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Waylaying guilt trips in Fox's Proven Innocent

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What condition’s my conviction in? Kelsey Grammer (far right) doesn’t much like the answers in Proven Innocent. Fox photo


Premiering: Friday, Feb. 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Rachelle Lefevre, Kelsey Grammer, Russell Hornsby, Vincent Kartheiser, Nikki M. James, Riley Smith, Clare O’Connor
Produced by: Danny Strong, David Elliot, Stacy Greenberg, Adam Armus

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The benign egotism of Frasier Crane made Kelsey Grammer a TV superstar -- and he’s lately confirming that a reboot is getting closer to being a reality.

But in the interim, a trio of quickly canceled sitcom followups -- Back to You, Hank, Partners -- has prompted Grammer to strut into the dramatic roles of Chicago-based villains. Starz’s Boss, which ran for two seasons, starred Grammer as corrupt Windy City mayor Tom Kane. Fox’s Proven Innocent, which premieres on Friday, Feb. 15th, finds Grammer embracing the role of vainglorious Chicago prosecutor Gore Bellows, who had the milder first name of Cole before Brian d’Arcy James was replaced in the role.

The boo-hiss parameters are set up early in the first episode. Madeline “Maddy” Scott (Rachelle Lefevre), exonerated after spending 10 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit, is now intent on disgracing the man who sent her there -- which of course is Gore.

“Are you sure you want to poke the bear?” asks her partner, Ezekiel “Easy” Boudreau (Russell Hornsby).

“No. I want to rip his heart out,” Maddy retorts. By the way, Gore has just announced his candidacy for state attorney general.

Maddy and Easy lately run the Injustice Defense Group with help from communications director Violet Price (Nikki M. James) and investigator Bodie Quick (Vincent Kartheiser from Mad Men). Violet also hosts a true-crime podcast, Until Proven Innocent, that documents the firm’s adventures.

Fox made the first and fourth hours available for review. In each of them, Maddy and company go to bat for a convicted murderer that the ruthless Gore happily put on ice. The first is a black woman accused of killing her child. And in Episode 4, Maddy represents a Muslim woman who’s been behind bars for depositing her newly born baby in a trash can. “The man is a monster,” says Client No. 1. OK, got it.

Proven Innocent’s overriding story line also has Maddy searching for the real murderer of her high school friend, Rosemary Lynch. Maddy’s troubled brother, Levi (Riley Smith), likewise was implicated and later exonerated. He’s been coaching a youth soccer team, but his sister’s return to headline-making is not working out well for him.

Grammer plays his part with an affixed sneer, save for when Maddy is vanquishing him in court with evidence that was ignored or suppressed at the time. This doesn’t deter his non-stop plotting and scheming. Looking for a favor in Episode 4, Gore butters up the “greatest legal journalist of our time,” who’s obviously a mockup of notorious Nancy Grace. “Keep kissing. My ass loves it,” she replies a few beats before the married Gore is smooching her.

Kartheiser, who’s taking what he can get these days, has grown a beard for the role of the rather zany Bodie. The role is somewhat fleshed out in Episode 4, but it’s still not much to speak of.

Lefevre, who co-starred in CBS’ summertime Under the Dome series, has some crackle as the head protagonist in Proven Innocent. Away from the courtroom, her personal life, both in flashbacks and present-day, is slowly peeled away. This includes a somewhat unexpected scene at the close of Episode 4.

Proven Innocent also can be transparently heavy-handed in its political leanings. This is particularly evident when a white male pro-life judge strong-arms the featured trial in Episode 4. Then, when things don’t go as planned, he snaps at the “little lady” opposing Maddy.

The series also risks making something of a hapless Hamilton Burger of Gore. Those of a certain vintage will remember him as the prosecutor who always lost to Perry Mason in the long-running TV series. Ditto so far In Proven Innocent, where wronged women are on a #MeToo roll while Gore the Neanderthal keeps getting his just desserts.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

What in God's name was TBS thinking with Miracle Workers?

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God’s on the right, in the form of Steve Buscemi. TBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 12th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on TBS
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Daniel Radcliffe, Geraldine Viswanathan, Karan Sonj, Jon Bass, Sasha Compere, Lolly Adefope
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Andrew Singer, Simon Rich, Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
As sitcom Gods go, Steve Buscemi’s may be the most irreverent ever.

