The second half of the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour may have started with the campy “Sharknado 2: The Second One,” but it ended with the real-life drama of historic events like the FDR presidency and the Watergate scandal.
In between was a vast array of programming, including three new series based upon well-known DC Comics characters, “Constantine” (NBC), “The Flash” (CW) and “Gotham” (Fox).
New and returning shows were presented by NBC, ABC and related cable channels including Bravo, Syfy, Oxygen, Esquire and ABC Family, along with CBS, the CW, Showtime, Fox, FX and PBS.
Held in the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, the networks put on panels with executives, creators and talent who fielded questions — many friendly, some confrontational — from television reporters.
Here are some of the highlights:
“State of Affairs”
Poor Katherine Heigl. The panel on her new drama in which she stars as a talented CIA agent with a penchant for heavy drinking and casual sex (hmm … shades of Carrie Mathison on “Homeland?”) got a bit hijacked by questions about whether she is “difficult” to deal with — an insinuation that apparently began from her criticism of the writing on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the series that made her a star. From the TCA crowd, she also faced criticism on why her mother, Nancy, is an executive producer on “Affairs.”
Heigl’s response: “I can only say I don’t see myself as being difficult. I would never intend to be difficult. I don’t think my mother intends to be difficult. It’s important to everybody to conduct themselves respectfully, and professionally, and kindly. If I ever disappointed somebody, it was unintentional.”
“The Mysteries of Laura” and “Bad Judge”
Debra Messing, fresh off “Smash” — or maybe not so much — has a new home on the Peacock Network as a homicide detective who’s the mother of two out-of-control twin boys and in a marriage that’s breaking up. Along with NBC’s “Bad Judge,” which stars Kate Walsh as a brilliant jurist who’s a party girl outside of the courtroom, some reporters were critical of the concept of smart, savvy career women who are hot messes in their personal lives, a sub-genre that apparently also includes “State of Affairs.”
Messing commented that like her character, her personality at home is distinctly different from the professional she is on the job. “It’s real. It’s something I relate to, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to show both worlds simultaneously,” she said.
Walsh, whose show sports the logline “Upholding the rules by day. Breaking the rules by night,” defended the premise of “Bad Judge.” “It is a given as a male archetype, but as a female archetype, we’re still exploring it,” she said, using the example of Hugh Laurie’s character on “House.” “I mean, you were never waiting for that guy saying, ‘If he would just get married and have kids.’”
It was probably the most comedic and freewheeling panel at TCA, with series creator David Caspe, his new wife and cast member Casey Wilson, plus Ken Marino, Tim Meadows and John Gemberling joking about the content of the single-camera comedy about a couple getting married — starting with the fact that (bleeped out) f-words are used in the pilot.
“I think ‘fuck’ is NBC-friendly now,” joked Marino, to which Wilson retorted, “And, if you don’t like it — fuck off!” “Not you!” Caspe hastily added, addressing the assembled critics. “We love all you — fuck on!”
“Sharknado 2: The Second One”
Part Deux hits New York City on July 30 with its potent mix of camp, chainsaws and really big, frightening fish raining down on the metro area from Ellis Island to the Empire State building. Tara Reid and Ian Ziering topline again, with cameos from the likes of Judd Hirsch — perfect as a New York City taxi driver — and “Today’s” Matt Lauer and Al Roker on anxious storm watch.
“My Friends Call Me Johnny”
Centered inside the world of inveterate jet setter Jean Pigozzi, and produced by Joel Silver, this reality skein features Pigozzi interviewing his A-list celebrity friends. Pigozzi, who started his career on the Fox lot in accounting and publicity, claims he took the first selfie in 1975 with Dolly Parton at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“Successful people are more interesting to hang out with. They have more interesting stories than the guy who works at the post office or as a mortician,” Pigozzi said, noting the first famous person he met was Andy Warhol, who he says was incredibly nice and friendly. “When you want a lot of friends, be generous. A lot of rich people have no friends, because they’re dull. You have to be relaxed and fun.”
A 13-year-old black kid tells his parents he wants a bar mitzvah and his father responds by throwing him a hip-hop bro-mitzvah, setting a high-water mark amongst his Jewish friends. That’s just one of the scenarios mined in this sitcom about a wealthy African-American family, which features Anthony Anderson and guest star Laurence Fishburne — who are executive producers along with Larry Wilmore and Kenya Barris. Tracee Ellis Ross plays the mixed race mom in the family, based on Barris’ wife, a physician, and life with their kids. Anderson said the bro-mitzvah was something he gave for his son and that he pitched the idea for the show with a photo album from the event.
