Friday, January 30, 2009

JJ Abrams talks Fringe, Star Trek

Recently, as Fox held its "2009 Winter All-Star Party" at a Hollywood hotspot called Our House, I cornered JJ Abrams at the end of the night to get some behind-the-scenes insight into his newest hit series Fringe, as well as a sneak peek into his upcoming big screen rendition of Star Trek.

Must Hear TV:  Okay, first of all, on Fringe, what kind of explanation can I wring out of you about all the symbols – the frog, the leaf, the butterfly, etc. 

JJ Abrams:  There is sort of a code to that. 

MHTV:  Planned from the beginning?  You’re not just messing with us with random stuff? 

JJA:  It’s not random.  It’s the images and where the lights are, and it’s a whole thing.

MHTV:  So that’s a clue?  We should go back and freeze frame it?

JJA:  I wouldn’t ask anyone to spend their time doing that, but some people might…  It’s the kind of thing that I for some reason get excited about, which is either strange or odd or pathetic.  I don’t know.  But I love those kind of things.

MHTV:  For example, there was the episode where the guy was killed by hallucinating butterflies -- are those the same butterflies as in the code?  Do some of these symbols then turn up in episodes?

JJA:  There are some things that are definitely connected to some of the imagery.  And there are other things, too, that will happen.  But that code thing is sort of a separate thing.  And there are clues in every episode about the next episode.

MHTV:  Well that certainly clears it up.  How closely should we be watching each episode for hidden clues?

JJA:  What I love about what started to happen is that we started to find the rhythm and voice of the show.  The episodes that started airing this month [January 2009] really are the beginning of those episodes.  They are what Fringe is.  What’s fun is that there are a lot of loose ends that get wrapped up and separate pieces that may have felt standalone actually have reason and purpose.

MHTV:  Your shows are known for their complex plotlines.  Do you plan the whole mystery and story arc before writing episode 1, or are you doing a little as you go along?

JJA:  It’s always a leap of faith.  You do things that you think, “This is cool and I have an idea where this could go.”  We’ll have an idea where we need to go, and then put [plot points] on the board or have cards or whatever.  But a lot of times as you’re working on it, you say, “Wait a minute, I know we talked about this being that.  But what if this is why this happened?”   You could figure out right now what you want to wear ever day for the next 5 years.  But I promise you 3 ½ years from now, you’re going to wake up and there will be a combination you could never have anticipated.  So you don’t try to figure out literally every episode.  There’s no time when you’re working on a pilot to say, ”In episode 106…”  But you can say,  “Okay, I think I know why Walter was put away.”  And the leap of faith is you’ll either land on those ideas or a better one.

MHTV:  In another example, you planted the clue “Little Hill” – the phrase that Peter is able to construct from just a series of vertical lines.  Then, a few episodes later, we learn that it’s a crucial location.  How many episodes do you have to be writing at a time in order to do that?

JJA:  We knew what “Little Hill” what it was going to be, but not exactly how that was going to play out.  For example, if we had had a better idea by the time Jones was broken out, we would have used that.

MHTV:  So Little Hill would have been something else other than a field?

JJA:  Well it certainly could have been.  There are sometimes when an idea will come up, and it’ll work to pay off something, but it’s also clearly a setup for something else.  And all that matters in that episode is that the payoff works.  And then you go, “Ooh, now I have this other thing!”  The best analogy I can think of is Tarzan swinging through vines.  All you need to know is that the vine you’re on is going to sustain, and you’re going to swing along.  And you pray to God there’s another vine when that vine has to swing backwards.  So you work it out the best you can, but you’ve got to trust that there’s something that will come that’s either as good as or hopefully better than where you think this is going to take you.

MHTV:  How much do you worry about the plausibility of all this technology? How much suspension of disbelief are you expecting?

JJA:  What’s very funny to me, like in the pilot, no one said to me, "Wait a minute, so she’s able to go into his consciousness—"

MHTV:  --in her supermodel bra and panties, by the way –

JJA:  --Yeah, you’re welcome.  But what we did hear was, “Wait a minute.  There’s a lab they’re not using -- at Harvard?!”  The stuff that people have problems with are the things that they can relate to.  If someone’s floating, they don’t have a problem with it.  But if Olivia is floating and her hair is perfect, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, like her hair is going to be like that!”  And I’m like, “They’re f-ing floating!  How about that?!”

MHTV:  Where do Fringe’s ideas, like for example the floating, come from?

JJA:  From just sitting around and thinking, “Okay, this is weird, but—“  Most everything is just something I’d like to see.  [In the case of the flotation tank], that was absolutely a complete homage – or if you don’t want the French, rip off – of Altered States.  It is one of my favorite movies.  I have one of the makeup heads from it.  I love that movie.

MHTV:  Speaking of movies, with Star Trek, what was your biggest filmmaking challenge?

