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Mid-season merry-go-round: Alcatraz gives Fox another prison break


Alcatraz looms large again, and not just as a tourist trap. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 16th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia, Sam Neill, Robert Forster, Parminder Nagra, Jason Butler Harner, Jonny Coyne
Produced by: J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Johnson, Daniel Pyne

By ED BARK
Alcatraz doesn't lack for tourists -- and probably never will. But they might have to commission a few more boats if Fox's same-named series becomes a prime-time mainstay.

Premiering Jan. 16th with back-to-back episodes (only the first hour was available for review as of this writing), Alcatraz is the latest serial string-along from creator/producer J.J. Abrams, the mind behind Fringe, Lost and Alias. And it looks as though it might well have legs, with at least two of them on the lam each week.

Here's the deal. Alcatraz last housed inmates on March 21, 1963, when it was closed because of rising costs and "decrepit facilities." Except that the last remaining 256 prisoners and 46 guards mysteriously vanished.

For the purposes of the first episode, they included inmate Jack Sylvane (guest star Jeffrey Pierce), who had some really rotten experiences on "The Rock" after being transferred there from Leavenworth (where he also got a bum deal).

In the opening "present day" sequence, a little girl tourist strays from her group and screams upon seeing a disheveled guy asleep on a cell floor. A tour guide simply tells him he has two minutes to get out before leaving him be. That's flatly preposterous. In real life, this vagrant would immediately be personally escorted off the island and then probably arrested. But in Alcatraz, the guy (who turns out to be Sylvane) leaves all by himself and then murders an old former Alcatraz warden who had made his life a living hell.

Meanwhile, detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) is still in a funk after losing her partner three months ago. She blames herself for his death. And the bad guy they were chasing is still at large.

While on the scene of the Tiller murder, Rebecca runs afoul of government agent Emerson Hauser (a sinister-sounding Sam O'Neill), who orders her off the case.

"Thanks for being a dick about it," she rejoins. But Hauser of course has reasons for big-footing the investigation after claiming federal jurisdiction. He used to work at Alcatraz. And he knows something about all those missing persons.

The other principal character is Dr. Diego "Doc" Soto (Jorge Garcia from Lost), an expert on Alcatraz and the author of several books on this subject. Madsen consults him after learning that the fingerprints on the Tiller crime scene belonged to Sylvane. Why, that's impossible, he says. The guy died more than 30 years ago.

The pursuit of Sylvane twists and turns its way through the Bay area while flashbacks fill in some of the blanks of his prison life traumas. By the end of the first hour, Madsen and Soto have formed a tentative alliance with Hauser and his leather clad assistant, Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra). Their bottom-line mission is to get to the bottom of what happened back in 1963. But Hauser's not telling all, of course. And the episode ends with a nice little jolt.

Abrams and his co-producers and writers are certain to proceed very deliberately in terms of unfolding Alcatraz's umpteen layers of "mythology." But they also have a self-contained mechanism in place, with each episode likely to result in the apprehension of another missing person from the prison's last days.

The pulling power is pretty strong for starters. Unfortunately, though, Al Capone wasn't among the last batch of Alcatraz inmates. He developed syphilis while incarcerated and was transferred from the famed lockup in early 1939. Then again, this is a J.J. Abrams series. So perhaps Big Al could do a little extra time-traveling during a "very special" ratings sweeps episode of Alcatraz.

For now, though, this is a series that's seemingly built on an arresting foundation. And with a total of 302 prisoners and guards unaccounted for (before subtracting Sylvane), there's no imminent danger of running out of supplies.

GRADE: B

Mid-season merry-go-round: Syfy offers another draining ground for Canadian import Lost Girl


Meet the Faes of the Canadian import Lost Girl. Syfy photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Anna Silk, Kris Holden-Reid, Ksenia Solo, Zoie Palmer, Rick Howland, K.C. Collins
Produced by: M.A. Lovetta

By ED BARK
Here's a drama about a nice enough woman who can't seem to curb her habit of sucking people dry. But no, she's not a predatory golddigger -- or a TV news director.

Instead the Canadian import Lost Girl is pretty much Syfy's answer to True Blood, even without vampires in its mix. Leading lady Bo (Anna Silk) happens to be a Fae, which publicity materials describe as "creatures of legend who pass as humans while secretly feeding off them." She's also of the Succubus persuasion, sustaining herself via mouth-to-mouth sexual encounters.

The Jan. 16th premiere finds Bo lately making ends meet as a bartender. But wouldn't you know, a lippy teen pickpocket named Kenzi (Ksenia Solo) is on the prowl, lifting wallets before attracting the interest of a traveling salesman who drugs her drink. Bo spots his move and trails the both of them before giving the scoundrel a little anti-resusitation.

At least he dies with a smile on his face before Bo and Kenzi become reasonably fast friends. The kid needs a place to stay and some companionship. And Bo's dumpy pad would be more than good enough.

"Every supergirl needs a partner. Let me be your Robin," Kenzi implores after Bo admits that "I sort of drain people" to stay alive.

They're both fated to encounter a group of Dark and Light Fae clans who insist that Bo join one of their sides. Some sort of evil queen named Ebony Florette Marquis (Emmanuelle Vogier) is particularly insistent. Because hey, "if word gets out we've had a free Fae under our noses, we'll be the laughing stocks of the counties."

First, though, Bo must be "tested" at an abandoned glass factory that doubles as an arena full of cheering Faes. This gives the writers an excuse to weave a little Spartacus action into the story, with Bo facing off against a bare-chested behemoth with a really long tongue.

She's prepared for battle by a Fae homicide detective named Dyson (Kris Holden-Reid), who slips her some of his powers via a big bold smooch. "Did you feel that?" a dazzled Bo says. "It was like the Fourth of July in my mouth."

Lines like that help to make Lost Girl see-worthy without taking it to the level of must-see. And snippy little Kenzi likewise livens things up with her sassy one-liners.

Bo eventually chooses neither side of the Fae equation, with her declaration of independence not sitting too well. Weekly adventures ensue, with our closely watched heroine getting help from Dyson when needed while also seeking to curb her appetites. Aiding her on the sly is a human doctor named Lauren (Zoie Palmer), who's in servitude to the Faes and would like to have more carnal knowledge of Bo.

"My God, you're beautiful. I mean that professionally," Lauren tells Bo while examining her on Fae orders. Hubba hubba, but so far no rubba dubba.

Lost Girl already has two seasons and 35 episodes in the bank as a Canadian hit. And it should do just fine on Syfy -- Fae fum.

GRADE: C+

Mid-season merry-go-round: Fox's animated Napoleon Dynamite doesn't need to go back to the drawing board


Pedro and Napoleon remain fast friends in cartoon version. Fox photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 15th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox, with another episode at 8:30 p.m.
Voiced by: Jon Heder, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Sandy Martin, Jon Gries, Diedrich Bader
Produced by: Mike Scully, Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess

By ED BARK
Fox's animated version of the cartoonish movie Napoleon Dynamite is amusing enough to merit the continuation.

It's just that sometimes the cover letters from show runners are even funnier. For instance, here's the opening pitch to TV critics from co-executive producers Mike Scully, Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess: "That holiest time of the year -- television midseason -- is upon us. We were going to make a donation to Herman Cain's presidential campaign in your name, but instead have decided to send you this DVD containing the first two episodes of the animated series Napoleon Dynamite."

They also note that "despite the success of the original film (which was released in 2004), there were never any sequels such as 'Napoleon Dynamite: Money Never Sleeps' or 'Napoleon Dynamite: Ghost Protocol.' So the characters never wore out their welcome with the audience and remain popular to this day."

OK, let's segue to our review after noting that all of the original cast members, principally Jon Heder in the title role, have reunited to voice their cartoon likenesses. Which is highly unusual, even if some of them don't have a whole lot else going on at the moment.

The Jan. 15th launch is two-pronged, with the "Thundercone" episode airing at 7:30 p.m. (central) and "Scantronica Love" at 8:30 p.m. Dynamite will then return on Jan. 29th in its regular Sunday, 7:30 p.m. slot.

The first half-hour shows how much you can do with the absurdity of 16-year-old Napoleon getting an outpouring of zits on his forehead after his twice-as-old loser brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) hits him with some greasy fried chicken skin.

Cantankerous grandma (Sandy Martin), with whom the boys live in nowhere Preston, Idaho, soon tries to squeeze them dry after Napoleon warns her they're "not ready yet." He's right. But maybe an FDA-disapproved ointment called Rack-U-Tane will help in the healing process. Side effects can include B.O. and "unbridled rage," which Napoleon soon develops while his forehead keeps steaming. This enables him to be a standout combatant at Preston's underground Pioneer Punch Club. And so on.

Amy Poehler lends a guest voice to a character named Misty, whom Kip takes to the local Goof Nutz Pizza animatronic show before she's captivated by Napoleon's sudden physical prowess. Napoleon's best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and his jughead uncle Rico (Jon Gries) also figure in the story.

