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The music of their lives: HBO's Vinyl is a trip that sometimes trips

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Record company boss/coke head Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) gets his ya-ya’s out in the 10-part, 1970s-set Vinyl. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 14th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano, Max Casella, Ato Essandoh, P.J. Byrne, Juno Temple, J.C. MacKenzie, Jack Quaid, James Jagger, Paul Ben-Victor, Annie Parisse, Ken Marino, Daniel J. Watts
Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Terence Winter, George Mastras, Rick Yorn, Victoria Pearman, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, John Melfi, Allen Coulter

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Mobsters and Martin Scorsese go together like cake and ice cream, chips and dips, Donald Trump and egomania.

So the maestro behind Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Casino, Gangs of New York and Boardwalk Empire invests HBO’s Vinyl with a strong gangster vibe during the course of recreating New York City’s raucous, drug-and-booze-powered 1970s music scene. It’s an industry where hit records aren’t the only hits. And where payoffs, coverups, stealing and dirty dealing are business norms.

Scorsese and principal co-executive producer Mick Jagger for the most part get away with all of this sound and fury, even though some of Vinyl’s excesses are more over the top than Liberace’s closet. He’s yet to be seen in the five episodes made available for review, including Sunday’s extended two-hour pilot. But a mockup of Robert Goulet makes the scene in Episode 4, recording a take-the-money-and-run Christmas album for Richie Finestra’s (Bobby Cannavale) cash-strapped American Century Records. Season One will have 10 episodes.

First seen sweating, drinking and on the prowl for a cocaine fix, Cannavale gives a consistently manic performance as the high-strung, profane founder of a company that’s been running out of cachet and bankable artists. But in terms of loathsome, self-indulgent decadence, he gives way to Andrew Dice Clay’s opening night guest role as super-crooked radio station magnate Frank “Buck” Rogers. Bloated and bearded, Dice Clay throws himself into this part with an animalistic vengeance that’s both wondrous and shocking to behold. Those on the receiving end of his dipped-in-dung tirades include poor Donny Osmond, who’s out of earshot and shown only on his latest album cover. Will Emmy voters dare reward the Diceman with a nomination? If he knows where they live, they’d better.

After showing Cannavale’s Richie in full-blown, back-off-the-wagon mode, Episode 1 flashes back five days to the planned sale of American Century to German investors. Viewers also get a big dose of early narration, with Richie citing his humble beginnings: “You think you work hard? Try scraping Chubby Checker’s vomit off the inside of a toilet stall.” Gotcha.

Richie’s lieutenants include Ray Romano as promotions head Zak Yankovich and Max Casella (from Doogie Howser, M.D. to Boardwalk Empire) as A&R (Artists & Repertoire) head Julius “Julie” Silver. Along with three other associates, this male quintet at times is too comical to be believable within a drama whose cutthroat ways and means might make one wonder why Richie would ever hire these stooges in the first place. The again, Tony Soprano had his Bada Bing crew, all of whom had goofball tendencies.

Faring better on the stable-headed front is Juno Temple as Jamie Vine, an office assistant who supplies sandwiches and drugs to both staffers and company clients. But she yearns to discover a band of her own, and finds one in the very rough hewn Nasty Bits. The lead singer, brusque Kip Stevens, is effectively played by Mick’s son, James Jagger.

Vinyl goes cartwheeling over the top at times, never more so than in the fantastical close to Episode 1. This is where Richie has his epiphany about re-inventing American Century as a home for uncompromising music that cuts through the crap. Well, to a point. The label still can’t bring itself to cut loose the money-making Goulet.

There’s also the matter of a messy coverup of a very violent act in which Richie takes part. Fox’s Empire got to this plot line first, with record company magnate Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) lying about his role in a capital crime he committed. Vinyl can’t help but seemed warmed over in this respect. But Scorsese and lethal mayhem pretty much go hand in hand -- in this case, needlessly. Our “hero” already has more than enough trouble on his hands.

