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CW's The Messengers sends another strong sci-fi vibe

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Unwelcome visitor from another planet in The Messengers. CW photo

Premiering: Friday, April 17th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Shantel VanSanten, Jon Fletcher, Sofia Black-D-Elia, JD Pardo, Joel Courtney, Anna Diop, Craig Frank, Diogo Morgado
Produced by: Trey Callaway, Basil Iwanyk, Eoghan O’Donnell, Kent Kubena, Ava Jamshidi

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Continuing to out sci-fi cable’s Syfy channel, the resurgent CW network launches another solid, otherworldly entry with The Messengers.

It joins The Flash and iZombie in giving CW a trio of new super-powered hours this season -- plus the well-received Jane the Virgin. The network that seemed superfluous in recent seasons has managed to rise and often shine under president Mark Pedowitz, who assumed that position in April 2011. Now
in his mid-60s, Pedowitz at the time seemed a puzzling choice to head a network that aims its programming directly at 18-to-34-year-olds. Instead he’s turned out to be a wizened Yoda whose long tenure at ABC has given CW the experienced leadership it didn’t know it needed.

The Messengers, premiering Friday, is more far-flung than most CW hours. In the opening minutes it bounces from Socorro, New Mexico to Jaurez, Mexico to Tucson, AZ, to Houston, TX to Little Rock, AK.

Denizens in each of those venues are affected by some sort of shock wave emanating from a mysterious object that crash-lands in Socorro and leaves a crater the size of New Orleans’ Superdome. Emerging from the charred remains is “The Man” (Diogo Morgado), a contemporary Lucifer bent on wreaking basic havoc in the form of death and destruction.

It’s quite a turnaround for Morgado, who played Jesus in History channel’s The Bible and its big-screen spinoff, Son of God. Guess he didn’t want to be typecast.

The pseudo X-Men of The Messengers emerge from their shock wave doses with new-found attributes ranging from super-strength to mind-reading to healing power. This makes them “Angels of the Apocalypse” versus The Man in a battle to thwart The Rapture.

Judging from the premiere episode, the quintet eventually will unite in Houston, where transformed young televangelist Joshua Silburn Jr. (Jon Fletcher) is scaring the bejesus out of his old-line preacher Father by declaring on national TV, “Heed my words or perish. For I am a messenger of God.” (Actually, don’t they all say that?)

The others in Joshua’s shoes are National Deep Space Agency researcher Vera Buckley (Shantel VanSanten); bullied high school swimmer Pete Moore (Joel Courtney); young, formerly drug-addicted mom Erin Calder (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and undercover drug agent Raul Garcia (JD Pardo). All share the same first response to the shock wave. Their pupils dilate and they collapse.

Viewers also will see something that Vera, Pete, Erin, Raul and Joshua don’t. They briefly sprout angels’ wings that last for a few second before vaporizing. So far there are no devil’s horns for “The Man,” who first appears to Vera and says of her missing son, “I know who took him. I know why.” But first she must finish a job for him. It’s always something.

It all plays out in reasonably “believable” fashion during an effective scene-setting pilot episode. The Messengers seems to have its sci-fi basics in order. Present an appealing batch of young, disparate characters. Invest them with a range of powers and then unite them against a common and very formidable foe determined to inflict mass chaos.

We’ve been here before, but no matter, really. The trick is in the execution. And The Messengers looks as though it has a handle on how to pull this off with some flair and identity of its own.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Netflix's Bloodline based on viewing all 13 Season 1 episodes

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The Rayburn brood has issues, secrets, scar tissue. Netflix photo

Premiering: All 13 Season 1 episodes currently streaming on Netflix
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Sissy Spacek, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, Jacinda Barrett, Jamie McShane, Enrique Murciano, Chloe Sevigny, Katie Finneran, Steven Pasquale, Mia Kirschner, Eliezer Castro, Glenn Morshower, Sam Shepard
Produced by: Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zerman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Bloodline has been in the Netflix pipeline for several weeks. But with so many other new dramas of note and only so many hours in a day, it’s time hasn’t come until now on unclebarky.com.

