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History Channel's Houdini can't unshackle itself

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Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly co-star as a well-sculpted Harry Houdini and his unfulfilled stage wife, Bess. History Channel photo


Premiering: Monday, Sept. 1st at 8 p.m. (central) on History Channel, with Part 2 at the same hour on Sept. 2nd.
Starring: Adrien Brody, Kristen Connolly, Evan Jones, Eszter Onodi, David Calder, Tom Benedict Knight, Louis Mertens
Produced by: Andras Hamon, Gerald W. Abrams

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Like any world class trickster, Harry “The Great” Houdini often used sleight of hand to great effect in fooling all of the public all of the time.

History Channel’s two-part depiction of his life and times, starring Adrien Brody, contrastingly uses a heavy hand throughout. Houdini suffers from an over-abundance of narration -- too much of it ridiculously written -- and recurring, clunky symbolism built around Houdini’s famed ability to take hard punches to the stomach. Viewers in turn get too many blows to the head, although there’s some fun to be had in seeing the secrets behind some of those daring escapes and illusions.

Born in 1874 as Erik Weisz of Budapest, the future Harry Houdini spent most of his formative years in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his mother bathed him in affection while his rabbi father kept stifling his hopes and dreams. History’s three-and-a-half-hour Houdini repeatedly revisits Harry’s veneration of his mother and distaste for a “nobody” father. Young Harry wanted to be somebody, ya see. Director Uli Edel and scriptwriter Nicholas Meyer keep pounding this home with all the subtlety of a pro wrestling body slam.

Monday’s Part One begins with a shackled Houdini poised to jump off a bridge into a small hole cut through an ice-encased river. From a distance, the “ice” looks very fake, but perhaps can still be touched up in post-production. Brody’s narrative voice -- get used to it -- informs viewers that “one way or another we all want to escape.” Except that “unlike other people, I don’t escape life. I escape death.” Although “the one thing I can’t seem to escape from is me.”

Houdini then flashes back 17 years to Ohio, where Harry is performing in a brothel. And then another decade to 1886 Appleton, where a young Harry (Louis Mertens) and his brother are captivated by a traveling magician who’s bloodily dismembering a woman before sawing her in half. Harry’s immediately got the bug while Brody keeps narrating the obvious before further intoning, “My greatest escape was leaving Appleton, Wisconsin.”

Brody, in one of Houdini’s early incarnations as “The Wild Man From Borneo,” has thrown himself into this role from a physical standpoint. His physique is chiseled to Tarzan-readiness -- and it appears to be all his. But the film is too full of flab and laughable voiceovers such as “The only thing more devastating than a punch to the gut is an arrow through the heart. I never even saw it coming.”

In this case, he’s talking about his first gaze at future wife Bess (Kristen Connolly), who’s a chorus line dancer. She very quickly becomes Houdini’s wife and onstage co-star before a prop whiz named Jim Collins (Evan Jones) becomes their indispensable third wheel. It’s Collins who’s the brains behind Houdini’s most famous escapes. And they hit the jackpot with the Chinese Water Torture Cell, into which a chained Houdini is lowered head first.

Houdini also became renowned for catching fired bullets in his teeth and for befuddling local cops who unsuccessfully sought to imprison him. The methods used are revealed in both instances. They in part reward a viewer’s patience for slogging through lines such as:

*** “The only way to beat death is to put your life on the line. But why was I so compelled to beat death? What was I trying to escape?”

*** “The bullets I pretended to catch in my teeth now struck young men throughout the world (at the outset of World War I).”

*** “My mother’s death was a sucker punch that I wasn’t near ready for.”

Houdini is relentlessly determined to leave no doubt that Houdini loved his mama Cecilia (Eszter Onodi) with an intensity that perhaps even Liberace, Van Cliburn and Elvis couldn’t match. Wife Bess just couldn’t keep pace, although they remained together through the rough patches.

“You may not be afraid of death but you’re afraid of life! Real life!” Bess blares in Tuesday’s Part 2.

“This is what you signed up for honey!” he retorts.

But Houdini eventually relents after upbraiding Bess for her opposition to his death-defying stunts.

“You put me in a box!” he rages. Oh yeah? “You’re only happy in a box! What’s next? A coffin?”

So Houdini grudgingly resorts to making elephants disappear and walking through brick walls. After the latter trick he meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (David Calder), the Sherlock Holmes creator who believes that both his wife and Houdini have spiritual powers.

“It’s a trick,” Harry keeps trying to tell him. They later clash over Houdini’s latter day quest to expose fake mediums by disrupting their seances. The film also presents as fact the still unproven claims that Houdini was recruited as a European spy for the U.S. Secret Service. It makes for some cloak-and-dagger meetings on foggy nights.

