The TV Academy Gets Real, With a Night of Honors That Don't Get Nearly as Much Attention as the Emmys -- but May Be Even More Important
Some called the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner a “nerd prom,’ and that term also came to mind -- in a completely endearing way -- at the 6th Annual Television Academy Honors, held May 9 at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Known for presenting the Primetime Emmy Awards, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences decided in 2007 to move forward with a different sort of accolade that honors programs that inform, illuminate, enlighten and educate about social issues.
Academy Governor John Shaffner gets credit for creating the concept with former ATAS chair Dick Askin and Honors co-chair Lynn Roth. Shaffner and Roth started off the evening by chronicling the process and announcing that after six fulfilling years, they were passing the baton to new committee members.
This year’s honorees: “Hallmark Hall of Fame: A Smile as Big as the Moon,” “D.L. Hughley: The Endangered List,” “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” “Hunger Hits Home,” “The Newsroom,” “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee,” “One Nation Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss & Betrayal” and “Parenthood,” feted in a gala sponsored by Audi, Grey Goose and BV Vineyards.
Actress Dana Delany hosted for the fifth time, lightening things up right away by telling the duo to "get a room" as they left the stage.
"I've noticed some trends here. Almost all of the shows are fact-based. I guess you could call them good reality shows," she said.
Whether "The Newsroom" is fact-based could make for an interesting Aaron Sorkin-written soliloquy delivered by Jeff Daniels, as fictional cable news anchor Will McAvoy.
A real newsman with a four decade-long career, Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes,” presented Sorkin with the night’s first statuette. Kroft noted that the traditional journalistic values of fairness, accuracy and integrity are pitted against corporate bosses, the demands of a 24-hour news cycle and fickle audiences, even as the characters try to hold on to their jobs.
"The actors are much more attractive and have more interesting personal lives [than] people who work in the real newsroom,” he said, introducing a clip that showcased one of McAvoy's on-air soliloquies about the shifting ethics of the TV news business.
"Brevity is a challenge for me," Sorkin acknowledged, an admission that was met with laughter from the ballroom audience.
Producer Brian Grazer lauded "Parenthood,” and its showrunner Jason Katims for his kindness and generosity, and recalled how Katims previously had successfully made a TV series out of another of Grazer's films, “Friday Night Lights."
As that highly acclaimed show was nearing the end of its run, Katims wanted to try his hand at "Parenthood" -- although Grazer said it had already been tried with Joss Whedon and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now, "Parenthood" is in its fifth season. In his speech, Katims talked about the pressures he felt about living up to the bouncy house poster that NBC had designed, even as he went in to pitch network executives an entire season that revolved around cancer. The show also deals with teenage alcoholism, unemployment, panic attacks, abortion and autism, among other topics.
Despite the difficult subject matter, he said the network was his biggest supporter.
"When you feel love in the Braverman family, it makes it sort of like a bouncy house,” he said.
The Food Network had never done a documentary before "Hunger Hits Home," which illustrates the serious problem of childhood hunger by focusing on three families that are having a hard time putting food on the table in this economic downturn.
"It's unconscionable that this should happen now. Part of it is due to the shame people feel about asking for help. The problems are solvable. The [anti-hunger] programs are there,” said producer Dan Cutforth.
Showing racism in a humorous way was the goal of D.L. Hughley's Comedy Central program. The actor said his motivation went back to the 1991 Los Angeles murder of a young black girl, Latasha Harlins, who was shot for allegedly shoplifting a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper was sentenced to five years' probation, while soon thereafter, he heard about a woman going to jail for kicking a horse.
Recalling the shocking dichotomy in punishments, Hughley broke down, after he had managed to crack a joke about three Jews and a black man, acknowledging the other producers of “The Endangered List” who joined him to accept the honor.
With all this heaviness, the evening’s program ended on a brighter note with kudos for “Hallmark Hall of Fame: A Smile as Big as the Moon,” a dramatization of the real-life story of special ed kids going to NASA space camp in Huntsville, Ala. It features actor John Corbett as football coach and special education teacher Mike Kersjes, who took them there after months of preparation.
With Corbett by his side, Kersjes said, "This is really about the triumph of the human spirit -- by kids who are underdogs and who were bullied.”
Today Is the 15th Anniversary of the Death of the Most Famous Person in American Popular Culture. Here's the Movie or Miniseries About Him Someone in Hollywood Should Have the Guts to Make
My parents hated each other. They fought constantly. I don’t remember seeing a single loving moment between them. By the time I was 12, it was over. Splitsville. They divorced.
They both went on to have loving, fulfilling second marriages, and, fortunately, both my brother and myself were crazy about both of our parents’ second spouses.
Looking back on why my parents had ever gotten together in the first place, the expression ‘What were they thinking?” comes to mind. They were 15 years apart in age and didn’t seem to have any interests in common. They didn’t have similar senses of humor nor senses of life. Mom was a Democrat and dad was a Republican, with all the clichés that each of those labels imply.
The only thing I can remember them agreeing about was that Frank Sinatra was their favorite singer. My dad was a year older than Sinatra, and my mom had been one of Sinatra’s diehard bobby-soxer fans in the 1940s.
Today, May 14, 2013, is the 15th anniversary of Sinatra's death.
Given the fact that seemingly the only time in our house when my parents weren’t having monumental fights was when they were playing great Sinatra records from his Capitol years, he has always interested me. I loved his voice and found it very soothing.
As I got older I began to read more and more about Sinatra. Back in April 1966, when I was 14, Esquire published an article about Sinatra that I quickly devoured. It had the funny title of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and was a very long piece.
It was about Sinatra, the man. It turns out that this singer, who seemed to me to be the most sensitive of vocal interpreters, wasn’t such a nice guy. Yet he was clearly an iconic figure in American pop culture, for generations of both men and women. As a kid I found the contradictions of Sinatra very puzzling.
Here’s a short excerpt from near the beginning of the article:
“For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people -- his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five -- which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. He seemed now to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has money, the energy, and no apparent guilt. In an age when the very young seem to be taking over, protesting and picketing and demanding change, Frank Sinatra survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few prewar products to withstand the test of time. He is the champ who made the big comeback, the man who had everything, lost it, then got it back, letting nothing stand in his way, doing what few men can do: he uprooted his life, left his family, broke with everything that was familiar, learning in the process that one way to hold a woman is not to hold her. Now he has the affection of Nancy [Sinatra] and Ava [Gardner] and Mia [Farrow], the fine female produce of three generations, and still has the adoration of his children, the freedom of a bachelor, he does not feel old, he makes old men feel young, makes them think that if Frank Sinatra can do it, it can be done; not that they could do it, but it is still nice for other men to know, at fifty, that it can be done.”
