powered by FreeFind

Apple iTunes

Archives

Genius: Picasso so far is a portrait worth seeing

genius-featured-1024x704

Antonio Banderas looms large in Genius: Picasso. Nat Geo photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 24th at 8 p.m. (central) on National Geographic channel
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Alex Rich, Samantha Colley, Clemence Poesy, Poppy Delevingne, T.R.Knight, Aisling Franciosi, Robert Sheehan
Produced by: Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Vincent Van Gogh got a movie and Kirk Douglas an Oscar nomination for playing him in Lust For Life.

The same goes for Jackson Pollock and Ed Harris in Pollock. Charlton Heston didn’t get any Oscar recognition for playing Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy. But Heston was still big at the box office in 1965, so there’s that.

On the small screen, Joan Allen earned an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the title character in Lifetime’s Georgia O’Keeffe.

You see where we’re going? Arguably the most famous painter of them all, Pablo Picasso, had been given the brush-off until the National Geographic channel finally came along with Genius: Picasso, followup to its Genius: Einstein and precursor to the newly announced Genius treatment of Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley.

Nat Geo and principal executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer again have landed a name actor to front the second Genius while inviting Samantha Colley back to play one of the protagonist’s discarded women. Antonio Banderas portrays the older Picasso after Geoffrey Rush got an Emmy nod, but not a win, as Albert Einstein in his later years.

Both productions constantly bounce back and forth between their younger/older title characters. This time it’s Alex Rich as a youthful Picasso beset by unscrupulous art dealers, a naysaying father and a close, but ill-fated friendship with the deeply troubled Carlos Casagemas (Robert Sheehan). It’s again a 10-episode trek, with Nat Geo this time making the first four hours available for review compared to just two for the Einstein bio.

Genius: Picasso is sluggish in the early going before gaining traction in later episodes. Banderas makes a growingly strong impression as a willful and by now successful Picasso who proclaims in Episode 4, “Artists must be free. No restrictions of any kind.”

This also applies to the women he collects and discards, most notably the photographer/artist Dora Maar (Colley). It’s a terrific performance on her part, full of both fire and sadness at what’s befallen her in the company of a man for whom fidelity can be a passing fancy.

The other women in the older Picasso’s life are the first mother of his children, Marie-Therese Walter (Poppy Delevingne), and a new, young conquest, artist Francoise Gilot (Clemence Poesy). Younger Picasso, yet to be so cavalier with women, initially pledges allegiance to Fernande Olivier (Aisling Franciosi), whom he rescues from destitution and an abusive sculptor.

The production at times can be almost ridiculously chaste in its depiction of sexuality, even to the point of an opening disclaimer for Episode 4 that warns, “This program features works of art that may depict nudity.”

As with Genius: Einstein, global disruptions prompt some painful choices, with Picasso in a dilemma after his longtime poet friend, Max Jacob (T.R. Knight), is arrested by Nazis.

The lives and times of both Einstein and Picasso are not as easy to dramatize, as say, a renowned general rallying his troops or a boxer taking another turn in the ring. Watching Picasso paint can only go so far. Howard and Grazer compensate by also bringing his women to vivid life. They both serve his needs and rise up to reproach him when their own needs aren’t met. But Picasso invariably sees matters differently, as he did with his paintings. “You start as lovers,” he philosophizes in Episode 3. ”And if you are not careful, you become victims of your own passion.”

Genius: Picasso, with its notable performances by both Banderas and Colley, has a chance to become much more than a paint-by-the-numbers bio as its story proceeds. A shocking scene at the close of Episode 4 serves to further whet interest in the six hours yet to come. We’re still only in the mid 1940s at this point, and Picasso isn’t even bald yet on the road to a life span of 91 years. He has plenty of time yet to paint and sculpt his way to further greatness while also inflicting himself upon others as only he could.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's Westworld returns on a grander scale -- mind games included

Westworld_Season_2-920x470

This time she’s for real. Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s again easy to get lost in HBO’s Westworld, both from a total absorption standpoint and in trying to deduce what possibly, or impossibly, is going on.

Season 2 of television’s reigning most violent and perplexing series returns on Sunday, April 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) with 10 more episodes of twists, turns and assorted Gordian knots. Season One climaxed quite a while back -- on Dec. 4, 2016 -- so even devoted fans are advised to watch that finale anew before diving back in.

The second season’s first five episodes have been made available for review under strict guidelines about “spoilers” or even revealing the identity of the actor who guests as “El Lazo” in Episode 2. But many of the head-swirling goings-on in Westworld are almost impossible to translate into print with anything approaching lucidity. It’s like trying to divine the thought processes of a certain guy who hadn’t been elected President yet when HBO’s Westworld and its sprawling, futuristic park first opened on a weekly basis.

As in Season One, the series jolts into a higher gear whenever Ed Harris’ “The Main In Black” strides or rides into view. As revealed last season, he’s also the weathered, grown-old William (Jimmi Simpson), a “guest” who first visited the Westworld park decades ago. A wide-eyed lamb at the time, he eventually began to greatly enjoy the slaughterhouse and now is hell-bent to uncover whatever its central mystery is.

Even more transformed is Dorothy Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the park’s oldest programmed “host.” At the close of Season One, she at last had uncovered a mind of her own and memories of all the degradations she suffered. Dorothy’s first act of revenge was a point-blank execution of park co-founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) during a posh reception at which he planned to reveal his final epic “story.” An army of transformed hosts then advanced on the multitude of human guests while a wounded William smiled with satisfaction at the game finally being “real.”

