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CNBC's debate flop re-tarnishes the "mainstream media"


CNBC Republican debate interrogators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla felt the heat then and now. CNBC photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Republicans are squealing -- with glee in truth -- over their perceived mistreatment by the three principal CNBC questioners at Wednesday night’s two-hour debate.

Blasting the mainstream, or “lame stream,” media has long been a favorite pastime of the GOP. But this time there’s a strong case to be made. Led by an obnoxiously abrasive John Harwood and abetted by co-panelists Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla, CNBC made a massive mess of things while also making it all the more difficult for their responsible peers.

Harwood, CNBC’s head Washington correspondent and also a writer for The New York Times, set a wrongheaded tone from the very start by asking Donald Trump if in reality he’s a “comic book” campaigner. He later tried to bait Mike Huckabee into saying Trump is an immoral presidential candidate.

Huckabee demurred, and Trump called the question “nasty.” But well before that, Ted Cruz jet-fueled Twitter and a Fox News Channel focus group by declaring, “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” He then added the zinger that became the debate’s No. 1 “sound bite.” Said Cruz: “This is not a cage match.” On the strength of that quote alone, legions of post-debate analysts declared Cruz the clear “winner” of the 10-candidate mashup.

Others later joined in, with Chris Christie telling an interjecting Harwood at one point, “I got to tell you the truth. Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude.”

Marco Rubio said the mainstream media essentially served as Hillary Clinton’s “Super PAC.” Even Dr. Ben Carson showed a smidgen of indignation at the accusatory nature of the questioning while Trump twitted Quick after she stumbled through another “gotcha” question regarding the billionaire businessman’s supposed criticisms of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s support of an increase in high-skill immigrant visas.

Trump immediately denied he had ever criticized Zuckerberg, leaving a floundering Quick to ask, “Where did I come up with this?”

“I don’t know,” he shot back. “You people write this stuff.”

It turned out that Quick was mostly right in the first place, as she noted later in the debate after scrambling to find the source of her information. It turned out to be Trump’s own website, deep into a long position paper headlined “Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again.” But the damage already had been done. And Trump still could rightly claim that he’d never vocalized any criticisms of Zuckerberg.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said CNBC “should be ashamed.” And this time it wasn’t merely empty rhetoric.

Pointed questions in fact should be asked at debates, if for no other reason than to get the candidates off their well-rehearsed “talking points.” As CNBC vice president of communications Brian Steel said afterward in a statement, “People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions.”

But it’s the way they were posed Wednesday night that put CNBC in the crosshairs both during and after the debate. Harwood in particular seemed to be primarily interested in making a name for himself with the overall goading and personal tone of his inquiries. Imagine Harwood’s indignation at being asked, “To many people, you give off a smug persona. Aren’t you in reality a preening provocateur who loves nothing more than pontificating on Morning Joe?”

Carson later wondered, during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly, whether many people had actually seen the debate. After all, he noted, it aired opposite the World Series on what Carson termed an “obscure” network.

Well, CNBC isn’t as obscure as the Fox Business Network. And now everyone is talking about it -- for all the wrong reasons. CNBC’s panel of debate analysts didn’t help matters by chit-chatting inanely before and after the big show. They also took a beating on Twitter, with some wondering if they’d stumbled into “public access” TV. Personally speaking, it made me long -- almost -- for the head-deadening musings of Fox’s irksome World Series analyst, Harold Reynolds.

Those who live by the dictum of “any publicity is good publicity” might say that CNBC comes out way ahead on that score. But in reality, the entire media profession certainly doesn’t need this latest kick in the gut.

The Republican presidential candidates and fellow believers in a vast “liberal media conspiracy” now have enough free ammunition to fire away ad infinitum. Cruz in particular comes away as the Sir Galahad of this crusade. Thanks to CNBC -- and to his own well-placed declaration of indignation -- Cruz is taking all of this to the bank. Bashing the media has seldom been a more profitable enterprise than it is at this very moment. Thanks a lot, CNBC. As a laughing stock, you’re currently a great investment.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Starz hits the spot with deliciously gory Ash vs Evil Dead


Bruce Campbell resumes the role that still fits him like a chainsaw. Starz photo

Premiering: Saturday, Oct. 31st at 8 p.m. (central) on Starz
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ray Santiago, Dana Delorenzo, Jill Marie Jones, Lucy Lawless
Produced by: Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, Bruce Campbell, Craig DiGregorio

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Despite the buckets of blood and gallons of gore, a viewer can die laughing while wallowing in Ash vs Evil Dead.

Continuing in the slap-happy tradition of 1981’s Evil Dead, 1987’s Evil Dead II and 1992’s Army of Darkness, the 10-episode Starz series returns jocular Bruce Campbell to the role that devotees of this franchise just won’t let him forget.

“The fans are responsible for every single bit of this,” Campbell said during the past summer’s Television Critics Association press tour. “They’ve been relentless for years. The last Evil Dead movie was 23 years ago. They haven’t shut up since. So no matter what we say to them or what we give them, it will never be enough. And we’re very grateful for that.”

In that vein, Starz announced a Season 2 of Ash vs Evil Dead three days before Season 1 gets going.

Campbell will go with that flow. He’s an actor who approaches life the way he plays the goofball hero of these Sam Raimi creations. Nothing is taken terribly seriously, whether Campbell is playing Ash Williams or previous characters such as Sam Axe in Burn Notice; the title character in Fox’s lamentably short-lived The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.; Ray the mad brain surgeon in Lunatics: A Love Story; or the recurring character of Autolycus in Xena: Warrior Princess.

“I’m attracted to weird material,” he explains. “I’m not attracted to normal, generic stuff. I find it too boring. And I don’t mind being in cheese ball exploitation movies. It doesn’t bother me in the least. Because B movies can do things that are way more interesting sometimes than A movies because you don’t have the restrictions. You don’t have to please 100 million people. If your movie only costs half a million dollars, you only have to please, like, eight people . . . This is not a cop show, a doctor show, a lawyer show. Those shows make me want to hang myself as the viewer.”

One could listen to him all day and into the night. But on to the review of Ash vs Evil Dead, which fittingly launches on Halloween night while intentionally coming off as only slightly scarier than a five-year-old dressed as Darth Vader. The extended 45 minute premiere -- future episodes are a half-hour -- begins with a vainglorious Ash laboriously strapping on a corset, executing a few kick dance moves, clicking on his wooden right hand and heading off from the Mossy Haven trailer park to the Woodsman bar.