What I didn’t know when I originally read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is that it would later be thought of as one of the best pieces of magazine journalism ever published, a benchmark of what came to be known as the New Journalism. It was written by Gay Talese. I recently re-read the piece, and it’s still terrific. You can read it if you click here.
Over the years I’ve kept reading about Sinatra. Most recently I read James Kaplan’s excellent 2010 biography “Frank: The Voice.” What made me want to read it was Michiko Kakutani’s review of it in The New York Times.
Kakutani wrote that Sinatra “provided the soundtrack for several generations of Americans trying to navigate the rocky shoals of romance and grapple with love and heartbreak. And he became one of 20th-century pop culture’s quintessential men of contradictions: the bullying tough guy whose singing could radiate a remarkable tenderness and vulnerability; the ring-a-ding-ding Vegas sophisticate with an existential outlook on life; the jaunty urbanite who could deliver a torch song like no one else. Fans could recognize his voice from two or three perfectly phrased syllables, and they knew him instantly from his style: the rakishly tilted hat, the coat slung over one shoulder, the Camels and Jack Daniel’s.”
Kakutani went on to note that Kaplan, in his book, did a “nimble, brightly evocative job of tracing the development of Sinatra’s craft, showing how he assimilated early influences and gradually discovered a voice of his own.“
And Kaplan did exactly that. Kaplan's a wonderful writer to boot, and I recommend his book to anyone interested in Sinatra.
But the facets of Sinatra that have really interested me over the years are the contradictions of the man, as so eloquently stated above by Talese and Times reviewer Kakutani.
And to read about those you have to read a firsthand account of what Sinatra was like. And there’s only one of those that’s any good: “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra.”
Published in 2003 by HarperCollins, it’s a first-person account told by George Jacobs, an African-American who served as Sinatra’s valet, sometimes cook and right-hand man from 1953 to 1968. The book is written by Jacobs and William Stadiem.
What’s so great about the book is that it’s a no-holds-barred account of Sinatra and his inner circle for those 15 years. How candid? Check out this excerpt. Jacobs writes:
“As much as I disliked his father, that’s how much I was crazy about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was handsome and funny and naughty and as irreverent as Dean Martin. ‘What do colored people want, George?’ he asked me the first time he visited [Frank Sinatra’s home in] Palm Springs, not long after Mr. S and Peter Lawford [JFK’s brother-in-law] became bosom buddies.
“I don’t know, Mr. Senator.”
“Jack, George, Jack.”
“What do you want, Jack?”
“I want to fuck every woman in Hollywood,” he said with a big leering grin.
“With a campaign promise like that you can’t lose, sir.”
“You’re my man. Jack.”
“No, it’s George.”
“Who’s on third?”
“Pardon me, sir?
“Jack, goddamn it. Call me Jack. Or I’ll send you back to Mississippi.”
“Louisiana, Jack. They eat Catholics in Mississippi. They hate you worse than me.”
“And that was the way we’d go on, giving each other shit all the time, no master-servant games. He and Mr. S got along great. They had everything in common, charisma, talent, power.”
Then there’s this, the details of the final break between JFK, then president, and Sinatra. It was early 1962:
Sinatra had redone his Palm Springs compound in honor or JFK, including the installation of a number of new phone lines.
Writes Jacobs, “This was going to be Jack’s West Coast crash pad, for all the world to see.” But it didn’t turn out that way. Peter Lawford had to tell Sinatra that JFK was not going to be staying with Sinatra anymore.
“Lawford first tried to blame the Secret Service, saying it was a security issue. Then he finally admitted that it was a Frank issue and that Bobby [Kennedy] was the mastermind behind it. Mr. S. smashed the phone he was talking on against the wall. He went into another room and was able to get Bobby on the line in Washington. … Bobby basically told him we can’t have the president sleeping in the same house where [mobster] Sam Giancana had slept. And Mr. S. said JFK’s already slept here, so what’s the fucking deal. Bobby played hardball. He said it’s my deal now, and Jack ain’t sleeping there and hung up. There went another phone, smashed to smithereens. We were lucky to have had all those extra phone lines installed. I felt sorry for Mr. S. He was like the girl who got stood up for the prom, all dressed up with no place to go. He had spent a fortune redoing the house, just for JFK, and now the house was off-limits. … How could they treat their friend this way, he wailed to me, like a little kid nearly in tears.”
Jacobs continues that later that day “Mr S. went on the most violent rampage I had seen. Lawford’s clothes were ripped out of closets, ripped personally to shreds. His golf clubs were bent in half. Pat Lawford’s (JFK’s sister) makeup and perfume kit was crushed under foot. I followed Mr. S. around the house on his search-and-destroy mission, just to make sure he didn’t die of a cerebral hemorrhage, his blood pressure was so off the charts. I didn’t dare try and stop him, or even say ‘Cool it, boss. This ain’t worth it.’ He probably would have killed me.”
And then there were the women: Ava, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Juliet Prowse, Lauren Bacall and the two Judys, Campbell and Garland, to name just some of them.
Jacobs even writes about a tryst between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo that he was witness to at Sinatra’s compound when Mr. S. was out of town.
Though I’m always telling people to read Jacobs’ book, I hadn’t seen anything about it in the press lately until I saw this item in the New York Post’s gossip column Page Six about a month ago, on April 3, 2013: “A modern-day Rat Pack comprising Brett Ratner, Brian Grazer and Graydon Carter is in talks to team up on an HBO doc based on “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra” by Ol’ Blue Eyes’ longtime valet George Jacobs, sources tell us. The project was once slated as a feature for Ratner to direct, starring Chris Tucker, but has now been reimagined as a TV doc, insiders said. However, others and an HBO rep said no deal is done with the cable network.”
I was disappointed to read the item, because it seemed to me the way to adapt the book is turning it into a movie (feature or cable) or a miniseries. I don’t know how one would do it justice as a documentary. Docu-drama, yes, documentary, no.
Then, on April 30, I read this item at Deadline.com: “Alcon Television Group, the television division of Alcon Entertainment, and Frank Sinatra Enterprises are teaming to produce an as yet untitled documentary about the life and music of Frank Sinatra to premiere on HBO. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney will direct the four-hour miniseries docu described as an up close and personal examination of Sinatra, his life, his music and his legendary career.”
