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OPEN MIC BLOG
Hillary Atkin

Cable Highlights From TCA

Aug 16, 2016

It’s inevitable that there will be some verbal fireworks mixed in with the vast slate of programming presented at the cable portion of the TCA summer press tour held at the Beverly Hilton.

Last year, there was a media-manufactured showdown between Michael Lombardo and Chris Albrecht over the similarities of HBO’s “Ballers” and Starz’ “Survivor’s Remorse,” with Albrecht conclusively admonishing the assembled television journalists to behave themselves and ask appropriate questions.

And they did. With Lombardo having moved on and Casey Bloys taking his place three months ago as HBO’s programming chief, Bloys faced intense queries about rape scenes and the levels of violence against women in HBO shows including “Westworld,” “The Night Of” and “Game of Thrones.”

“I can tell you that violence, it’s not just specific to women. It’s indiscriminate. Plenty of men are killed as well,” Bloys said, and listed several examples of violence against men in HBO shows. Yet after that non-answer elicited further questions about female characters being raped, Bloys admitted, “I think the criticism is valid. It’s something that people should take into account. It’s not something we’re wanting to highlight.”

Along with HBO, cable nets including Starz, National Geographic Channel, EPIX, Viacom, Pop, Discovery Communications, TV One, Turner Networks, AMC Networks and Ovation presented program clips and panels with creators and talent throughout the tour.

Some, like Hallmark Channel, opted to showcase their programming including the just-launched “Chesapeake Shores” and Jon Voight’s “J.L. Family Ranch” during evening events. A+E Networks threw a breakfast spotlighting its acclaimed reality series “Born This Way.” NatGeo Wild sponsored a luncheon highlighting its upcoming miniseries event “Savage Kingdom.” Discovery hosted a themed party for its new original series “Harley and the Davidsons” at a fitting locale, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Also part of TCA cable, known as CTAM, a diversity panel with execs and talent from El Rey Network, Starz, TV One and WGN America. (Click here to see related article.)

Here are some of the program highlights presented during the sessions:

HBO

The premium pay cable network announced premiere dates for “Westworld” (Oct. 2), plus new comedies “Divorce” and “Insecure,” which bow October 9.

“Westworld” is a 10-episode science fiction thriller based on the 1973 film of the same name that explores a world in which every human desire — no matter how noble or depraved — can be indulged. The cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood.

“Insecure” looks at the friendship of two black women and their uncomfortable experiences and racy tribulations. It was created by Issa Rae, who stars alongside Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis and Lisa Joyce.

Sarah Jessica Parker toplines “Divorce,” which follows a woman who reassesses her life and her marriage and finds that making a clean break is more difficult than she imagined. Thomas Haden Church plays her husband, who struggles to cope with their relationship falling apart.

Hard to believe it’s been more than a dozen years since Parker wrapped the landmark comedy “Sex and the City.” She said she’s excited to return to single-camera series television on HBO, but that her character in “Divorce,” Frances, bears no similarities to Carrie Bradshaw — and that the new show will not feature drool-worthy fashion.

“The only time we were really cognizant of [the] distinction was when we started talking about the wardrobe and understanding the obvious connection between a skeleton and clothing,” Parker said. “But Frances is so much her own person, from the moment I read the pilot. She’s so distinct from, not only Carrie, but any other character I had ever played.”

During its half-day session, HBO also ran panels on the eight-part crime drama “The Night Of” and Danny McBride’s comedy “Vice Principals,” both of which premiered last month.

National Geographic Channel

The channel’s big-budget six-part series “Mars” is being billed as a global event. It promises to launch viewers further into outer space than ever before and redefine television storytelling by combining scripted drama and VFX with documentary sequences, all in service of a thrilling quest to colonize the red planet in the year 2033.

The series was inspired by Stephen Petranek’s book “How We’ll Live on Mars,” and influenced by Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” the book upon which last year’s blockbuster feature film starring Matt Damon was based. Both authors participated in the panel on the series, which is being produced by Imagine Entertainment and Radical Media.

