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Take Two gives ABC another Castle -- in premise if not execution

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Take Two is a sand Castle starring Rachel Bilson and Eddie Cibrian. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Rachel Bilson, Eddie Cibrian, Xavier de Guzman, Aliyah O’Brien, Alice Lee
Produced by: Andrew W. Marlowe, Terri Edda Miller, Rola Bauer, Tim Halkin

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
From the creator of Castle, here’s another Castle -- only in reverse.

ABC’s Take Two pairs a financially hard-pressed, veteran male detective with the scandal-ridden, fresh out of rehab female star of a onetime hit cop series. Offered the lead in a possible feature film role, she hopes to bring further “authenticity” to her performance by teaming with a real-life crime solver.

ABC’s Castle, which ran from 2009 to 2016, paired a female homicide detective with a famed mystery novelist who’s lately developed writer’s block. Brought in for questioning after a copy-cat killer replicates one of his earlier books, he hopes to resume writing after shadowing the gumshoe he envisions as a muse for a new fictional character.

Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) initially didn’t at all like having Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) both by her side and bugging her with his own theories on whodunit. Ditto for PI Eddie Valetik (Eddie Cibrian), who’s greatly annoyed by Sam Swift’s (Rachel Bilson) constant theories on who did what and why.

Richard Castle’s “in” was the mayor of New York City, a longtime friend who strongly urged Kate Beckett to play ball. Sam’s go-between is one of cash-strapped Eddie’s former girlfriends, who’s willing to pay him very well for letting her tail him for just a week. “I’d rather swallow razor blades,” he grouses before of course relenting.

There’s also this. Sam’s hit TV series, Hot Suspect, lasted eight seasons before her drunken escapade led to both cancellation of the show and a stint in rehab for its star. Castle likewise endured for eight seasons on ABC, and the network hasn’t had a successful “crime procedural” hour since then.

Andrew W. Marlowe is the mind behind both Take Two and Castle. He can’t very well sue himself for plagiarism, but might want to declare creative bankruptcy. On the other hand, ABC would kill for another Castle, even if this very transparent knockoff is being relegated to the less visible summer season -- at least for starters.

ABC made the first two episodes available for review. The cases typically are preposterous, and the deductions even more so. But as with Castle, this one will sink or swim on the banter and appeal of the two leads. Bllson grades a bit higher on these curves while Cibrian sucks it up and regularly swallows hard. By the end of Thursday’s premiere episode, he’s telling her, “For what it’s worth -- you didn’t suck.”

The rest of Take Two’s ensemble is smaller than usual, perhaps in part because this is a cost-efficient co-production with German and French companies.

Xavier de Guzman plays Robert “Berto” Vasquez, the inevitable young tech whiz employed by Eddie to advance the ball whenever the writers get lazy. The Mike Hammers and Barnaby Joneses of TV’s crime solving past had no such help. They just had hunches.

LAPD detective Christine Rollins (Aliyah O’Brien) is a no-nonsense facilitator who not surprisingly spends off-hours in Eddie’s embrace. A new character named Monica (Alice Lee) is introduced in Episode 2 as Sam’s roller-skating, wisecracking, Instagram-ready young assistant.

Take Two comes nowhere close to matching the glories of ABC’s Moonlighting or NBC’s Remington Steele, both of whose odd couple crime solvers really rocked. Castle also fell well short of those two, but did pass ABC’s endurance test. The alphabet network’s too often clunky carbon copy resorts to lines such as Sam angrily informing Eddie, “You really put the dick in detective!”

