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It's not rocket science: Young Sheldon takes flight as a near-perfect prequel to Big Bang

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Young Sheldon stars Zoe Perry, Iain Armitage, plus narrator Jim Parsons, at the Television Critics Association summer “press tour.” CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 25th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS with a special preview before moving to Thursdays on Nov.2nd
Starring: Iain Armitage, Zoe Perry, Lance Barber, Raegan Revord, Montana Jordan, Annie Potts, with voice-overs by Jim Parsons
Produced by: Chuck Lorre, Steven Molaro, Jim Parsons, Todd Spiewak

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Intentionally patterned after The Wonder Years, CBS’ spinoff of The Big Bang Theory sticks its landing with impeccable casting, sharply funny dialogue and a distinctly different vibe than the long-running mothership.

The fall season’s best new comedy, set in the fictional East Texas town of Medford circa 1989, has its own charm and a breakout kid star in Iain Armitage as brainy, persnickety nine-year-old high school freshman Sheldon Cooper. He’s very winningly assisted by former child actor Zoe Perry (Laurie Metcalf’s daughter) as his nurturing mom Mary. They’re immediately attuned to one another in Monday’s sneak preview pilot episode. After that, Young Sheldon has a five-and-half-week respite before returning Nov. 2nd in a Thursday slot following Big Bang.

This is executive producer Chuck Lorre’s first and so far only “single-cam” comedy without either a laugh track or “live studio audience” component. He says it’s been a tough transition for him after creating and producing a string of “multi-cam” sitcom hits, including Big Bang, Two and a Half Men and Mom. But there’s no indication of that in Young Sheldon’s first episode, which begins with narrator and Big Bang star Jim Parsons telling viewers that “I’ve always loved trains” while his pre-teen self plays with one.

Sheldon also is very fond of bow ties and Radio Shack (subject of a terrific episode-ending joke), has a germ phobia at the family dinner table and is fastidious about adhering to his high school’s official dress and conduct codes.

“Lord, look after my son. Don’t let him get stuffed in a gym bag,” mom says under her breath while driving Sheldon to his first day of class.

As in The Wonder Years, Sheldon has an older brother who just wishes he’d go away. His name is Georgie (Montana Jordan) and he’s named after his football coach father (Lance Barber). A second antagonist is Sheldon’s tart-tongued twin sister Missy (Raegan Revord), who assures him he’s gong to get his “ass kicked” at his new school, where poor Georgie has to share classes with him. He vents his pent-up frustrations on the football field in one of the first episode’s occasional serious moments.

Look closely and you’ll also see a cameo by Bob Newhart, who’s guested on Big Bang as one of Sheldon’s childhood heroes, “Professor Proton.” New series regular Annie Potts isn’t in the pilot, but has been added as what CBS publicity materials describe as Sheldon’s “beloved Meemaw, his foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Texas grandmother.”

She supposedly appreciates her grandson’s “unique gifts,” but East Texas as a whole does not. “The only Newtons they cared about were Wayne -- and fig,” narrator Parsons sniffs at the start after referencing famed physicist Isaac Newton. Let’s subtract a point or two for condescension, although it quickly passes.

Sheldon’s dad may not know an isotope from a popsicle, but he’s not a lunkhead, either. Barber’s George Sr. instead is a decent sort who tries to relate to his younger, brainy son and contributes his own warm moment near episode’s end. All in all, this is the most appealing new set of TV parents since ABC launched The Middle back in September 2009.

Young Sheldon ends up having a mind of its own, even if it’s a prequel to a long-established hit. Armitage and Perry in particular are a perfect pair as precocious son and protective but not overbearing mom. There’s an awful lot to like here, with high expectations not only met but exceeded.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS' time-spanning Me, Myself & I seems to be in too much of a hurry

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Jack Dylan Grazier, Bobby Moynihan and John Larroquette all play the same person, Alex Riley, in Me, Myself & I. Really? Really. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 25th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Bobby Moynihan, John Larroquette, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jaleel White, Kelen Coleman, Brian Unger, Christopher Paul Richards, Skylar Gray, Mandell Maughan, Reylynn Caster, Sharon Lawrence
Produced by: Dan Kopelman, Aaron Kaplan, Dana Honor

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Perhaps CBS should add “This Is Us Presents” to the title of its new time-traveling, generation-spanning comedy.

Me, Myself & I is similar in concept if not execution. It’s decently crafted, devoid of an irritating laugh track and has a quartet of familiar TV faces in Bobby Moynihan, John Larroquette, Jaleel White and Sharon Lawrence. But Monday’s premiere episode, which is all that’s available for review, oddly seems to resolve just about everything of consequence in a half-hour’s time.

Add this: Moynihan, Larroquette and Jack Dylan Grazer (now appearing in the new feature film version of Stephen King’s It) look nothing alike even though they’re playing the same character, Alex Riley. Our looks change as time marches on, but this is like morphing from Frankie Muniz into Kevin James into Christopher Walken.

Grazer plays 14-year-old Alex, an only child and devoted Chicago Bulls fan who’s uprooted to Los Angeles when his mother, Maggie (Mandell Maughan), gets remarried to a pilot named Ron (Brian Unger).

Forty-year-old Alex (Moynihan), who has a pre-teen daughter named Abby (Skylar Gray), is newly divorced and soon down on his luck after catching his wife (guest star Allison Tolman) cheating on him.

Sixty-five-year-old Alex (Larroquette) is a multi-millionaire businessman who decides to retire after suffering a heart attack. At this point, adult Abby (Kelen Colman) has become general manager of Alex’s beloved Bulls.

Pilot Ron turns out to be a very good, supportive guy, and his son, Justin (Christopher Paul), is a nice kid, too. So there’s not a lot of conflict here, except when Alex’s heart is broken via an unfortunate occurrence at the school dance while he’s dreamily dancing with his seemingly unattainable dream girl, Nori Sterling (Reylynn Caster and in later years, Lawrence).

We’ve got one more square to fill. Mid-life Alex’s best friend is Darryl (White), in whose garage he’s living while trying to invent a product that will make him rich. “When I grow up, Im gonna come up with an idea that changes the world!” young Alex has already declared.

Well, by episode’s end, the various stages of Alex are either newly triumphant or unexpectedly fulfilled by a chance meeting. And unlike This Is Us, there’s no attendant mystery over how and when a pivotal character dies.

