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It's vampires for grins in FX's winning What We Do in the Shadows

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Neck to neck: The three lead vampires of What We Do in the Shadows.
FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Hayvan Novah, Natasia Demetriou, Matt Berry, Mark Proksch, Harvey Guillen, Beanie Feldstein
Produced by: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Scott Rudin, Paul Simms, Garrett Basch, Eli Bush

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Hungry for another vampire series or feature film? You’ll never have to wait for long.

FX’s 10-episode What We Do in the Shadows nonetheless is a TV original, even if it’s loosely adapted from the same-named 2014 cult movie. It’s the first full-out comedy series about these fang-bearing, blood-imbibing, daylight saving time-hating marauders of the dark. (The Munsters came pretty close, but doesn’t make the cut because its nominal head-of-household was a Frankenstein’s monster sendup with a vampire wife and a half-vampire, half-werewolf son.)

The four principals of Shadows are all full-fledged vampires who have settled on Staten Island for the last century or so. One of them, Nandor the Relentless (Hayvan Novah), is a former Ottoman Empire warrior whose “human familiar” (Harvey Guillen as Giullermo) yearns to become part of the fraternity. For now, though, the poor sap is in his 10th year of carcass disposal, virgin roundups, wakeup calls and errand-running. If only he could somehow be like his role model and idol -- Antonio Banderas as Armand in Interview with the Vampire.

Vampires Laszlo and Nadja (Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou) are lovers during those times when she can’t find someone better. He’s something of a dandy and she sees herself as a temptress prone to hissing fits.

Nadja also would be the funniest of them all were it not for Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), a balding, cardigan sweater-wearing “energy vampire” who’s unaffected by the sun and recharges himself by sucking the life force out of others with his patented boring discourses.

This works quite well for Colin at his cubicle-infested workplace. But in Episode 3 -- one of four half-hours made available for review -- he meets his match in newcomer Evie Russell (guest star Vanessa Bayer from Saturday Night Live). In the mode of SNL’s Debbie Downer she’s an “emotional vampire” who re-energizes herself with pity from those subjected to her non-stop tales of woe.

While Nandor, Nadja and Laszlo have a physical face-off with a pack of werewolves (atop an abandoned Circuit City rooftop), Colin and Evie levitate and go at it verbally. The other sounds you hear may be your own convulsive laughter.

Shadows is a show within a show, with a docu-crew recording the principals’ every move. Guillermo serves as the principal voice-over narrator, but everyone intermittently talks to the camera. In Episode 2, this allows Nadja to recall a dirt-poor upbringing in which her family burned donkey dung for heat. And then it got worse. This also is the episode in which the vampires try to take over a Staten Island Borough Council meeting -- but only after members have to sit through Colin’s torturously dull treatise on zoning ordinances.

Their end-game, of which they’re reminded by the briefly aroused and cadaverous Baron Afanas, is for vampires to achieve complete domination of the “New World.” But this clearly is going to take some time. In Episode 4, an alliance is sought with the snooty and much larger Manhattan vampire crew (headed by guest star Nick Kroll as night club-owning Simon). Nandor’s cherished, foul-smelling, “cursed” hat ends up playing a key role in the outcome.

This episode turns out to be the weakest of the first four, but not to the point of torpedoing the series’ momentum. Shadows also includes brief although graphic bloodletting/vomiting while regularly dropping f-bombs that lately have become the norm on FX.

