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Primal Screen

Feed Johnny Carson's mother to the Hound of the Baskervilles

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American Masters: Johnny Carson (9pm Mon, PBS)

Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years, inviting himself into American homes with the salutation “Heeeere’s Johnny!” An American Masters profile begins with fellow stars praising him in familiar ways. Carson had the best jokes; he had a gift for making his guests look good; he had universal appeal. Well, OK. But just as you’re about to change the channel, frequent guest Joan Rivers calls Carson “a tough, aggressive killer.” Bandleader Doc Severinsen admits to being intimidated by him. Acquaintance Carl Reiner acknowledges his standoffishness. Now this is getting interesting.

As a budding Nebraska entertainer, young Johnny Carson was obsessed with magic, and he continued to create illusions when he became TV’s biggest star in the 1960s — specifically, the illusion that a shy loner was everybody’s best friend. When the cameras stopped rolling, however, he was a mystery man, even to his closest family members. If there’s a Rosebud in this Citizen Kane-like inquiry, it’s Carson’s disapproving mother, who never found him worth all the fuss and said so publicly.

The American Masters portrait gives Carson his due as an artist while investigating the chill in his soul. Only Johnny’s mother could fail to find it compelling.

The Bachelorette (8:30pm Mon, ABC)

ABC is being sued for excluding people of color from starring roles in The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Indeed, between the two series, the new Bachelorette marks the 24th season in a row with a white person at the center. She’s Emily Maynard, who found true love with Brad Womack on The Bachelor last year. Well, true love Bachelor-style, anyway. That means the relationship lasted a couple of months before ABC News ran the obligatory story about the two of them breaking up.

Having learned nothing from her experience, Maynard returns, certain that the ABC casting department has included her future soul mate in the current pool of suitors.  To be honest, I’m not as worried about her as I am about us viewers. Emily is a shy, retiring type who doesn’t exactly hold the screen. She’s best remembered for falling asleep on her dates with Womack, and I’m getting a bit drowsy myself just contemplating the next few weeks of The Bachelorette.

Total Blackout (9pm Wed, Syfy)

The concept for this new reality series is diabolically simple: Contestants face creepy challenges in complete darkness. We can see what they can’t as host Jaleel White asks them to feel, taste and smell unidentified objects — an octopus, a pineapple, an old shoe, etcetera.

God help me, but I greatly enjoy seeing these people squeal, squirm, and wave their arms in terror. It helps that White sets a congenial tone rather than a sadistic one. And, of course, no one has ever died from touching a pineapple.

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