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And the Oscar Goes To . . . a very satisfying appetizer for TCM's annual "31 Days of Oscar"

31daysofoscar AndtheOscarGoesTo

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Turner Classic Movies continues to perform quite a service for humanity with the annual 31 Days of Oscar, now in its 19th year.

The network gets extra credit this time for setting the table with And the Oscar Goes To . . ., a first-rate documentary film premiering on Saturday, Feb. 1st from 7 to 9 p.m. p.m. (central) between airings of two 1939 Best Picture nominees -- The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (which won).

Directed and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet), it’s an 85-year travelogue narrated by Anjelica Huston and spiced with a wealth of new interviews and insights. The archival clip selection is terrific, too, starting with an eye-catching red carpet blip of Jon Voight alongside his daughter, Angelina Jolie, who’s wearing braces. He calls her “Ang.”

Voight also contributes a fresh interview, joining the likes of Jane Fonda, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Annette Bening, Helen Mirren, Steven Spielberg, Benicio Del Toro, Jennifer Hudson, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Reitman, Liza Minnelli, Cher and others.

The filmmakers do a terrific job of melding movie clips to comments. For instance, Clooney talks of idolizing Spencer Tracy during his formative years -- and how the two-time Oscar-winner oftentimes would locate his “mark” by literally looking down while being filmed. We see this happen in one of his scenes from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But filmgoers were never the wiser because Tracy had such a command presence, Clooney says.

Segments from a cavalcade of Oscar ceremonies are well-chosen without including some of the usual suspects. So don’t expect to see Sally Field’s famed acceptance speech, David Niven’s ad lib about a streaker who ran behind him, Jack Palance’s one-armed pushups, etc. Those are all pretty over-exposed anyway. And besides, it’s equal fun seeing host Bob Hope say, “The whole thing is like a big maternity ward. Everybody’s expecting.” Or watching one of Hope’s many successors, Johnny Carson, open the show by noting, “I see a lot of new faces -- especially on the old faces.”

There are many old faces to be savored anew. Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar (for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind), ended her acceptance speech by saying, “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.” She then exited in tears.

Viewers also can see a black-and-white Marlon Brando bounding onstage to accept his Oscar for 1955’s On the Waterfront. Eighteen years later, he sent the sequined Sacheen Littlefeather in his stead to protest the treatment of American Indians. She received a frosty reception. But as viewers can see, it was nothing compared to the boos that rained down on director Michael Moore. After winning for Bowling for Columbine, he ended his 2003 acceptance speech by pointedly denouncing President George W. Bush’s instigation of the war in Iraq.

Although produced in association with the Academy of Motion PIcture Arts and Sciences (which bestows the Oscars), the film doesn’t shy from that body’s timidity in the face of the “Hollywood Blacklist” spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt of the 1950s.

One of those officially shunned by the Academy, playwright/screenwriter Lillian Hellman, was invited back to present the best documentary film statue at the 1977 ceremony. And the Oscar Goes To . . . includes her telling the audience that Hollywood’s power brokers “confronted the wild charges of Joe McCarthy with the force and courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes.”

This film is much more than that. From the boyish exuberance of Ben Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s joint 1998 acceptance speech to Hanks’ anecdote about a hard-of-hearing Bette Davis, this is a rich-bodied appetizer for TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar main course. And for more information on its films, themes and air dates, you can go right here. (Note: all times are Eastern for these particular listings.)

GRADE: A-minus

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Double 0 nothing: But there's no second try for BBC America's disappointingly flat Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond


Assuming their positions: Dominic Cooper and Lara Pulver star in the miniseries Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond. BBC America photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan 29th at 9 p.m. (central) and continuing for three Wednesdays on Feb. 5th, 12th, 19th. (The premiere episode will be repeated several times, including on Friday, Jan. 31st at 10 p.m. central.)
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Laura Pulver, Annabelle Wallis, Anna Chancellor, Lesley Manville, Samuel West, Rupert Evans, Pip Torrens
Produced by: Douglas Rae, Michael Parke, Robert Bernstein

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BBC America’s miniseries on the man who created Bond -- James Bond -- tends to be rather tedious -- rather too tedious.

It occasionally entertains during the course of four hours set mostly in the World War II era. But Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond too often jabbers, meanders and redundantly bed-hops its way through the formative early life and times of Bond creator Ian Fleming. All in all, it disappointingly fails to achieve liftoff.

Dominic Cooper stars as Fleming, product of a despotic, domineering mother named Evelyn (Lesley Manville) and younger brother of the more accomplished Peter Fleming (Rupert Evans). He’s a playboy without portfolio, drinking, womanizing and conniving his way through life until being recruited by the Director of Naval Intelligence to help bring down the Nazis. Heavy-duty schemers and manipulators are deemed ideal for such a task. And Ian has those goods, even though he’s also insolent and therefore very unlikely to take orders.

The woman who intrigues him most is Ann O’Neill (Lara Pulver), a wealthy socialite married to a baron who’s off fighting the war. Ann holds down the home front by having an affair with newspaper magnate Esmond Rothermere (Pip Torrens). But she likes her sex rough, and Ian is just the man to slap and spank her before entering from behind.

BBC publicity materials tease the climactic Episode 4 by asking, “Will Fleming and Ann finally find a way to be together?” But that question is answered in the very opening minutes of this miniseries, in which Ian and Ann are shown honeymooning in Jamaica, circa 1952. So don’t worry about the suspense killing you.

Ian’s also working on his first Bond novel, Casino Royale. “He’s a sadistic brute,” Ann says after reading some early pages.

“I thought that was your type,” he ripostes. “C’mon, it’s not bloody literature. It’s a potboiler.”

After a little trussed-up lovemaking, Man Who Would Be Bond flashes back to 1939, where Ian and brother Peter are engaged in a spirited downhill ski race. Peter of course wins again. And in their respective professions, he’s already a successful novelist while Ian is a disinterested stockbroker. Later, after bedding a woman he barely knows, Ian orders a martini, “shaken not stirred.” The bartender sniffs and instead gives him a beer. The self-described “lesser Fleming” simply rolls with this punch before soon being beaten up by the brother of a blonde beauty he’s trying to seduce.

The blonde, a dispatch courier named Muriel Wright (Annabelle Wallis), nonetheless becomes the other main squeeze in Ian’s life. He may be a “great disappointment” to his mother and a second-rater compared to his brother. But man, the guy can score.

Muriel supposedly was the inspiration for Ian’s first “Bond girl.” We also meet Lieutenant Monday (Anna Chancellor), the original “Miss Moneypenny,” and Admiral John Godfrey (Samuel West), inspiration for the Bond novels “M.”

This is intriguing to a point. But that point passes while Man Who Would Be Bond spends too much of its time more or less running in place. “Another country, another dreary meeting,” Ian laments near the start of next week’s Episode 2. He’s also pretty much describing the miniseries he’s in.

Each of the four episodes begins with the notation, “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” If so, the producers could and should have put more zing in this thing . Episode 4 finally delivers some action that occurs outside the bedroom. But it’s so long in coming that the sequence seems both incongruous and out of place.

Cooper and Pulver are fine in the lead roles, although there’s little to like about either character’s comportment. The music swells on cue but the story just doesn’t jell. Had Ian Fleming written his Bond novels in this fashion, well, there likely wouldn’t have been any sequels.


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Broad City graduates from web series to winning sitcom


Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer star in Broad City. Comedy Central photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 22nd at 9:30 p.m. (central) on Comedy Central
Starring: Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, John Gemberling, Hannibal Buress, Stephen Schneider, Paul W. Downs, Chris Gethard
Produced by: Amy Poehler, Dave Becky, Sam Saifer, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer

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A thin yet durable thread connects TV’s pioneering gal pals, Lucy and Ethel, with Comedy Central’s scheming, bumbling duo of Abbi and Ilana.

But while those two got laughs from runaway chocolates on a conveyor belt, these two do an hour’s worth of housework in their bras and panties for the voyeuristic pleasure of a creep (guest star Fred Armisen) who promises to pay each of them $100. It’s all in the service of raising money to buy tickets for a Lil’ Wayne concert. Times have changed.

The show is Broad City, which originated as a web series and now premieres on Wednesday, Jan. 22nd as a full-fledged half-hour comedy with a 10-episode order for Season One. Set in New York City, it has a far lower misery index than HBO’s Girls. But the two leads, played by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, are even more up against it in terms of making ends meet.

Abbi is a janitor at a fitness center, where her zen-headed boss (Paul W. Downs), takes a mystical approach toward cleaning clogged toilets and other messes. Ilana slacks her way through a desk job for a web site known as “deals!” Luckily for her, the bossman (Chris Gethard) is ineffectual and easily manipulated.

Both twentysomething women more or less live with men who sponge off of them. Abbi gets the sharpest end of this stick from an obese, bearded do-nothing named Bevers (John Gemberling). Ilana’s hanger-on is Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), who’s easier to take and occasionally even gets lucky.

The first two episodes are very amusing in spots, with Ilana’s hardly mannered mannerisms spiking the ball more often than Abbi’s comparative passivity. Still, she’s capable of flaring up at the useless Bevers in Episode 2, which is built around Abbi’s pilgrimage in pursuit of an undelivered package intended for a handsome apartment building neighbor (Stephen Schneider as Jeremy).

Amy Poehler is Broad City’s executive producer, but doesn’t make an on-camera appearance in the first two half-hours. But fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Rachel Dratch and Janeane Garofolo guest star in next week’s Episode 2. And there’s always Armisen, who seems to show up in just about everything (in addition to his main gig on IFC’s Portlandia).

