Monday, August 30, 2021

TV Picks - Week of August 30

There's nothing better than a bankable star. You see the name, you know the project is worth checking out. Bryan Cranston. Tom Hanks. Regina King.

When I see the names Steve Martin and Martin Short, there's no question that I’m going to be cracking up. And it won't be easy laughs, either.

The legendary comedic duo was last seen together on the small screen three years ago in Netflix's An Evening You'll Forget For The Rest Of Your Life. If you couldn't see them live on stage, this concert performance was the next best thing.

Now they've teamed for the new Hulu mystery/comedy series Only Murders In The Building which premieres this Tuesday. Steve Martin co-created the ten-episode series which takes place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

When it comes to comedy, it doesn't get any funnier or more original than Steve Martin and Martin Short. Steve has been making me laugh since his early stand-up and wild and crazy guy days on Saturday Night Live. Martin was cracking me up at SCTV well before his one-year stint at SNL.

These two first worked together teaming with Chevy Chase for Three Amigos and haven't been all that far apart ever since. On the big screen, Martin played Frank (pronounced “Frahnk”) when Steve was Father of the Bride (twice). They have been touring the country with a hilarious stage show for the past few years.

Originality is what makes Steve Martin and Martin Short so special. It's never the same old thing. Their creativity always leads to more than just a punch line, and neither is afraid to make themselves the butt of the joke.

True-crime podcasts are at the heart of this new Hulu series. Steve stars as Charles, a somewhat forgotten 90's TV tough-guy cop, and Martin plays failed Broadway stage director, Oliver. The two cross paths in their building, The Arconia, and their obsessive knowledge of an Oklahoma murder podcast brings them together when someone is killed at their residence. Joining these two is fellow podcast obsessive Mabel (Selena Gomez), the third member of this comedy trio and the antithesis of Chevy Chase.

You read that right. Selena Gomez is part of the team, and she more than holds her own in the series. She teaches the elder comedy statesmen what makes sense in today's world, but Mabel is just as obsessed with true-crime as Charles and Oliver are. She is the perfect foil to these two wannabe sleuths who are dealing with their own personal crises.

Most of the show’s action takes place in their posh New York City apartment building which feels overcrowded and is starting to show its age. Upper West Siders Tina Fey, Nathan Lane and Sting are along for the ride as the trio decides it's their time to make a podcast of their very own.

The series mocks the true-crime podcast universe as it slips more deeply into it. There are plenty of unexpected twists and turns as we get to know the other residents and others close to our leads. The episode “The Boy From 6B” is told from a truly unique perspective (it's killing me not to spoil it for you) as the mystery continues to unravel.

The seemingly simple premise goes places where only Steve Martin can go. Expect the unexpected until the final minutes of the final episode. The laughs and intrigue are consistent throughout, and the show gets better as it progresses. Just like a good podcast.

Bank on it.

(Shows Premiering That I'm Not A Fan Of But You Might Be!)

Sparking Joy with Marie Kondo (NETFLIX) – Who's ready to fold? Sparks Tuesday.

How To Be A Cowboy (NETFLIX) – Dale Brisby leads the way on the Radiator Ranch. Mounts up Wednesday.

What We Do In The Shadows (FX) – Two new eps of a show everyone has told me to watch but I haven't gotten to yet. Creeps Thursday at 10 on FX.

Cinderella (AMAZON) – Live-action musical with a star studded cast - what could possibly go wrong? Charms Friday.

Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles (DISNEY+) – Billie Eilish at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic. Pops Friday.

Money Heist (NETFLIX) – The first half of the fifth and final season stuck in the Bank of Spain. Unmasks Sunday.

Talking dogs, super freaks and Axe Capital…

Pixar's Dug Days (DISNEY+)
Wednesday, September 1st

We all remember Dug, the talking dog from the classic Pixar film Up!. Dug was the comic relief in an uplifting animated classic that deals with loneliness and death. Now he's got his very own series.

Dug Days is precisely what you want it to be – witty scenarios involving a talking dog and plenty of cuteness. The series is cleverly centered around puppies, fireworks, and other issues that drive dogs crazy. If you’ve always wondered what your dog is thinking, this is the show for you.

Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James (SHOWTIME)
Friday, September 3rd 9pm

Give it to me, baby. Dave Chappelle immortalized Rick James in his Comedy Central show, but this talented musician was much more than a punch line.

