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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
Arts
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Mr. Warmth: Racist or genius?
Mr. Warmth ponders Don Rickles' outrageous comedy
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Rickles plays with ethnic stereotypes.
Rickles plays with ethnic stereotypes.

Don Rickles is a comic institution who requires discussion. Is his act hilarious or racist? Or both?

Some of the best minds in show business address that question in John Landis' marvelous Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (Sunday, 7 p.m., HBO). For starters, we watch the octogenarian do his insult shtick onstage, where he's still as dangerous as a live hand grenade. He plays with ethnic stereotypes, mocking the Italians, African Americans, Mexicans, Asians and Germans in the crowd. He lights into his own people, the Jews, with particular relish.

Rickles' jokes can be shocking, especially in a country that's had a problem or two with racism. How does he get away with it, if indeed he does?

According to Chris Rock - not one to let racists off lightly - Rickles gets away with it because he's funny. "It's very offensive," Rock says, "but not if you're into comedy."

Robin Williams places Rickles in the tradition of jesters: "He's there to level the king and keep it real." Indeed, we see Rickles put down big shots like President Reagan and Frank Sinatra as bluntly as he does the Japanese tourists in the front row.

Calling Rickles "an equal-opportunity offender" doesn't really get at the profundity of his approach. Martin Scorsese puts it best: "He elevates people who don't take themselves that seriously."

Maybe you don't buy any of this. Maybe you think Don Rickles is boorish at best, offensive at worst. If that's the case, then...wait a minute, are you wearing a wig, or did something just crawl onto your head and die?

Tin Man
Sunday, 8 pm (Sci Fi)

This miniseries is a sci-fi update of The Wizard of Oz. If it only had a brain- or a heart, or some courage - it might have been interesting.

Dorothy Gale has been changed to DG (Zooey Deschanel), a waitress from the middle of nowhere who dreams of a distant land. A storm carries her to the Outer Zone, where she meets a guy whose brain has been removed by the state. The two of them run into a heartless cop (or "tin man") and a frightened creature in a furry coat. They all band together against the evil sorceress, played without a hint of menace by Kathleen Robertson of Beverly Hills, 90210. (Was Shannen Doherty unavailable?)

Tin Man works out tidy little correspondences with the Wizard of Oz movie. But is that really the way to create a compelling drama? All we can do is sit there and wait for the next cutesy update. The Munchkins have become resistance fighters. The Yellow Brick Road has become the Brick Route. The miniseries is so busy mooching that it forgets to add humor, pathos, fear and a sense of wonder - all the things that made us care about The Wizard of Oz in the first place.

Worst of all is Deschanel in the Judy Garland role. With her blank face and mumbling delivery, she seems as bored by the material as we are. Garland was quiveringly alive on screen, but Deschanel comes across like death warmed over. She's really most sincerely dead.

Super Skinny Me
Sunday, 9 pm (BBC America)

This investigative report addresses the phenomenon of shockingly skinny actresses - women like Ellen Pompeo, Kate Bosworth and Nicole Richie, who seem to be in a race to size 0. What are the costs of such extreme weight loss?

In a reversal of Super Size Me, journalists Kat Spicer and Louise Burke see how low they can go. They adopt the radical weight-loss methods used by celebrities - from colonics to protein shakes - with the goal of dropping five dress sizes in five weeks.

Will Spicer and Burke succumb to cardiac problems, depression and eating disorders? Or will they be offered starring roles in a new prime-time soap?

Victoria's Secret Fashion Show
Tuesday, 9 pm (CBS)

Everybody knows what the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is. It's a prime-time commercial that uses T&A to sell underwear. But Victoria's Secret is determined to make us think the show is more than that. So every year the producers try to humanize the humanoid models, and it's always enjoyable to watch them fail.

Last year, the models were asked to speak about how nervous they get before hitting the runway. But when all you have to do is walk in a straight line, then walk back, the stakes seem a tad low, don't they? Interviewers worked hard to coax candid comments from shockingly tall women in bras and garter belts. This is the closest they got to a revelation:

"People always think our business is glamorous. It is glamorous, of course."

When all else failed, the producers affixed a camera to a model's head so we could experience a fashion show from her perspective. "I've got my spy camera so you guys can see what I see on the runway," the model said. She walked onto the catwalk, allowing us to see...a catwalk.

I can't wait for more behind-the-scenes bombshells in this year's show. Do you suppose that being born with a perfect face and body isn't as wonderful as it seems? Or is it just as wonderful as it seems...?

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