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Discovery Channel's American Tarzan merits a shout out


Only one will be crowned “American Tarzan.” Discovery photo

Premiering: Wednesday, July 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on Discovery Channel
Starring: Seven adventurers vying to become “American Tarzan.”
Produced by: Matt Sharp, Dan Adler

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Hollywood and Vines: Has any superhero been the subject of more film and TV productions than the chest-pounding, ape-trained, Jane-mating, loin clothed, jungle-ruling he-man of few words?

Surely not. And here come two more. The latest feature film, The Legend of Tarzan, opens on Friday, July 1st. Then comes Discovery Channel’s American Tarzan, a grueling endurance test that begins its four-episode run on Wednesday, July 6th. Oh, and there’s also that ongoing Geico commercial, in which Jane is all over the big lug for refusing to ask for directions.

What’s at stake in American Tarzan? Well, there’s no monetary prize. Nor does the winner get a brand new car, a free trip to less taxing surroundings or even a pair of tickets to the movie. A Discovery spokesman confirms that “the main prize is getting the title.” Hopefully there’s at least a handsome plaque or a championship belt involved. Because judging from the premiere hour made available for review, the five men and two women involved will be subjected to more suffering than Johnny Depp’s latter day box office receipts.

Competitors are identified only by their first names on American Tarzan, although publicity materials name them in full. They include Tim Reames of Austin, TX, an “unbreakable Marine” who’s called “Reames” because there’s already another Tim -- “ultra runner” Tim Olson from Boulder, Colo.

Their proving ground is the “lost” Caribbean island of Dominica, which has remained “mostly uninhabited by man,” according to an unidentified narrator. In order to get there, competitors must paddle individual kayaks on a lengthy trip to the mouth of the Indian River. There they’ll encounter the first of four Biomes -- the Jungle Biome. Either conquer it and emerge at the “Colonial Ruins” finish line or admit defeat and drop out. Such is the fate of one contestant during the premiere hour.

Quickly establishing a rooting interest is “military mom” and now emergency room nurse Kim Liszka of Macungie, PA. After being a single mother for 18 years, “it’s my moment to shine” she declares before taking an early lead. In her mind, an imposing obstacle is “beautifully exhausting.” And an attack of bees, while disconcerting, is not going to be enough to stop her.

Besides Kim, Tim and “Reames,” the other hopefuls are “ninja master” Jeremy Guarino of Buffalo; “speed climber” Derek Knutson of Hayward, WI; “spartan racer” Maria Herrera of San Diego; and “strongman” Brandon Morrison of Seattle.

Brandon used to be something of a string bean, but decided to bulk up with both heavy weights and calorie intake. “I look like I ate the old me,” he says of the days when he was half the almost 300-pound man he is now. Furthermore, Brandon wants to prove that strongmen like himself aren’t just “lumbering oafs who pick things up once and go eat a pizza and go to bed.”

American Tarzan does a vivid job of depicting pain, exhaustion and determination amid the unforgiving geography and elements. Tim’s resourceful, though. His hunger pangs are deterred by a termite snack from a fresh nest of ‘em. “Tasty,” he says.

This is far more grueling than The Amazing Race, and with no rewards for completing one of the obstacle courses other than the satisfaction of a job well done. American Tarzan also is mercifully brief and to the point. Four episodes don’t seem like too much of a chore for viewers to endure. And none of the competitors comes off as a typical made-for-TV braggart or villain.

The eventual winner may not have the strength to let loose with a prototypical Tarzan yell. But perhaps the Discovery Channel in recompense could book a guest shot on one of the lesser TV talk shows. Given all the hardships involved, something more should come of this than a mere title and a free trip in coach back home.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Orange is the New Black after viewing all 13 Season 4 episodes


Showdowns abound in stark Season 4 of Orange is the New Black. Netflix photo

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Fittingly in this case, Orange is the New Black has set some high bars for itself during its first three seasons.

The Emmy-winning Netflix comedy/drama series, at its best when playing it more seriously, takes a decided turn back in that direction with a gripping and game-changing Season 4. During the course of all 13 episodes, look for a self-defense killing followed by dismemberment of the corpse; the death of a regular cast member; a branding triggered by an ad hoc race war and the arrival of a new force of security guards headed by an openly gay, uncompromising bearded giant named Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke), who’s aided and abetted by the sadistic Thomas “Humps” Humphrey (Michael Torpey).

If Season 3 struck a too frivolous tone, then Season 4 compensates with a much starker look at the rough-and-tumble of prison life. Comedy is still prevalent, particularly in the earlier hours. But a rose garden has little in common with prison life, save for the thorns. So OITNB re-calibrates itself in that direction, with well-meaning but ever-compromised Director of Human Activities Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) finally realizing the obvious after his good intentions are waylaid time and again.

“This place crushes anything good,” he tells a virginal new guard in hopes of persuading him to get out while he can.

Season 4 also is notable for the arrival of “Queen of Cuisine” Judy King (Blair Brown), who supposedly is loosely modeled after Martha Stewart but in time comes off as much more of a Paula Deen. Brown commands this role with an iron drawl, poo-poohing preferential treatment while at the same time reveling in it after being jailed on a tax evasion conviction. But of course she’s not a racist -- in her mind -- despite hosting an earlier TV puppet show starring dumb ol’ Chitlin’ Joe. Footage pops up on a prison TV set after it’s unearthed by a cable news network. Aw, shucks, everyone has a little transgression now and then. “I am the friendliest racist you’re ever gonna meet,” she declares to Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), who had been star-struck.

Loopy Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty), who joined the series in Season 2, likewise is a standout. Her makeshift cardboard “time machine” is an escape from all those crazy voices in her head. Additionally, the former crusading journalist (as we see in flashbacks) thinks she can do considerable good by changing certain courses of events. “If I can go back in time, I can stop Jimmy Carter from starting FEMA,” she reasons.

