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Taking the full 13-episode trip with NBC's Aquarius (but was it worth it?)


David Duchovny (right) & Gethin Anthony square off as a hard-boiled detective and Charles Manson in the 13-episode Aquarius. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, May 28th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on NBC
Starring: David Duchovny, Gethin Anthony, Emma Dumont, Grey Damon, Claire Holt, Brian F. O’ Byrne, Michaela McManus, Gaius Charles, Chance Kelly, Chris Sheffield
Produced by: John McNamara, David Duchovny, Marty Adelstein, Melanie Greene, Becky Clements, Sera Gamble, Alexandra Cunningham, Jonas Pate

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What a long, strange, dark, tangled and ultimately run-around trippy trip NBC has in Aquarius.

All 13 episodes were made available for review and they’ll all be on NBC.com -- Netflix-style -- after the two-hour Thursday, May 28th premiere.

I’ve watched everything there is to see -- and it was by no means a complete waste of time. Just don’t be easily misled by NBC’s “Murder. Madness. Manson” tagline. Because while Charles Manson is very much a front and center focal point, his infamous, seven grisly murders are not. None are committed and therefore none are solved. Aquarius instead offers three peripheral cliffhangers at the end of Episode 13. All involve fictional characters woven into the fabric of crazy-quilted Los Angeles, circa 1967 for starters. Should Aquarius not get a Season 2, viewers will be left in full dangle.

A printed disclaimer at the start of each one-hour episode goes like this: “Inspired in part by historical events, this program contains fictitious characters, places and circumstances.”

That’s a Capital M Major understatement, particularly when it comes to Manson (Gethin Anthony). In this “re-imagined” drama, he’s a straight razor-wielding blackmailer who has the goods on two prominent evil-doing Republican backers of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. Manson continues to have sexual relations with one of them -- prominent closeted gay attorney Ken Karn (Brian F. O’Byrne) -- while being a participant in a heinous past crime committed by both of them. Fox News Channel can have another field day if it likes.

Manson still has his harem of wayward “girls” and delusions of being a music superstar. And his eyes burn, of course, when he declares in Episode 6, “You can be afraid. Or you can be the thing that makes people afraid.” But there’s no record of him being beaten nearly to death by L.A. homicide detective Samson “Sam” Hodiak (principal star David Duchovny).

Wearing straight arrow suits and sporting a brush cut, Duchovny essentially plays Joe Friday, but with multiple vices. He’s a dry-humored World War II veteran with an estranged wife, an AWOL son, a severe drinking problem and a willingness to look the other way when a cover-up is required. Hodiak also beds enough women to keep Duchovny within at least an arm’s reach of his Californication days. Not that he can match Manson, who swings both ways.

Hodiak’s police partner is scruffy Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), an off-and-on undercover cop who often rubs him the wrong way. But their relationship slowly thaws, to the point where Shafe says, “You’re not as dumb as your haircut” and Hodiak replies, “Gee, we’re bonding.”

Aquarius gets off to a strong start -- musically at least -- with evocative tunes in Episode 1 from The Byrds, The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Jefferson Airplane. But the rights-clearing music budget apparently was exhausted in short order. Most of Aquarius ends up being generic in tone, with occasional bursts of familiarity by the likes of Donovan, The Monkees and Petula Clark.

Hodiak and Shafe are presented with other murder cases during the meandering course of Aquarius while also having brushes with the Black Panther Party and Latino activists. Blacks are still “colored” in Hodiak’s vernacular. But he does manage to forge a working relationship with Panther leader Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles from Friday Night Lights in a transparently bad Afro wig when not wearing his beret).

Other oft-seen supporting characters include Emma “Cherry Pop” Karn (Emma Dumont), who becomes the willing apple of Manson’s eye, and cop shop denizens Charmain Tully (Claire Holt) and Ed Cutler (Chance Kelly). Meanwhile, Hodiak’s son, Walt (Chis Sheffield), is on the lam from the Army after balking at being a covert operative in Cambodia. He intends to expose the government’s war crimes, much to his father’s consternation.

The beauteous Charmain yearns to be a real on-the-job cop rather than an ornament on the receiving end of recurring chauvinistic abuse from Cutler (a character who’s also sleeping with Hodiak’s estranged wife). She gets her wish in a very vividly played and effective Episode 9. Near the end of this hour, Charmain nails Hodiak with a putdown that’s almost cheer-worthy. It’s enough to make him drink heavily that night, slurping on a giant-sized, spiked margarita that sends him on a Manson-instigated acid trip at the start of Episode 10. This is not as laughable as it might sound. In fact, Hodiak’s hallucinations are pretty spot-on, based on my own, um, research from many years ago.

