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Taking a long-planned break

Unclebarky.com is taking some time off while its proprietor goes on a big adventure. Thanks to all readers for your continued patronage, and be assured we’ll be back up after the Thanksgiving weekend with the November “sweeps” local newscast ratings results for starters.
Ed Bark

Hulu's Future Man goes for the comedy gold

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Odd man out: The world-saving trio of Future Man. Hulu photo

Premiering: All 13 Season One episodes begin streaming Tuesday, Nov. 14th on Hulu
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Eliza Coupe, Derek Wilson, Keith David, Ed Begley Jr., Glenne Headley, Haley Joel Osment, Britt Lower
Produced by: Seth Rogen, Ben Karlin, Evan Goldberg, Matt Tolmach, James Weaver

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Want to get away? If so, we live in times that are tailor-made for the escapist, devil-may-care comedy of Future Man.

Inventive and frequently hilarious, it takes Hulu subscribers on year-spanning trips with a familiar end goal -- to save the world. But rather than the taut, grim-faced heroics of Jack Bauer, we get the ongoing befuddlement and exasperations of janitor Josh Futterman (Josh Hutcherson). His determination to beat a video game called Biotic Wars leads to his anointment as “The Savior” by a pair of hard-core, elementally violent resistors from the future -- Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson).

As this particular story line goes, everything happening in Biotic Wars in fact is a real-life and very grim scenario that can be averted only by stopping Kronish Laboratories from finding a cure from the herpes afflicting its crusading namesake, Dr. Elias Kronish (Keith David). This also happens to be hapless Josh’s workplace, where he cleans up others’ messes by day while otherwise feeding his obsession with defeating the video game he plays incessantly to the point of regularly wearing out joysticks.

Future Man borrows from all kinds of familiar sci-fi hits (The Last Starfighter, The Terminator, Quantum Leap, etc.) in addition to Easy Rider and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk among its blasts from the past.

Easy Rider? Yes. In the first episode, which begins streaming on Tuesday, Nov. 14th, Josh, Tiger and Wolf use a short-on-fuel TTD (Time Traveling Device) for a trip to 1969 in hopes of stopping Elias Kronish from contracting herpes via a girl he meets at a moon landing-themed college frat party. But before that, they encounter a biker gang that includes members in Easy Rider garb. Violence ensues, costume changes are needed and it’s a sublime sight gag when Josh, Tiger and Wolf end up as the characters played by Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

It also should be noted that Hulu is going against the grain of its usual streaming regimen by making Season One’s 13 half-hour episodes of Future Man available all at once instead of in weekly doses. Co-executive producer Seth Rogen, answering a question from unclebarky.com at last summer’s Television Critics Association “press tour,” says this is something he and the creative team insisted on.

“When something is kind of plot driven, I personally like to watch it in big chunks,” Rogen said. “And I like ingesting TV series that have cliffhanger episodes. It’s nice to have the next one available to you immediately so you don’t have to wait. Because who wants to wait for things? The world could end . . . It really was an appealing thing to us, and we pushed very hard.”

Viewers’ brains won’t be unduly taxed by Future Man, which successfully plays its coarse language and graphic violence mostly for laughs in the mode of Ash and the Evil Dead. Episode subtitles include “Herpe: Fully Loaded, A Fuel’s Errand” and “A Blowjob Before Dying.” Hulu made the first seven available for review, and they all go down easy.

Future Man occasionally returns to the Futterman household, where Josh has been living in L.A. with his parents, Gabe and Diane (Ed Begley Jr., and Glenne Headley, who died during production and won’t be re-cast).

Begley Jr. does a nice turn in Episode 5, teaching warrior Wolf how to cook with sometimes startling results -- as when his pupil beats the eggs by literally beating the eggs.

This half-hour -- “Justice Desserts” -- otherwise is built around the annual holiday Kronish Ball, where up until now each and every lab employee has been required to eat a small, gourmet chocolate ball during the climactic toast. Alas, the demonic Dr. Stu Camillo (a bearded Haley Joel Osment) has ended this tradition to punish the goodly Elias Kronish (“The balls have been bounced,” he laments) for giving away the lab’s disease-fighting secrets for the good of the world. But the balls must bounce back for Tiger and Wolf to identify and kill the Biotics among them.

This is all a great deal of crazed fun, but Episode 7 so far is the masterpiece. Not to give away too much, but it involves the raiding of director James Cameron’s lavishly appointed home, circa 2023, in search of a crucial fuel needed for further time travel.