The way these things go, he’s almost certain to eventually be putting it elsewhere if Take Two last a while. But Castle and Beckett didn’t fully consummate their off-on-off-on romantic relationship until the close of Season 4. Sam and Eddie may not get nearly that much time. By Episode 2, though, they’re already locked in very close quarters in a closet, where Sam seems to think he’s pretty excited before Eddie says it’s only his gun. Oh.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

OWN's Love Is __ serves up romance from a distance and with spice

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Michele Weaver, Will Catlett in early stages of Love Is __. OWN photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on OWN
Starring: Michele Weaver, Will Catlett, Wendy Davis, Clarke Peters, Idara Victor, Tyrone Brown, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Kadeem Hardison, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tim Reid, Loretta Devine
Produced by: Mara Brock Akil, Salim Akil

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Spanning 30 years and drawn from the real-life romance of the principal executive producers, Love Is __ gives Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network what looks to be a durable drama with a sweet/spicy sauce.

At first, though, it wasn’t earmarked for OWN. Nor was it a one-hour drama. ABC initially bit on a pilot for a laugh track-driven sitcom titled Documenting Love. When that didn’t fly, Mara Brock Akil and her husband, Salim Akil, retooled and retitled their series before OWN committed to it.

In real life, Mara and Salim got married in 1998 while she wrote for the UPN sitcom Moesha and he was struggling to get established in Hollywood. For the purposes of Love Is __, Nuri (Michele Weaver) is on the writing staff of the comedy “Marvin” while Yasir (Will Catlett) is newly in town and living with Ruby (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing), who’s grown weary of his unemployment. (The sitcom on Love Is __ is modeled after two much more male-centric shows from that period, Fox’s Martin and The WB’s The Jamie Foxx Show.)

Viewers also get the perspectives of 2027 versions of Nuri and Yasir (Wendy Davis, Clarke Peters), who drop in periodically for talk-to-the-camera recollections of the way they were. “He was a meteor that hit my life I didn’t see coming,” Nuri says for openers. “He blew up my world and my plans . . . Made me take off this mask I’d been wearing.”

The younger Nuri is a career-wedded new homeowner who juggles men without making commitments or risking pregnancy. “All dry humps and hand jobs happen at least three days apart,” she tells “Marvin” gal pal and co-writer Angela (Idara Victor). From her 2027 perspective, Nuri says, “Work was the most loyal man I knew.”

Meanwhile, Yasir has bought tickets he can’t really afford to a now sold-out Wynton Marsalis concert. Ruby objects, telling him to cash hers in. So he asks Nuri instead after a chance meeting during which he gives her a ticket. Her later multiple attempts to return it are waylaid by Yasir’s sensitivity and conversational skills. No man has ever talked to her quite like this. By the end of Episode 2, the match is lit. But hours three and four bring trials, tribulations and a bit of a bog-down in both pace and storytelling.

The other principal supporting characters are Yasir’s best friend and baby daddy Sean (Tyrone Brown) and demanding head “Marvin” writer Norman (Kadeem Hardison). The 2027 versions of Norman and Angela are sporadically played by Tim Reid and Vanessa Bell Calloway.

Weaver shines as the young Nuri, whether dissing with her girlfriend, fending off her controlling mom, mooning over Yasir or wondering if he’s for real. Catlett brings both confidence and a quiet desperation to the role of Yasir, who seeks and sometimes finds solace in his Muslim faith. But the series hits a speed bump when Yasir tends to Ruby (following a cosmetic surgical procedure gone awry) and forgets all about his scheduled meeting with Yuri, who frantically tries to find him -- and then doesn’t like what she sees.

Season One of Love Is __ will run for 10 episodes. By the end of hour four, the Nuri-Yasir relationship is on the brink, but obviously won’t stay that way. It remains to be seen how much interest and intrigue can be generated with the formative stages of a 30-year story that viewers already know will end happily ever after.

Even so, we still seldom see African-American lives depicted via a romantic drama series. The producers of Love Is __ clearly know this terrain better than most. And they hope to make it accessible to audiences of all colors without losing the flavors that make it unique.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Costner gets his Eastwood on in Paramount's Yellowstone

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Kevin Costner sternly presides over Yellowstone. Paramount photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 20th at 8 p.m. (central) on Paramount Network
Starring: Kevin Costner, Wes Bentley, Kelly Reilly, Luke Grimes, Cole Hauser, Kelsey Asbille, Dave Annable, Gil Birmingham, Jefferson White, Brecken Merrill, Danny Huston
Produced by: Taylor Sheridan, John Linson, Art Linson, Kevin Costner, David Glasser

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Still wearing well at age 63, Kevin Costner is comfortably taking on the kinds of roles that Clint Eastwood used to fall into.

