Critic's choice: the week ahead in TV

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THE X FACTOR
Tuesday, Wednesday, 7.30pm, Channel Seven  ★★★☆

Watching The X Factor this year is a lesson in how to make a contemporary reality/shiny-floor show. The thing everyone is talking about is the talent, the incredible voices on display. But people singing top-40 hits, albeit splendidly, is not enough these days. (Although it’s certainly a prerequisite.) What really impresses is the finesse of the storytelling, the way the producers have taken what’s by now a pretty tired format and kept the baby, and the bathwater, but made both somehow more compelling. So the voices are there. The backstories are there. We have the judges: sweet Natalie, earnest Guy, cool Ronan and tough MelB. We’ve been through the auditions and then The X Factor’s patented process: boot camp, home visits, final selection and on to the live shows. But it’s not so much what happens as how it happens that is making this series such appointment viewing for so many people. Each episode contains just enough of a recap to remind us of who we’re looking at, and to introduce the players to new viewers. That’s something for which there’s no formula. Director, producers and editors just have to have a feel for it. The backstories are there, but they’re not hammered so much we get sick of hearing about them. Instead, each stage of the competition reintroduces elements of that history to inform the performance and help us get to know the contestants that little bit better. It’s always presented in context. The action physically moves around: from the audition auditorium to boot-camp studio, the homes of the judges and then, variously, to London and New York for the final stages of pre-performance judging. That constantly shifting background helps maintain our interest through a familiar process. And each episode is beautifully structured to provide a real sense of narrative movement. Now, of course, we’re in to the live shows, with the audience at home participating in the process, and all that ground work starts to pay off. We know where these people have come from. We’ve been on the journey with them. We’re judging their performances but we are also — thanks to that careful mapping and implementing of the narrative — involved with them personally. And it’s that, far more than any twists, gimmicks or even great voices, that has people hooked.

ARE WE STILL EVOLVING?
Today, 8.30pm, SBS One  ★★★☆

All kinds of fascinating questions are raised - and some of them answered - in this brisk, wide-ranging doco. At its heart is the notion that as we protect ourselves more and more from our natural environment - through nutrition, shelter, medicine - we might perhaps have circumvented the very foundation of ''survival of the fittest''. As one expert points out, infant mortality is certainly tragic but it has also served an evolutionary function, making sure only the strongest and healthiest made it through to adulthood and were therefore able to reproduce. Now of course, at least in the developed world, infant mortality is blessedly low. But what are the implications of that for the long-term well-being of the human race? At the same time, we've gone beyond protecting ourselves from or curing disease, to now being able to select embryos free from genetic defects. How will something such as that affect Homo sapiens' future? Like most things biological, there's no simple cause and effect. It's a complicated web through which the likeable Dr Alice Roberts cheerfully talks us, concluding that we are indeed still evolving, in all sorts of unexpected ways.

PINEAPPLE DANCE STUDIOS
Friday, 8.30pm, ABC2    ★★★☆

The truly amazing thing about this outrrrrageous series is that it is actually a reality show/documentary, and not a satire on one. Honestly, you could not make up characters such as these: Louie Spence, of course, the camp, lisping, screen-hogging pocket dynamo; the tragicomic Andrew Stone, still determined to become an overnight success after 15 years of slogging away at the pop superstar dream. And even the permanently bewildered studio founder, Debbie Moore, who gives every appearance of now paying the price for having way too much fun in the 1970s. We also love the heightened sensibility everyone brings to it, from the arch to-camera pieces to the weird ''secret'' dance numbers and the superb narration delivered sonorously by British newsreader Michael Buerk.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE
Saturday, 9.30pm, SBS One   ★★★☆

Perhaps making up for the years-long wait since it screened on pay TV, SBS is providing a super-size serving of this lavish period piece. It's actually a good fit for the other national broadcaster, taking us emphatically to another time and place, but with a bit of an edge. Steve Buscemi is Nucky Thompson, in 1920 the treasurer of Atlantic City and a man with his fingers in every corrupt pie there is, including bootleg liquor. Directed by Martin Scorsese and costing close to $20 million, it's as notable for its pin-perfect sets as it is for any actual acting. And for some of us, that fetishistic attention to period detail is a bit of a distraction throughout this first season. For others, though, the sweeping character drama, the complex gangster business, the blazing guns and the cross and double-cross make Boardwalk Empire compulsive viewing. Here's your chance to make up your own mind.