Aquarius is decently scripted for the most part while also immersing itself convincingly in the counter-culture of those times. There are some clunkers, though. Karn, for one, spouts his devotion to Nixon in an award, catch-all, sandwich board proclamation. “Dick Nixon is the only hope this country has to rise up out of the political, moral, hippie-coddling, war-torn quagmire it’s in,” he declares to dissatisfied wife Grace (Michaela McManus), whose extracurricular activities including sleeping with her old boyfriend. Who of course is Hodiak.

Despite its letdown ending, oft-jumpy storytelling and extreme liberties with Manson in particular, Aquarius also leaves a mark as a chancy and difficult undertaking by a mainstream broadcast network. Duchovny is up to this task with a sturdy and watchable center-ring performance, whether he’s playing rough, bending rules, cracking wise, drinking to excess or showing shreds of compassion.

Anthony’s portrayal of Manson isn’t what it could be, in part because of what the storytellers have concocted for him. In some ways, the most effectively chilling character is Kelly’s old-line cop, Cutler, a chiseled, middle-aged bigot who like Hodiak has a completely fabricated physical altercation with Manson.

Whatever your enjoyment or disappointment, Aquarius is no summer throwaway. We now live in the age of hot weather, otherworldly “event” series, whether it’s Fox’s Wayward Pines, CBS’ trio of Under the Dome, Extant and the new Zoo (coming June 30th) or ABC’s Astronaut Wives Club (June 18th). Aquarius fits right into that new way of doing things, and it’s worth at least an exploratory trip to see if it sticks with you.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A Dave and a Don say their goodbyes

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Closing images of Don and Dave on their respective finales.

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Don said “Om” while Dave opted for the more conventional “Thank you and good night.”

The respective finales of AMC’s Mad Men and CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman came during vacation time for your friendly content provider. I was on a small cruise ship in a remote area of Alaska with no phone or Internet service when Don Draper had his last word on Sunday, May 17th. Back in Seattle just in time for Letterman’s final show, I watched it two hours later than most of the country. Lousy planning, I guess. But damn, those up-close looks at Orcas, Humpbacks, glaciers and the Dale Chihuly glass exhibit were well worth being AWOL.

Meanwhile, both shows went out on top -- but not really.

Letterman’s farewell even included a brief graphic in which longtime adversary Jay Leno had a “#1” next to his picture while Late Show made do with “#3.” But for his last appointed hour -- which was extended by about 15 minutes -- Letterman’s Late Show drew 13.76 million viewers, its largest audience since Feb. 25, 1994 following CBS’ Winter Olympics coverage. That overwhelmed all competing programming.

Mad Men put AMC on the map as a provider of quality TV series with its July 2007 premiere. Still, it became a virtual cult show compared to the bigger splashes made by two subsequent AMC dramas -- Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. The Mad Men finale pulled in 4.6 million viewers after factoring in three days of time-shifted viewing. That was its largest audience ever, but not so big a deal when compared to the 10.3 million viewers for Breaking Bad’s finale (based on only same-night viewing). And Walking Dead, which still has miles to go, wrapped up its most recent season with 15.8 million viewers and an overall average of 14.2 million viewers for the entire 5th season.

These won’t be lengthy postmortems. But upon further review, these are my impressions of both finales.

Letterman remained firm of voice throughout, unlike his idol, Johnny Carson, and his nemesis, Leno. He laughed at himself and at his 11-year-old son, Harry, seen in the audience with Letterman’s wife, Regina Lasko, down the homestretch of his lengthy closing remarks. Harry looked as though he’d rather be anywhere else. In fact he looked almost insolent until Dad made good on a promise to introduce his best friend, Tommy Roboto, who was seated to his left. Only then did Harry crack a somewhat winning smile.

One of the great unknowns of the Letterman finale was whether Harry would be shown on camera at all. The other up-in-the-air mystery was if Leno, who’d been invited, would be a part of Dave’s last stand after making numerous guest appearances on his old NBC Late Night show.

The best spot for Leno seemed to be during the star-studded “Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave” Top Ten List. But from 10 to 1, the guests in order of appearance were Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning, Tina Fey and Bill Murray. So no Leno, who forfeited the chance to say something like, “I beat your ass like a drum and now I get to play taps, too.”

The line of the night instead came not from Leno or Letterman, but from Louis-Dreyfus. “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale,” she deadpanned while Seinfeld fake-grimaced. Beautiful.

