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ABC's Red Widow: mob ties served with Russian dressing

Radha Mitchell heads the ensemble cast of Red Widow. ABC photo

Premiering: Sunday March 3rd at 8 p.m.(central) on ABC
Starring: Radha Mitchell, Goran Visnjic, Clifton Collins Jr., Sterling Beaumon, Luke Goss, Suleka Mathew, Erin Moriarty, Jaime Rae Newman, Jakob Salvati, Lee Tergesen, Wil Traval, Rade Serbedzija
Produced by: Melissa Rosenberg, Howard Klein, Alon Aranya

Fox set sail last fall with The Mob Doctor, which committed malpractice in the ratings after getting panned by reviewers.

ABC's better rendered new Red Widow could just as easily be titled The Mob Mom -- in lieu of the already taken Married to the Mob. Starring Australian Radha Mitchell as a well-kept homemaker of Russian descent, it's adapted from the Dutch series Penoza. Think about that for a sec.

Red Widow gets underway with a two-hour premiere scheduled directly opposite NBC's Sunday night launch of All-Star Celebrity Apprentice. That's likely a losing proposition for the ABC newcomer, particularly in the battle for advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds. After all, how can a no-name cast (excepting former ERheartthrob Goran Visnjic as a ruthless crime boss) compete against the all too well-known likes of Gary Busey, La Toya Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Lisa Rinna?

Newcomer Mitchell capably plays the lead role of Marta Walraven. She's a mother of three children living the good life in Marin County by looking the other way as her husband Evan (a still bearded Anson Mount from AMC's Hell On Wheels) supports the family by exporting marijuana. Marta is already well-trained in this respect. Her broken English-speaking father, Andrei Petrov (Rade Serbedzija), is a veteran of the organized crime game.

Unfortunately for the Walravens, Marta's brother, Irwin (Wil Traval), decides to heist a big cache of cocaine that's been brought in from abroad. It's the property of Nicholae Schiller (Visnjic), who doesn't much like it when two of his men are murdered while the coke goes missing.

Irwin, who works with Evan, was intent on expanding their drug business. "We're all dead," says Evan upon finding out what his brother-in-law has done.

Instead, as ABC's promos have made clear, it's only Evan who winds up dead while his youngest son, Boris (Jakob Salvati), is witness to and traumatized by the sight of three bullets entering dad's chest. It's a shame, because Evan has pledged to quit the drug business cold turkey and get out of town with the entire family. On the night before his death, mom and pop Walraven celebrate by making hotter than usual love.

"This kills me I can do nothink," Marta's father laments after she's told by one of Nicholai's henchmen that it's now her responsibility to repay her husband's debt. Why he can do "nothink" isn't entirely clear, although some reference is made to his money being "tied up" for a while.

Meanwhile, the still very handsome Visnjic tries hard to sneer as Kingpin Schiller. Pooh-poohing any cash settlement, he demands that Marta make arrangements to import a drug shipment for him. And she'll find out when and where at his convenience. Just keep your cell phone charged.

Marta's jailed bro, Irwin, knows the score. "He doesn't care about the money," he says of Nicholae. "He's making an example of us. That's what you do in our business."

So we have something of a poor man's Breaking Bad motif coming into play, with Marta having to decide how deep she'll go into crime in order to protect her children's future. Unlike Walter White, she's not cooking drugs. She's instead playing with fire by recruiting new smuggling team members with help from her dead husband's crum-bum best friend, Mike Tomlin (Lee Tergesen).

Red Widow also inserts an FBI agent -- Clifton Collins Jr. as James Ramos -- who's intent on persuading Marta to help him instead of the Schiller crime operation. So far, he tells her, she hasn't done enough bad things to merit any jail time. By the end of Sunday's first two hours, a desperate Marta is straddling two worlds. And then the phone rings. To be continued.

ABC already has canceled two string-along new dramas this season -- 666 Park Avenue and Last Resort. A third, the recently launched Zero Hour, also looks like a short-temer after two weeks of dismal ratings.

Red Widow isn't as compelling as Last Resort was in its early episodes. But it's appreciably better than those other two. Still, consumer confidence in Red Widow's staying power should be rightfully suspect at best. And in Sunday's second half, the premise already shows some signs of unraveling on the road to potential ridiculosity.


HBO's Parade's End a downer for Downton Abbey devotees

Rebecca Hall, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adelaide Clemens of the BBC-made, World War I era miniseries Parade's End. Hmm. HBO photo

Far be it from HBO to follow the leads of others. Except this once -- for now.

The premium pay network would like a little of that Downton Abbey action. It also wants to experiment, on a smaller scale, with the watch-it-all-at-once-if-you-want stratagem of Netflix and its first original series, House of Cards.

Those two paths cross with Parade's End, a British saga set in the World War I era. Otherwise known as "a time of unprecedented change, when old certainties were being torn down" says HBO's publicity release. Sound familiar?

HBO also is making the five-hour miniseries available in one big gulp on its streaming service, HBO GO. Both the network and its website launch Parade's End on Tuesday, Feb. 26th. On conventional TV screens, the first two parts air from 8 to 10:05 p.m. (central) on that night with parts three and four on Wednesday (8 to 10:05 p.m.) and part five on Thursday (8 to 9 p.m.)

All five parts are ready to roll instantly on HBO GO. And the network's On Demand service also will have all of the episodes up at once, but not until Wednesday, Feb. 27th.

OK, that's a lot to process. But is Parade's End any good? In fits and spurts, yes. But overall, this is a pale facsimile of Downton Abbey, complete with more military uniforms and fewer sumptuous dinners. Part 4 in particular is a slog.

The story pivots on a triangle, with unrequited love dangling like an elusive fourth Super Bowl appearance by the Jerry Jones-owned Dallas Cowboys.

Benedict Cumberbatch, best known as the devil-may-care star of the BBC/PBS Sherlock series, plays British aristocrat Christopher Tietjens. He's an exceedingly honorable bloke whose unfaithful wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) is so bored by him that she'd "rather be a cow in a field." Still, she admires his knowledge about seemingly everything -- save for knowing how to have a good time.

