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Tales from the "Texas Silicon Prairie" via AMC's Halt and Catch Fire

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Left to right: Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Lee Pace play would-be personal computer visionaries in Halt and Catch Fire. AMC photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishe Toby Huss
Produced by: Chris Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers, Melissa Bernstein, Mark Johnson, Jonathan Lisco, Jason Cahill

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
IBM is AMC’s new villain in residence, having loomed forebodingly over this spring’s Mad Men episodes and now looking even more sinister in Halt and Catch Fire.

Set in circa 1983 Dallas but filmed entirely in Atlanta, the new 10-episode series takes over Mad Men’s Sunday night slot on a network that’s currently stuck in any time but the present. AMC also has been stuck for a new hit of late, with Halt and Catch Fire for now looking like a long shot to inflame the ratings -- or even the Internet. First impression based on the only episode made available for review: pretty nicely done but not yet a killer app.

The title needs some explaining. In fact, AMC hasn’t done that well with titles lately either. Sunday’s preceding Turn, a Revolutionary War era drama about America’s first spy ring, could just as easily be called Halt and Catch Fire (which could just as easily be called Turn). On the other hand, AMC viewers know exactly what to expect with The Walking Dead, which fortunately wasn’t called Staggered Starts.

Here’s the deal, though. As outlined in Halt and Catch Fire’s printed prologue, the title refers to “an early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained.” In other words, no muskets are fired during this tale of personal computers on the rise.

Hoping to make a multi-million dollar breakthrough is Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a very self-assured former IBM employee who’s basically been on the lam since mysteriously disappearing from the company a year ago. MacMillan nominally works for Cardiff Electric but in reality is scheming to invent a new personal computer without the “fatal flaw” of IBM’s supposedly big breakthrough. Initially out of the loop is his blunt-spoken, old-school boss, John Bosworth (Toby Huss), who tells the newcomer, “You’re dog shit around here until you close a deal.”

MacMillan spots a potential software genius in Cardiff engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), who’s first seen being bailed out of jail by his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe), after another night of too much drinking. She longs for stability and security for their two pre-teen daughters. He yearns to invent The Next Big Thing and in MacMillan’s view has already written a “treasure map” of big things to come.

Their third wheel turns out to be Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a footloose renegade with a bad attitude, a nice body and a lot of computer savvy. This is a major turn-on for MacMillan, who takes her lip before they segue from a bar to a bout of roughhouse sex.

“This doesn’t mean you’ll get the job,” he tells her.

“Wow, you mean we’re not in love?” she snaps back before stalking out.

All of this originates in what’s billed as “Texas’ Silicon Prairie,” where EDS, Tandy, Dell and others were hoping to get the upper hand. But Halt and Catch Fire otherwise presents a fictional group of characters drawn from real-life parallels. One of the series’ co-creators, Chris Cantwell, is a Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas grad whose dad moved the family to Dallas for a job in the computer industry.

The series is no home on the range for drawling galoots in cowboy hats. At least in Sunday’s opener it’s not. In fact there are just a few passing nods to Texas, including a brief visual of a steer.

MacMillan’s machinations eventually lead to a showdown with big bad IBM, which by episode’s end is parading an army of expensive-suited lawyers into the offices of little Cardiff Electric. The series otherwise relies in part on the kindness of chance meetings, particularly when MacMillan and Clark somehow happen to know that Howe is being tossed out of a gaming arcade. They meet her outside the place, where MacMillan seals a deal. Earlier in the episode, he arm-twists Clark after somehow deducing that he and his family have been at a theater seeing Return of the Jedi.

The performances are all capable, with Pace scoring points as the drive shaft with economical lines intended to cut to a chase that’s not all that easily explained.

Clark’s visionary engineering prowess “puts the future squarely in the hands of those who know computers not for what they are but for everything they have the potential to be,” he preaches. And later: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

Not all of the machinations are easily digested, though. Halt and Catch Fire also errs on the side of prototypical, as when Clark’s wife almost magically sees the light and tells him, “Build it. Whatever it is you’re dreaming about, build it. I know you can make it great.”

Right now it’s a construction project. Having just one episode to go on makes it difficult if not impossible to render a firm verdict on Halt and Catch Fire’s staying power. So far it’s promising without being riveting, with the potential to be Facebook -- or Myspace.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Crossbones lets John Malkovich play dress-up as NBC's decidedly different Blackbeard

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John Malkovich’s Blackbeard sometimes has a short temper. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, May 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: John Malkovich, Richard Coyle, Claire Foy, Yasmine Al Massri, Chris Perfetti, Peter Stebbings, Tracy Ifeachor, Julian Sands
Produced by: Neil Cross, Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Ted Gold, Ciaran Donnelly

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Crossbones, NBC’s third scripted series premiere this week, is without any “avasts” or “mateys” or even an “Arrgh.”

It does, however, have John Malkovich in Master Thespian form as a notably voluble Blackbeard the pirate. He presides Colonel Kurtz-like over his hidden island, dispensing occasional violence but mostly threatening it.

Don’t expect him to bite his tongue whenever he’s hammering home a point. Consider this Blackbeard-ian discourse aimed at a captured undercover English spy named Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), who also has a trusty young aide named Fletch (Chris Perletti).

“So you’ll do as I command or I’ll string up young master Fletch in the town square and I will visit upon him such enormities as to make Christ weep,” Blackbeard says, just warming up in Friday’s Episode 1. “I’ll starve him, slit his skin and scourge him and see him violated again and again and again. For if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to spread a legend.”

Consider Lowe’s timbers suitably shivered. But not to the extent of deterring him from his initial plan to assassinate Blackbeard while also protecting the secrets of the vaunted Longitude Chronometer. It’s a game-changer that would allow for pinpoint navigation and end the loss of British ships at sea, circa 1712. Or maybe it’s just a Ouija board.

Lowe also is more or less a doctor, though. And Blackbeard can make for a challenging patient, what with his splitting headaches, insomnia and recurring visions of a ghost-like lady with blood running from her eyes. The poor guy’s tried everything, including a primitive form of acupuncture that leaves his bald head looking like a porcupine. But with amazing swiftness, these dozens of needles suddenly disappear during another verbal joust with Lowe.

Two other episodes also were sent for review. They introduce new crises and flesh out several of the supporting characters while continuing to showcase Blackbeard being Blackbeard (even if he doesn’t fancy the name anymore).

“There are those who consider me evil simply because I have committed depravities,” he laments in Episode 3. And later he’s a veritable 18th century Gordon Gecko while telling Lowe, “This is the new world. Money trumps anger. Money trumps hatred. Money trumps nation, king and country. Money trumps God.” By the way, Blackbeard also stitches his own head wounds.

Meanwhile, Lowe becomes very smitten with Kate Balfour (Claire Foy), who enjoys a daily nude morning swim but is married to wheelchair-bound James Balfour (Peter Stebbings). He was a standup guy, refusing to divulge key information under torture and imprisonment. Kate then lied, stole and bribed to bring James back to her in disrepair. She has longings that he can’t quite satisfy.

Blackbeard’s main lady is hard-bargaining Selima El Sharad (Yasmine Al Massri), who likewise is prone to other temptations of the flesh. There’s also the demonic King of Jamaica, William Jagger (Julian Sands). He’s possibly an even nastier guy than Blackbeard.

It’s quite a jumble in these first three hours, with Lowe skulking to and fro while Blackbeard punishes, forgives and talks up a storm.

“We may have come close to the end. But close to the end is not the end, is it?” he tells Kate after she undergoes some extreme trauma in Episode 3. Many years later, Yogi Berra would say essentially the same thing: “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”

All in all, Crossbones is about as believable as Casanova in a seminary. But there’s some fun to be had and some Malkovich to behold. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see his Blackbeard sprout horns or grow wings in future episodes. But that’s OK. Just keep that wild-swinging verbiage coming or I’ll let the snapper turtles have at ya while the sun broils your pasty flesh to the point where you’ll cry like a baby with a three-day load in his britches while your mother is forced to play your funeral dirge before being strapped to a splintered raft and sent out to sea for the carrion birds to feast on.

Arrgh.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CNN spotlights The Sixties in a 10-part docu-series that begins with TV's role

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Carol Burnett flanked by Dick and Tom Smothers. CNN photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The new CNN tends to go “all in,” and is still being ridiculed for its blanket, nothing-else-matters coverage of missing Malaysian Flight 370.

New developments on that front -- or no developments at all -- could waylay or delay the network’s latest gambit. But on paper at least, CNN will be devoting a prime-time portion of every Thursday through August 7th to its 10-part dissection of The Sixties.

Produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, it begins on Thursday, May 29th at 8 p.m. (central) with the one-hour “Television Comes of Age.” Hanks himself book-ends this serviceable, talking heads/illustrative clips treatise with a pair of all-encompassing quotes.

“I don’t remember a time without TV,” he says at the start. “Television changed absolutely everything,” he declares at the end.

The overall point is to make an overriding case that the much-maligned “boob tube” finally joined the real world during the tumultuous ‘60s. And that’s certainly true to a point. TV united the nation during the assassination of John F. Kennedy, divided it with live coverage of the fractious, violent 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and put it all back together again with those live, jaw-dropping pictures of astronaut Neil Armstrong making the first human imprints on the moon (and also providing the unifying theme for last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men.

This also was the decade of interracial casting in starring roles via the drama series I Spy and the sitcom Julia. On the variety show front, Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour injected politics and social commentary into the venerable format while Carol Burnett, Dean Martin and Ed Sullivan simply aimed to entertain. And in late night, The Dick Cavett Show became a forum for provocative conversation while Johnny Carson played to the mainstream and methodically drove all of his competitors out of business.

“The world found its way in. It just had to,” says producer Phil Rosenthal, whose best-known series, Everybody Loves Raymond, was more of a conventional throwback family sitcom than a trailblazer.

CNN also has new interviews -- some of them barely snippets -- with the likes of Burnett, the Smothers Brothers, Cavett, Laugh-In creator George Schlatter, Juliastar Diahann Carroll, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, Sally Field, Dan Rather, Morley Safer, Petula Clark and four East Coast-based TV critics. Veteran and longtime friend David Bianculli, who recently wrote a book on The Smothers Brothers, easily gets the most air time of this quartet. But Rosenthal has the glibbest quote on TV-watching. “I didn’t have color television until I was 16 years old,” he says. “ Yes, I lived like an animal.”

Many of the clips are familiar and oft-played on retrospectives such as this. But some are still under-exposed, including Bill Cosby’s acceptance speech after winning an Emmy Award for his role in I Spy. “Let it be known to the bigots and the racists that they don’t count,” he concluded. (Cosby won three straight Emmys as intelligence agent Alexander Scott in I Spy. More certainly would have come his way, but he refused to enter himself for his signature role as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show.)

Television in the 1960s was still mainly hidebound, though. The CNN film makes no mention at all of either Bonanza (the No. 1-rated show from 1964-’67) or The Beverly Hillbillies (No. 1 from 1962-’64). It wasn’t until the 1968-’69 season that Laugh-In became prime-time’s most popular series. But the rest of TV’s Top 10 was still pretty much made up of same-old, same-old: Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.; Bonanza; Mayberry R.F.D.; Family Affair; Gunsmoke; Julia (the notable exception); The Dean Martin Show; Here’s Lucy and The Beverly Hillbillies.

There’s much ground to cover, though. And “Television Comes of Age,” in less than 45 minutes minus commercials, can’t be expected to cover everything. Future chapters of The Sixties will offer more in depth looks at the JFK assassination, the pivotal year of 1968, the Vietnam War and the space race.

The final segment, August 7th’s “Sex, Drugs and Rock ’N’ Roll,” charts the decade’s wild swings in popular culture. One-hour running times hold for everything except June 12th’s “The Assassination of President Kennedy” and June 26th’s “A Long March to Freedom,” both of which get two hours.

Whatever the topic, it would be nice if CNN would take that big block-lettered “FOR SCREENING PURPOSES ONLY” off of any future review DVDs. Instead it squats down and stays there for the entire “Television Comes of Age.” The frequent use of time codes and other print disclaimers make for far too much clutter. TV critics are used to “rough cuts,“ but this was the worst I’ve seen -- or at times tried to see. Here’s an example from Carson’s Tonight Show after guest Ed Ames (then co-starring on NBC’s Daniel Boone series) got one of the longest sustained laughs in TV history by hitting a cowboy drawing in the crotch with a tomahawk throw.

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GRADE FOR “TELEVISION COMES OF AGE:” B
GRADE FOR QUALITY OF REVIEW DVD: F

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's Undateable looks to be worth more than a one-night stand

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Bianca Kajlich and Chris D’Elia as sis/bro in Undateable. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, May 29th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on NBC
Starring: Chris D’Elia, Brent Morin, Bianca Kajlich, Ron Funches, Rick Glassman, David Flynn
Produced by: Bill Lawrence, Adam Sztykiel, Jeff Ingold

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NBC’s latest sitcom provides an easy layup of a punchline for those who don’t like it. Namely: “Undateable also happens to be unwatchable.”

Hi yo! Hoo hah! Hardy har har with a rim shot chaser.

But compared to recent high profile comedy flops starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Hayes and Robin Williams, Undateable turns out to be a much lower profile upgrade starring the best thing about Whitney. That would be Chris D’Elia as 29-year-old “sexual juggernaut” Danny Burton, who has no discernible job but effortlessly plays the field at all nine positions.

NBC sent out the first six episodes of Undateable, which will air in pairs on Thursday nights as lead-ins to Last Comic Standing. Danny, his band of misfit pals and a saucy but stable sister named Leslie (Bianca Kajlich) provided enough amusement to get your friendly content provider through all of them.

Undateable can be uneven and sometimes even just a bit unbearable. But its cock of the walk carries the ball while also contributing a steady stream of sound effects, riffs and, in Episode 6,” a very amusing sequence built around “The Move,” which involves sex and requires doubters to apologize in a heavy Italian accent while pretending to cradle a little mouse. You’ll have to be there.

Undateable’s executive producer, Bill Lawrence, is also the principal mind behind Scrubs, Cougar Town and TBS’ new Ground Floor. The latter comedy series presented an interesting situation for actress Briga Heelan, who’s billed as a “guest star” on Undateable despite being very much a part of five of the first six episodes as a bartender/waitress named Nicki.

It turns out, though, that Heelan’s principal commitment was to Lawrence’s Ground Floor, in which she co-stars. But he ended up wanting her for both shows, and has pretty much made that happen by juggling shooting schedules while NBC bided its time with Undateable. Still, she’s a “guest star” throughout and is not mentioned in network publicity materials.

OK, let’s meet the other actual regular cast members of Undateable. Justin Kearney (Brent Morin) is Danny’s new straight arrow, shy-with-the-ladies roommate. He also owns Detroit’s Black Eyes bar, which regularly is confused with Black Guys in the show’s lamest running joke.

One of Danny’s and Justin’s barfly pals in fact is an obese, candy-loving black guy named Shelly (Ron Funches). There’s also gay Britisher Brett (David Flynn) and nerdy, bespectacled Burski (Rick Glassman), who easily could fold seamlessly into the cast of The Big Bang Theory.

Black Eyes is supposed to be only a marginally successful bar. So other than the principals, there aren’t that many other patrons. Still, it’s a funny thing about bar comedies. No matter how loud the conversations or the physical comedy, everyone else is completely oblivious. Even when Danny very actively demonstrates “The Move” or Leslie sobs in a loud voice.

