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A 24 in half the time on a network that sorely needs a jump start


Still grim-faced, breathless and on the run, Jack is back. Fox photo

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Never believe anything they say about 24. No, really. Just don’t.

Back in May 2010, head executive producer Howard Gordon said in a statement that after eight seasons and 192 episodes, “We all believe that now is the right time to call it a day.”

Star Kiefer Sutherland concurred while also urging fans to stay on the alert for “the feature film version of 24.”

After innumerable false starts and new assurances, the big-screen movie never happened. Instead Fox is capping a largely dismal, ratings-starved season with 24: Live Another Day, a 12-hour “event series” premiering on Monday, May 5th at 8 p.m. (central).

Set in London after Jack Bauer (Sutherland) has been in exile for four years, Live Another Day tries to heavily inhale the fumes of 24’s better days -- and hours. Fox made the first two episodes available for review. They’re watchable but also sadly a little comical, with Jack again all clenched up while speaking in a gasping-for-air rasp or silently clenching his jaw. The former driving force of L.A.’s Counter Terrorist Unit has no dialogue at all for roughly the first two-thirds of Monday’s re-launch. Following the script, Jack merely has to stare or glare defiantly while others badger him.

Giving away too much is always a danger with 24, but here are the basics.

James Heller (William Devane) and his daughter, Audrey Raines (Kim Raver), who were prominent in Season 4, are back in new guises. Heller used to be secretary of defense but now is the president. Audrey had been romantically involved with Jack and more or less estranged from her husband, Paul. But that turned sour when Jack first tortured Paul and then let him to die in order to save field agent Lee Castle. Audrey is now married to Heller’s chief of staff, Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan), who appears to be the usual 24 blend of duplicity and manipulation.

Ace computer whiz Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) also is back and looking very goth after throwing in with a group of underground hackers led by Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott). Other new characters include CIA division head Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt) and comely agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski), who’s being transferred because of her husband’s transgressions until of course convincing her boss she’s the only one fully capable of tracking Jack down.

Jack’s motivations in emerging from hiding have something to do with assuaging his guilt over how he ended up treating Audrey and her father back when 24 was still relatively young and vital. The stakes as always are sky high -- and double-pronged -- as Jack yells “Go!” and later “Let’s go!” while he pursues evil-doers and the no-nonsense Kate pursues him.

The first two episodes unfold as of old -- in the “real time” hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., London time. But Live Another Day also will have the leeway to fold two or three hours into one hour. Imagine that.

A lot of new, quality serial dramas have emerged in the four years since 24 flamed out. Homeland, The Americans, The Good Wife, The Walking Dead, True Detective, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Fargo, Vikings, Sleepy Hollow, Boardwalk Empire and Orphan Black all exceed or equal 24’s once-upon-a-time unbeatable combinations of suspense, violence and intrigue.

24 is still fast-paced for the most part, although a little slow off the mark in its first hour. And the 47-year-old Sutherland remains trim and limber as an aging Jack of few words, most of them downers.

“I don’t have any friends,” he says matter of factly. Furthermore, “There’s no going back for me.”

His daughter, Kim, is still spoken of, although not seen or heard. “Kim had another baby -- a boy,” Jack is told by one of his early captors. This seems to prompt an ever so faint facial muscle quiver from the man who’s been to hell and back on a continuous loop.

Each of the first two hours ends with a new hook -- or at least that’s the intent. Sounds like yet another job for Jack, who’s always up for such challenges in tandem with a series that now almost desperately yearns to rock around the clock.

Keep in mind that there wouldn’t be a resurrection of 24 had Sutherland’s followup act, the Fox drama series Touch, become a long-lasting hit. That didn’t happen, so Jack is back on a network whose not-so-long ago glory days hinged in large part on the ratings successes of 24 and the now steeply declining American Idol.

In that sense, the final words of Episode 2 seem all too appropriate: “Come home as soon as you can. Mummy’s waiting.”


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No longer terra firma: TV's late night terrain will soon be without Craig Ferguson, too


Craig Ferguson majors in communication on Late Late Show. CBS photo

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Becalmed in recent years, TV’s late night terrain shook again Monday when Craig Ferguson announced he’ll be leaving CBS’ The Late Late Show in December of 2014.

Ferguson, who won an on-air talent competition to replace Craig Kilborn, began his Late Late Show stint on Jan. 3, 2005.

“CBS and I are not getting divorced, we are ‘consciously uncoupling,’ “ Ferguson said in a statement that riffed on the split-up of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. “But we will still spend holidays together and share custody of the fake horse and robot skeleton (Geoff, his sidekick), both of whom we love very much.”

CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler praised Ferguson’s unique contributions, which have included a free-form, largely unscripted monologue and notably informal interviews with his guests.

“Craig has elevated CBS to new creative and competitive heights at (11:30 p.m. central),” she said. “He infused the broadcast with tremendous energy, unique comedy, insightful interviews and some of the most heartfelt monologues seen on television.”

In an interview Monday night with Variety, Ferguson emphasized that his decision to leave was long-planned and had nothing to do with CBS bypassing him as a successor to David Letterman and instead choosing Stephen Colbert earlier this month.

“Ten years is a very long time in one job -- for me,” he said. “I wanted to leave the show before I stopped enjoying it. That was my goal. I didn’t want it to be a chore . . . Show business should have some adventure to it, I think. It’s not about knowing what you’re doing day in and day out, year after year.”

As CBS noted in its publicity release, Ferguson already has committed to hosting Celebrity Name Game, a syndicated quiz set to premiere this fall. His Green Mountain West production company also is developing projects for Science Channel, Comedy Central and the Discovery network.

Late night TV has been a tilt-a-whirl this year, beginning with Jimmy Fallon taking over NBC’s Tonight Show from Jay Leno after the Winter Olympics. Fallon’s NBC Late Night successor, former Saturday Night Live mainstay Seth Meyers, has been outdrawing Ferguson’s show during the early weeks of their head-to-head competition while Fallon continues to thump both CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Letterman surprisingly announced his retirement during an April 3rd edition of Late Show. A week later, CBS named Colbert as his replacement after Letterman decides on the date of his exit, which will be sometime next year. Comedy Central now is searching for Colbert’s successor.

John Oliver, who had subbed for Jon Stewart during last summer’s two-month sabbatical from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, launched his new weekly HBO late night show on Sunday, April 27th.

CBS is in the market for Ferguson’s replacement, with Neil Patrick Harris considered a prime candidate. The network reportedly has ruled out Chelsea Handler, who is leaving her Chelsea Lately show on E! at the end of this year. Handler lately has been in discussions with Netflix about a possible new vehicle.

The Scottish-born Ferguson, 51, has long been a personal favorite of TV critics. Throughout his Late Show tenure, he has remained uncommonly kind, accessible and candid. Those can be rare qualities in the show business firmament. But Ferguson still has them in abundance.

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HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver sparked with some brilliant material that should be given a little more time to breathe


John Oliver at the start of HBO’s new Last Week Tonight. Photo: Ed Bark

His material was mostly first-rate. John Oliver seemed to have no interest in savoring it, though.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome to whatever this is,” he said without any further ado at all on Sunday’s premiere of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. “Let’s get started straight away.”

Which he did while also seemingly being intent on waylaying prolonged outbreaks of laughter or applause. Oliver seemed just a bit impatient with any of that. “No, no, no, no,” he said more than once while also laying down a little drumbeat on his desk in an effort to seemingly stay in joke-telling rhythm. An appreciative studio audience, never shown on camera, might have in turn appreciated a quick ad lib or a chance to let its collective reaction wash over the host. But Oliver wasn’t having any of that, even though the show was pre-taped and seemingly not on a super-strict schedule. This is, after all, HBO, where episodes of original fare routinely are allowed to run a few minutes past an appointed hour.

Oliver quickly came to prominence last summer as Jon Stewart’s fill-in host on The Daily Show while he took leave to make a movie. As it turns out, Comedy Central almost assuredly would have offered him Stephen Colbert’s post-Daily Show slot had the network known he’d be leaving to become David Letterman’s successor sometime next year.

But HBO struck while the Oliver iron was red hot. So for now, his half-hour <>Last Week Tonight will be seen just once a week on Sundays.

Oliver launched right into the prime targets at hand -- old-line bigots Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy. “It turned out to be a rough week for unrepentant racists and recording devices,” he said deftly.

Those were the easy ones. But Oliver set himself apart with an ingenious and lengthy look at the election in India, whose 814 million eligible voters are in the process of picking a new prime minister. The two frontrunners currently are telegenic young Rahul Gandhi and elderly Narenda Modi, with the latter considered the favorite, Oliver said. Still, American TV newscasts remain more interested in handicapping the 2016 presidential election, Oliver scolded.

“If this story isn’t worth covering, then nothing is worth covering,” he said of India’s election, which has all of the juicy ingredients that usually interest U.S. cable news networks. Instead they’ve devoted more attention of late to a “Leopard on the Loose” in India.

Oliver also had a fine time with a very funny segment blasting products that make phony claims about improving health, prolonging life, etc. He reached a crescendo with, “F#@% you,” after viewers were treated to an ad for Frosted Pop Tarts.

The show also included a taped faux salute to the NFL as “Workplace of the Week” and Oliver’s previous interview with accommodating former National Security Agency head Keith Alexander.

The host then zoomed right out of there, thanking those involved with the show before it instantly vanished.

Last Week Tonight probably needs to towel off a bit and present a more relaxed half-hour next Sunday. The premiere outing nonetheless showed considerable ingenuity and a willingness to take on topics that haven’t already been parodied to death. India’s elections, for one. That was a brilliant segment, and more than enough to elevate the first edition of a show that doesn’t have to be in quite such a rush. Enjoy yourself a little more, John Oliver. Take your foot off the accelerator and stop speeding.