He replaced the originally cast Owen Wilson in TBS’ seven-episode Miracle Workers, which is adapted from the novel What in God’s Name but also can be seen as TBS’ answer to NBC’s The Good Place. Not that there’s any halo effect.

Wilson perhaps balked at playing a lazily dimwitted and vindictive God who in Episode 2 orders the demolition of Bill Maher’s penis before spending much of Episode 3 battling the runs. I hope these aren’t considered spoilers.

TBS made all seven episodes available for review. It wasn’t quite hell on Earth watching them. But with Buscemi and Daniel Radcliff of Harry Potter fame in the cast, and Lorne Michaels producing, more was expected than occasional amusements amid a multitude of misfires. Sophomoric humor doesn’t violate any of the Ten Commandments per se. Even so, squandering talent at the very least is a no-no.

Radcliffe plays the well-meaning Craig, who’s been toiling alone in Heaven, Inc’s Department of Unanswered Prayers. Those prayers deemed “impossible” are no longer applicable. Craig instead devotes himself to menial, achievable tasks such as helping an earthling find her keys. But an impatient God yearns to call the whole thing off, vowing to blow up his creation rather than deal with all of Earth’s imperfections and neediness.

Well, we can’t have that -- at least not without a fight. So new arrival Eliza (the series’ best performance by Geraldine Viswanathan) makes a bet with God after lobbying for a position in the Department of Unanswered Prayers. He agrees to give Earth a two-week reprieve while Eliza and Craig strive to answer an impossible prayer. In one of the series’ handful of good lines, they immediately discard a request to “Please make everyone just chill out on Twitter.”

Eliza and Craig instead strive to make dweebish earthlings Sam (Jon Bass) and Laura (Sasha Compere) fall in love before God figuratively pushes the button. The rest of Miracle Workers is spent on this main objective and a series of weekly subplots -- including Maher’s seriously endangered penis. (He’s seen only in archival clips.)

God’s overall obsession otherwise is the development of a Lazy Susans restaurant that’s just too much trouble to explain further. Buscemi gives all of this a game go, but his God is basically an unfunny misfit idiot with an unchecked mean streak. TBS perhaps hopes to reap a little extra publicity via denunciations from pulpits or The 700 Club. Hey preachers, it’s probably not worth the bother.

The Miracle Workers cast is rounded out by God’s two put-upon assistants, Sanjay and Rosie (Karan Soni, Lolly Adefope). Producer Michaels also has provided guest shots for a pair of former Saturday Night Live inevitabilities, Tim Meadows and Chris Parnell.

It all ends predictably -- and flatly. A grin or two may intrude amid all the bountiful bad taste. It’s certainly not enough, though, to redeem a series that false starts and then keeps stumbling. Full of grace it’s not.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

American Soul shifts BET into scripted storytelling mode

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Don Cornelius runs the show in American Soul. BET photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 5th at 8 p.m. (central) on BET
Starring: Sinqua Walls, Iantha Richardson, Christopher Jefferson, Katlyn Nichol, Jelani Winston, Kelly Price, Jason Dirden, Kelly Rowland, Shannon Kane, Perri Camper, James Devoti
Produced by: Jonathan Prince, Jesse Collins, Devon Greggory, Tony Cornelius

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Black Entertainment Television, longhand for BET, had its own Don Cornelius in Robert Johnson, who launched the network with his wife, Sheila, in 1980 and sold it to Viacom 20 years later for a reported $3 billion.

But while Johnson profited immensely (and stayed on as CEO until 2006), BET remained stagnant creatively as a home for cut-rate unscripted programming and videos that were criticized by some for perpetuating African-American stereotypes. The network stayed away from costlier scripted comedies and dramas throughout most of Johnson’s reign. But BET’s latest president, Scott Mills, is making a big scripted push after the network’s Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union, had a four-season run and record-setting ratings.

Mills is promising a veritable onslaught of scripted programming this year, with a commitment to premiere five original new series, according to The Hollywood Reporter. First in line is American Soul, a 10-episode drama series starring Sinqua Walls as Cornelius, the founding father of Soul Train.

