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Some plain truths in HBO's My Dinner with Herve about the guy who briefly soared to fame on "De plane! De plane!"

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Herve Villechaize (Peter Dinklage) gets double-teamed on Fantasy Island while Ricardo Montalban (Andy Garcia) observes. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
First let’s get this out of the way -- and quickly.

Those who have accused HBO and Peter Dinklage of “whitewashing” the role of Herve Villechaize are at best uninformed idiots. They’re under the assumption that the late co-star of Fantasy Island was Filipino. He wasn’t. Villechaize, a native of Paris, had an English-born mother and a French-born father. Perhaps he “looked” Filipino in the eyes of those who still wear blinders when presented with the actual facts. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going around these days.

Dinklage, best known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Throne, turns out to be pretty terrific in My Dinner with Herve, which premieres Saturday, Oct. 20th at 7 p.m. (central). He’s joined by Jamie Dornan as journalist Danny Tate, a pseudonym for the film’s director and writer, Sacha Gervasi. For the record, Dinklage is a native of New Jersey, and not English, as some might perceive. Dornan is playing a Brit, but in fact is of Irish descent. Actors and their heritages for $100, Alex.

Replete with flashbacks, Dinner with Herve otherwise is set in Los Angeles, circa 1993. Tate, who’s been clean and sober for 30 days after his latest bout with the bottle, gets a redemptive chance to interview author/personality Gore Vidal under the proviso that his piece be a cover story hatchet job. But before that, his thoroughly unlikeable editor, played by Harriet Walker, orders him to also write a throwaway 500-word piece about Villechaize on the 20th anniversary of the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Villechaize first came to fame as the henchman Nick Nack opposite Roger Moore’s Bond before getting the star-making role of Tattoo on ABC’s Fantasy Island.

Tate makes the mistake of interviewing Villechaize first -- and taking too much time to do so. He’s thereby a bit late for his meeting with the thoroughly punctual Vidal, who walks out on him. Back at his hotel, a despondent Tate gets a middle of the night call from Villechaize, who isn’t nearly done talking. Unable to sleep, he agrees to be picked up in five minutes, with Villechaize arriving in a white limo and wearing a purple “Bionic Midget” t shirt. He very publicly insisted on this derogatory term instead of dwarf. And yes, it’s going to be quite a ride for both of the film’s protagonists.

Villechaize tells Tate his life story from birth to what turned out to be his apparently planned suicide after the reporter documented it all. It’s the saga of a kid shunned as a freak by his mother after his doting father tried in vain to induce a growth spurt through various treatments. A painter of some acclaim in his early years, Villechaize eventually makes his way to New York City and learns English by watching old John Wayne westerns, Gilligan’s Island, etc.

His big break comes, at least as depicted in the movie, after a knife-wielding Villechaize barges into the office of William Morris Agency heavyweight Marty Rothstein (David Strathairn) and makes quite a scene within the scene he’s acting out while the agent reaches for his desk drawer pistol. This rather suddenly leads to the Bond movie and little else for the next several years. Villechaize is living out of his car when Rothstein tells him he’s going to be playing Tattoo to Montalban’s (Andy Garcia) Mr. Roarke on hitmaker Aaron Spelling’s (Wallace Langham) Fantasy Island.

Those of a certain vintage remember how big “De plane! De plane!” became in the history of indelible TV tag lines. Instantly rich, Villechaize fully indulges his appetites for food, booze and strip clubs while also coming to believe that “without me, there is no show.” Montalban, portrayed as alternately vain and somewhat sympathetic, draws a line by both cutting Villechaize’s lines and rebuffing his co-star’s demands for equal pay.

“Perhaps there’s another little man,” he tells Spelling after both get on the same page regarding Villechaize’s Fantasy Island future. Instead the tallish Christopher Hewett was cast in the final year of the show before making a bigger mark in the ABC sitcom Mr. Belvedere.

Dinner with Herve also has a solid supporting role for Mireille Enos as Villechaize’s good-hearted wardrobe assistant and eventual best friend after a marriage to starlet Camille Hagen (Ashleigh Brewer) quickly runs asunder. After all of those grimly unsmiling years on AMC’s The Killing, it’s good to see Enos finally brighten up while portraying the selfless Kathy Self.

