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Mad Men returns for one last not so merry-go-round


Life on the rocks: Jon Hamm as adman Don Draper. AMC photo

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The series that started it all for AMC begins its final seven-episode arc with Peggy Lee’s plaintive rendition of “Is That All There Is?”

After viewing Season 7B’s premiere hour (Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. central), many fans might find themselves asking much the same. In the annals of Mad Men season restarts, the “Severance” episode may be the most underwhelming of them all. Nothing about this series ever plunges to the depths of terrible. But as galvanizing hours of television go, this isn’t Mad Men with a bang. It’s more like beginning a closing 100 meter dash somewhere in between a slow trot and a false start. But surely things will pick up.

The usual restrictions communicated to TV critics otherwise go against going into much detail. Creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner is the most famously secretive of his breed, but at last knows how to have a little fun with this.

“This is the last premiere of Mad Men you will receive ever,” he says in a brief letter to reviewers. “It is also the last infuriating letter from me asking you not to spoil the episode . . . I know that has made your job harder, but we deeply appreciate the respect you’ve shown for the unique and sometimes frustrating restriction on your reviews.”

As usual, Weiner is asking critics not to reveal the year in which Mad Men resumes. Season 7A ended in July 1969, with its closing hour tied to Neil Armstrong’s historic July 21st moon walk.

Weiner also wants no particulars on a certain adman’s dismissal and the brief scene involving a previous character. Any details on the “romantic life” of central character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) are also deemed to be classified material.

Mad Men premiered on July 17, 2007, putting AMC on the map as a provider of quality TV dramas and leading the network on the paths toward Breaking Bad, its Better Call Saul prequel and The Walking Dead. The latter series remains immensely popular, drawing two to three times the audience for Mad Men and particularly excelling among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds.

But Don Draper and his band of hard-smoking, hard-drinking, womanizing cronies have been analyzed to near-death and enshrined in the popular culture alongside Tony Soprano and his crew. Later seasons of Mad Men have stepped up the roles and responsibilities of the Mad women, principally Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). But one scene in particular in the Season 7B opener illustrates in no uncertain terms that Peggy and particularly Joan are still viewed as sex toys by some of their male counterparts.

Don, whose divorce from Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) is pending but certainly firm, is up to his old ways in many respects. He’s also haunted by might-have-beens and tempted by what’s likely the illusion of permanency. His activities are by and large the focal point of “Severance.” But a supporting adman character, Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), gets an unusual and arguably undue amount of air time. Frankly, I wasn’t all that interested.

Another Mad Man principal has a new look that’s not at all becoming. And Don’s ex-wife, Betty (January Jones), again is missing entirely, as are his three children by her. (Jones has already moved on to Fox’s The Last Man On Earth, which airs in the half-hour preceding Mad Men.)

Weiner has shown his skills many times over as Mad Men’s one-and-only Rembrandt. So he very likely can be counted on to pump things up in the remaining six hours following the show’s rather flat Easter Sunday return.

By the way, the episode also concludes with Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” Perhaps it’s not a great idea to raise that question at both the beginning and the end. “The Long and Winding Road,” perhaps? First recorded in early 1969, it’s eligible and ever more appropriate as Don Draper and company meander(?) toward wherever they all wind up.

GRADE: B (for now)

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Imperfectly Frank: HBO's Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All


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Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is in the zone on HBO.

His exemplary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief premiered on Sunday, March 29th. Take a brief breath and here he is back in the race with Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, a four-hour retrospective that begins on Sunday, April 5th at 7 p.m. (central) and continues on Monday at the same hour.

This one doesn’t measure up to Going Clear in terms of jaw-dropping revelations or impact. But Frank Sinatra’s life, times and indelible music still pack a big punch during the year in which he would have turned 100 had he not died in 1998 at the age of 82.

New and previous reminiscences are interwoven with archival footage to present an affectionate although not unsparing portrait of the man whom many consider to be the greatest crooner of all time. As in his Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, Gibney mostly concentrates on the glory years, which in fact were quite bleak for a while until Sinatra made his big comeback as the Oscar-winning co-star of 1953’s From Here to Eternity.

The launch point of All Or Nothing At All, is Sinatra’s so-called June 13, 1971 “Retirement Concert” in Los Angeles. He performed 11 songs after being introduced by a broken-voiced Rosalind Russell. The film takes its cue from those selections, which were meant to encapsulate Sinatra’s life. So back and forth we go, from “Nancy with the Laughing Face” to “I’ll Never Smile Again;” from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to “The Lady Is A Tramp;” from “That’s Life” to “My Way.” Ring-a-ding-ding, it’s quite a trip.

Sinatra’s three children, Frank Jr., Nancy and Tina, all contribute off-camera reflections, as does his first wife, Nancy, who’s now 97. The HBO review DVD at times comes up short on identifications, but this presumably will be rectified with the finished product. It’s also unclear whether those are the real voices of ex-wives Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow -- or whether others are standing in for them and reading their words. Most likely the latter.

Sinatra’s input is via old interviews, including a vintage black-and-white sit-down with Walter Cronkite during the singer’s Farrow period. Cronkite asks Sinatra if he’s going to marry her after first making it clear he’s uncomfortable in the fleeting role of gossip instead of journalist. Sinatra demurs anyway. But imagine any of today’s network news luminaries being even remotely reticent about asking such a question.

Farrow recalls how Sinatra later sent divorce papers to the set of Rosemary’s Baby after she declined to cut her work on the film short and join him exactly as scheduled to play opposite her husband in The Detective. Gardner resented his possessive temperament, “but he was good in the feathers.” When they split up, “I became an out and out drunk,” says Sinatra. “I mean, I was bombed all the time.”

The film also touches on Sinatra’s humanitarian gestures, his early stands against bigotry and his political swerve from supporting John F. Kennedy to embracing Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan.

“It was a huge loss when Sinatra went to the other side,” says Harry Belafonte. “And we’ve never recovered from it, really.”

Sinatra was a man capable of both belittling Sammy Davis Jr. with borderline racist humor during The Rat Pack years and of singing from his heart during a concert for mostly black prison inmates. All Or Nothing At All has footage of both extremes.

Among the many musical high points are Sinatra singing an incredible version of “Old Man River” at Carnegie Hall with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in attendance. And if not quite high points, it’s considerable fun watching Sinatra do a “Love Me Tender/Witchcraft” duet with Elvis Presley and later donning a garish, spangled costume to perform with The Fifth Dimension. The man who once termed rock ’n’ roll “phony and dirty” was persuaded in later years to fill out his self-starting Reprise records roster with the likes of The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and even Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

Sinatra surely would agree that there’ll never be another quite like him. Not even close, he might add. All Or Nothing At All is further vivid proof of that. And it leaves many of us wanting still more.


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NBC's American Odyssey twists and turns while putting its heroine through a living hell


Special ops soldier Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) of American Odyssey. NBC photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Anna Friel, Peter Facinelli, Jake Robinson, Treat Williams, Jim True-Frost, Sadie Sink, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Omar Ghazaoui, Nate Mooney, Elena Kampouris, Daniella Pineda
Produced by: Adam Armus, Kay Foster, Peter Horton, Mikkel Bondesen, Henrik Bastin, Kristen Campo, Simon Maxwell

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It’s been a dismal season for new NBC drama series, with Constantine, The Mysteries of Laura, State of Affairs, Allegiance and The Slap all coming up ratings clunkers.

American Odyssey, premiering on Easter Sunday, is a longshot to reverse those misfortunes. It’s an ambitious, sprawling undertaking, though, with its central character -- Special Forces soldier Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) -- enduring more hardship than possibly any leading woman in network TV history.

NBC’s promotional pitch goes like this: “Wife. Mother. Hero. Getting home will be the fight of her life.”

They’re not exaggerating. Save for the first 10 minutes or so, Ballard’s face is cut and bloodied throughout the five episodes sent for review. She’s rocked by a drone strike, thrown into a below-ground cage, beaten by refugees, threatened with beheading, impaled by a spike, etc. The U.S. military colonel she has trusted implicitly plots her demise after first declaring her dead. Even Jack Bauer would bow to her. Odelle is more resilient than a Bounty paper towel.