Christopher clings steadfastly to the conservative Tory ways, which basically are a steadfast commitment to tradition, principle and unwavering loyalty. But his head is turned -- very much against his will -- by a spunky young suffragette named Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens). Their mutual attraction to one another cannot be consummated, though. That is, unless Christopher finally finds a way to free himself from the shackles of his unyielding psyche.

It's something of a Prince Charles-Camilla Parker Bowles love story, except that Valentine is much younger (and often looking like a schoolgirl) while Princess Diana presumably wasn't anywhere near the bitch that Sylvia is.

Cumberbatch plays Christopher for a decade's span (1908-'18), growing convincingly more haggard and war-wear by the year. Although stoic to a fault, the character regularly breaks into a lip tremble or full-out weep. Those who have lampooned Claire Danes' "cry face" as Carrie Mathison in Homeland may have a new target in Cumberbatch's Christopher. In short, he's got a lot of John Boehner in him, and not always to good effect.

Hall's Sylvia, whose son may or may not be by Christopher, is aggressively amoral for her times. But she's capable of seeing herself in the mirror and remarking, "Of course he (Christopher) wants to make me suffer. What man wouldn't?" Sylvia mainly wants to get a rise out of her husband, who's way too stiff and proper for that. Although she's both devious and haughty, a viewer's sympathy might well tilt to her side a few times.

Meanwhile, Valentine pines away, yearning to be Christopher's unconditional mistress if he won't leave his wife. Their lips almost meet during Tuesday's first hour -- in a stagey scene in a foggy meadow. But soon he's off to war -- twice.

Parade's End has a number of supporting characters breezing in and out. Some might recognize Stephen Graham as Christopher's main confidante, Vincent Macmaster. He otherwise plays Al Capone on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Rupert Everett also co-stars, but makes little impression as Christopher's bearded older brother, Mark. Veteran actress Miranda Richardson has more of an impact as Valentine's nurturing mother, who's a writer.

It's all drawn from the novels of Ford Madox Ford, and written for the screen by Oscar-winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love). But although affecting at times, Parade's End tends to congeal rather than gel. It's no match at all for Downtown Abbey and its vivid collection of haves and have-nots.

The central, overriding question -- will do-right dud Christopher ever loosen up and succumb to true happiness? -- will be answered in the end. But too often I couldn't wait for the end to come. Not because Parade's End had me in its grips. But because I'd made the damned investment to see this to the end. Alas, it was the only honorable thing to do before writing this review.


Oscar host MacFarlane goes too far -- and also takes too long to do so

Good humor man? Oscar host Seth MacFarlane at outset. Photos: Ed Bark

Seth MacFarlane, whose Fox cartoons regularly ridicule Hollywood's highest and lowest, became a prime target of opportunity himself after hosting Sunday's Oscars on ABC.

The puckish provocateur took a slamming throughout the long night in the aroused Twitter-verse. But upon further review Monday morning, was MacFarlane really that bad?

Not entirely. But he did make some major missteps that unduly prolonged a typically over-long awards show. And some of his jokes weren't even debatably in very bad taste. They simply were.

Clad in a very traditional black tux and matching bow tie, MacFarlane began well. "And the quest to make Tommy Lee Jones laugh begins now," he said in reference to the grumpy actor's famous sourdough close-up at the Golden Globes. Seated up-front, Jones immediately was caught in at least a semblance of a laugh.

MacFarlane also had a nifty one-liner tied to Argo, which eventually won as Best Picture despite the snub of Ben Affleck in the Best Director category. Noting that the film's rescue of six U.S. hostages in Iran was previously classified, MacFarlane added, "The story was so top secret that the film's director is unknown to the Academy." Cue the rueful close-up of Affleck while the audience laughed knowingly.

The host's first misstep of the night was just a joke or two away, though. DJango Unchained is the "story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who's subjected to unthinkable violence," MacFarlane said. "Or as Chris Brown and Rihanna put it, a date movie."

MacFarlane likely wasn't surprised by the frosty reaction. He clearly had a fallback one-liner at the ready. "Oh no, no," he said, getting inside the audience's head. "That's what we were afraid he would do."

Well, jokes about domestic violence just shouldn't be in anyone's playbook anymore. MacFarlane then erred with a way over-long segment in which William Shatner as Captain Kirk arrived from the future to save him from being the "Worst Oscar Host Ever."

This was a potentially very funny idea -- in far more abbreviated form. But five separate production numbers and/or bits ensued, including the kickoff "We Saw Your Boobs" song in which MacFarlane (with help from the Los Angeles Gay Men's Choir) ticked off a stream of films in which Oscar winners and nominees had appeared topless.

OK, perhaps this was useful information -- from a purely research standpoint, of course. But it was hard to tell whether some of the actresses shown in close-up were genuinely offended -- or just playing along by affixing ticked-off looks.

All of this served to push the announcement of the night's first Oscar winner -- Django's Christoph Waltz as best supporting actor -- all the way to 7:50 p.m. That was 20 minutes from the time MacFarlane took the stage. And in real-time viewing, it seemed like an eternity.

MacFarlane's extended screw-around motif seemed to be infectious when presenters Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy bombed with a painfully off-kilter bit tied to the "Best Animated Short" Oscar. The host later stepped in it big-time by telling the audience that Raymond Massey also had played Abraham Lincoln on film before Daniel Day-Lewis excelled with his eventual Oscar-winning performance.

"I would argue, however," MacFarlane deadpanned, "that the actor who really got inside Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth."

This time the reaction bordered on hostile. One could almost feel the sweat seep through the host's tux shirt as he not so playfully turned on the audience. "Really? One hundred fifty years and it's still too soon, huh?" MacFarlane said. "I got some Napoleon jokes coming up. You guys are gonna be so mad. Oh my God." He held back on any Lee Harvey Oswald one-liners.