Villechaize never rebounded from his Fantasy Island firing. He lived out the rest of his years in public denial of his self-destructive behavior. But Dinner with Herve affords him closure while Tate also comes to the self-realization that his marriage is over and he’s entirely to blame for that. Their final scenes together are affecting and earned, even if the film sometimes moves too fast in its re-telling of Villechaize’s past.

Dinklage excels in a very difficult role to pull off while Dornan keeps pace as his reluctant Boswell. Their love story, so to speak, is both an entertaining romp and a cautionary tale about a rocket ride to fame and the abundant excesses and afflictions that often are part and parcel. Villechaize did not die a happy man. But he also lived beyond his wildest dreams.

“You tell them I regret nothing,” he softly/firmly tells Tate before they part ways. It’s a scene that sticks and resonates -- and remains open to interpretation.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Kids Are Alright gives ABC another well-tuned rewind to family of another era

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Life’s a battleground at the Cleary dinner table. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 16th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Michael Cudlitz, Mary McCormack, Jack Gore, Sam Straley, Caleb Martin Foote, Christopher Paul Richards, Sawyer Barth, Andy Walken, Santino Barnard
Produced by: Tim Doyle, Randall Einhorn

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The onetime network of Full House now has the fullest house in TV sitcom history.

Embattled parents Mike and Peggy Cleary (Michael Cudlitz, Mary McCormack) have eight additional mouths to feed at the daily dinner table. They’re all sons, and some are starved for attention as well in The Kids Are Alright, ABC’s latest well-crafted period piece comedy.

ABC long has been the network of mom, dad and the kids sitcoms while also making its mark with long-running rewinds to the 1950s (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the ‘60s (The Wonder Years) and the ‘80s (The Goldbergs). Kids Are Alright is set in the ‘70s -- and for future/past reference, ABC’s midseason comedy Schooled will be set in the ’90s as a spinoff of The Goldbergs.

Paired with The Conners on Tuesday nights, Kids Are Alright follows the leads of The Wonder Years and The Goldbergs with a narrative voice of an adult recalling his childhood. In this case, it’s creator/executive producer Tim Doyle, who vocalizes middle kid Timmy (Jack Gore), a 12-year-old with an artistic bent who auditions for a children’s theater musical in Episode 1 and performs with his fire-damaged ventriloquist’s dummy Knuckles in the second episode provided for review.

The nominal family patriarch is prototypically gruff but a bit mushy when it matters most. In an early scene, Mike Cleary isn’t buying any Nixon White House scandals. “You know what I call Watergate? That’s phony news,” he barks.

Peggy Cleary is the old-line, stay-at-home mom with a weary disdain (outwardly at least) for sons who think they’re gifted.

“We do not have the wherewithal in this family for any of you kids to be special,” she says. And furthermore, “We can’t afford asthma.”

Some of the Cleary kids pretty much blend into the well-worn woodwork in these first two episodes. Besides Timmy, those who stand out include oldest son Lawrence (Sam Straley), who’s developing a social conscience while bailing out on becoming a Catholic priest, and scheming, budding hipster Joey (Christopher Paul Richards), a confidante when Timmy really needs one.

In Episode 2, Lawrence lobbies for healthier choices in the Cleary diet before mom reminds him, “We’re just not fresh vegetable people.” Then he later upbraids his dad for buying lettuce and grapes when farm workers are on strike. Wasn’t he aware of their plight? “I might have heard Cronkite mention something in his nightly coverage of whiners and crybabies,” Mike retorts.

Kids Are Alright has some fine, funny lines and also plenty of companion story lines to follow besides Timmy’s. It’s the best of the fall season’s new comedies from a network that’s become well-practiced in turning back the clock and making shows like these tick.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's The Rookie benefits from its built-in star

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Nathan Fillion stars as a later-in-life cop in The Rookie. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Afton Williamson, Richard T. Jones, Alyssa Diaz, Melissa O’Neil, Titus Makin, Eric Winter, Mercedes Mason
Produced by: Alexi Hawley, Mark Gordon, Nathan Fillion, Michelle Chapman, Jon Steinberg

By ED BARK
@unclebarky com on Twitter
ABC sorely needs a surefire hit, and The Rookie looks like the best bet to deliver as a cop drama with a sometimes unsteady aim in Tuesday’s premiere.

