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What the deuce? BBC America's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency careens into view


Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett propel the crazed Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, adapted from the Douglas Adams novels. BBC America photo

Premiering: Saturday, Oct. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on BBC America
Starring: Elijah Wood, Samuel Barnett, Hannah Marks, Jade Eshete, Fiona Dourif, Mpho Koaho, Aaron Douglas, Richard Schiff, Neil Brown Jr., Miguel Sandoval, Dustin Milligan
Produced by: Max Landis, Robert Cooper

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Trying to comprehend the intendedly absurd goings-on in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency may be completely beside the point.

Those who have devoured the swervy, same-named Douglas Adams books could very well find themselves immensely entertained. Those who haven’t -- guilty as charged -- at least can admire the energy, cheekiness and slick production values without caring all that much how everything comes out. BBC America is offering eight Season One episodes of this twisted tale, which has been described by the author himself as “a thumping good detective-ghost horror-whodunit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic.” Not necessarily in that order.

Three episodes were made available for review of a series that begins with a straight-ahead horrific crime scene in a posh Seattle hotel suite. Stumbling upon it is put-upon bellhop Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood), who desperately needs his next paycheck in advance to start putting a dent in his mounting debts. Instead he’s fired for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wood, whose last TV series, FX’s Wilfred), found him in the strange company of a dude dressed as a dog, has perfected the art of looking utterly exasperated. He’s called on to do this often when the eccentric and effete Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) breaks into his apartment and pronounces himself a “holistic detective” who gets “intrinsically connected” to cases without having any firm ideas on how to solve them. “I’m a leaf in the stream of creation,” he tells Todd in Episode 2.

Despite his protestations -- “I’m not your Watson, asshole!” -- Todd gets roped into puzzling out the murder of millionaire Patrick Spring, who was among the hotel suite corpses. The duo is also looking for Spring’s kidnapped daughter, Lydia, who -- wouldn’t you know it? -- has somehow adapted the identity of a dog while in the captivity of a very high-strung guy named Gordon Rimmer (Aaron Douglas).

Todd otherwise is a recovering “Pararibulitiis” sufferer whose sister, Amanda (Hannah Marks), still has the hallucinatory disease. This is a somewhat mild affliction compared to what Bartine Curlish (Fiona Dourif) is going through. Dirt-and-blood-encrusted with badly stained teeth as well, Bartine is a self-described “holistic assassin” who can’t be hurt and has “never killed the wrong person. I have killed a lot of people, though.” A terrified computer hacker named Ken (Mpho Koaho) ends up being her very reluctant partner during a careening search for Gently, who’s on Bartine’s hit list.

The series also has a pair of semi-comical investigative teams headed by veteran character actors Richard Schiff (The West Wing) and Miguel Sandoval (Medium). A marauding, knuckle-dragging group known as The Rowdy 3, which actually is a foursome, adds extra layers of mayhem as vampires who exist on the “electrical energy of the human mind” in lieu of blood. And so on.

Barnett is quippy and somewhat endearing as the crazily intuitive Gently, whose mysterious past is slowly peeled away. When Todd again protests his presence -- “Dirk, this is my apartment” -- the lad replies, “Oh, is that why you’re here?” This exchange occurs in Episode 3, which also has am impressively fantastical visual sequence involving the still very afflicted Amanda.

We’ll leave you with a quote from BBC America president Sarah Barnett, who says in publicity materials: “Fans of Doctor Who, Monty Python, Sherlock and Barton Fink will find things to love in this sharply original yet reverent gigantic puzzle, at the heart of which are funny, messed-up people you really care about. And there’s a kitten/shark. Perfect for BBCA.”

If you’re so inclined, go for it.

GRADE: B-minus (mostly for its shear energy and exuberance)

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

LeBlanc's back with CBS' likeable Man With A Plan


Matt LeBlanc and Liza Snyder turn on the charm in Man With A Plan. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 24th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Matt LeBlanc, Liza Snyder, Kevin Nealon, Grace Kaufman, Matthew McCann, Hala Finley, Diana Maria Riva, Matt Cook
Produced by: Jeff Filgo, Jackie Filgo, Matt LeBlanc, Michael Rotenberg, Troy Zien

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There’s nothing new under the conventional sitcom sun in CBS’ Man With A Plan.