The Oscars obviously shouldn't be stuffy. And a host should be able to tightrope a politically correct balance beam on occasion. But MacFarlane too often erred on the side of boorishness. A volley of tired old Jews-run-Hollywood jokes further diminished him down the stretch. Most of them were told by the talking stuffed bear Ted, whom the host voiced in his hit comedy movie Ted.

MacFarlane also couldn't resist a way-too-inside joke at the expense of the singer Adele. As in, "In just a moment, Rex Reed will be out here to review Adele's performance of Skyfall." (Here's a link for those who are interested in what Reed recently wrote about another performer. The old tart isn't going to get any more space here.)

The host had his moments, but needed an editor. In that respect, both MacFarlane and the show's producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, simply failed to do their jobs. Instead, too many Oscar winners got played off -- each time by the menacing music from Jaws.

At age 76, Shirley Bassey can still nail the theme from Goldfinger.

Despite MacFarland, the Oscar-cast had some bona fide highlights.

The first big ovation of the evening came for Shirley Bassey's full-throated, theatrical rendition of the theme from Goldfinger. Which coming from her is "Gold-FINGUH!" She nailed it.

Adele's performance of the newest Bond theme also wowed the crowd. And Barbra Streisand memorably took the stage after the "In Memoriam" segment to fete songwriter Marvin Hamlisch and sing his "The Way We Were."

Whomever left Andy Griffith out of the montage, though, has some very serious explaining to do. In his early years as an actor, Griffith was acclaimed for his performances in two feature films, A Face in the Crowd and No Time For Sergeants. They put him on the road to a long and gainful TV career; attention should have been paid to the roles that got him there.

***Daniel Day-Lews gave both a funny and gracious acceptance speech. With presenter Meryl Streep standing nearby, he joked that they had agreed to swap roles, with Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in lieu of Abraham Lincoln.

Rushed at the end, Ben Affleck nonetheless also had a resonant speech after his Argo won the Best Picture award. "I never thought that I would be back here," Affleck said in reference to his formative 1997 screen-writing Oscar for Good Will Hunting.

It's too bad he felt the need to talk at a speed rivaling the numerous side effect disclaimers tied to TV commercials for medical remedies. He didn't want to get played off by that Jaws music after all.

***The big musical number for Les Miserables, with the entire principal cast participating, also lit up the Oscars. And for water cooler gossip purposes, Renee Zellweger presented a mug that seemed to be either stretched to the breaking point or Botox-overloaded while Kristin Stewart limped onstage in a decidedly disheveled hair-do.

Oh, and by the way, was John Travolta clearly wearing a toupee? And how much work did Ted the teddy bear have done? We'll close with those images while wishing it could have gone better for MacFarlane. Maybe next time? It's doubtful there'll be one.

CBS' Golden Boy nicely primes the network's crime pump

Theo James and Chi McBride partner up in Golden Boy. CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS and also airing on Tuesday, March 5th before moving to regular Friday, 8 p.m. slot o March 8th.
Starring: Theo James, Chi McBride, Bonnie Somerville, Kevin Alejandro, Holt McCallany, Stella Maeve
Produced by: Greg Berlanti, Nicholas Wootton

Adding another crime series to the CBS lineup is roughly the same as using the word "journey" on a reality-competition show.

So what else is new?

The great equalizer, though, is if the newcomer is any good. And Golden Boy is quite good, judging from its first two episodes.

Britisher Theo James, a veteran of one Downton Abbey episode in Season 1, has the potential to be CBS' biggest heartthrob in many a season. But his character, future kid police commissioner Walter William Clark, would be lost without the strong support of Chi McBride as burly mentor Don Owen.

Tuesday's premiere begins with gunshots and screams from New York City denizens in the vicinity of them. Young beat cop Clark, with just three years experience, emerges as a hero after shooting and killing a hostage-taker before saving the life of his partner with some hasty CPR.

It sounds pretty standard issue. But Golden Boy also makes periodic trips to "Seven Years Later," with the very slightly graying 34-year-old Clark newly serving as NYC's youngest top cop ever.

"Getting here was a long road," Clark tells a guest-starring Richard Kind, who asks in turn, "So you tell me, commissioner, you a master politician or just a savvy cop?"

Golden Boy spends most of its time charting Clark's wonder years. Offered any squad room he wants after his heroics, Clark demands a spot on the homicide task force. Its best known member, territorial detective Christian Arroyo (Kevin Alejandro), takes an instant dislike to the kid and begins plotting his downfall. The gruff Owen, just two years from retirement, gives Clark guff but means well with his periodic lectures on following procedure.

The task force's other principal members are Arroyo's hard-knocks partner, Deborah McKenzie (Bonnie Somerville), and big lug Joe Diaco (Holt McCallany), who prides himself on getting prime tickets to big events like The Book of Mormon and Knicks games. Clark also has a troubled kid sister named Agnes (Stella Maeve), whom he sets up with a job at a nearby diner frequented by cops.

CBS has seen to it that Golden Boy is typically affixed with a crime-of-the-week that gets solved by episode's end. But its strong suits are the character mix and the building blocks leading to Clark's rapid rise. The first two episodes both end with him as commish. And in the March 5th hour, he's walking with a noticeable limp. How he got it is yet to be seen.

James is both impressive and knock-out good looking as the title character. But the well-worn McBride, this time affixed with a New Yawk accent, is the deep-set anchor of Golden Boy. His very first line is a deadpan winner. "I'm your partner," he tells an initially disappointed Clark. "Don't knock yourself out doin' backflips."

McBride, a survivor of UPN's super-panned 1998 series, The Secret Diaries of Desmond Pfeiffer, has had a tough run of late in short-lived series such as Killer Instinct, The Nine, Pushing Daisies and Human Target. But CBS infrequently fails on the cop series front, so maybe this is finally the one for him.

After a pair of Tuesday outings, Golden Boy will move to its regular Friday, 8 p.m. (central) slot on March 8th. It's replacing CSI: NY, which has its season finale on Feb. 22nd.

