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Boom town: WGN America's Manhattan goes nuclear

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Secret society: John Benjamin Hickey and Daniel Stern in Manhattan. WGN America photo

Premiering: Sunday, July 27th at 8 p.m. (central) on WGN America
Starring: John Benjamin Hickey, Olivia Williams, Ashley Zukerman, Rachel Brosnahan, Daniel Stern, Katja Herbers, Alexia Fast, Christopher Denham, Harry Lloyd, Michael Chernus, Eddie Shin, David Harbour
Produced by: Sam Shaw, Thomas Schlamme, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Rose, Dustin Thomason

By ED BARK
Television’s latest blast from the past is literally just that.

Manhattan, dramatizing the super-secret run-up to the A-bomb, also is quantum leaps ahead of WGN America’s Salem, which laughably arrived in April as the network’s first original scripted drama.

Taut and atmospheric, Manhattan is centered by a revelatory performance from John Benjamin Hickey (The Good Wife) as scientist Frank Winter. He’s the jangled, haunted leader of a sub-sect dedicated to building a better bomb at a faster rate than the larger, better-funded “Thin Man” group initially favored by J. Robert Oppenheimer. The competition is fierce within the unnamed, uncharted confines of a New Mexico desert outpost, where a brilliant young recruit named Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) arrives with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), and their little boy.

“This is Shangri-La,” he’s told by new boss Reed Akley (David Harbour). “We’ve got the highest combined IQ of any town in America and more Jews than Babylon.”

Day One of Manhattan is July 2, 1943, which also is “766 days before Hiroshima.” It gives the series a wealth of breathing room for its cloistered characters, all of whom are fictional -- save for Oppenheimer -- in the two episodes sent for review. The real-life “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” played by Daniel London, is glimpsed just once in the early going. Wispy and ethereal in a brief but important scene, he’ll be more of an unseen god-like specter in Manhattan. The series’ driving and driven force is Frank Winter, whose principal confidant is physicist Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern in a big bush of a beard that’s not a glue-on, as he proved at a recent interview session with TV critics).

Winter is married to botanist Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), who’s being slowly wilted by her husband’s steadfast brooding and long nights of obsessive work. Still, she brings salt and vinegar to these proceedings, as does the Winters’ restive 16-year-old daughter, Callie (Alexia Fast).

“Why are we even here?” she demands. Everything is so “Kafka-esque.”

“At least she’s reading,” Liza quips to Frank after their daughter has stormed out.

Meanwhile, Frank is sharing his secrets and having an apparent secret relationship with a woman who doesn’t understand English. So in effect he’s not sharing anything at all regarding the holy hell he hopes to someday unleash on the enemy.

Manhattan is filmed on location in New Mexico, which is suitably dusty and barren for these particular purposes. Series creator Sam Shaw (who’s written for Showtime’s Masters of Sex) and veteran director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing and TNT’s current Murder in the First) do a solid job of recapturing a time and place of mystery, duplicity and remoteness.

There’s also been a divorce from basic constitutional rights, as evidenced during a Guantanamo Bay-esque interrogation in Episode 2. One of Schlamme’s old West Wing running mates, Richard Schiff, does some of his best work in years as the government emissary sent to unravel an accused spy.

Through the first two hours, Frank Winter and the young Charlie Isaacs are arch rivals in the A-bomb game. Charlie still resents Frank for being the only brainiac to reject his “paper.” He thinks he knows why: “You’re afraid I’m the meteor that’ll make you go extinct.”

“What is it with little boys and dinosaurs?” Frank retorts. Dinners don’t get much more uncomfortable, and this one was arranged by Liza Winter as a gesture of friendship to Charlie’s wife, Abby.

Some might find Manhattan to be too much on the gloomy side, with scant physical action -- sexual or otherwise -- to compensate during its first two hours. The buildup to history’s ultimate most violent act is not replete with beheadings, couplings or other pleasures or maimings of the flesh. Instead viewers will be treated to mind games and choice lines such as, “A girl with a Ph.D. is like a monkey with a harmonica” among all those 1940s male scientists expecting some sort of “circus act.”

WGN America, in just its second try on the dramatic series front, has excelled with a cerebral, character-driven morality play in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. John Benjamin Hickey’s point man performance leads the way, with his character’s demons and dilemmas already etched like fissures in his face. Carrying the weight of the world can be heavy lifting. Manhattan so far shows every sign of being able to shoulder the load.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Heading West again for network TV "press tour" (but not before leaving behind a slew of reviews)

It can be both a break and a backbreaker. But who’s complaining? Your friendly content provider will be landing in Southern California on Tuesday, July 8th for the annual summer edition of the Television Critics Association “press tour,” which runs all the way through July 23rd.

Included is the 30th annual TCA awards ceremony. I was a presenter at the very first one in 1985. So here we go again.