Vinyl’s other principal character is Richie’s wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), whom he first met during her time as part of Andy Warhol’s entourage. The series regularly flashes back to those earlier days, with Warhol (John Cameron Mitchell) portrayed as quietly protective and even semi-sweet. Episode 3 has a beautifully affecting “current-day” scene between the two of them.

The series also weaves other real-life characters into the mix, most notably Alice Cooper (Dustin Ingram) in Episode 3. There are mockups as well, including Daniel J. Watts in an increasingly key role as a soul/funk band lead singer named Hannibal -- a k a Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone.

Vinyl’s music is uniformly terrific, unless it’s Goulet’s intendedly ridiculous rendition of “Christmas You Go Too Fast.” Stand-alone performances often are used as bridges between scene changes. Although the artists aren’t identified, you’ll recognize the sounds and send-ups of Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and many others. Music from Vinyl will be released weekly after an 18-track Volume One is “dropped” two days before the Feb. 14th premiere.

It’s all very, very ambitious, with hits that keep on coming while storyline misses seem to be almost beside the point. Vinyl is thoroughly rousing at its core, a crazed, dope-filled, sometimes dopey trip that begins in 1973 and has nothing in common with the earlier, comparatively sedate decade brought to you by AMC’s Mad Men.

Musically speaking, “I want what’s next!” Richie rages at underlings shortly after his wife has told him over the phone, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Now where have we heard that before?

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Revolution Was Televised is an instant classic book while The Top 100 American Situation Comedies: An Objective Ranking has its moments

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By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
People either keep asking me -- “When are you going to write a book?” -- or telling me, “You need to write a book.”

Maybe someday.

In the here and now, though, two standout TV critic colleagues, one now retired, have put their names to volumes that are well worth owning.

Alan Sepinwall’s updated edition of The Revolution Was Televised is the thoroughbred of the two. The trailblazing king of the re-cappers, who basically invented that domain with his weekly dissections of NYPD Blue episodes, has authored a tome that will stand the test of time. In short, it’s a landmark book.

Tom Jicha, former longtime TV critic of the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, has combined forces with University of Miami communications professor Mitchell E. Shapiro on The Top 100 American Situations Comedies: An Objective Ranking. Shapiro ranked the shows based on a four-pronged mathematical formula. Jicha then did the heavy lifting by writing concise and entertaining multi-page synopses of all 100 qualifiers.

Revolution Was Televised originated in 2012, when Sepinwall (currently writing for HitFix.com) came up with a list of 12 turn-of-the-century TV series that, in his view, “fundamentally altered the way TV dramas were both made and viewed.” But two series that made the cut, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, hadn’t yet completed their runs. So the updated version includes much more on those two shows in addition to “a bonus epilogue to discuss all the changes that have swept the TV business in the three years since this book was originally published.”

Besides the aforementioned, Sepinwall’s dynamic dozen range from HBO’s Oz to FX’s The Shield to The WB/UPN’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer to ABC’s Lost to NBC’s Friday Night Lights. He also pays homage to earlier pathfinders, including NBC’s Hill Street Blues (still the all-time game-changer in my view), CBS’ Wiseguy, ABC’s Twin Peaks and of course, that network’s NYPD Blue.

Sepinwall also has talked at length to the mostly men behind his Top 12, with only Buffy executive producer Joss Whedon declining to do a fresh interview for the book because of “an overwhelming schedule.” One of the principal takeaways is how hurly burly all of this could be. More often than not, the creators of these series improvised as they went along, without any pre-determined “bible” of how things would progress and end. Particularly in the case of Lost, tell us about it.

Many of these signature series also went through numerous rejections before a network finally adopted them. Mad Men ended up on a network (AMC) that mostly was known for screwing up its presentations of feature films by pockmarking them with commercials while rival TCM remains ad-free to this day.

Mad Men maestro Matthew Weiner, because of his ties to HBO’s The Sopranos, initially offered the series to that network. HBO executives now either deny passing on the series or cite the network’s full plate of other commitments. Breaking Bad got turned down by HBO, TNT and FX before AMC again stepped in.