In Mills’ view, BET’s audience yearns for “high-end drama content” while at the same time “enjoying salacious reality programming.” But, as he told the Hollywood Reporter, the network’s viewers “have been clear to us that they don’t want to see real-life African-Americans behaving badly on BET. Our audience values that, they just don’t want it in our house.”

If actually true, it’s an interesting dichotomy. And based on the first two episodes of American Soul, BET is arguably having it both ways. One of the promotional tag lines for the series -- “Black folks as black folks was meant to be seen -- strong, powerful and beautiful” -- is also stated by Walls’ Cornelius in an Episode 1 scene with Gladys Knight (fine work by Kelly Rowland).

But Cornelius also is shown behaving quite badly, whether it’s philandering, snorting coke, bullying underlings, providing prostitutes as part of doing business, or putting a gun to his head in American Soul’s opening scene before the drama flashes back from early 2012 to Chicago’s summer of 1971. In short, he was a businessman -- by any means necessary. But his dream of a black-owned-and-operated answer to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand required a single-minded toughness and/or amorality, which Cornelius deployed when needed. (His son, Tony Cornelius, is a co-executive producer of American Soul. So this portrayal has his blessing.)

Upcoming episodes will include portrayals of real-life star performers ranging from Diana Ross to Ike and Tina Turner. But the principal aspiring group in the early going is fictional. Brother and sister Kendall and Simone Clark (Jelani Winston, Katlyn Nichol), and their friend JT Tucker (Christopher Jefferson) comprise Encore, a stand-in for The Undisputed Truth. They were a one-hit wonder group, but it was a big one -- “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Encore winningly performs it at a club, but the kids are found to be too young to work where alcohol is served. Simone and Kendall then resort to auditioning as Soul Train dancers while JT finds himself getting into trouble.

The supporting cast also includes Iantha Richardson as Soul Train’s put-upon dance auditioner, Tessa Lorraine, Perri Camper in the role of Cornelius’ left behind wife, Delores, and Jason Dirden as ruthless black club manager Gerald Aims, who provides Cornelius with a gateway to Knight. Sprinkled in during the first two episodes are Knight’s strong-willed manager, Ilsa Dejarnette (Shannon Kane), and white go-between Brooks Donald (James Devoti), who’s needed to line up advertisers. One of them refers to Soul Train as “Bandstand for coloreds.”

The scenes from the set of Soul Train are well-captured and choreographed. But BET’s still limited production budgets are reflected in recurrent Vietnam War sequences involving the Clark kids’ father. They’re phony-looking to say the least, and really not needed at all.

Walls, formerly of Starz’s Power series, is effective as Cornelius, although not to the point of blowing anyone away. His best scene is talking business to the reluctant Knight at a Gary, Indiana club. But American Soul also tends to bounce like a ping-pong ball from one set piece to another. The worst of this is when Cornelius is stopped by a taunting, white Los Angeles police officer for allegedly running a stop sign. “Sing for me,” he’s ordered, or be taken downtown. But the slobbering cop and his partner then get a call to a higher priority crime scene, which spares Cornelius any further indignities. It’s all very ham-handed.

BET is moving in the right direction, though. The network had been running in place for decades under the profit-mongering Johnson. American Soul is a significant effort to get untracked and make a mark. Dramatizing how Soul Train came to be is a story well worth telling. And BET at long last has deemed itself the perfect place to do it.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

TNT's I Am the Night ends up being its own curfew

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Chris Pine, India Eisley drive the story in I Am the Night. TNT photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 28th at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Chris Pine, India Eisley, Jefferson Mays, Connie Nielsen, Yul Vazquez, Leland Orser, Theo Marshall, Justin Cornwell, Dylan Smith, Jay Paulson, Golden Brooks
Produced by: Patty Jenkins, Chris Pine, Carl Franklin, Michael Sugar, Sam Sheridan

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Chris Pine’s character regularly takes a beating, as does the overall believability of TNT’s ambitious but convoluted I Am the Night.

Very loosely “inspired by the life” of the late Fauna Hodel, the six-part limited series officially premieres on Monday, Jan. 28th after Episode 1 was sneak-previewed following TNT’s Sunday night telecast of the Screen Actors Guild awards. Hodel’s autobiographical book carried the elongated title of One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel.

For Pine and executive producer/director Patty Jenkins, it’s a re-teaming after Wonder Woman, for which they also collaborated on a recently filmed sequel in which she again directs and he plays jaunty Steve Trevor. TNT made all six hours of I Am the Night available for review.

