Saturday, November 29, 2014

Say It Ain't So, Cos. Say SOMETHING!

I waited a while to write this until the media feeding frenzy and "Me, too! Me, too!" piling on blew over.

Boy, did it ever.

Black Friday? Forget that. This has been Black Week in America. And if he hasn't already, Bill Cosby should hit his creaky knees and thank God for the blessings of timing and the 24-hour news cycle. "America's Dad" may be the only man in the country to benefit from the senseless destruction and idiocy of Ferguson, since it literally blasted him off the front pages.

Not for long, though, I'm guessing. When you've got women taking numbers to stand in line so they can hurl rape allegations at you, there's an excellent chance you'll regain the title of Public Celebrity Enemy No. 1 sooner than later. I walked through the grocery store the other day: Cosby is on this week's cover of People, Us...and the National Enquirer. Nobody wants to be that popular.

Suddenly, everybody has a Bill Cosby story. Here are a few of mine.

Out of respect, a photo Cosby approved.
There is absolutely no doubt in my head that my sense of humor, whatever it may be, was completely formed, shaped and polished by William Henry Cosby Jr. – or more specifically, by the string of 10 classic, tear-inducing comedy albums he recorded between 1963 and 1969, a span roughly corresponding to my junior high and high school years.

Here was a young, inventive comedian the same color as I, which, believe me, was not an everyday occurrence in the '60s. And, unlike Redd Foxx (who was the only other African American comic I knew of at the time), you didn't have to wait until your parents were gone to pull his albums out of their hiding place. Cosby always worked "clean," never stooped to vulgarity or innuendo, never took advantage of his comedic birthright to use his race for easy punchlines.

Why Is There Air? Wonderfulness. "I Started Out as a Child." It felt like they were coming out every other month. I would race to the record store in the little town next to the little town where I grew up, snatch up the latest LP on the date of its release, then dash home breathlessly to begin absorbing every groove. By the tenth hearing or so I had every routine committed to memory.

Meanwhile, in the other small town, my friend, Chris DeBlaey, was going through the exact same ritual. We were Cos-obsessed. Chris and I attended the same small (of course) Methodist church, and by Sunday our mental guns were loaded. You know how kids are in church to begin with...and we came armed with material.

We would sit next to each other in the service, alternating lines of Cosby's monologues, trying our utmost to break each other up. I vividly remember one Sunday night worship where our persistent snickers and stifled snorts escalated to such a volume that our pastor, Ron Smeenge, actually halted the service in mid-sermon.

"YOU TWO!" he bellowed, sounding like the voice of God Himself.  "Just what exactly is so funny?"

I wanted to shout out, "Noah!" or "What's a cubit?" using an example I figured he would understand. Instead, Chris and looked down at the floor, feigning remorse, then cut knowing glances at each other, our eyes dancing with mischief.

I learned comedic timing from Bill Cosby's albums. I studied the art of the pause, how to deliver the punch line, how bending a word or simply choosing one word over another could make a joke funnier. And since I ultimately spent a portion of my life working as a professional standup comic, I would say I tried to put those lessons to good use.
The Cosby image the media shows today, now that he is Satan.

But there's more. Maybe you have to be a young boy in his formative years with a media fixation and an identity crisis to understand how thrilling it was to have a black man starring in a dramatic television series. Bill Cosby broke TV's color barrier in 1968 with I Spy: before Sheldon Leonard made the daring decision to cast him as Alexander Scott, blacks were allowed to make America laugh but never permitted to make us think. And it was significant to me that Scott was the smart one, the thinking man's character, and Robert Culp was the athlete. That's a contrast that rarely happens even today.
*          *          *
Fast forward to the mid-80s. I'm the entertainment writer for The Detroit News and the long-gone Premier Center in suburban Sterling Heights is booking an impressive lineup of national acts. Two legends of the industry, Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr., are touring together for the first time. I am, as you might expect, giddy with anticipation. But first, some background.

Several weeks earlier, Eddie Murphy made his first standup appearance in Detroit at the Masonic Temple. I was reviewing the show, sitting in a back row, and was very familiar with Murphy's outrageously blue comedic style. I was in the minority. The audience that night was largely white, people who knew Murphy only from his small body of work on Saturday Night Live. They expected to see live versions of his Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson characters; some even brought their children! I could see disaster on the horizon, and unfortunately I was right. The first time Murphy dropped an F-bomb you literally could hear jaws dropping.

Ultimately Eddie had to cut his performance short and was booed offstage. Someone actually threw a shoe at him as he stalked to the wings. He stopped, picked up the shoe and threw it back at the crowd! Besides writing my local review, I was a stringer for People magazine and wrote a blurb that appeared nationally on the magazine's back page.

