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New fall season: Fox's Allen Gregory looks good, feels creepy

Ewww. Allen Gregory has a crush on his elementary school principal. Fox photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 30th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Jonah Hill, French Stewart, Nat Faxon, Will Forte, Cristina Pucelli, Joy Osmanski, Renee Taylor, Leslie Mann, Jake Johnson
Produced by: Jonah Hill, Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul

Roughly halfway through Allen Gregory, I began to pine for the simple slam-bang violence of those old Popeye and Roadrunner cartoons.

A quick-healing, carrot-sized bump on the noggin may not qualify as high art. But the verbal assaults rippling through today's TV animation seem more mindless than Bluto being sent airborne by a spinach-powered shot to the chops.

Allen Gregory, which looks great by the way, is soiled by a scene in which its pretentious seven-year-old protagonist swoons in the presence of a super-obese, gravelly-voiced, 68-year-old school principal named Judith Gottlieb (Renee Taylor). He envisions a romantic getaway with her before being unable to stop himself from loudly passing gas and other materials.

Returning home to self-important father Richard De Longpre (French Stewart) and his muscle-bound male life partner, a sobbing Allen (Jonah Hill) confesses to having "a broken heart -- and undergarments filled with my own unruly waste." Young males who have never been exposed to Wile E. Coyote regrouping after being blown to bits might find this hysterically funny. But what do they know?

The newest entry in Fox's Sunday night "Animation Domination" lineup has a studiously wry sensibility that occasionally jells. It's amusing, for instance, to see Allen (Jonah Hill), readying his sushi and Pinot Grigio lunch in the school cafeteria. And Stewart ably conveys the pomp and circumstances of Allen's imperious yet doting dad, whose previously plentiful cash flow lately has slowed to a trickle.

This requires Richard's put-upon life partner, Jeremy (Nat Faxon), to both get a job and give up his home-schooling of Allen, who thoroughly disdains him. So it's off to Feldstein Elementary, where Allen instantly wars with his second grade teacher, Gina Winthrop (Leslie Mann), while more or less befriending a commonplace classmate named Patrick (Cristina Pucelli).

Also included are Will Forte as ass-kissing superintendent Stewart Rossmyre and Jake Johnson voicing school stud Joel Zadak. Allen has a sister, too. She's Asian adoptee Julie Neung (Joy Osmanski), who pretty much loathes everything about her new environment, including Allen.

The animation -- and this bears repeating -- is first rate. So that's reason enough to give Allen Gregory a look. Maybe the content also will rise to the level of the art deco-ish visuals. But the opening episode has an overall creepy feel to it, paced of course by a seven-year-old's carnal longings for his gruff sexagenerian principal.

So far she's not reciprocating.


New fall season: Prospects seem glum for NBC's new Grimm

The guy on the left is a wolf. The other's a Grimm. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 28th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: David Giuntoli, Silas Weir Mitchell, Russell Hornsby, Bitsie Tulloch, Reggie Lee, Sasha Roiz, Kate
Produced by: Stephen Carpenter, David Greenwalt, Jim Kout, Todd Milliner, Sean Hayes

These are continued scary times for the ratings-parched Peacock, with two of its five September newcomers already canceled while Prime Suspect seems to be staggering toward the same fate.

At least Grimm, NBC's sixth and final fall newbie, is supposed to be a frightening experience. Originally set for an Oct. 21st premiere, it's been pushed back to Friday, Oct. 28th in the interests of being closer to Halloween.

Not that you're going to experience any measurable onset of chill bumps. Grimm plays more like a crime procedural set in Transylvania, with Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) operating as a standard issue detective until learning from his decaying Auntie Marie (Kate Burton) that he's one of the last in a long line of criminal profiling Grimms. Ergo he has the innate "ability to see what no one else can," she tells him.

This mainly comes in the form of Hexenbiests, Blutbads and other ancient evil-doers who have taken on human form but can be glimpsed by Nick for what they are. Friday's opener has an immediate Little Red Riding Hood motif, with a young woman attacked and dismembered (off-camera) while jogging through the woods.

Later on, a little girl disappears while Nick and his detective partner, Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby), try to piece together the first brutal crime. Network television, whatever the settings for its police dramas, never tires of putting women and little girls on the receiving ends of assaults and abductions. It's long past the epidemic stage -- and really needs to stop. But network research apparently shows that audiences are more likely to be sympathetically "invested" when the victim is female. And so the beat and the beatings go on.

Nick eventually encounters a recovering wolf named Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), who gives Grimm a little skip in its step with his sometimes spot-on badinage. They end up tracking the abductor to a little cottage just outside the woods. Nick then calls in his real world partner for a little Q&A with a pot pie-baking creep who's clearly a wolf in postman's clothing. Still, they at first let him off, even though he might as well be wearing a placard saying, "All the Better to Eat You With, My Dear."

Grimm is buoyed by some decent special effects and snarky wolfman Monroe, who will be a series regular. But it's not nearly as imaginative, involving or picturesque as ABC's fairy tale offering, Once Upon A Time, which premiered Sunday night to solid national ratings while being largely overlooked in D-FW opposite Game 4 of the Rangers-Cards World Series.

While solving weekly crimes, detective Nick also will be delving deeper into his personal "mythology" in hopes of quashing whatever new grand plan has been hatched by an array of sinister mythological creatures.

He'd better work fast, because Grimm's Friday night competition is CBS' long-established CSI: NY; Fox's scarier Fringe; The CW's creepy crawly Supernatural; and ABC's transplanted Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which probably still has a few nails left to pound.

That may well mean a quick coffin for Grimm, fated to follow the announced last season of the Peacock's very little-watched Chuck. This brings us back to where we started. It can be damned scary being on NBC these days. Certainly scarier than the scares you're trying to sell.


New fall season: ABC boldly tries to make magic with Once Upon A Time

The Evil Queen weaves her pre-Internet web. ABC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 23rd at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Robert Carlyle, Jared Gilmore, Jamie Dornan, Raphael Sbarge
Produced by: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Steve Pearlman, Mark Mylod

Fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you -- not once but twice in the coming week.