History Channel’s Houdini, flawed as it is, can’t help but be superior to the same-named, very broadly drawn 1953 film starring Tony Curtis. In that one, the cause of Houdini’s death was fabricated. The new version sticks to the actual facts, although Harry’s near-death exchange with an admiring doctor is mighty hokey.

Brody’s performance is borderline capable within the constraints of an at best mediocre combination of writing and story construction. But Harry Houdini’s incredible story still awaits a master re-telling. And this one doesn’t even come close.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's Emmy telecast is second most-watched in last 8 years

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Big wins all around: Bryan Cranston smooches Julia Louis-Dreyfus at length before accepting best actor Emmy for Breaking Bad. NBC photos


By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Despite airing on a Monday instead of a Sunday for the first time since 1976, NBC’s Emmy telecast came up a pretty big winner in the national Nielsen ratings.

The three-hour ceremony, hosted by Seth Meyers, weighed in at 15.6 million viewers. That put it well behind last year’s total of 17.8 million, although there were extenuating circumstances. CBS’ 2013 telecast aired on Sunday, Sept. 22nd and benefited from a big lead-in audience from the network’s preceding NFL game between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.

NBC’s Emmys otherwise had more viewers than any ceremony since 2006, when NBC drew 16.2 million for “Television’s Biggest Night.”

The traditional broadcast networks held their own this time out, especially when compared to last year. Although host NBC and Fox were shut out, CBS, PBS and ABC combined for 11 major Emmys while the cable networks had 14. In the 2013 Emmys, cable and Netflix led the broadcasters by a score of 19 to 6.

AMC’s Breaking Bad, with a major finishing flourish, led all individual shows with five Emmys. ABC’s Modern Family (named best comedy for the fifth straight year) and PBS’ Sherlock: His Last Vow, tied for second with three apiece.

CBS, AMC and FX tied for the most network wins with five each while HBO dropped from a leading 7 last year to just 3 this year. Matthew McConaughey of HBO’s True Detective felt the sting, losing for the first time in any of this year’s awards ceremonies. The best actor in a drama series Emmy instead went to Bryan Crantson for Breaking Bad, which also repeated as TV’s best drama in the final award presentation of the night.

My cnn.com commentary on Monday’s Emmy Awards can be found right here.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Emmys anyone? Read all about 'em

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Seth Meyers hosts The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards. NBC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Emmys are coming, and you’re certainly entitled to yawn if you’d like.

Taking its turn in the four-network rotation, NBC will be carrying what they still like to call “Television’s Biggest Night.” It’s still too small, though, to dislodge the Peacock network’s contractual commitment to Sunday Night Football. So the Emmys are being sent to Monday, Aug. 25th (7 to 10 p.m. central) in deference to that bigger pre-season game Sunday night between the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals. Double yawn.

Seth Meyers is hosting, which promises to be both fun and relatively safe compared to the likes of Ricky Gervais or Seth MacFarlane. Answering a question from unclebarky.com at last month’s TV Critics Association “press tour,” Meyers says he’ll try to stay within the boundaries of an old rule of thumb from Lorne Michaels (his boss at Saturday Night Live and now at NBC’s Late Night).

“He always stresses to try not to tell a joke about somebody that you then would want to leave the cocktail party if they showed up,” Meyers says. “Even if it’s maybe a little negative, as long as it seems fair you can get away with it . . . You want to have a couple of jokes that you walk out not knowing exactly how they’re going to play. That makes it fun, sort of walking on the tightrope. So I think we’ll have some of that. But it’s more playful than certainly cutting or biting.”

The Emmys, now in their 66th year, have never generated office pools or watch parties like a certain other awards ceremony dedicated to recognizing excellence on the big screen. Far more people watch television than go to movie theaters. And the TV bar is set higher than ever, with quality drama and comedy series being launched here, there and almost everywhere. Still, the Oscars are King Tut while the Emmys remain the forever-in-waiting equivalent of Prince Charles. Someday their cachet will come. But probably not during many of our life times.

Emmy’s categories also are a particular mess this time around, with networks and shows pretending to be something they’re not in order to enhance their chances of at least being nominated. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black is a comedy series nominee. Hah! Treme got a nomination as a miniseries, even though it ended its run in December after four seasons on HBO. In this view, anything airing in successive seasons under the same title is a series -- not a miniseries.

There are other instances of category malfeasance. But absent a groundswell of opposition -- and there’s certainly nothing close to that -- let’s deal with the hands that will be dealt Monday night. Here are the nominees in some of the major categories, with your friendly content provider in each case offering a brief closing commentary.

OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES

Breaking Bad (AMC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
House of Cards (Netflix)
Mad Men (AMC)
True Detective (HBO)

Comment: Breaking Bad is the defending champ and could break through again for its final season. But I’m going with an upset win by Game of Thrones, an international phenomenon that led all Emmy nominees this time with 19. True Detective is a contender, too.

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES

The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Louie (FX)
Modern Family (ABC)
Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Veep (HBO)

Comment: Modern Family has won four of these in a row. I think that streak will be ended by Veep. There’s also likely to be solid support for Orange is the New Black. But it’s far more a drama than a comedy series, and there’s a chance it might not have even been nominated in that category. I hope that more than a few Emmy voters take that into account and reward a rightful comedy, not a pretender.

OUTSTANDING MINISERIES

American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
Bonnie and Clyde (A&E/Lifetime/History)
Fargo (FX)
Treme (HBO)
The White Queen (Starz)

Comment: Fargo should be a lock. And in this case I liked it way too much to quibble over whether it’s more of a series than a miniseries. American Horror Story: Coven is the only other conceivable winner in this category. That would be a big upset, though.

OUTSTANDING TELEVISION MOVIE

Killing Kennedy (National Geographic Channel)
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (HBO)
The Normal Heart (HBO)
Sherlock: His Last Vow (PBS)
The Trip to Bountiful (Lifetime)

Comment: The Normal Heart is a certain winner here.

LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)
Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom/HBO)
Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Woody Harrelson (True Detective)
Matthew McConaughey (True Detective)
Kevin Spacey (House of Cards)

Comment: Daniels was last year’s upset winner, but that won’t happen again. McConaughey hasn’t lost yet in any awards competition, and he’s the very likely winner. Some might see a possible vote-split between McConaughey and co-star Harrelson. But Michael Douglas kept on winning in 2013 while co-star Matt Damon kept losing for his work in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. Hamm almost assuredly will walk away empty-handed again, which is unfortunate. Cranston is very much liked in Hollywood. So if McConaughey somehow is denied, look for Cranston to be the one hoisting the Emmy.

LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex/Showtime)
Claire Danes (Homeland/Showtime)
Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey)
Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife/CBS)
Kerry Washington (Scandal/ABC)
Robin Wright (House of Cards)

Comment: Although her series isn’t of Emmy caliber, Washington is my pick to win. As an Emmy voter, though, I’d go with Caplan, the Masters of Sex co-star who’s also the sexiest woman in series TV. That’s just a personal opinion, though. Danes won last year. And the year before that.

LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Lena Dunham (Girls/HBO)
Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie/Showtime)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep)
Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly/CBS)
Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation/NBC)
Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black)

Comment: I think Louis-Dreyfus will defend her title in this category. Even Falco has said she doesn’t think Nurse Jackie is a comedy, which was easier for her to say after she earlier won in the title role. In contrast, Poehler has never won an Emmy but has a Peabody and a Golden Globe. If she finally breaks through, that’d be nice.

LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Louis C.K. (Louie)
Don Cheadle (House of Lies/Showtime)
Ricky Gervais (Derek/Netflix)
Matt LeBlanc (Episodes/Showtime)
William H. Macy (Shameless/Showtime)
Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory)

Comment: The last I looked, Shameless is not and never has been a comedy. Nor does this category generate much interest on my part. They might well give it to Parsons again, which would be OK. But I’d rather see Louis C.K. or LeBlanc win, even though the latter is playing a heightened version of himself. Neither has ever won an acting Emmy.

LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE

Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock: His Last Vow)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dancing on the Edge/Starz)
Idris Elba (Luther/BBC America)
Martin Freeman (Fargo)
Mark Ruffalo (The Normal Heart)
Billy Bob Thornton (Fargo)

Comment: Billy Bob almost certainly will win this one. But Freeman was tremendous, too. If they somehow divide the vote, Ruffalo could emerge triumphant in the sort of “cause” movie that Hollywood keeps loving.

LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE

Helena Bonham Carter (Burton and Taylor/BBC America)
Minnie Driver (Return to Zero/Lifetime)
Jessica Lange (American Horror Story: Coven)
Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story: Coven)
Cicely Tyson (The Trip to Bountiful)
Kristen Wiig (Spoils of Babylon/IFC)

Comment: Bonham Carter was very good in Burton and Taylor, but Tyson has sentiment and a long, distinguished history on her side. She may well win, and it could be quite a moment if she does.

