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Still full of majesty, Netflix's The Crown returns


Philip and Elizabeth go their separate ways for starters. Neftlix photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Long live The Crown -- which thankfully is already assured.

Season Two of a planned six-season, 60-episode tale begins streaming Friday, Dec. 8th on Netflix. And after steaming all the way through it, there seems little doubt that this is The One. The One that will rise well above all of Netflix’s other acclaimed originals, including House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and Stranger Things.

Although encompassing just six years, from 1957 to 1963, The Crown retains its epic feel and abundant luster throughout Season Two’s 10 hours, all of which were made available for review. Save for a fleeting flashback glimpse in Episode 6, this go-around goes without John Lithgow’s sterling, award-lauded portrayal of Winston Churchill, who died in 1965.

At first this seems like a major and possibly unfillable void. But in fairly short order, The Crown captivates anew on the strength of its fresh intrigues and the returning performances of Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, Matt Smith (Prince Philip) and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret).

Peter Morgan, architect of it all, retains a master’s touch, both as a storyteller and scene composer. A series about the longest-lasting royals of them all of course must have majesty and scope. And The Crown is fit for both theaters and whatever size your home TV screen might be.

Episode 1 begins on Feb. 16, 1957, with the Queen’s marriage imperiled and impaled by accusatory newspaper headlines after Philip returns from a 5-month sojourn at Elizabeth’s insistence. The idea had been for Philip to “find” himself via a grand tour of the English empire’s properties plus a command appearance at Australia’s summer Olympic games.

But during this leave of absence, Philip’s closest pal, top aide and likeminded playboy Mike Parker (Daniel Ings), is sued for divorce after his wife at last obtains proof of his adultery. Philip is suspected as well, particularly after news gets out that “what happens on tour stays on tour,” according to a letter from Mike read with much frivolity by his chums back home.

After the royal marriage is put in crisis mode, The Crown spends a good deal of its first three episodes rewinding through Philip’s great adventures abroad while Elizabeth both longs for his company and frets about what other company he might be keeping. Whether Philip is really guilty of anything is left to interpretation. In due time, he grows a beard at sea and sends back a brief and thoroughly winning movie of his exploits in Antarctica during the long journey back home. His noble side also is captured via an impromptu rescue mission and attendant, selfless detour of his ship’s route.

But what will it take for Philip to stay with Elizabeth in light of her dictum that divorce is “not an option for us -- ever?” It turns out he does have a price. And it involves a title.

Headstrong, hard-drinking Margaret, even more unfulfilled than Philip, is largely missing in action until her very welcome return in Episode Four. Again jilted in matrimony, she finds both solace and a devil’s workshop in the person of hedonistic, haughty photographer Antony “Tony” Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). Although there’s no nudity, this is one sexy and seductive hour.

Episode 5 has to do with livening the Queen’s dull and at times condescending approach to her “subjects” while the next hour is an enthralling mystery dating back to Nazi Germany and eventually implicating the deposed David, Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), who longs to be back in Buckingham Palace’s good graces. This also is the episode in which visiting evangelist Billy Graham (Paul Sparks) is dismissed by Philip as a “door to door salesman in a hideous shiny suit.” But Elizabeth is quite taken with him, and their palace discourses prove to be both affecting and instructive.

Episode 7 returns Margaret to the fore, with her older sister again vexed by her choice of a husband. This time it’s the less than virtuous Armstrong-Jones, who completes her in a sense.

Season Two has just one curious misstep -- the totally unsuitable casting of Michael C. Hall as President John F. Kennedy. Little effort is made to make him look anything like JFK, to the point where many a viewer might simply exclaim, “Hey, it’s Dexter!” (the serial killer he played on Showtime’s long-running and still most successful series). Hall is lacking in almost every way imaginable. And his JFK is also a vain and jealous jackass in this depiction. Fortunately, he’s comparatively little-seen compared to his insecure wife, Jacqueline (Jodi Balfour), whose scenes with Elizabeth both intimidate and embolden the Queen. Balfour is every bit as good in this role as Hall is not.

