Friday, July 28, 2017

Outlander season 3 -- FIRST LOOK

This afternoon at the Television Critics (TCA) convention in Beverly Hills, Starz released new information and a first-look video at season 3 of its smash series Outlander.  The video, titled "Parallel Lives," features new footage and cast interviews.

Outlander season 3 debuts on Starz on Sunday, September 10 at 8 PM ET/PT.

About “Outlander” Season Three
The third season of “Outlander” picks up right after Claire (Caitriona Balfe) travels through the stones to return to her life in 1948. Now pregnant with Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) child, she struggles with the fallout of her sudden reappearance and its effect on her marriage to her first husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). Meanwhile, in the 18th century, Jamie suffers from the aftermath of his doomed last stand at the historic battle of Culloden, as well as the loss of Claire. As the years pass, Jamie and Claire attempt to make a life apart from one another, each haunted by the memory of their lost love. The budding possibility that Claire can return to Jamie in the past breathes new hope into Claire’s heart… as well as new doubt. Separated by continents and centuries, Claire and Jamie must find their way back to each other. As always, adversity, mystery, and adventure await them on the path to reunion. And the question remains: When they find each other, will they be the same people who parted at the standing stones, all those years ago?

Diana Gabaldon’s eight-book Outlander series has sold more than 28 million copies worldwide and all the books have graced the New York Times best-sellers list. The “Outlander” series spans the genres of history, science fiction, romance and adventure in one amazing tale. The second season of “Outlander” won the Critics’ Choice Award for 
Most Bingeworthy Show, and four People’s Choice Awards, including Favorite TV Show.

Ronald D. Moore, Maril Davis, Matthew B. Roberts, Toni Graphia, Anne Kenney and Andy Harries serve as executive producers of “Outlander,” which is produced by Tall Ship Productions, Story Mining & Supply Company and Left Bank Pictures in association with Sony Pictures Television.

“Outlander” Online
For more information, go to the official Outlander Facebook Page and follow @Outlander_Starz on Twitter and Instagram. Join the conversation with #Outlander and #STARZ.

Starz Announces Stephenie Meyer's The Rook

Breaking news from the Television Critics (TCA) Convention in Beverly Hills:  Starz has announced the pickup of a series based on Twilight author Stephenie Meyers' supernatural spy thriller, The Rook, to be distributed internationally.  Press release below.


Lionsgate and Liberty Global Partner on Supernatural Spy Thriller The Rook for Premium Pay Platform STARZ
Twilight Creator Stephenie Meyer and Television Icon Stephen Garrett to Executive Produce New Premium Series
Series Will Debut on STARZ Platform in the U.S. and Across Liberty Global’s International Platforms in Europe, Latin America & the Caribbean
Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, CA, and London, UK – July 28, 2017 – Starz President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Albrecht announced today that STARZ has picked up the supernatural spy thriller The Rook, produced by a ground-breaking partnership between global content leader Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF.A, LGF.B) and Liberty Global (NASDAQ: LBTYA, LBTYB, LBTYK, LILA and LILAK), the world’s largest international TV and broadband company.  The Rook is a premium series executive produced byTwilight Saga creator Stephenie Meyer, with industry icon Stephen Garrett serving as showrunning Executive Producer.  The announcement was part of Starz’s presentation to the Television Critics Association (TCA).  
The series will air on the STARZ platform in the U.S. beginning next year.  At the same time, Liberty Global will feature the series exclusively on demand across its footprint in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.  Lionsgate will distribute the series worldwide.
A riveting supernatural thriller about a young woman pursued by shadowy paranormal adversaries while grappling with extraordinary abilities of her own, The Rook is executive produced by Ms. Meyer (The Twilight Saga, Lionsgate’s upcoming Down A Dark HallAustenland and The Host) and producing partner Meghan Hibbett under their Fickle Fish production banner.
An accomplished producer in both television and film, Stephen Garrett will serve as showrunning Executive Producer under his Character 7 banner.  Garrett most recently served as Executive Producer on the award-winning and ratings hit, The Night ManagerThe Rook is adapted and co-produced by award-winning playwrights and screenwriters Sam Holcroft (Rules for Living) and Al Muriel (Precious & Rich) based on the novel by Daniel O’Malley.
“A high-end series aimed right at the sweet spot of our audience, The Rook is a great addition to a STARZ slate loaded with the most exciting new and returning series offered by any platform anywhere,” said Albrecht. “We are thrilled to add the talents of Stephen Garrett and Stephenie Meyer to our creative family and forge our partnership with the Lionsgate Television Group and Liberty Global. The Rook is instantly addictive from the very first scene and introduces what we believe will be one of the most fascinating and thrilling female protagonists on television.”
“Stephenie is one of the world’s great creative talents, and Stephen has an incredible track record in bringing remarkable stories to the screen,” said Lionsgate Television Group Chairman Kevin Beggs and President of Worldwide Television & Digital Distribution Jim Packer.  The Rook is a major premium property driven by an amazing creative team, and it’s not only a terrific addition to the STARZ platform but the perfect series to launch a content alliance with our friends at Liberty Global.”
The Rook is another important step in Liberty Global’s premium scripted content strategy. Shot in the UK, this project is a perfect fit for Virgin Media as well as our other European markets,” said Liberty Global chief programming officer Bruce Mann. “The series, which we look forward to making available exclusively to millions of Liberty Global subscribers worldwide, is an amazing supernatural thriller which we are excited to have in the hands of an elite creative showrunner like Stephen Garrett.  We’re also delighted to be partnering with our good friends at Lionsgate and Starz.”
“Everything starts with great writing,” said Character 7’s Executive Chairman Stephen Garrett.  “To be conspiring on The Rook in partnership with Stephenie based on a book that is as dazzling as it is surprising and working with the talented team of Sam and Al, is the perfect springboard for thrilling television. The teams at Lionsgate, Starz and Liberty Global are great champions of creativity, and we’re looking forward to partnering with them.”
The Rook tells the story of a young woman who wakes up in a London park suffering total amnesia – surrounded by dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves. Pursued by shadowy paranormal adversaries, grappling with peculiar ‘abilities’ of her own, she must fight to uncover her past, and resume her position at the head of Britain’s most secret (supernatural) service… before the traitors who stole her memory can finish what they started.
About Stephenie Meyer
Ms. Meyer has gained worldwide recognition for her original and captivating stories that have paved the way for a new generation of women heroes, and her blockbuster Twilight Saga film franchise, which she created and produced, grossed $3.5 billion at the worldwide box office.  The Twilight films were based on her acclaimed book series which has sold over 100 million copies in more than 50 countries and been translated into 37 languages.  She also co-produced The Host, based on her #1 New York Times best-seller, andAustenland with Hibbett.  They are producing an adaptation of Lois Duncan’s teen classic Down A Dark Hall, starring Uma Thurman and AnneSophie Robb, with Temple Hill’s Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, for Lionsgate.
Ms. Meyer was the best-selling author of 2008 and 2009 in the U.S., selling over 29 million books in 2008 and another 26.5 million in 2009.  USA Today named Ms. Meyer “Author of the Year” in 2008, noting that she swept the top four slots on the USA Today best-seller book list, something that no one else had done in 15 years.  Ms. Meyer accomplished this feat again in 2009.
About Character 7
As an accomplished producer with an eye for pedigree material, Stephen Garrett most recently served as Executive Producer of “The Night Manager.”  The series marked the first under his Character 7 production company, which is based in Los Angeles and London for high-end television and film projects.  A ratings and critical success, “The Night Manager” was done in collaboration with The Ink Factory, and garnered multiple Emmy and Golden Globe Awards.  The Character 7 team also includes Head of Development Michele Wolkoff, who works closely with Garrett on the company’s expanding slate of projects.  Wolkoff joined the company last year having most recently led development for The Mark Gordon Company as Head of Film where she oversaw a robust slate as well.