The behind-the-scenes machinations, both before and during these pathfinding series, make Sepinwall’s book a valuable record of what really happened before time, self-serving egos and fading memories begin constructing alternative realities. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and his team are especially forthcoming, allowing the author to dig deep into the show’s creative cavities.

If Revolution Was Televised has a fault, it’s Sepinwall’s recurring wordiness. Brevity of sentence is not his strong suit. As with this rambling discourse on The Sopranos: “Whatever his motivations, whether at the start or in later seasons, Tony keeps going, and those sessions with Melfi -- along with other Soprano relatives (and Dr. Melfi herself) seeing their own therapists, Tony having increasingly strange and elaborate (and, among the fans, divisive) dreams, or Tony at times using other friends and relatives as surrogate shrinks -- helped add enormous depth, pathos, and at times comedy to what could have easily been a conventional, straightforward mob drama.”

But the prose also crackles, as with this notably briefer and better observation on 24: “The series consumed plot ideas like Pringles, and the best the writers could do was develop a sixth sense for when a story was about to exhaust itself, then quickly move on to the next thing.”

Not including the closing Acknowledgements, this is a 447-page book of considerable heft. It takes its place among some of the all-time great looks at how television works, playing in the same league as Les Brown’s 1971 Television: The Business Behind the Box; Bill Carter’s 1994 The Late Shift; and Tom Shales/James Andrew Miller’s 2002 Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.

The Top 100 American Situation Comedies is also a page-turner, although more conducive to one-show-at-a-time bathroom reading.

Prof. Shapiro has deployed four criteria to compile his list: ratings, longevity, Emmy nominations/wins and spinoffs.

Not surprisingly, the clear No. 1 sitcom is CBS’ All In the Family, an awards-laden ratings juggernaut that ran for nine seasons before morphing into Archie Bunker’s Place. It also spun off The Jeffersons, Maude and Good Times, which respectively rank 40th, 42nd and 116th (in an expanded Appendix of 377 “Qualifying” comedies).

Where this Top 100 list gets into trouble is the ratings criteria. For the most part, cable comedies simply do not stack up to most long-running broadcast network shows, although they’ve been gaining in recent years as venues multiply and divide audiences. The highest-ranked cable show is HBO’s Sex and the City in the 30th spot. Only nine other cable comedies make the top 100, the majority of them from HBO. Just one of those shows, Nickelodeon’s No. 94-ranked iCarly, has had a spinoff.

It would be better if the professor had kept longevity in the mix but dropped the ratings qualifier. It also would be better if The Danny Thomas Show, also known as Make Room For Daddy, didn’t end up in 14th place. True, it was a highly popular show (six times ranking in prime-time’s Top 10) with a surprising number of major Emmy nominations (20) and wins (5). But placing ahead of the likes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Taxi, Barney Miller and Roseanne just doesn’t seem to compute.

In this case, Jicha does the best with what he has, writing, “The Danny Thomas Show endured for 12 seasons (from 1953 to 1965) on two networks (ABC/CBS). One simple explanation -- it was good during a lot of seasons when most of television wasn’t very good.”

Jicha weaves both context and a show’s content into his summations. He notes that while NBC’s Seinfeld (No. 10) didn’t have any spinoffs, it did help to launch the careers of female guest stars such as Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives); Courteney Cox (Friends); Jane Leeves (Frasier); Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad; Debra Messing (Will & Grace); Kristin Davis (Sex and the City); and Jamie Gertz (Still Standing).

Of ABC’s Family Matters (which clings to the No. 100 spot ahead of Leave It to Beaver), Jicha writes: “No comedy series in the history of television was more re-imagined from its original blueprint because of a late-arriving, fringe character who was supposed to appear only once.” That would be Jaleel White’s show-stealing Steve Urkel.

Both The Revolution Was Televised and The Top 100 American Situation Comedies are paperback originals that for the most part aren’t readily available in stores.

Retailing for $16.99, you can order Sepinwall’s instant classic at a lower price here.

