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Signed, Sealed, Delivered gets stamp of approval from Hallmark Channel

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Guest star Valerie Harper and stars of Signed, Sealed, Delivered. Hallmark photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 20th at 7 p.m. (central) on Hallmark Channel
Starring: Eric Mabius, Kristin Booth, Crystal Lowe, Geoff Gustafson
Produced by Martha Williamson, Joel S. Rice, Scott Smith, Michael Prupas

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
This stuff just wouldn’t cut it anymore on a Big Four broadcast network, where Touched By An Angel gave CBS a squeezably soft hit series for nine seasons before its last of 212 episodes aired on April 27, 2003.

Its creator, Martha Williamson, has been in TV’s wilderness ever since. But the Hallmark Channel welcomed her with open arms last October, when Signed, Sealed, Delivered arrived as a movie. Easter Sunday marks its debut as a 10-episode weekly series on the same night and at the same time where Touch prospered.

Hallmark has resisted any and all efforts to be edgy. It means well -- with a vengeance one might say. But syrupy, life-affirming TV isn’t yet a crime, or even a misdemeanor. So we’re going to try being reasonably kind and gentle toward Signed, Sealed, Delivered, a throwback hour of harmless, gooey entertainment for those who still prefer storybook endings to slaughterhouses, anti-heroes or Salem, a polar-opposite series premiering the same night on WGN America.

The first episode of Signed, Sealed, subtitled “Time to Start Livin’,“ spotlights guest star Valerie Harper as a lively postal supervisor named Theresa Capodiamonte. Harper continues to out-live a very dire diagnosis for leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a cancer she’s had for the past 13 months. She was supposed to b dead by now, with doctors marveling at her continued survival.

Harper’s character will stick around for the first two episodes before fellow TV icon Dick Van Dyke replaces her as supervisor in the next two. Signed, Sealed also will feature Valerie Bertinelli, Marilu Henner and former Touched co-star Della Reese in guest roles before the series finale makes room for Carol Burnett.

The premise is at best rather preposterous. Working out of the U.S. mail’s dead letter bureau, a quartet of “postal detectives” strive to ensure that every envelope and package reach their intended recipients. There’s always much at stake, of course. In Sunday’s premiere, a 10-year-old boy’s undelivered letter to his grandma becomes a life or death proposition involving a nursing home and a drug ring.

Leading the amateur gumshoe contingent is Oliver O’Toole (Eric Mabius from Ugly Betty), a buttoned-down quoter of Shakespeare who resembles a young Tom Bergeron and so far is immune to the charms and veiled come-ons from perky Shane McInerney (Kristin Booth). Thoughtful nerd Norman Dorman (Geoff Gustafson) and bespectacled, excitable Rita Haywith (Crystal Lowe) round out the team.

“I have heard that you four have a way of thinking outside the mailbox,” Harper’s character says for starters. Oh my. Oliver calls her a “goddess in the postal acropolis.” Aw cripes.

Everything is pretty much telegraphed during the course of an episode that ends with Harper getting a chance to sing after she’s earlier spotted dancing. Her character also knew Oliver’s grandfather, a kind, caring giant of the dead letter-reviving profession. This allows her to gently poke at his softer side.

Signed, Sealed has found a perfect home on Hallmark Channel, which does a very able job of promoting its golly gee-rated lineup. The network isn’t required to make any apologies or amends. It is what it is -- an aspirational network that’s sticking to its guns while only rarely firing any. It’s not for me, but it may be for you. There, I’ve been a good boy.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

WGN America tries to burn hot with Salem (its first original scripted series)

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Witchy woman: Janet Montgomery stars in Salem. WGN photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 20th at 9 p.m. (central) on WGN America
Starring: Janet Montgomery, Shane West, Seth Gabel, Xander Berkeley, Ashley Madekwe, Tamzin Merchant, Elise Eberle, Iddo Goldberg, Michael Mulheren
Produced by: Brannon Braga, Adam Simon, Josh Barry, Jeff Kwatinetz, David Von Ancken

By ED BARK
Easter and witch-hunting generally don’t go together, although Salem is very hammy if that’s what you’re having for dinner.

WGN America’s first original scripted series, premiering Sunday, April 20th, heightens its drama to an often absurd degree during what publicity materials describe as a “bold new vision of Salem -- and an even bolder new vision of witches.” Bolder still would have been the occasional inclusion of a laugh track. As when an ill-fated over-the-top coot carps about “precious Salem caught up in a stinking witch panic.”

