Ken Burns Gets Intimate With the Roosevelts on PBS

Just as “The Civil War” and “The War” before it, master documentarian Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” is turning out to be a massive blockbuster for PBS.

The sprawling documentary chronicling the lives of Theodore, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt began Sunday night with the first of its seven, two-hour episodes, which garnered a 5.8 rating and an average audience of 9.06 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National data, Live + SD.

Before the first chapter aired, more than 200,000 views of trailers for “The Roosevelts” foretold the strong demand for the series.

Burns, whose other recent documentaries include “Prohibition” (2011) and “The Dust Bowl” (2012), said that releasing a film is like having a conversation with your closest friends and family. If, of course, they number in the millions of people.

“I’m always struck by the thoughts and comments and how engaged the American people are,” he said. “The fact that such a large audience tuned in the first night is all the more rewarding. We hope more people have a chance to watch on all of the platforms PBS has set up to share the work.”

In addition to the broadcasts which run through September 20, the 14-hour series is streaming at pbs.org/theroosevelts, PBS stations’ digital platforms, Roku and Apple TV– and will be available through September 29.

“The Roosevelts,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote, spans more than 100 years, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962, vividly bringing to life the history of two presidencies, multiple family tragedies, Prohibition, the Depression and two world wars.

With never-before seen photographs and vibrant but silent film, the first chapters chronicle the life of Teddy Roosevelt, born into a world of privilege, who became America’s 26th president in a term that began 113 years ago almost to the day, on Sept. 14, 1901, after President William McKinley was assassinated.

He was, at age 42, the youngest person to become president. Overcoming severe asthma as a youth, the ambitious Roosevelt had already made a name for himself as a New York City police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York and vice president.

His cowboy persona, epitomized by forming the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, and his large ego were legendary. His most famous slogan, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” resonates to this day. Other catchphrases, indicative of his boundless energy, were “Bully!” and “Dee-lighted.”

Roosevelt ate a dozen eggs for breakfast every morning, drank coffee from a massive mug and dictated 150,000 letters in his lifetime, which the Theodore Roosevelt Center in Dickinson, ND is trying to get all online.

But as Burns does so well, and with Roosevelt brought to life in his own words by the voice of Paul Giamatti, viewers get a detailed, insightful, 360-degree version of Theodore—including his battles with depression, his tragic loss of both his first wife and his mother on the same day and an assassination attempt—which contribute to a greater understanding of one of the most prominent leaders in U.S. history.

As the docu-series moves on to the era of Franklin and Eleanor, Theodore’s distant cousin and his niece, viewers will hear them come to life, voiced by actors Edward Herrmann (who played FDR in the landmark 1976 miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin”) and Meryl Streep.

The stories of the more modern-era Roosevelts, well-chronicled as they have been for decades, are even more captivating on Burns’ canvas, with images and video so clear they feel almost contemporary.

(“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” airs on PBS stations at 8 p.m. PT/ET, 7 p.m. C through September 20.)

–Hillary Atkin

Carnage and Courage in HBO’s ‘Terror at the Mall’

We have just commemorated the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, yet many people may not realize that September marks another such tragic milestone. It’s been one year since an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group based in Somalia attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving 71 people dead and hundreds wounded.

A new documentary airing on HBO, “Terror at the Mall,” takes a harrowing look inside the siege by Al-Shabaab militants at the upscale shopping center known as Westgate, which lasted for a staggering 49 hours before the situation was brought grimly under control.

Directed by Dan Reed, who also helmed HBO’s 2009 Emmy-nominated “Terror in Mumbai” and 2003’s BAFTA-nominated “Terror in Moscow,” the film recalls the horror of the attack and the courage of ordinary citizens who were caught in the middle of a murderous rampage of civilians–people who had been going about their daily lives on a typical weekend afternoon.

“Somehow, it really got to me. It’s a universal location meant for all of us, and this is a mall looks like any other in Europe or America,” Reed said in a phone interview. “It was a Saturday lunchtime, people doing what they’re doing, walking around with their kids, shopping. There was a generic significance that made it chilling.”

The London-based director started working on the film right after the attack and made five trips to Kenya, using footage from more than 100 security cameras, which recorded hours of surveillance video, along with extensive photographs taken during the siege. He tracked down and interviewed many of the survivors and some of the rescuers, who reflected on what took place, why it happened the way it did and how their lives have changed in the interim.

“We recorded 82 interviews but met 150 people involved,” Reed said. “My film tries to create an account of what it was like to experience the attack. It was designed to be a claustrophobic experience. These are important events for us to understand and that’s why I try to have material that gives you an incredible inside view and allows you to piece together a complex event that unfolds in a rapidly changing scenario.”

The terror began out of nowhere at 12:30 p.m. when a shopper passed through a security check to enter the mall, heard a loud explosion, which turned out to be a grenade, and then saw the guard who had been searching him fall to the ground. Witnesses recalled that gunfire quickly erupted and footage shows patrons in a restaurant diving for cover or being knocked to the ground.

As the security camera videos dispassionately reveal, chaos engulfed the mall, with frightened shoppers running for their lives, unsure of the origin of the attack. Many tried to find hiding places within the shopping center, including under display tables, while literally hundreds of terrified people fled into a giant two-story supermarket, Nakumatt.

There were four terrorists responsible for the rampage. Two of the gunmen made their way toward the supermarket while two others headed for the mall’s rooftop, where a children’s cooking competition was underway.

A 15-year-old girl who was shot in the stomach, thigh and foot clearly recalled one of the terrorist’s chilling battle cries. “The only thing he said was that we are here to kill. You killed our people in Somalia. We normally don’t kill women and children but you kill ours in Somalia and so we are here to take revenge.”

In October 2011, Kenya had marched into Somali to combat Islamist jihadists who had been kidnapping Westerners in its border region, but Reed said there was little evidence of Kenyan civil rights abuses of Somalis during the incursion.

Meanwhile, inside the supermarket, 20 people had hidden behind the meat counter when the terrorists started shooting them, letting some go who said they were Muslim. One woman who was protecting her young daughter and son was shot through the pelvis.

Outside the mall, 45 minutes after the shooting began, Kenyan security forces tried to decide how to proceed, as time ticked away for the wounded waiting to be rescued.

“We laid there for very long time,” recalled one woman who was trapped on the upper level. “You would expect to see a lot of armed soldiers coming up the ramp. Maybe that’s what we were expecting, but that didn’t happen.”

It’s painful to watch the injured struggling, but as the security forces dawdled, a handful of plainclothes police and civilians decided to act—seven in total—going into the mall and rescuing seriously wounded people who had been clinging to life amid the carnage.

The obvious question arises. Why were Kenyan forces so impotent in stopping the attack, preventing further carnage and rescuing the victims?

“It’s not that easy to compare the response to what the American or British response would be,” Reed said. “The institutions in Kenya, sadly, are very dysfunctional. The military and the police are not oriented toward saving lives. The long and short of it is the priority was not to save lives–people were basically covering their asses not wanting to take a risk,” he said of the security forces.

Some of the most graphic and gut-wrenching security camera footage shows one man being repeatedly shot at close range just inside the mall’s entrance, seemingly as he is about to escape. He had been a driver for an American charity. Reed interviewed the man’s daughter.

“He didn’t realize there were two pairs of gunmen. He thought the terrorists were behind him and mistook the two other armed men for cops before they casually shot him at point blank range,” said Reed.