In other words, Me, Myself & Irene appears to have boxed itself in. The opening episode is pleasant enough to watch, although not really very amusing. But the prospects for a sustainable series seem highly limited by all that unfolds here. Maybe Alex, Alex and Alex can still pull off some revelations in terms of how they get to where they’re going. The show’s mantra is to “keep shooting,” just like Bulls legend Michael Jordan did. But the degree of difficulty going forward looks to be more like a half-court shot than a layup. Go ahead, though. Surprise me.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's The Good Doctor is both an autistic and artistic triumph

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Freddie Highmore stars as an autistic surgeon in The Good Doctor. ABC photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Antonia Thomas, Nicholas Gonzalez, Chuku Modu, Hill Harper, Beau Garrett, Richard Schiff
Produced by: David Shore, Daniel Dae Kim, David Kim, Sebastian Lee, Seth Gordon

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
After playing Norman Bates for five years on A&E, Freddie Highmore knows what it is to have an out-of-body mind of his own.

Norman was bent, spindled and mutilated. But autistic surgical resident Shaun Murphy is mental without being disturbed in ABC’s affecting The Good Doctor. Monday’s premiere is a case study in how to build empathy for your lead character without getting all mushy about it.

Young Shaun’s “savant syndrome” potentially makes him a medical marvel, but without a halo. As deftly played by Highmore, he’s innocently sweet-tempered, but also cuts to the chase and can cut his “superiors” down to size when the occasion demands.

Adapted from a same-named 2013 South Korean series, The Good Doctor is shepherded in large part by co-executive producer Daniel Dae Kim. He previously worked for ABC as a co-star on Lost before clashing with CBS over his demand that he be paid the same salary as Hawaii Five-0 co-stars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan.

That didn’t happen, so Kim left the series after seven seasons to further advance his fledgling 3AD production company, which is partnering with ABC after CBS programmers earlier passed on The Good Doctor. They may well end up regretting that.

The show clicks from the very start, with self-sustaining Shaun going through his presumably unvarying morning routine before leaving his hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming and quickly landing in San Jose, CA, home of St. Bonaventure Hospital. He comes upon a kid soccer match while still in Cheyenne, prompting a memory of being beaten on that field as a child before his true-blue brother came running to his rescue.

A medical emergency then quickly takes hold after an eight-year-old boy is hit by a falling San Jose airport sign being installed by workmen. An older doctor intercedes, but puts pressure on the wrong spot to stop heavy bleeding from the child’s jugular vein. “You’re killing him” by stopping his breathing, Shaun says calmly. He then takes over.

Scenes of his highly improvised ways to rig up life-saving devices are intercut by an animated debate among St. Bonaventure’s hierarchy. It turns out that the hospital’s president, Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff in potentially his best role since The West Wing), made a unilateral decision to hire Shaun. Now he’s facing strong opposition.

“He’s not Rainman. He’s highly functioning,” Glassman pleads. “He sees things and analyzes things in ways that are just remarkable. In ways that we can’t even begin to understand.”

Dr. Marcus Andrews (Hill Harper) is among those having none of this. Meanwhile, in an unfortunate Grey’s Anatomy-ish lapse, doctors Jared Kulu and Claire Brown (Chuku Modu, Antonia Thomas) are shacking up in his rest area. It’s why she hasn’t been answering her pages. Oh well, what’s the worst that could happen -- someone dying?

The Good Doctor continues to toggle between the hospital and airport while also periodically flashing back to the tragically short-lived but lasting bond Shaun forged with his brother. “Never forget, you’re the smart one, and can do anything,” Shaun was assured.

Things eventually converge at St. Bonaventure, with Shaun insisting that his patient needs an “echo-cardiogram” while the staff doctors all think he’s daft. Among them is head of surgery Dr. Neal Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez), an imperious sort who also happens to be a hunk.

Shaun emerges triumphant, of course, but the “you don’t belong here” rebuffs are only beginning.

Highmore plays his lead role to near-perfection amid all the considerable medical jargon and jockeying for position among his supposedly more enlightened colleagues. The Good Doctor engagingly drops Dr. Shaun in their midst as both a lamb and a lion with a muted roar. The story possibilities are readily apparent on a number of fronts in the best broadcast network medical drama since Hugh Laurie contrastingly bruised his way through House.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's The Brave force marches its way through international terrorism

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Get the point? Injecting the enemy on The Brave. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Mike Vogel, Anne Heche, Natacha Karam, Demetrius Grosse, Noah Mills, Sofia Pernas, Tate Ellington, Hadi Tabbal
Produced by: Dean Georgaris, Matt Corman, Chris Ord, Avi Nir, Alon Shtruzman, Peter Traugott, Rachel Kaplan

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Three broadcast networks figure they can’t go wrong this fall by fighting heartless, soulless terrorists in new hard-charging combat dramas.

NBC is first to the battle front with The Brave, which premieres on Monday, Sept. 25th in a to-die-for time slot following The Voice. CBS’s Seal Team is just a few steps behind with a Wednesday launch while The CW’s Valor must wait until Oct. 9th for its marching orders.

“People like this are why we come to work every day,” says The Brave’s order-issuing, safe at home ringmaster. Her title is deputy CIA director, her name is Patricia Campbell, and she’s not referring to tracking down Twitter trolls.

Anne Heche plays the role in notably heavy makeup, but still in grieving mode. Her son was killed in combat just 10 days earlier, leaving Campbell with a heavy heart upon returning to the business of exterminating the world’s vermin and rescuing their captives.

First up is Dr. Kimberley Wells (guest star Alix Wilton-Regan), who’s nobly a part of the Doctors Without Borders team in Damascus, Syria before being kidnapped while talking to her husband back home.

Special Ops squad Capt. Adam Dalton (Mike Vogel) and his dedicated but sometimes sniping team of undercover specialists are immediately summoned from their base in Turkey. They must be “wheels up within the hour” because the hostage-takers aren’t interested in ransom demands. Instead “they chop off heads,” Campbell says, in this case as revenge for the recent presumed slaying of a terrorist kingpin known to U.S. forces as “Baghdadi.”

Unfortunately for the taut drama at hand, “Baghdadi” sounds funnier each time his name is invoked, which turns out to be a lot down the stretch. Not to spoil the obvious, but some terrorists have unbelievably amazing recuperative powers, as do their wives.

The Special Ops team also includes cocky, condescending Joseph “McG” McGuire (Noah Mills), who’s prone to taking verbal shots at fellow operatives Jasmine “Jaz” Khan (Natacha Karam) and Amir Al-Raisani (Hadi Tabbal).

Asked derisively by McG if she was “raised a Muslim,” she retorts, “I was raised a New Yorker.” He’s briefly chastised but later doesn’t think much of Amir’s prayer rug.

