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NBC's Superstore somehow opens for business


America Ferrera, Ben Feldman strive to survive Superstore. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Nov. 30th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes sneak-previewing on NBC before show returns on Jan. 4th
Starring: America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, Mark McKinney, Lauren Ash, Colton Dunn, Nico Santos, Nichole Bloom, Johnny Pemberton
Produced by: Justin Spitzer, Ruben Fleischer, David Bernad, Gabe Miller, Jonathan Green

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Buyers beware. NBC is sneaking Superstore upon you following Monday’s sure to be heavily-watched two-hour edition of The Voice.

For the most part it’s about as much fun as camping out overnight in a freezing ice storm to snare a Black Friday discount on a Darth Vader toaster. Although some people really do seem to get into that.

Superstore won’t return until Jan. 4th after the Nov. 30th jump start of back-to-back episodes. NBC sent four of them for review and the overall quality seldom rises above excruciating. Perhaps I’m being too kind.

America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Ben Feldman (last season’s failed A to Z) head the cast, with former Kids in the Hall standout Mark McKinney adding a hopelessly broad and goofy characterization as store manager Glenn. The big, sprawling place is called Cloud 9, although Living Hell would better describe the overall experience for actors and viewers alike.

Virtually every joke lands with a resounding thud, never more so than when a moronic white rapper named Bo (Johnny Pemberton) is striving to be “street.” He’s also responsible for impregnating a rather dense teenage employee named Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), who should be running at WARP speed from this guy. Worse TV characters surely have popped up over these many years. But Bo (middle name Derek) seems determined to achieve new vistas in off-putting. And although not listed in NBC publicity materials as a regular character, he very much infects each of these four episodes.

Ferrera, who should know better, has signed on as true-blue employee Amy, although she always wears name tags that identify her otherwise. Feldman is new worker Jonah, an easy target for ridicule. He’d like to make a little time with Amy, who’s married (unhappily, apparently) and also has a child. Neither are shown.

Superstore ham-handedly touches nearly every base in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical challenges and body shapes.

Amy and Cheyenne are Latina. Garrett (Colton Dunn), who’s black, gets around in a motorized wheelchair. Mateo is Asian and gay. Officious assistant store manager Dina (Lauren Ash) is decidedly plus-sized. Glenn is the buffoonish Christian, with McKinney using a super-shrill voice to ward off even a faint hint of subtlety. There’s no attendant laugh track, which would be living a lie anyway.

Viewers also are presented with recurring, brief sight gags of customers caught in the acts of being their base-level selves. Two of them joust with shopping carts in a narrow aisle. Another one lowers his pants and takes a dump in a display toilet. A little boy does the same in a kiddie potty for sale. All of the featured employees spend enough time in the break room to let the store be looted as well. Somehow it isn’t.

Episode 2 finds dimwit Glenn priming himself for a visit from a woman reporter doing a story on Cloud Nine for the corporate magazine. Her journalism degree, which she mentions, doesn’t stop her from coming on to a willing Jonah in the stockroom. It’s all captured on security cameras. But Dina, who has the hots for Jonah, decides that in fact he’s been “sexually assaulted.”

“Now listen up, Connie Chung,” Dina barks after calling the reporter “a journalist and a rapist.” Call your lawyers, Connie. There’s still a little time.

Superstore eventually will be paired on Mondays with Eva Longoria’s new Telenovela comedy series, which will be getting a Dec. 7th, post-Voice sneak preview. The latter series surely will be better than this. Won’t it? For now, though, cleanup on Aisle 5. NBC has left a very big mess.

GRADE: D-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A second helping of the story behind Thanksgiving in PBS' The Pilgrims


Roger Rees gives his final performance in The Pilgrims. PBS photo

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As turkey comparisons go, this one’s drier with less savory stuffing but gets the job done if you’re hungry for a second TV depiction of how Thanksgiving came to be.

Previously reviewed in these spaces, National Geographic Channel’s two-part, four-hour Saints & Strangers tells this tale vividly and touchingly, with Vincent “Pete Campbell” Kartheiser its centerpiece in his first post-Mad Men outing.

PBS’ two-hour The Pilgrims (Tuesday, Nov. 24th at 7 p.m. locally on KERA13 and repeated on Thanksgiving Day) airs under the American Experience umbrella and is notable for the late Roger Rees’ last performance. Both Rees and Kartheiser play stout of heart religious separatist William Bradford, who became the governor and driving force of the Plymouth settlement. Similarities end there in terms of where they find themselves.

