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Fortitude is worth an expedition to Pivot


Ice, snow and the three principal humans of Fortitude. Pivot photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 29th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back hours on Pivot
Starring: Stanley Tucci, Sofie Grabol, Richard Dormer, Michael Gambon, Nicholas Pinnock, Veronica Echegui, Aaron McCusker, Jessica Raine, Christopher Eccleston, Phoebe Nicholls, Darren Boyd
Produced by: Matthew Bird

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The frozen tundras of Fargo and Lambeau Field are Bimini Islands compared to what viewers can expect in Fortitude.

Set in the Arctic Circle and co-starring its vast snowscapes, the fledgling Pivot network’s first original drama series has an oft-stunningly original look. Its overall storyline is on more familiar ground, yet still a grabber as this 12-episode murder mystery slowly gears up. Pivot made the first five hours available for review, with back-to-back episodes launching Fortitude on Thursday, Jan. 29th.

For most viewers this likely will be a two-fold exploratory expedition -- to a faraway place and to Pivot for the first time. The network debuted on Aug. 1, 2013, but Fortitude is its big coming out party. Every cable network hopes to make its mark with a signature series, as did Comedy Central with South Park, AMC with Mad Men and FX with The Shield. First you have to get noticed. Then you need to keep delivering.

Fortitude doubles as the name of a small frozen community whose governor, Hildur Odegard (Sofie Grabol), has big plans for a Glacier Hotel Project that she envisions as a tourist magnet and safe haven from the area’s at times lethal wildlife. The designs are in place, but Hildur needs official approval from an Arctic Research Centre headed by Professor Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston). A possibly stunning archaeological discovery puts him of a mind to block the project before Stoddardt is found very badly mutilated and presumably dead.

Heading the investigation is town sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), a very taciturn man with bottled up emotions and thin, guttural smiles. Near the close of Thursday’s second hour, he receives unwanted help from detective chief inspector Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci), a London-based former FBI agent who flies in to take charge.

Tucci plays this role in very low-key fashion -- to the point where perhaps his pulse should be taken. But as Fortitude unfolds he begins to register more vividly as a firm, dry-humored gumshoe who knows what he wants and how to get it.

Suspects and red herrings pile up in these first five hours, with just about everyone except Morton a possible murderer or accomplice. There’s also a guilt-ridden, cancer-inflicted nature photographer named Henry Tyson (the always good Michael Gambon), who takes to even heavier drinking after his eyewitness participation in a chilling opening scene involving a bear and its very unlucky human prey. Fortitude then jumps ahead three months.

The series strongly suggest some sort of immortality in play. Does anyone ever really die in Fortitude? There’s also the specter of a possibly surviving wooly mammoth from some 32,000 years ago. A badly bloodied shirt also comes into play, prompting Sheriff Anderssen to react very viscerally at the end of Hour 4.

Fortitude can be slow-going at times. And it’s still an open question whether its central murder mystery can sustain a number of false leads and other mis-directions for a full 12 hours. But the resplendent panoramic visuals are a show in themselves. So the bigger your HD screen the better, with Fortitude’s overriding whodunit gradually firming its grip while those icy, snowy vistas stay strong.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CNN lately prospers in ratings -- ridicule and all


Don Lemon and the CNN Blizzardmobile drew heavy ridicule from Jon Stewart on Monday’s edition of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

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CNN’s momentum is showing.

The venerable all-news network’s substantial ratings gains in January have punched staggering MSNBC deeper into third place while Fox News Channel at last may be feeling a little heat.

And after year upon year of ratings declines or stagnation, it likely matters not to CNN why you’re watching.

The network’s now patented overkill coverage of “Breaking” stories, most recently the heavy snowstorms hitting the Eastern seaboard, has drawn ridicule from many quarters. CNN even threatens to replace Fox News Channel as Jon Stewart’s favorite punching bag.

But if you’re tuning in, who cares? CNN will take your laughter or disdain to the bank.

CNN also has done some decent business with a new batch of prime-time series and specials, including Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Morgan Spurlock Inside Man and the Life Itself biography of the late film critic Roger Ebert.

And for everyday purposes, there’s always the dynamic duo of loose cannon Don Lemon and laughably intense Wolf Blitzer. Both were mercilessly hammered by Stewart on Monday’s The Daily Show. Lemon was an easy mark aboard the CNN Blizzardmobile while Blitzer went a little nuts over a miniature drone crash on the White House grounds.

Ah, but the numbers don’t lie.

For the month of January, CNN averaged 517,000 viewers for the total day, up 63 percent from a year ago. FNC still won by a comfortable margin with 974,000 viewers, but that was an 11 percent dip from last January. MSNBC continued to free-fall, suffering a 21 percent decrease to 323,000 viewers.

Among 25-to-54-year-olds (main target audience for news programming), CNN jumped 70 percent to 168,000 viewers. FNC dipped 15 percent to 192,000 viewers in this key demographic while MSNBC fell 38 percent to just 93,000.

The weeknight 7 to 10 p.m. prime-time numbers also showed CNN on a considerable upswing. Its 673,000 total viewers were a 45 percent increase from a year ago. And the 258,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 range were a quantum leap of 77 percent.

FNC fell 12 percent to 1.808 million viewers but had a modest gain of 4 percent among 25-to-54-year-olds (up to 345,000).

MSNBC again bled heavily, declining 25 percent in total viewers (to 614,000) and 45 percent in the key 25-to-54 measurement (to 143,000).

These are devastating numbers for MSNBC’s left-leaning plan of attack. FNC remains ahead of the pack with its long-held right-leaning approach but CNN lately has the mojo under the direction of former NBC Universal titan Jeff Zucker, who’s beginning his third year as president of CNN Worldwide.