Ezekiel “Preach” Carter (Demetrius Grosse) is the other Special Ops risk-taker while domestic front CIA analysts Noah Morgenthau (Tate Ellington) and Hannah Rivera (Sofia Pernas) dig out invaluable information on who’s who and their whereabouts. Whatever the case, Campbell is steeled by the certainty that “we are fighting people that want to wipe us off the planet. That means we have to be as ruthless as they are.”

As in the first episode of Seal Team, rescuing a woman held hostage ends up intersecting with bigger fish in the grand global scheme of things. Can the team pull off two missions at once? Will there be “go go go go” derring-do in the process? Suffice it to say that no self-respecting, heroic anti-terrorist team will ever submit solely to the “greater good” if it might mean leaving a terrorized hostage behind. Get it? Got it? Good.

Vogel is solid as The Brave’s hero among heroes, as are the show’s production values. But Heche initially seems ill-suited to the task of being a taskmaster. She recurrently looks distraught or shaken in the line of duty. Even seasoned professionals, of course, can be deeply affected by the loss of a child. Which also begs the question of why on earth Heche’s Campbell is back so soon in this unforgiving, pressure-cooker of a job.

NBC made just the pilot episode available for review. In the following week, according to the network’s storyline description, the Special Ops team heads to Russia after a CIA officer is “attacked by rebels.”

The opening hour ends with an unexpected, big boom of a cliffhanger designed to bring viewers back for more. In that it’s unique. Otherwise The Brave is broad-stroked and pro forma in highly volatile times both at home and abroad. On network television at least, international terrorism indeed can be thwarted on a weekly basis via The Brave, Seal Team and Valor. Take that, “Baghdadi.” Take notice, “Rocket Man.”

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Prime-time Emmys pound away at Trump (and also give away some awards)

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Dolly Parton notably declined to go with the flow when co-presenters Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda tore into Donald Trump at Sunday night’s 69th annual Prime-Time Emmy Awards. Photos: Ed Bark


By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Let’s first dispense with the night’s biggest winners before turning to the real headline-maker from Sunday’s 69th annual Prime-Time Emmy Awards on CBS.

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and HBO’s Big Little Liars were the top trophy-takers with five each, including respective nods as best drama and best limited series. NBC’s Saturday Night Live finished close behind with four Emmys while HBO’s Veep and its star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, continued their winning streaks.

Dreyfus was voted best actress in a comedy series for the sixth straight year, making her the all-time Emmy winner for playing a single role, in this case vainglorious vice president/president/ex-president Selina Meyer. Candice Bergen won five Emmys as the star of CBS’ Murphy Brown. Veep also three-peated as best comedy series.

Little of this is likely to resonate above and beyond Sunday night. That’s because the three-hour ceremony, hosted by Stephen Colbert, will be better remembered as a night-long demolition of Donald Trump, who so far has declined Colbert’s opening invitation to tweet any response. It was the most politically charged Emmy telecast since the 1992 ceremony, when Vice President Dan Quayle took a verbal beating for his pointed criticisms of Murphy Brown after its lead character had a baby out of wedlock.

“Boy, Quayle is just getting stomped here,” co-host Dennis Miller said near the end of that year’s Emmys, which also took some sharp jabs at President George H.W. Bush and the problematic Reagan family dynamics of those days. But these were love taps compared to Sunday’s Trump-athon.

Louis-Dreyfus happily joined in the festivities after first promising an eventful and funny final season of Veep. “We did have a whole story line about impeachment,” she said, “but we abandoned that because we were worried that someone else might get to it first.” The audience whooped loudly in approval.

Earlier in the night, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin went political as no presenters ever have during their “reunion” with Dolly Parton 37 years after they made the feature film 9 to 5 together.

In 1980, “we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda began, referring to the tyrannical office boss played by Dabney Coleman.

“And in 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Tomlin added to cheers and applause.

Caught in the middle, a stunned-looking (see above photo) Parton wanted no part of this, instead falling back on a couple of trademark jokes about her breasts.

Colbert began tamely with a song and dance number featuring the refrain, “Everything is better on TV.” After a traditional host jab at the assembled Hollywood swells -- “Us celebrating us. Tonight we binge ourselves” -- Colbert at first gently waded into Trump by noting there’s way too much television to be watched by any single person -- except the President, apparently.

Like it or not, Trump is the biggest star of the year -- “and Alec Baldwin, obviously,” Colbert said of the actor who later won an Emmy for his numerous SNL send-ups of the President. “You guys are neck and neck. And Alec, you’re up against a lot of neck.”

“You can’t deny,” the host added, “that every show was influenced by Donald Trump in some way.” But he named only two -- House of Cards and American Horror Story: Cult -- before citing “next year’s Latin Grammys, hosted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” whom Trump recently pardoned.

Trump’s former NBC “reality-competition” series, The Apprentice, was twice nominated for Emmys, but never won, Colbert noted.

“Why didn’t you give him an Emmy?” the host wondered. “I tell you this, if he had won an Emmy I bet he wouldn’t have run for President. So in a way, this is all your fault. I thought you people loved morally compromised anti-heroes” (such as Breaking Bad’s Walter White). “He’s just Walter much whiter.”

Trump has never forgiven the Academy for this snub, Colbert said, offering stunning real-life proof in a clip from one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. When she upbraided him for contending that even Emmy voting was rigged against him, Trump said,” I shoulda gotten it.”

“But he didn’t,” Colbert said, building to a big finish. “Because unlike the presidency, Emmys go to the winners of the popular vote.”

This predictably received one of the night’s bigger roars of approval, promoting Colbert to seemingly ad lib, “Where do I find the courage to tell that joke in this room?”

It had been a very long monologue that also included a game assist after Colbert displayed a 2014 Trump tweet in which he said Seth Meyers would be a “total joke” as that year’s Emmy host because “he is very awkward with almost no talent. Marbles in his mouth!”

Did Meyers have a response? Seated in the audience, he let a mouthful of marbles spill out. It would have been the sight gag of the night, save for what quickly followed when Colbert asked no one in particular, “Is there anyone who can say how big the (Emmy) audience is?”

Out came deposed White House press secretary Sean Spicer and a podium on wheels. “This will be the largest audience to witness the Emmys -- period,” he said, lampooning his grandiose estimates of the crowd for Trump’s inauguration address. “Both in person and around the world.”

The camera then caught Melissa McCarthy, who last week won a guest comedy actress Emmy as “Spicy” on SNL. She seemed hesitant to applaud, but grudgingly did so. A bit later in Sunday’s ceremony, Colbert referred to HBO’s The Wizard of Lies as “The Sean Spicer Story” after noting that its nominated star, Robert De Niro, was in the audience. For the record, De Niro played ponzi scheme crook Bernie Madoff, but didn’t win. The Emmy instead went to Riz Ahmed for The Night Of on a night when diversity and television’s surge in quality roles for women were celebrated during those times when Trump wasn’t being filleted.

