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NBC crash-lands with animated How Murray Saved Christmas


Sean Hayes and Jason Alexander voice an elf and a reluctant substitute Santa in How Murray Saved Christmas. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, Dec. 5th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Voiced by: Jason Alexander, Sean Hayes, Dennis Haysbert, Jerry Stiller, John Ratzenberger, Kevin Michael Richardson
Produced by: Mike Reiss

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As hoped for holiday classics go, NBC’s How Murray Saved Christmas might as well be titled Inside Rudolph’s Sinus Cavity.

Kids of all ages are unlikely to warm to this animated hour of forgettable songs, ill-drawn characters and rhymes without reason. The story’s uniformly lousy, too. Other than that . . .

It’s all adapted from a same-named children’s book by Mike Reiss (The Simpsons), who serves as executive producer. Entirely without any women in featured speaking roles, it’s principally voiced by Jason Alexander, Sean Hayes, Dennis Haysbert, Jerry Stiller, John Ratzenberger and Kevin Michael Richardson.

Home base is a town called Stinky Cigars, which for some reason is populated by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, the Easter Bunny, Columbus, Uncle Sam, Cupid, the New Year’s Baby, April Fool and a gopher who talks like Woody Allen.

All of the above are basically window dressing during prolonged sing-alongs. The principal characters are grumpy diner owner Murray Weiner (Stiller), earnest Edison Elf (Hayes) and Santa Claus (Richardson). Alexander chips in as nutty Doc Holiday, Ratzenberger is officious Officer Bender and Haysbert narrates.

Santa Claus basically runs a sweat shop whose hundreds of elves are paid nothing and sing about their basically deplorable situation. They get briefly excited when Santa walks in with a tray full of hot cocoa. But he’s charging exorbitant prices that none of the elves can afford.

The old, bearded taskmaster sees stars, however, when he’s accidentally socked in the face by Edison’s latest invention, Jack in a Boxer. “Christmas must be canceled. That’s the end of the discussion,” Doc Holiday sings.

But Edison, who very much looks like a Rice Krispies character, decides that Murray somehow is just the guy to fill in for Santa. After a suitable amount of carping and kvetching, Murray signs on. What promises to be a long night of bumbling and stumbling is waylaid by a six-year-old kid who at first calls Murray’s Santa a “big phony fake.” But he’s then won over by the sight of a sleigh and reindeer atop his home. This also inspires Murray to whisk his way through the entire world.

No one expects Tolstoy here. But How Murray Saved Christmas is tough sledding from start to finish. It’s way short on charm, labors to be amusing and runs out of gas well before its hour is up. By that time, Murray speaks volumes by lamenting, “Oy, not another musical number.”

“Don’t worry, it’s the finale,” Edison assures him. Thanks for that at least.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce in a class of its own as Bravo's first original scripted series

Cast Gallery Photo

Lisa Edelstein (center) heads cast of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. Bravo photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Dec. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central)
Starring: Lisa Edelstein, Paul Adelstein, Janeane Garofalo, Beau Garrett, Necar Zadegan, Conner Dwelly, Dylan Schombing, Michael Weaver, Patrick Huesinger, Julianna Guill
Produced by: Marti Noxon, Vicki Iovine, Meryl Poster, Robert Duncan McNeill, Liz Kruger, Craig Shapiro

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Bravo’s first original scripted series arrives 12 years after NBC took control of the onetime fine arts network and later began fouling it with an onslaught of Real Housewives series.

Turns out it was well worth the wait. Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce is a gem of a one-hour dramedy starring Lisa Edelstein of House fame as a bestselling self-help author who’s lately living a lie.

Abby McCarthy (Edelstein) and her husband, Jake (Paul Adelstein), are separated while still living under the same roof for the purposes of maintaining her image and ostensibly making it easier on their two kids. Another book tour is nearing for the latest in Abby’s Girlfriends Guide series, this one on “Getting Your Groove Back.”