There is, of course, a grand and complex conspiracy, with the sinister Societal Mining Corporation (SOC) its driving force. Odelle, captured and re-captured abroad by various terrorist groups, has the only evidence that might bring SOC down. It all begins when her Special Forces team kills Al Qaeda leader Abdul Abbas. A computer in his lair contains encrypted evidence with major implications for high-level traitors. And Odelle soon becomes their public enemy No. 1.

Meanwhile, back in the States, former U.S. attorney’s office crusader Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli) begins smelling new rats while working for SOC. For the sake of their two children, his wife very much wants him to go along, get along and get out of the whistle-blowing business.

Out on the streets, political activist Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson) finds himself in the thick of things after crazed hacker Bob Offer (Nate Mooney) uncovers some very damaging information.

Harrison also is the son of a wealthy, best-selling, mistress-keeping non-fiction author from whom he’s been estranged. This leads to a scene in Episode 4 that Bill Clinton won’t find to his liking. It occurs after a fellow activist sees a framed picture of the senior Walters and the former president.

“Your dad knew Bill Clinton?” she asks in amazement.

“Yeah,” says Harrison. “Guess they had more in common than I thought.”

American Odyssey has pulling power, if you’ll give it a fair shot. Fair warning, through: it also has some telegraphed developments and a few rather preposterous ones. You’ll likely know them when you see them.

Friel, as Odelle Ballard, certainly can’t be accused of not giving it her all. This is a de-glamorized, draining, physically demanding role that also requires some heart and soul. On the emotional front, Odelle’s budding alliance with the teenage Aslam (Omar Ghazaoui), one of those assigned to guard her, is resonant and well-played throughout the first five hours.

The heroine’s plucky daughter back home -- Sadie Sink as Suzanne Ballard -- adds additional heart as a kid who firmly believes her mother is still alive. Husband/father Ron Ballard (Jim True-Frost) isn’t nearly so sure and is ripe for manipulation by the sinister Colonel Stephen Glen (Treat Williams).

As with any serpentine serial drama, levels of trust are constantly compromised from within while viewers are encouraged to keep the faith from without. After seeing the first five episodes, I’m willing to buy in beyond that without making a ringing endorsement. There’s just so much to watch these days. And one can only watch so much.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Tome improvement: NBC's A.D. The Bible Continues


Jesus and Peter get reacquainted after the Crucifixion. NBC photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 5th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Adam Levy, Vincent Reagan, Chipo Chung, Richard Coyle, Babou Ceesay, Juan Pablo Di Pace, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Whalley, Greta Scacchi and many more throughout 12 episodes
Produced by: Roma Downey, Mark Burnett

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It’s an article of faith among many that the Bible simply can’t be improved on.

The same can’t be said for History channel’s The Bible miniseries, which hit it big in the ratings but took a lashing from TV critics. Two years later, the 12-episode A.D. The Bible Continues is in the hands of NBC. Based on the first two episodes, it’s better-acted and handsomer looking while still affixed with a largely no-name cast.

Reality series potentate Mark Burnett (Survivor, Shark Tank, The Apprentice) and his actress wife, Roma Downey (Touched By An Angel), return as executive producers. But holdover roles from The Bible are being played by an entirely new ensemble of thespians. That includes Jesus’ mother, Mary, with Downey being replaced by Greta Scacchi.

The initial two hours of A.D. revisit the Crucifixion (in less gruesome detail) and the Resurrection, both of which were dramatized in The Bible’s concluding two hours. Jesus has the same glowing white teeth and handsome countenance, but this time in the person of Juan Pablo Di Pace instead of Diogo Morgado.

There’s a new Pontius Pilate, too, and he’s effectively played by Vincent Reagan.

“Killing him won’t be the end of him,” Pilate’s wife, Claudia (Joanne Whalley), warns. “It is usually is, my darling,” he replies.

The scheming high priest Caiaphas (Richard Coyle) is also back in the thick of things. Pilate’s not a big fan. “Stay in the water like the eel you are,” he sneers while Caiaphas tries to take a relaxing bath in Episode 2.

A.D. for the most part has a fairly solid script, although Pilate tends to go 20th century at times with lines like, “Urgent appears to be your default state of mind.” This zinger is also aimed at Caiaphas, but both men are intent on quashing any remnants of the Christian faith after Jesus is crucified and then disappears from his tomb.

Both Mary and Mary Magdalene (Chipo Chung) have some strong emotional moments in the first two hours. And the thrice-denying Peter (now played by Adam Levy) shows signs of being a multi-dimensional character.

TV critics of the Dead Sea Scrolls vintage -- verily I’m among them -- will recall reviewing an earlier NBC A.D. miniseries with a big-name cast that included James Mason, Ava Gardner, John Houseman, Susan Sarandon, Colleen Dewhurst, Ian McShane, Ben Vereen, Anthony Andrews, Richard Roundtree and Jennifer O’Neill. That was three decades ago, in March-April of 1985.

NBC’s new A.D. is bereft of star power and might well cost less than the catering bill for the 1985 production. Still, it has a money-on-the-screen look compared to The Bible. And if it somehow averages more than 11 million viewers -- which the History channel table-setter did -- then look for biblical epics to multiply like loaves and fishes on NBC and rival networks. Samson and Delilah anyone?

One last thing: Burnett and Downey say they were inspired to produce The Bible after re-watching Cecil B. DeMille’s grandiose 1956 production of The Ten Commandments. What goes around comes around. On opening night, A.D. will be airing directly against ABC’s annual Easter season re-showing of The Ten Commandments. And so it is written. And so it shall come to pass.

GRADE: B-minus

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Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell: together yet again in PBS' very slow-cooked Wolf Hall


Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance are Henry VIII & Thomas Cromwell. PBS photo

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It’s one thing to re-tell a very oft-told tale. It’s quite another to move along at the pace of an arthritic turtle.

PBS’ six-chapter Wolf Hall, premiering under the Masterpiece banner on Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. central (re-check your local listings), is completely bereft of the zip that infused Showtime’s The Tudors. That’s not always a bad thing. But after a while, all of those contemplative stares on the part of medieval consigliere Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) begin to take their toll.

Damian Lewis, in his first major role since Homeland, is the other principal as Henry VIII. He’s barely seen in Chapter 1 and is altogether seen too little in a drama that mostly telescopes the tribulations and machinations of the close-to-the-vest Cromwell. Adapted from author Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, the story begins in 1529 and ends in 1536 with the well-known fate of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).

The likely audience for Wolf Hall already knows that King Henry has been longing to divest himself of wife Katherine (Joanne Whalley) after she’s failed to provide him with a male heir. But the Pope continues to oppose any divorce while Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), is unable to broker a deal.

Cromwell, son of a brutish blacksmith, has become Wolsey’s protege despite being a commoner. Events eventually conspire to put Cromwell in the King’s favor and Wolsey in exile. His assignment is the same. Get Henry to the altar somehow, some way.

Rylance, who at times facially resembles Peter Falk from his Columbo days, is constantly on camera as Cromwell, whose dry sense of humor is trumped by his increasingly conscience-stricken countenance. Still, Cromwell will do what needs to be done after experiencing immense personal tragedy and then the occasional pleasures of the flesh.

One of the better scenes in Wolf Hall comes during Hour 2, when Cromwell is almost giddy after bedding an unhappily married woman whom he has known for years. He earlier gets off a good line after being asked of Boleyn, “Are her teeth good?” Ripostes Cromwell: “When she sinks them into me, I’ll let you know.”

Lewis, as King Henry, convincingly comes alive during a full-blown rage in Hour 5. It’s aimed directly at Cromwell, who by this time has learned how to take a hard punch and then land some of his own on others.

So yes, Wolf Hall has its moments if you have the endurance to wait for them. But The Tudors, although taking far more liberties during its four seasons, kept events moving at a far brisker trot. Explicit sex and graphic violence, completely missing in Wolf Hall, helped to enliven all the never-ending powerbroking. Still, The Tudors also had a fuller menu of vivid characterizations, none more so than Maria Doyle Kennedy’s magnificent portrayal of the spurned Queen Katherine. In Wolf Hall, Katherine never really registers.

