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CBS marches on with another military drama, The Code

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Luke Mitchell & Anna Wood star as Marine Corps cuties in The Code.
CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 9th at 8 p.m. (central) before moving to Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBS
Starring: Luke Mitchell, Anna Wood, Dana Delany, Ato Essandoh, Phillipa Soo, Raffi Barsournian
Produced by: Craig Sweeny, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, Marc Webb, Christine Moore, Craig Turk

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Military justice has been very good to CBS with the everlasting NCIS and its two spinoffs.

The premise is basically the same but the uniforms have changed in The Code. This time it’s the Marine Corps at work, with Luke Mitchell and Anna Wood heading the cast as two Leatherneck cuties who trade quips when not sparring in court. After Tuesday’s post-NCIS showcase, The Code moves to Mondays at 8 p.m. (central) in place of Magnum, P.I., which earlier was renewed for a second season.

Capt. John “Abe” Abraham (Mitchell), previously wounded in combat, wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in the Corps until fellow captain Jason Hunt (guest star Will Swenson) aided his transfer to the legal division. But now Hunt is newly dead after being stabbed in the gut by a PFC who seemingly was trying to go AWOL. It all seems pretty cut-and-dried after Hunt’s widow tells Abe, “I want you to put this guy away.” But complications ensue, as they always do.

Capt. Maya Dobbins (Wood) is assigned to defend the assailant, and thinks she has grounds to implicate a higher-up. It all has to do with the numerous head injuries suffered by PFC Ian Morehead (guest star Evan Hall) during his time in Afghanistan. Was he in his right mind? Or does sneering battalion surgeon Noah Hewitt (guest star Mark Deklin) share in the blame? The courtroom drama heats up when Hewitt hires a high-priced, pompous civilian attorney with a tongue-twisting surname to represent him. That would be none other than Hermes Papademotropoulos (guest star Wayne Duvall). Successfully say that fast 10 times and win an extra day of leave.

The Code’s regular cast also includes Ato Essandoh as Abe’s courtroom colleague, Maj. Trey Ferry, and Dana Delany as Col. Glenn Turnbull, who runs the overall show. Delany, who came to fame in ABC’s China Beach military series, isn’t given much to do in Tuesday’s premiere. But she does get to “clean up nicely” in civilian clothes for one of her scenes.

The otherwise youngish cast has their salutes down pretty good and their uniforms crisply squared away. As a former Marine, your friendly content provider never managed to look this good all the way back in the late 1960s.

CBS has an arsenal of crime-and-punishment dramas, with FBI and the aforementioned Magnum reboot already making the grade among this season’s newcomers. The Code, which is both nicely produced and also thoroughly predictable, looks destined to likewise get a Season Two. Meanwhile, the Army, Air Force and Coast Guard are still waiting their turns.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Sam Rockwell/Michelle Williams make no missteps in FX's Fosse/Verdon

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Sam Rockwell & Michelle Williams light up Fosse/Verdon. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Paul Reiser, Norbert Leo Butz, Margaret Qualley, Aya Cash, Nate Corddry, Evan Handler, Susan Misner, Kelli Barrett, Bianca Marroquin, Blake Baumgartner
Produced by: Thomas Kail, Steven Levenson, Joel Fields, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nicole Fosse, Charlotte Stoudt, Tracey Scott Wilson, George Stelzner

By ED BARK
@uncleebarkycom on Twitter
From a storytelling standpoint, the back-and-forth choreography is not without stumbles.

Performance-wise, though, FX’s eight-part Fosse/Verdon is never less than all that jazz. Sam Rockwell as dance maestro/taskmaster Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams in the role of dancer/mate/muse Gwen Verdon are exceptional embodiments of this peerless but problem-plagued partnership.

Rockwell, coming off an Oscar nomination as George W. Bush in Vice, makes that role seem like a mere trifle. His comb-over alone is something of a wonderment.