“People talk a lot more about CNN today,” Zucker said in a fall 2014 New York Magazine profile. “I’m a big believer in ‘It’s all good.’ “

It’s even better when the ratings start to reflect the attention, the ridicule or whatever else comes CNN’s way. “CNN HAS ALL THE RATINGS MOMENTUM IN JANUARY,” the network crows in its latest publicity release. We’ll see what the rest of the New Year brings. But for now . . .

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truTV's Breaking Greenville toys around with real-life small town news


The competing TV news teams of Breaking Greenville. truTV photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 29th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on truTV
Starring: The TV news teams of Greenville, Mississippi’s WABG and WXTV
Produced by: Chris Grant, Corie Henson, Jessica Sebastian, Adam Paul

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Television news can have a pretty high hee haw factor anyway. But truTV’s Breaking Greenville is to the manor born.

The eight-episode, half-hour “reality” series originates from one of America’s dinkiest TV markets, Greenville, Mississippi. Absent a whole lot to do, the news teams for ABC affiliate WABG-TV and CBS affiliate WXVT-TV have signed on for what truTV publicity materials call a “character-driven, comedic docu-soap.”

Principally at stake is ratings supremacy in the morning news hours, where WABG has long been dominant but WXVT is drawing closer.

WABG news director Pam Chatman -- “People call me the Oprah of the South” -- is worried enough to summon her troops and tell them, “I need your help. I’m really scared.”

News directors in a big market such as No. 5 Dallas-Fort Worth probably wouldn’t put it quite that way. Their rallying cry instead might go something like this: “Listen, you $%&*@ bunch of #$@&*, our ratings are in the dumper and I’m not gonna lose my $%@!* job because you’re not doing yours. Now get out there and make some #$@*% news or I’ll have all of your asses on a chafing dish before you know what the #$&*@ hit you! Do I make myself clear?”

What Breaking Greenville doesn’t tell viewers is that the competition may not be all that fierce. WABG, WXVT and the unmentioned NBC station, WNBD-TV, are all operated by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Group. So they’re part of one big family, even though families can be combative. Steve Schill, who proclaims himself the “LEAD anchor and LEAD meteorologist” for WXVT, goes all Hatfields and McCoys after his station supposedly beats WABG to the scene of an elementary school stabbing.

“Now WABG looks like the punk ass bitches that they are,” he tells the camera. Stay classy.

But WABG’s Chatman phones WXVT news director Woodrow “Woody” Wilkins to inform him that WXVT in fact was not “first on the scene,” as advertised. “That’s not the way to do it, Woody,” she says.

“I’ll make sure they know that,” he replies before laughing it off while Chatman rages, “They’re trying to get the ratings. They lie!”

Your friendly content provider needs to light a candle somewhere in thanks for such a bounteous feast of local TV news dramedy. After all, it’s been a while since Fox tried this with Anchorwoman, in which former wrestling villain Lauren Jones joined the news staff of Tyler’s KYTX-TV without any previous broadcast journalism experience. It had a one-night, two-episode stand in August 2007. Then Fox pulled the plug.

Breaking Greenville is much more likely to go the distance. On truTV you don’t have to break the ratings bank. Only a small deposit is necessary, and this series doubles down with two bubbly blonde anchors.

Perky Lucy Biggers, hired fresh out of a Connecticut college, is the little diva of WABG’s morning newscasts. “If I could be Kelly Ripa in 10-20 years, I would, you know, have gone to heaven,” she says by way of introduction.

Her arch rival, plus-sized Callie Carroll of WXVT, says that Biggers “just gets on my nerves.” In retaliation, Carroll proposes getting on a scale during a newscast before fronting a big “Get Fit” Subway sandwich-sponsored campaign designed to bring WABG to its knees. She weighs in at 177.4 pounds and figures that every pound she loses can be taken out of the rival station’s hide.

“I think it’s really, really good for ratings,” Carroll says, emphasizing that this is all that matters to her.

Biggers fights back with a farm story in which her veteran cameraman is David “I think I’d make a good movie director” Lush. But Biggers and news director Chatman later clash over whether the story should end with her high-fiving the farmer.

Breaking Greenville is stupid fun for all, even if some of the featured players almost assuredly will bitch about being edited into cartoons of themselves. But they all signed on for this, so deal with it. Biggers in particular seems destined for ostensibly bigger and better things -- such as being a co-host someday on ABC’s ridiculously slap-happy Good Morning America. Hell, they’ve probably already got their eyes on her. She’d be perfect.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FX's The Americans returns but it's not quite all the way back yet


Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys of The Americans. FX photo

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Finding any fault with The Americans almost seems un-American.

This is particularly true in light of the continued snubs of this first-rate FX drama series by voting bodies for the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards.

But even if it makes me seem a bit like a Commie pinko. I’m a little underwhelmed by the first four episodes of Season 3, which launches on Wednesday, Jan. 28th at 9 p.m. (central). Not devastated but somewhat deflated. The great starts to Seasons 1 and 2 have a way of working against the early stages of Season 3. Even though Wednesday’s premiere is marked by an early slam-bang action sequence involving Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings.

Elizabeth and her fellow undercover Soviet spy husband, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), were left with a Solomon’s choice at the close of Season 2. Their 14-year-old daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who lately is embracing Christianity, is fully expected to join the “family business” as part of the “Second Generation Illegals” program. And they’re told there’s no time like the present to start “grooming” her toward an awareness of who her parents really are.

In what will be a season-long thread, Philip is very much opposed to turning his only daughter while Elizabeth sees this as duty calling. That makes for quite a divide-and-conquer story line, but the first four episodes move pretty slowly on this front. Instead, much time is devoted to the somewhat murky business of infiltrating the CIA’s “Afghan Group” during a period when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is in peril of blowing up.

“Reagan wants to turn Afghanistan into our Vietnam,” says ex-KGB handler Gabriel (Season 3 newcomer Frank Langella), who comes out of retirement to oversee Philip and Elizabeth in place of Claudia (Margo Martindale).

