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CBS' semi-offbeat Battle Creek shows some signs of being from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan


More odd couple cops: Dean Winters, Josh Duhamel of Battle Creek CBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Dean Winters, Josh Duhamel, Janet McTeer, Kal Penn, Edward Fordham, Aubrey Dollar, Damon Herriman, Liza Lapira
Produced by: Vince Gilligan, David Shore, Mark Johnson, Bryan Singer, Russel Friend

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The small city best known for mass-producing Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Pop Tarts and Corn Pops also turns out to be awash in homicides and drug-running.

That’s the Battle Creek (population 52,347) of CBS’ Battle Creek, a good but certainly not great seriocomic cop series from the creator of Breaking Bad and its recently launched prequel, Better Call Saul.

The gist is this. Ill-tempered detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) is toiling away in the Battle Creek cop shop while grousing about the department’s outdated, malfunctioning equipment. Into this breech steps the streamlined Milton Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), who’s just been transferred from Detroit’s FBI branch.

Milton has an array of state-of-the-art crime-solving gizmos at his disposal. But Russ takes an immediate disliking to him because their temperaments and methods are entirely different. Milton also is killer handsome, which makes Russ feel like a soggy bowl of Kellogg’s cornflakes.

Many cop shows have taken this route, including Fox’s made-in-Dallas The Good Guys, a short-lived 2010 effort that starred Bradley Whitford as a gruff, set-in-his-ways detective and Colin Hanks as his buttoned-down, by-the-book partner. That series also had an off-beat, auteur executive producer, Burn Notice maestro Matt Nix.

Vince Gilligan and his principal producer partner, David Shore, say in a cover letter to TV critics that CBS suggested sending all 13 Season 1 episodes of Battle Creek for review. Unfortunately they didn’t arrive until mid-February during a very busy time for watching and writing about new series. ABC’s Secrets and Lies and Fox’s The Last Man On Earth also share Battle Creek’s premiere date. And WE tv’s Friday, Feb. 27th launch of Sex Box also cried out for a disparaging review.

But your friendly content provider did find time to view the first four episodes of Battle Creek, plus an Episode 9 subtitled “Cereal Killer.” In that one, Battle Creek’s 31st annual “Breakfast Day,” which celebrates what’s made the city famous, is interrupted by the shootings of the mayor (who turns out to be a Rob Ford-like coke addict) and a costumed mascot. Oh well. The carping Russ didn’t want to be there anyway.

Sunday’s Battle Creek premiere quickly segues to a drug-related double homicide after a scene-setting demonstration of the department’s decrepit crook-catching devices. Russ becomes Milton’s very reluctant partner in the case. He’s equally interested in solving the mystery of why the new guy got demoted by the FBI. (Some of this will be revealed in Episode 4.)

Battle Creek has a solid group of supporting players, most notably the Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer as Commander Guziewicz and Kal Penn (House) as detective Fontanelle “Font” White. The police department ensemble also includes sweets-loving detective Aaron “Funk” Funkhauser (Edward Fordham) and true-blue office manager Holly Dale (Aubrey Dollar), who Russ likes more than a little.

Episodes 2 and 3 likewise center on homicides before Episode 4 delves into a heroin ring. Some of them snap, crackle and pop more than others. The best line in the early going comes from Funk after investigators are told in Episode 3 that a suspect “died of a heart attack two days ago.”

“Talk about an excellent alibi,” he deadpans.

Creator Gilligan of course has been very busy with the high-pressure task of getting Better Call Saul off the ground. So CBS may be getting something of a half a loaf here, even though Battle Creek still qualifies as something of an art house series on a network that’s mostly been painting by the numbers.

The series will sink or swim on the Russ-Milton relationship, which thaws in some amusing ways but remains resistant to room temperature.

“You’re a good cop and a good partner,” Milton tells Russ in Episode 3. “But you have no interest in being a friend.”

Unlike Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Battle Creek otherwise is without serial or, for the most part, cereal components. Crimes of the week are solved and put aside, even though the deductions and evidence don’t always stack up. Episode 3 is especially deficient in these respects, with the bad guys panicking and running after Russ and Milton confront them with not all that much. But numerous other ongoing TV cop dramas share such deficiencies. The supply of twists and turns has reached nearly total exhaustion.

Still, the five episodes I’ve seen have enough small pleasures to carry them to their finish lines. Just don’t expect to be blown away. Battle Creek isn’t about to approach the ratings of CBS’ three NCIS series or the upcoming CSI: Cyber with new Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette. But maybe it will hang in there as something a little offbeat on a network with little of that going around.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Land of distinction: Fox's The Last Man On Earth


What’s a messy room when you think you’re all that’s left? Fox photo

Premiering; Sunday, March 1st at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Schaal, January Jones, Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen, Mel Rodriguez
Produced by: Will Forte, Chris Miller, Phil Lord, Seth Cohen

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Keep the title in mind. It’s The Last Man On Earth, not the last human.

So if you’re wondering what star Will Forte is going to do with all that post-apocalyptic time on his hands . . . well, there’s no need for that. Not even in the short run.

Fox is being gently firm about this in a letter accompanying the first two episodes, which air back-to-back on Sunday night.

“Please do not reveal surprising plot points or new characters in your coverage of these episodes prior to the airdate,” the network says. “As we do not want to diminish the viewing experience for the audience. You may reveal other confirmed cast members, though we cannot disclose what roles they will play.”

The confirmed cast members, other than Forte, are January Jones, Mary Steenburgen, Cleopatra Coleman, Mel Rodriguez and Kristen Schaal (voice of Louise Belcher on Fox’s animated Bob’s Burgers. One of them materializes at the end of Episode 1. And that’s all you’re gonna get regarding characters other than Forte’s Phil Miller.

The adult comedy series is set in 2020, “Two Years After the Virus.” Phil is driving around in a bus, looking for any signs of life. One by one, he crosses off whole states before deciding on Tucson, Ariz. as his home base. He picks out a palatial home as his new residence before going about the task of trying not to bore himself stiff. His only friends are a series of athletic balls, inspired by Wilson the volleyball in Castaway. It so happens that one of them is an under-inflated football, although Last Man On Earth was filmed long before the New England Patriots “scandal” and already has its first 13 episodes in the can.

Accompanying pop music plays a big role in Episode 1, which charts Will’s fairly hilarious efforts to amuse himself. A $10,000 bottle of wine goes great with a can of SpaghettiOs. And there all kinds of ways to reinvent bowling.

Phil otherwise spends a good deal of time at the Ol’ Rozeo’s Mexi-Irish Pub, where he drinks himself into a stupor while talking to his balls. There are other, more basic activities to help pass the seeming eternity of time.

“Hello, God,” Phil says while trying to get through another night. “First of all, apologies for all the recent masturbation. But I gotta say, that’s kinda on you.”

Forte both created and wrote Last Man On Earth. And the former Saturday Night Live mainstay doesn’t spare himself in terms of either indignities or physical appearance. Forte’s beard is both real and ugly. His character’s faltering resolve is measured in its growth and the overall condition of his home after months of accomplishing nothing. Even Oscar Madison would get sick to his stomach at the sight of what’s become of Phil’s living room and backyard. The set designers of Last Man On Earth deserve some sort of award -- maybe even an Emmy -- for what they’ve “accomplished.”

Fox sent Sunday’s initial two episodes for review -- and not much should be said about the second one. But this is a concept that so far doesn’t lack for execution. Last Man On Earth has no chance at all to be a blockbuster in league with Fox’s new Empire. But it’s another distinctive example of what the Big Four broadcast networks should dare and do.

“I don’t need people. I can make it work on my own. Watch me! Watch me!” Phil vows to God.

We’ll see about that. And soon.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Secrets and Lies: a murder mystery without a strong enough pulse


The misery index is off the charts in Secrets and Lies. ABC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. March 1st at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Juliette Lewis, KaDee Strickland, Natalie Martinez, Dan Fogler, Indiana Evans, Belle Shouse
Produced by: Barbie Kligman, Aaron Kaplan, Tracey Robertson, Nathan Mayfield, Timothy Busfield

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The media hounds are omnipresent in the first two episodes of ABC’s Secrets and Lies.

Not the “Social Media” ones, but the traditional pack of salivating, question-shouting curs. They bedevil “person of interest” Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) while also making his little daughter, Abby (Belle Shouse), cry. It’s the Christmas season but this is no hallelujah choir.

Ben’s guilt or innocence is very suddenly in question after he finds the dead body of a 5-year-old neighborhood boy whom his snippy teen daughter, Natalie (Indiana Evans), used to babysit. But quick justice for the not-so-stereotypical media mob would be a lightning bolt or two from on high. No one would question that verdict after watching the early stages of this determinedly dreary murder mystery.

