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Olive Kitteridge gives HBO another Emmy-worthy gem

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Her misery sort of loves his company. Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins head the cast of Olive Kitteridge. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Likewise adapted from an acclaimed novel, Olive Kitteridge does what The Leftovers didn’t. It contains itself within a four-hour miniseries -- and is better for it.

Both HBO presentations originate from small eastern towns. But the strange things happening in Crosby, Maine are grounded in groaning everyday life. No one abruptly evaporates into the hereafter or has visions of demons dancing in their heads.

Olive Kitteridge, premiering Sunday, Nov. 2nd at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing at the same time Monday, also is notable for being largely faithful to the Puliizer Prize-winning Elizabeth Strout book. The Leftovers, which is getting a string-along second season, in contrast has veered wildly from the printed words of Tom Perrotta. For starters, the author’s mild-mannered mayor, Kevin Garvey, became a haunted, high-strung, violence-prone police chief. And so on under the command of principal executive producer Damon Lindeloff of Lost fame -- and infamy.

Both novels end on affirming notes. HBO knows where to stop with Olive Kitteridge while The Leftovers very much risks over-serving itself with multiple detours en route to who knows what after who knows how many seasons.

Frances McDormand brilliantly plays the title role. She’s a former school teacher with a thin, nurturing streak. But Olive is mostly embittered, sour and almost impossible to please. “Oh for God’s sake, Henry, you can make a woman sick,” she retorts when her husband asks, “You’re not gonna leave me, right?”

Amiable Henry Kitteridge (a terrific supporting performance by Richard Jenkins) is the pilot light of Olive Kitteridge. Initially the owner of a neighborhood pharmacy, he spreads kindness and compassion without being a complete pushover or buffoon. Enduring wife “Ollie’s” arsenal of sideswipes and head-on insults, Henry always errs on the bright side. He’s an up-with-people person married to a blunt-spoken downer.

The miniseries basically spans 25 years, beginning with Olive preparing to end it all before backtracking a quarter-century to the time Henry gave her a heart-shaped box of candy -- which she ignored. Life is not a box of chocolates, although Olive does love her donuts and donut holes.

The Kitteridges have a son named Christopher (played by Devin Druid as a kid and John Gallagher, Jr. as a young man). He feels tormented as an adolescent and lashes out as an adult despite Olive’s protestations that “You had a normal, happy childhood, just for the record.”

The novel has numerous supporting characters, most of them filtered through the prism of Olive Kitteridge whether they were students or acquaintances of hers. “Don’t be scared of your hunger,” she had instructed her math students.

One of her former students, Kevin Coulson (Cory Michael Smith), has had a highly dysfunctional childhood before returning to Crosby as a psychiatrist who can’t seem to fix himself. Olive tries to intercede, showing her softer side with those she once tried to mold as an unyielding classroom authoritarian. Beyond that, she has her own traumatic back story, with outward stoicism both her armor and her shield.

Not all of the book’s characters can be accommodated in the miniseries, but the pivotal ones remain.

In Sunday night’s first chapter, viewers are introduced to the only two people who tempted both Olive and Henry to flee their coops.

Henry befriends and mentors young, bespectacled, plain-faced Denise Thibodeau (memorably played by Zoe Kazan), who becomes his pharmacy assistant after the previous old curmudgeon drops dead. She’s wide-eyed and gentle of heart, qualities that greatly appeal to Henry. “I’m gonna take care of you, Denise,” he says warmly and not entirely platonically after tragedy strikes.

Meanwhile, Olive is attracted to hard-drinking, chain-smoking fellow teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan). He’s “deeper” than Henry and considerably darker, too.

Bill Murray co-stars as Jack Kennison, a politically conservative recent widower who’s mostly confined to Monday night’s closing half-hour. Murray jogs through the role without seeming to break a sweat. He’s just fine at this, but nothing more.