Williams, the least-noted member of Dawson’s Creek’s fab four, has gone on to accomplish more than her three co-stars combined with four Oscar nominations and what should be a certain Emmy win for this prolonged showcase of her talents.

Among Broadway’s giants, Fosse has few if any peers. He won eight Tonys for his choreography and was nominated an additional three times. Verdon received best actress honors in three of the musicals they did together (Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, Redhead) and was nominated in two others (Sweet Charity, Chicago).

But she was never seen on camera in Fosse’s small but noteworthy collection of feature films. He won an Oscar for directing Cabaret and was nominated for his two other movies, Lenny and All That Jazz, in which Roy Scheider and Leland Palmer played approximations of Fosse and Verdon under the names Joe Gideon and Audrey Paris.

In increasingly visual times, and as time passes, this makes it lamentably easier for younger generations to be completely ignorant of their towering accomplishments on Broadway, which in reality have been seen by only a select few.

The self-destructive Fosse died in 1987 of a heart attack while Verdon expired in 2000 after a number of inconsequential film and TV roles in later life, including two appearances in Walker, Texas Ranger as a character named Maisie Whitman. Broadway legend Angela Lansbury became better known later in life for her many years as the star of CBS’ Murder, She Wrote. In contrast, Verdon never had anything close to a defining TV vehicle.

Fosse/Verdon, of which the first five episodes were made available for review, revisits their gloriously turbulent times in a way that seems too piecemeal at first. Its flashbacks are frequent and at times all too brief, with white-on-black subheads -- “19 Years Left, 16 Years Left,” etc. -- spelling out Fosse’s remaining life span.

Stick figure approximations of Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli are fleetingly seen in the early going. MacLaine starred in Fosse’s film flop version of Sweet Charity while Minnelli won an Oscar for his acclaimed Cabaret. But neither registers in Fosse/Verdon.

Fosse’s first wife, Joan McCracken (Susan Misner), is more of an in-and-out presence during the womanizing Fosse’s courtship of Verdon. She suffers from some sort of illness, with one of the between-flashback subheads reading “2,369 days before Joan McCracken’s death.” OK, but otherwise what’s the point here?

Fosse/Verdon also can have a Mad Men vibe, with pals Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) and Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) coming to the fore in an Episode 5 that pretty much stays in place at Fosse’s Southhampton, NY beach house. The rainy weekend gathering also includes impressionable young daughter Nicole Fosse (Blake Baumgartner), Verdon with her new boyfriend, and Fosse’s latest conquest, Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley).

Verdon is still cajoling Fosse to choreograph a Broadway version of Chicago, with her in the lead while she can still dance. But he wants to direct Dustin Hoffman in the film Lenny, about controversial groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce. He’s otherwise recently removed from the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, where a previously suicidal Fosse checked out after six days instead of staying for the prescribed one month. He’s supposed to be taking extended time off, but as Verdon tells Reinking, “The best thing for Bob Fosse to do is work.”

Williams is particularly superb in this episode, whether singing a touching torch song in memory of her late close friend, Joan Simon (Aya Cash), or vowing to do Chicago with or without her husband, from whom she separated but never divorced. Verdon is something of a cunning enabler/disabler, knowing that both of their careers depend on collaboration. Her concern for his well-being is genuine, but also self-serving. If he doesn’t work, neither does she -- at least not in a gainful way. And without her eye in the editing room, Cabaret might well have been a disaster instead of a triumph. The FX title is perfect in that sense. They really are one entity, although his constant cheating can be a considerable irritant.

Fosse/Verdon at times is chilling in its depiction of choreographer as sexual predator. Fosse cavalierly continues an affair in Germany while pleading with Verdon by phone to fly to his aid on the set of Cabaret. And while prepping Pippen for the Broadway stage, Fosse’s physical advances are rejected by a beautiful blonde cast member with a lead role. On the following day he humiliates her at rehearsal before telling another actress to step in. She later capitulates, knowing full well what it will take to get her role back. (All That Jazz also depicts this particular seduction/rejection.)