This documentary pulls no punches as it explores how this soul singer did things his way, as outlandish as that might have been. The life of the talented James is well worth the trip into his complicated and rebellious soul.

Billions (SHOWTIME)
Sunday, September 5th 9pm Season 5, Part 2

More than a year is a long time to wait for the second part of a season. But hey, this is the COVID world we all live in today. No need to go back – Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) continues to battle new foe Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) with Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) waiting to make the right move.

Alliances will be formed and broken, lives will be destroyed and resurrected, vocabulary no one uses in real life will be omnipresent, good tunes will be heard, cool Manhattan locations will be on display, and money will be everywhere. Can't wait.

If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you.

Get vaccinated. Stay healthy and safe!

Monday, August 23, 2021

TV Picks - Week of August 23

The Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed premieres this Thursday, and its mysterious trailer already has people talking. They should be speaking with the soft voice of the legendary mellow painter. The "dark side" of Bob Ross' legacy is being heavily teased, but that's not why I'll be tuning in.

I have to confess – cheesy TV has long been my thing. And they don't come much cheesier than this bearded sensation with the hair.

Some say I come off as a television elitist with my distaste for reality and non-scripted programming, yearning for the days before "Chicago this" or "FBI that" dominated the scheduling grid. I admit to always looking for the next brilliant scripted series, but sometimes the "I can't believe this is actually on TV" part of me takes over. I can't help myself.

It started with The Lawrence Welk Show, a musical variety program named after its big-band leader host. Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970's, I vividly remember stumbling upon this extravaganza following Bowling for Dollars and staring in utter disbelief. Do people actually like these songs? Are they camping this up for the camera? Where did these outfits come from?

Lawrence Welk was wise enough to lean into the cheesiness. I grew fond of the show, wondering if the The Lennon Sisters or Norma Zimmer would be belting out the next classic tune. The production numbers, the holiday shows... this was not prestige television, but I was absolutely mesmerized. It entertained me, and that's really what TV is all about.

Fast forward to the early 1980's. I'm flipping through channels and come to a complete stop on my local PBS station (WLIW Channel 21). There is a smiling white bearded man with a huge afro speaking softly as he paints a canvas of nature that would take anyone else a lifetime to create. He makes a quick addition with his brush and utters three words... "Happy little trees."

Those three words sound like nonsense or something from a children's book to most people. To Bob Ross fans, it is a mantra. This program, The Joy Of Painting, unleashed the Lawrence Welk inside of me.

I'm no artist, but it was blatantly obvious how talented Bob Ross was at painting instant classics. My mother, who is actually an accomplished painter, couldn't stand Bob Ross. Because he made it look so easy. A smudge turned into a detailed item in a matter of seconds. It was beautiful to watch.

The soft-spoken man became a public television sensation. Sure, Julia Child had made some meals and Bob Vila fixed some houses, but both had loud rambunctious personalities. Bob Ross forced you to take a breath and appreciate the little things as he masterfully added grass, clouds, rocks and water to his landscapes. The hair, the clothes, the voice... he had it all.

My vocabulary and knowledge of the color wheel dramatically expanded. Titanium White. Yellow Ochre. Phthalo Blue. These were the shades of my Bob Ross rainbow. I basked in all the different colors.

The only issue I ever had with Bob was when he'd paint a giant tree that covered most of the canvas he had just spent painstakingly detailing. But this was his joy of painting – I was just living in it. And I would have hung one of those paintings right next to my TV.

So now there's this Netflix documentary coming out. Despite what the streamer’s advance marketing would have us believe, Bob himself was the real deal. After he passed away, there was a battle between business partners and family over his legacy. It was the ugliness he seemingly always wanted to avoid in life, and makes for a fascinating story.

Along the way, we get to see Bob do his thing once again and learn how he became a public television star. I wonder how he would fare in today's age of social media. Would his little trees stay happy?

I'd like to think Bob Ross would find a way.

(Shows Premiering That I'm Not A Fan Of But You Might Be!)

Messyness (MTV) – Snooki hosts a show with a perfect title that I'll never watch. Monday at 7pm.

Untold: Caitlyn Jenner (NETFLIX) – Is there anything left to say? Drops Tuesday.

The Other Two (HBO MAX) – The Comedy Central series about two millennials stuck in between their 14 year old pop sensation brother, and their newly famous daytime talk show-host mother hops to HBO Max for its second season. Premieres Tuesday.

