Tag Archives: HBO

Meloni mines for laughs in Fox’s Surviving Jack

"Surviving Jack" premieres tonight on Fox.

Dr. Jack Dunlevy (Christopher Meloni, right) shares a rare supportive moment with his teenage son, Frankie (Connor Buckley), in “Surviving Jack,” premiering tonight on Fox.

Surviving Jack, a new sitcom premiering tonight on Fox, gives Christopher Meloni a chance to show off his formidable comedy chops after intense dramatic turns in HBO’s prison saga Oz and NBC’s long-running police drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Based on an autobiographical book by Justin Halpern and set in 1991, Surviving Jack stars Meloni as gruff oncologist Dr. Jack Dunlevy, who has decided to cut back his hours at his clinic so he can take over parenting his two teenage kids while his wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris), pursues her long-delayed dream of law school. Their daughter, Rachel (Claudia Lee), is mildly irritated by this household change, but her younger brother, high-school freshman Frankie (Connor Buckley), frets that his dad, an ex-military man, will now have even more opportunities to make his life difficult.
That’s a rational concern, given that Jack has been known to send his son out to run laps in the middle of the night and plants a large box of condoms in Frankie’s booksack to embarrass him at school. And while Jack dotes on his wife, he seems to harbor more ambivalent feelings toward Frankie.
“I love that woman,” Jack sighs, watching Joanne leave for class. “If an asteroid were to hit this Earth, and she and I were the only two people left alive, I’d be OK.”
“What about me?” Frankie asks.
“Well, obviously, there would be a grieving period,” Jack replies. “I’m not an ass.”
Halpern previously adapted another book into the ill-fated CBS sitcom euphemistically called Bleep My Dad Says, which also featured a crusty father figure who was a doctor, played on that show by William Shatner. Surviving Jack is a far more polished sitcom that makes even better use of its time period than ABC’s similarly themed The Goldbergs (there’s a funny running gag about Michael Crichton’s then-red-hot book Jurassic Park recurring in tonight’s pilot episode).
It helps, too, that Meloni has the good sense to underplay Jack’s bluntness. The character never shouts at his children, he just doesn’t mince any words or waste any tact in dealing with them.
My only concern is that tonight’s premiere seems to be too much of a one-trick pony that depends too much on ways that Jack benignly tortures Frankie. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, but I hope Surviving Jack will develop more of an ensemble feel in the weeks to come. Certainly Harris, a sitcom staple who also has a hilarious recurring role on USA Network’s Suits, is far too bright a comedy performer to remain stuck in the role of a largely absent mom. Buckley also is a real find as Frankie, although it’s stretching credibility to buy him as a freshman in high school.
Those minor quibbles aside, the prospects of Jack surviving look pretty good right now.
"Surviving Jack" on Fox.

Rachael Harris stars with Christopher Meloni in “Surviving Jack,” tonight on Fox.

HBO’s Doll & Em is smart but lightweight

'Doll & Em' premieres tonight on HBO.

Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer (from left) co-created, co-wrote and star in ‘Doll & Em,’ a six-part miniseries premiering tonight on HBO.

