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Animals on edge in CBS' Zoo


Zoo’s human contingent is headed by James Wolk (second from left). CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 30th at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: James Wolk, Kristen Connolly, Billy Burke, Nonso Anozie, Nora Arnezeder
Produced by: Jeff Pinkner, Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Scott Rosenberg, James Patterson, Michael Katleman, James Mangold, Cathy Konrad, Bill Robinson, Leopoldo Gout, Steve Bowen

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
“Zebras are reactionaries, antelopes are missionaries, pigeons plot in secrecy and hamsters turn on frequently . . .”

All right, the animals aren’t gonna take that anymore -- not even those gentle pokes from Simon & Garfunkel. They’re earned their rights to be short-fused, pissed off and fed up -- but not yet on human flesh. CBS’ Zoo, based on the James Patterson page-turner, gives the animal kingdom an opportunity to address all grievances in the interests of also providing summertime “popcorn” entertainment for humanoids out of harm’s reach.

Those cheaply exploitative 1990s When Animals Attack! specials on Fox give way to a more handsomely produced 13-episode series whose premiere episode nonetheless could use a little more bite. CBS’ Under the Dome and Extant, respectively returning on Thursday, June 25th and Monday, July 1st, got off to stronger starts with their opening hours. But it’s how you finish that counts. So maybe Zoo will gain steam rather than start falling apart like its predecessors. It has 11 executive producers -- in reality at least six too many -- to gang-steer the course.

Resilient James Wolk, the principal star, craves a long-term TV hit after the failures of Fox’s Lone Star and CBS’ The Crazy Ones. In the interim he was written in and out of Mad Men as mysterious ad man Bob Benson.

Zoo returns Wolk to leading man status as zoologist Jackson Oz, who’s been running African safaris with his jocular best pal, Abraham Kenyatta (Nonso Anozie). But the lions have become uncommonly antagonistic to humans of late, prompting Oz to wonder aloud whether the oft-abused animal kingdom at large is finally ready to rumble. “What if across the globe, the animals decided ‘no more’?“ he asks himself. “What if they decided to fight back?”

Back in Los Angeles, a pair of lions have staged a jail break and left three humans dead and five wounded. But there’s more. What if even kitties banded together and formed a street gang? On a personal note, our normally super-purry cat Snickers went nuts the other night when a feline drifter popped up outside a front window. So anything’s possible, even if the kitties of Zoo appear to have human prey in mind.

The two-legged L.A. contingent is headed by newspaper reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), whose boss finds out she’s secretly blogging as the crusading “Girl with the Genie Tattoo.” This is not good, particularly because the Los Angeles Telegraph is beholden to a conglomerate owner with holdings that include a sinister agro-chemical company with a new contract to feed L.A.’s zoo-confined animals crappy, pesticide-laced food. Jamie has been on the attack with her blog, wondering if the lions in particular are now retaliating. This gets her fired and leads to an alliance with Mitch Morgan (Revolution refugee Billy Burke), an off-beat veterinarian who’s grown disgusted with the human rat race.

Expect other sparks to fly between Jamie and Mitch in future episodes of Zoo. Wolk’s Oz also gets a potential love mate in Chloe Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder). In Patterson’s book she was an ecologist. In the CBS adaptation, Chloe is a Parisian on a “honeymoon” safari by herself after being jilted by a philandering fiancé. Wandering in the bush after lions attacked her camp, she’s rescued by Oz and encouraged to drink a few shots of calming Kentucky bourbon. C’est manifique.

As for Abraham, he’s seemingly done in by lions just before Oz manages to drive off with Chloe after they’ve also been under attack. But the actor who plays Abraham is listed among the five series regulars, so take his “death” under advisement.

Zoo very much spares the gore in its less than scintillating but better than lackluster opening hour. Other than a briefly seen rhino hunter, there are no real villains for the animals to vent their furies on. But an evil corporate mercenary could always be injected at any moment.

Don’t expect anything in the vicinity of the special effects thrills of Jurassic World, where dinosaurs devouring terrified humans is still a very popular spectator sport. Zoo’s up-close shots of lions growling is about as good as it gets in the lone episode made available for review. But plenty of possibilities exist, including rampaging giraffes, bloodthirsty macaws and even revenge-bent koala bears. So let the fur and the feathers fly -- maybe with even a little extra firepower when needed from Saturday Night Live’s laser cats.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

USA network gets the edge it's looking for with distinctly different Mr. Robot


Rami Malek, Christian Slater star in Mr. Robot. USA photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA
Starring: Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Gloria Reuben, Michael Gill
Produced by: Sam Esmail, Chad Hamilton, Steve Golin, Carly Chalkin, Niels Arden Oplev

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
USA, heretofore the home of bouncy, bantering dramas, dribbles well out of its comfort zone with Mr. Robot.

A growing number of basic cable networks are looking for an edge this year, with TNT, Lifetime and even TV Land hoping to move into the same risqué neighborhoods as FX and AMC. Mr. Robot, a sharp departure from the likes of USA’s Royal Pains, Psych and Suits, embodies disaffected, damaged youth in the person of vigilante hacker Elliot (Rami Malek). His haunted eyes and black hoodies, coupled with a blunt, abrasive take on humankind, propel Mr. Robot through a world of deep discontent and covert villainy.

“I’m good at reading people,” Elliot says in of his many narratives. “My Secret. I look for the worst in them.”

He works for Allsafe Cybersecurity, whose clients include E Corp, dubbed “Evil Corp.” The idea is to protect multi-national giants from hacking and other forms of cyber terrorism. Elliot is very good at protecting and serving. But bowing to a “conglomerate of evil” knocks his psyche for a loop. It doesn’t help that E Corp’s CEO is “not a techie” in Elliot’s view. “He’s a moron. An arrogant moron. The worst kind.”

Malek, excellent in HBO’s The Pacific as a sardonic, emotionally constipated corporal, dominates Mr. Robot with a commanding minimalist performance. But he’s not the title character, who instead is embodied by co-star Christian Slater. He recruits Elliot to help take Evil Corp down as part of “the largest revolution the world has ever seen.” But Elliot questions whether his mind is playing tricks on him again. Do Mr. Robot and his underground organization really exist?