NBC was supposed to be first in line with Grimm, but delayed its announced Friday, Oct. 21st premiere by a week to be closer to Halloween.

That leaves ABC to sally forth with Once Upon A Time, which probably also should have been pushed back a week -- to Halloween Eve. Instead the network's most interesting and adventuresome new fall series will be going against Fox's scheduled Game 4 of the World Series and NBC's Sunday Night Football. Not exactly optimum scheduling for your final autumn newcomer.

Once Upon A Time can be a little tough to explain on paper, even though its past to present to past to present, etc. format is pretty easily grasped through the course of Sunday's premiere. But for the record, here's ABC's opening on-screen setup: "Once upon a time there was an enchanted forest filled with all the classical characters we know. Or think we know. One day they found themselves trapped in a place where all their happy endings were stolen. Our world. This is how it happened . . ."

For starters, a period Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) is seen racing into a snowy forest in search of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin). He finds her seemingly dead and surrounded by seven rather gnarly looking dwarfs. But as in the timeless tale, his kiss arouses her and in the next scene they're being married. Then a buzz-killing, black-leathered, cleavage-flaunting Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) busts in to inform everyone that "I shall destroy your happiness, if it is the last thing I do."

These recurring fairy tale scenes are sumptuous to behold, giving Once Upon A Time a money-on-the-screen luster that you just can't get from all those spangly costumes on ABC's Dancing with the Stars. They time-share with the present-day, in which an orphaned bail bonds collector named Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) feels lonely and unfulfilled on her 28th birthday, part of which she spends duping a crook into a blind date at a sumptuous restaurant.

Emma is fated to meet 10-year-old Henry (Jared Gilmore), a plucky lad who also happens to be the son she gave up for adoption during a bad time in her life. The kid lives in Storybrooke, Maine, and also has a storybook that purports to spell out the details of how Emma is destined to save the world or die trying.

OK, maybe you're confused again. But this is fairly "plausible," at least as far as fairytales go. Storybrooke's inhabitants include modern-day versions of Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Jiminy Cricket and other time travelers who have forgotten just who they are. But the Evil Queen, now in the form of Henry's unbending stepmother, seems to know exactly who she is. And she's still bent on having the one and only happy ending.

Emma, by the way, is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. And as a newborn, she at least temporarily ruined the Evil Queen's nefarious plans by being magically transported to the future in a hollowed-out tree trunk hastily built by another fairy tale staple, Geppetto. Not that the adult Emma is completely aware of any of this. And so the story goes, with even Tinkerbelle dropping in to lay out an escape plan.

Fans of the fantastical can do far worse than Once Upon A Time, which manages to both stir the pulse and please the senses with its beautifully imagined medieval times. In a season that charitably can be called lackluster -- at least on the five major broadcast networks -- here's a bold effort to stand out from the pack. It'll be interesting to see how -- and how well -- it all plays out.


New fall season: Grammer a revelation as power-hitting Chicago mayor in Starz's Boss

It's best not to mess with Kelsey Grammer's serious image reversal. Starz photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on Starz
Starring: Kelsey Grammer, Connie Nielsen, Hannah Ware, Martin Donovan, Kathleen Robertson, Jeff Hephner, Troy Garity, Francis Guinan, Karen Aldridge, Rotimi Akinosho
Produced by: Farhad Safinia, Gus Van Sant, Brian Sher, Stella Bulochnikov, Richard Levine, Lyn Greene

Funnyman Kelsey Grammer, embedded in the public consciousness as persnickety Frasier Crane, is determined to take on an entirely new guise as a thoroughly ruthless Chicago mayor.

He must be kidding, right?

But seeing is believing. And you can see just what we mean at roughly the 25-minute mark of Starz's new Boss, which premieres Friday. That's when Grammer, as mayor Tom Kane, throws himself into a full bore rage while dressing down a city councilman whose ear he twists for good measure. It's a terrific scene from a heretofore comedic actor who has both the guts and the chops to re-invent himself. And with Boss already renewed for a second season, this is a Grammer we could get used to.

Boss can be a little over-cooked or even half-baked at times in its depiction of time-honored Windy City corruption. But it's got a great big bite to it, with never a dull moment or badly shot scene.

Current Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, formerly President Obama's chief of staff, is known to have a quick temper and a salty tongue. Still, he'll have to distance himself from Boss, whose principal politicians are all dirty to the touch.

George Clooney's new film, The Ides of March, ends up throwing idealism out with the trash. Boss almost makes Ides seem Cub Scout-y with all those phony power-to-the-people pronouncements from Kane, in whom all power resides behind the closed doors of his City Hall temple.

The series' weekly title music, "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" (performed by Robert Plant & The Band of Joy), is a dish served cold, unlike Grammer's cheery little "Green Eggs and Ham" ditty for Frasier.

Kane has a major problem, though. In the opening minutes of Episode 1, he's alone with his doctor in a onetime hog slaughterhouse. She informs him he has a rare and incurable degenerative brain disorder that will reduce him to a vegetable within three to five years time. Certain medications can stabilize him but they also could cause side effects. And even in the best of cases, he'll be prone to blank-outs , babbling and tremors, two of which occur in the first two episodes.

This provides Kane with even more impetus to ram things through in the interests of his greater glory while concealing his condition from icy wife, Meredith (very well-played by Connie Nielsen). Their marriage is strictly for show, not tell. And their drug-addicted daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware), has been a non-person in their lives for the past five years. She still lives in Chicago, though, and Tom Kane haltingly reaches out to her after learning his days are numbered.

Boss also has a gubernatorial election in play, with crusty, amoral incumbent Matt Cullen (Francis Guinan) fully expecting to get shafted even after Kane floridly praises him at a campaign rally. The nominal idealist opposing Cullen, with Kane pulling the strings, is telegenic state treasurer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner). But he's not all that he seems either.