JJA:  It was a very ambitious shoot.  So there are a lot of sequences that were challenging.  But it was the most fun I’ve ever had.  It was as hard as everything I’ve ever worked on, rolled into just a quarter of that movie.  It was a huge production.  It was so tricky.  For one thing, having never done a movie, or a show, that took place in space before, it screws with your perception of scale.  It’s like being in Las Vegas.  “Oh, there’s that hotel.  I’m going to walk over there.”  And a half an hour later you’re still walking, thinking, “What the f- is going on?”  An establishing shot in Star Trek can’t be a house or a building or a city – it’s a planet.  It changes everything about how you look at scale.

MHTV:  How daunting are the expectations of the movie?  Does it make you nervous to live up to the Trekkies?  And are you one?

JJA:  Yeah, a little bit.  I want to do them proud and make sure that they’re happy.  And me, I’m a new Trekkie.  I’m a Trekkie now, but I never was.  I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t I love Star Trek now.  Not just loving what I did, but loving the world of it, the optimism, the characters.  I get it in a way that I never did before.

MHTV:  Sci-fi fans can be so exacting, and mean when they don’t like something…

JJA:  But I’m also beholden to them.  Those are the people who watch Fringe.  Those fans are the people I’m making the movie for, so I hope they’re happy with it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Girls Live On and On

I love The Golden Girls as much as -- or more than -- anyone.  But this is ridiculous (and hilarious, and more than a bit creepy...!)

Pistol Youth - In My Eyes from Pistol Youth on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tracey Ullman back to check the State of the Union

On Sunday, April 12, Tracey Ullman will return to Showtime with season 2 of her show State of the Union.

At today's TCA, Ullman appeared with her fellow executive producer -- and husband of 25 years -- Allan McKeown and talked about the process of playing so many different characters.  Ullman and her crew shot season 2 last fall -- 7 new episodes in 3 weeks -- adding an extra challenge to playing Arianna Huffington because the presidential election hadn't yet been decided.  As a result, Ullman and her fellow writer Bruce Wagner came up with alternate endings -- an Obama and a McCain -- for those sketches.  "There was very low enthusiasm [when we were filming] the McCain endings," McKeown remembered.

Also in the political vein, Tracey -- who recently became a U.S. citizen after 25 years living here -- now "takes on" (to use a phrase from her earlier HBO show) Laura Bush.  "I was just obsessed with Laura Bush," she admitted.  "I know that by the time the show goes on, she'll be back in Crawford and it'll be 115 degrees," surrounded by her "objets d'art and trying to fit in."

Among her favorites from State of the Union's first season, Huffington will be back, as will singing pharmacist Padma and her spot-on take on a squinting Renee Zellweger.  And she'll be adding plenty more.  This year, Tracey impersonates Jonah Hill.  ("I'm never keen seeing Tracey dressed up like a guy.  She always tries to kiss me and it upsets me," McKeown admits.)  She's always watching odd people, she says, getting ideas.  And listening to NPR.  Then, it's time to write.

"Bruce Wagner and I sit and throw out ideas all day together, and you write.  To impersonate actual people is something I started to do [only] on State Of The Union.  I hadn't done that before -- I always thought it was SNL's domain.  But i thought if i'm going to do a trip across America, I should do some celebrities to add flavor to the show.  But I'm not Rich Little.  I didn't want to be Sarah Palin, which i think Tina Fey nailed and was a genius thing.  I wanted to be that lesbian Sarah Palin talked about who was her best friend for years.  Where was she -- Juneau?"  

In the resulting show, tied together with a voice-over narration by Peter Strauss, Tracey plays a plethora of characters as they live and breathe one day in America dawn to dusk, in pieces lasting no longer than two minutes.  The show has a lot of similarities to Little Britain -- and particularly to HBO's current Little Britain, USA, which is also set on a trip thru the States.  But a format framed by voice-over is nothing new, Tracey says of the similarity.  Plus, McKeown points out, whereas Little Britain is all sketch comedy, State of the Union has Tracey playing the truth in realistic American characters first, with punchlines coming second.

I asked Tracey if characters her fans (like me) love from her earlier series -- like Francesca, being raised by two gay dads on The Tracey Ullman Show, or Fern Rosenthal, the Jewish Florida matron from Tracey Takes On -- might ever pop up on this newest show.  Fern, she realized, thinking quickly, would be perfect:  she's undoubtedly a Bernie Madoff victim.  So although all of this season's episodes are already in the can, don't be surprised to see Fern kvelling on Showtime should there be a Season 3.

But there are other things about her older shows Tracey is happy to leave behind.  Watching Tracey Takes On now, she says, she's struck by how each character scene seems to go on forever.  Now, she says, doing these quickie bits of characters is much more in fitting with the times, with our "youtube mentality."