When out of the office, Elliot hacks into other wrongdoers’ cyber trails and then threatens them with exposure if they don’t immediately cease and desist. He’s also seeing a therapist named Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben). “There’s pain underneath,” she tells him. “That’s where our work needs to go.”

But Krista also is being duped by a boyfriend who’s not at all what he seems to be. Elliot handles that for her, figuratively bringing the guy to his knees in a no-nonsense confrontation. It might be hard to stifle a “YES!”

Mr. Robert is unafraid to name names. A co-worker named Ollie Parker (Ben Rappaport) is romancing Elliot’s childhood friend and co-worker, Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday). A little research shows that Ollie lists George W. Bush’s Decision Points as one of his favorite books. For these and other reasons, Elliot has no use for him.

In an earlier scene, Elliot says that all heroes are counterfeit. Mr. Robot illustrates what he’s talking about with video snippets of Steve Jobs, Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby and Mel Gibson.

Mr. Robot also makes terrific use of Neil Diamond’s version of “If You Go Away” during a sequence in which Elliot tries to puzzle things out. The only thing this series may have going against it is the ubiquitous Slater, who has starred in a slew of failed series during the last several years. Roll call: NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy, ABC’s The Forgotten, Fox’s Breaking In and ABC’s Mind Games.

Maybe the fifth time’s a charm for Slater. And Mr. Robot belongs to Rami Malek anyway. His Elliot is a magnetic force field of quiet desperation, fighting the demons within him and the despots within his reach. A skinny, pale superhero with way too much on his mind potentially gives the USA network its first big buzz, social media sensation.

By the way, though, Elliot emphatically is “not on Facebook. ‘Cause I hate Facebook.” His views are his own.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Orange is the New Black after viewing all 13 Season 3 episodes


Just a few of the many principals from Orange is the New Black. Netflix photo

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More comedic, less filling, Orange is the New Black’s main storyline in Season 3 ends up being the illicit sales of ripe inmate panties to a bull market of avid, mostly male sniffers.

Whatever your fetishes, this turns out to be far less compelling than Season 2’s reign of terror by Yvonne “Vee” Parker or the inaugural year’s immersion of tenderfoot Piper Chapman (primary series star Taylor Schilling) into an intimidating, unnerving new world.

Netflix began streaming all 13 episodes earlier this month. Watching a season in full before rendering a verdict has been the policy in these spaces. So without being unduly specific on the “spoiler” front, here’s a thumbs up -- but only at a 45 degree angle -- for this latest look at life mostly inside the fences of fictional Litchfield Penitentiary.

This is a season in which two main characters are rather abruptly dispatched in early episodes -- and never seen again. Another prominent co-star from the first two seasons, Jason Biggs as Piper’s ex-fiancee Larry Bloom, is entirely left out of the new mix.

An overriding sense of jeopardy or menace is mostly missing as well. OITNB instead devotes multiple episodes to Piper’s burgeoning panty ring; a run on long-frozen, tasty Kosher meals by phonily Jewish inmates; and a devoted religious cult that forms around the silently manipulative Norma Romano (Anna Golden).

Those first two plot threads quickly run out of steam while continuing to run their course. And the overall plausibility of Piper increasingly going gangsta is stretched thinner than the panties being clandestinely worn by Sumo-sized Carrie “Big Boo” Black (Lea DeLaria).

All of the purloined pink undies come from a maiden prison enterprise, Whispers lingerie, instituted by the new private owners of Litchfield, which had been in danger of closing. A select group of inmates are paid $1 an hour for the “privilege” of making them. While at her sewing machine, Piper makes a new and increasingly intimate friend, the mega-tattooed Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose). Meawhile, Piper’s incumbent lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon reinstated as a regular), is increasingly succumbing to fears that a dotty new inmate named Lolly (Lori Petty) is a hit woman dispatched by a betrayed drug-runner.

Season 3 also introduces several new prison guards, one of whom is actually qualified. She’s Berdie Rogers (Martha Stephanie Blake), who joins the force before Litchfield’s new owners begin cutting costs and hiring incompetents such as former donut shop worker Charlie Coates (James McMenamin).

The redoubtable Mary Steenburgen also drops in for several episodes as Delia Mendez-Powell, who believes that her now incarcerated son, George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), is the father of pregnant inmate Dayanara “Daya” Diaz’s (Dascha Polanco) baby. The scenes between the two are well-played, particularly during a truth-telling Episode 8. Schreiber has moved on to co-star in the new HBO comedy series The Brink, but does find time, in Episode 10, for a cameo with Steenburgen.

This is otherwise a season where assistant warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) comes to the fore more than any other regular character. His backstory is revelatory while his efforts to save Litchfield border on selfless heroism. But how much longer can he continue to be a patsy while others sup at the trough?

Among the inmates, Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) emerges in full as more than a one-note crazy hick. Both her flashback life and current situation invite newfound empathy. Episode 10 in particular, the most dramatic of Season 3, dials up the pain and degradation she’s suffered -- both then and now.

Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) also gets ample time in her new vocation as an author of a pornographic page-turner that has several inmates begging for more. This particular subplot fares considerably better than the “Church of Norma” stuff. Aduba continues to be OITNB’s most expressive performer, whether harried into churning out new chapters of her tome or inching toward the possibility of intimacy with a fellow inmate. That would be a first for “Crazy Eyes,” who joins “Pennsatucky” as an appreciably more realized character in Season 3.

Still, the season as a whole runs in place more than it should while also straining credulity and dangling too many red herrings. Its extended 90 minute conclusion is a full-blown, arguably overreaching effort to be both love- and life-affirming. One major character’s fate hangs in the balance -- but in a tacked-on way -- while Piper remains intent on being a “bad ass.” They’re left out of sync with an otherwise hug-happy, blissed-out prison population immersed in a prolonged closing sequence. The hows and the whys won’t be divulged here. But it’s all done to the closing strains of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Some true-blue fans of OITNB may well be overjoyed with how Season 3 ends. But I suspect that more might be cringing at least a little. This is still a quality, provocative series that’s unlike any other and has already been renewed for Season 4. But much work needs to be done during the off-season -- beginning with restoring an ominous sense of disorder and peril in a place that’s gone more than a little too soft and soapy.


