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CBS' Instinct is groundbreaking while also very much being same old/same old


Alan Cumming goes the procedural crime route in Instinct.

Premiering: Sunday, March 18th at 7 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Alan Cumming, Bojana Novakovic, Naveen Andrews, Daniel Ings, Sharon Leal, Whoopi Goldberg
Produced by: Michael Rauch, Marc Webb, Alex Kurtzman, Heather Kadin, James Patterson, Bill Robinson, Leopoldo Gout, Alan Cumming

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This is the one where Alan Cumming tests his leading man cred as an openly gay, recently married former CIA operative turned novelist turned college professor turned crime solver.

The premise may not sound shopworn. But CBS’ Instinct otherwise is extraordinarily ordinary at best as a midseason replacement for the failed Wisdom of the Crowd.

Cumming, a three-time Emmy nominee for his work in The Good Wife, brings his polished aplomb to the role of Dr. Dylan Reinhart, who dresses dandily and lightly spars with Manhattan detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic). They’re thrown together after Dylan’s bestselling book Freaks is used as a “tutorial” by a serial killer who leaves playing cards behind as clues to who he’ll murder next.

Dylan is reluctant to get all stressed out again after marrying a guy named Andy (Daniel Ings) and settling comfortably into life at a Pennsylvania college where he teaches psychopathic behavior. Very oddly, though, he’s in a sense “body shamed” by his book editor, Joan Ross (Whoopi Goldberg in a small recurring role). She deems his latest manuscript flat while calling him “fat.” Joan wants him to “lose a little weight” while at the same time getting his “mojo back” by becoming an amateur sleuth.

Number one, Dylan already looks as slim and trim as Stan Laurel (whom Cumming also somewhat resembles facially). Secondly, Whoopi’s the one who’s made considerable gains, weight wise, since her days as a renegade standup comic. Finally, imagine the “uproar” among some if it were Dylan telling Joan to drop some pounds.

Instead it’s a fretting Dylan asking hubby Andy, “Do you think I’ve put on weight?” No, he doesn’t. It’s all unnecessarily off-putting, in addition to being preposterous.

The lightweight of Instinct, dramatically speaking, is Novakovic as detective Lizzie. Cocksure Dylan needs a more formidable presence to put him in his place. But Lizzie is more pushover than taskmaster. The character needs an acid wash.

Also dropping in is former Lost co-star Naveen Andrews as Julian Cousins. From a secret Manhattan den, he’s still doing surveillance work for the CIA amid a bunch of machines with flashing lights. Dylan periodically calls on him for assistance while Julian pines for his old mate’s return to the fold. “You were the best operative I ever worked with . . . Integrity, loyalty and balls -- you had it all,” he informs Dylan, who doesn’t disagree.

Instinct also enlists Lt. Jasmine Gooden (Sharon Leal) to occasionally bark out orders, deliver pep talks and sometimes commiserate with Lizzie, who of course has a tragic back story. Her fiancé, a fellow detective, was killed in the line of duty just a year ago. And the dog they shared, named Gary, now needs to be put down due to illness, Lizzie sobs. (So much for Gary, who’s seen briefly in Sunday’s premiere hour and then never shown or mentioned again in the additional two episodes made available for review.)

The serial killer whodunit in Episode 1 gives way to the grisly murder of a bloodsucking venture capitalist in Instinct’s next episode. After that comes the fatal gassing of a dozen subway travelers, plus seemingly unrelated killings on a Central Park carousel and in a luxury hotel. This also is the episode in which Dylan’s estranged father makes an extended appearance at the expense of Naveen Andrews’ character, who’s not seen at all.

The killers in the latter two episodes are easily deduced in early scenes and then completed unmasked well before these hours end. That’s a double whammy -- telegraphed identities of murderers followed by too much time spent catching them -- BEFORE THEY CAN STRIKE AGAIN.

Episode 2 also is the one that ends with Dylan prototypically telling Lizzie, “You always follow the rules” before she rejoins, “And you always break them.” Ergo, “we should be partners,” says Lizzie. “Absolutely,” Dylan agrees. Consider it officially done.

The series’ other partnership, between Dylan and Andy, is fleetingly depicted in these three episodes. They’re not yet seen sharing a bed, but are allowed to briefly kiss one another. This is, however, the first time a Big Four broadcast network has presented a crime series whose lead character is gay. So that’s something for the history books. (Cumming also is openly gay.)

Instinct is otherwise unremarkable, sending its characters down familiar rabbit holes without nearly enough style, wit or ingenuity. CBS long has been prime-time’s king of procedural crime series, with Tuesdays and Fridays still profitably devoted entirely to this genre.

