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The Kids Are Alright gives ABC another well-tuned rewind to family of another era

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Life’s a battleground at the Cleary dinner table. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 16th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Michael Cudlitz, Mary McCormack, Jack Gore, Sam Straley, Caleb Martin Foote, Christopher Paul Richards, Sawyer Barth, Andy Walken, Santino Barnard
Produced by: Tim Doyle, Randall Einhorn

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The onetime network of Full House now has the fullest house in TV sitcom history.

Embattled parents Mike and Peggy Cleary (Michael Cudlitz, Mary McCormack) have eight additional mouths to feed at the daily dinner table. They’re all sons, and some are starved for attention as well in The Kids Are Alright, ABC’s latest well-crafted period piece comedy.

ABC long has been the network of mom, dad and the kids sitcoms while also making its mark with long-running rewinds to the 1950s (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the ‘60s (The Wonder Years) and the ‘80s (The Goldbergs). Kids Are Alright is set in the ‘70s -- and for future/past reference, ABC’s midseason comedy Schooled will be set in the ’90s as a spinoff of The Goldbergs.

Paired with The Conners on Tuesday nights, Kids Are Alright follows the leads of The Wonder Years and The Goldbergs with a narrative voice of an adult recalling his childhood. In this case, it’s creator/executive producer Tim Doyle, who vocalizes middle kid Timmy (Jack Gore), a 12-year-old with an artistic bent who auditions for a children’s theater musical in Episode 1 and performs with his fire-damaged ventriloquist’s dummy Knuckles in the second episode provided for review.

The nominal family patriarch is prototypically gruff but a bit mushy when it matters most. In an early scene, Mike Cleary isn’t buying any Nixon White House scandals. “You know what I call Watergate? That’s phony news,” he barks.

Peggy Cleary is the old-line, stay-at-home mom with a weary disdain (outwardly at least) for sons who think they’re gifted.

“We do not have the wherewithal in this family for any of you kids to be special,” she says. And furthermore, “We can’t afford asthma.”

Some of the Cleary kids pretty much blend into the well-worn woodwork in these first two episodes. Besides Timmy, those who stand out include oldest son Lawrence (Sam Straley), who’s developing a social conscience while bailing out on becoming a Catholic priest, and scheming, budding hipster Joey (Christopher Paul Richards), a confidante when Timmy really needs one.

In Episode 2, Lawrence lobbies for healthier choices in the Cleary diet before mom reminds him, “We’re just not fresh vegetable people.” Then he later upbraids his dad for buying lettuce and grapes when farm workers are on strike. Wasn’t he aware of their plight? “I might have heard Cronkite mention something in his nightly coverage of whiners and crybabies,” Mike retorts.

Kids Are Alright has some fine, funny lines and also plenty of companion story lines to follow besides Timmy’s. It’s the best of the fall season’s new comedies from a network that’s become well-practiced in turning back the clock and making shows like these tick.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's The Rookie benefits from its built-in star

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Nathan Fillion stars as a later-in-life cop in The Rookie. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Afton Williamson, Richard T. Jones, Alyssa Diaz, Melissa O’Neil, Titus Makin, Eric Winter, Mercedes Mason
Produced by: Alexi Hawley, Mark Gordon, Nathan Fillion, Michelle Chapman, Jon Steinberg

By ED BARK
@unclebarky com on Twitter
ABC sorely needs a surefire hit, and The Rookie looks like the best bet to deliver as a cop drama with a sometimes unsteady aim in Tuesday’s premiere.

The star of the show, Nathan Fillion, is cut in the mold of high-appeal TV guys such as Tom Selleck, Mark Harmon and David Boreanaz. Viewers respond to them without much if any coaxing. Knowing this, ABC has put more promotional muscle behind this show than for any of its other new fall series. If it somehow flops, the network will be licking some deep wounds.

Fillion, who had a long run as the co-star of ABC’s Castle, is first seen as rumpled looking rust belt construction company owner John Nolan. Reeling from a newly minted divorce, he feels bent, spindled and mutilated, plaintively asking a bank manager and friend, “Who am I?”

In a far-fetched stretch, the two of them then find themselves in the middle of a bank heist after Nolan has discarded his wedding ring in a safe deposit box. An armed masked robber smashes him in the face when Nolan starts spilling his guts about self-identity. Warned to stay down or be killed, Nolan instead rises again to ask, “What’s my dream?” Luckily for him, the cops bust in just before the bad guy can plug him.

Barely a finger snap later, 40-year-old Nolan has answered his inner calling and transitioned to his first day on the job with the Los Angeles Police Department. The stern watch commander, Sgt. Wade Grey (Richard T. Jones), introduces him to the rest of the force as an old-timer who was “born before disco died.” Then he lays the wood: “I hate what you represent. A walking, midlife crisis.”