Letterman graciously made a point of saying how happy he is that Stephen Colbert will be the new Late Show host, starting on Sept. 8th. And he did so without an ounce of mockery or irony. Dave also thanked his writers, previous and current CBS executive bosses, and of course, bandleader Paul Shaffer after individually acknowledging each member of the “CBS Orchestra.”

Letterman joked that he’ll now devote himself to “Social Media” after resisting Facebook and Twitter throughout his entire 33-year late night tenure while younger rivals such as Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon made it an important and increasingly indispensable part of their audience recruitments.

It’s unknown what he’ll do next, despite riffs on being the “new face of Scientology” and opening a Vegas show with Paul and their white tigers. He’s always been something of a hermit crab, and it wouldn’t be totally surprising if he emulated Carson by essentially fading from public view.

In the beginning, Letterman liberally borrowed sight gags from inaugural Tonight Show host Steve Allen, who was a human teabag among other things and also brought in people off the streets to help host the show. In the end, Letterman became possibly the last bastion of “intelligent” talk show conversation, digging deep when he felt the need and sparring without the aid of blue note cards or other prompters. Latter day hosts such as Fallon, Kimmel and new Late Late Show dude James Corden increasingly are hail fellows who steer clear of “offending” a guest or “boring” the audience with substantive give-and-take. They’d rather be pals and party-facilitators, doing bits and playing games with the celebrities filling their couches.

Letterman signed off without any guests at all, but with a musical act, Foo Fighters, who had played his favorite song (“Everlong”) for him after he returned to the show in 2000 after heart bypass surgery. Wearing tuxes, they did the same honors for the May 20th finale, with a stupendous video and still shot montage as visual accompaniment. Simply put, it was a great way to go out. And in retrospect, after several more viewings, it’s getting better all the time.


Now on to Mad Men, which ended with a blissed-out Don Draper chanting “Om” at Big Sur, California’s Esalen Institute before a contented mini-Mona Lisa smile crossed his face. It apparently was the light bulb moment that led him to return to Manhattan and write Coca-Cola’s famed “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial, which played in part before the closing credits hit.

Had Don found enlightenment? Or had he just deduced a more fulfilling and uplifting way to peddle sugar water?

Just before this cathartic means to an end, he had grown increasingly emotional during a group session in which a middle-aged nebbish talked of no one noticing or appreciating him. Draper, born in poverty as Dick Whitman, shed any further inhibitions as he moved toward the man, hugged him and wept with him. Sorry, but it didn’t seem like the “Real Thing” to me.” Not quite soapy and sappy, but not a fully earned redemptive moment either. Creator Matt Weiner took Don far and wide during this late-breaking sojourn while his old transplanted colleagues back at McCann-Erickson wondered about his disappearance without unduly worrying about it. “He does that,” said longtime running mate Roger Sterling (John Slattery).

What Don did was run from what seemed to be an increasingly subservient role at the agency that had swallowed up his old place. He had the money to remain on the lam, be a Good Samaritan if he chose and pay for sex on his terms -- which meant voluntarily. He wound up at Esalen after Stephanie, the niece of the deceased Anna Draper, coaxed him into accompanying her and later ran off. If you haven’t been watching Mad Men, it’s virtually impossible to explain all these entanglements. And even if you have, it’s easy to forget.

Taking Don out of Manhattan unfortunately took the Manhattan out of the series. Absent the show’s central figure, its supporting cast at times seemed almost superfluous. And Mad Men itself, even if Weiner really knew exactly where he was going, did not rise to the occasion enough in its prolonged, two-part closing season. Letter-perfect gave way to an alphabet soup. Not always, but to the overall detriment of what nonetheless will remain one of television’s landmark dramas.

While Don pursued the meaning of life, most of the pivotal characters achieved a measure of satisfaction, save for the fatally cancer-stricken Betty (January Jones), whose place in Mad Men never really took hold again after she and Don divorced.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) sold estranged wife Trudy (Allison Brie) on a new start in Wichita, Kansas, where he’d finally get to be a perks-showered big wheel.

Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) formed a production company of her own after deciding that being the kept woman of a multi-millionaire wouldn’t make her happy.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) very belatedly discovered that ad agency colleague Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) loves her. And it turned out the feeling was mutual.

And Roger finally seemed content to hook up with the tart, strong-willed Maria Calvet (Julia Ormond), mother of another of Don’s exes, Megan Calvet (Jessica Pare).