A constant throughout Olive Kitteridge is Angela O’Meara (Martha Wainwright), a generation-spanning pianist/vocalist at the town’s most popular bar/restaurant. The book tells her back story. The miniseries doesn’t, but Angela nonetheless leaves a lasting impression with her schmaltzy vocals and devotion to them.

McDormand is forever enshrined as dogged deputy Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Her portrayal of Olive Kitteridge is even more accomplished, in turns aggravating and affecting while always seeming just right. Jenkins is likewise superb as the man who truly loves her -- and not purely out of duty. What does he see in her? What does she see in him? In both cases it’s more than meets the eye. Family dynamics are what they are, whether or not Olive truly deserves a husband who resolutely stands by her while also occasionally fighting back.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko with Tom Hanks among the executive producers, Olive Kitteridge is certainly no Hallmark card. Norman Rockwell isn’t welcome either. This is a nuanced, slowly simmering look at bent and spindled lives molded by previous bent and spindled lives. The bright spots are there, but never glowing. Self-realization is the payoff. But as in real life, it often comes too late to express to those who needed to hear it most.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS' The McCarthys agreeably plays it loud (laugh track included, of course)

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Mom, dad and their four Boston-baked McCarthy kids. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 30th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Tyler Ritter, Laurie Metcalf, Joey McIntyre, Jimmy Dunn, Kelen Coleman, Jack McGee
Produced by: Mike Sikowitz, Will Gluck, Richard Schwartz, Brian Gallivan, Andy Ackerman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
CBS’ last new fall series of the season comes at you after the first four -- Scorpion, Stalker, Madam Secretary, NCIS: New Orleans -- already have been picked up for full first-year runs.

TV critics didn’t rave, but viewers have spoken via the weekly Nielsen ratings. And The McCarthys, also likely to receive mixed reviews at best, is a pretty good bet to join CBS’ ongoing parade of success stories that fit “the brand” by swimming in the mainstream.

In the comedy realm, that means another broadly rendered “multi-camera” outing filmed before a studio audience and sweetened when needed by an accompanying laugh track. The McCarthys originally went against this grain before CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler shifted it from a “single-cam” comedy (made without an audience or laugh track) to what historically has worked for CBS.

“A lot of people are very seduced by the romance of a single-camera comedy,” Tassler said when your friendly content provider questioned her at last summer’s Television Critics Association “press tour.” “But when we looked at the rhythms of The McCarthys, it was much better served in a multi-camera format. Ultimately, for our network and for our audience, they resonate.”

The rhythms are boisterous in The McCarthys, a Boston Irish family stocked with assertive, “traditional” but loving parents, twin sons who look nothing alike, a semi-slutty daughter and -- yo ho ho -- gay Ronny. They typically interact via rat-a-tat punchlines. As when Ronny (Tyler Ritter) suddenly announces he plans to accept a job as guidance counselor at a Providence, Rhode Island private school. At age 29, he’s also ready to “meet someone” after years of close proximity to the intrusive McCarthy clan.

But really -- Rhode Island? “That’s not a real state,” carps beefy twin Sean (Jimmy Dunn).

“It’s a great job and a fun, new city with a vibrant gay community,” Ronny retorts.

“Aren’t all gay communities vibrant?” thin twin Gerard (Joey McIntyre) cracks.

“Ronny! You’re still gay?!” mama Marjorie (Laurie Metcalf) exclaims.

Each of these lines has a studio audience/laugh-track spacer, the old-line sitcom equivalent of mortar between bricks. CBS’ companion Thursday night comedies -- The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Two and a Half Men -- and the network’s Monday night entries -- 2 Broke Girls, The Millers -- are all outfitted with the same delivery system. CBS strayed from this path last fall with the unadorned The Crazy Ones. It failed despite a high-powered cast led by the late Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar. OK, enough of that nonsense. Back to what works for a network that basically birthed the multi-cam form with the hugely successful I Love Lucy.