A well-worn woman quickly succumbs to his B.S. But their restroom Cialis moment is dampened by Ash’s vision of a “Deadite” rebirth. They first surfaced when Ash and four friends accidentally activated the Book of the Dead while spending spring break in a dumpy cabin in the Tennessee hills. Only Ash lived to keep fighting them off. Along the way he lost his right hand and developed a chainsaw attachment that snaps on when needed. And it’s going to be needed anew.

Campbell’s co-stars eventually will include his old Xena running mate, Lucy Lawless, as Ruby Cross. But she’s not in the first two episodes made available for review. Instead meet Pablo Simon Bolivar (Ray Santiago) and Kelly Maxwell (Dana Delorenzo), both of whom toil with Ash at the Value Stop convenience store.

Another regular character, Michigan state trooper Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), is first seen at a murder scene with her uniformed male partner. This doesn’t end well for him. And Ash soon finds that he can’t hide out anymore. The Deadites are just about everywhere.

Resultant fight scenes are a riotous blend of spurting bodily fluids and aging body mechanics, with Ash struggling to regain his touch. “My heart is jack-hammering like a quarterback on prom night,” he says at one point.

Episode 2, with a guest appearance by Mimi Rogers, includes two crowd-pleasing battles with Deadites who’ve been in disguise. Ash continues to look good with blood coating his face. For better or mostly worse, it’s become his pancake makeup.

Ash’s lexicon also includes “Catch you on the flip-flop” and “C’mon, let’s dance, bitch.” This is a franchise where the “mythology” is paint-by-the-numbers and the jeopardy is a smiley face.

Those repulsed by “slasher” movies can rest assured that Ash vs Evil Dead is much closer to a plastic picnic knife. The blood regularly spurts like a geyser or oozes like the Karo syrup it really is. But this is not The Walking Dead, American Horror Story or the former Starz series Spartacus. Campbell’s grandiose body language and throwaway lines instead evoke the knucklehead goings-on in a Three Stooges short. Not that he’s ever quite as clumsy as Moe, Larry, Curly or Shemp.

Ash vs Evil Dead succeeds by merrily and seemingly effortlessly making a mess of things. The biggest budget consideration might be the cleanup bills. But the mayhem is never cringe-worthy and the heroics can be a riot.

“Oh good, I was starting to feel like a real dick,” Ash says after learning he was right to punch out an outwardly kindly mom that he’d tabbed as a Deadite.

You’re gonna have a blast.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

New vistas in hypocrisy: NBC's renewed coziness with Donald Trump


Donald Trump in earlier Saturday Night Live hosting stint. NBC photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Believe it or not, this has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s politics.

But it has everything to do with NBC’s remarkable inconsistency regarding the Republican presidential candidate’s controversial statements on Hispanics and illegal immigration.

This is the same network that very publicly washed its hands of Trump in late June by dumping the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, both of which he owns. Less than four months later, NBC announced that Trump will host the Nov. 7th edition of Saturday Night Live. The program is now certain to be picketed by outraged Latino advocacy groups while NBC also can certainly expect “huge” ratings, as Trump has put it ad nauseum. Not coincidentally, it will be the first new SNL of the November “sweeps” ratings period.

NBC so far has declined to comment, a cowardly stance in comparison to the stinging rebuke it issued in connection with Trump’s build-a-wall-to-keep-all-those-crooks-and-rapists-out stance on illegal immigration.

“At NBC, respect and dignity for all people are cornerstones of our values,” the network piously said at the time. “Due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants, NBC Universal is ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump. To that end, the annual Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which are part of a joint venture between NBC and Trump, will no longer air on NBC. In addition, as Mr. Trump has already indicated, he will not be participating in The Apprentice on NBC.”

The network since has hired Arnold Schwarzenegger, who comes with his own baggage, to helm The Apprentice, a production of “reality competition” maestro Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank). Meanwhile, Trump suddenly has gone from persona non grata to fair-haired boy -- hair notwithstanding.

NBC Universal’s love of all things Trump has deepened to the point of unconscionable absurdity. On Monday, the Today show and Matt Lauer hosted a live “pancakes and politics” town hall meeting with Trump from New Hampshire.

On Oct. 16th, CNBC knuckled under to Trump’s threat to boycott the network’s Oct. 28th Republican presidential candidate debate if it wasn’t capped at a maximum of two hours, including commercials. Trump and his ally in this threatened no-show, Dr. Ben Carson, also insisted that opening and closing statements be included. CNBC acquiesced to that demand, too. Had it only been Carson raising a stink, CNBC almost certainly would have stuck to its original game plan. But when Trump’s at the forefront, well, let’s not even thinking of having a debate without him. Would “The Donald” also prefer to sit on a throne rather than stand at a lectern? We can make that happen.

MSNBC got in on the act during Tuesday’s Morning Joe, which had an extended live phone interview with Trump. Did Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and their coterie of seasoned, camera-hungry politicos even broach the question of Trump’s SNL hosting duties? Certainly they should have. But no, it never came up. Clearly everyone had their marching orders and they all collegially called him “Donald.” For shame. You couldn’t find a better batch of corporate suck-ups.

The about-face on Trump comes from a network whose top programming executive is the openly gay Robert Greenblatt. Just a few days before initially banishing Trump, Greenblatt issued a statement praising the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits states from banning gay marriage.

“As the head of a broadcast television network and a gay man, I celebrate and applaud” the ruling, Greenblatt said in part. “To some degree I’m surprised the decision wasn’t more one-sided because public opinion already seemed to be overwhelmingly there . . . I’m privileged to work in an industry that has always worked to portray positive images of LGBT people and tell their human stories, which I believe has played an important part in advancing the conversation. It’s a great day for equality.”

One wonders if Greenblat would have signed off on Trump hosting SNL had he denounced the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and pledged to “fix” it. It’s Trump’s First Amendment right to take any political position he pleases. But NBC really doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it first cuts Trump off at the knees and then reverses course without any accompanying explanation.

Trump certainly hasn’t reversed his position on immigration or even conceded that he might have used better language in stating it. And if NBC hadn’t reacted so emphatically, it wouldn’t now be in a blatantly hypocritical position of its own making.

The Peacock also could be subject to “equal time” provisions if it sticks to its plan of treating Trump like a king on SNL. This almost assuredly won’t happen, but here’s what I wish upon NBC: a succession of SNLs hosted in no particular order by Carson, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie.

Besides Trump, these are the nine candidates who made the cut for CNBC’s debate. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t had the good fortune to recently be denounced and written off by NBC. Because that apparently would only enhance their chances.

