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HBO's Here and Now has a spark only now and then

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Life’s bubbles are bursting in Here and Now. HBO photo

Premiering; Sunday, Feb. 11th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Holly Hunter, Tim Robbins, Jerrika Hinton, Raymond Lee, Sosie Bacon, Daniel Zovatto, Joe Williamson, Andy Bean, Peter Macdissi, Marwan Salama
Produced by: Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi, David Knoller

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Every once in a while, a character in a TV series unintendedly speaks volumes, disparagingly or otherwise, about the TV series he or she is in.

In the case of Here and Now, it’s Ashley Bishop-Black (Jerrika Hinton), one of three adoptees in this new HBO drama.

“You have potential. But you are slow. And you waste time,” she says in dressing down an employee of her online fashion website. It’s only Episode 1, but this reviewer already had been getting that sinking feeling. Wearying, preachy, structurally unsound and impenetrably mystical also come to mind.

The creator and principal executive producer is Alan Ball, who has been very good for HBO (and HBO very good to him) with the previous series Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball’s 1999 feature film American Beauty also won the Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor trophy for the now disgraced Kevin Spacey. So attention must be paid, as they say.

Two accomplished thespians, also with Oscars in hand, are at the initially stormy center of Here and Now, which is set in Portland, OR. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) plays revered philosophy professor Greg Bishop, who 30 years ago wrote a mega-bestseller. He’s now in a deep brood about turning 60 without having divined the true meaning of life -- or whether it has any at all.

Holly Hunter (The Piano) is his very hands-on wife, Audrey, a “conflict resolution consultant” with The Empathy Institute.

The Bishops, showcasing their open-mindedness and fealty to those less fortunate, have adopted and raised three children from other countries. The aforementioned Ashley is from Somalia. Duc Bishop (Raymond Lee), now a very single-minded and prosperous life coach, is a native of Vietnam while troubled but talented video game designer Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) was rescued from a Colombia orphanage.

There’s also biological daughter Kristen (Sosie Bacon), youngest of the brood and filled with ‘tude as a student at the multi-ethnic and thereby increasingly polarized high school where mom consults. Kristen is quite reminiscent of Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), the very troubled teen from Six Feet Under.

Before very grudgingly attending a 60th birthday party meticulously arranged by his wife, Greg avails himself of his weekly tuneup from a call girl who’s young enough to be his daughter. Meanwhile, Ashley and Duc get loaded, Kristen wears a horse’s head and Ramon continues to have some very scary visions in which he always sees the numbers 11:11. He has another such episode at the party after Dad gives a dark speech on how just about everything is a load of crap. Are we having fun yet?

Ramon, who also has a new gay lover named Henry (Andy Bean), reluctantly joins his parents at the office of therapist Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi, who in real life is Ball’s partner and a co-executive producer of Here and Now). It’s later learned that Farid also has some serious demons in play. He’s otherwise the understanding father of Navid (Marwan Salama), a “gender fluid” teen and classmate of Kristen’s.

The other main supporting character is Malcolm Smith (Joe Williamson), an assistant women’s soccer team trainer who’s married to Ashley. They’re the parents of a cute little girl. But Ashley’s unfulfilled despite Malcolm’s all-around great guy comportment.

HBO made the first four episodes available for review. Production began in earnest after Donald Trump became President. So Here and Now is the latest TV drama to ruminate, mostly via Greg, about what America may have suddenly become.

“Anxiety is a completely appropriate response to today’s anger,” he says at a seminar, disavowing the optimism he championed in his long-ago book. “Thirty years ago, truth was truth.”

Well, not entirely. Not ever, really.

But as Here and Now digs in deeper, Greg seems to undergo a rather abrupt and puzzling change in temperament. Not to give away too many details, but what’s up with that? Many viewers might have given up by then anyway. I mean, who has time for this? Audrey also veers to and fro from being gratingly overbearing to the soul of tact.

There’s also a beyond heavy-handed scene in Episode 2. Ashley and Kristen have just exited a Planned Parenthood clinic when a holdover, baboonish protestor confronts them. Bearded, plus-sized and ridiculously prototypical, he brandishes a makeshift cross with a naked plastic baby affixed to it while bellowing at Kristen and finally calling her a “dumb whore.” She responds by kicking him below the belt before matters escalate. It later turns out that the protestor is a registered sex offender. The entire sequence has all the subtlety of a carnival barker.

