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Modern Love gives Amazon Prime a new/old take on what still makes the world go 'round

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Brand names: Tina Fey & John Slattery are included in Modern Love.
Amazon photo

Premiering: All eight Season One episodes begin streaming Friday, Oct. 18th on Amazon
Starring: Tina Fey, John Slattery, Anne Hathaway, Jane Alexander, Dev Patel among others
Produced by: John Carney, Todd Hoffman, Sam Dolnick, Choire Sicha, Trish Hoffman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Being of a “certain age” helps if you’re looking for a TV series with which to compare Amazon Prime’s Modern Love.

Honestly, though, only a few remaining fossils among us TV critic types might have any firsthand viewing experiences with Love, American Style, which aired on ABC from fall 1969 until January 1974, and has largely vanished ever since. The one-hour anthology series cobbled together various unrelated romance vignettes. One of them turned out to be a backdoor pilot for Happy Days, but without “The Fonz.”

Modern Love, drawn from a longstanding weekly column in The New York Times, offers eight half-hour episodes with either upbeat or at the very worst bittersweet endings. They’re more “adult” and far more diverse than anything Love, American Style put onscreen. Still, expect some heavy doses of saccharine intensity whenever a pop tune pops in -- which can be rather too often. Otherwise an opening theme song remains in place throughout. It’s a pleasant listen that’s reminiscent of the weekly mood-setter for Cheers. “We face the music together, and throw our hats in the ring” . . . and so on.

The Times is a co-producer in partnership with Amazon Studios. Profanity occasionally is allowed to seep through, but there’s nothing close to nudity and only a brief run-up to actual lovemaking -- in Episode 5 before things quickly go very awry. All of the episodes have subtitles with at least three times as many words as Modern Love. They range from “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” to “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” Everything is set in New York City.

All eight episodes were made available for review, and one of the best also happens to have the most built-in star power. In Episode 4 (“Rallying to Keep the Game Alive”), Tina Fey and John Slattery play wife/husband Sarah and Dennis. He’s an actor who spends much of his time being pampered on various movie sets. As a result, she’s come to feel inconsequential as a comparative homebody tending to their two children.

They’re in therapy for starters, with Sarah wondering what they’ll have together once the kids are out of the house. This doesn’t go particularly well, with Dennis contending that his hobby away from acting is “cooking.” To which Sarah snorts, “My hobby is using the toilet.”

The dialogue is sharp and their arguments grow sharper, particularly during tennis matches that are supposed to provide some relaxing, common-ground togetherness. But there are ways of working these things out. And bottom line, that’s what Modern Love is all about.

Episode 3 (“Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am”) features Anne Hathaway as the seemingly very sunny Lexi. Full of life and its possibilities, she comes on to a guy named Jeff (Gary Carr) while they’re checking out the produce at a supermarket. The episode steals from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with an out-of-body, singing/dancing production number before Lexi falls heavily back to earth for reasons that won’t be revealed here. Hathaway is quite good in this role, and there’s also a cameo by Judd Hirsch.

Episodes 5 and 6 both revolve around unlikely couples. They’re also the most open-ended of the eight, but with rainbows still in play following journeys worth taking.

Only one of the stories involves a same-sex relationship. That would be Episode 7 (“Hers Was a World of One”), in which gay couple Tobin and Andy (Andrew Scott, Brandon Kyle Goodman) decide to adopt a child. After a few dead ends, they’re presented with a homeless woman named Karla (Olivia Cooke), who’s determinedly independent and a big handful down the stretch.

“You read The New York Times and you bitch about Trump, but you mean none of it” in terms of tolerance for others, Karla angrily tells Tobin, who later cops to being both “anal and neurotic.” But they can work it out during the course of an episode that also works in a cameo from Ed Sheeran.

The Times references itself more directly in Episode 2 (“When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist”). Catherine Keener plays Julie Farber, who’s doing a profile for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine on a date site entrepreneur named Josh (Dev Patel). It turns out that both have had true loves that since went lost. So what are they going to do about it?

The climatic episode -- and also the most affectingly sentimental -- casts Jane Alexander as a widow for the second time around. “Young love, even for old people, can be surprisingly bountiful,” she eulogizes at her second husband’s funeral. The life-affirming closing minutes intertwine all of the previous stories, including an Episode 1 in which a doorman turns out to be a girl’s best friend.

