Saturday, March 30, 2013

I'd Rather Be on the Throne, Playing a Game

When I was television critic for The Detroit News, and later for the (Detroit) Metro Times, I would be approached frequently by semi-jealous civilians who gushed, "Man, you got the best job in the world! All you do is sit on your a-- at home all day and watch TV! And you get paid for it!"

Well, to some extent, that was true.

However, I would quickly respond with two "Yeah, but"s: (1) I actually had to write about what I saw, which tended to cut into my TV viewing time; and (2) I really didn't get to choose what I wanted to watch. When you're a professional television critic you're expected to be knowledgeable about everything on television, the good, bad and too-often ugly. At some point you must see it all, and for every Seinfeld, there's a Cavemen; for each Sopranos, a Stars Earn Stripes.

Well, thank heaven it's a new age. Thanks to the blogosphere, I can write these posts about television for fun, and about the series and specials that interest me. I'm an amateur now. A dilettante. And in that light, I have a confession to make.

I have absolutely no desire to watch or review Game of Thrones. Does that make me a bad critic?

Love Peter Dinklage, but... (HBO Photo/Helen Sloan)
I fully understand that the HBO fantasy epic, which launches its passionately anticipated third season at 9 p.m. EST Sunday, March 31, has exploded into something of a worldwide cult obsession. A simple Bing search of the words "Game of Thrones" generates more than 20 million responses. It has its own language. References to the show seem to jump in your face everywhere you look. Sports Illustrated made a play on its name for the cover of the magazine's first "Power Issue."

And, predictably, every television critic and pop culture outlet on earth has weighed in this week on the blood and lust coming soon to a Westeros near you. Even Tom Long at my old workspace The Detroit News, arguably the worst movie critic in America, took time this week to praise Game of Thrones in glowing detail. (Has anyone had the nerve to mention to him that this is a TV show?)

I'm certain the series, which I'm told has more than its share of nudity and vulgarity, is a sight to see. I've been a big fan of Peter Dinklage (no pun intended) since The Station Agent a decade ago, and I hear he's something of a sex symbol here. (Bully for you, Pete!) Game of Thrones obviously boasts a fine cast, dense multilayered storylines and eye-popping scenery and special effects. And that's all wonderful and stuff.

But I'm just. Not. Interested.

Maybe it's a cultural thing. I never played a knight with an imaginary sword as a kid growing up in small-town Michigan, never fantasized about "Dungeons and Dragons" as a teen. I saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy and found it impressive, but not life-changing.

Actually, I think we're both better off here: I'm not forced to write about something I don't want to watch, having to overcome a possible inherent bias in the process, and you literally have millions of other sources who can wax about the third season of Game of Thrones with rhapsodic glee. Everybody's happy.

I'm chalking this up to just another of the many things about television I don't fully understand. I can think of 10 more without reaching for my remote:

• How The Jerry Springer Show can still be on the air after 22 seasons;

• The undeniable, intrinsic appeal of Duck Dynasty; 

• Why anybody still cares whether it's Jay or Jimmy at 11:35;

• Honey Boo-Boo (of course);

• The continuing explosion of bloody, gory, serial-killer dramas in prime time;

• The proliferation of bloody, gory, serial-killer reality series everywhere else;

• Why anybody who watches TV would voluntarily go on Judge Judy as a litigant;

• How too-cool-for-the-court, master-of-the-obvious Clark Kellogg manages to keep his job as lead analyst for CBS college basketball;

• How I can be the only person who thinks Jimmy Kimmel is the smarmiest, most unlikable person on television;

• Any Kardashian.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

HARDCORE PAWN Season Premiere: Crime, Caution and Craziness

I am Michiganian by birth, Detroiter by heart. I spent more than 30 years in the Automotive Capital of Earth, became a man and a professional there, so shows that are set in Detroit or attempt to capture a slice of life in the Motor City are especially dear to me.

Hardcore Pawn in particular is an amazingly successful, largely unsung Detroit TV jewel. Shot in the now-iconic American Jewelry & Loan on Eight Mile Road – and without the benefit of hotly-debated Michigan film incentives – Hardcore Pawn ended its sixth season with 3.4 million viewers on truTV, largest audience in the network's history. It's basic cable's No. 1 unscripted program in its 9 p.m. (EST) Tuesday time slot, has spawned a spinoff series in Hardcore Pawn: Chicago and, if it weren't for the unbelievably whacked-out string of belligerent, ignorant, foulmouthed customers it spotlights, would be a continuing source of pride for Detroiters.