GRADE: A-minus

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Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 3, Season 7


Roger and Don: Reunited, but will it feel so good? AMC photo

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Presenting our weekly 10 takeaways from Mad Men’s two-tiered, 14-episode final season. Sunday’s hour was subtitled “Field Trip.”

1.Let’s start at the very beginning of the episode, with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) alone in a movie theater watching an unidentified feature. It turns out to be 1969’s Model Shop, the first U.S. film from director Jacques Demy. Set in Los Angeles, it starred Gary Lockwood, Oscar nominee Anouk Aimee (A Man and a Woman) and Alexandra Hay as a young actress whose relationship with Lockwood’s character is on the rocks.

There’s a parallel, of course, in Don’s increasingly troubled marriage to struggling young actress Megan Draper (Jessica Pare). Also notable: the film’s soundtrack is by Spirit, one of my favorite rock groups of the 1960s. They briefly play themselves in Model Shop, with lead vocalist Jay Ferguson at one point agreeably loaning $100 to unemployed, disaffected architect George Matthews (Conway). Don still doesn’t need the money, but he’s likewise unemployed and disaffected.

One wonders whether Don in reality would have been caught dead patronizing an art house film. His tastes seem to run more toward mindless TV, as we’ve seen throughout Mad Men. And in an earlier classic episode, he jerked the needle off The Beatles’ “Revolver” album after Megan had strongly recommended it. Here’s a link to the Spirit clip from Model Shop, in which a poster of The Beatles is clearly visible in Ferguson’s music room while he plays a new composition for Conway’s character.

2. A newly docile Don ended the episode with an agreeable “OK” after old pal Roger Sterling (John Slattery) greased his re-entrance to Sterling, Cooper & Partners. He encountered a decidedly frosty climate before Roger convinced the agency’s other decision-makers that it would be cheaper to re-hire Don than buy him out. But these are not terms of endearment. Neutered for now, Don will have to abide by a number of “stipulations,” including no drinking in the office “outside of client hospitality.” Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” then kicked in during the closing credits. Key lyric: “If the sun refuse to shine, I don’t mind.”

So my prediction of a reunion between Don and former protege Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) was right but also very wrong. Because they won’t be fighting back with their own new agency. They’ll instead be stuck with another for now, with Peggy cold as ice in telling Don, “Well, I can’t say that we missed you.”

3. It’s easier from a storytelling standpoint to have the remaining charter Sterling Cooper denizens all under one roof again -- albeit with interlopers Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) and Lou Avery (Allan Havey), to whom Don must now report. But it’s also deflating at the moment, with Don almost desperately wanting to be wanted after Megan pushed him out of her life while loyal secretary and confidant Dawn Chambers (Teyonnah Parris) had her hands too full to fully service him with door-to-door intel and deliveries. A semblance of old, entitled Don slammed down the phone after Dawn asked if she could put him on hold. But by the end of the episode, he seemed ready and willing to take daily workplace urine tests if that’s what it took.

4. Betty Draper (January Jones) was seen for the first time this season. Creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner decided to remind viewers what a lousy mother she can be during a school bus field trip to a farm with oldest son, Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton). The kid was so happy and proud to have his mom along. But it all went sour when he innocently traded her lunch sandwich for a sack of gumdrops from a classmate. Betty upraised him and ordered Bobby to eat his candy. In the same motion, she put on her sunglasses and coldly turned away from him while they sat on a picnic blanket outside the farm.

“I wish it was yesterday,” he told stepfather Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) at the dinner table that night. It’s easy to see Bobby now adopting his sister Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) deep-seated resentment toward mommie dearest. But it’s getting harder to justify Betty’s continued presence on Mad Men. She’s become little more than an irksome, time-consuming detour.

5. Harry Hamlin has been really good in a much-expanded role this season. From this perspective, he’s also surpassed old-liner Lou Avery as Sterling Cooper’s principal villain in residence. “This agency is too dependent on creative personalities,” he groused in Sunday’s episode. What’s needed is a computer, not all these “creative hijinks.” Take him down, Don.

6. Smart ass, underling ad man Ben Feldman (Michael Ginsberg) continues to aim some withering fire at Peggy. The latest burst: “She’s upset because I got nominated for a Clio and Rosemary’s Baby didn’t.” Irresistible segue: NBC’s new four-hour version of Rosemary’s Baby is coming on May 11th.

7. Sharpest cut of all Sunday night: Megan learning that Don’s surprise visit was tied to her alleged inability to accept rejection after auditioning for roles. “Thanks for the visit, daddy!” she spat. This came soon after they made love to satisfy Don’s “hankering.”

8. Betty sulkily watched TV in her bedroom while cuddling baby son, Gene, the only child she hasn’t yet despoiled. Did the audio sound familiar? It was from an episode of the sitcom My Favorite Martian. There was a lot of crap on the tube back then.

9. The blast from TV’s past in Sunday’s episode was Jim Metzler, who had a featured role in ABC’s 1985 miniseries North and South and its 1986 sequel. Metzler guest-starred as adman Victor Perkins, the guy who accompanied David James Elliott’s Dave Wooster to dinner on the night they offered Don a contract that he then used as leverage.

10. All things considered, Roger Sterling acted pretty heroically Sunday in going to bat for Don. But first he showed up late to the office after again drinking his lunch. I still think Roger’s odds of survival to the very end of Mad Men are the longest of any charter character. Although Betty might also be prone to doing something drastic before Roger can imbibe himself into the grave.

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HBO's All About Ann is mostly about enshrining her


Ann Richards in natural act of speaking her mind. HBO photo

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Politicians from both sides would agree: Ann Richards knew how to make an impression.

She served just one term as Texas governor, from 1991 to 1995. But the spotlight loved her and she pretty much loved it, never more so than at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. One zinger, in a keynote address filled with many, made the former schoolteacher a political star of the first magnitude.

“Poor George, he can’t help it,” she drawled in reference to Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The crowd roared and rose to its collective feet. Richards needn’t have ever said another word.

Richards, who died in 2006 at age 73 of esophageal cancer, is extolled anew in HBO’s All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State (Monday, April 28th at 8 p.m. central). The 90-minute documentary film, by Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper, is fully intended to be a one-sided tribute. It’s very watchable as well, both as political theater and storybook tale of a woman who grew up in rural Texas and wore “feed sack dresses” as a kid. She ended up being a beacon for women’s rights and empowerment.

The filmmakers have included numerous new interviews with both lesser known Richards’ aides and familiar national figures such as Bill Clinton, Dan Rather, Liz Smith and Michael Dukakis.

Archival clips and still shots of Richards are the driving forces, of course. If she was ever dull, it had to be purely by coincidence. When Ronald Reagan said he liked women, Richards retorted that he liked them all right -- in the kitchen. “You know, if Ronald Reagan likes me anymore, I’m gonna have to take in ironing.”

Her 1990 campaign for governor, after earlier serving as state treasurer, remains by far the most colorful and provocative of Texas’ modern electronic age.

Richards first faced former governor Mark White and state attorney general Jim Mattox in the Democratic primary. Mattox, now deceased and commonly referred to as “the junkyard dog of Texas politics,” branded Richards as a soft-on-crime, former cocaine user who now refused to admit her dalliances with illegal drugs. Richards, who freely talked about going to rehab for her alcoholism, finally fired back by telling reporters, “I wish there were a treatment program for meanness. And then maybe Mattox could get well.”

She then went after White as well, alleging he had enriched himself at the expense of taxpayers during his earlier term as governor. His richly appointed Houston home was cited as evidence in a Richards commercial.

White tried to position himself as a hard-liner when it came to pulling the switch. In a commercial that remains a jaw-dropper, he strode manfully past enlarged black-and-white photos of those he had previously sent to their graves. “Only a governor can make executions happen,” White proclaimed. “I did, and I will.”

Richards won the Democratic runoff before facing West Texas millionaire Clayton Williams in the general election. He poured his own money into the effort and enjoyed a double-digit lead over Richards until famously running at the mouth during a campfire get-together with reporters. Comparing rape to bad weather, he joked, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

Williams further compounded his problems by refusing to shake Richards’ hands at a public gathering after intentionally summoning a TV reporter and cameraman to capture the slight. But no hole was bigger than Williams’ jovial admission that in at least one year, he hadn’t paid any income taxes. In a new interview, ex-Texas Speaker of the House Jack Rains tells the camera that “Bubba” could look past the rape joke and the Richards snub. But Williams “lost Bubba” with his non-payment of taxes.

Richards and her husband, David, first moved to Austin in 1969 after living in Dallas. All About Ann, as have many political films, finds it easy to make Dallas something of an arch villain.

“Dallas was a vehement, right-wing city,” venerable author/reporter Gary Cartwright says.

“I think we always wanted out of Dallas. There was no question about it,” David Richards says in a new interview.

Richards herself is shown referring to Dallas as the city where school kids cheered on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. In reality, that remains very debatable, with other accounts saying that the kids were just happy to be getting out of school early, with many of them not told the reason why.

All About Ann uses a good amount of footage from WFAA-TV. But the Dallas-based station may not be happy to learn that some of it is uncredited. Former WFAA political reporter Doug Fox’s studio interview with Richards is identified as “Texas local television, 1991.” Fox is never identified either, but his familiar voice (to some of us at least) can be heard throughout the film during other WFAA coverage of Richards.

Another former WFAA-TV reporter, Robert Riggs, is interviewed specifically for All About Ann. He’s ID’d as a WFAA-TV investigative journalist, giving viewers the impression he still works at the station. That hasn’t been the case at least since 2002, the year Riggs joined rival CBS11’s news department.

Richards lost the governorship, after one term, to George W. Bush. Wayne Slater, longtime Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, joins others in largely blaming her defeat on the “special interests” money that came pouring in for the Republican candidate while behind-the-scenes mastermind Karl Rove pushed all the right inflammatory buttons. These included intimations that Richards was a lesbian.