It'll be a surprise if Golden Boy doesn't stick. The cast is engaging, the premise is intriguing and the genre long has been CBS' ratings-rich specialty. Dead bodies are this network's lifeblood. And it always has room for one more.


CW's Cult aggressively defies convention -- and explanation

Cult's dazed denizens include Jessica Lucas as Skye Yarrow. CW photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Matt Davis, Jessica Lucas, Alona Tai, Robert Knepper
Produced by: Rockne S. O'Banon, Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage, Len Goldstein, Jason Ensler

A hit TV series on The CW? No, it's only make believe in Cult, the odd yet oddly watchable new drama about a show within a show and its killer implications.

Principal producers Rockne S. O'Bannon and Josh Schwartz respectively have pretty decent bloodlines in Farscape and Chuck. So maybe playing along for a few weeks wouldn't be an entirely bad idea, even if you can't deduce what the deuce is going on from the only episode made available for review.

The always creepy Robert Knepper, who played deranged escapee Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell on Fox's Prison Break, is fleetingly seen here as demonic Billy Grimm. He's the star of a rabidly watched TV series called Cult. But has he also spilled over into real life?

Elements of Fox's The Following come into play as a fired reporter for The Washington Post (Matt Davis as Jeff Sefton) investigates the mysterious disappearance of his troubled brother, Nate (James Pizzinato). Is Grimm the possible mastermind? Are other members of the cast and crew involved? Was Paul the Walrus?

Teaming up with Jeff is the beauteous and increasingly suspicious Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), a research assistant on the Cult TV series within this TV series. Meanwhile on-screen, (apparently) fictional LAPD detective Kelly Collins (Alona Tai) doggedly searches for her missing sister.

Save for a brief appearance as an actor on the Cult TV series set, Knepper is seen only in character as Billy Grimm. In a scene-setting segment of grainy footage at the start of Episode 1, Knepper as Grimm insists he's not seducing anyone into his nefarious web. "It is they who are seeking connection," he says. "Which I provide."

Television programming executives and producers have long been united in their insistence that violent acts off-screen are not directly influenced by violent acts on-screen. But they're ever-vigilant, of course, in what they depict. So goes the mantra.

Cult seems to be at cross-purposes with this standard dodge. It sets up a premise in which devoted fans of the show are both zombie-like and susceptible to further manipulation. Or at least that seems to be what's going on, complete with a catch phrase. "Hey, these things just snap right off," disciples say before killing themselves.

The suspense builds fairly effectively in Tuesday's opening hour, with Jeff eventually playing a bizarre DVD disc left behind by his missing brother. Game on?

There's a smidge of levity, too. A young gun former Fox executive brought in to punch up Cult's storylines (or something like that) brags that he "kept Joss" on for an extra season. This almost certainly is a reference to fave rave producer Joss Whedon and his science-fiction series Dollhouse, which premiered in February 2009 and spilled over into the following fall season despite its anemic ratings.

Dollhouse lasted for 27 episodes before Fox evicted it. The CW has ordered 13 hours of Cult, which has the potential to attract a cult following on a network whose most successful series (The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Arrow) in reality have little more than cult followings.

Although eluding any cogent explanation of what it's all about, Cult may have enough going for it to merit at least a minimal investment. It somehow manages to be more inviting than ABC's new and thoroughly preposterous Zero Hour, although both series could be the stuff of sadistic semester-ending writing essays. All a professor would have to say is, "You have 45 minutes to explain what Zero Hour or Cult are trying to tell us. Take your pick. And good luck trying to pull something out of your asses."


National Geo's Killing Lincoln lacks a firm pulse

John Wilkes Booth takes deadly aim on Honest Abe in Killing Lincoln. National Geographic Channel photo

The usual array of appliances, furniture and automobiles (but certainly not luxury cruises this time) is being hawked in the name of Abraham Lincoln and wingman George Washington during America's annual Presidents' Day festivities.

Lincoln's got it rougher, though. He's facing possible Oscar disappointment on Feb. 24th, with Argo now in a strong position to beat the once heavily favored Lincoln for Best Picture honors.

And on the Sunday before that they're going to murder him again in Killing Lincoln, which also serves as National Geographic Channel's first original scripted drama.

Adapted from the Bill O'Reilly/Martin Dugard bestseller, the film stars Billy Campbell in the title role and newcomer Jesse Johnson as his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. But on-camera narrator Tom Hanks seemingly gets as many words and screen time as either of them. He is, after all, Tom Hanks.

The film premieres at 7 p.m. central Sunday and will be immediately repeated at 9 p.m. At times accompanied by music befitting a slasher flick, it plods along in the early going and never picks up enough steam to make it more than a passable diversion. Hanks is in part grim reaper, repeatedly intoning the amount of time that both Lincoln and Booth will still draw breath.

"Abraham Lincoln has 13 days to live."

"Abraham Lincoln has less than four days to live."

"Abraham Lincoln has less than 15 hours to live."

"John Wilkes Booth has less than 12 days to live."

"John Wilkes Booth has less than six days to live."

"John Wilkes Booth has only hours to live."

And in these cases there are no magical time travel machines available to reconfigure history by removing a mystical medieval doo-dad from the clutches of Prince Ned the Nefarious. Because this isn't an ABC drama series.

Hanks, who does his best under the circumstances, also is saddled with the line "That is Abraham Lincoln" when perhaps the most familiar historical figure ever is first introduced on camera. This hardly seems necessary -- unless you're convinced that Honey Boo Boo's mom will be watching. But in that case, no amount of historical exposition would be enough.

Campbell, who got plugged as a politician on AMC's The Killing, is in a no-win situation when compared to Daniel Day Lewis' bravura big-screen performance as Lincoln. So let's just say he's OK and leave it at that.

Johnson as Booth is instantly hammy. Lincoln's killer also was a stage actor, but this performance makes it seem as though all his world's a 24/7 stage. Which makes it hard to take from start to stop.