The second episode, subtitled "Scantronica Love," finds students at Preston Senior High ("Now Teaching Evolution" says the sign at the entrance) being romantically matched by a badly outdated computer.

Napoleon is hooked up with a Japanese exchange student named Tokiko (Lauren Tom). This dismays the only classmate who has a crush on him, goodly Deb (Tina Majorino). She's instead paired with self-important bully boy Don Moser (Jared Hess), whose empty-headed girlfriend Summer (Haylie Duff) draws Pedro.

The episode includes a laugh-out-loud line from one of Preston's wealthier denizens, who tells Napoleon, "You're tangling with a force you don't understand -- the upper middle class."

Napoleon Dynamite's humor is gentle compared to the oft-coarse Seth McFarlane trio of Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show. And it's far funnier than Fox's two still relatively new animated series, Bob's Burgers and Allen Gregory.

Mickey Mouse it's not, though. Because Mickey never got a bad case of pimples after being belted by a piece of greasy chicken skin thrown by Minnie.

GRADE: B

Mid-season merry-go-round: CBS' Rob is typically broad but bracingly diverse


Rob Schneider and Claudia Bassols star in Rob. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 12th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Rob Schneider, Claudia Bassols, Cheech Marin Diana Maria Riva, Eugenio Derbez, Lupe Ontiveros
Produced by: Rob Schneider, Lew Morton, Eric Tannenbaum, Kim Tannenbaum

By ED BARK
Schlumpy, plain-faced guy gets the shapely, knockout girl.

This infrequently happens in real life, unless you're a guy with lots of money -- or better yet, a guy with lots of money who's near death.

It happens all the time in TV sitcoms, though. Ask Jim Belushi of According to Jim. Or Kevin James of The King of Queens. Or Ed O'Neill of Modern Family.

The latest beneficiary is Rob Schneider, the doofus in many an Adam Sandler flik and the star of two Deuce Bigalow movies. But there is a bit of a twist here. The new CBS comedy series Rob finds its star newly married to a luscious Latina named Maggie (Claudia Bassols). CBS says it's "loosely based" on Schneider's real life, in which he married Mexican TV producer Patricia Azarcoya, his third wife, last April. She's very pretty and he's pretty plain-faced -- but presumably has lots of money. So there ya go.

Rob, premiering Tuesday, Jan. 12th following The Big Bang Theory, is a highly energetic effort to milk laughs out of the title character's attempts to please his new Hispanic in-laws. Maggie didn't tell anybody about their quickie marriage in Vegas. But now she insists that Rob formally meet her parents and relatives, ruining new hubby's plans to stay in and "have sex all day."

"Big family," he says for openers after encountering a huge brood. "Now I know what goes on during those siestas."

Cheech Marin (looking more and more like Mr. Magoo) plays Maggie's conservative father, Fernando, who boasts of owning eight car washes and having 100 employees with a total of three Social Security numbers among them. Still, his remedy for illegal immigration is to the right of even Michele Bachmann's. "They ought to build a giant wall across the border and patrol it with cannons," he tells Rob.

Fernando and his wife, Rosa (Diana Maria Riva), are aghast that their daughter would marry a gringo. But layabout Uncle Hector (Eugenio Derbez) -- Rosa's "idiot brother" in Fernando's opinion -- doesn't mind because he now has someone to sponge off.

Grandma (Lupe Ontiveros) is pretty much oblivious, but warms to Rob after he accidentally spills hot wax on his genitals and then staggers about her bedroom in a compromising position. The physical comedy between Rob and grandma kicks in after he accidentally breaks her candlelit shrine. And yes, it's pretty funny -- in a broadly stupid way.

Rob's basic premise is rife with comic potential. And the prime-time landscape certainly could use the diversity it embraces.

As for Schneider, well, no one expects subtlety from him. He goes after laughs in much the way a blind-folded child whacks at a pinata. There are lots of swings and misses amid the direct hits. And that's pretty much the way it is with Rob.

GRADE: C

Mid-season merry-go-round: Fox's The Finder has solid characters, shaky storytelling


It's one big maze out there in The Finder. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 12th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Geoff Stults, Michael Clarke Duncan, Maddie Hasson, Mercedes Masohn
Produced by: Hart Hanson, Barry Josephson, Dan Sackheim, Vahan Moosekian

By ED BARK
The Finder could be a keeper if you're not a stickler for plausibility.

Its character mix is its strong point, with Geoff Stults and Michael Clarke Duncan clicking together as a brain-damaged war veteran with "Finder Power" and a level-headed Key West bar owner who joins him on his jaunts. But the puzzle-solving is largely incomprehensible and basically far-fetched even when it makes a little sense.

Beginning Jan. 19th, the Bones spinoff will be comfortably housed on Thursday nights after American Idol. But first comes a Jan. 12th premiere following a repeat of the Bones episode that introduced these characters.

Fox since has made some alterations. A ravishing bartender named Ike Latulippe, who had both a mysterious past and "many hidden skills," has been dumped in favor of two new characters. Willa Monday (Maddie Hasson) is a 'tude-copping teen on probation after a life of crime as a gypsy. She now works at Key West's Ends of the Earth bar, with Leo Knox (Duncan) mentoring her and Walter Sherman (Stults) trying to figure her out.

There's also deputy U.S. Marshal Isabel Zambada (Mercedes Masohn), who helps Walter in a pinch and occasionally joins him in the sack. Oh yeah, Walter also has some sort of underground hideaway to which he occasionally retreats. It's otherwise under lock and key.

The premiere episode jumps around a lot and includes a ridiculous side trip to a yacht commandeered by a flirty, scantily clad drug-runner. It's all part of Walter's quest to find a former Air Force officer who's been missing for two years. His son wants dad's name cleared if possible so that he can be buried with honors. So he finds The Finder and enlists his help. The search veers to and fro, never very believably. Cohesion seems to be an afterthought.

We also learn that The Finder greatly admires Cal Ripken Jr. and that he befriended Leo just in time to keep him from killing someone in cold blood. So the two of them have a strong bond, and their interactions easily are the best part of the opening hour.

All in all, this is a light-hearted series that also looks as though it's going to be light-headed in terms of basic story construction. But maybe that will improve. And The Finder otherwise has what's essential to any TV enterprise -- engaging central characters who quickly make themselves welcome.

GRADE: B-minus

Mid-season merry-go-round: Beware of NBC's Are You There, Chelsea?


Laura Prepon fronts the new Are You There, Chelsea? NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 11th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Laura Prepon. Chelsea Handler, Lenny Clarke, Lauren Lapkus, Ali Wong, Jake McDorman, Mark Povinelli
Produced by: Dottie Dartland Zicklin, Julie Larson, Chelsea Handler, Tom Werner, Mike Clements, Tom Brunelle

By ED BARK
Apparently wary of condoning heavy drinking -- at least in the title -- NBC has watered down the originally announced Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea to Are You There, Chelsea?

No matter. The first two episodes have more heavy drinking and sex jokes than any new broadcast network series in recent memory. Or possibly any series ever, beginning with Chelsea's (Laura Prepon) narrative brag that "I finally power-slurped the worm out of a high-end bottle of tequila."

This whole show pretty much sucks if not power-slurps. The laugh track keeps roaring its approval when it should be periodically dry-heaving. What a clumsy, drunken sot of a sitcom this is. It's based on the best-seller by the E! network's late night talk show star, Chelsea Handler.

There were bad signs all around when NBC said last May that Chelsea would be a mid-season entry. Besides the title change, three members of the original pilot's cast have also hit the road.

Jo Koy as Mark the "charming" bartender has been replaced by Jake McDorman as Rick the "handsome" bartender. Plus, Chelsea's "smart and sassy" African-American waitress pal (Angel Laketa Moore as Shoniqua) has given way to Ali Wong's Olivia, an Asian-American waitress pal. Natalie Morales, as Chelsea's overall "feisty" best friend, Ivory, has simply been written out in the interests of cast downsizing.

Chelsea Handler herself remains, in the recurring role of Chelsea's "judgy, super-Christian sister," named Sloane. And Lenny Clarke has another of his trademark loudmouth parts, as the sisters' boozehound dad, Melvin.

Lauren Lapkus likewise remains as a ding-a-ling named Dee Dee, who accepts Chelsea and Olivia as her new roommates. In Episode 2, she makes light of a sister who died of smallpox, cheerily noting that dad had the power of attorney and pulled the plug. Wow, that's supposed to be funny? The laff track sure thinks so.

Everything in Chelsea seems painfully forced, including the intercourse between the title character and whatever guy she beds. That includes bartender Rick, who didn't like the idea of Chelsea being on top -- and vice-versa. Ergo, the top-and-bottom jokes provide a tiresome running gag throughout the Wednesday, Jan. 11th premiere, which follows NBC's transplanted Whitney.

