Mid-February then. Mid-winter. Cacophony of changes in TV, scandals, resignations, cancelled shows and controversy. Noise.
The weather. Bloody cold in this neck of the woods. Reminds me of my childhood, of course. Not the snow and ice, but the cold. Barefoot I was, on the frosty mornings, in rural Ireland, hoping for a few cooked spuds at the end of the bone-chilling day. We were poor but we were happy. As they say. Eventually, mind, you, we had the television. Which reminds me what I'm supposed to be writing about here.
There is the good news – Better Call Saul is excellent; The Walking Dead is back and The Americans is brilliant. Life Story, CBC's nature series on Sundays is a real pleasure. I've been watching it with my cat Rita in my lap and that is a crazy-good experience. It's her favourite show in the whole world, ever. Marvel's Agent Carter has become one of my favourite shows in the whole world, ever.
But at this time of the year we need ever-more reasons to be cheerful. Herewith a list of pleasures that might not be on your radar.
Songs of Freedom, (Vision TV, Fridays, 10 p.m.) is glorious. The Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman performs an immensely powerful selection of spirituals – "music that emerged from Africa out of the slave trade to America." Brueggergosman is one of our great cultural assets and here, in a program made by Rhombus Media and directed by Barbara Willis Sweete, she unleashes sublime interpretations of such material as Amazing Grace, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Go Tell it on the Mountain and Go Down Moses. Part of the context is the singer's personal journey to discover her family's roots in Cameroon. Under the musical direction of Aaron Davis, Songs of Freedom is achingly good.
Empire (Fox, Wednesday, 9 p.m.) is the midseason's huge hit on network TV. Each week its audience grows. Fox calls it "a hip-hop soap opera." Terrence Howard is Lucious Lyon, a music mogul who is told that he has a debilitating medical problem and he must decide who will control his lucrative business. He has three sons to choose among, one of whom is gay, and an ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who is just out of prison. Exactly why Empire works as mass-entertainment today is being studied, obviously. And that is a reason to see it – something about the nuance of it, set almost entirely in the world of black entertainment, makes it a massive draw.
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy, weeknights) hit its stride early and has become a vital perspective on current events. Laid back and lacking gimmicks, it's all talk and some of it razor-sharp. The other night Wilmore used Brian Williams's fuzzy memories of war to riff on the general "fog of war" that the United States has been in since 2003. "Brian Williams's confusion is the perfect metaphor for the war on terror," Wilmore said. "Nobody has a damn clue what's going on."
12 Monkeys (Showcase, Fridays, 10 p.m.) is ideal if you like a puzzle because it can be beyond confusing. But worth it. The show's basic premise is the same as the original film. In the future, the year 2043, a worldwide pandemic has wiped out more than 90 per cent of the population. Survivors exist in secret, underground. There is an attempt at time travel, sending James Cole ( Aaron Stanford) back to 2013 and other years, to prevent the spread of the virus. So far, so good. But the time travel and storytelling technique is more mash-up than logical. In his very inexact travels, he meets scientist Cassandra Reilly (Amanda Schull), and there's chemistry. But there is also the requisite crazy person (Canadian Emily Hampshire who is excellent) and much mystery about the origins of the virus. This is the sort of clever sci-fi show that never takes the easy route.
The Great Human Odyssey (CBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m., on The Nature of Things) is indescribable but brilliant. Part eye-popping nature program and part anthropology, it starts with this premise: "At one time, Homo sapiens stood on the brink of extinction, numbering a few thousand somewhere in Africa. But our species found ways to rebuild, and soon after we colonized the entire planet." And then asks, how and why humans evolved. Everything we think we know about the ancient past is changing and the program explains why. Much is made of the rare events and rituals that are part of the series – breath-holding divers in the Philippines and reindeer herders living in the Russian Arctic in minus 40 – but it's as much about knowledge as it is about spectacular footage.