"MasterChef Junior" (Fox, Friday). This small-fry-ification of "MasterChef," hosted as in the grown-up version by Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot, ends its first season (of what I hope will be many) this week, with a semifinals-to-finals double header that will earn one talented child $100,000 and a handsome keepsake trophy. Only four, chosen from an auditioning horde of thousands, remain. [Updated, Nov. 3, 1:43 a.m.: It turned out that only the semi-finals aired Nov. 1; the finals -- Alexander vs. Dara -- will take place this Friday. Yay! Another episode!]
There is cuteness, inevitably, but there is also competitiveness -- sharpened by the editing, to be sure -- and just as their elders do, some contestants wear their gifts more graciously and gracefully than others. Although there are manipulated moments and obvious omissions common to all reality series, there is no doubt these kids, none older than 13, know their own way around a spatula. This is also, happily, a show in which Ramsay, a great man of food-themed television when he is not playing an insane person, behaves himself -- even in the literal heat of last week's restaurant takeover, when six little chefs cooked lunch at downtown L.A.'s Drago Centro, to the delighted, moved surprise of the customers.
Delighted and moved and surprised is how I have often felt watching the show, because these kids not only cook the darnedest things, they do it with imagination and flair and even bravery. (Witness the yucky-food "mystery box" challenge, in which they were called upon to make something out of sardines, kidneys, liver, brussel sprouts and/or octopus.) It's always a treat to behold excellence, but doubly, even magically so in the very young. Too few episodes in the season is my only complaint, apart from not wanting anyone to be sent home, ever. We are at the end now, but interested latecomers can find earlier episodes online.
“Behind the Mask” (Hulu). This charming documentary series from Hulu follows four sports mascots who vary in rank and ability but share a sense of mission and a love of the big fuzzy head: Bango of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks (secret identity: Kevin Vanderkolk); Tux (Chad Spencer), from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a minor-league hockey team; UNLV's Hey Reb (six-term student Jon Goldman); and Rooty the Cedar Tree from Lebanon High School in Pennsylvania (Michael Hostetter).
In the modern mode, the pace is too fast for conversation or contemplation -- the narrative is driven by quick-cut pictures, voice-overs and talking heads -- but manages to make its points and create both memorable characters and a sense of place. It's a life-sized superhero story, in which apparently ordinary folks gain new powers when they put on the costume.
Vandervolk, an NBA Mascot of the Year, is a daredevil acrobat and self-described adrenaline addict -- "the LeBron James of stunts," one fan calls him -- who works to create crazier effects even as he knows the work will wear him out, cripple or kill him. Spencer, who has spent 10 cash-strapped years as Tux ("I put everything into it"), dreams of moving up to the NHL, for the financial security and "the legacy that I want to leave for my child, so that he can proud of me"; Goldman is looking with dread at the already much forestalled end of his college years and celebrity. And Hostetter, a positive-thinking bullied weird kid whose complexities a phalanx of Hollywood writers could labor a year and never approximate, loves his benighted town and school and its exclusively losing team. "I'm determined to get some school spirit in every event there is," he says, believing that, dressed as a tree, he might dance hard enough to change his corner of the world -- that "the team will start thinking, 'Wow, Lebanon isn't really that bad after all,'" and win.
"Serious Jibber Jabber" with Conan O'Brien and Mel Brooks (teamcoco.com). Man of comedy Mel Brooks, celebrating no particular anniversary but seemingly everywhere this year -- live panels, a DVD set, an "American Masters" special and more -- sits down with Conan O'Brien for a long online conversation. With its black-space set "we stole from Charlie Rose," "Serious Jibber Jabber" is O'Brien's after-hours private club, in which, away from the pressure of a studio audience and ticking clock, he chats with people who interest him -- Judd Apatow, Martin Short, Nate Silver, Jack White, Peter Guralnick -- just because they interest him.
Of all the many Brooks interviews I've watched or listened to, on TV, on the Web or in person over the last many months, this is easily the best; even when he hauls out stock material (the oft-repeated story of his calamitous Catskills stage debut, for instance, as a 14-year-old in a gray wig playing a district attorney), Brooks draws out the story with fresh dialogue and details. "If I may wax," says Brooks at one point. "That's what we do here is waxing," O'Brien replies. But he also goes deeper than usual into his influences, aspirations and method (and name-checks Modigliani, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey and the Ritz Brothers). It's a reminder, too, that "Tonight Show" debacle notwithstanding, O'Brien is himself an interesting guy, a good interviewer, and funny.
"The Greatest Event in Television History" (Adult Swim, Thursday). Adam Scott returns for a third edition of his occasional series, whose title -- ironic? or possibly not -- would seem to make multiple installments logically impossible. (Perhaps it is a joke!) The first two episodes put forth shot-for-shot remakes of the opening credits to old TV shows ("Simon & Simon," with Scott and the always game Jon Hamm, and "Hart to Hart," with Scott and "Parks and Recreation" costar Amy Poehler), and all available evidence points to this happening again. (Assisting: Chelsea Peretti, Kathryn Hahn, Jon Glaser and -- all hail -- Catherine O'Hara.) Indeed, officially leaked intel suggests this will pay homage to a certain 1980s Ted Knight sitcom, whose name at least I will conceal. If you don't know who Ted Knight is -- sad tsking sound -- watch it anyway; you should be only marginally more confused than we who do.
Friday Night Spotlight: Screwball comedies (TCM, Fridays in November). Turner Classic Movies offers you the education you should have had, and would have had if you grew up when local television lived on old talking pictures, or, indeed, were around when they first ran in theaters.
On Friday nights in November the network will mount a course in screwball comedy -- the rom-coms of the 1930s and 1940s, for the young and ignorant -- that all English-speaking sentient beings ought to take, whether freshly or as a refresher. We could argue omissions forever but (with maybe one exception) what's here is choice. The opening salvo (a newspaper theme runs through it) begins where it all began, with Frank Capra's 1934 "It Happened One Night" (jobless reporter Clark Gable meets rich runaway bride Claudette Colbert), followed by Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" (Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell teach Aaron Sorkin all he knows); and "Libeled Lady," my possible exception, which neverthless stars Harlow! Powell! Loy! and Tracy!
Future Fridays bring "The Awful Truth," "My Favorite Wife," "Love Crazy," "Theodora Goes Wild," "Twentieth Century" (John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, seminal), "My Man Godfrey," "Bringing Up Baby" (Grant, Hepburn, a tiger, a dog -- basic cultural knowledge), the Snow White riff "Ball of Fire," and "Easy Living," with Mitchell Leisen directing a Preston Sturges script, and the ineffable, incomparable Jean Arthur as a working-class lass into whose lap a mink coat literally falls.
The last class, on Nov. 29, is all Sturges, and therefore essential: "The Lady Eve" (nerdy millionaire Henry Fonda meets grifter Barbara Stanwyck); "Christmas in July" ("If you can't sleep, it isn't the beans, it's the bunk"), and "The Palm Beach Story," whose weirdness time has not dimmed.
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