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Hulu's version of The Handmaid's Tale can't help but be a clarion call 32 years after its first incarnation

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Elisabeth Moss strives to remain rebellious in The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu photo

Premiering: The first three of Season One’s 10 episodes begin streaming Wednesday, April 26th on Hulu, with the remaining seven released weekly
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, Ever Carradine, Alexis Bledel, Amanda Brugel, O. T. Fagbenle, Jordana Blake, Kristen Gutoskie
Produced by: Bruce Miller, Fran Sears, Warren Littlefield, Daniel Wilson, Sheila Hockin, Frank Siracusa, John Weber, Reed Morano

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s become all too easy, and oftentimes preachy, to filter many a new or prominent returning TV series through the prism of Donald Trump’s divisive presidency.

There’s little choice, though, with The Handmaid’s Tale, which already has been embraced by “The Resistance” as a chillingly cautionary look at what could happen to women if the still nascent Republican administration is allowed to have its way. In short, they’d be subjugated, tortured, forced to be surrogate wives and required to dress in lookalike cover-ups suitable for a convent. Black-clad male goons with automatic weapons keep everyone in line.

Margaret Atwood first wrote the same-named novel in 1985, and it was adapted into a messy 1990 feature film with an imposing cast that included Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Elizabeth McGovern. Hulu’s 10-episode Season One of Handmaid’s Tale, with the first three hours streaming on Wednesday, April 26th, looks to be clearly superior so far. Still, if a male TV critic dare say this, it can be heavy-handed at times while also being overly tethered to somber narration from the renamed Offred (series star Elisabeth Moss), who used to be June.

In the series’ opening scene, June, her husband, Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and their little daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) are on the receiving end of a car chase. At first it seems as though their pursuers are the police. Instead they’re the military arm of brutal Christian fundamentalists who have taken power in headlong pursuit of a “return to traditional values.”

Captured and separated from Hannah after her husband is murdered, June is soon seen as Offred, which literally means Of-Fred. That would be a commander named Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), whose joyless wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), is among the many women who can’t conceive due to infertility caused by environmental contamination. It’s Offred’s principal job to bear the couple’s child as a part of a decidedly rigid, rote “ceremony” in which a clothed Fred enters her while Serena straddles the top of Offred’s head.

The various handmaids otherwise grocery shop for their oppressors while frequently speaking biblically. “Blessed be the fruit,” “Praise be,” “Under His Eye” and “May the Lord open” have become ingrained in the vernacular. But Offred can still think as she pleases. And her narration bespeaks a determination to free herself, find her daughter and smote the evil oppressors. “I don’t need oranges,” she says. “I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.”

Informants are rampant, though. And insolence is decidedly not tolerated. So a newcomer named Janine (Madeline Brewer) wasn’t very smart to sass an uncompromisingly vicious Handmaids instructor known as Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, fresh from another domineering role in HBO’s The Leftovers). No, that wasn’t very smart at all.

Aunt Lydia, who brandishes a high voltage shocking stick, also is repulsed by any “gender traitors” in their midst.

“That satan was an offense to God. She was a disgusting beast!” Aunt Lydia bellows in Episode Three. Therefore, use of the word “gay” is strictly forbidden and subject to corporal punishment.

June’s best friend in the free world was Moira (Samira Wiley of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black), who’s now also a handmaid. She’s mostly seen in flashbacks, though, due to a somewhat puzzling and abrupt development down the stretch of Episode One.

Another handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is Offred’s designated companion during trips to the market. This ends up being very problematic for both of them.

Not all of the men in Handmaid’s Tale are abject beasts -- at least not outwardly so. Commander Fred appears to have a gentle, refined side to him while his young driver, Nick (Max Minghella), just might be sympathetic to Offred’s plight.

Moss’ character is at the center of it all, whether in flashbacks or at the mercy of her captors. Her performance is both touching and fierce, with basic sanity at stake in a world where one false move can close the door on everything.

