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Fox's Houdini & Doyle is a far-fetched pairing in a fair to middling drama


Doyle, Houdini and Scotland Yard’s first female constable. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, May 2nd at 8 p.m. (central)
Starring: Michael Weston, Stephen Mangan, Rebecca Liddiard
Produced by: David Shore, David Hoselton, David Titcher

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Arthur Conan Doyle has several Sherlock Holmes stories under his belt and Harry Houdini is deep into his dunk tank phase when they begin clashing and collaborating on crime solving.

Their venue is Fox’s fanciful and halfway decent Houdini & Doyle, which is taking the already renewed Lucifer’s place on the network’s Monday night schedule. So we go from a prodigal, rakish devil swinging his way through modern-day L.A. to two disparate historical figures without mobile devices who team up as gumshoes in 1901 London. Both dramas are quite a stretch, but who’s to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t happen? On the other hand, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island should NOT have happened.

Houdini (a somewhat oddly cast Michael Weston) is the irreverent wise guy of this duo while Holmes (Stephan Mangan) is the more proper married man and father whose wife unfortunately has been in a coma for months. They’re assisted by plucky Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), Scotland Yard’s first female constable. Therefore her abilities are constantly questioned.

Weston’s Houdini bears more than a passing resemblance to Jimmy Fallon. He also can be quick with a quip, sometimes winningly so. As when a physically impaired suspect flees in Episode 1, prompting Houdini to crack, “You’re gonna out-limp us?”

Houdini also is thoroughly skeptical about the supernatural and paranormal while Doyle is a fan. In the far better-rendered Episode 2, this prompts Houdini to debunk a superstar local faith healer by sniping, “Or maybe God is just a louse who gets a divine thrill out of watching people suffer.” (In real life, Houdini wound up on the receiving end of a pretty painful death at the age of 52.)

Monday’s opening episode is a less effective, cockamamie mystery involving two murders in a convent. The young nun who discovered the first body insists that she saw a ghost. It all gets pretty tedious and convuluted.

Episode 2 is brisker and more compelling, albeit not without some queasy scenes of Doyle preforming an autopsy and Houdini battling a severe case of the boils. At issue is whether the tent preacher in fact is a killer of unbelievers or legitimately empowered by God. The eventual answer may not surprise you, but the episode as a whole is superior to the premiere.

Houdini & Doyle likely won’t set anyone’s heart aflutter or the ratings on fire. But it looks like a passable spring/summer diversion and also just a bit of a history lesson on what these two guys were all about. Even though they never did become a crime fighting duo.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Smithsonian Channel's Sports Detectives hits some sweet spots in searches for famed memorabilia


Hall of Famer Franco Harris & his most famous football moment. Smithsonian Channel photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 24th at 8 p.m. (central) on Smithsonian Channel
Hosted by: Kevin Barrows, Lauren Gardner
Produced by: Brian Biegel, John Marks, Robert Harris, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, David Royle, Charles Poe

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The disappearances of youthful Barky’s 1950s and ‘60s Topps baseball cards very likely will remain an unsolved mystery.

Did mom really join the many moms of her generation in throwing them all out, thereby increasing both scarcity and monetary value? Or did her oldest son bend, spindle and mutilate or dog-ear most of them in bicycle spokes or card-flipping matches?

Some puzzlements are more easily answered, as the winning new Smithsonian Channel series Sports Detectives shows in its earnest track-downs of iconic memorabilia. The six-part series begins by uncovering the whereabouts of the frayed and partially torn king-sized American flag draped over goalie Jim Craig after the U.S. hockey team’s totally unexpected march to the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.

Sports Detectives spends its entire opening hour on this search, which results in more than a little repetition and overstatement. Sports reporter Mary Pilon says for starters, “It’s like the Shroud of Turin for hockey.”

Co-host/detective Kevin Barrows, a private investigator and former FBI agent, later tells viewers that “there’s really no way to over-estimate how valuable this flag is.” Well, yeah, there is. What if I said it has to be worth at least a billion dollars? It’s not.

Even so, this is an engaging and thorough series, based on the two episodes I’ve seen. Even non-sports fans could find themselves sucked in by the sleuthing abilities of Barrows and co-host Lauren Gardner, who’s currently otherwise employed by cable’s CBS Sports Network. They ask precise questions while making seemingly every effort to find the most knowledgeable sources of information.

In Episode One, that’s goalie Craig himself, prompting Barrows to conclude, “Jim was, without a doubt, the missing link.”

Four of the subsequent five episodes are more successfully divided into two searches, thereby cutting down on the padding. Hour 2 revisits the Dec. 23, 1972 “Immaculate Reception” by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris while also trying to determine whether Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame rusher Jim Brown has any basis for claiming that his 1964 NFL Championship ring was stolen. Harris plays ball with Sports Detectives. Brown, who’s suing the current owner of the ring, deflects questions to his attorneys.

Barrows handles the “Immaculate Reception” while Gardner dives into the controversy over Brown’s ring. The answers aren’t completely definitive in the end, but both gumshoes exhaust all reasonable efforts to determine the truth. It’s all very compelling. And that includes the current location of the “Immaculate Reception” ball that fan Jim Baker claims to have scooped up after Pittsburgh kicked the extra point following a lengthy delay.

Here’s the menu for the rest of the series:

Sunday, May 8th -- The late Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s original pink race car and the saddle worn by eventual Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby.

Sunday, May 22nd (after skipping a week) -- Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run ball in Game One of the 1988 World Series and an actual game-used Lou Gehrig bat.

Sunday, May 29th -- Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game ball from March 2, 1962 and the authenticity of a War Admiral trophy on display in the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Sunday, June 5th -- Muhammad Ali’s missing 1960 Summer Olympics gold medal.

