Miss International Queen contestant Sahhara is under focus in <i>Ladyboys</i>.

Miss International Queen contestant Sahhara is under focus in Ladyboys.

FREE TO AIR

Ladyboys: Beauty Queens, ABC2, 9.30pm

THE introduction to this mature and engaging exploration of a topic that is often reduced to a punchline tells us that 1 per cent of the Thai population are ladyboys, men who present themselves to the world as women. Tonight the show examines a group who travel to Thailand to join them, the contestants in the Miss International Queen competition. The only requisite for entry is that contestants must have been born male. The result is a challenge not only to our preconceived ideas about ladyboys and transgender individuals but also to beauty pageants. Yet as we spend a week with a few of the contestants, it is clear that much of what is usually superficial about these events is core to the identity of ladyboys. The pageant assesses contestants on femininity, disadvantaging Sahhara, who has scars on her legs from beatings received as a child in Nigeria. This empowers her to talk about her tortured youth, when as a boy she was imprisoned for three days to ''teach him how to be a man''.

Monty Halls' Island Escape, SBS One, 7.30pm

THIS is one of those shows that leaves you questioning the direction society has taken. A few generations ago we were aspiring to bigger, better, warmer, sunnier things. Now, our escapist television involves a marine biologist wandering around a grey, miserable Scottish island, inspecting week-old beached whales, stalking deer that don't accord with the eugenic ideal and walking us through every step of setting up and executing lifeless fund-raising so he can produce some pamphlets.

Friday Night Dinner, ABC1, 8pm

EACH week, the Goodman family - two ageing parents, two independent adult-yet-juvenile sons - come together for Friday-night dinner. This is risky comedy as characters such as these could easily just inspire a sense of annoying familiarity in audiences. Instead, by not only casting the likes of Tamsin Greig (Episodes) and Simon Bird (The Inbetweeners) but also giving them room to play, the rewards are delectable.

GILES HARDIE


PAY TV

The Daily Show, The Comedy Channel, 7pm

IDEALISED reality No.1: This is the news. Long before Aaron Sorkin tried to reimagine cable news as an intelligent, objective, incisive and rational voice in his fictional show The Newsroom, Jon Stewart was doing it for real, and for laughs. The Daily Show proves current affairs doesn't have to be dumbed down or pander to special interests to be popular. In fact, it can even be entertaining while still being ruthless about dissecting spin. Following a Christmas hiatus, this is the first week back to live shows for Stewart's team (straight off the satellite) and, from fiscal cliffs to gun-toting Christmas photos, it's bound to be a jam-packed schedule. Add in celebrity guest Josh Brolin, who will be talking about his new film Gangster Squad, and it's clear that The Daily Show will be doing the news better than the news, entertainment better than the red carpets, and comedy at the top end of the spectrum.

The West Wing, SoHo, 4.40pm

IDEALISED reality No.2: This is the White House. Speaking of Sorkin, this is a great opportunity to revisit the show that remains his television flagship. C.J. becomes chief of staff, Toby becomes the stand-in press secretary, and Georgia has former Soviet uranium to offload. Throw in the introduction of Matt Santos, and this is the beginning of the end as the foundations are set up for the final season-and-a-half.

The Glades, SoHo, 8.40pm

Amusing Florida-based cop drama with Australian actor Matt Passmore.

American Horror Story, FX, 8.30pm

The first season - and pay TV premiere - of this brilliantly depraved horror series rolls on.

GILES HARDIE


MOVIES

Avatar (2009), Channel Ten, 8.30pm

JAMES Cameron believes in the cinema - he banks on turning hundreds of people in a darkened room towards his mythic take on primal conflict. For Avatar, his first dramatic feature in the 12 years since Titanic, he expanded the technology of motion-capture filming in a digital environment and resurrected 3D glasses. Some of that is lost on the standard television screen, although the vast jungle otherness of the planet Pandora shines through in this 22nd-century tale of human settlers moving towards war with the blue-skinned indigenous populace, the Na'vi. Australian Sam Worthington is the everyman who upholds Cameron's belief that an individual can change any outcome, and the story's sweep - war, romance, spirituality - compensates for the brush-stroke characterisations. Everything is intricately designed, and if it feels constricting, then the triumph of ecological preservation is the payoff.

Thelma & Louise (1991), Gem, 8.30pm

RIDLEY Scott hadn't worked in an open landscape since his 1977 feature debut, The Duellists, but he took to the desert vistas of America's south-west with ease, knowing that in such a vast frame the travails of his two female protagonists would acquire a lustre of tragic inevitability. Sneaking away on a weekend trip together, the

no-nonsense Louise (Susan Sarandon) and her friend Thelma (Geena Davis), an oppressed housewife, intend nothing more than to let off steam. But when the former shoots the dance partner-turned-rapist of the latter, they panic and flee. Callie Khouri was a production assistant on music video shoots in Los Angeles when she penned her first produced screenplay, and what seeps through is not so much anger as the need to take pleasure before the inevitable downfall. Scott knows how to turn such emotions into iconography - whether it's the outlaw pair blowing up a petrol tanker or the placement of a young Brad Pitt's willing body before the sexually timid Thelma.

The Living Daylights (1987), Channel Seven, 8.30pm

A BOND from the Timothy Dalton years - one of five directed by the workmanlike John Glen - that holds up reasonably well, thanks to the return of Cold War espionage as the backdrop.

CRAIG MATHIESON