Review: 'Good Timing With Jo Firestone'

Written by 16 October, 2021

I did stand-up for about decade, through the 1980s into the 1990s. I turned into a pretty good comic along the way, but even when I was terrible I loved the magic that came with making people laugh. I haven't been onstage in close to 30 years, but I still find myself writing jokes for an act I'll probably never do. I've even seriously considered doing an open mike or two, just to see if an old guy can get laughs from a room full of strangers half my age.

I say all this because I know firsthand the magic that comes from a good joke. Or even a not so good one. It's one of the qualities that makes us human and it connects the comedian and the audience in an almost spiritual way. A lot of modern comedy seems so obsessed with breaking boundaries and speaking truth that many comedians forget the most important thing: the way that seeing someone's smile or hearing them unexpectedly laugh can lift your soul. 2021 is a complicated time and there's something to be said for comedy that's free of everything but the joy of laughter and losing yourself for a few minutes in the moment.

I didn't know what to expect from the Peacock comedy special Good Timing With Jo Firestone before I watched it. Peacock didn't provide a screener ahead of time and in fact, the streamer didn't have much to say about the special. I knew the premise, but to be honest, I was afraid it would be some snarky attempt to make fun of some old folks. But instead, the program is the Ted Lasso of comedy specials: a warm, gentle show that seems to exist mostly to make people happy.

Comic and actress Jo Firestone began teaching a comedy class to a group of 16 seniors last year over Zoom. The students range in age from 66 to 88 and while a couple of them have some tangential connection to show business (one woman sold jokes to Joan Rivers for $10 a piece), the majority of them were just doing the class as a distraction. When the pandemic slowed down earlier this year, the class met in person and ultimately everyone performed a short set in front of a live audience.

Good Timing With Jo Firestone splits its 50-minute running time into three different parts, although there is some overlap between the segments. There is a look at the group in-person classes, as Firestone throws out subject ideas and guides the often raucous conversation (and anyone who think seniors are mostly prudes should watch the back-and-forth about a pussy joke). Firestone also does one-on-ones, where she is able to talk about the senior's lives and experiences a bit. And the final hunk of the special is devoted to the performances.

The performances take place in a theater at 2pm and as you might expect, the quality of the comedy doesn't generally rise to the level of the average open-mike night at any comedy club. But that isn't the point. The performances are engaging, sweet and sometimes unpredictable (one guy shows up nearly naked). There's a joyful earnestness to the event that just puts a smile on your face. These are not people who have illusions about having a comedy career or changing the world. They are just there for the companionship and the laughter. It's infectious and a reminder of what comedy can be.

None of this would work with Firestone, who provides just the right note to the special. Despite the fact that Good Timing With Jo Firestone has her name in it, the special isn't about her. She's there to guide, to encourage, to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. She's a proxy for the audience, most of which I suspect wish they could have been there to see in person.

Good Timing With Jo Firestone is a palate cleanser for the soul and I've already watched it a second time. And I can't remember the last time I did that with a comedy special.

I hope that you'll both watch the special and share it with others, since Peacock's approach to Good Timing With Jo Firestone seems to be "well, maybe people will find it buried in our library." I realize that the new Halloween movie is Peacock's big priority this week. But if that is the case, then maybe moving this special to another less crowded week might have made more sense. It deserves some extra promotional attention and it has the potential of being a special that can take off on social media.

Good Timing With Jo Firestone is now streaming on Peacock.

Last modified on Sunday, 17 October 2021 12:39

Review: 'NCIS' - Gibbs Has Left The Building

Written by 12 October, 2021

Deciding when to end a long-running show is never an easy decision. Ideally, it's being done at a natural ending point in the lives of the characters. A moment that allows the audience to feel as if the story has come to a resolution that honors all of the seasons that have come before it. But when the long-running show is still successful in the ratings, then there is a tremendous amount of pressure to keep it going. To keep the crews employed, to give everyone a chance to cash a few more paychecks. From the standpoint of the network, if people still want to watch the show, what does it matter if it isn't operating at that same level it was back in season five or even season ten? If the audience is watching, they must be happy.

And while there is some truth to all of that, as a longtime fan of NCIS it has been disheartening to watch the show lose a lot of its special chemistry over the past few seasons. New cast members have come and gone - most of them never quite gelling with the DNA of the show. There has been a certain "throw a bunch of things against the wall" feel to the episodes, which only serves a painful reminder of what has changed on the show.

Tonight's episode is being billed as the final regular appearance by Mark Harmon's character Leroy Jethro Gibbs and while his exit is not a surprise, it's a near fatal blow for a show that has felt the absence of its original cast in recent years. Gibbs is the emotional center of the show, the glue that allows everything else to work in a coherent fashion. The parts are all there to pull off a reasonable procedural show without Gibbs. But no other character in the series has the ability to make the audience care about the characters. Harmon's acting throughout the series has been subtle and easy to ignore. But he is the primary reason why audiences care about the show in a way that they never have on other competing dramas.

At the same time, it's also been obvious over the past several seasons that it is a natural ending point for Gibbs. He's getting older, weary. The unnaturally youthful and spry Harmon has noticeably lost a step or two. In a better world, NCIS would end as it began - with Harmon.

Instead, the show has scrambled to build a post-Harmon cast and in the first three episodes of the current season, two characters have been added to the mix.  NCIS Special Agent Jessica Knight (Katrina Law) becomes a new member of the team after Agent Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham) exited at the end of last season. Knight had previously appeared in the two-episode season finale earlier this year, so she is a somewhat familiar character to the NCIS audience. The second addition to the mix is Gary Cole's FBI Special Agent Alden Parker and as much as I like Cole, his character feels as if it's fresh off the procedural character assembly line. Cranky to the point of being irritating? Check. But yet, he's an excellent agent? Designed to be disruptive to the NCIS team? Check.

This week's episode is the final chapter of the story arc that was introduced in the season premiere. Gibbs and his new friend Marcie Warren (played by Harmon's real-life wife Pam Dawber) had been chasing what they believed was a serial killer. Of course, it wasn't long before the entire NCIS team was involved, as well as the FBI. Cole's character is there to lead the FBI response and introduce him to the team and he argues with all of them. He might as well be wearing a t-shirt that reads "soon to be working at NCIS."

Gibbs and McGee are off to Naktok Bay, Alaska to try and prove the murders were related to opening of a copper mine. And an FBI team led by Parker is chasing them, armed with a warrant to arrest Gibbs. Because....well, the show needs a reason for Cole to stay in the picture. Hey, maybe Gibbs will end up in prison in some NCIS-style tribute to the Seinfeld series finale. That would be a twist no one would see coming!

Soon, Gibbs and McGee are on the hunt for a missing article which would supposedly prove the mine is a potential environmental disaster. It was written by Libby Alonak, one of the murder victims and when they meet with Libby's father, the show gets the chance to beat the "Gibbs continues to struggle with the murder of his wife and daughter" emotional beat directly into the audience's brainstem one last time. Gibbs and McGee are convinced the mine is at the center of the murders. Which doesn't seem a concern to the global giant Sonova, whose CEO travels to Alaska to do the ceremonial ribbon-cutting/gloating at the ground-breaking for the mine. 

Gibbs and McGee show up at the ceremony to speak with her and her response is the textbook arrogance you see when a procedural wants the audience to know that "this business leader is a very bad person." These are the scenes that grate the most in the show. There was a time when  NCIS was able to accomplish the same story beat without the scene feeling as if it could just easily be a part of an episode of FBI or S.W.A.T.

Back at headquarters, Medical Examiner Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) is set to examine the body of Libby Alonak and surprise, Dr. "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum) shows up for another one of his inexplicable appearances. He tells Palmer that Gibbs had asked him to do a psychological profile of Libby and there's a flashback to when Ducky last spoke with Gibbs. He showed up at his old friend's house as Gibbs was frantically packing to leave. Ducky tells Gibbs he's worried and Gibbs finally admits out loud to what he has been going through during the events of the past six months. And it sets up his eventual exit from the show in a way that might as well include a flashing "exit, stage left" sign.

"You're right, lately I've been searching," Gibbs says. "I don't know what I'm looking for. I know..being alone without the job was hard." 

"Then come back," replies Ducky.

"That's even harder."

Gibbs tells Ducky that he has to get to the airport and he unexpectedly hugs him. "Your are a great friend. I appreciate you more than you will ever know." And in the moment that follows, as the old friends quietly look at each other one last time, you see what has made NCIS so compelling over the years. Strong acting, well-defined, nuanced characters and the willingness to not overwrite the scenes. No "will I ever see you again?" comments. No need to explain every single emotion to the audience. All the viewers need to know is written on the faces of Mark Harmon and McCallum. Two veteran actors who are as good as anyone on television.

Back in the present, Dr. Mallard is examining the couple of personal effects found on the victim's body and discovers a QR code attached to the underside of Libby's watch. The QR code leads to a copy of the article about proposed copper mine and it claims that Sonova's own internal environmental impact report said the mine would have "unavoidable catastrophic consequences to the water and surrounding animal life." What!?! The obviously evil CEO was lying? I'm shocked. Well, not really.

Back at NCIS headquarters, it turns out that the primary source for Libby's expose was biologist Brian Stafford, who was one of the other murder victims. NCIS needs to find his original report to take down Sonova, so Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) asks Marcie to contact Stafford's wife and ask for his laptop. This gives Marcie the chance to ask the agent how Gibbs is doing. That whooshing sound means that it time for another flashback, this time it's Torres recalling when he drove Gibbs to the airport for his trip to Alaska. 

They joked about how Gibbs got his boat out the basement, they discussed how well Knight is fitting into the squad and then Gibbs asked Torres how he was doing. "You are a good agent. You've got instincts that don't come along often. More important, you are a good man. Do me a favor, though," Gibbs adds. "Don't let this job become all that there is. You take of you."

Back in the present, Torres lies to Marcie and reassures her that Gibbs is fine. Later at the lab, Kasie unlocks Stafford's laptop and finds his original impact report. And it's signed by Sonova CEO Sonia Eberhart.

As Gibbs and McGee head off to arrest Eberhart, FBI Agent Parker shows up to arrest Gibbs. McGee can't believe the agent had tracked them down and as Parker is putting the handcuffs on Gibbs, he reveals that Gibbs himself tipped off the FBI about his location. Of course, Gibbs and McGee convince Parker to wait to arrest Gibbs until after Eberhart is in custody. 

But even though NCIS can prove she buried the report, they can't prove she is connected to the murders. But Torres and Knight have a theory that Eberhart had an unknown partner. So to draw that person out, when Gibbs and McGee are set to arrest the CEO, Gibbs gets a call and he tells McGee the arrest is one hold because of "red tape." As soon as Eberhart gets into her car, she tries without success to call someone. It turns out that the car is being driven by Agent Parker, who used a cell phone jammer to block her call. Although it apparently works on satellite phones as well. But he does get to see who she tried to phone. 

Cut to Marcie's apartment, where she is speaking with Phil Hanover (John Hensley). She tells him that she's discovered the murders were all connected to a copper mine in Alaska. Oh, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see where this is headed. He asks what any of that has to do with the death of his wife. Marcie says there is no connection that she could find and then of course, Phil asks the "have you told any of this to the Feds yet?" question. Marcie tells him "no," and she might as well add "so it's safe to kill me."

Of course, Torres and Knight are there to stop him and they lay out the entire scheme for the audience in the world's longest example of laying out backstory in the midst of making an arrest. Phil owns a lot of land in Naktok Bay, Eberhart offered him millions for the land if he could make the mine's opponents disappear. And when his wife found out about the plan, he had her killed as well.

Back in the middle of rural Alaska, Gibbs and McGee get word of the arrests and you can tell it's time for the prelude to the big goodbye.

"How many cases do you think I've worked, huh!?" Gibbs asks McGee.

"In 25 years? At least a thousand, I'm sure, why?"

"Because what we did today, saving this land, may be the most meaningful one of all of them."

"We did something good here, didn't we?"

"You should be proud, Tim."

Gibbs then insists that McGee arrest him, reminding him that it's his duty. And so the handcuffs go back on and off they go.

McGee turns Gibbs over to Parker, who takes the handcuffs off of Gibbs. He tells them that he called and told his boss at the FBI that he wasn't going to the bureau's errand boy. His chief told him that Gibbs had been a rulebreaker for a long time and it was time that he finally paid the price. The agent says he called an old co-worker and asked about Gibbs. "Let's just say that he convinced me that Gibbs doesn't belong behind bars." Parker tells McGee that if he doesn't testify that Gibbs stole his car, the FBI won't have a case. And while he might lose his badge, he is doing what he believes is right. As Parker leaves the two and heads off, he reveals the name of the old co-worker he spoke with to vet Gibbs: Tobias Fornell. 

Gibbs returns to the boat owned by Libby's father, who thanks Gibbs for making sure he received wife daughter's body. The father tells Gibbs that he is having a traditional potlatch ceremony that evening . He also tells him it would be his great honor to present Gibbs with an old Springfield rifle that is a treasured possession. Gibbs tries to decline, but he's told that it is a tradition during potlatch to give away your personal wealth. Gibbs tells the father he has something for him as well. He has Libby's watch. "I noticed it was a man's watch," Gibbs says. "Is it your watch?"

He tells Gibbs that he gave it to his daughter the day she left their village. "She once said to me that this was the wrong mine at the wring place," he tells Gibbs. "And to find out that she helped stop it and save our precious land. I've never been prouder to be her father."

Later, McGee and Gibbs are fly fishing in the lake and they spend some time talking. Gibbs talks about fishing with his father and he opens up a bit more than usual. One of the more interesting things about the past few seasons has been watching the relationship between these two men evolve from boss/employee to mentor/mentee to eventually friends. The plane arrives to take them home and you can see where this is headed.

At NCIS headquarters, Director Vance informs Torres, Knight and the audience about the latest developments. Parker was fired by his boss after not arresting Gibbs. Vance spoke with Gibbs and offered to give him his job back, but Gibbs declined. So when the show returns to the lake we know what's coming. Gibbs tells McGee that he is staying. Not going back to work, not going back home. He tells McGee he's not sure how long he's staying. "I'm thinking I don't have another boat left to build." 

McGee tries to talk him out of it, tries to figure out why he wants to stay. Gibbs can't articulate it precisely, but tells him "Whatever I'm feeling, this..this sense of peace. I have not had this since Shannon and Kelly died. And I'm not ready to let it go."

"I could not have hoped for anyone better to watch my back for the past 18 years than you, Tim," he tells McGee. They hug and Gibbs tells McGee that he loves him. "I love you, too," McGee replies as he begins to cry. 

"Promise me you are going to be okay," McGee says.

"I already am." 

The episode ends with McGee watching Gibbs fishing in the lake as he flies back home. And for all the clunkiness of the episode, the last couple of minutes are a reminder of why NCIS has been a TV staple for so many years. Mark Harmon is as gifted an actor as procedural television has ever produced. He is going to be missed and I have trouble imagining the show without him in it every season.

On the other hand, if he ever wants to return to television, I'd love to see him do a couple of made-for-television movies a year as an ex-NCIS agent who reluctantly agrees to solve some mystery or right some wrong in rural Alaska. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 19:01

Review: 'Algren'

Written by 01 October, 2021

The diner interview has become a well-worn political trope in recent years. Reporters hoping to understand what "the real people are thinking" airport into town, find the nearest diner and speak with a few customers as they finish off their generic Grand Slam. It's an exercise that has become a joke because it ultimately leads to lightweight, intellectually useless reporting.

But there was a time when reporters who covered working class people actually lived and reported in the same working class neighborhoods. Chicago produced several working class journalists whose lives were interwoven with the people they covered, including the long-time Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko and the literary icon Nelson Algren.

Algren's output wasn't massive: just five books and several collections of shorter pieces. But his 1951 piece "Chicago, A City On The Make" defines midcentury Chicago as well as anything ever written. And while the movie adaptation of his book "The Man With The Golden Arm" apparently disappointed Algren, it contained one of Frank Sinatra's best film performances.

But the passage of time has not been kind to Algren's reputation. While he is still somewhat remembered in literary circles, it's been decades since his name has been familiar to most people. And while the new documentary Algren might not be able to change that fate, it does provide a solid illustration of why he mattered.

Algren grew up in a middle-class South Side neighborhood in Chicago and after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1931, he planned to pursue a journalism career. But he wasn't able to find a job and spent several years bumming around the United States. Those travels included a several month stint in a Texas jail after he was arrested for attempting to steal a typewriter.

Director Michael Caplan draws on extensive interviews with friends and admirers of Algren, as well as lots of archival footage to flesh out the story of Algren's rise and fall. Returning to Chicago, he published a series of short stories and a first novel, primarily centered around the lower-class residents of the city he loved. His second novel, 1942’s "Never Come Morning," was so upsetting to Chicago's powerful Polish community that the city's mayor banned it from local libraries.

After serving in WWII, he published the 1947 short story collection "The Neon Wilderness" and famously began a romance with French intellectual and feminist Simone de Beauvoir (who was still at the time living with Jean-Paul Sartre). Their breakup was not pleasant for either person and it inspired de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel "The Mandarins."

Then came Algren's biggest success: 1950's "The Man With The Golden Arm" and the 1956 novel "Walk On The Wild Side." Both spawned movies he strongly disliked and while it's unclear from the movie what precisely changed in Algren after that, it's clear that something did.

He never released another novel and pursued various teaching jobs and freelance pieces until he died in 1981. Part of it was that his style of reporting the lives of lower and working class Americans had fallen out of favor with readers. But it's also seems to be the case that Algren felt he had run out of things to say. Or as the movie hints, struggled to find a way to say them.

Algren isn't an expose and doesn't uncover a lot of previously unknown facts about the author. But it does make a case for him being a writer and journalist that still matters and that makes the film a must-see for any fan of journalism and of authors who dig deep into the lives of the people they cover.

Algren opens October 1st, 2021 in live & virtual cinemas

Last modified on Friday, 01 October 2021 15:53

Review: 'Unidentified With Demi Lovato'

Written by 30 September, 2021

If you spend any time around celebrities of a certain level, you become familiar with "the bubble." There is a class of celebrity that travels through society encased in a protective support group of agents, publicists, family members and people who seem to be there mostly just to interact with the star. It's a facsimile of real life that can feel natural and normal if you don't look too closely behind the curtain.

UFOs and experiences with aliens are a staple of cable television and it's not a surprise that the genre has begun attracting a few true believer celebrities who believe they have experienced something mysterious and want to learn more. But I have to admit that as UFO shows go, Unidentified With Demi Lovato is in its own unique bubble boy category.

Lovato apparently has had several experiences with UFOs and those events sparked this show, which follows Lovato, her sister and best friend Matthew Scott Montgomery around the country as they speak to other believers and try and determine what is real and what is not.

But since Lovato isn't just the average UFO enthusiast, the travels take place on a huge luxury bus and her "investigations" take happen at a level mere UFO fans would find as unfamiliar as the inside of a flying saucer. Lovato doesn't just visit Sedona to investigate the vortexes. She has access to a massive private sanctuary and her "social media team" organizes a meditation event with some of the singer's fans. She's given a presentation about the history of UFOs outside in front of this TV screen the size of a freight car while she and her two companions munch on popcorn.

Lovato and the rest of the Scooby squad look into the alien abduction phenomenon (after Lovato has an out-of-body experience) and a possible connection between ETs and ghosts (after Lovato has a near-death experience). It's all harmless fun and it's certainly no less scattershot and unconvincing than any of the other TV shows about UFOs that fill the schedule of the History and Travel Channels.

But the question with these types of shows is not the authenticity of the stories, but whether they are worth watching. And in the case of Unidentified With Demi Lovato, that ultimately hinges on your thoughts about the star.

Lovato seems sincere about her UFO quest and if you are a fan, then this show will probably be a pleasant way to spend a few hours. But I'm not convinced that there is much to see for the average viewer. The stories you will hear will be familiar to anyone who has even briefly examined the UFO phenomenon and Lovato's charisma doesn't extend to listening to them (Lovato came out as nonbinary in May) try and explain what they had experienced.

The most honest answer I can give about Unidentified With Demi Lovato is that if you're a fan, go watch the series. But if you're not, it's likely to be a pleasant but not especially engrossing ride through the desert looking for E.T.

Unidentified With Demi Lovato premiered Thursday, September 30th on Peacock.