There's additional room in Boss for Kane's trusted senior advisor, Ezra "Stony" Stone (Martin Donovan); his blonde and ambitious chief of staff, Kitty O'Neil (Kathleen Robertson); and a crusading "Chicago Sentinel" reporter named Sam Miller (Troy Garity).

Starz someday hopes to become a feared rival to HBO and Showtime. All three networks operate without advertiser restraints, giving Kane the freedom to be as naked and profane as it chooses. There's some of each in the first two episodes, but Grammer gets equal dramatic mileage out of pronouncements such as, "The only thing you're missing is (political) heft. Here I am."

It's a bit much, perhaps, when Boss's's bang-bang sexual encounters both occur in public places where any exposure would be ruinous to both parties. And it seems rather preposterous for Kane to receive a pair of severed ears in a wooden box as proof that a problematic publicity seeker has been thoroughly cowed. Hizzoner then tries to jam them down his home garbage disposal.

But Grammer's performance is thoroughly engaging and convincing. And the events swirling around him never fail to snap, crackle and pop (sorry, Rice Krispies). It all makes for a terrific immorality play within the confines of a city that can't escape its made-for-TV corruption image any more than Dallas can unsaddle itself from the twin tags of conspicuous consumption and cowboy hats.

Boss has lots more ambience, though. On with the show.

GRADE: A-minus

New fall season -- dropping the balls with ABC's Man Up!

Who will answer the male call in Man Up!? ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 18th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Christopher Moynihan, Mather Zickel, Dan Fogler, Teri Polo, Amanda Detmer, Henry Simmons
Produced by: Christopher Moynihan, Victor Fresco, Ron West, Kelly Kulchak, Beth McCarthy-Miller

ABC probably has already steeled itself for the Acapulco Cliff dive in the ratings from Tim Allen's Last Man Standing to the nowhere men of Man Up!.

Allen's re-do of Home Improvement got critically panned. But thanks in no small part to his household name, it opened pretty big in last week's national Nielsens. Man Up!, premiering Tuesday after LMS, is a bit better comedy, but without any built-in star power. It furthers this season's notion that males are either an emasculated or blowhard gender best played for laughs.

Man Up!'s star players are weepy Craig (co-executive producer Christopher Moynihan), tantrum-prone Kenny (Dan Fogler) and mild insurance salesman Will (Mather Zickel), whom his wife, Theresa (Teri Polo) chides as "mannish" at best.

The three of them are first seen playing a video war game as though they were all hard core Chesty Pullers. In real life, bearded, chubby bitterly divorced Kenny is the resident Zach Galifianakis, Craig still pines for his newly married ex-girlfriend and Will worries that his bespectacled 13-year-old-son, Nathan (Jake Johnson), is shaping up to be an even bigger wuss.

A broadly drawn, super-brawny black man is thrown in to balance the scales a bit. His name is Grant (Henry Simmons), and he's newly dating Kenny's ex-, Brenda (Amanda Detmer). This prompts Kenny to regularly kvetch and sputter, which he does in fairly amusing fashion.

The pilot episode otherwise is built around Craig's hopeless efforts to woo his ex-girlfriend back by strumming and singing their song, "Brown-Eyed Girl," after busting into her wedding ceremony. A pack of much manlier groomsmen then give chase, arriving en masse at Nathan's first birthday party as a teenager. Will Will and company man up? Not that you're likely to give a whit.

The whole enterprise seems way too wobbly to walk upright under its own power. Man Up! may cause your lip to curl upward a few times before giving way to a grin. But any full-blown laughs seem well beyond its reach.


Soiling Mark Cuban's HDNet with The Super

Real-life slumlord Dave Paladino stars in The Super. HDNet photo

At last comes a series that makes even Animal Planet's Hillbilly Handfishin' seem like the Metropolitan Opera.

It's HDNet's The Super, which owner Mark Cuban proudly touts as more evidence that "I make every program decision knowing what our viewers tune in to HDNet to watch -- shows other networks are too scared to air."

Or perhaps too embarrassed. Although with Hillbilly Handfishin' a ratings hit by Animal Planet's standards, there's really no telling what the traffic will bear these days. How about a show in which human excrement repeatedly is shown splattered on the walls and concrete floor of a sub-dump. Actually, The Super already offers that in an episode charmingly sub-titled "He Done Got Me In a Bad Mood."

That's the one sent for review in a packet of DVDs heralding HDNet's "most aggressive fall slate of original programming in our 10-year history," according to Cuban. It all starts on Monday, Oct. 17th with the returning Inside MMA followed at 8 p.m. (central) by The Super. The umbrella title is "Tough Guy Mondays."

Those who think they've developed cast iron stomachs watching the Dallas Cowboys find inventive ways to lose will still be wholly unprepared for The Super. It might be, it could be, it is the lowest-rent half hour TV series ever presented for consumption by humankind. If the NBA season ever gets started, Cuban should have it running on a continuous loop in opponents' locker rooms. They'll emerge with more dead brain cells than zombies from The Walking Dead. And have dysentery, too.

Prolonged exposure to The Super -- about five minutes should be enough -- also could be used to resolve the NBA lockout. Just put all parties in the same room with no way to escape. Then fire 'er up. Presto. Play ball.

While I try to regain my motor skills, let it be noted that the episode of The Super sent to TV critics isn't the one that will launch the series, according to HDNet's programming schedule. Instead the opener will be sub-titled "Good Luck with Your Cancer."

Same difference. In that one, "Super" Dave Paladino and his Omaha, Neb. crew discover "a family of hoarders living in absolutely filthy conditions." In the "He Done Got Me in a Bad Mood" episode, Super Dave and company strive to evict a knuckle-dragging, pot-bellied racist a-hole with bad teeth who's been leeching off a pathetic enabling woman who's consequently fallen behind in her rent payments.

Jimmy and Monica also have turned their residence into a horrid, bug-invested rathole that Cuban wouldn't even wish upon Phil Jackson. But in publicity materials, Cuban encourages the HDNet faithful to "follow Dave as he and his tenants show a side of life that few of us would ever want to experience."