No one is really going for the jugular, though. Your funny bone is the main target, with the humor ranging from broad to subtle. The premiere episode includes Laszlo playing a few keys on the organ before telling the camera, “I call that ‘Nadja’s Theme.’ “

You’ll get that one if the surname Comaneci rings a bell. If not, Nandor’s pronunciation of crepe paper as “creepy” paper should be accessible to all. So yes, these vampires still suck -- but in a unique series that otherwise just tickles.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Marcia Clark's The Fix rekindles her O.J. obsessions

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Robin Tunney as Marcia Clark, er, Maya Travis, in The Fix. ABC photo

Premiering: Monday, March 18th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Robin Tunney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Scott Cohen, Adam Rayner, Merrin Dungey, Breckin Meyer, Mouzam Makkar, Alex Saxon, Marc Blucas, Chasten Hannon, Taylor Kalupa
Produced by: Marcia Clark, David Hoberman, Elizabeth Craft, Laurie Zaks, Sarah Fain, Todd Lieberman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Marcia Clark just can’t or won’t let it go. The money’s too good.

Nearly a quarter-century removed from her less than stellar prosecution of O.J. Simpson at his 1995 murder trial, Clark strikes again with ABC’s seemingly redemptive The Fix, which she both created and executive produces. The names and years have been changed but the basic storyline remains in place while the Marcia Clark cottage industry is at full throttle.

FX’s acclaimed 2016 limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story rehabilitated Clark to a large extent, with Sarah Paulson winning an Emmy for her portrayal and Clark beaming as her special guest at the awards ceremony.

While Simpson roams free anew, Clark also has written numerous legal novels, appeared as a cable news network analyst and hosted Marcia Clark Investigates the First 48 for A&E. But at age 65, she’s still clearly haunted by the one that got away. That’s where The Fix comes in. Clark has described it as a “soapy, serialized roller coaster of a show” while also contending that its lead character is not a mockup of her. Objection, your honor. Objection sustained.

Robin Tunney stars as prosecutor Maya Travis, who’s first seen in the final stage of a 2010 Los Angeles murder trial in which “mega-movie star” Severen “Sevvy” Johnson is accused of stabbing and killing his wife and her best friend. When he’s shockingly found not guilty, head prosecutor Maya flees L.A. and in present-day has settled into the arms of a Monroe, WA rancher named River “Riv” Allgood (Marc Blucas).

But seconds after he’s delivered a baby horse -- and she’s offered to make him a BLT -- Maya’s former prosecutorial partner, Matthew Collier (Adam Rayner), shows up with the news that “he did it again. You have to come back, Maya. This time we’re going to get him.”

Specifically, Revvy’s girlfriend has been found bludgeoned to death. And he’s now grousing about how “everybody’s eyeballing me” at her funeral, which seems like the right thing to do under the circumstances. Maya is reluctant to dive in all over again, but Matthew says she’s blameless for what happened the first time around because the sinister defense capitalized on “400 years of racial injustice and a celebrity client who knew how to break out a megawatt smile.”

The real-life Clark no doubt sees it this way, too, although an ample number of critics, including Vincent Bugliosi and Jeffrey Toobin, have found her prosecutorial skills severely at fault in the Simpson case.

The Fix faults Maya’s ethics, not her courtroom skills. “She’s tough but she fights fair. It’s always been her weakness,” says Sevvy’s reptilian head defense attorney, Ezra Wolf (Scott Cohen), who’s back for a second go-around after his celebrity client tells him, “I need ya. The bitch is back.”

There’s a problem here for ABC, and it has little to do with the self-serving nature of the series. Judged by his actions in the early going, Revvy indeed does seem guilty. But if The Fix ends up judging him so, does the network by implication convict Simpson as well? And if he again gets off, is ABC in effect exonerating Simpson? Because make no mistake, viewers are going to see this as O.J./Clark: Round Two -- and in fact are encouraged to do so.

A telling scene in Episode 2 further underscores the extent to which Clark strives to paint herself as the biggest victim of all. A co-prosecutor and onetime close friend named CJ Emerson (Merrin Dungey, sister of recently exited ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey) is still festering about Maya running out on her. To which a comically overwrought Maya retorts, “You have no idea what it felt like to be me eight years ago. Was your face on the news all day, every day? Was your entire life dissected? Your hair, your clothes, every single decision, every mistake? Nobody knows your name. Nobody blames you for letting a killer walk.”