Prior to Character 7, Garrett was Founder and Executive Chairman of Kudos, the UK’s leading independent producer of TV drama.   While running the company, he and his team galvanized British television with popular and acclaimed shows including the BAFTA-winning “Spooks” (based on Garrett’s original idea), “Hustle,” “Life on Mars,” Frank Spotnitz’s “Hunted,” and ITV’s hit “Broadchurch.” 

About Lionsgate
The first major new studio in decades, Lionsgate is a global content platform whose films, television series, digital products and linear and over-the-top platforms reach next generation audiences around the world.  In addition to its filmed entertainment leadership, Lionsgate content drives a growing presence in interactive and location-based entertainment, gaming, virtual reality and other new entertainment technologies.  Lionsgate’s content initiatives are backed by a 16,000-title film and television library and delivered through a global licensing infrastructure.  The Lionsgate brand is synonymous with original, daring and ground-breaking content created with special emphasis on the evolving patterns and diverse composition of the Company’s worldwide consumer base.  
About Starz
Starz (, a Lionsgate company (NYSE: LGF.A, LGF.B), is a leading global media and entertainment company that provides premium subscription video programming on domestic U.S. pay television networks and produces and distributes content for worldwide audiences, including its investment in the STARZ PLAY Arabia OTT service. Starz is home to the flagship STARZ® brand and STARZ ENCORE channels and provides high-quality, entertaining premium subscription video programming with 17 premium pay TV channels and associated on-demand and online services, including the STARZ app. Sold through U.S. multichannel video distributors, including cable operators, satellite television providers, telecommunications companies, and other online and digital platforms, Starz offers subscribers more than 5,000 distinct premium television episodes and feature films every year and up to 1,500 every month, including STARZ Original series, first-run movies and other popular movie and television programming.
About Liberty Global

Liberty Global is the world’s largest international TV and broadband company, with operations in more than 30 countries across Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. We invest in the infrastructure that empowers our customers to make the most of the digital revolution. Our scale and commitment to innovation enable us to develop market-leading products delivered through next-generation networks that connect our 25 million customers who subscribe to over 50 million television, broadband internet and telephony services. We also serve over 10 million mobile subscribers and offer WiFi service across 6 million access points.

Liberty Global’s businesses are comprised of two stocks: the Liberty Global Group (NASDAQ: LBTYA, LBTYB and LBTYK) for our European operations, and the LiLAC Group (NASDAQ: LILA and LILAK, OTC Link: LILAB), which consists of our operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Liberty Global Group operates in 11 European countries under the consumer brands Virgin Media, Unitymedia, Telenet and UPC. The Liberty Global Group also owns 50% of VodafoneZiggo, a Dutch joint venture, which has 4 million customers, 10 million fixed-line subscribers and 5 million mobile subscribers. The LiLAC Group operates in over 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean under the consumer brands VTR, Flow, Liberty, Más Móvil and BTC. In addition, the LiLAC Group operates a sub-sea fiber network throughout the region in over 30 markets.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

June Foray, 1917-2017

with my husband Frank DeCaro and
voiceover legend June Foray at a party
in Beverly Hills for the Archive of
American Television.
June 4, 2007.
It was in 2001, when I was assigned to write a TV Guide tribute to the then-recently departed animation giant William Hanna, when I first got to meet June Foray, herself perhaps the giant in the field of voiceover acting.

During our phone interview, June delighted me with snippets from her amazing career -- lines from the Warner Brothers cartoons' Witch Hazel and Granny, from Rocky of Rocky & Bullwinkle, from Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  A Massachusetts native, Foray ended up with a
Hollywood career that spanned seven decades, working well into her late nineties.

Foray died yesterday in Los Angeles, just two months short of her 100th birthday.  In celebration of her long and storied career -- she even once provided barks for little Ricky's dog Fred on I Love Lucy! -- below is a chunk of our interview from 16 years ago.  At the time, June was 83, and still in huge demand as an actor.  She talks lovingly and at length about Bill Hanna -- because that was the purpose for our interview.  But along the way, June provided a glimpse into her own amazing life.