Season Two also is built largely on the actions and reactions of two other pivotal holdover characters.

Host Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), madam of Westworld’s Sweetwater hotel, likewise has seemingly uncovered traumatic memories while unlocking a mind of her own. At the end of Season One, she engineered a daring escape from her human captors, only to return in the concluding minutes after being sucked back in by thoughts of her long-lost daughter. Finding her is now Maeve’s consummate quest. She’s aided by two fellow “hosts” with considerable fighting skills and the reluctant Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), a human who knows the lay of the land as Westworld’s former “narrative director.”

The fourth wheel is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), who began the series as the seemingly human head perfecter of the hosts’ software. He had a particular interest in Dolores’ well-being before learning he in fact was just like her. That’s because Ford had created him in the mold of his deceased partner Arnold, who belatedly had misgivings about the whole concept of Westworld and tried to stop it from opening. Yeah, it’s complicated.

In Season Two, Bernard/Arnold reels from one situation to another, never quite knowing whether he’s in the past or present. Early in Episode 1, though, he sets the table for the overall stakes at hand. “You frighten me sometimes, Dolores,” he tells her. “You’re growing, learning so quickly. I’m frightened of what you might become, the path you might take.”

The path for now seems to be strictly one of revenge. “I’ve evolved into something new,” Dolores tells a quartet of humans. “And I have one last role to play.” Pause for dramatic effect. “Myself.” Dolores and her posse then ride off, leaving four humans to die by hanging after they can no longer balance themselves atop the tombstones on which they’ve been placed. At the same time, orders from somewhere on high are to kill all the remaining hosts. It’s a veritable Civil War.

Westworld is well-suited to a newborn killing machine such as Dolores. The series sets a television record unlikely to ever be broken when it comes to strewn corpses in large quantities. And the deaths keep piling up throughout the first five episodes. As with the Starz network’s old Spartacus series, it gets to be a challenge finding new ways to end lives. Episode 5, the weakest of the bunch, even resorts to hard-core Samurai violence as a change of pace. Because, after all, “When a Shogun asks for meat, he does not wish to hear the story of the cow.”

One of Dolores’ partners in arms is host Teddy Flood (James Marsden), who still believes, in so many words, that “there’s a place for us” -- and a peaceable one at that. Previously programmed to shoot up an entire town, Teddy is becoming averse to mayhem. Let’s just say this doesn’t sit particularly well with the love of his life, so to speak.

The new season of Westworld is also, at times, an origin story. And in that context, Episode 4, subtitled “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” is built around the unraveling of a ruthless billionaire (his identity won’t be revealed) who finally is told in no uncertain terms, “It took me a long time to learn this. But some people are better off dead.”

It’s a riveting, out-of-body hour that might remind some viewers of the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror, where technological “advances” invariably are anything but. Episode 4 also ends with a revelation that’s actually fairly easy to comprehend. But it also introduces yet another BIG QUESTION to be answered whenever.

Wood’s Dolores is not in Episode 4, which is so good that she’s not really missed. But as her once passive host character comes alive, so does Wood’s performance. Newton’s Maeve also is reborn, giving Westworld a double shot of women’s empowerment. But Harris’ “Man in Black” is still the one to watch, taking full command of every scene he’s in. Meanwhile, Wright figuratively stumbles about as a host who didn’t know he was a host -- and now doesn’t seem to know which way is up. Perhaps a fresh injection of essential “cortical fluid” will help to somewhat remedy that.

Throughout these first five episodes, Westworld continues to have a mind-bending mind of its own, sometimes to the point of being close to nonsensical. It’s also a non-stop killing field, and that gets to be off-putting after a while. But Westworld also remains picturesque, challenging and undeniably distinct. It will be judged in the end on whether it all falls apart -- or somehow extricates itself and emerges as a comprehensible whole.

It’s still way too early to know if we’re being diddled on a grander scale than Lost or The Leftovers ever contemplated. The world of Westworld currently is all over the place, sometimes making the Westeros of HBO’s Game of Thrones seem like a small burg. Both series are bathed in blood and retribution. But with Game of Thrones, all eyes are on a concrete prize, namely the Iron Throne. In Westworld, the final objective is not nearly so clear.

“Do you know where you are?” Dolores asks one of her prey in Episode 1 of the new season. “You’re in a dream. You’re in my dream.”

You want clarity? Dream on.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

In times of turmoil, the Big Four broadcast networks are more devoted than ever to same old/same old

6694ee4a31d8894eafc17161cde03a22

Mark Harmon and NCIS are good to go for a 16th season. CBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Believe it or not, these are unprecedented times of stability, familiarity and continuity.

No, my marbles aren’t all lost yet. We’re talking about the world of television as seen on the Big Four broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Never before have so many prime-time series endured for so long, with most of them showing no signs of stoppage any time soon.

A lot of shows still come and go in a single season. One of ABC’s new fall entries, Ten Days in the Valley, seemed to last maybe 10 seconds before fading to what already seems to be a very distant past.

But a wealth of shows have hit the 10-season mark, or already gone well past it. This used to be a rarity. Now it’s becoming commonplace, with CBS not surprisingly setting the pace. Its roster of series with at least 10 seasons in prime-time is close to equaling its collective group of surviving shows with less mileage on them. And they’re not just hanging on. Most are still delivering big audiences well past what used to be the tune-out stage for both those who watch them and those who work on them.

60 Minutes, for instance. It’s been around for so long -- since Sept. 24th, 1968 -- that many of the program’s early mainstays are deceased. RIP Mike Wallace, Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Andy Rooney and Ed Bradley.

