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O.J. all over again in the new and spellbinding first edition of FX's American Crime Story

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Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance play Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, John Travolta, Cuba Gooding, Jr, David Schwimmer, Sterling K. Brown, Nathan Lane, Kenneth Choi, Bruce Greenwood, Connie Britton, Evan Handler, Steven Pasquale, Robert Morse, Rob Morrow, Billy Magnussen
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Brad Falchuk, Anthony M. Hemingway, D.V. DeVincentis, John Travolta

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
What’s a hotter TV commodity than even the presidential candidate debates? That would be true crime, whether scripted or otherwise.

Not that it ever really went away. But the news made and the “social media” firestorms generated by HBO”s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and then Netflix’s Making a Murderer have taken the genre to another level in recent months. FX’s 10-episode The People v. O. J. Simpson, the first entry in its American Crime Story anthology series, is now ready to emerge as the new leader of this pack.

Thoroughly absorbing through the first six episodes made available for review, it fully lives up to the FX come-on: “You Don’t Know the Half of It.” This is true even for those who think they do. Drawn from Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, this behind-the-scenes look at the hows and whys of Simpson’s eventual acquittal represents executive producer Ryan Murphy’s finest TV work in a career that also encompasses Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens.

All of those series are or were marked by Murphy’s can’t-help-himself, gratuitous excesses. People v. O. J., his first fact-based effort, stays on the rails throughout the first half and beyond. There are juicy scenes to be sure. But they all fit within the full-out, saturation-covered power struggle to convict or absolve Simpson of the shocking 1994 stabbing murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and waiter Ron Goldman.

John Travolta, who’s also a co-producer, gets top billing as Simpson’s initial lead defense attorney, vainglorious Robert Shapiro. He’s effective in the role, and there really isn’t a bad performance by anyone. But the standouts are Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” Cochran.

The under-appreciated Paulson, who’s taking a break from her disparate roles in American Horror Story, has four previous Emmy nominations, but no wins. She should be a lock here as the hard-driving deputy district attorney whose personal life and courtroom appearance were mercilessly dissected during the course of the trial. Paulson conveys both Clark’s steely resolve and her increasing vulnerability in the face of detractors and gossip-mongers. Exhaling cigarette smoke oftentimes seems to be her only release valve. But she has both a friend and a courtroom colleague in Darden, who himself is trying to withstand Cochran’s calculated portrayal of him as a house n-word.

People v O. J. sets the stage with news footage of the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and rioting the following year after four officers were acquitted of assault charges. Two years later, a man walking his dog through L.A.’s pricey Brentwood neighborhood discovered the dead bodies of Brown Simpson and Goldman. Traces of blood at O. J. Simpson’s nearby home quickly implicated the former college and NFL star in their deaths. The now legendary White Bronco chase, with Simpson holding a gun to his head while pal A. C. Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal-Warner) drove on various freeways, consumes the entirety of Episode 2.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Simpson as a weepy, high-strung, demanding fugitive/inmate while David Schwimmer is cast as his true-blue best friend and apologist, Robert Kardashian, who’s already divorced from Kris Jenner (Selma Blair).

The father of Kim, Khloe and Kourtney, all pre-teens at the time, is very busy in the early episodes. Near the end of the opening hour, he frantically talks a crazed Simpson out of committing suicide before “The Juice” flees with Cowlings. At the start of Episode 2, Kardashian can’t help but say, “Jesus Christ. Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?” And in Episode 3, Murphy couldn’t resist including a scene in which the increasingly famous Kardashian takes his highly impressed kids to a Father’s Day brunch at La Scala.

“Your Uncle Juice is a good man,” he tells them. “Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”

Well, there’s a lesson that didn’t take.

In another delicious scene, rich, name-dropping courtroom chronicler Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse) hosts a formal Downton Abbey-style dinner for his friends while regaling them with gossip from the trial. But the conversation goes silent while the hired minority help serves dessert.

Dunne, Robert Kardashian and Cochran are now deceased, but several other members of O. J.’s “Dream Team” have survived to see this dramatization. Besides Shapiro (who’s not likely to be thrilled by Travolta’s depiction of him as a strutting peacock), they include F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler) and Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow). In Episode 4, Clark derisively refers to O. J.’s defenders as “a dozen alpha dogs in a cage match.” Which in fact is dead-on.

Connie Britton, who co-starred in the first season of Murphy’s American Horror Story between roles on Friday Night Lights and Nashville, does a brief but showy turn as Faye Resnick, a cocaine-addled close friend of Brown Simpson. In Episode 4, she wows prospective publishers with her tale of their exploits together before authoring a cheesy, tell-all quickie book.

People v. O. J. is more concerned, though, with the divisive racial dynamics of the case. Cochran, in a signature moment from Episode 5, tells his “Dream Team” colleagues, ”Evidence doesn’t win the day. Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense. We’re here to tell a story.”

That same episode, subtitled “The Race Card,” begins with a flashback to 1982, when Cochran and his two young daughters were pulled over by a white cop while heading to dinner at Hamburger Hamlet. The pretense is that Cochran changed lanes without signaling. But by now, Cochran knows the real deal. He’s been stopped because he’s a black man driving an expensive car in an upscale neighborhood. Handcuffed when he protests, Cochran is quickly freed when the cop learns he’s an assistant district attorney.

The scene informs viewers of his mindset during the O. J. trial. And of Cochran’s determination to free his client based on a defense that bigoted cops railroaded him. O. J. is resistant at first -- “I’m not black, I’m O. J.!” -- but later buys in. Seeing that his jury will be very predominantly black, he tells Cochran in a low voice, “If these people convict me, maybe I did do it.” Both men chortle.

In that context, the racially charged clashes between Cochran and Darden can be searing. Clark’s eventual co-prosecutor is a soft-spoken man reminiscent of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. But a fire smolders within him, and Sterling K. Brown’s performance brings it out. His heart-to-heart after-hours talks with Clark, whether she’s cocksure or falling apart, also provide some of the dramatic high points in People v. O. J.

A great majority of viewers are fully aware of what happened at the end of the most famous trial in modern-day history. But the thrill is in the details of how a seemingly airtight case began unspooling. Clark, Darden and their taciturn boss, Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood), are up against the best defense money can buy. But the defense is restive, too, with over-sized egos banging heads on a daily basis. It’s all recaptured in riveting fashion 21 years after the divisive verdict came down.

O. J. Simpson, now 68, remains incarcerated in a Nevada prison after being convicted in 2008 of armed robbery and kidnapping in connection with breaking into a secured room in a Las Vegas casino to reclaim memorabilia that he claimed was his. He’s eligible for parole in 2017. The “real killers,” as he once put it, have never officially been caught.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

On the eve of destruction in NBC's "comedic drama" You, Me and the Apocalypse


Planet Earth prepares to take a lethal hit -- sometimes for laughs. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 28th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Rob Lowe, Jenna Fischer, Mathew Baynton, Gaia Scodellaro, Megan Mullally, Kyle Soller, Paterson Joseph, Joel Fry, Fabian McCallum, Pauline Quirke
Produced by: Iain Hollands, Juliette Howell, Lynn Horsford, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, JoAnn Alfano, Cameron Roach, Lizzie Gray, Andrew Conrad, Lloyd Owen, Diana Rigg

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It’s nearing the end of the world as we know it in NBC’s 10-episode You, Me and the Apocalypse.

But mind you, the network is billing it as a “comedic drama,” even though Episode 4 ends with a character being shot in the head from behind, leaving a big splatter of blood to clean up while a kidnap victim watches in horror. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss the dead person’s brains goodbye.

YMATA, which premiered in the United Kingdom last September, is definitely different and layered with three well-known American TV stars in the far-flung ensemble cast.

Rob Lowe is Father Jude, a Vatican priest who smokes, drinks and mildly curses on occasion but is mostly very good-looking in that effortless Rob Lowe way.

Jenna Fischer (The Office) plays librarian Rhonda McNeil, who’s wrongly imprisoned as a mastermind hacker and does an Orange is the New Black turn in Episode 1 before her life turns further upside down.

Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is a familiar face but begs the question, “Is that really Megan Mullally?” She’s virtually unrecognizable as blonde-haired white supremacist Leanne Parkins, who has a very prominent swastika tattooed on her forehead. Let’s stop right there, because this is a really bad idea and the character certainly doesn’t need to be a weekly poster board for Nazi atrocities to come off as a drawling, irreverent redneck. NBC’s promotional art, as you can see above, does not show Leanne with swastika attached. Perhaps it can still somehow be air-brushed out of the NBC version before the Thursday, Jan. 28th premiere? It absolutely does not need to be there.

Venerable Diana Rigg of The Avengers and Game of Thrones fame isn’t fully seen in the five episodes made available for review. Otherwise, the principal star of YMATA is Britisher Mathew Baynton in the dual role of Slough, England bank manager Jamie Winton and his evil twin brother, Ariel Conroy, mastermind of the Deus Ex Machine cyber terrorist group. Also pivotal is Gaia Scodellaro as the beautiful young Sister Celine. After a few obligatory misunderstandings, she ends up working with Father Jude, initially as a saint debunker and then as an exposer of all the false Messiahs emerging after the world learns that an eight-mile wide meteor will be leveling the planet in 34 days time.

Sister Celine gets Episode 1’s most memorable line, telling Father Jude he’s “just another sad little man who touches his penis too much.” He takes it -- and kinda likes it.

Each hour opens with 15 various characters in a bunker as a network news anchor tells one and all “it’s time to brace ourselves. To say goodbye.” The opening episode then backtracks to “34 Days Earlier.” By the time of Episode 5, we’re down to “23 Days Earlier.”