The Jicha/Shapiro compendium retails for (yikes) $39.95. That asking price is still holding firm on Amazon, but go here if you’re willing to buy in. It’s considerably cheaper on Kindle, though.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Richard Dreyfus, Blythe Danner make the Madoffs go 'round in ABC miniseries

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Blythe Danner, Richard Dreyfuss are the main Madoffs. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 3-4, at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, Michael Rispoli, Peter Scolari, Tom Lipinski, Andrew Deferrari, Erin Cummings, Frank Whaley, Charles Grodin, Lewis Black
Directed by: Raymond De Felitta

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A notably fleshy Richard Dreyfuss, now 68, has let himself grow into the role of the world’s most notorious, pear-shaped Ponzi schemer.

Very ably assisted by Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth, Dreyfuss inhabits Bernie Madoff without vanity and with considerable impact in ABC’s two-part, four-hour Madoff.

It’s a white collar true crime story that almost assuredly will have no appeal whatsoever for younger viewers. Which makes it an odd fit for today’s ABC and probably better suited as an “event miniseries” on HBO or basic cable’s History or National Geo networks. But ABC it is, and there’s at least a solid chance for some acting Emmys even if the ratings go into the red.

Dreyfuss is all over this role, whether narrating, chortling or going nearly mad as the stock market collapse of 2008 closes in on him and the many investors he’s bilked.

“As long as deposits out-pace withdrawals, you can live like a king,” Dreyfuss as Madoff says in Wednesday’s opening minutes.

Directed by Raymond De Felitta (City Island), this tale of excesses come home to roost carries the standard “Inspired by true events” disclaimer. Viewers also are informed that “some characters, businesses, scenes and chronologies have been invented, altered or consolidated for dramatic purposes.” But if you break into any patches of disbelief, it’s too late to call a script doctor.

Madoff errs most egregiously at the close of Part 1, with Bernie sensing doom approaching during what’s supposed to be the happy occasion of his niece’s expensive wedding. Securities and Exchange Commission officials take turns glaring at him like coyotes after Madoff’s office records have been investigated at length. Is the jig up? Are they intent on humiliating him publicly before hauling Madoff away? It’s meant to be the cliffhanger hook for Part 2 in a drama bereft of fights, car chases, gunfire or any other physical action scenes. But sorry, no sale. The sequence comes off as largely laughable and wholly “invented.”

Otherwise, a typical weekend at Bernie’s includes sumptuous family dinners at his posh oceanside home. The self-described financial “magician” is usually joined by wife Ruth, their sons, Mark and Andrew (Tom Lipinski, Danny Deferrari) and Bernie’s jittery younger brother, Peter (Peter Scolari), who also serves as his chief compliance officer.

But the true second lieutenant is Frank DiPascali (Michael Rispoli from The Sopranos), who runs a secret 17th floor office and is a fully complicit co-conspirator. The drama strongly suggests that Ruth, Mark and Andrew were totally in the dark while an increasingly guilty Peter mostly looked the other way.

Initially nipping at Bernie’s heels is Harry Markopolos (Frank Whaley), a frustrated fraud investigator who thinks he has his prey nailed but can’t make the sale to higher-ups. Bernie always seems to be a bob and a weave ahead of everyone else while hugely rich investors keep flocking to him. One of them is Carl Shapiro (Charles Grodin with an “and Charles Grodin” credit), who says dismissively in Part 1, “Millions are for schleppers. You gotta go for billions.”

Unfortunately, Grodin’s role amounts to perhaps two minutes of screen time, with ranting comedian Lewis Black likewise very little seen as another greedy investor.

This leaves Dreyfuss with lots to do from start to stop. And his performance is worth the price of his eventual grudging admissions. He still has the chops, as does Danner as a dutiful wife who sometimes chafes but enjoys the creature comforts her husband has provided them. But alas, the Madoff family can’t quite seem to kick the cancer gene, which is sometimes used as a rather heavy-handed metaphor for rotting from within.