“Jake and I, we’re just connecting in a whole new way,” she fibs to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb on NBC’s Today. But in real life, Jake is tumbling back into bed after another late night arrival. “You smell like sex,” she tells him. True enough.

But Abby’s had her own fling -- still absent the sex -- with a married man who very much wants to close the deal. Her two divorced best friends, Lyla and Phoebe (Janeane Garofalo, Beau Garrett), are both intent on making Abby one of them. Lyla’s a sardonic shrew whose headlong pursuit of full child custody knows no bounds. Phoebe’s outwardly a semi-ditz, but a genius at playing the field to her full advantage.

Edelstein hits all the right notes as an insecure family breadwinner who’s both feeling guilty and feeling her age. But her disinclination to end it with Jake is weakened upon learning he’s been dating a knockout young CW network star named Becca Riley (Julianna Guill).

Girlfriends’ Guide is amusing, searing at times and about as “adult” as one can get on an advertiser-supported cable network.

In the second of two episodes sent for review, Abby tells her gay brother, Max (Patrick Huesinger), that she has no abiding interest in sleeping with a woman.

“For better or worse, I’m all about the dick,” she tells him.

“You and me both, sister,” he replies.

In the same episode, Lyla’s ex-, the dominatrix-craving Dan (Michael Weaver), counters her down-and-dirty child custody tactics by having Lyla’s car affixed with a gaudy “Bitch on Wheels” tat. “I finally got my sack back,” he proclaims. ”And it’s bigger than yours.”

On Real Housewives, this would come off as cheap and sordid. On Girlfriends’ Guide, it’s ribald without being dirty to the touch.

The performances, including a cameo in Episode 1 by Carrie Fisher as Abby’s longtime book editor, are uniformly solid with the exception of Edelstein. Her portrayal of Abby goes well beyond that, giving Girlfriends’ Guide a central character with both appeal and sex appeal.

Her awkwardness with a younger man is acted naturally, as are the blowups at home and the bemused reactions to Lyla’s tart asides. Edelstein has full control of her character after years of being half-submerged on House while star Hugh Laurie inhaled deeply. This is her show through and through. And Edelstein’s pitch-perfect performance elevates Girlfriends’ Guide to one of the best new series of the season.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Two of your waking hours would be well-spent with National Geo's Sleepless in America


Catching up in the classroom after another night of too little sleep. National Geo photo

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Here’s an eye opener. “Americans sleep roughly two hours less per night than they did 50 years ago.”

Yes, those were the days -- without the Internet, smart phones, hundreds upon hundreds of TV channels or even Fantasy Football. Perhaps the country was just bored.

This is a serious topic, though. And National Geographic Channel’s new Sleepless in America certainly treats it as such. Premiering Sunday, Nov. 30th at 7 p.m. (central), it’s a well-produced, expert-drenched, statistics-slathered look at the myriad dangers of not getting enough rest.

Soothing lullabies need not apply. National Geo wants you to stay fully awake throughout this two-hour special. So the theme music tends to be “urgent” and constant in hopes of jolting viewers into an awareness of how big a problem is besetting us.

The above opening statistic is among many sprinkled amid the program’s talking heads, colorful imagery and chapters on how sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, diabetes, mental illness, temper tantrums, a faster growth of cancer cells and fatalities when drivers nod off at the wheel. Sleepless in America is bookended by the story of a man who lost his wife and two of the family’s four children when a dozing motorist veered across four lanes of traffic and hit them head-on in 2007.

The offending driver had just worked a double shift at a medical facility and was en route to having engagement photos taken with his fiancee. “It’s a story of loss on both sides,” says Ben S. Howard, who wasn’t in the car at the time. His surviving son and daughter both suffered serious injuries that required long recovery periods.

Sleepless in America is produced in partnership with the National Institutes of Health and the Public Good Projects. Its tone can be a bit preachy at times, but the problem itself is a clear and ever-present danger.

