Nation, I’m not necessarily a big fan of Stephen Colbert’s blowhard-y right wing persona on “The Colbert Report,” (Jon Stewart is my late-night deity) but his on-location shows this week in Baghdad are something to watch—and congratulations are in order for taking his brand of comedy to the war zone for a four-night run.
Cleverly titled "Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando," Colbert began a week of entertaining the troops in one of Saddam Hussein’s many former palaces with a rollicking taped skit of him traveling overseas, not really knowing where he was going, and crossing various places off the list en route. It was only when a single shoe—and then a bunch—were thrown at him that the clueless pundit that he plays on TV realized where he was.
And then it was showtime for Colbert, sporting a camouflage suit and a brand new buzz cut, courtesy of his first guest, Gen. Ray Odierno—or Raymond’s for Men, as the comedian called it. In a nod to Bob Hope, he also carried a golf club.
The comedy was topical, not political—although the nation’s commander in chief made a taped appearance to thank the troops for their service. “You’re welcome,” Colbert said, to which the president responded, “I wasn’t talking to you.” Former President Clinton also dissed Colbert in a bit that started off straight.
The trip is sponsored by the USO, which has a storied history of bringing entertainers to American troops. (Proceeds from the sale of “The Colbert Report" this week on iTunes will benefit the service organization, which last year alone brought entertainment to nearly 250,000 troops stationed around the world.)
But despite all the levity, there is a serious purpose. Who’s talking about the war in Iraq these days? Sadly, since the election, it’s fallen off the media map, eclipsed by news about the economy, Speidi and Proposition 8. Lost in the loss of coverage is the service and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women in a war that’s now gone on for six years.
Mr. Colbert acknowledged that ugly truth about this very unpopular war. From behind a desk draped in the American flag and propped up by sandbags, he went for the funny bone: "By the power vested in me by basic cable, I officially declare we have won the Iraq war!"
While his audience roared their approval, the comedian deadpanned: "It must be nice here in Iraq because I understand some of you keep coming back again and again. You've earned so many frequent-flier miles, you've earned a free ticket to Afghanistan."
And Colbert—after his 10 hours of basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.—has earned his place in the hearts of the US military, and audiences at home.
"The Colbert Report" airs on Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m./10:30 p.m. Central
Listen, here’s how it came down:
2:30 a.m. The baby started screaming, "ba-bah, ba-bah."
Hours earlier our 6-year-old daughter had come in our room and woke us with the news that her tummy hurt. My wife had gone to her room to put her back to bed and fell asleep on our daughter’s extra bed.
So I went downstairs and fixed our baby’s ba-bah and then fed him from his warm bottle.
By then it was 3 a.m.—six in the morning back east—so I went back downstairs and fired up the computer and sent Tom Gilbert, our executive editor in New York, an email. He was compiling our morning TVBizWire and I asked him how it was going.
Slow going this morning he said, so I went surfing the ‘net to help him. I found a candid interview the LA Times had done with Mike Fleiss. The timing was good because this season’s edition of his "Bachelor/Bachelorette" franchise had just ended.
When asked why we’d had more "Bachelor" editions over the years than "Bachelorette" ones, he said it was because women have a stronger passion in pursuing guys than guys do gals. According to Fleiss, guys will just shrug their shoulders and say, “Forget that chick. Let’s go to Hooters.”
The baby started crying again and I went back upstairs to quiet him. I fell back to sleep for about 15 minutes when the alarm woke me up again.
I called Tom and asked him if we were ready for my live blogging at the TCA. I’d never done that. Back when I was reporting regularly, blogs were a thing of the future. But now everyone was doing them. Piece of cake, I thought. And I was pretty excited about the session I had chosen to blog live about: Joan Rivers, who was going to be promoting her new show on TV Land, “How’d You Get So Rich?”
I’d only talked to Rivers once before, back in 1994 when I interviewed her on the set of her syndicated show “Can We Shop? ” I guess she specializes in shows that have question marks in the title. As I recall the interview, she was pretty funny. It centered around her talking to some guy who was pushing something to do with cleaning toilets.
I got dressed and ran out of the house and drove the 30 minutes to Pasadena and the Television Critic’s Association’s Press Tour—the TCA.
I ran inside, got myself comfortable, and realized something was terribly wrong. I called Tom.
You’re not going to believe this, I told him, I forgot my laptop.
There was silence on the other end of the phone and then, “That could be a problem.”
"No, no. I’ve got a solution. I’m gonna do it from my iPhone."
“I don’t think that’ll work,” Tom said.
"No, no, it’ll be fine. This thing’s really a damn computer. And I’m quite facile with typing on it."
“What are you talking about?. Everyone hates that virtual keyboard it has.”
"Trust me. We’ll be fine."
He had to go to into a short meeting. I couldn’t get hold of our tech support guy, and there really wasn’t anyone else around at TVWeek to help me.
As many of you know, Joe Adalian, our editor, quit a few weeks ago. I haven’t had a chance to replace him yet, which is why I’m here reporting from the TCA in the first place.
So I called my mom. She’s 83 and lives up in Northern California. Believe it or not, she’s pretty savvy on a computer.
“Hi hon, “ she said. “You’re calling me early.”
I explained that I was live blogging from the TCA and needed her to go on our Web site to see if anything that I was blogging was showing up.
“What’s it going to say?” she asked.
"It’ll be about Joan Rivers."
“Ohhh,” she laughed, “That’ll be fun.”
"OK, Mom, call me back when you see I’ve written something." We hung up.
Larry Jones, president of TV Land, came out and started speaking. I was waiting for Joan.
I looked around the room. Glancing behind me I spotted James Hibberd. The Hibberdmeister. Live blogger extraordinaire. The Live Feed. He had honed his skills at our shop and then abandoned us. OK, OK, there might also have been the issue of more money and a more Hollywood-centric publication. So he’s now with The Hollywood Reporter. I think I saw him touch his keyboard. Oh, for crying out loud, what the hell is he saying. Should I be blogging something yet?
