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A shout out for ABC's The Whispers


Little Henry has a lot going on in The Whispers. ABC photo

Premiering: Monday, June 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Lily Rabe, Barry Sloane, Milo Ventimiglia, Kristen Connolly, Derek Webster, Kylie Rogers, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Abby Ryder Fortson, Catalina Denis
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Zack Estrin, Soo Hugh

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This perhaps still bears repeating, although it’s close to becoming common knowledge.

Summertime is no longer a throwaway bin for misfit scripted series on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Further proof arrives on Monday, June 1st, when ABC launches its last new series originally announced in May 2014.

It’s The Whispers, a compelling paranormal suspense hour in which the kids aren’t all right while the adults strive to divine what’s driving them. ABC made the first three hours available for review. Affixed with a Steven Spielberg co-executive producer credit, they’re well-paced, intriguingly plotted and rich in possibilities.

It also helps that series lead Lily Rabe is instantly relatable as traumatized FBI agent/child specialist Claire Bennigan. She’s been on an open-ended leave of absence ever since her military pilot husband died in a plane crash and their little son, Henry (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), lost his hearing. Or did they?

Complicating matters is the affair Claire had with Defense department dude Wes Lawrence (Barry Sloane), whose wife, Lena (Kristen Connolly), is painfully aware of this. The Lawrences also have a kid named Minx (Kylie Rogers), who’s been taking orders from a not-so-imaginary friend known as “Drill.” Another pre-teen, Harper Weil (Abby Ryder Fortson), likewise is under Drill’s spell. What happens to her mother early in Monday’s premiere is clear evidence that this is no benign Mr. Snuffleupagus.

The other central character, played by Milo Ventimiglia, is a bearded, wild-eyed instrument of mayhem whose identity becomes known before these first three episodes run their course. But “John Doe” himself doesn’t know who he is -- or what’s directing his actions.

Saying too much more would be spoiling this broth. So let’s just say that Rabe contributes a standout lead character while the three major kiddos (so far) all seem comfortable and natural on camera, whether communicating with Drill or their parental units. Spielberg has always had a facility for casting children and a fondness for the supernatural. In The Whispers he also gets the adult mix right in a bracingly good and shivery serial drama with much to show and tell in the first three hours.


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Psst, here comes Lifetime's The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe


Kelli Garner and Susan Sarandon star as Marilyn Monroe and her mad mama Gladys in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Saturday, May 30th at 7 p.m. (central) and continuing on Sunday at the same time on Lifetime
Starring: Kelli Garner, Susan Sarandon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Emily Watson, Jack Noseworthy, Stephen Bogaert
Produced by: Jonathan Koch, Steve Michaels, Keri Selig, Stephen Kronish

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Inhabiting Marilyn Monroe requires the look, the curves, the vulnerability and the breathy little girl intonations, not necessarily in that order.

Kelli Garner checks out on all four in Lifetime’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, a four-hour film that somewhat separates itself from the many others with its up-close look at the title character’s very mentally ill mother.

Gladys Mortenson (Susan Sarandon) was a publicly unseen and haunting presence throughout her daughter’s life. Most of her time was spent in asylums. But according to this adaptation of J. Randy Taraborelli’s same-named book, the former Norma Jeane Mortenson never stopped trying to reconnect with her. It’s an increasingly affecting tale, with Garner emoting convincingly throughout while Sarandon submits to an unflattering role that requires her to be both plain-looking and often painfully plain-spoken.

The structure of the film otherwise is typical of the biopic genre. A fictional psychiatrist named Alan DeShields (Jack Noseworthy) appears at the outset to audition as Marilyn’s latest caretaker. He then becomes her sounding board, with the film flashing back and forth to an assortment of high and low points in Marilyn’s life. By the end of the film she trusts him enough to make another appointment. Perhaps he really can help her. But alas, this is the last day and night of Marilyn’s life. She’s been dead for nearly 53 years now. But the fascination never ceases -- or desists.

Marilyn’s mother, as depicted in the film, is a religious fanatic with paranoid delusions and curt dismissals of just about anything her daughter does. She wears a nurse’s outfit in order to make her feel in control. And in one of the film’s more searing scenes, Gladys gives Joe DiMaggio (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) permission to marry her daughter before saying, “Excuse me, I have to make my rounds. Oh, and did you tell him you can’t have children?”

Morgan, also currently co-starring in the History network’s Texas Rising miniseries, brings authority and presence to his portrayal of the fabled New York Yankee Hall of Famer, But the survivors of “Joltin’ Joe” won’t be at all happy with some scenes. By all accounts, DiMaggio deeply loved Marilyn. By this account, his jealous rages also led him to beat her. In one sequence, DiMaggio decks Marilyn after calling her a “whore.” She arrives on a movie set the next day with deep bruises on her arms and shoulders.

DiMaggio later apologizes but Marilyn eventually moves on to her Arthur Miller phase. The famed playwright assaults her with his tongue, telling his wife that her miscarriage was due solely to her addictions. “She starved while you gorged yourself on pills and booze!” Miller (Stephen Bogaert) rages about the daughter they never had. “You murdered her.”

Marilyn later tells psychiatrist DeShields that “Joe could be mean but he wasn’t mean-spirited” while Miller had a way of being just plain “cruel.” DiMaggio later re-enters her life after a kicking, screaming Marilyn is institutionalized in New York City. He doesn’t mince words in the film, this time aiming his physical intimidation at a clinic administrator. “If you don’t release her, I will tear this goddamned building apart -- piece of wood by piece of wood,” he threatens. “Joltin’ Joe” got his way.

Secret Life also touches on Marilyn’s dalliance with Jack Kennedy, but without ever showing him. She falls hard for JFK, telling his sister, Pat Lawford, that the president intends to leave Jackie to marry her. Pat, who has been a friend and confidant, is aghast at such delusions.

Through it all there was always mama. Marilyn repeatedly is told to give up on her, but she can’t. The daughter’s fealty is palpable. Her Aunt Grace (Emily Watson) serves as a supportive, surrogate mother. Still, being famous is worthless to Marilyn if she can’t get Gladys’ approval. She never really did, although the movie tacks on a surprisingly effective fantasy scene in which mother and daughter cuddle on a beach blanket and talk about living happily together.

A printed epilogue notes that Gladys ended up outliving her daughter by 22 years. Secret Life is unlikely to be remembered for anywhere near that long, given the jumble of Marilyn Monroe movies to choose from.

In the here and now, though, Garner convincingly captures the ill-fated, love-craving blonde bombshell while Sarandon summons up more than a one-note character and Morgan brings DiMaggio back to prideful, brutish life.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Taking the full 13-episode trip with NBC's Aquarius (but was it worth it?)


David Duchovny (right) & Gethin Anthony square off as a hard-boiled detective and Charles Manson in the 13-episode Aquarius. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, May 28th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on NBC
Starring: David Duchovny, Gethin Anthony, Emma Dumont, Grey Damon, Claire Holt, Brian F. O’ Byrne, Michaela McManus, Gaius Charles, Chance Kelly, Chris Sheffield
Produced by: John McNamara, David Duchovny, Marty Adelstein, Melanie Greene, Becky Clements, Sera Gamble, Alexandra Cunningham, Jonas Pate

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What a long, strange, dark, tangled and ultimately run-around trippy trip NBC has in Aquarius.

All 13 episodes were made available for review and they’ll all be on NBC.com -- Netflix-style -- after the two-hour Thursday, May 28th premiere.

I’ve watched everything there is to see -- and it was by no means a complete waste of time. Just don’t be easily misled by NBC’s “Murder. Madness. Manson” tagline. Because while Charles Manson is very much a front and center focal point, his infamous, seven grisly murders are not. None are committed and therefore none are solved. Aquarius instead offers three peripheral cliffhangers at the end of Episode 13. All involve fictional characters woven into the fabric of crazy-quilted Los Angeles, circa 1967 for starters. Should Aquarius not get a Season 2, viewers will be left in full dangle.

