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Hulu's Casual comes off as watchable (but not must-see)


Brother and sister act: Tommy Dewey, Michaela Watkins in Casual. Hulu photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 7th on Hulu
Starring: Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey, Tara Lynne Barr, Frances Conroy, Patrick Heusinger, Nyasha Hatendi
Produced by: Jason Reitman, Zander Lehmann, Helen Estabrook, Liz Tigelaar

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To the casual observer . . .

OK, that’s too easy. Hulu’s new Casual, which starts streaming with weekly episodes on Wednesday, Oct. 7th, is more or less a comedy series that’s also more or less watchable.

Its two adult leads, who are brother and sister, live together at his place in imperfect harmony with her teenage daughter from a recently failed marriage. Alex, 35, is the commitment averse co-founder of an online dating site called Snooger. His thoughts pass through his mouth unfiltered. He’ll say what he means but not always mean what he says.

Valerie, 39, is an emotionally bruised therapist who’s still ironing out the details of a less than amicable split. She’s uptight and yearns to unwind. She also should know better than to take her brother’s advice on such matters.

Tommy Dewey and Michaela Watkins play the two principals, with Tara Lynne Barr co-starring as Valerie’s 16-year-old offspring, Laura. All three comport themselves well (particularly Watkins) in an outing overseen by executive producer Jason Reitman, whose formidable feature film credits include Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up In the Air.

Reitman and the other principal executive producer, Zander Lehmann, have combined to make Casual more serio- than comic as the characters sort themselves out. The first four episodes were made available for review, with the third one steeped in some pretty dramatic developments. Alex is suddenly needy and rather pathetic in his efforts to keep Valerie from moving out with her daughter.

He’s back to his old self, though, in the following half-hour. “Men don’t want nice,” Alex counsels his older sis. “They want bitchy and self-obsessed. And they want a challenge.”

Alex’s subsequent and very predictable liaison with a chunky bartender ends up making him an even more loathsome member of the male species, let alone the human race. Casual has made it difficult to get invested in this guy’s overall well-being. But Valerie remains a character worth rooting for, particularly in the aftermath of her initially cathartic fling with a studly waiter.

Teen Laura likewise is striving to sort things out, mostly in the sexual arena. She’s a good but confused kid who hasn’t had the greatest of role models. So when in doubt, act out. This includes a very impulsive misstep at her high school.

Frances Conroy also co-stars as Alex and Valerie’s mother, Dawn, who’s referenced in very unfavorable terms until finally appearing in the flesh during Episode 4.

Casual springs to vibrant life on occasion, with Watkins mostly responsible. Male dysfunction otherwise is a virtual constant, with Alex leading the charge. In his view, Valerie’s ex-husband is a “colossal douche wagon,” a term that in large part also applies to Alex. He does, however, come off better than his blind date during an Episode 1 parry and thrust that includes her telling him, “I only consume foods that were available during the Paleolithic era.”

The grins and angst menu serves Casual well at times, but perhaps not well enough to keep a majority of first-time samplers coming back for more. It’d be nice, I guess, to see both Alex and Valerie somehow soar to the heights of even semi-happiness. But it’s looking just as easy to leave them to their own devices and move on to another new TV show in a great big sea of ‘em.

GRADE: B-minus

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ABC should have let Dr. Ken call in sick


Ken Jeong (white coat) is a bumbling general practitioner in Dr. Ken. ABC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 2nd at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Ken Jeong, Suzy Nakamura, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Dave Foley, Jonathan Slavin, Albert Tsai, Krista Marie Yu, Kate Simses
Produced by: Jared Stern, Ken Jeong, John Davis, John Fox, Mike Sikowitz, Mike O’Connell

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The opening minutes of ABC’s Dr. Ken include a little colonoscopy humor. Although no one looks forward to one, it’s preferable to enduring the first two episodes of this painfully forced new comedy.

Is there a script doctor in the house? An acting coach wouldn’t hurt either.

