TCA Wrap-Up: Top Shows Set the Table for Cable TV

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Howards End CastAdaptations of “Howards End,” “Get Shorty” and “The Right Stuff.” New comedies featuring Tracy Morgan, Jason Alexander and Sarah Silverman. Documentaries on Steven Spielberg, Elizabeth Smart and Danica Patrick. And, after five years, a new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Those are just a few of the new programs featured during last week’s cable portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour, which wrapped up Saturday at the Beverly Hilton.

Both Amazon and Netflix opted out of summer TCA, but Hulu participated, along with cable nets including National Geographic Channels, EPIX, Viacom, Comedy Central, AT&T Audience Network, Discovery Communications, ESPN, HBO, A+E Networks, AMC, Sundance TV, Ovation, IFC, Starz, and Turner Networks, all of which presented program clips and panels with executives, creators and talent throughout the week.

Some, like El Rey and Crown Media Family Networks, opted to showcase their programming during luncheons and evening events. During an outdoor dinner at the Jack Warner estate in Beverly Hills, Crown Media President and CEO Bill Abbott announced the new Hallmark Drama channel and a new streaming service launching with 1,000 hours of Hallmark programming.

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

Comedy Central

Late-night comedy has been buoyed by the antics of the six-month-old Trump administration to the point where some are even calling it “the golden age.” Comedy Central is launching a new vehicle into the fray, “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” scheduled to premiere Sept. 25 as a companion to follow Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show,” where Klepper cut his television comedy teeth beginning in 2014 under Jon Stewart’s stewardship.

“The Opposition’s” tagline: Not Mainstream. Not Establishment. Not Helping. And the Klepper characterization may remind of a previous resident of the 11:30 p.m. Comedy Central timeslot. (No, we’re not talking about Larry Wilmore.)

“I’m going to be playing a heightened version of myself, a character, somebody who is a know-nothing provocateur, who fights for the forgotten man,” Klepper said. “And I may at times also forget that man, but I will remember him and try to sell him supplements that are made in China. And I also will be surrounded by a diverse team of folks who are my foot soldiers. They’re my citizen journalists, my confederacy of paranoid dunces who will also be born out of this alt media culture. They might be farther left than me. They might be farther right. But they are on my team, and our team is anti–frankly, sorry, but we are the opposition.”

National Geographic Channels

Not to be confused with “This Is Us,” although displaying a similar humanity, Morgan Freeman is back with “The Story of Us,” a six-part documentary series from the same team behind his “The Story of God.” The actor goes on a global journey to discover the fundamental forces that keep societies together while revealing a common currency across all cultures as he meets people from all over the world. “My film career is about being able to see me, and doesn’t cross over to this,” Freeman said. “Now what I’m getting the most joy of is meeting these different people and having one-on-one conversations and they’re the same – just in a different language.”

Another show certain to draw attention is the four-part scripted drama “The State,” a fictional story based on extensive research that follows four British men and women who leave their lives behind to join ISIS in Syria. Writer/director Peter Kosminsky said the production has been quite secretive because the subject is so controversial– and the terrorist organization poses such a global threat. “Their attachment to Islam is shallow, they are either recent converts or born Muslim and have rediscovered the religion,” he said about the recruits. “The deeper your knowledge of the faith, the less likely you are to travel to Syria– that’s the only thing we can say conclusively.”

Based upon ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz’s experiences as chronicled in her best-selling book by the same name, “The Long Road Home“ examines what became known in military annals as “Black Sunday,” the 2004 battle in Sadr City, Baghdad when the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood was ferociously ambushed. The eight-episode scripted drama cuts between the action on the ground in Iraq and back home in Texas where anxious families await news. Two soldiers involved in the ambush were consultants and became fast friends with the actors portraying them. Executive producer Mike Medavoy noted that it’s about his fourth or fifth war picture, after classics including “Apocalypse Now,” “Coming Home” and “Platoon.”

Also of NatGeo note, two documentaries tied to upcoming 20th anniversaries, “Diana: In Her Words” (Aug. 14) and James Cameron’s “Titanic 20th Anniversary Documentary Special” and the announcement of developing Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” into a scripted series.

EPIX

Many people will fondly recall the 1995 crime/comedy thriller “Get Shorty” starring John Travolta, but now EPIX is coming out with another version of the story based partly on Elmore Leonard’s best-selling novel. Chris O’Dowd portrays Miles Daly, a Nevada mobster trying to change professions and launder money by becoming a movie producer. Ray Romano stars as a washed up producer of D-list films who becomes Daly’s partner and his guide through Hollywood. You can imagine the mayhem that ensues.

