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Mad Men returns for one last not so merry-go-round

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Life on the rocks: Jon Hamm as adman Don Draper. AMC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The series that started it all for AMC begins its final seven-episode arc with Peggy Lee’s plaintive rendition of “Is That All There Is?”

After viewing Season 7B’s premiere hour (Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. central), many fans might find themselves asking much the same. In the annals of Mad Men season restarts, the “Severance” episode may be the most underwhelming of them all. Nothing about this series ever plunges to the depths of terrible. But as galvanizing hours of television go, this isn’t Mad Men with a bang. It’s more like beginning a closing 100 meter dash somewhere in between a slow trot and a false start. But surely things will pick up.

The usual restrictions communicated to TV critics otherwise go against going into much detail. Creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner is the most famously secretive of his breed, but at last knows how to have a little fun with this.

“This is the last premiere of Mad Men you will receive ever,” he says in a brief letter to reviewers. “It is also the last infuriating letter from me asking you not to spoil the episode . . . I know that has made your job harder, but we deeply appreciate the respect you’ve shown for the unique and sometimes frustrating restriction on your reviews.”

As usual, Weiner is asking critics not to reveal the year in which Mad Men resumes. Season 7A ended in July 1969, with its closing hour tied to Neil Armstrong’s historic July 21st moon walk.

Weiner also wants no particulars on a certain adman’s dismissal and the brief scene involving a previous character. Any details on the “romantic life” of central character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) are also deemed to be classified material.

Mad Men premiered on July 17, 2007, putting AMC on the map as a provider of quality TV dramas and leading the network on the paths toward Breaking Bad, its Better Call Saul prequel and The Walking Dead. The latter series remains immensely popular, drawing two to three times the audience for Mad Men and particularly excelling among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds.

But Don Draper and his band of hard-smoking, hard-drinking, womanizing cronies have been analyzed to near-death and enshrined in the popular culture alongside Tony Soprano and his crew. Later seasons of Mad Men have stepped up the roles and responsibilities of the Mad women, principally Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). But one scene in particular in the Season 7B opener illustrates in no uncertain terms that Peggy and particularly Joan are still viewed as sex toys by some of their male counterparts.

Don, whose divorce from Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) is pending but certainly firm, is up to his old ways in many respects. He’s also haunted by might-have-beens and tempted by what’s likely the illusion of permanency. His activities are by and large the focal point of “Severance.” But a supporting adman character, Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), gets an unusual and arguably undue amount of air time. Frankly, I wasn’t all that interested.

Another Mad Man principal has a new look that’s not at all becoming. And Don’s ex-wife, Betty (January Jones), again is missing entirely, as are his three children by her. (Jones has already moved on to Fox’s The Last Man On Earth, which airs in the half-hour preceding Mad Men.)

Weiner has shown his skills many times over as Mad Men’s one-and-only Rembrandt. So he very likely can be counted on to pump things up in the remaining six hours following the show’s rather flat Easter Sunday return.

By the way, the episode also concludes with Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” Perhaps it’s not a great idea to raise that question at both the beginning and the end. “The Long and Winding Road,” perhaps? First recorded in early 1969, it’s eligible and ever more appropriate as Don Draper and company meander(?) toward wherever they all wind up.

GRADE: B (for now)

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Imperfectly Frank: HBO's Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All

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By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is in the zone on HBO.

His exemplary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief premiered on Sunday, March 29th. Take a brief breath and here he is back in the race with Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, a four-hour retrospective that begins on Sunday, April 5th at 7 p.m. (central) and continues on Monday at the same hour.

This one doesn’t measure up to Going Clear in terms of jaw-dropping revelations or impact. But Frank Sinatra’s life, times and indelible music still pack a big punch during the year in which he would have turned 100 had he not died in 1998 at the age of 82.

New and previous reminiscences are interwoven with archival footage to present an affectionate although not unsparing portrait of the man whom many consider to be the greatest crooner of all time. As in his Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, Gibney mostly concentrates on the glory years, which in fact were quite bleak for a while until Sinatra made his big comeback as the Oscar-winning co-star of 1953’s From Here to Eternity.