Patriarch Arthur McCarthy (Jack McGee) is a high school basketball coach and diehard Boston Celtics fan whose assistant, “Fatty” McFadden, dies off-camera of a heart attack in Thursday’s early going.

The family agrees to continue watching basketball and order pizza in Fatty’s memory before Dad gets down to basics: “Now I need a new assistant coach to replace that fat bastard.” (Small point: The “Fatty” in the open casket, with a basketball glued to his hands, does not look fat at all. But whatever.)

Meanwhile, it’s already been well-established in promos and CBS publicity materials that Dad shockingly will offer the job to Ronny, who will decline because he’s pretty much at sea when it comes to hoops. But another surprise development helps to pull him back in.

The McCarthys also drips like a name-dropping faucet, with multiple references to The Good Wife, Kyra Sedgwick and Annette Bening among others. And as long as the accomplished Metcalf is in the cast, they might as well work in a few wink-wink references to Roseanne down the road. Boy, the audience/laugh track would roar.

Whatever its traditional trappings, The McCarthys is buoyed by Metcalf’s always solid work and Ritter’s boyish appeal amid a capable, energetic ensemble. Some of the lines are amusing and even the clinkers don’t land too hard. So in basketball terms, this is a decent role player who picks up a few fouls, contributes a few points, plays solid defense and knows the basics of the game. Those kinds of players stick in the NBA. These kinds of shows stay on CBS.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's varnished James Brown documentary is still more thrilling than unfulfilling

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James Brown: No one could him in his prime. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Obtaining the complete cooperation of any late legend’s estate invariably is a double-edged proposition.

In return for all that “rare and previously unseen footage,” a filmmaker generally is expected to downplay the controversial aspects of the subject’s life and times. So it goes with HBO’s Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, which ends abruptly after fast-forwarding to the influence he had on artists ranging from Michael Jackson to rapper Chuck D.

Produced by Mick Jagger (who also helped birth the 2014 Brown biopic Get On Up) and directed by Alex Gibney, the two-hour documentary premieres on Monday, Oct. 27th at 8 p.m. (central). That’s directly opposite the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins Monday Night Football face-off, although viewers in those two venues will have ample other opportunities to watch Mr. Dynamite on their own schedules.

The film loads up on Brown’s incredible stage performances and how he made his music on his terms and no one else’s. His political activism -- and the odd turn it took -- also is detailed at considerable length. But Brown’s repeated physical abuse of women is lamentably glossed over while his various drug addictions and latter day arrests go entirely unmentioned. He died on Christmas Day, 2006 at the age of 73. A series of elaborate memorial services ensued.

Jagger’s interest in Brown dates to seeing him first-hand during one of his many electric performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. There’s apparently no filmed footage of those historic early 1960s appearances. Or at least nothing is shown in Mr. Dynamite other than still pictures. But Jagger’s recollections are vivid. He recalls watching Brown from the Apollo balcony while seated next to an old lady smoking a joint.

“I was obviously learning from it,” he says, “trying to steal everything I possibly could do” as the gyrating lead vocalist for the then formative Rolling Stones.

A few years later, In 1964, Brown and The Famous Flames, the Stones, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and other musical deities were all booked on the T.A.M.I. concert, which also was being filmed as a movie. In Mr. Dynamite’s most intriguing segment, Jagger remembers being asked to arbitrate after Brown objected to the Stones closing the show rather than him.

“He wasn’t really that mad. But he was a bit pissed off, I think,” Jagger says.

The upshot: Brown’s crazy-good retaliatory performance, much of it reprised in Mr. Dynamite, supposedly upstaged the Stones and made him a completely impossible act to follow. But Jagger says that a new audience was brought in while the stage was re-set after Brown’s performance.

“I don’t think they’d even seen James Brown,” he says. “Still, “if you watch the film, you see us up against him, so to speak,” Jagger adds. He laughs good naturedly and basically agrees that Brown reigned supreme that day. But it’s clear he also had pride in his own performance. And the crowd reaction to the Stones is hardly dismissive, even if the intensity of the squeals for Brown would have shattered far more crystal.

