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Fox's The Moodys serves up a Christmas of discomfort and joy

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It’s rarely all aglow in The Moodys Christmas series. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Dec. 4th with back-to-back episodes and continuing on Monday/Tuesday at 8 p.m. (central) each night
Starring: Denis Leary, Elizabeth Perkins, Francois Arnaud, Chelsea Frei, Jay Baruchel, Maria Gabriela de Faria, Josh Segarra, Kevin Bigley, Megan Park, Gerry Dee
Produced by: Bob Fisher, Eric Tannenbaum, Kim Tannenbaum, Jason Burrows, Rob Greenberg, Tad Quill, Trent O’Donnell, Phil Lloyd

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Put caustic Denis Leary amid holiday surroundings and you won’t come away with any Hallmark goo on you. Well, maybe just a little.

Leary’s durable The Ref, released back in 1994, cast him as a Christmas season burglar caught amid a highly dysfunctional family. In 2005, his Merry F#%$in’ Christmas, adapted from a same-named comedy CD, began airing on Comedy Central. It wasn’t particularly heartwarming.

Fox’s uniquely presented, six-part The Moodys, based on an Australian TV series, puts Leary in a somewhat softer light as a harried married man with three troubled adult children. Episode One begins with his wife, Ann (Elizabeth Perkins), blasting away at ornaments and decorations before loudly declaring, “Christmas is canceled!” Then comes a backtrack to what brought the Moodys to this point.

The series is airing in three parts, with back-to-back half-hour episodes on Wednesday, Dec. 4th, Mon., Dec. 10th and Tuesday, Dec. 11th. Bad Santa it’s not, with Leary’s Sean Moody a recovering alcoholic rather than a heavy drinker in the mold of Billy Bob Thornton’s dirty-to-the-touch Willie T. Soke, whose specialty was Christmas season heists.

The Moodys, set in Chicago, ends up striking a fairly solid balance between sardonic and sentimental. Even Bad Santa ends “happily,” because few among us want to watch a Christmas movie in which nothing winds up being calm or bright. Be assured, though, that The Moodys runs deeper and grittier than anything you’ll see in Hallmark’s virtually identical, hot chocolate-fueled “Countdown to Christmas” movies.

OK, let’s meet the Moody offspring, shall we?

Sean Jr. (Jay Baruchel), the oldest of two sons at age 31, continues to live in Dad’s RV, which is parked on the premises. His latest grand business venture is honoring the deceased by shooting their ashes high into the sky amid fireworks. It’s not getting off the ground, though.

Only daughter Bridget (Chelsea Frei) is married but remorseful after an impulsive one-night stand that mortifies her husband. “I just lit my life on fire,” she confides to a fitness-obsessed high school wrestling coach named Monty (Kevin Bigley), who’s basically pure as the driven snow.

Youngest son Dan (Francois Arnaud) is home for the holidays from New York, but initially without girlfriend Ali (Megan Park). It’s his latest relationship gone sour, of which mom bluntly reminds him. But Dan soon has eyes for Cora (Maria Gabriela de Faria), who’s dating his cousin and best friend, Marco (Segarra). His super white teeth, displayed via a series of ear-to-ear grins, deserve to be credited as a supporting character.

Also in the family mix are goofy Uncle Roger (Gerry Dee) and frequent visitor Big Stan (Kwasi Songui), an accomplished pie maker who doesn’t mind saying so himself. The family dog, Leon, a gift 18 Christmases ago, is now infirm and increasingly immobile. Here’s where the heartstring tugs come in.

Sean Sr., who has his own heating and air-conditioning company, is also facing a health situation that slips out in dribs and drabs to his three children. The Moodys easily could -- and should -- do without this odd little twist, which is partly and wrongheadedly played for laughs.

Though it all, mom and dad Moody remain holiday traditionalists, whether it’s Ann’s cookie-eating/tree-trimming ritual or Sean Sr. leading a caroling brigade while wearing a top hat. There’s also midnight mass, where dad longs to be the lector. The kids have grown weary of it all, but grudgingly play along when not jabbing at each other.

It’s not always an optimum blend of merriment and miscreants. Still, The Moodys earns its candy cane stripes as a Christmas mini-series with bite.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Spectrum's Mad About You reboot is nothing to get upset about

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Married with child: Paul Reiser/Helen Hunt return 20 years after the original left NBC for Mad About You reprise. Spectrum Orlginals photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Nov. 20th, with first six episodes available via Spectrum Originals On Demand
Starring: Paul Reiser, Helen Hunt, Abby Quinn, Richard Kind, John Pankow, Kecia Lewis, Anne Ramsay
Produced by: Peter Tolan, Helen Hunt, Paul Reiser, Brian Volk-Weiss, Michael Pelmont, Matthew Ochacher

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Reboot mania has slowed its frenetic pace this season, although not to a crawl just yet.