Broad City really doesn’t need any name brand drop-ins, though. Its two featured newcomers skid along just fine, earning exceedingly small victories en route. Ilana doesn’t have time to mope and Abbi is just looking to cope. It’s a decent bet that many viewers will be left with smiley faces.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Rake: Fox's latest import is also a Greg Kinnear first


Greg Kinnear and guest star Peter Stormare in Rake. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 23rd at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Miranda Otto, John Ortiz, Necar Zadegan, Bojana Novakovic, Tara Summers, David Harbour, Ian Colletti
Produced by: Peter Tolan, Michael Wimer, Richard Roxburgh, Ian Collie, Sam Raimi

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Had an original thought or idea lately? It might be best to downplay that when it comes to American television.

Fox’s Rake, premiering Thursday, Jan. 23rd after American Idol, is only its latest import from abroad. The incubator this time is Australia, where a third season of Rake is due later this year.

Fox by no means is alone in this. Still, the network already has a flotilla of series hatched elsewhere, including Idol, The X Factor, and all of its Gordon Ramsay cooking shows. The upcoming scripted series Us & Them, Backstrom and Gracepoint likewise originated abroad before Fox bought in.

Rake does have the thoroughly American Greg Kinnear in the starring role. Other than cable’s Talk Soup, it’s his first regular TV series after a fairly gainful career on the big screen.

Kinnear plays criminal defense attorney Keegan Deane, who’s billed in Fox publicity materials as “one of life’s great addicts.” But he’s mostly a gambler in hock to his bookie to the tune of $59 grand. This results in Keegan getting roughed up in a sports bar restroom after his team has just won big. He emerges with two facial cuts and a knockout Asian woman on his arm. They head to a very posh looking party where he plays poker all night and hits the jackpot before learning that the biggest loser is a deadbeat just like him.

Further misadventures ensue while other character introductions are made. Keegan’s ex-wife Maddy (Miranda Otto) doubles as his therapist. They have a teenage son named Finn (Ian Colletti), who appears to be more like dad than mom.

Keegan’s old law school pal, Ben Leon (John Ortiz), regularly allows him to sleep off hangovers at his place. Ben happens to be married to assistant district attorney Scarlet Leon (Nacar Zadegan), who more often than not squares off against Keegan in court. In a very busy first episode, you’ll also meet Keegan’s loyal British office assistant, Leanne Zander (Tara Summers), and his “love interest,” Mikki Partridge (Bojana Novakovic), who’s also a prostitute.

Other plots and sub-plots are numerous as well. Let’s try to play along:

***Keegan’s car is towed away.
*** Keegan gets stopped by a cop for a busted taillight.
***Keegan and son Finn get rear-ended during a driving lesson.
*** Keegan gets stuck with a Pacific Bluefin tuna -- as a method of payment -- that supposedly will be worth at least $15,000 to the right sushi restaurant buyer. He keeps dragging it around in a cooler.
*** Keegan represents an accused serial killer (guest star Peter Stormare) who surprises him by pleading not guilty.
*** Keegan then goes after a police chief (guest star Bill Smitrovich) who’s accused by the defendant of coercing confessions to make a name for himself.
***Keegan appears on the real-life Greta Van Susteren’s On the Record show.
***Keegan saves money by switching his car insurance to Geico.

OK, the latter development hasn’t happened yet. But this is still a lot of balls to juggle, even when everything is played pretty easy and breezy.

Kinnear carries himself ably, and his character’s amiable rogue presence wears fairly well for starters. The long haul may be problematic, though. Rake perhaps can only mess around so much before viewers look for signs of a stronger, sturdier foundation. Even serial killing is something of a joking matter in Thursday’s mood-setter, which ends in rather ridiculous fashion. But let’s see how Rake shakes out -- and whether it can get viewers to take it at least a little bit seriously.

GRADE: B-minus

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Stellar Salinger documentary film makes "director's cut" premiere on PBS


J. D. Salinger and the 1951 book that defined him. PBS photos

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Some still call him “Jerry,” which seems the equivalent of making Lawrence of Arabia a “Larry.”

But literature’s version of Greta Garbo didn’t always play hard to get or fathom or approach. J. D. Salinger, whose The Catcher in the Rye made Holden Caulfield a Huck Finn for the contemporary disaffected, used to be out and about with friends and associates. Many are still around to tell tales about him in Salinger, which has its television premiere with an elongated two-and-a-half-hour “director’s cut.” (In D-FW, the documentary film airs from 8 to 10:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 21st on KERA13.)

Presented as the 200th episode of PBS’ long-running American Masters series, Salinger is an engrossing true-life detective story with dramatic flourishes, sobering revelations and, of course, ”never-before-seen” photographs and footage of its subject. He died on Jan. 27, 2010 at the age of 91 without ever doing an on-camera interview. Nor are there any audio recordings of Salinger, whose last work was published in 1965 while he continued to write in solitude in “The Bunker” adjoining his Cornish, New Hampshire home.

Filmmaker Shane Salerno spent 10 years in search of the “real” Salinger, a World War II veteran of D-Day and other combat who very well may have emerged shell-shocked forevermore. An excerpt from a rare 1944 letter home reads: “I dig my fox-holes down to a cowardly depth. Am scared stiff constantly and can’t remember ever having been a civilian.”

The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, several years after Salinger finally achieved his lifelong ambition of having a short story published in The New Yorker. It was titled “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and first appeared in print on Jan. 31, 1948 (your friendly content provider’s birthdate, oddly enough).

Salinger’s close friends in the early days included the biographer A.E. Hotchner, best known for his 1966 book Papa Hemingway. The pre-war “Jerry,” as he calls him, “really came from a country club society” and used to greatly enjoy parties and bars. But his friend became a friend no more after Hotchner “betrayed” him by inadvertently allowing Cosmopolitan magazine to change the title of one of Salinger’s short stories even though every word of it remained as written.

“His face turned apoplectic red,” Hotchner recalls. And then Salinger walked out. Period. End of story. “He sort of became the Howard Hughes of his day,” Hotchner says.

Salinger easily took offense and then turned further inward. In his post-World War II days/daze, he preferred the company of much younger women after a puzzling marriage abroad to Nazi Sylvia Luise Welter. It ended a month after they returned to the United States, and of course remains otherwise shrouded in mystery.

Salinger then met 14-year-old Jean Miller on the beach at Daytona. He was more than twice her age at the time.

“I was fresh and new, like a breath of spring,” Miller says unaffectedly. They had a platonic relationship, she says, taking long walks on the beach while also conversing at length.

Miller turned 18 in 1954. And “once in a while he would come and fetch me,” she says. He was ensconced in Cornish by then. They’d take walks, have dinner, watch TV and sometimes dance together. “But there was never an inkling of anything physical between us,” Miller says, until the day she initiated a kiss and later went to bed with Salinger. She told him she was a virgin, “and he didn’t like that . . . I knew I had come between him and his work. And it was over.”

Miller’s interview is both stark and affecting in its candidness. But the film’s most revelatory segments are with novelist Joyce Maynard, who was 18 when an article of hers in The New York Times Magazine aroused Salinger’s interest. He wrote her regularly and “there was never any question that we would meet,” Maynard says.

They lived together in his home for 10 months, adhering to Salinger’s set routines while Maynard worked on her first novel.

“He cut himself off from a great deal of the world, but maintained a huge interest in observing it,” she says. But of course this didn’t last.

“I think he was indulging in a fantasy of innocence that neither of us could hold onto very long,” says Maynard, whose 1998 memoir, At Home in the World, revealed her relationship with “Jerry.” She was spurred to do so after finding that he had written a “surprising number” of letters to young girls, one of whom became his third wife. The documentary includes a searing denouncement of Maynard by Jon Stewart. It now seems more than a bit excessive.

Salinger also shows seemingly every clandestine photo snapped of Salinger in his later years. The “last recorded images” are in color and on video. They show Salinger walking with a cane in the company, presumably, of his third wife. He’s last seen smiling from the passenger seat of their car.

The “director’s cut” version includes some interviews that easily could be cut anew. Danny DeVito comments very briefly for some reason. Observations from Jane Kaczmarek, Edward Norton Judd Apatow and Philip Seymour Hoffman likewise are largely extraneous.

Salinger triumphs, though, as an absorbing portrait of a singular man of mystery. Filmmaker Salerno hits on every conceivable touchpoint while being shackled by legal restrictions that prevented him from “quoting virtually any of Salinger’s work on camera or from having anyone read or perform any of Salinger’s work,” according to PBS press materials.

Still, he has broken through these barriers and captured the essence of perhaps the most elusive subject in the land -- in life or in death. Then again, “Reclusivity is a great public relations device among other things,” says acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow.



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Reelz Channel's Hollywood Hillbillies accentuates its "Mema"


”Mema” (Delores Hughes) and “Big John” (John Cox) of Reelz Channel’s new “reality” concoction, Hollywood Hillbillies. Photo: Ed Bark

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 21st at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on Reelz Channel
Starring: Mema (Delores Hughes), Michael Kittrell, Dee Dee Peters, John Cox, Paul Conlon
Produced by: Jonathan Koch

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So they loaded up the truck . . . and all that other stuff.

Reelz Channel’s Hollywood Hillbillies, TV’s latest salute to bumpkin-dom, stars an aggressively “backwoods” collection of characters from Grayson, Georgia. They made a nice little ripple in the pond last summer during their maiden appearance in Beverly Hills at a Reelz Channel interview session for TV critics. That’s when the unbridled star of the show, a grandma known as “Mema” (real name, Delores Hughes), proclaimed her fondness for vittles.

“I love to eat,” she said. “I want to know where you’ve eaten, when we’re goin’ to eat, what you just had to eat. I love to damn eat.”

Well said. For the purposes of Hollywood Hillbillies, though, Mema’s first words (at the dinner table, of course) are an appetizer served cold: “When I say a blessing, it brings me back to reality at what real assholes all of ya’ll are.”

That’s the spirit, even if Mema tough-loves one and all, particularly her high-strung grandson, Michael Kittrell (a k a “The Angry Ginger”). Roughly four years ago she gave the kid a video camera for Christmas. He ended up recording a very loud youtube rebuttal to a South Park episode in which redheads (gingers) were said to have no soul.