“The show celebrates blackness as a cultural rather than a race thing. When you give your kids too much, sometimes something is lost when they assimilate. It’s a common thing in cultures,” said Wilmore, who after overseeing the first 12 episodes is going off to do “The Minority Report” on Comedy Central, taking the slot after “The Daily Show” when Steven Colbert leaves for CBS’s “Late Show.”
“The universal appeal is in every single line — what it’s like to raise a family in these times,” said Barris. “We’re living in a post-Obama society. Miley and Justin are blackish, and blended into who we are as a culture.”
“Even with Obama, we call him the first black president, but he’s mixed, so he’s really the first black-ish president,” Wilmore said. Anderson added: “Bill Clinton was the first black president.”
Billed as a procedural with a mythology, this drama features Ioan Gruffudd as a man who never dies, a medical examiner named Dr. Henry Morgan. Whenever he dies and shows up in another time and place, it’s in water — and he’s naked. But even though Morgan is immortal, he won’t die in every episode. Although he suffers several deaths just in the pilot.
Executive producer Matt Miller described how he got the idea for the show. “It was pilot season and I was putting my 5-year-old son to bed. He asked me: ‘Daddy, are you ever going to die?,’” Miller recalled, adding that he told his son: “I will die, but it won’t be for a very long time and by then you’ll probably want me dead. He burst out crying, and my wife came in and continued raising my child and I went off to write television.”
Asked whether any situation could ever permanently kill Morgan, Miller, who previously worked on the defunct ABC supernatural series “666 Park Avenue,” simply said, “Cancellation.”
“How to Get Away with Murder”
Shonda Rhimes is overseeing ABC’s entire Thursday night lineup, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and this new show, slated for 10 p.m. The legal thriller stars Viola Davis as a brilliant criminal defense professor whose university students become entangled in a murder plot.
Regarding the lengthy title, Rhimes explained that EP Pete Nowalk had come to her and said, “I have a show, and I wanted to call it ‘How to Get Away with Murder,’” which is also the name of the class being taught by Davis’ character. “One-word titles feel tired now,” Nowalk said. “I hope that’s what makes us stand out.”
Said Davis, a two-time Oscar nominee: “I wanted to be on the show — to have a character that took me out of my comfort zone, and that happened to be on a Shonda Rhimes show. So I did the only sensible thing and took it.”
“Manhattan Love Story”
It is territory that’s been exploited in multiple movies and TV shows, but New York City love stories never seem to lose their appeal, although that’s always a possibility. This one stars Analeigh Tipton and Jake McDorman as a couple embarking on a relationship in which the audience can hear their unfiltered thoughts. Other cast members include Nicolas Wright, Jade Catta-Preta and Chloe Wepper.
“We picked people whose inner thoughts don’t terrify,” said creator Jeff Lowell about the series, which like many before it, makes NYC a character in the story.
Starring Téa Leoni and Tim Daly, the series created by Barbara Hall is about a female Secretary of State balancing international crises while navigating her personal life. It begins with a kidnapping in Syria, with other situations that are inspired by real-life events. Morgan Freeman is an executive producer.
“We decided to create a world that has three levels,” Hall said. “One is the level of global politics, problems of foreign relations. The other is inter-office politics. The third element is the issues of home life that take on different meaning when you juxtapose them with the responsibility of being Secretary of State.”
“NCIS: New Orleans”
The latest entry in the popular franchise takes over the Big Easy and environs with Scott Bakula’s character based on a retired agent named D’Wayne Swear, who is a consultant. Also starring are Lucas Black, CCH Pounder and Zoe McLellan.
“Everything won’t always happen in the French Quarter,” said EP Gary Glassberg. “We’re really infusing the stories with local color and flavor and culture as much as we can, and you have to keep in mind that their jurisdiction literally goes from Pensacola all the way around the Gulf to Texas.”
Vince Gilligan wrote the script for this detective show 12 years ago, but gives all the credit to EP David Shore, who has taken the reins while he works on AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” Starring Josh Duhamel, Janet McTeer, Dean Winters and Kal Penn, it’s a drama set in one of Michigan’s best-known cities, world headquarters of the Kellogg Company.
