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Fox's Shots Fired is the latest broadcast network drama aiming to be socially relevant

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Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James are the driving forces of Shots Fired. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 22nd at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James, Stephen Moyer, Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss, Mack Wilds, Aisha Hinds, Will Patton, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Conor Leslie, DeWanda Wise, Jill Hennessy, Dennis Haysbert
Produced by: Gina Prince-Blythewood, Reggie Rock Blythewood, Brian Glazer, Francie Calfo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The broadcast networks -- well, at least two of them -- lately have been flexing their social consciences. Not that this is a profitable enterprise.

ABC recently devoted four nights and eight hours to When We Rise, a stirring, affecting dramatization of the LGBT(Q) movement that in this view took the network back to its Roots. But the ratings were hardly Roots-like. In fact, not even remotely close.

Then came the re-launch of American Crime for a third season on ABC. Its core issue this time around is the exploitation of migrant workers. But ratings for the first two episodes have been subterranean.

Now it’s Fox’s turn with Shots Fired, a 10-episode drama that like American Crime is set in North Carolina, but not filmed there. It focuses on the fatal police shootings of two teenagers, one white (by a black cop) and the other black (by a white cop or cops). Predictably, and sometimes rather heavy handedly, the white kid’s death consumes the fictional town of Gate Station while the earlier shooting of the black kid has been covered up and consequently overlooked.

Young prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) and former cop turned investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), both African-American, are called in to probe the case and possibly indict Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds), the only black officer on the force. They also eventually become enmeshed in the shooting of the black teen, whose grieving, justice-seeking mother, Shameeka Campbell (DeWanda Wise), has been ignored by the police and local officials.

A fiery minister, Pastor Janae James (Aisha Hinds), later enters the fray and spurs an escalating “What About Joey?” protest from the black community.

Shots Fired also includes three familiar faces in pivotal supporting roles. Helen Hunt is Gov. Patricia Eamons, outwardly a social justice-seeker, but also in a tough reelection battle. “You make deals to make progress” is one of her mantras.

Richard Dreyfuss plays real estate tycoon and Eamons-backer Arlen Cox, whose latest pet project is a privatized prison. And most effectively of all, Stephen Moyer (True Blood and FX’s recent short-lived The Bastard Executioner, snarls and swaggers as veteran Lt. Calvert Breeland, who’s seen it all and gotten pretty cynical about it. “News flash,” he tells Ashe and Preston in Episode 4. “Profiling works. On white people and on black people.”

Familiar character actor Will Patton chips in as the possibly weaselly town sheriff, Daniel Platt. And Dennis Haysbert can be seen for a few extraneous scenes as the father of Preston and his brother, Mace (Shamier Anderson), a cocksure star player with the Carolina Panthers.

All of these forces intertwine and collide in a morality tale whose soapy touches and swelling music may give Shots Fired a more “commercial” appeal than either When We Rise or American Crime, both of which have more of a documentary feel. While initially battling Preston for her proper share of the turf, the flirty, high-strung, mentally scarred Ashe also is fighting a child custody battle with her ex-. Meanwhile, Preston quickly beds the governor’s top aide, Sarah Ellis (Conor Leslie), and preacher Janae may well have an ulterior agenda based on the person she hops into a car with at the end of Episode 5.

Six of the 10 episodes were made available for review. The evolving story line is involving but can also be over-baked. As is Dreyfuss’ attempted thick suh-thun accent. On the physical appearance front, Hunt is notably stick-thin and very tightly drawn expression-wise -- to the point of being more than a bit disconcerting.

More than halfway through, Shots Fired is still without any indictments while bobbing and weaving through various subplots. Still, it’s drama of a fairly high order and relevancy on a network not known for such efforts. When We Rise and American Crime likely will have bigger upsides come Emmy time. But Shots Fired could be a somewhat bigger audience draw by taking more of a potboiler approach.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's Trial & Error makes a play date with the "true-crime" genre

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John Lithgow’s the one facing a murder rap in Trial & Error. NBC photo

Premiering Tuesday, March 14th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on NBC
Starring: Nicholas D’Agosto, John Lithgow, Sherri Shepherd, Jayma Mays, Steven Boyer, Krysta Rodriguez
Produced by: Jeff Astrof, Matt Miller, Jeffrey Blitz

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
There’s no rhyme or reason -- nor is there meant to be -- to this tale of a small town poetry professor charged with fatally propelling his wife through their glass front door.

So the evidence preposterously builds against eccentric Larry Henderson (John Lithgow) in NBC’s Trial & Error, a mockumentary spoof of the burgeoning “true crime” genre. You’ll likely at least be grinning, if not sometimes laughing out loud. Because after a halting start, the amusements are plentiful during the three half-hours made available for review. Back-to-back episodes air each week after Tuesday’s two-pronged premiere following the season finale of This Is Us.

