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CBS' semi-offbeat Battle Creek shows some signs of being from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan

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More odd couple cops: Dean Winters, Josh Duhamel of Battle Creek CBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Dean Winters, Josh Duhamel, Janet McTeer, Kal Penn, Edward Fordham, Aubrey Dollar, Damon Herriman, Liza Lapira
Produced by: Vince Gilligan, David Shore, Mark Johnson, Bryan Singer, Russel Friend

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The small city best known for mass-producing Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Pop Tarts and Corn Pops also turns out to be awash in homicides and drug-running.

That’s the Battle Creek (population 52,347) of CBS’ Battle Creek, a good but certainly not great seriocomic cop series from the creator of Breaking Bad and its recently launched prequel, Better Call Saul.

The gist is this. Ill-tempered detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) is toiling away in the Battle Creek cop shop while grousing about the department’s outdated, malfunctioning equipment. Into this breech steps the streamlined Milton Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), who’s just been transferred from Detroit’s FBI branch.

Milton has an array of state-of-the-art crime-solving gizmos at his disposal. But Russ takes an immediate disliking to him because their temperaments and methods are entirely different. Milton also is killer handsome, which makes Russ feel like a soggy bowl of Kellogg’s cornflakes.

Many cop shows have taken this route, including Fox’s made-in-Dallas The Good Guys, a short-lived 2010 effort that starred Bradley Whitford as a gruff, set-in-his-ways detective and Colin Hanks as his buttoned-down, by-the-book partner. That series also had an off-beat, auteur executive producer, Burn Notice maestro Matt Nix.

Vince Gilligan and his principal producer partner, David Shore, say in a cover letter to TV critics that CBS suggested sending all 13 Season 1 episodes of Battle Creek for review. Unfortunately they didn’t arrive until mid-February during a very busy time for watching and writing about new series. ABC’s Secrets and Lies and Fox’s The Last Man On Earth also share Battle Creek’s premiere date. And WE tv’s Friday, Feb. 27th launch of Sex Box also cried out for a disparaging review.

But your friendly content provider did find time to view the first four episodes of Battle Creek, plus an Episode 9 subtitled “Cereal Killer.” In that one, Battle Creek’s 31st annual “Breakfast Day,” which celebrates what’s made the city famous, is interrupted by the shootings of the mayor (who turns out to be a Rob Ford-like coke addict) and a costumed mascot. Oh well. The carping Russ didn’t want to be there anyway.

Sunday’s Battle Creek premiere quickly segues to a drug-related double homicide after a scene-setting demonstration of the department’s decrepit crook-catching devices. Russ becomes Milton’s very reluctant partner in the case. He’s equally interested in solving the mystery of why the new guy got demoted by the FBI. (Some of this will be revealed in Episode 4.)

Battle Creek has a solid group of supporting players, most notably the Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer as Commander Guziewicz and Kal Penn (House) as detective Fontanelle “Font” White. The police department ensemble also includes sweets-loving detective Aaron “Funk” Funkhauser (Edward Fordham) and true-blue office manager Holly Dale (Aubrey Dollar), who Russ likes more than a little.

Episodes 2 and 3 likewise center on homicides before Episode 4 delves into a heroin ring. Some of them snap, crackle and pop more than others. The best line in the early going comes from Funk after investigators are told in Episode 3 that a suspect “died of a heart attack two days ago.”

“Talk about an excellent alibi,” he deadpans.

Creator Gilligan of course has been very busy with the high-pressure task of getting Better Call Saul off the ground. So CBS may be getting something of a half a loaf here, even though Battle Creek still qualifies as something of an art house series on a network that’s mostly been painting by the numbers.

The series will sink or swim on the Russ-Milton relationship, which thaws in some amusing ways but remains resistant to room temperature.

“You’re a good cop and a good partner,” Milton tells Russ in Episode 3. “But you have no interest in being a friend.”