This doesn’t unduly matter if the cast clicks and the writing is decent enough to hold up its end. Make that two plusses for this amiable, amusing outing fronted by everybody’s favorite Friend, Matt LeBlanc. OK, not everybody’s, but you can definitely make a case.

LeBlanc has grayed and gotten chunky since one of NBC’s all-time biggest comedy hits left the network in 2004. All that means is he’s human. And in Man With A Plan, LeBlanc’s character, contractor Adam Burns, gets to play opposite the very appealing Liza Snyder as his wife, Andi.

Snyder doesn’t fit the off-putting prototype of a thin, beauteous spouse paired with a beefy, better-known star. Instead she’s plumpish and “accessible,” a refreshingly real-looking woman who instantly meshes with LeBlanc and makes Man With A Plan a much easier sell than it might have been.

Andi is returning to the workplace, as a hospital lab technician, after years of stay-at-home mom-dom. Adam, who’s in business for himself, is left to make the transition from “Daddy Fun Times” to the guy who takes their three kids to school, picks them up and keeps things in working order until Andi returns home.

It’s a shopworn premise to be sure, but the delivery system overcomes much of that. LeBlanc fine-tunes his doofus Joey persona and smoothly rolls with it at home, at school and in the workplace he shares with older brother Don (a serviceable Kevin Nealon). Snyder nurtures one and all, but is no pushover. Her character is a winning proposition, even if some of her propositions have to do with rewarding Adam with sex whenever he’s a good boy. The hubby as panting dog isn’t going anywhere, particularly on set-in-its-ways CBS, the only Big Four broadcast network still firmly betrothed to laugh tracks and live studio audiences.

Monday’s premiere episode sets the hook before the following week’s storyline is built around a misunderstanding of who’s going with Adam to enjoy prime seats at a Pittsburgh Steelers game. Both episodes also feature sparring between Adam and Mrs. Rodriguez (Diana Maria Riva), a strong-willed school administrator. A nebbish stay-at-home dad named Lowell (Matt Cook) also is occasionally stirred into this mix.

LeBlanc flopped with NBC’s Friends spinoff Joey before regrouping as a broadly drawn version of himself in Showtime’s critically praised Episodes. At age 49, he seems to have a fairly firm grip on what works for him. Man With A Plan suits this guy, and his co-star makes it an even better fit. Viewers could do far worse, and some have by watching Kevin James ham his way through CBS’ appreciably inferior Kevin Can Wait, which recently received a full-season commitment. LeBlanc also is angling for one last long sitcom ride, and Man With A Plan seems like a decent bet to give it to him.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Laurie's back and Hulu's got him in Chance


Hugh Laurie and Gretchen Mol pair up in Chance. Hulu photo

Premiering: Streaming weekly episodes, beginning Wed., Oct. 19th on Hulu
Starring: Hugh Laurie, Gretchen Mol, Ethan Suplee, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Diane Farr, Paul Adelstein, Stefania LaVie Owen, Clarke Peters
Produced by: Kem Nunn, Alexandra Cunningham, Hugh Laurie

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Having played a surly doc on Fox’s long-running House and recently a villainous billionaire businessman in AMC’s acclaimed The Night Manager, estimable Hugh Laurie is back in M.D. mode for Hulu’s Chance. As always, attention must be paid, because this guy generally chooses wisely.

Hulu, unlike Netflix and Amazon Prime, still streams its original series at the old-school rate of one episode per week. It’s already ordered two seasons and 20 episodes of Chance, which initially is glacier-paced and pretty dreary before rousing itself. Hulu made five episodes available for review. And although a variety of other cases are drizzled in, this is very much a single topic serial drama about corruption, obsession, violent retribution and identity crises.

Laurie plays Eldon Chance, a monotonic San Francisco neuro psychiatrist who spends a lot of time dictating the particulars of his findings. The character is drawn from a novel by Kem Nunn, who previously collaborated with David Milch on both Deadwood and John From Cincinnati. The latter series was one big cosmic flop for HBO. Chance is on firmer ground, although various mind games form its core.

The series begins with Chance matter-of-factly summarizing three cases that end up being quickly discarded before the central figure of Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol) is introduced. She’s a comely blonde of 39 who channels the dual role of the more free-wheeling Jackie to escape, mentally at least, from her physically abusive husband, Raymond (Paul Adelstein), who’s also a homicide detective.