Back to the Premier Center. Davis and Cosby put on a sparkling performance, and when it was over a VIP reception was thrown for them backstage. Elizabeth Roach, the venue's publicist and a good friend, asked, "Would you like to go back and meet Mr. Cosby?" I had a deadline to meet, but – are you kidding? Heck yeah, I'll go!

We were milling around backstage, waiting for an opening, and at the appropriate moment Roach walked me up to Cosby and introduced us. He looked at me and narrowed his eyes, apparently putting two and two together. "Are you the one who wrote that piece in People magazine?" he asked.

"Y-y-yes," I stammered.

"Come here."

Cosby took me by the arm, walked me over to a small table near the back of the room and proceeded to give me a 20-minute master class on his theories of comedy and why blue humor is its own worst enemy. Was I mesmerized? What do you think? In the midst of a throng of people who merely wanted to shake his hand, I was sitting face-to-face with my comedy idol who was giving me an animated lecture on Comedy 101. He was warm and passionate, the Ph.D. side of his nature clearly gushing forth. I was euphoric, living a highlight-reel life moment, one which I shall never forget.
*          *          *
As we'd prefer to remember him: Cosby Show papa Cliff Huxtable.
The last time I talked to Cosby was about three years ago, for an advance feature in HOUR Detroit magazine prior to one of his Detroit appearances. Again, he gave more than expected: a scheduled 15-minute interview turned into a 45-minute conversation, and this time he was dropping the F-bombs, trying to give me an object lesson about how blue humor was the lazy way to a cheap laugh. Mostly, though we talked about the African American community in general and Detroit in particular. 

For my money, most of his recurring themes about society today make complete sense. Young black men should pull up their pants and stop acting like inmates-in-waiting. Education is the key to escaping the downward spiral of poverty and drugs. All politicians, white and especially black, need to do more to bolster the African American community. But because of his age (77) and occupation (funny man), Cosby has been summarily dismissed by Black America as a grouchy curmudgeon talking down at us from his mountain of money. We didn't want to hear the message, so we objected to the messenger.

Now, I've said all that to say this: these last few weeks have ripped holes in my heart. Cosby has been my hero, role model and comedy icon for decades, as he has been for millions of others. (C'mon, don't be ashamed to admit it now.) I haven't even mentioned how he almost singlehandedly saved NBC in the 1980s with his most successful Cosby Show (he had several in his career), or what Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids meant to children of my generation and beyond. 

Hearing this litany of assertions is like finding out that Captain America was a Communist spy, or Judge Judy abuses her grandkids. Did he do all these horrible things he's being accused of? I don't know for certain, and neither do you. If it was only Janice Dickinson making the charges, we might not be so quick to rush to judgment; she hasn't had a purely lucid thought since the '90s. But a steady stream of women, at 16 and counting I believe, have come forward with essentially the same story.

I think a big part of it is that deep down, we want Cosby to be Cliff Huxtable, the dad we all wished we had, which is kind of like expecting Jim Parsons to be Sheldon Cooper. (Some days, I'll bet Jim Parsons wishes he was Sheldon Cooper). This just in, people: television is not reality. The truth is, nobody is all good or all bad; the backlash is so ferocious because our naivete has been shattered.

I went back and watched the video of the Hannibal Burress standup routine that rekindled all this. It was direct. It was cutting. But what struck me was that it wasn't funny, which made me question his motives for doing the bit in the first place. Did he just want to denigrate a living legend in order to elevate himself? I think it's fair to say "black man" and "rape" in the same sentence almost never brings an audience to tears. (Of laughter, anyway.) It just seemed like an odd forum for so vicious a contention.

Let me say without hesitation that rape is a horrific, odious, unforgivable offense. If America was just, there would be no statute of limitations for the crime, as is the case with murder, especially because women sometimes require many years to gather the courage to come forward and name their attacker. But there is a statute, and for these accusers it has long since expired. Why, oh why did it take so many years for all of his victims to step out of the shadows? Was Cosby's control and intimidation over them that complete? Did he and the lords of Hollywood do that good a job of keeping his sins away from the public eye, keeping them swept under the rug?

So instead the nation has turned on him like a pack of wolves. It's too late to prosecute, so they persecute. The media is opting to use the most grizzled, stubbly, unflattering photos it can find. New projects and concerts have been abruptly cancelled, Cosby Show reruns have been yanked. Meanwhile, I still can watch Two and a Half Men in syndication every night, and Charlie Sheen's myriad transgressions are a matter of public record. Heck, he boasts about many of them. Seventh Heaven is back on the air although series star Stephen Collins has admitted to molesting children. What are we to make of that?

In Cosby's case, he has been tried, convicted and sentenced in the Court of Public Opinion even though no charges have been filed against him. Now he has resigned as a trustee from his beloved Temple University, a board position he has held more than 30 years, not wishing to be a distraction to his alma mater.