See (APPLE TV+) – Dave Bautista joins Jason Momoa for season two and somehow they'll fit on a single screen. Opens Friday.

He's All That (NETFLIX) – Gender swapped remake of the cinematic classic She's All That. Pops Friday.

Wicked In Concert (PBS) – Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel host a concert celebrating the musical that put them both on the map. Defies gravity Sunday at 9pm.

Video cards, tipping dominoes and an unforgettable day…

Clickbait (NETFLIX)
Thursday, August 26th

A loving father shows up online holding signs claiming he has beaten and murdered women. If the video gets 5 million views, his abductors say he will die.

Entourage's Vinnie Chase (Adrian Grenier) is the dad holding the cards in this limited series, while his wife (Betty Gabriel) and sister (Zoe Kazan) try to find the kidnapper and discover whether there's any truth to what's written on those cards.

Lily Topples The World (DISCOVERY+) Thursday, August 26th

"YouTube sensation" is usually a no-go for me, but if it's a documentary about the world's most acclaimed domino toppler, I am so there. This award-winning doc profiles 20 year old Lily Hevesh, a Chinese adoptee who becomes the only woman in the domino toppling field. She just happens to have over 1 billion YouTube views.

Domino toppling is like watching Bob Ross paint - you get sucked in and mesmerized as art unfolds right in front of your eyes. Lily's story was filmed over three years, and her transformation is as compelling as watching those dominoes fall. Watch trailer.

9/11: One Day In America (NAT GEO)
Sunday, August 29th 8pm

This six-part documentary series takes us back to that fateful day in September and honors the lives that were lost. People who were there painstakingly recall moment to moment details and share first-hand accounts.

The series contains never before seen footage from those who were there as the morning unfolded. Each episode profiles the lengths individuals went to trying to help others and their reactions to such a surreal experience. It's a painful but necessary reminder of these terrorist attacks that took place on U.S. soil.

If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you. 

Get vaccinated. Stay healthy and safe!

Monday, August 16, 2021

TV Picks - Week of August 16

The stakes are always raised when adapting a novel for television.

Sometimes a showrunner will take liberties and switch things up which fans of the book often end up resenting. When you're at a concert, do you want to hear a song exactly how it's played on the record, or hope there's a live element that makes the experience a little bit different? Book adaptations are tricky — you want the best of both worlds.

There have been some great ones over the years, but since most TV watchers aren't avid readers, many don't realize that their favorite show is based on a book with much more detail and background on their favorite characters.

I was writing a TV column just a few weeks ago when personal worlds collided around an upcoming big adaptation. As I took a break from writing, I turned to my right and had the following conversation with my wife who was fixated on her current book.

Me: "So what are you reading?"

Debbie: "Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. It's pretty good."

Me: (seizing the chance to be the hero) "You know that got turned into a series that's coming out on Hulu this month?"

Debbie: "I didn't know that. Please don't tell me who's in the cast until after I finish."

I totally get this. One of the best parts of reading a novel is imagining what these characters look like and painting that perfect picture in your head. But…

Me: (now really tempted to tell her Nicole Kidman is playing the lead) "Can I just tell you who is playing the lead?"

Debbie: "If you want me to tell you what happens, sure."

Me: (realizing I had just been checkmated) "I won't tell you until you're done."

I waited until my wife finished and then let her know that Nicole Kidman was the big star. But this didn't exactly come as a surprise.

Australian author Liane Moriarty wrote Big Little Lies which was adapted for HBO by David E. Kelley and starred Nicole Kidman. If it ain't broke… the Aussies don't fix it. The Kidman/Kelley/Moriarty team reunited for this eight episode Hulu series.

Do not expect Big Little Lies… that's not what this show is. A talented cast is here in full force, but Nine Perfect Strangers is a much more bizarre story with personalities galore. As for the storyline, it's much more like The White Lotus on HBO.

Nicole Kidman has certainly found her niche on TV playing a woman hiding a deep secret in a privileged world. It began with Big Little Lies, and then she took things to another level in The Undoing with British scalawag Hugh Grant.

In Nine Perfect Strangers, she stars as Masha, a guru with a strong Russian accent who runs the California wellness retreat Tranquillum House. The space is designed to aid others who are looking for all sorts of help. Kidman has never been afraid to make bold choices, and she goes all in on Masha and her accent.