One and all of course watch ABC News for the latest on the escalating stock market and investment company meltdowns. This allows the network to trot out news footage featuring the likes of Charles Gibson, George Stephanopoulos, Diane Sawyer, Brian Ross and Terry Moran.

In the end, Bernie Madoff is depicted as a fall-on-his-sword criminal who wanted to shield his family and Di Pascali from prosecution but had no regrets about bilking thousands of investors large and small. After all, he reasons, they were gladly part of the process during all of those happy returns.

Madoff remains incarcerated, with a release date of 2139 that he’s not likely to see. Assuming they have ABC on the prison TV menu, perhaps he’ll enjoy watching Dreyfuss play him to the hilt. It’s a juicy part for an aging actor who’s likewise fortunate to have the always good Danner along for the ride. Together they make Madoff a watchable yet curious undertaking for a network that would rather be the broadcast home of Marvel action heroes but still can’t seem to make those particular investments pay off.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

O.J. all over again in the new and spellbinding first edition of FX's American Crime Story

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Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance play Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. FX photo


Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, John Travolta, Cuba Gooding, Jr, David Schwimmer, Sterling K. Brown, Nathan Lane, Kenneth Choi, Bruce Greenwood, Connie Britton, Evan Handler, Steven Pasquale, Robert Morse, Rob Morrow, Billy Magnussen
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Brad Falchuk, Anthony M. Hemingway, D.V. DeVincentis, John Travolta

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
What’s a hotter TV commodity than even the presidential candidate debates? That would be true crime, whether scripted or otherwise.

Not that it ever really went away. But the news made and the “social media” firestorms generated by HBO”s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and then Netflix’s Making a Murderer have taken the genre to another level in recent months. FX’s 10-episode The People v. O. J. Simpson, the first entry in its American Crime Story anthology series, is now ready to emerge as the new leader of this pack.

Thoroughly absorbing through the first six episodes made available for review, it fully lives up to the FX come-on: “You Don’t Know the Half of It.” This is true even for those who think they do. Drawn from Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, this behind-the-scenes look at the hows and whys of Simpson’s eventual acquittal represents executive producer Ryan Murphy’s finest TV work in a career that also encompasses Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens.

All of those series are or were marked by Murphy’s can’t-help-himself, gratuitous excesses. People v. O. J., his first fact-based effort, stays on the rails throughout the first half and beyond. There are juicy scenes to be sure. But they all fit within the full-out, saturation-covered power struggle to convict or absolve Simpson of the shocking 1994 stabbing murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and waiter Ron Goldman.

John Travolta, who’s also a co-producer, gets top billing as Simpson’s initial lead defense attorney, vainglorious Robert Shapiro. He’s effective in the role, and there really isn’t a bad performance by anyone. But the standouts are Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” Cochran.

The under-appreciated Paulson, who’s taking a break from her disparate roles in American Horror Story, has four previous Emmy nominations, but no wins. She should be a lock here as the hard-driving deputy district attorney whose personal life and courtroom appearance were mercilessly dissected during the course of the trial. Paulson conveys both Clark’s steely resolve and her increasing vulnerability in the face of detractors and gossip-mongers. Exhaling cigarette smoke oftentimes seems to be her only release valve. But she has both a friend and a courtroom colleague in Darden, who himself is trying to withstand Cochran’s calculated portrayal of him as a house n-word.

People v O. J. sets the stage with news footage of the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and rioting the following year after four officers were acquitted of assault charges. Two years later, a man walking his dog through L.A.’s pricey Brentwood neighborhood discovered the dead bodies of Brown Simpson and Goldman. Traces of blood at O. J. Simpson’s nearby home quickly implicated the former college and NFL star in their deaths. The now legendary White Bronco chase, with Simpson holding a gun to his head while pal A. C. Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal-Warner) drove on various freeways, consumes the entirety of Episode 2.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Simpson as a weepy, high-strung, demanding fugitive/inmate while David Schwimmer is cast as his true-blue best friend and apologist, Robert Kardashian, who’s already divorced from Kris Jenner (Selma Blair).