The launch point of All Or Nothing At All, is Sinatra’s so-called June 13, 1971 “Retirement Concert” in Los Angeles. He performed 11 songs after being introduced by a broken-voiced Rosalind Russell. The film takes its cue from those selections, which were meant to encapsulate Sinatra’s life. So back and forth we go, from “Nancy with the Laughing Face” to “I’ll Never Smile Again;” from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to “The Lady Is A Tramp;” from “That’s Life” to “My Way.” Ring-a-ding-ding, it’s quite a trip.

Sinatra’s three children, Frank Jr., Nancy and Tina, all contribute off-camera reflections, as does his first wife, Nancy, who’s now 97. The HBO review DVD at times comes up short on identifications, but this presumably will be rectified with the finished product. It’s also unclear whether those are the real voices of ex-wives Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow -- or whether others are standing in for them and reading their words. Most likely the latter.

Sinatra’s input is via old interviews, including a vintage black-and-white sit-down with Walter Cronkite during the singer’s Farrow period. Cronkite asks Sinatra if he’s going to marry her after first making it clear he’s uncomfortable in the fleeting role of gossip instead of journalist. Sinatra demurs anyway. But imagine any of today’s network news luminaries being even remotely reticent about asking such a question.

Farrow recalls how Sinatra later sent divorce papers to the set of Rosemary’s Baby after she declined to cut her work on the film short and join him exactly as scheduled to play opposite her husband in The Detective. Gardner resented his possessive temperament, “but he was good in the feathers.” When they split up, “I became an out and out drunk,” says Sinatra. “I mean, I was bombed all the time.”

The film also touches on Sinatra’s humanitarian gestures, his early stands against bigotry and his political swerve from supporting John F. Kennedy to embracing Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan.

“It was a huge loss when Sinatra went to the other side,” says Harry Belafonte. “And we’ve never recovered from it, really.”

Sinatra was a man capable of both belittling Sammy Davis Jr. with borderline racist humor during The Rat Pack years and of singing from his heart during a concert for mostly black prison inmates. All Or Nothing At All has footage of both extremes.

Among the many musical high points are Sinatra singing an incredible version of “Old Man River” at Carnegie Hall with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in attendance. And if not quite high points, it’s considerable fun watching Sinatra do a “Love Me Tender/Witchcraft” duet with Elvis Presley and later donning a garish, spangled costume to perform with The Fifth Dimension. The man who once termed rock ’n’ roll “phony and dirty” was persuaded in later years to fill out his self-starting Reprise records roster with the likes of The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and even Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

Sinatra surely would agree that there’ll never be another quite like him. Not even close, he might add. All Or Nothing At All is further vivid proof of that. And it leaves many of us wanting still more.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's American Odyssey twists and turns while putting its heroine through a living hell

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Special ops soldier Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) of American Odyssey. NBC photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Anna Friel, Peter Facinelli, Jake Robinson, Treat Williams, Jim True-Frost, Sadie Sink, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Omar Ghazaoui, Nate Mooney, Elena Kampouris, Daniella Pineda
Produced by: Adam Armus, Kay Foster, Peter Horton, Mikkel Bondesen, Henrik Bastin, Kristen Campo, Simon Maxwell

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s been a dismal season for new NBC drama series, with Constantine, The Mysteries of Laura, State of Affairs, Allegiance and The Slap all coming up ratings clunkers.

American Odyssey, premiering on Easter Sunday, is a longshot to reverse those misfortunes. It’s an ambitious, sprawling undertaking, though, with its central character -- Special Forces soldier Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) -- enduring more hardship than possibly any leading woman in network TV history.

NBC’s promotional pitch goes like this: “Wife. Mother. Hero. Getting home will be the fight of her life.”

They’re not exaggerating. Save for the first 10 minutes or so, Ballard’s face is cut and bloodied throughout the five episodes sent for review. She’s rocked by a drone strike, thrown into a below-ground cage, beaten by refugees, threatened with beheading, impaled by a spike, etc. The U.S. military colonel she has trusted implicitly plots her demise after first declaring her dead. Even Jack Bauer would bow to her. Odelle is more resilient than a Bounty paper towel.

