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Latin Music USA traces a remarkable progression

A dry history lesson simply would not do.
A dry history lesson simply would not do.
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After all the dreadful series that have premiered in the last month, it's downright therapeutic to watch Latin Music USA (Monday, 9 p.m., PBS). Here, finally, is a well-made production, full of humor and drama. I was beginning to think the broadcast networks had forgotten how to entertain us.

The ambitious documentary shows how Latin music crossed into our borders; how it mutated into Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo, cha-cha-cha, salsa and Chicano rock; and how it affected the American experience of the past eight decades. Given the subject matter, a dry history lesson simply would not do. Instead, the documentary reflects the elegance and excitement of Latin music in video clips, photographs and interviews. The filmmaking cha-cha-chas in perfect time with its soundtrack.

Episode one begins in the 1930s, when Cuban musicians discovered the vibrant Harlem jazz scene. Cuban players like Machito and Mario Bauza were turned on by jazz, and jazz players like Dizzy Gillespie were turned on by Latin sounds. The resulting hybrid delighted the large Puerto Rican population in Spanish Harlem and eventually crept south to midtown Manhattan, where it was discovered by everybody else. Interviewees describe the thrilling 1950s Latin music scene at the Palladium Ballroom, in which segregated cultures flouted convention by dancing together. "It was the beginning of true integration in New York City," says one commentator.

It's impossible to sit still while watching Latin Music USA, and that makes life difficult for a TV reviewer. Have you ever tried to take notes while dancing the mambo?

Extreme Makeover Home Edition
Sunday, 6 pm (ABC)

This week's episode helps out Connecticut's insanely deserving Hill family, who've devoted their lives to helping others. Mom and Dad took in seven nieces and nephews who'd been living in a homeless shelter, bringing the number of kids in their tiny, crumbling home to 11. Their own children cheerfully accepted the new family members, even though it meant sleeping on the floor and the couches to make room for them. One girl is glad to donate a kidney to an ailing cousin.

It's a good thing the Home Makeover team demolished the Hills' rat's-nest house and built them a mini-mansion, because I was about to drive to Connecticut to do it myself. When the humble family return to see their new home, Dad falls to his knees and weeps. "I lost all feeling in my legs," he says gratefully.

For viewers, this edition of Extreme Makeover will require Extreme Kleenex.

Three Rivers
Sunday, 8 pm (CBS)

This medical drama is so ridiculous that the actors deserve credit for keeping a straight face. Viewers, by contrast, will guffaw as transplant doctors operate while facing all manner of trumped-up obstacles: hurricanes, lightning, sudden darkness, staff desertions, etc. These overwrought scenes alternate with unearned emotional moments, as the doctors make pretty speeches to patients, organ donors and each other. Poignant piano music plays each time they begin to speak.

Doctor to a mother reluctant to donate her dead daughter's heart:

"Ninety percent of the people who say no are haunted by that decision."

I don't think any of us will be haunted by the decision to say no to Three Rivers.

The Girls Next Door
Sunday, 9 pm (E!)

The reality series about Hugh Hefner's octogenarian love life features three new Playmate girlfriends. But don't worry about a break in continuity. The girlfriends from the past five seasons were interchangeable young blonde airhead exhibitionists with the same artificially curvy bodies. So are the new girlfriends, meaning that viewers won't even notice the difference, just as Hefner himself probably doesn't.

Since Hefner will obviously never die (or perhaps he already has, and was replaced by an animatronic double), we can look forward to uninterrupted editions of The Girls Next Door for the next few hundred years.

The Forgotten
Tuesday, 9 pm (ABC)

Cop shows don't get any more generic than this. An ex-police officer (Christian Slater) with the standard Troubled Past leads a group of volunteers in chasing down the backgrounds of unidentified corpses. They uncover clues, question suspects and review surveillance tapes, with the plot twists and chase scenes arriving on cue. The leads are barely characterized, and the mysteries are neatly wrapped up in 60 minutes, the killers emerging as expected from the pool of bit players.

By the time The Forgotten grinds through a month or two of these investigations, I suspect it too will be among The Forgotten.

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