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HBO's All About Ann is mostly about enshrining her

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Ann Richards in natural act of speaking her mind. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Politicians from both sides would agree: Ann Richards knew how to make an impression.

She served just one term as Texas governor, from 1991 to 1995. But the spotlight loved her and she pretty much loved it, never more so than at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. One zinger, in a keynote address filled with many, made the former schoolteacher a political star of the first magnitude.

“Poor George, he can’t help it,” she drawled in reference to Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The crowd roared and rose to its collective feet. Richards needn’t have ever said another word.

Richards, who died in 2006 at age 73 of esophageal cancer, is extolled anew in HBO’s All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State (Monday, April 28th at 8 p.m. central). The 90-minute documentary film, by Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper, is fully intended to be a one-sided tribute. It’s very watchable as well, both as political theater and storybook tale of a woman who grew up in rural Texas and wore “feed sack dresses” as a kid. She ended up being a beacon for women’s rights and empowerment.

The filmmakers have included numerous new interviews with both lesser known Richards’ aides and familiar national figures such as Bill Clinton, Dan Rather, Liz Smith and Michael Dukakis.

Archival clips and still shots of Richards are the driving forces, of course. If she was ever dull, it had to be purely by coincidence. When Ronald Reagan said he liked women, Richards retorted that he liked them all right -- in the kitchen. “You know, if Ronald Reagan likes me anymore, I’m gonna have to take in ironing.”

Her 1990 campaign for governor, after earlier serving as state treasurer, remains by far the most colorful and provocative of Texas’ modern electronic age.

Richards first faced former governor Mark White and state attorney general Jim Mattox in the Democratic primary. Mattox, now deceased and commonly referred to as “the junkyard dog of Texas politics,” branded Richards as a soft-on-crime, former cocaine user who now refused to admit her dalliances with illegal drugs. Richards, who freely talked about going to rehab for her alcoholism, finally fired back by telling reporters, “I wish there were a treatment program for meanness. And then maybe Mattox could get well.”

She then went after White as well, alleging he had enriched himself at the expense of taxpayers during his earlier term as governor. His richly appointed Houston home was cited as evidence in a Richards commercial.

White tried to position himself as a hard-liner when it came to pulling the switch. In a commercial that remains a jaw-dropper, he strode manfully past enlarged black-and-white photos of those he had previously sent to their graves. “Only a governor can make executions happen,” White proclaimed. “I did, and I will.”

Richards won the Democratic runoff before facing West Texas millionaire Clayton Williams in the general election. He poured his own money into the effort and enjoyed a double-digit lead over Richards until famously running at the mouth during a campfire get-together with reporters. Comparing rape to bad weather, he joked, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

Williams further compounded his problems by refusing to shake Richards’ hands at a public gathering after intentionally summoning a TV reporter and cameraman to capture the slight. But no hole was bigger than Williams’ jovial admission that in at least one year, he hadn’t paid any income taxes. In a new interview, ex-Texas Speaker of the House Jack Rains tells the camera that “Bubba” could look past the rape joke and the Richards snub. But Williams “lost Bubba” with his non-payment of taxes.

Richards and her husband, David, first moved to Austin in 1969 after living in Dallas. All About Ann, as have many political films, finds it easy to make Dallas something of an arch villain.

“Dallas was a vehement, right-wing city,” venerable author/reporter Gary Cartwright says.

“I think we always wanted out of Dallas. There was no question about it,” David Richards says in a new interview.

Richards herself is shown referring to Dallas as the city where school kids cheered on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. In reality, that remains very debatable, with other accounts saying that the kids were just happy to be getting out of school early, with many of them not told the reason why.

All About Ann uses a good amount of footage from WFAA-TV. But the Dallas-based station may not be happy to learn that some of it is uncredited. Former WFAA political reporter Doug Fox’s studio interview with Richards is identified as “Texas local television, 1991.” Fox is never identified either, but his familiar voice (to some of us at least) can be heard throughout the film during other WFAA coverage of Richards.

Another former WFAA-TV reporter, Robert Riggs, is interviewed specifically for All About Ann. He’s ID’d as a WFAA-TV investigative journalist, giving viewers the impression he still works at the station. That hasn’t been the case at least since 2002, the year Riggs joined rival CBS11’s news department.

