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Life-affirming: Showtime's Time of Death


Lenore Lefer’s last days are included in Time of Death. Showtime photo

Premiering: Friday, Nov. 1st at 8 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Real-life people nearing death
Produced by: Jane Lipsitz, Dan Cutforth, Alexandra Lipsitz, Cynthia Childs, Casey Kriley

Milton Berle’s Private Joke File, all 642 pages of it, has lots more to say about dentists than death. For that matter, even parrots get more ink.

Death, after all, is no laugh riot, although Berle gave it a shot with this one-liner: “I looked at the obituaries the other day and I realized something -- everybody dies in alphabetical order!”

Showtime’s Time of Death documentary series perhaps is best served with a punch line before this review gets underway. Friday night escapism it’s not, which Showtime entertainment president David Nevins fully realizes. In his note accompanying the review DVDs, Nevins says in part: “It is not the easiest show to watch, but I’ve always wanted to explore the subject in detail. Death is the most universal topic there is, and yet its examination is largely taboo in our culture.”

There are six weekly episodes in all, with 48-year-old Maria Lencioni’s story spotlighted in all of them while other subjects near death play what amount to major supporting parts. I’ve watched the first two, and came away teary-eyed each time. This is a powerfully affecting series, and an enduring memorial to otherwise ordinary people whose last days ended up being anything but camera shy.

Maria, who lives on a farm in Santa Cruz, CA, is the divorced mother of three children -- 25-year-old Nicole (also called “Little”), 15-year-old Julia and 14-year-old Andrew. She has terminal Stage 4 breast cancer and so far has been more willing to talk about this with the filmmakers than with her offspring.

“They shouldn’t be faced with all this cockadoodle,” Maria says in Episode 2.

Nicole, heavily tattooed and long at odds with her mother, has moved back to Santa Cruz with the goal of gaining custody of her two siblings. Neither wants to live with their biological father, who allegedly was “abusive.” He’s unseen in the first two episodes, but will make a “surprise visit” in Hour 4, according to publicity materials.

The turbulent family dynamics of the Lencionis are raw and interesting to a point. But Time of Death gets much of its punch and immediacy from the up-close looks at those whose lives will span just a single episode.

Friday’s premiere introduces Michael John Muth, a 47-year-old Navy veteran in the final stages of a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. Living his last days in a hospice, he’s also a veteran of two divorces (“I was the bad guy in both marriages. Let’s put it that way”) and an early history of drug abuse.

Nonetheless, his father is steadfastly by his side, as is Michael’s stepmother. “I profusely apologize to this man for all the shit I put him through growin’ up,” Michael says.

Episode 2 features Lenore Lefer, a sunny side up 74-year-old mother and grandmother with inoperable pancreatic cancer. As a psychotherapist specializing in death and dying, she has opted to forego further medical treatment in order to spare survivors the agony of watching her combat the debilitating effects of harsh drug treatment.

“We live in a death-denying culture, and I don’t want it to be that way,” she says. “I want my life to have made some difference.”

Lenore’s husband, Mel, were divorced for a brief period before remarrying and spending 53 years of their lives together. They have two sons, but lost a third to a teenage drowning death.

By the time of her 75th birthday, Lenore was too weak to get out of bed. But she wanted the family to celebrate anyway. And so they do before everyone joins her for a birthday video of past milestones together. I’m getting misty just writing about it.

Time of Death tells its stories without appearing to be voyeuristic or intrusive. Lenore didn’t want cameras present for her final minutes, and so the filmmakers step aside. It would have been quite something, though, with Mel later relating that his wife looked fondly at him and said twice, “It was terrific.”

In a culture awash in share-it-all “social media” and seemingly all-seeing phone cams, most of us likely would still prefer to die in private. Time of Death breathes new life into a handful who chose otherwise. And with this series, they also chose pretty wisely.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Look out, it's only just begun: ReelzChannel weighs in early with JFK: The Smoking Gun


Australian detective Colin McLaren demonstrates a bullet trajectory during a JFK: The Smoking Gun panel at the Television Critics Association summer TV “press tour” in Beverly Hills. ReelzChannel photo

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It can’t be stopped and won’t be denied.

The Kennedy cavalcade is coming full force, with who knows how many commemorations and conspiracy theories tied to the 50th anniversary of that very dark day in Dallas.

Television of course is doing its part. The medium that “came of age” on Nov. 22, 1963 will be filling home screens beyond the bursting point next month. One of the first perpetrators is ReelzChannel and its two-hour JFK: The Smoking Gun, billed in publicity materials as “the only program based entirely on facts and evidence which reveals who shot the President.” It premieres on Sunday, Nov. 3rd at 7 p.m. (central) and will be repeated on eight other dates in November.

Stuffed with stilted actor re-enactments -- and repeated shots of a mock John F. Kennedy corpse with its skull blown open -- Smoking Gun basically regurgitates the 1992 book Mortal Error and its conclusion that a Secret Service agent accidentally fired the third and fatal shot. It’s as “good” a theory as any within the vast realm of cockamamie but cocksure assertions that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.

The book’s contention -- that agent George Hickey inadvertently killed Kennedy with an AR-15 assault rifle -- gets no credence in Vincent Bugliosi’s voluminous 1,612-page Reclaiming History, which in 2007 sought to debunk any and all conspiracy theories connected to JFK’s death. He dismisses this one in just under four pages, terming Mortal Error “unfit for human consumption.” Other than its author and his principal source of information, “I know of no serious student of the assassination who takes the book or its contents seriously,” Bugliosi wrote.

Well, now there are at least three. Mortal Error’s new champion is former Australian forensics detective Colin McLaren, who teams with the book’s original author, Bonar Menninger, to answer the narrative question, “Have these two experts finally found the smoking gun, hidden in plain sight all along?”

Well, they certainly think so. And their pathfinder is the late Howard Donahue, a ballistics expert who first gained fame in a multi-part 1967 CBS investigation into whether Oswald conceivably could have fired three shots with such deadly precision within a 5.6 second time frame via a balky old Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.

Donahue, who died in 1999, in fact did get off three shots in the allotted time after first failing twice. And all of them hit a moving bullseye used by CBS to replicate the conditions Oswald faced. But Donahue began looking deeper, eventually deducing on his own that Oswald in fact fired just two shots, one of which missed before the second struck Kennedy in the neck. So where did the last shot come from?

After decades of obsessive research, Donahue fingered Hickey, who was riding in the motorcade car immediately behind the presidential limo. Hickey, who died in 2005, refused to talk to Menninger or Donahue for the purposes of their book. He instead sued them twice. The first one was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The second, in conjunction with the paperback version of Mortal Error, was settled out of court. Menninger tells the camera that the book’s publishers opted to pay Hickey off rather than be immersed in a costly legal battle.

Mortal Error got some attention, including an ABC News interview of Donahue by an incredulous Charles Gibson. But the book “does not fly off shelves, does not cause a national uproar,” says Smoking Gun narrator Alex Ivanovici.

No matter. A 50th anniversary puts just about everything back in play. Donahue’s daughter, Colleen Lorenzen, now contends that other assassination theories were hotter at the time Mortal Error was published. She also says it was never her father’s intention to “paint him (Hickey) as a bad guy or disparage him in any way. And he had great sympathy for Mr. Hickey.”

Smoking Gun instead disparages the late Arlen Spector, a former assistant counsel for the Warren Commission who went on to become a long-serving U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Spector, played by actor Daniel Bingham, is depicted as the chief architect of a government cover-up. He’s last seen advancing toward the camera with a thin, satisfied smile on his face. This may be even more reprehensible than the documentary’s numerous shots of a bare-chested JFK stand-in being pawed over during a very crowded and disorganized autopsy conducted after the slain president’s body was flown from Dallas to Washington.

McLaren, for his part, lurks around Dealey Plaza, visits Oswald’s lair at the Texas School Book Depository (“This is the Holy Grail of all crime scenes”) and affirmatively answers narrator questions such as, “Did the Secret Service have something to hide?”

It can’t be said -- unfortunately -- that Smoking Gun is bereft of any “entertainment” value. It may well pull many viewers along, whether you were alive on Nov. 22, 1963 or are just learning the particulars of what McLaren calls “one of the most contentious mysteries of our time.”

Not that ReelzChannel has anything resembling an airtight case here. In that sense, it’s ludicrous for McLaren to declare at film’s end, “Maybe it’s time to see the smoking gun and then to quietly close the door behind history’s most talked about and debated crime scene.”

Quietly close the door? Yeah, sure. By the 75th anniversary, we’ll perhaps get an assertion that President Kennedy was killed by a laser shot from the newly discovered planet Scorpio. And by the 100th? Well, maybe someone will claim that Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling Killing Kennedy in reality was an admission of his own guilt. After all, he was a mischievous, identity-seeking 14 at the time.