In no particular order, here are the other “junior” members of CBS’ 10 seasons or older club.

NCIS -- Last week, principal star Mark Harmon re-upped for a 16th season as tough but fair Leroy Jethro Gibbs. CBS entertainment president Kelly Kahl called him “absolutely timeless” in announcing the renewal. Harmon otherwise will be 67 by the time NCIS returns with new episodes next fall.

NCIS: Los Angeles -- The certain to be renewed spinoff will fire up Season 10 next fall, with Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J and Linda Hunt still heading the cast.

The Big Bang Theory -- Currently winding up its 11th season, it’s already been officially picked up for a 12th. The core cast, headed by Jim Parsons, remains firmly in place.

Criminal Minds -- Every year seems like it could be its last. But whatever happens, the show has been dispensing grisly violence since Sept. 22, 2005. And that makes it 13 seasons old. Once upon a time, Mandy Patinkin fronted the cast.

Survivor -- It dates all the way back to May 31, 2000, when the show made household names of “villainous” Richard Hatch and crusty old Rudy Boesch. The ongoing 36th edition of the cutthroat competition is subtitled “Ghost Island.” Jeff Probst is still snuffing out torches. And the ratings remain rock solid.

Big Brother -- It’s been going strong ever since premiering just over a month after Survivor -- on July 5, 2000. Julie Chen, wife of CBS Corporate potentate Leslie Moonves, has hosted from the very start. It pays to know someone.

The Amazing Race -- It quickly followed Survivor and Big Brother with a Sept. 5, 2001 launch. When the Emmy Awards brain trust created a best “reality/competition program” category in 2003, Amazing Race won the first seven statues, and in later years took home three more. Donald Trump, whose The Apprentice never won an Emmy for anything, took public offense at the time. (Well, of course he did.) As with Survivor and Big Brother, original host Phil Keoghan is still directing Amazing Race’s international traffic.

48 Hours -- No longer remotely in sync with its original title, it’s been an immovable staple of CBS’ prime-time lineup since Jan. 19, 1988. Dan Rather was the original anchor of a program that initially tracked stories over a two-day period.

Two other CBS prime-time venerables, Blue Bloods and the Hawaii Five-0 reboot, seem like cinches to return for their ninth seasons next fall after still performing very gainfully on Friday nights. Eventual 10th seasons for both are more likely than not. Plus, an announced Murphy Brown reprise with all of the surviving main cast members will make it the 11th season for yet another CBS old-timer.

Over at ABC, America’s Funniest Home Videos dates back to the Betamax and VHS era. It first made people fall down, go boom on Jan.14, 1990, with Bob Saget presiding as host. Could that really be true? Yep. Alfonso Ribeiro is now in charge of all that merriment.

The network’s 10-season+ club also includes:

20/20 -- It dates all the way back to June 6, 1978 as ABC’s answer to the ratings success of 60 Minutes. People tend to think that Hugh Downs was the original host. He wasn’t. The duo of Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes lasted for just the first night’s show before Downs was brought in. He hung in until 1999, usually with Barbara Walters at his side. Downs is now 97, which easily makes him the oldest living graduate of any network news magazine show.

The Bachelor -- Host Chris Harrison has been there from the start, on March 25, 2002, while also helming The Bachelorette, which began distributing roses early in the following year. The latest edition of The Bachelor made all kinds of goofy headlines after Årie Luyendyk, Jr. “shockingly” dumped Becca Kufrin in favor of Lauren Burnham. So yes, there’ll be many editions to come -- of both shows.

Dancing with the Stars -- It’s been an ABC staple since June 1, 2005, when Kelly Monaco controversially defeated John O’Hurley in a smallish field of six. The network then concocted a “Dance Off” rematch, which O’Hurley won. Coming on April 30th is Dancing with the Stars: Athletes, which will include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tonya Harding and attention-grabbing recent Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon in the mix.

Grey’s Anatomy -- Its ratings remain surprisingly healthy in Season 14. So much so that Grey’s is still ABC’s most-watched drama despite the departures of key characters played by Patrick Dempsey, Katherine Heigl, Sandra Oh and Kate Walsh. The series’ namesake, played by Ellen Pompeo, remains in place while Heigl since has logged a pair of failed series, State of Affairs and Doubt.

Modern Family -- ABC’s biggest Emmy-winner ever among its comedy series is in Season 9 and has already been renewed for a 10th, which currently is being planned as its last. But a spinoff could be coming.

American Idol -- ABC’s revival makes it Season 16 after Fox made Idol the most dominant series in TV history. Only Ryan Seacrest remains a constant.

Shark Tank -- Man, time flies. This is the show’s ninth(!) season and ABC already has renewed it for a 10th.

Roseanne -- Boffo opening night ratings prompted ABC to immediately renew the fractious Conners for another go-around next season. It’s currently in Season 10 after an original nine-season run.

ABC also is home to off-and-on reboots of several previously long-running game shows. Namely The Match Game, The $100,00 Pyramid, Celebrity Family Feud and To Tell the Truth. And no, I’m not going to even try to do the math on how long each of them has endured in one form or another.

Prime-time longevity also has its place at NBC and Fox, just not in the numbers racked up by ABC and CBS.

Still, the Peacock does have the longest-running scripted drama series in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is now winding up its 19th season and almost certainly will return for a 20th. Mariska Hargitay is the show’s lone remaining charter cast member.

NBC also has a double-digit veteran in America’s Got Talent, which this summer will be back for Season 13. No judge has gone the distance, but Howie Mandel is the longest-tenured.