Damned if the dumb thing didn’t go viral, attracting the attention of former Death Row Records executive David Weintraub. He’s since branched out into TV with the likes of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. And Weintraub supposedly sees Kittrell as a potential star who only needs to be marketed right.

Weintraub plays himself on camera, but the principal producer of Hollywood Hillbillies is Johathan Koch (Beyond the Glory, The Kennedys, Urban Tarzan). He seems to see more gold in Mema than her grandson. So she gets most of the good lines in the opening episode made available for review. As in, “Wait a minute, I don’t have my damn teeth.” Or, “I was laid out on that thing like a slab of ham” (referring to a salon table).

The pretense is that Mema can’t let Michael run off to Hollywood on his own because he’ll get in trouble and screw everything up. “He can haul coal in his ass when he’s older. But for now he’s mine,” she reasons.

Also along for the ride are Mema’s daughter, Dee Dee Peters; her basically mute fiancé, Paul Conlon; and “Big John” Cox, who’s Michael’s uncle. Before heading to Hollywood, they throw a party that features a big roasted pig and a swimming pool/hot tub in the back of a pickup truck. This is all in keeping with the show’s overall tagline: “The Highfalutin’ Better Watch Out!”

The highfalutin’ likely will sit this one out, although it’s possible a Kardashian might tune in to feel superior. Otherwise it’s hard to tell whether Mema’s repeated references to Hollywood “fruitcakes” will ring a bell. And it’s possible that some will take offense when producer Weintraub (seemingly lit up a bit) tries to impress the brood by riding a mechanical bull during a night on the town at the Saddle Ranch. “I’ve never seen a Jew on a bull before,” Mema says. “I don’t even know if that’s kosher.”

You’d best be a little more careful, Mema. Better to stick with those on-the-money observations about the cost of living in Hollyweird. During that appearance last summer before TV writers, she let go with this winning riff: “It’s so damn expensive to live here. Did you know a hamburger, french fries and a Coke is $27 and 50 damn cents? The Beverly Hilton is expensive. I picked up a jar of peanuts and they charged me $10 for it. And I called down to tell them that I want it taken off (the hotel bill) because all I did was pick the damn thing up.”

One more thing. On Tuesday’s first Hollywood Hillbillies, Mema also recalls the time her septic tank backed up and she had to pee standing up so as not to get bit by fire ants.

In other words, the future course of action should be clear. Give this woman her own fixer-upper show on HGTV. Or a cooking show on the Food Network. Or make her the host of a new version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous on Bravo. Mema’s shelf life may be limited. But hot damn, her presence in Hollywood Hillbillies is all that really matters. And the only reason to perhaps guiltily sneak a peek.


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Ambitious Klondike explores new territory for Discovery Channel


Richard Madden, Augustus Prew are up against it as tenderfoot gold diggers in the three-part, six-hour Klondike. Discovery Channel photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 20th at 8 p.m. (central) on Discovery Channel and continuing at the same times on Monday and Tuesday.
Starring: Richard Madden, Augustus Prew, Sam Shepard, Tim Roth, Abbie Cornish, Conor Leslie, Ian Hart, Johnny Simmons, Tim Blake Nelson
Produced by: Paul Scheuring, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker

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The Discovery Channel boldly ventures forth with its first original scripted production Monday, joining other latter day newcomers such as the History network, National Geo, Netflix and Hulu. It does not nickel and dime it.

Klondike, running for six hours in three parts on successive nights, has a thoroughly authentic look and feel, whether showcasing its picturesque initial mountain expeditions or getting down and decidedly dirty in gold-fevered Dawson City. But the script regularly errs in making laugh-inducing philosopher kings and queens of some characters. As when hard-knocks businesswoman Belinda Montgomery (Abbie Cornish) greets tenderfoot prospector Bill Haskell (Richard Madden) by proclaiming, “Dawson City. Where naivety comes to die.”

Madden, the principal star of this ambitious effort, is best known for his portrayal of Robb Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Struggling to make ends meet, he joins best friend Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) on a make-or-break excursion to the Yukon, circa 1897. California’s been largely denuded of its gold, but Canada is still fertile, the two pals are informed at a bar.

Their journey is arduous, fraught with avalanches, raging rapids and narrative reflections by Haskell. The miniseries is adapted from the book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray. Her non-fiction account didn’t include a murder mystery, a British town villain or a budding romance among other things. But the producers go that route in hopes of generating more interest than the mere pursuit of untold riches.

The bad guy, known as “The Count,” is played by Tim Roth. He’s reminiscent of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, except for the copious swearing. Planted firmly on the other side of good and evil is Father Judge (Sam Shepard), an imposing man of the cloth who’s also well-equipped with survival skills. “You don’t negotiate with nature,” he tells Haskell after saving his life. “You either best it or it bests you.”

Klondike was largely filmed in Alberta on a 55-day shoot that looks very arduous on-camera. It rains constantly, turning Dawson City and its surrounding makeshift gold mines into gray muddy eyesores. Nighttime shoots also are plentiful and sometimes pitch black during the four hours made available for review on Discovery Channel’s media site. Assumedly these will be color-corrected to somewhat brighten matters.

It’s too late to scrub some of the dialogue, though. Particularly for Cornish’s Belinda Montgomery, who in Part One gets stuck with, “The world’s divided between men who write their mothers, men who don’t.”

Belinda repeatedly shoots herself in the foot -- with her mouth. In Part 2 she’s back at it with a vengeance after spending an initially unintended amorous night with Haskell. He’d better not get any ideas, though, because “I’m too far gone, Haskell. “Too many closed up places in me that need to be opened for something like this to work. Woman needs to be like that up here.”

Klondike isn’t always this way. Its one-liners can be nifty in spots, as when a crusty woman cook crows, “I like eatin’ critters that wanna eat me.”

The miniseries also has some engaging supporting characters in grifter Soapy Smith (Ian Hart) and Haskell’s ad hoc mine mate, Joe Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson). Famed real-life novelist/adventurer Jack London (Johnny Simmons) drops in and out to less effect.

Discovery Channel overall gets a passing grade for mounting a drama that effectively captures its period visually if not always verbally. Klondike marks a big step forward for its network, which can expect a little ratings gold as well.


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Gay pride is front and center in HBO's Looking


Gay pride: the three stars of San Francisco-set Looking. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 19th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett
Produced by: Andrew Haigh, Sarah Condon, Michael Lannan, Allan Heinberg

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Paired with Girls and drawing the inevitable comparisons, HBO’s Looking has an overall happier disposition even though its three principal gay male pals for the most part are struggling personally and/or professionally.

The eight-episode series is set and filmed in San Francisco, where coming out is beside the point. Patrick, Agustin and Dom, respectively 29, 31 and 39, are in no way angst-ridden about their sexuality. They’re happily and often bluntly gay, moving in circles where no one condemns or questions them.

The Showtime drama series Queer As Folk, which ran from 2000 to 2005 (after originating as a British series), was the true trailblazer in terms of up-close depictions of gay men. Its characters were younger and more conflicted, though. Looking isn’t a comedy, but it’s much bouncier on its feet. Not slap-happy, but comfortable in its own skin as the three principals, in the words of HBO’s show description, “explore the exciting and varied options available to a new generation of gay men seeking fulfillment in love and life.”

Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is the straightest of the three in terms of experimentation and appearances. He’s also by far the prettiest while working as a video game designer by day and looking to expand his horizons by night.

Meanwhile, Patrick’s longtime roommate, Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), is in the process of moving out in order to move in with his lover Frank (O-T Fagbenle), who lives across the bay in Oakland. In Episode 2, one of four sent for review, Patrick amusingly says goodbye by reciting the “Thank you for being a friend” lyrics from The Golden Girls. But they’ll still be seeing a lot of one another.

The third wheel, Dom (Murray Barlett), has long worked as a waiter in an upscale restaurant. He yearns to open his own chicken eatery, and in Episode 3 meets an engaging area entrepreneur (guest star Scott Bakula) who might be able to help him.

Both Patrick and Dom are very much interested in finding the right guy. Patrick has never had a relationship that’s lasted more than six months. Dom was in a destructive one with a former drug addict who’s now a prosperous realtor. Their meeting, after an eight-year estrangement, only serves to bring out Dom’s bitterness -- first in drips, then in a gusher.

The dialogue tends to be more graphic than the sexual situations in these early episodes. Patrick’s chance meeting on a subway car with a Latin guy named Richie (Raul Castillo) leads to a discussion with Agustin over whether he might be “uncut,” as many “real Mexicans” are. This prompts an inquisitive Patrick to google “uncut Latin cocks.”

In an Episode 4 scene with his new British boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey), Patrick jokes about having a “soft spot for the old men who masturbate in the ass-less chaps.” They’re watching a heavy leather gay parade/festival from the office window during this byplay. Patrick later is talked into joining the party and buying a black leather vest. It initially makes him uncomfortable, sort of like Donny Osmond in a slasher film. But Patrick has adjusted by the time everyone gathers that night at a gay bar. “Go fetch,” he’s told after spotting Richie on the dance floor.

Looking unfortunately risks giving the overall impression that gay men are always on the prowl. Even Agustin and his fiancé are quick to engage in a three-way. And a suddenly unemployed Agustin later is taken with the idea of becoming a “sex worker” after meeting a guy in a diner who charges $220 an hour.

Groff’s Patrick disapproves of this line of work while at the same time striving to be more adventurous in his pursuit of a partner. In some ways he’s the stabilizing force of Looking. And in other ways the loose cannon. He’s also very likable, which is still a key element in most TV series.

