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CSI: Cyber -- no awards this time but a likely nice nest egg for Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette

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James Van Der Beek, Patricia Arquette in CSI: Cyber. CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 4th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Patricia Arquette, James Van Der Beek, Peter MacNicol, Shad Moss, Charley Koontz, Hayley Kiyoko
Produced by: Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue, Anthony Zuiker, Pam Veasey, Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
There’s no need to feel unduly sorry for Patricia Arquette.

Yes, she’s the newly crowned Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner for Boyhood after also winning every other major award for the role. And now, just when all these new doors are opening, she’s tied to a previous commitment to another formulaic CBS crime series.

It’s a nice “problem” to have, though. Arquette gets the lead role in CSI: Cyber, which premieres on Wednesday, March 4th behind CBS’ long-running Criminal Minds. Virtually without a doubt, more people will see Episode 1 of her new show than will ever see Boyhood.

Besides that, this fourth CSI iteration is almost guaranteed to provide long-term employment at a very nice rate of pay. CBS is the network, after all, that has made hits this season of its NCIS: New Orleans spinoff and the third TV version of The Odd Couple, which was critically panned to apparently no avail.

So Arquette will be just fine, even if CSI: Cyber for the most part tends to be head-hurting on a number of fronts. Not the least of which are its far-fetched leaps from one high-tech deduction to another.

Arquette plays Washington, D.C.-based FBI special agent Avery Ryan, who of course has a tragic back story. This fuels her single-minded efforts to chase down conscience-less cyber criminals who in the first two episodes kidnap infants and fatally derail a roller coaster. The latter case, which fills next week’s Episode 2, turns out to be a cut-and-dried case of “gore porn.”

“Faceless. Nameless. Lurking inside our devices, just a keystroke away,” Arquette’s Ryan says in the weekly set-up to episodes. Her voice then drops to a whisper: “It can happen to you.” But please, viewers, don’t get any ideas. We already have enough trouble combatting the Internet’s escalating number of pop-up ads.

Ryan gets very much involved in the tire-squealing, physical pursuits of various vermin. Her action-craving right-hand man otherwise is Agent Elijah Mundo (James Van Der Beek returning to the drama fold after sitcom fails with Don’t Trust the B -- In Apartment 23 and Friends With Better Lives).

Another familiar TV face, Dallas native Peter MacNicol (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal), co-stars as Cyber Crime Division supervisor Simon Sifter. He mulls options, cuts through bureaucratic barriers and in Episode 1, says things like, ”My guess is he’s feeling desperate.”

To which Ryan replies, “And desperate people do desperate things.” Oh please.

The team is rounded out by the requisite tubby bearded guy (Charley Koontz as Daniel “Krummy” Krumitz); the requisite trouble-plagued young newcomer getting a make-or-break second chance (Shad Moss as Brody Nelson); and someone his age for Brody to hang out with (Hayley Kiyoko as Raven Ramirez).

There’s also the requisite CSI theme song by The Who. In this case it’s the very welcome “I Can See For Miles.” Ring the royalties cash register again for its writer, Pete Townsend, who probably wouldn’t mind at all seeing CSI: Outer Space and CSI: Underground at some point in the near future.

On CSI: Cyber, Ryan and her team act very swiftly, oftentimes preposterously so. Computer graphics whiz and buzz. And then, just like that, another suspect is chased down and vetted by Ryan, who seemingly needs nothing more than a burp or a twitch to determine who the bad guys are and who they are not.

Arquette’s character supposedly is drawn from real-life Cyber Psychologist Mary Aiken, whose official bio says she’s a faculty member at the Dr. Steve Chan Center for Sensemaking as well as a fellow at the IBM Swansea University Network Science Research Center. She also works with various police departments in efforts to thwart cyber crime. But Aiken likely has never said “Let’s roll” (as her TV counterpart does in Episode 3 before hopping into the ready-for-action Cyber Crime Division van and eventually getting involved in a shootout).