Moreover, I have gotten to know series stars Les and Seth Gold and Ashley Gold Broad on a personal level. I've written several stories on the family-owned business, including this feature for HOUR Detroit magazine. I've even patronized the place: the wristwatch I wear every day was purchased at American Jewelry & Loan. So for its lucky seventh season, which premiered Tuesday, March 26, I've selected Hardcore Pawn as a series to review here on a weekly basis. Here's a recap of Episode One:

The seventh season opener, "Frisky Business," arrived with an uncommonly somber, serious tone: the first true wacko customer didn't arrive until more than seven minutes into the proceedings. In last season's two-part finale, Joe, the store's head of security for three years, was caught on video stealing scrap gold and loose diamonds from the business, was fired and prosecuted. Now all the employees – as well as Les, Seth and Ashley – are on edge wondering what the corporate reaction to this Judas-like betrayal should be.

Les, the wise one, acknowledges it's a fact that a worker occasionally will steal from you. It's happened to him before, and it's a sad reality of doing business. Seth, the cautious one, thinks that's a copout. It's possible Joe wasn't working alone, and if that's the case every employee is a potential suspect. "If you can't trust your head of security, you can't trust anybody," he declares. A strong response is needed, and Seth calls for a mandatory all-store meeting on the showroom floor.

Les announces at the meeting that Byron, a young bespectacled gentleman about the size of the Spirit of Detroit statue, will replace Joe as security chief. He also enacts a new rule that the jeweler's table is officially off-limits to all but a handful of personnel. "If we see anybody else around there, your ass is on the line," he warns.

(Credit: Mark Hill/Turner)
It's Seth, however, who drops the biggest bombshell: Beginning that night, the bags of all workers will be searched upon leaving the building. As you might imagine, this goes over about as well as removing your belt and shoes at airport security, or breaking wind aboard the plane.

He ends the meeting with the ominous notice: "We will be instituting other measures as well," which takes even Les and Ashley by surprise.

Then we're off to business as usual. An innocuous-looking man who tries to sell Les a handsome brass table compass for $150 that he himself is selling online for $33 naturally incites the patriarch's ire ("Do I look like a f***ing idiot?"). He gives the seller and his compass speedy directions to the door, steamed that anyone would even try to play him as a fool at this stage. "Yeah, this is my first day of being a pawnbroker," he cracks.

It's the episode's second customer, however, that brings Hardcore Pawn back to its slam-bang reality roots. A gangly, headbanded gent laments the recent passing of his grandmother in the same breath he asks to pawn one of the old gal's rings to pay his rent. Ashley, literally sweet as she can be, politely informs him that Granny's ring is a fake and he'll need to pawn a TV or other items to hit the $300 he's requesting.

"So you're saying basically I wasted my time standing up here talking to you?" he asks, demanding to speak to someone else "because you irritate me, flat out." (Ashley gets that a lot.) He suddenly demands she lowers her voice and sticks his finger in her face! Oh, that's the cue! Byron, the new security chief, appears like a mountain out of the mist, bodyslams the finger-wagger and bull-rushes him out the door. (That's the moment you remember this is "reality" TV; they'd be facing personal injury lawsuits every week if they manhandled customers like this in real life.)

He calls Ashley the "B"-word as he leaves, triggering Les's anger again – nobody insults his daughter in his presence – and a shaken Ashley appears to display genuine near-tears emotion after he's gone. "People come in my face all the time and scream at me," she says, "but nobody's ever touched me. Thank God for Byron."

Later, a laid-off man tries to sell Les a gull-winged 1976 Bricklin sports car ("one of the coolest cars I've ever seen," Les gushes) for $30,000 but agrees to pawn it for $7,000, and an unsure single mother agrees to part with her larger-than-life Blues Brothers statues for $300 but reneges on the deal when friends whisper she could get more elsewhere. But my personal favorite customer of the episode is the skullcapped boob who lost power in his home the night before and comes to Seth looking to buy a generator.

"It doesn't run on electricity, does it?" he asks. (Ouch.) 