But first things first. National Geographic Channel’s Killing Kennedy adaptation, starring Rob Lowe as JFK, will premiere on Nov. 10th. And it sticks to the Oswald script.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Seduced and Abandoned gives HBO a very embraceable doc


Film mates: Alex Baldwin and director/writer James Toback. HBO photo

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The late Orson Welles provides a perfect springboard for Seduced and Abandoned, a documentary about the “art” of chasing the dollar.

“I look back on my life and it’s 95% running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5% actually making them,” Welles lamented. “It’s no way to live.”

It’s not known how much Alec Baldwin and writer/director James Toback (Tyson, The Pick-up Artist) had to haggle with HBO to make Seduced and Abandoned (premiering Monday, Oct. 28th at 8 p.m. central). The end result may not quite be priceless. But this is a very entertaining and informative one hour, 40 minute look at how today’s movie industry functions and whether it’s really all that different from how things used to be done.

Baldwin and Toback in a way have fool-proofed their movie within a movie gambit by journeying to the Cannes Film Festival with a pitch for a film that seems more than a little touched in the head. They’re proposing a “political romantic adventure” modeled after Last Tango In Paris, the controversial, sexually graphic 1972 film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider.

Baldwin would take on the Brando role in Last Tango in Takrit, with Neve Campbell as his younger lover. He’d be a hawkish government operative and she’d be a “lefty” journalist who meet and mate in Iraq. Would anyone be interested in investing $25 million in it?

Campbell, seen briefly in the HBO documentary’s early minutes, hasn’t exactly been on fire of late. In fact it’s fair to ask whether Seduced and Abandoned in part is a running joke at her expense, even if it she might willingly be in on it. Because as expected, prospective financiers balk when her name is mentioned.

“Neve Campbell is wonderful, but doesn’t have marquee value,” says moneyman Mark Damon. “You cannot sell it,” says another. But if Jessica Chastain signed on and Campbell were reduced to a minimal role, well, now we might be talking.

Not that viewers or reviewers should think too deeply about this. Seduced and Abandoned is also about how renowned filmmakers view their craft. And during the course of trying to shake the money tree, Baldwin and Toback also sit down with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski and Bertolucci himself. Actors James Caan and Ryan Gosling also illuminate their craft while Juno writer Diablo Cody memorably says she’s ready to die at this point because “I know I can make into that death montage (at the annual Oscars ceremony) and that’s all I care about.”

Toback, who directs Seduced and Abandoned, does a fine job of melding film clips with his subjects’ words. Much of the documentary is presented in split-screen, putting scenes from the likes of The Godfather, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Apocalypse Now and Rosemary’s Baby into sharper, contextual focus.

Coppola recalls throwing several of his Godfather Oscars out of a window after struggling to secure financing for Apocalypse Now. His mother then picked up the pieces and tried to get him new ones.

Seduced and Abandoned doesn’t always stay on track, but nonetheless never derails. It’s both a romp and a stomp, with Cannes the go-between.

“Making movies is the oxygen of my being,” Toback says in the early going. This one seems to effortlessly breathe on its own as a buddy/buddy “road picture” with scenic pathways, a few dead ends and refreshing breezes throughout.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

A&E serves Louisiana gumbo/jumble with The Governor's Wife


Ex-Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and child bride Trina. A&E photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on A&E
Starring: Edwin Edwards, Trina Edwards, Anna Edwards, Victoria Edwards
Produced by: Brent Montgomery, David George, Will Nothacker, Dominic Pupa, Shaun Sanghani

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We revel in reviling our bad boy politicians. Or do we?

The A&E network very much hopes the answer is in the affirmative for The Governor’s Wife. Think Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall before fast-forwarding to the now 86-year-old Edwin Edwards and his 35-year-old wife, Trina Grimes Scott, who’s inherited two 60-plus stepdaughters from the former Louisiana chief executive’s first marriage. She also has two teenage sons from her own first husband. They first met while the scandal-entangled Edwards was serving prison time on a racketeering conviction following years of dodging bullets. He was released to a halfway house in January 2011 -- after eight years behind bars -- and married Trina in July of that year.

In “reality” TV terms, this is the Taj Mahal, the Rolls Royce, the Ritz Carlton of dysfunction junctions. It’s from the battle-tested maestro behind Pawn Stars, Cajun Pawn Stars and Monster-In-Laws. So perhaps it’s best not to bet against it.

Trina sets the table with her opening narration before hubby hits the ground running by telling the camera, “You know what my favorite saying is. You(‘re) only as young as the woman you feel. And brother, it’s fun feeling her.”

Unlike Anna Nicole’s billionaire benefactor, this ol’ rascal remains lucid, ambulatory and in possession of some frozen sperm he deposited a while back. The first half-hour episode in part is built around hastily made plans to start their own family while Trina frets about breaking the news to Edwin’s tart daughters. She also sobs while saying that Edwin’s longevity is up for grabs but having “just a little piece of him” would make her forever happy.

Filming on Season 1 ended in March, with the two principals both a year younger. And since it’s already been widely reported, there’s really no harm in divulging that Trina in fact gave birth to a son, Eli Wallace Edwards, in August of this year. So maybe their romance runs a little deeper than outward appearances would suggest.

Older Anna, a four-time divorcee, is the nicer of Edwin’s two sexagenarian daughters. Nicer being a relative term. She’s still “bossy as usual” in Trina’s view, but a popgun compared to pistol sister Victoria, who’s affixed with a perpetual scowl and an electronic cigarette lodged firmly between her lips.

Anna accepts her stepmom’s pregnancy plans with borderline equanimity: “At 34, you’re not supposed to be this crazy. That comes later.” And besides, her father is no spring chicken, being “three toes from the grave” and all.

Victoria immediately worries about having to split daddy’s money four ways instead of three. “Most of our inheritance went to the federal government,” she grouses.

Still, Edwin and Trina appear to be living pretty high on the hog in a pillared home in Gonzales, Louisiana. And they have lots of other made-for-TV activities to share, including a book-signing, Trina’s participation in a Dancing with the Stars-themed charity event and her plans to pop out of a giant fake cake at a big 85th birthday part for Edwin.

“So tell me I’m beautiful, bitches,” Trina instructs her stepdaughters before stepping out with their daddy.

Anna draws the line on stepmom’s birthday party gambit while also highlighting the elemental ingredients of The Governor’s Wife. “You spent a year rehabilitating your gold digger, trashy for marrying an old man reputation,” she lectures Trina. “I don’t think jumpin’ out of a cake is gonna help.”

Trina agrees to a “more private” display after many of the guests supposedly have left. But her cake pop only further aggravates sour ball Victoria. “Dummy jumped out of the cake facin’ the wrong way,” she says after also lashing Trina for living up to her dumb blonde stereotype.

The ex-guv/jailbird is a Democrat who served three separate terms in office and defeated white supremacist David Duke in his last go-around. He now seems more than happy to roll with the punch lines to achieve the greater glory of putting himself in a spotlight again. This includes making a couple of jokes about his incarceration while regularly marveling at the trophy wife who’s his and his alone.

“Trina is a constant reminder that the road ahead will still have plenty of surprises and some very sweet curves,” he says as the curtain-closer to Sunday’s premiere.

It’s easy to envision Bill Clinton enviously watching The Governor’s Wife -- in the absence of Hillary, of course. And even easier to imagine him saying or thinking, “That ol’ dawg is livin’ the life I should be livin’. The lucky sumbitch.”

A&E has ordered 12 half-hours of The Governor’s Wife, and originally announced a Feb. 27th premiere for the series before several other false starts. But it’s now full steam ahead with a show that again shows us what we already know. Politicians are a collective group of crooks who very seldom get what they deserve. Instead, Edwin Edwards gets a sculpted blonde honey, another pay day, publicity aplenty and a chance to tell his third wife, “I don’t know about Jim Kardashian.”

That’s “Kim,” she laughingly corrects him. They get bonus points for that.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Vampires strike (yet) again in NBC's Dracula


”Hi, honey, I’m down a few pints.” Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Dracula. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Nonso Anozie, Jessica De Gouw, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Thomas Kretschmann, Victoria Smurfit, Katie McGrath
Produced by: Tony Krantz, Colin Callender, Gareth Neame, Anne Mensahn, Daniel Knauf

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
We live in fertile times for vampires. And NBC’s new Dracula keeps up the usual appearances with ample time for lethal crimes of life-sustaining blood-sucking and other assorted mayhem.

But as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, this version of the Bram Stoker evergreen is also a combination Thomas Edison/Frankenstein’s Monster. He’s both perfecting a new oil-less alternative energy source and willingly making himself a guinea pig in a blood transfusion experiment that could enable vampires to walk in the sunlight without burning to a crisp. That would be very helpful from a cinematic standpoint. Because the first five episodes sent for review are very darkly lit more often than not. Viewers could use a few rays.