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Loss leaders: Host Colbert & rival Jimmy Kimmel both came up empty in the late night Emmy competitions, with HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver emerging as the big winner. Only NBC won among the Big Four broadcast networks. CBS, ABC and Fox were shut out.

Colbert’s CBS Late Show joined De Niro and many others in the losers’ circle while HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver won two Emmys.

The host and Jimmy Kimmel, also a nominee, commiserated by drinking Emmy’s faux signature cocktail, “The Last Week Tonight.”

“It’s so high quality, apparently they can only make one a week,” Colbert said tartly.

“Mine has extra bitters in it,” Kimmel added.

Colbert’s CBS Late Show rose to No. 1 in the after-hours total viewer ratings after he began devoting almost all of his opening monologues to ridiculing Trump. But this rather surprisingly didn’t pay off on Emmy night, even though Oliver’s triumphant Last Week Tonight also is anything but shy about ripping Trump in its weekly half-hours.

Donald Glover, creator and star of FX’s Atlanta, notably took home two Emmys for acting and directing. After winning for acting, Glover credited the President with an assist: “I want to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most oppressed list. He’s the reason I’m probably up here.”

He also was the primary reason for SNL’s big haul, which included acting Emmys for Baldwin and Kate McKinnon plus a statue for best variety/sketch series.

“I suppose I should say, ‘At last long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy,’ “ Baldwin jabbed before somewhat joking that wearing an orange wig as Trump seemed to be the equivalent of birth control. In his particular case, it stopped a streak of Baldwin and his wife having three children in three years, he said.

Trump supporters can and no doubt will use the latest Emmys as proof positive that Hollywood is out of touch with “the real world” -- or whatever it’s called these days in our super-polarized times. From this view, the Trump beat-down was predictable, but maybe not to this extent. And it ate away at the value of the awards themselves, which are not what people will be talking about on a night when Colbert also chipped in with a brief filmed interrogation by Westworld co-star Jeffrey Wright.

“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” a bow-tied but otherwise “naked” Colbert was asked.

“Every day since November 8th,” he replied.

Mopping up, here are a few non-Trump developments from “television’s biggest night.”

*** Host network CBS and two of the other Big Four broadcast networks, ABC and Fox, went away empty-handed. But NBC ran second overall with six Emmys while HBO led with 10. Besides the four nods to SNL, the Peacock’s The Voice won as best “reality-competition” series while Sterling K. Brown received a best lead actor in a drama series Emmy for This Is Us.

*** Hulu, part-owned by NBC Universal, won its first major Emmys ever, all five of them for The Handmaid’s Tale. Besides the best drama series trophy, star Elisabeth Moss got to the winner’s circle for the first time in nine tries.

*** HBO’s Big Little Lies was its biggest winner while the premium cable network’s Westworld (which tied SNL for the most overall Emmy nominations with 22), went without any major wins. FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan and Netflix’s Stranger Things, both with 18 nominations, also were shut out in terms of the 27 major Emmys distributed Sunday night.

***Just five networks -- HBO, NBC, Hulu, Netflix and FX -- collected all of the Emmy hardware during the Academy’s main event.

A complete list of Sunday night’s major winners can be found here.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Cinemax's Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus ties one on with country's most self-destructive stars (most now dead)

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Johnny Paycheck is hell-bent as usual in Tales From the Tour Bus. Cinemax photo

Premiering: Friday, Sept. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on Cinemax
Hosted by: Mike Judge
Produced by: Mike Judge, Dub Cornett, Richard Mullins

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Hey network execs, just don’t say no to Mike Judge.

Ya hear? Just don’t. Because no matter how crazy it might sound, whatever he pitches you almost assuredly is destined to be an enduring, buzz-worthy, singular vision. Hell, you should be standing in line waiting for him to tell you just what it is.

The Austin-based mind behind Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill, Office Space, Idiocracy and Silicon Valley is going his own way again with Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus. The half-hour animated series, with archival footage also dropped in, has received an eight-episode order from Cinemax. It launches on Friday, Sept. 22nd as a reasonably fond look at some of country music’s most celebrated and talented self-destructive forces, most of them now dead.

Judge narrates the episodes and also hosts them in animated form for a few seconds at the beginning. An opening printed disclaimer says it’s all “about real people and real events. However, due to the passage of time and, in some cases, controlled or illicit substances, details of some tales are a bit hazy.”

The first episode’s specimen is Johnny Paycheck, real name, Donald Lytle. His mega-selling anthem, at least in blue collar America, was “Take This Job and Shove It.”

Judge wonders if whoever’s watching has ever heard of Paycheck. He answers his own question: “No? You don’t like country music, do ya? You think it’s corny and twangy and kinda stupid. Well, you could be right, but it’s always good to keep an open mind.”

The beautiful setup continues, with Judge noting that Paycheck sold 10 million records in his day, equaling the sales of NWA and Gwen Stefani. Matter of fact, he was watching TV one day when he came upon a news story railing about the violence associated with both NWA and gangsta rap in general.

“I got tired of watching this because I actually like NWA and gangsta rap,” says Judge. So he switched over to a country music channel and saw Paycheck being interviewed shortly after he got out of jail for “shooting a guy. And I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone worried about Johnny Paycheck? Why isn’t Connie Chung picking on him?’ ”

And away we go, with real life friends and associates of the highly volatile Paycheck first seen as their actual selves before morphing into tale-telling cartoon characters. In the Paycheck saga, much of the telling is by the chortling Adams brothers, Gary, Arnie and Don. They were Johnny’s backup band and it was never dull. Squint, and you might see these guys as stand-ins for King of the Hill’s gossiping good ol’ boys.

For a while, until he fired ‘em, the Adams brothers also backed up George Jones, whose tempestuous marriage and singing career with man-hungry Tammy Wynette is recounted in Episodes 3 and 4 of Tales.

So the Adams trio will be back, and don’t expect me to keep sorting ‘em out. In the Paycheck tale, they all laugh it up after remembering him once saying, “There’s nothing worse than a hillbilly with a hit record.”

In reality, there’s nothing inherently funny about Paycheck’s lifelong bouts with the bottle, his latter day cocaine habit and his violent tendencies. But he somehow managed to last until 2003, when he died at age 64. And the Adams brothers and others are simply telling it like he was with both affection and resignation.

“Paycheck had a way of destroying himself every five years,” one of the brothers says before another adds that he had about four of those cycles.