Let alone watch. The Super's ridiculous drumbeats and other slam-over-the-head sound effects further soil a show that's instantly dirty to the touch. It makes sport of the truly destitute among us while almost lionizing the manager of properties that should be condemned without a further moment's hesitation.

If this thing is a hit, then get ready for urine-filled balloon toss competitions and tobacco-spitting for kindergarteners. Hell, they're probably already in development for some network somewhere. Memo to self: HDNet also should be applauded for continuing to invest in one of TV's best news series, Dan Rather Reports. It's still a night removed on Tuesdays, so let's grade The Super on the curve.


HBO's Sing Your Song is music to Harry Belafonte's activist ears and years

Harry Belafonte as sex symbol and elder statesman. HBO photos

Retired from stage performing but still addicted to activism at age 84, Harry Belafonte gives voice to his life and times in HBO's Sing Your Song.

His daughter, Gina, is a co-producer of the 1 hr., 45 minute film (Monday, Oct. 17 at 9 p.m. central), which is dominated by dad's subjective, talk-to-the-camera recall. HBO lately has chosen to go this route, giving celebrity subjects not only free rein but free reign in re-telling their tales. Gloria Steinem was afforded this luxury in August, and hardcover autobiographies have been doing it for centuries. But the hard, real truths about people of import invariably are unearthed by objective biographers, many of whom end up using their subjects' autobiographies as points of contention.

That's not to say Belafonte has any damning skeletons in his closet. But Sing Your Song ends up being more than a little too self-indulgent and one-noted. Abundant archival footage is in part a saving grace, though, whether it's from extraordinary late 1950s CBS specials starring Belafonte or from his days of guest-hosting The Tonight Show, when he welcomed the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.

His 1959 special, Tonight with Belafonte, won an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Performance in a Variety Musical Program or Series." Its sponsor, the Revlon cosmetics company, then ordered five more specials before bowing to pressure from Southern CBS affiliates who demanded that Belafonte's entire supporting cast be either black or white, but not integrated.

"I would not acquiesce," as Belafonte tells it. "I could not change the format. And I left."

This nonsense persisted all the way to a 1968 Petula Clark special in which the host touched Belafonte's arm while they performed "On the Path of Glory." A lone Chrysler executive present at the taping wanted the segment re-done with the two keeping their distance from each other. But everyone stood their ground, and the exec soon was dismissed. Sing Your Song doesn't provide all of these details, instead making this a bigger "controversy" than it perhaps really was.

Belafonte's zenith as a pop singer came in the 1950s, when the so-called "King of Calypso" recorded the Banana Boat Song with its signature "Day O" lyric. More than a half-century later, it's still a popular riff at baseball parks.

In his prime as a chart-topper, Belafonte appeared on numerous TV variety shows, invariably baring a generous portion of his torso. He was the first African-American sex symbol of the modern electronic age, although the film and Belafonte are mostly quiet on this front. He does offer a chilling recollection, however, of a 1950s visit to a whites-only restroom. Belafonte recalls a cop telling him, "You let go a drop, you're a dead nigger." Belafonte says he acquiesced in this case.

Sing Your Song includes brief appearances by all four of the Belafonte children, Afrienne and Shari from his first marriage to Marguerite Byrd and David and Gina from his second marriage to Julie Robinson. It's a familiar story in this case. Belafonte's self-imposed activist and career demands made him mostly a no-show at home. As adults, the kids say they now understand, even if they really don't. Says David of his dad, "Harry was there the best that he could be, so I never held it against him."

Both of those marriages ended in divorce, with Belafonte a man of few words in each case. With second wife, Julie, a participant in the film, "love stepped out of our space," he says without elaboration. This is illustrated with earlier footage of Julie putting her hand over a camera lens. In 2008, Belafonte married photographer Pamela Frank, who had traveled with him on a number of his activist projects.

Belafonte's political activism and humanitarianism span some of the most seminal events of the past half century, including the Freedom Rides through the segregated South; the 1963 "March on Washington" (site of King's "I Have a Dream" speech); and the 1985 "We Are The World" song/video on behalf of starving African children.

Sing Your Song has chapter and verse accounts of all three while also charting Belafonte's latter day efforts on behalf of other social causes.

"I live in a perpetual state of optimism," he says near the end of the film, which at times is too much of a treatise. But that's seems to be very much the way its subject and his youngest daughter wanted it.


The Walking Dead returns to AMC with twice as much time to amble along

The stars of The Walking Dead, absent zombies. AMC photo

Those zombies from AMC's The Walking Dead seem to be moving a bit quicker this season. Although they're still probably not fast enough to beat even Prince Fielder in a race to first base. Maybe next year.

Season 2, which launches on Sunday, Oct. 16th at 8 p.m. (central), otherwise is slower-paced at the outset. Filling a double order of 13 episodes -- compared to Season 1's six -- likely will mean a more deliberate approach as the series' divisive band of 11 post-apocalyptic survivors make their way from Atlanta to Fort Benning in hopes of finding a reasonably safe haven. That's about 120 miles down I-85 South, but zombie complications may make it seem like an eternity.

Last season ended with the automated, pre-determined destruction of Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control. A lone surviving doctor in residence whispered something to deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) before he led an in-the-nick-of-time escape.

Season 2 begins with Grimes on a police radio, hoping that Morgan Jones can hear him from afar. The two met at the outset of all these festivities, and have vowed to meet again. "It's all about slim chances now," says Grimes. He then baits one of this season's principal audience hooks, noting that the now dead CDC doc "told me something. He told me . . . It doesn't matter."

That's a pretty cheap standard issue cop out, and doubly so when coming from a cop. So expect to be strung along for a pretty good while.

Sunday's re-launch is an expanded 90-minute episode. AMC also sent the second episode for review with the usual warnings not to spoil anything for viewers by revealing too much. So let's just say that both episodes end with some pretty big cliffhanger jolts. And that two of the 11 principals remain in serious jeopardy. And that another one suffers a serious flesh wound that becomes even more seriously infected.