A number of Brown’s old band members also are interviewed. Some recall him as a “black power” capitalist in public forums, but a skinflint when it came to spreading the wealth. When band members finally confronted him, Brown simply cut them loose and recruited mostly new musicians.

Brown wore over-sized wigs or had his hair processed (“conked”) during his rise to fame via hits such as “Please, Please, Please; Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You.” But he went natural for a while during the “black power” movement of the later 1960s while also recording his most stirring declaration of independence, “Say It Loud -- I’m Black, I’m Proud.”

The future “Godfather of Soul” regularly took his music and sometimes his views to The Mike Douglas Show, a syndicated afternoon hour in which Brown once memorably squared off with the imperial David Susskind. Condescendingly calling him “Jimmy,” Susskind said blacks were ill-advisedly re-segregating themselves. “Open your ears,” he told Brown, who wasn’t buying it.

“My ears have been open. Have your eyes been open?” Brown retorted. It’s an amazing verbal joust.

But after endorsing Democratic Party presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Brown re-embraced his processed coif and endorsed Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. “I’m endorsing the country,” not a political party, he told an interviewer.

Many in the black community renounced him. Speaking volumes without saying a word, Mr. Dynamite includes footage of a black boy carrying a sign saying, “James Brown A Bought Brother.”

The film pretty much leaves it at that after showing a young Al Sharpton giving a plaque of appreciation to Brown on an episode of Soul Train. In a fresh interview for Mr. Dynamite, Sharpton also is the one who briefly touches on Brown’s mistreatment of women. He knew it was “wrong” and was contrite about it, Sharpton says. If anything, the physical abuse intensified in Brown’s later years. But the film seems to be saying in so many words, “Let’s move on.” The subject’s life still has 30-some years to go when Mr. Dynamite closes the door on it with an appreciation of his music’s ripple effect.

James Brown’s parents both abandoned him at an early age, the film points out on more than one occasion. It left him to be raised by an “Aunt Honey” who both ran a brothel and brewed moonshine. So he came from basically nothing and supposedly never conquered his insecurities or inability to fully trust those who worked for him.

“He had to force people to be around him. I think he was lonely,” says Fred Wesley, Brown’s former trombonist and band leader.

“I guess you could say James Brown was a tyrant,” tour manager Alan Leeds says. But he chalks this up to how hard he had to fight to get to the top.

Mr. Dynamite, and no doubt Brown’s estate, are primarily intent on charting that rise. Much of the performance footage is phenomenal in that respect. But in two hours time, the film could have dug deeper rather than coming to a screeching halt that almost rivals its subject’s high-pitched stage wails. Then again, it’s partly titled The Rise of James Brown. The descent just doesn’t cut it from an estate-authorized standpoint.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

More comic bookery on NBC's wham, bam and oft-befuddling Constantine

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Matt Ryan (not the Atlanta Falcons quarterback) stars in Constantine. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Matt Ryan, Harold Perrineau, Charles Halford, Angelica Celaya
Produced by: Daniel Cerone, David S. Groyer, Mark Verheiden

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Anything can happen and an awful lot does in NBC’s first episode of Contantine. In this case, that’s a problem.

Friday’s crazily paced, head-spinning premiere may be elementary to those very intensely familiar with the Hellblazer DC Comics series on which it’s based. Most viewers won’t be so versed, though. Which makes it a considerable leap from “Dude, makes perfect sense to me” to “What the hell’s going on here?”

Title character John Constantine, energetically played by Welsh-born Matt Ryan, is a self-described exorcist beset by demons both within and without him. He’s first seen in a Northern England sanitarium, undergoing shock treatment. This doesn’t seem to help, causing him to blow up at his therapist before he subdues a possessed young woman who’s painting a bloody masterpiece amid thousands of creepy crawlies.