A printed disclaimer at the start of each one-hour episode goes like this: “Inspired in part by historical events, this program contains fictitious characters, places and circumstances.”

That’s a Capital M Major understatement, particularly when it comes to Manson (Gethin Anthony). In this “re-imagined” drama, he’s a straight razor-wielding blackmailer who has the goods on two prominent evil-doing Republican backers of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. Manson continues to have sexual relations with one of them -- prominent closeted gay attorney Ken Karn (Brian F. O’Byrne) -- while being a participant in a heinous past crime committed by both of them. Fox News Channel can have another field day if it likes.

Manson still has his harem of wayward “girls” and delusions of being a music superstar. And his eyes burn, of course, when he declares in Episode 6, “You can be afraid. Or you can be the thing that makes people afraid.” But there’s no record of him being beaten nearly to death by L.A. homicide detective Samson “Sam” Hodiak (principal star David Duchovny).

Wearing straight arrow suits and sporting a brush cut, Duchovny essentially plays Joe Friday, but with multiple vices. He’s a dry-humored World War II veteran with an estranged wife, an AWOL son, a severe drinking problem and a willingness to look the other way when a cover-up is required. Hodiak also beds enough women to keep Duchovny within at least an arm’s reach of his Californication days. Not that he can match Manson, who swings both ways.

Hodiak’s police partner is scruffy Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), an off-and-on undercover cop who often rubs him the wrong way. But their relationship slowly thaws, to the point where Shafe says, “You’re not as dumb as your haircut” and Hodiak replies, “Gee, we’re bonding.”

Aquarius gets off to a strong start -- musically at least -- with evocative tunes in Episode 1 from The Byrds, The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Jefferson Airplane. But the rights-clearing music budget apparently was exhausted in short order. Most of Aquarius ends up being generic in tone, with occasional bursts of familiarity by the likes of Donovan, The Monkees and Petula Clark.

Hodiak and Shafe are presented with other murder cases during the meandering course of Aquarius while also having brushes with the Black Panther Party and Latino activists. Blacks are still “colored” in Hodiak’s vernacular. But he does manage to forge a working relationship with Panther leader Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles from Friday Night Lights in a transparently bad Afro wig when not wearing his beret).

Other oft-seen supporting characters include Emma “Cherry Pop” Karn (Emma Dumont), who becomes the willing apple of Manson’s eye, and cop shop denizens Charmain Tully (Claire Holt) and Ed Cutler (Chance Kelly). Meanwhile, Hodiak’s son, Walt (Chis Sheffield), is on the lam from the Army after balking at being a covert operative in Cambodia. He intends to expose the government’s war crimes, much to his father’s consternation.

The beauteous Charmain yearns to be a real on-the-job cop rather than an ornament on the receiving end of recurring chauvinistic abuse from Cutler (a character who’s also sleeping with Hodiak’s estranged wife). She gets her wish in a very vividly played and effective Episode 9. Near the end of this hour, Charmain nails Hodiak with a putdown that’s almost cheer-worthy. It’s enough to make him drink heavily that night, slurping on a giant-sized, spiked margarita that sends him on a Manson-instigated acid trip at the start of Episode 10. This is not as laughable as it might sound. In fact, Hodiak’s hallucinations are pretty spot-on, based on my own, um, research from many years ago.

Aquarius is decently scripted for the most part while also immersing itself convincingly in the counter-culture of those times. There are some clunkers, though. Karn, for one, spouts his devotion to Nixon in an award, catch-all, sandwich board proclamation. “Dick Nixon is the only hope this country has to rise up out of the political, moral, hippie-coddling, war-torn quagmire it’s in,” he declares to dissatisfied wife Grace (Michaela McManus), whose extracurricular activities including sleeping with her old boyfriend. Who of course is Hodiak.

Despite its letdown ending, oft-jumpy storytelling and extreme liberties with Manson in particular, Aquarius also leaves a mark as a chancy and difficult undertaking by a mainstream broadcast network. Duchovny is up to this task with a sturdy and watchable center-ring performance, whether he’s playing rough, bending rules, cracking wise, drinking to excess or showing shreds of compassion.

Anthony’s portrayal of Manson isn’t what it could be, in part because of what the storytellers have concocted for him. In some ways, the most effectively chilling character is Kelly’s old-line cop, Cutler, a chiseled, middle-aged bigot who like Hodiak has a completely fabricated physical altercation with Manson.

Whatever your enjoyment or disappointment, Aquarius is no summer throwaway. We now live in the age of hot weather, otherworldly “event” series, whether it’s Fox’s Wayward Pines, CBS’ trio of Under the Dome, Extant and the new Zoo (coming June 30th) or ABC’s Astronaut Wives Club (June 18th). Aquarius fits right into that new way of doing things, and it’s worth at least an exploratory trip to see if it sticks with you.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A Dave and a Don say their goodbyes

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Closing images of Don and Dave on their respective finales.

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Don said “Om” while Dave opted for the more conventional “Thank you and good night.”

The respective finales of AMC’s Mad Men and CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman came during vacation time for your friendly content provider. I was on a small cruise ship in a remote area of Alaska with no phone or Internet service when Don Draper had his last word on Sunday, May 17th. Back in Seattle just in time for Letterman’s final show, I watched it two hours later than most of the country. Lousy planning, I guess. But damn, those up-close looks at Orcas, Humpbacks, glaciers and the Dale Chihuly glass exhibit were well worth being AWOL.

Meanwhile, both shows went out on top -- but not really.

Letterman’s farewell even included a brief graphic in which longtime adversary Jay Leno had a “#1” next to his picture while Late Show made do with “#3.” But for his last appointed hour -- which was extended by about 15 minutes -- Letterman’s Late Show drew 13.76 million viewers, its largest audience since Feb. 25, 1994 following CBS’ Winter Olympics coverage. That overwhelmed all competing programming.

Mad Men put AMC on the map as a provider of quality TV series with its July 2007 premiere. Still, it became a virtual cult show compared to the bigger splashes made by two subsequent AMC dramas -- Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. The Mad Men finale pulled in 4.6 million viewers after factoring in three days of time-shifted viewing. That was its largest audience ever, but not so big a deal when compared to the 10.3 million viewers for Breaking Bad’s finale (based on only same-night viewing). And Walking Dead, which still has miles to go, wrapped up its most recent season with 15.8 million viewers and an overall average of 14.2 million viewers for the entire 5th season.

These won’t be lengthy postmortems. But upon further review, these are my impressions of both finales.

Letterman remained firm of voice throughout, unlike his idol, Johnny Carson, and his nemesis, Leno. He laughed at himself and at his 11-year-old son, Harry, seen in the audience with Letterman’s wife, Regina Lasko, down the homestretch of his lengthy closing remarks. Harry looked as though he’d rather be anywhere else. In fact he looked almost insolent until Dad made good on a promise to introduce his best friend, Tommy Roboto, who was seated to his left. Only then did Harry crack a somewhat winning smile.

One of the great unknowns of the Letterman finale was whether Harry would be shown on camera at all. The other up-in-the-air mystery was if Leno, who’d been invited, would be a part of Dave’s last stand after making numerous guest appearances on his old NBC Late Night show.

The best spot for Leno seemed to be during the star-studded “Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave” Top Ten List. But from 10 to 1, the guests in order of appearance were Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning, Tina Fey and Bill Murray. So no Leno, who forfeited the chance to say something like, “I beat your ass like a drum and now I get to play taps, too.”

The line of the night instead came not from Leno or Letterman, but from Louis-Dreyfus. “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale,” she deadpanned while Seinfeld fake-grimaced. Beautiful.