None of CSI: Cyber’s excesses or contrivances are likely to matter in the least. Arquette, who previously starred to much better effect in NBC’s Medium, has a pre-sold vehicle that seems sure to take her for at least a five-season ride. It’s not worthy of her talents, but that’s perhaps beside the point. With an Oscar now on her mantle and no further validation required, this is as good a time as any to make some real money again.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS' semi-offbeat Battle Creek shows some signs of being from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan

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More odd couple cops: Dean Winters, Josh Duhamel of Battle Creek CBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Dean Winters, Josh Duhamel, Janet McTeer, Kal Penn, Edward Fordham, Aubrey Dollar, Damon Herriman, Liza Lapira
Produced by: Vince Gilligan, David Shore, Mark Johnson, Bryan Singer, Russel Friend

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The small city best known for mass-producing Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Pop Tarts and Corn Pops also turns out to be awash in homicides and drug-running.

That’s the Battle Creek (population 52,347) of CBS’ Battle Creek, a good but certainly not great seriocomic cop series from the creator of Breaking Bad and its recently launched prequel, Better Call Saul.

The gist is this. Ill-tempered detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) is toiling away in the Battle Creek cop shop while grousing about the department’s outdated, malfunctioning equipment. Into this breech steps the streamlined Milton Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), who’s just been transferred from Detroit’s FBI branch.

Milton has an array of state-of-the-art crime-solving gizmos at his disposal. But Russ takes an immediate disliking to him because their temperaments and methods are entirely different. Milton also is killer handsome, which makes Russ feel like a soggy bowl of Kellogg’s cornflakes.

Many cop shows have taken this route, including Fox’s made-in-Dallas The Good Guys, a short-lived 2010 effort that starred Bradley Whitford as a gruff, set-in-his-ways detective and Colin Hanks as his buttoned-down, by-the-book partner. That series also had an off-beat, auteur executive producer, Burn Notice maestro Matt Nix.

Vince Gilligan and his principal producer partner, David Shore, say in a cover letter to TV critics that CBS suggested sending all 13 Season 1 episodes of Battle Creek for review. Unfortunately they didn’t arrive until mid-February during a very busy time for watching and writing about new series. ABC’s Secrets and Lies and Fox’s The Last Man On Earth also share Battle Creek’s premiere date. And WE tv’s Friday, Feb. 27th launch of Sex Box also cried out for a disparaging review.

But your friendly content provider did find time to view the first four episodes of Battle Creek, plus an Episode 9 subtitled “Cereal Killer.” In that one, Battle Creek’s 31st annual “Breakfast Day,” which celebrates what’s made the city famous, is interrupted by the shootings of the mayor (who turns out to be a Rob Ford-like coke addict) and a costumed mascot. Oh well. The carping Russ didn’t want to be there anyway.

Sunday’s Battle Creek premiere quickly segues to a drug-related double homicide after a scene-setting demonstration of the department’s decrepit crook-catching devices. Russ becomes Milton’s very reluctant partner in the case. He’s equally interested in solving the mystery of why the new guy got demoted by the FBI. (Some of this will be revealed in Episode 4.)

Battle Creek has a solid group of supporting players, most notably the Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer as Commander Guziewicz and Kal Penn (House) as detective Fontanelle “Font” White. The police department ensemble also includes sweets-loving detective Aaron “Funk” Funkhauser (Edward Fordham) and true-blue office manager Holly Dale (Aubrey Dollar), who Russ likes more than a little.

Episodes 2 and 3 likewise center on homicides before Episode 4 delves into a heroin ring. Some of them snap, crackle and pop more than others. The best line in the early going comes from Funk after investigators are told in Episode 3 that a suspect “died of a heart attack two days ago.”

“Talk about an excellent alibi,” he deadpans.

Creator Gilligan of course has been very busy with the high-pressure task of getting Better Call Saul off the ground. So CBS may be getting something of a half a loaf here, even though Battle Creek still qualifies as something of an art house series on a network that’s mostly been painting by the numbers.

The series will sink or swim on the Russ-Milton relationship, which thaws in some amusing ways but remains resistant to room temperature.

“You’re a good cop and a good partner,” Milton tells Russ in Episode 3. “But you have no interest in being a friend.”