Email comments or questions to; unclebarky@verizon.net

Da bomb: HBO's The Brink follows smartly in step with Dr. Strangelove


Tim Robbins is a cocksure Secretary of State in The Brink. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 21st at 9:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Tim Robbins, Jack Black, Pablo Schreiber, Aasif Mandvi, Maribeth Monroe, Eric Ladin, Esai Morales, Geoff Pierson, Carla Gugino, John Larroquette
Produced by: Jerry Weintraub, Roberto Benabib, Jay Roach

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Inspired lunacy on an international scale is a tough nutty to crack.

HBO’s The Brink pulls it off despite being in the long shadow of Dr. Strangelove, the 1964 classic on which it’s very much modeled.

Armageddon again looms after a crazed rogue general heists Pakistan and its nuclear weaponry from the country’s democratically elected leader. He’s convinced himself that U.S. drones have been spreading electro-magnetic energy that will make his people sterile. In Dr. Strangelove, an unhinged U.S. general believed that the Soviets were behind a plot to fluoridate America’s water system and thereby contaminate the citizenry’s bodily fluids.

George C. Scott and Peter Sellers (in multiple roles) headed the cast of Dr. Strangelove. In The Brink, it’s a threesome of Tim Robbins, Jack Black and Pablo Schreiber, each of whom play one part apiece.

Robbins is Secretary of State Walter Larson, a profane, short-tempered womanizer with the lone redeeming quality of trying to prevent nuclear annilhation by any scheme necessary. His avowed nemesis is Secretary of Defense Pierce Gray (Geoff Pierson), a war monger who vies for the ear of President Julian Navarro (Esai Morales).

Caught in the middle is low-level foreign service officer Alex Talbot (Black), who’s stationed in Islamabad, Pakistan when the military coup occurs. He’s soon off on a series of manic misadventures, often in the company of fellow embassy underling Rafiq Massoud (Aasif Mandvi).

Schreiber, best known for his Season 1 portrayal of crooked corrections officer “Porn Stache” in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, is high in the sky -- and often on the ground, too -- as drug-smuggling bomber pilot Zeke “Z-Pak” Tilson. His secret missions are subject to change while commanders cover up the messes he’s made in tandem with co-pilot Glenn “Jammer” Taylor (Eric Ladin).

The Brink is studiously and deliciously nonsensical through the first five half-hour episodes made available for review. It takes a little time for the show to get its bearings. But both Robbins and Black are soon up to speed and off the rails. At the height of his circuitous efforts, Larson’s bout with a kidney stone is low comedy at a high level. Maribeth Monroe also excels in these sequences as devoted aide Kendra Peterson, who’s become expert at cleaning up her boss’s messes on a daily basis -- even when his urinary tract is A-OK.

Black’s Talbot can be a bit too cartoonish in the early going, even for the purposes of this storyline. But his quips and demeanor quickly kick in, with some nice thrust and parry from the oft-exasperated Massoud.

John Larroquette drops in as the ineffectual U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, whose Bible-belting belief system bedevils both Talbot and Larson. And Carla Gugino continues what’s been a very gainful year for her as Larson’s savvy, sexy wife, Joanne. Fox’s ongoing Wayward Pines and the smash feature film San Andreas are also on Gugino’s resumé this summer.

Closing credits for the initial five episodes are rich with rock classics. Sequentially listen for Creedence Clearwater’s “Fortunate Son”; John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”; Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”; Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”; and The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

The Brink’s Father Day premiere is the caboose following debuts of HBO’s True Detective 2 and the comedy series, Ballers, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“The Rock’s” solid gold star power makes it the favorite to be the most-watched of the three while the second coming of True Detective is sure to be sampled if not eventually savored. But The Brink gets my highest grade as an explosively funny satirical descendant that can hit home without being even slightly preachy about it. Mostly, though, have fun with both the madcap characters and the notion that one of the Pakistani demands in play is a full membership with the Augusta National Golf Club.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Back to the future: Williams' return to MSNBC could be a purgatory with a silver lining

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Out & in on Nightly News: Brian Williams/Lester Holt. NBC photos

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
This much is certain. Brian Williams certainly can’t hurt MSNBC, which has been a third place near-corpse in the cable news network ratings for the past 10 months.

Whenever he arrives, Williams cannot help but call attention to the network where it all began for him back in 1996. MSNBC’s pronounced tilt to the left, in direct reaction to No. 1 Fox News Channel’s conservatism, has led to a sharp fall in audience levels while CNN has vaulted to the No. 2 spot in both total viewers and the major news programming demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds.

In April, the last full month for which Nielsen ratings are currently available, CNN averaged 400,000 total viewers in the full-day Nielsens, compared to MSNBC’s 312,000. Among 25-to-54-year-olds, it was CNN, 130,00 and MSNBC, 82,000. The same big gaps between the two are reflected in the prime-time ratings.

Ironically, Williams had disassociated himself from MSNBC’s 2012 presidential election coverage because it had become so highly partisan. Now he’ll be going back and perhaps some day be seen as leading the charge toward a more balanced approach. Williams initially will anchor breaking news and special reports. And he no doubt will be something of a ratings magnet in the early going.

This was all made official on Thursday, when NBC News president Andrew Lack announced Williams’ demotion and acting anchor Lester Holt’s promotion to official status on the Nightly News. Holt, 56, will be the first African-American to be named permanent solo anchor of a broadcast network dinner hour newscast. From 1978 to 1983, the late Max Robinson was part of ABC’s World News Tonight threesome with Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings, both also deceased.

Holt has “performed remarkably well over the last few months under very tough circumstances,” Lack said in a statement. “He’s an exceptional anchor who goes straight to the heart of every story and is always able to find its most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience. In many ways, television news stands at a crossroads, and Lester is the perfect person to meet the moment.”

As principal anchor of the oft-tawdry Dateline NBC for a number of years, Holt wasn’t exactly a guardian angel of solid, straight-ahead journalism. Nightly News ratings slipped during his interim tenure, with ABC’s boyishly handsome David Muir topping the key 25-to-54-year-old ratings in recent weeks while Holt for the most part held on to a narrow lead in total viewers.