Unlike Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Battle Creek otherwise is without serial or, for the most part, cereal components. Crimes of the week are solved and put aside, even though the deductions and evidence don’t always stack up. Episode 3 is especially deficient in these respects, with the bad guys panicking and running after Russ and Milton confront them with not all that much. But numerous other ongoing TV cop dramas share such deficiencies. The supply of twists and turns has reached nearly total exhaustion.

Still, the five episodes I’ve seen have enough small pleasures to carry them to their finish lines. Just don’t expect to be blown away. Battle Creek isn’t about to approach the ratings of CBS’ three NCIS series or the upcoming CSI: Cyber with new Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette. But maybe it will hang in there as something a little offbeat on a network with little of that going around.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Land of distinction: Fox's The Last Man On Earth

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What’s a messy room when you think you’re all that’s left? Fox photo

Premiering; Sunday, March 1st at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Schaal, January Jones, Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen, Mel Rodriguez
Produced by: Will Forte, Chris Miller, Phil Lord, Seth Cohen

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Keep the title in mind. It’s The Last Man On Earth, not the last human.

So if you’re wondering what star Will Forte is going to do with all that post-apocalyptic time on his hands . . . well, there’s no need for that. Not even in the short run.

Fox is being gently firm about this in a letter accompanying the first two episodes, which air back-to-back on Sunday night.

“Please do not reveal surprising plot points or new characters in your coverage of these episodes prior to the airdate,” the network says. “As we do not want to diminish the viewing experience for the audience. You may reveal other confirmed cast members, though we cannot disclose what roles they will play.”

The confirmed cast members, other than Forte, are January Jones, Mary Steenburgen, Cleopatra Coleman, Mel Rodriguez and Kristen Schaal (voice of Louise Belcher on Fox’s animated Bob’s Burgers. One of them materializes at the end of Episode 1. And that’s all you’re gonna get regarding characters other than Forte’s Phil Miller.

The adult comedy series is set in 2020, “Two Years After the Virus.” Phil is driving around in a bus, looking for any signs of life. One by one, he crosses off whole states before deciding on Tucson, Ariz. as his home base. He picks out a palatial home as his new residence before going about the task of trying not to bore himself stiff. His only friends are a series of athletic balls, inspired by Wilson the volleyball in Castaway. It so happens that one of them is an under-inflated football, although Last Man On Earth was filmed long before the New England Patriots “scandal” and already has its first 13 episodes in the can.

Accompanying pop music plays a big role in Episode 1, which charts Will’s fairly hilarious efforts to amuse himself. A $10,000 bottle of wine goes great with a can of SpaghettiOs. And there all kinds of ways to reinvent bowling.

Phil otherwise spends a good deal of time at the Ol’ Rozeo’s Mexi-Irish Pub, where he drinks himself into a stupor while talking to his balls. There are other, more basic activities to help pass the seeming eternity of time.

“Hello, God,” Phil says while trying to get through another night. “First of all, apologies for all the recent masturbation. But I gotta say, that’s kinda on you.”

Forte both created and wrote Last Man On Earth. And the former Saturday Night Live mainstay doesn’t spare himself in terms of either indignities or physical appearance. Forte’s beard is both real and ugly. His character’s faltering resolve is measured in its growth and the overall condition of his home after months of accomplishing nothing. Even Oscar Madison would get sick to his stomach at the sight of what’s become of Phil’s living room and backyard. The set designers of Last Man On Earth deserve some sort of award -- maybe even an Emmy -- for what they’ve “accomplished.”

Fox sent Sunday’s initial two episodes for review -- and not much should be said about the second one. But this is a concept that so far doesn’t lack for execution. Last Man On Earth has no chance at all to be a blockbuster in league with Fox’s new Empire. But it’s another distinctive example of what the Big Four broadcast networks should dare and do.

“I don’t need people. I can make it work on my own. Watch me! Watch me!” Phil vows to God.

We’ll see about that. And soon.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Secrets and Lies: a murder mystery without a strong enough pulse

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The misery index is off the charts in Secrets and Lies. ABC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. March 1st at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Juliette Lewis, KaDee Strickland, Natalie Martinez, Dan Fogler, Indiana Evans, Belle Shouse
Produced by: Barbie Kligman, Aaron Kaplan, Tracey Robertson, Nathan Mayfield, Timothy Busfield

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The media hounds are omnipresent in the first two episodes of ABC’s Secrets and Lies.