Suburban Ben, a married man whose wife has grown weary of him after 17 years of marriage, is also bedeviled by detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis). She wears her hair in a tight bun and has a demeanor that begins and ends with dour. Lewis plays this role in a manner that gradually makes the character almost laughable. She lurks, she badgers and she assures Ben that “I don’t stop.” If only she’d take a long vacation to Siberia and turn the case over to a detective with a semblance of wily charm.

Adapted from a same-named Australian series and scheduled to run for 10 episodes, Secrets and Lies is billed in ABC publicity materials as a “thrilling who-done-it” in which the accused “peels back the layers of these suburbanites’ lives in their quiet cul de sac, revealing their dirty little deceptions and all-too-crowded closets overflowing with skeletons.” But Desperate Housewives had a lot more fun doing this -- at least in its early seasons.

Ben, of course, has a skeleton or two in his own closet. But his wife, Christy (KaDee Strickland), is ready to toss him out even before the biggest one is divulged at the end of Episode 1. “You’re the same person. I’m not,” she tells him. In the physique department that’s very true. Ben, in the person of Phillippe, certainly hasn’t let himself go. He’s still a hunk and a half who runs daily and finds the dead body during one of his jaunts through the woods.

Secrets and Lies also co-stars Dan Fogler as a shlubby, bearded buddy to end all shlubby, bearded buddies. As Dave Lindsey, he’s been Ben’s best friend since high school. Now he’s a layabout, too, crashing at the Crawfords’ house and literally never seen without a beer grafted to his hand during Sunday’s back-to-back hours. Ben and Dave went out drinking -- heavily -- on the night of the murder. And Ben, who had again been spurned by his wife, got so blasted that he can’t quite remember all that happened thereafter.

Meanwhile, Ben’s neighbors turn on him in lightning quick fashion while little Abby yearns to put up the Christmas decorations. “I know you didn’t do it, Daddy,” she says. It’s a nice moment in a series that so far is brimming with ominous music and an abundance of trips to the cop shop for more questioning.

This is supposed to be a spellbinding page-turner, but the pages tend to get stuck together. The original Australian series ran for just six episodes, which no doubt made for a better pace. ABC’s elongated version loads up on angst and redundancy, tending to plod along at a pace that would fall well short of providing a decent cardio workout for jogging Ben.

An arresting performance or two would enliven matters. But Phillippe and Lewis as the two principal characters are not potent enough to get the juices flowing in an unfolding crime tale that’s neither terrible nor scintillating.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

WE tv's super-ludicrous Sex Box tries to position itself as an idea whose time has, um, come


Exiting the Sex Box to applause from therapists. WE tv photo

Premiering: Friday, Feb. 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on WE tv
Starring: Sexually troubled couples and therapists Chris Donaghue, Fran Walfish, Yvonne Capeheart
Produced by: Tom Forman, Brad Bishop

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Getting all indignant about Sex Box won’t do anything to stop it from actually airing on an American television network after it flopped in the United Kingdom.

Besides, it’s much more fun to make fun of it as a ridiculous and desperate effort to generate some buzz about its carrier, the wee little WE tv network.

TV critics are given more big, juicy low-hanging fruit to feast on than a giraffe in an apple orchard. This begins immediately, with an off-camera pitchman assuring viewers: “Couples in crisis with nowhere else to turn will take part in the most radical therapy ever seen on television. Confessions will be made. Secrets revealed. Lives changed. All by having sex. In this box. In front of a live studio audience.”


The Sex Box looks like a storage bin and is a glowing light blue when uninhabited. But when whoopee is in progress, the Box lights up to a hot blend of reds and pinks. Three frequently applauded couples take the plunge in each one-hour episode. They’re also timed by Dr. Chris Donaghue, a “clinical sexologist” who serves as the show’s lead dog.

A question comes to mind. What does the whooping studio audience do during, say, the 31 minutes, 49 seconds that Alexia and Christopher are said to have spent in the Sex Box? Are they given free drinks and snacks while being entertained by an episode of Sex and the City? Because whatever the couples are doing -- and are they actually really doing it? -- it’s all completely inaudible. They then emerge as conquesting heroes before the three resident therapists say things like, “The Sex Box was able to really help you guys find that compromise.”

While you contemplate building one of these things in your bedroom, let’s meet the other performance judges.

Dr. Fran Walfish is a Beverly Hills-based “couples psychotherapist” who charitably speaking has had some very bad cosmetic surgery done above her neck. Dr. Yvonne Capeheart, a “pastor and couples counselor,” is the resident prude -- at least compared to her colleagues.

First up are musicians Elle and Brandon. He wears a “Thug Life” t shirt in his introductory video. She laments that during sex, ”He has an orgasm, and I don’t.”

Made-for-TV concern ripples through the audience before the therapists upbraid Brandon for making light of Elle’s sexual satisfaction. Donaghue soon pops the question after noting that during the sex act, Oxytocin levels (a k a the so-called love hormone) are at their very highest. “Are you ready to go into the Sex Box?” he asks. Dramatic pauses sometimes lead directly to commercial breaks. But of course they’re game. Because otherwise what are these people doing here in the first place?

Post-Sex Box, Elle gives Brandon a 7.9 (on a scale of 10) for his efforts to please her. “That’s huge!” Donaghue exclaims before asking, “Did you both orgasm and who orgasmed first?”

“Me,” Elle says proudly, triggering an ovation.

In case you’re wondering, the couples wear what seem to be silk pajamas (but probably are Polyester) for their romps in the Sex Box. Some but not all of the jammies are emblazoned with the official Sex Box logo.

Between introductions of new couples, “Sex Box correspondent” Danielle Stewart hits the streets to quiz a few couples -- a la HBO’s Real Sex. One guy says he really likes it when his mate is “giving me road head.” Hmm, texting increasingly is outlawed when driving, but . . .

OK, let’s welcome Dyson and his massively endowed wife, Rebecca. They’ve been together for 17 years and married for 10. She says they’ve had “threesomes, foursomes, more somes.” He says they’re just “looking to spice things up a bit . . . I like to date other women with my wife.”

But pastor Capeheart detects Rebecca’s basic unhappiness with these arrangements. So it’s into the Sex Box, with Dyson emerging an instantly changed man. Or so he says.

“For the first time ever, I’ve got my head on straight,” Dyson assures his wife and the therapists. Thanks, Sex Box!!!

Couple No. 3, Alexia and Christopher, used to have kinky sex multiple times a day. But after just two years of marriage, she’s mostly lost the urge after birthing a son.

“He doesn’t look at me any different. He knows the slut that I could be,” Alexia says of her horny husband.

OK, then off to the Sex Box, you two. Presto, change-o and applause upon re-entry into a beautiful new world of renewed compatibility.

The show strives to position itself as nothing more than a selfless Good Samaritan with one goal only -- to bring sexual healing for desperate couples that had no recourse other than intercourse in a big box built on a TV stage. Wonder what the pioneering Dr. Ruth Westheimer would say about that. She might disapprove, even though this is the woman who once told a very embarrassed David Letterman an anecdote about a sex game that called for tossing onion rings on an erect penis.

OK, I’m going to confession now. Right now.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Amazon Prime's Bosch after mainlining all 10 Season One episodes


Titus Welliver commands attention in Bosch. Amazon Prime photo

Currently streaming on: Amazon Prime
Starring: Titus Welliver, Jamie Hector, Amy Aquino, Lance Reddick, Jason Gedrick, Annie Wersching, Sarah Clarke, Madison Lintz
Produced by: Eric Overmyer, Michael Connolly

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It’s good to see a veteran knock-around actor at last get a standout starring role that could serve him well for several years.

Titus Welliver has an intimidating face made for villainy. But in Amazon Prime’s Bosch he’s been boiled hard as a Los Angeles detective who fights off his demons while putting bad guys away. Adapted from the Michael Connolly novels, the 10-episode Season One began streaming on Feb. 13th. It’s a solidly told whodunit with a payoff that’s worth your investment.

Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch is a former special forces veteran with a desktop placard that reads, “Get off your ass and go knock on doors.” He’s also the divorced son of a prostitute who wound up being murdered and left in a dumpster. This has made him an emotionally scarred, shoot-first cop who’s regularly been on the receiving end of internal investigations. But Bosch gets the dirty jobs done. Or as he puts it to a lying perp in Episode 3, “I’m too old a cat to be (bleeped) by a kitten.”