The end of Season 2 also saw the removal of beauteous KGB agent/informant Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru) after her lover and protector, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), reluctantly gave her up. Nina is now imprisoned in Moscow, facing charges of treason. The Americans’ efforts to keep her in the mix from afar are reminiscent of the storytelling dilemma faced by Showtime’s Season 3 of Homeland) after Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) escaped abroad and found himself imprisoned. I’m not sure that The Americans handles things much better during Season 3’s early going.

Another of this season’s new characters, a defector named Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova), arrives in a wooden crate for the purposes of publicly denouncing the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But agent Beeman, assigned to shepherd her, isn’t entirely certain of her motives. On the side, he’s also attending EST classes in hopes of somehow mending fences with his estranged wife, Sandra (Susan Misner). This particular story line seems both forced and far-fetched.

The Jennings’ son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), is all but written out of these first four episodes. And one recurring character entirely reaches the end of the road before the remains are compacted in cringe-inducing fashion near the outset of Episode 2.

While battling his wife over Paige’s fate, an increasingly vexed Philip is presented with a new option by second wife Martha Hanson (Alison Wright). He also must decide whether to follow through on another possibly sexual liaison, this time with an under-age babysitter who’s in position to provide some key information on the CIA’s select Afghan Group.

It can be a little pokey at times, let alone confusing for those viewers trying to join The Americans in progress rather than first digesting the first two stellar seasons. Another narrow escape for Elizabeth also is thrown in -- as if to placate some possibly restive viewers.

The Americans remains one of television’s very best drama series. Still, this season so far is not up to the fly-high level of the first two. Nine more episodes remain, though, which is ample time to steer a firmer, surer course. The thrills aren’t gone. They’ve just been a little sedated for starters.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Jumping through some Revolutionary hoops in History's Sons of Liberty


Sam Adams (center) leads the charge in Sons of Liberty. History photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 25th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing at the same hour on Monday and Tuesday
Starring: Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall, Henry Thomas, Michael Raymond-James, Ryan Eggold, Marton Csokas, Dean Norris, Jason O’Mara, Emily Berrington, Kevin Ryan
Produced by: Stephen David, Matthew Gross, Russ McCarroll, Elaine Frontain Bryant

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Sam Adams, future namesake of a solid beer, is the designated daring young action figure in History channel’s Sons of Liberty, a “dramatic interpretation” of events leading to the American Revolution.

The three-part, six-hour yarn, premiering on Sunday, Jan. 25th, takes considerable liberties with this run-up to the war for independence against the occupying British. Strapping Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) is a handsome, headstrong rebel and escape artist who kicks a pair of Redcoats down a flight of stairs early in Episode 1 before declaring in Episode 2, “This will not happen to anyone in Boston ever again. We need more guns.”

And he shall have them -- but without getting the girl. That particular pleasure goes to the gallant Dr. Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold), who beds the very unhappy young spouse of brutish British General Thomas Gage (Marton Csokas). He’ll stop at nothing to quash the impending colonial rebellion. But his underfoot wife Margaret (Emily Berrington) -- “I’m not a terribly cautious woman” -- will do her level best to aid the insurrection while getting a little colonial style sex on the side.

Gage makes for a good central villain. And there are other decent performances that help to offset some of the overall nonsense. Rafe Spall is interesting throughout as John Hancock, a very wealthy Bostonian and effete appeaser until his palatial house is confiscated. ”Whatever you need, I’m in,” he tells a still skeptical Sam, whose reproving older cousin, John Adams (Henry Thomas), never really registers as a vital character. It’s almost as if the makers of Sons of Liberty are saying, “Hey, he already had his own HBO miniseries.”

It’s doubtful that Hancock’s “I’m in” was in use back in ye olde 1770s. And even more unlikely that Ben Franklin (Dean Norris) would say in Episode 3 that starting a new country is “an absolutely bat shit crazy idea” that he nonetheless very much supports. Bat shit? Back then? Big Ben also gets to say later on, “Ya see, here’s the thing.” No one says, “Peace out,” though.

Norris (Breaking Bad, Under the Dome) is fine as Franklin in the handful of scenes he’s in. So is Jason O’Meara as a late-arriving George Washington. But Sons of Liberty is mostly in the hands of its young bucks, who also include Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) as a thick-of-the battle leader who does much more than ride through the night proclaiming “The British are coming.” In this drama, “Redcoats” is substituted.

In one of the more fanciful scenes, Sam saves Revere from being shot by a British soldier near the start of Episode 3. Hancock then quickly saves Sam from the same fate, allowing the two men to finally bond and accept one another. Meanwhile back in Boston, the nefarious Gen. Gage leans over his wife and hisses “I know it was you” in the manner of Michael Corleone upbraiding his brother, Fredo, in The Godfather II.

Episode 3 has some solidly staged battle scenes to accompany the continued deliberations of the 2nd Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. There’s obviously no suspense over whether they’ll all eventually sign the Declaration of Independence. But there’s also little oomph to their debate, with the eventual author of the document, Thomas Jefferson, getting far less screen time than the opening credits for Sons of Liberty.

The story spans nine years, beginning in the turbulent streets of Boston, circa 1765. If it does well in the ratings, there’s certainly room for a sequel. Episode 3 ends with Washington finally in command as the reinforced British army attacks New York.

Sons of Liberty falls well short of the aforementioned John Adams, which won a wealth of Emmy awards. But it has an overall stronger pulse than AMC’s oft-tepid Turn, which will return for a second season this spring with the expanded title of Turn: Washington’s Spies.

Be assured, though, that Sons of Liberty is no Vikings, whose bloodthirsty characters could devour Sam Adams and his boys for a late night snack. History channel’s most rousing success story returns on Feb. 19th with a 10-episode Season 3.