There is, of course, a grand and complex conspiracy, with the sinister Societal Mining Corporation (SOC) its driving force. Odelle, captured and re-captured abroad by various terrorist groups, has the only evidence that might bring SOC down. It all begins when her Special Forces team kills Al Qaeda leader Abdul Abbas. A computer in his lair contains encrypted evidence with major implications for high-level traitors. And Odelle soon becomes their public enemy No. 1.

Meanwhile, back in the States, former U.S. attorney’s office crusader Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli) begins smelling new rats while working for SOC. For the sake of their two children, his wife very much wants him to go along, get along and get out of the whistle-blowing business.

Out on the streets, political activist Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson) finds himself in the thick of things after crazed hacker Bob Offer (Nate Mooney) uncovers some very damaging information.

Harrison also is the son of a wealthy, best-selling, mistress-keeping non-fiction author from whom he’s been estranged. This leads to a scene in Episode 4 that Bill Clinton won’t find to his liking. It occurs after a fellow activist sees a framed picture of the senior Walters and the former president.

“Your dad knew Bill Clinton?” she asks in amazement.

“Yeah,” says Harrison. “Guess they had more in common than I thought.”

American Odyssey has pulling power, if you’ll give it a fair shot. Fair warning, through: it also has some telegraphed developments and a few rather preposterous ones. You’ll likely know them when you see them.

Friel, as Odelle Ballard, certainly can’t be accused of not giving it her all. This is a de-glamorized, draining, physically demanding role that also requires some heart and soul. On the emotional front, Odelle’s budding alliance with the teenage Aslam (Omar Ghazaoui), one of those assigned to guard her, is resonant and well-played throughout the first five hours.

The heroine’s plucky daughter back home -- Sadie Sink as Suzanne Ballard -- adds additional heart as a kid who firmly believes her mother is still alive. Husband/father Ron Ballard (Jim True-Frost) isn’t nearly so sure and is ripe for manipulation by the sinister Colonel Stephen Glen (Treat Williams).

As with any serpentine serial drama, levels of trust are constantly compromised from within while viewers are encouraged to keep the faith from without. After seeing the first five episodes, I’m willing to buy in beyond that without making a ringing endorsement. There’s just so much to watch these days. And one can only watch so much.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Tome improvement: NBC's A.D. The Bible Continues

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Jesus and Peter get reacquainted after the Crucifixion. NBC photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 5th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Adam Levy, Vincent Reagan, Chipo Chung, Richard Coyle, Babou Ceesay, Juan Pablo Di Pace, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Whalley, Greta Scacchi and many more throughout 12 episodes
Produced by: Roma Downey, Mark Burnett

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s an article of faith among many that the Bible simply can’t be improved on.

The same can’t be said for History channel’s The Bible miniseries, which hit it big in the ratings but took a lashing from TV critics. Two years later, the 12-episode A.D. The Bible Continues is in the hands of NBC. Based on the first two episodes, it’s better-acted and handsomer looking while still affixed with a largely no-name cast.

Reality series potentate Mark Burnett (Survivor, Shark Tank, The Apprentice) and his actress wife, Roma Downey (Touched By An Angel), return as executive producers. But holdover roles from The Bible are being played by an entirely new ensemble of thespians. That includes Jesus’ mother, Mary, with Downey being replaced by Greta Scacchi.

The initial two hours of A.D. revisit the Crucifixion (in less gruesome detail) and the Resurrection, both of which were dramatized in The Bible’s concluding two hours. Jesus has the same glowing white teeth and handsome countenance, but this time in the person of Juan Pablo Di Pace instead of Diogo Morgado.

There’s a new Pontius Pilate, too, and he’s effectively played by Vincent Reagan.

“Killing him won’t be the end of him,” Pilate’s wife, Claudia (Joanne Whalley), warns. “It is usually is, my darling,” he replies.

The scheming high priest Caiaphas (Richard Coyle) is also back in the thick of things. Pilate’s not a big fan. “Stay in the water like the eel you are,” he sneers while Caiaphas tries to take a relaxing bath in Episode 2.

A.D. for the most part has a fairly solid script, although Pilate tends to go 20th century at times with lines like, “Urgent appears to be your default state of mind.” This zinger is also aimed at Caiaphas, but both men are intent on quashing any remnants of the Christian faith after Jesus is crucified and then disappears from his tomb.