The populace increasingly is “so overwhelmed with all this stimulation,” says Dr. David Gozal. As a result, minds race while “social media” addictions tighten their grip. At least six to eight hours of daily sound sleep, still considered a minimum requirement by most experts in the field, now seems like an impossible dream for many.

One of the more interesting segments is on the rigors of public high schools, only 3.8 percent of which start the day at 9 a.m. or later. Fairfax County, VA is more the norm. Classroom study begins on average at 7:20 a.m., with many pupils still glassy-eyed from too little sleep the night before. The school board has been debating whether later starts would be appreciably benefit both their health and attentiveness.

Whatever the age group, “70 million Americans suffer from some form of insomnia,” according to another telling statistic. Therefore, “In 2011, U.S. physicians wrote 60 million prescriptions for sleep medications.” But many of these have unsettling side effects or lose their effectiveness over time.

Your friendly content provider fittingly took a little mid-afternoon nap after watching the review DVD sent by National Geo. As a result, these words seem to be coming easier. Gone are the days of binge-studying for final exams, spurred by No-Doz or other more potent stimulants. I’m now more than happy to comply with the 8-hour a day/night sleep regimen. Sleepless in America might compel you to make adjustments, too. ZZZZZZZZZZZ may be the caboose of the alphabet but it’s also the engine that keeps us running.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Shame on Bill Cosby


In happier times: Bill Cosby with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. NBC photo

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Once the father of his country, Bill Cosby now is being unmade in America.

In rapid-fire succession, Netflix canceled plans to stream his standup special, NBC stopped developing a sitcom for him and TV Land said it’s dropping all scheduled episodes of The Cosby Show, including a marathon that was set to air during Thanksgiving week.

The 77-year-old comedian’s career, which had been in resurgence, has imploded following renewed allegations from numerous women who said he had drugged and then raped or otherwise sexually molested them.

If even one of these charges is true -- and it’s virtually impossible to believe that all of Cosby’s accusers are lying -- then he deserves to be exiled to the bone heap to live out his miserable life. If all of the charges somehow are proven to be false -- again, extremely unlikely -- then Cosby is permanently stained anyway during the twilight years of an all-time great comedy career.

“Social” media have greatly accelerated the time it takes to fall from grace, although Cosby’s plunge is still happening at WARP speed. It’s comparable in some ways to Tiger Woods’ crash after one woman after another came forward to brand him as a serial adulterer. But Woods eventually admitted his transgressions, although having a series of extramarital affairs is nowhere near as grievous as rape. Cosby shows every indication that he’ll go to his grave without expressing anything resembling public remorse.

Both Woods and Cosby can be prickly, obstinate and outspoken in ways that come back to bite them. Woods has never exactly been beloved, though. Cosby has. His portrayal of husband/father Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show made him both phenomenally rich and phenomenally embraceable.

Only All in the Family can match The Cosby Show’s five consecutive seasons at the very top of the prime-time Nielsen ratings. But the late Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker was famously brusque, abrasive and bigoted, with occasional thaws to room temperature. Cliff Huxtable remained firm but always huggable during The Cosby Show’s phenomenally successful eight-season run (1984-85 to 1991-92). It also was the one-and-only TV series with an African-American cast to rank No. 1 in even one, let alone five seasons.

Other than his earlier groundbreaking role as the co-star of I Spy, Cosby has always packaged himself as a cuddly mischievous family man/pitchman. He sold Jell-O with a wink and also produced and voiced award-winning cartoon shows such as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and Little Bill. The allegations against him make all of this seem like a complete act on the part of a latter day dirty old man whose crimes as a younger man are unforgivable. There may never be ironclad evidence after all this passage of time. But that seems almost immaterial, because who really believes in his total innocence?

