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TNT's The Alienist is just the latest drama to accentuate serial killing

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It’s 1896 in NYC. And this is what crime solvers look like. TNT photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Daniel Bruhl, Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans, Brian Geraghty
Produced by: Hossein Amini, E. Max Frye, Steve Golin, Rosalie Swedlin, Chris Symes, Jakob Verbruggen, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Eric Roth

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The serial killings are gruesome, the cops are corrupt and the gumshoes are dedicated but always up against it.

Whether fact-based or fictional, television networks and streamers are head over heels in love with murders most foul. TNT’s heavily promoted The Alienist, drawn from a same-named 1994 novel by Caleb Carr, is somewhat unique in setting but same old/same old in terms of the overall genre.

This time we’re in 1896 New York City, where intense alienist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) strives to put together clues and motivations tied to the murders of young boys dressed as girls for varying reasons. What’s an alienist? Well, it has nothing to do with Martians or E.T. As a printed intro puts it, those with mental illnesses back then were thought to be “alienated from their own true natures.” So alienists were brought in to probe their psyches.

Kreizler calls on newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to sketch the latest mutilated corpse. Moore otherwise enjoys the company of female ladies of the night and is easily exasperated by Kreizler’s at times haughty demeanor.

“My God, Laszlo, sometimes you can be as subtle as a blowtorch!” he exclaims. So no, they’re not a perfect match, heh-heh. But yes, they tend to serve each other’s purposes.

The third wheel is earnest police department secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), who’s willing to help out in large part because she detests the uniformed misogynists with whom she has to work. Also included is newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), who’s rather thinly drawn in the two episodes made available for review. Mobsters running the full-service brothel that Teddy demands be shut down react by merely relocating it nearby. One of them wears a prototypical pinstripe suit that looks as though it might have been ordered from gangster.com

The Alienist depicts turn-of-the-century New York City as an oft-times grimy, primitive cesspool that you wouldn’t want to visit let alone live in. Episode 1’s sequence at the Bellevue asylum is particularly gruesome. A wrongly jailed suspect in the murders is dying of syphilis, his face horribly disfigured by boils and bloodied by banging it against his cell bars. An Emmy nomination for makeup might be a possibility.

At the end of the hour, the otherwise orderly Laszlo seems to go a bit mental himself via an oddly disjointed declaration that “I must see life as he (the killer) sees it. Feel pain as he feels it . . . I must follow this wherever it goes, even if leads me to the darkest pit of hell.” Oh stop it.

Those who book full passage for Season One’s 10 episodes may or may not get full closure. The Alienist, which closes out Episode 2 with Moore at the mercy of gangland forces and their young boy prostitutes, so far is trying terribly hard to be darkly spellbinding. Toward that end, it has yet to make its case.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's Mosaic sags down the stretch as a whodunit but puts Sharon Stone back in business

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Sharon Stone and Paul Reubens are longtime confidantes in Mosaic. HBO photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 22nd at 7 p.m. (central) on HBO and continuing at the same hour on Tues.-Fri., concluding with back-to-back hours
Starring: Sharon Stone, Garrett Hedlund, Jennifer Ferrin, Devin Ratray, Frederick Weller, Paul Reubens, James Ransone, Beau Bridges, Jeremy Bobb, Michael Cerveris, Maya Kazan, Allison Tolman
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A famous children’s book author with a yen for younger men is murdered in her splendorous Summit, Utah home on New Year’s Eve.

There’s ample blood but no body. So who did it and where’s the corpse? HBO’s six-part Mosaic, also available as an “interactive movie” on mobile apps, begins as an immersive spellbinder before eventually plodding to the finish line under its own diminishing power. Accomplished director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, Traffic, Erin Brockovich) does succeed, though, in resuscitating the acting career of Sharon Stone, who gives a bravura performance until her character suddenly goes missing.