The star of the show, Nathan Fillion, is cut in the mold of high-appeal TV guys such as Tom Selleck, Mark Harmon and David Boreanaz. Viewers respond to them without much if any coaxing. Knowing this, ABC has put more promotional muscle behind this show than for any of its other new fall series. If it somehow flops, the network will be licking some deep wounds.

Fillion, who had a long run as the co-star of ABC’s Castle, is first seen as rumpled looking rust belt construction company owner John Nolan. Reeling from a newly minted divorce, he feels bent, spindled and mutilated, plaintively asking a bank manager and friend, “Who am I?”

In a far-fetched stretch, the two of them then find themselves in the middle of a bank heist after Nolan has discarded his wedding ring in a safe deposit box. An armed masked robber smashes him in the face when Nolan starts spilling his guts about self-identity. Warned to stay down or be killed, Nolan instead rises again to ask, “What’s my dream?” Luckily for him, the cops bust in just before the bad guy can plug him.

Barely a finger snap later, 40-year-old Nolan has answered his inner calling and transitioned to his first day on the job with the Los Angeles Police Department. The stern watch commander, Sgt. Wade Grey (Richard T. Jones), introduces him to the rest of the force as an old-timer who was “born before disco died.” Then he lays the wood: “I hate what you represent. A walking, midlife crisis.”

Nolan is among three featured freshman cops paired with veteran no-nonsense partners. Rookie Lucy Chen (Melissa O’Neil) gets the worst of it, a belittling Mark Fuhrman type with a seeming racist streak named Tim Bradford (Eric Winter). Jackson West (Titus Makin), whose dad is a powerful string-puller, rides shotgun with Angela Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) while Nolan is teamed with savvy Talia Bishop (Afton Williamson).

The first day is action-packed, of course. Nolan and Bishop first respond to a domestic violence call that later on has a bit of a twist. Nolan also huffs and puffs after a deranged man who’s first seen pounding a car windshield senseless with a baseball bat. The three rookies later wind down at a bar where their waitress instantly has eyes for Nolan. But he turns out to be already taken, which provides another twist, albeit a not terribly effective one.

The following morning’s roll call finds the watch commander again ridiculing Nolan before all three of the new cop duos are pinned down by a parole violator spraying fire from an automatic weapon. Justice prevails, though, before Nolan gets ridden hard again by the officious watch commander.

The Rookie’s action scenes are capably staged in a pilot episode that’s also brisk and well cast beyond the built-in marquee appeal of Fillion. But the lead character’s back story is barely touched on. And Nolan’s training to become a cop is completely omitted in the rush to get him out on the streets and imperiled.

Amid all this fast-forwarding, Fillion does not have to be force-fed. Enough viewers probably know and like him enough to make The Rookie instantly click in the ratings. Only the first episode was made available for review. Future hours would benefit from being a bit slower on the draw.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO goes Camping for fun, but don't expect to have any

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Into the wild: David Tennant/Jennifer Garner in Camping. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 14th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on HBO
Starring: Jennifer Garner, David Tennant, Juliette Lewis, Chris Sullivan, Janicza Bravo, Brett Gelman, Ione Skye, Duncan Joiner, Cheyenne Haynes
Produced by: Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Great Outdoors comes down with a case of seemingly incurable human infestation in HBO’s Camping, in which Jennifer Garner segues from those cheery Capitol One commercials to star as a scrunch-faced Debbie Downer with a self-described “dysfunctional pelvic floor.”

All of which means that her sexually deprived husband, played by David Tennant, hasn’t made a tent pole in his pants for the last two years by his count. So beware of hiking into a would-be comedy series co-executive produced by Lena Dunham of Girls fame and Jenni Konner, the head show runner of that series. What you’ll experience, during the four episode made available for review, is marginally more pleasant than poison sumac disease. But please don’t hold me to that. There are eight episodes in all.

Kathryn McSorley-Jodell (Garner) is the very rigid organizer of what’s supposed to be a nature-centric getaway in celebration of husband Walt’s (Tennant) 45th birthday. She’s reserved a small tent park from a pair of burly lesbians who try to arm her with a BB gun to ward off the wild bears. Kathryn recoils in horror. And away we go.