Most of the episodes are built around Danny goosing Justin into dating or sexual action, only to embarrass him and then semi-apologize. D’Elia plays this role somewhat in the mode of Charlie Sheen’s Charlie Harper during what now seem like the halcyon years of Two and a Half Men. But Danny Burton looks unkempt in comparison, a hound dog with oily longish hair, 10 days worth of beard and a regularly seen, somewhat ratty bathrobe.

The writing can be both sharp and sophomoric, with Thursday’s premiere episode offering evidence on both fronts. Leslie, striving to “get back in the game,” greatly irks brother Danny by trying to do so with Justin. But nothing happens in the sack, and Leslie now is worse for wear thanks to the after-effects of a figure-enhancing $80 dollar bra that hurt to wear.

“You ever tried to squash your nuts together so a buncha guys could stare at ‘em?” she asks. Danny for once is speechless, but think about it.

Leslie quickly craters, though, with a followup one-liner on sleeping platonically with Justin “like two sad, paralyzed people they happened to put in the same hospital bed.”

Three of the principal cast members -- Morin, Funches and Glassman -- are standup comics by trade. Sometimes they’re obviously doing bits while trying to stay in character. But sometimes they score, too, as when Funches has a crack-up segment on having a “big-ass head” as a little kid.

Undateable airs in times when summer series aren’t always the throwaways they used to be. This may not be a keeper but it may well grow on viewers rather than wear on them. Hey, you weren’t expecting another Seinfeld. Right?

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ten Takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 7, Season 7

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Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) sings/dances himself off. AMC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Presenting our weekly 10 takeaways from Mad Men’s two-tiered, 14-episode final season. Sunday’s hour was subtitled “Waterloo.”

1.Well, it wouldn’t have worked for any other actor or character. And upon second view, I’m not sure Robert Morse’s posthumous song-and-dance number entirely worked for me. But Morse has a storied background as a Broadway musical star who first came to prominence in 1961’s How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He won a Tony Award as J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer turned corporate master.

Morse’s Mad Men character, ad agency patriarch Bertram Cooper, died off-camera on his living room couch after saying “Bravo” while watching the July 20, 1969 moon landing with his maid. Lest one think he’s overly egalitarian, Bert earlier upbraided that same maid for running the vacuum cleaner as this historic event began unfolding. He’s also the guy who demanded earlier this season that a black secretary figuratively be sent to the back of the bus after an office reshuffling made her the first person visitors would see upon arriving at Sterling, Cooper & Partners.

Bert got a final curtain call seen only by Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the closing minutes of Sunday’s episode. Underscoring the shared experience of watching Neil Armstrong become the first human to touch the moon’s surface, Bert/Morse sang out, “The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free.” The performance included a little of the old soft shoe amid dancing girls while Don affixed a quizzical look. It brought down the curtain on the final season’s first 7-episode arc. Mad Men’s second act won’t start until next spring.

“The Best Things In Life Are Free,” originally written in 1927, was the title song of a 1956 musical starring Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey, Ernest Borgnine and Sheree North, who performed it on-screen via Eileen Wilson’s dubbed in voice. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many others also have covered the song.

Mad Men episodes almost always end with music meant to amplify the closing scene or scenes. But this is the first time the series has gone full-blown out of body. No other cast member has anything close to the musical background of Morse. So depending on one’s tolerance, this particular indulgence by creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner can either be excused, frowned upon or applauded. Please, though, no more. This isn’t Cop Rock.

2. John Slattery’s Roger Sterling otherwise was the main mover and shaker, cutting a deal to save Don’s job in particular by allowing rival McCann Erickson to buy 51 percent of Sterling Cooper while the agency still kept its key players, clients and independence. Slattery was at his finest as a take-charge guy who finally had arch foe Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) dead to rights.

“Well, I won’t do it,” Cutler sniffed.

“That’s fine. Because you’re not of essence,” Roger retorted, flicking him off like a fly on a picnic basket. In the end, smarmy Cutler also raised his arm in assent. “It’s a lot of money,” he said of the big financial cuts the Sterling Cooper partners stood to reap. Hamlin has been excellent this season and fully merits a best guest actor Emmy nomination.

3. The “Waterloo” title came from Bert’s continued belief that Don didn’t really belong at Sterling Cooper anymore. Instead of referencing Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, Bert told Roger, “No man has ever come back from leave. Even Napoleon. He staged a coup. But he ended up back on that island” after being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.

After getting word of Bert’s death, Roger half-joked he should have known that “every time a man starts talking about Napoleon, you know he’s gonna die.”

4. The episode also seemingly marked the end of Don’s long-distance marriage to Megan (Jessica Pare). Fearing his days were numbered at Sterling Cooper, he phoned her in California. Sunning on her balcony in a bikini, Megan went silent when Don said, “I guess I could see it as an opportunity. I could finally move out there.”

Dead air, followed by Don finally asking, “Is that what you want me to do?”

“Don,” she said in a manner that snapped him out of it.

“I’ll always take care of you,” he assured her.

“You don’t owe me anything. Goodbye, Don.”

She said this tearfully, without rancor and in sharp contrast to first wife Betty Draper’s (January Jones) wholly dismissive response when asked by a woman friend whether she still sees Don.

“Only when absolutely necessary,” Betty said. “I’m starting to think of him as an old bad boyfriend, someone a teenage anthropologist would marry.”

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) then had the perfect capper, for him anyway, upon learning of the Don-Megan split on the flight to Indiana to secure the Burger Chef account.

“Marriage is a racket,” he said, spitting out the last word.

5. Betty’s friend, Carolyn Glaspie, was played by Kellie Martin, whose cast regular credits include ABC’s Life Goes On, NBC’s ER and CBS’ Christy. It was her first appearance on Mad Men.

6. The live moon landing transfixed most of Mad Men’s main characters, all of whom were watching CBS’ Walter Cronkite-anchored coverage. His play-by-play belonged to everyone, although “Uncle Walter” initially didn’t quite catch all of Neil Armstrong’s famed touchdown words: “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

Cronkite heard the first part, but “I didn’t get the second phase,” he told co-host and astronaut Wally Schirra.

7. By the way, Sterling Cooper got the Burger Chef account after Don belatedly turned the head presenter reins over to Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). In a home environment increasingly dictated by what’s on television, “that dinner table is your battlefield, your prize,” she told the company reps. Still coming off the high of the previous night’s moon landing, Americans craved more shared experiences, Peggy preached before unveiling the new campaign’s catch-all tagline: “Family Supper at Burger Chef.”

The word “supper” has long since become antiquated. And as noted in a previous Mad Men compilation, Burger Chef has long gone out of business. But families are still eating Kentucky Fried Chicken at the dinner table, making a homey hero of mom in a latter day TV ad.

8. A one-liner that worked: Roger calling Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) “Benedict Joan.” But this much clunkier one, from Jim Cutler to Don, came apart down the stretch: “You’re just a bully and a drunk, a football player in a suit.”

9. More TV writers recap Mad Men on a weekly basis than any other current series. But where was the love from the national Television Critics Association (of which I’m a member and past president)? The TCA’s 30th annual awards nominations, released Tuesday, had nothing at all for Mad Men.

10. In order of most-liked to least-liked, here are my rankings of the seven Mad Men episodes that aired this spring:

1. “The Strategy” (May 18th)
2. “A Day’s Work” (April 20th)
3. “Waterloo” (May 25th)
4. “Time Zones” (April 13th)
5. “The Monolith” (May 4th)
6. “Field Trip” (April 27th)
7. ”The Runaways” (May 11th)

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Right on schedule: The Night Shift begins Peacock's early summer push

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Sick or hurt? These are your options on The Night Shift. NBC photo

Premiering; Tuesday, May 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Eoin Macken, Ken Leung, Jill Flint, Freddy Rodriguez, Brendan Fehr, Daniella Alonso, Robert Bailey, Jr., Jeananne Goossen, JR Lemon
Produced by: Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NBC slams into its big post-Memorial Day push this week with three new series originally earmarked for midseason.

The Night Shift, Undateable and Crossbones arrive in that order with their gaggles of docs, commitment-phobics and pirates. In the case of Night Shift, NBC has sent all eight of the scheduled episodes. That’s asking too much unless the series is of extraordinarily high quality. And since Night Shift is nowhere near the caliber of freshman scholars such as Fargo and True Detective, your friendly content provider met Night Shift almost halfway by getting through the first three hours.

Set in San Antonio but filmed in Albuquerque, Night Shift is spearheaded by Afghanistan war veteran T.C. Callahan (Irishman Eoin Macken). He’s talented, troubled and resistant to taking orders, of course. Tuesday’s premiere episode, following the Season 9 launch of America’s Got Talent, begins with T.C. sleeping it off in jail after another night of heavy drinking and bar fighting.

He’s soon back aboard his chopper for a highway commute back to the San Antonio Memorial ER. But along the way, T.C. stops to save the life of a tree-trimmer with a big limb embedded in his torso. The paramedics on the scene are amazed by his quick actions and expertise. Gotta go, though. Night shift starts at 7 p.m. and it’s already early evening.

The patient load is constant, ever-varying and in the early going ranges from a middle-aged man with shredded testicles to a woman who thinks Matt Damon is trying to kill her.

There’s also a new and prototypically officious senior management dude running the show. Michael Ragosa (Freddy Rodriguez) aims to run a tight ship. Just ask him. “With fiscal challenges (and) Obama care, we need to cut costs, improve customer satisfaction and increase profits,” he informs the staff.

That especially goes for you, T.C. “You’re on your last chance,” Ragosa says. “So you either get in line or you are out of here!”

Yawn, T.C. then decks him before racing to the scene of a major car wreck and rescuing a boy who otherwise would have ended up paralyzed. You can’t hope to contain him. You can’t hope to control him either. By the way, he’s also a sports betting addict.

T.C. isn’t quite the whole show, though. There’s also Dr. Jordan Alexander (Jill Flint), who used to date him and now is the new chief of the night shift. Fellow military veterans Topher Kia (Ken Leung from Lost) and Drew Alister (Brendan Fehr) also help to staff the ER along with beauteous psychiatrist Landry Miller (Daniella Alonso) and virginal residents Krista Bell-Harris and Paul Cummings (Jeananne Goossen, Robert Bailey, Jr.)

The gullible but eager to learn Cummings is subjected to an inordinate number of pranks and indignities that eventually take on the distasteful trappings of hardcore fraternity hazing. But viewers are supposed to find it riotous when he’s grossed out by having to examine a steady stream of elderly patients with sexually transmitted diseases. That’s in Episode 2, which to its marginal credit also has an interesting twist or two.

When not saving lives or healing the ill, the docs spend most of their off-time at an adjacent R&R spot on the hospital grounds. It’s known as The Tailgate, and the whole scene seems preposterous at best.

Still, Night Shift at least doesn’t feature any MDs with extrasensory powers or bipolar disorders. T.C. may be a handful but he comes by his flaws honestly. “Do you not see how self-destructive you are?” Dr. Jordan asks him. Well, yeah, he pretty much does. And it’s not because T.C. was raised by werewolves or goes off his rocker when not properly taking his meds.

Night Shift won’t make anyone forget the glories of NBC’s ER at the height of its powers. It shows some signs of being a passable summertime drama series, though. Even Rodriguez’s seemingly one-note bean counter has a little texture applied en route to Episode 3, which otherwise goes mostly off the rails with its centerpiece feral hog-hunting storyline. On the other hand, Leung’s character has some engaging scenes in that same episode with a little girl who senses that something is seriously wrong with her daddy.

She’s right, of course. Sometimes -- but not nearly enough times -- Night Shift pretty much gets it right, too.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's The Normal Heart revisits the onset of the AIDS epidemic via Larry Kramer's strong-worded play

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Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer star as gay lovers in The Normal Heart. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Premiering over the Memorial Day weekend, HBO’s The Normal Heart stands as its own memorial to the more than 36 million people worldwide who have died from HIV/AIDS since the epidemic began in 1981.

That particular postscript to the film has its own jarring afterlife. Thirty six million!!! In that context, the film’s protagonist, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), has every right -- and then some -- to spew rage and invective throughout a good part of The Normal Heart. Adapted from Larry Kramer’s same-named original 1985 off-Broadway production, it debuts on Sunday, May 25th at 8 p.m. (central) with a running time of just over two hours.

Weeks, founder of the New York-based Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group, is pretty much an autobiographical stand-in for Kramer himself. He’s first seen on a 1981 boat excursion to Fire Island, where big gaggles of uninhibited gay men drink and party pretty furiously while also eagerly coupling with established partners or new acquaintances.

Although he’s openly gay, this is not Weeks’ style. An early scene finds him watching from afar as a single, loveless, lonely man.

But other gay men are starting to get very sick in a hurry, crowding the offices of wheelchair-bound, polio stricken Dr. Emma Brookner (a deglamorized Julia Roberts). As the death toll mounts, Brookner urges Weeks to speak out and “tell gay men to stop having sex” in hopes of curbing this mysterious attack on immune systems.

At a subsequent meeting, she encounters outrage from a large group of vocal naysayers who contend that the gay political movement was built on the freedom to love and make love openly.

“Doesn’t common sense tell you you should cool it for a while?” Dr. Brookner asks. The answer is a resounding no.

Directed by Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee and American Horror Story), the film is unafraid to initially portray gay men as largely hedonistic pleasure-seekers. Screw everyone else; we’re too busy screwing each other. But the nuanced characterizations begin to kick in when Weeks approaches gay New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer from USA’s White Collar series), who covers gay artists without revealing their sexual orientation in print.

Turner is reluctant to write about the rampaging “gay cancer” afflicting and killing gay men. He is, however, willing to date Weeks. They’re soon the loves of each other’s lives while Weeks continues as a perceived loose cannon within the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group. Its president, pretty boy Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch from Friday Night Lights, remains a closeted investment banker who lost his latest boyfriend to AIDS. There’s also Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons reprising his 2011 Broadway revival role), who’s openly gay, outwardly prissy but in many ways the backbone of the organization.

Alfred Molina likewise has a key role as Ben Meeks, Ned’s older, straight and successful attorney brother.

“You guys have a dreadful image problem,” Ben tells Ned in reference to the sexual promiscuity coursing through the gay community.

Still, the brothers have remained pretty close until Ned eventually blows up over Ben’s refusal to “acknowledge me as your equal, your brother!”

Ned verbally explodes a lot. Roberts’ Dr. Brookner also gets a chance to go ballistic in the face of continued under-funding of her work. And another advocacy group member, mayoral assistant Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello), rages and weeps at length before Parsons’ Tommy Boatwright quietly persuades him to leave the office.

Parsons doesn’t have all that many scenes. But he has one of the more effective ones while delivering his latest church eulogy and adding the deceased’s name to his growing pile of Rolodex cards.

“Why is no one helping us?” he asks, sobbing as his quiet anger mounts. “And here’s the truth. Here’s the answer. They just don’t like us.”

There’s another quiet scene that also resonates. It’s when Ned Weeks meets Dr. Brookner at her apartment and urges her to get out of her wheelchair for a little dance. “Don’t scratch my Mathis,” she says with perfect delivery as he puts Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” on the turntable. But the tender moment passes after he describes himself as a “terrible leader” of the gay activist group before she instantly retorts, “And terrible dancer. Put me back.”

