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FX's The Americans returns but it's not quite all the way back yet


Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys of The Americans. FX photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Finding any fault with The Americans almost seems un-American.

This is particularly true in light of the continued snubs of this first-rate FX drama series by voting bodies for the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards.

But even if it makes me seem a bit like a Commie pinko. I’m a little underwhelmed by the first four episodes of Season 3, which launches on Wednesday, Jan. 28th at 9 p.m. (central). Not devastated but somewhat deflated. The great starts to Seasons 1 and 2 have a way of working against the early stages of Season 3. Even though Wednesday’s premiere is marked by an early slam-bang action sequence involving Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings.

Elizabeth and her fellow undercover Soviet spy husband, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), were left with a Solomon’s choice at the close of Season 2. Their 14-year-old daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who lately is embracing Christianity, is fully expected to join the “family business” as part of the “Second Generation Illegals” program. And they’re told there’s no time like the present to start “grooming” her toward an awareness of who her parents really are.

In what will be a season-long thread, Philip is very much opposed to turning his only daughter while Elizabeth sees this as duty calling. That makes for quite a divide-and-conquer story line, but the first four episodes move pretty slowly on this front. Instead, much time is devoted to the somewhat murky business of infiltrating the CIA’s “Afghan Group” during a period when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is in peril of blowing up.

“Reagan wants to turn Afghanistan into our Vietnam,” says ex-KGB handler Gabriel (Season 3 newcomer Frank Langella), who comes out of retirement to oversee Philip and Elizabeth in place of Claudia (Margo Martindale).

The end of Season 2 also saw the removal of beauteous KGB agent/informant Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru) after her lover and protector, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), reluctantly gave her up. Nina is now imprisoned in Moscow, facing charges of treason. The Americans’ efforts to keep her in the mix from afar are reminiscent of the storytelling dilemma faced by Showtime’s Season 3 of Homeland) after Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) escaped abroad and found himself imprisoned. I’m not sure that The Americans handles things much better during Season 3’s early going.

Another of this season’s new characters, a defector named Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova), arrives in a wooden crate for the purposes of publicly denouncing the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But agent Beeman, assigned to shepherd her, isn’t entirely certain of her motives. On the side, he’s also attending EST classes in hopes of somehow mending fences with his estranged wife, Sandra (Susan Misner). This particular story line seems both forced and far-fetched.

The Jennings’ son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), is all but written out of these first four episodes. And one recurring character entirely reaches the end of the road before the remains are compacted in cringe-inducing fashion near the outset of Episode 2.

While battling his wife over Paige’s fate, an increasingly vexed Philip is presented with a new option by second wife Martha Hanson (Alison Wright). He also must decide whether to follow through on another possibly sexual liaison, this time with an under-age babysitter who’s in position to provide some key information on the CIA’s select Afghan Group.

It can be a little pokey at times, let alone confusing for those viewers trying to join The Americans in progress rather than first digesting the first two stellar seasons. Another narrow escape for Elizabeth also is thrown in -- as if to placate some possibly restive viewers.

The Americans remains one of television’s very best drama series. Still, this season so far is not up to the fly-high level of the first two. Nine more episodes remain, though, which is ample time to steer a firmer, surer course. The thrills aren’t gone. They’ve just been a little sedated for starters.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Jumping through some Revolutionary hoops in History's Sons of Liberty


Sam Adams (center) leads the charge in Sons of Liberty. History photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 25th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing at the same hour on Monday and Tuesday
Starring: Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall, Henry Thomas, Michael Raymond-James, Ryan Eggold, Marton Csokas, Dean Norris, Jason O’Mara, Emily Berrington, Kevin Ryan
Produced by: Stephen David, Matthew Gross, Russ McCarroll, Elaine Frontain Bryant

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Sam Adams, future namesake of a solid beer, is the designated daring young action figure in History channel’s Sons of Liberty, a “dramatic interpretation” of events leading to the American Revolution.