Some viewers might luxuriate in Wolf Hall anyway. To be sure, there’s some majesty to be had. But after experiencing/enduring all six hours, I felt let down, sleepy-eyed and very much in need of ye olde Red Bull.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Lifetime's Lizzie Borden Chronicles swings hard in the service of making things up


Acting chops: Christina Ricci returns as Lizzie Borden. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on Lifetime
Starring: Christina Ricci, Clea DuVall, Cole Hauser
Produced by: Judith Verno, Christina Ricci

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Serial killers, both real and fictionalized, are cropping up on TV almost as fast as their respective body counts.

Lifetime seeks to have it both ways with The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, an eight-episode series reuniting Christina Ricci with her title character from last year’s Lizzie Borden Took An Ax. The movie drew 4.4 million viewers, according to Lifetime publicity materials. The series is billed as “an intense and fictionalized account of actual events” in the aftermath of Lizzie’s acquittal for the free-swinging murders of her father and stepmother.

Whether or not she killed her parents, the real Lizzie never killed again. But in the Lifetime version of events, it appears as though she’s going to “Hulk out” in each and every episode. The first two hours sent by Lifetime feature three murders, all by her. As did Dexter Morgan, she tends to kill those that need killin’. Well, that’s an exaggeration. She goes ballistic after being rubbed the wrong way by people who aren’t’ very nice.

The series picks up four months after Lizzie’s 1893 acquittal, with the residents of Fall River, Massachusetts still ostracizing her.

“I’m not afraid of you,” says a schoolgirl who’d been jumping rope to the infamous “40 whacks” Lizzie ditty.

“Then you haven’t been paying attention,” she snarls.

Lizzie remains side by side with her older sister, Emma (Clea DuVall), who’s supportive but not much fun. They’re still at odds with the late Mr. Borden’s business partner, William Almy (John Heard), who vows to leave the two sisters in debt to him.

Lizzie’s crummy half-brother, William (Andrew Howard), also is skulking around town looking for “my treasure.”

Meanwhile, a handsome but cold-blooded Pinkerton detective named Charlie Siringo (Cole Hauser) is hunting down a bad guy in aptly named Killington Peak, Vermont. Once that mission’s accomplished, he’s heading to Fall River with the intent of re-proving Lizzie’s guilt.

Episode 2 brings Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) into the proceedings as a New York-based powerbroker named Phil Flowers. He runs a prostitute operation among other illegal activities. But he seems willing to do business with Lizzie, who’s rescued one of his whores from a beating by a john.

The series frequently deploys pop ballads and heavy metal rock as a backdrop to its killings and sneaky detective work. The dialogue also tends to be contemporary, as when William asks, “Why are you helping me?” and Lizzie replies, “At the end of the day -- which it is -- we’re family.”

Ricci is 35 now, but still looks young enough to play a college student. Her performance in the first two episodes of Lizzie Borden Chronicles is more a collection of telling looks than substantive scenes. In the early going at least, Hauser makes a stronger impression as the doggedly pursuing Siringo, who otherwise has a soft spot for the abused wife of a prosperous hotel owner.

The producers don’t spare the blood and gore, revisiting the original scenes of Lizzie’s alleged murders early and often in Episode 1. After that it’s just a matter of time before she strikes again -- which she didn’t do in real life.

A quiet aftermath for Lizzie Borden wouldn’t make for much of a TV series, though. An actively violent one doesn’t really cut it either -- but Lifetime will take its chances.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's Weird Loners likely will struggle to get any long-term viewer commitment


Presenting the four thirtysomethings of Weird Loners. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 31st at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Becki Newton, Zachary Knighton, Nate Torrence, Meera Rohit Kumbhani
Produced by: Michael J. Weithorn, Jake Kasdan, Melvin Mar

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TV is anything but strongly opposed to commitment-phobic or unlucky in love characters. On the contrary they continue to heavily populate the prime-time landscape in shows ranging from CBS’ rebirth of The Odd Couple to FX’s Louie to Fox’s New Girl to NBC’s Undateable. To name a few.

The latest manifestation is four-fold. Fox’s Weird Loners, getting a spring tryout in The Mindy Project’s Tuesday slot, bunches together a quartet of disparate singles in their 30’s. Only one of them has ever married, but that was just for a week-and-a-half. Let’s go over the lineup.

Caryn Goldfarb (Becki Newton) is a 37-year-old dental hygienist who just can’t bring herself to make her meddling mother happy by marrying a plain-faced, rather boring dentist named Howard.

Stosh Lewandoski (Zachary Knighton), the previously married guy, is a 36-year-old hot shot sales rep who’s nevertheless just been fired for “banging” his boss’s daughter. His redeeming qualities are in virtual eclipse.

Zara Sandhu (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), 33, scrapes out a living as an artist and is newly homeless after moving out on her boyfriend.

Eric Lewandoski (Nate Torrence), who’s Stosh’s 34-year-old cousin, is a tubby, goofy toll booth attendant (but without the beard!). He lives with his dad until dad quietly dies while they’re bantering through a Mets game. So much for Eric’s social skills.

Fox made the first three episodes available for review. They’re neither terrible nor terribly funny during the course of setting up the Lewandoskis in Eric’s place while Zara becomes Caryn’s roommate in an adjoining Queens, NY townhouse. Everyone’s soon interacting like crazy, with Zara declaring in Tuesday’s premiere, “Passion is such a fleeting thing. That’s why I’m a big fan of masturbation.”

“Me, too!” says Eric, who’s hopelessly ill-equipped to do nearly anything else.

Meanwhile, cousin Stosh bilks, connives and comes on to Caryn in an uncomfortably aggressive manner that suggests he’d bed her against her will if something didn’t always interrupt him. There’s next to nothing to like about Stosh, who’s always on the run from someone. But by Episode 3, the writers are laboring to inject a little empathy via a traumatic childhood back story.

On the other hand, Zara is likable enough, particularly when she comes to Eric’s emotional rescue in Episode 2. Meanwhile, Caryn remains ever vexed and incomplete.

Episode 1 ends with a fairly amusing segment in which the four of them fake lip-read wedding vows at an outdoor wedding before of course crashing the reception. So maybe there’s a chance that Weird Loners could grow on a viewer or two.

It’s not going to bust out of the box, though. Unlike Fox’s The Last Man On Earth, there’s no thrill of discovery here. Weird Loners instead re-shuffles the aimless singles deck before falling well short of coming up aces.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Brace yourself for HBO's superlative Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief


Upon this crock: The primary fortress of solitude is in Los Angeles. HBO photo

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Quotation marks should be used as disqualifiers whenever the “Church” of Scientology is put into print.

This is no more a “Church” than an apple is an orange. But it’s been recognized as such by the IRS. How and why make for one of the more startling and dismaying segments in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. It’s an extraordinary investigative documentary with the power to provoke anger, astonishment and any number of other strong emotions.

HBO, despite an organized campaign of threats and intimidation from the “religion’s” legions of automatons, will premiere the two-hour film on Sunday, March 29th at 7 p.m. (central). Must-see television? That’s an understatement.

Based on the same-named non-fiction book by Lawrence Wright, Going Clear is under the direction of Alex Gibney. As accomplished docu-filmmakers go, he’s the street-fighting version of Ken Burns. Gibney’s credits include Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and HBO’s upcoming Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, which premieres on Easter Sunday.

Going Clear excels at digging up the roots of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of the thought-collecting Hubbard Electrometer and fabricator of a clearly phony war hero past. The detective work splits time with new interviewers of former prominent believers who since have left the “Church.” They include acclaimed writer/director/producer Paul Haggis (Crash, Quantum of Solace) and actor Jason Beghe, currently starring in NBC’s Chicago P.D..

“All Scientologists are full of shit,” says Beghe, who joined up in 1994 and left in 2007.

The most startling revelations, however, come from two former top Scientology lieutenants. Mark Rathbun was second in command to current chairman of the board David Miscavige. He succeeded Hubbard in 1986 after the founding father, in Miscavige’s words, willingly “discarded the body” because it had become an impediment to his visionary and ongoing soul-searching.

