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Justice do-over? ABC's Conviction literally counts down the days

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New show, same network: Hayley Atwell fronts Conviction. ABC photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 3rd at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Hayley Atwell, Eddie Cahill, Shawn Ashmore, Merrin Dungey, Emily Kinney, Manny Montana, Daniel Franzese
Produced by: Mark Gordon, Liz Friedlander, Liz Friedman, Nick Pepper

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Hayley Atwell has washed that Marvel right out of her hair, quickly rebounding from ABC’s failed Agent Carter to the network’s new Conviction.

But she’ll still be up against it Monday night opposite the premiere of NBC’s spirited Timeless, which has the added advantage of an industrial strength lead-in from The Voice. Add the competing Season 3 premiere of CBS’ still formidable Scorpion and things are not looking up.

Conviction is marginally better than ABC’s noxious new Notorious, which already is on ratings fumes. Even so, it’s hard to imagine it lighting anyone’s fire.

This time out, Atwell plays problematic former First Daughter Hayes Morrison, who’s first shown jailed on a coke-bust. New York City district attorney Conner Wallace (Eddie Cahill), with whom she’s apparently spent some time in the sack, has since fallen out of favor with Hayes. Still, his offer is hard to resist. Head up a new Conviction Integrity Unit and he’ll make her arrest go away.

“This isn’t about justice. This is about selling yourself,” she sneers before of course taking the deal.

Conner has already hand-picked Hayes’ team, touching all the ethnically diverse bases in doing so.

There’s festering Sam Spencer (Shawn Ashmore), a white dude who thought he was going to be heading the unit.

Former cop Maxine Bohen (Merrin Dungey) is a no-nonsense African-American justice-seeker while Franklin “Frankie” Cruz (Manny Montana) is a Hispanic ex-con whose male lover remains in prison. There’s also Tess Larson (Emily Kinney), a young, guilt-ridden white woman who otherwise is quite good at putting two and two together. Hayes’s portly, bearded brother Jackson (Daniel Franzese) drops in on occasion to lift her spirits.

DA Conner, for budgetary and artificial TV drama purposes, has given the CIU team just five days per case to determine whether a convicted criminal in fact has been wrongly incarcerated. This prompts a countdown sign -- “Three Days Remaining . . . Two Days Remaining” -- after each commercial break. Not so amazingly, everything is resolved with next to no time to spare.

ABC made the first two episodes available for review. Monday’s premiere spotlights a former black football star convicted eight years ago of murdering his girlfriend. But an all-white jury did the convicting. Hmm. Episode 2 hits closer to home by re-examining one of DA Conner’s prize convictions. Are three white teens, all of them seemingly jerks at the time, really guilty as charged of assaulting and raping a black woman? It’s Hayes’ attempt to embarrass the DA, who instead just rolls with it.

The most interesting scenes in Conviction so far have nothing to do with the sleuthing. Things instead perk up whenever Hayes’ mom and former First Lady Harper Morrison (very nicely played by Bess Armstrong) pops in to meddle. The two don’t get along, but mom’s now running for the U.S. Senate. So she has a vested interest in keeping her daughter from imploding again. Their pointed scenes together allow Atwell to emote to good effect while old pro Armstrong (The Four Seasons, My So-Called Life) deftly stirs the pot.

The first case is resolved via the novel use of a split-in-two pig carcass while Episode 2 ends with ramifications beyond justice being served. Atwell’s performance is solid enough, particularly when Armstrong is around for badgering purposes. But the weekly skirmishes with “The System” end in ways that at best strain credulity. If only it were even remotely this easy -- and all with the added pressure of a weekly made-for-TV countdown.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Timeless puts NBC back into past tense

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The Timeless trio of Malcolm Barrett, Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 3rd at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, Malcolm Bennett, Goran Visnjic, Sakina Jaffrey, Paterson Joseph, Claudia Doumit
Produced by: Eric Kripke, Shawn Ryan, John Davis, John Fox, Marney Hochman, Neil Marshall

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
TV’s latest time-travel series begins its limited present-day activities with a whopper. Only it’s completely true, according to latter day accounts.

