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ABC's The Assets: the Cold War served less than lukewarm


Paul Rhys as a cloak and dagger turncoat in The Assets. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Paul Rhys, Jodie Whittaker, Harriet Walter, Stuart Milligan, Julian Ovenden, Christina Cole, Ralph Brown
Produced by: Morgan Hertzan, Rudy Bednar, Andrew Chapman

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You can cut the tension with a Popsicle stick in The Assets, a Cold War era drama so inferior to FX’s The Americans that it should have been deported before landing on ABC.

Riveting it’s not. Murky, plodding and pedestrian it is. Premiering Thursday at 9 p.m. (central), the eight-part series is filling in for Scandal, which isn’t scheduled to return until Feb. 27th. That will seem like an eternity.

Set in 1985, The Assets is drawn from a book with an elongated title -- Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed.

Paul Rhys (Borgia and no relation to Americans star Matthew Rhys) plays the duplicitous Ames, known to his CIA colleagues as “Rick.” Principal among them is Sandy Grimes (Jodie Whittaker), a married mother of two daughters who may well be the blandest leading lady in the history of ABC drama series.

Her incredibly understanding husband, Gary (Julian Ovenden), is no help at all in the first two episodes made available for review. Those hard-hitting domestic dynamics of The Americans are nowhere to be found in The Assets.

Gary knows what his wife does for a living but she can’t talk about it. Unfortunately he talks instead, often gratingly so. Episode 1 includes this groaner after Sandy admits to being vexed and perplexed by some troubling developments at the old workplace.

“Whatever it is, you’ll beat it,” hubby assures her. Furthermore, “Everyone in the family knows why you do what you do. But do you know why you do it? Because you are a warrior. Protecting your country. You do it for us. To keep us safe.”

Briefly bucked up, Sandy crumples a pack of cigarettes she’s been tempted to smoke. By the end of Episode 1, she’s merrily making breakfast for the whole family.

Throughout The Assets, the drama is either underwhelming or over-acted. As when a uniformed Soviet KGB official almost comically screams at a captive: “We are both spies! And I caught you spying!” In Episode 2, an elderly would-be Soviet defector is no less hammy.

Agent Sandy’s wizened mentor is Art O’Neil (Stuart Milligan), who errs on the side of cardboard dialogue by telling her, “You have got to compartmentalize.”

“I don’t know if I can do that,” Sandy replies, “I don’t know if I’m that person.”

“Well, if you can’t, this job’ll tear you apart,” he says. Oh gawd.

Aldrich/Rick weaves his way in and out, generating overall boredom instead of electricity. The Assets just can’t get untracked, lumbering through its first two hours without any sense of purpose, style or urgency. As the first new drama series of the new season, its only clear intent seems to be providing ABC stations with some really lousy lead-ins for their late night local newscasts.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Season finale

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The true meaning of Christmas is up to each of us. Here’s one that’s stood the test of time. “O Holy Night” vocal by Josh Groban. Video from the movie The Nativity Story. Still works for me. Merry merry!

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 11

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Budweiser has the Clydesdales but Miller High Life needed just a single horse-drawn sleigh for this homey holiday “Christmas card,” circa 1981.

It’s done -- and beautifully so -- to the tune of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 10

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Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon test out new Christmas toys -- before Johnny gets a little testy with a balky one -- in this Tonight Show blast from the past. Accent on blast.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 9

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The Moonlighting Christmas episode, subtitled “ ’Twas the Episode Before Christmas,” originally aired on Dec. 17, 1985.

This sequence, which may have inspired the Marv and Harry poundings on Home Alone, finds Maddie Hayes (Cybil Shepherd) and David Addison (Bruce Willis) flinging Christmas toys at two hapless hit men. One of them is played by future Law & Order: SVU co-star Richard Belzer.

Willis enters the scene dressed as Santa Claus. Landing head first after descending through a chimney, he somehow got this brilliant double entendre past ABC’s censors: “That is the last time I jam myself into a tight hole with clothes on.”

Also enjoy his little Three Stooges-style parting shot. Moonlighting was ahead of its time and escorted the previously unknown Willis toward feature film stardom. But in some ways he never had it this good.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 8

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Ricky Nelson, at the height of his heartthrob-iness, very nicely sings “The Christmas Song” to his wife Kristin, brother Dave and their real-life kids. Then Ozzie and Harriet pop in at the end to wish everyone a merry Christmas.

Nelson died on New Year’s Eve, 1985, when his private plane crashed en route to a New Year’s Eve performance in Dallas. He was only 45, but it seemed as though he’d been in TV homes forever via the long-running Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 7

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Readers of a certain vintage -- or younger, latter day devotees of retro TV -- will remember Elinor Donahue as oldest daughter Betty “Princess” Anderson on Father Knows Best.

But she also played Sheriff Andy Taylor’s first girlfriend, pharmacist Ellie Walker, on Season One of The Andy Griffith Show.

The below video is from the “Christmas Story” episode, first telecast on Dec. 19, 1960. A uniformed Andy strums his guitar and then joins Ellie in singing “Away In A Manger.” It’s all very homey and simple. And it’s still quite affecting, too.

