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Amazon Prime's Carnival Row paints a visual masterpiece on a somewhat messy storyboard


Winging it in Carnival Row with Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne.
Amazon Prime photo

Premiering: All eight Season One episodes begin streaming Friday, Aug. 30th on Amazon Prime
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, David Gyasi, Tamzin Merchant, Jared Harris, Indira Varma, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Simon McBurney, Karla Crome, Andrew Gower, Alice Krige, Maeve Dermody
Produced by: Rene Echevarria, Travis Beacham, Marc Guggenheim, Jon Amiel, Orlando Bloom, Gideon Amir

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The winged, hardscrabble faeries of Amazon Prime’s Carnival Row tend to cause flaps, and not only when flying.

Along with the hooved and horn-headed Pucks, they’re refugees from war torn countries who get lumped together as “Critches” by those who see them as subhuman trespassers. The Burgue, where many have come to settle, is particularly inhospitable to their kind. So although this fantasy drama is set in 19th century Victorian England, the parallels are transparently clear. Immigration, deportation and racism are all very much in play.

The eight-episode Season One, all of which Amazon made available for review, at times falls prey to a sledgehammer approach. Its pacing also can be somewhat plodding, particularly when Inspector Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is somberly walking the streets in search of clues to a string of very vicious murders.

But the thoroughly convincing special effects keep making the sale. Carnival Row is constantly wondrous to behold, with the seamless flights of the Faes (shorthand for faeries) always a how’d-they-do-that high point. These are not the TV days of old, when George Reeves clunkily flew his way through the Adventures of Superman. Featured Fae Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) wings it with seemingly the greatest of ease before landing ever-so-gently rather than thumping like a parachutist. As flights of fantasy go, these are on another plane. (Amazon already has ordered a second season.)

Episode One begins with Vignette fleeing her homeland of Anoun, Timaoc in the face of the latest attack by The Pact. She eventually finds her way aboard a refugee ship that comes under heavy fire. Washing ashore in The Burgue, Vignette is the sole survivor.

Meanwhile, Philo is investigating the serial violence being visited upon a Carnival Row enclave of mostly dirt-poor immigrants. The brutish beat cops are of no help. Still, the dutiful Philo persists in his bowler hat and long black coat. He has a secret back story, fully revealed in a particularly picturesque Episode 3, that makes him sympathetic to the plights of the put-upon newcomers. This episode also serves as the origin story of how Philo and Vignette first met before events conspired against them. Seven years later in The Burgue, things have gotten very frosty indeed.

On the other side of town, the upper crusters are led by short-tempered Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) and his willful wife, Piety (Indira Varma). They also have a balky grown son named Jonah (Arty Froushan), who later will come into play in a big way.

Add snooty Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) and her brother, Ezra (Andrew Gower). They live in an opulent house, but financial ruin is beckoning. Imogen sees a possible way out when a prosperous African-American Puck named Agreus (David Gyasi) moves in just across the street. His “kind” isn’t wanted in the neighborhood, but perhaps a loan from him would be. So the dance begins between Imogen and Agreus -- and it takes a predictable course.

Otherwise the killings continue while tensions rise and resistance sects grow. An emerging character who becomes pivotal in all of the power-mongering talks in Trump-ian mode of how “chaos creates opportunity” -- so let’s sew more of it. As a fiery young newcomer to Parliament, she’s also reminiscent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but in reverse when it comes to immigration. Further detailing how she claws her way upward would be giving away too much.

You’ll eventually know who the killer is after a considerable stacking of dead bodies. While getting to this point, though, Carnival Row takes on too many of the steamy serial qualities of a Dallas or Dynasty. And the acting, although pretty solid, is not of head-turning caliber.

By the end of Season One, a new story arc is in play, with the at-odds principals pretty much whittled down to a quartet after almost everyone else dies or flees. A feast for the eyes is guaranteed throughout, though. Carnival Row, whether airborne or down-to-earth gritty, keeps flexing the power of its oft-breathtaking visuals. The worlds it creates are the greater sums of its whole while the messages it sends can be a little too telegraphed.


