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History network's new Roots doesn't negate the original


Newcomer Malachi Kirby is the new Kunta Kinte. History network photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
No scripted television drama -- before or since -- has hit home harder than the original Roots.

Initially viewed by ABC as a noble but highly risky enterprise that almost assuredly would be an audience turnoff, the 1977 version ran for 12 hours over eight consecutive nights. It climaxed on January 30th, just before the pivotal midseason February “sweeps” ratings period began in earnest. That was intentional. ABC wanted to be done with Roots before it potentially could do any real ratings damage. Instead the two-hour finale, on Sunday night, Jan. 30th of that year, commanded an astounding 71.1% of all television sets in use while drawing over 100 million same-night viewers. Roots as a whole received 37 Emmy nominations, many of them multiple nods in the same categories. It ended up winning nine awards, including for “Best Limited Series” and for acting by Louis Gossett, Jr., Olivia Cole and Ed Asner.

So why remake it via a four-part, eight-hour production that premieres on Memorial Day and continues Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m. (central) on History, Lifetime and A&E?

The official talking point, on the part of producers, is that the original Roots has grown dated and doesn’t “speak to” the many younger viewers who were born after it first aired. They supposedly want something more dynamic and relevant -- in addition to more action and visceral violence. ABC’s sequel to Roots was subtitled The Next Generation. The remake essentially is Roots: The New Generation, with original maestro David L. Wolper’s son, Mark, at the helm along with LeVar Burton (the original Kunta Kinte) among others.

The soundtrack for the original Roots indeed can be positively creaky at times. As is the conveyor belt of familiar old-line white TV actors brought in to give America at large a sense of comfort -- even in the roles of white devils. The likes of Lorne “Bonanza” Greene, Chuck “The Rifleman” Connors and Ralph “The Waltons” Waite all played abusers while Asner (Lou Grant) got off easy as a slave ship captain who had a crisis of conscience that wasn’t depicted in the Alex Haley book.

Still, the old Roots remains replete with scenes of considerable emotional power. They’re also played out at length rather than hurried along, whether it’s Chicken George (Ben Vereen) poignantly trying to explain himself to his long-suffering mother, Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), or Kunta Kinte a k a “Toby” (John Amos) and his wife, Belle (Madge Sinclair), begging their master not to sell Kizzy off.

The original Roots also has a scene in which Kizzy hopes to be reunited with her parents, but instead learns that her father died two years earlier after Belle was sold off. Kizzy’s scene at her father’s spare grave provides a sense of closure that’s missing from the new Roots, in which Kunta Kinte (invigorating newcomer Malachi Kirby) and Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi) simply disappear after Tuesday’s Part 2. In contrast, the 1977 Roots has Kizzy scratching out “Toby” and etching “Kunta Kinte” on the stone over his final resting place. Upon further review in preparation for this review, the scene still resonates.

Both versions begin in Kunta Kinte’s homeland of Juffure, West Africa, circa 1750. Family dynamics and young Kunta’s road to becoming a Mandinka warrior are more fully fleshed out in the new Roots. But he’s still destined to be sold by his father’s African enemies to an English slave ship. The onboard conditions en route to 1767 Annapolis, Maryland are unsparingly brutal. As are all of the English captors, who spout lines such as “Don’t look at me, monkey” and “A dead nigger is money lost.”

Kunta Kinte eventually is taken to the Waller farm in Virginia, where the supplicant slave Fiddler (an effectively nuanced performance by Forest Whitaker) is ordered to groom the newcomer. James Purefoy, who played the sadistic villain in Fox’s The Following, is back for another go as despotic farm owner John Waller.

The indelible flogging of Kunta Kinte occurs near the end of Monday night’s opening chapter. It’s far more brutal than the original terrifying scene, with Kunta repeatedly defying orders to “say your name so you know who you are!” He eventually murmurs “Toby” before Fiddler kneels over him and tries to begin a healing process.