EPIX is also bringing back second seasons of spy drama “Berlin Station” and single camera comedy “Graves,” starring Nick Nolte as a former POTUS trying to atone for the sins of his two terms in office – 25 years after leaving the White House.

On the documentary side, “Danica” chronicles the achievements in the male-dominated world of professional motorsports that made Danica Patrick a household name.

Starz

Along with panels for Season 2 of “The Girlfriend Experience,” with two separate storylines taking place in Washington, D.C. and New Mexico and the Season 3 of fan-favorite “Outlander,” which spans a 20-year separation between Claire and Jamie from the 1940s through the 1960s, the premium cabler gave critics a taste of its four-episode run of “Howards End.”

The pedigreed period piece, adapted by acclaimed scribe Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea,” “Gangs of New York,” “You Can Count on Me”), stars Tracey Ullman and Hayley Atwell as the two sisters in the classic E.M. Forster novel, which was also adapted for the Oscar-winning 1992 Merchant Ivory film featuring Helena Bonham Carter and Vanessa Redgrave in those roles.

“We wanted to make it as accessible as possible by not making it feel mannered,” Atwell said. “It’s lovely to be offered something as brilliant as this,” said Ullman, who is more known for her comedic roles–and will be bringing a new topical comedy show, already airing in the UK, to HBO in October.

“The great thing about books like ‘Howards End,’ or any great art, is that the reverberations of the art change according to the context of time in which you read or see it,” said executive producer Colin Callender. “In this instance, with re-reading ‘Howards End,’ what became very clear was that there was an extraordinary story that could be explored more fully in four hours than in a film.”

Starz teamed with the BBC for the limited series. Hettie Macdonald directs all four episodes.

AT&T Audience Network

Jason Alexander may never live down his role as George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” nor should he. In his new vehicle, “Hit the Road,” Alexander trades soup kitchens for songs as the uber-ambitious but crazy head of household promoting his family band, sort of a dysfunctional Partridge Family, as they travel from gig to gig in a secondhand tour bus. In a series of misadventures on the bottom rung of the music industry, the family deals with financial problems, moral quandaries, marital woes and the tribulations of adolescence while interacting with risqué characters and situations common to the world of pop music.

It’s definitely R-rated, verging sometimes on X.

“’The Partridge Family’ was definitely a model, as was the wonderful documentary of Cowsills that’s out on Netflix, and some of the behind-the-scenes stories of the Osmond family and the Jackson family,” said Alexander. “They’re great fodder for comedy. You have real life people experiencing real-life challenges and traumas and joys, and trying to grow and at the same time, every time they get an opportunity, it’s all smiles, and this has to be perfect. And God forbid, we don’t look wholesome and decent…the whole thing could crash and burn. So it’s that tenuous balance that is really the centerpiece of the comedy of the show.”

LoudermilkAnother dark comedy, “Loudermilk,” created by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Mort and starring Ron Livingston as a Seattle music critic who is a recovering alcoholic and a substance abuse counselor, will follow “Hit the Road” when the two shows premiere October 17. The character of Sam Loudermilk may have his drinking under control, but his bad attitude is anything but as he finds that getting sober is the easy part in a life that is a near-complete disaster.

“I love the idea of doing a dark comedy. I don’t really worry too much about whether the guy’s likeable,” Livingston said. “My theory on that is that if a guy is doing the best he can, the audience is going to respect that even if the best he can sucks.”

“You know his heart’s in the right place,” Farrelly added. “He is trying to help these people. And the only one he hurts by living this way and having this attitude is himself. So that kind of helps him.”

“Mr. Mercedes” is definitely dark, and certainly not a comedy. Based on a Stephen King novel, it centers around a demented serial killer who taunts a retired police chief, forcing the former cop to undertake a crusade to bring him to justice before he can kill again.

Brendan Gleeson plays the retired detective Bill Hodges, while Harry Treadaway portrays the killer. Mary-Louise Parker, Holland Taylor and Kelly Lynch co-star.

“All the characters have the horror within,” Gleeson said. “They’re all haunted, but haunted in a very human way. I find it riveting to take something with Stephen’s amazing richness and the abundance of the variety of characters that he’s able to bring into the world and find a common thread and then the plot that he’s able to put into place and then taking David Kelley’s human touches. And the exploration is endless.”

