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You can go your own way: FX's Atlanta is finally back -- and again doing just that

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Donald Glover’s Earn Marks still hopes to figure it all out. FX photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
FX at least still has Donald Glover in the house.

The architect of its most distinctive series, Atlanta, has yet to sign an exclusive deal with Netflix (as Ryan Murphy recently did) or be banished outright (as Louis C.K. was late last year for sexual misconduct).

Glover has been much in demand, though, with Season Two of Atlanta a late arrival (Thursday, March 1st at 9 p.m. central) after the last of Season One’s 10 episodes aired back on Nov. 1, 2016. The former co-star of NBC’s Community put Atlanta aside for a while to play Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story, due to be released on May 25th. Glover and his off-camera collaborator/brother Stephen also are working on an animated version of Deadpool for FX’s sister network, FXX.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited second coming of Atlanta, subtitled “Robbin’ Season,” finds Earnest “Earns” Marks (Glover) still in a soft-spoken earnest mode. He’s also feeling even more adrift and insecure as the erstwhile manager of cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles’ (Brian Tyree Henry) ascendant rap career.

In the second of three episodes made available for review, Earn puts it right out there. “I am scared about Al leavin’ me,” he says. “He don’t need me anymore like that. He’s kind of a big deal.”

The “Robbin’ Season” tag is a reference to the holiday period’s increased demands on pocketbooks. “Christmas approaches and everybody gotta eat,” says Paper Boi’s wingman and self-pronounced visionary Darius (Lakeith Stanfield).

Paper Boi and Darius lately have taken on another roomie, the cackling Tracy (Khris Davis). He’s just out of jail and well-schooled in the art of easy ways to steal and illicitly make money.

Earn, who’s been precariously living in a storage unit when not crashing elsewhere, wonders whether this might make him expendable sooner rather than later. For now, he’s still getting a five percent cut from Paper Boi’s burgeoning earnings, but willingly gives a big chunk of it to off-and-on girlfriend Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz), with whom he shares a little daughter.

Season Two’s opening episodes include a would-be fast food joint robbery that’s foiled by a black owner with an automatic assault rifle and a far more congenial heist of Paper Boi’s cash by his usual drug dealer, who’s also a relative. “Hey man, I’m sorry about this shit. I’m gonna pay you back, man,” the robber says before driving off.

In Episode 3, Earn learns that even when he’s flush, his $100 bills are suspect. A young black man with that much money just can’t be legit.

There’s also Earn’s crazy Uncle Willie (guest star Katt Williams) and his menacing alligator, which can be of particularly good use when the cops come calling.

The comedy, such as it is, could be fighting a too-close-to-call battle this season with an overall sense of foreboding and desperation. Atlanta is by no means a downer, though -- at least not yet. And there’s no telling where the Glovers may be taking it in the seven episodes yet to be seen.

Be assured there’s still nothing like it -- on FX or anywhere else. Atlanta depicts “The Black Experience” without preachments, but with pride of authorship. Donald Glover is his own young black man, and viewers are welcome to see things his way if they choose. If not, that’s cool. You go your way, he’ll go his.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Regarding 9/11, Hulu's The Looming Tower asks why

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Jeff Daniels is heavy on insults & ultimatums in The Looming Tower. Hulu photo

Premiering: The first three of 10 episodes begin streaming Wednesday, Feb. 28th on Hulu
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bill Camp, Alec Baldwin
Produced by: Alex Gibney, Dan Futterman, Lawrence Wright, Craig Zisk

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Fresh from playing a Bible-spouting mass murderer in Neftlix’s Godless, the very busy Jeff Daniels turns to rival streamer Hulu for another command performance. Again, his character is not particularly likable. But this time he’s trying to prevent a mass murder.

Hulu’s The Looming Tower, whose first three hours will be available on Wednesday, Feb. 28th, is adapted from the 2006 book by Lawrence Wright. It’s basically the story of how missed signals and bureaucratic infighting hindered efforts to uncover and thwart the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The real world is quite depressing enough for many. These past five days also have birthed a grim trilogy in the streaming/TV world, with the debuts of Netflix’s Seven Seconds, USA network’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. and now this.

Based on the first three episodes, Looming Tower may not be harder to take, but it is tougher to follow and comprehend. Events and locales bounce around like ping-pong balls in Episode 1. Kenya, Pakistan, D.C., NYC, Tanzania, Albania -- and more than once in several instances. There also are recurrent flash forwards to a formal 2004 “9/11 Inquiry” in which answers are being sought well after the fact.

Looming Tower rouses the senses, however, whenever Daniels’ profanely self-important character is holding forth. He plays John O’Neill, a real-life assistant deputy director of investigation for the FBI who for the purposes of this story is the most dogged pursuer of Osama bin Laden.

