The broadcast network portion of the summer Television Critics Association press tour was filled with drama, from Bob Costas taking heat about NBC’s Olympics coverage to CBS Entertainment chief Glenn Geller dealing with controversy over the network’s all-white showrunner slate for its fall series.
But in between, there were many light moments — and not only from people involved with comedies. In fact, the comedy crews also provided some of the more serious, thought-provoking themes during the confab.
Held in the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, panels populated with executives, creators and talent fielded questions about their upcoming projects and current shows.
Here is the first of two parts looking at some of the programming highlights:
The big excitement came first thing in the morning on ABC’s TCA day with the panel for the political thriller, which bows September 21. It’s Kiefer Sutherland’s return to series television after his vaunted role as counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer on “24.” Terrorism plays a part in this as well, at the beginning. After a devastating attack on the nation’s capital, Sutherland’s character, who plays a low-key cabinet member and family man, is the only survivor in the line of succession, the so-called “designated survivor,” subject to a little-known protocol that takes effect in such devastating circumstances. Before he can even don a change of clothing, he becomes the president of the United States.
Executive producers David Guggenheim (who wrote the script) and Simon Kinberg noted it has elements of” the West Wing,” “Homeland” and “House of Cards”—and even “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” as the Sutherland character, Tom Kirkman, is something of an innocent going into the presidency. But probably not for long.
Natascha McElhone plays First Lady Jessica Kirkman, and Kal Penn, who worked at the White House Office of Public Engagement during two separate stints in the Obama administration, portrays a presidential speechwriter. Maggie Q plays an FBI agent.
Sutherland said he wasn’t planning on doing another series until he got the script and gave it a cursory read. ”It was shaping up so beautifully. I realized I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life when I finished it,” he said. “I felt the script was so beautifully structured – the thriller aspect, the family drama, what happens to the kids, the sacrifices. It allows us on a political level to have discussions between left and right not in a divisive atmosphere.”
The actor said he’s partly modeling the character on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, including the spectacles that he wears. He also tipped his hat to his years playing CTU agent Bauer on Fox. “The greatest experience as an actor I’ve ever had was on ’24.’ Through 216 episodes, never once did I feel like I was playing the same character over and over. It was continually evolving.” (Sutherland is an executive producer on Fox’s upcoming “24: Legacy,” but said it’s unlikely he’ll appear in it.)
After the panel, I asked Sutherland about the differences between Bauer and Kirkman. “They both have strong moral compasses and are trying to do the right thing – but Jack was much more physical,” he said. Earlier, he had been asked what Bauer would think of his character. “He’s a pretty good-looking guy” the actor responded.
Starring Piper Perabo and Daniel Sunjata, the story is based on the real-life relationship between high-powered criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos (who is an executive producer) and longtime “Larry King Live” producer Wendy Walker. The new drama, set largely in a newsroom like CNN, will take over the Thursday night timeslot previously occupied by “Scandal” beginning September 22.
Perabo plays a cable news producer with a talent for manipulating guests on the program– and making headlines elsewhere–while Sunjata’s character, Jake Gregorian, is a legal ace who frequently appears on the show. Both apparently use each other to their own advantage.
“Just like the news media cycle is now 15 minutes, our show will move quickly,” said executive producer and co-creator Josh Berman. “The ends can justify the means if the end is justice. Jake is not going to seek out a client he knows is guilty. We will learn he has a soft spot for children. Unlike Mark, he gets very involved with cases from his hometown. Yes, he’ll bend the law – but he won’t break it.”
The most dramatic moment of the day came during the panel for the acclaimed comedy, which has heading into its third season. Creator Kenya Barris fought off tears of anger, sadness and frustration when a reporter asked about the percentage of the black audience for the show.
“I will be so happy when diversity is not a word,” Barris said. “Everything we’re happy to… I am so tired about diversity. These are amazing, talented actors and writers. It’s clouding the issue. Why can’t we just look at the show?”
Later in the panel, which also included cast members Yara Shahidi, Laurence Fishburne, Nicole Sullivan, Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson and the actors who play the latter couple’s children, Barris discussed the core concept.
“At its heart, the show is about three men experiencing life and how they remember it to be and how it is today. The women give it a different perspective. The superpower of the show is that we try to hit every angle without being schizophrenic. For so long, black culture was presented as monolithic. This family – what they have in common is they love each other–and we filter that in. I’ve never felt like ABC is pulling us back. We get to talk about serious things in a comedic way and people get to hear that message while laughing.”
“Kevin Can Wait”
Kevin James brings a lot of fond memories and a potentially sizable audience from his run on “The King of Queens,” which ended in 2007, and his fans from the two “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” movies.
In “Kevin Can Wait,” the affable actor is at the center of the story revolving around a group of retired cops – still in their 40s – who have big plans about what to do with the rest of their lives, but things do not turn out as they planned. In fact, they discover much bigger challenges at home than they did policing the streets. It’s based on men he knew on Long Island, and the show is shot there before a studio audience, much to his delight, on a stage built for them by CBS and Sony.
