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Weekend TV picks: Once Upon a Time is the season's surprise

Once Upon a Time (Sunday, ABC, CTV, 8 p.m.)

If you haven't caught the single surprising breakout hit of this TV season, now's your chance – three consecutive episodes air tonight. Once Upon a Time is a puzzler – a hard to synopsize drama that flits in and out of genres and in and out of the present. The made-in-Vancouver show is about fairy-tale characters existing both in the distant, fairy past and in the present. Some of them in the present, in a town called Storybrooke, know their true identities and others don't, due to a curse, or something. Anyway, there's Snow White, in the past and present, played by Ginnifer Goodwin (one of the wives on HBO's Big Love). The character in the present is far from a fairy-tale princess. And then there's Scottish actor Robert Carlyle playing both Rumpelstiltskin and town's rich guy, Mr. Gold, with real gusto. There is an Evil Queen too. Stuff happens. Enchanted stuff, and judging by the ratings, millions of viewers are also enchanted.

East Side Showdown (Sunday, Documentary Channel, 8 p.m.)

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A different way to start the New Year is a contemplation of this, a remarkable 1998 doc (made by Robin Benger) about an area of Toronto, and the awful ironies of urban existence. When Nicholas Campbell's voice first arrives, as narrator, talking about "a dingy neighbourhood at war" you wonder if it's hyperbole. But then the story of the battle for control of the Sherbourne and Dundas area of Toronto unfolds and we really see a war. The local residents' association, mostly people who have recently bought homes there, is asking for the hookers, the drug peddlers and the homeless to move on. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is fighting hard to protect the homeless and their local shelters and rooming houses. The church is siding with the poor and downtrodden. We watch as a furious, tense, back-and-forth battle goes on. Someone calls the hookers and drug addicts "scum of the earth" and a church worker asks, "Who are we to judge?" This is formidable, provocative television.

Angry Boys (Sunday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m.)

Not to everyone's taste, this new excursion into weird, cringe-making comedy comes from Australian Chris Lilley ( Summer Heights High). Lilley plays all the characters here. The show is built around 17-year-old Daniel Sims and his identical but deaf twin brother, Nathan, who is soon to leave for what is called "deaf college." There is also a former surfer star and an African-American rapper who isn't as tough and cool as he looks. Also a Japanese mom who wants her son to become a skateboarding champ. She claims he's gay in order to get him more media attention. The show is made mockumentary-style and aims to both shock and delight. Sometimes the gags work and sometimes they veer into pointless repetition. It's been said that Lilley's style of awkward comedy owes a great deal to Ricky Gervais, but that is not necessarily a recommendation.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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