Rees’ version of Bradford is near death. Shot mostly in extreme closeup, he muses and reflects upon his New World experiences and steadfast faith in God’s will. In Saints & Strangers, Kartheiser’s Bradford is no less God-fearing but brand new to the experience of being a stranger in a strange land after that arduous journey aboard the Mayflower in the fall 1620.

Narrated by actor Oliver Platt, the PBS version is from Ric Burns, Ken’s under-recognized younger brother. Aside from Rees’ intermittent acting -- and a pre-teen seen as the younger Bradford -- The Pilgrims is strictly a docu-film with the usual heavy doses of talking head authors and historians. It offers a much lengthier back story for Bradford, who in his homeland of England suffered the loss of both his parents by the time he was seven years old.

Once in the New World, the stories of the Pilgrims and the original native American settlers pretty much dovetail factually in both productions. But if you’re going to sit still for one of them, Saints & Strangers is a considerably more satisfying and immediate experience. It humanizes both sides of the Plymouth equation while The Pilgrims is almost unrelentingly somber and comparatively at a distance.

“It must have been overwhelming,” historian Sarah Hardman Moore says of the constant hardships endured. Well, yes, you could say that. But Saints & Strangers shows it.

A majority of the various experts are women, which is a nice change of pace. Kathleen Donegan, billed as a “literary critic,” is given major chunks of audio time. Wampanoag tribe historian Linda Coombs says the first Thanksgiving feast shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoags was barely a footnote in written accounts of those times. “The rest of it is fluff that’s been added over the centuries,” she sniffs.

Rees, who died in July of cancer at age 71, brings heart and presence to the role of a physically failing Bradford. And an interesting postscript details the long search for his historically vital manuscript, which had gone missing for 80 years.

The Pilgrims ends up doing its duty, providing a solid meal in the process. Saints & Strangers gets the drumstick, though. It’s simple a more watchable and palatable feast.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Crackle takes a tangled look at high-priced auctioneering in The Art of More


Connivers played by Dennis Quaid, Christian Cooke, Kate Bosworth forge various unholy alliances in The Art of More. Crackle photo

Premiering: Currently streaming all 10 Season One episodes on Crackle
Starring: Christian Cooke, Kate Bosworth, Dennis Quaid, Cary Elwes, Savannah Basley, Patrick Sabongui
Produced by: Dennis Quaid, Gary Fleder, Chuck Rose, Laurence Mark, Tamara Chestna

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For those who remain unaware of it, Crackle is neither a Rice Krispies wanna be nor the new sidekick of the longstanding Hershey brand candy bar.

Matter of fact, free, advertiser-supported Crackle has been around since 2007, when Sony Pictures Entertainment launched it as a re-brand of Grouper. Still, it’s been pretty slow-going on the consumer awareness front. Crackle became available on Roku and other streaming devices in 2011 and made its first sizable imprint in the summer of 2012 with Jerry Seinfeld’s critically praised Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

But in the years since, pay-per-month Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have continued to set the pace in the growingly competitive world of Internet streaming media. Crackle has responded feebly with originals such as Sports Jeopardy! and (urp) Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser. Its latest effort is far more ambitious and also the first time Crackle has mounted an original drama series. The Art of More, which on Thursday began streaming all 10 Season One episodes, is high on production values but low on basic believability with its discombobulated tale of two very amoral New York art auction houses. Put your Monet where your mouth is, and let’s hope it’s not stolen or forged.

Dennis Quaid, the series’ principal executive producer, also co-stars as swaggering, hard-partying real estate mogul Sam Brukner, whose up-for-bidding art collection is the envy of rival auctioneers Parke-Mason and DeGraaf. Brukner also has political ambitions and dismisses anyone who questions his lifestyle. After all, the people want a can-do authentic guy as New York governor, not a phony politician. Sound familiar? But the boozing Brukner has much better hair than teetotaling Donald Trump. In Episode 10, however, he does bellow “You’re fired.”

Vying for Brukner’s business are two young gun auction house connivers without any compunctions about how they make it happen. Even so, icy Roxanna Whitman (Kate Bosworth) of DeGraaf is a walk in the park compared to Parke-Mason’s cocksure Graham Connor (Christian Cooke), whose real name is Tommy. During the Iraq war, he got involved in art theft and smuggling. Back in the States, Parke-Mason welcomes him with open arms after he lands filthy rich Arthur Davenport (Cary Elwes) and his imposing art collection.

