Gold Rush: Alaska
Sunday, Discovery, 9 p.m.
This well-made series is, on the surface, another docu-reality show about tough guys doing tough jobs. But it's also very contemporary in that, like those shows about pawn shops, it delves into the current economic reality in the United States and the madness the recession unleashed. It's about a gang of hard-luck men risking everything to strike it rich mining for gold. In the first season, the guys battled weather and their own egos to attempt to mine their way out of very hard times. They'd sold everything they owned to take this risk. They only found a pittance in gold but the ever-increasing price of the mineral on the world market has kept them going. They really believe that this creek in Alaska is going to make them very rich. The viewer roots for them but fears for them.
Saturday, HBO Canada, 8 p.m.
Almost 20 years old now, this made-for-HBO movie stands as a model of how to make a decent, based-on-real-events TV film. Laura Dern's performance, as an Air Force wife who fought to clear her husband's name after he died crashing a plane, was nominated for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe. While the movie follows a standard plot – ordinary citizen battles the system in pursuit of justice – it is imbued with real zest. Dern plays Janet Harduvel, whose husband's F-16 hit a South Korean mountainside in 1982. The Air Force decides on "pilot error" as the official cause, but Janet refuses to believe it. She's a far-from-conventional military wife, a blunt-talking bundle of attitude and energy, as capable of wit as she is of rage. Robert Loggia plays the lawyer who takes her case, as she ends up challenging not just the military, but defence contractor General Dynamics, in court.
Hell on Wheels
Sunday, AMC, 10 p.m.
This is the latest series from a channel that, after giving us Mad Men and The Walking Dead, is held to high standards. It's a western of sorts. The series is set in the immediate post-Civil War period and centres on the building of the transcontinental railroad. Given the context, one expects a rough-minded, rather grim drama and that's what is delivered. It's about Civil War echoes, greed and lust for money, land and revenge. The central character at first is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier made numb by the war but out to avenge the murder of his wife. Bohannon's all gnarly tics and, we know from the first scene, he's a cold killer. When he reaches the outpost of the railway under construction, he's put in charge of men who were once slaves and they hate him. He hates everybody. The other main man is Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), the ruthless business force behind the Union Pacific Railroad, bribing politicians and conning investors. The first episode, seen only in a rough cut, is sharp and tense but it's hard to say where this series is going.
Ambushed: Shooting the War
Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m.
This British doc promises "a unique and unvarnished look at what it is like to be on the front lines in Afghanistan." And it delivers that. Expect a lot of swearing – the doc is based on raw, uncensored footage shot by the soldiers wearing wireless helmet cameras. Thus, the footage captures everything – the fear and exhilaration of war, and then the grief. There are hundreds of thousands of hours of this footage, most held by the authorities in Britain, but the British Ministry of Defence allowed what we see here to be released and used in a BBC documentary series called Our War: Ten Years in Afghanistan. One officer who filmed a lot of footage says: "When I am old and grey, sitting in my wheelchair, I'll watch it. Sit back and have a laugh." There is little laughter here and what there is qualifies as the grim kind. The core of the doc is footage of the young soldiers reacting to a Taliban ambush. It's not for the faint of heart.
Check local listings.