Discovery

Solar EclipseWith eyes across the Continental United States set to be on the sun August 21 for the first total solar eclipse in 99 years, Science Channel will present a two-part special, “The Great American Eclipse,” which will include live coverage from Oregon to South Carolina and points in between for what is expected to be one of the most viewed events in history.

Investigation Discovery marks the 40th anniversary of murders that terrorized New York City and riveted the nation with “Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer,” set to air Aug. 5. David Berkowitz continued his killing spree for more than a year before being captured and the scars from the serial murderers are still being felt by those who lived through it including police detectives who worked round-the-clock to capture him. The two-hour documentary includes accounts from many of the people tasked with bringing him to justice.

Another notorious killer, the Unabomber, is the subject of an anthology series on Discovery Channel, “Manhunt: Unabomber” (premiering Aug. 1) with actor Paul Bettany portraying Ted Kaczynski. Sam Worthington plays FBI agent and criminal profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald, who pioneered the use of forensic linguistics to identify and ultimately capture one of the most sophisticated and brilliant criminals in history. The series examines the challenges not just in finding Kaczynski but Fitz’s fight against the bureaucracy which was resistant to his new and innovative approaches.

ESPN

It may not have the interest level of the award-winning “O.J.: Made in America,” but admirers of professional wrestling should make sure to catch the next installment in the 30 for 30 series, “Nature Boy,” which chronicles the life of Ric Flair– a flamboyant wrestler who decided early on to do with whatever it took to get to the top. In the process, he turned pro wrestling into mainstream sports entertainment and although his success took a sizable toll, Flair remains defiant, proud of his legacy and happy to remain in the spotlight. The film is built around interviews Flair did over an 18-month period with director Rory Karpf.

“So I had a phenomenal career, some ups and downs in my personal life, but at the end of the day, I’m not afraid to discuss it,” said Flair, who also displayed and admitted to his lifelong love of flashy jewelry. “And I just respect the fact that ESPN chose me as the first wrestler to ever do a piece on.”

The sports net also showcased new personnel for its pregame show “Sunday NFL Countdown,” which expands to three hours in the fall. Samantha Ponder and former NFL head coach Rex Ryan (New York Jets, Buffalo Bills) join the team.

HBO

Good news: More “Deadwood” is possibly on the way. There’s a script and HBO is looking for a director and at a budget. A Trump movie could be in the works (set in a specific time period before he took office), Mahershala Ali has a deal to star in the new season of “True Detective”–and there could be another season of “The Night Of.” Jon Stewart will do two specials, including his first stand-up special in 21 years. Jared Harris will star in the five-part miniseries “Chernobyl.”

Programming president Casey Bloys last year took tough questions about the premium pay cabler’s depiction of violence against women. This year, he was grilled about “Confederate,” the controversial new drama from “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, which envisions a modern-day world in which the South seceded from the Union and slavery is still legal there.

“File this under hindsight is 20/20. So, if I could do it over again–our mistake, HBO’s mistake, not the producers–was the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided on our part,” Bloys said. “If I had it to do over again, what I would do to introduce the idea is what we ended up doing after the fact with the four producers which is to have them sit with journalists. And the problem is, Richard [Plepler] and I had the benefit of sitting with these four producers. We heard why they wanted to do the show, what they were excited about, why it was important to them, so we had that context. But I completely understand that somebody reading the press release would not have that at all.”

During its panels, HBO showcased a documentary on director Steven Spielberg based on 30 hours of interviews the director did with Susan Lacy, well-known for producing many documentaries over 35 years for “American Masters.” “I couldn’t believe how articulate he was and how much fun it was in talking about his movies. He was like a kid, so enthusiastic,” Lacy said.

The Deuce“The Deuce,” a gritty drama created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, will take viewers back to early 1970s Times Square for the dawn of the legalization of pornography, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry. James Franco stars as a character based on a real-life pioneer in the porn biz. Maggie Gyllenhaal co-stars.

“This is a moment from where porn goes from something you buy in a paper bag under the counter to being legal,” said Simon. “Everyone involved realized the money involved is going to be real. Those who were involved as pioneers seized the moment aggressively and willingly and what happened is fascinating. Even though the product is human flesh, we’re more interested in how the industry arrayed itself – who got paid and who paid the cost.”

“As a young actor, my bible was 1970s films like ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’” Franco said. “I had a particular view of that time and place. It is such a great thing to not only enter that world but to do it with these guys who are all about realism. It created an exciting combination and had a real meaning.”