The father of Kim, Khloe and Kourtney, all pre-teens at the time, is very busy in the early episodes. Near the end of the opening hour, he frantically talks a crazed Simpson out of committing suicide before “The Juice” flees with Cowlings. At the start of Episode 2, Kardashian can’t help but say, “Jesus Christ. Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?” And in Episode 3, Murphy couldn’t resist including a scene in which the increasingly famous Kardashian takes his highly impressed kids to a Father’s Day brunch at La Scala.

“Your Uncle Juice is a good man,” he tells them. “Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”

Well, there’s a lesson that didn’t take.

In another delicious scene, rich, name-dropping courtroom chronicler Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse) hosts a formal Downton Abbey-style dinner for his friends while regaling them with gossip from the trial. But the conversation goes silent while the hired minority help serves dessert.

Dunne, Robert Kardashian and Cochran are now deceased, but several other members of O. J.’s “Dream Team” have survived to see this dramatization. Besides Shapiro (who’s not likely to be thrilled by Travolta’s depiction of him as a strutting peacock), they include F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler) and Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow). In Episode 4, Clark derisively refers to O. J.’s defenders as “a dozen alpha dogs in a cage match.” Which in fact is dead-on.

Connie Britton, who co-starred in the first season of Murphy’s American Horror Story between roles on Friday Night Lights and Nashville, does a brief but showy turn as Faye Resnick, a cocaine-addled close friend of Brown Simpson. In Episode 4, she wows prospective publishers with her tale of their exploits together before authoring a cheesy, tell-all quickie book.

People v. O. J. is more concerned, though, with the divisive racial dynamics of the case. Cochran, in a signature moment from Episode 5, tells his “Dream Team” colleagues, ”Evidence doesn’t win the day. Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense. We’re here to tell a story.”

That same episode, subtitled “The Race Card,” begins with a flashback to 1982, when Cochran and his two young daughters were pulled over by a white cop while heading to dinner at Hamburger Hamlet. The pretense is that Cochran changed lanes without signaling. But by now, Cochran knows the real deal. He’s been stopped because he’s a black man driving an expensive car in an upscale neighborhood. Handcuffed when he protests, Cochran is quickly freed when the cop learns he’s an assistant district attorney.

The scene informs viewers of his mindset during the O. J. trial. And of Cochran’s determination to free his client based on a defense that bigoted cops railroaded him. O. J. is resistant at first -- “I’m not black, I’m O. J.!” -- but later buys in. Seeing that his jury will be very predominantly black, he tells Cochran in a low voice, “If these people convict me, maybe I did do it.” Both men chortle.

In that context, the racially charged clashes between Cochran and Darden can be searing. Clark’s eventual co-prosecutor is a soft-spoken man reminiscent of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. But a fire smolders within him, and Sterling K. Brown’s performance brings it out. His heart-to-heart after-hours talks with Clark, whether she’s cocksure or falling apart, also provide some of the dramatic high points in People v. O. J.

A great majority of viewers are fully aware of what happened at the end of the most famous trial in modern-day history. But the thrill is in the details of how a seemingly airtight case began unspooling. Clark, Darden and their taciturn boss, Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood), are up against the best defense money can buy. But the defense is restive, too, with over-sized egos banging heads on a daily basis. It’s all recaptured in riveting fashion 21 years after the divisive verdict came down.

O. J. Simpson, now 68, remains incarcerated in a Nevada prison after being convicted in 2008 of armed robbery and kidnapping in connection with breaking into a secured room in a Las Vegas casino to reclaim memorabilia that he claimed was his. He’s eligible for parole in 2017. The “real killers,” as he once put it, have never officially been caught.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

On the eve of destruction in NBC's "comedic drama" You, Me and the Apocalypse

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Planet Earth prepares to take a lethal hit -- sometimes for laughs. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 28th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Rob Lowe, Jenna Fischer, Mathew Baynton, Gaia Scodellaro, Megan Mullally, Kyle Soller, Paterson Joseph, Joel Fry, Fabian McCallum, Pauline Quirke
Produced by: Iain Hollands, Juliette Howell, Lynn Horsford, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, JoAnn Alfano, Cameron Roach, Lizzie Gray, Andrew Conrad, Lloyd Owen, Diana Rigg

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s nearing the end of the world as we know it in NBC’s 10-episode You, Me and the Apocalypse.