Their fellow campers are Walter’s brother, George (Brett Gelman) and his wife, Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo); Kathryn’s sister, Carleen (Ione Skye) and her boyfriend, Joe (Chris Sullivan from This Is Us); and an unexpected mega-free spirit named Jandice (Juliette Lewis), who’s along for this ride with Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) after his wife left him. Walt and Kathryn also have a put-upon pre-teen son, Orvis (Duncan Joiner) while Carleen and Joe are accompanied by an insolent teen girl Sol (Cheyenne Haynes).

Lewis, as she is wont, throws herself into this role with an early full frontal skinny dip after Kathryn has insisted that this particular day is for bird-watching. The others, save for Kathryn, jump in to join her. Wah-wah, that’s the end of Episode 1.

Orvis later is “injured” in one of those ridiculously staged jump-around football games, prompting Kathryn to rush him to a nearby medical facility and dote on the poor unhurt kid for the rest of Episode 2. Everyone else, save for hangdog Walt, takes off to a bar to drink jelly donut shots at ribald Jandice’s insistence. But fisticuffs almost break out when George learns that Joe, a recovering addict, has called his wife “Li’l Chocolate.”

Episode 3 begins with an odd and wholly gratuitous scene in which Carlene is shown fully naked while taking a shower. Dunham became somewhat infamous for her drop-of-the-hat nude scenes in early seasons of Girls. So maybe that explains it, although if the producers of this series were men, they might well be called on the carpet for what can be seen as pure sex-ploitation in the #MeToo era.

Garner’s character remains a rigid sourpuss until Episode 4, when Jandice mistakenly gives her an upper instead of a downer to help her sleep. But even a wired Kathryn isn’t all that much fun.

It’s hard to discern the overall intent here. Most of the characters are either sad sacks or in Jandice’s case, demonstrably unhinged. But whatever situations they’re put in, Camping all in all is less fun than waves of dive-bombing mosquitoes. Hell, even a good ol’ baked bean-infused fart-fest around the campfire would be a welcome diversion. But a Blazing Saddles intervention seems unlikely.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Amazon Prime's The Romanoffs gives Mad Men creator a license to underwhelm, overspend

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The Romanoffs triangulates in slow-cooked Episode 1. Amazon photo

Premiering: The first two of eight episodes begin streaming Friday, Oct. 12th on Amazon Prime
Starring: A cavalcade of known and little-known actors and actresses
Created, directed, written, produced by: Matthew Weiner

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Both lavish and languid, the first three installments of Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs are mostly bereft of the snap, pop and sizzle of Mad Men.

Their overriding creative force is one and the same -- fastidious Matthew Weiner. Nearly three-and-a-half years after his landmark series ended its AMC run, he’s dared to do something quite different although not nearly in the same league. A reported $70 million budget for an eight-episode first season of 90-minute stand-alone stories so far is not paying off handsomely in terms of stories that induce wonderment, surprise or quickened pulses. Instead we get three long hauls that mostly test a viewer’s endurance. The performances aren’t at fault, but the stories themselves easily could be trimmed to an hour apiece or less. Left free to indulge himself, Weiner gorges too much on empty calories.

The first two tales -- subtitled “The Violet Hour” and “The Royal We,” are reminiscent of an old TV chestnut, ABC’s Love, American Style anthology series. “House of Special Purpose” (for which a full review is “embargoed” until Monday, Oct. 15th), is a cross between The Shining and The Twilight Zone. Maybe we’ll eventually get something in the vein of Wagon Train or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

Before dealing in more depth with the first two episodes, let’s note briefly that former Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks is the principal focus of “House of Special Purpose,” with Paul Reiser the other familiar cast member. She plays an actress, he’s her agent and otherworldly things start to happen when she journeys to Austria to star in a six-part TV miniseries titled The Romanovs. A mercurial French woman director, played by Isabelle Huppert, is calling the shots as only she sees them.

Principal members of the real life aristocratic Romanovs were gunned down en masse by Bolshevik assassins in the summer of 1918. Weiner’s The Romanoffs consists of very lengthy vignettes about people who believe themselves to be descendants.

Each story begins boldly with an opening montage that shows the royals being gunned down to the tune of the late Tom Petty’s “Refugee” Their blood then runs in thin lines through subsequent generations.

