Critic's choice


Sun-Tues, 7.30pm, Channel Ten

If there's one thing the MasterChef team knows how to do well it's creating beautiful-looking television, and the opening five minutes of this latest addition to the franchise are an absolute feast. From the mood shots of Marco Pierre White as a young god of the kitchen to the food, the contestants and the new MasterChef digs (a massive undertaking at the Melbourne Showgrounds), everything is perfectly framed and carefully considered. And that confidence and sure touch are evident in just about everything else that transpires, particularly in this opening episode. (It's as immaculately choreographed as an Olympic Games opening ceremony.) There's been care taken to blend the new with the familiar. Yes, there's someone crying. There's someone else telling us how this will change their life. There's the B-I-G music to let us know this is high-stakes, earth-shattering stuff. Of course there's the whoosh of the trademark MasterChef flame. And when Matt Preston walks on set, it feels like welcoming home an old friend. But there's plenty that's fresh, too. No auditions, for a start. The 18 professional chefs - a suitably mixed bunch - have already been painstakingly chosen for demographic and racial diversity, and for their compelling and/or tragic backstories. And when Matt and then White enter the room, no one shrieks or gasps (although a lot of eyes pop out of a lot of heads). These are professionals, after all, not giddy kids. Along with plenty of familiar challenges, there are a couple of new hurdles facing the contestants, the most fun of which is the ''service'' challenge that opens proceedings tonight. The chefs must work together in a purpose-built commercial kitchen - under White's fond, but stern, eye - to serve 100-plus diners in an on-site restaurant. It brings a touch of Hell's Kitchen to proceedings - in a good way - and reminds us these are indeed professionals. There are plenty of folk to love among the chefs (and just enough to deplore), and the rapid rate of elimination (two a week) really raises the stakes. The shining jewel, though, in this glossy confection is Chef White. Delivering just the right amount of theatre, always keeping it on the better side of hammy, with a twinkle in his eye and a bone-dry sense of humour, he is both compelling and utterly loveable. Add an easy camaraderie with Preston, and you have a near-perfect package. Great stuff.

Monday, 9.30pm, ABC1

An intriguing Australian/French/US collaboration documenting the life and work of Daniel Everett. Thirty-five years ago the then-devout Christian travelled down the Amazon and deep into the Brazilian jungle to translate the Bible for the Piraha people and, thus, convert them. But in the long process of learning the language - and, of course, the culture - Everett started to wonder if perhaps they didn't need saving after all. In fact, he became the convert. But that's only the beginning of the story. He then used his study of the language to write a PhD at an eminent US university. Still all good. The problems - and controversy - arose when that thesis refuted Noam Chomsky's chief precept about language: that its structures are universal and embedded in human DNA. The academic war that ensued is as alarming as it is thought-provoking; the fate of the Piraha people bitter-sweet; and for anyone interested in language and its purpose and influence, the discussions here are absolutely fascinating.

Monday, 9.30pm, Eleven

Season two of American Horror Story is subtitled ''Asylum'', and is there anything creepier - or a richer source of creepy stories - than an old, rundown mental institution? Just such a Victorian pile is the site of this year's horror and, as we've come to expect, Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy and their writers seem to be taking full advantage of its potential. This is such a clever series in so many ways: creating interwoven stories across decades; playing with familiar horror and splatter tropes but making them feel fresh and full of punch; beautifully edited and produced to generate maximum gasp-making; lots of attention to character; and splendidly cast. Only Jessica Lange returns from season one, and she again steals every scene in which she appears (in this episode as a bitter, authoritarian nun), but new regulars Zachary Quinto and Joseph Fiennes both hold their own. And behind the splatter, AHS continues to explore its pet themes - feminism, sexuality, aberrant psychology - in all kinds of unexpected and interesting ways.