In truth, Hubbard died of a stroke at age 74. Near the end, a British film crew got unusual access to him aboard one of the lengthy Scientology Sea project cruises. Clad in a commander’s naval garb, Hubbard was asked, “Do you ever think you might be quite mad?”

“Oh yes,” he replied, grinning broadly. “The one man in the world who never believes he’s mad is the madman.”

The other top-level ex-Scientologist featured in Going Clear is Mike Rinder, who worked in tandem with Rathbun and served as Miscavige’s chief public spokesman. Both men since have been figuratively tarred and feathered in Scientology pronouncements. In Rathbun’s case, his home also has been under constant surveillance by so-called Scientology “Squirrel Busters,” who are shown taunting him on camera. Rathbun’s wife, Monique, never a member of the “Church,” has a harassment case pending in hopes of making Miscavige publicly testify in court.

Going Clear also prominently depicts Scientology’s star players, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Along with Miscavige and Cruise’s ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, they declined to be interviewed according to a closing disclaimer.

Cruise and Travolta are shown in earlier footage, however. At a showy Scientology rally, Cruise solemnly salutes Miscavige and is given the “religion’s” inaugural Freedom Medal of Valor in honor of his loyal service.

“He drank the Kool-Aid,” Rinder says of Cruise. Rinder stopped drinking it in 2007 and has since spoken publicly about being severely physically and emotionally abused by Miscavidge.

Travolta, in military camouflage, says on the set of a previous film, “I’m part of a frontier, in a way, that very few people get to be part of.”

Despite the ongoing and mandatory financial commitment from its members, Scientology was nearly broke by the early 1990s. It faced a back tax bill of $1 billion, says Rathbun, who was there at the time. Tax exempt status had become crucial to survival. So members repeatedly sued the IRS for various crimes against the people. As the lawsuits piled up, the IRS began backing down, according to Going Clear. Ultimate victory came on Oct. 1, 1993, when Scientology gained full tax exempt status as a bonafide religion.

“The war is over!” Miscavige declared at a massive flag-waving event reminiscent of 1930s Germany. The crowd roared all the more when he saluted a giant picture of Hubbard after saying, “Sir. Done.”

Ex-members say that Scientology basically is a shakedown operation in which no amount of giving is ever enough. Achieving the elusive “State of Clear” is possible only by paying a very stiff financial and emotional price, they say.

Those who question this greater good are oftentimes made to do menial labor for weeks and months at a time while being fed table scraps. Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, who joined the “Church” as a teenager and helped to recruit Travolta, tells the filmmakers of her incarceration as a pregnant mother whose young child also was being abused. She finally escaped in 1987 and remains puzzled that Travolta also hasn’t freed himself. But others say that the personal secrets obtained during extensive “monitoring” of new members later are used as blackmail if necessary. In Travolta’s case, “Once that happened, I think he was really the church’s captive,” says author Wright.

Both Haggis and Rathbun say they’re “ashamed” of the many years they were under Scientology’s spell.

Recruited as a young man, Haggis spent 35 years with the “Church” before defecting in 2008.

“You just don’t see it happening to you. You justify so much,” he says of his Scientology daze.

There’s no end in sight. Even though scrutiny has increased and membership decreased in recent years, 2013 “was the year we went stratospheric,” Miscavige boasted at another of those chilling mass rallies.

Tax exempt status will do that for you. But maybe Going Clear at last will prompt the IRS to develop the same backbone it shows when after going after the relative little guys. This is an incredible film that never releases its hold on viewers. Unlike Scientology, though, it’s only a two-hour commitment. And one you won’t at all regret.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Let's get real. The makers of The Jinx are not the bad guys


Robert Durst (left), centerpiece of The Jinx, and filmmaker Andrew Jarecki discuss the now infamous “Beverley Hills” letters. HBO photo

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What did he do and when did he do it?

Those are the true paramount questions regarding long-suspected serial killer Robert Durst.

But in recent days, it’s been more a case of “What did they know and when did they know it?” Those questions are being pointedly aimed -- by numerous critics -- at filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, whose finale of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst made quite an impression on HBO Sunday night. Its last words -- “Killed them all, of course” -- came from Durst via a “hot” mike in a restroom. The End. Which, of course, is only the beginning.

Durst, who was arrested in New Orleans on the night before HBO aired the last chapter of The Jinx, is currently back where he almost assuredly belongs. Which is behind bars.

But the overall end result of The Jinx, which aired for six consecutive Sundays, seems to be getting more than a bit lost amid a swirl of post mortems on “timelines,” the filmmakers’ responsibilities to law enforcement officials and whether they “manipulated” some events for maximum dramatic impact.

Principally at issue is whether Durst’s audio “confession” (or whatever it was) actually went undiscovered for two years or “many months” following the final on-camera interview with him. That’s the one in which Jarecki confronted Durst with copies of those two now infamous “BEVERLEY HILLS” letters, one in which the writer alerted police to a “cadaver” and the other of which was written earlier to the eventual murder victim, Susan Berman. A belching Durst at last looked flummoxed, even though still denying that the block lettered “CADAVER” note had also come from him.

Let’s get to the all-important bottom line. The filmmakers, not any branch of law enforcement, uncovered the second “BEVERLEY HILLS” letter during the course of their own exhaustive detective work. Durst otherwise would still be walking free. Whatever his cravings for publicity -- he was the one who contacted Jarecki and then agreed to be interviewed -- Durst remained a rich man whose first wife’s 1982 disappearance has never been solved. Nor has Berman’s murder. And when Durst admitted to dismembering and garbage-bagging a 71-year-old man in Galveston, his high-powered Texas defense team, led by headline-basking Dick DeGuerin, got him off on a self-defense plea. More and more, truth is stranger than fiction.

Those who doubt the filmmakers’ motives or timeline might also try swallowing this whopper from LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese, who told reporters that Durst’s arrest in connection with Berman’s murder was the result of independent detective work.

“We based our actions on the investigation and the evidence,” he said on the day after The Jinx finale. “We didn’t base anything we did on the HBO series. The arrest was made as a result of the investigative efforts and at a time that we believe it was needed. We’re constantly looking at cold cases -- this being one of them.”

Whatever they were looking at apparently was with a blind eye. Until The Jinx did their work for them, there was absolutely no indication that the LAPD was on the scent of anything. Meanwhile, the filmmakers juggled their responsibilities in terms of alerting law enforcement to what THEY had uncovered. In that context, Jarecki’s explanation to George Stephanopoulos on Monday’s Good Morning America is worth re-printing in its entirety:

“We talked a lot about it with our legal advisors and we said, ‘Look, if we go to the authorities now, we’re missing the opportunity to actually get the real story from him. And it may take years for them to do that because the truth is, as filmmakers, we have the freedom to do things that maybe the law enforcement authorities wouldn’t have.’ But at the same time, we didn’t want to hold it back if it was going to take forever. So all we could do was get him into the chair again, which took a lot of work, and then, when we had his reaction, that was when we felt the time was right for us to show that to them. And that was many, many months ago.”

In investigations large and small, filmmakers or reporters don’t work hand-in-hand with police. They uncover evidence on their own and present it. Law enforcement officials then can do what they will with such information. Regarding Durst, they mostly didn’t do much of anything since he beat the Galveston murder rap back in 2003.

Attorney DeGuerin, who now is representing Durst anew, is having a good time fingering HBO and the filmmakers as the real culprits.

“It’s not based on facts,” he told reporters of The Jinx. “It’s based on ratings.”

No, it IS based on facts. Facts that the six-chapter film uncovered without any help from the LAPD. Those facts will now presumably be part of a new trial and another set of jurors.

No one should be overly confident of a Durst conviction, given the high-profile murder acquittals of O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman. But whatever the verdict, the makers of The Jinx are not the bad guys here. On the contrary, they’re instead the people who put the wheels of justice back in motion while cops and prosecutors repeatedly either failed or stopped trying altogether.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

This is your brain on drugs. This is your brain on iZombie


Brain freeze? No, brain food in iZombie. Rose McIver stars. CW photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 17th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Rose McIver, Rahul Kohli, Malcolm Goodwin, Robert Buckley, David Anders, Aliza Vellani, Molly Hagan, Nick Purcha
Produced by: Rob Thomas, Diane Ruggiero-Wright, Danielle Stokdyk, Dan Etheridge

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The CW’s latest trippy walk on the supernatural wild side can hardly be considered brain surgery. Although that definitely comes into play.

iZombie, brought to weekly TV by Veronica Mars maestro Rob Thomas, succeeds in being both tongue-in-cheek and food for thought. Taking things too seriously wouldn’t turn the trick. But Olivia “Liv” Moore’s search for new meaning to (after)-life can be affecting when played right.