The Normal Heart grows in poignancy as characters we’ve come to know are affected or afflicted by AIDS. Ruffalo’s Ben shoulders a good deal of the emotional pain while also becoming unbearable to his activist friends.

The film has uniformly strong performances but lacks the instant impact of NBC’s trailblazing 1985 film An Early Frost or the more far-ranging depth of the 1993 HBO movie And the Band Played On, which also depicted the outset of the AIDS epidemic and the deaf ears turned to it.

The Normal Heart adds to this catalogue without flinching or pulling punches. It’s polemical to be sure, but why shouldn’t it be? There’s really no other side to a story about an epidemic that was ignored for far too long because the people it killed were deemed expendable by way too many among us.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fargo's Deputy Molly will be a survivor (by golly)

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Allison Tolman as inquisitive deputy Molly Solverson. FX photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Earnest, relatable, dogged deputy sheriff Molly Solverson, the heart and soul of FX’s Fargo, ended up face-down and motionless in the rapidly mounting snow near the end of Tuesday’s death-drenched, blizzard-fueled episode.

The Internet in turn has been abuzz with fears that Molly has been inadvertently and fatally shot by Duluth-based milquetoast Gus Grimley, ostensibly a deputy as well. Literally no one wants to see that. Said The New York Times’ weekly Fargo re-capper, Kate Phillips: “Please tell me Molly doesn’t die and I’ll promise never to eat crispy whole fish again.” (Those who watched will get that reference.)

The actress who plays Molly, Sugarland, TX native Allison Tolman in a potentially star-making role, wants you to know she’ll remain very much among the living. Not that she could divulge a whole lot more during a Wednesday teleconference with TV writers.

“I can say that I know everyone’s quite upset about what happened,” she says. “But the more savvy fans of mine have gotten on imdb(.com) to see how many episodes I have. So I don’t think they should be too worried.”

Indeed she’s listed as appearing in all 10 episodes, with four remaining after Tuesday’s “Buridan’s Ass” hour.

Tolman, a Baylor University graduate who lived in Dallas for five years before moving to Chicago in 2009, also lets it be known that “for sure that sort of ‘buddy’ relationship we see between Gus (Colin Hanks) and Molly is kind of derailed a little bit” by Tuesday’s chilling sequence. “It’s a setback for her (Molly)” and a departure “from the track that we were on.”

In future episodes of Fargo, which will have its Season 1 finale on June 17th, Molly will grow closer to her stern and so far rather clueless boss, Sheriff Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk).

“The relationship between the two of them goes into really beautiful places,” Tolman says. “And I’m really excited for people to see it.”

While in Dallas, Tolman helped to found the independent, non-profit Second Thought Theatre. Her website lists several Dallas stage credits, including Collected Stories for Second Thought, The Full Monty for Theatre Three and Debbie Does Dallas (she played Lisa) for Kitchen Dog Theatre.

“Getting out of college is like the scariest time in anyone’s life, I think,” Tolman says. “Dallas is where I figured out how to balance a checkbook and that you have to have a job.”

She left after being accepted to Chicago’s Second City Conservatory Training Program, from which she graduated in 2011. Numerous cast members of Saturday Night Live learned the rudiments of improv and sketch comedy while at Second City. And yes, Tolman very much wanted to become part of that tradition.

“The dream would be to be on Saturday Night Live,” she says. “That was definitely a goal of mine for several years.”

She’s also worked a variety of everyday jobs, and was a post-production manager at a pin-up photography studio in Chicago when her agent got her a tryout for Fargo. Tolman assumed she wouldn’t get the role, but to her surprise remained in the running. She remembers calming saying “Thank you” after getting the news that since has changed her life. “When I first got the call, I was probably in shock,” Tolman says. “I know inside I was definitely freaking out and losing my mind.”

She dutifully remained with the photography studio until the end of the month before beginning preparations for Fargo, which is filmed in Calgary. Rave reviews have followed, making Tolman a true overnight star in her first screen role beyond a few bit parts. Such as playing “Nurse” in a 2006 episode of Fox’s Prison Break and “Tink” in a few episodes of the Logo network’s Sordid Lives: The Series.

Fame has since found her.

‘I’m definitely not comfortable with it yet,” Tolman says. “There are parts about it that are really fun . . . but it certainly is odd. I’m 32. I’ve been in this business for 10 years” without any real interest in being a celebrity. “So I’m kind of having to recalibrate.”

FX hasn’t yet renewed Fargo for a second season. So Tolman is “just sitting tight” and waiting like everyone else. There’s also the strong likelihood that Fargo will be in the mold of HBO’s True Detective, which plans to introduce a new crime story with all-new characters in each new season. But it hasn’t officially been picked up yet either, despite uniform acclaim for the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. They won’t be returning to True Detective and Fargo almost assuredly would have to move on without Billy Bob Thornton’s sinister Svengali.

Keith Carradine, who plays her ex-cop father on Fargo, has wisely counseled her that “the life of a television show is like the life of a dog,” Tolman says. “It’s such a sweet thing to have a dog, but you know that dog is not gonna be with you forever.”

Whatever happens with Fargo, Tolman shouldn’t have to worry about licking postage stamps or walking dogs to make ends meet. But such jobs are the stuff of “real-life experiences,” she says. And they’ve made her better prepared to “play the humans you’re asked to play.”

“I’ve always had day jobs,” she adds. ” I had never really acted full-time . . . Not everybody goes whole hog and just acts.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's Gang Related packs an FX punch

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Good job. Now wipe that ketchup off your face and let’s roll. Terry O’Quinn and Ramon Rodriguez of Gang Related. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, May 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Ramon Rodriguez, Terry O’Quinn, Cliff Curtis, RZA, Inbar Lavi, Rey Gallegos, Shantel VanSanten, Sung Kang, Jay Hernandez
Produced by: Chris Morgan, Scott Rosenbaum, Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Violent and visceral, Fox’s Gang Related could pretty easily pass as the latest graphic, anti-hero entry on sister cable network FX.

The action-packed cop drama most closely resembles The Shield in its depiction of gang-infested East L.A., with taut, take-no-prisoners task force leader Sam Chapel barking out orders instead of bullet-domed Vic Mackey.

Gang Related essentially kicks off Fox’s summer season, premiering on the night after the May “sweeps” ratings period and the so-called “regular season” both call it a wrap. Four episodes were sent for review, and there’s an upward trajectory evident in terms of sorting out characters and raising the stakes while also keeping the level of brutality very much in play.

Viewers who don’t care for the characters can be assured of a car chase, task force invasion, fist fight or gun battle in virtually every commercial-to-commercial increment. But the characters are in fact interesting in their own right.

Thursday’s first episode begins on July 4th, 1998, with orphaned little Ryan Lopez getting beat up by gang members until the leader of Los Angelicos, Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis), calls them off and begins grooming the kid for his future needs. Sixteen years later, Ryan (Ramon Rodriguez) is a valued member of the LAPD’s elite Gang Task Force. We first see Ryan and his ill-fated partner in a slam-bang car chase that involves roughly a half-dozen vehicle fatalities or serious wounds.

Ryan is secretly working both sides, impressing the rule-breaking Capt. Sam (Terry O’Quinn in another post-Lost try) with his crook-chasing capabilities while also protecting the Acosta family’s interests whenever possible. Boss man Javier supposedly wants to go legit with a series of legal businesses. But first he must make a last big strike by controlling the distribution of a new super-potent drug called “Fishscale.”

Javier has one very unruly bad son (Rey Gallegos as Carlos) and one goodly, would-be banker son (Jay Hernandez as Daniel). But Capt. Sam wants to take down all the Acostas with help from Ryan and fellow GTF members Cassius Green (the actor known as RZA), Tae Kim (Sung Kang) and Veronica “Vee” Dotsen (Shantel VanSanten).

Vee’s a very hard charger, particularly when prying information out of sneering crum bums. So you’ll get to see her taze a guy in the nuts before the close-up camera shows him peeing his pants. She gets what she wants.

Gang Related’s other regular character is Shantel VanSanten as Capt. Sam’s estranged assistant D.A. daughter, Jessica. Fittingly, she’s assisted in her investigations of the GTF by former Shield regular Jay Karnes, who plays the recurring role of nosy internal affairs dude Paul Carter.

Spanish is regularly spoken throughout the initial four episodes, with English subtitles deployed. This is truly a layered, multi-ethnic cast, with Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Caucasians representing both the good and bad sides of the law.

O’Quinn’s character is supposed to represent both. He doesn’t mind dispensing a little fatal justice -- or triggering a dog mauling in Episode 4 -- whenever someone seems to really deserve it. Episode 3 begins with an array of three more gang banger corpses, all of them members of the Black Lords and casualties of a Los Angelicos revenge attack. “At least it was NIH. No Humans Involved,” Capt. Sam deadpans while relatives of the dead are shown sobbing.

Gang Related can be excessive in its bloodlust, although broadcast networks can say with some justification that they’re merely trying to be as “adult” as their basic cable brethren. AMC’s The Walking Dead, a huge hit with advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds, gets away with multiple scenes of carnage in every episode. In Episode 1 of Gang Related, Fox counters with a gang member being branded with a red hot lug nut, the Bonnie and Clyde-style Swiss-cheesing of a main character and that aforementioned tazer lap dance in addition to attendant ample blood flow. But it’s only implied what happens next after a shackled member of the Lords calls Javier Acosta a “Mexican cockroach.” He responds by stripping down to his waist and brandishing a meat cleaver just before a commercial break.

Throughout all of this, Ryan Lopez is torn by conflicting loyalties. On the one hand he’s happy to celebrate the GTF’s latest triumph over evil. But then he’s riding a motorcycle and wearing an all-concealing helmet to another nighttime rendezvous at the Los Angelicos lair, where he either tries to talk Javier down or meet him halfway with more duplicity at the cop shop.

It would be giving away too much to get into the specifics of an emotional Episode 3 encounter between Javier and son Carlos. But this is where Gang Related really starts to distinguish and establish itself as a series that might grow into something more than a vividly staged run ’n’ gun hour with little else going for it.

Episode 4 is also strong while also very gruesome. It includes tough-talking Vee declaring in no uncertain terms, “I might not hit a girl. But I will knock a bitch out.”

That she will. And while not yet a knockout, Gang Related shows signs of becoming a series that stays in there punching while also scoring some points.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

From the wonderful folks who gave you Joe Millionaire, it's Fox's I Wanna Marry "Harry"

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Working class bloke Matt Hicks hopes to dupe 12 fortune hunters while somehow finding “true love” in I Wanna Mary “Harry.”. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, May 20th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: A fake Prince Harry, played by Matt Hicks, and 12 women hoping to be his princess, including current North Texas residents Meghan Jones, Leah Thom and Andrea Fox
Produced by: Ryan Seacrest, Adam Sher, Heather Schuster, Danny Fenton, Kevin Utton, Matt Gould, David Tibballs, Rebecca Eisen

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Prime-time’s latest “looking for true love” concoction, I Wanna Marry “Harry,”, isn’t quite bad enough to make any viewers subsequently commit Hara-Kiri in shame and embarrassment. At least let’s hope not.

Fox, the proud presenter, had a wildly successful go of it back in January 2003 with Joe Millionaire, which became that season’s third highest-rated weekly series behind only CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Friends. But a followup version, starring a two-bit Texas rodeo cowboy, ended up bombing very badly.

In each instance, a bevy of beauties, some of them with major league ‘tudes, is led to believe they might be marrying into untold riches. But the “lucky” girl finds out in the end that the guy she fought for in reality is penny poor.

Both stars of Joe Millionaire, Evan Marriott and David Smith, ended up without a mate after the ruse was revealed. But they each had the same “butler,” played by Paul Hogan.

The star of I Wanna Marry, Matt Hicks, has much more than a passing resemblance to His Royal Highness Prince of Henry of Wales (his official title). He’s otherwise strictly working class, a laborer whose job includes cleaning up oil spills.

Hicks also gets a butler, called Kingsley. Before meeting his 12 ladies in waiting, he’s shown being trained in the fine arts of eating, fencing, skeet shooting and playing polo. “My bum hurts,” fake Harry mildly complains.

The producers of the show, headed by American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, have set Hicks up in a castle and scoured the U.S. for a dozen women in their 20s. Three currently are living in North Texas, including the designated haughty, “all that” villain of Episode 1, Meghan Jones. She resides in Dallas after being raised in Tustin, CA. First words out of her mouth: “I’m smart, I’m funny, I’m beautiful. I’m the package deal. And a lot of these girls don’t have anything.”

There’s also Fort Worth native Leah Thom, who still lives in Cowtown and has been working as a hotel cocktail waitress. “Couples have asked me to come up with them,” she says, regaling the easily regaled girls during their first get together.

Barely visible Tuesday night is Plano resident Andrea Fox, whose hometown is Longview, TX. Seen fleetingly at a big opening masquerade ball, Andrea notes that she’s been unlucky in love so far and isn’t at all used to glamorous surroundings. A date at a casino, Andrea says, is “about as romantic as it gets in East Texas.”

I Wanna Marry belatedly was moved up from its originally scheduled May 27th premiere after Fox’s Riot fared poorly in the ratings last Tuesday. The earlier launch will allow Seacrest to tout his own show throughout the preceding final performance hour for this season’s American Idol.

Hicks, who constantly frets about screwing up and giving away his real identity, perhaps could use a dose of the made-for-TV braggadocio bestowed on Dallasite Meghan.

“I’m smart, I’m hot, I cook, I clean, I look bangin’ in a bikini,” she tells the camera. “I like the finer things in life.”

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If only you could be me, Dallas artist Meghan Jones keeps saying in so many words. Will a fake Prince Harry buy in, too? Fox photo

Fox publicity materials list Jones’ occupation as “artist.” And in fact, the work displayed on her website is pretty impressive through the eye of a commoner such as your friendly content provider.

One of Meghan’s competitors, Anna Lisa Matias of San Francisco, informs viewers that “my occupation is Miss Los Angeles.” Rose Copeland of Westlake Village, CA, is a pre-school teacher “and kind of a naughty one.”

Most of these women appear to have rounded the bases more than a few times with the various men or one-night stands in their lives. Fort Worth’s Leah Thom, for one, is kind of caught off guard by a kiss on the cheek from fake Harry. With most of the men she’s dated, it’s a matter of “just get me drunk and make out with me in the back of the bar,” Leah says.

Meghan gets the last showy words after one supplicant is sent home and another gets to occupy the Crown Suite adjoining fake Harry’s castle digs.

“The way ( . . . ) comes into the room tonight, it’s just so-o-o-o-o fake,” she disses after the maiden Crown Suite winner announces the big news. Meghan then mocks her further as someone who acts as though she’s giving an Academy Awards speech.

Well, every one of these things needs a she-devil or two. It’s a necessary ingredient along with all the usual, clunkier nonsense. Poor fake Harry has a really tough decision to make. Poor fake Harry has never been in a situation quite like this. Poor fake Harry worries that all of these women in real life would be “out of my league.” Following what no doubt is the script, he asks rhetorically, “Crikey, what the hell have I got myself into?”

But poor fake Harry still hopes that the potential woman of his dreams in the end will accept him for who he really is after he sandbags the entire lot of ‘em throughout this planned eight-episode series. Meghan for now is on his A-list. “She has naughty, come-to-bed eyes,” he says.

Not only that, but Meghan’s favorite British phrase is “slap and tickle,” according to Fox’s handy mini-bio. On second thought, what’s not to like?