Episode One ends with Offred underscoring her defiance while Lesley Gore’s 1963 anthem, “You Don’t Own Me,” accompanies both the final scene and the closing credits. Handmaid’s Tale comes off as that sort of rallying cry in perceived times of need for many. Atwood never envisioned a Donald Trump presidency back in 1985, when the congenially conservative Ronald Reagan held the office. Now her novel resonates, even if its latest adaptation sometimes could stand to take a chill pill or two.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Tackling Einstein and keeping him within grasp in National Geo's Genius

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Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Flynn are Einsteins old and young in Genius. National Geo photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 25th at 8 p.m. (central) on National Geographic Channel
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Flynn, Emily Watson, Samantha Colley, Shannon Tarbet, Vincent Kartheiser, Robert Lindsay, Claire Rushbrook, Michael McElhatton, Richard Topol, Seth Gabel, T.R. Knight
Produced by: Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Ken Biller, Gigi Pritzker

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly divine both the production values and the heightened characterizations in the National Geographic channel’s humanizing of Albert Einstein.

He had his famed Theory of Relativity and television has its theory of relatability. Too many mind-bending mathematical equations on chalkboards could well provide an irresistible urge for many to opt out. So Genius begins with the bloody 1922 assassination of the Jewish foreign minister of Germany’s Weimar Republic before cutting to an older, married Einstein’s in-office sexual coupling with his much younger secretary. “Move in with me, Betty,” he urges. Only then is it on to the classroom -- but not for too long and with some accompanying special effects as Einstein challenges his students to “define time.”

Adapted from Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His LIfe and Universe, the 10-part Genius is anything but a plodder. Principal executive producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard (who directs the first episode) clearly are intent on making Einstein’s life “accessible” without turning it into physics for dummies. Based on the two episodes made available for review, their efforts are adding up to something pretty special. National Geo’s previous scripted efforts have mostly amounted to adaptations of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing books. Genius easily is the network’s most ambitious undertaking to date, with Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) and the comparatively unknown Johnny Flynn respectively taking turns as the older and younger Einstein.

The series repeatedly bounces around, but coherently so. And in the early going at least, Flynn’s performance is the more interesting and affecting while also consuming considerably more screen time. His formative, rebellious and devilishly handsome Einstein is beset by an unyielding father and hidebound professors while otherwise being torn between two very different women.

Blonde, beautiful Marie Winteler (Shannon Tarbet) is instantly smitten with Einstein when he comes to live with her family in Switzerland. She’s also bright and rather poetic, but has no interest in physics. Plainer Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), born with a lame leg, initially has no use for him. But he’s intoxicated by her mind and kindred passions for science and mathematics. Colley is first-rate in this role, and her wars of will with Einstein are the best parts of these early chapters.

Rush’s older Einstein has gone on to marry Elsa (Emily Watson), who very much wants to vacate Germany in the face of Hitler’s nascent Nazi Party. “If we leave, they win,” Albert protests. The script for Genius can be standard-issue at times, but not enough so to cause any major damage.

Throughout, Einstein’s unchained mind is both rebuffed and encouraged. But his father, Hermann (Robert Lindsay), remains unyielding in his efforts to squelch his son’s independence. At the end of one of their blowups, Albert declares, “I am going to be a professor. I will think for thinking’s sake!” Imagine that.

Mileva in contrast has a supportive father and a naysaying mother, as flashbacks show. Ridiculed by young schoolmates for her pronounced limp, she’s determined to conquer a man’s world via sheer will, persistence and brain power. “Flirting” decidedly is not part of that game plan. “Stay away from me!” Mileva exclaims when Einstein gently puts his hand on her shoulder during their early days as students at Zurich Polytechnic. But physics and physicality eventually intersect during some of Genius’ very best moments.

The production is filmed in Prague, and the vistas can be stunning. Nothing looks as though it were done on the cheap. So the bigger your HD screen, the better.