Part Two jumps ahead to 1782 and the Revolutionary War. Kunta is on the lam again and initially duped into fighting for the British Redcoats, who are promising freedom in the end. But the slaves instead are used as cannon fodder (none of this was in the original Roots) before Kunta wises up, rebels and later is recaptured. The severing of a portion of his foot jibes with another chilling scene in the original Roots.

Throughout the drama, the filmmakers flash back to dream-like scenes in Africa, with Kunta steadfastly avowing his heritage and determination to be free. But the tragedies and indignities keep piling up. “I hate this country!” Kunta exclaims. “America will never be my home!”

Kizzy’s eventual betrayal, in the eyes of her masters at least, leads to her being sold to another despot, North Carolinian Tom Lea (an effective Jonathan Rhys Meyers in place of the original’s almost cartoonish Chuck Connors). He immediately rapes Kizzy, who births George (Rege-Jean Page) as a result. By the early moments of Part 3, the story has jumped to 1828, with George dubbed “Chicken George” for his skills in training them to be formidable cock fighters who help to line Tom Lea’s pockets.

Unlike the original Roots, Kizzy falls in love with a freed former slave rather than a still groveling fast talker who was played by Richard Roundtree. In either case, heartbreak is still around the corner, for both Kizzy and the ultimately betrayed Chicken George.

The climactic Part 4 incorporates scenes from the Civil War’s Fort Pillow massacre, in which surrendering black soldiers within a white Union regiment are slaughtered by Rebel troops because of their color. Chicken George (who barely looks a day older) finds himself in the midst of all this while back at the plantation a thoroughly evil slave holder named Frederick (Lane Garrison) is holding fast to his venomous ways. Anna Pacquin, as Nancy Holt, is worked in rather awkwardly as a white plantation spy. This is easily the weakest of the four parts, although the new Roots does end more powerfully than the original with Haley’s (Laurence Fishburne) walk through the history of what he’s written. The real-life Haley presided matter-of-factly, and rather flatly, through the closing minute of the original.

The re-imagined Roots indisputably has its moments, but not as many of them as its still very compelling predecessor. But virtually anything of note is fated to get a makeover in times when hundreds upon hundreds more networks and streaming outlets vie for attention. The History network, in on-air partnership with Lifetime and A&E, has brought forth a Roots that stands tall on its own, but without surpassing the production that once gripped a nation and should still be seen by viewers of all ages. It brought a wealth of African-American performers to prime-time’s front lines. Almost 40 years later, that’s still a history well worth remembering and re-appreciating.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

More comic book mayhem in AMC's bloody, soul-searching Preacher


Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) tries to curb his evil ways in Preacher. AMC photo

Premiering: Sunday, May 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC before resuming new episodes on Sunday, June 5th at 8 p.m.
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, Joseph Gilgun, Lucy Griffiths, W. Earl Brown, Anatol Yusef, Tom Brooke, Derek Wilson, Ian Colletti
Produced by: Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Evan Goldberg, Neal H. Moritz, James Weaver, Vivian Cannon, Ori Marmur, Jason Netter, Ken F. Levin

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Still indulging its post-Mad Men yen for blood-splattered serial storytelling, AMC ventures into the night Sunday with Preacher.

I’ve never read or seen any of the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon comic books on which it’s based. But judging from the first four episode made available for review, substantial additions and subtractions are being made in terms of Preacher’s original “universe.” Thanks, Wikipedia. Otherwise, hard-core fans can sort it all out and react accordingly.

Sunday’s opener (with new episodes then resuming on the Sunday after Memorial Day weekend) literally begins in “OUTER SPACE,” which is spelled out in large block letters before Preacher starts veering sequentially to:

30,000 FEET UP

Something from on high is making various forms of preachers explode, including (according to a TV news report) Tom Cruise at the Church of Scientology. That alone forgives a lot of sins.

