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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A brilliant new Great Expectations puts an orphan through his paces
Boy's life
Pip plunges into the muck.
Pip plunges into the muck.

Masterpiece's "Great Expectations" (Sunday, 8 p.m., PBS) is the best adaptation I've seen of Charles Dickens' novel, surpassing David Lean's overrated 1946 version. You know you're in good hands from the first scene, as young orphan Pip (Douglas Booth) encounters an escaped convict (Ray Winstone) on the marshes near his house. The scene plunges us into the muck - not only physical muck, with all that mud and blood, but also psychological muck. The incident plays like a nightmare from a boy's subconscious, bubbling out of fear and guilt.

The miniseries has a lot of ground to cover in only two nights, as Pip learns lessons in love from the deranged Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson), falls under the spell of the haughty Estella (Vanessa Kirby) and gets too big for his britches after a mysterious patron grants him "great expectations" of wealth. The filmmakers skillfully condense the novel, sometimes encapsulating complicated relationships in a mere exchange of glances.

The actors know they've got the opportunity of a lifetime with Dickens' juicy characters, and they make the most of it. As Miss Havisham, Anderson (The X-Files) holds her own with the brilliant British cast, finding a sympathetic side in a woman who could have easily registered as a cartoon (see the 1946 version).

I can't think of anyplace I'd rather be than the psychological muck of this "Great Expectations."

Fairly Legal
Friday, 8 pm (USA)

Fairly Legal is a lawyer series about mediator Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), who weighs both sides of an issue while trying to figure out the truth. When it premiered last year, the series struck me as demeaning to women. Kate seemed less like a professional than an old-fashioned ditz and sex object. Checking in again, though, I'm inclined to be more lenient.

In this week's episode, Kate presides over an insurance dispute between a fishing boat captain and an injured deckhand. She's still a ditz and a sex object, with Shahi hamming it up. On the other hand, the actress' charm is hard to deny. She's a lively Sandra Bullock look-alike who plays the material for laughs, but also shows flashes of righteous anger or empathy when need be.

So is Fairly Legal demeaning or delightful? Weighing both sides of the issue, I rule for the latter.

Seattle Superstorm
Saturday, 8 pm (Syfy)

I recently rediscovered 1955's Tarantula, my favorite late-night creature feature as a child. I was stunned to find that what I'd considered high-quality cinema was in fact a slow-moving snore in which stiff actors traded hilariously terrible lines while waiting for the massive tarantula to crush a few screaming extras.

Syfy has improved on the old creature features with its irresistible Saturday night movies. In Seattle Superstorm, stiff actors trade hilariously bad lines while waiting for the massive weather event to crush a few screaming extras. I guess that sounds similar to Tarantula, but Superstorm feels more like a bad-movie tribute than simply a bad movie. A tough military mom with luscious blond hair (Ona Grauer) and a humorless scientist dad with a square jaw (Esai Morales) spring into action when a freakish storm wreaks havoc on Seattle. Yes, a misguided bureaucrat tries to minimize the catastrophe for PR purposes, even as the Space Needle topples. And yes, the violin section practically busts a blood vessel sawing through the turgid score.

"Let's err on the side of caution until we get this thing figured out!" the military mom urges.

Luckily for us, this unhinged movie doesn't know the meaning of the word "caution."

The Killing
Sunday, 7 pm (AMC)

When it premiered last year, this series impressed audiences with its somber day-by-day investigation of a girl's murder. True, people complained about the season finale, which left the mystery unsolved, but I think all will be forgiven after the season-two opener. The episode is rich with twists and dramatic tension - and beyond that, it's just a pleasure to get reacquainted with Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), the haunted Seattle detective risking health and happiness to figure out whodunit.

Sarah apologizes to her young son for turning their lives upside-down while she pursues the case: "Everything's going back to normal, how it used to be."

I don't think he believes her, and neither should you.

American Masters
Monday, 8 & 9 pm (PBS)

Tonight, American Masters presents a compare-and-contrast worthy of an honors English paper. It offers new, back-to-back profiles of Margaret Mitchell (8 pm) and Harper Lee (9 pm), both white Southern women writers who published only one book apiece - beloved books that won Pulitzer Prizes and became Oscar-winning movies. Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird also both deal prominently with race, and that's where the "contrast" part comes in.

Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind in the 1930s, presenting hateful caricatures of slaves and romanticized portraits of slave owners. As a Southerner who'd refused to attend class with an African American student at college, Mitchell couldn't even understand what critics meant when they called her novel racist.

Lee, on the other hand, showed Southern racism for what it was in 1960's To Kill a Mockingbird. Commentators give her credit for calling out injustice before the civil rights movement really got rolling.

The separate portraits don't explicitly relate Mitchell to Lee, but the juxtaposition makes a powerful statement about the evolution of Southern writers over the course of a generation. If this were honors English, American Masters would get an A.

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