PAY TV

HELL ON WHEELS
Wednesday, 9.30pm, FX  ★★★☆

It's not quite Deadwood (what is?) but there's still plenty to enjoy in this mean, dirty, bloodthirsty Wild West adventure. It's the mid-1860s, a riotous time in American history, with Civil War enmities still fresh, race relations fraught and the business of building a transcontinental railway (the enterprise to which the title refers) a ferocious business indeed. It's certainly a world where you just know a pristine Nebraska morning will inevitably devolve into something nasty, and where when a young man says ''I'll be home soon …'' that's anything but a certainty. Despite its grubbiness, despite the blood and the mud, this also captures a great deal of the wild beauty of the country the Union Pacific company is in the process of pillaging. A cracking soundtrack - both the original score and a canny selection of contemporary alt-western - also add to the pleasure. And although our nominal hero is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a Confederate soldier on an epic, endless quest for revenge, a big ensemble means there's plenty to keep a broad audience engaged. Colm Meaney as railroad boss Durant is compelling, but smaller characters such as free slave Mr Ferguson (rapper Common) and the tattooed lady Eva (Robin McLeavy) are complex and full of interest. Indeed, tonight Cullen barely features. We're very much caught up in the business of Durant's namesake town being sacked by Indians (it turns out the Sioux have declared war on him), and the murky business of the death of a local whore by one of the patrons, requiring some rough western justice.

ARCHER
Today, 9.30pm, Comedy  ★★★☆

Who knew Sterling Archer had a hero? Although, having discovered this to be the case, his choice of hero is less surprising. As is the fact that his mother, Mallory, is dating said hero. Also not surprising - but delightful - is the superb way this story plays out. ''The Hero'' (no spoilers, but the character does guest star as himself) is splendidly realised, from the basic but evocative animation to the script and stunts. It's fabulous. But wait! There's more! Those pesky gay Cuban assassins are back with their sights firmly on Archer, and while he's obsessing over the Hero, the ISIS team (including an unfortunately wheelchair-bound field agent) are obliged to watch his back. It's action-packed, astoundingly rude, ferociously fast and deceptively clever. In short, three seasons in and this magnificently wrong comedy just keeps getting better.

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION AUSTRALIA
Wednesday, 8.30pm, LifeStyle  ★★★☆

In a classic case of making hay, this series has done great things with a sluggish property market. In several episodes, Bryce and Veronica have managed to find some serious dream homes at genuine bargain prices. The choice of talent has also been terrific: our house hunters have reliably been as interesting as they are likeable, and in tonight's episode all those elements come together. One blended family has three preschoolers, two weekend teenagers and $2 million-plus to spend on Sydney's north shore. Our other shoppers are an impossibly good-looking New Agey couple with a toddler, with $650,000 in their pocket and their eyes on the Noosa hinterland. At least one family get the happy ending they so richly deserve.

STORAGE WARS
Tuesday, 7.30pm, A&E  ★★★☆

Along with the wonderful characters - their distinctive styles, their special tricks and techniques, their diverse but uniformly large egos - what makes Storage Wars so addictive is its treasure-hunt nature. Sometimes single pieces of great beauty emerge from beneath the mouldering clothes and broken toys. And sometimes, as happens tonight, the strangest objects turn out to be unlikely pots of gold. The bitching and backstabbing are always great fun, and listening to the auctioneer do his thang is entertainment in itself.

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