Another new character, prime minister Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser), recurs throughout Season Two. He’s never much more than a weasel, with a wife who detests him and a Queen who largely sees through him but is tired of a merry-go-round of prime ministers -- three of them -- during the first 10 years of her reign. In one of her more delicious lines, she upbraids Macmillan’s determination to resign for health reasons, lumping him with a “confederacy of elected quitters.”

The Season Two finale includes another confrontation between Elizabeth and Philip, furthering the impression that they are much like the Clintons in terms of both toleration and looking the other way. But the set-up hour, which is heart-rending at times, recounts some of what Philip went through during his exceedingly trying youth -- and how it both scarred and steeled him. Episode 9 also is the only one in which young Charles (Billy Jenkins) is spotlighted to any degree as an easy target for school bullies.

Foy is scheduled to be replaced as an older Elizabeth in Seasons Three and Four by Olivia Colman (Broadchurch), whose casting was announced in October. She has been exceptional in the role, embodying both the Queen’s steadfast devotion to duty and her occasional efforts to break out of a shell of her own making.

Any successors to Jones’ Philip and Kirby’s Margaret haven’t been announced yet. But as with Foy, they’ll all be much missed.

For now, though, enjoy and appreciate all three of these principals in a Season Two that matches and sometimes surpasses the quality of the series’ initial 10 hours. The Crown remains a joy to behold and savor, whether it’s Philip giving a most gracious 10th anniversary toast or Elizabeth uncharacteristically coming alive while dancing the fox trot with the leader of Ghana. Meanwhile, Margaret is ever unbridled -- and always compellingly so.

This is drama of the highest calling that still will be just one-third of the way to its conclusion after you binge your way through this new season -- and then perhaps make room for a second helping. Which is just what I plan to do next.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Syfy's Happy! sells a Christmas story from hell -- and in eight episodes no less


Christopher Meloni gets horse-collared in Happy! Syfy photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Dec. 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Christopher Meloni, Patton Oswalt, Lili Mirojnick, Medina Senghore, Patrick Fischler, Bryce Lorenzo, Ritchie Coster, Joseph D. Reitman
Produced by: Grant Morrison, Brian Taylor, Neal Moritz, Pavun Shetty, Toby Jaffe, Christopher Meloni, Patrick Macmanus

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Post-Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Christopher Meloni’s walks on his wild side include Fox’s short-lived but bracing Surviving Jack, a pair of Wet Hot American Summer followups and a stint as Donald Trump in Funny Or Die’s The Kellyanne Conway Story.

It turns out he was just warming up in the bullpen for the Syfy network’s Happy!, in which viewers are welcomed to “The Worst Christmas Ever.” First scene: Meloni’s beyond disheveled ex-cop, Nick Sax, coughs up blood in a filthy restroom housed in his favorite bar. This is just seconds before his head literally and continuously explodes in a fantasy dance sequence hatched by what’s left of his mind.

“My life is an ever-swirling toilet that just won’t flush,” Nick says during Wednesday’s premiere episode. Self-awareness is key to any cure.

Adapted from the same-named graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson, the eight-episode Happy! serves up heavy violence and random grins reminiscent of the Starz network’s Ash vs Evil Dead. But setting it during the Christmas season adds extra elements of extreme depravity via a deranged “Bad Santa” (Joseph C. Reitman) who makes Billy Bob Thornton’s version seem like a Keebler elf.

His most recent kidnap victim, sweet little Hailey Hansen (Bryce Lorenzo), has an imaginary friend named Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt). He’s a miniature, winged, moralistic blue horse who then seeks out Nick to rescue Hailey. Now a hitman, Nick dispatches assorted vermin with the greatest of ease. Still, there’s another far more personal reason for Happy picking him out of New York’s not-so-finest. You’ll probably see it coming because it’s a pretty shopworn means of slowly drilling down to the heart of an otherwise hollowed out miscreant.