One last point: NBC also is the network that last fall terminated plans to do a new Bill Cosby sitcom after dozens upon dozens of women came forward to allege he’d drugged and sexually molested them. It would be incomprehensible to think that NBC might welcome Cosby back to host SNL this season. Or would it? After all, think of the . . . ratings.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Wicked City gets up-close with a Sunset Strip serial killer in the land of 1982


Ed Westwick plays centerpiece serial killer in Wicked City. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Ed Westwick, Jeremy Sisto, Erika Christensen, Gabriel Luna, Taissa Farmiga, Karolina Wydra, Evan Ross, Jaime Ray Newman
Produced by: Steven Baigelman, Amy B. Harris, Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Laurie Zaks, Jon Cassar

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A swirl of activity has enveloped Wicked City, initially titled L.A. Crime and originally tabbed by ABC as a midseason series.

But it received a late October berth when the original Tuesday night fall occupant, Quantico, got re-routed to Sundays after ABC decided it didn’t want to proceed as intended on that night with Of Kings and Prophets.

Wicked City also has undergone some major casting changes, with Jeremy Sisto supplanting Adam Rothenberg as one of the two lead cops while the character’s wife is now being played by Jaime Ray Newman instead of Holley Fain. The supporting role of a gonzo photographer also has a new face -- Evan Ross instead of Darrell Britt-Gibson.

Other than that it’s largely same-old, same-old in terms of the overlying storyline. A serial killer is on the loose, his principal victims are young women and the two detectives trying to track him down are a veteran and a newcomer who clash from the opening bell.

The setting is L.A.’s Sunset Strip, circa 1982. It’s a time when stoned, drunk and/or coked-out youth pack the Whiskey a Go Go to hear and writhe to the music of their favorite rock performers. In Tuesday’s premiere episode, it’s Billy Idol and the band Mickey Ratt (whose name actually had been shortened to Ratt by that time). Still, it’s a better little joke to keep the full moniker as a way of twitting Disney-owned ABC. Stand-ins are used in both cases, with long shots of a faux Idol doing “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding” while killer Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick) prowls for impressionable prey and uses the tagline, “Kill me. I like giving back.”

The cops make recurring references to the Hillside Strangler, who terrorized L.A. by killing 10 young women in just four months time between late 1977 and early 1978. Two cousins working in tandem eventually were caught and convicted.

In Wicked City, Grainger seeks to time his killings to radio station dedications he’s phoned in. For some reason -- namely money -- Foreigner has allowed use of its hit single “Feels Like the First Time” as a car radio soundtrack for the multiple stabbing death of a woman initially seduced at the Whiskey. She’s later found beheaded with her blood drained after a radio deejay is heard saying rather cheerily, “Another day, another corpse in the murder capital of the country.”

Sisto plays homicide and robbery division detective Jack Roth, who’s married with a teenage daughter but has a squeeze on the side. Former vice cop Paco Contreras (Gabriel Luna) is new to the department and suspected of being a snitch. Roth’s former partner recently blew his brains out, so Paco is his replacement. “I don’t trust you,” Roth barks. “You better get used to it,” Paco retorts. “I’m not goin’ anywhere.” Yawn.

Wicked City doesn’t quite glamorize its central serial killer. Still, he’s devilishly handsome and has a soft spot for kids. Therefore he spares would-be victim Betty Beaumont (Erika Christensen from Parenthood) after learning at the last second that she’s the mother of two young children. She’s also a nurse with a thirst for life on the wild side. And as video and print publicity materials have made clear, Betty’s destined to become Grainger’s partner in crime, his Bonnie if you will.

There’s also an aspiring young journalist named Karen McClaren (Taissa Farmiga), who’s in Grainger’s sights before belatedly wising up and siding with the police. She otherwise runs with Diver Hawkes (Evan Ross), the aforementioned shooter (camera division) who also owns L.A. Notorious magazine.

ABC envisions this as a 10-hour limited series, with each season (if in fact there are more) introducing a new case. In this case -- at least in Episode 1 -- the violence is very uncomfortable to think about but not graphically portrayed. Even so, it’s still the usual story of women being victimized and mutilated.

Wicked City otherwise is no great shakes in the script department, with Sisto’s Roth spitting out too many lines from a well-worn playbook. Such as, “You don’t like my style man? Feel free to walk out the door any time.”

My inclination is to take that advice to the next level by simply tuning out. On the other hand, Wicked City does have some pulling power and also a solid selection of period tunes. The idea of telling a story in one season’s time also has considerable appeal. ABC already has done this with American Crime and Secrets and Lies, both of which still start anew in their upcoming second seasons.

In the one-and-done realm, Wicked City doesn’t look to be nearly as good as American Crime but potentially is a cut above Secrets and Lies. Just don’t even think about making the central, brutal serial killer a tortured, tragic soul worthy of any empathy. Because if that starts happening, I’m out.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Supergirl gives CBS a comic book hero with possibly serious staying power


Melissa Benoist soars as the essential ingredient in Supergirl.

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 26th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS before moving to regular 7 p.m. slot.
Starring: Melissa Benoist, Calista Flockhart, Mehcad Brooks, Chyler Leigh, Jeremy Jordan, David Harrowed
Produced by: Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg, Sarah Schechter

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
For this to fly (sorry), the title character in CBS’ Supergirl must be cast just right.

Mission accomplished in this first full-fledged TV outing for Superman’s cousin, born Kara Zor-El on Krypton and rechristened Kara Danvers on Earth. Melissa Benoist (previously best known as Marley Rose on Fox’s Glee) is terrifically appealing as an awkward but assertive 24-year-old woman on the verge of becoming a rookie superhero. Watching her take flight, without being unduly flighty about it, is one of the many pleasures of Monday’s premiere, which gets a lead-in from The Big Bang Theory before Supergirl moves to its regular 7 p.m. (central) slot on Nov. 2nd.

The “mythology” goes like this. The future Superman, Kara’s “baby cousin” Kal-el, has already been sent to earth as their home planet of Krypton gets ready to explode. “You may know his story,” Supergirl narrates. “The story you don’t know is that I was sent to protect him.”

Instead, Kara’s space pod was knocked off course and “into the Phantom Zone” for 24 years before “somehow” heading back on its original course to Earth. Time doesn’t pass in the Phantom Zone (think Interstellar). So Kara remained a 12-year-old when she finally landed while Kal-El has grown into the adult guardian angel of Metropolis.

Ma and Pa Danvers (former feature film Supergirl Helen Slater and ex-ABC Superman Dean Cain) are very fleetingly seen as Kara’s adoptive parents. They also have an older daughter named Alex (Chyler Leigh as an adult). Kara spends an unseen 12 years with the Danvers before heading off to National City to find a job. Superman’s a big cheese who no longer needs her protection, so Kara has kept her powers on hold.