Was HBO going to do two Sinatra documentaries? Furthermore, the more I thought about it, was HBO, a division of Warner Bros., the company that owns Sinatra’s former record label, Reprise, really going to be able to produce, faithfully, any video or film version of so candid a book as “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra”?
So I decided to try to contact William Stadiem, the professional writer who co-wrote Jacobs’ book. I don't know Stadiem, but he is a very talented scribe who holds two graduate degrees from Harvard, in law and business. He has also written “Marilyn Monroe Confidential” and “Moneywood: Hollywood in Its Last Age of Excess.”
I was fortunate to reach him by phone in the Los Angeles area. First, I asked him whether Jacobs was still with us, and he told me yes, that Jacobs, now in his 80s, still lives in the Palm Springs area.
Stadiem also told me he wasn’t exactly sure where any current negotiations were for the TV movie or documentary rights of “Mr. S.” He also wondered whether HBO would move ahead with two different documentaries about Sinatra.
Stadiem said he’d love to see the book made into a movie, “or perhaps, even better, a play.”
I hadn’t thought of that, but it could be adapted into a marvelous play for one or two
characters, or a full-blown cast. And then perhaps that work could be filmed.
Today, on the 15th anniversary of Sinatra’s death, the life and legacy of the man and his many contradictions -- let alone his music -- still resonates for millions of us.
It’s clear that for all his success, he spent most of his life like many of us. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ever since he was born, Sinatra was desperately seeking shelter from the storm.
More than three decades after its debut created a seismic shift in the pop culture landscape, it can be very easy to forget that MTV still stands for music television.
That also makes it surprising to learn that 1,200 hours of music videos are aired each week across the Viacom family of networks, including MTV, CMT, and VH1, that reach 100 million homes in TV-land and 60 million online via digital and social screens. It's a universe that encompasses MTV Hits, MTV Jams, MTV Buzzworthy, MTV Hive, VH1 Soul, VH1 Tuner, CMT Pure, CMT Edge and Palladia.
That is the framework upon which the network is trying something new -- by going back to its roots and focusing on musical artists across a broad spectrum of genres and levels of experience.
It's a concept called the artist opportunity hub that has been percolating in soft launch/beta mode since the VMAs last fall. Basically, artists could come in and create platform pages for themselves on artists.mtv.com, artists.vh1.com or artists.cmt.com -- an “inside” network that has already received significant traffic and engagement with videos without any real marketing -- to the tune of 2.3 million visitors in April, according to comScore.
Now the model is kicking into a new phase and includes access to many other large-scale opportunities to reach a broad audience and to generate revenue.
First and foremost, there is the opportunity for artists to get their videos aired on the networks, which has always been a tricky process in the past involving record labels, managers, publicists or other music industry connections who have traditionally operated the star-making machinery.
MTV, VH1 and CMT’s music teams will evaluate videos based on the number of eyeballs and fan interaction on each artist’s page. Selected artists will receive an email that their video has been viewed and then will be notified when and where it will go into video rotation.
Much like the blind auditions on NBC's "The Voice,” where it's all about unfiltered talent, the process is more egalitarian than “who you know.” It means that music fans, especially tastemaker fans who rally around emerging artists, will play a critical role in helping to identify artists that are strongly resonating within different fan and genre pockets.
In a digital sense, it still is about who you know, as Shannon Connolly, the SVP of Digital Music Strategy for Viacom Music and Logo Group, explained to us.
“The more you drive people to your content, the more we listen to you, and that's how you get into our programs," she says. "If you can mobilize your fan base, that’s how we notice you.”
And it's not just about playing music videos. It's about having songs chosen that go into popular shows like "Awkward," thus providing another platform from which emergent talent can grow.
If that sounds like what happened with some unknown bands whose music was featured in commercials and elevated their careers, yes, there is also an advertising element that will come into play as the concept evolves.
"With the launch of this hub, we have the potential to work with brands to help find the artist that best suits their needs and goals and then create custom campaigns with tremendous scale that could play out across all of our platforms and screens," Connolly says.
Although the hub launched without a sponsor, she says having the “right” brands connect -- and you can imagine there are a slew of them -- is a huge part of the strategy.
“We believe it will be a primary part of the revenue stream for artists in the next 5-10 years. We have the platforms and scale to integrate artists into campaigns, and it becomes a really powerful opportunity,” says Connolly.
At the same time, she says that Viacom wants to stay focused on the artists, wanting them to feel there’s someone behind the curtain, that they’re not submitted into a black hole.
The corporate philosophy, Connolly explains, is that artists should get paid and participate in the revenue.
"The rev share model percentage of Spotify, YouTube and some of the others doesn't really yield payouts to artists that are meaningful. The industry purposefully is taking a rev share approach that isn’t sufficient," she says. "Because we’re advertising-based, we have other ways of making money. We will have a tip jar that allows fans to leave tips to artists. As for commerce, they'll be able to sell merchandise on our page. For us, it's about creating success stories.”
As for the fans, they will have several participatory opportunities coming up shortly that will demonstrate the digitally democratic nature of the new venture.
They will get to determine two musical acts who get a slot to play at the three-day Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, which runs May 17-19.
The festival’s lineup includes Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, the Black Crowes, the Shins, Public Enemy, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kings of Leon.
“Working with Artists.MTV/VH1/CMT, we’re giving music fans an unmatched voice in giving two emerging artists this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play the festival,” said Shaul Zislin, founder of the Hangout Music Fest, in announcing the two winners as Americana group Banditos and folk/blues/pop duo Johnnyswim.
Reps for both bands say they’re incredibly grateful to the artist opportunity hub for providing the support, and the opportunity. Banditos came in through CMT and Johnnyswim through the VH1 platform.
Similarly, the opening act for country music artist Hunter Hayes at his New York City show in June will also be crowd-sourced. The list of potential opening acts will be narrowed down to ten, with the Grammy-nominated Hayes then personally selecting the opening act.
"The vetting process may change, but the intent is to be very valuable to the artists," Connolly says. “We’re going to learn as we go.”
A mobile app for the artists’ platforms is planned to launch this summer. Sounds like sweet music to the ears of artists -- and their as yet untold audiences.
'SNL' Guru Lorne Michaels Steps Out From Behind the Scenes -- and Spills Secrets From the Other Side of the Curtain
With the exception of his brief but fairly regular cameos on “Saturday Night Live,” executive producer Lorne Michaels is a man who prefers to work behind the scenes, someone who doesn’t normally seek the spotlight.