And, of course, it also offers her the chance to cram in so many more personalities.  "I can't do a show where I play just one character," she admitted.  "Even if I love playing a character and have a great time, at the end of the day I say 'What are we going to do tomorrow?'  I just have that energy.  And until I get too old, that's what i'm going to do.  Then I can do Murder She Wrote where I live in Cornwall and solve mysteries."

Tracey Ullman's State of the Union
Season 2 Premiere
Sunday, April 12

The L Word Goes out on Top

This Sunday night at 9 PM, Ilene Chaiken's groundbreaking Showtime drama The L Word enters its final season, with one storyline providing a framework for the season:  who killed Jenny Schechter?

As Chaiken told critics at today's TCA convention in Los Angeles, her show is going out on top.  Season 6, she says, is the show's strongest.  "We've had our ups and our downs, but it has all come together."

When asked why Showtime has chosen to promote the show this season by revealing Jenny's death, rather than using it as a big bang surprise during this weekend's opening installment, Chaiken didn't question the network's wisdom.  The mystery angle will be eminently promotable.  And Jenny's demise, she said, "happens in the first 20 seconds of the episode."

Guests to look forward to this season will include Xena lesbian icon Lucy Lawless and gay camp icon from Showgirls Elizabeth Berkley.

And let's not forget the show's fabulous cast, who was in attendance, including another icon, Pam Grier, as well as Leisha Hailey, Laurel Holloman, Katherine Moennig and the incredibly beautiful Jennifer Beals.

Beals spoke eloquently about how much The L Word has meant to its fans -- not just as entertainment, but as a lifesaver for questioning women and men.  She remembers one older lesbian couple who won walk-on roles on the show as an auction prize; the show, they told her, had inspired them late in life to come out to their families.  And Beals began to cry when she recounted other stories of how much the show has meant.
I told Ilene when we started this show, "I want this show to change the world!"   And she said, "Calm down, it's just a TV show."  I want the show to be for that young girl in the middle of nowhere who decides that she's gay and has no one and has to come out to her family.  I want her to turn on the television and have her see the most
 fabulous, resourceful version of herself shown back to her.  I recently got a letter from a young woman who told me she had just come out.  She was 16 years old.  She said it was the loneliest time of her life.  And she said by watching the show, the show had saved her life.  Because she had contemplated killing herself. And that by realizing there were other people who were out there like her and there was a larger community to which she belonged, and in which one day she might be able to take part, she was encouraged.

Beals went on to compare the show to Flashdance, where her character was also an "other," or outsider.  In Flashdance, she says, the woman finds her outlet in dancing.

[On The L Word], in playing this character, it's an extension of what it means to be "other."  I don't know what role will be next.  but what will be the most difficult thing to do is to find something that is written as well and as helpful as [The L Word] has been to people.

The L Word
Season 6 Premiere
Sunday, January 18, 2009
9 PM Eastern

Secret Diary from the Lady Garden

If you're looking to Showtime for some more soft-core porn, like their famous old series Red Shoe Diaries, you may be out of luck.  

The British-made Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which begins its second U.S. season on Showtime this Sunday night, January 18, won't be bringing you the full Monty -- or the full Marie, for that matter.

Although star Billie Piper is often called on to show her naked backside -- "the diet starts when I get back home," the actress, who had a baby a mere 11 weeks back, admitted to the critics at the TCA today.  "It's so hard here.  The portions are so large, and the food is so delicious" -- she will never be asked to show what the show's producer Rebecca de Souza quoted a gentleman as euphemistically calling her "lady garden."  

But will we ever see any of Billie's character Belle's clients' "man gardens," shall we say?  No -- mostly.  The male actors on the show are required to wear "modesty sacs," as they're known, which Piper says are really no more than "penis socks.  They're horrible.  You do end up being able to see, and by the end they're falling off..."  And I learned something about Britain's broadcast standards, too.  "You can't see [penises] ready for action.  That's the rule," de Souza clarified.

So much for Big Ben.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl
Season 2
Premieres Sunday, January 18
10:30 PM

NCIS Spinoff in the works

Legendary TV writer/creator Don Bellisario doesn't use the word spinoff when referring to his series NCIS, which was first introduced as a special episode of Bellisario's earlier show JAG.

But today at the TCA, CBS President Nina Tassler referred to a new NCIS "spinoff," which will be now introduced in exactly the same way:  as an episode of the ever-growing Tuesday night hit.  According to Tassler:

It's happening.  We're doing it... We've seen an outline.  We're in great shape, and we're just waiting to get the script, but we're going to cast, and we're going to shoot...

More to come...!

Breaking news: L Word spinoff details

Today at the TCA convention in Los Angeles, Showtime president Robert Greenblatt leaked a few details about the highly anticipated L Word spinoff (which according to, is currently titled The Farm.)