Seemingly on fumes a few seasons ago, The CW has rebounded of late with the likes of Arrow, The Flash and Jane the Virgin. This tale of reluctant zombie-dom looks like another crowd-pleaser among the network’s core group of younger viewers. A fair number of oldsters also might succumb to its easy appeal.

Liv, played by Rose McIver (Once Upon a Time), is a go-getter young doc who in the opening minutes of Tuesday’s premiere ignores protocol to save a life. She’s otherwise found her heart-mate in Major Lilywhite (Robert Buckley), a character whose surname should have been changed at some point in pre-production.

He encourages her to go ahead and accept a boat party invitation after another long work shift. Unfortunately, this turns out to be an unexplained zombie rave-up that leaves Liv washed ashore with a passel of corpses. She’s also pale, blonde-haired and affixed with a lifeless personality. That’s the way zombies roll, and Liv is now one of them. Five months later, those closest to her remain perplexed by the transformation.

“It’s just that you’ve changed so dramatically since that night on the lake,” says her all but fed-up roommate, Marcy (Aliza Vellani). “We think you have PTSD.”

Poor Major’s been dropped like a hockey puck because Liv knows that getting intimate with him could be hazardous to his overall well-being. So she instead toils in a morgue, where the brains she requires for sustenance are readily available. The texture and taste is pretty yucky but can be tempered by ample use of hot, spicy garnishes.

Every new series, it seems, needs either a Britisher playing an American or a Britisher in full accent. In iZombie it’s the latter. Jovial morgue doctor Ravi Chakrabarti (Londoner Rahul Kohli) is supportive of Liv and quickly on to the fact she’s a zombie. He’s both working on a cure and transfixed by her ability to flash back to scenes of crimes after ingesting a victim’s brain. This is where a skeptical young Seattle cop comes in. His name is Clive Babineaux and he’s nicely played by Malcolm Goodwin.

In Episode 1, they pursue the killer of a prostitute while lightly jabbing back and forth. Liv tends to become an action hero in the end, though. “I was a dead alabaster bad ass!” she exclaims to Ravi after the case is closed.

Episode 2 gets deeper into Liv’s gradually improving personal life while also bringing zombie Blaine DeBeers (Dave Anders) into play. He’s been the focal point of Liv’s boat party nightmares. But perhaps he’s not quite as bad as he seems. They meet in the morgue and banter a bit before Blaine gets to deliver a well-played line to a woman he bedded the night before. Hmm, she’s now all pasty-looking and constantly ravenous. “First rule about brain club. You don’t talk about brain club,” says Blaine, delivering the goods while she opens her checkbook.

Liv, Ravi and Clive otherwise are trying to find out who murdered an artist by stabbing him through the eye. After munching on part of his brain, Liv develops a sudden zest and aptitude for painting. “In elementary school, I could barely trace my hand to draw a turkey,” she remarks. Now that’s a good line.

OK, let’s review. iZombie is a “procedural” cop show spiced with brain-eaters who don’t stagger and a love story that won’t quit if Liv can somehow reunite with the seemingly good-hearted Major. Liv’s frequent narration and asides also help to keep the quip machine in gear. “I’m just a big psychic zombie trying to do her part,” she observes.

For it’s part, CW is just a little network trying to make some noise. It makes more headway with iZombie, a “cute” but never cloying show centered on brainy brain-eaters and their present-day dilemmas. Pass the ghost peppers.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's One Big Happy may have just enough merriment


Three’s Company revisited? Sort of. Except this time one of them really is gay. Elisha Cuthbert, Nick Zano, Kelly Brook star. NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 17th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Nick Zano, Kelly Brook, Rebecca Corry, Chris Williams, Brandon Mychal
Produced by: Liz Feldman, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Kleeman, Scott Ellis

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And now for a little lesbian humor. Wait, who are we kidding? Make that lots and lots of it.

NBC’s One Big Happy, co-produced by Ellen DeGeneres, isn’t about to go straight. Nor is its lead character, Lizzy (Elisha Cuthbert), a 30-something single gay woman whose roommate, Luke (Nick Zano), doesn’t play for that team but has been equally unsuccessful at finding a wife.

After all these years, though, why not raise a family together? So Lizzy is striving to get pregnant via artificial insemination with Luke’s semen. Meanwhile, he has a chance meeting at a bar with the notably buxom Prudence (Kelly Brook), a Britisher facing imminent deportation as an “illegal.” Presto, he impulsively marries her, enabling Prudence to stay ashore. But double surprise, Lizzy has finally gotten pregnant.

“We’ll figure it out. We’ll be one big happy,” says Luke. Ergo the title of this very energetically acted, laugh track-laced sitcom in which the three main players all exhibit solid timing with both their lines and their double-takes.

Six episodes were made available for review. The signature visual in Tuesday’s premiere is a pixillated Prudence happily strutting naked in the kitchen before feeling compelled to give Lizzy a hug.

“Wow, vagina right on my leg,” Lizzy deadpans.

“I’m starting to think you’re not a very good lesbian,” Prudence replies.

In ABC’s long-running Three’s Company, Jack Ritter (John Ritter) feigned being gay in order to get away with having two sexy female roommates. In One Big Happy, there’s no judgmental landlord to muck things up and no doubts about Lizzy’s sexuality. “Yecch, straight people,” she says twice in Episode 2 while watching Luke and Prudence lock lips. Flip that line -- “Yecch, gay people” -- and you could well be facing an organized protest. But in One Big Happy, it’s all in good fun, and in fact comes off that way.

The show also returns regularly to the subject of Prudence’s prodigious bazooms. In a later episode, she notes that “I was accused of smuggling melons” while at a Thailand farmers’ market. Pause, one-two, while both Lizzy and Luke milk their double takes.

Prudence’s cleavage basically is a supporting player/players. The other more conventional members of the ensemble are Lizzy’s sour sister, Leisha (Rebecca Corry), whose husband, Roy (Chris Williams), is black and terminally dull in her view. There’s also Marcus (Brandon Mychal), a hipper black dude who works at The Bowl Hole bowling alley owned by Luke after his father left it to him.

Don’t look for rarefied humor. Prudence happily embraces “my granny’s cock” when her possessions from back home arrive in a multitude of cardboard boxes. Lizzy’s ex-lover is deemed the “Lucifer of lesbians” and Prudence’s lout of an ex-husband is a veritable fount of double entendre sex references a few weeks down the road.

There also are some intriguing twists as these beats go on. One Big Happy may be entirely sitcom-y but it’s not thoroughly predictable.

Cuthbert has come quite a way since playing Jack Bauer’s constantly imperiled daughter, Kim, in early seasons of Fox’s 24. She began blossoming comedically in ABC’s Happy Endings and now has reached full bloom. So although broad and sometimes forced, One Big Happy also can be bitingly amusing, with its three principals meshing well while clashing often.

NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt has longed to resuscitate the traditional multi-cam, live-before-a-studio audience sitcom format that gave his network mega-hits such as Seinfeld, Friends and Frasier. This newest outing, being paired with the returning Undateable, gives the Peacock two birds of the same feather that just might be able to fly together.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt after viewing all 13 Season 1 episodes


Ellie Kemper stars as happy-go-lucky Kimmy Schmidt. Neftlix photo

Currently streaming: all 13 Season 1 episodes on Netflix
Starring: Ellie Kemper,Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane, Jane Krakowski, Sara Chase, Lauren Adams, Sol Miranda, Dylan Gelula, Ki Hong Lee, Adam Campbell with prominent guest star appearances by Jon Hamm, Tina Fey
Produced by: Tina Fey, Robert Carsick

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Channeling a pen-in-hand Jimmy Fallon to write: “Thank you NBC, for rejecting Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and letting Netflix run it all at once while also removing all of those unsightly broadcast network blemishes.”

