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NBC paints by the letters in new courtship comedy A to Z


Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman are the featured matchup in A to Z. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 2nd at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Ben Feldman, Cristin Milioti, Lenora Crichlow, Henry Zebrowski, with narration by Katey Sagal
Produced by: Ben Queen, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Bill Callahan, Michael Patrick Jann

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Charming and disarming without yet being exceptional, NBC’s breezy A to Z nonetheless comfortably wins this season’s boy-meets-girl bout against ABC’s similarly themed Manhattan Love Story.

The male half of the equation, Ben Feldman as internet dating company employee Andrew Lofland, is far more likable and appealing than Manhattan’s resident skirt-chaser. Cristin Milioti, co-starring in A to Z as lawyer Zelda Vasco, has a lesser edge over her wide-eyed Manhattan counterpart.

The NBC show is very precise about what it’s about. Recurring narration (from an unbilled Katey Sagal) tells viewers that Andrew and Zelda will date for 8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days and 1 hour before some sort of outcome is determined. “This television program is the comprehensive account of their relationship -- from A to Z.,” Sagal says at both the beginning and end of Thursday’s premiere episode.

Milioti ended up being “The Mother” a k a “The Girl with the Yellow Umbrella” on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother. Feldman ended up going mad and cutting off one of his nipples as ad man Michael Ginsberg on last season’s Mad Men. So obviously they were made for one another.

Andrew and Zelda have worked in the same office complex for two and a half months, but hadn’t made eye contact until she shows up to represent an aggrieved client. He’s immediately taken with her, but she’s “not really into the dating thing right now.” That’s only a temporary condition.

Both Andrew and Zelda are affixed with best friends. He gets the requisite schlubby, decorum-challenged bearded pal -- named Stu (Henry Zebrowski). She hangs out with Stephie (who retains her British accent from last season’s Back in the Game). The first episode soon turns on whether the girl in the silver dress, whom Andrew first glimpsed and longed for at an arena rock concert, in fact was none other than Zelda. Because if it was, then “this is meant to be.”

A to Z also has an amusing “Hoverboard” mini-plot tied to the Back to the Future movies. Were they in fact real but deemed too dangerous to be marketed? Lea Thompson drops in as herself to further clue Andrew in.

Milioti’s Zelda has a winning pixie-ish quality and Feldman’s Andrew is earnest and anything but a cad. So it’s easy enough to root for a successful courtship, with Andrew managing to sell the line, “Maybe I could use a little ‘meant to be’ in my life. Just a little.”

For now, the opening “A” in their relationship stands for “Acquaintances.” Perhaps they’ll stay on that letter for a while with high hopes of getting all the way to tougher hurdles such as Q, X and even Z. Quixotic? Xistential? (OK, that’s cheating). Zeitgeist?

Based on the opening episode, A to Z at the very least is agreeable.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Odor in the court: NBC's Bad Judge has a vigorous star who's not yet well-served


Many days begin badly for the star of Bad Judge. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 2nd at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Kate Walsh, Tone Bell, Miguel Sandoval, John Ducey, Ryan Hansen
Produced by: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Anne Heche, Chad Kultgen, Jill Sobel Messick, Kevin Messick, Betsy Thomas, Kate Walsh

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The star of NBC’s Bad Judge no longer plays the drums in a two-girl band called Ladycock. This deprives viewers of their hard rock performance of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song.

Nor does the judge take in a cute, bantering pre-teen boy at the end of the premiere episode. She had sentenced his drug-dealing parents to some hard time and he had nowhere else to go after being kicked out of a group home.

These subtractions, from the original pilot to Thursday’s revised on-air version, are to the detriment of a comedy that at least still has Kate Walsh in energetic mode as hellcat Rebecca Wright. Walsh was terrific as a recurring golddigger/temptress in FX’s Fargo. So it’s not really her fault that Bad Judge still hasn’t kicked in after the first two episodes made available for review.