Syfy made the first two hours available for review, with the second episode including a metaphorical appearance by Nick on Jerry Springer. He’s still wearing a blood-soaked hospital gown after escaping the clutches of the demonic Smoothie (Patrick Fischler) and four of his goons. In a gangland subplot, Nick has come upon a password that would make its possessor all-powerful -- or something like that. Perhaps you’re expecting any of this to make much if any sense?

The two other key characters are hard-boiled detective Meredith McCarthy (Lili Mirojnick), who used to have a thing for Sax, and Hailey’s extremely worried mom, Amanda (Medina Senghore).

This easily is Syfy’s most “adult” series ever, with even a few f-bombs adorning the opening hour. The Bad Santa sequences alone might prove to be an understandable and deal-breaking turn-off to many potential viewers. Terrorizing little kids and encasing them in wooden boxes is not exactly Christmas-y.

Happy! otherwise is recurrently a visual banquet of surreal scenes, with Meloni obviously not caring a whit about his “image” after a dozen years of true-blue crime solving on Law & Order: SVU. Actors are supposed to take chances, and this is a guy who’s willing and able. More power to him, even if Happy! overloads on shock value the way Hallmark annually overdoses on sappy holiday cheer.

At one extreme, you want Santa dead. At the other, it can get to be ho ho hum in a hurry.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Lauer's just the latest, but also the biggest, to be felled by charges of "inappropriate sexual behavior"


Savannah Guthrie haltingly broke the news of Matt Lauer’s firing on Wednesday’s Today after charges by a so far unnamed staffer of “inappropriate sexual behavior” in the workplace. NBC photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Millions of Americans have had a longtime habit of waking up to Matt Lauer in the mornings.

Waking up to news of his firing Wednesday no doubt caused many to spew their coffee.

Lauer is the latest, and arguably the biggest star to date, to be abruptly and ingloriously dismissed for alleged “inappropriate sexual behavior.” And as with CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose, it was left to his women co-anchors to announce the news on air while also trying to grapple with it.

Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, hastily deployed to join her, handled this gut-wrenching task with grace and class. Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King did likewise earlier this month while breaking the news that Rose was out.

The New York Times, whose bombshell expose on kingpin Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein continues to have a seismic ripple effect, had a story in motion on Lauer before NBC News president Andrew Luck preemptively dismissed him.

In a memo to NBC News staffers published by The Times, Lack said, “On Monday night, we received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer.” The allegations “represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company’s standards,” Lack said. “As a result, we’ve decided to terminate his employment. While it is the first complaint about his behavior in over 20 years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”

The Times had met with the same woman earlier Monday, according to its story. She has not yet identified herself. Lauer previously had a much-publicized spat with former Today colleague Ann Curry and also was regularly rumored, mainly in the tabloids, to be in midst of alleged extramarital affairs. But until now, he had never been accused of being a sexual predator.

(Curry, whose new PBS series We’ll Meet Again, premieres on Jan. 23rd, told People magazine Wednesday that she’s still “processing” Lauer’s firing. “I admire the women who have been willing to speak up both anonymously and on the record,” she added. “Those women need to keep their jobs, and all women need to be able to work, to be able to thrive, without fear.”)

Guthrie, who became Lauer’s co-anchor on Today in July 2012, read Lack’s statement to viewers before adding in part (with Kotb by her side), “For the moment, all we can say is that we are heartbroken. I am heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner and he is beloved by many, many people here. And I’m heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their own stories to tell. And we are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks: How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? And I don’t know the answer to that.”

Lauer, who has co-anchored Today since January 1997 after three years as the program’s resident news reader, so far has not issued any public comment on the allegations or his abrupt dismissal. But is his career nonetheless over? Very likely so.

It’s one thing for NBC News anchor Brian Williams to go into limbo for several months after “mis-remembering” his participation in some major news events. After being embarrassed and ridiculed, Williams since has rebounded and is back where he started, at MSNBC.

But sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, is and should be a deal breaker. Such allegations against Rose, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Mark Halperin and Roger Ailes (the since deceased founder of the Fox News Channel) all have led to their dismissals from the programs and networks that lately had fueled their careers. And former Saturday Night Live star Al Franken has made a series of apologies for his misconduct in hopes of holding on to his U.S. Senate seat.