Doll & Em, a six-part comedy premiering tonight on HBO, clearly is a labor of love for real-life best friends Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom) and Dolly Wells, the British actresses who co-created and co-wrote the project, as well as starring as “themselves.”
For the rest of us, the miniseries is pretty lightweight, although it explores an interesting question: What happens when someone who fits perfectly into one compartment of your life suddenly intrudes on another, very different part?
Tonight’s premiere opens with Emily attending the Independent Spirit Awards with Bradley Cooper, where she is interrupted by a frantic phone call from London. Dolly, her lifelong best friend, is going to pieces over the implosion of her latest relationship.
A supportive Emily immediately flies Dolly to Los Angeles, where Emily is about to begin work on a high-profile new movie project. Strictly to help her friend, Emily also proposes that Dolly take a temporary job as her assistant, to earn a little money and also be able to spend time with Emily on the set.
It’s a well-intentioned yet disastrous move, because it blurs the relationship lines between them. Dolly is Emily’s best pal and houseguest, yet she’s also her employee. Emily wants to give her grieving chum the attention she so desperately needs and expects, but she’s also about to tackle the most challenging role of her professional career, and she doesn’t need any distractions.
And Dolly is an epic distraction. She’s happy that her gig as Emily’s assistant allows her to tag along to a Hollywood party where Susan Sarandon is among the guests, yet becomes hurt and resentful when she is shunted into a room with a child guest while the A-listers socialize elsewhere. Emily also feels uncomfortable asking Dolly to perform even the most undemanding task, which, God knows, the self-absorbed Dolly would never think about tackling unbidden just because her friend needs help.
Worse, Dolly demonstrates an appalling lack of discretion, blurting out confidences and embarrassing Emily in front of her professional peers.
Over the course of its six half-hour episodes (HBO is airing two per week, over three weeks), Doll & Em charts how the chemistry between the two women starts to change as they try to adjust to their new personal “roles” in each other’s lives. This isn’t really a laugh-out-loud comedy, but rather a character study that arouses sighs and smiles of rueful recognition.
After being stuck in a shrill, poorly written role on HBO’s The Newsroom for two seasons, Mortimer is delightful and engaging playing a fairly sane, non-neurotic woman, although her Emily is subject to the insecurities any actress in Hollywood over 40 would be prone to. When the friendship between the two women ultimately fractures, it’s mostly Dolly’s fault, not because Emily hasn’t tried her best to be supportive.
Wells, who probably will be unfamiliar to most American viewers, has a tougher job of it, because ultimately Dolly is selfish and unsympathetic. This may, in fact, be this actress’s wheelhouse: The only other thing I’ve seen Wells in is the hilarious Britcom Spy (currently streaming on Hulu Plus), in which she starred as the sour, perpetually disapproving ex-wife of Darren Boyd’s title character.
In addition to Sarandon, Chloe Sevigny, John Cusack and Andy Garcia also turn up as themselves, and actor Allesandro Nivola (American Hustle), who is married to Mortimer, serves as producer of Doll & Em.
Chloe Sevigny (right) guest stars with Emily Mortimer in 'Doll & Em,' premiering tonight on HBO.

Chloe Sevigny (right) guest stars with Emily Mortimer in ‘Doll & Em,’ premiering tonight on HBO.

Paycheck to Paycheck examines the ‘working poor’ on HBO

'Paycheck to Payccheck' premieres tonight on HBO.

A Chattanooga, Tenn. single mother of three shows how difficult life is for the “working poor” in America today in ‘Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert,’ premiering tonight on HBO.

Forget paycheck to paycheck, East Tennessee single mother Katrina Gilbert lives fill-up to fill-up.
The 30-year-old Chattanooga mother of three is the primary subject of Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert, an HBO documentary premiering tonight that explodes many right-wing myths about the “working poor” in America.
Airing as part of Maria Shriver’s multimedia platform project The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, this film – which clocks in at about an hour and 15 minutes – follows Gilbert as she tries to do everything she can think of to forge a better life for herself and her three kids.
Gilbert had a lot of dreams when she graduated high school but she put them on hold when she fell in love with and married Jeremy, whose subsequent addiction to prescription painkillers demolished their marriage and sucked her bank account dry after 10 years.
At present, Gilbert is trying to support her family in their double-wide trailer home by working long hours in an extended-care facility with decidedly high-maintenance clients, which nets her an exorbitant $9.49 an hour. She’s one of the lucky ones, having entered her three kids in the Chambliss Center, a free daycare facility for moms like her that currently has a 230-children waiting list. Still, Gilbert and her kids are barely scraping by: In one scene, she goes in to file her taxes on an annual income that amounts to less than $19.000.
And still she can’t help disappointing her kids, having to let their birthdays pass without parties or gifts and reluctantly forcing them to give up a puppy after it requires far more maintenance than she has the time to provide. And that’s before the resident cat drops a big litter.
Her husband – Gilbert can’t even scrape together the money she needs to finalize their divorce – can’t find a job, so when the kids want to see their dad, who lives two hours away, Gilbert has to cough up money for her own round trip, as far as Jeremy’s as well.
Her attempt to go back to college is stymied by ridiculous bureaucratic red tape that prevents her from receiving any financial aid.
I could go on in my recital of the indignities Katrina Gilbert endures, but the bottom line is: Watch this film, which – if you do not have HBO – subsequently will air free online from tonight through March 24 on hbo.com, ShriverReport.org and YouTube.
Then get the hell out and vote.