Unlike Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Battle Creek otherwise is without serial or, for the most part, cereal components. Crimes of the week are solved and put aside, even though the deductions and evidence don’t always stack up. Episode 3 is especially deficient in these respects, with the bad guys panicking and running after Russ and Milton confront them with not all that much. But numerous other ongoing TV cop dramas share such deficiencies. The supply of twists and turns has reached nearly total exhaustion.

Still, the five episodes I’ve seen have enough small pleasures to carry them to their finish lines. Just don’t expect to be blown away. Battle Creek isn’t about to approach the ratings of CBS’ three NCIS series or the upcoming CSI: Cyber with new Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette. But maybe it will hang in there as something a little offbeat on a network with little of that going around.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Land of distinction: Fox's The Last Man On Earth

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What’s a messy room when you think you’re all that’s left? Fox photo

Premiering; Sunday, March 1st at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Schaal, January Jones, Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen, Mel Rodriguez
Produced by: Will Forte, Chris Miller, Phil Lord, Seth Cohen

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Keep the title in mind. It’s The Last Man On Earth, not the last human.

So if you’re wondering what star Will Forte is going to do with all that post-apocalyptic time on his hands . . . well, there’s no need for that. Not even in the short run.

Fox is being gently firm about this in a letter accompanying the first two episodes, which air back-to-back on Sunday night.

“Please do not reveal surprising plot points or new characters in your coverage of these episodes prior to the airdate,” the network says. “As we do not want to diminish the viewing experience for the audience. You may reveal other confirmed cast members, though we cannot disclose what roles they will play.”

The confirmed cast members, other than Forte, are January Jones, Mary Steenburgen, Cleopatra Coleman, Mel Rodriguez and Kristen Schaal (voice of Louise Belcher on Fox’s animated Bob’s Burgers. One of them materializes at the end of Episode 1. And that’s all you’re gonna get regarding characters other than Forte’s Phil Miller.

The adult comedy series is set in 2020, “Two Years After the Virus.” Phil is driving around in a bus, looking for any signs of life. One by one, he crosses off whole states before deciding on Tucson, Ariz. as his home base. He picks out a palatial home as his new residence before going about the task of trying not to bore himself stiff. His only friends are a series of athletic balls, inspired by Wilson the volleyball in Castaway. It so happens that one of them is an under-inflated football, although Last Man On Earth was filmed long before the New England Patriots “scandal” and already has its first 13 episodes in the can.

Accompanying pop music plays a big role in Episode 1, which charts Will’s fairly hilarious efforts to amuse himself. A $10,000 bottle of wine goes great with a can of SpaghettiOs. And there all kinds of ways to reinvent bowling.

Phil otherwise spends a good deal of time at the Ol’ Rozeo’s Mexi-Irish Pub, where he drinks himself into a stupor while talking to his balls. There are other, more basic activities to help pass the seeming eternity of time.

“Hello, God,” Phil says while trying to get through another night. “First of all, apologies for all the recent masturbation. But I gotta say, that’s kinda on you.”

Forte both created and wrote Last Man On Earth. And the former Saturday Night Live mainstay doesn’t spare himself in terms of either indignities or physical appearance. Forte’s beard is both real and ugly. His character’s faltering resolve is measured in its growth and the overall condition of his home after months of accomplishing nothing. Even Oscar Madison would get sick to his stomach at the sight of what’s become of Phil’s living room and backyard. The set designers of Last Man On Earth deserve some sort of award -- maybe even an Emmy -- for what they’ve “accomplished.”

Fox sent Sunday’s initial two episodes for review -- and not much should be said about the second one. But this is a concept that so far doesn’t lack for execution. Last Man On Earth has no chance at all to be a blockbuster in league with Fox’s new Empire. But it’s another distinctive example of what the Big Four broadcast networks should dare and do.

“I don’t need people. I can make it work on my own. Watch me! Watch me!” Phil vows to God.