O’Neill, who has newly recruited young Muslim Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) as a key undercover operative, is prone to clash with just about everyone who questions his views or authority. His principal antagonist is Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), head of a CIA counter-terrorism unit known as Alec Station. O’Neill demands, loudly and profanely, that Schmidt share all available intel with the FBI. But the turf wars persist as a backdrop to all the goings-on around the globe.

Otherwise O’Neill is all sweet-talk -- with two mistresses who know nothing of his duplicity. He’s also married to a comparatively plain-looking woman who has bore him two children. “You staying the night?” she asks him near the end of Episode 1. “No,” he says.

Michael Stuhlbarg also gets ample screen time as Richard Clarke, the National Security Council’s chief anti-terrorism advisor during the Clinton presidency. He’s an ally of O’Neill’s, but doesn’t relish sticking his neck out. “You damn well better prove it’s Al-Qaeda,” he tells O’Neill after a devastating terrorist bombing in 1998 of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The chief onsite investigator is rumpled Robert Chesney, a fictional FBI agent compellingly played by Bill Camp.

Alec Baldwin also co-stars in Looming Tower as CIA director George Tenet. But he’s not seen until Episode 3, and only fleetingly so. This hour ends with an ill-conceived bombing of a locale that may or may not be a hiding place for bin Laden. O’Neill is dead-set against it, arguing “they’ll get a ton of new recruits” if the “collateral damage” includes innocent women and children. Which it does, with Schmidt eventually telling the 2004 inquiry, “If they’re not Americans, I don’t really care.”

Episode 1 sets these events in motion with footage from ABC newsman John Miller’s 1998 interview with bin Laden, who vowed to take violent action against the United States for what he perceived as past war crimes. “You think I got used?” an actor playing Miller asks O’Neill before carping that the length of his interview got “cut down” by editors because “all anybody wants to hear about is Monica’s cum-stained dress.” In the very next scene, O’Neill visits the apartment of mistress No. 1, who eagerly straddles him.

Looming Tower, for which author Wright is a co-executive producer, is visceral and fully engaging in its best moments, but also head-hurting with some of its efforts to diagram the myriad goings-on abroad. By the end of Episode 3, however, the story has gotten a firmer grip.

We all know what eventually happened on 9/11. What most don’t know is what eventually happened to Daniels’ O’Neill. It’s easy to research if you’d like, but won’t be divulged in this review because that would basically amount to a “spoiler.”

Looming Tower can’t be binge watched for now because Hulu still doles out single episodes on a weekly basis, save for the three-hour initial offering. Perhaps that’s just as well. There’s no “right” time to watch. But given all that’s been transpiring, waiting until all 10 episodes are available may be a path better taken -- even though it will never be an easy one.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

USA network goes hard core with Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.

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Living large, dying young: Wavyy Jones, Marcc Rose are Biggie & Tupac in true crime saga set in two investigative universes. USA photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA network
Starring: Josh Duhamel, Marcc Rose, Wavyy Jones, Jimmie Simpson, Bokeem Woodbine, Dominic L. Santana, Wendell Pierce, Brent Sexton, Michael Harney, Jamie McShane, Luke James, Aisha Hinds, Skylan Brooks
Produced by: Kyle Long, Anthony Hemingway, Mark Taylor, Greg Kading

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The USA network’s first full-fledged “true crime” miniseries is proof positive that its onetime sunny skies motif is no longer in the forecast.

Mr. Robot and The Sinner led the network’s new grim-and-bear it brigade. But USA’s 10-part Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. is a revelation in terms of tough-to-tackle subject matter and graphic content from a language standpoint.

All of the f-bombs and n-words running through the seven episodes made available for review will remain in the on-air product, even though USA is a commercially sponsored entertainment network owned by NBC Universal. “The whole season is TV-MA. No drops,” a spokesperson confirms.

This is unexplored territory for USA, but it would be both disingenuous and ineffective to neuter a world steeped in profanity and pent-up rages. This is a tale of two volatile and feuding rap titans, complete with cops as their rented protectors and two investigations into any police complicity in the murders of Tupac and Biggie. At the height of the East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry, they were killed via drive-by shootings that occurred six months apart in September 1996 and March 1997.

Tupac, whose Death Row Records was based in L.A., was murdered in Las Vegas. Biggie, who recorded in New York City on his Bad Boy Records label, met his end in Los Angeles. No one has ever been charged in the shootings, which initially were more or less dismissed as gangsta retributions. Unsolved, via parallel investigations roughly 10 years apart, raises the question of whether rogue cops may have been directly or indirectly involved. The impetus is a belated wrongful death lawsuit filed by Biggie’s mother and other family members. Her son was born Christopher Wallace, and mama detested both the world and the music that he immersed himself in.

“I never even listened to his music until after he died . . . His songs were grotesque stories about the stink of this world,” she says in the premiere episode.

