This week’s TV: The first debate, the return of ‘SNL,’ and the abolitionists of ‘The Good Lord Bird’

Ethan Hawke as John Brown and Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird."
Ethan Hawke as John Brown and Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird."William Gray/SHOWTIME

Your TV GPS, Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert’s look at the week ahead in television, appears every Monday morning on BostonGlobe.com. Today’s column covers Sept. 28-Oct. 4.


Time to get hold of some strong aspirin — or whatever relaxes you and takes the edge off a headache. On Tuesday at 9 p.m., many channels and websites will be airing the general election’s First Presidential Debate. In the midst of a politicized pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 American lives, among other national and global crises, the two candidates — Joe Biden and Donald Trump — will confront each other at last. They’ve been trading punches in the news media for a long time, and Trump has been preoccupied with Biden’s chances of winning enough to try to dig up dirt about his family and accuse him of using performance-enhancing drugs; finally, they will face off in person.

The two are set to meet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for the event — the first of three presidential debates — which will run about 90 minutes without commercial breaks. The night will be moderated by Fox News' Chris Wallace, whose chosen topics are “The Trump and Biden Records,” “The Supreme Court,” “Covid-19,” “The Economy,” “Race and Violence in our Cities,” and “The Integrity of the Election,” the last of which gives me chills, bad chills. The debate will be broken into six 15-minute blocks, based on those issues.


Trump has a history of openly criticizing Wallace. He also has a proven history of fudging, I mean exaggerating, I mean misstating, I mean ignoring the truth. Yeah, I mean lying. How will that work in real time? Will Wallace fact-check, something many don’t think is a moderator’s job, since he or she should stay out of the back and forth between candidates?



1. I suspect the debate will provide “Saturday Night Live” with its first cold open of the season and its first reason to bring out its newly dubbed Biden, Jim Carrey. Chris Rock, currently starring in the excellent new season of “Fargo,” will host the socially distanced premiere, with musical guest Megan Thee Stallion.

2. “The Good Lord Bird” is an eight-episode adaptation of the National Book Award-winning novel by James McBride (who, by the way, was a Globe staffer in the early 1980s). Premiering on Showtime Sunday at 9 p.m., it follows a 12-year-old male slave who, in the 1850s Kansas Territory, winds up traveling with John Brown and his abolitionist soldiers. Brown is played by the show’s creator, Ethan Hawke. It also features Orlando Jones, Joshua Caleb Johnson, David Morse, Wyatt Russell, Steve Zahn, and Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass.

(From left) Zachary Quinto, Charlie Carver, and Robin De Jesus in the Netflix film "The Boys in the Band."
(From left) Zachary Quinto, Charlie Carver, and Robin De Jesus in the Netflix film "The Boys in the Band."Scott Everett White/Netflix ©2020

3. First Ryan Murphy revived Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys in the Band” on Broadway in 2018, and now he has adapted it into a Netflix film directed by Joe Mantello. Available beginning Wednesday, the film features the same cast as the revival (which won the Tony Award for Best Revival), including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, and Charlie Carver. In its day, “Boys” was one of the frankest stories about gay life — and also one of the most depressing, as the closeted, drunken, and, most importantly, self-loathing men did not make gay life look very promising.


4. The most excellent podcast “Song Exploder” has been adapted into a Netflix series, available Friday. It has musicians focusing on and breaking down the making of one of their songs — why they made certain choices. For the first season, host and creator Hrishikesh Hirway will feature Alicia Keys (“3 Hour Drive”), R.E.M. (“Losing My Religion”), Ty Dolla $ign (“LA”), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Wait for It”). By the way, “Austin City Limits” returns this week — Saturday at 11 p.m. on GBH 44 — with a celebration of John Prine, featuring clips from the episodes he appeared in.