Cumming’s talents are ill-used in this one, though. In fact, he would have been better suited to the role of a showy magician turned New York cop shop sleuth. But ABC already has such a series with Deception. It also airs on Sunday nights following two-hour editions of American Idol, which Cumming and company will have to compete against. it could be enough to make Instinct quickly go poof.


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The network of musicals strikes again with Rise


Do you hear what they hear? Rosie Perez & Josh Radnor play teachers trying to birth controversial high school musical in Rise. NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 13th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC before moving to regular 8 p.m. Tuesday slot
Starring: Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez, Damon J. Gillespie, Auli’l Cravalho, Ted Sutherland, Rarmian Newton, Amy Forsyth, Shirley Rumierk, Joe Tippett, Ellie Desautels, Casey Johnson, Marley Shelton, Shannon Purser, Erin Kommor, Stephanie J. Block, Stephen Plunkett, Mark Tallman, Jennifer Ferrin, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Diallo Riddle, Shannon Thornton
Produced by: Jason Katims, Jeffrey Sellers, Flody Suarez, Michelle Lee

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Avowed musical theater lover Bob Greenblatt has the power to indulge himself as chairman of NBC Entertainment.

He’s regularly done so with live holiday season productions (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Wiz, Hairspray) and the Broadway-set series Smash, which ran for two seasons and wound up on the wrong side of reviews after initial critical praise.

Now here comes Rise, a 10-episode series in which a frustrated high school English teacher attempts to walk on the wild side by directing an adaptation of Spring Awakening, a Tony Award-winning musical exploration of teen angst and sexuality inspired by an 1891 German play.

NBC made the entire first season available for review. Mission accomplished, with both pleasure and frustration.

On the plus side, Rise has the power to uplift, inspire and open tear ducts. But it’s also marred by too much utterly predictable conflict escalation/resolution and an over-abundance of sappy-soft mood music that seems to be at war with the vibrant, full-blooded numbers from Spring Awakening.

Principal executive producer Jason Katims was also the driving force behind NBC’s exemplary Friday Night Lights. The series turned Texas stereotypes upside down by injecting sensibilities -- rather than yahoos -- into its collection of small-town high school students. Rise also has a football storyline, with sensitive star quarterback Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie) struggling to time-share after being talked into playing the co-lead in Spring Awakening.

Katims, who helmed NBC’s Parenthood between FNL and Rise, seems to have found a growing comfort level with unabashed sentimentality. He can still be very good at this, sustaining rooting interests throughout Rise while also investing it with just about every hot button social issue imaginable -- except in this instance, gun control.

The marquee protagonist is veteran teacher Lou Mazzauchelli (Josh Radnor from How I Met Your Mother), who’s modeled after the real-life Lou Volpe from the 2013 book Drama High. The setting has been shifted from Levittown to Stanton, PA (shortened from New Stanton), where Lou is fed up with his listless students’ inattention. Tom Joad? Snore.

Badly in need of a booster shot, Lou impulsively volunteers to head the school’s underfunded theater department, even though dedicated Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez) already is in the midst of putting on another production of Grease. That’s the problem, in Lou’s view. Theater should be daring and kids need to be challenged. So let’s rock this straitlaced burg to the core with an explicit production that includes same-sex kissing, parental abuse, spanking with a switch and raw language (which is more implied than heard because NBC censors still forbid f-bombs).

A sprawling cast of teens eventually warms to the task, making Glee seem kind of under-populated.

Lilette Suarez (Auli’l Cravalho), whose “slutty” waitress mom, Vanessa (Shirley Rumierk), has been sleeping with football coach Doug Strickland (Joe Tippett), is a previously untapped talent who gets the co-lead role opposite Robbie. While they fall in love, prima donna Gwen Strickland (Amy Forsyth) festers about being passed over. As does her costume-designing mom, Denise (Jennifer Ferrin).

Another musical star player, sexually conflicted Simon Saunders (Ted Sutherland), likewise is vexed about getting a smaller, supporting part that includes a boy-on-boy kissing scene with the openly gay Jeremy (Sean Grandillo). Simon’s deeply religious parents, Robert and Patricia (Stephen Plunkett, Stephanie J. Block), have no intention of letting him proceed and want to kill the play altogether. But Dad turns out to have a secret of his own as part of Rise’s most ham-handed sub-plot. The Saunders also have a daughter with Down’s Syndrome who idolizes her brother. They have a handful of affecting scenes, with Simon always calming and reassuring her.