Despite its varying trials and travails, Modern Love strives for an overall feel-good vibe that isn’t always entirely earned. For the most part, it’s gentle on the mind and soothing to the nerves in times when The New York Times front page is a steady drumbeat of downers. The looks of love have changed dramatically since Love, American Style premiered a half-century ago. But the sentiment has no expiration date.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Besides villains, Batwoman also battles the comic superhero blahs

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By night she’s also the Caped Crusader. Ruby Rose stars in Batman. CW photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 6th at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Ruby Rose, Rachel Skarsten, Dougray Scott, Meaghan Tandy, Elizabeth Anweis, Nicole Kang, Camrus Johnson
Produced by: Greg Bernanti, Caroline Dries, Geoff Johns, Sarah Schecter

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Producer Greg Berlanti is to comic book superheroes what Donald Trump is to tweeting.

They just can’t stop themselves.

Berlanti’s latest, Batwoman, is being paired with Berlanti’s Supergirl on The CW’s caped Sunday nights. He also supplies the network with Arrow, The Flash, Black Lightning and Legends of Tomorrow, which will return in midseason.

Berlanti’s not finished. On the mere mortal front, he helms two other CW series, All American and Riverdale, with a Riverdale spinoff, Katy Keene, coming early next year. Plus, his superhero portfolio is further populated by Titans and Doom Patrol for the DC Universe web, with Stargirl coming next year.

Back to Batwoman, which already seems like a long time ago in this review.

The title character is played by Ruby Rose, who in civilian life is Kate Kane. Berlanti, who is openly gay, has positioned her as TV’s first gay lead superhero. But some were outraged -- how easy it is these days -- when Rose initially identified her real-life self as “gender fluid” rather than full-out lesbian. This made her “not gay enough” in some quarters, with Rose abandoning her Twitter account in the wake of a social media “uproar” that seems to have since died down.

DC Comics, which has put all of its superheroes through myriad changes over the years, reintroduced Batwoman as a lesbian of Jewish descent in 2006. And nope, the Australian Rose isn’t Jewish either, which also prompted some criticism when she was first cast.

CW made the first two episodes available for review. And a major revelation at the end of the premiere hour most certainly counts as a “spoiler” that then serves as the driving force of next Sunday’s second chapter.

So without getting into specifics, let’s just say that Kate Kane is one big festering boil of resentments. This dates back to a very traumatizing tragedy in her pre-teen years. It took the life of Kate’s mother while leaving twin sister, Beth, missing and presumed dead. Kate has blamed herself ever since.

Kate’s hardboiled father, Jacob Kane (Dougray Scott in over the top form), since has remarried and founded the militaristic Crows Private Security firm. It’s intended to keep Gotham on the side of law and order after Batman inexplicably blew town three years ago. (In Berlanti’s Supergirl, Superman likewise was an on-screen no-show in the early going.)

Estranged from her dad, Kate also is embittered by the loss of her true love, Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy). Flashbacks to military school years depict their physical affection for one another. But after being discovered in an intimate embrace, Sophie chose to disavow their relationship as the price for staying enrolled. Wouldn’t you know it, she now works for Dad’s security firm. And when Sophie is kidnapped by the deranged Alice (Rachel Skarsten) and her Wonderland Gang, Kate impulsively returns from an isolated survival training camp to help in any way she can.

This re-imagined Batwoman also gives Kate a stepsister doctor named Mary (Nicole Kang), who’s running an under-funded clinic. Wizened Alfred the Butler, Bruce “Batman” Wayne’s loyal, secret-keeping ally, re-emerges as Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), a young African-American on the receiving end of Kate’s guff. She remains perplexed by whatever happened to cousin Bruce -- until learning of his secret identity and then co-opting it.

These first two episodes swerve from one action scene to another, not always cohesively. And it’s probably not a particularly good thing that Skarsten’s Alice repeatedly steals the show while Rose in either role tends to be a grim, glowering drudge.

It can be tough, though, when you’re a producer in charge of seven fall CW series on a network with just 12 of them. That’s a whole lot to juggle -- in addition to Berlanti’s numerous shows on rival networks -- and Batwoman sometimes drops the ball. It’s a brand name with several new twists. But it also can seem like another one off the assembly line. The costumes change from one superhero to another. By now, though, they’re looking interchangeable, too.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Sperm-sharing on a grand scale (with parental guidance needed) in Fox's appealing Almost Family

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Suddenly a sister act in the serial drama Almost Family. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 2nd at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Brittany Snow, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Emily Osment, Timothy Hutton, Mo McRae, Mustafa Elzein, Victoria Cartagena, Chris Conroy
Produced by: Jason Katims, Annie Weisman, Jeni Mulein, Imogen Banks, Sharon Levy, Leslye Headland

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Standout performances and what looks to be a sure-fire, durable premise give Fox’s Almost Family the key ingredients of a potentially long-running, soapy serial drama.