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 6, Season 7

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Bob Benson made Joan Harris an offer she could refuse. AMC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Presenting our weekly 10 takeaways from Mad Men’s two-tiered, 14-episode final season. Sunday’s hour was subtitled “The Strategy.”

1. The episode just as easily could have been subtitled “Plaid Men.” And those garish sport coats amounted to red flags for both Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Bob Benson (James Wolk).

2. In an emotional hour filled with characters out of their geographical comfort zones, Bob made a surprise appearance at Sterling, Cooper and Partners after working the Chevy account off-camera in Detroit. Freed from what turned out to be the shackles of CBS’ canceled The Crazy Ones, Wolk for now can pop back into Mad Men whenever producer Matthew Weiner wants him. The Sunday show-up was a bonus, though.

Bob had his full-blown coming out party in this episode. And the timing turned out to be incredibly apt, given all that’s happened this month with Michael Sam and the St. Louis Rams’ drafting him as the NFL’s first openly gay player. A scene with one of GM’s Detroit executives, Bill Hartley (Matthew Glave), set the table for one of Mad Men’s more poignant scenes of this season.

Hartley, badly beaten after coming on to an undercover New York cop, was bailed out by Bob, who told him he’s never been similarly caught. Bob also learned that he’s due for a big job offer from Buick, which thrills him.

Hartley remains married to keep up appearances. Bob hopes to do the same. So he proposed to Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), proffering an engagement ring while clad in that godawful plaid.

“Bob, you shouldn’t be with a woman,” she told him after he kissed her.

“I have been, you know,” he said without much conviction.

Bob threw out all the pragmatic reasons for becoming Joan’s husband. Her little boy, Kevin, would have a father. She could live in a spacious home rather than in a cramped apartment with her mother and son. Plus, she’s nearing 40. “We could comfort each other through an uncertain world . . . I know I’m flawed. But I’m offering you more than anyone else ever will,” Bob pleaded.

Joan had the perfect response: “No, you’re not, Bob. Because I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement. And you should, too.”

Bob took a last stab -- “I’m just being realistic” -- before Joan bade him “goodnight.” He left slump-shouldered without another word.

As noted in previous summations, Hendricks’ Joan has been underwritten this season. But this bravura scene with Bob almost singlehandedly redressed that imbalance. It may also have signaled an end to Wolk’s recurring appearances on Mad Men. But let’s hope not.

3. By the way, Joan looks smashing with her hair all the way down. That more severe office ‘do just won’t do anymore.

4. On to Pete, who journeyed back to NYC with his blonde realtor girlfriend, Bonnie Whiteside (Jessy Schram), along for the coast-to-coast ride. But Pete had other personal business, showing up at the old homestead to give his daughter a Barbie Doll for her birthday. Daddy’s little girl, in the company of a nanny, wasn’t at all happy to see him. Pete wore eyesore plaid for the occasion; it perfectly matched a gaudy ear-to-ear grin -- “It’s daddy, sweetheart!” -- that quickly became a grimace.

His divorce of estranged wife Trudy (Alison Brie) isn’t yet official. So when she returned home that night, Pete basically branded her an unfit mother and sleep-around slut. She shot him down like an expert military sniper: “You’ve seen your daughter for the year. Don’t you have a plane to catch?”

Pete’s final childish act, before storming out, was sinking a beer bottle in the middle of his little daughter’s uneaten birthday cake. He then lost Bonnie as well after she bluntly told him, “I don’t like you in New York.” She earlier eye-flirted with Don after dropping into his office. Don’t go there, man. Meanwhile, Pete continues to make it almost impossible to in any way feel sorry for him.

5. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) had the good sense to stay out of plaid. And in the episode’s other signature sequence, he finally got back in a groove with his true soul mate, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss).

They initially clashed over Don’s escalating role in the campaign to woo Burger Chef as a client. In fact, the old Alpha Don happily smacked his left palm with his right fist upon learning he’d be the head presenter.

Peggy festered, glowered and then finally had a late night, booze-fueled meeting of the minds with her original mentor. They talked about ad strategies, but more about life. She had just turned 30, and “kept it as secret as I could.” He confessed to having core misgivings about whether he’d ever have anyone close to him or accomplish anything of worth.

But then came the clincher. “I worry about a lot of things. But I don’t worry about you,” Don told her before offering his hand as the radio began playing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” They danced platonically, with Peggy resting her head on his shoulder before he kissed her hair lightly. Father and daughter? Or another step in Don’s realization that she’s the one woman who’s truly made for him? However this particular campaign plays out, this was one beautiful way to get back on the same page.

6. Don, Peggy and Pete ended the episode eating fast food at a spanking clean Burger Chef amid other idealistic renderings of families “breaking bread” together. The camera then slowly and lovingly panned away to the sound of Muzak. Ronald McDonald would have been as out of place here as a Filet O’ Fish sandwich at a dinner party in The Hamptons.

7. In real life, Burger Chef was sold off to Hardee’s, with the last restaurant closing in 1996.

8. Sunday’s episode also featured a visit to New York by Don’s aspiring actress wife, Megan (Jessica Pare). He looked as content as he may ever be after awakening to see her preparing breakfast on his penthouse patio. Megan seemed restive, though, gathering up more of her things for the return flight to Laurel Canyon. When he offered to be a pack horse by carrying some of these belongings on his next trip West, Megan instead proposed seeing him “where there’s nothing else going on.”

“That’d be nice,” said Don, who probably should be suspicious.

9. While cleaning out a closet, Megan came across an indelible edition of The New York Times that Don has saved. She left it on Don’s bed. The headline: “Kennedy Killed By Sniper As He Rides In Car In Dallas; Johnson Sworn In On Plane.” This season began with Richard Nixon being sworn in as President.

10. Don continued to be adventuresome, rather than strait-laced, in his choice of art house movies. Before the rapprochement with Peggy, he noted without further comment that he had just seen I Am Curious (Yellow), a Swedish film with a number of explicit sex scenes. Perhaps more to the point, though, its narrative is driven by a young woman’s impassioned determination to make sense of the world at large and her place in it. So maybe he was in an optimum frame of mind to empathize with Peggy’s winter/spring of discontent.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Barbara Walters and her royal farewell from The View

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Barbara Walters during her closing seconds on Friday’s The View. Photo: Ed Bark

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
No tears were shed -- at least not by the honoree herself -- during the making of Barbara Walters’ goodbye as a co-host of The View.

The 82-year-old TV legend faced the camera Friday, cheerfully bid “a bientot” (bye for now) and self deprecatingly plugged Barbara Walters: Her Story, a two-hour special airing Friday night. She also thanked everybody, all without her voice ever breaking. Sobbing farewells are over-rated anyway.

The View, which Walters created and launched on Aug. 11, 1997 in tandem with her longtime producer, Bill Geddie, otherwise feted her like an emperor queen.

A prolonged standing ovation and exclamatory chants of “Barbara” set the table before Hillary Clinton paid a supposedly surprise visit. She looked to be in glowingly good health, which these days is a slap at naysaying, paunchy old Karl Rove.

“I can’t believe this day has come and I can’t believe it’s real,” said Mrs. Clinton, who has been crowned as Walters’ most fascinating of her annual 10 “Most Fascinating People” a record three times since the thing began in 1993.

The former First Lady, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and likely 2016 presidential candidate advised Walters to “take some time off.”

“You’re in no position to tell me to take some time off,” Walters riposted.

Hillary sat in the middle among Walters and the other View co-hosts, Whoopi Goldberg, Sherri Shepherd and relative newcomer Jenny McCarthy. It was a little odd to see the former Playboy playmate lead the questioning of Mrs. Clinton. In fact McCarthy basically took the reins throughout the show, with Shepherd chipping in and Goldberg seemingly content to be largely a soak-it-all-up bystander.

After Hillary left, Michael Douglas strode out and told Walters up top, “If Hillary runs, I think you’d be a great vice president.” She demurred. But if that ever happened, then Rove might really have something on the age/health issue front.

In a taped segment, Walters interviewed herself in the person of Babs impersonator Cheri Oteri. It came out OK. Then came the grand entrance of Oprah Winfrey, who took the play away from The View’s other three co-hosts after Walters appeared to be genuinely surprised (although one never really knows).

“Of course I’m here,” Winfrey said. “You have literally meant the world to me.”

Oprah introduced a lengthy clip from the prime-time Walters special. It focused -- once again -- on Harry Reasoner’s very obvious disdain for Walters as his co-anchor when she made history way back in 1976.

“I felt I was drowning without a life preserver,” she says in the special. But her contract to also do ABC prime-time specials kept her afloat, Walters says.

Reasoner has been dead for nearly 23 years now. His resistance toward Walters undoubtedly is a major chapter in network TV news history. But it seemed a bit unseemly to choose that particular clip for The View’s celebratory farewell. Walters wasn’t wild about Harry, who certainly wasn’t wild about her. Got it. But he also was one of the charter two anchors, along with Mike Wallace, on CBS’ 60 Minutes. So he deserves to be remembered as something more than a mean Mr. Mustard opposite Walters’ Lady Guinevere.

After the latest Reasoner demolition, Winfrey told the in-studio and at-home audience that “we all proudly stand on your shoulders, Barbara Walters.” Then came an unprecedented cavalcade of women who followed in Walters’ path. Led by Diana Sawyer, they also included Robin Roberts, Katie Couric, Jane Pauley, Connie Chung, Kathie Lee Gifford, Deborah Norville, Savannah Guthrie, Joan Lunden and many more. All received individual hugs before Walters said, “These are my legacy.”

Although retiring from The View, Walters will remain the show’s co-executive producer. And unlike Charlie Gibson -- who has quit ABC News cold turkey after leaving the network in 2009 -- she’ll likely pop in and out for as long as her health and mind remain sound.

Personally speaking, I’ve done a number of interviews with Walters over the years. A while back on one of those semi-annual TV “press tours” in Southern California, she even took your friendly content provider on a tour of her hotel suite’s oversized upstairs bathroom after first saying it was all too much.

Walters liked her creature comforts, though, while at the same time demonstrating a common touch in her interviews with heads of state, “Big Get” newsmakers such as Monica Lewinsky and more show biz stars than anyone could possibly count.

Tellingly perhaps, she twice called herself the first female “co-host” of a network evening newscast during her closing remarks Friday. Walters pretty much rubbed out any lines between “host” and “anchor” in her 38 years with ABC News after leaving NBC’s Today show to team up with Reasoner.

She did what it took and she had what it takes to conquer what had been a man’s world. What Winfrey did for women of color Walters did for women in general. We won’t see her likes again in large part because there’s no need for her likes again.

So rest in peaceful tranquility, Barbara Walters. Stay in good health, smell the proverbial roses and retire to a fuller life without TeleprompTers, camera filters, just the right lighting and never enough time. Because for once in your life, time is finally on your side.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Oh yeah? Why don't you try it?: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself charts the life and times of America's preeminent "participatory journalist"

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George Plimpton as the “last string” QB for Detroit Lions. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Many of today’s young “participatory” journalists might not know George Plimpton from the Goodyear Blimp(ton).

He got there way before them, thrusting himself into situations almost guaranteed to make him fail and then writing about his experiences in Sports Illustrated and in his most enduring book, 1966’s Paper Lion. Some of these exploits also were filmed as prime-time TV specials, including his stint with the New York Philharmonic under legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein.

The 90-minute Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself recalls it all in highly entertaining and introspective fashion. Airing under PBS’ American Masters banner, it premieres on Friday, May 16th at 8 p.m. (central) (locally on D-FW’s KERA13).

Unlike its subject, PBS isn’t a full participant in this one. Directed and produced by Tom Bean and Luke Poling, Plimpton! was first shown nearly two years ago at the AFI Silverdocs event in Silver Springs, MD before screening at numerous other film festivals. But this is its national TV premiere, affording the masses an opportunity to see what made Plimpton so uniquely special. He died in his sleep in 2003 at age 76 after living an almost unimaginably adventurous and outwardly glamorous life.

Plimpton grew up a privileged kid of whom much was expected -- by his parents at least. He dutifully enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy but got kicked out after also failing to make the school’s baseball, football, hockey and tennis teams. But after military service, he graduated from Harvard, made his way to Cambridge University in England and in 1953 became the first editor-in-chief of The Paris Review.

Throughout his life, the Review was his first love -- over and above all else, including family. The magazine never made any real money, but its roster of contributors -- including interviews with many of them -- included the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, William Styron and Jack Kerouac.

The formidable Hemingway became Plimpton’s idol and supporter, although they didn’t initially hit if off too well. Plimpton! includes the subject’s terrific anecdote about the time he interviewed “Papa” on a fishing boat and asked him why so many of the sex passages in his books also included white birds. As Plimpton tells it, Hemingway became red-faced with rage before spurting, “So you think you can do better?!”

Literary lions eventually took a back seat to the Detroit Lions, for whom Plimpton briefly played “last string” quarterback in a 1963 intrasquad scrimmage. He had prepared for this moment by first pitching in a post-season exhibition game between All-Star teams headed by Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. It began going to his head when Plimpton retired the first two batters, including Mays, on popups.

“And then of course the scales redressed themselves properly,” he says of the deluge of hits and walks that followed, capped by a long home run by Frank Thomas. Plimpton said he then began to rationalize it as a collaborative effort: “Look what he and I have done together.” A short book, Out of My League, followed. It had a cover endorsement from Hemingway.

His “participatory journalist” fame and addiction then grew in leaps and bounds. Plimpton played basketball with the Boston Celtics; boxed with light heavyweight champ Archie Moore (emerging with a bloody nose); had a bit part in a John Wayne movie, bombed as a standup comic at Caesar’s Palace; golfed on the PGA tour; played tennis against Hall of Famer Pancho Gonzales and tried to master the flying trapeze.

At age 50, as a last sports hurrah, he played goalie for the Boston Bruins in a pre-season game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Amazingly, Plimpton blocked six of seven attempts, including a one-on-one penalty shot by “The Riverton Rifle,” Reggie Leach. Plimpton! is surprisingly poignant in this respect, showing the Bruins gathering around their shaky celebrity goalie and escorting him off the ice to the film’s piano accompaniment.

But that wasn’t nearly all. Plimpton became friends with the Kennedys, campaigned for Bobby Kennedy during his 1968 presidential bid and was within an arm’s length of him at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel when he was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968.

Plimpton never wrote or spoke publicly about that night. But the film has audio of his police deposition, during which Plimpton says RFK had “dark brown, enormously peaceful eyes.” A still picture from that night shows Plimpton grabbing at Sirhan and helping to disarm him.

Plimpton also became a regular on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark TV program and threw many storied parties himself. Black-and-white shots of those nights capture him in the company of Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and many, many more.

Something had to give, of course. Plimpton’s first wife, Freddy Medora Espy, says she never liked the parties, but “he wanted to do what George wanted to do.”

Plimpton’s son,Taylor, recalls hearing the constant cocktail chatter from his upstairs bedroom. ”It was all right, I guess,” he remembers.

Second wife Sarah Whitehead Dudley, says of her husband, “He wasn’t really your mate. He was everybody’s mate.”

Towards the end, Plimpton did commercials for Buick, Intellivision video games and the Genie Automatic Garage Door opener. He still loved being seen, but the money from such endeavors mostly went to keep his beloved Paris Review afloat. Four days before his death, Plimpton attended a reunion of the 1963 Detroit Lions for whom he had so ingloriously played quarterback for a bumbling snap or two. Plimpton! shows him triumphantly waving to the big stadium crowd.