Did he do it? I don't know. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and at one point Cosby was among the most powerful men in Hollywood.

Bill Cosby has had a remarkable, multifacted career, one almost anyone would be proud to claim. Now he's a septuagenarian and rich as Midas. Does he care that his reputation and legacy have been tarnished for all time? Only he knows. I know that his only son, Ennis, was brutally murdered on an LA freeway some years ago. so it's not as though he's blithely floated through his success without having some holes ripped in his heart, too.

I just wish my hero would come forward and deny it all in the most powerful terms possible. Say something. Anything. Right now the silence hurts more than any F-bomb used for a cheap laugh. It's deafening. Nobody's laughing.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

'Mulaney' Is More Lamey, Because It's So Obviously 'Jerry-Rigged'

Imitation is the sincerest form of television. Long before recycling became our national guilt trip, TV network nabobs were obsessed with going green (as in profits) by digging through piles of old series that had been even marginally successful, dusting them off and bringing them back before us with a new coat of paint and a fresh set of faces.
Mulaney's sitcom just doesn't stand up. (Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

It's a gimmick that's as old as the situation comedy format. (I rest my case.) But when a new show blatantly attempts to imitate a series that, almost by consensus, was the greatest TV comedy ever conceived, shouldn't it be held up for a special type of contempt?

It's impossible to completely like or appreciate Mulaney, premiering Sunday (Oct. 5) at 9:30 p.m. EST on FOX, because it's such a painfully obvious and pale imitation of Seinfeld – from the standup routines that used to mark Jerry Seinfeld's early episodes to the lame parodies of each member of the '90s show's Fantastic Four cast.

Am I the only one who sees this shameless miscarriage of comedy? Apparently not. In Mulaney's second episode, the protagonist's girlfriend, an alleged comedian groupie, ends their relationship and labels him a "Seinfeld ripoff" as she stalks away. Mulaney acknowledges it! In his own script! What the heck are we to make of this?

I suppose if you're going to rip off anyone, steal from the best. But why? Comedian John Mulaney, the show's namesake, seems a likeable enough fellow, impossibly thin and boyishly good looking. (Suggestion: Stay away from the skinny ties, John; they make you look even thinner, like a living hologram.) He's the golden child of Lorne Michaels, an executive producer on Mulaney, who hails him as "one of the most brilliant" people he's ever had in his Saturday Night Live stable after Mulaney won an Emmy Award for writing on SNL.

He could easily stand (up) on his own merits, create a concept uniquely his own. If this is meant to be an homage, it's too homogenized. I swear, even the refrigerator in Mulaney's funky urban apartment looks eerily familiar!

Seriously, look at that fridge! (Ray Mickshaw/FOX)
Mulaney is a struggling, up-and-coming young comic who lands a job writing jokes for a once-big comedian named Lou Cannon, who has been reduced to hosting a daytime game show called You Guessed It. (And, you guessed it, the show's name is used repeatedly as a shallow punchline.) Cannon is played, surprisingly, by Martin Short, which in and of itself is no reason to think less of him. But he's obviously there merely for name value: Short's trademark schtick, all ego and bluster, does nothing to improve the series.

At home, unlike Jerry, Mulaney has a roommate. Her name is Jane (fellow SNL alum Nasim Pedrad), and she introduces herself to us in the pilot by screeching, "I AM NOT CRAZY!" Oh, boy. She is the borderline-psycho, angry, totally unlikable Elaine. Seaton Smith, whose limited TV credits include one of my favorite shows, Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, is Mulaney's best buddy, a preening fellow comedian named Motif.

Smith is African American and, unlike Seinfield, it's nice to see people of color acknowledged on this show as living in a major metropolitan city. (In one episode Motif reveals he has never seen an episode of Friends, which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense.) He has the height, build and fright-wig hairstyle to represent the caramel Kramer; I don't know if Motif is intended to be a second-rate standup, but you'll wish he was as funny as he thinks he is. And the first time he bugged out his eyes to make a point, like a big-boy Buckwheat, he lost me for the foreseeable future.

Most interesting, however, is the Mulaney body double for George Costanza. Andre (Zack Pearlman) is a round, red-headed, bushy-bearded drug dealer whose every arrival at the apartment door is met with disdain by all inside, particularly Jane. He's even more socially awkward and enraged than George, who wasn't always welcomed with open arms, either. Maybe if he had come bearing drugs.... 