Lots happens in those 11 days, including the U.S. President (Lloyd Owen) announcing a last ditch “Operation Saviour” initiative to save the world. His principal advisors, Major General Arnold Gaines and baby-faced Apocalypse Planning Department maestro Scottie McNeil (Paterson Joseph, Kyle Soller), also know about that secret, last-ditch bunker.

The fun in all of this -- although YMATA also gets increasingly dramatic -- is in learning how 15 disparate people (not all of them revealed) ended up together in a highly fortified fortress with ample provisions. Or as the oft-exasperated Jamie Winton puts it, “I mean, have you seen the freaks that I’m stuck with? Worst reality show ever!”

YMATA initially has considerable promise, some of which dissipates as its gaggle of characters make improbable escapes and decisions. Still, as end-of-the-world tales go, it’s watchable, fairly unpredictable and garnished with a palpable subplot that in some ways is more intriguing than whatever the end game might be. Namely, with the world set to go up in flames, will Father Jude and Sister Celine dare get around to “doing it?”

No spoilers here, but a door-opening Episode 5 is quite nicely done on that score. It also includes Jamie telling a character he’s been searching for that “God doesn’t speak to anyone outside of Charlton Heston films.”

In that era, You, Me and the Apocalypse probably would have been deemed way too sacrilegious. In this era, just get rid of that damned swastika.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A hillbilly haven -- and so far a durned good drama -- in WGN America's Outsiders


David Morse is grubby “Big Foster” in Outsiders. WGN America photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 26th at 8 p.m. (central) on WGN America
Starring: David Morse, Ryan Hurst, Thomas M. Wright, Gillian Alexy, Joe Anderson, Phyllis Somerville, Kyle Gallner, Christina Jackson, Francie Swift
Produced by: Peter Mattei, Peter Tolan, Michael Wimer, Paul Giamatti, Dan Carey

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Although the timing couldn’t be better, WGN America’s Outsiders is not a dramatization of the 2016 presidential campaign starring mockups of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz.

Rather it’s the saga of unkempt, contemporary Appalachian mountain men and women who drink hard, seemingly bathe infrequently and already have built at least a psychic wall between themselves and all those Democratic and Republican varmints down below.

Early in Episode 1, one of five made available for review, a rapacious businessman refers to them as “ree-tard hillbilly animals” whose Shay Mountain habitat suddenly has been found to be endowed with rich deposits of coal. Therefore they must be evicted in the name of jobs and big profits. But haunted, bedraggled looking Sheriff Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright) warns one and all that they have no idea what they’d be going up against.

This is a firmly grounded and compelling drama that’s both ripe for lampooning on Saturday Night Live and rich in story possibilities. Its us-against-them template holds solid over the first five episodes, even if some of the foot-stomping, alcohol-fueled parties atop ol’ smoky are unintentionally comical. As is an old lady’s declaration, “Pit fight at the quarter moon!” in Episode 2. It turns out to be an all-terrain vehicle joust between a prodigal “traveler” returned home (Joe Anderson as Asa) and a son (Ryan Hurst as Lil Foster Farrell) who very much wants to please his tyrannical daddy.

The lead character of Big Foster Farrell is played by David Morse, who many TV seasons ago used to be such a nice young man as Dr. Jack Morrison on St. Elsewhere. In later years, Morse has mostly played bearded mystics or grubby villains. In Outsiders he sports a bowling ball-sized pot belly, stringy hair and a beard big enough to hide the remnants of several possum dinners.

Most of the motley Shay Mountain clan could easily segue into guest shots on the History network’s Vikings. Instead of ships, though, they favor beat-up, open air transportation. And when they need provisions for the semi-annual brewing of “Farrell wine” (knee-buckling moonshine), they simply ride right into a town grocery store and pillage it in full view of customers and clerks.

The aforementioned prodigal son is comparatively refined. Asa spent a decade away from Shay Mountain, even learning how to read while among “The Losties,” as they’re called. But the price of re-admission is six months in a cage, a sentence that he’s nearly completed. Still, Big Foster blames Asa for visiting a new batch of troubles upon the Farrells. But his mama, known to all as Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville), is more sympathetic as the wheelchair-confined tribe elder and leader. All that book larnin’ could be put to good use, she feels.

Another key mountaintop character, G’Winveer (Gillian Alexy), previously had relations with Asa but now is living with Lil Foster. There’s also sensitive Hasil (Kyle Gallner), who fancies a down-below, African-American store clerk named Sally-Ann (Christina Jackson). Representing the coal mining interests is the very willful Haylie (Francie Swift), who will stop at nothing when it comes to driving the Farrells off of their long held perch. “These people shit outdoors,” she scoffs in Episode 5 when it’s suggested that at least one of the Farrells might be techno-savvy.

But the most compelling character in Outsiders is the aforementioned Sheriff Houghton, who’s devoted to his young son but not at the expense of giving up the alcohol and pills to which he’s become addicted. Thomas W. Wright plays this role perfectly. His reluctance to invade the Farrells’ turf is borne of previous experiences that he’s been unable to shake.

The accomplished executive producers of Outsiders include Peter Tolan (Rescue Me) and Paul Giamatti, currently starring opposite Damian Lewis in Showtime’s Billions. WGN America is still striving to make its mark with series such as the comparatively inferior Salem and the much better executed atomic bomb drama Manhattan.

Outsiders is the network’s first non-period piece, although some of its main characters do seem a little prehistoric. Even Asa can really tie one on, as Episode 5 illustrates during a prolonged, drunken demolition derby during which he and Big Foster do some serious harm to the mining company’s heavy construction equipment.

There will be 13 episodes in Season One, which bears watching as the two forces escalate their collision course. “May those devils down there know this!” Lady Ray booms in Tuesday’s opening episode. “This is our land and this is our blood! And we will never leave this mountain!”

She means it. And the producers of Outsiders also hope their series will set for a spell. So far it’s earning its keep.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's Lucifer takes its title character from burning Hell to L.A. hot spot


The bloody hell, you say? Not for Lucifer Morningstar. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 25th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Tom Ellis, Lauren German, DB Woodside, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Rachael Harris, Kevin Alejandro, Scarlett Estevez
Produced by: Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman, Ildy Modrovich, Joe Henderson, Len Wiseman

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Welshman Tom Ellis plays the hell out of his lead role in Fox’s Lucifer.

Lippy, quippy, vain and urbane, he saunters through a fairly engaging first episode of yet another whodunit with a twist on a network that last week introduced a modern-day and therefore handsome Frankenstein as a crime fighter in Second Chance.

Luther Morningstar’s back story is brief and to the point. Cast out of Heaven and condemned to rule Hell, he got tired of the whole business after a few centuries and decided to take a “vacation” in L.A. from which he hasn’t returned. Lucifer is now doing quite nicely as the owner of Lux, a ribald, upscale nightclub whose bartender is fellow former Hell resident and top torturer “Maze” (Lesley-Ann Brandt).

The boss has his way with women and a way with them, too. But Luther’s daily doses of wine, women and song (a future episode showcases him as a tune-belting pianist) are interrupted by the murder of a wayward pop star of whom he’s grown fond. Cue the tough-talking woman detective, in this case Lauren German as Chloe Decker.

“You’ve got some balls on you, pal,” she barks in the face of Lucifer’s continued insouciance.

“Oh, thank you very much, but they’re really quite average,” he replies in a rare display of modesty.

“I bet,” she fires back.

Which of course means they’ll be working together, with Lucifer becoming the LAPD’s official “civilian consultant” whenever a particular murder interests him. Or in some cases, bores him.

Lucifer has an ongoing problem, though. The angel Amenadiel (DB Woodside) regularly drops in to tell the on-the-lam hellhound that their heavenly Father “will not be merciful for much longer” because Lucifer has become a “mockery of everything divine.”

“Remind Dad that I quit hell because I was sick as hell of playing a part in his play,” Lucifer snipes.

It would seem that God could quickly remedy this situation. But then there wouldn’t be a series and viewers couldn’t get to know semi-loopy therapist Linda Martin (Rachael Harris), who’s very taken with Lucifer while also serving as his Dr. Jennifer (The Sopranos) Melfi. The other supporting characters are Chloe’s estranged husband and fellow cop Dan (Kevin Alejandro) and their precocious daughter, Trixie (Scarlett Estevez).

Lucifer finds himself increasingly attracted to Chloe, who in an earlier life made a major impression on some as the topless co-star of Hot Tub High School. The opening episode makes quite a point of this, with a reference to Phoebe Cates that will still resonate with those who remember her stirring poolside scene in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Lucifer retains his mind-manipulating skills through all of this, but can’t seem to fully work his charms on Chloe. She also is slowly humanizing him, with Lucifer enjoying the thrill of losing his immortality step by step. Suddenly bullets can wound him, which he kind of likes. But Maze is both disgusted and jealous of all the time he’s spending with another woman.

So there are ample interesting ingredients here. But two subsequent episodes -- Fox for some reason hasn’t provided the second one -- are comparably hit and miss. “Sweet Kicks,” focuses on a shootout at a fashion show before degenerating into an all too typical “procedural” track down. But “Favorite Son,” which includes a guest shot as a biker by the much-troubled Tom Sizemore, makes for an interesting hour built around the theft of a very important personal possession of Lucifer’s.

The head executive producer of Lucifer is Jerry Bruckheimer, who hasn’t had a successful series in a while after striking it rich with the CSI franchise, Cold Case, Without A Trace and The Amazing Race. Since then he’s tried and failed with the likes of Close to Home, Miami Medical, The Forgotten, Dark Blue, The Whole Truth, Chase, Marshal Law: Texas and Hostages.

Lucifer possibly may break that losing streak. It has a very attractive, charismatic star in Ellis, with German (the former Chicago Fire co-star) appealingly snippy in the role of foil/partner.

