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Kirsten Dunst shiningly stars in Showtime's madcap On Becoming a God in Central Florida

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Kirsten Dunst exudes Southern “charm” in a dark comedy with an elongated title. Namely, On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, August 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Theodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Usman Ally, Alexander Skarsgard, Sharon Lawrence, Julie Benz, Mary Steenburgen, Kevin J. O’Connor, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Cooper Jack Rubin
Produced by: Robert Funke, Matt Lutsky, George Clooney, Grand Heslov, Kirsten Dunst, Charlie McDowell, Esta Spalding

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The title is a mouthful -- one of the longest in TV history. The basic premise is easier to swallow, particularly during these trying times.

In Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a crooked purveyor of products ranging from toilet paper to apple cider (Amway won’t like this series) sucks the lifeblood out of acolytes desperately pursuing an “American Dream” of quick wealth and prosperity. The preachments of Founders American Merchandise (FAM) are a match for the greed-fueled evangelism on display in HBO’s new The Righteous Gemstones. Both playbooks rely on the surefire propositions of suckers being born every minute. Principal among them, in Episode 1 of Becoming a God, is erstwhile insurance salesman Travis Stubbs (guest star Alexander Skarsgard), whose skeptical wife, Krystal (series star Kirsten Dunst), has a menial job at Rebel Rapids water park.

All 10 Season One episodes were made available for review, and it’s a wild ride with some excesses down the stretch. But Dunst, whose character initially wears braces, is fiercely committed to both her performance and her character’s determination to dig out of one hole after another following her husband’s untimely demise near the close of Sunday’s premiere. What a whirlwind she is, alternately seething, scheming and cracking wise while also tending to her baby daughter, Destiny.

Krystal’s best friends are fellow water park worker Ernie Gomes (Mel Rodriguez) and his devoted wife, Bets (Beth Ditto). She otherwise forms a pitfall-pocked alliance with Travis’s enabler, Cody Bonar (Theodore Pellerin), a baby-faced, fully immersed FAM hustler who not only has drunk the Kool-Aid but poured the rest of it over his head. Pellerin’s portrayal would be the standout attraction if Dunst wasn’t topping him in scene after scene. It’s all set in 1992.

The big boogeyman is Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), God-like leader of pyramid-scheming FAM. Levine has never met a crazed role he won’t throw himself into. In his latest, he sports a mustache the size of a croissant accented by an off-and-on platinum blonde toupee. Garbeau’s series of cassette tapes (“Don’t be a stinker thinker”) are biblical in the eyes and ears of FAM disciples.

The promised prosperity always seems just within reach. But profit margins for FAM products are smallish at best. And the recruitment demands are never-ending for those who aspire to be a “Washington” and get invited to the palatial Paradise Cay, where Garbeau resides with his wife, Louise (Sharon Lawrence), and their wealth of underlings. Don’t expect a royal dinner, though. Instead Hamburger Helper is served. It makes for a funny sight gag, but not for all that much sense if Garbeau really wants to further imbed his hooks.

All that Krystal wants is a chance to expand FAM beyond its rigid system. But her new Splashercize class, eagerly attended by a big group of FAM salespeople in return for their products being stocked at Rebel Rapids, is deemed a “perversion of the Garbeau system.” Not that Krystal won’t keep swimming against the current.

Mary Steenburgen also drops in, primarily during the sixth episode, as Cody’s wealthy, imperious mother, Ellen Joy. The scene is a well-heeled fundraiser for Vice President Quayle (Joe Knezevich), who’s shown with a bandage on his nose. “Someone has to keep the Democrats from turning the government into an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Ellen Joy tells Cody. She mostly sniffs at Krystal and her Southern twang.

Becoming a God, billed as a “darkly comedic story” in Showtime publicity materials, includes a notably violent scene that sends poor Ernie over the edge. There also are some highly surreal moments, most of them at Paradise Cay. It all leads to a climactic FAM telethon on behalf of orphaned children, during which the entertainment is impossibly low-rent and cornball -- but nonetheless a hoot.