Other members of the Spring Awakening troupe include transgender Michael/Margaret Hallowell (Ellie Desautels); plus-sized Annabelle (Shannon Purser); promiscuous Sasha (Erin Kommor) and lighting director Maashous Evers (Rarmian Newton), a foster kid who ends up being Rise’s most appealing student character.

Back home, Lou and his wife, Gail (Marley Shelton), aren’t sure what to do anymore with their hard-drinking, insolent son, Gordy (Casey Johnson). Lou also faces increased opposition at school from the football coach and rock-ribbed principal Even Ward (solid work by Stanley Wayne Mathis). Meanwhile, Lilette’s mom continues to endure unwanted sexual touching by Anton (Nikolai Tsankov), coarse owner of Sparky’s Diner.

The strongest performance among the adults is from Perez, whose feisty Tracey otherwise leads a cloistered, sexless life. Trying to help -- when he’s not clashing with her -- Lou persuades goodly biology teacher Andy Kranepool (Diallo Riddle) to ask Tracey out. This doesn’t go well, before it does. But Rise then drops this whole storyline without explanation.

Meet two more parents. Robbie’s father, Detrell (Mark Tallman), is prototypically obsessed with having his son achieve football stardom after he couldn’t quite cut it. His saintly mom, Yvonne (Shannon Thornton), on whom Robbie dotes, is hospitalized with ACLS. He visits her often and they have some sweet scenes together while Detrell has taken up with a younger woman.

Rise no doubt will offend conservatives who view it as another force-feeding of Hollywood liberalism. But its main offense may be a complete lack of “never saw that coming” surprises. Instead you’re going to see just about everything coming, including a denouement that nonetheless is rousing because of the sheer power of the kids’ performances and commitment.

Rise doesn’t elevate to the heights of Friday Night Lights with either its storytelling or performances. But it’s heartfelt from start to finish while also offering an overall feel-good respite from television’s ongoing obsessions with “true crime” and all things Trump. Wishing it would have been better is by no means a deal breaker. There are enough high notes to ensure that.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Deception heists Castle while substituting a magician for a mystery novelist


Crime’s in trouble when a combo of illusionists/detectives teams up. ABC photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jack Cutmore-Scott, Ilfenesh Hadera, Amaury Nolasco, Lenora Crichlow, Vinnie Jones, Justin Chon, Laila Robins
Produced by: Chris Fedak, Greg Berlanti, Martin Gero, Sarah Schechter

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Gone but clearly not forgotten, Castle gave ABC a long-distance run of eight seasons and 173 episodes before departing in May, 2016.

The network essentially is saying “Gimme rewrite” with Deception, a like-minded, agreeably breezy crime solver that gets a prime launch pad following ABC’s two-hour Sunday night reboot of American Idol. Let’s investigate the similarities, although it’s going to be a longer run-up with Deception.

In Castle, Nathan Fillion played bantering, bestselling mystery novelist Richard Castle, who’s lately afflicted with writer’s block. In search inspiration, he’s given a chance to tag along with Manhattan-based detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) in hopes of fashioning a new gumshoe modeled after her. Kate strongly objects at first, but Castle proves to be helpful in catching the elusive crook of the week. ABC added an overriding, unsolved mystery, the murder of Kate’s mother. It unspooled over multiple seasons at a slow off-and-on pace while Castle and Kate clashed, traded quips and became lovers on a faster track.

In Deception, internationally renowned magician Cameron Black (Jack Cutmore-Scott) has prospered for years while keeping the existence of his twin brother, Jonathan (Cutmore-Scott), a closely guarded secret. This allows him to “magically” disappear from one locale (such as Las Vegas), and then instantly show up in another (such as New York). “Ta-da.” That’s his tongue-in-cheek tagline.

Things go awry, though, when a car wreck waylays Jonathan’s would-be, post-performance tryst with a mysterious and alluring woman. She winds up bloodied and dead on a Manhattan street while Jonathan staggers away. When Cameron is charged with her murder, he finally cops to the existence of his twin, who’s arrested, convicted and imprisoned. But Jonathan tells Cameron he was set up, and that the dead woman found by police isn’t the same one who’d been riding with him.

This is all prelude to “A Year Later,” with Cameron now a discredited and depressed illusionist living in Manhattan. But then he sees live TV news footage of a plane that exploded after first landing with a notorious drug cartel kingpin named Felix Ruiz in the custody of New York-based FBI agent Kay Daniels (Ilfenesh Hadera). She thinks her prisoner is now dead, but Cameron impulsively rushes to the scene and contends it’s all an illusion pulled off by the time-tested art of “misdirection.” In other words, Ruiz is still at large while the plane carrying him somehow has been transported elsewhere. Furthermore, Cameron is convinced that the illusionist pulling these strings is the same one who framed his twin brother.