A special hourlong episode of "Black-ish" directed by Oscar winner Matthew A. Cherry ("Hair Love") will include animated segments.
A special hourlong episode of "Black-ish" directed by Oscar winner Matthew A. Cherry ("Hair Love") will include animated segments.Smiley Guy Studios/ABC

5. ABC is airing an hourlong special episode of “Black-ish” on Sunday night at 10, ahead of the show’s seventh season premiere on Oct. 21. The story will follow the Johnsons as they navigate the upcoming election, with Junior (Marcus Scribner) as a first-time voter. The special, directed by Matthew A. Cherry (“Hair Love”), will be presented in part as an animated episode.

6. Shh. Relax. Let the world — with its wildfires and its COVID-19 and its upcoming election — go away. And no need for Klonopin, or Valium, or megadoses of CBD. HBO Max is releasing a series called “A World of Calm” on Thursday to help retrieve you from your own personal crazy place. Each half-hour episode will combine tranquil imagery, music, and the voices of A-list stars including Kate Winslet, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas, Mahershala Ali, Idris Elba, Oscar Isaac, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Lucy Liu, Cillian Murphy, and Keanu Reeves. Yes, people, Keanu Reeves.


7. “Flesh and Blood” is a new “Masterpiece” four-parter with a great cast including Francesca Annis, Imelda Staunton, Stephen Rea, and Russell Tovey. Premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on GBH 2, it’s a mystery about a widow who falls in love with a man whom her three children are highly suspicious of. Staunton, the actress who will be Queen Elizabeth in seasons five and six of “The Crown,” is the super-nosy neighbor.

Lily Collins and Samuel Arnold in "Emily In Paris."
Lily Collins and Samuel Arnold in "Emily In Paris."Stephanie Branchu/Netflix

8. Darren Star, of “Sex and the City,” created “Emily in Paris,” a comedy about a Chicago marketing executive (played by Lily Collins) who moves to France for her job. She’s a can-do, gung-ho American with big ideas, and her French colleagues are not fans. Meanwhile, there’s a très handsome chef in the apartment below hers. The first season of the romantic comedy is available Friday on Netflix.

9. “Kingdom of Silence,” on Showtime Friday at 9 p.m., is a documentary that looks back over the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, all leading up to the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Airing on the two-year anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, the film is directed by Rick Rowley (“Dirty Wars”), written by Lawrence Wright (“The Looming Tower”), and executive produced by Alex Gibney.


“Dick Johnson Is Dead” Kirsten Johnson’s innovative (check out the preview) documentary about her father, who suffers from dementia. Netflix, Friday


“True Colors” Portraits of Hispanic trailblazers such as Alex Rodríguez, John Leguizamo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ángela Aguilar. Peacock, Tuesday

“South Park” An hourlong special about the pandemic. Comedy Central, Wednesday, 8 p.m.

“The Comedy Store” A five-part docu-series from Mike Bender about the famous LA club. Showtime, Sunday, 10 p.m.

“Monsterland” An anthology series about encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and strange beasts, featuring Bill Camp, Hamish Linklater, Jonathan Tucker, Kaitlyn Dever, and Taylor Schilling. Hulu, Friday

“Code 404” A British comedy import about A.I. and an elite police unit, starring Daniel Mays and Stephen Graham. Peacock Thursday


“Fargo” The extraordinary anthology series returns with a strong season led by Chris Rock. FX, Hulu

“The Comey Rule” A two-parter about the former head of the FBI told without the benefit of perspective. Showtime

“Filthy Rich” Kim Cattrall leads this weekly nighttime soap about a misbehaving televangelist family. Fox

“Ratched” Ryan Murphy’s new series, the backstory of the notorious nurse, is an attractive mess. Netflix

“The Duchess” Katherine Ryan’s six-episode comedy about a single mother in London works hard to be raunchy and transgressive. Netflix

“Coastal Elites” Five monologues steeped in rage about Donald Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 crisis, starring Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever. HBO

“Ted Lasso” A feel-good sports comedy starring Jason Sudeikis as an American coach in England. Apple TV+

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.