College teacher Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer from Rectify) is bringing history alive with the tale of how President Lyndon Johnson “whipped out his genitalia” when asked why the U.S. was in Vietnam. “This is why,” he reportedly replied. Lucy adds that LBJ proudly referred to his oft-displayed member only club as “Jumbo.” Hey, kids, you’ll be tested on this.

From the network that brought you Quantum Leap, it’s NBC’s Timeless, which can be far-fetched even for a show of this genre. But it’s also agreeably fast-paced and a good deal of fun before jumping through another hoop at the end that might make the present an almost equally wild mini-ride.

The story begins on May 6, 1937 with the Hindenburg dirigible disaster in New Jersey. It serves to set the time and place where Lucy and her two colleagues will journey in an effort to stop Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) from nefariously altering history after allegedly killing his wife and child. Flynn has just stolen a secret state-of-the-art time travel device from Mason Industries. But there just happens to be an older prototype junker in mothballs. So Lucy, jaunty, wisecracking Master Sergeant Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) and Mason employee Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) are soon off in the rickety thing to find and apprehend a bad guy who otherwise might turn history on its ears.

“Don’t be noticed. Don’t change anything. Understand?” they’re ordered by Homeland Security taskmaster Denise Christopher (Sakina Jaffrey). But none of that stuff ever works according to plan.

Once back on the ground, Wyatt becomes smitten with a blonde, derring-do journalist. He’s not supposed to save her from dying on that tragic spring day in 1937. But if LBJ couldn’t keep his pecker in his pants . . . well, you can’t expect a hunky man of action to just stand by and do nothing.

It’s OK, however, to stop Garcia from whatever he’s doing and then return him to the present. During the course of trying to do so, Lucy gets off a nice riff by telling a gruff military guy, “This is Dr. Dre, I’m Nurse Jackie. We’re from General Hospital.”

As a black man in a strange land, Rufus encounters racism and eventually has a signature scene in that vein that helps to free the trio from their latest predicament. A protesting Rufus has set that table earlier with one of the premiere episode’s better lines: “There’s literally no place in American history that would be awesome for me.”

Also look for a MacGyver-like ploy by Wyatt after he instructs Lucy to “take off your bra. Your modern bra.”

It would be giving away too much to detail the ease in which Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus return to the scene of an impending crime. Timeless tends to have plot holes the size of pot holes. But if you’re watching a time-travel series, you’re likely not expecting an abundance of attendant believability.

Future episodes include real-life characters such as John F. Kennedy, Jim Bowie, Richard Nixon and Sammy Davis Jr. And as the time travels keep adding up, so will the ramifications and deceptions. All in all, it doesn’t look like a bad way to spend an hour of your day. Or only about 45 minutes if you DVR Timeless and then time travel in reverse through all the commercials.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's version of Westworld: a morality play replete with gunplay

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Ed Harris brings barrelfuls of menace to Westworld. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 2nd at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tessa Thompson, Shannon Woodward, Jimmi Simpson, Rodrigo Santoro, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Ben Barnes, Sam Quarterman, Angela Sarafyan, Luke Hemsworth, Clifton Collins, Jr.
Produced by: Jonathan Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Lisa Joy, Jerry Weintraub

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
HBO’s much hyped and hoped for NEXT BIG THING shares some common ground with The Truman Show, Groundhog Day and even the weekly “they killed Kenny” snippets from Southpark. The latter comparison very likely is unwanted, because this is supposed to be very serious business.

Westworld, adapted from the still resonant 1973 feature film, finally arrives Sunday as an alternately gripping and tedious sci-fi meld of “hosts” and “guests,” big ideas and bigger trigger fingers. Its body count is bottomless, because all of the hosts on the receiving ends can simply be taken back to the shop for repairs while the paying guests supposedly are impervious to physical harm. But are some of the inmates somehow showing signs of breaking down the walls of their asylum by going “off script” and cobbling together minds of their own? The inquiring minds running this very high-priced futuristic theme park very much want to know.

Venues alternate between the series’ viscerally violent alternative universe and the la-BOR-atory headed by “creative director” Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). His invariably grim-faced lieutenants are masters of the forced march. Any signs of “deviant” behavior are quickly addressed. But suddenly comes a “shit storm,” in the words of taut operations leader Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen).

“You imagine someone’s been diddling with our creations?” Ford wonders in Episode 2, one of four made available for review.