Jones showed a clip of Joan’s show. It was funny.
Rivers came out. She was funny—and nasty, of course—right off the bat. “We were originally going to sell this to the Food Network and it was going to be called ‘How’d you get fatter than a fifth of an acre?’ with Kristie Alley.”
I typed furiously on my iPhone virtual keyboard, and then called my mom.
“No, honey. Wait, here it comes. ‘Rivers says shoe first offered to Fudd Network.' ”
"Oy. Anything else."
“No. Oh, yes, here it is. 'Show was called How do u get fatter than a fifth grader?' ”
Tom was right. Live blogging from my iPhone wasn’t going to work. "Thanks, Mom."
I glanced around. Hibberd was typing away. I was sure it was great stuff.
Maybe I should try again. Rivers was having a great time, as if she was onstage in Vegas. She was dropping f-bombs all over the place. She was referring to her show as “How’d They Get So F---ing Rich?” Then she said that following her show was going to be “ 'How’d You Get So F---ing Poor,' hosted by the Madoffs.”
Again, I typed furiously. Just as I finished, my phone vibrated. It was Tom.
“You just wrote F-u-c-k-i-n-g. Is that OK?”
"As long as I don’t hear from my mom."
My iPhone vibrated again and showed that another number was trying to reach me. I recognized it as my mom’s. "Tom, I gotta go."
“Honey, you just wrote F-u-c-k-i-n-g. Is that OK?”
"It is if Hibberd did it too."
"Mom, I gotta go."
I hung up. I had no idea what Hibberd was writing. I just knew it must be good.
Rivers was now telling a story about a guy who became a gazillionaire in the toilet cleaning business. What’s with this woman? It’s 15 years since I last saw her and again with the toilets.
Rivers couldn’t believe what some of the people do who she’d interviewed for her new show. “One of them I love is Hoffman,” she was saying. “You know you blow bubbles … (the wand) makes a bubble. This guy made [a wand] that makes five bubbles. You understand? Big f---ing deal.” She paused and then delivered the punch line: “Lives next to Barbra Streisand.
I was typing furiously again on my iPhone. Just as I finished, it vibrated once more.
“You just typed it again. Has your mom noticed?”
"Yes, but maybe Hibberd’s doing it too. Try and find out and call me back."
Joan was on a roll: “Do you understand? I’m not making a lie.” She was still talking about the five bubble wand guy. “His dog’s got a psychiatrist. He has a woman come in, and you can’t laugh because you’re filming you know. ‘Hmm, this looks interesting.’ And she’s making the dog feel relaxed. How much more relaxed can you be? You can lick your balls. I don’t know what more you want.”
The room erupted in laughter. I was typing feverishly on my iPhone. Again, it vibrated. It was my mom.
“I’m confused. Is it the dog that’s licking its balls?”
My phone vibrated yet once more while she was speaking. It was Tom. I told my mom to hold on.
"Yes, Tom. Find out about what Hibberd’s blogging?"
“No. But it just occurred to me that you never actually gave me that Fleiss item this morning, so we never posted it.”
I told Tom just a minute, hit a virtual botton on the phone and started to talk again to my mom.
"You’re confused about what? The dog?"
“It’s me, Tom. No, I’m not confused about the dog. I want to know about the Fleiss item”
"Hold on." Then I hit another of the phone's virtual buttons and said, "Mom, I’ll explain about the dog in a minute. Hold on." Hitting yet another button I said, "Tom, we'll use it this afternoon. I love the line about chasing gals at Hooters."
“No, honey, it’s mom. So these dogs lick their balls and chase girls at Hooters? That’s one crazy reporter's job you have.”
At that moment I dropped my phone. As I bent over to pick it up I saw this beautiful woman go up to Hibberd and say, “Love your blog. Do you Tweet?”
Son of a gun.#
The three cornerstones of American popular culture are the movies, music and TV. This announcement I’m speaking of hits on two of the three: movies and TV.
The only thing that excites me more than a terrific TV show is a wonderful movie. I was raised on TV—and movies ON television—which were a staple when I grew up in Los Angeles. The local CBS owned and operated station in LA, then called KNXT, had a great late-night movie program on weekends: “The Fabulous ’52.” Over on Channel 9, KHJ,.the RKO TV outlet, it was the nightly “Million Dollar Movie.”
Of course you had to put-up with a gazillion commercials, but there were all the stars of the 40s that my mom and uncle were always telling me about: Bogart, Cagney, Davis, Bergman and many more.
And what great storytelling. The history of America, Hollywood-style, in our living room every night, in glorious black & white.
Then, of course, syndication of TV shows came in, and, for the most part, bye-bye movies.
But in 1994, something magical happened. Ted Turner, who, in a few moments of mad folly, had almost put himself out of business by buying MGM and its incredible film library, came up with a really great idea. The showing of these movies, these gems of our culture, these incredible examples of great storytelling, on a TV channel with no commercials. And they’d be shown uncut and in their original screen ratio, just as originally released.
Furthermore, he asked one of my former colleagues when I was at The Hollywood Reporter, Bob Osborne, to be one of the hosts on this new channel. What a great choice! Ever since I’ve known Bob he’s been a big fan of and advocate of preserving, older movies. I was living in New York back in the 1990s, and every now and again Bob and I would get together to see old movies at one of the few movie theaters that would show them. Unfortunately, there are even fewer theaters that show older films on a regular basis today.
Though, thank goodness, these movies can be found on the channel Turner started. The channel, of course, is Turner Classic Movies, better known as TCM. As Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss said of it earlier this year, “For anyone who believes that the first hundred years of movies possess treasures that the last few years can't touch — and that's most of the professional film folks I know — TCM is an utterly essential part of the culture, our own American cinematheque.”
And, now, here’s the news: TCM is going high definition. Finally. For now, it’s not true high definition, it’s just going to upconvert its current signal.
For those of you who might not think this is a big deal, it really is. For many of us with big high definition TVs, the standard def signal from TCM has just not been satisfactory.