Pine, who’s also played Capt. James T. Kirk in three latter day Star Trek feature films, is cast as battered and beaten down Jay Singletary, a haunted Korean War vet who drinks and drugs between whatever freelance assignments he can get from The Los Angeles Examiner.

As the story very slowly unfolds, viewers also will learn of his past with The Los Angeles Times, where hotshot reporter Jay ran afoul of powerful forces, including a corrupt cop shop. The story is mostly set in 1965, where Jenkins and company strive for a film noir-esque L.A. Confidential vibe that mostly escapes them. There also are a few brief flashbacks.

The fault is not with the two principal stars. Both Pine and the comparatively unknown India Eisley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) are fully invested. Eisley plays the teenage Fauna, who’s been raised in Nevada as the “mixed race” Patty by embittered adoptive mother Jimmie Lee (a somewhat overwrought performance by Golden Brooks). “You was given to me in a goddamned bathroom” by a white woman, Jimmie Lee tells her.

But Patty soon learns of her real name, and impulsively catches a bus to Los Angeles in hopes of meeting the man she thinks is her grandfather. He’s creepy Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a gynecologist to the rich who turns out to have some very sinister sidelines. The real-life and still unsolved Black Dahlia murder case eventually factors prominently into this careening story. And in this particular area, I Am the Night takes more leaps than a pole-vaulter in training. It also doesn’t help that the intended mood music is pat and generic throughout, save for when a couple of Rolling Stones tunes are worked in toward the later stages.

It takes a while for Jay and Fauna to intertwine. In the meantime, he’s boozing, snorting coke, haunted by demons from his killing days in Korea and roughed up by a police sergeant named Billis (Yul Vazquez), whose mug is bisected by a nasty scar. Luckily for Jay, the LAPD also deploys an old war buddy named Ohls (Jay Paulson), whose life he saved. But Ohls has grown weary of rescuing Jay from both himself and the brutish Billis. So this is the last time, ya hear?

Fauna keeps snooping around, and it’s rather amazing how easily she gains entrance into the palatial homes of both George Hodel and his haughty, arty ex-wife, Corinna (Connie Nielsen). At the same time, Jay keeps badgering a hard-drinking newspaper editor named Peter Sullivan (Leland Orser). He’s convinced that George is either the actual Black Dahlia killer, or a copycat.

Pine’s efforts to tame his demons and Fauna’s search for her birth mother are compelling at times, but I Am the Night just can’t seem to keep things humming or plausibly close the deal. Their travails and small triumphs take the two of them both to Hawaii and through the Watts riots. Still, the sought after scope and tension remain elusive.

Those who get through the first several hours of this meandering mystery/morality play may well be invested to see it all the way through. It’s not terrible in the end. Nor is it spellbinding or particularly memorable. Pine gets lots to chew on while the makeup department is taxed to keep up with his various cuts and bruises. In that respect he’s served a full plate. Too bad that too much of this is either overcooked or under-prepared.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Lions before print journalism's winter in HBO's Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists

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Jimmy Breslin steals the show in Deadline Artists. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The lede is inspired.

HBO’s Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists (Mon., Jan. 28th at 8 p.m. central) begins with visuals of New York subway passengers transfixed by their cell phones. Then cut to an earlier era, when rail riders were immersed in the Manhattan tabloids that once housed the punchy prose of columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.

“This was the last expression of great, 20th century muscular American journalism,” an unidentified admirer says near the end of this nearly two-hour documentary film. It’s really not too grand a statement about two guys who lived, breathed and emboldened the printed word.

Although Deadline Artists profiles both of them, the late Breslin (who died in 2017 at the age of 87) is the swaggering star of this time capsule. Hamill, living on at the age of 83, is far less bombastic but “got the pretty girls” in the vernacular of those times. He most famously dated Jackie O, and also squired Linda Ronstadt and Shirley MacLaine. But if Hamill had the looks, the unrepentant Breslin had the guts. By the year 2015, both men looked frail and spent while seated next to one another for the purposes of this evocative film. Breslin remained pretty grouchy while the cheerier Hamill arrived in a wheelchair. It’s still something to see.