Lolly also can be lucid. “Dead girl porn. Cosby dream shot,” she notes in the opening episode while participating in a coverup. Is she crazy enough to be dangerous -- or will no one take her seriously no matter what she says? Lolly’s eventual bonding with veteran prison guard Sam Healy (Michael Harney) is an oft-touching blend of two lost souls.

Charter inmate Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) also has some terrific moments, both comedic and tragic. Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) comes to the fore as the leader of an increasingly aggressive faction of Hispanic prisoners who clash with series lead Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) on both business and racial matters. And Kate Mulgrew’s Galina “Red” Reznikov is terrific as always.

Episode 12 of Season 4, subtitled “The Animals,” is directed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. So of course it’s extra eventful and most notable for a sudden death scene in the prison cafeteria. The episode also marks the return of a long-isolated inmate, the rekindling of a dormant relationship and the full realization by Caputo that the corporation now running the Litchfield prison is solely interested in profits at any cost.

Season 4’s finale ends with a jarring cliffhanger that’s the polar opposite of last season’s climactic, joyous romp in a nearby lake. Netflix already has renewed OITNB for fifth and sixth seasons. At the end of this one, the bite is back with a vengeance while the supply of story lines has multiplied rather than calcified. As with HBO’s Game of Thrones, the best seems yet to come after rejuvenating seasons that will leave many a faithful fan stoked for more.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Can't stop falling in love: Showtime's Roadies returns Cameron Crowe to his rock roots


Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino are at the heart of Roadies. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, Imogen Poots, Rafe Spall, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Peter Cambor, Ron White, Jacqueline Byers, Finesse Mitchell, Luis Guzman, Branscombe Richmond, Tanc Sade
Produced by: Cameron Crowe, Winnie Holzman, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Len Goldstein, Kathy Lingg

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Coming off some of the worst reviews of his career for Aloha, former rock journalist Cameron Crowe otherwise has been gradually re-immersing himself, at age 58, in what initially made him tick and throb.

The rock docs Pearl Jam Twenty and The Union were both released in 2011, well after the onetime Rolling Stone teen wonder tried to recapture those days in 2000’s semi-autobiographical and critically praised Almost Famous.

Showtime’s Roadies, for which Crowe is the creator, principal writer and co-executive producer, is his first weekly television series after a feature film career that also has included Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Vanilla Sky and the blockbuster Jerry Maguire.

Roadies is steadfastly determined, at times too much so, to celebrate “The Unsung Heroes of Rock.” A quote to that effect, from grandmaster rock tourist Tom Petty, serves as the opening act for Sunday’s premiere. “I think the general public has no idea what roadies do,” he once said. “Bless ‘em all. I just play the songs. They make the show happen.”

Crowe has a pair of estimable collaborators in Winnie Holzman (the landmark My So-Called Life but not much else of real note), and J.J. Abrams (seemingly just about everything, including Alias, Lost, and the big-screen reboots of Star Trek, Star Wars and Mission: Impossible).

They’ve put their heads together and come up with a behind-the-scenes look at a profession that steers far from TV’s four basic food groups of crimefighters, doctors, lawyers and befuddled sitcom dads. Principal among those who set the stage for the Staton-House Band are tour manager Bill Hanson (Luke Wilson) and production manager Shelli Anderson (Carla Gugino). He’s first seen in bed with a considerably younger woman before she pops in on him and isn’t surprised. The constant nakedness of Hanson’s latest conquest, whether she’s in bed or walking around, seems more than a little gratuitous if not voyeuristic on the part of the aging Crowe, who directed all three episodes made available for review.

It takes a while to introduce all the supporting cast members. Initially registering the strongest is Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), an aspiring filmmaker who’s planning to leave the crew and enroll at NYU after the band’s New Orleans stop.

“I don’t hear the music the same way. I don’t feel it’s mine anymore,” she rather pretentiously tells grizzled road manager Phil (Ron White), who’s seen it all and never tires of saying so.

Kelli has a crazed twin brother named Wes (real-life rapper Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker), who’s determined to rejoin the tour as a killer espresso maker. He also comfortably adapts to being a “manny” (just like Uncle Buck!) for the misbehaving, insult-hurling, pre-teen son of the band’s lead singer.

Also incoming is cost-cutting Britisher Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall), who’s been ordered to fire people while finding more ways to make money. But he also has a soft side that’s never quite believable, and an attraction to Kelly Ann that appears to be grudgingly and sometimes gratingly mutual.

There’s a groupie, too, named Natalie (Jacqueline Byers). In Episode 1, she leads the skateboarding Kelly Ann on a ridiculous chase after stealing credentials from a weathered roadie with whom she has sex. So when is this thing going to jell? Well, not for starters. But it starts to get better in Episode 2, courtesy of a killer raw rehearsal by the real-life band Reignwolf, which has been hastily signed to be the opening act in Memphis. The power of their music has some of the roadies believably transfixed. And for this short burst at least, the occasional magic of their profession is self-evident without any clunky pronouncements from Wilson’s Hanson.

Episode 3 is stunt-casted with Lindsay Buckingham as the new temporary opening act on the Atlanta stop and Rainn Wilson playing a caustic, self-important music blogger named Bryce Newman. He’s just strafed the Staton-House Band as “relentlessly irrelevant,” and Roadies treats this as an Armageddon moment that must be immediately remedied by inviting Newman to the Atlanta show and thoroughly kissing his ass.

For one thing, no one has that kind of influence anymore. And if there were a Supreme Being of rock criticism, he or she presumably wouldn’t be sucked in so easily. But Wes comes to the rescue with a renegade tactic that further knocks this episode off-stride. Meanwhile, the thoroughly reverential treatment of Buckingham likewise becomes off-putting.

And yet . . . the worst of Roadies doesn’t negate its sweet spots. It’s almost as if the series is an ongoing collection of albums, some far better remembered than others. Wes is a possible breakout character while Kelly Ann is appealingly idealistic, although sometimes overly weepy.