Rockwell is fully invested in a role that challenges him well beyond the semi-caricature he played in Vice. Self-assured and brusque when calling the shots, he’s otherwise an emotional adolescent, or sometimes an infant.

As with Feud: Bette and Joan, FX is pulling back the curtain on a powerful but inherently flawed show business partnership. Except that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse endured, prospered, battled and used one another for a far longer period. Fosse/Verdon can be flawed in some of the ways it pieces together their lives and times. But any faults are not with the stars.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Blindly going forth with CW network's In the Dark

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In the Dark focuses on the unseeing Murphy Mason (right). CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, April 4th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Perry Mattfield, Brooke Markham, Rich Sommer, Morgan Krantz, Casey Diedrick, Keston John, Derek Webster, Kathleen York, Lindsey Broad, Calle Walton,Thamela Mpumlwana
Produced by: Corinne Kingsbury, Jonathan Collier, Ben Stiller, Jackie Cohn, Nicholas Weinstock, Michael Showalter

By ED BARK
@unclebarky com on Twitter
Disagreeable Murphy Mason wears her blindness like a suit of armor, repelling any inclinations to have a personal life beyond drinking, smoking and one-night stands.

Save for one exception in The CW’s better than expected In the Dark. Murphy’s (Perry Mattfield) bonding with 17-year-old street kid Tyson Parker (Thamela Mpumlwana) came only after he deterred a mugger from beating her to death. She’s been visiting him regularly ever since, usually bringing a candy bar. But then one night Murphy finds him dead. Or does she?

Tyson’s disappearance fuels the three involving episodes made available for review, with Murphy trying to be an amateur sleuth without ever joining the Chicago police department. So this isn’t about a crime of the week solved by an ad hoc pro-and-amateur detective team. In the Dark instead is an ongoing mystery being put together with small weekly puzzle pieces. And although the going can be slow, the cynic at its center can be quite a show. As when Tyson’s drug-running cousin, Darnell James (Keston John), attempts to order breakfast for her, which Murphy resents. “I think whoever started that trend should be punched in the nuts,” she rejoins before spurning pancakes in favor of eggs over easy and crispy bacon. Will that be all?

Murphy’s erstwhile best friend otherwise is lesbian roommate Jess Damon (Brooke Markham). She’s a veterinarian at Chicago’s Guiding Hope, a pressed-for-funds dog-training center run by Murphy’s adoptive parents, Hank and Joy (Derek Webster, Kathleen York). Murphy draws a salary, but her “work” schedule mainly consists of smoking and laying around while nursing hangovers. Dad’s the more patient one while mom’s pretty much had it. As has nerdish co-worker Felix Bell (Morgan Krantz), the main butt of Murphy’s serrated one-liners.

In the Dark also features nice guy single detective Dean Riley (Rich Sommer), whose daughter, Chloe (Calle Walton), just happens to be blind, too. Murphy softens in her presence and offers dad some tips on how to treat her. This makes Dean more disposed to help her find Tyson despite no dead body or evidence pointing to foul play.

A hunky food truck dude named Max (Casey Diedrick) makes the scene in Episode 2. He’s determined to break through Murphy’s hardened exterior but his illicit business with Darnell seems to make him a little suspicious if not outright duplicitous. Just in case this isn’t enough, add Murphy’s oft-insulted guide dog Pretzel and Jess’s lover, Chelsea (Lindsey Broad). That’s a lot of mouths to feed with dialogue, even if Pretzel generates his own script.

Murphy, sightless since age 14 due to a degenerative disease, gets a number or razor sharp lines during the course of finding her bearings. Mattfield excels in delivering them while the rest of the cast tends to march to her beats.

TV series starring blind characters have been very few and far between, with neither Longstreet nor Blind Justice lasting beyond their first seasons. In both dramas, sightless sleuths solved crimes of the week. In the Dark stretches beyond that premise, melding a serial mystery with the gradual maturing of its lead character.