Letterman graciously made a point of saying how happy he is that Stephen Colbert will be the new Late Show host, starting on Sept. 8th. And he did so without an ounce of mockery or irony. Dave also thanked his writers, previous and current CBS executive bosses, and of course, bandleader Paul Shaffer after individually acknowledging each member of the “CBS Orchestra.”

Letterman joked that he’ll now devote himself to “Social Media” after resisting Facebook and Twitter throughout his entire 33-year late night tenure while younger rivals such as Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon made it an important and increasingly indispensable part of their audience recruitments.

It’s unknown what he’ll do next, despite riffs on being the “new face of Scientology” and opening a Vegas show with Paul and their white tigers. He’s always been something of a hermit crab, and it wouldn’t be totally surprising if he emulated Carson by essentially fading from public view.

In the beginning, Letterman liberally borrowed sight gags from inaugural Tonight Show host Steve Allen, who was a human teabag among other things and also brought in people off the streets to help host the show. In the end, Letterman became possibly the last bastion of “intelligent” talk show conversation, digging deep when he felt the need and sparring without the aid of blue note cards or other prompters. Latter day hosts such as Fallon, Kimmel and new Late Late Show dude James Corden increasingly are hail fellows who steer clear of “offending” a guest or “boring” the audience with substantive give-and-take. They’d rather be pals and party-facilitators, doing bits and playing games with the celebrities filling their couches.

Letterman signed off without any guests at all, but with a musical act, Foo Fighters, who had played his favorite song (“Everlong”) for him after he returned to the show in 2000 after heart bypass surgery. Wearing tuxes, they did the same honors for the May 20th finale, with a stupendous video and still shot montage as visual accompaniment. Simply put, it was a great way to go out. And in retrospect, after several more viewings, it’s getting better all the time.


Now on to Mad Men, which ended with a blissed-out Don Draper chanting “Om” at Big Sur, California’s Esalen Institute before a contented mini-Mona Lisa smile crossed his face. It apparently was the light bulb moment that led him to return to Manhattan and write Coca-Cola’s famed “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial, which played in part before the closing credits hit.

Had Don found enlightenment? Or had he just deduced a more fulfilling and uplifting way to peddle sugar water?

Just before this cathartic means to an end, he had grown increasingly emotional during a group session in which a middle-aged nebbish talked of no one noticing or appreciating him. Draper, born in poverty as Dick Whitman, shed any further inhibitions as he moved toward the man, hugged him and wept with him. Sorry, but it didn’t seem like the “Real Thing” to me.” Not quite soapy and sappy, but not a fully earned redemptive moment either. Creator Matt Weiner took Don far and wide during this late-breaking sojourn while his old transplanted colleagues back at McCann-Erickson wondered about his disappearance without unduly worrying about it. “He does that,” said longtime running mate Roger Sterling (John Slattery).

What Don did was run from what seemed to be an increasingly subservient role at the agency that had swallowed up his old place. He had the money to remain on the lam, be a Good Samaritan if he chose and pay for sex on his terms -- which meant voluntarily. He wound up at Esalen after Stephanie, the niece of the deceased Anna Draper, coaxed him into accompanying her and later ran off. If you haven’t been watching Mad Men, it’s virtually impossible to explain all these entanglements. And even if you have, it’s easy to forget.

Taking Don out of Manhattan unfortunately took the Manhattan out of the series. Absent the show’s central figure, its supporting cast at times seemed almost superfluous. And Mad Men itself, even if Weiner really knew exactly where he was going, did not rise to the occasion enough in its prolonged, two-part closing season. Letter-perfect gave way to an alphabet soup. Not always, but to the overall detriment of what nonetheless will remain one of television’s landmark dramas.

While Don pursued the meaning of life, most of the pivotal characters achieved a measure of satisfaction, save for the fatally cancer-stricken Betty (January Jones), whose place in Mad Men never really took hold again after she and Don divorced.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) sold estranged wife Trudy (Allison Brie) on a new start in Wichita, Kansas, where he’d finally get to be a perks-showered big wheel.

Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) formed a production company of her own after deciding that being the kept woman of a multi-millionaire wouldn’t make her happy.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) very belatedly discovered that ad agency colleague Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) loves her. And it turned out the feeling was mutual.

And Roger finally seemed content to hook up with the tart, strong-willed Maria Calvet (Julia Ormond), mother of another of Don’s exes, Megan Calvet (Jessica Pare).

The concluding season’s seven-episode arc began and ended with the old Peggy Lee torch song, “Is That All There Is?” It probably isn’t. Mad Men, more than most TV series, cries out for a followup film or two in due time. There are still so many ways this could go. For now, I’m only halfway content with the way it all ended. A big, ballsy New York state of mind movie could put Don back in his place. And put the series back where it began -- and where it really and truly belongs.

Letterman finale -- A
Mad Men finale -- B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

One is the loneliest number this fall -- while also signifying success for The CW


Rachel Bloom stars in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend this fall. CW photo

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Basking in unaccustomed critical praise for last fall’s The Flash and Jane the Virgin in addition to midseason’s iZombie, The CW has just one newcomer to offer in the early stages of the upcoming season.

It’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a comedy-drama starring Rachel Bloom as a transplanted New Yorker who moves West in a “desperate attempt to find love and happiness in that exotic hotbed of romance and adventure -- suburban West Covina CA.” CW publicity materials say she’s only “possibly crazy,” although the title is all in.

Cancellations are Hart of Dixie, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and The Messengers. Two holdovers, Beauty and the Beast and The 100, are due sometime in midseason.

Here is The CW’s night-by-night new fall lineup (the network programs only five nights a week).

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Jane the Virgin

The Flash


The Vampire Diaries
The Originals

America’s Next Top Model

The CW also has two new midseason series in mind. Here they are.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (drama) -- Venerable Victor Garber reprises his Dr. Martin Stein character from The Flash in a series about a deadly future that must be stopped by an assortment of recruited heroes and villains. Former Prison Break co-stars Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller also are involved.

Containment (drama) -- A “mysterious and deadly epidemic” breaks out in Atlanta, prompting a “vast urban quarantine” that leaves some denizens trapped within. Starring a cast that few will recognize and based on a Belgian series.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS books flight with Supergirl in new fall lineup

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Newcomer Melissa Benoist has the title role in Supergirl. CBS photos

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CBS will dip into sister network CW’s bag of comic book heroes by taking a flyer with Supergirl this fall.

The No. 1 network in total viewers also is adding four other new series to its revised autumn lineup, including a comedy fronted by Jane Lynch playing another super-sassy character after her long tenure on Glee.

Canceled are The McCarthys, Battle Creek, Stalker, The Millers and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which will get a two-hour series finale on Sept. 27th with charter cast members William Peterson and Marg Helgenberger returning. Ted Danson, currently with the original CSI, will amble over to CSI: Cyber to join Patricia Arquette. The grandaddy of the CSI franchise premiered in fall 2000 and outlived the cancellations of two offshoots -- CSI: Miami and CSI: NY.

CBS again had a largely successful crop of first-year series, with Scorpion, NCIS: New Orleans, Madam Secretary, The Odd Couple and CSI: Cyber all getting second-season pickups. The premieres of some new series again will be delayed until November by Thursday Night Football. In that vein, the network also will have Super Bowl 50 in February.

Here are CBS’ five new fall series.

Supergirl (drama) -- After 12 years of keeping her powers under wraps, Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) throws a costumed coming out party in the interests of flying high and fighting crime. She otherwise works in National City for a “media mogul and fierce taskmaster” played by Calista Flockhart. New employee James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) has just been hired from the Daily Planet as an art director. Executive producer Greg Berlanti also is behind The CW’s Arrow and The Flash. So some super-duper crossover episodes are always a possibility.