Will & Grace, rebooted last fall with the entire original cast, has already been renewed for next season, which will make it a total of 10.

Sunday Night Football, which dates back to 2006 on NBC, will be back as that night’s dominant ratings force for Season 13.

And then there’s Dateline, which has been somewhere or other on NBC’s prime-time schedule since March 31, 1992. Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips originally co-anchored.

Finally, there’s Fox, home to The Simpsons since the first full half-hour version premiered with a Dec. 17, 1989 Christmas special. Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie got their first exposures in 1987 as snippets on Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show, the then newborn network’s second original series, after Married . . . With Children. Currently in its 29th season, The Simpsons has been picked up for a 30th.

Also on the cartoon front, Family Guy is in its 16th season overall after previously being canceled by Fox and then quickly picked up again after it showed continued staying power as part of the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” bloc.

Fox’s longest-running Gordon Ramsay series, Hell’s Kitchen, has been renewed for Season 18 next fall. And the network’s So You Think You Can Dance will be back for a 15th season this summer.

Whew, that’s a lot of permanence on just the Big Four broadcast networks in times when just about everything else seems to be in one big state of flux and confusion. And if we were to include The CW network -- oh let’s go ahead and do that -- then Supernatural comes into play. It’s been renewed for a 14th season next fall, with the two original stars, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, still scaring things up as brothers Sam and Dean Winchester.

OK, I’m going to go towel off now. Because this has been an even deeper dive than first anticipated.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's Elvis Presley: The Searcher has the added poignancy of Tom Petty's perspectives

ELVISPRESLEY3

Elvis in fighting trim during his 1968 NBC “comeback” special.

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It can be disconcerting to those of us who have reached a certain age. In truth, though, there’s no denying that the life and times of Elvis Presley have become ancient history to a majority of Americans.

Despite any remaining addled rumors to the contrary, “The King” hasn’t been among the living since Aug. 16, 1977. And his landmark comeback special first aired 50 years ago on NBC. But honest, kids, he really was a big deal. You can see for yourself on Saturday, April 14th while elders who grew up with him take another big drag on the nostalgia pipe.

HBO’s three-and-a-half hour Elvis Presley: The Searcher (7 to 10:30 p.m. central) is an evocative documentary without malice. It’s also a case study of an unfulfilled rock ’n’ roll mega-deity who near the end became “unmoored from the Earth experience,” in the words of writer Warren Zanes, author of 2015’s acclaimed Petty: The Biography.

Tom Petty’s audio presence throughout The Searcher lends an extra layer of poignancy. If Elvis is of another time, Petty still seems to be among our collective heres and nows after suddenly passing last October.

“We shouldn’t make the mistake of writing off a great artist by all the clatter that came later,” Petty says in the early minutes of The Searcher. All of his words are off-camera, as are those of Bruce Springsteen, Priscilla Presley, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris and a host of others who either knew Elvis personally, loved his music or studied his impact.

Directed by Thom Zimny and produced by Jon Landau, The Searcher tracks Presley from his boyhood devotion to black gospel music to his perhaps even greater and unfortunate fealty to Col. Tom Parker, who managed and merchandised him to death.

Presley’s 1968 TV special (presented by the Singer sewing machine company), and his solitary bike rides as a dirt poor Tupelo, Mississippi kid are visually referenced time and again in the three-and-a-half hour film.

Mike Binder, who produced the special, tried to give Presley free reign to be his true self anew after Parker had chained him to a conveyor belt of mostly junk movies and companion soundtrack albums. Even Priscilla calls them “hum-drum.” But as Binder tells it, an insecure Presley balked at the last second and had to be figuratively pushed onstage. The result was a revelation: Elvis in tight-fitting black leather tearing it up with his guitar and vocals while his old crew, including Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana, joyfully kept up with him.

As a kid, Springsteen recalls being revved up for months beforehand. “I can remember exactly where our TV set was set up in the dining room,” he says -- as well as precisely where he sat.

There’s an abundance of archival and performance footage in The Searcher, a good deal of it already oft-used and familiar. But Presley’s signature “American Trilogy” performance during those many-spangled later years in Las Vegas have never lost their emotional edge. “It’s very moving music,” says Petty in tandem with your reviewer wiping away a tear.

The return to stage performances, first in Vegas and later all around the country, made Presley relevant again while also hastening his demise.

At the time, “there isn’t a single studio that will throw any significant money down for an Elvis movie,” says Petty, who rejoices “Thank God!” for Presley’s second coming as a live performer.

On the other hand, they became addictive and self-destructive, with a geared-up Presley taking downers to put him to sleep and uppers to drag himself out there again.

“He’s actually pretending at home to be normal,” Springsteen says. “When he goes out on onstage at night, it’s actually who he is. It’s a very difficult dichotomy.”

Says Petty: “He knew he had try to find something. But I think he gave up. I think he felt outgunned, and gave up.”

The Searcher curiously does not include author Peter Guralnick as one of the off-camera contributors. He’s written a perhaps definitive two-volume biography of Presley (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) while also penning 2015’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll.

Phillips is given full credit in the documentary for producing the Sun Records single, “That’s All Right (Mama),” that put Presley in a spotlight that never left him. The B-side, a still strikingly original version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” wasn’t bad either.

By the time of his death at age 42, Presley had, according to a printed epilogue, made 31 films, recorded 784 songs and performed 1,684 concerts. But don’t turn away just yet. The Searcher concludes with Presley’s full performance of “If I Can Dream” at the close of the 1968 TV special followed by Petty’s cover of “Wooden Heart” from Elvis’ G.I. Blues movie.