The concluding season’s seven-episode arc began and ended with the old Peggy Lee torch song, “Is That All There Is?” It probably isn’t. Mad Men, more than most TV series, cries out for a followup film or two in due time. There are still so many ways this could go. For now, I’m only halfway content with the way it all ended. A big, ballsy New York state of mind movie could put Don back in his place. And put the series back where it began -- and where it really and truly belongs.

Letterman finale -- A
Mad Men finale -- B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

One is the loneliest number this fall -- while also signifying success for The CW


Rachel Bloom stars in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend this fall. CW photo

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Basking in unaccustomed critical praise for last fall’s The Flash and Jane the Virgin in addition to midseason’s iZombie, The CW has just one newcomer to offer in the early stages of the upcoming season.

It’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a comedy-drama starring Rachel Bloom as a transplanted New Yorker who moves West in a “desperate attempt to find love and happiness in that exotic hotbed of romance and adventure -- suburban West Covina CA.” CW publicity materials say she’s only “possibly crazy,” although the title is all in.

Cancellations are Hart of Dixie, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and The Messengers. Two holdovers, Beauty and the Beast and The 100, are due sometime in midseason.

Here is The CW’s night-by-night new fall lineup (the network programs only five nights a week).

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Jane the Virgin

The Flash


The Vampire Diaries
The Originals

America’s Next Top Model

The CW also has two new midseason series in mind. Here they are.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (drama) -- Venerable Victor Garber reprises his Dr. Martin Stein character from The Flash in a series about a deadly future that must be stopped by an assortment of recruited heroes and villains. Former Prison Break co-stars Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller also are involved.

Containment (drama) -- A “mysterious and deadly epidemic” breaks out in Atlanta, prompting a “vast urban quarantine” that leaves some denizens trapped within. Starring a cast that few will recognize and based on a Belgian series.

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CBS books flight with Supergirl in new fall lineup

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Newcomer Melissa Benoist has the title role in Supergirl. CBS photos

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CBS will dip into sister network CW’s bag of comic book heroes by taking a flyer with Supergirl this fall.

The No. 1 network in total viewers also is adding four other new series to its revised autumn lineup, including a comedy fronted by Jane Lynch playing another super-sassy character after her long tenure on Glee.

Canceled are The McCarthys, Battle Creek, Stalker, The Millers and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which will get a two-hour series finale on Sept. 27th with charter cast members William Peterson and Marg Helgenberger returning. Ted Danson, currently with the original CSI, will amble over to CSI: Cyber to join Patricia Arquette. The grandaddy of the CSI franchise premiered in fall 2000 and outlived the cancellations of two offshoots -- CSI: Miami and CSI: NY.

CBS again had a largely successful crop of first-year series, with Scorpion, NCIS: New Orleans, Madam Secretary, The Odd Couple and CSI: Cyber all getting second-season pickups. The premieres of some new series again will be delayed until November by Thursday Night Football. In that vein, the network also will have Super Bowl 50 in February.

Here are CBS’ five new fall series.

Supergirl (drama) -- After 12 years of keeping her powers under wraps, Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) throws a costumed coming out party in the interests of flying high and fighting crime. She otherwise works in National City for a “media mogul and fierce taskmaster” played by Calista Flockhart. New employee James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) has just been hired from the Daily Planet as an art director. Executive producer Greg Berlanti also is behind The CW’s Arrow and The Flash. So some super-duper crossover episodes are always a possibility.

Limitless (drama) -- It’s adapted from the Bradley Cooper feature film, with Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) newly equipped with the “brain-boosting power of the mysterious drug NZT.” Therefore he’s coerced by the FBI to help solve tough cases. CBS says that Cooper will be a recurring guest star as senator and presidential hopeful Edward Mora. He also has another financial stake as a co-producer of this series.

Code Black (drama) -- CBS takes another shot at mounting a successful medical drama with this ER-based heart-pounder. Marcia Gay Harden stars as Residency Director Dr. Leanne Rorish.

Angel From Hell (comedy) -- Jane Lynch claims to be a guardian angel sent to shepherd a young driven doctor played by Maggie Lawson. Lynch’s character is described as “colorful and brassy,” traits she perfected during that long haul with Glee. Kevin Pollock co-stars as a dermatologist named Marv.

Life in Pieces (comedy) -- Presenting a laugher without a laugh track (a rarity for CBS) about “one big happy family and their sometimes awkward, often hilarious and ultimately beautiful milestone moments.” The cast includes James Brolin, Dianne Wiest and Colin Hanks.