Limitless (drama) -- It’s adapted from the Bradley Cooper feature film, with Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) newly equipped with the “brain-boosting power of the mysterious drug NZT.” Therefore he’s coerced by the FBI to help solve tough cases. CBS says that Cooper will be a recurring guest star as senator and presidential hopeful Edward Mora. He also has another financial stake as a co-producer of this series.

Code Black (drama) -- CBS takes another shot at mounting a successful medical drama with this ER-based heart-pounder. Marcia Gay Harden stars as Residency Director Dr. Leanne Rorish.

Angel From Hell (comedy) -- Jane Lynch claims to be a guardian angel sent to shepherd a young driven doctor played by Maggie Lawson. Lynch’s character is described as “colorful and brassy,” traits she perfected during that long haul with Glee. Kevin Pollock co-stars as a dermatologist named Marv.

Life in Pieces (comedy) -- Presenting a laugher without a laugh track (a rarity for CBS) about “one big happy family and their sometimes awkward, often hilarious and ultimately beautiful milestone moments.” The cast includes James Brolin, Dianne Wiest and Colin Hanks.

Here is CBS’ night-by-night fall prime-time lineup.

The Big Bang Theory
Life in Pieces
Supergirl (starting in November and replacing the two comedies)
NCIS: Los Angeles

NCIS: New Orleans

Criminal Minds
Code Black

Thursday Night Football (until November)
The following series then all start or switch nights in November:
The Big Bang Theory
Life in Pieces
Angel From Hell

The Amazing Race
Hawaii Five-0
Blue Bloods

Crimetime Saturday
Crimetime Saturday
48 Hours

60 Minutes
Madam Secretary
The Good Wife
CSI: Cyber

CBS also has announced two midseason series. Here they are.

Rush Hour (drama) -- This “reimagining” of the hit movies supplants Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan with mark-downs named Justin Hires and John Foo. Wendie Malick (Hot in Cleveland) chips in as their “exasperated” boss.

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (drama) -- Yet another spinoff of a successful CBS crime franchise, this one re-deploys Gary Sinese, who previously headed the CSI: NY knockoff. He plays unit chief Jack Garrett, a 20-year FBI vet orchestrating rescues of Americans in danger abroad.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC reaches back while also pushing renewal buttons for many of last season's newcomers


Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear re-team in The Muppets.

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ABC has a throwback-flavored fall season coming, with the returns of The Muppets and Don Johnson plus a new biblical series.

The network also will dust off Uncle Buck for midseason after its previous go-arounds as a successful feature film and a failed 1990 CBS sitcom.

Five newcomers are due in the fall, with two apiece set for Tuesdays and Sundays. Thursdays again will house the Shonda Rhimes-produced trio of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with the Murder. Mondays and Wednesdays also stay the same.

ABC’s cancellation corral isn’t nearly as crowded this time. Here’s the relatively brief roll call: Cristela, Forever, Selfie, Resurrection, Revenge, Manhattan Love Story and The Taste. First-year series getting sophomore seasons are Fresh Off the Boat, black-ish, Beyond the Tank, Marvel’s Agent Carter, How to Get Away with Murder, American Crime, Secrets and Lies and the surprise returnee, Galavant. If you’re counting, that’s eight renewals and just seven cancellations, even though some of the freshman series getting reprieves are hardly blockbusters -- or even peripheral hits.

Another series announced last fall, The Whispers, is getting a Monday, June 1st premiere.

Here are ABC’s five new fall series.

The Muppets (comedy) -- They’re back with what ABC calls a more adult, “contemporary, documentary-style show,” with the fuzzy wuzzys’ personal lives uncovered.

Dr. Ken (comedy) -- Former Community co-star Ken Jeong tops the cast as a brilliant doctor without much tact. He’s also married with two kids.

Oil (drama) -- Don Johnson, 31 years removed from the premiere of Miami Vice, has another go as a “ruthless tycoon” named Hap. He’s bent on bedeviling young ‘uns Bill and Cody Lefever (Chace Crawford, Rebecca Rittenhouse), who have come to North Dakota to strike it rich in “The Bakken,” site of the “biggest oil discovery in American history.”

Of Kings and Prophets (drama) -- King Saul (Ray Winstone) presides over an “epic biblical saga of faith, ambition and betrayal.”

Quantico (drama) -- Only the best and brightest recruits are invited to train at the FBI’s Quantico base. But could it be that one of them masterminded the biggest attack on New York City since 9/11?

Here is ABC’s night-by-night fall prime-time lineup.

Dancing with the Stars

The Muppets
Fresh Off the Boat
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Middle
The Goldbergs
Modern Family

Grey’s Anatomy
How to Get Away with Murder

Last Man Standing
Dr. Ken
Shark Tank

College football

America’s Funniest Home Videos
Once Upon a Time
Of Kings and Prophets

ABC also has five new series awaiting midseason berths. Here they are.

Uncle Buck (comedy) -- It’s an African-American cast this time, headed by Mike Epps in the title role.

The Real O’Neals (comedy) -- Surprising truths unfold within a “seemingly perfect Catholic family.” Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) heads the cast.

The Catch (drama) -- It’s Shonda Rhimes to the rescue again, with a thriller about a fraud investigator (Mireille Enos as Alice Martin) who’s about to be a fraud victim of her fiancé.

The Family (drama) -- A prominent politician’s young son was presumed dead for more than a decade. But he isn’t. Or is he? Joan Allen stars.

Wicked City (drama) -- A 1982 L.A. murder case is dissected. The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, although Erika Christensen (Traffic) might ring a bell with some.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Heading on an adventure -- and again leaving lots behind

Long-planned trips sometimes get in the way of best-laid plans. So your friendly content provider will be missing a few things -- including the Mad Men and David Letterman finales -- while away from this grindstone. Some of the networks’ new season announcements, which continue this week, also will have to wait until after Memorial Day. As will the results of the May “sweeps” D-FW newscast wars.

But hey, I’ve left plenty behind, including reviews of the following (with links).

Wayward Pines (Fox) -- Thursday, May 14th.

Bessie (HBO) -- Saturday, May 16th.

Texas Rising (History network) -- Monday, May 25th.

Grace and Frankie (Netflix) -- newly streaming.

You also can find our compendium of vintage David Letterman articles on the Back Channels page. Individual links were posted earlier on Above the Fold.

See you soon and thanks for your continued readership!
Ed Bark

Reviewing Netflix's Grace and Frankie after viewing all 13 episodes


The golden girls/guys of a new age-old comedy series. Netflix photo

Premiering: Currently streaming all 13 episodes on Netflix
Starring: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterston, Martin Sheen, June Diane Raphael, Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn, Brooklyn Decker
Produced by: Marta Kauffman, Howard J. Morris, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin

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Here’s a serio-comic series that significantly improves with age, which is fitting given the collective mileage on its four principals -- Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen.

Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, which began streaming all 13 episodes on Friday, May 8th, affords another reason to go the distance before rendering a verdict. This can be taxing to say the least. But early reviews, which were decidedly mixed, are based on six episodes made available in advance to TV critics. That’s a pretty good sampling, but in this case not really enough. Early episodes are shaky and tend to be too sitcom-y. And some reviewers very likely watched fewer than six before making up their minds.

It would be a nigh impossible task if every TV series had full seasons ready to show. But we’re not nearly there yet. And in the case of Netflix, what’s the hurry? Posting a review within a week or less of its online launch allows one to avoid the initial rush to judgment and see where things are going. In Grace and Frankie, they turn out to be going just fine, with the series really hitting its stride during Episodes 5 through 9 before Season 1 eventually wraps on a poignant, open-ended note.

Early reviews also didn’t take into account the arrival of Craig T. Nelson as an adventurer beau named Guy. Nelson is agreeably loose and relaxed in an important arc that introduces his character in Episode 7 and takes him to the Episode 13 finish line.

