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In a more sharply divided media landscape than ever before, is the truth really out there anymore?

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President Trump and ad hoc press secretary Sean Hannity. Fox photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
True or false: The truth is out there.

Answer: Basically false these days. This tagline might still fit within the confines of Fox’s The X-Files. But in the real world, it unfortunately must be altered to “The truths are out there.”

Your friendly content provider has lamented for years that there’s just too much media out there. Consequently, there’s increasingly no “there” there. In a severely divided country, far too many consumers now get their “news” from television networks, websites or newspapers that mirror or reinforce their opinions. I’m on the record nationally about this, courtesy of a transcript from PBS’ September 2003 edition of Flashpoints USA. The host was Bryant Gumbel and the co-panelists were NPR host Brooke Gladstone and former TV Guide reporter Max Robins. It was before Twitter took hold and Facebook devolved into a part-time war zone.

“I think you can make the case that there’s almost too much news out there right now,” I said. “It’s not the same as in, say, the fast food industry. If you’ve got McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s all competing, you get lower food prices that generally benefit the consumer. With all these news channels out there now, especially the three cable channels, the competition, I don’t think, leads to better news. It leads to a lot more screaming . . . A lot of times, the old definition of news doesn’t apply at all anymore. I think it’s mainly, take one story a day, and flog it to death, and go from one personality-driven show to another in many cases.”

Well, we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. Fueled by Donald Trump’s election and subsequent Twitter-pronged presidency, the three cable news networks and myriad websites have taken sides as never before.

The President’s frequent “fake news” diatribes and infamous “enemy of the people” tweet have never included Fox News Channel, where he’s lately done the majority of his interviews while also parroting whatever the network says is news -- even if it’s from a commentator citing the unnamed sources that Trump claims to despise. In the horse race to curry his favor, FNC’s Sean Hannity is a veritable Secretariat, trailed by Fox and Friends and Tucker Carlson in that order.

MSNBC, after initially struggling to gain traction as a more or less middle of the road news outlet, gave up that game plan long ago and now is the anti-Trump network at the other end of the cable news teeter totter. In the win, place and show results, Rachel Maddow continues to lead colleague Lawrence O’Donnell by perhaps a length or two. Former Trump pals Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezinski come in third while continuing to assail him on Morning Joe.

CNN, which has taken the brunt of the President’s “fake news” slams, began the presidential campaign as a compliant disseminator of all things Trump. The network is still comparatively balanced compared to its cable news adversaries. After all, its payroll includes Trump defenders Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany and, lately, Jason Miller, who replaced Corey Lewandowski.

But led by Don Lemon and Jake Tapper, CNN also has aggressively and bluntly challenged the President’s declarations of what’s true and what isn’t. You can only take his lashings for so long before, in a sense, becoming part of The Resistance. Lemon and Tapper lately can be seen as both truth-tellers and ax-grinders in CNN’s determined effort to growl in defiance after rolling over for Trump during the early stages of the presidential campaign.

Even the two Sunday morning media analysis shows, CNN’s Reliable Sources and FNC’s Media Buzz, can’t be relied on to be faithfully impartial anymore. Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter, who replaced Howard Kurtz, is easily the more balanced of the two. But he’s now regularly on the Trump attack while Kurtz and his Media Buzz program clearly have a conservative slant. Comparing the two programs on a weekly basis can be both instructive and dispiriting.

Things came further to a head earlier this week, when Hannity and Ted Koppel clashed on CBS Sunday Morning. “Do you think we’re bad for America? You think I’m bad for America?” Hannity asked.

“Yeah,” Koppel said drily, continuing after Hannity interjected. “You know why? Because you’re very good at what you do . . . Because you have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”

On Monday’s Hannity, the host of course fired back in a top-of-the-show segment titled “Edited Fake News.” Only about a minute of his 45-minute sit-down with Koppel made the air, he said, terming the former Nightline anchor a “hypocrite” who feels free to express his own opinions but doesn’t want to hear others.

“I was just used as a prop” to further Koppel’s pre-determined narrative, Hannity charged.

His guest for the segment, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, of course agreed with Hannity, lumping Koppel among “these walking dead liberal media decrepit elitists.” Furthermore, Koppel is “this ancient gatekeeper” in Malkin’s view. And his brand of journalism is dead.

Earlier, on FNC’s The O’Reilly Factor, guest Brit Hume (a former colleague of Koppel’s at ABC News), said he assumed that Koppel also would similarly find fault with MSNBC’s decidedly left-leaning approach. In fact he has. In a 2010 guest column for The Washington Post, Koppel wrote, “The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me.”

I haven’t even gotten into all of the partisan media websites that have sprung up since that now far-off 2003 Flashpoints USA program. This is, after all, primarily a TV website.