In National City, she’s delivered unto a smug, downsizing media mogul named Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), who uses Kara as a gofer and go-between. Cat is happily laying off hundreds of Tribune employees, ordering Kara to use the “lesser card stock” in informing them. But hey, “they don’t have to downsize at The Daily Planet,” Kara objects. Yeah, well, they sell newspapers (imagine that) by constantly putting Superman stories on their front pages. “Go find me a hero” if you want to save jobs, Cat orders.

Flockhart so far is the weakest link in Supergirl. She remains disconcertingly stick-thin to the point of almost disappearing when turning sideways. Plus, she just doesn’t seem right for the part of a domineering taskmaster who at one point dresses down Kara by saying, “I’m sorry, darling. I just can’t hear you over the loud color of your cheap pants.”

The role of Cat would be better-suited to the likes of Wendie Malick, Vanessa Williams, Sarah Jessica Parker or maybe even Heather Locklear. They’d likely bring a lot more pop to Cat’s declaration that the “Supergirl” tag isn’t a condescending, sexist slight to National City’s new sensation. “I’m a girl,” she tells a protesting Kara. “And your boss. And powerful. And rich. And hot. And smart.” And simply unconvincing in this part.

Kara’s workplace allies, both of whom share her secret, are former Daily Planet photographer James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) and Winslow “Winn” Schott (Jeremy Jordan), who initially designs a two-piece superhero outfit that bears Kara’s midriff. So how and why do her powers first come into play? Let’s just say it involves a severely imperiled international flight that pretty much forces Kara’s hand.

“This girl is the answer. She’s exactly what I need to save the Tribune,” says Kat, who demands a full-out pursuit of exclusive photos, videos and interviews.

The special effects are nicely done, particularly during two fight scenes involving Supergirl and a hulking villain who’s likewise from another planet that won’t be revealed here. It’s all in the very capable hands of head producer Greg Berlanti, who’s had superhero success with both Arrow and The Flash on CBS’ sister network, The CW.

The prolific Berlanti also has had some TV series misses in recent years, including The Tomorrow People, Golden Boy and No Ordinary Family. He earlier worked with Flockhart in ABC’s long-running Brothers & Sisters. So there’s the connection.

Supergirl is somewhat in keeping with CBS’ penchant for crime-fighting dramas, but also is a departure for the network of multiple NCIS and CSI series. It aspires to attract a younger audience via a comic book superhero franchise approach that the network hasn’t tried since its earlier version of The Flash flopped back in 1990.

As always, though, it’s all in the execution. And Supergirl’s plucky central character, very winningly played by Benoist, looks good to go for this season and beyond. Viewers under 30 years of age might find themselves in tune with CBS for the first time ever while the network’s traditionally older crowd stays in the fold to root for a kid they’d like to have as a granddaughter. A twist in the final seconds further heightens the stakes for a series that might drop Superman in at some point during a ratings “sweeps” period. Otherwise it’s so far getting along famously with a newly empowered cousin who’s told, “He wanted you to choose it for yourself. Same way he did . . . Now don’t you have a city to protect?”


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Hallmark keeps the Jesse Stone franchise vividly in play with Lost In Paradise


Tom Selleck remains a formidable presence as top cop Jesse Stone. Hallmark photo

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“Two years. Where you been?” Jesse Stone’s therapist/sounding board asks him in the opening minutes of movie No. 9.

“Fighting crime,” Stone answers -- as usual.

On-screen perhaps. Off-screen, not lately. And actually it’s been more than three years since CBS first aired Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt on the night of May 20, 2012.

As usual, it won its time slot and drew 12.8 million viewers. But CBS already had decided that the audiences for these movies was too old and the budgets were too high. So Tom Selleck, who’s personified the Robert B. Parker character since Stone Cold’s 2005 premiere, decided to wait for a phone call rather than panhandle. In interviews, he’s expressed confidence that the right network eventually would come around. And it has. Jesse Stone: Lost In Paradise, premiering Sunday, Oct. 18th at 8 p.m. (central) on Hallmark, is the first of two movies ordered by the entity best known for its seemingly endless supply of Christmas movies.

Selleck, still gainfully employed on CBS as the star of Blue Bloods, continues to play Stone with a minimalist yet forceful conviction that’s never gotten old. The Stone movies are marvels of straight-ahead, core value storytelling, with their central character square-shouldering his way toward the bad guys without any extra-sensory abilities. Imagine that. A gumshoe who’s only recently succumbed to a cell phone -- a flip one at that -- and has no freaky out-of-body powers of deduction.

Fans of the Stone movies above all are treated to a consistency of purpose and pasts that serve as preludes. It very much helps to have seen them all and be familiar with their frameworks. The divorced Stone still has a hard-to-conquer fondness for too much Johnnie Walker and a never fully severed attachment to his ex-wife, Jenn, who’s been voiced over the phone in past movies by Gillian Anderson (billed as “Gil”).

Stone also has a soft spot for teenage girls in trouble, plays his music on vinyl and has depended on his soulful-eyed Golden Retriever, Reggie, to help him curb his demons. On that last point, let’s just say there’s a big void in Stone’s life during his early scene with William Devane’s Dr. Dix, the ex-cop who’s turned to no-nonsense therapy.

The small world of Paradise, a population 7,352 seaside community where Stone has been the on-and-off police chief, is within a short distance of the more crime-fertile big city of Boston. He moves between these two worlds, with other recurring characters besides Dix also part of the mix.

In Lost in Paradise, deputy Luther “Suitcase” Simpson (Kohl Sudduth); crime boss/confidante Gino Fish (William Sadler); Sister Mary John (Kerri Smith); and old flame Thelma Gleffey (Gloria Reuben) are among those still present and accounted for. But Selleck very much remains the command presence in a franchise in which he now co-writes the scripts and has relied on director Robert Harmon to execute them in every Jesse Stone movie except 2011’s Innocents Lost. The familiar piano theme music remains as perfect as can be. Never change that.

Stone is emotionally at sea when Lost In Paradise takes flight Sunday night. But he’s soon shaking himself out of it and journeying to Boston for a meeting with Lt. Sydney Greenstreet (Leslie Hope), whose name is an ode to the late character actor with credits including two Humphrey Bogart classics, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

The contemporary Greenstreet is “undermanned” and eager to close some open cases. One of them involves a string of prostitute butcheries for which an unrepentant Richard Steele (Luke Perry) is serving time. The last in the string may or may not be his doing, though. It’s up to Stone to find the real killer if in fact he exists.