Chance, who’s going through a divorce, very much wants to help her. But he has his own traumatic past, so must tread carefully. A chance meeting with a war-damaged furniture restorer named D serves to slowly -- very slowly -- put the erstwhile good doctor on a darker path. D is played menacingly by Ethan Suplee, who’s a revelation in this role after initially gaining fame as dense sibling Randy Hickey in the NBC comedy series My Name is Earl. D has definite Dexter Morgan tendencies when it comes to punishing wrongdoers. And he relishes both the prospect and the actual doings of the deeds.

Laurie, who very much sounds like Rod Serling during his character’s narrative passages, plays a polar opposite of officious Gregory House. It’s a role that a twitching David Janssen could have low-keyed his way through. But while retaining his at times almost infuriating calm, Chance finds himself warming to the vigilante justice motif of D, who’s hardly a live wire himself until it literally comes to crunch time. “There are no victims. Only volunteers,” D says early in Episode 2.

Recurring brushes with both Jaclyn/Jackie and the brutal Raymond help to propel Chance, but not to the point where it fully takes flight over these first five episodes. It’s also hard to imagine two seasons’ worth of this same storyline, if in fact that’s the overall game plan.

Episode 5 ends with D’s cliffhanger reference to some form of “collateral damage” before another mishap brings down the weekly curtain. Jaclyn/Jackie has also gotten more cryptic, raising further questions about her role in all of this.

It might be enough to pull viewers along, particularly those who pledge allegiance to Laurie. Fair warning, though. Chance can also be too much of a slog with side roads that have little or nothing to do with the central storyline. So far it’s involving to a degree but never enthralling to the max. “Whatever this is, it won’t end how you think,” Jaclyn/Jackie tells Chance near the close of Episode 4. Whatever this is -- it’s watchable. But if you think your heart might race, it might be best to think again.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Amazon Prime's Goliath after viewing all eight episodes


Billy Bob Thornton gets his stink eye on in Goliath. Amazon photo

Premiering: Currently streaming all eight episode on Amazon Prime
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, William Hurt, Nina Arianda, Maria Bello, Molly Parker, Olivia Thirlby, Tania Raymonde, Damon Gupton, Dwight Yoakum, Harold Perrineau, Sarah Wynter, Diana Hopper, Britain Dalton, Ever Carradine, Julie Brister
Produced by: David E. Kelley, Jonathan Shapiro, David Semel, Ross Fineman, Lawrence Trilling

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Given all the loose-ended, bizarro world TV dramas currently in play, it turns out to be a distinct pleasure to review a limited series with a linear storyline and a definitive ending.

Amazon Prime’s eight-episode Goliath, which began streaming last week, provides a bonafide, stand alone payoff with no need for a long wait between seasons to find out what the hell just happened. It provides another plum TV role for Billy Bob Thornton after he excelled as amoral Lorne Malvo in Season One of FX’s Fargo. This also marks creator/producer David E. Kelley’s first venture outside the conventional TV box.

The introspective guy behind Boston Legal, Ally McBeal and Picket Fences has had a rough go of late with The Crazy Ones for CBS, Monday Mornings for TNT, Harry’s Law for NBC and Wonder Woman, which never made it past the pilot stage after being developed for NBC.

Kelley, whose first big TV break came when Steven Bochco hired him to collaborate on L.A. Law, is most at home in the legal arena. Goliath affords him the chance to get behind a full-blown morality play in which a bedraggled, heavy-drinking former big-time lawyer gets to square off against his old, extremely powerful firm. Thornton, eminently comfortable on a bar stool, stars as Billy McBride, whose personal demons are the bottle and onetime partner Donald Cooperman (William Hurt).

Cooperman since has become a veritable Captain Kurtz with a dark heart, a burn-scarred face and a decidedly imperial way of running the coldly efficient Cooperman/McBride law offices from on high in his inviolate, darkened office. He uses a hand-held clicker to do some of his talking. And everyone knows who’s boss. “Make sure the dog stays down,” he tells lieutenant Callie Senate (Molly Parker). “He’s rabid.”

The reference is to Billy, whose dumpy law office is within the confines of the well-worn Ocean Lodge Hotel, conveniently located within an easy stagger of the Chez Jay bar. Why worry unduly about this dog-eared piss ant? Because Billy is representing a client, Rachel Kennedy (Ever Carradine), whose brother supposedly committed suicide two years ago by exploding a boat owned by one of Cooperman/McBride’s most lucrative clients, Borns Technology. Its primary business is the manufacture of lethal weaponry, supposedly to fight terrorists.

