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Music to his ears: HBO's Sonic Highways indulges Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl

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Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl vs. Chicago’s cold. HBO photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 17th at 10 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, his bandmates and various musicians/producers
Directed and co-produced by: Dave Grohl

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Dave Grohl means well, even if his Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways series doesn’t always hit the right musical chords.

Each hour of the 8-episode series “is devoted to a different American musical landmark, chronicling the history, cultural environment and people that define each city’s unique musical identity,” according to HBO publicity materials.

First up Friday night is Chicago, presumably defined above all by the blues. Grohl, who directed each episode, indeed spends some time with Buddy Guy, the Muddy Waters disciple whose guitar ferociously tore into the blues.

“His playing is so intense that it sounds mean,” says Jimmie Vaughan.

But Cheap Trick and the ‘80s punk band Naked Raygun get equal exposure while Chicago (the band) gets hardly any time at all.

Choices must be made here, and you can’t include everyone. But this opening chapter of Sonic Highways pretty much is funneled through the words of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who says, “I don’t care about the blues really. When I think of Chicago, I think of Cheap Trick. That’s about as deep as I go.” This strikes him as funny.

Grohl also devotes ample time to producer Steve Albini, veteran proprietor of the Electrical Audio recording studio, former peripheral member of Naked Raygun and known in the industry for being a “cynical prick.” Albini also produced and recorded Nirvana’s third album, “In Utero,” back when Grohl was the band’s drummer.

None of this is boring. Who knew, for instance, that the famed Cubby Bear sports bar, located in the heart of Wrigleyville, used to be a weeknight mecca for the punk scene? As a wide-eyed kid, Grohl was taken there by his very grownup cousin, Tracey Bradford, with whom he reconnects in Sonic Highways. “It just turned my world upside down,” he tells her. She was a punk performer herself, with Verboten.

In each of the 10 cities they visited, Foo Fighters recorded a song for their new album at a “legendary studio integral to the unique history and character of each of these great musical capitals.” In Chicago, they pound through “Something From Nothing,” with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen sitting in. This decidedly isn’t the blues. And Buddy Guy is nowhere to be seen.

Episode 2, also made available for review, originates from Washington, D.C. Grohl grew up in a Virginia suburb, and the Inner Ear Studio “produced the entire soundtrack of my youth,” he recalls.

Again, that would be punk, with former members of Bad Brains and Teen Idles getting most of Grohl’s attention along with Inner Ear Studio owner Don Zientara.

“Go-Go” music also gets into the mix, with an emphasis on this funk genre’s founding father, the late Chuck Brown. But Grohl’s go-to guy is veteran local punk potentate Ian MacKaye, whom he idolized growing up.

The Foo Fighters put on a D.C. club show with both punksters and funksters during this second hour of Sonic Highways. Alas, all viewers will get is Grohl’s tease of a long night of heavy duty rock. Then it’s immediately on to the Inner Ear Studio for a closing performance of “The Feast and the Famine,” which also will be on a new Foo Fighters album scheduled to be released on November 10th.

Sonic Highways’ other stops will be in Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Austin, where Grohl hooks up with Gibby Haynes, co-founder of Butthole Surfers and son of the late, legendary Dallas children’s TV host Jerry “Mr. Peppermint” Haynes.

Open questions: will Sonic Highways at least emphasize jazz in New Orleans and country in Nashville? And might the Foo Fighters stray from their comfort zone to record a song in each vein?

Whatever happens, this is an interesting series and a worthy endeavor that makes terrific use of archival footage in both of the first two hours. But the overall emphasis on punk is at the expense of more vital genres. Nowhere more so than in Chicago, where Buddy Guy and other bluesmen aren’t exactly left out in the cold but too often hit the cutting room floor.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Viewers should get engaged with NBC's Marry Me

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Ken Marino and Casey Wilson of new comedy Marry Me. NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 14th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Casey Wilson, Ken Marino, John Gemberling, Sarah Wright Olsen, Tymberlee Hill, Tim Meadows
Produced by: David Caspe, Seth Gordon, Jamie Tarses

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
As sitcom setups go, the opening minutes of NBC’s Marry Me may be the best you’ll see this season -- on a new or returning series.