But as one of the most powerful producers in the business, he was the laser focus of attention at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, in the hot seat alongside one of the many comedic actors whose careers he has nurtured over nearly four decades, moderator Martin Short.
There were no laser cat videos being pitched by eager young comedians. The occasion was the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Newsmaker Luncheon, “Comedy on TV,” held April 16. Normally a confab where the wealth is spread among networks and producers, this was a one-man show, and deservedly so.
Michaels’ entire career, going back to his days as a young writer on NBC's “Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In” and projecting forward next year to his stewardship of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” has been all about getting laughs.
Funny enough, the last time Michaels had been in the room was when two others on his multitudinous list of proteges -- Tina Fey and Amy Poehler -- killed it as hosts of this year's Golden Globe Awards.
The capacity crowd -- several of whom were heard remarking on the way in that this was the most highly anticipated HRTS luncheon conversation of the year -- was treated to an opening clip reel that featured classic “SNL” moments and characters and bits from Michaels-produced films, including "Wayne's World," "Mean Girls" and "Tommy Boy."
The clips led into more than an hour of the Michaels brand of candor and wit, along with some zingers from Short, obviously an expert himself in the comedy department.
Both men have their humor roots in Canada. Michaels first worked as a writer and producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, while Short plied his trade on Canada’s SCTV Comedy Network, which initially brought him to the attention of "SNL" producers in the early 1980s.
Michaels moved to Los Angeles from Toronto in 1968 and worked on “Laugh-In,” but left the West Coast for New York in 1975 to start “SNL” and founded his production company, Broadway Video, in 1979. He's been closely identified with the Big Apple ever since. But those hoping for any inside scoop about the new East Coast-based “Tonight Show” didn't get much, as most of the discussion focused on Michaels’ helming of NBC's long-running Saturday night comedy sketch series.
"I'm proud to call him my friend. Even if he is successful and rich," Short started in, before engaging Michaels in a discussion about how “SNL” handled tragic real-life events like Newtown and 9/11. (Left unspoken was how the Boston Marathon explosions will be handled in the next new edition, which won’t be for several weeks.)
Michaels recalled having then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani on after 9/11 and asking him, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani’s well-known retort: “Why start now?”
“It was an icebreaker, but he had started grinning in rehearsals, knowing he was going to do the joke. He couldn’t stop smiling,” Michaels said. “I had to glare at him so he wouldn’t.”
“We deal with things that are much bigger than comedy and showbiz. Gilda [Radner] used to say if you just watched cable, you wouldn’t know if World War III started, but we’re broadcast, and you have to deal with it.”
Then Short asked what seemed like a basic question: Why does the show have to be live?
“We go on not because we’re ready, but because it’s 11:30,” Michaels answered. “Everyone falls into line in service of the show. If you were doing takes, it would be endless and would spiral out of control.”
Reflecting back on “SNL’s” beginnings, he said it was about not having a pilot and all that involved. “Overthinking was eliminated,” he said, a strategy that holds to his philosophy today. “Dress rehearsal is the great leveler. We don’t sweeten anything,” he said proudly about vetoing any use of canned laugh tracks.
Short and Michaels also took a walk down memory lane with some of the great talent the show has spawned -- Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Will Ferrell, Fey, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Poehler, Conan O’Brien, David Spade, Steve Martin, Jim Belushi, Jimmy Fallon -- the list is seemingly endless. And it was during that discussion that Michaels revealed one of his greatest regrets.
Missing out on Jim Carrey.
It seems that after giving up total control, meaning, hiring a rank of producers beneath him, said producers passed on Carrey’s audition, with Michaels being none the wiser at the time. Oops. Big oops.
Even as cast members have moved on to huge comedy careers, there is great job security for the crew -- and no age discrimination. Announcer Don Pardo is 95, Michaels said, and lighting director Phil Hyms is 90.
Although claiming that “we don’t attack our own [cast], normally,” he admitted an incident in which Eddie Murphy was criticized by David Spade during the show for one of his movies that bombed -- and how Murphy called and railed about it for half an hour. “You’re standing on my shoulders,” he told Spade. “I regret it,” Michaels said about the Murphy diss. “But there were a lot of things we didn’t do,” he admitted.
“Let’s list them,” Short interjected, to the appreciative laughter of the crowd. But no go.
As for keeping up with cultural and industry changes, Michaels said it’s hardest for him with music, a big change from the early days of the program in the late 1970s and 80s when he knew every cut off every album of each featured artist -- and noted that it was different talent than would have been booked on the “Tonight Show” of the time.
He also noted that no one had publicists then.
One thing that’s remained the same: Sketches that have been worked on all week -- or longer -- get cut at the last minute and the people in them get upset. “You’ve invited your friends and family, and then you’re not even on, until the hugs and schmoozing under the final credits.”
“It isn’t fair,” Michaels said, summing up “SNL,” showbiz -- and life. “People’s feelings get hurt.”
Short asked the question on everyone’s mind in Burbank and Hollywood, about why “The Tonight Show” is moving to New York when Fallon takes it over from Jay Leno next year.
“Now with air travel, stars come to New York,” Michaels said, drolly -- and Short retorted, “But it’s included.”
“People’s opinions of the city are different now,” Michaels said, before reflecting on how he came to Gotham as a teenager and was in the studio audience when Jack Paar hosted “Tonight” in the City That Never Sleeps.
“It was magic -- and Hugh Downs and the band did a warmup and the audience was in a frenzy.”
Looks like Michaels plans to re-create that magic, from his comfortable home of many decades at Rockefeller Center. No laugh tracks required.
Just when you thought movie awards season ended with the Oscars and kudo-attention shifted to the Emmys, along come the MTV Movie Awards to shower last year's films with golden popcorn trophies.
The awards show, which aired live from Sony Pictures Studios Sunday, April 14 -- and will be repeated numerous times on MTV -- also acts as a great promotional opportunity for upcoming blockbusters to reach their target audience.
"The Hunger Games." "Fast and Furious." "Iron Man." "Star Trek.” The sequels to those tentpoles all got prime play during the telecast with talent from each film introducing teaser trailers, nearly overshadowing the awards themselves.
The show was also an opportunity for host Rebel Wilson to become known to a wider audience. Wilson, who starred in last year’s “Pitch Perfect,” used her weight and her nationality -- some consider her the Australian Melissa McCarthy -- for a brand of Down Under humor of the below-the-belt variety.