Part of the process in producing the documentary involved much forensic work, analyzing imagery and investigating obscure elements that can lead to useful conclusions.

“As we’re confronted with these hugely impactful events, it’s important to understand the cruelty and brutality but also the astonishing courage and selflessness of people who worked together to survive,” Reed said.

He points with admiration to three women who were there with their children. “It gave them the ability to focus on survival that they wouldn’t have had if they had been there alone,” Reed said. “It supercharged their senses and really helped them to survive. That’s something that gives me hope, a redeeming side of the story. I find that a reason to be optimistic about the human race.”

This may also be a fitting conclusion to the horrifying story of terror at the mall. On September 1, Ahmed Godane, the leader of Al-Shabaab and the apparent mastermind of the Westgate attack, was killed in a targeted U.S. military airstrike in Somalia.

(“Terror at the Mall” premieres September 15 on HBO at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)

–Hillary Atkin

Big Men: A Story of Greed and Corruption Unfolds When Big Money is at Stake

One of the things that POV on PBS, now in its 27th season, does best is showcasing the work of the world’s finest independent documentary filmmakers, and the upcoming “Big Men” is a prime example.

Airing Monday, August 25 on PBS, the documentary is a nail-biting exposé of the global dealmaking and the dark underside of what happens when the US oil industry goes into Africa to drill. It becomes a contest for money and power that reshapes the landscape of underdeveloped countries like Ghana and Nigeria.

“Big Men” is directed by Rachel Boynton and executive produced by Brad Pitt. Filmed over a period of five years, Boynton explores what happens when a small Dallas company, Kosmos Energy, develops Ghana’s first commercial oilfield.

“The world of international oil deals is not an easy one to enter with the camera,” said Boynton, who was most often accompanied only by her cameraman. “And I knew no one in the oil business, or in Africa when I began this film. I wanted it to take you into exclusive and dangerous worlds, to put you into the room right as events are unfolding. The film does this in scene after scene – introducing you to presidents and gun toting militants and letting you eavesdrop on businessmen making multibillion-dollar deals.”

As she quickly found out, money motivated everything involved in a place where so many people have so little and many of them resort to illegal activities– like stealing oil– to survive. She also discovered a world filled with endemic corruption.

“A huge portion of public funds were siphoned off by officials trying to make money on the side or were wasted by contracts awarded to people with great connections and no capacity to actually accomplish the work. It was like a heightened version of a world I knew – an example of capitalism taken to an extreme, where rampant individualism takes root and larger connections between people fall apart.”

In Dallas and in New York, Boynton got unprecedented access to meetings and behind the scenes dealings of the Kosmos team, which was focused on investor risk and return.

But in Ghana, the events following the discovery of oil turned into a white knuckle roller coaster ride for Kosmos, with the 2008 financial crisis, wild fluctuations in the price of oil, and a new government demanding a new deal for its portion of the profits.

“For me, the safe card against divisive self-interest lies not in denying that we’re all looking out for ourselves, but in recognizing and valuing what connects us,” the director said. “”What does this very basic motivation – the pursuit of profit – do to the way we all behave? And when maximum individual profit is the ultimate good, isn’t it inevitable that a very few will have more while a great many will have infinitely and tragically less?”

The 82-minute documentary explores all these issues in a riveting tale that chronicles the little-seen machinations that are a byproduct of discovering, drilling and distributing oil.

Yet ultimately, “Big Men”– the title comes from individuals wanting to make themselves bigger– is as much about shared human nature as it is about oil.

– Hillary Atkin

 

Variety TV Summit: The Future of the Business on Multiple Platforms

Variety is known for putting on top-quality entertainment industry conferences and last week’s TV Summit was no exception.

The all-day series of seminars got started with a keynote address from Marc Juris, president and general manager of WeTV – a warm-up act, if you will, for a conversation between Conan O’Brien and Variety’s Cynthia Littleton.

For anyone who had not had enough morning coffee at that point, Conan’s humor and insights woke them right up.

O’Brien talked about transitioning from the old ways – when he used to check the overnight ratings for his late-night show – to the new, led by the impact of social media and particularly for him, Twitter. He said in the period between his failed Tonight Show outing and landing in his new home on TBS, he put out a tweet that ended up selling out an entire national comedy tour– and learning almost immediately about digital distribution. He now has an entire group, Team Coco, dedicated to digital content around the show that has been very successful.

“Now when people get excited about something, they make it their own. They grab it, they share it with their friends. It’s a much more intimate experience,” he said.

O’Brien also reflected on his career, which has had him on the air for 21 years now. When David Letterman steps down, he will be the longest running late night host, not counting that gap between gigs, of course.

“I came into this business at a high point, when people were put to bed by a talk show host,” he said, reflecting on watching Johnny Carson with his dad. “I had this idea that I wanted to be that guy. I adjusted my dream. There was a period when I thought my dream had been smashed. But I realized my job is to entertain people and make them laugh.”

Heavyweight topics like the future of the television business and the advancing frontier of multiplatform pay TV were all explored before lunchtime, along with a panel called “TV’s Reality Rainmakers,” featuring executives from Fox, Freemantle, MTV and the producers behind the ultra-successful reality skein “Pawn Stars.”

An outdoor buffet lunch under umbrellas at the Intercontinental Hotel in Century City was a chance for participants to network with each other and with panelists at the exclusive event.

After lunch, it was time to get down to brass tacks and ask people for their help in fighting runaway production from Los Angeles and California by expanding and enhancing the state’s tax credits to production companies. They were asked– and we will spread the word– to sign a petition hat can be found at www.filmworksca.com

“It’s very simple. This (Los Angeles) is where the most talented and best crews are,” said Scott Rosenbaum, executive producer of Fox’s “Gang Related.” “You want a great product? This is where you get it.”

A panel on social media and other digital offerings becoming destinations of choice for television audiences was moderated by Variety’s Andy Wallenstein and featured executives from Twitter, Facebook, NBC, YuMe, Gray Media and Generator.

The conversation turned to digital strategies around NBC’s hit “The Voice” and the implementation of having the audience vote through social media.

“Anything that gives a fan more is effective– they’re sharing it,” said Jared Goldsmith, VP of digital marketing for NBC Entertainment. “We are working on creative that’s customized and tailored.”

The data that is derived from digital is also being used to make strategic programming decisions and fostering loyal communities around shows.

During the next panel on programming, executive producer Betsy Beers (“Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder”) echoed some of those sentiments on how important digital strategies are becoming.

“Our guy who does ancillary – his work on social media went from 10% to 90% of his job,” she said. “The appetite seems to be endless. They want more.” She also noted that digital media keeps people engaged and brings in new eyeballs including those who are catching up with a show.

“It’s instant touching of content – they can touch the show,” said Audrey Morrissey, EP of “The Voice.”

“Comedy has taken the place of music and the fabric of social is curating and sharing,” said Kent Alterman, president of original programming at Comedy Central. “What matters most is point of view.”

Yet he noted that what’s missing from digital data is the energy that comes from seeing what a live audience responds to.

The day’s final panel, titled “TV’s Creative Trailblazers” brought together those from series drama, comedy and reality for an entertaining discussion moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley.