Lithgow’s character is first heard, not seen, making a 911 call in regard to his seriously dead spouse. But he quickly has a higher priority when it appears that another call is incoming from an overdue cable guy. It’s that kind of comedy, something of a cross between The Office and Airplane!.

A green lawyer from New York, Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto), soon arrives in the sub-hamlet of East Peck, South Carolina to represent Larry while assembling an inept team. “Lead investigator” Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer) can’t be counted on to do anything right. And head researcher/assistant Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd) has a wide assortment of oddball disorders, including laughing inappropriately.

They strategize in a back room office located adjacent to a taxidermy shop, which accounts for all of the stuffed animals serving as decor. Larry joins them after being sprung on a seven million dollar bail. Anne -- the poor girl just can’t help herself -- slaps a “Larry Murderer” ID tag on his chest at the start of a brainstorming session. I think that’s when Trial & Error pretty much had me.

Josh’s courtroom nemesis is assistant district attorney Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays), who very much wants the top job. She’ll do anything to win a conviction, including attempted seductions. There’s also Larry’s daughter, Summer (Krysta Rodriguez), who likewise has designs on the cute new attorney in town. Local TV anchor/reporter Heidi Baker (Angel Parker) keeps breaking stories that seem to further implicate Larry. In Episode 2, the on-screen subhead reads, “Local Man Accused of Killing Local Wife.”

D’Agosto brings the requisite fresh-faced exasperation to his lead role while Shepherd and Mays are standouts as broadly drawn supporting characters. Lithgow segues from playing Winston Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown to another of his batty comedic turns, which are tailor made for him. Although he did very convincingly play the Trinity Killer in Season 4 of Showtime’s Dexter.

Trial & Error can be hit & miss, but the hits just keep on coming as the murder case twists itself into a pretzel of ifs, buts, maybes and absurdities. This is a show where the trial judge’s nameplate surname is Horsedich, but isn’t pronounced that way. And where the wealthy brother of Larry’s deceased wife proudly notes at the unveiling of her gravestone, “My tobacco company provides a lot of business for this cemetery.”

It’s a decidedly unconventional way to wrap up the last hour of prime-time, which traditionally is stocked with serious-minded crime-and-punishment dramas. On Trial & Error, the defense team’s DNA expert is also a “compulsive masturbator.” Let’s see how this all plays out.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Opposite of escapism: Season 3 of ABC's American Crime

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Regina King again is a standout in grim Season 3 of American Crime. ABC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Season 3 of American Crime looks like a very tough, if not an impossible sell.

Which in its own way is commendable on the part of ABC but not exactly heartening news for the Disney-owned network’s sales force or stockholders. Broadcast networks generally are loathe to present a decidedly “non-commercial” venture. But ABC lately stands alone in this respect after a substantial and likely anticipated ratings shortfall for last week’s When We Rise, a four-night, eight-hour miniseries that dramatized the history of the LGBT(Q) movement.

Created by John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), American Crime ended up being pretty much a ratings loss-leader in its first two seasons. But the series also deservedly received widespread acclaim for its autopsy-like dissections of race, class, gender and sexual preference. This season (launching on Sunday, March 12th at 9 p.m. central) is the starkest and grimmest yet with its depictions of migrant worker and teen girl trafficking. So don’t anticipate any “entertainment value” if you’re among the many who view television first and foremost as an escape mechanism, not a teaching tool.

American Crime continues to draw on the model of FX’s American Horror Story, with a core repertory company returning in entirely different roles. Principal charter cast members Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton and Regina King are all back, as are Benito Martinez, Lili Taylor and Richard Cabral. Another notable returnee, Connor Jessup, joined American Crime in Season 2, and is back as another tragic, anchor-less teen.

Season 3 has been downsized to eight episodes, with filming shifting to Los Angeles after the first two installment were produced in Austin but respectively set in California and Indiana. This time out, L.A. is a stand-in for North Carolina, which currently is being shunned by Hollywood, major music artists and pro sports leagues for its divisive transgender bathroom law.

ABC made Season 3’s initial four episodes available for review. King, who won supporting actress Emmys in each of the first two seasons, is the first major presence as social worker Kimara Walters. She’s hard-pressed to either pay her cable bill or persuade recalcitrant teens that she can help them. Case in point: 17-year-old Shae Reese (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), who still clings to her pimp and also again is pregnant with an unwanted child. Kimara, on the other hand, longs to be a mother but remains barren in her 40s. Expect these twains to inevitably meet, although they haven’t yet by the end of Episode 4.

