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John Adams 

HBO, Sunday March 16, 8 P.M.

Giamatti Provides Nuanced Performance In Lavish Adaptation Of McCullough’s Pulitzer-Winning Bio

HBO pulls out all the stops for its seven-part adaptation of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical biography John Adams. This grand-scale retelling of five decades of U.S. history, from colonial times to the pre-industrial revolution, boasts lavish sets, meticulous period costumes and props, location work on both sides of the Atlantic and a huge cast of uniformly winning performances. As impressive as the epic production values are, the miniseries also provides a surprisingly intimate look at one of the nation’s founding fathers and his “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world,” wife Abigail.

Paul Giamatti stars as Adams, the Yankee farmer and lawyer who convinced a skeptical Continental Congress to declare independence from England and then went on to serve his country as vice president under George Washington and then as its second president.

Best-known for comic turns and character roles in big-screen efforts such as Sideways and American Splendor, Giamatti proves to be an inspired choice. His Adams is a close physical approximation of the man that McCullough describes as “middle size” and “verging on portly,” with a round face, “high forehead and thinning hairline.”

Giamatti’s nuanced performance, though, also captures the complexities and contradictions of Adams’ personality – a devout Christian as well as an independent thinker, who could be alternately “high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn.” Giamatti manages to convey these qualities and more in an understated way that is persuasive without being showy, and emotional without being sentimental.

Equally impressive is Laura Linney, who imbues Abigail Adams with great strength as well as humanity. Her scenes with Giamatti are among the most moving, and wonderfully convey the sense that Abigail was central to everything Adams was and did.

Other standout performances include Danny Huston as Adams’ cousin Samuel who first drew him to the “great and common cause” of independence; Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, whose friendship with Adams became strained over the years; and especially Tom Wilkinson who portrays the bon-mot-spouting Ben Franklin as larger than life without resorting to caricature.

The first four installments – the only ones available for review at press time – focus on Adams’ role in the Continental Congress leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and his time spent overseas trying to secure support for America’s Revolutionary War effort through to the British surrender and the establishment of a new federal government in America.

Director Tom Hooper and writer Kirk Ellis treat their source material respectfully, without being overly reverent, dramatizing history without cheapening it.

There are some isolated moments -- including a tar-and-feathering and an amputation -- that seem tacked on solely to remind viewers that this is, after all, pay cable. No doubt Adams enthusiasts and Americana buffs will be on the lookout for any bits of artistic license. And admirers of the stage and screen tuner 1776 may watch half expecting the colonists to break into song.

Still, there is no denying that John Adams is an impressive achievement that will satisfy fans of both epic storytelling and human drama.

-- George Vernadakis











Bernard and Doris

HBO, Saturday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m.

[Three-and-a-half  out of five stars] A billionaire widow. A rootless Irishman. It’s rare their circles would intersect, yet they do in Bernard and Doris, an HBO drama about two real people, Doris Duke and Bernard Lafferty, but with an imagining of their six years together.

Why imagined? While Duke, who died in 1993, was a well-known public figure by virtue of her great philanthrophy, she shunned the press and rarely talked about herself. Lafferty, whom she hired as a butler after he’d worked stints for Elizabeth Taylor and chanteuse Peggy Lee, was equally press shy. So producer-director Bob Balaban and writer Hugh Costello have conjured most of the details of a life of mutual dysfunction leavened with mutual affection.

Duke became a multi-millionaire as a child after the death of her tobacco baron father, James Buchanan Duke. Her life was a sad mix of two failed marriages, the loss of a child at birth and eccentric spending and trysting.

Bernard Lafferty walked into her life when he applied to be the latest in a succession of domestics trying to keep up with her demands. According to the movie, he quietly brought order to her house and endeared himself to her with his efficiency and his ability to anticipate her needs.

But when Duke left her manse for an extensive global trip in search of enlightenment, Lafferty, a recovering drunk, dealt with his loneliness by getting drunk on Duke’s finest wine, according to the film. A sign of her affection for him: when another staffer squealed on Lafferty upon Duke’s return, Duke fired the whistle-blower and paid for Lafferty to go to rehab.

When Duke herself is struck down by a stroke, and diagnosed with a degenerating heart condition, it is Lafferty who defends and cares for her, leading to accusations that he is after her money and to suspicions, after her death, that the butler somehow hastened her demise.

Balaban has crafted an off-kilter love story between two empty people. Even their attachment to each other is not enough to save either of them.