Flinty and unyielding, he rides astride the Paramount Network’s biggest undertaking to date, the contemporary horse opera Yellowstone. Costner plays ranch baron John Dutton, a widower whose sprawling Yellowstone spread is Montana’s largest. During the course of the first three episodes made available for review (including a two-hour launch on Wednesday, June 20th), Dutton spits out lines such as, “You want to build subdivisions, you move to Dallas. I won’t have ‘em here.”

Furthermore, “Everyone’s forgotten who runs this valley.” Ya get his drift?

Paramount, which re-branded from Spike TV in January, has ordered up 10 episodes for Yellowstone’s first season. It’s also purged the series of any association with The Weinstein Company, which initially was involved in production. The creator, writer and director is Taylor Sheridan, former co-star of FX’s Sons of Anarchy.

Costner, who won an Emmy for his performance as Devil Anse Hatfield in the 2012 History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, is taking on his first role in what’s envisioned as a multi-season TV series. He hasn’t become grizzled yet, but is now playing rough-edged patriarchs with adult and unruly offspring. Those Sizzle Beach, U.S.A days are well behind him.

In Wednesday’s premiere, Costner’s John Dutton is first seen bleeding from the head following an unseen car wreck that has left his van-drawn horse badly wounded. He talks softly to him before pulling the trigger. While the cops arrive, he gazes upon some of his cattle stock roaming just a small patch of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. “The things we do to keep you fed,” John murmurs.

There are four other Duttons, two of them vividly played. Youngest son Kayce (Luke Grimes from the Fifty Shades movies) is a former Navy SEAL and combat veteran who lives on the Broken Rock Indian Reservation with his Native American wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille), and their seven-year-old son, Tate (Brecken Merrill). Kayce doesn’t much like his father for a variety of reasons. “You’ve always asked too much,” he tells him. Such as? You’ll see.

Only daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly), who hard-heartedly represents dad’s business interests, otherwise is promiscuous, profane and a heavy drinker. She remains haunted by a life-changing incident from her childhood that’s revealed in Episode 3. Grimes and Reilly both bring some needed punch to these pivotal roles.

The other Duttons are approval-seeking Jamie (Wes Bentley), who’s a lawyer, and oldest son, Lee (David Annable), long content to ride the range with his dad while never moving out of the house.

The two-hour opener could use some giddy-up. It tends to plod along during the course of bouncing among John Dutton’s brood while also introducing foes that include Broken Rock chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) and developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston).

Costner is the glue, and makes his presence felt throughout Yellowstone. His affecting scene near the end of Episode 1 shows that John Dutton can be more than a tight-lipped taskmaster. But he also gets saddled with some groaners, such as, “I’ve seen too much bad in my life to believe God exists,” And of course, when John thinks he’s got a wild horse “settled now,” it’s time for him to get bucked off again.

Sheridan’s script also has its moments. During a bull-riding competition at a rodeo, John tells an old pal that he kept his sons from competing in this event because “the only reason to ride a bull is to meet a nurse.”

Through its first three episodes, Yellowstone is big and broad and a little too full of misfires. But it’s never as determinedly over the top as Dallas or Dynasty, both of which can be seen as ancestors. These days, though, f-bombs are increasingly commonplace on advertiser-supported cable networks. So expect more than a few of ‘em, plus some rear view nudity during one of Beth Dutton’s show-and-tells.

