What an odd weekend on TV. With all the hockey and football games, and Christmas TV movies that employ the usual trite trucks to make you feel mushy, originality and new programs are few.
There is, mind you, a new two-hour special devoted to Britney Spears. I kid you not. And it's not that she's playing Santa's little schlepper or anything of the sort.
Recently, I read a lengthy piece in The New Yorker magazine about Spears and her oeuvre. I had no idea that Britney Spears had an oeuvre. Apparently the trajectory of her career and the quality and variety of her music are now up for discussion. And during the holiday season, no less.
I Am Britney Jean (Sunday, E! channel, 9 p.m.) is all about the 32-year-old Spears, her latest CD and her upcoming Las Vegas show. From what is available to see, it appears that she is a hard worker and pushes herself to the limit doing dance routines to enhance the delivery of that oeuvre. Why, sometimes she even sprains her neck or an ankle, and worried backup dancers stand around and marvel at her tenacity which, of course, they are paid to do.
If you're looking for real insight into one of the defining pop divas of our time, it's not here. Controlled by Spears and her management, the program is not going to delve very deeply.
There is, of course, room for that. Spears emerged as a teenager, all jail-bait image and rawness. Then things went spectacularly awry, and her breakdown was very public and painful to watch. Unreliable men, motherhood and a brief disappearance from the public eye. Then the return to bestseller status and wildly successful tours.
What did emerge, mind you, is that Spears's strength is hardly her voice. It's the show, the spectacle, that matters. And even in recent videos (there are breathless accounts of making them) it's often a matter of Spears laying around in her underwear either mooning over some guy or declaring that she's over the son of a gun.
If at this time of the year you want to spend some time dwelling on pop stardom and the vast and complex entertainment machine that delivers bestselling triteness, this is a gift for you.
By coincidence, the other interesting program this weekend also involves the image of a comely young woman. That's Mystery of a Masterpiece (Saturday, CBC NN 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye), a documentary that aired previously on the PBS program Nova.
It's about a painting that some call Portrait of a Young Fiancée, and others call La Bella Principessa. The painting is a startling portrait in coloured chalks and ink, and has been attributed by some art historians to Leonardo da Vinci. But nothing is certain about this work. According to other experts, it is by a German artist working in the early 19th century, which is why it sold at auction in 1998 for $20,000 (U.S.). If it can be confirmed to have been painted by da Vinci, its value is estimated to be as much as $150-million.
The documentary chronicles the forensic work done to determine the age and authenticity of the work, and the disputes that have swirled around it. For all the power of science these days, it seems that, sometimes, art can still stump the experts. It's an intriguing, puzzling story but, by the end, you've seen so much of the portrait that you are kind of enraptured by it.
Also airing this weekend
Saturday Night Live (Saturday, NBC, Global, 11:30 p.m.) has both Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon on board this week. That, to many people, is a very big deal.
The Horses of McBride (Sunday, CTV Two, 8 p.m.) is a repeat but worth seeing if you missed it. It's loosely based on a real story: In December of 2008, two pack horses were seen trapped in snow and apparently starving near the top of Mount Renshaw in British Columbia. A local man got close to the horses and found they were unlikely to be able to get out of their situation without major help.
In the movie (written and directed by Anne Wheeler), the situation is rooted in a complex family situation. Matt Davidson (Aidan Quinn, who plays the New York cop on Elementary), a man in the cowboy-outfitter business in remote B.C., has decided to sell his family ranch and find work in the city, just as the story opens. The remoteness is underlined by Matt's mention that his family doesn't have Internet service, so he can't finalize the move by e-mail. His wife Avril (Kari Matchett) and son Kenny (Edward Ruttle) are ready to move, but his daughter Nicki (MacKenzie Porter) is furious. She sees herself as the one who would eventually inherit her father's business, and she's deeply moved by the plight of the trapped horses. That's when hard work and compassion pay off.