The latest curious list of Television Hall of Fame inductees

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The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced its new batch of Hall of Fame inductees Monday.

At least two of the six additions, bringing the total to 155, beg the question of a notable omission.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been voted in, but Jerry Seinfeld has yet to be enshrined. And Jay Leno will be a new member while David Letterman is still waiting for a call.

This is the same body that annually awards the Emmys. Its TV Hall of Fame dates to 1984, when the first to be named were Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Lear,Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley and David Sarnoff.

No list is perfect. And it’s not Leno’s or Louis-Dreyfus’ fault that they were voted in this week along with producer David E. Kelley, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former ABC entertainment president Brandon Stoddard and sound pioneer Ray Dolby.

Still, one wonders about a TV Hall of Fame that also has yet to enshrine Laugh-In creator George Schlatter (recently honored with the Kovacs Award at the Dallas Video Fest); Larry Hagman, Peter Falk, James Arness, Hugh Downs, Julia Child, Raymond Burr, Ken Burns, Don Knotts, Tom Selleck, Pat Summerall and John Madden (even though Al Michaels was inducted in March of this year).

It’s true that Louis-Dreyfus has starred in two other successful TV series after Seinfeld. And she’s won a total of four acting Emmys for her roles in Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine and the current Veep on HBO. So one could make a strong case for her while also wondering how Jerry Seinfeld didn’t get in before her and why Edie Falco (four Emmys for The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie) might not be equally deserving.

Leno’s induction, ahead of Letterman’s, is simply preposterous. I’m not sure how it could be argued otherwise, even though I’m a Leno supporter who thinks he’s again being prematurely evicted from The Tonight Show despite still ranking No. 1 in the late night ratings.

The complete list of TV Hall of Fame honorees can be found here. Maybe you’ll find other notable omissions.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 6

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What would Christmas be without a fresh carton of cancer sticks from a friendly gift giver or two?

This cheery 1964 holiday spot for Viceroys -- complete with jingle -- easily could have been designed by the smoke-blowing creative team of Mad Men. “Not too strong, not too light. Viceroy’s got the taste that’s right.”

Especially after a long, tiring day of Christmas shopping. And under the tree on Christmas Day. Yikes.

There's much to like about Psych: The Musical


Psych stars Dule Hill, James Roday break out in song. USA photo

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Dramas such as Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy are so gritty, way too gritty to pull off a song-and-dance episode.

Not so Psych, the light-on-its-feet crime show now in its seventh season on the USA network. So here comes Psych: The Musical (Sunday, Dec. 15th at 8 p.m. central), a nicely done two-hour whodunit whose signature song is “Under Santa Barbara Skies.”

That’s still the crime-solving locale for Shawn Spencer (James Roday) and his oft-flustered reluctant partner Burton “Gus” Guster (Dule Hill). This time they’re on the scent of a seemingly bent playwright (guest star Anthony Rapp from Rent) who’s busted out of the Willowbrooke Psychiatric Hospital. Seven years earlier, he wrote Ripper as a local stage production that never got off the ground. But is he now bitter enough to commit murder?

More or less assisting in the manhunt is “Mr. Yang,” a recurring, incarcerated serial killer again played to terrific effect by Ally Sheedy. She also gets to sing during the course of a madcap pursuit that isn’t required to make much sense. Yang may or may not know the identity of the killer. And perhaps she’s an accomplice. Whatever the case, Shawn had better treat her with the proper respect. Or as Yang sees it, “If you’re going to accuse me, at least have the courtesy to sing it.”

Series regulars Timothy Omundson and Maggie Lawson, as detectives “Lassie” Lassiter and “Jules” O’Hara, also lend their modest musical talents to these proceedings. But Roday’s Shawn is the majority singer, leading the way through a buoyant opening number and later sitting down at a piano to warble, “When you’re making up a song, the words you improvise are never wrong.” All of the songs were written by composer Adam Cohen, according to USA publicity materials.

The episode also accommodates guest star Barry Bostwick as a seemingly suspicious theater owner. Surprisingly, though, Bostwick never uses his singing voice despite a Broadway musical background in productions ranging from Grease to The Robber Bridegroom, for which he won a Tony Award.

The second hour of Sunday’s Pysch’s musical ends up being a little too short on both song and dance. Still, this is a likable and ambitious effort that ends with a neat little showcase number from Hill’s Gus. Applause, applause.


Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 5

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The Dallas Cowboys, circa 1980s, toughed out “The 12 Days of Christmas” in Episode 2 this week. Now comes a much more recent Dallas Mavericks team -- the one that still had Chris Kaman -- with a unique version of “Sleigh Ride.”

Kaman is joined by Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, a surprisingly loose coach Rick Carlisle and others. It’s still very amusing, with the Big German’s exuberance again making up for his voice while Carlisle offers some bonus dance moves.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 4

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Oh what fun it is to watch the new, extended “White Christmas Blues” couch setup for The Simpsons. The holiday colors jump off the screen And there’s so much to see that you’ll want to watch it more than once.