Sons of Liberty can’t match Vikings’ intensity, ferocity and full-immersion sense of place. Instead it’s a serviceable battle cry in some instances but rather laughable in others.


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Fox's Backstrom and star Rainn Wilson shine in rainy Portland


Rainn Wilson effortlessly looks lousy in Backstrom. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Dennis Haysbert, Genevieve Angelson, Kristoffer Polaha, Page Kennedy, Thomas Dekker, Beatrice Rosen
Produced by: Hart Hanson, Kevin Hooks, Leif G.W. Persson, Niclas Salomonssen

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In the annals of disheveled TV detectives . . . well, there actually haven’t been that many of them.

Dysfunctional? Yes. But Columbo in his famed rumpled raincoat is pretty much first and foremost among crime solvers who look as though they’ve just rolled out of bed with little thought of any further upkeep.

The title character in Fox’s Backstrom easily trumps Columbo in terms of looking like hell. They share a fondness for stale cigars, but Everett Backtrom’s orange-ish sack of a poncho and overall sub--slovenly appearance make Columbo seem like a Brooks Brothers fashion plate.

Rainn Wilson, who came to fame as the vain, persnickety Dwight Schrute on NBC’s version of The Office, plays the title role with a hammy staggering swagger that turns out to fit him very well. He’s all over this part, whether willingly brandishing a decidedly doughy physique or firing off dictums, insults and asides that keep this series from ever bogging down.

Three episodes were made available for review. They’re all solid, with the third in line, “Boogeyman,” offering a particularly riveting kidnapping case while also bringing Dennis Haysbert’s supporting character to the fore.

Haysbert, All-State’s veteran “Good Hands” man, plays wizened detective John Almond, whose wardrobe of suit, tie and top hat contrasts with Backstrom’s unsightly attire. Reference is made to Almond’s part-time pastor activities but we don’t see him in a clerical collar until this episode. His struggling Joy of Everlasting Light church is way behind on bills and facing an imminent shutdown. Says Backstrom: “That’s God telling you you’re a crappy pastor.”

Almond takes this in stride because he always has Backstrom’s back. Their relationship is among this series’ many strong points, particularly when Almond has a heart-to-heart talk with his partner in Episode 2.

The series is set in Portland, Oregon, where the oft-rainy weather is also something of a supporting character. Backstrom otherwise isn’t about to let any smiles be his umbrella. His health issues, sparked by heavy drinking and a horrid diet -- wait’ll you see a diner’s “Full Backstrom Breakfast” -- have put him in a doctor’s care and initially in the Portland cop shop’s traffic division. It doesn’t help that he’s never played well with others. But his crime solving deductions still have a way of putting him back in play.

Backstrom’s nicely put together ensemble also includes young detective Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), with whom he constantly clashes; patience-testing forensics specialist Peter Niedermayer); dogged uniformed detective Frank Moto (Page Kennedy) and in-house tech specialist Nadia Paquet (Beatrice Rosen). Backstrom also has a young gay tenant, Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker), who doubles as his “decorator” and underworld informant.

The dialogue regularly crackles in Thursday’s premiere, during which a seeming suicide by hanging of course ends up being more than it seems.

“Had a lot of threesomes, Moto?” Backstrom asks during the investigative process.

“Regular amount,” he replies.

“Regular amount is NONE,” Backstrom snaps.

Neidermayer generates this observation: “Everything you say sounds like a toast to the queen.”

“Thank you, sir,” he replies in all sincerity.

It’s also just plain fun to hear Backstrom grouse at lunch, “Wait, what is this? I ordered deep-fried chicken balls.”

As for his deductive powers, it goes like this: “I don’t see the worst in everyone. I see the ‘everyone’ in everyone.”

What you’ll see is the best broadcast TV cop drama of the season, with a dirty-to-the-touch sleuth played to the hilt by an actor who’s very much up for this. Rainn Wilson has found a role that fits him like an ugly, stretched-out poncho. And there’s no stifling him now.

GRADE: A-minus

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Pity the poor future (again) in Syfy's 12 Monkeys


Aaron Stanford & Amanda Schull battle dire doings in 12 Monkeys. Syfy photo

Premiering: Friday, Jan. 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, Barbara Sukowa, Noah Bean, Emily Hampshire, Zeljko Ivanek
Produced by: Natalie Chaidez, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle

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The future is typecast -- as an apocalyptic horror show in need of undoing by time-traveling heroes.

Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, very loosely “inspired” by the well-regarded, same-named 1995 feature film, is the latest prime-time exhibit. And as such it makes a pretty strong impression while otherwise mining familiar turf.

The initial year is 2043, with a relative handful of Earth’s populace remaining after 7 billion were killed in 2017 by a pretty bad plague. One of the surviving immune is a dogged guy named Cole (Aaron Stanford), who take his orders from a snippy German named Jones (Barbara Sukowa). She dispatches him to 2013, where cute, blonde virologist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) is thought to have a clue or two about how the deadly virus originated. The only hope is to nip it before it’s unleashed.

Cassandra at first thinks Cole is nuts but is persuaded to meet him again in 2015. By that time, perhaps she’ll have either met or be familiar with a seemingly sinister bigwig known as Leland Frost (the inevitable but always good Zeljko Ivanek).

The first two episode of 12 Monkeys move along crisply and effectively. In the second hour, Cole has the misfortune -- or luck of timing -- to mistakenly wind up in North Korea, which has been in the news just a bit lately. Interrogators quickly begin punching him around before Cole’s 2043 team relocates him to a mental hospital, circa 2015. His mission is to interrogate Leland’s disturbed daughter, Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), who’s been drawing Army of the 12 Monkey illustrations on her walls.

This could go on and on and on and on, of course. The 12 Monkeys movie, directed by Terry Gilliam, ran for 2 hours and 7 minutes with a cast that included Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt (who received an Oscar nomination), Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer and impressionist Frank Gorshin.