Sarandon does imperious so well, her scenes of pain and weakness suffer by comparison. Fiennes has the early scenes of domestic obsequiousness so nailed that in later scenes one feels Lafferty would still be somewhat more comfortable fading into wallpaper. Both actors are obviously having a good time as eccentrics.

The settings are luxe: you’d have to read the production notes to know that the film was so low budget that producers begged and borrowed the furs, silver and other trappings for their “guerilla filmmaking.” The economy doesn’t show on film.

--
Linda Haugsted





In Treatment

HBO

Monday Jan. 28, 9:30 pm

HBO’s new series In Treatment certainly isn’t cable’s first – or, in all likelihood, last – venture onto the couch. But this time therapy isn’t simply incorporated as a secondary element (as in The Sopranos) or as a dramatic backdrop (as in Showtime’s Huff) -- or, for that matter, as an excuse to showcase sex (see HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me) or comedy (as in Starz’s new scripted series Head Case). Therapy is the “star” of In Treatment, more so than any individual or plotline.

While Gabriel Byrne gets top billing as psychotherapist Paul Weston and each of Weston’s patients takes center stage during their respective sessions, In Treatment is really about the therapy itself – how Weston steers a conversation, how his patient chooses to answer or dodge a question, and how these at times volatile exchanges can erupt. And the series immerses the viewer into its confined world by offering up five nightly sessions per week – four with Weston’s patients, and the fifth between Weston and his own therapist.

It’s an ambitious and risky undertaking – one that will immediately alienate anyone who’s skeptical of psychotherapy in the first place and ultimately turn off impatient viewers unaccustomed to watching people sit around talking. In Treatment aims exclusively at an adult audience interested in character-driven drama that plays more like theater than typical television fare.

Unfortunately, the end result is rarely as engrossing as it should be. While the performances are strong across the board, the writing is problematic. Dialogue often feels forced and sounds scripted, with the result that the theatrical proceedings are frequently stagey rather than dramatic.

Based on an Israeli drama, In Treatment splits its time between five patients – a jet pilot back from Iraq (Blair Underwood), a troubled teen (Mia Wasikowska), a woman who thinks she’s in love with Weston (Melissa George) and a squabbling married couple (Embeth Davidtz and Josh Charles). Also making the occasional appearance between patients -- to help unclog a toilet or spot-clean his couch -- is Weston’s thankless wife (Michelle Forbes). Each week concludes with Weston consulting his own shrink (Dianne Wiest).

The format permits viewers to follow individual characters’ storylines (by tuning in once a week on given nights) and not others, but most viewers in will feel compelled, at least initially, to watch nightly.

There are certainly rewards to be had from repeated viewings – not the least of which are always-interesting-to-watch turns by Byrne and Wiest, and the intermittent fireworks between Weston and his patients. But In Treatment promises more than it ultimately delivers in terms of genuine human drama and insight. And its shortcomings will leave some viewers questioning whether or not to keep future appointments.

-- George Vernadakis



Head Case

Starz

Weds. January 23, 10:00 p.m.

Hollywood Residential

Starz

Weds. January 23, 10:30 p.m.

Starz tosses its hat into the original-scripted ring this week, hoping to generate some of the buzz that pay-TV rivals HBO and Showtime have generated with shows like The Sopranos and Dexter, respectively. Its maiden voyage delivers a one-two punch of back-to-back sitcoms sans laugh tracks and the results are decidedly mixed. Still, a 1-1 standing bodes well for Starz, considering this is its first time at bat.

To reconcile the premium channel’s traditionally movie-centric programming mandate with its new original series lineup, both new series keep one foot planted in Hollywood, relying, in large part, on celebrity cameos integrated into their plotlines. While comparisons may not be entirely fair, the shows’ basic premises – a shrink whose patients aren’t the only ones who need help and a struggling actor who makes a fool of himself trying to make it big – will inevitably remind some viewers of Showtime’s Huff and HBO’s Extras.

First up is Head Case, which centers around Dr. Elizabeth Goode (Alexandra Wentworth), psychotherapist to the stars. The show lays on the eccentricities – in and out of the office – pretty thick; and some of the bawdier moments qualify more as juvenile than adult entertainment. Still, Wentworth is appealing and scores plenty of laughs, even when her character’s personal or professional behavior isn’t necessarily laudable. Among the celebs on the couch are Jonathan Silverman (in the episode reviewed), Jeff Goldblum and Andy Dick. Another strong contribution is made by Barney Miller’s Steve Landesberg who co-stars as Goode’s officemate Dr. Myron Finkelstein.