It all got off to a fun start with a wink and a nod to the pitfalls and precipices of hosting an awards show, personified by none other than Oscar host with the least James Franco.
In a raunchy taped bit, Franco, currently starring in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” confronted Wilson in the real Oz, the Australian outback, with the offer to emcee MTV, and put her in an Iron Man suit to fly halfway across the world to Culver City.
And kaboom. She landed in a plume of smoke on a soundstage dressed and creatively set-designed for the occasion, as the cable network always does so well for its kudocasts.
Wilson herself walked away with several awards, including Breakthrough Performance, one of a series of unique categories like Best WTF Moment, Best Shirtless Performance, Best Fight and the always popular Best Kiss.
That went to Bradley Cooper and Katniss Everdeen -- oops, wrong movie -- Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper also took Best Male perf for his role and during his acceptance speech, made a plea for taking better care of war veterans returning with emotional and psychological problems.
When it comes to MTV Movie’s honorary awards, things can also get pretty serious -- and even a little teary.
Emma Watson took the Trailblazer Award, reflecting on how bad her hair looked in the first “Harry Potter” movie and how she was always the girl in school to first raise her hand and was teased mercilessly. "You've allowed me to grow,” she told the crowd and advised them that anything can happen if you put your heart into something.
Jamie Foxx, anointed with the Generation Award by "Django Unchained" co-star Kerry Washington, wore a Justice for Trayvon Martin T-shirt that alluded to the recent firing of a Florida police training officer who put drawings of the slain black teenager on targets.
Foxx gave a special shout-out to director Oliver Stone, who was the first to hire him for a feature film ("Any Given Sunday") when the actor only had experience in television. “I feel like I'm just starting," Foxx said and mentioned that he was directing a new Syfy series to add to his acting and musical repertoire.
With Will Ferrell, presented with the Comedic Genius award by “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage, there was nothing serious said, and perhaps some feathers ruffled when, clad in a suit apparently fashioned of dollar bills, he called his family up to the stage and brought out an Asian woman and multiple children he said were theirs.
Unless this relates to the new “Anchorman” movie, which it very well may, it completely bombed -- and Ferrell should've stuck to his jokes like he always wanted to wake up in the morning and dress himself like Dennis Rodman. There was also a bit he did with actress Aubrey Plaza that didn't hit its mark.
It was left to Wilson to re-inject some comedy with her portrayals of an unwanted character, Head Whore, trying to upstage Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables” and as fierce tiger Richard Parker in “Life of Pi,” battling on the boat with Pi.
The grand finale -- MTV’s version of best movie -- was presented by Brad Pitt, with the opportunity to promote his “World War Z.” The award went to another film whose sequel is also heading down the pike, "The Avengers," whose Tom Hiddleston also took the Best Villain trophy for his role as Loki.
And it was as Iron Mangina that Wilson blasted off to end the show, cementing her status as best female Australian awards show host, sometimes confused with British chanteuse Adele -- or Melissa McCarthy.
Walking Back to the Future
The resemblance was uncanny.
She looked remarkably like Payton,
A girl whom I had had a crush on
Like Forrest had on Jenny.
Back then we were both seventeen
Studying romantic poets in the spring.
She paid me no mind, of course,
Which made my uncomfortable longing even worse.
I was reminded of this last week,
While taking my son on college tours back East,
Discovering student docents walking backwards dangerously fast.
Not a job for the weak or those with the wrong technique.
How odd this backwards walking
As these undergraduate guides do their non-stop talking,
Avoiding obstacles and precipices
While explaining freshman meal choices.
It was sunny and cool in Just-spring again,
As we were in Amherst on this particular tour,
Home of not cummings but Frost and his poetic vigour
On a campus marked by hills and more than one glen.
The guide who reminded me so much of Payton
Showed us the Robert Frost Library, so-named because he had taught at the college so often,
And she told us that President Kennedy had given a moving speech in which the poet was feted
During a dedication ceremony that took place a month before JFK was assassinated.
I remembered a poem by Frost I had known in my youth, called “Wind and the Window Flower”:
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the caged yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flowers leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
While I was looking up this poem again on the Internet, to get all of its words right, I found the following comment about it posted by someone in the Philippines. It’s not exactly how I had interpreted the poem:
"I think the poem talks about a man or a boy who was attracted to a very pretty woman (when we say flower, it means beauty ).. so the girl must really be beautiful. Problem was, the girl must be some kind of heavily guarded and watched.. must be a daughter of a rich couple.. never allowed to talk to anyone not of her kind.. so the boy just watched her from afar.. and the girl also just watched the boy from through her window.. eventually, they managed to talk to each other but they were caught by the guards.. thus the line: and the breeze was found the next morning a hundred miles away..The boy must have been arrested and put in prison.. A SAD ENDING to a great love story."
Payton, as I recall, hadn’t really liked the poem at all, and blew me off as well.
Now the campus tour was over and we were asked if we thought our comely guide was swell,
Including if her walking backward prowess was OK or just pell-mell.
Later my son, who, unlike me, is not a wordsmith impostor,
Confessed that yes, he had a small crush on our tour guide, the girl who walked back to the future.#
Amongst them, they have hits ranging from "Girls" to "Hatfields & McCoys," "Game of Thrones" to "Duck Dynasty," “Southland” to “Dallas” and lucrative reruns of comedies including "Seinfeld" and "The Office."
The big topics of discussion as Nancy Dubuc, Michael Lombardo and Steve Koonin -- the presidents of A+E Networks, HBO and Turner Entertainment Networks, respectively -- took center stage at the HRTS State of the Cable Network Business newsmaker luncheon were the changing habits of the viewing audience and the branding of each of their respective networks.
Their conversation, moderated by former NBC entertainment chief and founder and chairman of Electus Ben Silverman, took place Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, where a sold-out TV industry crowd paid rapt attention.
Most notably, cable networks are more aware that audiences are binge viewing, especially when it comes to series. Who amongst us hasn't done it, or known someone who watched all 12 Season 2 "Homeland" episodes over a weekend? Or similarly immersed themselves in multiple installments of “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” or “The Newsroom”?
That was the Netflix strategy when it recently released 13 episodes -- a full season -- of its original series “House of Cards” at once, a move that created a lot of buzz yet whose success is unknown -- as the company has declined to release any numbers to date. If past behavior is indicative of future activity, we may never know the actual stats, although the perception is that this was a game changer.
Still, the timeworn television traditions of appointment viewing and water cooler conversations are not to be dismissed of yet by the people who oversee cable programming.
