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Fox's Houdini & Doyle is a far-fetched pairing in a fair to middling drama

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Doyle, Houdini and Scotland Yard’s first female constable. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, May 2nd at 8 p.m. (central)
Starring: Michael Weston, Stephen Mangan, Rebecca Liddiard
Produced by: David Shore, David Hoselton, David Titcher

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Arthur Conan Doyle has several Sherlock Holmes stories under his belt and Harry Houdini is deep into his dunk tank phase when they begin clashing and collaborating on crime solving.

Their venue is Fox’s fanciful and halfway decent Houdini & Doyle, which is taking the already renewed Lucifer’s place on the network’s Monday night schedule. So we go from a prodigal, rakish devil swinging his way through modern-day L.A. to two disparate historical figures without mobile devices who team up as gumshoes in 1901 London. Both dramas are quite a stretch, but who’s to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t happen? On the other hand, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island should NOT have happened.

Houdini (a somewhat oddly cast Michael Weston) is the irreverent wise guy of this duo while Holmes (Stephan Mangan) is the more proper married man and father whose wife unfortunately has been in a coma for months. They’re assisted by plucky Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), Scotland Yard’s first female constable. Therefore her abilities are constantly questioned.

Weston’s Houdini bears more than a passing resemblance to Jimmy Fallon. He also can be quick with a quip, sometimes winningly so. As when a physically impaired suspect flees in Episode 1, prompting Houdini to crack, “You’re gonna out-limp us?”

Houdini also is thoroughly skeptical about the supernatural and paranormal while Doyle is a fan. In the far better-rendered Episode 2, this prompts Houdini to debunk a superstar local faith healer by sniping, “Or maybe God is just a louse who gets a divine thrill out of watching people suffer.” (In real life, Houdini wound up on the receiving end of a pretty painful death at the age of 52.)

Monday’s opening episode is a less effective, cockamamie mystery involving two murders in a convent. The young nun who discovered the first body insists that she saw a ghost. It all gets pretty tedious and convuluted.

Episode 2 is brisker and more compelling, albeit not without some queasy scenes of Doyle preforming an autopsy and Houdini battling a severe case of the boils. At issue is whether the tent preacher in fact is a killer of unbelievers or legitimately empowered by God. The eventual answer may not surprise you, but the episode as a whole is superior to the premiere.

Houdini & Doyle likely won’t set anyone’s heart aflutter or the ratings on fire. But it looks like a passable spring/summer diversion and also just a bit of a history lesson on what these two guys were all about. Even though they never did become a crime fighting duo.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Smithsonian Channel's Sports Detectives hits some sweet spots in searches for famed memorabilia

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Hall of Famer Franco Harris & his most famous football moment. Smithsonian Channel photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 24th at 8 p.m. (central) on Smithsonian Channel
Hosted by: Kevin Barrows, Lauren Gardner
Produced by: Brian Biegel, John Marks, Robert Harris, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, David Royle, Charles Poe

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The disappearances of youthful Barky’s 1950s and ‘60s Topps baseball cards very likely will remain an unsolved mystery.

Did mom really join the many moms of her generation in throwing them all out, thereby increasing both scarcity and monetary value? Or did her oldest son bend, spindle and mutilate or dog-ear most of them in bicycle spokes or card-flipping matches?

Some puzzlements are more easily answered, as the winning new Smithsonian Channel series Sports Detectives shows in its earnest track-downs of iconic memorabilia. The six-part series begins by uncovering the whereabouts of the frayed and partially torn king-sized American flag draped over goalie Jim Craig after the U.S. hockey team’s totally unexpected march to the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.

Sports Detectives spends its entire opening hour on this search, which results in more than a little repetition and overstatement. Sports reporter Mary Pilon says for starters, “It’s like the Shroud of Turin for hockey.”

Co-host/detective Kevin Barrows, a private investigator and former FBI agent, later tells viewers that “there’s really no way to over-estimate how valuable this flag is.” Well, yeah, there is. What if I said it has to be worth at least a billion dollars? It’s not.

Even so, this is an engaging and thorough series, based on the two episodes I’ve seen. Even non-sports fans could find themselves sucked in by the sleuthing abilities of Barrows and co-host Lauren Gardner, who’s currently otherwise employed by cable’s CBS Sports Network. They ask precise questions while making seemingly every effort to find the most knowledgeable sources of information.