Suffice it to say, though, that 1996 turned out to be an arguably dark year for American journalism. It’s the year when both FNC and MSNBC were launched. A little over two decades later, are we better off now than we were then?

From this perspective, that’s gonna be a pretty big no.

Note to readers: This piece, in shorter form, first appeared as my regular column for Katy Trail Weekly.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Serving more time and resurrecting the dead via Fox's Prison Break

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Brothers Linc and Michael again belly up to the bars in Prison Break. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 4th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Dominic Purcell, Wentworth Miller, Sarah Wayne Callies, Robert Knepper, Rockmond Dunbar, Amaury Nolasco, Mark Feuerstein, Paul Adelstein, Inbar Lavi
Produced by: Paul T. Scheuring, Vaun Wilmott, Michael Horowitz, Dawn Olmstead, Nelson McCormick, Marty Adelstein, Neal Moritz, Brett Ratner

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It really would be best for all concerned to never ever believe that a prominent TV character is truly dead.

Who was it that said, “I am the resurrection and the life?” Just thinking aloud while noting that Fox is the latest network to play a lower case god.

Seven years ago, Prison Break’s soulful Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) presumably was laid to rest after sacrificing himself for the greater good of his new wife, Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), and their unborn son. He left behind a heart-tugging video that was played at the close of what was supposed to be the series’ final act. Nope, it wasn’t. So here comes a nine-episode return, starting on Tuesday, April 4th. Fox sent the first four episodes while also imploring, “Specifically in regards to Episode Four, we ask that you DO NOT reveal the details of the prison escape sequence, as well as major character deaths and a villain reveal.”

Don’t worry. Your secrets are safe. Except does anyone really die in Prison Break? And I deduced the “villain reveal” well before Episode Four. Other vigilant viewers might see it coming as well.

Prison Break resumes with the scummy Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell (Robert Knepper) somehow being released from the Fox River Penitentiary, in part because he’s been a model prisoner. It’s hard to imagine T-Bag being a model anything, but Knepper still plays him to the hilt and remains the best thing about this series.

Just before being released, T-Bag finds that his mail includes a hazy picture of a man who appears to be Michael. He shows it to Lincoln, who’s fallen back into his old ways and is on the run from henchmen to whom he owes big money. Lincoln hisses at T-Bag, but takes the photo to Sara, who’s now living in Syracuse with her new husband, Jacob (Mark Feuerstein) and the son she conceived with Michael.

Lincoln didn’t attend their wedding, he explains, because “I haven’t been in a good place, Sara. My brain, it’s been a mess.”

He later talks to Michael’s tombstone, which is inscribed “Be the change you want to see in the world.” To reiterate, “My life’s been a mess ever since you left . . . But I got good in me. It’d just be nice if you were here to help me find it.”

Other main members of the Prison Break crew, Benjamin “C-Note” Franklin (Rockmond Dunbar) and Fernando Sucre (Amaury Nolasco), also get involved while government agent Paul Kellerman (Paul Adelstein) continues to scheme.

Episode One does a capable job of bringing the principals back into the fold before the locale shifts to Yemen’s Ogygia prison, where Michael eventually materializes but initially denies he’s Michael. Added attractions are a comely Muslim go-between named Sheba (Inbar Lavi) and imprisoned kingpin terrorist Abu Ramal (Numan Acar), who in Episode Three bellows, “When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes!” They’re otherwise all caught up in an ISIL uprising, which complicates efforts to spring Michael and find out what his game’s been for the past seven years.

The second and third seasons of Prison Break were mostly filmed in North Texas before the producers relocated to Los Angeles for what appeared to be the climactic Season Four. Locales for the second coming of the series are Morocco and Vancouver, with the action toggling back and forth between Yemen and the United States, where two black-clad assassins are on the prowl.

After a crackling good start, Prison Break begins to wobble but doesn’t quite topple in succeeding hours. Fox already is heavy into terrorism and counter-terrorism with its ongoing, Jack Bauer-less 24: Legacy while Kiefer Sutherland has taken on a new terrorist-battling role in ABC’s Designated Survivor. ABC’s Quantico likewise is walking the terrorist/counterrorism beat, as are NBC’s The Blacklist and The Blacklist: Redemption. There’s Showtime’s Homeland, too, making this a crowded if not already exhausted field.

Prison Break perhaps can tie all of its machinations and revelations into a satisfying if prototypically implausible climax. But open ends also are anticipated because one never knows when the next reboot or character resurrection might be coming.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC might have a marginal winner with Imaginary Mary (or is it just my imagination?)

