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Big after-splash for Sharknado 2: The Second One


Ian Ziering’s in the mood for a New York cut shark steak. Syfy photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Viewers howled while tweeting their brains off. Myself included.

Now Syfy is giddy, oh so giddy, with Wednesday night’s national ratings and social media bonanza for a little thing called Sharknado 2: The Second One.

The network says it drew 3.9 million viewers, with 1.6 million of them within the advertiser-prized 18-to-49 age range. That made it Syfy’s most-watched original movie ever, with a 183 percent increase over the total audience for last July’s original Sharknado and a 190 percent uptick in 18-to-49-year-olds.

Syfy also is touting Sharknado 2 as “the most social movie on TV ever,” with a staggering one billion “estimated impressions for Twitter conversations.” Furthermore, Sharknado 2 at one point “held all top 10 trending topics in the United States,” even drawing more mentions than Miley Cyrus’ twerk-fest at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Sharknado 2 also had more 18-to-49-year-old viewers Wednesday night than competing programs such as CBS’ Extant and Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.

Yes, a Sharknado 3 currently is in development for next summer.

Just so they don’t go to waste, here are some of my live @unclebarkycom tweets during Sharknado 2.

***Al Roker’s work in #Sharknado2TheSecondOne finally qualifies him for AMS Seal of Approval.

***Statue of Liberty head as lethal bowling ball best spec effect in #Sharknado2TheSecondOne. Some will see as optimum way to protect border.

***That’s legendary Herb the Shark fighting Fin right now. Worked for scale so he could be part of this prestigious picture.

***Most unbelievable scene in #Sharknado2TheSecondOne. A Met hits a home run.

***News of showman Robert Halmi Sr.’s death comes during #Sharknado2. Perhaps fitting. He had pirates attack Noah’s Ark in big NBC splasheroo.

***Tara Reid was just upgraded from losing a hand to losing an arm. Or am I missing something of vital importance? #Sharknado2TheSecondOne


FX's mostly under the radar Partners stars two guys named Kelsey Grammer, Martin Lawrence

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Kelsey Grammar, Martin Lawrence are disparate lawyers in Partners. FX photos

Premiering: Monday, Aug. 4th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on FX
Starring: Kelsey Grammer, Martin Lawrence, Telma Hopkins, Rory O’Malley, Edi Patterson, McKaley Miller, Daniele Watts
Produced by: Bob Boyett, Robert Horn

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The stars are well-known brand names. Their deliveries are broad but polished with the veneer of two vets who know their way around the old multi-cam, studio audience-juiced format.

Still, FX seems disinterested in promoting its third “10/90 model” comedy, in which meeting a designated “ratings threshold” with the first 10 episodes will green-light 90 more produced in roughly half the four years it takes to fill a standard 22-episode per season broadcast network order. So far it’s been one go (for Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management) and one stop sign (for George Lopez’s Saint George).

Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence are the front men for Partners, an odd couple-ish pairing of lawyers that premieres on Monday, Aug. 4th with back-to-back episodes. Neither is Brand X lunch meat. Nor are they incontinent. But their show wasn’t included among FX’s 12 interview sessions at July’s Television Critics Association “press tour.” Nor did Partners make the cut during January’s winter “tour,” when FX held nine sessions on a hotel ballroom stage.

You’d think this was the Ebola virus, with FX worried about contaminating itself by getting too close to a show that outwardly isn’t as “smart” as some of its new or returning comedies (such as the really awful Married, which got a session).

There’s no need to be ashamed, though. The first two episodes of Partners turn out to be much better than FX has led TV critics to expect. Not great. But competently executed and just funny enough. Early in Episode 1, for instance, Lawrence’s Marcus Jackson has this sharp exchange with his mother, Ruth (played by the ring wise Telma Hopkins).

Momma: “Can I just say one thing?”

Son: “History has proven otherwise.”

Hey, c’mon! Get happy!

Marcus and Allen Braddock (Grammer) are both lawyers facing personal crises. Marcus, blaming himself for a divorce after 22 years of marriage, is leaving just about everything to his soon to be ex-wife. Allen has just been fired from his father’s law firm. They first meet in court, with the vain Allen slowly persuading Marcus that he’s being fleeced for no reason.

By the end of the episode, Allen provides proof that Marcus’ wife has been breaking her vows with a minister while also secretly bilking him financially. So they end up being uneasy law partners, of course, in a newly constituted Chicago firm.

Besides Hopkins’ Ruth Jackson, supporting characters include Allen’s spoiled stepdaughter Lizzie (McKaley Miller), Marcus’ daughter Laura (a little-used Daniele Watts in the first two episodes) and incumbent law firm assistants Michael and Veronica (Rory O’Malley, Edi Patterson).

Michael is openly gay and Veronica is openly haughty. Actress Patterson, a native of Texas City, TX and member of the Groundlings comedy troupe, is fully capable of stealing scenes from both Grammer and Lawrence. Which she does in each of these episodes. On paper the following riff may seem noxious. But Patterson’s Veronica sells it big-time when she tells her bosses, “I have the ability to coerce any man, regardless of his sexuality. Just last week I ate a hot dog at a food court and four gay men gave me a standing ovation.”

The gay jokes fly -- some should be grounded -- in an Episode 2 built around Allen and Marcus exposing a wedding planner who specializes in bilking same-sex couples. The pricey wine turned out to be “One Buck Chuck” and the chicken was organ-ick,” says one of the aggrieved.

A subplot finds Momma Ruth and Lizzie bonding in predictable but winning fashion.

Partners has its share of clunkers, but Lawrence and Grammer retain their comedic timing while also pairing up nicely. This series isn’t going to win any Emmys or take FX to a new plateau. But rather than looking down on it -- from a promotional standpoint at least -- the network should make the best of what it has. Which in this case is two star players who know what they’re doing in a comedy that stays on its rails and rolls along pretty well.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Sundance TV's The Honorable Woman gives viewers another prime chance to challenge themselves


Maggie Gyllenhaal and Andrew Buchan play a powerful, well-heeled sister and brother team in The Honorable Woman. Sundance TV photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 31st at 9 p.m. (central) and running for 8 consecutive weeks on Sundance TV
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer, Lubna Azabal, Katherine Parkinson, Yigal Naor, Eve Best, Tobias Menzies, Genevieve O’Reilly, Lindsay Duncan
Produced, directed and written by: Hugo Blick

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Complex. Controversial. Superbly acted. Unfolds slowly. Requires rapt attention.

