Anyone interested in the bizarre People's Temple story need look no further than American Experience's 'Jonestown' (Monday, 8 p.m., WHA). It outdoes previous documentaries by interviewing a wide range of former cult members and showing extensive footage of would-be Christ figure Jim Jones. And for all the ghoulish voyeurs out there (busted), it puts us right in the middle of the cult's notorious mass suicide with shocking audio and video.
Watching Jones in action, we see a paranoid megalomaniac in creepy sunglasses who was clearly leading the People's Temple toward disaster. His followers, by contrast, saw a charismatic do-gooder with progressive ideas about race and class. Many of them joined the People's Temple in an idealistic spirit, and they worked around the clock to help Jones make the world a better place. Their very lack of sleep, however, made it easier for the fearless leader to control their minds. And mind control is the only way to explain their willingness to die at his command.
That brings us to the aforementioned audio and video. In 1978, a camera crew accompanied California congressman Leo Ryan to Guyana, where he planned to investigate the cult's 'Jonestown' settlement. Cameras and tape recorders capture Ryan's murder, as well as Jones' demand that the 900-plus residents of Jonestown drink poisoned Kool-Aid. 'Hurry, my children,' he tells them. 'Let us not fall into the hands of the enemy!'
They obeyed, and even as we listen in it's hard to determine the admixture of willingness vs. coercion. Let's give the last word to one of the few survivors: 'I ain't never used the word suicide. That man was killing us.'
America's Cutest Puppies!
Saturday, 8 pm (WE)
This new reality series is an American Idol for dogs. It holds auditions in 10 cities, searching for 10 finalists to compete for the title of America's Cutest Puppy. They'll be judged on friendliness, playfulness and personality, with judges weighing in Ã la Simon Cowell.
Actually, let's hope it's not too much like Cowell. 'I was completely bored by your friskiness. The barking was ghastly, and you've failed to bring anything unique to the tail-wagging.'
Sunday, 8 pm (HBO)
The Sopranos begins its final nine episodes with an epochal feeling in the air. Up to this point, the mob drama has been one of TV's greatest series and a significant work of American art. The question on everybody's mind: Will it end (literally) with a bang?
I hope so. For conflicted Mafia boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) to take his rightful place with drama's tragic heroes, he has to be done in by his tragic flaws. King Lear, Hamlet and Othello didn't survive the fifth act; why should he?
But I've been in an agitated state ever since I read an interview with Sopranos creator David Chase, who says he'd consider bringing the cast back for a TV-movie reunion after the series concludes this spring. This suggests he'll keep Tony alive for commercial reasons, undermining the tragic conclusion that the series so richly deserves.
I never thought I'd say this about my favorite TV character, but: Murder him.
Sunday, 9 pm (HBO)
This masterpiece follows a hot young movie star named Vince (Adrian Grenier), who's negotiating Hollywood Babylon with his motley crew of homies. The new-season premiere picks at a fresh wound: Vince's split with his agent, Ari (Jeremy Piven), L.A.'s prince of darkness. Ari's motto is win-or-die, and it kills him to see Vince out and about with his classy new agent, Amanda (Carla Gugino).
When Ari learns that Amanda is pushing Vince to star in an Edith Wharton adaptation, he sees his chance to undermine her. He disdainfully 'explains' Wharton's oeuvre to Vince, trying to convince him that movies made from her books are box-office poison: 'A guy can't fuck the girl for five years because those were the times.'
That summation tells you everything you need to know about Hollywood's relationship to the literary arts.
Monday, 6 pm (ABC Family)
The hip young drama is set in a New England beach town. How can you tell it's hip and young? Well, the hero, Jason (Steve Byers), likes extreme sports, and what's more hip and young than that? And when he's told that the mayor won't pay for a fireworks display, he snarls, 'The dude is such a wally, man.' 'Wally' is youth-speak for 'idiot,' dig?
Okay, maybe Falcon Beach is trying too hard to be hip and young. Come to think of it, the second-season premiere is practically lame and old, with its gooey love stories and earnest save-the-marina subplot.
In fact, I hate to say this, but the show's producer is such a wally, man.
Thank God You're Here
Monday, 8 pm (NBC)
This improv series features four different actors each week, drawn from comedy's mid-to-lower ranks: Shannon Elizabeth, Tom Arnold, Tom Green et al.
The actors are asked to enter a live sketch with no idea what's going to happen. The only thing they can count on is a greeting from a fellow actor in the skit: 'Thank God you're here!'
In the pilot, Wayne Knight is so funny that you begin to wonder if the series is secretly scripted. But Jennifer Coolidge is so lame that you realize it most certainly isn't. After her skit, the audience is likely to mutter, 'Thank God she's gone!'