The streaming network made three of the 13 Season 1 episodes available for review before Bloodline went full monty on March 20th. But I’ve found it far better to watch an entire season before making a judgment. This isn’t possible in the case of most TV series. On Netflix it’s the norm.

So should you make the full 13-episode investment and then look forward to Season 2, which has already been ordered? Or is this a lengthy journey toward no particularly good end?

Well, the ending is ominous. But the trip is absolutely worth it. Buoyed by a bravura performance from Australian Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises) as prodigal son Danny Rayburn, Bloodline is an absorbing, fractious family drama that captivates despite giving away Season 1’s major development in the very first hour.

The hook is embedded nonetheless. How did deputy sheriff John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame) get to the point of setting a boat on fire with his dead older brother, Danny, on board? What drove him? What drove Danny? Chandler’s narrative voice further dangles the chum: “What we did to our brother, we had to do. Please don’t judge us. We’re not bad people. But we did a bad thing.”

Bloodline’s executive producers -- Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zerman -- were also the team behind FX’s acclaimed Damages. They’re crafted an atmospheric, hellish tale set in a seeming south Florida paradise. The Rayburns of Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, have run a namesake getaway hotel since 1968. Patriarch Robert Rayburn (Sam Shepard) started it from scratch with his wife, Sally (Sissy Spacek). Besides Danny and Johnny, their brood also includes youngest son Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), a beer-sucking underachiever, and daughter Meg (Linda Cardellini), whose prowess as an attorney attracts outside interest.

Danny, a drug-imbibing, hard-drinking, chain-smoking ne’er-do-well, has his reasons for being a misfit. As a kid he endured extreme trauma tied to the drowning death of his sister, Sarah, who was 10 years old at the time and the apple of the old man’s eye. How and why this happened is slowly revealed throughout Season 1 via flashbacks and verbal recollections. A haunted and victimized Danny hasn’t been the same since. But he returns to the fold for a big family celebration tied to the dedication of a pier in honor of the Rayburns. Bad things quickly begin happening, with all eyes repeatedly returning to the family’s designated pariah.

Mendelsohn is good enough in this role to equal and sometimes surpass Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of addled, cosmic Rust Cohle in Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective. He’s chilling, heart-breaking, cocksure and ever-volatile without being violence-prone. Danny instead is accustomed to being on the receiving end, de-valuing his worth in the process. His lone “friend” in town is Eric O’Bannon (Jamie McShane), a crum-bum parolee prone to involvement in illicit activities. Eric’s sister, Chelsea (an effective Chloe Sevigny from Big Love), is a hard-working but also hard-partying nurse who sees something in Danny that hardly anyone else does except Mama Sally Rayburn. She has her reasons, though. And they’re rooted in guilt.

Spacek gradually gets much more to do as the series develops. Don’t get too used to Shepard, though. As usual, he’s not up for any long hauls these days. Still, his character’s shadow is imposing and particularly indelible in Danny’s tortured memories.

Chandler is sturdy and puffier-faced as the “responsible” son who’s invariably trusted to take care of things. The role tends to be somewhat suffocated in the early going by Mendelsohn’s almost hypnotic work as Danny. Chandler gets his own ball rolling, though, with Episodes 12 and 13 in large part belonging to him.

It’s an open question whether Bloodline can resume at high throttle without Mendelsohn’s full participation in Season 2. Flashbacks from his recent life could further flesh out Danny and keep Mendelsohn in recurring view if the producers choose to go that way. But in the here and now, prepare to be continually blown away by the depth and passion he brings to a character you won’t soon forget.

Bloodline gives Netflix yet another first-rate series in league with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Performance-wise, it already stands at the head of that class, with Ben Mendelsohn clamping down, making his mark and driving this series to the next level.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's many-splendored Game of Thrones remains at the top of its game

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”Dragon Queen” Daenerys Targaryen & one of her flamethrowers. But who’s mastering whom in Season 5 of Game of Thrones? HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
So-called “event television” is seldom as advertised.