Unsolved toggles between parallel investigations after the LAPD’s well-worn Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) is summoned in 2006 by elder detective Brian Tyndall (Brent Sexton), who also was party to the original investigation of Biggie’s murder. Tyndall wants him to recruit a small task force and take another close look.

“Is my objective to solve this case or cover the department’s ass?” Kading asks him. He’s assured that the investigation will have no holds barred.

While Kading assembles his ad hoc squad, Unsolved rewinds to the dogged probe of detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson), who ended up being a lone wolf in his efforts to link the deaths of Tupac and Biggie while also putting various, possibly crooked cops on his radar. Simpson, who likewise had a major role in the first season of HBO’s Westworld, is superb as a cop who finds himself increasingly up against it.

Kading’s second-hand man in the re-investigation is African-American detective Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine), who’s understandably skeptical but trusts Kading to go “wherever it leads.” Woodbine, who was stellar in Season Two of FX’s Fargo, makes another strong impression this time out.

It’s a complex story to unravel, with the various alliances and motivations not always easy to follow. A viewer can quickly acclimate to the time shifting, though.

Tupac and Biggie respectively are vividly played by newcomers Marcc Rose and Wavyy Jones, whose double consonant first names are not typos. Their realms also include the likes of the then Sean “Puffy” Combs (Luke James), Snoop Dogg (Skylan Brooks) and hip hop potentate Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), who’s portrayed as a master at playing one side off the other to his financial benefit.

Cooperation is minimal in both murder investigations, with Poole also facing heavy resistance from his LAPD superiors and partners while a growingly weary Kading laments to Dupree in Episode 7, “Nobody wants this case.” By this time, two of his task force members have quit.

The recommendation is to stay the course with Unsolved. It’s a daring, immersive undertaking by USA, while also being far removed from the usual true crime suspects -- lately the Menendez Brothers and Waco-based cult leader David Koresh.

Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. lived in violent worlds and met violent ends. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make further sense of their lives while also looking deeper into who pulled the triggers on them -- and why.

“C’mon, he was just a gangster with a microphone,” a hardened cop says of Tupac in Episode 2. That’s probably still the overwhelmingly pervasive perception. Unsolved goes much further, never sugar-coating but intent on also exploring other possibilities. At its core, this is a murder mystery, but set in a world that’s also still a mystery to many. Check it out -- on the USA network of all places.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Losing his religion's not an option in CBS' Living Biblically

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Film reviewer Chip Curry hopes to be a Godsend in Living Biblically. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Feb. 26th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Jay R. Ferguson, Lindsey Kraft, Ian Gomez, David Krumholtz, Tony Rock, Camryn Manheim
Produced by: Johnny Galecki, Andrew Haas, Spencer Medof, Patrick Walsh, Vanessa Wong, Andy Ackerman, Matthew Fernandes, Arthur Spanos

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Adapted from a bestseller that’s not the Bible, Living Biblically finally comes to fruition as a CBS sitcom with an abominable laugh track.

It’s fronted by one of the network’s former kid stars (Dallas native Jay R. Ferguson from Evening Shade) and will be the new caboose for Monday’s lineup of Kevin Can Wait, Man With A Plan and Superior Donuts. All are male-driven, broadly executed, replete with canned laughter and amusing now and then. Even if God can be forgiven for joining the majority of viewers tuned to The Voice from start to finish. Uh, that’s a joke.

Esquire magazine editor A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible originally hit bookstores in 2007. Brad Pitt initially planned to turn it into a feature film financed by his production company. But nothing came of this, and a decade passed before Johnny Galecki, already very gainfully employed on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, decided to take his first major fling as a head executive producer.

Ferguson plays movie reviewer Chip Curry, who works for an unspecified “newspaper in Manhattan” that’s decidedly not The New York Times. He’s blue because his longtime friend has just died, but then buoyed when wife Leslie (Lindsey Kraft) informs him she’s expecting -- and expects him to stop being “completely checked out.”

This leads him to the confessional of Father Gene (Ian Gomez), who laughs hysterically when Chip tells him he plans to live by the Bible “to the letter.” A rabbi pal of the priest, named Ableman (David Krumholtz), likewise is incredulous while Chip’s spouse and co-workers are all skeptical naysayers.

“You look like a business casual ghost,” newspaper pal Vince (Tony Rock) tells Chip when he arrives in all-white clothing in adherence to the Bible’s dictum to not “mix fabrics.” Rabbi Ableman has a different take: “You look like Diane Keaton.” The laugh track keeps rolling along very merrily. Alas, the Bible has nothing to say on this.

CBS made three episodes available for review. In the second one, Chip gently “stones” a co-worker who’s also an adulterer while bracing for a visit from his abrasive scientist mother-in-law (guest star JoBeth Williams). There’s also time for a stalled elevator that puts Chip’s boss, Ms. Meadows (Camryn Manheim), in a very loud panic. But it’s nothing an impromptu prayer can’t resolve.