But Preacher’s main venue is the dusty little West Texas town of Annville, where Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is trying to go straight as a minister who wears a clerical collar under a black shirt with silver-tipped collars. His All Saints Congregational Church has a constantly changing marquee. We’ll give away just the first one: “Open your ass and holes to Jesus.”

Jesse, now inhabited by a “mysterious entity” that makes him somewhat super-powered, was raised as the son of a rather crazed, but soft-spoken preacher man. Recurring black-and-white flashbacks fill in some of the blanks of little Jesse’s formative past. As a grown-up, he hooked up with bad girl Tulip O’Hare (spiffily played by Ruth Negga), with whom he’s tried to part ways. But she pursues him to West Texas and strives to convince Jesse that “we are who we are” -- and there’s no use in fighting it.

Preacher’s principal third character is a prototypically heavy-drinking Irishman known as Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), who shows himself for what he really is during a furious fight sequence aboard a luxurious airliner. Cassidy then also makes his way to Annville, where he might easily be mistaken for the “Mayhem” man in those Allstate insurance commercials.

The violence in Preacher is no more graphic than that in AMC’s The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead or Into the Badlands. But an early demonstration is off-putting to say the least. Fully into her badass mode, Tulip kills and mutilates some unsavory looking guys in the presence of two little farm kids. “Awesome,” they twice exclaim, with the little girl gazing in full, enraptured admiration of her new heroine as Tulip drives off. Mind you, the kids were never threatened by her adversaries, so she wasn’t saving them from anything. Instead they’re innocent bystanders who in a sense learn at a very early age that real-life carnage is very cool, not frightening. Still not a good look for any TV series.

Besides Tulip and Cassidy, Annville’s encroachers include “government agents” DeBlanc and Fiore (Anatol Yusef, Tom Brooke). Sent from on high, they’re in hot but clumsy pursuit of Jesse, who possesses something within that they want him to do without. It’ll take a chainsaw to extricate whatever that is.

The incumbent Annville populace includes Sheriff Hugo Root (W. Earl Brown) and his badly deformed son, Eugene (Ian Colletti), also known as “Arseface.” The town bully, Donnie Schenk (Derek Wilson), also enjoys physically abusing his wife, who says she very much likes being on the receiving end and seems to really mean it. Again, many viewers might very justifiably take offense. This has nothing to do with political correctness, but everything to do with promoting violence as wholly pleasurable for both women and kids.

Trying to preside like a potentate is Odin Quinncannon (Jackie Earle Haley), rat-like owner of the town’s biggest employer, Quinncannon Meat & Power.

Annville does have one seemingly “normal” denizen, the widowed Emily Woodrow (Lucy Griffiths), who’s also the church’s organist and bookkeeper. She clearly has a strong liking for Jesse, but stays pretty much in the neutral zone during the first four episodes. Publicity materials, however, describe Emily as “harboring a whole lot of dark and debased desires.”

Episode 2, initially set in 1881, gets off to a fully original and novel start that serves as a very gruesome bridge back to present-day Annville. Hours 3 and 4 slow to a crawl at times, with Jesse still fighting off temptations while telling Cassidy, “I feels like there’s a big blender in my gut. And inside that blender there’s everything: love, hate, fire and ice . . . all God’s creation inside of me.”

Preacher’s first season will be 10 episodes. They can be thrillingly crazed at times, maddeningly off-putting at others. In other words, “a big blender” of a supernatural tale that sometimes is the equivalent of the godawful-looking drink Sheriff Root mixes for his son, whose portal only allows for sipping through a straw.

Verily, though, this also is a series that quotes the straight arrow wisdom of Tom Landry in the first sermon we get from Jesse. He can’t keep it on track, though. So his preaching falls apart while Preacher sometimes just barely manages to keep its overall story together. Even so, seeing how it all comes out in the bloody wash for now seems like a risk and an adventure worth taking.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Another triumph for Cranston in HBO's superb All the Way

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Spitting image: Bryan Cranston as LBJ and the real deal.

