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Scaring up The Simpsons' 28th annual Treehouse of Horror

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Maggie Simpson achieves liftoff in parody of The Exorcist. Fox photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The horror, the horror . . . The Simpsons’ 28th Treehouse of Horror.

Boo, it’s coming again on Sunday, Oct. 22nd at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox, where Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie have been taking up residence since a Dec. 17, 1989 Christmas special. It’s so long ago that ABC’s original MacGyver and Dynasty series were still on the air and since have reemerged as reboots on CBS and The CW.

Fox sends the latest Treehouse every October, always with an accompanying vessel full of Halloween candy. Your friendly content provider of course can’t be bribed, but, er, most of the candy will be re-gifted to trick or treaters (well, at least half of it) and it’s been quite a while since I’ve paid any attention to this annual rite of lightly coated scariness.

As usual, the latest Treehouse has a new opening sequence and then three tales, each disembodied from the other.

This time out, the five Simpsons are first seen as four Halloween candies -- and a yucky apple. Bart gets to be a “Barterfinger.”

Then comes “The Exor-Sis,” a parody that assuredly will be seen by more viewers than Fox’s severely struggling Friday night regurgitation of The Exorcist. Little Maggie ends up being possessed, with a quintessential Irish Catholic priest called on to bring her out of it. “If you can’t trust a Catholic priest with a child,” he reasons, “who can you trust?”

“Coralisa” finds Lisa venturing to meet her “other family” through a portal at the direction of the Simpsons’ cat, Snowball. The show’s 3d animation technique is deployed to good effect here.

The showcase segment, “MM Homer,” carries a viewer advisory from Lisa: “What you’re about to see is so disgusting, you’ll watch Game of Thrones to calm down.”

It proves to be only a wee bit stomach-wrenching, though, when Homer begins consuming himself as a “Me-gan” after being left home alone and to his own devices. Among the offshoots are a chain of “Kentucky Fried Simpson” restaurants. Apparently there’s an awful lot of Homer to go around.

Treehouse of Horror easily is the longest-running annual holiday special in TV history. But remember, as Fox says in a “Dear Human TV Critic” letter, “nothing is as terrifying as what’s going on in real life.”

It’s signed by Kang & Kodos, the aliens from planet Rigel VII. Look to see them again -- but don’t blink -- in the opening Halloween candy segment, which also is in 3D and ends rather badly for the Easter bunny. OK, you’re now on your own. And it’s always fun to go out on these limbs.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Megyn Kelly's woes are typical of high-priced news talent poached from rival networks

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Putting on a brave front with Megyn Kelly Today. NBC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s not going as planned for NBC. But for some of us, it’s going pretty much as expected.

Pirating a star player from a rival network and then paying that person enough money to balance the federal budget has a long tradition of not working. As is currently the case with Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News Channel force who hasn’t been much to reckon with at NBC after first fronting a little-watched prime-time news magazine and now a 9 a.m. extension of Today with her name affixed.

Ratings and reviews for both showcases have NBC News executives wondering what they’ve done to themselves. Megyn Kelly Today, which launched on Sept. 25th, so far has been digging an increasingly deeper Death Valley ratings-wise in its slot between the longstanding Matt Lauer/Savannah Guthrie-hosted Today and Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda. The latter hour also has seen its numbers erode without a more compatible and higher-rated lead-in from the junked 9 a.m. Today hour with Al Roker and Tamron Hall, who quickly left the network in a huff.

Some say that Kelly simply doesn’t “translate” from the conservative-minded Fox News Channel to NBC Universal, which oversees both mainstream NBC and left-leaning MSNBC, archenemy of FNC. There may be some truth to that, although the history of such moves raises other questions.

Are everyday viewers impressed by someone who’s being force-fed to them while at the same time making what in fact is an obscene amount of money? These same viewers hold the priceless trump cards. They can help to ensure failure merely by not watching.

Incumbent staff resentments in turn breed an understandable contempt for the incoming savior. The knives already are out at NBC, with Kelly being portrayed as a disaster or worse by eager unnamed sources within the network’s walls. After all, “one of their own” didn’t get a chance to move up. Instead, Kelly moved in.

In the long history of network television news, just one high-priced “Big Get” has proved to be well worth the hefty price.

But it took Barbara Walters a while after she first got snubbed by holdover ABC News anchor Harry Reasoner. Walters was poached in 1976 from NBC, where she’d been a prominent, trailblazing member of the Today team. ABC’s carrot was the chance to become the first woman ever to co-anchor a network nightly newscast. But Reasoner deeply resented a desk mate, and a woman at that. Their partnership ended in failure, but Walters went on to become a megastar as the co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20, the host of numerous high-rated prime-time specials and the founder of daytime’s The View.