Featuring Anthony Anderson, EP and star of ABC’s upcoming comedy “Black-ish,” Erin Levy, supervising producer of “Mad Men,” EP and host of “Flipping Out,” Jeff Lewis, Elwood Reid, EP of “The Bridge,” Nicole Richie, EP of “Candidly Nicole” and Paul Scheer, EP of “Hot Wives of Orlando,” the conversation was injected with humor, particularly from Anderson and Scheer– also included weightier topics.

“I’m a refugee from broadcast,” Reid remarked in discussing the freedom in producing his drama on FX, to which Scheer agreed that the cabler’s chief exec John Landgraf “wants you to keep pushing it.”

“It’s about being authentic and truthful. Audiences can see through BS,” said Anderson.

Underscoring that, Lewis said, “Every time you see me acting like an asshole, I am.”

Regarding social media, Scheer said, “When it feels weird, social media is not doing its job. It’s not addressing the audience.”

“None of it matters if the scripts are shit,” said Reid, who also noted that when he’s asked for social media ideas he said he doesn’t have time to develop them– that he concentrates on the writing for his show.

–Hillary Atkin

 

 

Just in ‘The Knick,’ Steven Soderbergh Takes Viewers to a Forgotten NYC

Cinemax is going in an entirely new direction tonight with the premiere of the ten-part series “The Knick,” from director Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen as a brilliant, renegade and opiate-addicted surgeon wielding a scalpel in turn of the 20th century New York City at a fictional hospital called the Knickerbocker.

It’s a show that could have easily been on sister network HBO, but Soderbergh and network executives thought it would stand out more on Cinemax, which has so much confidence in it that it has already renewed it for a second season of ten episodes.

“I kind of wanted to be a big kid at a small school,” Soderbergh said at the recent Television Critics Association panel for the show, which also included executive producers and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Owen and co-star Eve Hewson. “I’m glad it worked. It allowed for a smaller teacher-to-student ratio.”

Owen said it took him only about 40 minutes to decide to take the role. “It was clear that they done a phenomenal amount of research, and where they wanted to take it was incredible,” he said.

Get ready for graphic surgery scenes that may be offputting to some viewers, performed as they are without gloves and with electricity running through rudimentary equipment that sometimes burns the patients. There were no antibiotics in those days and the mortality rates from what are now considered typical ailments were sky-high.

Surgeries were performed in a theater with spectators and doctors like Owen’s John Thackery were the stars of the show, just as Owen—an actor known mainly for film roles–is the undisputed star of this television drama.

Dr. Thackery is a riveting character–a passionate man with deep ambitions to make medical history who unexpectedly loses his revered mentor to suicide and takes over his role as chief surgeon at the hospital. It’s located in lower Manhattan amid communities of immigrants and constantly struggles to attract wealthy clientele and maintain its reputation for quality care while often finding it difficult to literally keep the lights on.

“The hugely challenging thing is he’s a complex, difficult character, trying to forward medicine and save people’s lives,” Owen said about playing Thackery. “He’s a functioning addict. It’s not about being likable.”

And yes, viewers may cringe at the overt racism the character and his medical colleagues display when a black physician, Harvard graduate Algemon Edwards (Andre Holland) is thrust into the staff by the hospital’s wealthy benefactor, a shipping tycoon. It turns out Dr. Edwards is the son of one of their household staff and that the benefactor’s daughter, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) is hell-bent on making sure he is accepted as an equal.

Let’s just say Dr. Edwards finds a way to circumvent the discrimination that is showered upon him and to treat patients in a makeshift facility of his own devising where he also invents some medical techniques and new equipment.

The story takes us everywhere from the old money mansions of the Upper East Side to opium dens, whorehouses and tenements 50 blocks south in an age when horse-drawn carriages were the favored mode of transportation and the telephone was just coming into widespread use.

One of the subplots involves an Irish ambulance driver who looks to sell bodies to the highest bidder and a nun who makes money on the side by performing acts that would get her instantly excommunicated. Watch what happens when these two team up, as well as the other interesting and unexpected alliances that are formed between people of different classes and races.

“The Knick” is a fascinating look at a bygone era when cocaine use was widespread, syphilis was devastating and typhoid could be spread by homemade ice cream. Even if you look away during the bloodiest of the surgeries.

(“The Knick” airs on Cinemax at 10 p.m. PT/ET beginning August 8.)

–Hillary Atkin

 

Deep Dive With James Cameron to the Ocean Floor in ‘Deepsea Challenge 3D’

Everyone who heard James Cameron proclaim “I’m the king of the world” after winning the Oscar for “Titanic” knows he has a huge pair.

But what many don’t realize is that prepping the 1997 blockbuster, which brought in more than $2 billion worldwide, was also a touchstone in his lifelong wanderlust to explore the deepest, darkest recesses of the ocean.

The audacious director’s quest to make a solo voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench is chronicled in the new “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” a dramatic 90-minute documentary of his odyssey in theaters nationwide August 8. It was a journey of historic proportions and risk, with the thrill of its many discoveries captured on camera. Tragedy also struck. Along the way, two of his crew members were killed in a helicopter accident.

The forbidding and mysterious trench is located in the Western Pacific east of the Philippines and is nearly 7 miles deep, deeper than Mount Everest is high – 36,000 feet. Think of the altitude a jetliner flies and that’s how far under the ocean we’re talking about.

For Cameron, it was a very personal journey to go to a place where only one expedition had been before, and that was 50 years ago.

U.S. Navy Lieut. Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard had explored the trench in 1960, and Walsh was part of the Cameron team whose goal was to make the director’s journey the deepest solo dive in history.

He and his team of engineers and scientists built a submersible called the Deepsea Challenger, outfitting it with cameras inside and out that allow viewers to ride along on the exploration and experience the thrill of true discovery under the sea.

The film was produced by National Geographic and directed by John Bruno, Ray Quint and Andrew Wight, one of the two men who died in the helicopter crash while shooting aerials of the sub. The other fatality was Mike deGruy, an underwater cinematographer.

After much soul-searching, the rest of the crew and the families of the two men decided that the expedition should move forward.

“Things get real real quick,” Cameron said in an interview about the documentary. “The answer that came back from the group was to honor what Andrew and Mike stood for as explorers and complete the task.”

“Working with Jim, it’s always an adventure,” Bruno said in an interview. He’s a visual effects supervisor who has been with Cameron since the 1989 underwater adventure film “The Abyss.”

It was after “Titanic” that Cameron began devoting himself to the project and in 2005, with assistance from Australian cave diver Ron Allum, began designing the sub – paying for most of the costs himself with support from National Geographic and Rolex.

He won’t say how much the tab was but noted that the cost of similar government expeditions in today’s dollars would be $100-$150 million.

The submarine is 24 feet tall and weighs 11.5 tons. It was worked on by two teams of engineers, one in Silicon Valley and another in Sydney, Australia.

When Cameron took his solo dive in it on March 26, 2012, the thrusters failed and he was able to stay down just three hours – two hours less than he planned – before returning to the surface, which took about 70 minutes. From samples he collected from the ocean floor and analysis of HD images from the journey, at least 100 new species have been identified.

Just a day after accomplishing the historic dive, Cameron headed to London for the premiere of “Titanic 3D.” Now, he’s working on three sequels to “Avatar.” It helps him pay the bills, he says.

–Hillary Atkin

Cosmos: The Final Episode, The Final Frontier at the Paley Center

You might have thought it was Beyoncé and Jay-Z performing, by the line of fans outside the Paley Center in Beverly Hills Sunday evening —but this crowd was, well, crazy in love with “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey.”