Not everyone will like Looking and many will actively loathe it purely because of the subject matter. In that respect there’s always Duck Dynasty. Watch what you will in a big, sprawling TV universe that shouldn’t be beholden to either Bible-thumpers or political correctness. Looking may be one of Phil Robertson’s worst nightmares. But Harvey Fierstein is going to really dig it.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's The Following returns -- for those still trying to follow (or fathom)


Still dark: The Following’s back Sunday after NFC title game. Fox photo

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Fox’s review DVD of The Following’s Season 2 premiere includes the usual warnings about not revealing the “most surprising plot points” so as not to “diminish the viewing experience for the audience.”

But since actor James Purefoy attended this week’s official Fox interview session for The Following and since the actor also is shown in the above Fox photo, it’s probably safe to say that this particular cat is fully out of the bag. Namely that killer cult leader Joe Carroll (played by Purefoy) did not die after all in the fiery explosion that ended Season 1.

Instead he’s back to again bedevil Kevin Bacon’s still haunted Ryan Hardy, beginning with a special re-launch on Sunday, Jan. 19th immediately following the 5 p.m. (central)-starting NFC Championship Game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. The Following then moves to its regular Monday, 8 p.m. slot on Jan. 27th (following an “encore” of Sunday’s preview).

The story resumes one year later after a brief sum-up of previous events and an official requiem for one of last season’s main characters. Bacon, at age 55, retains the most ageless, vertical face in show biz. And he’s certainly not retaining any water because there’s nary an ounce of middle age bloat on him. His diet and workout regimen must be fanatical. Either that or Ryan Hardy is related to Joe Hardy, who famously made a pact with the devil in Damn Yankees.

Whatever the case, Ryan Hardy is now mended from last season’s climactic stabbing. He’s also off the bottle for now and teaching at New York City’s New York College of Criminal Justice. Students are treated to grisly death scene photos as part of the course curriculum. And The Following makes the new season’s first excursion into supremely bad taste by having a female student joke about a blood-soaked female victim having “lousy taste.What’s with the leopard pattern” (of her panties)?”

Executive producer Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, The Vampire Diaries) can be a sick puppy when he wants to be. Later in the hour, the corpse of a murdered, largely disrobed blonde is toyed with -- Weekend at Bernie’s style -- by one of Carroll’s bare-chested, pretty boy male disciples. It’s a loathsome, disgusting and prolonged sequence during which the killer says at one point, “Hey, Heather, I can make an egg white omelet with some spinach.”

There’s also a subway car murder spree, during which the killers wear Joe Carroll masks while chanting, “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us. The resurrection is coming.”

So will Hardy just sit idly by after supposedly starting a new life as a detached civilian? Hah!

Other than Hardy and Carroll, the principal returning character is Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore), who remains with the FBI and implores his old partner to get back in the game. Additions this season include Lily Gray (Connie Nielsen) as a surviving subway car victim and Max Hardy (Jessica Stroup), who’s Ryan’s niece and also a New York cop.

The Following impressed in the early going last season before unraveling in large part with too many preposterous plot twists. This season instantly ratchets up the sadism with the aforementioned treatment of a comely corpse as a living doll. Unlike the first time around, that’s pretty much doused my interest in playing along any further.


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Lifetime's Flowers in the Attic accentuates the development of onetime Mad Men tyke


Kiernan Shipka continues coming of age in Flowers in the Attic. Lifetime photo

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Kiernan Shipka’s maturation on Mad Men, from little girl to resentful, searching tween, accelerates at high speed in the Lifetime movie Flowers in the Attic.

It’s not a full-blown Miley Cyrus transformation. But Shipka clearly has bloomed beyond the point of being seriously considered for any Polyanna remakes. Her character’s growing sexuality instead is one of the focal points of this twisted tale adapted from the same-named 1979 bestselling novel by V.C. Andrews. It premieres on Saturday, Jan. 18th at 7 p.m. (central) after a 1987 go-around as a feature film starring Louise Fletcher, Victoria Tennant and Kristy Swanson.

Elements of Grey Gardens, Mommie Dearest, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and even The Diary of Anne Frank creep into this melodrama about four kids entrapped for years in a gothic mansion by both their duplicitous mother and demonic grandmother. The whole enterprise is alternately laughable and affecting without committing the eighth deadly sin of being boring.

The Dollanganger family -- mom, dad and their four children -- initially is sunlit and almost ridiculously happy. Dad Christopher (Chat Willett) has a job that requires him to travel a lot, which makes oldest daughter Cathy (Shipka) a little blue at times. But he’s otherwise a beaming, caring provider whose world revolves around the kids and wife Corrine (Heather Graham). Then comes the inevitable off-camera car accident that leaves the rest of the Dollangangers in deep debt. Dad’s not coming home anymore, and the home itself is ripe for foreclosure.

“Look at me. I’m an ornament. The only thing I was ever good at was being pretty,” Corinne laments. Her fallback plan is to uproot the family and move to Virginia’s stately Foxworh Hall, home of her “unbelievably wealthy” parents. But they had a nasty falling out a long time ago, so some fence-mending will be necessary before Corinne can be written back into her family’s will.

It’s quickly evident that this will be a slow process. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” Corinne’s mother, Olivia (Ellen Burstyn), says in the way of a greeting. Furthermore, “Your groveling has always bored me.”

Cathy, her older brother, Christopher (Dylan Bruce), and little tyke twins Cory and Carrie (Maxwell Kovach, Ava Telek) are assured by their mom that being sequestered in a locked upstairs room with access only to the attic will be just a brief inconvenience. Before they know it, Corinne will win her sickly father over and reclaim her inheritance. This turns out to be not true. But during the long course of the kids’ incarceration, they’ll learn why their mother had that big falling out with her parents. And why Corinne’s father can never know they even exist, let alone live under the same roof.

It all seems fairly preposterous until one takes into account that stranger things have happened in real life. Including those heinous Cleveland kidnappings of three young girls by the sub-human Ariel Castro, who subsequently hanged himself in his cell.

Burstyn’s fanatical Olive Foxworth, with a growing assist from her greedy daughter, is the principal despot of Flowers in the Attic. The Oscar-winning actress (for 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) has been stuck with playing hissing evil-doers in her autumn years.

In Flowers in the Attic, she doles out punishment by lashing “sinners” with a switch. Her only lapse into human kindness is giving the kids “some real flowers for your fake garden” -- in the attic. Joan Crawford is jealous -- even from the grave.

Meanwhile, the Dollanganger siblings observe a makeshift Christmas -- the first without their father -- and eat daily from a common food basket filled with pretty much the same daily meals. Cathy and Christopher grow to have other appetites as well. The movie attempts to sensitively portray their growing physical attraction toward one another. But many viewers may still get the creeps as the story begins dividing its time between forbidden sexuality and escape plans.

The door is left wide open for a sequel. And author Andrews indeed wrote a series of five novels about the Dollanganger and Foxworth family dynamics.

Flowers in the Attic might be best remembered, though, as another step in the process of Kiernan Shipka becoming an actress who may very well do some great things in a career that’s still just barely begun. She’s 14 now and still very much feeling her way. But Mad Men’s little Sally Draper already seems like a long time ago.

GRADE: B-minus

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Connick's the tonic as Idol tries to make it a lucky Season 13


”Worship Pastor” Jordan Grizzard, 27, of Dallas and his family during the Austin segment of Wednesday’s two-hour audition show. Fox photo

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No weekly TV show has meant more to its network -- both ratings-wise and profit-wise -- than Fox’s American Idol.

That said, this may well be a make or break season after last year’s mostly disastrous pairing of fractious judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Their palpable dislike for one another bled into America’s living rooms. Season 12 of Idol still averaged a highly respectable 15 million viewers for its performance shows and 14.6 million viewers for its results shows. But diminishing returns sunk the May 16th finale to an all-time low of 14.3 million viewers compared to 21.5 million the year before.

Idol has been on a steady ratings downtrend for the past six years. But last season’s flagging Nielsen numbers, after the premiere episode drew 17.9 million viewers, amounted to a five-alarm fire in the view of Fox programmers. So they largely cleaned house by dropping Minaj, Carey and Randy Jackson as judges while also bringing in a new set of executive producers. Jackson belatedly was returned as the show’s in-house “mentor” for Season 13 while Ryan Seacrest is back as host.

The all-important judges panel is made up of holdover Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez (back after a one-year absence) and newcomer Harry Connick Jr. His addition may well prove to be the wind beneath Idol’s wings judging from Fox’s review DVD of the two-hour Wednesday, Jan. 15th season premiere (7 to 9 p.m. central)

Connick, previously a guest mentor on Idol, brings both sass and self-deprecation to a season in which the judges are bent on making nice to contestants in a manner that might make Simon Cowell deathly ill. Virtually missing in action are those assembly lines of horrid, bogus hopefuls from seasons past. They mostly were used as cannon fodder for Cowell during the pre-Hollywood rounds.

On Wednesday night’s auditions from Boston and later Austin, only one aggravatingly cocky, talent-challenged poser is trotted out -- and not until the waning stages of the Boston tryouts. Sam Atherton, 23, is one of the very few unanimous rejectees. He responds by dismissing the judges as collective nobodies, particularly “Tony” Connick.

Some of those who come up short of a golden “Ticket to Hollywood” are reduced to fits of weeping. But it’s not because any of the judges savage them. Connick initially talks a good game, telling the camera, “I have to be honest. To send somebody out of the room crying is a terrible feeling. But if it’s the right thing to say, I think you have to say it.”

Connick in fact is pretty much a koala bear, even if he’s also usually the naysayer on the 2-1 majority votes that are still good enough to push an auditioner through. But these are mostly unanimous verdicts -- one after the other. By my count, 29 Boston/Austin hopefuls who performed at least fleetingly on camera were sent running, jumping and/or squealing their way to Hollywood. Even a guy who grossly over-performed “Over the Rainbow” got his ticket to ride. But you can see him early on and judge for yourself.

The Boston auditions take up about two-thirds of Wednesday’s show, with part two of the Austin round set for Thursday before Idol journeys to San Francisco for the rest of the night.

