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Mr. Selfridge gives PBS another grand entertainment worthy of the Masterpiece Classic banner

Mr Selfridge Masterpiece Classic PBS

Jeremy Piven gets lucky in the 8-part, 10 hour Mr. Selfridge. PBS photo

I’m not among the men who positively hate to go shopping. Nonetheless, the come-on for PBS’ 10-hour Mr. Selfridge doesn’t seem to be much to hang one’s hat on.

“Jeremy Piven stars as a wheeling-dealing American who shows early 1900s Londoners how to shop,” it says on the review DVD containing the first five hours. Wow, sounds about as enticing as a two-hour QVC necklace segment.

Instead it’s terrific fun as well as involving drama. Mr. Selfridge, premiering Sunday, March 31st at 8 p.m. central with a two-hour chapter, may not provoke the full-blown tizzy that Downton Abbey has for the Masterpiece Classic franchise. Still, it very much works its own charms, with Piven gradually getting a firm grip on his real-life title character while four very estimable women exert varying pulling powers on him.

This is Piven’s first TV role since his career-changing, very showy turn as agent Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage. And he has lots to do over the course of a splendid tale airing on consecutive Sundays from March 31st through May 19th. (Two-hour installments book-end the one-hour episodes on April 7, 14, 21 and 28, and May 5 and 12.)

Piven’s Harry Gordon Selfridge already is in full bloom as the story begins. He has transformed Chicago’s Marshall Field’s into a department store powerhouse and now intends to do the same in his own name in stuffy 1908 London town.

On a rainy day that hardly befits his ebullient temperament, he drops into the Gamages emporium and asks to see an array of gloves. But the store clerk, young Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), says it’s not done that way. Customers are supposed to know what they want without picking over the goods.

“What if I said I was just looking?” Harry asks.

“This is a shop, sir. Not an exhibition,” he’s told by an officious manager who then fires Agnes for giving Harry a closer look. She winds up in this American dreamer’s employ as the drama’s principal embodiment of lower class trials and tribulations.

The grand and imposing multi-storied Selfridge store hasn’t been built yet. But its Oxford Street site has been selected and financial backing assured until Harry’s business partner suddenly backs out. He eventually cuts a clandestine deal with the very well-connected Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly), who will expect some favors in return.

“We are going to show the world how to make shopping thrilling!” Harry proclaims.

Piven’s performance initially seems to be too pronouncement-prone while the performances around him are appreciably less stagey. But he grows into the role, convincingly selling Harry as a grand and sometimes endearing entrepreneur who always enjoys making entrances.

Harry is also an addicted philanderer, but earns his employees’ single-minded devotion by treating them fairly and rallying them to the cause. Which basically is showmanship, teamwork, service with a smile and the accrued profits that go hand in hand.

The other women in Harry’s life are his dutiful but discontented wife Rose (Frances O’Connor) and a sexy, singing showgirl named Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper). Both are strong characters, giving Mr. Selfridge a quartet of intriguing women whose sub-stories keep things consistently interesting.

Some of the supporting male characters have their moments, too, with Henri Leclair (Gregory Fitoussi) most prominent among them as the dashing “best window display man in the world.” He’s fond of clerk Agnes Towler’s helpful suggestions while striving in-store restaurant waiter Victor Colleano (Trystan Gravelle) is intent on courting her and someday opening his own eatery.

There’s also strapping Roderick “Roddy” Temple (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an aspiring young painter whose involvement with Rose kicks in after a chance meeting at an art museum.

As in Downton Abbey, the men invariably are formally dressed and the women be-gowned and bejeweled unless they’re “the help.” The Brits and Masterpiece Classic have a hammerlock on sumptuous period pieces. And Mr. Selfridge doesn’t disappoint. It’s breezy, but with substance. Soapy but not too sudsy. So enjoy the drama, the fashion and the pure joy in Harry’s voice when he commands, “Back to your posts with vim and vigor!”

One and all no doubt would run through a battalion of mannequins for him.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to unclebarky@verizon.net

FX going to double X


FX president John Landgraf at “upfront” presentation. FX photo

Terming it a move to a three-network “suite,” FX Networks is adding FXX to make it a threesome with existing movie channel FXM.

Aimed at 18-to-34-year-old viewers and set to launch on Sept. 2nd in 74 million homes (likely supplanting the Fox Soccer Channel), FXX will inherit four transplants from the FX mothership. Its longest-running comedy series, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, will make the move along with The League and the first-year series Legit.

Additionally, the late night FX series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell will debut on FXX in an expanded five-nights-a-week regimen. FX’s other late-nighter, Brand X with Russell Brand, is still iffy for a new season, FX president John Landgraf said in a teleconference after presiding over an earlier “upfront” presentation to advertisers. But if renewed, it also will air on FXX, he said.

FXX also will add a new comedy series to its planned initial mix of originals, movies and “acquired series.”

Why not put all of these series on FX? “Well, then we would be trying to get younger and older at the same time,” Landgraf said of the three networks’ designated demographics. FX is targeting 18-to-49-year-olds while FXM is going for 25-to-54-year-olds.

Other than the aforementioned late night talk shows, FX and FXX are sticking with scripted dramas and comedies. Landgraf said that programmers “thought long and hard” about including unscripted “reality” series in the mix, but decided it would be wiser to “really stick to your knitting.”

“Brands are really, really valuable, particularly in a more fragmented marketplace,” he said.

There’s also ample activity on the FX front, with the network announcing a renewal of Justified for a fifth season while also touting its first “limited series,” a 10-episode “re-invisioning” of the hit movie Fargo. The original’s maestros, Joel and Ethan Coen, are aboard as executive producers along with former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

The script is by Noah Hawley (The Unusuals, My Generation), who will create a new case and characters “entrenched in the trademark humor, murder and ‘Minnesota nice’ that has made the film an enduring classic,” FX says in a publicity release. A cast hasn’t been announced yet, with a spring 2014 premiere planned.

FX also will premiere The Bridge in July. It’s about two detectives, one from the United States and the other from Mexico, who are assigned to hunt down a killer working both sides of the border. Demian Bichir and Diane Kruger star.

The network says it also “won bidding wars” with rival cable networks for two drama series that are still in the development stage.

The first episode of Tyrant, from Homeland producers Howard Gordon, Gideon Raff and Craig Wright, will be directed by Oscar-winner Ang Lee (Life of Pi). It’s about an everyday American family drawn into Middle East intrigue.