The series marks Amazon Prime’s second notable achievement after launching the acclaimed Transparent last year. As a streamer of original series, it’s not quite on a par with Netflix yet. But the once yawning gap between them has shrunk considerably.

Bosch initially is beset by a wrongful death civil suit after shooting and killing a runaway suspect who supposedly drew on him first. Mimi Rogers drops in for a few episodes and makes a strong impression as prosecutor Honey “Money” Chandler. But Bosch draws most of its strength from two series-spanning murder tales.

One is an unsolved 25-year-old case involving a 12-year-old boy whose humerus is dug up by a dog. An investigation of other discovered remains shows that he was repeatedly and brutally beaten as a boy. While trying to unscramble this mystery, Bosch also is bedeviled by a serial killer named Raynard Waits (more good work by the resilient Jason Gedrick).

One of the series’ major denouements comes in a taut second-to-last episode. The final hour then settles down considerably but without bogging down.

Major supporting characters include Bosch’s loyal, younger partner, Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector); tough but supportive Lt. Grace Billets (Amy Aquino); blunt deputy police chief Irvin Irving (Lance Reddick); and rookie cop Julia Brasher (Annie Wersching), who used to be an attorney before belatedly answering a second calling.

Sarah Clarke and Madison Lintz also pitch in effectively as Bosch’s ex-wife, Eleanor, and their 14-year-old daughter, Maddie. Both live in Vegas, with Eleanor a former police profiler turned successful high-stakes poker player and Maddie a refreshingly well-adjusted kid without the usual deep streaks of ‘tude.

Some of Bosch plays a little same-old, same-old, principally a power struggle between deputy chief Irving, who wants to climb the next rung, and district attorney Rick O’Shea (Steven Culp), who ramrods the cop shop in his quest to be mayor. But their war of words also prompts this memorable line: “L.A. is a three-piece suit. Black, white and brown. You need two out of three to get elected in this town.”

Harry Bosch focuses only on the crimes at hand. And there’s a little True Detective evident in these side-by-side tales of a long unsolved murder case and a creepy, heart-of-darkness labyrinth hiding the series’ principal villain. Unlike detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, though, Bosch and his partner get along from start to stop. And Bosch, for his part, would rather draw on another cigarette than trip the cosmic fandango.

Welliver, who’s played roles ranging from Lost’s Man in Black “Smoke Monster” to gun-runner Jimmy O’Phelan in Sons of Anarchy, bites off a lot that he definitely can chew in Bosch. Finally he’s the top-of-the-marquee star. It’s hoped that Amazon Prime will keep it that way with at least several more seasons to come.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Legend of Lead Belly makes Smithsonian Channel worth a look


Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and his signature 12-string guitar.

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He lived in hard times, did a lot of hard time and like many black artists of his era became appreciated more in death than life.

Smithsonian Channel’s one-hour docu-film, Legend of Lead Belly (Monday, Feb. 23rd at 7 p.m. central), serviceably recaptures the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s impact on what turned out to be mostly white musicians.

His most famous song, “Good Night, Irene,” became a huge hit for The Weavers in the year after his death on Dec. 6, 1949. Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s last performance was at the University of Texas at Austin, where his vocals remained strong but his signature 12-string guitar playing was impaired by Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was 61 and had spent a good number of his earlier years in Louisiana and Texas prisons after convictions for various violent crimes. The 1935 edition of the New York Herald Tribune included the headline, “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides.”

“It was more like he (Lead Belly’s white manager, John Lomax) was presenting King Kong,” says bluesman Chris Thomas King in a new interview for the film.

Van Morrison, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn (leader of The Byrds) and Robby Krieger of The Doors also are called on to praise Lead Belly’s contributions.

“I think the spirit of the songs that Lead Belly did is indestructible,” says McGuinn. Besides “Good Night, Irene,” they included “The Midnight Special, Rock Island Line, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, Black Betty” and “House of the Rising Sun,” which brought The Animals to prominence in 1964.

Lead Belly’s Texas connections also include Dallas’ Deep Ellum district, where as a 23-year-old he teamed with Blind Lemon Jefferson. But five years later, in 1917, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to Shaw State Prison in Huntsville, TX. Amazingly he regained his freedom seven years later via a successful singing petition for his pardon to Texas governor Pat Neff.

Several years later, though, Lead Belly went back behind bars, this time to Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison after being convicted of attempted homicide. He continued to entertain inmates with his songs and guitar. And in 1933, folklorist John Lomax and his son, Alan, came calling with primitive recording equipment and an intent to document authentic “Negro work songs.”

Lead Belly eventually found some peace with his marriage in 1935 to “longtime girlfriend” Martha Promise. They stayed together for the rest of his life, even though Lead Belly was constantly hitting the road and the bottle. He was with Martha on a trip to Washington, D.C., though, where the film says they were turned away from a whites-only rooming house. Lead Belly responded by writing “Bourgeois Blues,” with lyrics that included, “Home of the brave, land of the free. I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.”

He had never had a hit record on his own, but was embraced by the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie as an authentic protest singer. They wore jeans and work shirts during appearances together while Lead Belly always appeared in stylish suits. The film notes the irony.

Legend of Lead Belly is narrated by actor Clarke Peters, who sometimes overdoes it a bit. The film lacks the texture, nuance and artful editing that tend to go hand in hand with Ken Burns. It’s an interesting primer, though, extolling “one of the most influential musicians you’ve never known,” according to publicity materials.

That pretty much says it, with Legend of Lead Belly filling in some of those blanks.

GRADE: B-minus

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Vikings returns in fine, ferocious form


Brothers in arms: Ragnar and Rollo of Vikings. History channel photo

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Tough love, Vikings style, is flaky Floki the shipbuilder telling his wife, in frustration, “You’re so horribly good, Helga!” So he just has to get away -- on another raiding expedition.

Or, in a later episode, it’s the newly crowned King Ragnar Lothbrok fuming at his strapping oldest boy, Bjorn: “You have the strength of a man but the will of a little girl. I cannot believe you are my son!”

Vikings is back, with a 10-episode Season 3 setting sail Thursday, Feb. 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on History channel. Grimy as ever -- and gripping, too -- its compelling storylines are a match for the impressive production values of a series that falls short only of Game of Thrones in its medieval ferocity and sharply drawn characters. Series creator Michael Hirst continues his mastery, inventing new perils and relationships for his multi-flawed but shakily noble anti-heroes.

Season 2 ended with the gruesome execution of devious King Horik (Donal Logue, now playing a corrupt cop in Fox’s Gotham). This makes Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) the new King of Kattegat. Otherwise it’s business as usual, with his Viking warriors waiting out another very icy winter before taking their ships to sea.

But Ragnar initially isn’t as bloodthirsty or conquest-happy. As part of a deal with King Ecbert (Linus Roache), who rules over England’s largest of five kingdoms, the Vikings have been awarded a big parcel of lush farmland. But wait. The throne of Mercia has been usurped by the brother and uncle of Princess Kwenthrith (Amy Bailey). She wants what’s supposedly hers, and King Ecbert is on board with that. So most of the Vikings agree to take Mercia back by storm while Ragnar’s ex-, the warrior Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), is left behind to farm the land while being wooed by the smitten Ecbert.

Ragnar’s principal comrade in arms again is his restive brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), whose loyalty is not always steady as she goes. Ragnar’s son, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), also fights by his father’s side. In Season 3, he’s succumbed to the entreaties of his new girlfriend, Porunn (Gaia Weiss), by taking her along for the combat to come. And oh yeah, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), who’s still the wild card in this deck.

History channel sent the first three episodes for review, with hours one and three both marked by fierce battles. Meanwhile, back in Kattegat, Ragnar’s second wife, Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), tends to their brood of young children, including a deformed baby boy. It gets a little weird, though, when a mysterious stranger named Harbard (Kevin Durand), wanders in with one hand dripping blood and the other holding a ball of flaming snow. It’s exactly how Aslaug, Helga and fellow gal pal Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig) dreamt it. Ominous signs soon begin multiplying and dividing.

Amid all this, the onetime monk Athelstan (George Blagden), left down on the farm with Lagertha, remains torn between pledging allegiances to Jesus Christ or the Viking god Odin. A temptation of the flesh is also in play. Yes, there’s a lot going on this season, and this is but a small sampling.