None of the above apply to the likes of SyFy’s Sharknado 2: The Second One. All apply to The Honorable Woman, a many-layered, eight-part series that’s the anti-thesis of summertime escapist fare. Largely set in the Middle East, it’s certainly no breeze to watch. But the pieces come together in time, making Honorable Woman an accessible jigsaw with many a puzzled/puzzling character. Principal among them is a baroness/philanthropist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight), whose first major foray into television is a knockout from start to finish.

Launched July 3rd on the BBC -- with a proper “u” in the Honorable -- it starts an eight-week Sundance TV run on Thursday, July 31st. Who to trust? What secrets are worth keeping at all costs? And does idealism apply in the least to the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestininan conflict, which has erupted anew in Gaza.

“It’s a wonder we trust anyone at all” are the overriding watchwords of Honorable Woman. They’re spoken narratively at the start of each chapter by Gyllenhaal’s Nessa Stein, whose mother died giving birth to her. Later, as a little girl, she witnessed the assassination of her father, a prominent Israeli arms magnate. He took a knife to the neck at a ceremonial dinner.

Nessa’s brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), likewise saw the murder first-hand. Honorable Woman begins with this deeply traumatic event before fast-forwarding to 29 years later. Together Nessa and Ephra now run the Stein Group, which is in the third phase of a grand gesture to promote equality of opportunity via a tele-communications network linking Stein-sponsored universities in both Israel and the West Bank.

“All this technology. All this fiber optics . . . What it’s all really about is very, very simple,” Nessa says in Episode 7. “It’s about our need to communicate with each other.” Well, it’s the thought that counts.

Both Nessa and her brother otherwise are burdened by dark secrets that in essence have put them on irrevocable paths. Their predicaments are manipulated by lethal forces on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. All eight hours of Honorable Woman were made available for review. It became impossible, for me at least, to stop watching. Not only for the mostly deftly handled twists and turns, but for the performances by Gyllenhaal, Buchan and two European vets with ample tread on their tires but no loss of traction.

Two-time Oscar nominee Janet McTeer plays steely Dame Julia Walsh, head of the MI6 intelligence agency. She has a delicious kiss-off line in Episode 8 that won’t be spoiled here. It might prompt many a viewer to stand up and cheer.

Stephen Rea, best known as the Oscar-nominated star of The Crying Game, is the sardonic Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, whose affair with Dame Julia has wrecked his marriage. He’s otherwise the soon to be retired head of MI6’s Middle East desk. But before that time comes, Sir Hugh has one more big investigation left in him. Rea’s performance is brilliant, particularly during his lengthy grillings of characters with major duplicities in their pasts.

At issue throughout is who’s working for whom -- and why. And how. But the pivotal secret is the paternity of little Kasim Halabi (Oliver Bodur), who initially lives with Ephra, his wife, Rachel (Katherine Parkinson), their two young children and nanny Atika Halibi (Lubna Azbal).

The current volatile situation in the Middle East likely will prompt an even closer look at the overall fairness of Honorable Woman. Are the Palestinian operatives portrayed in more sinister fashion than their Israeli counterparts? Or vice-versa? Simply put, neither side emerges unscathed. But hard-core partisans will read into this what they will. From this perspective, though, Honorable Woman succeeds in being meticulously fair in its tackling of a very challenging subject. And in the realm of Middle East-centric television dramas, it makes both Showtime’s Homeland and FX’s new Tyrant seem almost like kids’ stuff.

Honorable Woman sometimes might benefit from a quicker pace. But it also thrives on the many scenes that play out at length. Sir Hugh’s precise interrogations could fill an entire hour without ever being boring. And the prolonged, pent-up tension in Episode 2, for instance, is enough to make one grip a strong cocktail for dear life.

Keeping track of the particulars from week to week can be a formidable challenge, though. In that respect, Honorable Woman might be better watched in recorded groupings of two or three episodes at a time. Binge-watching it all at once -- or over a weekend -- also might be a better way to go. But then you’d have to wait until the end of September before starting the engine.

Whatever your viewing regimen, Honorable Woman is highly recommended for its distinctive approach, bravura performances, overall digestibility and, yes, degree of difficulty. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And nothing like jumping into the deep end every now and then.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The CW's Penn & Teller: Fool Us is mostly network trickery


Penn & Teller keep a close watch on card trickster Daniel Madison. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, July 30th at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Penn Jillette, Raymond Joseph Teller and Jonathan Ross (who hosts)
Produced by: Peter Adam Golden, Andrew Golder, David Green, Peter Davey

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
In honor of their best-known TV show, it’s tempting to call “Bullshit!” on this latest offering from the venerable illusionist duo of Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller.

Their Penn & Teller: Fool Us amounts to sleight of hand from The CW network, which is launching the one-hour show on Wednesday, July 30th. The network says that any magicians whose tricks can’t be figured out by Penn & Teller will win “the right to perform” with them during their show at Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which has housed them since 2001.

Well, let’s just say that one of the four contestants on the one-hour premiere successfully confounds Penn & Teller. But he won’t be appearing anytime soon at the Rio. That’s because this made-in-Britain show was canceled way back in June 2012 after eight episodes. And this particular Rio-worthy trick was performed a year before that. So if the winner ever got to Vegas, it’s been quite a while back.

The host is bearded, long-haired, big-boned Jonathan Ross, who does a pretty nice job of it despite a dated(?) introduction of Penn & Teller as “the biggest thing to come out of Vegas since Charlie Sheen’s mini-bar bill.”

Penn sets up the premise by telling the audience that “if we can figure out how the trick is done, we’re gonna say. Well, I’m gonna say.” His usually silent partner can be heard saying a few words near show’s end, though.

Penn doesn’t really give much away, though, after the duo supposedly deduce how two of the tricks are done. For one bloke, though, the gig is pretty much up.

Despite being a quickly canceled hand-me-down, Fool Us remains fairly watchable throughout Wednesday’s premiere episode. Then again, I’m a sap for magic and would be happy to perform my amazing disappearing act if this show somehow gets a second life and begins shooting actual new episodes for The CW.

Don’t hold your breath on that front, though. And don’t expect to see any of the winners at the Rio. That was then. This is now.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Sharknado 2: The Second One is chewy, screwy and chock full of cameos


From left, the brains behind Sharknado: Scriptwriter Thunder Levin (real name) and director Anthony C. Ferrante. Photos: Ed Bark

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Jaws became the Sharknado of its day with sequel No. 2, Jaws 3-D. Or maybe it was sequel No. 3, Jaws: The Revenge, in which double Oscar-winner Michael Caine cavorted as lippy pilot Hoagie Newcombe.