The final episode of the 13-part special series that aired earlier this year on Fox and National Geographic Channels globally was screened for a sellout crowd, with hundreds more viewing it from overflow area in an FYC event sponsored by the two networks.

“Cosmos” is up for 12 Primetime Emmy Awards, which will be handed out on August 25. It won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for best reality series in June and a TCA Award for outstanding news and information program last month. Naturally, with its huge critical and commercial success, there is already clamoring for another season of the show, which was inspired by the original 1980 television series presented by Carl Sagan on PBS.

The last chapter of the 2014 series, entitled “Unafraid of the Dark,” features astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson describing the human quest for knowledge from ancient times into the future, and concludes with the empty-seated Ship of the Imagination leaving our planet and traveling through space as Tyson looks on from Earth.

 

After the final credits rolled to a roaring round of applause, Tyson took the stage with executive producers Ann Druyan, Mitchell Cannold, and composer Alan Silvestri in a discussion moderated by science writer Jennifer Ouellette.

 

Much time was devoted to chronicling the lengthy journey of getting the show made.

“Seven years ago, no networks wanted to spend the money to make this,” recalled Druyan, who is Sagan’s widow, also noting the 34 years since the PBS show, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” originally aired. She had also co-written that series.

 

Enter Seth MacFarlane, and a chance meeting with Tyson in Los Angeles at an event designed to bring together scientists and people from the entertainment industry. ”He wanted to bring it to Fox, and after being momentarily distracted by the thought of Fox News, I realized it was a brilliant idea, which would also take full advantage of the global reach of National Geographic,” Tyson said.

“Seth brought us a gift that keeps on giving,” Cannold chimed in.

 

“It’s made me delirious,” Dryan said, while Tyson added, “I’m still moved to tears—and I was in it.”

 

As Cannold noted, there was a legacy at stake. Sagan’s program had inspired a generation of people to gain more knowledge about science and astronomy. Still, he said Fox’s Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly took an enormous risk greenlighting the series, which aired on Sunday nights in primetime beginning on March 9 and concluding on June 10.

 

For Silvestri, well-known for scoring “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” “Thor” and two “Captain America” films, the work was a joy.

 

“I could have closed my eyes and scored ‘Cosmos’ because of the powerful story being told,” he said.” That was the key.”

 

Tyson noted that while human beings are story-driven species, in his field, unlike in entertainment, storytelling is not native–and that he aimed to do so much more than simply impart information about science. He said he was particularly thrilled to work with director of photography Bill Pope, who had done “The Matrix.”

 

“The camera is a player in the storytelling. The visual effects and the music create a full emotional encounter that creates an impact of strong, positive response,” he said in trying to underscore the effect “Cosmos” had on audiences.

 

That was evident after the screening as audience members mobbed the panelists, especially Tyson, who graciously shook hands, chatted and took photos with just about everyone who wanted one– until it was time to lift off from the galaxy of the Paley.

–Hillary Atkin

 

Sharks, Superheroes, Police, Presidents. They’re All Coming Soon to Your TV Screen!

The second half of the semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour may have started with the campy “Sharknado 2: The Second One,” but it ended with the real-life drama of historic events like the FDR presidency and the Watergate scandal.

In between was a vast array of programming, including three new series based upon well-known DC Comics characters, “Constantine” (NBC), “The Flash” (CW) and “Gotham” (Fox).

New and returning shows were presented by NBC, ABC and related cable channels including Bravo, Syfy, Oxygen, Esquire and ABC Family, along with CBS, the CW, Showtime, Fox, FX and PBS.

Held in the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, the networks put on panels with executives, creators and talent who fielded questions– many friendly, some confrontational – from television reporters.

Here are some of the highlights:

NBC

“State of Affairs”

Poor Katherine Heigl. The panel on her new drama in which she stars as a talented CIA agent with a penchant for heavy drinking and casual sex (hmm…shades of Carrie Mathison on “Homeland?”) got a bit hijacked by questions about whether she is “difficult” to deal with–an insinuation that apparently began from her criticism of the writing on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the series that made her a star. From the TCA crowd, she also faced criticism on why her mother Nancy is an executive producer on “Affairs.”

Heigl’s response: “I can only say I don’t see myself as being difficult. I would never intend to be difficult. I don’t think my mother intends to be difficult. It’s important to everybody to conduct themselves respectfully, and professionally, and kindly. If I ever disappointed somebody, it was unintentional.”

“The Mysteries of Laura” and “Bad Judge”

Debra Messing, fresh off “Smash”– or maybe not so much– has a new home on the Peacock network as a homicide detective who’s the mother of two out-of-control twin boys and in a marriage that’s breaking up. Along with NBC’s “Bad Judge,” which stars Kate Walsh as a brilliant jurist who’s a party girl outside of the courtroom, some reporters were critical of the concept of smart, savvy career women who are hot messes in their personal lives, a sub-genre which apparently also includes “State of Affairs.”

Messing commented that like her character, her personality at home is distinctly different from the professional she is on the job. “It’s real. It’s something I relate to, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to show both worlds simultaneously,” she said.

Walsh, whose show sports the logline “Upholding the rules by day. Breaking the rules by night,” defended the premise of “Bad Judge.” “It is a given as a male archetype, but as a female archetype, we’re still exploring it,” she said using the example of Hugh Laurie’s character on “House.” “I mean, you were never waiting for that guy saying ‘If he would just get married and have kids.’”

“Marry Me”

It was probably the most comedic and freewheeling panel at TCA, with series creator David Caspe, his new wife and cast member Casey Wilson, plus Ken Marino, Tim Meadows and John Gemberling joking about the content of the single camera comedy about a couple getting married– starting with the fact that (bleeped out) f-words are used in the pilot.

“I think ‘fuck’ is NBC-friendly now,” joked Marino, while Wilson retorted, “And, if you don’t like it – fuck off!” “Not you!” Caspe hastily added, addressing the assembled critics. “We love all you – fuck on!”

Syfy

“Sharknado 2: The Second One”

Part Deux hits New York City on July 30 with its potent mix of camp, chainsaws and really big frightening fish raining down on the metro area from Ellis Island to the Empire State building. Tara Reid and Ian Ziering topline again, with cameos from the likes of Judd Hirsch – perfect as a New York City taxi driver– and “Today’s” Matt Lauer and Al Roker on anxious storm watch.

Esquire

“My Friends Call Me Johnny”

Centered inside the world of inveterate jet setter Jean Pigozzi, and produced by Joel Silver, this reality skein features Pigozzi interviewing his A-list celebrity friends. Pigozzi, who started his career on the Fox lot in accounting and publicity, claims he took the first selfie in 1975 with Dolly Parton at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“Successful people are more interesting to hang out with. They have more interesting stories than the guy who works at the post office or as a mortician,” Pigozzi said, noting the first famous person he met was Andy Warhol, whom he says was incredibly nice and friendly. “When you want a lot of friends, be generous. A lot of rich people have no friends, because they’re dull. You have to be relaxed and fun.”

