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Monday, April 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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You're a strange man, Charles Schulz
American Masters explores the enigma behind Peanuts

Schulz seems like the boring guy next door.
Schulz seems like the boring guy next door.
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Along with the work of Louis Armstrong and Mark Twain, Peanuts is one of the United States' most original products. Charles Schulz's comic strip is at once simple and profound, melancholy and hilarious, and its pleasures are equally available to children and adults. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus and Lucy are among the most vivid characters in our literature, and Schulz continued to discover truths about them - and about life on planet earth - for 50 years, until he died in 2000.

So who was the Shakespearean figure behind Peanuts? American Masters' "Good Ol' Charles Schulz" (Monday, 8 p.m., WHA) spends an hour and a half trying to answer that question, using Citizen Kane as a framing device. It's an appropriate allusion, because Schulz is as mysterious as Charles Foster Kane. He was a seemingly normal kid from St. Paul who grew up to be a seemingly normal man. In archival interviews, he comes off as the boring guy next door, with no trace of the strip's humor, existential dread or sly intelligence. Yes, we learn about his mother's early death and his family's tendency to keep things bottled up. And we learn that, in real life, The Little Red-Haired Girl (interviewed as An Old Gray-Haired Lady) jilted him for another man.

But these are common experiences. What was different about Schulz? Where was the personality quirk that led to Peanuts? As fellow cartoonist Jules Feiffer says, "If you look at his pre-Peanuts stuff, it was the same crap everybody else was doing. Suddenly, he unlocked something. He was talking about what so many of us felt and nobody ever admitted."

Feiffer can't explain where it all came from, and neither can "Good Ol' Charles Schulz." Clearly, the only way I'm ever going to understand Schulz is to go back and reread all the Peanuts strips. And to be honest, I was looking for an excuse to do that anyway.

Lost Book of Nostradamus
Sunday, 8 pm (History Channel)

It's hard to believe that the 16th-century "prophet" Nostradamus is still taken seriously in the 21st century. After 9/11, his name was Googled millions of times by people wondering if he'd predicted the calamity. And now we have a TV special devoted to one of his recently discovered manuscripts. "We all think that this man who lived 500 years ago has all the answers for us," a commentator says.

Folks, Nostradamus was basically a guy who wrote French horoscopes. When he made a prediction, he left it so vague that future generations were free to read in anything they wanted. Thus, people think that the old bearded dude foretold Hitler, the atomic bomb and the John F. Kennedy assassination.

The interpretation of his recently discovered manuscript shows how the system works. Nostradamus drew a castle tower on fire, so that must be the World Trade Center. And he mentions "a fruitless war," which must refer to Iraq. Surely, there have been no other fruitless wars since the 16th century, and no other flaming towers.

Now if Nostradamus had drawn twin towers, and situated them in lower Manhattan, he might have earned my respect. Or if he'd predicted this negative review by drawing a hyena cackling in front of a TV set.

Frontline
Tuesday, 8 pm (WHA)

Around Halloween we make light of corpses: a way of expressing our anxiety about death. And what better way to calm our nerves than with bagfuls of candy?

"The Undertaking" doesn't make light of corpses. Set at a funeral parlor in small-town Michigan, the documentary stares at them without flinching. The narrator is Thomas Lynch, whose family has long made a living from death. Lynch reads excerpts from his book The Undertaking, full of profound utterances about our time above and below ground. "Undertakings are the things we do to vest the lives we lead against the cold, the meaningless, the void, the noisy blather, and the blinding dark," he says.

"The blinding dark" gets plenty of screen time. We ogle dead bodies on hospital beds and embalming tables, in coffins and crematoriums. "I view the viewing of the dead as one of the most fundamental aspects of acknowledging grief," says one of Lynch's family members. "Reality can no longer be denied - the death is literally staring them in the face."

Why do I suddenly feel like eating a very big bagful of candy?

Nip/Tuck
Tuesday, 9 pm (FX)

All is vanity, at least on Nip/Tuck. The wicked plastic-surgery drama takes pleasure in our obsession with wrinkles and sags. It puts us under the knife, both literally and figuratively. The scalpel peels back the layers to expose our insecurities, even as it's tightening up the skin around our necks.

In the fifth-season opener, doctors Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Christian (Julian McMahon) have moved their plastic-surgery practice from Miami to Los Angeles. There's gold in them thar Hollywood Hills, but how to mine it? The doctors are patient-free until they hook up with a savvy publicist (Lauren Hutton). She delivers an aging star (Daphne Zuniga) who's losing parts to Cameron Diaz for want of calf implants. She also lands them an advisory role on Hearts 'n' Scalpels, a TV series about earnest plastic surgeons.

Hearts 'n' Scalpels is the funniest Hollywood parody this side of Entourage. I tried not to laugh too hard, lest my crow's feet show.

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