Last modified on Thursday, 30 September 2021 09:28

'Big Brother 23' Recap: And The End Of A Good Season -- 09/29/2021

Written by 29 September, 2021

Big Brother 23, let me start by saying thank you! You finally, after more years than I want to discuss, gave us an interesting season. Not only did we have a cast that enjoyed themselves, but we only had one showmance, gameplay that no one saw, and an alliance of six that made it to the final six. Of course, there was controversy. Many on Twitter weren’t happy with the Cookout alliance but if you look back through history, this one has finally given us many firsts. We did have an exit with Kyland that got messy, but I believe everyone who watched Big Brother was expecting it. I don’t know who was in charge of the casting, but please let them do it again. We got an intelligent lot with most knowing the game. That made it so much better. And if there are typos tonight, remember! This is a two-hour episode I’m trying to get up in an hour.

Round One to Xavier, Round Two Goes to …
Julie reminds us that one of Xavier, Azah, or Derek F. will win the $750,000. After the recap of the entire history of the Cookout (and a reminder that Xavier promised to take Derek to the end), Derek evicts Kyland and Xavier wins part one. 

Julie tells us that 85 days have passed. The second round of the HoH competition is called “Four of a Kind Slots” and looks like a huge slot machine. They have to use their feet to line up the answers to the questions with four people who answered the questions. Once a question is correct, they get their next question. It’s tough and both Azah and Derek (Big D) have problems. While Azah doesn’t get the answers right, Big D has problems with his knees and gets hurt. In the end, Azah beats Big D with a better time (Azah 13:19, Big D. 20:22). Big D did try to use his father’s fights with Mohammad Ali as inspiration. He tells us in Diary Room that he did the best that he could. Azah celebrates in the Diary Room and is ready to take on Xavier for the money.

After the competition, Big D is upset because he didn’t do well. He’s also worried that Azah is infatuated with Xavier (but not in a showmance way due to Xavier’s choice). He’s getting very paranoid. It doesn’t help when Azah asks him who he wants to sit next to in the finale. And they fight and disagree. This seems to have been the tone during the last few days. Xavier is happy even though he’s often caught in the middle. One thing Azah seems to forget is that she hasn’t won! My thoughts are that neither Big D nor Azah did much during the early weeks. They both seemed to fall in love with the bedroom and their separate beds. Xavier does tell us that the more they argue, the better chance it will be for Xavier to be in the finale versus Azah. But what will Xavier do if he wins? (Oh, and Big D’s biggest regret is taking Kyland out.) They do (as always make-up.) Azah tells us that she is confused and doesn’t want to lose Big D. (Derek) as a friend.

The Jury House Greets Kyland
The group is waiting for the next juror to arrive. They debate who will be next and Tiffany hopes it is not Kyland. People want it to be Xavier but really don’t seem surprised to see Kyland. After Tiffany asks him “what happened,” Kyland lets it fly and tells them that Big D was the one to evict him. Then, they get down to how to determine the winner. Tiffany says they must look at strategy, social game, etc. Xavier had the relationships but he was always guarded and playing the game (per Claire). Kyland lets it be known that Xavier threw competitions. Tiffany adds that Xavier never had “heavy conversations” or game talk. Big D and Azah flew under the radar. Azah had relationships outside of the Cookout and was good at making relationships with people she liked. It’s going to be hard for Azah if she sits next to Big D. Big D. had a social game. Derek X. jokes that they share the same name. Big D talked a lot and disguised the Cookout from Sarah Beth (and others). He hasn’t won competitions. It was not because of strategy because he couldn’t. TIffany sees that he gave the game his best and his willpower cannot be overlooked. Kyland is talking about winning competitions and Claire rolls his eyes. Kyland has now apparently made the jury mad and Tiffany says he’s insulted Hannah. Kyland sees Big D and Hannah as interchangeable. Britini makes the point it’s going to be determined on how they answer the juror’s question. Wait! No Dr. Will Kirby this year. Well, it’s probably due to Covid.

The Final HoH
This will be a question/answer game called “Houseguest Headliners.” They have to look at headlines and three statements. One statement is a lie. After viewing the video about the juror, they must choose which is the lie. I don’t think studying this would have necessarily helped. Azah is nervous and she misses the first question. In the end, Xavier beats her by one question. (And a question to readers: How do you like how “buff” they made Derek X. look.)

Xavier gives each a chance to make a plea. Big D reminds him that they bonded on day one and he’s had his back since the start of the game. Azah tells Xavier that she appreciates his game and thanks him for starting the Cookout (that’s three that take credit for that!). Xavier is told that he’s guaranteed at least $75,000 and must decide who to evict. It’s the difference between big money and second place. He chooses to evict Azah and she joins Julie on stage.

Azah and Julie
As they watch, Big D. cries and thanks Xavier while Xavier grins and tells him Xavier has had Derek. Big D. can’t believe his luck and says this proves anything can happen. Julie asks Azah how she feels and she is upset. She knew the first question but overthought it. She doesn’t regret anything. When asked who she would have taken to the final two, she says Xavier because he did visible things in the game. Against Big D., she didn’t have a chance. With Xavier, she would have gotten votes but it would be close. Julie congratulates her on making history (Cookout). Azah’s final thoughts are that she’s still trying to process everything. She knows she messed up and wonders what the purpose of her being in the house was. She knows there is a reason and she can’t wait to find out what it was. Julie tells her that “God has a plan.”

Jury Questions Begin
The jury is now on the stage and Julie calls them rowdy and asks who they think is the final juror. Sarah Beth hopes it is Derek but it’s Azah which seems to surprise them all. They welcome her. They’re told that Xavier is the last HoH and chose Derek F. But now it’s time for juror questions to the two. 

The first question is Kyland who asks Xavier what is the most important factor to crowing the first African-American Big Brother. Xavier says he never got personal. He did lie and hopes he didn’t disrespect anyone. To him, he played the best game.

Britini asks Big D. what decisions he made on his own. Big D. tells them that he started the Cookout. He went to HoH to protect the Cookout every week. 

Alyssa asks Xavier what his biggest mistake was. Xavier feels that it was watching her leave. He doesn’t really regret anything.

Hannah asks Big D whether he was only in it for fame. Big D. tells her that he wanted to be on television and help his mom and had made that clear throughout the game. 

Derek X. asks Xavier what move he made that the jury didn’t know. Xavier admitted to throwing two competitions because of the Cookout. He talked around that answer though. 

Sarah Beth goes to Big D and asks what he contributed to get to the final six. He tells her any time there was an HoH won, he was in their ear to benefit the Cookout. If something had to be executed, he made it happened (even if the Cookout didn’t like it).

Azah asks Big D what he did to deserve the $750,000 more than Xavier. Big D tells her he gave it his all. He didn’t think of himself but the rest of the Cookout. He made himself a pawn (to protect the Cookout). Big D. showed everyone his heart (and I’ll give him that).

The final pleas are made. The winner will be the first African- American champion of Big Brother. Big D says he deserve the prize and he came in wanting to be the first African-American winner. He tried to win comps but couldn’t. He knew he wanted to start the alliance of six. Xavier tells all that he played a team game because he had to do that to get everyone to the jury. He won when he needed and gives his credentials. If the length of speech counts, Xavier wins.

Jurors cast their votes. They will vote one at a time and insert the key with the name that should win Big Brother. Of course, they congratulate the two as they cast their votes. (Of all the jurors, I think Sarah Beth is still bitter.) Kyland, of course, has to give a long-winded speech. Azah makes a joke about not evicting and scares Julie. 

The rest of the evicted houseguests join remotely. They’re as rowdy as the jurors. Julie says that they saw what America saw and talks about the Cookout. Christian found out as soon as he got home. He says that the Cookout is the greatest alliance in BB history. When you put a bigger purpose in the game, history can be made. Julie says “unity,” and Christan says yes! Xavier said Christian said it perfectly but Big D and Kyland nodded. Brent was most surprised by Tiffany and thought all she did was hair and braids. He was surprised by her undercover game. He gave her credit and didn’t see it coming. Julie asks Tiffany if she ever thought the plan wasn’t going to work. Tiffany admits that she did and it really hurt when she had to evict Claire. She admitted that the other strong people in the Cookout told her that she had to do it. Julie then asks Derek X. if he knew about this when he was in the house and was only a pawn in the master plan. Derek X. says he didn’t know he was played. He had only seen two seasons. 

The house guests’ secrets are revealed. Julie shows the clips of Hannah saying she’s a protegee, Sarah Beth revealing her job, Claire and math, and Britini’s black belt. Claire is asked about which surprises her the most and she tells all that it is Hannah. Of course, the Cookout is the biggest. 

Big D is then asked to share his secret and Xavier does “the Thinking Man” pose while Big D stands. Derek F. tells them that his lifestyle and other things he said were true. What he hid was that he was the youngest son of “Smoking” Joe Frazier. Xavier gets up, smiling, and jumps in his face laughing. Derek F. was afraid that the houseguests would think he came from money, but he doesn’t. Xavier says you think you know a man. Derek tried to cover up the Frazier tattoo. Xavier says he still would have taken him to the final two. 

Now it turns to Xavier about his occupation and Derek props his chin and says, “oh yes.” Xavier tells all that most of what he said is true. He has done bartending at weddings. He omitted that he’s a college basketball player and a fully licensed attorney and Derek F. gets back at him with the fact that Derek F. guessed it. Julie admits they have that on tape from an early episode. 

Britini has asked to share something on stage. She stands and announces that she did have a black belt but now she wanted to reveal a secret she kept from the house guests. At 22, Britini was diagnosed with autism. She didn’t want any of them to think that she was anything but Britini. She’s much more than her disability and is so proud of her Big Brother journey. Derek X. hugs her while Derek F. wipes tears and Tiffany and others around her take her hand or hug her.

Kyland is asked about the exit confrontation which he still doesn’t regret what he said. Xavier tells him that he shouldn’t have made it personal by bringing up his nephew. Xavier says that it is a game after all. 

Hannah is asked about her feelings when she left the house on day 65. Hannah said while it was a shock. When she opened the door, she knew it was one of the happiest moments of her life because the Cookout (and she) had made history. She was so proud of being a part of the alliance.

And the winner of this year’s Big Brother is Xavier by a unanimous vote. Xavier and Big D. hug and Julie tells them to come out. Big D does hang back and lets Xavier have his moment in the confetti. Xavier’s parents/family/friends are watching live. Hugs and celebration ensue. Kyland and Xavier have a word (but I think there will be more). Tiffany consoles Azah. 

American Favorite came down to Derek X. and Tiffany as the two top vote-getters. Tiffany wins. Tiffany thanks America and tells her son that the money is all hers. Xavier is asked how he feels. He’s thrilled. He loves all. Xavier gets $750,000. BIg D. gets $75,000 (plus what he won at comps). Derek F. wants the money to change his mom’s life and will do so. He thanks the Cookout. 

As the show ends, Julie thanks all the houseguests for a wonderful season (and I agree wholeheartedly). She announces that you can apply for Big Brother next summer (please use the same casting director). Then she announces Celebrity Big Brother will return in February. She will see us then! 

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 September 2021 23:34

Review: 'NCIS Hawai'i'

Written by 19 September, 2021

Unlike a lot of TV critics, I love a good broadcast television procedural. I rarely write recaps, but I wrote recaps of NCIS for years because I enjoyed the subtle myth-building of the series. And Mark Harmon's Gibbs is one of the great iconic characters of television.

But because I love the genre, I also expect a lot from any procedural. Not every show can be great, but I expect more than workmanlike. When I look at a series, I'm hoping to find some small moments of surprise. All genres have tropes - procedurals more than most - but the shows that can juggle the twin challenges of familiarity and freshness are the ones that I ultimately care about the most.

When I sat down to watch the four episodes of NCIS: Hawai'i provided to me by CBS, I didn't have any grand expectations one way or the other. Despite the NCIS name, the show was unlikely to share any DNA with the mother show. Both NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans have managed to have nice runs without having anything in common with NCIS other than the name. But the question for me was whether NCIS: Hawai'i could carve out a distinctive identity and be a show with a unique point of view and chemistry.

The answer to that question is "not yet," but that doesn't mean that you won't like the show. It is slickly produced, and there is not a wasted moment in any of the episodes. The scenes fly across your screen like cars on a NASCAR track, and unlike the case in a lot of procedurals, there weren't any awkwardly constructed interactions that took me out of the moment.

And yet, I am not sure that I can exactly recommend NCIS: Hawai'i. Don't get me wrong; if you're looking for a tightly written procedural, this is the show for you. But in a weird way, the show's slickness and familiarity also makes it feel a bit disposable.

Vanessa Lachey plays Jane Tennant, the first female Special Agent in Charge of NCIS Pearl Harbor. She's driven and good at her job, but she's also juggling the challenges of being a single mom. Is it wrong for me to bring up that these shows seldom feature a single dad balancing work and home life? There is the new guy struggling to fit in, the quirky science tech guy (Jason Antoon as Ernie Malik), the hard-nose local CIA agent who is hiding a tender side (Tori Anderson as Kate Whistler), the guy who is good-looking but doesn't know it potential love interest for Tennant (Enver Gjokaj as Captain Milius) etc. etc.

Every single one of the actors does a great job with what they're given, and there isn't a weak link in the ensemble. But there is so much thrown into every scene that it sometimes feels like it's an exercise in trying to see how much backstory can be crammed into a single episode. It's as if the producers recognize that viewers are drawn to the complex-ish character mythologies of the other NCIS shows. So they are going to try and lure the viewers in by dumping as much as possible into the script in hopes something will stick.

The other challenge for NCIS: Hawai'i comes from the Hawaii part. The scenery is so instantly recognizable that it is a challenge to shoot a show in Hawaii and not have it feel like every other procedural shot in the same places. And there are indeed moments in the show where you could drop the cast of Magnum PI or Hawaii Five-0 into the same scene, and they would look right at home. Things may change as the season progresses, but for now, the scenery works against efforts for the show to build a distinct identity.

I'm not arguing that you shouldn't watch NCIS: Hawai'i. But while it's smooth and goes down easy, it also feels a bit forgettable. I have no doubt audiences will watch the show, But as to the question of whether it's worth watching...let's check back later in the season.

NCIS: Hawai'i premieres Monday, September 20th, 2021 on CBS.

Last modified on Sunday, 19 September 2021 15:50

Review: 'Wheel Of Fortune' Season 39 Premiere

Written by 13 September, 2021

Tonight brings the season 39 premiere of Wheel Of Fortune and while the past few seasons have brought some small changes in gameplay, this literally is a situation where there's no reason to fix what isn't broken. Wheel Of Fortune is a predictable ratings dynamo and while I expect there will be some big changes when Pat Sajak or Vanna White eventually retire, we're not there yet. Instead, we get some modest changes and the beginning of "Teacher's Week."

The set has been updated a bit. The big video splash screen has been replaced by a more subdued background with logo. A bit more modern and less "game showey," even though I realize that's not really a word.

As far as the gameplay goes, there are a couple of tweaks. In the triple toss-up, contestants try to solve three puzzles, all of the same category. Previously, each puzzle was worth $2,000, for a total of $6,000. This season, while that amount stays the same, there is also a $4,000 bonus if a contestant correctly solves all three phrases, which would mean one contestant could win a total of $10,000.

My suspicion is that it's a way to try and make the games closer and we'll see how that works out throughout the season. It didn't turn out that way on tonight's episode, because while one contestant did sweep the three toss-ups and win the $10,000, it was the same contestant who had already won trips to France and Hawaii.

Another change in the game this season is that on the final spin of the game (the one that determines how much money will be at stake for each letter in the final round), the spin is now taken by the contestant who has control of the wheel when the final warning bell rings. I'm not sure how much impact it has to have a contestant do it instead of Pat, but I don't think it'll have any negative impact on gameplay, either.

So why was that change made? Well, when asked about it at the end of the show by Vanna, Sajak tells viewers to go to the show's social media feeds, where they'll find video of him explaining why the show made this particular tweak.

Turns out that the change was made because Sajak says he never really liked the idea of the host imposing something on the players. And they made the change so that the final round was entirely in the player's hands. 

He also mentioned that he is frequently asked how he never hit a bankrupt or prize when he spun the wheel for the final time. He said that he did do that regularly, but they just edited those moments out to save time, since it didn't affect gameplay. And that they'll do the same thing now that one of the players is doing the final spin. I am guessing that editing is one of the reasons why you sometimes see the "this episode has been edited but the results of the game have not been affected" disclaimer at the end of some episodes. 

The final change this season is that the minimum amount a contestant can win in the final round has been increased by $1,000 to $39,000.

In the end, teacher Allison won the $39,000 prize after naming every consonant that was part of the final puzzle. She walked away with $81,225, which is a pretty impressive way to kick off a season.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 00:59

Review: 'Inside Edition' Season 34 Premiere

Written by 13 September, 2021

There are some syndicated television shows that creatively most closely resemble zombies. They exist, they move around and make noise. But they are essentially dead men walking and while they obviously still retain enough viewers to stay on the air, they are entirely off the radar for most viewers.

While I appreciate the history of Inside Edition, I have to admit to being a bit surprised it is still on the air after thirty-four years. There was a time (back in the Bill O'Reilly years) when the show's mx of crime stories and outrage about pop culture issues made it an essential show for viewers who liked their news programs a bit tawdry and controversial. But in 2021, watching the show is a sad and tired experience. Much like watching Madonna's occasional efforts to be "controversial." Instead, it just reminds you that she's now an old woman who couldn't find a new pop culture trend with a tracking dog and a team of detectives.

Deborah Norville has hosted the show since 1995 and as they tease the episode's stories at the top of the half-hour, I'm struck by how many of the pieces are based around some piece of viral video from social media. They are all things I have already seen in a dozen places. But I'm guessing this means Inside Edition is in part a show for people who like viral video but don't spend a lot of time on social media?

The opening story centers on a 22-year-old woman named Gabby who disappeared following a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend. According to allegations, he returned with her camper, but refuses to tell anyone what might have happened to his now-missing girlfriend. There are interviews with her justifiably concerned parents and while the segment doesn't provide much else in the way of details, this true crime tale is the hallmark of Inside Edition.

Next up is a follow-up story about "Gator Girl," an alligator trainer who was mauled by an alligator in an attack that was caught on video and became a viral story a few months ago. The show has an "exclusive" follow-up, which is really just a quick interview with the woman. As it turns out, the alligator's nickname was "Darth Gator," and if the training facility isn't selling t-shirts with that name on them, they are guilty of marketing malpractice. But the interview itself is pretty bland. She is excited to get back to her job, these things can happen, etc., etc.

Segment three is a vapid mashup of video clips that begins with some scenes from the MTV Video Music Awards, before jumping around from everything from the U.S. Open to the the annual lighting of the spotlights at the spot where the Twin Towers once stood. I think the point was to show that New York City has opened back up although it could just all have been an excuse to include a bunch of random celebrity stories that happened to take place in the same city. The segment felt more like a rejected Entertainment Tonight piece than anything useful. But it's also a reminder that I am not the target audience for this type of show. Although to be honest, who is?

The centerpiece of the episode is an interview with the security expert who was tasked with keeping the now-convicted Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin safe during his trial. Not a lot of surprises in the segment. Yes, there were death threats, the security detail wore bulletproof vests, yada, yada. Then an extended segment on the cat who fell from the balcony at a University of Florida game, which is used as the entry point to show some college football highlights from the weekend. 

Then it's back to Inside Edition's true crime sweet spot with the story of two 14-year-old Florida boys who were arrested for allegedly plotting a Columbine-type shooting at their middle school. Not surprisingly, in an interview with one of the boy's parents, they are convinced he would never have committed a crime.

The episode ends with a couple of random pop-culture stories, with much of the video drawn from social media. Britney Spears announced her engagement and a  mascot dance-off.

Then one of the longest half-hours of my life was over and I remain flummoxed by the audience for this show. Obviously there are enough people watching Inside Edition to keep it on the air. But who are these people who like a mix of true crime stories with no memorable details and pop culture stories that are 24 hours past their prime?

Now THAT is an inside story I'd be interested in seeing.

Inside Edition is a syndicated half-hour series that runs Monday-Friday on local stations across the country.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 09:33

Big Brother History: Alliances Through The Years

Written by 01 September, 2021

When I thought of this piece, I had decided to lay out all the Big Brother alliances since season one.  When I started my research, I found a site called Big Brother Wiki ( that had done a very thorough job of chronicling this history.  I want to thank them and it made me limit this piece to famous alliances.  Season one did not have any alliances as the show was so new.  I will not do All-Star years unless something significant is noted. 