The other newcomer, The Strain, supposedly “creates a world of vampires unlike any ever depicted in television or film. These bloodsuckers are not the romanticized version of vampires that have become such a cliche -- but a terrifying original new vision,” says FX. In other words, the producers of HBO’s True Blood and CW’s The Vampire Diaries are entitled to feel a little smack-talked.

Two comedy pilots have also been ordered, with their destination network not determined yet.

How and Why, from Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind & Being John Malkovich), is billed as “the story of a man who can explain how and why a nuclear reactor works, but is clueless about life.”

The animated series Chozen, from the producers of HBO’s Eastbound & Down, is about a recently paroled white rapper who “uses his new survival skills in his quest for redemption.”

Landgraf says FX networks plan to offer 25 original scripted series over the next three years, more than doubling the current FX roster.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Game of Thrones re-rules HBO, slowly at first


Daenerys Targaryen & her latest gains on Game of Thrones. HBO photo

Fanboy/fangirl circles are throbbing with both angst and excitement.

What to watch first on Easter Sunday night? AMC’s Season 3 finale of The Walking Dead or HBO’s competing Season 3 premiere of Game of Thrones? And must one really be expected to abstain from social media for a full two hours so as not to run into a “spoiler” for one or the other? Oh the pure, unmitigated horror of it all.

Also flexing its pulling power: History channel’s two-hour finale of The Bible, featuring -- spoiler alert -- the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Death and destruction beckon on all three fronts, although the opening hour of GOT turns out to be surprisingly tame unless the calculated severing of a male slave’s nipple counts for something.

Our focus here is GOT (8 p.m. central), which seems to be getting better all the time judging from the four episodes sent for review. It’s just that it also seems to be taking longer and longer to get there in the interests of servicing all the returning and new characters in play.

The concluding two episodes of Season 2 were rousing, vivid and violent. King’s Landing was saved from the clutches of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his troops by the gruff, uncompromising father of Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion Lannister. The old man grandly rode in on a white horse, later to be rewarded by evil boy king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson).

Meanwhile, the dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) was facially disfigured in battle while Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), twin brother of the nefarious Cersei (Lena Headley), continued to be held captive by the Amazonian warrior Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). The surviving Starks remained scattered out and about, with widowed matron Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) ever-vexed over whether she’ll ever see any of her four children again. She also pines for banished Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the out-of-wedlock bastard son she formerly rebuked.

And so on and so forth -- and all well and good. But GOT’s star player has become the daringly resilient Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who along with many others wants the Iron Throne to be hers. She lights up the screen, both visually and with a galvanizing character also in possession of the nuclear weapons of those times -- three obedient, maturing dragons who now seem to be entering their teen years.

Daenerys, also equipped with a conscience and previous love story, is minimally seen in Season 3’s first two episodes. Instead there’s a lot of trudging and plotting -- much amid dimly lit surroundings -- but not much of real consequence happening as GOT re-sets its multiple stages.

The most notable new character, at least from a name recognition standpoint, is Diana Rigg as saucy Lady Olenna Tyrell, grandmother of willful Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). Rigg is first seen in Episode 2, and she appears to be having an effortless good time.

GOT has always been about captures and re-captures, punishments and re-punishments, fathers and disowned or badly treated sons. It still very much is.

Grisly violence and graphic sex also are part and parcel, but not in as much abundance in these first two hours. A rather sluggish pace finally takes its leave in Episode 3, where some very bad things happen to a central character. And in Episode 4, some very good things happen to Daenerys. In fact the climactic scene in this hour sets the blood to rushing anew. A viewer’s internal blood, that is. It’s just that it took a little too long.

Worshippers of GOT already have sliced, diced and dissected it far more than any of the drama’s swordsmen and women. And that will continue apace. Perhaps some will be a bit disappointed in the early going. Others will savor every speck of “nuance” and proclaim it as masterly storytelling.

GOT certainly can take its time if it chooses. Ardent fan Jimmy Kimmel recently noted on his ABC late night show that the series literally could go on for thousands of seasons, given the voluminous goings-on in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy book series. More likely it will all stop in 10 seasons or considerably less. Just as long as they don’t kill off Daenerys, I’m still in.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Philip Roth's life is something of an open book in new American Masters film


Author Philip Roth is an open book in new film bio. PBS photo

A literary giant sizes himself up -- and seemingly could go on and on -- in PBS’ Philip Roth: Unmasked.

Generally perceived as a recluse with an aversion to being interviewed, the recently turned 80-year-old man of letters shows no signs of being reticent during this verbiage-heavy 90-minute film under the American Masters banner. It premieres on Friday, March 29th (at 9 p.m. central on KERA13 in D-FW).

Italian literary journalist Livia Manera and French filmmaker William Karel interviewed the famed and much-decorated author (Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, Sabbath’s Theater, The Human Stain among his 31 books) for 12 hours during a 10-day period, according to publicity materials.

“Mostly, we let him talk,” says Manera.

There’s a lot of that going around. Increasingly the reins of biographical films basically are being put in the subject’s own hands. Earlier this month, Showtime’s The World According to Dick Cheney failed to fill in many of the obvious blanks. In Unmasked, Roth does roughly 80 percent of the talking, with occasional praises sung by eight supporting and very supportive players.

They include actress and friend Mia Farrow and the almost worshipful Claudia Roth Pierpont, critic and staff writer for The New Yorker.

Still, having Roth on the record to this extent is the film’s overall redeeming quality. He’s very interesting on a number of topics, ranging from his formative years to how he crafts a novel to the inescapable indignities of getting old.

On the other hand, no mention at all is made of his four books turned into feature films -- and what that experience was like. Or what he thought of late peers such as Norman Mailer, John Updike and Gore Vidal. Or even how he comes up with the titles for his books -- and whether he particularly loves or loathes any of them. Also unmentioned is his brief marriage to actress Claire Bloom, who detailed Roth’s alleged shortcomings as a husband in a 1996 memoir titled Leaving a Doll’s House. (Roth’s 1998 novel, I Married a Communist, is perceived by some as a rebuttal to Bloom’s account.)

Perhaps those questions were asked, and the answers deemed unworthy of the final cut. Or maybe there were some ground rules? It’s impossible to know when the only narrator is Roth himself while his interviewers are neither seen nor heard.

Roth notes at the outset that he has “two great calamities left to face” -- death and a biography. “Let’s hope the first comes first,” he says, before noting that he’s never been fond of being termed an “American Jewish writer.”