Episode 3, arguably the strongest, finds Chip smashing his cell phone as a false idol that he’s been worshipping. Also in the mix: the pursuit of elusive Beyonce tickets. Chip’s wife has no problem at all worshipping her.

Any viewers who come in cold get a weekly narrative sum-up of what Chip’s now all about. He ends with, “I’m becoming a better man, one verse at a time. I am -- living biblically.”

The best interludes in Living Biblically so far are Chip’s weekly meetings in a bar and grill with his somewhat irreverent “God Squad” -- Father Gene and Rabbi Ableman. They know he’s up against it, and try not to let Chip get too carried away.

The Bible otherwise is interpreted in many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many different ways by various clerics and believers. Which means that Living Biblically could become a flashpoint for those who choose to tear it asunder for not adhering to the Good Book according to (fill in the blank).

For those of a more forgiving nature, this is an amiable enough little comedy series that doesn’t use religion as a punching bag. Previous long-distance runners such as Touched By An Angel, 7th Heaven, Amen and even The Flying Nun have shown there could be a market for Living Biblically, particularly during this here and now of uncertainty and divisiveness.

One wonders, though, whether Chip, let alone the show’s writers, truly can have him renouncing his cell phone beyond Episode 3. What a living hell for him that would be.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Post-Olympics, NBC's Good Girls also goes for the gold

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They’re in the money. But at what price in Good Girls? NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Feb. 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Retta, Mae Whitman, Matthew Lillard, Reno Wilson, Manny Montana, Izzy Stannard, David Hornsby, Lidya Jewett, Zach Gilford
Produced by: Jenna Bans, Dean Parisot, Jeannine Renshaw

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
No series has been more heavily teased during NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage. Additionally, no newbie is getting a better time slot -- following Monday’s return of The Voice with new judge Kelly Clarkson.

So what could go bad for Good Girls? Probably little to nothing for starters. A big tune-in almost a certainty. But in the long run, can this serio-comic, female-driven, Breaking Bad-ish romp keep sustaining its far-fetched premise? Based on the three episodes made available for review, the story lines might eventually go bankrupt while the “tone” seeks a proper balance between madcap capers and serious jeopardy.

The threesome from the title are Detroit-based sisters Beth Boland (Christina Hendricks) and Annie Marks (Mae Whitman), plus their good friend, Ruby Hill (Retta). Lately, all are up against it.

Early in the first episode, hard-drinking Beth learns that her husband and father of their four children is a philanderer whose auto dealership is on the financial ropes. They could lose everything, even the house. Get ye to a motel, Dean Boland (Matthew Lillard). But now what to do?

Ruby’s daughter, Sarah (Lidya Jewett), has a kidney problem that requires expensive medicine if she ever wants to free herself from an oxygen tank and run around like the rest of her classmates. Loving hubby Stan (Reno Wilson) is doing all he can to make ends meet while Ruby makes a few extra bucks waitressing. But it’s just not enough.

Annie has a low-paying job as a grocery store cashier, but costly legal bills ahead if she wants to fight for custody of her bullied, male-dressing daughter Sadie (played by a boy, Izzy Stannard). Her ex-husband, Greg (Zach Gilford from NBC’s Friday Night Lights) is reasonable, but also determined in this matter. And unlike Annie, he has ample resources.

So what’s the short-term solution? How about robbing the grocery store of the $30 grand that Annie says is readily available. The manager of the store, Boomer (David Hornsby), is a jerk while the lone security guard is obese and completely inept. So it will be a pleasure to steal the money, and probably easy, too. Which proves to be the case before complications kick in.

For one, the haul turns out to be half a million bucks. “I said 30, give or take,” Annie reasons. “I guess it was give!”

Problem is, the money had been stashed by mobsters who very much want it all back. This particular group is headed by an unsavory Latino named Rio (Manny Montana), who doesn’t like hearing that some of the dough’s already been spent. Rio is suitably menacing with his demands and cocked pistol. And it’s decidedly not funny later in the premiere hour when Boomer shows up -- having recognized Annie’s “tramp stamp” during the robbery -- and demands sexual favors in return for his silence.

Fresh from taking a shower (“I smell like booze and crime”), Beth points a pistol at Boomer while exclaiming, “When a lady screams ‘Stop,’ it is usually because she is not having the time of her life!”

These obviously are meant to be serious moments in a series that alternately doesn’t want viewers to take it too seriously. In Episode 2, it’s back to some laugh lines, with Annie cracking, “I make nine dollars an hour, so just give me a couple of decades” to pay back her portion of the $60 grand now owed to the mob.