Even Billy Bush, who chortled along with Donald Trump in that now infamous and sexually charged Access Hollywood tape, has gone into total eclipse since it was first publicized in October 2016. At the time he also had been part of the Today “family” and even a possible heir to Lauer.

Trump remains standing -- and ever-defiant as president of the United States. Dozens of woman have accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior during his days at NBC as both host of The Apprentice and owner of beauty pageants formerly televised by the network. On the 2005 Access Hollywood tape, he told Bush, “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful -- I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

“Whatever you want,” Bush agreed.

“Grab’ em by the pussy. You can do anything,” Trump replied.

Candidate Trump made the exceedingly rare move, for him, of videotaping an apology. “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am,” he said. “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”

But in recent days, as President and in light of his defense of embattled Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, Trump reportedly has questioned whether in fact the voice on the tape is really his. Yes, you heard that right.

Trump was quick to pounce, via Twitter of course, when the Lauer news broke.

“Wow, Matt Lauer was just fired from NBC for ‘inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace’ “ he tweeted. “But when will the top executives at NBC & Comcast be fired for putting out so much fake News. Check out Andy Lack’s past!”

Trump also called for “terminating” both MSNBC president Phil Griffin and Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough for “low ratings” and the “unsolved mystery that took place in Florida years ago. Investigate!”

For the record, Lack has never been accused of any sexual misconduct and the “unsolved mystery” apparently refers to a Scarborough intern’s death from what were determined to be natural causes.

But Trump’s beat goes on while Lauer is the latest to be summarily fired and immediately disgraced. And as a sub-head later Wednesday morning, former longtime Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor was dumped by Minnesota Public Radio for a single instance of undisclosed “inappropriate behavior.”

Keillor, who produces The Writer’s Almanac for Minnesota Public Radio, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune Wednesday that he was axed after “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back. I meant to pat her on the back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”

Keillor also noted that he was “the least physically affectionate person in the building. Actors hug, musicians hug, people were embracing every Saturday night left and right, and I stood off in the corner like a stone statue. If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the belt line, I’d have at least a hundred dollars. So this is poetic irony of a high order. But I’m just fine. I had a good, long run and am grateful for it and for everything else.”

There are a lot of “stone statues” in the TV and movie business these days, with many stars likely petrified at the thought that they’ll be the next to see their careers blow up. Many no doubt greatly deserve such a fate while some -- perhaps Keillor -- are largely caught up in a tidal wave of retribution.

It’s a tough, delicate subject to write about, let alone keep current on. Lauer and, tangentially, Keillor, are just the latest but certainly not the last, to fall. Who’s next in line?

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Taking a long-planned break

Unclebarky.com is taking some time off while its proprietor goes on a big adventure. Thanks to all readers for your continued patronage, and be assured we’ll be back up after the Thanksgiving weekend with the November “sweeps” local newscast ratings results for starters.
Ed Bark

Hulu's Future Man goes for the comedy gold


Odd man out: The world-saving trio of Future Man. Hulu photo

Premiering: All 13 Season One episodes begin streaming Tuesday, Nov. 14th on Hulu
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Eliza Coupe, Derek Wilson, Keith David, Ed Begley Jr., Glenne Headley, Haley Joel Osment, Britt Lower
Produced by: Seth Rogen, Ben Karlin, Evan Goldberg, Matt Tolmach, James Weaver

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Want to get away? If so, we live in times that are tailor-made for the escapist, devil-may-care comedy of Future Man.

Inventive and frequently hilarious, it takes Hulu subscribers on year-spanning trips with a familiar end goal -- to save the world. But rather than the taut, grim-faced heroics of Jack Bauer, we get the ongoing befuddlement and exasperations of janitor Josh Futterman (Josh Hutcherson). His determination to beat a video game called Biotic Wars leads to his anointment as “The Savior” by a pair of hard-core, elementally violent resistors from the future -- Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson).

