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NBC crash-lands with animated How Murray Saved Christmas

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Sean Hayes and Jason Alexander voice an elf and a reluctant substitute Santa in How Murray Saved Christmas. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, Dec. 5th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Voiced by: Jason Alexander, Sean Hayes, Dennis Haysbert, Jerry Stiller, John Ratzenberger, Kevin Michael Richardson
Produced by: Mike Reiss

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
As hoped for holiday classics go, NBC’s How Murray Saved Christmas might as well be titled Inside Rudolph’s Sinus Cavity.

Kids of all ages are unlikely to warm to this animated hour of forgettable songs, ill-drawn characters and rhymes without reason. The story’s uniformly lousy, too. Other than that . . .

It’s all adapted from a same-named children’s book by Mike Reiss (The Simpsons), who serves as executive producer. Entirely without any women in featured speaking roles, it’s principally voiced by Jason Alexander, Sean Hayes, Dennis Haysbert, Jerry Stiller, John Ratzenberger and Kevin Michael Richardson.

Home base is a town called Stinky Cigars, which for some reason is populated by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, the Easter Bunny, Columbus, Uncle Sam, Cupid, the New Year’s Baby, April Fool and a gopher who talks like Woody Allen.

All of the above are basically window dressing during prolonged sing-alongs. The principal characters are grumpy diner owner Murray Weiner (Stiller), earnest Edison Elf (Hayes) and Santa Claus (Richardson). Alexander chips in as nutty Doc Holiday, Ratzenberger is officious Officer Bender and Haysbert narrates.

Santa Claus basically runs a sweat shop whose hundreds of elves are paid nothing and sing about their basically deplorable situation. They get briefly excited when Santa walks in with a tray full of hot cocoa. But he’s charging exorbitant prices that none of the elves can afford.

The old, bearded taskmaster sees stars, however, when he’s accidentally socked in the face by Edison’s latest invention, Jack in a Boxer. “Christmas must be canceled. That’s the end of the discussion,” Doc Holiday sings.

But Edison, who very much looks like a Rice Krispies character, decides that Murray somehow is just the guy to fill in for Santa. After a suitable amount of carping and kvetching, Murray signs on. What promises to be a long night of bumbling and stumbling is waylaid by a six-year-old kid who at first calls Murray’s Santa a “big phony fake.” But he’s then won over by the sight of a sleigh and reindeer atop his home. This also inspires Murray to whisk his way through the entire world.

No one expects Tolstoy here. But How Murray Saved Christmas is tough sledding from start to finish. It’s way short on charm, labors to be amusing and runs out of gas well before its hour is up. By that time, Murray speaks volumes by lamenting, “Oy, not another musical number.”

“Don’t worry, it’s the finale,” Edison assures him. Thanks for that at least.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce in a class of its own as Bravo's first original scripted series

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Lisa Edelstein (center) heads cast of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. Bravo photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Dec. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central)
Starring: Lisa Edelstein, Paul Adelstein, Janeane Garofalo, Beau Garrett, Necar Zadegan, Conner Dwelly, Dylan Schombing, Michael Weaver, Patrick Huesinger, Julianna Guill
Produced by: Marti Noxon, Vicki Iovine, Meryl Poster, Robert Duncan McNeill, Liz Kruger, Craig Shapiro

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Bravo’s first original scripted series arrives 12 years after NBC took control of the onetime fine arts network and later began fouling it with an onslaught of Real Housewives series.

Turns out it was well worth the wait. Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce is a gem of a one-hour dramedy starring Lisa Edelstein of House fame as a bestselling self-help author who’s lately living a lie.

Abby McCarthy (Edelstein) and her husband, Jake (Paul Adelstein), are separated while still living under the same roof for the purposes of maintaining her image and ostensibly making it easier on their two kids. Another book tour is nearing for the latest in Abby’s Girlfriends Guide series, this one on “Getting Your Groove Back.”

“Jake and I, we’re just connecting in a whole new way,” she fibs to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb on NBC’s Today. But in real life, Jake is tumbling back into bed after another late night arrival. “You smell like sex,” she tells him. True enough.

But Abby’s had her own fling -- still absent the sex -- with a married man who very much wants to close the deal. Her two divorced best friends, Lyla and Phoebe (Janeane Garofalo, Beau Garrett), are both intent on making Abby one of them. Lyla’s a sardonic shrew whose headlong pursuit of full child custody knows no bounds. Phoebe’s outwardly a semi-ditz, but a genius at playing the field to her full advantage.

Edelstein hits all the right notes as an insecure family breadwinner who’s both feeling guilty and feeling her age. But her disinclination to end it with Jake is weakened upon learning he’s been dating a knockout young CW network star named Becca Riley (Julianna Guill).

Girlfriends’ Guide is amusing, searing at times and about as “adult” as one can get on an advertiser-supported cable network.

In the second of two episodes sent for review, Abby tells her gay brother, Max (Patrick Huesinger), that she has no abiding interest in sleeping with a woman.

