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Jumping through some Revolutionary hoops in History's Sons of Liberty

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Sam Adams (center) leads the charge in Sons of Liberty. History photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 25th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing at the same hour on Monday and Tuesday
Starring: Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall, Henry Thomas, Michael Raymond-James, Ryan Eggold, Marton Csokas, Dean Norris, Jason O’Mara, Emily Berrington, Kevin Ryan
Produced by: Stephen David, Matthew Gross, Russ McCarroll, Elaine Frontain Bryant

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Sam Adams, future namesake of a solid beer, is the designated daring young action figure in History channel’s Sons of Liberty, a “dramatic interpretation” of events leading to the American Revolution.

The three-part, six-hour yarn, premiering on Sunday, Jan. 25th, takes considerable liberties with this run-up to the war for independence against the occupying British. Strapping Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) is a handsome, headstrong rebel and escape artist who kicks a pair of Redcoats down a flight of stairs early in Episode 1 before declaring in Episode 2, “This will not happen to anyone in Boston ever again. We need more guns.”

And he shall have them -- but without getting the girl. That particular pleasure goes to the gallant Dr. Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold), who beds the very unhappy young spouse of brutish British General Thomas Gage (Marton Csokas). He’ll stop at nothing to quash the impending colonial rebellion. But his underfoot wife Margaret (Emily Berrington) -- “I’m not a terribly cautious woman” -- will do her level best to aid the insurrection while getting a little colonial style sex on the side.

Gage makes for a good central villain. And there are other decent performances that help to offset some of the overall nonsense. Rafe Spall is interesting throughout as John Hancock, a very wealthy Bostonian and effete appeaser until his palatial house is confiscated. ”Whatever you need, I’m in,” he tells a still skeptical Sam, whose reproving older cousin, John Adams (Henry Thomas), never really registers as a vital character. It’s almost as if the makers of Sons of Liberty are saying, “Hey, he already had his own HBO miniseries.”

It’s doubtful that Hancock’s “I’m in” was in use back in ye olde 1770s. And even more unlikely that Ben Franklin (Dean Norris) would say in Episode 3 that starting a new country is “an absolutely bat shit crazy idea” that he nonetheless very much supports. Bat shit? Back then? Big Ben also gets to say later on, “Ya see, here’s the thing.” No one says, “Peace out,” though.

Norris (Breaking Bad, Under the Dome) is fine as Franklin in the handful of scenes he’s in. So is Jason O’Meara as a late-arriving George Washington. But Sons of Liberty is mostly in the hands of its young bucks, who also include Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) as a thick-of-the battle leader who does much more than ride through the night proclaiming “The British are coming.” In this drama, “Redcoats” is substituted.

In one of the more fanciful scenes, Sam saves Revere from being shot by a British soldier near the start of Episode 3. Hancock then quickly saves Sam from the same fate, allowing the two men to finally bond and accept one another. Meanwhile back in Boston, the nefarious Gen. Gage leans over his wife and hisses “I know it was you” in the manner of Michael Corleone upbraiding his brother, Fredo, in The Godfather II.

Episode 3 has some solidly staged battle scenes to accompany the continued deliberations of the 2nd Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. There’s obviously no suspense over whether they’ll all eventually sign the Declaration of Independence. But there’s also little oomph to their debate, with the eventual author of the document, Thomas Jefferson, getting far less screen time than the opening credits for Sons of Liberty.

The story spans nine years, beginning in the turbulent streets of Boston, circa 1765. If it does well in the ratings, there’s certainly room for a sequel. Episode 3 ends with Washington finally in command as the reinforced British army attacks New York.

Sons of Liberty falls well short of the aforementioned John Adams, which won a wealth of Emmy awards. But it has an overall stronger pulse than AMC’s oft-tepid Turn, which will return for a second season this spring with the expanded title of Turn: Washington’s Spies.

Be assured, though, that Sons of Liberty is no Vikings, whose bloodthirsty characters could devour Sam Adams and his boys for a late night snack. History channel’s most rousing success story returns on Feb. 19th with a 10-episode Season 3.