Let’s begin with the most famous alliance which has been on multiple seasons — Chill Town.  Chill Town was created by Mike “Boogie” Malin and Dr. Will Kirby. They were the only two members who clearly knew the game play.  In season two, Boogie and Will used Shannon Dragoo with Krista Stegall, and Justin Sebik (who was expelled for threatening to kill Krista).  Chill Town would show up again during the first Big Brother All-Star season (Season 7) with Will and Boogie working with Jase Wirey, Janelle Pierzina, and Erika Landin.  Season two saw Will win while Mike “Boogie” won season 7.  Today, their friendship is no more as Will has a restraining order (and other court cases) against Boogie.  Chill Town resurfaced when Coach Boogie recruited Frank Eudy in Season 14.  Boogie was a coach and with Frank started a new version with Britney Haynes, Dan Ghressling, Danielle Murphee, and Shane Meaney.  Ian spoiled the season for Dan.  So no Chill Town member won season 14.

Season Five saw two big alliances that featured biological siblings of Mike Ellis and Nakomis Dedmon.  The Four Horsemen, consisted of Drew Danie, Jase Wirey, Michael Ellis and Scott Long and had the eventual winner, Drew.  The Pinky Swear Alliance  worked against the Four Horsemen with some success.  It consisted of Nakamis Dedmon, Adria Klein, Diane Henry, Karen Ganci, Natalie Carroll and Will Wikle.  While the Horsemen thought they ran the game, The Pinky Swear started the infamous backdoor. 

We’ve heard of several people during several years using the term “friendship.” Big Brother had its first Friendship in Season 6.  Consisting of Maggie Ausburn, Ivette Corredero, April Lewis, Beau Beasley, Eric Littmann, and Jennifer Vasquez, they were a powerful force in the house.  The counter group, The Sovereign Six, consisted of Janelle Pierzina, Howie Gordon, Rachel Plencner, Kaysar Ridha, James Rhine and Sarah Hreisa.  Many of Sovereign Six would play as S6 in All-Stars.  Maggie Ausburn of Friendship was the eventual winner of the season.

Season Eight (the season of Evel Dick) saw The Late Night Crew (LNC).  This dominant alliance included Dick Donato, Danielle Donato, Amber Sivavus, Dustin Erikstrup, Eric Stein, Jameka Cameron and Jessica Hughbanks.  Dick, as Danielle estranged father, stated multiple times during the season that he wanted Danielle to win.  LMC would eventually turn on each other leading to accusations and the infamous cigarette/burn fight.  When Evel Dick found himself on the block with Danielle, he won POV and took Danielle off.  Dustin went up, assured he would be safe, only to have Dick sway the votes with America’s Player, Eric, voting to please the audience.  Evel Dick would be the winner of season eight.

I hate to mention the Writer’s Strike Winter season because it was one of the worse every shown on television.  Team Christ was the major alliance and consisted of Natalie Cunial, Sheila Kennedy, Ryan Quicksall and Adam Jasinki.  All members of the group made it to the final five with Adam winning on a six to one vote.

The Renegades was an alliance formed with Dan Gheeling, Memphis Garrett, LIbra Thompson, Renny Martyn, and Keesha Smith during season 10.  Dan served as America’s player for one week and completed his tasks.  He also ended up winning the season and becoming an author and commentator.

Season 11 is the season of the unnamed alliance.  The season started with four groups (Athletes, Populars, Brains and Off-Beats) and the return of Jessie Godderz (Mr. Pectacular).  It was also one of the most controversial as Jessie would form an alliance of Natalie Martinez, Kevin Campbell, Lydia Travera, and Chima Simone.  While never having an official name, the players did control much of the action of the game with their plans to take out the rest.  This lasted until America awarded Jeff Schneider the coup d’etat and he used it during Chima’s HoH.  At that point, the power shifted, and Jessie was put on the block.  With Jessie’s eviction, the drama wasn’t over as his parnters (in crime) held a wake and Chima refused to play the game.  She threw her mike into the pool and was evicted.  America would cast the final vote.  While Natalie was sitting beside Jordan Lloyd in the finals, Jordan won the house vote denying this team a win.

Season Twelve saw The Brigade (Bragade) as the dominant alliance.  Consisting of Enzo Palumbo, Matt Hoffman, Lane Elenburg, and, in her mind, Britney Haynes, the group would turn on member, Matt, who was considered a threat.  Hayden, Lane and Enzo would go to the final three.  The winner of this season was Hayden.  Considered one of the greatest alliance of the show’s history (due to their dominance), the final three also, to me, made it boring for viewers as there was no action in the last week.

Season 11 of Big Brother saw the emergence of The Newbies (those who had never played) which formed when the executive producers introduced former players called the Dynamic Duos (The Vets).  The Newbies up of Cassie Calvin, Porsche Briggs, Lawton Exum, Dominic Briones, Shelly Moore, Keith Henderson, Kalia Booker and Adam Poch.  This group did not last throughout the game with The Regulators forming with Cassie, Dominic Kei,th and Lawton defecting from the original group.  Meanwhile, the Dynamic Duos (Dick Donato, Danielle Donato, Jeff Schneider, Jordan Lloyd, Rachel Riley, and Brendon Villegas) were put at a disadvantage near the start of the competition when Dick had to leave for health reasons.  Rachel from the Dynamic Duos would win but Porsche Briggs also took the second  place prize. 

The most remembered alliance of Big Brother 14 was The Quack Pack.  Known for their signal “quack,” the team was made up of Dan Gheesling, Britney Haynes, Ian Terry, Danielle Murphee, and Shane Meaney.  Dan thought he was in control of the game but came in second to fellow alliance member, Ian.

The alliances of Season 15 are not as memorable to me.  3 A. M. consisted of Aaryn Gries, Amanda Zuckerman, Andy Herren and McCrae Olson.  Both Aaryn and Amanda had negative press due to racial comments made in the house.  And speaking of the house, Area 51 (or The House Alliance) was formed by almost the entire house.  The season’s winner would be Andy Herron, a member of 3 A. M.

Season 16 of Big Brother saw The Bomb Squad emerge.  The mastermind of this group, Derek Levasseur, would be the winner of the season.  He was joined in the group by Amber Borzotra, Caleb Reynolds, Christine Brecht, Cody Calafiore, Devin Shepherd, Frankie Grande (brother of singer Arianna), and Zach Rosen.  Marred by Caleb infatuation with Amber and Zach’s strange actions, Derek was kept on his toes.  Frankie, his second in command, would be the eyes for Derek as he could move throughout the house as everyone’s friend.  Due to the Bomb Squad’s success, other groups like the Crazy Eights have dimmed.  This season also saw Team America with Joey Van Pelt (who left early in the game, Frankie Grande, Derrick Levesque, and Donny Thompson.  Donny, who was America’s Favorite Player, was sabotaged by Frankie Grande with Derrick’s help.  Derrick and Frankie were told that as the surviving members of Team America the one who made it to the end would win an additional $50,000.  Derek Levesque would go on to win $550,000. 

Big Brother 17 saw the rise of Sixth Sense which had as it’s members Austin Matelson, Clay Honeycutt, Julia Nolan, Liz Nolan, Shellie Poole, Vanessa Russo (professional poker player), with affiliates of John McCrae and Steve Moses.  While Vanessa did the planning, Austin was supposed to win comps.  Vanessa had to use her poker skills to stay the course of the season but in the end, Steve Moses won the season.

Season 18 saw Nicole Franzel make her mark. Joined by Cory Brooks, Da’Vonne Rogers, Frank Eudy, James Hurling, Michelle Meyer, Tiffany Rousso, Zakiyah Everette, Paul Abrahamian, and Paulie Calafiore, the group was dominant picking off the rest of the house guest.  Paul would try to control the game and would sit next to Nicole who would become the winner of Season 18.

Season 19 was highlighted by Paul Abrahamian and his friendship bracelets return.  A member of The Team (unoffical name given by member Cody Nickson), the group consisted of Cody (and his showmance) Jessica Graf, RavemnWalton (and her showmance), Matt Clines, Mark Jansen (and his showmance), Elena Davies, Christmas Abbott, Dominique Cooper, Alex Ow, Josh Martinez, and Kevin Schlehuber. Paul played the game by trying to build friendship with others but Cody caught on quickly.  This group would splinter.  When it came down to the final two, Paul set next to Josh who he thought had no chance of winning due to his antics.  Paul was handed his second loss when Josh was named the winner.

Season 20 saw Level Six in control.  The alliance members were Angela Rummans, Tyler Crispin, Winston Hines, Kaycee Clark, Rachel Swindler, Kaycee Clark, Brett Robnson, J. C. Moundeux, Kaitlyn Herman, Sam Bledsoe.  While Kaitlyn went out due to an inability of put a easy puzzle together, it would be lifeguard Tyler who would read the house accurately.  Unfortunately, his reading wasn’t very accurate as he came in second to fellow alliance member Kaycee Clark. 

Season 21 had Unde9able as the dominant and most controversial team in Big Brother history.  It’s members included Analyse Talquera, Christine Murphy, Holly Allen, Isabella Wang, Jack Matthews, Jackson Michie, Nick Maccarone, Sam Smith, Monny Braco, and Kathryn Dunn.  This alliance was dominant but also controversial.   Two members, Jack and Jackson (Michie) were told to watch their speech as both made racial comments.  When Jack left the game, he was called out on stage by Julie Chen Moonves and he apologized saying he wasn’t that type of person.  Jackson, after being warned, seemed to pull away from the group with his showmance, Holly.  The eventual winner, Jack was faced with questions about his statements on the final show before winning the prize.  His stunned look on the stage wasn’t about winning but having his statements brought home to him.

Season 22 seemed to be the season of “friendship” since it was an all-stars season.  I am not going to mention any alliances here because according to Twitterverse, the game was decided prior to contestants entering the house.

Season 23, the present season, was hurt from the start by the team concept of Aces, Kings, Queens, and Jokers.  Most house guests thought that those teams would get them to the finale.  While Frenchie started The Slaughterhouse (and its sub-alliance of The Butchers) and Royal Flush developed out of a combination of Kings, Queens, and one Ace member, it has been The Cookout that has run the game.  The first season with a strong POC cast, they quickly formed together with Azah Awasum, Derek Frazier (son of boxer, Joe Frazier), Hannah Chaddha, Kyland Young, Tiffany Mitchell, and Xavier Prather to keep the crew together until the final six.  To do this, they paired up with someone from their “card” team.  At present, this group is running the game as they have slowly but surely picked off everyone else.  Can they keep it together to win?  We have a few weeks before we  know.

So did I leave any big alliances out?  Did I get your favorites?  There are been so many in the history of the show, I’m bound to have missed a few.

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 September 2021 19:46

'Big Brother 23' - The Cookout Issue

Written by 16 August, 2021

In the past few days, Twitter has come alive with complaints and comments about the only true large alliance remaining: The Cookout. Many fans, including me, has no issue with the alliance as they have managed to sustain their group, and few outsiders have figured it out. Others have been increasingly upset because Big Brother producers have allowed “People of Color” to align their side of the house to stay and run the house. The upset group feels that Big Brother should have done something to stop this or called the houseguests on the alliance so that The Cookout was neutralized and the season would be more like previous seasons with the obvious winner.

Past History of the Alliances in Big Brother
The reason I don’t have a problem with this is that this season’s cast is more diverse and, excuse my pun, smarter. When you enter a house with a large segment of the population equally divided not only by sex but ethnic backgrounds, it makes for a more interesting game. For the past few years, we have had to deal with the racist/sexist/age angles. I could go far back and point out house guests that were embarrassed after the show but instead, let’s look at Season 21. It’s the most current season where the problems existed.  

Before this season, the Head of Households would take out the ones that were different based on age, LGBTQ status, and whether they were a Person of Color. In Big Brother 21, Jackson Michie was named Camp Director and had to immediately put up four people to play for eviction. His choices were Cliff (age), Kemi and David (People of Color), and Jessica (difference in appearance/Person of Color). David lost the contest and was sent to an outsider cabin. Over the course of the first few weeks, others from the initial group joined him.

To make matters worse, the alliance of Gr8teful formed with Jack and Jackson making racist and other inappropriate comments. Both were warned by producers but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Jack was out quickly ann when interviewed by Julie Chen Moonves, he felt the issues were taken out of context. When given the evidence in a tape, he seemed ashamed of his actions and apologized. Jackson (otherwise known as Michie) would win the season and then be embarrassed by his actions on the season finale. To say he was shell-shocked is putting it mildly. He was speechless, and I don’t think he has really apologized to this day for his actions.  

Big Brother 23’s The Cookout Forms
Big Brother 23 has strong players in the cast, and they were easily identified. Seven of the houseguests are considered People of Color, and six of them bonded and formed “The Cookout.” Their goal was to take each other to the final six so a person of color could finally win the money. Let’s face it. The majority of the winners have been Caucasian men who played on strength and looks. This year, this group would be different, and here lies the major issue I have with them. They excluded a “Person of Color” who was of Asian descent, Derek X.

The Cookout’s Plan of Action  
The big goal for this group was to keep it a secret. Frenchie didn’t know it during the first week’s HoH, but he led to the group’s success by saying on entering the house: “No person of color or woman will leave.” Frenchie wanted to be fair. While I commend him for this, his method didn’t work. He eventually had to go back on his word after forming so many alliances no one could track them and his handshake with Travis. This led to Travis going up and out the door. This also put a target on Frenchie’s back, along with two others who were considered his strongest allies,” Brent and Whitney. The house was solid that these three had to go. Frenchie left week two, Brent left week three, and Whitney left week four. This immediately saw a decline on the Caucasian side of the house, but no one realized anything had changed. All of the house was having a great time and becoming friends.

The Cookout Members Are Strong
The Cookout is strong and has smart members. This is both a plus and a minus as they can bond together, but the cracks are showing. Derek F. and Azah have been pushed to the bottom of the pack by the others. Azah, in particular, feels that they have no voice and have had several fights with Tiffany. Meanwhile, Xavier and Tiffany feel that they are the leaders, which leaves Hannah and Kyland in the middle of the pack.

The problems are now arising as the group has set up a shield (or pawn, if you will) to use in the voting agenda. Kyland is paired with Sarah Beth. Tiffany has Claire. Hannah has Derek X. (who is a person of color). That leaves Xavier, Derek F. and Azah. Before I get to Xavier, you must understand that Derek F and Azah are paired with Britini. Poor Britini has been considered weak by the house, but she has won competitions. She’s also been on the block three times which her team feels isn’t fair. While Derek F. and Azah had Britini as their shield/pawn, Xavier, the strongest player in the Cookout, had Christian and Alyssa as his shields/pawns. Christian went home last week. The funny thing is that Christian realized he was Xavier’s shield. 

The Future 
So where does that leave The Cookout as nominees are growing tight? Basically, it means that one of them has to go up against their shield to stay. It’s dawning on Derek F. and Azah that they got the short end of the division as Derek F. is on the block. (Spoiler: Claire was up but was taken off the block today by HoH Kyland with a veto. Alyssa had another veto and is Xavier’s shield. Xavier wouldn’t let her go up this week without a struggle.) Tiffany got Claire back. Because of Derek X.’s record, they want to wait for a Double Eviction to take him out. . That leaves Britini and, if the exit goes as planned, she will go and leave Derek F. and Azah without a shield.

Is this fair? Of course not. Of The Cookout, the only ones who have really done any damage to the other houseguests are Xavier and Kyland. Xavier has been HoH once and Kyland twice. While Tiffany thinks she is the “brains” and the Janelle of this season, she hasn’t won anything and has proceeded to cause frissons in the alliance. Derek X. is catching on and questioning. I could spoil more on him but won’t. Azah has lost trust in Tiffany. Derek F. now realizes that he’ll probably be the first to go of the alliance. While Xavier has tried to mend fences, he is unwilling to give up his pawn. For everything he does, Tiffany opens her mouth and causes problems. Sorry Tiffany, you are not the next Janelle. The house guests outside of the key group (Sarah Beth, Claire and even Britini) felt their friendships/alliances with their partner will keep them safe.  

So what could prevent The Cookout from having a member win the season? The High Roller’s game hasn’t worked so far. In fact, Kyland made sure that the second veto came into play (again, no spoiler with this). Below is how it could be prevented.

Derek X. continues to win. He’s figured out much, but he doesn’t know that he’s Hannah’s shield. If he can only put the other chess pieces on the board in the appropriate order, he could play a statistical game and make it to the end. If he can align with a disgusted Azah and whoever is left at the end of the week, a new alliance is born.

Claire needs to realize that it is not teams any longer. She seems to be seeing beyond Tiffany as a cohort and the adversary role but hasn’t been willing to let go of the Royal Flush. She’s been a floater up until recently when she showed she could win comps. Can she shake off the stardust and realize that Tiffany is bad for her game? Better yet, can she do something about it?

Sarah B. has lost her “intelligence” and gone to the sunglasses game. She always appears wrapped in a blanket and clueless. Kyland makes their decisions. Her biggest wish is that Derek F. will go. Can she convince enough of The Cookout to do this?  

Alyssa thinks she is safe with Xavier as her partner. Well, Christian wasn’t that safe! The veto gave her a certain amount of power but Xavier will cut her if he has to do it. I look for it to be a fight between Tiffany and Xavier to save their shield/pawn to the end.

Which brings us to the Britini angle. Most fans think she’s on the way out the door. Some house guests see her as being too popular as she did get the “big bucks” in the high roller game from America. If Derek F. survives the week, he knows where he stands but feels he won’t have the physical strength or “smarts” to stay. Azah plays too emotional, and she and Tiffany are at odds. Will this split them from the main group to form a new alliance with Derek X.?

So, while the chances look good for one of The Cookout to win, I do have the hope that Derek X. can play the spoiler. He has both the knowledge of how to win and the competitiveness to win. We still have some weeks to go, and I may adjust this later. I see fights coming between members of The Cookout. Tiffany and Xavier think they have this game in the bag, but Hannah is a quiet player and smarter than they think. Kyland has a big problem with perception and is making his alliance mad due to the excessive overthinking of the game and relationship with Sarah Beth.

What do you think? Will The Cookout survive?


Last modified on Monday, 16 August 2021 20:44

Saturday Night Rom-Com: 'Murphy's Romance'

Written by 07 August, 2021

There is a generation of male actors that became stars in the 60s and 70s that have a certain something that you just don't see in today's male actors. It's a strain of masculinty that comes from having lived a hard life before audiences ever saw them for the first time. Men who grew up in tough childhoods, served in the military and whose road to stardom was as much a surprise to them as it was to the world at large.

James Garner was one of those actors. He's probably best known to most modern audiences for his starring role in The Rockford Files, which seems to be streaming everywhere in 2021. Watching him in that show, it's hard to imagine how someone could reboot the series today. What modern actor in 2021 could bring the attitude he did to the role? He's masculine, capable of violence but not searching for it. He loves women but also is respectful of their intelligence and sees them as fully-rounded people. He's comfortable with being gentle or vulnerable when he needs to be. He's loyal to his family and friends. When things go wrong for you, Jim Rockford is the guy whose number you want on speeddial.

The role was seemingly so perfect for Garner that I suspect Jim Rockford is the way that most audiences think of James Garner. Which is all well and good, but it complicated things when the show ended in 1980. Two years later, Garner took the role of King Marchand in Victor/Victoria and it's fair to say that role was as far away from Jim Rockford as you can imagine. But the movie (and Garner) were a hit and you would think that might have opened up roles for him. Garner had been a very successful film actor before The Rockford Files and thanks to both his TV success and a long-running series of commercials with Mariette Hartley, he had a huge fanbase.

But when it came to being cast in 1985's Murphy's Romance, he had to fight to get the role. Columbia Pictures didn't want to make the movie at all, because they worried that there wasn't any sex or violence. They eventually greenlit the project, primarily because Sally Field had previously worked with director Martin Ritt on the hit 1979 film Norma Rae. According to press reports at the time, Paul Newman was originally the favorite for male lead, in part because he has successfully worked with Field on the 1981 film Absence Of Malice. But when Newman turned it down, Field and Ritt then argued with the studio to approve Garner. But executives argued Garner was primarily seen as a "TV actor." In the end, Columbia agreed, reportedly after Garner and Field agreed to a sequence in the film where they mention drinking Coke, the company that owned Columbia at the time.

In Murphy's Romance, Field plays Emma Moriarty, a 33-year-old divorced mom who moves to a rural town in Arizona to make a living as a horse trainer. Garner plays the town's pharmacist, Murphy Jones, and despite their age difference, a chemistry develops between them. But Emma admits she is a mess and any romance seems out of the question when her somewhat shiftless ex-husband Bobby Jack Moriarty (Brian Kerwin) moves in with her and their 12-year-old son Jake (played buy Corey Haim).