In the end, she was beaten rather soundly by Bush, who ended up using the Texas governorship as the springboard to his eventual presidency. “This is not the end of the world. It is the end of a campaign,” Richards told her supporters. She never ran for public office again.

Near the end, All About Ann has footage of Richards addressing a large group of admirers within a little more than two years of her death. She has a heavy cough, but powers her way through. At her memorial service, Liz Smith notes that she had known or met many prominent women during the course of her writing career, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Katharine Hepburn and even Mother Theresa.

“Forget them,” she says. “I think Ann Richards was the greatest woman I have ever known.”

This film has no interest in contradicting that assertion. It doesn’t quite canonize its subject, but gets in the vicinity. Others can strongly disagree or ignore the film entirely. It’s not for them anyway.


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Bad Teacher doesn't fail CBS (but will the ratings provide a passing grade?)


Ari Graynor (prone) heads the cast of Bad Teacher. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, April 24th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Ari Graynor, Kristin Davis, David Alan Grier, Sara Gilbert, Ryan Hansen, Sara Rodier
Produced by: Hilary Winston, Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg, Jimmy Miller, Sam Hansen, Michael Lasker

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It’s tempting to grade Bad Teacher on the curve. Specifically her curves.

But this CBS sitcom spinoff of the 2011 Cameron Diaz movie gets more than a passing grade on its own merits. It’s bright, sharp, without a laugh track and with a very well assembled ensemble cast headed by Ari Graynor in the Diaz role of a gold-digging, dumped divorcee looking to land another big fish.

The name of the lead character is now Meredith Davis instead of Elizabeth Halsey. Just about everything else has been altered, too. Diaz’s character already was a lazy, lousy teacher who planned to quit after marrying her wealthy fiancé. He backed out after discovering she was a money-grubber. She dropped back in -- at Chicago’s John Adams Middle School -- and began pursuing a rich substitute teacher played by Justin Timberlake. His ex-girlfriend had large breasts, prompting Elizabeth to raise endowment funds for her own cosmetic picker-upper. And so on.

Graynor’s Meredith decidedly doesn’t have that problem. She fills out outfits with the greatest of ease after first filling out a phony resume that persuades gullible Nixon Middle School principal Carl Gaines (David Alan Grier) to hire her on the spot. The upscale school has a rich lode of eligible single dads. And as Meredith notes when a potential new husband pulls up in an expensive car, “I need one of them to hit me -- and then hit on me.”

Grier is consistently amusing in the three episodes available for review. He’s by no means the only familiar TV face, though. Sara Gilbert (Roseanne, The Talk) plays against type as a bespectacled, naive teacher named Irene. And Kristin Davis (Sex and the City) is prim faculty president Ginny, who’s rubbed the wrong way every which way by the sexpot suddenly in their midst.

Ryan Hansen rounds out the cast as gym teacher Joel, a former high school classmate of Meredith’s who knows all of her moves. The only kid getting series regular billing is Sara Rodier as Lily, part of a picked-on, nerdy crossing guard contingent. Meredith tries to empathize with them: “Yes, I was blessed with a great rack and a perfect face. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how you guys are feeling.”

Two of the first three episodes predictably end with Meredith doing the right thing by her students rather than heading off with a hand-picked, cash-laden stud. Bad Teacher wouldn’t work otherwise. Well, maybe on FX it would, but that network much prefers highly flawed males as leads after flings several seasons ago with the Glenn Close-starring Damages and the Courteney Cox-starring Dirt.

Graynor, fronting her first TV series, seems perfectly equipped to do so. The eye candy attributes are obvious, but she also knows how to land a punchline and parry with the veteran pros surrounding her. Gilbert is particularly appealing after taking all of her usual edge off. Good for her.

Bad Teacher gives CBS a late-blooming spring comedy that also comes as a pleasant surprise. Its takeoff point is a box office success that got less than ecstatic reviews. The TV successor in comparison goes to the head of the class. Getting the ratings needed to graduate can be a tougher assignment this time of year.


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ABC's Black Box goes for gravitas on a tilt-a-whirl


Kelly Reilly stars as “Marco Polo of the brain” in Black Box. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, April 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Kelly Reilly, Ditch Davey, David Ajala, Ali Wong, Laura Fraser, David Chisum, Siobhan Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Terry Kinney
Produced by: Amy Holden Jones, Ilene Chaiken, Amy Holden Jones, Bryan Singer, Anne Thomopoulos, Oly Obst, Gary Michael Walters, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak

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Following the quick cancellation of Mind Games, ABC wastes no time getting into the head of a bi-polar neurologist in Black Box.

Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) is dubbed “the Marco Polo of the brain,” although her out-of-body Jezebel persona holds center stage in Thursday’s premiere episode. Watching Black go off her meds and in a sense, “Hulk out,” is too laughable to be harrying, though. Reilly, the latest Brit to front an American TV series, contorts herself into a swirling, whirling dervish of a sexual predator, with the horn section striving to keep pace as she beds a limo driver before teetering on the edge of a high-rise hotel balcony. Only a timely thunder storm sends her crashing back to earth.

“I can be such a bitch,” Catherine tells the man who wants to marry her (David Ajala as chef Will Van Renseller). He’s later told why, prompting a break up and a make up.

If Black Box’s anti-heroine has excess baggage, so does the drama’s large grouping of executive producers. Among them is Bryan Singer, who worked behind the scenes on House and whose X-Men: Days of Future Past is due to be released next month. Singer is newly embroiled in allegations that he sexually abused a teenager. His lawyers have denied the very public charges, by the now 31-year-old Michael Egan. But Singer has gone into hiding and ABC has pulled on-air promos touting him as one of the creative minds behind Black Box.

The network made the series opener available for review, but then skipped ahead to Episode 3 rather than offering a look at next week’s hour. Catherine’s extracurricular exploits, which she considers an “incredible high,” are not on display in the steadier latter episode. But the patients remain highly out of the ordinary, whether it’s a married couple battling “LBD” (sexless Lesbian Bed Death) among other things or a woman who has lost perception of “the left side of her world.”

Catherine is director of “The Cube,” where all the cool, prickly, top neurosurgeons ply their wares. They include Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey), a prototypical womanizer who speaks in a silly manly rasp. Vanessa Redgrave also drops in on occasion as Catherine’s therapist, Dr. Hartramph. In Episode 1, she urges her prized patient, “Don’t ‘catastrophize. ‘ “ That must be newspeak for “Calm down.”

Catherine also has a devoted brother, Joshua (David Chisum), who shares a dark secret about their past that’s fully revealed in Episode 1. Joshua is married to uptight, insecure Reagan (Laura Fraser), and they have a bright, teen daughter named Esme (Siobhan Williams) who greatly admires Catherine. You’re probably going to figure all of this out before Black Box spills its beans.

The featured patients in Thursday’s opener, neither of whom really register, are an elderly woman with an imaginary dwarf friend she calls Yojo and a brainy young man whose acceptance to MIT is waylaid by his sudden impulse to draw wildly complex pictures on walls.

Catherine’s own tangled webs are the premiere’s marquee storyline, though And her impromptu, madcap dance atop a hospital staircase is exceedingly ripe for a Saturday Night Live parody if Black Box somehow succeeds as a spring replacement for Scandal, which had its season finale last week.

More likely, ABC will be sticking affiliate stations’ late night local newscasts with another lousy lead-in just in time for the first night of the four-week May “sweeps” ratings period. The network already leads its Big Four broadcast peers in first-year drama series cancellations, with six so far this season. Black Box at least has moments of unintentional high comedy in Catherine Black’s loopy magic carpet rides. But the series nonetheless takes itself way too seriously to be taken seriously.


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Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 2, Season 7

sally-draper-season7 mad-men-season-7-promo-photos-part-2-151

Daughter Sally Draper and her dad, Don: She’s becoming his equal. AMC photos

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Presenting our weekly 10 takeaways from Mad Men. Sunday’s second hour of a 14-episode, two-tiered final season was subtitled “A Day’s Work.”

1.Kiernan Shipka, in her first appearance this year as Don Draper’s daughter, Sally, has come fully of age as a potential Emmy-calibre supporting actress. Her scenes with him were letter-perfect during their icy drive back to her boarding school, which included a stop at a restaurant where Don (Jon Hamm) again succumbed to telling Sally the truth about his latest subterfuge. You could have knocked dad over with less than a feather after she finally told him at episode’s end, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.”

Shipka, now 14, hit a maturation point earlier this year in the Lifetime movie Flowers in the Attic. Mad Men’s writing soars above that level, and Shipka’s excelling as well. Meanwhile, her mom, Betty (January Jones), is yet to be seen this season and in reality isn’t missed at all. Sally has supplanted her -- and then some.

2. The underling racial politics at Sterllng, Cooper & Partners emerged front and center in an episode that gave the agency’s first black employee, secretary Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris), some rare showcase scenes. She’s still providing regular intel to Don while also chafing under his replacement, old-line ad man Lou Avery (Allan Havey). He blamed Dawn for his being surprised by Sally’s impromptu visit after sending her on a lunch hour errand to buy perfume for his wife.

Lou to Dawn’s other boss, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks): “I know you can’t fire her. Just move her to another part of the building.”

Joan: “Lou, I will take care of this.”

Dawn to Lou: “What do you mean by that?”

Lou: “I want my own girl.”

Dawn then let him have it, the first time she’s fired back. But she later wasn’t within hearing distance of old patriarch Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), who turned a whiter shade of pal at the sight of Dawn in her new post as the agency’s entranceway receptionist. Cooper immediately upbraided Joan: “I’m all for the national advancement of colored people, but I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office. People can see her from the elevator.”

Joan again took care of things, but this time to Dawn’s further advantage in a well-staged game of musical offices in which both women were promoted. As for Bertram, it’s impossible to see him anymore as a semi-benign grandfatherly presence. He’s now just a weathered old bigot.