Mulaney is the bizarro-world Seinfeld (in keeping with Jerry's love of all things Superman), where every character is recognizable but disturbingly, uncomfortably strange. In this remake, the part of Newman will be played by Elliott Gould – yes, Elliott Gould – as Oscar, John's contentedly gay neighbor who pops in to offer advice and New York anecdotes. It's sad to see Gould's talent wasted like this; wonder if he was low on cash.
The cast of 'Mulaney' (Joe Viles/FOX)

Nothing is all bad, and there were a few moments in the episodes I saw that brought a chuckle to my lips. But I only remember laughing out loud once, when Motif gave a name to the aforementioned woman who dotes on comedians. As I recall, Seinfeld took a little time to truly translate his comedic style to the sitcom format, but Mulaney has miles to go: his pacing, his posture, his flat affect make his every line of dialogue sound like he's still trying to work a crowd at the club. It's even more glaring because his actual standup routine is inserted into every episode.

There's clearly a lot of money invested in this series. I'd be happy just to have the T-shirt concession from one large crowd scene involving a cancer walk, and Cannon's game-show set, for the relatively few seconds we see it, is eye-popping. They got Ice-T to do the show's opening voiceover. FOX thinks enough of its potential to schedule Mulaney at the end of the network's monstrously successful Sunday "Animation Domination" block, following Family Guy. But I suspect that Peter Griffin will make John Mulaney appear even more one-dimensional than he is by comparison – and nowhere near as funny.

I vividly remember many years ago chatting with Jerry Seinfeld at a TV convention the summer before Seinfeld was to debut on NBC. I noted that even at that time his show had broken new ground: historically, prime-time television frowned on allowing Jewish comedians to use their own names for their characters for fear of alienating sections of the country. "You're right," he agreed. "Years ago, I would have had to be 'Jerry O'Brian.'"

In that and many other ways, Seinfeld was and is a trailblazing, culture-changing, generation-defining broadcast landmark. To come behind it 16 years later with this cheap knockoff is embarrassing, if not insulting.

On the Big Glowing Box 1-10 remote, Mulaney –  2 clicks.

Monday, September 22, 2014

'GOTHAM:' It's Big, It's Bold, It's Brutal – But Is It Batman?

The cast of 'Gotham' (FOX)

Does America need another comic book superhero origin series?

No, of course not. But why should that spoil all the fun?

I had the same question in 2001, but then Smallville ran for 10 seasons chronicling the beginnings of a pre-adult Clark Kent. The Flash will dash onto The WB next month, surely telling a slightly different tale than TV's first incarnation of Barry Allen nearly a quarter-century ago. (Anybody here remember John Wesley Shipp?)

Oh, we do so adore our pulp fictional mythologies. How else to explain why, of the bazillion or more new shows being introduced this month, none has received anywhere close to the hype, attention or anticipation of Gotham, the latest retelling of the Batman saga premiering at 8 p.m. EST Monday (9.22.14) on FOX. The network is even running commercials profiling the main characters leading up the show's debut.

I guess my problem is, I'm a purist. I vividly remember the Tuesdays of my youth, when my buddy Goog and I would beg one of our parents to drive us to Hostetter's News Agency in Grand Haven, Mich., so we could snatch up new issues of our favorite comics the moment they hit the racks. We'd buy a pile of 'em, too, since they were only 15 cents each (yes, I'm that old), then race home to scrutinize and savor every brightly-colored panel. Super memories.

But that's so last century. Nowadays, between graphic novels, comic cons and box office blockbusters, the genesis of our most legendary costumed heroes has been continually revised and embellished to appeal to a new generation of jaded, sophisticated fans.

Yes, every Batman devotee knows Bruce Wayne's crimefighting future was sealed as a child when his wealthy parents were murdered in front of him by an unknown assailant. But in Gotham, that fact seems to be little more than the jumping-off point to launch a multitude of other background sagas.

For example, we witness the first workdays of Det. James Gordon, the cop who will be commissioner. This satisfies our Ben McKenzie jones, since his young heroic mug has been conspicuously absent from our living rooms since the demise of Southland. Obviously McKenzie plays the role closer to Gary Oldman from 2005 than Neil Hamilton from the '60s, but believe it or not he's even stiffer and more goody-goody than he was as LAPD cop crusader Ben Sherman. From the first episode, I have serious doubts he can carry this series as a central character week after week.

Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue of 'Gotham' (FOX)
His straight-arrow, just-out-of-the-military rookie is partnered with grizzled, street-weary veteran Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), who knows all the rules and bends most of them. They fight a violent and ruthless criminal element in Gotham City, led in the pilot by new character Fish Mooney, a bat-wielding nightclub owner played by Jada Pinkett Smith. (What? Is she slumming?) Smith told Entertainment Weekly that she drew her inspiration from Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but she looks more like she's channeling Diahann Carroll trying to do Eartha Kitt's Catwoman.