My service provider doesn’t have TCM HD yet, but Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, tells me that the picture is markedly better.
Oddly, TCM itself has said almost nothing about this milestone. Clearly it wants to manage expectations, and most likely getting the channel in real HD is at least months away, if not significantly longer—Tabesh claimed to have no information on that front.
Most of the information about TCM HD has been on the technical oriented AVS Forum, where one of the participants, named Tybee, broke the story. Here’s one of his excited postings from last month:
"Had dinner with one of my friends at TCM last night. He was very excited about the HD rollout. As you would expect, he said they're in the midst of setting up as many carriage agreements as they can. Some things he passed along:
- Cablevision was indeed the first to pick up the channel.
- Time Warner has already signed to carry the channel in some small markets.
- The good news: EVERYTHING WILL BE SHOWN IT ITS ORIGINAL ASPECT RATIO. No stretching. No cropping. No exceptions.
- The bad news: For right now, everything is being upconverted, rather than being shown in native HD. This is temporary (a year or two?) and as my friend pointed out (and has been discussed here) the material still looks worlds better than it does on the SD channel."
Then, a few weeks ago, came this posting from user mbd, who actually was getting TCM HD through Cablevision:
"After a week of living with TCM-HD, some thoughts.
1. Most of what they are broadcasting seems to be upconverted, but it looks night and day better than TCM-SD on my 55" 1080i living room tv.
2. 1.37 films are being shown in their original aspect ratio.
Overall, I am happy with the channel. TCM-SD was very over compressed on Cablevision, the HD version is not."
In a few weeks a lot more people will have a lot more to say about TCM HD, because it will debut next month in Time Warner’s cable system in Manhattan.
I know there are a lot of you out there who have no use for old black and white movies. Do me a favor. TCM is running a great series this month, showing movies from one of the greatest years of movies, 1939. This Friday, July 31, at 9 am ET (6 am on the Pacific coast) it’s airing “Midnight,” made in 1939.
My guess is that most of you have never heard of this comedy. Please, set your DVRs to record it. It’s got a wonderful cast—Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, John Barrymore and Don Ameche, was directed by someone even those who like old films don’t know too much about—Mitchell Leisen, and was written by two of the great ones—Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.
It’s the kind of movie you’re only going to find on TCM. Lemme know what you think about it.#
One of the oddest items I’ve read lately about NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics was this sentence from SportsGrid.com: “The numbers [meaning ratings] are working in [NBC’s] favor, even if public opinion is not.”
It’s nonsensical. The loudest shouting of public opinion, with regards to TV, is measured by a program’s ratings.
And by that measure, NBC’s coverage of the Games in London was an overwhelming success. Just looking at prime time, the London Olympics averaged 31.1 million viewers, according to TVByTheNumbers, making it the most-watched non-U.S. Summer Games in 36 years. That figure topped the Beijing Games four year ago by 12% and the Athens Olympics, in 2004, by 26%.
Those ratings represent a huge win for NBC and its entire Olympics team. Kudos especially to NBC’s Olympics guru Dick Ebersol, who’s been the architect of NBC’s Olympics coverage for years -- and whose assistance in London was his swan song from the network -- and to Ebersol’s successor as NBC Sports chairman, Mark Lazarus.
A lot of the criticism of NBC’s Olympics coverage came from Twitter and #nbcfail. According to a Storify.com examination of #nbcfail, here are the top 8 ways NBC blew its coverage (starting with the 8th reason and leading up to the No. 1 reason):
Top Eight Ways NBC Blew Its Coverage of the Olympics, According to #nbcfail
8. Requesting Twitter "discipline" a vocal critic
7. Condescending to critics
6. Cutting an Opening Ceremony tribute to terrorism victims for ... Ryan Seacrest
5. Requiring a cable subscription to view online
4. Stupid commentary
3. Failing at geography ... and social studies ... and ...
2. Cutting content for commercials
1. Tape-delaying what the rest of the world watched live
Most of these are rather minor infractions. Regarding NBC’s attempt to “discipline” a vocal critic, NBC is guilty as charged. Stupid to try to do this, but media companies are surprisingly thin-skinned.
NBC is condescending to critics. Critics can also be surprisingly thin-skinned.
Cutting part of the Opening Ceremony to go to Ryan Seacrest was an editorial decision that one can certainly argue about.
Requiring a cable subscription to view online was a business decision. Given the millions NBC paid for the rights to these Games, it was NBC’s decision to make.
Stupid commentary. Well, when you have practically non-stop coverage for two solid weeks of sporting events, it’s a given that some of it will be riddled with clichés and stupid remarks. None was more stupid than announcer Bob Fitzgerald’s unfortunate foot-in-mouth comment identifying Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg (a character Eisenberg played in the movie “The Social Network”). At the same time, it was a pretty funny, entertaining gaffe.
The mispronunciation of names and places is almost a given at an international event such as the Olympics. From where I sat, I thought there was a lot less of this than in past Olympics.
The No. 1 and No. 2 complaints -- the fact that most of what we watched was tape-delayed and not commercial free -- really go to the crux of how NBC presents the Olympics.
Instead of my defending NBC, Dick Ebersol is far more eloquent in explaining NBC’s Olympics coverage philosophy than I am. Here’s Ebersol doing just that last week in a discussion with SportsOnEarth blogger Joe Posnanski (I suggest you click on the link and read the entire piece. This is just an excerpt):
“Ebersol, in what he says will be his only interview at these Games, tells me that [the] critics have it all wrong. The Olympics, he believes, are not to be treated like other sports. ‘That’s just nonsense,’ he says. ‘The Olympics are the biggest family television there is. The Olympics are one of the last events where a whole family can gather around a television set and spend the night together. People talk about how we should treat this like sports? You know, we’re getting an 18 rating some nights. Do you know what rating we would get if this was not under the banner of the Olympics? We’d be lucky to get a 1 rating for some of these sports. … This is our business model. The newspaper people have their own business model. We’re in the television business. We’re here to make great television.’ ”
Ebersol continues: “The key is storytelling. That’s by far the most important part of the Olympics. It’s the most important part of television. It’s not enough just to show the Games. We have to give people a reason to care, a reason to be invested.