Assured that generators are made not to need outside power, he attempts to negotiate a deal. When he can't come up to Seth's asking price of $700, he asks to bring the generator to his home and test it before purchasing it. Yeah, right, and when it works, you'll come right back with the money, correct? Ultimately, he flies into a rage, becomes the second patron in 30 minutes to receive the Byron Bounce, and ends up humping one of the front-door barricades on his way to the parking lot!

"," Byron suggests. "Psychiatrist. Xanax. A beer. Something."

The episode ends with Seth – who's been talked off the idea of body-searching the workers by Les and Ashley – following through on his promise to inspect the bags of every employee as they leave the store, totally infuriating the female employees.

"We have a problem," Seth observes. "No," Les replies, "YOU have a problem."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Norman, Is That You? 'Bates Motel' is 'Psycho' New and Old

Welcome! Here you check in, but you don't check out. (Joe Lederer/A&E)
Beauty and the Beast. Hawaii Five-O. The Carrie Diaries. Prime Suspect. Elementary. It must be prime-time television, where everything old is being "reimagined" for another hopeful shot at ratings success. (WARNING: Whenever you see the word "reimagined," immediately think "recycled, threadbare concept I have seen at least once before.") If there are so many bright, cool, creative people in Hollywood, why are there so few completely original ideas?

It's because our lords of entertainment hunger for the one thing nobody on this earth is guaranteed: a surefire winner. Production costs being so astronomical these days, no network can afford to sire too many litters of dogs in its lineup. The prevailing theory is, if you already have some familiarity with a storyline or character you'll be much more willing to tune in to our new series, out of curiosity if no other reason, and join millions of your like-minded friends in the process. (This wisdom fails to take into account that shows like Duck Dynasty, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead may be runaway hits because there is nothing else like them on television, but I digress.)

Freddie Highmore as Young Norman, Vera Farmiga as Mom.
And now, one of the most iconic tales in all of moviedom has become a TV renovation project: Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 thriller Psycho, as "reimagined" in the new series Bates Motel premiering at 10 p.m. EST Monday, March 18 on A&E. (If you watched the 2012 biopic Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense, you're amazed that Psycho – itself based on the novel by Robert Bloch – ever got made in the first place, but again I digress.) Bates Motel presents as the prequel to Hitchcock's genre-defining film, probing the parent-child relationship between a 17-year-old Norman Bates and his flighty, borderline sociopathic mother, Norma, and the circumstances that played into his becoming the most famous fictional serial serial killer in history. (Hannibal, yet another "reimagined" series coming to NBC April 4, might disagree.)

Like different breeds of dogs, however, there are different sizes and shapes of these creatures. There are great reimaginings (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and horrible reimaginings (AfterMASH).

Bates Motel is an...OK reimagining.

I really want to like this show. Young British actor Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) is a brilliant cast as the teenage Norman, bearing an uncanny likeness to the late Anthony Perkins and exhibiting the angular, awkward, sheepishly cute demeanor one might have envisioned in the character as a schoolboy.

We never actually met Norman's mother – at least, not with her skin on – so in theory any actress could have played the role. Again, executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), two gentlemen whose work I admire, made an inspired choice with Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) as Norma Bates. Farmiga has an awful lot of foundation to pour in Monday's opener – she is, by turns, loving, overprotective, flirtatious, manipulative, secretive and confrontational – yet manages to pull it all off while being neither unappealing nor contrived. The series stays true to the setting and architecture of the Bates Motel in our collective memory, while blending in some breathtaking bayside scenery as this show ventures outside the confines of their property.

The big problem with Bates Motel is that it feels like a jumbled anachronism. The creators very much want it to be a contemporary series – we see iPhones, texting, BMW convertibles and wild, dope-smoking high school parties – but Norma and Norman, by their dress, their mannerisms, even some of their dialogue – seem firmly rooted in the time period of the Psycho movie decades ago. It's as if they were transplanted from another age to walk among us in modern times. "It makes my brain hurt," my wife said, trying to rationalize the two polar-opposite contexts. Mine was starting to throb a bit, too.