ABC

“Black-ish”

A 13-year-old black kid tells his parents he wants a bar mitzvah and his father responds by throwing him a hip-hop bro-mitzvah, setting a high water mark amongst his Jewish friends. That’s just one of the scenarios mined in this sitcom about a wealthy African-American family which features Anthony Anderson and guest star Laurence Fishburne– who are executive producers along with Larry Wilmore and Kenya Barris.  Tracee Ellis Ross plays the mixed race mom in the family, based on Barris’ wife, a physician, and life with their kids. Anderson said the bro-mitzvah was something he gave for his son and that he pitched the idea for the show with a photo album from the event.

“The show celebrates blackness as a cultural rather than a race thing. When you give your kids too much, sometimes something is lost when they assimilate. It’s a common thing in cultures,” said Wilmore, who after overseeing the first 12 episodes is going off to do “The Minority Report” on Comedy Central, taking the slot after “The Daily Show” when Steven Colbert leaves for CBS’s “The Late Show.”

“The universal appeal is in every single line – what it’s like to raise a family in these times,” said Barris. “We’re living in a post-Obama society.  Miley and Justin are blackish, and blended into who we are as a culture.” Then Wilmore said, “Even with Obama, we call him the first black president, but he’s mixed, so he’s really the first black-ish president.” Anderson replied, “Bill Clinton was the first black president.”

“Forever”

Billed as a procedural with a mythology, this drama features Ioan Gruffudd as a man who never dies, a medical examiner named Dr. Henry Morgan. Whenever he dies and shows up in another time and place, it’s in water – and he’s naked. But even though Morgan is immortal, he won’t die in every episode. Although he suffers several deaths just in the pilot.

Executive producer Matt Miller described how he got the idea for the show. “It was
pilot season and I was putting my 5-year-old son to bed. He asked me: Daddy, are you ever going to die?,’” Miller recalled, adding that he told his son: “I will die, but it won’t be for a very long time and by then you’ll probably want me dead. He burst out crying, and my wife came in and continued raising my child and I went off to write television.”

Asked if any situation could ever permanently kill Morgan, Miller, who had worked on the defunct ABC supernatural series “666 Park Avenue,” simply said, “Cancellation.”

“How to Get Away with Murder”

Shona Rhimes is overseeing ABC’s entire Thursday night lineup, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and this new show, slated for 10 p.m. The legal thriller stars Viola Davis as a brilliant criminal defense professor whose university students become entangled in a murder plot.

Regarding the lengthy title, Rhimes explained that EP Pete Nowalk had come to her and said “I have a show, and I wanted to call it “How to Get Away with Murder,” which is also the name of the class being taught by Davis’ character. “One-word titles feel tired now,” Nowalk said. “I hope that’s what makes us stand out.”

Said Davis, a two-time Oscar nominee: “I wanted to be the show – to have a character that took me out of my comfort zone, and that happened to be on a Shonda Rhimes show. So I did the only sensible thing and took it.”

“Manhattan Love Story”

It is territory that’s been exploited in multiple movies and TV shows, but New York City loves stories never seem to lose their appeal, although that’s always a possibility. This one stars Analeigh Tipton and Jake McDorman as a couple embarking on a relationship in which the audience can hear their unfiltered thoughts. Other cast members include Nicolas Wright, Jade Catta-Preta and Chloe Wepper.

“We picked people whose inner thoughts don’t terrify,” said creator Jeff Lowell about the series, which like many before it, makes NYC a character in the story.

CBS

“Madam Secretary”

Starring Téa Leoni and Tim Daly, the series created by Barbara Hall is about a female Secretary of State balancing international crises while navigating her personal life. It begins with a kidnapping in Syria, with other situations that are inspired by real life events.  Morgan Freeman is an executive producer.

“We decided to create a world that has three levels,” Hall said.  “One is the level of global politics, problems of foreign relations.  The other is inter‑office politics. The third element is the issues of home life that take on different meaning when you juxtapose them with the responsibility of being Secretary of State.”

 

“NCIS: New Orleans”

The latest entry in the popular franchise takes over the Big Easy and environs with Scott Bakula’s character based on a retired agent named D’Wayne Swear, who is a consultant. Also starring are Lucas Black, CCH Pounder and Zoe McLellan.

“Everything won’t always happen in the French Quarter,” said EP Gary Glassberg.  “We’re really infusing the stories with local color and flavor and culture as much as we can, and you have to keep in mind that their jurisdiction literally goes from Pensacola all the way around the Gulf to Texas.”

 

“Battle Creek”

Vince Gilligan wrote the script for this detective show 12 years ago, but gives all the credit to EP David Shore, who has taken the reins while he works on AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” Starring Josh Duhamel, Janet McTeer, Dean Winters and Kal Penn, it’s a drama set in one of Michigan’s best-known cities, world headquarters of the Kellogg Company.

“It’s hard to play a guy like this, he seems to be perfect,” said Duhamel of his character. “There’s definitely cracks in the façade that make him interesting.”

“Dean’s character is sort of kind of the everyman character that most of us relate to, the underdog, and this feels like a city of underdogs.  In this this fictional version of Battle Creek, it feels like a police force of underdogs,” said Gilligan.

“NFL Thursday Night Football”

Pro football fans will have a new night to get their fix and CBS brought out head honcho Les Moonves, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and CBS sports chairman Sean McManus for a play-by-play.

“We are huge believers in broadcast television.  We believe that a distinguishing factor between the NFL and many other sports is that we continue to be successful on broadcast television,” Goodell said.

“We believe that this partnership with CBS will bookend our weekend to continue to allow us to have the most primetime hits of any other program,” said Kraft, while Moonves noted the full support of his network’s promotional efforts, entertainment shows and talent behind Thursday night football.

The CW

“The Flash”

For those not familiar with the DC Comics legend, CSI investigator Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) becomes “The Flash” after being struck by lightning and waking up from a nine-month coma to discover he now possesses the gift of super speed. He takes on the persona of The Fastest Man Alive to protect his city. “The Flash” is a spinoff of “Arrow,” an established hit on the network.

“We’re incorporating almost everything from the mythology into it and have added a whole new backstory,” said DC Entertainment chief creative officer Geoff Johns.

““You will see — organically — characters shifting over, villains shifting over back and forth between ‘Flash’ and ‘Arrow.’ We will be introducing more villains that are part of the DC Comics universe,” said CW president Mark Pedowitz.

“Jane the Virgin”

Here’s the premise of this Americanized version of a Venezuelan telenovela: Jane Villanueva, played by Gina Rodriguez, works at a hot new Miami hotel while studying to become a teacher, and has dreams of being a writer. Although she has been “saving herself” until she and her fiancé are married, Jane’s life is turned upside down when her doctor accidentally impregnates her with an artificial insemination specimen meant for someone else.

“I wanted it to have a whimsical, fairytale like quality,” said EP/writer Jennie Snyder Urman, while co-EP Ben Silverman, who brought “Ugly Betty” to ABC, acknowledged the series is off brand for the CW but hoped it would find an audience there amongst the superheroes and vampires.

Showtime

“Homeland”

Brody is dead, his family is out of the picture, except for the baby of his that Carrie bore and left stateside to take her new CIA post in Pakistan. It’s a whole new world for Season 4 of “Homeland,” perhaps also complicated by the death of the actor who played Carrie’s supportive father, James Rebhorn.

“Carrie has dealt with her mental illness,” said writer and EP Meredith Stiehm. “She’s steady going in.” But in the first-look trailer shown to TCA, she’s still downing meds with wine.

“But she’s still grieving,” noted showrunner Alex Gansa. “She was forced to leave her child at home.”