Mosaic doesn’t immediately lose momentum after Stone’s Olivia Lake is relegated to just a few flashbacks in the remaining four hours. For quite a while, the hook stays imbedded. But the bounce-around storyline, with amateur sleuth Petra Neill (Jennifer Ferrin) striving to exonerate her convicted con man brother, Eric (Frederick Weller), has an increasingly difficult time making ends meet. Another story telling lapse is the oddly cooperative behavior of hunky aspiring graphic artist Joel Hurley (Garrett Hedlund). His comportment gradually becomes almost as puzzling as the puzzle itself. Both Petra and dumpy police detective Nate Henry (Devin Ratray) come to believe he’s the real killer. And he sure couldn’t make it much easier on them, voluntarily returning to Summit after living happily in Louisiana.

As with most latter day whodunits, Mosaic shifts into reverse -- in this case flashing back four years -- after first putting Joel on the receiving end of a likely arrest warrant. Back then he was making ends meet with odd jobs, such as bar tending at a fundraiser to benefit a children’s art workshop founded by Olivia and dubbed Mosaic.

Her renown is drawn from a single mega-selling children’s book published some 25 years ago. Olivia is still a striking looking woman who increasingly needs to be seen as such. Her companion/confidante, JC Schiffer (Paul Reubens far removed from his Pee-wee Herman days), initially checks to see if Joel plays for his team or hers. Getting the answer she wants, Olivia turns on her high-beam flirtation lights, which can be pretty blinding.

Would Joel like to set up shop in her studio, where he could work on his drawings while also living rent-free as a handyman? Olivia fully expects other services, but immediately frosts over when Joel’s girlfriend, Laura (Maya Kazan), makes an impromptu visit to the studio. He’s allowed to stay in residence as a festering underling while Olivia begins swooning for another guy who pops into her orbit. That would be the duplicitous Eric, who’s been hired as a go-between by wealthy Summit ne’er do wells intent on bilking Olivia and getting her to sell her long-held property.

Instead, in a turn of events that strains credulity, Eric and Olivia quickly fall in love and get engaged. This prompts him to make a full confession to Olivia at her in-home New Year’s Eve party. It’s not a wise move at all, with events soon conspiring to implicate Eric in her murder.

Beau Bridges later drops in as Summit sheriff Alan Pape, who won’t take no for an answer when it comes to putting Eric behind bars. Allison Tolman, the breakout star of Fargo’s first season on FX, briefly plays a public defender with little interest in getting him off. So Eric accepts a plea bargain, and everything is nice and tidy until his sister, Petra, swallows her distaste for him and begins her own investigation. She’s assisted, sometimes grudgingly, by detective Henry, who’s tired of being lightly regarded.

Petra’s light-bulb-over-her-head deductions repeatedly depend on the kindness of strangers -- who in fact seem too kind rather than understandably suspicious. In the end, the killer is more or less unmasked. But so is Mosaic, which disappoints down the stretch instead of paying in full on a six-hour investment that can be made on consecutive nights if you choose. It’s by no means a complete waste of time. Just don’t expect to quite get out of Mosaic what you put into it.

Not that any of this is Stone’s fault. Her character is a victim. But she’ll be the benefactor after a first-rate, take-notice performance that should create some very good opportunities down the road. In the end, maybe Mosaic will be mostly remembered for that.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox adds a new set of doctors to its house in The Resident

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Meet the latest batch of actors who aren’t docs, but play them on TV. Fox photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 21st at approximately 9 p.m. (central) following NFC championship game before moving to regular Monday, 8 p.m. slot
Starring: Matt Czuchry, Emily VanCamp, Manish Dayal, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Bruce Greenwood, Melina Kanakaredes, Moran Atias, Merrin Dungey
Produced by: Amy Holden Jones, Todd Harthan, Rob Corn Antoine Fuqua, David Boorstein, Oly Obst, Phillip Noyce

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Amy Holden Jones, daughter of a doctor and co-creator/executive producer of Fox’s new The Resident, seems to know just what many TV critics are thinking.

“Yes, it’s a medical show,” she writes in publicity materials. “But take heart, you’ve never seen anything like this one before.”

Sigh. Yes, I have. But this doesn’t make The Resident guilty of full-blown malpractice. The cast is diverse and pretty appealing. And Fox is enough of a believer to gift The Resident with a high-profile launch following Sunday night’s Minnesota Vikings-Philadelphia Eagles NFC championship game.