Rush’s older Einstein undoubtedly will take a firmer hold in later episodes. Earth’s most renowned physicist died at the age of 76 in 1955. The first two back-and-forth episodes of Genius get only as far as 1932, with Rush first taking the baton from Flynn a decade earlier.

Genius may be the production that puts National Geo on the map, so to speak, assuming it progresses as impressively as it unfolds. The network already has announced plans for a second season under the umbrella Genius title, but with a new big brain as its focus.

For now, getting inside of Einstein’s head is quite a daunting undertaking. And National Geo passes the early exams.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's Great News is even better news for ageless Andrea Martin

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The best news about Great News is Andrea Martin (3rd from right). NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 25th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on NBC
Starring: Briga Heelan, Andrea Martin, John Michael Higgins, Adam Campbell, Nicole Richie, Horatio Sanz, Tracy Wigfield, Sheaun McKinney
Produced by: Tracey Wigfield, Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, Jack Burditt, David Miner

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Many of the usual suspects are present and accounted for in this latest sitcom about a dysfunctional TV news room.

Namely:

***The aging, pompous news anchor who remains a legend in his own mind.

***An eye candy female co-anchor with the depth of a kiddie pool.

***A capable but frustrated woman staffer who’s had her fill of “fluff.”

***A brusque boss who thinks she’s fluff-worthy -- and little else.

***A spotlighted, off-camera goofball.

But here’s the big, pivotal difference with NBC’s Great News. It’s the first of its genre to feature a 60-year-old intern who’s also the mom of the aspiring lead character. And for a role that makes or breaks this show, creator/executive producer Tracey Wigfield and co-executive producer Tina Fey had the eminent good sense to cast the great Andrea Martin, who’s given more screen time than perhaps she’s ever had.

As Carol Wendelson, Martin is a distinctly hands-on mom, but no mommie dearest. She’s in constant but loving contact with her only daughter, Katie (fresh-faced Briga Heelan), a flustered producer for MMN cable’s The Breakdown. The two of them clash over mom’s incessant nurturing of her “Pumpkin,” but never to the point where it’s banshee versus ingrate.

Martin steals their scenes together in the early going, but Heelan increasingly holds her own over the course of Great News’s 10-episode first season. NBC didn’t hold back, making the entire output available for review. I didn’t plan to go the distance. But one episode led to another and another -- and eventually the whole thing. And by the end, I wanted more. Not because Great News is an instant classic. But because it managed to seem so effortlessly entertaining -- which of course takes considerable effort.

Episodes 3 (“Chuck Pierce is Blind”) and 7 (“The Red Door”) prove to be laugh-out-loud funny, with Martin and John Michael Higgins (as the blowhard anchor Chuck) clicking brilliantly together as babysitter and baby. Chuck turns out to need a mothering presence far more than Katie does.

The biggest news flash of Great News otherwise is the performance of Nicole Richie as ditzy co-anchor Portia Scott-Griffith. “What’s a ‘Walter Conk-rite?’ “ she asks in Episode 2 after Chuck invokes both the name and his famed “And that’s the way it is” sign-off.

Perhaps too many years as Paris Hilton’s best pal have made Richie a natural as an airhead. But at least some acting is required, and Richie delivers, whether teasing a story on going “undercover as an ugly person” or noting that “my mentor, Roger Ailes” suggested that she show a lot more leg on-camera.

This Tuesday’s opening half-hour was in the can long before Ailes’ principal protege, Bill O’Reilly, got bounced from Fox News Channel for likewise being an alleged serial sexual harasser. But Chuck is old enough to be O’Reilly, which makes it a little cringe-worthy when Carol asks during her first day on the job, “Is he hands-y with the girls? I don’t mind.” Carol otherwise is married to a nondescript guy named Dave. As with the over-the-fence neighbor in Home Improvement, he’s never seen fully -- at least throughout Season 1.