I started my career in radio, and was put under contract at Capitol Records, and that’s how Disney heard about me.  I did a cat in Cinderella.  I had also done a witch character for Disney, in a short called “Trick or Treat.”  Chuck Jones loved the witch I did, and the next thing I knew I was called over to MGM where Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were working under producer Fred Quimby.  So I did a Tom and Jerry called “The Flying Sorceress.”
 They were two charming young men, creative, really symbolic of everything that animation stands for.  The writing was good – Bill Hanna did a lot of it, and he was most empathetic to all creatures, whether they were human or anthropomorphic.  So I did several works for them, and that was before they of course had their own company.
 Then I think they opened Hanna Barbera in about 1958.  They of course had the first nighttime series, and that was The Flintstones.  And Jay Ward was very upset about that, because we had started recording Rocky and His Friends in 1959 and Jay had hoped that his would be the first nighttime series, but Hanna Barbera beat them.  Joe and Bill were so original in their thinking, as you can see – their characters are lasting creatures and their series just keep going ona nd on and on – on Cartoon Network, on Nickelodeon.

Bill was a very thoughtful man with a wonderful personality.  Just a couple of years before he died, he wrote another thing as a witch for me – he never forgot.  He was most kind to everybody who worked with him, I understand – the animators, the writers.  He was certainly an ideologically correct man.  Everything was for the good, and there was nothing evil in his characters.

He had suffered so many ailments physically – at first it didn’t impair him at all, and he would travel, go to Australia.  I think they had a studio there.  He was very valiant in his progression of what he wanted to do, and what he felt that he had to do for animation.  And of course Joe was quite a promoter.  I think Joe did most of the PR, and Bill did most of the writing.  Joe occasionally in the beginning would direct the actors.  Bill was always behind the scenes.  It was Joe who was more forthcoming as far as his appearances were concerned.  Bill was sort of in the background, but he was phenomenal, really, in his thinking.  He was gentle and kind – I know everybody I talk to who has worked with him, writers and animators, feel that there was just this synthesis of a producer.  Here was a man who was creative in his writing and his animating, and yet he was business wise, which has really paid off, because of course Ted Turner bought Hanna Barbera and then of course AOL bought Warner’s.

Over the years, I did Jokey Smurf for about eight years, with Gordon Hunt as the voice director.  Bill never showed up at any of the recordings, but you knew his presence was there.  I was in A Man Called Flintstone.  I did Cindy Lou Who in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which I can still do, and it’s altogether different from the low voices I usually do, so you might not know it was the same person.  I do Granny in the “Tweety and Sylvester” cartoons, and we recently recorded some fun parodies:  3 with me as “Judge Granny,” a parody of Judge Judy, and two takeoffs of Survivor, where they finally kicked Granny off the island.
In designing their characters, I’m sure many writers for animation do take on the proportions and the look of the actors who play them.  I’m not sure if Bill Hanna did that or not, but I know that Disney did, and I know that Chuck Jones did, in a lot of the things that I did for them.  In fact, I have a marvelous drawing that Chuck Jones did of me once, because I started when I was very young.  Chuck drew a picture of me, he’s at the drawing board, and it’s a pic of me naked, looking like Witch Hazel looked in the end of the short, when she became beautiful after drinking the wrong cup of tea.
At home, I have a rubber doormat of Witch Hazel with Bugs Bunny..  But I have it framed – I would never use it as a doormat!  I have all kinds of Granny items with Tweety and Sylvester, and of Witch Hazel.  I don’t know where they are, though, at the moment – which is a shame!
I’ve been on Entertainment Tonight and Showbiz Today and a lot of shows, but it’s amazing to me how many people ask for my autograph.  They recognize me, and not just from my voice – it just astounds me.  In fact, yesterday I went to the Motion Picture Hospital for a mammogram, and was sitting in the waiting room and chatting with a lady I’d never met before.  She asked me what I do, and a man next to me said, “Oh my God, you’re June Foray – you made my week!”  I ended up entertaining the whole waiting room with the he different voices I knew.  Even the nurse asked for my autograph.

-- June Foray, December 6, 2001 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Hot Pants in Hollywood

From her first TV job on Laugh-In, to her pioneering work as a writer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Square Pegs and other sitcoms, Susan Silver has had an amazing career.  And as a woman growing up in the formative decades of the conservative '50s and free-swinging '60s, she's had a fascinating life as well.  And now it's all in her new book, Hot Pants in Hollywood:  Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms.

The title is derived from that of an article TV Guide magazine wrote about her back in the day, which they called "The Writer Wore Hot Pants."  It's telling that apparently the concepts of being female and being a writer were considered as incongruous back then as were the title subjects of another '70s vehicle, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

After devouring Silver's memoir, I asked her more specifically about her days as a woman "making it on her own," to quote MTM's theme, in Hollywood.

Must-Hear TV:  How did your traditional Midwestern family background prepare you -- or not prepare you -- for life in Hollywood?  How did it prepare you to write for a character such as Mary Richards?

Susan Silver:  Coming from Milwaukee, which is often confused with Minneapolis, I was perfect for The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- though frankly I'm much more Rhoda than Mary.  I have too much spunk!   Seriously I think the difference in values is huge, and I'm glad I had the basics from the Midwest.  Hollywood is a place unto itself.  I used to say I had to leave because my tush fell and they measure it when you get off the plane.  It's very superficial still, sorry to say.  So I arrived like Little Annie Fanny, wide-eyed.  But it was easier than New York, which would have chewed me up and spit me out.  For that, I had to wait until after some success. 

MHTV:  At the time of the MTM Show, there were few or no female comedy writers working on sitcoms.  What do you think made the MTM producers decide they needed a female perspective?

SS:  The great timing of the show, with the beginning of feminism, was an impetus to get a woman's POV.  Rarely heard before, real women's lives were what the show wanted and they thought we were all geniuses.  The truth was, all women have the same stories to share and they had not been heard before.  By the end of the show I think 25 women had been hired as writers.

