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New series review: Murder (Spike TV)

Arlington-based detective Tommy LeNoir and wife Pauline after a Beverly Hills press conference for Spike TV's Murder. Photo: Ed Bark

Premiering: Tuesday, July 31 at 9 p.m. (central) on Spike TV
Starring: Tommy LeNoir
Produced by: Jon Murray

Spike TV's new Murder series deploys an excessively gruesome look apparently aimed at dazzling the cable network's already Hostel-hardened, young male target audience.

One of the show's amateur sleuths marvels at the premiere episode's realistic crime scene, which features a female corpse with half "her" head blown off.

"There was just blood and head and guts everywhere," he says.

The 10-episode series invites two competing, three-member teams to re-solve real-life capital crimes, with Arlington, TX-based detective Tommy LeNoir in charge of their investigations. The winners will have an unspecified sum donated to their favorite crime victim-related charity.

"You are their voice. You are their only avenue to justice," LeNoir says after the teams have traipsed through the remnants of a blood bath that took the lives of a middle-aged couple given the pseudonyms of Allen and Diane Walker.

Viewers are warned -- or rather their appetites are whetted -- to look out for "explicit and gruesome crime scene photos and re-creations."

On that the program delivers. The bedroom containing the remains of Murder's two victims looks like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre starter kit. Blood from the badly damaged fake corpses is spattered nearly everywhere. And the one-hour show doesn't shy from repeated closeups of the carnage.

One member from each team also gets to shoot a watermelon pumped full of fake blood. It's apparently important to give the sleuths a taste of how the dead woman's head would have exploded.

LeNoir presides firmly but without condescension over teams whose members include a former gang member nicknamed Tank and a paramedic called Dawn.

Tank, now a law student, can be pretty hard on himself.

"Once again it is confirmed. I am absolutely stupid," he says at one point.

Each team gets 48 hours to amass evidence and make a case before LeNoir reveals what really happened. Three suspects are furnished, with actors standing in for them.

Murder, scheduled to run for 10 episodes in its first season, is morbidly fascinating at worst and fairly gripping at best. It's also voyeuristic in the extreme, which likely is the principal lure for many of today's red-blooded, blood-craving young men.

Grade: C

Tom Snyder: He laughed, he smoked, he drank, he listened

A decade ago, mostly his teeth pained him.

"Ya know, that's my Achille's heel," Tom Snyder said over the phone in a 1997 interview that was delayed by another trip to the dentist. "I don't have problems with constipation or hearthburn, but my teeth are troublesome."

Snyder, 71, died Monday of leukemia. His last television outing, CBS' The Late, Late Show with Tom Snyder, remained in progress when we talked for the last time. CBS billed it as late night's "sole true interview program in a time period filled with comedy." That it was.

"I'm proud about that," he said when the term "old-line broadcaster" came into play. "We're the last stop on the old line. When we're gone, it's over, I fear. Look at how the Tonight Show has changed with the evolution of Johnny Carson to Jay Leno. It's much louder. There's more excitement to it."

Snyder's Tomorrow show followed Carson's Tonight from 1973-'82 on NBC. Toward the end he was paired with gossip queen Rona Barrett, whom he very much didn't like. He then kicked around, becoming more famous for Dan Aykroyd's Saturday Night Live impression of him than as a TV personality in his own right. Snyder bombed as a New York City news anchor before getting back into the talk show arena on the then little-seen CNBC cable network.

"I've survived some ups and down," he said. "When the Tomorrow show went south, I spent a little time reinventing myself."

David Letterman eventually looked fondly upon him, convincing an initially reluctant CBS that Snyder would be a terrific followup act for his new CBS show. The pairing lasted from 1995-'98, with Snyder welcoming viewers to his unadorned "colorcast" and inviting them to sip a "colortini" if they'd like.

"I very seldom object to or veto a guest," he said. "In fact, I can't think of one instance where I said, 'No, I don't want to do that.' I mean, I didn't want to do Johnny Rotten again, but I did it."