But mind you, the network is billing it as a “comedic drama,” even though Episode 4 ends with a character being shot in the head from behind, leaving a big splatter of blood to clean up while a kidnap victim watches in horror. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss the dead person’s brains goodbye.

YMATA, which premiered in the United Kingdom last September, is definitely different and layered with three well-known American TV stars in the far-flung ensemble cast.

Rob Lowe is Father Jude, a Vatican priest who smokes, drinks and mildly curses on occasion but is mostly very good-looking in that effortless Rob Lowe way.

Jenna Fischer (The Office) plays librarian Rhonda McNeil, who’s wrongly imprisoned as a mastermind hacker and does an Orange is the New Black turn in Episode 1 before her life turns further upside down.

Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is a familiar face but begs the question, “Is that really Megan Mullally?” She’s virtually unrecognizable as blonde-haired white supremacist Leanne Parkins, who has a very prominent swastika tattooed on her forehead. Let’s stop right there, because this is a really bad idea and the character certainly doesn’t need to be a weekly poster board for Nazi atrocities to come off as a drawling, irreverent redneck. NBC’s promotional art, as you can see above, does not show Leanne with swastika attached. Perhaps it can still somehow be air-brushed out of the NBC version before the Thursday, Jan. 28th premiere? It absolutely does not need to be there.

Venerable Diana Rigg of The Avengers and Game of Thrones fame isn’t fully seen in the five episodes made available for review. Otherwise, the principal star of YMATA is Britisher Mathew Baynton in the dual role of Slough, England bank manager Jamie Winton and his evil twin brother, Ariel Conroy, mastermind of the Deus Ex Machine cyber terrorist group. Also pivotal is Gaia Scodellaro as the beautiful young Sister Celine. After a few obligatory misunderstandings, she ends up working with Father Jude, initially as a saint debunker and then as an exposer of all the false Messiahs emerging after the world learns that an eight-mile wide meteor will be leveling the planet in 34 days time.

Sister Celine gets Episode 1’s most memorable line, telling Father Jude he’s “just another sad little man who touches his penis too much.” He takes it -- and kinda likes it.

Each hour opens with 15 various characters in a bunker as a network news anchor tells one and all “it’s time to brace ourselves. To say goodbye.” The opening episode then backtracks to “34 Days Earlier.” By the time of Episode 5, we’re down to “23 Days Earlier.”

Lots happens in those 11 days, including the U.S. President (Lloyd Owen) announcing a last ditch “Operation Saviour” initiative to save the world. His principal advisors, Major General Arnold Gaines and baby-faced Apocalypse Planning Department maestro Scottie McNeil (Paterson Joseph, Kyle Soller), also know about that secret, last-ditch bunker.

The fun in all of this -- although YMATA also gets increasingly dramatic -- is in learning how 15 disparate people (not all of them revealed) ended up together in a highly fortified fortress with ample provisions. Or as the oft-exasperated Jamie Winton puts it, “I mean, have you seen the freaks that I’m stuck with? Worst reality show ever!”

YMATA initially has considerable promise, some of which dissipates as its gaggle of characters make improbable escapes and decisions. Still, as end-of-the-world tales go, it’s watchable, fairly unpredictable and garnished with a palpable subplot that in some ways is more intriguing than whatever the end game might be. Namely, with the world set to go up in flames, will Father Jude and Sister Celine dare get around to “doing it?”

No spoilers here, but a door-opening Episode 5 is quite nicely done on that score. It also includes Jamie telling a character he’s been searching for that “God doesn’t speak to anyone outside of Charlton Heston films.”

In that era, You, Me and the Apocalypse probably would have been deemed way too sacrilegious. In this era, just get rid of that damned swastika.

GRADE: B

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