The title character’s eyes burn bright red when he dispatches a wrongdoer to Hell. But will Lucifer ever take viewers on at least a brief trip to that ultimate hot spot? That would seem to be a long shot -- at least for now. Lucifer instead is more likely to be told “You’re getting warm” as he gets closer to helping solve the murder or murders of the week.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The X-Files returns -- and this should be the last time


Back by popular demand -- or whatever. The X-Files returns in 6-episode “event series” starring David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson. Fox photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 24th after NFC Championship Game on Fox before moving to Mondays at 7 p.m. (central)
Starring: Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Mitch Pillegi
Produced by: Chris Carter, Glen Morgan

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This is looking like a bad idea at best, particularly after a thoroughly ridiculous, serio-comic third episode squanders any carryover suspense let alone a reason to exist anew.

Even hopelessly addicted fans of The X-Files might be drenching “social media” with their vitriol after the Feb. 1st hour, subtitled “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-monster.” It’s a “stand-alone” episode, and X-Files certainly has indulged in them before during the series’ original 1993-2002 run on Fox.

But creator and principal executive producer Chris Carter has just six “event” episodes to reboot his masterwork and maybe even provide some definitive answers this time around. So in reality -- what a concept -- there’s no time to waste after Sunday’s specially scheduled opening hour introduces a new, far-flung, super-sinister government/military plot dating to the 1947 crash-landing of an alien spacecraft 75 miles from Roswell in barren “Northwestern New Mexico.”

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, respectively 55 and 47, have perhaps grown a bit too old for this stuff . But after years of false starts, they’re back in the roles that made them famous -- conspiracy-driven Fox Mulder and skeptical Dana Scully. Both look a little worn out, with Anderson often sounding as though she has a nagging cold.

A long, narrative UFO sighting recap by Mulder, who leaves out Season 2 of Fargo, ends with him lamenting, “But now people only laugh. And only Roswell is remembered. But we must ask ourselves. Are they really a hoax? Are we truly alone? Or are we being lied to?”

Ask and you gradually shall receive evidence of a cockamamie, 69-year cover-up after the very familiar X-Files theme song tries to set a proper mood. Mulder, who’s been living alone in relative seclusion, and Scully, a surgeon at Washington, D.C.’s Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital, are reunited by none other than Community’s Joel McHale. Except that this time he’s unbelievably cast as right-wing conspiracy theorist Tad O’Malley, who has a rabble-rousing TV show called Truth Squad.

“I think you’re The O’Reilly Factor with a shopworn little gimmick,” Mulder sniffs upon first meeting him.

“What Bill O’Reilly knows about the truth could fill an eye-dropper,” O’Malley retorts. Savvy move. Insult a member of the Fox family while also goading him to rail against The X-Files and stoke the publicity fires. But I guess that sounds a little too conspiratorial.

O’Malley spins a tale about a woman and her husband who were driving through Australia when an overhead spacecraft caused them to lose all sense of time. The woman later experienced severe abdominal pains and discovered a triangular shape near her navel. Hmm, now O’Malley has been contacted by a young woman named Sveta (guest star Annet Mahendru from The Americans) who at first claims that aliens have abducted and impregnated her on numerous occasions. They then supposedly steal her babies. Severely traumatized and always expecting the worst, she now lives alone in Low Moor, Virginia, where Mulder, Scully and O’Malley all congregate.

It soon becomes obvious that the leaps of faith required by viewers would forever shatter the world high jump record. What if all those UFO sightings are nothing more than a long-term subterfuge with an end game in which a power-mongering cabal of high-level humans takes over the world via the use of unbeatably superior technology? Why, even President George W. Bush might be in on the conspiracy. His “I encourage you all to go shopping more” rallying cry is presented as evidence that a resultant spike in consumer consumption helped trigger a planned obesity epidemic that has further weakened an unsuspecting populace.

Scully wonders about this: “It’s fear-mongering claptrap, isolationist techno-paranoia so bogus, dangerous and stupid it borders on treason,” she tells Mulder. But of course she can always be persuaded otherwise. And Episode One ends with Scully seeing the light on a very personal level.

Monday’s Part 2, subtitled “Founder’s Mutation,” is built around badly deformed children being ”cared for” at an institution run by the supposedly benevolent and very rich Augustus Goldman (guest star Doug Savant). It’s effective in spots, particularly when Scully and Mulder imagine how the son they gave up for adoption in 2001 might have fared had they kept and tried to protect him.

The continued considerable stretches in believability at least are played out seriously in this hour. And that old Mulder-Scully mojo is starting to kick in just a bit. “This is dangerous,” she says. “When has that ever stopped us?” he rejoins.

Then comes the Feb. 1st Episode 3, in which Mulder and Scully blithely detour from their world-saving imperatives to investigate reports of a possible killer lizard man. Structure-wise, It’s the equivalent of saying, “Let’s really piss everybody off with a wacky wah-wah-wah hour featuring a middle-aged Britisher who . . . oh never mind.

Mind you there will be just three episodes left after this one, none of which were made available for review. And this time around, it indeed could be the very last of The X-Files after it took so long to get Duchovny and Anderson interested in even this limited engagement.

Duchovny was far better showcased as hard-bitten detective Sam Hodiak in last summer’s 13-hour Aquarius miniseries, which NBC has renewed for a second season despite overall low ratings and an exile to Saturday nights midway through its run. And Anderson still has all the British dramas she can handle, including the lead role in the upcoming Viceroy’s House.

Based on these first three X-Files episodes, both would be very wise to at last put Mulder and Scully behind them save for occasional old-age appearances at geek festivals. Chris Carter seems to be creatively bankrupt at this point, with Episode 3 screaming out a vote of no confidence. For a while at least -- early in Episode 1 -- it was kind of nice to see Scully tell Mulder, “I’m always happy to see you.” And for him to reply in turn, “And I’m always happy to have a reason.”

But then the story went on, straining, lurching and tripping before falling flat on its face. The truth is out there, all right. And at this point it should be obvious to all.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon. net

More comic book character heroics in The CW's DC's Legends of Tomorrow


The gang’s all here in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 21st at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Arthur Darvill, Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, Victor Garber, Dominic Purcell, Wentworth Miller, Ciara Renee, Falk Hentschel, Franz Drameh, Casper Crump
Produced by: Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Percy Jackson, Sarah Schechter, Andrew Kreisberg, Phil Klemmer, Chris Fedak

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Comic books starring superheroes used to cost a dime.

Now movies and TV series about their exploits are a dime a dozen.

Coming soon: Deadpool, starring one of Marvel’s same-named avengers, is due in theaters on Feb. 12th. The bigger cheese, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is scheduled for a March 25th release.

Television takes its latest turn first, with the fourth comic book series helmed by Greg Berlanti following Arrow, The Flash and the past fall’s Supergirl. This one, The CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, has a comparative bevy of justice-seekers. Paired with another like-minded series, The 100, it arrives on Thursday, Jan. 21st with the first of an action-packed, banter-laced, two-part scene-setter.

CW is almost entirely otherworldly at this point, save for Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Both have basked in critical acclaim and even a few awards. But it’s Arrow, The Flash, The 100, iZombie, The Vampire Diaries and old-timer Supernatural that have re-branded the network as a place where fan boys and girls can gather as one and let their pulse rates run wild. ABC and Netflix are the small screen’s Marvel repositories. But on CW, young gun sci-fi has become a way of life -- and seemingly a sound business plan.

Legends of Tomorrow begins in London, 2166, where “The Second Blitz” completes the very evil Vandal Savage’s (Casper Crump) nefarious plan to conquer the “entire planet.” Underscoring his super-villainy, he presides over the up-close gunning down of an unarmed mother and her young son. A pity then that Savage also has been “blessed with immortality.”

But wait. Could Savage be stopped if someone traveled back in time and altered the course of his savagery? The man for the job is Rip Hunter (former Dr. Who co-star Arthur Darvill), who hops aboard the very cool and sprawling Wave Rider, which is co-piloted by a holographic “interactive artificial consciousness” named Gideon.

Journeying to 2016, Hunter recruits eight helpmates, including The Atom (Brandon Routh); White Canary (Caity Lotz); Hawkman (Falk Hentschel); Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee) and Firestorm (Franz Drameh), whose mentor, Professor Martin Stein (Victor Garber), is also half of Firestorm.

The other two are surly villains Mick Rory and Leonard Snart (Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller from Fox’s old Prison Break and soon the network’s Prison Break reboot). Their principal assets are guns that can either freeze targets solid or burn them to bits.

Both Purcell and Miller also have been recurring characters on The Flash. Charitably put, the still baby-faced Miller is still ridiculously bad in a sinister guise. And Purcell’s Dirty Harry growling doesn’t fare much better.

After the usual round of playing hard to get -- “You got the wrong guy. Hero ain’t on my resume,” Snart unconvincingly snarls -- the eight join Hunter in his valiant attempt to “travel through time to capture Savage before he grows into the monster he becomes.” Viewers also learn that Savage’s immortality can be ended if he’s killed in just the right way.

They first wind back to 1975 and several venues within that year. Some solidly staged action scenes ensue while more cliches also fire away.

“At my age, you never know how many adventures you have left,” Prof. Stein observes.

“I like being part of a team, man,” his protege, Firestorm, replies after first recalling how cool it was to have teammates who had his back as a high school football star.

Next week’s Part 2 heightens both the stakes and the supposedly inviolable time-traveling “rules.” There’s also an unfortunate scene in which Snart calls The Atom a “shrinking schmuck.”

Accompanying publicity materials warn reviewers against revealing eight specific plot points throughout the first two hours. So let’s just say that this is a talkie filmed in color -- and that one of the Legends seemingly isn’t destined to fight again.