Otherwise the track record is dismal. Ask CBS. The network has struck out three times after pirating Bryant Gumbel, Connie Chung and Katie Couric -- all from NBC.

Gumbel bombed as anchor of a prime-time news magazine called Public Eye, and then as co-host of CBS’ morning show.

Chung also failed big-time, first with her own prime-time news hour and then as co-anchor of the CBS Evening News with a growingly discontented Dan Rather.

Couric’s five-year tour as sole anchor of the CBS Evening News arguably became the biggest flop of all, given all of the attendant publicity. She’s since bounced from ABC News to a syndicated daytime talk show to Yahoo! News to a podcast.

Meanwhile, it’s been proven time and again that news networks are better off nurturing their own homegrown talent and then moving them up the chain. Two of the three current network evening news anchors -- ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Lester Holt -- were promoted from within. Two generations earlier, Ted Koppel went from a little-known correspondent at ABC News to the household name of Nightline. Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Charles Gibson, Bob Schieffer, Andy Rooney, Lesley Stahl and many more also came up through their respective network’s ranks.

CBS currently is in the process of deciding on a “permanent” anchor of the CBS Evening News after Scott Pelley was dropped. Veteran correspondent Anthony Mason has been filling in, and he’s not a likely long-term choice. But whatever you do, CBS, resist the urge to pay a king’s or a queen’s ransom for someone else’s supposedly hot commodity. It’s just not the way to go. And that’s the way it is.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Audience network's Loudermilk is as fresh as its title character is sour

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Ron Livingston (2nd from right) plays title character in Loudermilk. Audience net photo

Premiering: Tues., Oct. 17th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Audience
Starring: Ron Livingston,Will Sasso,Laura Mennell, Anja Savcic, Eric Keenleyside
Produced by: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Mort, Christopher Long, Bart Peters, Mark Burg, David Guillod

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Ron Livingston has made a series of strong impressions -- mostly on HBO -- in Band of Brothers, Sex and the City and Boardwalk Empire. Add the cult movie Office Space, a gift that keeps on giving.

Even so, here’s an actor who, at age 50, deserves his own show and a defining role. Loudermilk, which joins Hit the Road in premiering Tuesday, Oct. 17th on DirecTV’s Audience network, shows strong signs of becoming what both he and we deserve. The venue remains comparatively obscure, but Livingston’s first front-and-center TV vehicle turns out to be a real find.

He plays Sam Loudermilk, an irascible recovering alcoholic and former rock ’n’ roll journalist who’s a brusque substance abuse counselor when not doing janitorial work at a Seattle bank. Each of the four episodes made available for review begins with him carping about something or other to someone or other. In the opening half-hour, a woman with a long list of specialty coffee orders puts Loudermilk off his feed. It’s one thing to step aside and open a door for her but quite another when she then gets in line ahead of him.

He otherwise lets off steam at the Immaculate Heart community center, where the oft-disapproving head priest, Father Mike (Eric Keenleyside), compares Loudermilk to “an Ikea chair” on the comfort front.

“I’m not a miracle worker, like the bearded guy that you love so much,” Loudermilk retorts. It’s one of many lines that work to perfection in a comedy that exudes a winning, rough charm.

If Loudermilk wants to keep ramrodding these meetings, though, he’ll have to make a personal house call on a parishioner’s drug addicted teenage daughter, Claire Wilkes (Anja Savcic). Father Mike insists on no less, and he also expects a good faith effort. Otherwise the church will be closed to him.

Claire ends up becoming a series regular after Loudermilk very grudgingly allows her to crash in an apartment he shares with his sponsor, Ben Barnes (Will Sasso). But first he asks, “Why can’t you just find a park bench or an abandoned railroad car?”

Also co-starring is Laura Mennell as apartment building newcomer Allison Montgomery, who moves in across the hall. Loudermilk has more than a platonic interest in her, but complications ensue.

The lead character’s sour ball demeanor is somewhat reminiscent of Ted Danson’s comportment in Becker, which now seems to be eons ago after wrapping its six-season CBS run in 2004. Loudermilk shares Dr. John Becker’s annoyance with the world at large, but in more graphic and pointed terms.

Several of Loudermilk’s “patients” also are fleshed out during these first four episodes, including a former rock band drummer with stunted arms and a wayward father who hasn’t communicated with his daughter in 10 years. None of the resolutions, such as they are, come off as sappy. This series is too savvy for that.

