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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
Arts
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The ex factor
Former president John Adams broods on the past
on
'In some circles I am openly despised.'
'In some circles I am openly despised.'

The furor dies down in the final episode of John Adams (Sunday, 8 p.m., HBO). The British have been defeated, the United States has been created, and Adams' epic struggles as ambassador and president are behind him. He is an old man puttering about his farm with stringy white hair, bad teeth and an ever-present scowl. Very little happens over the course of the hour, and yet this is perhaps the richest of the seven episodes.

Much of the credit goes to Paul Giamatti. He creates an unforgettable portrait of an aging titan obsessed with the past. This is no saint, but a conflicted human being who struggles with resentment and regret. He feels neglected, his achievements undervalued. "In some circles I am openly despised," he groans to wife Abigail (Laura Linney). "In others I am irrelevant." Abigail rolls her eyes, and so do we.

But a kind of redemption comes as Adams begins a correspondence with old enemy Thomas Jefferson, his only surviving peer from the revolutionary days. He sets aside jealousy and sends a note to Jefferson at Monticello, one melancholy genius to another. "You and I are not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other," he writes.

You'll just have to believe me when I say that a simple exchange of letters is the most moving TV climax you'll see all year.

The Sarah Jane Adventures
Friday, 7 pm (Sci Fi)

This Doctor Who spinoff is set on earth, but don't expect any shortage of alien action. Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) uses her expertise in intergalactic affairs to keep extraterrestrials from conquering the planet. Why these creatures can't keep their cotton-pickin' claws out of our orbit is beyond me.

This BBC production clearly has limited funds for sets and special effects. But it offers great English acting, cheeky satire and a rare chance to see a middle-aged woman save the world. Given all that, you're willing to overlook the occasional rubbery monster with sagging tentacles.

Princess
Sunday, 7 pm (ABC Family)

Enchanted delightfully satirized a Disney-style fairy tale while also delivering all the genre's conventional pleasures. You appreciate this achievement even more after watching Princess. The TV movie goes for a similar tone and bungles it every step of the way. Did someone put an evil spell on ABC Family?

A guy who lives in a contemporary city (Kip Pardue) falls for a real princess (Nora Zehetner) in a nearby castle. The movie doesn't bother making sense of this scenario. What's a woman in a Snow White getup doing in modern times? And what does she see in this charmless Prince Charming? You're supposed to give yourself over to their fairy-tale love, but the crude stab at satire makes that impossible. The references to lesbians, drugs and stalkers strain to be hip, but even Dopey would find them dopey.

Where's a poison apple when you need one?

American Experience
Monday, 8 pm (PBS)

This week's episode details the inspiring life and tragic death of baseball star Roberto Clemente. Clemente transcended every kind of hardship to become one of America's great heroes. He was born into a poor Puerto Rican family and began working in the sugar cane fields at age 8. His athletic ability brought him to the big leagues in the 1950s, when the odds were stacked against a black Latino. But Clemente fought against prejudice to become a beloved superstar, conducting himself with dignity as Puerto Rico's de facto ambassador. He threw himself into civil rights and humanitarian causes as passionately as he did into baseball.

If you skip the last 10 minutes, this program will lift your spirits for the whole day.

Nova
Tuesday, 7 pm (PBS)

Tom and Ray Magliozzi of the radio show Car Talk host a special on alternatives to gas-guzzling automobiles. They point out that our current cars and trucks are destroying the planet, accounting for 25% of carbon emissions. So they head off to Boston's AltWheels convention to look for socially responsible transportation.

The brothers find cute clown cars that run on hydrogen. They're impressed, even though they feel silly driving these puttering little toys.

To save the planet, apparently, we'll have to become the laughingstock of the universe.

The Pixar Story
Tuesday, 9 pm (Starz)

Pixar is the animation studio that pioneered the use of computers. We hear how three visionaries with bad haircuts - artist John Lasseter, businessman Steve Jobs and scientist Ed Catmull - ignored the naysayers to create influential features like Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

Lasseter saw the potential for computer animation while working for the Disney studio in the 1980s. He suggested trying something that had never been done before and was promptly fired. "John's expectations and passions exceeded what the studio was doing then," a colleague says.

Lasseter's passion is truly contagious. It makes me want to join Buzz Lightyear in saying, "To infinity and beyond!" Although in my case it would be "To the next blurb and beyond!"

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