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The title character and Jenna Elfman of Imaginary Mary. ABC photos

Premiering: Wednesday, March 29th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC before moving to regular Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. slot on April 4th
Starring: Jenna Elfman, Stephen Schneider, Rachel Dratch, Nicholas Coombe, Matreya Scarrwener, Erica Tremblay
Produced by: Adam F. Goldberg, David Guarascio, Doug Robinson

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
“Better than expected” generally isn’t deemed suitable for a network promotional blurb.

There are mitigating circumstances, though, with ABC’s Imaginary Mary. Its principal punchline-thrower is a sardonic, Pillsbury Doughboy-ish figment voiced by Rachel Dratch. Hmm, that’s a potential recipe for disaster. And the main human star is Jenna Elfman, whose track record charitably has been spotty since she first came to fame two decades ago in ABC’s Dharma & Greg.

Elfman since has sputtered through a raft of failed TV series, including Courting Alex, Accidentally on Purpose, 1600 Penn and Growing Up Fisher. Oof. But here’s another at-bat, with the first two episodes of Imaginary Mary showing some potential. It’s also from the creative team behind The Goldbergs, which is a plus on paper at least.

Back when she was six years old, Alice (played as a grownup by Elfman) became traumatized by her constantly bickering parents’ failed marriage. So she conjured up Mary for emotional support and friendship. But Mary disappeared from her life when Alice became a successful but commitment-phobic career woman. That changes after Alice meets Ben (Stephen Schneider), a divorced dad with principal custody of three children, two of them prototypically problematic teens.

Ben and Alice have been sleeping together for three months. But his kids -- Andy (Nicholas Coombe), Dora (Matreya Scarrwener) and little Bunny (Erica Tremblay) -- still know nothing about their relationship. Isn’t it long past time to clue them in? In pops Mary to suddenly haunt Alice with her now unwanted advice.

“Technically imaginary,” she says in terms of being seen and heard only by Alice. “But to you I’m real as hell and here to stay.”

Mary has a mouth on her, and likes to watch when Alice and Ben are doing it. But the kids initially are a non-starter with “her.” After witnessing their behavior for the first time, she deduces, “OK, the way I see it, these are garbage children.”

Mary regularly encourages heavy drinking as a means of chasing away the blues. “Nothing soothes like ice cold vodka,” she counsels in Episode 2.

This second half-hour, which will be shown in Imaginary Mary’s regular Tuesday slot (after sneak-previewing on Wednesday), also has a shot at Bill Cosby and the first thaws in Alice’s relationships with Ben’s kids. It’s a predictable and inevitable turn, but fairly well-executed. Mary at times disappears rather puzzlingly, though. Perhaps there’s only so much money in the budget for the deft way in which she’s animated.

A couple of months down the road, ABC will launch the like-minded Downward Dog, which co-stars a talking canine opposite Allison Tolman in her first TV series since breaking out in Season One of FX’s Fargo. This makes the network not only the prime home of family comedies, but the place to be for voluble non-humans.

In that context, Imaginary Mary could either pave the way or poison the pond. It seems like a harmless little diversion at this point, with Elfman and Dratch playing well off one another in a fantasy that may have enough winning moments to survive its tough-to-pull-off premise. Then again, ABC couldn’t even keep The Muppets on the air last season. So there’s that, too.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Despite an already guaranteed Season 2, TV Land's limp Nobodies might just stay that way

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The no ones of Nobodies: Hugh Davidson, Rachel Ramras, Larry Dorf. TV Land photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 29th at 9 p.m. (central) on TV Land
Starring: Hugh Davidson, Rachel Ramras, Larry Dorf
Produced by: Hugh Davidson, Rachel Ramras, Larry Dorf, Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Michael McDonald

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A trio of real-life Hollywood grovelers all play themselves in TV Land’s Nobodies, which can be desperately amusing at times but too often comes off as just desperate.

Not that it matters what a TV critic might think. Months before the Wednesday, March 29th premiere of its first season, TV Land ordered a 12-episode Season 2 of Nobodies. It doesn’t hurt, of course, when the co-executive producers include Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, along with the series’ three Brand X stars.

McCarthy and Falcone also pop in and out as themselves, as do the likes of Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Bob Odenkirk and Kristen Bell.

Still, the first five episodes made available for review are underwhelming and under-achieving. The misadventures of Hugh Davidson, Rachel Ramras and Larry Dorf consistently come off as too slight to carry their weight. Languishing as writers on a fictional animated Nickelodeon show called The Fartlemans, they yearn to be taken seriously and think they have just the right vehicle with their screenplay for Mr. First Lady. But repeated roadblocks and seeming dead ends conspire against them while McCarthy’s potential participation, with Falcone in the title role, keep the trio’s flickering hopes alive. After a while it gets more than a little tiresome.

Dorf is particularly off-putting as a madcap, over-the-top, hopefully in large part fictional version of himself. Otherwise, who in their right mind would work with this guy, let alone be his friend? Yet he’s somehow been married for 11 years in addition to forging a union with Davidson and Ramras.