Livingston excels as the point man, making Sam Loudermilk both his own worst enemy and a guy who would be damned interesting to be around. This is one of the ongoing TV season’s better new comedies. All it needs now is to be more readily available, which is nothing that a same-season streaming deal with Netflix, Amazon or Hulu couldn’t bring about.

For now, though, DirecTV’s Audience network primarily is interested in building its brand and coaxing consumers to buy into it. Loudermilk is a firm step in that direction.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Jason Alexander gets his Costanza on in Hit the Road's unrepentant sendup of The Partridge Family

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And their band plays on, with Jason Alexander as manic maestro. Audience Net photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 17th at 7 p.m. (central) on Audience
Starring: Jason Alexander, Amy Pietz, Natalie Sharp, Nick Marini, Tom Johnson Jr., Maddie Dixon Poirier
Produced by: Jason Alexander, Peter Tilden, Dean Craig, Bart Peters, David Guillod, Mark Burg, Melissa Aouate, Henrik Bastin

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s hard to imagine the timing being much worse for a sitcom whose first episode finds two principal characters providing sexual favors in return for anticipated career advancements.

Yes, the stench of Harvey Weinstein wafts over the Audience network’s Hit the Road, which was filmed and developed long before he became Hollywood’s latest most virulent scourge. Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame stars. And he nonetheless is pretty riotous throughout the first two episodes of what amounts to George Costanza maniacally micro-managing a very ribald mockup of The Partridge Family.

Wait a minute. Audience network? What’s that? Well, it’s commercial-free, owned by AT&T Inc., and is available only to DirecTV (Ch. 239) and AT&T U-verse subscribers. The investment in original programming has been ramped up considerably of late, with Hit the Road premiering in tandem Tuesday night with Loudermilk after Mr. Mercedes (adapted from a Stephen King novel) launched in August and completed its Season One, 10-episode run earlier in October.

On the scripted comedy series front, only Julia Louis-Dreyfus has scored big following Seinfeld, with HBO’s award-showered Veep making her a perennial Emmy winner. Jerry Seinfeld’s numerous specials and hosting role on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee have kept him very much in play while Michael Richards has been a vanishing act in recent years.

Alexander since has gamely tried and failed as the star of ABC’s Bob Patterson and CBS’ Listen Up!. But his prowess as a hapless schlub with grand plans is still in working order. Visibility-wise, Hit the Road may not amount to much more than a gravel driveway. Work is work, though, and Alexander really works this one.

He plays Ken Swallow in a TV-MA comedy with the tagline, “A Family Band. Not A Family Show.”

That it’s not. As a touring group with decidedly limited success, Swallow deploys Ken as manager/drummer/dreamer/schemer. Playing and singing along are his wife, Meg (the under-appreciated Amy Pietz); promiscuous oldest daughter Rita (Natalie Sharp); dense, marijuana-peddling son Alex (Nick Marini); asthmatic, hyper-sensitive adopted son Jermaine (Tom Johnson Jr.); and activist little daughter Casey (Maddie Dixon Poirier). Watch for Pietz’s deadpan delivery of “That’s a kick in the bean bag,” which immediately should become a catch-phrase.

Episode One finds Swallow in performance as the opening act for weathered rocker Duncan Freedom, who meets an untimely, unintentional end with nubile Rita straddling him in the interests of breaking free. This is unfortunate, because Ken has just invested in a well-used, cramped tour bus emblazoned with “Swallow” (and various, obscene, scrawled add-ons). “There’s no number two on the bus,” Ken orders. That’s a time-honored rock ’n’ roll tradition.”

Desperate to keep the tour on track, Ken begs a local radio station for publicity and in turn is propositioned. “We’ve all done things for the sake of the family,” he lamely explains to his wife. Forgive me for laughing almost uproariously throughout this whole seamy sequence, which Alexander manages to sell as few comedians could or would.

Episode 2 finds the entire band camping out in pursuit of a front-of-the-line spot outside an audition hall, only to find that the entrance is at the other end of the building. During the process of finagling his way back to the front of the line, Alexander fires off Costanza-esque riffs on the digestive evils of “street meat.” Also included is a running bit on The Godfather, climaxed by “You Fredo’d me” in reference to the late John Cazale’s classic portrayal of lesser, ill-fated brother Fredo Corleone. Meh.