But with Game of Thrones this might be an understatement. Season 5 of HBO’s quintessential power play returns on Sunday, April 12th at 8 p.m. (central) with all remaining hands still shuffling their decks. The first four of 10 episodes were sent for review. And they’re a spectacular blend of machinations, executions, lonely quests, shaky grounds and new religious insurrections.

Since the “Spoiler” statute of limitations has expired, let’s set the stage by noting that Season 4 climaxed with the rousing murder of sinister Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) by his long-ridiculed dwarf son, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). For good measure, Tyrion also knocked off his once devoted concubine, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), after finding her in the sack with the old man. He then fled King’s Landing in the company of the eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill), who hid him in a perforated wooden crate fit for a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Although in an understandably surly mood upon finally being freed, Tyrion remains quick on the quip -- as does Varys. When the latter cites “compassion” as one of his leadership qualities, Tyrion snorts, “Compassion. I killed my lover with my bare hands. I shot my own father with a crossbow.”

“I never said you were perfect,” Varys ripostes.

Episode 1 also includes something of a Thomas More moment at frozen Castle Black. A matter of principle is at stake -- with a burning at the stake coming soon unless a simple act of fealty can be brokered. Episodes 2 and 3 likewise depict “justice” officially being served to lone offenders before Episode 4 ends with multiple deaths in a ferocious battle.

Queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues to weigh the scales between being a just ruler or a pushover. But has she fatally alienated one of her fan bases in the process? And have her now fully grown dragons gone well beyond being their teacher’s pets?

Daenerys arguably has been GOT’s most compelling female character through the series’ first four seasons. But the noble warrior Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) is gaining on her while seeking to rescue Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) from the clutches of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and others.

In Episode 3, Brienne has a lengthy and affecting scene with her still clumsy squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). She first pledges to stop grousing at him and start training him. She then recalls her humiliation as a gangly “mulish” young girl whose suitors all made sport of her. Brienne isn’t quite Shrek. Close enough, though, to merit a heartfelt rooting interest.

The other surviving Lannisters, incestuous brother and sister Jaime and Cersei (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey), remain very much a part of these power struggles. Although still malevolent, Cersei is getting an increasingly strong challenge from scheming Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), whose leverage grows in Episode 3. Meanwhile, Jaime is on a rescue mission, dropping out of view for perhaps too long a time before returning in Episode 4 for a splendid fight scene in which he learns how to make unexpected use of his metallic hand.

Game of Thrones again has much to juggle and many characters to serve, including a new religious sect leader called The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce doing double duty on Sunday nights while also co-starring in PBS’ Wolf Hall series). Still, Season 5’s first four episodes are fairly easy to navigate in terms of who’s what and where -- and how they eventually hope to occupy the vaunted Iron Throne.

Fans of the series -- and I’m now a full-blown one after initial reservations -- hope that all of this can go on and on and on. HBO wouldn’t mind that at all. Last season, Game of Thrones surpassed The Sopranos as the network’s most popular series ever, according to cumulative Nielsen numbers. There are still plenty of key characters to eliminate from one 10-episode arc to the next. Season 4 felled not only the evil Tywin Lannister but the amoral boy king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the hard, scarred but at times kindly mercenary Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann). And “Trial By Combat” fatality Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) leaves behind a widow and three warrior daughters who clearly have only begun to fight.

All of these deaths, destructions and re-dedications have only served to make Game of Thrones even better while most other series of this duration begin to hit slumps and valleys. Season 5 of GOT in contrast shows strong signs of roaring louder than ever. Epic in scope, basic in motivations, it will fill the next 10 Sundays with “appointment viewing” of the highest realm.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Crystal and Gad are mixed nuts in FX's The Comedians

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Otherwise it’s seldom smooth sailing for Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, April 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Billy Crystal, Josh Gad, Stephnie Weir, Matt Oberg, Megan Ferguson
Produced by: Ben Wexler, Matt Nix, Larry Charles

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Laurel & Hardy. Hope & Crosby. Abbott & Costello. Martin & Lewis. The Smothers Brothers. Even Farley & Spade.