You’ll also meet one of Paycheck’s musical collaborators, an African-American man known as Swamp Dogg, real name Jerry Wiliams Jr.

“He coulda been a Crip -- very easily,” Swamp Dogg says in reference to a notorious L.A. gang.

Paycheck in fact did hang out with the Hell’s Angels, and once recorded an album titled “Armed and Crazy.”

Episode 2 chronicles another wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis, a vintage rock performer with two smash hits -- “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” -- before he later turned to country music.

“The Killer,” as he proudly called himself, might have been the “The King” instead of Elvis “had he not married his 13-year-old second cousin,” says the man who signed him to his first Sun Records contract.

Yeah, that didn’t help. Her name was Myra Gale Brown, who in animated form says, “I was the thinking adult in that relationship.”

Lewis shared Paycheck’s fondness for firearms, and once shot his bass player in the shoulder after he demanded to be paid. The victim survived, and it was later ruled accidental.

Here’s a guy who also didn’t like it much when his hangers-on fell asleep rather than continue to party with him. As one tale has it, he sprayed machine gun fire in their vicinity to wake them all up and later tommy-gunned a big rack of false teeth. Lewis also drove his car through the closed gates of Graceland in hopes of keeping a promise to visit a distraught Elvis. And on it went, with Lewis somehow still ticking at age 81. At current count, he’s been through seven wives.

Then there’s the late George Jones, blessed with one of country music’s greatest voices -- and worst temperaments. In that he replicated Paycheck. The two of ‘em used to fight all the time in the early years, says one of the Adams brothers.

Wynette idolized him from afar, enduring two miserable marriages and birthing three children before she and Jones forged a powder keg of a marriage while also becoming a hugely successful country singing duo. Jones liked to begin his day with a couple of Bloody Marys for breakfast, switch to beers at lunch and then move on to whiskey, an associate recalls.

One of his drinking buddies was Waylon Jennings, (subject of Episodes 6 and 7). This regularly didn’t end well, such as the night when Jones called Jennings a “Conway Twitty singin’ sonofabitch” before Waylon took him outside, roped him to a tree and left him there.

Jones eventually became infamously known as “No Show Jones” for blowing off concert engagements.

“This was a guy who just didn’t give a damn,” says “gonzo” journalist Jimmy McDonough.

But Wynette endured him for quite a while, with her signature hit, “Stand By Your Man” devoted to Jones. Their six-year marriage came to a close after Jones terrorized Wynette in their home and at one point fired a shotgun at her.

Wynette, who died in 1998 at age 55, always wanted a man by her side, though, and for a while took up with Burt Reynolds. She also began recording with Jones again, rationalizing that “we may not can live together, but he can still make me cry hearin’ him sing.” In later years and until her death, she voiced Hank Hill’s mom, Tilly, on King of the Hill.

This barely scratches the surface of Tales From the Tour Bus, which makes for some awfully dark half-hours of television if you really think about it.

But Judge goes about this business in a manner that doesn’t make one want to unduly ruminate or judge. No one’s being held up to ridicule -- not wholly intentionally at least. These are people with talent to burn and seriously damaging character flaws that ended up burning most of them out. But no one wants to know about the times they went to church. That doesn’t make for much of a story. Instead they want to know about the time that a very worse for wear Jones banished his imaginary duck friend from his tour bus, only to . . .

Well, you’ll just have to watch. And you know what? You really should. Although damned if I sometimes don’t know just why.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ken Burns' The Vietnam War brings it all back home in ways his other films never have

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Knee deep in The Big Muddy while on patrol in Vietnam. PBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 17th at 7 p.m. (central) on PBS (KERA13 locally) and continuing Sept. 18-21 and Sept. 24-28 at the same time
Produced by: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Going against the grain of their usual approach, Ken Burns and producing partner Lynn Novick have seen to it that historians, sociologists and other assorted academics are kept out of The Vietnam War.

The history is still too recent and raw for that. Others don’t have to tell you what people may or may not have been thinking. In this monumental 18-hour, 10-part undertaking, it’s the participants speaking for themselves in ways that cut deep and keep reverberating. Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. In terms of the destructive, divisive, decibel-shattering “Living Room War,” sounds of silence have never been much of an option. It all begins on Sept. 17th and will run for two weeks, Sundays to Thursdays, through Sept. 28th on PBS.

Burns and Novick also have chosen (wisely in this view) not to interview the surviving big names of the Vietnam War era. The likes of John Kerry, Jane Fonda, Henry Kissinger and John McCain are seen and heard from in archival footage. But the face-to-the-camera storytelling is left to largely unknown soldiers on both sides, plus others who were directly involved in or affected by a war that ended the lives of more than 58,000 Americans, at least 250,000 South Vietnamese and more than a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. There are 79 such interviews in all, by Burns’ count.

If a star is born, it might well be blunt-spoken Marine Corps veteran John Musgrave, whose way with words keeps cutting to the bone. Musgrave suffered nearly life-ending wounds in combat, returned in a suicidal state and eventually found salvation as a bearded, woolly haired dissenter. Throughout this long march of a film, he consistently jumps off the screen by running the gamut. His story is by no means the only one. But it merits being spotlighted as a narrative-driving linchpin of the most contemporary history ever attempted by Burns.

In Part 2, subtitled “Riding the Tiger,” Musgrave says for starters, “We were probably the last kids of any generation that actually believed our government would never lie to us.”

Part 5 (“This Is What We Do”) finds him remembering the stark realities of patrolling Vietnam in search of the enemy and those all-important “body counts” touted by generals and relayed for public consumption. His 1st Batallion, 9th Marines unit was dubbed “The Walking Dead” for all the casualties it took.

“They wouldn’t hit us unless they out-numbered us,” Musgrave says. “And we were fightin’ in their yard. They knew the ground and we didn’t. They were just really good.”

He grew to both fiercely hate and fear the enemy, Musgrave says. The only “human being” he killed was his first. After that, he objectified the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese as sub-human “gooks” and “dinks.” It was straight from the racist tool box, Musgrave acknowledges. And it served him well in combat until the day he was all but pronounced dead from a deep chest wound among others.

Musgrave recalls that the seemingly out of body screams he heard in fact were coming from him. After that, “I kept telling ‘em to leave me. And I meant it.”

But Marines never leave their wounded behind, he says with teeth-clenched admiration. And so he survived at least three “nothing they could do for him” triages and eventually 17 months in various Navy hospitals.

Part 8 (“The History of the World”), which is incredibly moving throughout, finds Musgrave again wondering what hit him as the anti-war protests escalate.

“It did more than piss us off,” he says. “It broke our hearts.”