Back in the “Old West,” there’s a considerable jolt of electricity whenever Ed Harris is on screen. He plays “The Gunslinger,” as did Yul Brynner in the original movie. With a face like a python and a demeanor that renders no-nonsense inoperative, The Gunslinger blasts his way in search of “the deepest level of this game.” He’s mayhem personified. And Harris is so powerfully in charge of this role that Westworld tends to sag whenever he’s off-screen. This is particularly so in Episode 3, where The Gunslinger is entirely missing in action before he returns in full measure to fuel Episode 4 with his iron will and even a little James Bond-ian trick.

Evan Rachel Wood is the most constant screen presence as a “host” dubbed Dolores Abernathy. Mostly stuck in a tight, light blue frontier dress, she yearns for forbidden fulfillment, but can’t quite get a grip on why. Brooding programming division head Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) repeatedly brings her in for interrogation, seeking to get her head straight. Dolores’ longings are a focal point of Westworld, but the character too often can be something of a bore. Not entirely so. But the inclination to say, “Not her again” can be almost overpowering at times.

James Marsden likewise can be a bit bland as Teddy Flood, a seemingly purebred frontier character that HBO has affixed with a “spoiler” tag in terms of his true identity. So let’s move on to saloon madame Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who in comparison is on fire as a host who’s also starting to see a bigger picture after years of robotic subservience. Her principal prostitute is Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan), who simply aims to please.

Episode One painstakingly lays out both of these lands while also heaping on the violence. A prolonged in-town massacre is accompanied by an orchestral version of “Paint It Black” before the closing credits roll to Johnny Cash’s somber “Ain’t No Grave.”

The super-rich guests, paying at the rate of $40,000 a day, are free to roam, copulate and pillage as they please with what amounts to their playthings. Westworld strives to both comment on the primal human condition and engage viewers in some of the hosts’ yearnings to somehow become human.

At the outset of Episode 2, a first-time guest named William (rather dully played by Jimmi Simpson) is prepped for his full immersion into the theme park by a comely greeter who offers herself as a sexual appetizer.

“Are you real?” he asks.

“Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” she replies.

But William’s maiden voyage is without much of a giddy up. His hedonistic real-world friend, Logan (Ben Barnes), a veteran guest, is appreciably more interesting as a run amuck scoundrel who takes full advantage of what’s offered.

Westworld also is populated by an all too typically cocky and profane British “narrative director” (Simon Quarterman as Lee Sizemore) and a hunky, but so far nondescript head of security (Luke Hemsworth as Ashley Stubbs). Shannon Woodward registers more vividly as “programming division” up-and-comer Elsie Hughes, who has a sharp tongue and an edgy temperament.

Hopkins’ maestro character is both mysterious and a bit slow to develop. But by Episode 4 he’s in fuller bloom as the mind behind a vast, expensive and more cerebral story line that is yet to unfold and is drawing opposition. But Dr. Ford knows what he wants. And there’s a sense of menace more than decorum when he conveys this to operations leader Cullen: “I will ask you nicely. Please don’t get in my way.”

Through these first four episodes, Westworld flexes its lavish production values and has the kernels of what could turn into an increasingly absorbing morality play. Harris is a signature presence as The Gunslinger -- so much so that too many of the other characters are limp in comparison. A loitering pace also can be a problem at times. The scenes from behind the scenes tend to head south in comparison to the volatile Old West canvas in play. And no one has a line as good as the guy who tells The Gunslinger, “You sound like a man who’s grown tired of wearing his guts on the inside.”

Westworld is both show-and-tell, and now wait-and-see. There’s promise and there are perils. Four of Season One’s 10 hours are in the books for reviewers who have taken the time to watch all of them. I very much want to see more, and hoping they’ll get a firmer grip.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Tales from their dark sides: the formative years of Trump, Clinton in PBS' The Choice 2016

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Grim and bear it: The 2016 presidential election. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Her penchant for secrecy, his longtime reliance on “truthful hyperbole.”

His headlong womanizing, her standing by a proven womanizer.

Their pursuits of ultimate power whatever the personal costs to themselves or others.

What’s not to like?