Viewers can look forward to half a dozen new characters, including one played by Suraj Sharma (who starred in “Life of Pi”) as a medical student who becomes a valuable source to Carrie and Corey Stoll as her CIA station chief in Pakistan. Mandy Patinkin’s character Saul also returns.

While not giving away much intel on anything else, predictably, Gansa bottom-lined “Homeland” this way: “It’s about the private and public costs of keeping America safe.”

“The Affair”

Set in Montauk, New York, this deeply personal drama explores two marriages and the emotional and psychological effects of the affair that disrupts them.  The 10-episode series, which stars Maura Tierney, Dominic West, Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson, will be told from both the male and female perspectives.

“We’re really interested in telling a story in a kind of Rashmomon structure, because I think storytelling in general is driven by perspective, and there are two sides at least, to every story,” said creator and EP Sarah Treem. “But when you’re having an affair, you don’t even have access to what your lover is experiencing when you’re not around.  So for the characters, that felt like kind of the richest situation to put them in if we really wanted to tell a story from two perspectives and really play around with how differently people can experience the same situation.”

Fox

“Gotham”

The much awaited Batman origin story reveals an entirely new chapter featuring legendary DC Comics superheroes and villains in a bygone era, following one cop’s rise in a dangerously corrupt city torn between the forces of good and evil. It stars Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue and Jada Pinkett Smith.

“I don’t think fanboys will back away from it,” said EP/writer Bruno Heller when asked about a superhero show technically without a full-fledged superhero. “The interesting parts are the origin stories. This is how all these people got here.”

“It’s ‘Chinatown,’ Jake,” Logue said. “There’s moral relativism in this world.”

“Mulaney”

From writer/comedian John Mulaney, this could be “Seinfeld” for a new generation. The multi-camera ensemble comedy centers on a rising standup comic trying to take his career to the next level and his interactions with the circle of friends and mentors, who include Martin Short and Elliott Gould and Mulaney’s former “Saturday Night Live” castmate, Nasim Pedrad, who left “SNL” to take the role.

“I wanted to do the kind of show I grew up on, with audiences,” said Mulaney, known for creating the character of Stefon on “SNL.” “It’s an updated version of an old-school sitcom.”

FX

“Fargo”

Surpise! “Fargo,” the miniseries based on the Coen Brothers 1996 film is returning, potentially in the fall of 2015, with a completely different true crime story–and unlike FX’s anthology “American Horror Story,” a completely different cast. Set in the 1970s in Sioux Falls, it will again be shot in Calgary. It will feature the character of Lou Solverson as a 33-year-old man recently back from Vietnam and a woman who is Molly Solverson’s mother. When asked about casting, EP/writer Noah Hawley said it would be “gimmicky” to have Allison Tolman play her mother.

FX CEO John Landgraf compared “Fargo,” which starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, to HBO’s “True Detective,” but said he’s not sure the new “Fargo” needs big stars to succeed.

“Sons of Anarchy”

Going into its seventh and final season, the motorcycle gang drama will feature new characters played by Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson and will complete the saga of Jax Teller and his mother, Gemma Teller Morrow (Charlie Hunnam and Katey Sagal) after the violent deaths of both of their spouses last season. Spoiler alert for those not caught up: Gemma murdered Jax’s wife – with a carving fork– after Jax killed Clay, Gemma’s estranged husband and the former leader of SAMCRO.

“This show is a pulp novel each week,” said creator Kurt Sutter, who remarked that his wife, Ms. Sagal, is now being asked to autograph forks. “My goal isn’t to disturb people, but when Opie was killed, people fucking hated me. They were upset they lost a friend. That means you’re writing characters that are believable and relatable.”

PBS

“Downton Abbey”

Season five – or Series 5 as they call it across the pond– of the wildly successful and critically acclaimed period drama, now well into the 1920s, sees Lady Mary finally over her grief of husband Matthew’s death and “getting some of her bite back,” according to Emmy nominated lead actress Michelle Dockery.

She and several other cast members who appeared at TCA with EP Gareth Neame are especially sensitive to revealing any spoilers since the series runs in the UK months before it premieres in the U.S.  (January 4, 2015)—and PBS is intent on keeping it that way, despite the criticism, and probably because of the huge winter viewership.

“Masterpiece”

Executive producer Rebecca Eaton said there is a wealth of programming queued up to take the prime Sunday night timeslot. She unspooled clips of “Grantchester,” “Poldark,” “Indian Summers,” “Death Comes to Pemberley” and the Johnny Worricker trilogy starring Bill Nighy as an MI5 officer with other cast including Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Walken and Helena Bonham Carter.

“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”

The latest from master documentarian Ken Burns, the seven-night, 14-hour special event examines the lives of three members of one of America’s most influential families: Theodore Roosevelt, his niece Eleanor Roosevelt and the distant cousin she married, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It vividly brings to life their history for more than a century against the backdrop of two presidencies, multiple family tragedies and two world wars, spanning Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962.

Amongst other never-before seen photographs and vibrant but silent film of Teddy Roosevelt, Burns and his team uncovered new footage of FDR which hauntingly shows how he struggled with his polio-derived disability, all while the public was never the wiser.

“POV Koch: New York’s Legendary Mayor”

Who was the Big Apple’s finest mayor? Subject to argument, it wasn’t Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg. It was Ed Koch, the “How am I doin’?” mayor who led New York City out of its desperate straits of the mid and late 1970s. But this is a warts and all piece, including new interviews taped with Koch before he died several years ago.

“Dick Cavett’s Watergate”

Another throwback to the 1970s, this documentary chronicles the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon through the eyes of key guests including Gordon Liddy and John Haldeman who appeared on Cavett’s ultra-popular talk show. There’s even an episode taped in the Senate chambers where the infamous Watergate hearings were televised live and riveted the nation. How did they let him do that, with an audience no less?

–Hillary Atkin

From AMC to Reelz, Everything You Need to Know About New Shows

“I write as slow as mud,” said Vince Gilligan, in explaining the delay of the highly anticipated drama series “Better Call Saul”– a companion piece to the vaunted “Breaking Bad ”– now set to air next year on AMC from its original premiere set for this fall.

Gilligan’s discussion of his meticulous creative process with writing/producing partner Peter Gould was just one of the highlights of the cable and digital portion of the semi- annual Television Critics Association press tour which began July 8 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

(Other cable networks, including Bravo, Syfy, Oxygen, Esquire, ABC Family, Showtime and FX are presenting this week into next at TCA.)

A slew of cable networks including National Geographic, Ovation, Al Jazeera America, Discovery, WGN America, BBC, Turner Networks, El Rey Network, HBO, VH1, MTV, Pivot, Starz, WE tv, Sundance and AMC presented panels with executives, creators and talent from new and returning shows who showed clips and fielded questions from television reporters.

Digital platforms DirecTV, Amazon Studios and Hulu also presented programming.

Here are some of the highlights:

National Geographic Channels

“American War Generals” (September)

From Vietnam to the Cold War to Desert Storm to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the film features new interviews with 10 of America’s most noteworthy generals in a look back at 50 years of military battles and the transformation of the U.S. military. The politics of war always generates heated debate, and their expertise will offer fresh insight into current foreign policy.

“We tried to institute a modern democratic state on top of a culture that was ill disposed to it,” Gen. Barry McCaffrey told reporters about the Iraq war. “We’re seeing faultlines develop on World War I boundaries. In 10 to 25 years, the Middle East will rearrange itself in unpredictable, bloody ways. The same thing will happen in Afghanistan.”