Sharknado 2: The Second One, with two-time Emmy-winner Judd Hirsch as its Caine, is not burdened with blemishing its original standard-bearer. Quality-wise, it’s hard to sink much lower. And in that expectations game, director Anthony C. Ferrante and writer Thunder Levin have re-teamed to kick it up a notch with SyFy Channel’s energetic sequel to last July’s Twitter sensation. Taking bites out of the Big Apple for its second helping, it premieres on Wednesday, July 30th at 8 p.m. (central).

This time around, original stars Ian Ziering and Tara Reid share screen time with a gaggle of familiar faces looking to cash in on the Sharknado phenomenon. Hirsch, the former Taxi star, has a full-blown supporting role as, of course, a New York cabbie. Others are more fleetingly seen, although Matt Lauer and Al Roker pop in and out throughout the film as their Today show selves. Roker at one point says, “Think of it this way. This is a twister with teeth.” SyFy and NBC are both part of the Comcast Universal family, so why not?

Ziering, as former star surfer turned shark slayer Fin Shepard, and Reid (his ex-wife, April Wexler), are hoping to reconcile during a trip to New York to see his sister, Ellen (Kari Wuhrer), and brother-in-law Mark Brody (Mark McGrath), with whom Fin has issues. But things happen in Sharknado movies. And during a suitably ridiculous but crisply mounted action sequence in the opening minutes, their Santa Mira Airlines flight to NYC is severely hampered by funnel clouds of swirling sharks.

It’s a gas seeing Robert Hays of Airplane! fame as the pilot while Kelly Osbourne plays a flight attendant who’s star struck by the two heroic survivors of L.A.’s saber-toothed near-apocalypse. April manages to autograph a copy of her How to Survive a Sharknado book before suffering more than just a flesh wound. Fin ends up piloting the plane to a crash-landing in NYC before the danceable “Ballad of Sharknado” theme song kicks in. Vocals are by Ferrante himself, with a guitar track from Robbie Rist (cherubic little cousin Oliver during the waning weeks of The Brady Bunch). Thought you’d want to know.

After a laughably tender scene with April (recuperating at a hospital whose doctors include Billy Ray Cyrus), Fin is off to the New York Mets’ Citi Field, where it’s been deduced that the sharks will strike first. A game is in progress. And among those in attendance is former Mets slugger Harlan “The Blaster” McGinness (played by Richard Kind).

The Blaster remains haunted by a strikeout in his last major league at bat after yearning to hit a climactic home run for his “Pops.” His consolation prize is swatting a shark against the outfield scoreboard during the onset of another sharknado attack. Beautiful.

By the way, Vivica A. Fox drops in for more than a cup of cpffee as Skye, a former girlfriend of Fin’s who’s still sweet on him. Judah Friedlander (30 Rock) also has more than a little to do as a reluctant shark fighter named Bryan. But Hirsch is the literal driving force, expertly piloting his yellow taxi throughout the imperiled streets of NYC. In the early going, his crusty cabbie gets to say, “Almost crapped in my pants.” That’s special.


As seen on poolside wall of the Beverly Hilton at earlier screening.

Those who succumb to Sharknado2 also can thrill to the sight of the Statue of Liberty’s severed head rolling like a bowling ball through Manhattan. That’s a pretty potent special effect. But the film’s later rope swings to safety -- after Hirsch’s cab gets stalled in Manhattan’s flooded, shark-infested streets -- are almost too threadbare for words. The sequence does inspire a fairly clever word play, though.

Others in the cameo cavalcade include Kelly Ripa, Michael Strahan, “Downtown” Julie Brown, Andy Dick, Perez Hilton, Daymond John of Shark Tank, Jared Fogle the Subway guy and Robert Klein as the very grateful mayor of New York City.

Whatever the impending crisis, Ziering’s Fin cuts a mean swath and has two signature scenes involving his trusty chainsaw and sharks on the receiving end.

The overall effect isn’t quite intoxicating, and it might be better if you’re intoxicated in one form or another. Still, Sharknado 2: The Second One is part of a continuing pop culture chain of events that doubles as a rags-to-riches success story for a likable rag-tag director.

Ferrante’s “vision” for Sharknado was incubated in his earlier SyFy cheese ball film, Leprechaun’s Revenge. He referenced the term there, and then talked SyFy into following through with a self-standing movie.

A third Sharknado movie is in development, and at some point it will all have to stop. Or maybe not. Just three days after its first airing of Sharknado 2, SyFy will proudly present Sharktopus vs Pteracuda on Saturday, August 2nd.

Conan O’Brien has sent postcards to TV writers touting “A CAREER-DEFINING PERFORMANCE” in the film. “I’ve never worked so hard to meet the dramatic demands of a performance . . . I want this to be my legacy,” he says.

Robert De Niro can’t be all that far behind.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Boom town: WGN America's Manhattan goes nuclear


Secret society: John Benjamin Hickey and Daniel Stern in Manhattan. WGN America photo

Premiering: Sunday, July 27th at 8 p.m. (central) on WGN America
Starring: John Benjamin Hickey, Olivia Williams, Ashley Zukerman, Rachel Brosnahan, Daniel Stern, Katja Herbers, Alexia Fast, Christopher Denham, Harry Lloyd, Michael Chernus, Eddie Shin, David Harbour
Produced by: Sam Shaw, Thomas Schlamme, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Rose, Dustin Thomason

Television’s latest blast from the past is literally just that.

Manhattan, dramatizing the super-secret run-up to the A-bomb, also is quantum leaps ahead of WGN America’s Salem, which laughably arrived in April as the network’s first original scripted drama.

Taut and atmospheric, Manhattan is centered by a revelatory performance from John Benjamin Hickey (The Good Wife) as scientist Frank Winter. He’s the jangled, haunted leader of a sub-sect dedicated to building a better bomb at a faster rate than the larger, better-funded “Thin Man” group initially favored by J. Robert Oppenheimer. The competition is fierce within the unnamed, uncharted confines of a New Mexico desert outpost, where a brilliant young recruit named Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) arrives with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), and their little boy.

“This is Shangri-La,” he’s told by new boss Reed Akley (David Harbour). “We’ve got the highest combined IQ of any town in America and more Jews than Babylon.”