Prepon looks a little dissipated from her That '70s Show days while Handler looks worse in a black wig. Her character is pregnant and her husband's in Afghanistan. But can she depend on the alcohol-swilling Chelsea to take her to the hospital?

Chelsea suggests a taxi, but "cabs can take up to a half an hour," Sloane protests.

"I know," Chelsea retorts. "That's why everyone drives drunk." Double wow at the thought that this joke actually made the cut.

Oh, but the comic artistry is non-stop. As when Olivia asks Chelsea, "Are you going to quit drinking?" And Chelsea scoffs, "Yeah. Right after I quit dry-humping."

Episode 2 offers no respite. At one point Chelsea wonders aloud if "that stick up her ass is an implant." She's referring to the bartender's ex-girlfriend, who in Chelsea's view "wants to put Rick's chicken wing back in her bleu cheese dip."

All concerned had better cash their checks fast and furiously. It's a wonder they got paid at all. But the joke's on NBC -- as usual these days.

GRADE: D

Mid-season merry-go-round: House of Lies gives Showtime another batch of scoundrels


Don Cheadle (center) is the lead dog in House of Lies. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 8th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, Dawn Olivieri, Donis Leonard Jr., Glynn Turman
Produced by: Matthew Carnahan, Jesika Borsiczky, Stephen Hopkins, Don Cheadle

By ED BARK
Amorality abounds in Showtime's new House of Lies, where the overall business plan is "screw or be screwed."

The catch-all title suggests that this could be an espionage thriller or another duplicitous royal drama in league with Showtime's The Tudors or The Borgias. Either Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Dirty Sexy Money might have been a better fit, but those titles have already come our way in a feature film and a canceled ABC series.

So House of Lies it is, with Don Cheadle starring as the ruthless maestro of a team of like-minded management consultants. Premiering on Sunday, Jan. 8th, this half-hour series should fit right in with Showtime's other resident evil-doers, Shameless and Californication. They respectively have their Season 2 and Season 5 premieres on the same night.

Cheadle's character, Marty Kaan, has a surname that not coincidentally rhymes with con. And that's what he's all about -- conning corporate behemoths into paying millions of dollars for the image-enhancement services of Galweather-Stearn. It's an "adult comedy" in which basically everyone's at least a borderline scumbag.

In the premiere episode, Marty and his three fellow members of "The Pod" sell their wares to a Manhattan mega-bank named MetroCapital. Its executives are still trying to justify their big year-end bonuses after leaving thousands of commoners high and dry. Neither party cares about that. Galweather-Stearn's mission is to make MetroCapital look good while it continues to behave very badly. All in a day's work. Cha-ching.

Marty regularly talks to the camera to explain the terminology of his trade. And as rogues go, Cheadle plays the hell out of this part while dispensing expletives like candy and banging any pretty lady within arm's reach. They include his drug-addicted, needy ex-wife Monica (Dawn Olivieri), who's now also a business competitor. The blueprint is the Martin Kihn bestseller House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch And Then Tell You The Time.

Let's quickly introduce the other team members. Former Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell is all grown up now as Jeannie van der Hooven, who at times appears to have a semblance of a soul. Young guns Clyde Oberholt and Doug Guggenheim (Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson) are constantly jabbing at one another while also jockeying for position.

Cheadle's Marty also has a pre-teen son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard, Jr.), who lately is into cross-dressing. His live-in grandfather, Jeremiah (Glynn Turman), minds the home front while Marty is away. And he's away a lot, flying first class, staying in the best hotels, partying hard and doing basically whatever it takes to land another big fish.

House of Lies runs the risk of going too far too often, with Marty chasing pussy like a Doberman Pinscher. In Episode 1, he even beds the hot mom of little Roscoe's rival for the part of Sandy in a school production of Grease. While the play is in progress, mind you. They return just in time to catch the final scene.

Episode 2 includes a guest star appearance by Cat Deeley as herself. The So You Think You Can Dance host takes a passing interest in a tongue-tied Doug while they wait to board their flights in a VIP airport lounge. He ends up spilling a latte on himself. Cat pats it dry, giving Doug something of a happy ending before she takes flight. Marty and his team then fly off to Phoenix, where they get rich at the expense of a basketball team owner going through a nasty divorce proceeding.

Episode 3, subtitled "Microphallus," includes Marty's visit to a "Naughty Room" inhabited by the wife of a performance-challenged beverage company executive. Insert nude scene. Move on.

House of Lies' excesses tend to be counter-balanced by its overall look and feel. The production values are first-rate and the storytelling is crisp. There's also a bravura recurring performance by Greg Germann (Ally McBeal) as a cutthroat MetroBank executive named Greg Norbert. He's in two of the first three episodes, intent on screwing Marty in a way he won't at all enjoy.

As stated earlier, it's all in a day's work for these people. The more money they have, the bigger pieces of garbage they are. And for some of us lumpens, that can be an oddly comforting thought.

GRADE: B

Mid-season merry-go-round: NBC's The Firm is a compelling continuation


No open and shut cases for The Firm's Mitch McDeere. NBC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 8th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Josh Lucas, Molly Parker, Juliette Lewis, Callum Keith Rennie, Natasha Calis
Produced by: John Grisham, Lukas Reiter, John Morayniss, Michael Rosenberg, Noreen Halpern

By ED BARK
The court of public opinion continues to weigh heavily against NBC, whose ratings are pretty much missing in action whenever the prime-time fare is anything except Sunday Night Football.

But the NFL season is nearing an end, again leaving the Peacock with a gaping four hours to re-program on what's usually the heaviest viewing night of the week. Two of them will be filled on Jan. 8th with the continuation of a courtroom drama that began as a John Grisham bestseller before becoming a hit 1993 feature film starring Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter and David Strathairn.

NBC's The Firm, getting a Sunday showcase before moving on Jan. 12th to its regular Thursday 9 p.m. (central) slot, substitutes Josh Lucas for Cruise while still remaining a handsome production. The two-hour opener has a big-screen filmic look and enough pop to pull you in. But it ends up taking a bit too long to re-calibrate and explain itself after a breakneck opening sequence that finds lawyer Mitch McDeere (Lucas) running amid Washington monuments -- and through the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool -- while being pursued by a small group of bad guys.

Mitch has just enough time to call his super-loyal wife, Abby (Molly Parker), on -- what's this? -- a pay phone. She's instructed to "follow the emergency plan" because after all these years, "it's happening again." A new tragedy soon ensues before The Firm rewinds to "Six Weeks Earlier" on the eve of daughter Claire McDeere's (an instantly appealing Natasha Calis) 10th birthday party.

There's also a 10-year flashback, with the new Firm settling on 2002 as the year that Mitch and a pregnant Abby agreed to enter the federal witness protection program. This was triggered by Mitch's incrimination of the Memphis-based Bendini, Lambert & Locke law firm as a sinister front for the Chicago mob.

Confident that they're safe at last, the McDeeres are newly out of hiding. Mitch has opened a small law firm in D.C. with brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie) as the head investigator and his girlfriend Tammy Hemphill (Juliette Lewis) filling the dual role of receptionist and lippy, provocative dresser.

It's all quite sturdily built and well-acted, with characters one cares about. Those are big plusses, particularly in a serial drama where you'll have to keep coming back to know what the deuce is going on.

The two-hour scene-setter sets up another major betrayal while also giving defense attorney Mitch ample time to work on a twist-filled case in which he represents a 14-year-old accused of stabbing a classmate to death. Two other cases also figure in the mix, which can get a little lumpy towards the end.

The Firm isn't always riveting in its new guise. But it's a promising start with an engaging cast at its core. NBC sorely needs a new series or two to lift its prime-time fortunes. Here's one with built-in name recognition and heaping helpings of fresh intrigue. Can it imbed enough hooks to keep viewers locked in? A network that's desperately seeking some favorable verdicts has done a good job of making its case.

GRADE: B+

Mid-season merry-go-round: ABC's Work It a dog in women's clothing


Take it from Work It: He's not heavy, he's my bra-ther. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 3rd at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Ben Koldyke, Amaury Nolasco, Beth Lacke, Rochelle Aytes, John Caparulo, Kirstin Eggers, Rebecca Mader, Kate Reinders, Hannah Sullivan
Produced by: Andrew Reich, Ted Cohen

By ED BARK
The statute of limitations perhaps has passed on comparisons to Bosom Buddies, the ABC sitcom that gave
Tom Hanks his start back way back in 1980.

After all, any self-respecting network is allowed to house a men-in-drag comedy every 30 years or so. So here's Work It, in which a pair of unemployed guys try to pull off a Tootsie maneuver in hopes of beating a rampant "mancession." Damn those women.

There's one big run in the panty hose, though. It's impossible to believe that anyone -- particularly a female executive -- would mistake either of these dudes for a woman during their job interviews. Other than that . . .