Both races have been exceedingly close, though. And Holt now will have the benefit of finally being promoted in much the same manner as Williams was -- a trustworthy and experienced news veteran who can be counted on to get it right.

Williams, who led Nightly News to the top of the ratings during his decade in “The Chair,” ran afoul of his own damning exaggerations and “mis-rememberings,” particularly in the case of claiming to be aboard a U.S. helicopter that drew enemy fire during the Iraq war. Claims he made about his on-site coverage of Hurricane Katrina also came into question.

“I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true,” Williams said in a statement released Thursday. “I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust.”

Williams, scheduled to be interviewed on Friday’s Today show by co-host Matt Lauer, pledged to support Holt “100 percent as he has always supported me. I am grateful for the chance to return to covering the news. My new role will allow me to focus on important issues and events in our country and around the world, and I look forward to it.”

NBC said that Williams also will fill in on breaking news coverage for the parent broadcast network when Holt is unavailable. But that does not include any sit-ins on Nightly News.

An internal review of Williams’ transgressions determined that his “statements in question did not for the most part occur on NBC News platforms or in the immediate aftermath of the news events, but rather on late-night programs and during public appearances, usually years after the news events in question.”

“Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust,” Lack said. “His excellent work over 22 years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

Don’t discount the possibility that Williams, 56, will someday wear a white hat again. At beleaguered MSNBC, he at least has a chance to ride to the ratings rescue and begin altering the network’s image as an overflowing fount of liberalism.

MSNBC began going that route during its Keith Olbermann era because it seemed to be the best way to combat Fox News Channel. For a while, CNN suffered from a lack of identity and severe ratings erosion. But under the direction of former NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker, CNN has re-set its course as an all-in, all-the-time destination for big breaking news stories (including its much parodied and criticized missing Malaysian airliner coverage) and a destination for prime-time, somewhat newsy series starring the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock. The network also has added the very capable Jake Tapper to its A-team while sticking with gaffe-prone anchor-reporter Don Lemon under the assumption that he at least draws further attention to the network.

Williams probably got the best deal possible for him in terms of remaining with NBC News. MSNBC isn’t the end of the world, even if it’s currently in ratings Siberia. Second-, third- and fourth chances abound in this country. Having presumably bottomed out, Williams now will get -- and should have -- a chance to restore the credibility he once had in abundance. For now, MSNBC is hardly stuck with him. In fact, it could really use him.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

"The Rock" gives HBO's Ballers a big draw at the height of his powers


”The Rock” with his TV reporter bedmate in Ballers. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John David Washington, Omar Miller, Donovan Carter, Rob Corddry, Troy Garity, Jazmyn Simon, London Brown, Dule Hill, Arielle Kebbel
Produced by: Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Danny Garcia, Peter Berg, Evan Reilly, Rob Weiss, Julian Farino, Denis Biggs

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Being caught between The Rock and his hard places turns out to be perfect timing for HBO.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, currently starring in the smash feature film San Andreas, strides through HBO’s new 10-episode Ballers like he owns it. Which he does. Premiering on Father’s Day along with True Detective 2 and The Brink, this engaging comedy/drama is a heavy favorite to be the most-watched of HBO’s new trio. Johnson’s best-selling popularity is the primary reason in a series that fits him almost as well as those old wrestling tighties.

He plays retired Miami Dolphins defensive stalwart Spencer Strasmore, now looking to score big as a Florida-based financial manager for current NFL stars. Doing it the “right way” is a priority, but bossman Joe (very good work by Rob Corddry) wants the deals done by pretty much any means necessary. Through the first four episodes made available for review, Spencer and Joe trade mostly friendly jabs while in hot pursuit of new clients and bigger windfalls for Anderson Financial Management.

Strasmore, who regularly pops pills to ease the leftover pains from a violent profession, has two principal players to juggle in the series’ formative early episodes.

Veteran, trouble-prone receiver Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), who looks more than a little like Dez Bryant, has just been cut by the Green Bay Packers after a nightclub confrontation goes viral on youtube. Strasmore finds him a new, last-chance home with the Dolphins, but it’s not a particularly comfy one.

Pass rusher Vernon Littlefield (Donovan Carter) is a cash-poor Dallas Cowboy looking to re-up with a king-sized longterm contract. His best friend, Reggie (London Brown), excels at being a money-sucking leech who keeps getting in Strasmore’s way.

Also in the mix is ex-NFL offensive lineman Charles Greane (Omar Miller), who’s tempted to make a comeback while his loyal wife, Julie (Jazmyn Simon), tries to keep him focused on finding a new profession.

Also on the other side of the ball, a sports agent named Jason (Troy Garity) works in tandem with Strasmore while dealing with abrasive Cowboys dealmaker Hal (too young to be Jerry Jones but perhaps a mockup of his son, Stephen).

“I’m not gonna screw up my (salary) cap over this. I’ve got other needs,” Hal says in Episode 4 as the dickering for Littlefield’s services escalates. A Cowboys logo is very visible in his office.

Ballers moves the chains briskly and breezily, with Johnson getting an ample share of closeups and chances to emote. He’s a guy’s guy and many a woman’s dream in terms of both this series and the fans who may well flock to it. For now, his character is bedding TV sports reporter Tracy Legette (Arielle Kebbel), who keeps a lid on one of client Ricky’s transgressions in return for Strasmore promising to have his head examined for any collateral concussion damage.

As for the highly protective NFL, well, it may not like a lot of what it sees. Players basically are portrayed as a collective set of self-entitled, sex-crazed, mercenary party hounds, particularly during an epic yacht bash thrown by Anderson Sports Management in hopes of reeling more of them in.

The initial four episodes include references to Roger Staubach and JJ Watt -- and cameos by New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz and famed former Dolphins coach Don Shula. Cruz throws down some drinks with Corddry’s Joe in Episode 4 while Shula gets a single, pointed line in Sunday’s premiere. “You are an asshole,” he tells Ricky. Nice work if you can get it.

