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HBO's Crashing: a "small" comedy that measures up

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Crashing’s Pete Holmes (right) & guest star Artie Lange. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 19th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Pete Holmes, Lauren Lapkus, George Basil
Produced by: Judd Apatow, Pete Holmes, Dave Rath, Josh Church, Igor Srubshchik

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A fairly gainful comic in real life, Pete Holmes plays himself in sad sack mode as the star of HBO’s Crashing.

His pathetic strivings are made even more so when his erstwhile supportive wife, Jess (Lauren Lapkus), decides to junk him and take up with a cosmic, tattooed dude named Leif (George Basil). Still, Pete’s a haplessly optimistic gamer who can take a knockdown punch. And as Crashing evolves (HBO made the first six episodes available for review), he grows in appeal as a babe in the New York City jungle who ends up depending on the kindness of fellow, far more successful stand ups.

Judd Apatow, principal co-executive producer of the series along with Holmes, has also teamed with Lena Dunham for Girls’, which now is nearing the end of its long HBO run. The two comedies are paired on Sundays from 9 to 10 p.m. (central), with Crashing a gentle lamb compared to all the attendant on- and off-camera drama that’s surrounded Girls from the start.

The premiere episode finds Jess urging Pete to have more inventive and spontaneous sex with her. But the product of a Christian school and rigid but loving parents cannot bring himself to take a sexual position that pairs the numbers six and nine.

“I don’t like doing two things at once,” Pete protests, comparing it to “playing the banjo while riding a bicycle.” Besides, he has to run off to the city again for a chance to do a few minutes of standup at a crummy comedy club that doesn’t pay him but does enforce a two-drink minimum whether you’re onstage or in the sparse audience. Pete’s livin’ the dream, though, while his employed wife pays the bills. But the title Crashing soon will have a double-meaning, neither of them in the cuckolded Pete’s favor. His life has crash-landed and he’s crashing in various apartments inhabited by comedians playing themselves.

Super slovenly Artie Lange is Pete’s first ad hoc benefactor, followed by T.J. Miller, a batch of fellow unknown stand ups and, in Episode 6, Sarah Silverman. This is also where Pete’s running-in-place “career” finally catches a break after a dispiriting and payless stint as a leaflet-distributing “barker.” Lure five patrons to Manhattan’s struggling and ill-named Boston comedy club (mostly with phony come-ons about big stars showing up) and get a few minutes onstage in return.

Pete’s comedy is “clean” and still very formative. But it’s not without a good riff or two. He’s greeted with a few, face-saving titters in Episode 1, (from a “crowd” of perhaps 10) after wondering what the employee discount might be at The Dollar Store. “You think it’s just ‘Take it?’ “

In Episode 4, a “barking” Pete scores with a throwaway line: “There’s no good way to tell people you haven’t seen The Wire.” Episode 5, the strongest so far, is built around Pete still trying to keep the split-up a secret from his parents, with Jess playing along for a while when they visit the city to celebrate mom’s birthday.

Crashing has enough mostly gentle amusements to keep it on track. And it’s increasingly easy to get on Pete’s side. He’s possibly more unbreakable than even Netflix’s sun shiny Kimmy Schmidt. Is he going to make it after all? The closing scene in Episode 6 marks a small victory in that direction. But for Pete, it’s like climbing a mountain. One can feel his immense relief -- and also enjoy sharing it.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Good Fight comes out punching in Round One for CBS All Access

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Christine Baranski as centerpiece of The Good Fight. CBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 19th at 7 p.m. (central) on CBS and CBS All Access
Starring: Christine Baranski, Cush Jumbo, Rose Leslie, Delroy Lindo, Erica Tazel, Sarah Steele, Justin Bartha
Produced by: Michelle King, Robert King, Phil Alden Robinson, Ridley Scott, David Zucker, Liz Glotzer, Brooke Kennedy, Alison Cross

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Lately there’s no such thing as a free, new top quality drama on CBS. Instead you’ll have to pay for it.

The network’s recently launched streaming service, CBS All Access, gets serious this Sunday with its first original series. The Good Fight, a continuation of its much-lauded The Good Wife, puts Christine Baranski at center stage in place of Julianna Margulies, who leaves the scene after seven seasons and two Emmy awards in her leading role of Alicia Florrick.