The city of Cleveland hasn’t had another pro sports champion since the Browns blasted the Baltimore Colts 27-0 back in 1964. In contrast, Pittsburgh lost the 1972 AFC Championship game to the Miami Dolphins a week after the last-second “Immaculate Reception” win over the Oakland Raiders. But by 1975, the Steelers had their first Super Bowl win and would have three more by 1980. As Harris says, “That was the start of something great.”

Sports Detectives is the start of something very good on a cable channel that could use some punching power. And if it proves itself in the ratings, there should be a lot more missing balls, bats, helmets and other memorabilia to keep this show on the scent.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Season 5 of Veep fires up just in time to make the real-life Campaign 2016 seem almost fuzzy wuzzy


Julia Louis-Dreyfus trumps 2016 prez campaign in Veep. HBO photo

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Emmy’s reigning best comedy series and lead actress presumably remain well ahead of the curve in terms of craven behavior and opportunism on the part of those seeking the nation’s highest office.

Well, one can hope at least. Again absent even a tinkle of idealism or fair play, HBO’s Veep returns for Season 5 on Sunday, April 24th at 9:30 p.m. (central).

The humor remains mostly profane and more often than not coarsely sexual. Conduct of this caliber surely can’t be equaled -- even behind closed doors -- by the likes of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz. The 2016 presidential campaign continues to chart new vistas in down-and-dirty. But by all that is holy, who can match the pure, unadulterated, self-absorbed power-mongering of Selina Meyer, who’s again played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a k a TV’s First Lady of Comedy?

Season 4 ended with the still unresolved election day contest between Selina and Republican opponent Bill O’Brien (Brad Leland). Season 5 begins with an electoral college tie, although Nevada might still be up for grabs. This triggers a ruthless, Florida-like effort by both camps to swing the vote in their favor and avoid a resolution by the House of Representatives.

Selina, who became president after her despised boss resigned from office, desperately yearns to be the country’s first elected woman president. This also would mean continued high-level employment for her fractious staff of grovelers, incompetents and in some cases, halfway capable orchestrators of Selina’s problematic public image.

The four episodes made available for review keep Veep in its wheel house of low comedy executed at a high level. Sunday’s opener cashes in on a burgeoning upper-cheek pimple that’s throwing Selina off her game. Not that it takes much. The blemish soon has its own Twitter account -- and instantly more Followers than its bearer. But it’s rather magically gone by Episode 2, although the ever-vexed sitting president still can’t get over “this Olympic-sized swimming pool of shit that I’m doing the backstroke in.”

Hugh Laurie, also currently starring in AMC’s exemplary The Night Manager miniseries, resumes his recurring role as Selina’s running mate, Sen. Tom James. John Slattery (Mad Men) and the always welcome Martin Mull drop in as new characters, beginning with Season5’s second episode.

Several real-life figures are unseen but hardly unspared. It turns out that Selina hates country music in general and Tim McGraw in particular. And Charlie Rose takes it in the teeth during Episode 4, when Selina tells her oft-discarded daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), “Honey, if I wanted to talk to an unconscious person, I’d book myself on Charlie Rose.”

Although Tony Hale has now won two supporting actor Emmys as hapless personal aide Gary Walsh, I’ve come to prefer the dagger-like one-liners of ring-wise White House chief of staff Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn). As in, “Maybe the firewalls have more holes in them than a gold digger’s diaphragm.”

That’s one of the tamer lines in Veep, which perhaps could get along with fewer dick jokes, too. But this continues to be a series in which basically no one acts honorably. Season 5 will now take its rightful place alongside Campaign 2016, with the last of its 10 episodes airing in late June just three weeks before the likely turbulent Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

In terms of overall venality, though, Veep almost assuredly has set too “high” a bar for the Republicans or Democrats to clear. Led by Louis-Dreyfus at the height of her powers, this is a show that makes palate-cleansers of the bare-knuckled, real-life characters trying to gouge and kick their way into the Oval Office. But it’s OK. Go ahead and laugh.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The CW's Containment goes viral


David Gyasi (center) is in forefront of epidemic-centric Containment. CW photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: David Gyasi, Kristen Gutoskie, Chris Wood, Claudia Black, Christina Moses, Trevor St. John, George Young, Hannah Mangan Lawrence, Demetrius Bridges
Produced by: Julie Plec, David Nutter

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Remember how much fun it wasn’t when the Ebola scare gripped the nation at large and Dallas in particular back in fall 2014?

Well, here we go again -- although how many viewers will want to go there? -- with The CW’s Containment, which zeroes in on Atlanta (as AMC’s The Walking Dead did for most of its first five seasons). Adapted from the Belgian series Cordon, the 13-episode “event series” replaces iZombie after its Season 2 run and is being paired with The Flash on Tuesday nights. CW sent the first six hours for review. And it’s quickly evident that facial orifices are fair game for a deadly strain of something or other that acts fast and has no known cure. Those who wish to partake are advised not to watch immediately after having dinner.

The series’ central character is police major Alex “Lex” Carnahan (David Gyasi), who’s been pulled into the limelight by steely Sabine Lommers (Claudia Black), point woman for the Centers for Disease Control’s efforts to somehow curb this rampant epidemic. In that endeavor, 4,000 unlucky Atlantans in close proximity to the initial outbreak at Atlanta Midtown Hospital are subjected to what’s initially meant to be a 48-hour “Cordon Sanitaire.”

On the outside looking in, Lex is tabbed to be the voice of authority and keeper of the Cordon gates. Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend, Jana (Christina Moses), who’s finally been weaning herself from the social disease of commitment-phobia, is among those being strictly quarantined. Lex’s best friend on the police force, Jake Riley (Chris Wood), is also penned in along with a handful of cops who are expected to somehow keep the peace. Jake’s smoldering resentments are somewhat tempered in time by divorced elementary schoolteacher Katie Frank (Kristen Gutoskie), whom he meets at the hospital after she’d taken her class on a field trip to entertain elderly patients. But since any transmission of bodily fluids can be deadly, Jake and Katie can only look longingly at one another and have a few laughs along with her mischievous son, Quentin (Zachary Unger).