We’ll see about that. And soon.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Secrets and Lies: a murder mystery without a strong enough pulse

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The misery index is off the charts in Secrets and Lies. ABC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. March 1st at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Juliette Lewis, KaDee Strickland, Natalie Martinez, Dan Fogler, Indiana Evans, Belle Shouse
Produced by: Barbie Kligman, Aaron Kaplan, Tracey Robertson, Nathan Mayfield, Timothy Busfield

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The media hounds are omnipresent in the first two episodes of ABC’s Secrets and Lies.

Not the “Social Media” ones, but the traditional pack of salivating, question-shouting curs. They bedevil “person of interest” Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) while also making his little daughter, Abby (Belle Shouse), cry. It’s the Christmas season but this is no hallelujah choir.

Ben’s guilt or innocence is very suddenly in question after he finds the dead body of a 5-year-old neighborhood boy whom his snippy teen daughter, Natalie (Indiana Evans), used to babysit. But quick justice for the not-so-stereotypical media mob would be a lightning bolt or two from on high. No one would question that verdict after watching the early stages of this determinedly dreary murder mystery.

Suburban Ben, a married man whose wife has grown weary of him after 17 years of marriage, is also bedeviled by detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis). She wears her hair in a tight bun and has a demeanor that begins and ends with dour. Lewis plays this role in a manner that gradually makes the character almost laughable. She lurks, she badgers and she assures Ben that “I don’t stop.” If only she’d take a long vacation to Siberia and turn the case over to a detective with a semblance of wily charm.

Adapted from a same-named Australian series and scheduled to run for 10 episodes, Secrets and Lies is billed in ABC publicity materials as a “thrilling who-done-it” in which the accused “peels back the layers of these suburbanites’ lives in their quiet cul de sac, revealing their dirty little deceptions and all-too-crowded closets overflowing with skeletons.” But Desperate Housewives had a lot more fun doing this -- at least in its early seasons.

Ben, of course, has a skeleton or two in his own closet. But his wife, Christy (KaDee Strickland), is ready to toss him out even before the biggest one is divulged at the end of Episode 1. “You’re the same person. I’m not,” she tells him. In the physique department that’s very true. Ben, in the person of Phillippe, certainly hasn’t let himself go. He’s still a hunk and a half who runs daily and finds the dead body during one of his jaunts through the woods.

Secrets and Lies also co-stars Dan Fogler as a shlubby, bearded buddy to end all shlubby, bearded buddies. As Dave Lindsey, he’s been Ben’s best friend since high school. Now he’s a layabout, too, crashing at the Crawfords’ house and literally never seen without a beer grafted to his hand during Sunday’s back-to-back hours. Ben and Dave went out drinking -- heavily -- on the night of the murder. And Ben, who had again been spurned by his wife, got so blasted that he can’t quite remember all that happened thereafter.

Meanwhile, Ben’s neighbors turn on him in lightning quick fashion while little Abby yearns to put up the Christmas decorations. “I know you didn’t do it, Daddy,” she says. It’s a nice moment in a series that so far is brimming with ominous music and an abundance of trips to the cop shop for more questioning.

This is supposed to be a spellbinding page-turner, but the pages tend to get stuck together. The original Australian series ran for just six episodes, which no doubt made for a better pace. ABC’s elongated version loads up on angst and redundancy, tending to plod along at a pace that would fall well short of providing a decent cardio workout for jogging Ben.

An arresting performance or two would enliven matters. But Phillippe and Lewis as the two principal characters are not potent enough to get the juices flowing in an unfolding crime tale that’s neither terrible nor scintillating.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

WE tv's super-ludicrous Sex Box tries to position itself as an idea whose time has, um, come

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Exiting the Sex Box to applause from therapists. WE tv photo

Premiering: Friday, Feb. 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on WE tv
Starring: Sexually troubled couples and therapists Chris Donaghue, Fran Walfish, Yvonne Capeheart
Produced by: Tom Forman, Brad Bishop

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Getting all indignant about Sex Box won’t do anything to stop it from actually airing on an American television network after it flopped in the United Kingdom.

Besides, it’s much more fun to make fun of it as a ridiculous and desperate effort to generate some buzz about its carrier, the wee little WE tv network.