Big-time shtick-wielding male comedy teams used to roam the earth as if they were the norm. Now they’re almost an aberration. Which makes FX’s The Comedians a throwback vehicle for a relatively ancient mariner who still digs that old-school religion.

Billy Crystal is reluctantly paired with Josh Gad in what’s meant to be a talk-to-the-camera mocu/documentary about the making of The Billy & Josh Show for the real-life FX network. Both play themselves more or less, as does Matt LeBlanc in Showtime’s ongoing Episodes. The results are mixed, based on watching six of the whopping nine episodes sent for review. But there’s no lack of energy on the part of either the 67-year-old Crystal or the 34-year-old Gad, who’s best known for his starring role in Broadway’s The Book of Mormon. He also voiced Olaf in Frozen. So in the realm of “What have you done for me lately?” Gad’s got the pole position even if Crystal has the household name.

Thursday’s premiere quickly sets the premise. Billy and Josh are in boy scout uniforms, playing out the end of a sketch taped before a live studio audience. Billy’s uniform is soiled and blood-spattered while Josh’s is spotless. Then come the backstage histrionics, with Billy heatedly protesting a line that crosses his line. “I’m a cannibal, not a pedophile!” he exclaims. Larry Charles, the real-life co-producer, writer and director of The Comedians, pops in put out the fire but instead is fired by Crystal before viewers are transported to “Three Months Earlier.”

Crystal initially had signed to do a one-man comedy series. But he’s told by FX exec Denis Grant (perfectly played by Denis O’Hare) that the pilot episode has “too much you.” To remedy that, how about adding Gad? Nope. No chance. OK then, no show. So Crystal grudgingly goes along with the program and immediately finds that he meshes as well with Gad as Donald Trump does with Rosie O’Donnell.

One of the funnier ongoing bits in The Comedians has nothing to do with how the two of them manage to co-exist. In the first episode, Gad makes two references to 1600 Penn, the real-life 2013 NBC sitcom flop in which he played misfit “First Son” Skip Gilchrist. Did Gad chew scenery? Boy, did he ever. But in The Comedians, he remains very proud of 1600 Penn and has a giant poster from the show in his dressing room. Hah!!! -- every time it’s glimpsed.

The Comedians’ week-to-week supporting cast is smallish compared to the likes of 30 Rock. Kristen Laybourne (Stephnie Weir) is the head producer, Mitch Reed (Matt Oberg) is the head writer and Esme McCauley (Megan Ferguson) is the bored, attitude-copping production assistant whom no show would actually hire in the first place.

Dana Delany recurs as Crystal’s wife, Julie, while the almost inevitable Steven Weber makes a decidedly showy appearance in Episodes 1 and 2 as the newly hired director of The Billy & Josh Show.

Gad initially balks at having no input in any of the behind-the-scenes makeup. Crystal slaps him down with the premiere episode’s best line: “We will hire one of your friends when you make friends with some geniuses.”

Episode 2 is built around Crystal watching a Los Angeles Clippers playoff game at home with pals Will Sasso, Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Torre. The unwelcome Gad of course knows nothing about hoops and screws up their game-time rituals. Leonard gets the knockout line here: “Billy, control your boy!”

The episodes include mini-sketch send-ups of Orange is the New Black, the Crucifixion (“Thank God it’s Friday, huh?”) and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, which has three instances of actually funny projectile vomiting. But FX execs also are getting indigestion over how well -- or poorly -- the show is coming together.

Episode 6, subtitled “Orange You the New Black Guy?”, begins with real-life film critic Elvis Mitchell interviewing Crystal and Gad on the set while growing increasingly uncomfortable about the show’s lack of any black staffers. So a black writer is hired and glad-handed by the two stars until they read his first sketch about a Klansman with Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s deemed hysterically funny but unusable because of its repeated use of the n-word.