The description of this movie doesn't give it nearly enough credit. There are so many ways this film could have been a disaster. Every element of the movie has to be just perfect in order for it not to be a slightly creepy disaster. And in fact, I can't imagine having a movie in 2021 that features a man having a romance with a woman half of his age without there being an extinction-level response on social media.

But it's a testament to the skill and chemistry of Garner and Field that you never feel that way as the movie unfolds. It's just this amazing love story that reveals itself in the way a lot of true life love stories do: it's messy, unpredictable and difficult to define. But you know it's real as sure as you know your own name.

If you are a fan of James Garner in The Rockford Files, you will love this film. It's a familiar Garner, working opposite an actress in Sally Field who was probably doing the best work of anyone in Hollywood in the late 1970s and 1980s. Garner received the only Academy Award nomination in his career for the movie and it's a shame it's not streaming anywhere, because Murphy's Romance is one of those movies that should be on the "must-watch" list of anyone who loves a good romantic comedy.

Besides, there is Sally Field, who I admit that I have adored my entire life.

Murphy's Romance is available for rent at all of the familiar digital movie platforms.

Last modified on Saturday, 07 August 2021 17:27

Review: 'Cooking With Paris'

Written by 04 August, 2021

I will acknowledge upfront that writing a review which is essentially "the show is exactly what you would expect" is not very clarifying. But that take is also an extremely accurate representation of the new Netflix series Cooking With Paris. Sight unseen, you might expect to see very little actual cooking taking place, juxtaposed with a lot of Paris Hilton being Paris Hilton. And sadly for all of us, your hunch would be correct.

I will admit that I was pretty amused by the first season of Fox's The Simple Life, which followed Paris Hilton and her friend Nicole Richie as they stumbled their way through everyday situations. I didn't have a preconceived notion of either of them before I watched the show and it was amusing trying to figure out how much of their lack of knowledge about even the most basic elements of American life was an act and how much was the consequence of having enough money so that you didn't have to know how to operate an iron.

But The Simple Life first aired 22 years ago and it is unsettling to watch a now 40-year-old Paris Hilton doing some odd cosplay-version of her public persona. She's smart pretending to be dumb pretending to naïve pretending to be smart and I'm getting dizzy from trying to keep track of the levels upon levels of self-referential commentary. Even worse, she still randomly stops and stares at the camera in that way that someone who secretly doesn't like her convinced her was was sexy. 

Each of the six episodes of Cooking With Paris has pretty much the same format. Hilton tackles navigating a small grocery store so she can purchase the items she needs for whatever meal she is making. She says a few dumb things as she shops and then comes home to cook a meal for herself and a celebrity guest/sous chef. And by "cook," I mean she stumbles through a recipe as she wonders out loud how to zest an orange. Or finds that making a dessert while wearing a pair of fashionable red gloves isn't all that efficient.

Of course, she has a group of party planners come in to redo her house to match each guest. And by "she has," I mean that Hilton has her Chief of Staff handle everything while she occasionally walks through the room holding her dog and saying helpful things like "This looks amazing, guys."

Maybe I'm not that target audience for this show and perhaps this is a universe where people tune in to watch a middle-aged Paris Hilton act like a clueless 18-year-old while chatting with guests such as Demi Lovato or her Hilton sisters. But Cooking With Paris feels like such a waste of time. Selena Gomez has proven that you don't have to know a lot about cooking to have a very entertaining show about food. Cooking With Paris only manages to show that we can look forward to a future where a 60-year-old Paris Hilton is still doing the same schtick, like some modern-day Mae West.

Cooking With Paris is now streaming on Netflix.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 August 2021 06:02

One Season TV: 'Dead At 21'

Written by 01 August, 2021

When people share their memories of MTV, one of the most common complaints is that "MTV doesn't play music videos anymore." While that is a true observation, it is also true that once MTV became a cultural phenomena and (more importantly) a cash-printing machine, its fate was sealed. MTV depended on easy access to the latest music videos and the hottest acts. And once music labels got over their shock about the growth of MTV, they realized they had all of the leverage. MTV ultimately needed the music labels more than the labels needed MTV.

So by the early 1990s, the labels were already playing hardball with MTV. Demanding fees for access to the latest hot videos, setting conditions on how their acts could be covered and the shape of potential interviews. It was clear to MTV executives that relying on a steady stream of music videos would be a mistake. So the rush was on to create original programming and while most of the networks efforts focused on game shows and reality programs, MTV did experiment with several original scripted programs. Most notably, the criminally forgotten Dead At 21.

Created by newcomer Jon Sherman, the series centered on the story of 20-year-old Ed Bellamy (Jack Noseworthy), who discovers that he was experimented on as a child. Microchips were implanted in his brain that made him a genius. The downside is that the chips will kill him when he's 21. Oh, and the people who experimented on him are terminating the project and now want him dead. So he's on the run, accompanied by his friend Maria (Lisa Dean Ryan). To make matters worse, he's framed for murder and is now being pursued by not only by the police, but by the mysterious hitman Agent Winston (Whip Hubley). Ed and Maria travel across the country, searching for the mysterious Dr. Heisenberg, who might be the only person able to save the teen's life.

Ryan and Hubley were by far the best-known actors on the show, with Ryan having just come off of stints on Doogie Howser, M.D. and Class Of '96 and Hubley coming off of the drama Life Goes On. But the cast also included Adam Scott in his first television role, playing Dan, a fellow genius who is murdered in the pilot. And let's not forget David DeLuise (Jesse, 3rd Rock From The Sun, Wizards Of Waverly Place), and Patricia Healy (Days Of Our Lives, Port Charles, Profiler

Dead At 21 isn't a perfect show. Some of the dialogue can be clunky and the relatively small budget for the show is sometimes obvious. But overall, the series is well-acted and the half-hour episodes move along at a properly frantic clip. As is befitting a MTV series, the episodes are jammed with contemporary music, ranging from Guns N Roses to Nirvana. And that music-heavy soundtrack is likely the reason why the series has never been released on DVD and isn't even available on YouTube. 

I've included the pilot episode below from an unlisted YouTube page, but there's no guarantee it will last long.

Last modified on Monday, 02 August 2021 19:34

'Big Brother 23': Why Brent’s Been Bothering Me

Written by 27 July, 2021

Yesterday, I took a break from watching some live feeds to contemplate why Big Brother 23's Brent bothered me so much. During Frenchie's week as HoH, I just thought it was because he was trying to run the HoH. Okay, to be honest, he did run Frenchie's HoH. Of course, he took no blame for the final outcome. When I went on Twitter last night and saw one of the pictures, I finally figured it out. Brent reminds me too much of the character Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast."

I am a graduate who is proud of her AB in English. My period of study was the Renaissance and the 1960s. I have written papers for pop culture on fairy tales and "Once Upon a Time." Why did it take me so long to realize this comparison? Mainly it is because we, as fans, don't look for such things. Last night, the more I looked at that picture, the more it bothered me. Then it struck me! I had read seen the story so much that the image was lurking. All it took was a glimpse of reading something about "Once Upon a Time" that made the picture clear.

The more I thought of it last night , the more I realized that in many ways, Brent IS acting like Gaston. For those who cannot remember his character from the Disney movies, Gaston was the "man about town" who all the girls wanted. He wanted Belle, who would have nothing to do with him because of his arrogance (ignorance). To make matters worse, he was always preening around and talking about how handsome/smart/strong he was. When Belle went to the castle, Gaston turned the towns' people against the Beast to storm the castle and "Kill the beast."

So here is why I see Brent as Gaston in the story of Big Brother 23. Listed are five reasons that come to mind:

First, Brent came in and seemed to want to immediately play the game. Gaston thought he knew it all but didn't. Brent thought he knew how the game should be played and wanted to be HoH in place of Frenchie. He encouraged some of Frenchie's worse decisions. Brent got people behind him using "it's best for the alliance." What Brent wanted though, was opposite to Frenchie's stated purpose, and this came back to haunt Frenchie. Brent proceeded to get Frenchie in trouble with the nominations. What Frenchie had planned went counter to Brent's grand scheme. Thus, Frenchie had to change his nominations, and Brent got out a target that would only help Brent's game. To him, Travis was a threat not only in looks but in competitions.

Second, Brent never took any blame for the aftermath of Frenchie's HoH. He passed his part off on as Frenchie's actions. The problem with this is that it comes back to haunt you. Brent could have said something to help Frenchie when all planned to vote Frenchie out. He could have given a vote to Frenchie. Instead, to keep his image as the perfect alliance(s) member, Brent never took any blame and sold Frenchie down the river. It was no more second in command for Brent. He was taking the reins just as Gaston did in stirring up problems in town. In the process, he has tried to form more alliances.

Third, he's a ladies man. Brent thinks that all women love him. If they don't, they are not worthy of his attention. Brent thinks ladies should be rushing to listen to him and do his every whim. When he doesn't get the attention he craves, Brent thinks it's not his fault. Everyone needs to be amazed by his plans. For those who aren't they are unworthy of his consideration, and he ignores them.

Fourth, Brent's Belle: Brent has tried to make inroads with Alyssa, but she teamed up with Christian. He turned his attention to Hannah, who is not happy with said attention. If you remember the opening of "Beauty and the Beast," you know that Gaston was so obsessed with Belle that nothing or no one turned his attention away from her. Belle wanted nothing to do with Gaston, just as Hannah wants nothing to do with Brent. No matter that Hannah (Beauty) turns away, walks away, says no, here Brent comes. Even feigning sleep doesn't work. Brent is so wrapped up in his fantasy of greatness and control that he is obvious to what is really going on around him.

Finally, Brent's town. Just as Gaston thought that he was in sole control of the town, Brent believes he has the house (except for the Jokers) dancing to his tune. He walks in and makes the conversation about his grand plan. Brent thinks that he is the only strategist in the house. Any strong male who seems to be a target. The only difference is that Gaston could get the town's people to try and "kill the Beast." Big Brother 23's house guests have their own plan as of Monday night. They're going to get rid of Brent by voting him out. They didn't use the veto on him while still implying he's safe (in a vague manner). Just like in "Beauty and the Beast," the supposed hero has turned into the villain and the townspeople have had enough.

I know there isn't a specific Beast in the Big Brother house, but it is sometimes interesting to see the houseguests as characters in books and movies. This time, a chance memory stirs the need to address an issue. As a "Once Upon a Time" lover of Belle and Rumple (the Beast), I hate to make the comparison, but it is lodged in my brain. Does anyone else agree? Can you see Gaston in Brent's character?

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 July 2021 21:00

Commentary: I Want No Part Of Louie C.K.'s Comeback (And Neither Should You)

Written by 09 July, 2021

The phrase "cancel culture" has been so misused and purposely exaggerated that it has lost all meaning in most situations.

I think a reasonable definition of "cancel culture" is applied to those situations in which some slight misstep or old tweet leads to an overreaction and perhaps the loss of a job. Reactions far more severe than the behavior are not the type of thing we should encourage or tolerate.

But actions do have consequences, and if you commit a serious offense - especially if you repeat the behavior until you're caught - you should expect bad things to happen to you, Particularly if you are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for your actions.

I live in the Twin Cities, and on Thursday, local stand-up club Acme Comedy Company announced comedian Louie C.K. would be appearing at the club in late July for five shows. From a business standpoint, the decision to book Louie C.K. makes sense - the five shows quickly sold out.

But regardless of the financial motivations, it is disappointing to see a club that is one of the best venues in America booking a comedian who has demonstrated a repeated inability to keep it zipped (so to speak).

After years of rumors inside the industry, a 2017 New York Times article detailed the accounts of five women who claimed the comedian had asked them to watch him masturbate or forced them to do so. After the article was published, other women came forward with variations of the same story, many of them confirmed by other people.

Louie C.K. had been asked about his behavior for years in interviews and generally managed to shrug off the stories. But after the NY Times expose was published, the comic released a statement admitting to the allegations, although he essentially argued he didn't realize asking women who are less powerful than him if he could masturbate in front of them might cause some problems:

"At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true," C.K. wrote. "But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn't a question. It's a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly."

But it wasn't just that Louie C.K. was influential in his own right. He was represented by manager Dave Becky, who at the time also represented well-known comedians such as Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, and Amy Poehler. Complaining about Louie C.K.'s behavior could mean burning a lot of important career bridges in an industry that has long been seen as unfriendly to women.

In the days after this statement was released, Louie C.K. did suffer some severe career setbacks. The FX Network cut its ties with the comedian and his production company. Netflix canceled plans for an upcoming comedy special, and HBO removed his older comedy specials from its service.

And while he stayed away from comedy clubs for a year or two, Louie C.K. began making "unannounced" sets at clubs to work out material. That led to a 2020 comedy special, "Sincerely Louie C.K.," which he sold on his website.

This leads me to my problems with Louie C.K.'s upcoming sets at the Acme Comedy Club. Most rational people who had admitted to yanking off repeatedly around co-workers might approach the subject with a bit of insight into their behavior. Perhaps figure out a way to use their admittedly impressive comedic skills to make fun of themselves in a way that didn't come off as if they were petulant dick-obsessed brats.

But in the special, Louie C.K. attempted to come across as the Richard Pryor of pulling one off, explaining why he enjoyed having an audience for his self-pleasuring:

"I like jerking off, I don't like being alone, that's all I can tell you. I get lonely, it's just sad. I like company. I like to share. I'm good at it, too. If you're good at juggling, you wouldn't do it alone in the dark. You'd gather folks and amaze them," he says.

Now I won't get into the likelihood that any man who claims to be good at masturbation is actually any good - and how does that criteria work anyway? But he continues to be oblivious to the consequences of his behavior as he complained that it's hard for men to know when women are "faking" pleasure or honestly giving consent.

In one bit, he compared slaves singing in the cotton fields to women pretending to be sexually aroused:

"It's kind of like a Negro spiritual. It's sort of similar. So to assume that she likes it is like if they heard slaves singing in the field and you're like, 'Hey, they're having a good time out there."

If recent reviews of his shows are accurate, Louie C.K. doesn't appear to have developed any personal growth or insight following all of these events. Other than something along the lines of "Man, it's so hard to know when a woman is okay with you rubbing one off while they watch."

Louie C.K. is a talented guy. It sucks that he is the man he is and that it's impossible to separate his creepy offstage persona with the only slightly less unsettling onstage behavior.

I'm not arguing anyone should boycott Louie C.K.'s shows. I'm just saying that I have no interest in rewarding someone who has admitted to behaving so badly while still refusing to acknowledge that he was guilty of anything more than some unfortunate misunderstandings.

Some of his fans are going to say, "Well, how long should he suffer? Why should he lose his career forever?"

My answer is pretty simple. If you're fired from McDonald's for repeatedly masturbating in the drive-through window, you're not going to be able to wait a couple of years and hope to get invited to McDonald's University. Especially if you're explanation of your behavior is, "hey, if they didn't want to see it, they wouldn't have driven up to the window."

There are other talented comedians the Acme Comedy Company (and other clubs around the country) could book instead of Louie C.K. Comics who know how to keep it zipped and whose very presence on stage isn't an insult to many of the female comics who also appear in that club. If you are truly committed to running a club that is a safe and encouraging environment for your talent, how can you book a guy who has admitted that he can't be trusted?

Last modified on Friday, 09 July 2021 00:41

Review: 'Sekta'

Written by 14 June, 2021

One of the challenges of reviewing television made in non-English speaking countries is that there is often a cultural gap between the home country and viewers in the United States. That's especially the case with television from Russia, which shares enough cultural DNA with America to feel about 35% off of the familiar.

That's one of the challenges with the Russian series Sekta, which premiered last Tuesday on the international television streaming service MHz Choice. The show is grim and dark, and there are times when you might need to emotionally decompress after watching an episode. But if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with a story that is hard to predict delivered by some of the best actors in Russia.

Sekta centers around a group of specialists, known as "deprogrammers," whose task is to rescue people from the clutches of cults. Their methods are intense - bordering on abuse - and involve breaking down the target physically and mentally on every level. In this case, the deprogrammers have been hired to "rescue" former model Nika from the Primordials, a sect led by a charismatic hypnotist named Berk.

The deprogrammers need some extra help and someone with a bit of medical knowledge, so they hire Lilya, a moody and distant woman who is hiding the fact that she was once the member of a cult whose members killed themselves in a mass event. She is both drawn to Nika's plight but also well aware of the dangers she faces inside the cult.

The deprogramming is not textbook and it doesn't appear to be working. Which becomes a problem when Berk identifies and strikes back at the team. Things quickly escalate and without giving anything away, the final couple of episodes turn into a whirlwind of crazy.

While Sekta doesn't appear to have had a huge budget, director Gela Babluani's his first Russian project is as impressive as were his European films such as 13 Tzameti . The scenes are relentlessly grim and foreboding. And there are times when it feels as if the despair of the world is just hanging over every scene like a depressing fog.

Lilya is played by Svetlana Khodchenkova, who is arguably one of Russia's best-known actresses right now. American audiences might recognize her from roles in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Wolverine, where she played Viper. Lilya is haunted by her past, looking for redemption while also not being an especially nice person. In lesser hands, Lilya would be hard to watch and there are certainly moments like that in the series. But Khodchenkova's talent transcends the role and will keep you engrossed through the grimmest moments (and there are plenty of them).

But for all of Khodchenkova's talents, she's almost upstaged in the second half of the season by Marta Timofeeva, who plays Lilya's young daughter Kira. As the season progresses, she exhibits a growing somewhat undefined psychic talent and she becomes the subject of a battle between the two sides. Timofeeva is unsettling to watch, equal parts creepy and child-like.

I wasn't sure what to think of Filipp Yankovsky's portrayal of the cult leader Berk, who often comes off as more creepy that God-like. But as I mentioned at the top, sometimes watching it from America we miss the cultural nuance of shows from other places. And that's certainly the case with Berk, who appears to have been based on popular Russian psychics such as Alan Chumak. While America audiences might not make the connection, Russian television audiences seem to have fascinated by the resemblance when the series premiered in 2019.

So you should watch the eight-episode Sekta? I'd answer yes, although with the caveat that it is a grim slog at times. The last episode is worth the ride, but don't be surprised if you feel as if you need a bucket of whiskey when it's all over.

The first two episodes of Sekta premiered Tuesday, June 8th, 2021 on MHz Choice. Two episode a week will premiere each Tuesday through the end of June.

Last modified on Monday, 14 June 2021 00:49

Review: 'Secrets Of The Lost Ark'

Written by 06 June, 2021

There is an entire category of documentary television that could best be described as "searching again for things that are never going to be found." These shows pretend to be "searching" for some iconic historical and/or scientific mystery like Bigfoot or the Holy Grail. In some cases, a number of different series have been devoted to the search, all of which tend to cover the same ground and in the end never discover anything new.

So why do viewers keep tuning in? Part of it is just the familiarity of the search. A search for lost gold (for example) is the science category equivalent of HGTV's House Hunters International. It's comfortable, lean-back television that has some great visuals and maybe you learn a few new pieces of trivia during the travels. Watching these shows doesn't require a lot of deep thought and in 2021, there's something to be said for that type of thought-free programing.

The Science Channel series Secrets Of The Lost Ark focuses on one of television most familiar mysteries: the location of the Ark Of The Covenant. This chest is arguably the most searched-for archaeological treasure in history, because it was said to be the repository of the word of God-the original Ten Commandments. The Ark vanishes from history in the sixth century B.C., right before the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem. And despite everyone from the Romans to the Nazis searching for it over the centuries, there has never been a confirmed mention of the Ark or its contents.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of theories about what might have happened, some of them more likely than others. The Babylonians don't seem to have acquired the Ark during their sacking of Jerusalem, and the most likely scenario seems to be the Jewish priests used the extensive tunnel system under the Temple to either hide the Ark or somehow smuggle it to safety. But no one knows and there isn't even the slightest archaeological clue to point Ark hunters in a likely direction. Which leaves a lot of room for speculation and Secrets Of The Lost Ark is less about revealing secrets no one has than it is about recounting all of the places the Ark COULD be.

Each episode of the show centers around a different group of theories. From the cable television staple Knights Templar to Roman soldiers. There is speculation that Jeremiah might have hidden the Ark in Ireland or that the Jewish resistance hid the Ark in what is now Ethiopia. While some of the ideas seem quite outlandish, the attraction of shows like this one is that many of the theories sound reasonable on the face of it. Maybe the Ark WAS hidden in the grave of a Goth warrior who was buried under a river in Italy. Maybe the Vatican is hiding it in its massive secret library. Perhaps the Ark remains hidden under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, placed in some forgotten tunnel that has been lost to time.

