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ABC's black-ish looks for laughs in 'burb-an vs "urban"

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Not yet putting it to bed. Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross debate the merits of “keeping it real” in black-ish. ABC photo


Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 24th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne, Marcus Scribner, Yara Shahidi, Miles Brown, Marsai Martin
Produced by: Kenya Barris, Larry Wilmore, Anthony Anderson, Laurence Fishburne, Helen Sugland, E. Brian Dobbins

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Even at the height of its ratings powers, The Cosby Show stood accused in some quarters of not being black enough.

A generation later, the new ABC family comedy black-ish makes that same criticism from within the show itself. It’s also worth noting that this time the wife is the doctor in the house. Furthermore, the creator/executive producer of the show, Kenya Barris, is black, as are three of the other principal producers. That wasn’t the case with The Cosby Show>, which came from veteran sitcom hit makers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey.

All of this is important in terms of what’s permissible humor on black-ish, which seems novel but in fact has a premise very similar to ABC’s 1998 fall sitcom The Hughleys. D.L. Hughley starred in that one as a prosperous “vending machine king” who moved his family to the Los Angeles ‘burbs and then fretted about losing his “blackness.” It lasted two seasons on ABC and another two on the now defunct UPN network.

black-ish, a better show in a seemingly advantageous time slot (behind Modern Family), stars Anthony Anderson as ad agency executive Andre “Dre” Johnson, with Tracee Ellis Ross as his biracial wife, Rainbow. Or as Dre puts it in the opening narrative sequence, his “pigment-challenged, mixed race” wife.

Married with four kids, they’ve sought and found prosperity after moving out of the “ ‘hood.” But in a presumably out-of-body scene that’s both jarring and in keeping with black-ish’s premise, the Johnsons happily wave in unison from the curb while an “Ultimate Hollywood Tours’ bus rolls through their neighborhood. “The mythical and majestic black family out of their natural habitat and yet still thriving,” the tour director enthuses. No, a white writer could not have gotten away with this. And I’m not sure a black writer should either. Then again, comedy isn’t supposed to be pretty.

Dre is in line to be the first black senior vice president at his workplace. But although he wants his kids to re-embrace their “blackness,” Dre is vexed to learn that he’ll be heading the ad firm’s “new urban division.”

“Wait, did they just put me in charge of black stuff!?” he wonders aloud.

Meanwhile, Andre Jr. (a very appealing Marcus Scribner) has a Jewish friend and is quite comfortable with being called “Andy” at school. He also flabbergasts dad with his determination to try out for the field hockey instead of the basketball team. And on his 13th birthday, he wants a Bar Mitzvah.

This is the last straw, and it won’t stir the drink. Andre Sr. insists on “throwing you an African rites of passage ceremony” while wife Meadow carps, “Why don’t we take a ‘black’ break and go get some white yogurt.” The two younger kids like that idea.

Ellis Ross knows how to execute these lines. But black-ish has a trump card in Laurence Fishburne as Andre Sr.’s prototypically gruff “Pops.” Fishburne is not at all known for comedy. He’s already got this part nailed, though, whether grousing about baked instead of fried chicken at dinner or saying of Andre’s promotion, “Finally made it, son. Finally made it! The head puppet of the white man.”

Anderson, who had a rough go of it two seasons ago in NBC’s dreadful Guys with Kids sitcom, is far better served here as an exasperated, well-meaning, would-be head of household. The series has steered clear of buffoonery in the premiere episode. But it will be further challenged when one of its key writer-producers, Larry Wilmore (The Bernie Mac Show), leaves to ramp up for hosting Comedy Central’s new The Minority Report, set to premiere in January after Stephen Colbert leaves The Colbert Report.

black-ish has a lot packed into its oft-amusing opening half-hour. It’s both fairly daring and also endearing, sharply written but with an overdose of narrative exposition. The kids and adults are all well-cast and there’s no laugh track to gum anything up.

But I’m still wondering about that tour bus scene in the show’s opening minute. Depicting a black family essentially as a zoo exhibit does not seem like a very good idea. At best it makes an unnecessarily broad point. At worse -- well, let’s not even count the ways.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Still makin' copies: CBS' NCIS: New Orleans

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Bar time on NCIS: New Orleans with Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder. CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 23rd at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Scott Bakula, Lucas Black, CCH Pounder, Zoe McLellan, Rob Kerkovich
Produced by: Gary Glasberg, Mark Harmon, Jeffrey Lieber, James Hayman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The address is CBS for NCIS. But the latest offshoot, NCIS: New Orleans, should be returned to sender.