3. Before either of these flash points, creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner deftly set the table in a scene between Dawn and Sterling Cooper’s other black secretary, Shirley (Sola Bamis). Gossiping in the agency’s kitchenette, they playfully interchanged each other’s names. It was their way of twitting the stereotype that all black people look alike.

4. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) became further estranged from her agency colleagues, who in turn have ganged up on her. She’s frustrated, unfulfilled and getting bitchy in the bargain. But nothing coming from Peggy in Sunday’s episode could quite match a broadside delivered in her presence from ad man Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), who said during an elevator grouping, “She has plans. Look at her calendar. February 14th. Masturbate gloomily.”

5. Yes, that was David James Elliott of JAG fame in the nearly unrecognizable role of adman Dave Wooster, who’s entertaining the idea of hiring Don. He also wants to know what really happened to him at Sterling Cooper.

“I didn’t know I was going to be interrogated by the Hooterville telephone operator,” Don jabbed. That’s a reference to the CBS sitcom Petticoat Junction.

Wooster later proposed they meet again -- at a New York Knicks game where his agency has seats “right on the floor.”

“Bradley’s having one helluva season,” said Don. That’s Bill Bradley, whose Knicks would win the championship in 1970 (the year after the current season of Mad Men is set).

6. Perhaps you’re wondering whether a man of Don Draper’s refinement would really be familiar with Petticoat Junction. Yeah, he very likely would be. The episode began with Don finally rising at 12:34 p.m. and then watching an episode of The Little Rascals while eating Ritz crackers from the box. Later that evening, he had the Marlo Thomas-starring That Girl on the tube before Dawn came calling with her latest agency update.

7. Sunday night’s closing music wasn’t nearly as impactful as the previous episode’s You Keep Me Hangin’ On by the Vanilla Fudge. Instead it was the comparatively obscure ”This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies.

8. I’m still seeing an eventual reuniting of Don and Peggy, with a carping Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and an increasingly marginalized Roger Sterling (John Slattery) also possibilities -- along with Dawn as head secretary -- in any last hurrah new ad agency. In fact, Sunday’s most chilling lines -- other than the racial exchanges -- came from Sterling Cooper newcomer Jim Cutler (very well-played by Harry Hamlin). In the closing minutes, he told Roger on the elevator, “I’d hate to think of you as an adversary. I’d really hate that.” Not really he wouldn’t. Not really.

9. A commenter on my Sunday night Twitter feed had a fine observation: “It saddens me that Millennials will never know the satisfaction of slamming down the receiver of a desktop landline phone.” It was in reaction to Pete’s angry reaction to Roger hanging up on him.

10. Parting gems:

Boarding school classmate to Sally: “Jesus, Draper, is this your first funeral?”

Dawn to Shirley: “Keep pretending. That’s your job.”

Sally to Don: “It’s more embarrassing for me to catch you in a lie than it is for you to be lying.”

West coast agency partner Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) to Pete after he complains that “no one feels my existence” at the home office in New York: “Just cash the checks. You’re gonna die one day.”

Lou’s dismissive reference to Don as “our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony.”

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Signed, Sealed, Delivered gets stamp of approval from Hallmark Channel


Guest star Valerie Harper and stars of Signed, Sealed, Delivered. Hallmark photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 20th at 7 p.m. (central) on Hallmark Channel
Starring: Eric Mabius, Kristin Booth, Crystal Lowe, Geoff Gustafson
Produced by Martha Williamson, Joel S. Rice, Scott Smith, Michael Prupas

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This stuff just wouldn’t cut it anymore on a Big Four broadcast network, where Touched By An Angel gave CBS a squeezably soft hit series for nine seasons before its last of 212 episodes aired on April 27, 2003.

Its creator, Martha Williamson, has been in TV’s wilderness ever since. But the Hallmark Channel welcomed her with open arms last October, when Signed, Sealed, Delivered arrived as a movie. Easter Sunday marks its debut as a 10-episode weekly series on the same night and at the same time where Touch prospered.

Hallmark has resisted any and all efforts to be edgy. It means well -- with a vengeance one might say. But syrupy, life-affirming TV isn’t yet a crime, or even a misdemeanor. So we’re going to try being reasonably kind and gentle toward Signed, Sealed, Delivered, a throwback hour of harmless, gooey entertainment for those who still prefer storybook endings to slaughterhouses, anti-heroes or Salem, a polar-opposite series premiering the same night on WGN America.

The first episode of Signed, Sealed, subtitled “Time to Start Livin’,“ spotlights guest star Valerie Harper as a lively postal supervisor named Theresa Capodiamonte. Harper continues to out-live a very dire diagnosis for leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a cancer she’s had for the past 13 months. She was supposed to b dead by now, with doctors marveling at her continued survival.

Harper’s character will stick around for the first two episodes before fellow TV icon Dick Van Dyke replaces her as supervisor in the next two. Signed, Sealed also will feature Valerie Bertinelli, Marilu Henner and former Touched co-star Della Reese in guest roles before the series finale makes room for Carol Burnett.

The premise is at best rather preposterous. Working out of the U.S. mail’s dead letter bureau, a quartet of “postal detectives” strive to ensure that every envelope and package reach their intended recipients. There’s always much at stake, of course. In Sunday’s premiere, a 10-year-old boy’s undelivered letter to his grandma becomes a life or death proposition involving a nursing home and a drug ring.

Leading the amateur gumshoe contingent is Oliver O’Toole (Eric Mabius from Ugly Betty), a buttoned-down quoter of Shakespeare who resembles a young Tom Bergeron and so far is immune to the charms and veiled come-ons from perky Shane McInerney (Kristin Booth). Thoughtful nerd Norman Dorman (Geoff Gustafson) and bespectacled, excitable Rita Haywith (Crystal Lowe) round out the team.

“I have heard that you four have a way of thinking outside the mailbox,” Harper’s character says for starters. Oh my. Oliver calls her a “goddess in the postal acropolis.” Aw cripes.

Everything is pretty much telegraphed during the course of an episode that ends with Harper getting a chance to sing after she’s earlier spotted dancing. Her character also knew Oliver’s grandfather, a kind, caring giant of the dead letter-reviving profession. This allows her to gently poke at his softer side.

Signed, Sealed has found a perfect home on Hallmark Channel, which does a very able job of promoting its golly gee-rated lineup. The network isn’t required to make any apologies or amends. It is what it is -- an aspirational network that’s sticking to its guns while only rarely firing any. It’s not for me, but it may be for you. There, I’ve been a good boy.


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WGN America tries to burn hot with Salem (its first original scripted series)


Witchy woman: Janet Montgomery stars in Salem. WGN photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 20th at 9 p.m. (central) on WGN America
Starring: Janet Montgomery, Shane West, Seth Gabel, Xander Berkeley, Ashley Madekwe, Tamzin Merchant, Elise Eberle, Iddo Goldberg, Michael Mulheren
Produced by: Brannon Braga, Adam Simon, Josh Barry, Jeff Kwatinetz, David Von Ancken

Easter and witch-hunting generally don’t go together, although Salem is very hammy if that’s what you’re having for dinner.

WGN America’s first original scripted series, premiering Sunday, April 20th, heightens its drama to an often absurd degree during what publicity materials describe as a “bold new vision of Salem -- and an even bolder new vision of witches.” Bolder still would have been the occasional inclusion of a laugh track. As when an ill-fated over-the-top coot carps about “precious Salem caught up in a stinking witch panic.”

This latest look at America’s longtime broomstick capital begins in September, 1685. Two unfortunate Salem denizens are on public display in stocks while the town’s top punishment dispenser, George Sibley (Michael Mulheren), thunders about the “sin of self-pollution.” Poor Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg) has “gazed upon the nakedness” of a young woman and then kissed her. In return he gets “10 hard ones” before being branded on his forehead with an “F” for Fornicator. That’ll teach him.

The onlookers include beauteous Mary Shipley (Janet Montgomery) and lippy John Alden (Shane West). Unbeknownst to Salem’s religious nut faction and Alden himself, their illicit coupling impregnated her. But he’s now marching off to war with the Indians while Mary succumbs to a black magic abortion in the woods by the chanting Tituba (Ashley Madekwe). “All the world shall be yours in return,” Mary’s informed. OK, but make sure that includes a free night’s repast at Ye Olde Salem Smokehouse, where the beer is colder than a witch’s teet and the ribs are burned-at-the-stake tender.

Seven years pass. Despairing of Alden’s return, Mary has married the puritanical George Sibley, who’s now in a wheelchair and regularly spits up on himself. Surprised to see Alden back in town, the now manipulative Mary icily invites him to dinner at her place along with Salem dignitaries such as Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley) and obsessive witch-hunter Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel). While dining, Alden for some reason imagines two women poking under the table at his buckskin-clad pecker.

Salem is replete with scenes that make little sense. It’s mostly a jumble of decent enough special effects, less-than-decent acting, a script that also should be lashed with “10 hard ones” and lots of blood-curdling screaming, particularly on the part of the very badly tormented Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle). The other featured character is Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant), a flirty artist who likes the looks of Alden.

Salem perhaps has a chance to catch on as a thoroughly guilty pleasure from the land of So Bad It’s Good. It at least gives WGN America a foot in the door as yet another basic cable purveyor of its own scripted drama series.

FX, AMC and TNT have very much put themselves on the map this way. Salem is no Mad Men or Justified or even Rizzoli & Isles. But you’ve gotta do something when you’re basically known as the longtime network of the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t been to a World Series since 1945, haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and are off to another fine start this season with a 4-9 record to date.

In that context, a swing and a miss with Salem perhaps is only appropriate.

GRADE: C-minus

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BBC America's Orphan Black returns with star Tatiana Maslany in even finer forms


The three main faces of Tatiana Maslany: Alison, Cosima and Sarah. BBC America photo

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Tatiana Maslany and her clone posse remain the overriding reasons to watch Orphan Black.