It’s all set in 1896 London, where Dracula (masquerading as American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson) is new in town 15 years after his skeletal remains are liberated from a coffin. His right-hand man and confidant is R.M. Renfield (Nonso Anozie), a beefy African-American who’s been by Dracula’s side for the past 12 years. A flashback in Episode 5 shows how they first hooked up.

Dracula/Grayson has been deeply wronged by the very sinister, century-spanning Order of the Dragon, whose kingpins now run the British Imperial Coolant Company. They’re all invited to his luxurious manor for dinner, drinks, dancing and a demonstration of “power drawn from the magnetosphere.” This involves the seemingly magical illumination of hundreds of hand-held lightbulbs, with Grayson’s factory workers briefly making it happen by cranking and grinding from an unseen location. Preposterous? Perhaps. But it’s an intended means of bringing our anti-hero’s oily, oil-dependent enemies to their knees.

Collegially paired with NBC’s Season 3 premiere of Grimm, the new Dracula also includes medical student Mina Murray (Jessica DeGouw). Hmm, might she also somehow be Dracula’s wife, who long ago was burned at the stake while he was made to watch? Dracula/Grayson is definitely getting a vibe from Mina, but her heart for now belongs to Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an intrepid reporter for The Inquisitor whose job description will be taking a U-turn.

Mina’s professor is Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (former Dracula 3D star Thomas Kretschmann). He’s also the guy who’s conspiring with Dracula/Grayson to both topple the Order of the Dragon and perfect that new walk-in-the-sun elixir. There’s also Lady Jane Weatherby (Victoria Smurfit), an accomplished vampire huntress who’s engaging in recurring rough sex with Dracula/Grayson. He’s trying to throw her off her game, and obviously she hasn’t caught on yet.

Through the course of its initial five episodes, Dracula sprinkles in a clandestine, ill-fated sexual affair between two men while also making it clear that Mina’s party girl best pal, Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath), has great longings to get physical with her. The church, almost needless to say, is a bottomless fount of villainy.

Rhys Meyers, whose recurring bouts with alcohol have been widely publicized, is best known for his starring role as Henry VIII in the Showtime series The Tudors. He brought presence to that part while also almost devouring it at times with emoting reminiscent of Jon Lovitz’s “Master Thespian” character on Saturday Night Live.

In Dracula, Rhys Meyers likewise is prone to heavy-breathing excesses. “Give me one good reason why I should not peel you like a grape!” he rages at Van Helsing near the end of Episode 1.

By Episode 3 he’s at it again after Van Helsing tells him the latest variation on his serum will allow a 3 minute, 12 second exposure to sunlight.

“How long must I spend skulking in the shadows?” Dracula/Grayson retorts. “I want to walk in the sun like any other man! You leave me just enough time to have a cup of tea -- before I burst into flames!” Easy now.

Rhys Meyers also is capable of dialing it down, though. And he certainly has no aversion to being tortured or bathed in blood. Episode 2 begins with a second and much grislier look at that aforementioned coffin liberation. Episode 3 starts in medieval times, with Dracula beaten to a pulp, chained at the neck to a post, etc. And Episode 5 is built around equally gruesome scenes of torture, with Dracula/Grayson this time in a position to be the avenger.

Successful, graphically violent basic cable series such as The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story and Breaking Bad have had a clear effect on the composition of NBC’s Dracula. It’s not an out-and-out gore-fest, but doesn’t shrink from the task when Dracula is either on the prowl or at the mercy of others in earlier times. But the series also occasionally tries a little tenderness -- and pulls it off in some of the scenes between Dracula/Grayson and the loyal Renfield.

The first five episodes of Dracula, although unwieldy and murky at times, flex just enough storytelling power to keep the juices flowing. What else has Dracula been up to all of these years? (A passing reference to Vlad the Impaler makes one wonder even more.) What will Mina mean to him? How long can Lady Jane be duped into having hot sex with the same man she’s hunting? Will Dracula ever be able to enjoy a sunlit lunch on the patio?

There’s a caveat, though. Dracula is directly up against the aptly named, in this case, Blue Bloods on CBS. That could prove to be its undoing, with Tom Selleck doubling up as an ad hoc vampire slayer with a better, fuller mustache to boot.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Christmas comes but once a year, but starts in early November on dueling Hallmark/Lifetime networks

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It’ll be Hallmark Channel vs. Lifetime in another all-out Christmas assault that begins two days after Halloween. Hallmark/Lifetime photos

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas -- if you tunnel your vision through department stores and three holi-dazed cable TV networks.

That most wonderful time of the year amounts to Shark Week -- only much longer -- for the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and ABC Family.

Hallmark and Lifetime are the principal perpetrators, er, spreaders of good cheer, with slews of new ’n’ gooey holiday movies. ABC Family’s annual “Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas,” which precedes its annual “25 Days of Christmas,” is somewhat more restrained and less ambitious. It doesn’t fire up until November 20th and offers just two original films as part of the package.

Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” begins on Nov. 2nd while “It’s A Wonderful Lifetime” waits all the way until one week later. Hallmark considers itself the real Santa Claus here, with latter day interloper Lifetime little more than a renegade pack of elves. But this is serious business here, and a very serious business plan. So the viewer shopping seasons keep getting longer and longer on both networks.

Hallmark has a dozen new Yule movies in its gift bag. And that doesn’t include its corporate sister, Hallmark Movie Channel. On Nov. 18th, it’s offering Christmas with Tucker, the network’s inaugural original Christmas film. All you need to know is that venerable James Brolin does his level best to get mushy in the company of a dog and a kid.

It can be tough coming up with new titles in this realm. But Hallmark is hanging in there with the likes of A Very Merry Mix-Up (Nov. 10th); Window Wonderland (Nov. 23rd); Fir Crazy (Nov. 24th) and Hats Off to Christmas (Dec. 14th).

Lifetime counters with Kristin’s Christmas Past (Nov. 23rd); A Snow Globe Christmas (Dec. 14th) and Christmas on the Bayou (also on Dec. 14th as part of a climactic holiday season doubleheader).

Lifetime has a total of seven new Christmas movies, all scheduled on weekends. Hallmark’s dozen newbies also have weekend premieres. ABC Family is the contrarian here, dialing up Christmas Bounty on Tuesday, Nov. 26th. The cast is headed by wrestling superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, so expect some Emmy caliber emoting.

ABC Family’s other first-run Christmas film, Holidaze, is coming on Sunday, Dec. 8th. It stars Dancing with the Stars alumni Jennie Garth and Cameron Mathison. What, you were expecting Al Pacino and Meryl Streep?

Esteemed thespians and/or major Hollywood names are in somewhat short supply on both Hallmark Channel and Lifetime. But there are exceptions.

Lifetime’s lead-off Christmas entry, Nov. 9th’s A Country Christmas, stars Dolly Parton as herself. She’ll be hosting a holiday singing competition at Dollywood.

Lifetime also offers Della Reese and American Idol champ Jordin Sparks in Dear Secret Santa (Nov. 30th). Ed Asner and Randy Travis both take part in the network’s aforementioned Christmas on the Bayou.

Over on Hallmark, former Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner co-stars in Nov. 2nd’s The Thanksgiving House while Bruce Dern pops in on Pete’s Christmas (Nov. 8th).

Naomi Judd co-stars in Hallmark’s Window Wonderland; Alan Thicke appears in Let It Snow (Nov. 30th); Olympia Dukakis and Nicolette Sheridan join forces in The Christmas Spirit (Dec. 1st) and Haylie Duff fronts Hats Off to Christmas.

The story lines for these films boil down to a simple Christmas edict: All involved find joy, happiness and fulfillment.

Hallmark’s Snow Bride (Nov. 9th) is described thusly in publicity materials: “When a reporter encounters the eldest son of a famous political family at a mountain retreat, she winds up pretending to be his girlfriend over Christmas so he can save face with his family. Should she secretly expose newsworthy scoops about the famous family in order to save her job, or trust that she’s falling in love for real?” Do they really need to ask?

In The Christmas Ornament (Nov. 16th), “widow Kathy Howard is having a hard time facing her first Christmas alone when she meets Christmas tree lot owner Tim Pierce, who helps her to see that there is still hope and love in the world. Kathy, however, is unsure if she is truly ready to move on. Can Tim and the Christmas season help open her heart to a new life?” Oh please.

Over on Lifetime, A Snow Globe Christmas goes down like this: “A cynical television executive looks at the perfect world inside a snow globe and rants about how the Christmas movies she produces fall short of real life. Upset, she tries to smash the globe into pieces, but instead ends up knocking herself in the head. She wakes up in a perfect snow-covered town, married to her ex-, Ted, with two kids. Trying desperately to return to her old life, she slowly realizes the importance of family and begins to find happiness.”

Well, good luck with all of this in real life. Still, real life is over-rated while Christmas movies of this sort provide welcome respites for many. Otherwise, Hallmark Channel and Lifetime wouldn’t be loading up on alternatives to Uncle Gus throwing a turkey leg at Uncle Jess during a typically fractious family holiday dinner. Or Dad blowing the gift budget on lottery tickets before guiltily getting drunk and falling into the Christmas tree after first urinating on it. Or cantankerous Grandma Maud telling her well-meaning daughter, “Your Christmas presents are always so damned boring.”

