Tony Bennett's 80th birthday is the occasion for a tuneful special (Tuesday, 7 p.m., NBC), featuring celebrity duet partners, a supercharged big band and a snazzy dance troupe. What a treat to hear jazz in prime time again! Bennett isn't the best male jazz singer of all time (that would be Louis Armstrong), but he certainly knows how to swing old-school. He even gives his pop material a jazz feel, shaping phrases with an improviser's savvy. With his controlled vibrato and that pinch of sand in his throat, he demonstrates how a singer's interpretation can bring out the nuances in a lyric and a melody.
Bennett's mastery is set in relief by the celebrity guests, most of whom are lost in this idiom. In 'Because of You,' K.D. Lang puts every accent and every swell exactly where you'd expect it to be, rendering the song as pure corn. Juanes playacts 'lover' and Michael BublÃ playacts 'hipster' rather than finding any authentic feeling in their selections. Christina Aguilera belts 'Steppin' Out' as if volume plus garish embellishments equaled power. It equals zero.
Bennett's only worthy foil is Stevie Wonder, who joins him for a hair-raising version of 'For Once in My Life.' Like the best jazz singers, Wonder improvises a thrilling new melody, allowing you to consider the song's beauty afresh. His rhythmic approach makes every phrase an adventure, and yet he never lets virtuosity overpower the lyrics' meaning.
Hey NBC, how about a Stevie Wonder jazz special for December?
Friday, 9 pm (USA)
This holiday episode begins with the obsessive-compulsive detective (Tony Shalhoub) freaking out about Christmas cookies that are slightly crooked. As if that weren't enough pain for one holiday season, he also gets a call from his long-lost father (Dan Hedaya). Dad ran out when Monk was 8, and now turns up as a truck driver on a cross-country trek. Monk decides to join the old rat in his cab, hoping for a reconciliation. Instead, he gets coldness laced with contempt.
It's a poignant scenario, undercut only slightly by one's sympathy for Monk's father. Ward Cleaver himself might have been tempted to run out on Monk, who even as a child insisted on lining up the carrots on his dinner plate single-file.
Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower
Sunday, 7 pm (History Channel)
This special offers an unusually vivid portrait of the Pilgrims, everybody's favorite religious extremists. It uses archival material, interviews and dramatic reenactments to plunge viewers into the 17th century, when the group hatched their nutty plan to leave Europe for the New World.
How nutty was it? The Pilgrims didn't really flee religious persecution, as is commonly thought. They were living quite comfortably in Holland, a tolerant country that nevertheless felt too worldly for them. Couldn't they have simply avoided temptation? No, that would have been too easy. Instead, they sailed halfway across the world to take their chances in an unforgiving wilderness among hostile natives. Along the way, they suffered scurvy and starvation and died by the score. Rarely have people with such bad judgment been so revered by posterity.
Indeed, 'Desperate Crossing' reveals a side of the Pilgrims not found in most textbooks. There is strong evidence, for example, that they were deeply annoying. They ticked off fellow Europeans with their constant bickering, and they alienated Native Americans with their arrogance. They were convinced God was on their side, despite the fact that they suffered every possible misfortune. ('It pleased God to visit us then with death daily,' one of them wrote cheerfully.) The most shocking revelation, to me, was the fact that they looted the natives' graves immediately upon landing in the New World.
I now strongly feel that, along with making turkey and pumpkin pie, we should add looting graves to the Thanksgiving tradition.
Tuesday, 9 pm (WHA)
Early in life, I formed a philosophy of aging that I've courageously maintained for decades: Don't think about it. Whenever the subject turns to debilitating physical decline, I simply start singing Simon & Garfunkel's 'Feelin' Groovy' really loud. It works like a charm.
In 'Living Old,' 'Frontline' takes the opposite approach. The episode bluntly considers the consequences of our ever-longer life spans ' namely, an old age marked by prolonged dementia, frailty and chronic illness.
'Everything started to go at 82 years,' says a 96-year-old woman. 'I don't hear, I don't see. You've got to be crazy to call it a blessing to live like this. I call it a curse.'
JUST KICKIN' DOWN THE COBBLESTONES... LOOKIN' FOR FUN AND FEELIN' GROOVY!!!
Madonna: The Confessions Tour
Wednesday, 7 pm (NBC)
Live from London, Madonna performs the show that has angered the world with its image of the singer on a crucifix.
I don't understand why people still get upset by Madonna's attention-grabbing use of Christian imagery. By now, don't they realize that their outrage is just a well-planned part of her publicity campaign? Personally, I wouldn't be shocked if Madonna walked on water, raised the dead, or fed the whole audience with fives loaves of bread and two fishes. What would shock me is if her new songs were any good.