MHTV:  What were some of the most common pitfalls a comedy writer would face in decades past in her career?  What did you learn to do or not to do from your own career?

SS:  I feel as though I started on top, and so my requirement and what I had learned was to pick only high quality shows.  Most of us don't have that luxury.  On MTM [company] shows they worked with you all day, but on other shows they would give you a 20-minute story meeting and you had no real idea what they wanted.  Nor did they, so there was more rewriting.

MHTV:  Hollywood is a ridiculously ageist town.  Would you still want to create your own show?  And if so, what would it be, and what message would you/it be trying to say?

SS:  Ageism is the new discrimination. The Writers Guild had a longtime lawsuit against studios, which we won, and it was proven that there was so much of it... and it still exists. I doubt that writers over 50 have a chance.  The sad thing is that great shows like The Golden Girls, as you know, have audiences, if only they would write them and put them on.   I don't think I'd want to be active in the biz now unless I had total control, and wouldn't write a show where Boomers were portrayed so unrealistically or as sex-starved cliches.  But what the hell -- if someone wants me to do a show, call me.  George Clooney can call me, too.  I know he is a new father but still...

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Behind the Scenes with Downward Dog's Title Character

Ordinarily, summer is a tough time for a network show to have its premiere; we the audience have been conditioned to tune out after May's season finales, and we spend more precious primetime hours still outdoors, enjoying the longer evenings of summer.

But Downward Dog seems to have timing on its side.  The show premiered on May 17, in a plum position following the season finale of Modern Family.  And of course Downward Dog, starring Fargo's Allison Tolman as single, dog-loving Pittsburgh creative executive Nan, follows in the wake of this year's earlier hit film, A Dog's Purpose.

Downward Dog co-creator Samm Hodges
and star Allison Tolman
In May of 2016, when ABC announced the show's pickup, it was unfortunately in the same breath as another show announced for midseason, Imaginary Mary.  And so the two shows became lumped together in the minds of critics, who thought ABC must be desperate to pick up shows about an imaginary friend and a talking dog.

Smartly, though, Downward Dog soon distinguished itself from the pack.  In January, the show, which is based upon a popular web series of the same name, became the first broadcast TV series to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, to positive reviews from the audience and critics.  And the ratings for the show's premiere were respectable, with a decent retention of Modern Family's audience, even though it aired against another big hit, Fox's Empire.

As of last night, ABC has now aired four of the series' eight episodes -- and word is, the network will be making a decision about cancellation/renewal any minute now.  My dog Gabby and I love the show.  And while she's got her paws crossed for season two, I spoke with the web series and show's co-creator, Samm Hodges, who also provides the voice of its irresistable canine star, Martin.

An erstwhile commercial director, Hodges says he and colleague Michael Killen originally created Downward Dog just so as to have a creative outlet not beholden to any client.  But as I also found out when I spoke with Samm, there's another interesting angle to this story, about how becoming the voice of a TV dog has helped not just his bank account, but his personal growth as well.

Downward Dog co-creator Samm Hodges
provides the voice of top dog, Martin

Must-Hear TV:  Downward Dog certainly has had an interesting path to the small screen, as it caught the eye of some Hollywood managers and evolved from your web series into a half-hour show.  But the other aspect I don't feel the press has covered at all is that here you are, voicing the lead character -- and as you mentioned earlier, you grew up with a stutter.  How has that affected how you feel about voicing a character for TV?

Samm Hodges:  I grew up with a stammer, and there are things about the way I speak -- whether it be stuttering or the fast-paced delivery and other techniques I learned to get through it -- that now are helping to make Martin's voice feel unique and special.  There are other things I can do to help, like tailoring the lines to match my speech pattern in way that won't give me trouble.  Plus, if a stutter does slip into a take, sometimes rather than retake the line we might decide to use it.  In the end, we just want to have a character that sounds natural, and hopefully the voice actor disappears anyway.  I think people are going to watch the dog, and I hope they don't think about me ever.

MHTV:  Do you find it challenging or difficult to perform the role?

SH:  I think a lot of the show is about owning your flaws, and looking at your flaws.  And for me, doing the voiceover with a stutter, I get really frustrated.  I’ll always dread it.  My wife always knows the day before I have to record, because I might be an asshole that day.  It's very hard.  If you've ever had a really bad speech impediment, you know you're never really over it.  I know it will always be with me, and yet I'll get past it.  But then when I do go do the voiceover, I end up also realizing that it makes the show feel really authentic for me.  Our whole show is about characters who are vulnerable, afraid to be made fun of, and not being the polished star.  We’re all kind of outsiders, and now we the producers of Downward Dog are part of this punk rock TV show on a network.  A while back, I had wanted to recast mysef, but then I realized that even though performing the role was a pain for me, it actually gave something to the show.  So I realized I’ll do it for the show.

MHTV:  Your voice has a laconic quality that really helps give Martin a fun personality.  You really should be doing voiceover for a career.  You must find that odd to hear someone say that to you in 2017, because there was probably a time as a child where you beat yourself up for your voice.

SH:  It’s crazy.  The thing is, whenever you’re told what you can’t do, it kind of makes you want to do it.  I think as a writer, I write from a place of trying to be really radically honest.  And the show is really radically honest.  And I feel that if I ask my actors to be vulnerable, then I have to step up and be vulnerable myself.  Martin provides me a way to make fun of all my worst qualities.  If Martin thinks he’s smart, I think I’m smart.  When you put that in a dog’s mouth, it reveals how silly we are.  We in the entertainment industry tend to be narcissists, and I’m a narcissist.  So I always thought I was special. And for me, being a dog who thinks he’s special is a way to admit how messed up I am, but also how I’m still a worthwhile person, 

MHTV:  What kind of work did you do to overcome the stutter the way you have?

SH:  It’s funny.  I was raised really poor.  I never had any speech therapist offered to me.

MHTV:  I had speech therapy in elementary school, and I know how hard the work can be.  That’s impressive!