Mooney's right-hand man is the sniveling Oswald Cobblepot (the fascinating Robin Lord Taylor), who bristles at the nickname "Penguin" but more than fits the bill. Yes, Cobblepot is the supervillain-in-training; the Gotham game plan is to introduce one of Batman's signature enemies each season and chart his or her development into the baddies we love to hate...assuming the show lasts that long.

I mean, let's face it: Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is only 11 years old here, his lifelong trust relationship with Alfred (Sean Pertwee), the man who was the family servant, beginning the night his parents died. Unless Gotham lasts at least a decade or they write some weird fast-forward episode, there's no chance we'll ever see Master Wayne don the cowl and cape to become the Darknight Detective.

It's also slightly unsettling that Gotham City has no time or era. Sometimes it seems an exact replica of Bob Kane's original vision of the 1940s, then a scene occurs that could have happened last week. That usually doesn't bother me, but here the switching back and forth distracted my focus. Like I said, I'm a purist. I just don't share everyone's frothing enthusiasm for this latest variation of the Batman mythos. I expected, and wanted to like this show much more than I did. It didn't blow me away.

Gotham either will be an enormous hit or a monumental bomb. No in between. Pairing it with the creepy Sleepy Hollow, FOX is out to make Mondays the darkest night of the week. A dark night...but not the Dark Knight.

On a scale of 1-10: Gotham – 6.5

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Gang Related,' as in a Distant Relation to a Quality Crime Series

First of all, it is totally and completely unfair to compare Gang Related, the conflicted-cop crime saga arriving at 9 p.m. EST Thursday (May 22, 2014) on FOX, to The Wire, even though both series look at the street drug scene from both sides now (dealers and DEAers) and Ramon Rodriguez is in both shows. The Wire was, by acclamation and near-unanimous vote, one of the finest television series ever made, and Gang Related is...well, not.

This is FOX. It is not HBO. Is that the difference? I don't know. But when it comes to programming, it seems that if it's not animated or doesn't feature unknown kids singing, FOX has a real struggle recognizing the gold from the mold in selecting its prime time shows. (I'm still not totally over them dumping Human Target, Touch and The Chicago Code waaaay too soon.) Maybe that's a reason the network has brought back 24 to live another day: They're celebrating one of the rare occasions when they actually got it right.

RZA and Ramon Rodriguez give it their best shot. (FOX/Justin Stephens)
Even the name of this series can't escape tough comparisons. There was, you may vaguely remember, a 1997 motion picture called Gang Related that was noteworthy as the last film starring the late and hallowed rapper Tupac Shakur. But whatever brilliance Tupac displayed was dulled through being paired with Jim Belushi, and in looking back it's hard to tell which Gang Related is worse. Maybe it's a pick'em.

The requisite rapper in this version is RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, who plays the partner of Rodriguez's character, hotshot LAPD officer Ryan Lopez, in Los Angeles' elite, multi-agency Gang Task Force (GTF). But he implored producers to change his character, Cassius Green, from an LA native to a transplanted New Yorker to stay truer to his own roots. While he has one memorable moment shaking down a prospective suspect (literally), either RZA didn't want to act that hard or plans to claim plausible deniability when it all goes south.

Ryan was taken in as a 10-year-old orphan by one of his neighborhood's most feared and respected figures, Los Angelicos gang kingpin Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis). Acosta trains his foundling in the ways of street life, encourages him to enter the military, then asks him to enroll in the Police Academy. No dummy he, Acosta raised his own personal mole to infiltrate the LAPD and keep him apprised of all its major cocaine raids and gang intel.
Not even Terry O'Quinn can save this. (Sam Jaffe/FOX)

And Ryan does his job very well – so well that he becomes the golden child of his other father figure, GTF leader Sam Chapel (Terry O'Quinn), who's estranged from his actual child Jessica (Shantel VanSanten), the assistant district attorney. Ryan didn't figure on falling in love with his job and his Task Force partners. So which band of brothers really has his heart and allegiance: la familia, or his thin-blue-line family?

Yes, of course you've seen this storyline before, and done better, but likely not with such heavily Hispanic overtones. In fact, on its plus side, Gang Related may be the brownest drama in prime-time history, reflecting our new American reality. The roll call of actors is filled with such surnames as Rodriguez, Hernandez, Gallegos, Rivera, Moncada, Cruz and Gomez. As gang boss Acosta (played by Curtis, a New Zealand native) menacingly reminds a torture victim, "amigo, brown is the new black."

That on-screen demographic includes Ryan's two half-brothers: Carlos Acosta (Rey Gallegos), a vicious, bloodhappy psychopath, and Daniel (Jay Hernandez), Ryan's best friend since childhood, now a lawyer determined to help la familia go straight. I really liked Curtis's work as the gang godfather, strong, stoic and equal measures compassionate and cutthroat, and O'Quinn has been the Good Acting Seal of Approval for any role he embodies since long before Lost. But O'Quinn doesn't get enough to do here, and the considerable talents of both men are so engulfed by clichéd and predictable dialogue that neither can save this series.