On the sitcom front, CBS had a flop last season with a Murphy Brown reprise while NBC is wrapping up its second coming of Will & Grace and ABC is still gainfully airing The Conners after the Roseanne re-do’s namesake tweeted her way out of the picture.

Mad About You, from the same era as the aforementioned, otherwise is different in two key respects. Most important: the overall lack of availability. You’ll have to be a Spectrum cable subscriber to see the series, whose first six episodes arrive commercial-free via the service’s On Demand arm.

Furthermore, the second comings of Roseanne, Will & Grace and Murphy Brown were rife with references to the Trump administration in their first episodes. Characters took sides and then squared off. But Mad About You re-arrives in a complete political vacuum. Paul and Jamie Buchman (original co-stars Paul Reiser, Helen Hunt) remain in Trump’s original lair of Manhattan. But there’s nary a mention of his presidency in the first five episodes made available for review, not even from their now college age daughter, Mabel (Abby Quinn). She’s anything but an activist in a first episode where Mabel’s sole goal is relocating to a New York University dorm room and putting the parents behind her.

The principal issue in Episode One is Mabel’s failure to make her bed before leaving home. Upon discovering this, Jamie is greatly vexed while Paul already has gotten past his initial weepiness over their only child leaving home. Back-and-forth they go, with Hunt and Reiser still quite adept at playing off one another. It’s the reboot’s biggest plus side, even if their sometimes playful dickering is much ado about essentially nothing.

Returning supporting characters include Jamie’s older sister, Lisa (Anne Ramsay), Paul’s cousin, Ira (John Pankow), and Paul’s longtime friend, Dr. Mark Devanow (Richard Kind). A lack of diversity in the original series is addressed by Mark remarrying an African-American therapist named Tonya (Kecia Lewis). She turns out to be a big plus, particularly in an Episode 5 where Jamie re-enters the work force as Tonya’s therapist-in-training. “Now let’s go fix some people” serves as Tonya’s rallying cry. For his part, Paul is now running a small post-production film studio.

The original Mad About You ran for 164 episodes and seven seasons on NBC, ending in 1999. Hunt won four consecutive lead actress Emmys and was nominated in that category for the show’s other three seasons. Reiser ended up settling for six nominations. The show itself never won an Emmy for best comedy series, but these were glory years for broadcast network sitcoms. The competition not only included Roseanne, Murphy Brown and Will & Grace, but also Cheers, Seinfeld, Designing Women, Frasier, Friends and Wings.

Spectrum’s Mad About You reboot, with a second helping of six more episodes coming on December 18th, is agreeable enough to coax some smiles and even a little audible laughter on occasion. As when Paul traverses the distance from kitchen to apartment door while riffing, “Is the place getting bigger? Twenty years ago, I would have been there already.”

Best of all, the show isn’t an embarrassment. It smoothly goes through its paces, with Hunt and Reiser engaged and looking happy to be together again. The “plots,” such as they are, tend to be mostly thin soup. Jamie resents never being offered a toothpick by Paul after a restaurant meal. Paul works himself into a frazzle over the idea of getting naked in view of Mark for a post-workout steam bath.

And in the show’s so far lone jab at current societal issues, it’s cringe-worthy to see Paul being branded as “just another misogynist who doesn’t get it” by an aggressively “woke” NYU film student.

So no, you’re not likely to renounce your current cable or satellite service for the sole purpose of getting to see the new Mad About You. But for those who are already in tow, this is a nice little bonus that goes down easily and amiably.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Back to Life gives Showtime a gem of a shortform series

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Daisy Haggard plays a somewhat comical ex-con in Back to Life. Showtime photo

Premiering: All six episode are available Sunday, Nov. 10th on Showtime
Starring: Daisy Haggard, Geraldine James, Richard Durden, Adeel Akhtar, Christine Bottomley, Liam Williams, Jamie Michie, Jo Martin
Produced by: Sarah Hammond, Debbie Pisani, Daisy Haggard, Kate Daughton, Laura Solon, Chis Sweeney, Harry Williams, Jack Williams

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Convicted of a murder she actually did commit (although unintentionally), a teen returns home 18 years later with hopes of becoming whole again if only people will let her.