SH:  I was a senior in high school and couldn’t really speak well.  I got so frustrated that my dad’s friend, who was an undergraduate for speech therapy, gave me a worksheet.  I would just read it out loud to myself.  I worked really hard at it.  There had been times in a McDonalds where they’d think I was mentally handicapped.  It was really embarrassing, but that ended up giving me a lot of confidence and makes me hard to embarrass now.  So if I’m pitching, I don’t get scared because I’ve lived through so much embarrassment.  It’s weird in life how things work out that way.

MHTV:  Where were you raised?

SH:  In Washington state.  In a cabin off the grid.  No electricity, no running water.  Really weird.  My mom passed when I was young.  Not a happy childhood.

MHTV:  I hope you give yourself a lot of credit for learning from a worksheet.  It’s hard when you have someone working with you, and you did it yourself from a piece of paper.

SH:  As a poor kid from a poor town with a stutter, I felt like I was doomed.  I felt like there was no way out. Then in high school, I was part of a mock trial.  I chose to be the lawyer, which is insane.  And I actually won the mock trial and got all these awards.  I decided I wasn't going to stop fighting.  It’s the kind of thing where someone tells you “You’re not going to make it.”  It’s such a motivator.  If I go back home now, most of my friends are still stuck there.  And the meth use is really tragic in small towns now.  I was lucky.  I think I worked really hard, but I was really lucky.

MHTV:  [Downward Dog executive producer] Kat Likkel has encouraged you to get a voiceover agent and career.  Would you want to pursue that?

SH:  I would, totally.  I’m a small-town kid.  I like working.  But it’s the last thing I ever imagined myself doing.  It’s kind of happened naturally, and that’s the weird way life works sometimes.  I would never have thought this would be where I’d be.

Monday, May 29, 2017

How Speechless Will Continue Giving Voice to Families with Special Needs

On May 17, ABC's family comedy Speechless finished a flawless first season, with a finale episode in which the DiMeo family flew across the country to deliver son JJ to camp.

ABC's Speechless stars, l-r:
John Ross Bowie, Mason Cook, Micah Fowler,
Kyla Kenedy, Cedric Yarbrough and Minnie Driver
at the Paley Center for Media, Beverly Hills
May 9, 2017
It was a great moment for each character:  for Micah Fowler's JJ, who gets to taste a first bit of independence; for siblings Ray and Dylan (Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy) who experience their own firsts along the route; and for John Ross Bowie's Jimmy and particularly Minnie Driver's Maya, who learn they're going to have to start letting go of the disabled child they've protected all his life.

And as beautiful a bookend as this 23rd episode -- ABC likes the show so much that back in December, they ordered one extra installment for this first season -- was for the family we had come to care about, JJ's ability to survive summer camp certainly doesn't signal that the struggle is over.

Last month, on the eve of its upfront presentation, ABC officially renewed Speechless for a second season.  Just days before the official order, which everyone had anticipated, I attended an event celebrating the series at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, and caught up with the show's creator, Scott Silveri -- upon whose own family the DiMeos are loosely modeled -- to talk about what we can expect for season 2 and beyond.

Must-Hear TV:  So what have you thought about for season 2?  There obviously must be some family stories with which you probably frontloaded the series in season 1.  But are there still more personal stories you want to tell?

Speechless creator and Executive Producer,
Scott Silveri
Scott Silveri:  Yes, that’s the way to characterize it.  In the first season, you have to really concentrate on those dynamics between the [main characters] who are in the show every week.  And in the second season, hopefully people are familiar with them, and we can open it up a little more.  We can learn a little about where Minnie’s character came from, where John’s character came from, and have the kids have friends who are not paid aides [like Cedric Yarbrough's amazing Kenneth] or siblings.

But I think more than anything, it’s just not going to get easy for these guys.  Because that’s life, and that’s particularly this life.  You go to the right school, and then something changes.  You get the right aide, and then they go on to something else.  Life is like that.  But particularly for a family with someone with a disability, if you care about the care of the person you love, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment over and over again.

MHTV:  People change, and people move.

SS:  Exactly.  It’s not difficult to think of ways to make life hard for these guys!  And the joy is going to be in that struggle, and having them face it with a little bit of courage and some fun.

MHTV:  Have you pitched season 2 to ABC already?  For many shows, that’s what happens, pitching to network executives, "This is what our season would be, if we get renewed."

SS:  No!  Sometimes you do that, but we were not asked to, so… I think they know generally we’re going to open it up a little, to explore the next step for these guys.  JJ is a senior in high school.  What is his next step going to be?  And towards the end of the season, we really explored his independence, and his life away from his family a little bit.   Before that there had been none of that, and now we’re slowly rolling that out.  And I think it’s a natural spot for a lot more of that, which will be a challenge for him and a challenge for people who care for him.

MHTV:  When you said you would be "expanding" their world, obviously there’s a certain percentage of the main characters of season 1 that came right from your life, and other writers’ too.  But do you have auxiliary people in your mind, who were in the background of your real life, and now  you get to think, “THAT’s a good secondary character!”

SS:  Yes.  People I both want to celebrate, and to take down.  A healthy dose of both!  Celebrating people – how much fun is that?   I have some names of some administrators we’ve been sharpening the axe for for months – for years, actually!  We’ve got some Silveri grudges to settle.

MHTV:  It’s an Italian thing.  What percentage of season 1 is from real life for you?  In real life, your brother's disability is a little more pronounced than JJ's.

SS:  From my real life, it really wasn’t episode for episode.  There are shows that do that and do it well.  Like The Goldbergs do that, and there’s a lot of “this happened to me, my brother said this, my mom wore that.”  And that’s cool!  But that’s not how we chose to do it.  I found it particularly suffocating, frankly, to try simply to mimic things that had happened in my life.  I found it a lot more freeing when we changed who these people were, we put a couple of people together, and gave license to these guys to be characters rather than caricatures of my folks.