HBO has gone the pro sports series route before, with its very early 1st and 10 and then Arli$$. Those series respectively were fronted by Delta Burke and Robert Wuhl. Neither could hold a candle to “The Rock’s” star power. And in Ballers he brings it in full and then makes the sale.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's True Detective 2 keeps hating on itself


Colin Farrell has lots on his tortured mind in the new True Detective. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 21st at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Colin Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, Kelly Reilly
Produced by: Nic Pizzolatto, Steve Golin, Scott Stephens

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The thrill of discovery, the agony of the followup act.

Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective enthralled from the start, with Matthew McConaughey killing it and Woody Harrelson gamely keeping pace.

Season 2, which premieres on Sunday, June 21st, is relentless in both its darkness and pretensions. The all-new principal characters, played by Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn, come close to being more comically than tragically flawed. They’re aided and abetted by Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch in a Gomorrah of a Los Angeles County infested by freaks, creeps and despots. The eight-episode series’ main murder victim is better off dead while those pursuing his killer or killers spend more time battling their own demons. None of this wears well during the course of the three distasteful episodes made available for review. The thing almost cries out for a palate-cleansing straight arrow from Adam-12.

Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, the disparate detectives played by McConaughey and Harrelson, also wrestled with their very troubled pasts and presents. But they resonated as more than Bayou-based dicks in both senses of that word. Creator Nic Pizzolato, who again has written all of the episodes, faced a daunting task this time out. He’s responded by flailing about and so far coming up well short of what made the first True Detective so mesmerizing. It’s hard to empathize with anyone in True Detective 2, which is bent, spindled and mutilated with a vengeance.

Farrell plays detective Ray Velcoro, who favors string ties and booze straight from the bottle. His ex-wife was raped and impregnated, leaving Ray with partial custody of a tubby non-biological son who’s now bullied in grade school. It doesn’t help when “dad” impulsively calls him a “fat pussy” in the opening episode.

Crooked casino owner and developer Frank Semyon (Vaughn) did Ray a “favor” in connection with the assault on his wife. The detective has been at his beck and call ever since. They tend to meet at a bar where a lone woman singer wails melancholy tunes with lyrics such as, “This is my least favorite life.”

Things have heated up after a kinky, corrupt city manager named Casper is found with his eyes removed and his genitals shot off. The guy had $5 million of Frank’s money at his disposal, and now it’s gone. So Ray ends up investigating, both for Frank and for his hard-ass cop shop bosses. Along for the bumpy ride are officer Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch), a high-strung war veteran with a constant haunted look, and caustic detective Ani Bezzerides (McAdams), whose sister does sex tapes and whose father is a weird, bearded, long-haired, robed religious institute leader played by a virtually unrecognizable David Morse (now close to three decades removed from St. Elsewhere).

Vaughn’s character broods and stares a lot while wondering why he and his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), can’t have children. He’s chiseled himself for the role, but Vaughn as a tough-talking intimidator still tends to come off as more silly than menacing. Ferrell, his countenance weighed down by a furry caterpillar of a mustache, is better suited to his dissipated detective role. Still, it’s a very tough slog on the empathy front. The overriding problem with True Detective 2 is its neck-deep wallow in debasement and self-pity.

Some of the long stretches of dialogue are basic loads of time-wasting bull. Vaughn’s Semyon opens Episode 2 by going on and on about a past trauma while his wife listens in bed. Episode 3 begins with a dream sequence that looks borrowed from David Lynch’s super-swervy Mulholland Drive.

Viewers also are hit with frequent overhead shots of the serpentine Southern California freeway system. What tangled webs it weaves, all of them made of stone cold concrete. Get the picture? No? Then we’ll pound it home again.

Meanwhile, the central murder mystery looks to be more of a draining endurance contest than an absorbing whodunit. But True Detective 2’s opening talk/sing theme music -- “I live among you, well-disguised” -- is definitely a chill-inducing keeper.

True Detective 2 still has five more episodes to go beyond the three put in play by HBO. Anything’s possible -- but not probable -- in terms of this series taking some turns for the better. But it very much looks like one big misfire, with a wealth of off-putting characters and their stink holes.

“You talk to me like that again, you’re gonna need a little baggie to carry your teeth home,” McAdam’s Ani tells a fellow cop whom she’s just abruptly dumped. That’s the spirit -- over and over again.


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ABC's The Astronaut Wives Club blasts off with a surprisingly compelling true tale


It’s all about putting on brave fronts in The Astronaut Wives Club. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 18th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Yvonne Strahovski, Dominique McElligott, Odette Annable, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Erin Cummings, Azure Parsons, Zoe Boyle, Desmond Harrington, Evan Handler, Sam Reid, Luke Kirby, Bret Harrison, Kenneth Mitchell, Wilson Bethel, Aaron McCusker, Joel Johnstone
Produced by: Stephanie Savage, Josh Schwartz, Len Goldstein, Michael London

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ABC’s blast from the past answer to Mad Men is likewise very much about salesmanship and subjugation.

It’s also far more interesting and incisive than anticipated, even if you’re fully familiar with the history of America’s all systems go effort to put a man on the moon. Initially set in the early 1960s and based on the same-named 2013 book by Lily Koppel, The Astronaut Wives Club is a summer diversion with smashing period wardrobes and starry-eyed tunnel visions. NASA had a twofold mission: beat Russia to the punch while making the public fall in love with “America’s Astro Family.”

The seven original Mercury astronauts and their spouses were filtered through the glossy pages of Life magazine, which had exclusive rights to tell their tales and hide their skeletons. Through the first three episodes made available for review, viewers will be witness to four historic launches as well as the suppressed real stories of:

***Louise and Alan Shepard (Dominique McElligott, Desmond Harrington)
***Annie and John Glenn (Azure Parsons, Sam Reid)
***Betty and Gus Grissom (JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Joel Johnstone)
***Trudy and Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Odette Annable, Bret Harrison)
*** Rene and Scott Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski, Wilson Bethel)
***Marge and Deke Slayton (Erin Cummings, Kenneth Mitchell)
***Jo and Wally Schirra (Zoe Boyle, Aaron McClusker)

American didn’t know, for instance, that Trudy had left the philandering Gordo and only resumed their sham marriage to help him out both career- and PR-wise.