Unfortunately for Connor, his old Iraqi partner in crime, Hassan Al Afshar (Patrick Sabongui), has made his way to NYC and wants to do one last illicit deal in order to raise enough money to free his family from the home country. This leads to the killing of a security guard and Connor’s complicity. His problems quickly escalate, with FBI investigators and Russian mobsters also making Connor’s life a living hell. But it’s hard to empathize with a guy who otherwise would be screwing people anyway. Connor’s halfway noble pursuit of Elizabeth Mason (Savannah Basley), daughter of Parke-Mason’s co-founder, perhaps generates a smidgen of rooting interest in a central character who lamely wails at one point, “I’m not a master criminal, OK? I’m just a guy who’s lookin’ over his shoulder all the time.”

Meanwhile, Roxanna’s gambits include conning a dying old man into auctioning off his supposedly priceless and long-mothballed art collection. But big problems kick in when the centerpiece of this cache, a Vincent Van Gogh painting, is nowhere to be found.

Amid all the gangsterland goings-on and art house double-dealings, Art of More is on firmer ground with an interesting story device that opens most episodes. Via brief flashbacks, some of the high-line items and collections up for auction are shown in their original states. In Episode 2, a substitute keyboardist for The Who stumbles upon Pete Townsend’s written lyrics for “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during the band’s 1969 concert in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Episode 5 begins in Antarctica, circa 1912, when an expedition party led by Robert Falcon Scott eventually was claimed by the elements. His journal and attendant belongings now command heavy prices.

Quaid involves himself fairly heavily in the overall proceedings, playing against type as the “impossibly egotistical” Brukner. He clearly savors this role, sometimes sounds like Jack Nicholson and is fun to watch in small doses. Elwes, on the other hand, is for the most part ridiculous as the snooty Davenport. But he’ll always have The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men In Tights.

Season One of Art of More ends very open-ended, with Connor sinking into even deeper depths of misery and criminality while Brukner makes a drunken spectacle of himself during what’s meant to be a triumphant party he’s thrown on his behalf. Roxanna, whose boss is her demanding and belittling father, affixes another icy stare in her closing scene.

Crackle is unlikely to set the binge-watching meter whirring with this one. Plus, it takes longer, with all those commercial breaks to navigate. Still, The Art of More seems like progress in an increasingly rough, tough streaming world. It’s at the point where we’ve come to expect appreciably more from this world than from the Big Four broadcast networks. So these can be tough nuts to crack for Crackle. Or in this particular case, tough Gogh-ing.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Saints & Strangers gives National Geographic Channel a hearty Thanksgiving Day primer


William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser) and Squanto (Kalani Queypo) enjoy a Thanksgiving laugh at Plymouth Colony. National Geo photo

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He’s bearded, bedraggled, has a firm moral compass and is almost three-and-a-half centuries removed from Mad Men’s times.

That’s how Vincent Kartheiser has chosen to divest himself of smarmy, conniving ad man Pete Campbell after making the character famous on AMC’s first signature drama series. It’s akin to making a U-turn detour from Twin Peaks to Mayberry R.F.D.

Kartheiser plays future Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford in National Geographic Channel’s Saints & Strangers. The two-part, four-hour production premieres on Sunday, Nov. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) and concludes on the following night. It’s a detailed and balanced look at how the first “Thanksgiving” came to be, with the portrayals of resident Native Americans a revelation in terms of their customs, machinations and tribal differences. All of their dialogue, save for the English-speaking Squanto (Kalani Queypo), is in the native tongue of the original inhabitants. This calls for ample subtitle reading but also gives the drama a bracing authenticity.

Epitomized by Bradford, the “Saints” in this presentation are God-fearing religious separatists who fled England in 1620 in search of lives free from persecution. The “Strangers” are accompanying mercenary employees of the Merchant Adventure Company.

“They came for fortune. We came for God,” Bradford says in the opening narrative.

Life aboard their Mayflower vessel is grim and storm-wracked, with one crisis after another tormenting the men and their women while the music swells, dies down and swells anew. A baby’s born, a crew member dies. Bradford and his wife, Dorothy (Anna Camp), puke over the bow and are pronounced wussies by an ornery “Stranger.” A beam breaks and water pours in while Bradford keeps the faith: “We do not question the will of God.”

But at last there’s land. And huzzahs. And further misery and woes, brought on mostly by disease while the Native Americans consider what to do about these invaders in their midsts. Massasoit (Raoul Trujillo), leader of the fair-minded Pokanoket tribe, vacillates between attack mode and conciliation. Squanto eventually is chosen as the go-between, having mastered the English language after too many voyages as a captured slave aboard various English ships.