Later in this same hour, an incredulous Retta asks Beth, “You couldn’t rob the sweet old racist lady?” It’s a funny line, and you’ll have to see the context for yourself. But Good Girls soon is ratcheting up the terror again, via another visit from the mobsters.

Episode 3 is built around a largely comedic trip to Canada after Beth, Ruby and Annie are told they’ll be square with the mob if they bring back a package from what turns out to be front called Cascade Canadian Crafts. By the end of the hour, Beth gets back to very serious business in laying the groundwork for a potential pivotal shift from something of a lark to something that could get more than halfway dark.

For now, the three lead performances are uniformly winning while the pacing is bracingly brisk. The male characters in large part are furniture to be moved around in service to the women’s varying predicaments and aspirations. Although not intended as such in its early pre-Harvey Weinstein developmental stages, Good Girls ends up being the first TV or streaming series to carry the flag of the #MeToo movement. There will be many more to be sure.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Netflix's Seven Seconds: accentuating the grim from a storyteller who seems to know no other way

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Clare-Hope Ashitey, Michael Mosley play partners in crimesolving. Netflix photo

Premiering: All 10 Season One episodes begin streaming Friday, Feb. 23rd on Netflix
Starring: Regina King, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Michael Mosley, Beau Knapp, David Lyons, Russell Hornsby, Zachary Momoh, Nadia Alexander, Raul Caustillo, Patrick Murney, Michelle Veintimilia, Corey Champagne, Coley Mustafa Speaks
Produced by: Veena Sud, Gavin O’Connor, Lawrence Bender, Kevin Brown, Alex Reznik

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Whether misery loves company is debatable. Whether Veena Sud loves misery is not.

The architect of The Killing again is a determined bearer of bad tidings as the creator and writer of Netflix’s Seven Seconds, whose 10-episode Season One begins streaming on Friday, Feb. 23rd. It’s a full-out endurance test in times that already seem unendurable enough. But I dug in and watched Seven Seconds in its entirety. Not because I’m a glutton for gloom, but because . . . well, maybe I am. And Sud certainly is accomplished in her own ways as a proudly unbowed teller of festering murder stories and the profoundly imperfect people caught up in them.

The Killing, adapted from a Danish TV series, ran for two seasons on AMC and then two more on Netflix. Its overriding question of “Who Killed Rosie Larsen” spilled over into Season Two, leaving some TV critics almost comically furious. In contrast, Seven Seconds (based on the Russian movie The Major), identifies the perpetrators from the very start. The open question is whether they’ll get away with it.

Rookie cop Peter “Petey” Jablonski (Beau Knapp), whose wife is pregnant, is preoccupied talking on his cell phone about her latest developments when he hits something that turns out to be a someone. Fifteen-year-old black teenager Brenton Butler had been riding his bike through Jersey City’s Liberty Park when Jablonski’s SVU struck him. He calls his drug unit pals to the scene and initially is intent on reporting the tragedy as an accident, which it was.

But the completely crooked head of the unit, Mike DiAngelo (David Lyons), tells him that a coverup is mandatory. Otherwise, “they’re gonna crucify you for this,” meaning both the black community and the media. Petey very reluctantly agrees to drive away and let the crew handle things. Meanwhile, Brenton remains alive but severely injured after the impact knocked him into an adjacent snowbank from which the Statue of Liberty is clearly visible, but with its back turned. Sud is not subtle with her metaphors.

Otherwise, the dynamics for Seven Seconds very much mirror those of The Killing. The victims both are teenagers with what turn out to be secret lives. The principals assigned to solve the case have deep personal issues, both in their own lives and initially with one another. The severely grieving parents demand justice and become divided as a result. The weather is bad and the stink of corruption omnipresent. Plus, a sometimes excruciatingly slow pace and the unrelenting grimness of the story may well serve to lose many viewers well before the denouement at last is at hand. FYI, Sud has never been much on the uplift, so don’t expect the clouds to part at the end.

Also, as in The Killing, the performances aren’t the perpetrators. Regina King, who won two acting Emmys in different roles for ABC’s like-minded American Crime, again is first-rate as Brenton’s grieving, religious mother, Latrice. Also excelling are Michael Mosley as wisecracking detective Joe “Fish” Rinaldi, and Care-Hope Ashley as young African-American assistant district attorney KJ Harper, who’s also a promiscuous drunk. But in this case, can she finally rise to the occasion with help from the constantly badgering Fish?

Latrice’s hard-working and even more devout husband, Isaiah, is solidly played by Russell Hornsby. An extra layer of dreariness finds him working double shifts at a slaughterhouse when the medical bills pile up. There’s also wayward, drug-addicted teen informant Nadine (effectively played by Nadia Alexander), who largely replicates a character from Season Three of The Killing.