Can viewers root for a central character who's a crooked cop? Especially one who, while otherwise handsome, looks like he got his face caught in a Cuisinart by the second episode? (That's Mistake No. 1.) Can they get past the death of a potentially likeable and charismatic character before Thursday's pilot hour is half over? (I don't think that requires a spoiler alert if I don't tell you who it is; and by the way, that's Mistake No. 2, of many.)

The action scenes are well choreographed but perfunctory, the blood-and-guts scenes grisly but expected (although you will see a stun gun used in an exciting new way). I don't believe anything related to Gang Related will allow the show to last through all 12 of its ordered episodes.
The cast of 'Gang Related.' (FOX/Justin Stephens)
There's a lot on the line here, a lot of quality behind the scenes. The great Brian Grazer is one of the executive producers, and Chris Morgan, the man behind Fast & Furious 6, is the series creator. (You know, I never put any stock in promos that boast, "From the man/team that gave you the blockbuster hit Such-and-Such:" anybody can lay a bomb now and then.) But sadly, all the talent doesn't translate to the screen.

And as history has shown us, FOX has a quicker axe than Lizzie Borden.

On the Big Glowing Box 1-10 channel selector, Gang Related – 4 clicks.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Day Is Ticking Away (Again): '24' Returns – But Why?

Kiefer Sutherland just can't keep his hands off his piece. (Daniel Smith/FOX)
#JackIsBack. Back again.

Jack is back. Tell your friends.

Jack is back, Jack is back, Jack is back, Jack is back. Jack is back.

But can anybody tell us why?

It's generally conceded as television truth that you can't go home in prime time again, at least not as the same character in a resurrection of the same series. Ask almost any successful series actor and he or she will say they're proud to have had the experience, appreciative of what the show did for them and eager to "move on with the next phase of my career." Thank you and good night.

So it would seem like everybody involved with trying to make 24: Live Another Day is taking a bigtime chance of getting their feelings or reputations hurt.

The hugely promoted 12-hour "event series" (it's really Live Another Half Day), which premieres with a two-episode block from 8-10 p.m. EST Monday (May 5, 2014) on FOX, finds America's favorite rogue counterterrorism agent, Jack Bauer, resurfacing in East London, his first appearance since he – and 24 – went off the grid in 2010 after eight seasons.

Kiefer Sutherland, who despite a long and impressive acting resumé may forever be best remembered as the brooding, battered Bauer, surely had no reason to do FOX any favors: his fascinating followup series, Touch, was axed by the network after only one season renewal.

Perhaps FOX wants to relive those giddy days of yesteryear, when the midseason returns of 24 and American Idol would catapult its ratings to the top regardless of how lackluster its new slate of programs had performed. There had been some brief talk of 24 returning as a big-screen feature, but that would have been a stylistic impossibility: the multiple screen images, the "real time" story progression and that ching-chinging clock, all 24 trademarks, couldn't have the same impact as a movie – unless audiences were willing to sit through a 24-hour film.
PLEASE! I'm begging! Tell me why you brought '24' back!

Was there some massive email and letter-writing campaign, or picketers descending on FOX's broadcast bunker, demanding the return of 24 for one last hurrah? Did I miss this? Otherwise, what's the fuss?

In keeping with the show's "real time" commitment, Bauer has been in the shadows for all four years the show has been off the air. His reappearance just happens to coincide with a visit to London by U.S. President James Heller (William Devane), formerly the Secretary of Defense (the TV nation's first black president, Dennis Haysbert, is out), who's in town for a controversial summit meeting. Heller's unscrupulous chief of staff, Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan), summarizes the backstory and the plotline in one sentence:

"Jack Bauer is a traitor and a psychopath who killed two Russian diplomats and came close to assassinating their president," Boudreau spews. "And now, after all these years, he surfaces in London at the same time as President Heller?" Jack is so misunderstood. Is he here to kill Heller, or rescue him? Either way, he obviously isn't in Merrie Ole England to sample the bangers and mash. (And if that "assassinate the president" plotline sounds familiar, it is: Jack once saved Haysbert's hash, too.)

Boudreau's wrath also may be due in part to the fact that in the intervening years he married (wait for it)...Audrey (Kim Raver), Jack's former crush, who was last seen in a coma that appeared to be life threatening. Wait a minute: you don't suppose that's going to figure into the storyline, do you?

For me, the major takeaway from this new day of 24 is that so many of the principal characters seem so – oh, what's the word I'm looking for?


