Tuned In: 'Plane Crash' results in few new insights


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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- In the late 1990s -- during Fox's one-off reality show heyday of "When Animals Attack" -- Fox reality guru Mike Darnell wanted to crash a jetliner in the desert. It didn't happen then. But 13 years later his vision will come to fruition on a rival network.

Sunday at 9 p.m. Discovery Channel debuts a two-hour episode of "Curiosity" titled simply "Plane Crash." Narrated by actor Josh Charles ("The Good Wife"), the episode was recorded earlier this year when an aging 727, purchased for $400,000 and once used as U.S. presidential candidate Bob Dole's campaign plane, was deliberately crashed into the Mexican desert.

It's a controlled crash landing, designed to avoid the firestorm that often accompanies jetliner disasters so it's possible to retrieve data from inside the plane.

"From a scientific perspective, we absolutely did not want this thing to burn," said "Plane Crash" accident investigator/biomechanics engineer Tom Barth at an August press conference during the Television Critics Association press tour. "We really wanted to learn something about survivability, and if everything cooks to a crisp at the end of it, you haven't learned anything."

Eileen O'Neill, group president for Discovery and TLC, referred to "Plane Crash" as "a scientifically based event." Scientists will have to weigh in on how valid the program's conclusions turn out to be.

Most of the results presented don't seem to be new -- you're more likely to survive this particular type of crash if seated farther back in the airplane; it's better to brace for impact than not to brace -- obtained through the use of data transmitted by a few high-tech crash test dummies belted into the plane.

The bulk of the two-hour program's focus is on preparations for crashing the 727, which is flown in its final moments by remote control. The actual crash doesn't happen until well into the program's second hour with just the last half hour devoted to what the crash was able to reveal about airline safety. (Most surprising take-away: The addition of more wires in planes due to complex entertainment systems could inhibit passenger egress after a crash.)

"When that airplane crashed to the ground, me and the other scientists really looked at it like, 'This is where our work begins,' " Mr. Barth said. "Not only do we now get to look at it from a sort of pseudo-accident investigation and see what this wreckage looks like, how would these people have been able to get out of the airplane? We get to pull out our data and see if we got it and what it looks like."

Even though data from this particular crash suggested it's best to avoid sitting in first class, Mr. Barth said he wasn't concerned.

"We all make value judgments on our safety, and flying is very safe," he said. "Most airplane crashes are survivable, so I'm going to take those chances. ... I do the things that I can to be safe, but at the same time, I'm going to make a realistic value judgment on where I sit, and that's in first class, if I can."

'Upstairs' returns

British import "Upstairs Downstairs" returns to PBS's "Masterpiece" this weekend (9 p.m. Sunday, WQED-TV) for the revival's second and final season. The BBC canceled the series, which revived the 1970s classic period drama, after lackluster ratings for this second outing.

In addition, the series underwent some behind-the-scenes upheaval between its first and second iterations. Eileen Atkins, who created the original show with actress Jean Marsh, departed the series, forcing producers to kill off her character, the worldly Maud, mother of Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard). Her ashes return to 165 Eaton Place in Sunday's season premiere.

In addition, Ms. Marsh, who starred as lady's maid Rose Buck in the 1970s series and this revival, suffered a stroke. Producers rewrote the season around her limited availability. Rose Buck appears in two episodes when characters visit her in a sanatorium, where she's recovering from an illness.

The first season of this "Upstairs" revival, airing on PBS in 2011, suffered in the shadow of mega-hit "Downton Abbey," which debuted a few months earlier with a similar story of masters and servants.

Season two of "Upstairs" goes in an edgier direction with more discord among the family and staff. Lady Agnes (Kelley Hawes) and Sir Hallam now have two children but World War II is on the horizon. Sir Hallam's aunt (Alex Kingston, "ER") has moved in with the family; downstairs new nursery maid Beryl (Laura Haddock) is making waves. Infidelity, addiction and death ensue.