Out-of-work salesman Lee Standish (Ben Koldyke) takes the first plunge after being unemployed for a year. His wife, Connie (Beth Lacke) remains eerily cheery. But Lee is spurred to action after learning that a $900 prostate exam isn't being covered by his newly lapsed health insurance.

His desperation is further flamed by a corpulent drinking buddy named Brian (John Caparulo), who drops "mancession" into the conversation while they're joined in knocking down beers by the likewise out-of-work Angel Ortiz (Amaury Nolasco), who had been a mechanic.

"When the women take over, they'll make pride illegal," Brian carps. "That and eating on the toilet."

While trying to digest that bottom-of-the-barrel line, you might also wonder how Lee, Brian and Angel can still afford to regularly drink at a bar. Particularly in light of an earlier scene in which Lee cuts off his teen daughter's cell phone to save money.

Lee's been apprised, though, that a pharmaceutical company is hiring sales women. He's soon giving it a shot, donning a skirt, wig and makeup to sit among women applicants and thank one of them for letting him bum a tampon. His voice inflections and overall camouflage job are about as convincing as Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher doing commercials for Summer's Eve.

But Lee preposterously gets the job anyway, telling Angel about his good fortune without filling in the particulars.

"I'm Puerto Rican. I'd be great at selling drugs," Angel rejoins in a line that eventually might prompt a protest from LULAC.

Angel's miffed, though, when Lee says he can't go to bat for him. He ends up working the counter at Astro Taco before Lee finally fills him in. It's then presto change-o, with a newly high-heeled Angel breaking the ice during his interview by telling the pharmaceutical company boss lady, "Your ass looks tight in those pants."

She looks only mildly miffed. And Angel ends up getting hired after he fixes her car. Plausibility has long left the building at this point, and has been ordered to take a long rest.

Replacing the canceled Man Up!, and following Last Man Standing on Tuesdays, Work It may prompt a grin or two with its initial sight gags. And Koldyke isn't lacking in effort or enthusiasm when it comes to getting all dressed up. That's not nearly enough to hold this thing together, though. Toot toot tootsie goodbye.

GRADE: C-minus

Mid-season merry-go-round: HBO's Angry Boys goes to extremes


Chris Lilley in twitter photo and in sedated publicity shot.

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Chris Lilley
Produced by: Chris Lilley, Laura Waters, Debbie Lee

By ED BARK
Far more prominent people than Chris Lilley have been lashed for using a still rampant, six-letter slur in place of "gay" or "homosexual."

The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant aimed this particular f-bomb at an NBA ref last April. He then profusely apologized while being fined $100,000 by the league.

Comedian Joe Rogan, now hosting NBC's Fear Factor again, "retired" the word from his vocabulary after being ripped for using it on a writer he didn't like. His explanation: "When I call someone a (. . .) it has nothing to do with their sexual preference, but try convincing some offended gay person (of) that. In this ultra-sensitive world we live in that word is just too much of a liability, so I'm going to retire it from my vernacular."

Australian actor/comedian Chris Lilley isn't about to stop, though. His latest series, the otherwise inventive Angry Boys, is marked and marred by continual use of the word during its two-episode premiere New Year's night on HBO. Lilley, 37, voices the slur via an unsteady, unrepentant 17-year-old named Daniel Sims, one of six characters he plays in the 12-episode series. HBO earlier carried Lilley's 2008 series, Summer Heights High, in which Lilley played the three lead roles.

Lauded in Lilley's homeland, Angry Boys is "bold, aggressive and unafraid to trample on some very shaky ground," in the view of the Sydney Morning Herald. Lilley is an "outrageous comic genius," enthused the Australian Telegraph, crediting him with "pushing the boundaries of political correctness to the breaking point."

This particular "breaking point" serves no useful purpose. That is, unless Lilley really wants the impressionable younger viewers of Angry Boys to join him in giggly new rounds of gay-baiting.

The Daniel character, twin brother of the mostly deaf and somewhat "retarded" Nathan, is also a frequent dispenser of the derogatory insult "nob" (slang for penis). Why not just use it throughout? Would Angry Boys be bereft of derring-do without any use at all of that lightning rod f-word? Of course not.

Lilley otherwise has a fertile imagination and the wherewithal to bring it to life. His fictional town of Dunt, South Australia is home to the Sims twins, who live on a rag-tag family farm with their younger siblings and a patient but oft-flustered mom who lately has a new man in her life. Dad died in a car crash when the twins were 11. Daniel still longs for him, and thereby despises the new guy.

Grandma Ruth Sims, who lives elsewhere Down Under, is known as "Gran" to the teen inmates under her thumb at the Sydney Garingal Juvenile Justice Center. She's a benevolent dictator who makes superhero jammies for the kids and dotes on her collection of guinea pig pets while also playing a sometimes mean-spirited game of "Gotcha."

Lilley likewise plays Gran, a funny and oddly endearing character who easily merits a series of her own. "They might be the worst boys in the state, but they're still boys," she says near the end of Sunday's Episode 1. And there's not a trace of ridicule or condescension in her voice.

Episode 2 introduces another Lilley character, the egocentric black L.A. rapper known as S.Mouse. His connection to the Sims twins is a renegade youtube video in which S.Mouse rebels against his clean-cut image -- and a hit record titled "Slap My Elbow" -- by fully immersing himself in a sea of contractually prohibited expletives. S.Mouse's climactic defecation on a police car hood in his "Poo on You" manifesto is imitated back in Australia by the dense Nathan. Neither deed goes entirely unpunished.

In upcoming half-hours, Lilley also will be playing Jen Okazaki, Japanese mother of an aspiring skate boarding champ, and former surfer stud Blake Oakfield from fake Narmucca Bay, New South Wales.

Sunday's back-to-back episodes are better than any of this may sound in print. Lilley's humor obviously is an acquired taste. And as detailed earlier, some of it is in excusably bad taste. It's tempting to say that he still needs to find his voice and grow beyond his formative years. But at age 37, Lilley already is nearing middle age while still playing characters half his age -- in addition to the 65-year-old Gran.

Angry Boys showcases his considerable talents in the notably imperfect world he's created. A little restraint -- of the admirable sort -- wouldn't harm his "artistic integrity" in the least. On the contrary, he'd be a better man for it.

GRADE: B

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Season finale

We end as always with Darlene Love's ringing rendition of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on Late Show with David Letterman.

This clip is from the Dec. 23, 2005 performance, which remains unmatched in both sound and performance quality. Love returns on Friday, Dec. 23rd for what CBS says is her 18th time. It's also been 25 years since she first performed "Christmas" in Letterman's presence on the Dec. 16, 1986 edition of his old Late Night show on NBC.

If this doesn't get you in the mood, nothin' will. Please enjoy, and thanks for being a part of Uncle Barky's latest "Countdown."
Ed Bark

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 16

My favorite version of "The Christmas Song" is and always will be Nat King Cole's. Here again, from a 1957 TV special, is the way it should be done. (Note: In the interests of sparing you an opening commercial, I've posted a version that also includes some added color images. If anything, they help to further set the mood.)
Ed Bark

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 15

In a pairing almost as odd as Rick Perry putting "presidential candidate" in front of his name, David Bowie and Bing Crosby performed together on the ailing crooner's last Christmas special in 1977.

Over the years, their singing of "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" has morphed from macabre to increasingly endearing. Their scripted patter is fairly natural, with Bowie and Bing looking pretty comfortable in each other's company.

Crosby died on Oct. 14th of that year, a month and a half before this special aired. Bowie will be 65 on Jan. 8th. And in his relative dotage, he's probably no longer embarrassed by his duet with a fellow legend who had a completely different musical compass. Once again, here's the video.
Ed Bark

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 14

What would Christmas be without The Beatles? Well, we don't want to find out, now do we?

Here's a short black-and- white video of the lads riffing about what they'll be doing on the big day. They then agree to sing their well wishes. Among the countless hours of Beatles footage consumed, I don't remember ever seeing this little blip.

Tomorrow we'll begin our big finishing kick with the first of three perennial faves that keep making the season bright.
Ed Bark

First impression: the opening episode of TNT's Dallas re-do shouldn't have anyone hangin' their heads


Larry Hagman and his TV son launch filming of new Dallas. TNT photo

By ED BARK
TNT's new version of Dallas won't be premiering until sometime next summer. But the network already has the opening episode completed, and sent it to TV writers in advance of the cast's scheduled appearance at January's network TV "press tour" in Pasadena.

This won't be a full review by any means. Instead consider it an extended first impression. And in that context, Dallas will be getting off to a high, wide and handsome re-start, beginning with a jolt of an early scene in which one of the principal characters gets some life-changing news that propels the rest of the action.

To tell more would be a "spoiler," and TNT sent the review DVD out with a request that not too much be given away. So we'll respect that because most prospective viewers indeed will want to see for themselves rather than have key elements spilled out.