Not that Clark hasn’t been very well-compensated since, beginning with a reported $4.2 million book deal to tell her story in 1997’s Without A Doubt.

The Fix, which basically tells her story again under the guise of fiction, also includes Breckin Meyer as self-aggrandizing district attorney Alan Wiest (squint and you might see the real-life Gil Garcetti) and Mouzam Makkar as a jealous prosecutor who consorts with the enemy.

The evil Wolf also has an amoral young “media guru” who’s firm in his belief that anything can be staged for the benefit of an easily duped, social media- addicted public. Still, Episode 2’s choreographed brunch with Sevvy and family members is a big stretch even in that context.

It’s tempting to say that The Fix can be goofed on and lapped up in the way ABC’s Scandal was for too many seasons. To its credit, it at least lurches forward rather than plodding along, with Maya at one point in tears about wanting to “see Sevvy Johnson rot” before events briefly break in his favor.

Whatever the outcome, though, The Fix hits too close to the bone. Whatever Marcia Clark’s disclaimers, this is all about her and a case that remains dirty to the touch. Retrying Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson in the form of Severen “Sevvy” Johnson does not serve anyone well, particularly a complicit ABC. But it’s a done deal, and everyone has already been paid their blood money.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Aidy Bryant puts her best self forward in Hulu's finely tuned Shrill

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Aidy Bryant stands out in her first starring role. Hulu photo

Premiering: The six-episode Season One begins streaming in its entirety Friday, March 15th on Hulu
Starring: Aidy Bryant, Lolly Adefope, Luka Jones, John Cameron Mitchell, Ian Owens, Julia Sweeney, Daniel Stern
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Elizabeth Banks, Andrew Singer, Max Handelman, Lindy West, Ali Rushfield

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Unfulfilled and insecure, plus-sized Annie Easton has spent much of her life being thrown for losses.

Still, she’s steadily getting better at weighing her options, which gives the new Hulu comedy Shrill both buoyancy and purpose. Starring Saturday Night Live regular Aidy Bryant in her first top-of-the-credits role, Shrill makes a major first impression in a limited Season One run of just six half-hour episodes. Hulu made all of them available for review, and as of Friday March 15th they’re also ready for your bingeing pleasure.

Adapted from Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, the series incarnation neither bellows or grates. Annie (Bryant) is far more sweet than sour, leaving her gay British roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) to do much of the barking. She’s particularly adamant about the unworthiness of Annie’s layabout boyfriend, Ryan (Luka Jones), who in Episode 1 requires her to exit his abode via the back door after their latest sexual coupling. That way, his two idiot roommates won’t be subjected to her. Fran’s curt assessment of Ryan, in a later episode, goes like this: “He is an ignorant bag of expired meat.”

The relationship between Annie and Ryan, which matures in time, is somewhat reminiscent of the rather grimy early encounters in Girls between Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath and Adam Driver’s Adam Sackler. Except there’s no recurrent nudity on Bryant’s part. Shrill instead can be notably graphic in its language, including the use of a four-letter expletive that begins with a C, not an F.

Annie’s principal nemesis is the ultra-condescending Gabe Parrish (John Cameron Mitchell), proprietor of an alternative newspaper/website called The Weekly Thorn. She works for him, but none too happily. “I love you. You’re a vital and tiny cog,” Gabe tells her after beginning with “Annie, you millennial dumb thing.” Perseverance obviously is required at this particular workplace, where Annie has a sympathetic ear from colleague Amadi (Ian Owens).

SNL maestro Lorne Michaels is the head producer of Shrill, as he has been on numerous occasions for proteges looking to make their marks beyond NBC’s long-entrenched late night star maker.