Master Bates, in the Dark. (All photos, Joe Lederer/A&E)
There is death within the first three minutes of the pilot (Norma's second husband, of unexplained causes) and two more graphically violent acts before the hour ends. Her spouse's demise prompts impulsive Norma to pack up lock, stock and favorite son, move to the dozy coastal village of White Pine Bay and buy a foreclosed, tumbledown motel. She has a second, older son, Dylan (Max Thieriot), but you won't meet him for a week or so. He's worth the wait.

"This is our chance to start over," she tells Norman.

"Maybe some people don't get to start over," he replies. "Maybe they just bring themselves to a new place."

Guys, we all should be so lucky as to be brought to this place. Filed under the category of "Things That Have Never, Or Will Never Happen to Me, Ever," while waiting for the bus to begin his first day of high school Norman is set upon by five beautiful classmates who pepper him with personal questions then whisk him away in the Bimmer. (What made him turn evil, anyway?) He's taken with the vivacious Miss Popularity, Bradley (Nicola Peltz), who sees him as "a beautiful, deep, still lake in the middle of a concrete world," but he's being pursued by quirky school loner Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke), whose lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis forces her to drag an oxygen tank around campus. She senses a kindred spirit in Norman. "Do you have some sort of chronic illness?" she asks him, looking almost disappointed by his response.

You'll also meet a creepy sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) and his smitten deputy (Mike Vogel) who views Norma as someone worth investigating. If you remember the eccentric '90s mystery Twin Peaks, it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons between it and Bates Motel; actually, this might have been easier to accept and appreciate as a "reimagining" of that series.

On our Glowing Box scale of 1-10, I give Bates Motel a 6. I encourage you to check in, however, out of curiosity if nothing else: how long you stay before checking out is entirely up to you.

Friday, March 8, 2013

On 'Dallas,' J.R. Goes Out With a Bang – For Real This Time

This time, sadly, J.R.'s not coming back. (Credit: Skip Bolen/TNT)
Whether you follow the new incarnation of Dallas like a Texan follows his Longhorns or you decided to keep your TV past in the past, if you loved the series in the '70s and '80s you owe it to yourself to tune in to the episode titled "J.R.'s Masterpiece" at 9 p.m. EST Monday, March 11 on TNT.

It's "Who Shot J.R.?" 2.0, as last week's hour ended with J.R. Ewing's son, John Ross (Josh Henderson) on the phone with his felonious father when he hears two gunshots on the other end of the line.

"Dad? DAD?" he screams.

I was so hoping he might get stabbed or poisoned this time around. Let the murder mystery begin!

Of course, unlike the media phenomenon that swept the world over three decades ago, J.R. won't be returning to lead the investigation this time, since Larry Hagman died of cancer last November at 81. So Monday's episode, J.R.'s memorial service at Dallas's exclusive Petroleum Club, is both a celebration of TV's most famous and enduring villain and the remarkable actor who portrayed him.

Might as well practice saying it now: "Boy, doesn't he (or she) look old?" Because J.R.'s funeral reunites a score of characters from the show's first go-round, and seeing them on the same set again is one of the special delights of the hour.

In addition to series regulars Patrick Duffy (Bobby) and Linda Gray (Sue Ellen), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), who makes recurring appearances, and Ted Shackelford, whose character Gary Ewing returned to Dallas a few weeks ago, will be there. (Knots Landing alert: Joan Van Ark, the longsuffering Valene Ewing who's now estranged from Gary, will return in a few weeks.)

Jones, Cuban and Mayor Rawlings with Duffy (Skip Bolen)
The guests include Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly), Lucy Ewing (Charlene Tilton), Mandy Winger (Deborah Shelton) and J.R.'s second wife, Cally (Cathy Podewell). Victoria Principal, Priscilla Presley and Susan Howard were invited, but declined; however, as a testament to the larger-than-life persona of both Hagman and his character, real-life Dallas moguls Jerry Jones, owner of the Cowboys, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings appear as themselves at the memorial.

I spent an evening with Hagman many years ago with a group of television critics at his Malibu beach house. It's a night I remember vividly to this day. He was gracious, friendly – and showed flashes of a wild-ass, bad-boy streak he couldn't mask if he tried. I left his presence thinking everything I'd heard and read about him actually might be true. Larry Hagman – native Texan, liver transplant recipient, marijuana advocate – was a marvelous TV actor (don't forget Maj. Tony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie), and truly one of a kind as a human being.