Curb Your EnthusiasmLarry David brought his own brand of excitement and displayed his sardonic sense of humor in full force on the panel for “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which returns for a ninth season this fall with cast members Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman and J.B. Smoove, who joined the session along with executive producer Jeff Schaffer. The Emmy Award-winning comedy hasn’t been televised for five years, and it’s been dearly missed—and David has been asked about it repeatedly.

The normally staid proceedings turned into kind of a roast as David repeatedly needled the critics who asked him questions, including one about “Seinfeld” he really didn’t like. It was all in good fun and the room was rolling on the floor with laughter. Secrets were spilled when one critic asked about David’s upcoming appearance on PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” in which it is revealed that he is actually related to Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom he portrayed multiple times on “Saturday Night Live.”

“They told me not to say anything,” David said. “Anything else interesting?” Garlin queried him. “Yeah, I got Nazis in my family,” David said, to more uproarious laughter.

Turner

TBS and TNT and chief creative officer Kevin Reilly got the party started by coming on stage on a lowrider bike, followed by another two-wheeled arrival by Snoop Dogg before discussing his role as host of the TBS revival of “The Joker’s Wild.”

TruTV is upping its comedy quotient with “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” who employs her sincere and distinctive brand of silliness in a scripted series described as a mash-up of hospitality, variety and talk show while incorporating her talents as a chef, baker and hostess.

On the unscripted side, “The Chris Gethard Show” features the comedian as the ringleader of a panel of oddball comics participating in games, stunts and interacting live with fans. The network has ordered 16 hour-long episodes of the Funny or Die-produced cult hit, which began as a live stage show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

Celebrity musical competition is the basis of “Drop the Mic” on TBS. Hosted by Method Man and Hailey Baldwin, it’s based on the popular segment from “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” who is one of the EPs. Each episode features four celebrities from sports, music, entertainment and pop culture who face off in a rap battle, after which the audience votes on the winner.

Along with the second season of “Search Party,” TBS also this fall premieres another scripted comedy, “The Last O.G.” with Tracy Morgan. The popular comedian stars as an ex-con who is shocked to see how much the world has changed after he’s released from prison– on good behavior – after 15 years. Returning to a newly-gentrified Brooklyn, one of the biggest surprises is his former girlfriend (played by Tiffany Haddish) has married a successful white man who is helping raise the twins Morgan’s character never knew about.

“This is not a black show,” Morgan said. “This is a show about humanity, second chances, redemption. This isn’t a black show. … I want to transcend that. Black people aren’t the only ones who live there; there are white people coming home from prison too. I want to deal with the humanity.”

Hulu

handmaid's taleNetwork execs Joel Stillerman and Craig Erwich lauded the success of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which recently scored a whopping 13 Emmy nominations for its first season, including outstanding drama series and four acting nominations.

“Since introducing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to the world, not only has viewership continued to build every week, but in just a few months, it has cemented itself as a cultural phenomenon,” Erwich noted. “It’s generated hundreds of think pieces, influenced runway designs, and refueled Margaret Atwood’s original masterpiece back to the top of the best sellers list. The series has been parodied by ‘SNL’ and has moved women around the world to don red robes.”

(That’s how you know you’ve made it, when “SNL” gives your show a full-on parody after only four episodes.)

The streamer showcased its new upcoming drama, “Marvel’s Runaways,” centered on six diverse teenagers who can barely stand each other but become united against a common foe – their evil parents. The showrunners, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, are experts in teen angst and portraying it in huge hits like “Gossip Girl” and “The O.C.” Now, they’ll filter that expertise through the Marvel lens.

“Future Man,” from the comic minds of Seth Rogen and Ben Karlin, stars Josh Hutcherson as a janitor by day and a gamer by night. He’s recruited by mysterious visitors to travel back through time to prevent the extinction of humanity. It’s well-trod territory for Rogen.

“I’ve made a few projects about the world ending. It’s not a new thing,” said Rogen. “But tackling it comedically keeps drawing us back.”

The production had to deal with the recent death of cast member Glenne Headly, who played Hutcherson’s mom.

Sarah Silverman teams up with Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and Funny or Die for her new talk show, “I Love You, America.” The comedian is looking to connect with un-like minded people, like those who have never met a Jew before.

“Maybe the mission statement is exposing that we are all the same and comedy at its best can show that,” Silverman said.

“One of the great things about the show is a return to being grounded, back to a common place where we can tell a crook is a crook. Still, the method is to be funny and viscerally human, not to be heavy and theoretical – and Sarah’s great at that,” said McKay.