The Resident otherwise will air on Mondays after Lucifer. Atlanta’s fictional Chastain Park Memorial Hospital also is something of a devil’s workshop, with venerable Bruce Greenwood playing a shaky-handed, vain, blackmailing chief of surgery.

Dr. Randolph Bell literally gets away with murder in the opening scene during a routine appendectomy. But those who witness his growing ineptitude are cowed into covering it up because Bell’s threats of reprisals are like lethal injections. He’ll deport you, demote you, see that you never practice medicine again. And on it goes through the first two episodes made available for review in a series built around the deadly implications of medical error.

Standing up to Bell -- or at least making a show of doing so -- is cocksure third year resident Conrad Hawkins (Matt Czuchry). He’s a star player who delights in riding herd over newbies, in this case Harvard medical grad Devon Pravesh (Manish Dayal).

“All the rules you followed we’ll break,” Pravesh is assured on Day One. So follow his orders or else.

Hawkins also is trying to re-land nurse practitioner Nicolette “Nic” Nevin (Emily VanCamp), who’s now playing harder to get than she apparently did the last time around. She’s the one who tells Pravesh that medical error is the No. 3 cause of death, behind only cancer and heart disease. “They don’t want us talking about that,” she adds.

In Sunday’s premiere, the patients range from a junk food-loving, plus-sized hillbilly with a gangrenous foot to a young, severely drug-addicted woman. Both carry over into Episode 2, which adds the case of a congressman and hospital benefactor who has a heart attack while hunting with his aging pals, including Dr. Bell.

He’ll need a heart transplant, but the needed matching ticker already has been reserved for one of Dr. Hawkins’ pet cases, a 28-year-old African-American school teacher. Bell of course “un-allocates” the heart, prompting a clash of wills between the two headstrong surgeons.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Nic first tells Hawkins.

“Says who?” he retorts. Groan, I need a sedative.

Still, their inevitable chess match over who gets the heart is well-played for the most part. But neither of these combustible MDs is the most interesting doctor in the house. That’s because Dr. Mina Okafor (Shaunette Renee Wilson) instantly registers as the proudly assured surgeon whose mastery of state of the art equipment literally plays into Bell’s unsteady hands. He holds a hammer over her as well, but don’t expect Okafor to play along for long.

Episode 2 also drops in Melina Kanakaredes (little seen after co-starring in CSI: NY) as the accomplished but possibly duplicitous Dr. Lane Hunter. Cast after the pilot was filmed, she’ll be a regular in future episodes.

The Resident already seems to be straining credulity with the demonic Dr. Bell. How long can he rule with an iron fist as the hospital’s most-requested celebrity surgeon? That hand isn’t getting any steadier while his ego shows no sign of downsizing. But this isn’t supposed to be a soap opera in the mode of Dallas, so Bell seemingly can’t get away with being a broadly drawn J.R. Ewing. Something’s got to give. And I’m interested just enough in The Resident to see if something soon does.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Darren Criss's killer performance -- and the stories of lesser-known victims -- are the main events of FX's The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

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Darren Criss sends chills through second American Crime Story saga. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin, Finn Wittrock, Cody Fern, Max Greenfield, Mike Farrell, Judith Light, Dascha Polanco, Jon Jon Briones, Joanna Adler
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Alexis Martin Woodall, Dan Minahan, Tom Rob Smith, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
FX’s second American Crime Story entry could be far more accurately titled The Dissection of Andrew Cunanan.

But in the realm of readily recognizable names, that doesn’t ring many chimes. So it’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace, even though Cunanan is the driving force while two of his other younger victims -- there were five in all -- get fuller treatments than the iconic fashion designer.

Former Glee star Darren Criss inhabits Cunanan with more flash and impact than any model who ever wore one of Versace’s creations. He’s alternately chilling, pathetic, conniving and deluded without ever being visibly remorseful. It’s a fully committed, crazily energetic performance that carries this nine-part miniseries through its peaks, valleys and at times disjointed timeline. Assassination of Gianni Versace also is very nice to look at, except when the corpses left behind are not.

Ryan Murphy, lately the busiest man in Hollywood, again shows that he’s generally on firmer ground when dramatizing real-life events rather than fictionally concocting them in series such as Nip/Tuck, Scream Queens, Fox’s new 9-1-1 and FX’s ongoing and very uneven American Horror Story anthology series.