Zombies abound, too, meaning that ample heads will be blown or chopped off during these first two episodes. The Walking Dead retains its very graphic approach and then tops itself with a seriously gruesome scene in which hillbilly bow hunter Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) guts a dead zombie to see the contents of its last meal.

The survivors become spread out after an auto graveyard blocks their path to Fort Benning. A big batch of zombies then stagger down the highway, prompting one of the living to flee into the nearby woods and eventually go missing.

Search parties, stalled vehicles and more zombie sightings and killings serve to flesh out the first two episodes. A small batch of new characters also is introduced. The most interesting among them is Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson), an elderly farm owner who also knows how to wield a surgeon's scalpel.

Other survivors become restive or increasingly resentful.

Deputy Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) is determined to split off on his own after being spurned by Grimes' wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), with whom he hooked up after it appeared hubby was dead. And Andrea (Laurie Holden) continues to despise her father, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) after he ruined her plans to die in peace at the CDC rather than keep running in fear. In the opening episode she's further traumatized by a bloody encounter with a zombie in which a screwdriver is her only defense.

The action remains convincingly frightful amid innumerable zombies with skips in their steps. Some of the dialogue can get a little overly earnest, though. During a labored segment in a church, three pew-residing zombies are re-sent to kingdom come before some of the survivors take time out for prayer and reflection.

"Guess you already know I'm not much of a believer," Grimes tells a Christ on a cross. "I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere."

He asks for a sign and thinks he's seen one in the form of a magnificent deer in the woods. But then something bad happens.

The Walking Dead was AMC's most-watched series ever in its first season, outdrawing the network's two Emmy darlings, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Season 2 so far is still a watchable feast of decayed human flesh and frayed nerve endings. Not that there's any big hurry to find a cure or a way out. TV franchises like this tend to come along once in a lifetime -- whether you're a zombie on the prowl or a harried human with better foot speed.


Michael Douglas, Matt Damon to star in HBO movie about Liberace's "tempestuous relationship" with live-in lover

Here's an eye-popper. HBO announced Tuesday that Michael Douglas and Matt Damon will star in "a behind-the-scenes look at the tempestuous relationship between legendary entertainer Liberace and Scott Thorson, his younger live-in lover."

The film, titled Behind the Candelabra, will be directed by Steven Soderbergh and produced by Jerry Weintraub.

"This is a story that's going to surprise a lot of people," said HBO Films president Len Amato. "It's funny, heartbreaking and always fascinating."

The casting perhaps is surprise enough, with Douglas and Damon respectively playing Liberace and Thorson. "Putting these two fine actors in the creative hands of Steven Soderbergh -- it doesn't get better than that!" Weintraub said in a publicity release that included an exclamation point.

Production won't begin until the summer of 2012, HBO said, with location filming in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs.

In 1988, the year after his death, ABC and CBS aired Liberace movies within a week of one another.

ABC's Liberace starred Andrew Robinson in the title role, with Maris Valainis as Thorson. CBS' Liberace: Behind the Music starred Victor Garber, with Michael Dolan as Thorson.

*** Following a battle over payments to its voice actors, Fox has renewed The Simpsons for a 24th and 25th season. That would make a grand total of 559 episodes, Fox says.

Cast members reportedly were asked to take 40 percent pay cuts in order to make The Simpsons affordable for two more seasons. No details were given in the Fox publicity release, but all concerned say it came down to the wire -- and significantly reduced salaries.

New fall season: Tim Allen goes back to his basics on ABC's "new" Last Man Standing

Tim Allen cantankerously decries the descent of man. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 11th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Tim Allen, Nancy Travis, Molly Ephraim, Alexandera Krosney, Kaitlyn Dever, Hector Elizondo, Christoph Sanders
Produced by: Jack Burditt, Tim Allen, Becky Clements, Marty Adelstein, Shawn Levy, Rick Messina

One of this fall's purportedly manly new sitcoms, CBS' How to Be a Gentleman, already has been sent from Thursdays to Saturdays in preparation for burial after its handful of remaining episodes are burned off.

Now comes another. ABC's Last Man Standing may have a far better chance with Tim Allen front and center. But it's even less subtle, with the star of the show loudly and symbolically proclaiming "I'm back!!!" while striding into the family kitchen with a big raw fish that he plops onto the dinner table.

Really? You mean this is the same guy who played basically the same role on ABC's Home Improvement from 1991 to 1999?

Home Improvement ranked among prime-time's Top 10 series for all eight of those seasons. Disney-owned ABC likely would send Mickey Mouse to the guillotine in return for that kind of success for Last Man Standing.

Allen, now sporting a gently sloping paunch, returns to a brood of three daughters instead of three sons. But he retains a tolerant wife who mostly grins at his steady stream of pronouncements. This time it's Nancy Travis as Vanessa instead of Patricia Richardson as Jill.

The household sass-back comes from the offspring, one of them a single mom who gripes that toddler son Boyd "knows about six words, and half of 'em are 'I blame Obamacare.' " That's part of the indoctrination from a grandfather who doesn't know what Glee is and thinks soccer is effeminate. But he very much loves fried pork products. It's all clumsily imparted in this first of back-to-back episodes Tuesday night.

Blustering Mike Baxter otherwise is the marketing director for the Outdoor Man sporting goods store, whose sour-tempered owner Ed (Hector Elizondo) demands a halt to his business travels until the company's outmoded website is fixed. Mike responds with a "vlog" rant about the decay of his gender. As in, "What happened to men? Men used to build cities just so they could burn them down." It of course goes more or less viral.

Meanwhile, the laugh track seems perplexed, at least on the review copy provided on ABC's media site. Sometime it weakly titters while other times approaching a collective guffaw. Unfortunately, one of the bigger laughs comes after Mike decides against dropping Boyd off at a daycare center that he later describes as "Hippie Hippie Rainbow." So he instead takes the kid to Outdoor Man, quickly handing him off to an apprentice young underling named Kyle (Christoph Sanders) for diaper-changing purposes.

"I just don't think your kid should go to that school," Mike tells daughter Kristin (Alexandra Krosney). "You know how that ends up -- Boyd dancin' on a float."