Syfy has a 12-episode Season 1 planned for its version. First impressions are favorable but how much of this stuff can they effectively cobble together? Only the future will tell in a series whose own future is yet another living hell.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FXX's bizarro Man Seeking Woman both loses its way and finds some funny


Jay Baruchel plays a sad sack dater in Man Seeking Woman. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 14th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FXX
Starring: Josh Greenberg, Eric Andre, Britt Lower, Maya Erskine
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Simon Rich, Andrew Singer, Jonathan Krisel

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Sublimely ridiculous or supremely offensive?

The jury’s still out -- for me at least -- after watching the opening two episodes of FXX’s Man Seeking Woman.

Billed as a “sweet and surreal look at the life-and-death stakes of dating,” here’s a series that in fact goes more for shock value in Wednesday’s premiere. Viewers will know it when they see it, even if Bill Hader is completely unrecognizable as a white-haired, ornery Adolf Hitler getting around in a motorized wheel chair.

In the fantastical eyes of Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel), Hitler is the new boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend, Maggie Lee (Maya Erskine), for whom he still pines after their breakup.

“I’m better than Hitler!” he finally exclaims at a party that’s gone very wrong for him. As did an earlier blind date set up by his sister, Liz (Britt Lower). This is the one where a blonde Swedish beauty instead turns out to be an “ugly, slimy troll” who bites and attacks him.

Man Seeking Woman, which continues its acid trip motif in Episode 2, is yet another venture by Lorne Michaels, who already presides over NBC’s entire late night lineup in addition to IFC’s Portlandia. So besides Saturday Night Live alum Hader, also look for guest shots by fellow SNLera Fred Armisen (star of Portlandia) and Vanessa Bayer, who in Episodes 1 and 2 plays a sweet Chicago marketing liaison named Laura Ferber.

A badly frayed Josh meets her on a subway train at the close of Episode 1 and somehow musters the gumption to ask her out to dinner. Much of Episode 2 is then built around what kind of text message invite he should send. Josh’s best friend, Mike Bunk (Eric Andre), keeps suggesting a “dick pic” during a summit meeting for the Center For Important Emergencies. Whether and how Laura will respond then becomes local, national and international news.

Some if not a majority of Man Seeking Woman is forced and juvenile. And the closing Hitler-Maggie scene in Episode 1 might well repulse those viewers who have stuck around for that long.

But one viewer’s bad taste is another’s comedy gold. And Man Seeking Woman arguably has just enough going for it to merit a further investment in its remaining eight episodes. In the annals of crazed/cartwheeling TV comedy, it both pounds away at sensibilities while also racking up its share of sick laughs.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Send in the frowns: Girls is back for Season 4


Girls update: Hannah is blue. So what else is new? HBO photo

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Season 4 of HBO’s Girls opens with a shocker of a scene. At dinner with her oft-scolding parents, Hannah Horvath is giggly, even giddy.

Don’t get used to it. This will be another winter of discontent on a series that can still shine at times despite its deteriorating standing among the nation’s television critics.

Barometer: the annual hitfix.com poll of best TV series, in which each participant lists a personal Top 10.

The inaugural survey, in 2012, also marked Girls’ first season. It placed 6th that year before falling to 44th in 2013. And in the latest hitfix results, in which 52 critics (including your friendly content provider) were polled, Girls was nowhere to be found among the 96 series receiving at least one point on a sliding scale That means it failed to make even one critic’s Top 10 list in its third season.

Still, Girls is by no means a complete loser as Season 4 begins unfolding on Sunday, Jan. 11th at 8 p.m. (central).. Lena Dunham may be prime-time TV’s most polarizing creator, writer and star. But she’s not a hack. And in the first five episodes of the 10-episode Season 4, she’s also not getting naked. That became an “issue” for many, with Dunham’s Hannah showcasing her less than sculpted body to the point of “No more!” Her dark shadows can still be hard to bear, though. And after some brief flashes of false hope, Girls again will be deep in the throes of another off-the-charts misery index.

Hannah’s initially thrilled to be heading off to a prestigious two-year Iowa Writers’ Workshop to which only a select few young wordsmiths are accepted.

“Slow to grow, but oh, how beautiful is the blossom,” her father, Tad (Peter Scolari), says at a celebratory dinner before it’s time to pack up and hit the road.

Hannah’s off-and-on boyfriend, the equally high maintenance Adam Sackler (Adam Driver), is more miserable about his acting future than about her leaving their shared New York apartment. “The plan is there is no plan,” he says of any future they might have together. “That works for me -- as a plan.”

Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) remain in various states of disrepair as Hannah’s principal gal pals.

Marnie is trying to break through as a singer in tandem with Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). But their first “jazz brunch” goes awry while Marnie also is tearfully frustrated by Desi’s disinclination to break up with his girlfriend and settle in with her.

Jessa remains a recovering addict and overall horrible person who outwardly doesn’t give a damn about Hannah’s departure. And Shoshanna is a jobless college grad who’s still mooning over ex-boyfriend Ray Ploshansky (Alex Karpovsky). Her divorced parents (briefly played by Anthony Edwards and Ana Gasteyer) continue to war with one another, making Shoshanna even more inclined to brood.

Episodes 2 and 3 of the new season find Hannah in Iowa and quickly none too happy about it. Her fellow students are highly judgmental and she’s no prize herself. But the writing is sharp during their group sessions, with outcast Hannah giving as good as she gets while viewers wonder how long it will be before she inevitably heads back to New York.

Meanwhile, Jessa is highly indignant when police cite her for public peeing in the street. And yes, this is a show where you’ll actually get to see her do it -- in simulated fashion.

Girls still delivers other memorable moments, though. And not all of them are gag-inducing. Dunham has written some terrific scenes for herself, and she also rises to the occasion of acting them out.