“Sleepless in America” (November)

This thought-provoking and potentially life-changing piece examines the science of sleep, and how the lack of it – which is epidemic in our society – affects health, well-being and safety. Through its portrayal of cutting edge research and compelling stories, it will illustrate the consequences of not getting enough sleep and explain what we can do to get a better night’s rest.

“The philosophy of ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ actually makes the quality of life worse,” said Matthew Walker, the director of the sleep and neuroimaging lab at UC Berkeley. “Humans are the only animals that willfully deprive themselves of sleep.”

“Eat: The Story of Food” (November)

Eating is the most important thing you do every day, even more so than sleeping– unless you asked the previous panel. This six-part miniseries explores the evolution of how food has defined human civilization and tells the unexpected stories of the trials and tribulations behind every morsel of food on your plate.

One of the segments is “Eric Greenspan is Hungry,” hosted by the well-known chef, who owns Los Angeles eateries The Foundry, The Roof and Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese, who goes across the country, traveling off road into unexpected places to find the most mouthwatering recipes around.

“If we all ate together more often, the world would be a much better place,” said Andrew Smith, a food historian who appears in the program.

“Urban Jungle” (August)

Guided by big cat tracker Boone Smith, “Urban Jungle” (to be simulcast on Nat Geo Wild as part of Big Cats Week on August 3) takes a closer look at cities including New York, Mumbai, Las Vegas, Chicago and Bangkok that humans consider their own but are now overrun with wildlife. Viewers will see animals living in our cities, suburbs and the outskirts of town, even walking down city streets and entering buildings.

“These animals have us figured out,” said Smith. “It’s a whole new environment.”

WGN America

“Manhattan” (July 27)

 

Set against the backdrop of the race against time to build the world’s first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, the one hour drama follows a group of brilliant scientists and their families as they navigate a world where secrets and lies infiltrate every part of their lives. Once inside “The Hill,” a neighborhood enclave in the foothills outside of a town that is so secret it’s not even on the map, the characters realize the scope of deception in working on the first nuclear bomb.

 

BBC America

“The Game” (Fall)

This early 1970s-era spy drama tells the story of how the British intelligence agency MI5 battled to protect the UK from the threats of the Cold War after a KGB defector reveals this existence of a devastating Soviet plot called Operation Glass. The charismatic but paranoid MI5 chief, played by Brian Cox and known as Daddy, assembles a secret group to investigate and uncover traitors in their midst.

 

“A Poet in New York” (Fall)

Marking the 100th anniversary of poet Dylan Thomas’ birth, the telefilm explores his final days before his premature death in 1953 at the age of 39. Already a world-renowned poet in the era depicted, Thomas, who is portrayed by Tom Hollander, penned some of the most famous verses in the English language. Flashing back to Thomas’ past in Wales, the drama explores how his destructive personality contributed to his demise.

 

“Intruders” (August 23)

Set in the Pacific Northwest, this paranormal thriller focuses on a secret society devoted to chasing immortality by seeking refuge in the bodies of others. It’s based on a bestselling novel and stars Mira Sorvino and John Simm. The eight-parter entwines strange, unrelated events across multiple storylines, including a missing wife, an assassin and a runaway child.

 

TNT

“Legends” (August 13)

Actor Sean Bean–famously beheaded in “Game of Thrones,” comes to life as an undercover FBI agent who has the ability to transform himself into a completely different person for each job. As the drama builds, he begins to question his own identity when a mysterious strangers appears and suggests he is not who he believes himself to be.
Bean was asked about his favorite of his on-screen deaths. “I liked ‘Lord of the Rings.’ That death. Big death.”

El Rey

“Matador” (premiered July 15)

A spy story in a soccer setting, this second original series from Robert Rodriguez’s network—already renewed for a second season–stars Gabriel Luna as Tony “Matador” Bravo, an undercover agent who infiltrates a team whose billionaire owner is an international bad guy (Alfred Molina) involved in many nefarious activities. In balancing dual roles as a spy and a soccer player, Matador confronts questions of his true identity as he embarks on a dangerous mission.

“It fits right in with our network. It’s kickass, the characters are really engaging, it’s your dream kind of show to do,” said Rodriguez.

 

HBO

“Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways” (October)

The eight-part miniseries follows Dave Grohl to cities across the U.S. as each location serves as the locale for a song to be on the next Foo Fighters album. Each is inspired by the history and heritage of the music of each respective city: New Orleans, Austin, Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, Washington, DC and New York.

 

“Olive Kitteridge” (Fall)

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins star in this miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a placid New England town wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, told through the point of view of the title character. Her sharp wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart.

 

“The Comeback” (Fall)

Lisa Kudrow is back as B-list TV personality Valerie Cherish, a pioneer in the reality genre. Ten years later, she wants back in to the biz. But what has she learned in a decade? Desperate to stay in the spotlight, she may be repeating mistakes of the past–to great comic effect.

 

Cinemax

“The Knick” (August 8)

A period psychological drama set in a hospital called the Knickerbocker at the turn of the 20th century, it stars Clive Owen as a brilliant doctor who’s a cocaine addict and leads a staff of nurses and surgeons who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of high mortality rates and no antibiotics.

 

MTV

“Finding Carter” (premiered July 8)

The unconventional family drama centers on a teenage girl who lives with her single mom until a police bust at a high school party reveals she was in fact kidnapped by the woman as a toddler. The show follows her quest to rejoin her family of origin, and to keep the person she thought was her mom from being arrested for her abduction.

 

VH1

“LeAnn & Eddie” (July 17)

The new reality skein follows a couple who have been famous for years, but whose fame blew up when they became a couple–and the tabloids became enamored of their every move.
Showing their public and private lives, the couple pokes fun at what it’s like to be a high-profile pairing with a lot of misinformation surrounding them.

 

Starz

“Survivor’s Remorse” (Fall)

The half hour series follows the exploits of Cam Calloway, played by Jessie T. Usher, a basketball star in his early 20s suddenly thrust into the limelight after signing a huge contract with a pro team in Atlanta. He and his family confront the challenges driven by his newfound success, including their ties from the impoverished community where they’re from.

 

“The Chair” (Fall)

From producer Chris Moore, of “Project Greenlight,” this docu series pits two aspiring filmmakers in competition with each other as they each make a version of the same screenplay with the same budget (about $900,000.) Through multi-platform voting, the audience will determine which is awarded a $250,000 prize.

 

WE tv

“The Divide” (July 16)

This drama, the network’s first scripted, explores morality, ambition, ethics, politics and race in today’s justice system through the eyes of a caseworker with The Innocence Initiative and an equally passionate district attorney. They both face questions of one man’s guilt or innocence and struggle between right and wrong in a quest for justice.

“Every life affected by a violent crime is extraordinary,” said Tony Goldwyn, writer and EP with Richard LaGravenese. “The ripple effect on all those lives is extraordinary. It’s a great milieu for a provocative TV series.”

 

Sundance

“The Honorable Woman” (July 31)

The miniseries depicts a wrenching tale of deception and betrayal against a backdrop of international espionage. The thriller stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, who as a child witnessed the assassination of her father, an arms dealer. Her appointment to the House of Lords creates a political maelstrom.