One last thing: I’m not including the supporting categories, but my night with the Emmys would be complete if Allison Tolman prevails as the “Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie.” The Baylor University grad and former Dallas resident was a true out-of-nowhere success story as dedicated deputy Molly Solverson in Fargo. She’s up against a quintet of name brands -- Kathy Bates, Ellen Burstyn, Julia Roberts, Angela Bassett and Frances Conroy. But c’mon, let’s make the correct choice here. And without a doubt that would be Tolman, the heart and soul of Fargo in her first role of any import.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

BBC America's Intruders is more off-putting than involving

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John Simm & Mira Sorvino have very little time for this in Intruders. BBC America photo

Premiering: Saturday, Aug. 23rd at 9 p.m. (central) on BBC America
Starring: John Simm, Mira Sorvino, James Frain, Millie Brown, Tory Kittles
Produced by: Glen Morgan, Jane Tranter, Julie Gardner, Rose Lam

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Story continuity isn’t the only problem with BBC America’s Intruders.

Early in Episode 1, a brief kitchen counter make-out scene makes it look as though Mira Sorvino rather magically has her robe off, on, off, on and off again. Upon further review, this is supposed to be some sort of arty, sleight-of-hand sequence shot from two angles. Unfortunately it also foreshadows the crazy-quilt makeup of this discombobulated tale, which furthermore is set in the “moody” Pacific Northwest, as described in BBC America publicity materials.

Four of the eight hour-long episodes were made available for review. That’s a considerable investment in time before hitting the desktop keyboard and rendering judgment. I kept wanting Intruders to get a grip on itself and in the process become more gripping. Instead it toggled to and fro, gradually making a little more sense while taking way too much time to do so. Being neck-deep in a muddy, murky eerie canal gets tiresome in due time. And the performances aren’t all that hot either in this adaptation of Michael Marshall Smith’s 2007 novel.

Sorvino is the marquee name, but her character isn’t the central figure of Intruders. That job goes to John Simm as former LAPD officer Jack Whelan, whose book Afterlife is now available in stores dotting the picturesque coastal town of Birch Crossing, WA. Whelan, who left the force after a violent incident, is newly dedicated to living quietly with his wife, Amy (Sorvino). But she soon vanishes amid the drama’s multiple story lines in venues ranging from Finley Beach. Oregon to Reno, Nevada.

Intruders begins with a surfeit of spooky music and drum-pounding at a teen girl’s 1990 birthday party in Barstow, CA. Two mysterious men eventually invade her bedroom. One of them is played by the redoubtable and always welcome Robert Forster, who’s briefly shown saying, “Donna, can you keep a secret? It’s a secret that you gave to us. We’re here to give it back to you, just as you asked all those years ago. We’re just here to shepherd you.”

She next vomits, of course, before writhing around, writing a “not Donna” letter and then drowning herself in a bathtub of blood. Then it’s on to present-day Seattle, where a marauding assassin named Richard Shepherd (James Frain) blows away a mom and her son while searching for an engineering professor whose knowledge could be dangerous to a very sinister secret society known as Qui Reverti.

The other featured characters are Jack’s old high school buddy, Gary Fischer (Tory Kittles), and a nine-year-old girl named Madison O’Donnell (Millie Brown), who’s both possessed and dangerous. Gary turns out to know a lot more about Jack’s duplicitous wife while Madison drowns her purring cat in a bubble bath before wailing “What have I done?” near the end of Saturday’s Episode 1. You may want to stop watching right there.

In subsequent episodes, Richard keeps killing, Jack keeps searching and kid Madison spews profanity -- “So limp dick, there’s some shit I need from you” -- that often ends with the tagline, “What goes around comes around.” Then again, she’s sometimes not in her right mind.

Sorvino is largely out of the picture in Episodes 2 and 4, leaving Simm to do most of the heavy lifting. Frankly, he’s not much of a leading man in a drama that requires some standout acting and a galvanizing presence to offset all the detours and plot knots. Sorvino and Simm try to rally these proceedings with an extended, boozy confrontation in Episode 3. “You saved me. Let me save you,” he finally pleads. Too little too late -- in every respect.

A lot of Intruders is shot at night, which perhaps is fitting for a drama that leaves viewers too much in the dark. Those willing to be strung along on the quest for immortality front would do far better to catch up or stay with FX’s ongoing The Strain. Intruders, in contrast, just can’t seem to breathe sustaining life into its characters or storyline.

GRADE: C

HBO's Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart: Implanting "reality TV" with the first fully televised trial

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Current-day Pamela Smart is still serving a life sentence. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s often the opposite outcome in sensational trials soaked in saturation TV coverage.