During a more parched summer season than usual, Yellowstone likely will draw some rousing ratings after a heavy promotional push by Paramount. First you have to find the network and rope it in. After that, expect to see a money-on-the-screen tale that appears to be finding itself after too much meandering and/or downright confusion in the early going.

When you boil it down, though, it’s all about John Dutton’s iron grip on his land and those who want to loosen it for their own monetary and face-saving gains. A couple of decades earlier, it could have been a patriarchal, set-in-his-ways Clint Eastwood sneering at a developer before calling him a 10-letter profanity. This is now in Kevin Costner’s wheelhouse. Happy trails.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A wealth of his songs (but not the big one) in PBS' Perry Como Classics: Till the End of Time

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By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Keep the “Perry Coma” jokes coming if you’re so inclined.

But in his day, and in some of ours, this guy had a hit show at the dawn of television, a string of hit singles, killer good looks and a notably relaxed everyman persona that made the ladies melt like butter.

Among the latter were my mom and live-in grandma, whose devotions to Perry Como were almost sacramental within our little Racine, WI home. And after a while, The Perry Como Show, which ran from 1955 to ’67 after an earlier incarnation on CBS, became all right by me, too. Particularly when “Mr. C” would kick into reverential gear for his Christmas special renditions of “Ave Maria.”

KERA-TV (Ch. 13) is saving Como for the closing weekend of its June pledge drive. Under the umbrella title of PBS’ My Music series, the one-hour Perry Como Classics: Till the End of Time, premieres on Saturday, June 9th at 7 p.m. (central). Because of phone bank breaks, it’ll take roughly 90 minutes to unfold.

Nineteen Como songs are reprised, starting with the title track and ending with “And I Love You So.” Rather shockingly, “Ave Maria” is not among them, which brings me to the lesson learned by Como when he left his signature anthem out of a 1984 Christmas special from London, substituting “O Holy Night” as the closer.

“I caught hell for it,” Como told your friendly content provider during the taping of his last ABC Christmas special, in 1986 from San Antonio. Never again, he vowed.

Como, who died on May 12, 2001 at age 88, proved to be every bit as unpretentious and approachable off-camera as the image he projected on his hit variety hour. In a telephone interview from his home in Jupiter, FL, Como said he cracked up while watching the SCTV parody, “Perry Como: Still Alive,” in which he performs disco tunes while in prone positions or being propped up by showgirls. Most of his fans in this sketch had never seen him “so relaxed,” although one mildly complained that he seemed just a little upbeat.

Till the End of Time is co-hosted by Nick Clooney (George’s father) and Peter Marshall, original host of Hollywood Squares. Mostly full presentations of Como’s hits are bridged by fresh interviews with the likes of Carol Burnett, Debby Boone, Jay Leno, Regis Philbin, Richard Carpenter, Leonard Maltin and Kathy Lennon of The Lennon Sisters. (Talk about boyhood crushes.)

“He did it with such ease,” Burnett says of Como. “It was as if he were just speaking very softly to you, but he was carrying a tune and sounding beautiful.”

Burnett, whose variety show was the last major TV hit in this now all but extinct genre, performed with Como and got a little weak-kneed in his presence, as a clip shows.

“I have to confess,” she says. “I might have had a little crush on him. But I don’t think I was alone.”

Leno, shown wearing a Jay Leno’s Garage t-shirt amid some of his classic cars, opened for Como during some of his off-screen concerts. He had “old Italian groupies” who brought him their favorite dishes, Leno recalls. One of those groupie’s was Leno’s mom, whose hand Como kissed and sent her into ecstasy.

He had a semblance of a rock ’n’ roll hit with “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom”), released in 1956. Como didn’t mind a novelty song now and then. But for the most part he was a classic crooner, building slowly to big finishes for songs such as “Prisoner of Love, Some Enchanted Evening” and “No Other Love.”

Till the End of Time easily could be twice as long. It barely touches on Como’s winning ways with guests, largely with an appearance by Dean Martin. Como’s Christmas shows, so important to his persona, likewise get truncated treatment. But we do get to see Bob Newhart in an Easter bunny costume.