“It’s hard to play a guy like this — he seems to be perfect,” said Duhamel of his character. “There’s definitely cracks in the façade that make him interesting.”
“Dean’s character is sort of kind of the everyman character that most of us relate to, the underdog, and this feels like a city of underdogs. In this this fictional version of Battle Creek, it feels like a police force of underdogs,” said Gilligan.
“NFL Thursday Night Football”
Pro football fans will have a new night to get their fix and CBS brought out head honcho Les Moonves, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus for a play-by-play.
“We are huge believers in broadcast television. We believe that a distinguishing factor between the NFL and many other sports is that we continue to be successful on broadcast television,” Goodell said.
“We believe that this partnership with CBS will bookend our weekend to continue to allow us to have the most prime-time hits of any program,” said Kraft, while Moonves noted the full support of his network’s promotional efforts, entertainment shows and talent is behind Thursday night football.
For those not familiar with the DC Comics legend, CSI investigator Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) becomes “The Flash” after being struck by lightning and waking up from a nine-month coma to discover he now possesses the gift of super speed. He takes on the persona of The Fastest Man Alive to protect his city. “The Flash” is a spinoff of “Arrow,” an established hit on the network.
“We’re incorporating almost everything from the mythology into it and have added a whole new backstory,” said DC Entertainment chief creative officer Geoff Johns.
“You will see — organically — characters shifting over, villains shifting over back and forth between ‘Flash’ and ‘Arrow.’ We will be introducing more villains that are part of the DC Comics universe,” said CW President Mark Pedowitz.
“Jane the Virgin”
Here’s the premise of this Americanized version of a Venezuelan telenovela: Jane Villanueva, played by Gina Rodriguez, works at a hot new Miami hotel while studying to become a teacher, and has dreams of being a writer. Although she has been “saving herself” until she and her fiancé are married, Jane’s life is turned upside down when her doctor accidentally impregnates her with an artificial insemination specimen meant for someone else.
“I wanted it to have a whimsical, fairytale-like quality,” said EP/writer Jennie Snyder Urman, while co-EP Ben Silverman, who brought “Ugly Betty” to ABC, acknowledged the series is off brand for the CW but hoped it would find an audience there amongst the superheroes and vampires.
Brody is dead, his family is out of the picture, except for the baby of his that Carrie bore and left Stateside to take her new CIA post in Pakistan. It’s a whole new world for Season 4 of “Homeland,” perhaps also complicated by the death of the actor who played Carrie’s supportive father, James Rebhorn.
“Carrie has dealt with her mental illness,” said writer and EP Meredith Stiehm. “She’s steady going in.” But in the first-look trailer shown to TCA, she’s still downing meds with wine.
“But she’s still grieving,” noted showrunner Alex Gansa. “She was forced to leave her child at home.”
Viewers can look forward to half a dozen new characters, including one played by Suraj Sharma (who starred in “Life of Pi”) as a medical student who becomes a valuable source to Carrie and Corey Stoll as her CIA station chief in Pakistan. Mandy Patinkin’s character Saul also returns.
While not giving away much intel on anything else, predictably, Gansa bottom-lined “Homeland” this way: “It’s about the private and public costs of keeping America safe.”
Set in Montauk, New York, this deeply personal drama explores two marriages and the emotional and psychological effects of the affair that disrupts them. The 10-episode series, which stars Maura Tierney, Dominic West, Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson, will be told from both the male and female perspectives.
“We’re really interested in telling a story in a kind of Rashomon structure, because I think storytelling in general is driven by perspective, and there are two sides at least, to every story,” said creator and EP Sarah Treem. “But when you’re having an affair, you don’t even have access to what your lover is experiencing when you’re not around. So for the characters, that felt like kind of the richest situation to put them in if we really wanted to tell a story from two perspectives and really play around with how differently people can experience the same situation.”
The much awaited Batman origin story reveals an entirely new chapter featuring legendary DC Comics superheroes and villains in a bygone era, following one cop’s rise in a dangerously corrupt city torn between the forces of good and evil. It stars Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue and Jada Pinkett Smith.
“I don’t think fanboys will back away from it,” said EP/writer Bruno Heller when asked about a superhero show technically without a full-fledged superhero. “The interesting parts are the origin stories. This is how all these people got here.”