The CBS broadcast network will air The Good Fight’s first episode before it moves exclusively to the subscription All Access for Season One’s remaining nine hours. They’ll be doled out once weekly on Sundays, which puts All Access in alignment with Hulu while Netflix and Amazon Prime continue to offer their original series in full season gulps.

Baranski earned six Emmy nominations but has yet to get a win for her portrayal of hard-driving attorney Diane Lockhart. Episode One, subtitled “Inauguration,” briefly shows her in a seeming traumatized state as Donald Trump is sworn in as President. It spurs her to pre-purchase a luxurious villa and retire from her senior partnership at Chicago’s Lockhart, Decker, Gussman, Lee, Lyman (we’re not finished yet), Gilbert-Lurie, Kagan, Tannebaum & Associates.

Alas, her nest egg is quickly wiped out by a Ponzi scheme that implicates Henry and Lenore Rindell (guest stars Paul Guilfoyle, Bernadette Peters), and by implication their innocent daughter Maia (new cast member Rose Leslie). She’s just joined Lockhart, Decker, Gussman et. al. after passing the Illinois bar exam. But Diane, who’s Maia’s godmother, is coldly rebuked when she asks to be taken back, only to be taken aback. No. 1, she’s too pricey. Secondly, she directed some of her clients to the Rindells -- and that didn’t end well.

So that’s the setup for a reset, with a rebuked and uncommonly weepy Diane (in a scene with her estranged husband) eventually accepting the life preserver offered by a rival firm of mostly African-American lawyers. She can be both a partner and “a diversity hire,” says attorney Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo). This amuses both of them.

Diane also will be newly in business with the firm’s founding partner, Barbara Kolstad (Erica Tazel), and Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo carrying over from the last season of The Good Wife). Maia likewise is brought on board after getting almost immediately dumped by Diane’s old firm.

CBS made the first two episodes available for review, and they’re both pretty terrific. The dialogue crackles and the first featured case (in Episode 2) is buoyed by a guest appearance from Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope) as a very self-assured prosecutor.

Among the regular cast members, the immensely under-recognized Lindo instantly registers as the suave Boseman while Jumbo is a commanding presence in her holdover role. Baranski also remains first-rate in what’s become her defining TV role.

Absent any restraints from advertisers, The Good Fight has mixed in some f-bombs (which obviously will be excised from Sunday’s lone showing on regular old CBS). Episode 2 puts Maia on the jarring receiving end, with bilked investors still hating on her via a barrage of very pointed text and voice mail messages. This one also ends with a jolt.

CBS obviously wants to entice viewers to buy into All Access by giving them something worth investing in. The Good Fight is enticing bait, although it’s a shame that the broadcast network hasn’t come close to measuring up in recent seasons with a string of standard-issue new dramas, most in the crime-solving genre and none in any danger of receiving an Emmy nomination.

All Access also has the new Star Trek: Discovery in production, although creative problems have delayed its debut. In future years, will most if not all of the “good stuff,” such as The Good Fight, wind up on All Access instead of CBS? That’s a distinct and somewhat disheartening possibility in times when the old-line Big Four broadcast networks increasingly are hard-pressed to compete -- not only with their own pay-for-play creations but with the aforementioned established streamers plus high-caliber cable networks such as FX, HBO and AMC.

More than ever, you get what you pay for.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's Big Little Lies: all-star angst amid a dangled double mystery

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Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman are the principal moms under duress in Big Little Lies. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgard, Laura Dern, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, James Tupper, Kathryn Newton, Jeffrey Nordling, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Santiago Cabrera
Produced by: David E. Kelley, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Barbara A. Hall, Gregg Feinberg, Bruna Papandrea, Nathan Ross, Per Saari, Jean-Marc Vallee

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Ample wine is consumed, but the glasses figuratively are half-empty in HBO’s very moody and sometimes draining Big Little Lies.