“Continent 7: Antarctica” also examines a hostile environment, the most brutal one on planet Earth. The documentary series was shot in conditions where temperatures dropped to 100 degrees below zero and winds gusted more than 200 mph. Although it is incredibly uncomfortable for human beings, there is a community of fearless people whose work throws them in the path of these challenges on the continent and plays a vital role in scientific research, including marine ecologist Ari Friedlaender and field engineers Tom Arnold and JJ Kelley.

“Killing Reagan” follows in the footsteps of the network’s three most-watched programs, “Killing Lincoln,” “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Jesus.” The two-hour telefilm, based on the bestseller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, explores how the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan affected the rest of his presidency. The two-hour telefilm stars Tim Matheson as the Gipper and Cynthia Nixon as first lady Nancy Reagan.

EPIX

It was EPIX’s first TCA and network president and CEO Mark Greenberg and EVP original programming Jocelyn Diaz showcased three programs in various genres aimed at upping its game in presenting original content, as the network is mainly known for running popular feature films.

“America Divided” is a docuseries executive produced by Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes and Common. Premiering next month – timed to the run-up of the presidential election – it examines inequality in politics, criminal justice, education, housing, labor and health care through the eyes of high-profile personalities including actors America Ferrera and Peter Sarsgaard. Lear himself reports on the housing crisis in New York City and hip-hop artist Common goes to his hometown of Chicago to look at disparities in the criminal justice system.

“Berlin Station “is a 10-episode spy series premiering October 16 starring Richard Armitage as a CIA officer who goes from being an analyst at Langley to an undercover agent in Berlin tasked with finding a whistleblower, perhaps modeled on Edward Snowden.

“Berlin has a long history of flirting with radical politics and protecting whistleblowers,” said creator and executive producer Olen Steinhauer. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to set it there, in one of the most fascinating and culturally alive cities in Europe.”

He noted that producers were working on this before Showtime’s “Homeland” produced its Season 5 last year in Berlin.

“Both deal with the world of intelligence but one of the crucial differences is that in ‘Homeland,’ you’re following Carrie. That’s not how intelligence works – it’s a group working together. Intelligence is an ensemble. In our show, Berlin is a character and we were insistent on keeping things real.”

In “Graves,” none other than Nick Nolte portrays a former president of the United States as he embarks on a Don Quixote-like quest to right the wrongs of his administration and reclaim a different and better legacy 25 years after leaving the White House. He’s in pursuit of atonement and seeking redemption. Although billed as a comedy, the series looks at topics ranging from gay rights to immigration, along with foreign policy and public funding for arts and sciences. Sela Ward portrays the former first lady, who decides it’s time to pursue her own political ambitions.

“Richard Graves is a little like Reagan, a lot like LBJ, with some Bill Clinton thrown in,” said creator and showrunner Josh Michael Stern. “I was determined to establish him as divisive and the composite was intentional.”

“There are elements of Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama. It’s a delicious composite but uniquely her own,” said Ward about her character.

Viacom/MTV

“Loosely Exactly Nicole” is a new comedy about a woman living the Hollywood dream – or as close to it as she can get–which is in the far end of the San Fernando Valley. And it’s not so much of a dream for Nicole Byer, but a struggle. The real Nicole Byer stars as Nicole Byer, out on her own for the first time and enduring humiliating auditions, the struggle to pay her bills and the battlefield that is online dating. The show premieres September 5.

Another MTV comedy, “Mary + Jane,” also premieres September 5. It’s a single camera half-hour about two twenty-something best friends who run an all-female marijuana delivery service in Los Angeles, starring Scout Durwood and Jessica Rothe as Jordan and Paige. Their, um, dope delivery app keeps their customers happy and high as it quickly gains popularity with some of LA’s finest: celebrities, hipsters and foodies.

AMC Networks

A fan and critical favorite, IFC’s “Documentary Now!” returns for a second run with Fred Armisen and Bill Hader sending up familiar documentaries and the genre as a whole. Among the mockumentary’s next spoofs, the “SNL” alums’ version of the 1969 Albert and David Maysles film “Salesman,” as well as a piece called “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice,” which parodies David Gelb’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”

IFC also promoted a new horror comedy series, “Stan Against Evil,” centered on a disgruntled former lawman named Stan who must join forces with the new strong-willed female sheriff in town to fight off a plague of unleashed demons that are haunting their quaint New England burg.