Even so, how many times can this show basically go back to square one? Hannah Horvath has reached the point where a happy ending might ring completely false. She’s still only 25, but has more mileage, wear and tear on her than a 1989 Chevy pickup.

Her three mates also are in various states of disrepair. But among them, only Jessa seems utterly irredeemable. All in all, Girls has gone from a voyage of discovery in Season One (wow, what a great new voice Dunham is) to an ongoing assemblage of traffic wrecks and flat tires.

It’s the kind of series where the anal and easily addled Ray Ploshansky has become a voice of reason -- or designated driver if you prefer. Between bouts of screaming expletives at honking motorists, he’s capable of counseling Marnie, putting Jessa in her place and making Shoshanna feel just a little bit better about herself.

Hannah likely is beyond his reach, though. Her fits and spurts of joy are always preludes to impending storms. We just can’t go on meeting this way.


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HBO's Togetherness gradually loses its way (but there's always Amanda Peet)


Well-armed for a day at the beach in Togetherness. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 11th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, Steve Zissis, Peter Gallagher, John Ortiz, Mary Steenburgen
Produced by: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass

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For quite a while, HBO’s Togetherness looks as though it could be exceptional.

But halfway through, in an episode subtitled “Kick the Can,” it begins to falter and lose its way. And by the Season One-ending eighth half-hour episode, Togetherness is pretty much neck-deep in its own muck with a cliffhanger that itself falls off a cliff.

The series is co-created by Jay and Mark Duplass, who have tried to model themselves after the Coen brothers. Their collaborations include The Puffy Chair, Baghead and Cyrus. Mark also co-stars in FX’s The League and is very much a key player in Togetherness as a married but unsettled Hollywood sound man named Brett Pierson.

To its credit, HBO sent all eight episodes when it might well have garnered stronger reviews by making just the first four available for review. I kept watching because so much of Togetherness hung together with a very deft blend of humor and angst. But then the angst took over, the loopiness kicked in too hard and schmaltz came charging up through the backstretch.

OK, another big reason I kept watching is Amanda Peet, who remains one of Hollywood’s most under appreciated and, dare it be said, luscious actresses. It’s nigh impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind would dump her, either in real-life or as a television or film character.

Peet, who turns 43 on the day of the Togetherness premiere, has still got it in every way imaginable. She’s a terrific actress, comedic or otherwise. And she continues to look sensational, as viewers can see to fuller effect in Episodes 2 and 6. Let’s just leave it at that.

Peet plays Tina Morris, who in Episode 1 gets the heave-ho -- can you believe it? -- from a boyfriend played by Ken Marino (currently co-starring in NBC’s freshman sitcom Marry Me). He says she’s “bat shit crazy.” Hey, we all have our faults.

As a Los Angeles party planner specializing in bouncy houses, Tina continues to struggle financially and emotionally. This time she’s frazzled enough to move in with her sister, Michelle Pierson (Melanie Lynskey), who’s married with two children to Brett.

Brett’s best friend, Alex Pappas (Steve Zissis), is likewise in dire straits as an actor largely without portfolio. He’s broke, newly homeless and reluctantly agreeable to crashing on the Piersons’ couch for a while rather than acting on his impulse to move back to Detroit.

Alex and Tina also know each other well, and their byplay is a highlight of early episodes. He agrees to help out with her business while she insists on training him after he laments, being “too fat for leading man roles and too skinny to be the chubby, funny best friend.” Alex also has lousy hair, with a tuft of it sprouting on its lonesome at the top of his forehead. He calls it his “Gilligan’s Island” while she thinks he should lose it.

Back at the homestead, Brett and Michelle’s sex life has become both predictable and scant. Episode 2, which hits on all cylinders, has a hilarious sequence in which she’s determined to change it up while he struggles to go with it. FX’s Married, which debuted last July, has a fairly similar overall premise. But it comes up well short of Togetherness, even when the latter series starts to disappoint.

Two familiar faces later join in. Peter Gallagher (The O.C.) plays a rich Hollywood producer named Larry. And Mary Steenburgen makes her first appearance in Episode 6 as a cosmic soother named Linda, who tells Brett during a chance meeting in the woods that he’s like “a ghost in chains.” This is when your eyes may start to roll with a vengeance after a labored Episode 5 ends up pitting Brett, Michelle, Alex, Tina and their “oldster” friends in a game of Kick the Can with a group meant to epitomize callow youth. The game is completely stupid and this episode isn’t far behind.

Michelle also is growingly attracted to a community organizer with a vision of starting up a new charter school. His name is David (John Ortiz) and he seems to have descended from heaven.

Togetherness ratchets down the humor and ratchets up the angry confrontations in its later episodes. Life’s not a bowl of cherries and certainly not a box of chocolates. But these tone changes don’t work for the overall betterment of Togetherness, which had me fully engaged through Episode 4 before losing some of its bearings in the later going.

Even so, there’s still Amanda Peet. Her occasional horse laugh is that of a thoroughbred. Her looks, whether expressive or otherwise, always seem to be perfect for the occasion. Togetherness gets harder to watch but she does not. So if there’s a second season -- and the very open-ended closer almost demands one -- then I’ll still be watching in hopes that the overall composition improves while Peet keeps doing those things she does.


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Fox's Empire provides an all too rare chance for a predominantly black cast to bring on the drama


Into the Lyons den with the fractious family of Empire. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers, Bryshere Gray, Kaitlin Doubleday, Gabourey Sidibe, Malik Yorba, Grace Gealey
Produced by: Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brian Grazer, Ilene Chaiken, Francie Calfo

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Never mind all the machinations and deceptions involved in orchestrating the next big hit record on Empire.