Davidson tends to be the voice of reason while frazzled single mom Ramras, whose ex-husband now has a gay lover, gets very messily drunk in Episodes 2 and 5. When not aggravating each other or continuing to pitch Mr. First Lady, the three of them hang out at The Groundings comedy club as hapless second-raters to the likes of Rudolph (Episode 1) and Wiig (Episode 5). Dorf has so aggravated Wiig that she tells him he’d be the perfect host -- and winner -- of her fake-proposed Buttholes reality series. Too much of the humor in Nobodies tends to be tied to the anal cavity. But at least there’s a logical sponsor tie-in, namely Gas X.

It’s hard to envision Nobodies sustaining itself for even one season, let alone another one. The bumbling efforts to make Mr. First Lady a fame-and-fortune feature film already seem played out after just the first few episodes.

“I laughed my itty bitty nuts off reading your movie,” Falcone says gamely in Episode 3. Good for him, but seldom the case for the rest of us.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Hulu's Harlots bares 18th century England

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Squaring off: Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville in Harlots. Hulu photo

Premiering: begins streaming Wednesday, March 29th on Hulu
Starring: Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Jessica Brown Findlay, Eloise Smith, Holli Dempsey, Douggie McMeekin, Hugh Skinner, Daniel Sapani
Produced by: Moira Buffini, Alison Newman, Alison Owen, Alison Carpenter, Debra Hayward

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Created, executive produced, written and directed entirely by women, Hulu’s Harlots is an equal opportunity flesh-barer with a not so underlying message.

The fleeting glimpses of women’s exposed breasts and men’s unadorned buttocks are doled out evenly. But in 1763 England, it’s otherwise very much a man’s world, with the rampant “objectification” of women a running thread of this cheeky eight-hour drama series. (Just as a reminder, Hulu doles out just one episode per week rather than taking the whole-season-at-once tacts of Netflix and Amazon Prime.)

Harlots begins by noting that one of every five women made their livings selling sex in these times. So there’s an overriding empathy in play, even if the competition between Madams Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) is decidedly fierce.

Lydia is the more boo hiss-able. She haughtily runs an upscale brothel with help from her only son, Charles (Dougie McKeekin), a flabby test-driver of new applicants.

Margaret presides over a more ramshackle “boarding house for young ladies” in her words. She has two daughters, seasoned Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) and the still virginal Lucy (Eloise Smith), whose un-flowering could attract some of the big money Margaret needs to relocate to nicer digs. “I’m worth at least 50 pounds, ma,” Lucy is convinced.

Charlotte meanwhile is both stringing along -- and being strung along -- by Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner), a married, self-absorbed cad of means.

“I’ve ridden hard to be with you,” he tells her before expecting to be satisfied.

“I must ride even harder,” she replies before seeing he’s only brought her a pineapple from his latest travels.

The dialogue occasionally strays into contemporary times. As when ambitious and top-earning Emily Lacey (Eloise Smith) gets dressed down by a fellow prostitute after expressing her disdain for Margaret’s “clucking.”

“Sweet Emily, why don’t you just cluck off?” she’s told. So she does, joining Lydia’s establishment as a further slap at her former boss.

Lydia and Margaret have long despised one another. Their verbal shots can be the stuff of Alexis vs. Krystle from the old ABC serial soap Dynasty.

“I’d like to see Margaret publicly flayed until her back resembles a latticed tart,” Lydia sneers. Margaret returns serve a bit later, getting in Lydia’s face to bellow, “Damn you for a kidnapping pimp!”

Hulu made the first two episodes available for review. They’re beautifully shot, and the costuming also can be sumptuous. Virtually every woman, save for a prototypically tightly wound religious fanatic and her daughter, is preceded by her very accentuated cleavage. The wealthy men of Harlots in turn wear wigs and full makeup while talking dirty and taking what they want. But Margaret’s African-American doorman and enforcer, William North (Daniel Sapani), is a man of decorum who’s also long been her lover. Their 10-year-old son is a “pageboy” at the brothel.

In the early going at least, Charlotte also seems fated to fall for a working class chap who turns the tables and charges her for his so far platonic camaraderie. But the principal character dynamic is the escalating feud between Margaret and Lydia, which heats to a big boil at the end of Episode 2.

Harlots tends to teeter between being a lark and a social tract. The flesh is willing throughout, but the structure can be a little weak. Still, this is a decidedly different and bracing look at ye olde England, with power struggles aplenty as women strive to assert themselves while men mostly just want to insert themselves.

“I’m soft as a rotted fruit,” Sir George protests angrily when his latest coupling goes awry. Story-wise, Harlots sometimes has that problem as well. But more often, it’s a pretty firm carrot.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net