Saints & Strangers can be a little overwrought at times. But its story also is inspiring, instructive and sometimes quite touching. The vexed but steady Bradford continually must make tough decisions in the face of opposition from the likes of his own military advisor, Miles Standish (Michael Jibson); constantly grousing Stranger John Billington (Brian F. O’Byrne); and the brawny but somewhat less combative Stephen Hopkins (Black Sails star Ray Stevenson).

Other principals are initial Pilgrim leader John Carver (Ron Livingston), ad hoc diplomat Edward Winslow (Barry Sloane) and Hopkins’ sometimes volatile wife, Elizabeth (Natascha McElhone). The Native American contingent also includes the elite warrior Hobbamock (Tatanka Means), his wife, Kaya (Bianca Mannie) and their son, Wematin (Nahum Hughes).

Saints & Sinners makes a strong visual impression, whether its picturesque vistas or the hard scrabble existence on Plymouth Colony. Death often strikes suddenly, and doesn’t spare some of the main characters. No one is ever entirely safe, rendering the peaceful interludes all the more powerful. The inaugural “Giving of Thanks” is genuinely moving, with Native Americans and the new settlers feasting and playing as one.

There are four hours to fill, though, so some liberties are taken. They principally concern Squanto, and whether he may have been duplicitous in his dealing with both the Pilgrims and his own tribe. It adds some rather soapy intrigue while also cementing the bond between the oft-lonely Bradford and his suddenly besieged new best friend.

All in all, National Geo should be justifiably proud of this production, which serves Kartheiser well while also telling the companion stories of the people who got to Plymouth first. A satisfying ending leads to an epilogue detailing the further lives and deaths of Bradford and several other mainstays. As governor, he managed to keep the peace for more than 50 years. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever -- except for perhaps the Thanksgiving Day these Pilgrims birthed.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Amazon's The Man in the High Castle struggles to meet high expectations with its post-World War II occupations


He’s seen fire, he’s seen reign. Rufus Sewell plays occupying Nazi commander John Smith in The Man in the High Castle. Amazon photo

Premiering: All 10 episodes begin streaming Friday, Nov. 20th on Amazon Prime
Starring: Luke Kleintank, Alexa Davalos, Rufus Sewell, Rupert Evans, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Joel de la Fuente, DJ Qualls
Produced by: Frank Spotnitz, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, David Semel, Stewart Mackinnon, Christian Baute, Isa Dick Hackett, Christopher Tricarico, Jace Richdale, Richard Heus

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It’s been 28 TV seasons since the United States last knuckled under to an occupying foreign power.

That came to pass in ABC’s Amerika, a 14-and-a-half-hour miniseries in which the Soviet Union made life very miserable for the likes of a previously incarcerated freedom fighter played by a monotonic and virtually expressionless Kris Kristofferson.

Amerika wasn’t the big hit ABC expected it to be, so any plans for a sequel were abandoned. Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, which begins streaming its entire 10-episode first season on Friday, Nov. 20th, in effect picks up the Amerika baton and strives to run with it. But although impressively filmic and suitably ambitious, it congeals too often during the six episodes made available for review. There’s a lot of murkiness, too, with an abundance of detours taken from the same-named 1963 Philip K. Dick novel on which it’s based.

High Castle misstepped twice before Amazon stepped in. In 2010, the BBC announced a four-part version that never materialized. The Syfy channel got involved three years later, but its planned miniseries also was aborted. Co-executive producer Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) has been aboard all along and Frank Spotnitz, a key collaborator on The X-Files, joined him during the Syfy false-start. Both have impressive track records, so perhaps High Castle can still sort itself out. Episode 6 provides some promise of that with its emphasis on intimate, meaningful character development after too many smallish plot twists amid an overall sluggish pace.

The year is 1962, with the U.S. divided into The Greater Nazi Reich, the Japanese Pacific States and a rather cockamamie “Neutral Zone” dividing these two occupied territories. A good part of the first six hours end up stuck in Neutral, where handsome young East Coaster Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) crosses paths with pretty young West Coaster Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos). Both are hiding something, with Joe arriving via a semi-truck that he’s driven from New York while Juliana debarks from a bus trip that began in San Francisco.

Don’t expect much of a backstory as to how Germany and Japan somehow “won” World War II before establishing an uneasy alliance in the U.S. It’s uneasy because an elderly, Parkinson’s Disease-afflicted Adolf Hitler (seen fleetingly in photos and TV coverage) appears to be nearing death. In this particular alternate universe, Hitler champions a peaceful co-existence between the two occupying powers while more ruthlessly inclined Nazis wait in the wings to succeed him and then stamp out the Japanese.