It remains to be seen, so to speak, whether In the Dark will play itself out in a single season or find other ways to extend beyond that. The show’s creative team, headed by creator Corinne Kingsbury and including Ben Stiller, so far have put together a show that’s surprisingly and bracingly watchable.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Netflix's The Highwaymen is suitably star-driven by Costner and Harrelson

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Fabled Texas Rangers played by Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner have Bonnie and Clyde in their sights in The Highwaymen. Netflix photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Trumpeted as “the untold story” of the “legends who took down Bonnie & Clyde,” Netflix’s The Highwaymen in fact isn’t the first film to give famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer a fair shake.

Although ridiculed in Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 Bonnie and Clyde feature film, Hamer was treated with all due respect in the far lesser known 2013 Bonnie & Clyde miniseries, which received a three-network showcase on A&E, Lifetime and History. William Hurt played Hamer, and he certainly was no joke in his zeal to both de-glamorize and bury his prey. The original Bonnie and Clyde movie had a completely invented scene in which Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker stroked her pistol over a captured and sillified Hamer’s (Denver Pyle) mustache. in the Bonnie & Clyde miniseries, Hamer is an all-business manhunter without an ounce of ineptitude.

What The Highwaymen does do, however, is devote far more time and star power to the stories of Hamer and his partner, Maney Gault. They’re respectively played by Kevin Costner (slowly but surely morphing into an amalgam of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood) and the ever-interesting Woody Harrelson. Both are Rangers put out to pasture until high sheriff Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) persuades dictatorial Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to try another approach after Bonnie and Clyde have been killing, robbing and running wild for two years.

It turns out to be a long pull, with The Highwaymen (streaming on Friday, March 29th) devoting two-plus hours to the dogged but at times congealing Hamer/Gault trackdown. Bonnie and Clyde are shown in closeup only at the very end, when their latest roadster famously is riddled with bullets on a rural road in Bienville Parish, LA. They’re otherwise fleetingly seen stick figures, with The Highwaymen virtually shouting out that these two already have received more than enough exposure. (For the record, they’re played inconsequentially by Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert.)

Hamer is first seen with his pet hog outside the out-of-the way home he shares with his understanding wife, Gladys (Kim Dickens). “I’ll come back,” he tells her before she dutifully packs him a lunch. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Back in 1934, you could still take that to the bank.

Meanwhile, Gault is drinking and decaying on a for sale farmhouse he shares with his daughter and grandson. He hooks up with Hamer, whom he calls “Pancho,” after the latter purchases an armory’s worth of weapons at a small town gun shop. Hamer at first doesn’t want him along, but relents in the face of Gault’s pitiful, pleading countenance. “Aw, Judas Priest, get in. But no singin’,” Hamer demands before they ride off. In the next scene, Gault of course is singin’.

Flinty, grumpy and wizened, Hamer says there’s one sure thing about both outlaws and mustangs. “They always come home.” So that’s where they increasingly concentrate their efforts.

Hamer has his opinion about car radios, too. They’re “just an intrusion on a man’s peace and quiet.”

Gault occasionally fires back, but mostly defers. As when Hamer beats up a recalcitrant gas station owner who falsely claims he’s never seen Bonnie and Clyde while also proclaiming himself a fan of both.

Both Costner and Harrelson eventually get extended soliloquies in which they emote about their violent pasts. Hamer tells his story to Clyde Barrow’s father while Gault unwinds during a poker game. It all feels a little dated, but perhaps shouldn’t. Straight-ahead storytelling is becoming a lost art of late, but The Highwaymen is dedicated in that respect. It’s going to stay in its lane, swerving only during a car chase in which the two lawmen end up literally left in the dust.

