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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Harper's Island is damn scary
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The killer is dead, right? Right?
The killer is dead, right? Right?

Scary series don't usually work on broadcast TV, given the frequent interruptions by Burger King commercials. But Harper's Island (Thursday, 9 p.m., CBS) got under my skin. It's about a wedding party that boats into Harper's Island, the scene of shocking murders seven years ago. The bride (Katie Cassidy) is a millionaire's daughter from the island, the groom (Christopher Gorham) a poor boy who grew up washing her dad's boat. The groom's best friend (Elaine Cassidy) is jumpy about returning to her childhood home, since her mother was one of the murder victims. But the killer is dead, right?

Right?

Harper's Island works because it doesn't just try to scare us. The pilot takes its time with exposition, creating an absorbing soap opera that features lots of characters and subplots. We meet a group of randy bachelors and bachelorettes, the groom's psycho brother and a creepy little girl who's way too obsessed with true crime. Director Jon Turteltaub expertly manages the tonal shifts from sunny to spooky - so expertly that the horror scenes really are horrible.

The pilot's shocking conclusion had me diving for the safety of a Burger King commercial.

Thrilla in Manila
Saturday, 7 pm (HBO)

This is a candidate for the most infuriating documentary ever made. Thrilla in Manila is purportedly about the 1975 heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, but a more accurate title would have been Ali Hurt Frazier's Feelings! In the film's perverse perspective, Ali deserves censure - still, 34 years later - for the things he said about Frazier before the match. He called his opponent dumb, ugly, even an Uncle Tom.

Yes, those are fighting words, but the filmmakers forget an important point: This was a fight. For Ali, a boxing match began months beforehand as he attempted to get under a foe's skin. The humorless Frazier was an easy target - and hey, if you were set to fight an indomitable killing machine who'd beaten you in the past, wouldn't you press for every advantage?

Told from Frazier's point of view, Thrilla in Manila takes a somber, prosecutorial tone, as if it were investigating war crimes. But its thesis is undermined every time it shows pre-fight footage of Ali - those marvelous press conferences that are still funny after all these years. With a sly grin, Ali boxes a gorilla doll, recites poetry about whupping Frazier, and mugs in a display of mock vanity. Every move signaled that this was an elaborate joke: a way of boosting the rivalry and promoting the fight.

Minutes after he won, Ali apologized to Frazier for any comments that might have crossed the line, and he's been gracious to him ever since. You can't say the same for Frazier, who, in a horrifying contemporary interview, delights in Ali's current disabled state and his own part in causing it.

That's shocking, because everybody knows Ali meant no harm in the run-up to the Thrilla in Manila. Everybody except Joe Frazier. And these filmmakers.

Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People
Tuesday, 10 pm (PBS)

This four-part series looks at the Appalachian region from many angles. We get the anthropological take, the geological take, the biological take and the poetic take. We get postcard photography of slopes, peaks and hollows, accompanied by fiddle music and classical music. It's an impressive hike - though, as a native Midwesterner, I must admit that I was kind of relieved when the credits rolled and the earth was flat again.

The Unusuals
Wednesday, 9 pm (ABC)

Meet a wacky bunch of New York City cops who chase cat killers and criminals in hot dog costumes. They can also be serious, as when a fellow cop's bullet-ridden body turns up in a park.

The Unusuals is filled with allusions to the Robert Altman movie M*A*S*H, as if it were the TV reincarnation of that eccentric masterpiece. Sadly, it's more like M*U*S*H. If you want to combine the silly and the serious, throwing in sex and social commentary for good measure, you'd better have the genius of an Altman if you want to make it all work. But this production just throws stuff at the wall in a strenuous attempt to attract an audience. A gorgeous detective (Amber Tamblyn) dresses up as a hooker for viewers interested in T&A. Her partner provides the rugged leading-man looks. A suicidal cop (Adam Goldberg) and his overly cautious partner (Harold Perrineau) handle the farcical elements.

The Unusuals? The Desperates is more like it.

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