“I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American,” says Roth, who was born in Newark, NJ.

There’s now an official bus tour of his old neighborhood, including stops at the home he grew up in and the schools he attended. Roth says he headed off to strict Bucknell University in Pennsylvania after “my father became a terrible pain in the ass . . . He feared my adult independence. He didn’t know what to do about it.”

He wrote Goodbye, Columbus in 1959. It won the National Book Award for fiction and a decade later became a film starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw. Roth says he then “wrote crap” between 1961 and ’67 before turning out the book for which he’s still best known, Portnoy’s Complaint, in 1969.

“It was a sensation,” Roth doesn’t mind saying. And it was, with its starkly graphic sexual passages and hands-on narrator, Alexander Portnoy. He’s never revisited the character, instead making Nathan Zuckerman his recurring alter ego, beginning with 1974’s My Life As A Man.

As a No. 1 bestseller, Portnoy’s made Roth a man of means for the first time in his life. He recalls being able to afford a nice New York apartment, a new car and a trip around the world with his girlfriend at the time. He’s been churning out books ever since, many of them in solitude at his rural Connecticut home.

“I need lots of quiet. I need lots of hours. I needs lots of regularity,” Roth says. And although he invents his characters “as I go along . . . I need some reality. I gotta rub two sticks of reality together to get a fire of reality.”

His overall approach to a new book is the same as ever, Roth says. “Shame isn’t for writers. You have to be shameless. You can’t worry about being decorous.”

He hastens to add that this doesn’t mean one has to be “obscene” or “smear your pages with feces.” But timidity or adherence to a tried-and-true formula have never been for him.

Roth also reads from a number of his books, including 2000’s The Human Stain and its not so oblique references to the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. He selects this passage: “It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind. And life in all its shameless impurity once again confounded America.”

He’s now trying to re-read books by his favorite authors before death departs him. Ernest Hemingway is still very much among them, as is James Joyce.

Unmasked certainly appears to have the full cooperation of its esteemed subject, even if some topics beg to be addressed but aren’t. But the overall talky nature of this 90-minute film makes it seem more than long enough. It’s good that Philip Roth finally let others in during the waning years of an extraordinary writing life.

“The poor guy’s gonna die. Let that be the end, OK?” he says with a laugh. From his lips directly to the closing credits.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

True story: Erik Estrada stars in Syfy channel's Chupacabra vs The Alamo


Julie Benson and Erik Estrada brace for danger. Syfy photo

Here’s the movie Erik Estrada was born to make. Although had he known that, the onetime CHiPs heartthrob might have checked out years ago.

In the proud tradition of Sharktopus, Mansquito and Mongolian Death Worm, this is Syfy network’s Chupacabra vs The Alamo. It finds the 64-year-old Estrada back on a chopper at least every 10 minutes or so. He’s sometimes very obviously riding in a soundstage next to a simulated green screen stretch of roadway. But at least he never falls off.

Premiering Saturday, March 23rd at 8 p.m. (central), Chupacabra vs The Alamo arguably is the best made-for-TV movie title since ABC’s 1982 epic, The Wild Women of Chastity Gulch. It also continues what now is a pretty long string of low-budget Syfy creature features intended to be bad in a good way. This one is fleetingly grin-worthy and gory through and through. Not that it’s nearly as much fun as Syfy’s 2012 holiday season classic, 12 Disasters of Christmas.

Estrada plays DEA agent Carlos Seguin. He lost his beloved wife two years ago and now is dealing with a super-insolent gang-banging son known as Spider (Jorgito Vargas Jr.) and a teen daughter, Sienna (Nicole Munoz), who also sasses him in an early scene.

So it’s almost R&R for Carlos to respond to a multiple corpse crime scene in and around a dank smugglers’ tunnel. One of the dead men is badly mutilated, and you can guess whodunit. But gruff Carlos initially is having none of this chupacabra nonsense, particularly when it comes from new partner Tracy (Julie Benson), whose mega-bosom is almost a supporting character. Or if you prefer, character development.

Even so, Carlos initially goes the sour ball route, foregoing any endowment fun and putting Tracy down at every opportunity until the chupas further make their presence felt. At a nighttime Cinco de Mayo party, for instance, a young teen who relieves himself is then relieved of his reliever. Chupas will stoop to anything.

Estrada’s Carlos eventually gets to jump a roadblock on his chopper -- not really him, of course -- while racing to the rescue of his trapped daughter and her friend.

“Chupa this!” he exclaims before blasting one of ‘em. That’s as good as this script gets. Carlos otherwise is stuck with lines such as “I will rest when the bad guys do.” And, “There’s something out there bigger than all of us.” And, “Ya see, I grew up on the streets.”

But yes, a big gang of hungry chupas eventually does get around to attacking the Alamo while Carlos, Taylor, Spider and an ad hoc army of thugs hole up inside. “Remember the Alamo” is mouthed more than once. And in the end, well, it would have been far better to let the chupas feast to their content on a small segment of the San Antonio population than to rather gleefully screw up the city’s main tourist attraction.

The special effects at best are cheesy, which is typical and maybe even intentional in a Syfy outing of this sort. Add a ridiculously generic, hard-pounding rock score and Carlos yelling “Be quiet!” in the chupas’ lair -- which sort of defeats the purpose. But Estrada does exhibit some energy, and he’s had great reconstructive work done on his glimmering pearly whites.

Even grading on a curve, Chupacabra vs The Alamo fails to rise to the level of enjoyable stupidity. Better luck next time, which could just as easily be Super Gargantuan Gila Monster vs Six Flags, starring Greg Evigan and featuring Uncle Barky as Corpse No. 20. I’m game, and the D-FW economy can always use a little boost.

GRADE: C-minus
Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's never-ending story: Leno on the ropes again


Jay Leno jabbed at NBC again in Wed. monologue. Photo: Ed Bark

The NBC network, flailing and failing in prime-time and now an early morning loser as well, is again preparing a coffin for the one guy who’s still winning.

One doesn’t have to enjoy Jay Leno’s comedy to empathize with him. And with his reported second impending ouster from The Tonight Show, even his old antagonist, David Letterman, might be feeling a few sympathy pangs.

The New York Times’ Bill Carter, who’s owned the late night beat for the past two decades or so, has a front page story Thursday with an opening sentence that reads, “NBC has settled on two new stars for The Tonight Show: Jimmy Fallon and New York City.”