Sundance TV showcased what will be the final season of “Rectify,” which follows the life of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) who returns to his Georgia hometown after serving 19 years on death row and must cope with the travails of normal life. This season takes him to Nashville to start a new life after he’s banished from his hometown as part of a plea deal.

Pop

The fledgling network, launched in January 2015 as a joint venture of CBS and Lionsgate and focusing on fan culture, held an executive session with its president, Brad Schwartz, followed by a presentation on a new horror series.

“Wolf Creek” is inspired by the 2005 movie (and a 2014 sequel) bearing the same title and features John Jarratt reprising his role as the murdering psychopath Mick Taylor, who wreaks havoc in the Australian Outback. The films’ writer, director and producer Greg McLean executive produces the TV series, which features a genre-bending twist when one of the victims survives Taylor’s attack, which killed her parents and her brother, and seeks vengeance against Taylor.

Turner

TruTV showcased two unscripted series, “Billy on the Street” and “Adam Ruins Everything.” Season 5 guest stars on “Billy” include Aziz Ansari, Jon Hamm, Lupita Nyong’o, John Oliver and Seth Rogen, who will join pop culture provocateur Billy Eichner as he takes to the streets of New York City to surprise, delight and sometimes piss off unsuspecting pedestrians.

“With the celebrities, we don’t know if they’ll be good,” Eichner said. “They very rarely come on to promote a project. If they say yes, they want to engage with people on the street.”

New episodes of “Adam Ruins Everything” premiere on August 23. Host and comedian Adam Conover will tackle topics ranging from football and weddings to drugs and prison. An election special is scheduled October 25, when Adam will explain everything you need to know before entering the voting booth on Election Day.

“We don’t want the show to be glib,” said Conover. “We respect the gravity of the topic even though we are a comedy show.”

From TBS come two new comedies, “People of Earth” and “Search Party.” “People of Earth” is executive produced by Greg Daniels and David Jenkins and centers on a support group for alien abductees. Wyatt Cenac plays a skeptical journalist who investigates members of the group in order to write about the supposed alien encounters. But the more he digs into their claims, the more he realizes there is truth in what they say, leading him to a surprising turning point in the knowledge that life could exist beyond our planet. Ana Gasteyer and Oscar Nuñez costar.

“Search Party” is a mystery-comedy with an ensemble cast playing self-absorbed twenty-somethings who get entangled in a mystery over the sudden disappearance of a former college friend named Chantal.

“It’s a satirical take on millennial culture, but the search for Chantal enters deeper, darker dangers than they are capable of handling,” said executive producer Charles Rogers. “Superficiality and selfishness are part of the show.”

TNT promoted the upcoming thriller, “Good Behavior,” starring Michelle Dockery. If a role could be more than 360° from that of her aristocratic Lady Mary Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” this is it. Dockery plays a thief and con artist named Letty whose life seems to be always one step away from imploding– and that’s the way she likes it. But she soon finds herself on a collision course with a hired hitman, (Juan Diego Botto) a journey which sees both of them getting entangled in a dangerous and seductive relationship.

“She finds it hard to exist like other people and she gets bored really easily, trying to escape the pain of who she is. She’s so colorful, raw and fascinating to play. I’m loving every minute,” Dockery said about her character. “You can’t really compare the show to anything. It was like nothing else I’ve ever read before. It’s very difficult to put it in a genre but our director said the genre is ‘poetic noir,’ but as much as it is dark, it can be light.”

“Javier is a guy who kills people for money. Otherwise, he’s a very nice guy and has a strong moral code,” said Botto.

Ovation

The network’s upcoming drama “Versailles,” premiering October 1, is set against a backdrop of power, love, betrayal and war in 1667, the beginning of a defining period in French history. George Blagden portrays King Louis XIV, a monarch who will stop at nothing to achieve his vision of creating the most beautiful palace in Europe and seizing absolute control of France – and power over his enemies. The producers promise that it will take the period genre to new dimensions and inject a vibrant modernity into an era that placed France at the epicenter of glamour, culture and fashion.