No subtle wit on display here, but Head Case makes a relatively good case for developing its own audience among viewers looking for a new source of risque humor on pay TV.

Not so with HollywoodResidential.

Adam Paul stars as Tony King, the inept host of a celebrity home makeover show who wants to be an actor. The fundamental problem is that Paul and the show’s cast of regulars – which include the show-within-the-show’s sexy co-host (Lindsey Stoddard) and its producer (David Ramsey) – aren’t especially engaging or, for that matter, funny.

As a result, the show is only as funny as its guest stars – which may suffice for viewers who like to watch (not necessarily A-list) stars such as Chris Kattan and Carmen Electra play themselves.

Cheryl Hines (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) executive produces and makes her own appearance in front of the camera – but connections to the immensely superior Enthusiasm end there.

George Vernadakis







BREAKING BAD


AMC


Sunday, Jan. 13, 10 p.m.

[Four out of five stars] AMC, in its follow-up to acclaimed retro advertising series Mad Men, ventures into the modern world, one dripping in crystal methamphetamine.

Unlike Matt Weiner’s series where most of the characters’ self absorption and unseemliness vicariously engage viewers' baser natures, Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White evinces more redemptive qualities through the first three episodes screened, even as he drifts further into the criminal world.

White is the middle-age everyman, struggling for meaning at home and connection with kids as a high school chemistry teacher. His angst is compounded by financial shortcomings -- he must endure a part-time job as a car-wash cashier/dryer to make ends meet for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), and Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte), stricken with cerebral palsy.

White’s mid-life crisis is underscored when his 50th birthday breakfast includes veggie bacon and he’s way late to his own bash. There, viewers are introduced to his loud-mouthed brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, who’s receiving TV plaudits for a $700,000 bust. When White’s told that haul’s on the low side, he’s more than intrigued.

Later, after finding out he has inoperable lung cancer, White takes up Hank’ offer for a tag-along on a bust and then things begin to “break bad.”

Bryan Cranston’s White simmers, before combusting with emotion and action. He teeters through a past rooted in convention and humanity and the tasks he must complete to get ahead in his new endeavor. The realization that his time is limited and his top-flight “cooking” skills are the means to secure his family’s financial future embolden him -- he cracks a hulking teenager taunting Walt Jr. as his son struggles to put on a pair of pants in a store; shows Skyler some new moves and verve in the bedroom; and walks away from his part-time gig in a manner Johnny Paycheck and many others would envy.

But White also struggles with his secret. Cranston and show creator Vince Gilligan (X Files) evoke particular poignancy in a quiet sonogram scene. Later, White’s decency strains during a basement conversation with a captive, before shards of betrayal unleash fury.

Jesse Pinkton (Aaron Paul) serves as the comedic foil and business partner. “Cap’n Cook” may know the drug biz and life on the streets, but didn’t pay much attention in White's high school class. Their alternately master-tyro relationship, though, is undermined by a tad too many jokes centering on chemistry lessons not learned or remembered, as a periodic table of elements motif figures throughout as well.

A few Pinkton pratfalls aside, most of the humor in this dramedy is understated. Unlike Showtime’s much lighter Weeds, light is shone on the darkness of Breaking Bad’s  in the form of busts and other violent encounters. Although played for laughs, Hank’s misguided lesson for Walt Jr. in a sleazy motel parking lot meeting with a hooker clearly underlines crystal meth’s debilitating effects.    

The Writers Guild of America’s strike has also broken bad for the series: only the pilot and six episodes were completed, leaving two unattended.

And likely will leave viewers wanting more.

BROTHER OUTSIDER: The Life of Bayard Rustin

(Logo, Saturday, Jan. 19, 8 p.m.)

The new season of Logo’s “Real Momentum” documentary series kicks off with a riveting look at largely unsung civil rights movement hero Bayard Rustin. Viewers who aren’t in the habit of tuning in Logo take note: Brother Outsider is not only a valuable chronicle of the civil rights, peace and labor movements, but also an invaluable rediscovery of a key participant in all three.

Advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and instrumental in organizing the 1963 march on Washington, Rustin was ahead of his times in many ways: He was openly gay at a time when such candor was unthinkable; he was a conscientious objector encouraging the burning of draft cards during World War II; and he was arrested for sitting next to a white man on a bus more than a decade before Rosa Parks.