One of the Austin performers is “worship pastor” Jordan Grizzard, 27, of Dallas, who arrives with his wife and their baby daughter. He performs “Ain’t No Sunshine” in a strong, full voice. Not to spoil anything, but both Lopez and Urban stand and applaud.

Seacrest is still around to occasionally chat with hopefuls and also stumble over a folding chair while pretending to be a football running back. “This is your story, America. This is your show,” he says hopefully.


Are we having fun yet? On the road with Idol’s new judges.

One Idol contestant, 17-year-old Mario Sellers of Detroit, is given a considerable boost Wednesday night during a self-standing open in which Seacrest introduces viewers to a new wrinkle, “The Chamber.”

It’s basically an elevator with seeing-eye cameras, the better to record a hopeful’s last second prep before he or she enters the judges’ arena.

Sellers, who sings Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” while accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, gets a collective rave and a 3-0 vote to the next round.

“You are going to be a nightmare for the other competitors in this competition,” Connick proclaims, automatically making Sellers a betting favorite. She’s then coaxed into saying, “My name is Mario Sellers and I plan on being the next American Idol.”

Whatever happens, Connick is the tonic. Perhaps you’ve already seen the Idol promo in which he lifts and cradles a singing contestant. At the end of Wednesday’s two hours, viewers see that he’s thrilled about someone actually recognizing him after various hopefuls express their undying admiration for “role model” J Lo.

Connick pulls this off effortlessly. J Lo is still great to look at, even if her frequently deployed laughs at her own remarks remain very much an acquired taste. Urban is agreeable and cute without being a complete stiff. But in reality, Connick is the guy who’s riding to the rescue of a show that Fox remains very heavily invested in. The network hopes to at least stop the ratings bleeding while re-establishing Idol as prime-time television’s only bonafide star maker.

NBC’s The Voice may have banged some dents in Idol during the course of becoming its network’s top non-football attraction. But none of its singers -- winners or otherwise -- has gone on to become anything but quickly forgotten. Idol still has the power of its past, with Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry, Phillip Phillips, Adam Lambert and even Kelly Pickler among the former contestants who still have either gainful or superstar careers.

In that context, Season 13 shouldn’t be written off just yet. Wednesday’s opener is teeming with energy, chemistry and the usual great expectations pronounced by Seacrest. “The best panel we’ve ever assembled,” he says. For the first time in a while, that sounds about right.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Out of the vampire rut with Syfy's Bitten


The guy on the left’s not a werewolf in Bitten.

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 13th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Laura Vandervoort, Greg Bryk, Greyston Holt, Paul Greene
Produced by: J.B. Sugar, Patrick Banister, John Barbisan, Tecca Crosby, John Morayniss, Margaret O’Brien, Daegan Frykind, Grant Rosenberg

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Syfy puts the “she” in werewolf with Bitten, whose put-upon heroine is more interested in mating with a chiseled adman whose name is not Don Draper.

The 13-episode series is set in present times, meaning that cell phones go off with more frequency than transformations. But there’s still ample opportunity for blonde, beauteous Elena Michaels (Laura Vandervoort) to strip down before morphing into the “lone female werewolf in existence.” This is so she won’t ruin any outfits during the process. Male werewolves also disrobe beforehand rather than rip through their jeans and muscle shirts. We’ve come a long way since The Incredible Hulk.

Bitten is mildly diverting while also being pretty goofy in spots -- even for a werewolf drama. Elena’s ex-boyfriend, for instance, just happens to be the world’s hunkiest college professor, wowing the co-eds at something called the University of Upstate New York. Clayton Danvers (Greyston Holt) likewise is a werewolf, as is his Alpha brother Jeremy (Greg Bryk).

Elena wants nothing to do with either of them anymore. She’s trying to make a new life for herself in Toronto with the dashing and very understanding Philip McAdams (Paul Greene). But a killer “mutt” werewolf is on the loose near the stately Danvers compound in Bear Valley, NY. And Elena just happens to be the best available “tracker.” Just when she thought she was out . . .

“They broke a cardinal rule by killing a human for sport. They have to pay for that,” says Jeremy, who’s also worried that the townies will somehow uncover the big werewolf lair. Really sumptuous breakfasts are served there, with piles of bacon and thick sausages. And Jeremy seems to be happiest when his entire hungry brood is gathered at the same table.

Two episodes were sent for review, and the second one has some pretty nifty gladiator-like training sequences featuring Elena and two male werewolves flipping each other around. But things also tend to drag in spots. So don’t get your hopes up when Jeremy vows in Episode 2, “We’re going to put an end to this -- tonight.”

Vandervoort, probably best known for playing the recurring character Kara in Smallville, is suitably sensitive and sultry in the lead role. She’s required to both fend off advances and advance the sexual action by pulling the shower towel off a pleased McAdams after spending a good part of the night as a werewolf.

It’s unclear how McAdams will fit in, though, now that the killings are escalating in Bear Valley.

“We cannot have ‘mutts’ being made indiscriminately and unleashed on the world,” Jeremy says.

Well, of course not. So Elena’s place is with her brood, and Clayton is still very much interested in reclaiming her. Meanwhile, adman McAdams can do little except keep his cell phone charged and await new word on when she might be back. She’s so close -- but yet so fur.


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Vile Chozen soils FX

FXX_Chozen_BMoynihan-0001 CHZN_GROUP

Bobby Moynihan is the voice of bare-chested rapper Chozen. FX photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 13th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Bobby Moynihan, Michael Pena, Hannibal Buress, Kathryn Hahn, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Ike Barnholz, Cliff “Method Man” Smith
Produced by: Tom Brady, Danny McBride, Jody Hill, David Gordon Green, Brandon James, Adam Reed, Matt Thompson

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It’s not all that easy to make the ribald Archer seem like a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

But FX and its latter day “Fearless” motto have done that and then some with Chozen. It’s an aggressively profane companion cartoon series about a volatile gay white rapper hardened by 10 years in prison after being set up by a former ally known as Phantasm. Sample rap: “Bow down before the glorious one. Your face is the target. My dong is the gun.”

I mean, really.

Archer’s Season 5 and Chozen’s first one launch on Monday, Jan. 13th. The latter series, with Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan very loudly voicing the title character, joins FX’s spy spoof with a TV MA rating for “Graphic Violence, Explicit Sexual Activity, Crude/Indecent Language.”

The worst offender on that front isn’t even Chozen. In the first two half-hours it’s Jimmy, a sub-scumbag voiced by co-executive producer Danny McBride (better known as the star of HBO’s Eastbound & Down, which ended its run last fall).

Jimmy’s a bearded, coke-sniffing garbage pail whose main activity is snapping intimate shots of women for posting on various obscene websites such as . . . well, never mind. Suffice it to say that he manages to reel off the words “dick, jizz” and “cum” in one short riff near the end of Episode 2. Guy’s a wordsmith.

FX at some point generally swerves off various roads to perdition with its adult roster of weekly dramas and comedies. It’s home to first-rate series such as Justified, The Americans and Louie. But the network errs grievously on the side of gratuitous with Chozen, which just shouldn’t be on anyone’s air.

Brain-dead male teens without any social skills or purpose in their lives might find this a highly entertaining diversion from their violent video games. One can imagine Slacker 69 laughing uproariously at the line, “Phantasm ain’t ca ca. I know fools be playin’ his butt hole like a saxophone.”

Someone needs an accordion lesson.


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Girls returns -- and looks who's happy


Lena Dunham (left) and her three Girls co-stars. HBO photo

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Season 3 of HBO’s Girls opens with a shocker. There’s a gainful, functioning relationship among the four oft-miserable principals. And so far it’s still in place after the first three episodes.

The Lena Dunham lightning rod -- in which some critics pound her for being morose, nude too much and not having enough diversity in the cast -- returns on Sunday, Jan. 12th with back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. (central).

Dunham, now 27, is the creator, star and head writer of Girls. She also directs the new season’s first two half-hours, both of which afford her Hannah character a modicum of happiness.

Hannah is now living with the grubby but not quite as gross Adam (Adam Driver). For now this suits the both of them. She even survives a searing confrontation with one of his old girlfriends at Ray’s new coffee/pizza place.

Ray has recently broken up with loopy Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who’s nearing her college graduation. Marnie (Allison Williams) is still mooning over her breakup with Charlie while being browbeaten by her mother, Evie (guest star Rita Wilson), after briefly moving back home. And Jessa (Jemima Kirke), whose impulsive marriage ended in a quick divorce, is making herself impossible to help while housed as a patient at the far-off Sheltering Winds rehab center.

Remarkably, Hannah actually seems to be making some progress as a writer and has an E-book deal in the works. But her editor (played by Cameron Mitchell) is a colossal self-important a-hole. This becomes especially evident at Hannah’s 25th birthday party, in which all of her friends and acquaintances gather at a bar during an ambitiously staged Episode 3. The writing is particularly sharp here, and Hannah is positively glowing in her “Birthday Bitch” hat.

For the record, Dunham gets naked just once during the course of these three episodes. And it’s “organic” to the story, not gratuitous.

This will be a 12-episode Season 3, up from the 10 ordered for both Seasons 1 and 2. So there’s ample time for everyone, including Hannah, to be deep in the throes of misery if that’s how Dunham wants to play it.

In the meantime, we wish Hannah well. Oddly enough, contentment with Adam becomes her. Everybody’s got to have somebody.


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True Detective gives HBO the next great drama it's been looking for


Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 12th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Tory Kittles, Michael Potts, Michelle Monaghan
Produced by: Nic Pizzolatto, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Scott Stephens, Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Steve Goblin

2014 is barely out of the starting blocs. So one risks being premature in calling HBO’s True Detective the best new TV series of the year. It sets the bar almost impossibly high, though. How will anything else be able to make such a leap?