In Episode One, that’s goalie Craig himself, prompting Barrows to conclude, “Jim was, without a doubt, the missing link.”

Four of the subsequent five episodes are more successfully divided into two searches, thereby cutting down on the padding. Hour 2 revisits the Dec. 23, 1972 “Immaculate Reception” by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris while also trying to determine whether Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame rusher Jim Brown has any basis for claiming that his 1964 NFL Championship ring was stolen. Harris plays ball with Sports Detectives. Brown, who’s suing the current owner of the ring, deflects questions to his attorneys.

Barrows handles the “Immaculate Reception” while Gardner dives into the controversy over Brown’s ring. The answers aren’t completely definitive in the end, but both gumshoes exhaust all reasonable efforts to determine the truth. It’s all very compelling. And that includes the current location of the “Immaculate Reception” ball that fan Jim Baker claims to have scooped up after Pittsburgh kicked the extra point following a lengthy delay.

Here’s the menu for the rest of the series:

Sunday, May 8th -- The late Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s original pink race car and the saddle worn by eventual Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby.

Sunday, May 22nd (after skipping a week) -- Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run ball in Game One of the 1988 World Series and an actual game-used Lou Gehrig bat.

Sunday, May 29th -- Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game ball from March 2, 1962 and the authenticity of a War Admiral trophy on display in the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Sunday, June 5th -- Muhammad Ali’s missing 1960 Summer Olympics gold medal.

The city of Cleveland hasn’t had another pro sports champion since the Browns blasted the Baltimore Colts 27-0 back in 1964. In contrast, Pittsburgh lost the 1972 AFC Championship game to the Miami Dolphins a week after the last-second “Immaculate Reception” win over the Oakland Raiders. But by 1975, the Steelers had their first Super Bowl win and would have three more by 1980. As Harris says, “That was the start of something great.”

Sports Detectives is the start of something very good on a cable channel that could use some punching power. And if it proves itself in the ratings, there should be a lot more missing balls, bats, helmets and other memorabilia to keep this show on the scent.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Season 5 of Veep fires up just in time to make the real-life Campaign 2016 seem almost fuzzy wuzzy

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus trumps 2016 prez campaign in Veep. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Emmy’s reigning best comedy series and lead actress presumably remain well ahead of the curve in terms of craven behavior and opportunism on the part of those seeking the nation’s highest office.

Well, one can hope at least. Again absent even a tinkle of idealism or fair play, HBO’s Veep returns for Season 5 on Sunday, April 24th at 9:30 p.m. (central).

The humor remains mostly profane and more often than not coarsely sexual. Conduct of this caliber surely can’t be equaled -- even behind closed doors -- by the likes of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz. The 2016 presidential campaign continues to chart new vistas in down-and-dirty. But by all that is holy, who can match the pure, unadulterated, self-absorbed power-mongering of Selina Meyer, who’s again played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a k a TV’s First Lady of Comedy?

Season 4 ended with the still unresolved election day contest between Selina and Republican opponent Bill O’Brien (Brad Leland). Season 5 begins with an electoral college tie, although Nevada might still be up for grabs. This triggers a ruthless, Florida-like effort by both camps to swing the vote in their favor and avoid a resolution by the House of Representatives.

Selina, who became president after her despised boss resigned from office, desperately yearns to be the country’s first elected woman president. This also would mean continued high-level employment for her fractious staff of grovelers, incompetents and in some cases, halfway capable orchestrators of Selina’s problematic public image.

The four episodes made available for review keep Veep in its wheel house of low comedy executed at a high level. Sunday’s opener cashes in on a burgeoning upper-cheek pimple that’s throwing Selina off her game. Not that it takes much. The blemish soon has its own Twitter account -- and instantly more Followers than its bearer. But it’s rather magically gone by Episode 2, although the ever-vexed sitting president still can’t get over “this Olympic-sized swimming pool of shit that I’m doing the backstroke in.”

Hugh Laurie, also currently starring in AMC’s exemplary The Night Manager miniseries, resumes his recurring role as Selina’s running mate, Sen. Tom James. John Slattery (Mad Men) and the always welcome Martin Mull drop in as new characters, beginning with Season5’s second episode.

Several real-life figures are unseen but hardly unspared. It turns out that Selina hates country music in general and Tim McGraw in particular. And Charlie Rose takes it in the teeth during Episode 4, when Selina tells her oft-discarded daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), “Honey, if I wanted to talk to an unconscious person, I’d book myself on Charlie Rose.”