Those are very disparate songs, but performed by kindred spirits who tragically both died from prescription drug overdoses. Petty took his to relieve an abundance of physical pain, including a newly fractured hip suffered on what became his final tour. For Presley, who so famously shook his hips, the pain apparently ran well beyond that.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Netflix finds a way to relaunch Lost in Space

netflix-lost-in-space_1523256219622

”Danger, Will Robinson.” But this is not your grandfather’s Robot. Netflix photo

Premiering: All 10 Season One episodes begin streaming Friday, April 13th on Netflix
Starring: Molly Parker, Toby Stephens, Maxwell Jenkins, Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall, Parker Posey, Ignacio Serricchio
Produced by: Zack Estrin, Kevin Burns, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Jon Jashni, Neil Marshall, Marc Helwig

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Season of the Reboot now has a reboot that itself was rebuilt from the very start. (Try saying that fast 10 times.)

Many moons ago, in 1965, Lost in Space went into orbit on CBS and lasted for 83 episodes.

Then came a big, splashy 1998 feature film. And on Friday, April 13th, Netflix fires up the saucer-shaped Jupiter 2 for new adventures involving the five-member Robinson family. It’s a considerable improvement on both the TV series and the big-screen movie, although in some ways that’s like saying high-definition TV provides a much sharper picture than the now prehistoric analog era did. Since I endured both the critically panned movie and a laughable pair of pilots for the original Lost in Space, please indulge me in a little setting-the-stage research.

Creator Irwin (“The Master of Disaster”) Allen ended up making two Lost in Space launches, both of them in black-and-white before the series went to color in Season 2. Each can be seen on hulu.com, and it’s remarkable how drastically the series changed.

In the unaired pilot that initially sold the show to CBS, there’s no Robot or Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), the duplicitous double agent who programmed the Jupiter 2 into self-destruction before being trapped onboard himself. Instead, the Robinsons and pilot Don West were all frozen in tubes for what was supposed to be a 98-year trip to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star that could accommodate human life and provide a safe haven from a grossly overpopulated and dying Earth.

An intense meteor shower altered those plans and severely damaged Jupiter 2 while also altering its course. Jolted awake, the crew managed to make a crash-landing. And by the end of the unaired pilot, they’d already survived three life-threatening altercations -- with a killer giant, a nasty sea storm that threatened to send them down a sinkhole and a mysterious cave in which they were almost trapped during an earthquake.

Scratch all of that.

By the time Lost in Space premiered on CBS, the duration of Jupiter 2’s mission had been reduced to five-and-a-half years. The evil Zachary Smith entered the picture and immediately skulked around. During the course of his sabotage, he re-programmed the resident Robot to destroy the ship and also knocked out a security guard before pushing him down a chute into a radioactive waste bin.

But when Smith could not exit as planned, he awoke the crew and helped them to battle the Robot after it went on a rampage. By the end of the episode, everyone was still on board except for expedition commander John Robinson. In a cliffhanger ending, he remained floating in outer space after his lifeline snapped. Wife Maureen was desperately trying to save him with a substitute line when viewers were informed that Lost in Space would return next week -- “Same Time, Same Channel.” The Jupiter didn’t crash-land onto a strange planet until Episode 3.

Except for the addition of Harris as Smith -- and Dick Tufeld as the voice of the Robot -- the principal Lost in Space cast remained unchanged in both versions. Namely, Guy “Zorro” Williams played John, with June “Lassie” Lockhart as Maureen, Marta Kristen as older daughter Judy, Angela Cartwright as Penny, Billy Mumy as their little brother Will and Mark Goddard as Don West.

Two decades after Lost In Space left CBS, it re-emerged as a feature film with a pretty imposing cast that included Oscar winner William Hurt as John Robinson and current lead actor Oscar champ Gary Oldham as the sinister Zachary Smith. The film also marked Matt “Joey” LeBlanc’s debut as a “serious actor” in the role of cocky Don West. The special effects were far superior -- how could they not be? -- to the original’s, but the plot devolved into a muddy, murky mess. LeBlanc looked good, though.

OK, let’s get back to the here and now of Lost in Space, whose Netflix reboot will consist of 10 episodes in Season One. Five were made available for review, and some obvious changes have been made to reflect changing times.

For one, oldest daughter Judy Robinson (Taylor Russell) is black, which is referenced fleetingly in Episode 5 when she notes that John Robinson (Toby Stephens) “came into the picture after I was born.”

As for Zachary Smith, he was left for dead and his identity stolen by a ruthless stowaway (Parker Posey) who boarded another ship, The Resolute, under false pretenses. It then crashed.

Fellow survivor Don West is played by Argentinian actor Ignacio Serricchio. No longer a pilot, he’s good with his hands as a Mr. Fix It. But he’s also a quick-quipping smuggler of luxury items such as premium whiskey. Oh, and West has an unusual companion, a chicken named Debbie.

And although John Robinson ostensibly is the Jupiter 2 commander, it’s his strong-willed wife, Maureen (a vivid Molly Parker), who gives most of the orders. They had been estranged, as recurrent flashbacks show, with John more devoted to combat posts abroad than life at home. The two other Robinson children, Penny and Will, respectively are played by Mina Sundwall and Maxwell Jenkins.

The young Jenkins is completely appealing in this precocious role, particularly when he’s discoursing with the super-strength Robot who’s become his protector after both were in peril. “Danger, Will Robinson,” a trademark line in the original series (even though it was uttered just once by the Robot), is very much in play during the first five episodes of the Netflix reboot.