He tried to re-enlist, but his wounds prohibited it. For a while Musgrave instead agreed to become a recruiter but began souring on that after reading about how the Vietnam War had been grounded in deception at the highest levels. Drinking heavily, he put a loaded pistol to his head on more than one occasion. On one particular night, only his dogs clamoring to get back in the house stopped him, Musgrave believes. It’s the only time he stammers and nearly loses it.

Part 8 ends with the Ohio State National Guard’s fatal shootings of four Kent State University students. It was the turning point that made Musgrave a full-blown war protestor.

“I wasn’t helping anybody by keeping my mouth shut,” he says in Part 9 (“A Disrespectful Loyalty”). So Musgrave joined Kerry in publicly throwing away his war medals. Initially appalled by this, his dad stood up for him when those who hadn’t served accused him of disgracing “our medals.” You earned them, they didn’t, the son was told. Musgrave never loved his father more than on that day.

Fonda’s joyful appearances with the North Vietnamese enemy (it forever branded her “Hanoi Jane” in the minds of many), were hard to take for Musgrave, too. Among her pronouncements were that U.S. prisoners of war in fact should be tried as war criminals and then executed.

“Yes, we have a right to be pissed off at her,” Musgrave says. “But you know, she wasn’t the only one. She’s just the only one that we fantasized about” as the sex symbol from Barbarella.

In the climactic Chapter 10 (“The Weight of Memory”), Musgrave found it appalling that some would cheer the fall of Saigon to the enemy he had fought against and almost died to defeat.

“I said, ‘No, it’s not a great day.’ That wasn’t anything to celebrate.”

The 1982 opening of Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its etched names of the more than 58,000 U.S. dead, gave Musgrave and many of his surviving comrades at least some reason to feel whole again.

“I collapsed” while approaching it for the first time, he recalls. “And all the tears I’d been holding back -- I didn’t cry. I sobbed. I was on my knees sobbing.”

Watching the entirety of The Vietnam War, in just three days time for review purposes, left a wash of feelings and emotions for one who very much lived through those times (more on this in a brief postscript). What’s more, there’s no fiddle music! Burns and Novick have infused their most daring documentary with more than 120 original tracks from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and many more. There’s also original music from Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble.

Lesser known audio clandestinely recorded by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon likewise jolts and informs this film. In 1965, after authorizing the first ground troops in Vietnam, LBJ tells Sen. Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia, “There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.” Yet the escalation continued.

As tapes of a one-on-one confrontation also show, Nixon denied going behind Johnson’s back during the closing days of the 1968 presidential campaign. In truth, Nixon had sought to torpedo impending peace talks by persuading the South Vietnamese government to wait for a better deal from him than they’d get from LBJ and/or Democratic Party nominee Hubert Humphrey.

“Nixon was lying and Johnson knew it,” narrator Peter Coyote says. But although he considered this treason, LBJ never went public because Nixon’s subterfuge had been documented by a CIA wiretap that would put his administration in a bad light. The horrors at the top just never seem to stop.

There’s so much more during these 18 hours, and The Vietnam War keeps bringing it home via the ferocity of the battles in both Vietnam and increasingly at home. Combat footage is particularly intense in Part 6 during the full-out Tet Offensive mounted by the enemy. “All that was left of Hue was ruins divided by a river,” says a U.S. soldier. And the pictures provide devastating proof.

A few constructive criticisms: Burns and Novick at times have a tendency to force-feed a story thread. And in this view, they do that with the considerable time devoted to a gung-ho and eventually ill-fated soldier named Denton “Mogie” Crockett Jr. Less “Mogie” would have gone a long way.

Coyote brings his trademark gravitas throughout, but the filmmakers might want to consider a narrative change of pace down the road. This is a subject that calls for a somber tone, but Coyote at this point borders on being one-note.

It’s also puzzling that CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite’s famed condemnation of the war is deservedly played at length while LBJ’s reported reaction to aides -- “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” -- goes completely unmentioned.

These amount to quibbles, though. The Vietnam War excels on so many levels, including its perspectives from the Vietnamese survivors.

The U.S. had a two-brother rule that sanctioned only one brother in a combat zone at a time. Not so with the Viet Cong. Nguyen Thanh Tung, an only daughter, says she lost all eight of her brothers at various stages of the many wars for control of Vietnam. And then her two sons also were killed in combat.

Tran Ngoc Toan, an indomitable South Vietnamese officer fighting for the American side, remembers playing dead while the enemy poked at his body after a devastating fire fight. He then survived for three days with his serious wounds before hearing that he “smells like a dead rat” upon being rescued.

Years after the fall of Saigon to the Communists, Le Cong Huan of the Viet Cong says, “Even though I still have bullets in my body, I want to close the war chapter.”

In its scope and a mostly impeccable selection of images, quotes and anecdotes (Ho Chi Minh once worked as a New York city pastry chef), The Vietnam War boldly and bravely stands its ground and almost assuredly will stand the test of time. Its story is told in affectingly human terms by the mostly unheralded men and women who bled, died and survived.

“In Vietnam we have finally reached the end of the tunnel. And there is no light there,” Cronkite told his viewers after Saigon officially fell on April 30, 1975.

The Vietnam War joins two other Burns epics, The Civil War and The War, -- this time in illuminating what happened between 1965 (when American boots officially first hit the ground) and 1975 (when Master Sgt. Juan Valdez became the last American air-lifted out).

It’s all almost two generations removed at this point. But for my older generation, it often seems like no time at all.

Grade: A

A PERSONAL POSTSCRIPT -- Fifty years ago this fall, I made my first trip to sunny Southern California. Destination: Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego.

I joined in hopes of becoming a “man.” And also to get enough money via the G.I. Bill to attend college.

My brother enlisted after I did, but beat me to Vietnam. For some reason, I was first sent to electronics school, a vocation for which I still have no aptitude. When it became time for my Vietnam tour, brother Jim was still over there. The two-brother rule, as noted in both the above review and in The Vietnam War, spared me a trip to Southeast Asia.

My brother returned safely and was discharged early while I remained in the Corps for my full three-year enlistment until being honorably discharged as a Corporal in October, 1970. I was never deployed to Vietnam, instead ordered to set sail with the Marine Corps component of the Navy’s Mediterranean-deployed Sixth Fleet before spending my final year as a brig guard at Camp Pendleton.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I then ended up joining in protests against the Vietnam War during its final stages.