Cameron’s out of the house at the moment, but his super high-tech watchdog, named Sigourney, is very much present in voice and vigilance. She’s been programmed to variously tout Cameron as “Undefeated Little League Coach” or “Taller Than Average” or “Celebrated Innovator” while Steven Spielberg is referenced at one point as “less talented.” Laughing out loud won’t be an option; it will be a virtual certainty.

Comedy-adventure of this sort is tough to pull off, as Fox’s The Orville has shown in its off-balance first season. But Future Man has a firm grasp of what it is and where it’s going. Coupe and Wilson excel as goal-fixated warriors from the future without any social graces while Hutcherson shines as a nebbish who both talks them down and strives to keep his own heart from beating off the charts. Emboldened to look ahead, I’m predicting a good time for all.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

National Geographic's The Long Road Home is both commemorative and compelling

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Front and center in The Long Road Home. National Geographic photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Nov. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on National Geographic channel
Starring: E. J. Bonilla, Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter, Jeremy Sisto, Sarah Wayne Callies, Kate Bosworth, Jon Beavers, Darius Homayoun, Noel Fisher, Jorge Diaz, Ian Quinlan, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Kenny Leu, Joshua Brennan
Produced by: Mike Medavoy, Phil Abraham, Mikko Alanne, Benjamin Anderson, Edward McGurn, Jason Clark, Mikael Salomon

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The fall TV season already has been a battle ground, with Ken Burns’ stellar The Vietnam War a centerpiece while CBS, NBC and The CW continue to respectively fire away with weekly episodes of SEAL Team, The Brave and Valor.

For the next seven Tuesdays (beginning with a two-hour premiere on Nov. 7th) and extending to just six days before Christmas, the National Geographic channel will bear arms with its most ambitious, expensive and heavily promoted venture to date. The Long War Home, filmed entirely in Texas, is adapted from ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz’s 2007 bestseller. Its focus is a single and very harrowing day in the lives of U.S. soldiers trying to fight their way out of Sadr City, Iraq.

It was April 4, 2004, and they were supposed to be on a routine “peacekeeping mission” just under a year after one of the Iraq war’s most famous events and images, the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Instead a small unit commanded by young Lt. Shane Aguero (E.J. Bonilla) came under fierce attack on Palm Sunday. They regrouped on the rooftop of a civilian home in what became their veritable Alamo. Greatly outnumbered and running low on ammunition, the survivors waited a seeming eternity to be rescued by the Crusaders Quick Reaction Force in tandem with the First Cavalry.

“Writing about this battle has been the most profound experience I have had as a journalist,” Raddatz writes in an accompanying letter to TV critics. She has stayed in touch with many of the soldiers and their families in the 13 years since the ambush. Her book and this resultant eight-hour National Geo production are “not just a story of war,” Raddatz says. “It is a story of family, bonds and brotherhood.”

All of the soldiers were deployed from Fort Hood, Texas, and Long Road Home journeys back and forth in briefly telling their back stories while dramatizing the wives’ reactions when sketchy news of the ambush starts to hit back home. For the most part it’s a fully realized and gripping story, albeit with some syrupy interludes, some of them pretty prototypical.

The most recognizable members of the ensemble cast are Michael Kelly (House of Cards), Jeremy Sisto (Suburgatory), Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break) and Jason Ritter, also currently starring in ABC’s new Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.

Sisto in particularly stands out as terse, emotionally drained Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger, who says there’s no glory in battle, “just death. And rot.” He’s had an earlier traumatizing war experience that’s revealed in the Nov. 21st chapter. No wonder he feels the way he does.

Bonilla also brings some affecting touches to the pivotal role of Lt. Aguero, who’s left a wife and two pre-teen children back home. His men include hardbitten Sgt. Eric Bourquin (Jon Beavers); jovial driver Eddie Chen (Kenny Leu); accomplished marksman Sgt. Ben Hayhurst (Patrick Schwarzenegger); the traumatized Sgt. Jackson (Joshua Brennan); goodly Pfc. Tomas Young (Noel Fisher); and interpreter Jassim Al-Lani (Darius Homayoun), who quickly comes under suspicion in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Kelly plays Lt. Col. Gary Volesky, the seasoned Camp War Eagle commander who has “never lost a man in combat” -- until now. Callies plays his resilient wife, Leann, who heads Fort Hood’s contingent of caregivers. And Ritter is the selfless Capt. Troy Denomy, who’s ready to roll in an instant when news of the ambush is radioed in.

The firefights are numerous in Long Road Home, as are the human touches that help to pull this story together. Pfc. Young’s tale is particularly heart-rending upon his return home due to his war wounds. At the end of Part 5, it will be difficult to keep a dry eye in the face of a church choir singing “I Am A Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow.”