The famed Dallas theme song remains in place, with Reunion Tower still a key player along with updated visions of both Jerry's Palace and Rangers Ballpark. The pilot episode's closing scene also originates from the palatial home of the Cowboys, with two characters striding purposefully to the big blue star on the 50 yard line in a meeting of devious minds.

Original cast members Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray are returning to their most famous roles, as most everyone knows by now. But Duffy has five or six times as much screen time -- in the opener at least --- than either Hagman or Gray.

The younger Ewings, particularly J.R. and Sue Ellen's son, John Ross (Josh Henderson), shoulder a good part of the show's trademark conniving. Very basically put, the flash point is a war over Southfork Ranch, which Bobby wants to sell to a protective conservancy while John Ross is intent on exploiting a major new oil discovery. As Bobby puts it, "I promised momma there would be no drilling on Southfork." Well, we'll see about that.

It's a briskly entertaining hour, although the city proper is very little-seen -- if seen at all -- after the opening credits roll. Most of the outdoor action is set at Southfork, site of a big planned wedding for Bobby's adopted son, Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) and his sexy and seemingly sweet fiancee, Rebecca Sutter (Julie Gonzalo).

Meanwhile, John Ross has taken up with Christopher's ex-girlfriend, Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster). She's the daughter of the Ewing family cook, Carmen. And unlike the original Dallas, this Hispanic hired helper actually has some speaking lines. There's even a black sheriff deployed in an effort to spike the show with at least a spattering of diversity.

Duffy as Bobby makes a very game effort to breathe new life into the character while Hagman warms slowly to the challenge of again playing the devil incarnate. That's because early scenes find him silently suffering from clinical depression for reasons that go unexplained. But he's back to his old self in due time, noting that "I'm the one who belongs on Southfork. It's mine and only mine . . . Bobby may not be stupid. But I'm a helluva lot smarter."

Gray has the least to do in Episode 1, but does have a galvanizing scene in which she makes it clear who's side she's on. There also are brief cameos from two of the original's old hands, Steve Kanaly as foreman Ray Krebbs and Charlene Tilton as Lucy Ewing.

A passing reference is made to "that idiot, Cliff Barnes," but so far there's no Ken Kercheval. Victoria Principal's also out of the mix, but Brenda Strong of Desperate Houswives fills in very ably as Bobby's new wife, Annie.

It all plays much better than one might expect, given the overblown trailer that TNT previously made public. Maybe Dallas does in fact have a second wind -- with a mix of new and old Ewings now battling for bragging rights, land, lucre and booty.

"I am sick to death of this family devouring itself over money!" Bobby rages. Yeah, like that's gonna change. TNT's Dallas will see to it that the Ewings keep eating each other alive. And its all-important first episode manages to stir the pot and then some.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 13

Anybody out there in TV Land ever get a Mr. Microphone for Christmas? And if so, did you have endless hours of fun? Sure you did. Imagine amplifying your voice through the miracle of a two-bit product retailing for a lousy $14.88. Wow, perfect for parties and even flirting from a moving convertible. As this vintage holiday commercial demonstrates.
Ed Bark

Who's Still Standing? gives NBC another holiday game gambit


Host Ben Bailey and contestant Jared Young on Monday's premiere. NBC photo

Premiering:Monday, Dec. 19th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Hosted by: Ben Bailey
Produced by: Craig Plestis, Tim Puntillo

By ED BARK
NBC again has its holiday game face on, hoping to also have another Deal or No Deal on its hands and not an Identity crisis.

Both of those big money quizzes also were multi-night December "events." Deal and host Howie Mandel became Peacock mainstays while you can stump your friends with the fact that Penn Jillette presided over the short-lived Identity.

Who's Still Standing, running Monday through Thursday before settling in on Mondays through Jan. 30th, dangles the usual and basically unattainable $1 million cash prize. A single contestant must defeat 10 "Strangers" in successive trivia challenges to hit the big jackpot. Losers are dispatched through a trap door, without any visual evidence of where or how they land. It's apparently supposed to add some sort of mystique, with the usual rabid studio audience chanting "Drop, Drop, Drop!" before the deed is done.

Your host is towering, shaved-headed Ben Bailey, a comedian who's also the face of Discovery Channel's Cash Cab but would look equally at home in an extreme martial arts match. His recurring quips, none of which really register, are nonetheless greeted by uproarious audience laughter.

But Bailey is palatable compared to the irksome off-camera Santa Claus impersonator whose constant "ho ho ho's" might prompt even little Jimmy Skeezicks to finally throw his hands up and declare, "All I want for Christmas is for this guy to shaddup!!!"

Monday's contestant, pictured above, is everyman Jared Young, a volleyball coach from Conway, Ark. He sure would like to win a million bucks, but a few grand would be great, too.

Jared's pretty easy to take compared to many hysterical, pogo-sticking contestants. You'd like to see him walk home with a nice chunk of cash, with which he says he'd buy a guitar and maybe a new car, 'cause he's never owned one. But the game itself gets bogged down with a succession of gratingly easy questions that turn Round 1 into a rather boring marathon between Jared and a hyper-caffeinated challenger named April, who wins $10,000 if she defeats him.

The intellectual challenges on Who's Still Standing? are a bit more taxing than "Whose face is on the Lincoln penny?" Or "What color is an egg white?" Still, consider yourself a big dummy if you can't quickly answer at least 90 percent of this stuff within the allotted 20 seconds.

Contestants who defeat five opponents can take whatever they've won and go home. But all of the money is forfeited if you keep playing and then lose. We won't ruin anything here by revealing how far Jared gets. But let's note that somebody stumbles on a query your gerbil likely could answer. Namely, "In chess, it's what you say when your opponent's king cannot escape." Some of the letters already are filled in. So in this case, it's _ _ _ C _ _ _ T _. Duh, Idiocracy?

"Santa Claus" keeps interjecting during bridges to commercials, urging viewers to play the "At Home Holiday Question" game. The last family member standing -- after four rounds -- wins a grand total of -- nothing. But the real losers are any "winners" who think they need to watch the entire show while standing.

In the end, any remaining in-studio foes of the main player get to compete in what Santa calls the "Mach 7 Rapid Fire Ultimate Speed Round." The winner pockets a few thousand bucks.

Who's Still Standing? requires a wee bit more brain power than Deal or No Deal, which required none. And it's easily more watchable than ABC's grating You Deserve It, which already is outta here after a late November premiere.

This is meant to be faint praise, though, for a show that shows how little its producers think of America's overall brain power. But hey, they'll love watching contestants fall through those trap doors. Jeopardy this isn't.

GRADE: C

Jerry Lewis lionized in Encore's Method to the Madness


Jerry Lewis during a summer session with TV critics. Encore photo

By ED BARK
Adoring yet instructive, Encore's Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis gives its subject the worshipful treatment he's always felt he deserved.

And that's not necessarily a criticism of this nearly two-hour tribute, which premieres on Saturday, Dec. 17th at 7 p.m. (central).

Lewis, 85, is still entirely too adept at making an ugly spectacle of himself, as he did again this past summer during a session at the semi-annual Television Critics Association "press tour." But his artistry and contributions to comedy are undeniable. And in the hands of young filmmaker/acolyte Gregg Garson, that's what Method to the Madness is all about. Period.

Lewis is very much a contributor, via fresh interviews and recurring excerpts from a performance on his 2009-11 "World Tour." But an impressive number of high-profile admirers also do much of the talking. And there's no holding back when the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Carol Burnett, Woody Harrelson, Steven Spielberg, Eddie Murphy, Quentin Tarantino and Billy Crystal extoll his comedic virtues.

"If you don't get Jerry Lewis, you really don't understand comedy," says Seinfeld. "Because he is the essence of it . . . He is the diamond of comedy."

"He's a very gifted genius," Burnett says with certainty. And in Harrelson's view, "If you don't like Jerry Lewis, I have no interest in hanging with you. We can't even have a relationship."

The film is determined to prove their points, whether with footage of Lewis' incredibly popular 10-year partnership with Dean Martin ("When they blew up, it was very much like The Beatles," says Murphy) or via film clips that underscore the subject's gift for improvisational physical comedy. There's also a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage, all courtesy of Lewis.

"He is the last great giant of the great days of our business," comedian Richard Belzer rhapsodizes.

Nothing is said of Lewis' long association with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which ended messily when he was disinvited from this year's telethon. Nor are any real reasons given for his breakup with Martin and their subsequent 20-year estrangement until Frank Sinatra staged a surprise reunion at the 1976 telethon.

Still, Method to the Madness is adroitly packaged and probably in roughly the same flattering mode of a PBS American Masters tribute. That series' longtime executive producer, Susan Lacy, told unclebarky.com at that same summer's press tour that she wanted to do a portrait of Lewis, but he kept balking at yielding creative control. After learning of the Encore film, she said that American Masters likely would abandon any efforts to do business with Lewis.