The dialogue remains crisp and savory, with Stone replying, “I never found out anything listening to myself” after Steele tells him, ”You don’t talk much.”

Nor does Stone text over the phone, of which Greenstreet is firmly apprised. “The average kid on social media has an attention of eight seconds,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s one second less than a goldfish.”

The story builds steadily but no one’s in a rush. This also might vex “the average kid,” but these movies have never been about a chase scene every 10 minutes -- or a new corpse or atrocity before every commercial break. Stone does get run off the road, however.

Lost In Paradise continues an impressively enduring career for Selleck, who at age 70 is one of the very few actors to have long-running success as three different TV characters. He broke in as Thomas Magnum in Magnum, P.I. and got the Jesse Stone movies rolling several years before taking another cop to the bank as Frank Reagan in Blue Bloods, now in its sixth season.

Were he to choose one of them, though, it surely would be Jesse Stone. His new venue, Hallmark, is one of the very last broadcast or cable networks that doesn’t really care how old its viewers are. There’s still something to be said for that, isn’t there? And there’s even more to be said about keeping a great, iconoclastic character alive in artfully basic movies that remain solid as a rock because their foundations are built to last.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's Truth Be Told looks like a Friday night false hope


Racial unions and divides add up to Truth Be Told. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 16th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Tone Bell, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Vanessa Lachey, Bresha Webb
Produced by: DJ Nash, Pam Fryman

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NBC’s latest laugh track-spiked sitcom at least is livelier than its original generic title -- People Are Talking -- and its revised generic title -- Truth Be Told.

It’s also scheduled opposite a new comedy that makes it look pretty good -- ABC’s Dr. Ken.

That’s the faint praise for a show that attempts to explore racial gray areas while also unfortunately being pretty infantile about it in the premiere episode. NBC hasn’t made any subsequent half-hours available for review. So the first impression of People Are Talking is that bolder topics were tackled in late summer on NBC’s The Carmichael Show, a very pleasant surprise that’s been renewed for a second season after the Peacock at first seemed to be burning it off.

The most familiar face in People Are Talking is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, the former Saved By the Bell teen idol who since has seemingly been in just about everything and is still only 41. Gosselaar plays Mitch, a college ethics professor whose closest pal is next door neighbor Russell (Tone Bell), an African-American standup comic.

Both are married, Russell to a black woman (Bresha Webb as Angie) and Mitch to the “ethnically ambiguous” Tracy (Vanessa Lachey). The show’s creator, DJ Nash, says it’s largely drawn from his real life experiences with a Korean wife and a best friend who’s black. “My White Guilt is the fifth character on our show,” he says in publicity materials.

Friday’s premiere begins at a Chinese restaurant, where the two guys are picking up takeout while Russell quickly deduces that the Asian counterperson is an “Uncle Tom yumming it.” Translation: she’s faking that accent.

Outside the restaurant, a valet hands the car keys of Russell’s Porsche to Mitch, who takes offense at the notion that the car couldn’t possibly be owned by a black person. But appearances aren’t what they seem, prompting Russell to crack, “We done here, Reverend Sharpton?”

Other situations and misunderstandings quickly kick in like typical sitcom clockwork. It’s all built around four prized tickets and backstage passes to a Jay Z concert, with Mitch’s stir-crazy wife at last primed for a night out but apprehensive about leaving their four-year-old daughter with a babysitter for the first time. But hey, it just happens to be the Sabbath, and a nearby Jewish family with a multitude of kids is thereby locked in for the night. Could Russell and Vanessa borrow their babysitter? Yes. Is the very well-endowed babysitter more than he bargained for? Yes. Might she even be a . . . well, by that point it’s gotten really ridiculous.

The ham-handed “edginess” also includes the four-year-old announcing a rash “on my ‘bagina’ “ before she asks, “Daddy, do you have a ‘bagina.’ “ Russell later pronounces the word correctly during an investigation of the babysitter.

The principal cast members are appealing enough, providing perhaps some hope that the material will mature and measure up to them in future episodes. For now, though, it’s mostly hammer-over-the-head time, with Angie at one point declaring, “Oh Mitch. Your white guilt amuses me.”

Will enough viewers be of a like mind? Truth be told, that seems like a real long shot.


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Gotta sing, gotta dance on The CW's distinctive Crazy Ex-Girlfriend


Rachel Bloom’s crazy good in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. CW photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 12th at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Rachel Bloom, Santino Fontana, Vincent Rodriguez III, Donna Lynne Champlin, Pete Gardner, Vella Lovell
Produced by: Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Erin Ehrlich, Marc Webb

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The CW’s only new fall series is unabashedly “girly” and probably not for anyone with a “Man Cave” mentality and/or a strong aversion to show tunes.

Whether it will work is very much an open question. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s bright, sprightly premiere is another step up in quality for a network that was much derided as superfluous until four very fresh coats of paint -- Arrow, The Flash, Jane the Virgin and iZombie -- came into view during the past three years.

Singing her heart out on several occasions, relative newcomer Rachel Bloom stars in this saga of a needy, unfulfilled, up-and-coming Manhattan lawyer who spurns a big promotion in favor of pursuing a guy she crushed on 10 years earlier as a 16-year-old at summer camp. Perhaps this sounds very un-liberated on the face of it. But Bloom is the empowered creator, head writer and lead executive producer of a show she’s devised for herself. So make no mistake. This is her baby and she’s running with it.

Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, daughter of a so far unseen domineering mother who’s orchestrated and stifled her life. That’s mom blaring on the car horn at that fateful last day of camp, when Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) tells Rebecca that they’re just too different to keep any serious relationship going. A decade later, Rebecca can’t shake the feeling that happiness has kept her at bay. Praying for “guidance,” she sort of gets a sign from on high. Look, there’s Josh, walking down the street. He dubs the still smitten Rebecca “successful and hot” before again lowering the boom. Josh is moving back home to West Covina, CA, located just “two hours from the beach -- four in traffic.”

A singing/dancing production number ensues, bridging Rebecca’s impulsive relocation from Manhattan to West Covina. Bloom throws herself into every single second of this out-of-body sequence. It’s infectious enthusiasm to the max, but viewers really haven’t seen anything until she nails the “Sexy Gettin’ Ready Song.” It includes Bloom force-fitting herself into a pair of Spanx after brandishing a less than firm tummy. Men and their guts have become something of a prime-time staple but women generally aren’t as inclined to put any “imperfect” body parts front and center. But Bloom made these calls, and she’s all the more relatable because of them.

