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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

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