I'm leaning toward being in favor of the concept. Yes, it does make a nomination more meaningful when you keep things tight — the uphill struggle of "Friday Night Lights" immediately comes to mind — but I'd rather have a little less meaning for my favorite shows being nominated than a lot more frustration when they are ignored.
And while a critically acclaimed but little-watched show might have trouble getting attention during nomination season, a spot in the Emmy finals could provide a valuable boost. I even wonder if it might keep a bubble show on the air. Would you have canceled "Freaks and Geeks" in the spring if you believed it would get an Emmy nom in the summer? "Emmy nominee 'Community,'" anyone?
I feel like I could find 10 truly worthwhile drama nominees pretty quickly. Ten comedy nominees might be more of a stretch, but would still probably be good for the ceremony.
So frankly, I'm having trouble seeing why you don't do this. You still end up with only one winner. And if the Academy is feeling randy, it could have Ryan Seacrest eliminate five of the nominees midway through the show.
* * *
The more immediate and definite news reported by our fair Stu is that "Downton Abbey" will be in the drama category (along with "Luther") this year — something that also seems right.
It's understandable why "Downton" was labeled a miniseries originally — in its origins, it was hardly different from any other PBS "Masterpiece" production that ends up in the category. But with a third season already ordered, the argument that the recently completed second season should remain labeled "miniseries" grew thin.
"Luther," whose second go-round consisted of only four episodes with barely a shred of the publicity that "Downton" has received, would have been more easily to forgive as a returning miniseries. It's hard to imagine it won't fall victim to what will definitely be a high-powered Emmy drama race this year.
All this also means that the path to Emmy recognition for "The Hour" and stars Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw has grown considerably more clear in 2012, when it will be in the miniseries category. But like its British friends, "The Hour" will probably find its second season (airing this year for Emmy consideration in 2013) called a drama series.
Keep in mind that no matter what the TV Academy does with its series categories, the other Emmy categories would remain at five nominees apiece. That means Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Idris Elba and friends will be in the thick of this year's thesp fray for drama.
Last but not least: Don't forget that after a one-year absence, "Breaking Bad" will return to Emmy eligibility this year. It's going to be quite a nominations season ...
Jimmy Fallon's 2010 hosting gig helped rescue the Emmys creatively.
Without belaboring the multifaceted criticisms of Sunday's Oscar broadcast that have filled the media, I do think there's a point that gets lost in the shuffle.
It has now been four years since the film academy has handed the ceremony reins to a contemporary television personality and let him or her fly. The closest was in 2010, when Alec Baldwin of "30 Rock" shared the emcee emissary with Steve Martin.
This cuts to the heart of the Oscar broadcast dilemma, which is whether to play for the room in the theater or play for the crowd gathered around television sets. Not to go all Spock on you, but it seems obvious that the needs of the many should outweigh the needs of the few. Oscar ceremony-goers are a captive audience where attendance is its own reward; Oscar television viewers are not. At the end of the day, the Oscars are a television show and should be treated as such.
Instead of vascillating between the Oscars as a filmed stage show and the Oscars as a live TV show, there needs to be a commitment to the latter. And you start with a host who is at the top of his game in television.
That is not Billy Crystal, not Eddie Murphy, not Anne Hathaway or James Franco and not Hugh Jackman, the folks who have been tapped to host in the past three years.
It's not that those people don't have their strengths. (Even in the justifiably maligned ceremony a year ago doesn't take away from the personal charisma of Hathaway and Franco.) The problem, however, is that the need to play to those strengths risks sending the entire production off course.
The bargain with Crystal speaks for itself — you know what you're going to get, but it's not going to be particularly inventive or timely. Tapping into the moment is what keeps viewers glued to their seats, but the film folk, including those with long-ago roots in TV, by and large just don't bring it to television.
And even when you have relative TV veterans like longtime "Saturday Night Live" hosts Baldwin and Martin, you can feel that smallscreen savvy being marginalized in an attempt to make the broadcast more cinematic, or something — it can be hard to tell what the Oscars going for.