I can't say that you'll learn much new watching Secrets Of The Lost Ark. But if this is the type of programming you enjoy, it's a solidly entertaining example of the genre. But spoiler: the biggest secret of the Ark is that its whereabouts are still secret.

Secrets Of The Ark airs Sunday nights at 10 pm ET/PT on the Science Channel.

Last modified on Monday, 07 June 2021 08:48

Review: 'Roku Recommends'

Written by 04 June, 2021

Roku announced earlier this week that is launching a new weekly series called Roku Recommends, which will be hosted by Maria Menounos and Andrew Hawkins, who will "present streaming recommendations for the week, from trending originals and premieres to series debuts and not-to-be-missed classics." I suppose it would be considered snarky to mention that Roku might not need a show like this is the content discovery and search on their Roku Channel app wasn't so terrible.  This idea sounds a bit different than the "Roku Recommends" ad unit I reported on in early April.

But if you've been reading this newsletter for awhile, you might remember that I suggested a similar idea for Hulu a few months ago, but in that case I was proposing more genre-specific mini-shows:

One example of this would be for Christmas movies, which are spread across numerous channels. Viewers who enjoy these movies tend to watch a lot of them. And they would likely engage strongly with a five-minute show that highlighted the new Christmas movies of the week and where to find them. The potential internal challenge of this idea is that sales and marketing would see this as a place to wring money out of networks and studios by offering pay-for-play placement. But this idea only works if it's recommendations are organic and have credibility.

And that internal pressure from sales and marketing is why I am skeptical of the effectiveness of this Roku idea. I'm sure the show will push some viewers, but it sounds at first glance like this is more of a feature to sell to advertisers and content partners. And those partners likely have interests that aren't aligned with viewers.

The first episode is live now and it runs 16 minutes. There is a 60-second interview with Patton Oswalt and a "Top Five" things to stream this week. Which for the record, are these titles:

5) Girls5Eva (Peacock)

4) Alias (Roku Channel)

3) Cruella (Disney+ Premiere)

2) Mare Of Eastown (HBO Max)

1) Marvel's M.O.D.O.K. (Hulu)

And then there is the "Child Proof Lock" feature (sponsored by Walmart!), which is the suggestion of a TV show or movie that can be watched by the entire family. Hawkins' suggestion is Paddington 2, which can be rented at Walmart-owned Vudu (hmmmm). They also do a "Trending On Roku" feature, where the hosts pick a series that is "trending on the Roku app." Amazingly, Menounos picks the Roku Original reboot of Punk'd, which is one of the Quibi shows Roku picked up after that service shut down late last year.

There's nothing WRONG with Roku Recommends. But there aren't any surprises and you can see the sales department fingerprints all over the choices. And it's an interesting decision to only highlight things that have already premiered as opposed to promoting content premiering in the coming week.

Last modified on Friday, 04 June 2021 17:59

TV Flashback: Carole King Live At Central Park Featured On Geraldo's 'Good Night America'

Written by 25 May, 2021

In 1973, there was no bigger singer-songwriter than Carole King. Her 1971 Tapestry album had spent 15 weeks at #1 and eventually sold 14 million copies. Two singles from the album - "I Feel The Earth Move" and " It's Too Late" - went to #1 on the Billboard Top 40 singles chart. James Taylor released a cover of the album's track "You've Got A Friend," which also went to #1.  She released three more albums in the ensuing two years and while none of them were as successful as Tapestry, she was a massive star in 1973.

So when she decided to give a free concert in New York City's Central Park on May 25th of that year, it was a big media event. Stars such as Joni Mitchell and Faye Dunaway showed up and so did Geraldo Rivera, who at the point was doing a proto talk show called Good Night America, which aired regularly in primetime on ABC. The show was a bit of a brand extension of the network's long-running morning show Good Morning America, albeit with a "hipper" feel.

On July 1st, a nearly nine-minute segment on the concert aired on Good Night America, featuring a surprisingly sedate Rivera providing a behind-the-scenes look at the concert. It's a fascinating look at Carole King in her prime, as well as a Geraldo was still more newsman & feature reporter than reality TV provocateur.

It's also worth noting that while Geraldo frequently mentions that camera crews were on site to record the concert, it has never been released on either audio or video.

Last modified on Tuesday, 25 May 2021 09:18

Why NBCU Should Renew 'Debris' (And Move It To Peacock)

Written by 17 May, 2021

On Monday, CBS announced it is moving the supernatural thriller Evil to its sister streaming service Paramount+, the third CBS show set to make that move for the upcoming season. There are several factors that led to that decision, but a primary reason is that not only is the broadcast television audience getting smaller - it's getting less ambitious in its viewing habits. In the same way the market for compact discs is over-50 consumers looking for new titles from their favorite classic rockers, broadcast television is increasingly focusing on safe schedules full of predictable spin-offs and premises. 

In this environment, it's tougher than ever for a complex, mythology-driven drama to find an audience. Audiences don't want to invest the time and to be honest, the broadcast networks often struggle to promote shows that have multi-layered story elements. Moving slightly eccentric shows such as Evil and Clarice to a streaming service makes a lot of sense. And I think you're are going to see other networks making a similar calculation.

Which brings us to NBC's Debris, a science fiction series that over the course of its first season has developed into a clever, complex drama full of unexpected turns and real emotional payoffs. And like most mythology-heavy shows on broadcast television in recent years, it has struggled to find an audience.

Created by showrunner J.H. Wyman, here is how NBC describes the series:

When wreckage from a destroyed alien spacecraft scatters across the Western Hemisphere, it soon becomes apparent the pieces are messing with the laws of physics, changing lives in ways we can’t comprehend. Two agents from different continents, and different mindsets, are tasked to work together to recover the debris, whose mysteries humankind is not quite ready for.

While the logline doesn't exactly fill the reader with a strong need to watch the series, the show has made its case for survival each and every week. The concept of the debris unpredictably affecting everything from time to the physical properties of the world is just batshit enough to seem somewhat possible while still feeling insane and unpredictable. And while it took me a couple of weeks to warm to the unsettling chemistry of leads of Jonathan Tucker (playing Bryan Beneventi) and Riann Steele (as Finola Jones), the duo have managed to find that sweet spot which allows the humanity and personal lives of their characters to breath in a show that could easily become nothing but a typical "monster-of-the-week" knock-off of The X-Files.

But the nuance and inventiveness of Debris also makes it a difficult show to love.  It's not one of those shows that you can just lean back and half watch while you're finishing off the latest Sudoku puzzle. You need to actively watch the episodes and absorb some of the evolving mythology. All of which makes Debris an unlikely candidate for survival on broadcast television in 2021.

There is an option for the series that makes much better sense for the show and that also answers the question often asked by network executives in this type of situation: "what value will renewing this show bring to our business and bottom line?" And the answer lies with NBCU's streaming service Peacock.

Fans of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist are already pushing for the show to make the move to Peacock, because it is a series that creatively feels very similar to shows such as Peacock's critically-acclaimed Girls5Eva. There's a proven audience for shows such as Zoey's on Peacock and the series is well-regarded enough by audiences to make the decision nearly a slam dunk.

On the other hand, Peacock hasn't had much success with science fiction-oriented programming such as Brave New World and Intergalactic, which have received some positive press but not much buzz from audiences. It's tough to coax new viewers into a relatively new streamer and what Debris would bring to Peacock is a solid ensemble and clever premise combined with a season full of episodes that most people haven't seen. The show lends itself to bingeing and if it's properly done, the summer could be spent getting subscribers ready for the new season. The best chance for Peacock to develop successes in the science fiction genre is with a series that people might have heard of even if they haven't seen it yet. Debris fits the bill and it certainly seems to have enough creative legs to provide multiple seasons of action to a streamer that desperately needs it.

Debris deserves a second season and Peacock is the best place to make that happen.

Have some feedback? Email Rick at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow him on Twitter at @aysrick.

Last modified on Monday, 17 May 2021 22:54

Review: 'Deadliest Catch'

Written by 12 April, 2021

I recently did a radio interview in which one of the hosts asked me which show I considered to be the most influential reality series in television history. While a lot of people might answer that question with the long running CBS competition series Survivor, my answer was Discovery's Alaska crab fishing series Deadliest Catch. While it's true that the early years of Survivor had a large cultural influence, Deadliest Catch helped create an entire genre of successful reality shows. Its format and approach to story-telling has remained enormously influential over the ensuing years and I'd argue that Deadliest Catch continues to be a much more enjoyable show to watch than the recent seasons of Survivor.

Deadliest Catch begins its 17th season this week, and as you might might suspect, the season is focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the impact the virus has had on every aspect of society, you would expect to see the familiar crab fishermen of the show battling with possible outbreaks and involuntary changes in the way they do their day-to-day work. All of that is there in the season premiere, but the episode (and apparently the season) is primarily dominated by a challenge that I didn't see coming.

As it turns out, the pandemic prevented the Alaskan Fish and Game scientists from doing their annual survey of the crab population ahead of the season. That had a couple of important impacts on the fishery. First, the survey typically helps narrow down where the king crab populations might be located, giving fishermen a bit of a hint of where to start their fishing. But even more importantly, they decided on a quota based on the scant information they had. And unfortunately for the fleet, the laws that determine how the fisheries are managed don't have any caveats for the impact of a pandemic. The laws state that if the fleet doesn't catch all of the quota it's assigned that season, the assumption would be the reason is because the crab population is unexpectedly depleted. And the entire fishery will be off-limits for a year or two to allow the crab population to renew itself.

That involuntary future shutdown is an over-riding worry for the fleet and veteran fishermen (and longtime Deadliest Catch star) Sig Hansen rallies together the other captains on the show and convinces them to work together. He's convinced the only way there will be a crab season next year is if the captains share information about where the crab are located and how well each boat is doing with their pots.

If you're familiar with the personalities on the show, you won't be surprised to earn that each captain's attitude about sharing is defined a bit differently. And those differences are the center of a lot of what happens in the season premiere. Along with the return of a veteran Deadliest Catch captain, whom Sig convinces to return to the seas in one last effort to catch his quota and help save the fleet.

There are a number of funny moments in the season premiere, ranging from Sig's casual approach to his own idea about sharing to the surprise that greets one captain after he decides to lie about how well he's doing with his crab pots. And it's fun to see Sig struggling to figure out how to deal with his daughter Mandy, who is co-captaining the Northwestern and who sometimes has a very different idea of how the boat should be run.

It's amazing to be how well Deadliest Catch has held up over the years. Some of the faces have changed and the production style has evolved over the show's run. But what hasn't changed is the show's ability to be consistently entertaining without feeling as if every moment is guided by producers or manipulated in the editing process.

I've only seen the first episode of the season, so I don't know where it's all headed. But if this season of Deadliest Catch is anything like the previous sixteen, it'll be a fun roller coaster ride.

Deadliest Catch premieres Tuesday, April 20th, 2021 on Discovery. The episode is already available on the streaming service Discovery+

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 April 2021 14:45

Review: 'Nailed It!: Double Trouble'

Written by 26 March, 2021

TV critics might professionals, but we are also human brings with very human emotions. No matter how hard you try to approach each television series with an open mind and an optimistic heart, there are going to be some shows that you just won't like. Maybe it's the cast or the host or maybe you just have some difficult-to-describe, visceral reaction to it all. But you find yourself not liking the show, even though plenty of your readers love everything about it.

I certainly feel that way about the Netflix competitive baking series Nailed It!, which returns today with a new take entitled Nailed It! Double Trouble.

Hosted by Nicole Byer, Nailed It! is similar to the long-running Food Network series Worst Cooks In America in that all of the participants have marginal cooking talents. But in the case of Nailed It!, the contestants are asked to bake. Specifically, they are asked to recreate elaborate cakes and other baked goods that even a veteran baker would struggle to match. So of course, these home bakers end up slapping together monstrosities that often resemble a random pile of multi-colored baked items piled into an unrecognizable mess. And that is one of my main problems with the show. Every episode is a variation of the same premise. The bakes are a disaster and the winner ends up being the contestant who is least likely to poison the judges.

But while Worst Cooks In America at least has the benefit of entertaining judges/mentors, I find Nicole Byers' take on the show to be the TV equivalent of a two-year-old poking you every ten seconds with a dull stick. While I have liked her in other roles (and she's good in the upcoming Wipeout reboot). But I find her so irritating in Nailed It! that it is difficult for me to get past that. I recognize that is my problem - it's just my own personal taste and I know plenty of people who love her and Nailed It!

Which is why I decided to write something about Nailed It! Double Trouble even though I don't much care for the original version. How does this season compare to the previous episodes and what can fans expect?

The truth is that not much has changed with these new episodes, which depending on your perspective is either good or bad news. Nicole Byer is still Nicole Byer and her on-camera relationship with permanent judge Jacques Torres hasn't changed. The "Double Trouble" in the title refers to the fact that now the contestants compete in teams of two, which brings an added level of conflict to the already chaotic rounds.

And that's pretty much it. Everything else has stayed the same and if you loved Nailed It!, you'll love Nailed It! Double Trouble. So you be you.

Nailed It! Double Trouble premieres on Friday, March 26th, 2021 on Netflix.

Last modified on Monday, 29 March 2021 10:08

Review: 'A Week Away'

Written by 26 March, 2021

One of the most difficult tasks as a critic is to review genres and subjects that aren't in your wheelhouse or aren't what you believe are complex enough to be worthwhile of a close examination. It's part of the reason why so many reboots of beloved family-oriented TV shows from the 80s and 90s are now complex, dark stories of the supernatural. Family-oriented is the equivalent to boring in the eyes of many in Hollywood. And faith-based AND family-friendly? It's the creative equivalent of an old Elvis film in the eyes of many creative people in the industry.

But if you've ever worked on a family-oriented television show or movie, you would know that they can be incredibly difficult to pull off well. The material and performances have to feel authentic and true, while at the same time using the PG-rated premise as an opportunity, not a limitation. It's much easier to add conflict to scene using a ghost or a demon than it is by relying on the difficulties that arise between believable human characters struggling with honest human emotions. And while I embrace the darkness as much as the next person, there are times when it is comforting to be be reminded of the good things in the world. I am not an especially faith-based person anymore, but that doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the genre.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I don't expect to see a lot of positive reviews of the new Netflix movie A Week Away. It's a family-oriented musical about a troubled teen who is sent to a the Christian summer camp Camp Aweegaway in a effort to turn his life around. And not surprisingly, he finds love and friendship. He also discovers a bit about his true heart as he learns to trust other people.

The performances are for the most most earnest and solid. Kevin Quinn plays bad guy Will Hawkins and he does a nice job of navigating the difficult challenge of being dislikable enough to come off as "bad," but charming enough to be believable as a love interest. Jahbril Cook does a wonderful job as Will's cabin bunkmate and guide to this unfamiliar world. He is just the type of person you'd want as a friend in this type of situation and Cook wrings every little bit of possibility out of every scene.

Bailee Madison plays Avery, the camp owner's daughter who becomes Will's love interest. The character as written doesn't always give her a lot to work with, especially in scenes that any fan of teen summer camp movies can see coming a mile away. But Madison is coy and nuanced and charming in the role and it's easy to see how even the most jaded rap-loving potential felon could look at her and wonder about his previous life decisions. She's the type of person who can make you want to be better and the relationship between Will and Avery is the core of what makes this movie a joy to watch.

The central conflict in the movie comes from the Warrior Games, a multiday contest that includes summer camp favorites like Tug of War and Dodgeball, along with a camp-ending talent show. There is plenty of singing and dancing and just enough teen-centric conflict to be familiar to anyone who has ever been to a summer camp. The games provide a lot of energy and gentle emotional wrangling to serve as a good counterpoint to the budding love story.

There aren't any big surprises in A Week Away, but to be honest, I find that comforting. Because what the movie does very well is create a world that is fun to be part of 90-or-so minutes. Veteran country music director Roman White knows how to craft a great visual and keep the action moving and that's a skill that helps the movie over a couple of its less interesting moments.

This might not be the hippest argument to make, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of semi-predictable comfort and joy in a year that has provided so much pain and disruption. Watching A Week Away is like being wrapped in a warm blanket of optimism about humanity and I am just fine with that.

A Week Away premieres Friday, March 26th, 2021 on Netflix.

Last modified on Friday, 26 March 2021 11:57

One Season TV: 'M.A.N.T.I.S.'

Written by 19 March, 2021

M.A.N.T.I.S. aired on Fox over the 1994-1995 season and it was a unique effort for broadcast television. The series was created by Sam Raimi and Sam Hamm, who had some impressive credentials coming into the effort. Raimi was just coming off of "Darkman" and "Army Of Darkness" while Hamm's most recent work included the co-writing the screenplay for Tim Burton's "Batman" and story for "Batman Returns."

On the face of it, the M.A.N.T.I.S. origin story owes more than a bit to the well-known tale of Tony Stark and Iron Man. In this version, Carl Lumbly played Miles Hawkins, a mild-mannered yet wealthy doctor who was shot and paralyzed during a riot. Bitter about his paralysis and the police's role in the riot, Hawkins creates an exoskeleton (Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System) that allows him to not just walk, but perform superhuman feats. He builds a secret underwater lair and a space-age hovercraft to aid in his fight against evil. The two-hour pilot was directed by "X-Files" alumni David Nutter and was a sleek and fun action romp. But even more importantly, it was an action movie starring an African-American lead at a time when many in the industry still believed that audiences would never support a drama helmed by a non-white actor. Even more amazing, the ensemble was also African-American.

But the series quickly ran into problems. The show was completely revamped after the pilot. The pilot had featured Gina Torres as a pathologist, Bobby Hosea as a reporter trying to cover the story of the M.A.N.T.I.S., and Wendy Raquel Robinson and Christopher M. Brown as a pair of African students studying under Hawkins. Every major character save Hawkins was replaced for the series, with the not-so-black Roger Rees and Christopher Gartin joining  the cast. The show pretended as if the storyline of the movie had never happened.

The series struggled from the beginning to find an audience despite being the lead-in on Fridays for The X-Files. Most of the episodes in the first half of the run centered around some variation of Hawkins using his suit to perform some rescue or other act of vigilantism. There was also an on-going battle with industrialist Solomon Box, who wanted control of the M.A.N.T.I.S. technology for his own evil purposes. But the show was retooled again in mid-season to make it more compatible with The X-Files and the new direction added all sorts of weird themes, including time travel, parallel universes and mysterious monsters. The season ended with Hawkins appearing to be killed off by (I am not kidding), an invisible dinosaur.

M.A.N.T.I.S. might not have been a great show, but it should be remembered for being one the show that brought the first African-American superhero to primetime television.

NOTE: If you're interested in seeing M.A.N.T.I.S., the entire series is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Last modified on Friday, 19 March 2021 01:07

10 Obscure Classic TV Shows You Can Watch On IMDb TV

There are niche streamers for nearly every imaginable niche, but so far no one has launched one that is devoted to the obscure and lesser known classic TV programs. There are a number of reasons for this - digitizing costs, complicated ownership issues, sync rights and more. But every time I begin to lost hope, I'm surprised to see a handful of truly offbeat programs pop up unexpectedly on some streaming service.

IMDbTV is a free, advertiser-supported streaming service that is owned by Amazon and is somewhat buried inside the innards of the world's clunkiest streaming interface: Amazon Prime Video. Like the larger Prime Video service, the search function is hit and miss and indeed the way you are most likely to run across lesser-known titles is by accident. I've found that looking at IMDbTV on a computer is a bit easier than via the Amazon Prime Video app. But just barely.

Here are some of the quirkier titles now streaming for free on IMDbTV. Some of the programs are really well made and others were just made. But regardless, if you are a fan of the golden-ish age of television, then you will find some stuff here that you won't believe:

Banacek (1972-1974) (2 Seasons)
This show aired two eight-episode seasons as part of the NBC Wednesday Night Mystery Movie anthology series. George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a Polish American freelance insurance investigator based in Boston. He received ten percent of the value of any of the stolen goods he recovered and each episode featured him solving some seemingly impossible crime. Semi-regulars on the series included Murray Matheson, who played rare-bookstore owner and information source Felix Mulholland and Christine Belford, who was Banacek's insurance investigator rival and sometimes booty call, Carlie Kirkland. 

The crime-solving parts of the show are still first-rate, but some of the early 1970s breezy attitudes towards women can be cringey at times. But it's a fun show to watch and was reasonably popular at the time. So much so that the network ordered a third season but Peppard decided against it in order to prevent his ex-wife Elizabeth Ashley from receiving a larger percentage of his earnings as part of their divorce settlement. One fun piece of trivia: the show inspired a 2018 episode of The Simpsons entitled "Home Is Where The Heart Isn't."