Nolan is among three featured freshman cops paired with veteran no-nonsense partners. Rookie Lucy Chen (Melissa O’Neil) gets the worst of it, a belittling Mark Fuhrman type with a seeming racist streak named Tim Bradford (Eric Winter). Jackson West (Titus Makin), whose dad is a powerful string-puller, rides shotgun with Angela Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) while Nolan is teamed with savvy Talia Bishop (Afton Williamson).

The first day is action-packed, of course. Nolan and Bishop first respond to a domestic violence call that later on has a bit of a twist. Nolan also huffs and puffs after a deranged man who’s first seen pounding a car windshield senseless with a baseball bat. The three rookies later wind down at a bar where their waitress instantly has eyes for Nolan. But he turns out to be already taken, which provides another twist, albeit a not terribly effective one.

The following morning’s roll call finds the watch commander again ridiculing Nolan before all three of the new cop duos are pinned down by a parole violator spraying fire from an automatic weapon. Justice prevails, though, before Nolan gets ridden hard again by the officious watch commander.

The Rookie’s action scenes are capably staged in a pilot episode that’s also brisk and well cast beyond the built-in marquee appeal of Fillion. But the lead character’s back story is barely touched on. And Nolan’s training to become a cop is completely omitted in the rush to get him out on the streets and imperiled.

Amid all this fast-forwarding, Fillion does not have to be force-fed. Enough viewers probably know and like him enough to make The Rookie instantly click in the ratings. Only the first episode was made available for review. Future hours would benefit from being a bit slower on the draw.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO goes Camping for fun, but don't expect to have any

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Into the wild: David Tennant/Jennifer Garner in Camping. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 14th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on HBO
Starring: Jennifer Garner, David Tennant, Juliette Lewis, Chris Sullivan, Janicza Bravo, Brett Gelman, Ione Skye, Duncan Joiner, Cheyenne Haynes
Produced by: Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Great Outdoors comes down with a case of seemingly incurable human infestation in HBO’s Camping, in which Jennifer Garner segues from those cheery Capitol One commercials to star as a scrunch-faced Debbie Downer with a self-described “dysfunctional pelvic floor.”

All of which means that her sexually deprived husband, played by David Tennant, hasn’t made a tent pole in his pants for the last two years by his count. So beware of hiking into a would-be comedy series co-executive produced by Lena Dunham of Girls fame and Jenni Konner, the head show runner of that series. What you’ll experience, during the four episode made available for review, is marginally more pleasant than poison sumac disease. But please don’t hold me to that. There are eight episodes in all.

Kathryn McSorley-Jodell (Garner) is the very rigid organizer of what’s supposed to be a nature-centric getaway in celebration of husband Walt’s (Tennant) 45th birthday. She’s reserved a small tent park from a pair of burly lesbians who try to arm her with a BB gun to ward off the wild bears. Kathryn recoils in horror. And away we go.

Their fellow campers are Walter’s brother, George (Brett Gelman) and his wife, Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo); Kathryn’s sister, Carleen (Ione Skye) and her boyfriend, Joe (Chris Sullivan from This Is Us); and an unexpected mega-free spirit named Jandice (Juliette Lewis), who’s along for this ride with Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) after his wife left him. Walt and Kathryn also have a put-upon pre-teen son, Orvis (Duncan Joiner) while Carleen and Joe are accompanied by an insolent teen girl Sol (Cheyenne Haynes).

Lewis, as she is wont, throws herself into this role with an early full frontal skinny dip after Kathryn has insisted that this particular day is for bird-watching. The others, save for Kathryn, jump in to join her. Wah-wah, that’s the end of Episode 1.

Orvis later is “injured” in one of those ridiculously staged jump-around football games, prompting Kathryn to rush him to a nearby medical facility and dote on the poor unhurt kid for the rest of Episode 2. Everyone else, save for hangdog Walt, takes off to a bar to drink jelly donut shots at ribald Jandice’s insistence. But fisticuffs almost break out when George learns that Joe, a recovering addict, has called his wife “Li’l Chocolate.”

Episode 3 begins with an odd and wholly gratuitous scene in which Carlene is shown fully naked while taking a shower. Dunham became somewhat infamous for her drop-of-the-hat nude scenes in early seasons of Girls. So maybe that explains it, although if the producers of this series were men, they might well be called on the carpet for what can be seen as pure sex-ploitation in the #MeToo era.

Garner’s character remains a rigid sourpuss until Episode 4, when Jandice mistakenly gives her an upper instead of a downer to help her sleep. But even a wired Kathryn isn’t all that much fun.