I'm tired of TV-centric hosts, from David Letterman to Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart, being tossed aside because they had to cater to "the room." Each of them was snappy in a way Crystal could have only dreamed of Sunday — I'll even take Letterman's "Uma-Oprah" moment over anything from this year's event.
When you put your ceremony on television, your first duty is to the viewers. That means you get someone who is at the top of his or her game at working that audience, and that you don't sandbag that effort by forcing elements into the show that don't fit the personality of the host or a winning TV program. You don't bring in someone like Stewart and then push him aside for a nostalgic clip package (outside of a classy "In Memoriam" presentation) that resembles one every Oscar viewer has seen before. You bring him in because he and his team know what works for TV, even when you, the producers, don't.
The small bump in viewership the Oscars received this year doesn't eliminate the shortcomings of the kudocast. It's two years in a row now that the Oscars have basically felt dead inside, where the teams behind Jimmy Kimmel after the show, Neil Patrick Harris on the Tonys or Jimmy Fallon on the Emmys has outpaced anything Oscar night has delivered in recent memory — both in scripted and unscripted bits.
(And as you can see, this hardly means you can't do musical numbers. But it means that if you do musical numbers, you let the people who know the modern TV audience best decide whether they'll succeed.)
A TV-centric production isn't guaranteed to be flawless by any stretch, but it is your best chance of producing something memorable for the right reasons.
Get Stephen Colbert or Craig Ferguson. Get Stewart or DeGeneres. Get Harris, Fallon or Kimmel. Get Tina Fey or Amy Poehler. Get the people who aren't beholden to the film industry, who are the best in the medium you are actually broadcasting in, and let them design the show — not just parts of the show, but the show from top to bottom. Get the people who would make the award of any Oscar category a delight. Stop pretending that your tiny contemporary experience in TV supersedes what the best in the TV industry can offer.
Starting at the 7:00 mark of this clip from the Feb. 19 Writers Guild Awards, in an effort to keep you from forming a backlash against them for winning yet another award (for best comedy series writing team), the scribes from "Modern Family" explain why their lives aren't so great. It's good stuff.
Welcome back to an edition of the much-hiatused "Dazed and Bemused." And speaking of hiatuses ...
1) Twitter universe, you need to stop from freaking out every time an NBC sitcom takes a break from the air. The latest uproar came today, when the Peacock's midseason shuffling revealed that "Parks and Recreation" would take a six-week siesta during March-April. There is basically no significance to this. Network shows do not get 39-episode orders, so the only thing you're not going to see from "Parks" is more repeats.
It doesn't matter if a midseason break is handed to a show that is guaranteed to run the entire year. What matters is whether that show gets picked up for the following season.
2) If you do need a fix of good news for "Parks," you can find it in its timeslot beginning April 19, when it finally gets to air at 9:30 p.m. with "The Office" as a lead-in. I'm not saying it will have a dramatic effect on the "Parks" ratings, but it's certainly better than airing behind "The Office."
Despite declining ratings in its eighth season, "The Office" remains NBC's anchor comedy. There's no better time than the spring for "Parks" to show signs of inheriting that title. (For reference: "Up All Night" lost more than 30% of its "Office" lead-in last week.)
3) The real pressure, of course, is on "Community," though no one could expect its ratings to improve while being stuck in the same 8 p.m. Thursday timeslot for its stretch run, opposite not only "The Big Bang Theory" but also "American Idol." I've been worried that "Community" wouldn't get a fourth-season order almost since its third season began, and still can't understand why NBC continues to pit it against CBS' popular "Big Bang," which (though different in style) caters to a similar demographic.
NBC really should put the known quanitity that is "30 Rock" at 8 p.m. and let "Community" have a more protected slot at 8:30, one that would allow same-night viewers to slide seamlessly from "Big Bang" to Dan Harmon's brilliantly daffy enterprise. Again, the ratings impact isn't likely to be dramatic, but at least "Community" would have a better chance to improve. Either way, it would really be a shame if NBC lost one of its most inventive shows after only three seasons.