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JFK has been center stage far more than LBJ on screens small and large.

But in terms of a chops-licking acting challenge, the strong-arming, deep-drawling, oft-uncouth son of Stonewall, Texas is the role to beat.

Bryan Cranston, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of LBJ on Broadway, returns to conquer him again in HBO’s film adaptation of All the Way. Premiering Saturday, May 21st at 7 p.m. (central), it’s another five-star triumph for the former Breaking Bad star. So much so that they might as well engrave his name on another Emmy Award after he won four of them as chemistry teacher turned drug lord Walter White.

Cranston, without benefit of any heavy prosthetic encasement, bears a striking resemblance to the wheeler dealer who became President after the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s a remarkable transformation, with Cranston commanding every scene he’s in with the able assistance of a solid supporting cast. But this is Cranston’s baby through and through. Whether breathing fire, belittling or sweet-talking, his Lyndon Baines Johnson surely is the definitive one.

The film (and it’s very much a film, not a static taping of the play) begins with three shots ringing out on that awful day in Dallas. LBJ is soon in the saddle, staring at his inherited vacant desk in the Oval Office.

“Accidental president. That’s what they’ll say,” he tells his loyal and resilient wife, Lady Bird (sturdy work by Melissa Leo).

“Well, we’ll have to change that next November,” she tells him.

Directed by Jay Roach and with an executive producer team that includes Steven Spielberg, All the Way is reminiscent of the latter’s Lincoln in its depiction of horse-trading and infighting in pursuit of passing the first portion of what would be the Johnson administration’s landmark Civil Rights Act. But where Lincoln was quietly determined to get his way, LBJ is loudly intent on getting the votes needed to bust up a Senate filibuster.

“I’m comin’ for ya, Dick,” he informs longtime friend Richard Russell (Frank Langella), the segregationist senator from Georgia. “Now I love ya more than my own daddy. But if you get in my way, I’ll crush ya.”

Although prone to insecurities (“I could drop dead tomorrow, and there wouldn’t be 10 people who’d shed a tear”) and misgivings about going too fast, this is not the historically inaccurate, villainous LBJ of the feature film Selma. The President and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Anthony Mackie) have their differences, as does King with the increasingly impatient Stokely Carmichael (Mo McRae). Still, they’re basically on the same page and in pursuit of the same goal -- a sweeping voting rights act to follow legislation that officially outlaws discrimination based on race, color or national origin. J. Edgar Hoover, played by Stephen Root in All the Way, is the devil incarnate in both films.

LBJ’s principal White House ally is his guff-taking vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Bradley Whitford, who first came to national prominence as White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman in The West Wing, outwardly seems like an odd choice to play the portly, balding Humphrey. But he’s surprisingly effective and affecting in the role. At one point, he tells the self-pitying boss man, “I stood up for you, Mr. President.”

“Somebody who matters,” LBJ retorts. That’s gotta hurt. The President then chides Humphrey for being “so thin-skinned.”

LBJ also can be more fun than the law should allow, instructing his White House tailor in the early going, ”Not too tight in the bung hole. And leave some room for my nut sack.” And if that’s not coarse enough, he describes Humphrey as nice before adding, “Nice is what you call a gal with no tits, no ass and no personality.” Donald Trump . . . oh, never mind.

All the Way is instructive as well. In the early 1960s, the Deep South remained solidly Democratic. But LBJ’s championing of the Civil Rights Act changed all of that. Although he won the 1964 election in a landslide over Barry Goldwater, the Republican carried Russell’s Georgia as well as Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Louisiana. It was the first time that Georgia had ever voted Republican in a presidential election. In 1960, JFK had beaten Republican Richard Nixon in all five of these Deep South states.

Sensing the outcome in the 1964 election after he signs the Civil Rights Act in July of that year, LBJ tells Humphrey, “The Democratic Party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime. And maybe yours. What the (bleep) are you so happy about?”