Sons of Liberty can’t match Vikings’ intensity, ferocity and full-immersion sense of place. Instead it’s a serviceable battle cry in some instances but rather laughable in others.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's Backstrom and star Rainn Wilson shine in rainy Portland

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Rainn Wilson effortlessly looks lousy in Backstrom. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Dennis Haysbert, Genevieve Angelson, Kristoffer Polaha, Page Kennedy, Thomas Dekker, Beatrice Rosen
Produced by: Hart Hanson, Kevin Hooks, Leif G.W. Persson, Niclas Salomonssen

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
In the annals of disheveled TV detectives . . . well, there actually haven’t been that many of them.

Dysfunctional? Yes. But Columbo in his famed rumpled raincoat is pretty much first and foremost among crime solvers who look as though they’ve just rolled out of bed with little thought of any further upkeep.

The title character in Fox’s Backstrom easily trumps Columbo in terms of looking like hell. They share a fondness for stale cigars, but Everett Backtrom’s orange-ish sack of a poncho and overall sub--slovenly appearance make Columbo seem like a Brooks Brothers fashion plate.

Rainn Wilson, who came to fame as the vain, persnickety Dwight Schrute on NBC’s version of The Office, plays the title role with a hammy staggering swagger that turns out to fit him very well. He’s all over this part, whether willingly brandishing a decidedly doughy physique or firing off dictums, insults and asides that keep this series from ever bogging down.

Three episodes were made available for review. They’re all solid, with the third in line, “Boogeyman,” offering a particularly riveting kidnapping case while also bringing Dennis Haysbert’s supporting character to the fore.

Haysbert, All-State’s veteran “Good Hands” man, plays wizened detective John Almond, whose wardrobe of suit, tie and top hat contrasts with Backstrom’s unsightly attire. Reference is made to Almond’s part-time pastor activities but we don’t see him in a clerical collar until this episode. His struggling Joy of Everlasting Light church is way behind on bills and facing an imminent shutdown. Says Backstrom: “That’s God telling you you’re a crappy pastor.”

Almond takes this in stride because he always has Backstrom’s back. Their relationship is among this series’ many strong points, particularly when Almond has a heart-to-heart talk with his partner in Episode 2.

The series is set in Portland, Oregon, where the oft-rainy weather is also something of a supporting character. Backstrom otherwise isn’t about to let any smiles be his umbrella. His health issues, sparked by heavy drinking and a horrid diet -- wait’ll you see a diner’s “Full Backstrom Breakfast” -- have put him in a doctor’s care and initially in the Portland cop shop’s traffic division. It doesn’t help that he’s never played well with others. But his crime solving deductions still have a way of putting him back in play.

Backstrom’s nicely put together ensemble also includes young detective Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), with whom he constantly clashes; patience-testing forensics specialist Peter Niedermayer); dogged uniformed detective Frank Moto (Page Kennedy) and in-house tech specialist Nadia Paquet (Beatrice Rosen). Backstrom also has a young gay tenant, Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker), who doubles as his “decorator” and underworld informant.

The dialogue regularly crackles in Thursday’s premiere, during which a seeming suicide by hanging of course ends up being more than it seems.

“Had a lot of threesomes, Moto?” Backstrom asks during the investigative process.

“Regular amount,” he replies.

“Regular amount is NONE,” Backstrom snaps.

Neidermayer generates this observation: “Everything you say sounds like a toast to the queen.”

“Thank you, sir,” he replies in all sincerity.

It’s also just plain fun to hear Backstrom grouse at lunch, “Wait, what is this? I ordered deep-fried chicken balls.”

As for his deductive powers, it goes like this: “I don’t see the worst in everyone. I see the ‘everyone’ in everyone.”

What you’ll see is the best broadcast TV cop drama of the season, with a dirty-to-the-touch sleuth played to the hilt by an actor who’s very much up for this. Rainn Wilson has found a role that fits him like an ugly, stretched-out poncho. And there’s no stifling him now.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Pity the poor future (again) in Syfy's 12 Monkeys

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Aaron Stanford & Amanda Schull battle dire doings in 12 Monkeys. Syfy photo

Premiering: Friday, Jan. 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, Barbara Sukowa, Noah Bean, Emily Hampshire, Zeljko Ivanek
Produced by: Natalie Chaidez, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The future is typecast -- as an apocalyptic horror show in need of undoing by time-traveling heroes.

Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, very loosely “inspired” by the well-regarded, same-named 1995 feature film, is the latest prime-time exhibit. And as such it makes a pretty strong impression while otherwise mining familiar turf.

The initial year is 2043, with a relative handful of Earth’s populace remaining after 7 billion were killed in 2017 by a pretty bad plague. One of the surviving immune is a dogged guy named Cole (Aaron Stanford), who take his orders from a snippy German named Jones (Barbara Sukowa). She dispatches him to 2013, where cute, blonde virologist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) is thought to have a clue or two about how the deadly virus originated. The only hope is to nip it before it’s unleashed.

Cassandra at first thinks Cole is nuts but is persuaded to meet him again in 2015. By that time, perhaps she’ll have either met or be familiar with a seemingly sinister bigwig known as Leland Frost (the inevitable but always good Zeljko Ivanek).

The first two episode of 12 Monkeys move along crisply and effectively. In the second hour, Cole has the misfortune -- or luck of timing -- to mistakenly wind up in North Korea, which has been in the news just a bit lately. Interrogators quickly begin punching him around before Cole’s 2043 team relocates him to a mental hospital, circa 2015. His mission is to interrogate Leland’s disturbed daughter, Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), who’s been drawing Army of the 12 Monkey illustrations on her walls.

This could go on and on and on and on, of course. The 12 Monkeys movie, directed by Terry Gilliam, ran for 2 hours and 7 minutes with a cast that included Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt (who received an Oscar nomination), Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer and impressionist Frank Gorshin.

Syfy has a 12-episode Season 1 planned for its version. First impressions are favorable but how much of this stuff can they effectively cobble together? Only the future will tell in a series whose own future is yet another living hell.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FXX's bizarro Man Seeking Woman both loses its way and finds some funny

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Jay Baruchel plays a sad sack dater in Man Seeking Woman. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 14th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FXX
Starring: Josh Greenberg, Eric Andre, Britt Lower, Maya Erskine
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Simon Rich, Andrew Singer, Jonathan Krisel

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Sublimely ridiculous or supremely offensive?

The jury’s still out -- for me at least -- after watching the opening two episodes of FXX’s Man Seeking Woman.

Billed as a “sweet and surreal look at the life-and-death stakes of dating,” here’s a series that in fact goes more for shock value in Wednesday’s premiere. Viewers will know it when they see it, even if Bill Hader is completely unrecognizable as a white-haired, ornery Adolf Hitler getting around in a motorized wheel chair.

In the fantastical eyes of Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel), Hitler is the new boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend, Maggie Lee (Maya Erskine), for whom he still pines after their breakup.

“I’m better than Hitler!” he finally exclaims at a party that’s gone very wrong for him. As did an earlier blind date set up by his sister, Liz (Britt Lower). This is the one where a blonde Swedish beauty instead turns out to be an “ugly, slimy troll” who bites and attacks him.

Man Seeking Woman, which continues its acid trip motif in Episode 2, is yet another venture by Lorne Michaels, who already presides over NBC’s entire late night lineup in addition to IFC’s Portlandia. So besides Saturday Night Live alum Hader, also look for guest shots by fellow SNLera Fred Armisen (star of Portlandia) and Vanessa Bayer, who in Episodes 1 and 2 plays a sweet Chicago marketing liaison named Laura Ferber.

A badly frayed Josh meets her on a subway train at the close of Episode 1 and somehow musters the gumption to ask her out to dinner. Much of Episode 2 is then built around what kind of text message invite he should send. Josh’s best friend, Mike Bunk (Eric Andre), keeps suggesting a “dick pic” during a summit meeting for the Center For Important Emergencies. Whether and how Laura will respond then becomes local, national and international news.

Some if not a majority of Man Seeking Woman is forced and juvenile. And the closing Hitler-Maggie scene in Episode 1 might well repulse those viewers who have stuck around for that long.