According to his report, the switch from Leno to Fallon at the very latest will happen in fall 2014. NBC confirms that it’s building a new studio for Fallon, but otherwise has no comment. The Tonight Show, which originated in New York, headed West in 1972 with Johnny Carson at the helm. It hasn’t been back since, save for, ironically, Leno’s one-week stand in NYC during the May 1994 ratings “sweeps.”

Leno, once again very aware of his IMPENDING DEMISE: THE SEQUEL, reportedly angered NBC entertainment president Robert Greenblatt with his jabs at the downtrodden network. The two of them exchanged pointed emails, according to an earlier report by Carter.

But Leno clearly isn’t cowed. He fired away again during Wednesday’s Tonight Show monologue with a joke about how scientists are getting closer to doing “Jurassic Park-style cloning of extinct species. Imagine that. Things that were once thought to be extinct could now be brought back to life. So there’s hope for NBC. It could turn around.”

Leno, who referred to Peacock executives as “snakes” in Monday’s monologue, has been portrayed as one himself during previous late night NBC machinations involving Letterman and Conan O’Brien. He’s never been a favorite of most TV critics, including this one. But that’s basically immaterial when you’re delivering the ratings goods. And against all odds at this point, the soon to be 63-year-old Leno (on April 28th) is still somehow on top.

In the latest available season-to-date national Nielsen ratings, he’s averaging 3.5 million viewers per week, with Letterman second (3.1 million) and ABC’s still newly transplanted Jimmy Kimmel in third with 2.7 million.

Among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds, Leno and Kimmel are tied for the top spot, with Letterman still close behind. Lately, though, Leno has been beating both of his adversaries in this key demographic. And he’s done so with absolutely no help from his network, whose prime-time lineup has been lost and unfound during the midseason absence of Sunday Night Football and The Voice.

In the latest ratings week (March 11-17), NBC averaged an abysmal 3.8 million viewers in prime-time compared to 8.6 million for front-running CBS. Fox ran second with 6 million and ABC averaged 5.8 million. The Peacock also ran fourth in that week with 18-to-49-year-olds.

Pitiful ratings for 9 p.m. (central) series such as Smash, Deception and the almost immediately canceled Do No Harm make even Leno’s much-maligned prime-time run a qualified success. Still, NBC is determined to push him out -- this time no doubt for good. But why?

As always, it’s all about audience age levels. And NBC is scared to death that Kimmel, 45, eventually will corral a lion’s share of 18-to-49-year-olds opposite two comparative geezers. So the network has knighted the 38-year-old Fallon to ride to the rescue. But as NBC discovered with O’Brien, going younger can be very hazardous to The Tonight Show’s overall ratings health. Not that it’s really learned that lesson.

Fallon is widely perceived as a very nice guy who calls everyone “buddy,” even TV critics. He’s also inventive and ingratiating, getting big stars to participate in sketches and bits that immediately go viral on youtube. Such as First lady Michelle Obama’s recent “Evolution of Mom Dancing” duet with a Jimmy-in-drag.

But Fallon also can be too fawning during his sit-down interviews with guests. He hasn’t quite mastered the craft yet, although he’s certainly come a long way. As did Conan after a very rough beginning in the Late Night seat that Fallon now occupies.

No one owns The Tonight Show or any talk franchise in perpetuity. Still, Leno continues to be the overall people’s choice, even if many of his viewers are now in the AARP drop zone. In the view of most TV networks, that means they don’t matter anymore.

CBS isn’t one of those networks, although it enjoys the young fruit demographic and in fact also has the prime-time lead among 18-to-49-year-olds. Its late night standard-bearer is still Letterman, who will be 66 a half-month before Leno turns 63.

It will be interesting to see how Letterman reacts to the idea of Kid Fallon going directly against him. For the first time ever, he’ll be in direct combat with another NYC-based late night show. Will Letterman inherit some of Leno’s “mainstream” viewers? Might CBS start measuring him for a coffin as well? In the interim, it would not be surprising if Letterman finds a way to sympathize with Leno’s latest predicament. If only because he’ll miss his old punching bag in the same way that virtually every standup comic in the land longs for George W. Bush or Rick “Oops” Perry’s laughable presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, the man who replaced Leno before being replaced by Leno might be feeling all but forgotten at his TBS outpost. Conan O’Brien has become an afterthought in the past year or so. The man whom NBC saw as the future of late night seems like a ghost from TV’s past. No buzz, no attention, no nothing.

Leno at least will be able to ride a newfound wave of attention all the way to the death knell. His options beyond NBC seem to be few right now. But here’s a guy who will find a way to resurface while NBC figures out what to do, if anything, with the show that long has followed Tonight.

Will Tonight possibly expand to 90 minutes? It’s reportedly being considered, but that’s a lot of duress on any host. Would keeping Late Night in the same locale be too New York-centric, as well as too limiting on guest options?

Whatever happens, one thing seems certain. NBC will find a way to dig a new hole for itself. Leaving well enough alone -- a k a keeping Leno in place -- seems to be out of the question at this point. The Peacock is too intent on making another big bumble. It’s become very good at that.

Email your questions or comments to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Mirren/Pacino pairing keeps HBO's Phil Spector in tune


Stand by your man: Mirren defends Pacino in Phil Spector. HBO photo

Al Pacino doesn’t do subdued anymore, but Helen Mirren does.

And she’s brilliant while he has his wild-eyed moments in the HBO film Phil Spector, premiering Sunday, March 24th at 8 p.m. central.

Written and directed by the esteemed David Mamet (Glengarry Glenn Ross, Wag the Dog,) this 90-minute depiction of Spector’s first trial for murder carries an opening disclaimer that’s almost as odd as the accused’s assortment of wigs.

“This is a work of fiction,” viewers are informed. “It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” Or to borrow from a have-it-both-ways, late 1960s ad campaign, “Certs is two, two, two mints in one.”

Phil Spector in fact does connect the dots of its namesake’s eyewitness view to the death of Lana Clarkson, a struggling actress with numerous bit parts on her resume. They included a role as “Woman at Babylon Club” in Pacino’s 1983 Scarface.

Clarkson (very briefly played by Meghan Marx in the film) died in 2003 of a gunshot wound at Spector’s weapons-infested, Alhambra, CA manor. He claimed she put a pistol in her mouth and killed herself. But prosecutors fingered Spector, and he first went on trial in 2007.

Pacino’s Spector doesn’t have his first scene until the 17-and-a-half-minute mark. But Mirren is immediately on camera as attorney Linda Kenney Baden, who has both the flu and an initial gut feeling that Spector in fact pulled the trigger.