All the Way, which cries out for a sequel, ends with a victory party for LBJ, who first narrates morosely, “The sun will come up and the knives will come out . . . They will gut me like a deer.”

Vietnam was on his horizon at that point. And the war ended up both draining his spirit and overshadowing the legacy of a man who got things done domestically and eventually also pounded home the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This is a riveting film with a bravura performance by Cranston, who’s been the signature television actor of the past decade. All the Way again shows there’s nothing he can’t do -- with the exception of giving a bad performance.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Two new dramas and a Supergirl for The CW this fall


The apocalypse is nigh (maybe) in No Tomorrow. CW photo

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Still gaining respectability by leaps and bounds, The CW fittingly is making a home for Supergirl after parent network CBS grounded her. Two new dramas also are being added to the fall lineup as part of Thursday’s announcements.

As usual, the five-nights-a-week/two-hours-a-night network has little to report on the cancellation front. Only America’s Next Top Model, Containment and Beauty and the Beast won’t be back while freshman series Supergirl, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow will get sophomore seasons.

Four returnees -- Reign, iZombie, The 100 and The Originals -- are being held back for midseason re-starts. And Supernatural starts up again in the fall with its 12th season.

Here are The CW’s two new fall series:

No Tomorrow (drama) -- “Risk-averse” Evie Callahan (Tori Anderson) meets “free-spirited” Xavier Holliday (Joshua Sasse), who has breaking news for her. Earth has just eight months and 12 days left before an asteroid wipes everybody and everything out. So why not live it up? The CW is too young and cool to use the term “bucket list.” But that’s what this amounts to as Evie, Xavier and some pals strive to fill out his “Apocalyst.”

Frequency (drama) -- New York detective Raimy Sullivan (Peyton List) is determined to prove she’s nothing like her crummy, corrupt father, Frank (Riley Smith), who’s long been presumed dead after disappearing two decades ago. But wait. The old man’s voice suddenly crackles through his old ham radio. And maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. Or as CW publicity materials ask, “Can they rewrite the story of their lives without risking everyone they love?”

Here is The CW’s night-by-night fall lineup:

Jane the Virgin

The Flash
No Tomorrow


DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

The Vampire Diaries
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

There’s also one new midseason series:

Riverdale (drama) -- Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Ms. Grundy and Josie and the Pussycats take on live-action forms in this seemingly somber Twin Peaks-ian take on the enduring comic book high schoolers. That’s because the town is still reeling from the summertime death of a golden boy named Jason Blossom. “Riverdale may look like a quiet, sleepy town, but there are dangers in the shadows,” says The CW. It’s a cast of mostly young unknowns save for Twin Peaks alum Madchen Amick, who plays Betty’s “overbearing” mother, Alice.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

New season upset: CBS adds the most fall shows


Kevin James will ham it up in Kevin Can Wait. CBS photo

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CBS traditionally has launched fewer new fall series than its competitors, in large part because of its year-to-year success stories.

That changed Wednesday, even though the Eye Network again ranked a solid No. 1 in total viewers (for the 13th time in 14 seasons) and edged NBC for the top spot among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds with a considerable lift from Super Bowl 50.

Six new series are coming this fall, one more than ABC announced and twice as many as either NBC or Fox will bring into battle. This also marks a difference in strategy, with NBC and Fox in particular stockpiling a wealth of midseason series while scrimping on the fall in hopes of someday becoming rerun-free. On Monday, Fox touted a 2016-17 season with 90 percent original programming.

CBS also is banking more heavily on old-school star power rather than heavy doses of unknowns. Kevin James (King of Queens) and Matt LeBlanc (Friends) are returning to front freshman sitcoms, as is former Community star Joel McHale. The network also has a fall reboot of MacGyver. And its two midseason dramas star Bill Paxton and Katherine Heigl.