Meanwhile in the Greater Nazi Reich, uniformed commander John Smith (Rufus Sewell) is an authoritarian torture-meister/family man whose orders must be followed or else. In the Japanese Pacific States, the arguably even more sinister Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) will stop at nothing to get information out of recalcitrant captives. Episode 2 finds factory worker Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) at his mercy. Frank’s also the boyfriend of Juliana, whose sudden disappearance serves to put him in this mess.

Clashing with Inspector Kido is elderly Japanese trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who glares a lot but also displays some compassion. There’s also Frank’s fellow factor worker friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls), a stock supporting character whose services aren’t really needed but too often are deployed. Meanwhile, a sneering, toothpick-sucking bounty hunter known as “The Marshal” (Burn Gorman) manages to enliven matters in the Neutral Zone while also coming off as more than a little too cartoonish.

As for the mysterious title character, well, don’t expect to see him anytime soon, if ever. Is he the maker of contraband newsreels -- “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” -- that show the Allies in fact winning World War II? Perhaps he’s just the conduit to which all these films must be delivered in hopes of someday turning the tables on the Nazis and Japanese. Then again, might he be a myth who doesn’t really exist? Or maybe he’s The Walrus. Viewers will be no closer to the answer after Hour 6 than they are from the very start.

High Castle’s strongest character, Sewell’s John Smith, is an interesting blend of evil-doing and stern but sometimes civil mentoring of young minions, including his teenage son. But Joe and Juliana make for a rather tedious twosome during their extended time together in the Neutral Zone. His motives are less than pure. But even after they’re revealed, Joe isn’t much to hang one’s hat on in terms of a story-driving central character.

No one expects any big belly laughs from such an enterprise. Still, the cheerlessness begins to take a toll, with the combined angst of Juliana and Frank building throughout the first six episodes while the big picture storytelling suffers in comparison.

Amazon Prime takes a big swing here, and doesn’t entirely miss. More was anticipated, though, with High Castle so far tending to buckle under the weight of some very heavy ambitions and expectations.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Chicago times three with Fire, P.D. and now Med


Chicago Med makes it another trifecta for Dick Wolf. NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Nov. 17th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Colin Donnell, Nick Gehlfuss, S. Epatha Merkerson, Oliver Platt, Torrey DeVitto, Brian Tee, Rachel DiPillo, Yaya DaCosta
Produced by: Dick Wolf, Andrew Schneider, Diana Frolov, Matt Olmstead, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Danielle Gelber, Arthur Forney, Peter Jankowski

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Producer Dick Wolf seemed to be on the verge of Hollywood extinction several years ago when NBC began separating itself from his longstanding Law & Order “brand” -- as he emphatically insists on calling it.

Only Law & Order: SVU survived after the Peacock had dropped the original Law & Order and spinoffs Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial By Jury and Law & Order: L.A..

But if the wolf seemed at the door, the Wolf man himself declined to run scared. Instead he fired back with Chicago Fire in 2012 and Chicago P.D. in early 2014. Now comes Chicago Med, giving the 68-year-old survivor with the prickly cactus personality another trio of interlocking parts. As he says in publicity materials, “characters on all three shows migrate freely” within their Windy City environ. The better to “crossover,” particularly during those higher-powered ratings “sweeps” months of November, February and May.

Starting Tuesday, Nov. 17th, Chicago Med is being paired with Chicago Fire, whose blaze-battling Christopher Herrmann (David Eigenberg) has a brief walk-on during the first episode of the newcomer. As hospital dramas go, it’s not in the same league with NBC’s long-running ER but has a stronger, more relatable opening episode than CBS’ new Code Black did.

Quickly registering is Colin Donnell as a newly arrived “trauma fellow” named Dr. Connor Rhodes. Not coincidentally it would seem, he has a more than passing resemblance to a young Jon Hamm. After some opening heroics during a subway car disaster, he trots his handsome visage over to state-of-the-art Gaffney Chicago Medical Center, which has just been dedicated by real-life Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

Patients are pouring in, mostly from the subway wreck. But there’s also a Northwestern University student who’s battled severe respiratory problems and crummy parents for his entire life. Kind-hearted Chief of Psychiatry Dr. Daniel Charles (an appealingly subdued Oliver Platt) has known young Jamie since he was an eight-year-old. So he fully empathizes, and they have some nice moments together.