“They let O.J. go. They let Michael Jackson go. They are not gonna let him go,” she gruffly tells lead attorney Bruce Cutler (solid work by the redoubtable Jeffrey Tambor).

Mirren’s early examination of the evidence -- and a possible way out for “Philip” -- might well remind some of her best-known character, detective Jane Tennison, from the Prime Suspect series. But that goes away when Kenney Baden first meets her man after prowling around his aggressively decorated pad.

Pacino’s Spector immediately launches into full ramble, touching at length on the Kennedys (he had no use for Teddy) before proclaiming, “I invented the music business. I put black America in the white home.”

As a producer/songwriter, Spector’s famed “wall of sound” technique yielded the likes of “Unchained Melody; You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling; Be My Baby” and “He’s a Rebel,” all of which are heard to very good effect in the film. It’s enough, all in all -- listening to those tunes and watching two pros emote while the case at hand heats up.

“He’s a freak. They’re gonna convict him on ‘I just don’t like you.’ “ an associate of Baden is convinced.

“The facts do not support a conviction,” Kenney Baden comes to believe.

Spector (“I’m not standoffish! I’m inaccessible”) figures he’s a goner as far as justice being served. “What do they hate about me?” he asks. “I’m alive,” he answers.

Down the homestretch, Spector pays Kenney Baden his ultimate compliment in an up-close scene that both stars play to perfection. “I’ve met a lot of crazy people in my life,” he tells her. “I’ve met very few sane ones that I could talk to.”

The movie already has been criticized as slanted -- by allies of both Spector and the dead Clarkson. But open-minded viewers aren’t likely to see it that way. This is mostly an imagined behind-the-scenes look at a circus trial, but with very little time spent in the courtroom. Instead, a mock cross-examination of Spector in preparation for his possible testimony gives Pacino a chance to blow sky-high while Mirren strives to calm him.

Spector’s eventual fate is fairly well-known, but there’s no need to specify here. In the end, Phil Spector succeeds on the strength of its two marquee thespians. Mirren is wonderful throughout, Pacino scores in double figures and they have enough scenes together to make it all well worth your while.

Email your comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A&E's Bates Motel driven by Farmiga's driven mother

Weird and weirder: Norma and Norman Bates. A&E photo

Premiering: Monday, March 18th at 9 p.m. (central) on A&E
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Thieriot, Olivia Cooke, Nicola Peltz, Nestor Carbonell, Mike Vogel
Produced by: Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin

Fifty-three years after first alarming an unsuspecting public, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho still stirs the blood, quickens the pulse and generates sequels, remakes and now, a "contemporary prequel."

A&E's Bates Motel, premiering Monday, March 18th, is both mesmerizing and sometimes absurd in its rewind to Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) as a repressed 17-year-old. In the early minutes of Monday's premiere, he's further scarred by the discovery of his father's suddenly dead body.

It seems fairly obvious whodunit. But Norma Bates (delicious, Emmy caliber work by Vera Farmiga) certainly isn't telling. And Norman seems none the wiser as son and mother relocate "Six Months Later" from Arizona to the rundown "Seafairer Motel" (whose proprietor was a lousy businessman who apparently couldn't spell either).

The place is located in present-day White Pine Bay, a picturesque, out-of-the way coastal berg that -- all together now -- "isn't quite what it seems." And here's where Bates Motel could go really wrong while also seeming to get a lot of things quite right in its depiction of the off-center Norma/Norman dynamic.

Through the first three episodes available for review, executive producers Carlton Cuse (of Lost fame) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) fill Bates Motel to the brim with other strange goings-on. No big spoilers here, but Twin Peaks has nothing on White Pine Bay in terms of attendant crookedness.

So Norman becomes a reluctant amateur detective at times in league with high school classmate Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke), whose multiple sclerosis requires her to be hooked to a portable oxygen tank at all times. She's an appealing character, though, breathing life into their scenes together. In Episode 2, plucky Emma scores by telling Norman, "You know what's peculiar? A 17-year-old boy using the word 'peculiar.' " He does know how to use a smart phone, though.

Bates Motel creates another new character in Norman's surly, older half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot), who arrives unannounced in a penniless state. There's also a hunky deputy sheriff named Zach Shelby (Mike Vogel), a not entirely above-board guy whose boss is the very stern Sheriff Alex Romero (Lost emigre Nestor Carbonell).

Norma's plans for a fresh, clean start -- "It's all gonna be good. You'll see" -- are quickly waylaid by an extremely bitter brute whose family owned the Seafairer and its attendant famous house on a hill before the bank foreclosed.

"He's just some pathetic drunk, loser slob, honey," Norma tells Norman. He's soon also a dead body, with mother and son frantically hiding his corpse and cleaning up the joint before the cops arrive the next day to question them. Get ready for another bathtub/shower scene, this one rather ingeniously pulled off.

Highmore is effectively twitchy, vulnerable and naive as Norman, at times resembling a young Dana Carvey in the role. "Holy hell, mother, we're totally screwed!" he wails convincingly.

But it's Farmiga who carries the ball as a possessive, obsessive and sometimes flirty Norma. Nominated for an Oscar opposite George Clooney in the terrific film Up In The Air, Farmiga never slips into a Mommie Dearest caricature. She's a joy to watch throughout, whether being willful, devious, protective or alluring.

Bates Motel otherwise risks having way too much else going on. There's no Smoke Monster yet, but Cuse is still in Lost mode when it comes to attendant mysteries and rather preposterous occurrences. This hasn't yet unduly spoiled anything, but has the potential to do so.

On the other hand, every Farmiga sighting so far serves to right this ship. She's so very, very good as Norma. To the point where Bates Motel could easily be subtitled, I Want My Mommy.


A limp look at a tough subject in Showtime's The World According to Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney remains tight-lipped in new documentary. Showtime photo

Dick Cheney's favorite food is spaghetti. Noodle that because you're not going to get much else out of him in Showtime's disappointing first effort to brand a new documentary film series under the banner Sho: Close Up.

The subject is filmed in close-up throughout The World According to Dick Cheney. But the one hour, 45-minute film (Friday, March 15th at 8 p.m. central) has little if anything new to tell us. From Cheney's perspective, it's all pretty much been covered in his 2011 autobiography, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir.

The oft-maligned "Darth Vader" of the George W. Bush administration is circumspect to a fault. He's also a man without any faults -- or at least none he cares to address. "My main fault," he replies during an early buzz round of brief questions. "Um, well, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my faults, I guess would be the answer."