“The other day when [Dominican 400-meter hurdler] Felix Sanchez won the gold medal we had told his story [about his grandmother dying on the day he was trying to qualify in Beijing]. We had been with him throughout. People knew him. So when he broke down on the stand, people cried with him. It would not have meant as much as a simple sports story.”
As for the tape-delay controversy, Ebersol notes that for the Olympics four years ago in Beijing he negotiated for the swimming finals to be held in the morning, Beijing time, so they could be shown live, in prime time, on U.S. TV. And this was when Michael Phelps was going for his eight gold medals.
In London, on the other hand, all of the swimming finals that were shown in prime time were on a tape-delay basis. And, Posnanski writes, the swimming shown tape-delayed from London “beat the ratings for Beijing on every single one of the first seven days.”
Ebersol tells Posnanski that in survey after survey only a small percentage of viewers say they want to watch Olympics contests live, as opposed to “after dinner.” And, as Ebersol notes, for the most part NBC did allow for live viewing online.
Here’s Ebersol’s ultimate defense of how NBC presents the Olympics, as he told Posnanski: “This year, really for the first time, I have had some time to watch the host country’s television. I’ve been watching the BBC, which is one of the most respected entities in the world, right? Well, they will cut away from races to show a British athlete who is finishing fifth. They openly root for their athletes on the air. It’s a different approach, but we have never done that. Nobody ever uses the word ‘we’ in our coverage, and if they did they wouldn’t last long.
“I believe our coverage is different from anyone else’s in the world. We do as many features on foreign athletes as American athletes. We tell the best stories, wherever we can find them. There’s a great tradition in American television of professionalism in coverage, and I believe we live up to that tradition.”
I think I'm in love.
Back in early May, I had reviewed the first two episodes of Showtime's addictive dark comedy series “Nurse Jackie,” starring Edie Falco, and waxed ecstatic about the brilliance and humanity of the series' opening installments. Since then, I've had the opportunity to watch the first six episodes of this emotionally resonant and bleakly hysterical series.
It's rare to be captivated by the very first minutes of a new series but it's a deft feat that “Nurse Jackie” not only manages to do so but, once it’s grabbed onto you, it never lets go. The energy and drive of the opening episode continues throughout the first half of the series' first season run.
And what a run it is so far.
With the end of “24” as a TV series now officially announced, there’s one extra show Fox really needs to do to send off “24” properly.
And it’s got nothing to do with this season’s arc, per se.
I’m basically stealing this idea from Steven Melnick, the marketing maven of 20th Century Fox Television.
Over the past several years, Melnick and his team have arranged for some panel discussions featuring the on-air and behind-the-scenes talent of some of the shows 20th Century Fox Television has produced, including “24.”
These sessions—especially the ones about “24”—have been fun, fascinating, enlightening and entertaining as all get out. The audience for these discussions has been selected people who work in the TV industry on a by-invitation-only basis.
With “24” wrapping up after eight seasons, Fox needs to bring this idea to everyone who’s been a fan of the show.
Here’s how: Fox announces it’s doing this one-hour or 90-minute “wrap-up” discussion show about ‘24” that will air live soon after the night of the show’s finale.
One would hope that participating in the show would be "24" star Kiefer Sutherland, showrunner Howard Gordon, creators Joel Surnow and Bob Cochran, and other selected behind-the-scenes and on-air talent from the past eight seasons.
From the on-air side this could include Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe), Dennis Haysbert (President David Palmer), Carlos Bernard (Tony Almeida), Louis Lombardi (Edgar Stiles), Kim Raver (Audrey Raines), Arnold Vosloo (Habib Marwan) or any other of the hundreds of talented actors who’ve done such gripping work on “24.”
From behind-the-camera there’s also a plethora of wonderfully talented people to choose from for the panel, including directors Jon Cassar and Brad Turner, writers Evan Katz, Manny Coto and David Fury, producer Paul Gadd, composer Sean Callery, cinematographer Rodney Charters, editors David Latham and Scott Powell, and so on.
You get the idea. There’s certainly no dearth of gifted creative people who have been responsible for ‘24” over the years who could be on the panel.
Think of this as similar to the “reunion” shows Jeff Probst hosts after each season’s “Survivor.”
Only this will be a wrap-up for the entire run of “24.” A good host is a must—someone who both knows the series and can keep the proceedings moving in a fun and stimulating manner, with humor, grace and insight.
And the questions? They’ll come from all of us. To submit a question, let’s rip a page from the last presidential election. You submit your question on YouTube. The producers of the special, in conjunction with the host of the show, will cull through them and pick the best, most intriguing questions to be asked during the live program.
I think this is a terrific way to present all of us fans with closure to this great series, as we await a “24” movie. It’s a lot better than a show of highlight clips reviewing eight seasons.
Finally, given how much enjoyment so many of us have gotten from “24” over the years, let’s combine one more element into this show, taken from “ 'Idol' Gives Back.”
The show will also serve as a fundraiser to raise money to cure Parkinson’s disease. Why Parkinson’s? It’s a personal choice. My stepdad battled it for more than 25 years, so I’ve seen the ravages of Parkinson’s up close. The host of the show can simply say up front that this special program is also a fundraiser and ask that viewers go to a website and donate whatever they can. Advertisers in the show could also be asked to donate something as well.
As I’ve previously written, I think “24” is the best thriller series ever done on TV.
As a journalist who’s covered the industry for quite awhile now, here’s one last observation I have about "24." I talk to a lot of people in media, from TV production to distribution to advertising. And what’s been striking over the past eight years is that clearly the show that got mentioned most often when I asked men in media what they watched on TV, was “24.”
The series has made its mark. Let’s see Fox send it off in the style it deserves.#
To quote the prolific Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, “You gotta get a gimmick if you want to get ahead.”