Day One of Manhattan is July 2, 1943, which also is “766 days before Hiroshima.” It gives the series a wealth of breathing room for its cloistered characters, all of whom are fictional -- save for Oppenheimer -- in the two episodes sent for review. The real-life “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” played by Daniel London, is glimpsed just once in the early going. Wispy and ethereal in a brief but important scene, he’ll be more of an unseen god-like specter in Manhattan. The series’ driving and driven force is Frank Winter, whose principal confidant is physicist Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern in a big bush of a beard that’s not a glue-on, as he proved at a recent interview session with TV critics).

Winter is married to botanist Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), who’s being slowly wilted by her husband’s steadfast brooding and long nights of obsessive work. Still, she brings salt and vinegar to these proceedings, as does the Winters’ restive 16-year-old daughter, Callie (Alexia Fast).

“Why are we even here?” she demands. Everything is so “Kafka-esque.”

“At least she’s reading,” Liza quips to Frank after their daughter has stormed out.

Meanwhile, Frank is sharing his secrets and having an apparent secret relationship with a woman who doesn’t understand English. So in effect he’s not sharing anything at all regarding the holy hell he hopes to someday unleash on the enemy.

Manhattan is filmed on location in New Mexico, which is suitably dusty and barren for these particular purposes. Series creator Sam Shaw (who’s written for Showtime’s Masters of Sex) and veteran director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing and TNT’s current Murder in the First) do a solid job of recapturing a time and place of mystery, duplicity and remoteness.

There’s also been a divorce from basic constitutional rights, as evidenced during a Guantanamo Bay-esque interrogation in Episode 2. One of Schlamme’s old West Wing running mates, Richard Schiff, does some of his best work in years as the government emissary sent to unravel an accused spy.

Through the first two hours, Frank Winter and the young Charlie Isaacs are arch rivals in the A-bomb game. Charlie still resents Frank for being the only brainiac to reject his “paper.” He thinks he knows why: “You’re afraid I’m the meteor that’ll make you go extinct.”

“What is it with little boys and dinosaurs?” Frank retorts. Dinners don’t get much more uncomfortable, and this one was arranged by Liza Winter as a gesture of friendship to Charlie’s wife, Abby.

Some might find Manhattan to be too much on the gloomy side, with scant physical action -- sexual or otherwise -- to compensate during its first two hours. The buildup to history’s ultimate most violent act is not replete with beheadings, couplings or other pleasures or maimings of the flesh. Instead viewers will be treated to mind games and choice lines such as, “A girl with a Ph.D. is like a monkey with a harmonica” among all those 1940s male scientists expecting some sort of “circus act.”

WGN America, in just its second try on the dramatic series front, has excelled with a cerebral, character-driven morality play in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. John Benjamin Hickey’s point man performance leads the way, with his character’s demons and dilemmas already etched like fissures in his face. Carrying the weight of the world can be heavy lifting. Manhattan so far shows every sign of being able to shoulder the load.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Heading West again for network TV "press tour" (but not before leaving behind a slew of reviews)

It can be both a break and a backbreaker. But who’s complaining? Your friendly content provider will be landing in Southern California on Tuesday, July 8th for the annual summer edition of the Television Critics Association “press tour,” which runs all the way through July 23rd.

Included is the 30th annual TCA awards ceremony. I was a presenter at the very first one in 1985. So here we go again.

I’ll be writing periodically but exclusively for the New York-based tvworthwatching website during my time out there. But I’ll also be tweeting frequently on breaking developments and other oddities. The Twitter address is @unclebarkycom.

In the meantime, the unclebarky.com website has posted eight reviews of upcoming new series, beginning with the Wednesday, July 9th premiere of CBS’ Extant and ending with the Thursday, July 17th launch of FX’s You’re The Worst. In order of their air dates, here are the shows and the links to our reviews:

Extant (Wed., July 9th on CBS) -- Review is here.
Welcome to Sweden (Thurs., July 10th on NBC) -- Review is here.
Working the Engels (Thurs., July 10th on NBC) -- Review is here.
Masters of Sex, Season 2 (Sunday, July 13th on Showtime) -- Review is here.
The Strain (Sunday, July 13th on FX) -- Review is here.
Matador (Tues., July 15th on El Rey Network) -- Review is here.
Married (Thurs., July 17th on FX) -- Review is here.
You’re The Worst (Thurs., July 17th on FX) -- Review is here.

Hope these are enough to tide you over. See you in a few weeks.
Ed Bark

FX's You're The Worst plays much better than its title


Two cynics find each other engaging in You’re The Worst. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 17th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Chris Geere, Aya Cash, Desmin Borges, Kether Donohue
Produced by: Stephen Falk

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
There are worse titles. To name just a few: We Can’t Wait to Be Canceled. Unthinkably Bad. Honk If You Find This Show Funny.

Still, FX’s You’re The Worst invites sucker punches from those who find it to be just that. Only a few jabs are necessary, though. This “dark twist on the romantic comedy genre” is far preferable to Married, which will be its “miserably in love” running mate on Thursday nights. The two principals in You’re The Worst at least are vigorously and often amusingly cynical. And over the course of the first two episodes sent for review, it even becomes possible to empathize with them -- if only just a little.

Chris Geere plays Jimmy Shive-Overly, a Brit with a very bad disposition. He’s first seen at a wedding reception, pointedly insulting the bride and groom. “Enjoy your sham of a marriage,” he says while getting tossed.

Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) also is leaving the reception -- but under her own power. She thinks she’s stolen a food processor from among the wrapped wedding gifts. But Jimmy tells her it’s just a blender. So she tosses it in disgust before they wind up in bed for what he hopes and expects will be another of his one-night stands. After all, he has sleep apnea and must wear an oxygen mask.

The sex talk can be blunt in You’re The Worst. But not as blunt as Gretchen is with Jimmy after he later treats her like garbage. Even he’s a bit aghast after she dresses him down. So they later agree to meet again.

“If We both know that it can’t work, then there’s no harm. Right?” she asks.

“Right,” he agrees.

Episode 2 begins back in his bed, with Gretchen telling Jimmy, “You’re losing your hair.” This of course sets him off, but not enough to end matters. In fact, Jimmy is more offended by his roommate Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) favorable view of the character Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Meanwhile, Gretchen’s best pal, Lindsay (Kether Donohue), is warning her, “Be careful, Gretch. Jimmy is a soul vampire.”

He’s also the author of “Congratulations, You’re Dying,” which lately has yielded a royalty check of $17.43. This leads to an attempt to place it among the “Staff Picks” at a Los Angeles book store.