Even Benjamin Bratt, once the baby-faced heartthrob of Law & Order and the most familiar new face in the cast, has fallen victim to the sands of time. As the headstrong chief of the CIA's London office, Bratt is beginning to take on the facial characteristics of Pacino. That might have been a good thing 30 years ago, but now...
The cast of FOX's "24" Live Another Day" (Greg Williams/FOX)

My wife maintains a heavy crush on Devane, who seems to age with every succeeding closeup. She also says she thinks I'm adorable. Makes you think. Mary Lynn Rajskub, as Jack's loopy but loyal office buddy Chloe O'Brian, looks like she should be opening for Marilyn Manson. And Sutherland, although he does engage in a few very quick, butt-beating, bone-cracking fight scenes early on, doesn't say a single word until 30:43 into the first hour!

Nice work if you can get it. Maybe he was conserving his strength.

24, you may remember, premiered in the fall of 2001, directly in the aftermath of one of the most horrific moments in American history. In fact, its debut was delayed several weeks in an attempt to distance it from 9/11. But to everyone's surprise, rather than damage the show's popularity, the events of the time helped propel the character of Jack Bauer to genuine hero status, protector of our liberty and security, a 21st century Captain America.

We still need a hero, but Jack Bauer's time may have run its course. (Tick...tock...tick...tock...) The pulse of this pulse-pounding action saga doesn't pound as rapidly as it once did. Jack's return may be an enjoyable welcome back for diehard 24 fans, but it's an uncomfortable anachronism for the rest of us. There's no good reason for this 24 to Live Another (Half) Day.

My 1-10 ranking: SIX (6) clicks

Thursday, March 27, 2014

'Surviving Jack' Should Survive FOX's Sitcom Cauldron

And you thought Elliot Stabler was tough on his kids!

First and most wonderful, it's great to see Christopher Meloni back on prime time again, as he'll be with the premiere of the half-hour comedy Surviving Jack at 9:30 EST Thursday (March 27) on FOX. And not in some weird arc as a 500-year-old vampire on True Blood, either.
Even his son's friends snap to Jack's orders. (FOX photo)

Between Oz and, of course, Law & Order: SVU, it's almost hard to remember a time when Meloni wasn't coming into our living rooms with new calamities every week. And though sometimes it feels like every station in the channel guide carries reruns of his 12 seasons as alpha-male, sex-crimes Detective Stabler on SVU, somehow it's not the same. Prime time just seems right when Chris Meloni is part of it.

The big question, naturally, is, how long will he remain part of it? FOX is notoriously tough on its non-"Animation Domination" sitcoms, although the network's comedies that revolve around wildly unconventional notions of parenting (Raising Hope, Dads) appear to have a slightly better chance of survival. Surviving Jack fits neatly into that pocket, although it is based on the Justin Halpern autobiography I Suck at Girls; given the dismal audience response to his first book-to-sitcom conversion, $#*! My Dad Says on CBS, Halpern's track record is in need of improving.

Meloni should help accomplish that task in the role of Jack Dunlevy, a blunt, no-BS oncologist who clearly missed the class on Bedside Manner in med school. He has poured himself into his practice for years, getting home just in time to yell at his kids, kiss the missus and go to bed. But when his wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris, Suits), makes the big decision to enter law school, Jack agrees to cut back on his hours and assume the primary parent role. No problem: he'll just run the house like an ex-military man – which, indeed, he is.

Be afraid, kids. Be very afraid.

Surviving Jack uses the storytelling platform of an off-camera narrator reflecting on his weird coming-of-age years, a device that's been used since before The Wonder Years and seems to be coming around again in series like The Goldbergs and the new Growing Up Fisher (which, ironically, stars Meloni's Oz and SVU co-star, Detroit native J.K. Simmons). Jack is set in 1991, which I think means young Hollywood has reached the age where the early '90s counts as nostalgia.

I didn't care much for Harris, who seemed to be plucked from the Rent-a-TV-Wife pile and added little to the proceedings. And daughter Rachel (Claudia Lee) just didn't have much to do in the two episodes I watched, maybe because Halpern is writing the story through his eyes. (In an aside perhaps only I find interesting, it seems strange they would hire an actress named Rachael and not change the name of the daughter in the cast. Must have made for some very confusing first rehearsals.)

However, I instantly liked Connor Buckley, Deception), in the role of Jack's son, Frankie. He provides a splendid target for his father's insensitive barbs, combining just the right mix of teenage insecurity and mounting testosterone. He's becoming a man while Jack is learning to become a dad, and the road to maturity for both is not without some major potholes.

TV is nothing if not a copycat medium, and when you have so many growing-pains sitcoms emerging at the same time the difference is going to be the actor in the big chair. Meloni has the chops and the aura to make Jack crackle. Let's face it: after a dozen years of watching him as Stabler it's going to be difficult to separate him from that role in our minds, and at times it feels like Jack's talking to Frankie like Elliot is interrogating a perp. But that could work to the show's benefit. We like the familiar, and Meloni – who's also making his mark on the big screen in films like last year's Man of Steel and 42 and the upcoming Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – is nothing if not a comfortable presence.