A strong supporting cast is particularly buoyed by Santino Fontana as a sports bar bartender named Greg Serrano. Their initial byplay works perfectly during Rebecca’s search for Josh’s whereabouts.

At her new workplace, the Whitefeather & Associates law firm, Rebecca encounters a goofy boss (Pete Gardner as Darryl Whitefeather) and a snoopy paralegal named Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin). The situations and characters aren’t entirely novel to be sure. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s vibrant premiere episode nonetheless is able to make the sale.

Being a long distance runner could be quite another matter, though. Prime-time television isn’t exactly littered with failures of this sort, mainly because very few shows have ever dared to break into song and dance on a moment’s notice while otherwise playing it “straight.” Fox’s Glee had a long run but its musical interludes were part of the show’s basic stage show fabric.

The same could be said of NBC’s comparatively short-lived, Broadway-set Smash, making ABC’s 1990 police drama Cop Rock the only true outlaw. Its detectives regularly strong-armed first and sang later in a series that lasted just 11 episodes and never really found a way to integrate the two disciplines. Fox’s mega-hit Empire is all about the music business, with its performances strictly within those confines. In other words, you won’t see Cookie or Lucious Lyon suddenly singing out their dialogue.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is far lighter in theme and tone than either Cop Rock or Empire. But it’s still quite a reach. Can Bloom’s talent and spirit carry the day well beyond her show’s distinctively different premiere? The work and energy required will be enormous. For starters, though, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend romps and rolls without really missing a beat.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Going medieval and grandly succeeding with BBC America's The Last Kingdom


Uhtred and Brida make for a formidable team in The Last Kingdom. BBC America photo

Premiering: Saturday, Oct. 10th at 9 p.m. (central) on BBC America
Starring: Alexander Dreymon, Emily Cox, David Dawson, Ian Hart, Peter Gantzler, Tobias Santelmann, Rune Temte, Thomas W. Gabrielson, Rutger Hauer, Matthew MacFadyen, Joseph Millson, Simon Kunz, Brian Vernel, Adrian Bower
Produced by: Gareth Neame, Nigel Marchant, Stephen Butchard

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Bracingly bold and well told, BBC America’s The Last Kingdom has the added plusses of being breathtakingly shot and very capably acted out.

The eight-episode Season One, with half of them made available for review, pits two familiar enemies whose warfare is already well under way in the History network’s Vikings. But Last Kingdom, drawn from Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories, more than stands on its own as the tale of a disenfranchised young heir torn between loyalties.

Uhtred (principally played by Alexander Dreymon as a young adult), is a headstrong 12-year-old when he witnesses his father killed in battle by the invading Danes, a k a Vikings. He’s spared after impressing Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler) with his formative courage. A fellow Saxon named Brida (Emily Cox) also is captured and made part of the very hard-edged Viking family. Other adult captives are killed after a little foreplay known as torture.

The year initially is 866 A.D., with Earl Ragnar’s blind and heavily tattooed father, Ravn (a barely recognizable Rutger Hauer) taking a strong liking to Uhtred. Even so, “Soon all the kings of England shall be kings of nothing,” he warns the boy.

Uhtred yearns to reclaim what’s his, namely the Northern England kingdom of Northumbria. But many trials and travails will test both him and the plucky Brida, who blossoms into his comrade in arms and other things.

Cox is excellent in this role, whether flashing her hot temper or playfully bantering with Uhtred in an Episode 2 exchange that goes like this:

She: “You’re talking through your ass.”

He: “I’m sitting on my ass.”

She: “So your ass is cleverer than you and can do two things at once.”

Last Kingdom can be more than a little contemporary at times, with a Viking saying, “Just saying” in Saturday’s premiere episode. It’s very doubtful that saying was in use all those centuries ago. But this is merely a quibble, and at least no one says, “Gimme five” after a particularly satisfying battlefield triumph.

The violence in Last Kingdom can be pointed, with most of it having to do with bodies on receiving ends of swords or arrows. But the cameras tend to pull back rather than gleefully wallow in it. A sense of menace can be conveyed without getting all medieval about it.

Uhtred gradually establishes himself as an emotionally vulnerable warrior and dealmaker with a mercenary bent. His soft spots are mostly for Brida, who’s been “half my life, all of my madness.”

The camera work is regularly majestic, whether capturing Uhtred and Brida from afar on horseback or depicting the Viking armada on the prowl. It’s a full immersion in those times, with the human principals sometimes dots on a sprawling landscape and other times in full closeup with their weapons at the ready.

Connivers and brutalizers abound, including the would-be King Alfred of Wessex (David Dawson) or Ubba the Viking (Rune Temte), who doesn’t mess around when plunder is in play. A veteran priest named Beocca (Ian Hart) seems reasonably honorable and trustworthy, but guys wearing crosses in those times are generally capable of a double-cross.

It all meshes together in enthralling fashion with a tale that’s understandable and a setting that’s tailor made for picturesque vistas. Last Kingdom livens up Saturday nights with Emmy caliber storytelling and oft-sumptuous production values. It’s worth activating ye olde DVR if you’re otherwise out and about.

GRADE: A-minus

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High expectations: And FX's Fargo exceeds them with an exhilarating return


Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson are on the case in Fargo. FX photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 12th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Cristin Milioti, Bokeem Woodbine, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Donovan, Zahn McClarnon, Brad Garrett, Allan Dobresen, Rachel Keller, Angus Sampson, Todd Mann, Brad Mann, Raven Stewart, Elizabeth Marvel, Kieran Culkin, Michael Hogan, Bruce Campbell
Produced by: Noah Hawley, Warren Littlefield, John Cameron, Joel and Ethan Coen

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Superlatives are in order and they shall be showered on FX’s Fargo.

Season 2’s iteration of the near-legendary 1996 movie is by far the cream of the fall series crop. The first four episodes sent for review give every indication that this all-new story with mostly new characters will reach if not surpass FX’s first time around with Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, etc.

Set 27 years earlier, in 1979, Season 2 of Fargo is a triumph of atmosphere, vivid characters, small moments that count and another intricately intertwined storyline that drags everyday people into lethal steel traps. Ronald Reagan, played by Bruce Campbell, will figure in later. But Fargo’s opening scene references him in an entirely novel way via an old fictional black-and-white film titled “Massacre at Sioux Falls.” We’ll say no more, except to say it’s a head-scratching yet brilliant way to begin. Things as dead clever and quirky as this just don’t happen on TV. Do they?

There are two recycled characters. Patrick Wilson is Vietnam veteran Lou Solverson, now a dedicated Luverne, MN state trooper who’s first on the scene after a triple murder at an out-of-the-way diner called The Waffle Hut. His sweet daughter, Molly (Raven Stewart), is just six years old. Carradine and Tolman played those roles in the circa 2006 Fargo.