This also was the basic premise for Sundance TV’s Rectify, which had a deadly serious four-season run. Showtime’s six-episode Back to Life, available in its entirety on Sunday, Nov. 10th, is far lighter on its feet, and certainly none the worse for it. Billed as a comedy but in equal parts dramatic, this stellar BBC production can be navigated in one sitting, thanks to a total length of less than three hours. The time will fly by, and the ending won’t leave you hanging. There’s room for a Season Two if the principals are game. If not, enjoy Back to Life for what it is and probably should be -- a short-form series that knows its limits and where it’s going.

Most enjoyable is Daisy Haggard’s centerpiece character of Miri Matteson, whose small coastal hometown in Hythe, Kent remains in a collective mood to ostracize her. Unlike Rectify, her time behind bars is never revisited. Instead she’s picked up outside prison walls by her judgmental mum Caroline (Geraldine James) and more supportive pup Oscar (Richard Durden). They’ve kept their only child’s bedroom as is, with posters of Prince and David Bowie reminding her that life can be all too perishable.

Miri has no interest in closeting herself. She very much wants to get a job, and Oscar is all for that.

“We can’t keep her locked up,” he tells Caroline, who retorts, “Oh, she’ll be fine. She’s used to it.” The snappy writing kicks in early and never flags, with Back to Life deftly navigating from hilarious to poignant and back again. It’s also graphic with its euphemisms for sex acts and the requisite body parts. One such recurrent coupling, which won’t be revealed, is very much on the down low.

Meanwhile, Miri successfully applies for a job at a fledgling fish and chips shop run by young bloke Nathan (Liam Williams). Their rapid-fire byplay is letter-perfect. “I can clean a toilet until it shines like the sun,” she assures him.

Miri also meets a next door neighbor named Billy (Adeel Akhtar), who’s both a gardener and caretaker to a batty, profane older woman. Bubbling up from Miri’s past are ex-boyfriend Dom (Jamie Michie), now loutish and married, and best girlfriend Mandy (Christine Bottomley), who for reasons to be explained later never wrote or visited during those 18 years of incarceration for killing fellow bestie Lara.

Back to Life is also about a town that with few exceptions is collectively without pity or empathy. Someone sprays “Psycho Bitch” in bright red letters on the Matteson home. Later on, a brick is thrown through the front window of the fish and chips eatery, leaving Miri bleeding from the head. Mum is also wounding Miri by distancing herself. This all comes to a head during a cathartic Episode 4.

The serious business of Back to Life gives the series some heft while Miri’s comical parole officer Janice (Jo Martin) and a daftly inquisitive cop (in Episode 5) keep things from going full tilt Rectify -- or anything close.

Haggard’s performance (she’s also a co-writer) is a marvel, whether she’s exuding vulnerability or dishing the sass. Used and abused but never quite de-fused, she propels Back to Life to the top tier of this season’s newcomers, with ample help from a crackerjack ensemble.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Morning Show dawns on Apple TV+ -- and shines

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Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon power The Morning Show. Apple TV+ photo

Premiering: The first three of 10 episodes begin streaming Friday, Nov. 1st on Apple TV+
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Mark Duplass, Billy Crudup, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Karen Pittman, Desean K. Terry, Jack Davenport
Produced by: Mimi Leder, Kristin Hahn, Kerry Ehrin, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Lauren Levy Neustadter, Michael Ellenberg

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A promotional blitz has preceded the Nov. 1st dawning of Apple TV+ and its wealth of original content.

In terms of star power and financial investment, though, one series rises and shines above the others. It’s The Morning Show, with a cast fronted by Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. Apple TV+ has already committed to at least two seasons of a provocative potboiler that could be subtitled Today on Trial. The first three of Season One’s 10 episodes will stream on Friday before the rest are doled out at the rate of one a week. The opening cost to consumers is $4.99 a month.

As Aniston and Witherspoon noted in a recent interview with CBS This Morning’s Gayle King, the storyline of Morning Show underwent a significant makeover after Today’s Matt Lauer and This Morning’s Charlie Rose were dismissed after charges of sexual misconduct.

Lauer’s transgressions allegedly occurred in the workplace, which makes the takeoff point for Morning Show more in line with his demise. The perpetrator in this case is veteran co-host Mitch Kessler (Carell), who has sat beside Aniston’s Alex Levy for the past 15 years.