There are moments in Here and Now that threaten to turn the corner and reward a viewer’s patience. But just as quickly, things bog down again. The acting isn’t at fault, but the preachments and overall ponderousness are. Instead of “don’t worry, be happy,” it’s much more a case of “don’t hurry, be unhappy.” Or vexed if you prefer. With all the TV and streaming choices out there, life’s just too short for that.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Draw your own conclusions from Showtime's Our Cartoon President

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Just when you think you’ve seen more than enough. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 11th at 7 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Voiced by: Jeff Bergman, Cody Lindquist and many others
Produced by: Stephen Colbert, Chris Licht, R. J. Fried

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
We’re at the point where some critics are faulting Showtime’s Our Cartoon President for “humanizing” Donald Trump.

Yeah, because that would be a disgrace.

Trump already is omnipresent on cable news networks, late night talk shows, Saturday Night Live and in countless fever dreams. Comedy Central’s The President Show began lampooning him last April, with Anthony Atamanuik wearing a wig the size of an eagle’s nest. Another little-known comedian, Jeff Bergman, gets the call in Cartoon President, an extension of the recurring animated snippets on CBS’ Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Other than Bergman and a few others, specific voice credits remain hard to come by.)

Colbert remains in charge for these 10 half-hour episodes, two of which were made available for review. In his opening remarks, Trump boasts that “everyone knows my brain has great bone structure.” Housed within is an IQ of “180 over 90,” he says with confidence.

Those are some pretty funny lines, and Our Cartoon President (double meaning fully intended) isn’t entirely short of them. Still, is anyone else out there feeling severely Trumped-out at this point? From a comedy writer’s perspective, though, he remains a fool’s gold mine of material, far surpassing George W. Bush’s misadventures with the English language.

George W., by the way, is the only other President to spawn a TV comedy series while still in office. Comedy Central’s live action That’s My Bush!, created by South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, ran for eight episodes in spring 2001. Timothy Bottoms starred, playing Bush as an amiable, well-meaning bumbler. The series supposedly was canceled for being too expensive.

The premiere episode of Cartoon President is topical in terms of incorporating Trump’s first State of the Union address as the principal “storyline.” The President is also taxed with giving First Lady Melania Trump (whom he calls “LaGuardia” at one point) a suitable wedding anniversary gift. It ends up being a one-on-one dinner date with Karen Pence, which further miffs Mrs. Trump (Cody Lindquist). “She told me her favorite designer is Cracker Barrel gift shop” among other things.

Don Jr. and Eric predictably are portrayed as sub-idiots, with Colbert saying in interviews that they’re “our Beavis and Butt-head.” Episode 2 is built around hapless Eric’s yearnings to be noticed. So when Dad authorizes Trump impersonators to stand in for him at boring events (such as visiting disaster sites), Eric is among the eager applicants. This doesn’t end well when the fake Trumps, including Eric, cause the President’s approval rating to “skyrocket” to 40 percent. “I miss the old Eric who never undermined me by being good at stuff,” he tells Eric -- who’s happy to hear this.

Cartoon President has a killer sight gag in its tortoise-like depiction of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And top advisor Stephen Miller works on the boss’s State of the Union speech as a shirtless, pierced masochist hanging from a hook. His first draft is titled “Blood Horizon.” Less effective is a constantly intruding Ted Cruz and his run-at-the-mouth gibberish.

In Episode 2, Cartoon President also twits MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who doles out her observations with a series of short bursts and affected pauses. Fox News Channel’s early morning Fox and Friends contrastingly is brimming with toadies, but Trump of course is the primary punching bag and lightweight throughout these first two episodes. In one segment, cartoon Trump admiringly watches video of real-life Trump and his “greatest hits” on the campaign trail. They include his infamous mocking of a disabled reporter.

Colbert and his nightly opening demolitions of Trump and company have vaulted his show past competitors Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel in the total viewer Nielsen ratings. Cartoon President piles on more of the same while at the same time risking over-saturation.

The sight of would-be Trumps in training -- mainlining a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is among the exercises -- is hardly a belly laugh anymore. Nor is a family dinner of nothing but hot dogs while a disengaged President is fixated on an old Cowboys and Indians shoot ‘em up rather than any verbiage from his sons, Melania, Ivanka or Jared.