Method to the Madness, where never is heard a discouraging word, heaps on the praise to the point of redundancy. Burnett even lobbies for a Kennedy Center Honor for Lewis. And frankly, it's amazing he hasn't yet received this accolade.

Lewis did, however, receive an honorary Oscar in 2009. "I take my Academy Award wherever I go," says Lewis, who is shown kissing it during a 2009 press conference at the Cannes Film Festival.

He was in Cannes trying to drum up interest for Max Rose, in which Lewis plays the title character of a widower revisiting major moments in his life. The film, Lewis' first feature since 1995's Funny Bones, has a cast that includes Claire Bloom, Peter Bogdanovich and Ben Gazzara. But it's yet to find a distributor. And on the review DVD of Method to His Madness, it's not even specified what film Lewis is promoting. So much for details.

Method to His Madness will be surrounded Saturday by Encore's showing of five Lewis films. Here's the marquee, with all times central:

12:50 p.m. -- The Bellboy
2:05 p.m. -- The Errand Boy
3:40 p.m. -- The Geisha Boy
5:20 p.m. -- The Ladies' Man
9:05 p.m. (following the documentary) -- The Nutty Professor

The first and last in order are acknowledged classics in the Lewis catalogue. The others not so much. But take it from Jerry Seinfeld, who enthuses about how Lewis could even turn a sputtering car into a side-splitting sight gag.

"This is not low brow to me," Seinfeld says. "This is the highest brow."

GRADE: B

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 12

The weekend's coming, so here's a "very special" double feature tied to the oft-performed "O Holy Night."

First up is a traditionally reverential take by Perry Como on the 1969 Hollywood Palace Christmas show. Perry is very much up to the high notes, with help from a holiday-garbed female chorus.

We then present a completely different, but nonetheless engaging and in its own way reverent version. It's by Mother Mother at this month's CBC Indie Christmas Concert in Vancouver. You're invited to hear both of them out while keeping an open mind. Each rendition has its virtues. (Note: the Perry video takes just a few seconds to clear up.)
Ed Bark





Impractical Jokers gives truTV another "manly" pursuit


The Four Stooges of Impractical Jokers. truTV photo

Premiering: Thursday, Dec. 15th at 9 p.m. (central) on truTV
Starring: Brian Quinn, James Murray, Joe Gatto, Sal Vulcano
Produced by: Charlie DeBevoise, Mark Hickman

By ED BARK
Us douche bag, testosterone-pumped bags of maledom don't need a lot of encouragement to act like idiots.

Impractical Jokers further seals the deal anyway with "scenes of graphic stupidity" from four bosom buddies who have been double-dog daring each other since childhood. Or at least that's the premise of a half-hour's worth of stupid human tricks from Brian "Q" Quinn, James "Murr" Murray, Joe Gatto and Sal Vulcano, who for inexplicable reasons isn't nicknamed Sal "The Volcano" Vulcano.

The show premieres Wednesday (Dec. 15th) with back-to-back episodes on truTV. Only the first dose was sent for review. And it goes down fairly easy is you're a fan of Jackass or those vintage Rupert Jee segments on Late Show with David Letterman, in which the host used to give him silly things to do via remote commands from afar.

Impractical Jokers is affixed with the tagline "Actual friends. Actual dares. Actually funny." Which sort of implies that truTV is surprised that the last boast actually could be true once or twice.

All of the dares are variations on the following: one of the guys is instructed to debase himself while the other three cackle themselves sick while remaining out of sight.

Joe is first up at a White Castle hamburger joint, where he poses as a counter guy. His pals instruct him to say and do stupid things, such as not looking at a customer or yelling at him. Joe wins the dare if he still manages to cajole someone into tipping him. Then it's someone else's turn until all four pals have passed or failed.

The other two dares involve a petition drive for various fake causes ("Allow whites in the military") and a stint as ribald Manhattan tour guides. Amazingly -- and predictably -- there's a "four-loser pileup in last place" after these three challenges.

A climactic "Do What You're Told" sequence at a Costco results in the loser receiving "the punishment of his pathetic, pointless life." In this case, that requires picking up a dollop of dog poop (with a protective glove at least) and holding it for a full 20 seconds.

The four pals are very likely to do way much more laughing than the average viewer. But truTV also is the home of Hardcore Pawn, Lizard Lick Towing, Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura and World's Dumbest . . . So its core viewers already are well-schooled in expecting the least. And succumbing to it.

In that respect, Impractical Jokers manages to clear the dumb fun bar a time or two before redundancy starts lowering the boom. It's also perfectly capable of falling on its face into a pile of dog doo -- figuratively if not yet literally.

GRADE: C-minus

"Romney" not only flip-flops, but takes on a different tone


No, you just can't make this stuff up.

Notice anything wrong with the above graphic, proudly displayed Wednesday on Fox News Channel? Below is anchor Megyn Kelly's subsequent correction, dispensed from her Iowa Foxhole.
Ed Bark

Shocking development: Globes pretty much get it right in TV categories


Damian Lewis, Claire Danes of Homeland and Boss's Kelsey Grammer. Showtime/Starz photos

By ED BARK
Let's hear it for the Golden Globes.

No, seriously.

The much-maligned Hollywood Foreign Press Association by and large did an intelligent job of picking and choosing the best television has to offer in nominations announced Thursday morning.

Its best and brightest decisions were three nominations for Showtime's Homeland, which the Screen Actors Guild completely snubbed in its Wednesday nominations. Two other deserving series, Starz's Boss and HBO's Enlightened, also were ignored by SAG but recognized by the Globes' small, mysterious band of voters.

Cable ruled the Globes' list of five best drama series nominees, with four rookies -- Homeland, Boss, FX's American Horror Story and HBO's Game of Thrones joining HBO's second year Boardwalk Empire.

The broadcast networks broke through in the best comedy series category with nods for Fox's new New Girl, ABC's Modern Family and Fox's Glee. The other nominations went to Enlightened and Showtime's Episodes.

The miniseries/movies categories are warmed over, with PBS' Downton Abbey and HBO's Mildred Pierce already the big Emmy winners. But both aired too late for last January's Globes ceremony, so they'll be competing anew. A welcome addition to the category is BBC America's The Hour, which aired too late for Emmy consideration but has three Globe nominations.

In the Globes' six drama categories, cable productions amassed 25 of the 30 nominations. In two additional supporting actor/actress categories, in which dramas and comedies are both eligible, cable got seven of the 10 nominations.

Broadcast networks fared better in the three comedy categories, taking eight of the 15 nominations.

The Globes ceremony airs Jan. 15th on NBC and the SAG awards will be shown Jan. 29th on both TNT and TBS.

For the complete list of Globe nominees (both TV and movies), go here. And for all the SAG nods, go here.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 11

"I haven't had a drink this evening. But I'm all lit up like a Christmas tree."

Presenting the inimitable Ray Charles singing and playing "Merry Christmas Baby" during a 1979 special in Germany. Mighty fine.
Ed Bark

Stern measures for America's Got Talent


By ED BARK
Simon Cowell suddenly seems like marshmallowy Donny Osmond.

Then again, he's the head executive producer of NBC's America's Got Talent. So Cowell had a big say in the network's Thursday morning announcement that Howard Stern will be the hit summer show's newest judge, replacing Piers Morgan. Incumbent arbiters Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel remain in place.

Talent also will be switching venues to New York City, from where the acidic Stern hosts his SiriusXM radio show.

Stern's "larger-than-life personality will bring a thrilling new dynamic" to the show," NBC programming exec Paul Telegdy huffed in a publicity release. "He's a proven innovator and his track record in broadcasting is truly remarkable. Howard is very passionate about this show and is full committed to its future success."

Yeah, but how'd you like to be a juggler awaiting his comments?

Morgan supposedly will devote himself more fully to his prime-time CNN talk show. But its ratings have been no bargain, which leaves open the possibility that Stern could someday replace him on CNN as well. Anything's obviously possible.

NBC/CBS sign new 9-year NFL deals -- with sweeteners


NBC's Sunday Night Football crew at Cowboys Stadium. NBC photo

By ED BARK
Both NBC and CBS are locked in long-term with the mighty NFL, courtesy of new 9-year deals announced within minutes of one another Wednesday afternoon.

The NBC pact retains Sunday Night Football and adds a yearly Thanksgiving night game, beginning next season. The Peacock also will boot one of its two Wild Card games in exchange for a more meaningful Divisional playoff game. It already has the rights to the 2012 Super Bowl and now will also telecast the 2015, 2018 and 2021 Supies.

CBS says that its new agreement will give the network rights to some NFC conference games while also continuing as the main home of the AFC conference. It has the 2013 Super Bowl as well as the 2016, 2019 and 2022 games. The landmark Super Bowl L will be in 2016.