Luke Wilson’s typically hangdog acting has never been more than capable while Gugino remains both crush-worthy and dependable. Her character is married, but not all that fulfilled, leaving the door open for Hanson if he can ever kick his proclivity for one-night stands.

So far, Roadies both shows Crowe’s age and showcases his never-ending love of the environment that once put many of his stories on the cover of Rolling Stone. He still goes home again by occasionally writing for the magazine. But if the thrill has never left, the execution is sometimes left wanting in Roadies, which is trying so awfully, awfully hard -- at times to the point of being awful. Perhaps, though, it can reverse the field of HBO’s newly canceled Vinyl, which got worse as it went along. Because when you get right down to basics, Cameron Crowe is still a guy worth rooting for.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS tries again with American Gothic, which otherwise has nothing in common with the famous painting or the network's 1995 original


All in the family. But who’s the killer in American Gothic? CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Juliet Rylance, Antony Starr, Justin Chatwin, Megan Ketch, Virginia Madsen, Eliot Knight, Stephanie Leonidas, Gabriel Bateman, Jamey Sheridan
Produced by: Corinne Brinkerhoff, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, James Frey, Todd Cohen

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Perhaps Leslie Moonves remembers this. Or possibly he’s chosen to forget.

Moonves first joined CBS in July 1995 as entertainment president. The last-place network already had its new fall lineup in place, so Moonves inherited the likes of Bless This House, Central Park West, Dweebs, Almost Perfect, Can’t Hurry Love, If not For You and -- the punch line -- American Gothic.

All were dismal failures, but CBS for some reason can’t seem to put the American Gothic title to bed.

The original starred Gary Cole as demonic, supernatural-powered Lucas Buck, sheriff of a small South Carolina town. The series otherwise is notable for introducing young Lucas Black, who went on to co-star with Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade and now is a regular on CBS’ NCIS: New Orleans. As 10-year-old Caleb Temple in the network’s first American Gothic, he had to fight off Buck’s repeated attempts to possess and corrupt him.

All these years later, with Moonves now running the entire CBS show, here comes an entirely different American Gothic originating from the big city of Boston and featuring a typically dysfunctional upper crust family. No one has supernatural powers, but there’s a pretty creepy kid in the cast. He’s nine-year-old Jack Hawthorne (Gabriel Bateman), who in Episode 2 tells the mourners at his grandfather’s funeral, “I’m mostly sad that grandpa was cremated and I never got to see his decomposing body.”

Little Jack is really into forensics, you see. And his father, illustrator/drug addict Cam Hawthorne (Justin Chatwin), hasn’t been of much help to him. Jack’s mom, Sophie Hawthorne (Stephanie Leonidas), is estranged from Cam and has also been a druggie. But they still see each other, and the sex remains hot.

We’re only scratching the surface of the Hawthorne family’s many trials and tribulations. They all swirl around new clues about a serial murderer dubbed the Silver Bells Killer because he left a silver bell next to his six previous victims, all of whom were strangled by a belt. But the killings stopped 14 years ago, which also happens to be the time that a very moody and darkly dispositioned Garrett Hawthorne (Antony Starr) left his family. Now he’s suddenly back after the father he despises, Mitchell Hawthorne (Jamey Sheridan), is hospitalized following a heart attack.

Mitchell’s wife is Madeline Hawthorne (Virginia Madsen), who turns out to be very conniving. Their two daughters are mayoral candidate Allison Hawthorne-Price (Juliet Rylance), who’s living something of a secret life, and the younger Tessa Ross (Megan Ketch), conveniently married to dogged detective Brady Ross (Elliot Knight). At issue: what, if anything, do the Hawthornes have to do with all those murders? Or is the mounting evidence all just purely (and pretty impossibly) circumstantial?

The two episodes made available for review are not without pulling power. But how much staying power will American Gothic have over a long haul of 13 episodes ordered for Season One? And how many times have viewers been down similar roads in dramas about powerful families with more skeletons than a Halloween haunted house?

We’ll leave you with this exchange, near the end of Episode 2, between Madsen’s seemingly malevolent Madeline and prodigal son Garrett, who underscores his potential malevolence by shaving with a knife.

“I think you should leave,” she tells him.


“Because you’re a grenade.”

“Well, then maybe you should handle me carefully.”

Guess I’ll keep watching.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Two transfixing TV miniseries tackle O. J. Simpson hard


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It’s been a very big year for a certain wealthy, internationally famous womanizer who’s built a wall around himself and people of color while getting away with murder in the minds of many.

This time it’s not about you, Donald Trump. O. J. Simpson, now 68 and still serving time in a Nevada jail on an armed robbery conviction, has been dissected as never before in two acclaimed miniseries that likely will be winning numerous awards before the year is out.

FX’s 10-part, 10-hour The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which concluded on April 5th, told the inside story of his polarizing acquittal in the 1994 murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. A notable cast, including John Travolta, Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Nathan Lane and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, acted out an adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent 1996 book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson.

ESPN’s ongoing 5-part, 10-hour O. J.: Made In America documentary series at first brush had the air of redundancy. Instead it’s anything but. Unlike FX’s presentation, the smoldering racial buildup to Simpson’s exhaustively covered trial is detailed starkly and instructively. Simpson’s incredible on-field abilities also are recaptured, both as a Heisman Trophy-winning USC running back and as the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season while with the Buffalo Bills in 1973.

Through it all, the black community of Los Angeles never felt Simpson’s firm embrace. But years of police brutality and courtroom verdicts favoring the perpetrators served to elevate “The Juice” to a stature he didn’t deserve or want until it became his lifeline in a court of law. The man who lived in luxurious, almost exclusively white Brentwood had long distanced himself from even a semblance of civil rights activism. It made him an unlikely Lion King in the fight against white oppressors, but that role ended up transcending his guilt or innocence. Two decades later, there’s even less doubt that O. J. “did it.” But his win against “The Man,” aided and abetted by an oft-inept prosecution team, is still viewed through the prism of institutional racism as “payback” for decades of injustice. Made In America makes that side of the story perfectly clear while also judiciously telling both sides.