A carefree 13 episodes emerge, with two-to-four more minutes of content and the complete closing credits, which roll with different music tied to what we’ve just seen.

This is what also could have happened had NBC passed on the likes of Community, Parks and Recreations and Tina Fey’s earlier NBC creation, 30 Rock. More show, easier viewing and full-blown creative freedom.

Kimmy, from Fey and creative partner Robert Carlock, can be watched in fits, spurts, big gulps and in pretty much any order. Unlike Netflix’s House of Cards, it won’t hurt to pick and choose after watching the premise-setting first episode. So let’s outline the particulars before offering some fast-forwarding advice.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is one of four “Mole Women” who’d been locked in an underground bunker since 1998 by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in later episodes). They were led to believe they’d survived the end of the world. But no. Not quite.

After a Today show appearance -- host Matt Lauer is called “Bryant” -- the Mole Women go their separate ways. Cheery, big-grinning Kimmy ends up in New York City. She quickly moves into a substandard dump with the very flamboyantly gay Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), who aspires to be a Broadway star but so far has gotten no further than being a cut rate Iron Man on Times Square. Their landlady is senile Lillian Kaushtupper (another loopy turn by Carol Kane).

Kimmy soon falls into a position as nanny for the vain, insecure Jacqueline Voorhees (30 Rock holdover Jane Krakowski essentially playing the same part). She lives in a very posh Manhattan apartment while her philandering rich husband always seems to be away on business. “What the ham sandwich. I just got a job!” Kimmy enthuses. She also uses the word “fudge” with regularity.

Although robbed of her going away money after being rescued from the “Underground Apocalypse Cult,” Kimmy figures she now can help Titus realize his dreams.

“And you are going to sing at the Grammys with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson!” she tells him.

“Bad examples. But yes,” Titus agrees. He’s mostly fun to watch, but wouldn’t necessarily wear well in bigger doses.

Kimmy is nicely stocked with the title character’s dated references from the late 1990s. In Episode 3, Jacqueline’s bratty teen stepdaughter Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula) tells her, “I’ve been googling you.”

“You have? I didn’t feel it,” says Kimmy.

It goes on like this, with Kimmy’s misadventures piling up in ways that aren’t supposed to make any real sense. The 13 episodes all were made for NBC before being deemed unfit for the network’s prime-time schedule. So the humor remains faintly broadcast network-y for now, although Season 2 (already ordered by Netflix) could be more “adult.” Or maybe that just wouldn’t sit right with these particular characters.

Not all of the episodes are gems and a few are more than a little forced. Which provides all the more reason to jump, if you’re inclined, to the utterly farcical trial of Hamm’s Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. It takes up Episodes 11-13, with Hamm a deliciously hammy show-stealer in the face of inept mockups of O.J. Simpson prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. Fey, in short, Clark-like curly hair and trademark face mole, plays Marcia and Jerry Minor is Chris.

Episode 11 finds Wayne singing a few bars from “The Purple People Eater” (a real hit song from the late 1950s, kiddies) while cannily conducting his own defense. Kimmy reluctantly decides to testify against him after striving to put the events of Durnsville, Indiana behind her. “Oh Kimmy, I’ll dock your pay accordingly,” Jacqueline enthusiastically responds.

The trial and attendant events are a merry-go-round of inspired lunacy, with Hamm scoring repeatedly with lines like, “My ponytail is cool. God said so.” So why wait? Get these episodes under your belt sooner rather than later.

Earlier Kimmy episodes are sprinkled with guest star appearances by Martin Short, Amy Sedaris, Richard Kind, Dean Norris, Nick Kroll and Kiernan Shipka from Mad Men, who in this case doesn’t cross paths with her TV dad.

Creators Fey and Carlock instill Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with the infectious positivity of their title character, who won’t give up, no, she’ll never give up. Still, her hard knocks life starts taking its toll in later episodes, draining some of Kimmy’s ebullience and replacing it with a little petulance. The sunny side up Kimmy is much preferable, but prolonged exposure to the above-ground real world can have soul-sapping side effects if you let it.

It’s enough to make a girl stop saying “Gosh darn mummy fudger” and disagreeably exclaim “Party’s over!” when her “Big 30-0” birthday bash goes very awry. But that’s not until Episode 9. And the show’s spring-in-the-step, bright primary colors, reminiscent of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, are along for the entire Season 1 ride.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Season 3 of House of Cards after viewing all 13 episodes (minimal spoilers)


All are not hailing President Francis “Frank” Underwood in Season 3 of House of Cards. But he’ll still give as good as he gets. Netflix photo

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Build to a big finish. Then leave ‘em wanting more.

That should be the overall goal of any serial drama series. And in the case of Netflix’s House of Cards, “Mission Accomplished.” Or to put a more believable spin on it, Season 4 has been very well positioned by the final scene of Season 3.

All 13 episodes again are ready for viewing at whatever one’s pace. I’ve found that it’s best to devour the whole thing before making any critical judgments. Reviewing Season 3 after watching the handful of episodes made available in advance by Netflix is like leaving a baseball game in the 5th inning after the home team gets down by five runs. A lot can still happen.

Season 2 ended with Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) conniving his way to the presidency after duping the ineffectual incumbent into resigning. Wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), his longstanding partner in throat-cutting duplicity, still stands firmly by her man. Still, she’d also like to bloom on her own.

Season 3’s opening hour otherwise largely belongs to Frank’s former chief of staff, Douglas Stamper (Michael Kelly). He was left for dead at the end of Season 2 after being beaten with a brick by prostitute/lover/possibly dangerous informant Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), who thought Stamper was planning to kill her.

Stamper’s slow, agonizing recovery is the focal point of Episode 1, with Kelly standing out as an emotionally and physically wounded loyalist who will and has done anything for his boss. All he wants is his job back, but the Underwoods keep putting him off while placating him.

Frank very much wants an elected term in his own right, and the 2016 presidential campaign already is upon him. His centerpiece initiative is “America Works,” a full employment jobs package that would come at the expense of Social Security and Medicare for future generations. It faces strong opposition, as does Frank from his own Democratic Party in terms of being the 2016 nominee.

Although showing traces of emotional vulnerability -- mainly while with newly hired presidential biographer and bestselling author Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) -- Frank isn’t about to become anyone’s gooey nougat.

At the outset of Episode 1, he solitarily urinates on his father’s gravestone after first telling the camera that respect-paying trips such as this are necessary as President. “Makes me seem more human.” He trumps this desecration in Episode 4 by spitting on a large cathedral crucifix: “Love. That’s what your’e selling? Well, I don’t buy it.”

House of Cards also becomes immersed for a while in an international effort to deploy a multi-nation peace-keeping force in the Jordan Valley. It’s mainly a device to introduce a vivid new character and mockup for Vladimir Putin. He’s Russian Federation president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), who’s every bit as ruthless as Frank.

Meanwhile, Claire lobbies hard to be the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. And Frank hopes to head off one of his principal adversaries in the presidential campaign by offering solicitor-general Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Whatever the subplots and subterfuges, this series hinges, as always, on the dynamics between Frank and Claire Underwood. They’ve been combustible before, but never quite like this.

“We’re murderers, Francis,” she tells him in a very strong Episode 6.

“No we’re not,” he retorts. We’re survivors.”

Any slack points in Season 3’s mid-section are offset by some tremendous episodes down the stretch, beginning with Hour 10. The dialogue crackles while Frank increasingly finds himself isolated and under fire. “Such a pity how much ruthless pragmatism gets weighed down by family values,” he carps to the camera.

Season 3 includes the usual gaggle of real-life national media notables playing themselves. Episode 1 finds Stephen Colbert twitting Frank in his now outdated venue, The Colbert Report. Others in the mix are Jake Tapper, George Stephanopoulos, Meredith Vieira, Chuck Todd, Donna Brazile, Matthew Dowd and John King, who gets the most to do as moderator of a hard-punching presidential debate tied to the Iowa caucuses.

The addition of biographer Yates is mostly a plus. He ends up serving as a muse for both Underwoods, feeling their pain in the interest of serving his own interests as an author with a stated addiction to deep personal undercurrents.