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Kirsten Dunst shiningly stars in Showtime's madcap On Becoming a God in Central Florida


Kirsten Dunst exudes Southern “charm” in a dark comedy with an elongated title. Namely, On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, August 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Theodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Usman Ally, Alexander Skarsgard, Sharon Lawrence, Julie Benz, Mary Steenburgen, Kevin J. O’Connor, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Cooper Jack Rubin
Produced by: Robert Funke, Matt Lutsky, George Clooney, Grand Heslov, Kirsten Dunst, Charlie McDowell, Esta Spading

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The title is a mouthful -- one of the longest in TV history. The basic premise is easier to swallow, particularly during these trying times.

In Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a crooked purveyor of products ranging from toilet paper to apple cider (Amway won’t like this series) sucks the lifeblood out of acolytes desperately pursuing an “American Dream” of quick wealth and prosperity. The preachments of Founders American Merchandise (FAM) are a match for the greed-fueled evangelism on display in HBO’s new The Righteous Gemstones. Both playbooks rely on the surefire propositions of suckers being born every minute. Principal among them, in Episode 1 of Becoming a God, is erstwhile insurance salesman Travis Stubbs (guest star Alexander Skarsgard), whose skeptical wife, Krystal (series star Kirsten Dunst), has a menial job at Rebel Rapids water park.

All 10 Season One episodes were made available for review, and it’s a wild ride with some excesses down the stretch. But Dunst, whose character initially wears braces, is fiercely committed to both her performance and her character’s determination to dig out of one hole after another following her husband’s untimely demise near the close of Sunday’s premiere. What a whirlwind she is, alternately seething, scheming and cracking wise while also tending to her baby daughter, Destiny.

Krystal’s best friends are fellow water park worker Ernie Gomes (Mel Rodriguez) and his devoted wife, Bets (Beth Ditto). She otherwise forms a pitfall-pocked alliance with Travis’s enabler, Cody Bonar (Theodore Pellerin), a baby-faced, fully immersed FAM hustler who not only has drunk the Kool-Aid but poured the rest of it over his head. Pellerin’s portrayal would be the standout attraction if Dunst wasn’t topping him in scene after scene. It’s all set in 1992.

The big boogeyman is Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), God-like leader of pyramid-scheming FAM. Levine has never met a crazed role he won’t throw himself into. In his latest, he sports a mustache the size of a croissant accented by an off-and-on platinum blonde toupee. Garbeau’s series of cassette tapes (“Don’t be a stinker thinker”) are biblical in the eyes and ears of FAM disciples.

The promised prosperity always seems just within reach. But profit margins for FAM products are smallish at best. And the recruitment demands are never-ending for those who aspire to be a “Washington” and get invited to the palatial Paradise Cay, where Garbeau resides with his wife, Louise (Sharon Lawrence), and their wealth of underlings. Don’t expect a royal dinner, though. Instead Hamburger Helper is served. It makes for a funny sight gag, but not for all that much sense if Garbeau really wants to further imbed his hooks.

All that Krystal wants is a chance to expand FAM beyond its rigid system. But her new Splashercize class, eagerly attended by a big group of FAM salespeople in return for their products being stocked at Rebel Rapids, is deemed a “perversion of the Garbeau system.” Not that Krystal won’t keep swimming against the current.

Mary Steenburgen also drops in, primarily during the sixth episode, as Cody’s wealthy, imperious mother, Ellen Joy. The scene is a well-heeled fundraiser for Vice President Quayle (Joe Knezevich), who’s shown with a bandage on his nose. “Someone has to keep the Democrats from turning the government into an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Ellen Joy tells Cody. She mostly sniffs at Krystal and her Southern twang.