Many people are not what they seem to be -- whether in show business or other professions. But Cosby was in the pantheon of America’s lionized entertainers. He has accumulated 17 honorary degrees, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, is a member of the Television Hall of Fame and also was a Kennedy Center honoree back in 1998.

All of those accolades and all of that image burnishing mean nothing now. Shame on Bill Cosby for that.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Travel Channel's Booze Traveler tipsy toes through its international "spirit'ual journey"

Booze Traveler_Turkey_Host Jack Maxwell sharing a meal and a glass of Raki with the local fishermen

Host Jack Maxwell gets lit up in Turkey on Raki. Travel Channel photo

Premiering: Monday, Nov. 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on Travel Channel
Hosted by: Jack Maxwell
Produced by: Kelly McPherson, Sarah Wetherbee, Emre Sahin, Maria Bukhonina, Deborah Von Brod

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It’s not known if Blues Traveler at least got a case of Jameson in return for Travel Channel’s play on the band’s name in the new series Booze Traveler.

It is known, however, that host Jack Maxwell has one of the greatest jobs in the world. The former South Boston barkeep and occasional actor is being paid to be an Anthony Bourdain of alcohol consumption, traveling the globe on what his network calls “the ultimate spirit’ual journey.” He’ll drink to that -- early and often.

The Monday, Nov. 24th premiere episode finds the convivial and easily amused Maxwell in Turkey, where the Muslim faith and heavy drinking have long been adversaries. But Maxwell has no trouble finding the right crowds, whether it’s the “Defenders of Anarchy” getting blasted before a soccer game or bands of devoted Raki swillers.

“When they pound the pre-game beers, it’s not just for the buzz. It’s an act of defiance,” Maxwell says before joining the hearty partiers of working class Besiktas.

Maxwell and his Turkish guide recover the following morning with some healing Boza, which is mostly alcohol-free and resembles a thick, creamy egg nog. Later it’s on to the “trendy Bloodhound Bar” for a stiffer Boza-and-booze cocktail.

All manners of food and alcoholic drink meet with Maxwell’s enthusiastic approval. In that respect he’s more like Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, swooning over whatever greasy spoon concoction comes his way. Maxwell is more descriptive, though. Kaymak, a traditional Turkey dish made from water buffalo milk, is “like eating clouds.” And a glass of ice cold Raki “tastes like licorice on a speeding bobsled ‘cause it goes down smooth and fast.”

Booze Traveler also has an educational component, with a little history woven into all the glass and bottle tipping. And Maxwell learns the proper way to pick poppies from a batch of giggling young women.

Travel Channel will present 15 one-hour episodes of Booze Traveler in its inaugural season, with the host also drinking his way through future venues such as Armenia, Belize, Lithuania, Mongolia and Nepal.

Maxwell can be a little too camera-conscious at times and he works overtime to pound home the irony of a Muslim nation in which “everyone loves to drink.” Well, certainly not everyone. But Maxwell seems to have no trouble finding the Muslims who greatly enjoy a good drink or 10.

“It’s been an incredible trip,” he says at episode’s end. “But booze always takes its toll. Time to clean out the system.”

He does so with a bowl of tripe soup that’s touted as a sure cure for a hangover. The show itself goes down easier than that probably did. But if you’re going to match this guy drink for drink, then by all means do try this at home. We’d hate to see you behind a wheel in the states Maxwell sometimes finds himself in.


ABC anchor David Muir: from pizza chef to Muppets interview, it's all in the night's news


David Muir is at ease interviewing two Muppets. Photos: Ed Bark

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John Muir was a naturalist, most in his element when alone in the elements.

ABC’s David Muir is a TV natural, in his element alone at a news desk but more so when out and about doing things that networks anchors just didn’t used to do.

On the Monday, Nov. 17th edition of World News Tonight, he earnestly put together his own pizza for a “Made In America” segment on the virtues of California olive oil. “Mine is just not going to be quite as pretty as yours,” he told a New York City restaurateur before happily removing his personal pie from the oven and taste-testing it. Mmm, pretty good.

