Worth Watching: ‘Witches’ on HBO Max, the Final Debate, ‘Equal’ Time for LGBTQ Pioneers, Chelsea Handler’s Stand-Up

Equal Anthony Rapp HBO Max

A selective critical checklist of notable Thursday TV:

The Witches (streaming on HBO Max): The small(er) screen opens up again for the big screen as Robert Zemeckis’ colorful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s fantasy bypasses movie theaters during the pandemic for an early pre-Halloween streaming debut. (The movie will play in select theaters internationally starting Oct. 28.) With Kenya Barris (black-ish) and Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) co-writing the screenplay with Zemeckis, this is the whimsical story of a young orphan (Jahzir Kadeen Bruno) who goes to live with his feisty grandmother (Octavia Spencer) in 1967, where they discover a powerful coven of witches, led by Anne Hathaway, who are plotting to turn children into mice. The impressive cast features Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth and Chris Rock.

The Presidential Debate (9/8c, 6/PT, all major broadcast and news networks): Much like the campaign itself, this has been a TV debate season like no other. The first was a train wreck marred by constant interruptions. The second was canceled when the Interrupter in Chief refused to appear remotely after his COVID-19 diagnosis, resulting in a sorry spectacle of dueling town halls (the challenger won that ratings race). And now the climax: the final faceoff between the current president and former vice president with NBC’s Kristen Welker moderating from Nashville’s Belmont University. In an unprecedented twist reflecting the tone of our times, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has decided to mute microphones at the start of each segment, allowing each to speak without interruption for two minutes before open debate. We’ll see how that works out. The topics are expected to include COVID-19, race, climate change, national security, leadership and American families.

Equal (streaming on HBO Max): On a busy day for the streamer, a four-part docuseries shines an important light on lesser-known pioneers of the LGBTQ-rights movement in the decades before the Stonewall riots catapulted gay liberation into the headlines. Glee‘s Billy Porter breathlessly narrates the accounts of early gay-rights organizations, trans people, activists and street warriors, a chronicle somewhat cheapened by thin dramatizations. Still, these stories deserve to be told. (See the full review.)

Also new to HBO Max: Chelsea Handler: Evolution, the first stand-up special from the irreverent comic in six years. Filmed in front of a live audience with COVID safety protocols, Handler leads her fans on a journey of self-discovery, revealing her first brush with therapy and what she’s learned about why everything and everyone used to tick her off so much.

Connecting… (8/7c, NBC): The Zoom-style comedy series gets topical, as multi-tasking Michelle (Jill Knox) tries to meet a work deadline from home and prepare food for a socially distanced dinner, all the while fielding calls from her “woke” white friends who want to talk about race in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Her husband, Garrett (Keith Powell), is no help, burying his feelings by playing video games remotely with her brother, Ben (Preacher Lawson) — who’s suddenly become the recipient of guilt-edged reparation gifts.

Inside Thursday TV: Remember David Letterman‘s stupid pet tricks? The spirit lives on as Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias hosts Nickelodeon’s Unleashed (7/6c), a comedic competition featuring such wild animal acts as a water-skiing squirrel and a cheerleading goat. A jury of kids and celebrities (Peyton List, Preacher Lawson, Utkarsh Ambudkar) decides who earns the title of “Most Entertaining Pet” in back-to-back episodes… The CW’s Supernatural (8/7c) is in flashback mode, as Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) look into the murder of a childhood friend, which stirs up memories of a case from long ago… After last week’s premiere of CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery, which followed Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) arrival into the far future, it’s time to see how the Discovery itself fares after crash-landing through the wormhole. Two heroes walk into an unwelcoming bar when Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) head out to make first contact while seeking Burnham, encountering miners and a confrontational courier played by Jake Weber.