All of this sets up a second season, even if there already are some signs that Becoming a God might be stretching itself thin. Still, Dunst is the saving grace throughout a rollicking Season One that keeps delivering whenever she’s on screen. It may well turn out to be the TV performance of the year, with some very able assists from Pellerin, Rodriguez, Ditto and Levine.

So in that respect, there’s no need to be “the Pope of nope” -- as Cody puts it -- regarding whether a Season Two can keep this story rolling. Bring it on, and let’s see if they can somehow pull it off.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's The Righteous Gemstones: preach your viewers well

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John Goodman heads up a family of prototypically phony preachers. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Aug. 18th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Cassidy Freeman, Tony Cavalero, Tim Baltz, Walton Goggins, Skyler Gisondo, Greg Alan Williams, Jennifer Nettles, Dermot Mulroney
Produced by: Danny McBride, Jody Hill, David Gordon Green

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Creator/executive producer Danny McBride takes his usual approach with his latest HBO series.

Following the paths of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, McBride’s The Righteous Gemstones is coarse, irreverent, sometimes excessive and completely unconcerned about whether you’re offended or not. In the case of a series about crooked, greedy televangelists, “irreverent” is the most operative word. But riotously funny also applies. Even God might be busting a gut.

McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, oldest son of patriarch Eli Gemstone (the ubiquitous but always welcome John Goodman). There’s also younger brother Kelvin (Adam DeVine) and festering sister Judy (a gem of a performance by Edi Patterson), who’s generally pushed aside when dad and sons are doing any big family business.

The three men are first seen at a “24 Hours of Saved Souls” marathon in China, which washes out during the climactic baptism celebration. They then fly home separately, on an unholy trinity of planes named The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Judy has a few choice words for them upon arrival back home in South Carolina, where they all live palatially. “Kelvin, eat my ass” is among them. You gotta love her.

The first six episodes were made available for review. They rather oddly range in length from just under an hour for the first one to a bit over a half-hour for No. 6. Sunday’s premiere sets up a blackmail scheme built around video of Jesse snorting coke amid a gaggle of topless women. The head blackmailer wears a devil mask, and there’s also something of a surprise in store for those who haven’t already deduced it before the “reveal” in Episode 2.

Meanwhile, an unaware Eli continues to mourn for his deceased wife, Aimee-Leigh, the “magic” who kept the family together. Righteous Gemstones is sentimental rather than cynical in this instance. Eli truly loved Aimee-Leigh, who makes a glorious appearance in a flashback Episode 5 that so far is the series’ best. By this time, Walton Goggins (McBride’s co-star in Vice Principals) has already made his mark as Aimee-Leigh’s (Jennifer Nettles) problematic brother and fellow evangelist, Baby Billy Freeman.

The present-day Baby Billy has a shock of white hair the size of Idaho. But it’s in Episode 5 that he really soars with what used to be the trademark song-and-dance routine he did with his sister. Trust me, you’ll be immensely entertained by the cornpone “Misbehavin,’ ” which is rinsed and repeated with a new partner in Episode 6.

Eli Gemstone, who has come to despise Baby Billy, nonetheless hires him to head up a new “Prayer Center” in a vacant shopping mall space that used to be occupied by Sears. The idea is to steal the flock of Locust Grove’s resident reigning preacher, Johnny Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), proprietor of the town’s First Baptist Church. But winter is coming when Seasons spits out his contempt for Eli’s rampant greed. “The Gemstones are a disgrace,” he rages. “An absolute disgrace to all ministries. Con men. Baboons.”

Those are fightin’ words. But a brawl doesn’t break out until Jesse dubs sister Judy’s boyfriend, B.J. (Tim Baltz), a “wisp of a man” during the family’s weekly Sunday brunch.

McBride’s Jesse strides around in too tight shirts while his devoted wife, Amber (Cassidy Freeman), is too awash in creature comforts to be anything but blissed out. Their three sons are another matter, though. The oldest is prodigal and the stay-at-home middle one has no problem with profanely speaking his mind. Then there’s that incriminating video. It’s all enough to make Jesse equal parts cocksure and insecure. And McBride is long accustomed to broadly playing those dualities.