Jimmy and Gretchen also have their first official date in Episode 2. It’s at a pricey, pretentious restaurant called Insouciance, where he’s enraged by their placement at a privacy-invading “communal table.”

You’re The Worst is perfectly willing to let its sparks fly while also managing to warm viewers to the overall premise of two flammable, relationship-phobic humans finding each other in fits and spurts. For now it seems to be worth making a commitment to this fairly unique series while Jimmy and Gretchen continue to parry and thrust.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FX may need a quickie divorce from Married


Another strikeout for a loser hubby in the dim Married. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Nat Faxon, Judy Greer, Jenny Slate, Brett Gelman, Regina Hall John Hodgman, Paul Reiser, Michaela Watkins
Produced by: Andrew Gurland, Peter Principato, Paul Young, Salamo Levin

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Fox’s very first sitcom, Married . . . With Children, took a polar opposite view of wedded bliss. But the battling Bundys could be broadly, loudly funny, and the series endured for a decade.

Now we’re down to FX’s Married, billed as a “comedy about being miserably in love.” It turns out to be about as much fun as bed-wetting. Sample exchange from Episode 3, one of four sent for review:

Wife: “I don’t hate you. I just hate my life and my life is you.”

Husband: “Is this foreplay?”

That’s pretty much the lay of this land. Russ and Lina (Nat Faxon, Judy Greer) have three daughters and little else going for them. Including sex, which Russ wants but can never seem to get.

Although seldom employed as a freelance graphic designer, hangdog hubby still somehow has money to blow on nightly drinks at The Oaks Tavern. Morose pals A.J. (Brett Gelman) and Jess (Jenny Slate) join him. A.J.’s bitterly divorced and Jess is less than happily married to an older guy who has to wear knee braces to do it “doggy style.” Paul Reiser, his career now on fumes, is the older guy in question. Luckily for him, he’s not seen on camera until Episode 4.

Back on the home front, Lina is unfulfilled but also unwilling to go back to her old job. In Episode 3, she makes a half-hearted effort at layabout Russ’s urging, but finds herself “nauseous” at working for a boss who always seems to have “day-old breath.”

Greer, who played the recurring role of Kitty Sanchez on Arrested Development and voices Cheryl/Cherlene on FX’s Archer, is better known at the moment as the perky woman in Sprint’s omnipresent “Framily” ads. She’s generally appealing, but Married is an antonym of that.

Faxon is trying to rebound from Fox’s failed Ben and Kate comedy series, where he also played a jobless, direction-less, but more buoyant character. In Married, his main activities are asking for sex, welshing off his pal, Bernie (John Hodgman), drinking and laying around. In the premiere episode, wife Lina him to “be with someone else” sexually if he’d like. Of course this doesn’t go very well. Nothing goes very well in Married.

The opening half-hour also borrows a subplot from the second episode of The Cosby Show. Namely a goldfish funeral after Russ over-feeds “Norman.” But the basic humor of the situation is completely lost on Married.

Storylines in subsequent episodes include Russ’s visit to “the cock butcher” to firm up his vasectomy surgery, a $5,000 veterinarian bill, Russ’s and A.J.’s dalliance with two escort girls and Russ’s yearnings to take a shower with his wife.

It’s possible -- just about anything’s possible -- that Married somehow will find its way at some point during whatever its future might be. But so far this is a dour, sour affair replete with uninviting characters. That’s generally not a good recipe for return visits.


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New English language El Rey network takes a soccer/spy shot with Matador


Tony Bravo (Gabriel Luna) is often on the run in Matador. El Rey photo

Premiering: Tuesday, July 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on the El Rey Network
Starring: Gabriel Luna, Alfred Molina, Nicky Whelan, Neil Hopkins, Tanc Sade, Yvette Monreal, Elizabeth Pena, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Jonny Cruz
Produced by: Roberto Orci, Dan Dworkin, Jay Beattie, Alex Kurtzman

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Might as well keep that soccer vibe going, although few may be shouting “Gooooooal!!! over Matador, a new action spy series on the fledgling English language El Rey Network.

Its star is an undercover CIA operative who’s better known as Tony “Matador” Bravo since joining the L.A. Riot professional soccer club. Whether it’s available to you depends on your TV provider. The Austin-based El Rey, launched in December of last year by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, currently is on the menus of Time Warner, Comcast, DirecTV and Dish.

Gabriel Luna plays Tony, who’s initially a DEA agent until recruited by a “little known branch” of the CIA headed by the beauteous Annie Mason (Nicky Whelan). This change of pace comes after a drug bust gone bad leaves one guy with a chef’s meat cleaver in his head before Tony chases down Germany’s worst wurst maker.

The bad guy gets a gross , mouth-to-face surprise after Tony catches up with him. Then, after dinner with his parents, Tony is surprised by Annie and her CIA partner, Noah Peacott (Neil Hopkins). If he’ll agree to a “one-time op,” then the CIA will pay Tony back by paroling his half-brother Ricky (Jonny Cruz) from prison. Well, all right.

Part of the deal is for Tony to try out for the Riot soccer team, owned by billionaire Andres Galan (Alfred Molina taking the money and running). First he’ll have to undergo rigorous training from an ace woman player. Then Tony ends up squaring off against a man/beast Riot player known as “The Enforcer,” who blows snot in his face. Damn, this secret agent stuff can be rough. But Tony further earns his spurs by landing The Enforcer on the injury list in a video that ends up going viral.

It’s a little hard to deduce how this all fits into Tony’s assignment. Let’s just say that things eventually boil down to a big party thrown by Riot owner Galan and attended by both Tony and Annie. The plot doesn’t have to make any sense after she shows up in a gold dress that very becomingly fits her like a glove.

Thirteen episodes of Matador have been ordered for Season 1. So Tony’s not going anywhere. Instead he’ll continue to play for the Riot while also somehow entwining himself into the secret op of the week. Squint very, very hard and you might see a scant resemblance to I Spy, the 1960s NBC series in which Robert Culp and Bill Cosby went undercover as a globe-trotting tennis player and his trainer. Nets then, nets now.

Matador is fairly jaunty and breezy in the only episode sent for review. But it also throws in some serious-minded violence as part of the mix. Those who have access to the El Rey Network might want to give it a shot. Those without shouldn’t mope about it.


