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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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'Watching someone feel'
TCM explores the mystery of Marlon Brando
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A great actor who disliked acting.
A great actor who disliked acting.

So here I am, jaded pop-culture writer ready to comment on the next piece of product from the Hollywood assembly line. I begin watching Brando (Tuesday & Wednesday, 7 p.m., TCM), and suddenly my hard shell melts away. Even snippets of Marlon Brando's performances rub my nerves raw. He's the rare actor who shows what it really means to be human.

At the core of Brando's art is a mystery. How does he do it? And what, indeed, is he even doing? This wonderful documentary throws everything it has into answering those questions. Fellow actors weigh in, discussing their hero in reverent terms.

"You were watching someone feel," says Johnny Depp. "So what became infinitely more important was what was going on underneath the words when you watched Marlon Brando."

"He touched those things in us," says Al Pacino. "Those private places."

The documentary probes some of Brando's own private places. The actor's strangeness onscreen matched the strangeness in his life. Colleagues struggled to understand a central paradox: Here was a great actor who seemed to dislike acting, resulting in a maddeningly erratic career.

A childhood friend offers the revelation that Brando got his start as an actor trying to rouse his drunken mother. At age 7, he learned that he could make her laugh by imitating animals and neighbors. As his friend says, "That's why he basically hated acting."

The Tudors
Sunday, 9 pm (Showtime)

Showtime has been searching for a series to rival HBO's Sopranos, and I think they've finally got it. The Tudors, set during the early part of Henry VIII's reign, is just as rich in cruelty and pathos. It weaves tangled alliances and revels in sin and guilt. And it has a brilliant performance at its core: Jonathan Rhys Myers as the dangerously narcissistic Henry.

Plus, it's got all that royal weirdness to draw on. The Sopranos could never deliver a kiss-off line like this: "If it weren't for you I'd still be the queen of Portugal!"

In this week's episode, Henry's got quite a to-do list. He seeks a divorce from the queen, disses the pope, screams at diplomats and threatens his sister's husband with beheading. And he still finds time for pornographic sex with his mistress, Anne Boleyn. (Anne doesn't even need to change into special fetish wear - the tight corsets and silk stockings are part of her normal wardrobe.)

"Give yourself up to me body and soul," Henry tells her. "I promise I won't have a thought or affection for anyone else."

Anne weighs this request thoughtfully, because she has a good head on her shoulders.

For now.

It's Me or the Dog
Monday, 7:30 pm (Animal Planet)

This series focuses on dog problems in jolly old England. The country's canine population is apparently out of control, with dogs feeling free to bark, bite and steal at will. Enter dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, who applies a firm hand and sensible training practices. Within days, she has the dogs sipping Earl Grey tea with their pinkies extended.

American Masters
Wednesday, 8 pm (WHA)

"Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built" tells one of the key stories of American music. The late Ahmet Ertegun was the son of a Turkish diplomat who adored African American music. "I was transported," he says of his first exposure to jazz. Rather than follow his father into government service, Ertegun dared to start an independent record company called Atlantic in 1947.

Ertegun didn't have many resources, but he did have an ear. And what an ear! He began by finding singers (Ray Charles, the Drifters, Big Joe Turner) who produced some of the best R&B of the 1940s and '50s. They paved the way for rock 'n' roll, and Ertegun was a pioneer in that genre as well. In the 1960s and '70s he gave us Cream, Led Zeppelin and Crosby Stills Nash & Young. And did I mention his later R&B discoveries, including Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin?

Unlike other label presidents, Ertegun didn't seclude himself in an office to pore over balance sheets. He was either scoping out music clubs or working with his acts in the recording studio. And wherever he happened to be, he made sure everybody had fun. "We would get in there and laugh," Aretha says of Ertegun in the studio. "I just remember we had a romping, stomping good time."

This documentary is not a dry history lesson. You will be transported (as Ertegun would say) by clips of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "What'd I Say" and "Respect." Like everyone associated with Ahmet Ertegun, you will have a romping, stomping good time.

Shear Genius
Wednesday, 10 pm (Bravo)

I'm a huge fan of Bravo's reality competitions for craftspeople: fashion designers on Project Runway, interior designers on Top Design, cooks on Top Chef. But the salon-centric Shear Genius is the genre's reductio ad absurdum. Bravo opts for the same deeply serious tone, and it just doesn't fit hairdressing. Yes, stylists are artists of a sort, but there's not all that much on the line with a haircut. If it doesn't look good, you comb it out or let it grow back. The series should be frivolous and fun, not portentous.

Part of the pleasure in Project Runway et al. is learning about the disciples via the judges' critiques. But apparently there's not much to say about a haircut. Sample commentary:

"It was just, like, modern."

"There was a lot going on in back."

"There wasn't a hair out of place."

These insights don't shed much light on what looks, to the naked eye, like extravagant rats' nests. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if rats enjoy this series more than people do.

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