4) The past few weeks of "Big Bang" might be my favorite stretch ever. The only competition would be back in late season one or early season two — I'm not looking it up — when the full genius of Jim Parsons was first becoming apparent. And I've definitely been a fan of the way the show has expanded to incorporate its female cast. But the show has just been really strong of late, rejuvenated by the new stage in Leonard and Penny's relationship.
I am wondering when, if ever, Penny (Kaley Cuoco) will get some kind of real break in her acting career. I feel like the time is coming ... or should be.
5) I'll do something here I'll almost never do, which is say something negative about "Parks and Recreation." As excited as I was for the return of Louis C.K., I wasn't happy with how his character Dave acted toward Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Adam Scott) in the episode — which was basically, nuts.
I didn't doubt Dave's feelings for Leslie — their arc together was one of the early highlights in the show's history — or even that he might be a little desperate for her, but to make him so deluded, if not even slightly deranged, was such a turnoff that it just about killed my desire to see C.K. come back for any future appearances.
That doesn't take away from how good "Parks" remains overall.
6) Similarly, I know there were flaws in the second season of "Downton Abbey," but let's not lose the forest for the trees. It was another rousing year for the (so-called) miniseries. And please don't call it a glorified soap — no soap has the depth of "Downton." Just because dramatic things happen with characters doesn't make a series a soap opera.
Now that the finale has aired, I can properly call out the scene that left me so floored that I've watched it again and again, perhaps more than any other in TV this season: Lady Mary and Lord Grantham discussing her future. Michelle Dockery's performance in this scene (beginning 30 seconds into the clip below), the culmination of her season-long greatness, should make her as worthy an Emmy candidate as anyone around.
7) I was contemplating what the most improved shows of 2011-12 were at this point in the season, though in some cases, I'm not sure if it's that the show improved or I simply got more used to what they were doing. In any event, I'd say the winners are Fox's "New Girl," for the way the supporting cast (especially Max Greenfield's Schmidt) has blossomed, and ABC's "Suburgatory," for the way its cartoon world has become more meaningful and resonant.
8) Don't try to tell me "Modern Family" has slipped. Just don't even try. Because you will fail. It's not perfect, but the first season wasn't perfect, either. Just great, then and now.
9) I agree with the substance of my colleague Andrew Wallenstein's critique of NBC's "Smash." The show simply has problems, not with its basic premise but with its execution — namely its spotty plotting, sometimes overly simplistic, other times utterly unbelievable.
It was after episode four of Fox's "Glee" that I abandoned the show, which like "Smash" I truly wanted to like. That was the episode which involved the football team breaking into a "Single Ladies" dance before kicking a field goal, in an episode that otherwise wanted us to take things very seriously, and while I know "Glee" was never supposed to be the height of reality, this was the scene that verified that it would be way too preposterously all-over-the-map for me. I was done.
I've seen four episodes of "Smash," including next week's, and I'm not close to giving up on it, but it does have so many fault lines that I wonder how much I'll ever really enjoy it.
That being said, I'm a little surprised that the audience for "Smash" has continued to decline. Despite its problems, there is a likability to the show, and I would expect more people would find it rewarding. It speaks to two of NBC's ongoing problems: a) Viewers, by and large, don't seem to give that network the benefit of the doubt, and b) the quality of NBC's 2011-12 shows has not been enough to get critics banging the drum, the way they have done in the past for something like "Friday Night Lights." NBC's rebuilding process is going to take a long time no matter what, but it's going to take even longer if the programs aren't unassailably strong.
10) Which brings us to "Awake," which premieres March 1. Having now seen the first three episodes, I feel confident in saying this is NBC's best freshman show of 2011-12. Its tone is almost lyrically dark — I'm trying to think of a good comp; right now the best I can come up with is "Once and Again," but I'll keep trying — so I can't find any reason to think it will break a 2.0 rating among viewers 18-49. But really, if there's any drama that NBC is going to ride out some rough ratings with, "Awake" should be it. This is a show that's going to need time to build up a base, a show that becomes one that viewers take time to even discover, let alone try out.