The doctors are dedicated, of course. And throughout the first hour, they also pretty much get along. The young chief ER resident, Dr. Will Halstead (Nick Gehlfuss), can be a bit arrogant at times but is nowhere in the vicinity of Dr. Gregory House. NBC’s description of the series says he’s the brother of Det. Jay Halstead (Jesse Lee Soffer), a regular on Chicago P.D..

The always welcome S. Epatha Merkerson segues from the original Law & Order to a co-starring role on Chicago Med as hospital head Sharon Goodwin. The thoroughly diversified cast also includes Dr. Ethan Choi (Brian Tee); nurse April Sexton (Yaya DaCosta); unsteady fourth year medical student Sarah Reese (Rachel DiPillo); and Dr. Natalie Manning (Torrey DeVitto), a pregnant, prospective single mom.

Chicago Med breaks no new ground and is ever-ready to bring on either heartfelt piano music or urgent drumbeating, depending on whether a doctor is “having a moment” or handling a sudden medical crisis. Tuesday’s premiere includes two instances of MDs interceding in the interests of greater goods. Expect no surprises in that respect.

Viewers looking for the best new medical drama of this still young season can find it in Chicago Med. Then again, there are only two of them so far. So let’s not get too carried away while also not betting against Wolf someday extending his Chicago brand into the courtroom, city hall and maybe even the stockyards.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Starz offers heaping helpings of fear and self-loathing in the ballet miniseries Flesh and Bone


Demonic plague: A puppet master and his budding star. Starz photo

Premiering: Sunday, Nov. 8th at 7 p.m. (central) with all eight episodes immediately available to binge on
Starring: Ben Daniels, Sarah Hay, Emily Tyra, Damon Herriman, Irina Dvorovenko, Raychel Diane Weiner, Sascha Radetsky, Josh Helman, Tina Benko, Karell Williams, Marina Benedict, Patrick Page
Produced by: Moira Walley-Beckett, Lawrence Bender, Kevin Brown, John Melfi

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The Starz company line regarding Flesh and Bone is that its costs and logistics skewered an initial plan to make it a year-to-year series and cut it down to a one-shot eight-hour miniseries.

The underlying story may go like this: Starz took a look at the finished product and wondered whether there possibly could be a sustained audience for this extraordinarily morose, voyeuristic and pretentious treatise about a New York City ballet company populated by cowed, catty, misery-drenched dancers and run by a vain, viciously twisted founder/director.

Premiering on Sunday, Nov. 8th with all eight episodes then immediately available for binge-watching, Flesh and Bone is to the art of the dance what the laughable Showgirls was to the Las Vegas flesh market. Except that the art of the dance in Flesh and Bone also includes stripping to help make ends meet. What emerges is a thorough mess on a grandiose scale. But hate-watchers may want to drink deeply -- both figuratively and literally. Your friendly content provider devoured the whole thing in large part to see if Flesh and Bone could possibly dig its way out of its mountainous pile of debris. It can’t.

The waif-ish little girl lost is Pittsburgh-bred Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay), a severely traumatized but talented ballet dancer who’s delivered unto the hands of American Ballet Company sicko Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels). Claire has fled Steeltown’s “Polish Hill” after being deeply scarred by both her drunken, demeaning father and a brother with whom she was intimate. His name is Bryan (Josh Helman) and he’s now a shell-shocked, granite-faced Afghanistan war veteran who’s desperately seeking Claire.

The American Ballet Company does not prove to be a safe haven. Nor does Claire’s new residence in a walkup already inhabited by fellow dancer Mia Bialy (Emily Tyra), a jealous, bulimic nymphomaniac. Outside the residence and also camped out on its rooftop is the homeless Romeo (Damon Herriman), a supplicant dime store philosopher who aims to please but also increasingly telegraphs a dark side. This cray-cray character never jells, except as a constant irritant to viewers.

Each episode has a military jargon subtitle and definition, just in case anyone might mistake this as a breezy walk in the park. The finale’s tag is “Scorched Earth: Deliberate destruction of resources thereby denying their use to the enemy.” Are we having fun yet?

The tyrannical Paul tends to promote dancers based on the sexual favors they bestow on him or on wealthy ballet company benefactors. A reluctant Claire is given her marching orders in Episode 2, subtitled “Cannon Fodder.” No wonder she’s constantly weepy while the rest of the company either derides her or looks the other way. Even the reasonably well-adjusted senior male dancer, Ross (Sascha Radetsky), briefly preys on Claire sexually before he’s inevitably preyed on by Paul.