It’s hard to discern the overall intent here. Most of the characters are either sad sacks or in Jandice’s case, demonstrably unhinged. But whatever situations they’re put in, Camping all in all is less fun than waves of dive-bombing mosquitoes. Hell, even a good ol’ baked bean-infused fart-fest around the campfire would be a welcome diversion. But a Blazing Saddles intervention seems unlikely.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Amazon Prime's The Romanoffs gives Mad Men creator a license to underwhelm, overspend

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The Romanoffs triangulates in slow-cooked Episode 1. Amazon photo

Premiering: The first two of eight episodes begin streaming Friday, Oct. 12th on Amazon Prime
Starring: A cavalcade of known and little-known actors and actresses
Created, directed, written, produced by: Matthew Weiner

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Both lavish and languid, the first three installments of Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs are mostly bereft of the snap, pop and sizzle of Mad Men.

Their overriding creative force is one and the same -- fastidious Matthew Weiner. Nearly three-and-a-half years after his landmark series ended its AMC run, he’s dared to do something quite different although not nearly in the same league. A reported $70 million budget for an eight-episode first season of 90-minute stand-alone stories so far is not paying off handsomely in terms of stories that induce wonderment, surprise or quickened pulses. Instead we get three long hauls that mostly test a viewer’s endurance. The performances aren’t at fault, but the stories themselves easily could be trimmed to an hour apiece or less. Left free to indulge himself, Weiner gorges too much on empty calories.

The first two tales -- subtitled “The Violet Hour” and “The Royal We,” are reminiscent of an old TV chestnut, ABC’s Love, American Style anthology series. “House of Special Purpose” (for which a full review is “embargoed” until Monday, Oct. 15th), is a cross between The Shining and The Twilight Zone. Maybe we’ll eventually get something in the vein of Wagon Train or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

Before dealing in more depth with the first two episodes, let’s note briefly that former Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks is the principal focus of “House of Special Purpose,” with Paul Reiser the other familiar cast member. She plays an actress, he’s her agent and otherworldly things start to happen when she journeys to Austria to star in a six-part TV miniseries titled The Romanovs. A mercurial French woman director, played by Isabelle Huppert, is calling the shots as only she sees them.

Principal members of the real life aristocratic Romanovs were gunned down en masse by Bolshevik assassins in the summer of 1918. Weiner’s The Romanoffs consists of very lengthy vignettes about people who believe themselves to be descendants.

Each story begins boldly with an opening montage that shows the royals being gunned down to the tune of the late Tom Petty’s “Refugee” Their blood then runs in thin lines through subsequent generations.

“The Violet Hour,” set in Paris, starts off with the hospitalization of imperious Madame Anastasia Le Charney (Marthe Keller), also known as “Anushka.” She’s had a fainting spell, and her nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), is soon by her bedside while his self-absorbed lover, Sophie (Louise Bourgoin), fumes about another possibly canceled vacation.

Taken back to her luxurious city apartment, where she has run off a string of caregivers, Anushka is presented with another one hired by Greg. Her name is Hajar (Ines Melab), a Muslim who wears a head cover.

“I need a caregiver and not a terrorist,” Anushka bellows at Greg. “I hope you sleep well when she blows up my apartment.”

But Anushka, who’s beautiful, is also competent, kindly and seemingly impossible to anger. After this is established, things move along rather predictably -- and also quite slowly. Keller, Bourgoin and Melab are all quite good in their roles while Eckhart’s performance is slower to take hold and arguably never quite gets a grip. Paris looks splendid throughout, so there’s that, too. But these 90 minutes are hardly all-consuming.

Also streaming on Friday, Oct. 12 is “The Royal We,” with the following six episodes to be posted weekly from Oct. 19th through Nov. 23rd.

In this one, Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishe play Michael and Shelly Romanoff. Their marriage has hit a deep rut, and they’re first seen in a therapist’s office. Michael, who works in a strip mall for a college test-prepping chain called Gold Standard, can’t think of anything he’d like to do together with his wife. So he leaves it up to her, and she plans a cruise ship sojourn with a gaudy Romanov theme.

Those plans are waylaid when Michael has jury duty and intentionally sabotages a unanimous verdict in a cut-and-dried murder case after laying eyes on a sexy fellow juror named Michelle (Janet Montgomery). Envisioning a tryst, he encourages Shelly to take the cruise by herself. Which she does, meeting handsome, sensitive Ivan (Noah Wyle) in the process.

The story toggles between these two venues, with Weiner again in no hurry at all to get things moving along. The shipboard scenes are visually grand, though, and Bishe’s Shelly flashes the winningest smiles since Mary Lou Retton’s Olympian days.