It’s a brilliantly conceived rant and recant introduction of principal characters Jake and Annie (Ken Marino, Casey Wilson). They’ve just celebrated six years together with a vacation in Mexico. But at age 32, she’s tired of waiting for him to pop the key question. So upon return it’s hell to pay -- but in ways she never imagined.

Wilson and Marry Me creator David Caspe previously collaborated on ABC’s Happy Ending, which basked in favorable reviews but didn’t cut it with enough viewers. They’re now married in real life, and this new series is a loose adaptation of the run-up to that. Annie is volatile and gabby, Jake is calmer and less verbal. But as he tells her in Tuesday’s premiere episode, “I need your explosions. You challenge me.”

A flashback scene to the night they first met is brief and to the point. And there’s not a speck of narration, which has been much over-used this season in an effort to dodge the bigger challenge of writing strong character dialogue.

Although more distinctive than derivative, Marry Me still can’t escape fall’s invasion of the shlubby bearded buddy. Which means that Jake’s best pal is the divorced Gil (John Gemberling), who’s needy, adrift and equipped with “a body like a bag of ground beef.”

The pilot episode made available for review still has two f-bombs intact (they’ll be bleeped or removed entirely) and a sucker punch of a line that goes like this: “We literally cannot get away from each other. We’re like Paula Deen and the n-word.”

Jake’s widowed mom, Myrna (played by the estimable JoBeth Williams), will be a recurring character. Annie has two dads, “Kevin One” and “Kevin Two” (Tim Meadows, Dan Bucatinsky). “I am a product of an egg from a lesbian my dads no longer speak to,” Annie says by means of explaining her oft-combative attitude toward moms at large. Birth by artificial insemination apparently can be a bitch sometimes.

Marry Me runs a solid second to ABC’s black-ish in the informal competition for best new comedy series of the fall season. Episode 1 gets off to a terrifically inventive start, with Wilson and Marino teeing things up before further hitting their grooves apart from one another. Paired with the welcome second season return of About A Boy, it gives NBC a smart and engaging comedy duo.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Appealing star of CW's Jane the Virgin comes off as seasoned vet

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Testing positive’s not a positive in Jane the Virgin. CW photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 13th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Justin Baldoni, Andrea Navedo, Brett Dier, Yael Grobglas, Ivonne Coll, Jaime Camil
Produced by: Jennie Snyder, Ben Silverman, Gary Pearl, Jorge Granier, Brad Silberling

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A luminous young star can work wonders for any premise. Which Gina Rodriguez does as the title character in The CW’s Jane the Virgin.

Still “saving herself” at age 23 after an unyielding grandma drilled virginity into her, Jane Villanueva finds herself expecting after being accidentally artificially inseminated with sperm from a cancer-surviving Miami hotel owner with looks that could kill. Further complications quickly pile up in this loose adaptation of the telenovela Juana la Virgen.

Jane’s own fondness for telenovelas and grilled cheese sandwiches has been with her since a pre-teen indoctrination by devout Grandma Alba (Ivonne Coll), whose own daughter Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) gave birth to Jane after being impregnated at age 16. Alba doesn’t want a rerun. So she’s used a flower as a symbol of virginity while instructing her granddaughter in the fine art of abstaining until marriage. Crumple a flower and it can never be what it once was, Jane is taught. Lesson implanted.

But Jane’s life becomes “the stuff of telenovelas,” in the words of a Ricardo Montalban-sounding narrator, after a pap smear goes awry courtesy of a pre-occupied doctor who’s just caught her lover in bed with another. Hey, it happens -- or at least it does here. Hunky hotel owner Rafael (Justin Baldoni) had no idea that his duplicitous wife, Petra (Yael Grobglas), intended to artificially impregnate herself as a means of keeping their lousy marriage intact long enough for her to collect a big financial settlement.