Hit the Road is relentlessly broad and determinedly offensive. It’s also quite funny in fits and spurts, primarily when Alexander is throwing the fits and having the spurts. So I’d watch it again -- if I had DirecTV. Many would-be samplers also will have the same overriding problem.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Showtime's White Famous overplays its racial component but may have a star player in Jay Pharoah

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Jamie Foxx/Jay Pharoah collaborate in White Famous. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 15th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on Showtime
Starring: Jay Pharoah, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Jacob Ming-Trent, Cleopatra Coleman, Lonnie Chavis, Meagan Good
Produced by: Jamie Foxx, Jamie King, Tom Kapinos, Tim Story

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s an easy sell, and now even more so, to depict Hollywood as one big, soulless, immoral den of iniquity.

That’s one of the basic premises of Showtime’s expletive-drenched White Famous, which supposedly is based on principal executive producer Jamie Foxx’s real-life experiences.

OK, fine. The harder sell is White Famous’ over-playing of the race card as an oppressive force in the life of Floyd Mooney (Jay Pharoah), a halfway gainful standup comic looking to get ahead on his own terms. It doesn’t entirely negate the effectiveness of this comedy’s oft-coarse humor -- or offset Pharoah’s balls-out and very energized approach to his lead role. Still, White Famous would benefit by easing up on rather than ramming home what’s rapidly becoming a dated proposition. Cesspool? Hollywood remains very much guilty as charged. Fount of racism, intended or otherwise? Evidence abounds on our home screens that television in particular increasingly is nothing of the sort.

Floyd’s flailing agent, Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who’s of Middle Eastern descent, is fully capable of bending the truth in service to his client and himself. But he not lying in telling an unconvinced Floyd in Episode 2 that “it is pilot season in the golden age of diversity.”

In other words, television roles of import have become plentiful for people of color. These are times when the landscape is brimming with examples ranging from Donald Glover’s Emmy-winning Atlanta on FX; to ABC’s thriving black-ish; to HBO’s Insecure; to The CW’s de-whitening of its Dynasty reboot -- to name just a very few examples. Even CBS’ upcoming remake of S.W.A.T. will have an African-American, Shemar Moore from Criminal Minds, in the lead role of hard-charging “Hondo” Harrelson. Game shows, once as white bread as they come, are now humming along in prime-time with Steve Harvey, Anthony Anderson and Michael Strahan as hosts.

Malcolm does want Floyd to relent and “cross over” a bit in the interests of becoming a “white famous” star. Even that notion has become increasingly dated, though. And this is no period piece. It’s set in the here and now rather than the 1990s, when Foxx’s career took root in The Jamie Foxx Show.

Nonetheless, Episode One of White Famous includes a labored encounter between Floyd and a prominent Hollywood producer named Stu Beggs (the recurring Stephen Tobolowsky), who mistakes him for a valet before awkwardly apologizing and digging himself even deeper while being upbraided. The “incident” goes viral after being posted on youtube. And Floyd’s career suddenly has new momentum, with Foxx (who occasionally will play himself) taking notice and offering a role in his latest movie.

Foxx should be credited, I guess, with portraying himself as a super-quirky Lothario who’s first seen copulating with a naked woman in his trailer before Floyd sees that he’s wearing a cheerleader’s skirt. What follows is even more bizarre -- and basically distasteful.

Supporting characters, all of whom work into the mix pretty well, include Floyd’s proudly corpulent best friend, Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent), his estranged wife, Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman) and their appealing seven-year-old son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis). Floyd dotes on his “Little Ninja” while also hoping to reconnect with Sadie, who’s relented in the past when the mood is right. These aren’t entirely booty calls. His affection for Sadie seems genuine, even if Floyd also is prone to other women’s advances.

Hollywood as a whole has no redeeming qualities, though. The rot from within is epitomized by filmmaker Teddy Snow (the always crazed Michael Rapaport), who uses staged racism, among other things, to bait Floyd into taking on a role as the renegade leader of a ’90s punk band called Angry Black. No one can be trusted to be even remotely on the up and up. All of Hollywood is self-interest personified. Screwing someone to get ahead -- literally or figuratively -- is a given throughout White Famous.

Pharoah nonetheless brings the juice. Never more than a peripheral member of the Saturday Night Live cast, he plays Floyd without reservation and with an assured, cockeyed conviction. White Famous can be faulted in its conceits and concept, but Pharoah is fully invested and funny at times, too. As when Floyd balks at Sadie’s determination to enroll their son in a prestigious private school by extolling the battered public school system as a “prison” that spurred him to break out and be somebody rather than going soft.

Through the first three episodes made available for review, White Famous struggles to get its grounding and sometimes falls hard after slipping on its own banana peels. But It doesn’t look like a lost cause just yet. It looks like a show that could mature into something more than it is now, with Pharoah as a sturdy building block.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net