Long Road Home ends with updates on its real-life principal characters before Kelly’s Lt. Col. Volesky calls out the names of the dead, now represented by their helmets atop their rifles.

The journeys of these soldiers, whether deceased or alive, continue to speak for and honor the country as a whole. National Geographic channel earlier this year received several Emmy nominations for its scripted Genius series about Albert Einstein, and will follow it next year with a Pablo Picasso bio. But this tautly emotional and up-close look at a mettle-testing day in Iraq seems certain to become its most resonant and valuable production to date.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Showtime's SMILF is comedy with a high misery index

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Bridgette and son lack the luck of the Irish in SMILF. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Nov. 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Frankie Shaw, Rosie O’Donnell, Miguel Gomez, Samara Weaving, Alexandra Mary Reimer, Anna Chanel Reimer, Connie Britton
Produced by: Frankie Shaw, Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky, Michael London

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The old “misery loves company” axiom gets a stern test with Showtime’s SMILF.

Based more or less on creator/star/producer Frankie Shaw’s real-life travails, the Boston-set comedy begins most episodes with printed, killjoy quotes. Take it from George Carlin, whose wisdom sets the table for Episode 3. “That’s why they call it the American dream,” he used to say. “Because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Or if you prefer, here’s the lilting Irish proverb affixed to Episode 2: “There’s nothing so bad, that it couldn’t be worse.”

For starters, though, Sunday’s opening half-hour underscores SMILF’s decidedly feminist approach via a printed Jewish proverb: “God cannot be everywhere. And therefore s/he created mothers.”

Shaw, who’s also the principal show runner of SMILF, has emphasized publicly that every episode will be directed by a woman. She’s also cast twin girls to play the part of toddler son, Larry. And her character, Bridgette Bird, says “A-woman” at the end of prayer interludes during rehab meetings.

Showtime publicists also have provided Shaw’s rather labored explanation of the show’s title. She says in part: “Bridgette is not a ‘MILF.’ It’s a term used by men to categorize a certain ‘type’ of woman. The ‘I’ in MILF is only the male point of view, a woman HE would like to sleep with. By getting inside her life experience, we are in a sense changing the meaning, reclaiming it . . . Telling the stories we’re telling, it takes away the demeaning quality of that label. The process is what a lot of women go through in our culture, going from the object in the eyes of the media, advertisement, music to the subject of our own multidimensional, sometimes sad, oftentimes funny stories.”

Not all of the male characters are dicks, but SMILF doesn’t shy away from showing their private parts in addition to a lingering closeup photo of female genitalia in Episode 1. This is the one where Bridgette, an aspiring actress, frets about whether her own equipment is still tight enough to satisfy. So after a chance meeting in a convenience store, she invites an old boyfriend over to test-drive it while little Larry Bird (Alexandra Mary Reimer/Anna Chanel Reimer) is covered up next to them in their cramped and crappy apartment. Viewers can expect to be exposed to a lengthy shot of his penis, which, for the record, isn’t very long.

Shall we go on?

Bridgette’s opinionated mother, Tutu, is played by Rosie O’Donnell, who at first glance looks a lot like Louie Anderson as Zach Galifianakis’ mother in FX’s Baskets. O’Donnell, not known as the easiest person to get along with, nonetheless remains a surprisingly good actress who doesn’t mind deglamorizing herself -- either in this role or as a lesbian activist in ABC’s recent When We Rise. She brings a big glass of sour punch to SMILF, but in her own way only wants what’s best for her struggling daughter. Meanwhile, Tutu’s husband is recovering from a stroke. Some fun, eh?

Little Larry’s father, Rafi (Miguel Gomez), seems to be a decent sort, but likewise is a recovering addict. His new girlfriend, the notably endowed and sweet-dispositioned Nelson Rose (Samara Weaving), works as a TV sports reporter whose Internet photos become an enticement for Bridgette to pleasure herself.

The recurring Connie Britton rounds out the cast as a well-off mother named Ally, who employs Bridgette to tutor her younger son. During a visit home, the other son, a student at Harvard, finds Bridgette very much to his liking after they get high together. So they do it in Ally’s bed in a scene that ends more graphically than you’ll want to know.

Episode 3 finds Bridgette hard-pressed to pay her rent and willing to do just about anything to come up with some money. One of her friends, who’s plus-sized and wears a “Roses are red, Doritos are savory, the U.S. prison is legalized slavery” t-shirt at rehab meetings, lately is making big money with a website that requires men to pay to watch her over-eat while scantily dressed. Bridget in turn hooks up with a middle-aged, unhappily married men willing to pay $300 just to see her face in person. You’ll be spared the rest of the details, but be assured that SMILF’s “most men are pigs” motif is re-set by the end of this episode.

