January 28-February 3: Including Wilson Dixon and Downton Abbey Christmas Special

by Fiona Rae / 28 January, 2012


Australian Open Tennis (Sky Sport 3, 9.00pm). At time of writing, the first round of the women’s singles competition has barely begun: who can say what this evening’s final will bring? Being a women’s final, fashion talk and conversations about whether grunting is ladylike, probably.


Curiosity: Can We Survive an Alien Attack? (Discovery, Sky 070, 7.30pm). Alien attacks are all the rage at the moment – although, when were they not? Between Falling Skies and any number of movies slated to come out this year about intelligent life arriving from elsewhere in the universe and killing us all, Curiosity: Can We Survive an Alien Attack? seems like a reasonable question. Michelle Rodriguez (Lost) asks scientists and military strategists what they reckon, and the results are dramatised. The episode caused a bunch of chatter on UFO sites when it aired in the US – opinion seems to be divided along the lines of "when they come, they'll wipe us out, they're so clever", and "they're already here and haven't done anything bad yet". But Discovery, which created the show as part of its Curiosity series, rolls out the astrophysicists to play the statistics – in an infinite universe, they argue, it's impossible we're the only intelligent life around. It's whether that life is genocidal that's up for debate. That many of them think it would be is horrifying – but we already knew that. When Cloverfield, in which a Godzilla-type creature arrives in New York, killing indiscriminately and dropping parasitic nasties that destroy their human hosts, was released, Stephen Hawking's personal assistant told a Guardian journalist that the movie "chimes with [Hawking's] vision exactly".


How to Build a Beating Heart (National Geographic, Sky 072, 8.30pm). A look at international research into regenerative medicine. Medical scientists have already used tissue to generate blood vessels, body parts, even a bladder for a young man with spina bifida. Much of the research is funded by the US military, as it faces a paradox: better body armour helps a greater number of soldiers survive conflict, but that leaves far more survivors with horrific injuries, including lost limbs and facial deformities. The work being done is phenomenal: new spray-on skin for burn victims; the famous mice with human ears growing on their backs. If the documentary occasionally oversells the idea that we're close to whole replacement limbs, it can be forgiven for the glimpses it gives inside some very cool labs.

Balls of Steel Australia (Comedy Central, 9.00pm). Craig Reucassel, of the much smarter The Chaser, hosts this Aussie version of the UK hidden-camera show. Comedians compete to see who has the most unflinching gonads by pranking people and seeing who can hold their nerve the longest as they annoy the unsuspecting public or, occasionally, celebrities. It’s puerile and, in the Jackass mode, moderately funny.


Downton Abbey Christmas Special (Prime, 8.30pm). At last, Isis the labrador gets her own plot line, all to do with the unscrupulous Thomas. This gorgeous special was the highest-rating show in the UK over the Christmas season, beating EastEnders into second place. The Dowager Duchess would approve. Writer Julian Fellowes packs more into these two hours (the special continues next week) than he managed in the whole of World War I in the second season – storylines are wrapped up apace. Along with the dog’s subplot, Bates finally goes to trial for his wife’s murder; Lady Rosamund introduces her new unsuitable suitor (Nigel Havers), who may be more interested in who’s below stairs; and Matthew and Lady Mary continue to pine for one another, while she is blackmailed by her evil fiancé – newspaperman and Murdoch precursor Sir Richard Carlisle. As always, Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Duchess, gets the best lines.

