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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Overcast
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Anna Nicole shows surprising compassion for scandalous model Anna Nicole Smith
Sex, drugs and sympathy
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Bruckner gives a physical performance worthy of Robert De Niro.
Bruckner gives a physical performance worthy of Robert De Niro.

The TV movie Anna Nicole (Saturday, 7 p.m., Lifetime) imputes a soul to the late Anna Nicole Smith, the model and gold digger who flaunted her self-destruction in the media. Anyone who remembers the barely sentient Anna Nicole will have a hard time buying that proposition. And yet the movie works hard for our sympathy and finally wins it. This negligible pop-culture personality has lucked into a dream team dedicated to telling her story, including director Mary Harron (American Psycho), Martin Landau as her elderly sugar daddy, Virginia Madsen as her unloving mother, and Adam Goldberg as her handler throughout a years-long career meltdown.

Finally, there's Agnes Bruckner as Smith herself, the small-town girl with big dreams and even bigger breasts. (Her breast implants, purchased on the eve of her Playboy breakthrough, warrant their own entrance.) Bruckner gives a physical performance worthy of Robert De Niro, taking Anna Nicole from thin to fat, healthy to haggard. She locates the starlet's humanity, such as it was, in her love for her son. She also hints at a rationale for her behavior, which seemed completely irrational during her lifetime.

In short, Bruckner is more appealing in the role of Anna Nicole Smith than Anna Nicole ever was.

Owen Benjamin: High Five Til It Hurts
Friday, 11 pm (Comedy Central)

Owen Benjamin offers a pleasant hour of standup comedy, free from nastiness. He tells gently absurd stories about standard subjects like male-female relations, dogs and airport security. His act brims with perceptive observations, like this one about messaging people on Facebook: "You can say anything, and if you end it with 'ha ha,' no one gets mad at you."

Owen, you've got a great future in comedy. The only thing I'd suggest is working to make your topics a bit more distinctive, ha ha.

Ray Donovan
Sunday, 9 pm (Showtime)

Showtime's dramatic series has gotten a lot of buzz, given the movie-star cast (Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Elliott Gould) and the dark-side-of-Hollywood setting. But the bummer of a pilot will probably dampen everybody's enthusiasm. Ray Donovan (Schreiber) is a fixer for the rich and famous, solving their problems with threats, beat-downs and ruthless manipulation of the tabloid press. Speaking in a rumbling monotone, Schreiber maintains a gloomy expression as he trudges from murders to stalkings to overdoses. Voight is his rotten father, Gould his rotten mentor. Nope, these guys aren't a lot of laughs.

Ray Donovan wants to be profoundly creepy, like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. But it misses "profound," offering little more than Hollywood caricatures. That leaves us only with "creepy." Do viewers really need their noses rubbed in more sick sexual encounters and bloody corpses? By the end of the first hour, my expression was as gloomy as Ray's.

Battleground Afghanistan
Monday, 8 pm (National Geographic Channel)

This program gains incredible access to a company of U.S. Marines fighting the tail end of the war in Afghanistan. The camera crew puts us right in the middle of battle, as the brave Marines meet Taliban fighters on their own turf. We follow with them through an opium field, desperately searching for cover after snipers open fire. We follow them into a night battle, with the sounds of machine guns and rockets rattling in our ears.

The Marines must come to terms with the fact that they can die at any moment. "Put it in your head that you're already dead," says Sgt. Bryan Barrow. "That will take away the fear."

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that these already-dead men don't die.

Gideon's Army
Monday, 8 pm (HBO)

HBO's affecting documentary follows three young public defenders in the South. How committed are they to the principle that accused criminals have a right to counsel? The idealistic Travis Williams hangs up notices of all his acquittals on his office wall. As for the cases he loses, those he has tattooed to his back. "On a given case," he says, "if I don't do all I can do, someone is going to become a convicted felon."

It's the first time I've ever taken such a passionate interest in a lawyer's back.

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