Critic's choice

FREE TO AIR

LILYHAMMER
Saturday, 8.35pm, SBS One
★★★☆

What an absurd idea. And yet, how delightful. The very notion of a US-Norwegian co-production is kind of odd, and the reality as it's put into practice here even odder, but there's undoubtedly something delicious about a New York gangster (The Sopranos' Steven Van Zandt) going into witness protection in Lillehammer (a) because no one will ever find him there, and (b) he's been in love with the place since watching the 1994 Winter Olympics. We're absolutely in the right place for all the usual fish-out-of-water tropes but rarely has a fish been so far from his home shore. The word lugubrious may as well have been coined for Van Zandt, and, purely in that respect, there could not be greater contrast between his jowly, frowny visage and the fresh ruddy faces he finds himself among. On the long train ride from Oslo, he earnestly sets himself to learning the language, but by the time he arrives in his new home, he hasn't quite mastered the pronunciation of his own new surname (Henriksen). Then he discovers the FBI has installed him in a cottage next door to the local chief of police. He's not a happy man. But he's alive, and he's resourceful. And by the end of this first episode, he's formed various unlikely connections within the small community, made some enemies, and discovered that nowhere is as rich with intrigue as an isolated mountain village. Van Zandt, who co-created and co-wrote this with Norwegian collaborators, does a wonderful job, not quite reprising his role as Sil but certainly channelling that Sopranos vibe: no-nonsense, ruthless, capable of extreme violence, but also of firm friendship. He's also a man accustomed to leading and he's not that interested in adjusting to local customs and mores. The Norwegian cast - the names of whom mean nothing to me but uniformly turn in excellent performances - provide terrific support. No one overplays the yokel but they're small-town folk who are used to an orderly life and are both alarmed and intrigued by this newcomer. The look of this is typically Scandinavian - picturesque, but also a little shabby - and the contrast between the big sweeping shots of the town and worn, tight interiors perfectly captures both the isolation and claustrophobia of the place. Add a bone-dry humour and you have a fabulous character comedy-drama that's as unusual as it is entertaining.

ARTSCAPE: ANATOMY
Tuesday, 10pm, ABC1

★★★☆

Luxuriously shot and brimming with thought-provoking ideas, this is the best yet in the ''Anatomy'' trilogy. At its best, Artscape helps me understand art and how the most peculiar things can be art, and that's never more true than tonight. Pia Interlandi is completing a PhD at RMIT's fashion school on a most unusual subject: death. Her speciality is designing shrouds, and here we follow her from her preliminary work to the final stages of her thesis, and then her first commission from a living client. It's a fascinating journey and Pia is one of those rare artists who's not only highly intelligent, but also has the ability to clearly articulate her interest in her subject and her processes and to take us along with her. That journey also tests our own attitudes to death. Far from being morbid, Pia's interest is intellectual, philosophical and poetic, and I found my responses shifting constantly during the course of the 30-minute program. It's quite a trip.

MR & MRS MURDER
Wednesday, 8.30pm, Channel Ten

★★★☆

Every time those crazy pop-art credits come up, I just know I'm in for a good time. And, so far, I haven't been disappointed. From the careful styling and gloriously saturated colour to the lovely chemistry between the protagonists and the tidy (and occasionally inspired) scripts, there's simply nothing not to like. Tonight it's all a bit Agatha Christie as Charlie and Nicola attend a murder at a stately mansion and quickly suspect the killer is still in the house. There are certainly some overly convenient Christie-like developments, but in all the important particulars, the whodunit is handled with typical aplomb. I also enjoy the fact that everyone here obviously really likes each other. The atmosphere of fond mutual admiration is impossible to resist, and the little look between Charlie and Nicola at the final reveal is itself worth the price of admission.