Veteran filmmaker R. J. Cutler considers this the third film in a political trilogy that also includes 1992's Oscar-nominated The War Room and 1995's Emmy-nominated A Perfect Candidate.

In Showtime publicity materials, Cutler says that work on the Cheney doc began close to nine months before he agreed to be a participant. During four days of interviews at a pace of five hours a day, "he was extremely forthcoming and giving of his time," Cutler contends.

There's little evidence of that. One of the problems is that the questions asked of Cheney are seldom heard. So it's impossible to know how hard he was pressed -- unlike David Frost's famed sparring with former president Richard Nixon in a series of television interviews.

Cheney bristles just once -- and it's during one of those rare times when either Cutler or a member of his production team are part of the film's audio.

"And the argument that this was a war you wanted?" the former vice president is asked.

"Wanted?" Cheney answers. "Why, 'cause we like war?" And that's it.

Other voices are heard in new interviews, including Cheney's longtime friend Donald Rumsfeld and the ubiquitous Bob Woodward. George W. Bush, whose relationship with Cheney cooled during his second term as president, did not cooperate in the making of this film. That's hardly surprising, and Bush's views of events likewise have been documented in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points.

World According To whisks through Cheney's early years, including two well-documented arrests for drunk driving as a young adult.

"That was very sobering," Cheney says without irony. His future wife, Lynne, eventually confronted him and demanded he make something of himself or else. As for the specifics, "That's still private," says Cheney.

He's never asked about the five draft deferments he received during the height of the Vietnam War. Or if he was asked, there's no on-camera evidence. It would seem to be relevant, given Cheney's zeal for sending others into battle and his full-blown championing of the war in Iraq.

The film deploys others to talk about how Cheney strong-armed one of the war's most influential opponents, conservative Texas Rep. Dick Armey. After a one-on-one meeting with the vice president, Armey suddenly changed his position and said that the threat from Saddam Hussein is "greater than I had supposed."

Cheney himself does not address any of this. Nor does he reflect on his certitude that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The film instead replays an old 2004 National Public Radio interview in which Cheney spoke of finding "a couple of semi-trailers" that were part of a nuclear lab program. Others say they in fact were producing hydrogen for weather balloons.

As he has many times, Cheney again defends the "enhanced interrogation" techniques used at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to get information from suspected terrorists and their consorts.

"Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor? . . . That's not a close call for me," he says.

Viewers are left with the overall impression that Cheney was a very powerful vice president. That's common knowledge. And that he really doesn't care about being "loved" and could care even less if he's second-guessed. Again, we already knew that.

One doesn't expect miracles from a film of this sort. But it's as if Cutler and company didn't even try to engage Cheney and draw him out. Perhaps they were intimidated by a man who more and more looks like Alastair Sim's version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Or maybe they were afraid he'd say, "OK, that's it. Interview's over. Now get out of here!"

At least that would have made for "good television." The World According to Dick Cheney instead is nuts-and-bolts bland and overly deferential. And the last words of course go to the title character, who says, "I did what I did. It's all on the public record. And I feel very good about it. If I had to do it over again, I'd do it in a minute."

Viewers are left with the thinnest of thin smiles at the end of a film that often seems even thinner. The Fog of War it's not. Not even close.

GRADE: C-minus

Let's have a nice hand for Ovation's Song By Song: Dolly Parton

Now and then: the inimitable Dolly Parton. Ovation photos

Premiering: Sunday, March 10th at 7 p.m. (central)
Starring: Dolly Parton for starters
Produced by: TH Entertainment LLC

Ovation is trying to be what Bravo and A&E used to be -- a network devoted to higher quality music, film, art, performance, etc.

It's proved to be a long uphill climb made tougher on New Year's Eve of last year. That's when kingpin Time Warner Cable dropped Ovation from its menu because not enough subscribers were watching it. The network now is down to the 48 million homes that have Verizon Fios, AT&T U-Verse, DIRECTV or Dish available to them. The network also has a youtube channel.

Sunday's launch of Song By Song as a weekly half-hour series isn't likely to lure battalions of viewers away from watching duck-callers, pampered skanks, Honey Boo Boo-ish hillbillies and people who hoard, pawn or pick through storage shelters. But maybe the ever-appealing Dolly Parton will be something of a drawing card.

Ovation previously tried the Song By Song concept as a limited series spotlighting some of the late Johnny Cash's hits. It supposedly was a big success by this network's standards, prompting a six-episode dissection of Parton's smash singles. Episode 1 zooms in on "I Will Always Love You," which many know only as the deceased Whitney Houston's anthem.

But she didn't write it or originally sing it. Dolly did. And the back story of where the song came from is interesting enough to hold this opener together. Or as narrator Ray Van Ness says a little too gravely, "Discover the dark truth behind a beloved ballad about the man Dolly will always love."

Parton is interviewed for the program, as are a wealth of admirers. Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers, Mac Davis, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Kristen Chenoweth and an already sadly trashed-out looking Miley Cyrus figuratively sing her praises without really advancing the story of how "I Will Always Love You" came to be. Still, it's a nice roster of familiar faces, adding stature to this briskly moving tale.

Way back before country steered its way toward rock, Parton became the resident female singing star of The Porter Wagoner Show, following stints by Norma Jean and Jeannie Seely.

Remember him? Wagoner had a high-rise, cotton candy pompadour and wore suits that might have made Liberace cry for his mama. He also charted 81 singles from 1954-'83, according to his wikipedia bio. And Wagoner's namesake syndicated show was a monster hit in country music country, running all the way from 1960 to 1981.

Parton joined him in 1967 and stayed until 1974. Both of them had hot tempers, she recalls, bringing out their bests and worsts. It was "kind of a love-hate relationship" in her view. Parton became a big star in her own right and Wagoner wanted to keep her -- with an implicit understanding.

"Porter was not going to let her be more than him, because it's his show," Rogers says.

He didn't take her decision to leave very well, says Parton. So she impulsively wrote the words and music to "I Will Always Love You" in just one night's time. It was her parting gift to the man who made her career. And one of the most affecting portions of Song By Song is Parton's original performance of the song on Wagoner's show.

Her version became a No. 1 hit twice, the second time when Parton re-recorded the song for the 1982 feature film version of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. Parton also used "I Will Always Love You" as the weekly sign-off on her short-lived 1987 ABC variety show Dolly, although the Ovation special makes no mention of this.