But let’s face it, the sci-fi storyline is way out of whack -- even for sci-fi. And Season 2 of BBC America’s most talked-about series (launching Saturday, April 19th at 8 p.m. central) is if anything even more convoluted in its comings, goings, killings, near killings and constant fumblings by the sinister Dyad Institute.

BBC America publicity materials promise a “richer and faster-paced” sophomore year that plunges Maslany’s principal three characters, Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix and Cosima Niehaus, into a “web of discovery that pales in comparison to the revelations that they are clones.”

It’s a tangled web, of course, with Maslany again navigating it brilliantly whether she’s on the lam (as Sarah), rehearsing for a community musical (as Alison) or doing an autopsy (as Cosima) on a fleetingly seen character whose fate and identity will be kept confidential in these spaces. “Remember, what happens in clone club, stays in clone club,” executive producers Graeme Manson and John Fawcett advise TV critics. OK, that’s perfectly reasonable.

Four of the new season’s 10 episodes were sent for review. Saturday’s opener gets off to a dynamic start after a traumatized Sarah wanders into a diner within hours of a frantic search for her missing daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), who was abducted at the close of Season 1. Two mysterious men stride in, and the resultant violence is a big blam of an attention-getter.

The episode ends, however, with a revelation that just doesn’t compute. Let’s just say the producers may have thought long and hard in the off-season about whether they really wanted to . . .

Season 2 of Orphan Black also delves far deeper into a wacko religious sect, the Proletheans, headed by new character Henrik “Hank” Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge). Hank spouts pieties such as, “Man’s work is God’s work. As long as you do it in his name.” Mysterious Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer), head of Dyad, at times seems like a puppy dog in comparison. “The age of bio-technology is upon us,” he pronounces at a big party.

No one can really be trusted, of course. Except perhaps for Cal Morrison (Michael Huisman), a hunky, bearded former lover of Sarah’s introduced in Episode 3 of the new season. Could he be Kira’s biological dad? And why has Sarah been the only clone able to conceive a child? The inquiring minds at Dyad still very much want to know. But Sarah miraculously manages to elude them time and again, with help from her very openly gay foster brother Felix “Fee” Dawkins (Jordan Gavaris), who’s first seen cavorting in ass-baring pants.

Episode 3 so far is the overall strongest of the new season. It’s the one where Fee tells Sarah, “You are a bloody wrecking ball. You are an exploding cigar.” No kidding.

All of this commenced when Maslany’s Sarah saw Maslany’s Beth Childs commit suicide by stepping into the path of a subway train during Season One’s early minutes. Sarah, a street-savvy con artist, began impersonating Beth as part of a gambit to eventually steal her life’s savings. Instead she became immersed in an illegal human cloning operation while meeting various lookalikes along the way. Now they’re all endangered, but Sarah remains Dyad’s Most Wanted while the rest are tracked by “monitors.”

Maslany shows no signs of running down during the very challenging assignment of playing a wealth of disparate characters. But Orphan Black’s twists, turns and veers are getting increasingly harder to keep down -- and impossible to swallow whole. The plausibility switch invariably is off and on in any sci-fi endeavor. But the longer they go on, the tougher it is to maintain even a modicum of believability.

None of this is Maslany’s fault. She’s still a wonder, never more so than in Episode 4’s closing scene. Orphan Black’s faults lie not with its star.


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The Address: a here and now Ken Burns film about Lincoln's most enduring words


Greenwood School boys with “complex learning profiles” have a date with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Those who memorize it get immense satisfaction and a commemorative coin. PBS photo

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The Gettysburg Address took just two minutes for Abraham Lincoln to deliver, so it figures that Ken Burns would turn it into a 90-minute film.

That’s the easy joke. But The Address is both an intimate and a “little” film compared to The Civil War (11.5 hours), The War (14 hours), Baseball (18.5 hours), Jazz (20 hours) and other Burns’ epics during his more than 30 years with PBS.

Premiering Tuesday, April 15th at 8 p.m. central (on KERA13 in Dallas), The Address is without sweeping scope but does resort to typically Burns-ian piano or violin interludes during its occasional contextual flashbacks to Nov. 19, 1863. That’s the day Lincoln began his “Four score and seven years ago” masterpiece. You might say it’s stood the test of time despite being reviled at the time by the Chicago Times as “the silly, flat, dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

The Address is largely a telescoped look at an annual rite of Putney, Vermont’s Greenwood School, which challenges its students to memorize Lincoln’s words and deliver them at a candle-lit school dinner at which everyone gets dressed up. Greenwood accepts only boys with “complex learning profiles,” limiting its enrollment to 50 with an age range from 11 to 17. Those who successfully navigate “The Gettysburg,” as teachers call it, receive an official Greenwood coin and the priceless satisfaction that comes from completing a daunting task.

The film caps Burns’ national “public outreach campaign” to remind Americans of the importance of the Gettysburg Address. He announced the initiative on the eve of the speech’s 150th anniversary last November. A companion website, learntheaddress.org, since has welcomed video readings from one and all. Among those answering the call: President Obama and the four living former presidents, Carol Burnett, Louis CK, Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Martha Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Usher, Taylor Swift, Jerry Seinfeld, Rita Moreno, Conan O’Brien, Steven Spielberg and Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings.

Colbert does a comedic riff while wearing a beard and stovepipe hat to giggles from his studio audience. O’Brien does it straight.

In The Address, we see the students in class and sometimes at play. All are identified by first names only, and it seems that everyone gets at least a few seconds of camera time. Teachers gently but firmly guide them through initially halting memorizations of The Gettysburg. Seven of the students also are chosen as narrators of the film.

Ian, 14, is particularly down on himself. He talks of being taunted at previous schools, and in one scene, his self-pitying behavior comes close to being very tiresome, if not contemptible. But he rallies and re-dedicates himself to learning Lincoln’s words. “It just tells people I’m not stupid,” he tells the camera. “I’m not dumb. I’m not worthless.”

The Address becomes an instructive and affecting film, although not a true Burns classic. Still, it’s nice to see him as a fly on the wall in a contemporary setting, with cameras capturing the here and now rather than recycling telling images from long times ago. The talking heads remain in place, but this time they’re actual participants in an ongoing journey rather than historians and academics telling us what Lincoln must have felt like on that day.

Those who take a look Tuesday night might want to stick around for the closing credits and a surprise bonus snippet of a Greenwood School student asking, “Do you want me to do it as William Shatner?” And so he does -- for a few select passages.


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Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 1, Season 7


Don and Peggy: Will they have each other’s backs again? AMC photo

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Rather than give you voluminous chapter-and-verse Mad Men recaps each week, let’s try dispensing 10 bite-sized takeaways or talking points. It’ll be easier on both you and me.

Some are meant to get fans thinking further about what just happened. Others are strictly trivial or informational. Here we go with the Sunday, April 13th Season 7 premiere, subtitled “Time Zones.”

1. Maybe this is only wishful thinking, but the final moments seemed to set up an eventual re-teaming of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). Both were left thoroughly miserable and unfulfilled -- to the very evocative Vanilla Fudge version of “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Career-wise, Don still needs Peggy and Peggy still needs Don. So let bygones be bygones. There’s a lot of ad money still on the table, and these two are better suited than ever to make it happen for them while their old creatively constipated agency keeps corroding from within.

2. I was in the Marines when Vanilla Fudge released their psychedelic, harder-rockin’ cover of The Supremes’ hit in 1968. It became our weekend anthem at the San Diego USO club. And it’s never gone stale.

3. Don clandestinely funneling his pitches through old-line ad guy Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) -- with Peggy as his audience in Sunday’s opening scene -- reminded me a bit of Johnny Carson secretly sending monologue jokes to David Letterman after he retired from The Tonight Show. Dave never let on until Carson’s death in January 2005. He then did an entire monologue’s worth of Carson jokes, revealing their origin at the end of it.

4. Yes, that was former Party of Five and Scream movies star Neve Campbell as the comely widow sitting next to Don on their “red eye” flight back from Los Angeles. Interestingly, in the 2013 HBO docu-film Seduced and Abandoned, Alec Baldwin and writer/director James Toback used Campbell as one of their non-starter selling points for Last Tango in Takrit, basically a fake remake of Last Tango in Paris. They took it to Cannes in hopes of raising money but more in the interests of poking at the underbelly of today’s Hollywood film industry. As probably intended, Baldwin and Toback were told more than once that Campbell lacked the marquee stature to shake any big money trees. But hey, look at her now.

5. January Jones, who memorably played Don’s wife, Betty, in early seasons of Mad Men, was not seen during Sunday’s re-launch. Jones still gets second billing, only to Hamm, in the series’ credits. But can creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner find any more viable ways to work her back into this mix, other than a few scenes here and there with the Draper children? I’m not sure he should even try anymore. But oldest daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) should still very much be a keeper.

6. Don’s current wife, Meg (Jessica Pare), learned to her delight in Sunday’s episode that she’s still in the running for a role in the NBC pilot Bracken’s World. The fictional drama series about the movie business eventually premiered on Sept. 19, 1969 in a Friday 9 p.m. (central) slot opposite the second hour of CBS movies and -- get this -- Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters. A re-tooled Bracken’s World staggered into a second season but was gone by the end of 1970. Its last telecast was on Christmas night of that year. Leslie Nielsen played movie studio head John Bracken.

7. I remain convinced that adman Roger Sterling (John Slattery) will die of various conspicuous consumptions before the end of Mad Men’s run. He was very much at it again Sunday night.

8. Hamm’s work as one of TV’s all-time signature characters likely will never be rewarded with a best actor Emmy. The odds-on favorite for this year’s ceremony is already Matthew McConaughey for his work in HBO’s True Detective, with Bryan Cranston again likely in the hunt for the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Hamm deserves better but would be in good company. Others who never won an Emmy include Larry Hagman (as J.R. Ewing), Andy Griffith (Sheriff Andy Taylor), Angela Lansbury (Jessica Fletcher), Jackie Gleason (Ralph Kramden) and James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon).

