Halloween is over for another year but a hint of the macabre lingers at Showtime where the sobering documentary series "Time of Death" debuts tonight at 9. Although some viewers will find it difficult to watch the stories of real people in their last months and moments of life, there's an uplifting quality to the series because of the sheer humanity on display.
Tonight's premiere focuses on Maria Lencioni, a 48-year-old single mother of three diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. Daughter Nicole (aka "Little") takes on the duties of mothering her two teenage stepsiblings. That includes 14-year-old Andrew, who admits something family members of the dying may think but may not often express: "I think there's gonna be much less stress -- as much as I'm gonna miss my mom and dread it -- [after she's gone]. There's not the worry every day of dreading what is going to happen next."
"Time of Death" offers a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Maria's family and that of Michael Muth, a 47-year-old former Navy sailor who faces the end of life with the assistance of his elderly parents. A hospice nurse explains Michael is "actively dying" and the "Time of Death" camera is at his bedside in what appears to be his final moments of life.
The Maria story continues in every episode of the six-episode first season, paired with a different dying person each week. In this respect "Time of Death" is reminiscent of one of those highbrow, PBS long-form docuseries such as "The Farmer's Wife" or "Country Boys." The continuing Maria story also gives the show a bit of a docusoap quality that makes it more compelling to tune in to see "characters" established in previous episodes.
In episode two the Maria story is paired with 74-year-old grief counselor Lenore Lefer, who throws herself a "going away party" after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She surrounds herself with friends and family
"We live in a death-denying culture and I don't want it to be that way," Ms. Lefer says. "I want my life to have made some difference."
The question of why anyone would participate in "Time of Death" also gets addressed by Maria in tonight's premiere: "I hope in some way it might help somebody else facing the same horrible, awful, life-altering -- life-ending -- dilemma."
"Time of Death" may very well do just that as it depicts real people -- the dying and their loved ones -- trying their best but sometimes falling short. Maria keeps updates on her condition from her children, even though interviews with her kids reveal that's hurting them more than anything.
In the end, "Time of Death" is truly a gift to these families, a difficult gift to watch, certainly, but a gift nonetheless as it preserves the memories of loved ones; and a gift to viewers as a reminder to live fully every day while we're all in the process of dying.
From meerkats to sloths
Fans of the 2005-08 Animal Planet series "Meerkat Manor" take note: A new animal soap opera is about to debut.
"Meet the Sloths," an eight-episode series set at a sloth sanctuary, promises to capture "every charming second of their daily sloth soap opera" when it debuts at 11 a.m. Nov. 9. In the meantime, a Sloth Cam at Zoo Atlanta has been set up to get viewers primed: apl.tv/sloths.
Fans of the "Masterpiece Classic" drama "Mr. Selfridge," which returns for its second season next year, may enjoy the PBS special "Secrets of Selfridges" (8 p.m. Sunday, WQED), which takes viewers behind the scenes of the famed upscale department store that is the setting for the Jeremy Piven-starring drama series.
Fox has renewed the critically reviled sitcom "Dads" for a full, 22-episode first season.
Lifetime renewed "Drop Dead Diva" for a 13-episode sixth season to air in 2014.
AMC renewed mega-hit "The Walking Dead" for a fifth season.
Comedy Central has renewed "Key & Peele" (for a fourth season), "Brickleberry" (for a third season) and "Drunk History" (for a second season).
USA Network appears to be playing hot potato with "It Takes a Choir," which filmed an episode in December 2012 at Pittsburgh Brashear High School.
The series, an American version of BBC America's 2010 reality show "The Choir" starring British choirmaster Gareth Malone, was due to premiere this past summer. It was shifted to Fridays this fall and was supposed to begin tonight.
Then the show was moved to the burn-off slot of 11 p.m. Saturday beginning this weekend. This week USA moved "It Takes a Choir" to an unspecified date "early next year."
GSN will remember the late comic actress Marcia Wallace ("The Simpsons," "The Bob Newhart Show") with a marathon of her game show panelist appearances on "Match Game," "Password Plus" and "The $100,000 Pyramid" today from 8 a.m. to noon. ... In honor of the late Lou Reed, Sundance Channel will re-air the episode of "Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ..." that features Mr. Reed at 7 p.m. Saturday. ... CBS is considering a spinoff of "How I Met Your Mother" called "How I Met Your Father," which would track a new set of friends as one narrates the story of how she met her husband. ... At KDKA-TV, reporter Trina Orlando is moving to the morning shift and Ross Guidotti takes her spot in the Westmoreland County bureau. ... Valerie Smock, a meteorologist with State College-based AccuWeather, will be joining WPXI-TV's Severe Weather Team 11 in December.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Army Wives," "The Price Is Right" and local TV news anchors. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on the "Sesame Street" parody of "Homeland," "The Good Wife," "Kindred: The Embraced," Aziz Ansari on Netflix and local TV news spoofs. Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "Reign," "Scrubbing In" and "The Walking Dead." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.