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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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American Idol survives its cast changes
The new panel works.
The new panel works.

Before the new season began, I despaired over cast changes to American Idol (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox). Paul Abdul left, and Simon Cowell announced he would leave after this year. The chemistry among the judges is at least half the fun on this beloved singing competition, and I thought significant departures would spell disaster.

I don't think that anymore. With the exception of the gum-chomping airhead Avril Lavigne, the guest judges worked well during the audition phase. Victoria Beckham shone in the supportive Paula role, as did Neil Patrick Harris and Katy Perry as sharp-tongued Simon types. When permanent Paula replacement Ellen DeGeneres showed up during Hollywood Week, she added her own brand of wit and charm.

No matter what cast changes occur down the road, I now believe the American Idol franchise will be just fine. At this point, the only thing that could bring it down is Avril Lavigne and a pack of gum.

The Ricky Gervais Show
Friday, 8 pm (HBO)

Here's an odd concept: an animated podcast. The Ricky Gervais Show repurposes audio that appeared on The Guardian's website, featuring three-way conversations among Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. The podcasts made the Guinness Book of World Records for most downloads, and you can see why. The patter is fast and furious as the witty Gervais and Merchant mock Pilkington's eccentric ideas about iPods, travel and other subjects.

But what worked as a podcast doesn't work as TV. The animation morphs constantly in an attempt to keep up with the conversation, and the effect is disorienting. When Gervais fleetingly compares Pilkington to a caveman thawed out of a glacier, a corresponding image appears on screen. Merchant responds by comparing himself and Gervais to high school kids who might try to pass off caveman-Pilkington as someone from the modern day. Sure enough, we get a quick image of the caveman plopped onto a skateboard with a sideways baseball cap. Every passing comment warrants a similar treatment, and the visual rhythms feel all wrong.

This is a strange thing to say about a TV series, but I wish The Ricky Gervais Show dispensed with images altogether. Hmmm - that kind of sounds like a podcast, doesn't it?

Saturday, 8 pm (BBC America)

The BBC remakes its classic '70s drama about a group of people who've survived a devastating virus. 99% of the world has died, leaving the rest to forage for food at deserted grocery stores and form troubled alliances.

If Survivors were an American production, the emphasis would be on apocalyptic sets, a doomy ambiance and grotesque corpses. But the BBC hasn't wasted money on any of that. The characters simply walk around in normal-looking streets and stores to create a very low-tech version of a depopulated world. The emphasis here is on good acting, and you'd be surprised at how effective it is all by itself. Maybe there's a lesson in that, American TV networks.

Sins of the Mother
Sunday, 7 pm (Lifetime Movie Network)

Shay (Nicole Beharie) returns home from college to fight with her reformed alcoholic mother (Jill Scott). A lot. "Why are you here?" the mother asks after a few days of Shay's unabated hostility. The viewer can easily answer that question after about 20 minutes: Shay is there to learn to accept her mother and to move on with her life.

That's gonna require some time, though. And frankly, 20 minutes is all I could take of this clichéd TV movie.

Monday, 10:15 am & 11:30 pm (HBO)

Reporter is a documentary that lionizes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. I've often dreamed of having such a documentary made about me (working title: TV Blurb Writer), but I don't have the luxury of flying around the world to find juicy material for my columns.

Okay, it's actually not much of a luxury for Kristof. As we see, he plunges into strife-ridden areas and dodges suicide bombings to get the lowdown on humanitarian crises. He became an international hero for focusing attention on Darfur "one of the great journalistic achievements of our time," a commentator says. Mia Farrow testifies that Kristof's reporting spurred her to action, along with completely blowing her mind. "His columns tore me apart and rearranged me," she says.

Wait till she sees TV Blurb Writer.

Wild Recon
Tuesday, 8 pm (Animal Planet)

The late Steve ("The Crocodile Hunter") Irwin is a sad example of what can happen to Animal Planet hosts who showboat with deadly animals. And Donald Schultz has apparently learned nothing from Irwin's death-by-stingray. In this new show, he gets way too close to sharks, lions, crocodiles and poisonous snakes. His official purpose is to collect biological samples for research; his unofficial purpose is to look like a bad-ass on cable TV.

In one horrifying sequence, Schultz grabs a ferocious monitor lizard by the tail as it desperately tries to bite or scratch him to death. Schultz tells the camera, "The best way to get venom from these guys is to make them really, really upset!"

That's the best way?

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