9. Matinee idol adman Bob Benson (James Wolk) was referenced once but not shown in Sunday’s re-launch. He’s been playing a contemporary adman this season, opposite Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar, in the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones. But it’s a long shot to be renewed, so Wolk’s Benson might still have a shot before Mad Men ends its run with a second seven-episode arc next year.

10. Save for Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), I’ve gotten really bored with the rest of the younger supporting ad men on Mad Men. The less seen of them, the better.

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Getting its Billy Bob on: FX's mesmerizing Fargo


Billy Bob Thornton is evil-doer Lorne Malvo in Fargo. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 15th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard, Glenn Howerton, Kate Walsh, Joe King
Produced by: Noah Hawley, Warren Littlefield, Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen, Adam Bernstein, Geyer Kosinski

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Billy Bob Thornton’s malevolent Lorne Malvo prowls through FX’s Fargo like the Mayhem Man in those current-day Allstate insurance commercials.

He’s much deadlier, though, ending or destroying lives whenever it suits his purposes. Collateral damage is the cost of doing business. And Malvo very quietly goes about that business while also ensnaring others in his web. Prepare to be ensnared as well. This is one helluva television show.

It’s nearing 20 years since Joel and Ethan Coen’s now classic original 1996 Fargo feature film. Both NBC and CBS soon passed on proposed TV series versions, with the latter network reaching the point of making a pilot starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco.

The risk-taking FX network didn’t exist back then. But it’s in full bloom now, and Fargo turns out to be a perfect fit as a 10-episode “limited series” that could return for a second season but not with the same mix of characters. FX’s American Horror Story and HBO’s True Detective are already cast in this mold.

Fargo has the Coen brothers’ blessing -- which is no small accomplishment -- and lists them among its executive producers. But the hands-on architect is Noah Hawley, whose most recent effort, the Austin-made My Generation, lasted for just a few eye blinks on ABC in fall 2010.

Hawley, with an assist from former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield, is on far firmer ground this time. Most of it is rock-hard and snow-covered, with accommodating Calgary, Alberta standing in for Bemidji, Minnesota, circa 2006.

Fargo the TV series has the same opening disclaimer as Fargo the movie. It claims to be based on a “true story.” But at the “request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Nonsense. Not that it matters. The Coens cobbled their Fargo together from various more or less real-life incidents. Hawley does likewise with a new set of characters and circumstances. Still, you’ll see some carry-over prototypes while also hearing a re-arranged version of that indelible theme music.

Martin Freeman (Watson in PBS’ Sherlock films) brilliantly plays insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, a stammering milquetoast whose wife is fed up with his overall ineptness. In the movie, William H. Macy played the similarly weak Jerry Lundegaard, who sold cars instead of policies. Bundled against the cold, both could be mistaken for Elmer Fudd.

Relative newcomer Allison Tolman (a Baylor University grad who earlier eked out a living as a Dallas stage actor) is likewise superb as dogged deputy sheriff Molly Solverson. She diligently pursues every lead, as did Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the movie. But Marge was married and pregnant. Molly is the single daughter of a former cop turned restaurant owner (the ever sturdy Keith Carradine as Lou Solverson).

Thornton’s character is the new Fargo’s most original creation. But the movie’s principal criminals, Carl Showalter and mute Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) are loosely reprised as Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench (Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard). This time, however, they’re in hot pursuit of Malvo after he murders one of their own.

A quartet of featured characters is entirely new to FX’s Fargo.

Colin Hanks plays Duluth cop Gus Grimley, a single dad whose initial timidity in the presence of Malvo prompts him to slowly grow a spine.

Bob Odenkirk, soon to star in AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, keeps busy as soon-to-be Bemidji police chief Bill Oswalt. Possessed of a weak stomach at crime scenes, he also turns out to be a constant roadblock to Molly’s detective work.

Oliver Platt is Stavros Milos, who’s susceptible to blackmail as the pompous and prosperous “supermarket king of Minnesota.”

Kate Walsh, coming off a long haul through Grey’s Anatomy and its Private Practice spinoff, plays former Vegas stripper Gina Hess, wife of an ill-fated trucking company owner who has delighted in bullying Lester since their high school days.

The Tuesday, April 15th premiere episode runs from 9 to 10:37 p.m. (central), so set your DVRs accordingly. FX also sent three more one-hour episodes for review, allowing TV critics to fully immerse themselves in this frozen winter “Uff da” land. Some practical questions also crop up, such as why Lester is allowed to freely visit and revisit what’s become a major crime scene. Or how Malvo, in Episode 4, is so sure of being exonerated.

Some of this should matter, I guess. But Fargo flexes far more than it vexes. Its sense of menace, primarily from Thornton’s Malvo, holds the balance of power in a sparring match with the loopy goings-on that also permeated the film. It all begins when Malvo and Nygaard have a chance encounter in a hospital waiting room. Speak of the devil.

Fargo also is graphically violent in fits and spurts, with Malvo the overall orchestrator. He’s not one to ever raise his voice, but those on the receiving end can feel its chill. Thornton, in his first TV series outing, gives off a very vivid vibe from the dark side of his personal moon. “This is a man who doesn’t deserve to draw breath,” he tells the pliant Lester. It’s contagious.

The new Fargo bobs, weaves and occasionally unravels a bit. Still, it’s never less than entrancing, with the recurring panoramic shots of an unforgiving deep freeze serving as stolid supporting characters. Winter has finally drawn its last breath throughout most of the country, but it can’t be stopped in Fargo. This is a not-to-be-missed series replete with simpletons, blowhards, cold hearts and salt-of-the-earth pillars who’d best not be underestimated.

Say “aw geez.” And then settle in.


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HLN goes nuts for "social media generation"


So how and where will Nancy Grace fit in on the new HLN?

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Ding dong, Nancy Grace could soon be gone, so at least there’s that.

But if she’s hard to swallow, what about the slate of programming announced Thursday on the new, re-branded HLN? Formerly Headline News Network, it’s now billed as the “first TV home for the social media generation,” even though the now defunct Current and the new Pivot network also have positioned themselves as havens for “millennials and the millennial-minded.”

At Thursday’s CNN Worldwide Upfront presentation in New York City, HLN’s new executive vice president and general manager, Albie Hecht, raved about a “programming slate designed to heighten the all-screen experience -- TV, digital and social.” HLN’s publicity release also described this initiative as “diving further into a social media filter” after previously announced shows such as One.Click.Away. and NewsToonz (previously titled I Can Haz NewsToons).

The centerpiece of HLN’s latest announcements is The Daily Share, a one-hour nightly program that will “provide a digest of what people are watching, searching, playing, sharing, shopping and creating in every aspect of their social lives.”

But that’s not all. How about the exciting new America’s Most Liked, a game show that supposedly can “take someone from Internet nobody to web superstar. One just has to use their special or unusual talents to compete in viral challenges and try to get the most ‘likes’ from the ‘all screens’ audience.”

There’s also News or Not, another quiz that challenges viewers’ “knowledge of real social media news headlines.” Perhaps determining the veracity of “Boy Trapped in Refrigerator Eats Own Foot” -- or something like that.

In The Social Life, “twitter star, travel junkie, sports fan and foodie Ali Nejad enlists his nearly one million online followers to take on missions.” And in 2 Spouses, 3 Houses, “youtube star Jessica Edwards looks at a couples’ social media ‘likes, hearts and pins’ to help her find three choices for their dream home.”

There’s much more where these came from, but let’s briefly move to parent news network CNN, which also is in the midst of a makeover. On Thursday, the network announced it has ordered new prime-time series from Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame), Lisa Ling, and longtime America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh.

Additionally, The Jesus Code aims to “take viewers on a forensic and archaeological journey through the Bible.” Plus, the previously announced docu-series The Sixties, from executive producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, will premiere in May.

CNN also has renewed its Peabody-winning Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown for four more “cycles” and picked up Morgan Spurlock Inside Man for at least one more go-around.

Two CNN holdovers, Erin Burnett Outfront and Anderson Cooper 360, will remain on the weeknight schedule from 6 to 8 p.m. (central) before an array of original series, films and in-house documentaries takes over at 8 p.m.

All bets are off, of course, whenever a jumbo jet goes missing or a big vacation cruise liner gets its toilets stopped up. CNN surely will remain your “all-in” 24/7 non-stop news source in those cases.

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Colbert will step in when Letterman steps out


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Moving quickly but hardly surprising anyone, CBS has named Stephen Colbert to succeed David Letterman as host of the network’s Late Show. The network said Thursday that it’s a five-year deal.

Colbert, who will turn 50 on May 13th, had been heavily rumored as Letterman’s heir apparent since his surprise retirement announcement on April 3rd. Since October of 2005, Colbert has hosted Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, which airs at 10:30 p.m. (central) on weeknights following the network’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Letterman’s final Late Show will be on a yet to be announced date next year. Colbert’s premiere date will be announced after Letterman “determines a timetable,” CBS said. A location for the show also will be disclosed later, the network said. The Colbert Report and Late Show both are taped in New York City, so CBS presumably is talking about a studio rather than any coastal shift.

CBS Corporation chairman/CEO Leslie Moonves praised Colbert as “one of the most inventive and respected forces on television. David Letterman’s legacy and accomplishments are an incredible source of pride for all of us here, and today’s announcement speaks to our commitment of upholding what he established for CBS in late night.”

CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler added: “Stephen is a multi-talented and respected host, writer, producer, satirist and comedian who blazes a trail of thought-provoking conversation, humor and innovation with everything he touches.”

Letterman, in a separate statement released later Thursday, said: “Stephen has always been a real friend to me. I’m very excited for him, and I’m flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.”

Colbert, in his official comments, at first took a serious approach. “Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career,” he said. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead.”

