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Primal Screen

TV Watch: Harper Lee and Seattle's coming 'Superstorm'

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American Masters (9pm, 10pm Mon, PBS)

Here’s a compare-and-contrast worthy of an honors English paper. It offers new, back-to-back profiles of Margaret Mitchell (9 p.m.) and Harper Lee (10 p.m.), both white Southern women writers who published only one book apiece — beloved books that won Pulitzer Prizes and became Oscar-winning movies. Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird also both deal prominently with race, and that’s where the “contrast” part comes in.

Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind in the 1930s, presenting hateful caricatures of slaves and romanticized portraits of slave owners. As a Southerner who’d refused to attend class with an African-American student at college, Mitchell couldn’t even understand what critics meant when they called her novel racist.

Lee, on the other hand, showed Southern racism for what it was in 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Commentators give her credit for calling out injustice before the civil rights movement even got rolling.

The separate portraits don’t explicitly relate Mitchell to Lee, but the juxtaposition makes a powerful statement about the evolution of Southern writers over the course of a generation. If this were honors English, American Masters would get an A.

Masterpiece’s  'Great Expectations' (8pm Sun, PBS)

This is the best adaptation I’ve seen of Charles Dickens’ novel, surpassing David Lean’s overrated 1946 version. You know you’re in good hands from the first scene, as young orphan Pip (Douglas Booth) encounters an escaped convict (Ray Winstone) on the marshes near his house. The scene plunges us into the muck — not only physical muck, with all that mud and blood, but also psychological muck. The incident plays like a nightmare from a boy’s subconscious, bubbling out of fear and guilt.

The miniseries has a lot of ground to cover in only two nights, as Pip learns creepy lessons in love from the deranged Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson), falls under the spell of the haughty Estella (Vanessa Kirby), and gets too big for his britches after a mysterious patron grants him “great expectations” of wealth. The filmmakers skillfully condense the novel, sometimes encapsulating complicated relationships in a mere exchange of glances.

The actors know they’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime with Dickens’ juicy characters, and they make the most of it. As Miss Havisham, Anderson (The X-Files) holds her own with the brilliant British cast, finding a sympathetic side in a woman who could have easily registered as a cartoon (see the 1946 version).

Fairly Legal (8pm Fri, USA)

Fairly Legal is a lawyer series about mediator Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), who weighs both sides of an issue while trying to figure out the truth. When it premiered last year, the series struck me as demeaning to women. Kate seemed less like a professional than an old-fashioned ditz and a sex object. Checking in again, though, I’m inclined to be more lenient.

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