Not the “Social Media” ones, but the traditional pack of salivating, question-shouting curs. They bedevil “person of interest” Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) while also making his little daughter, Abby (Belle Shouse), cry. It’s the Christmas season but this is no hallelujah choir.

Ben’s guilt or innocence is very suddenly in question after he finds the dead body of a 5-year-old neighborhood boy whom his snippy teen daughter, Natalie (Indiana Evans), used to babysit. But quick justice for the not-so-stereotypical media mob would be a lightning bolt or two from on high. No one would question that verdict after watching the early stages of this determinedly dreary murder mystery.

Suburban Ben, a married man whose wife has grown weary of him after 17 years of marriage, is also bedeviled by detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis). She wears her hair in a tight bun and has a demeanor that begins and ends with dour. Lewis plays this role in a manner that gradually makes the character almost laughable. She lurks, she badgers and she assures Ben that “I don’t stop.” If only she’d take a long vacation to Siberia and turn the case over to a detective with a semblance of wily charm.

Adapted from a same-named Australian series and scheduled to run for 10 episodes, Secrets and Lies is billed in ABC publicity materials as a “thrilling who-done-it” in which the accused “peels back the layers of these suburbanites’ lives in their quiet cul de sac, revealing their dirty little deceptions and all-too-crowded closets overflowing with skeletons.” But Desperate Housewives had a lot more fun doing this -- at least in its early seasons.

Ben, of course, has a skeleton or two in his own closet. But his wife, Christy (KaDee Strickland), is ready to toss him out even before the biggest one is divulged at the end of Episode 1. “You’re the same person. I’m not,” she tells him. In the physique department that’s very true. Ben, in the person of Phillippe, certainly hasn’t let himself go. He’s still a hunk and a half who runs daily and finds the dead body during one of his jaunts through the woods.

Secrets and Lies also co-stars Dan Fogler as a shlubby, bearded buddy to end all shlubby, bearded buddies. As Dave Lindsey, he’s been Ben’s best friend since high school. Now he’s a layabout, too, crashing at the Crawfords’ house and literally never seen without a beer grafted to his hand during Sunday’s back-to-back hours. Ben and Dave went out drinking -- heavily -- on the night of the murder. And Ben, who had again been spurned by his wife, got so blasted that he can’t quite remember all that happened thereafter.

Meanwhile, Ben’s neighbors turn on him in lightning quick fashion while little Abby yearns to put up the Christmas decorations. “I know you didn’t do it, Daddy,” she says. It’s a nice moment in a series that so far is brimming with ominous music and an abundance of trips to the cop shop for more questioning.

This is supposed to be a spellbinding page-turner, but the pages tend to get stuck together. The original Australian series ran for just six episodes, which no doubt made for a better pace. ABC’s elongated version loads up on angst and redundancy, tending to plod along at a pace that would fall well short of providing a decent cardio workout for jogging Ben.

An arresting performance or two would enliven matters. But Phillippe and Lewis as the two principal characters are not potent enough to get the juices flowing in an unfolding crime tale that’s neither terrible nor scintillating.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

WE tv's super-ludicrous Sex Box tries to position itself as an idea whose time has, um, come

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Exiting the Sex Box to applause from therapists. WE tv photo

Premiering: Friday, Feb. 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on WE tv
Starring: Sexually troubled couples and therapists Chris Donaghue, Fran Walfish, Yvonne Capeheart
Produced by: Tom Forman, Brad Bishop

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Getting all indignant about Sex Box won’t do anything to stop it from actually airing on an American television network after it flopped in the United Kingdom.

Besides, it’s much more fun to make fun of it as a ridiculous and desperate effort to generate some buzz about its carrier, the wee little WE tv network.