He then cracked, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”

The gap between ratings for Late Show and NBC’s The Tonight Show has widened since Jimmy Fallon replaced Jay Leno in February of this year. Letterman, 67, had been trailing by a particularly wide margin among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds.

Colbert for the most part will be himself on Late Show. On The Colbert Show, he parodied a conservative windbag modeled after the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.

Colbert appeared as a walk-on guest during Fallon’s inaugural Tonight Show, taking a selfie with the new host. They’ll now be doing battle at 10:35 p.m. (central), with Colbert still the oldster opposite Fallon, 39, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, 46.

Before launching The Colbert Report, Colbert spent eight years as a featured correspondent on The Daily Show. He also was a member of Chicago’s famed Second City improvisational troupe.

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Doled out in two parts, Mad Men's final season remains rich in possibilities


Don Draper still stands out amid Mad Men’s kaleidoscope of characters. Part 1 of Season 7 arrives Sunday, April 13th. AMC photo

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Welcome to Part 1 of the seventh and final season of Mad Men, which put AMC on the map before the network’s off-the-charts successes with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

For the still uninitiated, Mad Men remains a talkie, is presented in living color and originates from planet Earth. Thanks, you’ve been a great audience.

We begin this way because reviewing any new season of Mad Men (re-starting Sunday, April 13th at 9 p.m. central) has more restrictions than a military base. They’re imposed annually by creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner, who set the standard in this field before others began imitating him to a lesser degree.

This time around, Weiner “humbly” asks reviewers to “refrain from mentioning any key story lines in your review, specifically avoiding mention of the following:”

***Year season takes place
***Don’s work status
***New characters
***SC&P’s West Coast presence
***Freddie Rumsen and Don’s relationship

We’ll abide by three of the five, because two of them are ridiculously excessive.

No. 1, the New York-based, reconfigured Sterling Cooper & Partners ad agency already had established a West Coast presence by the end of last season. No. 2, keeping the year a secret would be valid if Mad Men suddenly hurtled a decade or even several years into the future. But that’s never been the case. So let’s just say that Episode 1 of Season 7 makes reference to the pilot for Bracken’s World and its impending filming as a potential series for NBC that fall. Any further research is up to you.

Mad Men’s last season will be divided into two seven-episode arcs, copying the success of that stratagem with Breaking Bad. Part 1 is subtitled “The Beginning.” Part 2, due around this time next year, presumably will have “The End” attached. Although it could just as easily be “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

Although it’s about advertising, Mad Men has never been a particular winner among the advertising world’s most prized demographic group -- 18-to-49-year-olds. It’s entirely without the visceral violence and sudden deaths of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Characters instead tend to die on the inside, doing unto themselves what those series accomplish with automatic weapons fire or sharp instruments. Fierce hangovers and chainsmoking are Mad Men’s principal blunt instruments.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm), still dapper, remains the fulcrum. He’s uncommonly not seen immediately in Sunday’s Mad Men return, instead popping up around the eight-minute mark to the tune of “I’m A Man.” By all appearances he remains self-confident despite being drummed out of SC&P -- with severance pay -- near the close of Season 6.

Fellow adman Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Don’s actress wife, Megan (Jessica Pare), are both newly established in Los Angeles (as was also dramatized last season). Don’s in town for a visit, and has an especially nifty exchange with Pete that epitomizes Weiner’s sharp writing of this episode.

Meeting Don at a diner in casual attire, Pete says, “The city’s flat and ugly and the air is brown. But I love the vibrations.”

“You not only dress like a hippie, you talk like one,” Don retorts. Talk about your Hollywood squares.

Back in NYC, Don’s former protege, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), remains with SC&P while still striving to have a voice. Meanwhile, Don’s old running mate, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), seems to be taking pleasures of the flesh to new extremes.

The episode also includes an instructive chance meeting during Don’s “red eye,” an intriguing Bloody Mary-equipped brunch and continued machinations and manipulations at SC&P, where determined Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is still a partner in quest of a portfolio. Some of Mad Men’s core cast members are entirely unseen in this hour, and Weiner seemingly will be considerably challenged to keep at least one of them relevant this season.

Mad Men is beautifully shot as always, with the dialogue flowing naturally and meaningfully over alcohol and, to an increasingly lesser degree, cigarettes. The pace hasn’t quickened. Nor does the storyline congeal. Instead, Sunday’s re-opener builds to a terrifically poignant finish accompanied by music that likewise cries out in pain.

In this case, revealing that particular hit song indeed would be something of a spoiler. Which is never the intent in any trickily navigated Mad Men review. For all the world, though, it seems as if Weiner is telegraphing a re-meeting of the minds between lost souls with little more to lose. Dramatically speaking, that very likely could be a big win-win for both the series and its remaining loyal subjects.

GRADE: A-minus

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HBO's Game of Thrones is still to die for


Girl’s best friend: Daenerys Targaryen and one of her three dragons. HBO photo

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Don’t expect an abundance of the always welcome Daenerys Targaryen in Season 4’s first three episodes of Game of Thrones.

Do expect a major development that will “change everything,” as they like to say in teases for Scandal. Or Revolution. Or The Good Wife. Or maybe even Wheel of Fortune someday.

We’ll say no more. HBO’s latest batch of Game of Thrones review DVDs came with a cover letter asking recipients to “not reveal any major plot points in advance, or point to any one episode as a ‘big one.’ You’ll know what I’m talking about after you see them.”

The letter also promises that “major events will happen throughout the 10 new episodes,” with executive producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff already on record as saying “no one is safe at any point in this season, which serves up weekly edge-of-your-seat viewing possibilities.”

The new season’s promotional tagline -- “All Men Must Die” -- bears further witness to that. So let’s only reveal that one of the first three episodes is of bigger import than the others. Which isn’t to say the others are inconsequential. Which isn’t to say that readers of the George R.R. Martin book series won’t already be prepared for what’s going to happen. Which isn’t to say I’ve read them. Which isn’t to say that the TV adaptation must be chapter-and-verse faithful to what’s already appeared in print. Which is to say that “reviewing” these three episodes again is akin to navigating a minefield of what’s a “spoiler” and what’s not quite.

These early episodes of Season 4 are still reverberating from the shocking “Red Wedding” slaughter of Starks near the end of Season 3. But the fractious Lannisters’ grip on the Iron Throne remains tenuous. And there’s yet another threat in the form of a new character named Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), also known as the Lannister-despising “Red Viper of Dome.”

Oberyn has arrived in King’s Landing with his principal lover, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma). The sexually adventurous couple plan to attend the big wedding of young punk King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). Suspicions rise.

Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues to march her increasingly formidable army of former slaves while also trying to keep her three dragons under control. “They can never be tamed. Not even by the mother,” she’s warned. We’ll see about that.

Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, who’s emerged as the central character of Game of Thrones after three seasons of attrition, remains a pint-sized major player along with fellow Lannister schemers Tywin (Charles Dance), Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey). But Tyrion seems increasingly prone to do the right thing while retaining his fondness for sardonic quips.

Season 4’s first three episodes of course come with sex and violence included. But there’s nothing approaching what happened to Jaime Lannister near the outset of Season 3. He’s still adjusting to the loss of a hand while also worrying about his fitness for combat. But in this respect he’s lent a hand -- so to speak.

One of the signature lines in these early episodes comes from a character who might as well be speaking on behalf of all the power brokers and power seekers. It’s delivered in Episode 3: “I will not become a page in someone else’s history book.”

Game of Thrones is not about to run out of George R.R. Martin’s pages anytime soon. And in these first three episodes, it shows no signs of getting stale. HBO very well could hit the 10-season mark with what’s become its franchise series. There’s no reason to kill this golden calf -- particularly with so many characters still available to be sacrificed instead.

GRADE: A-minus

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Letterman announces his departure -- on a date to be named later


An already wistful looking David Letterman waves goodbye after announcing his retirement during taping of Thursday, April 3rd Late Show. But he won’t be leaving until sometime in 2015. CBS photo

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Well, it had to happen.

But David Letterman has never been one to telegraph his intentions. So his retirement announcement, during taping of the Thursday, April 3rd edition of CBS’ Late Show, came as a complete surprise.

Letterman told his audience that he had phoned CBS Corporation chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves “just before the program. And I said, ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great. But I’m retiring.’ “

“We have had this conversation in the past,” Letterman said. “And we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance.”

Letterman, who will turn 67 on April 12th, signed a new contract in October of last year that CBS said would take him “through 2015.” But he apparently won’t finish out the entire year.

“We don’t have the timetable for this precisely down,” Letterman told his audience. “I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, Paul (bandleader Paul Schaffer) and I will be wrapping things up and taking a hike.”

It’s hard to tell who actually instigated this. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in January of 2013, Letterman said, “When it’s time to go, somebody else tell me. Because I don’t know when it’s time to go.”

Letterman made his announcement shortly after NBC issued a publicity release touting Jimmy Fallon’s continued dominance in the late night wars, both over Letterman and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.

In the latest ratings week (March 24-28), Fallon’s Tonight Show averaged 4.306 million viewers to Letterman’s 2.856 million and Kimmel’s 2.694 million. More crucially, among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds, Fallon had 1.689 million to Kimmel’s 825,000 and Letterman’s 673,000.

Fallon’s predecessor, Jay Leno, also had been beating Letterman and Kimmel in both ratings measurements until his forced retirement. This led to an extended exchange between Moonves and this reporter during a press conference at the summer 2013 Television Critics Association “press tour.”

It began with Moonves being asked to contrast NBC’s treatment of Leno with CBS’ “steadfast loyalty” to Letterman despite the longtime ratings gulf between them.

“Look, I consider David Letterman the best guy in late night,” Moonves said before praising Leno, Kimmel and Fallon as likewise “great.”