“For better or worse, I’m all about the dick,” she tells him.

“You and me both, sister,” he replies.

In the same episode, Lyla’s ex-, the dominatrix-craving Dan (Michael Weaver), counters her down-and-dirty child custody tactics by having Lyla’s car affixed with a gaudy “Bitch on Wheels” tat. “I finally got my sack back,” he proclaims. ”And it’s bigger than yours.”

On Real Housewives, this would come off as cheap and sordid. On Girlfriends’ Guide, it’s ribald without being dirty to the touch.

The performances, including a cameo in Episode 1 by Carrie Fisher as Abby’s longtime book editor, are uniformly solid with the exception of Edelstein. Her portrayal of Abby goes well beyond that, giving Girlfriends’ Guide a central character with both appeal and sex appeal.

Her awkwardness with a younger man is acted naturally, as are the blowups at home and the bemused reactions to Lyla’s tart asides. Edelstein has full control of her character after years of being half-submerged on House while star Hugh Laurie inhaled deeply. This is her show through and through. And Edelstein’s pitch-perfect performance elevates Girlfriends’ Guide to one of the best new series of the season.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Two of your waking hours would be well-spent with National Geo's Sleepless in America

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Catching up in the classroom after another night of too little sleep. National Geo photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Here’s an eye opener. “Americans sleep roughly two hours less per night than they did 50 years ago.”

Yes, those were the days -- without the Internet, smart phones, hundreds upon hundreds of TV channels or even Fantasy Football. Perhaps the country was just bored.

This is a serious topic, though. And National Geographic Channel’s new Sleepless in America certainly treats it as such. Premiering Sunday, Nov. 30th at 7 p.m. (central), it’s a well-produced, expert-drenched, statistics-slathered look at the myriad dangers of not getting enough rest.

Soothing lullabies need not apply. National Geo wants you to stay fully awake throughout this two-hour special. So the theme music tends to be “urgent” and constant in hopes of jolting viewers into an awareness of how big a problem is besetting us.

The above opening statistic is among many sprinkled amid the program’s talking heads, colorful imagery and chapters on how sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, diabetes, mental illness, temper tantrums, a faster growth of cancer cells and fatalities when drivers nod off at the wheel. Sleepless in America is bookended by the story of a man who lost his wife and two of the family’s four children when a dozing motorist veered across four lanes of traffic and hit them head-on in 2007.

The offending driver had just worked a double shift at a medical facility and was en route to having engagement photos taken with his fiancee. “It’s a story of loss on both sides,” says Ben S. Howard, who wasn’t in the car at the time. His surviving son and daughter both suffered serious injuries that required long recovery periods.

Sleepless in America is produced in partnership with the National Institutes of Health and the Public Good Projects. Its tone can be a bit preachy at times, but the problem itself is a clear and ever-present danger.

The populace increasingly is “so overwhelmed with all this stimulation,” says Dr. David Gozal. As a result, minds race while “social media” addictions tighten their grip. At least six to eight hours of daily sound sleep, still considered a minimum requirement by most experts in the field, now seems like an impossible dream for many.

One of the more interesting segments is on the rigors of public high schools, only 3.8 percent of which start the day at 9 a.m. or later. Fairfax County, VA is more the norm. Classroom study begins on average at 7:20 a.m., with many pupils still glassy-eyed from too little sleep the night before. The school board has been debating whether later starts would be appreciably benefit both their health and attentiveness.

Whatever the age group, “70 million Americans suffer from some form of insomnia,” according to another telling statistic. Therefore, “In 2011, U.S. physicians wrote 60 million prescriptions for sleep medications.” But many of these have unsettling side effects or lose their effectiveness over time.

Your friendly content provider fittingly took a little mid-afternoon nap after watching the review DVD sent by National Geo. As a result, these words seem to be coming easier. Gone are the days of binge-studying for final exams, spurred by No-Doz or other more potent stimulants. I’m now more than happy to comply with the 8-hour a day/night sleep regimen. Sleepless in America might compel you to make adjustments, too. ZZZZZZZZZZZ may be the caboose of the alphabet but it’s also the engine that keeps us running.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Shame on Bill Cosby

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In happier times: Bill Cosby with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. NBC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Once the father of his country, Bill Cosby now is being unmade in America.

In rapid-fire succession, Netflix canceled plans to stream his standup special, NBC stopped developing a sitcom for him and TV Land said it’s dropping all scheduled episodes of The Cosby Show, including a marathon that was set to air during Thanksgiving week.

The 77-year-old comedian’s career, which had been in resurgence, has imploded following renewed allegations from numerous women who said he had drugged and then raped or otherwise sexually molested them.

If even one of these charges is true -- and it’s virtually impossible to believe that all of Cosby’s accusers are lying -- then he deserves to be exiled to the bone heap to live out his miserable life. If all of the charges somehow are proven to be false -- again, extremely unlikely -- then Cosby is permanently stained anyway during the twilight years of an all-time great comedy career.