Tenspeed And Brown Shoe (1980)
Based strictly on the pedigree of the people behind this detective series, it should have been a huge hit. It was the first series to come from Stephen J. Cannell Productions as an independent company and Cannell was coming off a hot streak. In the previous five years, he had created the hit shows Baretta & Baa Baa Black Sheep and had co-created The Rockford Files with Roy Huggins. In fact, writer/producers Juanita Bartlett, Gordon T. Dawson both came from The Rockford Files, which has just wrapped its last episode. Co-star Ben Vereen was a well-known performer and Jeff Goldblum was two years away from career-changing roles in the movies "The Big Chill" and "The Right Stuff."

The series was about two detectives who had their own L.A. detective agency in Los Angeles. Vereen played E. L. ("Early Leroy") "Tenspeed" Turner, a hustler who for some reason I suspect isn't quite legal worked as a detective to satisfy his parole requirements. His partner Lionel "Brownshoe" Whitney (Goldblum) was a slightly wimpy accountant, who had always wanted to be a 1940s-style P.I. A running joke involved him reading a series of hardboiled fictional crime novels, written by Stephen J. Cannell. But the series never caught on, although Cannell was fond enough of the premise that he later recycled it into the much more successful Hardcastle & McCormick.

The Tim Conway Show (1980)
Ace Crawford, Private Eye (1983)
Like musicians, some comedians are just better in a group than they are in their own solo projects. That was certainly the case with Tim Conway, who found great success as part of the ensemble on shows such as McHale's Navy and The Carol Burnett Show. But his solo television projects were modest successes at best. The Tim Conway Show was the second series with that name and Conway's friends and co-workers did all they could to make it a success. Conway had recently come off of the success of the Burnett show and this variety series was produced by Burnett's husband, Joe Hamilton and like her show, featured a group of regular sketch performers and it also aired on Burnett's home network CBS. But the hour-long show was cut to 30 minutes after two months and despite adding familiar faces like fellow Burnett Show alum and comedic foil Harvey Korman, the series was gone after a season. But that's much longer than Conway's follow-up series Ace Crawford. That spoof of old film-noir detectives was pulled from the air after a month. Both shows are well worth watching if you're a Conway fan. But if you're not....viewer beware.

The David Steinberg Show (1976)
There was a time in the early-mid 1970s when Canadian comedian David Steinberg was the hottest young comic in America. He had famously helped contribute to the cancellation of the The Smothers Brothers Show by performing a mock sermon where he made fun of passages of the Bible. He was a frequent host of the ABC music series The Music Scene and in 1972 hosted a five-week summer replacement sketch comedy show. In 1975, he hosted a short-lived NBC talk show entitled Noonday. And the following year he returned to Canada to write and star in this faux talk show, which is essentially an early take on the talk show-within-a-talk show format that later became a success with The Larry Sanders Show. The ensemble included a number of familiar faces, including Martin Short, John Candy, Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty. But while this series only lasted a season, those comedians were also working on their own series SCTV, which launched the same week as Steinberg's show and ended up running six seasons.

Decoy (1957)
The late 1950s were the heyday of the quick knock-off 30-minute cop show and most of them are forgettable. Decoy has a number of things going for it, including the fact that actress Beverly Garland was the first female lead in a television detective show. She played Patricia "Casey" Jones, a young police officer who frequently worked undercover. Given the 30-minute length, the stories aren't complicated. But Garland does a good job in the role and since the cast revolved from episode to episode and was shot in New York City..well, there is a lot of great shots of the vintage NYC street life and plenty of guest appearances by young actors on their way to better things. Guest stars include Ed Asner, Petr Falk, Larry Hagman, Suzanne Pleshette, Coleen Dewhurst and many more.

On Our Own (1977)
This one-season CBS comedy is more interesting for the cast than for what you'll see on the screen. Bess Armstrong and Lynnie Greene starred as Julia Peters and Maria Bonino, two employees in the Bedford Advertising Agency in New York City who also share an apartment. Gretchen Wyler played their boss and one of their co-workers was Dixie Carter. The show was taped live in front of a studio audience in NYC, which was unusual at the time. 

While the show aired on CBS, it was produced by Time-Life Television and distributed by Warner Brothers Television. Through a series of sales, the rights are now owned by HBO, which is owned by WarnerMedia. So why isn't this series streaming on HBO Max as part of a "classic TV" vertical? This is the type of thing I find frustrating.

Women Of The House (1995)
You would think a spin-off of the very successful Designing Women would have been a slam-dunk. But the series, starring Delta Burke as her familiar character Suzanne Sugarbaker, was a creative disaster from its earliest days. Burke had finally made-up with Designing Women head Linda Bloodworth-Thomason after a very nasty public fight. But things continued to be strained between the two and the premise of the show (Suzanne's most recent husband died and she took over his Congressional seat) felt cobbled together. There is also the unfortunate fact that Burke's character worked much better as part of an ensemble that would allow her to bounce jokes off of a straight man. The show did have a stellar cast, including Teri Garr, Patricia Heaton, Jonathan Banks and the off-camera guest voice of Bill Clinton. Ratings for the show slumped pretty quickly and CBS ended up pushing the final four episodes over to Lifetime.

Good Morning World (1967) 
Like a number of other shows on this list, this short-lived series had quite a comedy pedigree. It was created and produced by Carl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff, who in various combinations had been responsible for creating classic TV shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. The series starred Joby Baker and Ronnie Schell as Dave Lewis and Larry Clarke, morning drive time DJ's of the "Lewis and Clarke Show" on a small AM radio station in Los Angeles. Schell ended his three-year stint on Gomer Pyle to do this show (and he would return for that show's final season when this one tanked). Famed Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully even did voice-over narration on some of the episodes. But despite all of the comedic talent, the end result is a show that isn't very funny. But it did include Goldie Hawn in her first television role (playing Ronnie Schell's girlfriend Sandy).

Last modified on Friday, 19 March 2021 01:08

Review: 'Sakho & Mangane'

Written by 28 February, 2021

There was a time not that long ago when global television meant some moody procedural produced in Norway. While some of the shows were excellent, at the end of the day they were only culturally a step removed from the traditional American-made detective show. Some of them were even remade for American audiences and that was only possible because the cultural underpinnings of a series made in France or Denmark aren't that far from one made in Vancouver or Atlanta.

One of the best parts of my job over the past couple of years has been getting the chance to see some of the extraordinary television made across the globe. The crazy growth of streaming services has made it possible for TV shows in smaller territories to get global distribution. And it's also sparked a growth in production regionally as American studios and streamers sign deals with talented local writers and producers to create higher-end programming specifically made for a global audience.

Sakho & Mangane is a procedural series produced in Senegal and set in the capital city of Dakar. Created by Jean Luc Herbulot (who also directed four of the season's eight episodes), the show is a stylish and sharply-written take on the familiar buddy cop genre, filtered through a very specific African POV. The result is a fascinating series that can best be described as a unpredictable mash-up of Lethal Weapon, Miami Vice & Fringe

Issaka Sawadogo plays the weary veteran cop Captain Souleymane Sakho, who meets his new partner-to-be when he busts up a drug deal and chases one of the suspects through the streets of Dakar. The chortling suspect ends up flat on his back, still smirking and smoking a cigar while introducing himself as an undercover cop. Lieutenant Basile Mangane (Yann Gael) is the typical young, brash police partner, careless about procedure and pathologically uninterested in being a team player.

But the familiar tropes are soon buried inside a story that is filtered through Senegal's culture. The team gets a new boss, a take-no-prisoners hard ass named Mama Ba (Christiane Dumont). That familiar twist is offset by the duo's first case, the theft of a sacred totem that local fishermen believe gives them favor with the spirits. That supernatural underpinning is a constant throughout the season and by the final two episodes, the story arc includes chemically-created zombies, a mysterious organization and powers that seem to blur the line between reality and the spirit world.

The ensemble of Sakho & Mangane is also uniformly solid. Christophe Guybet plays Toubab, an eccentric pathologist who has outfitted his dissecting room with Eurotrash disco posters, mood lighting and a talking parrot. It's not clear why he's in Dakar and whether he's hiding or on the run. Fatou Elise Ba is also excellent as Antoinette, a self-described modern feminist journalist who struggles to navigate the blurry lines between a new Dakar and the old world culture that still dominates it. Awa (Khalima Gadji) is the station house reception manager, a shy woman who was a victim of some unnamed abuse. But she finds her inner strength as the season progresses and becomes a valuable and insightful investigator. Pope (Ricky Tribold) is a serious and moody young officer who evolves from a critical and serious policeman into a reluctant yet effective bulwark against the supernatural powers that target the police squad.

I loved everything about Sakho & Mangane. The stylish directing, the juxtaposition of American culture in an African setting. Mangane is fond of randomly yelling out "Hasta la vista" in the middle of a chase, which can be unsettling when he's doing it while battling some snarling crime boss/witch. It took me most of the first episode to really be drawn into the unfamiliar beats of Sakho & Mangane. But I quickly binged through the rest of the episodes and the show is one I would recommend to anyone who loves a great procedural drama.

Sakho & Mangane is available on Topic and Netflix.

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 April 2021 16:11

Review: 'Assembly Required'

Written by 22 February, 2021

I am probably breaking some TV critic code by doing this, but I am beginning my review of the new History competition series Assembly Required with my conclusion. If you are a fan of the 1990s series Home Improvement or simply enjoy competitive building shows no matter who the host(s) might be, then you are likely really going to enjoy this series. If you don't fall into either one of those categories, then your mileage may vary quite a bit on your level of excitement after watching the first episode.

Home Improvement was one of the biggest TV sitcoms of the 1990s and I think it's fair to say that while audiences loved it, the show was never much of a critical darling. That's also been the case with Allen's current series Last Man Standing, which is wrapping up this year at the end of its ninth season. Tim Allen is just one of those guys who doesn't get as much respect for his talents as he deserves. His comedy might not be your style, but given the success he's had in both television and in some films, he obviously knows how to connect with his audience.

And Assembly Required is designed to appeal to those viewers who enjoyed the chemistry of Home Improvement. Allen is teamed up with his old co-star Richard Karn in a competition series that looks as if could have been cranked out by a production company that's been around since those days back in the 1990s. In Home Improvement, Allen played Tim "The Toolman" Taylor, host of the home-improvement show "Tool Time." He was assisted on the show by his long-suffering helper Al Borland (Richard Karn) and to be honest, their on-camera chemistry was one of the most consistent laugh-getters of the show.

Assembly Required is basically "Tool Time: The Competition," from the chemistry between Allen and Karn to the look of the garage they use as their home base. All of which is great news if you read the previous sentence and thought "Man, that's my kind of show!"

In the premiere episode (and that's all I've seen so far), producers have chosen three "builders" to compete remotely from their home workshops in hopes of winning a $5,000 prize. The competition is two rounds and round one challenged the builders to construct their take on a Class A fire extinguisher that needed to put out a candle from ten yards away. They were provided with a box of materials, ranging from various parts that could be reworked into an extinguisher along with various other tubes, nozzles and random parts. The builders could also use anything from their workshop and were given three hours to complete their build.

They then tested their completed project on camera and one of the three contestants was eliminated. The second challenge asked the builders to put together a combination flame thrower/leaf blower. Something that could be used to clear the driveway in the summer or winter. Once again, they were given a box of materials, but this time they had five days to complete their project. Then their build was sent back to HQ, where Allen and Karn would test the items and choose a winner.

The format of the show isn't especially novel, but it's a good fit for Allen and Karn. Aside from testing the final build, most of their job involves watching the projects come together and then throwing out a few witty comments. The chemistry of the duo goes a long way towards keeping the show entertaining, even when Allen sometimes feels as if he's about 30 seconds away from yelling "Get off of my lawn" to some random passerby. Tim Allen is also a genuine builder of his own, and he and Karn seem to legitimately enjoy testing out these insane products.

The show also wisely has added a younger face to the mix YouTube DIY star April Wilkerson, who is there to be the show's resident hands-on expert. She also gets to screw a bit with the final two builders by purposely breaking something in the box sent to them. It's a simple fix, but they have to find it first and that uncertainly adds a bit more fun to the mix.

I've always enjoyed watching Tim Allen work, so I am likely the target market for Assembly Required. But if you're not, I'd recommend giving the show a try before you decide. If nothing else, Allen and Karn are having fun. Which is something we can all use a bit more in our lives right now.

Assembly Required premieres Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021 on History.

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 February 2021 00:24

Review: 'Animals On The Loose: A You Vs. Wild Movie'

Written by 10 February, 2021
Last modified on Tuesday, 13 April 2021 22:25

Review: 'The Movie Show'

Written by 17 December, 2020

I have to admit that I have a fondness for puppets. Not in a creepy way and why did your mind go there first? Now, I've always found puppets entertaining and truth be told, in an early life I was a financial reporter for a video/audio financial news startup in the Bay area. And while I spent the rest of my week doing serious reporting, every Friday I did a segment where I was the voice of "Stockie," a stock-picking sock puppet who gave surprisingly informed advice while mocking the stuffiness of the tech industry. My crowning moment was when someone from Apple PR called and asked for an apology because they felt the "puppet was being too mean" about their new G4 Cube. A product which, for the record, turned out to be a disaster.

But back to the point of this. Because I love puppet-oriented humor, I was really hesitant to check out the new-ish Syfy late night comedy The Movie Show. Created and voiced by Adam Dubowsky & Alex Stone, the show centers around a public access movie review TV show hosted by "Deb & Wade." Deb is the movie critic for the fictional Modesto Bird and Wade is...well, his personality can best be described as similar to what you'd hear from the sidekick on a mid-market classic rock morning show. He's juvenile, self-centered and thinks the movie The Meg is one of the greatest films of all time. Wade is the kind of guy who - when asked to do a segment where he and Deb would ask each other to watch their favorite movie - fought to name the segment "I'll Show You Mine & You Show Me Yours."

I am likely well past the demo for The Movie Show. And I know I should find the scattershot, sometimes vulgar and often just odd humor of the show off-putting and predictable. But honestly, I binged the first four episodes last night and was laughing so hard my wife came in to make sure I wasn't having some sort of seizure. I did stand-up for more than a decade, I've written a few things I think might be passably funny. I'm a tough audience. But based on what I've seen so far, The Movie Show might be the most consistently funny half-hour comedy I've seen in 2020. 

We all need a laugh right now and I don't think you'll find a more predictable place to find it than Thursday nights at 11:00 pm ET on Syfy. Tonight is the last show before the holidays and it returns in three weeks on January 7th.

Last modified on Thursday, 17 December 2020 16:42

One Season TV: 'Thanks'

Written by 26 November, 2020

The 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of television shows built around truly insane concepts. A mother reincarnated inside a car (My Mother The Car), a comedy set inside a German WWII prisoner-of-war camp (Hogan's Heroes), a show about a group of inept calvarymen and the Native Americans who cheat and trick them (F-Troop). That type of television has mostly fell out of favor by the 1990s, but briefly resurfaced later in the decade with shows such as The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer and the 1996 short-lived CBS comedy Thanks.

Thanks was created by Phoef Sutton and Mark Legan, both of whom had impressive TV credits. Legan was just coming off of stints on Dave's World and Grace Under Fire. And Sutton had previously worked on Bob and Cheers. So if anyone could pull off a comedy about the Puritans settling in America, these two guys could do it. And having watched all six episodes recently, the resulting show has some brilliant moments. But I also have a feeling that there was some network pushback about the execution, because there is definitely a shift in tone after episode four.

The series begins with the Pilgrim's first spring in the New World. There has been more snow and a lot less food than they had expected and a lot of the humor is based around the hunger and the group's puritan ways. Mark Dutton plays James Winthrop, who runs the local general store with his wife Polly (Kirsten Nelson). They have three children - Abigail (Erika Christensen), Elizabeth (Amy Centner) and William (Andrew Ducote). The family also includes James's mother Grammy Winthrop (played by Cloris Leachman). Jim Rash plays John Cotton, the self-described "village idiot," and the role feels as if it was originally written for Chris Elliott.

There are a couple of running jokes in the first group of episodes, including one involving a long-winded, the very religious Reverend Goodacre (Keith Szarabajka) who sees the hand of the devil in even the most everyday activities. There are lots of jokes about potential sinful behavior and the hypocritical behavior of the townspeople. When confronted with tobacco for the first time, the magistrate suggests it must be a sin and should be abolished. "But shouldn't we try something before we say it's a sin?," asks someone. "We never have before now," he replies. People are thrown into the stocks for dancing and in one episode Elizabeth is thrown into the stocks for seemingly predicting a future that sounds a lot like our modern-day lives.

In fact, ten-year old Elizabeth is part of one of the most consistent running gags in the show. She is constantly suggesting better ways of doing things or wondering out loud whether the world might someday change in an unexpected way. When examining the incredibly small carrots the villagers grew in their first harvest, she wonders out loud if someday someone might be able to sell the wee carrots for extra money by claiming that they are "gourmet." "Marketing," she explains to her father. "It's all about the marketing."

Cloris Leachman doesn't have much to do in the first couple of episodes, but episode three has her lobbying for her own room and it gives her a chance to show off her impressive ability to chew up scenery and deliver a punchline. She's also the center of episode five, in which she falls for a traveling salesman played by Orson Bean. That episode might have the funniest line in the series: "My mother always told me, you don't buy a mule before you ride it."

Episode six is the final episode and it is probably also the most consistent. Viewers are finally introduced to the local Native American tribe, who teaches them how to grow crops and catch turkeys. The episode ends with a Thanksgiving meal and a bunch of jokes that mock the impact the Pilgrims would eventually have on this new world (or at least, a world that is new to them).

The episodes do take a bit of a shift in tone midway through the season. A lot of the jokes about sinful behavior and the stocks go away, which makes me suspect that the network was concerned some viewers might be offended by the light-hearted mocking of religion. Regardless, Thanks has some funny moments and I suspect if it had received a longer episode order (and hadn't been burned off in August), it might have survived and lasted several seasons. 

Several of the cast later had memorable roles in other television shows. A decade later, Jim Rash played Dean Craig Pelton on the NBC sitcom Community. Kirsten Nelson went on to play police chief Karen Vick on Psych and Erika Christensen has appeared in a number of movies and television shows, ranging from Traffic to the character Julia Braverman-Graham on Parenthood. 

The entire premiere episode of the show is posted below and you can click here for an episode guide for the series.

Last modified on Thursday, 26 November 2020 16:45

Review: 'NCIS' 400th Episode

Written by 24 November, 2020

NCIS kicked off its 18th season last week and the episode was a reminder that as much as I love the show, it feels like a series that is contemplating its eventual ending.

I would argue that until season 14, there wasn't a more consistent procedural on television. The ensemble was tight, the writers knew the characters and how to gently build out the mythology of the ensemble. Mark Harmon's Leroy "Jethro" Gibbs has always been the creative and emotional center of the series. But Gibb's gruff and taciturn character meant that it was up the rest of the cast to fill in the emotional heart of the show. The result was an ensemble that fit together like a handmade Italian supercar. Every part working in conjunction with the other, every character driving the show forward. 

But the exit of Michael Weatherly (Anthony "Tony" DiNozzo) at the end of season 13 led to a cascade of changes that NCIS has never quite recovered from. David McCallum (Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard) went to a part-time recurring character towards the end of the following season and Pauley Perrette (Abby Sciuto) left at the end of season 15. Leaving Harmon and Sean Murray's Timothy McGee as the only remaining characters from the early days of the show.

NCIS has attempted to rebuild the ensemble back in recent seasons with limited success. Jennifer Esposito (Alex Quinn) only lasted one season. Duane Henry (Clayton Reeves) was brought on full-time for seasons 14 and 15 and then killed off. Even the newer characters that have remained have become little more than ways to provide some exposition for the episode or give Gibbs and McGee someone to interact with on a regular basis. 

Emily Wickersham (Ellie Bishop) was brought in during season 11 to fill the place of the departed Cote de Pablo (Ziva David). But after an interesting debut, Bishop was eventually given a divorce and progressively given less to do each season. For the most part, she now just serves as a foil (and possible love interest) for Wilmer Valderrama's Nick Torres. Neither one of them are given much of a chance to do anything, except react to Gibbs and do a bit of investigation.

Mario Bello (Jacqueline "Jack" Sloane) was brought in during season 15 and the role appears to have been created to be a foil/possible love interest for Gibbs. And watching her character is a frustrating experience because you can tell the writers can't quite get Sloane to jell. Some episodes she does little more than come in, give Gibbs the stink eye and encourage him to talk about his feelings. Joe Spano (FBI Agent T.C. Fornell) has also been frequently used in recent seasons as a friend/sounding board for Gibbs, although to do that his character keeps getting involved in increasingly unlikely scenarios.