Watchful viewers might wonder at the sudden departure of Republican Senate Majority Leader Hector Mendoza (Benito Martinez of The Shield), who was positioned in early episodes to be a strong adversary of the Underwoods. Instead, it’s said almost in passing that Mendoza had to step down because of an ethical impropriety -- as if that would be grounds for anyone’s dismissal in House of Cards. In truth, Martinez opted to join the cast of ABC’s new American Crime, where he has a key role as an old-school, widowed Hispanic father of two troubled teens.

House of Cards is still playing with a full deck and the only imperious King and Queen it needs in Frank and Claire Underwood. Squint just a little and perhaps you’ll see Richard Nixon and Hillary Clinton.

Whatever your takeaway, the performances of Spacey and Wright remain assured and now ingrained in a series that ranks as the best body politic drama ever. The only serious contender, NBC’s The West Wing, sought a higher ground in answer to idealistic higher callings. The Underwood White House is run a little differently and, alas, more realistically. Staying in power is paramount. Whatever it takes is the only lesson to live by.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

USA's Dig an "event series" that mostly congeals and confuses


Jason Isaacs, Anne Heche wade through the muck of Dig. USA photo

Premiering: Thursday, March 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA network
Starring: Jeremy Isaacs, Anne Heche, Alison Sudol, David Constabile, Lauren Ambrose, Regina Taylor, Richard E. Grant, Omar Metwally, Ori Pfeffer
Produced by: Tim Kring, Gideon Raff

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s an increasingly crowded TV universe, with almost too many high-caliber drama series in play at the moment.

So it’s essential to make an arresting impression in the early going rather than inflicting a ponderous, murky 90-minute pilot episode on a restive viewing public with numerous other places to go and things to see.

USA network’s Dig, a 10-episode, so-called “event series” largely set in Jerusalem, seems determined to be a sedative instead of a pulse-quickener. It’s the latest would-be mind bender from Tom Kring, who seems to have lost his fastball in the years since his brilliant early episodes of NBC’s Heroes.

Describing exactly what’s going on in Dig may be a tougher challenge than staying awake throughout Thursday’s all-important place-setter. There’s no joy in saying that, as Dan Rather is still wont to say. But man, life’s too short to be dawdled away like this.

The principal stars are Jason Isaacs as emotionally wounded FBI agent Peter Connelly and Anne Heche as his boss and sometime bedmate, Lynn Monahan. They’re based in Jerusalem, where Peter is transferred in hopes of shedding his “personal demons.” Principal among them is the apparent mysterious death of his daughter. Or maybe she’s just missing. It’s not readily apparent, although I may have blacked out and missed a sequence or two while trying to get through this big head-deadening muddle.

Dig also journeys to Oppland, Norway, where a “red heifer without defect” is slaughtered in compliance with “Numbers XIX.” And in a very isolated New Mexico compound, a little boy is being groomed to meet his “destiny,” which is now. Prototypical religious nut Tad Billingham (David Costabile) is at the controls while a dutiful but kindly acolyte named Debbie (Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under) tries to keep the boy halfway entertained during his incubation.

Back in Jerusalem, Connelly is pursuing a fugitive when he’s stopped in his tracks by a redheaded young woman. She vanishes but later returns to his line of sight and introduces herself as Emma Wilson (Alison Sudol), a Pennsylvania college student who’s participating in an archaeological dig. But Emma also escorts Connelly to a deep underground lair where the Ark of the Covenant just might be hidden. They’re soon skinny-dipping in a pool of holy water after she convinces him to jump right in. A kiss is exchanged, with Emma the instigator, before a gaggle of chanting robe-wearers arrives. So they make their escape seemingly undetected. By the way, Emma otherwise reminds Connelly of his daughter.

All of this unfolds at an artery-hardening, cranium-numbing pace. Near the end of the first episode, things begin happening a bit faster while the overall confusion remains firmly in place. Did we mention “the high priest’s breastplate” that in the right hands enables its possessor to talk to God? “And in the wrong hands . . .?” That question is left dangling amid all the other frayed loose ends.

Isaacs seems to be trying hard in the service of whatever’s going on here. Heche is called on to be mostly prickly and “official” following their highly unauthorized sack time together. They’re not exactly a dynamic duo.

Besides the aforementioned “Numbers XIX” red heifer stuff, Dig’s printed prelude quotes the wisdom of R.E.M. Namely, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

Maybe so. But this thing appears to be going nowhere fast. And it’s already taking way too long to get there.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's American Crime soars on the strength of its daring, daunting premise


The diverse, fractious main characters of American Crime. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, March 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Benito Martinez, Richard Cabral, Caitlin Gerard, Elvis Nolasco, W. Earl Brown, Penelope Ann Miller, Johnny Ortiz, Regina King
Produced by: John Ridley, Michael J. McDonald

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Brace yourself for American Crime. This is one brave-ass series. Which couldn’t be said for a good long while about a Big Four broadcast network drama.

Cable networks and “streaming” services, no matter their size or reach, have taken the play away from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox with one lauded show after another. They’ve mostly scored on the hour-long drama front while the traditional broadcasters repeatedly dared to be same-old, same-old.

It’s true that Fox stuck one foot outside the box with Empire, which now seems destined to go down as the first-ever predominantly black drama series to become a bonafide, long-lasting hit. Still, it’s otherwise a contemporary throwback to Dallas and Dynasty with all those broadly played displays of one family explosion after another amid mostly opulent settings.

ABC’s American Crime, filmed in Austin and created by 12 Years A Slave writer John Ridley, isn’t a hand-me-down from anything else seen on a broadcast network. Publicity materials say a mouthful, all of it essentially true: “Told from the points of view of all those involved, this new drama examines preconceptions on faith, family, gender, race, class and other aspects of our social experience with an approach and perspectives historically underserved in media.”

Ridley, who is African-American, has put two well-known white actors at the top of his marquee. Felicity Huffman likely will emerge as the favorite to win the next drama series best actress Emmy as severely judgmental Barb Hanlon. And Timothy Hutton, cast as her ex-husband, Russ Skokie, has his meatiest role since winning an Oscar for his long-ago performance in Ordinary People.

Hutton has the very first scene, learning in the dead of the night that his character’s son, Matt, has been murdered in a Modesto, CA home invasion that also left his wife, Gwen, critically injured and in a coma. All three principal suspects are rounded up by the end of Thursday’s Episode 1. They’re also all minorities.

***Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco) is a street thug and drug addict who nonetheless is something of a guardian angel for his white and very dazed girlfriend, Aubry Taylor (Caitlin Gerard).

***Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral) is a mean streets survivor who’s made numerous accommodations with his neighborhood’s criminal element.

***Tony Gutierrez (Johnny Ortiz) strives to stay out of trouble but chafes under the authoritarian rule of his widowed father, Alonzo (Benito Martinez). Implicated as an unwitting accessory to murder, Tony admits while in Juvie that it kind of made him “happy I was doing something that would piss him off.”

All is not as it seems, of course. And if you’ve heard that before, you haven’t seen it portrayed in such searing terms on a broadcast network drama series.

Regina King, who co-starred in the 1980s on the NBC sitcom 227, also has a pivotal role as Nix’s sister. Born Doreen Nix, she’s become a converted Muslim with the name Aliyah Shadeed.

“You take their drugs, you sleep with their women and then they put you in their cage,” she tells her brother during a contentious prison visit in Episode 3. The price of her help is threefold: Confess, ask for forgiveness and get rid of that junkie white girlfriend.

The clashes escalate as more is learned about the crime victims. Gwen’s parents, Tom and Eve Carlin (W. Earl Brown, Penelope Ann Miller), have a furious set-to with the deceased Matt’s already combustible mother and father. Hector and Tony both run afoul of fellow prisoners. And Alonzo’s only daughter, Jenny (Gleendilys Inoa), upbraids her protective father for always playing the white man’s game.

ABC sent four of the 11 scheduled episodes for review. They’re uniformly terrific while at the same having virtually no chance of matching the audience levels for How to Get Away with Murder, the hit series that American Crime is replacing for the rest of this season.

