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This Weekend, Every Night Brings Something Special: Conan Friday, "Taking Chance" Saturday, Oscars Sunday
February 20, 2009  | By David Bianculli


Every night this weekend, there's a great reason to turn on your TV. Conan O'Brien presides over his final Late Night show on Friday, HBO presents the excellent Taking Chance telemovie on Saturday, and ABC presents the Oscars on Sunday...

FRIDAY: Late Night with Conan O'Brien (12:35 a.m. ET Friday/Saturday, NBC). Sixteen years after he started, O'Brien says goodbye to the East Coast, in peparation for his taking over the reins of the Tonight Show this fall.


His countdown to this farewell show has been quite good -- and, with its servings of lengthy clips and well-edited compilations from previous shows, quite generous. (Great to see the Triumph Star Wars piece again.) Earlier this week, Nathan Lane showed up to offer a musical farewell to O'Brien, just as Bette Midler had with Johnny Carson. Thursday night, Jerry Seinfeld came on to perform standup, then enjoy one last 30 Rock sitdown with the second host of NBC's Late Night.

The first, of course, was David Letterman, now in the 11:35 slot at CBS. In a few months, they'll go head to head. Results will be interesting, but one thing the two comedians have in common, indisputably, is a reverence for the deep history of The Tonight Show. Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson. But that's not the show O'Brien is inheriting, not in weight or substance, so all bets are off.

Still, 16 years at the helm is something to honor, especially with a tenure that began so tenuously, with NBC offering no firm support. I was a TV critic the whole time, and liked O'Brien from his introductory press conference. And I wouldn't be surprised, on tonight's show, if the host didn't put down his mask of ironic detachment, at least for a few minutes, and express some sincere nostalgia, wistfulness and thanks.

SATURDAY: Taking Chance (8 p.m. ET, HBO). As President Obama reopens the debate about allowing the media to record images of the caskets of soldiers being shipped back from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this new telemovie recreates the actual journey of one Marine (Mike Strobl, who co-wrote the screenplay), escorting the body of another (19-year-old fellow Marine Chance Phelps) across the country to their mutual home town.


Strobl is played by Kevin Bacon, with a quiet stoicism and simmering empathy that mirrors the entire movie perfectly. First-time director Ross Katz does a great job here. He's all about the details, the images, and especially the silences. This movie may have the fewest lines of dialogue for any film since Wall-E, and the restraint, and the silence, builds like a symphony.

Taking Chance is by no means anti-war, or even remotely political. It's about the measure of loss, and the respect for sacrifice -- and as the lieutenant colonel proudly escorts his junior serviceman through airline checks and across America's roadways, the tiny but telling shows of gratitude and emotion for his fallen comrade eventually touch him deeply.

They'll do the same to you, too. It's a flawless, focused drama. There's not a frame in it that couldn't -- and shouldn't -- have been shown on broadcast TV, but the "major networks" aren't making movies like HBO's Taking Chance any more.

So which, I ask you, is the REAL major network these days?

SUNDAY -- 81st Annual Academy Awards (8:30 pm. ET, ABC). Hugh Jackman hosts, which might be interesting. This telecast is an annual rite of TV passage, though the red-carpet pre-show has gotten too painful and inept to watch. Start with The Barbara Walters Special at 7 ET, take a break, and return for the Oscars.




Davis Didjeridu said:

As someone who saw Taking Chance at Sundance in January, I can absolutely attest to the power of that film. There wasn't a dry eye in the auditorium full of people, including my own. Every comment to the director, Kevin Bacon, and Lt. Col. Strobl were adoringly kind. Many veterans, military families, and Gold Star families expressed praise. I do hope it gets larger distribution than simply on HBO. (Thanks for this perspective. Glad to hear it. REALLY glad. -- David B.)

Comment posted on February 20, 2009 1:52 PM

Sarah said:

It is a good weekend for TV. I am looking forward to watching Taking Chance, so thank you for bringing it to our attention. As for the Academy Awards, well, I look forward to them every year, so this Sunday is no different. You're right, Hugh Jackman IS going to be interesting. As hard as it is to watch the pre-show, it's nice to know that I would be able to do a better job then your Ryan Seacrests and Lisa Rinnas of the world. I'm pretty sure I know more about the nominees then they do and would not embarrass anyone in the process. So I will watch, like always, but Barbara Walters is a good fallback.

Comment posted on February 21, 2009 2:10 PM

giggles said:

I'm not necessarily a Conan fan, but I watched, 'cuz you said it'd be good.... I had myself quite a fun time!! It was lol funny. And his farewell was quite touching. I'll have to check him out when he comes back....

Saw Taking Chance and sobbed the entire film.... I had no idea this treatment was given to fallen Marines and that so many people know of this and give so much respect....

I'll be curious about your comments re: the Oscars... I liked it better this year, especially the announcement of the major awards by the groups of past recipients....very classy.... Why don't they do away with the less pertinent and less important ones for us industry outsiders? I mean, the shorts, for example.... Who ever sees any of the shorts, documentary or otherwise?! The acadamy could do most of this show in their own off-the-air-preshow, and then come on the air with a coupla big production numbers and the big awards and be done with the whole affair in an hour and a half, tops! They'd get more viewers, better ratings, I bet... I was also thinking maybe they could add a few more catagories...best comedy...best action....they'd get more viewers that way too and give recognition to good films that typically get ignored! (Thanks for watching Conan and Chance -- My Oscars take is the newest BIANCULLI'S BLOG. -- David B.)

Comment posted on February 23, 2009 11:11 AM
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