I’ll be writing periodically but exclusively for the New York-based tvworthwatching website during my time out there. But I’ll also be tweeting frequently on breaking developments and other oddities. The Twitter address is @unclebarkycom.

In the meantime, the unclebarky.com website has posted eight reviews of upcoming new series, beginning with the Wednesday, July 9th premiere of CBS’ Extant and ending with the Thursday, July 17th launch of FX’s You’re The Worst. In order of their air dates, here are the shows and the links to our reviews:

Extant (Wed., July 9th on CBS) -- Review is here.
Welcome to Sweden (Thurs., July 10th on NBC) -- Review is here.
Working the Engels (Thurs., July 10th on NBC) -- Review is here.
Masters of Sex, Season 2 (Sunday, July 13th on Showtime) -- Review is here.
The Strain (Sunday, July 13th on FX) -- Review is here.
Matador (Tues., July 15th on El Rey Network) -- Review is here.
Married (Thurs., July 17th on FX) -- Review is here.
You’re The Worst (Thurs., July 17th on FX) -- Review is here.

Hope these are enough to tide you over. See you in a few weeks.
Ed Bark

FX's You're The Worst plays much better than its title

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Two cynics find each other engaging in You’re The Worst. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 17th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Chris Geere, Aya Cash, Desmin Borges, Kether Donohue
Produced by: Stephen Falk

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
There are worse titles. To name just a few: We Can’t Wait to Be Canceled. Unthinkably Bad. Honk If You Find This Show Funny.

Still, FX’s You’re The Worst invites sucker punches from those who find it to be just that. Only a few jabs are necessary, though. This “dark twist on the romantic comedy genre” is far preferable to Married, which will be its “miserably in love” running mate on Thursday nights. The two principals in You’re The Worst at least are vigorously and often amusingly cynical. And over the course of the first two episodes sent for review, it even becomes possible to empathize with them -- if only just a little.

Chris Geere plays Jimmy Shive-Overly, a Brit with a very bad disposition. He’s first seen at a wedding reception, pointedly insulting the bride and groom. “Enjoy your sham of a marriage,” he says while getting tossed.

Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) also is leaving the reception -- but under her own power. She thinks she’s stolen a food processor from among the wrapped wedding gifts. But Jimmy tells her it’s just a blender. So she tosses it in disgust before they wind up in bed for what he hopes and expects will be another of his one-night stands. After all, he has sleep apnea and must wear an oxygen mask.

The sex talk can be blunt in You’re The Worst. But not as blunt as Gretchen is with Jimmy after he later treats her like garbage. Even he’s a bit aghast after she dresses him down. So they later agree to meet again.

“If We both know that it can’t work, then there’s no harm. Right?” she asks.

“Right,” he agrees.

Episode 2 begins back in his bed, with Gretchen telling Jimmy, “You’re losing your hair.” This of course sets him off, but not enough to end matters. In fact, Jimmy is more offended by his roommate Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) favorable view of the character Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Meanwhile, Gretchen’s best pal, Lindsay (Kether Donohue), is warning her, “Be careful, Gretch. Jimmy is a soul vampire.”

He’s also the author of “Congratulations, You’re Dying,” which lately has yielded a royalty check of $17.43. This leads to an attempt to place it among the “Staff Picks” at a Los Angeles book store.

Jimmy and Gretchen also have their first official date in Episode 2. It’s at a pricey, pretentious restaurant called Insouciance, where he’s enraged by their placement at a privacy-invading “communal table.”

You’re The Worst is perfectly willing to let its sparks fly while also managing to warm viewers to the overall premise of two flammable, relationship-phobic humans finding each other in fits and spurts. For now it seems to be worth making a commitment to this fairly unique series while Jimmy and Gretchen continue to parry and thrust.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FX may need a quickie divorce from Married

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Another strikeout for a loser hubby in the dim Married. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Nat Faxon, Judy Greer, Jenny Slate, Brett Gelman, Regina Hall John Hodgman, Paul Reiser, Michaela Watkins
Produced by: Andrew Gurland, Peter Principato, Paul Young, Salamo Levin

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Fox’s very first sitcom, Married . . . With Children, took a polar opposite view of wedded bliss. But the battling Bundys could be broadly, loudly funny, and the series endured for a decade.

Now we’re down to FX’s Married, billed as a “comedy about being miserably in love.” It turns out to be about as much fun as bed-wetting. Sample exchange from Episode 3, one of four sent for review:

Wife: “I don’t hate you. I just hate my life and my life is you.”

Husband: “Is this foreplay?”

That’s pretty much the lay of this land. Russ and Lina (Nat Faxon, Judy Greer) have three daughters and little else going for them. Including sex, which Russ wants but can never seem to get.