This latest look at America’s longtime broomstick capital begins in September, 1685. Two unfortunate Salem denizens are on public display in stocks while the town’s top punishment dispenser, George Sibley (Michael Mulheren), thunders about the “sin of self-pollution.” Poor Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg) has “gazed upon the nakedness” of a young woman and then kissed her. In return he gets “10 hard ones” before being branded on his forehead with an “F” for Fornicator. That’ll teach him.

The onlookers include beauteous Mary Shipley (Janet Montgomery) and lippy John Alden (Shane West). Unbeknownst to Salem’s religious nut faction and Alden himself, their illicit coupling impregnated her. But he’s now marching off to war with the Indians while Mary succumbs to a black magic abortion in the woods by the chanting Tituba (Ashley Madekwe). “All the world shall be yours in return,” Mary’s informed. OK, but make sure that includes a free night’s repast at Ye Olde Salem Smokehouse, where the beer is colder than a witch’s teet and the ribs are burned-at-the-stake tender.

Seven years pass. Despairing of Alden’s return, Mary has married the puritanical George Sibley, who’s now in a wheelchair and regularly spits up on himself. Surprised to see Alden back in town, the now manipulative Mary icily invites him to dinner at her place along with Salem dignitaries such as Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley) and obsessive witch-hunter Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel). While dining, Alden for some reason imagines two women poking under the table at his buckskin-clad pecker.

Salem is replete with scenes that make little sense. It’s mostly a jumble of decent enough special effects, less-than-decent acting, a script that also should be lashed with “10 hard ones” and lots of blood-curdling screaming, particularly on the part of the very badly tormented Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle). The other featured character is Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant), a flirty artist who likes the looks of Alden.

Salem perhaps has a chance to catch on as a thoroughly guilty pleasure from the land of So Bad It’s Good. It at least gives WGN America a foot in the door as yet another basic cable purveyor of its own scripted drama series.

FX, AMC and TNT have very much put themselves on the map this way. Salem is no Mad Men or Justified or even Rizzoli & Isles. But you’ve gotta do something when you’re basically known as the longtime network of the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t been to a World Series since 1945, haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and are off to another fine start this season with a 4-9 record to date.

In that context, a swing and a miss with Salem perhaps is only appropriate.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

BBC America's Orphan Black returns with star Tatiana Maslany in even finer forms

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The three main faces of Tatiana Maslany: Alison, Cosima and Sarah. BBC America photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Tatiana Maslany and her clone posse remain the overriding reasons to watch Orphan Black.

But let’s face it, the sci-fi storyline is way out of whack -- even for sci-fi. And Season 2 of BBC America’s most talked-about series (launching Saturday, April 19th at 8 p.m. central) is if anything even more convoluted in its comings, goings, killings, near killings and constant fumblings by the sinister Dyad Institute.

BBC America publicity materials promise a “richer and faster-paced” sophomore year that plunges Maslany’s principal three characters, Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix and Cosima Niehaus, into a “web of discovery that pales in comparison to the revelations that they are clones.”

It’s a tangled web, of course, with Maslany again navigating it brilliantly whether she’s on the lam (as Sarah), rehearsing for a community musical (as Alison) or doing an autopsy (as Cosima) on a fleetingly seen character whose fate and identity will be kept confidential in these spaces. “Remember, what happens in clone club, stays in clone club,” executive producers Graeme Manson and John Fawcett advise TV critics. OK, that’s perfectly reasonable.

Four of the new season’s 10 episodes were sent for review. Saturday’s opener gets off to a dynamic start after a traumatized Sarah wanders into a diner within hours of a frantic search for her missing daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), who was abducted at the close of Season 1. Two mysterious men stride in, and the resultant violence is a big blam of an attention-getter.

The episode ends, however, with a revelation that just doesn’t compute. Let’s just say the producers may have thought long and hard in the off-season about whether they really wanted to . . .

Season 2 of Orphan Black also delves far deeper into a wacko religious sect, the Proletheans, headed by new character Henrik “Hank” Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge). Hank spouts pieties such as, “Man’s work is God’s work. As long as you do it in his name.” Mysterious Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer), head of Dyad, at times seems like a puppy dog in comparison. “The age of bio-technology is upon us,” he pronounces at a big party.