Containment also spotlights two interracial couples, one of them long married and the other joined together by a presumably unplanned pregnancy. And yes, of course, there’s a renegade blogger whose search for “the truth” is both self-serving and somewhat idealistic. His name is Leo Greene (Trevor St. John), and he’s really starting to piss Lex off.

The outbreak initially is blamed on a fatally ill young man from Syria who’s branded a “bio-terrorist” after a woman doctor who treated him became fatally infected. But is that the real story? Or is there a sinister cover-up? Those are rhetorical questions.

As with many latter day serial dramas, Containment begins with your basic worse case scenario scene in which screaming and violence indicate that all hell has broken loose. Viewers will see that this is “Day 13” before the story rewinds to “Day 1” and slowly builds from there. Episodes 2 through 6 all begin rather pretentiously with sobering printed quotes. First up is Socrates: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways. I to die, and you to live. Which of these is better, God only knows.”

By the end of Episode 6 we’re up to “Day 9.” At this point, some of the characters have taken pretty firm hold, with Gyasi’s Lex and Gutoskie’s Katie breaking from the pack while Wood’s Jake understandably is being torn asunder by his dual roles as corpse-burner and hopelessly over-extended peacekeeper. Katie is his only respite from it all, but she’s also the one pulling him into a further investigation of a possible heinous conspiracy.

None of this qualifies as breezy spring/summertime entertainment. Still, if apocalyptic drama is your entertainment of choice, then Containment might well keep you contented. It also might make you wary of sneezing. Because that, my friends, is a dead give-away that there will be blood and it won’t be long.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

From the BBC to AMC: The Night Manager is a highly polished gem drawn from an old John le Carre page-turner


Tom Hiddleston (center) heads the sterling cast of The Night Manager, adapted from 1993 John le Carre novel. AMC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hollander
Produced by: David Farr, Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Garrett, John le Carre, Susanne Burr
Directed by: Susanne Bier

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Publicity materials are invariably grounded in hyperbole. But sometimes it actually rings true.

Such is the case with a “Letter By John le Carre” that opens a grand, coffee table-sized hardcover book sent by AMC in honor of The Night Manager. Extolling this modernized adaptation of his 1993 espionage novel, he praises the principal actors and director Susanne Bier for bringing back “those glory days in the seventies when I was watching the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being magicked to life by Alec Guinness and the inspired cast that surrounded him.”

The Night Manager, which had its BBC premiere on Feb. 21st, comes to these shores on Tuesday, April 19th. It will run for six absorbing hour-long episodes on consecutive Tuesdays. There are no zombies, which le Carre has yet to include in any of his twisting, turning, betrayal-rich novels. The man who pretty much wrote the book on cloak and dagger instead is impeccably served by a tale whose sweeping venues include, Egypt, Switzerland and Spain besides the not so merry olde London, where the International Enforcement Agency is infested by double-dealers.

The cast’s most familiar face is former House star Hugh Laurie, who plays filthy rich, clandestine arms dealer Richard Roper. His cover story is the Ironlast Corp., which touts its Good Samaritan deeds on behalf of refugees while selling state-of-the-art weapons to Middle East terrorists.

Tom Hiddleston, best known to many as the villainous Loki in several Marvel superhero films, can also be seen on the big screen as Hank Williams in the current I Saw the LIght. In The Night Manager, he’s Iraqi war veteran Jonathan Pine, who lately has been in charge of the late shift at Cairo’s posh Nefertiti hotel during the revolution-infused “Arab Spring.”

The third wheel is intelligence operative Angela Burr (terrific opposite David Tennant in the Broadchurch series). She starts the plot wheels spinning by recruiting Pine to infiltrate Roper’s operation. He has some motivation after the murder of “Sophie” (Aure Atika), who had been the mistress of a terrorist in consort with Roper. She snuck incriminating documents to Pine before they became lovers. Four years after Sophie’s demise, he’s living a life of isolation in Switzerland while again working nights at a luxury hotel. Who should check in but Roper, his beautiful, guilt-ridden girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and slimy chief of staff Lance “Corky” Corkoran (Tom Hollander). Pine is physically revolted by their haughty presence. This makes him all the more ripe for recruitment by Burr, who’s also pregnant and fighting off interference by her duplicitous superiors.

All of this happens in Tuesday’s Episode One. And we’ll say no more story-wise, other than to say that all six episodes were made available for review. And by the end of them, you’ll have taken a wild ride amid picturesque vistas and a rich soundtrack that add additional flavor to the first-rate performances. The Night Manager has the production values of a James Bond movie, but without the quips, chases or lapses in basic believability. As villains go, though, Laurie’s Roper conveys a very palpable menace. “If you step out of line, I will make you howl for your mother,” he tells Pine in Episode Three. Believe it.

Roper also sells this line in Episode Five: “We are emperors of Rome, Andrew. Blood and steel. The only elements that ever meant anything.”

The Night Manager has occasional brief nudity that might be airbrushed form the AMC version. The violence, of course, will remain intact. Advertiser-supported American television networks are OK with that, particularly on the home of the head-exploding The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead.

If there’s a downside to The Night Manager, it’s the weekly doses. This is an eminently binge-worthy series that begs to be devoured in just a sitting or two. But unlike some le Carre treatments, it’s never too murky to be followed in full after seven-day intermissions.

The ending is fully satisfying, but just open-ended enough to fuel talk of a sequel in some circles. But Laurie, Hiddleston and writer/executive producer David Farr have all firmly ruled that out -- for now at least.