One of his more enduring latter day accomplishments, the creation of pitcher Sidd Finch for an April 1, 1985 article in Sports Illustrated, is not mentioned at all in Plimpton!. He supposedly was a closely guarded New York Mets prospect with an unheard of 163 miles per hour fastball. Many fell for the April Fool’s Day hoax, including some Major League Baseball general managers, until SI revealed it as such in its April 15th issue of that year.

That would have made for another grand chapter in Plimpton!, which is still a first-rate film about a pathfinder whose hands-on exploits long preceded Dirty Jobs and Morgan Spurlock’s various full immersions.

In Plimpton’s view, though, any jaw-dropping successes, particularly on athletic fields of play, would have ruined everything for himself, sports fans and the professional athletes who allowed him to enter their worlds.

His complete failure as a Lions quarterback underscored the great overriding truth of the matter, he wrote in Paper Lion. “The outsider did not belong. And there was comfort in that being proved.”

GRADE: A

The CW delves ever deeper into sci-fi with four new fall/midseason series

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Grant Gustin stars in second TV version of The Flash. CW photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
And the least shall be last, although The CW is still in there punching and touting smallish audience gains.

The mini-network waited its turn behind NBC, Fox, ABC and CBS before announcing its new fall lineup Thursday. There are just two newcomers on its five nights of programming, including a second prime-time outing for The Flash. CW’s corporate parent, CBS, tried The Flash in fall 1990 but he wasn’t up to speed in the ratings.

CW remains otherworldly, with its new one-hour comedy Jane the Virgin the only scripted series set firmly in the present without any sci-fi elements or medieval evil.

The network has renewed three of last season’s freshmen series -- The Originals, The 100 and Reign -- while canceling two others (The Tomorrow People and Star-Crossed). The reality series Famous in 12, originally announced as a midseason replacement, is now scheduled to premiere on June 3rd.

CW also has dropped two series that had multi-year runs, The Carrie Diaries and Nikita. The network says that two other veterans, Hart of Dixie and Beauty and the Beast, will return sometime in midseason.

Here are CW’s two new fall series:

Flash (drama) -- Something again goes “horribly wrong” -- and horribly right -- when “endearingly geeky” CSI investigator Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is struck by lightning in a “freak storm.” He emerges much faster than even Usain Bolt and resolves to protect the innocent while also striving to solve his mother’s murder and clear his father’s wronged name. TV series vets Tom Cavanaugh (Ed) and Jesse L. Martin (Law & Order) each get another go-around in supporting parts.

Jane the Virgin (comedy) -- As a young girl, Jane Villaneuva (Gina Rodriguez) was taught by her grandma that two things in life are all-important -- telenovelas and remaining a virgin until marriage. Now 23, Jane is studying to be a teacher while also working at a “hot new Miami hotel” where temptations abound. But she has a detective fiancé who’s on board with Jane “saving herself.” Then she’s “accidentally artificially inseminated” with a specimen meant for someone else and belonging to a reformed playboy/cancer survivor who also owns the hotel where Jane works. Hmm, maybe this is sci-fi after all.

Here is The CW’s night-by-night new fall lineup:

Monday
The Originals
Jane the Virgin

Tuesday
The Flash
Supernatural

Wednesday
Arrow
The 100

Thursday
The Vampire Diaries
Reign

Friday
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Whose Line Is It Anyway? (repeat)
America’s Next Top Model

The CW also has announced a pair of midseason series:

iZombie (drama) -- Liv Moore is a “rosy-cheeked, disciplined, over-achieving” medical student until she attends a party that morphs into a zombie feeding frenzy. Newly undead, she still tries to blend in while looking pale, feeling exhausted and taking a job in the Seattle coroner’s office. It’s snack time during those times that Liv isn’t helping to solve crimes with her newly discovered psychic powers. Rose McIver (Once Upon A Time) stars with Saturday Night Live alum Nora Dunn tagging along as Liv’s mother, Eva.

The Messengers (drama) -- “In the white-hot sun of the New Mexico desert,” as CW puts it, scientist Vera Ivanov (Shantel Van Santen) watches in awe as a mysterious object descends to earth, explodes and briefly stops her heart along with those of four other series co-stars. They all awaken with various super powers. And so on. Diogo Morgado, who played Jesus in both History Channel’s The Bible and the feature film Son of God, is now cast as “The Man.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Significant switches, more NCIS/CSI spinoffs highlight new CBS lineup

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Tea Leoni as DC powerbroker in Madam Secretary. CBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Key shows on new nights and the announced last season of Two and a Half Men highlight a new CBS fall schedule in which the NFL also will have a prominent place in prime-time for the first eight weeks.

New spinoffs of NCIS and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation also are coming on a network that remains No. 1 in total viewers but lost its briefly held crown to NBC this season in the battle to attract advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds.

CBS is adding four new dramas and a lone freshman comedy to its fall arsenal. But of more import to most viewers, prime-time’s No. 1-rated sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, will temporarily be moving to the Monday night leadoff spot to accommodate the incursion of Thursday Night Football.

CBS’ other returning Thursday night series, Two and a Half Men, The Millers and Elementary, will be sidelined until their Oct. 30th return to that night along with Big Bang. The network’s new deal with the NFL calls for just eight games this season, with a Sept. 11th opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens and an Oct. 23rd closer pitting the Denver Broncos against the San Diego Chargers.

CBS also is shifting NCIS: Los Angeles from Tuesdays to Mondays while putting the new NCIS: New Orleans behind prime-time’s most-watched scripted drama, NCIS.

Also relocating: The Amazing Race from Sundays to Fridays and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation from Wednesdays to Sundays, where it will be replaced later in the season by CSI: Cyber. And in another change to the established order, CBS is halving its traditional Monday night sitcom load from four to two.

CBS renewed just two of this season’s newcomers -- The Millers and Mom -- while canceling freshmen Intelligence, Hostages, The Crazy Ones, Friends with Better Lives and We Are Men. An announced new midseason drama, Reckless instead will debut this summer on Sunday, June 29th.

Veteran sitcom How I Met Your Mother earlier had its series finale. Returnees Mike & Molly, The Mentalist and Undercover Boss all will be awaiting midseason berths.

Here are CBS’ five new fall series:

Madam Secretary (drama) -- Tea Leoni stars as “shrewd, determined” and newly appointed Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord. The former CIA analyst heeds the President’s call after her predecessor is found mysteriously dead. Bebe Neuwirth co-stars as McCord’s chief of staff and Tim Daly plays her “supportive” husband and father of their two children. What will Hillary think?

NCIS: New Orleans (drama) -- Scott Bakula returns from this season’s NCIS-augmented launchpad as Special Agent Dwayne “King” Pride. Sturdy CCH Pounder (The Shield) co-stars as coroner Loretta Wade.

Scorpion (drama) -- “Eccentric genius” Walter O’Brien (Elyes Gabel) heads a team of likewise brilliant misfits in weekly efforts to “solve mind-boggling predicaments.” The Scorpion team has trouble, however, relating to the outside world. So Katharine McPhee, as Paige Dineen, is called on to brush up their social skills.

Stalker (drama) -- Maggie Q (Nikita) and Dylan McDermott (on the rebound from Hostages) play detectives tracking down -- stalkers.

The McCarthys (comedy) -- Laurie Metcalfe (Roseanne) stars as the mother of a loud, sports-crazed Boston family, which is shocked when nerdy, gay Ronny (Tyler Ritter) is chosen by dad to be his assistant high school hoops coach.

Here is CBS’ night-by-night new fall lineup:

Monday
The Big Bang Theory (2 Broke Girls after Thursday football ends)
Mom
Scorpion
NCIS: Los Angeles

Tuesday
NCIS
NCIS: New Orleans
Person of Interest

Wednesday
Survivor
Criminal Minds
Stalker

Thursday
Thursday Night Football through Oct. 23

(As of Oct. 30)
The Big Bang Theory
The Millers
Two and a Half Men
The McCarthys
Elementary

Friday
The Amazing Race
Hawaii Five-0
Blue Bloods

Saturday
Crimetime repeat
Crimetime repeat
48 Hours

Sunday
60 Minutes
Madam Secretary
The Good Wife
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

CBS also has three announced new midseason series. Here they are:

The Odd Couple (comedy) -- Matt Perry takes his fourth post-Friends shot, this time as slob Oscar Madison opposite Thomas Lennon’s persnickety Felix Unger.

Battle Creek (drama) -- Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan returns to prime-time with the saga of mismatched detectives called on to “clean up the hardscrabble streets of Battle Creek, MI (who knew?)” Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters star.

CSI: Cyber (drama) -- Patricia Arquette fronts this one as a character inspired by real-life “CyberPsychologist Mary Aiken. As seen on TV, her name is Avery Ryan. No other cast members have been announced yet.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's Riot hopes to break out with improv

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Executive producer/guest star Steve Carell on the premiere of Riot. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, May 13th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Hosted by: Rove McManus presiding over a group of regular players and celebrity guests
Produced by: Steve Carell, Thom Hinkle, Eden Gaha, Paul Franklin, Jim Biederman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
There’s no particular reason to quell this Riot, even though its young Australian host just isn’t cutting it on Tuesday’s opener.

Arriving on Fox as a spring/summer breeze from Steve Carell’s Carousel Television, it’s basically a wholly transparent version of Whose Line is It Anyway? -- but with more props and physicality.

Carell gamely guest stars on the one-hour premiere along with former castmate Andy Buckley of The Office. In addition to a rotating group of seven young “regular players,” Riot’s weekly celebrity drop-ins also will include Jason Alexander, Cheryl Hines, D.L. Hughley, Nicole Sullivan, Orlando Jones, Tom Green, Mayim Bialik, Chris Kattan, David Arquette, Oscar Nunez and the inevitable Andy Dick, according to Fox publicity materials.

The show’s off-camera announcer promises an “unpredictable, unrehearsed and utterly ridiculous night of fun” before host Rove McManus is first seen within the confines of Riot’s weekly staple, a set tilted at a 22-degree angle.

“This is the show where we don’t care who wins and anything can happen,” McManus says. “To be honest, we kind of hope it does.”

Almost immediately, one kind of hopes -- actually, prays -- that he’ll go away. But that’s not likely to happen, so viewers who find the show amusing also will have to endure McManus’ obviously scripted patter and frequent guffawing. Maybe he’ll at some point get easier to take, although can’t a law be passed mandating that Tom Bergeron be put on permanent emergency call?

The 22-degree angled set is put to immediate use in a fast food drive-in segment featuring Carell as the manager. Slipping and sliding is encouraged as Carell and company try to fill various orders while spilling stuff. It all goes on for too long but does have its moments. These moments are not, however, when McManus is caught laughing and laughing -- and laughing.

Next is a bit in which Carell, Buckley and a regular player must correctly play according to the verbal rules or be hoisted Peter Pan-style to a height of several building stories. The best game is one in which all involved are “journalists waiting for a celebrity” and must speak in sentences incorporating a Michael Jackson song title.

A “Mime Sweeper” segment lets others -- not Carell or Buckley -- take potential hits from a harmless wrecking ball that knocks them off a perch and onto a padded floor if their miming doesn’t quickly do the trick. There’s also an “In The Dark” bit involving a dinner party and a few other challenges before the 22-degree angle set again is deployed for a closing “Boot Camp” gambit.

Viewers who enjoyed NBC’s Hollywood Game Night -- and not enough did to make it successful -- might warm to the various mental and physical gyrations of Riot. It’s oddly titled, though, suggesting a violent prison drama more than a show in which movie titles are guessed based on “Shadow Puppet” clues. And the host certainly is no Jane Lynch, who brought a welcome barbed wire, seemingly ad lib sensibility to Game Night. She still works for Fox on Glee. So perhaps next time -- should there be one.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

An all-Shonda Thursday and more minorities in leads characterize ABC's new fall lineup

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ABC’s diversification is evident in new sitcom Black-ish ABC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Touting a “judicious mix of boldness and stability,” ABC unveiled a fall schedule Tuesday that is heavy on both star executive producer Shonda Rimes and new series with minority leads reflecting the “changed face of America.”

Thursday is the biggest eye-catcher, with Rimes’ Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal both moved up an hour to accommodate her latest drama, How to Get Away with Murder.

Scandal, relocated to 8 p.m. (central), eventually will take on NBC’s hottest drama, The Blacklist, which is scheduled to move from Mondays to Thursdays at that hour on Feb. 5th after a post-Super Bowl showcase.

In a Tuesday teleconference with TV writers, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said Thursdays were set before NBC announced its fall lineup on Sunday.

“The truth is you really can have hits at the same time on different networks,” Lee said in reply to a question from unclebarky.com. Time slot clashes are still newsy but also increasingly old news in times when increasing numbers of viewers watch TV on their timetables rather than at appointed hours. “There is some truth to it,” but less than there was a decade ago,” he said of the idea that face-offs between hot hit shows are still headline material.

ABC is adding six newcomers this fall after running third in total viewers and last among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds in this season’s prime-time Nielsen ratings. The network led the league in cancellations during 2013-14. It has renewed three first-year series -- The Goldbergs, Resurrection, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- but dropped nearly four times as many. Namely, Lucky 7, Trophy Wife, Back in the Game, Super Fun Night, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Betrayal, Killer Women, Mind Games, The Assets, Mixology and The Black Box.

ABC also swung the ax on three returning series, Suburgatory, The Neighbors and Celebrity Wife Swap. The Quest, a midseason reality series announced last spring, instead has been pushed back to a July 31st premiere.

The latest fall lineup again has its heaviest concentration of new series on Tuesday, when a trio of premieres are scheduled. S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Goldbergs both were part of last fall’s all-new lineup, with the latter series being relocated to Wednesdays following The Middle.

Here are ABC’s six new fall series:

Selfie (comedy) -- Well, this title had to happen. It dawns on “instafamous” Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) that having actual friends is better than amassing 263,000 followers on Twitter. So she turns to “marketing guru” Henry (John Cho) for help in the “real world.” ABC says it’s all loosely based on My Fair Lady.

Manhattan Love Story (comedy) -- The network’s description of this one is brief enough to be posted in its entirety: “Have you ever wondered what your date was thinking? This romantic comedy exposes the differences between men and women through the unfiltered thoughts, and often contradictory actions, of a new couple who have just begun dating.” Analeigh Tipton and Jake McDorman star.

Black-ish (comedy) -- The Johnsons are happily married, have four kids and are living comfortably in the ‘burbs. But have they assimilated to the point of losing their black identities? Anthony Anderson, Laurence Fishburne and Tracee Ellis Ross head the cast.

Cristela (comedy) -- Cristela Alonzo stars as an ambitious six-year law student on the verge of landing an unpaid internship at a prestigious legal firm. But her parents think her ambitions are at odds with their “traditional” Mexican-American family values. So Cristela is stuck straddling these two worlds.

Forever (drama) -- Dr. Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) is a star New York City medical examiner who still hasn’t figured out why he’s now 200 years old. Only his best pal/confidant Abe (Judd Hirsch) knows for sure while new forensic partner, Jo Martinez (Alana De La Garza), is mightily impressed with his “remarkable observation skills.”