Goliath does a solid, although at times imperfect job of connecting dots and pushing Billy closer to finding out the real truth in the face of constant roadblocks. The show-stopper of his patchwork team is Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), a super-tart fellow lawyer who rubs Billy in numerous wrong ways but shares his fondness for profanity. Expletives fly throughout Goliath, but there’s nary any nudity, save for Hurt’s shadowy, full frontal display at the end of Episode 4. It’s his character’s way of introducing himself to a young and impressionable woman attorney who likewise craves power at any cost.

Other important supporting characters include prostitute Brittany Gold (Tania Raymonde); Billy’s teen daughter, Denise (Diana Hopper); his ex-wife Michelle (Maria Bello); Borns Technology strong-armer Wendell Corey (Dwight Yoakum) and Judge Keller (Harold Perrineau from Lost). As something of a throw-in, Goliath adds the morbidly obese Marva Jefferson (Julie Brister) as an assistant paralegal who’s tasked with Billy’s grunt work. Kelley has a track record of including plus-sized women in his casts, most notably Camryn Manheim to very good effect in The Practice. But Julie Brister turns out to be mainly ornamental, as if Kelley was merely filling in a blank without much intent beyond that.

Thornton, of course, gets plenty to do as a barfly and member of the bar who declares, ”I drink just the right amount.” His performance is never less than entertaining and occasionally poignant. His mode of transportation is as beaten down as he is -- a faded red Ford Mustang convertible whose appearance isn’t helped by what’s meant to be an intimidating deposit in the early going. His only steadfast best friend is a stray dog.

Goliath builds to a predictable courtroom confrontation, but it wouldn’t be satisfying without this inevitability. It’s a crackling good yarn of semi-good versus abject evil, with Kelley seemingly very aware that many viewers might be parched at this point for some straight-ahead dramatics that don’t rely on time travel, dreamscapes, otherworldly monsters and season-to-season string-alongs.

Thornton certainly could return as the same character facing entirely new obstacles. But judging from the new Bad Santa 2 trailer, he should have left that one rest in peace. There’s no urgent need for another Goliath either, because these eight episodes stand well enough on their own. Many a viewer is likely to enjoy the ride, which is brief enough to binge over a weekend without any lingering feelings you’ve been over-fed but not fulfilled.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Epix weighs in twice with its first scripted series of note -- Graves and Berlin Station

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Epix very much wants to be a player in a standing room only league of rival networks and streamers that already have made their marks with standout scripted programming.

It’s taken quite a while. But now come Epix’s first two original series of note -- Graves and Berlin Station. Preceded by a concerted promotional campaign, they arrive Sunday night at the close of a free preview weekend. Graves is the showier of the two, with Nick Nolte front and center as a former president seeking to atone for being the “worst ever.” Berlin Station has a better grip on itself, though, as a skulk-around spy drama set in contemporary times. Both have 10-episode first seasons. Let’s take a closer look.


Nick Nolte and Sela Ward try to keep up presidential appearances. Epix photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on Epix
Starring: Nick Nolte, Sela Ward, Skylar Astin, Helene Yorke, Chris Lowe, Callie Hernandez, Nia Vadalos, Ernie Hudson, Roger Bart, Angelica Maria
Produced by: Joshua Michael Stern, Greg Shapiro, Keith Eisner, Eric Weinberg

Nick Nolte is tattered, battered but still standing -- both as an actor and as former Republican President Richard Graves. His character left the Oval Office 25 years ago, and Google hasn’t been kind to him. “Who was the worst President in history?” he types. The consensus answer is him.

Throughout the three episodes made available for review, Nolte’s voice sounds as though he’s just gargled with glass shards. Moreover, his overall physical appearance resembles a totaled car. But at age 75, Nolte’s still a vigorous on-screen presence, cursing his way toward redemption by publicly admitting that the Graves administration did a lot more harm than good.

This fully dawns on him after a night’s worth of pot-smoking with comely Samantha (Callie Hernandez), a heavily tattooed young waitress turned muse. He preps for this epiphany by disgustedly trashing his own presidential museum on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. It’s prelude to Graves awakening in a golf course sand trap. “I just crash-landed in the middle of my life. I’m born again, sweetheart!” he announces to his wife, Margaret (Sela Ward). “And it’s total peace!”