That axiom applied to the strippers in the Broadway musical, and it also applies to producers and networks trying to stand out in today’s immense ocean of reality programming. No longer is it enough to have a killer concept or compelling material. And gone are the days when you’ll automatically get eyeballs just because you launch on a big network with a major publicity blitz. (Raise your hand if you watched “High School Musical: Get in the Picture.” That’s what I thought.)
I work in the reality biz. It’s my job to stay on top of trends and sample as much programming as possible.
But even I’m suffering from chronic “reality fatigue.” I can only imagine how Joe and Jane Six Pack feel about the bottleneck on the reality highway.
Today you need a hook -- and a big one -- if you’re going to convince viewers to invest in your product week after week. For that matter, you need a hook if you’re going to convince viewers to even sample your program in the first place.
Enter Bravo’s “Miami Social,” a “ “Real Housewives” -style docusoap about hotties living and loving in (wait for it...) Miami. The show doesn’t premiere until July 14th, but it’s already in my DVR queue.
Why? Well, besides the promised intrigue, romance, glitz and catfights we’ve come to expect from Bravo, “Social” also features two reality pioneers making their long-awaited (at least by me) comeback to the genre.
Hardy Ames Hill (the hunky boy scout from the long-ago-but-not-forgotten “Big Brother 2”) and Katrina Campins (the young real estate diva from the landmark first season of “The Apprentice”) have been cast to stir things up, and hopefully reconnect with past fans. This is big news in a world where we’re used to seeing the same faces year after year on MTV’s “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” or VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab”... or even (God help me) “I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!”
It’s certainly not a re-invention of the wheel, but stacking a new show’s cast with long-lost reality vets from a kinder, simpler era and putting them in a new situation is certainly fresh and somewhat innovative. Given the insatiable appetite viewers have for Bravo’s delicious and decadent docusoaps, out-of-the-box ideas like this can only help Social’s prospects. If the show succeeds, I would think the Burnetts, Fleisses, Grodners and Roth’s of the reality world will certainly be combing their archives for graduates of their franchises who might be ready for a comeback.
What do you think? Will you be watching “Miami Social”? And what stars from the reality history books would you like to see return to the screen in a different vehicle? I’ll go first: “Survivor’s” Sue Hawk on the next season of “Ice Road Truckers.”
Nancy Dubuc, are you listening?
For any of us who have enjoyed TV since the 1970s, part of what we enjoyed was the work of Stephen J. Cannell, who died on Sept. 30--much too young at 69--of complications from melanoma.
He wrote more than 1,000 episodes of TV shows, and created or co-created some 20 TV series.
The list of shows he was responsible for, from “The Rockford Files" to “Baretta” to “The A-Team” to “The Commish,” is astonishing in its breadth.
With the sunset of the fin-syn rules, Cannell sold his production company, basically leaving the creation of TV shows to write novels, and he had a very successful second career doing so.
As The New York Times’ Bill Carter noted in his obituary for Cannell, “The Rockford Files,” which “was a hit for seven seasons, has since been credited with helping to signal a cultural shift away from the perfect physical and moral specimens of the movies and early television and toward more realistic heroes, the kind viewers had come to expect, given the harder-edged reality they saw on the evening news.”
Part of what made “Rockford” so popular was star James Garner’s easy-going wisecrack manner that the actor had perfected playing “Maverick” on TV years earlier, as well as the interaction Rockford had with the show’s great supporting players, including Noah Beery Jr. as Rockford’s dad, Stuart Margolin as the shady Angel, Gretchen Corbett as lawyer Beth Davenport, and Joe Santos as police detective Dennis Becker.
No doubt part of the sensibility we loved on “Rockford” stemmed from the show’s co-creator, Roy Huggins, who also created “Maverick,” “The Fugitive” and “77 Sunset Strip,” the latter being one of the shows that defined the word “cool” back in the late 1950s.
But I think Cannell’s greatest achievement was another show, whose concept was his alone. And it was a show that almost never made it on-air. And once it did finally get on-air, everyone wanted to keep Cannell’s vision of it from seeing the light of day.
The best person to tell this story is Cannell himself. The following is from the wonderful website that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has, its Archive of American Television that contains interviews of many TV luminaries, including Cannell. They interviewed Cannell in June 2004.
To begin his story, Cannell talks about a show he did not create, but for which he did write three episodes. It was back in 1980. The show was called “Stone,” starring Dennis Weaver as detective sergeant Dan Stone.
[It] was back when I was at Universal. I had written an episode of 'Stone' called 'The Deep Sleeper.' And what this episode was about was an undercover agent in the LAPD who had been put into deep cover in the L.A. criminal underworld.
And the idea was he was going to stay down for five to seven years with no contact and then come back and they were going to crash the whole underworld.
Well, he gets into the underworld and he ends up with a [Rolls-Royce] Cornish convertible, his children are at John Dye or Crossroads, he’s living in a mansion in Bel Air. But he’s really a $35,000-a-year guy, and all of a sudden he’s living like a prince. And it’s time for him to come home, and he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to give up the lifestyle.
So that was the premise of this 'Deep Sleeper' episode of 'Stone.' And there were three people who knew he was undercover. One of them had died of natural causes. Stone was one of them. And the chief of police knew. So this guy has a job and he has to kill both Stone and the chief of police so he can remain undercover. And Stone manages to bust him at the end of the hour.
But I remember thinking at the time, what an interesting dilemma—to be a $35,000-a-year cop and to go undercover and being given all those things that the world says you should have—Ferraris, and Armani clothing and the right watches and rings and houses in the right neighborhoods—but you’re still really just a $35,000-a-year guy. What would that do to your sense of values and your moral compass?
It just intrigued me as a writer. So I came up with the idea of 'Wiseguy.'
I would go and pitch it to the networks, and I’d say that I need 6 hours at least to tell one story [on the show]. Because as important as the plot is the seduction of [this cop who goes underground] Vinnie Terranova. That means the adversary has to be as important to the storytelling as the hero. And I need time. I just can’t have two scenes [with] the adversary I need time to put the [adversary] face to face with the hero and have him seduce my hero, because that’s what this is about.