But a couple of things have worked very well in recent seasons. Diona Reasonover joined as Kasie Hines, replacing fan favorite Abby Sciuto. And it's a transition that has worked well. She doesn't generally have more than a scene or two in any episode, but she gets the job done and her character brings some much-needed youth to the cast. And as the rest of the ensemble has floundered at times, Gibbs and McGee have evolved into more of a father-son dynamic. Last season's pandemic-shortened season ended with Gibbs asking McGee to sit for awhile so he could share memories of his military service that he had never spoken about with anyone before. Their evolving relationship is often the best thing about NCIS in recent seasons.

And we're left with a show that really only works now when the episode directly involves Gibbs or somehow touches on some aspect of the Gibbs mythology. So given all of that, it makes sense that the 400th episode of NCIS would flashback forty years to tell a previously unknown story about Gibbs and Ducky.

A man is found dead in the NCIS basement and he is connected to a case that Gibbs was associated with back when he was still a young Marine headed off to sniper school. The present-day case doesn't amount to much, but it's really only there to give David McCallum a reason to return (always a welcome sight) and a way to set up the flashback portions of the episode. We get to see how Gibbs and Ducky first met, hear a bit more backstory about Gibbs and his future wife Shannon and even a reminder of how Gibbs was first introduced to the house he has now lived in for years. 

The flashback scenes are most of the reason to watch the episode and they are exceptionally well done. Sean Harmon and Adam Campbell are perfectly cast as young Gibbs and young Ducky and the parts of their backstory introduced in the episode deftly reveal some new facts about the duo for fans. In fact, while I don't think this episode was designed to be a back-door pilot, CBS should really consider signing them both to star in a "Young Gibbs" series. Which would be a great project for the upcoming Paramount+ streaming service.

At the 400-episode mark, it seems petty to complain that NCIS is in a holding action. But it sure feels that way. The series will likely last as long as Harmon wants it to and I hope that the way his character is being framed hints at some exit in the not-too-distant future. I still love NCIS. But sometimes you need to know when to let go of the things you love.

Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2020 15:38

Review: 'Voices Of Fire'

Written by 13 November, 2020

I don't know the definition of "Grace" is, but I know what it feels like to receive it.

Maybe eight years ago, I was at the lowest point of my life. I had been laid off three times in less than two years and there wasn't one aspect of my life that wasn't a dumpster fire. My marriage was collapsing under the weight of all the stress and I had a young autistic son who needed help I couldn't give him. I was lost and feeling simultaneously as if I were carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders while also being a failure and a fraud. One night I was driving home, dreading seeing my wife's disappointed face. And as I was driving, I realized I had to go to the bathroom and when I noticed some people walking into a small church, I stopped to use their facilities. 

It turned out the people were there for a meeting they jokingly called the "Broken Person's Club." It was set up essentially like an AA meeting. A group of people sitting in a circle talking about their lives, their hopes, their failures. Some of the group did have addiction problems, but there was also an elderly woman who was just lonely and a former pastor at the church who had lost his faith when his wife died following a long bout with cancer. All of them were "broken" in some way and they gathered twice a week for some fellowship, sharing of stories and unconditional support of each other. They convinced me to stay and I soon became a regular.

I wasn't a religious person then and I still am not. But those meetings saved me. Being able to talk about my fears, sharing the dark places knowing that there was no judgement gave me the space and strength to work everything out. It was brutally difficult. But as I write this I have never been happier. I have a strong marriage, a wonderful son and I make a good living doing work that matters to me. And I wouldn't be here without those meetings that I was almost too afraid to try. I found Grace, even if I can't quite describe what it is.

That feeling of Grace is also the underpinning of the new Netflix series Voices Of Fire, which premieres on Friday, November 20th. In a year where it can feel as if all of the joy has been sucked out of the world, this six-episode series is a palate cleanser for your soul.

At first glance the premise of Voices Of Fire sounds a bit like a Gospel-oriented American Idol rip-off. Bishop Ezekiel Williams - the uncle of Pharrell Williams - has assembled a group of the gospel heavyweights in the Hampton Roads area and hopes to put together what he dreams will be one of the best gospel choirs in the country. And they'll do it by mixing singers who have grown up in the church with people who don't know gospel music, but have the voice and personality to be part of a larger plan.

More than 3,000 people entered to be part of the choir and several hundred were brought in for auditions. And as these hopefuls sing for their chance, it's quickly apparent that this show isn't an American Idol clone. While that show can often seem wrapped up in the celebrity of the judges and the ambition of all of those Kelly Clarkson wannabes, the hopeful participants of Voices Of Fire aren't expecting to become stars by participating. They're looking for a way to find musical redemption, an opportunity to find themselves in a larger purpose. Early on, one singer begins haltingly singing and as she does tears begin streaming down her face. And that emotion sets the stage for a series of personal stories that frame the audition process and the preparation for the choir's public debut at a large theater.

One singer was once in a R&B boy's group that collapsed due to drug use by some of the members. A 15-year-old struggles to learn songs, hampered by the fact that she has lost 50 percent of her hearing. Another man has hands that are partially paralyzed after an accident that nearly ended his life. There are singers who struggle with social anxiety and a lack of support and confidence. Nearly everyone highlighted in the series is broken in some way, but the hard work balanced with unconditional support transforms each of them in ways they never saw coming.

The season ends with a concert and even at that point there are unexpected highlights and powerful emotions that will lift you up and leave your soul at peace. 

Voices Of Fire is a gospel show, but it isn't infused with modern-day religion or politics. If you believe, you'll see the series in a way that will reaffirm your belief that God changes lives on a daily basis. And if you don't believe or have non-Christian beliefs, you'll be lifted up by the unbridled joy that is interwoven into nearly every scene of the show.

While Voices Of Fire probably wouldn't have happened without the presence of Pharrell Williams, the show wisely uses him very sparingly. He makes a brief appearance during the audition phase and doesn't return until the night of the big concert. And that hands-off approach works for the show. His continued presence would have ended up making the show about him and his stardom. In small doses, he becomes a supporter and mentor rather than a celebrity judge.

In case you can't tell by this point, I absolutely loved Voices Of Fire. Its optimism and community is just the type of role model we could all use right now. My only complaint is that I would have loved to have seen the entire concert. So maybe it's time for a "bonus episode," Netflix.

Voices Of Fire premieres Friday, November 20th, 2020 on Netflix.

Last modified on Friday, 13 November 2020 21:46

Review: 'La Révolution'

Written by 16 October, 2020

At its best, television is a reflection of the culture that created it. It's not always an accurate representation, but it's a window into the mythology and stories that culture thinks are important. It's why I love watching television made outside of the United States. It's not just the enjoyment I get from seeing the work of people unfamiliar to me. It's the joy of seeing a familiar story through the lens of a different culture. 

That unfamiliar approach to storytelling is just one of the reasons to recommend La Révolution, a new original series from creator Aurélien Molas and Netflix France. 

The series is set in 1787 France, in a town about 60 miles from Paris. Two years before the start of the French Revolution, local doctor Joseph Guillotin (Amir El Kacim) uncovers a series of mysterious murders. Young peasant women are disappearing and it appears that there may be some serial killer at work. It's not clear why the murders are taking place, but as Guillotin continues to dig, he discovers an unknown virus which turns the victim's blood blue. It also gives them extraordinary strength along with some unsettling urges.

Joseph Guillotin was a real person. In fact, he is best known for his work to convince the French government to execute criminals by guillotine - a method he argued was more humane than the traditional axe or "breaking wheel." He didn't actually invent the guillotine, but it was named after him because of his work. 

But while the Joseph Guillotin in La Révolution bears the same name as France's leading proponent of the guillotine, their stories have very little in common. And that is the case with much of the storyline in La Révolution. It's very loosely based on the real events that led to the French Revolution, but I don't think there is any historical evidence that France blueblood aristocracy literally had blue blood. Instead the story is a "reimagining" of history, drawing on the inequities of French society to frame more traditional tale of monsters - both human and not-so-human.

There are a number of strong performances in La Révolution, including Marilou Aussilloux, who takes an impressive turn as the haunted Elise de Montargis. Elise is the daughter of the local nobility and argues that the population is overtaxed and abused. But she has little sway in a society where women are seen primarily as vessels for giving birth to the next generation of nobility. Her story is one of the over-arching arcs of the season as viewers learn more about how she has been treated and all of the things that have been taken away from her in the past. Amir El Kacem is also extremely effective as Joseph Guillotin, a man who desperately wants to overthrow the current political system. But also somehow believes that change can happen without violence and death. 

It's difficult to say too much about the main storylines of La Révolution without spoiling things. But Molas and the cast do a spectacular job at framing an unlikely premise in a way that seems as if it's the way the French Revolution *could* have happened. And the story also feels contemporary in some very unsettling ways.

I don't know enough about the current political and cultural climate in France to hazard a guess about how La Révolution will feel to French viewers. But as an American, the show's themes of a dismissive and corrupt upper class, a lack of upward mobility and a deck stacked against the working class seems painfully contemporary. While there aren't a lot of factual similarities between pre-Revolution France and the United States in 2020, the feel and emotional weariness of fighting what seems to be a hopeless battle against the powerful resonates deep into me.

La Révolution  was a treat to watch and it's perfect suggestion for viewers wanting something that is entertaining, unexpected and often thought-provoking.

La Révolution premieres globally Friday, October 16th, 2020 on Netflix.

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 April 2021 22:30

Review: 'Soulmates'

Written by 05 October, 2020

Nothing about love is guaranteed. But what if it was?

That's the bare bones outline for the AMC anthology series Soulmates, which premieres tonight. The series is set 15 years in the future and scientists have discovered the "soul particle" and as a result can match humans to their soulmate with 100% accuracy. You take the test and if your soulmate is in the database you meet. If they are not, then you have to wait for them to take the test. It's kind of the Minority Report of love. So know what is going to happen before you even meet. Or do you?

While scientifically finding your soulmate sounds wonderful on the face of it, it doesn't take long to see a lot of potential complications. What if your soulmate is dead? Or if they (or you) are already married? Do you spend your entire life waiting for a match that might never come? And what does a soulmate mean, exactly? Does it mean you'll be compatible in every way?

Season one explores some of the consequences of living in a world where everyone expects true love. Because the term soulmate is a bit squishy and challenging. Someone might be your soulmate, but you find you're not attracted to them. Or they are a white nationalist. Or detest donuts (Okay, that might be one of my fears). What do you do when that perfect match comes with some baggage you might not be able to live with? 

But there are even worse scenarios. Imagine you're happily married to someone who feels like your soulmate. They're smart, funny, kind and gentle. And the sex is amazing. Do you take the soul particle test? Does the science matter more than your heart?

And that was the complication of this idea that I was glad to see explored. Most of us have had more than one person in our life that we could have at the time described as our "soulmate." Is finding your soulmate really the thing that will make you happy? 

Like all good "what if" shows, Soulmates creators William Bridges and Brett Goldsteinrs allow the open-ended premise to lead the viewer in all sorts of unexpected directions. The episodes were all over the place thematically, some of them deathly serious and some veering almost into madcap rom-com territory. But in their own ways, each episode explored the complexities of love and relationships in a world where science has convinced most people there is only one love for them.

Soulmates' six episodes explore a lot of those themes and questions and when it's all over, you may find yourself thinking that finding your soulmate might be overrated. As it turns out, maybe isn't all that bad.

Soulmates premieres Monday, October 5th, 2020 at 10 p.m. ET/9c on AMC.

Last modified on Monday, 05 October 2020 15:40

Review: 'Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous'

Written by 18 September, 2020

I'll let you in a little secret about TV critics. There are times when we dread watching an upcoming show. Sometimes it's because you expect it to be dull or because you don't especially enjoy the work of someone associated with the series. But it can also be because you really enjoyed someone's previous work and you really, really don't want this project to fail to live up to their talents. In the end, what separates the professionals from the casual writers is the ability to look beyond your prejudices and fears. The ability to review what's on the screen, not what you are expecting a show to be.

I enjoyed the movie Jurassic World well enough. It was a fun romp and a distracting way to spend a couple of hours. But I wasn't exactly hoping to see an animated series set in that world. So when I first received the episodes of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous for review, I had an open mind but a sinking feeling that I might be disappointed. But going into the episodes, what gave me hope was the presence of Zack Stentz, who is attached to the show as a consulting producer. While Stentz is probably best known for this work on the screenplays for the movies Thor and X-Men: First Class, he also has a solid background writing and producing on some great television shows, including The Flash, Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. He also wrote and was executive producer on the Netflix original movie Rim Of The World, a wonderfully energetic teen scifi/adventure movie that was one of my favorite films from last year. Stentz knows how to successfully assemble an action series and I was hoping I would see some of that magic in Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous.

Honestly, I don't know why I was worried.

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is an impressively ambitious animated series that follows the story of six teenagers sent to to the far side of Isla Nublar to try out a brand-new state-of-the-art adventure camp set to open soon to the public. And while the first couple of episodes focus primarily on introducing the teens and chronicling their attempts to explore the camp and see some dinosaurs, their story kicks into high gear when the rest of Jurassic World has a meltdown after the escape of some mysterious experimental dinosaurs gone rogue. Left on their own as the island's infrastructure begin to melt down, the campers dodge one danger after another as they attempt to make their way across the island to the safety of the evacuation boats.

The teens are the expected range of backgrounds and talents. Darius is the dinosaur obsessed kid who is there because he beat a videogame. Ben is the frail, nervous kid sent there by his parents to toughen him up a bit. There's a track star, a social media queen and a kid who's there primarily because his rich parents got him a VIP invite,

Like Rim Of The WorldJurassic World: Camp Cretaceous has a nice sense of what it feels like to be a young teen. You're that mixture of cynical know-it-all and scared little kid. It's an emotional balancing act that is difficult to get right on the screen. But the six campers all have individual personalities that are distinct without being stereotypes. You pretty quickly find yourself rooting for this kids to get past all of the unexpected dangers they face on their journey.

One of the most impressive things about this first season of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is the level of action, especially in the final few episodes. Animated action sequences can sometimes feel divorced from reality and not based enough in facts to provide a genuine sense of the stakes involved for the characters. A lot of the action sequences almost felt as if they were animated renderings of a live-action movie and it's easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the danger. There are some sequences in the show that are as entertaining and memorable as anything you saw in the mothership Jurassic World feature film.

All of that being said, there are a couple of things that in retrospect feel a bit clunky. Without giving anything away, there is a secret involving one of the campers that ends up being a great deal of build-up for not so much of a payoff. It plays out in a way that almost seems as if the secret was less important than the fact that revealing it had a huge impact on the other campers. And the character of Ben basically doesn't contribute anything but some whining for most of the season, although when that does change, it changes in a very big and surprising way.

But those quibbles are minor ones. I saw down to watch Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous thinking I would set away after a couple of episodes. Instead, I eagerly blasted through the entire season in a couple of sessions. Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is a blast to watch and you'll find yourself sucked into the story whether or not you're a Jurassic World fan. 

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous premieres Friday, September 18th, 2020 on Netflix.

Last modified on Friday, 18 September 2020 05:18

Review: 'Beyond The Block'

Written by 02 September, 2020

There are a lot of househunting shows and the gold standard in the genre are the programs you'll see on HGTV. That network has been cranking out variations of the "let's help you find a house" series for a couple of decades. So it's difficult to watch a new show that tries to do the same thing without comparing it to the industry leader.

By that metric, the Tastemade/ series Beyond The Block compares very well. Hosted by Andrew Tyree, each of the first season's four episodes has Tyree visiting a new town. He's trying to help a budding homeowner (or homeowners) find the right balance between cost, community and convenience. The premise of the show doesn't sound all that different than 50 other similar shows you've probably seen in the past.

But there are a couple of subtle breaks with the norm and the changes serve the show well. Firstly, Andrew Tyree does a really solid job with hosting. He's informative without being smarmy, friendly without being insincere. The structure of the show requires a host who is comfortable in a variety of settings and Tyree navigates the shifts of location seamlessly. 

The second part of the show that works well is that while a fair amount of time is spent on the potential houses themselves, Beyond The Block is as much about the community and the lifestyle as the houses. Buying a house - particularly if you're a first-time homebuyer - is less about the number of bedrooms or whether it's an open-concept kitchen. It's about whether or not you feel at home in the community. Is it close to amenities you enjoy? Your favorite restaurants or clubs? All of those factors matter, especially for younger homeowners.

And the focus on the community is what makes the show more than just a cold real estate showcase. Episode one is set in San Antonio, where Tyree and the potential homeowners spend as much time exploring the neighborhoods as examining the homes. Tyree introduces them to several local business owners, take them for Kayak ride down the San Antonio Riverwalk and for lunch at a neighborhood food festival. He helps the couple discover what area feels like "home" to them and it's a helpful process in the end. is the "brand" in this show and any time a sponsor is helping to pay for the production, there's a fear the finished product won't feel authentic. In the case of Beyond The Block, the brand integration isn't hidden, but it's not intrusive either. There are two times in the premiere episode where the web site is mentioned and in both cases the mentions are woven into the natural progression of the show. In one case, it's using the web site to search just for homes in their target areas. In another, it's taking of advantage of a feature that allows you to see which areas in the city are the loudest. You do notice the integration, but it's no worse that the Wayfair integration HGTV uses in some of its shows.

One quick note about COVID-19's impact on the show. The first episode was shot pre-pandemic, but the producers wisely had Tyree check in remotely with the homeowners and business owners featured in the episode to see how they were doing now. It was a nice idea, especially since it's difficult to watch a show like this and not wonder how everyone was impacted by the pandemic.

Beyond The Block premieres Thursday, September 3rd on the Tastemade Streaming Network. Upcoming cities highlighted in the show include Los Angeles, Raleigh, NC and Fort Collins, Colorado.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 September 2020 16:36

Review: 'Being The Queen'

Written by 31 August, 2020

I will be to admit that I am likely not the optimal target audience for a television special that has any connection to the British Royal Family. It's not that I have any passionate dislike of them, I am just not especially interested in hearing about the Monarchy. I'll hear a news report about one of it's members and afterwards, all I'll recall is the phrase "Today, Prince Andrew said.." and then the next thing you know I'll wake up from the best 45 minutes sleep I've had in months.

So I approached the new NatGeo special Being The Queen the same way I approach all royalty-related programming: with a mixture of dread and anticipation for enjoying some much-needed sleep.

But watching Being The Queen reminded me that while Queen Elizabeth II is frozen in our collective minds as this stoic, elderly matron, she is intertwined with the history of post-WWII Britain. Utilizing lots of archival footage and interviews with former staff and confidants, the one-hour special puts together a fascinating portrait of Elizabeth the person, not the Queen. Or, at least as much of an intimate portrait as you are likely to get about someone who has believed all of her life that duty comes before everything.

The first 2/3 of the special focus on the earlier years of her life and her reign and that was the most interesting part of her story for me. The daughter of a man who wasn't supposed to be King, her father's sudden death propelled her to the role of Queen at a time when both England and the monarchy were in flux. Serving as Queen brings a lot of challenging responsibilities and requires personal sacrifices most people couldn't accept. And Being The Queen doesn't shy away from the personal prices she paid. She was extremely hands-off with her children and as Queen she was forced to step in several times with her younger sister Margaret. Most notably in the early 1950s when Princess Margaret was considering a marriage to Peter Townsend, an older, divorced man. 

The archival footage from that period is really wonderful and it allows the special's producers to really flesh out those early stories of Elizabeth's reign. But 2/3 of the way through the special, it jumps somewhat jarringly to the life and death of Princess Diana. Which I understand from a programming point of view. But that part of the story has been told a thousand times before and despite some valiant efforts, this part of the special is a lot less compelling. Honestly, I would have been happier if the special had spent that 20 minutes fleshing out more of Queen Elizabeth II's earlier reign. And the jump to focusing on Diana also makes for some unfortunate editorial choices. For instance, while the special devotes some time to Elizabeth's marriage and the challenges they faced once she became Queen, he basically disappear's from her story after the mid-1950s.

The good news is that Being The Queen is much better than the average special devoted to a member of the Royal Family. It's more of historical take on the life of Queen Elizabeth II than you might expect and that aspect makes it a fascinating special.

The bad news is that I still need a nap.

Review: 'Alice In Paris'

Written by 18 August, 2020

Streaming services such as Netflix rightfully receive a lot of credit for having realized that it you want to truly be a global media company, you need to have some studios located outside the United States. You also need to have relationships and production deals with bright young local talent who can provide the international point of view that can help set your content apart.