Throughout this agonizing exercise in self-mutilation and degradation, it’s Paul who always seems to have the upper hand -- and the most ham-handed lines.

“You cannot conceive of the river of blood, sweat and tears it took to build this company,” he tells Claire before raging, “GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!” This is shortly after he throws a nest of two chirping baby birds out of the ballet company’s upper story window. A disconsolate Claire, weeping anew, later walks by them as a frail little bird juxtaposed against two dead ones. Oh spare us. But no.

Later in the proceedings, Paul delicately tries to console his increasingly moribund, budding new star. “Did some dirty uncle put his funny finger up your Easter dress?” he asks before brandishing his manhood.

This doesn’t seem to work, so Paul goes for the jugular in Episode 7. “You arrived on my doorstep from your grimy, inconsequential hiccup of a life,” Claire is informed. Furthermore, Pittsburgh not only is a “small town,” but a “shitpile of futility you call home.” So yeah, she’d better get with the program.

Flesh and Blood also mixes in a Russian strip club owner who loves both the ballet and teenage sex slaves; an insecure, drug-addicted diva (Irina Dvorovenko as Kiira); a new and edgy choreographer whom Paul very predictably loathes (Marina Benedict as Toni Cannava); a desperate company manager named Jessica (Tina Benko); and Claire’s metaphorical favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

The principal dancers in this drama in fact are real-life dancers, which is a small saving grace for those who have seen sports movies in which the actors are hopelessly unathletic. At least the many rehearsal scenes are convincingly portrayed. And the final centerpiece production has its majestic moments.

But oh what a slog it is getting there. The drama’s principal author, actress turned screenwriter Moira Walley-Beckett, has several standout episodes of Breaking Bad among her credits. In Flesh and Bone, “We ripped the Band-Aid off” the big-time ballet industry, she proclaimed during the summer Television Critics Association “press tour.”

What oozes out, however, is mostly puss. Thinking of a career in ballet? Watch this and you might want to sweep up after the elephants instead.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Netflix's Master of None is Aziz Ansari's fully realized comedy masterpiece


Aziz Ansari: A star is born in his own right. Netflix photo

Premiering: All 10 episodes begin streaming Friday, Nov. 6th on Netflix
Starring: Aziz Ansari, Noel Wells, Eric Wareheim, Lena Waithe, Kelvin Yu, H. Jon Benjamin
Produced by: Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, Michael Schur, Dave Becky, David Milner

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Aziz Ansari’s new comedy series, Master of None, is a total misnomer in terms of what its star and co-creator have wrought.

In what amounts to his full-blown coming out party after years as a supporting player on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Ansari shows he has mastered the art of devising a perfect vehicle for himself. You can see for yourself on Friday, Nov. 6th, when the best new comedy series of the year begins streaming on Netflix. The 10-episode Season 1 is a marvel of edge, charm and storytelling.

Ansari is front and center as a 30-year-old New York actor named Dev. But there’s more than ample room for a quirky batch of close friends and a woman who could be “The One.” Ansari’s real-life parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, also drop in on occasion while the episode titled “The Other Man” features guest appearances by Claire Danes and Noah Emmerich (FX’s The Americans).

Netflix made the entire inaugural season available for review in advance of the Nov. 6th unveiling. It’s a distinct pleasure to watch each and every episode while marveling at how deftly Ansari injects topicality, heart and big laughs. It’s in no way all this easy, but he makes it seem so. The “Old People” episode is just one of the gems, with Dev meeting and commiserating with his girlfriend Rachel’s “Grandma Carol,” an assisted living center denizen yearning to break out and breathe deeply for a change. Both ageism and racism are aired out in this series without leaving viewers feeling suffocated.

Dev’s principal three pals are Denise (a standout Lena Waithe), Brian (Kelvin Yu) and Arnold (Eric Wareheim), the only character to court stereotype as the virtually obligatory tubby bearded shlepper.

Former Saturday Night Live regular and University of Texas at Austin grad Noel Welles makes a superb showing as Rachel. She briefly appears in a table-setting opening half-hour and pops up again in Episode 3 before making her presence completely felt in the “Nashville” episode. The Dev-Rachel dynamics are a case study in how to act naturally while dodging dullness or predictability. Simply put, they spark each other in some very marvelous ways, none of them neurotic. The second-to-last episode, subtitled “Mornings,” is an instant classic in this respect.