Although Tony Hale has now won two supporting actor Emmys as hapless personal aide Gary Walsh, I’ve come to prefer the dagger-like one-liners of ring-wise White House chief of staff Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn). As in, “Maybe the firewalls have more holes in them than a gold digger’s diaphragm.”

That’s one of the tamer lines in Veep, which perhaps could get along with fewer dick jokes, too. But this continues to be a series in which basically no one acts honorably. Season 5 will now take its rightful place alongside Campaign 2016, with the last of its 10 episodes airing in late June just three weeks before the likely turbulent Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

In terms of overall venality, though, Veep almost assuredly has set too “high” a bar for the Republicans or Democrats to clear. Led by Louis-Dreyfus at the height of her powers, this is a show that makes palate-cleansers of the bare-knuckled, real-life characters trying to gouge and kick their way into the Oval Office. But it’s OK. Go ahead and laugh.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The CW's Containment goes viral

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David Gyasi (center) is in forefront of epidemic-centric Containment. CW photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: David Gyasi, Kristen Gutoskie, Chris Wood, Claudia Black, Christina Moses, Trevor St. John, George Young, Hannah Mangan Lawrence, Demetrius Bridges
Produced by: Julie Plec, David Nutter

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Remember how much fun it wasn’t when the Ebola scare gripped the nation at large and Dallas in particular back in fall 2014?

Well, here we go again -- although how many viewers will want to go there? -- with The CW’s Containment, which zeroes in on Atlanta (as AMC’s The Walking Dead did for most of its first five seasons). Adapted from the Belgian series Cordon, the 13-episode “event series” replaces iZombie after its Season 2 run and is being paired with The Flash on Tuesday nights. CW sent the first six hours for review. And it’s quickly evident that facial orifices are fair game for a deadly strain of something or other that acts fast and has no known cure. Those who wish to partake are advised not to watch immediately after having dinner.

The series’ central character is police major Alex “Lex” Carnahan (David Gyasi), who’s been pulled into the limelight by steely Sabine Lommers (Claudia Black), point woman for the Centers for Disease Control’s efforts to somehow curb this rampant epidemic. In that endeavor, 4,000 unlucky Atlantans in close proximity to the initial outbreak at Atlanta Midtown Hospital are subjected to what’s initially meant to be a 48-hour “Cordon Sanitaire.”

On the outside looking in, Lex is tabbed to be the voice of authority and keeper of the Cordon gates. Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend, Jana (Christina Moses), who’s finally been weaning herself from the social disease of commitment-phobia, is among those being strictly quarantined. Lex’s best friend on the police force, Jake Riley (Chris Wood), is also penned in along with a handful of cops who are expected to somehow keep the peace. Jake’s smoldering resentments are somewhat tempered in time by divorced elementary schoolteacher Katie Frank (Kristen Gutoskie), whom he meets at the hospital after she’d taken her class on a field trip to entertain elderly patients. But since any transmission of bodily fluids can be deadly, Jake and Katie can only look longingly at one another and have a few laughs along with her mischievous son, Quentin (Zachary Unger).

Containment also spotlights two interracial couples, one of them long married and the other joined together by a presumably unplanned pregnancy. And yes, of course, there’s a renegade blogger whose search for “the truth” is both self-serving and somewhat idealistic. His name is Leo Greene (Trevor St. John), and he’s really starting to piss Lex off.

The outbreak initially is blamed on a fatally ill young man from Syria who’s branded a “bio-terrorist” after a woman doctor who treated him became fatally infected. But is that the real story? Or is there a sinister cover-up? Those are rhetorical questions.

As with many latter day serial dramas, Containment begins with your basic worse case scenario scene in which screaming and violence indicate that all hell has broken loose. Viewers will see that this is “Day 13” before the story rewinds to “Day 1” and slowly builds from there. Episodes 2 through 6 all begin rather pretentiously with sobering printed quotes. First up is Socrates: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways. I to die, and you to live. Which of these is better, God only knows.”

By the end of Episode 6 we’re up to “Day 9.” At this point, some of the characters have taken pretty firm hold, with Gyasi’s Lex and Gutoskie’s Katie breaking from the pack while Wood’s Jake understandably is being torn asunder by his dual roles as corpse-burner and hopelessly over-extended peacekeeper. Katie is his only respite from it all, but she’s also the one pulling him into a further investigation of a possible heinous conspiracy.

