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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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You Don't Know Jack humanizes Dr. Kevorkian
This is a job for Al Pacino.
This is a job for Al Pacino.

You Don't Know Jack (Saturday, 8 p.m., HBO) tells the story of Jack Kevorkian, the retired pathologist who became known as Dr. Death for his involvement in assisted suicide during the 1990s. Kevorkian is one of the most extraordinary American men in recent history, and only the most extraordinary American actor could bring him alive onscreen. In other words, this is a job for Al Pacino.

Most actors would turn Kevorkian into a cartoon indeed, even Kevorkian was capable of turning himself into one. But Pacino delivers a fully formed human being. On the one hand, he's a rumpled regular guy with big glasses and powder-blue sweaters whom you'd never suspect of making a mark on history. On the other hand, he has a messianic streak worthy of Gandhi, and he's eager to be martyred for a cause be believes in: a patient's right to request "a humane, quick and painless demise." Director Barry Levinson is sympathetic, but he doesn't gloss over the uncomfortable elements of Kevorkian's crusade, including his sometimes shabby methods.

Pacino has a brilliant cast to play off: Brenda Vaccaro as Kevorkian's dowdy sister, Susan Sarandon as a right-to-die activist, and John Goodman as a jokey partner in crime. The movie's title notwithstanding, You Will Know Jack by the end of this exceptional production.

When Love Is Not Enough
Sunday, 8 pm (CBS)

Winona Ryder is terrible in period dramas (see The Age of Innocence, The Crucible, etc.), but she keeps getting cast in them. The latest is When Love Is Not Enough, set in the 1920s. I admit that Ryder looks lovely in her flapper hats, but her stilted line readings make it hard to accept her in the role of Al-Anon founder Lois Wilson. Lois and husband Bill (Barry Pepper) marry after World War I, confident that love will be enough. But the movie's title should have been a tip-off. Bill becomes an alcoholic, and we spend a lot of time watching him spiral into the dreary depths.

There's not much to keep us entertained here, and after about an hour you're grateful that at least Ryder looks lovely in her flapper hats.

Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking
Sunday, 8 pm (Discovery Channel)

This fascinating new series comes straight from the imagination of disabled physicist Stephen Hawking. We see Hawking paralyzed in his wheelchair and hear snatches of the computer voice with which he communicates. Then a British narrator takes over, speaking Hawking's words while thrilling graphics illustrate them. Suddenly, the series is no longer wheelchair-bound, but able to travel the universe along with Hawking's free-ranging mind. It's a stunning effect.

In the first episode, Hawking considers the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. The odds are good, he says, and he envisions how aliens might look given the laws of evolution. Advanced life forms in similar conditions are likely to have eyes and legs like ours. They probably evolved from species used to exploiting whatever they can to survive, so it's not out of the question that they'd troll the universe to steal resources by force, if necessary from fertile places like Earth.

I'd highly recommend watching episode two, along with getting hold of a ray gun in case of alien attack.

American Experience
Monday, 8 pm (PBS)

"My Lai" makes the tragic events of 40 years ago feel like they happened yesterday. Via interviews and archival images, we wade through the Vietnamese rice paddies with U.S. Charlie Company, which becomes unhinged after losing soldiers to Vietcong snipers and booby traps. Desperate commanders have told them to "shoot anything that moves," and that's exactly what they do in the village of My Lai, killing over 500 unarmed men, women and children.

It all makes sense to them in the crazy context of the Vietnam War (they know from experience that anyone could secretly be a Vietcong sympathizer), but another U.S. soldier who views the killing from a helicopter is horrified. He blows the whistle; the Army covers up the incident; the media get hold of the story; and U.S. citizens split bitterly over how to handle Lt. William Calley and the other perpetrators. Should they be punished, given the situation they found themselves in?

Essentially, they weren't punished, and interviewees anguish over a wound that has never healed. The guilt-ridden soldiers explain how regular humans like themselves could turn inhuman, while the stories of Vietnamese survivors make sympathy for our side practically impossible.

A soldier who "did what he was ordered to do" gets the last word. His statement will warrant discussion.

"I have no shame. The shame rests with the politicians and the military. It's a national shame."

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