After Monday night’s first of three debates, many people understandably feel they’ve seen and heard enough of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump. Let’s get this thing over with, damn it.

But as the analysis of their respective performances goes on an on and on, let’s remember that one night of joint show-and-tell does not begin to tell the stories of how Clinton and Trump were bent, shaped and mutilated into what they are today. And in the end, that’s how they’ll conduct themselves as President after this seemingly eternal gut-fight is put to rest by voters on Nov. 8th.

PBS’ The Choice 2016, premiering Tuesday, Sept. 27th (at 8 p.m. locally on KERA13), does its usual thorough and incisive job of telling the life stories of the two finalists. It plays out like a thick and foreboding novel, with the stories of the two combatants intertwined for extra dramatic effect. Director Michael Kirk again is at the controls for this two-hour presentation airing under the prestigious Frontline banner. There’s nothing particularly new, with a heavy reliance on a cavalcade of Trump and Clinton biographers. Still, this is riveting stuff, with veteran PBS narrator Will Lyman adding his usual measured gravitas. A man born to wealth and privilege versus a woman scorned time and again. Both had controlling, bullying fathers, although Trump grew to enjoy the feel of his father Fred’s figurative whip while Clinton recoiled from her father, Hugh, and grew to revere her supportive mother, Dorothy.

The Choice begins with a teeth-gritting Trump being ridiculed at length by President Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents dinner. Trump’s championing of the “birther movement” had left Obama itching to fire back. Longtime Republican strategist and current Trump supporter Roger Stone speculates that the humiliation crystallized his billionaire friend’s determination to run for president. But Stone also is the toxic guy who said post-debate that Clinton had to be hooked up to an oxygen tank immediately after Monday night’s joust with Trump. He’s also been banned from appearing on either CNN or MSNBC. So seriously consider the source while wondering why The Choice saw fit to include him.

Omarosa Manigault, another Trump ally and former arch villainess on The Apprentice, juicily prepares the country for her boss’s score-settling triumph: “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump . . . It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”

Clinton is first seen as the highly unconventional First Lady of Arkansas after Bill Clinton was elected governor. But his loss after just one term prompted a guilty Hillary to “re-brand herself” by changing her hairstyle, dropping her glasses, wearing more makeup and tacking on Bill’s surname after initially insisting on being called Hillary Rodham.

“She completely forfeited her own identity, at least physically,” says Gail Sheehy, author of Hillary’s Choice.

Former Wellesley classmate Nancy Wanderer says the calculated transformation “hurt all of us. We all felt bad about that.”

Hillary, who in essence became Bill’s campaign manager in his successful re-election bid, also turned for the first time to reptilian Dick Morris, a campaign consultant who’s now ripping her on a weekly basis in the pages of The National Enquirer.

These are the respective first chapters of stories that tellingly toggle back and forth in relatively seamless fashion. Besides his hard-driving, gut-punching father, Fred, Trump’s early and influential mentor is storied conservative hatchet man Roy Cohn, whose face seems screwed into a permanent scowl. He taught the young Trump to “use lawsuits like machine gun bullets,” says TrumpNation author Timothy O’Brien,

Meanwhile, Hillary journeys to Washington, D.C. in her pre-Mrs. Clinton years and becomes a rising star as a young attorney on the Senate Watergate committee. She was sworn to utmost secrecy, and this became a lifelong pattern, according to The Choice. After failing the Washington, D.C. bar exam, “she kept it a secret for 30 years,” says Carl Bernstein, whose Hillary book is titled A Woman In Charge.

Returning to Arkansas against her best friends’ advice, Clinton married Bill and helped to spearhead his 1992 run for the presidency. Then came the “bimbo eruptions,” with Gennifer Flowers going public and Hillary bowing to their joint ambitions by joining him for a famous post-Super Bowl interview on 60 Minutes. “I’m not sittin’ here (like) some little woman standin’ by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she famously said. She was soon back beaming at his side. As always, says Bill Clinton biographer David Maraniss, their ends justified the dignity-sapping means, with Hillary wedded to ambition first and foremost. Monica Lewinsky was yet to come.