Cartoon President likely will find this going getting tougher as the show goes on. The first two episodes hit some comedic sweet spots, both visually and verbally. But if the government again shuts down over DACA, Colbert and his writers will be increasingly hard-pressed to find the funny. The idea of Trump meeting his first salad bar or trying to read a coloring book just might not cut it anymore.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Some juvenile highs in NBC's A.P. Bio

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An apple gets you nowhere with this particular teacher. NBC photo

Premiering: Thurs., Feb. 1st at 8:30 p.m. (central) before returning on Sun., Feb. 25th and then to Thursdays on March 1st
Starring: Glenn Howerton, Patton Oswalt, Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, Jean Villepique, Aparna Brielle, Jacob McCarthy, Nick Peine, Tucker Abrizzi, Allisyn Ashley-Arm, Tom Bennett
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, Mike O’Brien,Andrew Singer, Mike Shoemaker

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NBC is hot for this teacher, even if the title doesn’t readily suggest it’s a school house sitcom.

A.P. Bio (not a virus) is centered on another teacher who doesn’t teach the children well. It gets a special preview on Thursday, Feb. 1st (following Will & Grace) before returning on Sunday, Feb. 25th in another showcase slot immediately after the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. After that, it’s back to Thursdays, starting March 1st. In the interim, the first three episodes will be available online via nbc.com, Hulu and the network’s owned-and-operated stations.

Why such special treatment for a show that’s better than a failing grade but won’t go to the head of any class? Simply put, it pays to be deferential to a new series whose executive producers include Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels and one of his star proteges, Seth Meyers. Duh, buttering them up is a no-brainer.

NBC made the first four episodes available for review. Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) struts through all of them as a disaffected Harvard grad and alum of Toledo’s Whitlock High School whose agenda includes “firm plans to bang my high school ex- as hard as I can.”

He’s otherwise non-teaching a classroom of nerdish Advanced Placement Biology students after failing in his grand plan to become head of the Stanford University philosophy department. Jack somehow envisions getting back at his “nemesis” -- the guy who got the job -- by using the students as go-betweens. This makes a bit more sense than the decision to hire him in the first place. Only a principal as ineffectual and befuddled as Ralph Durbin (Patton Oswalt) would make such a personnel move. Check that box. Classroom comedies demand principals majoring in idiocy.

Jack’s students are greeted daily with his indifference and opening dictum that everybody “begin to shut up.” These kids are actually eager to learn (also a preposterous premise?) rather than do nothing or participate in their new teacher’s revenge plots. Some of them stand out, including the very serious-minded Sarika (Aparna Brielle), student body president Marcus (Nick Peine), awkwardly rebellious Heather (Allisyn Ashley Arm) and the mostly clueless Colin (Tucker Abrizzi), who also plays the sax and whose mother is hot (the spotlight storyline of Episode 3).

Three incumbent Whitlock High teachers complete the ensemble. The alpha female among them is Stef (Lyric Lewis), a cosmetics peddler on the side whose sales pitches prey on the more pliant Mary (Mary Sohn) and Michelle (Jean Villepique).

The always welcome Niecy Nash flashily guest stars in Episode 2 as a teachers union rep who goes to bat for Jack and dismisses principal Durbin as “an incompetent little weiner.” Episode 4, subtitled “Student Council,” pits Jack against Marcus in a battle to keep teech’s craved salt and vinegar chips in the school’s vending machines. It’s marginally the best of the bunch, with repressed Heather delivering a prize creep-out line after Jack commands the students to reveal any skeletons in their closets. “I shoplift magazines to feel alive,” she declares. Getting caught is the fun part.”

CBS offered a better sitcom in this realm with 2014’s Bad Teacher, a spinoff of the same-named Cameron Diaz feature film. But it lasted just three episodes, and probably wasn’t the right fit anyway on a network with a decidedly older and “traditional” core audience than its three major broadcast network rivals.

NBC is a more compatible venue, and A.P. Bio is getting some optimum chances to make the grade. Howerton makes the most of his central ribald rogue role while Oswalt seemingly was built to be a bumbler. Neither character is believably employed -- if that really matters. Beyond that, A.P. Bio suffices as a teacher-student comedy in which Jack gets away with writing “Who Will Jack Bang?” on the chalkboard before turning around to learn it’s parent-teacher day. OMG. But this, too, shall pass.