The three-part, six-hour yarn, premiering on Sunday, Jan. 25th, takes considerable liberties with this run-up to the war for independence against the occupying British. Strapping Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) is a handsome, headstrong rebel and escape artist who kicks a pair of Redcoats down a flight of stairs early in Episode 1 before declaring in Episode 2, “This will not happen to anyone in Boston ever again. We need more guns.”

And he shall have them -- but without getting the girl. That particular pleasure goes to the gallant Dr. Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold), who beds the very unhappy young spouse of brutish British General Thomas Gage (Marton Csokas). He’ll stop at nothing to quash the impending colonial rebellion. But his underfoot wife Margaret (Emily Berrington) -- “I’m not a terribly cautious woman” -- will do her level best to aid the insurrection while getting a little colonial style sex on the side.

Gage makes for a good central villain. And there are other decent performances that help to offset some of the overall nonsense. Rafe Spall is interesting throughout as John Hancock, a very wealthy Bostonian and effete appeaser until his palatial house is confiscated. ”Whatever you need, I’m in,” he tells a still skeptical Sam, whose reproving older cousin, John Adams (Henry Thomas), never really registers as a vital character. It’s almost as if the makers of Sons of Liberty are saying, “Hey, he already had his own HBO miniseries.”

It’s doubtful that Hancock’s “I’m in” was in use back in ye olde 1770s. And even more unlikely that Ben Franklin (Dean Norris) would say in Episode 3 that starting a new country is “an absolutely bat shit crazy idea” that he nonetheless very much supports. Bat shit? Back then? Big Ben also gets to say later on, “Ya see, here’s the thing.” No one says, “Peace out,” though.

Norris (Breaking Bad, Under the Dome) is fine as Franklin in the handful of scenes he’s in. So is Jason O’Meara as a late-arriving George Washington. But Sons of Liberty is mostly in the hands of its young bucks, who also include Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) as a thick-of-the battle leader who does much more than ride through the night proclaiming “The British are coming.” In this drama, “Redcoats” is substituted.

In one of the more fanciful scenes, Sam saves Revere from being shot by a British soldier near the start of Episode 3. Hancock then quickly saves Sam from the same fate, allowing the two men to finally bond and accept one another. Meanwhile back in Boston, the nefarious Gen. Gage leans over his wife and hisses “I know it was you” in the manner of Michael Corleone upbraiding his brother, Fredo, in The Godfather II.

Episode 3 has some solidly staged battle scenes to accompany the continued deliberations of the 2nd Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. There’s obviously no suspense over whether they’ll all eventually sign the Declaration of Independence. But there’s also little oomph to their debate, with the eventual author of the document, Thomas Jefferson, getting far less screen time than the opening credits for Sons of Liberty.

The story spans nine years, beginning in the turbulent streets of Boston, circa 1765. If it does well in the ratings, there’s certainly room for a sequel. Episode 3 ends with Washington finally in command as the reinforced British army attacks New York.

Sons of Liberty falls well short of the aforementioned John Adams, which won a wealth of Emmy awards. But it has an overall stronger pulse than AMC’s oft-tepid Turn, which will return for a second season this spring with the expanded title of Turn: Washington’s Spies.

Be assured, though, that Sons of Liberty is no Vikings, whose bloodthirsty characters could devour Sam Adams and his boys for a late night snack. History channel’s most rousing success story returns on Feb. 19th with a 10-episode Season 3.

Sons of Liberty can’t match Vikings’ intensity, ferocity and full-immersion sense of place. Instead it’s a serviceable battle cry in some instances but rather laughable in others.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's Backstrom and star Rainn Wilson shine in rainy Portland


Rainn Wilson effortlessly looks lousy in Backstrom. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Dennis Haysbert, Genevieve Angelson, Kristoffer Polaha, Page Kennedy, Thomas Dekker, Beatrice Rosen
Produced by: Hart Hanson, Kevin Hooks, Leif G.W. Persson, Niclas Salomonssen

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
In the annals of disheveled TV detectives . . . well, there actually haven’t been that many of them.