Although seldom employed as a freelance graphic designer, hangdog hubby still somehow has money to blow on nightly drinks at The Oaks Tavern. Morose pals A.J. (Brett Gelman) and Jess (Jenny Slate) join him. A.J.’s bitterly divorced and Jess is less than happily married to an older guy who has to wear knee braces to do it “doggy style.” Paul Reiser, his career now on fumes, is the older guy in question. Luckily for him, he’s not seen on camera until Episode 4.

Back on the home front, Lina is unfulfilled but also unwilling to go back to her old job. In Episode 3, she makes a half-hearted effort at layabout Russ’s urging, but finds herself “nauseous” at working for a boss who always seems to have “day-old breath.”

Greer, who played the recurring role of Kitty Sanchez on Arrested Development and voices Cheryl/Cherlene on FX’s Archer, is better known at the moment as the perky woman in Sprint’s omnipresent “Framily” ads. She’s generally appealing, but Married is an antonym of that.

Faxon is trying to rebound from Fox’s failed Ben and Kate comedy series, where he also played a jobless, direction-less, but more buoyant character. In Married, his main activities are asking for sex, welshing off his pal, Bernie (John Hodgman), drinking and laying around. In the premiere episode, wife Lina him to “be with someone else” sexually if he’d like. Of course this doesn’t go very well. Nothing goes very well in Married.

The opening half-hour also borrows a subplot from the second episode of The Cosby Show. Namely a goldfish funeral after Russ over-feeds “Norman.” But the basic humor of the situation is completely lost on Married.

Storylines in subsequent episodes include Russ’s visit to “the cock butcher” to firm up his vasectomy surgery, a $5,000 veterinarian bill, Russ’s and A.J.’s dalliance with two escort girls and Russ’s yearnings to take a shower with his wife.

It’s possible -- just about anything’s possible -- that Married somehow will find its way at some point during whatever its future might be. But so far this is a dour, sour affair replete with uninviting characters. That’s generally not a good recipe for return visits.

GRADE: D

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

New English language El Rey network takes a soccer/spy shot with Matador

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Tony Bravo (Gabriel Luna) is often on the run in Matador. El Rey photo

Premiering: Tuesday, July 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on the El Rey Network
Starring: Gabriel Luna, Alfred Molina, Nicky Whelan, Neil Hopkins, Tanc Sade, Yvette Monreal, Elizabeth Pena, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Jonny Cruz
Produced by: Roberto Orci, Dan Dworkin, Jay Beattie, Alex Kurtzman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Might as well keep that soccer vibe going, although few may be shouting “Gooooooal!!! over Matador, a new action spy series on the fledgling English language El Rey Network.

Its star is an undercover CIA operative who’s better known as Tony “Matador” Bravo since joining the L.A. Riot professional soccer club. Whether it’s available to you depends on your TV provider. The Austin-based El Rey, launched in December of last year by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, currently is on the menus of Time Warner, Comcast, DirecTV and Dish.

Gabriel Luna plays Tony, who’s initially a DEA agent until recruited by a “little known branch” of the CIA headed by the beauteous Annie Mason (Nicky Whelan). This change of pace comes after a drug bust gone bad leaves one guy with a chef’s meat cleaver in his head before Tony chases down Germany’s worst wurst maker.

The bad guy gets a gross , mouth-to-face surprise after Tony catches up with him. Then, after dinner with his parents, Tony is surprised by Annie and her CIA partner, Noah Peacott (Neil Hopkins). If he’ll agree to a “one-time op,” then the CIA will pay Tony back by paroling his half-brother Ricky (Jonny Cruz) from prison. Well, all right.

Part of the deal is for Tony to try out for the Riot soccer team, owned by billionaire Andres Galan (Alfred Molina taking the money and running). First he’ll have to undergo rigorous training from an ace woman player. Then Tony ends up squaring off against a man/beast Riot player known as “The Enforcer,” who blows snot in his face. Damn, this secret agent stuff can be rough. But Tony further earns his spurs by landing The Enforcer on the injury list in a video that ends up going viral.

It’s a little hard to deduce how this all fits into Tony’s assignment. Let’s just say that things eventually boil down to a big party thrown by Riot owner Galan and attended by both Tony and Annie. The plot doesn’t have to make any sense after she shows up in a gold dress that very becomingly fits her like a glove.

Thirteen episodes of Matador have been ordered for Season 1. So Tony’s not going anywhere. Instead he’ll continue to play for the Riot while also somehow entwining himself into the secret op of the week. Squint very, very hard and you might see a scant resemblance to I Spy, the 1960s NBC series in which Robert Culp and Bill Cosby went undercover as a globe-trotting tennis player and his trainer. Nets then, nets now.

Matador is fairly jaunty and breezy in the only episode sent for review. But it also throws in some serious-minded violence as part of the mix. Those who have access to the El Rey Network might want to give it a shot. Those without shouldn’t mope about it.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net