That’s probably just as well. The Night Manager stands tall as a stand-alone gem that elevates the cat-and-mouse game without ever entrapping itself. Bravo. Pip pip. All that stuff.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Hill-Thomas faceoff reprised in HBO's sturdy Confirmation


Scandal’s Kerry Washington takes the oath as Anita Hill. HBO photo

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Lest it be forgotten, Clarence Thomas beat O.J. Simpson’s attorneys to the punch in victoriously playing the “race card.”

As dramatized in FX’s recently concluded and critically lauded The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the defendant evaded a double murder conviction after the jury bought claims that he had been railroaded by a bigoted Los Angeles Police department. The verdict came in October 1995.

In October 1991, Thomas squared off against former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employee and accuser Anita Hill before a Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by future vice president Joe Biden. The HBO film Confirmation (premiering Saturday, April 16th at 7 p.m. central) dramatizes the U.S. Supreme Court nominee’s successful refutation of her sexual harassment allegations. How so? He played the “race card” before a national television audience, most famously in a prepared statement that left both sides stunned.

Wendell Pierce, cast as Thomas, effectively brings those words home anew in Confirmation’s most vivid scene. “I think that this today is a travesty,” he tells the committee. “I think it is disgusting . . . This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks . . . You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

Never mind that Hill (Scandal star Kerry Washington) is also black. The “high-tech lynching” line, with old-line Southerners Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Howell Heflin of Alabama among those on the judiciary committee, cut to the bone and took much of the starch out of the battle to keep Thomas from ascending to the U.S. Supreme Court as President George H.W. Bush’s second appointee during his four-year term.

In a scene that speaks further volumes, Hill’s African-American attorney, Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright), bluntly tells his client that none of the committee’s “white boys” will now be in the mood -- or of the political mind -- to further challenge the Thomas’ nomination. Liberal Democrats such as Biden, Ted Kennedy (largely neutered by his own sexual escapades) and Paul Simon certainly didn’t want to be seen as high-tech lynchers.

Confirmation is an effective movie, although certainly not a great one, in terms of reconstructing how Hill was first persuaded to come forward and then left distraught, defeated and convinced it was “a mistake.” Washington and Pierce are both strong in these pivotal roles, particular in their recreations of testimony seen by millions on live television in another preview of what became the even more saturated coverage of the Simpson trial.

Real-life network anchors and reporters, most of them now deceased or largely retired, are paraded through Confirmation in archival snippets from TV’s coverage and commentary. Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw is one of the more heavily used, telling his viewers near the end, “We have gone from shock to discomfort, now to a combination of anger, depression and shame” over the graphic details of Hill’s testimony and the seeming eagerness of some committee members -- most notably Biden -- to hear it repeated.

Yes, Biden may well be squirming uncomfortably should he choose to view Confirmation. Effectively played by Greg Kinnear, he’s depicted as a semi-spineless equivocator who twice in the early going tells a staffer that, above all, he doesn’t want to be perceived as “the bad guy.”

Thomas’ Republican backers, if one can believe the movie, had Biden by the short hairs in terms of both altering the hearing schedule and, in the end, not allowing Angela Wright (Jennifer Hudson) to testify that she also had been sexually harassed by the Supreme Court nominee before being fired.

“I also have an obligation to uphold the dignity and the credibility of the United States Senate,” Biden lamely laments at one point.

“Yeah, how’s that goin’?” an elderly colleague shoots back.

Biden is shown buckling and then backing down after stronger-willed Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth (Bill Irwin) warns Biden to expect a “street fight” should Wright testify before the committee. Danforth assures him that if it comes to that, “I’m gonna pick up a crowbar.” The committee chair then caves.

So could Biden come off any worse? As a matter of fact, yes. Hill’s opening prepared statement included an account of Thomas’ asking her, “Who put pubic hair on my Coke?“ This isn’t enough for Biden, who opens his questioning by asking Hill to repeat such specifics “one more time for me, please.”

It’s all later rubbed in via a scene in which Biden nurses a toothache with a cold Coke can before popping it and taking a drink.

Thomas, whose devoted white wife, Ginni, is played by Alison Wright of FX’s The Americans, is never shown admitting to anything, either publicly or privately. Hill also is depicted as steadfast in her recollections of how Thomas allegedly abused her a decade ago. Bucking Thomas up are both his wife and the ever outspoken and sometimes nonsensical Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming (Peter McRobbie), who tells the shell-shocked nominee over the phone, “Well, buckle up your guts, pal. This is no time for self-pity.”

Treat Williams as Ted Kennedy is largely a mute cardboard cutout. But in his only speaking part of any import, he musters an indirect defense of Hill after aide Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer) basically shames him into it by telling her boss, ‘She’s all alone out there, sir.” Kennedy then gives one of those made-for-TV movie looks of consternation before rousing himself the next day.

In the end, Thomas was confirmed on a 52-48 vote by a Senate with a 57-43 Democratic majority. Eleven Democrats, not including Biden, voted in favor of Thomas, who remains on the Supreme Court to this day.

Although it doesn’t technically take sides, the film ends by noting that in the immediate aftermath of the Thomas-Hill hearings, sexual harassment charges against the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission doubled while the number of women elected to Congress was the largest in history.

Confirmation connects most of the dots of those times while falling short of the dramatic impact left by FX’s O.J. Simpson miniseries. Those interested in playing a companion parlor game might want to see how many attendant TV anchors and reporters they recognize. As you’ll soon see, it was still very much a man’s world in that respect, too.


Ken Burns' Jackie Robinson takes his full measure


Jackie Robinson takes an extra base against the old Boston Braves. PBS photo

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We now live in times where fewer and fewer American-born blacks are playing major league baseball. After a high of 18.7 percent in 1981, the percentage had slumped to 7.8 by last season.

But whatever a young player’s color, many may still be largely ignorant of Jackie Robinson, even though his number 42 was retired nationally in 1997. It’s now been 69 years since he broke baseball’s “color line” in 1947 and 44 years since his death at age 53 in 1972. No current major league player was even alive when Robinson died.