Goodman, who’s doing double time on ABC’s The Conners, has an equally grand but somewhat more restrained time playing Eli. In Episode 3, his dry, matter-of-fact dismissal of Aimee-Leigh’s no-account brother -- “Baby Billy’s a sack of shit” -- is so perfectly delivered that it seems heaven-sent.

DeVine’s Kelvin, whose best friend is a muscular former Satanic cult member named Keefe (Tony Cavalero), so far is having a tougher time breaking through as a resonating character. His strongest episode, No. 4, telescopes earnest Kelvin’s headlong efforts to be an effective youth minister.

As sister Judy, though, Patterson registers from the moment she opens her mouth. Her inflections and digressions are comedy gold. The devil has won if she doesn’t get an Emmy nomination.

And now some brief words about penises. You’ll see some, particularly in Episode 3. It’s the new “equality,” as is also demonstrated in HBO’s recently released Euphoria series. But as a turn-on, well, there’s really nothing to see here.

Other than that, The Righteous Gemstones is hallelujah-worthy for its performances, energy, comedy, dramedy and occasional little heart tugs. HBO is giving it a major promotional push in times when its cupboard needs replenishing after the recent losses of Game of Thrones and Veep. There’s no big message from on high here. Just enjoy yourself to the point that when HBO passes its monthly collection plate, Righteous Gemstones will be one big reason why you’ll keep on giving.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Old address, new approach in Fox's BH90210

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The 90210 cast is all smiles at a reunion within a reunion. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Aug. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Tori Spelling, Jason Priestly, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris, Brian Austin Green, Shannen Doherty, La La Anthony, Vanessa Lachey, Ivan Sergei, Christine Elise McCarthy, Ali Liebert, Karis Cameron
Produced by: Chris Alberghini, Mike Chessler, Paul Sciarrotta, Gabrielle Carteris, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Brian Austin Green, Jason Priestly, Tori Spelling, Ian Ziering

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The address is CBS for the most success with TV reboots.

The most famous address of all, though, belongs to Fox. And its six-episode “event series” reboot of Beverly Hills, 90210 -- shortened to BH90210 -- for the most part makes for a surprisingly satisfying time travel to the current “heightened” lives of seven original cast members. (Charter co-star Luke Perry, who also had agreed to take part when his duties on The CW’s Riverdale allowed, died in March of this year. He’s fondly remembered in the closing moments of Wednesday’s premiere episode.)

Fox’s original 90210 ran for a decade from 1990 to 2000 before The CW network took another dip with 90210, which lasted from 2008 to 2013. Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling and Shannen Doherty made cameo appearances in that one, but the series centered on a new generation of teens.

In BH90210, though, the surviving principals are all in, with Doherty (the last to commit) so far much less seen in the two episodes made available for review. The hook is a 30th anniversary Vegas reunion that ends up being both a disaster and a catalyst. It’s also a springboard for what’s to come in Episode 2, with Spelling and Garth plotting to pull off a 90210 reboot (just as they did in real life) while their fellow cast members initially blow them off. Spelling in particular picks up the mantle of her late father, Aaron Spelling, who created 90210 and a bushel basket of other hit TV series. “No one stopped my dad,” she says of his doggedness in bringing his ideas to TV screens.

In their “heightened” modes (somewhat cued by Larry David in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Matt LeBlanc in Showtime’s Episodes), here’s what’s up since the original series wrapped.

*** Tori Spelling (Donna Martin on the original 90210) is a mother of six children who’s married to a semi-slacker named Nate (Ivan Sergei). Their Spelling the Beans series has just been canceled, and they’re up against it financially. Spelling and her real-life husband, Dean McDermott, are parents of five kids and have co-starred as themselves in two “reality” series.

*** Jason Priestly (Brandon Walsh) is a director married to a publicist who yearns to start a family. The real Priestly also has directed, but has two children with his wife, a makeup artist.

*** Jennie Garth (Kelly Taylor) is divorced twice and going through a third. Her headstrong daughter, Kyler (Karis Cameron), yearns to be an actress, which Garth emphatically doesn’t want for her. In real life, Garth has three children and is twice-divorced.