What fourth place Fox really needs is the next big hit TV series after a dismal fall brightened only by the solid performance of Gotham. So it’s poured on the promotion for this Lee Daniels-created saga of a very fractured family warring within and without Empire Entertainment. It premieres on Wednesday, Jan. 7th following the Season 14 launch of the faded but still fairly potent American Idol.

Daniels, best known as the director of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, may have out-Shonda’d ABC’s Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) in terms of putting together an over-the-top, but immersive melodrama with black characters calling the shots. Terrence Howard is the top of the marquee star as steely Empire CEO Lucious Lyon. But Taraji P. Henson butters the bread as his very showy ex-wife Cookie, who’s out to get what’s rightfully hers after a 17-year stint in the slammer.

Henson’s Cookie is a hoot and certainly a holler, speaking her mind via a heavy smattering of “bitch.” As in, “It was my 400 thousand dollars that started this bitch (meaning Empire).” Or, “You messin’ with the wrong bitch, Lucious. I know things.”

Cookie talks with a swagger, walks with a swagger and lights up every scene she’s in. Howard’s Lucious, also fond of dropping the b-word, has all he can do to keep in stride with her. But he scores early on by being deliciously dismissive of yet another state dinner invitation from the President. “Tell Barack yes,” he says. “But this is the last one for the next few months.”

Lucious and Cookie have three sons, two of them musically talented and the oldest one all business. Lucious, who’s secretly terminally ill, pits his offspring against each other in a battle to eventually run the company. “I will start grooming someone soon,” he says. “I need one of you Negroes to man up and lead it.”

Andre (Trai Byers) figures he’s behind the old man’s 8-ball because he can’t carry a tune. But his willful white wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), urges him to do whatever it takes to become Empire’s kingpin.

Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) has singing and composing talent to burn but recoils at the idea of stardom. He’s also gay, which his father can’t tolerate. In a painful, sepia-toned flashback scene, an enraged Lucious stuffs his little son into a garbage can after seeing him wearing a woman’s scarf during Christmas.

Young gun son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) has an affinity for rap and the talent to pull it off. But his chief objective is partying. “You wastin’ yo talents on bitches and booze,” says Dad, who otherwise doesn’t mind Hakeem referring to his mom as “a psychotic animal.”

Empire also has ample music, most of it very listenable even if former Idol judge Randy Jackson might term an opening performance a “little pitchy.” On the other hand, Jamal and Hakeem both could likely cruise to the Idol finals on the strengths of their singing voices and stage presences.

Daniels, probably not coincidentally, also works in a reference to his signature movie. “He treats me like I’m the butler,” a gofer tells Cookie.

The aforementioned flashback scenes, which date back at least 17 years, are hindered by the fact that both Lucious and Cookie look barely a day younger. But youthifying an actor or actress is far more difficult than aging them. And at least the sons are all played by other kid actors.

Empire struts its stuff with complete confidence in the material at hand. It still brims with vitality when the suds overflow, demanding and getting a viewer’s attention. Nuance isn’t entirely missing, but this is a series that’s far more like Dynasty than Downton Abbey. The tart but rarefied observations of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess Violet give way to Cookie barking, “Don’t you ‘baby’ me, you two-faced bastard!”

It’s been a very long time since a drama series with a predominantly black cast has emerged as a bonafide ratings hit. Actually, let’s amend that. It’s never happened on the Big Four broadcast networks, which rarely even try to mount such a show. The premium cable network Showtime kept Soul Food on the air for 74 episodes, which stands as the current record for longevity.

Empire, its flaws notwithstanding, looks as though it has the potential to be a mainstream success. It roars into view and keeps everything humming throughout its all-important first episode. Here’s hoping it lasts long enough to prompt an inevitable debate over the images it presents of its black characters. In this case that would be unprecedented progress -- plus a collective first for broadcast network television.


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Here we go again: Marvel's Agent Carter serves seconds to ABC


Don’t mess with her. Hayley Atwell stars in Marvel’s Agent Carter. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 6th at 7 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on ABC
Starring: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Jack Thompson, Shea Whigham
Produced by: Tara Butters, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Chris Dingess, Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Joe Quesada, Stan Lee, Jeph Loeb

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It’s a would-be man’s world dominated by a wonder woman in ABC’s latest effort to flex its Marvel muscle.

And Marvel’s Agent Carter -- always put the brand name before the merchandise -- indeed again looks Marvel-ous from a production standpoint at least.

After a while, though, ennui might start to set in. That is, unless you’re an idolatrous fan who would still buy a Pet Rock were it labeled Marvel’s Pet Rock.

ABC, which has had limited success with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., launches Agent Carter with back-to-back episodes Tuesday. They’re followed by a Forever chaser in hopes of still saving that first-year series. The heroine, Peggy Carter, punches, kicks and subdues a succession of male brutes while still chafing at being left to do post-World War II “women’s work” for the covert SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve). ABC bills it as a seven-part “television event” that also serves as a bridge between the fall and winter seasons of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Britisher Hayley Atwell reprises the title role she’s played in the movies and in two S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. It’s New York, 1946, and Carter is still mourning the apparent plane crash death of Captain America, also known as Steve Rogers.

“I seem to have a habit of losing people closest to me,” she laments after a second fatality hits close to her new New York home.

There’s little time to mourn, though. The SSR’s in hot pursuit of energy company magnate Howard Stark (guest star Dominic Cooper), who’s highly suspected of selling the lethal chemical Nitramene to sinister forces who would use it to wreak havoc and the like. Carter, who tells her civilian friends she’s works at the phone company, knows Stark from a previous life. So when he rather magically contacts her in person, she clandestinely seeks to prove his innocence by catching the bad guys on her own. One of them tells her, “Leviathan is coming.” Uh-oh.