Ansari’s character otherwise manages to make financial ends meet with brief roles in commercials and a part in a cheesy B-movie titled The Sickening. Benjamin, one of his fellow lower-rung co-stars in the film, is played by H. Jon Benjamin, otherwise gainfully employed in real-life as the voice of vain master spy Sterling Archer in FX’s animated series Archer.

Benjamin is a marvel of deadpan self-assuredness in Master of None, with Dev using him as a sounding board when he’s vexed or unsure of himself. “So you’re basically like a human dildo,” Benjamin tells him at one point. Which is perfectly stated in the context of Dev struggling to decide whether to have sex with a very welcoming married woman played by Danes.

The series is replete with other small, medium and large delights, whether it’s Dev discussing various particulars with the openly gay Denise or “Grandma Carol” talking about the time she briefly stole a car. Flashback scenes are evocatively rendered, as is an imagined flash-forward in which Dev envisions exchanging vacillating wedding vows with Rachel.

The material and its mouthpieces keep delivering strikes, making it easy to devour all of Master of None in just one or two big gulps. Ansari’s cheerfully opinionated and resilient Dev is still fully capable of enjoying small pleasures and rebounding from big letdowns. Perhaps the biggest one comes during the Season 1 finale. But a little misdirection in a poignant closing scene sets up all kinds of possibilities for Season 2, which surely will be forthcoming. For now, enjoy Master of None for what it is -- a polished jewel of the genre starring an actor-comedian who has seized this opportunity and soared with it.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

New Star Trek series could be rocket fuel for CBS All Access (and also a launch pad for what's to come)


CBS put up this generic Star Trek graphic along with big announcement Monday tied to its All Access streaming service.

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These are the further voyages of the once free enterprise known as television.

Yes, CBS shook the earth Monday with its declaration that a new chapter in the Star Trek franchise will be shown exclusively on its fledgling All Access streaming device after a token one-episode launch on the musty old broadcast network. All Access, which debuted on Oct. 28th of last year, currently costs $5.99 a month and operates independently of any and all cable and satellite providers.

The next Star Trek isn’t happening until January 2017, with no casting or subtitle yet for whatever emerges. But a principal executive producer has been named and he’s no small-timer. Alex Kurtzman co-wrote and produced the 2009 Star Trek feature film and its 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness.

Marc DeBevoise, executive vice president/general manager of CBS Digital Media, is point man for this initiative to “boldly go where no first-run Star Trek series has gone before -- directly to its millions of fans through CBS All Access.”

Citing the “terrific growth” of All Access in the past year, DeBevoise also says in a statement, ”We now have an incredible opportunity to accelerate this growth with the iconic Star Trek, and its devoted and passionate fan base, as our first original series.”

That’s pretty clumsily worded. But CBS otherwise seems to have a firm grip on where conventional television seems to be going -- which increasingly is thataway. CBS All Access can be watched on large HD screens via a plug-in Roku, Firestick or other device. Its customers otherwise don’t need a cord-connecting “provider” such as Verizon Fios, DirectTV or Time Warner.

HBO Go and Showtime Anytime also can be accessed via separate monthly fees. Comparatively established streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu likewise provide cable- or satellite-free options while the new Sling offers a disparate package of networks -- ranging from ESPN to AMC to the Food Network -- for $20 a month.

All of these a la carte costs can add up in a hurry. There’s been a lot written about that in the past few years. But what CBS is offering counts as revolutionary. For the first time, a broadcast network is telling consumers that the really good stuff might be migrating to a “premium” CBS streaming device that also will provide everything the old-line CBS still has to offer. The new Star Trek qualifies as the first shiny rollout. But in future years, it’s easy to envision a major ramp-up in original offerings on CBS All Access.

The complete library of previous Star Trek TV series already is available on All Access. As are all the episodes of “classics” such as the original Hawaii Five-0, Cheers, Frasier, I Love Lucy, Mission: Impossible, The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Taxi, Touched By An Angel and Twin Peaks. Subscribers also can gorge on the complete up-to-date collections of current CBS series such as The Good Wife, Blue Bloods and The Big Bang Theory.

It doesn’t seem as though any of this is about to be put back in the toothpaste tube. And CBS is well ahead of its broadcast network competitors when it comes to “monetizing” the network by in effect splitting it in two. Star Trek is a very big deal in that respect. It almost forces ABC, NBC and Fox to double down sooner rather than later. Whether the consumer is the eventual winner may depend on one’s willingness to pick and choose while keeping monthly bills from also going boldly where they’ve never gone before.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net