I’ve watched the FX and ESPN miniseries in their entirety and also read Toobin’s book, which adds even more layers of behind-the-scenes intrigue and commentary. Made In America doesn’t officially conclude until Saturday night on ESPN. But the complete production is now available via WatchESPN on the streaming device of your choice. I viewed Parts 3, 4 and 5 using the ESPN app on Roku. There are a lot fewer commercial breaks and they’re also of shorter duration. So you can save yourself an hour or two or more by using this option to watch the rest of Made In America or start from scratch. You also won’t have to wait until Saturday.

OK, that’s enough on the other tools at hand. Here’s some of what I took away from Made In America.

*** Simpson indeed was luminescent and even humble at the height of his athletic powers. When he broke the 2,000-yard rushing barrier on a freezing day on the road against the New York Jets, he insisted that the entire Bills starting offense be with him for the locker room interview. Post-game coverage shows him recognizing each of them by name while looking very happy to do so. It still comes off as an enduring, selfless act of generosity.

*** LAPD chief Daryl Gates, who died in 2010, is depicted as an imperial authority figure with an overall condescending view of minorities as deficient human beings. His troops were taught to wade into the black community with clubs and other weaponry at the ready. Drug busts, whether anything of any consequence was found, were excuses to go on property-destroying rampages.

The aftermath of one such forced entry remains astonishing. But after the 1991 exoneration of four police officers in the Rodney King beating, Gates instructed his officers to initially stand down while property in South Central L.A. was looted and torched. Live overhead pictures also showed white truck driver Reginald Denny being dragged from his vehicle and viciously beaten by a gang of black rioters. Two black civilians ultimately rescued him while the LAPD remained out of the picture. Again, the pictures are shocking.

*** Simpson appeared as Officer Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies. Given all that’s transpired, I felt uncomfortable still laughing at one of his comedic turns. But as a clip in Made In America shows, it’s hard to keep a straight face while watching Nordberg being riddled with bullets before staggering about and hitting his head, burning his hand in a furnace, soiling his jacket with wet white paint, getting his fingers crunched by a slamming window, falling face-first into a cake and finally stepping into a bear trap.

A more telling clip shows a tuxedo-clad Simpson soft-shoeing with a white, blonde girl (Melissa Michaelsen) in the 1981 NBC movie Goldie and the Boxer Go to Hollywood. Simpson’s easy navigation of the white world -- a world he greatly preferred -- is starkly evident here. It’s also all too reminiscent of the pairing of tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and child star Shirley Temple in her vintage films of the otherwise segregationist 1930s.

*** Accused by Simpson’s defense team of railroading him, the Los Angeles Police Department in fact enabled “The Juice” for years. His continued beatings of Nicole, with the aftereffects shown in still photos, were largely dismissed with hand slaps. This was, after all, O. J. Simpson, the guy who often entertained cops at his posh Brentwood home. No one could or seemingly wanted to curb his growing sense of entitlement.

*** The crime scene photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, which come to the fore in Part 4, are hard to look at and certainly should be. Some might argue they’re also voyeuristic and unneeded in the re-telling of O. J. Simpson’s story. But they show the savagery of that horrific night in Brentwood, when two innocent people died at the hands of a killer who’s technically still at large, although almost assuredly behind bars again. Their blood still stains the many who in some way might have done something to prevent what happened to them.

*** In its final chapter, Made In America’s documentation of Simpson’s debauched Vegas years is both startling and revolting. He still needed the spotlight and adulation. And “Sin City” gave it to him in full measure while the outside world turned its back. The immensely talented, likable and effervescent star athlete of the 1960s and ’70s deteriorated into a bloated, self-absorbed Caligula who still laughed his laugh, drank his fill and never lacked for hangers-on.

Simpson continues to serve a maximum 33-year sentence but will be up for parole in 2017 after being convicted in 2008. Whatever his fate, 2016 will be remembered as the year when O. J. returned to the public consciousness in two disturbing and transfixing miniseries.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

TNT takes aim at being daringly provocative with Animal Kingdom


Ellen Barkin presides over an untamed bloodline in Animal Kingdom. TNT photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 14th at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Ellen Barkin, Scott Speedman, Shawn Hatosy, Finn Cole, Ben Robson, Jake Weary, Daniella Alonso, Molly Gordon
Produced by: Liz Watts, Jonathan Lisco, John Wells, David Michod, Andrew Steam

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The new “radically different” TNT promised by former Fox entertainment head Kevin Reilly takes its inaugural spin Tuesday night with the first two hours of the determinedly dark Animal Kingdom.

There are no sunny skies here -- at least dramatically. The first scene finds 17-year-old Josh “J” Cody (Finn Cole) staring fixedly while seated on a couch next to his still-life mother. Paramedics burst in but can’t resuscitate her. She’s dead of an overdose, leaving J with few options other than calling his grandma, Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin), whom he hasn’t seen in more than a decade.

She turns out to be a trim Ma Barker with imposing cleavage that’s on constant display in the first hour before sultry granny suddenly covers herself in the two other episodes made available for review. At age 62, though, Barkin’s flesh is still willing and able to make quite an impression. But maybe someone at TNT thought the series already is amply stocked with younger bare behinds and upper torso side views that test both the limits of advertiser-supported cable and the dexterity of the series’ shooters.

Smurf has three blood sons and the cleaner cut, adoptive Barry “Baz” Brown (Scott Speedman), who spends much time at the family compound but also has a restive life away from it with his girlfriend, Catherine (Daniella Alonso), and their pre-teen daughter. When not pulling off heists, Smurf’s wild bunch drinks heavily and plays rough, physical games around the family pool.