Unlike The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl, there arguably are too many characters to service here. Add a lot of attendant gobbledygook and mostly shopworn banter. At this point, executive producer Berlanti likely has one too many comic book superhero series to helm. Legends of Tomorrow so far provides evidence that he’s maxed out. But it’s hard to refuse both the money and a network that keeps asking for more.


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Desperate lives played for grins in FX's finely woven Baskets


Yes, that’s Zach Galifianakis as a rodeo clown in Baskets. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Louie Anderson, Martha Kelly, Sabina Sciubba, Ernest Adams
Produced by: Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel, M. Blair Breard, Dave Becky, Marc Gurvitz, Andrea Pett-Joseph

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FX’s male-centric misery index remains very much alive and suffering, even without Rescue Me.

The network and its offshoot, FXX, still provide homes for Louie, You’re the Worst, Man Seeking Woman and Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. But all are pre-serpent Gardens of Eden compared to FX’s Baskets, in which Zach Galifianakis (it’s bad enough having to repeatedly type his name) plays perhaps the saddest sack in TV series history.

Galifianakis and Louis C.K. are the principle co-creators and executive producers. And these are two guys who could turn a Civil War era root canal into a considerable amusement. Baskets also marks the gainful return of Louie Anderson as Baskets’ matriarch. It’s a role that oddly suits him in a comedy that stretches absurdity to near-infinity -- and gets away with it.

Galifianakis, as Chip Baskets, is first seen in Paris, struggling through a “Clown Theory” class at the Academie de Clown Francaise. He yearns to be classically trained, but the lessons are taught in French, which Chip doesn’t speak. Before heading disconsolately back to his hometown of Bakersfield, CA, he succeeds in getting the self-absorbed Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) to marry him -- not out of anything resembling love but for a Green Card in a country she’s always wanted to visit.

Six months later, she’s living apart from him and demanding $40 for an HBO subscription. This doesn’t quite equate with Chip’s $4 an hour salary as an apprentice clown at the two-bit Buckaroo Rodeo, where a big splash is Kato Kaelin performing the National Anthem. The place is owned by a crude but somewhat kindly old cowpoke named Eddie (Ernest Adams), whose underpaid clowns have been quitting on him like clockwork.

The comedy quickly gets better, even if Chip’s circumstances don’t. Riding his little scooter, Chip crashes after a bee buzzes him inside his helmet. Plain-faced, emotionally repressed Costco claims adjustor Martha (comedian Martha Kelly) is soon on the scene. She’s painfully dutiful, has a cast on her right arm, and is lonely enough to even covet the exceedingly disagreeable Chip as a friend and perhaps something else someday. Martha also sounds and looks somewhat like Roseanne Barr, who otherwise would never take the verbal guff that miserable, beaten-down Chip aims her way.

Then there’s Mama Christine (Anderson), a firm, but even-spoken Costco addict who also has raised a more prosperous twin named Dale (Galifianakis). He’s the twangy founder and dean of Baskets Career College, which basically teaches a bunch of crap and is “open to minorities,” as the TV ads say.

“I thought I smelled a ponytail. If it ain’t my evil brother, Chip,” says Dale before he’s inevitably asked for money.

Baskets has some elements of the old, highly dysfunctional Mama’s Family sitcom. Also, the early stages of the arms-length Chip/Martha relationship are somewhat reminiscent of the Phil/Carol standoff in Season One of The Last Man On Earth.

The desperation is in a league of its own, though. But not to the point where Baskets ever becomes unwatchable. The plug-along trio of Chip, Martha and Mama Christine is a finely oiled machine of characters in need of major overhauls. Through the five episode made available for review, they bruise each other time and again while also taking barely measurable steps toward the dim watt bulbs at the end of their tunnels.

In Episode 4 of Baskets, this is what amounts to progress. Chip has bitched and moaned all day about first going to church with his mother on Easter Sunday and then accompanying her to the traditional brunch at Casino Magic. He makes big, childish scenes at both venues before stomping off to play the slots. She eventually joins him, prompting her misfit son to finally admit, “My life’s in disarray right now, Mama.”

“Whose isn’t?” she says quietly before an adjoining player whoops it up at winning big. “Shut up!” Mama yells. The End.

Baskets otherwise shows no signs of melting into anything close to gooey sentimentality. Its trials and tribulations pole vault over those on HBO’s Girls, but without getting all whiny and preachy about it. Galifianakis, Anderson and Kelly fit their roles like the thick rubber gloves used in emptying human waste from portable johns. What fine messes they’re in.

GRADE: A-minus

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Bonnie and Clyde ride again (but you knew they would) on PBS' American Experience series


Still with staying power: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. PBS photo

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No matter how many times it’s told, the story just never gets old.

PBS’ American Experience series at last gets around to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after four previous big- and small-screen treatments of their murderous crime spree and love story in and around Depression era Texas. The one-hour documentary premieres on Tuesday, Jan. 19th at 8 p.m. (central), with narrator Michael Murphy supplying the gravitas while historians and a trio of relatives re-hash it all.

Famously riddled with bullets during a May 23, 1934 ambush in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, they drew tens of thousands to their separate funerals in Dallas. Bonnie & Clyde begins with footage of those long lines. “Everyone wants to see how such a bad boy looks in death,” an unidentified news commentator says of Clyde’s final day of reckoning.

“It was a non-stop soap opera,” according to the cowboy-hatted Buddy Barrow, one of Clyde’s nephews. Not that he was there at the time. Nor were Rhea Leen Linder, a niece of Bonnie’s, or L.J. “Boots” Hinton, son of a Dallas County deputy who was part of the posse that fired more than 150 bullets into the pair’s high-powered Ford V8.

“That had to be such a lonely life, ya know,” Rhea speculates. Not that she’d really know. But the presence of the three does give the documentary a modicum of generation-to-generation authenticity.

The famous pictures of Bonnie and Clyde playfully posing with their guns were discovered on a roll of film they left behind after escaping from a shootout in Joplin, Missouri.

“With the photos, the duo went from two-bit Texas hoods to mythic outlaws,” narrator Murphy says. That sounds about right. But at least the public was spared what would have been breathless, 24/7 coverage on today’s CNN. News still traveled at a comparative snail’s pace back then.

390px-bonniestoryposter1957 images

The much-acclaimed 1967 feature film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, later lionized the pair indelibly after 1957’s little-seen The Bonnie Parker Story barely made a blip. That film’s star, Dorothy Provine, went on to play flapper Pinky Pinkham in the 1960 ABC series The Roaring Twenties, which survived for two seasons.

Television so far has taken two cracks at the twosome. Fox’s 1992 movie, Bonnie and Clyde: The True Story, starred Tracey Needham and Dana Ashbrook, who was fresh from ABC’s Twin Peaks. The film wasn’t noteworthy. But your friendly content provider does remember being on location in North Texas when Ashbrook, splattered with fake blood for the big death scene, decided to pop in on a local merchant as a joke. Good times.

In December 2013, a solid four-hour Bonnie & Clyde miniseries aired simultaneously on the Lifetime, A&E and History networks. Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger played the leads. But William Hurt made the biggest impression as flinty Capt. Frank Hamer, the dogged Texas Ranger who was coaxed out of retirement (he didn’t need much coaxing) to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde.

American Experience does a capable job of retracing the dirt-poor upbringings of the two principals and the bank robberies that endeared them to some before a growing attendant body count hurt their standing. Amazingly, throughout their exploits, the Texas-bred duo still managed to arrange a series of clandestine, joint family reunions. For the last one, Bonnie left her mother with a prophetic poem that also became widely quoted. Last stanza: “Some day they’ll go down together. They’ll bury them side by side. To a few it will be grief. To the law a relief. But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”

They in fact ended up buried in separate cemeteries after Mama Parker decreed that Clyde couldn’t have her daughter in both death and in life. For those who don’t yet know the story, this latest Bonnie & Clyde tells it quite well. For those who do, well, it’s still hard to put that book down.


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Mercy Street serves up Civil War trauma in a hard-pressed hospital


Doctor/nurse dynamics are center stage in Mercy Street. PBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on PBS
Starring: Josh Radnor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Gary Cole, Hannah James, Norbert Leo Butz, Tara Summers, McKinley Belcher III, Shalita Grant, Peter Gerety, Cameron Monaghan, Brad Koed, Jack Falahee, AnnaSophia Robb, Donna Murphy, L. Scott Caldwell, Suzanne Bertish, Wade Williams, Luke Macfarlane, Steven Parker
Produced by: Ridley Scott, David Zabel, David W. Zucker, Lisa Q. Wolfinger

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Well-meaning but oh so somber, Mercy Street is a rare, born-in-the USA drama for a network that has relied on the British for almost everything in this genre.

It’s a Code Black of the Civil War era for those viewers who have heard of, let alone seen that new CBS medical series. Surgical innovation, a la Cinemax’s The Knick, is also part of the deal. Behold the applying of a plaster cast or a deep drill into the skull of a wounded soldier by the rebelliously experimental Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor from How I Met Your Mother).

Mercy Street will play out over six Sundays as a companion piece to the preceding final season of Downton Abbey. It’s fairly sturdy and convincingly gruesome in terms of showing a variety of battle wounds. It’s also predictable and oftentimes stilted, with the dialogue regularly preachy. As when Jedediah lectures incoming abolitionist nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on the necessity of treating all patients equally. “Blood is not gray or blue, madam,” he intones in the opening episode. “It’s all one color.”

The setting is 1862 in Alexandria, VA, where a formerly prosperous hotel owned by Southern fried James Green (a gray-bearded Gary Cole) has been converted against his will into a Union Army hospital. Even so, some of the patients are Confederates, with the traumatized, not-right-in-the-head Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan) principal among them. He’s also been the clandestine beau of Green’s youngest daughter, Alice (AnnaSophia Robb), whose older sister, Emma (Hannah James), becomes an ad hoc nurse after first being seen in a pretty awesome hoop skirt.