Trump eventually tired of his first wife, Ivana, with whom he had three children. His affair with and eventual marriage to Marla Maples was celebrated by both the tabloids and Trump himself, who didn’t in the least mind being portrayed as a philandering cocksman. Iconic gossip columnist Liz Smith recalls Ivana weeping in her arms and telling her that Trump had discarded her because he couldn’t bring himself to be sexually attracted to a woman who’d had children.

When his business empire began to crumble, most notably in Atlantic City with Trump’s Taj Mahal casino, he convinced creditors that taking his vaunted name off the properties would only further devalue them. They reluctantly agreed while putting Trump on a strict $450,000 a month allowance. “He was too big to fail,” says narrator Lyman.

Lying also became a way of life, says Tony Schwartz, who belatedly has been remorseful for co-authoring Trump’s mega-bestselling The Art of the Deal. “The truth doesn’t mean much to Donald Trump,” he says matter-of-factly.

The Choice is both instructive and dispiriting (if not depressing) in reinforcing the negatives associated with the two most publicly disliked candidates ever to run for President of the United States. One of them is going to win, though.

For Hillary Clinton, “It had been a brutal path to this moment,” Lyman says of her history-making nomination.

“He had exhausted the ways in which to get attention,” so running for President represented the last big ego stroke, Schwartz says of Trump.

It’s still a page-turner -- but alas, from the non-fiction section.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's The Exorcist: another knockoff, but not a cheap-looking one

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Who wouldn’t want this priest to make house calls? Fox photo

Premiering: Friday, Sept. 23rd at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Alfonso Herrera, Ben Daniels, Geena Davis, Brianne Howey, Hannah Kasulka, Alan Ruck, Kurt Egylawan
Produced by: Jeremy Slater, James Robinson, David Robinson, Barbara Wall, Rolin Jones

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Surprisingly filmic and textured, Fox’s weekly version of the 1973 horror classic just might make some viewers’ heads turn, too.

It’s anything but a cheap-looking knockoff of The Exorcist and its indelible theme music. And the magnetic leading man, Alfonso Herrera, is going to go places whether or not The Exorcist becomes a Friday night staple like Fox’s The X-Files or quickly vanishes along with other short-lived feature film knockoffs ranging from Fox’s Minority Report to two versions of Uncle Buck, on CBS and then ABC.

Herrera is Chicago-based Catholic priest Father Tomas, pastor of a smallish St. Anthony congregation. He’s been having very bad dreams of late, all of them with visions of a demonically possessed Mexico City boy who’s at the mercy of both the devil and an older priest who’s desperately trying to pull him out of it. It turns out to be Father Marcus (Ben Daniels), who throwing every fiber of his being into somehow salvaging the kid.

Meanwhile, the Rance family has become quite a mess. Henry (Alan Ruck) has quietly gone nuts, it seems, while his wife, Angela (Geena Davis), is convinced that a demon is now trying to lay claim to her older recluse daughter, Katherine (Brianne Howley). Younger sis Casey (Hannah Kasulka) is caught in the middle while trying to curb whatever’s ailing Katherine. Or perhaps not.

Davis has matured into a character actress after breaking into the biz 31 years ago as the ingenue star of NBC’s short-lived sitcom Sara (with a cast that also included Alfre Woodard, Bill Maher and Bronson Pinchot). Her Angela Rance is effectively desperate, with Herrera’s Father Tomas finally agreeing to make a house call and see what’s up. A trip upstairs to the attic, from where some strange sounds are coming, serves to make a believer of him. And then that theme song kicks in -- and very effectively so while one of the daughters smiles not so benignly upon him from an upstairs window.

The other pivot point is Father Marcus making his way to Chicago and holing up at the St. Aquinas Retreat Center in hopes of finding a little peace of mind. But the two priests of course are fated to tag team whatever evil lurks, even after the emotionally scarred Marcus warns, “You’re being manipulated by forces you can’t even begin to understand.”

Fox has made only the premiere episode available for review. It’s suitably chilling and includes some convincing special effects that look as though they’ve got some real money behind them. Whether The Exorcist can keep delivering on its promise is worth finding out. Friday’s curtain-raiser makes a better than expected first impression while at the same time putting Herrera’s hunky, soulful and appealing lead priest in play. He’ll be just fine whether this latest feature film reprise continues to effectively rattle chains or ends up falling apart in future weeks.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net