Episode 1 begins at lunch, with Grace Hanson (Fonda) and Frankie Bergstein (Tomlin) awaiting the arrival of their husbands Robert and Sol (Sheen, Waterston). There’s something they need to say. Namely that they’ve long been in love with one another and finally are acting on this by divorcing their wives and remarrying each other.

This doesn’t sit well. Grace impulsively begins pelting Robert with food. Later, Frankie barks that Sol should have been willing to “ride out the clock” and “stay miserable” at this point in their lives.

Absent a laugh track, Grace and Frankie is never riotously funny and obviously doesn’t intend to be. Scenes can be searing as well as comical. After a while, the tonal changes settle in and become part of the fabric.

Tomlin not surprisingly gets the hippie-ish, often daft role while Fonda plays an uptight founder of a cosmetics company who constantly worries about her appearance and is seldom without a vodka martini in hand. Robert and Sol have long been law partners, forcing Grace and Frankie to see more of each other than they’d like. Now they’re thrust together in a beach house while Robert and Sol plan a wedding, lightly smooch one another and use terms of endearment such as “sweetheart” and “honey.”

Sol is easily exasperated and hurt while Robert is sterner but generally in tune with his lover’s temperament. Waterston and Sheen pull this relationship off without any undue awkwardness, although viewers might need a few episodes to get used to these decidedly different TV personas. Sheen, after all, used to be president of the United States in The West Wing while Waterston aggressively prosecuted a lot of bad guys during his long tenure on Law & Order.

Initially aghast adult children also are involved. Grace and Robert have two daughters. Brianna is now the self-absorbed CEO of her mother’s company while younger sister Mallory is married with two kids.

Frankie and Sol have racially mixed adopted sons. Uganda-born “Bud” (Baron Vaughn) helps out at the law firm and Coyote is a recovering drug addict who used to date Mallory.

Brianna turns out to be the most interesting sub-character in a series that gives Craig T. Nelson the meatiest guest star role but also provides Ernie Hudson with a chance to shine in multi-episodes as Frankie’s “yam man,” Jacob, who’d like to make her his sweet potato. Familiar TV faces such as Christine Lahti, Michael Gross, Joe Morton, Brian Benben and Barry Bostwick are sprinkled lightly in one-shot guest shots.

Whatever its fate, Grace and Frankie outdoes The Golden Girls in terms of casting the oldest ensemble in TV -- or streaming -- history. Fonda is 77, Tomlin is 75 and Waterston and Sheen are both 74. None looks the least bit feeble, with Fonda’s timing still mostly razor sharp while Tomlin and Waterston share some genuinely affecting scenes together.

Tomlin’s character also gets to throw some deft jabs at Fonda’s expense, telling her in Episode 1 that she’s “making the sand angry” and squirting a blast of whipped cream into her mouth at the start of Episode 6 before adding, “Now you can’t eat until Monday.”

The series also deals with getting older, feeling unwanted, insecurities and abandonment issues. In this respect, Grace and Frankie’s Lucy-and-Ehtel-ish “Say Yes” night on the town in Episode 12 can be a little painful to watch at times. But their Episodes 8 and 9 discourses on vaginal dryness are juicy through and through.

Viewers are advised to stay with Grace and Frankie and watch it both blossom and bear fruit. It’s not a great, game-changing series by any means. At least not yet. But principal veteran producers Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris know how to work the room while giving their four very accomplished stars ample room to work, stretch and excel. In that sense, Season 2 -- if there is one -- could easily go under the expanded title of Grace and Frankie and Sol and Robert. They’re all in this together despite that signature crumbling wedding cake in the show’s opening credits.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

All new Tuesdays and end of Idol highlight Fox's new season plans


Ben Savage, Rob Lowe star in The Grinder. Fox photo

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Fox struck it rich this past midseason with the new serial drama Empire. Now it will enter the new season by saying goodbye to the midseason series that made the network super-rich.

Monday’s announcement of five new fall series was overshadowed by Fox’s decision to end American Idol after a “season-long celebratory event.” Holdover judges Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban will return for the show’s 15th and final season, which as usual will start in January.

Idol, which premiered on June 11, 2002 and made Kelly Clarkson of Burleson, TX its first champ, once ruled prime-time as no series ever has with multiple nights of singing and judging that crushed all competing programs. The show made a household name of super-acerbic Simon Cowell while also launching the careers of Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Katharine McPhee, Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert among others.

Rival networks eventually developed their own long-running talent competition shows in response to Idol’s runaway success. They include ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and NBC’s America’s Got Talent and The Voice, which quickly became more popular than Idol during its declining years.

Meanwhile, Fox will sail into fall with an all-new Tuesday prime-time lineup while also adding two other new series. The cancellation bin from last season is piled high with Backstrom, The Mindy Project, Glee, The Following, Weird Loners, Utopia, Gracepoint, Red Band Society and Mulaney. The previously announced ancient Egypt series Hieroglyph was mummified before ever getting on the air.

Besides Empire, Fox is returning two other freshman series from last season -- Gotham and The Last Man On Earth. The network also will present Grease: Live as a one-night event on Jan. 31st, with Julianne Hough and Vanessa Hudgens among the announced stars.

The X-Files’, six-episode “event series,” with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprising their original roles, will launch on Sunday, Jan. 24th following the NFC Championship game. New Girl also is being held until January, when it will air on Tuesday nights with “virtually uninterrupted” new episodes.

Here are Fox’s five new fall series:

The Grinder (comedy) -- Rob Lowe plays a famous lawyer at a career crossroads while Fred Savage chips in as his brother. Lowe also is fronting NBC’s new You, Me and the End of the World, but Fox says he’ll be fully committed to its series.

Grandfathered (comedy) -- John Stamos stars as playboy bachelor Jimmy Martino, who suddenly learns he’s a grandpappy. So dagnabbit, now he “has to unlearn a lifetime of blissful selfishness and grapple with the fact that he went straight from single to grandfather in six seconds.” FYI, Jimmy didn’t know he had a son either.

Scream Queens (comedy-horror) -- Producer Ryan Murphy (Glee and FX’s American Horror Story franchise) sets this one in a sorority house “rocked by a string of murders.” But pledges are still lining up, because this, after all, is television. Jamie Lee Curtis stars along with Emma Roberts, Glee alum Lea Michele, Nick Jonas, Ariana Grande and Niecy Nash. Fox promises one fresh victim per episode in a series that’s “part black comedy, part slasher flick.”

Minority Report (drama) -- It’s adapted from the same-named futuristic film by Steven Spielberg. And had they waited just another year or two, they might’ve gotten the fast-fading Tom Cruise. Instead the best-known cast member is Wilmer Valderrama from That ‘70s Show.

Rosewood (drama) -- Morris Chestnut is center stage as the optimism-fueled “Beethoven of private pathologists.” In other words, he’s Quincy without all the ranting, performing autopsies that help the Miami P.D. solve crimes.

Here is Fox’s night-by-night fall prime-time lineup:

Minority Report

The Grinder
Scream Queens


Sleepy Hollow

Masterchef Junior
World’s Funniest

College football

NFL on Fox runovers
The OT/Bob’s Burger’s
The Simpsons
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Family Guy
The Last Man On Earth

Fox also has these new midseason bench players.

The Guide to Surviving Life (comedy) -- A batch of largely unknown young actors -- such as Jack Cutmore-Scott -- explore “what we all go through on our way to figuring out what life is all about.”

Bordertown (animated comedy) -- From the Seth MacFarlane factory, it’s a “satirical look at the cultural shifts occurring in America” -- namely in a Southwest desert town on the U.S.-Mexico border. Voice-over talent includes Hank Azaria, Alex Borstein and Judah Friedlander.

The Frankenstein Code (drama) -- A “modern reimagining” of Mary Shelley’s poignant horror classic.