The other members of Great News’ ensemble are unctuous young British executive producer Greg Walsh (Adam Campbell); whacked out video editor Justin (Horatio Sanz); and oddball meteorologist Beth (series creator Wigfield). Their principal ratings adversary is the occasionally glimpsed Chip & Chet Report, whose anchors are accomplished on-air small-talkers.

There are a few cameo appearances sprinkled in, but not nearly of the caliber of Fey’s 30 Rock. Vicki Lawrence and Robin Leach are in multiple episodes while former Saturday Night Live players Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch briefly do a sendup of Today’s Hoda and Kathie Lee in Episode 5.

But the big news of Great News is Martin, who in real life is 10 years older than her stated age on the show. More to the point, she’s an ageless wonder, and knows what to do with the best showcase of her talents since SCTV. Heelan, still a relative newcomer, manages to stay in step with the old pro in a surprisingly solid sitcom that for the most part keeps its balance amid one absurdity after another.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Pulling through with Oprah Winfrey in HBO's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Rose Byrne & Oprah Winfrey share ample ups, downs & screen time Saturday night in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, had been unheard of and unheralded for decades until a writer named Rebecca Skloot became “obsessed” with her game-changing cells.

A resultant 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, became a New York Times bestseller that got an extra boost from Oprah Winfrey and her O magazine. She’s now the co-producer, co-star and best thing about HBO’s same-named movie, which premieres on Saturday, April 22nd at 7 p.m. (central).

This is by no means a “sexy” film or an easy sale. Ninety minutes on the origins of the so-called HeLa cell line sound about as dramatically inviting as a teeth-cleaning. But Winfrey’s performance, as Henrietta’s tormented youngest daughter, Deborah, is jump-off-the-screen terrific. So after Oscar and Golden Globes nominations, but no wins for her role in The Color Purple, Winfrey seems certain to nab her first Emmy nod in a performance category. This time the trophy may finally go home with her.

Hobbling around on a cane and hit with enormous mood swings born from being molested as a girl, Winfrey’s character shares much of her screen time with Rose Byrne as the intrepid and oft-giggly Skloot. The young writer repeatedly runs into road blocks while diligently striving to document the Lacks’ family history and also bring recognition to Henrietta. Cells from her cancerous cervical tumor were collected without consent (which was typical of those times) by researchers at Baltimore’s storied Johns Hopkins Hospital. Unlike most cells, they proved to be “immortal” and capable of reproducing themselves indefinitely. The Lacks family had no knowledge of this until the mid-1970s.

The HeLa cell line is credited with numerous breakthroughs and medical advances, including Jonas Salk’s landmark polio vaccine. Literally tons of Henrietta’s cells remain viable and in use to this day.

OK, on to the more graspable drama of Immortal Life, which bounces among many Lacks family members while Deborah serves as an alternately enthusiastic and reluctant tour guide. Her brother, Zakariyya (Reg E. Cathey), is the crankiest of all -- but also has his reasons. And Leslie Uggams drops in briefly as Henrietta’s cousin, Sadie, who initially declares, “We don’t believe in tellin’ stories on the dead.” She then immediately loosens up.

There’s also a charlatan named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, (played by Courtney B. Vance in a manner reminiscent of his showy Johnnie Cochran in FX’s much-lauded The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story). The character could have just as easily been excised. Original music by Branford Marsalis is oftentimes a stand alone jazz drumbeat that doesn’t always fit.

Director George C. Wolfe (Nights In Rodanthe) has a tough story to tie together -- and at times ties himself in knots before a goodly young British doctor provides something of a Christmas bow by very generously allowing Deborah and her brother to see Henrietta in all her ever-living glory.

Whatever your cell composition, dry eyes aren’t likely to be an option during Deborah’s cathartic reunion with the mother she never truly knew. For this particular scene -- and for Winfrey’s sterling performance -- Immortal Life ends up being worth 90 minutes of yours.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox News Channel officially cuts ties with Bill O'Reilly (updated)

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Bill O’Reilly on one of his last editions of The Factor. Photo: Ed Bark

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Murdoch brothers and their father have officially performed last rites on Bill O’Reilly and his long-standing hit Fox News Channel show, The O’Reilly Factor.