“We love having David Letterman,” he added. “He’s the dean. He’s the best there is. Other than Johnny Carson, he’s probably the best that ever was. We like the stability. We like the relationship we have with Dave. He’s our guy. And despite what people think, we don’t like drama at 11:30 (10:30 central).”

In answer to a followup question on CBS’ willingness to cancel other shows that were failing in the ratings, Moonves said bluntly, “I don’t consider David Letterman a failure in any way, shape or form . . . Dave is still making money for us. He still does the best show, and we’re very happy to have him.”

Letterman first entered the late night realm in 1982 as host of NBC’s Late Night. After being bypassed in favor of Leno as Carson’s Tonight Show successor, he launched CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman in 1993. For a while he pounded Leno in the Nielsen ratings. But then along came that game-changing Hugh Grant interview on July 10, 1995.

There will be ample time to speculate on who might replace Letterman. And a full appreciation of his long career also will come later. For now, it’s news enough that he’ll be leaving the late night arena sooner rather than later. And one can probably safely bet that during his last week, or even month, on the air. he’ll again be No. 1 in the late night ratings he could never quite master.

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HBO's Silicon Valley: a killer comedy series about the quests for killer aps


The five would-be billionaires of Silicon Valley. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Josh Brenner, Christopher Evan Welch, Amanda Crew, Matt Ross
Produced by: Mike Judge, Alec Berg, John Altschuler, Dave Krinsky, Michael Rotenberg, Tom Lassally

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Mike Judge is outwardly quiet and unassuming, inwardly a raging subversive.

The creator of Beavis & Butt-head, King of the Hill and the 1999 cult classic Office Space invariably chooses wisely before letting loose anew. His latest comedy series, HBO’s Silicon Valley, zeroes in on the land of killer apps, broken dreams and social misfits. It’s a beauty in addition to being a loosely related descendant of Office Space.

The offices in Silicon Valley are an outhouse and a penthouse. “Hacker Hostel” is the plain-wrapped communal home of a would-be computer visionary named Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and his socially constipated pals. While perfecting his website, Pied Piper, Richard toils in the service of the tech giant hooli, whose cutthroat billionaire CEO phonily preaches the virtues of “giving back” in the greater interests of humankind.

Richard’s website, which supposedly protects music from copyright infringement, seems destined to be a big loser. But its driving force, a super-powered “compression algorithm,” is deemed the next big thing by both hooli potentate Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and his arch rival, Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). A bidding war ensues while the anxiety prone Richard feels as though his head is exploding. Still, it’s not a bad spot to be in, with Belson offering $10 million for total control while Gregory wants just 5 percent of Pied Piper for his $200,000 investment.

Richard is the angelic white hat of Silicon Valley, at least through the first five episodes sent for review. His counterpart is self-absorbed, grandiose Erlich (T.J. Miller), who might as well be dressed as a devil with a pitchfork.

Long-haired, pot-bellied and already a dotcom millionaire, Erlich lets Richard and his pals live rent-free at Hacker Hostel in return for a 10 percent cut of anything they invent. When in doubt, he always errs on the dark side.

“If you’re not an asshole it creates this kind of asshole vacuum and that void is filled by other assholes,” Erlich counsels Richard in Episode 2. He also hates the Pied Piper name, insisting that a company’s moniker must be “something you can scream out during intercourse.”

The Silicon Valley ensemble also includes Richard’s friends Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Big Head (Josh Brener), all of whom are in various stages of arrested development. A newcomer to Hacker Hostel, pale, anal Jared (Zach Woods), impulsively quits hooli to join Richard’s startup. The male delivery occasionally is waylaid by Monica (Amanda Crew), a lieutenant of Peter Gregory’s who also seems destined to become romantically interested in Richard. There are little seedlings of that in the first five episodes.

One very unfortunate development was the death of Christopher Evan Welch, who plays Gregory, during filming of Silicon Valley. Five of the eight Season 1 episodes were completed before he died of lung cancer at the age of 48. Welch’s performance is letter-perfect as a demanding, neurotic billionaire with the social skills of a porcupine. His method of transportation, in an extremely compact and narrow vehicle, is the funniest sight gag of Sunday’s premiere half-hour.

Episodes 3 and 4 of Silicon Valley end rather clunkily. Does television really need yet another exercise in projectile vomiting? Everything otherwise goes down very well, with ample amusement to be found in Richard’s battle for the Pied Piper name with a sprinkler company; Erlich’s efforts to design the perfect logo and the lame-o parties repeatedly thrown by bloated dot com giants.

Judge isn’t quite jury and executioner of this whole crazily infantile, insular scene. But he clearly knows how to probe its soft spots. In that respect, Silicon Valley is its own killer app.

GRADE: A-minus

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Hardly Revolutionary: AMC's Turn tepidly goes into battle


The furtive members of The Culper Ring in Turn. AMC photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 6th at 8 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Jamie Bell, Seth Numrich, Heather Lind, Daniel Henshall, Kevin McNally, Meegan Warner, Burn Gorman, Angus MacFadyen, Samuel Roukin
Produced by: Craig Silverstein, Barry Josephson

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Spies among us have made for a number of eye-catching TV series over the years, including I Spy, Get Smart, The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Alias and FX’s ongoing The Americans.

AMC’s disappointingly tepid Turn, which has a listless title as well, does not seem destined to enthrall many if any fans of this twisty-turny genre. And as a replacement for The Walking Dead, which just ended Season 4, it’s very likely to be one big turnoff.

Set during the early stirrings of The Revolutionary War, its most colorful elements are the red and blue uniforms worn by the British and the Colonials. AMC made Sunday’s 90-minute premiere and two subsequent one-hour episodes available for review. They mostly plod along, catching fire in fits and spurts. Episode 3 does include, however, a beautifully expansive first look at New York Island. Turn might want to turn that one into a screen-saver.

AMC has gone the spy route before, with 2010’s considerably more compelling Rubicon. But it ended up being one of the network’s few one-and-done failures after ratings slippage set in and wouldn’t let go.

Turn’s central character is Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a rather milquetoast-ish Setauket, NY farmer whose stern, belittling father, Richard (Kevin McNally), is a judge and British sympathizer.

Abraham is married with a young child after abruptly breaking off an earlier engagement to Anna Strong (Heather Lind). She’s a strong-willed, comely bar maiden who joins the reluctant Abraham as a spy in what becomes known as The Culper Ring. Two of their childhood friends, Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), form the rest of the Culper quartet in what AMC calls “a layered spy thriller.”

Ben is also an officer in the Colonial army while Caleb floats around as a “Patriot courier.” All of this is based on the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose. But none of it is terribly compelling or energetic.

The principal British bad guy is John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), a sneering, conscience-less captain whose overall boss at the British garrison in Setauket is the slightly more benevolent Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman). Simcoe has his moments, even if some of them are too cartoonish. He’s at least a vivid character in a drama that too often pokes along and fails to make its mark.

It all begins with a bloody battlefield scene that might well pull viewers in. But Turn soon begins bogging down, even in the midst of its ongoing unsolved murder mystery and the subsequent capturing of Simcoe after the Colonials get their first big tip from the budding spy ring.

Meanwhile, Abraham’s father continues to browbeat him while a rapscallion named Robert Rogers (Angus MacFadyen) drops in and out to muddy things up.

Turn never quite turns the corner in its first three episodes, but perhaps will perk up a bit if the recurring George Washington (Ian Kahn) finally makes his presence felt.

By that time, though, it may well be too late. And the battle might be lost on opening night anyway. Most of the young fan base for The Walking Dead will not be deterred from HBO’s Game of Thrones, which begins Season 4 directly opposite Turn. AMC and its latest new drama will need much more than muskets, powdered wigs, murky chicanery and the Father of Our Country to stop all that audience churn.


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73rd annual Peabody Awards mostly leave the Big Four broadcast networks out of it

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A record high 46 Peabody Awards dawned early Wednesday morning, with a dwindling number of commercial broadcast networks honored for their programming achievements.

The 73rd annual list of winners, dubbed “the Oscars of our profession” by Charlie Rose during announcements on CBS This Morning, included just three winners from among ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

Rose himself won for his “One-on-One with Assad” interview on CBS This Morning. The frothy but popular ABC serial drama Scandal, yet to be nominated as a series by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (Emmys); the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes); the Screen Actors Guild or the Television Critics Association, nonetheless came away with its first Peabody nod. A publicity release praised it as “an exaggerated, outrageous, fun-house reflection of the real-life political shenanigans we’ve come to loathe and jeer.”

NBC News made it threesome with its “multi-platform” initiative, In Plain Sight: Poverty in America.

Perennial winner 60 Minutes was shut out. And in another sign of changing times, the streaming site Netflix received nearly as many Peabodys as the Big Four broadcast networks combined. Its honorees are House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.

The other weekly scripted series honored with Peabodys are Breaking Bad (AMC); The Bridge (FX); Broadchurch (BBC America); Key & Peele (Comedy Central); Orphan Black (BBC America) and the French language series The Returned, which was brought to American audiences on the Sundance Channel.

Tom Brokaw, the former longtime anchor of the NBC Nightly News, is the recipient of a “Personal Award” from the Peabody board. He recently was diagnosed with cancer.

PBS as usual received a treasure trove of Peabodys for programming achievements ranging from A Chef’s Life to League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. The viewer-supported network won a total of 12 awards, more than one-quarter of the Peabody total. Al Jazeera America also entered the winner’s circle for the first time with two awards for its coverage of a garment factory fire in Bangladesh and a cholera epidemic in Haiti.

The Peabodys will be distributed on May 19th at the annual awards luncheon in New York City, with Ira Glass hosting. Glass’s This American Life radio series has won multiple Peabodys and won again this year for “Harper High School.” The ceremony later will be televised on a yet to be announced date by the fledgling Pivot TV network.

A complete list of the latest winners can be found here.

Full disclosure: your friendly content provider is a former member of the Peabody Awards board.

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