A companion storyline centers on Luis Salazar (Martinez), who’s smuggled into North Carolina and soon is picking tomatoes for Hesby Farms. But Salazar’s primary objective is finding his missing 17-year-old son, Teo. Meanwhile, Hesby Farms matriarch Laurie Ann Hesby (Cherry Jones) is facing higher costs and diminished profits. She demands even cheaper labor, with the already underpaid pickers living in unfit-for-human-habitation trailer homes prone to flash fires.

Huffman plays Laurie’s daughter-in-law, Jeanette Hesby, who’s long looked the other way but is increasingly guilt-ridden. Her husband, Carson (Dallas Roberts), keeps telling her to back off while another family member, JD Hesby (Tim DeKay), has turned to heavy drinking to ease his conscience.

Jessup is Coy Henson, an aimless drug addict who falls prey to the recruiting techniques of Isaac Castillo (Cabral). Hutton and Taylor are out of the picture until Episode 4, when they first appear as husband and wife Nicholas and Clair Coates. His moneymaking furniture company also has fallen on hard times of late. Making ends meet in a deteriorating economy is a recurring theme this season.

American Crime goes about this oft-dreary business in stark, spare fashion with only scant use of mood music and repeated use of subtitles during the migrant worker segments. Martinez, former co-star of The Shield, contributes the most poignant and affecting characterization as an increasingly desperately seeking father. King and Jessup also are first-rate as expected while the accomplished Huffman’s Jeanette is slower to percolate but eventually gets there.

A great majority of potential viewers no doubt will pass on all of this, which is perfectly understandable. But let the record show that ABC rather amazingly has dared to get behind American Crime for a third time while its Big Four broadcast network rivals -- CBS, Fox and NBC -- perhaps would sooner subject themselves to medieval torturing. So as with When We Rise, applause, applause -- even if it sometimes feels like one hand clapping.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Patsy Cline gets an overdue American Masters tribute

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By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The American Masters’ appreciation of Patsy Cline brings to mind an all too lengthy list of music stars whose careers were cut short by fatal airplane or helicopter crashes.

Otis Redding. Buddy Holly. Rick Nelson. Stevie Ray Vaughn. John Denver. The Big Bopper. Richie Valens. Lynyrd Skynyrd members Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines. Jim Croce.

Cline met that fate on March 5, 1963 after performing in a benefit concert for the family of deceased disc jockey “Cactus” Jack Call. At age 30 she was just getting started, but had recorded timeless hits such as “Crazy, I Fall to Pieces,” and “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Another chart-topper, “Sweet Dreams,” was released after her death.

Narrated by Roseanne Cash, the one-hour American Masters presentation (Wednesday, March 8th at 7 p.m. on KERA13 in Dallas) fittingly is being paired with another reprise of Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night during the PBS station’s latest pledge drive. Both had soaring, piercing and inimitable voices. One could feel their hearts breaking -- or so it seemed -- while they wailed their most memorable ballads. “I fall to pieces each time I see you again. I fall to pieces. How can I just be your friend?”

Cline’s life is recalled in straightforward, workmanlike fashion. The title is simply Patsy Cline without any further add-on. What’s surprising is the ample footage available of her television performances, several of which are replayed at considerable length. This somewhat compensates for the absence of even a single recorded Q & A with the woman born Virginia Patterson Hensley.

Reba McEntire, who contributes a new interview, chortles after saying, “Her voice was strong. Her attitude was strong. And I wouldn’t want to go against her in any way.”

Cline was married twice, briefly to contractor Gerald Cline and then, until her death, to linotype operator Charlie Dick, who died in 2015 and is seen frequently in an archival interview.

The 1985 feature film, Sweet Dreams, controversially depicted their marriage as abusive, mostly on his part. Dick, played by Ed Harris in the movie, labeled it “fiction” at the time. Jessica Lange received an Oscar nomination as Cline. And in a clip shown in the American Masters bio, the late Jerry Haynes (longtime star of Dallas-based WFAA8’s Mr. Peppermint children’s show), can be seen in the role of Cline’s record producer, Owen Bradley.

Lange doesn’t participate in the PBS film. Willie Nelson, who wrote Crazy for Cline, is seen only briefly in archival footage.

She first came to national prominence on a 1957 edition of TV’s Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which was hugely influential at the time as a primitive prelude of sorts to American Idol. Cline’s mother, Hilda, introduced her to Godfrey without identifying herself as such. She then performed “Walkin’ After Midnight” and received a big ovation from the audience before Godfrey stepped in to tell her, “Don’t go away, Patsy, honey. You done won this.”