His favorite guests weren't bathed in klieg lights. He enjoyed the company of humorist Orson Bean, author Harlan Ellison and TV producer David Milch, who went on to create both Deadwood and the current John From Cincinnati.

"He's a compelling individual," Snyder said of Milch, a recovering heroin addict and alcholic whose demons seldom recede from his rear view mirror. "He's nuts, but he's a genius. We do have these people on often, because they've always got something to say."

Snyder also regularly apprised viewers of his beloved "Mother Snyder." At shows' openings, he'd also discourse on anything that popped into his fertile mind. No script. Just Tom being Tom.

Still, he was a largely private man who mostly loathed talking about the being beating within him. He had a brother, John, who'd live in Dallas for 20 to 25 years and was still "in the wholesale carpet business" at the time of our interview.

Snyder quietly journeyed to Dallas in April 1996 to attend the wedding of his brother's only son. "It was very lovely," he said, firmly declining to elaborate.

Tom Snyder had an out-sized ego and an oversized style that became easy to parody. It sometimes didn't make him easy to like. But in the end he stood tall as an original and resourceful interviewer. Full of himself, he nonetheless filled the screen. For a time television made him larger than life.

He loved -- and loathed -- every minute of it.

New series review: Damages (FX)

Starring in Damages: Glenn Close, Ted Danson, Rose Byrne.

Premiering: Tuesday night, July 24th at 9 (central) on FX
Starring: Glenn Close, Ted Danson, Rose Byrne, Tate Donovan, Zaljko Ivanek, Anastasia Griffith, Noah Bean
Created by: Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman, Glenn Kessler

Driven by Emmy caliber performances from its two principal stars, Damages lands several notches above ongoing FX drama stalwarts The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me.

That's saying a lot. But this is superlative TV in a month where basic cable already has gifted viewers with AMC's Mad Men and TNT's Saving Grace. Summertime continues to be one big reality show merry-go-round on broadcast TV. Mind-engaging, gourmet fare is elsewhere.

Damages affords Glenn Close a grand opportunity to play a high-stakes Manhattan litigator to the hilt. Her Patty Hewes is coldly calculating and warmly manipulative without masticating scenery. This is no Shark. Close locks tight on this character without resorting to any showy, James Woods histrionics. Her performance is Meryl Streep-ian, and that's meant as the highest compliment.

Hewes is in hot, panting pursuit of corporate titan Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), who in fine Enron style sold a wealth of personal stock in his company just before it crashed. The government failed to convict him, but a group of aggrieved employees has filed a class action suit. Frobish's attorney, Ray Zisk (Zeljko Ivanek), puts the stakes in stark terms to his client: "She's on a mission here, and she won't stop until you're strung up in the public square."

Another layer is added when bright, ambitious Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) gets recruited to join Hewes & Associates. Her story is twofold. She's both at the center of a grisly killing and in the clutches of boss lady Hewes, who lured her for a very specific reason. It's an enthralling, episode-to-episode mystery that reverts from the present to "6 Months Earlier" and back again without ever losing focus or coherence.

Danson is somewhat peripheral in Tuesday's premiere episode, but has much to do on next week's Damages. Rebounding from ABC's cancelation of last season's Help Me Help You, he's taking on his first dramatic series role after decades of sitcom work, most notably in Cheers and Becker.

Frobisher represents an entirely different turn for Danson, and he's fully up to it. So this is a true clash of acting titans, even if he's yet to have any scenes with Close through the first two of 13 episodes.

FX has stamped itself as HBO's latter day equal in its ability to craft distinctive adult dramas. Damages is its best effort yet, a thrillingly distinctive his/hers whodunit. Emmy nominations already are in the bank for Close and Danson, but viewers will be getting the most rewarding experiences. Don't miss this one. It's a gem.