Richards lost the governorship, after one term, to George W. Bush. Wayne Slater, longtime Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, joins others in largely blaming her defeat on the “special interests” money that came pouring in for the Republican candidate while behind-the-scenes mastermind Karl Rove pushed all the right inflammatory buttons. These included intimations that Richards was a lesbian.

In the end, she was beaten rather soundly by Bush, who ended up using the Texas governorship as the springboard to his eventual presidency. “This is not the end of the world. It is the end of a campaign,” Richards told her supporters. She never ran for public office again.

Near the end, All About Ann has footage of Richards addressing a large group of admirers within a little more than two years of her death. She has a heavy cough, but powers her way through. At her memorial service, Liz Smith notes that she had known or met many prominent women during the course of her writing career, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Katharine Hepburn and even Mother Theresa.

“Forget them,” she says. “I think Ann Richards was the greatest woman I have ever known.”

This film has no interest in contradicting that assertion. It doesn’t quite canonize its subject, but gets in the vicinity. Others can strongly disagree or ignore the film entirely. It’s not for them anyway.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Bad Teacher doesn't fail CBS (but will the ratings provide a passing grade?)

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Ari Graynor (prone) heads the cast of Bad Teacher. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, April 24th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Ari Graynor, Kristin Davis, David Alan Grier, Sara Gilbert, Ryan Hansen, Sara Rodier
Produced by: Hilary Winston, Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg, Jimmy Miller, Sam Hansen, Michael Lasker

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s tempting to grade Bad Teacher on the curve. Specifically her curves.

But this CBS sitcom spinoff of the 2011 Cameron Diaz movie gets more than a passing grade on its own merits. It’s bright, sharp, without a laugh track and with a very well assembled ensemble cast headed by Ari Graynor in the Diaz role of a gold-digging, dumped divorcee looking to land another big fish.

The name of the lead character is now Meredith Davis instead of Elizabeth Halsey. Just about everything else has been altered, too. Diaz’s character already was a lazy, lousy teacher who planned to quit after marrying her wealthy fiancé. He backed out after discovering she was a money-grubber. She dropped back in -- at Chicago’s John Adams Middle School -- and began pursuing a rich substitute teacher played by Justin Timberlake. His ex-girlfriend had large breasts, prompting Elizabeth to raise endowment funds for her own cosmetic picker-upper. And so on.

Graynor’s Meredith decidedly doesn’t have that problem. She fills out outfits with the greatest of ease after first filling out a phony resume that persuades gullible Nixon Middle School principal Carl Gaines (David Alan Grier) to hire her on the spot. The upscale school has a rich lode of eligible single dads. And as Meredith notes when a potential new husband pulls up in an expensive car, “I need one of them to hit me -- and then hit on me.”

Grier is consistently amusing in the three episodes available for review. He’s by no means the only familiar TV face, though. Sara Gilbert (Roseanne, The Talk) plays against type as a bespectacled, naive teacher named Irene. And Kristin Davis (Sex and the City) is prim faculty president Ginny, who’s rubbed the wrong way every which way by the sexpot suddenly in their midst.

Ryan Hansen rounds out the cast as gym teacher Joel, a former high school classmate of Meredith’s who knows all of her moves. The only kid getting series regular billing is Sara Rodier as Lily, part of a picked-on, nerdy crossing guard contingent. Meredith tries to empathize with them: “Yes, I was blessed with a great rack and a perfect face. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how you guys are feeling.”

Two of the first three episodes predictably end with Meredith doing the right thing by her students rather than heading off with a hand-picked, cash-laden stud. Bad Teacher wouldn’t work otherwise. Well, maybe on FX it would, but that network much prefers highly flawed males as leads after flings several seasons ago with the Glenn Close-starring Damages and the Courteney Cox-starring Dirt.

Graynor, fronting her first TV series, seems perfectly equipped to do so. The eye candy attributes are obvious, but she also knows how to land a punchline and parry with the veteran pros surrounding her. Gilbert is particularly appealing after taking all of her usual edge off. Good for her.