“I was attracted to whole spectrum of what was available to the character, being childish, hungry and desperate,” Gyllenhaal said. “I don’t buy just being a powerful woman.”

 

AMC

“Better Call Saul” (early 2015)

A spinoff of “Breaking Bad” set in 2002 and utilizing nonlinear storytelling, the series focuses on flashy, smarmy attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) before he became Walter White’s lawyer. Michael McKean will play Goodman’s brother, Chuck. Other cast members include Jonathan Banks as Mike Erhmantraut, the fixer from “Breaking Bad,” Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian and Michael Mando. Ten episodes will make up Season 1; AMC has already ordered a second season of 13.

“We’re trying to make something that stands on its own that has an entertainment value that is not just about seeing a series of old favorites,” Gould said. “It’s not the series equivalent of a clip show. We’re trying to balance these things out.” Added Gilligan, “It’s a leap of faith or stupidity into the unknown.”

 

Reelz

“Living With the Jacksons” (November 18)

This six-part series follows the saga of Michael Jackson’s nieces and nephews, one adopted, the rest fathered by two of his brothers by the same mother, Alejandra. Viewers will get to know her and her kids, Jaafar, Donte, Genevieve, Jermajesty and Randy as they move out of the Jackson Hayvenhurst estate in Encino into a beachfront home and pursue life out of the blazing spotlight that surrounded Michael.

 

Amazon Studios

“Bosch” (2015)

Based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling Harry Bosch series, “Bosch” follows a relentless LAPD homicide detective (Titus Welliver) as he pursues the killer of a 13-year-old boy while standing trial in federal court on accusations that he murdered a suspected serial killer in cold blood.

 

“The After” (2015)

From “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter, the upcoming series focuses on eight strangers  thrown together by mysterious forces who must help each other survive in a violent world. Carter said the concept for the post-apocalyptic drama came to him years ago after a construction worker dropped a box of nails in the Sepulveda Pass that practically brought Los Angeles to a standstill, making him realize how quickly chaos could ensue from something so low-tech as nails.

 

Hulu

“The Hotwives of Orlando” (July 15)

 

A parody of the “Real Housewives” franchise, “The Hotwives of Orlando” promises to take viewers inside the uber-exclusive and glamorous world of six hot housewives livin’ large in Central Florida’s sexiest city, Orlando. The show follows a cast including Casey Wilson, Kristen Schaal and Angela Kinsey as they fight over pretty much everything except for their love of shoes, plastic surgery, and the pursuit of spending all of their husbands’ money.

 

“South Park” (streaming)

And for its final act, Hulu announced that 244 episodes of “South Park” will now be streaming on the platform. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, billed as surprise guests in the house for the announcement, reflected on when they started the animated comedy 18 years ago with a 5-minute short, “The Spirit of Christmas,” which became viral before there was viral video–in the days when people made copies of VHS tapes.

“We had very few options after Fox said no, either MTV or Comedy Central,” said Parker. “If we would have had the ability then to launch as an Internet show, it would have been even crazier.”

–Hillary Atkin

 

 

Tuesday Night TV: Tyrant vs. Motor City Masters–Both Involve Hot Cars

Long gone, it seems, are the days when summer was a television wasteland filled with repeats. In fact, the small screen is beginning to rival the big screen with one potential blockbuster after another hitting the airwaves.

 

Just this month alone, big-budget, heavily-marketed new shows including Starz’ “Power,” TNT’s “Murder in the First” and “The Last Ship,” ABC’s “Rising Star,” Syfy’s “Dominion” and BBC America’s “The Musketeers” have already bowed.

 

Tuesday night sees the premiere of two more new programs on opposite ends of the viewing spectrum that will appeal to different audiences. Both come from highly experienced producers in their respective genres: FX’s “Tyrant” and truTV’s “Motor City Masters,” both slated in the 10 p.m. ET/PT timeslot on their respective cable networks.

 

“Tyrant” is from acclaimed writer/producers Howard Gordon (“24,” “Homeland”) and Gideon Raff. It tells the story of an American family thrown into the political power plays of a dictator-ruled, fictionalized Middle East nation, echoing themes from “The Godfather” of a son being forced into a brutal family business.

 

The dictator’s son, Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, played by Adam Rayner, is a California pediatrician who left his homeland as a young man and comes back 20 years later with his American wife and two teenage children for his nephew’s wedding. The homecoming reveals a dramatic culture clash as he is uncomfortably thrown into the midst of dysfunctional family dynamics and violent political rivalries he left.

 

Particularly difficult is Barry’s relationship with his heir-apparent brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), a trigger-happy, brutal hothead who forces himself on women, flaunts his enormous wealth and power and appears to be modeled on Uday Hussein.

 

“Tyrant’s” backstory is nearly as dramatic as its plot. A bidding war for the material broke out, with FX claiming victory over HBO. (Showtime recused itself because it already had a Middle East-themed drama in “Homeland.”) Gordon and Raff reportedly had a falling out over creative direction. Oscar-winning Ang Lee was originally on board to direct but changed his mind before production started. The pilot was shot in Morocco but production had to move to Israel because of a lack of infrastructure.

 

The show’s depictions of its Arab characters have already drawn the ire of the Council on American-Islamic Relations regarding potential stereotyping.

 

“In the pilot of FX’s ‘Tyrant,’ Arab Muslim culture is devoid of any redeeming qualities and is represented by terrorists, murderous children, rapists, corrupt billionaires and powerless female victims,” said CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper. “In ‘Tyrant,’ even the ‘good’ Arab Muslims are bad.”

 

Gordon and the writing staff have consulted with two other groups, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Muslims on Screen and Television, as well as with historians, experts and scholars on the Middle East.

 

Back to the show and its inherent drama. Killing off characters has become quite fashionable of late. No spoilers here, but several main characters do not make it past the closing credits of the first episode. And one spectacular and shocking scene involves a very hot car.

That brings us to “Motor City Masters,” a reality competition show in the vein of “Project Runway,” which aims to find America’s next great automotive designer by pitting 10 contestants against each other in testing their design expertise and creativity in timed tasks.

 

Like “Project Runway,” it is produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, one of the top marques in the reality biz often credited with creating the genre with the hit MTV series, “The Real World.” The show is hosted by Brooke Burns. In each episode, the contestants vie to create new concept cars based upon Chevrolet bodies with a different theme each week.

 

In addition to Chevy, there’s more product integration. One of the challenges involves a theme tied into the release of the upcoming film “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Another revolves around a Mattel Hot Wheels tie-in. The design elements include the interior and exterior of the vehicles, paint jobs, technology, functionality, body trim and even tires.

 

The designs will be judged by Jean Jennings, former editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine and renowned car designer Harald Belker, known for his vehicle design in films including “Minority Report” and “Batman and Robin.”

 

The competition narrows until it’s down to two competitors who face off in front of Chevy’s top design experts. The winner receives a 2014 Camaro Z28, $100,000 and becomes a brand ambassador with the opportunity to showcase their designs at major auto shows.

 

“I think it will be exciting to everyone,” said Jennings. “In every one of the 10 episodes, we were always excited to see what the designers had done, under pressure, whether they would rise to the challenge or come apart at the seams.”

 

A different celebrity judge will join her and Belker each week, a group that includes actor Jesse Metcalfe, actress Melissa Joan Hart, Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, baseball great David Justice and former NASCAR driver Robby Gordon.

 

So ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

–Hillary Atkin