“Social” media have greatly accelerated the time it takes to fall from grace, although Cosby’s plunge is still happening at WARP speed. It’s comparable in some ways to Tiger Woods’ crash after one woman after another came forward to brand him as a serial adulterer. But Woods eventually admitted his transgressions, although having a series of extramarital affairs is nowhere near as grievous as rape. Cosby shows every indication that he’ll go to his grave without expressing anything resembling public remorse.

Both Woods and Cosby can be prickly, obstinate and outspoken in ways that come back to bite them. Woods has never exactly been beloved, though. Cosby has. His portrayal of husband/father Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show made him both phenomenally rich and phenomenally embraceable.

Only All in the Family can match The Cosby Show’s five consecutive seasons at the very top of the prime-time Nielsen ratings. But the late Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker was famously brusque, abrasive and bigoted, with occasional thaws to room temperature. Cliff Huxtable remained firm but always huggable during The Cosby Show’s phenomenally successful eight-season run (1984-85 to 1991-92). It also was the one-and-only TV series with an African-American cast to rank No. 1 in even one, let alone five seasons.

Other than his earlier groundbreaking role as the co-star of I Spy, Cosby has always packaged himself as a cuddly mischievous family man/pitchman. He sold Jell-O with a wink and also produced and voiced award-winning cartoon shows such as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and Little Bill. The allegations against him make all of this seem like a complete act on the part of a latter day dirty old man whose crimes as a younger man are unforgivable. There may never be ironclad evidence after all this passage of time. But that seems almost immaterial, because who really believes in his total innocence?

Many people are not what they seem to be -- whether in show business or other professions. But Cosby was in the pantheon of America’s lionized entertainers. He has accumulated 17 honorary degrees, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, is a member of the Television Hall of Fame and also was a Kennedy Center honoree back in 1998.

All of those accolades and all of that image burnishing mean nothing now. Shame on Bill Cosby for that.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Travel Channel's Booze Traveler tipsy toes through its international "spirit'ual journey"

Booze Traveler_Turkey_Host Jack Maxwell sharing a meal and a glass of Raki with the local fishermen

Host Jack Maxwell gets lit up in Turkey on Raki. Travel Channel photo

Premiering: Monday, Nov. 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on Travel Channel
Hosted by: Jack Maxwell
Produced by: Kelly McPherson, Sarah Wetherbee, Emre Sahin, Maria Bukhonina, Deborah Von Brod

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s not known if Blues Traveler at least got a case of Jameson in return for Travel Channel’s play on the band’s name in the new series Booze Traveler.

It is known, however, that host Jack Maxwell has one of the greatest jobs in the world. The former South Boston barkeep and occasional actor is being paid to be an Anthony Bourdain of alcohol consumption, traveling the globe on what his network calls “the ultimate spirit’ual journey.” He’ll drink to that -- early and often.

The Monday, Nov. 24th premiere episode finds the convivial and easily amused Maxwell in Turkey, where the Muslim faith and heavy drinking have long been adversaries. But Maxwell has no trouble finding the right crowds, whether it’s the “Defenders of Anarchy” getting blasted before a soccer game or bands of devoted Raki swillers.

“When they pound the pre-game beers, it’s not just for the buzz. It’s an act of defiance,” Maxwell says before joining the hearty partiers of working class Besiktas.

Maxwell and his Turkish guide recover the following morning with some healing Boza, which is mostly alcohol-free and resembles a thick, creamy egg nog. Later it’s on to the “trendy Bloodhound Bar” for a stiffer Boza-and-booze cocktail.

All manners of food and alcoholic drink meet with Maxwell’s enthusiastic approval. In that respect he’s more like Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, swooning over whatever greasy spoon concoction comes his way. Maxwell is more descriptive, though. Kaymak, a traditional Turkey dish made from water buffalo milk, is “like eating clouds.” And a glass of ice cold Raki “tastes like licorice on a speeding bobsled ‘cause it goes down smooth and fast.”

Booze Traveler also has an educational component, with a little history woven into all the glass and bottle tipping. And Maxwell learns the proper way to pick poppies from a batch of giggling young women.

Travel Channel will present 15 one-hour episodes of Booze Traveler in its inaugural season, with the host also drinking his way through future venues such as Armenia, Belize, Lithuania, Mongolia and Nepal.

Maxwell can be a little too camera-conscious at times and he works overtime to pound home the irony of a Muslim nation in which “everyone loves to drink.” Well, certainly not everyone. But Maxwell seems to have no trouble finding the Muslims who greatly enjoy a good drink or 10.

“It’s been an incredible trip,” he says at episode’s end. “But booze always takes its toll. Time to clean out the system.”

He does so with a bowl of tripe soup that’s touted as a sure cure for a hangover. The show itself goes down easier than that probably did. But if you’re going to match this guy drink for drink, then by all means do try this at home. We’d hate to see you behind a wheel in the states Maxwell sometimes finds himself in.

GRADE: C+