Adapted from the bestselling, same-named 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty, it’s a star vehicle for Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, who also are co-executive producers with TV vet David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Public and Amazon’s recent Goliath). They’ve fashioned a seven-episode miniseries coated with thick layers of unfulfillment for the outwardly pampered and privileged women of Monterey, CA. Three of them live in ocean view splendor while a fourth principal hunkers down in a comparative hovel after migrating from Santa Cruz in hopes of starting a new life. The entire miniseries is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, whose most notable feature films to date are the multiple Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, for which Witherspoon received an acting nomination.

Big Little Lies also is a murder mystery -- not only whodunit but to whom they did it. An opening crime scene at a gala school fundraiser sets that particular stage before one of the drama’s recurring Greek chorus of sniping gossipers asserts that “at the root of it all was Madeline McKenzie.”

That’s Witherspoon’s character, a loud and willful bundle of nerves with a balky teen daughter named Abby (Kathryn Newton) from a previous marriage and six-year-old Chloe (Darby Camp) from a current one.

Kidman plays her best friend, Celeste Wright, who’s married to the constantly traveling but possessive Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard from True Blood). Skarsgard’s not a vampire this time, but he’s slowly draining the life out of Celeste with his physical and recurrently violent demands. It’s been something of a sexual turn-on for both of them, but Celeste is starting to realize the self-destructive and dangerous course they’re on. Perry otherwise is a benign daddy to their twin sons, Max and Josh (Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti), sending them into giggles with his impressions of a flesh-eating monster. Oh, the symbolism.

The newcomer is Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), whose little son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), was born after she was sexually assaulted and raped. Madeline and Celeste quickly bond with her, and the three regularly have coffee together at an oceanside cafe.

Fourth wheel Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is a prosperous businesswoman with a little girl named Annabella (Ivy George) and a husband, Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling), who endures her verbal volatility while also trying to tame it. All of the little kids are first-graders. And after just the first day of class, Annabella emerges with a bruise on her neck and fingers the new kid, Ziggy, as the bullying perpetrator. He emphatically denies doing anything, but the die is cast and the resentments escalate.

Big Little Lies regularly returns to the scene of the crime and rounds of backbiting from other, otherwise mostly unidentified parents. One tells the cops, “Nobody knows nothin’ about anybody. You can write that down, detective, and underline it.”

Those who have read Moriarty’s book know the identities of both the victim and the perpetrator. But there’s no guarantee that Kelley’s adaptation will stick to this particular script. Only the seventh and climactic episode has been held back by HBO. Throughout the first six hours made available for review, no answers are forthcoming, with things running in place more than they should.

Big Little Lies also can be too much of a treatise at times, bogging down instead of building momentum with its multitude of principal and supporting characters. They also include Madeline’s slowly festering husband, Ed (Adam Scott); her ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper); his second wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz); and community theater director Joseph Bachman (Santiago Cabrera). Yes, there’s also a subplot in which Madeline strives to strong-arm the adult puppet drama Avenue Q into production against opposition from a “decency” brigade led by Dern’s Renata.

Witherspoon gives the showiest performance as Madeline. “I can’t even keep track of all the fights you start,” says husband Ed, suggesting there should be an app for that.

Kidman is most effective in prolonged scenes with her therapist, during which she progresses from denial to a growing self-awareness. But the most affecting performance is by Woodley as Jane, who’s lovingly raised her son while also battling her demons. Jane also is more relatable as a mom making do without attendant creature comforts while her newfound friends live lifestyles of the rich if not famous.

Whatever its denouement, Big Little Lies isn’t stitched tightly enough to be a truly great miniseries. Its teachable moments tend to be worn like signboards, with the preachments piling up while the overriding double mystery keeps getting dangled like a piñata hung too high for all those first-grader to reach. Although billed by HBO as a “darkly comedic drama,” none of it is much if any fun to watch. So don’t think Desperate Housewives. If you do, you’ll be disappointed.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Doubt bounces Katherine Heigl over to CBS

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Katherine Heigl tries again as defense attorney in Doubt. CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Feb. 15th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Katherine Heigl, Dule Hill, Elliott Gould, Laverne Cox, Steven Pasquale, Dreama Walker, Kobi Libii, Judith Light
Produced by: Tony Phelan, Joan Rater, Carl Beverly, Sarah Timberman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Here comes Katherine Heigl again.