Well, the minute I would say I need five or six hours [to tell a story arc, the networks] would say, 'Have you got anything else?' And I’d then sell 'Stingray,’ or I’d sell 'Hunter,' or I’d sell whatever else I had.
And I’d go to the next network and the same thing. I pitched it all over town. Five years I pitched that show. I’d pitch it at every place, and then I’d wait until somebody would get fired, and then I’d go pitch it to their replacement. Then somebody else would get fired, and I’d pitch to that replacement. And I couldn’t sell it.
Finally, Kim LeMasters showed up at CBS as head of programming, and he’d been an old friend of mine—I had done work with him in the past—and I went over and pitched it to him and he said, 'That’s the best damn idea I’ve ever heard for a show.' And that’s how I got it on CBS. I just found the right buyer. I found somebody who saw what I saw.
It was definitely different, and nobody wanted it for that reason.
So the show debuts on Sept. 16, 1987, with the first arc. In it, Terranova, played luminously by Ken Wahl, has to infiltrate and bring down a crime organization run by a character named Sonny Steelgrave, played, in a bravura performance, by Ray Sharkey. Cannell was asked if anyone had trepidation about ending the first arc. Again, Cannell:
Everybody but me. Ken Wahl didn’t want to lose Ray Sharkey. He loved acting with Ray. He’d call me up and say, ‘You’re ruining the show, man. You’re crashing the show. You drop Ray and we’re done.’
And Ray was working that on the other end. He wanted to stay aboard, so he was getting everyone to [call me]. The network was concerned, my other writer producers on the show were concerned. Everybody was telling me I was nuts. And I kept saying, this is my vision. I came up with this. None of you came up with this. I wrote the pilot. Actually I co-wrote the pilot with Frank Lupo. But it was from my concept, my story. [So I told everyone] I am going to do this [and end the arc].
And I was already writing the [next] arc. I had already written the first episode, which was called 'The Independent Operator.'
And people were so angry with me for getting rid of Ray. And it wasn’t that I wanted to get rid of Ray. I could see what he was doing. But the fun of the show, at least to me, was to try and redevelop it every six weeks. That’s what made it challenging. Not to lock it in just to a crime story, which was the same heavy for a year. I didn’t think that worked, because after awhile you start saying, why don’t they catch this guy. But people didn’t want to let go of Ray.
So I sent in the first draft of 'The Independent Operator,' which was the first [episode] of the Kevin Spacey arc. We didn’t have Kevin yet, but it was the first hour of the Profitt arc. [Spacey plays drug smuggler Mel Profitt.]
I was at the beach. My writers and producers hated the script. They got in a car and came down [to the beach] to tell me that I was writing 'Batman,' because I had a scene in this thing where [a hood] Roger LoCocco who calls everyone ‘Buckwheat.’ They thought that was horrible.
There’s a scene where [LoCocco] takes Vinnie out and shows him a car. [LoCocco’s] sorta a hit man and no one knows who he belongs to and Vinnie is supposed to find out who this guy’s attached to. And the guy takes Vinnie out to this garage, and he’s got this old Dodge Charger and he’d put armor plating on the car, and he’s got submachine guns in the front lights, and he’d got a big Gatling gun in the trunk, so if cops are chasing him he can literally start firing the Gatling gun from the trunk and start taking out the grills of cop [cars].
I had gotten it from research. It’s called a work car. They had these things in New York. And they were used for bank holdups and stuff like that. And they had armor plating on the doors.
And [my] guys are reading this and saying this is like bad James Bond. And I said, no this isn’t an Aston, it’s an old primer painted Charger that looks like it belongs in a junkyard.
But we didn’t have any other script, and I was even halfway through the second script for the arc. We had to start shooting and I was really concerned because these were talented men and I thought if they hate this so much maybe I’m off the road here. But we cast it and shot it.
[Afterward] to their credit [all the guys] came in and said we apologize and said they we were so wrong and this is so bitchin’.
I think a lot of it had to do with trepidation over losing Ray, and I felt bad about that too, because I loved him, but this is what I wanted to do. This is what I had sold [to CBS].
Spacey was dazzling as Mel Profitt in the arc.
Cannell was right—the arcs are what made the show. Jerry Lewis, Paul Winfield, Patti D'Arbanville, Ron Silver; a whole host of talented performers in arcs that, for the most part, were smart and satisfying.
And while the ratings weren’t spectacular, it certainly proved that there was an appetite for what evolved into the limited series that’s been so successful on cable.
If you want to check out the first season of "Wiseguy," which I highly recommend, you can find all the episodes, for free, on Hulu, if you click here.
At the end of the ATAS interview Cannell, who was 63 at the time, is asked what he thinks his legacy will be. Here’s what he said:
Oh, I don’t care. (repeats) I don’t care. You know what, I’m not about legacies and how people think about me when I’m gone. When I’m gone, I’m gone. I would hope that people would still read my books or look at my television, but if they don’t, (shrugs) that’s a choice.
I just don’t take myself that seriously. For me, all of those kinds of things tend to make you different than the person I am. I think when you start worrying about legacies, and how you are going to be remembered, it’s all about pretension, it’s all about how will they kneel at my altar when I’m gone. Who cares? That’s the way I look at it.
I’m just trying to do the best job that I know how to do every day, and I’m going to try and treat people in the most decent way I can. I’m going to try and live the Golden Rule. I’m going to try and treat other people the way I want to be treated, and when I fail to do that I’m going to apologize, and I do fail.
How it all comes out at the end?—you can’t force a legacy anyway, no matter how hard you try. If they don’t want to remember you, they won’t.
On that score, I don’t think Cannell has much to worry about. If you like TV, and care about great storytelling, you’re not likely to forget him.#
UPDATE, 8 PM, PT on Oct. 12, 2010...We found on YouTube the classy tribute to Cannell the folks at "Castle" ran at the end of their show on Monday, Oct. 11th:
The Folks Behind 'American Idol' Have Become Tone-Deaf. Season 10 Is About to Premiere. Why It's Going to Be Like Jay Leno at 10 p.m. All Over Again
“American Idol” is in trouble.