TV critics are given more big, juicy low-hanging fruit to feast on than a giraffe in an apple orchard. This begins immediately, with an off-camera pitchman assuring viewers: “Couples in crisis with nowhere else to turn will take part in the most radical therapy ever seen on television. Confessions will be made. Secrets revealed. Lives changed. All by having sex. In this box. In front of a live studio audience.”

WITH NOWHERE ELSE TO TURN!? But we digress.

The Sex Box looks like a storage bin and is a glowing light blue when uninhabited. But when whoopee is in progress, the Box lights up to a hot blend of reds and pinks. Three frequently applauded couples take the plunge in each one-hour episode. They’re also timed by Dr. Chris Donaghue, a “clinical sexologist” who serves as the show’s lead dog.

A question comes to mind. What does the whooping studio audience do during, say, the 31 minutes, 49 seconds that Alexia and Christopher are said to have spent in the Sex Box? Are they given free drinks and snacks while being entertained by an episode of Sex and the City? Because whatever the couples are doing -- and are they actually really doing it? -- it’s all completely inaudible. They then emerge as conquesting heroes before the three resident therapists say things like, “The Sex Box was able to really help you guys find that compromise.”

While you contemplate building one of these things in your bedroom, let’s meet the other performance judges.

Dr. Fran Walfish is a Beverly Hills-based “couples psychotherapist” who charitably speaking has had some very bad cosmetic surgery done above her neck. Dr. Yvonne Capeheart, a “pastor and couples counselor,” is the resident prude -- at least compared to her colleagues.

First up are musicians Elle and Brandon. He wears a “Thug Life” t shirt in his introductory video. She laments that during sex, ”He has an orgasm, and I don’t.”

Made-for-TV concern ripples through the audience before the therapists upbraid Brandon for making light of Elle’s sexual satisfaction. Donaghue soon pops the question after noting that during the sex act, Oxytocin levels (a k a the so-called love hormone) are at their very highest. “Are you ready to go into the Sex Box?” he asks. Dramatic pauses sometimes lead directly to commercial breaks. But of course they’re game. Because otherwise what are these people doing here in the first place?

Post-Sex Box, Elle gives Brandon a 7.9 (on a scale of 10) for his efforts to please her. “That’s huge!” Donaghue exclaims before asking, “Did you both orgasm and who orgasmed first?”

“Me,” Elle says proudly, triggering an ovation.

In case you’re wondering, the couples wear what seem to be silk pajamas (but probably are Polyester) for their romps in the Sex Box. Some but not all of the jammies are emblazoned with the official Sex Box logo.

Between introductions of new couples, “Sex Box correspondent” Danielle Stewart hits the streets to quiz a few couples -- a la HBO’s Real Sex. One guy says he really likes it when his mate is “giving me road head.” Hmm, texting increasingly is outlawed when driving, but . . .

OK, let’s welcome Dyson and his massively endowed wife, Rebecca. They’ve been together for 17 years and married for 10. She says they’ve had “threesomes, foursomes, more somes.” He says they’re just “looking to spice things up a bit . . . I like to date other women with my wife.”

But pastor Capeheart detects Rebecca’s basic unhappiness with these arrangements. So it’s into the Sex Box, with Dyson emerging an instantly changed man. Or so he says.

“For the first time ever, I’ve got my head on straight,” Dyson assures his wife and the therapists. Thanks, Sex Box!!!

Couple No. 3, Alexia and Christopher, used to have kinky sex multiple times a day. But after just two years of marriage, she’s mostly lost the urge after birthing a son.

“He doesn’t look at me any different. He knows the slut that I could be,” Alexia says of her horny husband.

OK, then off to the Sex Box, you two. Presto, change-o and applause upon re-entry into a beautiful new world of renewed compatibility.

The show strives to position itself as nothing more than a selfless Good Samaritan with one goal only -- to bring sexual healing for desperate couples that had no recourse other than intercourse in a big box built on a TV stage. Wonder what the pioneering Dr. Ruth Westheimer would say about that. She might disapprove, even though this is the woman who once told a very embarrassed David Letterman an anecdote about a sex game that called for tossing onion rings on an erect penis.

OK, I’m going to confession now. Right now.

GRADE: F

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net