All hasn’t gone as planned since she left Grey’s Anatomy in 2010 with the idea of becoming a movie star. Grey’s remains gainfully deployed on ABC while Heigl since has been in a pile of pedestrian, barely seen feature films (Jackie & Ryan, Home Sweet Hell, Jenny’s Wedding, etc.) while also fronting NBC’s quickly canceled State of Affairs during the 2014-’15 TV season.

Heigl also has publicly let it be known she’d happily return to Grey’s for a limited arc as her old character, Izzie Stevens, for which she won an Emmy. But all-business show runner Shonda Rhimes is not known as a forgiver or a forgetter after Heigl’s less than amicable departure. So nothing’s materialized.

Now that the E! True Hollywood Story portion is out of the way, let’s get to Heigl’s latest go-around. She’s starring as defense lawyer Sadie Ellis in CBS’ Doubt, which is replacing Code Black.

As with State of Affairs, there’s a serial storyline in play but no guarantee it will get resolved. Heigl’s NBC drama ended with an open-ended cliffhanger after 13 episodes. Sorry, viewers, but feel free to write your own storylines from here on out.

In Doubt, Heigl’s Sadie is representing cute pediatrician Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale), who’s newly accused of murdering his girlfriend 24 years ago when he was a teenager. Billy and Sadie also have become lovers, which makes his guilt or innocence of more than passing importance. Throughout the first two episodes, and another out-of-sequence hour made available for review, Billy seems to have the evidence on his side -- until he doesn’t. But then he does again. And doesn’t.

The show’s New York City-based, “boutique” law firm otherwise is well-stocked with familiar TV faces. Dule Hill (The West Wing, Psych) plays Albert Cobb, who’s Sadie’s best friend and trusted colleague. Laverne Cox, fresh from Orange Is the New Black, is transgender attorney Cameron Wirth. And Elliott Gould is firm founder Isaiah Roth, who’s also Sadie’s father. Everyone seems to revere him. So it’s snap to it time when he says, “OK. Go, do, conquer” near the start of Episode 2.

Tiffany Simon (Dreama Walker), one of the firm’s newer arrivals, is broadly and ridiculously drawn as an import from the milk-fed Midwest who keeps admonishing herself for being so damned “normal.”

“I’m from Iowa. We don’t yell. We seethe,” she says in Wednesday’s premiere after feeing guilty for loudly expressing her opinion. In Episode 2, Tiffany still finds it disconcerting that “We actually had a white picket fence” back home.

There’s also Nick Brady (Kobi Libii), a felon who earned his law degree while incarcerated and is now trying to make his mark when he’s not getting sloughed off.

Steady doses of highly generic mood music tend to kick in whenever the lawyers are supposed to be bantering amusingly. The sub-plot cases range from a diagnosed schizophrenic who’s accused of murder and freaks out on the witness stand (“Control your client!”) to a cantankerous former judge and friend of Isaiah’s who’s charged with abusing his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife by having sex with her.

Judith Light, who’s terrific in Amazon’s Transparent series and was a sneering hoot in TNT’s Dallas reboot, has a recurring role as the incarcerated Carolyn Rice, who’s also Sadie’s mother. Light brings a convincing, cutting edge to her brief but powerful scenes with both Heigl and Gould.

Doubt is the kind of series where answers are left hanging at commercial breaks and where preachments tend to run thick. All three episodes made available for review have thoroughly predictable outcomes for the sub-cases while the pot keeps percolating between Sadie and her Dr. Billy.

Cox, as attorney Wirth, is given ample time in courtroom scenes while also getting a chance to briefly declare, “I’m a woman, but I used to be a man.” Hill’s attorney Cobb admonishes and advises Sadie but relies on couples’ therapy to sort out whether it’s possible for him to have an enduring relationship with his on-and-off girlfriend. Gould’s patriarchal Isaiah seems out of sync in the opening hour but shows signs of gaining his bearings in upcoming episodes.

All in all, though, Doubt is a Heigl-driven vehicle, and perhaps the last she’ll get for a while if this one can’t find an audience. So far it’s strictly so-so on the storytelling front, but with some scenes that raise the bar beyond that. Those mostly involve Light, though. And she’s not the one who’s supposed to carry the load.