“It’s a showy thing to do but I’m not sure it is the best way to connect the viewer,” Lombardo said of the Netflix move. “Our hope is ‘Game Of Thrones’ becomes a Sunday expectation -- we want to drive viewers to a night. It is about content that resonates. If people don’t respond, all these other conversations are meaningless.”
The panelists agreed that cable -- basic and pay -- has become a place where passionate storytellers from the feature world have migrated, albeit for less money and more creative freedom.
“The paradigm has shifted; serious adult drama is happening on cable. That’s what people talk about on Monday -- it’s the cable show they saw, not the movies anymore,” Lombardo said.
“Netflix has to become HBO before HBO becomes Netflix,” remarked Silverman, who also cited the huge numbers of eyeballs on Google’s YouTube as a trend affecting the current marketplace.
Each of the networks finds branding a challenge. "Our networks are named after a founder -- Ted Turner -- while others, like History or Comedy Central, describe the content,” Koonin said before describing how TBS went for the tagline "very funny" and TNT aims to be known for drama with originals and syndicated programming. "We have to constantly define ourselves and consistently deliver."
Dubuc has successfully steered History into the new territory of scripted, following the blockbuster miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys" with this past weekend's premieres of "Vikings" and "The Bible," which also found large audiences, paying off on the risk and expense of producing them.
“Our growth is all ad-driven, with three mature businesses,” she said, referring to A&E, History and Lifetime.
Lombardo noted that HBO cannot monetize its shows the way the others do, but can move the dial a bit in DVD and international. “We’re in a good position of owning our own content, but the off-market for highly serialized programming is challenging,” he said, while acknowledging that theatricals are still a huge part of the pay channel’s appeal, acounting for 75-80% of viewing.
As for the future, no matter the platform or the method, the panelists agreed that high-quality content is what resonates.
“The interesting thing about the digital world is that everyone is changing the rules. There are no rules anymore,” Lombardo said. “What’s the rulebook today will not be the rulebook in six months.”
Anne Hathaway had the crowd going when she dramatically announced, "We should all take a moment of silence …," took a long pause, and then continued, "for the more than 100 disco balls that died for the sake of my dress."
It was a comment that may have missed its mark comedically -- Hathaway, a recent "Saturday Night Live" host, bowed to the greater expertise of Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph there -- but her comment was perfectly appropriate within the context of the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards.
Actor and comedian Joel McHale hosted the gala, held Tuesday, Feb. 19, in the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom.
Awards season regulars call it the most fun and loose of the guild presentations, which, with the exception of the Screen Actors Guild ceremony, are not televised, and therefore foster a much wider swath of freedom of speech.
The Costume Designers Guild hands out awards for costume design excellence in seven categories in film, television and commercials, as well as four honorary statues.
Hathaway was honored with the LACOSTE Spotlight Award, which was presented by her “Les Miserables” co-star, Russell Crowe, in a rare public appearance.
"I did a lot of research on Anne. She originally wanted to be a nun, but ditched that idea because she wouldn't be part of an organization that couldn't love her gay brother," Crowe said.
"She measures everything with her heart,” he said in introducing a clip reel that showcased the costumes she wore in films ranging from "The Princess Diaries" to "The Devil Wears Prada," “Brokeback Mountain” to "The Dark Knight Rises" and her latest and much acclaimed outing as Fantine in “Les Miz.”
"I have always wanted a crystal crocodile," Hathaway said in accepting the award.
Earlier in the evening, Rudolph, Poehler, “30 Rock” and “SNL” costume designer Tom Broecker and Steve Martin had lauded producer Lorne Michaels for receiving the Distinguished Collaborator Award. Rudolph reflected on her days at "SNL" when her costume changes went from Beyonce to Maya Angelou in the space of a commercial break.
"Lorne Michaels is a legend," Martin said. "Lorne Michaels does it all. He produces …" (insert audience laughter here) “... and I'm glad were not giving him a plaque, and that it's a trophy. Not one man in Hollywood wants a plaque wife. He wants a trophy wife."
Another honorary award went to Eduardo Castro, for career achievement in television, spanning 25 years of his work on shows including "Miami Vice," “Ugly Betty" and "Once Upon a Time."
Castro gave a lengthy acceptance speech that highlighted anecdotes from his career, beginning as a student at Carnegie Mellon and moving on to an apprenticeship at Western Costume before touching on other stories from his years as a costume designer -- a protracted speech that had McHale proclaiming “holy shit” when it finally ended.
Molly Maginnis kept her acceptance nice and tight when she took the prize for costume design in a contemporary television series for NBC’s “Smash.”
“Downton Abbey’s” Caroline McCall won the trophy for period/fantasy television series and Lou Eyrich got the award for made-for-TV movie or miniseries with "American Horror Story: Asylum, Season 2."
Judianna Makovsky took the stage twice, once for winning for commercial design with “Captain Morgan Black" and again in receiving the career achievement award in film for her work in pictures including "The Cotton Club," "Dick Tracy," "Big," "Lolita," "The Devil's Advocate," "Reversal of Fortune,” “Seabiscuit,” "Great Expectations” and "The Hunger Games."
Another highlight of the evening, presenter Shirley MacLaine, who called costume designers "intricate people who mess with your body" and "people who make the past live."
They also apparently get to keep whatever is left in the pockets of their costumes. Said McHale, “Edith Head made a fortune from black tar heroin she found."
To twist a popular line from the screenplay -- "I've never left anyone behind" -- "Argo” is apparently not leaving any awards behind. Chris Terrio added another one to the film’s trophy case by taking the award for best adapted screenplay at the 2013 Writers Guild Awards, which honor outstanding achievement in writing for film, television, radio, new media and video games.
"I'm so honored to be in the category," Terrio said of the competition for the prize, “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” before recalling the journey that led to this accolade. "When I started this in 2008, I couldn't pay my rent and I was living in New York and I had defaulted on my student loans. I had nothing, but I had my spec scripts, and I had my Guild card. And I can't tell you how that propped me up, to know that in a very lonely profession I was in the same club as all you guys."
Terrio’s award was handed out near the end of ceremonies Sunday night at the JW Marriott L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles. He also lauded fellow WGA member and “Argo” director, producer and actor Ben Affleck, who has recently racked up honors at BAFTA, DGA and PGA, as being kind and brilliant.
“Zero Dark Thirty’s” writer Mark Boal won the award for original screenplay, which was up against those for "Moonrise Kingdom,” "Flight," "Looper" and "The Master."