This also is just what HBO needed to fend off an ongoing quality drama onslaught from Showtime, Netflix, FX, AMC, BBC America and Sundance Channel. True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as head-butting dicks, is the kind of series that will get people talking about HBO again. It replenishes the pipeline, invigorates the brand, fires up the sprawling “water cooler” universe whether online or at the workplace.

Yes, it’s that good.

Premiering Sunday, Jan. 12th, True Detective will tell its full story in eight episodes. And if HBO orders another season, the idea is to do a new whodunit with different characters and stars. Which means that viewers can expect to get “closure,” even if McConaughey’s sardonic detective Rust Cohle scoffs in Hour 3, “Closure. Nothin’ is ever over.”

Set in Louisiana and filmed there, too, True Detective ping-pongs between 1995 and 2012. Cohle initially is the new partner of detective Martin Hart (Harrelson), a “family man” with a straight-ahead view of the world when he’s not swerving to suit his needs.

In 1995, as members of Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division, they’re tracking a ritualistic killer who most definitely has killed before in Cohle’s view. By 2012, they’re giving separate statements to two new officers named Gilbrough and Papania (Michael Potts, Tory Kittles). A similar murder has been committed long after Cohle and Hart have split up and closed the books on the 1995 case. Did they arrest and convict the wrong man?

McConaughey’s Cohle has changed markedly in the 17 years. He’s now a stringy-haired, chain-smoking, alcohol-dependent creature of habit who still lives alone and works four days a week at something or other. His questioners had better let him indulge himself if they want any answers. “On my off days I start drinkin’ at noon. You don’t get to interrupt that,” he says before a sixer of tall Lone Stars is delivered upon demand.

Harrelson’s Hart has less hair but still wears a suit and tie. “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing,” he continues to assert. Viewers will see about that as True Detective delves deeply into both men’s professional and personal lives.

All eight episodes were written by series creator and novelist Nic Pizzolatto, whose first book, Galveston, was published in 2010 after he left academia behind. The scripts are superb, with Cohle and Hart trading punches over methods and belief systems while sharing an obsession to catch a killer who leaves his young women victims mutilated, violated and drugged. TV dramas involving serial killers are hardly in short supply of late. But True Detective is also very much about dissecting the crime-solvers.

McConaughey, who’s rapidly evolved from pretty boy to artiste, has already distinguished himself in the past year with transformative roles in both Mud and Dallas Buyers Club. His performance in True Detective takes McConaughey to an even higher level, whether he’s the barely-holding-it-together young detective dubbed “The Taxman” (for taking meticulous crime scene notes on a legal-sized ledger) or the ex-cop who’s found peace of sorts in a never varying, but outwardly self-destructive routine.

Harrelson has the less showy rule, but is no less effective. His demons tear at him from within while his wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), and their two pre-teen daughters are starting to run low on coping mechanisms.

Episode 3 includes some especially terrific exchanges between Cohle and Hart while they watch a tent preacher pray and/or prey on his mostly motley flock.

“People are so God damned frail they’d rather put a coin in a wishing well than buy dinner,” Cohle says with disgust.

“For a guy who sees no point in existence, you still fret about it an awful lot,” Hart retorts. “You still sound panicked.”

The Texas-bred Cohle’s back story, which slowly spools out in the first three episodes, is one of tragedy, drug addiction and recovery without any real redemption. Hart’s past is far less eventful. It’s the present -- circa 1995 -- that’s been pushing him toward the edge. By the year 2012, his marriage may or may not remain intact. That presumably will be made clear in the remaining five hours.

True Detective also explores the nooks and crannies of Louisiana, which in this case has nothing to do with oft-explored New Orleans. This is true on-location shooting, with a feel for people, places, sights and sounds. At one point, Cohle and Hart stop to have lunch at an out-of-nowhere ramshackle eatery that positively reeks of authenticity.

Episode 3 ends with a chilling sight and closing credits music that just couldn’t fit any better. True Detective is a marvel of craftsmanship, storytelling and performances through these first three hours made available for review. It’s what subscribers to HBO have come to expect -- and just in the nick of time, too.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's Enlisted earns some stripes


A band of brothers plays it for laughs in Enlisted. Fox photo

Premiering: Friday, Jan. 10th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, Parker Young, Angelique Cabral, Keith David
Produced by: Kevin Biegel, Mike Royce

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Military sitcoms, some of them long-serving, range from the gold standard of M*A*S*H to the much lower-ranked but still broadly amusing Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.

Fox’s Enlisted is the first new one in a while, though. And it works surprisingly well as sort of a Community in camouflage fronted by a teacher figure and his hapless platoon.

Afghanistan-deployed Sgt. Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) is first seen in a firefight during which his requested “backup” is waylaid by a computer crash back at headquarters. He confronts an officious, bespectacled colonel who retorts, “You signed on to get shot at! So get outta my face, candy ass!”

Pete punches him but doesn’t wind up in the brig. Instead he’s sent to command a collection of bumblers confined to a Rear Detachment Unit in Fort McGee, Florida. They include his middle brother, Derrick (Chris Lowell), and youngest brother, Randy (Parker Young), who in Episode 2 demonstrates that he still can’t recite the plot for Toy Story without bawling his eyes out.

“Can’t I please go back to war?” Pete pleads in one of the opening episode’s more unfortunate lines. But Enlisted earns a promotion by the end of the four episodes Fox sent for review. It’s goofy but surprisingly smart with its sight gags and one-liners. Episode 3, subtitled “Prank Wars,” is the best of the quartet while the second half-hour includes an amusing cooking competition -- “using traditional Army ingredients” --- between Pete and his principal platoon-leading rival, Sgt. Jill Perez (good work by Angelique Cabral).

The show-stealer is Keith David, whose resonant voice has narrated many a Ken Burns documentary film. This time he’s heard and seen as Sgt. Major Donald Cody, who serves as Pete’s boss after serving with his dad abroad. David’s character registers in every scene, whether he’s chapped by a new computer-savvy lieutenant or grousing, “On with the ceremony. Aw hell, this is a lot of badges.”

Enlisted also aims at relevance in Episode 4, with Cody counseling Pete about Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome after he sequesters himself in a trailer home to get away from the constant demands of his troops. The sequence doesn’t quite work. Nor is it prolonged.

The supporting misfits of Enlisted aren’t billed as regulars in Fox publicity materials. In fact they aren’t even named. But there’s some funny stuff here by Tania Gunadi as Private Park and Michelle Buteau as Private Robinson, particularly in Episode 4.

Enlisted also should be saluted for getting along without a laugh track. Come to think of it, that’s worth another stripe, too.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Syfy's Helix fights a killer virus and some of its own demons


Billy Campbell quickly gets under the hood in Helix. Syfy photo

Premiering: Friday, Jan. 10th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on Syfy
Starring: Billy Campbell, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kyra Zagorsky, Mark Ghanime, Jordan Hayes, Catherine Lemieux, Meegwun Fairbrother, Neil Napier
Produced by: Ronald D. Moore, Steven Maeda, Lynda Obst

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Few actors are more earnest or unsmiling than Billy Campbell.

So the former star of The Killing and Killing Lincoln is well-suited to playing dedicated, disease-fighting pathologist Alan Farrugut, who’s been left “closed off emotionally” by the brief affair his wife, Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), had with his brother. Grim and bear it? Campbell’s your man.

His latest downer is Syfy’s Helix, a 13-episode chiller that encases its principal players in Arctic Biosystems. It’s a highly isolated, high-tech la-BOR-atory that’s suddenly been ravaged by an outbreak of a lethal virus. Farragut, Walker and other experts from Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control converge on the place to crack the mystery. Farrugut is extra-solemn because his unfaithful researcher brother, Peter (Neil Napier), just happens to be one of the infected.

“This is going to be the most fracked up family reunion ever,” cracks the series’ most consistently engaging character, plain-faced, chubby and tart Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux). One of her favorite activities is dissecting monkeys.

Arctic Biosystems is headed by Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), who pretty much reinforces the Asian stereotype of being inscrutable and seemingly sinister.

Throughout the first two episodes of Helix (presented back-to-back Friday night), Hatake repeatedly balks at being the least bit cooperative while Farragut doggedly strives to get everyone on the same page.

He’s a patient man before comically blowing up at Hatake in next week’s Episode 3. Either cooperate, Farragut thunders, or he’ll spill the beans to the world’s major news organizations. Furthermore, “If you think you’re afraid of the U.S. military, wait’ll you have to keep your secrets from The New York Post!”

Wow. And imagine the tabloid’s screaming front page headline: “BOY TRAPPED IN REFRIGERATOR EATS OWN FOOT!”

Helix isn’t always laughable, though, and at times can be pretty gripping. The makeup and props departments also have done their jobs well. But can this story sustain itself for 13 hours within a claustrophobic frozen outpost? Crises and mini-revelations are dispensed with the frequency of commercial breaks. Still, how many times can the team be called on to quell a rebellion or track down a runaway infected mutant? Even Campbell seems to grow weary of furrowing his brow or stoically preaching calm in the face of calamity. And this guy’s a master.

Syfy publicity materials assure that the death and destruction within the walls of Arctic Biosystems are “just the tip of the iceberg. And as the virus evolves, the chilling truth begins to unravel.”

Either that, or Helix will start unraveling well before its end point. It’s still too early to tell after the three hours sent for review. But there’s definitely some fraying at the edges along with all of those odd fluids oozing from various orifices of the afflicted.


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IFC's The Spoils of Babylon: a grandiose, gut-busting sendup


Forbidden love: Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire in The Spoils of Babylon. IFC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 9th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on Independent Film Channel
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Will Ferrell, Tim Robbins, Haley Joel Osment, Isabella Acres, Phillip Wampler, Jessica Alba
Produced by: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Matt Piedmont, Andrew Steele, Nate Young

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Hilariously half-baked -- my compliments to the chefs -- here comes The Spoils of Babylon to another smallish cable network with big ambitions to break through.