Como’s last top 10 hit, “It’s Impossible,” came out in 1971. He also had decent sales with “And I Love You So,” released two years later. This is the song the special ends on, with Como performing it in a Christmas morning setting while wearing a robe emblazoned with a big C. Lyrics include, “The book of life is brief.”

Perry Como might as well be Nicodemus in terms of being recognizable to younger generations. But in bygone times when entire families regularly gathered around the lone living room TV set, Como’s weekly variety hour had a glow and an impact that still resonates with many Baby Boomer kids who since have outlived him, but not his memory.

At that 1986 taping of the Christmas special from San Antonio, a fan presented Como with a collection of song sheets from the 1940s, including his smash single, “Prisoner of Love.”

“The lover boy of the stone age,” he laughed before signing it. Como also autographed a blood donor card, a little boy’s shirt pocket and a dollar bill handed to him by a middle-aged woman on crutches.

Scribbling notes while standing nearby, I didn’t want any of this to end. Nor, most likely, did he.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Dietland takes AMC in a new, full-bodied direction

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Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) doesn’t care for her mirror image in Dietland. AMC photo

Premiering: Monday, June 4th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on AMC
Starring: Joy Nash, Julianna Margulies, Tamara Tunie, Robin Wiegert, Tramell Tillman, Adam Rothenberg, Erin Darke
Produced by: Marti Noxon, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Ross, Maria Grasso, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, Jacqueline Hoyt

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Male sexual predators are beaten up, forced to confess and later dropped from the sky by a terrorist group calling itself Jennifer.

Still, AMC’s Dietland isn’t entirely a Hallmark card to the #MeToo Movement. Instead the sentiment goes something like this: Roses are red, violets are blue. Many men are the enemy. Some women are, too.

Created, written, produced and sometimes directed by Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Code Black, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), the distinctly different Dietland primarily trains on the lives of two disparate women who also are collaborators.

Alicia Kettle (Joy Nash) doesn’t use her birth name anymore. “Everybody calls me Plum because I’m succulent and round,” she says at the start of Monday’s first of back-to-back episodes. “Also known as fat. It’s OK. I’m allowed to say it.”

She otherwise puts words in the mouth of stick thin Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), haughty editor of Daisy Chain magazine. It’s the kind of publication where “30 Days to Sexy” will be the next issue-wide theme. Questions to the editor are ghost-answered by Plum, who also is an accomplished baker. But cakes and cookies aren’t for her anymore. She’s enrolled in Waist Watchers in hopes of slimming herself down enough to be approved for lap band surgery. Men perhaps will then take an interest in her rather than taunting the plus size she’s been all her life.

While Plum struggles with various temptations, Daisy Chain’s conglomerate parent, Austen Media, learns it’s been hacked. And as the bodies begin piling up -- including that of a degenerate photographer who has worked for the magazine -- Kitty hires a detective named Dominic (Adam Rothenberg) to dig deeper while also courting Plum as a possible informant. So far just one of the men in the cast seems thoroughly decent. He’s Plum’s best friend, Steven (Tramell Tillman), gay owner of a coffee shop.

Dietland has several other plot strings attached. The title of the series refers to an anti-diet book clandestinely given to Plum by Leeta the “Goth Girl” (Erin Darke), who otherwise works for one of Kitty confidantes, “Beauty Closet” empress Julia Smith (Tamara Tunie).

The book’s author, Verena Baptist (Robin Wiegert), has shut down the weight loss clinics once run by her beauty queen mother, who spent a lifetime battling weight issues and latter day addictions to booze and drugs. Yeah, there’s lots to digest.

AMC made the first three hours available for review in what will be a 10-episode Season One. The third episode has some extended fantasy sequences, with a hallucinating Plum trying to kick her diet pill (known as “The Y”) cold turkey rather than wean herself gradually. Some of this is comical. But then male bodies begin falling from the sky in earnest, prompting the cancellation of New York City’s Fashion Week against the strong objections of Kitty.