The episode premieres this Sunday, Dec. 15th, on Fox.

Latest list of Golden Globe TV nominees again out-classes Screen Actors Guild choices

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Since when did the much-ridiculed Hollywood Foreign Press Association become savvier and more forward-looking with their TV nominations than the comparatively sainted Screen Actors Guild?

This has been going on for a few years actually. And it was underscored again this week when the HFPA announced its Golden Globe finalists and SAG came up with its latest groupings.

Let’s first note that SAG entirely omitted Season 1 of Showtime’s Homeland from its 2011 roster of nominees. In contrast, the series won the Globe as best TV drama in that otherwise universally acclaimed first season while co-star Claire Danes also was honored in the best actress category.

The latest batch of Golden Globe nominees, released Thursday morning, includes recognition for Showtime’s Masters of Sex and Ray Donovan; Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black; BBC America’s Orphan Black, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine Nine and Starz’s Dancing on the Edge. None of these generally praised new series is in the SAG mix. Unfortunately, FX can’t seem to break through with either organization. This time around there’s no recognition at all for The Americans.

Here’s another telling disparity in the two lists. Rob Lowe was nominated by each body. But the Golden Globes nod is for his delicious performance as a plastic surgeon in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra while SAG has recognized Lowe for his rather robotic John F. Kennedy in National Geographic Channel’s recent Killing Kennedy.

NBC’s 30 Rock, already drenched with wins and nominations from numerous awards-givers, received three SAG nominations for its final season. Globe voters decided enough was enough and skunked 30 Rock this year. It’s not that the series isn’t deserving. It’s just that other, newer comedies deserve a shot, too.

Both bodies nominated Netflix’s House of Cards. But SAG’s voting body inexplicably left the series off its list of finalists for “Outstanding Performance By An Ensemble in a Drama Series.” Instead, series star Kevin Spacey is included among the best actor nominees.

The Globes showered House of Cards with a best drama series nomination and acting nods for Spacey, Robin Wright and the very deserving Corey Stoll in a supporting category. The likewise under-recognized Tatiana Maslany also has a Globe nomination for her breakout multi-character role in Orphan Black.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association remains a smallish, secretive organization whose members “would cross the Alps for a (free) hot dog,” an anonymous studio executive once famously said. But their TV nominations are several cuts above the Screen Actors Guild’s. And that no longer should be a surprise.

The complete Golden Globe list of nominees is here. And SAG’s is here.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

"Event" fever: it's going to be an epidemic after success of Sound of Music Live


Stephen Moyer, Carrie Underwood emote in The Sound of Music Live. NBC photo

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“Event” programming, once epitomized by elongated miniseries such as Shogun and The Winds of War, is getting a second wind on the Big Four broadcast networks.

These wheels were already in motion before NBC’s The Sound of Music Live went dough re mi in the national Nielsen ratings with 18.6 million viewers. NBC, which will repeat Sound of Music this Saturday (Dec. 14th), is now “circling a couple of titles” in preparation for another holiday presentation of a Broadway musical classic, according to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times.

Quickly on those heels, the Peacock announced Wednesday that it will air a four-hour Rosemary’s Baby miniseries, with a cast soon to be announced for a January production start in Paris. Earlier this year, NBC snagged the sequel to History channel’s 10-hour The Bible, which like Hatfields & McCoys was a ratings smash for the advertiser-supported cable network.

NBC’s followup will be titled A.D.: The Bible. During the glory years of multi-part network miniseries, NBC aired the 12-hour A.D. in 1985. Its star-driven cast included Ava Gardner, James Mason, Susan Sarandon, John Houseman and Anthony Andrews.

Fox also is event-minded of late, with M. Night Shyamalan’s eight-hour “intense mind-bending thriller,” Wayward Pines, due next year. The network additionally has 24: Live Another Day coming this summer at a two-for-one length of 12 hours.

The 24 “Event” presentation is an answer to CBS’ major success last summer with Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s getting a second season in summer 2014 along with CBS’ new hot weather companion “Event,” the 13-hour Extant. The producer is Steven Spielberg and the star is Halle Berry in what CBS bills as a “futuristic thriller about a female astronaut trying to reconnect with her family when she returns after a year in outer space.”

ABC has been slower on the “Event” draw so far, but expect some announcements soon. This is, after all, the network that pioneered the miniseries genre with mega-hits such as Rich Man, Poor Man, Roots, The Thorn Birds and the aforementioned Winds, a mega-expensive 18-hour production that led to the even longer War and Remembrance.

Those lengths are still very much in the past. But in times of Twitter, Facebook, Netflix and myriad conventional TV channel choices, it’s increasingly vital to stand out in a crowd while also getting those crowds buzzing.

Sound of Music triggered the expected snark-fest on Twitter, with star Carrie Underwood absorbing much of the punishment for her less than sparkling acting skills. But Underwood gave the production its needed star power. And whatever was said about her, people were “engaged.”