During the three hours made available for review, The #MeToo movement is both praised and questioned in ways that might anger women who believe that even a hint of criticism is out of bounds. But the executive producers are virtually all women, with Mimi Leder (China Beach, The Leftovers) also directing the first two episodes. All of which refreshingly makes Morning Show more than a mere polemic. It certainly has its share of showy verbal outbursts, though, with Witherspoon’s high-strung Bradley Jackson gaining instant viral video fame for hers while Aniston and Carell likewise blast off in high-decibel scenes. If you’re looking for characters at the ends of their ropes, you’ve come to the right place.

The cutthroat world of network waker-uppers is also on full display. Newly installed news division president Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) is ruthless at all costs in his determination to lift the UBA network’s sagging Morning Show ratings. “Let’s use this to reinvent ourselves,” he tells Alex in hopes of exploiting Mitch’s firing. “Chaos. It’s the new cocaine,” he proclaims in a later episode.

He’s otherwise high on local reporter Bradley’s blow-up during a “No More Coal” protest in West Virginia after a participant knocks down her cameraman. Her tirade ends with a banshee scream, and of course it’s all caught on-camera to the delight of millions of social media voyeurs. So she’s invited to appear on The Morning Show for what turns out to be an icy one-on-one interview with Alex, who strongly objects to furthering Bradley’s fame. “You’re good,” Alex tells her off-camera at interview’s end. “Good luck in Hamhock, Virginia.”

But by this time it’s clear that the nefarious Ellison isn’t about to let Bradley return to Siberia. So let’s just say that Today’s post-Lauer teaming of Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb is also reflected in Morning Show. But how it comes to this is a fairly ingenious plot turn.

Meanwhile, Carell’s Mitch is livid about the “injustice” of it all, smashing his big-screen HD TV into smithereens to climax a prolonged rant. “They can’t just take my life away based on hearsay,” he protests. “Ya know what? I didn’t rape anybody! I didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head. It was consensual.”

Career-driven Alex is determined to pick up the pieces via a message to viewers delivered strictly on her terms.

“There are consequences in life. As a woman, I can say there often aren’t enough of them,” she tells the audience. And although her longtime co-anchor will be missed (she claims to have never seen that side of him), “you (viewers) are part of this family, and we will get through this together.”

Episode 1 climaxes with a terrific scene between the newly separated Morning Show desk mates. Kerry Ehrin’s script writing is sharp as a tack here, including Alex’s #MeToo punchline.

The second episode resumes the workplace duplicity and infighting, with Alex both on edge and on point while her mostly male bosses plot and scheme. She’s every bit as career-driven as they are, demanding approval rights to her new co-anchor while the deposed Mitch vows to fight rather than acquiesce “when the #MeToo mob comes knockin’ at your door.”

“I am as innocent as any straight middle-aged man there is,” he tells Morning Show executive producer Charlie “Chip” Black (Mark Duplass) during another butting of heads. “The only problem is that seems to be illegal these days. This is McCarthyism.”

Episode 3 keeps the story cooking, again on both fronts. Alex keeps firing away at the male bosses determined to rein her in, most notably at a deliciously scripted all-hands-on-deck showdown. “Guess what? America loves me,” she proclaims. “And that means I own America . . . We are doing this my way, because, frankly, I have let you bozos handle this long enough.” Pause, one-two. “Not the apology you were expecting?”

Look also for a cathartic scene between Alex and guest star Martin Short, who turns out to be fully cringe-worthy (even to Alex) during their discussion of how to fight back against the “puritanical and myopic” #MeToo Movement.

A constant throughout is the vainglorious world of high-level network TV, where full-blown idealism tends to be strictly for losers. CNN media analyst Brian Stelter, whose 2013 Top of the Morning formed the initial basis for Morning Show, cashes in as a consulting producer on this series. But he wrote the book long before the Lauer/Rose banishments. Back then, it was merely NBC’s Today vs. ABC’s Good Morning America in a pure and simple, win-at-all-costs ratings war.

Apple TV+’s Morning Show dares to walk an up-to-the-moment minefield in a surprisingly unflinching manner. No one gets an entirely free pass. Instead there are overriding questions on who looked the other way and whether Carell’s Mitch in fact was a full-blown sexual predator on a show teeming with amorality and lusts that are hardly gender exclusive.