Bad Teacher gives CBS a late-blooming spring comedy that also comes as a pleasant surprise. Its takeoff point is a box office success that got less than ecstatic reviews. The TV successor in comparison goes to the head of the class. Getting the ratings needed to graduate can be a tougher assignment this time of year.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Black Box goes for gravitas on a tilt-a-whirl

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Kelly Reilly stars as “Marco Polo of the brain” in Black Box. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, April 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Kelly Reilly, Ditch Davey, David Ajala, Ali Wong, Laura Fraser, David Chisum, Siobhan Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Terry Kinney
Produced by: Amy Holden Jones, Ilene Chaiken, Amy Holden Jones, Bryan Singer, Anne Thomopoulos, Oly Obst, Gary Michael Walters, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Following the quick cancellation of Mind Games, ABC wastes no time getting into the head of a bi-polar neurologist in Black Box.

Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) is dubbed “the Marco Polo of the brain,” although her out-of-body Jezebel persona holds center stage in Thursday’s premiere episode. Watching Black go off her meds and in a sense, “Hulk out,” is too laughable to be harrying, though. Reilly, the latest Brit to front an American TV series, contorts herself into a swirling, whirling dervish of a sexual predator, with the horn section striving to keep pace as she beds a limo driver before teetering on the edge of a high-rise hotel balcony. Only a timely thunder storm sends her crashing back to earth.

“I can be such a bitch,” Catherine tells the man who wants to marry her (David Ajala as chef Will Van Renseller). He’s later told why, prompting a break up and a make up.

If Black Box’s anti-heroine has excess baggage, so does the drama’s large grouping of executive producers. Among them is Bryan Singer, who worked behind the scenes on House and whose X-Men: Days of Future Past is due to be released next month. Singer is newly embroiled in allegations that he sexually abused a teenager. His lawyers have denied the very public charges, by the now 31-year-old Michael Egan. But Singer has gone into hiding and ABC has pulled on-air promos touting him as one of the creative minds behind Black Box.

The network made the series opener available for review, but then skipped ahead to Episode 3 rather than offering a look at next week’s hour. Catherine’s extracurricular exploits, which she considers an “incredible high,” are not on display in the steadier latter episode. But the patients remain highly out of the ordinary, whether it’s a married couple battling “LBD” (sexless Lesbian Bed Death) among other things or a woman who has lost perception of “the left side of her world.”

Catherine is director of “The Cube,” where all the cool, prickly, top neurosurgeons ply their wares. They include Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey), a prototypical womanizer who speaks in a silly manly rasp. Vanessa Redgrave also drops in on occasion as Catherine’s therapist, Dr. Hartramph. In Episode 1, she urges her prized patient, “Don’t ‘catastrophize. ‘ “ That must be newspeak for “Calm down.”

Catherine also has a devoted brother, Joshua (David Chisum), who shares a dark secret about their past that’s fully revealed in Episode 1. Joshua is married to uptight, insecure Reagan (Laura Fraser), and they have a bright, teen daughter named Esme (Siobhan Williams) who greatly admires Catherine. You’re probably going to figure all of this out before Black Box spills its beans.

The featured patients in Thursday’s opener, neither of whom really register, are an elderly woman with an imaginary dwarf friend she calls Yojo and a brainy young man whose acceptance to MIT is waylaid by his sudden impulse to draw wildly complex pictures on walls.

Catherine’s own tangled webs are the premiere’s marquee storyline, though And her impromptu, madcap dance atop a hospital staircase is exceedingly ripe for a Saturday Night Live parody if Black Box somehow succeeds as a spring replacement for Scandal, which had its season finale last week.

More likely, ABC will be sticking affiliate stations’ late night local newscasts with another lousy lead-in just in time for the first night of the four-week May “sweeps” ratings period. The network already leads its Big Four broadcast peers in first-year drama series cancellations, with six so far this season. Black Box at least has moments of unintentional high comedy in Catherine Black’s loopy magic carpet rides. But the series nonetheless takes itself way too seriously to be taken seriously.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 2, Season 7

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Daughter Sally Draper and her dad, Don: She’s becoming his equal. AMC photos

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Presenting our weekly 10 takeaways from Mad Men. Sunday’s second hour of a 14-episode, two-tiered final season was subtitled “A Day’s Work.”