"I don't agree with pitting works of art against each other -- unless of course I'm the one getting the award -- but it's really lovely to get this from the WGA," he said before showering praise on the film’s director. "Unlike Ben Affleck, [director] Kathryn Bigelow came tonight. She led us to a place of truth and beauty, and there's no higher calling for an artist. I thank her for letting me be part of that vision."
Boal and Terrio are also nominated for Oscars in their respective screenplay categories. Several of their fellow Academy Award nominees were not eligible for WGAs under the Guild guidelines, including Quentin Tarantino's already acclaimed script for “Django Unchained.”
The WGA Awards are held concurrently on both coasts -- the New York confab taking place this year at the B.B. King Blues Club -- and the East was apparently a few steps ahead of the West, as several of the winners in Los Angeles were notified by their counterparts in New York before their names were announced.
That was the case for the writing staff of HBO’s “Girls," which won the hotly contested award for new series over two other HBO offerings, “The Newsroom” and "Veep,” in a field that also included Fox’s “The Mindy Project" and ABC’s "Nashville."
The Los Angeles ceremony was hosted by actor Nathan Fillion, star of "Castle," who started things off by saying if the audience didn't know him, their moms did. "I'm the face of your words, the one who goes out into the world where I take credit for them. Actors and writers don't always see eye to eyeglasses, but agree on one thing: Producers are dicks. I will land this awards show upside down if I have to."
West Coast presenters included Julie Bowen, Jane Lynch, Jessica Chastain, Steven Spielberg, Kate Walsh, Jacki Weaver, Rico Rodriguez, Anna Gunn, Alfred Molina, Matthew Weiner, Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and Tobey Maguire.
The honorary awards were especially prominent this year, and their recipients -- Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner, Phil Rosenthal, Dan Petrie Jr. and Joshua Brand and John Falsey were referred to several times throughout the evening as inspirations.
"Breaking Bad” continued its award-winning ways by taking the best drama series writing prize from competitors that included "Mad Men," "Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones" and "Homeland" -- a field that virtually defines the current golden age of television.
The comedy series trophy was also hotly tested with “Louie” winning out over last year's winner, "Modern Family," "Parks and Recreation," "Girls" and the recently retired "30 Rock.”
The WGA also recognizes individual episodes of drama and comedy, for which “Mad Men’s” Semi Chellas and Matt Weiner and “Modern Family’s” Elaine Ko took home trophies.
Two highly acclaimed longform programs took more honors, as the writers of History’s “Hatfields & McCoys” and HBO’s “Game Change” hoisted hardware.
While those wins for Ted Mann, Ronald Parker, Bill Kerby and Danny Strong might have been expected, a surprise came in the comedy/variety series category, when “Portlandia” won over “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Conan,” “Key & Peele” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
Perhaps the funniest line of the evening came during Fillion’s intro of a clip from one of the nominated screenplays. “It’s the story of a man who just wanted to spend a quiet evening at home with his family,” he said, as minds throughout the hotel ballroom raced to figure out to which one he was referring. ”Instead, Navy SEALS shot him in the eye.”
Netflix's 'House of Cards' Is Like a Twisting, Turning, Head-Spinning Roller Coaster Ride, and Just as Exhilarating. This Long Presidents' Day Weekend Is a Good Time to Binge-Watch Season One
I’ve always thought the best dramas usually have the nastiest of villains. Think “one-armed man” in the original TV series -- or the movie version -- of “The Fugitive.” Or the sicko killer named Scorpio in “Dirty Harry,” played with such sadistic brilliance by Andy Robinson that I still can’t get him out of my head 42 years after I first saw that movie.
Sometimes the nasty villain is the protagonist of the piece if not quite the hero. Think “Scarface” or “The Sopranos.”
One of the most popular TV figures ever was the cunning, scheming, Machiavellian J.R. Ewing of “Dallas” fame.
And now, thank the Lord, we have Kevin Spacey’s Francis “Frank” Underwood joining that elite group of sly, shrewd, serpentine operators who inhabit a consciousness that’s shady at best and maliciously sinful at worst. And these characters can make watching a TV show an absolute joy.
Frank is, well, seemingly frank when talking to his political colleagues, and genuinely frank whenever he’s breaking down the fourth wall and addressing the audience, a la the title character in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” The word underwood refers to the undergrowth -- the shrubs and such that make up the underbelly beneath the taller trees in a forest. It is there one finds most of the poisonous fungi and spores and disgusting spiders and insects.
Frank Underwood is the main character of “House of Cards,” the drama series that Netflix put up on its steaming service on Feb. 1, 2013. What makes this series unique is not just that it was made for Netflix, but that Netflix put up, at one time, all 13 episodes made for season one of the series. Eventually, Netflix will do the same for the upcoming season two of “House of Cards.”
This U.S. version of “House of Cards” is based on a beloved British series of the same name that originally aired in the U.K. in 1990. That miniseries, in turn, was based on the novel “House of Cards” by Michael Dobbs. Dobbs was chief of staff of the Conservative Party in Britain when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the 1980s. The main character of Dobbs’ novel (and the U.K. miniseries) is Francis Urquhart, the chief whip of the Conservative Party in Parliament. I have neither read the book nor seen the acclaimed U.K miniseries.
The U.S. version of the series translates all of the action to the shores of America, with the show’s center being inside the Beltway. Underwood is the whip in the House of Representatives for the just-elected Democratic majority. A number of media reports have said that among the original influences on Dobbs when writing his “House of Cards” novel were some of Shakespeare’s darkest dramas, such as “Richard III” and “Macbeth.”
This past weekend I binge-watched all 13 episodes of “House of Cards.” The show reminded me of a roller coaster: The first 8 episodes were the coaster making that anticipatory climb up that initial tall hill, and the last 5 were the thrill-a-second drops and twists and turns and loops.
Even better news if you haven’t watched “House of Cards” yet: You can skip episodes 3 and 8, and still understand all the shenanigans that happen during the last five episodes. Then, like watching bonus material on a DVD, after you finish watching episode 13, you can go back to episodes 3 and 8 if you wish, as they are basically character pieces fleshing out some of what Underwood is all about.
The reference to Underwood as Shakespearean-like seems to fit. The great actor Ian McKellen, who made a movie version of “Richard III,” has written, “It is an odd, critical commonplace that, despite so many performances to the contrary, Richard III is still accepted as an embodiment of pure evil. ... I was prepared to explore Richard's humanity rather than reduce him to an emblem of wickedness.