Independent Film Channel (IFC) currently is best known as the home of Portlandia, which returns on Feb. 27th with the promise of “Epic Guest Stars.” Until then, feast on this six-part creation of fictional trash novelist Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), whose dream of seeing one of his books on the small screen is finally realized.

IFC has made the first two half-hours available for review. And they’re the best genre sendup since ABC ventured forth with six episodes of Police Squad! way back in 1982.

Outfitted with a laugh-out-loud beard, Ferrell’s Jonrosh begins and ends each episode with pompous declarations from his solitary restaurant table, where goblets of wine are the main course. In the 1970s, he envisioned Spoils of Babylon as a 22-hour TV miniseries but couldn’t get a network to bite. So he financed it himself, whittled it down to three hours and assembled a cast of master thespians ranging from ex-wife Lauoreighiya Samcake to Sir Richard Driftwood. The ensemble also includes Dirk Snowfield, Joseph Soil, Gumdrop Howard and Dixie Melonworth as Dixie Melonworth.

Watching these opening title credits roll is one of the instant pleasures of Spoils of Babylon, where obviously miniature autos and palatial estates are used to keep Jonrosh’s budget in line. A suitably overblown theme song is performed by Steve Lawrence, with the first two episodes mostly spotlighting Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire and Tim Robbins.

Wiig’s Samcake plays the very willful Cynthia Morehouse. She’s the daughter of 1930s West Texas wildcattter Jonas Morehouse (Driftwood/Robbins), who hits a last-second gusher to stave off abject poverty. Before this happens, Jonas takes in an aimlessly wandering Devon Morehouse (Snowfield/Maguire). (The younger Cynthia and Devon are played by Isabella Acres and Philip Wampler in these formative scenes after an adult Devon is shot and then staggers away to record his life story on two giant tape reels.)

The Morehouse’s rags to riches tale, spiced by Cynthia’s growing attraction to her adopted brother, is played to ridiculously perfect extremes. Robbins is a riot in Episode 1 while Wiig has a brilliant breakfast table confrontation with a beautiful British mannequin in Episode 2. Providing more details as to how that comes about would spoil too much of the joke.

Devon has been to war and back by the end of Episode 2. And the pot has only begun to boil. “I’ll be here waiting for you,” Jonrosh promises. “Probably in the same booth with the same moribund look on my face. How could it be otherwise?”

How could Spoils of Babylon be any better? So far It probably couldn’t. These first two episodes are gut-busting, non-stop fun. And they’re not only “Presented In Color” but “Filmed In Breath Take O Scope.” Clearly an embarrassment of riches.


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Dick Wolf at the door again: this time he's spun Chicago P.D. from Chicago Fire


Gruff and ready: Jason Beghe stars in new Chicago P.D. NBC photo
Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 8th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Jason Beghe, Jon Seda, Sophia Bush, Jesse Lee Soffer, Elias Koteas, Patrick John Flueger, LaRoyce Hawkins, Marina Squerciati, Archie Kao
Produced by: Dick Wolf, Matt Olmstead, Peter Jankowski, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Daniel Gelber, Mark Tinker

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Producer Dick Wolf seemed to be on life support when NBC axed both Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent a few seasons back.

That left only the likewise long-in-the-tooth Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which joined the Peacock’s prime-time schedule in fall 1999. How long would it take for the last domino to fall?

But Wolf, 67, has proven to be a roaring lion in winter rather than a bleating lamb led to slaughter. His Chicago Fire became the surprise drama success of the 2012-’13 TV season. And how here he is adding a spin-off fronted by a bad/good cop who was introduced on Chicago Fire and now has his own Intelligence Unit.

NBC’s Chicago P.D., being paired with Law & Order: SVU on Wednesday nights, stars Jason Beghe as rough, tough, rule-breaking, raspy-voiced Sgt. Hank Voight. In case you don’t get the picture, Hank economically brutalizes a drug dealer in Chicago P.D.’s opening scene, vowing to deposit him “at the bottom of the river” if he ever sees him soiling his city again. Viewers are welcome to draw comparisons to “Dirty Harry” Callahan or The Shield’s Vic Mackey. After all, those two guys both had quite a run.

Hank, who had a string of “dirty cop” episodes in Chicago Fire, is being joined by fellow alum Jon Seda reprising his role as Detective Antonio Dawson. The rest of the unit is made up of newbies, with Hank encouraging one and all, “You tell the truth so I can lie for you.”

Beghe commands attention, ramming his lead character home with a voice that sounds as though he’s just swallowed a shot glass -- after first munching on it. If he doesn’t get your attention, then the ear-splitting, drum-thumping music will whenever the team is on the prowl or closing in. Bite it, Blue Man Group.

Wednesday’s opener ushers in a two-parter, with the kidnapping of Antonio’s eight-year-old son, Diego, serving as bait for next week’s all hands on deck pursuit. Seda does some decent emoting here while also prototypically walking the line between using Hank’s hammer and tong “techniques” or asking an arrestee to please spill the beans or you won’t get desert with your jailhouse meat loaf.

Hank hasn’t yet gotten around to authorizing beheadings, which Chicago’s influx of Columbian drug pushers are using to show they mean business. But in Episode 2, he not-so-gently encourages Antonio to “cut his eye out! Do it!”

Hank’s softer side is evidenced by detective Erin Lindsay (Sophia Bush), a troubled street teen whom he previously took in. The tough guy cop also comes to the aid of an abused and terrified young black kid caught in the midst of his brother’s thug life. So he has a creamier nougat of a heart than Vic Mackey -- in part because the broadcast networks still aren’t willing to go as far out on the anti-hero limb as their basic cable brethren.

Chicago P.D. looks as though it’s going to walk its beat for a while. Producer/creator Wolf has shown he’s still a master at melding ensemble casts, putting them in urgent inner city surroundings and dumping anyone who asks for too much money too fast.

He’s done it before and damned if he isn’t showing every sign of doing it again. Chicago D.A. anybody?

GRADE: B-minus

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Still a keeper: Justified's back with Season 5


Still sturdy: Timothy Olyphant as deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. FX photo

Never fear. The Harlan County, KY of FX’s Justified remains mostly dirty to the touch, a breeding ground for knuckle-draggers and a few somewhat higher forms of low-life.

They continue to lie, cheat, steal, deal and kill while thin-smiling deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) strives to keep a semblance of order. But even by its standards, the Season 5 premiere episode (Tuesday, Jan. 7th at 9 p.m. central) is a mayhem-filled blood-dripper.

It’s also bloody well done, which is hardly surprising. One of prime-time’s most under-recognized series (still no Emmy nominations for best drama) is now forging ahead without the late Elmore Leonard, on whose writings it’s based and who died in August. He considered Justified to be the best realization of his work, not that unfortunate adaptations such as The Big Bounce caused him to lose any sleep.

“Oh God, and they made it twice. It wasn’t bad enough the first time,” Leonard said in what turned out to be his last public appearance with the Justified cast and producers during a January 2012 session with TV critics.

Still, he never veered from his initial goal of writing with the hope of big payoffs down the road.

“I think any writer is a fool if he doesn’t write for money,” Leonard said. “There’s got to be some kind of incentive in addition to the product. It all goes together. And it’s fun to sit there alone and think of characters and get them into action, and then get paid for it.”

The first two episodes of the new season retain Leonard’s economy of words and actions, although the body count seems to be a victim of inflation. Raylan’s old buddy and current nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), is particularly active on this front. His face is thrice bloodied, although it only hurts once. Boyd otherwise is dispensing fierce punishment in one scene and on the receiving end of collateral spattering in the other.

Justified’s principal new plot line is the incursion of the Crowes, a bad-ass Florida brood looking for a change of pace crime venue. “Dixie Mafia” kingpin Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) also is back, working the heroin trade with Boyd. An impromptu trip to Detroit is necessary when a drug delivery ends up not being as advertised.

Boyd otherwise is intent on freeing his fiancee, Ava (Joelle Carter), from prison, which will require some expensive buying off. The principal woman in Raylan’s life, Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), is now in Florida with their baby daughter. She got out of town after a hit man came calling. Raylan is all sweet talk via Skype, but it’s clear he also wants to keep his distance for both of their sakes. By Episode 2, another potential bunkmate is in the picture.

Justified, which will have 13 episodes this season, is still a very gray-shaded morality play. Raylan, product of a ne’er do well father who mostly taught him wrong, is trying to steer a middle path between outright anti-hero and white-hatted Dudley Do Right. It’s not his fault that he’s often dealing with despots to whom a code of ethics is nothing more than a spit bucket.

But even the scummiest of scum bags can be swayed by Raylan’s no frills ways of verbally laying down the law. After all, he’s still got the badge behind him if gunplay ends up being a last resort. And in Episode 2, it’s a joy watching Raylan talk turkey with a bearded drug lord who’s got a couple of teens in his pincers.

Justified may never get the trophies it deserves. Neither did NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street or HBO’s The Wire. Fans of these shows can live with that, though. Just keep doing what you’re doing, Justified. That’s reward enough.

GRADE: A-minus

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ABC's Killer Women embraces Texas, films elsewhere, plays pretty dead


Tricia Helfer plays a hard-charging Texas Ranger in Killer Women. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Tricia Helfer, Marc Blucas, Michael Trucco, Alex Fernandez, Marta Milans
Produced by: Hannah Shakespeare, Ed Zuckerman, Sofia Vergara, Martin Campbell, Ben Silverman, Luis Balaguer

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ABC’s braggadocio publicity materials for Killer Women describe its heroine as a “ballsy and badass” Texas Ranger.

That’s a bold description, but talk is cheap. In reality, expect nothing new under the sun from a drama set in San Antonio, filmed in New Mexico and falling flat wherever the cameras might roll.