His first American Crime Story deservedly won a wealth of major awards with its up-close look at the O.J. Simpson trial. The deliciously bombastic Feud: Bette and Joan, likewise for FX, and the HBO movie The Normal Heart, also were almost uniformly critically praised. Murphy’s biggest fictional triumph, Fox’s Glee, notably stayed away from physical gore and succeeded as an empowering high school musical series.

Assassination of Gianni Versace, adapted primarily from Maureen Orth’s 1999 book Vulgar Favors, is fact-based but clearly not averse to taking liberties in depicting Cunanan’s “journey” from vainglorious poser to cold-blooded serial killer. Eight of the nine chapters were made available for review. And composition-wise, the storytellers err in waiting all the way until the eighth hour to detail Cunanan’s destructive upbringing at the hands of an abusive, duplicitous father (Jon Jon Briones as Modesto “Pete” Cunanan) and terrified mother (Joanna Adler in the role of Mary Ann Cunanan). The “sissy kid with a sissy mind,” as Pete puts it in a climactic scene, is put on a path to self-destruction but never really toward self-awareness.

It all begins on July 15, 1997, with Versace (Edgar Ramirez) waking up to another day in his splendorous Miami Beach mansion. Servants await him. But he also willingly walks the nearby streets, giving off an air of accessibility while also politely declining an autograph request.

By the end of the first hour he’s dead and on a slab, his face gruesomely disfigured from a point-blank bullet wound. Versace’s partner of 15 years, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), is inconsolable. But the deceased’s steely sister, Donatella (Penelope Cruz), dismisses D’Amico with contempt as a leech whose contributions were less than minimal. She’s now determined to protect the Versace company by keeping it privately held.

“They’ll judge the killer, yes,” she says. “But they’ll judge the victim, too.”

This lays the groundwork for much of what is yet to come. Being gay in the 1990s was still a considerable detriment, business-wise and otherwise. Versace, Cunanan and three of his other victims were all gay, with only the killer unabashedly coming out as a high schooler.

The subsequent story of Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) is especially poignant. He was proudly a Navy officer until being “found out” and thrown out. Trail’s eventual ill-fated involvement with Cunanan encompasses several episodes, as does the back story of David Madson (Cody Fern). Both ran afoul of Cunanan’s rages after recognizing him as a fraud and “betraying” him. Chapter 4, subtitled “House By the Lake,” telescopes Cunanan and David at the height of the latter’s fear of him. It’s one of the most powerfully chilling hours of television you’ll ever see -- if you have the wherewithal to see it through.

Assassination of Gianni Versace includes two other veteran, recognizable actors, Judith Light and Mike Farrell. For an earlier generation they respectively were the stars of Who’s the Boss? and M*A*S*H. In Chapter 3, they’re paired as Chicago’s very prosperous Lee and Marilyn Miglin. She peddles her perfumes on home shopping networks while he’s a developer with designs on constructing the tallest building Chicago has ever seen. But Lee is also a closeted gay man who can’t get enough of Cunanan. They get together again while his wife is on a road trip. “I feel like I’m alive,” he tells Cunanan after they kiss. Well, not for long. Farrell’s performance is first-rate, but Light steals the episode as the all-business Marilyn, particularly after her husband’s mutilated body is found.

Although her time on-screen is limited, Cruz makes some strong impressions as the ever-demanding Donatella Versace. But Martin’s characterization of D’Amico is too one-note and largely inconsequential to really register. Ramirez has some solid scenes as Gianni, but doesn’t resonate nearly as strongly as Cunanan’s three other principal victims.

The pursuit of Cunanan, who’s already known to authorities before he murders Versace, is barely a subplot of the first eight chapters. Some viewers may become restive in the process. But the to-and-fro timeline serves both the stories of Cunanan and his victims. Criss’s performance is a force throughout, but not to the point of “humanizing” Cunanan at the expense of those whose lives he took with varying degrees of glee. The deaths of Jeff Trail and David Madson in particular hurt deeply.