“Social media played a pivotal role in the success of the show,” Sound of Music co-executive producer Craig Zadan told The Times. Twitter and Facebook traffic “lasted the entire performance and beyond,” he said.

Live productions are rich in social media appeal, whether it’s NBC’s risk-taking presentation of Sound of Music, NFL/college football, awards shows or talent competition series such as NBC’s The Voice, Fox’s American Idol or ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.

Real-time sniping can be brutal, but the end result is often far prettier. In NBC’s case, Sound of Music was its most-watched non-sports program on a Thursday night since May 13, 2004, when Frasier had its series finale.

Underwood’s feelings may have been bruised in the process. “Plain and simple: Mean people need Jesus. They will be in my prayers tonight,” she tweeted.

But hey, the Peacock is crowing thrice -- and no doubt will give Underwood a big role in A.D.: The Bible if she wants one. Snark the herald angels sing. Hallelujah.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 3

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The Waltons had many a Christmas-themed episode and a movie or two, too. Things didn’t always go according to plan, though. Here’s a nicely rendered holiday blooper, courtesy of Richard Thomas as “John Boy” Walton.

Rodeo Girls gets A&E's best mount -- a post-Duck Dynasty premiere


Hot to trot: The rough ’n’ ready stars of Rodeo Girls. A&E photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Dec. 11th at 10 p.m. (central) with another new episode on Thursday at 9 p.m.
Starring: Darcy LaPier, Marvel Murphy, Barb West, Megan Etcheberry, Jessica Holmberg, Sadie Sullivan, Ty Murphy, Anthony Lucia
Produced by: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster, Patrick Reardon, Barbara Schneeweiss, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, Nina L. Diaz, Sara Mast, Darcy LaPier, Roe Baker

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The horse flesh is willing, but those babes on board have other agendas, too.

Coltish Jessica Holmberg, a barrel racing co-star of A&E’s Rodeo Girls, takes aim at man-roping rival Megan Etcheberry in the premiere episode’s array of opening teases.

“It’s a good thing she’s on that boat,” says Jessica while Megan displays her wares. “Otherwise I’d push her in the water three times and only pull that bitch up twice.”

She very likely was given that line. Your basic “real-life” TV series is as plot- and script-driven as any fictional comedy or drama. And A&E has big plans for this one, scheduling the first hour after a new Ducky Dynasty Christmas episode Wednesday before Rodeo Girls moves to its regular Thursday slot. Season 1 will have six episodes.

“Pretty tough” is the network’s tagline. The review DVD sent to critics came encased in a publicity packet with a cover shot of a galloping barrel racer in a bikini top. “It all comes down to who has the most balls -- or large ovaries,” according to an off-camera come-on from one of the five featured attractions.

It’d be a shock if this didn’t work. Rodeo Girls has beauty, magnificent high-speed beasts, cat-fighting rivalries and recurring campfire flirtations spurred by a pair of young buck cowboys. It also looks pretty good because The Weinstein Company knows how to put on a show and doesn’t scrimp on production values.

Jessica and Megan, both new to the pro barrel racing circuit, are the resident nubile knockouts best suited to future pages of Maxim magazine if they haven’t been there already. But the show’s standout poser is well-heeled Darcy “No Fear” LaPier, of whom Jessica says charitably, “I’m half her age and twice as hot.”

Affixed with bloated Lisa Rinna lips and other face-stretching adjustments, the 48-year-old Darcy is both a co-executive producer of Rodeo Girls and the ex-wife of actor Jean-Claude Van Damme.

“We were like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” she says of their short-lived marriage. Now there’s a grandiose statement for ya.

Now a veteran of five marriages to well-heeled men, Darcy blows into Rodeo Girls with a new $200,000 horse named Dash. This is supposed to make her the barrel racer to beat as well as the target of sniping from other competitors.

Meanwhile, Darcy play-acts at going out on her first date since the death of her fourth hubby, Herbalife founder Mark Hughes. Problem is, he died back in 2000 and she’s already put another marriage behind her after splitting with Seven Dees Nursery founder Brian Snodgrass. But let’s not let that get in the way of our story, during which horn dog cowpoke Anthony Lucia tells Darcy over dinner and drinks, ”I live life. I drink beer. I love God. I love what I do.”

He’s put off his feed, though, upon learning that Darcy has three children -- aged 22, 17 and 9 -- from all those previous hookups. So it’s time to make a play for Jessica, who laments to him, “I got cheated on” by a former live-in boyfriend. By the end of the episode, ”I’ve never felt so all alone,” Darcy tells the camera.

The other featured players are Barb “Wicked” West, an appealing former champ who’s been off the circuit for two years, and “hot mess” Marvel Murphy, who’s “got a wild streak in her,” according to her on-the-prowl cowboy cousin, Ty Murphy. The comparatively plain-faced Sadie Sullivan has a lesser sidekick role to play as Barb’s wrangler and best friend. For now she mostly laughs a lot.

Actual barrel racing intercedes in the closing minutes of Wednesday’s first episode, with the competition originating from Scottsdale, Arizona’s Parada Del Sol rodeo. Not to give anything away, but all of the principals apparently still have lots of work to do.