Vikings remains at the top of its bloody game, with Fimmel still commanding the role he was born to play in a series that fully immerses itself in a world of wonder and plunder. All involved are dedicated to the cause of making Vikings one of television’s most striking series. It’s also emerged as one of the best, evolving from a guilty pleasure at first to a first-rate tale of substance and even subtlety mixed with the cold steel of primal warfare.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Latest remake of The Odd Couple is grounds for a quick "conscious uncoupling"


Matthew Perry as slovenly Oscar Madison and Thomas Lennon as anal Felix Unger in TV’s latest version of The Odd Couple. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Feb. 19th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Matthew Perry, Thomas Lennon, Wendell Pierce, Yvette Nicole Brown, Lindsay Sloane
Produced by: Matthew Perry, Bob Daily, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, Eric Tannenbaum, Kim Tannenbaum with Garry Marshall as “executive consultant”

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If at first you don’t succeed . . .

Except that The Odd Couple has already greatly succeeded as a Broadway play, a hit movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and a long-running TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

CBS’ The Odd Couple is more in line with ABC’s The New Odd Couple, a deservedly short-lived 1982 sitcom fronted by Ron Glass (Barney Miller) and Demond Wilson (Sanford and Son). It initially recycled old scripts as a plug-in series during a Writers Guild strike. New scripts eventually were written, but to no avail.

Matthew Perry for some reason is the main force behind this latest Odd Couple. He’s a co-executive producer and co-writer who also has woefully miscast himself as unkempt New York sports commentator Oscar Madison opposite Thomas Lennon’s persnickety neat freak, Felix Unger.

CBS has made only Thursday’s premiere episode available for review. That was merciful on their part. Nothing about this latest re-do offers any hope for its future.

Perry’s idea of being slovenly is a little extra facial hair. Otherwise he dresses pretty well, even wearing a tie in some scenes. His handling of his speaking parts otherwise is forced and kind of sad. The male spark plug of Friends since has gone clunk in NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, ABC’s Mr. Sunshine and NBC’s Go On, in which he also played a sportscaster. It’s not pretty watching him flailing about like this.

Lennon fares a bit better as Felix, but the laugh track-laced jokes are uniformly hard to take. Felix has been booted after 20 years of marriage and Oscar is happily divorced. The former college pals reunite and begin living together while Felix pines for his wife and quickly makes Oscar miserable.

“He seems incredibly gay but he’s not,” Oscar assures poker pals Teddy (Wendell Pierce on the rebound from The Michael J. Fox Show) and Roy (guest star Dave Foley).

But Felix’s vegan meal is a turnoff, prompting Oscar to rage, “They didn’t leave. They fled. To a place called No Felix-stan.” Oof.

The first episode of this Odd Couple also includes a bulimia joke and an even worse one after Oscar is getting ready to bed a comely blonde named Casey (guest star Leslie Bibb) before Felix screws it up.

“There’s a beautiful person inside you,” he tells Oscar.

“Well, I was about to be inside a beautiful person!” Oscar rages.

Also caught up in this mess is Yvette Nicole Brown as Oscar’s radio show assistant, Dani. Lindsay Sloane will be joining the cast in as a “quirky” next door neighbor named Emily.

Episode 1 ends with Oscar making up with Felix and then putting a cup of coffee on his crotch while he’s doing a yoga headstand. The studio audience/laugh track roars at this sight. Most viewers instead might recoil while wondering why CBS didn’t do likewise.

GRADE: D-minus

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A swervy trip through SNL's first 40 years (and there's also a new app for that)


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It’s currently set to run for three-and-a-half hours, plus a preceding one-hour red carpet show on NBC.

Live from New York, it’s the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special -- on a Sunday from 7 to 10:30 p.m. (central).

Your friendly content provider has lived through it all, starting in fall 1975 as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. First time I laughed until almost puking: watching John Belushi fake-choke on a big hunk of chicken while feeding his face as Elizabeth Taylor on a segment of “Bill Murray’s Celebrity Corner.” It probably helped being high at the time.

Sunday’s milestone SNL event is so big that even Eddie Murphy is scheduled to show up. He’s long been estranged from the show and was the only major cast member who refused to participate in the terrific oral history compiled in 2002 by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.

The following is a random list of odds, ends and opinions -- all of them in no particular order. But before we begin, I strongly recommend that you download the brand new, free SNL app, available via AppStore.com/SNL. I began test-driving it Thursday. And while not every sketch is available, some 5,500 of them are. It’s quite a treasure hunt, with cast members listed chronologically season-by-season. Click on Bill Murray, for instance, and you can watch 24 sketches in which he appeared. I’m sure they’ll be adding more as the app blooms and grows.

OK, let’s get on with it.

WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT THE FOLLOWING CAST MEMBERS WILL NOT BE ATTENDING SUNDAY’S SPECIAL -- RIP John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Jan Hooks, Tom Davis, Michael O’Donoghue, Charles Rocket and Danitra Vance.

CAST MEMBER WHO’S GONE ON TO HAVE THE MOST GAINFUL TV CAREER -- I have to go with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who’s since won acting Emmys for her roles in NBC’s Seinfeld, CBS’ The New Adventures of Old Christine and HBO’s ongoing Veep.

CAST MEMBER WHO’S GONE ON TO HAVE THE MOST GAINFUL MOVIE CAREER -- For longevity and quality of roles, my choice is Bill Murray. He’s still on the prowl for offbeat, interesting acting challenges after memorializing himself in Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Stripes and Ghostbusters.

YOU’VE PERHAPS FORGOTTEN THAT HE WAS ONCE A CAST MEMBER -- Robert Downey, Jr., who hung in there for Season 11 (1985-’86).

ODDEST FIT FOR A PRESIDENTIAL IMPERSONATION -- Randy Quaid, who also was part of the Season 11 cast, became the go-to guy for Ronald Reagan sendups. Underrated Terry Sweeney fared much better as wife Nancy.

ALL-TIME MOST VALUABLE CAST MEMBER -- It’s a tough choice from among my Big Three of Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman. Each could mimic almost anyone while also bringing their own new characters to prominence. But in the end, I’ll take Carvey. He nailed George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot and Johnny Carson among others while also creating The Church Lady; Hans of Hans and Franz; and Garth Algar in the numerous “Wayne’s World” sketches and subsequent feature films.

WORST FILM STARRING A SKETCH CHARACTER -- Julia Sweeney’s 1994 It’s Pat emerges as the mega-stinker.

MOST UNDERRATED MIMIC -- I’ve made fun of him over the years, primarily because he’s basically gone on to do nothing after reigning as SNL’s biggest star with Eddie Murphy in Seasons 7-9. But Joe Piscopo had a strong string of impressions, most prominently Frank Sinatra but also including Andy Rooney, David Letterman, Ted Koppel, Dean Martin, Dan Rather and Ronald Reagan.

SKETCH I COULD WATCH A GAZILLION TIMES -- Rachel Dratch cracking up the cast and herself as Debbie Downer in a May 1, 2004 sketch built around a family reunion at Disney World. Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Saenz were especially vulnerable.

MOST VALUABLE CAST MEMBER OF COLOR -- The easy answer is Eddie Murphy. But for me it’s Kenan Thompson, who joined SNL in Season 29 and is still very much a force to this day. “Oooh weee, what’s up with that? What’s up with that?”

HALL OF FAME HOST WITH THE MOST -- Steve Martin. Always brings it.



CAST MEMBER WHO LASTED THE LONGEST WITHOUT LEAVING ANY LASTING IMPRESSION DURING OR SINCE -- Melanie Hutsell, who joined SNL in Season 17 and lasted through Season 19.

BIGGEST OPEN QUESTION -- Will former SNL host Brian Williams be allowed to attend? And if so, will he have to watch from the shadows so as not to be caught on camera and create a “distraction?” A six-month unpaid suspension is one thing. But barring Williams from this historic event on his home turf might be the worst punishment of all for him.


THE ONE SINGLE SNL THAT SHOULD BE PUT IN A TIME CAPSULE -- Season 3, Episode 18, April 22, 1978. It included host Steve Martin’s classic “Dancing in the Dark” segment with Gilda Radner; Martin’s “King Tut” song and dance; Martin as “Theodoric of York: Medieval Barber;” the Blue Brothers as musical guests; and Martin/Dan Aykroyd as the Festrunk brothers, “two wild and crazy guys.”

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NBC's The Slap kick-starts the network's seriously dramatic, totally revamped Thursday night lineup


Well, this looks like lots of fun. The cast of The Slap. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Feb. 12th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton, Uma Thurman, Zachary Quinto, Melissa George, Makenzie Leigh, Marin Ireland, Thomas Sadoski, Brian Cox, Dylan Schombing, Maria Tucci
Produced by: Jon Robin Baitz, Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Lisa Cholodenko

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Some backhanded praise for The Slap.