Gay friends go Looking for happiness on HBO

The new HBO series 'Looking' premieres Sunday on HBO.

Frankie J. Alvarez, Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett (from left) star as three gay friends looking for love and success in San Francisco in ‘Looking,’ a new HBO dramedy series premiering Sunday.

Looking, a new half-hour dramedy premiering Sunday on HBO, follows three closely knit gay men in San Francisco as each enters a period of transition.
At 31, Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a frustrated artist, has nervously just agreed to move from the heart of the city to share quarters with his long-term boyfriend (O-T Fagbenle) in suburban Oakland, while Dom (Murray Bartlett) is staring down the barrel of his 40th birthday, painfully aware that he has spent most of his adult life as a waiter and kept his dreams of opening his own restaurant on hold for far too long.
As for their mutual best friend, Patrick (Jonathan Groff, Glee), he has just found out that his ex, the only real boyfriend he’s ever had, is getting married four months after their break-up. True, Patrick is the one who did the dumping, but that doesn’t mean he’s any happier about this development, which sends him, at 29, into a frenzied online search for a new boyfriend (and, since Agustin is moving out of their apartment, a new roommate).
As Looking unfolds during its eight-episode first season, each of these characters will, on some level, come to question where he is in his life – especially Patrick, who likes to present himself as relationship-oriented, but never has stayed with a boyfriend for more than five months. He’s equally unfocused in his job as a video games designer, where he spends too much of his time trolling dating sites like OkCupid.
“I don’t think either of us is very good at being what we think we are,” he tells Agustin in a rare moment of self-candor. “Maybe we need to try a little harder.”
Looking is not, of course, the first premium cable series to take a frank look at the lives of gay men. In that respect, the 2000-05 Showtime series Queer as Folk got there first. QAF often featured simulated sexual content so graphic that the series seemed intent not just on pushing the envelope, but setting it on fire and scattering the ashes. Looking is more interested in charting the emotional life of its characters. Yes, there are same-sex love scenes in this new HBO series, but at least based on the first four episodes HBO made available for preview, audiences saw more explicit footage with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra.
As more than one character in Looking says, “It’s more about intimacy than sex,” which could almost be a mantra for the series. This show is less interested in getting its characters out of their clothes and into bed with each other than in capturing the relaxed, affectionate closeness between these men: the teasing, the flirting, the shared sense of both joy and regret.
Most of the cast probably will be unfamiliar to HBO subscribers, but they have an easy chemistry together that evokes a mutual history. If you only know Groff, a leading man on Broadway, from his two-dimensional guest role on Glee, you’re in for a revelation here, because he’s sensational, capturing every facet of Patrick’s complex personality – especially in his scenes with British actor Russell Tovey (The History Boys), who joins the show in its third episode as Patrick’s new boss (and, one suspects, future love interest).
Looking may revolve mostly around gay men in a Northern California city, but its issues and themes are universal and relatable to anyone with an open heart and mind. If there’s any justice, this smart, beautifully crafted show will find the audience it (and HBO) deserves.
Russell Tovey has a recurring guest role on HBO's 'Looking.'

British actor Russell Tovey (‘The History Boys’) joins ‘Looking’ in its third episode as Patrick’s new boss.

‘Six by Sondheim’ an affectionate master class

'Six by Sondheim' celebrates the life and career of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim (second from left) is flanked by performers America Ferrera, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes at the New York premiere of ‘Six by Sondheim.’