Rodeo Girls so far has stopped short of giving its stars and their story lines enough rope to hang themselves. Instead It manages to jingle jangle jingle its way toward an overall entertaining first hour of animal desires occasionally played out on horseback.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 2

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Still trying to shake off that lopsided Dallas Cowboys loss to the Bears on Monday Night Football?

Come in from the cold and chill out with this very special rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” from a 1980s Cowboys team featuring the song stylings of Danny White, Tony Dorsett, Tony Hill, Bill Bates, Rafael Septien, Everson Walls and others.

Its centerpiece is Tom Landry, who very gamely shakes his head and keeps playing along with the punch line refrain -- “And a new hat for Coach Landry.” Wait’ll you see him wearing -- well, you’ll see.

Whoops, toward the end, the hard-hitting Bates sings his heart out for “four concussions.” Back then they just didn’t know any better.

Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 1

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It’s become an annual holiday Christmas tradition. Well, OK, probably not.

But Uncle Barky again is in search of a dozen unique “Countdown to Christmas” videos down the homestretch to however you celebrate on Dec. 25th.

We begin with the lilting song stylings of Mandy Patkinkin, best known lately for his portrayal of heavily bearded CIA svengali Saul Berenson on Showtime’s Homeland, which will have its Season 3 finale on Sunday, Dec. 15th.

Patinkin also is a veteran Broadway musical star. And back in 1989, he performed a medley of “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” on the Today show. Clean-shaven and accompanied on piano, he does a nice version of White Christmas before rather unfortunately shifting to “Jingle Bells” at the 1:48 mark. It ends up being the ding dong-iest version I’ve ever heard.

Oh Mandy.

The Improv turns 50: cue the Epix network anniversary special


The Wayans brothers laugh it up with The Improv. Epix photo

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Synonymous with standup comedy, The Improv has turned 50 this year.

This of course requires an anniversary special. Rim shot, please.

Home base for The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall, is the premium pay network Epix, where the 60-minute film premieres on Friday, Dec. 6th at 9 p.m. (central). Don’t look for lots of laughs, But as a clip-enriched museum piece accompanied by new interviews with a wealth of famous comics, Behind the Brick Wall is better than your average “guy walks into a bar” joke.

Adam Sandler narrates, but is given little to say about “the very first comedy club.” The Improv opened in 1963 as a coffee house where Broadway show people could gather and feel at home. It quickly evolved into a venue for impromptu performance, with many future comedy stars learning how to bomb and excel against what became the Improv’s trademark faux brick backdrop.

Budd Friedman and Silver Saunders, who became his wife and then ex-wife, co-founded New York’s Improv. When a Hollywood Improv opened in 1975, Friedman headed West while Saunders was left in charge of the now defunct original. At present count, there are 25 Improv offshoots in addition to the one still standing at 8162 Melrose Avenue.

All of the reminiscing comics in Behind the Brick Wall are veterans of Improv bumps, bruises and bright spots. Jay Leno goes back the furthest -- to 1969.

“I used to sleep in the alley around the corner” in order to get a place near the front of the line, Leno recalls. He learned that comedy wasn’t pretty on a night when a prostitute serviced a client within a few feet of him. Or at least that’s the “low point” story that Leno still tells.

The other participants are Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Bill Maher, Judd Apatow, Kathy Griffin, Larry David, Richard Lewis, Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Fallon, Russell Brand, Lewis Black and Keenen Ivory, Damon, Marlon and Shawn Wayans. Friedman himself and his latter day business partner, Mark Lonow, also pitch in.

Some of this is boiler plate. Several comedians talk about what a “family” it used to be among striving Improv regulars. Other times it’s more fun, with David and Lewis jabbing at each other, and Seinfeld surprising Fallon, who still has his first $8.25 check from The Improv (and the visual to prove it).

Some of the clips are important for their mere existence. A vintage Richard Pryor is shown in grainy black-and-white. Andy Kaufman comes onstage and simply eats ice cream. A cheap little comedy film made by Improv up-and-comers includes Romano and Louis C.K. And blips from Apatow’s act show why he wasn’t a very good standup comic before getting the last laugh as the director and/or producer of hits such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin was inspired by me not getting laid at The Improv and watching other people get laid,” Apatow says.

All bow to the late, great Rodney Dangerfield, who “was like the Pope,” Lewis says.

Lewis, Seinfeld and Leno now are Improv elders. This allows Seinfeld to be something of a scold. There’s a simple reason why “giant” comedy stars are few and far between these days, he says. “They don’t put the work in.”