It’s involving but also tends to shortchange its risks by taking too many well-worn paths.

Avoiding the overall sappiness of Parenthood, it’s a fractious family drama that arguably offers reasons to dislike just about everyone involved.

Seemingly worried that too many viewers actually might empathize with a onetime child-slapper, it strains to make that same character a brutish adulterer and cutthroat businessman.

Still, The Slap commands attention as a broadcast network drama with more bite than most. Adapted from a same-named book and Australian TV series, it’s the final midseason piece of NBC’s completely altered Thursday night lineup. But it might be too “adult” to serve as a prime-time lead-off hitter followed by The Blacklist and another new drama, Allegiance.

Eight episodes are scheduled, and NBC sent the first two for review. Each is immediately compromised by intrusive setups from an unseen male narrator. But enough of him.

The Slap’s principal couple is Hector and Aisha (Peter Saarsgard, Thandie Newton). He heads the New York City Planning Commission but has just been passed over for a big promotion on the eve of his 40th birthday. She’s a doctor running a small health clinic. They have two constantly arguing pre-teen kids, and Hector is struggling to extricate himself from an affair with a nubile babysitter named Connie (Makenzie Leigh).

A birthday party is planned for Hector, who doesn’t much want one. But it gives The Slap an opportunity to assemble all the other main characters under one roof, including Hector’s short-tempered, rich cousin, Harry (Zachary Quinto), and his well-kept wife, Sandi (Marin Ireland).

Harry turns out to be the slapper after the very bratty son of party attendees Rosie and Gary (Melissa George, Thomas Sadoski) proceeds to constantly misbehave. Hugo (Dylan Schombing) looks to be somewhere between the age of 3 and 5, but is still breastfeeding. And his ultra-coddling mother pays no mind when the kid dangerously begins swinging a wooden baseball bat near other children before kicking Harry in the leg when he yanks it away from him. This triggers “The Slap” and several other domino effect events.

Uma Thurman is also in the mix as a TV writer/director who of course prefers the company of younger men. She doesn’t figure too prominently in the first two hours, but Episode 3 is subtitled with the name of her character, Anouk. The Greek Hector’s tradition-minded parents, Manolis and Koula, are played by Brian Cox and Maria Tucci. Manolis appears to be the best-adjusted, most decent character of the bunch. But his wife is a carping meddler who insists on bringing her “Athenian Feast” to what’s supposed to be a barbecue before springing a big surprise gift that Newton’s Aisha wants no part of.

Aisha is called upon to glare disdainfully several too many times in Thursday’s premiere episode. Meanwhile, husband Hector is something of a nebbish who tells Connie the babysitter at one point, “I’m just losing control of the elements.” For no particular reason, the narrator also drops in a line about Hector being an atheist.

Hugo’s parents both seem in need of a good throttling before being taught that caring parents don’t have a license to let their kid run amuck. But lest anyone be inclined to applaud Harry’s action, he’s reduced to a crude intimidator -- with his wife and others -- before whining to Hector in Episode 2, “What’s happening to this country? The weak suing the strong for being strong. The victims always finding an angle. Guys like me, what chance do we have?”

Harry’s lament doesn’t really have a chance, though. After all, here’s a guy who resides with his wife and cowed son in a beautiful lakeside property; sells rare luxury cars to the rich and famous at greatly marked-up prices; and is screwing his top saleslady on the side.

To its credit, The Slap keeps percolating, though. It’s well-acted while at times also being mis-directed in terms of storytelling and too many hit-over-the-head characterizations. The clear breakout character is Quinto’s Harry, a raging bull whose infrequent soft touches are slammed to the ground by his many excesses. The Slap would have been wiser to temper him with a little more feel. Not that many or any of its other characters are likely to overly charm you.

GRADE: B-minus

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The polar opposite exits of Brian Williams and Jon Stewart

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Before NBC announces his suspension, Brian Williams signs off on Friday’s Nightly News. Jon Stewart reveals Tuesday night that he’ll be leaving The Daily Show sometime later this year. Photos: Ed Bark

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NBC announces a six-month unpaid suspension for Brian Williams, who for the last 10 years had anchored TV’s top-ranked network evening newscast.

Jon Stewart, in his 17th year as host of Comedy Central’s Emmy-showered The Daily Show, announces that he’ll be exiting sometime later this year.

Tuesday otherwise turned out to be a slow news/fake news night.

Numerous tweets later, I’m still trying to digest it all. Let’s start with Williams.

No network news anchor has ever been put in a penalty box of this duration. Just a week ago, Williams had been riding high at the helm of his network’s only No.1-rated news property after the falls of Today and Meet the Press. But then came his latest “mis-remembering” of a 2003 Iraq war experience in which he claimed to be aboard a U.S. Chinook helicopter that came under fire and had to make an emergency landing.

Williams weakly apologized for “conflating” the events on last Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News, saying he in fact had been aboard a second helicopter that had not taken fire. But evidence quickly mounted that he had told this tall tale before, not only on own his news program but recently during an appearance on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman.

After Williams’ self-suspension Saturday, in which he promised to return shortly, the NBC hierarchy shot him down and seemed to leave him for dead with Tuesday night’s stunning announcement.

The network’s newest news president, Deborah Turness, said that Williams’ Jan. 30th transgression on the Nightly News was just one blip on the radar. “It then became clear,” she said in a memo to NBC News staffers, “that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position. In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field. As managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.”

So Williams presumably won’t be on the air anywhere on NBC. But in a curious addendum to the announcement, NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke, who broke the news to Williams Tuesday, noted that “Brian’s life work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”

Rooting for what? His full recovery? Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel recently checked into a rehab center to deal with his drinking problem. But there are no Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley remedial facilities for wayward fallen anchors. One wonders what Williams is supposed to do to be trustworthy again. Go on a national apology tour? Kneel at the feet of Tom Brokaw during a Times Square “event?” Be healed by Joel Osteen?

There’s simply no precedent for any of this. Six months is likely to be an eternity for Williams. If the Nightly News ratings sag under his supposedly interim successor, Lester Holt, is a newly trustworthy Williams expected to show up in late summer to proclaim, “Here I am to save the day?”

The reality is he’s almost certainly finished at NBC News. A month-long suspension is one thing. But half a year of wandering in the TV news wilderness is not likely to have curative powers. Williams could always return in a robe and with a beard. But seriously, it’s hard to see a scenario where he resumes anchoring the Nightly News as a changed man who nonetheless would be hard-pressed to report from the field or on the presidential election with any real credibility.

During all of this, reports have surfaced that Williams at one time lobbied to be Jay Leno’s successor on NBC’s Tonight Show. He’s always had a talent for comedy, proving to be a dry ad libber during numerous late night talk show appearances while also acquitting himself pretty well as a one-time host on Saturday Night Live.

Stewart’s decision to leave The Daily Show, where he’ll remain until at least mid-summer, leaves that particular door open if Comedy Central wants to take a big chance. Or perhaps another network will give Williams his own talk show. Stranger things have happened, including his six-month suspension.

For now at least, Holt will be the principal face of NBC News. But he’s almost assuredly not a long-term answer. Holt is 55, the same age as Williams. In fact he’s almost two months older. At best he’s a capable journeyman who has worked the weekend Today and Nightly News shifts while also anchoring NBC’s fading, tabloid crime show, Dateline. Holt is “respected” within NBC News circles. But he’s not exactly a paragon of solid, above-board journalism.

In January of this year, Holt played along with buzz feed.com’s “13 Eerie Things And What “Dateline’s” Lester Holt Thinks About Them.” He posed for a series of pictures while holding up an over-sized notebook to comment on topics ranging from Murder Mystery (“Someone’s Lying”) to Life Insurance (“Really?? You Idiot!! That’s The First Thing The Cops Look For!!”)

In other words, the lines have become impossibly blurred between news and entertainment, unless you’re CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley (still a holdout) or an anchor for PBS’ NewsHour.

That brings us to Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show in 2004 received the national Television Critics Association award for “Outstanding Achievement in News & Information.”

Even Stewart scoffed at the time. And Ted Koppel, then still anchoring ABC’s Nightline, was downright upset.

In “truthiness,” though, many viewers (usually younger rather than older) in fact get their daily dose of news from Stewart’s ridiculing and parodying of same. He’s been doing this since Jan. 11, 1999 after succeeding Craig Kilborn as host/anchor of The Daily Show. But as he told viewers Tuesday night, Stewart has gotten at least a bit weary of it all in his 17th year of duty. This may have coalesced for him when he took a 12-week hiatus in 2013 to direct the film Rosewater, which was released last fall to generally favorable reviews.