1.Kiernan Shipka, in her first appearance this year as Don Draper’s daughter, Sally, has come fully of age as a potential Emmy-calibre supporting actress. Her scenes with him were letter-perfect during their icy drive back to her boarding school, which included a stop at a restaurant where Don (Jon Hamm) again succumbed to telling Sally the truth about his latest subterfuge. You could have knocked dad over with less than a feather after she finally told him at episode’s end, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.”

Shipka, now 14, hit a maturation point earlier this year in the Lifetime movie Flowers in the Attic. Mad Men’s writing soars above that level, and Shipka’s excelling as well. Meanwhile, her mom, Betty (January Jones), is yet to be seen this season and in reality isn’t missed at all. Sally has supplanted her -- and then some.

2. The underling racial politics at Sterllng, Cooper & Partners emerged front and center in an episode that gave the agency’s first black employee, secretary Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris), some rare showcase scenes. She’s still providing regular intel to Don while also chafing under his replacement, old-line ad man Lou Avery (Allan Havey). He blamed Dawn for his being surprised by Sally’s impromptu visit after sending her on a lunch hour errand to buy perfume for his wife.

Lou to Dawn’s other boss, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks): “I know you can’t fire her. Just move her to another part of the building.”

Joan: “Lou, I will take care of this.”

Dawn to Lou: “What do you mean by that?”

Lou: “I want my own girl.”

Dawn then let him have it, the first time she’s fired back. But she later wasn’t within hearing distance of old patriarch Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), who turned a whiter shade of pal at the sight of Dawn in her new post as the agency’s entranceway receptionist. Cooper immediately upbraided Joan: “I’m all for the national advancement of colored people, but I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office. People can see her from the elevator.”

Joan again took care of things, but this time to Dawn’s further advantage in a well-staged game of musical offices in which both women were promoted. As for Bertram, it’s impossible to see him anymore as a semi-benign grandfatherly presence. He’s now just a weathered old bigot.

3. Before either of these flash points, creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner deftly set the table in a scene between Dawn and Sterling Cooper’s other black secretary, Shirley (Sola Bamis). Gossiping in the agency’s kitchenette, they playfully interchanged each other’s names. It was their way of twitting the stereotype that all black people look alike.

4. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) became further estranged from her agency colleagues, who in turn have ganged up on her. She’s frustrated, unfulfilled and getting bitchy in the bargain. But nothing coming from Peggy in Sunday’s episode could quite match a broadside delivered in her presence from ad man Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), who said during an elevator grouping, “She has plans. Look at her calendar. February 14th. Masturbate gloomily.”

5. Yes, that was David James Elliott of JAG fame in the nearly unrecognizable role of adman Dave Wooster, who’s entertaining the idea of hiring Don. He also wants to know what really happened to him at Sterling Cooper.

“I didn’t know I was going to be interrogated by the Hooterville telephone operator,” Don jabbed. That’s a reference to the CBS sitcom Petticoat Junction.

Wooster later proposed they meet again -- at a New York Knicks game where his agency has seats “right on the floor.”

“Bradley’s having one helluva season,” said Don. That’s Bill Bradley, whose Knicks would win the championship in 1970 (the year after the current season of Mad Men is set).

6. Perhaps you’re wondering whether a man of Don Draper’s refinement would really be familiar with Petticoat Junction. Yeah, he very likely would be. The episode began with Don finally rising at 12:34 p.m. and then watching an episode of The Little Rascals while eating Ritz crackers from the box. Later that evening, he had the Marlo Thomas-starring That Girl on the tube before Dawn came calling with her latest agency update.

7. Sunday night’s closing music wasn’t nearly as impactful as the previous episode’s You Keep Me Hangin’ On by the Vanilla Fudge. Instead it was the comparatively obscure ”This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies.

8. I’m still seeing an eventual reuniting of Don and Peggy, with a carping Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and an increasingly marginalized Roger Sterling (John Slattery) also possibilities -- along with Dawn as head secretary -- in any last hurrah new ad agency. In fact, Sunday’s most chilling lines -- other than the racial exchanges -- came from Sterling Cooper newcomer Jim Cutler (very well-played by Harry Hamlin). In the closing minutes, he told Roger on the elevator, “I’d hate to think of you as an adversary. I’d really hate that.” Not really he wouldn’t. Not really.