Jane, who works at the hotel while studying to become a teacher, has been dating an Anglo detective named Michael (Brett Dier). He longs to slide into home plate with her but has agreed to wait until they’re married. So it’s a bit of a shocker to learn that she’s suddenly pregnant with another man’s child.

Jane the Virgin tries to walk a tightrope between comedy and poignancy. It sometimes teeters, but Rodriguez is perfectly calibrated throughout. She’s arguably the most engaging newcomer of the fall season, whether pouring wine as a mermaid at the hotel or pouring herself out to grandma while trying to explain how “a sample of a man” got inside of her.

The oft-ridiculed CW network has just two series this fall. But both The Flash and Jane the Virgin turn out to be potentially better bargains than the majority of first-year series being rolled out by the Big Four broadcast networks. Rodriguez lights up every scene she’s in, never more so than in the closing one for Monday’s premiere.

“And then everything changed,” the narrator adds. It seems worth sticking around to see how.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Showtime's The Affair tantalizes for starters

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Ruth Wilson and Dominic West in budding stages of The Affair. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct.12th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Dominic West, Maura Tierney, Ruth Wilson, Joshua Jackson
Produced by: Sarah Treem, Hagai Levi, Jeffrey Reiner, Eric Overmyer

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
One protagonist is going to be blindsided by a mid-life crisis. The other is still in the throes of a twentysomething trauma. Their launchpad is Showtime’s 10-episode The Affair, which slowly starts unfolding Sunday following another Season 4 episode of Homeland.

Starring Dominic West, Maura Tierney, Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson, the series has considerable promise. But Showtime unusually has made only the opening one-hour episode available for review, making it difficult to assess how well The Affair will tell the rest of its story.

Viewers first meet first-time author/New York public school teacher Noah Solloway (Dominic West of The Wire), a harried married man of 17 years. He and his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), are outnumbered by four children, two of them almost impossible to manage. They’re all getting ready to spend the summer with Helen’s parents at their posh Hamptons estate. Noah’s not thrilled with this. His father-in-law, Bruce Butler (John Doman) is a wealthy, successful novelist with an imperious demeanor. In short, he’s a dick.

Enroute to their gilded prison, the Solloways stop at a diner whose employees include young waitress Allison Bailey (Ruth Wilson). She’s taking their orders when the Solloways’ youngest daughter begins choking on a marble. Noah’s already been through the wringer with his churlish oldest son, whose earlier idea of a practical joke is horrifying to say the least.

Allison is married to Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson), whose family owns a ranch that’s become financially strapped. She’s still deeply grieving the loss of their four-year-old son while he’s been better able to pick up the pieces and move on.

Executive producers Sarah Treem and Hagai, who earlier collaborated on HBO’s very interior In Treatment series, have constructed what Treem calls a “Rashomon-like framing device” in which events are remembered differently within each two-part episode. Sunday’s premiere begins from Noah’s perspective before transitioning to “Allison’s Story.” For instance, he remembers her as a flirtatious temptress while she remembers their first kiss as an uncomfortable moment instigated by him.

There are many other varying recollections on what led to what. Did Allison coax Noah into having a cigarette with her or vice-versa? Did he offer to walk her home from the beach after a second chance meeting? Or was it the other way around?

Each half-hour chapter within the overall story ends with a one-on-one interrogation by the same police detective (played by Victor Williams). Foul play of some sort is indicated but not specified in any way during Sunday’s premiere.

So where is this all going? Is anyone “at fault?” Who gets hurt the worst? And what about that crime story element?

It certainly would have helped to see more. But The Affair for now has done its job by tantalizingly baiting its hook. The solid performances by its four principals further heighten both the drama and the expectations. It’s enough for now, but we’ll see if both the premise and the promise have staying power.