“It is time for someone else to have that opportunity,” he said of his long tenure on The Daily Show, which won 10 consecutive Emmys from 2003 to 2012 as television’s “Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series.”

Stewart spoke most eloquently when telling viewers that “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host. And neither do you.”

His contract, as he noted, is up in September. Stewart said he may leave The Daily Show shortly before or after that. “We’re still working out details.”

A logical successor might be Joel McHale, the acerbic host of E!’s Talk Soup and star of NBC’s Community, which is moving -- as a streaming series -- to Yahoo! Screen in March.

It’s also possible that Comedy Central might move Larry Wilmore to The Daily Show slot after his already impressive brief stint as host of the following The Nightly Show.

Whatever happens, Stewart will be going out as an exalted hero of late night television while Williams tries to do penance for his sins. The back-to-back news of their departures made Tuesday a night unlike any other on the TV landscape. These were earthquakes, not mere tremors. And a lot of people remain very shaken.

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Schitt's Creek an attention-getter for yet another new network

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Catherine O’Hara & Eugene Levy are deep in Schitt’s Creek. Pop photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Feb. 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on Pop (formerly the TV Guide Network
Starring: Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Daniel Levy, Annie Murphy, Chris Elliot, Emily Hampshire, Jennifer Robertson, Sarah Levy
Produced by: Eugene Levy, Daniel Levy, Andrew Barnsley, Fred Levy, Ben Feigin

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And so we happily stumble upon Schitt’s Creek because, well, who can resist a title like that?

Besides, it’s inherently funnier than Forever Dung, Excrement Junction or even I Gotta Take a Dump.

The Canadian-made comedy series co-stars two of the neighboring country’s best-known exports, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. You’ll find it on Pop, which used to be the TV Guide Network until a Jan. 14th re-christening.

Pop made five of Season 1’s seven episodes available for review. Nothing about the show is really s#*% in your pants funny. But Schitt’s Creek is at times a fairly amusing diversion as a Beverly Hillbillies in reverse.

In this case, Johnny and Moira Rose (Levy, O’Hara) are suddenly evicted from their palatial home after the family’s tax-dodging business manager flees with most of their money. Also victimized are their two prototypically spoiled, young adult children, David and Alexis (Daniel Levy, Annie Murphy).

Yes, Daniel also is Eugene’s real-life son in a series with a lotta Levys behind and in front of the camera. Eugene’s daughter, Sarah, also co-stars while his brother, Fred Levy, is a co-executive producer along with Eugene and Daniel, who also created Schitt’s Creek.

After losing their home and most of their possessions, the Roses are reminded by their lawyer that in 1991, Johnny bought the little town of Schitt’s Creek as a gag gift for son David. Ewww, they could now live there for next to nothing until getting back on their feet. Adjacent rooms in a rundown motel provide the Roses with their cramped new home. “It smells like a gym bag,” Johnny observes.

Supporting characters include the timeless Chris Elliot as slovenly town mayor Roland N. Schitt. He has a bowling ball gut and a sense of entitlement. So when he feels disrespected by the Roses, Roland has the entrance doors to their rooms removed.

Like many ordinary-looking, out-of-shape male TV characters, Roland has a far more attractive and shapelier wife named Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson). Also in the mix are cute but semi-sardonic motel manager Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire) and Twyla Sands (Sarah Levy), head waitress at the only Schitt’s Creek eatery.

Some of the storylines are frayed from over-use. Episode 5, subtitled “The Cabin,” is particularly easy to deduce.

Each half-hour has some moments, though. In Wednesday’s premiere, O’Hara’s Moira is effortlessly “appalled that my baby girl has turned into a selfish, duplicitous whore.” Episode 3 is built around a historic welcome sign in which mayor Roland’s grandfather appears to be a back-door man. Johnny Rose, intent on selling Schitt’s Creek to anyone who will take it, is appalled by this first impression. He also manages to criticize his son’s loose-fitting “colostomy bag pants.”

Schitt’s Creek occasionally deploys f-bombs, which very likely will be bleeped out of the version shown on advertiser-supported Pop. The show’s title also might be problematic for some publications, offering excuses for prolonged editorial tmeetings. At unclebarky.com, though, the sole editor and proprietor instantly said, “Good to go!”

Canada’s CBC Television, which premiered Schitt’s Creek on Jan. 13th, has already ordered a second season of the series. The screws need some tightening but the basics are in place and the cast is more than capable. More than 30 years removed from their SCTV glory years together, O’Hara and Eugene Levy still know how to play off one another. They could use some sharper instruments, though, to deliver beyond a daring title that calls for more than just passing gas.


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Weighing in on the curious case of Brian Williams


Embattled Anchor Brian Williams signs off on Friday’s NBC Nightly News. Could it have been his last one for the network? Photo: Ed Bark

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The New York Post, which is to journalism what the Ebola virus is to healthy living, has been having a wonderful time with Brian Williams.

Friday’s front page “Lyin’ Brian” headline depicted the NBC anchor with a Pinocchio nose. On Sunday’s front page, the Post added “ANCHOR AWAY!” to its “Lyin’ Brian” tagline, depicting a panic-stricken Williams roped to an anchor and being yanked off ship.

Whether he lied, “conflated” or “misremembered,” Williams clearly finds himself in the worst spot of his career during a self-suspension of undetermined length that takes effect on Monday.

For years, Williams augmented his anchoring of the NBC Nightly News with laugh-seeking guest appearances on late night talk shows and a hosting stint on Saturday Night Live. Now it seems as if the whole world is laughing at his expense, with doctored photos depicting Williams as a key player in just about any major or trivial event.

Can he survive? Should he survive? Does his ever-changing story about coming under fire in 2003 while aboard a military Chinook helicopter over Iraq make him unfit to serve as the principal flag-bearer of NBC News? Or is Williams’ self-made mess, for which he rather weakly apologized on last Wednesday’s Nightly News, in reality more heinous than, say, the Post’s “Bag Men” headline and picture in the early aftermath of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing?

The two young men pictured in fact were completely innocent. But the Post didn’t suspend publication or even admit a mistake. The newspaper instead issued the standard-issue “stand by our story” response before quietly settling a resultant lawsuit out of court last fall. In other news, the Post also “conflated” the Boston Marathon death total, reporting 12 fatalities when in fact 5 had died. But when you’re the Post, who’s counting?

One of my points is this. Be careful what you wish for by hoisting Williams on a pike and in effect saying that just about anyone would be better in the Nightly News “chair.” It’s not always that easy.

What Williams did is by no means trivial. And if a pattern is found -- regarding his now under-scrutiny eyewitness reporting from New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina -- then indeed Williams must go. One can make a strong argument that he should be sacked anyway. But even some of the veterans directly involved in the 2003 incident are hesitant to brandish pitchforks.

On an excellent edition of Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources Sunday, the pilot who flew Williams, Chief Allen Kelly, told the host, ”If he made mistakes -- I mean, we’re all human. But I make no judgments on him in that regard.”

Stelter also interviewed Don Helus, who piloted the helicopter that actually was hit by enemy fire on the day in question. Helus was blunter in his criticism of Williams and an early critic of how the anchor at times was depicting those events.

“Well, we had a lot going on, but I am pretty sure he (Williams) was not in our flight at all,” Helus said at first before becoming more certain in his recollections.

Helus also told Stelter: “I try to keep an unbiased opinion on him (Williams). Granted, we have embellishers in the military. We have them in the civilian world that try to, I guess, tell a story of their war medals and, you know, their time in combat . . . I assume you as journalists have the same thing in yours. The fact is that Mr. Williams wasn’t in or near our aircraft at the time. It saddens me that you have so many other combat journalists out there that are in that type of situation . . . More than likely, they probably don’t tell the story like that, you know, with embellishment.”

As a former U.S. Marine, I don’t feel any more judgmental toward Williams than I would have without having served. Based on a number of first-hand experiences, I’ve found him to be open, serious, ethical and off-the-cuff amusing. During his 10 years as Nightly News anchor, he generally was applauded by TV critics as a solid journalist who also knew how to have fun and perhaps sometimes crossed the line in that respect. But now this happens, causing one to question whether Williams in fact has been something of a charlatan.

In announcing his self-imposed suspension to NBC News staffers, Williams said it has become “painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”

NBC News journeyman Lester Holt will fill in for Williams. Bluntly put, he lacks star quality and has presided over a Dateline program that itself is no great shakes in the journalism department. It’s best known for breathless, overcooked re-tellings of murder stories.

Others mentioned as possible heirs to Williams include Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.