It’d be nice, though, if Hallmark and Lifetime could stifle themselves until at least the day after Thanksgiving. Christmas comes but once a year, but if these networks had their way, it’d be year-‘round.

In that respect, don’t discount a July start-up at some point in the fairly near future. After all, they used to have “Christmas In July” at the local Racine, Wisconsin drive-in movie theater during Little Barky’s formative years. And, true story, after waiting in line for a long time during intermission, li’l Barky got half of a broken-off bunny eraser. The butt end, by the way, although it did have a cottontail.

Hark, I’m sensing a Christmas movie premise here: “After years of being scarred by an unfortunate “Christmas In July” gift given to him as a kid, a frugal bachelor wonders if the holiday season will ever bring him true joy. But then a giant rabbit appears to him in a vision, with instructions to buy a seashell necklace from a lonely, destitute street peddler named Mary Joseph before inviting her to his humble two-room studio apartment in Mangerville for a Banquet TV dinner feast and a scoop of topping-less ice cream. Can Holly’s unrestrained happiness in the face of such generosity erase the man’s Christmas demons and perhaps even prompt him to sing “The First Noel” before proposing marriage?”

Starring David Faustino and Lisa Whelchel with Jon Lovitz as the voice of the giant rabbit.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Starz shines in an unusual way with Dancing on the Edge


Angel Coulby enchants as a jazz singer named Jessie. BBC America photo

Premiering: Saturday, Oct. 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on Starz and continuing on consecutive Saturdays through Nov. 16th at 8 p.m. (central)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode, John Goodman, Jacqueline Bisset, Angel Coulby, Janet Montgomery, Wunmi Mosaku, Tom Hughes, Joanna Vanderham, Anthony Head
Directed and written by: Stephen Poliakoff, who also serves as co-executive producer with Alison Owen, Paul Trijbits, James D. Stern, Douglas E. Hansen, Colin Callender

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Stylish, substantive and sometimes just a bit slow of foot, the jazz-themed, BBC-produced Dancing on the Edge swings into view Saturday on an unlikely network.

Starz so far is best known as home to the blood-soaked Spartacus series and other sword ’n’ cloak concoctions such as Camelot, DaVinci’s Demons, The Pillars of The Earth and The White Queen, whose concluding episode precedes the premiere of Dancing on the Edge.

The premium pay network, which someday hopes to challenge HBO and Showtime, also has gone for more modern-day crime/corruption in Boss and Magic City, both since canceled.

Dancing on the Edge, whose formal wear and 1930s London setting seem more suited to the BBC America network or Masterpiece Theater, runs a good risk of getting lost and never found on Starz. But quality is where you find it. And this is well worth your while.

Airing in five parts on successive Saturdays, Dancing on the Edge stretches to more than six hours on commercial-free Starz. The premiere episode runs for just over 90 minutes, as does the Nov. 16th finale. Episodes 2 through 4 are each slightly more than an hour.

A little trimming around the edges wouldn’t hurt, but don’t be put off by the early leisurely pace. Things pick up plot-wise, with Dancing on the Edge really starting to hum along by the end of Episode 2. A bloody assault on a lead character, who’s left for dead by an unknown perpetrator, adds a mystery element and an overall sense of foreboding to what otherwise has been the slow rise to fame of an all-black jazz band.

Its leader is Louis Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Londoner by birth whose mother worked as a servant to the wealthy. After traveling the world (and also developing his musical talents) as a merchant seaman, Louis returns to his native land and puts together a jazz band. They play in relative obscurity at a small club until being discovered one night by upwardly striving Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode). He’s a virtual one man band himself as the prolific deputy editor/chief writer of The Music Express magazine.

Stanley delights in finding and showcasing new talent in hopes that his struggling magazine likewise will profit. So he lands The Louis Lester Band a tryout at the stuffy Imperial Hotel, whose clientele is mostly old, stuffy and dwindling.

Both the hotel manager and Stanley quickly advise Louis to “get yourself a singer.” He does and then some. Jessie (Angel Coulby) and her lifelong friend, Carla (Wunmi Mosaku), are a package deal. And yes, they proceed to sing up a storm while also lighting a fire under Dancing on the Edge. The musical performances in this miniseries are first-rate throughout. Never more so than when Jessie blows hot through “Dead of Night Express” while the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Kent have their socks knocked off. (In a winning earlier scene, the Duke gleefully tests his non-existent skills as a jazz drummer after Louis and his band perform for him at a private garden party.)

Dancing on the Edge is also about race, privilege and the barriers between them. Its ominous Mr. Moneybags is Walter Masterson (John Goodman), a multi-millionaire American abroad who buys and sells both merchandise and underlings. For quite a while, Masterson is a mute, but imposing presence whose wishes are others’ commands. But Goodman later takes the role to voluble heights during the course of orchestrating the downfalls of some while protecting others.

Jaqueline Bisset, the other best-known name in the cast, co-stars as the reclusive Lady Lavinia Cremone. She understandably remains melancholy after losing all three of her sons in World War I. But her interest in music is rekindled by the enterprising Stanley, who becomes a surrogate son to boot.

Another key character, a willowy photographer named Sarah (Janet Montgomery), documents the band’s travels and performances while also falling for Louis. Also part of the entourage: brother and sister Julian and Pamela Luscombe (Tom Hughes, Joanna Vanderham). She’s more than a little smitten with Stanley and he’s become accustomed to both the perks and pitfalls involved in working as Masterson’s head assistant. Julian and Pamela have been parented by upper-crust bigots, a breed of Londoner still in heavy supply during 1933.

Director Stephen Poliakoff (BBC’s Emmy-winning The Lost Prince) also wrote the screenplay for Dancing on the Edge. It’s solid, although the dialogue doesn’t jump off the page in the sometimes showy manner of Downton Abbey. But Poliakoff very ably keeps a lot of balls in the air, juggling and intertwining the hopes and schemes of his principal characters without losing a grip on either.

Louis and Stanley drive much of the action as fast friends thrust into the limelight they seek and the darkness they inherit because of it. The idea of an all-black band living in an upper crust hotel is grudgingly embraced by management after business begins soaring. But then a brutal unsolved crime and its after-effects begin to peel away the veneer. They never should have been allowed to stay here in the first place. You know how these people are. Something bad was bound to happen. And so on.

Dancing on the Edge’s distinctive and original soundtrack is available on Decca Records. Those who stay the course -- and it’s highly recommended that you do -- might well want to make this additional investment. The story has ample pulling power. But the music is its driving force -- all day and all of the night.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reign in The CW's forecast


Toby Regbo, Adelaide Kane, Torrance Coombs of Reign. CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 17th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Adelaide Kane, Toby Regbo, Torrance Coombs, Megan Follows, Alan Van Sprang, Anna Popplewell, Celina Sinden, Caitlin Stassey, Jenessa Grant, Rossif Sutherland
Produced by: Laurie McCarthy

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Some games of thrones are happening here. Not that The CW’s Reign otherwise bears any resemblance at all to HBO’s graphic and gritty medieval times.

This is a frothy, giggly, historically silly, pop tune-themed trifle, with mid-16th century France as its backdrop. Teenager Mary Stuart (Adelaide Kane), the future Mary, Queen of Scots, has been safely sequestered in a convent while awaiting her destiny. But an attempt to poison her, with a young nun “taster” instead on the receiving end, is proof enough that it’s time for a return to the French court where Mary happily spent part of her childhood romping about with Francis the future king (Toby Regbo).

Ah, but Francis isn’t quite ready yet. Nor is his scheming mom, Queen Catherine (Megan Follows), particularly after learning from the young prophet Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland) that marriage to Mary “will cost Francis his life.”

Meanwhile, Francis’ half-brother Sebastian (Torrance Coombs), better known as “Bash,” has his own designs on the comely, spunky Mary. Nefarious King Henry II (Alan Van Sprang), who publicly flaunts his mistress for all to see, is also in no huge hurry to see Francis do his “I do’s.” But Mary’s tee-hee quartet of “Ladies in Waiting” is more than ready to rock. Says one: “Alliances can shift. Before they do, Mary needs to win the king’s heart.”

Reign is never more ridiculous than at a wedding reception for another royal. Mary impulsively orders her four ladies in waiting to dance with her. And so they do, jumping around to a pop tune rather than a minstrel’s strum. Perhaps there’s an invisible DJ spinning songs somewhere? Hey, how about the hip-hop mix version of “Old King Cole Was a Merry Old Soul?” Love that one.

Thursday’s premiere episode also includes a scene in which Mary is mysteriously warned not to drink the wedding reception wine. And her loyal dog, Sterling, has been spooked by something in the woods.

