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Thursday, July 10, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
Arts

TELEVISION

Happy Town is sweet on the surface, scary underneath

'There's dread everywhere.'
'There's dread everywhere.'
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Happy Town (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ABC) is the latest attempt to recapture Twin Peaks magic. A young woman moves to a small town with sinister secrets under its quaint surface. A serial killer named the Magic Man had committed a string of annual murders that stopped five years ago, but suddenly a new corpse appears. An amiable father-son police team (Geoff Stults and M.C. Gainey) investigate the crime, though the father's mad rambling about some woman named Chloe becomes harder to ignore. Meanwhile, an almost psychotically proper Englishman (Sam Neill) runs the town's memorabilia shop, bathed in blue and green light as minor chords simmer on the soundtrack. "There's dread everywhere," he whispers ominously, "even the sunniest places."

It's easy to see through Happy Town's heavy-handed attempts to scare us - which is why I hated myself for sleeping with the lights on the night after I watched it.

American Experience
Monday, 8 pm (PBS)

If you're not depressed enough about divisions in America, try watching "Roads to Memphis." It explores Martin Luther King's final crusade against poverty and racism and, on a parallel track, James Earl Ray's path toward the 1968 assassination. We learn that Ray was inspired by inflammatory rhetoric from prominent people, such as anti-civil-rights presidential candidate George Wallace. Then there was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who made scurrilous public accusations against King. In this climate, Ray thought he'd be considered a patriotic hero for pulling the trigger.

You can't watch the documentary without making connections to our time, when prominent people use inflammatory rhetoric against their political opponents. I'm thinking of people like Sarah Palin, urging conservatives to "reload" against Democrats and painting Barack Obama as a terrorist sympathizer. In the documentary, a commentator says of Ray: "He was an agent of larger forces in American life...that kept building up a drumbeat against Martin Luther King that made him into a villain."

Here's hoping contemporary politicians can strike "reload" from their vocabularies.

Fame & Recovery
Monday, 8 pm (A&E)

I can't usually work up much sympathy for famous people who have all the advantages and then self-destruct by overindulging in drugs. It's even harder when they parade their addiction and rehabilitation on TV. In this cautionary cable special, football star Lawrence Taylor and pageant queen Tara Conner take us through their rise, fall and baby steps back.

I have to admit, however, that Taylor and Conner won me over. I appreciated their courage in speaking about their problems candidly so the viewing audience might learn a lesson. Taylor's drug abuse marred his career and ruined his family, and it's poignant to see this strong man admit to weakness. Conner emerges not as a pampered party girl, but as a child of divorce whose drug abuse grew from teenage trauma. When she breaks down after acknowledging her 2-1/2 years of sobriety, you don't doubt her fragility.

By the end of the show, I no longer saw these two as famous people with all the advantages. Just people.

Romantically Challenged
Monday, 8:30 pm (ABC)

Here's another network sitcom desperate to be naughty. It takes the same approach as other recent failures: Have a set of on-the-make characters constantly talk about sex, followed by laugh-track guffaws at the witless references to multiple orgasms, one-night stands and prison rape.

This on-the-make crew includes a hot-to-trot divorcee (Alyssa Milano), her hot-to-trot sister (Kelly Stables) and assorted hot-to-trot guys. When they're not indulging in standard sitcom sex talk, they're indulging in standard sitcom insult banter. "I'm sorry, Sean, I don't have time to make a fake vomiting sound now."

I do.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey
Monday, 9 pm (Bravo)

The second season premiere revolves around Danielle, who is on the outs with the other Housewives. She doesn't understand the hostility she earned in the previous season, and one can't help agreeing when say says, "I know I didn't deserve to have a table thrown at me." I mean, who does deserve to have a table thrown at them?

But things turn ugly over the course of the episode. Danielle wallows in self-pity, lets herself off the hook for sleazy behavior, and issues chilling threats to the other Housewives. "It only takes one good smack to the head to make someone never walk again," she warns.

I found myself searching for a table to throw.

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