It’s obvious that a lot of affection went into Six by Sondheim, a new 90-minute documentary premiering tonight on HBO. The film, which offers a surprisingly intimate and candid look at the life and career of Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, who also is an executive producer along with former New York Times drama critic (and longtime Sondheim acquaintance) Frank Rich.
That probably explains how this fascinating film so deftly manages to be both a warm valentine to one of America’s most important living artists as well as an insightful, even revelatory, look at both his personal and professional experiences, reflected in six of his songs.
Told mainly in Sondheim’s own voice, drawn from a variety of interviews over the decades, Six by Sondheim opens with a snippet from a 1977 conversation with Mike Douglas in which Sondheim discusses his fondness for writing about neurotic people.
“ ‘Neurotic’ is one of those fashionable words that to some people means ‘crazy.’ What it means is that everyone has problems. Nobody goes through life unscathed, and I think if you write about those things, you’re going to touch people,” he says. “I’m not interested in making people unhappy, but I’m (also) not interested in not looking at life.”
That’s no doubt why, although Sondheim has had his share of commercial disappointments on Broadway, the only show he has trouble defending in hindsight is Do I Hear a Waltz?, a perfectly pleasant 1965 musical on which he collaborated with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. It received polite reviews and offended no one, but ran only about half a year because it had “no passion, no blood, no reason to be,” he recalls.
The first of the six highlighted songs is “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, where Sondheim got his first big break writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s melodies. Although the song remains a favorite for Sondheim, he notes that the show itself was not very well received by many critics and audience members, who found the score insufficiently “hummable,” a charge that has dogged Sondheim throughout his career. (He notes drily that when the movie version of West Side Story became a box-office smash, suddenly everyone had no trouble humming the songs).
Sondheim identifies another spotlighted number, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, as his most autobiographical song, based loosely on his own experiences as he was trying to break into the theater world. Restaged here and performed by Darren Criss (Glee), Jeremy Jordan (Smash), America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Laura Osnes (Broadway’s current revival of Cinderella), the catchy number also features a very clever cameo by the composer-lyricist himself.
Other segments are devoted to “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, which remains Sondheim’s biggest hit song; “I’m Still Here,” an anthem of survival from Follies that Sondheim based in large part on Joan Crawford’s career; “Being Alive,” the closing ballad from Company; and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George, the song and show that Sondheim says are closest to his heart.
Six by Sondheim also finds Sondheim opening up about his strained relationship with a bitter divorced mother who regarded the birth of her only child as the biggest regret of her life (and sent him a handwritten, hand-delivered letter to that effect when he was 40), falling in love for the first time when he was 60 and why he regards teaching as “a holy profession.”
As we look at Sondheim over the years, we see him transform from the intense lone wolf of the 1970s, when he was still struggling to be taken seriously as a composer, to the Sondheim of today, at 83: happy in a long-term personal relationship, unapologetically proud of his life’s work and still trying to find new ways to push the limits of the American musical form. He wears contentment very well.

HBO’s ‘Getting On’ finds laughter in dark places

Laurie Metcalf, Alex Bornstein and Niecy Nash star in HBO's new dark but very funny sitcom 'Getting On.'

Laurie Metcalf, Alex Bornstein and Niecy Nash (from left) star as prickly staff members at a medical facility catering to patients who are ‘Getting On’ in years.

In tonight’s first episode of Getting On, HBO’s adaptation of a British comedy hit, nurse DiDi Ortley (Niecy Nash, Reno 911!) reports for her first day of work at the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of Mt. Palms Hospital in Long Beach, Calif. The facility is dedicated to improving the lives of its elderly charges, who are “getting on” in years, but DiDi soon begins to wonder whether she’s wandered into an asylum by mistake.
The first red flag pops up when DiDi notices that one of the senior patients has had an accident in one of the TV room chairs. Her immediate instinct is a very logical one: Grab a piece of tissue, remove the offending “souvenir” and flush it in the nearest restroom. Unfortunately, she hasn’t reckoned with the red tape and politics that clog the cogs at any contemporary American medical facility.
Her senior colleague, nurse Dawn Forchette (Alex Bornstein, MADtv’s resident madwoman), is reluctant to allow the matter in question to be collected and removed until someone fills out the required “incident report” paperwork and tested the collected sample to determine which patient was responsible.
Meanwhile, temporary medical director Dr. Jenna James (three-time Emmy winner Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne) has a completely different agenda. She wants the matter collected for a “prestigious fecal study” she is currently working on for the New England Journal of Medicine.
That may sound nuts – and it is – but Jenna is a walking raw nerve who refuses to admit that her once-promising career is now in a death spiral. She may be telling anyone who is listening that she is merely filling in temporarily until a permanent medical director can be found, but in truth, Jenna has been exiled to this unit from the main facility since she had a breakdown and started waving around a scalpel and “allegedly” menacing some of her colleagues.
In its first six-episode season, Getting On follows these three prickly women as they struggle to do their jobs under very challenging conditions, including a rapidly cratering rating for their level of care.
Still, nothing bonds adversaries like a common enemy. In this case, that would be newly arrived supervising (male) nurse Patrizio “Patsy” De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez, Community), who refers to patients as “customers” and favors motivational posters and New Age-speak like “Don’t go through life. GROW through life.” He also plans to improve the facility’s rating through a cruise ship-based strategy that includes having a fountain and pianist on the premises.
Complicating the staff chemistry even further, “Patsy” is more than a little confused about his sexuality. He’s secretly having no-strings sex with Dawn, a woman with no personal boundaries and a bottomless hunger for approval, yet he’s eager to file a grievance against DiDi when she makes a harmless sexual joke to defuse a tense situation with a patient. Moreover, he and Jenna are engaged in a constant deathmatch over which of them is actually running the unit.
Clearly, Getting On is drawing on a mother lode of character quirks to drive its storylines and all three of the stars turn in rich, quirky performances. If I single out Metcalf, it’s only because I had forgotten how much I miss seeing this extraordinary actress on a weekly basis, and she brilliantly takes a brittle character and fills her with pathos, complexity and, every now and then, a glimmer of real compassion.
Getting On is certainly not your run-of-the-mill sitcom, nor is it for viewers with delicate sensibilities. It takes a lot of worthwhile risks, however, and in doing so only makes us admire healthcare workers more than ever, even as we observe them comically at the end of their ropes.

