TNN (Wed., May 24, 8 p.m. ET)
In this concert special, Marty Stuart, the bantam rooster of country music, takes to the stage in an eye-popping spangled jacket that would make Liberace blush. Must be party time. First among his co-revelers is Travis Tritt, who tears into "Hard Times and Misery" and duets with Marty on "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'." But the rowdiest offering comes from the shaggy Kentucky HeadHunters, who crank up some country boogie that has the bite of a snapping turtle. There's a sedate bluegrass interlude halfway through the show with fiddler Vassar Clements. Before this shindig ends, they're up and dancing in the aisles of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Like all good parties, this is over too soon.
HBO (Thurs., May 25, 8 p.m. ET)
This absorbing documentary recounts the sad, strange saga of heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston. Born the 24th of 25 children to a tenant farmer in Arkansas, Liston hitchhiked to St. Louis when he was 13. He first got involved in boxing while serving a prison term for armed robbery in Missouri. (To get a boxing license, Liston's trainers had to manufacture a birth certificate since no one knew when the fighter was born.) Liston rose to become heavyweight champion despite substantiated ties to organized crime and frequent run-ins with police. Liston was a punishing puncher but his most fearsome weapon may have been his malevolent stare. Sportswriter William Nack says that when opponents saw Liston glaring at them across the ring, they would "start bleeding during the national anthem."
Most of this profile is devoted to two controversial events: Liston getting KO'd by recent Islamic convert Muhammed Ali in the first round of their rematch in tiny Lewiston, Maine, in 1965 and the murky circumstances surrounding Liston's death in 1970. Though the coroner ruled that he died of natural causes, rumors of a drug overdose or a Mob hit persist. As this film indicates, Liston's life had mythic and tragic elements.
Showtime (Sun., May 28, 8 p.m. ET)
Billy Dee Williams and Michael Paré team up in a 48 HRS retread. Williams plays an FBI agent who paroles Paré out of prison to help bring down a psychopathic criminal mastermind (Patrick Bergin). Just like Nick Nolte, Billy Dee drives around in an old gas-guzzling convertible. And (big surprise here) the movie's action climax takes place in Chinatown.
As Paré sets about entrapping Bergin in a diamond heist, he finds himself falling for Bergin's girlfriend (Ashley Laurence). How can he resist? Before meeting Bergin, she once pranced through a ZZ Top video, placing her in the pop Valhalla of female beauty.
True to the arithmetic of the title, the plot takes some strange twists as it drifts to a close. This is precisely the type of gamey back-alley thriller Michael Ironside starred in for years on Showtime before he went legit on ER this season.
Comedy Central (Sundays, 10:30 p.m. ET)
The channel's first foray into animation is this droll series about a Manhattan psychiatrist (voice of comedian Jonathan Katz). He must contend with his grownup slugabed son who still lives at home and with an office full of nutty patients (voices and neuroses provided by stand-up comics like Larry Miller, Laura Kightlinger and Dom Irerra). Dr. Katz is a cartoon cross between The Bob Newhart Show and Seinfeld.
>TUBE: Marty Stuart cranks up a Nashville soiree; HBO sheds light on the life and death of Sonny Liston; Disney revives Swamp Fox
SCREEN: Braveheart is a serviceable epic filled with Mel Gibson; Casper seems D.O.A.; In Forget Paris, Debra Winger and Billy Crystal explore the pitfalls of marriage—and comedy
SONG: Naughty by Nature celebrates Poverty's Paradise; Celine Dion's French Album needs translation; Bob Dylan returns on MTV Unplugged
PAGES: Kathryn Harrison resurrects a princess in Poison; Willie Morris remembers his childhood pooch; Norman Mailer sets his high-powered sights on Lee Harvey Oswald
>THE TAIL OF A HERO
THE DISNEY CHANNEL DUSTS OFF A TV classic from 1959, Swamp Fox (Saturdays, 2 p.m. ET), about Revolutionary War leader Francis Marion, who waged a guerrilla campaign of trickery and subterfuge against the British soldiers and their Tory sympathizers in 1780s Carolina. Playing Marion with deadly earnest is none other than Leslie Nielsen, best known today as the transcendently goofy star of the Naked Gun movies. Some of the other familiar faces who turn up in supporting roles in this vintage show are Slim Pickens, J. Patrick O'Malley and Patrick Macnee.
Swamp Fox lasted only eight episodes, a quick hook that Nielsen blames not on low ratings but on international politics. Reached on a break from filming Dracula: Dead and Loving It, a Mel Brooks spoof (in which Nielsen plays the notorious vampire), the actor explained that the series was banned in Canada after a debate in the House of Commons there. Canada had strong ties to the mother country in those days. "You can imagine Walt Disney's reaction to getting banned," Nielsen says. "He might as well have made a pornographic movie. That was the beginning of the end for the series."
Swamp Fox was the last in a line of historical costume dramas that Disney experimented with in the late '50s. The character's trademark was his tri-cornered hat with a fox tail insouciantly perched on its brim. ("Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat," went the theme song, "Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox at.") That costuming flourish was a naked attempt by Disney to recapture the astounding merchandising boon of Davy Crockett's coon-skin cap. The Swamp Fox chapeau never caught on, even with its wearer. Asked if he got to keep that jaunty accessory, Nielsen responds with a booming laugh, "I really didn't want the hat."
HAVE YOU NOTICED THE WAY PRIME-TIME plots seem to be marching in pairs this month? On Delivery Room Thursday, we watched back-to-back births on Friends and ER. Then there was Cold Feet Monday, when the lead characters on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Murphy Brown developed last-minute doubts en route to the altar and called off their weddings. I'll tell you one thing: If next Friday's X-Files deals with teenage vampires, I'm not sticking around for Step by Step.