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FX's The Strain hopes to be its network's first Sunday night breakthrough


Corey Stoll & Mia Maestro play CDC gumshoes in The Strain. FX photo

Premiering: Sunday, July 13th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Corey Stoll, Mia Maestro, David Bradley, Sean Astin, Kevin Durand, Richard Sammel, Jonathan Hyde, Miguel Gomez, Natalie Brown, Ben Hyland, Jack Kesy
Produced by: Guillermo del Toro, Carlton Cuse, Chuck Hogan, Gary Ungar, Bradley Thompson, David Weddle, Regina Corrado

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FX has been in business for two decades now, but The Strain is its first attempt to launch a new series on Sunday nights.

That’s where cable’s Big Boys play or have played. Big boys such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Homeland, Masters of Sex, etc.

The Strain has a big-screen look and feel, courtesy of feature film supernatural/horror maestro Guellermo Del Toro. Among his credits are Hellboy and its sequel, Pacific Rim, Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Del Toro’s principal co-executive producer, Carlton Cuse, chips in with a backdrop that includes Lost and the ongoing Bates Motel.

The Strain is adapted from the same-named vampire horror novel written by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, who’ve also collaborated on two sequels. The FX production strives to be creepy, crawly and viscerally violent, which it most definitely is throughout the first four episodes sent for review. It also takes a stab at being cerebral, occasionally drawing blood in that realm after a rather silly narrative opening from grisly old Lance Henriksen (Millennium, Harsh Realm, Pumpkin: Blood Feud and so on).

“Hunger, a poet once said, is the most important thing we know, the first lesson we learn,” Henriksen intones with gravel-voiced gravity. “But hunger can be easily quieted down, easily satiated.”

However, there’s also “an unquenchable thirst that cannot be extinguished. It’s very existence is what defines us, what makes us human. That force is love.”

Oh please.

But The Strain then quickly gets down to business, aboard a Regis Air International flight bound from Berlin to NYC’s JFK Airport. We know it’s a fictional airline because the pilot announces they’ll actually be landing on time. The downside: Flight 753 also will be arriving with almost all of the 210 passengers looking to be mysteriously dead. You can’t have everything. But no, it wasn’t the in-flight meal.

A rather comically tight, taut air traffic controller named Bishop is first on the scene. But it’s not too long before The Strain takes flight with its first look at Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stahl), head of the Centers for Disease Control’s Canary Project.

Affixed with a thick, dark toupee, Stoll is almost unrecognizable from the tragic congressman he played to perfection in Season 1 of Netflix’s House of Cards. But his acting quickly shines through, initially in a marriage counseling session with his estranged wife, Kelly (Natalie Brown). “You’re not horrible,” she tells him. “You’re just barely present.”

That’s because “Eph” is wedded to his job, which is soon to be ultra-eventful. Rushing to JFK Airport, he first demands his carton of milk and then gets off a snappy line: “You don’t like terrorists? Try negotiating with a virus.”

Joining Eph is CDC colleague Nora Martinez (the melodically named Mia Maestro), who’s had a brief affair with him. Together they inspect the plane and note the pungent scent of ammonia amid all the peaceful-looking, seemingly dead passengers.

Back in the city, elderly pawn shop owner Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley from the Harry Potter films) knows more than a little about what’s just transpired. But first he must deal very sternly with a punk petty thief. Only then can Abraham say to himself, “He’s back. I don’t know if I have the strength to do it all over again. This time I cannot fail.” His helpmate is a very imposing sword that’s already been steeled in battle.

Abraham’s arch foe -- then and now again -- is the suitably sinister Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel). They first met during Abraham’s incarceration in a Nazi death camp. Eichorst has aged little since then -- and there’s a reason for that. The two old adversaries have a terrifically acted face-off in Episode 2. And at the beginning of the next hour, you’ll see Eichorst for what he really is.

Another bad guy, wealthy Stoneheart Group owner Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), is also in bad health but looking for eternal life. He’s presumably calling the shots, with Eichorst and others bowing to his wishes. But of course he isn’t -- and of course they aren’t.

Piecing together clues and gathering increasingly gag-worthy specimens, Stoll’s dogged Eph also clashes with superiors who think he’s gone more than a little crazy. One of them is a guy who looks an awful lot like Joe Torre. Not him, though.

Meanwhile, Eph’s CDC colleague, Jim Kent (Sean Astin), proves himself to be less than trustworthy while some passengers from Flight 753 increasingly become less human through no fault of their own. It’s a terrible mess -- as are some of the deaths.

The Strain gets over its early case of the jitters and settles in to instead inflict them on viewers. By the end of Episode 4, subtitled “It’s Not For Everyone,” the series is earning its mettle as a truly macabre, chilling and rousing war of attrition in which the winner will either take all or stop hell on earth in its bloody tracks.

“I look out on this island, and I savor what is to come. Purity,” sayeth the demonic Eichorst near the close of Episode 1.

A milk-drinking CDC epidemiologist and a blade-wielding old pawn shop proprietor stand in his way. Sounds about right.

GRADE: A-minus

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Satisfaction guaranteed (for viewers): Showtime's Masters of Sex returns for Season 2

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Triangulating (left to right): Caitlin Fitzgerald, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Season 2 of Masters of Sex. Showtime photo

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One of television’s sexiest women -- if not THE sexiest -- fittingly can be savored anew in Season 2 of Showtime’s Masters of Sex.

One of its bigger cads -- if not THE biggest -- is also very much in residence.

The principals are renowned pioneering sexologists Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, respectively played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. Their late 1950s behavioral studies and traits resume on Sunday, July 13th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime. The network again has ordered 12 episodes.

Showtime sent the first two hours for review, with the opener including a helpful recap. By the end of last season, Masters had been bounced from Washington University Hospital in St. Louis after a graphic film of his sex research studies was looked upon as pornographic.

Masters and Johnson already had dissolved their professional partnership after engaging in clinical intimacy in the interests of advancing their findings. But by the end of the Season 1 finale, he stood on her rainy doorstep and said he couldn’t live without her.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) had accepted a job in California while proposing marriage to Johnson and asking her to relocate with her two children. The ongoing marriage of Masters’ longtime benefactor, Washington University provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), remained distinctly troubled after his wife, Margaret (Allison Janney), learned he was secretly gay. Barton vowed to “fix” himself by undergoing electro-shock therapy. Masters and his wife, Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), also struggled on the fulfillment and fertility fronts. But will their first child, a baby boy, help to re-bond them?

The Season 2 premiere has significant developments on all these fronts while Masters looks for a new hospital to both condone and bankroll his studies. The go-between turns out to be former prostitute Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford), who left Masters of Sex during last season to marry pretzel magnate Gene Moretti (Greg Grunberg) under false pretenses. He envisioned having a big family; she knew, via Masters, that childbirth was out of the question.