Middle son Craig (Ben Robson) augments his drinking with constant cocaine snorting. Youngest son Cody (Jake Weary) is also a temperamental brute while the oldest boy, Andrew “Pope” (Shawn Hatosy), is fresh out of prison, thoroughly creepy and in, ahem, renewed close touch with his mama.

Young J, although hardly virginal, is thrust into this intimidating environment after grandma takes him in and then slowly sucks him into her vortex. He otherwise spends a lot of time racing around on his pedal-powered little bicycle. It’s pretty much emblematic of the first three episodes, which veer to and fro while seemingly in no hurry to gain traction.

It’s all adapted from the same-named, critically lauded 2010 Australian film, which was based on the real-life Pettingill crime family and received an Academy Award nomination for Jacki Weaver in the role Barkin is now playing.

Barkin’s Smurf assures the impressionable J that “we never set out to hurt anyone,” but sometimes things happen. They include the unintended death of a cop during a smash-and-grab jewel store robbery in which Craig sustains a gunshot wound. This all unfolds by the end of the first hour. Animal Kingdom then starts to dawdle and meander, even though Hatosy’s ”Pope” keeps registering as a really strange dude who provides an overlay of palpable menace. His prey, in due time, could be J’s nubile girlfriend, Nicky (Molly Gordon), who already seems pretty comfortable amid her boyfriend’s new surroundings.

Barkin is a softer serve villain, but with flashes of fury whenever something’s not done right or someone gets out of hand. But the overall pace starts to get stalled in neutral or first gear at best. And some of the storytelling can be disjointed.

Other than that, Animal Kingdom premieres at a time when there may not be much stomach for it. The horrible mass executions early Sunday morning at an Orlando, FL gay nightclub continue to dominate the news. So a drama that more or less “celebrates” an unsavory and, from the looks of it, incestuous crime family, may put many off their feed -- particularly longstanding TNT viewers who are more used to the likes of Rizzoli & Isles and, not that long ago, Dallas.

The new TNT wants to be much like FX, where Reilly also used to work. But Animal Kingdom is nowhere near in the same league as The Americans or Fargo or the recently ended Justified. And if it’s trying to be Sons of Anarchy . . . well, I think most viewers finally had enough of that, too.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Uncle Buck gets another shot -- and a beer


Mike Epps plays the scheming title character in Uncle Buck. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 14th at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Mike Epps, Nia Long, James Lesure, Iman Benson, Sayeed Shahidi, Aalyrah Caldwell
Produced by: Will Packer, Steven Cragg, Brian D. Bradley, Karin Hughes, Kenny Smith, Michael Pennie, Franco E. Bario

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It’s been a year and a month since ABC announced Uncle Buck as a midseason entry in its 2015-’16 prime-time schedule. Not that there was any rush.

TV’s second reboot of the 1989 John Candy movie dusts itself off and arrives on Tuesday, June 14th with back-to-back episodes sandwiched between a pair of one-hour editions of another ABC excavation project, To Tell the Truth.

Perhaps one of the TTTT panel-stumpers could be two impostors and the real Kevin Meaney, who played the title role in CBS’s short-lived 1990 version of Uncle Buck. It’s best remembered for causing something of an uproar in Episode 1, when little six-year-old Maizy Russell pointedly told her older brother, Miles, “You suck!” The controversy helped to take the air out of the show, as did time slot competition from ABC’s MacGyver and NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

More than a quarter-century later, the new Maizy (Aalyrah Caldwell) probably could call her brother a “dildo head” without causing any stir. Instead she exclaims over the phone, “Mom, a prostitute taught me how to twerk!” after babysitting Buck (Mike Epps) takes the three Russell kids to a seedy bar. Uncle Buck, you rock.

Mercifully without a laugh track, ABC’s reprise is built around a black cast and can be passably amusing now and then. Epps’ conniving, jobless but good-natured Buck is first seen building a beer can pyramid and wearing a beer can hat before his fed-up fiancee upbraids him -- “You need to grow your ass up!” -- and eventually dumps him. But this Buck is both belch-less and without a beer belly. In fact, he looks ready to run a 100-yard dash -- even if it might be from the cops.

Meanwhile, prosperous Alexis and Will Russell (Nia Long, James Lesure) are both scheduled to be out of town on business. But their latest nanny, an elderly woman who speaks broken English, quits in a huff after branding the three Russell kids “terrorists” (a very unfortunate choice of words after Sunday’s mass shootings in Orlando). This leaves Maizy, Miles (Sayeed Shahidi) and oldest daughter Tia (Iman Benson) in need of someone to survive them. So Will reluctantly calls his brother, Buck, who for now is happy to oblige in return for residing in a posh home.

On the following morning, his breakfast of champions for the kids is cake because “it’s got everything kids need. Eggs, flour, frosting.”

That’s not a bad line. Nor is Tia calling the bar they wind up in “Filthy Cheers.” Or Miles asking his parents if Buck can “live with us and be our ‘manny.’ “

The show’s writers carefully walk a line between Buck being a con man and stereotypically shiftless. With a white family this wouldn’t be a consideration. But under these new circumstances, the title character stops well short of even being slovenly.

Tuesday’s second episode, subtitled “L’il Scarface,” is built around Maizy’s reluctance to sell “Sunny Scouts” cookies. But she sure would like to win one of the prizes at stake -- a cheetah necklace. So Buck sets up a “crew” on the sly while Tia and Miles try to figure out how to repair a big hole in his bedroom wall and save her from being grounded before she can attend a big concert.

Most of this probably could play these days on The Disney Channel. Except for perhaps the kicker in Episode 1, when Buck somehow gains access to a no-good teen “player’s” bathroom, snaps him coming out the shower, brands the kid “Inchworm” and threatens to expose him on Instagram if he doesn’t immediately mend his ways.

Otherwise the long and short of Uncle Buck goes like this: Epps has his moments, the kids are well-cast and there are a few good lines. But you won’t be missing much if your Tuesday nights are already reserved for NBC’s competing America’s Got Talent.