Or that Marge had been -- gasp -- previously married and divorced. She runs afoul of a tabloid magazine that tries to blackmail her in return for dirt on other astronauts and their wives.

Furthermore, Alan was the biggest horn dog of them all, rendering his wife, Louise, icy, distrustful and often dismissive of the other wives. As in, “The last thing I need in my house is six giddy women and their deviled eggs.”

The goodly Annie’s bad stutter was also deemed unacceptable for public consumption. John remained devoted to her while she positioned herself as “a woman who knows when to shut up. America will love me.” Her tongue was at least a bit in cheek.

Beyond the 14 principals are two important supporting characters. Evan Handler plays protective and oft-dictatorial NASA handler Duncan Pringle while Luke Kirby is see-no-evil Life correspondent Max Kaplan.

The drama deftly inserts actual news footage from those times. But it’s less successful with a mockup of an older news anchor who apparently is supposed to represent Walter Cronkite. He instead comes off as pretty much a stiff over vintage black-and-white TV screens.

Astronaut Wives Club revisits a period when Rene Carpenter became a national headline-maker by declining to say she’d be praying for her husband’s safe return. “Why don’t you smash some church windows while you’re at it? Step on an American flag,” Pringle rages in Episode 3.

The wives are more or less united at crunch times but also can be combative with one other in the interests of protecting their turfs. Their husbands get the double-standard option of carousing with cute groupies at pool parties while the wives are expected to hold chaste launch day get-togethers.

One and all were white. But ABC, far more than its broadcast network rivals, is stressing the importance of diverse casting. So Episode 2 has Gus Grissom graciously volunteering to sign an autograph for the young son of a black motel maid. And in the third hour, Rene Carpenter asks him to join the wives at her husband’s launch. “Thank you, Mrs. Carpenter,” he replies cheerfully. “But all the beaches in Cocoa are whites only.” Both scenes come off as awkwardly patronizing.

Astronaut Wives Club can be hard-pressed to generate any genuine week-to-week suspense for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of America’s space program. Still, the producers try.

“I’m afraid we may have lost an astronaut,” the generic news anchor intones before Mrs. Astronaut begins agonizing to the tune of somber music. Episode 2 even has a cliffhanger, with an astronaut telling his wife he’s been grounded. “Why?” she implores. “Why would they do that to you?” Fade to black.

In the end, though, Astronaut Wives Club makes its presence felt without such dramatics. It’s a character study first and foremost, with a sure-handed sense of time and place. This is the unvarnished version that NASA kept from the pages of a compliant Life magazine.

“Alan can never know I was scared. No one can,” Louise Shepard tells the magazine’s go-between after her two-timing husband makes history with the United States’ first manned spaceflight.

Both Shepards are now deceased, as are most of the 14 principals. John and Annie Glenn endure as the only surviving couple. In Astronaut Wives Club, they’re also the most happily married amid all the extracurricular activities. Every story can still use a hero -- and in this case certainly, some heroines as well.


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Last call for the "old" TNT with the late-arriving Proof


Jennifer Beals is a snippy, self-assured surgeon in Proof. TNT photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Jennifer Beals, Matthew Modine, Joe Morton, Edi Gathegi, Annie Thurman, David Sutcliffe, Caroline Rose Kaplan
Produced by: Kyra Sedgwick, Rob Bragin, Tom Jackson, Jill Littman, Alex Graves

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TNT’s “proactive makeover” is currently in progress, with new Turner entertainment head and former Fox programmer Kevin Reilly warning TV watchers to “expect some very daring shows -- some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”

In other words, he wants TNT to be more like advertiser-supported basic cable competitors such as FX and AMC. They attract a lot of social media buzz and/or critical acclaim for the likes of Louie, The Americans, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead and the just-ended Mad Men. TNT’s far more conventional drama series have mostly come and gone without incident.

Proof, a leftover from the pre-Reilly TNT regime, pretty much fits the old mold. Think NBC’s Medium or CBS’ Ghost Whisperer, both of which explored life after death through the eyes of a central woman character.

This time it’s Jennifer Beals, whose no-nonsense Dr. Carolyn Tyler is considerably more skeptical about the supernatural. But she starts to defrost after a cancer-stricken billionaire inventor named Ivan Turing (Matthew Modine) summons her to his sprawling estate and makes a proposition. If she’ll search for “real proof of what happens after we die,” he’ll start lavishing money on Medics International, where Carolyn works long hours while flexing her reliably prickly personality.

Hmm, a lot of good could be done with all that dough, particularly for underprivileged countries in need of medical supplies. So OK, deal.

There are other complications. Carolyn and her doctor husband Len (David Sutcliffe), who still work together, have been separated since she caught him cheating on her before their teen son died in a car wreck. And Carolyn herself had a possible brush with the afterlife, which she’s mostly repressed, after nearly dying while in the “Far East” helping victims of a tsunami. A rebellious surviving teen daughter -- Annie Thurman as Sophie -- further stirs the plot pot.

TNT made the first three episodes of Proof available for review. And while not must-see, they’re solidly acted and decently scripted. Beals makes a generally strong impression as the show’s driving force. The cast also includes stalwart Joe Morton as hospital administrator Charles Richmond and Edi Gathegi as intern Zednan Badawi, a Sudanese import who’s fun to watch.

Carolyn’s ad hoc after-life team also includes perky Janel Ramsay (Caroline Rose Kaplan), who serves as Turing’s intermediary. And Callum Blue gets to clash with Carolyn as best-selling author/psychic Peter Van Owen. “I’m a doctor. You do cheap parlor tricks,” she sniffs.

Tuesday’s premiere episode also works in the case of a little girl who’d been pronounced dead before miraculously recovering. What might she have seen on the “other side?”

Episode 2 trains on a pilot who scattered his beloved deceased wife’s ashes but now envisions her as very much alive. The third hour is built around a combat fatality dating back to the Korean War but somehow still haunting two young military veterans. With help from a “regression” therapist (guest star David Chisum), they cathartically re-live what happened on that fateful day. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense -- if any at all. But the episode does give Carolyn a chance to climb in the sack with a charming former medical school mate while the characters played by Modine and Blue are benched throughout.