Deadline Artists is principally produced and directed by veteran journalist and latter day cable news network gadfly Jonathan Alter, who was a Newsweek columnist and senior editor back in times when Breslin still roamed untamed and dubbed himself “JB No. 1.”

Alter recalls the time Breslin phoned to warn against anyone at the magazine “f***king” with him. He described himself as “the John Gotti of journalism,” a reference to the cutthroat mobster that Breslin had both covered and knew personally. “I like bad boys,” Breslin once told an interviewer. “Legitimate people are boring. They’re terrible.”

Breslin had the balls and the gall to take on “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, who in 1984 was lionized by most New Yorkers after shooting four young black men who had taunted him. “Criminals Think Twice Or We Will Goetz You!” a sign of the times read.

Writing extensively about the incident, Breslin said that Goetz in fact was more a cold-blooded killer than hero. What if his victims had been white? Would he also have fired away?

On a famous episode of his once immensely popular talk show, Phil Donahue opined, “Mr. Breslin, sir, you do appear to be whistling a very lonely tune . . . Your speeches are not playing in New York City.”

Breslin didn’t care, and kept saying so. And in a subsequent police tape, Goetz came off as a remorseless, cold-blooded killer who said in part, “If I had more bullets, I would have shot ‘em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets.”

He also went to bat for a New York City cop named Cibella Borges, who got kicked off the force after she was found to have posed nude for something called Beaver magazine. The police threatened to boycott Breslin’s paper at the time, The New York Daily News. He remained unbowed, chiding the “deplorable shape” of most NYPD officers compared to the trim young woman they had ostracized. Borges eventually was reinstated, and in a reunion of sorts decades later, she thanks Breslin for his advocacy. “Oh shut up, God bless ya,” he says with typical gruffness.

Deadline Artists also recounts Breslin’s up close and personal role in the Son of Sam serial murders, and his incredibly inventive and distinctive writing about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when he alone had the foresight to seek out the late president’s African-American gravedigger while thousands of rival reporters basically parroted the same stories. He also wrote two big bestsellers, “Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?” and “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

But Breslin’s outsized mouth bit him hard when at age 61, he lamented that his wife no longer was around to do the household chores now that she had been elected to the City Council. A Korean-American colleague of his at New York’s Newsday took umbrage and accused Breslin of “spewing sexism” in a personal message to him.

He responded with a newsroom tirade that branded the woman “slant-eyed” and a “yellow cur.” Breslin’s old newspaper, The New York Daily News, ran a story headlined, “Breslin rages, slurs: Spews racial epithets.”

A two-week suspension ensued after Breslin issued an apology that really wasn’t one. “Once again I am wrong. JB No. 1.”

Gail Collins, longtime columnist and reporter for The New York Times, says in a fresh interview that Breslin was “terrible in many ways, but his sense of sympathy was just amazing.”

Others interviewed for Deadline Artists include the aforementioned MacLaine, the late Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Garry Trudeau, Gay Talese, Spike Lee, Robert De Niro and Tom Brokaw, who calls Hamill “so authentically male” -- whatever that means.

Hamill otherwise can’t help but pale in comparison to the bombastic Breslin. He initially was hired by The New York Post as their answer to Breslin. But they later ended up being colleagues, for a relatively short while, as columnists for the Daily News. Imagine what a one-two punch that was.

Hamill remains proud of making Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” and of being singled out by Vice President Spiro Agnew in the aftermath of his “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech aimed at the administration’s media detractors.

He also became close with Robert F. Kennedy, at one point writing a letter to him that encouraged a run for the presidency. In retrospect, he “made a terrible mistake as a journalist,” Hamill says. “I had become friends with Robert Kennedy . . . I never was friends with a politician again.” Both Hamill and Breslin were on the scene when Kennedy was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the 1968 California presidential primary.

In Breslin’s view, which he held to the end, “You’re not put on this earth to be happy. You’re really not.”

Hamill, last seen drawing on an artist’s pad while sitting in his wheelchair outside Prospect Park, in contrast seems to be a study in reasonably happy contentment.

The Daily News couldn’t afford either of them now. Back in 1988, the paper employed 400 reporters and editors,” according to Deadline Artists. Thirty years later, it was down to 45.

“There’s always going to be new people,” Spike Lee says hopefully.

You can read a lot of them on Twitter these days. Many hide behind anonymous “handles.”

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net