Dietland sometimes wears its messages like sandwich boards. “Men would rather destroy the world than let us run it,” Kitty proclaims, dismissing the Jennifer terrorist group’s goal of “once and for all” freeing women from oppression.

Plum, for her part, has signed up to receive a sizable cash payment if she completes wealthy Verena Baptist’s yet to be fully disclosed “Program.” But despite words of encouragement from both Steven and a supportive mother, Plum remains prone to self-loathing. “What I realize is I don’t hate myself, the world hates me,” she says. Therefore she’s nothing but “a stain.” And also still a virgin.

Nash is excellent as Plum, with Margulies somewhat less so as the comparatively emaciated looking Kitty. But she does get a prize line in Episode 2, telling Plum that the likes of Martha Stewart can “get away” with becoming thick-waisted because “she sells glue guns.” Not so with true “tastemakers” such as Kitty, who must remain paper thin from top to bottom.

Dietland isn’t likely to attract a large percentage of male viewers, and more than a few women also might find its approach to be too sharp-sticked for them. Even so, creator Noxon certainly has put together an attention-getter in times when growing numbers of prominent men very deservedly have been exposed for past and sometimes ongoing sexual misconduct.

But Noxon also doesn’t spare one of her two principal women characters. Kitty clearly is also part of the problem. “Large girls” such as Plum are never satisfied, she tells detective Dominic. “No matter how well you treat them, they fester.”

That’s quite a line, and this promises to be quite a full-bodied new direction for AMC, where the clock at last seems to be running out on zombie apocalypses.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FX's Pose charts new territory but sometimes groaningly so

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House of Evangelista “mother” Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez) gets dolled up for another ball competition in Reagan era New York City. FX photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 3rd at 8 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Evan Peters, James Van Der Beek, Indya Moore, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Billy Porter, Kate Mara, Angelica Ross, Hailie Sahar, Dyllon Burnside, Charlayne Woodard, Angel Bismark Curiel
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Steven Canals, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Alexis Martin Woodall, Sherry Marsh, Silas Howard

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
FX offers a case study in counter programming with Sunday’s premiere of Pose opposite Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

It’s the prototypically manly pursuit of pro basketball’s season-ending championship versus a full immersion in Reagan era New York City’s trophy-chasing “ball culture world” -- with a proclaimed largest ever cast of transgender actors in series regular roles.

As such, Pose is history-making, groundbreaking, but at times also lamentably wobbly on dialogue and story structure. Its melodramatic plot turns can be as predictable as LeBron James leading the Cleveland Cavaliers in scoring. Seen that coming. Seen that coming, too. Season One consists of eight episodes, and FX made the first four available for review.

The flamboyant, theme-driven competitions in Pose (“Royalty, Executive Realness, Femme Queen in Pumps,” etc.) are waged between various Houses headed by “Mothers” and their “children.” Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) is the imperious Queen Bee of this scene, with her House of Elektra rolling over rivals while she treats her minions like fingernail dirt. One of them, Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez), has had enough, particularly after learning she’s HIV Positive. Fearing that life could be very short for her, she sets out to “build my own legendary House” in the face of Elektra thundering, “No! I do not give you my blessing!”

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain) is being booted out of his Allentown, PA home after his brutish father first beats him for the perceived sin of being gay. Longing to be a professional dancer, Damon journeys to NYC, winds up sleeping on a park bench and eventually is recruited by Blanca to be one of her live-in children. Blanca, who like Elektra, is transgender, also knows the sting of rejection. Her mother, she tells Damon, “banished me from her home and her heart.”