As had previously been reported, the spinoff will star Leisha Hailey (aka Alice), who will unfortunately be going to prison.  There, she'll be joined by a whole new cast of characters, only some of whom are lesbians, played by such well-known and hottie actresses as Famke Janssen, and Roseanne's Laurie Metcalf, last seen in the underappreciated and quickly-cancelled CW series Easy Money.

When asked if the new show could be considered a female version of HBO's infamously brutal drama Oz, Greenblatt replied, "That might be a good comparison."

More as they happen, including further details from L Word creator Ilene Chaiken when the L Word panel begins at 3 PM Pacific time today.

CBS uses a euphemism for the "C" word for Swingtown

This morning at the TCA convention in Los Angeles, CBS network president Nina Tassler inched a step further in saying goodbye to Swingtown, although she still never said the official word:  cancelled.  But that's not a cause for hope, fans.  It's gone.
One thing that we're really proud of is the execution of Swingtown.  It was a terrific show and, look, I'm happy to report it ended up on over a half dozen Top Ten lists from 2008.  So at the end of the day, I think the show was well-executed.  It was well-received.  The performances were great.  And in many regards it I think that show was also a victim of the [writers'] strike, but it was a risk, and we took it, and we're proud of it and certainly would take it again.

When asked to confirm whether that meant Swingtown might still have a shot at resurrection, Tassler shook her head no.

No.  We're not going back to Swingtown right now.

Sorry, swingers!  But if it's the '70s you want, there's always ABC's Life On Mars...

John Mayer Live on CBS?

This morning at the TCA convention in Los Angeles, CBS President Nina Tassler confirmed that the network is indeed "pretty close to closing our deal" with singer John Mayer for a new musical/sketch/variety show.  Looks like NBC and Rosie Live! didn't kill the genre after all.

As of now, Tassler said, there will just be a pilot -- which could lead either to a further series of specials, or to a regular series.  "We're just going to shoot the pilot now, see what we have, and make a decision after that," confirmed the network prez.

Meet Tara -- and T, and Alice, and Buck

This Sunday, January 18, Showtime will begin airing its newest season of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, as well as the final season of The L Word.

As part of that new lineup, the pay cable network will also premiere a new "dramedy," The United States of Tara.  The show, starring Toni Collette as a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities), comes from writer Diablo Cody, who this past year won an Oscar for the screenplay to Juno.

The Tara idea, however, originated with none other than Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg and Showtime president Robert Greenblatt then came across Cody's Juno screenplay, nine months before the film even went into production, and, loving her original voice, hired her to flesh out the idea to series.

So, how much about Tara will be as quirky as Juno?  Well, the show definitely is funny, and honest. Tara's alternate personalities (teenager T; Alice, a Donna Reed-like housewife; Buck, a macho man in a trucker hat) definitely know that they're inhabiting her body.  And even more intriguingly, Tara and her family -- including her gay son Marshall, played by Keir Gilchrist, who was so funny as the kid on the short-lived Fox sitcom The Winner opposite Rob Corddry -- are "out" about her disorder; it's not a secret, kept from a nosy Mrs. Kravitz.  "Your neighbor could talk openly about being on an antidepressant, or their kid taking ritalin," Cody theorized.  "So it seemed unrealistic for it to be this huge taboo in town. ...Obviously some people are frightened, but others are intrigued.  And I think that would be the natural response to something like this."

Cody was also careful to explain that the series doesn't spring entirely from her imagination -- particularly the details about the real-life condition DID.  "I've been able in the past to use my imaginations for situations I've never been in, but in this case, when you're dealing with a sensitive topic like this, you absolutely have to do your homework."

"I didn't want to make fun because [the condition] is serious and comes from a sad place," Collette agreed.  "With all the research everyone's done, it's very personal.  I have a friend who had experience with DID who was blown away by how realistic it was."

In fact, Collette pointed out it was the pilot script for Tara that convinced her to do TV at all.  "I never had any aspirations to work in TV but I picked up this script one day from my agent and read it immediately," she explained.  "As soon as I closed last page turned to my husband and said, 'I have to do this.'  It was so delicious to read, so original and unusual, it's a complete dream for an actor.  It is about a woman with a mental illness, but it goes beyond that, into how a family lives and makes that quite normal for their lives.  It's incredibly funny but also moving and very real.  I like stories you can't fit into a box and that you can relate to as a human being."

The United States of Tara
Premieres Sunday, January 18, 2009
10 PM Eastern

What gives it such a Big Bang?

This past Monday, CBS' sitcoms Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother scored record ratings.  For Big Bang, it was both the highest overall and adults 18-49 ratings ever.  For HIMYM, it was also the show's record best in the demo, and its second highest overall numbers ever.