Becoming a God, billed as a “darkly comedic story” in Showtime publicity materials, includes a notably violent scene that sends poor Ernie over the edge. There also are some highly surreal moments, most of them at Paradise Cay. It all leads to a climactic FAM telethon on behalf of orphaned children, during which the entertainment is impossibly low-rent and cornball -- but nonetheless a hoot.

All of this sets up a second season, even if there already are some signs that Becoming a God might be stretching itself thin. Still, Dunst is the saving grace throughout a rollicking Season One that keeps delivering whenever she’s on screen. It may well turn out to be the TV performance of the year, with some very able assists from Pellerin, Rodriguez, Ditto and Levine.

So in that respect, there’s no need to be “the Pope of nope” -- as Cody puts it -- regarding whether a Season Two can keep this story rolling. Bring it on, and let’s see if they can somehow pull it off.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's The Righteous Gemstones: preach your viewers well


John Goodman heads up a family of prototypically phony preachers. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Aug. 18th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Cassidy Freeman, Tony Cavalero, Tim Baltz, Walton Goggins, Skyler Gisondo, Greg Alan Williams, Jennifer Nettles, Dermot Mulroney
Produced by: Danny McBride, Jody Hill, David Gordon Green

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Creator/executive producer Danny McBride takes his usual approach with his latest HBO series.

Following the paths of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, McBride’s The Righteous Gemstones is coarse, irreverent, sometimes excessive and completely unconcerned about whether you’re offended or not. In the case of a series about crooked, greedy televangelists, “irreverent” is the most operative word. But riotously funny also applies. Even God might be busting a gut.

McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, oldest son of patriarch Eli Gemstone (the ubiquitous but always welcome John Goodman). There’s also younger brother Kelvin (Adam DeVine) and festering sister Judy (a gem of a performance by Edi Patterson), who’s generally pushed aside when dad and sons are doing any big family business.

The three men are first seen at a “24 Hours of Saved Souls” marathon in China, which washes out during the climactic baptism celebration. They then fly home separately, on an unholy trinity of planes named The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Judy has a few choice words for them upon arrival back home in South Carolina, where they all live palatially. “Kelvin, eat my ass” is among them. You gotta love her.

The first six episodes were made available for review. They rather oddly range in length from just under an hour for the first one to a bit over a half-hour for No. 6. Sunday’s premiere sets up a blackmail scheme built around video of Jesse snorting coke amid a gaggle of topless women. The head blackmailer wears a devil mask, and there’s also something of a surprise in store for those who haven’t already deduced it before the “reveal” in Episode 2.

Meanwhile, an unaware Eli continues to mourn for his deceased wife, Aimee-Leigh, the “magic” who kept the family together. Righteous Gemstones is sentimental rather than cynical in this instance. Eli truly loved Aimee-Leigh, who makes a glorious appearance in a flashback Episode 5 that so far is the series’ best. By this time, Walton Goggins (McBride’s co-star in Vice Principals) has already made his mark as Aimee-Leigh’s (Jennifer Nettles) problematic brother and fellow evangelist, Baby Billy Freeman.

The present-day Baby Billy has a shock of white hair the size of Idaho. But it’s in Episode 5 that he really soars with what used to be the trademark song-and-dance routine he did with his sister. Trust me, you’ll be immensely entertained by the cornpone “Misbehavin,’ ” which is rinsed and repeated with a new partner in Episode 6.

Eli Gemstone, who has come to despise Baby Billy, nonetheless hires him to head up a new “Prayer Center” in a vacant shopping mall space that used to be occupied by Sears. The idea is to steal the flock of Locust Grove’s resident reigning preacher, Johnny Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), proprietor of the town’s First Baptist Church. But winter is coming when Seasons spits out his contempt for Eli’s rampant greed. “The Gemstones are a disgrace,” he rages. “An absolute disgrace to all ministries. Con men. Baboons.”