Lucifer (drama) -- Beezlebub also gets a makeover in this contemporary saga of a bored as hell Lord of Hell. So he ends up running a trendy, upscale L.A. nightclub named Lux. You can’t make this stuff up, and it’s unclear why they try.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC adds six new fall series, saves several high profile ones until later


Heroes Reborn will lead off Peacock’s new Thursday sked. NBC photo

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NBC’s autumn colors are muted in terms of recognizable star power but highlighted by the return of a Heroes restart and a limited-run variety hour hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.

The Peacock has a half-dozen new series scheduled for the fall, with other newcomers starring the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, Rob Lowe and America Ferrara awaiting midseason berths. Also in storage for now is the return of Coach with star Craig T. Nelson and Chicago Med in league with Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D.. There are just two comedy series in the new fall prime-time mix, both on Fridays.

NBC’s surprise returnee, The Mysteries of Laura, will remain on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. (central). The cancellation bin otherwise is crowded with these casualties, some announced earlier: Marry Me, One Big Happy, State of Affairs, About a Boy, Bad Judge, A to Z, Constantine, Parenthood, The Slap and Allegiance.

Two other newcomers, A.D. The Bible Continues and Odyssey, are still in progress and awaiting their fates, NBC says. Other NBC series announced last fall have yet to get on the air. The Tina Fey-produced Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt instead wound up on the streaming service Netflix, where it already has been renewed for a second season. Mission Control and Emerald City still have no announced air dates while the comedy series Mr. Robinson is scheduled for a late-breaking Aug. 5th premiere. Aquarius gets a May 28th start, with David Duchovny playing a cop coming to grips with Charles Manson.

NBC also has announced a series of movies produced by Dolly Parton, with her autobiographical Coat of Many Colors the first in line. Undateable will return on Fridays in the fall with live episodes every week. And next season’s holiday musical event is The Wiz Live!.

“We’re attacking the new season with the same programming strategy that successfully turned NBC around -- a slate of provocative and innovative series and events that cut through the clutter and will continue to build on our momentum,” NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt says in a publicity release. NBC will finish this season as the runner-up in total viewers to CBS while remaining “on track” to win for the second consecutive year among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds.

Here are NBC’s six new fall series:

Blindspot (drama) -- A heavily tattooed “Jane Doe” is discovered naked in Times Square with no memory of who she is or how she got there. But one of her tats is the name of FBI agent Kurt Weller. Lo, behold, each of her other markings represent an unsolved crime. Starring Sullivan Stapleton and Jaimie Alexander, the series is from producer Greg Berlanti, who helms both Arrow and The Flash for The CW.

Heartbreaker (drama) -- A medical hour starring Melissa George as real-life heart transplant surgeon Dr. Kathy Magliato. She also has a “racy” personal life and of course “pushes the boundaries of medical science.” The supporting cast includes D.L. Hughley.

Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris (variety) -- It’s adapted from the “wildly popular” British gambit, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Host Harris will preside over stunts, pranks, musical numbers, gift giveaways, etc. Scheduled through November as a placeholder for Chicago Fire.

Heroes Reborn (drama) -- NBC squandered the original’s pulling power with long off-the-air breaks. Now it’s deemed time to try again with a “fresh crop of inspiring heroes who take on the ultimate struggle between those with extraordinary abilities and those with nefarious motives to hunt and harness their powers.” Executive producer Tim Kring is still at the wheel.

The Player (drama) -- Look who’s back. It’s Wesley Snipes in an “action-packed Las Vegas thrlller about a former military operative turned security expert.” From the executives producers of The Blacklist.

People Are Talking (comedy) -- Mark-Paul Gosselaar is the name-brand participant in this laugher about “two diverse couples who are both neighbors and best friends.” NBC’s tagline: “If you can think it, they will say it.”

Here is NBC’s night-by-night fall prime-time lineup:

The Voice

The Voice
Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris (to be replaced by Chicago Fire after November)

The Mysteries of Laura
Law & Order: SVU
Chicago P.D.

Heroes Reborn
The Blacklist
The Player

People Are Talking

Dateline Saturday Night Mystery
“Classic” Saturday NIght Live episodes

Football Night in America
Sunday Night Football

NBC also has a flotilla of midseason replacement troops. Let’s roll.

Coach (comedy) -- Craig T. Nelson heads new episodes of the series that made him famous. Now he’s helping his son, the new head coach at an “egghead” Ivy League university.

Crowded (comedy) -- Empty nesters Mike and Martina (Patrick Warburton, Carrie Preston) are beset by their two grown daughters, both of whom move back in.

Hot & Bothered (comedy) -- Eva Longoria stars as a “sizzling” telenovela superstar battling “pesky network execs, drunken script writers, narcissistic co-stars,” etc.

Superstore (comedy) -- Former Ugly Betty star America Ferrara returns in another workplace comedy. Her co-star is Ben Feldman, on the rebound from NBC’s canceled A to Z.

You, Me and the End of the World (comedy-drama) -- A comet is headed toward Earth, prompting “apocalyptic chaos.” Rob Lowe heads the cast, with Megan Mullally and Jenna Fischer adding support. Lowe also will star in a new Fox series, The Grinder.

Chicago Med (drama) -- Producer Dick Wolf, architect of the onetime three-pronged Law & Order franchise, now has a Chicago threesome of Fire, P.D. and this one. Oliver Platt and S. Epatha Merkerson top the cast.

Game of Silence (drama) -- An Atlanta attorney is suddenly revisited by long-lost childhood friends. Then a “dark secret” resurfaces. Starring David Lyons from NBC’s Revolution.

Shades of Blue (drama) -- J Lo will continue to be a judge on the announced 15th and last season of American Idol. She’ll also play a New York detective and single mom who used to be a dirty cop until being trapped by the FBI and turned into a reluctant informant. Ray Liotta and Drea De Matteo from The Sopranos are among the co-stars.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

History channel's Texas Rising makes it up as it goes along


Bill Paxton has the central role of Sam Houston in Texas Rising. History photo

Premiering: Monday, May 25th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing on Tuesday, May 26th and June 1, 8 and 15 at the same time.
Starring: Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, Kris Kristofferson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Olivier Martinez, Christopher McDonald, Thomas Jane, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Chad Michael Murray, Jeremy Davies, Max Thieriot, Rob Morrow, Raul Mendez, Jeff Fahey, Robert Knepper, Rhys Coiro, Crispin Glover, Trevor Donovan
Produced by: Leslie Greif, Dirk Hoogstra, Julian P. Hobbs
Directed by: Roland Joe

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Remember the Alamo and its aftermath. Just not in this way.

But let’s first faintly praise the History network’s Texas Rising, a five-part, 10-hour “event series” premiering on Memorial Day. It has an authentically gritty, unscrubbed look, convincingly transporting viewers to its time and place in the manner of History’s hit miniseries Hatfields & McCoys and hit series Vikings.

Texas Rising also executes its action scenes with dexterity while making numerous corpses look thoroughly dead and worse for wear.

Let’s not forget, though. This is the network that several years ago spent $25 million on The Kennedys before abruptly rejecting the star-studded miniseries as “not a fit for our brand” and of questionable historical accuracy. More to the point, it didn’t sufficiently varnish the Kennedy legacy, failing a political correctness test with flying colors even though revealing nothing about the clan that hadn’t already been dramatized. The Kennedys instead wound up on the still obscure ReelzChannel, eventually receiving 10 Emmy nominations and winning four statues.

The History network since has been perfectly willing to take extreme liberties with its historical dramas -- particularly during the course of Sons of Liberty, a six-hour “dramatic interpretation” that premiered in January. Texas Rising ups that ante after unspooling one of the longest printed prologues in feature film or TV miniseries history. Let’s roll ‘em:

“1836. Texas is in flames.

“This disputed Mexican territory is now home to tens of thousands of U.S. settlers.

Comanches and Karankawas fight to hold their native lands.