Against that backdrop comes the two-part Ken Burns film Jackie Robinson, which premieres Monday, April 11th at 8 p.m. (central) and concludes on Tuesday at the same time. It will qualify as somewhat ancient history to a majority of potential viewers, although not to his widow, Rachel Robinson. She’s now 93, and a very active participant in this four-hour film. “It was us against the world,” Rachel says of the days when her husband was being groomed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and pioneering president/general manager Branch Rickey to become the major leagues’ first black player. “And we enjoyed that and kind of laughed about it.”

When Robinson officially became a Dodger, Rachel went to all of her husband’s Ebbets Field home games. They again kept his on-field travails at arm’s length. “The fight was outside,” she reasons all these years later. “It wasn’t in our house. And neither of us wanted it to be in there.”

Jackie Robinson takes the usual Burns approach: a wealth of talking heads, a period sound track (with some original music by Wynton Marsalis) and a sober-minded view of the stakes at hand and the tenor of the times. Those offering their input via new interviews include President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Harry Belafonte, George Will, Carly Simon (whose parents once temporarily housed the Robinson family), Tom Brokaw, Vin Scully and surviving Dodger teammates Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine. Actor Jamie Foxx is used sparingly to voice some of Robinson’s words and the narrator, as usual, is Keith David.

The final hour of the film deals exclusively and instructively with Robinson’s life after the Dodgers. Slowed by chronic injuries and embittered by the team’s decision to trade him to the rival New York Giants, he retired at age 37 after Brooklyn lost the 1956 World Series to the imperial New York Yankees. Robinson immediately became a vice president with the Chock full o’ Nuts coffee company while also speaking out for integration and civil rights. His political alliances cut against the grain. He supported Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy until Nixon eventually disappointed him. Robinson then embraced Republican Nelson D. Rockefeller, who unsuccessfully sought the 1964 GOP presidential nomination against arch-conservative Barry Goldwater. His alliance with Rockefeller continued when he was re-elected governor of New York. But by 1968, Robinson had switched parties and sided with Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey rather than his old pal Nixon.

Although a pathfinder on the baseball diamond, the film shows Robinson to be something of a rigid traditionalist during the turbulent 1960s. The man who endured countless taunts of “nigger” in his early years with the Dodgers ended up being branded as Rockefeller’s “good nigger” by a Harlem magazine. Robinson also had little use for Muhammad Ali, terming him “ungrateful” for refusing to join the military and continuing to call him “Cassius” after he changed his name.

Robinson was steadfast, however, in his belief that major league baseball had a moral duty to hire a black manager. Frank Robinson finally became the first, but only after Robinson’s death.

On the homefront, Robinson’s troubled oldest son, Jackie Jr., battled demons, fought in Vietnam and then became a drug addict who disassociated himself from the family before seemingly turning his life around at a rehab center. But he died in a car wreck (alcohol or drugs reportedly weren’t involved) the year before his father’s death. The Robinsons’ two other children, Sharon and David, are both interviewed in the Burns film.

Jackie Robinson connects all of these dots and gives a far fuller picture of the man than the pedestrian 2013 feature film 42 or 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, in which Jackie played himself opposite Ruby Dee as Rachel.

His wife, as the film shows, had an independent spirit throughout their life together. She pursued her passion for nursing despite his objections and went on to become director of nursing at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. Rachel remembers her husband as a “trusted friend” and soulmate throughout all the trials they experienced together. “He was very, very expressive and loving. And I miss that a lot.”

Robinson’s tombstone has the inscription, “A life is not important. Except in the impact it has on other lives.”

As Jackie Robinson shows, his impact was enormous. But most of all it remains thrilling to see Robinson taking off with the crack of his bat and dashing toward first base with an eye toward stretching a single into a double or eventually stealing a base or two, including home. He played with a fiery passion from within while absorbing all the indignities aimed his way. Robinson’s emotions weren’t officially turned loose until later in his career. And then some had the temerity to brand him “uppity” for arguing with umpires like everyone else -- or speaking out off the field as well.

As a kid baseball was my game. I loved it, played it, watched it, listened to it, read about it. And so with every passing year, I appreciate all the more that my Jan. 31st birthday also is shared by three towering Hall of Famers -- Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Nolan Ryan. The latter two played on comparative fields of dreams after Robinson first took one for the team.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's Game of Silence has an involving storyline, but will its promised cliffhangers live to see a Season Two?


David Lyons, Michael Raymond-James and Larenz Tate play the scarred survivors of a hellish Texas juvenile prison. NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 12th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC before moving to regular Thursday, 9 p.m. slot
Starring: David Lyons, Michael Raymond-James, Larenz Tate, Bre Blair, Conor O’Farrell, Demetrius Grosse, Claire van der Boom, Deidrie Henry, Derek Phillips
Produced by: David Hudgins, Carol Mendelsohn, Julie Weitz, Niels Arden Oplev, Timur Savci, Tariq Jalil

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NBC’s last new series of the season from a slate announced last May has been worth waiting for if it in fact survives beyond Season One. Otherwise you’ll be strung along and then left hanging by Game of Silence, a sobering, set-in-Texas saga of revenge borne of long-repressed atrocities.

It’s adapted from the Turkish series Suskunlar, which premiered in 2012 and lasted for two seasons and 28 episodes. Season One of the NBC version runs for 10 episodes, nine of which were sent to TV critics.

“After much hand-wringing and internal discussion, we opted not to include the finale,” executive producer David Hudgins says in a cover letter. “Not because we’re being precious, but rather just protective. It contains several shocking reveals, and jaw-dropping cliffhangers that we hope you and the viewers will experience together live.”

Your friendly content provider became interested enough to experience all nine episodes made available -- and wished the last one had been sent as well. But what if Game of Silence flops and gets canceled, leaving those “jaw-dropping cliffhangers” in free fall without enough payoffs on a considerable investment? Networks have run these Ponzi schemes before, so viewers should beware of getting sucked in -- only to be at least halfway suckered in the end.

