This week Showtime, by chance, will be airing a pair of very different programs. But each of them has "American" in its title " and each is well worth your considering.
Sunday at 10 p.m., "This American Life," the sublime human-interest magazine, returns for its second season.
Then Saturday at 9 p.m., "An American Crime" stars Ellen Page in the dramatization of a tragedy that will still shock you 40 years after it happened.
You might think of them as "American" bookends for the week ahead.
"This American Life," of course, is TV's version of the long-running weekly public radio series that tells real-life stories about ordinary people who turn out to be unique in unexpected ways. As with the radio version, it's hosted by Ira Glass.
Each episode has a theme. The premiere deals with people who find escape without going too far. In the inner city of Philadelphia, young men have gained pride and brotherhood by adopting a bit of cowboy culture " they ride horses.
Then a 27-year-old Tampa man with a severely crippling disease finds ways to break free of his doting mother.
"I started feeling like a typical disability cliche," he explains, "and it bothered me."
Adapted from real life, "An American Crime," takes an unflinching look at a gruesome exercise of human cruelty and complicity.
The setting is Indianapolis of 1965, where 16-year-old Sylvia Likens and her youngster sister Jennie are left by their parents in the temporary custody of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother of five who's coming unwound.
As Gertrude inflicts her punishment on Sylvia in escalating ways, the film is terribly disturbing to watch. Its saving grace: the performance by Catherine Keener as a pathetic monster, and, even more remarkable, Ellen Page ("Juno") in the role of the preyed-upon teen.
Drawing from transcripts of the murder trial (Bradley Whitford plays the prosecutor), "An American Crime" examines the big questions arising from this case: How could anyone have done what this woman did? And why didn't anybody come to Sylvia's rescue in the weeks her torture and imprisonment raged on?
This film shows, and makes you feel, how painfully elusive the answers are.
Other shows to look out for:
- Share some magic spells with Dave! "The Late Show with David Letterman" will be featuring magicians every night this week. Starting things off will be Lance Burton on Monday. Comic magician Mac King performs on Tuesday, while illusionist Dirk Arthur appears Wednesday. Steve Wyrick presents his larger-than-life illusions on Thursday. Then magician superstars Penn & Teller finish the week in their irreverent, masterful style. "Late Show" airs weeknights 11:35 p.m. on CBS.
- He was shot to death the day before his 45th birthday on April 1, 1984 " by his own father. Everyone remembers the death of Marvin Gaye. And everyone remembers the music he made. But the life he lived isn't nearly as familiar. A new "American Masters" portrait, "Marvin Gaye: What's Going On," aims to fill in the gaps. Gaye's early hits included "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," as well as romantic duets with Tammi Terrell, who died from a brain tumor in 1970 after collapsing in his arms on stage during a concert. This tragedy drove him to write and record his seminal album "What's Going On" (1971). A decade later, "Sexual Healing" was his final hit. Along the way, he battled depression and substance abuse. Adding to his burden was the stormy relationship with his father, a traveling minister and strict disciplinarian at whose hands he died after an argument. The documentary hears from Nick Ashford, Mos Def, Berry Gordy, Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson, among others. It airs 9 p.m. Wednesday on PBS (check local listings).
- What happens when a sense you've been living without for 65 years is suddenly given to you? In the documentary "Hear and Now," a 2007 Sundance Film Festival award winner, filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky tells about the cochlear implant surgery that enabled both of her parents to hear for the first time. Paul and Sally Taylor led successful lives despite their deafness, with engineer Paul even helping develop a telecommunication device for the hearing-impaired. The decision to undergo surgery that let them hear brings many joys, as when Sally first hears water lapping onshore at a favorite lake. But there are many psychological ramifications that aren't necessarily considered before the surgery is performed. The documentary gets its television premiere 8 p.m. Thursday on HBO.