A+E

Actor Rob Lowe and his two sons, Matthew and John Owen are featured in the A+E reality skein “The Lowe Files” as they travel around the country exploring infamous unsolved mysteries. It’s an obsession that Lowe has had early childhood and has now passed down to his boys.

“I think part of the whole concept of the show is that it’s the journey and it’s creating memories for us and having an excuse to be together. And so if we don’t find actual results it’s not really all that important,” Lowe said.

Lifetime is presenting the original movie “Flint,” inspired by a Time magazine cover story about the lead-polluted drinking water in Flint, Michigan. It follows the story of three women whose actions led to a national movement for safe drinking water and the challenges they faced by political powers working against them at every turn.

Elizabeth SmartThe telefilm “I Am Elizabeth Smart” (Nov. 18 on Lifetime) chronicles the harrowing kidnapping of the then-14-year-old Smart in 2002 when she was abducted from her Salt Lake City home by religious fanatic Brian Mitchell. He took her to a remote encampment where he and his female accomplice kept her in chains and starved, drugged and raped her for nine months.

A separate two-part A+E Biography special, “Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography” (Nov. 12 and 13) is executive produced by Smart and explores how she survived – and confronts the truths and the lies about her captivity, which captivated the nation’s attention.

“I have a unique opportunity to share my story because there are so many other survivors out there who struggle every day because they feel like they are alone. They feel like nobody possibly understands what they are going through. Nobody else understands how they feel. And how can they continue? And I feel lucky because — this is going to sound crazy, but I feel lucky because what happened to me, it was a stranger who abducted me. It was a stranger who hurt me, whereas the majority of abuse that takes place now, the majority of kidnappings and sexual violence that goes on today comes from the family or someone that you know,” said Smart.

AMC/Sundance TV

AMC VisionariesComic book geeks and more casual admirers are sure to thrill to “AMC Visionaries: Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics,” a six-part documentary series that takes a deep dive into the people and events which have made comics what they are today.

Also in the “Visionaries” series, similar in-depth explorations of horror by Eli Roth and on science fiction by James Cameron.

Roth said his impetus was the death of Wes Craven and just recently, George Romero—and that he wanted to get other masters of the genre on camera. “The best horror also reflects what’s going on at the time. You can really see it now with ‘Get Out.’ It gives everyone a safe context to talk about racial tension,” he said.

Cameron, who appeared via satellite, noted that science fiction is now a mainstream part of pop culture.

“I’m excited by drilling down into granular detail,” said Cameron. “This is a way to connect the dots and honor these creators, especially for younger audiences who don’t necessarily know where these ideas came from. This is not just about history but linking to our lives now.”

Sundance TV’s “Liar” stars Joanne Froggatt as a dedicated teacher and Ioan Gruffudd as a renowned surgeon whose son is one of her students. The six-episode psychological thriller delves into a series of volatile accusations that turn their lives upside down–with secrets and lies unraveling to ultimately reveal the truth.

Also upcoming, “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders,“ a four-hour docuseries from director Joe Berlinger about the infamous 1959 killings made famous in Truman Capote’s landmark book “In Cold Blood.” It takes a fresh look at the legendary case, including interviews from family members who have never spoken publicly about it and never before seen archival footage.

“I imbue a dramatic structure onto true crime,” said Berlinger. “This was the precipitating story that launched where we are today with true crime. With the book and movie turning 50, it was a great time to pull back. ‘O.J.: Made in America’ was a game changer in giving context to crimes within the culture.”

Crime solving is at the heart of “Top of the Lake: China Girl” and so is family and personal drama. The new season, starring Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin, shows her recently returned to Sydney, Australia and trying to rebuild her life when the body of an unidentified girl, termed “China Girl,” washes up on a local beach. Griffin’s search to discover the victim’s identity – and her killer – takes her into Sydney’s criminal underworld even as her personal life takes an unexpected turn. Gwendoline Christie, Nicole Kidman and Alice Englert, daughter of director Jane Campion, co-star.

“I’ve always considered myself a character actor. Jane I’ve known since I was 14,” noted Kidman, who just came off the successful “Big Little Lies.” “I wanted to work with these incredible women and be part of an incredible ensemble. I love the two series I’ve done on TV. The fact that I’m sitting here with a group of women, that means the roles are here in TV, and that’s exciting for an actor.”

 

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Author: Hillary Atkin

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