Befitting the O'Reilly/Dugard book, National Geo's Killing Lincoln is filled with little historical asides that flesh out this larger than life tragedy. Hanks therefore is on constant duty, chipping in here, there and everywhere when not noting how long each man has to live. At one point he says, "And the stage is set for the most dramatic and resonant crime in American history."

That's definitely debatable, given what happened to President John F. Kennedy on the streets of Dallas nearly 50 years ago. O'Reilly's companion bestseller, Killing Kennedy, also stands handily ready for adaptation.

Supporting parts in Killing Lincoln, none of which amount to much on-screen, are played by Geraldine Hughes and Graham Beckel as Mary Todd Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Unlike the big-screen Lincoln, this production cannot be accused of being rich in character development. It's much more a bare-bones recitation, with some interesting sidelights in the telling.

National Geo at least now has its feet wet in the "Original Scripted Drama" arena. Network publicity materials proclaim Killing Lincoln as "an electrifying look at a shadowy scheme cultivated during the rapid-fire succession of closing Civil War events and a wrenching journey to understand a reviled 'madman'."

Subtracting "electrifying" and "wrenching" to reflect the actual finished product.


Yep, it's her again. Beyonce tells her story her way in HBO's Life Is But A Dream

Beyonce is ready for more closeups -- on her terms. HBO photo

Coming soon to a home screen near you: the 24/7 Beyonce channel.

Actually it only seems that way. After her much-critiqued presidential inauguration and Super Bowl halftime performances, here she is again with a self-directed and produced 90-minute documentary film about herself.

HBO is the carrier, and the premium cable network in recent years has ceded editorial control to a wide range of public figures. Gloria Steinem, Harry Belafonte, George H.W. Bush, Rory Kennedy (for a recent film about her mother, Ethel). Plus family-authorized "In Their Own Words" looks at the late, John, Robert and Teddy Kennedy.

It's not an ideal way to dissect a subject. In contrast, PBS' two-part American Experience biography on Bill Clinton (shown last year), intentionally avoided interviewing either the former president or his wife, Hillary.

"We don't want the film to tip into autobiography," said Mark Samuels, executive producer of the American Experience series. The Clintons also weren't shown the film before it aired, he said.

Beyonce's film, Life Is But A Dream (premiering Saturday, Feb. 16th and repeated throughout the month), tips into a star-controlled autobiography from start to finish. But she occasionally appears without much if any makeup. And Beyonce also talks fleetingly about her decision, in March 2011, to dismiss her father, Mathew, as the manager of her career.

"I'm feeling very empty because of my relationship with my dad," she says. "Um, so fragile at this point. And I feel like my soul has been tarnished . . . I needed boundaries. And I think my dad needed boundaries."

Intercut with some typically showy stage performances in addition to powerful off-stage vocals, the film portrays Beyonce as a willful yet vulnerable artist who lets the world know that "I'm a human being. I cry. I'm extremely sensitive."

She's also very outwardly devoted to her husband Jay-Z and motherhood. The film charts Beyonce's road to having their first child together and her uncertainty on how and when to reveal her pregnancy. She finally chose a performance at the 2011 MTV Music Video Awards, rubbing her still small baby bump while Jay-Z is shown reacting delightedly backstage. Blue Ivy Carter, a girl, was born in January 2012.

Beyonce also talks about the importance of being a woman in full control of her career, noting at one point, "Business and being polite. It doesn't match."

Many of her thoughts are expressed to an un-billed male interviewer, with Beyonce in full glamorous glow in a beehive 'do and impeccable makeup. Other times she's in grainy black-and-white -- and in extreme close-up.

Beyonce and her father reportedly reconciled to a degree after the birth of Blue Ivy. And the film has brief footage near the end of Mathew holding the baby, although no words are exchanged between father and daughter. Beyonce's mother, Tina, is much more a part of the overall picture, both at rehearsals and during a Billboard awards show.

The star of the film, basically a Valentine to her airing two days after Valentine's Day, spouts the standard cliche a bit before the closing credits roll. Everything happens in life "for a reason," Beyonce says before again taking the stage in a red, skin-tight, revealingly cut costume.

"I'm gonna give you everything I have. I promise," she tells an ecstatic crowd with her final words.

Life Is But A Dream in reality doesn't give all that much. Still, it's a watchable film for those who just can't get enough of a pop music jewel to behold who's still just 31 and likely not even in her prime yet.

Take it from Beyonce, who will then take it to the bank: "If I'm scared, be scared. Allow it. Release it. Move on."


ABC's Zero Hour adds up to barely that

A very vexed Anthony Edwards returns to prime-time in Zero Hour. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Feb. 14th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Anthony Edwards, Carmen Ejogo, Scott Michael Foster, Addison Timlin, Jacinda Barrett, Michael Nyqvist
Produced by: Paul Scheuring Zack Estrin, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Dan McDermott

The title makes it seem like another military drama in the mold of Last Resort, which it's replacing as ABC's Thursday night leadoff hitter.

Not so, though. Instead Zero Hour pretty much reflects its chances of making it to a second season next fall.

Preposterous, ridiculously earnest, poorly scripted and laughably acted, this is the series that Anthony Edwards chose to re-enter prime-time after a long tenure as one of ER's main men. He should've stayed in bed.

The premiere episode begins with the narrative intonation, "12 is a magic number. 12 is divine. 12 is both the beginning and the end of time." Right. And 1 is the loneliest number for anyone who's still counting.

Zero Hour further sets up its cockamamie premise with a very ponderous 1938 Nazi Germany sequence in which priests and other resistors are sent to kingdom come after some mysterious events get set in motion. Then it's on to present-day Brooklyn, where Hank Galliston (Edwards) and his wife, Laila (Jacinda Barrett), are happily passing some time at a flea market.

She buys an antique clock and he's on the clock. "I gotta go," he says before heading off to the small offices of Modern Skeptic magazine, which he publishes while preaching the guiding principles of "inductive reasoning" to young staffers Rachel Lewis and Arron Martin (Addison Timlin, Scott Michael Foster).

