Last night was a great night for TV watching, particularly if you love informative filmmaking, but a horrible one if you don't have TiVo. It was bad enough that Turner Classic Movies dedicated the evening to its "Race and Hollywood: Asian Images in Film," which runs Tuesdays and Thursdays in June. The 35-film retrospective, hosted by Robert Osborne and University of Delaware professor Peter X. Feng, started with the 2006 documentary, Slanted Screen, and continued with screenings of The Cheat (1915), Broken Blossoms (1919), The Dragon Painter (1919), Mr. Wu (1927) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932).
If you missed that history lesson, the series continues Thursday night with the 2008 documentary Anna May Wong Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times and Legend, followed by The Toll of the Sea (1922), Old San Francisco (1927), and Piccadilly (1929).
But then there was the season-three premiere of Morgan Spurlock's always-entertaining "30 Days" (F/X, 10 p.m. cable 43), which features the star/director of the thrilling Super-Size Me (and the near-woeful Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?) spending a month in the lives of compelling characters and situations. To kick the season off, instead of placing someone else in a compromising position, Spurlock spent a month in his native West Virginia as a coal miner. It was, quite simply, great television, showing once again Spurlock at his best (offering a bird's eye view of coal miners' lives and humanizing them every step of the way) and his worst (his cloying voice-overs are as awkwardly delivered as his camera-facing confessionals are naive and obvious).
But as harsh as I've been on Spurlock, he does his fair share of digging, so to speak, and he paints a picture of a people addicted to the good-paying ($60,000 a year) yet lethal jobs that while charging our homes and lives also rape the beautiful West Virginia landscape. By the end of the hour, you really feel like you know the people better, and that in the end is Spurlock's goal. (Next week: Morgan throws a dude into a wheelchair for a month.)
The problem: Down on the other end of the dial, PBS's "Independent Lens" documentary series (Georgia Public Broadcasting, 10 p.m., Cable 8) began this season's wind-down with "New Year Baby," in which filmmaker Socheata Poeuv returns to Cambodia with her parents to learn about what happened to her family during the violent upheaval of the Khmer Rouge. It was gritty, revealing and sober stuff sort of the anti-Morgan Spurlock in its sophistication level. Not to knock Spurlock so hard, but it's programs like "Independent Lens" that offer the more precise glimpse at personal filmmaking and while it might not seem like it, I like Spurlock! (Really!)
By the way, "New Year Baby" is actually last week's "IL" episode. In a programming quirk, GPB runs last week's episode in the traditional Tuesday/10 p.m. slot. It will broadcast this week's episode tonight at midnight: Susanne Mason's "Writ Writer," about Fred Cruz's transformation from convicted felon in the Texas prison system to self-taught legal expert. Check it out.
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(Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company)