Post-homicide circumstances combine to put butcher shop worker Ed Blumquist (a very plumped-up Jesse Plemons) and his wife, Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), in an increasingly perilous situation. Meanwhile, a Kansas City corporate mob headed by Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett) is plotting to take over the territory of a Fargo-based crime-family run by Floyd Gerhardt (an almost unrecognizable Jean Stewart) after her husband, Otto (Michael Hogan), suffers a stroke.

Amid all this, some mysterious blue lights occasionally are seen overhead while a very eclectic soundtrack supplants much of the ominous theme music from both the movie and Season 1. How eclectic? In Episode 2, listen for “One Hour Ahead of the Posse” by Burl Ives.

Principal executive producer and writer Noah Hawley has shown his facility for stitching all of this together without fraying the fabric. Not sure just how he’ll work Campbell’s Reagan in or explain those extraterrestrial implications. But it’s best to keep the faith after Season 1 ended so satisfyingly.

Ted Danson, in a full white beard, also is part of the ensemble as Sheriff Hank Larsson, whose cancer-stricken daughter, Betsy (Cristin Milioti), is married to Lou Solverson. In Episode 2, Larsson has a thrillingly taut scene with Bulo’s three principal enforcers, Mike Milligan (a terrific Bokeem Woodbine) and the silent but deadly Kitchen brothers, Gale and Wayne (Brad and Todd Mann).

The mute Kitchen brothers are in keeping with some of the Fargo constants. So are the snow-crusted, desolate rural landscapes and what butcher Ed does to someone who needs to be disposed of quickly.

Season 2 is without a central, roaming despot in league with Thornton’s Lorne Malvo. But there are ample chilling characters. Besides Bulo’s henchmen, meet surly Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan), who will badly hurt or kill anyone it takes. Add Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), a Native American ally of the Gerhardts who’s both coldly efficient and touchingly gentle with a rabbit who’s about to be dinner.

Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation fame also joins the new cast as a know-it-all auto mechanic named Karl Weathers. And Kiernan Culkin plays Rye Gerhardt, youngest brother of the clan and desperate to make his own mark. In an early scene from Monday’s premiere episode, Rye is dismissed as “the comic in a piece of bubble gum.” A guy’s gotta do something about that, and Rye is about to try. His actions spark a series of chain reactions.

By Episode 4, a still unseen Reagan is said to be starring in another fake movie, this one about visitors from outer space. It’s a flashback scene in which a small movie theater proves to be a major proving ground. Like everything in Fargo, it’s beautifully shot and choreographed.

Fargo’s violence can be abrupt and certainly deadly. But it’s not grossly gratuitous or voyeuristic, unlike most of the carnage in just the first episode of FX’s newly launched American Horror Story: Hotel. Fargo’s producers, who also include former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield, know how to service a story without getting muck all over themselves.

The first four episodes of Fargo’s Season 2 get their bottom-line conscience from Wilson’s Lou Solverson. He’s not a man to back down, but what’s been going on lately has shaken him to his core.

“The whole world used to know right from wrong,” he laments to his wife, Betsy. “Moral center. Now . . .“

His words trail off as larger forces get ready to tangle without any worries about collateral damage. Aw geez, it’s still only 1979. If only Lou knew what’s coming.


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FX's American Horror Story: Hotel doesn't check out


A ghastly Gaga in American Horror Story: Hotel. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Lady Gaga, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Wes Bentley, Chloe Sevigny, Cheyenne Jackson, Angela Bassett, Denis O’Hare, Mare Winningham, Finn Wittrock, Matt Bomer, Lennon Henry, Shree Grace Crooks
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Tim Minear, Jennifer Salt, James Wong, Bradley Buecker, Alexis Martin Woodall

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There comes a point where depravity and perversion overwhelm any visual artistry.

Awash in torture porn, with a blood-lusty Lady Gaga very actively participating, American Horror Story: Hotel marks the fifth reinvention of one of FX’s most popular franchises. Its predecessor, AHS: Freak Show, could be touching and even humorous at times amid all the macabre goings-on. Hotel in contrast, is all gore, with the Bates Motel a fuzzy wuzzy play land compared to this place. Creator and head executive producer Ryan Murphy, who’s also killing co-eds on Fox’s Scream Queens this season, can be a very twisted dude when he wants to be. And boy, does he want to be in the first AHS without multiple Emmy winner Jessica Lange in the ensemble cast.

The big hoo-hah addition is Gaga, whose character, “The Countess,” eventually gets around to orchestrating what has to be the most gruesomely revealing and off-putting sex scene ever staged for an advertiser-supported network. The accompanying soundtrack has this recurring lyric: “As I whisper in your ear, I wanna tear you apart.” It’s a bit of a departure from singing standards with Tony Bennett.

Her domain is Los Angeles’ ornate Cortez Hotel, where two unassuming young Swedish blondes have booked residence until noticing that the place is really spooky and seemingly empty.

“For us the hotel is not right. You will please give us back our deposit,” one of them tells a desk clerk named Iris (returnee Kathy Bates). Sorry, no refunds. Besides, “this place’ll grow on ya.”

An assortment of other creeps also inhabit the Cortez. Maid Miss Evers (Mare Winningham) is first seen trying to clean a blood-soaked sheet. Liz Taylor (alum Denis O’Hare) is a bald cross-dresser with a threatening attitude and Sally (alum Sarah Paulson) is driven by horridly insatiable desires that are grotesquely acted out in Episode 1.

“I’m going to give this place a very bad review on Yelp,” one of the Swedish girls says in the premiere episode’s lone stab at humor.

The carnage otherwise keeps on coming, with the Cortez’s Room 64 serving as home base but not the only base. A super-ghoulish murder scene outside the walls of the Cortez is investigated by detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), an upstanding guy who makes an initially strong impression. Lowe and his wife, Alex (alum Chloe Sevigny), also have a darling pre-teen daughter, Scarlett (Shree Grace Crooks), and a son . . . well, you’ll see, although it’s not much of a surprise. AHS: Hotel tends to telegraph its supposedly shocking reveals.

FX, the last network whose mailed-out press kits are bonafide works of art, uncommonly has sent just one episode for review. And it arrived just a few days before the series’ premiere. Murphy is a very busy guy at the moment, what with Scream Queens, AHS: Hotel and an upcoming American Crime Story series for FX that will devote its first season to the arrest and trial of O.J. Simpson.