Aniston fully takes command and registers the best “serious” performance of her career while Witherspoon and Carell also are fully and convincingly invested. It all makes for a series that is anything but sunny side up. The Morning Show strives to execute a very difficult balancing act, with women in off-camera command instead of assuming the positions assigned to them -- by men. The result so far is more than fair, but with continued storytelling perils ahead.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's challenging, thrilling Watchmen never stops mindbending

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Regina King as Sister Night in see-worthy Watchmen. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 20th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Regina King, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Don Johnson, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, James Wolk, Frances Fisher, Yahya Abdul-Mateen
Produced by: Damon Lindelof, Nicole Kassell, Tom Spezialy, Joseph Iberti, Stephen Williams

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Getting an A+ for audacity doesn’t necessarily move one to the head of the class.

This is particularly true of Lost and The Leftovers mastermind Damon Lindelof, for whom audacity is a given.

His legions of detractors will heatedly claim that both series’ denouements skidded wildly off the runway rather than stuck their landings. Others, and there are many of them, too, argue that the crazily captivating rides were far and above worth taking -- no matter how they ended.

It starts all over again with Lindelof’s very loose adaptation of the DC comic book series Watchmen. Season One has nine episodes, and HBO made six available for review. Visually entrancing, pointedly provocative and all over the place in time and space, Watchmen might make even David Lynch drop his jaw at times. Sort of like HBO’s Westworld, where few if any know what’s going on anymore.

But maybe Lindelof actually knows where he’s going. That would be nice. And once again, even if he doesn’t, this is television of a higher order with the power to turn brains inside out. Linear it’s not. Nor is it Longmire. Even FX’s oft-far out Fargo seems like a broke-in bucking bronco in comparison.

At the center of Watchmen is the always dynamic Regina King as detective Angela Abar, who moonlights as the avenging Sister Night in a super cool-looking costume. This also is a series where actor/activist Robert Redford (so far unseen except in a framed picture) has been President since January 1993 and remains so in 2019. And where “squidfalls” from above can make a real mess of things. And where Jeremy Irons pops in and out as Adrian Veidt, something of a crazed Dr. Frankenstein who lives in a castle that may well be located in another dimension or on another planet. Or maybe not. And where masked white supremacists known as The Seventh Cavalry have reemerged after terrorizing the Tulsa, OK police force into wearing masks themselves to conceal their identities. Got enough on your plate yet?

It all begins with the real-life Tulsa race riot of 1921, when a mob of white residents attacked and torched the city’s prosperous Greenwood neighborhood and its black population. At the height of the carnage, the parents of a little kid named Will smuggle him off in a wagon. A note in his pocket says, “Watch over this boy.”

Will’s future identity is pivotal to Watchmen, but you’ll have to wait until Episode 6 for the pretty full story of who he became and what he is in present times. That particular hour is almost all in black-and-white, even if the series is anything but in terms of the storytelling.

Angela Abar’s boss in the early going is chief of police Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), whom she greatly admires. He’s first seen enjoying a performance of the musical Oklahoma by an all-black cast. Whether the chief is all that he seems is an open question. But the same can be said of any principal character.

Another brand name actor, Fargo veteran Jean Smart, joins Watchmen in Episode 3 as hard-bitten, dry-humored FBI special agent Laurie Blake. Smart and King quickly become the two lead characters in terms of getting to the bottom (or the bottomless pit) of things. This also is a series where the only full nudity is on the part of male characters. In #MeToo times, it’s becoming the norm on advertiser-free “adult” cable networks and streaming services. HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, which ended its first season on Oct. 13th, is another latter-day example of men caught in the act of exposing their privates.

In another illustrative scene, Agent Blake’s young male underling is told, “So sorry, ladies only,” before a power meeting is held. This is in Episode 4, where a mysterious high-tech entrepreneur known as Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) serves to further throw viewers for a loop.

Watchmen also provocatively addresses the reparations (President Redford’s Victim of Racial Violence Act) that brought about a resurgence of the Seventh Cavalry. And in Episode 5, which begins in 1985, a mass tragedy is visited upon New York City. This sets the stage for what makes detective Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson) who he becomes, an interrogation specialist known as Looking Glass due to his tight-fitting silver mask. Agent Blake prefers to twit him as “Mirror Guy.”

Perhaps this sounds as if it’s way too much to digest. But there are some major revelations coming in Episodes 5 and 6. Or at least it sure seems that way, even if Lindelof is fully capable of misdirections, sleights of hand and, sometimes, pure nonsense.

Whatever happens in future seasons -- assuming there are some -- Watchmen mostly enthralls with the power of its images, imagination and determination to cartwheel its way toward SOMETHING REALLY BIG in whatever end awaits. Whether Lindelof knows what he’s doing remains anyone’s guess. Well, duh. But what he’s done so far is one of the damnedest things you’ll ever see.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net