GRADE: C+

Tower deftly animates a University of Texas tragedy

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A Good Samaritan rushes to the aide of a wounded pregnant woman in Tower. The documentary film mixes animation and actual footage. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Valentine’s Day isn’t an optimum spot for the TV premiere of a very different look at the University of Texas Tower shooting, in which 16 people ended up dead, including the assailant’s mother and wife.

Activating your preferred recording device might be a better approach. Because Tower is a film well worth seeing, both for its novel blend of animation and real-life footage and the eyewitness stories recounted 50-and-a-half years after the Aug. 1, 1966 mass murders.

Running for just under one hour, 20 minutes and airing under the Independent Lens banner, Tower premieres at 9 p.m. central on (KERA13 in D-FW). The director is Keith Maitland, who financed the film via the Indiegogo crowdsourcing website before receiving $70,000 in matching funds from University of Texas alumni.

Maitland deploys what’s called “rotoscopic” animation to depict Tower’s main characters. But the end result is neither cartoonish nor laughable. Archival news footage is also used fairly extensively. And in the closing portion, Tower has current-day interviews with some of the surviving key participants.

Going unseen is the Tower shooter, 25-year-old ex-Marine Charles Whitman. The only exception is a magazine picture of him as a three-year-old balancing himself with rifles held in both hands while standing next to a dog. It’s shown near film’s end as a bridge to forgiveness from Claire Wilson James, who was pregnant on that day and lost both her baby and her boyfriend to Whitman’s bullets. “How can I hate somebody like that?” she asks in reference to his innocence lost.

The telescoped focus is on the victims, survivors and those who worked their way to the tower’s 28th floor to kill Whitman. Roughly 10 minutes of Tower have been cut from its premiere at last year’s South by Southwest film festival in Austin. Whatever edits were made, there’s no Whitman “back story” in the television version. Could it use one? Yes, although just a few minutes would suffice. His killing spree is billed as “the nation’s first mass school shooting.” So even a very cursory look at Whitman’s formative years would help to put that very grim day into context. Otherwise, there’s always Wikipedia.

Tower takes a minute-by-minute approach to Aug. 1, 1966, with KTBC-TV/radio reporter Neal Spelce quickly setting the scene by sounding the alarm to stay away from the UT campus in live dispatches from his Red Rover station wagon. Claire Wilson James soon enters the picture. “I just felt this huge jolt,” she says of the gunfire that seriously wounded her. The James’ story is woven throughout Tower. Will she be rescued? Can she hold on? At one point, ”I thought it felt like an invasion from outer space,” James says of battling not to lose consciousness while helpless and flat on her back. The film gets a little carried away with the accompanying space invasion animation.

Police officer Ramiro Martinez was off duty that day. But he volunteered to help in any way he could, and was soon on the scene. Martinez and the late Houston McCoy were the two officers who eventually took Whitman out with an assist from the now deceased Allen Crum, a bookstore employee who asked to be deputized after obtaining a rifle from a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. Yes, it’s quite a story. (It also can be quite an unseemly distraction when the finished product includes periodic PBS tags, most egregiously “Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.”)

James finally was aided by a redheaded woman named Rita, who laid down beside her and tried to buoy her spirits. “It was a beautiful, selfless act,” James recollects.

The iGood Samaritan’s identity eventually is revealed, and the emotional impact won’t be spoiled here. Two young men also were pivotal in rescuing James. In this instance, actual footage is available of their courageous decision to risk their lives in carrying her out of further harm’s way. “I’ve never been more scared,” says one of the rescuers, still emotional all these years later.

The film ends with CBS anchor Walter Cronkite deploring the escalating violence in the country and “the caveman’s philosophy -- that might makes right.”

“It seems likely that Charles Joseph Whitman’s crime was society’s crime,” he says before signing off.

Tower is a vivid snapshot of derangement, heroism, endurance and sometimes admitted cowardice on what remains the most traumatic day in University of Texas history. Using animation to in large part tell the story is a risk that ends up working to the film’s advantage, given filmmaker Maitland’s certainty that UT officials would never allow any “live action” reenactments on campus.

The techniques used in Tower now stand as a tableau for future possibilities with the documentary form. But you have to get it right, and Tower for the most part certainly does.

GRADE: A-minus