Here is CBS’ night-by-night fall prime-time lineup.

The Big Bang Theory
Life in Pieces
Supergirl (starting in November and replacing the two comedies)
NCIS: Los Angeles

NCIS: New Orleans

Criminal Minds
Code Black

Thursday Night Football (until November)
The following series then all start or switch nights in November:
The Big Bang Theory
Life in Pieces
Angel From Hell

The Amazing Race
Hawaii Five-0
Blue Bloods

Crimetime Saturday
Crimetime Saturday
48 Hours

60 Minutes
Madam Secretary
The Good Wife
CSI: Cyber

CBS also has announced two midseason series. Here they are.

Rush Hour (drama) -- This “reimagining” of the hit movies supplants Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan with mark-downs named Justin Hires and John Foo. Wendie Malick (Hot in Cleveland) chips in as their “exasperated” boss.

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (drama) -- Yet another spinoff of a successful CBS crime franchise, this one re-deploys Gary Sinese, who previously headed the CSI: NY knockoff. He plays unit chief Jack Garrett, a 20-year FBI vet orchestrating rescues of Americans in danger abroad.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC reaches back while also pushing renewal buttons for many of last season's newcomers


Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear re-team in The Muppets.

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ABC has a throwback-flavored fall season coming, with the returns of The Muppets and Don Johnson plus a new biblical series.

The network also will dust off Uncle Buck for midseason after its previous go-arounds as a successful feature film and a failed 1990 CBS sitcom.

Five newcomers are due in the fall, with two apiece set for Tuesdays and Sundays. Thursdays again will house the Shonda Rhimes-produced trio of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with the Murder. Mondays and Wednesdays also stay the same.

ABC’s cancellation corral isn’t nearly as crowded this time. Here’s the relatively brief roll call: Cristela, Forever, Selfie, Resurrection, Revenge, Manhattan Love Story and The Taste. First-year series getting sophomore seasons are Fresh Off the Boat, black-ish, Beyond the Tank, Marvel’s Agent Carter, How to Get Away with Murder, American Crime, Secrets and Lies and the surprise returnee, Galavant. If you’re counting, that’s eight renewals and just seven cancellations, even though some of the freshman series getting reprieves are hardly blockbusters -- or even peripheral hits.

Another series announced last fall, The Whispers, is getting a Monday, June 1st premiere.

Here are ABC’s five new fall series.

The Muppets (comedy) -- They’re back with what ABC calls a more adult, “contemporary, documentary-style show,” with the fuzzy wuzzys’ personal lives uncovered.

Dr. Ken (comedy) -- Former Community co-star Ken Jeong tops the cast as a brilliant doctor without much tact. He’s also married with two kids.

Oil (drama) -- Don Johnson, 31 years removed from the premiere of Miami Vice, has another go as a “ruthless tycoon” named Hap. He’s bent on bedeviling young ‘uns Bill and Cody Lefever (Chace Crawford, Rebecca Rittenhouse), who have come to North Dakota to strike it rich in “The Bakken,” site of the “biggest oil discovery in American history.”

Of Kings and Prophets (drama) -- King Saul (Ray Winstone) presides over an “epic biblical saga of faith, ambition and betrayal.”

Quantico (drama) -- Only the best and brightest recruits are invited to train at the FBI’s Quantico base. But could it be that one of them masterminded the biggest attack on New York City since 9/11?

Here is ABC’s night-by-night fall prime-time lineup.

Dancing with the Stars

The Muppets
Fresh Off the Boat
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Middle
The Goldbergs
Modern Family

Grey’s Anatomy
How to Get Away with Murder

Last Man Standing
Dr. Ken
Shark Tank

College football

America’s Funniest Home Videos
Once Upon a Time
Of Kings and Prophets

ABC also has five new series awaiting midseason berths. Here they are.

Uncle Buck (comedy) -- It’s an African-American cast this time, headed by Mike Epps in the title role.

The Real O’Neals (comedy) -- Surprising truths unfold within a “seemingly perfect Catholic family.” Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) heads the cast.

The Catch (drama) -- It’s Shonda Rhimes to the rescue again, with a thriller about a fraud investigator (Mireille Enos as Alice Martin) who’s about to be a fraud victim of her fiancé.

The Family (drama) -- A prominent politician’s young son was presumed dead for more than a decade. But he isn’t. Or is he? Joan Allen stars.

Wicked City (drama) -- A 1982 L.A. murder case is dissected. The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, although Erika Christensen (Traffic) might ring a bell with some.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net