Worth Watching: Last Dance on ‘Dancing’ — With Cher! — a Freeform ‘Wrap Battle,’ Lin-Manuel Miranda Joins ‘Dark Materials,’ Acorn’s ‘Balthazar’ from France
A selective critical checklist of notable Monday TV:
Dancing with the Stars (8/7c, ABC): Two musicians (Lauren Alaina and Ally Brooke), a Bachelorette (Hannah Brown) and a comedian (Kel Mitchell) are the Final Four who’ll compete for the Mirrorball in the final round of a season that created some controversy over unpopular new voting procedures and the casting of a political lightning rod whose dance moves left everything to be desired. A pity James Van Der Beek was eliminated a week too soon, but the remaining couples open the finale with a routine to the appropriate tune of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” Guests include the legendary Cher with her immortal hit “The Beat Goes On,” Pitbull and Ne-Yo. As in past years, the all-important freestyle dance may decide who wins this season’s glittery prize.
Wrap Battle (9/8c, Freeform): “They cut, they paste, embellish and fold. Their glue guns are ready, their ribbons are rolled.” Twas the month before Christmas as host Sheryl Underwood (The Talk) intros a campy new holiday-themed competition series all about gift-wrapping. (Next year, tree trimming?) Like Project Runway with double-sided tape, this good-natured and giddy craft contest pits nine contestants in challenges including, in the opener, cloaking awkwardly oversized gift objects — a weight-lifting station, a lawn mower, a foosball table — in paper and trimmings without a box. Underwood is joined by judges Carson Kressley and Wanda Wen (founder of stationery/luxury paper brand Soolip) to determine the winner and who’ll be sent packing with the sendoff, “It’s a wrap for you.”
His Dark Materials (9/8c, HBO): Teenage hero Lyra (Dafne Keen) arrives in the North, which feels more like a frigid Wild West, in her quest to rescue missing children in this lavish picaresque fantasy. By the time the episode is over, she’s gathered some new travel companions, including Iorek (Joe Tandberg), an armored bear who’s seen better days, and swaggering aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Hamilton‘s jaunty Lin-Manuel Miranda), a Texas cowboy in spirit who’s not above brawling in the local bar.
College Behind Bars (9/8c, PBS, check local listings at pbs.org): And you thought your final exams were tough. In a compelling two-night documentary from Lynn Novick, making her solo directorial debut after collaborating for years with Ken Burns (an executive producer here), College follows the incarcerated men and women who’ve enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative. Redemption is on the syllabus of this grueling academic program, as inmate s —many convicted of serious crimes — study the classics, advanced math and other challenging subjects, while a debate team preps to go up against West Point and even, in a news-making contest, Harvard. All the while, they speak frankly of their pasts with regret and of their more enlightened futures with hope.
Balthazar (streaming on Acorn TV): The morgue and crime scenes are more gruesome than the American norm, but otherwise, this French procedural (with subtitles) is a solid and inviting crime drama with a charming lead in Tomer Sisley as forensic pathologist Raphaël Balthazar. Baiting a no-nonsense new Chief Inspector (Hélène de Fougerolles) with his cocky wit — “Sorry for being in a good mood,” he quips while inspecting a victim’s body — Balthazar is unusually observant as he helps the Paris detectives solve a tricky double murder. Shades of Six Feet Under as he carries on conversations with the victims, when he’s not speeding through the City of Light’s fast lanes, a way of coping with a tragedy 12 years earlier: the unsolved murder of his beloved Lise (Pauline Cheviller), who also appears in his waking dreams. C’est bon.
Inside Monday TV: CBS’ enduring daytime soap The Young and the Restless (12:30/11:30c, 11:30/PT) celebrates the 30th anniversary of series star Peter Bergman as Jack Abbott, reliving his and his family’s high and lows (with classic clips) as he reads his sister Traci’s (Beth Maitland) memoir… Hallmark’s A Christmas Duet (8/7c) reunites a pop-music duo who were also a couple (Rome Flynn and Chaley Rose) at a Christmas festival, where they’ll be making beautiful music again before it’s all over… With his serial-killer dad (Michael Sheen) in solitary, and the “Junkyard Killer” case taken over by the FBI, profiler Malcolm (Tom Payne) decides to embrace normality on Fox’s anything-but-normal crime drama Prodigal Son (9/8c). That doesn’t last long, once he accepts a challenge to “profile” his latest date… It’s the final case for NBC’s Bluff City Law (10/9c), when Elijah (Jimmy Smits) and daughter Sydney (Caitlin McGee) race the clock to get political asylum for a foreign journalist.