I know this because I asked some of the key executives about the show yesterday, and I didn’t find their answers encouraging.
The problem is that, fundamentally, they don’t understand why most of us watch the show.
For millions of us, what’s kept us coming back year-in and year-out can be reduced to two words; Simon Cowell.
He was the truth-teller with the wit of the Oscars: Wilde, Levant, Madison, and hosts Hope, Carson and Crystal.
And we loved Cowell because he told it like it was, his barbs memorable and engaging and as entertaining as if he were Dirty Harry asking some snotty, overly self-confident pop-star wannabe, “You need to ask yourself one question: ‘Do you feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?"
[Please note, that was Dirty Harry who enthralled millions of us. I don’t think a cop nicknamed Clean Harry, who followed all the rules, would have been the same box-office success.]
When I asked “Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe at the TV Critics Association tour in Pasadena how he saw the role of the judges this year, in light of the fact that Cowell is no longer on the show and neither Kara nor Ellen worked out as judges, he said, basically, that this will be the year of nice, not nasty.
"It's about giving the right information to (the contestants) so they continue on their journey as an artist.” Lythgoe said. “It is a lot more about searching for that eventual winner than stopping people getting there.”
He added, "In the past, we may have been accused of putting barriers up against them or making glib remarks, rather than trying to help them through the whole process."
To paraphrase that famous song from “A Chorus Line”: Nice and kind? That ain’t it, kid. That ain’t it, kid.
Later, I asked “Idol” executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who is also the CEO of FremantleMedia North America, “Please name in order the top three things the audience looks to see from ‘Idol’.”
She said,” They are watching great talent. That’s the overriding thing. It’s about the kids--both their ability as singers and who they are, in terms of their personality and their performance style.”
“Number two, it has to be entertaining. I think what you’ll see from this new panel of judges is that they have fun, they are passionate, and they are entertaining.
“Those are the big things. The third thing is that we have to find a way for the kids to let their personalities out.”
Hmm. I tried a more direct route. “How would you rate Simon’s importance when he was on the show, and now that he’s not going to be on the show?”
Frot-Coutaz replied, “That’s a really interesting question. I don’t have a crystal ball. Television is about formats and it’s about on-air talent. If you look at other examples in the history of television, for example when Bob Barker retired from ‘Price Is Right,’ there was a huge succession planning exercise. And it’s been successful. Drew Carey is doing incredibly well and the show is back up in ratings to where it was before.
“With ‘Idol’ I think we’ve done a really good job of finding people who are very different from Simon. None of them are like Simon, none of them can be compared to Simon.”
I interrupted her and asked, “Was that deliberate? You could have tried to find someone who you thought was like Simon.”
She answered, “It was completely deliberate. If you do that you get very paralyzed very quickly. Then you are looking for somebody who is like him, and nobody is going to quite compare.
“What you have to do is say, ‘What’s the show about? What are we trying to achieve?’ Going back to your first question, from a process standpoint, let’s just find people who are good pickers of talent. Let’s just find people who are passionate about music, passionate about talent. Who have the right eye and the right ear to find the right American Idol.”
Listen, I have nothing but respect for Lythgoe and Frot-Coutaz. They are clearly smart, talented people.
But so are a lot of the folks over at NBC (stop your snickering, they really are) who decided to put Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. That was a wrong move, a train wreck that many of us could see coming.
So is this.
Yes, the contestants on the show are clearly an important factor on "Idol."
But let’s look at the one previously unknown singer who most captured the attention of the public in recent years. Hands down, it’s Susan Boyle, who wasn’t on "Idol," but was on “Britain’s Got Talent,” which also features Cowell as a judge.
Boyle immediately captured millions of hearts worldwide with that expertly edited video showing this frumpy, middle-aged woman getting laughed at and disrespected by Cowell, who then stunned everyone when she opened her mouth and out came the sound of the most melodic of sea nymphs, a mythical siren moving us to tears.
She continued her hold on us as we watched her overnight celebrity break her down, and we then watched her struggle with recovery.
That’s a reality show story and a half, and good luck to ‘Idol’ in trying to find a contestant that compelling.
Much easier, I would have thought, to find at least one compelling judge to hold our attention.
I don’t think Jennifer Lopez is that person.
Steven Tyler might be.
But an impediment is that they are both performers and can identify with the contestants who are trying to break through, which can lead to the kind of judging that finds something to praise in almost every performance.
One of the reasons Simon could be so brutally honest is because he’s a producer, and not a singer.
I find it fascinating that the producers of ‘Idol’ so deliberately ran away from trying to find the next Simon for “Idol.”
The producers can’t control who tries out for the show to become the next “Idol.” But they--along with Fox--do have control over who they pick as judges.
If I were producing the show I would have thought to myself, OK, we’re losing the person who is drawing millions and millions to this show. In Frot-Coutaz’s way of processing things, it was like losing Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.”
Thus I would have tried to find someone who could be as compelling as the person I was losing. Not a carbon-copy, of course, but certainly someone who could wear the same T-shirt, who could be as acerbic yet spot-on candid, despite the boos the audience will shout. And someone who didn’t have the word pitchy in his or her vocabulary. (By the way, was Cowell on "Idol" actually that different than Joan Rivers with a music background?)
Instead, the thinking at "Idol" seemed to be, let’s make sure we find judges who can be nice, namby-pamby mentors who will make all the contestants feel good about themselves.
Oh yeah, that’s gripping television.#
Elizabeth Taylor and the Unlikely Alignment of the Hollywood Gods That Produced a Truly Great American Movie
With the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, there is renewed interest in her movies.
She made some fine movies and one great one, the latter which TCM presented--uncut and with no commercials, as usual--on Sunday night, April 10, 2011. Even if you missed that screening, the movie is a must rent or buy on DVD.