Wilson Dixon: The New Zealand Tour (TV2, 9.30pm). Country boy Wilson Dixon, of Cripple Creek, Colorado, has become a fixture in New Zealand comedy specials and on TV3’s 7 Days with his down-home charm and quirky tunes. He’s the alter-ego of former Dunedinite Jesse Griffin, but takes great pride in fooling Americans – it’s hard to get him to break character, after all. As he told us in preparation for Wilson Dixon: The New Zealand Tour, My Dutch grandma on my mother’s side, Old Ma Ruggescrugger, taught me how to play the fiddle, and the guitar was taught to me by my Uncle Lefty. Lefty only has one arm, so the lessons were slow at first. Actually, they were slow till I found a two-armed teacher.” Life in Cripple Creek influenced his music heavily. “My song Livin’ in Cripple Creek is the best example, and Cripple Creek Nights is also pretty informative. Stop Punching Me in the Face for No Reason is also up there.” You can see why, as much as he has enjoyed New Zealand, he is keen to get back. I would stay, but I’ve promised my Uncle Lefty I’ll go back to Cripple Creek and help him with his gambling addiction. I do feel sorry for him – a one-armed bandit is the only machinery he can operate safely.” The special follows Dixon as he tours the country with band member Snake Whizzle­tits in preparation for a one-off gig at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre, which tops the show.

Boss (Soho, 9.30pm). Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) returns to TV as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, a conniving, brutal, sweary politician who finds out in the first scene that he’s got a deadly degenerative neurological condition and immediately plots to cover it up. It’s Grammer’s first major dramatic TV role after years of sitcom and voice work, and he’s riveting as the Shakespearean lead. Boss is another TV series to have attracted a feature film director – Gus Van Sant (Milk) is the executive producer and directed the first episode. Thought the San Francisco Chronicle’s critic: it’s “sophisticated, morally complex and just plain grown-up”.

Outnumbered (Prime, 9.30pm). Season two of the semi-improvised BBC comedy begins with a wedding. Naturally, the kids embarrass the bride, stump the vicar with thorny religious questions, and mistreat the chocolate fountain. New this season: a next-door neighbour who’s better at raising her brood.

Louis Theroux: Miami Mega Jail (BBC Knowledge, 9.30pm). BBC Knowledge has Louis Theroux every night in February, beginning with this visit to a kind of Hell on Earth. Theroux’s look inside this Miami prison is shocking – not just because of the brutality of the place, but because the powers that be would allow this kind of thing to get out into the public eye at all. The guards mostly leave the inmates to police themselves with their own warped brand of justice – “snitches get stitches” – and many have found themselves there for the most banal reasons. One snitch with stitches tells Theroux he was done for driving with a suspended licence. This is the best thing and the greatest problem about many of Theroux’s documentaries: he has a knack for getting into these places and getting people to talk with his slightly disingenuous non-confrontational stance, but then, he’s in a place that is a true outrage, that shouldn’t exist, but because this is made for a non-US audience, we can only watch and be appalled, with no hope of any kind of change being effected.


Billy Connelly's Route 66 (TV1, 8.30pm). The Big Yin takes to the Main Street of America on his trademark motor trike – news broke after filming that he’d come a cropper while the cameras weren’t rolling and the whole thing nearly fell apart. Going up a steep incline, the bike flipped over backwards, landing on top of him and breaking one of his ribs. Sixty-eight at the time, he took a week’s rest in hospital before continuing – the crash isn’t shown in the show. Watching, you can see why it may have happened: he’s often so busy finding himself amusing it’s a wonder he can keep the thing pointed in a straight line. Really, the way to do Route 66 is in a big American convertible, but never mind. Connelly is good company, as always, and takes great pleasure in winkling out surprising stories behind the road.

Spicks and Specks (TV1, 10.05pm). Comedian Adam Hills hosts this Aussie music panel series that’s reminiscent of the BBC’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks: the point is not to win, but to amuse. The show began in Australia in 2005 and broadcast its final episode in November last year, with critics across the Tasman bidding it a fond farewell. A great example of a panel show done well: a simple format with good guests makes for winning telly. Regular guests include brilliant Australian musical stand-up Tim Minchin and Geordie comedian Ross Noble.


IRB Sevens World Series 2012 (TV1, 12.30pm). The fourth, and most fun leg of the Sevens World Series kicks off in Wellington this afternoon – after Australia, Dubai and South Africa late last year, New Zealand is tied for first with Fiji in the standings, with South Africa and England close behind. A further five legs, ending in England in May, will decide the overall tournament. Live coverage continues at 7.00pm.
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