The Improv, now grandly billed as “America’s Original Comedy Showcase!”, remains both a training center and re-proving ground for those still willing to write day and night in hopes of someday hitting it big or keeping their fastballs up to speed. Epix’s Behind the Brick Wall may be an Improv infomercial in no small part. But its historical import can’t be denied. And there may still be plenty more where that came from.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Parker and Barrow ride again (on three networks) in Bonnie & Clyde minseries


Posers: Emile Hirsch, Holliday Grainger as Bonnie and Clyde. A&E photo

Premiering: Sunday, Dec. 8th and concluding Dec. 9th at 8 p.m. (central) on Lifetime, A&E and History networks
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Holliday Grainger, William Hurt, Holly Hunter, Sarah Hyland, Lane Garrison, Elizabeth Reaser, Austin Hebert, Dale Dickey
Produced by: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron

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NBC remade Casablanca into a weekly 1983 series starring David Soul. In that context, reprising the story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker is barely a hand-slap misdemeanor.

Besides, it’s been done before. The landmark 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, ranked 27th on the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies, came a decade after 1957’s The Bonnie Parker Story (“Cigar Smoking Hellcat of the Roaring Thirties”). And in 1992 Fox followed up on the famed Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway version with Bonnie and Clyde: The True Story, starring Dana Ashbrook and Tracey Needham. It wasn’t very good.

Now it’s three networks’ turn -- and at twice the length. Bonnie & Clyde, being simulcast Sunday and Monday nights on Lifetime, A&E and History, is four hours worth of factual and fabricated history. But its predecessors also played around with the “real truth,” which has been highly elusive ever since the title characters met their ends on May 23, 1934.

Bonnie & Clyde is directed by the still well-regarded Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy). And its producers are Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose credits range from TV’s Smash and Life with Judy Garland to the big screen’s Chicago and The Bucket List.

They’ve combined forces to portray Bonnie Parker (Holliday Grainger) as a vainglorious instigator and Clyde Barrow (Emile Hirsch) as the man she both loved and manipulated. Ergo, the official publicity tag for this capably made miniseries is “He Held the Gun. She Called the Shots.”

Bonnie & Clyde begins at the end -- which is the usual approach in contemporary docudramas. “I’ve always loved you, Bonnie,” says Clyde before their last roadster is riddled with dozens if not hundreds of bullets. Soon comes the narrative flashback, which in this case goes quite a ways back. Clyde was a sickly little boy who almost died from a fever at age 9. His older brother Buck (played as an adult by Lane Garrison) is the architect of their early crimes, beginning with chicken-stealing. But momma Cummie Barrow (Dale Dickey) has faith in her youngest son’s basic goodness. “You ain’t just smart. You got a good heart,” she tells Clyde. Hey, Gummie made a rhyme.

Publicity materials say that Clyde was “rumored to have the power of second sight to see events before they really happened.” Some flimsy newspaper accounts from those times speculated on such powers. But Bonnie & Clyde takes them to the bank, repeatedly infusing these proceedings with ominous flash-forwards while also enabling Clyde to see Bonnie loping toward him in a shimmering white dress well before they hook up. It does make for some purdy images.

The young gun stars of Bonnie & Clyde, which also include Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland as Buck’s dipsy bride Blanche, are aided by two ring-wise vets with Oscars under their belts. Holly Hunter doesn’t make all that much of an impression as Bonnie’s doting mother, Emma. But William Hurt instantly resonates as flinty, retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who’s taken down a lot of bad guys in his day and is rejuvenated by the challenge of catching Bonnie and Clyde.

Hurt’s Hamer, who comes to the fore in Monday’s Part 2, has a way with words and glowers. Nothing’s more gratifying, he tells fellow lawman Ted Hinton (Austin Hebert), than putting bullets in the heads of those who deserve ‘em. He also enjoys upbraiding “Fort Worth Herald” reporter P.J. Lane (Elizabeth Reaser), who’s made a name for herself by glamorizing the bank-robbing exploits of Bonnie and Clyde during the Depression era.

Perhaps informants would be more willing to step forward if Lane hadn’t turned her subjects into “Garbo and Gable,” Hamer growls before producing a warrant requiring her to turn over some publicity photos sent directly her way by Bonnie and Clyde.

390px-BonnieStoryPoster1957 images

The Beatty/Dunaway Bonnie and Clyde strongly implied that he fired blanks in the bedroom. In this remake, Bonnie wears the pants when it comes to egging Clyde on to bigger and better-publicized robberies, a number of which occurred in Texas. But Clyde is no slouch in the sack, even after being raped by a male inmate and then viciously beaten by guards during his incarceration in a very down and dirty Texas prison.

Bonnie & Clyde does not scrimp on violence. Nor, in the end, does it lionize the perpetrators. The demythologizing takes firm root after a husband and father of three children is murdered on Christmas Day by the Barrow/Parker gang. Even reporter Lane is aghast, fretting about “aiding and abetting” their crimes with her gilded accounts. But her wizened editor has a simple solution: “Turn it. Bonnie and Clyde are the bad guys. Make ‘em the bad guys.”

Grainger’s willful Bonnie, invariably in full makeup and resembling a younger Drew Barrymore, gets the better of co-star Hirsch in terms of selling her character.

Her dragon lady cred begins kicking in near the start of Part 2, when she lobbies for showier exploits. After all, she’s always wanted to be a star, at least for the purposes of this re-telling.