“We are disposable, all of us,” Mary informs her ladies in waiting, one of whom has just learned that her beau has just become very indisposed. Another pop tune tops it all off.

Reign at least is picturesque at times, even if its history is mostly bunk and determinedly so.

“I for one am thankful for a certain amount of creative license,” Coombs (the actor who plays “Bash”) told TV writers during CW’s interview session for Reign. “Because historically I don’t exist.”

In Reign, though, Bash is known for having a “terrible reputation with women. He knows no bounds.”

Just so long as he doesn’t make his way into too many real-life high school history classes as the secret father of Mary’s hard-charging son, “Lash.” But Reign hasn’t gone quite that far -- yet.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

BBC America's Burton and Taylor vividly recounts their last pairing


Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter of Burton and Taylor.

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A lion in winter and a lioness with many seasons to come.

BBC America’s Burton and Taylor (Wednesday, Oct. 16th at 8 p.m. central) compellingly recaptures the final go-around of its volatile centerpieces. To say it’s a better film than last fall’s Lindsay Lohan-fueled Liz & Dick on Lifetime is like rating Jane Goodall a woman of more substance than Kim Kardashian. Two accomplished thespians, Dominic West (The Wire, The Hour) and Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club, the Harry Potter movies), answer the bell this time out. And it shows.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had been twice-married and twice-divorced by the time Liz lured him to co-star with her onstage in a 1983 adaptation of Noel Coward’s dusty Private Lives. It opened in Boston, made it to Broadway and closed on Nov, 6, 1963 after a run in Los Angeles. By August of the following year, a remarried Burton -- to the former Sally Hay -- was dead of a brain hemorrhage. Taylor, who used Private Lives as a vainglorious effort to land Burton a third time, lived on until 2011 after one last ill-fated marriage to Larry Fortensky.

Bonham Carter is not a classic glamorous beauty in the mold of Taylor. And West would never be mistaken for Burton. But their nuanced performances rise well above the physical dissimilarities. Burton and Taylor is mostly a telescoped two-person film, although Stanley Townsend has some nicely understated moments as the play’s put-upon director, Milton Katselas. He’s mostly called on to stoically deal with Taylor’s whims and absences while Burton alternately grouses, rages and stays the course in return for the “pile of money” she’s arranged for the both of them.

Burton, beset with various physical infirmities, was pretty much laying off the booze at this point while Taylor continued to freely imbibe. They played Elyot and Amanda in Private Lives, characters who had been married, divorced and were now honeymooning with new spouses. But they also found themselves newly attracted to one another while in adjoining rooms at the same hotel.

“Does this mean marriage No. 3 for you and Richard?” a reporter inquires at a press conference announcing the project. Taylor certainly didn’t mind leaving that impression.

Their collaboration became a critically panned, sold-out event, with Burton’s very blunt assessment of its detractors left intact on a review DVD but sure to be cut from BBC America’s advertiser-supported presentation.

Their admiration for one another as actors remains steadfast. And in a spicy restaurant scene, Burton also pledges allegiance to his ex’s other celebrated attributes.

“They are still magnificent, by the way. May I say that?” he inquires.

“No, you may not,” Taylor replies. “They’re not yours to talk about anymore.”

“They’ll always be mine,” he retorts before their late night “supper” ends on a volatile note -- which was not at all unusual.

The film is devoid of flashbacks, save for one well-played 10-year rewind in which Burton and Taylor attempt to exercise together in their hotel suite to the tune of “I Get A Kick Out of You.” It winningly recalls their playfulness together and a mutual physical attraction that never flamed out.

Burton and Taylor has something of a Hollywood ending, which in reality is the only way to go. Parting is such sweet sorrow after their evergreen ups and downs during the course of Private Lives. West and Bonham Carter rise beautifully to the challenge of a curtain call in Taylor’s dressing room, where Burton finally says what he had left unsaid while the woman he can’t live with -- or without -- rallies herself to his side. It’s touching, uplifting -- and suitably schmaltzy.

BBC America still doesn’t get as much critical acclaim or attention as AMC, FX, HBO or Showtime. But the network continues to distinguish itself with productions such as The Hour, Broadchurch, Luther, Orphan Black and now Burton and Taylor. It’s a film that asks a lot from West and Bonham Carter, who deliver time and again in roles that could have eaten them alive. Instead we feast.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Alice holes up anew in ABC's Once Upon A Time In Wonderland


Ask Alice about her new honey, a genie named Cyrus. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 10th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Sophie Lowe, Michael Socha, Peter Gadiot, Emma Rigby, Naveen Andrews, John Lithgow
Produced by: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Steve Pearlman, Zack Estrin

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Disney-owned ABC remains determined to be the phantasmic network.

Its last new fall series of the season, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, spins its fairytales as a spin-off of Once Upon A Time (which has traveled to Neverland this season).

Alas, the newcomer does not deploy The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to add an extra edge. It’s beautifully appointed, though, and will look great on big-screen high definition TV sets. Otherwise let the “re-imagining” begin.

This time around, an adult Alice (Sophie Lowe) initially is locked up in London’s Bethlem Asylum, where the bald, badgering Dr. Lydgate (guest star Jonny Coyne) is determined to make her recant all those nonsensical stories about falling in love with a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot) after repeatedly falling through the time-honored rabbit hole.

Hey, it’s OK to have fantasies as a child, he tells her. But grown-ups must stop dreaming and bear hug the ho-hum. Otherwise life’s just not worth living.

Alice, who fears her lover is dead after he plunged into a boiling sea, has just about given up and consented to some form of lobotomy before one of her Wonderland acquaintances, the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha), pops into her cell to say that Cyrus still lives. The ever-impatient White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) is also in tow to create another hole. So Alice and the Knave fight their way out, with our heroine proving to be a formidable puncher and kicker.

The idea of Alice being quick with her fists is not a new one. In Syfy channel’s 2009 Alice miniseries, she was a Manhattanite with a black belt in martial arts. This enabled Alice to lead “The Resistance” in oppressed Wonderland, where Tweedledum and Tweedledee were re-positioned as torturers Dr. Dum and Dr. Dee.

Poor Lewis Carroll, long in the grave, is in no position to collect royalties from any of these TV offshoots, which also have included NBC’s 1999 Alice In Wonderland and a two-part 1985 CBS musical version for which Steve Allen wrote all the songs. “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure) produced it and Telly Savalas soloed on a ditty titled “There’s No Way Home.” No, we are not making this up.

The Syfy version at least had Kathy Bates in fine demonic form as the Red Queen. Once Upon A Time in Wonderland has Emma Rigby. And charitably speaking, she’s pretty laughable in her first big boo-hiss scene opposite evil Jafar the magic carpet rider (Naveen Andrews from Lost).

Thursday’s premiere episode toggles back and forth in the early going between Alice’s experiences in Wonderland and her grilling at the hands of Dr. Lydgate. We learn that Alice and Cyrus were together long enough for him to propose marriage and for her to accept.

“I’ve never met a human quite like you,” says he.

“I’ve never met a genie quite like you,” says she.

Hmm, maybe it’s just as well that they’re apart after Cyrus seemingly dies via that aforementioned big plunge. But Alice has been tipped that he’s still alive and residing at the “Mad Hatter’s old place.” Even though he doesn’t turn up, Alice continues to believe. Because, as she tells the Knave, “When you really love someone, you don’t need proof. You can feel it.”

Otherwise enjoy the special effects. Lithgow is fun as the miniature White Rabbit and veteran Ken Burns film narrator Keith David is nicely sinister as an enlarged black Cheshire cat yearning to dine on Alice after being informed she’s the “sweetest meat I’ve ever tasted.” In future episodes, Iggy Pop presumably will get more to do as the voice of the Caterpillar.

The opening episode ends with a revelation while Alice, the Knave and the White Rabbit continue their search for Cyrus. I’ll give it 3.5 Tweedledees on a scale of 5 Tweedledums. Once Upon A Time In Wonderland is very nice to look at, particularly in homes that have upgraded from rabbit ears. Its speaking parts, though, are sometimes better heard at low volume.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

No time like the present for CW's The Tomorrow People


Telepathy, telekinesis, teleporting: they’ve got ‘em, we don’t. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 9th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Robbie Amell, Luke Mitchell, Peyton List, Aaron Yoo, Mark Pellegrino, Madeleine Mantock
Produced by: Greg Berlanti, Julie Plec, Phil Klemmer, Danny Cannon

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Want mutants? The CW’s got ‘em, too, with The Tomorrow People.

Prime-time’s tiniest broadcast network can’t come close to matching the promotional firepower that both ABC and Marvel put behind their far more expensive Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

But that series slid significantly in the ratings from its mega-hyped premiere episode. And there just might be more “there” there with Tomorrow People, which will follow the Season 2 premiere of Arrow Wednesday.

Of course I may just need a long nap after earlier deducing that CBS’ Hostages seemed better built for long-term staying power than NBC’s competing The Blacklist. The opposite has been true so far, with Blacklist recently getting a full season order while Hostages looks ready to be carried out on a stretcher.