Those are fightin’ words. But a brawl doesn’t break out until Jesse dubs sister Judy’s boyfriend, B.J. (Tim Baltz), a “wisp of a man” during the family’s weekly Sunday brunch.

McBride’s Jesse strides around in too tight shirts while his devoted wife, Amber (Cassidy Freeman), is too awash in creature comforts to be anything but blissed out. Their three sons are another matter, though. The oldest is prodigal and the stay-at-home middle one has no problem with profanely speaking his mind. Then there’s that incriminating video. It’s all enough to make Jesse equal parts cocksure and insecure. And McBride is long accustomed to broadly playing those dualities.

Goodman, who’s doing double time on ABC’s The Conners, has an equally grand but somewhat more restrained time playing Eli. In Episode 3, his dry, matter-of-fact dismissal of Aimee-Leigh’s no-account brother -- “Baby Billy’s a sack of shit” -- is so perfectly delivered that it seems heaven-sent.

DeVine’s Kelvin, whose best friend is a muscular former Satanic cult member named Keefe (Tony Cavalero), so far is having a tougher time breaking through as a resonating character. His strongest episode, No. 4, telescopes earnest Kelvin’s headlong efforts to be an effective youth minister.

As sister Judy, though, Patterson registers from the moment she opens her mouth. Her inflections and digressions are comedy gold. The devil has won if she doesn’t get an Emmy nomination.

And now some brief words about penises. You’ll see some, particularly in Episode 3. It’s the new “equality,” as is also demonstrated in HBO’s recently released Euphoria series. But as a turn-on, well, there’s really nothing to see here.

Other than that, The Righteous Gemstones is hallelujah-worthy for its performances, energy, comedy, dramedy and occasional little heart tugs. HBO is giving it a major promotional push in times when its cupboard needs replenishing after the recent losses of Game of Thrones and Veep. There’s no big message from on high here. Just enjoy yourself to the point that when HBO passes its monthly collection plate, Righteous Gemstones will be one big reason why you’ll keep on giving.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Old address, new approach in Fox's BH90210


The 90210 cast is all smiles at a reunion within a reunion. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Aug. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Tori Spelling, Jason Priestly, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris, Brian Austin Green, Shannen Doherty, La La Anthony, Vanessa Lachey, Ivan Sergei, Christine Elise McCarthy, Ali Liebert, Karis Cameron
Produced by: Chris Alberghini, Mike Chessler, Paul Sciarrotta, Gabrielle Carteris, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Brian Austin Green, Jason Priestly, Tori Spelling, Ian Ziering

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The address is CBS for the most success with TV reboots.

The most famous address of all, though, belongs to Fox. And its six-episode “event series” reboot of Beverly Hills, 90210 -- shortened to BH90210 -- for the most part makes for a surprisingly satisfying time travel to the current “heightened” lives of seven original cast members. (Charter co-star Luke Perry, who also had agreed to take part when his duties on The CW’s Riverdale allowed, died in March of this year. He’s fondly remembered in the closing moments of Wednesday’s premiere episode.)

Fox’s original 90210 ran for a decade from 1990 to 2000 before The CW network took another dip with 90210, which lasted from 2008 to 2013. Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling and Shannen Doherty made cameo appearances in that one, but the series centered on a new generation of teens.

In BH90210, though, the surviving principals are all in, with Doherty (the last to commit) so far much less seen in the two episodes made available for review. The hook is a 30th anniversary Vegas reunion that ends up being both a disaster and a catalyst. It’s also a springboard for what’s to come in Episode 2, with Spelling and Garth plotting to pull off a 90210 reboot (just as they did in real life) while their fellow cast members initially blow them off. Spelling in particular picks up the mantle of her late father, Aaron Spelling, who created 90210 and a bushel basket of other hit TV series. “No one stopped my dad,” she says of his doggedness in bringing his ideas to TV screens.

In their “heightened” modes (somewhat cued by Larry David in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Matt LeBlanc in Showtime’s Episodes), here’s what’s up since the original series wrapped.