If you'd like to catch up on the events leading up to this historic episode, TNT is making the first seven hours of the current Season 2 available for online viewing at And the official Dallas fan site,, is an overwhelming wealth of information on the series.

In the tipping point of "J.R.'s Masterpiece," Barnes crashes the private ceremony and runs his big mouth, sparking a brawl that disrupts the proceedings. Kercheval, however, escapes without a scratch. "Back in the day, Cliff Barnes would have been the first person hit," Duffy told TV Guide. "But we can't lay a finger on each other anymore because we'd fall down and break a hip."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

NBC's 'All-Star Celebrity Apprentice' is Off and Stunning

From L-R: Omarosa Manigault, Stephen Baldwin, Lisa Rinna, Dennis Rodman, Brande Roderick, Lil Jon, Penn Jillette, Donald Trump, Gary Busey, Bret Michaels, Claudia Jordan, Trace Adkins, La Toya Jackson, Dee Snider, Marilu Henner (Credit: Adam Olszewski/NBC)

The 13th season of NBC's Apprenticeits first as All-Star Celebrity Apprentice, featuring a collection of quasi-, pseudo-, almost- and genuine celebrities from previous seasons – hit the airwaves at 9 p.m. EST Sunday, March 3. And what an odd and motley crew of competitors it is.

I don't do this very often – the fingers are too old and rickety to type at the speed of thought for an hour or more – but I was fascinated enough in this opening episode to live-tweet it during the broadcast. 

(By the way, I'm looking for other series to adopt and follow weekly for Big Glowing Box, and I'm taking recommendations. If there's a show you'd like to see covered here – Girls? Scandal? Justified? – let me know in a comment space (below) and I'll consider it.)

Whether you watched Apprentice or opted for The Bible on History, either way you cast a vote for Mark Burnett! He's executive producer of both series (joined by his wife Roma Downey on The Bible), competing against himself on the highest-rated night of the week. Some guys....

As you probably know by now, Poison rock star Bret Michaels, last season's Celebrity Apprentice champion, was the first contender to be fired. For those who missed it, or who are devout anti-Twitterites, here is my post-by-post, blow-by-blow of the two-hour premiere:

9:01 p.m.: And we're off! "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice" is on the air! On NBC.

9:02: Your "all-star" Apprentices: Rodman, Rinna, Jordan, Gillette, Adkins, Brande, Li'l Jon, Omarosa, Baldwin, Michaels, Snider, Henner, Busey. LaToya.

9:05: Five minutes into the show: Chump – uh, Trump – has yet to insult the President of the United States. But it's early.

9:06: How can Rodman's team ever lose a money challenge? "Hello? Kim Jong Un? Kimmy, I need a million. Maybe a warhead? Thanks." 

9:06: Trace Adkins on Penn Jillette: "He's brilliant. But then, the Devil always is." 
9:08: Adkins: "I came here to play this game with...Gary Busey." I always suspected country music would make you crazy.

9:10: Dennis Rodman is the last one chosen to join a team. Big mistake, or lucky break?
9:12: Amazing. The teams have broken down along racial lines. A conspiracy 'trumped up' by President Obama is suspected. #TeamOreo
9:14: Playboy model Brande Roderick: "I want to be project manager because I have such big donors." I'm not touching that one.

9:15: Can't I turn on a TV set without seeing Piers Morgan's prissy mug SOMEWHERE? 

9:18: There is ABSOLUTELY NO REASON Bret Michaels should not be the first project manager. Stupid. And I liked Team Oreo better. 

9:21: "A star is nothing but a self-contained mass of gas. They come out at night." And Gary Busey is back in the boardroom!
9:25: Twenty-five minutes in, and I'm already sick of @OMAROSA. Gonna be a long season.

9:30: "You got the balls?" "We got the balls!" Having this bunch of "celebs" making meatballs out of the gate is sooo appropriate.

9:35: The wife says she's already sick of Piers Morgan. I just kinda figured that was understood. 

9:38: "Naked Balls in Harry Sauce," says Lisa Rinna, wife of Harry Hamlin. All righty, then.
9:40: I'm so old, I remember when LaToya Jackson was good lookin'. Now she looks like was assembled by a committee.

9:43: Did Trace Adkins really just put his chef's hat ON TOP of his cowboy hat? I'm loving that!