Anyway, Tomorrow People is in the same basic mold as an earlier same-named series that premiered in 1993 as Nickelodeon’s first original miniseries and did well enough to become a weekly drama that survived for a single season.

Robbie Amell stars in the newbie as the very troubled Stephen Jameson, a high schooler who’s been hearing voices and teleporting himself without knowing why. Your friendly neighborhood “Tomorrow People,” hiding out in an abandoned subway station, see Stephen as a possible savior whose father also had strange powers beyond mere mortals. But will he respond to their recruiting? Or will the seemingly very evil Dr. Jedikiah Price (Mark Pellegrino), head of “Ultra,” convince Stephen that he’s really his well-meaning “Uncle Jed?”

Stephen is a hunk, of course. Which means he also poses a threat to a high-strung Tomorrow dude named John (Luke Mitchell). He and boss lady Cara (Peyton List) have a thing going on beyond their efforts to stop Ultra from hunting them all down and making their “species” extinct. But Stephen is the new flavor. And Cara’s efforts to reel him in are paramount because his powers look to be even greater than theirs. Even if she gets off to a less than sensational start sales tool-wise by telling him, “We’re called Tomorrow People. And we didn’t choose the name. I swear.”

The series also has a third Tomorrow People sidekick -- Aaron Yoo as Russell -- and features Madeleine Mantock as Stephen’s bewildered high school friend, Astrid, who “stuck by you and your whole year of crazy.”

Sarah Clarke, best known as duplicitous Nina Myers from 24, plays Stephen’s emotionally/physically exhausted mother, Maria, while Jacob Kogan is cast as her younger son, Luca. But neither is listed as a series regular, so maybe they’ll flit in and out or just disappear altogether.

Tomorrow People has a few bang-zoom fight scenes and lots of whooshing about before Stephen is left to choose sides. Is Ultra really a force for good aimed at eradicating nutty paranormals? Or is it a sinister, diabolical, bad-nasty, really rotten government-empowered exterminator of mutants with one or more of these “Three T” powers -- teleporting, telepathy, telekinesis. Not to ruin anything. But one obviously can’t ever believe the U.S. government is capable of doing anything right -- let alone for the right reasons.

A bigger mystery is whether Stephen’s long-missing father is still alive after recording a video in which he tells his still resentful son, “Truth is there’s only one thing you can trust. You.” Which seems to rule out trusting dad.

There’s enough set in motion here to perhaps lure a small, loyal audience from week to week. Small and loyal is all The CW has going for it. Even its biggest new “success” from last season, Arrow, averaged fewer than four million viewers per episode.

That kind of week-to-week audience appeal would kill Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. well before midseason. But on The CW, there’d be many tomorrows for The Tomorrow People.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Lifetime's Witches of East End: bibbity bobbity and mostly boo


Julia Ormond (seated) for some reason is in Witches of East End. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on Lifetime
Starring: Julia Ormond, Madchen Amick, Virginia Madsen, Jenna Dwan Tatum, Rachel Boston, Eric Winter, Daniel DiTomasso, Jason George
Produced by: Maggie Friedman, Jonathan Kaplan, Erwin Stoff, Josh Reims

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One of life’s and Lifetime’s little mysteries is how the esteemed Julia Ormond wound up in this trifle.

Her recent work includes an Emmy win for the HBO movie Temple Grandin and an Emmy nomination for her recurring role in AMC’s Mad Men. So it seems way too soon to succumb to Witches of East End, an adaptation of the Melissa de la Cruz bestseller that begins not working its magic on Sunday, Oct. 6th.

Ormond, who also has co-starred in the feature films Sabrina, Legends of the Fall and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is woefully under-achieving as head witch Joanna Beauchamp. Her eyes glow demonically whenever she witches out during a one-hour premiere that never amounts to much more than quite a mess.

Former Twin Peaks girl Madchen Amick and the now weathered Virginia Madsen are also part of the regular cast. Relative newcomers Jenna Dewan Tatum and Rachel Boston respectively play Ormond’s disparate daughters, Freya and Ingrid, neither of whom have been told they’re witches.

Freya, otherwise a bartender, is engaged to dashing playboy Dash Gardiner (Eric Winter). He of course has a bad seed brother he hasn’t seen for a while until he pops in to screw things up. His name is Killian (Daniel DiTomasso), the object of Freya’s lustful dreams until things start escalating in real life. Madsen, only scantly seen in the opening episode, plays the two young men’s willful mother, Penelope.

Ingrid, a comparative goody two shoes, initially discounts her sister’s strange premonitions by telling her, “You only have one superpower, and it is your breasts.” But it becomes harder and harder to explain away Freya’s ability to, for instance, make the haughty Penelope “choke -- with my mind.”

East End’s token minority is a handsome nice guy detective named Adam (Jason George), who’d like to date Ingrid and wasn’t joking when he asked her out to dinner a while back. Apprised of this, she now has eyes for him, too. But a pesky murder investigation intervenes when an old coot is found mutilated and his wife badly hurt.

Amick plays Joanna’s mischievous sister, Wendy, who’s been out of touch for, oh, the past 100 years or so. She’s supposedly returned to save sis’s life while also cajoling Joanna to tell her daughters the truth about their powers. But that’s never been a good idea with her previous kids, all of whom have wound up prematurely dead as a result. And so on.

The first episode of Witches of East End keeps bouncing around rather than settling in. Ormond is never challenged by a paint-by-numbers script. But a sunburned guy does emerge out of a painting after 80 years. Seemingly confused about whom he’s supposed to blame for this, he settles on Freya, who’s already got a full plate of new cares and woes. A double cliffhanger ensues. But by then, caring one way or the other already seems like an insurmountable challenge.

Better to power-watch multiple reruns of Charmed, which at least offered some simple pleasures. Witches of East End is just not worth a viewer’s toils and troubles.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CW's The Originals is a spinoff that gets the blood flowing


The vampires, witches and hybrids of The Originals. CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 3rd at 8 p.m. (central) before moving to regular Tuesday, 7 p.m. slot
Starring: Joseph Morgan, Daniel Gillies, Claire Holt, Phoebe Tonkin, Charles Michael Davis, Daniella Pineda, Leah Pipes, Danielle Campbell
Produced by: Julie Plec, Leslie Morgenstein, gina Girolamo

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Before delving into the not-so-particulars of The Originals, we bring you another comical advisory from a network publicity department.

“Please do not reveal any spoilers regarding who dies, who tries to kill who, who appears unexpectedly, the final scenes, etc.,” says The CW. “If you’re not sure if a particular plot point is a spoiler, please give us a call.”

I’m going to assume it’s OK to say that this CW spin-off of The Vampire Diaries has some blood in it. Fangs, too, plus lots of pale people and a Cain-Abel scenario dating back 1,000 years. That’s when Elijah Mikaelson (Daniel Gillies) first became a vampire while his half-brother, Klaus (Joseph Morgan), had the misfortune to emerge as “the original vampire-werewolf hybrid.” This means he’s far surlier and harder to please than your average neck-chomper. So you’d better not cross him, so to speak.

The Originals, set in present-day New Orleans after a scene-setting flashback to 300 years ago, is being launched after the Season 5 premiere of The Vampire Diaries. It will then move to its regular Tuesday, 7 p.m. (central) slot in partnership with CW’s longest-running series, Supernatural (entering Season 9).

CW is now neck-deep in the otherworldly, with Hart of Dixie, The Carrie Diaries and America’s Next Top Model its only remaining hours about reasonably normal, present-day humanoids. Beauty and the Beast, Arrow and two other newcomers, The Tomorrow People and Reign (set in medieval times) round out its Monday-through-Friday schedule.

The Originals adds witches to its brew while reuniting Klaus and Elijah in a new New Orleans where vampire Marcel (Charles Michael Davis) is now the self-declared “King.” Klaus, who blew town 100 years ago, is not cool with this. Nor is Elijah, although he’s quite a bit more diplomatic.

The two of them meet again via a pretty nifty turn of phrase.

“What an entirely unwelcome surprise,” says Klaus. “And what an entirely unsurprising welcome,” Elijah shoots back.

Both of them must figure out to what to do with a sharp-tongued werewolf named Hayley (Phoebe Tonkin), who is -- fill in the blank -- by -- fill in the blank.

“Your dad was a dick,” Hayley tells Elijah after he recounts some of their family history.

There are a lot of moving parts and agendas here, but The Originals does a pretty good job of stitching them all together by the end of its first hour. It’s also pretty evident that Klaus will be a hard sell. He’s less of a compromiser than the U.S. Congress, although it’d be nice if he’d tell the whole lot of ‘em what he tells Elijah. Namely, “People quake with fear because I have the power to make them afraid.” Then he might want to add, “So settle your differences by sundown or I’ll take a bite out of slime, 10 necks per day, five from each party in random sequence.”