Grade: A

New series review: Saving Grace (TNT)

Premiering: Monday night, July 23rd at 9 (central) on TNT
Starring: Holly Hunter, Laura San Giacomo, Leon Rippy, Kenneth Johnson, Bokeem Woodbine, Bailey Chase, Gregory Cruz, Dylan Minnette
Created by: Nancy Miller

Here's an article of faith. TNT's Saving Grace will succeed in the end because its damnable lead character is played by the remarkable Holly Hunter.

She's a whirling, devilish Oklahoma City detective who drinks, smokes, screws and curses with self-destructive abandon.

The premiere episode's opening minutes find Grace Hanadarko engaging in all four activities -- in the all together no less. This is advertiser-supported cable, though, so nudity is still a game of quick editing and obscuring camera angles. You'll get the picture, though.

Grace's bedmate is a fellow married cop who feels guilty about again succumbing. He wants her to promise to God that they won't do this anymore.

"I don't believe in God," she retorts. "But I promise you'll never have mind-blowing sex with me again."

Collegially paired with The Closer, this is another up-close look at a woman cop whose quirks and expertise are both transparently apparent. Grace is appreciably more damaged than Brenda Johnson, though. So much so that she experiences an intervention by a disheveled angel named Earl (Leon Rippy) after speeding home drunk one night and killing a pedestrian.

Earl dutifully sprouts his wings and then for some reason transports Grace to the Grand Canyon for a mini-sermon about last chances and true-believing. This isn't Touched By An Angel, and sometimes seems touched in the head. But Hunter's characterization consistently redeems a sometimes shaky opening hour.

Creator Nancy Miller also throws in a search for a missing 10-year-old girl, a coarse, womanizing millionaire cattleman and an ongoing mythology involving a prisoner (Bokeem Woodbine) on death row who's having the same "dream" as Grace.

Between drinking, sex, etc., Grace finds time to get all buttery with her grade school age nephew (Dylan Minnette), whose mother died in the Oklahoma City bombing. The kid has one of the first episode's more memorable lines, telling Grace that he yearns to meet bomber Timothy McVeigh.

"I wish we could ask him why he did it," he says. "But he's in hell. So we'll never know."

Saving Grace looks as though it can make it through many nights on the strength of Hunter's full-tilt performance. A lot is packed into its first uneven hour. Burning at its core, though, is a character that makes this show crackle.

Grade: B+

New series review: Mad Men (AMC)

Straight booze and cigarettes also are part of Mad Men's ensemble.

Premiering: Thursday night, July 19th at 9 (central) on AMC
Starring: Jon Hamm, January Jones, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gladis, Christina Hendricks, Robert Morse, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maggie Siff
Created by: Matthew Weiner

Bereft of murder mysteries, action sequences or even a drop of blood, AMC's Mad Men instead is of a mind to be sharp as a tack.

It dawns in the year 1960, when that expression still hit the spot. That one, too. These also were times when a bossman in a crisp business suit dared to say, "I'm not gonna let a woman talk to me like that. This meeting is over."

That's the outward bravado of ace Madison Avenue ad agency director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who otherwise is getting pretty damned dumbfounded on the subject of, "What do women want?"

Some of them aren't quite sure either in this instantly provocative and evocative period piece from the accomplished Matthew Weiner. He had Mad Men on his mind when he wasn't shepherding the made men of The Sopranos during a long tenure as a co-executive producer and writer.

AMC finally was smart enough to bite when several others, including HBO, were not. So here's another feather in basic cable's cap while the broadcast networks load their summertime hours with low-rent, simple-dimple reality shows.

Thursday's premiere of Mad Men fittingly enough begins in a bar, where Draper is drinking, smoking and kicking around a new way to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes. It's a tough world out there when you no longer can build a campaign around the health benefits of a two-pack-a-day habit.

Draper's married to a beautiful blonde, Betty (the niftily named January Jones), with whom he has two children. Nonetheless he's sleeping around while she's lately having anxiety attacks that cause her hands to go numb.