Stern Kay thinks this is nonsense, has never heard of Cameron and doesn’t like magic anyway. But her partner, Mike Alvarez (Amaury Nolasco), is a fan, and Cameron’s deductions are starting to pan out. So let’s give a him a whirl -- but only this once.

All of this is carried out with considerable energy and at a pace fast enough to keep most viewers from thinking too hard about the liberties taken in leaping from one conclusion to the next. This is supposed to be a lark for the most part, and Cameron’s feisty backstage support team also can be a good deal of fun after they first entertain the idea of working for Criss Angel, whose name is dropped along with those of Doug Henning, Siegfried & Roy and David Copperfield. Penn & Teller are seen in the flesh, spouting the magician’s code of tricking people, but never lying to them.

Team Cameron is made up of prop-makers/illusion-enhancers Gunter Gustafson (Vinnie Jones) and Jordan Kwon (Justin Chon), who spar for proper credit while stage show producer Dina Clark (Lenora Crichlow) mostly wants to just get on with it. During the three episodes made available for review, it’s increasingly obvious that she’ll also be getting it on with FBI agent Alvarez while Cameron and Kay likewise show telltale signs of inevitably succumbing to a little sheets music.

Cameron’s overall objective, though, is to free his brother. The first two episodes provide glimpses of Deception’s mystery illusionist at large before the third makes no mention at all of her. As with Castle, this is gonna take some time, assuming that Deception is afforded that luxury. But really, what’s not to like about an Episode 3 that’s centered on an explosive art museum crisis and includes the line, “He’s gonna blow the Cezanne!”

Deception isn’t likely to win any awards, except perhaps from the Society of American Magicians. As escapist fare, though, it turns the trick, plays its cards well, pulls a rabbit from the hat, etc. Or as ABC might say, “Abracadabra, here’s to another Castle.”

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

No trophy for you: NBC's Champions is mostly just a participant


Two dense brothers and a know-it-all gay kid comprise Champions. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, March 8th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Anders Holm, Andy Favreau, J.J. Totah, Fortune Feimster, Yassir Lester, Ginger Gonzaga, Mouzam Makkar, Robert Costanzo, with recurring appearances by Mindy Kaling
Produced by: Mindy Kaling, Charlie Grandy, Howard Klein, Matt Warburton, Michael Spiller

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Broad, hit-and-mostly-miss sitcoms generally are affixed with laugh tracks to underscore their need to feel wanted.

NBC’s Champions doesn’t have one, which tends to make most of the jokes fall even flatter. Surprisingly, it’s a co-creation of Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy, who also worked together on The Office and The Mindy Project. So quite a bit better was expected from the three episodes made available for review.

Champions is built around two well-meaning brothers without an abundance of candle power. They’re now running the Brooklyn Champions Athletic Club with a staff of mostly inept trainers that no one would hire but them. The place has been passed down from their father.

Vince Cook (Anders Holm) once had a promising baseball career until he screwed it up. Brother Matthew (Andy Favreau) is hunkier, but might have trouble spelling cat unless he’s first had his Wheaties. In the premiere episode’s opening scene, an aggrieved husband shows up with a pistol in search of the Cook who slept with his wife. It turns out to be Vince, who’s saved from a bullet to the head when Matthew persuades the guy that his brother is more miserable alive than dead.

Meanwhile, the son that Vince never knew he had (wow, what a novel twist) is now 15, openly gay and suddenly denied enrollment in a prestigious school after the dean of students who recruited him got caught in a “Jared from Subway-type sting.” Michael (J.J. Totah) and his mom, Priya (the recurring Kaling), are told he’ll have to re-audition. This means Michael will need a place to stay. Which prompts mom to spring his existence on Vince, who shares a pad above the gym with Matthew. Don’t expect any of this to make any real-world sense.

Michael is an entitled sort of kid who’s chock full of ‘tude and stereotypically “gay” ways of doing and saying things. In Episode 2, he’s aghast at seeing the brothers’ in-home Pop-A-Shot arcade game. “What is that?” he asks. “It looks homophobic.”

Michael also is proud of getting a D on a math test. “Who cares?” he tells Vince in Episode 3. “I’m an artist, not a black woman at NASA in the ‘60s.” This one might sail over some heads -- and certainly over dad’s. Later in this episode, Michael retorts, “No, honey, the only thing I steal is scenes.”