Netflix resurrected Longmire from cancellation with the full knowledge that it would continue to draw an older but no less appreciative audience. The Highwaymen similarly won’t be breaking ground with many younger viewers on a service that frankly doesn’t and shouldn’t give a damn. Viewers of all ages pay those monthly subscription fees, and Netflix churns out more than enough original programming to cast a wide net over all generations.

Landing Costner and Harrelson for the same movie also qualifies as another notch on the Netflix belt in times when a wealth of current and soon to be launched streaming services are all trying to out-shout one another. As a film, The Highwaymen has some potholes. But as an eye-catching, promotable and heavily watched attraction, it seems sure to go the extra mile.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Abby's makes it bar time again for NBC

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NBC is hoping viewers somehow will say cheers to Abby’s. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, March 28th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Natalie Morales, Neil Flynn, Nelson Franklin, Jessica Chaffin, Leonard Ouzts, Kimia Behpoornia
Produced by: Michael Schur, Pamela Fryman, Josh Malmuth, David Miner

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The onetime network of Cheers wants to drink to that again.

Except that Ted Danson’s womanizing Sam Malone can’t get a liquor license anymore. Nor would Cheers’ all-white cast get a pass. In NBC’s notably diverse Abby’s, the bar owner is a proudly bisexual Cuban woman and Marine Corps combat veteran whose manager is of Iranian descent. And if you’re looking for a Norm Peterson, you’ll find him in the demonstrably more plus-sized James, who is African-American.

A nettlesome laugh track remains in play, though, giving Abby’s a throwback Cheers vibe at the drop of every one-liner. As when barfly Beth, who’s basically a runaway mom, gripes about her kids being “obsessed with me. They want me to hug them and make them food.” Ha ha ha. It’s all “filmed in front of a live outdoor audience.”

Heading the cast is Natalie Morales, whose Abby’s bar is located in her San Diego backyard. It’s a regimented place of rules and realness, with regular patrons required to earn their assigned barstools by conducting themselves like responsible heavy drinkers. Abby’s veteran top earner is Fred (durable Neil Flynn from The Middle), who gets the opening lines in each of the first three episodes while sporting his former character’s trademark flannel attire in Thursday’s premiere.

The designated interloper is bespectacled Bill (Nelson Franklin), nephew of Abby’s newly deceased landlord. Fresh from a divorce in which ex-wife frisked him of virtually everything, nerd-ish Bill is aghast at discovering what he sees as an illegal watering hole. So of course he wants to shut it down before prototypically coming to his senses before Episode 1’s bar time.

Abby’s means everything to Abby, with regulars Beth (Jessica Chaffin) and James (Leonard Ouzts) likewise lost at sea without its inexpensive drinks and camaraderie. Manager Rosie (Kimia Behpoornia) wouldn’t know what to do with herself either in a sitcom that so far doesn’t stray beyond the confines of the bar, its ad hoc parking lot and Abby’s adjacent home.

Episode 2 revolves around “Free Alcohol Day,” in which a liquor saleswoman annually allows patrons free tastes of a new product. But the “all-spice” vodka can barely be choked down while Abby’s previous intimate relationship with the saleswoman has tongues whirring. A third episode made available for review introduces Bill’s ex-wife, Sharon, whose San Diego Padres season tickets are much coveted by Fred and the other regulars. So c’mon, Bill, man up and demand that she give them back. (Why anyone would be this eager to attend Padres games is never addressed.)

Some of the jokes in Abby’s manage to go down easier than the spiced vodka. But too many of them don’t, including the spectacle of Bill being crowned “Tuna Pope” as a means of sealing his sense of belonging.

Unlike Cheers, the newcomer has inclusiveness going for it. But the writing is no match at all. In that sense, Abby’s is like San Diego’s reliably nondescript Padres going against the reigning world champion Boston Red Sox, for whom alcoholic Sam Malone pitched before heavy drinking cut his career short.

In that context, look for Abby’s to have a short run while its featured booze hounds need not worry about being cut off.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net