Betty's reluctant visit to a therapist in Episode 2 provides a stark contrast to Tony's two-way verbal bouts with Dr. Melfi. In Mad Men, a male shrink merely nods and takes notes while she keeps talking. Later he secretly fills Don in on what his wife said.

At the Sterling Cooper workplace, the secretarial force is accustomed to wearing Iron Maiden bras that also keep the men perked up. But times are starting to change, and newcomer Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) is hoping to succeed without falling into the usual man traps. Her ringwise mentor, Joan (Christina Hendricks), cautions that "even in modern times, 'easy' women don't find husbands." Still, Joan plays the game.

Mad Men isn't always sure-footed with its sexual politics. Its dialogue and various compromising situations sometimes seem a little over-cooked. But whether it entirely works or not, it's still cool-sounding when Draper tells a strong-willed woman client, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."

Besides Lucky Strikes, Draper is being lobbied to sell Richard Nixon's 1960 presidential campaign against opponent John Kennedy. He's on the fence in the first two episodes. But chief partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is determined to reel him in.

AMC has ordered 13 episodes of Mad Men, which so far is progressing at a leisurely but satisfying pace. Many of the principal characters are chain-smokers with a companion fondness for straight-up hard liquor at just about any hour of the day. On the face of it, this is a man's world of masked self-doubts, naked ambitions and lethal everyday vices.

It seems so long ago. Then again, it's almost as if it were yesterday.

Grade: A-minus

59th Annual Primetime Emmys: Goodbye Sopranos, hello 30 Rock

Tiny Fey of 30 Rock and Ugly Betty's America Ferrera.

NBC got one of the boosts it wanted Thursday when its ratings-challenged 30 Rock led all half-hour comedies with 10 Emmy nominations in its first year.

The network's Friday Night Lights went begging, though, scoring just two Emmy nods in minor categories. New entertainment president Ben Silverman said he had hoped to increase the drama's profile with a best drama series nomination. But it mostly was Lights out for the Austin-made series, which scored only in the directing and casting categories after recently winning a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award.

Emmy publicists made a point of noting that 33 of the 54 major nominations in the comedy and drama series divisions represented "fresh faces and shows." Veteran series made strong showings, too. The final season of HBO's The Sopranos topped the drama series contenders with 15 nominations while ABC's Grey's Anatomy had nine.

Among other freshman entries, ABC's Ugly Betty had 11 nods and NBC's Heroes, eight. Betty star America Ferrera and 30 Rock's Tina Fey also received lead actress nominations.

In possibly the biggest disconnect in Emmy history, the HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee had the most nominations of all, 17. Last week, however, it was voted the season's worst movie, miniseries or special in a survey of TV critics by the trade magazine Television Week.

Also in the movie and miniseries categories, Robert Duvall received his fourth Emmy nod for the AMC western Broken Trail. Perhaps the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at last can partially atone for its most egregious oversight ever. That would be its bypass of Duvall for his classic portrayal of ex-Texas Ranger Gus McCrae in the 1989 CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove.

Besides Friday Night Lights, shutouts in major categories included HBO's The Wire and Deadwood, FX's The Shield and Nip/Tuck, and Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica.

ABC's Lost again failed to make the cut in the best drama series division, where it should have supplanted the network's Boston Legal. Lost did get six nominations overall, though, including two in the supporting actor category.

FX's Rescue nabbed just one nomination, but it was a big one. Star Denis Leary is in the hunt as best actor in a drama series.

ABC's Dancing with the Stars topped all reality series with eight nods and Queen Latifah got her first nomination for the HBO movie Life Support.

Former Roseanne co-star John Goodman will try to win his first Emmy in 10 tries, this time for a guest performance on NBC's canceled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Ed Asner hopes to to rack up his eighth win in 16 outings, for a supporting actor role in The Hallmark Channel's The Christmas Card.