But digital brands such as Tastemade also have a global audience and global production assets. And while they haven't always been quick to take advantage of them when it comes to scripted programming, there are some indications that is changing. 

Alice In Paris is Tastemade's first long-form scripted series and while I've only seen the first episode of season three, that episode is as well-made and charming as any series that might come from a more traditional streaming video service. The series began about four years ago as short episodic videos that ran less than two minutes. Alice (played by show co-creator Alysse Hallali) was a college student who loved food and always found a reason to end up in some cute little Parisian shop or restaurant. The short videos didn't leave much time for a storyline or even a pause. But Hallali was charming and for lack of a better description, Alice came off as the type of college student most people outside of France picture when they think of Paris. She's passionate, a bit obsessed with food and proud of her city in a way that almost veers into arrogance.

Season two premiered about two years ago and the length of the episodes doubled to between 3 and 4 minutes. That increased length (and what appears to be an increase in budget) allowed the show to have some real storylines and also to introduce some new characters. Including Alice's sister (played by Alex Bénézech), who returns for season three. While the season two episodes often felt a bit short, watching them gives you a sense of why Tastemade execs thought the show merited full-length episodes. "Alice Loves Paris" is a love letter to the city but it's also an entertaining glimpse into the life of a young twentysomething culinary fan in the world's most intense city for foodies.

In season three's premiere episode, Alice gets into trouble when she impulsively steals a microphone at a big culinary festival and provides her own narration for the event. She's surprised when the rest of the local culinary scene doesn't appreciate her spontaneity and perfect sense of taste. To save her reputation, she embarks on a madcap adventure that includes trying to save a restaurant's Michelin Star by recreating a missing chef's prized creation. The episode is charming, witty and entertaining in a very French way. 

Hallali was in college herself when she and her boyfriend created the series and it's impossible to imagine the show being produced anywhere but Paris. Every scene of the series is a love letter to Paris and even if you've ever been there, you'll start to imagine what it would like to live in the world's most romantic city.

Season three of Alice In Paris premieres today (August 18th) on Tastemade's streaming network. Seasons one and two are available on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 August 2020 15:42

Review: 'The Osbournes Want To Believe'

I am enough of a capitalist that I believe anyone should be given the opportunity to make a living. But I also believe that I am under no obligation to help them do it. Particularly if helping them means watching a TV series that is the soul-sucking psychic equivalent of having your body completely drained of blood, then whacked with hammers until your pray for the sweet release of death.

As you might be able to discern from the first paragraph, I am not a big fan of the new Travel Channel reality series "The Osbournes Want To Believe." Truthfully, I watched the series premiere episode two weeks ago and loathed it so much that I decided not to write my review just then. I thought that perhaps I was just in a bad mood or maybe just the stress of an ongoing pandemic and being locked up with my teenage son 24/7 for months has finally broken my spirit. I opted to give it a rest and then revisit the show down the road. "Surely, it can't be this horrifying," I told myself optimistically. "Think about puppy dogs and cotton candy for awhile and give it another chance."

I will not make that mistake again.

The idea for the show - and I use the word "idea" in a very loose sense - is that Jack Osbourne wants to convince his parents that things such as UFOs and the paranormal really exist. So he's turned his parent's basement screening room into a makeshift pandemic-era studio. He shows them "spooky" YouTube videos and viral clips of weird crap. Then encourages them to share their thoughts.

Now Ozzy Osbourne is probably a delightful fellow in real life. But his grasp on the nuances of anything - much less the paranormal - is tenuous. So asking him to provide articulate and thoughtful takes on the existence of ghosts based on some videos is not unlike asking your four-year-old to give you some insight into the career of the Beatles after listening to the Ringo Starr hit "The No-No Song." 

And then there is Sharon Osbourne, who for some reason struck me as a fairly articulate and thoughtful person when she was on the CBS daytime series "The Talk." But in this show, sitting in matching theater seats next to her dazed husband Ozzy, she gives off the impression that she just woke up from a Nyquil-induced dream and can't remember where she parked the car.

I cannot properly convey how terrible "The Osbournes Want To Believe" is and how little effort any of the Osbournes seem to be putting into the show while on camera. There are times when you can see Ozzy just mentally counting down the moments until he's killed enough airtime to earn another paycheck. And I don't think a bank of talented psychics could discern what Sharon Osbourne is thinking in this context. It's just a train-wreck of a show and while I'm happy that the Osbournes have convinced another network to fork over the money for a program, I feel as if watching it is only encouraging a crime against humanity.

"The Osbournes Want To Believe" airs Sunday nights on the Travel Channel.

Last modified on Monday, 17 August 2020 00:10

Review: 'Selena + Chef'

Written by 16 August, 2020

It's not that I am overly cynical, but generally speaking, I am not impressed with the fact that someone may be a celebrity. I can appreciate someone's talent and creative works. I can be intimidated by their accomplishments. But I don't know that I "stan" anyone. Part of this stems from the fact that I have close friends from my stand-up career who are now well-known stars. Spending time with them, meeting their industry friends and hearing their off-the-record stories, it's clear that for the most part the men and women who are stars are not that different than the average civilian on a personal level. Yes, they may have a posse of hangers-on who get paid to hang out with their "best friend." But celebrity tends to magnify a person's core values more than change them. The nice people are usually still nice (most of the time) and the jerks are just going to be jerks to people who are too afraid to push back.

All of this was in my mind as I approached  the first three episodes of the HBO Max reality series "Selena + Chef," which premiered on the streaming service Thursday, August 13th. The premise of the pandemic-inspired series is not that dissimilar to the Food Network's "Amy Schumer Learns To Cook." In both cases, it's a star trying to learn more about cooking. But while Schumer receives her tips from her live-in husband, Gomez is cooking along with a celebrity chef who walks her through the recipe via a video call. 

I honestly didn't know what to expect going into "Selena + Chef." I'm not foolish enough to think that you are really going to get an unvarnished glimpse of a celebrity through a television show, especially one that they are producing themselves. But my measure of success for this type of show is whether or not it feels overly stage-managed. Are there some moments that are unscripted or unexpected? Do you get a clear sense of the celebrity's personality, even if it only the public part of their lives? Is this a show that feels natural and fun?

For the most part, the first three episodes of "Selena + Chef" are a success. Gomez has a long history of being on camera, so she's comfortable with the process and knows what works best for her personality. But more importantly, there are a few moments that come off as organic and she has a slightly cutting sense of humor that comes off on camera as mildly sarcastic instead of mean. For all of her comments about not being comfortable in the kitchen, she displays some decent skills and is even willing to tackle vaguely unpleasant tasks such as breaking down, preparing and cooking an octopus. She cracks jokes about the process, complains in passing that it's hard to find a decent boyfriend and shares stories about her experiences in the kitchen when she was growing up. On a lot of levels, "Selena + Chef" is exactly the show you want it to be, whether or not your're a fan of hers.

No show is perfect and there are certainly a couple of things I'd tweak if I could. The first episode (with Chef Ludo Lefebvre) is noticeably looser than the episodes that follow and Gomez is dressed more casual and seems a bit more thrown by the process of putting together a finished dish. It's also the best episode because that looseness plays to Gomez's strengths. Given the chance, she can be funny and smart in a way that is truly charming. The later episodes seem to be consciously a bit more structured and that structure wrings a bit of the fun out of the process.

Gomez also seems to have a few different people quarantining with her. Episode one features one set of Grandparents along with someone she introduces as a friend. Episode two introduces another friend to the mix. All of which is fine and it's not a criticism. It all just made me wonder how many people are living with her at the moment. Not because I care per se, it's more that the question is one of those things that might be of interest to viewers. If Gomez isn't cooking, then who is? What's a typical meal like in the Gomez compound? 

Weird and minor quibbling aside, I really enjoyed what I've seen of "Selena + Chef." It delivers on the food part of the premise and Gomez is more than charming enough to carry any show. I'm not sure that the fact that it's one of my favorite HBO Max original shows is a great thing for the streaming service. But watching the series will leave you with a smile on your face and maybe a new recipe or two to try out during your quarantine at home.

Episodes 4-6 of "Selena + Chef" will premiere on Thursday, August 20th and episodes 7-10 will be available Thursday, August 27th, 2020.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 August 2020 19:59

Review: 'Sharks Of Ghost Island'

Written by 15 August, 2020

There are a few different types of "Shark Week" specials and one of them can best be described as "kinda interesting shark stuff but we're afraid not interesting enough so we're going to hype the hell out of the danger." The one-hour special "Sharks Of Ghost Island" fits firmly into that category, since it includes both an actual shark-related task (find a number of shark species near an island) with a bunch of random facts & comments designed to make it seem much more dangerous a task to "Shark Week" viewers.

The "Ghost Island" part of the show's title comes from the nickname of The Great Isaac Cay, a Bahaman island located 40 miles east of Miami, Florida on the western edge of the Bermuda Triangle. The intro to the show mentions that it has long been the scene of sightings of large sharks. And besides being in the Bermuda Triangle, it's been abandoned since 1969, after two lighthouse caretakers mysteriously disappeared without a trace. But the mystery part is pretty quickly pushed aside and is really only mentioned to explain why a team of scientists are there. Since there haven't people near the island for decades, the waters surrounding it have become a popular area for creatures of all sizes. And there is a theory that the island has become a popular area for large sharks. But to prove that theory, scientists must discover at least ten species of sharks swimming in the waters near "Ghost Island."

Why ten species? We don't know. If scientists only discover evidence of nine, does that mean the migration theory is incorrect? We don't know. But the "we must find ten species of sharks" sets up a very weird metric for success and leads to a baffling tracking board on the deck of the scientist's ship. The number on the board begins at 0 and is updated baseball game score-style as more sharks are discovered. It just seems a bit contrived and awkward, although the actual looking for sharks footage is often fun to watch.

Like nearly all Shark Week programs, "Sharks Of Ghost Island" tends to treat all species of sharks as potentially dangerous to humans. Even though that clearly isn't always the case. But the real downside of the special is that it doesn't delve more into the mysteries of the island itself, which is rumored to have actual ghosts haunting it.

There's the creepy "Grey Lady," who reportedly haunts the beaches of the island, searching for her son who was the only survivor of a horrific ship disaster. Or the ghost of a young boy who survived being thrown clear of another sinking ship, only to be torn apart by a group of large sharks. And there are those missing caretakers, which is a truly creepy real-life mystery.

Overall, there's nothing wrong with "Sharks Of Ghost Island." There's some interesting footage of sharks and you'll be curious to learn if the scientists do indeed discover ten species of sharks in the area. But the special ultimately feels like a bit of a time filler. Which is useful but maybe not all that entertaining.

"Sharks Of Ghost Island" premiered Saturday, August 15th, 2020 on Discovery.

Review: 'Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef'

Written by 09 August, 2020

Complaining that a Shark Week special was promoted in a misleading way is somewhat like being unhappy when drinking beer doesn't make you more attractive. Hype is hype and while there's nothing wrong with it, you shouldn't be surprised if you're misled a bit while you're being entertained.

Based on the promos for the Discovery Shark Week special Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef, you might have thought you were going to see an hour-long battle of the brawn between one of the world's most-recognizable boxers and a massive killer shark. The advertising made for some fun viral moments but all of it has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the actual special. In fact, a more accurate title might have been "Mike Tyson Really Doesn't Like Being In Water." The special in the end is entertaining, albeit in a way that leaves you with the sinking feeling you're been misled.

The special begins with a bunch of hype from someone at the UFC and a boxing match-style introduction that promises a battle for all ages. Which makes it even more jarring when we hear from Mike Tyson. He admits that he doesn't much like water or amphibious creatures and while he won't quite admit to being scared by the prospect of meeting some sharks face-to-face, he's definitely extremely concerned. The plan is for shark experts to take the boxer through three tasks, each with increasing "danger." First, a dive in which Tyson comes face-to-face with some sharks while safely inside a protective shark cage. Then it's a dive to hang with some sharks without a cage, with the final task being surrounded by sharks and then stroking one on the nose until it's put to sleep, a procedure which is called "tonic immobility."

The upside of the special is that Tyson does seem legitimately unnerved by being around sharks. That makes for an entertaining hour of television, even if the closest Tyson gets to "battling" a shark is stroking one on the stout until its immobilized.

It's probably not helpful to wonder just how dangerous these tasks might be in real life. Cynics might suspect that Discovery is not going to take a chance on some shark taking a hunk out of Mike Tyson. And as it turns out, the Caribbean and lemon sharks Tyson interacts with aren't especially dangerous. In fact, these are the types of sharks that are often used in human/shark interaction events. This isn't to say that there was zero danger. But none of this was likely to end up in a "brawl to end all brawls."

Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef is pretty much what you expect from a Shark Week celebrity special. It's entertaining, not especially scientifically accurate, and guaranteed to be the topic of conversation at the office tomorrow if any of us were still going to the office.

How you feel about the special also probably hinges on how you feel about Tyson and his past criminal history. In 1992, he was sentenced to six years in jail after being convicted of raping an 18-year-old woman (he served three). He has also admitted to physically abusing wife Robin Givens during their stormy marriage. In a joint interview with Tyson on 20/20 in September 1988, Givens told Barbara Walters that life with him was "torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine." By all accounts, Tyson has his anger under control now. But whether you're willing to give him a second chance will have a lot to say about whether or not you want to see him cavorting with sharks.

Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef premieres on Sunday, August 9th, 2020 as part of the kick-off night of Discovery's Shark Week 2020.

Review: 'Maxxx'

Written by 27 July, 2020
Last modified on Saturday, 15 August 2020 00:58

Review: 'SNL's Best Of John Belushi'

Written by

I have to admit that I have a strong prejudice towards John Belushi. Besides being talented, he was hell of a nice guy. At least, he was always nice to me.

When I first moved to Chicago, I used to hang out down by Second City, and this was just the time when Belushi and company were in town filming The Blues Brothers movie. And he and the crew set up an informal and semi-private private club across the street. So most nights, you could find him in there, partying away until the early morning. And my first sight of him was when I walked in the door the first time, as he was pulling his head out of a giant container of ice, attempting to keep himself going.

The trouble with my memories, and most of my other thoughts about him is that they don't matter much anymore. He's been gone for more than a decade, and the public's memories fade. WTBS has aired The Blues Brothers and Animal House to death, but it's hard for people to appreciate his talent past that. And their remembrances of his Saturday Night Live work are colored by Chris Farley, who professed his love for the man by cranking out a number of sketches and movies that screamed, "Hey! I'm a fat guy!"

Which is why it's good to see SNL airing this special, because it's a reminder to everyone how subtle Belushi's acting could be.

The 90-minute special kicked off with his first appearance on the show, a sketch with the late Michael O'Donohue in which he played a foreign-speaking immigrant going through language lessons that seemed to involve a lot of talk weasels and wolverines.

And it also included the segments that you would expect: The Blues Brothers, Belushi's impression of Joe Cocker, his marvelous turn as Captain Kirk in the final mission of the Enterprise.

But as you watch the clips, you recognize the difference between John and someone like Chris Farley. Farley was massive, throwing himself on the set, using his bulk as a comedic weapon to bludgeon everyone into submission.

Belushi had a light comedic touch when he needed it, and his facial expressions were wry and incredibly effective. Watching his eyes dance during the Samarai Deli clip, and the way he paced the scenes of his Mozart impressions, you get a sense of how effective an actor he could be. And his ability to talk effectively and precisely made his segments on the news set with Jane Curtin a beautiful dance to watch.

The show ended with a scene that's easily the most ironic thing ever filmed on SNL. A "Schiller's Reel" piece in which an elderly Belushi went to visit the graves of all of the other cast members. He was the last survivor, he said, because he was a "dancer."

You were much more than that, John. And we miss you.


Review: The 1000th Episode Of 'The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno'

Written by

Jay Leno celebrated an anniversary last night, and it's characteristic of him that he didn't make a big deal about it. September 24th marked the 1000th episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and while he didn't formally toast the event, the show that he did do illustrated everything that's right and wrong with the program.

The show opened with a sight gag, Leno walking across the stage as a counter clicked from 999 to 1000. But the monologue that followed was as mundane as his usual effort. Sometimes when you watch him work, longtime fans must wonder where his comedic inner clock has disappeared to. As a stand-up comedian, Leno was always able to find the perfect punchline for a joke. He was well known for honing and honing material until it was flawless-with not a spare word in the sentence.

But as a talk show host, much of that inner sense of humor has seemed to evaporate into the ether. Even on his 1000th episode-on what should be a special occasion-Leno only got three jokes into his monologue before he hit a wall, commenting, "Geez, you think I would have learned more in 1000 shows." Part of the problem is that he simply does too many jokes up front. No matter how talented your writing staff, you can't crank out 9 or 10 minutes worth of material a night. That sort of pressure leads to a mind-numbing procession of inane punchlines and mugging that would have mortified a younger Leno.

They have tried to work around the problem by inserting a number of brief pre-taped bits into his monologue. So the audience is treated to quick visual jokes of a Clinton look-alike puffing on a bong to the caption, "Got Pot?". On this, like on most, the quick bits get the biggest laughs, but even those are unfocused and only hitting 50% of the time.

After the monologue, he did a bit called, "What I have Learned", which involved Leno introducing taped pieces that are supposed to illustrate the many things he's learned over the course of 1000 shows. This was not his finest moment, especially when you consider that the funniest line involved Jason Alexander picking a huge wad of lint out of his navel. What has Jay learned? Apparently, not enough.

It's when Leno brings out his guests that he really shows what he's learned. Leno is by no means a flawless interviewer. But over the 1000 shows he's learned much about what it takes to bring the best out of a guest. And he's able to smoothly nudge the interview in the direction he needs it to go.

The guests were Michael Jordan and Elizabeth Hurley and in both cases he did what he was supposed to do. He allowed them to promote their current project and still kept the program from teetering into an informercial. Unlike David Letterman, who oftentimes is anti-social to the extremes, Leno seems to genuinely like most people and that comfort translates into a gently entertaining program.

Watching the Tonight Show on a regular basis can be a frustrating experience. Watching Leno work is like watching Pete Rose play baseball in his last troubled season. Everyone loves him, and you still see the flashes of greatness. But all too often, he's just coasting on memories.


Review: 'Oh, Baby!'

Written by 18 August, 1998

One of the frustrating things about being a TV critic is that every so often, you see someone that *should* be a star. But they end up buried in thankless roles in hapless programs. And you find yourself secretly hoping that someday they'll finally get their chance to shine.

I've always felt that way about Cynthia Stevenson. She's suffered through a procession of roles that only hinted at her talents. She first popped up in a recurring role as Norm Peterson's obsessive secretary on Cheers, but it was all downhill from there. She had a stint as "Trisha," Bob Newhart's daughter on the quickly canceled sitcom, Bob; a starring role on Hope And Gloria; she even played the budding talk show host in the syndicated series My Talk Show. But the programs never lasted, and she was always left being the actress who should have been a contender.

Oh, Baby! is the type of sitcom that the broadcast network weasels would never green-light. While the broadcast executives have no problem airing a series with a lot of sex or violence, pitching a show where the lead is artificially inseminated would have heads exploding all over the executive suite.

It's their loss.

Stevenson plays Tracy, a woman in her 30's with a biological clock ticking like a bomb at a South African Planet Hollywood. She'd love to settle down, and hopes to get married someday. Unfortunately, her boyfriend Grant is not exactly the domestic type.

Tracy takes us through the scenes that led up to her decision to be artificially inseminated, beginning with her three-year anniversary celebration with the moron de jour Grant, who pulls out a black jewelry box over dinner and proceeds to give her...a turquoise ring. As she tells him, that's not exactly an engagement ring..."unless you're an Aztec."

Things don't get much better at work, as it seems like every woman in the office is pregnant but her. And she doesn't exactly have a great bunch of people to use as a support group. Her best friend Charlotte (Joanna Gleason)is the office psychiatrist and after two divorces she's turned into the world of romance's dark princess. Tracy's mother (Jessica Walter) is incapable of having any conversation without the word "I" in it, and her brother Ernie (Matt Champagne) is living a life of quiet desperation, stuck in middle management and in the midst of an unhappy marriage when all he really wants to do is go to Europe and paint.

I couldn't be farther away from the target market for this series, but I really enjoyed it. Stevenson is delightful, the insemination seems logical and not at all a plot device, and I was left wanting more.

Which, now that I think about it, is the same feeling that has gripped Tracy. Geez, maybe that *is* my biological clock ticking away...

Oh, Baby! premieres Tuesday, August 18th, 1998 on Lifetime.

Last modified on Friday, 21 August 2020 22:31