I always thought Sci Fi's Battlestar Galactica was a downer. It shot for "solemn" and ended up just depressing and dull. But a two-hour special episode called Battlestar Galactica: Razor (Saturday, 8 p.m.) has won me over. It is solemn, in the best way: a tale of warriors enduring the onslaught of an evil enemy.
That enemy is the Cylons, aliens out to destroy the human race. Battlestar Galactica: Razor tells the story of the first Cylon attack, when Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) commanded the starship Pegasus. It also flashes forward, after Cain's death, to Lee Adama's command of the Pegasus. The link between the two stories is young officer Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), who fought under Cain and strives to preserve her mentor's legacy on the Pegasus.
The episode captures the everyday feel of starship life, as well as the disorientation of battle. And Forbes' Admiral Cain jumps off the screen. She's tough as nails - war has made her so - but you can see a human being in there, too. Her voice catches ever so slightly as she rallies the crew after an attack: "I say let's make these murdering things understand that as long as this crew and this ship survive, this war they started will not be over."
After this thrilling speech, I vowed to watch every future episode of Battlestar Galactica. And to fight Cylons till my dying breath.
Monday, 8 pm (Sundance Channel)
This eight-part documentary transports us to Watersmeet, a remote town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. At first glance, there's not a lot shaking here. The boys play high school basketball, the girls cheer for high school basketball, and the men obsess over high school basketball. The residents of Watersmeet also hunt in the nearby woods - where they talk about high school basketball.
Why would we want to spend time in this nowhere town cheering on the mighty Nimrods? Chalk it up to skillful filmmaking - that and the limitless fascination of the human animal, even in the dullest habitat. The fly-on-the-wall camera takes us to basketball practice, family kitchens and the restaurant where Watersmeet's old geezers hang out. In other words, places we'd never see otherwise.
I love part one's interview with a cheerleader itching to leave the Upper Peninsula. "I don't like this town," she says. "I don't like Michigan. I want to be in, like, a halfway decent, warm place."
Her choice of a "warm place" speaks to the limits of the imagination in a town like Watersmeet:
"I want to go to Wisconsin."
Hollywood Goes Gaming
Monday, 8 pm (Starz)
This fascinating documentary explores the historical connection between movies and videogames. Back in the '70s and '80s, during the age of Pong, Hollywood wouldn't return the game industry's calls. Early experiments with videogame tie-ins flopped, typified by the E.T. debacle. "You were this brown blob collecting Reese's Pieces and falling in holes," one commentator says derisively. The zillions of unsold games were buried in a New Mexico landfill.
But videogame tie-ins eventually became more sophisticated, and movie adaptations became more entertaining and profitable. By the time of 2001's movie version of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, videogames had become Hollywood's BFF. Now, all anybody wants to do is merge the two mediums. Movies will seem like videogames, and videogames will seem like movies. "More and more, the differences between the two industries seem to be melting away," says a game-industry spokesman. "Convergence is the catchword of the day."
It all sounds very exciting until you realize that convergence comes at a cost. Gameplay implies a particular approach, one obsessed with winning. That's a fine corner of the world, but do we really want it to be the world? A recent game based on The Godfather demonstrates the pitfalls. Francis Coppola's film explores the tragic consequences of a violent life. The game, on the other hand, glamorizes the violent life, 'cuz what's cooler than garroting a foe who stands between you and the next level?
You wonder if the subtler qualities of movies will survive in the videogame era. Are we heading toward a Citizen Kane videogame that ends with Kane gliding away victoriously on the Rosebud sled?
Notes from the Underbelly
Monday, 8:30 pm (ABC)
Hell froze over, and the baby-oriented sitcom returns for a second season. Notes from the Underbelly is about a couple expecting a baby, a couple that just had a baby, and their friends who don't want a baby. In the season premiere, the jokes are exactly what you'd expect. The pregnant couple can't decide if they want to learn the baby's gender. The couple who just had a baby can't figure out how to swaddle it. The wife practices swaddling a loaf of bread in a napkin, then her husband in a blanket.
"How hard is it to swaddle?" ask the childless friends.
"It's like giving an angry cat a bath when you're drunk."
Believe it or not, that line was written before the Hollywood writers' strike.
If the material is bad, the actors are even worse. There's not a comedian in the bunch. The pregnant couple had better give birth to an extraordinarily funny baby, or Notes from the Underbelly is in big trouble.