The words “LIV DIE” then appear on a wall, prompting Constantine to deduce, “I’ve got work to do.” He’s soon pulling up in a yellow cab next to a woman named Liv (guest star Lucy Griffiths), whose auto has mysteriously malfunctioned atop an Atlanta parking garage. “If you don’t listen to me, you’ll be dead by morning,” Constantine warns after a huge hole opens up, followed by an explosion.

Next comes Manny the angel (Harold Perrineau from Lost), who has super-sized wings and an overall disdain for Constantine. “You’re not OK, John,” he says with an imperious air. “You damned a woman to hell. And along with her, your soul.”

This is complicated. Constantine remains obsessed with rescuing young Astra (guest star Bailey Tippen), who’s been taken away by some sort of “inner circle” demon. Liv, whose late father, Jasper, was a fellow demon-chaser and mentor to Constantine, has left her with the same power to “see the world for what it really is.” Which is why the evil-doers want her dead. Which means that Constantine must use her as “bait.” Hey, my head’s hurting, too.

Liv originally was supposed to be a regular character in Constantine. But the producers decided to write her out after Friday’s first episode in favor of a more powerful ally named Zed (Angelica Celaya), who’s scheduled to show up in Episode 2.

All kinds of weird stuff is visited upon Liv before she hits the cutting room floor. A “ghost train” passes through both her and Constantine, prompting him to explain, “There are worlds beyond ours -- parallel planes of existence.” Liz’s girlfriend also is brutally murdered before she sees Constantine’s trusty pal, Chas (Charles Halford), seemingly die after being impaled. Then there’s the climactic “demon seal,” drawn by Constantine atop the parking garage because “there are millions of demons. We have to figure out which one of them has you marked for death.”

Ryan also gets to say “mate” on several occasions while adding a couple of “bollocks.” In other words, there’s no attempt to Americanize him or neuter his thick European accent. He also comes complete with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When Liv rather sarcastically recites the “Master of the Dark Arts” description on his business cards, Constantine shoots back, “I’m getting new ones made.” It’s a nice but very brief respite from the constant mayhem.

Constantine and Manny the opinionated angel will continue to spar as this series tries to take somewhat coherent form. “You’re a sideshow attraction, a peddler of shabby magic,” Manny sniffs.

Our hero -- or whatever he is -- will wind up in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania for the Halloween episode of Constantine. Until then, he makes a climactic narrative pledge: “I’ll drive your demons away. Kick ‘em in the bollocks and spit on ‘em when they’re down. Leavin’ only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack.”

Paired with NBC’s like-minded Grimm on Friday nights, Constantine doubles down on both shape-shifting and puzzlements. Its whiz-bang-boom special effects also might serve as ample enticements for viewers who don’t much care whether anything makes any real sense. Others can simply stick with the straight-from-the-shoulder story lines of CBS’ competing Blue Bloods. No danger of confusion there.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

An independent woman and a crack shot, too: new DVD collection revisits trailblazing Annie Oakley TV series

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Gail Davis as TV’s Annie Oakley and the real deal.

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Return with us now to those thrilling days of Little Barky’s pre-pubescence, where Gail Davis as Annie Oakley was must-see TV for reasons that had nothing to do with the idea of gender empowerment.

Your future friendly content provider watched for one over-riding reason -- a crush. The same could be said for the many hours spent viewing Annette on The Mickey Mouse Club and even Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, whose horrid production values were overshadowed by star Irish McCalla’s curvature.

All these years later, though, it’s demonstrably true what they’re now saying about Annie Oakley. Davis, a University of Texas at Austin grad and protege of Gene Autry, starred in “one of the first television shows to successfully portray a woman as independent, with courage, dignity and honor.”

Westerns began riding high back in the 1950s, with men calling the shots and women mostly content to watch them hit the dusty trail before returning to a home-cooked meal. Not so with Annie Oakley. In the very first episode, subtitled “Annie Gets Her Man,” she grew weary of shooting the gun out of the hand of a short-tempered twentysomething punk played by Dwayne (Dobie Gillis) Hickman’s older brother, Darryl.