You might say I came full circle. And while watching The Vietnam War I sometimes felt a little dizzy all over again.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Fox's The Orville so far is lost in space

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Seth MacFarlane happily ships out in The Orville. Fox photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 10th at 7 p.m. (central)
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage, J Lee, Mark Jackson, Chad L. Coleman, Norm Macdonald
Produced by: Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark, Liz Heldens

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Bitten by Fox’s Cosmos reboot, which he co-produced, Seth MacFarlane creates some space for himself in The Orville.

As Ed Mercer, newly appointed captain of the U.S.S. Orville, his clarion call is “Lt. Molloy, take us out.” Other than that, though, Fox’s The Orville struggles to lift off in the three episodes sent for review.

Its throwaway humor too often belongs in a receptacle while some of the serious business is something of a joke. Although he looks good in his 400-years-into-the-future space getup, MacFarlane is to dramatic acting what Jimmy Fallon has been to tough interviewing.

“We’ll figure it out,” Mercer tells his ex-wife near the close of Sunday’s premiere hour. That also can be said of the entire series, provided there’s enough time. The Orville doesn’t lack for ambition or expense. Nor must it fret about violating any of the often laughably sacred “canon” from previous versions of Star Trek, Star Wars or even Battlestar Galactica. On the contrary, The Orville is completely on its own -- which so far is the problem.

The series begins with Mercer finding his then wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrienne Palicki), in the sack with some sort of space creature. “I’m done,” he says, storming out before being fast-forwarded to “One Year Later.” Having spent much of the interim drinking or otherwise impaired, Mercer learns from an admiral named Halsey (the recurring Victor Garber) that “nobody’s first choice” is the beneficiary of a captain shortage that puts him in line to helm one of Planet Union’s 3,000 ships.

Quickly aboard The Orville, Mercer is soon meeting and quizzing his six senior officers. Besides helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), they are Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald); second officer Bortus (Peter Macon); navigator John LaMarr (J Lee); chief security officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage); and science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson).

Even more specifically, Malloy, Finn and LaMarr are humans. Bortus is a single-gendered Moclan, Kitan a Xelayan and Isaac an “artificial life form” from Kaylon. Oh, and Norm Macdonald pops in very briefly from time to time as the voice of a green gelatinous mass named Yaphit.

Got all that? There’s this, too. The Captain’s ex-, much to his consternation, ends up filling The Orville’s vacant first officer slot. This allows the still very much aggrieved Mercer to jab at her incessantly while she in turn bridles.

The drama in Episode 1 otherwise comes from an enemy force known as The Krill, who covet a newly invented time-accelerating device to no good end. A little off-ship derring do ensues before Malloy attempts to execute the difficult “Hug the Donkey” maneuver as prelude to an even more drastic, life-saving measure. “It’s like threading a needle in a hurricane, but I’ll try,” he says gamely. My pulse congealed rather than quickened.

Episode 2 is a bit better rendered after a lame, intendedly comedic exchange between Mercer and the ever-stern Bortus. Also look for Jeffrey Tambor and Holland Taylor as Mercer’s kvetching parents before another emergency situation kicks in. Let’s just say that while their fates hang in the balance, Mercer and Grayson get closer than they’ve been of late before figuring out just where they are.

The third hour, set to air on Thursday, Sept. 21st after two special Sunday outings, tries to raise big questions about gender determination after Bortus and his mate, Klyden (Chad L. Coleman), have a baby in a way peculiar to Moclans.

This particular storyline kicks in after Mercer, Malloy and LaMarr are first seen in cowboy outfits as part of a Three Amigos-style virtual reality game. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s worse.

MacFarlane’s efforts at dramatic indignation are particularly weak during this hour, which also includes a life-changing experience triggered by a viewing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The Orville needs considerable work to accomplish whatever it wants to be -- assuming that MacFarlane and company even have that answer. For now it’s boldly but very unsteadily going forth, with its jokes working here and there while the action and “messages” bump along at best. It just doesn’t make for much of a blast, but righting the ship isn’t yet out of the question.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Down and dirty sex sells in HBO's unflinching The Deuce

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Maggie Gyllenhaal has a proposition in The Deuce. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 10th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Emily Meade, Gary Carr, Dominique Fishback, Chris Bauer, Margarita Levieva, Chris Coy, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Don Harvey, Natalie Paul, Jamie Neumann, Mustafa Shakir, Michael Rispoli, David Krumholtz, Method Man/Cliff Smith, Ralph Macchio
Produced by: David Simon, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, James Franco, Michelle MacLaren, Nina Kostroff Noble

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that HBO’s long and winding road has now come full circle from The Hitchhiker to The Deuce.

But who doesn’t like to stretch? So let’s briefly roll with this.

The Hitchhiker, HBO’s first dramatic scripted series, premiered in 1983 as a vehicle for stylized, soft core sex scenes intended to both arouse and differentiate. Well-sculpted people caught in various acts of disrobing were strictly taboo on advertiser-supported competing networks.

In stark contrast, The Deuce (premiering Sunday, Sept. 10th) is anything but beautiful to behold. Set in a thoroughly convincing, garbage-strewn mockup of 1971 New York City, it’s the soiled saga of how the hardcore porn industry worked its way to legalization. The sex often can be decidedly yucky, whether it’s a prostitute plying her trade or a skin flick getting made.

HBO made all eight Season One episodes available for review. The fates of various principal characters won’t be given away here. But let’s note the symbolic climax, so to speak. Episode 8 ends with the June 12, 1972 New York premiere of Deep Throat, which changed everything in terms of hardcore porn going “mainstream.” But that’s really just the beginning, providing The Deuce with very fertile ground for a presumed Season Two.

The principal architect is David Simon, whose previous productions for HBO are The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero. This is a guy who doesn’t do glossy. And The Deuce (nickname for the 42nd St. neighborhood between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) is aggressively down and dirty in its depictions of prostitutes, pimps, johns, bars, cops, mobsters and “filmmakers.”

James Franco has the central roles as twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino. (Did Season 3 of FX’s Fargo start an epidemic with Ewan McGregor’s portrayals of lookalike brothers Ray and Emmitt Stussy?)

Vincent is a hard-pressed bartender/entrepreneur struggling to make ends meet while his marriage falls apart. Frankie is a pure-and-simple, debt-ridden street hustler who both vexes and amuses his brother. They’re still tight, but the grip can always loosen.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Deuce’s other A-lister, plays free agent prostitute Eileen “Candy” Merrell, who operates independent of a pimp. She has a young son who lives with her very disapproving mother. But there could be a way out, even if it’s very much within the sex industry that Candy knows best. Gyllenhaal gives her all to this role, including frequent nudity in early episodes.