And so one of the questions reporters asked CBS' President Nina Tassler at the TCA conference in Los Angeles this morning:  why do you think Big Bang Theory has taken off this season?  Is it a matter of scheduling, or has the show just gotten -- to borrow a phrase from HIMYM's Barney -- awesome?Tassler's theory:  it's all in the writing, yes, but particularly in the supporting characters.  "One of the things great showrunners do," she said, "is ensure that they fully dimensionalize the supporting characters.  And so there have been episodes with Koothrappali and Wolowitz this season that have been truly hysterical."  By opening up a show's story potential by enriching the lives of not just the leads but of all of its characters, a writer/showrunner like Chuck Lorre is constructing a template for a comedy whose comedy will hold up even "into its later seasons."

Sounds like CBS is high on Big Bang -- and they have every right to be.  The show, and another CBS newbie Gary Unmarried on Wednesday, are the sole new multicamera hits to be introduced on the Big 5 networks in years.  And this morning, when Tassler was asked about CBS' future plans and development, she repeatedly mentioned the network's pride in having successfully opened a new night of comedy on Wednesday, with Gary and a relocated The New Adventures of Old Christine.

More news from Tassler and CBS to come...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

President Obama in the Dollhouse?

Yes, I knew Obama was about to move into a new house, but the Dollhouse? ...  

Let me explain.  Today at TCA, Fox presented a panel of the producers and stars of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's highly anticipated series about a unit of "dolls," men and women whose memories and identies are hollowed out, only to be refilled anew each week to go on a mission or fulfill a fantasy.

(The show had worried fans by going back to the drawing board recently; Whedon, who appeared on live link from Boston, says that the original pilot was not a true example of what the show would ultimately be.)

On the panel was lead actress Eliza Dushku, as well as her co-stars Tahmoh Penikett, Fran Kranz, Dichen Lachman, and Harry Lennix.

You may recognize Lennix from his recurring role as a very Obama-like president on HBO's hilarious comedy Little Britain, USA.  I asked him if it might be odd, now that the HBO comedy has been renewed for a second season, to be simultaneously filming a comedic role as a hopefully noble president, and a more mysterious role on Whedon's new drama.  The answer:  he hadn't yet heard about Little Britain's renewal, but called the show's stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams "geniuses" and said he hopes that in their show's upcoming season, his U.S. president will get a second term.

premieres on Fox
Friday, February 13, 2009
9 PM Eastern

Arrested Development of Arrested Development movie

When Mitch Hurwitz appeared at the TCA this afternoon to promote his upcoming Fox animated series Sit Down, Shut Up, he was of course peppered with questions about the status of the long-gestating movie version of Arrested Development.

As of now, he says, the news is that there's no news.  As far as rounding up Arrested's cast goes, Hurwitz said he had hoped he had something big to announce today, but it hasn't happened yet.  And although in front of the critics he joked that he already knew the movie's plot -- it's Valkyrie meets Hotel For Dogs, he said -- later the writer admitted that the script, too, is yet to be.

But for you fans of the Bluth clan, you can take solace in that the always hilarious Will Arnett and Jason Bateman are reunited with Hurwitz in Sit Down, Shut Up.  And, since Hurwitz told me that his actors often do improv some lines, many of which then have made it into these first 13 episodes, we can look forward to some great stuff.

Sit Down, Shut Up
Premieres on Fox Sunday, April 19
8:30 PM Eastern

Fox wants you to Lie to Me

Here are some truths I've learned on this morning's panel for Lie to Me, the new hour-long drama on FOX starring Tim Roth as a consultant who uses psychological research and observation to determine from our "non-verbal communication" whether we're telling the truth.

1)  Roth will be playing his character as British, because perfecting an American dialect is "extra work."  "When you have long days, do you really need that extra work?" he says, while also admiring Hugh Laurie, the Brit-to-American standard-bearer with his accent on House.

2)  According to Dr. Paul Ekman, the real-life basis for Roth's character, people often freak out when meeting him that he'll know their deepest, darkest secrets.  He reminds them that while body language betrays their emotions, there is no way for him to know their thoughts, so their deepest, darkest secrets are safe.  That part is true.  He also tells them he can discern things from behavior only from videotape.  That part is a lie.

3)  Whereas Lie to Me seems suspiciously like CBS' Simon Baker hit The Mentalist, Lie To Me, from the questions the producers and cast were fielding this morning, seems to concentrate much more literally on facial expression and behavior.  (The show's slogan:  "The truth is written all over our faces.")  From what I can discern Simon Baker's Patrick Jane seems to be more of an all-around Columbo type, noticing that a piece of furniture has been moved, or predicting from his knowledge of human nature that a secret password would be hidden in a certain book on a bookshelf.

4)  And more importantly, as producers Brian Grazer and Samuel Baum point out, The Mentalist is a cop show.  There are murders.  Bank robberies.  Lie To Me will cover many different areas of subject matter.  And whereas The Mentalist is about a former scam artist using his flim-flam skills to trip up the baddies, "our show is based on actual science," says actor Brendan Hines.