Alas, Klaus already has his hands and mouth full in New Orleans. At some point, the vampire genre will run out of steam, but perhaps not with The Originals. It’s not a bad spin-off so far. And I’m pretty sure The CW publicity department won’t consider that a spoiler.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Hayes ride: NBC's Sean Saves the World is exactly what he wants it to be


Sean Hayes and Linda Lavin in Sean Saves the World. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 3rd at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Sean Hayes, Linda Lavin, Megan Hilty, Sami Isler, Thomas Lennon, Echo Kellum
Produced by: Sean Hayes, Victor Fresco, James Burrows, Todd Milliner

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Sean Hayes and subtlety grow ever more distant, with Earth and Mars now in closer proximity to each other.

He’s the man, though, for those who prefer their comedy loud and bang-over-the-head obvious.

Hayes first stole scenes 15 falls ago as wacky second banana Jack McFarland in the premiere season of Will & Grace. Now he returns to the same night and network in Sean Saves the World.

The openly gay actor (whose company also produces Hot In Cleveland, Grimm and Hollywood Game Night) stars as an openly gay single father struggling to parent a 14-year-old daughter named Ellie (Sami Isler). A requisite pushy mother -- Linda Lavin as Lorna -- regularly intervenes. And at his workplace, an online realty company, Sean also is bedeviled by an imperious new owner named Max (Thomas Lennon).

Hayes seems wedded to the old-time sitcom religion, which calls for multiple cameras, a live studio audience and a laugh track whenever the proceedings need “sweetening.” His is the only NBC comedy series with such additives, but Hayes gets a bit snippy when asked if it’s a format he favors.

“As boring of an answer as it is, I just enjoy acting and now I totally enjoy producing,” Hayes said during NBC’s portion of the recent Television Critics Association “press tour.” “It doesn’t matter how many cameras there are . . . I don’t have one or the other (format) that I prefer. I just prefer good material.”

OK, be that way. But Sean Saves the World stands out like a throbbing sore thumb amid NBC’s other Thursday night comedy entries -- Parks and Recreation, Welcome to the Family and The Michael J. Fox Show. Hayes and his supporting cast fire off broad jokes like machine gun fire to the howling delight of a studio audience/laugh track.

“Sean, you look a little flush. Have you had a BM today?” Lavin’s Lorna asks in the second of three episodes sent for review. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!

But not all is lost. Some of the jokes hit their marks -- perhaps benefiting from the law of averages -- and Hayes also knows how to work his way through a sight gag, whether fumbling with kitchen utensils or trying to escape his workplace through an out-of-reach bathroom window.

Thursday’s first episode also sets up the overall premise when Ellie asks her dad, “If you’re gay, then how did you and mom have sex?”

Sean’s response doesn’t waste words: “Here’s what happened. Gay. Tried not to be. Was. Was again. Was one more time because it was not unpleasant. Am.”

Added to the cast after the pilot was taped is Smash refugee Megan Hilty as Sean’s cleavage-flaunting workmate Liz, who’s also intent on helping him raise his coming-of-age daughter. In Episode 2, they go bra shopping before grandma later takes over and dutifully embarrasses the child. Sean, of course, is in a dither. Ellie used to be a little kid and now “Bang, kaboobs!” he laments.

The other workplace denizen is Hunter (Echo Kellum), whose lines and delivery are both amusing and comparatively subdued. In short, he’s not a shouter, even when telling Sean in Episode 2, “People can tell you’re gay faster than they can tell I’m black.”

Lavin, once a big TV star in her own right in CBS’ Alice, is now the epitome of a seasoned pro who generally makes the best of what she’s given. But this is very much Hayes’ show, and boy, does he know it. Both his performance and his makeup are overdone, making him look ready to jump into La Cage Aux Folles. Episode 3 is particularly painful after Lorna sets her son up on a blind date with a hunky periodontist, who brings flowers to Sean’s apartment before his fretting about Ellie’s first date repeatedly ruins everything.

Oddly enough, though, Sean Saves the World is more assured in what it wants to be than its time slot competitor, Robin Williams’ new The Crazy Ones. Although it had big opening night ratings following a new episode of The Big Bang Theory, the Williams sitcom seemed very much like a stumbling work in progress.

Hayes won’t have that problem. For better or worse, Sean Saves the World is exactly what he wants it to be -- an old school, joke-loaded, histrionic showcase for himself. This is not a guy who will go quietly into the night.


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NBC's Welcome to the Family hurdles the halfway decent bar


The fractious parents & young lovebirds of Welcome to the Family. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 3rd at 7:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring:Mary McCormack, Richard Chavira, Mike O’Malley, Justina Machado, EllaRae Peck, Joseph Haro, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido
Produced by: Mike Sikowitz, Jamie Tarses

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Here comes another one, new sitcom No. 12 of the fall season (and 13 if you count HBO’s Hello Ladies)

There’s not a potential classic in the bunch. But it’s better to be halfway decent than a full-blown stinker. And that’s pretty much where NBC’s Welcome to the Family comes in.

Premiering Thursday between Parks and Recreation and the new Michael J. Fox Show, it’s another battle among parental units and their kids. Only this one has an ethnic flavor, with the Yoders and the Hernandezes at odds over the sudden revelation that their high school graduates’ college plans have been waylaid by an unplanned pregnancy.

Dan and Karina Yoder (Mike O’Malley, Mary McCormack) are yearning to get their none-too-bright daughter, Molly (Ella Rae Peck), out of the house and off to Arizona State University, which apparently will accept anyone. That way they can have sex again while he also takes a shot at getting back into shape.

Miguel and Lisette Hernandez (Richard Chavira, Justina Machado) are very proud of their high school valedictorian son Junior (Joseph Haro), whose next destination is supposed to be Stanford. But his graduation speech to the East Central High School student body is interrupted by girlfriend Molly’s “I’m pregnant” text. It kind of floors him, but Junior is a kid who takes the high road. A marriage proposal ensues after some heavy-duty flareups between the two families.

Before learning of his daughter’s condition -- let alone that she’s been dating Junior -- Dan tries to redeem a free lesson coupon at a boxing gym that just happens to be run by Miguel. They fail to hit it off, with Miguel immediately grousing at Dan for bringing coffee in violation of the place’s no food or drink rule. Besides that, he’s tired of wasting his time on “entitled posers who think it’d be cool to box.” So Dan is tossed out. And boy, what a surprise for them when they learn about the blended family they’re facing. One, two, three -- seethe.

McCormack, who most recently starred in the USA network’s In Plain Sight, is especially good as Dan’s mostly supportive wife. Machado (Six Feet Under) likewise is a stabilizing force while the two men trade verbal jabs.

The opening episode ends with a bit of parental bonding at Junior’s and Molly’s favorite hangout, the Santa Monica Pier. Then a twist in the final scene further complicates the Yoders’ best laid empty nester plans.

Welcome to the Family is a passable half-hour that fends for itself without a laugh track and manages to deliver a few un-goosed grins. As with CBS’ new The Millers, with which it will compete, there’s ample room for story growth and further family dynamics.

Unlike The Millers, though, Welcome to the Family will not get a lead-in from CBS’ still super-potent The Big Bang Theory. That’s a big disadvantage. Welcome to the real world.


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The Millers arrives amid prime CBS real estate


Beau Bridges, Will Arnett, Margo Martindale of The Millers. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 3rd at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Will Arnett, Margo Martindale, Beau Bridges J.B. Smoove, Jayma Mays, Nelson Franklin, Eve Moon
Produced by: Greg Garcia

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Aging, cantankerous and/or befuddled parents are the fall season’s new sitcom normal.

The barrage has included Dads, Mom, Back in the Game, The Crazy Ones, The Goldbergs and now CBS’ The Millers. This time out they have the added attribute of actually being pretty funny.

Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale, who also respectively work in the esteemed cable series Masters of Sex and The Americans, are the solid pros of The Millers, which will have luxurious prime-time accommodations between The Big Bang Theory and Robin Williams’ The Crazy Ones, which launched last Thursday.

A younger seasoned pro, Will Arnett, is caught in the middle as their newly divorced son. Problem is, he hasn’t told them about this yet. And when he does, Tom and Carol Miller use it as good reason to put their own divorce in motion after 43 years of marital strife.

Arnett and The Millers’ creator and executive producer, Greg Garcia, are both going against the grains of their recent comedy projects. Arnett so far has worked without a net -- no studio audience or laugh track -- in Arrested Development and two subsequent bombs, Fox’s Running Wilde and NBC’s Up All Night. Garcia likewise has helmed two comedies without artificial additives -- NBC’s My Name Is Earl and Fox’s ongoing Raising Hope.

The Millers in contrast is very much an old-school “conventional” sitcom, with roars of laughter for exchanges like this one between Bridges’ Tom and Martindale’s Carol.

She contests his contention that they haven’t had sex in 10 years. He protests, “You walked in on me masturbating!”