11) Wrapping things up, I'll hold off any real critique of "Game Change," the upcoming HBO movie that crams a 50-page section of a 450-page book into a 120-minute film, until after our Variety critic Brian Lowry reviews it. For now, I'll just say that I liked it, and that I can only see one aspect of it that would be particularly controversial. I look forward to talking about it if I don't put myself back on hiatus again ...
If you're like me, you have fond memories of the Monty Python-infused "Secret Policeman's Ball" events from decades past. To mark Amnesty International's 50th anniversary, a new version of "The Secret Policeman's Ball" is returning, telecast and live-streamed by Epix on March 4.
The list of performers includes Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Russell Brand, David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Bob Odenkirk, John Oliver, Rashida Jones, Seth Meyers, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig and many more.
Above, a clip from the "Ball" archives, featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
Another week, another decline for "Smash," the highly anticipated midseason series for which NBC had high hopes. The third episode Monday registered a 2.3 rating in the demo, an 18% decline vs. the previous week, which itself dropped 27% from the impressive premiere ratings.
Debate all you want whether this should be a disappointment or not for NBC, but this much is indisputable: "Smash" is not hanging onto the audience that first sampled it. That may be a surprise to those who thought a great cast and terrific music would keep the series humming along.
So what's wrong with "Smash," a behind-the-curtain look at the formation of a fictional musical? Let me posit a theory rooted in a creative decision at the very heart of the show--one that may prompt the execs responsible for it to take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they got blinded by their own reflection.
Here's the problem: "Smash" spends way too much time focusing on the producers, the quartet of characters played by Debra Messing, Christian Borle, Anjelica Huston and Jack Davenport. The narrative should have been more centered on the ingenue singer-dancer played by Katharine McPhee--the woman "Smash" marketing materials leads you to believe is the star of the series, but really isn't.
The problem manifests in the very first scene of the premiere episode--McPhee sings rapturously at an audition in front of producers who couldn't seem more jaded. Viewers are set up for the same character dynamic that has animated every great inside-the-production story from "A Chorus Line" to "Black Swan": the struggling performers up against the cold-hearted puppeteers who pull their strings in pursuit of artistic perfection.
But from there "Smash" takes a detour from which it never deviates. In this series, the producers AND the performers are the underdogs we have to pull for as they attempt to pull off "Marilyn: The Musical."
And therein lies a twofold problem. First, if you're not in the entertainment industry, producers are an inherently uninteresting lot. "Smash" may be great at capturing the process that goes into making a musical, but not so good at getting at why average Joes should get a vicarious thrill from witnessing their efforts. Three episodes of Messing and Borle trading psychobabble-laden banter about Who Is Marilyn Monroe Really? with the import of the national debt crisis isn't going to cut it.
All in all, the "Marilyn" producers are a pampered, petulant bunch who seem to treat putting on a play as if it was their divinely ordained destiny, a high-class problem that probably doesn't resonate much with an economically strapped U.S. audience. There's no sense of the stakes for these characters--a basic building block for good drama.
Secondly, the way some of these characters are drawn practically dare you to take a rooting interest in them. Take Messing's character, Julia, in particular. Three episodes in, we've learned: 1. Taking on the "Marilyn" project has alienated her husband to whom she swore she'd take the year off from producing in order to focus on adopting a child (a subplot painfully wedged into the show to give her a shred of humanity) 2. She harshly treats Ellis, a young man who is her partner's assistant (although she's unaware he's plotting against her) 3. She had an extramarital affair with the guy she just cast in her musical for the part of Joe DiMaggio.
Are you in her corner yet? Go, Julia!
Julia is unlikable in so many ways that you have to wonder whether that the very reason Messing--a good comic actress who radiates likability--is in the part in a futile attempt to change this leopard's spots. But it doesn't work.