Ken Jeong, who in real life is a licensed physician, bears most of the responsibility as the creator, co-executive producer and co-writer of Dr. Ken. He gained fame on NBC’s Community and in The Hangover trilogy of hit feature films before selling ABC on this thing. This is the same network with a Wednesday night quartet of smart, funny family comedies in The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family and black-ish. In Dr. Ken, ABC has what looks like a complete misfire on both the workplace and family fronts.

Friday’s premiere begins with a patient (played by venerable Dallas-born character actor Stephen Tobolowsky) diagnosing himself with hemorrhoids before Dr. Ken Park shoots back, “You would know since your head’s up your ass.”

It’s a fitting advisory for a show in similar straits. Jeong’s high-strung, bumbling central character mugs his way through a succession of lame one-liners while his patient wife, Allison (Suzy Nakamura), serves as both his licensed therapist and buffer between their two kids, teenager Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and pre-teen Dave (Albert Tsai). Faint praise alert: Allison is the best thing about Dr. Ken, but can’t nearly overcome her surroundings.

At the workplace, Dr. Ken’s large-ish staff has little to do except kibbitz and carp. This is supposed to be a successful practice within the walls of the Welltopia Medical Group. In the first two episodes, though, just two patients drop in to be broadly insulted by Dr. Ken. CBS’ new hospital drama, Code Black, buckles under the load of a never-ending parade of arrivals while Dr. Ken’s office looks less busy than a Sno-Cone stand in the Arctic Circle.

There’s also a smarmy administrator played by Dave Foley, who’s very obviously channeling Gary Cole’s officious bossman from the cult classic Office Space. Nothing about this show seems even remotely original.

In Episode 2, Foley’s makeup is so heavy that he looks like a character from Rocky Horror Picture Show. The writing gets no better either. As when Allison tells hubby Ken, “Why does it always go to a sexual place with you.” And Ken replies, “You know I idle at horny.”

Dr. Ken can’t be legally sued for malpractice, although the laws might need to be re-written in this case. Less funny than a compound fracture, this is a show that looks irreparably broken. It barely dodges a Grade of F only because Episode 1 includes Jeong’s dated but deft impression of Johnny Carson saying, “I did not know that.” Amusing to me, but likely to fly over the heads of an escalating percentage of viewers.

GRADE: D-minus

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The late night talk show host beard-athon (past/present)


A current-day Dave strolls streets of Manhattan. Splash News photo

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There’s a growth spurt among past and present late night talk show hosts -- and it has nothing to do with how many there are to choose from.

Simply put, beards are busting out all over, led by the above rather shocking and now widely seen picture of a retired David Letterman taking his full-blown facial hair for a walk.

Jon Stewart, who recently left Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, has gone the same route. It’s often what happens when one no longer has to keep up appearances, is licking some wounds or is between shows.

Conan O’Brien grew a beard while recuperating from his Tonight Show crash. He also wore it for quite a while on his follow-up TBS show.

Stephen Colbert came forth with a notably white facial attachment while biding time between The Colbert Report and his new CBS show. Even Jimmy Fallon went with a beard for a while after returning to his former NBC Late Night show following an extended break.

But beards aren’t just for show, tell and shaving any more. Jimmy Kimmel lately is wearing whiskers on the air, as is CBS’ new Late Late Show host, James Corden.

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Current day bearded laddies Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden.

Late night talk show hosts of yore, such as Jack Paar, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, went bare-faced under all circumstances (save for the time Johnny returned from a 1985 vacation with a jarring short beard that he ditched after a week). But among the latter day alumni, only Jay Leno has never worn whiskers in public. Consider, though, that this is the ultimate creature of habit, a guy whose very basic off-camera uniform is still a blue denim shirt and jeans.

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Conan and Colbert both monkeyed around between shows.