On the downside, Lyons’ rogue cop DiAngelo comes close to being laughably sinister whenever the heat is on. “You watch your tone with me,” he sneers for the first of several times in Episode 3. And in Episode 6, DiAngelo deploys the now well-frayed “What the f**k you lookin’ at?”

The overriding point of Seven Seconds is that all lives matter, no matter how troubled they were or are. Sud has a tendency to drive this home with a sledgehammer as the racial politics heat up. But DiAngelo and his men continue to get away with murder, whether protecting their coverup or their turf -- in this case a drug ring where everybody’s been getting a nice cut.

Sud hopes to turn Seven Seconds into an anthology, repertory company franchise in the mold of the critically lauded American Crime, which lasted three season on ABC. But American Crime was superior to Seven Seconds in its efforts to tell difficult, consciousness-raising stories via an ensemble of changing characters in entirely different environments. Nonetheless, it never found more than a minimal audience that declined in each season.

“I felt desperate to tell this story,” Sud said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “It’s about time to hear people of color and women telling stories that speak to our experience, or close to our experience. We know these stories. The truth of them is ours to tell.”

In fact, though, these stories already are being told in abundance -- to the point where many viewers justifiably may want or even need a break. Seven Seconds, which runs for more than 10 hours that seem like 15, follows the grim and grimy Sud playbook without really saying much of anything new. The fault lies not with its stars, most of whom perform very ably or well beyond that. It’s just that sometimes enough is enough -- with the real world already doing more than its part to pound down our spirits.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's Here and Now has a spark only now and then

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Life’s bubbles are bursting in Here and Now. HBO photo

Premiering; Sunday, Feb. 11th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Holly Hunter, Tim Robbins, Jerrika Hinton, Raymond Lee, Sosie Bacon, Daniel Zovatto, Joe Williamson, Andy Bean, Peter Macdissi, Marwan Salama
Produced by: Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi, David Knoller

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Every once in a while, a character in a TV series unintendedly speaks volumes, disparagingly or otherwise, about the TV series he or she is in.

In the case of Here and Now, it’s Ashley Bishop-Black (Jerrika Hinton), one of three adoptees in this new HBO drama.

“You have potential. But you are slow. And you waste time,” she says in dressing down an employee of her online fashion website. It’s only Episode 1, but this reviewer already had been getting that sinking feeling. Wearying, preachy, structurally unsound and impenetrably mystical also come to mind.

The creator and principal executive producer is Alan Ball, who has been very good for HBO (and HBO very good to him) with the previous series Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball’s 1999 feature film American Beauty also won the Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor trophy for the now disgraced Kevin Spacey. So attention must be paid, as they say.

Two accomplished thespians, also with Oscars in hand, are at the initially stormy center of Here and Now, which is set in Portland, OR. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) plays revered philosophy professor Greg Bishop, who 30 years ago wrote a mega-bestseller. He’s now in a deep brood about turning 60 without having divined the true meaning of life -- or whether it has any at all.

Holly Hunter (The Piano) is his very hands-on wife, Audrey, a “conflict resolution consultant” with The Empathy Institute.

The Bishops, showcasing their open-mindedness and fealty to those less fortunate, have adopted and raised three children from other countries. The aforementioned Ashley is from Somalia. Duc Bishop (Raymond Lee), now a very single-minded and prosperous life coach, is a native of Vietnam while troubled but talented video game designer Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) was rescued from a Colombia orphanage.

There’s also biological daughter Kristen (Sosie Bacon), youngest of the brood and filled with ‘tude as a student at the multi-ethnic and thereby increasingly polarized high school where mom consults. Kristen is quite reminiscent of Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), the very troubled teen from Six Feet Under.

Before very grudgingly attending a 60th birthday party meticulously arranged by his wife, Greg avails himself of his weekly tuneup from a call girl who’s young enough to be his daughter. Meanwhile, Ashley and Duc get loaded, Kristen wears a horse’s head and Ramon continues to have some very scary visions in which he always sees the numbers 11:11. He has another such episode at the party after Dad gives a dark speech on how just about everything is a load of crap. Are we having fun yet?

Ramon, who also has a new gay lover named Henry (Andy Bean), reluctantly joins his parents at the office of therapist Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi, who in real life is Ball’s partner and a co-executive producer of Here and Now). It’s later learned that Farid also has some serious demons in play. He’s otherwise the understanding father of Navid (Marwan Salama), a “gender fluid” teen and classmate of Kristen’s.

The other main supporting character is Malcolm Smith (Joe Williamson), an assistant women’s soccer team trainer who’s married to Ashley. They’re the parents of a cute little girl. But Ashley’s unfulfilled despite Malcolm’s all-around great guy comportment.

HBO made the first four episodes available for review. Production began in earnest after Donald Trump became President. So Here and Now is the latest TV drama to ruminate, mostly via Greg, about what America may have suddenly become.

