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NBC's Superstore somehow opens for business


America Ferrera, Ben Feldman strive to survive Superstore. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Nov. 30th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes sneak-previewing on NBC before show returns on Jan. 4th
Starring: America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, Mark McKinney, Lauren Ash, Colton Dunn, Nico Santos, Nichole Bloom, Johnny Pemberton
Produced by: Justin Spitzer, Ruben Fleischer, David Bernad, Gabe Miller, Jonathan Green

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Buyers beware. NBC is sneaking Superstore upon you following Monday’s sure to be heavily-watched two-hour edition of The Voice.

For the most part it’s about as much fun as camping out overnight in a freezing ice storm to snare a Black Friday discount on a Darth Vader toaster. Although some people really do seem to get into that.

Superstore won’t return until Jan. 4th after the Nov. 30th jump start of back-to-back episodes. NBC sent four of them for review and the overall quality seldom rises above excruciating. Perhaps I’m being too kind.

America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Ben Feldman (last season’s failed A to Z) head the cast, with former Kids in the Hall standout Mark McKinney adding a hopelessly broad and goofy characterization as store manager Glenn. The big, sprawling place is called Cloud 9, although Living Hell would better describe the overall experience for actors and viewers alike.

Virtually every joke lands with a resounding thud, never more so than when a moronic white rapper named Bo (Johnny Pemberton) is striving to be “street.” He’s also responsible for impregnating a rather dense teenage employee named Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), who should be running at WARP speed from this guy. Worse TV characters surely have popped up over these many years. But Bo (middle name Derek) seems determined to achieve new vistas in off-putting. And although not listed in NBC publicity materials as a regular character, he very much infects each of these four episodes.

Ferrera, who should know better, has signed on as true-blue employee Amy, although she always wears name tags that identify her otherwise. Feldman is new worker Jonah, an easy target for ridicule. He’d like to make a little time with Amy, who’s married (unhappily, apparently) and also has a child. Neither are shown.

Superstore ham-handedly touches nearly every base in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical challenges and body shapes.

Amy and Cheyenne are Latina. Garrett (Colton Dunn), who’s black, gets around in a motorized wheelchair. Mateo is Asian and gay. Officious assistant store manager Dina (Lauren Ash) is decidedly plus-sized. Glenn is the buffoonish Christian, with McKinney using a super-shrill voice to ward off even a faint hint of subtlety. There’s no attendant laugh track, which would be living a lie anyway.

Viewers also are presented with recurring, brief sight gags of customers caught in the acts of being their base-level selves. Two of them joust with shopping carts in a narrow aisle. Another one lowers his pants and takes a dump in a display toilet. A little boy does the same in a kiddie potty for sale. All of the featured employees spend enough time in the break room to let the store be looted as well. Somehow it isn’t.

Episode 2 finds dimwit Glenn priming himself for a visit from a woman reporter doing a story on Cloud Nine for the corporate magazine. Her journalism degree, which she mentions, doesn’t stop her from coming on to a willing Jonah in the stockroom. It’s all captured on security cameras. But Dina, who has the hots for Jonah, decides that in fact he’s been “sexually assaulted.”

“Now listen up, Connie Chung,” Dina barks after calling the reporter “a journalist and a rapist.” Call your lawyers, Connie. There’s still a little time.

Superstore eventually will be paired on Mondays with Eva Longoria’s new Telenovela comedy series, which will be getting a Dec. 7th, post-Voice sneak preview. The latter series surely will be better than this. Won’t it? For now, though, cleanup on Aisle 5. NBC has left a very big mess.

GRADE: D-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A second helping of the story behind Thanksgiving in PBS' The Pilgrims


Roger Rees gives his final performance in The Pilgrims. PBS photo

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As turkey comparisons go, this one’s drier with less savory stuffing but gets the job done if you’re hungry for a second TV depiction of how Thanksgiving came to be.

Previously reviewed in these spaces, National Geographic Channel’s two-part, four-hour Saints & Strangers tells this tale vividly and touchingly, with Vincent “Pete Campbell” Kartheiser its centerpiece in his first post-Mad Men outing.