None of this qualifies as breezy spring/summertime entertainment. Still, if apocalyptic drama is your entertainment of choice, then Containment might well keep you contented. It also might make you wary of sneezing. Because that, my friends, is a dead give-away that there will be blood and it won’t be long.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

From the BBC to AMC: The Night Manager is a highly polished gem drawn from an old John le Carre page-turner

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Tom Hiddleston (center) heads the sterling cast of The Night Manager, adapted from 1993 John le Carre novel. AMC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hollander
Produced by: David Farr, Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Garrett, John le Carre, Susanne Burr
Directed by: Susanne Bier

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Publicity materials are invariably grounded in hyperbole. But sometimes it actually rings true.

Such is the case with a “Letter By John le Carre” that opens a grand, coffee table-sized hardcover book sent by AMC in honor of The Night Manager. Extolling this modernized adaptation of his 1993 espionage novel, he praises the principal actors and director Susanne Bier for bringing back “those glory days in the seventies when I was watching the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being magicked to life by Alec Guinness and the inspired cast that surrounded him.”

The Night Manager, which had its BBC premiere on Feb. 21st, comes to these shores on Tuesday, April 19th. It will run for six absorbing hour-long episodes on consecutive Tuesdays. There are no zombies, which le Carre has yet to include in any of his twisting, turning, betrayal-rich novels. The man who pretty much wrote the book on cloak and dagger instead is impeccably served by a tale whose sweeping venues include, Egypt, Switzerland and Spain besides the not so merry olde London, where the International Enforcement Agency is infested by double-dealers.

The cast’s most familiar face is former House star Hugh Laurie, who plays filthy rich, clandestine arms dealer Richard Roper. His cover story is the Ironlast Corp., which touts its Good Samaritan deeds on behalf of refugees while selling state-of-the-art weapons to Middle East terrorists.

Tom Hiddleston, best known to many as the villainous Loki in several Marvel superhero films, can also be seen on the big screen as Hank Williams in the current I Saw the LIght. In The Night Manager, he’s Iraqi war veteran Jonathan Pine, who lately has been in charge of the late shift at Cairo’s posh Nefertiti hotel during the revolution-infused “Arab Spring.”

The third wheel is intelligence operative Angela Burr (terrific opposite David Tennant in the Broadchurch series). She starts the plot wheels spinning by recruiting Pine to infiltrate Roper’s operation. He has some motivation after the murder of “Sophie” (Aure Atika), who had been the mistress of a terrorist in consort with Roper. She snuck incriminating documents to Pine before they became lovers. Four years after Sophie’s demise, he’s living a life of isolation in Switzerland while again working nights at a luxury hotel. Who should check in but Roper, his beautiful, guilt-ridden girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and slimy chief of staff Lance “Corky” Corkoran (Tom Hollander). Pine is physically revolted by their haughty presence. This makes him all the more ripe for recruitment by Burr, who’s also pregnant and fighting off interference by her duplicitous superiors.

All of this happens in Tuesday’s Episode One. And we’ll say no more story-wise, other than to say that all six episodes were made available for review. And by the end of them, you’ll have taken a wild ride amid picturesque vistas and a rich soundtrack that add additional flavor to the first-rate performances. The Night Manager has the production values of a James Bond movie, but without the quips, chases or lapses in basic believability. As villains go, though, Laurie’s Roper conveys a very palpable menace. “If you step out of line, I will make you howl for your mother,” he tells Pine in Episode Three. Believe it.

Roper also sells this line in Episode Five: “We are emperors of Rome, Andrew. Blood and steel. The only elements that ever meant anything.”

The Night Manager has occasional brief nudity that might be airbrushed form the AMC version. The violence, of course, will remain intact. Advertiser-supported American television networks are OK with that, particularly on the home of the head-exploding The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead.

If there’s a downside to The Night Manager, it’s the weekly doses. This is an eminently binge-worthy series that begs to be devoured in just a sitting or two. But unlike some le Carre treatments, it’s never too murky to be followed in full after seven-day intermissions.

The ending is fully satisfying, but just open-ended enough to fuel talk of a sequel in some circles. But Laurie, Hiddleston and writer/executive producer David Farr have all firmly ruled that out -- for now at least.

That’s probably just as well. The Night Manager stands tall as a stand-alone gem that elevates the cat-and-mouse game without ever entrapping itself. Bravo. Pip pip. All that stuff.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net