5)  According to Ekman, anyone can check out this actual science on his internet site, to learn how to "read microexpressions."  But, he warns, it can be a dangerous skill.  Do you really want to know?  "You may sometimes be confronted with painful truths.  But it's a matter of faith:  we're better off knowing the truth."

Lie To Me
Debuts Wednesday, January 21, 2009
9 PM Eastern

'Til Death renewed through 2010

When one door closes, another one opens:  he discussed the end -- but stressing that it's not a cancellation, just a natural ending for a show which has creatively played out -- of Prison Break.  But Kevin Reilly also commented on taking the unusual step of announcing, this early in the calendar year, a renewal for Brad Garrett-Joely Fisher sitcom 'Til Death through 2010.

It hardly sounds like a huge vote of confidence for 'Til Death, but more like a resignation to Fox's sad state of comedy, and the paucity of original programming on the networks in general.

The situation on 'Til Death is pretty straightforward and apropos to the conversation earlier about economics.  You're going to see every one of these companies make certain strategic decisions to address the economics.  We want to keep original programming on the air.  We looked at the show and said, "We like the show. There are not a lot of sitcoms on the air.  This one does have a viewership base.  We'd like to keep it on the air."  At a certain deal, it makes sense for us in certain time periods.  So we were able to make that deal, and so we're going to have places where we can program it and keep originals on the air versus just repeats or some sort of filler.

More to come from Kevin Reilly on the state of comedy overall at Fox.

Prison Break ending

Live from the TCA:  Fox president Kevin Reilly confirms:  after four seasons, Prison Break will be ending this spring.

"It's a show that just came to the end of its run," Reilly said, answering a question about the ratings declines of both Prison Break and sophomore series Sarah Connor Chronicles this season.

Prison Break will return for its final episodes on Friday, April 17 at 8PM ET on Fox.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

New Season of Starz's "Crash" still to be decided

Breaking news from the TCA:  according to Starz president Bill Myers, after Crash's first season finale last night, the network is preparing to meet with the show's studio, the ever-growing Lionsgate, beginning next week to determine whether there will be a season 2 of the show.  The network has, he says, a few weeks to sort it out.  Will bring you more news as it happens!...

"Son, do you like to watch gladiator movies?"

Today at the TCA, Starz announces a new drama series Spartacus, from film producer Sam Raimi and his team, to premiere in the fall of 2009. According to producer Rob Tapert and producer/writer Steven S. DeKnight,  it will be heavily visual, with lots of green-screen action and effects.  "We're a green-screen show.  We'll never go outside.  We're not building Rome, outside of a 3-D model," Tapert says, in comparison to HBO's excellent but middling-rated series Rome.

DeKnight explained that the idea to the show came to him when he noticed the lack of "hard R" type of drama series on cable TV.  And so Spartacus, the story of a slave leading a rebellion in ancient Rome, will bring you the tough stuff.  In fact, the producers explain, the first draft of the show's pilot is "right now more NC-17, but we're going to tone it down slightly."

The TV version of Spartacus will, in merely its first season, cover story terrain that the famous film depicted in a mere 5 minutes.  With the luxury of season after season of storytelling, the producers explain, their show will be able to go into much more depth and background story.  And, it will be even more violent and sexual -- for example, delving into the gay subject matter,  a la the infamous "oysters/snails" gay scene between Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas which was cut from the original film, is not out of the question.  "There will definitely be gay characters on the show, and relationships," DeKnight promises.

"This was a brutal time in history, and the Roman society was taught not to shy away from blood and violence.  These gladiator fights could be incredibly brutal, guys going at each other with swords and tridents and various weapons," the writer continues.  "We're not shying away from that element, but embracing it.  But we're not going for a horror movie mentality."

And as far as sexuality, "the times [had] a completely different feel.  It was completely acceptable for a man to have sex with his slaves, the female and sometimes the male slaves.  It was somewhat trickier for a woman.  But as far as sexuality, we're trying to put it on screen not just because we can, but because of story.  If the story leads us to an extremely violent or sexual moment, we want to be able to show it."

And attention, well-built actors out there:  the producers are still searching for their Spartacus, the next Kirk Douglas.   "We are actively looking.  We have casting directors everywhere, and we're right smack in the middle of that," Tapert says.  And the search will take the world over.  "We want someone who is an undiscovered action star -- the Viggos, the Daniel Craigs, the Russell Crowes.  There aren't too many who are midwestern American boys, but we'll take 'em where we find 'em."

They'll have to find 'im soon -- production of Spartacus begins in New Zealand in March, 2009.