PBS’ two-hour The Pilgrims (Tuesday, Nov. 24th at 7 p.m. locally on KERA13 and repeated on Thanksgiving Day) airs under the American Experience umbrella and is notable for the late Roger Rees’ last performance. Both Rees and Kartheiser play stout of heart religious separatist William Bradford, who became the governor and driving force of the Plymouth settlement. Similarities end there in terms of where they find themselves.

Rees’ version of Bradford is near death. Shot mostly in extreme closeup, he muses and reflects upon his New World experiences and steadfast faith in God’s will. In Saints & Strangers, Kartheiser’s Bradford is no less God-fearing but brand new to the experience of being a stranger in a strange land after that arduous journey aboard the Mayflower in the fall 1620.

Narrated by actor Oliver Platt, the PBS version is from Ric Burns, Ken’s under-recognized younger brother. Aside from Rees’ intermittent acting -- and a pre-teen seen as the younger Bradford -- The Pilgrims is strictly a docu-film with the usual heavy doses of talking head authors and historians. It offers a much lengthier back story for Bradford, who in his homeland of England suffered the loss of both his parents by the time he was seven years old.

Once in the New World, the stories of the Pilgrims and the original native American settlers pretty much dovetail factually in both productions. But if you’re going to sit still for one of them, Saints & Strangers is a considerably more satisfying and immediate experience. It humanizes both sides of the Plymouth equation while The Pilgrims is almost unrelentingly somber and comparatively at a distance.

“It must have been overwhelming,” historian Sarah Hardman Moore says of the constant hardships endured. Well, yes, you could say that. But Saints & Strangers shows it.

A majority of the various experts are women, which is a nice change of pace. Kathleen Donegan, billed as a “literary critic,” is given major chunks of audio time. Wampanoag tribe historian Linda Coombs says the first Thanksgiving feast shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoags was barely a footnote in written accounts of those times. “The rest of it is fluff that’s been added over the centuries,” she sniffs.

Rees, who died in July of cancer at age 71, brings heart and presence to the role of a physically failing Bradford. And an interesting postscript details the long search for his historically vital manuscript, which had gone missing for 80 years.

The Pilgrims ends up doing its duty, providing a solid meal in the process. Saints & Strangers gets the drumstick, though. It’s simple a more watchable and palatable feast.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Crackle takes a tangled look at high-priced auctioneering in The Art of More


Connivers played by Dennis Quaid, Christian Cooke, Kate Bosworth forge various unholy alliances in The Art of More. Crackle photo

Premiering: Currently streaming all 10 Season One episodes on Crackle
Starring: Christian Cooke, Kate Bosworth, Dennis Quaid, Cary Elwes, Savannah Basley, Patrick Sabongui
Produced by: Dennis Quaid, Gary Fleder, Chuck Rose, Laurence Mark, Tamara Chestna

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For those who remain unaware of it, Crackle is neither a Rice Krispies wanna be nor the new sidekick of the longstanding Hershey brand candy bar.

Matter of fact, free, advertiser-supported Crackle has been around since 2007, when Sony Pictures Entertainment launched it as a re-brand of Grouper. Still, it’s been pretty slow-going on the consumer awareness front. Crackle became available on Roku and other streaming devices in 2011 and made its first sizable imprint in the summer of 2012 with Jerry Seinfeld’s critically praised Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

But in the years since, pay-per-month Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have continued to set the pace in the growingly competitive world of Internet streaming media. Crackle has responded feebly with originals such as Sports Jeopardy! and (urp) Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser. Its latest effort is far more ambitious and also the first time Crackle has mounted an original drama series. The Art of More, which on Thursday began streaming all 10 Season One episodes, is high on production values but low on basic believability with its discombobulated tale of two very amoral New York art auction houses. Put your Monet where your mouth is, and let’s hope it’s not stolen or forged.