Being gross, graphic and disagreeable has not kept Shameless from having a long run on Showtime. SMILF is in that vein, and perhaps also will find enough of an audience to sustain it. It’s hard to know what going to work anymore. But this one just doesn’t work for me.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace gives Netflix a murder mystery with a mind of its own

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Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) seldom if ever rests easily. Netflix photo

Premiering: All six episodes begin streaming Friday, Nov. 3rd on Netflix
Starring: Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Liddiard, Kerr Logan, Paul Gross, Stephen Joffe, David Cronenberg
Produced by: Sarah Polley, Noreen Halpern, Margaret Atwood, Marla Boltman, D.J. Carson, Lori A. Walters

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Abused by her drunken father and then brutalized in a women’s prison, Irish immigrant Grace Marks perhaps has gone mad in the process.

Or might she be more or less completely sane -- or driven by a dual personality?

The absorbing Alias Grace, a new Canadian miniseries imported by Netflix, doesn’t irrefutably provide all of the answers during its six episodes. It delves deeply, though, as novelist Margaret Atwood invariably does in her tales of repressed, subjugated women in situations and systems controlled by men.

Unlike her futuristic The Handmaid’s Tale, which became a major success story for Hulu earlier this year, Alias Grace is based on grisly, real-life events. But a trio of key fictional characters are woven into this mid-1850s murder mystery. And believe it or not, two of them are empathetic men acting on Grace’s behalf.

Atwood’s novel was first published in 1996, a decade after Handmaid’s Tale hit bookstores. Sarah Gadon (Hulu’s 11.22.63) plays central figure Grace Marks, who’s spent 15 years in Canada’s Kingston Penitentiary after being co-convicted of the murders of house master Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his head housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), with whom he was rather creepily intimate.

Grace’s years behind bars have been marked by beatings, sexual assaults and occasional solitary confinements in a severely cramped, coffin-shaped “cell” with a small round hole in it. As with Handmaid’s Tale, the narration is a little top-heavy at first. Things begin to jell, however, when young Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is hired to probe Grace’s psyche in hopes of determining her culpability. A Methodist Reverend (David Cronenberg) is hopeful that she’ll be found mentally deficient, and thereby eligible to be freed.

“Are you afraid of me, Grace?” he asks in their first meeting.

“It’s too early to tell,” she replies.

Their sessions are held in the nearby penitentiary governor’s mansion, where Grace has resumed her nearly lifelong occupation as domestic servant. It’s there that she spins out her oft-tragic story while Dr. Jordan is increasingly mesmerized.

Left to fend for herself at age 15 after a storm-tossed, diseased-ravaged, two-month ship cruise from hell, Grace finds employment at a “fine house in Toronto” run by an authoritarian, condescending dowager. But she also finds the best of friends in fellow domestic Mary Whitney (very compellingly played by Rebecca Liddiard). Mary is a lively rebel who basically distrusts men but intends to find a good and honorable one for marriage purposes. This doesn’t go so well.

During their time together, Grace, Mary and the rest of the servants greatly enjoy a visit from a dashing peddler named Jeremiah (Zachary Levi from NBC’s Chuck). He’ll later play a pivotal role in an entirely different guise.

After being traumatized anew, Grace reluctantly takes another domestic servant job proffered by Nancy Montgomery, who offers to raise her monthly pay from $2 to $3. It’s there that she also meets surly but strapping stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) and gentle, wide-eyed errand boy Jamie Walsh (Stephen Joffe). In due time, the drama’s key questions come down to this: Did Grace and McDermott together conspire to murder Montgomery and Kinnear? Or did he act alone before forcibly roping her in? Or might she have been in effect possessed by a spirit force?

Dr. Jordan eventually entertains another possibility. “She could be insane,” he says, “with the devious plausibility of the experienced maniac.” Now there’s something to consider.

Alias Grace doesn’t wrap everything up tidily -- and at times can be a bit messy and far-fetched. A subplot involving Dr. Jordan’s abandoned and suddenly amorous, ad hoc landlady easily could be excised. A climactic hypnosis session also seems rather cockamamie.

The performances are uniformly first-rate, though, and viewers will get closure rather than any dangling cliffhangers. Unlike Handmaid’s Tale, now in production for a second season, Alias Grace is strictly one and done. And in the end, it leaves much to think about in terms of a mind’s tangled webs -- and the intersection between true happiness and accepted contentment.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net