But Rustin was dogged by controversies. His homosexuality and strong positions (or in the case of the Vietnam War, lack of one) made him many enemies. There was his involvement with the Communist Party in the late 1930s. And in 1953, perhaps most damaging of all, he was charged with “lewd vagrancy.”

While Lyndon B. Johnson, through Adam Clayton Powell Jr., advised King to distance himself from Rustin for fear that such controversies might jeopardize the movement, Rustin later aligned himself with then-president Johnson over civil rights legislation. To protect that alliance, Rustin did not come out in opposition of the Vietnam War, and he was further vilified by leaders of the Black Power movement for his integrationist stance. One critic, Amiri Baraka, went so far as to deride Rustin as “a slaveship profiteer” and a “paid pervert.”

Filmmakers Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer expertly weave together archival material and interviews, tracing Rustin’s lifelong commitment to justice and absolute intolerance of injustice of any kind with intelligence and honesty. The film also delivers an intimate portrait of Rustin the man – from his Quaker upbringing, high school years as a poetry-reciting footballer and brief singing career to his intimate relationships and embrace of the gay and lesbian community as “the barometer for human rights.” 

Most importantly, Brother Outsider captures its subject’s extraordinary humanity. “We are all one,” Rustin said. “And if you don’t know it, you’ll learn it the hard way.” It is a message that resonates throughout the documentary’s 84 minutes, which will leave viewers who never heard of Rustin feeling privileged to have finally discovered him. -- George Vernadakis


The Wire: Season 5

HBO

Sunday, Jan. 6, 9 P.M.

[Four Out of Five Stars] The fifth and last season of The Wire is about liars and killers more than ever before. Unfortunately, the liars this time include the good guys. By that I mean the cops and the newsmen.

The storyline has extended from the high-rise projects and drug gangs of Baltimore to include, in succeeding years, laborers on the docks, city politicians at work and everyone stuck in the public schools. Now co-creator David Simon, a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun, has brought the media into it because any permanent solution to the ills of American cities has to include the media. Or so Simon has said. Others have pointed out Simon’s particular grievances against the real Sun, and the real Sun, which cooperated with the filming, has given this edition of the series at least one negative review.

I would agree the series peaked last year, in the schools, leaving viewers a glimpse of the next generation of drug kingpins like Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) or cops like Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom). This year, the action involving the media and the cops pursuing parallel lies for their own ambitions seems very plausible – but not nearly as entertaining as how the on-the-street storyline involving bad guys Marlo Stanfield and Omar Little plays out.

Most critical attention has gone to the treatment of the fictional Baltimore Sun. But the first seven (of 10) episodes provided for reviews also entertainingly advance the storyline that started the series – the battles among drug tribes.

It devolves into a battle between kingpin Marlo (Jamie Hector) and drug-dealer-robber Omar (Michael K. Williams). These amazing two tough guys, the best of their kind on TV, are well worth the price of admission (or maybe HBO). The Barksdale gang couldn’t put Omar down – can the Stanfield mob?

The other standout star actors in the first seven episodes are Dominic West, whose Det. Jimmy McNulty returns to the frontline role he had the first two seasons, and Clark Johnson, who joins the show as lovable, gruff, moral but obedient city editor Augustus “Gus” Haynes. Johnson has directed many Wire episodes, and played wisecracking Det. Meldrick Lewis in Homicide: Life on the Street, a show Simon helped produce.

The Wire’s seventh episode, in particular, features many delights – a character from the aforementioned Homicide makes a cameo appearance and there’s a lyrical closing scene, presented by director Dominic West. Det. Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), the female homicide detective who could often be counted on to be as promiscuous as McNulty before McNulty reformed, has some fine moments this time around, as do Dets. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) and William “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce), who acts in a parallel capacity to city editor Haynes in some ways.

Without spoiling plot lines any further, I personally find the newspaper scenario to be completely plausible, though some critics have found it overly cynical or retributive on Simon’s part. I just don’t think it’s as entertaining as the side plots in earlier seasons. However, I applaud Simon, the former homicide cop Ed Burns and the whole Wire infrastructure for maintaining a stunningly high-quality level throughout the proceedings.