Dennis Quaid, the series’ principal executive producer, also co-stars as swaggering, hard-partying real estate mogul Sam Brukner, whose up-for-bidding art collection is the envy of rival auctioneers Parke-Mason and DeGraaf. Brukner also has political ambitions and dismisses anyone who questions his lifestyle. After all, the people want a can-do authentic guy as New York governor, not a phony politician. Sound familiar? But the boozing Brukner has much better hair than teetotaling Donald Trump. In Episode 10, however, he does bellow “You’re fired.”

Vying for Brukner’s business are two young gun auction house connivers without any compunctions about how they make it happen. Even so, icy Roxanna Whitman (Kate Bosworth) of DeGraaf is a walk in the park compared to Parke-Mason’s cocksure Graham Connor (Christian Cooke), whose real name is Tommy. During the Iraq war, he got involved in art theft and smuggling. Back in the States, Parke-Mason welcomes him with open arms after he lands filthy rich Arthur Davenport (Cary Elwes) and his imposing art collection.

Unfortunately for Connor, his old Iraqi partner in crime, Hassan Al Afshar (Patrick Sabongui), has made his way to NYC and wants to do one last illicit deal in order to raise enough money to free his family from the home country. This leads to the killing of a security guard and Connor’s complicity. His problems quickly escalate, with FBI investigators and Russian mobsters also making Connor’s life a living hell. But it’s hard to empathize with a guy who otherwise would be screwing people anyway. Connor’s halfway noble pursuit of Elizabeth Mason (Savannah Basley), daughter of Parke-Mason’s co-founder, perhaps generates a smidgen of rooting interest in a central character who lamely wails at one point, “I’m not a master criminal, OK? I’m just a guy who’s lookin’ over his shoulder all the time.”

Meanwhile, Roxanna’s gambits include conning a dying old man into auctioning off his supposedly priceless and long-mothballed art collection. But big problems kick in when the centerpiece of this cache, a Vincent Van Gogh painting, is nowhere to be found.

Amid all the gangsterland goings-on and art house double-dealings, Art of More is on firmer ground with an interesting story device that opens most episodes. Via brief flashbacks, some of the high-line items and collections up for auction are shown in their original states. In Episode 2, a substitute keyboardist for The Who stumbles upon Pete Townsend’s written lyrics for “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during the band’s 1969 concert in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Episode 5 begins in Antarctica, circa 1912, when an expedition party led by Robert Falcon Scott eventually was claimed by the elements. His journal and attendant belongings now command heavy prices.

Quaid involves himself fairly heavily in the overall proceedings, playing against type as the “impossibly egotistical” Brukner. He clearly savors this role, sometimes sounds like Jack Nicholson and is fun to watch in small doses. Elwes, on the other hand, is for the most part ridiculous as the snooty Davenport. But he’ll always have The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men In Tights.

Season One of Art of More ends very open-ended, with Connor sinking into even deeper depths of misery and criminality while Brukner makes a drunken spectacle of himself during what’s meant to be a triumphant party he’s thrown on his behalf. Roxanna, whose boss is her demanding and belittling father, affixes another icy stare in her closing scene.

Crackle is unlikely to set the binge-watching meter whirring with this one. Plus, it takes longer, with all those commercial breaks to navigate. Still, The Art of More seems like progress in an increasingly rough, tough streaming world. It’s at the point where we’ve come to expect appreciably more from this world than from the Big Four broadcast networks. So these can be tough nuts to crack for Crackle. Or in this particular case, tough Gogh-ing.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Saints & Strangers gives National Geographic Channel a hearty Thanksgiving Day primer


William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser) and Squanto (Kalani Queypo) enjoy a Thanksgiving laugh at Plymouth Colony. National Geo photo

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He’s bearded, bedraggled, has a firm moral compass and is almost three-and-a-half centuries removed from Mad Men’s times.

That’s how Vincent Kartheiser has chosen to divest himself of smarmy, conniving ad man Pete Campbell after making the character famous on AMC’s first signature drama series. It’s akin to making a U-turn detour from Twin Peaks to Mayberry R.F.D.