“All of Shakespeare's troubled heroes reveal their inner selves in their confidential soliloquies. These are not thoughts-out-loud, rather true confessions to the audience. Richard may lie to all the other characters but within his solo speeches he always tells the truth. I never doubted that in the film he would have to break through the fourth wall of the screen and talk directly to the camera, as to a confidant. If this unsettled the audience, so much the better. They should not be comfortable hearing his vile secrets and being treated as accomplices. They would also better appreciate the brilliance of his ability to fool, deceive and seduce his hapless victims. Men and women are all players to Shakespeare but Richard is a consummate actor.”
And thus it is so with Underwood’s asides to the audience. Interestingly, Spacey played Underwood almost immediately after he finished a 10-month tour playing Richard III all over the world.
Here’s Spacey addressing this point a few weeks ago on NPR’s “Weekend Saturday” with host Scott Simon. Spacey said, “Well, I actually am kind of enormously grateful that a year ago, I had the chance to do Richard III -- which this character was largely based on, from Michael Dobbs' original novel, and hence, why the direct address is employed. That was not Michael Dobbs' idea. … That happened to be William Shakespeare's idea.
“And so I had the experience of playing a character who does break the fourth wall. I don't think Richard has as much finesse as we're trying to give to Francis. He's just sort of slashing and burning, and the bodies are mounting up, in the course of that play. And while that experience was much more theatrical, and the requirements of doing the series are much subtler, I think it translated incredibly well. And I think it does have kind of those -- sort of epic Shakespearean storylines and archetypes, and relationships between characters that are very complicated and difficult. But for me, it's been a little bit like, this first season -- we've shot 13 -- it's been a little bit like playing 13 hours of a championship chess match.”
Simon then asked Spacey whether he has to like the character of Underwood to play him.
Spacey replied, “No. I've played many characters that I didn't necessarily care for. But I'm also quite careful about judging the characters that I play. I think that's a huge mistake...if you end up judging a character you're playing ….
"People who like to only color with black and white, it gets really boring after a while. 'Cause life is not like that. Life is complex, and the gray areas are far more interesting than the black and white areas. So I never think of characters as villains … villainy is not something you can play. It's not an active acting thing that you can do. It is a judgment about a character. And I can't judge the characters I play. I can only play them, and let the chips fall where they may.”
And Spacey plays Underwood to the hilt. Underwood is from South Carolina (though Spacey seems to lose his Southern accent on occasion -- Spacey grew up in California), and Spacey plays him as genteel as possible, though certainly not gentle. One of the pleasures of watching Underwood is seeing other characters getting skewered by his pretentious politeness.
In the interview with Simon, “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Willamon, who wrote or co-wrote all of this season’s episodes, also spoke of the connection between Underwood and Richard III: “If you look at all the things that Richard III does in black and white, is anyone really capable of liking him? But you find yourself glued to him. You find elements in him that you like because it allows you to access parts of yourself that you don't exhibit in your everyday behavior. There's a part of all of us that wishes we could, at times, be Richard III, or at times be Francis Underwood. And I think audiences have grown accustomed to that in a very sophisticated way, with characters like Tony Soprano or [“Breaking Bad’s”] Walter White. Why do we keep going back to these characters? Because they give us access to something. And it's that attraction, which is far more powerful than the black and white of likability, as it were.”
A tip of the hat to Willamon, for the Herculean job he's done on "House of Cards." A playwright best known for writing the political thriller “Farragut North” -- which was later made into the George Clooney vehicle “The Ides of March” -- Willamon has said that one of the best things he was able to do with “House of Cards” was write all 13 episodes before shooting began. That prevented him from writing himself into a corner as used to happen sometimes with the show “24,” as those scripts were being completed just a few weeks before being shot. Unfortunately, Willamon said he won’t be able to write all 13 episodes of season two before shooting of those episodes begins.
Two more things: the acting and directing of the series. Two acting standouts, besides Spacey, are Robin Wright, in one of her best roles, as Underwood’s enigmatic wife, Claire, and Kate Mara, who plays the reporter Zoe Barnes in the series. Another standout in the large and mostly superb cast is Michael Kelly, as Underwood's loyal "left"-hand man, Doug Stamper. He does indeed rubber stamp any nefarious plans Underwood makes.
Finally a word about the direction of the show. David Fincher directed the first two episodes and is listed as one of the show’s executive producers (along with Spacey, Willamon and many others). The critic David Thomson once said about the director that it is to “Fincher’s credit that his films take place somewhere beyond our edge -- yet in a recognizable extension of our nightmares.” He also notes that Fincher has an interest in film noir.
Fincher sets the tone in the very first scene of the series. No spoiler here, but it’s clear from that first scene that Fincher sees the noir potential in “House of Cards.”
Showrunner Willamon, in another interview, with News Corp.’s IGN Entertainment, said, “In terms of directors, David, of course, established a visual tone, a style. The actors do the heavy lifting of creating their roles in those first two episodes. I think they provided the following directors a frame in which to work. We had amazing directors. We had James Foley, Joel Schumacher, Charles McDougall, Carl Franklin, Allen Coulter ...”
Then Willamon added this about Fincher: “David was mostly based out of L.A., which is where the editing base was, out of his office. So all of our editors were working out of David’s offices in L.A., and the supreme advantage of that was David was personally overseeing the post process. Of course the directors were working on their own edits with the editors, but David was there to collaborate with them and play a part in that process and to make sure that the visual voice of the show remained consistent. He was involved heavily on every episode. He read every script, always had insightful thoughts and notes.
“Sometimes we would be on the phone with Kevin and do a four-hour jam session talking about two scripts down the line. [David] was looking at dailies every day and in direct communication with the directors. Whenever they had questions, he would direct them, I was there to talk with them about story and character development on my side of things, so it was a team effort and incredible collaboration, and his attention to the micro and macro simultaneously was unlike anything I have ever seen. I can’t imagine any other director in the history of television being quite as committed as David Fincher. Maybe they are out there, and maybe my knowledge of TV history just isn’t good enough, but he has an incredible work ethic, a savant-like knowledge of his craft and a vision and dedication that’s truly inspiring.”
My suggestion: With the Presidents' Day holiday coming up on Monday, what more appropriate time to binge-watch “House of Cards” on Netflix. As Shakespeare once wrote, “Something wicked this way comes.”
To which I paraphrase Henry Higgins -- and I think you will too, once you start watching this series: “How simply frightful. And how delightful!”