The episode labors to make its racial points, but at least gives it a game try. In recent real life, the runaway midseason success of Fox’s Empire has created a bull market for “diversity.” People of color are in high demand while people like Crystal and Gad perhaps are fortunate to have gotten in under the wire. For now at least.

Compared to FX’s five-star Louie, with which it’s paired on Thursdays, The Comedians is a decently prepared entree with just enough bursts of flavor. Crystal may not be in his prime any more, but nor is he in steep decline. Gad is a willing acolyte and comedic foil, allowing Crystal to play with him in virtually any way he wants. Through it all, enough basic Hollywood phoniness shines through to make this a reasonable facsimile of how the sausage is really made.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Louie returns -- and that's a very good thing for us if not him

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Louis C.K. often gets that sinking feeling in Louie. FX photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Anything but safe, everything but sorry, Louie begins Season 5 in great and oftentimes phenomenal shape.

Don’t get too used to it, though. Only seven episodes are scheduled this time out, beginning with the Thursday, April 9th re-start at 9:30 p.m. central on FX. Season 4 ran twice as long, but so did the hiatus while star/creator/producer/writer/director Louis C.K. re-charged himself and came up with an unusually heavy dose of drama-laden and occasionally drama-leaden half-hours. There was also a “date rape” controversy -- at least from some quarters.

FX sent the first four Season 5 episodes for review. Two of them -- two and four -- again spotlight his sardonically supportive, would-be girlfriend Pamela (Pamela Adlon). Louie, a divorced father of two daughters, still yearns for cohabitation. But Pamela insists on an “a la carte” relationship” in which both parties remain free to indulge in other pleasures during what she sees as their “declining” years. Their scenes together always have an edge, with Louie usually on the cutting board while Pamela tells him sweet nothings such as, “That’s my job. To make you fun by making fun OF you.”

Thursday’s premiere begins at Louie’s main workplace stage, the Comedy Cellar. He gets off an amusing riff about possible life on other planets, contending we should stop looking because “I don’t think there’s a good version of the ‘We found another planet of people’ story.”

He later winds up at the wrong “class potluck” -- not that he’s any more welcome at the right one. Life’s tough when your shrink nods off while you tell him, “I just don’t know how to live life anymore. And it’s scary.”

The Pamela-fused Episode 2 also includes Louie’s encounter with a pathetic young comic named Bart Folding (guest star Nate Fernald). He begs Louie for a critique of his five-minute open mic routine, which is both unfunny and sad. Get out of the business, kid. But when Bart begs for any possible remedy, Louie offers advice that brings this episode to a turn-of-the-worm conclusion out of the Curb Your Enthusiasm playbook.

Episode 3, subtitled “Cop Story,” can be both tough to watch and brilliant to behold. Guest star Michael Rapaport takes a full-immersion dive into the role of an NYPD patrolman named Lenny, who remains bitter about being jilted by Louie’s sister. It’s a ferocious turn by a combustible, high-strung actor. And Louis C.K. is brave enough to mostly defer to Rapaport, whose portrayal of bravado and abject vulnerability should resonate during Emmy nomination time. This episode, the best of the four, also includes a terrific opening segment in which Louie attempts to buy some expensive copper pots at a store whose owner is young and wholly indifferent to him.

Louie’s two daughters, Lilly and Jane (Hadley Delaney, Ursula Parker), get a little more distinctly different time with dad in Episodes 2 and 4. There’s also Louie’s younger brother, Bobby (Robert Kelly), who feels like a failure and is. Bobby and Pamela team up in this half-hour to further vex Louie, whose success as a standup comic is remarked on by others while he struggles to find bits and pieces of equilibrium.

Louie already has established itself as one of television’s all-time great comedies -- and arguably the ballsiest ever. Its architect hopefully has miles to go before he’s over and done with it. Season 5 shows that Louis C.K. still has the wherewithal to keep bumping up against all of his uglies. Not with the rage of a Larry David but with the downbeat demeanor of a man who’s made it in New York City without otherwise making it work for him.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net