As this particular story line goes, everything happening in Biotic Wars in fact is a real-life and very grim scenario that can be averted only by stopping Kronish Laboratories from finding a cure from the herpes afflicting its crusading namesake, Dr. Elias Kronish (Keith David). This also happens to be hapless Josh’s workplace, where he cleans up others’ messes by day while otherwise feeding his obsession with defeating the video game he plays incessantly to the point of regularly wearing out joysticks.

Future Man borrows from all kinds of familiar sci-fi hits (The Last Starfighter, The Terminator, Quantum Leap, etc.) in addition to Easy Rider and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk among its blasts from the past.

Easy Rider? Yes. In the first episode, which begins streaming on Tuesday, Nov. 14th, Josh, Tiger and Wolf use a short-on-fuel TTD (Time Traveling Device) for a trip to 1969 in hopes of stopping Elias Kronish from contracting herpes via a girl he meets at a moon landing-themed college frat party. But before that, they encounter a biker gang that includes members in Easy Rider garb. Violence ensues, costume changes are needed and it’s a sublime sight gag when Josh, Tiger and Wolf end up as the characters played by Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

It also should be noted that Hulu is going against the grain of its usual streaming regimen by making Season One’s 13 half-hour episodes of Future Man available all at once instead of in weekly doses. Co-executive producer Seth Rogen, answering a question from unclebarky.com at last summer’s Television Critics Association “press tour,” says this is something he and the creative team insisted on.

“When something is kind of plot driven, I personally like to watch it in big chunks,” Rogen said. “And I like ingesting TV series that have cliffhanger episodes. It’s nice to have the next one available to you immediately so you don’t have to wait. Because who wants to wait for things? The world could end . . . It really was an appealing thing to us, and we pushed very hard.”

Viewers’ brains won’t be unduly taxed by Future Man, which successfully plays its coarse language and graphic violence mostly for laughs in the mode of Ash and the Evil Dead. Episode subtitles include “Herpe: Fully Loaded, A Fuel’s Errand” and “A Blowjob Before Dying.” Hulu made the first seven available for review, and they all go down easy.

Future Man occasionally returns to the Futterman household, where Josh has been living in L.A. with his parents, Gabe and Diane (Ed Begley Jr., and Glenne Headley, who died during production and won’t be re-cast).

Begley Jr. does a nice turn in Episode 5, teaching warrior Wolf how to cook with sometimes startling results -- as when his pupil beats the eggs by literally beating the eggs.

This half-hour -- “Justice Desserts” -- otherwise is built around the annual holiday Kronish Ball, where up until now each and every lab employee has been required to eat a small, gourmet chocolate ball during the climactic toast. Alas, the demonic Dr. Stu Camillo (a bearded Haley Joel Osment) has ended this tradition to punish the goodly Elias Kronish (“The balls have been bounced,” he laments) for giving away the lab’s disease-fighting secrets for the good of the world. But the balls must bounce back for Tiger and Wolf to identify and kill the Biotics among them.

This is all a great deal of crazed fun, but Episode 7 so far is the masterpiece. Not to give away too much, but it involves the raiding of director James Cameron’s lavishly appointed home, circa 2023, in search of a crucial fuel needed for further time travel.

Cameron’s out of the house at the moment, but his super high-tech watchdog, named Sigourney, is very much present in voice and vigilance. She’s been programmed to variously tout Cameron as “Undefeated Little League Coach” or “Taller Than Average” or “Celebrated Innovator” while Steven Spielberg is referenced at one point as “less talented.” Laughing out loud won’t be an option; it will be a virtual certainty.

Comedy-adventure of this sort is tough to pull off, as Fox’s The Orville has shown in its off-balance first season. But Future Man has a firm grasp of what it is and where it’s going. Coupe and Wilson excel as goal-fixated warriors from the future without any social graces while Hutcherson shines as a nebbish who both talks them down and strives to keep his own heart from beating off the charts. Emboldened to look ahead, I’m predicting a good time for all.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net