“If we pull big guns on people, they’re gonna do exactly what we tell ‘em, to,” Bonnie reasons.

Clyde retorts that “it’s all up to me. I make the decisions.”

OK, she says. “Just a thought. Sorry I had one.” He laughs agreeably, and in the next scene they’re amassing bigger guns. But in the end, are we to believe that Clyde had a death wish for the both of them -- and acted on it?

Although it’s now the heart of TV’s fluff-filled Christmas season, this is all likely to play quite well in terms of ratings success for Lifetime, A&E and History. The latter network scored big last year with its Hatfields & McCoys miniseries. And the combined audience for Bonnie & Clyde may well approach the average of nearly 14 million viewers for the three-part H&McC.

Part 2 of Bonnie & Clyde, with its blood-soaked death scene played out at full length, almost assuredly will be the bigger draw. Better yet, Hurt becomes an equal partner in the proceedings. Or to put it another way, his standout take-no-prisoners performance reduces the younger cast members to comparative kids in a playpen. Hirsch and particularly Grainger are gamers, though, even if they’re not in the same league.

The Beatty/Dunaway pairing remains enshrined, of course. Still, this elongated version makes its own mark, although certainly not an indelible one. To which Bonnie supposedly would say, “More, more!” And surely there will be.


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TNT's Mob City is disappointingly deadened


Jon Bernthal, formerly of The Walking Dead, heads cast of Mob City. TNT photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Dec. 4th at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Neal McDonough, Ed Burns, Jeremy Luke, Alexa Davalos, Milo Ventimiglia, Robert Knepper, Jeffrey DeMunn
Produced by: Frank Darabont, Michael De Luca, Elliiot Webb, Alissa Phillips, Dane Renee Ashmore

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Painfully striving to be a new form of L.A. Confidential with film noir sprinkles, TNT’s “EAGERLY ANTICIPATED THREE-WEEK TELEVISION EVENT” is looking like another so-so outing from the “We Know Drama” network.

That’s damned disappointing, because Mob City is ramrodded by Frank Darabont, show runner for the first season of AMC’s The Walking Dead before that network ran him off.

Darabont also directed feature films such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, further raising expectations for Mob City. But based on its first two hours (the last four will air on Dec. 11th and 18th), this is shaping up as a languorously paced, at times ridiculously pretentious tale drawn from an acclaimed 2009 book with the elongated title of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City..

Darabont has recruited former Walking Dead co-star Jon Bernthal to play his leading man, brooding L.A. detective Joe Teague, circa 1947. We first get an extensive earful of his narrative voice during a table-setting look at young gun mobsters Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Sid Rothman on the nighttime streets of 1925 New York City. (Which very much look like what they actually are -- the Warner Bros. back lot.)

Siegel, Lansky and Rothman eventually spray a ridiculous amount of automatic weapons fire on their enemies. Reload? Not when you’re brandishing machine guns with apparent 1,000 bullet capacities during the Prohibition Era.

Anyway, Teague eventually lets it be known that good and evil are not always black and white. “I live in a world of gray hats,” he says near the end of his voice-over.

Mob City is violent in fits and spurts. But it’s mostly very talky. Particularly when a small-timer named Hecky Nash (guest star Simon Pegg) propositions Teague at Bunny’s Jungle Club, whose bartender is a knockout gorgeous black woman who speaks in almost laughably sultry tones. Hubba hubba.

Hecky has some incriminating negatives and a blackmail scheme in mind. And if Teague will provide a little backup, there’s a sweet little $1 grand in it for him. They eventually get around to making a deal and meeting a pair of thugs in a forebodingly remote location. No hurry, though. Hecky is prone to soliloquies, such as this one: “This city. So damned beautiful. It’s like a sky full of stars. But only from a distance. Up close? It’s all gutter.”

Let’s just say that bad things eventually get around to happening. But we won’t say how.

Hour 2. likewise pokily paced, introduces tough-talking, beauteous Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos). She pumps some life into these proceedings while being grilled by a caucus of cops headed by police chief William Parker (Neal McDonough), also known derogatorily as “Bill the Boy Scout.” He’s fixated on taking down L.A. crime boss Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke), a squat, unrefined counterpoint to the suaver, handsomer Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (Ed Burns).

Parker turns out to be point man for one of Mob City’s more labored exchanges.

“Last night we expected a soft pitch and somehow it turned into a fastball that got by us,” he deduces. “We suffered a huge loss.”

“Just an inning, not the ballgame,” retorts mob task force head Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn).

“It’s never the game,” says Parker. “If I thought that, I’d hang up my badge.”

Please do.

Mob City’s’s best menacing presence is reliable Robert Knepper (Prison Break) as the grown-up and very unsavory Sid Rothman. He talks in a snarl, even when masquerading as a priest hearing confession. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of his penance. But it’d be nice to be on the receiving end of more scenes from him.

Bernthal’s detective Teague never really catches fire in these first two hours, although his motives for doing what he does slog their way towards moderate interest.