HBO again lead all networks with 86 nominations, down from 97 last year. Runnerup ABC had 70, just one ahead of NBC. Other networks with double-digit nominations are CBS (44); Fox (28); PBS (24); AMC (18); Showtime (17); Discovery Channel (16); Comedy Central and USA (12 each) and TNT (11).

Covering a period from June 1, 2006 to May 31, 2007, the major Emmys will be awarded for the 59th time on Sept. 16th, with Fox the carrier. Go here for the Academy's complete list of nominees.

Miniseries review: The Bronx is Burning (ESPN)

The Yanks celebrate; Oliver Platt does a George Steinbrenner.

Damn Yankees. Down and already seemingly out of the race for post-season play, they're being resurrected this month and next in ESPN's terrifically made The Bronx Is Burning

Anchored by John Turturro's dead-on evocation of the late Billy Martin, the eight-part miniseries premieres Monday, July 9th at 9 p.m. (central) after the All-Star game's home run derby. Subsequent one-hour episodes then line up on Tuesdays at the same hour through Aug. 28th.

Judging from the first three episodes sent for review, this easily is the finest baseball miniseries ever made. It's also the only one, but let's not quibble.

ESPN has done a superb job of dramatizing both a turbulent 1977 Yankees season and a hellish summer for New York City. The Yanks' march to another World Series appearance shared a not-so-grand stage with the "Son of Sam" serial killings, a heated mayoral race and a power blackout during scorching summer temperatures. Bronx Is Burning recaptures it all in sharp focus: the turmoil, the excitement, the godawful clothing.

The principal Yankee protagonists are Martin; volcanic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt); flamboyant, newly signed slugger Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) and no-nonsense team leader Thurman Munson (Eric Jensen).

Bronx Is Burning also characterizes several New York City cops, most notably Dan Lauria as police captain Joseph Borelli. Famed New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin (Michael Rispoli) is in the mix, too. Thirty summers ago, "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz (shown only in darkness or from afar) chose Breslin as the recipient of his demented communiques.

Archival footage of mayor Abe Beam and opponents Ed Koch, Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo is layered in on occasion. This might seem like too broad and sprawling a canvas, but director/producer Jeremiah Chechik and editor Jerry Greenberg stitch it all together while still keeping the Yankees as their prime focus. Bronx Is Burning has a semi-documentary feel without ever seeming either too dry or overly turgid.

The story begins on June 18, 1977, when Martin and Jackson had their storied on-field confrontation during a nationally televised game against the Boston Red Sox. After this brief appetizer, the filmmakers rewind to two years earlier.

Martin, recently fired as manager by the Texas Rangers, is courted on the telephone by Steinbrenner against the advice of team president Gabe Paul (very nice work by Kevin Conway).

"You and me, we'll knock 'em dead together," Steinbrenner enthuses.

Martin, whose glory days as a player were with the Yankees, takes the bait and leads the team to the 1976 World Series, where they're swept by the powerful Cincinnati Reds. While Martin weeps in the locker room, Steinbrenner thunders, "This is my team now, Billy Martin. And nobody is ever going to humiliate me like this again."

As proof, he signs Jackson against Martin's wishes, creating a volatile three-way dynamic that never really smooths out.

Platt and Sunjata play their roles convincingly but Turturro's Martin is a wonderment. He gives the standout TV performance of the year as the volatile, insecure and sometimes petty Yankees field general.

Turturro's been affixed with Mr. Spock-sized ear appendages that sometimes look a little too cartoonish. But his acting is completely in character, not caricature. Here's a guy who also pulled off Howard Cosell in the 2002 TV movie Monday Night Mayhem. Obviously he can do anything.

Bronx Is Burning is good enough to make even coach Yogi Berra a believable, multi-dimensional figure. Actor Joe Grifasi has the voice imitation down but is no clown. All of this is extremely tough to do right, but ESPN has stepped up to the plate and slugged one into the seats.