The freshman series Life In Pieces, Code Black and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders will return for sophomore seasons. But CBS has a heavier than usual casualty list, topped by the end of lengthy runs for both The Good Wife and Mike & Molly. Also cancelled are CSI: Cyber, Limitless, Rush Hour, Person of Interest and Angel From Hell. Supergirl likewise is leaving CBS, but will fly on its sister network, The CW.

CBS also is shifting NCIS: Los Angeles from Mondays to Sundays and bridging its Tuesday night pairing of NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans with the new drama Bull. The Amazing Race, Undercover Boss and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders all will be back in midseason.

Here are CBS’ six new fall series:

Kevin Can Wait (comedy) -- James plays a newly retired married cop with three kids who looks forward to laying and playing around, “only to discover he faces tougher challenges at home than he ever did on the streets.” Expects lots of bellowing.

Man With a Plan (comedy) -- LeBlanc likewise plays a dad with three “messy kids.” Cutting back from his contractor business while his wife rejoins the workforce, he discovers that life as a stay-at-home dad is a living hell and the couple’s “little angels are maniacs.”

The Great Indoors (comedy) -- McHale stars as a well-traveled adventure writer whose magazine suddenly goes web-only. This leaves him to supervise and babysit an infantile group of young online “journalists” (quote marks courtesy of CBS) with next to no knowledge of the outside world.

Bull (drama) -- This one is drawn from the “early career” of Dr. Phil McGraw. Except that the lead character is named Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly direct from NCIS). CBS describes him thusly: “Brilliant, brash and charming, Dr. Bull is the ultimate puppet master as he combines psychology, human intuition and high tech data to learn what makes jurors, attorneys, witnesses and the accused tick.” Executive producers include McGraw (billed as “Dr. Phillip C. McGraw” in publicity materials) and, for some reason, Steven Spielberg.

MacGyver (drama) -- The venerable Mr. Fix-It returns to create a “clandestine organization within the U.S. government.” He still excels, of course, at “unconventional problem-solving” via his fount of “vast scientific knowledge.” Lucas Till stars, with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation veteran George Eads as a maverick ex-CIA agent.

Pure Genius (drama) -- It’s centered on a state-of-the-art Silicon Valley hospital with an “ultra-modern approach to medicine.” The crack team of docs is funded by “billionaire genius” James Bell (Augustus Prew), who persuades another maverick (see MacGyver) to be his Chief of Staff. Dermot Mulroney plays that role in a series that also includes a “maddeningly literal” doctor named Talaikha Channarayapatra (Reshma Shetty). Mr. Mxyzptlk so far is not a member of the team.

Here is CBS’ night-by-night new fall lineup:

The Big Bang Theory and Kevin Can Wait (until Thursday Night Football ends in late October)
Then it’s:
Kevin Can Wait and Man With a Plan, plus the season-starting lineup of:
2 Broke Girls
The Odd Couple

NCIS: New Orleans

Criminal Minds
Code Black

Thursday Night Football
Then, on Oct. 27, it’s:
The Big Bang Theory
The Great Indoors
Life In Pieces
Pure Genius

Hawaii Five-0
Blue Bloods

Crimetime Saturday
Crimetime Saturday
48 Hours

60 Minutes
NCIS: Los Angeles
Madam Secretary

Here are CBS’ two new midseason series:

Training Day (drama) -- It begins 15 years after the feature film ended, with Bill Paxton playing “morally ambiguous” detective Frank Rourke and Justin Cornwell co-starring as the “unvarnished” Kyle Craig, who poses as Frank’s trainee in order to spy on him.

Doubt (drama) -- Katherine Heigl rebounds from Grey’s Anatomy and NBC’s failed State of Affairs to star as attorney Sadie Ellis. She’s fated to fall in love with client Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale), a pediatric surgeon accused of murdering his girlfriend 24 years ago. Dule Hill (Psych) and Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black are among the co-stars. And Elliott Gould pitches in as a “revered legal lion.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net