It would be good to see more of Modine, who adds some nice carefree touches to his billionaire benefactor role. But this is Beals’ show from start to finish, with her character’s softer sides and haunted vulnerabilities seeping through that hard-shell casing during Episode 3 in particular.

Beals’ sturdy performance is an overall plus, but Proof has a harder time selling its basic week-to-week premise. The featured cases resonate to a point but so far tend to falter at wrap-up time. Episode 1 mostly sets the table before limping to a rather lifeless denouement. Next week’s hour ends too abruptly and with little punch. Episode 3 is the best of this early grouping, with some affecting moments down the stretch and then a nice kicker involving the appealing intern Zedan.

Any real-life afterlife beyond this summer could be the toughest sell of all. The new programming maestro is intent on burying those lingering ghosts of the “old” TNT. And Proof could well be caught in his crossfire if it’s not an immediate and substantial ratings hit.

GRADE: B-minus

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AMC's The Making of the Mob: New York is a hard-hitting hybrid


Making of the Mob: These guys don’t mess around. AMC photo

Premiering: Monday, June 15th at 9 p.m. (central) with the first of eight chapters
Narrated by: Ray Liotta
Produced by: Stephen David

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Mobsters are a bottom-less chalice of blood. They’ve also been the volatile leading men in all-time classic movies (The Godfather I and II, Goodfellas) and TV series (The Sopranos).

AMC is the latest to get its tommygun on, launching the unscripted/scripted The Making of the Mob: New York on Monday, June 15th after Goodfellas serves as a platesetter from 6 to 9 p.m. (central).

Both productions very much include veteran tough guy Ray Liotta, who narrates Making of the Mob solidly and matter-of-factly while a clump of largely unknown actors stride through the featured roles without saying a whole lot.

Paramount is Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Rich Graff), after whom Episode 1 is subtitled. Meyer Lansky, “Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Frank Costello, Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone are among the other famous gangland names making their bones and occasionally breaking some. But in the two episodes made available for review, Making of the Mob also is intent on telling the stories of two lesser known gangland kingpins -- “Joe the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Both were terrorizing taskmasters who essentially come off as the real villains while Lucky and his boys are more gray-hatted although equally power-thirsty.

It’s all handsomely produced and cogently told, even if the soundtrack and dramatizing can sometimes be akin to over-baked zitti. Making of the Mob also has assembled a conveyor belt of talking heads, sprinkling them like parmesan while also scrimping on the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Frankie Valli, Joe Mantegna, Chazz Palminteri and Gay Talese. All are barely used in these first two of eight scheduled hours, although Giuliani does get a chance to say that New York mobsters were “totally criminal, totally immoral, totally horrible -- but totally brilliant.”

The Sopranos contingent so far is made up of Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore, who twice compares mob hit men to combat soldiers taking orders. Drea de Matteo, who played Adriana La Cerva on The Sopranos, is billed as a fellow talking head, but doesn’t make an appearance in Episode 1 or 2.

There’s ample violence, of course, but nothing close to the graphic gore on AMC’s The Walking Dead or FX’s American Horror Story. Bullets fly and punches land without more than perhaps a few shot glasses of blood spilled. The language is also fairly chaste, with nary an f-bomb dropped -- bleeped or otherwise -- on this advertiser-supported cable production. “Joe the Boss” is allowed to get a bit ripe in Monday’s premiere hour, snarling at Lucky, “You got some big balls comin’ over here like this.”

This isn’t Mobsters for Dummies. But you can get a pretty good History 101 lesson in terms of rises to power and how they happened amid all the infighting. Episode 1 begins in Chicago at a big 1931mob conference before flashing back to New York, 1906, the year Luciano arrived as a nine-year old Italian immigrant. He soon hooked up with Costello and Siegel, a brutish young lad who relished pounding people senseless. All three wanted to go places fast.

Making of the Mob isn’t in any big hurry, but doesn’t overly tarry save for those ridiculous post-commercial recaps of what was shown just a few minutes earlier. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be, but your basic viewer still should be equipped with at least a very short term memory.

AMC has yet to really score with an unscripted series. This is something of a hybrid but looks to have a decent chance to draw a fair-sized crowd. The network plans to offer an appetizer mob movie each Monday, with Goodfellas followed on June 22nd by The Godfather. Being in such austere company could diminish Making of the Mob. In fact, how could it not? Still, this so far is an overall sturdy production that re-details the lives and deaths of high-powered hoods who at their heights were “making millions, killing thousands and changing the face of crime forever.”

GRADE: B-minus

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CNN fires up The Seventies with another truncated look at what TV wrought

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Polar opposites in ‘70s TV: All in the Family and Happy Days.

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CNN is kicking it up a decade after spending last summer with The Sixties.

From the same production team of Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, here comes The Seventies, with the Thursday, June 11th 8 p.m. (central) premiere again leading off with television’s impact on the decade.

The same problems persist, however, with “Television Gets Real,” the eight-part sequel to “Television Comes of Age.” It’s basically another short-burst, talking heads/clip show with too much to cover and not nearly enough time to do so. A batch of East Coast-based TV critics, including colleagues and friends David Bianculli and Alan Sepinwall, vie for time with a gaggle of actors and producers plus a clip reel that tries to accommodate All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Roots, Monday Night Football, Saturday Night Live, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, The Bob Newhart Show, Maude, Good Times, Mork & Mindy, Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company and many more.

Squeezed out entirely is TV’s transformative live coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings, although Chapter 2, “United States vs. Nixon,” presumably will get at some of that. But Battle of the Network Stars gets a slice of air time, with ex-M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell saying how much he hated competing on it while Ed Asner grins and says, “Live and learn.”

It was quite a decade, at least in the early to mid-portion, for high-caliber, timeless TV. Saturday nights on CBS housed an unparalleled 1973-’74 season lineup of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show (the only one of these to premiere in the 1960s).

Bianculli, who survives the show’s editing process in good shape, says it may have been the best one-night grouping in TV history. The effusive Sepinwall in contrast is served poorly. His quotes clearly are bitten off at the knees, leaving him as mostly a state-the-obvious bridge. As in, “When Chevy Chase leaves (SNL), Bill Murray comes in.” Cut. Print.