Vince, who wants to sell the gym and blow town, presides over a staff that virtually guarantees bankruptcy. Cranky Uncle Bud (Robert Costanzo) spews Brooklyn-ese from his right wing perch. He’s just bought a houseboat that’s being dubbed The Crooked Hillary. But all lives matter to him, even those of the “gender confusos.”

The gym’s super-gruff, plus-sized lesbian trainer, named Ruby (Fortune Feimster), disdains just about everyone and everything. Shabaz (Yassir Lester) is more interested in being a playwright with addled ideas than in building any bodies. He also dispenses what has to be television’s very first joke dropping the names of Sterling K. Brown and Ryan Murphy. Perhaps one in 100 viewers will get it -- and still not laugh.

Some of the scenes play out OK, and Favreau has a marginally winning way with the doofus brother he plays. As the self-described scene-stealer, newcomer Totah also gets in a few good jabs.

None of this seems nearly good enough, though, to make Champions more than a likely short-termer on the TV sitcom conveyor belt.

One almost longs for a guest appearance by Sean Hayes, whose Will & Grace will serve as Champions’ Thursday night lead-in. He could drop a 10-pound dumbbell on his big toe before cavorting and contorting for a minute or so in a Jerry Lewis mode. Hayes once effectively played Lewis in a made-for-TV movie, so he might well be up to the task of injecting Champions with some sorely needed cheap belly laughs. Just trying to help.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The CW's Life Sentence merits a quick death knell


Stella (Lucy Hale) was ready to die of cancer until -- no. The CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Lucy Hale, Elliot Knight, Dylan Walsh, Gillian Vigman, Jayson Blair, Brooke Lyons, Carlos PenaVega, Claudia Rocafort, Nadej k Bailey, Riley Grant
Produced by: Erin Cardillo, Richard Keith, Bill Lawrence, Jeff Ingold, Oliver Goldstick, Lee Toland Krieger

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Next time The CW thinks of doing something like this, well, just plug in another superhero hour, would ya?

Life Sentence instead proves to be super-treacly with its overwrought, underwhelming tale of young Stella Abbott (Lucy Hale), who for the past eight years had steeled herself for death by cancer. But then her doctor suddenly proclaims “You’re cured!” Which leaves Stella tearfully happy and then tearfully sad after learning how much her family had secretly sacrificed on her behalf.

During her planned dying days, Stella also had journeyed to Paris in hopes of meeting Mr. Right. Which she did. He’s black Britisher Wes Charles (Elliot Knight), and they’ve been married for the past six months. But now she wonders if he might have just been humoring her by pretending to like all the things she does -- when he really doesn’t. Letting her use his arm as a pillow, for instance. Blimey, a guy could suffer permanent nerve damage now that Stella’s not going to die as planned.

On the surface, this premise might seem somewhat promising. But Stella’s newfound needs quickly wear thin during the course of three episodes made available for review. Soft-serve acoustic mood music drops in to the point of madness whenever the series’ center of attention isn’t supplying an abundance of fretful narration. Stella!!! Please stop!!!

Let’s meet the Oregon-based family. Mom Ida (Gillian Vigman) and Dad Peter (Dylan Walsh) had been hiding their growing disaffection for one another in order to keep Stella from being further traumatized. But now that she’s got a reprieve, Ida is quickly in the arms of her daughter’s godmother Poppy (Claudia Rocafort) -- “I’m coming out as a bi-“ -- while college professor Peter wonders what hit him. He’s also saddled with a big pile of debt that endangers the family home.

Stella’s brother Aiden (Jayson Blair) is a layabout who enjoys the company of older married women and is seldom seen without a beer in hand. Their sister, Lizzy (Brooke Lyons), is married to nice guy Diego (Carlos PenaVega), with whom she has three children. But Lizzy gave up a budding writing career to stay by Stella’s side while she presumably would die. Now she’s feeling kind of unfulfilled.

Newly guilt-ridden, Stella gets work as a barista before later also volunteering in a hospital cancer ward. She quickly befriends and champions a young girl named Sadie (Nadej k Bailey) while of course also coming upon a hunky doc named Will (Riley Smith).

All of this proves to be more aggravating than involving. Life Sentence has an off-putting preciousness to it while grinding through one “crisis” after another. It doesn’t earn any sympathies because its principal characters don’t merit much more than one big “Oh, shaddup!” With the exception, perhaps, of poor Wes, who soldiers on amiably while asking only that reprieved Stella spank him every once in a while.

It’s temping to conclude by saying that Life Sentence is an argument for capital punishment. Maybe that’s going a little too far. But solitary confinement indeed would be a better fate than having to watch this on a continuous loop.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net