Hudgins says he’s also been told that Game of Silence “feels like a binge-able cable show, which I take as a huge compliment.” Well, I’ll meet him halfway on that. This is by and large a compelling drama, although perhaps not something that many viewers would devour ravenously in one big gulp or two. But the principal bad guy, former juvenile prison warden and present-day congressional candidate Ray Carroll (Conor O’ Farrell), certainly is heinous enough to get viewers very interested in seeing him incarcerated for life after perhaps he first endures a hot lead enema and a few tooth extractions via a ball peen hammer.

Carroll’s victims include four pre-teen boys who were severely abused while incarcerated for nine months in the charitably named Quitman Youth Detention Facility.

“We were like lambs to the slaughter,” narrates a grown-up but still haunted Jackson Brooks (David Lyons), who 25 years later is a successful Houston attorney engaged to law firm colleague Marina Nagle (Claire van der Boom). Jackson long has distanced himself from the three childhood friends who endured that hellhole with him. But Gil Harris (Michael Raymond-James) and Shawn Polk (Larenz Tate) come calling after the youngest member of their foursome, “Boots” (Derek Phillips), is arrested and charged with an assault tied to their long-ago incarceration. Subsequent events conspire to suck Jackson back in.

The fifth wheel in all of this is Jessie West (Bre Blair), who was being abused by her drunken mother as a kid before Jackson, Gil, Shawn and Boots came to her rescue and ended up paying for it after a serious mishap in a stolen getaway car. They all end up reunited -- and it doesn’t feel so good. But can the thoroughly crooked Carroll and his henchman somehow be stopped? And what else might they be hiding beyond all that behind-bars abuse they inflicted on young Jackson, his friends and many others?

Game of Silence does a pretty solid job of stitching together flashbacks and the ongoing efforts to get justice either by the book or by any means necessary. The strongest performance is by Raymond-James as the deeply tormented, trigger-tempered Gil, who regularly balks when the more level-headed Jackson insists, “Brick by brick, we’re gonna get it done. I promise.”

Tuesday’s first hour does a solid job of baiting various hooks. And even when Game of Silence meanders, it does so with an energy and a pulse that keep the story from derailing or bogging down.

Episode 5 introduces the series’ best-known guest star, Sharon Lawrence, an alumnus of NYPD Blue who more recently has been a recurring character on Drop Dead Diva and Rizzoli & Isles. Lawrence plays powerful CEO Diana Stockman, whose self-satisfied smiles and sneers are over-used in the early going. It’s not giving away much to say that she ends up being duplicitous after retaining Jackson’s and Marina’s law firm to handle her company’s predicaments full-time.

By the end of Episode 9, Game of Silence has several new corpses in the bag and at least an equal number of core character conflicts that have either been remedied or cauterized. Once again, the bad guys seemingly are on the verge of paying for their sins. Except for the promise of those “jaw-dropping cliffhangers” that are supposed to whet interest in Season Two. That is, if there is one.


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The Detour is another road less traveled on formerly formulaic TBS


Natalie Zea and Jason Jones play the nominal adults in The Detour. TBS photo

Premiering: Monday, April 11th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on TBS
Starring: Jason Jones, Natalie Zea, Ashley Gerasimovich, Liam Carroll, Daniella Pinieda
Produced by: Jason Jones, Samantha Bee, Brennan Shroff, Tony Hernandez

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Comparisons to the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies no doubt are expected and not entirely unwelcome.

It’s a pre-sold title, after all, and The Detour can only hope to do as well with its winding, mind-bending road trip from Syracuse to a would-be beach vacay in Fort Lauderdale.

Actually, this crazily quilted and frequently laugh-out-loud comedy has already done pretty well for itself. Before its official Monday, April 11th premiere (after several post-NCAA basketball game sneak-previews), it’s already been renewed for a Season 2.

This further underscores what’s been a great 2016 for the husband-and-wife team of Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, who previously worked together on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Her weekly Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, which launched in February on TBS, has just been picked up for a full year. Bee and Jones are the creators of The Detour, with Jones also co-starring as short-tempered, recurringly befuddled husband and father Nate Parker.

The premise is both basic and complex -- and also completely absurd as The Detour swerves to and fro during the seven of 10 Season One episodes made available for review. Against her will, Nate’s wife, Robin (Harris County, TX native Natalie Zea branching out from her very serious roles in Justified and The Following), agrees to travel by car rather than plane from Syracuse to Fort Lauderdale. That’s 1,400 miles with an estimated driving time of 20 hours. If only.

Along for the ride are fraternal 12-year-old twins Jared and Delilah Parker (Liam Carroll, Ashley Gerasimovich), both of whom are lippy and demanding but not unlikeable. To put it mildly, misadventures ensue, starting with a stop at the Banana Creamery for ice cream. Except that’s not what the Banana Creamery is all about. Jared is more than happy to get an eyeful, though, while Delilah is less than happy about her new circumstance.

Finally back on the road, the kids decide it would be fun to scrawl out a “Help Us. We’ve Been Kidnapped” sign to display in the back passenger window. No good can come of this. But a very good joke does. “Call 911, Jared,” mom commands. “Uh, what’s the number?” he asks.

Episode 2 is fortified by a riotous birds-and-the-bees talk with the kids before a less than comfy night in the hellish Swift Stay Suites. It’s overall the funniest episode of the bunch, with Jones and Zea both very much on top of the material.

Dad’s ulterior motive for hitting the road begins to come clear in Episode 3 via The Detour’s repeated use of flashbacks. Episode 4 explores new vistas in projectile vomiting and defecating after the Parkers dine at the very politically incorrect Conquistadors restaurant. There’s a more prolonged stop in Episodes 5 and 6 before a really big “shit show” breaks loose in the flashback-dominant Episode 7.