Fox also reportedly signed a new 9-year pact Wednesday, but hasn't yet issued any publicity release with specifics. Fill in the blanks, though, and Fox will have the 2014, 2017, 2020 and 2023 Super Bowls.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 10

The networks continue to load up on country music specials and awards shows. Why? Because they keep hitting it big in the prime-time Nielsen ratings.

Even Fox's annual New Year's Eve countdown has succumbed. This year they're callin' it American Country New Year's Eve Live.

In that vein, here's a throwback country music carol -- "That Christmasy Feeling" -- performed with all due exuberance on a 1979 Johnny Cash special. Singing along with the host is Anne Murray. Whatever your age, you might find your toe involuntarily tappin'. Here we go.
Ed Bark

Amanpour leaving ABC's This Week rebooting to foreign affairs


Christiane Amanpour is leaving This Week and returning to her roots. ABC photo

By ED BARK
Christiane Amanpour is going back to where she belongs after a problematic stint as host of ABC's Sunday morning This Week.

The network announced Tuesday night that Amanpour will leave the public affairs program to take on a dual role as foreign affairs anchor/reporter for both ABC News and CNN International.

George Stephanopoulos,, who hosted This Week from 2002-'10, will resume that role on Jan. 8th while remaining as co-host of ABC's Good Morning America. This apparently assures the married father of two young children of basically no life outside the workplace, and brutal hours as well.

"I am looking forward to getting back into the field to report stories on global issues that matter greatly to the American people," Amanpour said in a publicity release. "This role is groundbreaking, bold and very different! I am thrilled and honored."

Amanpour left CNN to host This Week in what was seen as a surprise hire to replace Stephanopoulos after he went to GMA. She began presiding over This Week on Aug. 1, 2010. Ratings since have slumped, with the program now trailing both NBC's Meet the Press and CBS' Face the Nation, which soon will be expanded to an hour.

CNN welcomed Amanpour back as the anchor of a new weekday program for its International channel.

"We could not be happier that through this unique arrangement with ABC News her experience and global perspective are returning to a nightly news broadcast for our international audience," CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton said.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 9

ABC went more than a little crazy in December 1992 with this gang promotion of Christmas-themed shows.

More than a dozen teases are included in this four-minute extravaganza. They include long-lasting hits -- Home Improvement, Roseanne, Family Matters -- and quick flops -- Civil Wars, Going to Extremes, Camp Wilder. Plus a holiday visit on The Commish from Telly Savalas.

Enjoy this full immersion, all in just four minutes time.
Ed Bark

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 8

Things had gotten more than a little creaky when Bob Hope, then 90, and his wife, Dolores, welcomed an assembly line of celebrity guests at the start of 1993's two-hour Bob Hope's Bag Full of Christmas Memories.

This clip shows the Hopes standing in front of a Christmas tree -- supposedly in their Toluca Lake, CA home -- and greeting the likes of . . . well, you'll see. Joey Lawrence gives a pretty perfunctory greeting, though, as the special's "Young Hollywood" rep.

Hope died in 2003 at the age of 100 and Dolores lived to be 102 before expiring on Sept. 19th of this year. Hope's last TV special of any kind, Laughing with the Presidents, aired on Nov. 23, 1996.
Ed Bark

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 7

SCTV's sendup of a Liberace Christmas Eve special is still a gift that keeps on giving. Here's the faux promo, with Lee joined by Elton John, Ethel Merman and an ultimately fed-up Orson Welles, played by the late great John Candy.
Ed Bark

Bag of Bones is return to respectability for A&E, return to TV for Pierce Brosnan


Merry Christmas from your friends at Bag of Bones. A&E photo

By ED BARK
Home for the holidays? It'd be best not to be home alone while watching Stephen King's Bag of Bones.

Premiering Sunday, Dec. 11th at 8 p.m. (central) on A&E and concluding Monday at the same hour, it's a genuinely chilling four-hour adaptation of the tireless horror-meister's 1998 bestseller.

Bag of Bones also is A&E's handsomest effort in years, not only with its first-rate production values but in the personage of Pierce Brosnan. He returns to television in a big way by appearing in virtually every scene, a majority of them by himself. And Brosnan gives his all, whether grieving, dream-scaping or being scared senseless.

The drama's principal venue is Dark Score Lake, where Brosnan's character, novelist Mike Noonan, holes himself up in an effort to churn out a new book on a sudden rapid-fire deadline. He's had writer's bloc ever since his beloved wife, Jo (Annabeth Gish), took a direct hit from a Manhattan bus while Mike signed copies of his latest tome.

Jo, he had learned, was pregnant. And low sperm count Mike wonders just how that happened. Might she have been secretly seeing someone at the Noonan's summer home in Dark Score, where she regularly went to paint? While striving to write in an isolated setting, Mike also can play a detective in search of answers.

Much has been changed from the book, although not to the overall detriment of the A&E presentation. Not everything holds entirely together, but most of Mike's visions are made clear in the end. They include repeated trips back to the 1939 Dark Score Lake Fair, where a sultry jazz-blues singer named Sara Tidwell (Anika Noni Rose) is performing on an outdoor stage. What does she have to do with anything? And is Jo helping Mike piece things together with her messages from the grave, some of which appear via rearranged plastic letters on a refrigerator door?

Creepy houses play central characters in many of King's novels. And Brosnan spends lots of time in solitary, searching about the summer home for clues while also fighting off demons. He's quite good in these scenes, reacting believably to all the unreal occurrences within.

Bag of Bones also puts Brosnan's Noonan in the company of nubile blonde Mattie Devore (Melissa George). She's the mother of a young daughter named Kyra (Caitlin Carmichael), whose sinister, wheelchair-bound grandfather, Max (William Schallert), very much wants custody of her. But why?

There also are small parts for TV familiars Jason Priestley (as Mike's book agent) and Matt Frewer (as his brother, Sid).

Veteran Director Mick Garris (Hocus Pocus) takes his time putting all the puzzle pieces together. Bag of Bones doesn't unduly dawdle, though. You can expect to shiver every 10 minutes or so -- and doubly so down the stretch.

Adaptations of King novels used to be an ABC specialty, with multiple ratings sweeps periods housing the likes of The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Storm of the Century, The Langoliers, It, Rose Red and a post-feature film take on The Shining.

ABC and rival broadcast networks now are mostly out of the made-for-TV movies and miniseries business. So it's a pleasant surprise to see A&E pick up the baton by spending a little money rather than continuing to cheap-skate it with "reality" series ranging from Dog the Bounty Hunter to Hoarders to Gene Simmons' Family Jewels.

Bag of Bones in contrast is an Emmy caliber presentation with a fairly major star spurring the action. You won't be disappointed. You will want company.

GRADE: A-minus

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 6

Dino and Frankie swing through "Marshmallow World" with a goofball exuberance that's still infectious. And in tuxes, too, on Dino's old NBC variety show. There are no modern-day equivalents.
Ed Bark

NBC offers a Christmas episode four-pack via its Thursday night comedies


The Office throws an office Christmas party. NBC photo

By ED BARK
ABC is being naughty not nice by not providing TV critics with an opportunity to review its Wednesday night Christmas-themed foursome of The Middle, Suburgatory, Modern Family and Happy Endings.

But NBC sent a nice little packet of its ho ho ho Thursday, in which Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office and Whitney all have new Christmas-y episodes. They air in that order from 7 to 9 p.m. (central) on Dec. 8th. And here are our mini-reviews.

COMMUNITY -- The cast really gets into it during an episode in which the Greendale College Glee Club is ruled unfit to perform at the annual holiday pageant.

This initially is all well and good in the view of study group head Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who observes that "attempts to make the holidays brighter tend to give them a certain darkness."

But never mind that. Recalcitrant study group members are roped in one by one, forming a substitute glee club. There are some terrific little performances, including a rap by Troy and Abet (Donald Glover, Danny Pudi) and a Betty Boop-ish sendup by Annie (Alison Brie) in a fetching Santa outfit.

The Glee club director (guest star Taran Killam) had big plans for the pageant, including a reggae "Frosty the Snow Mon." But he'll take what he can get. And Community fans no doubt will be happy with what they receive.
GRADE: A (for full-blown effort)

PARKS AND RECREATION -- They apparently didn't entirely get the memo, because the holiday trimmings are minimal here. The episode centers on Leslie Knope's (Amy Poehler) dopey formation of a citizen action group after she's suspended from her deputy director's position in Pawnee's Parks & Rec department.

A little Christmas gift-giving is worked in, but the holiday decor and theme are minimal until the closing few minutes. Only one office worker even bothers to dress up -- in a red vest with snowmen. All in all it's merry merry quite contrary.
GRADE: C

THE OFFICE -- New office manager Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) agreeably wears a Santa suit throughout an episode full of Christmas trimmings.

"Mistletoe is not an excuse for sexual assault," he warns before the annual in-house holiday party. Staffers Kelly and Meredith (Ellie Kemper, Kate Flannery) proceed to get severely plastered while Dwight (Rainn Wilson) as always makes a fool of himself. Meanwhile, James Spader effortlessly steals every scene he's in as off-center Dunder Mifflin CEO Robert California. Lately he's going through another divorce.