Rob Thomas is a busy boy

In 1998, Rob Thomas created ABC's beloved drama Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall, which was cancelled after merely one season.  In perhaps a first for network television, Thomas is getting a do-over over a decade later, with a new version of Cupid, this time starring Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson, to debut, again on ABC, this spring.

In between Cupids, Thomas developed a following as a writer as the creator and executive producer of Veronica Mars, and as the creator of the current incarnation of 90210.  Now, Thomas is about to be even busier, having not only Cupid and 90210 on the air, but also Starz' new comedy series Party Down.  (The show, Thomas says, was originally developed 5 years ago for HBO, to star Paul Rudd, who is now one of this version's executive producers.)

Party Down follows a team of Los Angeles cater-waiters -- a sextet of dreamers and wannabes -- stuck working for tips while hoping for their "big break."

Having opted out of "normal" lives of traditional jobs and nuclear families, our crew of misfits -- with the exception of the ruefully jaded Henry -- pass the days assuming that their time in catering is just a brief place-holder before success inevitably transforms them from unremarkable unknowns in to "Somebodies."

Each episode of this half-hour comedy finds our hapless team working a new event -- from sweet sixteen affairs to gay weddings to mobster acquittal parties to porn awards -- where they inevitably get tangled up with the colorful guests and the absurd dramas of their lives.

Party Down is, ultimately, a comedy about waiting.

About the misadventures you endure while waiting on others.  And about the life you lead while waiting for your real one to start.

But the most important reason to watch Party Down is the amazing cast Thomas has assembled.  Thomas has been a fan of Lizzy Caplan -- from CBS' underrated and prematurely cancelled comedy The Class and most recently from HBO's True Blood -- since her days on Freaks and Geeks.  Ken Marino, from MTV's comedy troupe The State and most recently as a gay demon on the CW's Reaper, worked with Thomas on Veronica Mars.  Thomas has known Adam Scott -- most recently seen on HBO's Tell Me You Love Me -- since their days both living in Texas.  And most impressively, also after having worked with her on Mars, the creator has secured the services of the amazing, Out actress Jane Lynch, a legend from, among other films, The L Word and the Christopher Guest-directed comedies like Best In Show.

Party Down premieres
Friday, March 20, 2009
10:30 Eastern

Head Case returns on Starz

Today at the TCA Convention, live from the Universal Hilton in Los Angeles:  Starz's original comedy, Head Case.

Head Case stars Alexandra Wentworth as Dr. Elizabeth Goode, a messed-up therapist (is there any other kind?) with a specialty in working with celebrities.

As a result, the show is jam-packed with guest-star appearances from big-name stars, who have to, as the show's producers Robert Bauer and Jason Farrand explain, to leave all their defenses and preconceptions at the stage door.  "Patients" arrive on set with no idea of what the discussion is to come, and the show is completely unscripted, with Wentworth leading the celebs through fake therapy sessions in which anything goes.  "I don't know if it's because it's therapy and it's unscripted," Wentworth explains, "but they just let it all out and we use it to our advantage."

The result is completely unpredictable, always hilarious and quite often naughty.  This season, for example, Jerry Seinfeld casts off his squeaky-clean image to talk much more risque with Dr. Goode.  "Jerry was excited to do something unscripted," Wentworth theorizes, "because his standup is very scripted.  I think he felt very liberated."  And the results, Farrand says, "were risque enough to make his wife Jessica Seinfeld laugh her socks off, and almost ruin the take.  We had to tell her to be quiet."

With hours of film in the can from celebs, the Head Case team edits down the footage to create storylines.   "We go as far and as deep as Ali takes the session or the celebrity goes," Bauer says.  "Invariably they open up to a lot of stuff that I don't think they front loaded with." Farrand explains that the celebs are given the security blanket of knowing they can call "cut" at any time.  But for the most part, that doesn't happen, and most material, no matter how outrageous, is usable.  Except for some of the content of the "session" with singer Macy Gray.  "She talked a lot about how she wanted to 'bed,' and I'm being PG, Barack Obama," Wentworth remembers.  "So we reedited it and it's still very funny, but she's not being disrespectful."

This year, besides Gray, celebrity patients will include Geri Halliwell, Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry and actors James Denton and Kevin Rahm, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Andy Dick, Greg Grunberg, Hugh Hefner, Kevin Nealon, Jeff Probst, Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott, Melina Kanakaredes, Tate Donovan, Janeane Garofalo, Paulina Porizkova, Sandra Bernhard, Tiffani Thiessen, Craig Bierko, Jennifer Finnigan and Jonathan Silverman, Illeana Douglas, Las Vegas magician Lance Burton, and WWE star Dave Batista.

The show is branching out this season, Wentworth explains, to non-actor celebs, like designer Isaac Mizrahi and Mario Batali.  Wentworth would like to get some sports stars and even some politicians in there too, she says.  And so, one journalist asked, does that include her celeb politico husband, George Stephanopoulos?  While hubby George is a fan of the show, Wentworth answered, an appearance at this point is probably unlikely.  "I'm talking about Senator Craig -- people who have nothing to lose."