Premiering Tuesday after the mothership, this thing is likely to stick to the wall only because of its lead-in and thoroughly beatable competition from ABC (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Fox (New Girl, The Mindy Project) and NBC (the new Marry Me and the returning About A Boy).

Be advised, though, that your arteries might harden while watching a bland, thuddingly formulaic knockoff. Gumbo it’s not. Cream of boiled water soup it is. And of course, the omnipresent Steven Weber’s a guest star, ploughing through another prime-time hour as a noxious jerk.

Scott Bakula stars as Special Agent Dwayne Pride, who’s also a Cajun-style cook and a jazz pianist when he’s not giving orders or trying to stay awake while reciting lines such as “All I’m sayin’ is where you lay your head in this city defines you.”

He says this to newbie agent Meredith Brody (Zoe McLellan), who’s arrived from the Midwest to primarily team with incumbent drawler Christopher LaSalle (Lucas Black). He asks her at one point, “What in the sam hill does that mean?“ I thought that expression was buried along with “Tarnation!” and “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat!”

The other principal member of the team is body dissector Loretta Wade (CCH Pounder), who raises an eyebrow regularly.

Bakula and Pounder have some solid work on their resumes, and Black was highly appealing as a crew cut kid actor in Sling Blade and CBS’ short-lived, memorably offbeat American Gothic. NCIS: New Orleans may end up supplying all of them with fail-safe, long-term employment at handsome rates of pay. But as acting challenges go, this is bacon, lettuce and tomato short of a BLT.

We begin with a severed limb in a big bin full of shrimp. It turns out the appendage belongs to Navy petty officer Calvin Parks, whose pop, known as “Pop,” is a jazz trumpeter. Bakula’s Pride took the kid under his wing. As for Pop (guest star James McDaniel), there’s “only two things I ever loved in this life -- Calvin and jazz.”

Determining what happened to Calvin -- and whether he may have gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd -- are what drive Pride and his team through the rest of the hour. Weber drops in as an onerous city councilman who sees political mileage in coming down hard on New Orleans’ gang bangers.

“You know how I feel about this community, and no one has less love for the gangs,” Pride tells him. But something smells fishy here, and it’s neither the stink on ice script or a seafood Po Boy.

NCIS: New Orleans also squeezes in a little room for David McCallum’s Donald “Ducky” Mallard, who’s Loretta’s medical examiner counterpart on NCIS. He drops in via a close-circuit feed to further reinforce the brand.

It all ends in thoroughly predictable fashion -- and without any zip or pop. NCIS: New Orleans is the equivalent of a hand-me-down jacket that’s already been worn by two older brothers. By that point, it’s stretched out, faded and threadbare. Oh well. Might as well get more use out of it

GRADE: D

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Forever gives ABC an immortal doc of "Sherlockian" stock

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Forever’s triumvirate: Judd Hirsch, Ioan Gruffudd, Alana De La Garza. ABC photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC before moving to regular Tuesday, 9 p.m. (central) time slot on the following night
Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Alana De La Garza, Judd Hirsch, Lorraine Toussaint, Donnie Keshawarz, Joel David
Produced by: Matt Miller, Dan Lin, Jennifer Gwartz

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
His “Sherlockian” deductions are elementary to him but may range from semi-plausible to completely preposterous in the eyes of your average viewer.

Dr. Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) has been at this a long time, though, as he takes pains to relate during a lengthy narrative near the start of ABC’s Forever. Two hundred years ago he was shot and thrown overboard after trying to save a slave from a similar fate. But lo and behold -- or something like that -- Henry lived to breathe again.

“I always return in water. And I’m always naked,” he explains.

Henry dies three more times in just the opening hour of Forever. He first perishes during a subway crash after meeting a comely blonde and immediately deducing where she’s from, what she’ll be doing that night, etc.

“You see a lot,” she says.