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CMT puts itself on the sitcom map with Billy Ray Cyrus in Still the King


Billy Ray Cyrus fakes it as a preacher in Still the King. CMT photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 12th at 8 p.m. (central) on CMT
Starring: Billy Ray Cyrus, Joey Lauren Adams, Madison Iseman, Travis Nicholson, Jon Sewell, Kevin Farley, Leslie David Baker
Produced by: Billy Ray Cyrus, Shannon Houchins, Potsy Ponciroli, Travis Nicholson, Julia Silverton, Jayson Dinsmore

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Succumbing to Billy Ray Cyrus as a drunken Elvis impersonator turned fake preacher doesn’t have the degree of difficulty one might expect. In fact, Still the King wouldn’t even require Miley Cyrus to slum all that much if she ever decides to join her daddy for a guest shot.

CMT is home base for this laugh track-less, single cam sitcom, which has a certain hardscrabble charm for those willing to take their noses out of the air. It rises closer to the level of My Name Is Earl than anyone might have a right to expect. Which is another way of saying that its rural landscape and corn pone humor are several cuts above the best The Dukes of Hazzard ever dished up.

Cyrus is Vernon Brownmule, who’s scratching out a living as “Burnin’ Vernon” 20 years after he rocketed to the top with a big ol’ hit song. The star’s real-life “Achy Breaky Heart” past is known to just about anyone old enough to also remember the Cabbage Patch Kids craze. But courtesy of a mighty long narrative buildup, Vernon sows the seeds of a brief jail term by wrecking a stolen bread truck and also damaging a little church while in the company of some hookers and under the influence of booze and drugs. A very briefly seen Randy Travis, in the guise of a patrol car cop, arrests Vernon after duly noting, “What kind of a sick sonofabitch . . .”

It sort of gets worse for Vernon. Once out of jail, he has 1,000 hours of community service to do for the First Light Church he damaged. Vernon also learns he’s the dad of a 15-year-old daughter named Charlotte (Madison Iseman), whose mom, Debbie Lynn Cooke (Joey Lauren Adams), is now demanding $500 a week in support payments.

Debbie’s live-in boyfriend, who looks like Burt Reynolds from the Smokey and the Bandit years, is otherwise an idiot named Ronnie (Jon Sewell).

“Oh, he don’t look rich,” the usually shirtless Ronnie says upon first seeing Vernon.

“I told you it’s royalty money,” Debbie rejoins.

“Oh,” says Ronnie. ”He’s British.”

These are the jokes, folks. And the first four episodes made available for review indicate that some of this just might settle in -- and not only for the Golden Corral crowd.

There’s more basic “plot.” Now pretty much persona non grata -- thank you very much -- as an Elvis act, Vernon decides to make ends meet by masquerading as First Light’s new preacher. He’s assisted in this gambit by a recently freed dumb buddy named Walt (Travis Nicholson), who’s otherwise intent on tracking down Sasquatch. The other supporting characters are Vernon’s parole officer, Mitch Doily (the late Chris Farley’s dead-ringer brother, Kevin), and a gullible church assistant named Laura Beth (Lacey Chabert).

Cyrus’ acting won’t remind anyone of Al Pacino -- or even Tom Wopat. But he gradually settles in while Adams and Iseman instantly take hold as mother-daughter antagonists who of course will slowly be warming to Vernon’s half-assed efforts to do the right thing.

Episode 3 is the best of the first four, with the locales ranging from Tepid’s Lukewarm Grill to a biker funeral at a seedy bar where Vernon finally gets a gig with his reluctant daughter in tow.

Those expecting Cyrus to do any Elvis songs will be disappointed in the early going. So far he’s only shown briefly in costume, but without any vocalizing.

Still the King does have a twinge of achy breaky heartbreak, though, when Charlotte rebuffs dad’s offer to take her home from school. “I don’t take rides from strangers,” she tells him.

Cyrus does a decent job of looking hurt in a series that might tug you along if you don’t already have your heels firmly dug in. TV critics above all should approach everything with an open mind. In that respect, this one lands somewhere between a pleasant surprise and better-than-expected.


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CBS' BrainDead takes a shot at being D.C. serio-comic


Series star Mary Elizabeth Winstead tries to work the bugs out in the politically charged, “comic-thriller” BrainDead. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, June 13th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Johnny Ray Gill, Tony Shalhoub, Charlie Semine, Jan Maxwell, Zach Grenier, Nikki M. James
Produced by: Robert King, Michelle King, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Brooke Kennedy, Liz Glotzer

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The timing is right but also daunting for CBS’ BrainDead, a considerable departure from the norm for a network that’s long been up to its neck in crime series and “traditional” sitcoms with tag-along laugh tracks.

It’s a 13-episode, Washington, D.C.-set “comic-thriller” that arrives in tandem with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton lobbing verbal grenades at one another while their shared “unfavorable” ratings remain sky high. Created by The Good Wife team of Robert King and Michelle King, BrainDead seeks to capture the federal government’s ongoing cacophony and phoniness in ways that channel The Twilight Zone, Veep, Dr. Strangelove and even Mars Attacks!.

In short, no one is really honorable -- except for perhaps struggling documentary filmmaker Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Her father, Dean Healy (Zach Grenier), a longtime Democratic Party powerbroker, has seduced her from L.A. to D.C. by offering to fund Laurel’s unfinished film in return. She agrees to a six-month sabbatical by joining the staff of her brother, Luke Healy (Danny Pino), the Democrats’ less than idealistic Senate Whip. (The Luke and Laurel combo no doubt is a wink in the direction of Luke and Laura from General Hospital).

But first comes a crazy-quilt prologue. Rhetoric from both Trump and Clinton is part of an opening montage that also includes a meteor mysteriously crash-landing in Russia before being shipped to the United States for some sort of scientific inspection. But this goes badly when a big gang of ant-like bugs escape from the shipping crate and eventually begin invading the brains of various Washingtonians. Hey, it could happen.