The Detour isn’t always in full command of its absurdities, but the killer lines keep coming. As when a voluptuous Russian temptress plying Nate with vodka tells Robin to “go get your beauty sleep. And try to sleep extra long.”

Added to all of this is something of a True Detective -- Season One device in which a full-bearded Nate is grilled by cops determined to get to the bottom of whatever he’s allegedly done wrong. Also injected on occasion is Robin’s drugged out, drunken half-sister Vanessa (Daniella Pineda), who becomes a key ingredient in Nate’s overall plotting and scheming.

The Detour in time may prove to be both too long of a road and too big of a stretch. But as with Angie Tribeca, which premiered in January, it’s further evidence that TBS has abandoned its broadly drawn “traditional” sitcom game plan and replaced it with smarter and more absurdist humor shorn of canned ha-ha’s. As when Episode 3 introduces a “Four Years Ago” flashback segment with the printed description “Shitty Female Music Festival.” That’s some comedy gold right there.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Bravo's Real Housewives of Dallas is long overdue but pretty much interchangeable with all the others


Brandi Redmond (right) sporting her “poop hat.” Bravo photos

Premiering: Monday, April 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on Bravo
Starring: Cary Deuber, Tiffany Hendra, Stephanie Hollman, LeeAnne Locken, Brandi Redmond, Marie Reyes
Produced by: Rich Bye, Andrew Hoegl, Andy Cohen

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Overriding question: What took y’all so long?

Dallas bows to no city when it comes to wretched excess. Or as Bravo publicity materials put it, “the extravagant, over-the-top city of Dallas.”

But since the 2006 premiere of Real Housewives of Orange County, Big D, little a, double l, a-s has been passed over in chronological order by New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Beverly Hills, Miami and “Potomac.” So it took a full decade before the lucrative Real Housewives franchise finally came to its senses and zeroed in on the land of the Ewings. It all comes to pass on Monday, April 11th, when the first of 10 Season One episodes (subtitled “Everything’s Bigger in Dallas”) introduces the nation at large to five central characters and a tacked-on “friend.”

Bravo made the first two hours available for review. And they don’t disappoint if you’re into the series’ trademark blends of hard-partying, drinking at all hours, over-giggling, giddy shopping, gaudy charity galas, marital unrest and choreographed cattiness. Have I missed anything?

The proper mood is set up-top, when two housewives team up off-camera to inform viewers, “Sometimes to move up the ladder, you gotta get down in the dirt. That’s how we do it in Dallas.”

Then come the official introductions. Registered nurse Cary Deuber, who lately assists her latest husband, Mark, in his lucrative plastic surgeon practice, proclaims, “I’m not a trophy wife. I’m a lifetime achievement award.”

Stephanie Hollman, who lives on the Four Seasons golf course with her oft-absent businessman husband Travis, informs viewers, “I’m the girl next door -- if you live in a big ol’ mansion.”

In the first episode, Stephanie spends ample time pounding down “Jesus juice” (white wine) in daytime hours while over-cackling with her best friend, Brandi Redmond, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader whose husband, Bryan, is determined to be a millionaire by the age of 40. In what may be the signature quote of the series, Brandi tells the camera, “We’ll have a little bit too much to drink and we’ll pee in bushes and she (Stephanie) will fart on command and I will dance in her fart.” Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Bravo housewives.

LeeAnne Locken, a self-described “carny girl,” has never been married but yearns to tie the knot with police officer Rich, with whom she’s been living for six years. She’s otherwise deeply devoted -- some might say addicted -- to charity functions. As a longstanding volunteer, it allows her to mingle with the city’s rich movers and shakers. “I get to live a life that most people dream of,” says LeeAnne.

LeeAnne’s best pal is Tiffany Hendra, a former Los Angeles model and TV host who’s returned to her home state with husband Aaron, an Australian with ambitions to be a big-time recording artist. Although it’s tough to pick any real winners here, Tiffany may be the most sympathetic of the lot. But that of course could change very quickly, depending on what the scriptwriters, er, people following their real-life adventures -- might have in mind. At the other end of the teeter totter, the wicked witch is Brandi, who does a mean-spirited impression of LeeAnne while giving vacuous a bad name.


LeeAnne Locken (left) is quite good at looking aghast.

Episode 2, subtitled “Mad As A Hatter,” finds the housewives and their friend, Maria Reyes, prepping for the annual “Mad Hatters” fundraiser at the Arboretum. All the women are supposed to wear wacky headgear at what LeeAnne calls “THE event of the season.”

LeeAnne, a dedicated follower of decorum, says there are rules at such events. And “crossing the wrong people in society gets you crossed off the list.”

Brandi doesn’t seem to care all that much. She’s constructed a “Poop Hat” with the gleeful assistance of Stephanie. It includes fake animal turds and pellets with a centerpiece plastic dog dubbed “Perky Poop A Lot.”

This girl’s thing for poop is somethin’ else. Earlier in the same episode, her two little daughters help to make a chocolate cake for their grandma’s birthday.

“It looks like poop pie,” says Brandi.

“That’s not funny, mommy,” the oldest one tells her to no avail. Because mommy “thought it was friggin’ hilarious.”

At the climactic Mad Hatter Tea & Luncheon, vigilant North Texans might recognize two of the men in attendance. KLUV-FM radio personality Jody Dean, who had some speaking lines as one of the beaus in Bravo’s since canceled Most Eligible Dallas, can be briefly glimpsed standing around. Ron Corning, co-anchor of TEGNA8’s Daybreak newscast, is also without any speaking lines but is fleetingly seen from a couple of angles while eating lunch. It’s not known whether either knew that Brandi had faux doo doo in her bodacious bonnet. But LeeAnne certainly noticed. “Why would you wear sh#* on your head?” she asks the camera before noting that Brandi might as well have walked up to each attendee and said, “Bitch slap, I’m here.”