PLEASE LIKE ME: FINAL
Thursday, 9.30pm, ABC2

★★★★

Josh Thomas showed us from the start that he wasn't afraid to go dark, and he was keenly aware of the absurdity of life's tragedies, so it seems fitting that the final instalment of this excellent series should open with a funeral. Aunty Peg is dead and as the family prepares in its own peculiar ways for her send-off, Please Like Me is alternately funny, poignant, silly and occasionally terribly wrong. Debra Lawrance puts in another fabulous performance as an ordinary housewife on the edge but, once again, Thomas is just as impressive, both in his performance as an actor and in his insights as a writer. The final moments are satisfyingly elegiac. So just one question remains. Nothing about this series was really about Josh's search for approval or acceptance. On the contrary, it was about him realising he didn't need those things. So why was it called Please Like Me?


PAY TV

TOP OF THE LAKE
Sunday, 8.30pm, UKTV
★★★☆

This new crime series comes with a lot of baggage. Originally announced more than two years ago as an ABC co-production, the national broadcaster pulled the pin and we now have a collaboration between the BBC, UKTV and the Sundance Channel, along with a suitably international cast (Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter, David Wenham, Peter Mullan). It was always Jane Campion's baby - her first real foray into television - a crime thriller as reimagined by one of Australia's (and New Zealand's) genuine auteurs. And it's the first television production to screen as a cinematic event (all seven hours of it) at the Sundance Film Festival. All of which prompts the question: is it any good? Well, yes. It certainly has all the distinctive Campion trademarks, from its awesomely bleak landscapes to its obsession with women, with vulnerable children, with mothers and daughters. Set in New Zealand's highlands, a decidedly Twin Peaks vibe is engendered not just by the surroundings, but by the weird soundscape and the slightly off-kilter performances. This is a world of aberrant beings, a community of people who are all not quite right, from the inbred locals to the blow-in guru (Hunter; magnificent) who sets up a retreat for damaged women on the edge of the lake. Moss plays a police detective, a local girl home to visit her estranged, dying mother. Just days into her stay, she's on a case: a young girl in trouble who ends up in way more trouble. Nothing happens in a hurry (and I'm glad I wasn't at that seven-hour screening), but it's undoubtedly eerily compelling.

NICKELODEON KIDS' CHOICE AWARDS
Sunday, 6pm, Nickelodeon

★★★

Almost live from LA (it all occurred there on Saturday, US time) the 26th edition of this outrageously popular awards night is bound to be a crowd pleaser. This year the host is the ever-affable Josh Duhamel, who grown-ups know from the TV series Las Vegas but Nick's core audience have grown to adore as Lennox in the Transformers movies. Luke Ryan and Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd (hosts of Camp Orange) will be representing on our behalf. Our very own Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers) is also up for favourite butt-kicker. Special Aussie awards are even handed out (Aussie's Fave, and Aussie's Fave Home-grown Act). As you might have guessed, the award categories are eccentric. The night attracts a real A-list of kid favourites. The whole thing is reliably ebullient and good-natured. And someone, somewhere, will end up covered in green slime.

EMPIRE
Wednesday, 7.30pm, History

★★★☆

Fond, but not uncritical, this series, written and hosted by Jeremy Paxman, is a fascinating and often fun look at the British Empire from a variety of perspectives. Tonight's instalment is titled ''Playing the Game'', with a loose focus on the export of sports that accompanied the empire's expansion, but, more importantly, on that peculiarly Victorian ethos of grit, humility and fair play; of the paramount importance of being a good sport. We open with one of my favourite wacky Victorians, Richard Burton, and from there go to Khartoum in the late 1800s to meet another classic English eccentric, General Gordon. He's a chap who Paxman considers typical of that generation of British adventurers: courageous, and slightly deranged. Indeed, so much of the story of Empire is equal parts majestic and idiotic. A great yarn.

DUKES OF MELROSE
Thursday, 10pm, Arena

★★☆

This is the third in a fashion-reality triumvirate that opens with The Rachel Zoe Project, proceeds through It's a Brad, Brad World, and winds up with this new series based around the co-owners of a high-end LA vintage boutique. I have to say, it's not a patch on the others. There's certainly fun to be had vicariously rifling through the store's collection of designer gowns and million-dollar shoes, and our guys, Cameron and Christos, unquestionably share an encyclopedic knowledge of couture. The problem is, they're not especially likeable. Cameron in particular is utterly slappable. Give me adorable Brad any day.

The story Critic's choice first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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