But a restrictive contract with 4 Star Records, which paid her pennies on the dollar and stuck Cline with a series of mostly junk songs, kept her from flourishing until she finally completed her obligations. Bradley and her new agent, Randy Hughes, then helped to take her to the top.

A serious 1961 car wreck put Cline in the hospital for a month just as “I Fall to Pieces” hit it big. Then came “Crazy.” And who knows how many other hits would have followed had she not boarded that plane with Hughes as its pilot? It crashed in bad weather while they were en route to her home in Nashville.

Cline became a star in times when women struggled to gain footholds in a recording industry dominated by male powerbrokers. Patsy Cline portrays her as both independent-minded and also insecure in breaking away from the traditional country music mold and those cowgirl outfits her mother used to make for her early stage performances.

In 1973, Cline became the first solo woman artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her most enduring songs have been covered by the likes of LeAnn Rimes, Mickey Guyton and Rhiannon Giddens, all of whom newly extoll her in the American Masters film.

In the end -- and it’s certainly a tragic end -- Patsy Cline is a serviceable but not particularly exceptional presentation. It seems that she’ll always be an artist who deserved and still deserves better. But at least she’s finally on the American Masters map -- some 54 years after she had only just begun.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Season 5 of FX's The Americans is still in the Reagan White House era, but what if someday . . .

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Eyes on the spies: Matthew Rhys and, Keri Russell in The Americans. FX photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Season 5 of FX’s The Americans remains set in the 1980s, specifically George Orwell’s 1984 at this point.

Since TV time traveling’s in vogue, though, how about fast-forwarding Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) to a reasonable facsimile of “Trump World? for a “very special” final season? Think of what they might accomplish. And no, this is not an entirely facetious suggestion down the road.

The Americans otherwise remains in the top tier of TV dramas, even if the first three episodes of the 13-episode new season (launching Tuesday, March 7th at 9 p.m. central) could use a kick in the pants pacing-wise. If you haven’t yet discovered the show, this probably isn’t an ideal entry point. The key event near the end of the fifth season’s opening hour seems to take forever and a day to unfold. I’m all for building suspense, but one also has to be careful not let the air out.

It all restarts with Philip and Elizabeth under cover again, this time assisted by a teenage Vietnam refugee posing as their adopted son. Meanwhile, their biological daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), continues to feel controlled and unfulfilled after finding out last season who her parents really are. Her budding romance with the neighboring Matthew (Daniel Flaherty), son of spy-hunting FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), continues to deeply disturb Elizabeth and Philip. What if she slips and blurts something out in the throes of passion?

The Jennings’ other child, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), seemingly has become a virtual non-entity. He’s glimpsed just once, early in Episode 1. It’s just enough to show that the actor playing him clearly has undergone a growth spurt.

These opening three episodes also spend considerable time in the Soviet Union, where Oleg Igorevich Burov (Costa Ronin) has returned and been enlisted by the KGB. No one in his homeland yet suspects that he became Beeman’s go-between. But now the CIA wants to blackmail him into playing ball again despite Beeman’s best efforts to act on his behalf.

Not to give away too much, but there’s also an allegedly sinister plan afoot involving U.S. grain shipments to the Soviet Union. Getting to its roots becomes Elizabeth’s and Philip’s principal undercover objective. Their longtime Soviet handlers, Gabriel and Claudia (Frank Langella, Margo Martindale), are sprinkled in only briefly in the three episodes made available for review. They do have a blunt-spoken, telling exchange, though, in Episode 1.

“Noting scares those two,” Claudia says of Elizabeth and Philip.

“Everything scares those two,” he retorts.

There’s also an even briefer sighting of a memorable supporting character. You’ll have to wait until Episode 3, though.

FX is planning just one more season of The Americans beyond this one. The series continues to challenge the perceptions of viewers with alternately sympathetic and ruthless portrayals of Philip and Elizabeth. Her heart is hard when necessary. At one point, Paige’s lament that it “felt gross” to lie to Matthew is countered by Elizabeth’s matter-of-fact rationale that “being in a relationship is complicated. You don’t share everything. You hold back what you need to. Everybody does.”

Continued cold-blooded killing continues to be one of the hold-backs from Paige, with relatively innocent victims merely part of the collateral damage.

Season 5 of The Americans almost assuredly will round into form after a rather sluggish start compared to previous returns. In the initial three hours, the plot both thickens and sometimes congeals. What an electric avenue it could be, though, if a grizzled but thoroughly wily Elizabeth and Philip jetted roughly three decades into the future for their ultimate mission in Season 6. Yeah, that’s extremely unlikely to fly. But oh how I’d love to see them give it a whirl.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net