The DiMello character returns as a full-time regular in Season 2. Her snap, vigor and humor are welcome in a series whose two principal characters invariably are tightly wound and business-like -- even during the clandestine affair they carry on in a well-appointed hotel under assumed names.

Masters can be compassionate with the peripheral patients he occasionally treats. But his new son is another matter. Or as he tells his long-suffering mother intent on making amends (Ann Dowd as “Essy” Masters), “I am my father. You know it.”

When his son wails in his crib during Masters’ brief period at home alone, he spins The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” loudly on the record player rather than cuddling or comforting the infant. It’s an infantile, self-absorbed response on the part of a man who seems determined to snub those who should mean the most to him.

Johnson likewise is research-driven but better rounded as a caring member of the human species. She’s a partner, sex-wise and otherwise, that Masters clearly doesn’t deserve. But it can’t be helped, Johnson seemingly has determined. The “work” is paramount while its ramifications keep piling up.

Back at the semblance of a Masters homefront, Libby hires a young black woman named Coral (Keke Palmer) as the new nanny/housekeeper after Essy’s driven off by her grown son. Episode 2 finds them increasingly conversational while they fold William Masters” seemingly endless supply of white undershirts.

“Whoever heard of a grown man being afraid of his own child?” Libby wonders aloud.

“My auntie was the queen of the swaddle,” Coral says in a later scene after comforting the baby that his father still won’t touch. But Libby soon is of no comfort to Coral, correcting her on pronouncing “ask” as “aks” -- and insisting that she get it right so as not to be a bad influence on the baby. It’s a telling scene in which Libby comes off as a plantation matriarch still intent on enforcing class divides.

There also are some stunning developments involving the Scullys. And both Bridges and Janney are fully capable of bringing them home in a very eventful Episode 1.

Executive producer Michelle Ashford says in Showtime publicity materials that the series will leap ahead three years after this season’s first six episodes. That will take Masters of Sex into the early 1960s, which were Mad Men’s jumping off point en route to the cusp of the 1970s.

Masters of Sex is without question in Mad Men’s league as a period drama that looks inward, outward and unsteadily ahead. The performances of Sheen, Caplan, Janney and Bridges rival those in any ongoing TV series. Satisfaction is guaranteed -- even if none of the principals ever experience a true measure of it.


Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

NBC's Working the Engels labors hard, sometimes pays off


Andrea Martin enjoys her libations in Working the Engels. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 10th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Andrea Martin, Kacey Rohl, Azura Skye, Ben Arthur
Produced by: Katie Ford, Jane Cooper Ford

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It’s not particularly high comedy when former SCTV stalwart Andrea Martin drunkenly falls off a one-story rooftop onto a barbecue grill after first contemplating suicide.

There is, however, a certain joy in watching the still largely unknown Kacey Rohl bubble to the surface in the role of Martin’s youngest daughter in NBC’s Working the Engels.

Paired on Thursday nights with the new Welcome to Sweden, this is a much broader and generally lesser sitcom built around a fractious family that decides to run a disastrously unsuccessful law firm piloted by the recently deceased husband of Martin’s Ceil Engel. In the opening segment, she learns that he’s left her $200,000 in debt. Alternately guzzling from two wine glasses of scotch, Ceil declares herself to be a “bull in a candy store when it comes to my kids” before clumsily climbing to a would-be suicide perch.

Two of the kids are major messes. Needy daughter Sandy (Azura Skye) is an “occasional shoplifter” and “former pill popper” turned incompetent life coach/minister. Lunkhead son Jimmy (Ben Arthur) served jail time for embezzling from his parents. He’s now a petty crook and womanizer.

That leaves the reasonably well-adjusted Jenna (Rohl), who rooms with “Naked Sheri” while otherwise unhappily toiling as a “senior associate” at a snooty and crooked law firm. So she quits and steels herself to run dad’s old shop without help from her mother and two siblings. But of course they all try to help -- and basically are no help at all. There’s a bit of a free-form Arrested Development vibe in play, but not enough to elevate Working the Engels to anywhere near that level.

Still, Martin tries hard and Rohl is quite winning as a perkily determined client-seeker who otherwise likes to be alone until Ceil stages a “mom-tervention” in Episode 3, one of five sent for review. The plot, such as it is, contrives to have Jenna eventually pole-dancing at the Peelers strip bar (with brother Jimmy in tow) while Ceil and Sandy team in a mother-daughter dance-off. Problem is, the other daughters are little kids. But Martin remains adept at physical comedy and accompanying mugging.

Episode 4 includes guest appearances by Martin’s former SCTV colleague, Eugene Levy, and Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall. And Episode 5 has a great line tied to ditzy Sandy’s determination to write a book that will be good enough for sister Jenna’s book club.

“Honey, writing a book is hard,” Ceil counsels. “You’re not Margaret Atwood or John Grisham or Snooki.”

That rejoinder alone prompts your friendly content provider to grade Working the Engels on the curve. It brims with energy, gives Martin something reasonably gainful to do, marks Rohl as a promising, appealing comedic actress and has enough decent gags to make a case for itself.

GRADE: B-minus

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Poehler opposites in NBC's inviting Welcome to Sweden


Welcome to Sweden co-exec producers Amy Poehler & brother Greg. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 10th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Greg Poehler, Josephine Bornebusch, Lena Olin, Claes Mansson, Christopher Wagelin, Per Svensson
Produced by: Greg Poehler, Amy Poehler, Pontus Edgren, Carrie Stein, Frederik Arefalk, Felix Herngren

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Talk Swedish to me, baby.

NBC’s new summertime comedy plus, Welcome to Sweden, does so at length in most of its 10 episodes. The network sent all of them for review, and I kept watching until the supply was exhausted. The Swedish language turns out to be intoxicating, with English subtitles provided so that the gentle amusements won’t be lost in translation. Valkommen!

Greg Poehler, who in real life has lived in Sweden since 2006, joins his sister, Amy Poehler, as the show’s executive producer. A former lawyer, Poehler became a standup comic two years ago and is married to Sweden native Charlotta Poehler.

For the purposes of Welcome to Sweden, Poehler is a dissatisfied, New York-based accountant to the stars named Bruce Evans. Weary of their constant demands, he relocates to Stockholm with new girlfriend Emma Wiik (Josephine Bornebusch). She’s a blonde beauty and he’s pretty much a nebbish. But that’s standard operating procedure in American sitcoms, except that it’s usually been a tubby guy landing the looker in series such as King of Queens, According to Jim and -- way back when -- The Honeymooners.