Saturday, 8.30pm, Channel Ten

First, a warning: This special seems to have started life as a marketing exercise between the Meat & Livestock Corporation and Channel Ten's sales department, so if you thought the cross-promotion on the cricket, The Block or MasterChef was in your face, steel yourself. On the upside, at least they've created a potentially entertaining vehicle for endless promotions for lamb chops: a comedy debate on the subject of whether you can in fact ever be too Australian. Coming on board are the usual Ten suspects, but they're a quality bunch. Roving Enterprises is producing, Charlie Pickering will host, and taking up the cudgels for and against are Lawrence Mooney, Tom Gleeson, Akmal, Meshel Laurie, Denise Scott and my favourite, Kitty Flanagan, with special cameos from (of course) Sam Kekovich. Despite its origins, this actually looks like a whole lot of fun.


Monday, 5.20pm, 9pm, Showcase

In another reminder that cable TV is the place for intelligent female actors, Enlightened gives Laura Dern the kind of role no movie - and few network series - would dare. We met Dern's Amy Jellicoe in season one as she returned from rehab after her professional life imploded, determined to impose her new-found New Age philosophies on everyone around her. As season two opened, her commitment as an agent of change only deepened - or became more obsessive - when she discovered the multinational she works for is not a good corporate citizen. Amy is an anxious-making character who is difficult to love - intense, annoying, slightly unhinged. Even her best impulses are skewed through her profound self-obsession. And watching her this season gain entry to a higher-powered and more glamorous world is as excruciating as it is funny. She's a kind of village idiot or court jester: crazy, but also crazy enough to speak the truth. We do all need a life that's about more than dying by inches. If the corporate world behaves unethically, that's still wrong, even if it's legal. And all those elements are in play tonight as she and Tyler (Enlightened's writer and co-creator, Mike White) decide to bring down the company for which they work. Enlightened also has a lovely attention to detail in its production. The basement office in which the IT drones spend their days is a work of art in both its styling and its casting; Amy's kooky outfits are note-perfect; and sunny LA has never looked so bleak or alienating. Intelligent television in every way.

Tuesday, 9.30pm, Lifestyle You

Sure, some of the mothers are pieces of work. But the monster at the heart of this compelling car-crash series is dance instructor Abby Lee Miller. From the pyramid of shame, in which each week she slowly reveals which tiny tots will star and which are at the bottom of the heap, to her unique way of motivating the under-10s, she's the kind of character you just couldn't invent. Or you could - to great comedic effect - but no one would believe such a person exists in real life. Only she does, from her jowly frown to her long, black-lacquered talons. Tonight Abby's preparing her charges for another big dance competition. After a week's bullying and haranguing, the little girls finally take to the stage. And they actually do pretty well. But that doesn't stop Abby from roaring "Second place is as good as losing!" Now there's a life lesson for you, kids.

Monday, 7.30pm, NatGeo

In an episode entitled "Protecting the President", suitably earnest Secret Service agents talk us through their brushes with danger and death while escorting various US presidents around the world. We open in Morocco, where President Bill Clinton is one of many world leaders escorting King Hussein's funeral cortege from the palace to the mausoleum. We're with George Bush snr in Panama soon after the overthrow of Manuel Noriega; Bush jnr in Tbilisi during anti-US riots; and Clinton again, this time in Islamabad shortly after Osama bin Laden has declared death to all Americans. It's real boys'-own stuff, from the lingo to the lavish weaponry: kind of cool, and actually rather interesting.

Thursday, 8.30pm, Studio

Who but a Melbourne artist would think of this? Visiting 12 of the world's best restaurants, sketching the kitchens during service, then creating a suite of definitive foodie paintings? (Not to mention obviously finding funding to finance the whole enterprise.) Well, good on him. Nice work if you can get it. Tonight we're first in Brussels, then in Paris, experiencing two very different kinds of venues, meeting some very different characters and getting an insight into not just the artist's process but the restaurant business and the cities in which the action takes place. This is smartly and evocatively filmed and edited, and if nothing about this is revelatory, it certainly makes for a delicious package.

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