How to Get Away with Murder (drama) -- Oscar nominee Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt) plays “brilliant, charismatic and seductive” professor Annalise Keating, who becomes entangled with four of her law students. Together they solve real cases while giving aforementioned producer Rimes complete control of ABC’s Thursday night lineup. That hasn’t happened since the early- to mid- 1980s, when the late Aaron Spelling reigned over ABC’s Saturday night schedule with T.J. Hooker, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island for two seasons before his short-lived Finder of Lost Loves replaced FI in fall 1984.

Here is ABC’s night-by-night new fall lineup:

Monday
Dancing with the Stars
Castle

Tuesday
Selfie
Manhattan Love Story
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Forever

Wednesday
The Middle
The Goldbergs
Modern Family
Black-ish
Nashville

Thursday
Grey’s Anatomy
Scandal
How to Get Away with Murder

Friday
Last Man Standing
Cristela
Shark Tank
20/20

Saturday
Saturday Night Football

Sunday
America’s Funniest Home Videos
Once Upon a Time
Resurrection
Revenge

ABC also has announced six midseason series. Here they are:

American Crime (drama) -- A young couple in Modesto, CA are attacked in their home, with the husband killed and his wife left barely alive. Both sets of parents cling to hope for her while four suspects are about to be arrested. Shock waves and racial tensions reverberate in a “gritty” tale whose stars include Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.

Marvel’s Agent Carter (drama) -- Hayley Carter from the Captain America franchise is front and center as Agent Peggy Carter, with no other cast members announced yet.

Secrets and Lies (drama) -- Ryan Philippe and Juliette Lewis star in a twisty-turny murder mystery in which “no one is above suspicion.” Adapted from a same-named Australian series.

The Whispers (drama) -- Stephen Spielberg lends his name to yet another futuristic drama about an alien invasion. This time they seek world domination via the use of unwitting kids. Lily Rabe and Milo Ventimigilia are among the stars.

Fresh Off the Boat (comedy) -- An eleven-year-oid hip-hop lover named Eddie (Hudson Yang) has newly relocated with his immigrant family from DC’s Chinatown to Disney-fied Orlando. It’s all set in the ‘90s.

Galavant (musical comedy) -- ABC goes medieval for a “fairytale of epic proportions.” Basic premise: The dashing Galavant (Joshua Sasse) has lost the love of his life, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), to the evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson. All have songs in their hearts.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 5, Season 7

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Don & Megan -- & Amy (& Carol & Ted & Alice?). AMC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Presenting our weekly 10 takeaways from Mad Men’s two-tiered, 14-episode final season. Sunday’s hour was subtitled “The Runaways.”

1. Bizarre? Yes. Satisfying? Not so much. From this perspective, “The Runaways” was the new season’s weakest episode to date until its final scene got the core storyline churning again.

2. A reluctant Don Draper (Jon Hamm) finally found himself in the middle of a three-way after last month’s “spring finale” of Dallas beat Mad Men to it with considerably more sizzle. At wife Megan’s (Jessica Pare) urging, he found himself stiffly in the sack without really being up for it. The post-party, marijuana-stoked threesome also included Megan’s new friend, “Amy from Delaware” (guest star Jenny Wade). “This is the best place to be right now,” Megan assured Don, who pretty much looked as though he’d rather be in Kansas but slowly warmed to the task.

The Dallas tryst featured a more interested John Ross Ewing and two dressed-alike knockouts with whom he’d already been intimate -- wife Pamela and mistress Emma. “Break On Through (to the Other Side”) by The Doors provided their mood music before Pamela suddenly began gasping for air under the apparent influence of a pill overdose. Nothing of that sort happened on Mad Men, although Don seemed a little hung over with guilt the next morning before Megan angrily snuffed out her cigarette when he went off to shower and head back to New York.

3. The hour’s other oddity was even odder. Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) became completely whacked out by the presence of Sterling, Cooper and Partners’ giant new computer. “That’s the computer’s plan -- turn us all homo,’ he told Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) at her apartment before she strongly rebuffed his sexual advances in the interests of breeding.

Ginsberg had only just begun, showing up the next morning in Peggy’s office with a box containing the nipple he had severed in order to create an escape valve for all the pent-up pressure he was feeling. His last words, “Get out while you can!”, came while he was being wheeled off in a hospital cart.

Feldman, the actor who plays Ginsberg, has landed a spot on NBC’s new fall schedule as the co-star of the new sitcom A to Z. So this was quite a way to be written out, assuming we’ve seen the last of his Mad Men character.

James Wolk, who so winningly played conniving ad man Bob Benson on last season’s Mad Men, similarly has hit the cutting room floor after he signed to co-star this season with Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the CBS comedy The Crazy Ones. But its recent cancellation opens the door for a return next year in Mad Men’s final seven-episode arc. So far he’s been referenced a few times but never seen during the first five episodes.

4. The Ginsberg exit episode went lamentably way over the top. But it at least perked interest, which the other side trip decidedly didn’t. Yes, we’re talking about the increasingly fractious relationship between Betty Draper (January Jones) and her second husband, politician Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). She turns out to be a hawk on the Vietnam War in addition to remaining the clubhouse leader in prime-time TV’s “World’s Worst Mother” sweepstakes.

A brief appearance by daughter Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) wasn’t worth the price of spending too much time with Betty. Shipka’s stellar performance in Episode 2, subtitled “A Day’s Work,” came in a series of sharp scenes with dad Don. In “The Runaways,” she very reluctantly returned home from boarding school after suffering facial injuries from sword fighting with golf clubs. A few nasty cracks at mom were pretty much all she wrote.

“It’s a nose job, not an abortion,” Sally sniped.

“I’m going to break your arm next,” Betty vowed.

Despite many early detractors, Megan Draper has become an interesting, evolving, growingly independent woman of substance while trying to make it as an actress in L.A.

Betty’s just a drudge and it’s long past time to cut bait.

5. Including Betty in this case meant entirely excluding Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). All three of them missing in action within a single episode should never happen on Mad Men. And as noted previously, Joan has been woefully underwritten so far this season.

6. Another less then galvanizing subplot charted the return of vagabond flower child Stephanie Horton (Caity Lotz). Seven-months pregnant and in need of hard cash, she’s the niece of Anna Draper, who was the real Don Draper’s wife before Dick Whitman (Hamm) stole his identity after he was killed in the Korean War. It’s complicated, so here’s more background.

The second Don remains a soft touch for Stephanie. So he asked Megan to take her in until he could get back out to California. “I know all his secrets,” Stephanie told Megan off-handedly. This cued her to write Stephanie a check for $1,000. “I guess I got what I came for,” she said, leaving before Don’s arrival. None of this really jelled.

7. Of far more import in the here and now, in-and-out ad man Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) made a surprise appearance at a kooky party for Megan’s acting class. An uneasy, out of place Don, looking very square in a plaid jacket, quickly persuaded Harry to join him for drinks at a nearby bar. Harry and Don haven’t been fast friends. But he nonetheless decided to inform his sometime antagonist that the new Sterling Cooper string-pullers, Lou Avery (Allan Havey) and Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin), have been plotting to at last rid themselves of Don by wooing Philip Morris as a client. This would make Don toxic, given his previous New York Times op ed piece in which he said Sterling Cooper no longer would devise ad campaigns for cigarette companies.

“The Runaways” then ended on a high note with Don busting in on a secret meeting with Philip Morris reps at The Algonquin. He tried to convince them of his worth as a man who knows how to beat the cigarette industry’s opponents. But Cutler, with Hamlin again excelling in the role of a suave cutthroat, told him smugly at episode’s end, “You think this is going to save you, don’t you?” Better to fade out with fighting words, particularly in an uneven episode such as this one.

8. This week’s play-off music was Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” Lyric that resonated: “Everybody knows you’ve been steppin’ on my toes, and I’m gettin’ pretty tired of it.”

9. The principal track at Megan’s eventful party was Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” Its original version, by Brenda Holloway, came out in 1967 on the Tamla label. It hit No. 39 on the charts, but BS&T took it to No. 2 two years later.

10. There are now just two more episodes to go before Mad Men completes the first half of its final season. The final seven hours won’t fire up until spring 2015. I’m expecting the death of a major principal before this ongoing seven-episode arc winds up. It’s not based on intel, just on intuition.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Struggling Fox hopes to regroup with five fall newcomers amid its season-long "Portfolio of Content"

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Presenting the pre-Batman top cops of Gotham. Fox photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Reeling from a sinking season that yielded the cancelation of The X Factor and the deepening dimunition of American Idol, Fox is adding five new series this fall as part of a “Portfolio of Content” aimed at pumping long-term new life into the ailing network.

One of the newcomers, the reality series Utopia, initially will do double duty on Tuesday and Friday nights.

Fox has had just one significant new ratings success this season, the otherworldly drama Sleepy Hollow. Brooklyn Nine-Nine also will be back, but now lumped within Sunday’s “Animation Domination” lineup along with another non-cartoon entry, the new Mulaney.

Sleepy Hollow, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the latest Gordon Ramsay entree, Masterchef Junior, are the three freshman series getting sophomore years. Canceled after one season or less are Dads, Almost Human, Rake, Enlisted and Surviving Jack. The X Factor got three seasons before being dropped. Another casualty, Raising Hope, endured for four seasons before the ax swung. American Dad hasn’t been invited back after 10 seasons on Fox, but will have new episodes on TBS, starting this July.

A previously announced midseason entry, Gang Related, now will premiere on Thursday, May 22nd. That’s the day after the end of the “regular” season’s closing act, the May sweeps ratings period. Two other alleged midseason series, Murder Police and Us & Them, never got on the air at all. Wayward Pines, billed by Fox in last May’s midseason announcements as an “intense new mind-bending event thriller” from M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), now supposedly will premiere sometime in 2015 instead. It’s usually not a good sign when you’re pushed back a full year.

American Idol, Glee and The Following also are slated for midseason returns. Idol could be reduced to just one night a week after the city-by-city audition rounds are done.

Here are Fox’s five new fall series:

Gotham (drama) -- A Batman prequel charting the rise to power of crime-fighting Commissioner James Gordon (Southland’s Benjamin McKenzie). The cast also includes Jada Pinkett Smith as gang boss Fish Mooney and Donal Logue as “police legend” Harvey Bullock. Alfred the Butler, a 12-year-old Bruce Wayne, The Penguin and Catwoman also will be characterized.

Red Band Society (drama) -- A gaggle of teens meet as patients of Ocean Park Hospital’s pediatric ward. They bond and create problems for head nurse Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Produced by Steven Spielberg, the series is adapted from the Spanish language series Polseres Vermelles.

Gracepoint (drama) -- This is Fox’s 10-episode version of the much-lauded British murder mystery Broadchurch, with David Tennant returning to head the cast as detective Emmett Carver. Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad co-stars, with Nick Nolte also included in the ensemble.

Mulaney (comedy) -- Comedian John Mulaney plays himself in this tale of a blossoming standup comic looking for his first big break. Martin Short plays comedy legend/game show host Lou Cannon while Nasim Pedrad from Saturday Night Live is Mulaney’s best friend and roommate, Jane. This is yet another TV entry from Lorne Michaels, who also controls NBC’s entire late night block of programming.

Utopia (reality) -- A hit Dutch series has spawned this Americanized “social experiment” in which 15 humanoids are left to fend for themselves for a year in an “isolated, undeveloped location.” Among the questions asked in Fox publicity materials: “Will they choose fidelity or free love?” That’s likely to be paramount as all-seeing cameras take the 24/7 approach used each summer on CBS’ Big Brother.

Here is Fox’s night-by-night new fall lineup:

Monday
Gotham
Sleepy Hollow

Tuesday
Utopia
New Girl
The Mindy Project

Wednesday
Hell’s Kitchen
Red Band Society

Thursday
Bones
Gracepoint

Friday
Masterchef Junior
Utopia

Saturday
College football

Sunday
NFL on Fox
The OT/Bob’s Burgers
The Simpsons
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Family Guy
Mulaney

Here are Fox’s scheduled new midseason series:

Backstrom (drama) -- Irascible but brilliant detective Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson from The Office) is brought out of exile to run Portland’s Special Crimes Unit. Dennis Haysbert (The Unit, All-State Insurance commercials) co-stars as a veteran cop who doesn’t like Backstrom’s methods.

Empire (drama) -- Lee Daniels (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) is the executive producer of this “sexy and powerful” look at the music industry. Terrence Howard heads the cast as Lucious Lyon, the “king of hip-hop.”

Hieroglyph (drama) -- Say hello to the world of ancient Egypt, billed as a “time of magic, Pharaohs, gods and thieves.” One of the thieves is released from the “darkest of pits” after the treasured but dangerous Book of Thresholds is stolen. Max Brown (MI-5) stars as the man who learns that his prison cell “might be safer than the dangerous new world in which he finds himself.”

Bordertown (comedy) -- A new cartoon series spotlighting two families living in a desert town on the U.S.-Mexico border. Fox promises an exploration of “family, politics and everything in between with a cross-cultural wink.” Alex Borstein heads the voice cast.

The Last Man on Earth (comedy) -- It’s 2022, and only Phil Miller (Will forte) is left standing. Which means he can do what he wants while also journeying the U.S. in his RV in hopes of finding other survivors. No one else is cast yet, so good luck with that.

Weird Loners (comedy) -- Fox really seems to have a thing about isolation. This one’s about a quartet of “relationship-phobic, quasi-underdog 30-somethings” who unexpectedly are thrust together in a Queens, NY townhouse. The cast includes Becki Newton from Ugly Betty.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A resurgent NBC heads into fall with six new series and a big time slot switch

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Debra Messing plays a sleuthing mom of twins in The Mysteries of Laura, set to lead off NBC’s Wednesday night crime lineup. NBC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Fortified with bragging rights, an emboldened NBC is adding six new series to its fall lineup while daring to switch last fall’s most popular new series, The Blacklist, to a new night and time in midseason.

The Peacock also announced Sunday that both Parenthood and Parks and Recreation will say goodbye after next season. Parenthood remains on Thursdays at 9 p.m. (central) while Parks and Recreation must await a midseason berth.

NBC will close out this season with its first win in a decade among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds. Sports programming helped immensely, with the Winter Olympics added to prime-time-’s No. 1 program, Sunday Night Football. But NBC says it also would nip Fox for the top spot with 18-to-49-year-olds even if the Winter Games from Sochi were subtracted from the average. NBC also ranks No. 2 in total viewers, trailing only CBS.

The Blacklist will stay on Mondays at 9 p.m. through Nov. 10th, with the new CIA drama State of Affairs stepping in on the following Monday. Blacklist will then be relaunched following Super Bowl XLVIX on Feb. 1st before moving to Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Feb. 5th.

The network’s new season, headlined as “Well-Balanced and Dynamic” in publicity materials, comes after last season’s “Diverse and Balanced” lineup yielded numerous casualties.

The only returning NBC series to feel the sting of cancellation is Revolution. But a large number of freshman entries will not live to see sophomore years. All told, the Peacock launched 13 new series this season. The Michael J. Fox Show, Sean Saves the World, Welcome to the Family, Ironside, Believe, Crisis, Dracula, Growing Up Fisher, American Dream Builders and The Million Second Quiz have been canceled. The Blacklist, Chicago P.D. and About a Boy have been renewed.

Another quartet of NBC newcomers originally marked for midseason debuts -- Undateable, The Night Shift, Crossbones and Food Fighters -- instead will get a chance to fight for their lives this summer.