Cole’s James Green is berated by his severe-countenanced wife, Jane (Donna Murphy), for being too accommodating to his Union taskmasters. Why, he’s even partnered up in a new coffin-making business. But James inwardly seethes, sometimes laughably so. “I have every faith that before long these blue bastards will smell Southern powder and feel Southern steel,” he assures Emma.

There’s also the haughty Anne Hastings (Tara Summers), who used to work with the great Florence Nightingale and has little use for independent-minded Mary Phinney. “You can’t hoodwink a hoodwinker,” she sniffs before adding, “I will not be done in by a Dutch widow with a twinkle in her eye.” Well, then.

Free black laborer Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) tries his best to be a steadfast hospital worker while also secretly having more than a little knowledge of medicine. He has a crush on young laundress Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant), who has fun afoul of the blackmailing Silas Bullen (Wade Williams), a sweaty, corpulent rapist whose stench might leak through home screens.

Patients regularly cry out in distress when the staff isn’t infighting. Meanwhile, poor Mary Phinney can’t seem to catch a break. Desperately hungry, she finally gets an apple to slake her appetite before selflessly giving it to a wounded soldier who hasn’t eaten in two days. Desperately tired, she finally gets a bed and room of her own, only to give it up to an even more weary family that’s just checked in after days in the boonies. So it’s back to the cold, hard floor, which has been dusted with arsenic to keep the rats at bay.

The dreary surroundings are in stark contrast with the overall sumptuousness of Downton Abbey. Plus, the newcomer just doesn’t seem compelling enough to keep Downton’s audience tuned in. Physical suffering and emotional angst are served in abundance on Mercy Street. It realistically captures those times but just doesn’t captivate.


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From ABC's Police Squad! to TBS' Angie Tribeca: what took so long?


Detectives Jay Geils and Angie Tribeca case out a case. TBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 17th on TBS with a 25-hour marathon of all 10 episodes starting at 8 p.m. (central)
Starring: Rashida Jones, Hayes MacArthur, Jere Burns, Deon Cole, Andree Vermeulen, Jagger the dog
Produced by: Steve Carell, Nancy Carell, Thom Hinkle, Campbell Smith

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ABC’s Police Squad! did it first with a lamentably short-lived, Leslie Nielsen-starring spoof of all those deadly serious cop dramas.

That was in 1982, so it’s taken a while for someone to take another shot. But TBS’ Angie Tribeca, co-created by Steve Carell and Nancy Carell, unloads in a very big way with a 25-hour marathon that begins on Sunday, Jan. 17th at 8 p.m. (central). That’s enough time to air all of Season One’s 10 episodes five times apiece. It won’t really matter in the least if you join them in progress or out of order.

Police Squad!, one of very few comedies of its era to air without a laugh track, lasted for just six episodes before being resurrected as a series of hit movies in which Nielsen reprised his deadpan Lt. Frank Drebin. I’ve never laughed so hard at a pilot episode, which in those days had to be watched on an over-sized video cassette at D-FW’s ABC affiliate station, WFAA-TV.

Angie Tribeca, starring Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation) in the title role, is hysterical at times, amusing at others and never far from a sight gag or throwaway line. Such as “Thank you for your time,” as Tribeca’s latest partner, Jay Geils (Hayes MacArthur), filches a Time magazine from the widow of a murdered ventriloquist.

That happens in Episode 3, one of the seven I watched before writing this review. Angie Tribeca already has been renewed for a Season 2, guaranteeing it more than three times as many episodes as Police Squad! got before getting canceled.

One of Police Squad!’s weekly gimmicks was announcing a guest star who then was killed in the opening credits. They included William Shatner, Lorne Green, Florence Henderson and Robert Goulet. True story: Nielsen once told me in a telephone interview that John Belushi had filmed an opening scene in which he was found floating face-down in a pool. But Belushi’s subsequent death from a drug overdose, on the day after Police Squad!’s March 4, 1982 premiere, prompted ABC to cut that planned footage from a future episode.

Angie Tribeca also has a running gag -- literally. A uniformed rookie cop keeps puking at crime scenes -- or in the season finale even at target practice. Hey, it’s a show biz start. And in Police Squad!, both David Schwimmer and Tony Sirico (later Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos) had uncredited bit parts as a patient and a poker player.

The Carells wrote Angie Tribeca’s first episode, with Steve Carell also directing. It begins riotously with Angie awakening at 4:45 a.m. and immediately springing into action with her furious morning workout. It includes pounding and kicking dents in her refrigerator and doing pull-ups on the shower curtain bar -- after showering.

She then reluctantly teams with her 237th partner after falling in love with the first 236, who all ended up dead. Jay Geils -- get it? -- is eager to join Angie in the pursuit of killers and assorted wrongdoers. “Maybe partner 237 is the charm,” says short-tempered precinct captain Chet Atkins (Jere Burns), who’s more likely to be barking prototypically, “Tribeca! Geils! In my office! Now!”

Other series regulars are Deon Cole as detective DJ Tanner, whose partner is a scene-stealing dog named David Hoffman (Jagger the dog). Andree Vermeulen plays matter-of-fact medical examiner Monica Scholls and Alfred Molina is the recurring Dr. Edelweiss, whose various infirmities are quickly discarded.

Episode One finds Tribeca and Geils on the trail of an embarrassingly tattooed mayor who’s being blackmailed. They arrive at various scenes in a different Ford vehicle, each time tied to a ford.com product placement logo. That’s inspired, as is Geils’ eventual chase of the perpetrator, during which he executes a series of unneeded somersaults, flips and other assorted gymnastics.

Be on the lookout for familiar guest stars, among them Lisa Kudrow as the mayor’s mistress (Episode 1); James Franco as Angie’s previous ill-fated partner, Sgt. Pepper (Episode 2); Jeff Dunham as renowned ventriloquist Fisher Price (Episode 3); and Bill Murray as grocery store worker Vic Deakins (Episode 7). The Murray stint is rather disappointing, even when Angie, who’s been forced to take a day off, invites him over for a dinner of Rice Krispies and wine. There are ample other highlights, though, including Geils’ and Tanner’s interview with a woman whose facelift is so tight that she can barely talk. Hoffman the dog also shines in this one.

Episode 5, subtitled “Commissioner Bigfish,” arguably is the weakest of the bunch. But Angie Tribeca finishes strong with Geils’ kidnapping and, of course, a season-ending cliffhanger.

All of this is a very welcome departure from the broad, laugh track-choked comedies that have typified TBS. Angie Tribeca, with Jones daring to do just about anything for a laugh, emerges in fine form as a Police Squad! for our times. And that’s really saying something.


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Showtime's Billions is driven by money in the bank performances from Giamatti, Lewis


Paul Giamatti & Damian Lewis square off in Billions. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, Malin Akerman, Toby Leonard Moore, David Constabile, Condola Rashad
Produced by: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Neil Burger, Amy Kaufman, Willie Reale

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Two bravura performances for the most part overcome the sometimes convoluted, other times confusing goings-on in Showtime’s Billions.

The 12-episode Season One, with half of it made available for review, pits a cutthroat, charismatic hedge fund emperor against a tightly wound, sexually kinky U.S. attorney bent on bringing him down as a crooked inside trader.

Damian Lewis (Homeland) and Paul Giamatti (John Adams) respectively play the roles of Bobby “Axe” Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades. Both breathe fire into these very willful characters, making Billions as bracingly intoxicating as the top shelf booze they favor and savor.

The complex, high-level financial manipulations don’t always go down so easily. Nor does an opening scene in which Rhoades is bound, gagged and at the mercy of a dominatrix who jabs a lit cigarette into his bare chest before urinating on the fresh wounds. Rhoades gets off -- and away we go. The identity of the woman is kept secret until the closing moments of an altogether rousing first episode.

Our “hero’s” full title is United States attorney for the southern district of New York. His jurisdiction includes Westport, Connecticut, where Axelrod sits astride the insanely prosperous Axe Capital. He drives his minions hard while also lavishly rewarding their loyalty. Heroic philanthropy covers his tracks, with Axelrod specializing in taking care of 9/11 families who lost loved ones on a day when Axe Capital itself was housed in one of the Twin Towers.

The go-between in all of this is Rhoades’ wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who served as Axe Capital’s invaluable and very well-compensated in-house therapist long before her husband became a high-level federal prosecutor. She’s still very much in that capacity, presenting a glaring conflict of interest when Chuck Rhoades seeks to bag her boss with help from his meddling but ring-wise father (the recurring Jeffrey DeMunn).

Axelrod is thoroughly ruthless when required to be. But he’s also a faithful husband to Lara Axelrod (Malin Akerman) and a doting dad with their two young sons. It adds several layers of empathy to this character, who’s far jauntier and younger than real-life hedge fund despot Bernie Madoff (to be played in a Feb. 3-4 ABC miniseries by Richard Dreyfuss).

Rhoades and Axelrod are seldom seen in the same scene throughout the first six hours. But Episode 1 has a zinger of an encounter, with Axelrod sneering, “What’s the point of having f*%k you money if you never say f*%k you?“ Rhoades retorts, “They may be cheering now. But believe me, they are dying to boo.” It’s on.

The resultant cat-and-mouse gymnastics don’t always stick the landing. But the lead dogs of Billions are always on point, giving this drama its electricity even when the plot has occasional power outages. Episode 3’s delights include Rhoades’ reaming out a negligent dog owner and Axelrod’s zeroing in on Yum Time, which has compromised the quality of the treats he loved as a kid.