“Now you be a good boy or Annie’ll spank,” she told him. At that precise moment, she earned her spurs.

Made by Autry’s Flying A Productions, the half-hour series originally ran in syndication from 1954 to ’57 before ABC later aired reruns on weekend mornings. A total of 81 half-hour episodes were filmed. And this week Annie Oakley: The Complete Series is newly available on DVD via vcientertainment.com.

“He felt that a little girl should have a heroine,” Davis says of Autry in an audio interview included in the package.

The 11-disc collection also has a 34-minute documentary on Davis; a collection of commercials for products she sold as Annie; and the original unsold Annie Oakley pilot, which starred Billy Gray (the future “Bud” of Father Knows Best) as her energetic little brother, Tagg. Jimmy Hawkins eventually got that role and played it for the entire series. Brad Johnson, as towering deputy Lofty Craig, was the other principal regular character. He may have been sweet on Annie, but seldom showed it.

Each episode began with an announcer declaring, “Bullseye! Annie Oakley hits the entertainment bullseye every week with her hard ridin’ (see her catch a runaway stage coach), straight shootin’ (Annie stood atop her galloping horse, Target, and fired a shot through the center of a 9 of Spades) and suspense” (demonstrated by Annie sneaking through a half-open window).

Although she got to show off her storied marksmanship, the scrapped original pilot for Annie Oakley portrayed her as appreciably more prim and deferential. She wore ribbons in her hair and girly dresses part of the time while deferring to her Uncle Luke, sheriff of smallish Diablo, Arizona.

“Lofty, take Annie back into town. She’s not safe running around alone. I’ll follow the trail of those murderers,” Uncle Luke ordered. Annie silently acquiesced.

In the re-made opening episode, Uncle Luke was out of town, as he would be in virtually every episode. This left the bossing and most of the sleuthing to Annie. Clayton Moore, who went on to star as The Lone Ranger, is fleetingly seen in Episode 1 as an unmasked, second tier bad guy with a couple of speaking lines.

Annie remained sweet-tempered throughout the series, nurturing Tagg as his big sis even after a growth spurt made Hawkins slightly taller than her by the show’s final year.

The plots were never brain surgery -- or even a cyst removal. Late in the last of three seasons, an episode titled “Santa Claus Wears A Gun” introduced viewers to Snowy Kringle, a white-bearded old sharpshooter in town with his “Big Carnival Show.” He ended up being framed for robbery before Annie and Lofty eventually snuffed out the real villain. Annie more than did her part by shooting the padlock off a box from a long distance and later executing a nifty head-over-heels flip of a varmint who very briefly got the drop on her.

Autry, one of the first to sniff gold in weekly TV westerns, made certain that Annie Oakley generated a steady stream of merchandise ranging from comic books to lunch boxes to a red, white and blue belt and holster with twin six guns.

Davis and Hawkins, in character as Annie and Tagg, also relentlessly pitched products. A collection of commercials on a bonus disc shows they specialized in talking up the nutritional and tasty merits of Wonder Bread and Hostess Cupcakes, Twinkies and Sno-Balls.

In these cases, the woman of the house reverted to stereotype. Even Annie Oakley wasn’t about to change that equation, with Davis telling the show’s impressionable young viewers, “Why don’t you ask your mom to pick up a package next time she shops?” Or, “Ask mom to buy a loaf next time she goes shopping.”

The real, sterner-face Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey, died in 1926 at age 66. Gail Davis, born Betty Jeanne Grayson, died at age 71 in 1997. Near the end, in 1994, she finally received the Golden Boot Award honoring those who have made special contributions to the Western movie and TV industry.

Autry, a charter winner in 1983, is shown alongside her at the ceremony on the Annie Oakley bonus disc.

The award since has been discontinued while the Annie Oakley TV series rides again for those who remember it back when. In retrospect, it’s much more a pathfinder than a footnote in the history of how television depicted its women characters.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net