Here are NBC’s six new fall series:

The Mysteries of Laura (drama) -- Debra Messing (Will & Grace) returns to prime time as New York homicide detective Laura Diamond, whose sleuthing time-shares with being a mom of pre-teen twin boys and the reluctant wife of a guy she’s trying to divorce. The network describes it as “hilariously authentic.”

State of Affairs (drama) -- Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy fame stars as CIA analyst Charleston “Charlie” Tucker, whose principal task is assembling daily briefing papers for the nation’s first African-American woman president, played by Alfre Woodward. Complicating matters: Charlie was once engaged to the president’s son until a terrorist attack ended his life. She’s still trying to get to the bottom of why and how he died. NBC promises a “shocking mystery” down the road.

Constantine (drama) -- Adapted from the DC comics series Hellblazer, it stars Matt Ryan (Criminal Minds) as “seasoned demon hunter and master of the occult” John Constantine. The supporting cast includes Harold Perrineau from Lost.

Marry Me (comedy) -- Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino) once upon a time “bonded over their mutual love of nachos.” She’s long been waiting for him to pop the question, which he’s ready to do. But stuff then happens, so his planned proposal is waylaid and the rest is weekly sitcom material.

Bad Judge (comedy) -- Kate Walsh (Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy and currently a recurring character in FX’s Fargo) plays “wild child” Rebecca Wright, who’s also a tough L.A. judge. She parties hard, pounds the skins in a band with her best friend and is fated to meet a wayward eight-year-old kid ready to tame her at least a little.

A to Z (comedy) -- Andrew and Zelda (Ben Feldman, Cristin Milioti) improbably meet and begin bonding. NBC asks, “Is it true love forever or just a detour in destiny?” Katey Sagal has signed on as the narrator.

Here is NBC’s night-by-night new fall lineup:

Monday
The Voice
The Blacklist (with State of Affairs moving in on Nov. 17th)

Tuesday
The Voice
Marry Me
About a Boy
Chicago Fire

Wednesday
The Mysteries of Laura
Law & Order: SVU
Chicago P.D.

Thursday
The Biggest Loser
Bad Judge
A to Z (The Blacklist will supplant these two sitcoms on Feb. 5th.)
Parenthood

Friday
Dateline NBC
Grimm
Constantine

Saturday
Wall-to-wall repeats -- or as NBC puts it, “Encore programming.”

Sunday
Football Night in America
Sunday Night Football

NBC also has announced a wealth of other new series that for now are scheduled to premiere sometime in the midseason. Let’s move along quickly with them.

Mission Control (comedy) -- Krysten Ritter from Don’t Trust the B -- in Apartment 23 stars as a 1960s aerospace engineer working within a NASA boys club.

Mr. Robinson (comedy) -- Craig (Craig Robinson of The Office) is a rock band keyboardist who becomes a substitute teacher to help pay the bills. The always welcome Jean Smart plays the principal.

One Big Happy (comedy) -- Gay Lizzy and straight Luke (Elisha Cuthbert, Nick Zano) aim to start a family of their own. But then he meets free-spirited Brit Prudence (Kelly Brook), which sends Lizzy into a tizzy that only gets dizzier. Ellen DeGeneres is among the executive producers.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (comedy) -- The title character, played by Ellie Kemper (another alum of The Office), is rescued from a cult after 15 years. Slumming it, she goes on NBC’s Today show -- rather than ABC’s No. 1-rated GMA -- to tell her story. Then she moves in with a gay would-be Broadway actor and misadventures ensue. The co-executive producer is Tina Fey.

A.D. (drama) -- The 12-hour miniseries followup to History Channel’s The Bible will premiere on Easter Sunday. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey remains as executive producers.

Allegiance (drama) -- A young, idealistic CIA analyst (played by Gavin Stenhouse from Person of Interest) is shocked to learn that his parents used to be covert Russian spies. Major complications arise when they’re reactivated.

Aquarius (drama) -- The year is 1967, and David Duchovny (The X Files, Californication) plays an L.A. police sergeant assigned to track down Charles Manson and his followers through a “rabbit hole of drugs, sex, murder and cultural revolution.”

Emerald City (drama) -- There’s no cast yet for this one. Basic premise: a young woman in search of her biological mother breaks into a “sinister underground facility,” steals a police dog, finds herself in the path of a tornado and ends up in the Land of Oz (but “in a way you’ve never seen before”).

Heroes Reborn (drama) -- This will be the attempted resurrection of NBC’s Heroes franchise, which it previously mishandled. New characters are promised but, again, no cast yet.

Odyssey (drama) -- An “international conspiracy” detonates when a woman soldier, a corporate lawyer and political activist “unexpectedly collide.” The cast includes Anna Friel from Pushing Daisies and Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie).

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Penny Dreadful gives Showtime a promising horror story

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Trancing with the stars. Eva Green of Penny Dreadful. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, May 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Harry Treadaway, Reeve Carney, Billie Piper, Danny Sapani, Rory Kinnear, Alex Price, Simon Russell Beale
Produced by: John Logan, Pippa Harris, Sam Mendes

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Shiver, shudder, quiver, quaver. Sunday spooky Sunday is creeping up.

NBC’s two-part re-do of Rosemary’s Baby has a good deal more gore than the original movie. But in the realm of dark, devilish make-believe, it’s something of a pussycat compared to Showtime’s bloody, bludgeoning but pulse-stirring Penny Dreadful, which also launches on the night of May 11th. (Note that WGN America’s ongoing Salem is likewise a Sunday night newcomer that’s not for the squeamish.)

Showtime’s “free view” weekend also allows non-subscribers to get a first look at Penny Dreadful, whose title refers not to an anti-heroine but to the pulp publications of Victorian England. Publications with cover come-ons such as “Varney the Vampire” or “Wagner the Wehr-Wolf” or the future Broadway smash “Sweeney Todd.”

The serialized yarns spanned multiple editions. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful hopes to endure for multiple seasons with its tales of famous characters of literature (Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray) mixed in with newly minted troubled souls.

Principal among them is Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a steely, cryptic and very comely woman of mystery whose primary hookup is the esteemed Sir Malcolm Murray (former James Bond movie star Timothy Dalton in a graying beard). His daughter was abducted by some sort of creature from the netherworld. So in Sunday’s early going, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm enlist the quick-trigger help of jaunty Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), star of a Buffalo Bill-ish Wild West Show.

“Do not be amazed at anything you see. And don’t hesitate,” Ethan is informed before the three of them plunge into an ultra-gruesome underground gaggle of sub-human creatures. Much mayhem later, one of the malformed is on an autopsy table, where mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics are discovered under his skin. Perhaps they foretell some sort of Apocalypse. To be sure they’re not an ad for happy hour at Ye Olde London Rathskeller.

Meanwhile, a new series of murders has sent 1891 Victorian England into another typical tizzy. “Is Jack Back?” a newspaper headline screams. “Family Ripped in East End Carnage.”

Actually, Jack came back Monday in Fox’s 24: Live Another Day. But we kid Penny Dreadful, which gradually starts clicking during the first two episodes sent for review.

Each hour ends with a genuine jolt, particularly the second one. Episode 2 also includes a show-stopping, deep-throated trance on the part of Vanessa during a party thrown by a very lively supporting character named Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale). Actress Green literally throws herself into this lengthy, freaky sequence, which even creeps out the kinky Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) while Sir Malcolm repeatedly is shown trying to keep his fury in check.

Penny Dreadful also works in a nifty character named Brona Croft (Billie Piper). She’s a lippy prostitute whose relationship with Ethan is progressing nicely by the end of Episode 2. It concludes with Rory Kinnear’s character, billed in publicity materials as “To Be Disclosed,” making his entrance in a very big and unforgettable way.

The series seems to have its feet more firmly on the ground at that point after some initial bouts with over-oration and lines such as “You have the soul of a poet.” Creator John Logan, in a cover letter sent with publicity materials, says he’s deduced that “for something to be meaningful it has to be true. If you can make it true for an audience, you can make it frightening, you can make it provocative, you can make it sexy, and funny, and moving.”

Logan’s mission isn’t yet accomplished, although Penny Dreadful does seem to be heading toward his promised land. Some of its mumbo jumbo may hurt your head, but the last words of Episode 2 are precisely on point. They whet the appetite for more, more. We’ll see how it all comes out in the bloody wash.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Rocking the cradle with NBC's two-part Rosemary's Baby

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Well, this isn’t going to go well. Rosemary’s Baby’s back. NBC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Of course it’s not as good as the 1968 original.

NBC’s two-part Rosemary’s Baby isn’t entirely a miscarriage, though. It has an effective if overly giggly (at first) performance by Avatar’s Zoe Saldana and enough storyline detours to generate some genuine suspense. Part 2 includes a particularly chilling sequence at a Cordon Bleu cooking class, where the bad thing about to happen amid all the sharp implements is heightened by a master chef yelling in Gordon Ramsay mode -- only in French.

The new tricked up Rosemary’s Baby premieres on Sunday, May 11th at 8 p.m. (central) before concluding on Thursday at the same hour. The Roman Polanski version is currently available on Netflix for prospective viewers who’d like to contrast and compare.

Mia Farrow’s starring role in the first Rosemary’s Baby has held up handsomely over these many years. Still, Ruth Gordon as the duplicitous Minnie Castavet steals every scene she’s in, and deservedly won a best supporting actress Oscar.

NBC, king of the remakes lately with The Sound of Music and an announced holiday season re-do of Peter Pan, doesn’t even try to find a contemporary version of the elderly Minnie. Instead she’s youthified as Margaux Castevet (Carole Bouquet), a wealthy beauty who lives in posh Paris surroundings with her imposing husband, Roman (Jason Isaacs). In both the Ira Levin bestselling book and the ’68 movie, the Castevets were loud, eccentric septuagenarians of no particular means.

Rosemary Woodhouse (Saldana) first meets Margaux upon returning her seemingly stolen purse. She and her husband, Guy (Patrick J. Adams from Suits), have come to Paris in hopes of starting anew after Rosemary lost her first baby early in pregnancy. In the book and original movie, Guy was a struggling New York actor. The NBC miniseries has turned him into a struggling author with writer’s block.

“My brain is stuck in molasses,” Guy laments. The Castevets quickly pounce via their unique uses of mind manipulation, Tannis root and the “stinky soup” that Margaux concocts for Rosemary once she’s pregnant. In the original it was a foul-tasting precursor to a smoothie.

Rosemary at first romps giddily through Paris, with Saldana seemingly on laughing gas. Until the Castevets begin strong-arming her, Rosemary’s best pal and principal confidante is Julie (Christina Cole), who persuades her to take that aforementioned Cordon Bleu cooking class.

NBC’s version is appreciably grislier than the original but of course can’t show as much skin. There’s blood aplenty, but certain aspects of nudity remain taboo on broadcast network television. Graphic maiming is encouraged, though. Some of it is of Hannibal strength.

The miniseries also adds a black cat that serves as the Castevets’ watchdog and a police commissioner (Olivier Rabourdin) who doggedly investigates all the strange goings-on. Another extra ingredient: the haunted husband of a woman who previously was violated by the Castevets before jumping to her death in Sunday’s opening sequence.

Even with all these additives, Saldana carries the full load throughout. Her skepticism grows -- as does her performance -- in tandem with her belly before it all boils over into a full-out escape plan. But NBC isn’t about to compromise the big-screen film’s famous ending. And in truth, the television denouement is at least as effective as the movie’s, which upon further review comes off as a little oddly cartoonish.

The Guy Woodhouse role, played by John Cassavetes in the original, is more fleshed out in terms of motivation and duplicity. But it’s still Saldana’s film to carry to term. She can’t match Farrow’s breakout emoting in what became her signature role. But Saldana’s spirit is willing, even as her character’s flesh and blood is spoken for by others.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

It's all here: Shout! Factory's Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series is worth the wait and well worth having

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There were always ample acting mouths to feed at Hill Street station. NBC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth -- in June, 1980 -- I was a rookie TV critic journeying to Los Angeles for the first of many firsthand looks at how the networks sell their new fall seasons.

Columnists from around the nation gathered in a well-appointed hotel to see what the only games in town at that time (ABC, CBS and NBC) were throwing out there this time around. The very first interview session on my inaugural “press tour” was for NBC’s Hill Street Blues. And after the pilot had been screened, we all pretty much had “Wow!” captions above our heads.

Could weekly TV actually be this good -- and on NBC of all networks? The Peacock, firmly entrenched in last place at the time, also was the network of Lobo, B.J. and the Bear, Games People Play, Real People and a new version of Walking Tall starring Bo Svenson as club-wielding Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser. What’s worse, Walking Tall would serve as Hill Street’s jarringly incompatible Saturday night lead-in after the actors’ strike-delayed new season finally got underway in January, 1981.

Hill Street somehow survived, despite rock-bottom ratings in its first season. But TV critics, including yours truly, kept incessantly singing its praises. And on Emmy night, the game-changing ensemble cop drama won eight statues, including its first of four in a row as best drama series. Momentum kicked in and viewers caught on as well. Although never a mega-hit, Hill Street fought its way into prime-time’s top 30 for three of its remaining six seasons. The series’ perfectly unconventional theme song, by Mike Curb, charted higher (at No. 10) in 1981.

More than a generation after Hill Street’s May 12,1987 final episode, Shout! Factory climbs a final hurdle with the first complete DVD collection of all 144 episodes. It’s housed on 34 discs, has a chapter-and-verse companion booklet, includes some obligatory “Bonus Features” and is available for $123.99 via Shout!’s website.

A few more words about Shout!, which over the years has become the foremost curator and re-packager of meritorious TV. Among its offerings are complete series editions of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Larry Sanders Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Route 66; Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show interviews with members of The Beatles; a far-ranging Ernie Kovacs collection and ABC’s landmark 1979 Elvis movie, starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter. You can browse right here.

Hill Street rises to the top of any list of all-time influential drama series. It turned the cop show genre on its ear, spurred the rise of the producer as autonomous auteur and basically is the godfather of all the quality adult dramas that have followed, whether it be The Sopranos, Breaking Bad or Hill Street creator Steven Bochco’s own two encores, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue.

Bochco, in the well-done “History of Hill Street” extra, rightly concludes that “because it did become not only successful but iconic, the way we worked and the way we were empowered became the way we all did business. And networks, to their credit, by and large accepted that.”

Dennis Franz, who played two “bad cop” characters on Hill Street before becoming the main star of NYPD Blue, notes that “probably the least important element of every episode was getting the bad guy. It was just the introspection into the lives of these men and women who did this for a living.”

Hill Street had a menagerie of offbeat cops ranging from growling, biting Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz) to militaristic Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking). Both at times teetered on the edge of being cartoons. But Belker’s warm relationship with his “Ma” and Hunter’s downward spiral into a suicide attempt gave the characters gravitas in addition to their oft-deployed stunts, tantrums and one-liners.

Taciturn Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) strived to maintain a semblance of order while also having an initially clandestine affair with beauteous, tough-talking public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel). Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) contributed Hill Street’s signature tagline, ending virtually every morning “Roll Call” with “Let’s be careful out there.”

Conrad’s death, during filming of Season 4, left a hole that was never quite filled. His character died along with him, in the memorable Feb. 2, 1984 “Grace Under Pressure” episode.

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The late Michael Conrad as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus; Peter Jurasik and Dennis Franz in NBC’s unfortunate Bevery Hill Buntz spinoff.

The Shout! collection also includes new commentaries on four episodes, an old “Roll Call” film taped in 2005 as part of a Season 1 Hill Street release and a “Gag Reel” that’s a gyp at just 30 seconds long.