From this perspective, one hour of AHS: Hotel was more than enough. Its graphic and constant violence, including some very bad treatment of those two Swedish girls, is gratuitous, upsetting and prurient. No one expects a series with this title to be tame, cute or mayhem-free. Still, its immediate predecessor had elements of style and substance plus another bravura turn by Lange.

AHS: Hotel has the subtlety and texture of Gaga’s ill-considered meat dress. But it sure is a butcher shop.

GRADE: C-minus

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Hulu's Casual comes off as watchable (but not must-see)


Brother and sister act: Tommy Dewey, Michaela Watkins in Casual. Hulu photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 7th on Hulu
Starring: Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey, Tara Lynne Barr, Frances Conroy, Patrick Heusinger, Nyasha Hatendi
Produced by: Jason Reitman, Zander Lehmann, Helen Estabrook, Liz Tigelaar

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To the casual observer . . .

OK, that’s too easy. Hulu’s new Casual, which starts streaming with weekly episodes on Wednesday, Oct. 7th, is more or less a comedy series that’s also more or less watchable.

Its two adult leads, who are brother and sister, live together at his place in imperfect harmony with her teenage daughter from a recently failed marriage. Alex, 35, is the commitment averse co-founder of an online dating site called Snooger. His thoughts pass through his mouth unfiltered. He’ll say what he means but not always mean what he says.

Valerie, 39, is an emotionally bruised therapist who’s still ironing out the details of a less than amicable split. She’s uptight and yearns to unwind. She also should know better than to take her brother’s advice on such matters.

Tommy Dewey and Michaela Watkins play the two principals, with Tara Lynne Barr co-starring as Valerie’s 16-year-old offspring, Laura. All three comport themselves well (particularly Watkins) in an outing overseen by executive producer Jason Reitman, whose formidable feature film credits include Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up In the Air.

Reitman and the other principal executive producer, Zander Lehmann, have combined to make Casual more serio- than comic as the characters sort themselves out. The first four episodes were made available for review, with the third one steeped in some pretty dramatic developments. Alex is suddenly needy and rather pathetic in his efforts to keep Valerie from moving out with her daughter.

He’s back to his old self, though, in the following half-hour. “Men don’t want nice,” Alex counsels his older sis. “They want bitchy and self-obsessed. And they want a challenge.”

Alex’s subsequent and very predictable liaison with a chunky bartender ends up making him an even more loathsome member of the male species, let alone the human race. Casual has made it difficult to get invested in this guy’s overall well-being. But Valerie remains a character worth rooting for, particularly in the aftermath of her initially cathartic fling with a studly waiter.

Teen Laura likewise is striving to sort things out, mostly in the sexual arena. She’s a good but confused kid who hasn’t had the greatest of role models. So when in doubt, act out. This includes a very impulsive misstep at her high school.

Frances Conroy also co-stars as Alex and Valerie’s mother, Dawn, who’s referenced in very unfavorable terms until finally appearing in the flesh during Episode 4.

Casual springs to vibrant life on occasion, with Watkins mostly responsible. Male dysfunction otherwise is a virtual constant, with Alex leading the charge. In his view, Valerie’s ex-husband is a “colossal douche wagon,” a term that in large part also applies to Alex. He does, however, come off better than his blind date during an Episode 1 parry and thrust that includes her telling him, “I only consume foods that were available during the Paleolithic era.”

The grins and angst menu serves Casual well at times, but perhaps not well enough to keep a majority of first-time samplers coming back for more. It’d be nice, I guess, to see both Alex and Valerie somehow soar to the heights of even semi-happiness. But it’s looking just as easy to leave them to their own devices and move on to another new TV show in a great big sea of ‘em.

GRADE: B-minus

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ABC should have let Dr. Ken call in sick


Ken Jeong (white coat) is a bumbling general practitioner in Dr. Ken. ABC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 2nd at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Ken Jeong, Suzy Nakamura, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Dave Foley, Jonathan Slavin, Albert Tsai, Krista Marie Yu, Kate Simses
Produced by: Jared Stern, Ken Jeong, John Davis, John Fox, Mike Sikowitz, Mike O’Connell

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The opening minutes of ABC’s Dr. Ken include a little colonoscopy humor. Although no one looks forward to one, it’s preferable to enduring the first two episodes of this painfully forced new comedy.

Is there a script doctor in the house? An acting coach wouldn’t hurt either.

Ken Jeong, who in real life is a licensed physician, bears most of the responsibility as the creator, co-executive producer and co-writer of Dr. Ken. He gained fame on NBC’s Community and in The Hangover trilogy of hit feature films before selling ABC on this thing. This is the same network with a Wednesday night quartet of smart, funny family comedies in The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family and black-ish. In Dr. Ken, ABC has what looks like a complete misfire on both the workplace and family fronts.

Friday’s premiere begins with a patient (played by venerable Dallas-born character actor Stephen Tobolowsky) diagnosing himself with hemorrhoids before Dr. Ken Park shoots back, “You would know since your head’s up your ass.”

It’s a fitting advisory for a show in similar straits. Jeong’s high-strung, bumbling central character mugs his way through a succession of lame one-liners while his patient wife, Allison (Suzy Nakamura), serves as both his licensed therapist and buffer between their two kids, teenager Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and pre-teen Dave (Albert Tsai). Faint praise alert: Allison is the best thing about Dr. Ken, but can’t nearly overcome her surroundings.

At the workplace, Dr. Ken’s large-ish staff has little to do except kibbitz and carp. This is supposed to be a successful practice within the walls of the Welltopia Medical Group. In the first two episodes, though, just two patients drop in to be broadly insulted by Dr. Ken. CBS’ new hospital drama, Code Black, buckles under the load of a never-ending parade of arrivals while Dr. Ken’s office looks less busy than a Sno-Cone stand in the Arctic Circle.

There’s also a smarmy administrator played by Dave Foley, who’s very obviously channeling Gary Cole’s officious bossman from the cult classic Office Space. Nothing about this show seems even remotely original.

In Episode 2, Foley’s makeup is so heavy that he looks like a character from Rocky Horror Picture Show. The writing gets no better either. As when Allison tells hubby Ken, “Why does it always go to a sexual place with you.” And Ken replies, “You know I idle at horny.”

Dr. Ken can’t be legally sued for malpractice, although the laws might need to be re-written in this case. Less funny than a compound fracture, this is a show that looks irreparably broken. It barely dodges a Grade of F only because Episode 1 includes Jeong’s dated but deft impression of Johnny Carson saying, “I did not know that.” Amusing to me, but likely to fly over the heads of an escalating percentage of viewers.

GRADE: D-minus

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