I do have a couple of questions, though, while I’m at it. There’s a character cited by name in the seventh episode, a character who can be traced back to the opening episode in the first series – yet the actor who played him in series one isn’t credited. Why? Was it recast or did the actor change his name?

And in the first episode, it looks to me like there’s a huge obvious time gaffe. There’s a scene where city editor Haynes spots something in the city council agenda a reporter brings into the newsroom. The big analog clock on the wall behind them clearly reads about 6 p.m. Haynes sends reporters out and they get a big scoop for the morning edition. The next day, a reporter in the newsroom reading the paper asks when the story broke. One of the reporters who worked the story replies, “Gus saw it on the council agenda around 9:30.” Huh? The clock read 6. (I rewound it a few times.)

The Wire overall remains a challenging show to watch and probably too difficult to dip into occasionally. My advice is to not try to understand every detail of every scene – but try to watch them more than once.

One last note: this season has more of a role for Walon, the recovering junkie played by Steve Earle, who also does this season’s version of opening theme song, Way Down in the Hole.-- Kent Gibbons

Val Lewton: The Man In The Shadows

(TCM, Monday, Jan. 14, 8 p.m.)
Despite lurid titles like The Body Snatcher, I Walked With A Zombie and The Curse of the Cat People, the horror films that Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s were uncommonly literate, tasteful and even subtle. They also blazed the trail for a less-is-more technique of generating genuine chills by relying on shadows and imagination rather than makeup, special effects and overt scenes of violence.

Film buffs who have long lauded Lewton for his unique oeuvre will applaud filmmaker Martin Scorsese for donning his documentarian hat to produce and narrate this exhaustive look at the legendary film producer. TCM offers viewers who may have little if any familiarity with Lewton’s films a rare opportunity to appreciate how special these low-budget gems still are, especially now that the horror film genre has become virtually synonymous with gore. The network is following up the special with a 10-movie marathon of Lewton’s greatest works.

The documentary recounts how RKO executives decided to close the book on a chapter of arty but far-from-lucrative output – embodied by boy genius Orson Welles and his back-to-back masterworks Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons – and focus instead on low-budget efforts that might tap into the popularity of horror movies that were so profitable for rival studio Universal.

Enter Lewton, a former assistant to David O. Selznick and a published novelist, who was put in charge of a unit tasked with producing low-budget shockers. Working with different directors, including Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise, Lewton put his own indelible stamp on each of these horror films, which are marked by physical and psychological darkness. Aside from achieving a surreal, poetic quality, these movies also proved to be hugely successful with audiences.

Ironically, Lewton’s few attempts to go beyond the horror genre – also covered in the course of the docu’s 90 minutes – were, at best, lackluster.

Scorsese and director-writer Kent Jones track Lewton’s personal life – from his youth in Yalta to his untimely death at the age of 46 – while charting his film career with clips galore certain to delight film fanatics and casual horror fans alike. -- George Vernadakis

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project

(HBO, Sunday, Dec. 2, 8 p.m.)



[[4 out of 5 rating]] Only a hockey puck could sit through Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project without finding themselves in serious hysterics. Screened at film festivals prior to its small-screen premiere on HBO, the feature-length documentary’s laughs-per-minute ratio bests even Curb Your Enthusiasm at its best.

Director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) has assembled a voluminous roster of comics, actors, filmmakers and colleagues to pay homage to comedy’s king-of-the-putdown. But the documentary’s greatest asset is Rickles himself, who’s seen in countless film and television clips chronicling his 50-year-career as well as performing live just last year at Las Vegas’s Stardust Hotel.

Clever cross-cutting of clips aside, the docu doesn’t impress in terms of visual style or storytelling. But Landis’s all-star lineup of interviewees includes many delights (from comic Sarah Silverman’s tongue-in-cheek tribute and Bob Newhart’s affectionate reminiscences about his good friend to director Martin Scorsese’s hysterical account of the dressing-down Rickles gave him on The Tonight Show). Other surprise guests range from the quirky (actor Harry Dean Stanton, who co-starred with Rickles and Clint Eastwood in the war actioner Kelly’s Heroes, kicking things off with a harmonica solo), and the amusing (Eastwood recounting how he borrowed a certain pseudonym from Rickles’ act), to the simply awkward (Robert DeNiro looking for the right words to describe Rickles is the perfect set up for a retort from the insult-king himself).

