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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Overcast
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Died and gone to Riverworld
A SyFy movie gives the afterlife a bad name
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The actors seem to think they're in a serious work of art.
The actors seem to think they're in a serious work of art.

The ambitious Riverworld (Sunday, 6 p.m., SyFy) almost achieves so-bad-it's-good status. The four-hour TV movie has many of the hallmarks: a preposterous script that earnestly reaches for profundity; awful actors who seem to think they've been cast in a serious work of art; and a general misplaced sense of gravitas. But Riverworld falls just short of unintentionally hilarious, and that's a sad place to be.

A heroic TV reporter (Tahmoh Penikett) and his friends are killed by a suicide bomber, landing in a mopey green-screen purgatory called Riverworld. They encounter people from across time, including Spanish conquistadors and medieval Japanese babes, all speaking the universal language: heavily accented English. The TV reporter is plagued by supernatural beings in not-quite-sinister-enough blue face paint, along with a British archenemy named Richard Burton. (Sadly, Elizabeth Taylor never materializes.)

The characters spend much of their time pondering their status on the live-to-dead spectrum.

"If you feel pain," says the medieval babe, "then you are alive."

After watching four hours of Riverworld, I knew for certain that I was alive.

Patricia Cornwell's The Front
Saturday, 8 pm (Lifetime)

I sat down to watch Patricia Cornwell's The Front with my wife, and we both got sucked into the mystery's twisty-turny plot. A Boston district attorney (Andie MacDowell) seeks publicity by reopening an old murder case that possibly involves the Boston Strangler. She taps a hunky state investigator (Daniel Sunjata) and a pretty detective (Ashley Williams), who discover a sinister mime, an even more sinister Harvard student and an intense love-hate attraction to each other.

The filmmaking is more stylish than you'd expect in a Lifetime TV movie, and the story keeps you guessing. Bad characters turn good, good characters turn bad, and after about an hour I didn't trust anybody. Including my wife.

Academy of Country Music Awards
Sunday, 7 pm (CBS)

For the past couple years, Taylor Swift has cleaned up at the MTV Video Music Awards, the Grammys, the American Music Awards, the CMT Music Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, etc. Every time she wins, she stumbles to the microphone as if she absolutely can't believe this is happening to her, a normal teenage girl! Cue trembling lip, quivering voice and humble acceptance speech.

Okay, Taylor, the jig is up. By now we all know you're not a normal teenage girl, but an impressive artist who must suspect that her name could be called from the podium. If Swift does her disbelieving shtick when she wins multiple honors at this week's Academy of Country Music Awards, she'll qualify for an acting trophy as well as a musical one.

Beauty and the Briefcase
Sunday, 7 pm (ABC Family)

A Cosmo editor (Jaime Pressly) assigns a would-be magazine writer (Hilary Duff) to go undercover in the business world. The goal: to see if she can find the perfect man in a corporate setting, based on her personal checklist of desirable qualities. These include "Sexy Accent" and "Travels to Exotic Locations on a Whim."

I have my own checklist of desirable qualities for ABC Family movies, and I won't watch them in their entirety unless they contain at least one such quality. These include "Halfway Decent Dialogue," "Not Very Irritating Characters" and "Cute Outfits."

Beauty and the Briefcase does contain "Cute Outfits," so I had to finish watching it. Dammit!

Baggage
Monday, 5:30 pm (GSN)

Jerry Springer hosts this dating series, in which three contestants confess their faults to a prospective date. They come onstage carrying suitcases to represent the "baggage" they'll discuss.

GSN insists that the show is "family friendly" - and maybe it will be, at first. But Springer is known to be a corrupting influence, and I'm sure that within a few episodes the contestants will be stripping, bathing in Jell-O and smashing each other with the suitcases.

American Experience
Monday, 8 pm (PBS)

"Earth Days" explores the origins of the environmental movement, focusing on nine Americans who helped get it started. The film features interviews with renewable energy pioneer Hunter Lovins, biologist Paul Ehrlich, former congressman Pete McCloskey and others, along with archival footage showing how our post-World War II faith in progress got us into this mess.

A geneticist explains that humans evolved to think about their survival in the present moment - for example, as they fought off woolly mammoths. We're ill-equipped to consider the future, and that makes it hard for us to see why it's important to stop poisoning the planet for subsequent generations.

The message I take away from Earth Days: Stop obsessing on woolly mammoths.

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