Dysfunctional? Yes. But Columbo in his famed rumpled raincoat is pretty much first and foremost among crime solvers who look as though they’ve just rolled out of bed with little thought of any further upkeep.

The title character in Fox’s Backstrom easily trumps Columbo in terms of looking like hell. They share a fondness for stale cigars, but Everett Backtrom’s orange-ish sack of a poncho and overall sub--slovenly appearance make Columbo seem like a Brooks Brothers fashion plate.

Rainn Wilson, who came to fame as the vain, persnickety Dwight Schrute on NBC’s version of The Office, plays the title role with a hammy staggering swagger that turns out to fit him very well. He’s all over this part, whether willingly brandishing a decidedly doughy physique or firing off dictums, insults and asides that keep this series from ever bogging down.

Three episodes were made available for review. They’re all solid, with the third in line, “Boogeyman,” offering a particularly riveting kidnapping case while also bringing Dennis Haysbert’s supporting character to the fore.

Haysbert, All-State’s veteran “Good Hands” man, plays wizened detective John Almond, whose wardrobe of suit, tie and top hat contrasts with Backstrom’s unsightly attire. Reference is made to Almond’s part-time pastor activities but we don’t see him in a clerical collar until this episode. His struggling Joy of Everlasting Light church is way behind on bills and facing an imminent shutdown. Says Backstrom: “That’s God telling you you’re a crappy pastor.”

Almond takes this in stride because he always has Backstrom’s back. Their relationship is among this series’ many strong points, particularly when Almond has a heart-to-heart talk with his partner in Episode 2.

The series is set in Portland, Oregon, where the oft-rainy weather is also something of a supporting character. Backstrom otherwise isn’t about to let any smiles be his umbrella. His health issues, sparked by heavy drinking and a horrid diet -- wait’ll you see a diner’s “Full Backstrom Breakfast” -- have put him in a doctor’s care and initially in the Portland cop shop’s traffic division. It doesn’t help that he’s never played well with others. But his crime solving deductions still have a way of putting him back in play.

Backstrom’s nicely put together ensemble also includes young detective Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), with whom he constantly clashes; patience-testing forensics specialist Peter Niedermayer); dogged uniformed detective Frank Moto (Page Kennedy) and in-house tech specialist Nadia Paquet (Beatrice Rosen). Backstrom also has a young gay tenant, Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker), who doubles as his “decorator” and underworld informant.

The dialogue regularly crackles in Thursday’s premiere, during which a seeming suicide by hanging of course ends up being more than it seems.

“Had a lot of threesomes, Moto?” Backstrom asks during the investigative process.

“Regular amount,” he replies.

“Regular amount is NONE,” Backstrom snaps.

Neidermayer generates this observation: “Everything you say sounds like a toast to the queen.”

“Thank you, sir,” he replies in all sincerity.

It’s also just plain fun to hear Backstrom grouse at lunch, “Wait, what is this? I ordered deep-fried chicken balls.”

As for his deductive powers, it goes like this: “I don’t see the worst in everyone. I see the ‘everyone’ in everyone.”

What you’ll see is the best broadcast TV cop drama of the season, with a dirty-to-the-touch sleuth played to the hilt by an actor who’s very much up for this. Rainn Wilson has found a role that fits him like an ugly, stretched-out poncho. And there’s no stifling him now.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Pity the poor future (again) in Syfy's 12 Monkeys


Aaron Stanford & Amanda Schull battle dire doings in 12 Monkeys. Syfy photo

Premiering: Friday, Jan. 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, Barbara Sukowa, Noah Bean, Emily Hampshire, Zeljko Ivanek
Produced by: Natalie Chaidez, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The future is typecast -- as an apocalyptic horror show in need of undoing by time-traveling heroes.

Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, very loosely “inspired” by the well-regarded, same-named 1995 feature film, is the latest prime-time exhibit. And as such it makes a pretty strong impression while otherwise mining familiar turf.