Kartheiser plays future Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford in National Geographic Channel’s Saints & Strangers. The two-part, four-hour production premieres on Sunday, Nov. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) and concludes on the following night. It’s a detailed and balanced look at how the first “Thanksgiving” came to be, with the portrayals of resident Native Americans a revelation in terms of their customs, machinations and tribal differences. All of their dialogue, save for the English-speaking Squanto (Kalani Queypo), is in the native tongue of the original inhabitants. This calls for ample subtitle reading but also gives the drama a bracing authenticity.

Epitomized by Bradford, the “Saints” in this presentation are God-fearing religious separatists who fled England in 1620 in search of lives free from persecution. The “Strangers” are accompanying mercenary employees of the Merchant Adventure Company.

“They came for fortune. We came for God,” Bradford says in the opening narrative.

Life aboard their Mayflower vessel is grim and storm-wracked, with one crisis after another tormenting the men and their women while the music swells, dies down and swells anew. A baby’s born, a crew member dies. Bradford and his wife, Dorothy (Anna Camp), puke over the bow and are pronounced wussies by an ornery “Stranger.” A beam breaks and water pours in while Bradford keeps the faith: “We do not question the will of God.”

But at last there’s land. And huzzahs. And further misery and woes, brought on mostly by disease while the Native Americans consider what to do about these invaders in their midsts. Massasoit (Raoul Trujillo), leader of the fair-minded Pokanoket tribe, vacillates between attack mode and conciliation. Squanto eventually is chosen as the go-between, having mastered the English language after too many voyages as a captured slave aboard various English ships.

Saints & Strangers can be a little overwrought at times. But its story also is inspiring, instructive and sometimes quite touching. The vexed but steady Bradford continually must make tough decisions in the face of opposition from the likes of his own military advisor, Miles Standish (Michael Jibson); constantly grousing Stranger John Billington (Brian F. O’Byrne); and the brawny but somewhat less combative Stephen Hopkins (Black Sails star Ray Stevenson).

Other principals are initial Pilgrim leader John Carver (Ron Livingston), ad hoc diplomat Edward Winslow (Barry Sloane) and Hopkins’ sometimes volatile wife, Elizabeth (Natascha McElhone). The Native American contingent also includes the elite warrior Hobbamock (Tatanka Means), his wife, Kaya (Bianca Mannie) and their son, Wematin (Nahum Hughes).

Saints & Sinners makes a strong visual impression, whether its picturesque vistas or the hard scrabble existence on Plymouth Colony. Death often strikes suddenly, and doesn’t spare some of the main characters. No one is ever entirely safe, rendering the peaceful interludes all the more powerful. The inaugural “Giving of Thanks” is genuinely moving, with Native Americans and the new settlers feasting and playing as one.

There are four hours to fill, though, so some liberties are taken. They principally concern Squanto, and whether he may have been duplicitous in his dealing with both the Pilgrims and his own tribe. It adds some rather soapy intrigue while also cementing the bond between the oft-lonely Bradford and his suddenly besieged new best friend.

All in all, National Geo should be justifiably proud of this production, which serves Kartheiser well while also telling the companion stories of the people who got to Plymouth first. A satisfying ending leads to an epilogue detailing the further lives and deaths of Bradford and several other mainstays. As governor, he managed to keep the peace for more than 50 years. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever -- except for perhaps the Thanksgiving Day these Pilgrims birthed.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Amazon's The Man in the High Castle struggles to meet high expectations with its post-World War II occupations


He’s seen fire, he’s seen reign. Rufus Sewell plays occupying Nazi commander John Smith in The Man in the High Castle. Amazon photo

Premiering: All 10 episodes begin streaming Friday, Nov. 20th on Amazon Prime
Starring: Luke Kleintank, Alexa Davalos, Rufus Sewell, Rupert Evans, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Joel de la Fuente, DJ Qualls
Produced by: Frank Spotnitz, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, David Semel, Stewart Mackinnon, Christian Baute, Isa Dick Hackett, Christopher Tricarico, Jace Richdale, Richard Heus

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It’s been 28 TV seasons since the United States last knuckled under to an occupying foreign power.