Letterman dared to sport a silver beard on Late Show upon returning in 2008 after a writers’ strike. But he quickly had it shaved -- on the air for maximum effect. Generally speaking, late night talkers are reluctant to show even a few specks of gray in their facial accompaniments. After all, that might make them seem older than their shows’ advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-old target audience. It’s quite possible that at age 47, Kimmel might be resorting to a little dye to keep up appearances. But for now, he looks very sporty in a beard.

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Stewart at the Emmys, Fallon on his old NBC Late Night show.

There’s a minority report amid all these bushy looks. Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore, the men of color who replaced Stewart and Colbert, so far have remained resolutely smooth-faced both off-camera and on-. Not that this is necessarily a permanent state of affairs when it comes to non-white hosts. Arsenio Hall went with a mustache during his first successful go-around as a late night talker. And former TBS late nighter George Lopez has broken out some facial hair since that show was canceled in 2011.

We’ll leave you with those images while wondering if any of this means anything at all. For now, though, you’re something of a late night outsider if you don’t get hairy. Letterman clearly has taken it to the next level in his dotage. But he’s always been a tough act to follow anyway.

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Code Black is latest candidate to end CBS' long medical drought


Marcia Gay Garden ramrods the ER in Code Black. CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Marcia Gay Harden, Bonnie Somerville, Raza Jeffrey, Luis Guzman, Melanie Chandra, Harry M. Ford, Benjamin Hollingsworth, William Allen Young
Produced by: Michael Seitzman, David Marshall Grant, Bretty Mahoney, Molly Newman, Ryan McGarry, Marti Noxon, Linda Goldstein Knowlton

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Crime dramas? CBS long has had a boatload of ‘em, with the CSI and NCIS franchises in particular spinning off multiple successful descendants in the past 15 seasons.

On the medical front, though, that same 15-year span has quickly put these CBS medical hours in the morgue: City of Angels, Presidio Med, 3 lbs, Dr. Vegas, A Gifted Man, Miami Medical and Three Rivers. The network hasn’t had a hit hospital drama since Chicago Hope stopped beating in May of 2000.

But you know what they say in the TV profession: “Take two aspirin and pitch me in the morning.” Which brings us to Code Black, an unrelentingly urgent series about a Los Angeles ER under a heavier than usual siege of new arrivals. Escapist fare it’s not, unless you want to run and hide after reading the opening printed prognosis. “Code Black: An influx of patients so great, there aren’t enough resources to treat them. The average ER is in Code Black five times per year. Angels Memorial Hospital in L.A. is in Code Black 300 times per year.”

It all starts with playfully gruff senior nurse Jesse Sallander (Luis Guzman) telling a quartet of incoming residents, “I’m your mama.” The “daddy” is Dr. Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden), an all too typical rebel who flaunts procedure and regularly clashes with fellow ER vet Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey). “You’re the doctor they want,” she sasses him in the early minutes of Wednesday’s premiere. “I’m the doctor they need.” And in case that doesn’t come across, Rorish later informs him, “Sometimes you just gotta be a cowboy, Neal.”

Harden is a fine actress, but the show’s writers too often give her heavy-handed lines that are the equivalent of cauterizing a head wound with a blow torch.

“You want it straight? Or you want doctor talk?” she asks a hysterical young woman whose father is in very bad shape.

Other supporting characters fare no better. Spunky resident Christa Lorenson (Bonnie Somerville), who’s older than her three peers, gives Rorish a dose of her own cliche medicine by telling her, “In my experience, tragedy either softens you or hardens you.” The ER’s longest-serving doc, Rollie Guthrie (William Allen Young), can’t cure his penchant for calling resident Angus Leighton (Harry M. Ford) a “young squire.” As in, “Abracadabra. That’s why we’re here, young squire. Never forget that.” Pass the Pepto, please.

The first episode takes place entirely in the frenetic workplace, save for some rather far-fetched ambulance-in-a-traffic-jam heroics by resident Lorenson. Other sights and sounds include a patient vomiting on himself after his badly fractured leg is snapped back into place without anesthetic. Meanwhile, mops are kept very busy sopping up blood.