The show also has made a casting change, dumping the very hairy Mather Zickel as a psychiatrist named Gary and replacing him with the much prettier Ryan Hansen. In both cases, Gary and a half-stripped Rebecca are caught making out on her desk by a bailiff named Tedward (regular cast member Tone Bell). Rebecca’s band mate/gal pal Jenny (Arden Myrin) has been written out.

Bad Judge’s creative revisions represent the combined wisdom of not one, not two, but eight executive producers, including Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (co-architects of the Anchorman movies), Anne Heche and Walsh herself. NBC “suits” probably also weighed in. It’s too many cooks, and the food still needs to be sent back to the kitchen.

Let’s return to the engaging relationship between Rebecca and pint-sized Bobby (Theodore Barnes), an African-American kid who’s a match for her quick mouth. They still have several scenes together in the revised first episode. But then someone had the not at all bright idea to write the kid out after Episode 1 instead of carrying him over to future episodes as Rebecca’s new boarder. “Do you have premium cable?” he asks in the original pilot. She doesn’t. And now that line is missing, too.

The ever-present Chris Parnell still guest-stars as an accused bigamist who shows up in hung-over Kate’s courtroom after she first takes a pregnancy test following another night of heavy drinking and whatever. In Episode 2, a vacuous young pop star named Brianna is the principal defendant. Rebecca is dubbed the “Muffin Top Judge” after she flips twin fingers at the paparazzi swarm. This vexes her no end.

Miguel Sandoval also drops in on occasion as boss judge Hernandez, who frowns upon Rebecca’s behavior but of course is powerless to control it. The self-described “workaholic freak show” isn’t about to let anyone curb her impulses.

This is a comedy that could get better but so far has fallen a few notches from original pilot to revised one to Episode 2, in which Rebecca beds an Adonis-like firefighter with limited brain power. Walsh throws herself into the part but Bad Judge so far is falling apart around her. It’s not terrible, and maybe not even a misdemeanor offense. But it’s still guilty of not being all that good.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Stalker gives CBS another crime-driven gawker


Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q on the prowl in Stalker. CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Maggie Q, Dylan McDermott, Victor Rasuk, Mariana Klaveno, Elisabeth Rohm
Produced by: Kevin Williamson

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Kevin Williamson’s psyche must have gone badly off the rails a while back.

The onetime gentle purveyor of Dawson’s Creek and its wise-beyond-their-years small town teens has pretty much been immersed ever since in blood, guts and sadism.

Stalker is his latest dark and foreboding drama, joining Fox’s The Following and CW’s The Vampire Diaries. The Scream movies also are part of Williamson’s portfolio. It’s hard to argue with success, I guess. And Williams now has little patience for those who question his seeming obsession with the dark and twisted.

“Why is this interesting? Why is this fun or entertaining?” he was asked during a session at the Television Critics Association summer “press tour.”

“Turn the channel,” Williamson replied.

Stalker, compatibly paired with the grisly Criminal Minds on Wednesday’s CBS lineup, begins with a woman who’s doused with gasoline by a masked despot before he lights up her car. Her prolonged screams end when the car explodes. It’s a horrid beginning that indeed might prompt some viewers to turn the channel. Terrorizing, torturing and killing women is epidemic in prime-time TV. So the celebrities behind the current “No More” campaign aimed at domestic violence might also want to turn their fire on Williamson and his ilk.

Stalker otherwise stars Maggie Q as a lieutenant with the LAPD’s Threat Assessment Unit and the increasingly creepy Dylan McDermott as a former New York City homicide detective with emotional baggage. She’s Beth Davis, he’s Jack Larsen, and they’re soon at odds while tracking down the opening episode’s featured killer.

“I’m sorry I stared at your breasts. It’s why you don’t like me,” he tells Beth while they’re on the case. But Jack “let my eyes linger” only because he thought she’d be flattered. And if not, why does she dress so alluringly -- in his view at least.

In a later scene he presses the issue: “I want you not to hate me . . . Why do you wear sexy things if you don’t want men to notice?” At this point, maybe Jack’s the guy who should be locked up.

Stalker also includes a little classroom treatise by Beth, who tells her students that over six million people are stalked yearly in the United States. “Anyone can be a stalker . . . Anyone can be a victim. And it’s on the rise.”