9. A commenter on my Sunday night Twitter feed had a fine observation: “It saddens me that Millennials will never know the satisfaction of slamming down the receiver of a desktop landline phone.” It was in reaction to Pete’s angry reaction to Roger hanging up on him.

10. Parting gems:

Boarding school classmate to Sally: “Jesus, Draper, is this your first funeral?”

Dawn to Shirley: “Keep pretending. That’s your job.”

Sally to Don: “It’s more embarrassing for me to catch you in a lie than it is for you to be lying.”

West coast agency partner Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) to Pete after he complains that “no one feels my existence” at the home office in New York: “Just cash the checks. You’re gonna die one day.”

Lou’s dismissive reference to Don as “our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Signed, Sealed, Delivered gets stamp of approval from Hallmark Channel

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Guest star Valerie Harper and stars of Signed, Sealed, Delivered. Hallmark photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 20th at 7 p.m. (central) on Hallmark Channel
Starring: Eric Mabius, Kristin Booth, Crystal Lowe, Geoff Gustafson
Produced by Martha Williamson, Joel S. Rice, Scott Smith, Michael Prupas

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
This stuff just wouldn’t cut it anymore on a Big Four broadcast network, where Touched By An Angel gave CBS a squeezably soft hit series for nine seasons before its last of 212 episodes aired on April 27, 2003.

Its creator, Martha Williamson, has been in TV’s wilderness ever since. But the Hallmark Channel welcomed her with open arms last October, when Signed, Sealed, Delivered arrived as a movie. Easter Sunday marks its debut as a 10-episode weekly series on the same night and at the same time where Touch prospered.

Hallmark has resisted any and all efforts to be edgy. It means well -- with a vengeance one might say. But syrupy, life-affirming TV isn’t yet a crime, or even a misdemeanor. So we’re going to try being reasonably kind and gentle toward Signed, Sealed, Delivered, a throwback hour of harmless, gooey entertainment for those who still prefer storybook endings to slaughterhouses, anti-heroes or Salem, a polar-opposite series premiering the same night on WGN America.

The first episode of Signed, Sealed, subtitled “Time to Start Livin’,“ spotlights guest star Valerie Harper as a lively postal supervisor named Theresa Capodiamonte. Harper continues to out-live a very dire diagnosis for leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a cancer she’s had for the past 13 months. She was supposed to b dead by now, with doctors marveling at her continued survival.

Harper’s character will stick around for the first two episodes before fellow TV icon Dick Van Dyke replaces her as supervisor in the next two. Signed, Sealed also will feature Valerie Bertinelli, Marilu Henner and former Touched co-star Della Reese in guest roles before the series finale makes room for Carol Burnett.

The premise is at best rather preposterous. Working out of the U.S. mail’s dead letter bureau, a quartet of “postal detectives” strive to ensure that every envelope and package reach their intended recipients. There’s always much at stake, of course. In Sunday’s premiere, a 10-year-old boy’s undelivered letter to his grandma becomes a life or death proposition involving a nursing home and a drug ring.

Leading the amateur gumshoe contingent is Oliver O’Toole (Eric Mabius from Ugly Betty), a buttoned-down quoter of Shakespeare who resembles a young Tom Bergeron and so far is immune to the charms and veiled come-ons from perky Shane McInerney (Kristin Booth). Thoughtful nerd Norman Dorman (Geoff Gustafson) and bespectacled, excitable Rita Haywith (Crystal Lowe) round out the team.

“I have heard that you four have a way of thinking outside the mailbox,” Harper’s character says for starters. Oh my. Oliver calls her a “goddess in the postal acropolis.” Aw cripes.

Everything is pretty much telegraphed during the course of an episode that ends with Harper getting a chance to sing after she’s earlier spotted dancing. Her character also knew Oliver’s grandfather, a kind, caring giant of the dead letter-reviving profession. This allows her to gently poke at his softer side.

Signed, Sealed has found a perfect home on Hallmark Channel, which does a very able job of promoting its golly gee-rated lineup. The network isn’t required to make any apologies or amends. It is what it is -- an aspirational network that’s sticking to its guns while only rarely firing any. It’s not for me, but it may be for you. There, I’ve been a good boy.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net