But one viewer’s bad taste is another’s comedy gold. And Man Seeking Woman arguably has just enough going for it to merit a further investment in its remaining eight episodes. In the annals of crazed/cartwheeling TV comedy, it both pounds away at sensibilities while also racking up its share of sick laughs.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Send in the frowns: Girls is back for Season 4

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Girls update: Hannah is blue. So what else is new? HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Season 4 of HBO’s Girls opens with a shocker of a scene. At dinner with her oft-scolding parents, Hannah Horvath is giggly, even giddy.

Don’t get used to it. This will be another winter of discontent on a series that can still shine at times despite its deteriorating standing among the nation’s television critics.

Barometer: the annual hitfix.com poll of best TV series, in which each participant lists a personal Top 10.

The inaugural survey, in 2012, also marked Girls’ first season. It placed 6th that year before falling to 44th in 2013. And in the latest hitfix results, in which 52 critics (including your friendly content provider) were polled, Girls was nowhere to be found among the 96 series receiving at least one point on a sliding scale That means it failed to make even one critic’s Top 10 list in its third season.

Still, Girls is by no means a complete loser as Season 4 begins unfolding on Sunday, Jan. 11th at 8 p.m. (central).. Lena Dunham may be prime-time TV’s most polarizing creator, writer and star. But she’s not a hack. And in the first five episodes of the 10-episode Season 4, she’s also not getting naked. That became an “issue” for many, with Dunham’s Hannah showcasing her less than sculpted body to the point of “No more!” Her dark shadows can still be hard to bear, though. And after some brief flashes of false hope, Girls again will be deep in the throes of another off-the-charts misery index.

Hannah’s initially thrilled to be heading off to a prestigious two-year Iowa Writers’ Workshop to which only a select few young wordsmiths are accepted.

“Slow to grow, but oh, how beautiful is the blossom,” her father, Tad (Peter Scolari), says at a celebratory dinner before it’s time to pack up and hit the road.

Hannah’s off-and-on boyfriend, the equally high maintenance Adam Sackler (Adam Driver), is more miserable about his acting future than about her leaving their shared New York apartment. “The plan is there is no plan,” he says of any future they might have together. “That works for me -- as a plan.”

Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) remain in various states of disrepair as Hannah’s principal gal pals.

Marnie is trying to break through as a singer in tandem with Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). But their first “jazz brunch” goes awry while Marnie also is tearfully frustrated by Desi’s disinclination to break up with his girlfriend and settle in with her.

Jessa remains a recovering addict and overall horrible person who outwardly doesn’t give a damn about Hannah’s departure. And Shoshanna is a jobless college grad who’s still mooning over ex-boyfriend Ray Ploshansky (Alex Karpovsky). Her divorced parents (briefly played by Anthony Edwards and Ana Gasteyer) continue to war with one another, making Shoshanna even more inclined to brood.

Episodes 2 and 3 of the new season find Hannah in Iowa and quickly none too happy about it. Her fellow students are highly judgmental and she’s no prize herself. But the writing is sharp during their group sessions, with outcast Hannah giving as good as she gets while viewers wonder how long it will be before she inevitably heads back to New York.

Meanwhile, Jessa is highly indignant when police cite her for public peeing in the street. And yes, this is a show where you’ll actually get to see her do it -- in simulated fashion.

Girls still delivers other memorable moments, though. And not all of them are gag-inducing. Dunham has written some terrific scenes for herself, and she also rises to the occasion of acting them out.

Even so, how many times can this show basically go back to square one? Hannah Horvath has reached the point where a happy ending might ring completely false. She’s still only 25, but has more mileage, wear and tear on her than a 1989 Chevy pickup.

Her three mates also are in various states of disrepair. But among them, only Jessa seems utterly irredeemable. All in all, Girls has gone from a voyage of discovery in Season One (wow, what a great new voice Dunham is) to an ongoing assemblage of traffic wrecks and flat tires.

It’s the kind of series where the anal and easily addled Ray Ploshansky has become a voice of reason -- or designated driver if you prefer. Between bouts of screaming expletives at honking motorists, he’s capable of counseling Marnie, putting Jessa in her place and making Shoshanna feel just a little bit better about herself.

Hannah likely is beyond his reach, though. Her fits and spurts of joy are always preludes to impending storms. We just can’t go on meeting this way.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net