MHTV:  I would think it makes it easier to take a step back so you can fictionalize it without feeling weird about it, like an actor with a mask.

SS:  That’s it, precisely.

MHTV:  So JJ is not exactly your brother, and your mom is not British.

SS:  They have some overlap, but no.  And I’ve had my mom checked.  She’s not British.

MHTV:  So you did 23 and Me while she was sleeping?

SS:  Exactly.  I think there is a feeling that was important to convey.  These guys feel different, and take pride in being different.  No apologies.  In fact, sometimes we think we’re better than the other folks for being a little different.  There was that, and there was how they always coming back to their center, and form a unified front.  “It’s us against the world.”

But luckily that doesn’t happen too often.  But you have a choice in any given situation:  are you going to cry or are you going to laugh?  And my folks, God bless them, always chose to laugh.  So I thought that was something to be replicated, protected and celebrated.  The rest of it, the exact quirks and plot twists that our lives took, I didn’t feel the need to cling closely to that.  The vibe is what I wanted to protect.  And it’s been fun to get to do that.

MHTV:  In terms of tentpole events that might happen in season 2:  will JJ’s graduation be one of them, like at the end of the year?

SS:  I think that’s something to work towards.  And that’s such a big thing.  A lot of friends of mine who have disabilities bemoan the fact that there’s a lot of attention paid to children with disabilities --but once you grow up, there’s a little less of that.  There’s something adorable and cute and inspirational – which is a word that everybody hates – about a child, but then you don’t get quite the same attention and care as an adult.

MHTV:  "Good luck to you – and thanks for taking forever to get on the bus!"

SS:  Exactly!  So I think we’d like to explore that.  Because every time there’s been a challenge that has come up for the characters, we’ve tried to find a funny take on it. 

MHTV:  Non saccharine.  That’s what I appreciate.

SS:  We’re going to keep looking for these very real challenges, and it ain’t hard to find them.  And turn them into opportunities for this family to bust their asses, to find a way, and to laugh.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Alec Mapa joins hot NBC pilot "The Sackett Sisters"

Casey Wilson (l) and Busy Philipps
film a scene in the new NBC pilot
The Sackett Sisters
As we inch closer to NBC's Upfront presentation -- i.e., the network's revelation of its 2017-18 schedule, complete with renewals, cancellations and new series pickups -- one comedy pilot that's been garnering buzz as an almost sure thing is The Sackett Sisters, starring Busy Philipps, Casey Wilson and Bradley Whitford.

In the potential new series -- which sources say if picked up may be held for midseason, to accommodate Casey Wilson's pregnancy -- two estranged sisters perform a Sully Sullenberger-esque act of public heroism, then are forced to navigate their newfound notoriety together.

Alec Mapa
In one latest bit of Sackett casting, Alec Mapa has signed on to play the sisters' therapist, Josh.  The out gay actor has appeared on such fun shows as Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Scream Queens, Mom and Jane the Virgin, and made history playing network TV's first gay Asian series regular role on the short-lived CBS sitcom Some of My Best Friends.  On the big screen, he was a scream in such films as Connie & Carla, and You Don't Mess with the Zohan.

NBC is already leading the pack with new series announcements, with its previous pickups of two new dramas, Rise and For God and Country.  On the comedy side, the network has the now 12-episode revival of Will & Grace -- which will need some comedy company.  Although multi-cam sitcoms like W&G generally work better with other multi-cams, the network has only one of those -- Relatively Happy, from W&G co-creator Max Mutchnick and Trial & Error co-creator Jeff Astrof -- among its pilots.  One of ABC's multi-cam pilots, Carol Burnett's Household Name, is produced by NBC Universal, so it could end up at the Peacock Network if ABC cuts it loose.

But regardless of format, NBC needs new comedy blood, and The Sackett Sisters -- which comes with an impressive pedigree, having been created by 30 Rock writer Luke del Tredici and executive produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock -- seems to be leading the pack as of this writing.  Stay tuned for more announcements from NBC, leading up to its big upfront morning of Monday, May 15.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lauren Ash and Nico Santos Talk Tonight's Superstore... and what they hope for the show's future

With Lauren Ash and Nico Santos
for NBC's "Summer Press Day"
Beverly Hilton hotel, Beverly Hills,
March 20, 2017
 This past Monday, NBC held a soiree in Beverly Hills to preview the network’s upcoming summer series.  Throughout the day, we critics saw clips of new shows like Midnight, Texas, and previews of upcoming seasons of The Wall, Hollywood Game Night and The Night Shift.  Then that night, the casts and producers of many of the shows mingled on the rooftop of the Beverly Hilton hotel.  And although I did talk a little about the new stuff coming up, I was most excited to see two stars of NBC’s hilarious comedy Superstore.

Tonight, we get to see an important episode of this second season, as Mateo (Nico Santos) deals with the repercussions of the revelation of his relationship with Jeff (Michael Bunin) – which includes being forced to transfer to a different store.  The episode, titled “Mateo’s Last Day,” is also notable in that it was directed by that series’ multi-faceted star, America Ferrera.

I spoke with Santos and with Lauren Ash – aka Dina, although in her glam blue hostess-pant outfit, you’d never see the resemblance – about tonight’s episode, the future of Superstore in season three, and what they’d like to see happen for their characters.

Must-Hear TV:  How does life at Cloud 9 change now that Dina and Mateo’s secrets are out?

Nico Santos:  We’re out of the closet now!  As you saw from the end of the last episode, Mateo has to transfer stores for the romance to work.  So this next episode – which America directed, and is a lot of fun – is titled “Mateo’s Last Day.”  To what capacity, the audience will just have to wait and see.  But there’s a lot of drama that happens with his undocumented status, and with Jeff, there’s some drama. 

MHTV:  I’ve been fooled by the show before, like with the walkout at the end of season 1.

NS:  Well if you thought the season 1 finale with the walkout was crazy…

Lauren Ash:  …You’ll have to wait for the season 2 finale.  Which we can’t give details about, but…

NS:  …It makes the season 1 finale look weak!