Steelers on WPCW

Next Thursday a Steelers game will air at 8 p.m. on WPCW, bumping the season premiere of "The Vampire Diaries" and the series premiere of "Beauty and the Beast."

"Beauty and the Beast," a remake of the 1980s CBS series, will debut in Pittsburgh later that same night at 11:30 p.m. followed by "Vampire Diaries" at 12:30 a.m. An encore of "Beauty and the Beast" also will air on Pittsburgh's CW station at 9 p.m. Oct. 12.

Renewals

The first broadcast network renewals of the 2012-13 TV season arrived this week with NBC ordering full first seasons of "Revolution" and comedies "Go On" and "The New Normal."

In addition, TNT renewed "Franklin & Bash" for a third season, likely to air in summer 2013. HBO gave "Boardwalk Empire" a fourth season renewal. Disney Channel ordered a third season of "A.N.T. Farm," a comedy for kids and tweens, and ABC Family renewed "Pretty Little Liars" for a 24-episode fourth season.

After just one episode last week, Nickelodeon renewed the revived "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (11 a.m. Saturday) for a 26-episode second season to air early next year.

Cinemax will bring back "Strike Back" for a 10-episode third season in 2013 and Adult Swim has renewed "Children's Hospital" and "NTSF:SD:SUV" for new episodes to air next year.

Cannon back on 'NightTalk'

Ellis Cannon, who has been absent from his role as host of PCNC's "Night Talk" since November, returned on Tuesday. He was injured in a car accident that prevented him from being on the air for almost a year.

Mr. Cannon said his goal is to be on "Night Talk" on Tuesday nights as he eases back into his routine.

'Hemlock Grove' in town

Although production of the Pittsburgh-set Netflix streaming series "Hemlock Grove" moved from Pittsburgh to Toronto earlier this year, a small production team will be in Pittsburgh this weekend to film aerial, background and establishing shots. No stars of the show will be part of the filming.

Channel surfing

"Touch," which had been scheduled to return to Fox's schedule on Oct. 26, will now wait until January to return. "Kitchen Nightmares" will air in its place. ... Netflix's original series "House of Cards," a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey, will debut its first 13 episodes via online streaming on Feb. 1. ... "Mythbusters" is back at 8 p.m. Sunday with guest star James Cameron as the team tries to answer the question: Could Jack and Rose both have fit on the wooden board and survived after the Titanic went down in Mr. Cameron's "Titanic"? ... Daniel Craig will host NBC's "Saturday Night Live" this weekend with musical guest Muse; Christina Applegate hosts Oct. 13 with Passion Pit; Bruno Mars does double duty Oct. 20 as host and musical guest. ... Hollywood trade publications report NBC's remake of "The Munsters" won't move from pilot to series, scuttling the project. ... "John Fugelsang: So That Happened," a week-in-review commentary show, debuts tonight at 6 and 9. on CurrentTV. Frank Conniff, who played Frank on "Mystery Science Theater 3000," will be the show's head writer. Mr. Fugelsang will get a nightly show on Current later this year. ... TNT announced return dates for several series, including "Rizzoli & Isles" and "Leverage" (Nov. 27), "Dallas" (Jan. 28) and "Southland" (Feb. 13). ... "Primeval: New World," a spinoff of BBC America's "Primeval," will debut on Syfy in 2013. The show will star Niall Matter ("Eureka"), Sara Canning ("The Vampire Diaries") and Danny Rahim as a team that investigates paranormal events and battle prehistoric and futuristic creatures. ... Missed the presidential candidates' debate on Wednesday? Comcast Xfinity customers can catch up with CNN's coverage from the first and subsequent presidential and vice-presidential debates on demand and online (Xfinity.com/TV) the day after the live telecast.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "How I Met Your Mother," "Doc Martin" and TV series on demand. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Downton Abbey," "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda" and "Raising Hope." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Homeland," "Once Upon a Time" and "666 Park Avenue." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

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TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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