Defendants O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Casey Anthony, Michael Jackson, George Zimmerman and the four Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King on videotape are among those who have been controversially acquitted of their alleged crimes.

Not so Pamela Smart, who went on trial 23 years ago for the first degree murder of her husband, Gregg, to whom she had been married for just under a year. The HBO documentary Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (premiering Monday, Aug. 18th at 8 p.m. central) finds the roots of “reality TV” embedded in a guilty verdict that sent the defendant to prison for life with no possibility of parole. Smart, now 46, still maintains her innocence and in large part blames the media for her conviction.

The entire Smart trial, which also spotlighted her four wrong-side-of-the-tracks male teenage accomplices, was televised live daily on New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV. It marked the first time that cameras were allowed in the courtroom from gavel to gavel. Filmmakers Jeremiah Zagar and Lori Cheatle view this as an electronic age equivalent of Adam biting the apple before all hell broke loose. The Smart trial riveted the entire town of Derry, NH while various reporters, law enforcement officials, lawyers and witnesses came to relish their supporting roles.

One of the one hour, 40 minute documentary’s money quotes is from reality show producer Ted Haimes, whose recent credits include Starving Secrets with Tracey Gold, Aftermath with William Shatner, The Locator and Adoption Diaries.

“We were seeing the petri dish for what’s happened today,” Haimes says of the Smart trial and its attendant circus. “TV has gone from being something that you watch to being something you’re in.”

Young gun WMUR reporter Bill Spencer, who then and now is not shy about his prominent role in fleshing out the Smart story, became a telegenic go-to guy on daytime talk shows hosted by Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael and others.

Rivera of all people asked him, “Any chance that the media is on a runaway stampede with this case?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

Spencer also anchored the WMUR special Anatomy of a Murder, which aired shortly before jury selection began in the Smart trial. It pretty much fingered her and of course drew big ratings.

“We publicized the heck out of it,” Spencer recalls. Smart’s appeals lawyer, J. Albert Johnson, says the program made it virtually impossible to select an unbiased jury. “You can’t un-ring the bell” he argues.

Derry police Sgt. Dan Pelletier, who arrested Smart, says that Captivated is, by his count, the seventh TV program he’s done in connection with the case. He’s still conscious of what amounts to his TV acting, asking the filmmakers to “let me go back and find a little more emotion.” On his second take, Pelletier is more animated in again reciting what he told Smart on that day. He had some good news and some bad news for her. They’d solved the murder and she was under arrest.

Captivated also includes a new interview with Smart; audio tapes secretly recorded by “Juror #13” (who was skeptical about the guilty verdict); and the first interview with fellow defendant Raymond Fowler after his parole period ended in 2013. He believes the jury reached the right verdict while others say he has come to believe the evil depiction of Smart in a 1991 TV movie, Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story. Helen Hunt played the title role while Spencer played himself.

A 1995 feature film, To Die For, also borrowed heavily from the Smart case. It starred Nicole Kidman and was adapted from the same-name book by Joyce Maynard, who says in Captivated, “The archetype of the beautiful woman brought down is a very powerful one.”

The Smart trial also co-starred a beautiful young boy, 15-year-old Billy Flynn, who testified in court to being the trigger man after having an affair with Smart that she’s never denied. Archival footage from the 1991 coverage of the trial has one avid viewer comparing Flynn to Paul McCartney. He’s still in jail but eligible for parole in 2015.

Captivated doesn’t come right out and say that Smart got railroaded by a runaway media train. But it clearly doesn’t mind implanting this idea with a new generation of viewers. The basic purpose of the film is to prove its thesis that “a black hole of media attention,” as appeals lawyer Johnson puts it, did far more harm than good to both Smart and the legal process.

Some of the visuals can be a little much. A worn, heavily scratched tape recorder, shot in closeup and occasionally revolving full circle, is used in tandem with the frequent audio from Juror #13. Smart also feared birds and talked of having a nightmare about them during one of her taped conversations with wired police informant Cecelia Pierce, who came to very much crave the media spotlight. So Captivated begins and ends with flocks of birds, signifying not much of anything, really.

This is nonetheless an absorbing and aggressive film that makes its points forcefully.

Smart, who clings to hopes she’ll be free someday, is not immune to envisioning the media possibilities beyond that.

“What a crazy movie it’ll be if I get out. Right?” she says near the end of Captivated.

It recalls what Spencer says about her early in the film. He was interviewing Smart in her home when she told him she still had the top layer of her wedding cake in the freezer. Wouldn’t it be a great picture if she posed with it?

“She’s attempting to produce the story that I’m working on!” Spencer exclaims all these years later.

In reality he didn’t mind a bit.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net