The cast of NBC's Thursday night comedy
LA:  What I will say is I don’t know how they’re going to get us out of it, and I don’t know that they know how they’re going to get us out of it.  Which is amazing.

MHTV:  I wrote a book about Will  Grace, and those writers used to say that every season they deliberately painted themselves into a corner with the finale, because the fun was figuring your way out.

LA:  Absolutely.  That was also Dexter.  That constantly happened at the end of seasons of that show, where it was like, “Now what?!”  Not that we’re a murdering type show, but…  Who knows!

MHTV:  Would you think it was unusual if you found out Dina had a closet full of bodies?

LA:  I feel like she’s too much of a rule follower to actually commit a murder, but….

NS:  Mateo would totally have bodies. 

LA:  Yeah, he would bury a body for sure.  But there’s great stuff coming up.  Obviously the Dina/Garrett storyline is so much fun.  Yes, they know that they are sleeping together, and that they like sleeping together – but they also hate each other.  So it’s pretty fun.  I think it’s a great metaphor for modern romance and dating, in the app world that we live in, where people date a bunch of people at the same time.  It’s kind of a different world than it was even like 10 years ago.  So there’s some really fun stuff coming.  And the other thing we can tease is that this season’s second-to-last episode does not set foot in the store.  That’s a first.  Because we’ve seen us outside the store, but we’ve never had an episode that’s completely out of the store.  Fans are going to go crazy.

MHTV:  Is it set at some kind of retreat?

NS:  We’ve said too much!

MHTV:  How does Dina and Garrett’s relationship change now that everyone knows?  And how does it change life in the store?

LA:  It’s somewhat business as usual, but now that the other characters know, their awkwardness is a fun thing.  We explore that [tonight’s] episode for sure.  How does this define them in the workplace?  Because they’re not in a relationship, they’re not married, they’re not engaged, they’re into even dating – in fact they hate each other.  But they do have this existing connection which has to be acknowledged.  But how do you acknowledge it?  There’s really fun play with the human resources aspect of what that would look like.

MHTV:  Yes!  If Mateo has to leave because of Jeff, then…

LA:  Exactly.  So what does that mean?  And Mateo and Jeff is a real relationship, but we don’t know what this is [with Dina and Garrett.]

MHTV:  But this is almost worse, because it could go wrong in so many different ways.

LA:  That’s right!  And the other great thing about tonight’s episode is that America directed it, which I don’t feel is getting enough press.  I think that should be out there more!  Because she did a fucking killer job!  She was great!  It was amazing.  No one knows the show better than us, and so what a gift, to have somebody who knows and has been there literally from day one be your director! 

MHTV:  Comparing the show to The Office, I think it’s pretty clear that Dina is very similar to Dwight, the weird rule followers.  Would you say that, Lauren?  And Nico, who would be Mateo’s Office counterpart?

LA:  I have to admit something, and I don’t normally do this because I feel bad about it, but I actually didn’t watch The Office.

MHTV:  You were in Canada!

LA:  But I did watch the British Office, that’s the thing.  So people often bring up “you’re the female Dwight.”  And I love the comparison, because I know he was a beloved character and he’s so funny.  But any similarities were not deliberate.  I don’t really have a frame of reference for him.

MHTV:  I would think some of it comes from the writing.

LA:  I think some of it is, certainly.  But I think ultimately, we all know somebody like that.  There’s always somebody in our lives who is that stick-in-the-mud, for lack of a more modern term.  So there’s something relatable about that archetype.  I think some people think I’m doing an impression of him, which is not the case.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  But any comparisons to that show are amazing.  That show was so successful and had so much heart, and people loved it.  So that’s a great statement.

NS:  I’m also not that familiar with a lot of characters from the Office.  But in season 1 of our show, people were asking, “Is Mateo like a Dwight-esque character as well?”  And I don’t think so.

MHTV:  I don’t know who he would be.

NS:  He’s Pam!

MHTV:  I was thinking maybe Angela.  They were both uptight, but had a romantic side.

NS:  Okay, I’ll take that!

MHTV:  Angela also dated a gay man!

LA:  But Parks & Rec I think is another comparison you can make.  A show which I loved.  And again, there’s Ron Swanson.  He isn’t necessarily like Dina or Dwight, but is.  It’s still that kind of character.  The really strong, confident, bold type.

MHTV:  But completely out of touch.

NS:  That’s the thing about our show.  You watch it, and you see somebody like Dina and somebody like Mateo or Garrett, and you realize, “Oh, I’ve worked with them before!”  We all play somebody who people have worked with before.

MHTV:  Why is everybody so mean to poor Sandra?

LA:  For the most part, it’s Dina being mean to Sandra.  People often ask me why, and my answer is always to say that I think Dina just smells weakness.  If Sandra were super-confident, Dina wouldn’t mess with her.  But because there’s a vulnerability there, she doesn’t respect her.

NS:  It’s so crazy, because Kaliko Kauahi, who plays Sandra, is so not her character.  She’s amazing.  She’s from the islands, very low-key.  She’s got a very laid-back, Hawaiian attitude.  So it’s so funny to see her portray Sandra, and people expect her to be that meek person, but she’s not.

LA:  She’s so sweet, too.  I feel bad screaming in her face.

MHTVSuperstore did something great, which was adding more secondary characters over time as they proved themselves popular.  Was that the case with Sandra, and Marcus the warehouse guy, and Myrtle?

NS:  Somebody like  Johnnny Pemberton who plays Bo, Kaliko as Sandra, Jon Barinholtz as Marcus – these three actors have really added so much to our show.  From the moment they were on the show for their first appearances, they meshed well.  I’m excited for them to get more into the show, and for other additions in the near future.

LA:  Because the reality of those stores is that people come and go like crazy.  You have some people who have been there for 30 years, and some who have been there for 3 weeks.  And there’s a lot of turnover.  So it’s great, because it opens up the writers to trying different people and characters.  Certainly, a character like Sandra, the audience responded to right away.  So it would have been silly for them not to pursue that.  And she’s become a huge storyline this season.