The Monday, Nov. 10th World News found him interviewing Muppet characters for his story on Sesame Street’s 45th anniversary. Muir, who just turned 41, grew up watching the show as a kid. “Did you know he was actually orange in the first season?” he asked viewers, referencing Oscar the Grouch.

ABC chief meteorologist Ginger Zee, who lately has logged ample time on World News during the cold weather snap, also found time to jump out of a plane on Friday, Nov. 7th during a Good Morning America segment. For some reason, Muir found this to be newsworthy. So on that night’s World News, he narrated some of the footage of Zee “taking us with her for every single second of her sky dive live.”

At the close of that same newscast, Muir hung out backstage with Bruce Springsteen, Jon Stewart, Louis C.K. and John Oliver, all of whom performed at a Wounded Warriors benefit. Muir beckoned Lee Woodruff, wife of ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, to join him with Oliver. “You’re a poser,” she told the host of HBO’s satirical Last Week Tonight. “This is a real newsman.”

“No one’s denying that,” Oliver said twice while Muir seemed to enjoy the moment.

In the past week, Muir also has huddled up close with a 93-year-old World War II veteran and Sarah Jessica Parker, somewhat dubiously named World News’ “Person of the Week” for her efforts on behalf of the New York City ballet.

“No one ever stops construction for me,” he said when she turned heads as they walked through Manhattan.

DSCN4426 DSCN4427

Muir in NYC with WWII vet and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Muir, young enough to be the kid brother of either Brian Williams or Scott Pelley, also logs ample time on ABC’s Good Morning America, where he’s usually somewhere near Zee. He’s not averse to a little dancing on the side during the show’s live concert segments. Problem is, GMA has gotten so slap-happy that even Zee’s predecessor, Sam Champion, has carped about its content. And he’s a guy who was the slap happiest of them all.

But this just in: It’s working. The carefully managed softening of ABC’s World News, GMA and Nightline, under the guidance of former news president Ben Sherwood (soon to be president of the ABC-Disney Television Group), has paid ratings dividends across the board. GMA has risen to No. 1 in its pitched battle with former kingpin Today while Nightline’s often goop-infested presentation is beating both Seth Meyers and Craig Ferguson in total viewers and 25-to-54-year-olds (main advertiser target audience for news programming).

World News, which Muir has anchored since taking over for Diane Sawyer on Sept. 1st of this year, still trails NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams by a relatively small margin in total viewers. But it has inched ahead among 25-to-54-year-olds, beating Nightly News in seven of the last eight weeks, including the latest one (Nov. 10-14).

DSCN4424 DSCN4423

David Muir at the anchor desk and slinging his handmade pizza.

NBC is striving to keep Williams at or near the top with a new slogan -- “He’s been there. He’ll be there.”

Celebrating his 10th anniversary as anchor of Nightly News, Williams spent considerable time in the hard reporting wilderness -- both domestically and abroad -- before succeeding Tom Brokaw. Touting his experience is another way of saying that Muir is a pretty boy poser without portfolio.

But despite his boyish matinee idol good looks, Muir has some solid reporting credentials in the bank. In fact he’s been all over the globe, just as Williams was during his run-up to Nightly News anchordom.

It’s still doubtful that Williams would agree to a chat with the Muppets or a stint as an ad hoc pizza chef on Nightly News. But he’s not exactly pure in terms of the fading debate over how network news anchors should conduct themselves. Williams has hosted Saturday Night Live and long has had a killer sense of humor as a late night talk show guest. In fact he could teach Muir quite a bit about how to deliver a punch line.