The patients keep on coming, with the inevitable “Code Black” called during an order-barking feast of chaos.

Things perhaps will calm down somewhat in subsequent weeks, although the title of the series almost ensures at least one weekly trip into full-blown mayhem. Indeed, by the end of the opening hour, Dr. Rorish again finds herself in the grips of another full-blown assault via an apartment fire that’s left 22 of its residents in need of immediate treatment. “Daddy” and “Mama” exchange knowing, collegial looks before plunging back in. They’re in their element again, even if many viewers at this point might be feeling the urge to check out.

Epilogue: Even with CBS’ long history of medical malpractice, there’s still cause for hope via less than imposing time slot competition from NBC’s Chicago P.D. and ABC’s Nashville. That certainly beats going against Fox’s House or NBC’s ER or ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy in their respective heydays. So perhaps CBS executives at some point will be able to tell Code Black’s producers the same thing that hard-charging Dr. Rorish grudgingly tells resident Lorenson. Namely, “You did good.” And yes, there surely will be more cliches where that came from.


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Lowe remains on a comedy high with Fox's The Grinder


Rob Lowe, Fred Savage get lawyered up in The Grinder. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 29th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Rob Lowe, Fred Savage, William Devane, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Hana Hayes, Connor Kalopsis
Produced by: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul, Nicholas Stoller, Greg Malins, Rob Lowe, Melvin Mar

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Tuesday is middle-aged Adonis night on Fox’s new fall schedule. So after John Stamos in Grandfathered comes Rob Lowe in the better rendered The Grinder.

It’s not a sitcom about an impossibly handsome butcher shop owner and his quest to be seen as more than just a slab of beefcake. Lowe instead is Dean Sanderson, who played a grandiose lawyer known as The Grinder in a long-running TV drama series that now has come to an end.

Returning home to Boise, Idaho to watch the series finale with his married “little bro” Stewart (Fred Savage of eternal The Wonder Years fame) and other assorted Sandersons, Dean is struck by what they have and what he doesn’t.

“Right now I’m just drivin’ on the highway of what the hell is my life,” he laments in the way his TV character likewise would speak.

Stewart, a stiff real-life lawyer with no stage presence in court, has a wife, Debbie (perfectly played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia), a daughter, Lizzie (Hana Hayes) and a son, Ethan (Connor Kalopsis). TV vet William Devane is also around as Dean Sanderson, Sr., founder of the family law firm but more impressed by Lowe’s fake lawyer than Savage’s actual one.

This of course is going in completely predictable directions. Not that it matters in this case. Everyone in court is star-struck by the famous Dean, including the judge and a middle-aged Hispanic couple facing an eviction notice. They’re being represented by Stewart, who’s decidedly no Perry Mason or even Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer with his halting delivery and heavy reliance on note cards. He wants the couple to settle, but as Dean tells them, “The Grinder never settles. Not in his nature.”

The brotherly dynamics are nicely laid out, with Lowe playing his part with a wink while Savage chafes and bristles. His frustrations are poured out to wife Debbie, who brings freshness and originality to what could have been a one-note sounding board role.

Once they reach an accord, the brothers Sanderson will be teaming up in court on a weekly basis. Or as Dean puts it, “We’re going to meet in the middle for justice.”

The premiere episode has promise aplenty, with Lowe’s character a maestro at pushing all the right buttons while also following the scripts he has down pat after nine years of always prevailing in TV courtrooms. His climactic “Grinder rests” tagline might well seep into the viewer vernacular.

After surprising many with his comedy chops in Parks and Recreation, Lowe now seems like a natural. Savage has his work cut out to keep up, but is no slouch. And Ellis is instantly a winning presence. This one looks like a keeper but certainly not a sleeper. Lowe’s recent track record and pre-sold star power already make The Grinder a comedy of which much is expected -- and so far delivered.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net