With a non-specific reference to the sexual harassment charges leveled against him, patriarch Rupert Murdoch and sons Lachlan and James jointly signed his death warrant in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.

“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations against him, the Company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Mr. O’Reilly will not return to the Fox News Channel,” they said. “The decision follows an extensive review done in collaboration with outside counsel.”

FNC and/or O’Reilly, who remains on vacation in Italy and recently had a visitation with Pope Francis, earlier had paid a reported $13 million to five women accusers in return for their silence. As previously posted on unclebarky.com, a growing list of advertisers reacted by boycotting his 7 p.m. (central) program, where the ratings remained steady despite the ongoing, heavily publicized controversy. O’Reilly also has authored a string of bestselling books and further capitalized on his brand with sold-out personal appearance tours, usually in tow with Dennis Miller. Some of that money went to various charities, O’Reilly has said.

The Murdochs’ statement noted O’Reilly’s continued popularity. “By ratings standards, they said, “Bill O’Reilly is one of the most accomplished TV personalities in the history of cable news. In fact, his success by any measure is indisputable.”

But they added that no one is indispensable. When FNC lost star player Megyn Kelly to NBC News (after she charged sexual harassment by the network’s since deposed founder, Roger Ailes), the Murdochs quickly plugged in Tucker Carlson in the hour following The Factor. His solid ratings have surprised even FNC executives while Kelly is yet to get on the air at either NBC or FNC’s arch rival, MSNBC.

“Fox News has demonstrated again and again the strength of its talent(ed) bench,” the Murdochs said. “We have full confidence that the network will continue to be a powerhouse in cable news. Lastly, and most importantly, we want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.”

O’Reilly never addressed the latest sexual harassment imbroglio on his program, but did issue an earlier statement in which he said his celebrity status made him an easy target for lawsuits. The payments to accusers were made to protect his family, he said. But the controversy persisted nonetheless.

In a new statement released later Wednesday, O’Reilly first lauded The Factor as “one of the most successful news programs in history” and a key contributor to “building Fox into the dominant news network in television.”

He then underscored his previous denial of any wrongdoing: “It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims. But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today. I will always look back on my time at Fox with great pride in the unprecedented success we achieved and with my deepest gratitude to all my dedicated viewers. I wish only the best for Fox News Channel.”

Formerly a reporter for a brief time in the 1970s with Dallas-based WFAA-TV, O’Reilly, 67, worked his way to the host position of the nationally syndicated Inside Edition, which he joined in 1989. But his career took off in 1996, when he became a charter personality on the conservative-leaning FNC. His nightly proclaimed “No Spin Zone” became as familiar to FNC viewers as the network’s “Fair and Balanced” or “We Report, You Decide” mantras.

O’Reilly had remained seemingly entrenched and invulnerable until the spring of this year, when the taint from the alleged Ailes-sanctioned womanizing “culture” at FNC began jeopardizing him.

FNC acted fast, as it has in the past, in reconfiguring its weekday prime-time lineup. The network has announced that the aforementioned Carlson will be inheriting O’Reilly’s slot while The Five, which had been airing at 4 p.m. (central), gets Carlson’s old spot. Its hosts, which actually number six, are Kimberly Guilfoyle, Dana Perino, Bob Beckel, Greg Gutfeld, Juan Williams and Jesse Watters, whose “Watters’ World” had been a regular feature on The Factor. Sean Hannity will remain in place at 9 p.m. (central).

The Five’s old slot, effective May 1st, will be given to a new show hosted by Eric Bolling, who had been a regular O’Reilly fill-in. Until that date, Special Report with Bret Baier will be stretched to two hours, FNC says.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net