"That song is just like an old milk cow," Parton says. "I just keep milkin' it for all it's worth."

Houston's recording, for 1992's The Bodyguard, topped the pop charts for 14 weeks. Younger generations no doubt remember it as her song, not Parton's. But if she minds that, she's not telling.

"I'll always be grateful to Porter (who died in 2007) for inspiring the song and to Whitney for having a huge record on it," Parton says.

The five other weekly Parton portions of Song By Song will highlight, in order, "9 to 5"; "Coat of Many Colors"; "Jolene"; "Travelin' Thru" and "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right."

Sunday's premiere, the only episode made available for review, could have gone a little deeper into how Parton came up with the song's melody, whether the lyrics came easily, etc. But fans of Parton -- and really, who doesn't like her? -- likely won't be disappointed in this breezy little outing.

Maybe Ovation will get a little buzz off of it, too. Although launched in April 1996 and re-launched in June 2007, the network remains well-hidden in most viewers' cable universes. So you might want to stop on by before it's too late. And Song By Song is as good a reason as any to have a first date.

GRADE: B-minus

All the world's a stage, but Texas upstages the field on NBC's Ready For Love

Producer Eva Longoria and Dallas-based hunk Ben Patton. NBC photos

Most network TV dating shows tend to have a Texan or two or three in the mix.

But NBC's upcoming Ready For Love is lousy with Lone Star State eligibles.

Let's re-phrase that. Sneak-previewing on Tuesday, March 26th after The Voice, this thing has a helluva lot of Texans. Including three from the Dallas area.

NBC announced the 36 female competitors for "true love" Monday. And almost one-third of them -- 11 -- live somewhere in the state. Add Ben Patton, a Dallas-based "international financier" who will have a dozen specially selected "matches" hoping to jump his bones. Two other bachelors round out the field.

The show's executive producer, Eva Longoria, is a Corpus Christi native. So maybe that accounts in part for the top-heavy Texas presence. But the former Desperate Housewives star has long lived in Los Angeles, and is no longer re-wedded to the state via her former marriage to San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker.

It's invariably amusing to read a network's gooey descriptions of dating show eligibles. So let's share some excerpts, beginning with 31-year-old Ben Patton.

"Women often swoon over Patton's talk, dark and handsome looks," says NBC. "It's not only his dimples, smile and athletic build that intrigues women. It's also his manners, southern charm, sense of humor and well-rounded ability to talk about anything from fishing to economics and politics. After living four years abroad, Patton realized that he was truly longing for a relationship and wanted to settle down. It's his eagerness to find the right woman that drove him to move back to Dallas."

The show's other two bachelors, Plain White T's guitarist/vocalist Tim Lopez and Miami entrepreneur Ernesto Arguello, likewise are "committed to finding their soul mate," NBC assures. Let's take a look at their Texas-based choices, with all descriptions verbatim from a network publicity release.

Ben's Matches

Kari Krakowski, 27, of Dallas -- "They met when she first moved to Dallas and soon began dating. Due to their busy schedules, they ended it and decided it would be best to remain friends. She is now ready to take a leap of faith and fight for true love."

Angela Zatopek, 24, of Houston -- "A sassy, savvy communications executive, Zatopek devotes a lot of her time to philanthropy and even helped build a school in Uganda. She values her faith, and therefore has made the decision to save herself for marriage."

Jade Dhir, 24, of Austin -- "She considers herself to be very driven and believes her over-achieving nature will make her a great match for career-oriented Ben."

Renae Virata, 31, Houston -- "A go-getter, Virata believes her enthusiastic lifestyle would be the perfect match because she emulates Ben's ambitious work ethic."

Tim's Matches

Jenna Reeves, 23, of Austin -- "Reeves is young, but wise beyond her years. Unlike most of her peers, Reeves is ready to settle down and find her husband right away. She loves her life and prides herself on her determination in becoming the first in her family to finish college."

Leah Trogan, 27, of Austin -- "She is a makeup artist, but her biggest accomplishment is raising her son, Ryder, as a single mother. Trogan has known Tim for seven years and is looking forward to finally sharing her true feelings for him."

Ernesto's Matches

Elizabeth Capela, 30, of Dallas -- "Dependable, honest and an overall giving person. As a fifth grade English teacher, Capela thrives on putting her heart into her lessons and helping her pupils grow."

Erica Larson, 25, of Addison -- "A recent graduate of Texas State University, she enjoys dancing, cheerleading, swimming, reading and traveling. After watching her parents happily married for 38 years, she believes in true love and is ready for someone who will love her unconditionally."

Kristen Sikorski, 25, of Austin -- "A no-nonsense Texas woman who was raised on a ranch by her father and mother. Although she is an elementary school teacher, she majored in history and enjoys war movies and military facts. Sikorski was wowed when she saw Ernesto's video and knows she is ready to take on the full-time role as wife for a family man such as Ernesto."

Summer Burns, 31, of Austin -- "Already a loving mother to a three-year-old son, Burns is ready to complete her family portrait with a husband. As a single mother, she has developed the perfect combination of strength and compassion."

Alba Reyes, 30, of Houston -- "The perfect combination of beauty and brains, Reyes has it all. She graduated from law school, and currently works in health law while she postpones taking the bar. In addition, Reyes was crowned Miss Puerto Rico in 2004 and the second runner-up for Miss Universe. Reyes believes she is more ready than ever to find true love and felt a spark when she saw Ernesto's video."

So there you have it. Ready For Love will be hosted by Giuliana and Bill Rancic, with assists from a "preeminent matchmaker," a relationship author and a professional dating coach. After the Tuesday, March 26th preview, the show moves to its regular Sunday slot on March 31st.

History (Channel) further follows the scripts by filling Sundays with Vikings and The Bible

Travis Fimmel is battle-ready as the star of Vikings. History photo

Still flush with the huge success of Hatfields & McCoys, History (Channel) doubles down Sunday night with a pair of scripted miniseries sharing common traits of violence and spirituality.

It's hard to put a good book down. Or in this case, the Good Book. But Vikings (9 to 10 p.m. central for the next 9 Sundays) turns out to be far superior to The Bible (7 to 9 p.m. central for the next five Sundays).

Vikings enthrallingly captures the world of Norsemen and oarsmen, circa 793 in the Eastern Baltic but soon heading West to England. It's beautifully shot while also being thoroughly grimy -- as it should be. But best of all, the storytelling is bracingly sure-footed, with young, advenure-craving family man Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) pitted against the power-mongering Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne).