All in all, though, Darabount is oddly intent on over-loading Mob City with off-camera narration, on-camera verbosity, bluesy horns, torch singing and puddle-soaked nighttime L.A. streets -- even though it never rains. I guess this is supposed to make the after-dark scenes pop, but it’s a tired device that should be retired along with two other TV and movie staples -- unwrapped gifts and barely filled cups of coffee.

Disciples of Darabont may still kneel at this altar. But in reality, Mob City at best is barely above average drama from a guy who presumably is still capable of far better. Boardwalk Empire it’s not. Not by a long shot -- or even a rat-a-tat-tat.


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TV Land again primes the old school sitcom pump, this time with Kirstie Alley's Kirstie

Kirsite Holiday Photo

Reindeer PJs shtick for the Christmas episode of Kirstie. TV Land photo

Premiering: Wed., Dec. 4th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on TV Land
Starring: Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman, Michael Richards, Eric Petersen
Produced by: Kirstie Alley, Marco Pennette, Jason Weinberg

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The three name-brand stars of TV Land’s latest loudly decorated, throwback sitcom have a collective nine acting Emmys.

Kirstie Alley (2), Michael Richards (3) and Rhea Perlman (4) are in no danger of upping those totals with Kirstie. But they do face the prospect of long-term employment on a network that renews most of what it recycles. Led by Hot In Cleveland, the network also is home to multi-season comedies such as The Exes and The Soul Man.

Alley, who came to fame as bar manager Rebecca Howe in Cheers, is rejoined by co-star Rhea Perlman, who played tart barmaid Carla Tortelli. For their second time around, Alley is a boozing, sex-crazed, self-important Broadway diva named Madison “Maddie” Banks while Perlman toils as her snippy personal assistant, Thelma Katz.

Michael Richards, who once knew the glory of Seinfeld, also is back in play as Maddie’s pot-smoking, wisecracking limo driver, Frank Baxter. Into these insular lives strides a puffy 26-year-old manchild named Arlo Barth (Eric Petersen). Encountering Maddie after her latest triumphant stage performance, Arlo says he’s “pretty sure I’m the kid you gave up for adoption 26 years ago.”

And so he is. Which greatly vexes an unequipped Maddie while filling Arlo with amazement when he’s first allowed into her posh Manhattan apartment. “You have a personal chef, a driver and an assistant?” he marvels. “You’re like a white Oprah.”

The personal chef hit Kirstie’s cutting room floor after the Wednesday, Dec. 4th premiere, which airs back-to-back with a second half-hour subtitled “Arlo Moves In.” TV Land also made two subsequent episodes, “Arlo’s Birthday” and “Little Bummer Boy,” available for review.

They’re not without their broad, hammy amusements and some occasionally sharp writing amidst the fast and furious punchline pace. Marveling at Maddie’s piled-high coif in the opening half-hour, Arlo says approvingly, “I love your hair. You look just like Marge Simpson.”

That one pretty much works. As does the line where Maddie tells Arlo, “If you have any more questions for me, here is my autobiography.”

But Kirstie also runs afoul of Richards’ doofus Frank reading a review extolling his boss lady as “bigger and harder than ever” in her latest play. Whoops, he’s inadvertently cited a pop-up ad for Viagra.

Richards now sports a prominent widow’s peak instead of his wild ’n’ wooly “Kramer hair.” The poor guy is doing the best with what he’s given and is still a gangly sight gag. But man, he’s stuck with a really sad and saggy groaner at the start of Episode 2, telling one and all that “I gave Angela Lansbury a few drinks (at Maddie’s latest opening night party), and she’s all over my bed knobs and broomsticks.” Badda bing, bam, thud.

Perlman’s Thelma peppers away as the show’s prototypical second banana, taking Maddie down a peg while slogging through a bottomless pit of sex, food and vanity jokes.

Learning that her son has been scrimping along as an employee at The Glazed Hole, Maddie initially wonders if it’s a gay bar. “Gays love me,” she proclaims before Arlo says it’s a donut shop. “Donuts love her, too,” Thelma chimes in.

Petersen plays Arlo as a combination wide-eyed innocent/moral compass who makes his reluctant birth mom see the light whenever she’s on the verge of blowing him off. Maddie finally vows to “make you my project. And not like that school in Africa. I’m gonna finish you.”

Guest stars abound. Kristin Chenoweth pops in as Maddie’s Broadway understudy in Episode 2 while Cloris Leachman spices the Dec. 18th Christmas episode as Maddie’s grouchy (what else?) mother, Shirley Klusewski. John Travolta, Jason Alexander, Kathy Griffin and George Wendt also will be joining in down the road.

All of this familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt. Kirstie is a bit like watching Joe Montana when he played for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was past his prime, but still capable of getting the job done on occasion. Alley, Perlman and Richards were far more gainfully employed on their previous classic comedy series. Now they’re in a sense doing dinner theater in Yuma but seemingly having a good time together nonetheless.

At the end of Kirstie’s Christmas episode, the stars are kids again via a merry snowball fight -- with fake snow, of course. They’re not hurting anybody. Nor, in reality, is this show.


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