“Well, I’ve seen a lot,” he confides. They arrange to have a drink before, crash-boom, everyone on the subway car is down for the count. Henry then bursts through another of his watery would-be graves and is arrested for indecent exposure. But he’s soon out and about again, with his trusty old friend, Abe (Judd Hirsch), picking him up in a New York minute.

Abe deals in both antiques and sermonettes. He has a long history with Henry that dates back to World War II. It allows him to lay it on a little thick after Henry again is bedeviled by Forever’s mysterious Moriarty, who calls him by phone and says he knows all of his secrets.

Henry, who’s been working in a morgue (“where the action is”), is intent on running away again. Not so fast, says wizened Abe: “I’ve got news for you. You might not be able to die. But you haven’t lived for a very long time.”

Well, dash it all then. Let’s stand and fight, solve crimes and banter with suspicious detective Jo Martinez (Alana De La Garza), who increasingly appreciates Henry’s ability to instantly figure out who did what to whom and why.

This is one of those series where a flake of dandruff on a suit collar can lead to something like this: “Aha, so you obviously didn’t use your Head and Shoulders shampoo last night. But why? Is it because you didn’t have time after cleaning all that blood out of the shower where you killed your wife’s lover with the same straight razor that you then cleverly planted in the bathroom medicine cabinet of a man to whom you owned a fortune in gambling debts?”

OK, I made that up. But really, some of these deductions are really a stretch.

Forever also flashes back on occasion to the only true love of Henry’s life, a woman named Abigail. As we see in Tuesday’s Episode 2, he tried to break it off with her because he knew it could never work. But his heart melted anew after she told him, “Who cares about how it ends? Life is about the journey.”

Too much of Forever is either overwrought or half-baked. But Gruffudd is mighty handsome as Henry. Jaunty, too. So the series is well-equipped from that standpoint.

The series also has added Lorraine Touissant -- fresh from Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black -- as a cop shop boss lady named Joanne Reece. She first shows up in Episode 2, starting with the throwaway line, ”I may be new to the squad, but . . .”

Viewers otherwise may have been over-exposed to the immortal/flashback basics of Forever. Except that Henry doesn’t seem to be a vampire or any sort of otherworldly creature. He’s just a guy who lives and lets die without yet knowing why. For now, rinse him in the Hudson River and repeat.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS' Scorpion is mostly lethally ridiculous

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Robert Patrick (center) & his socially inept Scorpion team. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Elyes Gabel, Robert Patrick, Katharine McPhee, Jadyn Wong, Ari Stidham, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Riley B. Smith
Produced by: Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci, Nick Santora, Nicholas Wootton, Justin Lin, Heather Kadin, Scooter Braun, Walter O’Brien

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Robert Patrick basically is Kurtwood Smith with lots more hair.

Both veteran actors ply the hard-ass trade, snarling and scowling on big screens and small.

Patrick, who first got rolling as the relentless villain of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is a good guy with a bad disposition in CBS’ Scorpion. As federal agent Cabe Gallo, it’s a retro-kick to hear him bellow, “My process involves my foot in your ass!”

His recruits are four high IQ “nerdy masterminds” led by Walter O’Brien (Elyes Gabel), a certified genius who years ago felt betrayed by Gallo. But old iron pants comes calling again when a big bad computer breakdown leaves 56 airliners in jeopardy. They’ll all crash-land when their fuel runs out unless Walter, mechanical whiz Happy Quinn (Jadyn Wong), behaviorist Toby Curtis (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and “statistics guru” Sylvester Dodd (Ari Stidham) can devise a way to reboot everything.

This is all supposedly “inspired by a true story,” although dramatic license clearly is in the driver’s seat. That’s how Scorpion is able to work in socially adept waitress Paige Dineen (Katharine McPhee), whose pre-teen son, Ralph (Riley B. Smith), is uncommunicative until Walter deduces that he’s a genius, too.

There’s considerable techno-talk in the premiere episode, with little of it making much sense. Walter’s minions race around trying to hard wire or hot wire stuff before he says resignedly, “No place on earth has what we need.”

But wait. What if we . . . Suffice it to say the high-speed way in which Walter and Paige save the day is totally ludicrous. Nonetheless, it’s pretty well-staged after Paige first tells the self-important but adorably introverted Walter, “Oh, I get it. I’m a dumb waitress. But I’m smart enough to know that you’re scared.”

A genius probably didn’t write the script.