In Episode 1, the Robinsons quickly first land on frozen tundra after Jupiter 2 is pelted by a meteor storm while they’re playing the card game, Fish. Judy ends up in a particularly icy predicament that carries over into future episodes. But Will’s first encounter with the Robot is the real game-changer.

The family dynamics and special effects mesh well together in these first five hours. Lost in Space has to be more than a space monster a week to survive as a long-distance runner. But when the action does kick in, it’s both pulsating and convincingly staged.

Things can drag a little at times. And the series clearly borrows from Lost with its back stories of the key characters. These are much shorter flashbacks, though, with the phony “Dr. Smith’s” previous machinations so far the most intriguing.

Lost in Space didn’t have to be very good at all to improve on either the original or the movie. Still, it’s much better than might have been expected, as is Netflix’s ongoing One Day At a Time reboot. The Robinsons and their antagonists look good to go again. The only thing stopping them would be a return to a somehow revitalized planet Earth. But at this point in their highly adventurous and challenging lives, that could only be a crashing bore.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Pacino takes the HBO field again with a bravura performance in Paterno

pacino-paterno-jpg

Al Pacino sure-handedly tackles the title role in Paterno. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Having dispensed with cutthroat lawyer Roy Cohn, death-dealing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and convicted murderer Phil Spector, HBO’s most famous repertory player is back with another real-life portrayal -- and also with the TV performance of the year thus far.

Al Pacino is gruff, confused, in denial but increasingly haunted as the title character in Paterno (Saturday, April 7th, 7 p.m. central on HBO). Directed by Barry Levinson, the film spotlights Joe Paterno’s dark final days as Penn State’s legendary football maestro. Less than two weeks after becoming the winningest Division 1 coach in college football history, Paterno was fired in November 2011 for his alleged impassivity in a scandal involving former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who eventually was convicted on 45 counts of sexually molesting young boys.

How much the then 84-year-old Paterno knew -- and how long he knew it -- is still debatable and controversial. But within two months of his ouster, he was dead of lung cancer, leaving behind five children and a widow who still proclaim his innocence.

Paterno sets this stage with an opening scene of “JoePa” shuffling down a starkly white hospital corridor in search of a restroom -- “I got turned around” -- before he’s strapped into a cylinder for an MRI exam. From there he has a stricken look, with the film offering repeated brief glimpses of Paterno in this state of anxiety between its reconstructions of the events that quickly overtook him in his 46th and final season at Penn State.

A review screener provided for critics otherwise has an obvious editing error in the early going.

Penn State’s 10-7 home victory over Illinois, which gave Paterno the all-time record of 409 wins, has a scoreboard shot showing the Nittany Lions trailing 7-3 near the end of the game. But the editors are getting ahead of themselves, because the game in fact is still late in the first half when the Penn State quarterback fumbles in scoring territory. This leads to a scoreless tie at halftime -- which the scoreboard also shows. Penn State then rallies in the final minutes from that prematurely shown 7-3 deficit. There’s still ample time for HBO to fix this gaffe before Paterno’s premiere. It would be unfortunate if such a strong film begins with a fumble. And believe me, sports fans will notice.

Paterno has scant time to enjoy his record-setting accomplishment. There’s a bye week before Penn State’s pivotal game against Nebraska, giving the coach two weeks to prepare his troops. But just six days after the win over Illinois, the university is rocked by the Sandusky allegations while Paterno initially can’t be bothered.

“Hey, I’m trying to work here!” he bellows at one of his sons.

It’s more of the same when he’s later asked, “Dad, did you know anything else about Jerry?”

“You’re badgering me!” the old man retorts. “I don’t like it! I’ve got a game to prepare for!”

The investigative push has been spurred by young Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for her initially lonely efforts. But now the noose is finally tightening, with Paterno’s devoted wife, Sue (Kathy Baker), becoming physically ill upon reading some of the graphic allegations against Sandusky.

This is a tough story to capsulize and dramatize, but Paterno is mostly up to the challenge during those times when Pacino isn’t on camera. Sandusky, played by Jim Johnson, has no dialogue and is seen only in flashbacks. In Paterno’s mind, he increasingly seems to be smirking.

Pacino, who won Emmys as Cohn and Kevorkian, and a nomination as Spector, is a cinch to again be in the awards hunt. As a considerably younger man, he last played a football coach in the 1999 feature film Any Given Sunday. Charitably speaking, his fictional Tony D’Amato oftentimes went over the top. But Pacino is a marvel as Paterno, portraying him as a guy who seemingly doesn’t know what hit him while many students on campus rally behind him.

Belligerent at first, reconciled in the end, Pacino’s Paterno does not come off as an arch villain. But the film clearly portrays him as complicit when he could have been pro-active in stopping Sandusky. On the day of the big Nebraska game, which Penn State lost, Paterno is portrayed as lost within himself, wandering through his home in a daze after walking away from the TV telecast. In these scenes, Pacino communicates volumes without ever saying a word. His Paterno is a broken man, torn from within and without.

Then comes the climactic hospital “Diagnosis Day” while at the same time reporter Ganim receives a phone call from another man who says he was once molested by Sandusky. He claims to have talked to Paterno about it -- way back in 1976.

Sandusky’s victims otherwise are condensed on camera to a single young man with a speaking part. Aaron Fisher (Benjamin Cook), who put Ganim’s investigation in motion, is convinced that nothing will happen to Sandusky. While the heat on Paterno intensifies, Fisher is chased down by two suspecting track team teammates who taunt him as a “faggot.”