Damn Yankees. Even during a so far lousy season they luck into a stellar depiction of perhaps their most tattered championship year.

Grade: A

Olbermann: This time he's really pissed

Keith Olbermann's Independence Day-eve "Special Comment" on MSNBC's Countdown is a classic no matter what you think of him or his opinions.

He delivered it flawlessly, passionately and with no small amount of measured, righteous anger. Cannily using John Wayne as his setup man, Olbermann took extreme issue with President Bush's commutation of "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence. The guy can communicate. And his verbiage in this case is mightily rendered. Yes, he's a big fan of the fictional Howard Beale from Network. And nobody is a better latter day personification than the very opinionated, never dull and sometimes electrifying Keith Olbermann. See for yourself:
Ed Bark

The late, great Beverly Sills: She put her stamp on TV, too

Beverly Sills: recently and in 1979 TV appearance with The Muppets.

It's been a tough year for America's foremost Sopranos.

The HBO series ended controversially last month. And now Beverly Sills has been silenced. Her death, at age 78 of lung cancer, ends an extraordinary life that in no small part was lived out on television screens.

Not that mere TV critics were worthy of her last expansive interview. It occurred via satellite on July 26th of last year, with Sills appearing in connection with a PBS Great Performances special titled Beverly Sills: Made in America. The only opera singer ever to guest host a late night talk show was talkative as usual from her home base of New York City.

"I always thought I was a pretty good singer," Sills said for openers. "You know, if you do plumbing for as many years as I've done singing, you get sort of proficient at it. There's a lot of talent involved, I hope, a lot of luck and a lot of being in the right place at the right time."

Sills took opera seriously -- and by storm. She also popularized it in unprecedented ways, appearing on numerous talk and variety shows while guest-hosting Johnny Carson's Tonight Show more than a dozen times by her count.

"I think what I did is I took the opera singer out of the house plant that grows in a sheltered area," she said. "I think the public became interested in us as people. And Johnny game me the opportunity to do that kind of talking.

"When he invited me to host the show, I was in absolute fear. I mean, I was frightened beyond belief. I said, 'No, I can't do that.' He said, 'The trick is to just keep talking. And that's the one thing you know how to do.' "

She also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and did TV specials with longtime friend Carol Burnett and The Muppets. During the latter she argued with Miss Piggy about the proper wardrobe for a Cleopatra number.

"It's so indescribable, those moments," Sills said. "Because they're not just funny. They're magical. They really are."

Born in Brooklyn, Sills had an oft-stern stage mother and a father who balked at her hitting the road as a 15-year-old singer/entertainer.

"He told me that if I went out on the road . . . I could not ever come come," Sills recalled. "My mother said to me, 'Don't worry, you'll come home to my half of the house.' "

Stills has been nicknamed "Bubbles" all her life, and gave her autobiography that title.

"Well, my father delivered me," she said. "I was 10 and three-quarter pounds, so it was quite a delivery. And he said that I was born with a big spit bubble in my mouth and he had to pop it. And so that's how I was called Bubbles. Needless to say, there have been 35 different stories about that. But my mother and father were the only two people there, so I guess I have to go along with their story."

Her husband, Peter Greenough, died last year of Alzheimer's Disease. In the final stages of his life, they spent much of the morning watching TV together during her daily visits.

"And God, it's moronic," Sills said to laughter. "Some of it is an insult to my intelligence, and I don't think I'm that intelligent. But my God, today you don't have to be a performer. It's not necessary to sing or dance or act. It isn't even necessary to be attractive."

She was on a roll.

"I would like to see one young man come on the television screen clean-shaven. I'll take a beard, but my God, why do they have to look like bums, and (be) chewing gum? I don't want to name any names, but some of the women today appear on talk shows with absolutely nothing to say. And when they do something, you regret it. To come on with their little dogs, what's the talent to that?"

And on that note . . .