Outlaws roam freely.

Slaves, brought from the Americas, caught in the crossfire.

“Texians boldly declare an independent Republic, but Mexico’s dictator General Santa Anna is determined to destroy all resistance.

U.S. President Andrew Jackson, forbidden by treaty to intervene, places his hope that Texas will rise and join the Union, becoming the pathway to the Pacific Ocean.

Outnumbered by a Mexican army of thousands, Gen. Sam Houston’s rag tag volunteer army and a fierce militia known as Stephan Austin’s Ranging company -- are all that stand between freedom and oblivion.

The Alamo was reduced to ashes.

Settlers. Mexicans. Tejanos. Indians. Renegades. Soldiers.

All were left with no choice.

Fight or Die!”

Get the gist? Or perhaps you’ll get the munchies before the end of this 140-word opus. Yes, that easily whips the original 93-word introduction to Star Wars. I checked, I counted, you’re welcome.

Texas Rising blends actual historical figures such as Sam Houston (Bill Paxton), Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez), Juan Seguin (Raul Mendez) and Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson) with complete concoctions such as a crazed, vengeful Alamo survivor named Lorca (Ray Liotta). There’s also a very trumped-up Emily D. West (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a woman of color who has emerged in some accounts as the mythical, so-called “Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Emily actually existed but there’s absolutely no documentation that she was ever at the Alamo. Nonetheless she’s depicted at the start of Texas Rising as a survivor of the famed assault who then watches her brother and others executed at the order of Santa Anna.

Emily eventually works her way into Santa Anna’s camp after first sleeping with Sam Houston, who earlier had bedded her back in New Orleans. “I want a warm bath -- with you in it,” she tells the dictatorial, mercurial Mexican general. And so she shall have it before mounting Santa Anna in his personal tub as part of her grand plan to win his favor while also spying on him. Um, that’s pure fiction in terms of any relationship with Houston. But Emily in fact was kidnapped by Santa Anna’s forces, according to some accounts. Texas Rising takes it from there.

The drama’s most compelling character, at least in the first four hours made available for review, is Houston loyalist “Deaf” Smith (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a kindly tough guy whose wife, Lupe, is Mexican. Their recurring scenes together have a natural feel in a drama that walks a tightrope between portraying Santa Anna as a wanton madman while other Mexicans, including his second-in-command, are sympathetic or noble.

Liotta, grizzled up in an unkempt beard, wanders around without a single line of dialogue for most of the initial four hours. It actually was better that way. Because Liotta, like others, is bamboozled by a sometimes laughable script. As when he tells Houston and a few of his men about seeing “so much blood the air turned to a crimson mist.” Therefore he’s now a vengeful “servant to Lucifer.”

Paxton’s Houston is a vexed leader whose men repeatedly see him as a chicken-hearted commander who’d rather retreat and bide his time than engage the enemy.

“I’m not gonna sacrifice what little Army I have by charging pell-mell into Mexican lances,” he says rather floridly.

For semi-comic relief, Texas Rising offers the weaselly Sgt. Ephraim Knowles (Jeremy Davies), a recaptured deserter who sounds a lot and looks a lot like Will Forte’s hapless Phil Miller in Fox’s The Last Man Rising. Viewed through that prism, he’s a riot.

Kristofferson pops in very briefly in Chapter Two as President Andrew Jackson, who with all due solemnity cites Houston’s previous demonstrations of bravery as a reason to keep him in command. Altogether, he’s on screen for less time than the printed prologue -- at least through the first four hours.

Texas Rising originally was announced as an eight-hour miniseries. And in Chapter Two, the plodding and dragging are very much in evidence. Houston, for one, leads an extremely leisurely journey -- with a handful of men -- to warn the Texians at Goliad of an impending all-out Mexican army attack. Their horses move at a gait that’s perhaps one-quarter as fast as the steeds on a merry-go-round.

Some of the dialogue, whether mouthed by actual or made-up characters, is a seemingly unintended hoot ’n’ a holler.

“You’re so pekid you look like death eatin’ a cracker,” Houston is told by his doctor.

Furthermore, “Lupe must be as happy as a bumblebee in a flower patch.” And the topper: “I’m so hungry I could eat the south end of a northbound goat.”

No, this isn’t Lonesome Dove. And by the end of Chapter Two, many viewers might well be in the mood to detour elsewhere rather than follow Houston’s plea to “follow me a little longer down this twisted, bloody road.”

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's Bessie: a showcase for Queen Latifah in a serviceable bio pic


Queen Latifah has the showy title role in Bessie. HBO photo

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Pathfinding, larger-than-life African-American entertainers Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Jr. have yet to get a full-blown feature film or TV bio pic.

In the interim, Dorothy Dandridge, Billie Holliday, Ray Charles, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Josephine Baker and now, Bessie Smith, have been showcased front and center.

That’s just an observation, although it’s also become something of an injustice. Sometimes it just takes perseverance. And according to HBO publicity materials, Bessie, premiering Saturday, May 16th at 7 p.m. central, has been 22 years in the making.

The movie charts the ups and downs of a vintage blues singer who died in 1937 at the age of 43. Bessie ends on a considerably higher note with her comeback tour after years of heavy drinking and drug abuse. For the record, she died in a car accident while in the company of her lover, Richard Morgan (played by Mike Epps in the film). He was unhurt.

Latifah gives it her all during the course of a cinematically bumpy treatment replete with gauzy flashbacks to Bessie’s miserable childhood and some abrupt flash-forwards. During the course of all this, familiar actors such as Charles S. Dutton and Oliver Platt are briefly seen and discarded. They respectively play Pa Rainey, husband of firebrand singer Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique), and Carl Van Vechten, a wealthy writer/photographer who plans to write a book called Nigger Heaven. Bessie responds to this by throwing a drink in his face. You go, girl.

Mo’Nique registers far more emphatically as Bessie’s first mentor and benefactor. Her performance is first-rate and a match of Latifah’s, even though she gets perhaps one-fifth the screen time. The other main supporting characters are Bessie’s protective, short-tempered husband Jack (Michael Kenneth Williams); her older brother and road manager Clarence (Tory Kittles); and her long-estranged oldest sister Viola (Khandi Alexander), who ruled the homestead with an iron fist after their mother died at an early age.

When not belting out the blues, Bessie depicts its title character as a bedmate of both men and women -- principally a co-performer named Lucille (Tika Sumpter). Latifah also does her first on-screen nude scene, which is meant to underscore her character’s overall vulnerability, she has said in interviews. It’s not a fleeting moment. Latifah sits in front of a mirror, removing her wig and eyelashes after a performance that for some reason has left her feeling down and out. The scene happens just like that, and in fact goes on long enough to seem almost as gratuitous as it is daring. Then -- just like that again -- a drunken Bessie is raging at husband Jack and throwing a vase of flowers at him before they get into a physical fight.

Bessie, buoyed near the end by a convivial, well-played reunion with a sympathetic Ma Rainey, is too often a patchwork collection of scenes and locales. It fleshes out Bessie Smith to a degree but certainly not in full measure. Latifah and Rainey can sure sing out, though. It’s a pleasure to watch and hear them wail in a film that otherwise doesn’t quite cut it. Now let’s get busy on those Louis Armstrong/Sammy Davis Jr. films. Both are long overdue.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's late-arriving Wayward Pines made of stronger timber than expected


Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) has his ear to the ground but his head’s all messed up in Wayward Pines. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, May 14th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox and continuing for nine consecutive weeks.
Starring: Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Hope Davis, Toby Jones, Juliette Lewis, Shannyn Sossamon, Charlie Tehan, Tim Griffin, Reed Diamond
Produced by: M. Night Shyamalan, Donald De Line, Chad Hodge, Ashwin Rajan

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Network TV programs aren’t put on the shelf to marinate and improve their flavor.