Masha is surrounded by individuals at Tranquillum House who are dealing with pain and seeking spiritual guidance. These strangers are portrayed by top notch talent who are best known for their quirkiness, and it's no stretch to see Kidman as someone who great actors are drawn to.

The characters are a bit cliched, but this is Bobby Cannavale playing an angry former football star and Regina Hall doing her thing as a bitter divorcee. Melissa McCarthy is perfectly cast as Frances, a depressed writer of romance novels. Michael Shannon, who always brings the pain, is the father of a family dealing with a great loss.

This eight-parter follows the David E. Kelley formula, and that's okay. You absolutely know what to expect. You can't help but wonder what's under the mask of all these characters and the actors who are portraying them.

Nicole Kidman carries Nine Perfect Strangers with her Aussie magic, and my gut tells me we haven't seen last of the Kidman/Kelley/Moriarty trio.

(Shows Premiering That I'm Not A Fan Of But You Might Be!)

Bachelor in Paradise (ABC) – The title is an oxymoron. Monday at 8pm.

Ben & Jerry's Clash of the Cones (FOOD) – Best way to recover from the show above. Monday at 9pm.

House Calls with Dr. Phil (CBS) – Do you really want this guy to show up at your door? Wednesday at 9pm.

Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (COMEDY CENTRAL) – The semi-autobiographical comedy returns for Season 2. Wednesday at 10pm.

The Defeated (NETFLIX) – An American cop looks for his brother and fights in post WWII Germany. Lands Wednesday.

The Walking Dead (AMC) – The three-part final season begins - remember when we cared? Sunday at 9pm.

Naked and Afraid of Love (DISCOVERY) – 16 naked strangers struggle for survival and romance – yet another sign of the TV apocalypse. Sunday at 9pm.

Academia, true-crime and a haunted house…

The Chair (NETFLIX)
Friday, August 20th

The trials and tribulations of an English department at a major university doesn't exactly scream must-see TV. The Paper Chase (I know it wasn't English) and Good Will Hunting (I know it was a movie) are notable exceptions to this rule. This dramedy centers around the first female chair of a prestigious department and all the politically correct problems that come with it.

Sandra Oh is a fabulous comedic actress. She’s been on my radar since she was stealing scenes as Rita Wu in the 90's comedy Arli$$. Her Killing Eve success did not come as a surprise. Here she attempts to shepherd a flailing English department through a series of personnel challenges that she finds, well, personally challenging. Jay Duplass, Bob Balaban and Holland Taylor lead a stellar supporting cast.

Truth Be Told (APPLE TV+)
Friday, August 20th

The first season of this true-crime murder investigation flew under the radar. Octavia Spencer starred as Poppy Parnell, a podcasting sleuth who questions the validity of convicted murderer (Aaron Paul) in her quest for justice.

The HBO docuseries I'll Be Gone In The Dark chronicled Michelle McNamara's pursuit of the Golden State Killer and shined a bright light on civilian true-crime obsession. Kate Hudson joins the cast in season two playing her fellow Oscar winner's childhood friend as Poppy puts everything on the line to get to the truth. The talent is there… will the story deliver?

Chapelwaite (EPIX)
Sunday, August 22nd 10pm

Adapting a Stephen King short story for the screen always presents a challenge. The story is good, especially if it comes from his must-read short story collection Night Shift. As for the adaptations — well there's Stand By Me and Shawshank, but there’s also Children of the Corn and Trucks.

Chapelwaite is a fresh take on King's short story Jerusalem's Lot, but the horror master had nothing to do with the writing this time around. Charles (Adrien Brody) loses his mind in a haunted Maine house as governess Rebecca (Emily Hampshire from Schitt's Creek) helps protect the kids. You might want to stay away from this part of Maine.

If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you. 

Get vaccinated. Stay healthy and safe!

Monday, August 9, 2021

TV Picks - Week of August 9

I am ready for some football – even it's an in-depth profile of a NFL team I've despised since the mid 1970's.

This Tuesday on HBO at 10pm, Hard Knocks returns with its annual behind the scenes look at a professional football team. This year, it's the Dallas Cowboys.

I grew up in Pittsburgh and remain a devoted Steelers fan. My favorite football team has lots of rivals, but its oldest and fiercest is the squad from Big D. The Cowboys famously declared themselves America's Team in the 1970's. The Steelers proceeded to defeat them in two Super Bowls that decade, proving who America's Team really was.