“Anxiety is a completely appropriate response to today’s anger,” he says at a seminar, disavowing the optimism he championed in his long-ago book. “Thirty years ago, truth was truth.”

Well, not entirely. Not ever, really.

But as Here and Now digs in deeper, Greg seems to undergo a rather abrupt and puzzling change in temperament. Not to give away too many details, but what’s up with that? Many viewers might have given up by then anyway. I mean, who has time for this? Audrey also veers to and fro from being gratingly overbearing to the soul of tact.

There’s also a beyond heavy-handed scene in Episode 2. Ashley and Kristen have just exited a Planned Parenthood clinic when a holdover, baboonish protestor confronts them. Bearded, plus-sized and ridiculously prototypical, he brandishes a makeshift cross with a naked plastic baby affixed to it while bellowing at Kristen and finally calling her a “dumb whore.” She responds by kicking him below the belt before matters escalate. It later turns out that the protestor is a registered sex offender. The entire sequence has all the subtlety of a carnival barker.

There are moments in Here and Now that threaten to turn the corner and reward a viewer’s patience. But just as quickly, things bog down again. The acting isn’t at fault, but the preachments and overall ponderousness are. Instead of “don’t worry, be happy,” it’s much more a case of “don’t hurry, be unhappy.” Or vexed if you prefer. With all the TV and streaming choices out there, life’s just too short for that.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Draw your own conclusions from Showtime's Our Cartoon President

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Just when you think you’ve seen more than enough. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 11th at 7 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Voiced by: Jeff Bergman, Cody Lindquist and many others
Produced by: Stephen Colbert, Chris Licht, R. J. Fried

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
We’re at the point where some critics are faulting Showtime’s Our Cartoon President for “humanizing” Donald Trump.

Yeah, because that would be a disgrace.

Trump already is omnipresent on cable news networks, late night talk shows, Saturday Night Live and in countless fever dreams. Comedy Central’s The President Show began lampooning him last April, with Anthony Atamanuik wearing a wig the size of an eagle’s nest. Another little-known comedian, Jeff Bergman, gets the call in Cartoon President, an extension of the recurring animated snippets on CBS’ Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Other than Bergman and a few others, specific voice credits remain hard to come by.)

Colbert remains in charge for these 10 half-hour episodes, two of which were made available for review. In his opening remarks, Trump boasts that “everyone knows my brain has great bone structure.” Housed within is an IQ of “180 over 90,” he says with confidence.

Those are some pretty funny lines, and Our Cartoon President (double meaning fully intended) isn’t entirely short of them. Still, is anyone else out there feeling severely Trumped-out at this point? From a comedy writer’s perspective, though, he remains a fool’s gold mine of material, far surpassing George W. Bush’s misadventures with the English language.

George W., by the way, is the only other President to spawn a TV comedy series while still in office. Comedy Central’s live action That’s My Bush!, created by South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, ran for eight episodes in spring 2001. Timothy Bottoms starred, playing Bush as an amiable, well-meaning bumbler. The series supposedly was canceled for being too expensive.

The premiere episode of Cartoon President is topical in terms of incorporating Trump’s first State of the Union address as the principal “storyline.” The President is also taxed with giving First Lady Melania Trump (whom he calls “LaGuardia” at one point) a suitable wedding anniversary gift. It ends up being a one-on-one dinner date with Karen Pence, which further miffs Mrs. Trump (Cody Lindquist). “She told me her favorite designer is Cracker Barrel gift shop” among other things.

Don Jr. and Eric predictably are portrayed as sub-idiots, with Colbert saying in interviews that they’re “our Beavis and Butt-head.” Episode 2 is built around hapless Eric’s yearnings to be noticed. So when Dad authorizes Trump impersonators to stand in for him at boring events (such as visiting disaster sites), Eric is among the eager applicants. This doesn’t end well when the fake Trumps, including Eric, cause the President’s approval rating to “skyrocket” to 40 percent. “I miss the old Eric who never undermined me by being good at stuff,” he tells Eric -- who’s happy to hear this.

Cartoon President has a killer sight gag in its tortoise-like depiction of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And top advisor Stephen Miller works on the boss’s State of the Union speech as a shirtless, pierced masochist hanging from a hook. His first draft is titled “Blood Horizon.” Less effective is a constantly intruding Ted Cruz and his run-at-the-mouth gibberish.

In Episode 2, Cartoon President also twits MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who doles out her observations with a series of short bursts and affected pauses. Fox News Channel’s early morning Fox and Friends contrastingly is brimming with toadies, but Trump of course is the primary punching bag and lightweight throughout these first two episodes. In one segment, cartoon Trump admiringly watches video of real-life Trump and his “greatest hits” on the campaign trail. They include his infamous mocking of a disabled reporter.