That came to pass in ABC’s Amerika, a 14-and-a-half-hour miniseries in which the Soviet Union made life very miserable for the likes of a previously incarcerated freedom fighter played by a monotonic and virtually expressionless Kris Kristofferson.

Amerika wasn’t the big hit ABC expected it to be, so any plans for a sequel were abandoned. Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, which begins streaming its entire 10-episode first season on Friday, Nov. 20th, in effect picks up the Amerika baton and strives to run with it. But although impressively filmic and suitably ambitious, it congeals too often during the six episodes made available for review. There’s a lot of murkiness, too, with an abundance of detours taken from the same-named 1963 Philip K. Dick novel on which it’s based.

High Castle misstepped twice before Amazon stepped in. In 2010, the BBC announced a four-part version that never materialized. The Syfy channel got involved three years later, but its planned miniseries also was aborted. Co-executive producer Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) has been aboard all along and Frank Spotnitz, a key collaborator on The X-Files, joined him during the Syfy false-start. Both have impressive track records, so perhaps High Castle can still sort itself out. Episode 6 provides some promise of that with its emphasis on intimate, meaningful character development after too many smallish plot twists amid an overall sluggish pace.

The year is 1962, with the U.S. divided into The Greater Nazi Reich, the Japanese Pacific States and a rather cockamamie “Neutral Zone” dividing these two occupied territories. A good part of the first six hours end up stuck in Neutral, where handsome young East Coaster Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) crosses paths with pretty young West Coaster Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos). Both are hiding something, with Joe arriving via a semi-truck that he’s driven from New York while Juliana debarks from a bus trip that began in San Francisco.

Don’t expect much of a backstory as to how Germany and Japan somehow “won” World War II before establishing an uneasy alliance in the U.S. It’s uneasy because an elderly, Parkinson’s Disease-afflicted Adolf Hitler (seen fleetingly in photos and TV coverage) appears to be nearing death. In this particular alternate universe, Hitler champions a peaceful co-existence between the two occupying powers while more ruthlessly inclined Nazis wait in the wings to succeed him and then stamp out the Japanese.

Meanwhile in the Greater Nazi Reich, uniformed commander John Smith (Rufus Sewell) is an authoritarian torture-meister/family man whose orders must be followed or else. In the Japanese Pacific States, the arguably even more sinister Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) will stop at nothing to get information out of recalcitrant captives. Episode 2 finds factory worker Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) at his mercy. Frank’s also the boyfriend of Juliana, whose sudden disappearance serves to put him in this mess.

Clashing with Inspector Kido is elderly Japanese trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who glares a lot but also displays some compassion. There’s also Frank’s fellow factor worker friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls), a stock supporting character whose services aren’t really needed but too often are deployed. Meanwhile, a sneering, toothpick-sucking bounty hunter known as “The Marshal” (Burn Gorman) manages to enliven matters in the Neutral Zone while also coming off as more than a little too cartoonish.

As for the mysterious title character, well, don’t expect to see him anytime soon, if ever. Is he the maker of contraband newsreels -- “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” -- that show the Allies in fact winning World War II? Perhaps he’s just the conduit to which all these films must be delivered in hopes of someday turning the tables on the Nazis and Japanese. Then again, might he be a myth who doesn’t really exist? Or maybe he’s The Walrus. Viewers will be no closer to the answer after Hour 6 than they are from the very start.

High Castle’s strongest character, Sewell’s John Smith, is an interesting blend of evil-doing and stern but sometimes civil mentoring of young minions, including his teenage son. But Joe and Juliana make for a rather tedious twosome during their extended time together in the Neutral Zone. His motives are less than pure. But even after they’re revealed, Joe isn’t much to hang one’s hat on in terms of a story-driving central character.

No one expects any big belly laughs from such an enterprise. Still, the cheerlessness begins to take a toll, with the combined angst of Juliana and Frank building throughout the first six episodes while the big picture storytelling suffers in comparison.

Amazon Prime takes a big swing here, and doesn’t entirely miss. More was anticipated, though, with High Castle so far tending to buckle under the weight of some very heavy ambitions and expectations.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net