Graves is billed as a “dramedy,” but its comedic beats to often are out of rhythm. This is particularly the case with Grave’s awkward new assistant, a kid named Isaiah Miller (Skylar Astin). HBO’s Veep knows how to play its underlings to the hilt. Graves can be painful in comparison.

The ex-president’s “compound” is in Santa Fe, where the former First Lady gamely puts up with him. (Susan Sarandon originally was cast in the role, but withdrew.)

The Graves also have two children, neither terribly happy with their lives. Daughter Olivia (Helene Yorke) was married to a Rockefeller until he jilted her. She’s retaliated by blow-torching profanities onto some of their high-priced living room fixtures. Son Jeremy (Chris Lowell) is returning from Afghanistan to reluctantly live with his parents. He and his father haven’t gotten along in years.

Cameos abound, with Rudy Giuliani and Bill Richardson first seen playing themselves none too convincingly during Graves’ dedication of a veterans facility before a notably small crowd. Jillian Michaels, Joan Lunden, Jake Tapper, Michael Steele and the inevitable Wolf Blitzer also can be glimpsed during the course of the first three episodes.

Graves is hardly revered as Ronald Reagan-esque, but was seriously wounded after a would-be assassin pumped three bullets into him. The resemblances to Donald Trump are a bit more pronounced. Graves’ hair is orange-ish and a current strict deportation policy -- for which he’s newly remorseful -- had its origins during his conservative presidency. In Episode 3, Graves revels in being “unshackled.” It was filmed well before Trump recently proclaimed the same, but now can be seen as somehow prescient. Graves also thunders near the close of Sunday’s premiere, “I will be your biggest advocate, your beacon of hope, your goddamn President.” Where have we heard that kind of self-aggrandizement before?

Graves assuredly will turn off some viewers with its title character’s U-turns from previous conservative positions on military spending and illegal immigration. The series clearly has an “agenda,” but isn’t all that artful in putting it forth. Nolte’s performance is energetic without being particularly memorable. It’s mostly nice to see he’s still vertical and with a little something left in the tank after many years of rough living. Occasionally, Graves also is fairly steady on its feet. But only occasionally.



There are no free agents in CIA drama Berlin Station. Epix photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 16th at 8 p.m. (central)on Epix
Starring: Richard Armitage, Rhys Ifans, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser, Tamyln Tomita, Caroline Goodall, Bernhard Schultz, Mina Tander, Sabin Tambrea
Produced by: Olen Steinhauer, Bradford Winters, Eric Roth, Steve Golin, Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, Keith Redmon, Luke Rivett, Michael Roskam

There’s lately too much of this going around -- not spy dramas per se, but the apparent killing of a principal character in the opening segment before a rewind to earlier events.

This time it’s “Two Months Earlier” in Panama, where CIA officer Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) is traipsing through the jungle before finding something valuable. He’s soon reassigned to Berlin with a mission to track down a dangerous leaker of CIA secrets known as “Thomas Shaw.”

Everything that ensues in the two Berlin Station episodes sent for review isn’t always completely understandable in terms of following the bouncing storyline. But the basic task is clear enough. Shaw must be identified and then stopped by any means necessary.

The cast is first-rate, with Oscar nominee and Emmy Winner Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Olive Kitteridge) in his usual fine form as station chief Steven Frost. Increasingly feeling undermined, he’s encouraged to retire by his wife, Kelly (Caroline Goodall) and encouraged in other ways during liaisons with his secretary, Sandra Abe (Tamlyn Tomita).

Also more or less working for Frost are ambitious internal branch chief Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes), officious deputy chief Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser) and veteran case officer Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), who turns out to be -- well, never mind.

ISIS (or ISIL as used in Berlin Station) also factors into these webs of intrigue. So there’s a lot at stake, and not a lot of laughs.

Filmed in Berlin and the Canary Islands, Berlin Station has both an authentic look and feel. As with most cloak-and-dagger dramas, there’s a lot of following around while the mind games escalate and the sound track remains stuck in the key of ominous. Berlin Station so far looks like a series worth riding out, with Jenkins, Armitage, Ifans and Forbes all making strong contributions to the cause.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net