Peter Falk turned 76 in September. Medicine man, or sage—with, of course, a dash of curmudgeon—may be the last stage of his acting career. The first, if I remember correctly, was when the CIA turned down his application to become a spook because he had once belonged to a left-wing union, after which he started showing up in gangster movies and whatever his old buddy John Cassavetes happened to be up to at the time. This would be followed by many, many Columbos, until all of a sudden he was the storyteller in The Princess Bride. Avuncular is the vestibule to sage.
For inspirational instance, see Wilder Days (Sunday, October 19; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT), in which Falk plays James “Pop-up” Morse, a grandfather who reads aloud to his 11-year-old grandson, Josh Hutcherson, from stories he says are true in books he has himself handmade, thus in his dotage devoting to the boy all the time that he never had for Josh’s father, Tim Daly. Daly is not only bitter about the old neglect but disparaging of the stories, and a workaholic churl to boot, as if to recycle neglect unto the next generation. To liberate all of them, Pop-up jumps over the nursing-home wall and hits the road with Josh in a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado to find the wreck of the circus boat Wilder Days, about which he wrote his most memorable book. Daly follows, in a panic that becomes a pilgrimage.
Personally, I prefer Columbo, which in reruns is just as satisfying as it was the first time around, because, of course, we always knew who did it anyway, and what we sat down for was the ceremonial shtick: the cigar, the jalopy, and the raincoat; the peasant wit that could be counted on to unmask princely privilege and twisted hubris. In other words, the class struggle. But Wilder Days is as semi-sweet and heart-lukewarming as this sort of TV movie is supposed to be.
Likewise, the other television movies of the week live up to our modest expectations. While the Masterpiece Theatre version of James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sunday, October 19; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) does not improve on the 1939 movie version for which Robert Donat won an Oscar and in which Greer Garson made her film debut, it’s a whole lot less ludicrous than the 1969 musical that obliged Peter O’Toole to take Petula Clark seriously. Martin Clunes is credible as the Latin teacher who eventually becomes headmaster of the British school for boys; Patrick Malahide is obnoxious as the man who wants to rid the school of both Latin teachers and scholarships; and Victoria Hamilton is delightful as the radical feminist Mr. Chips meets in the very wet woods and weds, to the astonishment and envy of his colleagues.
D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear (Friday, October 17; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA) is the obligatory ripoff of recent history, the TV equivalent of the scare headline. Charles S. Dutton is perfect casting for Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose, who seemed at the fraught time to embody all our complicated apprehensions about the shooting spree even as he became the target of criticism by know-nothings who needed someone to blame for random terror. The talented Helen Shaver doesn’t have enough to do, besides worrying, as his wife. And neither does the usually creepy Jay O. Sanders, as the perplexed county executive. No FBI-bashing here; the bashing is reserved for the vampire media, which ought to include TV-movie-makers.
Finally, Ground Control. (Saturday, October 18; 9 to 11 p.m.; PAX) is this week’s transportation-nightmare movie. Kiefer Sutherland is an air-traffic controller who grounds himself after a crash on his watch. Bruce McGill is the boss who needs him back in Phoenix five years later. Kelly McGillis is Bruce’s boss, whose ambition spells disaster. Also staring at computer screens while planes try not to bump into one another are Robert Sean Leonard, Kristy Swanson, and Margaret Cho. And down in the basement replacing lightbulbs and vacuum tubes is a very annoyed Henry Winkler. Smartly cast and scary stuff—but I could swear I’ve seen it before. Not something like it, but this exact movie. Help!
Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII (October 14; 7 to 8:30 p.m.; Cinemax) is Aviva Slesin’s inquiry into the stories of a handful of Christians who took in and hid Jewish children, like Slesin herself, during the Nazi horror. At a reunion organized by Yad Vashem 50 years later, we are reminded once again that heroism is as mysterious as evil.
Second Hand Stories (October 14; 9 to 9:30 p.m.; Channel 13) follows Christopher Wilcha and John Freyer in an ambulance they bought on eBay from thrift shop to auction block to garage sale across our very strange country on an archaeological dig into the pre-owned and the discarded.
Worst Possible Illusion: The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz (October 14; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is Anne-Marie Russell’s lively account of the peculiar career of the Brazilian photographer, sculptor, and magician, whose artistic materials include bones, threads, and Bosco chocolate syrup.
Churchill (October 15; 8 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), while not without its reservations about the long career of the last imperialist—Gallipoli, after all, and a contempt for the darker races—nevertheless presents the grand old man as remembered by his daughter, his grandchildren, his personal secretaries, and his old friends, with Ian McKellen sorting them out while rummaging around in the film archives. Amazing how much he reminds us of Albert Finney.
Life’s a Bitch (October 17; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; Oxygen) is a new animated series about an online “Sexy Soul Mates” dating service, with the voices of Mo Collins, Khandi Alexander, and, best of all, Elaine Stritch.
Second Opinion With Doctor Oz (October 20; 5 to 6 p.m.; Discovery) launches an every-weeknight series in which such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and Joe Torre chat up health issues with New York City heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, who likes to display diseased human organs to underline his points about, say, fat or tobacco.
I Love the ’80s Strikes Back (October 20 through October 24; 9 to 11 p.m.; VH1) seems to be everything they had to leave out of I Love the ’80s the first time around, which means, well, lots of people like Mariah Carey, Charlie Sheen, Liz Phair, Carol Alt, Robin Leach, the Karate Kid, and, I am sorry to say, David Lee Roth and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.