Colbert and his nightly opening demolitions of Trump and company have vaulted his show past competitors Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel in the total viewer Nielsen ratings. Cartoon President piles on more of the same while at the same time risking over-saturation.

The sight of would-be Trumps in training -- mainlining a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is among the exercises -- is hardly a belly laugh anymore. Nor is a family dinner of nothing but hot dogs while a disengaged President is fixated on an old Cowboys and Indians shoot ‘em up rather than any verbiage from his sons, Melania, Ivanka or Jared.

Cartoon President likely will find this going getting tougher as the show goes on. The first two episodes hit some comedic sweet spots, both visually and verbally. But if the government again shuts down over DACA, Colbert and his writers will be increasingly hard-pressed to find the funny. The idea of Trump meeting his first salad bar or trying to read a coloring book just might not cut it anymore.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Some juvenile highs in NBC's A.P. Bio

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An apple gets you nowhere with this particular teacher. NBC photo

Premiering: Thurs., Feb. 1st at 8:30 p.m. (central) before returning on Sun., Feb. 25th and then to Thursdays on March 1st
Starring: Glenn Howerton, Patton Oswalt, Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, Jean Villepique, Aparna Brielle, Jacob McCarthy, Nick Peine, Tucker Abrizzi, Allisyn Ashley-Arm, Tom Bennett
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, Mike O’Brien,Andrew Singer, Mike Shoemaker

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NBC is hot for this teacher, even if the title doesn’t readily suggest it’s a school house sitcom.

A.P. Bio (not a virus) is centered on another teacher who doesn’t teach the children well. It gets a special preview on Thursday, Feb. 1st (following Will & Grace) before returning on Sunday, Feb. 25th in another showcase slot immediately after the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. After that, it’s back to Thursdays, starting March 1st. In the interim, the first three episodes will be available online via nbc.com, Hulu and the network’s owned-and-operated stations.

Why such special treatment for a show that’s better than a failing grade but won’t go to the head of any class? Simply put, it pays to be deferential to a new series whose executive producers include Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels and one of his star proteges, Seth Meyers. Duh, buttering them up is a no-brainer.

NBC made the first four episodes available for review. Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) struts through all of them as a disaffected Harvard grad and alum of Toledo’s Whitlock High School whose agenda includes “firm plans to bang my high school ex- as hard as I can.”

He’s otherwise non-teaching a classroom of nerdish Advanced Placement Biology students after failing in his grand plan to become head of the Stanford University philosophy department. Jack somehow envisions getting back at his “nemesis” -- the guy who got the job -- by using the students as go-betweens. This makes a bit more sense than the decision to hire him in the first place. Only a principal as ineffectual and befuddled as Ralph Durbin (Patton Oswalt) would make such a personnel move. Check that box. Classroom comedies demand principals majoring in idiocy.

Jack’s students are greeted daily with his indifference and opening dictum that everybody “begin to shut up.” These kids are actually eager to learn (also a preposterous premise?) rather than do nothing or participate in their new teacher’s revenge plots. Some of them stand out, including the very serious-minded Sarika (Aparna Brielle), student body president Marcus (Nick Peine), awkwardly rebellious Heather (Allisyn Ashley Arm) and the mostly clueless Colin (Tucker Abrizzi), who also plays the sax and whose mother is hot (the spotlight storyline of Episode 3).

Three incumbent Whitlock High teachers complete the ensemble. The alpha female among them is Stef (Lyric Lewis), a cosmetics peddler on the side whose sales pitches prey on the more pliant Mary (Mary Sohn) and Michelle (Jean Villepique).

The always welcome Niecy Nash flashily guest stars in Episode 2 as a teachers union rep who goes to bat for Jack and dismisses principal Durbin as “an incompetent little weiner.” Episode 4, subtitled “Student Council,” pits Jack against Marcus in a battle to keep teech’s craved salt and vinegar chips in the school’s vending machines. It’s marginally the best of the bunch, with repressed Heather delivering a prize creep-out line after Jack commands the students to reveal any skeletons in their closets. “I shoplift magazines to feel alive,” she declares. Getting caught is the fun part.”

CBS offered a better sitcom in this realm with 2014’s Bad Teacher, a spinoff of the same-named Cameron Diaz feature film. But it lasted just three episodes, and probably wasn’t the right fit anyway on a network with a decidedly older and “traditional” core audience than its three major broadcast network rivals.

NBC is a more compatible venue, and A.P. Bio is getting some optimum chances to make the grade. Howerton makes the most of his central ribald rogue role while Oswalt seemingly was built to be a bumbler. Neither character is believably employed -- if that really matters. Beyond that, A.P. Bio suffices as a teacher-student comedy in which Jack gets away with writing “Who Will Jack Bang?” on the chalkboard before turning around to learn it’s parent-teacher day. OMG. But this, too, shall pass.

Grade: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net