Amy Poehler plays herself -- and a still possessive client of Bruce’s -- in Episodes 1, 3, 7, 9 and 10. Will Ferrell and Gene Simmons also drop in as Will Ferrell and Gene Simmons (Episodes 2 and 4 respectively) while Parks and Recreation co-star Aubrey Plaza is in multiple episodes as a neurotic, self-entitled stalker of Bruce. Abba member Bjorn Ulvaeus largely steals Episode 7, with a skeptical Bruce as his sounding board.

Welcome to Sweden also accommodates Patrick Duffy and Illeana Douglas as Bruce’s off-putting parents. Seen briefly at the end of Episode 5, they come visiting in Episode 6. This doesn’t go very well, of course, and neither does this particular episode, which feels forced and derivative.

The series usually is at its best when in the midst of Emma’s family. The still luminous Lena Olin is terrific as Emma’s bilingual mother, Viveka. Swedish otherwise is the language of choice for Emma’s tall, tradition-bound father, Birger (Claes Mansson). Her dense brother, Gustaf (Christopher Wagelin), and Uncle Bengt (Per Svensson) round out the featured homeland contingent. The latter owns a video store that does next to no business but makes him an encyclopedia of American actors and their roles.

Bruce can be a little too dense in that regard, even looking puzzled when Bengt references Robert De Niro’s signature “You talking to me?” line from Taxi Driver. Emma, on the other hand, is appreciably more mature and worldly. She also has landed a banking job that brings the couple to Stockholm, where Bruce remains adrift, unemployed and often clueless. Both have acclimated themselves to a traditional sitcom greeting, though. Namely, “Honey, I’m home.”

During their varied one-on-one discourses, Emma and her mother still talk in the native tongue. These are splendid scenes through and through. Plus you’ll get to improve your reading comprehension.

Malaprops also are used to good effect. As when lumbering brother Gustaf says, “It’s like Tom Cruise’s bar in Cockpit.”

Cocktail,” says Bruce, somehow knowing this while not knowing who directed Taxi Driver. “Yes, please,” goes Gustaf.

Welcome to Sweden is more charming and amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. But its charms are considerable and the overall premise is bracingly unique. NBC spent tons of time and money in the past season on heavily promoted, high profile sitcoms starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes. Both turned out to be epic failures.

If Welcome to Sweden doesn’t work, its failure won’t be epic. But during what used to be the throwaway summer season, this is a shining example of a comedy series that has a lot going for it in a smaller way.


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Extant gives CBS another 13-episode sci-fi summer splash


Something’s askew in outer space for Halle Berry in Extant. CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, July 9th at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Halle Berry, Goran Visnjic, Pierce Gagnon, Hiroyuki Sanada, Camryn Manheim, Grace Gummer, Michael O’Neil, Brad Beyer, Sergio Harford
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Greg Walker, Mickey Fisher, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Brooklyn Weaver

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As did Under the Dome at this time last year, CBS’ second big summertime splash opens with an impressive and involving first chapter.

Dome since has gotten silly if not altogether stupid, although its ratings remained strong for Season 2’s June 30th startup. Extant, a futuristic, 13-episode drama starring Halle Berry as a very vexed astronaut, looks to be more firmly grounded. Launching on Wednesday, July 9th at 8 p.m. (central), it packs a lot of intriguing plot threads into its first hour while also brimming with money-on-the-screen production values. Head producer Steven Spielberg, increasingly a TV maven, still doesn’t lend his name to anything cheap-looking.

Berry plays Molly Woods, who’s just returned from a one-person, 13-month mission in outer space. Her husband, John Woods (Goran Visnjic), is an inventor of human-like androids, with his prototype being the Woods’ pre-teen son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon). The kid can have a short temper, as can Dad. But John Woods touts Ethan as an overall safe alternative for childless and/or infertile couples. The Woods had qualified on both counts, but Molly has returned suddenly and secretly pregnant. She gets this news from Dr. Sam Barton (Camryn Manheim), who’s also a good friend. At Molly’s pleading, they agree to keep it confidential for now. But in flashbacks, viewers will learn she’s not telling the truth, the whole truth, about what happened during a brief portion of her time on Seraphim Station.

Extant is set in a so far undisclosed year in the future. The series has a sleek exterior, a vaporizing outdoor garbage disposal unit and some cool, flying toys owned by kid android Ethan. It otherwise looks pretty much like the here and now.

The cast also includes Meryl Streep’s increasingly accomplished daughter, Grace Gummer, as a teacher named Julie Gelineau. A corporate mastermind, Hiroyuki Sanada (Hideki Yasumoto), appears to be more sinister than honorable in his efforts to help John Woods build his fleet of androids. Brad Beyer and Sergio Harford play presumably deceased astronauts with ties to Molly. In the first episode’s final scene, she’s told to trust no one. That’s a hook as old as sci-fi itself. But Extant does a very good job of imbedding that hook.

It’s unknown for now whether Molly’s husband is an evil-doer or a well-intentioned man of science. But he’s not a good salesman, telling a questioner during a funding presentation that “what you call a soul, I call a cumulative effect of a lifetime of experience.” That’s not going to cut it.

Berry, an Oscar-winner for 2002’s Monster’s Ball, brings genuine star power to these proceedings. Her portrayal of Molly, particularly in the premiere episode’s outer space segments, is compelling and deeply emotional when something life-changing happens to her after a power outage aboard the station. CBS publicity materials say this will “ultimately change the course of human history.” Otherwise no pressure.

Extant now will have to live up to its considerable promise. CBS has provided only the opening hour for review, which was also its approach with Under the Dome. Had we known then what we know now . . . But Extant makes a pretty terrific first impression. With 12 episodes still to come, the series at the very least has cleared its first big hurdle.


NOTE TO READERS -- CBS will go this route a third time next summer with Zoo, a 13-episode series adapted from the 2012 James Patterson bestseller. The thumbnail description in network publicity materials goes like this: ”A global thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans across the planet. As the assaults become more cunning, coordinated and ferocious, a young renegade biologist is thrust into the race to unlock the pandemic’s mystery before there’s no place left for people to hide.”

There’s no casting yet. CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler says that Zoo “further demonstrates our commitment to high-quality, year-round programming and to high-concept series that play to summer audiences in the U.S. as well as on a global scale.”

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