Another of Blanca’s adoptees, a transgender streetwalker known as Angel (Indya Moore), is viewed as a walk-on-his-wild side by Stan Bowes (Evan Peters), who’s just been hired as a junior executive by the Trump organization. Stan has a wife, Patty (Kate Mara), and two pre-teen daughters. This leaves him feeling unfulfilled. Or as he tells Angel in an overwrought scene, “I stand for nothing . . . I don’t live. I don’t believe. I accumulate. I’m a brand, a middle-class white guy.” So is it wrong, he asks, to want “one person in my life who I know is real?”

Stan’s boss is Matt Bromley (James Van Der Beek), a greed-is-good exemplar of amorality. “God bless Ronald Reagan” he says after snorting a line of coke in his Trump Tower office during the course of interviewing Stan for a position.

Other key characters are Pray Tell (Billy Porter), who both forcefully emcees the balls and dreams of having his own fashion line; dance school instructor Helena St. Rogers (Charlayne Woodard); Damon’s new boyfriend, Ricky (Dyllon Burnside); and another House of Evangelista recruit known as Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel).

The principal creator and executive producer of Pose is Ryan Murphy, whose other shows include FX’s American Horror Story, American Crime Story and Feud anthologies, plus the new Fox breakout hit 9-1-1. Murphy, who is openly gay, can never be accused of being dull. His series pop with energy and oftentimes are rewarded with multiple Emmy nominations (and in the case of The People v O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a sweeping parade of victories).

Pose is praiseworthy in terms of its unique diversity and overall style. The ball competitions, which are frequent, could well be a show in themselves. Porter as Pray Tell is grandly in charge and a great deal of fun as the emcee. In Episode 2, he deliciously scolds a competitor with “I repeat, the category is Dynasty, not goddamn Falcon Crest.”

But man, Pose also can be cloying at times while also being as broad as, well, Dynasty with both its story telling and some of the acting. Jackson’s Elektra Abundance is cartoonishly imperious with her troops, but hits her mark in an effective nail salon heart-to-heart with Blanca, whom she both dismisses as a pretender and savors as a growingly formidable rival. To be somebody you’ve got to beat somebody.

Both Jackson and Rodriguez, as Blanca, get stuck with some real groaners during the uneven course of Pose. “I’m going to eat you like an after-dinner Rolaid,” Elektra trumpets before their respective Houses engage in their first big ball face-off.

Blanca, early in Episode 2, somehow maintains a straight face while saying, “I’ve felt the wind in my face all my life, which means I know when it’s at my back?” Really?

Van Der Beek, who’s bounced through numerous short-lived TV series since Dawson’s Creek, brings some special sauce to his latest outing as the Trump-idolizing Bromley. “Our boss is in the Post again,” he tells Stan, marveling at how easily he stays in the public eye. And when you strike it rich working for him, “the pussy starts flowing like Niagra Falls.”

Trump, and Bromley as his like-minded worshipper of wealth, are easy lays for the scriptwriters of Pose. Still, Van Der Beek crackles during his comparatively limited time on-screen. The series isn’t primarily about him, of course. Still, Pose could use a little more of Bromley, whether he’s calculatingly trying to seduce Stan’s wife at Christmastime or talking up the virtues of having a woman on the side.

Another subplot finds Blanca trying to integrate a bar, the Boy Lounge, whose owner admits only gay men. “I’m sorry. I’m not throwing a costume party,” he tells Blanca, who keeps returning and getting thrown out.

The series can be quite cavalier about thievery, whether it’s looting a museum to obtain royal costuming for a ball or stealing $2,300 from a Salvation Army kettle for what turns out to be Elektra’s downpayment for “sexual reassignment surgery.” But the Christmas-themed third episode also has a poignant gift exchange among House of Evangelista residents, who have gathered at a restaurant after the centerpiece turkey of a big dinner at home gets burned to a crisp.

