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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fair
The Paper
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The love connection
Mansfield Park takes a twisting path to romance
Emotions rage beneath the placid surface.
Emotions rage beneath the placid surface.

Masterpiece Theatre's complete Jane Austen cycle scores again with a charming adaptation of Mansfield Park (Sunday, 8 p.m., WHA). Low-born Fanny Price (Billie Piper) is sent to live with rich relatives at their country estate. She comes to love kind, handsome Edmund (Blake Ritson) as "more than a cousin" but is too timid to let her feelings show. A happy ending seems even more unlikely when a pair of scheming siblings arrive from London, each intent on making a financially advantageous match. Suddenly, Fanny has formidable competition. Though relations among hosts and guests are painstakingly civil, glances and sighs reveal a maelstrom of emotions raging beneath every conversation's placid surface.

Many TV shows desperately want to be sexy, clogging the screen with half-naked bodies and simulated copulation. But you're unlikely to see a sexier scene than the one in which Fanny and Edmund gaze at the stars and touch one another's fingertips before shyly pulling away.

Miss America
Saturday, 7 pm (TLC)

It's been fascinating to watch the fall of Miss America. Yes, the pageant is an anachronism, presenting cheesy talent, swimsuit and evening-gown competitions with a straight face. And yes, its gender politics set women back about 50 years. But who expected Miss America to be booted off ABC for low ratings? Then booted off the lowly cable channel CMT? This year's pageant turns up in an even stranger place, TLC. In a wildly misplaced stab at relevance, it's cooked up a companion reality series that allows viewers to choose one of the contestants.

What's the next step down on the ladder? Miss America out on a street corner with a tin cup and a cardboard sign that reads "Will Smile Inanely for Food"?

Screen Actors Guild Awards
Sunday, 7 pm (TNT & TBS)

This awards ceremony allows actors to vote for their peers. As you scan the list of nominees, however, you wonder if they have the judgment to be entrusted with so solemn a responsibility. Looking at the TV-movie category, you find enough ham to feed the entire state of California: Michael Keaton in The Company, Ellen Burstyn in Mitch Albom's For One More Day, Queen Latifah in Life Support, Gena Rowlands in What If God Were the Sun?

Not that there aren't deserving nominees, too. I particularly liked Javier Bardem as a relentless killer in No Country for Old Men. Bardem's performance was so horrifying that I wouldn't be surprised if his appearance on the podium sent people screaming from the theater.

The Russell Girl
Sunday, 8 pm (CBS)

The post-writers'-strike TV schedule is starting to resemble the circus, with its overload of noisy, garish reality series. When I turn on the set lately, it feels like a hundred clowns have just tumbled into my living room.

The Russell Girl offers the opposite experience. It's a TV movie so downbeat that you'd best watch it with a crisis counselor on standby. A young woman named Sarah (Amber Tamblyn) learns she has leukemia. As the soundtrack keens with mournful ballads, she drives from the big city back to her small-town home.

You'd think the tidy gardens and white picket fences would cheer her up, but instead the plot gets even more depressing. Sarah's sitting on a deep, dark secret that makes leukemia look like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She mopes through town with her brow set eternally on "Furrow." Meanwhile, I quietly made plans for my own suicide.

Could someone please get me a clown, and fast?

In Treatment
Monday, 8:30 pm (HBO)

After The Sopranos, we all have pleasant associations with HBO and psychotherapy. In Treatment may well change that. Each half-hour episode chronicles a session between therapist Paul (Gabriel Byrne) and a patient (Blair Underwood, Embeth Davidtz, Josh Charles et al.). The dialogue between Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi crackled with dramatic tension, but In Treatment's sessions just sit there, inert.

In the pilot, Laura (Melissa George) natters on about her troubled relationship with her boyfriend. But who cares? It's like listening to someone you don't know talk about her problems. The tone is earnest and humorless, and the attempt to spice up the glorified acting exercise with a filthy tale of anonymous sex smacks of desperation.

During Laura's story, Paul crosses and uncrosses his legs, rubs his forehead and speaks so slowly that you just want to scream. He drives you so crazy that you may end up seeking therapy yourself.

Moment of Truth
Wednesday, 8 pm (Fox)

In this new game show, contestants are hooked up to a lie detector to answer 21 questions. If they answer all of them without lying, they can win a $500,000 grand prize. The catch is that the questions become increasingly uncomfortable, especially with friends and family members watching from the studio audience. Have you ever cheated on your spouse? Have you ever stolen anything from work? Do you like your mother-in-law? If the contestants fudge the answers - BZZZT! - they lose the $500,000.

I love game shows like Moment of Truth.


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