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Vito Russo, 'The Soul Man', 'Sullivan and Son'

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Vito (8pm Mon, HBO)

Vito Russo isn’t a household name, but he still deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of pioneering gay heroes. This documentary tells the story of a boy who grew up with outrageous prejudice in the ’50s and ’60s, then became an indomitable activist in the ’70s and ’80s. Russo was a key figure in organizing a gay rights movement following the 1969 Stonewall Riots, aided by tremendous charisma and eloquence. “In the middle of the river, he went and he changed the current,” a colleague says. “You know how hard it is to do that?”

Russo insisted on gay equality and gay pride at a time when, as Mike Wallace puts it in an archival TV clip, “Surveys show that most Americans are repelled by the very notion of homosexuality.” He spearheaded protests and wrote the seminal study of Hollywood homophobia, The Celluloid Closet. Russo didn’t slow down even after contracting AIDS in the 1980s. He founded GLAAD and ACT UP and, in heartbreaking footage, demanded that the negligent U.S. government take AIDS seriously while dying from the disease.

Russo’s cousin says of this final period, “I never saw such courage in my life.”

That makes two of us.

The Soul Man (9pm Wed, TV Land)

Cedric the Entertainer proves true to his name in this new sitcom about Boyce Ballentine, a star soul singer turner preacher. Boyce asks God if he made the right decision in changing careers, and it’s certainly a relevant question. He’s now a man of the cloth, but he’s also still the man who sang the raunchy “I Wanna Have Sex Wich You.” His struggles with the new gig have all sorts of comic possibilities, especially given that

Boyce’s wife (Niecy Nash) is way too flashy for church. The cast members work beautifully together, with everyone taking turns deflating Boyce. I might wish for a higher percentage of funny punchlines, but I trust the Lord will provide.

Sullivan and Son (9pm Thu, TBS)

Corporate lawyer Steve (Steve Byrne) returns from New York City to Pittsburgh, where his dad runs a cozy working-class bar. Over his power girlfriend’s objections, he decides to leave his high-flying job at an investment bank to take over the bar himself.

In this new sitcom’s crude calculus, we’re supposed to applaud Steve’s choice. New York City + Power Girlfriend + $$$ = Bad. Pittsburgh + Salt-of-the-Earth Barflies + Eking Out a Living = Good. I might have bought in were not those salt-of-the-earth barflies so off-putting. They’re drunkards, bigots, and morons — and not lovably so, as the producers seem to think.

After a half-hour, I’d begun to relate to the barflies in spite of myself. It’ll take a few stiff drinks to get through another episode of Sullivan and Son.

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