MHTV:  Lauren, has any of your real-life experiences at [Canadian retailer] Zellers been pitched as storylines?

LA:  So many have been pitched…

MHTV:  Has any landed?

LA:  No!  They love them but they haven’t done any of them yet.  So I’ve got to keep pushing.  There are some good ones that I feel like we’ll get into the show for sure eventually.

MHTV:  What do you hope happens in season 3 for each of your characters?

NS:  I really hope that we get to meet some members of Mateo’s family.  We almost never see a Filipino family on television.  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the first time.  And just like with any other family, Filipinos are just kind of crazy.  So I would love for our audiences to be introduced to them.

MHTV:  Who do you want your parents to be?

NS:  America is actually really trying to pitch me portraying my own mom!  Which I would do!

LA:  Nico Santos, Nico Santos and Nico Santos!

NS:  We’ll do a Nutty Professor thing.  I would love it!

MHTV:   How about for Dina?  What would you like us to see in season 3?

LA:  Dina’s birds!  This is the thing that the fans are crying out to see on social media.  And I have been pushing to Justin, so we’ll see.  We’ve talked about them so much, and what is it they say – “if you’re going to pull out a gun, you have to use it”?  So I think we have to see the birds.

MHTV:  What do you think Dina’s birds have been trained to say?

LA:  They pledge allegiance to the flag.  I think she runs them through military drills.  I just think it would be such a gift to see that.  There have been people on twitter who have also been pitching that Camryn Manheim should play my mother on the show, and that’s actually awesome!  Not that I’m suggesting that she looks old enough to be my mother at all, but I think she’s amazing.

MHTV:  She’d be a young mother, which would explain a lot about Dina’s upbringing.

LA:  Exactly!  And I think it would be great to see Dina’s mother, somebody in Dina’s family who makes Dina look like Sandra.  I would like to see the person in Dina’s life who makes her shut down, whoever that may be.  Someone from her past.  And, the other thing that I’ve forgotten to say earlier:  America and I are pushing so hard that Dina and Amy knew each other in high school, and we want to see a flashback.  This is our dream.  We have been pushing this with [executive producer] Justin [Spitzer], and he keeps giggling and saying “okay…”  But I love the idea that they went to high school together!  My opinion has always been that Dina would consider Amy to be her best friend, even though there’s no basis for that.  We never see each other after work.

MHTV:  I can’t imagine Dina has a lot of female friends.

LA:  She has no friends!  But in her mind, she thinks Amy is her best friend.  Which I always improv into different things, “Well, she’s my best friend, so…”  So I’d love to see what that dynamic was.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Meet Ms. Wilson

Betty White and Emily Osment
in Freeform's Young & Hungry
Tonight's episode of Freeform's sitcom Young & Hungry marks the introduction of a new character, Ms. Wilson -- played by a venerable lady who is anything but young.

The show's writers had laid out this Valentine's Day-themed episode, where after a misunderstanding Gabi has to return a ring she has just learned was not intended for her.  But as originally scripted, before Gabi can get to the ring, a mouse would nab it first.

But, as the show's creator David Holden notes, the network's executives found the mouse bit a bit forced, "and for lack of a better word, cheesy."  And so David and another of the show's writer/producers, Caryn Lucas, took a walk around the CBS Radford studio lot to brainstorm.

With Young & Hungry being directed by Andy Cadiff, who had worked with Betty White all through Hot in Cleveland, the Young writers already knew they wanted to find a way to lure Betty onto their set.  So when David and Caryn decided the plot would instead involve a neighbor in her apartment, "Caryn turned to me and said, 'What if the neighbor is Betty?'," David remembers.

The two rushed back to their offices and pitched the idea to the rest of the staff; ultimately, writer Rachel Sweet, who had spent years on Hot in Cleveland, was elected to write dialogue for Betty's new character:  the five-times-married widow, Bernice Wilson.

Betty filmed her scenes for tonight's episode in December -- not in front of the live audience, but pre-taped, mostly because her scenes would be shot on "swing sets" which are located off to the side of the soundstage, out of the audience's view.  Her scenes completed, Betty had had such a great time  that she indicated that day that she'd like to return.

And so, later this season, look for a romantic episode where Mrs. Wilson and Gabi take a danger-fraught road trip to Vegas.  As Gabi (Emily Osment) suffers through, at 25, her "quarter-life crisis," Bernice, turning 95 on the same day, has a preoccupation of her own:  to meet up with a man she kissed 20 years ago, and with whom she made a pact to meet as they turned 95.  Ultimately, Betty was thrilled not only to come back to Young & Hungry in a bigger plotline revolving around her character, but also to be playing opposite her real-life close friend Carl Reiner, aka Bernice's long-lost beau, Bernie.

As David explains, the writers came up with the idea of the age-based pact when they realized that the episode would be taping on the day of Betty's actual 95th birthday:  January 17, 2017.  After the scenes were shot, the Young & Hungry stages turned into a birthday party for Betty, with a select number of humans, including Carl and also her former Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hot in Cleveland co-star Georgia Engel, and a preponderance of animals.  Throughout the evening, Betty talked with her guests while nonchalantly cradling a porcupine, or armadillo, or a lynx which, David admits, "I was afraid was going to claw her face off."

Betty's second episode, opposite Carl, will air in May -- and it will probably not be her last; Young & Hungry's writers intend to bring back Bernice, whose relationship at ninetysomething is a nice counterpoint to Gabi and Josh's. Now that the show has gotten the "back order" of episodes to comprise the remainder of its fifth season, David explains that while the first ten episodes will be about Gabi and Josh (Jonathan Sadowski) realizing they were meant to be together, "the back ten will be about exploring what that entails."  And as Bernie and Bernice explore their own burgeoning love, the two women will be able to compare notes about what it means to move in with a guy.  "The younger with the older," David says, "is such a great dynamic."