CBS made the first three episodes available for review. And one of the better things about this series is its ongoing updates via clever Gilligan’s Island-esque sing-along lyrics preceding each new chapter.

Better yet is Winstead’s assured, appealing performance as a D.C. tenderfoot thrust into a new world of mystery and political polarization that escalates once those bugs begin infesting and in some cases, exploding the heads of their prey. Those who remain among the living otherwise have all stopped drinking and share a fondness for The Cars’ 1984 hit “You Might Think.”

The cast also accommodates Tony Shalhoub as influential Republican senator Red Wheatus and Aaron Tveit as his one of his top aides, Gareth Ritter. Johnny Ray Gill plays Gustav Triplett, a young scientist who aligns with Laurel to fight this invasion of the creepy crawlies. And Jan Maxwell is Sen. Ella Pollack, a dowager Democrat whose alliances shift and swerve according to what the voices in her head are telling her.

Also at center stage is a government shutdown brought on by rampant divisiveness and blame-gaming on the part of both parties. Their principal forum for talking over and through one another is TV’s DoubleSpeak with Claudia Monarch.

BrainDead begins finding its way in Episode 3, which is a good sign of progress instead of regress. If the series runs its entire 13-episode course, it will weave its satirical/serious storyline through the national party conventions and beyond. Unfortunately, the principal challenge of such fictions is to be stranger than the unfolding truths at hand in this bizarre election season.

BrainDead looks to be making a game go of it anyway while Winstead’s Laurel bracingly gives the series a core stability. There she is, navigating the corridors of power, consorting with “the enemy” and hoping to keep her own head from exploding via either a bug invasion or the insanity of what Washington has become. Maybe most of have seen more than enough already. But I’d still give BrainDead a try while also applauding CBS for playing around with its basic DNA.


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AMC's Feed the Beast doesn't make much of a presentation


Jim Sturgess and David Schwimmer of Feed the Beast. AMC photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: David Schwimmer, Jim Sturgess, Michael Gladis, Lorenza Izzo, Christine Adams, John Doman, Elijah Jacob
Produced by: Clyde Phillips, Henrik Ruben Genz, Malene Blenkov, Piv Bernth

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It should be said in David Schwimmer’s favor that he’s at least taking on more interesting acting challenges lately than his two fellow male co-stars from Friends.

Matthew Perry continues to slog through the broadly formulaic CBS version of The Odd Couple while Matt LeBlanc will play a beleaguered dad this fall in the network’s Man With a Plan sitcom.

In contrast, Schwimmer solidly played O. J. Simpson pal Robert Kardashian in the acclaimed FX miniseries before immediately moving on to the AMC drama series Feed the Beast.

That said, there’s a “but” here. Feed the Beast more often than not is a rather clumsy, predictable and often preposterous tale of two lifelong friends who reunite to open an upscale restaurant in an otherwise lousy neighborhood in The Bronx. Schwimmer plays hangdog sommelier Tommy Moran, whose 10-year-old son, TJ (Elijah Jacob) has gone mute ever since seeing his mom, Rie (Christine Adams in flashbacks) killed by a hit-and-run driver. It also doesn’t help that Tommy remains a timid soul after years of bullying by his racist and ruthless businessman father Aidan (John Doman in a wheelchair).

Meanwhile, cocaine-addicted Dion Patras (Jim Sturgess) is fresh out of prison after burning down the previous restaurant that he and Tommy owned with Rie. Dion, the otherwise perfectionist chef, is immediately caught in the middle and terrorized by both a brutal, strong-armed cop and mobster Patrick Woijchik (Michael Gladis), also known as “The Tooth Fairy” for his invasive use of a pair of pliers.

Dion owes The Tooth Fairy $600 grand, and he intends to collect every penny. So what to do? Turn Tommy’s messy but sprawling Bronx abode into a restaurant called Thirio (which means Beast). But where will the money come from? Well, Tommy’s father is pretty much loaded, so let’s get him to invest.

Meanwhile, a member of Tommy’s therapy group, naive, perky Pilar Herrera (Lorenza Izzo), is willing to work for nothing as the restaurant manager. Why? Because she has the hots for him -- but in a very nice way.

All of this is very slow-cooked -- and mostly half-baked -- during the four episodes made available for review in a Season One that will number 10. It’s all based on the Danish series Bankerot (Bankruptcy), which so far has run for two seasons. In the American version, Schwimmer is barely average in his role while Sturgess brings a little more edge but not much else. His Dion character also becomes something of a surrogate father to TJ while Tommy further moans about losing his doting fatherly influence. And if that’s not enough, old man Aidan demands a weekly visitation from the grandson he’d otherwise never seen before. He wants to toughen the kid up, and soon has him hitting the heavy bag.

Oh well. The food looks pretty good. But that’s not enough to keep this drama from rising above basic cafeteria fare.


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Cinemax gets a big jolt with Outcast


Haunted Kyle Barnes has lots on his mind in Outcast. Cinemax photo

Premiering: Friday, June 3rd at 9 p.m. (central) on Cinemax
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Philip Glanister, Wrenn Schmidt, David Denman, Julia Crockett, Reg E. Cathey, Grace Zabriskie, Brent Spiner
Produced by: Robert Kirkman, Chris Black, David Alpert, Sharon Tal Yguado, Sue Naegle

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So this is a series that starts with a possessed little boy named Joshua killing a bug on a wall by smashing his head against it. He then eats the crushed corpse while also lapping up some of the blood from his head wound.

It’s not something Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver would do. But Outcast is very much in keeping with Robert Kirkman’s creative urges. The author of The Walking Dead comic books sold this one to Cinemax before its first printed issue emerged in June 2014. A total of 18 comic books now pre-date Season One’s 10 episodes, where very bad things begin happening on Friday, June 3rd. It takes a while for Outcast to take hold. But it most certainly does -- and in an almost chaste way when it comes to nudity (none in the four episodes made available for review) and language (just a small dose of f-bombs).

