Bravo's Real Housewives series has focused on rich middle-aged women in Orange County, Atlanta and New York City - the kind whose souls can be measured in carats. But The Real Housewives of New Jersey (Tuesday, 10 p.m.) sets new standards for big hair, big nails and big breasts. The Joisey girls are a much more ferocious breed of social climber, verging on dangerous. Caroline, who lives in a castle as big as Tony Soprano's, is explicitly threatening: "You mess with my family, you're messing with me."
One could find things to dislike about The Real Housewives of New Jersey. If you're a fan of quiet good taste, you've come to the wrong place, even though the women seem to believe that their money has bought them class. Danielle, who finds her dates on WealthyMen.com, boasts of having had a Black American Express card even before Madonna got hers. "Jacquelyn has a heart as big as her boobies," says Dina, offering her highest compliment. After congratulating herself for "not being fake," Teresa expresses a desire for breast implants, blissfully unaware of any contradiction. "But my husband is more of an ass guy," she concludes before heading off to furnish her mansion in what she believes to be a sophisticated French chateau style.
Some might consider such crass behavior grounds for a negative review of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. But it's quite possible that the fearsome Caroline would see a negative review as "messing with her family." In which case I say: thumbs up!
Sunday, 8 pm (PBS)
I'm a diehard Kenneth Branagh fan, but even his immense talent can't save "Wallander." This miniseries is based on Henning Mankell's books about Swedish detective Kurt Wallander - and have you already perceived Flaw #1? That's right, Branagh is a Brit playing a Swede. Flaw #2: all the actors are Brits playing Swedes, and they speak with normal British accents. Still, the production makes a halfhearted attempt to convince us we're in "Sweden," including references to Bjorn Borg and skinny-dipping in mountain streams.
Maybe we wouldn't care about the British/Swedish weirdness if the drama held our attention. But it's standard TV-mystery stuff about murders and suicides that don't seem connected but probably are. Indeed, everything here is standard TV-mystery stuff: the earnest tone, the trying-to-be tense score, the detective's complicated-family subplot. The only way I'd tune in for Part 2 is if the production stopped talking about Swedish skinny-dipping and actually showed some onscreen.
China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
Thursday, 7 pm; Tuesday, 6:45 & 10 pm (HBO)
Last year, an earthquake in China's Sichuan Province killed a staggering 70,000 people, including 10,000 children. This affecting documentary reveals that many of those children would have survived had their schools been normally constructed. Instead, the builders and government officials cut corners, pocketed the cash and left thousands of parents bereft. The images in China's Unnatural Disaster might convince even Rush Limbaugh that government regulation has its benefits.
The documentary offers a fascinating glimpse at life in a faraway land, where even grief takes a different form from ours. "We brought paper money and incense to burn," says one mother at the scene of her child's death. "As parents, we didn't know what else to do."
Parks and Recreation
Thursday, 7:30 pm (NBC)
I adore Amy Poehler, and I hope her new sitcom finds its voice. But it hasn't happened yet. With Parks and Recreation, the former Saturday Night Live star apes The Office, sans humor. She plays Leslie Knope, the self-important deputy director of a provincial town's parks department. Like Steve Carell on The Office, Leslie is dimwitted and ineffectual and doesn't realize it. Someone that unlovable is a hard sell as a sitcom protagonist, and Parks and Recreation has yet to solve the problem the way The Office has.
In the meantime, the producers (who are also associated with The Office) slavishly imitate the formula: the plots focusing on excruciating failure, the wacky-creepy coworkers, the mockumentary style with handheld camera. It's hard to put up with a shaky camera when the series itself is so shaky.