9:45: Roderick on her cell phone: "Are Playboy bunnies coming, too?" Didja see Rodman twitch?

9:48: Good point from Da Wife: Seeing all that long hair waving over food prep is a bit nauseating. "Celebrity Hairnets," anyone?

9:52: Team reps appear on "Live With Kelly & Michael." Was this really ever on the air? I can hear daytime ratings plummeting. 

9:54: Would you ever seriously consider eating EITHER of these teams' meatballs? Glad I ate before the show started. 

9:55: There is NO BODY in Trace Adkins' team's Meatball shop. Might make it hard to compete. IJS. #CricketsChirping

9:55: "Plan B From Outer Space" – worst movie ever made. "Plan B meatball strategy – worst move in @ApprenticeNBC history?

9:57: A cameo appearance from Amy Grant! With $75,000! Talk about answered prayer!

9:58: Adkins:"I love pretty women with big checks." But what good is it for celebs to come if the only ones there are OTHER celebs?

10:03: The biggest meatball of all has arrived: Piers Morgan is in the house! 

10:05: If they pack ALL the former celebs into the first episode, what's gonna surprise us the rest of the season? 

10:06: T. Boone Pickens weighs in: $100,000 check. Just like Adkins predicted! Maybe Trace's strategy wasn't so goofy after all. 

10:09: Jennifer Aniston is endorsing Aveeno now? How much did THAT deal cost? I use the stuff anyway; coulda saved your money with me. #Commercial

10:14: The next time Trump cracks a smile on @ApprenticeNBC will be the first time. Then the world will end.

10:15: Gotta love me some Trace Adkins. The last strong silent type in a world full of noise. No wonder he kept his store closed. 

10:18 Stephen Baldwin: WAY too honest. Saving his donors for his turn as project manager? Well, he is the funny-looking Baldwin.
10:21: Rodman to Piers: "What is the main reason you hate this woman? People don't like you either." @OMAROSA Yeah, Piers says, but I've won.

10:24: The black folks have better balls! According to Kelly & Michael. But Brande's team: $250,000 total. Trace's team: $419,539!

10:25: Adkins says he wanted one big win for his charity, the Red Cross, because they helped when his house burned last year. Nice. 

10:34: That's what we want: Hatred so powerful that it oozes through the screen! @piersmorgan vs. @OMAROSA – Alien vs. Predator!

10:35: A true leader's strength is the ability to step back and let his people lead. If Bret gets fired, it will be a travesty. @ApprenticeNBC

10:40: Why would you let the snake @OMAROSA be the one running the cash register? Like she's going to be accurate? #NumbersDontAdd

10:46: Brande Roderick had NO CLUE how her team fared moneywise. And as project manager, you at least have to have a clue.

10:51: I think Brande brought LaToya back to the boardroom because she dared speak up against her. Weak.

10:52: "Why would you trust one of the least trustworthy people in the history of the show?" @piersmorgan @OMAROSA #AlienvsPredator

10:53: Sweat beading up on Brande Roderick's brow.

10:54: "Put yourself in my position. I am a human being." – Trump. Alert the media. This is news! 

10:56: Trump can't understand why Michaels came back to compete. Uh, maybe to earn more $ for Diabetes Foundation, since he's diabetic? What a jerkface.

10:58: Week 1, and I'm already pissed. Bret Michaels got fired ONLY because he had the guts to come back and compete. That's crap.

11:01: Celebs who shoulda been fired never made the boardroom. Brande shoulda fired herself. Bret got hosed. #EveryRoseHasItsThorn

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Mark Burnett Takes on 'The Bible' – Will Jesus Be a Survivor?

My wife looked at me like I'd just turned my Aquafina into Cabernet when I casually mentioned, "You know, I was watching The Bible this morning, and..."

The notion of watching rather than reading God's holy word may sound like blasphemy to some, but hey! It's the 21st century! Who reads anymore anyway? (Oh, except you, of course. And I'm very grateful.) I'll wager millions will be turning the Good Book into a visual medium at 8 p.m. EST Sunday, March 3 to behold the premiere of The Bible, a sweeping five-week, 10-hour miniseries event on History.