This second installment of American Crime Story, which jumped ahead of a planned look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is unlikely to match the ratings or impact of the O. J. Simpson opener. Andrew Cunanan is a no-name killer in comparison, as are all but one of those whose lives he took so violently. So yes, Gianni Versace’s murder is the overall reason this miniseries came about in the first place. But no, he’s not nearly the half of it.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A DC superhero of color in The CW's bold, bolt-dispensing Black Lightning

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An electrifying Cress Williams stars in Black Lightning. CW photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Cress Williams, China Anne McClain, Nafessa Williams, Christine Adams, James Remar, Damon Gupton, Marvin “Krondon” Jones III, Skye P. Williams, Chantal Thuy
Produced by: Mara Brock Akil, Salim Akil, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The official network of DC Comics superheroes is adding a fifth.

What’s more, Black Lightning strikes a full month before arch rival Marvel can answer with the feature film Black Panther. Both action dramas are groundbreaking in their depictions of an African-American man as the title character. In The CW’s case, it’s Cress Williams in the role of principled high school principal Jefferson Pierce, who nine years ago “retired” without a pension from being Black Lightning after the constant bloody battles he fought ended up costing him his marriage. But hey, how do you just sit back and take it when your two daughters’ lives suddenly are threatened by the marauding 100 Gang?

Jefferson also is egged on by longtime friend Peter Gambi (James Remar from Dexter), a tailor/mentor who puts it this way: “Evil’s running rampant like a plague through this city. Hell, through this world.” So get back in costume, will ya? Gambi has even designed a brand new one with a pair of big glowing lightning bolts. Now who wouldn’t want to wear that while dispensing assortments of kicks, punches and electrical jolts?

It’s all pulled off powerfully and artfully by principal executive producer Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends, The Game), who’s assisted by DC impresario Greg Berlanti. The CW’s four other DC ventures, Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, likewise have Berlanti’s name attached.

But it’s Brock Akil’s voice resonating throughout, particularly in a slice of daring dialogue from Episode 2. It comes from sinister 100 Gang bossman Tobias Whale (rapper-actor Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) after an underling known as Lala (guest star William Catlett) tells him he really must hate black people.

Whale, an African-American with albinism and red hair (as is Jones III in real life), replies in no uncertain terms that he in fact hates “incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don’t-itch Negroes like you. Ya’ll keep us acting like newly freed slaves.” That’s quite a mouthful for a broadcast network drama.

Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams), whom he still loves, shares custody of their two daughters. The oldest, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), is a “metahuman” like her father, but doesn’t yet have a handle on her powers. She teaches part-time at the city of Freeland’s Garfield High School, where dad’s been principal for the past seven years. Anissa’s personal life provides an additional subplot.

Younger sister Jennifer (China Anne McClain) is a Garfield student with a knack for acting out and causing trouble. Her clandestine visit to a dangerous club ends up triggering dad’s halting decision to come out of retirement. His eyes glow when he’s, in a sense, Hulking out. And there’s lately a lot of attendant stuff to Hulk out about, particularly after Jefferson and his daughters are wrongly pulled over by a rather too prototypically abusive white cop in search of a liquor store robber. “Have a good night, sir,” he smirks after humiliating them.

Meanwhile, confidante and veteran detective inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton), who’s African-American, keeps urging patience and calm amid the growing mayhem. Henderson’s daughter Keisha (Kyanna Simone Simpson), a budding hellcat, also happens to be impressionable Jennifer’s best friend. So there’s a lot brewing here, and Black Lightning is adept at building the tension leading to Jefferson’s breaking point. “It is time that people know that Black Lightning is back,” he declares. And at this point, hell yeah.

Black Lightning isn’t as quippy as some of CW’s other DC offerings. The stakes are more real in nature, with Tobias demonically intent on keeping order his way in a predominantly black domain. This is a series of serious intent while also serving as a breakthrough depiction of a superhero who’s both colorful and of color.

Series star Cress Williams, now 47, has been waiting a long time for his first starring role after playing a wide variety of supporting parts in dozens of TV series. He delivers the goods in Black Lightning as a title character of steely intent whose vulnerabilities are also a major part of his makeup. Are his powers a curse or, as he prefers to see them, a “blessing from God?” However things turn out, it’s already quite electrifying.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net