Yeah, political correctness can be a bitch. But this particular joke just doesn't belong anymore.

Tuesday's second episode ends up being a manifesto against baby-proofing the Baxter home. Its instigator is an over-the-top video huckster who pronounces the family coffee table a "coffin table." Mike rants against such precautions -- "Bumps and bruises and scar tissue. That's how you grow" -- before wife Vanessa eventually agrees that they've gone a little too far. The tipping point is her inability to get into the living room wine cabinet, which has been shackled. And she likes her wine, as was also evident in the first episode.

Last Man Standing, which will be paired next week with ABC's new Man Up! sitcom, is about as dexterous as last fall's $#*! My Dad Says on CBS. William Shatner awkwardly tried to throw his weight around in that one. Allen has a better feel for this stuff, but the show's rhythms still seem way off.

Home Improvement offered some comedic electricity along with its power tools. This one is pretty much a dim bulb re-do on behalf of the so-called "manly arts." Allen's mere presence may keep it in business for a while. But it already seems as though it belongs on TV Land, where Home Improvement repeats already reside.

GRADE: C-minus

New fall season: Enlightened gives HBO a life-affirming series with just enough edge

Laura Dern yearns for a life affirmed in Enlightened. HBO photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 10th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Laura Dern, Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd, Sarah Burns, Timm Sharp, Mike White
Produced by: Mike White, Laura Dern

The wonderful new HBO series Enlightened is a heartbreaker/dreammaker.

What it's not is cynical, ironic or defeatist. Don't worry, though. This half-hour drama, with some comedy sprinkles, isn't a Good Ship Lollipop sailing on a milk chocolate sea.

Its key player, Laura Dern as the rekindled Amy Jellicoe, is newly in search of a atonement and fulfillment after a full-blown nervous breakdown at her workplace. In Monday's premiere, we first see her weeping in a restroom stall after learning she's been transferred by her boss from the health and beauty division to cleaning supplies.

Upon hearing co-workers gossip about their affair, she impulsively confronts the married Damon Manning (Charles Esten), loudly vowing to avenge her demotion. Her eyeliner running and her mouth spewing expletives, Amy closes the book on this particular sequence by screaming through the elevator doors she's pried open to get a last shot at the fleeing Damon and two male underlings. This is a series that instantly knows how to get a viewer's attention. And Dern is an actress who holds it.

Enlightened centers on Amy's subsequent return from the Hawaii-based Open Air institute, a pricey means of getting one's life back on track.

"I'm speaking with my true voice now, without bitterness or fear," she narrates. "You can change. And you can be an agent of change."

But Manning wants nothing to do with her efforts to apologize. And Amy's severe, set-in-her-ways mother, Helen (Dern's real-life mom, Diane Ladd), is none too pleased about her 40-year-old daughter moving back in for a spell. Ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) is still enamored of cocaine and other mood-alterers. And her old workplace, Abaddonn Industries, no longer has a position for her until Amy cheerily talks about the illegalities of dismissing an employee with a pre-existing condition.

Abaddonn is portrayed as a serial polluter, with Amy selling herself as someone who can both alter that course and re-position the company as a community do-gooder. Instead she's re-assigned to the so-called "Cogentiva Project," whose fellow exiled workers are laboring over a new software program while working in the bowels of the Abaddonn skyscraper. It's a windowless island of misfit toys presided over by a sleazeball named Dougie (Timm Sharp).

Meanwhile, Amy's old assistant and perceived friend, Krista (Sarah Burns), has moved into her vacated office and pretty much shifted her loyalties to Damon.

Perhaps you're wondering where the affirmation comes in. Amy remains profane and continues to have her moments of near-despair. But she's determined to make headway, whether it's befriending a milquetoast co-worker (co-producer Mike White as Tyler), thawing out her mother or dragging Levi along on a kayak trip in hopes of regaining at least a small portion of what they once had.

Four episodes were sent for review. And they keep getting better and better, even if Amy remains on something of a treadmill. There's a very affecting side trip in Episode 3, with Amy applying for a job at a homeless shelter in hopes of starting a new and worthy career. The middle-aged male director is both dedicated and highly impressed with what she hopes to offer. But there are complications.

Co-producer White, also known for competing twice on CBS' The Amazing Race with his father, Mel, notes in HBO publicity materials that "there are so many anti-heroes populating TV series right now. I wanted to do a show about someone who is dysfunctional and far from perfect, but whose impulse is to do good and try to be the best person she can."

Dern is letter-perfect as Enlightened's dented Joan of Arc, preaching to her choir of one in ways that never seem hokey or false. And the supporting cast is uniformly terrific, with Wilson convincingly shedding his goofball tendencies while Ladd shines in a rare (for her) understated role.

Enlightened will hit you where it hearts. And hurts. It's HBO's most mature half-hour series ever, rising above the material worlds of Sex and the City and Entourage to offer a road worth taking in pursuit of a "higher self."


HBO's Living in the Material World portrays George Harrison as much more than the "other Beatle"

Being the Third Wheel can get old in time, even when you're part of an all-powerful locomotive.

George Harrison, the mystical, "misunderstood," oft-stoic Beatle, wrote enough good songs to fully stock an upstanding greatest hits album. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were always the band's dynamic duo, though, with George on the inside looking in.

The two-part HBO documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, at last gives him full-fledged star treatment -- and at the hands of Marvin Scorsese no less. The first 95 minutes are on Wednesday, Oct 5th (8 to to 9:35 p.m. central), with the concluding two hours on Thursday, Oct. 6th (8 to 10 p.m.). There will be repeats throughout the month, as well as availability on HBO's various On Demand outlets.

Much of the material "has never been seen or heard before," HBO says in publicity materials. That's the usual hook, with Scorsese and co-producer Olivia Harrison (his second wife) sifting through troves of stills, home movies and rare performance videos. Living in the Material World, which is an appreciably better film on Night 2, also includes fresh interviews with McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, George Martin, Eric Clapton and most surprisingly, legendary record producer/convicted murderer Phil Spector, who turns out to be a surprisingly interesting contributor.