But why? “Social media is the No. 1 reason stalking cases have tripled over the last decade,” she says. “That’s where I come in.”

One could argue that television’s bounteous crop of “procedural” crime dramas, with CBS the lead purveyor, also have played at least a supporting role in this escalation. But Stalker portrays itself as preventive medicine while at the same time showing another stalked, screaming woman being drenched with gasoline -- not once but in two separate segments.

A smallish companion storyline is about male-on-male stalking. Williamson insists that Stalker will be “balanced” in its depictions of terror. But that very much remains to be seen by those who like to watch.

Maggie Q’s character also battens down her apartment each night after a previous first-hand experience with stalking. And McDermott’s character can be seen spying on his ex-wife and their pre-teen child before she confronts him.

“I have a right to see my son,” he insists.

“Stay away from us,” she demands.

Stalker at best is an unsavory blend of violent crime, voyeurism and by-the-book preachments just in case you aren’t getting its “messages.” In the process, creator Williamson has made more than enough money to build a maximum security prison for all the murderers and perverts he’s brought into America’s homes and theaters. He’s not alone in this, but someone has to be the fall guy. Let him twist in the wind -- just as some of his victims do.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Amazon Prime's Transparent (after streaming all 10 Season One episodes)


Jeffrey Tambor is the star trans in Transparent. Amazon Prime photo

Streaming: on Amazon Prime, with all 10 Season 1 episodes available
Starring: Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Alexandra Billings, Melora Hardin, Carrie Brownstein, Kathryn Hahn, Rob Huebel, Bradley Whitford, Alison Sudol, Brett Paesel
Produced by: Jill Soloway, Andrea Sperling

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The Pfefferman family dynamics in Transparent are far messier than the sauce-slathered ribs they gnaw on in the opening episode.

This is the series that puts Amazon Prime on the map, if not yet on the same level with competing streamer Netflix. Season 1’s 10 half-hour episodes went up on Friday morning, and this review is based on seeing all of them.

Jeffrey Tambor, best known as Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show and then George Bluth Sr. in Arrested Development, takes the biggest dare of his career in the uncompromising Transparent. He’s Mort turned Maura Pfefferman, divorced father of three problematic adult children whose needs he’s been meeting all of his life without ever really meeting his.

“They are so selfish,” Mort as Maura says during a group session at L.A.’s LGBT Center. “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”

Mort/Maura’s impossible to please ex-wife, Shelly (more tremendous work from Judith Light), has known for years of his fondness for wearing women’s clothing in private. His children still haven’t had a clue, though, and now Mort/Maura is finally taking it to the streets. But how and under what circumstances will he tell Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman)? The timing never seems to be quite right, although Transparent is by no means a comedy of constantly mixed signals and errors. In fact it’s really no more of a comedy than Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which didn’t stop them from submitting it as such to Emmy voters.

Tambor looks very sad-faced in early episodes. But as the series moves on, we see him in happier frames of mind during both 1994 flashbacks and in the current-day company of supportive Davina (Alexandra Billings), who’s had the full-blown sex change that Mort/Maura hasn’t embraced yet.

As for the kids . . . well, there’s been a lot of damage done over the years.

Sarah is married with children to Len Novak (Rob Huebel), but lately has fallen madly in love with Tammy Cashman (Melora Hardin), a lesbian designer and home decorator with a very high opinion of her talents. Len immediately wants to “fix” her via psychiatric help.

Josh is a successful record producer who sleeps with just about every woman he encounters. This is a byproduct of the sustained sexual relationship he had as a teenager with Rita (Brett Paesel), the adult family babysitter. His parents simply looked the other way rather than intervene.

Then there’s youngest daughter Ali, a twisted, parasitic wreck who seems incapable of self-sustenance. Daddy’s little girl is inevitably on the dole and on the prowl for new sexual adventures. In a searing Episode 10 -- no more specifics will be revealed -- Maura/Mort asks somewhat rhetorically, “Do you like me? If I didn’t give you any money, would you even talk to me?”