‘Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles’ on HBO

Sarah Silverman stars in her first HBO comedy special tonight in 'Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles.'

An Emmy-winning comic brings her edgy jokes to HBO tonight in ‘Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles.’

There’s a revealing moment early on in Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles, the Emmy-winning actress and comic’s first HBO comedy special, which premieres tonight on the premium channel.
Silverman, who taped the 50-minute concert at a teeny-tiny Los Angeles club called Largo, has just noticed one guy among the 39-person audience who didn’t laugh at the typically startling joke she just cracked. Instead, she points out, the guy is sitting there, arms crossed, and shaking his head, obviously thinking, “Oh, Sarah, you’re so incorrigible.”
I’m pretty sure that’s the main reason Silverman stays one of the consistently funniest women in comedy. She’s 42, yet in her shortish skirts and high-top socks, she still looks disconcertingly like a sunny parochial schoolgirl whose blinding smile keeps convincing us that she couldn’t possibly have just made a graphic and completely unexpected incest joke about her dad … could she?
Silverman has used that guileless persona to great comic effect in a string of well-received appearances at various Comedy Central celebrity roasts, the famously filthy affairs during which a panel of stars pays back-handed “tribute” to a colleague, usually by speculating explicitly on the guest celebrity’s sexual proclivities (at one such roast of James Franco, Silverman cleverly brushed aside her colleagues’ suggestion that Franco was bisexual by explaining that no, the actor simply couldn’t get his eyes open wide enough to be sure whom he was having sex with).
Silverman has done other comedy specials in much larger, more conventional venues, but Largo is so intimate that she’s able to forge an unusually strong connection with her mini-crowd, turning them into co-conspirators. The comic pretty much gets away with murder, delivering some characteristically cruel, oh-no-she-didn’t punchlines with a sly grin that reminds her audience that this is all strictly for their ears only. On those rare occasions when she crosses a line and her spectators are briefly but clearly aghast, Silverman is audacious and clever enough to just turn their reaction back on them. “I’m hurt,” her manner suggests. “I thought we were having, like, a special moment, and then you guys had to go and be mean like that. Frankly, I think I need to reassess our relationship.”
And then she blithely drops an even more subversive joke. (I’m not being unnecessarily coy here, I promise. It’s just that, in going over my notes, I couldn’t find many of Silverman’s jokes, several of which made me laugh uproariously, that would translate into cold type).
Hidden among the shocks, however, are some buried truths about the human condition that reveal Silverman’s sharp wit, like her suggestion that if Africa were filled with adorable Labradoodles, instead of natives, who were dying of AIDS, we would have taken care of that crisis in a single day. Or her admonition that well-meaning types really should stop telling little girls that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up.
“I think it’s a mistake,” she explains to her 39 “close friends” in the club. “Not because they can’t, but because it never would have occurred to them that they couldn’t.”
Clearly, at some point Silverman decided that what she wanted to be was funny. And no one in his right mind would try to tell her she can’t.