“And I stayed until you finished your business,” Carol parries. “That counts!”

“No, it doesn’t count!” Tom bellows. “It doesn’t count because you were criticizing me the whole time!”

Arnett’s series of mortified reactions, as son Nathan, have a good deal to do with selling this exchange before Tom finally walks out and takes up residence with Nathan’s sister, Debbie (Jayma Mays), her husband, Adam (Nelson Franklin) and their pre-teen daughter, Mikayla (Eve Moon). Carol, of course, strong-arms her way into living with Nathan and continuing to vex him.

Unlike many sitcom sons in such predicaments, Nathan is reasonably successful as a TV reporter whose trademark feature is “Walking Your Streets.” His cameraman and best friend Ray is played by the always welcome J.B. Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Arnett gets these different comedy rhythms down pretty well in Thursday’s premiere episode. Martindale also adapts quickly to her very first outing as a sitcom regular after years of gainful employment in drama series. Besides The Americans they include Justified, Dexter and a bit part in the first episode of Masters of Sex, where Bridges has much more to do.

The Millers has a sweet ’n’ funny mother-son rapprochement down the stretch. But is also sticks Martindale with some bargain basement fart jokes (which she survives) while Bridges’ character is a veritable Ozzy Osbourne with anything mechanical, whether it’s the microwave oven or the TV remote.

There’s plenty to sustain The Millers over what could be a pretty long haul. The show has both star quality and stars who know how to work the material. Producer Garcia likewise is a ring-wise show runner with something of a golden touch when it comes to off-center characters of lower economic status.

In that respect, his newest creation is comparatively refined and well-heeled. But it’s also well-suited -- and well-situated -- for bigger mass consumption.


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Switched at birth: ABC's Super Fun Night gets a hastily substituted opening night episode


Super Fun Night star Rebel Wilson acts out on red carpet. Photo: Ed Bark

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 2nd at 8:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Rebel Wilson, Lauren Ash, Liza Lapira, Kevin Bishop, Kate Jenkinson
Produced by: Conan O’Brien, Jeff Ross, Rebel Wilson, David Kissinger, John Riggi

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It’s never ever a good sign when the first episode of a new TV series belatedly is shelved because, well, it pretty much stinks.

So in that context, beware of ABC’s new Super Fun Night, sitcom which is still getting the network’s plush post-Modern Family slot for its Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. (central) premiere.

The show’s first impression now will be a second episode subtitled “Anything For Love,” in which the manifestly insecure and plus-sized Kimmie Boubier (Rebel Wilson) tries to conquer her stage fright by performing at a piano bar singing competition. Her equally awkward best friends, Marika (Lauren Ash) and Helen-Alice (Liza Lapira), again are accompanying her. For as Kimmie says, “We’re never gonna bust out of our cocoons if we don’t put our busts out there.”

Kimmie otherwise works at a law firm, where for some reason she’s been newly promoted. In the pilot episode, which now has no air date scheduled and may well never have one, Kimmie was thoroughly thrilled to work with her idol, “Lady Lawyer of the Year” Felicity Vanderstone (Kelen Coleman). That character apparently has been written out in favor of haughty Kendall Quinn (Kate Jenkinson), a workplace colleague who resents the notion that the firm’s nice guy Brit (Kevin Bishop as Richard Lovell) has taken a platonic liking to hapless Kimmie.

The pilot episode seemed thoroughly intent on making cringe-worthy losers of Kimmie and her two pals. It became painful to behold, particularly when they were invited to a trendy nightclub party hosted by Richard.

“We don’t need any eye broccoli clogging the line,” Kimmie, Marika and Helen-Alice were told. And then the humiliations kept on coming, with Kimmie’s ridiculously tight white dress eventually ripped open to further debase her. She then sang forlornly from the Wicked soundtrack.

ABC executives in tandem with the show’s producers (who include Conan O’Brien) must have deduced that most viewers might well recoil in horror rather than laugh along at the threesome’s predicaments. Wednesday’s ad hoc premiere therefore has marginally more “heart,” with Kimmie facing her fears of singing after Kendall tries to show her up with a surprise appearance and torchy performance of “True Colors.”

“I came here to motivate you by showing you how awesome I am,” Kendall explains while otherwise trying to cozy up to Richard.

It’s enough to make Kimmie order “four consolation pizzas.” But she guts it out and eventually sings her song -- “Anything For Love” -- after getting a bathroom pep talk from a drunken Helen-Alice, who then collapses in a heap.

Most of this is still pretty thin stuff, even though weight jokes again work their way in. Viewers will learn that Kimmie’s breasts weigh 23 pounds before she tells Kendall, “I’m going to go now before my boob sweat seeps into my Spanxs. When they get wet, they’re incredibly difficult to get off.”

Indeed, the first episode’s final scene depicts Kimmie in a pitched battle with her Spanxs, which also were referenced in the original pilot.

Super Fun Night isn’t entirely super-bad, but so far that’s about the only good thing to be said about it. Rebel Wilson and her self-deprecating improvisational bent were supposed to be the stuff of comedy gold. But things just don’t pan out in either the false start pilot or its eleventh hour substitute.

GRADE: C-minus

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NBC's Ironside re-do wheels into view


Blair Underwood succeeds Raymond Burr in new Ironside. NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Blair Underwood, Pablo Schreiber, Spencer Grammer, Neal Bledsoe, Kenneth Choi, Brent Sexton
Produced by: Michael Caleo, Teri Weinberg, John Davis, John Fox, Ron West, David Semel

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He barks at underlings and roughs up suspects when not verbally intimidating them with lines like, “I’m not very good at implying. So usually I go straight to accusing.”

That’s the way detective Robert Ironside rolls, whether played by the late Raymond Burr in the old clench-jawed original (1967-’75 on NBC) or by Blair Underwood in the Peacock’s latest effort to “re-imagine” one of its old crime-stoppers.

NBC’s latter day new takes on Knight Rider and Bionic Woman came up empty in the ratings. But neither had a name-brand star in the title role. Underwood also brings something else that the old Burr character never had a chance to experience. Although wheelchair-bound, the equipment still works. So about halfway through Wednesday night’s premiere episode, a gym trainer mounts a bare-chested Ironside while he’s still seated. He has her halfway stripped down when -- of course -- duty calls in the form of a ringing phone.

The original version sent by NBC had Ironside telling his girlfriend, “I really got to get through this stuff.” To which she replied, “Why don’t you get through me first?” That exchange has been excised, apparently because network censors deemed it too naughty. Too bad about that, because Ironside was up for the task.

There otherwise have been no noteworthy changes. Wednesday’s opener still begins with Ironside repeatedly punching an already bloodied loser in search of information on the whereabouts of a kidnapped little girl. He also gives the sniveling crum-bum a knife. “C’mon, stab me, stick me, do it,” he taunts. “Do it now!”

Ironside instead gets the information he wants, causing his boss, detective Ed Rollins (Kenneth Choi), to recant an earlier dictum. Namely, “This behavior stops tonight!” Well, no it doesn’t.

Wasting no time, the next scene is a tight shot of a young woman named Annie. She’s lying dead on some of New York’s finest pavement, a pool of blood circling her head after she seemingly jumped from a tall building. Ironside and his put-upon team are quickly on the case. Their names are Virgil (Pablo Schreiber of “Pornstache” fame on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black); Holly (Spencer Grammar) and Teddy (Neal Bledsoe).

“You guys are really pissin’ me off,” Ironside says, not to his crime team but to the hockey team he also browbeats. But there’s plenty to go around. “How about I run the case and you do your job,” he soon informs Holly.

The cast also includes distraught detective Gary Stanton (Brent Sexton from Season 1 of The Killing), who still blames himself for the paralyzing bullet wound Ironside suffered while they were chasing a bad guy two years earlier. Recurring flashbacks show how this happened, and Ironside is still capable of screaming in rage at his wheelchair confinement after first letting off steam with a vigorous workout.

He’s sick and tired of Gary’s whining, though. “Stop cryin’,” Ironside orders. “And get back on the damn horse!” Because hey, “I’m not playin’ wet nurse to you anymore.”

Underwood tries hard throughout and is still a small-screen presence. But that doesn’t save Ironside from being thoroughly overcooked and stuffed with convoluted deductions on how the featured wrongdoing went down. A far-fetched closing reconstruction of events by Ironside is akin to saying, “Your shoe was untied. Therefore I knew you were a lazy bum with too much time on his hands. Time enough to commit murder.”

By this time the mood music also is ready to swell to ridiculous proportions, with a male vocalist shrieking out his coda before a chanteuse takes over and ushers Ironside to another liaison with his pretty lady.

“Oh no, he is just no good for me,” according to the first episode’s play-off lyrics. “That boy is trouble.”

Burr’s Robert Ironside never even got to first base, if recollection serves. Underwood’s version is getting infinitely luckier sexually -- but surely won’t last as long.


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