Brandi and Stephanie later conspire to put one of the bigger fake turds on LeeAnne’s lunch chair. It doesn’t appear that she sat on it, but Stephanie is thoroughly unrepentant. “She (Brandi) brought humor to something that could be boring,” Stephanie reasons. “ So they can all go f*$k themselves.” Pause, one-two. “I shouldn’t have said that” -- with a snort for punctuation.

LeeAnne has vowed to attack when attacked, though. So let’s not worry unduly about her because the claws are gonna come out and Brandi’s also gonna get scratched in due time.

The saving graces of all this are supposed to be the charities benefiting from the money given by the some of the housewives’ menfolk while the housewives themselves put on a show. “I can fart on command,” Stephanie boasts. Still, she’s not completely fulfilled as a mother of two sons with a husband who always seems to be away on business and leaves her with chores to do. These are usually more or less accomplished with Brandi and wine in the mix, whether it’s haplessly trying to install a garage door opener or successfully destroying a little wasp’s nest.

“I feel like Travis’s dream woman would be Betty Draper (of Mad Men),” laments Stephanie, who’s ready for “The Rapture” to take her away from it all. “I’m so OK with that.” Easy now.

So what does this say about Dallas and these women? Nothing, really. Any city on the receiving end of the Housewives franchise can expect to be painted with a very broad, soap operatic brush. It’s all in the editing, and Brandi, Stephanie, LeeAnne, Tiffany and Cary may not be entirely pleased with the way they’re portrayed in these opening episodes. They’re getting paid, though. And the price of admission often requires playing the fool. In that context, Real Housewives of Dallas delivers the goods, the gossip and the usual windfall of ridiculously over-sized moments.

“Everyone knows Lee Anne Locken. She’s like the mayor of Dallas,” Tiffany claims in Monday night’s early minutes.

“They call me the Mouth of the South, and I’m OK with that,” LeeAnne adds.

That’s over-stated in both cases. But all of this is critic-proof, and everyone is free to watch what they choose.

Meanwhile, let me clean the brain pan drippings off my keyboard. And then I’m gonna go pee in the bushes.

GRADE: C-minus

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Netflix's The Ranch gives Kutcher a little more rope


Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson & some cold ones in The Ranch. Netflix photo

Premiering: Currently streaming all 10 episodes from Part 1 of Season 1
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Sam Elliott, Debra Winger, Elisha Cuthbert, Brett Harrison
Produced by: Don Reo, Jim Patterson, Ashton Kutcher, Jane Wiseman, Blair Fetter, Andy Well

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Several weeks after launching Fuller House, Netflix has unveiled another retro-fit, laugh track-spiked sitcom that’s also a homecoming of sorts.

Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson from That ‘70s Show are reunited as siblings in The Ranch, which turned up on April Fool’s Day with the 10 episodes that make up “Part One” of Season 1. It’s a decent vehicle for both of them, with veterans Sam Elliott and Debra Winger also part of the ensemble while Elisha Cuthbert (24, Happy Endings) is prominent in most of the early half-hours.

Kutcher, segueing from the closing seasons of Two and a Half Men, plays prodigal son Colt Bennett, a former hot-shot, small-town high school quarterback who’s now a 34-year-old washout. Returning home to his family’s up-against-it Colorado ranch in search of a tryout with a nearby semi-pro team, Colt again gets clotheslined by his cantankerous, conservative father, Beau (Elliott). The old man has no use for either modernity or his youngest son’s layabout wayward ways. So the laugh track howls in Episode 2 when Beau asks his other son, Rooster (Masterson), “What the (bleep) is Netflix?”

Beau and Maggie Bennett (Winger) remain married but live apart. She divides her time between Maggie’s bar, which she owns, and a trailer home that Beau occasionally frequents for carnal purposes. Otherwise he’s a humorless plow horse who works from sunup to sundown while hoping that rain will fall for the first time in a year. Not that the prolonged drought is in any way the fault of humankind. “Global warning’s a bunch of crap Al Gore made up to sell books to Californians,” Beau barks.

Elliott, still affixed with a croissant-sized mustache, hasn’t had this much to do on-screen in years. But he’s somewhat surprisingly up to this task, particularly during a very reluctant trip to the doctor’s office in Episode 3 after he throws out his back. Beau’s prototypical gruffness is amusing in measured doses while outwardly cocksure Colt and deadpan Rooster also fare well as bantering brothers who specialize in sex talk between guzzles of bottled beer and straight whiskey.

Winger’s appealing Maggie is the calming influence, standing up for both of her sons while sometimes trying to drag her husband kicking and grousing into at least the 19th century. “Beau, what’s wrong?” she asks in Episode 3 after he gingerly walks into her bar. “You’re acting like you have an actual stick up your ass.”

Cuthbert joins in as Colt’s former high school sweetheart, Abby, who’s now in love (or so she keeps saying) with a square Marriott hotel manager named Kenny (Bret Harrison). The scenes with Colt and Abby play naturally rather than broadly.

Another familiar TV face, Ethan Suplee from My Name Is Earl, also stops by as town cop Billy, still known as “Beer Pong” by Colt and Rooster. Through the first four episodes, which are lightly sprinkled with f-bombs, The Ranch establishes itself as an easily imbibed, down-home diversion replete with rough edges and mini-lessons to live by. Some of the jokes are juvenile and some of situations are pat. Still, this is by and large a pleasant surprise that advances the ball just a bit further for Kutcher. He’s not yet a mature actor or character. But Colt is fairly far removed from both brainless Michael Kelso on That ‘70s Show and Kutcher’s dumb and dumber character in 2000’s Dude, Where’s My Car?.

The Ranch is hardly populated by mental giants, at least among its male characters. Still, Kutcher in particular is growing into more nuanced roles that someday might even make him something of a “serious” actor. Perhaps he’d like that.


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