Grade: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Acorn TV's Girlfriends has age-old appeal

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Golden oldies: Zoe Wanamaker, Miranda Richardson and Phyllis Logan face age-old obstacles -- and a mysterious death -- in Girlfriends. Acorn photo

Premiering: Begins streaming Monday, Jan. 29th on Acorn TV
Starring: Miranda Richardson, Zoe Wanamaker, Phyllis Logan, Anthony Head, Philip Cumbus, Daisy Head, Matthew Lewis, Paula Wilcox, Valerie Lilley, Adrian Rawlins, Steve Evets
Produced by: Kay Mellor

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Attention TV shoppers: Acorn TV’s Girlfriends in no way is a reboot of what just happened to be the same-named sitcom that lasted eight seasons on UPN and then The CW.

The three protagonists of this British production are far closer in age and temperament to The Golden Girls. But the comedic moments in this six-part series are secondary to the mystery of how a besotted husband tumbled to his death off a cruise ship balcony. The issue of age discrimination is also paramount, but creator/producer/writer/director Kay Mellor (Love, Lies & Records) avoids overtly preaching in the four episodes made available for review.

Girlfriends, which begins streaming in weekly one-hour doses on Monday, Jan. 29th, doesn’t always hit its marks -- particularly during the over-reaching opening minutes of Episode 4. But the three lead performances, particularly on the part of Miranda Richardson, are more than enough to carry the day.

Richardson plays Sue, a nose in the air, creature-comforted bridal magazine features editor who’s suddenly sacked by her longtime boyfriend and boss, John (Anthony Head). They founded Adorable together, but now he sees her as too old and outdated for the job at hand. A meaningless consultant’s position is offered. No thanks. Emphatically, no thanks.

Sue, Linda (Phyllis Logan) and Gail (Zoe Wanamaker) used to be close pals but have drifted apart over time and circumstances. But they re-bond at the funeral for Linda’s husband Micky (Steve Evets), who at the beginning of Episode 1 is first besotted aboard a cruise ship -- and then shockingly deceased after falling overboard. But how did he sink to such depths? If it’s ruled a suicide, then dependent Linda won’t be able to collect on their life insurance policy. If it was murder or manslaughter, whodunit? Or maybe Micky just drunkenly tumbled overboard while staggering away from a celebratory anniversary dinner to ostensibly fetch his reading glasses. (Reminding viewers that this indeed is a British production, Linda later laments that she “put on half a stone” during the indulgent cruise.)

A variety of supporting characters are woven through Girlfriends. Each of the three principals has grown children in various stages of repair or disrepair. But it’s Sue’s disaffected gay son, Andrew (Philip Cumbus), who mostly comes to the fore as an attorney who ends up representing both his mother and Linda.

Beyond Sue (“I need a large g &t and a cigarette”), most of the comic relief comes from Gail’s tart, 84-year-old mother, Edna (Valerie Lilley), who’s prone to wandering away from her nursing home but retains at least partial control of her faculties. Her dress-down of Gail’s layabout son Tom (Matthew Lewis) in a later episode provides one of the series’ more delectable moments. There’s also poignancy when Gail and Edna have a heart-to-heart on the bus ride back from a new and more vigilant rest home of which “mum” wants no part.

Girlfriends is also about making amends for past transgressions. Sue is particularly guilty on this front, and in large part owes her self-realizations to John’s latter-day shoddy treatment of her. He remained married during their long, intimate relationship, and now is intent on trading Sue in for a younger model. Their impending legal battle is a secondary story line to the whys and wherefores of Micky’s demise.

Each of the four episodes screened for review ends on a mini-cliffhanger. Under Acorn’s current method of distribution, you’ll have to wait a week -- and then another week -- for the latest resolution. In the streaming world, that goes with the flow of Hulu while Netflix and Amazon continue to provide instant binge gratification. Girlfriends, whose six episodes easily could be devoured over a weekend, cries out for a big gulp alternative. But for now, its tantalizing end-of-episode danglings call for some old school calendar circling.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Starz's Counterpart has a grip, a gimmick and a pair of J. K. Simmons

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J. K. Simmons doubles down in alt-world espionage tale. Starz photo

Premiered: Sunday, Jan. 21st at 7 p.m. (central) on Starz
Starring: J. K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd, Ulrich Thomsen, Sara Serraiocco, Stephen Rea, Richard Schiff, Bernhard Forcher, Kenneth Choi, Sarah Bolger, Nazanin Boniadi
Produced by: Justin Marks, Bard Dorros, Keith Redmon, Morten Tyldum, Jordan Horowitz, Gary Gilbert, Amy Berg, J. K. Simmons

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Better known lately as the face of those heavily exposed Farmers insurance ads, J. K. Simmons knows a thing or two because he’s seen a thing or two.