Among the actors, Roots star LeVar Burton makes a pair of salient points. He notes ABC’s “genius” move of reverse-casting some of “TV’s favorite dads” as slaveholders or villains in an effort to ramp up the star power for this big gamble of a miniseries. They included Lorne Greene (Bonanza), Ralph Waite (The Waltons), Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch) and Lloyd Bridges (Sea Hunt).

Burton also says that PBS children’s programming, led by the unequaled Sesame Street, “became the platinum standard for the planet.” Well stated and irrefutable. Burton went on to host PBS’ Reading Rainbow, which premiered in 1983.

All in the Family, easily the decade’s most daring comedy series, epitomizes the “Television Gets Real” subtitle. Producer Norman Lear, also the architect of Good Times, Maude and The Jeffersons, gets to revisit his greatest successes in a new interview for the program. But the valid question of whether All in the Family also served as a megaphone for bigots is dismissed via a clip from The Dick Cavett Show and Lear’s one-word answer. Which was “No.”

Benign sitcoms such as Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley arrived later in the ‘70s as producer Garry Marshall’s vehicles for entertaining without offending. By the 1976-77 season, they had pushed All in the Family from the top of the prime-time ratings charts. And at the end of the decade, TV had gone from getting real to falling off that wagon with Top 10 hits such as Three’s Company, That’s Incredible, Dallas, Flo and The Dukes of Hazzard.

But CBS’ unbreakable 60 Minutes ranked as the most popular show of all in the 1979-80 TV season. Its signature anchor, Mike Wallace, also gets the most preposterous quote of all near the end of “Television Gets Real.” Following a story on the rise of cable TV in general and HBO in particular, Wallace tells viewers that “at its worst, cable TV could invade our privacy, tranquilize our children, remove us electronically from the flesh and blood world -- and we’d have to pay for the privilege.”

CNN didn’t quite exist yet when he said that. Three-and-a-half decades later, CNN and The Seventies in large part are making sport of Wallace’s alarmist deduction. Should Hanks and his production company ever get to the first decade of the new millennium, their television segment aptly could be called “The Rise of Cable.”

For now “Television Gets Real” is an OK, but hardly exceptional kickoff to The Seventies. Trying to touch all those bases in just 42 minutes time (after subtracting commercials) again proves to be too much of an undertaking. Instead viewers will get the “Hello, I must Be Going” treatment. Groucho Marx happily sang that ditty in pre-TV times during the 1930 film Animal Crackers. To say the least, it’s never really left us.


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Buying into the official book on Breaking Bad

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The subtitles of all 62 episodes are dissected for both transparent and hidden meanings.

Also under a microscope: the color palette, the carnage, deadly chemicals, getaway cars and the “Challenge Coins” given to cast and crew at the end of each season.

Through it all, creator Vince Gilligan is expansive on subjects ranging from what he might have changed about a character (Jesse Pinkman’s teeth remained “a little too perfect”) to the bend-over-backward pains he took to “get the audience on Walter’s side when we first meet him.”

Breaking Bad: The Official Book, lavishly illustrated and annotated, ends up weighing in at 224 soft-cover pages at a retail price of $19.95. The series finale originally aired back on Sept. 29, 2013. If you still don’t know the outcome, this probably isn’t for you. Otherwise indulge yourself with a book that deeply scratches the itches of fans who want to be further in the know.

Gilligan, via a new interview and excerpts from those in an earlier digital version titled Breaking Bad: Alchemy, does his level best to lay it all out anew. Even though it’s his overriding opinion that “the person least able to talk about a book, a painting, or whatever it is, is the person who made it.”

It’s all edited by film historian and author David Thomson, who also asks the questions of Gilligan and other behind-the-scenes maestros. What The Official Book doesn’t have are interviews with any of the series’ on-camera stars. So know that going in, but don’t consider it a drawback. The off-camera people who waved all of those Breaking Bad batons are also worthy of spotlighting. They include series composer Dave Porter, who’s asked, “Do the actors influence the music you source or create?”

“I became extremely adept at watching Bryan Cranston’s forehead for just the right wrinkle in his furrowed brow to know when the music should start, and just the right moment of fatigue and weakness out of Dean Norris’s character,” he says. “They didn’t tell us what to do, but they made it a very clear path.”

Thomson reveres Breaking Bad -- and then some. “As a movie critic, I feel that no American film of the twenty-first century has matched the achievement of Breaking Bad,” he says in a lengthy introduction. “Nothing on the ‘big’ screen has had its range and grandeur, or found a beauty that comes so organically from its subject . . . No theatrical movie has a fraction of its inventiveness, maintains such a high level of dialogue, or goes so deeply into character and acting.”

So basically he’s a fanboy, although he doesn’t write like one or ask vacuous questions of Gilligan and others. This can be a wordy book, with Thomson making statements more than asking questions during his new interview with Gilligan. On Page 24, for instance, Thomson gets off a 143-word riff, to which Gilligan replies, “Right.” But he also succeeds in drawing Gilligan out. For instance: “In those final episodes of Breaking Bad, nothing was beyond discussion, and we talked about the idea of flashing forward to a scene in which a 21-year-old young woman is in a meeting in a lawyer’s office, watching a videotape on her birthday, and receiving money. And we would put the audience into this moment, and it would take place two decades after the events of Breaking Bad.”

The young woman would have been Walt’s grown-up daughter, Holly, whom he provided for in an ingenious way during the final episode. But this particular flash-forward never got beyond the writers’ room.

Gilligan since has endured CBS’ cancellation of his Battle Creek police series while basking in favorable and sometimes ecstatic reviews for his Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul. But he doesn’t expect to ever top or equal Breaking Bad.

“It scares me that I’ll never remotely hit those heights again,” he tells Thomson. “I’ll never be able to figure out what it is I did right the first time around.”

The first “Official” book gets it right most of the time. It’s not coffee table-sized but is beautifully illustrated as such. You can page through it time and again, picking up the words at your leisure while continuing to appreciate the views.

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