TV critics are given more big, juicy low-hanging fruit to feast on than a giraffe in an apple orchard. This begins immediately, with an off-camera pitchman assuring viewers: “Couples in crisis with nowhere else to turn will take part in the most radical therapy ever seen on television. Confessions will be made. Secrets revealed. Lives changed. All by having sex. In this box. In front of a live studio audience.”

WITH NOWHERE ELSE TO TURN!? But we digress.

The Sex Box looks like a storage bin and is a glowing light blue when uninhabited. But when whoopee is in progress, the Box lights up to a hot blend of reds and pinks. Three frequently applauded couples take the plunge in each one-hour episode. They’re also timed by Dr. Chris Donaghue, a “clinical sexologist” who serves as the show’s lead dog.

A question comes to mind. What does the whooping studio audience do during, say, the 31 minutes, 49 seconds that Alexia and Christopher are said to have spent in the Sex Box? Are they given free drinks and snacks while being entertained by an episode of Sex and the City? Because whatever the couples are doing -- and are they actually really doing it? -- it’s all completely inaudible. They then emerge as conquesting heroes before the three resident therapists say things like, “The Sex Box was able to really help you guys find that compromise.”

While you contemplate building one of these things in your bedroom, let’s meet the other performance judges.

Dr. Fran Walfish is a Beverly Hills-based “couples psychotherapist” who charitably speaking has had some very bad cosmetic surgery done above her neck. Dr. Yvonne Capeheart, a “pastor and couples counselor,” is the resident prude -- at least compared to her colleagues.

First up are musicians Elle and Brandon. He wears a “Thug Life” t shirt in his introductory video. She laments that during sex, ”He has an orgasm, and I don’t.”

Made-for-TV concern ripples through the audience before the therapists upbraid Brandon for making light of Elle’s sexual satisfaction. Donaghue soon pops the question after noting that during the sex act, Oxytocin levels (a k a the so-called love hormone) are at their very highest. “Are you ready to go into the Sex Box?” he asks. Dramatic pauses sometimes lead directly to commercial breaks. But of course they’re game. Because otherwise what are these people doing here in the first place?

Post-Sex Box, Elle gives Brandon a 7.9 (on a scale of 10) for his efforts to please her. “That’s huge!” Donaghue exclaims before asking, “Did you both orgasm and who orgasmed first?”

“Me,” Elle says proudly, triggering an ovation.

In case you’re wondering, the couples wear what seem to be silk pajamas (but probably are Polyester) for their romps in the Sex Box. Some but not all of the jammies are emblazoned with the official Sex Box logo.

Between introductions of new couples, “Sex Box correspondent” Danielle Stewart hits the streets to quiz a few couples -- a la HBO’s Real Sex. One guy says he really likes it when his mate is “giving me road head.” Hmm, texting increasingly is outlawed when driving, but . . .

OK, let’s welcome Dyson and his massively endowed wife, Rebecca. They’ve been together for 17 years and married for 10. She says they’ve had “threesomes, foursomes, more somes.” He says they’re just “looking to spice things up a bit . . . I like to date other women with my wife.”

But pastor Capeheart detects Rebecca’s basic unhappiness with these arrangements. So it’s into the Sex Box, with Dyson emerging an instantly changed man. Or so he says.

“For the first time ever, I’ve got my head on straight,” Dyson assures his wife and the therapists. Thanks, Sex Box!!!

Couple No. 3, Alexia and Christopher, used to have kinky sex multiple times a day. But after just two years of marriage, she’s mostly lost the urge after birthing a son.

“He doesn’t look at me any different. He knows the slut that I could be,” Alexia says of her horny husband.

OK, then off to the Sex Box, you two. Presto, change-o and applause upon re-entry into a beautiful new world of renewed compatibility.

The show strives to position itself as nothing more than a selfless Good Samaritan with one goal only -- to bring sexual healing for desperate couples that had no recourse other than intercourse in a big box built on a TV stage. Wonder what the pioneering Dr. Ruth Westheimer would say about that. She might disapprove, even though this is the woman who once told a very embarrassed David Letterman an anecdote about a sex game that called for tossing onion rings on an erect penis.

