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Friday, November 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Overcast
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Laughter and tears
A backstage look at Saturday Night Live in the '90s
Ferrell (with Oteri) was 'the spirit of crazy.'
Ferrell (with Oteri) was 'the spirit of crazy.'

A clip show like Saturday Night Live in the '90s (Sunday, 8 p.m., NBC) is the cheapest way for NBC to fill a couple of prime-time hours. But for viewers, those hours couldn't be any better spent. We get to see the best bits of the '90s with none of the filler: Hans and Franz, Wayne and Garth, the Motivational Speaker, the Cheerleaders.

We also get a decade's worth of backstory. Saturday Night Live roared into the '90s with an amazing cast, including Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, Mike Myers and Phil Hartman. "We were the Yankees," Rock says smugly.

When producer Lorne Michaels added younger comics like Chris Farley, David Spade and Adam Sandler, baby boomer critics balked. "Dear SNL. It's Over. Please Die," wrote one magazine. Boomers felt like they owned the show, and here were the new guys playing to their kids. The older generation often didn't get the jokes, and according to several insiders, neither did Michaels. But to his credit, he let the youngsters have their head, resulting in some classic sketches.

Ratings tanked, however, and NBC executives demanded that Saturday Night Live clean house. Enter Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Chris Kattan and Cheri Oteri, who provided yet another shot in the arm. Insiders single out Ferrell for special praise. "He's the spirit of crazy," an SNL writer says, "but with none of the darker personal issues that usually haunt that kind of person."

Speaking of "that kind of person," the cast and crew fondly remember Chris Farley, whose excesses got the better of him in 1997. They marvel over his professional genius (castmates always considered him the funniest) as well as his personal recklessness. "For those of us who lived through John Belushi," says writer Tom Davis, "we saw it coming. We felt helpless. It was like looking at a puppy next to a highway."

A Stranger's Heart
Saturday, 8 pm (Hallmark Channel)

TV movies have become so blandly professional that it's a rare treat to see one drive right off a cliff. A Stranger's Heart tries to tell the touching story of Callie (Samantha Mathis), who's awaiting a heart transplant. But "touching" is too tall an order for these inept filmmakers. The tone is all over the place, to the point where you can't wait to see what will happen next.

First, all the patients in a hospital's cardiac wing solemnly pray together. Then a guy approaches Callie with bawdy pickup lines. Then Callie's mother appears as a ghost singing "Oh Susanna." Finally, a little girl in pigtails brings her sick uncle an "inflatable wife." "I named her Lila!" the tot lisps sweetly.

One grasps for explanations. Perhaps the filmmakers were awaiting a brain transplant?

Sunday, 9 pm (HBO)

Religion and business make an unholy combination in this week's episode. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, super-agent Ari (Jeremy Piven) is forced to cease his dealmaking and go to synagogue with his wife and daughter. To remove all temptation, his wife confiscates his cell phone.

At the place of worship, however, Ari runs into a producer who's mad to do a deal. If it's not nailed down by sunset, it's off. Luckily, Ari has thought ahead and concealed a cell phone in his sock. When his daughter discovers him conducting business outside near the synagogue's dumpster, he explains away his transgression with a bit of ancient biblical wisdom: "That's the beauty of Yom Kippur. As long as you apologize by sundown, it doesn't matter what you do!"

Tuesday, 9 pm (Discovery Channel)

The series on rogue animals stops at Africa's Kruger National Park, where refugees traveling from Mozambique to South Africa have been banging pots and pans so as not to surprise an unsuspecting lion. But the strategy has backfired, because now the lions view the banging pots as a dinner bell. Host Dave Salmoni tries to figure out a way to make the ravenous beasts fear humans again.

I suppose that's one way to solve the problem. Another comes to mind: run!

Secret Files of the Inquisition
Wednesday, 8 pm (WHA)

The Catholic Church's Inquisition was a reign of terror that stretched over 600 years. The pattern of interrogation, torture and murder is lovingly detailed in church documents, which were sealed until 1998. This four-part series uses the newly uncovered evidence to bring us shockingly close to the innocent victims - their fear, their desperation. We can practically smell the bodies burning at the stake.

The series re-creates chapters of the Inquisition based on first-person testimony from the files. Part one places us in a 14th-century European village where residents are interested in a gentle form of Christianity that slightly diverges from the Catholic Church's orthodoxy. That's enough to set the machinery in motion, and Inquisitors show up banging on doors.

The image can't help but evoke the Nazis, and indeed, the parallels are striking. The Inquisition wasn't a spontaneous outbreak of barbarity, but a systematic persecution, complete with petty bureaucrats sending whole populations to their death. Neighbors were encouraged to betray one another, and undesirables were forced to wear yellow ID patches on their clothes. The Church, like the Nazis, also enjoyed seeing their victims go up in smoke.

But Nazi rule, by contrast, lasted only 12 years. Watch and weep.

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