“The Violet Hour,” set in Paris, starts off with the hospitalization of imperious Madame Anastasia Le Charney (Marthe Keller), also known as “Anushka.” She’s had a fainting spell, and her nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), is soon by her bedside while his self-absorbed lover, Sophie (Louise Bourgoin), fumes about another possibly canceled vacation.

Taken back to her luxurious city apartment, where she has run off a string of caregivers, Anushka is presented with another one hired by Greg. Her name is Hajar (Ines Melab), a Muslim who wears a head cover.

“I need a caregiver and not a terrorist,” Anushka bellows at Greg. “I hope you sleep well when she blows up my apartment.”

But Anushka, who’s beautiful, is also competent, kindly and seemingly impossible to anger. After this is established, things move along rather predictably -- and also quite slowly. Keller, Bourgoin and Melab are all quite good in their roles while Eckhart’s performance is slower to take hold and arguably never quite gets a grip. Paris looks splendid throughout, so there’s that, too. But these 90 minutes are hardly all-consuming.

Also streaming on Friday, Oct. 12 is “The Royal We,” with the following six episodes to be posted weekly from Oct. 19th through Nov. 23rd.

In this one, Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishe play Michael and Shelly Romanoff. Their marriage has hit a deep rut, and they’re first seen in a therapist’s office. Michael, who works in a strip mall for a college test-prepping chain called Gold Standard, can’t think of anything he’d like to do together with his wife. So he leaves it up to her, and she plans a cruise ship sojourn with a gaudy Romanov theme.

Those plans are waylaid when Michael has jury duty and intentionally sabotages a unanimous verdict in a cut-and-dried murder case after laying eyes on a sexy fellow juror named Michelle (Janet Montgomery). Envisioning a tryst, he encourages Shelly to take the cruise by herself. Which she does, meeting handsome, sensitive Ivan (Noah Wyle) in the process.

The story toggles between these two venues, with Weiner again in no hurry at all to get things moving along. The shipboard scenes are visually grand, though, and Bishe’s Shelly flashes the winningest smiles since Mary Lou Retton’s Olympian days.

The denouement again is no real surprise, and what a slog it’s been getting there.

Mad Men set one of TV’s higher bars in recent years, leaving Weiner with his own nigh impossible act to follow. There are still five more stories to be told in The Romanoffs, although expecting them to show vast improvements is not being realistic. What you’ll see in the first three is not altogether a waste of time. Still, the operative question remains: Is that all there is? And how much money did you say he spent?

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The CW's All American trades on both racial tensions and student bodies

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A coach and his star recruit clash in All American. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 10th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Daniel Ezra, Taye Diggs, Samantha Logan, Bre-Z, Greta Onieogou, Monet Mazur, Michael Evans Behling, Cody Christian, Karimah Westbrook, Jalyn Hall
Produced by: April Blair, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Rob Hardy

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Racial dynamics are a big part of The CW’s new All American.

But so are abs, pecs and high school football players aggressively sporting them during what the network hopes will be must-see workouts at Zuma Beach. Sculpted males as take-your-shirts-off sex objects? On television at least, that’s still no more of a no-no than your basic bumbling dad.

“Inspired by a true story,” All American is the saga of a star receiver from the poor side of town who’s coveted by a coach from a rich enclave. African-American males as leads had been basically non-existent on The CW until Black Lightning premiered last season. But Greg Berlanti is not. He’s a co-executive producer of both series while also helming The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Riverdale. The guy’s busy. And with Berlanti, you generally get a polished and entertaining product, which All American for the most part is.

Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) is first seen making big, flashy plays for South Crenshaw High. But after the game, gunfire is heard outside the stadium.

“Another day in the neighborhood,” Spencer matter-of-factly tells predatory coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), who replies, “I can get you a way out, man.”

The resultant tug-of-war of course will be won by the Beverly Hills Eagles coach, with an assist from Spencer’s mom, Grace (Karimah Westbrook). Both have ulterior motives. Coach Baker wants to save his imperiled job while also enhancing his reputation as a groomer of hot college prospects. Grace wants something better for her son, but has additional reasons that slowly will play out in the three episode made available for review.

It also just so happens that coach Baker’s son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), is the Beverly Hills high quarterback (he feels unappreciated) while his daughter, Olivia (Samantha Logan), is newly out of rehab after taking the rap for someone else. (She also feels unappreciated.) Their white mom, Laura (Monet Mazuer), is more attentive to both children.