The marital sparks and flareups between Chuck and Wendy Rhoades are also a key ingredient. In Episode 2, Chuck proclaims, “I work for the public good.”

“No, you work for the good of Chuck Rhoades,” his wife counters. “Maybe sometimes they intersect.”

Chuck’s first lieutenant is hard-charging Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), who in Episode 6 boils Axelrod down to “nothing but a filthy money pig.”

Axelrod relies on fixer Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Constabile), who does the boss’s bidding while also feeling free to push back.

The head-spinning stock machinations in Episode 4, subtitled “Short Squeeze,” are offset by a spur-of-the-moment flight on Axelrod’s private plane to see Metallica’s only scheduled North American gig in Quebec City. Three of his longtime buddies join him. Only two will return on the same flight during an episode that tests both loyalty and fidelity.

Billions is full of itself in a good way, with Giamatti and Lewis dynamically leading the way while a solid supporting cast hangs in with them. The perplexities of stratospheric finance are not easily digested at times. But you’ll never be too far from another scene in which one or the other protagonist hits the spot and makes this latest Showtime series worth both your time and your money.


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USA's "near future" Colony gives Earth yet another bad time of it


Josh Holloway (right) heads the cast of Colony. USA photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 14th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA network
Starring: Josh Holloway, Sarah Wayne Callies, Peter Jacobson, Alex Neustaedter, Isabella-Crovetti-Cramp, Kathy Baker, Carl Weathers
Produced by: Carlton Cuse, Ryan Condal

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Earth never comes out ahead in the future. At least not in television dramas.

Whether left to its own devices or invaded from outer space, the only known planet to spawn humans is continually up against it whenever time marches on. USA’s decidedly un-Utopoian Colony, set in the “near future” and premiering on Thursday, Jan. 14th, co-stars two TV denizens who already have name brand sci-fi series under their belts.

Josh Holloway is reunited with his old Lost co-executive producer, Carlton Cuse, while Sarah Wayne Callies emerges from several seasons on The Walking Dead. They play husband and wife Will and Katie Bowman in this tale of an occupied-under-duress Los Angeles. “The Arrival,” from somewhere far above, left Earthlings under strict marching orders from armed and co-opted Homeland Security Agency troopers.

Will and Katie, whose 12-year-old middle son, Charlie, went missing after all this happened nearly a year ago, have been understandably pining for him ever since. Will, a former FBI agent and Army Ranger, attempts to sneak off and find Charlie. But an untimely explosion jettisons his stowaway efforts and lands him in jail. Two choices: either infiltrate The Resistance and apprehend its leader (known as Geronimo) or have his entire family incarcerated in “The Factory.” Guess what a very vexed Will decides to do?

Proxy Governor Alan Snyder, a weaselly sort played nicely by Peter Jacobson (House), extends another carrot after Will tells him, “You want our help. We want our son back.”

“Good things come to the loyal,” he replies after first allowing Will to return home and then cooking a bounteous breakfast for the family that even includes bacon. OK, they’re in. Or at least he is. But unbeknownst to him, wife Katie also continues with her subterfuge.

The other two Bowman kids, oldest son Bram and pre-teen daughter, Gracie, are appealingly played by newcomers Alex Neustaedter and Isabella Crovetti-Cramp. Many viewers otherwise will recognize two TV vets. Kathy Baker (Picket Fences and the Jesse Stone movies) plays Will’s new boss and Carl Weathers of Rocky fame is his appointed running mate.

Weathers even gets to throw out a boxing riff. “This dude is hittin’ way out of his weight class,” he tells Will in Episode 2.

The first three episodes -- Season One has 10 -- peel away further layers of intrigue while of course leaving much yet to be revealed. The premise is nothing new under the sun, which still exists. But it’s decently executed with enough periodic action and revelations to perhaps lure a decent-sized fan base.

Holloway’s Will Bowman is capable of a quip or two, but isn’t nearly the sardonic machine that James “Sawyer” Ford was during six seasons of Lost. Callies emotes solidly and so far doesn’t have to run scared from any zombies.

The USA network, which began moving away from breezy serio-comic dramas with the much-lauded Mr. Robot, is of a like mind with Colony. But this one otherwise doesn’t look like an out-of-the-box award-winner. Instead we have something borrowed but something sturdy in a genre where Earth will always wait in vain for anything close to sunshine and lollipops. Are we better off than we were before? Well, of course not.


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Fox's Second Chance is good enough for starters to deserve one


Rob Kazinsky (center) is the front man of Second Chance. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 13th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Rob Kazinsky, Tim DeKay, Dilshard Vadsaria, Adhir Kalyan, Ciara Bravo, Amanda Detmer, Vanessa Lengies
Produced by: Rand Ravich, Howard Gordon, Don Todd, Brad Turner

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“Much better than expected” still doesn’t cut it as a ringing endorsement. But how about “much, much, better?”

Fox’s Second Chance, premiering on Wednesday, Jan. 11th after the still potent American Idol, is a distant relative of Frankenstein and The Six Million Dollar Man without the scary outward appearances or campy comic book overlay. The first episode takes itself quite seriously and has earned that right. Set in “near-futuristic” Seattle, this is a very well-made pilot episode with an even stronger grip than its high tech lab-created central character.

Jimmy Pritchard (first seen as a decaying 75-year-old played by guest star Philip Baker Hall) is a disgraced ex-sheriff who resigned in 2002 after being charged with witness tampering. Grouchy and living alone, he hits the bottle hard, plays Creedence Clearwater Revival vinyl loud and is visited weekly by a young woman who’s paid to be his “music appreciation” muse among other things.

Jimmy’s straight arrow FBI agent son, Duval (Tim DeKay), has little use for his disagreeable father but still checks in on him. Duval’s teen daughter, Gracie (Ciara Bravo), retains a soft spot for her grand pop -- and him for her. There’s also Duval’s sister, Helen (Amanda Detmer), who’s regularly inebriated.

None of these characters is capable of transforming old Jimmy into a 35-year-old reincarnation played by Rob Kazinsky. But Lookinglass Technologies founder Mary Goodwin (Dilshard Vadsaria) and her dependent twin brother, Otto (Adhir Kalyan), have the resources it takes to turn black the clock after old Jimmy is tossed off a bridge after first being doused with booze to make it look like suicide.

The twins have an ulterior motive beyond giving this series its reason for being. Mary is dying of cancer and Otto would be hopeless without her. But Jimmy’s “very rare genetic precursor” can give both of them new leases on life via his revitalized white blood cells. “This is you going in me,” she tells him while getting an intravenous dose of Jimmy. Down the road, that may qualify as foreshadowing.

It’s all told compellingly on opening night. Young Jimmy is fated to eventually work with his now older son as a crime fighter while also being dependent on a replenishing Lookinglass Technologies la-BOR-atory water tank every 12 hours lest he begin breaking down. Fox publicity materials tease future episodes in which Mary “puts the full power of her corporation at Pritchard’s disposal as he and Duval fight crimes, week to week. Drones and data mining, cars and money. For a man just back from the dead, it is a high-tech toy store with infinite possibilities.”

That also sounds a little same old, same old. Episode 2, built around two escaped murderers and a terrorized, kidnapped little girl, unfortunately shows telltale signs of that while also adding some humor before the hard-core track down kicks in. But Kazinsky remains solid as a newly minted, physically powerful hound dog who still has old Jimmy’s proclivities toward excess but also aims to be a better person than before.

The key will be whether Second Chance can keep from lapsing into a stale weekly catch-a-crook caper or have enough layers of unique duplicity and humanity to resonate as considerably more than that. It so far still deserves the benefit of the doubt, with a compelling opening episode that should leave many viewers in the mood for more.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Frequently bleeped Golden Globes need a course correction or a new network (or streamer)


Host Ricky Gervais and Mel Gibson share one of many censored moments at Sunday night’s Golden Globes awards ceremony on NBC. Photo: Ed Bark

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A few words on Sunday night’s Golden Globes -- all of them printable in this case.

No one expected a rose garden after Ricky Gervais was tabbed to host this thing for the fourth time after the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had vowed, “Never again.” But this is an organization that would swim the English Channel for a free ice cream sundae. So they went back to the guy who holds them all in contempt and joked in his latest opening monologue that he uses the third “worthless” Globe he won as a sex toy.

Gervais’s entire stage setter went un-bleeped, although he shared the wealth later on -- during an up-close moment with Mel Gibson -- after numerous presenters and awards recipients likewise had their tongues lashed by NBC’s censors.

Others whose words were deemed unfit for a broadcast television network included Jonah Hill, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Schumer and Jaime Alexander. Hill, who wore a bear hat tied to a central character in The Revenant, had his bit bleeped nearly to bits.

It got to the point where some of my TV critic colleagues wondered on Twitter whether their TV feed was faulty. No, the problem was not with viewers’ sets. The presence of the unbridled Gervais -- and the usual abundance of free champagne at celebrity tables -- combined to make the 73rd Globes a messy diaper of a telecast that had even less dignity than usual. The idea of a language faux pas, which used to be a novelty on live television, became standard operating procedure Sunday night.

So if that’s the way it’s going to be, then maybe it’s time for the Globes to move to a premium cable network -- such as HBO, Showtime or Starz -- or a streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. NBC is in business with the latter streamer, so perhaps an unexpurgated simulcast could be arranged. The money would still go into the Peacock’s bank account.

The Globes have long been billed as a freewheeling meld of movie and TV stars in which anything can happen. But then when it does, a skittish NBC deadens the microphones.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn who wins or who doesn’t win a Golden Globe. Their overall nominating choices have gotten better over the years, even though this is still an organization that put the feature film The Martian in its best musical or comedy category. And it won! But if you’re promoting this three-hour ding-a-ling as basically a drunken bacchanal, then give viewers an opportunity to both hear and see it in all its “splendor.”