No one can really be trusted, of course. Except perhaps for Cal Morrison (Michael Huisman), a hunky, bearded former lover of Sarah’s introduced in Episode 3 of the new season. Could he be Kira’s biological dad? And why has Sarah been the only clone able to conceive a child? The inquiring minds at Dyad still very much want to know. But Sarah miraculously manages to elude them time and again, with help from her very openly gay foster brother Felix “Fee” Dawkins (Jordan Gavaris), who’s first seen cavorting in ass-baring pants.

Episode 3 so far is the overall strongest of the new season. It’s the one where Fee tells Sarah, “You are a bloody wrecking ball. You are an exploding cigar.” No kidding.

All of this commenced when Maslany’s Sarah saw Maslany’s Beth Childs commit suicide by stepping into the path of a subway train during Season One’s early minutes. Sarah, a street-savvy con artist, began impersonating Beth as part of a gambit to eventually steal her life’s savings. Instead she became immersed in an illegal human cloning operation while meeting various lookalikes along the way. Now they’re all endangered, but Sarah remains Dyad’s Most Wanted while the rest are tracked by “monitors.”

Maslany shows no signs of running down during the very challenging assignment of playing a wealth of disparate characters. But Orphan Black’s twists, turns and veers are getting increasingly harder to keep down -- and impossible to swallow whole. The plausibility switch invariably is off and on in any sci-fi endeavor. But the longer they go on, the tougher it is to maintain even a modicum of believability.

None of this is Maslany’s fault. She’s still a wonder, never more so than in Episode 4’s closing scene. Orphan Black’s faults lie not with its star.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Address: a here and now Ken Burns film about Lincoln's most enduring words

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Greenwood School boys with “complex learning profiles” have a date with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Those who memorize it get immense satisfaction and a commemorative coin. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Gettysburg Address took just two minutes for Abraham Lincoln to deliver, so it figures that Ken Burns would turn it into a 90-minute film.

That’s the easy joke. But The Address is both an intimate and a “little” film compared to The Civil War (11.5 hours), The War (14 hours), Baseball (18.5 hours), Jazz (20 hours) and other Burns’ epics during his more than 30 years with PBS.

Premiering Tuesday, April 15th at 8 p.m. central (on KERA13 in Dallas), The Address is without sweeping scope but does resort to typically Burns-ian piano or violin interludes during its occasional contextual flashbacks to Nov. 19, 1863. That’s the day Lincoln began his “Four score and seven years ago” masterpiece. You might say it’s stood the test of time despite being reviled at the time by the Chicago Times as “the silly, flat, dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

The Address is largely a telescoped look at an annual rite of Putney, Vermont’s Greenwood School, which challenges its students to memorize Lincoln’s words and deliver them at a candle-lit school dinner at which everyone gets dressed up. Greenwood accepts only boys with “complex learning profiles,” limiting its enrollment to 50 with an age range from 11 to 17. Those who successfully navigate “The Gettysburg,” as teachers call it, receive an official Greenwood coin and the priceless satisfaction that comes from completing a daunting task.

The film caps Burns’ national “public outreach campaign” to remind Americans of the importance of the Gettysburg Address. He announced the initiative on the eve of the speech’s 150th anniversary last November. A companion website, learntheaddress.org, since has welcomed video readings from one and all. Among those answering the call: President Obama and the four living former presidents, Carol Burnett, Louis CK, Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Martha Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Usher, Taylor Swift, Jerry Seinfeld, Rita Moreno, Conan O’Brien, Steven Spielberg and Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings.

Colbert does a comedic riff while wearing a beard and stovepipe hat to giggles from his studio audience. O’Brien does it straight.

In The Address, we see the students in class and sometimes at play. All are identified by first names only, and it seems that everyone gets at least a few seconds of camera time. Teachers gently but firmly guide them through initially halting memorizations of The Gettysburg. Seven of the students also are chosen as narrators of the film.

Ian, 14, is particularly down on himself. He talks of being taunted at previous schools, and in one scene, his self-pitying behavior comes close to being very tiresome, if not contemptible. But he rallies and re-dedicates himself to learning Lincoln’s words. “It just tells people I’m not stupid,” he tells the camera. “I’m not dumb. I’m not worthless.”

The Address becomes an instructive and affecting film, although not a true Burns classic. Still, it’s nice to see him as a fly on the wall in a contemporary setting, with cameras capturing the here and now rather than recycling telling images from long times ago. The talking heads remain in place, but this time they’re actual participants in an ongoing journey rather than historians and academics telling us what Lincoln must have felt like on that day.