Not so in Starz’s new Counterpart, where his character knows a lot less than he thinks and hadn’t really seen anything yet until meeting his hard-edged double from a parallel dimension. Lookalike cousins Patty and Cathy Lane from The Patty Duke Show simply had disparate tastes in styles, music and manners. The contrasting Howard Silks of Counterpart, both played by Simmons, are playing for far higher stakes, even if profane, take-charge Howard also thinks that meek, real-world Howard dresses like a dork. It’s much more complicated than that, though. As the old sitcom song goes, you could lose your mind.

The first episode of Counterpart was sneak-previewed on Dec. 10th following the Season Three finale of Outlander before having its official premiere on Sunday, Jan. 21st. Due to some technical problems and a crush of other series launches, we’re playing a bit of catchup. But Starz has made the first six of Season 1’s 10 episodes available for review, so it’s good to still be ahead of the game. And what a game it is.

At first look, there’s just one Howard Silk. He’s spent three decades as a mid-level, faceless bureaucrat with a Berlin-based United Nations agency called the Office of Interchange. His beloved wife, Emily (Olivia Williams), has been in a coma for six weeks after being hit by a car. Howard dutifully visits her daily, always with a fresh bouquet of flowers and a stem or two for the reception desk. He also yearns to move out of his dead-end job and into “Strategy.” But his officious young boss, Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd), tells him a promotion would have happened by now if it was ever in the cards.

Quayle also lightly reprimands him for an unauthorized interchange during a daily message swap. Howard had the temerity to point at a spot on a fellow employee’s tie.

“Sometimes it scares me. I don’t know what we do here,” Howard laments. This turns out to be a vast understatement when a lookalike Howard suddenly emerges from an identical, top secret portal that somehow was created some 30 years ago before an “experiment” went awry and led to something of a cold war between the two Berlins. The second Howard is a curt man of action who’s after an escaped assassin named Nadia Baldwin (convincingly and compellingly played by Sara Serraiocco). One of her targets is original Howard’s comatose wife, about whom more is learned in later episodes. So the two Howards must work together for at least a while because “I need to pretend to be you, take Baldwin out myself,” says second Howard.

Counterpart blooms and grows as an absorbing sci-fi/spy thriller with elemental questions about how identities can be forged and changed by environments and circumstances. During a one-on-one scene dusted with some light humor, second Howard tells original Howard that “the difference between you and me could be a single moment.” First, though, they talk about their respective cholesterol levels.

There are more doubles in play, another of which was revealed at the close of Episode 1. Let’s just say that second Howard was lying when he said that his wife, Emily, had died of cancer. On the contrary, she’s very much alive and possibly not all that much different from original Howard’s lookalike Emily.

Not coincidentally, Counterpart initially aids viewers regarding which Howard is which by making a point of noting that original Howard always wears an oft-exposed white t-shirt that second Howard notes with disdain. This helps in grasping the early lay of the land until the two Howards literally cross over in later hours for what’s meant to be a relatively short period. It affords the very capable Simmons (an Oscar-winner for his supporting role in 2015’s Whiplash) an opportunity to put some poignancy into the proceedings.

Other characters of note include the duplicitous Alexander Pope (Stephen Rea), who operates in the other world; no-nonsense, real world director of diplomacy Roland Fancher (Richard Schiff doing double time away from ABC’s new The Good Doctor); and operative Ian Shaw (Nicholas Pinnock), who has an intimate relationship with a key character.

The serpentine, cloak and dagger goings-on in Counterpart time-share with the very human needs of the protagonists. Not everything meshes entirely smoothly, but the series’ style and substance are apparent from the start. Starz already has ordered a second season of 10 more episodes. So in a sense we’ve only just begun. Things could go off the rails at some point, but it would be quite surprising if they did.

The audience for Counterpart on a pay premium network will amount to only a small fraction of the exposure J. K. Simmons is getting with those ubiquitous Farmers insurance spots. They pay his bills. Playing the two Howard Silks, though, is what makes Simmons who he really is -- a bald, plain-faced actor of presence and stature who at age 63 is getting to play leading men on two entirely different fronts. In both cases, he makes the sale.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net