Sunday night’s frequently censored broadcast gradually took on the unseemly air of a cackling three-year-old boy repeatedly pulling his pants down while mommy shielded him from view. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has two choices. Firmly and unequivocally instruct presenters and recipients that absolutely no profanity will be allowed as long as this show airs only on NBC. Or let things further degenerate and either switch networks or provide an undiluted simulcast in addition to an edited one for the larger masses.

Sunday night’s fiasco shouldn’t be repeated in future years. The Golden Globes ceremony can be as infantile -- or “dignified” -- as it wants to be during the course of handing out awards that some recipients for some reason still gush over. Next time, though, give viewers an option to see it for exactly what it is.

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CBS stumbles out of the pearly gates with Angel From Hell


Maggie Lawson, Jane Lynch star in Angel From Hell. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 7th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Jane Lynch, Maggie Lawson, Kevin Pollak, Kyle Bornheimer
Produced by: Tad Quill, Don Scardino

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Jane Lynch persona is ingrained at this point. In short, she doesn’t do sweet.

After a long run as acerbic Sue Sylvester on Fox’s Glee, Lynch returns to scripted series TV as an acerbic guardian angel named Amy. Pushed back from an initially announced fall premiere, the CBS sitcom Angel From Hell will be following Mom on Thursday nights. The network once had a big hit with the life-affirming Touched By An Angel. This decidedly is not that.

The first words out of Amy arrive after a peddler asks, “Hey, magician lady, did you disappear my fruit again?”

“No, Steve,” she retorts. “It’s probably up your ass, next to that giant stick, huh?”

There seems to be little redeeming value in this rather slight little outing that also stars Maggie Lawson (quite good opposite James Caan in ABC’s short-lived Back in the Game) as an uptight dermatologist named Allison. She quickly runs afoul of Amy and at first very much wishes she hadn’t.

Amy, who’s also a heavy drinker, just happens to know some very specific details about Allison, including the fact that her mother died a little over a year ago. But there’s also this: “Got your first period at Red Lobster, which is super-ironic. Remember your first orgasm when you farted just a little bit?”

Gabriel, blow your horn, because there must be some kind of mistake here. Shouldn’t Amy instead be serving piping hot drinks as a bartender at Club Lucifer? But no, she’s been deployed to jack up Allison’s social life after first jettisoning her duplicitous boyfriend.

Veteran actor/mimic Kevin Pollak is stuck on the periphery as Allison’s doctor dad, Marv. In a second episode sent for review, he gets to do a brief Liam Neeson impression. The fourth wheel is Kyle Bornheimer (CBS’ short-lived Worst Week) as Allison’s basically hapless brother, Brad.

Angel From Hell is without a laugh track or any real sense of purpose beyond letting Lynch fire away. Some of her darts can be amusing. And her delivery system remains intact. But even by Episode 2, the premise is wearing thin. So much so that guest star and former New Kids on the Block member Joey McIntyre basically is a throw-in who plays himself for no other reason than promotional purposes. Not that Joey alone can pack ‘em in anymore.

Allison, bless her, is fated to see “the upside of having a weird friend” who champions getting plastered at all hours of the day. In Angel From Hell, this is God’s work.

GRADE: C-minus

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J Lo cops a dramatic feel in NBC's Shades of Blue


J Lo and “The Crew” in the cop drama Shades of Blue. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Ray Liotta, Drea de Matteo, Warren Kole, Dayo Okeniyi, Vincent Laresca, Hampton, Fluker, Sarah Jeffery
Produced by: Adi Hasak, Jack Orman, Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Seacrest, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Benny Medina, Nina Wass

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Via the miracle of a remote control button push, viewers can segue Thursday night from a glam Jennifer Lopez as an American Idol judge to a battered, weepy one in the opening scene of NBC’s Shades of Blue.

“I always wanted to be a good cop,” she directly tells the camera. “It happened so slowly I didn’t realize it. And so quickly I never saw it coming.” It’s then an instant segue to “Two Weeks Earlier.” That’s become standard operating procedure these days -- the effect followed by a flashback to the causes.

Lopez plays New York City detective Harlee Santos, who’s been in on a payoff racket for a while as part of a “Crew” headed by super-intense Lt. Matt “Woz” Wozniak (Ray Liotta). It’s J Lo’s first regular role in a TV drama series since CBS’ quickly axed Hotel Malibu, a 1994 spinoff of Second Chances in which she also co-starred as Melinda Lopez.

That was a generation ago, though. And Lopez very much sees Shades of Blue as a showcase of her talents as a mature, “serious” actress. NBC made the first eight episodes available for review. I made it through half of them. Which is another way of saying that a not-all-that-bad cop drama isn’t worth an eight-hour price.

Resemblances to FX’s The Shield are obvious, with Liotta doing Vic Mackey duty while Lopez frets about ratting him out after she’s caught in the act of shaking down a guy who turns out to be an undercover cop. Her new puppeteer is FBI special agent Robert Stahl (Warren Kole), a fixated, threat-spewing taskmaster who doesn’t really click from a dramatic standpoint.

Stahl gives single mom Santos two choices. Go directly to jail and let her teen daughter, Cristina (Sarah Jeffery), fend for herself. Or play ball with the feds and get the goods on Wozniak and company in return for immunity. The Crew also includes Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos) as terminally angry Tess Nazario and newcomer Dayo Okeniyi as rookie cop Michael Loman, who’s guilt-ridden after inadvertently shooting and killing a drug dealer. Santos’ efforts to cover for him occupy a good part of the premiere episode.

Meanwhile, Liotta is emoting like crazy during the times that Lopez isn’t anxiety-ridden or flashing her cleavage. Take it from the former drug-addled Goodfellas hardass: “Never risk a hole in my boat unless you’re positive you can plug it. One slip and we all go tumbling down. And I don’t tumble well.”

Shades of Blue puts Santos in constant jeopardy of being exposed in ways other than stripping down to her black bra for a dalliance with a fellow cop or in an effort to show Woz that she’s not wired. Lopez’s acting otherwise is decent enough. And in a best-of-the-bunch Episode 4, she delivers a pair of pretty snappy lines. Here’s one of ‘em: “He’s a paycheck with a fist. I suggest she find one without the other.”

The featured batch of corrupt cops rationalize their activities as a justified means of keeping the peace while also taking a cut of the action. “For the greater good, Earl. I protect and serve it,” Wozniak declares before dropping a betrayer into the hands of thugs who literally will reduce him to ashes.

Liotta’s character also is a heavy drinker with a closely kept secret that comes to the fore in Episode 3. But the shots he tosses down are not the 1800 brand Tequila he sells in those oft-played ads. Instead it’s straight whiskey, baby. Straight whiskey.

By the end of Episode 4, Lopez’s Santos is asking rather rhetorically, “Why do we do any of the messed-up things we do and tell ourselves it’s OK?”

That’s what Shades of Blue is, too. Just OK, even with the first two episodes directed by the still esteemed Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner). This is a series that too often tends to drag rather than pull viewers along. But for the near future at least, Lopez has a disparate Thursday night double bill in which she tells contestants she loves them one minute and dodges bullets the next.


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ABC's American Crime returns in superb form

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Trevor Jackson, Regina King co-star in Season 2 of American Crime. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Trevor Jackson, Connor Jessup, Joey Pollari, Elvis Nolasco, Angelique Rivera, Andre Benjamin, Hope Davis
Produced by: John Ridley, Michael J. McDonald

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The opposite used to be true. Cable network series, particularly dramas, were seriously challenged to measure up to the broadcast network counterparts on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Now it’s a rarity when an old-line Big Four series equals or exceeds the best that cable -- or streamers such as Netflix -- have been pouring out in abundance during the past decade.

ABC’s 10-episode Season 2 of American Crime is a bracing, provocative exception to those new rules. Launching on Wednesday, Jan. 6th, it’s every bit as good as anything else out there. Independent from a first-rate Season 1 -- but starring some of the same core cast members -- this is another exceptionally intelligent look at a polarizing tragedy with rippling effects. But it’s not a polemic. Principal executive producer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) certainly hasn’t crafted an “escapist” drama. But American Crime is entertaining in its own way with unforeseen developments, vivid characterizations and, above all, a sense of purpose that makes this story matter without making it a grind to watch.

Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Elvis Nolasco and Richard Cabral all return in new roles. King won an Emmy for her performance in Season 1 while Huffman and Hutton both were nominated.

Season 2, set in Indianapolis, begins with Taylor’s character, working class single mother Anne Blaine, calling 911 and saying “I want to report a rape.” But it’s her son, Taylor (Connor Jessup), who’s the alleged victim. Pictures of the glassy-eyed, disheveled Leyland Academy student are posted online after a so-called “Captains’ Party” thrown by the leaders of the school’s state championship basketball team. Over the years it’s become a booze- and drug-fueled orgy, with school officials supposedly none the wiser.

Jessup, formerly of TNT’s Falling Skies series, is brilliant in the challenging role of a kid who just wants it all to “go away” while his mother demands justice. Many of the scenes in American Crime are shot in extreme closeup. And in Episode 2, Taylor’s pain and humiliation, during a “rape kit” ordeal in a hospital, are communicated unforgettably by a young and already extraordinary actor.

Huffman, seldom less than superb in any role she takes on, plays sharply focused Leslie Graham, head master of the upper echelon private school and also an an eyes-on-the-prize fundraiser with a steely resolve. Six years ago, she hired Dan Sullivan (Hutton) to turn around the school’s basketball program. The Knights are now Leyland’s darlings, with Kevin LaCroix (Trevor Jackson) the star player and Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari) the appreciably less-talented white co-captain. Both are roped into the mushrooming scandal involving what or what didn’t happen at that Captains’ party.

