Worth Watching: ‘Black Beauty’ and a ‘Pet Project,’ Debbie Allen’s ‘Dance Dreams,’ Lea Salonga in Concert, a ‘Dear Christmas’ Romance
A selective critical checklist of notable Friday TV:
Black Beauty (streaming on Disney+): We’ve come a long way since Mister Ed. A modern update of Anna Sewell’s beloved novel depicts the deep bond that forms between teenager Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy) and the horse named Black Beauty, who was born wild in the American West. In this upgrade, Beauty has been given the voice of none other than Oscar-winner Kate Winslet.
The Pet Project (9/8c, CBS): The acclaimed CBS Sunday Morning team takes a rare detour into prime time for a special that focuses on our love for animals, which has only grown during a time of social distancing and quarantine. Jane Pauley hosts the hour, which includes a visit with Bindi Irwin and her sibling, carrying on the conservation mission of their late father, Crocodile Hunter Steve, plus a history of presidential pets and a look at the giant panda cub born this summer at D.C.’s National Zoo. Perfect for cuddling up with your own pet to watch.
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker (streaming on Netflix): From Shondaland comes a stirring documentary that goes behind the scenes of the versatile Debbie Allen‘s self-named Dance Academy, as her gifted and diverse students prepare for the annual staging of Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, Allen’s stylized reimagining of the Tchaikovsky ballet classic. Dance Dreams also looks back at Allen’s inspiring and groundbreaking career, which currently includes a recurring role on Shonda Rhimes‘ Grey’s Anatomy, where she’s also an executive producer and frequent director.
Lea Salonga in Concert (9/8c, PBS, check local listings at pbs.org): Before she was the voice of two iconic Disney princesses (in Aladdin and Mulan), Lea Salonga won a Tony as Broadway’s first Miss Saigon. In a lavish concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from the city’s majestic Opera House, Salonga sings her signature hits (“Reflection” and “A Whole New World”) with Broadway and pop favorites. Of special note: a tribute to the late Barbara Cook with a medley of “Will He Like Me” and “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me, and “Till There Was You” from the soon-to-be-revived (if Broadway ever reopens) The Music Man.
The Yuletide Express: You can take your pick of holiday movies, but Lifetime brings some potent TV nostalgia by pairing former TV Sabrina Melissa Joan Hart with O.G. 90210 star Jason Priestley in Dear Christmas (8/7c). She’s the host of a romance-themed Holiday Love podcast who’s never experienced the real thing, until she visits back home, where a local firefighter (Priestley) warms her heart.
Hallmark Channel counters with Five Star Christmas (8/7c), starring Bethany Joy Lenz as a loyal daughter who schemes with her sibs to get her dad’s new B&B a good review from a visiting travel critic who’s traveling incognito. What are the odds the handsome guy (Victor Webster) she’s falling for could be the one they’re trying to impress?
More traditional holiday specials include the Dr. Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas (8/7c) on NBC, followed by the new Minions Holiday Special (8:30/7:30c), with four mini-movie misadventures featuring those adorable Minions, plus characters from Illumination franchises The Secret Life of Pets and Sing… CBS gives us back-to-back snowman action with Frosty the Snowman (8/7c) and Frosty Returns (8:30/7:30c), while ABC offers the 1970 Rankin-Bass favorite Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (8/7c), narrated by Fred Astaire.
Inside Friday TV: Comedy Central brings back one of its most popular stand-up stars with Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special (8/7c), filmed recently in Malibu in front of a socially distanced audience. There’s no separation, though, between the ventriloquist and his colorful cast of characters… Holiday-themed competitions include HGTV’s Biggest Little Christmas Showdown (9/8c), hosted by Aladdin Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart, who oversees a showdown among top miniaturists to see who can create the best tiny holiday home with itsy bitsy trimmings… A second season of Netflix’s Sugar Rush Christmas brings bakers together to compete with seasonal treats while the clock never stops ticking… Also on Netflix: a second season of the sudsy drama Virgin River, starring Alexandra Breckenridge (This Is Us) as a midwife caught up in all kinds of personal dramas.