Oh what fun -- for the most part. But the best line precedes the party, when Stanley (Leslie David Baker) dismisses all of his co-workers' lame-brained holiday theme ideas with a declaration that all he wants is a very basic "baby Jesus lyin' in the manger Christmas."
GRADE: A-minus

WHITNEY -- The newcomer to this comedy bloc finds Whitney (Whitney Cummings) and live-in boyfriend Alex (Chris D'Elia) scheming and lying to avoid spending a bombastic Christmas with their parental units.

Alex is already free and clear. His mom and dad are taking a holiday cruise. But Whitney frets about another miserable reunion with her divorced mom, Candi (guest star Jane Kaczmarek). Fibbing about joining Alex's parents on the cruise gets more complicated when Whitney's vagabond shyster father, Vince (Peter Gallagher and his eyebrows), shows up unexpectedly.

"I just realized that my family's Christmas tradition is dishonesty," she finally deduces after learning that mom and dad have been hiding another little holiday secret.

There are occasional funny moments, such as the lighting of a Christmas tree that has a big tangled ball of illumination at its center. But the disagreeable parents motif is very well-worn at this point. So the episode doesn't wear that well despite all involved trying hard.
GRADE: C+

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 5

Dragnet's first Christmas episode, "The Big Little Jesus," originally aired on Christmas Eve, 1953. It proved so popular that producer/star Jack Webb re-made it in color for the 1967-68 season. Sort of like Gus Van Sant's re-do of Psycho in 1998, with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche subbing for Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.

That was a bad idea. This is a pretty good one. Webb stars in both Dragnet versions as taciturn Sgt. Joe Friday. His partner in the 1953 episode, Ben Alexander as Officer Frank Smith, is supplanted in the color version by Harry Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon.

A very inventive youtube poster has seamlessly woven the closing minutes together. It all begins with Friday and Smith/Gannon informing a priest that they have been unable to track down the thief who pilfered his church's baby Jesus. But then . . .
Ed Bark

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 4

Jim Carrey has "developed kind of a tin ear," but is sure you'll enjoy his rendition of "White Christmas" anyway. He performed it on one of Jay Leno's earlier editions of The Tonight Show.
Ed Bark

A whole buncha Bowl games worth flushing


By ED BARK
Amazingly, this great country of ours is still without a post-season State Farm Discount Double Check Bowl among the 35(!!!) being played.

Even more amazingly, the following sponsored bowls not only actually exist but will all be nationally televised in the interest of further proving the NCAA's point that this is far more valuable to the "college experience" than a playoff system.

Dec. 17 in Albuquerque -- The Gildan New Mexico Bowl between Wyoming and Temple. And the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise between Ohio and Utah State. Plus on this same date, the New Orleans-set R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl between San Diego State and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Dec. 20 in St. Petersburg -- The Beef O' Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl between Marshall and Florida International University.

Dec. 26 in Shreveport -- The Advocare V100 Independence Bowl between North Carolina and Missouri.

Dec. 27 in Detroit -- The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Purdue and Western Michigan.

Dec. 30 in The Bronx -- The New Era Pinstripe Bowl between Iowa State and Rutgers. Also on that date, the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl in Nashville between Wake Forest and Mississippi State.

Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla. -- The Taxslayer.Com Gator Bowl between Ohio State and Florida. (OK, the Gator Bowl has been around for a long time, but putting Taxslayer.Com in front of it seems like a death blow.)

Jan. 8 in Mobile, Ala. -- The GoDaddy.Com Bowl between Northern Illinois and Arkansas State.

Wow, what a lineup. From 1990-'96, the most laughably titled post-season college football event was the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl. It hardly seemed worth winning when you put it like that.

Now it's a veritable feast, with no real limits on what might be coming next unless college football's overlords miraculously wake up someday. How about . . .

The Skip Bayless Bile Duct Bowl
The Tidy Bowl Bowl
The Viagra Up with People Bowl
The Rick Perry Ponzi Scheme Bowl
The Herman Cain/Godfather's Pizza 999 Bowl
The Victoria's Secret Miraculous Push-Up Bra Bowl
The Coming-to-a-Theater-Near-You Bowl
The Gas X/Beano Bowl

To name a few possibilities.

Of the 35 actual college bowl games, all but four of them will be shown on ESPN. That's another sign of our times, but at least people without cable or satellite dishes won't have to worry about missing much of anything.

It's a shame, though, that even the Rose Bowl no longer is available on free TV. It's the last remaining bowl game with the sponsor's name after the title. As in "The Rose Bowl presented by Vizio." Obviously it's a bowl worth winning, because Uncle Barky's alma mater Wisconsin Badgers will be battling the very formidable Oregon Ducks.

Meanwhile, a playoff system remains as elusive as ever. Because after all, there's the vaunted BBVA Compass Bowl to be played on Jan. 7th in Birmingham between SMU and Pittsburgh. We can't deprive our college student athletes of an experience like that.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 3

In this 1971 commercial, Dick Van Dyke urges gift-givers to select "something so new it wasn't even around last Christmas."

Why, that would be the revolutionary Kodak Pocket Instamatic Camera, priced at a low, low $28 with extras costing a bit more.

Wonder what the iPhone will seem like 40 years from now.
Ed Bark

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 2

Lip syncing with all the dexterity of a dog gummin' peanut butter, George Strait sort of performed "When It's Christmas Time In Texas" during what turned out to be Perry Como's last annual special for ABC.

It originated back in 1986 from San Antonio. And -- true story -- friendly Uncle Barky spent a day on site interviewing Como and watching him lip sync "Ave Maria" (far more convincingly) inside the San Fernando Cathedral.

A boyish Strait awkwardly ambles through an outdoor party while half-mouthing his upbeat little holiday tune. Attendees include Como, guest star Angie Dickinson and San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros and his wife, Mary Alice, with whom Strait dances.

Hard to believe it was a quarter-century ago. Here we go.

Fox makes the last midseason moves


Kiefer Sutherland will be back in touch in Touch. Fox photo

By ED BARK
Fox became the last major broadcast network to announced its midseason revamp Thursday, with three new dramas and a comedy coming while American Idol kicks off its 11th season on a different night then previously announced.

A special edition of Idol will still air following the Jan. 22nd NFC championship game. But the season premiere of Idol is now set for Wednesday, Jan. 18th, with another episode on Thursday of that week.

Kiefer Sutherland, a Fox stalwart for eight seasons as Jack Bauer on 24, will get an Idol-fueled jump start on Wednesday, Jan. 25th, when his new series Touch snuggles in behind prime-time's reigning most popular series.

Sutherland plays a widower/single dad who's vexed by an inability to bond with his 11-year-old mute son. But "everything changes," says Fox, "when he discovers that his son possesses the gift of staggering genius -- the ability to see things that no one else can and the patterns that connect seemingly unrelated events."

Created by Tim Kring (Heroes), Touch will move to Mondays at 8 p.m. (central) after its post-Idol preview. But you'll have to wait until March 19th, when it has its official series premiere.

Mondays otherwise will house the new Alcatraz, a JJ Abrams (Lost, Fringe) creation that has a two-hour premiere on Jan. 16th at 7 p.m. before moving behind House on the following Monday. Strange things happen, then and now, at the storied San Francisco lockup, with Lost alum Jorge Garcia co-starring with Sam Neill and Sarah Jones.

The third new drama series, a Bones spinoff titled The Finder, premieres on Thursday, Jan. 12th at 8 p.m. It will be preceded by the Bones episode that introduced its characters. Geoff Stultz and Michael Clarke Duncan star in the crime procedural, which focuses on "a remarkable man with an extraordinary ability to help people find the unfindable."

Fox also will add a cartoon version of Napoleon Dynamite to its Sunday night "Animation Domination" lineup, beginning on Jan. 15th with two episodes. Dynamite, featuring the voices of the original feature film cast, then will move to its regular Sunday 7:30 p.m. slot on Jan. 29th.

Finally, the comedy series Breaking In, which had a short run last spring, has been uncanceled and will get a second try on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., beginning March 6th.

I Hate My Teenager Daughter, which premiered on Wednesday of this week, will be pulled at the end of December but supposedly is returning sometime in the spring. The Howie Mandel-hosted Mobbed will serve as putty on Wednesdays, with episodes scheduled on Jan. 4th and 11th and Feb. 1st and 8th.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 1

December's upon us and Christmas is coming. So as in past years, friendly Uncle Barky hopes to lighten your mood with a series of holiday videos, both mondo bizarro and traditional.

The first in this weekday series has become something of a tradition. It's the bouncy, smile-inducing "I Wish It Was Christmas Today," performed by former Saturday Night Live cast members Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan and Chris Kattan. Here we go.
Ed Bark