Violence is in full bloom, though, as it is in many ongoing cable drama series. The tormented soul trying to stop it -- and also reclaim his mother, wife and daughter -- is Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), who’s been living in a sad state of disrepair since returning five months earlier to nondescript little Rome, West Virginny. His married foster sister, Megan Holt (Wrenn Schmidt), has never stopped trying to save Kyle from himself, despite continued opposition from her deputy sheriff husband Mark (David Denman).

The other pivotal character is Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), an old-school exorcist whose principal tools are a cross and a prayer book. As Kyle slowly emerges from the near-dead, he grudgingly agrees to team up with the minister intent on ridding Rome of all its evil within. Their first mission is demonic Joshua, who’s one hell of a handful. Outcast spends the concluding portion of its opening episode on this very grim undertaking. It’s not for the squeamish, but you likely deduced that from the opening paragraph of this review.

Kyle otherwise doesn’t know quite what’s hit him. Why did his loving mother, Sarah (Julia Crockett), suddenly turn into a banshee who horribly abused him as a child and is now open-eyed comatose? And what about his subsequent wife, Allison (Kate Lyn Barnes), and their daughter, Amber (Madeleine McGraw)? What the hell happened there?

The reliably cantankerous Grace Zabriskie and former Star Trek: The Next Generation co-star Brent Spiner pop in and out of Outcast as important recurring characters. And in Episode 4, former Friday Night Lights regular Scott Porter ditches his overall wholesome persona to play a very unsavory blast from Megan Holt’s past. Reg E. Cathey adds vinegar as the condescending, longtime police chief.

Outcast is beautifully composed cinematically, with a conveniently nearby woods providing an extra layer of creepiness. By the end of the initial four episodes, a spellbinding hook has been set, with the mythology enticingly unfolding amid week-to-week new vistas in exorcism. Fugit’s Kyle struggles mightily and compellingly to piece himself back together with help from an imperfectly preachy new partner with a salty tongue. “You wanna fight the devil? Start with cleanin’ your f***ing act up,” the reluctant disciple is told.

This series has got my damned attention.


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Trump bad-mouths the media while also giving them what both want


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Let’s be abundantly clear. Donald Trump loves attention far more than he loathes the media -- or as he puts it, “The Press.”

Conversely, television loves the ratings Trump provides way too much to ever tune him out -- or even refuse just one of his impulsive call-ins. Donald’s on the line. Drop everything immediately before he hangs up and goes elsewhere.

It all crystallized Tuesday during Trump’s extended defense of his trumpeted and belated donations to veterans after he skipped a January debate on the then “unfair” Fox News Channel and held his own competing event on behalf of those who served.

He’s assailed the media before. In fact it’s a news bulletin when he doesn’t. But during Tuesday’s presentation, which included another lengthy Q and A session, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee repeatedly and pointedly bombed away while a handful of veterans stood soberly behind him. Even for Trump, this was the mother of all air attacks -- by a guy who literally lives to be on television. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC of course all covered it live from start to stop -- and then spent the rest of the day and night analyzing their treatment at Trump’s hands.

No matter what he says or does, the bombastic billionaire continues to earn points for making himself available while his principal opponent, Hillary Clinton, stiff-arms the media and would rather call Trump Lincoln-esque than hold a news conference. One of the more telling visuals of Showtime’s campaign trail series, The Circus, came when co-host Mark McKinnon was left out in Iowa’s snowy cold and required to stand at a long distance from Hillary as she exited a campaign event. She would sooner provide access to Ebola. Or at least sometimes it seems that way.

If Trump loves/hates the media, Hillary flat out hates/hates it, according to a new and lengthy profile in New York Magazine by Rebecca Traister. She has her reasons, the article points out. But the ravenous feed-the-media-beast realities of Campaign 2016 (as always, the hand-wringing will commence well after the fact) have made Trump a Beastmaster without peer. The guy fully knows what he’s doing -- even when he doesn’t. And Tuesday’s extended exhale in the media’s face helped to take the edge off those same-day Trump University court documents that provided further evidence of his con man ways and means.

Some in the electronic media -- most notably CNN’s Jake Tapper -- lately have made it a point to blast through the Trump rhetoric and shine his glaring inconsistencies in his face. Trump in turn brands them “nasty” or “dishonest” or “a sleaze” during a Tuesday broadside aimed at ABC reporter Tom Llamas. Some of those gathered to hear Trump’s latest fusillade tried to fight back by telling the candidate it’s their job to scrutinize his campaign. He responded by basically telling them they’re gonna take it and like it. Because he is who he is -- and America’s with him, not them.

This much is true. Trump can neither share the spotlight or live without it. He is constitutionally incapable of either keeping a low profile or of not resorting to name-calling whenever he’s criticized for anything anywhere at any time. Which makes him the perfect storm of contradictions, whether he’s holding the media in contempt or holding court on Morning Joe, Hannity or any outlet that’s lately been “nice to me.”

On that January night when Trump spurned Fox News Channel’s debate and held his own event, the network drew 12.5 million viewers compared to the 25 million for its inaugural GOP debate in August. That was the one in which questioner Megyn Kelly rumpled Trump by reciting some of his previous coarse descriptions of women. It’s easy to see who eventually won that one. Trump snubbed the second debate because of Kelly’s presence, and then bragged about FNC’s ratings shortfall. Kelly subsequently made what amounted to a Game of Thrones-like Walk of Atonement to Trump Tower, where she persuaded him to be the much-trumpeted featured guest on her recent first Fox broadcast network special, Megyn Kelly Presents.

Trump otherwise isn’t one to sit and wait. He forces the action and basks in its glow while also letting the media ask him anything they want -- if they dare. He’s certainly no Hillary in that respect. And if anything, that still seems to be working against her.

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