On the contrary, it’s usually a sign of serious misgivings about the finished product and little confidence that viewers will buy in.

This is the foreboding backdrop for Fox’s Wayward Pines, a 10-hour “event series” announced in January 2013 and originally set for a summer 2014 debut before being pushed back a full year after filming wrapped in February 2014.

Add the recent and very bumpy track record of principal executive producer M. Night Shyamalan, who burst onto the scene with 1999’s The Sixth Sense but lately has directed a quartet of clunkers -- Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, the seriously awful 2013 bomb starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden.

Still, all is not lost amid the oft-murky intrigues of what Fox bills as an “intense psychological thriller evocative of the classic hit Twin Peaks.” Based on viewing the six episodes made available by Fox, Wayward Pines is appreciably better than expected even if it also could fall apart down the yet unseen homestretch.

Summer has become a hot bed for first-run mystical fare ever since CBS launched Under the Dome in 2013 and followed it up with last year’s Extant. They’re respectively returning for Seasons 3 and 2 while CBS premieres a third like-minded mindbender with Zoo. Think of it as a scripted version of When Animals Attack.

Wayward Pines, starring Matt Dillon as Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke, exceeds both Under the Dome and Extant in terms of acting, atmosphere and some fairly quick payoffs. No sequel is planned, with Shyamalan saying in an accompanying Fox promotional video that “you can get to the meat quicker” with a limited, close-ended series. In that respect, Wayward Pines is similar to some of those old longform ABC chillers adapted from Stephen King novels. And a very eventful Hour 5 of the Fox production indeed has some big reveals.

Dillon’s character is first seen flat on his back and bloody-faced in the woods. It turns out he’s been in a car wreck while searching for two recently missing agents. One of them, Kate Newson (the ever-lush Carla Gugino), became more than his work partner. But in Wayward Pines, Idaho, Kate is married to toy store owner Harold Ballinger (Reed Diamond). And she’s supposedly been a resident of this small town for the past 12 years.

Three principal actors in Wayward Pines have been away from the production long enough to since co-star in new series.

Terrence Howard, who has a smash on his hands with Fox’s Empire, plays a seemingly sinister sheriff named Arnold Pope. Not surprisingly, Fox’s most-played promo for Wayward Pines has Howard front and center, with his character saying “You don’t” after Burke pleads, “How do I get outta here?”

The cast also includes Juliette Lewis as mysterious bartender Beverly. Lewis has just finished playing a very severe-countenanced detective in Season 1 of ABC’s Secrets and Lies. Another principal Wayward Pines denizen, Hope Davis as school teacher Megan Fisher, headed the cast of NBC’s Allegiance, which recently was canceled midway through its planned run.

Adapted from the bestselling books by Blake Crouch, Wayward Pines is further buoyed by Oscar winner Melissa Leo as the pivotal Nurse Pam and Toby Jones (who’s starred as Alfred Hitchcock and Truman Capote in films) in the role of manipulative but well-meaning Dr. Jenkins.

Back home in Seattle, Agent Burke has a wife, Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), and a teen son, Ben (Charlie Tahan), who wonder what’s become of him. Their resultant search helps to trigger some key subplots.

Dillon does a solid job of both butting his head against dead-ends and bumping into knowledge that others consider dangerous. There are very firm ways to deal with malcontents and truth-seekers, with the end of Episode 2 offering grisly proof.

Wayward Pines threatens to go off the rails on more than one occasion. But by the end of Episode 6, most of what’s happened is making some cockeyed sense. Whatever you make of it, virtually the whole world will have a chance to watch -- or not watch. Fox is simultaneously premiering Wayward Pines in more than 125 countries while touting this gambit as “the largest day-and-date launch for a scripted series ever.”

It’s been quite a long wait, which generally is a bad sign. In this case, though, Wayward Pines looks as though it has the potential to rise above its false starts while grippingly spooling out truths that are “worse than anything you could even imagine.” Those watchwords came at the end of Episode 3. And by that time, all that dangling bait had hooked me.


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Watching Mayweather-Pacquiao on the cheap and in an entirely new way


To the victor go the Tecate girls. Floyd “Money” Mayweather during his extended post-fight news conference on ESPN. Photo: Ed Bark

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Thousands of ad hoc “networks” were birthed Saturday night just in time for the very high-priced Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao boxing extravaganza.

The pay-per-view asking price of $99.95 for a high-definition telecast seemed, well, a little high. Besides that, I cringed at the thought of even a nickel of my money going to Mayweather, the serial woman-beater whose in-the-ring record remains unblemished. Still, I wanted to see the fight.

Let me now tell you how this ended up happening -- and for free.

I first checked whether a live transmission of Mayweather-Pacquiao might be available on radio. It was -- on the BBC. But that broadcast was blacked out in the U.S.

So I googled around some more and after several false starts came upon the fledgling, Minneapolis-based periscope.com. Here’s part of its mantra: “While there are many ways to discover events and places, we realized there is no better way to experience a place right now than through live video. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but live video can take you someplace and show you around.”

OK then, let’s give this a shot. I downloaded the Periscope app onto my mini-ipad. It was easy to do -- and free. I then looked around and found that numerous users were showing the fight and pre-fight activities. All they had to do was point and shoot their smart phones at TV screens. Mind you, these people had paid for Mayweather-Pacquiao -- and now were sharing it with people from all over the globe.

I got a feed on my mini-ipad just in time to watch Jamie Foxx butcher the National Anthem and later prompt the post-fight Tweet of the night from Chris Rock: “The only fight I saw in that boxing ring tonight was Jamie Foxx beating up the national anthem.”

The bell finally sounded, and I watched Round 1 -- with fairly decent video -- live from a Hong Kong living room. Those who appreciated the effort could sent hearts fluttering across the top of the screen by merely tapping the feed with their finger. But commenters soon were demanding that this stop, because it would make it easier to detect this particular feed and shut it down. Sure enough, that’s what happened after a single round. “Hong Kong Phooey!” said one commenter.

But there were tons of other Periscope feeds in play. And I was able to go round-by-round with five different ones while the powers-that-be -- wherever they may have been -- played whack-a-mole by knocking them off one-by-one.

Then came Round 6. I found a small U.S. in-home party whose host was sending the fight out. And this feed stayed up all the way through the concluding Round 12. The picture wobbled at times and pixilated a bit at others. But I could easily see well enough to tweet a round-by-round account using my iPhone. And the price was certainly right.

So is this piracy? It’s hard to see it that way. Those making the fight available to others via Periscope in fact had first paid for it. So was it really that different than someone throwing a big party for 100 or so friends, all of whom got to see the fight via a single PPV purchase? HBO/Showtime, who collaborated on this cash monster, obviously would prefer that the fight be seen by no one other than the original buyer and his or her immediate family. But you can’t stop what turned out to be a new delivery system uprising that firmly put Periscope on the map Saturday night.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, whose company owns Periscope, proclaimed “And the winner is . . . @periscopeco” -- via a Tweet, of course. That won’t make him at all popular in HBO or Showtime executive suites. But Periscope served to democratize a fight that otherwise raked in more money than the annual economies of many small countries. It’s not as if the big roster of A-list celebs sitting ringside couldn’t afford their seats. And both Mayweather and Pacquiao perhaps can still get by with the multi/multi-millions of dollars they earned from 36 minutes of work in a fight that set a PPV purchase record.

We aren’t that far removed from the days when in-home VCR tapings of pro athletic events were “strictly prohibited.” That’s laughable now. Perhaps there are issues to be worked out in regards to what some Periscope users did Saturday night. But in the highly singular event of Mayweather-Pacquiao, those who paid their money then decided to take their chances by using a new technology that in reality can’t be stopped.

Was it Robin Hood robbing the rich and then giving to the poor? No. Because it really wasn’t robbery. It was just spreading the wealth.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net