*** Ian Ziering (Steve Sanders) is married to a career-obsessed blonde bombshell who’s lately auditioning for a role on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. He’s more intent on hawking his own brand of products. The real-life Ziering achieved major success with the cheesy series of Sharknado movies. After contentiously divorcing a former Playboy model, he remarried and is the father of two children.

*** Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea Zuckerman) is newly a grandma and president of the Actors Guild of America. She’s also searching for her true sexual identity. In real life, Carteris is president of the merged Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. She’s been married to a stockbroker since 1992, and they have two children.

*** Brian Austin Green (David Silver) is mainly a house husband married to a star hip-hop artist known as Shay (La La Anthony). They have three children. The real Green married actress Megan Fox in 2010. They separated but later reconciled, and have three sons together.

*** Shannen Doherty (Brenda Walsh) is involved in animal rescue efforts and long estranged from the rest of her 90210 mates. In real life, the controversial Doherty, who’s likewise an animal activist, regularly feuded with the show’s co-stars before leaving after four seasons.

These are the basic fact/fiction parameters of the first reboot in which a complete ensemble cast plays themselves, not the TV characters they made famous. Then again, they’re all set to begin playing those characters anew by the end of Episode 2 after Fox executives enthusiastically green light a continuation of 90210 when Spelling and Garth pitch it to them. Any confusion in print isn’t a problem with the show itself, which is easy enough to grasp.

The original series lacked diversity and inclusion in times when there were few complainers. Fox’s reboot addresses this with both Green’s marriage to an African-American singing star and Carteris’ determination to doubly explore her sexuality as herself and as the rebooted Andrea Zuckerman.

There also are some unfortunate subplots, particularly the inclusion of a nameless young white male stalker whose obsession with Green in particular leads him to seriously creep out the rest of the cast. Filming on 90210 was completed shortly before the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, with disaffected, hate-filled young white males allegedly triggering the assault weapons. 90210 obviously didn’t intend in any way to be a reminder of these heinous actions. But alas, here we are.

The reboot also weaves in a blackmail plot involving Priestly and his wife, who has a “secret” tied to her sudden turn of events. 90210 certainly didn’t lack in serial drama soapiness, but the reboot tends to be thrown off its mark by these bad-nasty devices.

Otherwise the real revelation is Tori Spelling, who stands out among the ensemble as funny, free-spirited and even a bit poignant at times. If anyone carries this show through its first two episodes, she’s the one.

Carteris is also a standout in terms of vulnerabilities and feelings that weren’t allowed to be anywhere near fully expressed in the original 90210. And Priestly is vividly in this mix as a vainglorious approximation of his real self and a co-conspirator in the first episode’s rather daring hookup.

“Maybe going back is just what we all need to move forward,” Tori tells Jennie of her aggressive plans to make a reboot a reality.

That’s a grand simplification, but also more than a good enough rationale to make BH90210 TV’s latest born again entity. It’s been a dreary summer of mostly junky new broadcast network fare, led by CBS’ Love Island. There’s nothing technically new under the sun with BH90210. But it nonetheless feels that way via this fresh approach to what easily could have been a very wrong address.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Finally back in view: HBO's pathfinding and exhilarating From the Earth to the Moon

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Making their marks on the once unreachable moon. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Lost in space for far too many years, HBO’s brand-defining, landmark From the Earth to the Moon at last is back amongst us in newly remastered HD form on all of the premium cable network’s “platforms.”

Words such as “brand-defining” and “landmark” usually are reserved for HBO series such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City and The Wire, or in later years, Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Game of Thrones.

But the 12-part Earth to the Moon pre-dated all of them as HBO’s first major big-budget miniseries and a maiden voyage for Tom Hanks as an executive producer who went on to helm or co-helm the likes of Band of Brothers, The Pacific, John Adams, Game Change and Olive Kitteridge. All six of these HBO productions won Emmys as their respective year’s best miniseries or movie.