Agent Gallo ends up dangling big money and a state of the art research lab in return for the quintet’s promise to take on any and all future mission: impossibles. Paige is part of the team because she has the ability to interact with a wide variety of people after taking all of those orders at the diner. Meanwhile, Walter will further bond with Ralph, making Paige one happy mom for starters. Walter and Paige taking it to the next level is a given.

It’s hoped that Patrick’s character won’t be cauterized in future episodes. He needs to remain ornery and never satisfied with his band of misfit handfuls. Still, he’s in a series scheduled opposite the potent trio of NBC’s The Voice, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. Putting a foot in their asses won’t be nearly as easily accomplished.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS' Madame Secretary could use a bigger jolt of political theater

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Tea Leoni yearns to effect change in Madam Secretary. CBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 21st at 7:30 p.m. (central) and repeated at 9:30 p.m. (central) on the same night
Starring: Tea Leoni, Tim Daly, Bebe Neuwirth, Zeljko Ivanek, Keith Carradine, Geoffrey Arend, Patina Miller, Erich Bergen
Produced by: Barbara Hall, Lori McCreary, Morgan Freeman, Tracy Mercer, David Semel

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Any comparisons to Hillary Clinton should begin and end with Tea Leoni’s preference for pantsuits as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord.

Otherwise it’s a big stretch. The dedicated protagonist of CBS’ Madam Secretary is a former CIA agent and mother of two opinionated kids whose husband Henry (Tim Daly) seems to be about as perfect a spouse as Bill Clinton hasn’t been. Besides that, he teaches religion at Georgetown. And whispers sweet nothings such as “I love women in power positions.”

Comparisons to The West Wing are more apt, although Madam Secretary doesn’t look as though it will have the heft to play at that high level.

Sunday’s premiere episode quickly sets the stage for Elizabeth’s ascendance. She’s happily teaching at the University of Virginia -- and turning down a student’s plea for an assignment extension -- before word comes that the secretary of state’s plane has gone down abroad. The next morning at the busy McCord household, her mentor, President Conrad (a recurring Keith Carradine), pops in to pop the question. He recruited her for the CIA and now wants her to step in as secretary of state.

“You don’t just think outside the box. You don’t even know there is a box,” the prez says before adding with an equally straight face that he’s determined to preside over “real change” in the world with Elizabeth as his point woman. The viewing public has long stopped believing that.

Two months later Elizabeth is on the job. And in an amazingly timely story line, she must deal with Syrian terrorists who vow to execute two college age brothers taken hostage unless their demands are met. “Ultimately they want us to call off the peace talks,” Elizabeth says.

Her chief of staff, tart Nadine Tolliver (Bebe Neuwirth), spreads warmth by dubbing this “Operation Stupid Kids.” Meanwhile, the president’s blunt-spoken chief of staff, Russell Jackson (the ubiquitous Zaljko Ivanek), warns the new secretary of state that she’d better not try to do any end runs around him. The upshot in his view: if the kids have to be sacrificed, so be it.

It’s enough to make an idealist tell her hubby in bed that the president “told me that we could affect real change in the world. That’s what I signed up for.” They then kiss and proceed further.

Elizabeth eventually gets the OK to go through back channels in an effort to obtain the brothers’ freedom. This is all pretty murky and without much dramatic punch.

By the way, the king of Swaziland and his 10 wives are scheduled to visit in the midst of all this. Can Elizabeth learn all of their names in time while also pushing her agenda to combat an AIDS epidemic in Swaziland?

Madame Secretary also raises the specter that the previous secretary of state’s plane crash death was no accident. To be continued.

Leoni is fine in the title role and Daly is thoroughly dutiful as her heaven-sent husband. But the accomplished Neuwirth is little seen in the first hour while Ivanek is getting stuck in a rut of playing basically the same character over and over.

What’s missing from Madame Secretary is an overriding reason to keep watching. Nothing really crackles so far, as it did with Netflix’s House of Cards. Instead we get boiler plate dialogue in abundance, with Elizabeth telling the president at one point, “This is a risk you cannot afford not to take.” And the president replying, “You’d better be right about this.”

Better to have made Elizabeth McCord much more of a Hillary knockoff with a husband whose eyes often are on other prizes. Now that’s entertainment.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net