GRADE: B+ for starters but still incomplete

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Dallas-set Cristela embraces Cowboys/diversity

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It’s all smiles for now from the cast of Cristela. ABC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 10th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Cristela Alonzo, Carlos Ponce, Maria Canals-Barrera, Terri Hoyos, Andrew Leeds, Justine Lupe, Sam McMurray, Gabriel Iglesias
Produced by: Kevin Hench, Cristela Alonzo, Marty Adelstein, Becky Clements

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A few wins can make a big difference when it comes to championing the Dallas Cowboys in a network sitcom.

The pilot for ABC’s Dallas-set Cristela, available for screening on the network’s media site since early last summer, found its title character steadfastly pledging allegiance to both the Cowboys and their starting quarterback. At the time that seemed like a fool’s errand. Now it’s perfectly timed to the team’s surprising 4-1 start to the season.

“Kind of saving myself for Tony Romo,” says diehard fan Cristela (Cristela Alonzo). “If his marriage ever goes South, I need to be there for him.”

Cristela’s sister, Daniela (Maria Canals-Barrera), dreams of her daughter becoming a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. There’s a little slippage later in the premiere, when Cristela somewhat jokingly refers to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as an “old buffoon” and a “demented geriatric” during an interview with her prospective law firm boss. But it all ends with the entire family watching a Cowboys game on TV and cheering wildly when they score.

Your friendly content provider was of little faith when he brought up the Cowboys during Cristela’s mid-July interview session with TV critics.

“It’s tough being a Dallas Cowboys fan right now,” Alonzo was told.

“Why do you want to make me cry?” she rejoined.

But as a native of San Juan, TX, she’s been “a Cowboys fan my entire life . . . I am a diehard Cowboys fan all the time forever. I will support them. It’s just that every year they break my heart. But every year I think this is going to be the year.”

Alonzo, 35, said she also planned to make another pilgrimage to the Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, CA. “Like I always do. Got to support the boys.”

All of the Cowboys references have made it to the on-air version of Cristela, which premieres on Friday, Oct. 10th following Last Man Standing. Both comedies are old-line “multi-cams” filmed before a studio audience with laugh track sweeteners. ABC’s six other sitcoms, three of them new, are all “single cams” filmed without any audience input or giggle overlay.

Cristela takes a broad approach in its depiction of a fractious Hispanic family and a workplace dominated by Anglos. Still struggling to finish law school, the title character lives at home with sister Daniela, her complaining husband, Felix (Carlos Ponce), and a typically stern mama named Natalia (Terri Hoyos). Most of her fire is aimed at Cristela, although mama’s not wild about cheerleading either.

“I didn’t have cheerleading as a kid,” she grouses. ”We had fun games like getting water from the well -- and digging the well.”

That’s not a bad line. Nor is Cristela’s retort when Felix tells her, “If you were my wife, I’d poison your coffee.”

“If you were my husband, I’d drink it,” she says.

Felix’s cousin and workmate, Alberto (standup comic Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias), also drops in and out to coarsely flirt with Cristela.

The show is pretty much equally split between the home front and the workplace, where Cristela’s fellow law firm interns are a very nice Jewish guy named Josh (Andrew Leeds) and the boss’s ditzy blonde daughter, Maddie (Justine Lupe). She initially thinks Cristela is a member of the cleaning crew. Veteran Sam McMurray throws in a little ham-handed racial humor as a bossman named Trent. But Cristela rolls with him while also firing back with her own one-liners.

Episode 2 is considerably weaker than the watchable premiere. It’s built around Cristela’s reluctance to date via the Internet and mama’s belief that she therefore could be a lesbian. Are we not yet beyond that kind of running joke?

If Cristela has any staying power, it will be because of its high-appeal star. Alonzo seems like a natural in a show that intermittently amuses while giving the new fall schedule something it otherwise doesn’t have -- a comedy series driven by a Hispanic cast. That alone isn’t enough to earn any free passes. But it might prompt ABC to exercise a little more patience while continuing to invest in a lot more diversity than rivals CBS, NBC and Fox.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net