“It’s ‘Chinatown,’ Jake,” Logue said. “There’s moral relativism in this world.”
From writer/comedian John Mulaney, this could be “Seinfeld” for a new generation. The multicamera ensemble comedy centers on a rising standup comic trying to take his career to the next level and his interactions with the circle of friends and mentors, who include Martin Short and Elliott Gould and Mulaney’s former “Saturday Night Live” castmate Nasim Pedrad, who left “SNL” to take the role.
“I wanted to do the kind of show I grew up on, with audiences,” said Mulaney, known for creating the character of Stefon on “SNL.” “It’s an updated version of an old-school sitcom.”
Surprise! “Fargo,” the miniseries based on the Coen Brothers 1996 film, is returning, potentially in the fall of 2015, with a completely different true crime story — and unlike FX’s anthology “American Horror Story,” a completely different cast. Set in the 1970s in Sioux Falls, it will again be shot in Calgary. It will feature the character of Lou Solverson as a 33-year-old man recently back from Vietnam and a woman who is Molly Solverson’s mother. When asked about casting, EP/writer Noah Hawley said it would be “gimmicky” to have Allison Tolman play her mother.
FX CEO John Landgraf compared “Fargo,” which starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, to HBO’s “True Detective,” but said he’s not sure the new “Fargo” needs big stars to succeed.
“Sons of Anarchy”
Going into its seventh and final season, the motorcycle gang drama will feature new characters played by Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson and will complete the saga of Jax Teller and his mother, Gemma Teller Morrow (Charlie Hunnam and Katey Sagal) after the violent deaths of both of their spouses last season. Spoiler alert for those not caught up: Gemma murdered Jax’s wife – with a carving fork– after Jax killed Clay, Gemma’s estranged husband and the former leader of SAMCRO.
“This show is a pulp novel each week,” said creator Kurt Sutter, who remarked that his wife, Ms. Sagal, is now being asked to autograph forks. “My goal isn’t to disturb people, but when Opie was killed, people fucking hated me. They were upset they lost a friend. That means you’re writing characters that are believable and relatable.”
Season five — or Series 5 as they call it across the pond — of the wildly successful and critically acclaimed period drama, now well into the 1920s, sees Lady Mary finally over her grief of husband Matthew’s death and “getting some of her bite back,” according to Emmy-nominated lead actress Michelle Dockery.
She and several other cast members who appeared at TCA with EP Gareth Neame are especially sensitive to revealing any spoilers since the series runs in the UK months before it premieres in the U.S. (Jan. 4, 2015) — and PBS is intent on keeping it that way, despite the criticism, and probably because of the huge winter viewership.
Executive producer Rebecca Eaton said there is a wealth of programming queued up to take the prime Sunday night timeslot. She unspooled clips of “Grantchester,” “Poldark,” “Indian Summers,” “Death Comes to Pemberley” and the Johnny Worricker trilogy starring Bill Nighy as an MI5 officer with other cast including Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Walken and Helena Bonham Carter.
“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”
The latest from master documentarian Ken Burns, the seven-night, 14-hour special event examines the lives of three members of one of America’s most influential families: Theodore Roosevelt, his niece Eleanor Roosevelt and the distant cousin she married, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It vividly brings to life their history for more than a century against the backdrop of two presidencies, multiple family tragedies and two world wars, spanning Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962.
Amongst other never-before-seen photographs and vibrant but silent film of Teddy Roosevelt, Burns and his team uncovered new footage of FDR, which hauntingly shows how he struggled with his polio-derived disability, all while the public was never the wiser.
“POV Koch: New York’s Legendary Mayor”
Who was the Big Apple’s finest mayor? Subject to argument, it wasn’t Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg. It was Ed Koch, the “How am I doin’?” mayor who led New York City out of its desperate straits of the mid- and late 1970s. But this is a warts and all piece, including new interviews taped with Koch before he died several years ago.
“Dick Cavett’s Watergate”
Another throwback to the 1970s, this documentary chronicles the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon through the eyes of key guests including Gordon Liddy and John Haldeman, who appeared on Cavett’s ultra-popular talk show. There’s even an episode taped in the Senate chambers where the infamous Watergate hearings were televised live and riveted the nation. How did they let him do that, with an audience no less?