Michaels didn’t fare very well with Julia Sweeney, whose 1994 It’s Pat feature film was an unmitigated disaster. But a generation later, he’s re-deployed Sweeney to very good effect as Annie’s well-meaning but irksome mother. Another familiar face, Daniel Stern from the Home Alone movies, plays Annie’s good-natured, supportive father, who’s undergoing cancer treatments.

Perhaps none of this sounds terribly inviting. But be assured that Shrill gains its footing en route to being something special by the end of its first season. Annie steadies her course and for a while finds pure bliss, in Episode 4, at an annual pool party thrown by a plus-sized woman exclusively for plus-sized women. At first intending to write about the event, Annie ends up throwing off her inhibitions and getting along very swimmingly until realizing she’s late for a mandatory “Forced Fun” bike-riding gathering of Weekly Thorn employees. Gabe’s incensed by her insubordination, prompting Annie to write an unauthorized blog post -- “Hello, I’m Fat” -- that serves as a declaration of her independence.

The entire cast of Shrill meshes well, with Bryant and Adefope in particular clicking as roomies who sass each other with abandon while also commiserating when needed.

Episode 6, which includes a guest appearance from another current SNL cast member, is both cathartic and rife with possibilities for a more freewheeling, emboldened Annie in Season Two. Nothing’s official yet, but at this point, Hulu must know it has something very much worth holding onto.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

True crime gets another workout in Acorn TV's methodical Manhunt

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Martin Clunes is on the scent as the star of Manhunt. Acorn photo

Premiering: Begins streaming Monday, March 11th on Acorn TV
Starring: Martin Clunes, Katie Lyons, Stephen Wight, Peter Forbes, Claudie Blakley, Cara Theobold, Celyn Jones, Stephane Cornicard, Michele Belgrand
Produced by: Phillippa Braithwaite
Directed by: Marc Evans

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The true crime genre can plead guilty to showing no signs of abating.

Whether acted out or in documentary form, the pursuit of real-life perpetrators is as sure-fire a viewer lure as the latest “reality-competition” concoction.

Acorn TV’s three-part North American premiere of Manhunt, which began streaming in its entirety on Monday, March 11th, trades on the real-life 2004 murder of a young French woman whose body was found on Twickenham Green. It was something of a viewing sensation in the United Kingdom earlier this year. But in truth, it’s a bit of a slog at times, even at the economical length of roughly 48 minutes an episode.

Martin Clunes, best known as the star of the UK’s long-running Doc Martin series, takes center stage as Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton. The real-life Sutton is billed as a co-writer of Manhunt, which focuses on piece-by-piece police work, much of it relying on clues gleaned from an abundance of public surveillance cameras. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of the Chicago PD’s meticulous sleuthing in the Jussie Smollett alleged hate crime case.

Sutton, who as portrayed by Clunes looks more like a philosophy professor than a take-charge cop, quickly becomes obsessed with who killed 22-year-old Amelie Delagrange and whether her murder can be linked to earlier such atrocities. His wife, Louise (Claudie Blakley), initially is excited about the boost this investigation could give to her husband’s career. But she soon sours on the whole thing, particularly after hubby very belatedly reneges on attending her brother’s wedding in Spain after being alerted to a possible new opening in the case.

The growing distance between husband and wife is a running thread throughout Manhunt. But in the end there’s no effort to tie this all up.

Sutton’s second in command, Detective Sergant Jo Brunt (Katie Lyons), borders on being a colorless nonentity. There’s none of the crackling give-and-take reminiscent of the first season of Broadchurch, when David Tennant and this year’s Best Actress Oscar-winner, Olivia Colman, butted heads as detectives Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller.

Manhunt’s navigations of clues and dead ends at times are enough to keep this pot simmering if not boiling. Nor is there anything wrong with Clunes’ lead performance, which unfortunately is in service to a not-so-greater whole.

All in all it’s just a mini-binge, though, easily polished off in one night. So I’m not warning you off of Manhunt, which at times makes its presence felt. Just don’t expect to be all abuzz about it after justice is duly served.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net