In contrast, Paterno is lionized by chanting students who gather in front of his home after Penn State’s board of trustees announces his firing. For the first and only time, he directly addresses them. Tend to your studies, he tells them. “We’re gonna go on from here, OK?” And then almost as an afterthought, “Pray a little bit for those victims, OK?”

Pacino has had many fine hours as a big screen actor. But as an elder statesman, his best work has all been for HBO. He’ll be 78 later this month, but is still tapping his reservoir. The portrayal of Paterno is right up there with Pacino’s very best work. Kudos to HBO for keeping him center stage, which is where he still belongs.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Last O.G. gives TBS and Tracy Morgan a vehicle that could go far

MV5BYzQ2YzYwMmEtYzBhMC00ZWE0LThiM2UtZjY1ZWFhYjUzYTQzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjMwMzc3MjE@._V1_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_

Tracy Morgan is very much the main man in The Last O.G. TBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 3rd at 9:30 p.m. (central) on TBS
Starring: Tracy Morgan, Tiffany Haddish, Cedric the Entertainer, Ryan Gaul, Allen Maldonado, Taylor Mosby, Dante Hoagland, Malik Yoba, Joel Marsh Garland
Produced by: Jordan Peele, Tracy Morgan, John Carcieri, Eric Tannenbaum, Kim Tannenbaum, Joel Zadak

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Nearly four years removed from a near-fatal car wreck, Tracy Morgan is newly freed from 15 years of other trials and tribulations as the front-and-center star of a bold new TBS sitcom.

It makes for both a welcome return and a coming out party, with The Last O.G. looking to be well-suited to Morgan’s out-sized talents while also fine-tuning and sometimes even sweetening his persona as an ex-con named Tray.

Busted and incarcerated for dealing drugs (while also taking the fall for a bigger fish named Wavy), Tray returns to his old and now somewhat gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood in hopes of re-hooking with girlfriend Shay (Tiffany Haddish). They last were together on the night of American Idol’s Season One finale, when Tray wanted Justin Guarini to win over Kelly Clarkson because “his voice is buttuh.”

But all these years later, Shay calls herself Shannon, has married a white guy named Josh (Ryan Gaul) and is the mother of 15-year-old twins Amira (Taylor Mosby) and Shazad (Dante Hoagland). Both are black and Tray clearly is the father, a fact that O.G. makes clear from the start. Can their blood dad become an integral part of the kids’ lives? Does Shay/Shannon retain any strong feelings for Tray? And might he really make something of himself, as he vows he’ll do this time? For starters, he gets a job as a coffee house barista who has some bawdy ways of making customers feel welcome.

O.G. (which stands for Original Gangster) has a 10-episode first season order from TBS, which made the first six available for review. What stands out is the letter-perfect ensemble casting, Morgan’s ability to perform as more than a caricature and the comfy fit of Tray’s adventures and misadventures.

There could also be potential creative issues down the road. One can root for Tray’s success but not necessarily for a second chance romance between him and the woman he still worships as the “love of my life.” That’s because Josh is portrayed as a genuinely good and caring guy whom Shay/Shannon clearly loves. Why unduly mess with that?

The cast also includes a self-important halfway house director named Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer) and Shay’s screwup sidekick cousin, Bobby (Allen Maldonado). Wavy (Malik Yoba) also periodically reappears, but in a new and seemingly legit line of work. Shay’s halfway house upper bunk mate is Big Country (Joel Marsh Garland), who’s big and country and sometimes foul.

Morgan is in good hands with co-creator/executive producer Jordan Peele, who won a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar last month for Get Out and also has an Emmy as the co-star of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele sketch series. So while Morgan is hardly a subtle screen presence, he’s more dimensional than ever before in O.G.. This is particularly evident in Episodes 4 and 6, which sequentially have Tray going on his first post-prison date and trying to school son Shazad on how to be a man after an incident at his school.

There’s no danger of Morgan or his show going squishy soft, though. O.G. makes liberal use of f-bombs, some of them barely muffled, and also sprinkles its dialogue with the full version of the n-word. C the T’s character is fond of dick references -- “The phallus is the number one piece of universal comedy gold” -- and one of rising star Haddish’s better and funnier moments comes in Episode 3 when she explodes, “I’m about to light yo ass up!”

Episode 5 features a guest appearance by Chrissy Metz of NBC’s This Is Us, whose character, Pooh Cat, had something of a thing with Tray in prison. The claws are out after she’s surprised to learn that he got out without telling her. Tray’s at first on the run and then disposed to do a little noisy business with Pooh Cat. “You look like Beyonce mixed with Rihanna mixed with Nell Carter,” he coos. OK, enough.

One more thing. Tray learned how to cook in prison and now considers himself a gourmet chef. He can’t convince anyone else of this in the early going, but O.G. could step back up to the plates as the series progresses.

Morgan’s real-life recovery makes him well worth rooting for. And now he has a character that quickly takes root. The Last O.G. keeps his decibel levels up, allowing Tray to vent before he bursts. But it also occasionally turns down his volume, letting him hit a sweet spot now and then while making it all seem to come naturally. Perhaps Morgan never knew he had this in him. Maybe audiences didn’t either. Surprise, surprise.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

RIP Steven Bochco, who willed broadcast TV into adulthood

online_video_5916667-e1522627667828

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Steven Bochco occasionally would give an inch, but only if you first gave him a mile.