*** Tori Spelling (Donna Martin on the original 90210) is a mother of six children who’s married to a semi-slacker named Nate (Ivan Sergei). Their Spelling the Beans series has just been canceled, and they’re up against it financially. Spelling and her real-life husband, Dean McDermott, are parents of five kids and have co-starred as themselves in two “reality” series.

*** Jason Priestly (Brandon Walsh) is a director married to a publicist who yearns to start a family. The real Priestly also has directed, but has two children with his wife, a makeup artist.

*** Jennie Garth (Kelly Taylor) is divorced twice and going through a third. Her headstrong daughter, Kyler (Karis Cameron), yearns to be an actress, which Garth emphatically doesn’t want for her. In real life, Garth has three children and is twice-divorced.

*** Ian Ziering (Steve Sanders) is married to a career-obsessed blonde bombshell who’s lately auditioning for a role on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. He’s more intent on hawking his own brand of products. The real-life Ziering achieved major success with the cheesy series of Sharknado movies. After contentiously divorcing a former Playboy model, he remarried and is the father of two children.

*** Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea Zuckerman) is newly a grandma and president of the Actors Guild of America. She’s also searching for her true sexual identity. In real life, Carteris is president of the merged Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. She’s been married to a stockbroker since 1992, and they have two children.

*** Brian Austin Green (David Silver) is mainly a house husband married to a star hip-hop artist known as Shay (La La Anthony). They have three children. The real Green married actress Megan Fox in 2010. They separated but later reconciled, and have three sons together.

*** Shannen Doherty (Brenda Walsh) is involved in animal rescue efforts and long estranged from the rest of her 90210 mates. In real life, the controversial Doherty, who’s likewise an animal activist, regularly feuded with the show’s co-stars before leaving after four seasons.

These are the basic fact/fiction parameters of the first reboot in which a complete ensemble cast plays themselves, not the TV characters they made famous. Then again, they’re all set to begin playing those characters anew by the end of Episode 2 after Fox executives enthusiastically green light a continuation of 90210 when Spelling and Garth pitch it to them. Any confusion in print isn’t a problem with the show itself, which is easy enough to grasp.

The original series lacked diversity and inclusion in times when there were few complainers. Fox’s reboot addresses this with both Green’s marriage to an African-American singing star and Carteris’ determination to doubly explore her sexuality as herself and as the rebooted Andrea Zuckerman.

There also are some unfortunate subplots, particularly the inclusion of a nameless young white male stalker whose obsession with Green in particular leads him to seriously creep out the rest of the cast. Filming on 90210 was completed shortly before the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, with disaffected, hate-filled young white males allegedly triggering the assault weapons. 90210 obviously didn’t intend in any way to be a reminder of these heinous actions. But alas, here we are.

The reboot also weaves in a blackmail plot involving Priestly and his wife, who has a “secret” tied to her sudden turn of events. 90210 certainly didn’t lack in serial drama soapiness, but the reboot tends to be thrown off its mark by these bad-nasty devices.

Otherwise the real revelation is Tori Spelling, who stands out among the ensemble as funny, free-spirited and even a bit poignant at times. If anyone carries this show through its first two episodes, she’s the one.

Carteris is also a standout in terms of vulnerabilities and feelings that weren’t allowed to be anywhere near fully expressed in the original 90210. And Priestly is vividly in this mix as a vainglorious approximation of his real self and a co-conspirator in the first episode’s rather daring hookup.

“Maybe going back is just what we all need to move forward,” Tori tells Jennie of her aggressive plans to make a reboot a reality.

That’s a grand simplification, but also more than a good enough rationale to make BH90210 TV’s latest born again entity. It’s been a dreary summer of mostly junky new broadcast network fare, led by CBS’ Love Island. There’s nothing technically new under the sun with BH90210. But it nonetheless feels that way via this fresh approach to what easily could have been a very wrong address.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net