The show's got a cushy opening-night spot behind American Idol, which, despite plummeting ratings, remains the network's best location for audience sampling and indicates FOX's faith in the series. I'm going to step out on faith of its potential and give Surviving Jack 7 out of 10 clicks. And if you're a Chris Meloni fan (as I am), I invite you to read "What's Alan Watching?"TV critic Alan Sepinwall's fine interview with the actor that appeared online this week.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: As 'Chicago PD' Begins Its Patrol, Dick Wolf Explains Why His 'Law' Now Brings Order to the Windy City

Dick Wolf now orders his law - and fire - in Chicago ( 
In an earlier television age, we were told there were eight million stories in the naked city. And it feels like Dick Wolf has told most of them over more than two decades as the mastermind behind NBC's storied Law & Order franchise.

"The company (Wolf Productions) at NBC alone is up to around 1,200 episodes," Wolf said in a one-on-one conversation to discuss the debut of his new Chicago P.D. at 10 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 8, 2014) as the companion piece to his hit second-year NBC drama Chicago Fire. "That's on the three Law & Orders (SVU, Criminal Intent and the original) and the other shows that we've done, including the ones that didn't work (Law & Order: LA and Trial by Jury, for example).

"You learn an awful lot having read that many scripts, and I do have sort of stringent rules that apply to all shows," Wolf says. "Like, out of a 22-episode order [writers] can do one show with unpronounceable foreign names. Knock yourselves out, whether its Serbian dancers or Colombian hit men. When people hear names that don't sound familiar, there's always a tune-out factor, even if it’s a great story."

One rule that obviously no longer applies is that all Wolf's series have to be set on the East Coast, with a very infrequent stopover in Los Angeles. After so many years of making New York first, a living, tangible character in all his shows, what precipitated his shift to the Second City?

He wasn't necessarily looking for new, greener creative pastures, nor had he overstayed his invitation in the Apple.

"Well, it was very deliberate, because the reality was that Rescue Me, although it was not a broadcast show, very heavily identified with New York," explains Wolf, referencing Denis Leary's complex celebration of NYC firefighters that ended its run on FX in 2011. "It was a show that had achieved a level of critical response, and I thought a network show the next year would not benefit from that comparison, because this [Chicago Fire] was a much more reality-based show. We don't have ghosts, we don't have much angst. It's a very different approach to the psyche of firefighters.

"Chicago is the heart of the country. It represents the values that, no matter what your political bent, made America great. The way I've described it to people, with fondness, is that it's a cleaner, politer New York with slightly heavier people."

Chicago P.D. – or CPD, as Wolf calls it – is an ensemble drama revolving around Jason Beghé (The Next Three Days) who was introduced on Fire as Det. Sgt. Hank Voight, a rogue cop who maneuvers his way into heading up the Chicago Police Department’s elite Intelligence Unit, formed to battle the city's most high-profile crimes. Jon Seda (Larry Crowne), Sophia Bush (One Tree Hill), Patrick John Flueger, LaRoyce Hawkins and Elias Koteas also star.

Jon Seda (L), Jason Beghé star in 'Chicago P.D.' (Matt Dinerstein/NBC)
"CPD is a darker image, but it's exactly what people want certain cops to do," Wolf says. "We're doing a cop show now, and the people who are in charge of it, I'll give you a partial list of credits: Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, all the Law & Orders, NYPD Blue, Brooklyn South. I mean, you're talking about the best cop shows of the past 30 years, the state of the art. It's not just me, it's the entire team that has been doing top-tier stuff for a very long time."

Wolf believes Beghé has the potential to become 2014's first breakout TV star as Hank Voight. "That's always what you're hoping for on a new show," he says. "He was the guest star on the single best episode I think we did of LOLA. And when this storyline emerged on Fire last season for a cop who was essentially dirty, I said, 'Jason Beghé.' Instantaneous. And he has come through. Not only is he a great actor, he's exactly the guy you want No. 1 on the call sheet. He's just an incredibly professional and collaborate presence on the set."

Wolf, whose second crime novel featuring fictional NYPD Detective Jeremy Fisk, The Execution, was published by William Morrow this month (January 2014), says he's learned more from his failed shows than his big hits, but a life spent writing, reading and watching has helped him hone a finely-developed nose for quality.

Well, not a nose, exactly.

"I think one thing that I do have, and this probably isn’t the right quote, but I think my butt is the butt of America," Wolf declares. "And when it starts twitching, something's not right, or it's moving too slow."