If you watch only one program this week, don't miss "49 Up" on "P.O.V." (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings). The seventh in director Michael Apted's ("Coal Miner's Daughter) "Up" films, this remarkable documentary continues one of the most intense and intimate character studies in the history of television.
Back in 1964, Apted and his crew interviewed a group of 7-year-old students from a cross-section of British society for the film "7 Up." Since then he's caught up with them every seven years for documentary updates, "14 Up," "21 Up," etc.
Apted's "kids" are now 49. Hairlines have taken a beating, and waists have thickened. Many are parents and grandparents. Some divorced and others soldiered through marriages that seemed rather rocky in the earlier films.
Apted's profiles constantly cut between "Up" versions, offering us snippets of each character at different ages. It's fascinating to see both consistencies and abrupt and dramatic change. A sullen and cynical 14-year-old girl morphs into a chain-smoking, 21-year-old neurotic who marries somewhere before her "28 Up" film and settles down to become an elegant wife and mother. But she's not sure she doesn't hate and resent Apted's invasion of her privacy and threatens that she won't appear in "56 Up."
After seven films, the subjects' relationship with Apted and their place in the "Up" series stir up controversy. One woman complains that she was treated unfairly in her "42 Up" film and doesn't know whether she wants to do it any more. Many of the characters simply can't recognize their former "7 Up" selves. It's impossible to watch "Up" and not put yourself in their position. How would you react to this periodic scrutiny and to becoming a human time capsule?
Apted's films also offer a glimpse at a changing England. The first black-and-white film reflects a gritty country not far removed from postwar deprivations. The latest films show grown-up kids from London's East End slums buying vacation villas in Spain.
Apted's "Up" films are so well-known that they've been parodied on "The Simpsons." While created for the British Granada network, they've long transcended mere television. Critic Roger Ebert considers the series to be among the 10 greatest films of all time. The "Up" films set a gold standard for the documentary genre and fulfill the promise of what "reality TV" can be.
¢ TV-themed DVDs available today include the first season of "Meerkat Manor."
Tonight's other highlights
¢ The documentary "Dear Talula" (6:30 p.m., Cinemax) follows one woman's struggle with breast cancer.
¢ A killer haunts a kinky demimonde on "Bones"
(7 p.m., Fox).
¢ "Nova" (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings) looks at secrets of the Samurai sword.
¢ House continues to evaluate and eliminate new candidates on "House" (8 p.m., Fox).
¢ The devil, the flesh and a toaster on "Reaper" (8 p.m., CW).
¢ Republican presidential candidates debate economic matters (8 p.m., MSNBC).
¢ The documentary "We Feed the World" (8:35 p.m., Sundance) examines the pressures that a globalized economy puts on agriculture.
¢ Alex puts Frank to the test on "Cane" (9 p.m., CBS).
¢ A troubled teen's teacher (Melissa Joan Hart) falls under suspicion on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (9 p.m., NBC).
¢ The firm puts cockfighting on trial on "Boston Legal"
(9 p.m., ABC).