A decade ago, Fimmel found himself stuck in the now defunct WB network's Tarzan series, whose mention still vexes him. And back in 1985, Byrne played the flip-side of his Vikings character as the star of the CBS miniseries Christopher Columbus.

Byrne since has enjoyed a very gainful career in esteemed films (Miller's Crossing, The Usual Suspects) and TV series (HBO's In Treatment). Fimmel has slogged through a film and TV junkyard since Tarzan, but at last may have landed the big one.

His Ragnar has piercing eyes, and the hair and beard of a wrestling villain. He also thoroughly enjoys participating in the yearly summer raids sanctioned by Earl Haraldson. Blood and plunder are the constants, but Ragnar yearns for a change of pace. So he commissions his odd but accomplished friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) to build a worthy ship capable of sailing long distances to the mysterious West. The near-magical navigation tools will be a sun board and a sun stone, both of which are very early forms of MapQuest.

Ragnar enlists his not always honorable brother Rollo (Clive Standen) to join him. Together they clandestinely round up a crew to make the taboo trip. Back on the farm, Ragnar's comely warrior wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) begs to join him. In Episode 2 (the first five were sent for review), they have a rousing, rough-and-tumble fight in which she hopes to show him who's boss. But not this time. She's left home with their coming-of-age son and younger daughter.

The initial shots of the Viking ship at sea are breathtaking. This is no cheap-looking production. On the contrary, the History network has executive producer Michael Hirst at the throttle. And the man behind Elizabeth and Showtime's The Tudors knows how to put on a splendorous Old World drama.

The Vikings are pagan believers in Thor, Odin and the like. So they're mystified by the gentle, unarmed monks whose richly appointed monastery they raid upon first landing on the outskirts of England. "They are like babies," says Ragnar, who has taken a young monk named Athelstan (George Blagden) back home to be his slave. This is where the religious debate begins and continues periodically through the first five episodes.

Vikings positions Ragnar as its good guy. And he is to a degree when pitted against the despotic Earl Haraldson and his equally rotten wife, Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig). But Ragnar at base level is a murderous thief, as are all the Vikings. Because, well, that's what they do -- methodically and without remorse. Killing defenseless priests and monks is all part of a day's work when treasure's to be had. Later, though, Ragnar and wife Lagertha are thoughtful enough to invite monk Athelstan to join them in a threesome. This may be a miniseries first -- broadcast or cable. Even if the invitation is declined.

Violence is plentiful in Vikings. But unlike Starz's Spartacus series, the carnage is never splashed across the screen. Cameras instead instead look away during beheadings or torture. And the multiple fatalities in fight scenes are seldom as gruesome as they could be. Blood-streaked, filthy faces convincingly get the message across after battles are waged.

Some of the dialogue can be a bit contemporary. As when Rollo asks his brother's pre-teen son, "Where are your parents?"

"They're having sex," he replies.

Recruiting shipmates later on, Ragnar asks bluntly, "Have you got the balls to join us?" But at least no one says "Far out."

Vikings is yet another epic example of what the shrinking Big Four broadcast networks just aren't doing anymore. It's now left to others to mount captivating, money-on-the-screen trips to other times and places. Viewers will get an eyeful with Vikings, a thoroughly involving tale of betrayals, reprisals and bloodlust.

GRADE: A-minus

Jesus and Moses, as depicted during The Bible. History photos

Back in the mid- to late 1990s, the TNT network mounted an ambitious series of Old Testament Bible tales spotlighting Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, Samson, Delilah and others.

Stars in lead roles included Richard Harris, Ben Kingsley, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Diana Rigg, Leonard Nimoy, F. Murray Abraham and Oliver Reed.

The Bible, produced by reality maestro Mark Burnett (The Apprentice, Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank), comes off as thoroughly cut-rate in comparison. Beginning with a brief glimpse of Noah in his Ark before moving to the story of Abraham, it's over-cooked and sometimes really half-baked. As when one of God's angels, played by an Asian actor, twirls two swords Ninja-style to dispatch some bad guys while fire bolts rain down on Sodom.

Save for Burnett's wife, Roma Downey (as Mary in later episodes), viewers are unlikely to recognize any of the "acclaimed UK-based actors" striding through The Bible. The guy playing Abraham, Gary Oliver, is a real scenery-chewer. "Trust in God!" he bellows in Jon Lovitz's "Master Thespian" fashion as the story moves rapidly through the travails of the ancient sacrificer and his wife, Sarah.

Narrated by Keith David, a familiar voice to Ken Burns devotees, The Bible "endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book," according to an opening advisory. In that respect, Burnett at least doesn't resort to having pirates attack Noah's Ark (as NBC did in a silly 1999 miniseries). Nor does Jesus go to outer space with the devil (as He did in CBS' 2000 Jesus miniseries while being tempted in the dessert).

Sunday night's second hour re-tells the very oft-told story of how Moses freed the Israelites from centuries of slavery by the Egyptians. Pharoah gets a jagged facial scar this time around, the product of a teen boy fight with his half-brother. He's also chubby and very redundant while the actor playing Moses at times looks a lot like William H. Macy's disheveled lead character in Showtime's Shameless. Compared to Charlton Heston, he otherwise makes no impression at all.

Pharoah comes off as a laughable raging bull who also gets stuck with the line, "You always were a fighter, Moses. But you never knew when you were beaten."

The resultant fabled parting of the Red Sea is strictly pedestrian from a special effects standpoint. Maybe these stories are just too well-known at this point. They've certainly been better told on film.

The bulk of Jesus' story begins in Episode 7, with Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado very pretty looking in the early going. But he emotes to fairly good effect during the Garden of Gethsemane segment, in which he begs, "Father, take this from me. Spare me."

Episode 8 ends just before the torture and crucifixion of Jesus begin. And that portion of The Bible wasn't made available for review.

But Sunday night's previews of coming attractions -- both at the beginning and the end -- are long and detailed enough to basically give viewers the entire series in a nutshell. Not that most adults aren't already well-versed.

The Bible has the misfortune of looking cheap in comparison to the visual feast provided by the Vikings. And the acting isn't nearly strong enough to overcome this.

Producer Burnett's first fully scripted series -- his 2004 Commando Nanny for The WB never made it to the air -- provides strong evidence that he should resume doing what no one else does better. "Reality" series are his forte. The Bible is Old and New Testament to that.