King is cast as Kevin’s mother, Terri, a coldly efficient, well-paid workplace boss lady who wants her son to associate with the “right” people. Which in her view means people of means. This is another high-powered performance by King, who fiercely protects what’s hers while keeping both her son and husband Michael (Andre Benjamin) on full alert. But she’s capable of occasionally trying just a little sharp-edged tenderness during a memorable heart-to-heart talk with her son in Episode 2.

There’s also another school spotlighted in American Crime. Thurgood Marshall High is the public institution of lower learning that Taylor Blaine attended before his mother obtained the financial aid needed for him to transfer to tonier Leyland Academy. Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy Dominguez (Angelique Rivera), still attends Thurgood Marshall, whose principal, Chris Dixon (Nolsasco), has become a pragmatic realist with an aversion to activists. But the rich-poor dynamics haven’t yet reached the point of the heated West Dillion-East Dillon High rivalry in the later seasons of Friday Night Lights.

ABC made the first four episodes of Season 2 available for review. They’re riveting from the first minute, with stellar, resonant performances driving a story with a high fiber content. American Crime doesn’t flinch -- or preach. But it does teach in ways that send it to the head of the class of 2016.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Netflix's Making a Murderer after viewing all 10 episodes


Steven Avery is the centerpiece of Making a Murderer. Netflix photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
HBO’s recent The Jinx and Neflix’s current Making a Murderer are both kindred spirits and polar opposites in the non-fiction, “true crime” genre.

In serial form, they meticulously and spellbindingly revisit sensational murder cases via new interviews with many of the principles, archival footage and courtroom denouements. But The Jinx depicted the justice system’s basic ineptness in terms of putting wealthy Robert Durst behind bars. Making a Murderer details the relative ease in which auto salvage yard dealer Steven Avery was imprisoned -- not once, but twice. The collateral damage included Avery’s monotonic teenage nephew, Brendan Dassey, who seems comatose even when fully conscious.

As a Wisconsin native, I was completely unfamiliar with this story, which takes place in and around Manitowoc, WI. So it’s assumed that a great majority of viewers will likewise be pulled along without a clue as to how it all ends. It’s best then to keep spoilers to a minimum after spending a good part of the weekend devouring the 10 hour-long episodes of Making a Murderer.

Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos spent 10 years on Making a Murderer, whose title certainly implies that both Avery and Dassey weren’t guilty as charged. At least the first time around, Avery wasn’t. In that sense, this series resembles Sundance TV’s fictional drama series, Rectify, whose central character, Daniel Holden (Aden Young), spent 19 years in prison for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. Contrary DNA evidence finally reprieved him, sending Daniel back to his small town to face further hostility. Local officials led the way, determined to incarcerate him anew.

At age 23, Avery was convicted of rape and did 18 years of jail time before DNA evidence fingered another man. He returned home in 2003 and became a poster boy for the Wisconsin Innocence Project and a cause celebre for various politicians. His $36 million lawsuit for restitution was well underway, with several depositions taken, when 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach came up missing on Halloween night, 2005. Avery and his nephew were charged with murdering and mutilating her under circumstances that Making a Murderer meticulously dissects from Episode 2 until its conclusion.

“All I can think is they’re trying to railroad me again,” said Avery, who has always maintained his innocence.

The far-fetched fiction of True Detective’s Season 2 turns out to be no match for these real life events. Avery’s new attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, fully cooperated with the filmmakers and become eloquent and compelling star players during the course of this tale. Principal prosecutor Ken Kratz, who declined to be interviewed for Making a Murderer, is nevertheless shown in copious courtroom footage and press conferences. He’s now complaining of unfair treatment and a one-sided depiction of the case. But Kratz later became immersed in his own tawdry scandal, which the filmmakers of course duly note.

This also is a story of a media feeding frenzy, and of ramshackle common people who aren’t’ much to look at and sometimes have problems expressing themselves. But Steven’s parents, animated Allan Avery and sad-faced Dolores, grow in stature as the film moves on. Dolores in particular doggedly keeps the faith in her son, constantly wondering how “they” can get away with allegedly framing him a second time.

Evidence-planting is the core of the defense team’s case. And the circumstances indeed often seem suspicious. Then again, Steven Avery is no choir boy. He admits to burning a cat alive as a young man after getting drunk with some of his friends. He also has a temper that previously has gotten him in trouble.

While Avery’s lawyers defend him to the hilt, Brendan Dassey’s initial attorney, Len Kachinsky, comes off as a milquetoast who could have been perfectly played by William H. Macy during his Fargo days. Kachinsky is shown to be working hand in hand with prosecutors, who are building a case against Avery via his easily manipulated nephew. Kachinsky is Jerry Lundegaard personified, with Manitowoc’s frequently shown snowy landscapes further adding to the overall Fargo-ness.

The local and state media lap it all up, eagerly televising, broadcasting and printing every damning accusation aimed at Avery and Dassey. But the most telling media moment is at the national level, when a Dateline producer says in Episode 4 that “murder is hot” and “this is the perfect Dateline story” in the NBC news magazine’s never-ending battles with ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’ 48 Hours.

In Episode 7, though, a local crew in matching red and black TV station parkas comes off as a wolf pack in hot pursuit of Avery’s mother after another long day in court. Barking out questions, they trail Dolores to her car during a light nighttime snow. She wants nothing more than to get away from her pursuers in a scene that speaks volumes about being caught in a hellish, swirling vortex.

The Jinx ended with a surprise “gotcha.” Don’t expect that from Making a Murderer. But do expect an absorbing tale of justice rendered but not necessarily justice served. Its star players have no formal acting training. But for better or worse, they all look born to play their real-life roles in another true crime drama that knocks fiction for a loop.

GRADE: A-minus

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Downton Abbey is ready to run its final laps


Let’s have at it then. Last call for Downton Abbey. PBS photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Dear Abbey:

First and foremost, you have given splendid service, providing PBS with a badly needed big Moby of a show since first gracing these shores in January 2011.

Your well-mannered, class-conscious, upstairs/downstairs saga has been brimming with births, deaths, marriages, betrayals, stiff collars, ornate gowns, snappy repartee and an overriding sense of old-fashioned propriety. It’s been a blast, if you’ll forgive a term that little Marigold, George or Sybil might hear or even use someday.

Now the time has come for Downton Abbey’s sixth and final season, which breathed its last on Christmas Day in the United Kingdom and premieres on Sunday, Jan. 3rd in the United States (8 p.m. central on KERA13 in Dallas-Fort Worth).

PBS as usual sent all but the last episode for review. So there have been eight hours to feast on, all with the proviso that divulging too many specifics would be bad form indeed.

So let’s say for starters that events move along predictably but no less satisfyingly. Even the rather shockingly graphic end to Episode 5 is duly foreshadowed. And oh my, in Episode 8, a longstanding character is on the receiving end of some of the bluntest language ever used in Downton. Some who have watched this series from the start may be irresistibly moved to stand and applaud. Others might remain inclined to reserve judgment. Because the character under verbal assault is still not without saving graces and deep-set wounds.

Also look for more marriages, ample heartbreak and the transition-inducing march of time under the baton of creator/writer Julian Fellowes. Women, particularly the long underfoot and unlucky in love Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), are beginning to assert themselves in ways that even Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is beginning to understand.

The very idea of a lavishly appointed, servant-dependent Yorkshire Country Estate likewise is buckling under the weight of financial pressures and class resentments. After all, who lives that way anymore? This is all crystallized when Downton Abbey becomes a one-day museum piece/tourist attraction in the interests of raising money for charity. It’s like being a “fat lady in a circus,” Edith carps. But everyone grudgingly goes along with it, even the ever-flinty and proper Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the head butler whose butter has been softening in other ways.

“If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would,” Robert tells Mr. Carson in Sunday’s opening hour. “But I can’t.”

Not that 1925 England (the series began in 1912) is a runaway train of sweeping changes. In Hour 1 the engaged Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) worries that she’s lost her physical attractiveness and will fall short of satisfying Mr. Carson on that front. Unable to discuss such things directly, she enlists feisty head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to intercede on her behalf. Their discourse on “marital duties,” without anything getting more specific than that, is charming and touching in its own antiquated way.

Also, imagine this. In Episode 8, a lone equivalent of that period’s scandal-chasing paparazzi inquires, “Ladies, may I have a picture?” Receiving an emphatic, “No, you may not,” he simply ceases and desists. In today’s world, dozens of ‘em would blaze away without any niceties.

Each and every one of these first eight episodes ends in very fine form. Episode 3 in particular has quite a nice surprise. Episode 6 finds footman/valet Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finally giving in to his emotions. He has been an unconscionable conniver in the past, but now courts sympathy while under constant orders from Mr. Carson to find other employment.

Maggie Smith’s deliciously tart Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, remains in possession of both her faculties and her zingers. But they aren’t quite as plentiful as in some past seasons, even though she’s feeling increasingly marginalized during her fight to keep the local hospital from the tentacles of a government merger that supposedly would greatly upgrade the quality of care. “I am sick and tired of logic,” Violet grouses.

Episode 8 ends with an idyllic shot of a pivotal character who looks outwardly blissful but is inwardly unfulfilled. Otherwise, “it seems that all our ships are coming into port,” Robert hopefully tells his loyal wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).

All that remains after that beautifully composed scene is the yet unseen grand finale on March 6th (scheduled two weeks after the penultimate episode). Judging from the first eight hours, it truly will be grand. Downton Abbey looks for all the world as though it’s steaming steadily toward happy or at least contented endings for one and all. So be it -- and so it should be. At this point, drowning anyone in abject misery would seem to be a severe breach of etiquette.


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