Huffman’s performance is the pace-setter, whether she’s fixated on prosecuting her son’s murder as a reverse hate crime or slamming away at her ex-husband, a recovering gambling addict who left her in the lurch years ago. Barb Hanlon’s resentments and bigotry have become part of her makeup.

Still, there are no out-and-out white devils in American Crime. Nor are the minority characters all hard-core criminals in the making. In that respect, Martinez’s performance as the strait-laced Alonzo Gutierrez is increasingly compelling. And King, as Aliyah Shadeed, thunderously preaches black pride midway through Episode 4.

American Crime isn’t for those looking for escapist entertainment before bedtime. But it is an extraordinarily intelligent and compelling look at racial dynamics and polarities. ABC deserves full credit for taking a big, bold chance with a series that moves straight to the top of broadcast TV’s limited supply of best and brightest.


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Broadchurch returns to brilliantly pick up where it left off


Still a very uneasy duo: detectives Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) and Alec Hardy (David Tennant) of Broadchurch. BBC America photo

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Shell-shocked anew, the denizens of otherwise picturesque, seaside little Broadchurch are far from returning to any semblance of peace and quiet.

Season 2 of the acclaimed drama series returns in full force to BBC America on Wednesday, March 4th at 9 p.m. (central). Again at the center of Broadchurch are willful, damaged crime solvers Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman). But the cast also is buoyed by the additions of Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as opposing barristers in the trial of accused murderer Joe Miller (Matthew Gravelle).

BBC America sent the first four episodes for review. There again will be eight in all. And viewers without any previous Broadchurch experience would be much better served by watching Season 1 (available to Netflix subscribers for free and on Amazon at an added cost) before getting immersed in Season 2. (Your friendly content provider had watched the entire first season but still found it valuable to watch the finale as a refresher course.)

Season 2 begins with what’s expected to be the cut-and-dried trial of Joe Miller, who is detective sergeant Ellie’s husband. She remains traumatized and ostracized by the parents of the 11-year-old victim, Danny Latimer. But after confessing to the murder at the close of last season, Joe confounds one and all by pleading not guilty at his hearing.

“I can’t go to prison for Danny’s death,” he tells angry junior barrister Abbie Thompson (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). “Find me someone to take my case.”

This is where Oscar nominee Baptiste (1996’s Secrets & Lies) comes in. She plays tough, hardball-playing Sharon Bishop, whose former mentor is the retired Jocelyn Knight (Rampling). Highly reluctant to get back in the game, Knight finally relents upon learning that Bishop will be her courtroom adversary.

Season 2 otherwise is fueled by the re-emergence of a double murder case that Hardy thought he’d left behind after his days as a detective in Sandbrook. His inability to get a conviction of prime suspect Lee Ashworth (a glaring James D’Arcy) left him shattered and even more short-tempered upon arriving in Broadchurch to take the position that Ellie thought was hers.

Ashworth, who had left the country after being let go, is now lurking around Broadchurch in search of his still shaken wife Claire (Eve Myles). Hardy has hidden her in a Broadchurch country house after she betrayed her husband and made him the No. 1 target in the deaths of Sandbrook cousins Lisa and Pippa. But Claire is now in renewed jeopardy while Hardy is beside himself. It doesn’t take much for him to go off the rails. Not only in the face of a case that continues to haunt him but when pressed anew by aggressive, ethics-challenged young newspaper reporter Olly Stevens (Jonathan Bailey).

“You people. You think you’re saving the world. You just make it harder to live in,” Hardy says through clenched teeth in Episode 4. It’s a line that might well make many a viewer cheer.

Other dirty little secrets emerge as Broadchurch weaves more webs of captivating intrigue. The additions of Rampling and Baptiste are masterstrokes, making the series all the more engrossing as they battle in court and tend to their disparate outside interests.

Tennant and Colman still command center stage, but not without considerable help from the incoming fellow thespians. Under these circumstances, it’s not a case of the more the merrier. Instead it’s an even richer recipe for a seriously dramatic series that already had an A-game in place.


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CSI: Cyber -- no awards this time but a likely nice nest egg for Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette


James Van Der Beek, Patricia Arquette in CSI: Cyber. CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 4th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Patricia Arquette, James Van Der Beek, Peter MacNicol, Shad Moss, Charley Koontz, Hayley Kiyoko
Produced by: Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue, Anthony Zuiker, Pam Veasey, Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman

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There’s no need to feel unduly sorry for Patricia Arquette.

Yes, she’s the newly crowned Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner for Boyhood after also winning every other major award for the role. And now, just when all these new doors are opening, she’s tied to a previous commitment to another formulaic CBS crime series.

It’s a nice “problem” to have, though. Arquette gets the lead role in CSI: Cyber, which premieres on Wednesday, March 4th behind CBS’ long-running Criminal Minds. Virtually without a doubt, more people will see Episode 1 of her new show than will ever see Boyhood.

Besides that, this fourth CSI iteration is almost guaranteed to provide long-term employment at a very nice rate of pay. CBS is the network, after all, that has made hits this season of its NCIS: New Orleans spinoff and the third TV version of The Odd Couple, which was critically panned to apparently no avail.

So Arquette will be just fine, even if CSI: Cyber for the most part tends to be head-hurting on a number of fronts. Not the least of which are its far-fetched leaps from one high-tech deduction to another.

Arquette plays Washington, D.C.-based FBI special agent Avery Ryan, who of course has a tragic back story. This fuels her single-minded efforts to chase down conscience-less cyber criminals who in the first two episodes kidnap infants and fatally derail a roller coaster. The latter case, which fills next week’s Episode 2, turns out to be a cut-and-dried case of “gore porn.”

“Faceless. Nameless. Lurking inside our devices, just a keystroke away,” Arquette’s Ryan says in the weekly set-up to episodes. Her voice then drops to a whisper: “It can happen to you.” But please, viewers, don’t get any ideas. We already have enough trouble combatting the Internet’s escalating number of pop-up ads.

Ryan gets very much involved in the tire-squealing, physical pursuits of various vermin. Her action-craving right-hand man otherwise is Agent Elijah Mundo (James Van Der Beek returning to the drama fold after sitcom fails with Don’t Trust the B -- In Apartment 23 and Friends With Better Lives).

Another familiar TV face, Dallas native Peter MacNicol (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal), co-stars as Cyber Crime Division supervisor Simon Sifter. He mulls options, cuts through bureaucratic barriers and in Episode 1, says things like, ”My guess is he’s feeling desperate.”

To which Ryan replies, “And desperate people do desperate things.” Oh please.

The team is rounded out by the requisite tubby bearded guy (Charley Koontz as Daniel “Krummy” Krumitz); the requisite trouble-plagued young newcomer getting a make-or-break second chance (Shad Moss as Brody Nelson); and someone his age for Brody to hang out with (Hayley Kiyoko as Raven Ramirez).

There’s also the requisite CSI theme song by The Who. In this case it’s the very welcome “I Can See For Miles.” Ring the royalties cash register again for its writer, Pete Townsend, who probably wouldn’t mind at all seeing CSI: Outer Space and CSI: Underground at some point in the near future.

On CSI: Cyber, Ryan and her team act very swiftly, oftentimes preposterously so. Computer graphics whiz and buzz. And then, just like that, another suspect is chased down and vetted by Ryan, who seemingly needs nothing more than a burp or a twitch to determine who the bad guys are and who they are not.

Arquette’s character supposedly is drawn from real-life Cyber Psychologist Mary Aiken, whose official bio says she’s a faculty member at the Dr. Steve Chan Center for Sensemaking as well as a fellow at the IBM Swansea University Network Science Research Center. She also works with various police departments in efforts to thwart cyber crime. But Aiken likely has never said “Let’s roll” (as her TV counterpart does in Episode 3 before hopping into the ready-for-action Cyber Crime Division van and eventually getting involved in a shootout).

None of CSI: Cyber’s excesses or contrivances are likely to matter in the least. Arquette, who previously starred to much better effect in NBC’s Medium, has a pre-sold vehicle that seems sure to take her for at least a five-season ride. It’s not worthy of her talents, but that’s perhaps beside the point. With an Oscar now on her mantle and no further validation required, this is as good a time as any to make some real money again.


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