The denouement again is no real surprise, and what a slog it’s been getting there.

Mad Men set one of TV’s higher bars in recent years, leaving Weiner with his own nigh impossible act to follow. There are still five more stories to be told in The Romanoffs, although expecting them to show vast improvements is not being realistic. What you’ll see in the first three is not altogether a waste of time. Still, the operative question remains: Is that all there is? And how much money did you say he spent?

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The CW's All American trades on both racial tensions and student bodies

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A coach and his star recruit clash in All American. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 10th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Daniel Ezra, Taye Diggs, Samantha Logan, Bre-Z, Greta Onieogou, Monet Mazur, Michael Evans Behling, Cody Christian, Karimah Westbrook, Jalyn Hall
Produced by: April Blair, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Rob Hardy

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Racial dynamics are a big part of The CW’s new All American.

But so are abs, pecs and high school football players aggressively sporting them during what the network hopes will be must-see workouts at Zuma Beach. Sculpted males as take-your-shirts-off sex objects? On television at least, that’s still no more of a no-no than your basic bumbling dad.

“Inspired by a true story,” All American is the saga of a star receiver from the poor side of town who’s coveted by a coach from a rich enclave. African-American males as leads had been basically non-existent on The CW until Black Lightning premiered last season. But Greg Berlanti is not. He’s a co-executive producer of both series while also helming The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Riverdale. The guy’s busy. And with Berlanti, you generally get a polished and entertaining product, which All American for the most part is.

Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) is first seen making big, flashy plays for South Crenshaw High. But after the game, gunfire is heard outside the stadium.

“Another day in the neighborhood,” Spencer matter-of-factly tells predatory coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), who replies, “I can get you a way out, man.”

The resultant tug-of-war of course will be won by the Beverly Hills Eagles coach, with an assist from Spencer’s mom, Grace (Karimah Westbrook). Both have ulterior motives. Coach Baker wants to save his imperiled job while also enhancing his reputation as a groomer of hot college prospects. Grace wants something better for her son, but has additional reasons that slowly will play out in the three episode made available for review.

It also just so happens that coach Baker’s son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), is the Beverly Hills high quarterback (he feels unappreciated) while his daughter, Olivia (Samantha Logan), is newly out of rehab after taking the rap for someone else. (She also feels unappreciated.) Their white mom, Laura (Monet Mazuer), is more attentive to both children.

Olivia is quickly enamored of Spencer, who’s initially entranced by all-that Leila Faisal (Greta Onieogou), the very popular “Stu Co” (student council) president. Her father is a rich record producer who supposedly spends Thanksgivings with the Obamas. Rumor also has it, says Olivia, that Leila “even smoked pot with Malia (the Obamas’ oldest daughter) last year.” That’s not a capital crime, of course, but it does seem like a cheap, gratuitous reference.

The football team’s resident first-string pass-catcher, a guy named Asher (Cody Christian), is white, entitled and the son of a racist school booster who’s introduced in Episode 2. “Crips or Bloods?” Asher asks upon first meeting Spencer, who’s understandably repulsed.

Spencer eventually moves in with the Bakers to establish residency while still returning to South Crenshaw on weekends to be with his mom and younger brother Dillon (a winning Jalyn Hall). The series’ most nuanced character, and Spencer’s old neighborhood confidante, is Tiana “Coop” Cooper (Bre-Z). She’s a blunt-spoken gay girl who’s both falling into the wrong crowd and reluctant to disclose her sexuality to a very religious mother. Bre-Z excels in every scene she’s in. The writers need to keep finding ways to keep her character from becoming more than peripheral.

All American also has some pat scenes in its efforts to create both racial and sexual(ity) conflict. In Episode 3, for instance, the coach’s son is roughed up by white Crenshaw cops after he and Spencer are stopped for no reason while driving back to the Hills in Jordan’s flashy red convertible.

Jordan should have been taught to simply cooperate rather than protest this indignity, Spencer tells Coach Baker. His response sounds too much like a tract: “I honestly thought that I had bought Jordan just a little more time before he had to face the ugly side of being a black man in America.”

This is also the episode where Coop learns just where her mom stands after she becomes suspicious of the same-sex company her daughter is keeping. Once again, the scene is both affecting and a little too prototypical. But the writers need to keep trying to get it just right.

All-American has overtones of NBC’s exemplary Friday Night Lights, but so far is not in its class. FNL had one of the best parent-student ensembles in TV history. The CW’s first high school football series literally is better built in terms of strutting its stuff in the locker room and at the beach. Perhaps the drama will also flex harder in time.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net