Though some screen time is devoted to Rickles’ childhood and, in particular, his mother, the film isn’t meant as a detailed biopic. Nor, for that matter, is it intended as a history of show business though it provides an entertaining look at Vegas in its heyday. Mr. Warmth is, like Rickles’ act, about scoring laughs; and it keeps the zingers coming fast and furious. -- George Vernadakis

Ben 10: Race Against Time 

(Cartoon Network, Weds. 11/21, 8 p.m.)

Kid superhero Ben Tennyson, already star of animated series Ben 10, makes his live-action debut in the original Cartoon Network movie Race Against Time. Banking on a built-in audience that has made the tooner a success, Cartoon’s telepic should draw a solid showing among fans who will cheer on the flesh-and-blood adventures of Ben, his cousin Gwen and Grandpa Max as they fight extraterrestrial foes. But cross-over appeal to other earthlings is nil.

After a summer of on-the-road adventures, Ben returns home to contend with out-of-touch parents, school bullies and the otherwise mundane happenings that make up existence in Bellwood, USA. But before you can say “what’s an Omnitrix?” Ben has to use the device – an alien watch that transforms him into a variety of super do-gooders with names like Heatblast and WildMutt – to save the earth.

The storyline, such as it is, combines tired clichés about the pressures of childhood and adolescent revenge fantasies with nonsensical sci-fi plot elements concerning a black-clad heavy named Eon and his cloak-clad crew of minions, who dress like Jawas from Star Wars and jump around like high school cheerleaders. For reasons that hardly matter, Eon wants to put the Omnitrix to his own nefarious uses and fire up a sundial-like contraption called the Hands of Armageddon (don’t ask, but with a name like that it can’t be good).

Along the way, Ben discovers that his hometown is base for a secret extraterrestrial protection organization known as The Plumbers, whose few remaining members include the school principal and his gramps (played by Lee Majors, looking like a lot less than six million bucks). He also learns some important lessons – that his cousin Gwen is kind of cool, that the school talent show is no American Idol and that aliens who want to destroy the earth – no matter how much of a threat they may pose to life and property – are still more fun than homework.

None of which is meant to be taken seriously, of course. Race Against Time remains true to its origins, and director Alex Winter (who co-stared in the 1989 time-travel romp Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) keeps the cartoonish, tongue-in-cheek action moving briskly enough.

But the production isn’t helped any by flat scripting, cheesy special effects –lots of purple fireballs are tossed around – Power Rangers-style fights and on-the-cheap sets and costumes that look more five-and-ten than Ben 10. -- George Vernadakis


Frank TV
(TBS, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 11 p.m.)

As most viewers of TBS’s coverage of Major League Baseball’s post-season can no doubt attest, Frank TV arrives on the “very funny” network on Nov. 20. With it, comes Mad TV alum Frank Caliendo, who’s also gained fame from his appearances on Fox NFL Sunday, Late Show with David Letterman and YouTube. Now, the impressionist extraordinaire is jumping into the late-night game with his own sketch show

As executive producer/writer/creator and star, it’s a tour de force for Caliendo, who largely emulates mainstream characters, which should translate into broad appeal. In the “franksgiving” episode, he showcases character send-ups of Robin Williams, Seinfeld, and former NBAer and TNT commentator Charles Barkley. There’s also the two he’s perhaps most renowned for -- football analyst John Madden, who’s preparing his turducken feast; and President Bush, in this case passing the buck on dispensing wedding day advice to daughter Jenna to Vice President Cheney.    

In the initial installment, six of the eight bits hit for this watcher. The rapid pace provides viewer grazing opportunities, but the best were the longer ones, notably a naughty tour of the William Jefferson Clinton Library, in which Caliendo’s faux former president, points out dog-eared pages of medical books and Internet services sans parental blocking. There’s also a stop in the edifice’s museum area, where portraits of his “accomplishments” are proudly on display, save for the last -- former attorney general Janet Reno, explained away by: “Knock, knock....Too many Jack and Cokes” and an accompanying shake of the head.

Although it worked for the most part in the “Seinfeld 2027 Reunion Show on TBS” segment in which he portrayed three of five characters to dead-on effect (his George didn’t quite weigh in, while his Elaine did in a different way), there’s a tad too much Frank.

Obviously, it’s Caliendo’s gig, but over time, playing off, instead of playing most of, the other characters could ring in more laughs. Especially with a repertoire that approaches 100 impressions, according to his Wikipedia listing. --Mike Reynolds



(AMC, Sunday, Jan. 20, 10 p.m.)

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