I reviewed Earth to the Moon when it originally aired in 1998, and also was at the HBO interview session that touted it. Hanks already had won two Best Actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and was en route to a nomination for 1999’s Saving Private Ryan. Binge-watching Earth to the Moon in recent days is first and foremost a thrilling voyage of rediscovery. It still stands as HBO’s most affirming and aspirational miniseries, a proof positive look at a U.S. space program that in the end yielded six moon landings from 1969 to 1972. The unabashed joy of those touchdowns, with astronauts grinning from ear to ear, is infectious on each and every occasion.

Hanks is the on-camera host for all but the 12th episode, in which he instead acts the part of an aide to French filmmaker Georges Melies, who in 1902 directed the visionary Le Voyage dans la Lune. He’s otherwise all-business, striding toward the camera in crisp business suits, shirts and ties to briefly tease what we’re about to see. Hanks is a marvel to behold as his younger self, which at the time was his early 40s. His duties also included directing Episode 1 and writing Episode 12 while also assisting as a co-writer for three other hours.

One of Hanks’ second-in-commands, Graham Yost, went on to create and executive produce FX’s Justified, one of that network’s signature series. For Earth to the Moon, he’s the sole writer of Episode 2 and the sole director of Episode 5 while joining Hanks as a co-writer of Episode 6.

Save for Episode 11, the entire depiction is very white male -- as it was in those times. Sally Field is the solo director for the penultimate hour, titled “The Original Wives Club.” She also briefly appears as Trudy Cooper, the spouse of astronaut Gordo Cooper. Most of these marriages ended in divorce.

Each episode’s cast is listed in alphabetical order. Not that there were any major feature film stars involved, save for the limited duties of Hanks and Field. A big chunk of the production’s reported $65 million budget went to special effects. The casts were mostly made up of actors who had made their names in television, but not in big ways. In Bryan Cranston’s case, he was still a no-name. Cast as astronaut Buzz Aldrin (principally in Episode 6), Cranston otherwise had yet to co-star in Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle and was still a decade away from AMC’s Breaking Bad.

There are a number of pleasant surprises, none more so than comedian Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall as drawling, wide-eyed astronaut Alan Bean in Episode 7. Foley, who also narrates this hour, turns out to be perfectly suitable in both cases.

Also look for:

*** Max Wright, the goofy dad from NBC’s ALF, as the boundlessly enthusiastic and eccentric Guenter Wendt, launch pad leader for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. He’s joined in this Episode 3 by Mark Harmon as astronaut Wally Schirra. Harmon’s performance is letter-perfect as the wisecracking, cocksure member of the Original Seven.

*** Ted Levine, who comes to the fore as trailblazing astronaut Alan Shepard in an Episode 9 that affords him a second chance to be more than the one-and-done guy who seemed fated to spend just 15 minutes in space as a veritable test monkey.

*** Peter Scolari, who came to fame along with Hanks in the ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies before mostly fading from view. In Episode 1, he portrays astronaut Pete Conrad before being supplanted in Hour 7 by Paul McCrane in that role.

*** Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, as astronaut Frank Borman’s wife, Susan. She’s especially good in the aforementioned “Original Wives Club” episode.

*** A pre-Mad Men John Slattery as Sen. Walter Mondale, a NASA naysayer in Episode 2 after a training mission fire took the lives of three astronauts. Episode 1 offers a few glimpses of ill-fated future U.S. senator Al Franken in the role of President Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner.

*** Last and by no means least, character actor Lane Smith is a connective thread throughout as fictional TV news anchor Emmett Seaborn. The newsman most associated with the moon landings, Walter Cronkite, is recurrently shown in archival footage. But Seaborn steals the show, particularly in an Episode 8 that finds him being pushed aside by young gun reporter Brett Hutchins (Jay Mohr), who ushers in an “infotainment” approach to storytelling.

Smith died in 2005 and also played excitable Daily Planet editor Perry White in ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He richly deserved an Emmy for his portrayal of Seaborn. But in the end, Earth to the Moon unjustly went without any acting nominations at all among the 17 it received and three it won.