Couric had her chance as anchor of the CBS Evening News, where she ran third before launching a syndicated afternoon talk program that also failed. Lauer’s journalistic credentials are marred by his long tenure on NBC’s Today show, which is produced by the news division but increasingly is largely a giggle-fest and promotional “platform” for NBC entertainment productions. Then again, Couric, and ABC’s Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson also emerged from the early morning arena to helm their respective networks’ flagship evening newscasts.

Williams benefits from, until recently, being the least of NBC’s worries. His Nightly News still ranks No. 1 in total viewers while Today has fallen behind ABC’s equally goofy Good Morning America after more than a decade of ratings dominance. NBC has no up-and-coming logical successor in place should Williams be jettisoned.

While he dangles and awaits his fate, let’s also note that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has survived the worst public relations nightmare in the league’s history. So anything’s possible.

My overall feeling is that Williams should be given a second chance unless he’s proven to be a serial offender in terms of exaggerating what he saw or directly experienced. “Social media” and the likes of the New York Post are delightedly pounding away at the moment. But Williams’ piñata days will pass sooner rather than later.

People are asking, “How can we ever look at him in the same way again?” Ask David Letterman about that after his acknowledged affair with a Late Show intern during the time he was married to Regina Lasko and was the father of their young son. Ask Bill O’Reilly about his sexual harassment scandal, which was -- all together now -- settled quietly out of court. Ask Rosie O’Donnell about second chances, although she’s now blown another one by leaving The View -- again.

Brian Williams, should he return to the Nightly News, will have to make a far wider-ranging statement on “my actions.” As of this moment -- pending NBC’s internal inquiry -- I think he deserves that chance.

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Better Call Saul gives Breaking Bad a good name


Bob Odenkirk’s in the driver’s seat for Better Call Saul. AMC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 8th at 9 p.m. (central), with a second episode on Monday at 9 p.m. (the show’s regular weekly slot).
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Michael McKean, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Julie Ann Emery, Jeremy Shamos
Produced by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Mark Johnson, Melissa Bernstein

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Until now, Bob Odenkirk has never been required to be The Man.

Instead he’s been part of the overall picture, most recently in FX’s Fargo and most indelibly in AMC’s Breaking Bad.

Now comes the proving ground. Odenkirk not only has his character’s name in the title but must carry the load in one of the most anticipated and daring spinoffs in TV history. You might expect a guy to buckle under such pressure. But the first three episodes of Better Call Saul find Odenkirk in terrific form, even if Saul Goodman has yet to emerge from the ashes of penny ante lawyer Jimmy McGill.

Before the prequel, though, comes a glimpse into the nondescript future life of a Saul in hiding. He’s seen in black-and-white to the tune of The Ink Spots’ “Address Unknown.” Let’s just say that Saul -- or whatever he’s called -- is working a menial job fit for an expressionless face. Later it’s home alone, with a stiff drink helping the night to pass faster. A short tour of TV channels just doesn’t cut it. So why not plug in an old “Better Call Saul” commercial in honor of past gory glories? Then it’s time to fade to color -- and 2002.

All of this is done to the sounds of Saul’s silence. After all, what’s there to say? Saul’s volume and volubility are on the down-low. For now it’s the price of freedom -- or a facsimile thereof.

This sobering look beyond the eleventh hours of Breaking Bad is evidence that Better Call Saul will not be bound by any time or place constraints. Most of the action in the first three hours is built around Jimmy’s struggles as an ill-paid public defender who takes cases at the rate of $700 a pop. But Episode 3 begins with a deeper flashback into his past. It was a time when Jimmy was still Jimmy, but his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), hadn’t gone bonkers yet. So he was still in a position to reluctantly bail his brother out of another serious jam.

As previously publicized, only one other regular character from Breaking Bad is working full-time on Better Call Saul. That would be Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the hard-as-nails enforcer who at times worked as Saul’s private investigator and fixer. They first meet under entirely different circumstances, although this much can be said. Mike in his own way is still an enforcer.

Episode 1 also finds Jimmy belligerently quoting Ned Beatty’s character from Network, enlisting a pair of scamming skateboards in a would-be bigger scam and having a surprise encounter with a Breaking Bad bad guy before the closing credits roll. It’s hard to stay on the straight-and-narrow when your law “office” and living quarters are a cramped dump with a door located in the bowels of a busy nail salon.

Episode 2 finds Jimmy in a life-or-death pickle that puts him at wit’s end. But talking his way out is still an option, and Odenkirk shines as a desperate man whose courthouse -- “It’s show time, folks” -- is suddenly the desert. This hour also showcases McKean as brother Chuck, a fellow lawyer who used to be a big-timer until his brain started scrambling. Living in self-imposed solitary confinement, he won’t allow cellphones to invade his space. And when Jimmy inadvertently lets that happen, Chuck feels the need to wrap himself in a silver space blanket.

Episode 3 shifts Banks’ Ehrmantraut into a higher gear via his first real conversation with Jimmy. Viewers also will see the future Saul starting to sprout, with big money rather suddenly in his grasp.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has boldly stepped into Better Call Saul without stepping in it. This easily could have been a shit-on-the-soles disaster. But the initial three episodes vibrate on the strength of both Odenkirk’s performance -- he’s constantly on camera -- and the predicaments the writers have put him in.

“I’m a lawyer, not a criminal,” he pleads in Episode 2.

“You are shitting me,” retorts a strong-armed intimidator named Nacho Varga (Michael Mando).

Better Call Saul looks very much as though it can stand on its own, even with occasional drop-ins from prominent Breaking Bad characters other than Mike Ehrmantraut. Jimmy/Saul’s life isn’t in jeopardy as long as he stays in the past. But as the opening minutes show, there’s always room for trips beyond the end of Breaking Bad. And there’s no telling what might happen then.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The true crime genre hits a new high with HBO's The Jinx


Robert Durst is at center of Manhattan Murder Mystery and others. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 8th at 7 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Robert Durst and numerous real-life accusers and defenders
Produced by: Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Can true crime trump even True Detective?

When it’s told this compellingly, you can make a very strong case.

HBO’s Season 2 of True Detective is due sometime this summer. In the meantime, the network’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst serves as far more than a like-minded placeholder.

Premiering on Sunday, Feb. 8th at 7 p.m. (central) and continuing through March 15th, this is a spellbinding, six-part docu-investigation of three unsolved murders that many believe were committed by none other than Durst. They range from the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie, whose body has never been found, to the 2001 discovery of a dismembered corpse in Galveston Bay, Texas.

Durst, now 71, is the pro-active centerpiece of this film by Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, who previously collaborated on 2003’s acclaimed Capturing the Friedmans. Shortly before the release of their 2010 feature film, All Good Things, Jarecki was contacted by Durst, on whose life the movie is based. After seeing it, he volunteered to be interviewed at length by Jarecki, with no restrictions on questions.

“I will be able to tell it my way,” he tells Jarecki at the outset of Chapter 2. But first the set-up.

Chapter 1, subtitled “Body in the Bay,” begins with the discovery of a torso and then other body parts afloat in plastic trash bags. The victim turns out to be 71-year-old Morris Black. A bizarre trail of evidence leads police to finger Robert Durst as the perpetrator. But he’s caught only after trying to steal a hoagie at a Pennsylvania convenience store despite having ample cash to pay for it.

Durst isn’t just any old suspect. He’s part of the ultra-wealthy, property-coveting Dursts of Manhattan. But Robert was a reluctant participant in the family business run by his late father, Seymour. It eventually reached the point where his younger brother, Douglas, hired a bodyguard to protect him from Robert. Asked in an earlier inquiry why Douglas took this measure, Robert replies, “‘Cause he’s a pussy.”

The filmmakers meticulously interview or uncover police tapes of all the key surviving participants in this bizarre web of intrigue. Among them are Durst’s salty current wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, and quotable Galveston detective Cody Cazalas. He’s come to believe that Durst doesn’t enjoy dealing out death, but “if you threaten his freedom, he’ll kill ya.” These are the closing words of Sunday’s premiere, which runs about 45 minutes.

The present-day Durst interviews, which begin in Episode 2, are somewhat reminiscent of the initial vivid impression made by Matthew McConaughey as detective Rust Cohle in True Detective. Durst’s answers are blunt but non-evasive. He delivers them in a sandpaper voice often punctuated by eye twitches. So far he’s not as cosmic as McConaughey’s Cohle. But both command a viewer’s full attention.

The “Jinx” part of the film’s title comes from Durst confirming that he made his first wife, Kathie, undergo an abortion after they had agreed not to have children.