“We’re trying to keep it as real as possible,” James said, who noted this is the first time he’s played a dad in a sitcom. “There’s such a buzz like I’ve never felt before, as opposed to shooting a show in LA. We wanted to keep it authentic and Long Island plays a character in the show. It gives me something to hold onto.”
Erinn Hayes plays James’ wife, a role she insisted was not “a sidekick wife.” The couple has three kids.
“Erinn came in at the end, after we had met with hundreds of women,” said Rock Reuben, one of the show’s writers and executive producers. “There was immediate chemistry. When she walked out of the room, Kevin said, ‘Done.’”
After 10 years on “Grey’s Anatomy,” executive producers Joan Rater and Tony Phelan said “Please, no more medicine.”
“We wanted to tell the story of criminal defense attorneys who stand with you,” Phelan said about “Doubt,” which stars Katherine Heigl, Dule Hill, Laverne Cox– the first transgender lead on a network series, Steven Pasquale and Elliott Gould.
Cox plays an Ivy League-educated attorney, Cameron Wirth.
“I’m grateful to have a job as an actor,” said Cox. “In September 2012, I was standing in housing court in New York City with an eviction notice from my apartment, and I’m happy to have a job. What’s exciting about Cameron and being on CBS is that I’m an avid TV watcher. A lot of people in my community watch TV and there weren’t people like me when I was growing up.”
Heigl plays a successful defense attorney at a boutique law firm who gets romantically involved with one of her clients (Pasquale), who may or may not be guilty of a brutal crime.
“What’s fascinating about Sadie is her idealism, which is clouded by her feelings for a man,” Heigl said. “She’s struggling with it. We’re trying to keep it very relatable and human.”
Bringing back a beloved TV classic can be fraught with pitfalls, but the folks behind the new “MacGyver” are up for the challenge. The action-adventure series originally ran on ABC between 1985 and 1992. Lucas Till assumes the title role in the reboot, which from the get-go uses the character’s first name, Angus, a fact that wasn’t revealed until the very end of the original series.
There will be other differences, producers promised.
“With the family around him, we explore his character by having him interact with people close to him. It’s different but still stays true to the soul of the show,” said executive producer Peter Lenkov.” There’s really an emotional journey that MacGyver goes on when he’s betrayed by a member of his team. It’s a loss and betrayal that will play out through the season.”
The panel was asked about the notorious spoofs on “Saturday Night Live” featuring Will Forte as “MacGruber,” (Those sketches inspired the 2010 feature film, which fizzled at the box office.)
“We talk about MacGruber all the time. I would love to see Kenan Thompson play me,” said cast member Justin Hires.
“Star Trek: Discovery”
Already affectionately known as “STD,” the new Trek is the centerpiece of CBS All Access, the Eye’s digital distribution play and is due to premiere in January 2017. Inner fangirls and fanboys revealed themselves as reporters peppered showrunner Bryan Fuller with queries. He complied with lots of new information.
The series will take place in a pre-Captain Kirk era and will center around a female lieutenant commander on the starship — a role that has not yet been cast but that Fuller said would likely be played by an actor with “a level of diversity.”
“We have seen six iterations of ‘Star Trek’ from a captain’s point of view,” Fuller said. “This character won’t be a captain. It is an ensemble from a woman’s point of view.’
He said in doing his research he talked with Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, who is also a physician.
“It was interesting to send her outlines and start talking about the character and get her perspective on what it’s like for a woman in the sciences now when we still have a lot of issues with women and race, and how that’s going to be 250 years in the future when the world gets its s–t together and equality is a thing that’s more accepted.”
Fuller said the story will be told in a format akin to 13 serialized chapters that are part of a novel.
The days of being a female-centric network are well in the past as the CW has transformed into the place to be for superheroes, especially with the addition of “Supergirl.”
The centerpiece of its TCA presentations was a session called “What’s Next for Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: The Executive Producers.”
It also presented panels on “Frequency,” based on the sci-fi feature film from 2000 and “No Tomorrow,” a romantic fantasy/comedy based on a Brazilian television series.
The creative forces behind the superhero shows — Todd Helbing, Aaron Helbing, Andrew Kreisberg, Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Marc Guggenheim, Wendy Mericle and Phil Klemmer — clearly seem to love their jobs and each other’s programming. In fact, there was much discussion of crossovers of characters amongst the shows — specifically, a musical crossover between “Supergirl” and “The Flash.”
“Some of you may know my own personal love of musicals, and actors who have been in them,” Berlanti said. “And we have a number of people who can sing, across all the shows, who’ll be making some very exciting appearances in the back half of the year. That’s not to be confused with the crossover that we’ll be doing across the nights in late November, early December.”
The showrunners also revealed some casting news, including Dolph Lundgren appearing on “Arrow,” Sharon Leal joining “Supergirl” as Miss Martian and Christopher Wood returning as Mon-El, and the revelation that a character on the show — believed by many to be Winn Schott — will be exploring his sexuality.