Earth to the Moon, whose 12 episodes are each distinctive mini-movies, also had no hesitation in embracing the science behind the lunar missions championed by President Kennedy. His ringing declaration -- “Not because they are easy but because they are hard” -- is heard throughout in the opening credits.

All these years later -- and a full 21 years since HBO first aired this pathfinder -- we are a severely divided country torn further into fragments by “social media” platforms that didn’t exist back then and two partisan cable news networks (MSNBC and FNC) that were still in their infancy when Earth to the Moon first launched. NASA’s space exploits also became controversial in time, leading to the abandonment of manned lunar missions after the last one on Dec. 11, 1972.

But on July 20, 1969, the world watched as one while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon while Michael Collins orbited around it in the command module upon which all three then returned safely to Earth. From the Earth to the Moon is an exhilarating time travel back to the days when it all started. If you haven’t yet seen it, by all means take the plunge. And if you have, there’s no time like the present to re-immerse yourself in the sheer can-do and invigorating audacity of it all.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

As the Crowe flies, so does Showtime's The Loudest Voice

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Russell Crowe fills the role in The Loudest Voice. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Russell Crowe, Sienna Miller, Annabelle Wallis, Naomi Watts, Seth MacFarlane, Simon McBurney, Aleksa Palladino, Guy Boyd, Josh Stamberg, Patch Darragh, Barry Watson, Jaime Jackson, Josh Helman, Susan Pourfar, John Rue, David Cromer
Produced by: Tom McCarthy, Jason Blum, Alex Metcalf, Liza Chasin, Kari Skogland, Jeremy Gold, Marci Wiseman, Padraic McKinley, Russell Crowe

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Making up is hard to do -- or so it would seem in turning Russell Crowe into Roger Ailes.

Showtime’s seven-part The Loudest Voice, launching on Sunday, June 30th, manages to be seamlessly convincing, though. A combination of the actor’s weight gains and some remarkably convincing prosthetics have put Crowe in fine form for a role that few could have imagined him playing. The Oscar-winner from Gladiator brings the combative and controversial Fox News Channel founder alive, even if Ailes is first seen lying dead next to an empty prescription pill bottle. He lived to be 77, but died in disgrace less than a year after resigning from FNC in 2016 when allegations of workplace sexual harassment became public via a lawsuit by former FNC anchor Gretchen Carlson.

Carlson, played by Naomi Watts, is only fleetingly seen in the three episodes made available for review. And that’s not until hour three, when she approaches Ailes at a party and successfully coaxes him to set up an interview for her with then Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Later in the episode, Carlson ends their Q&A by cheerily telling McCain, “Sounds like a winning message to me.” This is hardly the comportment of an objective journalist, but fits right in with Ailes’ determination to derail Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. The primary source material is Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News -- and Divided a Country.

Crowe’s performance begins with a voice-over that accompanies his corpse. “I know what people are going to say about me,” he narrates. “I can pretty much pick the words for ya. Right wing. Paranoid. Fat. And I’m not going to argue with them. I am a conservative. I do like to eat. And I believe in the power of television. Giving people what they want, even if they don’t know they want it.”

By this time, Loudest Voice has rewound back to 1995, with Crowe as Ailes first seen filling his face in a diner during the Christmas season. It’s then on to a face-to-face meeting with NBC CEO Jack Welch (John Finn), who’s dropping Ailes as head of both CNBC and spinoff network America’s Talking (which soon would become MSNBC).

“Whatever they’re saying I did, it didn’t happen,” Ailes says vaguely before Welch refers to an ongoing HR investigation of whatever he’s accused of doing. Even so, he receives an affectionate sendoff from his staff, many of them in tears.

“We love you,” a woman tells him.

“Now you tell me?” Ailes ripostes.

Crowe is constantly on camera as Ailes, chortling, yelling, cursing and even trying a little tenderness with CNBC producer Beth Tilson (Sienna Miller), who will become his third and last wife. His emotions are fully conveyed, with no hint of restriction by those aforementioned prosthetics. This is Ailes unleashed, not encased, with Crowe acting up various storms in Sunday’s rousing opening hour. He’s already savoring the idea of screwing Welch with a competing cable news network that will corner an untapped market by disseminating “an American message wrapped up in a conservative viewpoint.” And he has a receptive ear in Rupert Murdoch (solid work by Simon McBurney), whose worldwide News Corporation will be bankrolling FNC.