Perhaps that’s a stretch, but here’s a guy who gave a damn -- about both the potential of broadcast television and his own legacy as a pathfinder whose Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue in particular explored brave new worlds in adult drama.

Bochco died Sunday of leukemia, one of the few fights he couldn’t win in the end. His Hill Street Blues, co-created with Michael Kozoll, arrived on NBC in times when the Peacock network ranked dead last in the ratings among the then three major broadcast networks. Its low-rent programming included the likes of BJ and the Bear, Sheriff Lobo, Speak Up America, Games People Play and the Marie variety hour.

In league with the Grant Tinker/Mary Tyler Moore founded MTM Enterprises, Bochco and Kozoll barged in with an ensemble cop drama unlike any seen before. NBC was first in line -- and used Hill Street as its leadoff hitter -- at the 1980 network TV summer “press tour” in Los Angeles, which also marked my initial trip out West as a rookie critic. In some ways it’s been all downhill since then. Hill Street had that kind of impact with its menagerie of sharply drawn, seriously flawed characters and a fearless approach to issues of race, police brutality and sexual politics.

TV critics gladly became incessant and insistent cheerleaders for Hill Street, which didn’t premiere until Jan. 15, 1981 due to an actors’ strike. The ratings were lousy at first, but NBC faced vilification if it dared cancel the only high-quality series on its entire schedule. At an NBC press event the following summer, Bochco and the Hill Street cast profusely thanked critics for saving their show. Hill Street then went on to win an armload of Emmys -- seven all told -- for its first season. No further assistance was needed after that, even though Hill Street never finished higher than 21st place in the yearly prime-time Nielsen ratings.

Bochco’s other signature shows were L.A. Law, Doogie Howser, M.D., NYPD Blue and to a certain degree, Murder One. But none of his series was more controversial than NYPD Blue, which he saw as a necessary effort to embolden advertiser-supported broadcast TV in times when unfettered premium cable network dramas were using whatever language and visuals they pleased.

Premiering in September 1993 on ABC, NYPD Blue initially ran into a buzz saw of boycotting stations, including one in a Top Ten market, Dallas-Fort Worth’s WFAA-TV (Channel 8). The show’s use of partial nudity and dicey language rendered it “soft-core porn” in the eyes of some. The Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association bought newspaper ads urging viewers to both reject NYPD Blue and demand that ABC cancel it.

Bochco, in a teleconference with TV critics tied to L.A. Law’s last episode, said of Wildmon, “I assume he’s not a lunatic, but that’s just an assumption.” He also wondered about how many people reverend Wildmon “could have clothed and fed and housed (with the ad money spent) beating up on us. If I didn’t exist, he’d invent me.”

WFAA refused to air NYPD Blue for its entire first two seasons -- inviting ridicule locally as “Chapel Eight” and prompting Bochco to jab, “C’mon, you guys, get with it. Snap out of it, chuckleheads.”

NYPD Blue, Bochco’s longest-running series with 12 seasons, won just one Emmy as TV’s best drama but four trophies for Dennis Franz as terminally troubled detective Andy Sipowicz.

During a 2005 set visit commemorating NYPD Blue’s final season, Bochco said the broadcast networks had scaled back on “adult content” in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the preceding year’s Super Bowl.

“I don’t think today we could launch or sell NYPD Blue in the form it launched 12 years ago,” he contended. “I mean, we’ve fought with ABC broadcast standards in the past year over things that we hadn’t fought about for 10-plus years.”

Franz, who had four detective partners during the run of the show (David Caruso, Jimmy Smits, Ricky Schroder and Mark-Paul Gosselaar), recalled asking Bochco, “Who is going to give a damn about this guy? He’s a womanizer, he’s a loose cannon, he’s a drunk, he’s an atheist, he’s got everything going against him. And I got the vote of confidence from Steven saying, ‘You will find a way to make him likable.’ “

Bocho had his share of flops, too, some of them rather spectacular. His singing/dancing Cop Rock, which premiered in fall 1990 when L.A. Law and Doogie Howser also were on the air, got played off after just a half-season. The animated Capitol Critters and the base level sitcom Public Morals likewise got quick hooks.

He also could be churlish at times, most notably when Public Morals drew the worst reviews of his career in 1996.

“The overwhelming majority of those folks are dopes,” Bochco said in reference to TV critics who had been championing him for years. In this particular case, he lost a fight with ABC to use the words “pussy patrol” in the show’s first episode. Many critics already had branded Public Morals unfunny, unlikable, infantile and well beneath the high standards Bochco previously had set.

In later years, he had modest success with two series for the TNT cable network, Raising the Bar and Murder in the First. The latter series ran from 2014-2016, and was Bochco’s last. By that time he was both ailing and a lion in winter who had roared mightily for a quarter-century. Hill Street Blues helped to pave the way for Bochco’s future successes and for many thoroughly adult dramas to follow, including NBC’s St. Elsewhere, HBO’s The Sopranos, FX’s The Shield, and AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

He had reached a comfort level by the time of NYPD Blue’s second season, telling TV critics, “I’m very much where I want to be with it. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh gee, now I want to add 15 new words to the TV glossary and I want to push for even more explicit nudity.’ No, that’s not what it’s about. It’s just nice to be able to access a more colorful range of language, because it makes this show grittier and more real. The occasional nudity is on an as-needed basis.”

Bochco was never more needed than in the 1980s. He steered broadcast network television into previously uncharted territory -- and then fought hard to keep it from retreating. It took a singular and single-minded individual to do that. That was Steven Bocho -- and he never shirked from the task.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net