Eight Hill Street regulars reunited for the “Roll Call” film. Four of them -- Weitz, Sikking, Charles Haid and Joe Spano -- are back for Shout!’s complete series edition while the other four -- Hamel, Michael Warren, Barbara Bosson and Ed Marinaro -- are missing in action.

Travanti has never participated in any of the post-Hill Street gatherings. In fact, during a memorable “press tour” session for his short-lived 1993 ABC series Missing Persons, he emphatically refused to acknowledge or even name either Hill Street or the character he played for seven seasons.

In the commentary for Season 2’s “The World According to Freedom” episode, Weitz says he hasn’t seen Travanti since 1987. A recovering alcoholic who admittedly is his own worst enemy, Travanti has been a bit more visible of late, appearing in an arc of Starz’s since canceled Boss series as property developer/financier Gerald “Babe” McGantry.

Hill Street’s co-creator, Michael Kozoll, has completely dropped out of sight. Bochco generously mentions and compliments him for his work on the series, but Kozell’s whereabouts otherwise remains a mystery. His last known credit is The Hard Way, a 1991 feature film that starred Michael J. Fox and James Woods. Bochco and Kozell were last seen together publicly at the 1987 Television Critics Association awards ceremony, when they accepted the organization’s “Career Achievement” award for Hill Street.

The four companion commentaries on Shout!’s collection aren’t exceptional, but do have some cheeky little nuggets.

Bochco, for one, makes it clear he hasn’t warmed in the least to actor David Caruso, who had an early recurring role as Irish gang leader Tommy Mann on Hill Street before co-starring with Franz in NYPD Blue. Caruso then walked out after the first season of the latter show. Bocho fires back in the commentary for Hill Street’s Episode 11 after Spano makes a fleeting reference to Caruso’s appearances. “That’s what I was talking about with that giant asshole showing up,” he says.

Many of the early episodes ended with Travanti’s and Hamel’s characters in bed or in some other intimate setting. It was the surprise closing scene of the pilot episode after viewers had seen Furillo and Davenport snipe at one other in the precinct building.

“You’re watching some real acting here,” Bochco says as Travanti and Hamel kiss. It’s a reference to their rumored sexual orientations, even though neither has publicly come out.

Bochco says the initial reaction to the striking Hamel, an ex-model, was “Oh God. If you can talk English, you got the part.”

But he also lauds Hamel’s professionalism and determination to have good working relationships with all of the Hill Street cast members, particularly Travanti.

“There were a lot of politics in the company, and people had their issues with each other,” he says. “She always let people know that she wasn’t a participant.”

Bosson, who played Furillo’s ex-wife, Fay Furillo, was also Bochco’s real-life wife until their 1997 divorce. He briefly notes their relationship in the “History” bonus feature. “My ex-wife, Barbara,” Bochco says. “I always had her in mind as Furillo’s ex-wife.”

In the commentary for Episode 11, though, Bochco leaves it to a listener’s imagination after Spano recalls that cast regulars frequently griped about guest stars getting more lines.

“Listen, I used to take a beating every night of my life,” Bochco rejoins.

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Mike Curb’s indelible theme music cued the opening credits.

Hill Street remains a miracle of invention at a time when prime-time network television mostly couldn’t get arrested when it came to ingenuity and mold-breaking. Left to their own devises by Hill Street’s legendary production company, MTM Enterprises, “we just barfed it out,” Bocho says of the script he wrote with Kozell for the pilot episode. “It’s a testament to the power of unconscious creativity, which I’m a big believer in.”

But Bochco was fired by MTM after the failure of the 1985 baseball series, Bay City Blues. Sikking says Hill Street eventually “became the same old thing” week to week while Bochco busied himself with L.A. Law.

“I could see the sadness on the set,” recalls Franz, whose corrupt cop, Sal Benedetto, killed himself early in Hill Street’s run before returning in 1985 as an entirely new character, Norman Buntz.

The notably flat Hill Street finale ended up being used in large part as a setup for a comedy spinoff series starring Franz’s character and his snitch pal, Sid (Peter Jurasik). Launched the following November, NBC’s Beverly Hills Buntz was gone by April 1988.

By the time of the Hill Street finale, titled “It Ain’t Over ‘Till It’s Over,” Robert Clohessy and Megan Gallagher had joined the regular cast as uniformed cops Patrick Flaherty and Tina Russo. The fleetingly seen Flaherty looks like a member of The Village People while everyone else looks pretty tired, particularly the growingly gray Furillo. But he and Hamel did get one last scene in the bedroom together. By this time their characters were husband and wife. Now it’s highly doubtful they’ll ever be seen together again in any capacity.

“For those of us who are still alive, this is going to be a really nice memorial to the show that we did,” Bochco says at the end of the pilot episode’s commentary track.

What they did was change the face of prime-time TV drama -- infinitely for the better. Shout!’s boxed set provides all the evidence needed for an airtight case.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 4, Season 7

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Roger and Don again were the headliners in Season 7’s Episode 4. AMC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Presenting our weekly 10 takeaways from Mad Men’s two-tiered, 14-episode final season. Sunday’s hour was subtitled “The Monolith.”

1. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) firmed his jaw and and started cranking it out again at the end of Sunday’s episode while colleague Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was last seen looking stricken and defeated.

The old friends, last of a breed at Sterling Cooper and Partners, remain the lead dogs of Mad Men -- at least in terms of story lines. Bucked up by recovering alcoholic Freddie Rumsen (Joel Murray), Don has rebounded from his own latest bout with the bottle to grudgingly assume the position of an underling on the comeback trail. His boss is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). His assignment is to come up with a batch of “25 tags” tied to a campaign for potential new client Burger Chef. It’s a menial task for him, but nice work if you can get it. And Don can get it if he tries.

Roger isn’t as lucky. His daughter, Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), has run off to a commune after leaving her husband and four-year-old son behind. Accompanied by tart ex-wife Mona (more delicious work by the recurring Talia Balsam, Slattery’s real-life wife), they head off to fetch her. Daddy briefly bonds with “Marigold” after Mona leaves in a huff. But he’s newly determined to forcibly remove her the next morning after she steals away in the night with the commune’s head hippie. This doesn’t go well for Roger. And he’s abject in defeat, his vested suit spattered with mud, after Margaret/Marigold skins him alive him for being an absentee father who had his secretary order birthday gifts for her while he was shacked up in a hotel room.

So Don’s newly hunkered down and Roger is very much slump-shouldered. It’s all the more reason to measure the latter for a coffin at some point before Mad Men’s final act. He’s being destroyed on the inside in so many ways while even Don is comparatively at peace.

2. That was quite a little speech by old Freddie, who dragged drunken Don home, ignored his pleas to go to a Mets game and greeted him with black coffee the next morning. Then came the hammer: “I mean, are you just gonna kill yourself? Give them what they want? Or go in your bedroom, get in uniform, fix your bayonet and hit the parade? Do the work, Don.” That did the trick, working much better -- at least in Don’s case -- than “Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Start all over again.”

3. By episode’s end, a mammoth IBM 360 computer and its accessories had entered the agency’s offices, symbolically wiping out the “creative lounge.” Don has been raging against The Machine this season, alas to no avail. Fortified by a soda can full of straight gin, he got in one last dig at Lease Tech installer Lloyd Hawley (guest star Robert Baker). “You go by many names,” Don told him. “I know who you are. You don’t need a campaign. You’ve got the best (ad) campaign since the dawn of time.”

That’s a bit cryptic. But what Don’s getting at is that both the mind and the workforce are downsized in the process. Perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey also was still in his head. It was released the previous year, 1968, with sinister computer HAL stealing the film from its basically extraneous humans.

4. This week’s play-off music was “On a Carousel” by The Hollies. Great song, underrated group. And perfectly suited to Don’s current state of affairs at Sterling Price.

5. Right after the first commercial break came a reference to a TV show that “got canceled 11 minutes into the premiere.” Tim Conway also got a shout-out.

They were talking about Turn-On, a surrealistic followup to Laugh-In from its creator, George Schlatter. It got canceled after one episode aired on the night of Feb. 5, 1969, with at least one ABC affiliate pulling the plug while Turn-On was in progress. Tim Conway guest-hosted the show, whose premise was that it was produced by a computer.

6. Two great lines from Roger Sterling. Informed that his daughter had “run away,” he retorted, “To where? Bergdorf’s?”

Later, on the commune, Roger was told that everyone is equal under the sun, which also governs dinner time depending on when it gets dark.

“I haven’t felt this at one with nature since I was in the Navy,” Roger shot back.

7. Visual evidence at the commune tellingly rebutted the claims of “no hierarchy.” Women could still be seen as water-fetchers, clothes-washers and food preparers. They also were used to keep the men warm at night, as the guy clearly in charge noted with a grin.

8. Hamm again showed off his Emmy caliber acting credentials (he’ll probably never win one, though) while either glowering at Peggy or happily half-singing to Freddie, “I want you to meet the Mets. Step right up and greet the Mets.” They later became the “Miracle Mets” after winning their first World Series in that storied 1969 season.

9. Hamm has a baseball movie in his near future. Million Dollar Arm opens on May 16th. And Slattery is the director of God’s Pocket, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and opening in wide release on the same date. Commercials for both films aired during breaks from Sunday’s Mad Men.

10. Christina Hendricks’ Joan Harris so far has been given the least to do among Mad Men’s charter ad agency denizens. And time is wasting. Just three episodes remain in this first final season arc before the series takes nearly another year off.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Simpsons go Lego in Episode 550

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The Simpsons as Legos in “Brick Like Me” episode. Fox photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Homer Simpson has always been a blockhead but until now, never a Lego.

That’s been remedied in the 550th episode of The Simpsons (Sunday, May 4th, 7 p.m. central), which reassembles Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie in detachable parts.

The “Brick Like Me” episode is visually striking and verbally amusing. It also goes to show that the creative team behind this amazingly enduring series can still marshal forces for a “labor of love, but also a labor of work” that took two years to complete, according to Fox publicity materials.

In the Lego world of The Simpsons, Bart’s school can completely crumble and then be rebuilt to his specifications. Limbs and heads are detachable, too, with various characters long accustomed to living in pieces.

It’s all part of Homer’s fantasy world, which becomes very real to him when he sees a “hideous flesh monster” in the bathroom mirror. That would be the old Homer, whose hands “looked like snakes made of meat,” he tells Marge.

How the Simpsons became Legos -- and how they revert back -- is inventively written and depicted. Instrumental in the transitions is a boxed Perky Patty’s Princess Shop that Homer buys for his oldest daughter.

Besides the five principal Simpsons, most of the show’s longtime supporting characters also are at least fleetingly seen as Legos. Roughly two-thirds of the episode is one big block party. Or as the Rev. Timothy “Tim” Lovejoy puts it in a sermon, all of Springfield’s creatures great and small are made of “acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or in the common tongue, plastic.”

The Simpsons, in its 25th season, isn’t the razor sharp, renegade cartoon series it used to be. But every season still has its moments, and the trippy May 4th Lego episode definitely is built to last.

GRADE: A-minus

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FX's Louie returns in fine but not yet great form after a long respite

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A hangdog look but still hanging in there: Louis C.K. in Louie. FX photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s been a while -- all the way back to the night of Sept. 27, 2012.

That’s when Louie C.K. ended up spending New Year’s Eve in China -- and having a great time -- with a rural family that took him in on the Season 3 finale of FX’s Louie.

The star then took a long respite to recharge himself before beginning work on what turns out to be a slightly elongated Season 4 of 14 episodes. They begin arriving, with two back-to-back half-hours each week, on Monday, May 5th at 9 p.m. (central).

As in previous seasons, Louie isn’t at all big on continuity, although some of his misadventures have had two- or three-episode arcs. In most cases, though, forget about what you’ve seen because it has no bearing on what you’ll see next. This has never been more evident than in Episodes 2 and 3 of the new season. But first things first.

Monday’s opener, subtitled “Back,” is easily the most verbally graphic of the new crop. It includes a maintenance man bungling a joke about Pinocchio having oral sex before Louie and his poker pals have an extended discourse on the fine art of “jacking off” with implements if necessary. This leads Louie to visit a sex toy emporium in search of new equipment. But a physical mishap quickly sends him to an old-time family practice doc who just happens to have an office in Louie’s apartment building. A virtually unrecognizable Charles Grodin turns out to be hilarious as “Dr. Bigelow,” who’s at least equally interested in finishing his lunch.

By the way, the opening minutes of this episode include an out-of-body sequence that FX has “embargoed for publication” until after it’s aired. That’s a first. Or to put it another way, things have been getting way out of hand on the network-dictated “spoiler” front. Hope it’s not saying too much to reveal that Louie eventually goes to Mars and then returns to Earth as a little green man who further impresses his two daughters by reading them a bedtime story. Um, just kidding. Honest.

Monday night’s second episode, “Model,” includes another guest appearance by Jerry Seinfeld as himself. FX has “embargoed” what happens after Louie bombs as the warmup comedian at a very posh and snooty benefit attended by the “billionaires and trillionaires of East Hampton.” His “chickens are dumb” routine -- Seinfeld has asked him to “work clean” -- ends up amusing just one member of the audience. It turns out she’s played by Yvonne Strahovski from Chuck, who will be having quite a big Monday for herself. That’s because Strahovski also can be seen that night as CIA agent Kate Morgan, a new regular character on Fox’s 12-part 24: Live Another Day.

Let’s just say that Louie ends up in a considerable mess at the end of the “Model” episode. But there’s absolutely no carry over to Episode 3 on Monday, May 12th. Subtitled “So Did the Fat Lady,” it’s the strongest of the four episodes sent for review. And nothing’s “embargoed.” So it’s probably OK to note that guest star Sarah Baker is terrific as a self-described “fat girl” named Vanessa. She takes a liking to Louie after joining the waitressing staff of the Comedy Cellar.

He’s friendly in return but not receptive to her requests for a date. Meanwhile, Louie and a corpulent male pal decide it’s time to lose some weight. But before intending to hit the gym, they indulge in a “bang-bang” -- two full back-to-back meals at disparate restaurants.

The eventual Louie-Vanessa dialogues are on a considerably higher plane. They seem to be made for one another. But no, one thing does not lead to another. Because the night’s following episode, Elevator Part 1,” has nothing at all to do with Vanessa or what just transpired.

Instead, there’s an “embargoed” mishap on a subway car that makes Louie a very anxious father. Then along comes guest star Ellen Burstyn as an elderly woman who gets trapped in an elevator and enlists Louie’s help while rescuers are en route. The episode’s “Part 1” subtitle suggests that the storyline, which ends up involving the Burstyn character’s niece, will flow into the following week’s Episode 5. Or maybe it’s just more misdirection.

Season 3 of Louie all in all started stronger than the new one does. Actually, quite a bit stronger, with a signature second episode that won Melissa Leo a best guest performance Emmy for her portrayal of the decidedly sexually frank Laurie. Episode 3 also resonated, with Louie traveling to Miami for a comedy gig and then befriending a young lifeguard named Ramon.

The first four episodes of Season 4 are a little weak downstairs while still remaining at or near the top of the TV comedy class. Last season’s best start ever has given way -- after a long pause -- to a strong quartet of Louies without a standout thoroughbred. The “Fat Lady” episode comes closest, so it’s hoped that she hasn’t sung her last.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net