Spector helped to produce Harrison's first post-Beatles album, 1970's "All Thing Must Pass." Harrison doesn't say this in the HBO film, but he's been quoted as stating, "I didn't have many tunes on Beatles records, so doing an album like All Things Must Pass was like going to the bathroom and letting it out."

Looking garish as usual -- but in reddish blonde bangs instead of the giant-sized Afro he sported in the courtroom -- Spector says that Harrison kept procrastinating on the album because he was unsure about ever releasing it. "Perfectionist is not the word," Spector says in a raspy voice. "Anyone can be a perfectionist. He was beyond that."

The triple album's best-known tune, "My Sweet Lord," became a No. 1 hit after Spector says he insisted that it be the first single over objections from just about everyone, including Harrison.

Scorsese often chooses to cut abruptly from one segment to another in a film that touches lightly on many pivotal events in The Beatles' incredible run. Much of this already has been detailed in numerous books and films, and this is after all a film about the oft-overlooked George, who died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 58. An older Harrison regularly speaks for himself in several talk-to-the-camera interviews, all of them in sharp color but unlabeled as to when they occurred.

The Beatle that most people never really knew likewise was trying to find himself. Meditation and Eastern music became his portals. The other Beatles gave both a bit of a fling, but Harrison became a true believer. In Thursday's Part 2, his close friendship with Ravi Shankar is brought vividly front and center. The famed sitar player became the impetus for 1971's All-Star Concert for Bangladesh after he told Harrison of the horrible conditions in the South Asian country.

Clapton, another close friend, also happened to be the bloke who started secretly seeing Harrison's first wife, Patti Boyd, while she and George were still married. He's candid about becoming "more and more obsessed" with Patti, and finally feeling the need to tell George about it.

"And he was kind of cavalier," Clapton recalls. "He said, 'Well, take her, she's yours.' "

Patti remembers it all quite differently, saying that Harrison became "furious" when he discovered the two of them at a party. She eventually married Clapton, but they too divorced. The film includes a brief excerpt from a press conference in which Harrison is asked about the triangle.

Clapton is still a friend and all-around great guy, Harrison says. "I'd rather she was with him than some dope."

George's music, both with and without The Beatles, is the film's real reason for being. And although Lennon and McCartney wrote the great majority of the material, Harrison certainly got his licks in with the likes of "If I Needed Someone" (from Rubber Soul); "Taxman" and "I Want to Tell You" (Revolver); "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Long, Long, Long" (The White Album); and "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" (Abbey Road).

McCartney notes early in the film that George was recruited because his solo guitar playing was far superior to his or John's. He then became the first Beatle to grow very weary of it all -- the fame, the demands, the secondary status.

"He had the 'love bag of beans' personality -- and the bag of anger," Starr says.

Harrison eventually hooked up with another group of ad hoc mates -- Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. They became The Traveling Wilburys, although they never toured. One of the film's high points is footage of their studio rehearsals together. Petty, in a new interview, says that Harrison was completely responsible for forming the group. He also has an amusing anecdote about the time Harrison dropped by to teach him the ukulele -- and then left a bunch of the instruments behind should they ever need them again.

Near the end of his life, Harrison pretty much stayed at home in the Friar Park mansion he had bought and restored. He built a recording studio within, and there's terrific home footage of a proud George mixing some of his son Dhani's guitar work before they give each other hugs.

Harrison otherwise loved tending to his garden or planting trees. And despite Olivia's urging, he had no interest in picking up a latter day slew of awards being offered to him.

"I don't want it," she remembers him saying. "Tell them to get another monkey."

Harrison had a sense of humor, though. Starr cracks him up during their joint appearance on a British TV show. And it's always good to see the outwardly reticent Harrison laugh or cavort, either in a setting such as this or in some of the home movies made available.

Olivia also recounts at length the night a violent, knife-wielding intruder broke into their home. George suffered a collapsed lung and other wounds while he and Olivia likewise bloodied their assailant before police arrived.

His dad, who had survived an earlier bout with cancer, emerged scar-free, son Dhani says. But "it definitely took years off his life."

Starr says he last saw Harrison when he was "very ill, and he could only lay down." He recalls George's last words to him when he said he had to go to Boston to see his daughter, who also had cancer.

"Do you want me to come with ya?" Harrison asked. Starr chokes up before joking, "God, it's like Barbara (f-ing) Walters here, isn't it?"

McCartney isn't one to get misty. What does he miss the most about George? "His humor. His friendship. His love," he replies somewhat generically. Or at least that's what came out of the editing room.

Living in the Material World falls short of Scorsese's terrific two-part PBS film, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. It lurches about too much at times. And in a three-and-a-half hour film, there's no need to cut some of the performances so short.

Scorsese also barely touches on longtime friend/guitarist Klaus Voormann's first-hand observation that Harrison "stepped back" and began to heavily use drugs again after buying Friar Park. Voormann says he doesn't know why that happened, other than George being a "very extreme" person who plunged into everything full-speed, whether it was "meditation or coke-sniffing." The film leaves it at that.

Olivia Harrison gets the last words, saying that when her husband died, "he just lit the room."

It's clear she means that literally. And it kind of dampens the afterglow of a film that sheds a lot of light on its subject but at times can be a little too blissed out for its own good.


New fall season: FX's uneven American Horror Story scares up a storm of nightmare scenarios

Calm before their storms: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Taissa Farmiga of American Horror Story. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O'Hare, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, Alexandra Breckinridge, Jamie Brewer, Katelyn Reed
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk

It's creepy, it's trampy, it's campy, it's all over the place.

FX's American Horror Story certainly qualifies as the damnedest new series of the fall season. But is it damnable, too? Are its two lead producers, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, brilliant in their abilities to fashion an adrenaline-pumping, commercially sponsored TV show that manages to get away with murder in virtually every way, shape or form? Or in this particular case, might they be closer to being just a pair of sick sadists? There's no easy answer.