The slugs at SSR, headed by Chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham), must be kept in the dark. This sometimes requires some doing, as when Carter asks for a day off because of “ladies’ things” before flaunting her other ladies’ things as a disguised blond bombshell in a low cut dress at a swingin’ nightclub. Of course she gets what she wants.

Carter occasionally is assisted by Edwin Jarvis (fellow Brit James D’Arcy), the butler that Stark has left behind to aid and assist her secret investigations. But can the genteel Jarvis entirely be trusted? No one is quite as they seem, it seems. And haven’t we all heard and seen that before?

Tuesday’s Episode 2 ushers in old Twin Peaks stalwart Ray Wise as a sneering industrialist who used to be big pals with Stark. This is just after Carter’s boss at the SSR orders her to “get wigglin’ “ with her file work. No wonder she’s beating the hell out of bad guys with a regularity that Chuck Norris used to deploy in Walker, Texas Ranger.

One of the better sequences in Agent Carter finds Peggy pounding away again while a simultaneous radio serial -- The Captain America Adventure Program -- portrays her as a “defenseless sweetheart” always in need of rescuing. Some of the fight scenes are dimly lit and shot in extreme closeup, making them a mass of arms and legs. That makes it easier to use stunt doubles, but harder for viewers to get engaged.

The oft-picture perfect period sets rival but don’t quite exceed those of Fox’s Gotham. And the big, bold music is straight from all those big-screen Marvel action movies.

Atwell brings some presence to the lead role, flashing specs of vulnerability while mostly keeping her shoulder to the wheel.

“I can’t tell if you’re being arrogant or ignorant,” Jarvis tells her in Episode 2.

“Both I imagine,” she concedes.

Those who swoon at the name Marvel are likely to be entertained anew by a short-run series that pushes all those familiar buttons before the next feature film attraction kicks in with bigger stars, bolder visuals, better battles and a tease for the next one. Iron Man’s Explosive Christmas may not yet be on the drawing boards. But now that the idea’s been broached . . .

GRADE: B-minus

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Downton Abbey's Season 5 steps it up and regains its solid footing


The gang’s all there for Season 5 of Downton Abbey. PBS photo

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Perhaps Downton Abbey didn’t need a swift kick in the pants after a somewhat snoozy Season 4.

It needed more than a little nudge, though. And so that’s come to pass in Season 5, which launches on Sunday, Jan. 4th at 8 p.m. (central) with the first of nine episodes.

PBS provided all but one of them for review, and they were all in all a great pleasure to behold. Much happens, including a sudden emergency at the close of Episode 1. There also are closures, departures, longings, new unions, spilled secrets and two major blowups by Downton’s oft-unyielding command presence, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville).

In Episode 4 he storms away from the dinner table. In Episode 5 he engages in fisticuffs in the bedroom he shares with wife Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). All of this is in addition to the incursion of a “wireless,” namely a radio, within the walls of their posh domain. “I find the whole idea a kind of thief of life,” Robert grouses. “That people should waste hours huddled around a wooden box listening to someone talking at them.”

The year is 1924 at this point, so Robert may or may not live long enough to experience the debilitating effects of television, which otherwise continues to be graced by the presence of Downton Abbey.

Episode 1 begins with the Crawleys’ oft-vexed and unfulfilled daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) longingly gazing upon her secret baby daughter, Marigold, who’s been left in the care of a nearby farmer and his possessive wife. The child is the product of Edith and editor/publisher Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), who went missing in Germany last season.

Meanwhile, the widowed Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) has agreed to a daring proposal (not of marriage yet) by one of her two principal suitors. Let’s just say that it involves a preliminary trip to the pharmacy by her maid, Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt).

There are other intrigues and urges in the briskly paced season opener. Underlying them all is the continued onset of “progress,” of which Robert is not particularly fond. In this case, his principal antagonist is the highly opinionated Miss Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis), a schoolteacher to whom Tom Branson (Allen Leach) has taken a strong liking. Does commoner Tom really belong among the upper crust Crawleys after the death of his spirited wife, Sybil Crawley? Or should he go back where he “belongs?”

Knitting all of this -- and much more -- together is the barbed but wise Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), mother of Robert and also the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Smith, who has won two Emmys in this role, dispenses pointed one-liners like candies from a Pez dispenser. They’re usually tart but sometimes just a little sweet. And what’s not to like? A small sampling:

Episode 1 -- “Principles are like prayers. Noble, of course. But awkward at a party.”

Episode 4 -- “Hope is a tease designed to prevent us from accepting reality.”

Episode 6 -- “All this endless thinking. It’s very overrated.”

Episode 7 -- “My dear, a lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.”

Episode 8 -- “Love cannot conquer all. But it can conquer quite a lot.”

In the far less rarefied downstairs quarters, spunky Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) strives to better herself with some book learning while the hard and soft Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) encourages her with some misgivings. Mrs. Patmore also is heartbroken about plans for a new village war memorial that won’t be including the name of a deceased soldier who was very close to her.

Season 5 of Downton Abbey also has much in store for haughty, scheming under-butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and Cora’s new lady maid, Phyllis Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), who very much comes into her own this season. And be assured there’s ample opportunity for the domineering Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to speak in his trademark stentorian tones while second-in-command Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) keeps him in check.

A principal new character is art historian Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant), who takes a strong liking to both classic paintings and his picturesque tour guide. Oh, but she wouldn’t, would she? Also added with considerable import: Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber) as a handsome new beau for frisky Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James).

This season will be without two of last year’s marquee guest actors, Shirley MacLaine as Lady Cora’s flinty America-born mother, Martha Levinson, and Paul Giamatti as Cora’s playboy brother, Harold. But the door remains open for future seasons, according to the show’s producers.

For now, Season 5 is proof that Downton Abbey remains in possession of a strong pulse and story lines. It minds its manners -- and its stately manors -- while keeping its characters vital and vulnerable. Season 4 could be a slog at times. Season 5 shows no such signs.

GRADE: A-minus

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