Episode 1 also sows the seeds of Ailes’ predatory bent. He recruits blonde beauty Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), ostensibly as one of FNC’s talent bookers. Primarily though, she’s his mistress. And by the time of Episode 3, a repulsed and self-drugged Luhn is being ordered to “dance for me” in her bra and panties while Ailes shoots video.

“Who protects you,” Laurie?” he asks.

“You do,” she says in a fog before orally gratifying a grunting Ailes. It’s a thoroughly creepy sequence that also could be easily denounced as flatly gratuitous. But Luhn, who recently dropped a $750 million lawsuit against Showtime after a private settlement was reached, had earlier gone public with her story to Sherman. His subsequent account, published after the book was released, detailed what Luhn said was 20 years of sexual abuse by Ailes.

Other notable characters are omitted from Showtime’s limited series, at least in terms of actors playing them. Megyn Kelly, who became one of Ailes’ accusers, initially was envisioned as a peripheral character but later was cut. Bill O’Reilly, referenced as a suspected sexual predator in Episode 2, is shown only as himself in footage from his show, The O’Reilly Factor. “What, did he get handsy or something?” Ailes inquires before ordering president of business and legal affairs Diane Brandi (Susan Pourfar) to “just take care of it.”

FNC star Sean Hannity is portrayed, but innocuously so far, by actor Patch Darragh. And Seth MacFarlane, as head PR guy Brian Lewis, has little to do but smirk in the first two hours before getting a little more to chew on in Episode 3.

Episode 2 deals at some length with the shocking events of Sept. 11, 2001, with Ailes gradually convincing Murdoch that “we’ve got a big part to play. This is our time, Rupert. This is our time.”

It’s also time for Ailes to conspire with Vice President Dick Cheney (John Rue) in terms of orchestrating a plan to invade Iraq. “You’re a patriot, Roger,” the veep tells him before speaking at a big public gathering and mouthing some of the words Ailes has hand-crafted for him.

Episode 3 advances to 2008, with Obama on a roll despite Ailes’ and FNC’s best efforts to put McCain in office. Although he admires his military service and comportment as a prisoner of war, McCain’s “message is about as limp as Liberace’s handshake,” Ailes grouses. Furthermore, Obama’s veep, Joe Biden, currently being pummeled by several of his rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, won’t be happy to hear Ailes call him “dumb as an ashtray” during a meeting with Obama’s head strategist, David Axelrod (David Cromer).

By the end of this hour, Obama is president but Ailes has secured a prime consolation prize -- “full editorial control” of Fox News. During a visit to his hometown of Warren, Ohio, he’s treated as a hero and vowing in a speech that “together we can make American great again.”

This seems like more than a bit of a stretch in terms of coining Donald Trump’s 2016 clarion call and FNC’s full-blown partnership with his eventual presidency.

Unaware of his infidelity, Elizabeth “Beth” Ailes likewise is her husband’s true-believing partner, sharing his right-wing views and enjoying the creature comforts his status has provided them. Their little son, Zachary (now 19), is given the daily chore of daily raising and lowering the American flag outside his parents’ palatial suburban home. He probably should spare himself from watching any of Loudest Voice, particularly the aforementioned Episode 3.

Loudest Voice otherwise is riveting at the start and somewhat less so as time marches on. Crowe’s portrayal of Ailes of course is the major drawing card, and he is nothing if not fully immersed. The characters around him can’t help but pale in comparison, but it would help if some of the supporting roles were more vividly acted. McBurney comes closest as Murdoch while Miller is capable as the Mrs. who so far knows nothing of his mistress and other transgressions.

The current mainstays of Fox News Channel seem more likely to ignore the film than openly denounce it on the air. After all, who at his old network would want to reopen the gaping wound that Roger Ailes became? It’s easier to keep blasting away at the 20 Democrats currently running for President. Of that Ailes would approve.

GRADE: B+

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