For now, Muir still has the boundless energy of a very cuddly and cute puppy. He’ll do what needs to be done in rapidly changing times. All of this comes with the complete endorsement and encouragement of his bosses, who no doubt loved him in that cook’s apron and might be lobbying him to next do a stint as a bartender. Never fear. They’ll find a “news” angle.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's State of Affairs arrives in a bad state


Katherine Heigl is an addled high level CIA briefer in Affairs of State. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Nov. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Katherine Heigl, Alfre Woodard, Adam Kaufman, Sheila Vand, David Harbour, Chris McKenna
Produced by: Dario Scardapane, Joe Carnahan, Robert Simonds, Katherine Heigl, Nancy Heigl, Julia Franz, Henry Crumpton, Rodney Faraon, Sophie Watts

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It’s a sad state of affairs in State of Affairs for CIA presidential briefer Charleston “Charlie” Tucker.

Her fiancé died one year ago during a special ops mission gone bad in Kabul. She was also present and saw it happen. Charlie’s (Katherine Heigl) coping mechanisms lately include getting blasted at bars and then having random sex. Viewers relive both the Kabul firefight -- in very loud, herky jerky fashion -- and her latest fling via a collection of opening flashbacks bridged by Charlie talking back to her shrink.

No good can come of this, she’s told of her promiscuous ways. “Good doesn’t have to come,” Charlie replies. Pause, one-two. “I do.”

Replacing The Blacklist on Mondays after its fall finale, NBC’s State of Affairs arrives as the last new broadcast network series of the fall season. The Peacock already has axed two of its newcomers, A to Z and Bad Judge, while ABC has dumped Manhattan Love Story and Fox has sacked Utopia. Time flies when you’re having lousy ratings.

Viewers with a taste for high level Washington dramas already have two better options in ABC’s Scandal and CBS’ new Madam Secretary. And on the flawed female CIA agent front, Carrie Mathison of Showtime’s Homeland runs crazy concentric circles around State of Affairs while also registering much higher on the believability front.

In this vehicle, we’re supposed to believe that Charlie and her young, wisecracking wee hours team (their shift starts at 2 a.m.) find it unnecessary to wake President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard) when faced with the choice of trying to save a captured American doctor from a potential beheading or taking advantage of an 80 percent chance to kill the Middle East’s No. 1 terrorist, Omar Fatah. Apparently the prez needs her beauty sleep? Whatever the case, Charlie continues to bark out directives while also tangling with an acting CIA director named Skinner (guest star Dennis Boutsikaris).

Complicating matters is the fact that the hostage doc looks an awful lot like Charlie’s deceased fiancé, Aaron, who also happens to have been President Payton’s son. Wait, it gets better, er, more preposterous.

Upon finally convening for the daily presidential briefing, Charlie neglects to even tell the Commander in Chief about the prime chance they have to kill Fatah. “It wasn’t left out. It just wasn’t real at the time,” she later says lamely.

For this transgression Charlie immediately gets fired and brought up on charges, right? Nuh uh. Reassigned to appointments secretary at Camp David? Nope. A slap on the wrist and a hearty “That’s my girl” from the prez after they attend a memorial service for Aaron? And now you know. Then again, viewers may have to swallow even harder at the sight of Charlie escaping a tight spot by hopping aboard a flatbed truck.

That dark day in Kabul of course will be a running thread throughout State of Affairs. Because both Charlie and a long lost, resurfacing dude named Nick Vera (Chris McKenna) know the real story. Or at least that’s what he says before Charlie winds up in a bar again, up to her old tricks.

Heigl, who first came to fame on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, seemingly has little chance to succeed in this very far-fetched outing. Her curves remain nicely intact during the times she gets to wear form-fitting dresses. But State of Affairs otherwise is a poor fit for one and all. Telltale sign: A total of nine executive producers, including Heigl and her mother, Nancy. That’s too many cooks for what turns out to be a half-baked hour of ridiculosity.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

UP network's Paper Angels yearns to be on your Christmas movie map


Matthew Settle plays a goodly married man in Paper Angels. UP photo

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It can be very tough sledding against cable’s three Christmas juggernauts.