Their banter is interrupted by a phone call from Laila, who's back at her clock shop and terrified by someone breaking in. By the time Hank arrives she's nowhere to be found. And he's not even allowed to wonder why before Rachel clunkily interjects in the original version, "Why'll drive you crazy, Hank. You've just gotta keep your head down. Keep pounding the pavement." (This since has been amended to "Why'll drive you crazy, Hank" in the official on-air version.)

No matter. The writing on Zero Hour is still the equivalent of a pounding headache. As are the over-cooked tick-tock bridges to commercial breaks. Edwards surely had a choice of better material than this. And to think he used to be on a par with George Clooney at the outset of ER.

The series' other principal co-star, comely FBI agent Rebecca "Beck" Riley (Carmen Ejogo), likewise has known loss in her life. And she also knows that Laila's abductor is "the highest-end mercenary in the world," a nut who goes by the name of White Vincent (Michael Nyqvist).

Beck and Hank eventually journey to frozen northern Canada in search of a method to White Vincent's madness. Meanwhile, ad hoc sleuths Rachel and Arron are off to Bavaria, Germany, where they encounter an ancient clockmaker (played by Jan Triska) guilty of some of the worst sustained over-acting in the history of series TV.

Charles S. Dutton (Roc, The Corner) also is tossed in as an ill-fated priest. ABC publicity materials describe this whole shebang as a "breathless race against the clock to not only find Hank's wife but save humanity."

Don't expect any of it to make even a modicum of sense. ABC has enjoyed considerable success with its lone "procedural" crime drama, Castle, in which cases are wrapped up in single episodes. But the network remains addicted to far-fetched, string-along serial dramas, including recent flops such as 666 Park Avenue, The River, Missing and the aforementioned Last Resort.

Zero Hour looks to be far more incomprehensible than any of these previous efforts. And Edwards seems to be off his feed from the very first scene. His character is last seen in the throes of the dry heaves while the closing words in Thursday's opener come from that scenery-inhaling, cuckoo old German. He lets it be known that "the storm is called" -- pause, one-two -- "Zero hour."

Don't waste your time.

GRADE: D-minus

Having a little funster with I'm Dickens . . . He's Fenster

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The title has always made me grin, and I've regularly used it as a throwaway punchline.

I'm Dickens . . . He's Fenster. Right up there with other short-lived sitcoms such as Holmes and Yo-Yo and Camp Runamuck.

Now it turns out that the first 16 episodes of Dickens/Fenster's only season are newly available in Volume One of a "50th Anniversary Collector's Edition."

Who knew? And the only reason I know is because the show was referenced in one of my recent tweets. And responded to by Jim Benson, congenial proprietor of tvtimemachine.com. It's the company behind the "First Time On DVD!" release of Dickens/Fenster, a three-disc set with the requisite "Bonus Features." Upon request, he sent a copy for review.

The series made ABC's fall 1962 prime-time lineup in a pretty tough Friday night slot opposite the second halves of CBS' Route 66 and NBC's Sing Along with Mitch. The latter unfortunately became a staple in our home. So as a kid I had about as much a shot of seeing Dickens/Fenster as I did Have Gun, Will Travel, which aired opposite The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights. These were primitive times, with one TV set in the house and no video recorders. And my live-in grandma, let alone my parents, weren't going to miss Mitch or Lawrence to placate their oldest boy. Bless 'em. They meant well.

The accompanying liner notes for Dickens/Fenster praise it as a before-its-time classic that rallied in the ratings too late to get beyond its 32-episode Season 1. That's right -- 32 episodes compared to today's typical broadcast network order of 22 to 24 per season. And each of those episodes lasted about five minutes longer because of fewer and briefer commercial interruptions.

Dickens/Fenster starred John Astin as the married Harry Dickens and Marty Ingels as his construction worker pal and best friend Arch Dickens. Astin, now 82, went on to star in ABC's The Addams Family. Ingels, 76, went on to marry Shirley Jones of The Partridge Family fame. They're still together after 36 years.

Ingels oddly played both the elastic-faced comedy instigator and the ladies' man in Dickens/Fenster. Astin, appreciably better looking, was cast as both a worry wart and a homebody with wife Kate (the late Emmaline Henry). But that didn't stop Harry from ogling virtually every woman Arch brought to their house. In the four episodes I watched -- including one with guest star Ellen Burstyn -- Kate comes off as way too understanding of her husband's constant flirting. Harry often got knocked down on the job in a comedy replete with sight gags. His wife should have decked him, too. At least once.

The show's creator, Leonard Stern, wrote for The Honeymooners, The Phil Silvers Show and The Jackie Gleason Show before becoming a show-runner in his own right. His biggest hits were Get Smart and McMillan & Wife. His flops included the aforementioned Holmes and Yo-Yo.

Filmed entirely in black-and-white, Dickens/Fenster can still be amusing in spots. The "Harry the Father Image" episode includes some funny stuff with high-powered kitchen magnets. "The icebox cometh," Arch cracks after it advances on him.

Astin in particular tends to shout out his dialogue as though he's emoting in a 5,000 seat theater without any microphones. In the "Father Image" episode, he loudly tries to juggle Arch's other arriving girlfriends while his stewardess fiancee, Joan (Burstyn), is in a very nearby bedroom taking an inordinate amount of time to put on some of Harry's wife's cologne. How could she not hear him?

A later episode, "The Acting Game," includes guest star Harvey Korman as the representative of a tool company that wants to cast real-life workers in its commercials.

A clenched-up Harry just can't seem to say "Banner Hammer," instead spouting "Banana Banner." He also can't stand the thought of Arch getting the bigger part, but continues to blow his lines. "Hello, I'm Harry Work. I'm proud of my Dickens," he says climactically before fainting. Very broad and a fairly risque line for its time.

The "Bonus Features" disc includes Astin talking about some of the unintentionally painful falls he took during filming. "For many weeks I had the imprint of a hammer on my butt," he remembers.