“You keep the baby, you’re going to get divorced from me. Period,” he recalls telling her. “Somehow I thought it would be a jinx.’

“That you might be a jinx for them?” Jarecki asks, referring to any children fathered by Durst.

“Yeah,” he replies. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a good father.”

HBO sent only two of the six chapters for review. Neither gets into any details on how Durst beat the rap in Galveston. But Chapter 2 includes comments from one of his star Texas attorneys, Dick DeGuerin, who seems to be very much at peace with Durst still being a free man.

These early chapters also are mum on the unsolved 2000 murder of Susan Berman, who’s believed to have run afoul of Durst as a key witness in the investigation of his missing first wife. All in good time, apparently, because there’s no reason to believe the filmmakers won’t delve into every nook and cranny of these cases before viewers are left to render their own verdicts.

Intercut with brief, unobtrusive reenactments and accompanied by a dangerous-sounding music track, The Jinx very much looks like a masterwork of the true crime genre. Its first two chapters establish an iron grip. The final four can’t come fast enough.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's spy-driven Allegiance brings The Americans to mind


CIA analyst Alex O’Connor (center) still doesn’t know that mom and pop are Russian spies. But his older sis does in Allegiance. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Feb. 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Gavin Stenhouse, Hope Davis, Scott Cohen, Margarita Levieva, Alex Peters, Morgan Spector, Floriana Lima, Kenneth Choi
Produced by: George Nolfi, John Glenn, Rashad Raisani, Avi Nir, Ron Leshem, Amit Cohen, Giyora Yahalom, Yona Weisenthal

Set in present times, with the oldest daughter already a groomed Russian spy, NBC’s new Allegiance isn’t entirely a knockoff of FX’s The Americans.

Even so, you can’t mention one show without including the other. Allegiance, airing after The Blacklist as part of NBC’s big new Thursday night plans, likewise is set in the U.S., fueled by familial intrigue and full of narrow cloak-and-dagger escapes in the first three episodes made available for review. It moves along briskly, sometimes feverishly. And it’s fairly easy to get immersed in the intrigue while at the same time finding it hard to play along with all the dubious twists, turns and deductions.

Katya and Mark O’Connor (Hope Davis, Scott Cohen) are the long-deactivated spies. She recruited him as a KGB spy before they fell in love, married and remained assets to be called upon when needed. Time passed, births ensued. Lush oldest daughter Natalia (Margarita Levieva) was brought into the spy fold. But only son Alex (Gavin Stenhouse) and youngest daughter Sarah (Alex Peters) haven’t a clue.

Alex has gone on to become a whiz kid CIA analyst with a photographic memory and Sherlock Holmes-ish abilities to un-puzzle things. His parents, who thought they were scot free of Moscow after years of everyday American life, instead are suddenly pulled back in again.

A secret SVR operation (KGB is now so Cold War-ish) dubbed Black Dagger is designed to “bring America to its knees.” But there are complications. A traitor who has stolen thousands of secret files is fed into a blast furnace as punishment. But now those incriminating files must be found. This is where Katya and Mark come in. They’re tasked with turning the idealistic Alex into a spy but instead convince SVR kingpins that it would be more valuable to spy on him and the CIA.

“The stakes for all of us really couldn’t be higher. Trust me,” says seemingly sinister Russian go-between Victor Dobrynin (Morgan Spector), who’s still having an affair with oldest daughter Natalia. “Why can’t I stay away from you?” she wonders.

At the end of Thursday’s premiere episode, Alex appears to have figured out who his parents really are. But mom has another trick up her sleeve, leaving her son devastated in a different way.

At the workplace, Alex also has a gruff but increasingly supportive CIA boss named Sam Luttrell (Kenneth Choi). He also eventually gets to partner with Michelle Prado (Floriana Lima), who puts business before pleasure -- for now.

In a ridiculous scene near the end of Episode 3, Michelle, Alex and the rest of their team strip down in the middle of an operation in order to get into their action uniforms. This enables Alex to get a look at Michelle in her black bra and panties. She seems to enjoy his interest before everyone springs back into mission: impossible mode.

The best performance so far is by Hope Davis as Katya. She’s no-nonsense but still motherly, vowing not to let the Russian spy force “have another one of our children.”

Unlike The Americans, no one wears disguises so far in Allegiance, which places a premium on episode-ending cliffhangers. The soundtrack becomes especially frenzied in Episode 3 during a two-way race for the secret files. Even though someone now has their hands on them, they’re still up for grabs by the end of the hour.

Allegiance may have enough pulling power to keep viewers hanging on after The Blacklist dangles more plot threads. Its lead characters for the most part are appealing and accessible, even if their machinations aren’t always well-oiled. The producers -- and there are eight of them -- will be challenged to keep everything on track and at least halfway plausible. The first three hours have ample verve and drive -- which helps to offset some of those cumbersome plot/counterplot pitfalls.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

ABC's Fresh Off the Boat adds more diversity while laboring to stay afloat


The Huangs of Fresh Off the Boat (not including the moose or bear). ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Feb. 4th at 7:30 p.m. (central) followed by another new episode at 8:30 p.m.
Starring: Randall Park, Constance Wu, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, Lucille Soong
Produced by: Nahnatchka Khan, Jake Kasdan, Melvin Mar

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
ABC has a history of rewinding to the formative years of kids who survived their nuclear family upbringings without self-imploding.

The network’s most famous entry, The Wonder Years, tracked earnest Kevin Arnold’s boyhood longings from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Daniel Stern narrated as the grown-up Kevin.

In fall 2013 came The Goldbergs, set in the 1980s and viewed from the perspective of bespectacled youngest son Adam Goldberg. Patton Oswalt narrates as the adult Adam.

Next up is Fresh Off the Boat, the saga of chunky Eddie Huang’s fish-out-of-water travails, circa 1995. The real-life Eddie Huang does the voiceovers.

Unlike its predecessors, Fresh Off the Boat is no slice of white bread, even if 11-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang) demands “white people food” after the Chinese lunch he brings repulses his new classmates at Abraham Lincoln Middle School. So off they finally go to the Food 4 All store, which “looks like a hospital” in the view of his mom, Jessica (Constance Wu).

Both Eddie and Jessica are very much against the family’s move from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando, FL, where aspiring dad Louis (Randall Park) is trying to turn the Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse into a thriving eatery. Its decor looks like a taxidermy convention and the lunch/dinner crowds can be counted on one hand. Louis’s initial strategy is to hire a doofus Caucasian host named Mitch (Paul Scheer). Or as he puts it, “a nice happy white face like Bill Pullman.” This does not work.

Desperately trying to fit in, Eddie immerses himself in the song stylings of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the like. “If you were an outsider, hip-hop was your anthem,” the adult Eddie reflects. “And I was definitely the black sheep of my family.”

Fresh Off the Boat is getting the best comedy showcase ABC can provide, with a sneak-preview episode Wednesday following The Middle and a second new half-hour after Modern Family. It will then be off to Tuesdays at 7 p.m. (central), where the failed Selfie used to reside.

There are some grins to be had here, with Park and Wu well-cast as parents with disparate temperaments. Louis Huang aims to please while envisioning an eventual better life for the entire family. Jessica is skeptical, tradition-bound and hard-pressed to look on the bright side. In Wednesday’s second scheduled episode, subtitled “Home Sweet Home School,” she cracks down hard on any extras for restaurant customers or staff. Forget about an additional paper napkin and stop sneaking croutons from the salad bar.

The Huangs also have two younger sons, Emery and Evan (Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen), both of whom have an easier time assimilating than big brother, Eddie. Live-in Grandma Huang (Lucille Soong), who gets around in a wheelchair, occasionally pops in as an ally of her put-upon grandson.

The series further strengthens ABC on the diversity front during a season where it’s also ushered in black-ish and Cristela. This is laudable, but it also would be a good idea to write out the white stereotypes. Principal among them is a quintet of giggling, ditzy white women neighbors who befriend Jessica while also condescending to her. Desperate housewives without any candle power? This would not be acceptable if all of these women were black and loud and stupid.

A subsequent episode, “The Shunning,” introduces a suburban home wrecker named Honey (Chelsey Crisp), who’s despised by the gaggle of dummies but enlightened when it comes to enjoying Asian food and accepting Jessica for who she is. Eddie appreciates her for other reasons at a Daytona 500-themed block party in which Louis strives to publicize Cattleman’s Ranch.

Fresh Off the Boat paddles hard in its efforts to be an amusing comedy with heart. So far, the parents -- not the featured kid -- are the primary reasons to watch. That may not be the way it was drawn up. But it beats coming up short all around.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net