Hallmark (“The Heart of Christmas”), Lifetime (“It’s a Wonderful Lifetime”) and ABC Family (“25 Days of Christmas”) all pounce on the holiday season as though they were the Discovery network during Shark Week. Except that their extravaganzas last 4 to 6 times longer.

The still relatively upstart UP (formerly GMC/ the Gospel Music Channel) hopes to someday become a first-string player in this merry maelstrom. Its latest come-on is “Everything You Love About Christmas.” An “Uplifting” cavalcade of holiday fare fired up on Nov. 2nd and continues on Sunday, Nov. 16th with the premiere of Paper Angels at 6 p.m. (central)..

Those other networks don’t need much help in spreading the word, but UP still does. Its Christmas movies first caught my attention last season, when a pair popped up in the mail. Aw, what the hell, let’s give ‘em a shot. So I watched both Silver Bells and Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas. And although overtly syrupy of course, they also warmed the heart well beyond room temperature. What did I like about them? They had diversified, multi-ethnic casts and dared to be “faith-based” without pounding bumps on anyone’s head. The “true meaning” of Christmas should amount to more than Jimmy Selfie spitting up his giblet gravy after whining about not getting an Apple Phone XXX with an app for tuning out 24/7. Dropping in at church and saying a little pre-meal prayer, which actually happen in most UP movies, shouldn’t be viewed as excessive proselytizing.

Paper Angels helps to promote the Salvation Army’s very worthy Angel Tree Program (for which NBC5 is the longtime sponsor in D-FW). Country drawler Jimmy Wayne, a former foster child, sings the title song during the opening credits. Not a bad way to start.

The movie begins with a beer-guzzling, physically abusive father/husband pushing his wife, Lynn Brandt (Josie Bisset), to the limit. So she flees with her two children, teenager Thomas (Rustin Gresiuk) and pre-teen Sara (Farryn Van Humbeck). Eleven months later, as another Thanksgiving nears, they’re barely getting by in the small town of Murrayville. Lynn is waitressing and Thomas is beset by a high school bully named Vic West (Burkely Duffield). Looks like it’s going to be a very lean Christmas.

Meanwhile, the marketing and design company founded by Kevin Morrell (Matthew Settle) is falling victim to that old bugaboo -- a lousy economy. The timing is lousy, too. Wife Jenny (Kendra Anderson) is having a difficult pregnancy while also expecting twins. Kevin tries to internalize his problems while the easygoing, semi-saintly Jenny always seems to buck him up.

During one of Kevin’s lower points, kindly Pastor Cody (Danny Wattley) invites him to drop back in at the community rec center to teach some of the kids his “old school” basketball moves. He finds himself rejuvenated during one-one-one games with Thomas, who’s got game but has been ostracized by the bully and his crappy pals.

So how does the Angel Tree fit in? Desperate to get gifts for her kids, Lynn asks for their wish lists and pins them on the Salvation Army’s shopping mall tree. Thomas, who balks at being a “charity case,” agrees to participate only if mom doesn’t read his list. Be assured that this will be the vehicle for a very satisfying, heartwarming climax.

There are some storyline missteps along the way. It’s nigh impossible to believe, for instance, that Kevin and Thomas spend all that time together at the gym without ever knowing each other’s first names. A standard issue gushy young TV reporter seems about right, though. And Paper Angels thankfully doesn’t end with everything wrapped in a tidy bow.

Upcoming new UP movies include Christmas in Palm Springs (in which Ian Ziering takes a break from Sharknado); A Christmas Tree Miracle (wonder what The Love Boat’s Jill Whelan looks like now); and Marry Us For Christmas (sequel to last year’s Marry Me For Christmas).

Judging from previous experiences, these will all be decently made holiday hand holders with heart, soul and a little spirituality. If you’re in the mood, Paper Angels is worth your while. As is UP, which would really appreciate your patronage during a season that’s still supposed to be primarily about giving. Imagine that.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net