Through this opening quartet of episodes, Pose is both a unique breakthrough in casting and subject matter, and too often a Brand X journey through forced or telegraphed plotting. Invigorating or emotionally affecting at its best, it’s also clunky and rote-like with unbecoming frequency. Like its transgender characters, Pose is a work in progress that still needs to find itself.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Cinemax makes solid contact with J.K. Rowlings' C.B. Strike

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Tom Burke & Holliday Grainger star in crimesolving C.B. Strike. Cinemax photo

Premiering: Friday, June 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on Cinemax
Starring: Tom Burke, Holliday Grainger, Kerr Logan, Ben Compton
Produced by: J.K. Rowling, Neil Blair, Ruth Kenley-Letts, Elizabeth Kilgarriff

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
How sweet it is to see a straight-ahead crime solving series starring a detective with no built-in superpowers, physical or otherwise.

The only “gimmick” in Cinemax’s C.B. Strike is that the title character has a half-severed left leg, courtesy of his military service. And the prosthetic he wears makes it difficult and painful for him to chase bad guys or even climb stairs.

Adapted from three novels by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, C.B. Strike gets a seven-episode Season One divided into separate adaptations of The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm and Career of Evil. Cinemax made all seven episodes available for review, and it was easy to get immersed in them. Some of the episode-ending “gotcha” wrap-ups are a bit contrived. But getting there is much more than half the fun.

Tom Burke plays Cormoran “C.B.” Strike, a former military police investigator more or less operating out of a ramshackle London office. He’s fond of his pints and behind on his debts. Luckily for him, plucky Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) arrives one morning as an office “temp.” But first we witness the death of supermodel Lula Landry (Elarica Johnson), whose plunge from the balcony of her posh penthouse flat has been ruled a suicide.

While Robin works to get C.B.’s office in shape, Lula’s half-brother, John Bristow, drops in to solicit an investigation. He believes Lula was murdered, and his thousand pound downpayment is enough to get C.B. interested in the case.

The detective’s personal back story is more of a shambles than his place of business. C.B.’s mother died of a heroin overdose and his father, who had him out of wedlock, is a world famous rock star from whom he’s been long estranged. Our hero’s off-and-on relationship with his volatile girlfriend -- currently very much off again -- also figures into his makeup. In contrast, Robin is engaged to her longstanding live-in boyfriend, Matthew Cunliffe (Kerr Logan). But she’s restive career-wise, and has a yearning to be a private gumshoe. Matthew doesn’t approve, and therein lies some of the other unfolding drama.

The Cuckoo’s Case arc takes up three episodes. C.B. and Robin then move on to the investigation of a shock/horror novelist’s grisly murder in The Silkworm, which runs through hours 4 and 5. We wind up with the two-episode Career of Evil. It begins with Robin opening a package she signs for at the office. Within it is a severed leg and an accompanying note with Blue Oyster Cult lyrics. This is easily the most violent of the three stories, with both lead characters licking their wounds before the denouement. Meanwhile, clients quickly begin abandoning the agency because receipt of a severed limb is never good for business.

Rowling, also a co-executive producer of the series, is at work on additional C.B. Strike novels, and has said she hopes to pen 10 more of them. So Cinemax, in association with the BBC, should have ample material if these initial seven episodes prove to be popular.

Burke plays the lead character as doubly wounded, resourcefully deductive and always the perfect gentleman around Robin. He physically resembles Stacy Keach during his Mike Hammer days, cleft lip included. Grainger makes for a very winning Robin. The white wine-sipping apprentice brings out C.B.’s better sides while very much wanting to be an equal partner.

Is there a romance brewing? There are little glimmers of such, but nothing concrete so far. And an event at the end of Career of Evil throws a wrench into these possibilities.

A wide range of supporting characters move in and out of these mysteries. Some of the performances are more delicious than others, with the catty authors and book agents in “The Silkworm” taking the cake. “If you want peers who glory in your failure, work with novelists,” says one.

The two protagonists carry the day, though. C.B. and Robin are well worth rooting for as they sift their way through both the crimes at hand and their own personal dilemmas. So keep writing these characters, J.K. Rowling. They’re every bit as down to earth as Harry Potter was fantastical.

GRADE: A-minus

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