But I digress. You don't have to be a football fan to appreciate Hard Knocks. When it's at its best, it's a look into the inner sanctum of the finest athletes you'll ever see and the struggles that come with being a professional. At its worst, it's a bunch of huge guys playing to the cameras and being anything but themselves.

This HBO mainstay wavers year to year from an informative organizational peek to a commercial for some of the NFL's biggest franchises. Always keep in mind that the team has final cut and only lets you see what they want you to see.

But each season opens with two features that always keep me coming back for more. The consistently gorgeous cinematography of NFL Films and the flawless narration of Liev Schreiber.

Some of the most striking images ever seen on television are courtesy of NFL Films. The Sabol family has always treated the game of football as fine art. The beauty of a tight spiral floating in the air in slow motion never gets old.

A magical voice has always accompanied the pristine pictures. John Facenda was the first memorable NFL Films narrator. His dramatic reading of football situations always felt like a poetry recital. Harry Kalas followed after Facenda passed away and maintained his tone. Liev Schreiber keeps the spirit alive making something as simple as a weak side blitz sound like a moment in history.

Reality television owes a lot to Hard Knocks. Reality programs worth watching make you feel like a fly on the wall and true voyeur into a world you could never access. 99% of us will never be professional football players, but these cameras provide a glimpse into what this world actually feels like.

It's also why the team that's being chronicled really doesn't matter. It's not about the success or failure of this year's squad. It's not about the fans or any of the ridiculous hype. It's all about the process and mechanics of a NFL training camp.

This season there will be plenty of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on display, and that's okay. It's his team, he's earned that right. I'm much more interested in the veteran who's trying to stick around for one more year, or the high draft pick too good for the room. Or "The Turk" who lets these guys know if they made the final squad.

Access to athletes has changed dramatically over the years. Sports figures are everywhere. When Hard Knocks first came on the scene, it was the only way to see these coaches and players in their element. These days there are cameras at every training camp, and the NFL has its very own network to highlight all of their teams.

But there will always be something special about watching this weekly profile on HBO. Even if you're rooting against the team you're getting to know better.

(Shows Premiering That I'm Not A Fan Of But You Might Be!)

Reservation Dogs (HULU) – Four teenage friends on an Oklahoma reservation try to scrounge up enough cash to move to California. Barks Monday.

Untold (NETFLIX) – Five-film sports documentary anthology from the Wild, Wild Country creators starts with the 2004 "Malice at the Palace" NBA brawl. Bows Tuesday.

Fantasy Island (FOX) – Elana Roarke welcomes you to another reboot of the Ricardo Montalban/Herve Villechaize classic - expect a short stay. The plane arrives Tuesday at 9pm.

What If? (DISNEY+) – Animated tales of classic Marvel characters (with their movie star voices) thrown into alternate realties. Smashes Wednesday.

Cribs (MTV) – A decade later, the series returns for more peeks into your favorite musicians homes. Wednesday at 9:30pm.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC) – Final season featuring two episodes each week. Roll call Thursday at 8pm.

CODA (APPLE TV+) – Apple paid $25 million for this Sundance Film Festival winner about the lone hearing member of a deaf fishing family. Premieres Friday.

Heels (STARZ) – Two brothers in a small-town work as professional wrestlers, and someone has to be the bad guy. Marks Sunday at 9pm.


The Kissing Booth 3 (NETFLIX)
Wednesday, August 11th

The Kissing Booth movies are extremely cheesy. I'm sure you've spent the past year wondering where Elle Evans will end up going to college. This film series is the classic "I can't believe I'm watching this" as it charms its way into your heart.

Believe me, this franchise is well aware of its cheeky appeal. It's Elle's final summer before college, and you know Joey King is going to make the most of it. The boyfriend, the best friend, the new guy in town – they'll all be competing for Elle's heart. Enjoy the rom-com.

Modern Love (AMAZON)
Friday, August 13th Season 2

The first season of this anthology series based on the love column from The New York Times struck a chord. A star-studded cast shot in gorgeous metro New York City locations – how could it miss? The stories were poignant, distinct, and good enough to earn a second season from Amazon Prime Video.

Season two features another crop of charming recognizable actors including Kit Harrington, Anna Paquin, Tobias Menzies, Sophie Okonedo and others looking for love in all the right and wrong places. Get ready for eight more episodes of heartbreak, connection, and a reason to hold hands with someone you love.

If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you.

Get vaccinated. Stay healthy and safe!