They weren’t as sure-handed with the title, though, segueing from Sisters to Not Just Me before settling on this third rather generic choice. His Sperm Runneth Over, America’s Baby Daddy or Test Tube Roulette apparently were never seriously considered.

Here’s the deal. Renowned Dr. Leon Bechley (Timothy Hutton) runs a fertility clinic that bears his name. His only daughter -- or so she thinks -- toils unhappily for him as a “glorified secretary.” But Julia (Brittany Snow) is shocked to learn that Dad secretly has been using “material that I knew to be successful” in the interests of impregnating perhaps hundreds of women. For starters, though, Almost Family focuses on just two of his potential offspring, both of whom share Julia’s “tooth tap” reflex.

Edie Palmer (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is a criminal defense attorney whose principal law firm partner is her husband, Tim (Mo McRae). Self-absorbed, former star Olympic gymnast Roxy Doyle (Emily Osment) is addicted to both her social media profile and pain-killers while her parents continue to exploit her as a mealticket. Roxy’s father, who suddenly doesn’t fit that title anymore, is played by former thirtysomething star Timothy Busfield. He’s now sixtysomething. It happens.

In Wednesday’s eventful premiere episode, Leon is honored at a big banquet, has a heart attack, is arrested immediately upon discharge and learns that his conduct “rises to the level of sexual assault” in the view of aggressive prosecutor Amanda Doherty (Victoria Cartagena). It’s all one big “witch hunt,” he carps. Harrumph.

Meanwhile, the sexually aggressive Amanda also is out to get Edie, whose newly discovered dad is now also her client. In Episode 2, she boldly asks Edie over drinks, “Where do you fall on the lesbian spectrum?” Well, it turns out she falls pretty hard. Which leaves husband Tim, who used to date Julia, wondering why their sex life lately has dried up.

Although it’s an ensemble cast, Snow’s Julia so far is the show’s key presence. Whether exasperated, resentful, vulnerable or quippy, she has a firm grip on the demands of this role. Bratty but insecure Roxy, who’s seldom far from a selfie stick, is likewise in good hands with Osment. The still formidable Hutton deftly balances deviousness and entitlement while Echikunwoke’s Edie outwardly seems all-business but inwardly is in turmoil regarding her sexual identity.

Principal executive producer Jason Katims also has been at the throttle of two critically acclaimed NBC series, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. His latest endeavor juggles fewer story lines for starters, but they easily might multiply in future hours. Almost Family, should it choose to do so, could unveil a new sibling of the week. And Julia has just such a nightmare at the start of Episode 2. For now, though, the main ingredients are three half-sisters getting to know one another while their widowed father keeps them guessing about whether he really means anything he says. Your guess is as good as theirs.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Walton Goggins takes a big chill pill as front man for CBS' The Unicorn

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Walton Goggins shocks the universe, plays a nice guy in The Unicorn. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Walton Goggins, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Omar Miller, Maya Lynne Robinson, Ruby Jay, Makenzie Moss, Devin Bright
Produced by: Bill Martin, Mike Schiff, Aaron Kaplan, Dana Honor, Wendi Trilling, Peyton Reed, John Hamburg

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Taking a break from playing a parade of unsavory weasels, Walton Goggins dials it way down as the star of CBS’ The Unicorn.

So much so that in Episode 2, a close friend says of his character, “He’s just too nice for this world.” Whaaaaaaaat?!

No one ever came close to saying that about Goggins’ Shane Vendrell in FX’s The Shield. Or Boyd Crowder in FX’s Justified. Or Venus Van Dam in FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Or Lee Russell in HBO’s Vice Principals. Or “Baby” Billy Freeman in HBO’s ongoing The Righteous Gemstones.

Still, most actors yearn to branch out every once in a while. Goggins is doing so with a vengeance as good guy Wade Felton, who’s still mourning the loss of his beloved wife a year after her death. He hasn’t dated since. But his omnipresent quartet of best pals -- man, do they ever take a break from one another? -- insist that he re-enter the dating pool as that most desirable of eligibles. Namely a “unicorn” -- which makes Wade a triple threat. He’s employed (maybe I missed exactly what he does), good-looking and has a track record of steadfast commitment to one woman.

Wade also has two daughters, Grace and Natalie (Ruby Jay, Makenzie Moss). They’re not as keen on dad going out with other women after they’ve had him to themselves all this time. His friends have absolutely no such qualms, though. Nebbish Forrest and tolerant wife, Delia (Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins), plus big lug Ben and tart wife Michelle (Omar Miller, Maya Lynne Robinson), don’t quite physically push Wade out the door. But when you’re “factory fresh,” as Delia puts it, why not let the ladies do some test drives? There’s more to life than volunteer soccer refereeing and a huge stockpile of post-wake frozen meals that Wade has finally burrowed through.