Olivia is quickly enamored of Spencer, who’s initially entranced by all-that Leila Faisal (Greta Onieogou), the very popular “Stu Co” (student council) president. Her father is a rich record producer who supposedly spends Thanksgivings with the Obamas. Rumor also has it, says Olivia, that Leila “even smoked pot with Malia (the Obamas’ oldest daughter) last year.” That’s not a capital crime, of course, but it does seem like a cheap, gratuitous reference.

The football team’s resident first-string pass-catcher, a guy named Asher (Cody Christian), is white, entitled and the son of a racist school booster who’s introduced in Episode 2. “Crips or Bloods?” Asher asks upon first meeting Spencer, who’s understandably repulsed.

Spencer eventually moves in with the Bakers to establish residency while still returning to South Crenshaw on weekends to be with his mom and younger brother Dillon (a winning Jalyn Hall). The series’ most nuanced character, and Spencer’s old neighborhood confidante, is Tiana “Coop” Cooper (Bre-Z). She’s a blunt-spoken gay girl who’s both falling into the wrong crowd and reluctant to disclose her sexuality to a very religious mother. Bre-Z excels in every scene she’s in. The writers need to keep finding ways to keep her character from becoming more than peripheral.

All American also has some pat scenes in its efforts to create both racial and sexual(ity) conflict. In Episode 3, for instance, the coach’s son is roughed up by white Crenshaw cops after he and Spencer are stopped for no reason while driving back to the Hills in Jordan’s flashy red convertible.

Jordan should have been taught to simply cooperate rather than protest this indignity, Spencer tells Coach Baker. His response sounds too much like a tract: “I honestly thought that I had bought Jordan just a little more time before he had to face the ugly side of being a black man in America.”

This is also the episode where Coop learns just where her mom stands after she becomes suspicious of the same-sex company her daughter is keeping. Once again, the scene is both affecting and a little too prototypical. But the writers need to keep trying to get it just right.

All-American has overtones of NBC’s exemplary Friday Night Lights, but so far is not in its class. FNL had one of the best parent-student ensembles in TV history. The CW’s first high school football series literally is better built in terms of strutting its stuff in the locker room and at the beach. Perhaps the drama will also flex harder in time.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Pop fizzling with a pop star in CBS' Happy Together

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A white pop star crashes with an initially reluctant black couple in Happy Together. Harry Styles is a co-executive producer. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 1st at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Damon Wayans, Jr., Amber Stevens West, Felix Mallard, Chris Parnell, Stephnie Weir, Victor Williams
Produced by: Austen Earl, Tim McAuliffe, Ben Winston, Harry Styles, Michael Rotenberg, Jonathan Berry

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Not content to invade a black couple’s space with just one new comedy about white interlopers, CBS has another one in Happy Together.

It’s paired with the likewise themed The Neighborhood, but this one is notably thinner in even short-term possibilities.

Australian pop heartthrob Cooper James (Felix Mallard), who seems purer than the baby Jesus, has just broken up with a ditzy, self-absorbed movie star named Sierra Quinn (guest star Peyton List). James Corden talks about it on his late night CBS show while Jake and Claire Davis (Damon Wayans, Jr., Amber Stevens West) just happen to be tuned in.

Jake also is Cooper’s accountant. So it makes perfect sense -- no, it doesn’t -- that he’d ring their doorbell the next morning and ask if he can crash with them for a short while until everything dies down. It’s supposedly loosely drawn from a brief period when One Direction’s Harry Styles lived in the attic of Ben Winston, who with Styles is a co-executive producer of Happy Together.

The couple agrees to this, but complications ensue when Cooper takes Jake and Claire with him to one of his favorite clubs. “Oh my God, this place is incredible!” Jake exclaims, even though it looks like nothing of the sort, even by sitcom standards.

Anyway, Claire and Jake let loose by drinking shots and dancing with abandon while the paparazzi blaze away. Media accounts then contend that Cooper is dating an older lady, namely Claire. This prompts snooty Sierra to barge back into his life while the shell-shocked Davises are looking for a diplomatic way to put him back in circulation.

Through it all, Cooper remains incredibly nice to everyone, including Claire’s overbearing and star-struck parents (Stephnie Weir, Victor Williams). There’s less edge to him than an Olive Garden pasta dish. And to their chagrin, the Davises realize (again through media footage) that the poor little lamb is clearly miserable with she-devil Sierra, and therefore needs to be rescued again and relocated under their roof.

