"Chasing Shackleton" (PBS, Wednesdays). Complex in ways that were possibly not intended, this engrossing three-part documentary follows British adventurer Tim Jarvis as he seeks to re-create the perilous sea and land journey undertaken in 1916 by polar explorer Edward Shackleton to find help for his crew, marooned for two years in Antarctica. There is, of course, a significant difference between the two trips, the first being necessary and desperate and the second elective, if not particularly fun. Indeed, Jarvis' team of nautical types, daredevil engineers and extreme this-and-thats were dressed for the event in period costume, with all the lack of insulation that entails, and traveled in a modified lifeboat hewing as closely as possible to the one that carried Shackleton and five comrades on a 16-day trip across 800 miles of crazy-rough ocean. (After which three of them traveled on foot for 36 hours across mountains and glaciers to reach the whaling station on the island's other side.) They steered by sextant and ate the same subsistence slop as did their unlucky forebears, who would have eaten energy bars and oranges if they could have.
A modern rescue ship shadowed Jarvis' journey, but it's clear that this was something of a concession to officialdom. And though the British and Australian crew members tend to express themselves, except in the most extreme situations, in terms of chirpy understatement, the rough seas and bad weather are real enough, the painfully tight quarters are real enough, the risk of hypothermia is real and the chance of frostbite is very, very real. "I am prepared to lose digits," Jarvis declares at one icy juncture. (One of the film's expert commentators, a polar explorer himself, has bits of his fingers missing, you eventually notice.)
It's that willingness to part with a finger or toe for the sake of -- what exactly? -- that gives "Chasing Shackleton" its own kind of drama, prompting thoughts about recklessness and accomplishment and how a whim becomes a mission. For all the repeated insistence that something important is being learned here, this isn't "Kon-Tiki"; it's a wild, invigorating and often-suspenseful ride -- I watched the three hours straight through -- but it adds nothing substantial to the world's knowledge. We already know that what Shackleton did is possible, because he did it; where the original gamble was heroic, Jarvis' is self-serving. Playing Shackleton in this role-playing-with-live-ammunition exercise, he comes to identify with him and to see the expedition as an experiment in "leadership." As its fate seems to hang in the balance, he accuses a doctor of "scaremongering" for pointing out to a stricken crewman that if he continues he may lose his feet. ("I’m frankly almost too incensed to speak.") Still, the question remains, as one of the team puts it, whether to come home a live donkey or a dead lion.
Plus there are some typically adorable penguins and a whale, whose sudden appearance makes immediate the majesty of the seas.
"The Spoils of Babylon" (IFC, Thursdays). The cool kids comedy club (and dramatic auxiliary) convenes for this six-part parody of a television-event miniseries of the late '70s/early '80s, along the lines of "the mistakenly popular 'The Thorn Birds,' 'The Winds of War' or 'Shogun,'" as they are referred to in a gag press release. Its own phony copyright date is 1979 or, rather, MCMLXXIX; the conceit is that it is being shown for the first time -- a neglected masterpiece by one Eric Jonrosh, both the director of the film and the author of the best-selling potboiler upon which it was based, and played in Orson Welles hugeness by a well-padded, false-bearded Will Ferrell (also a producer, via Funny or Die). The actual director is Matt Piedmont, who co-wrote the series with fellow former "Saturday Night Live" scribe and "Casa de Mi Padre" collaborator Andrew Steele. Allegedly shot "on premium nitrate non-safety 93 mm Tri-X reversal stock" in Breath-Take-a-Scope and Super-Doctored Clydrophonic Sound, this mock epic of oil, war and forbidden love across the wide midsection of the 20th century comes with a swinging theme song sung by Steve Lawrence ("A lotus flower left for dead/Photographs inside of my head/Passion simmers and then it boils/To the victor goes the spoils”); cheap miniatures and process shots; sweeping strings and long speeches; and a cast that includes Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Haley Joel Osment, Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, Michael Sheen and a mannequin. (That's Lady Anne, voiced by Carey Mulligan.)
"Cougar Town" (TBS, Tuesdays), "The Mindy Project" (Fox, Tuesdays), "The Middle"(ABC, Wednesdays), "Parks and Recreation" (NBC, Thursdays). Sitcoms! Back with fresh episodes! These are among the best shows on television, to my mind -- and three are on network TV, cable snobs. "Cougar Town" is as much about nothing as "Seinfeld" was, but with wine. In "Mindy," Mindy Kaling makes her TV avatar difficult and ridiculous without making her one whit less a heroine. "The Middle" tells truths about family life and working people that no other television show cares to address, without being cynical or sentimental about it (and a word here for the calm brilliance of Neil Flynn, holding down the Ozzie seat). And "Parks and Recreation" is what heaven looks like if God is any fun at all.