I’m speaking of the film version of one of the greatest American stage dramas, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
The film is amazing in a number of ways.
First, it’s a film that no one thought could be brought to the screen when it debuted on Broadway in 1962. The play takes place in a single evening and is the story of a knock-down, no-holds-barred relationship--set in the wee hours of the morning--between a middle-aged couple, George, a college professor, and Martha, his wife. Another, younger couple, Nick and Honey, is also in on the festivities.
This description is cursory and does not do justice to this stunning drama, but I don’t really want to say too much more for those who have not seen it.
The reason that no one thought it could be brought to the screen was that the language is very raw.
No one, that is, but Jack Warner, who bought the play in 1964 and told Albee that it would star Bette Davis and James Mason, who would have been 58 years old and 57 years old, respectively, when cameras were scheduled to roll in 1965. (The film came out in 1966.)
Davis especially could have been tremendous as Martha. And how much fun it would have been to have seen her perform the opening scene in the movie, in which Martha imitates Davis.
But the pairing of Davis and Mason was not to be. Instead Warner and producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman chose Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who had married in March 1964.
Lehman later said that Taylor was his first choice to play Martha. What’s so odd about it, of course, is that at the time of the filming in 1965 she was just 33, and looked quite the opposite of a frumpy middle-aged housewife. She gained weight for the part and makeup helped with the rest.
The decision to use Taylor, made up to look much older, factored into another big decision that was made about the movie--that it would be filmed in black and white.
Here’s Lehman talking about that decision, from George Stevens Jr.’s indispensable 2006 book, "Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute":
“We felt that the dialogue would read differently in color, that the characters themselves would read differently emotionally in color. We had a chance to see how right we were, because at the time, ABC was shooting a documentary special on [‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ director] Mike Nichols, which was never released. They were shooting it in color while we were shooting in black and white. I got a chance to see Elizabeth Taylor, as Martha, in color, and everything changed completely. We knew that all our efforts with wig and makeup to make her look older than she was –she was 33 and we wanted her to look about 48--would go right down the drain in color. Inasmuch as the movie played totally at night, black and white seemed right for the emotional tone.”
That decision to film the movie in glorious black and white also partly led to the firing of the cinematographer originally hired to shoot the movie, the famous--and famously talented--Harry Stradling Sr., who was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won two of them. At the time he had just won his second Oscar for photographing “My Fair Lady.”
Stradling and Nichols did not get along, and Nichols said the final straw came when Stradling said the way to shoot “Woolf” was to shoot it in color but process it in black and white.
So at the last minute another talented cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, came in to shoot the movie. Wexler’s work on “Woolf” was remarkable--not only did the he win an Oscar for his work on the film, it’s truly a stunningly photographed movie.
Another fortuitous decision was the hiring of Nichols. Just three months older than Taylor, he actually had first developed a friendship with Burton, back in 1961 when they were both playing on Broadway, though in separate shows. When Burton hooked up with Taylor, Nichols became very friendly with her as well, Nichols has said.
“Woolf” was Nichols' first time directing a movie, and perhaps his greatest contribution was his insistence that Lehman write a script that contained almost all of Albee’s biting dialogue. Said Lehman in the “Conversations” book, “I think the result on screen is mighty powerful. The movie knocks me out every time I see it. Nichols managed to get me to give up almost everything I introduced into the screenplay that wasn’t in the play--for example [additional] lines of dialogue or moving about of scenes.”
And Nichols was an odd choice to direct “Woolf.” His background was mostly sharp, urban comedy. And yes, that’s the flipside to drama and tragedy, but still, not an obvious choice. He had appeared on Broadway--and records--in a comic partnership with Elaine May. Then he turned to directing of stage plays, most recently, at the time, of Neil Simon’s comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” starring Robert Redford.
But when Taylor told Nichols of her interest in doing “Woolf” on the screen, Nichols told her that he had seen the show and really, really understood it in a deep way and felt he could direct it on screen. (All of the Nichols comments in this piece come from his movie-length commentary of “Woolf” on the DVD version.)
An interesting side note: Lehman and Nichols asked Redford to play the supporting role of Nick in the film. Knowing that it was not a sympathetic part, Redford turned it down, and the role went to George Segal.
Nichols’ direction of “Woolf” is exemplary. It’s without the stylization he would use in his next film, “The Graduate,” and “Woolf” is far better for not having those kinds of stylized flourishes.
Nichols has said of “Woolf” that it was the only time when making a movie that he knew exactly what he wanted to do beforehand for just about every scene, and was highly confident that his choices were right.
Another factor that makes “Woolf” extraordinary as a film is its score, by Alex North. Nichols has said that Albee told him he didn’t like the music added to the play for the film. Albee is wrong.
North’s score is masterful. Interestingly, North’s initial reaction when asked to score the film is one most of us would have had: “The picture was so intense and so filled with brilliant dialogue that a film musical score at first seem unneeded.”
But like the score Elmer Bernstein created for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” North’s quiet background music, used sparingly, enhances “Woolf” luminously.
So how lucky for us. The gods really did smile down on this production. Besides Wexler's Oscar, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" pulled in Academy Awards for Sandy Dennis for supporting actress, Richard Sylbert for his meticulous art direction and Irene Sharaff for her "just right" costumes. Burton was nominated but didn't win. Lehman has said that Burton "was just great in [the] role. I think it was the best non-Oscar-winning performance I've ever seen." (Burton lost to Paul Scofield in "A Man for All Seasons.") And Taylor won her second Oscar for her performance in "Woolf."
Taylor is dazzling, hitting all of the right notes in her portrayal of Martha.
As Nichols noted, here was Taylor, who had literally been in movies since she was a little girl, working with four outstanding stage veterans--Nichols, Burton, Segal and Dennis--on one of the most demanding of stage pieces.
Yet it was Taylor, Nichols said, who taught so much to all of them about what film acting was all about. He said they’d do a scene and he’d think that she hadn’t nailed it, but then, watching the dailies the next day, realize she was outperforming everyone else.#