Murphy and Falchuk so far have teamed on FX's Nip/Tuck and Fox's Glee. The former soared in its first two seasons before running aground with gratuitous excesses built into increasingly ludicrous story lines. And Glee already shows signs of being perhaps a three-season wonder after Season 2 loaded up on guest stars, lost its heart and now is losing viewers at a fairly alarming rate.

So it's a fair question to ask: Can Murphy and Falchuk sustain a premise, let alone a series, for more than a season or two? Or are they masters of the bang-up idea, but poor stewards of what comes next?

They producers say their influences for Horror Story include Dark Shadows, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining and particularly the comparatively obscure 1973 Nicolas Roeg movie Don't Look Now, which starred Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a married couple struggling to recover emotionally from their daughter's drowning death. The film trades heavily on imagery and misdirection. What's real and what's not what it seems?

In American Horror, familiar TV stars Dylan McDermott (The Practice) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) play husband and wife Ben and Vivien Harmon. They also have a lippy, oft-resentful teen daughter named Violet (Taissa Farmiga). A family of four was planned, but the trauma of Vivien's miscarriage was compounded by her catching Ben in bed with one of his young students. Initially suspecting a home intruder, she lashed at him with a kitchen knife.

Now the Harmons are trying to heal emotionally by moving cross-country and settling into a "classic L.A. Victorian" that was built in the 1920s for a noted "doctor to the stars." It's first introduced in Wednesday's opening flashback (circa 1978) as a place where really bad things continue to happen. But hey, the price is right.

Horror Story, whose decidedly off-the-charts theme music is more a series of grinding sound effects, moves with lightning quickness from scene to scene. Whether all of this is capably stitched together may be another matter entirely. But boredom's not an option. Nor is timidity. FX takes pride in being an envelope-pusher. And the graphic language and sexuality in Horror Story is Fed Exed to the same area code as dramas on HBO or Showtime.

Neither of those pay-extra networks has to worry about offending advertisers. In Horror Story's case, 90 percent of conventional mainstream sponsors likely will shy away from scenes such as McDermott's nude Ben groaningly masturbating after watching a sexed-up housecleaner tease him by fingering herself. The premiere episode also uses the full 10-letter word for oral sex, with one of Ben's unhinged young male patients (Evan Peters as Tate Langston) deploying it to describe the promiscuous mother he's come to hate. McDonald's is not going to be hawking Big Macs on this one.

The housekeeper, by the way, appears in different form to Ben than to anyone else. Alexandra Breckenridge is constantly tempting him as the shapely, ever-unbuttoning young Moira while Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) is cast as the middle-aged frumpish version hired by Vivien.

There's also the severely disfigured Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare), who burned his wife and their two daughters alive while they lived in the Harmons' new home. Literally two-faced, he pursues Ben during one of his frequent jogs. "Your family is in danger," he warns. And as for killing his family, "they told me what to do."

Best of all -- and the principal reason to watch Wednesday's first episode -- is Jessica Lange as next door neighbor Constance. Oozing with barbed Southern charm, she has an omnipresent "Mongoloid" daughter (as she puts it) and quashed ambitions to be a movie star after moving to Hollywood from deep down South. Nudity increasingly was required at the time, and "I wasn't about to have my green pasture flash 70 feet high for every man, woman and child to see," Constance tells Vivien after barging unannounced into her kitchen. She's a regular Norma Desmond, with a triple shot of Blanche DuBois. Yummy.

Britton was reluctant to take on a scary TV series and says she never watched Nip/Tuck because it was "too gory." In that respect, she seems a bit out of sync in some of these early scenes with Lange. But Britton later steels herself for a no-holds-barred cathartic faceoff with Ben, who finally blows up after she again spurns his sexual advances.

"I'm not punishing you, your narcissistic asshole," she fires back after he rages at her. "I can't even look at your face, Ben, without seeing the expression on it while you were pile-driving her in our bed." No, we're not in Dillon, Texas anymore.

McDermott flashes his still well-muscled torso a lot while also demonstrating an ability to weep in abject frustration or panic. But can the producers keep these balls in the air? Or even with its intriguing and thoroughly watchable first episode, is Horror Story more a vivid collection of disjointed scenes rather than a sum of whole parts?

FX thankfully sent two more hours for review. And they started to lose me with a truly off-putting 1968 flashback scene at the start of Episode 2. It involves the backstabbing of a teenage girl among other things. And frankly, it leaves a sickening feeling before Horror returns to the present, where the same copycat killing scenario eventually is visited upon Vivien and her daughter while Ben is away in Boston on false pretenses.

Again, Britton looks uncomfortable trying to pull off such scenes. It's as if she's seriously asking herself, "What have I gotten into as an actress?" That's a fair question for viewers as well. Terror obviously is at the heart of this series. But is FX simply grinding in its glass shards, just because it can?

The word "campy" was used at the outset of this review. Horror Story can be that, too, although probably not altogether intentionally. Some of this stuff actually starts to get laughable, with Ben's tortured psyche careening all over the place while he keeps trying to talk everyone except himself into therapy.

And although she says them deliciously, Lange sometimes is more saddled than equipped with lines like "You think I want to stay in this world of death and rotten regret?"

That is, of course, the central question. After Episode 2's home invasion, why on earth would anyone in their right mind stick around to keep experiencing these individual hells on earth? Episode 3 addresses that question, with Vivien insisting they move out before learning about certain complications that really don't fly dramatically.

Meanwhile, the "Eternal Darkness" bus tour continues to make its regular stops at the Harmons' famed "Murder House." Vivien even goes along for a ride one day, enabling the series to flash back to the place's first decidedly bizarre residents.

It's a lot to process, and at times too much to take. Still, Horror Story often is a wonder. And it's also bloody well worth watching if you want to get a strong dose of where television might be going in terms of standards, practices and the near-obliterating of same on an ad-supported network.

The producers still have to prove, though, that they can make the distinction between scare tactics with an underlying thematic purpose and excesses that veer between laughable and degenerate. American Horror Story so far cuts both ways.