So earnest Wade very gingerly goes out on a date with a divorcee who wants to get into his pants faster than she can say “Your place or mine?” He’s not quite ready, though.

Episode 2, which is built around another date, includes a plug for CBS’ latest edition of Survivor, about which Wade knows nothing but Forrest knows everything. He’s not clicking with Lizzie (guest star Christina Moore), but her texts keep coming and Wade is too sensitive to break it off.

“I can’t hurt someone like that. I just can’t,” he tells his friends. Yes, Walton Goggins actually says this.

A third episode finds Wade reluctantly attending a widows’ club meeting at which he’s the only male. By the end of this one, he’s learned that it’s OK to let loose with his suppressed anger at losing the love of his life. But a fired-up Wade isn’t about to Hulk out -- or anything remotely close to that. Listen hard, though, and you might hear him raise his voice.

There’s no laugh track involved in any of this, which is heartening. And Goggins fares fairly well in this very tamped-down mode, even if a number of his previous characters clearly would want to choke Wade Felton to death.

The Unicorn likely will have a tough go of it on Thursday nights this fall opposite the first full half-hour of Fox’s NFL football. And some Goggins’ fans might be put off their feed upon seeing him like this. Should that be the case, just use an episode of Righteous Gemstones as a chaser. You’ll find him deliciously Goggins-esque as a resentful, conniving preacher intent on getting those collections plates spinning again. And then all will be right with your world again.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS' Carol's Second Act looks to be incurably unfunny

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Patricia Heaton is stuck in the middle of Carol’s Second Act. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 26th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Patricia Heaton, Kyle MacLachlan, Ito Aghayere, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Sabrina Jalees, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Neff
Produced by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Patricia Heaton, Adam Griffin, David Hunt, Rebecca Stay, Aaron Kaplan, Dana Honor

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Tetanus shots are more fun. Still, some sort of inoculation might be needed after watching Patricia Heaton striving to survive this new hospital comedy.

Carol’s Second Act marks her return to CBS in hopes of achieving a third major success following bravura stints in Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle. But man, this is not the way to go about it.

Saddled with an annoyingly awful giggle track -- plus outdated applause when Heaton first appears -- Carol’s Second Act turns out to be an antidote to the old bromide that laughter is the best medicine. You won’t find any of that going around here. And if you somehow do, it might be best to go in for a checkup.

Heaton plays divorced Carol Kenney, who’s retired from schoolteaching and is now hoping to become a doctor. But she’s 50, and thereby hopelessly old in the eyes of three fellow interns young enough to be her kids. The jokes to that effect come close to being an epidemic, but cheery Carol keeps her sunny side up until finally blowing up at episode’s merciful end.

Kyle MacLachlan chips in as the rather goofy Dr. Stephen Frost, senior attending physician at Loyola Memorial Hospital. Chief resident Maya Jacobs (Ito Aghayere) mechanically orders the interns around, to no comedic effect. Aghayere doesn’t seem to have a handle on this role at all.

Barely recognizable as intern Caleb is Lucas Neff from Fox’s Raising Hope, which was only about, oh, 10 times funnier. The other newbies are snooty Daniel (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) and insecure Lexie (Sabrina Jalees). At the end of Thursday’s premiere episode, Carol’s pharmaceutical sales rep daughter Jenny (Ashley Tisdale) pops in to tell mom how proud she is of her.

Carol’s Second Act has an overload of eight executive producers, which has proven over time to be three or four too many. Another was dropped after the pilot episode as further evidence that this show has been struggling to get its act together.

Heaton clearly gives her all in the face of one groaner after another. Such as chief resident Maya informing Carol that “someone who can’t follow orders is someone who can’t be a good doctor.” Or later, “I enforce discipline. It doesn’t mean I’m heartless.”

Literally nothing jells in this ham-handed first half-hour, and it may already be too late for full-blown emergency surgery. Still, Carol’s Second Act could well get a decent tune-in due to Heaton’s mere presence. And the basic older CBS audience might appreciate her character’s reference to Angela Lansbury as well as an attempt at Lucille Ball-esque physical comedy in a shower scene.

Otherwise we all make bad choices on occasion. As did Heaton between Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle when she co-starred with Kelsey Grammer in Fox’s short-lived Back to You. In that context, this, too, will pass.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net