and set him on his way.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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