Ubiquitous Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell, who also will be a series regular, drops in very briefly as Cooper’s manager, Wayne. He leaves no impression at all in Monday’s premiere, and it’s hard to imagine how this series can sustain itself.

It’s remotely possible, perhaps, that slews of pre- and early teen girls will be content to merely gaze upon Cooper for a half-hour’s time each week. But that’s assuming they even know what CBS is. Nah.

Happy Together otherwise is the season’s slightest new sitcom on a network that has done much better by this genre in recent seasons with the likes of Young Sheldon, Mom and Life In Pieces. In this case, the premise simply has no foreseeable promise.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS' The Neighborhood is too black and white for its own good

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Max Greenfield & Cedric the Entertainer clash in The Neighborhood. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 1st at 7 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Cedric the Entertainer, Max Greenfield, Tichina Arnold, Sheaun McKinney, Marcel Spears, Beth Behrs, Hank Greenspan
Produced by: Jim Reynolds, Aaron Kaplan, Dana Honor, Wendi Trilling, Cedric the Entertainer, Eric Rhone

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
From white flight to white blight, cantankerous Calvin Butler thinks he has it all figured out.

Constantly disparaging an unemployed son had been his favorite pastime. Now he’s got a fallback harangue when the almost impossibly Caucasian Johnson family moves in next door on CBS’ The Neighborhood. How dare they try to be so nice to him while also imposing on his block’s hard-won “culture?”

Cedric the Entertainer plays the entrenched naysayer while Max Greenfield (fresh from Fox’s New Girl) co-stars as the painfully well-meaning Dave Johnson in a comedy that mostly plunges headlong into its punchlines while also dispensing an assortment of life’s lessons. CBS offered the first four episodes for review. They show marginal improvement, but it’s still a very slow build.

Calvin is first seen tending to his smoker for an upcoming “Yardecue Day” in his Pasadena neighborhood while his live-in oldest son, Malcolm (Sheaun McKinney), absorbs the old man’s guff.

Meanwhile, the Johnsons are driving in from Kalamazoo, Michigan, with their pre-teen son, Grover (Hank Greenspan), noting that his grandma wishes they weren’t moving to a black neighborhood. Then he begins counting the blacks he sees while dad and mom, Gemma (Beth Behrs of CBS’ 2 Broke Girls), tell him how great it’s all going to be.

Gemma has a new job as principal of a “progressive school” while Dave is a “professional conflict mediator,” rendering him super-sensitive to others’ needs, none more so than his own.

Calvin, who owns an auto repair shop, is married to the comparatively refined Tina (Tichina Arnold). Besides Malcolm, they have a younger son named Marty (Marcel Spears), who lives outside the house, has a job of some sort and is described as “chipper” in CBS publicity materials. Everyone appears to have a lot of spare time on their hands, even though Calvin talks as though he doesn’t. “When I get up, I go to work,” he jabs at Malcolm. “When you get up, you go pee.”

In Episode 2, Malcolm in turns calls his father a “big ol’ stubborn ass-asaurus” while Gemma and Tina quickly bond and have some amusing scenes tied to the latter’s wig collection. The prize one is named “Lola.”

The third half-hour finds Dave offering Calvin a key to the Johnsons’ house in a gesture of neighborliness. But Calvin has no interest in reciprocating. Nor is he a fan of Dave’s short running shorts. “The last time I saw that much white meat, it was fried and in a bucket,” he cracks while the laugh track almost goes into cardiac arrest.

Episode 4 is built around a housewarming party at the Johnsons, with Calvin begging off because it’s dart night at Ernie’s bar. He later harrumphs, “I don’t want to be a part of your white folk nonsense.”

CBS has taken major steps to make its new fall series considerably more diverse than last time. The Neighborhood hits that mark, but also marches to the same-old/same-old sitcom beats. It’s the kind of show that tries to wring laughs out an old former babysitter of Malcolm’s who’s now hitting on him while getting around with a walker.

“Ya know, she used to change my diaper. Now she wants me to get in hers,” Malcolm says in one of the fall season’s bigger groaners. There goes -- and so goes -- The Neighborhood.

GRADE: C

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