OK, I’m going to confession now. Right now.

GRADE: F

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Amazon Prime's Bosch after mainlining all 10 Season One episodes

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Titus Welliver commands attention in Bosch. Amazon Prime photo

Currently streaming on: Amazon Prime
Starring: Titus Welliver, Jamie Hector, Amy Aquino, Lance Reddick, Jason Gedrick, Annie Wersching, Sarah Clarke, Madison Lintz
Produced by: Eric Overmyer, Michael Connolly

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s good to see a veteran knock-around actor at last get a standout starring role that could serve him well for several years.

Titus Welliver has an intimidating face made for villainy. But in Amazon Prime’s Bosch he’s been boiled hard as a Los Angeles detective who fights off his demons while putting bad guys away. Adapted from the Michael Connolly novels, the 10-episode Season One began streaming on Feb. 13th. It’s a solidly told whodunit with a payoff that’s worth your investment.

Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch is a former special forces veteran with a desktop placard that reads, “Get off your ass and go knock on doors.” He’s also the divorced son of a prostitute who wound up being murdered and left in a dumpster. This has made him an emotionally scarred, shoot-first cop who’s regularly been on the receiving end of internal investigations. But Bosch gets the dirty jobs done. Or as he puts it to a lying perp in Episode 3, “I’m too old a cat to be (bleeped) by a kitten.”

The series marks Amazon Prime’s second notable achievement after launching the acclaimed Transparent last year. As a streamer of original series, it’s not quite on a par with Netflix yet. But the once yawning gap between them has shrunk considerably.

Bosch initially is beset by a wrongful death civil suit after shooting and killing a runaway suspect who supposedly drew on him first. Mimi Rogers drops in for a few episodes and makes a strong impression as prosecutor Honey “Money” Chandler. But Bosch draws most of its strength from two series-spanning murder tales.

One is an unsolved 25-year-old case involving a 12-year-old boy whose humerus is dug up by a dog. An investigation of other discovered remains shows that he was repeatedly and brutally beaten as a boy. While trying to unscramble this mystery, Bosch also is bedeviled by a serial killer named Raynard Waits (more good work by the resilient Jason Gedrick).

One of the series’ major denouements comes in a taut second-to-last episode. The final hour then settles down considerably but without bogging down.

Major supporting characters include Bosch’s loyal, younger partner, Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector); tough but supportive Lt. Grace Billets (Amy Aquino); blunt deputy police chief Irvin Irving (Lance Reddick); and rookie cop Julia Brasher (Annie Wersching), who used to be an attorney before belatedly answering a second calling.

Sarah Clarke and Madison Lintz also pitch in effectively as Bosch’s ex-wife, Eleanor, and their 14-year-old daughter, Maddie. Both live in Vegas, with Eleanor a former police profiler turned successful high-stakes poker player and Maddie a refreshingly well-adjusted kid without the usual deep streaks of ‘tude.

Some of Bosch plays a little same-old, same-old, principally a power struggle between deputy chief Irving, who wants to climb the next rung, and district attorney Rick O’Shea (Steven Culp), who ramrods the cop shop in his quest to be mayor. But their war of words also prompts this memorable line: “L.A. is a three-piece suit. Black, white and brown. You need two out of three to get elected in this town.”

Harry Bosch focuses only on the crimes at hand. And there’s a little True Detective evident in these side-by-side tales of a long unsolved murder case and a creepy, heart-of-darkness labyrinth hiding the series’ principal villain. Unlike detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, though, Bosch and his partner get along from start to stop. And Bosch, for his part, would rather draw on another cigarette than trip the cosmic fandango.

Welliver, who’s played roles ranging from Lost’s Man in Black “Smoke Monster” to gun-runner Jimmy O’Phelan in Sons of Anarchy, bites off a lot that he definitely can chew in Bosch. Finally he’s the top-of-the-marquee star. It’s hoped that Amazon Prime will keep it that way with at least several more seasons to come.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net