Couch Patrol: Sex, Drugs & Sympathy

Anna Nicole

Saturday, 8 p.m. (Lifetime)

The tv movie Anna Nicole imputes a soul to the late Anna Nicole Smith, the model and gold digger who flaunted her self-destruction in the media. Anyone who remembers the barely sentient Anna Nicole will have a hard time buying that proposition. And yet the movie works hard for our sympathy and finally wins it. This negligible pop-culture personality has lucked into a dream team dedicated to telling her story, including director Mary Harron (American Psycho), Martin Landau as her elderly sugar daddy, Virginia Madsen as her unloving mother, and Adam Goldberg as her handler throughout a years-long career meltdown.

Finally, there’s Agnes Bruckner as Smith herself, the small-town girl with big dreams and even bigger breasts. (Her breast implants, purchased on the eve of her Playboy breakthrough, warrant their own entrance.) Bruckner gives a physical performance worthy of Robert De Niro, taking Anna Nicole from thin to fat, healthy to haggard. She locates the starlet’s humanity, such as it was, in her love for her son. She also hints at a rationale for her behavior, which seemed completely irrational during her lifetime.

In short, Bruckner is more appealing in the role of Anna Nicole Smith than Anna Nicole ever was.

Annie: It’s The Hard-Knock Life, From Script To Stage

Friday, 9 p.m. (PBS)

This documentary explores the challenges of training the little girls chosen to star in Broadway’s revival of Annie. At the outset, you worry that these poor kids will end up in therapy due to the pressure of 10-hour rehearsals and unreasonable expectations. An eight-year-old named Emily already has an agent, along with a mother who praises her as “professional.” Should any child have to be professional at age eight?!

But, to be fair, the girls seem perfectly well adjusted, even after their months-long ordeal. The adults are another matter. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler slowly falls apart trying to teach his charges the moves to the production number “It’s The Hard-Knock Life.” He finally melts down during tech rehearsals as the girls lose their concentration. “If it was a cast of adults, I would tell them, ‘You’re letting me down,’” he confesses to the camera. “‘You’re FAILING!’”

Clearly it’s not the kids who will end up in therapy after Annie. It’s their supervisors.


Owen Benjamin: High Five Til It Hurts

Friday, midnight (Comedy Central)

Owen Benjamin offers a pleasant hour of standup comedy, free from nastiness. He tells gently absurd stories about standard subjects like male-female relations, dogs and airport security. His act brims with perceptive observations, like this one about messaging people on Facebook: “You can say anything, and if you end it with ‘ha ha,’ no one gets mad at you.”

Owen, you’ve got a great future in comedy. The only thing I’d suggest is working to make your jokes a bit more distinctive, ha ha.


Ray Donovan

Sunday, 10 p.m. (Showtime)

Showtime’s dramatic series has gotten a lot of buzz, given the movie-star cast (Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Elliott Gould) and the dark-side-of-Hollywood setting. But the bummer of a pilot will probably dampen everybody’s enthusiasm. Ray Donovan (Schreiber) is a fixer for the rich and famous, solving their problems with threats, beat-downs and ruthless manipulation of the tabloid press. Speaking in a rumbling monotone, Schreiber maintains a gloomy expression as he trudges from murders to stalkings to overdoses. Voight is his rotten father, Gould his rotten mentor. Nope, these guys aren’t a lot of laughs.

Ray Donovan wants to be profoundly creepy, like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. But it misses “profound,” offering little more than Hollywood caricatures. That leaves us only with “creepy.” Do viewers really need their noses rubbed in more sick sexual encounters and bloody corpses? By the end of the first hour, my expression was as gloomy as Ray’s.


Battleground Afghanistan

Monday, 9 p.m. (National Geographic Channel)

This program gains incredible access to a company of U.S. Marines fighting the tail end of the war in Afghanistan. The camera crew puts us right in the middle of battle, as the brave soldiers meet Taliban fighters on their own turf. We trudge with them through an opium field, desperately searching for cover after snipers open fire. We follow them into a night battle, with the sounds of machine guns and rockets rattling in our ears.

The Marines must come to terms with the fact that they can die at any moment. “Put it in your head that you’re already dead,” says Sgt. Bryan Barrow. “That will take away the fear.”

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that these already-dead soldiers don’t die.


Gideon’s Army

Monday, 9 p.m. (HBO)

HBO’s affecting documentary follows three young public defenders in the South. How committed are they to the principle that accused criminals have a right to counsel? The idealistic Travis Williams hangs up notices of all his acquittals on his office wall. As for the cases he loses, those he has tattooed to his back. “On a given case,” he says, “if I don’t do all I can do, someone is going to become a convicted felon.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever taken such a passionate interest in a lawyer’s back.