Transparent abounds with other interesting characters. Bradley Whitford is a recurring presence as Mark/Marcy, who in Episode 8 accompanies Mort/Maura to the Camp Camellia trans camp, It’s the only half-hour set entirely in what turned out to be a pivotal 1994. Both men are happy and relaxed among like-minded men until a free-spirited wife of one camper begins muddying things up.

Kathryn Hahn excels as Rabbi Raquel Fein, who looks to be the best thing that ever happened to Josh and in fact almost certainly is. Carrie Brownstein plays Ali’s longtime gal pal Syd, who’s always felt extraneous.

Transparent may end up being the signature creation of Jill Soloway, whose previous credits include United States of Tara and Six Feet Under. This is far more provocative work, with the sex scenes throughly adult and the premise a major challenge to pull off.

The three fractious yet sometimes united siblings of the series are still capable of laughing easily amongst each other. As when Ali cracks Sarah up by telling her she’ll call their father “moppa” from now on (for both momma and poppa). But Transparent earns its occasional laughs from characters, not punchlines. Light’s Shelly may have gotten almost as batty as Estelle Getty’s Lucille on The Golden Girls. But there’s also an underlying sadness to her declaration that “when you get to my age, your skin is like Kleenex.”

Tambor who at age 70 is hardly going quietly into the night, is the overall glue as Mort/Maura. And by Episode 10 -- which is open-ended with a smattering of closure -- he’s owning what he proclaimed in Episode 2.

“My whole life I’ve been dressing up like a man,” he tells daughter Sarah. “This is me.” He therefore acts the part -- only it’s not an act. We can drop the “Mort” now. It’s “Maura” without reservation or hesitation in a groundbreaking series that’s not for everyone and surely will repulse some. Our free country marches on.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC hopes (against hope) that viewers will fall for Manhattan Love Story


Analeigh Tipton, Jake McDorman front cast of Manhattan Love Story. ABC photo
Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 30th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Analeigh Tipton, Jake McDorman, Nicolas Wright, Jade Catta-Pretta, Chloe Wepper, Kurt Fuller
Produced by: Peter Traugott, Jeff Lowell, Robin Schwarz, Rachel Kaplan, Jon Liebman

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The new ABC comedy Manhattan Love Story is its version of NBC’s new A to Z. Or maybe vice-versa.

In each coupling, boy meets girl, misunderstandings ensue and this will never work -- or maybe it will because these are network sitcoms.

There’s more narration in Manhattan Love Story, under the guise of uncovering the characters’ real thoughts about one another. For instance, when hound dog Peter (Jake McDorman) passes by women in the street, he instantly rates them on their bed-ability. Upon first seeing Dana (Analeigh Tipton), he thinks “Yes” and she thinks “Not bad.” You might be thinking, “Blecch.”

Dana is fresh in town from Atlanta. Her Manhattan contact and former college roommate is willful, manipulative Amy (Jade Catta-Pretta), who’s married to Peter’s bearded brother, David (Nicolas Wright). Peter, David and their half-sister, Chloe (Chloe Wepper), all work for their father, William (Kurt Fuller), who owns an engraving company and has branded his kids with the notion that whatever he wants from them he gets.

Set up on a blind date with Peter, the usually level-headed Dana arrives flustered after a series of mishaps. They fail to hit it off after he’s too smug and she’s too hiccupy when crying. But amends later are made because otherwise this might as well be called Manhattan Try Again Next Week with Someone Else Story.

A second episode made available for review finds Peter thinking, “Whoa, is she actually not wearing a bra?” She somehow fails to think in turn, “Whoa, Peter’s peter looks like it’s going commando.”

Half-sister Chloe, who’s a bit of fun as the show’s fifth wheel, later tells Peter, “You’re not going to like this, but I think you might be experiencing some feelings.”

She’s right. He doesn’t.

It’s hard to see this one sticking around for very long. The dialogue and interior monologues occasionally have some snap. But Manhattan Love Story mostly is pretty thin soup in a city known for its delis. Seconds are not recommended.

GRADE: C-minus