It's by no means an exaggeration to suggest that March 3 may be the biggest night in History's...uh, history. The Bible will be followed at 10 p.m. by the cable channel's first original scripted series, Vikings, itself a nine-week voyage into the very distant past. Talk about packing all your dynamite into one bang. (I can't wait to see how ABC's heavily-promoted new drama Red Widow, also bowing March 3 with a two-hour debut, will fare against both God and gods; "widow" may be the operative word.)

Which of these two History blockbusters did I concentrate on? Well, there's a no-brainer: the Vikings have Valhalla, and there's no way they're letting me in there! I'll focus on the promise of Heaven, thank you very much.   

Roma Downey as Mary. (A&E/Casey Crawford)
The Bible is executive produced by Mark Burnett, the programming whiz who through his reality-TV triumphs like Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice has shaped much of what prime-time television is today, and his wife Roma Downey, best known as star of the appropriately-titled Touched by an Angel, who also appears in the series in the role of Mary. (Duh. If you were producing The Bible, what part would you take? Jezebel?) 

Their showbizzy stature in leading this production is more than enough to make Christians a bit jittery ("Which of the disciples will be voted off Gethsemane? Tune in next week!"), especially since Burnett and Downey had to know that biblical scholars, ministers, believers, people of other faiths – even atheists – would be waiting eagerly to dissect and rip apart every scene. To their considerable credit, however, they took the righteous path, crafting a vivid, awe-inspiring spectacle that strives to stay true to the Bible and bring its stories to life. (There's even a disclaimer at the top that reads, "This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.")

Diogo Morgado as J.C. (Joe Alblas/A&E)
Are there some liberties taken? Of course. I never knew, for example, that one of God's avenging angels in Sodom was the original Bruce Lee. But not so many as you might expect. The Bible is a pretty exciting read all by itself. It's a "greatest hits" condensation of Scripture, but any series whose first episode begins with Noah and his family being buffeted wildly in the ark and ends with the parting of the Red Sea (my, how CGI has improved since The Ten Commandments) has got to be something to see, no?

The Bible looks rich and feels solid. There are scenes, such as the first look at Pharoah's colossal palace, that literally took my breath away. Beyond Downey, there is a massive cast of largely international actors, and the average U.S. viewer probably won't recognize one of 'em. That's a good thing, because it takes one away from thoughts like "I can't believe they cast him as Jesus" (him in this case being the young Portuguese star Diogo Morgado) and allows you to focus on the stories themselves. I had no idea, though, that so many Old Testament figures sported British accents. And I swear that William Houston, the Royal Shakespeare actor cast in the role of Moses, is trying to channel the ghost of Charleton Heston. 

The special effects are really the star of this epic. You'll be as fascinated as delighted to see Lot's wife become a pillar of salt (she's depicted as a real shrew), and the interpretation of the Burning Bush is unique and unexpected. Actor Keith David, who has often been described as "the voice of God," provides the narration. However, since this is America, the land of religious tolerance, and History has opened the door, shouldn't a miniseries on the Quran be forthcoming? The Torah? The Book of Mormon? 

There are violent and bloody scenes in The Bible, as there are in the Bible, but they are necessary within the context of the narrative; Vikings is the only saga I can remember that begins with a savage, bloodthirsty battle for no other reason than to set the stage, then immediately becomes dull.

An international Irish-Canadian production (and you know how mild and gentle those Canadians are) created by Michael Hirst, the man who gave us The Tudors, Vikings is a simple story, simply told. Young, ambitious Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) wants to take the Viking raiding party west this year to plunder new lands; his local chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne, looking extremely bored), says there ain't nothin' out there and tells Ragnar to stuff it in his helmet: they're heading east again, like they have every year. Frustrated, Ragnar defies his leader and secretly begins building his own longboat with the help of a whacked-out shipbuilder named Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård). In between, there's fighting.

The best part of the opening episode for me was when Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), Ragnar's hottie wife, lays to waste two would-be home invaders who show up expecting to plunder her. (Viking women rock!) Other than that, Vikings is largely full of ship.

I'll give The Bible nine out of 10 remotes (only God is perfect, you know), Vikings four.

Plus What: Over two telecasts on premiere night, March 3, The Bible averaged 14.8 million viewers and 13.1 million total viewers from 8-10 p.m, making it the No. 1 cable entertainment program of 2013 and, obviously, the highest-rated series in History's history.