The initial year is 2043, with a relative handful of Earth’s populace remaining after 7 billion were killed in 2017 by a pretty bad plague. One of the surviving immune is a dogged guy named Cole (Aaron Stanford), who take his orders from a snippy German named Jones (Barbara Sukowa). She dispatches him to 2013, where cute, blonde virologist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) is thought to have a clue or two about how the deadly virus originated. The only hope is to nip it before it’s unleashed.

Cassandra at first thinks Cole is nuts but is persuaded to meet him again in 2015. By that time, perhaps she’ll have either met or be familiar with a seemingly sinister bigwig known as Leland Frost (the inevitable but always good Zeljko Ivanek).

The first two episode of 12 Monkeys move along crisply and effectively. In the second hour, Cole has the misfortune -- or luck of timing -- to mistakenly wind up in North Korea, which has been in the news just a bit lately. Interrogators quickly begin punching him around before Cole’s 2043 team relocates him to a mental hospital, circa 2015. His mission is to interrogate Leland’s disturbed daughter, Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), who’s been drawing Army of the 12 Monkey illustrations on her walls.

This could go on and on and on and on, of course. The 12 Monkeys movie, directed by Terry Gilliam, ran for 2 hours and 7 minutes with a cast that included Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt (who received an Oscar nomination), Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer and impressionist Frank Gorshin.

Syfy has a 12-episode Season 1 planned for its version. First impressions are favorable but how much of this stuff can they effectively cobble together? Only the future will tell in a series whose own future is yet another living hell.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FXX's bizarro Man Seeking Woman both loses its way and finds some funny


Jay Baruchel plays a sad sack dater in Man Seeking Woman. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 14th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FXX
Starring: Josh Greenberg, Eric Andre, Britt Lower, Maya Erskine
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Simon Rich, Andrew Singer, Jonathan Krisel

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Sublimely ridiculous or supremely offensive?

The jury’s still out -- for me at least -- after watching the opening two episodes of FXX’s Man Seeking Woman.

Billed as a “sweet and surreal look at the life-and-death stakes of dating,” here’s a series that in fact goes more for shock value in Wednesday’s premiere. Viewers will know it when they see it, even if Bill Hader is completely unrecognizable as a white-haired, ornery Adolf Hitler getting around in a motorized wheel chair.

In the fantastical eyes of Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel), Hitler is the new boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend, Maggie Lee (Maya Erskine), for whom he still pines after their breakup.

“I’m better than Hitler!” he finally exclaims at a party that’s gone very wrong for him. As did an earlier blind date set up by his sister, Liz (Britt Lower). This is the one where a blonde Swedish beauty instead turns out to be an “ugly, slimy troll” who bites and attacks him.

Man Seeking Woman, which continues its acid trip motif in Episode 2, is yet another venture by Lorne Michaels, who already presides over NBC’s entire late night lineup in addition to IFC’s Portlandia. So besides Saturday Night Live alum Hader, also look for guest shots by fellow SNLera Fred Armisen (star of Portlandia) and Vanessa Bayer, who in Episodes 1 and 2 plays a sweet Chicago marketing liaison named Laura Ferber.

A badly frayed Josh meets her on a subway train at the close of Episode 1 and somehow musters the gumption to ask her out to dinner. Much of Episode 2 is then built around what kind of text message invite he should send. Josh’s best friend, Mike Bunk (Eric Andre), keeps suggesting a “dick pic” during a summit meeting for the Center For Important Emergencies. Whether and how Laura will respond then becomes local, national and international news.

Some if not a majority of Man Seeking Woman is forced and juvenile. And the closing Hitler-Maggie scene in Episode 1 might well repulse those viewers who have stuck around for that long.

But one viewer’s bad taste is another’s comedy gold. And Man Seeking Woman arguably has just enough going for it to merit a further investment in its remaining eight episodes. In the annals of crazed/cartwheeling TV comedy, it both pounds away at sensibilities while also racking up its share of sick laughs.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net