Ingels' commentary on the first episode includes a warm remembrance of co-star Emmaline Henry, who died of brain cancer at age 50. "She was a big talent," he says of an actress whose major TV credit was a co-starring role on I Dream of Jeannie as the wife of Air Force base psychiatrist Alfred Bellows.

Ingels also marvels at his bouncy initial entrance on Dickens/Fenster while noting how crazed he was in real life.

"See that energy," he says. "That's anxiety bipolar hyperkinetic sickness."

I'm Dickens . . . He's Fenster never got that deep. Nor was it a classic. But it's still good for some laughs as a prime-time TV artifact that arguably deserved a longer life.

For my selfish purposes, the title alone is still the gift that keeps on giving. And the super-goofy opening theme song is also a big help. Have a listen and a look.

The Super Bowl is still ratings rocket fuel for any network that has it (Ask CBS)

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Although the overall audience dropped a bit from the previous two, a little thing like the Super Bowl can work wonders for a network's season-to-date prime-time ratings picture.

The latest beneficiary is CBS, which now is the No. 1 network in all three major audience food groups following its telecast of Super Bowl XLVII.

For the week ending Feb. 3rd, CBS averaged a bloated 28 million viewers thanks to Supie's 108.4 million on Sunday night. The next closest network, Fox, averaged 6.2 million.

CBS already had led its three major adversaries by a wide margin in this ratings measurement through the first 18 weeks of the 2012-13 TV season. But now the gap is a five-star blowout, with CBS averaging 12.6 million viewers compared to runner-up NBC's 8.1 million. ABC (7.8 million) and Fox (6.9 million) round out the field.

The biggest Super Bowl plus was its haul of advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds, a demographic that CBS continues to find elusive. But the latest ratings week found CBS averaging 11.3 million viewers in this key demographic, compared to runner-up Fox's 2.8 million.

Super Bowl inflation allowed CBS to move from a very close second in the season-to-date Nielsens to a fairly dominant first. The network now is averaging 4 million viewers in the 18-to-49 age range, knocking a slumping NBC (3.5 million) into second place for the first time this season. Fox, the perennial leader among 18-to-49-year-olds, is no better than third at the moment with an average of 3.2 million while ABC ranks last with 2.8 million.

NBC likely will recover a bit when its potent Monday night lineup of The Voice and Revolution returns in late March. But without Sunday Night Football and with no other current hits on its schedule, the Peacock probably will end up in third place behind Fox at the close of this season. CBS looks like a lock for first place, and may have won even without the past week's Super Bowl high.

CBS also is firmly entrenched in the top spot among 25-to-54-year-old viewers. It was comfortably ahead anyway, but now has a Super Bowl-fueled 4.9 million to 3.9 million lead over second place NBC. Fox and ABC are tied for third with an average of 3.3 million viewers apiece.

ABC is the only Big Four broadcast network without a Super Bowl every three years. It saw to that by coughing up Monday Night Football to sister cable network ESPN after the 2005 season.

Most viewers don't care which network wins the annual prime-time ratings races. But networks see it as a big promotional plus, and CBS hasn't been at all shy about touting itself as America's favorite prime-time destination.

Now CBS is No. 1 across the board, and very likely to stay there for the rest of this season. At the other end of the teeter totter, a struggling ABC possibly could end up last in both the 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 measurements.

The Oscar ceremony is coming soon, and ABC again has it. But the Oscars are no Super Bowl in the grand ratings scheme of things. Not even close.

A look at Netflix's revolutionary House of Cards -- based on watching all 13 Season 1 episodes

Conniving couple: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright star in House of Cards. Netflix photo

Premiering: All 13 Season 1 episodes were made available on Friday, Feb. 1st to Netflix subscribers
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll, Kristen Connolly, Michael Gill, Sakina Jaffrey, Constance Zimmer, Dan Ziskie, Ben Daniels, Mahershala Ali, Rachel Brosnahan, Reg E. Cathey, Sebastian Arcelus, Gerald McRaney, Al Sapienza
Produced by: David Fincher, Beau Willimon, Kevin Spacey, Eric Roth, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs, John Melfi

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Netflix's unprecedented way of presenting its first original series, House of Cards, is optimum for viewers but something of a stacked deck for reviewers.

All 13 commercial-free episodes of Season 1 became available to subscribers on Feb. 1st. TV critics were provided with the first two episodes before that date, and many of the early, largely favorable reviews are based on what amounts to a sneak peek of this twisting, turning Washington, D.C.-based serial drama. The ensemble cast is headed by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a power couple who experience an unexpected outage before quickly plotting their revenge.

But does House of Cards deliver throughout these first 13 hours? And does the Season 1 finale provide enough of a payoff to bring viewers back for what's planned as a climactic 13-episode Season 2?

Holding off until consuming the entire meal, I can answer in the affirmative. Yes and yes. And bravo for a mostly spot-on maiden voyage from a "network" that also intends to offer its upcoming originals in one big gulp. That includes 14 new episodes of Arrested Development, coming this May. All at once.

Back to House of Cards, adapted but thoroughly modernized and re-plotted from a 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name. Both works are based on the novel by Michael Dobbs. Its head executive producer, David Fincher, also directed the first two episodes. His feature film credits include Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and most recently, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Handsomely mounted and garnished with some big, bold opening theme music, Netflix's version of House of Cards is anything but a cheap-looking, abbreviated collection of "webisodes." Each episode runs from 45 minutes to an hour, with the opening credits sometimes appearing right up-top and other times after a scene-setter. For those not "power-watching" during a short period of time, House of Cards might have been helped by a standard "Previously On" summation of recent events. But it's not that big a deal.

Spacey plays House Majority Whip Francis "Frank" Underwood, a 22-year congressional veteran who's expecting to be named Secretary of State after throwing his weight behind Democratic president-elect Garrett Walker (Michael Gill).

Underwood regularly talks directly to the camera, as did nefarious "conservative chief whip" Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) in the British version.

"My job is to clean the pipes and keep the sludge moving," Spacey's Underwood says. "But I won't have to be a plumber much longer. I backed the right man."