Both Mary and Mary Magdalene (Chipo Chung) have some strong emotional moments in the first two hours. And the thrice-denying Peter (now played by Adam Levy) shows signs of being a multi-dimensional character.

TV critics of the Dead Sea Scrolls vintage -- verily I’m among them -- will recall reviewing an earlier NBC A.D. miniseries with a big-name cast that included James Mason, Ava Gardner, John Houseman, Susan Sarandon, Colleen Dewhurst, Ian McShane, Ben Vereen, Anthony Andrews, Richard Roundtree and Jennifer O’Neill. That was three decades ago, in March-April of 1985.

NBC’s new A.D. is bereft of star power and might well cost less than the catering bill for the 1985 production. Still, it has a money-on-the-screen look compared to The Bible. And if it somehow averages more than 11 million viewers -- which the History channel table-setter did -- then look for biblical epics to multiply like loaves and fishes on NBC and rival networks. Samson and Delilah anyone?

One last thing: Burnett and Downey say they were inspired to produce The Bible after re-watching Cecil B. DeMille’s grandiose 1956 production of The Ten Commandments. What goes around comes around. On opening night, A.D. will be airing directly against ABC’s annual Easter season re-showing of The Ten Commandments. And so it is written. And so it shall come to pass.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell: together yet again in PBS' very slow-cooked Wolf Hall

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Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance are Henry VIII & Thomas Cromwell. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s one thing to re-tell a very oft-told tale. It’s quite another to move along at the pace of an arthritic turtle.

PBS’ six-chapter Wolf Hall, premiering under the Masterpiece banner on Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. central (re-check your local listings), is completely bereft of the zip that infused Showtime’s The Tudors. That’s not always a bad thing. But after a while, all of those contemplative stares on the part of medieval consigliere Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) begin to take their toll.

Damian Lewis, in his first major role since Homeland, is the other principal as Henry VIII. He’s barely seen in Chapter 1 and is altogether seen too little in a drama that mostly telescopes the tribulations and machinations of the close-to-the-vest Cromwell. Adapted from author Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, the story begins in 1529 and ends in 1536 with the well-known fate of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).

The likely audience for Wolf Hall already knows that King Henry has been longing to divest himself of wife Katherine (Joanne Whalley) after she’s failed to provide him with a male heir. But the Pope continues to oppose any divorce while Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), is unable to broker a deal.

Cromwell, son of a brutish blacksmith, has become Wolsey’s protege despite being a commoner. Events eventually conspire to put Cromwell in the King’s favor and Wolsey in exile. His assignment is the same. Get Henry to the altar somehow, some way.

Rylance, who at times facially resembles Peter Falk from his Columbo days, is constantly on camera as Cromwell, whose dry sense of humor is trumped by his increasingly conscience-stricken countenance. Still, Cromwell will do what needs to be done after experiencing immense personal tragedy and then the occasional pleasures of the flesh.

One of the better scenes in Wolf Hall comes during Hour 2, when Cromwell is almost giddy after bedding an unhappily married woman whom he has known for years. He earlier gets off a good line after being asked of Boleyn, “Are her teeth good?” Ripostes Cromwell: “When she sinks them into me, I’ll let you know.”

Lewis, as King Henry, convincingly comes alive during a full-blown rage in Hour 5. It’s aimed directly at Cromwell, who by this time has learned how to take a hard punch and then land some of his own on others.

So yes, Wolf Hall has its moments if you have the endurance to wait for them. But The Tudors, although taking far more liberties during its four seasons, kept events moving at a far brisker trot. Explicit sex and graphic violence, completely missing in Wolf Hall, helped to enliven all the never-ending powerbroking. Still, The Tudors also had a fuller menu of vivid characterizations, none more so than Maria Doyle Kennedy’s magnificent portrayal of the spurned Queen Katherine. In Wolf Hall, Katherine never really registers.

Some viewers might luxuriate in Wolf Hall anyway. To be sure, there’s some majesty to be had. But after experiencing/enduring all six hours, I felt let down, sleepy-eyed and very much in need of ye olde Red Bull.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net