Starz

Cult favorite “Ash vs Evil Dead,” starring Bruce Campbell, returns for a second season with Ash leaving his beloved Jacksonville and returning to his hometown of Elk Grove where he confronts Ruby, a former enemy. The two form an uneasy alliance to fight off the evil that envelops the town. Bloody chainsaw battles ensue. New cast members include Lee Majors, Ted Raimi and Michele Hurd as Ash’s father, his childhood best friend and his high school sweetheart.

Season 3 of the popular drama “Power” finds James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) out of the drug business and in a rekindled relationship with his first love, Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), the assistant U.S. attorney sworn to bring him to justice. But leaving Ghost’s criminal past behind results in a new set of consequences that put the happy couple in the center of a dangerous new game.

“It was exciting to see how people responded,” said Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who is an executive producer and plays Kanan in the series. “I wrote that screenplay three times before pitching it as a series.”

Starz’s new drama, “American Gods,” is based on the best-selling novel by Neil Gaiman that blends ancient and modern mythology. Its protagonist, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) becomes the bodyguard and traveling partner of Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a modern-day con man who is in reality one of the older gods. They go on a cross-country mission to gather forces in preparation to battle the new deities, the gods of money and technology. The series was created by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and supporting cast includes Pablo Schreiber, Crispin Glover and Cloris Leachman.

“I heard ‘don’t f— it up’ so many times,” said Green. ”It was a constant process of rising to the challenges.”

TV One

The network previewed two original movies, “Ringside” (September 4) and “Media” (January 2017). “Ringside” tells the story of an undefeated boxer who prepares for a game-changing fight while being taunted by his outrageous belt-holding opponent and his corrupt former manager. Other distractions include his rapper brother and a trouble-plagued sister.

“Our lead character has a master’s degree– he didn’t come up from the streets,” said Russ Parr, who wrote and directed “Ringside.” “The most important thing was humanizing the characters and delving into the relationships, which made for a great backdrop.”

“Media” centers on the wealthy and powerful Jones family who run a conglomerate that has dominated the national urban media scene for decades. The cast includes Penny Johnson Jerald, who said she fell in love with the script after reading five pages of it, along with Denise Boutte, Pooch Hall, Stephen Bishop and Finesse Mitchell.

“There’s an expectation when you see urban media and I wanted to expand that,” said writer Kevin Arkadie. “We have a need between ‘Power’ and ‘Empire.’ There are plenty of stories in between.”

Discovery Channels

Investigation Discovery highlighted the riveting documentary “Southwest of Salem: the Story of the San Antonio Four,” which chronicles the wrongful imprisonment of four Latina lesbians convicted of gang-raping two little girls more than 20 years ago. Their convictions were based solely on the testimony of two children and flawed medical evidence. The women always maintained their innocence and are still waging their fight to be legally exonerated of the crimes. The four even had to get a judge’s approval to travel to Los Angeles in order to attend the panel. They said their lives have been shattered– some have even been required to register as sex offenders– but with their attorneys, are keeping up the fight to finally clear their names.

Animal Planet featured a film which dives into the wonderfully eccentric world of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, “Million Dollar Duck.” The contest generates funds to preserve wetlands to the tune of $25 million. Filmmaker Brian Golden Davis follows six wildlife artist striving to win what is considered the Olympics of wildlife art, part of a subculture brimming with talent, ego, controversy, big money – and migratory waterfowl.

Discovery Channel put forth some hell on wheels, the scripted period piece “Harley and the Davidsons,” which charts the birth of the iconic motorcycle company and founders Walter and Arthur Davidson and Bill Harley at the turn of the 20th century.

“It was like a dream to ride a replica of what’s in the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee,” said Michiel Huisman, who plays Walter Davidson. “I’m not a mechanic, but I had [motorcycle fabricator] Alex Wheeler and four other guys behind me at all times.”

“Harley-Davidson opened up its archives to research and gave us lots of historical background that was instrumental in forming the characters and story,” said executive producer Dimitri Doganis. “We were editorially independent and there was no financial arrangement but we did as much as humanly possible to be respectful of their legacy.”

The series runs three nights, September 5-7. Viewers will discover the road to success for the company was paved with innumerable obstacles, ruthless competitors and extraordinary risks.

Sounds like the television business.

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