Instead he's double-crossed and passed over, with the new president deeming him more valuable as a congressional deal-maker with the moxie to ram through a big education reform bill in the first 100 days of the Walker administration. Underwood and his independent but strongly supportive wife, Claire (Robin Wright), immediately decide on a stealth plan to make him the next president. Their planned pathway encounters a few detours en route, but Frank is ever adaptable to improvised deception when needed.

Claire also ruthlessly heads the Clean Water Initiative, an ostensibly non-profit organization that at times needs a helping hand from her husband. Theirs is a childless marriage of love and opportunism. Each knows the score, and Claire is accustomed to looking the other way when Frank seizes a sexual opportunity to further their ambitions. Besides, she has an old flame of her own, prestigious photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels).

Politicians aren't the only power-mongers in House of Cards. Young, driven Zoe Barnes (Kate Mora), a reporter for The Washington Herald, aggressively pursues a relationship with Frank in ways that initially pay off for both of them. She later winds up at Slugline.com, a website dedicated to getting scoops by hook or crook.

Interestingly, The Washington Post wanted no part of House of Cards. But CNN certainly did. Real-life personalities John King, Candy Crowley and Soledad O'Brien are among those with cameos in early episodes. O'Brien's is an extended one in Episode 3, even though her early morning venue, CNN's Starting Point, is being scrapped by new CNN head Jeffrey Zucker. Sometimes it's tough to stay up to date.

George Stephanopoulos and his ABC This Morning program also make more than a token cameo appearance in Episode 2. Bill Maher and Dennis Miller are much briefer seen as themselves in later episodes.

Spacey and Wright propel House of Cards with sure-footed performances that get even stronger down the stretch. But the revelation is Corey Stoll as self-destructive Pennsylvania congressman Peter Russo. Divorced with two pre-teen children, he's addicted to alcohol, drugs, power and an occasional prostitute. Which means he's perfect for manipulation as part of the Underwoods' grand plan.

Stoll, who had a lead role in NBC's quickly canceled Law & Order: L.A., is letter-perfect in this pivotal role. But his performance in Episode 11 alone should be enough to garner him an Emmy nomination. It's an extraordinarily powerful hour, with Spacey's Underwood also rising to the occasion of his foulest deed.

Some developments in House of Cards can be more than a bit telegraphed. Others fall perhaps a little short of adding up, although in Washington nothing is really implausible.

Spacey's talk-to-the-camera asides could be subtracted without any undue damage. But they're fairly infrequent and do have their crystallizing moments. Including:

***"What am I, a whore in post-war Berlin, salivating over free stockings and chocolate?"

***"If you can humble yourself before them, they will do anything you ask" (referring to the denizens of the small South Carolina town where Underwood was raised).

***"There's no better way to overcome a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth."

Although ever amoral and carnivorous at crunch time, Underwood also is subject to being humanized on occasion. Episode 8 is built almost entirely on a semi-sentimental side trip to the South Carolina military academy where he came of age. They're dedicating a library in his name, and at times it almost seems as if he deserves it.

But then it's back to business in D.C., with more hurdles to overcome by any means necessary. There's always a little time, however, for a cathartic stop at Freddy's hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint, whose proprietor (played by Reg E.Cathey), is ever-ready to serve Frank the ribs he so savors.

Whatever its minor imperfections, House of Cards stands as a towering achievement on the part of a movie and TV series provider that only last year was fighting a PR nightmare over its new methods of charging customers.

Netflix now is very much a player on the original programming front. And the way it's playing this game -- by offering instant gratification to its subscribers -- could have a seismic impact on how future series are packaged and presented.

Imagine being able to watch the latest arc of AMC's The Walking Dead in its entirety instead of waiting week-by-week when it returns on Sunday, Feb. 10th with new episodes. Some prefer to wait until everything is available in one fell swoop. But that of course can take months.

With House of Cards, the consumer is king as never before. Watch at whatever pace you'd like -- immediately. Given its quality, I think you'll be drinking it all in sooner rather than later.


New Jennifer Love Hewitt video again sells sex -- and The Client List

Waco's own Jennifer Love Hewitt will resume Lifetime's The Client List on March 10th, when Season 2 premieres.

The network again hopes to lure viewers with a music video that basically is more suggestive than the series ever has been. Even though Hewitt probably is trying more than a little too hard.

This one, hot off the assembly line, finds her writhing in a variety of fetching outfits to "I'm a Woman." It's produced by American Idol judge Randy Jackson, who's not known for subtlety. See if you're sold.

Super Bowl XLVII ranks III on all-time list while post-game Elementary falls into late-starting ratings ditch

Super Bowl XLVII commentators Jim Nantz, Phil Simms. CBS photo

The NFL's steady Super Bowl growth spurt slowed a bit after Sunday's XLVII between the victorious Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers drew fewer viewers than the previous two.

Interrupted by a lengthy second half partial power outage that CBS did not include in its final national Nielsen ratings, the game averaged 108.4 million viewers. That put it No. 3 on the all-time list behind Super Bowl XLVI (111.3 million) and Super Bowl XLV (111.0 million). Super Bowl audiences had grown each year since the 2005 game.

CBS measured Sunday's Super Bowl audience from 5:32 to 7:41 p.m. and from 8:11 to 9:47 (central times).

The in-game delay and a post-game show pushed the start of the network's tagalong entertainment attraction -- a new episode of the first-year series Elementary -- completely out of Sunday's prime-time window. Starting at 10:11 p.m. central, it averaged 20.8 viewers in falling dramatically from last year's haul for NBC's The Voice (37.6 million).

CBS noted, however, that Elementary fared better than the only other post-Super Bowl attraction to start entirely past prime-time. In 2003, an episode of ABC's Alias had 17.4 million viewers.

The all-time post-Super Bowl champ is still NBC's 1996 episode of Friends, which drew 52.9 million viewers.

CBS' last previous Super Bowl telecast, in 2010, led to 38.6 million viewers for the premiere episode of the network's Undercover Boss.