Replacing ABC’s almost instantly canceled Lucky 7, this series also is reminiscent of an earlier failed effort on rival NBC. Chase, launched in fall 2010, starred Kelli Giddish (now of NBC’s Law & Order: SVU) as Texas tough Annie Frost, head of an otherwise all-male task force of elite U..S. Marshals based in Houston. At least it was filmed in Texas. Killer Women makes do with an opening stock footage (or CGI) shot of The Alamo before the producers set up shop in the Albuquerque area.

Starring is Tricia Helfer as Molly Parker, who apparently specializes in tracking down women wanted for murder. In Tuesday’s premiere episode, a seeming she-devil in a tight red dress and matching high heels strides into a wedding ceremony and shoots the bride dead right after she kisses the groom. It seems like a cut-and-dried case, but Molly of course suspects larger forces are at work.

When not going against the grain or inducing chortles from chauvinistic male law enforcers, Molly seeks to end her marriage to Jake Colton (the recurring Jeffrey Nordling). He in turn professes his undying love, but Molly later lets viewers know that Jake indeed is as “smarmy” as ABC’s press materials describe him. Besides, she’s now having a good time in the sack with jaunty DEA agent Dan Winston (Marc Blucas).

The other major man in Molly’s life is Rangers company commander Luis Zea (Alex Fernandez), who drops in on occasion to buck her up. Also look for a brief appearance by Brad Leland (showy car dealer/booster Buddy Garrity of Friday Night Lights) as a tall-talkin’ Texan named Wily Whitman.

The ubiquitous Sofia Vergara of Modern Family is listed as one of Killer Women’s executive producers. ABC is using that as a selling point in its on-air promotions, but the principal hands on this throttle more likely are those of Law & Order veteran Ed Zuckerman, former NBC entertainment president Ben Silverman and writer/producer Hannah Shakespeare -- which this isn’t.

It all ends with a gun battle and daring escape, followed by a paint-by-numbers prison reunion. Her missions accomplished, all that’s left for Molly is a little horn-playing with a honky tonk band. It’s not yet known whether she also makes a mean chili pie.

Given all that cable networks have accomplished in recent years, you’d think that a Big Four broadcaster such as ABC would try a little harder to distinguish itself. But there’s no danger of that with Killer Women, which starts in a rut and stays there.

GRADE: C-minus

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Chip on his shoulder -- and in his brain: Intelligence comes to CBS


Yet another tight spot in Intelligence for Josh Holloway, Meghan Ory. CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS before moving to regular Monday, 9 p.m. slot on Jan. 13th
Starring: Josh Holloway, Marg Helgenberger, Meghan Ory, John Billingsley, PJ Byrne
Produced by: Michael Seitzman, Tripp Vinson, Barry Schindel

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Rugged good looks, a chiseled physique and an inclination toward insubordination are pretty much standard operating equipment for CBS’ latter day stream of crime-fighters.

Not that it’s enough to be a rudimentary Mike Hammer. You need an extra angle. So in this latest action hour, Gabriel Vaughn (former Lost star Josh Holloway) just happens to have an “extremely rare genetic mutation” that makes his brain the perfect breeding ground for a “super-computer microchip.” This means he’s the world’s first human to be hooked into the “global information grid.” Which also means he’s free of any tiresome monthly Internet, telephone and satellite provider bills.

There’s no such thing as a free HBO, though. In Intelligence, Gabriel is constantly at the mercy of directives from prickly Lillian Strand (Marg Helgenberger in her first TV series outing since CSI: Crime Scene Investigation). She’s the unbending director of U.S. Cyber Command, which is dedicated to stamping out “new and even more insidious threats” from here, there and everywhere.

Lillian uses Gabriel as her point man but doesn’t want him to run amuck or anything. His designated keeper is pretty Riley Neal (Meghan Ory), a Secret Service agent who’s really good at protecting people. Why, to hear Lillian tell it, Riley was stabbed multiple times in a restroom while the President’s children were in her care. Even so, “she incapacitated all four men and still managed to get those girls home for dinner,” Gabriel is informed. Both Holloway and Helgenberger amazingly keep from bursting into laughter, but one wonders how many takes that took.

Tuesday’s special preview of Intelligence, snuggled behind a new episode of NCIS, can be groaningly over-played at times. Besides being a techno-centric remodeling of The Six Million Dollar Man, it also filches from the James Bond movies (Gabriel gets thrown around by an over-sized Asian henchman) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Gabriel finally stops messing around and kills him with a pistol shot).

Another scene most have seen before: our hero running out of real estate and poised at the edge of a cliff while bad guys close in. What to do? Well, there’s a narrow body of water a long way below.

On the plus sides, Holloway looks to be a sturdy, glib-tongued leading man who seems at home whenever the script calls for gun battles and fist fights. There’s a lot of that going on in Tuesday’s first outing. But Monday’s Jan. 13th second hour, also made available for review, calms down some while also unraveling a good part of the mystery over Gabriel’s wife, Amelia. She’s a fellow agent who may or may not have “turned” after going abroad and then disappearing in 2007.

Intelligence will be replacing CBS’ little-watched Hostages on Monday nights after its two-hour Jan. 6th “season finale” (and almost certainly series finale). The newcomer should fare better, but probably not enough to outdraw formidable competition from NBC’s The Blacklist and ABC’s Castle.

For his first Monday night face-off against those two dramas, Holloway strips down to a glistening muscular torso while taking out his frustrations on a heavy boxing bag. But any visual stimulus is countered by Helgenberger’s continued struggles with the clunky lines given her. During Episode 2, she’s stuck with, “As my father is fond of saying, character is only defined by the decisions you make when all could be lost.”

No wonder she always seems to be in a bad mood.


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Resonance lost and not always found: Downton Abbey undertakes Season 4


Widowed with children: Michelle Dockery and Allen Leech as Lady Mary Crawley and Tom Branson in Downton Abbey. PBS photo

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PBS’ two-hour Season 4 launch of Downton Abbey easily could be subtitled “Waiting for Lady Mary to Snap Out of It.”

Six months after the jolting death of her husband, Matthew (Dan Stevens), in a Season 3-ending car wreck, the oldest daughter of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora Crawley, Countess of Grangham (Elizabeth McGovern) remains distant, deeply blue and sickly pale, too.

“You’ve seen her. She hardly has the energy to lift a fork to her mouth,” Mary’s overly protective, oft-rigid father notes in the early going. His remedy: “She is broken and bruised, and it is our job to wrap her up and keep her safe from the world.”

Former family chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leach), himself no stranger to anguish after his wife, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), expired of complications from childbirth, observes that Mary is “no better than she was a week after (Matthew) died.”

Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the household’s stern, long-serving head butler, finally musters the temerity to speak out of turn if he must. “You’re letting yourself be defeated, milady,” he tells Mary (Michelle Dockery). “I’m sorry if it’s a lapse to say so. But someone has to.”

All to no avail for the majority of Sunday’s outing (8 p.m. on KERA13 in D-FW). It kicks off American television’s eight-part Downton Abbey shortly after Season 4 ended its United Kingdom run. Second dibs on PBS will stretch from Jan. 5th to Feb. 23rd.

The newest season begins in 1922, a decade after the original Downton Abbey brought the aristocratic Crawleys and their lumpen helpers into view on the day after the sinking of the Titanic in April of 1912. As always, characters and their assignations come and go while conveniently timed eavesdropping allows for secrets to be kept, spilled and sometimes stretched threadbare.

PBS made all but the final two hours of Season 4 available for review. And while certainly not a slog, they end up being more than a bit saggy. Lady Mary of course emerges from her prolonged funk and mostly comes alive again while two new suitors vie for her affections. But Downton Abbey has no scenes or sequences of knockout import during these first seven episodes. In Season 3, the depiction of Sybil’s death -- in Episode 5 -- was overwhelmingly affecting and almost too much to bear. Matthew’s demise, just hours after first seeing his wife Mary’s newborn son, then came out of the blue during that season’s “Christmas Special.”

Season 3’s most ballyhooed guest star (Shirley MacLaine as Countess Cora’s American mother) will be returning again this season to presumably spice things up during her verbal jousts with Lord Grantham’s flinty mother, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). But viewers will have to wait until the Season 4 finale to see her again. The same goes for new guest star Paul Giametti as Cora’s stateside playboy brother, Harold. He’s mentioned, but also won’t be seen until the very end.

There are other major developments, most notably the assault on valet John Bates’ (Brendan Coyle) devoted wife, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who’s left emotionally and physically bruised. Her shame -- and determination to keep all of this from her husband -- drive a wedge between them while Anna secures various pledges of confidentiality from both upper and lower crust confidants.

Downton Abbey also weaves in its first black character of import, a jazz singer named Jack Ross (Gary Carr). An affair ensues with one of the show’s regular cast members, but sparks fail to fly in a subplot that seems more forced than organic.

There’s also plain-faced middle daughter Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), who was jilted last season but seems to finally have found her man in married magazine editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards). He’s wild about her, but can’t seem to obtain a divorce. But wait. What if he lived in Germany long enough to become a citizen? Divorce is no big deal once that’s accomplished. So off he goes, only to . . . well, no need to get specific. Except to say that this plot device seems awfully ill-conceived -- and way too prolonged.

Maggie Smith’s acerbic Violet remains a delight. And until MacLaine arrives, she has a suitable sparring partner in the late Matthew Crawley’s comparatively saintly mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton).

The aforementioned Jim Carter, as “Mr. Carson,” likewise delivers in virtually every scene he’s in. In Part 3, his ever resonant voice is a perfect match for, “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end that’s all there is.”

Memories are fonder of earlier Downton Abbey seasons than the one just viewed. Perhaps creator Julian Fellowes has another really big finish in store. If so, he’s built up to it with a less than scintillating prelude. There are still pleasures to be had and characters to really care about. But their numbers have dwindled in both respects. Life goes on both upstairs and downstairs. But without Sybil and Matthew or suitable replacements, the eventual death of Downton Abbey could prove to be the most welcome plot development of all. (Even though Season 5 already has been ordered.)


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