Head Case
Season 2
Debuts Friday March 20, 2009
10 PM ET

Friday, January 9, 2009

HBO's In Treatment: Appointments now available only 2 nights per week

Breaking News:  In her introduction to the panel (just executive producers Stephen Levinson and Warren Leight) of HBO's half-hour series In Treatment, which has been renewed for a second season, network president Sue Naegle announced that the show's season 1, Monday-to-Friday 5x per week air schedule "proved to be challenging for people... It was such an unusual pattern, it was hard for people to get into it 5 nights a week."

"People really watched [episodes] stacked," Naegle continued.  "A marathon on the weekend or lots at a time."  And so, the network has changed its strategy for In Treatment -- "a show we really believe in," Naegle added.  Because "Sunday is our big night of programming," HBO will now give us a double-dose of Gabriel Byrne as Dr. Paul Weston on Sundays, followed by 3 more episodes to air on Monday.

5 nights a week was "a tough schedule if your name's not Jay Leno," Naegle joked in her introduction.   Regarding the change, "we want to let people dig in and watch more than one at a time, and to make it easier to [follow] the show."

The first season of In Treatment earned five nominations for this Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony -- more than any other show on television.  Hopefully, star Gabriel Byrne is home resting up for the big night; he was, after Patrick Swayze, the second big, disappointing no-show of the day here at the TCA (Naegle announced that the New York-based star is battling the flu.)

PS -- Leight reveals that if you need to catch up on your Treatment before the Season 2 premiere in April , Season 1 will be again available via HBO On Demand starting in February.


I'm reporting live from the TCA Convention at the Universal City Hilton in Los Angeles, where the A&E Network is presenting a panel of the writers/creators/producers and stars of their new drama The Beast.  The series debuts with 13 episodes this month.

The Beast
centers on an unorthodox but effective FBI veteran, Charles Barker (Patrick Swayze), who takes on rookie partner, Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), to train in his hard-edged and psychologically clever style of agenting. The mischievous Barker hazes Dove as they go undercover on their first case to infiltrate a weapons smuggling ring. Barker brilliantly manipulates situations, constantly tests his new partner’s abilities and pushes him to delve deeper into the roles of the undercover characters he creates. Although Dove takes a liking to Barker, the new job takes its toll on him. The stress and danger of being an agent quickly makes him realize that he can no longer maintain normal relationships outside of work. Yet that’s not the worst of it. The rookie is confronted with a larger challenge: an FBI Internal Affairs team feels Barker may have gone rogue and they try to enlist Dove as a double-agent in the bureau's investigation of his mentor. 

On the panel are:  

Executive producer and showrunner John Romano
Executive producers/creators William Rotko and Vincent Angell
Director and executive producer for the pilot Michael Dinner
Hunky actor Travis Fimmel

But notably missing -- and someone of course all the journalists here were eager to see -- is the series' big star, Patrick Swayze.  Swayze is, of course, famously fighting valiantly against pancreatic cancer, and just recently told Barbara Walters that he's been "going through hell."

This morning's panel started with an announcement that, this morning, Swayze checked himself into an area hospital for observation, suffering from pneumonia as a side effect of his chemotherapy.

Swayze had completed filming of the show's pilot -- clips from which were shown at the TCA convention, and Swayze looks good in them -- before he learned his cancer diagnosis.  Then, the producers say, the actor lobbied to continue his role on the show.  And to the network's credit, the producers note, A&E "wanted to do what was best for Patrick."  The pilot completed shooting in November 2007, and got its pickup to series in January 2008, just as Swayze was learning about his illness.  And despite the fact that the series would shoot for many months later, The Beast took the risk and went forward with Swayze as its lead.

In response to how Swayze's illness affected the structure of the show and mood on the set, the producers commented the following:

Angell:  When you work with him 12 hours a day... Most of us would get tired before he would. When you would think about what this man would go through to get to work every day, it was inspiring.  I think for him [this morning's hospitalization] is a bump in the road.

Dinner:  I always joke we'd all live in Chicago if it weren't for the weather.  It's a great city.  When we were shooting the pilot it was very cold.  On a street-based show it's not easy.  And to see this gritty gutsy guy go through this, it was pretty amazing.

Rotko:  Patrick going through cancer, it brings you all together.  On a personal note, It would make you stop and think before saying you had a tummyache in the morning.  Because he's battling such tough conditions.

Romano:  The audience is aware that he's bringing the force of his own personal struggle into that performance.  All of us who write that show work in the shadow of that tremendous act of courage.  That's how we do this show.  But he does it 5 days a week, 12 hours a day.  Patrick loves putting [great work] up there.

More news as it develops, including details about The Beast.