A wide array of supporting characters includes pimps Larry, C.C and Rodney (Gbenga Akinnagbe, Gary Carr, Method Man/Cliff Smith); pimp-controlled prostitutes Darlene, Lori and Ashley (Dominique Fishback, Emily Meade, Jamie Neumann); cops Chris Alston and Danny Flanagan (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Don Harvey); mobsters Rudy Pipilo and Carmine Patriccia (Michael Rispoli, James Ciccone); openly gay bartender Bobby Dwyer (Chris Coy); and bouncer Big Mike (Mustafa Shakir).

Also in the crowded field is Margarita Levieva as student turned bartender Abby Parker, whose relationship with Vincent blossoms. A notably chunky David Krumholtz makes an increasingly strong impression as porn film director Harvey Wasserman, whose growing relationship with Candy is rather affectingly paternal and platonic. Somewhat awkwardly at times, a crusading newspaper reporter named Sandra Washington (Natalie Paul) is added in later episodes.

The Deuce is richly atmospheric, whether it’s all those contrasting theater marquees (ranging from Patton to The Conformist to Mondo Trasho) to Vincent’s bustling Hi-Hat bar, site of a killer version of “96 Tears” in Episode 8. There’s also an all-hours diner suitable for gathering characters. And each hour’s blazing horns, during the closing credits, are a weekly must-hear.

The dialogue is sharp and suitably dicey, as when a pimp says in Episode 4, “I personally don’t mind a little ketchup on my hot dog.” No, he’s not talking about either food or condiments. And in the concluding episode, it’s something of a revelation to Candy and Harvey when a mobster tells them, “Lesbian sex. That’s a punch way above its weight class” in terms of audience appeal.

Franco and Gyllenhaal occupy every inch of their pivotal characters, giving The Deuce an appealing trio of strivers amid a caldron of sex, drugs and protection payments enforced by crooks and crooked cops alike. Everyone wants a piece of the action in times when New York City was an untamed Wild West in every which way except geographic.

Simon has shown time and again that he knows how to make an audience cringe while also contemplating the impacts of his dramas’ oft-unforgiving surroundings. In that sense, The Deuce is the dirty lowdown, with much of the action below the belt. There’s nothing pretty here. But in the eyes of this beholder, you’ll otherwise know great drama when you see it.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Top of the Lake: China Girl further elevates Moss above her old Mad Men crowd

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Elisabeth Moss continues her TV career of the year with Top of the Lake sequel, in which she leads the way as detective Robin Griffin. Sundance TV photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 10th at 8 p.m. (central), with two-hour chapters continuing through Tuesday, Sept. 12th on Sundance TV
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman, Gwendoline Christie, David Dencik, Ewen Leslie, Alice Englert, Clayton Jacobson, Thien Huong Thi Nguyen
Produced by: Jane Campion, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Jamie Laurenson

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
As post-Mad Men careers go, Jon Hamm seemed like the prohibitive favorite to burst from the pack and stay out front. He hasn’t been hurting for work, but can’t keep up with Elisabeth Moss. Few if any can lately, whatever their recent pasts.

Earlier this year, Moss took on the starring role of “Offred” in Hulu’s acclaimed and Emmy-nominated adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Less than three months after Season One ended, she’s back for another go as angst-ridden detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake: China Girl, sequel to the 2013 original that won Moss a Golden Globe.

Sundance TV is home to the U.S. premiere and will air its six chapters on three successive nights, starting on Sunday, Sept. 10th. The BBC had first dibs, ending its China Girl run on Aug. 31st.

Moss had Oscar-winner Holly Hunter (The Piano) to play off in the first Top of the Lake. The sequel enlists two other prominent women, Nicole Kidman (her Oscar was for The Hours) and Gwendoline Christie, best known for playing towering warrior Brienne of Tarth in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Mildly put, Moss’s Robin has been to hell and back of late and earlier in her life. At the close of Top of the Lake, which was set in New Zealand, she seriously wounded Queenstown-based detective sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham) during their struggle for a handgun. His shocking conduct merited far worse for Parker, who’s survived while Robin battles both post traumatic stress disorder and the indignity of another setback disclosed during a “Four Weeks Earlier” flashback at the start of Episode 2. Those who have seen the first Top of the Lake also know that Robin was gang-raped as a 15-year-old.

“Yeah, I’ve been burnt. Deep-fried,” she matter-of-factly notes during Episode 3.

Otherwise there’s a new case to puzzle out when Griffin uneasily rejoins the Sydney police force. A metal suitcase packed with a corpse eventually washes up on Bondi Beach after being submerged by the proprietors of a legalized brothel known as Silk. Who might this Asian girl be? What was the motive? And will Griffin ever manage to get along with her new and still green partner, Miranda Hilmarson (Christie), who has secrets of her own?

As for Kidman, she’s adoptive mother Julia Edwards, who’s left her husband, Pyke (Ewen Leslie), to fire up a live-in relationship with a female teacher from their daughter Mary’s school. It gets thicker. Seventeen-year-old Mary’s (Alice Englert) birth mother is Robin, who gave her up for adoption and hasn’t seen her in person since. Their reunion is very much complicated by the fact that Mary thinks she loves and intends to marry a haughtily philosophic 42-year-old German named Alexander “Puss” Braun (David Dencik). His residence inn of choice is the Silk brothel, where Mary hopes to join the work force after turning 18, which is soon. (Note: Englert is the real-life daughter of the series co-creator/writer/director, Jane Campion.)

Not everything entirely adds up during the very winding course of China Girl’s six hours. In fact, Episode 3 veers recklessly -- story-wise at least -- into an almost out of body, life-threatening situation involving Robin and one of the drama’s bounteous supply of scummy men.

The performances, however, are uniformly on target. Kidman, part of the recent ensemble in HBO’s Emmy-nominated Big Little Lies, is even more impressive here as the possessive, high-strung Julia while Dencik completely inhabits the role of thoroughly oily “Puss.”

Moss again is impressively nuanced as the unsteady Robin, whose flaws and needs are palpable. As in the first Top of the Lake, she also absorbs physical punishment while demonstrating close to miraculous healing powers.

China Girl ends up solving its central whodunit while also opening a door to future installments with a climatic knock on the door. Moss, now prepping for Season 2 of Handmaid’s Tale,, has two franchise TV roles to carry her career through at least the next several years. Both Offred and Robin Griffin have been badly scarred and scared by the men in their turbulent lives.

So perhaps Moss could use a comedy at some point in the not too distant future. For now, though, she has a thoroughly flourishing, albeit somber career that might well find the likes of Hamm’s Don Draper begging to work with her. Barely two years removed from the Mad Men finale, Moss no longer needs any advertisements for herself.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net