Those who take a look Tuesday night might want to stick around for the closing credits and a surprise bonus snippet of a Greenwood School student asking, “Do you want me to do it as William Shatner?” And so he does -- for a few select passages.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 1, Season 7

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Don and Peggy: Will they have each other’s backs again? AMC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Rather than give you voluminous chapter-and-verse Mad Men recaps each week, let’s try dispensing 10 bite-sized takeaways or talking points. It’ll be easier on both you and me.

Some are meant to get fans thinking further about what just happened. Others are strictly trivial or informational. Here we go with the Sunday, April 13th Season 7 premiere, subtitled “Time Zones.”

1. Maybe this is only wishful thinking, but the final moments seemed to set up an eventual re-teaming of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). Both were left thoroughly miserable and unfulfilled -- to the very evocative Vanilla Fudge version of “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Career-wise, Don still needs Peggy and Peggy still needs Don. So let bygones be bygones. There’s a lot of ad money still on the table, and these two are better suited than ever to make it happen for them while their old creatively constipated agency keeps corroding from within.

2. I was in the Marines when Vanilla Fudge released their psychedelic, harder-rockin’ cover of The Supremes’ hit in 1968. It became our weekend anthem at the San Diego USO club. And it’s never gone stale.

3. Don clandestinely funneling his pitches through old-line ad guy Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) -- with Peggy as his audience in Sunday’s opening scene -- reminded me a bit of Johnny Carson secretly sending monologue jokes to David Letterman after he retired from The Tonight Show. Dave never let on until Carson’s death in January 2005. He then did an entire monologue’s worth of Carson jokes, revealing their origin at the end of it.

4. Yes, that was former Party of Five and Scream movies star Neve Campbell as the comely widow sitting next to Don on their “red eye” flight back from Los Angeles. Interestingly, in the 2013 HBO docu-film Seduced and Abandoned, Alec Baldwin and writer/director James Toback used Campbell as one of their non-starter selling points for Last Tango in Takrit, basically a fake remake of Last Tango in Paris. They took it to Cannes in hopes of raising money but more in the interests of poking at the underbelly of today’s Hollywood film industry. As probably intended, Baldwin and Toback were told more than once that Campbell lacked the marquee stature to shake any big money trees. But hey, look at her now.

5. January Jones, who memorably played Don’s wife, Betty, in early seasons of Mad Men, was not seen during Sunday’s re-launch. Jones still gets second billing, only to Hamm, in the series’ credits. But can creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner find any more viable ways to work her back into this mix, other than a few scenes here and there with the Draper children? I’m not sure he should even try anymore. But oldest daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) should still very much be a keeper.

6. Don’s current wife, Meg (Jessica Pare), learned to her delight in Sunday’s episode that she’s still in the running for a role in the NBC pilot Bracken’s World. The fictional drama series about the movie business eventually premiered on Sept. 19, 1969 in a Friday 9 p.m. (central) slot opposite the second hour of CBS movies and -- get this -- Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters. A re-tooled Bracken’s World staggered into a second season but was gone by the end of 1970. Its last telecast was on Christmas night of that year. Leslie Nielsen played movie studio head John Bracken.

7. I remain convinced that adman Roger Sterling (John Slattery) will die of various conspicuous consumptions before the end of Mad Men’s run. He was very much at it again Sunday night.

8. Hamm’s work as one of TV’s all-time signature characters likely will never be rewarded with a best actor Emmy. The odds-on favorite for this year’s ceremony is already Matthew McConaughey for his work in HBO’s True Detective, with Bryan Cranston again likely in the hunt for the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Hamm deserves better but would be in good company. Others who never won an Emmy include Larry Hagman (as J.R. Ewing), Andy Griffith (Sheriff Andy Taylor), Angela Lansbury (Jessica Fletcher), Jackie Gleason (Ralph Kramden) and James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon).

9. Matinee idol adman Bob Benson (James Wolk) was referenced once but not shown in Sunday’s re-launch. He’s been playing a contemporary adman this season, opposite Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar, in the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones. But it’s a long shot to be renewed, so Wolk’s Benson might still have a shot before Mad Men ends its run with a second seven-episode arc next year.

10. Save for Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), I’ve gotten really bored with the rest of the younger supporting ad men on Mad Men. The less seen of them, the better.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net