Same goes for Huston, whose character comes across as deluded after viewers learn she doesn't actually have the ability to finance anything because all her assets were frozen in escrow as she negotiates her bitter divorce. Who doesn't love this veteran actress, but her character's conflict with her wealthy ex-husband is so overheated that we see her throw a drink in his face in three different restaurants where they just happen to bump into each other. Because everyone knows Manhattan only has about a handful of restaurants--especially for rich people.
"Smash" really is the story of the "Marilyn" producers more so than McPhee's character, Karen, who should be the focal point but is left fighting for screen time. That makes for a jarring disconnect between how the series is promoted and what it actually is. But the bigger problem is that "Smash" would have more dramatic horsepower if it stuck to watching a plucky heroine go up against the Big Bad System rather than wasting time making the cogs of said system into characters in their own right.
And if "Smash" really just had to make the producers into protagonists, the series would probably have been better served depicting a story right out of the real-life Jonathan Larson production "Rent": a hardy group of outsiders who bootstrapped their own off-off-Broadway musical by breaking all the rules, up-ending the traditional theater world in the process. That way there's characters who don't seem like spoiled brats.
And this is where an uncomfortable question must be asked: Do the various producers and execs responsible for putting "Smash" on the air bear blame for overestimating the appeal of characters who just happen to be producers and execs themselves? Perhaps there's some narcissism in not seeing that characters who basically function as fictional proxies for themselves may not be quite as interesting as they consider themselves to be.
If it's not too late for CBS to take pitches for original series it's cooking up for Netflix, has CEO Leslie Moonves considered a story based on the classic character Frankenstein?
Because if Moonves follows through on the deal he indicated could happen on his company's fourth-quarter earnings call Tuesday, he may very well be creating a monster.
The prospect of CBS producing for Netflix has all the makings of a cool horror flick: A genius gone mad with delight over new revenues hitting his bottom line commits a tragic overreach, unwittingly unleashing a destructive force that harms his business.
The reason a CBS-bred series on Netflix is so scary is that in success such a production could not only elevate a corporate frenemy but damage CBS Corp.-owned Showtime in the process. And yes, even the mighty broadcast network itself isn't entirely protected.
There has been a delicate dance between Netflix and the entertainment industry over the past 12 months in which the studios have been careful about enriching themselves with deals that supply the streaming service with their content, but not so much so that they empower a colossus capable of harming them.
And CBS knows this dynamic better than anyone: The company has been admirably aggressive about licensing its library content in a way Wall Street has come to appreciate. CBS has also known when to withdraw from Netflix as well, removing all but older seasons of Showtime original programming last March--just weeks after the streaming service announced its first original production, "House of Cards."
Which makes it somewhat difficult to follow the logic that yanking in-season episodes of "Dexter" is a savvy defensive move but handing over an original series that could very well give Netflix a "Dexter" of its own is AOK. As HBO has shown with "The Sopranos," all it takes is one show to deliver a quantum leap for a programming service.
And yet Moonves made clear in his reference to a possible deal on CBS Corp.'s 4Q call, that he sees this in terms of volume: "Until they are doing 22 hours a week of premium content, we do not look at them as a competitor, but rather another place to put our content."
"22 hours" is a reference to the potent primetime schedule he's assembled at CBS. Putting aside the fact that he seems to have forgotten about Showtime, from which a subscriber could easily shift his monthly fee over to Netflix if it becomes a preferable option, is the mighty Eye even safe? Think back to Netflix's own most recent earnings call, when CEO Reed Hastings noted that his company is streaming 2 billion hours over the course of the fourth quarter--enough to make Netflix the 15th highest rated TV network, according to calculations by BTIG Research analyst Richard Greenfield.
Now that may still not be enough to match a juggernaut like the CBS comedy "Big Bang Theory," but isn't helping even incremental competition a bad thing in a world of multiplying options? Like all networks these days, CBS already has to compete with itself in the form of DVR-recorded versions of its own programming, why open up a whole new front?
Moonves is open to the idea for the same reason the studio arm of any broadcaster is open to producing series for its rivals to buy: The reward of participating in the profits of a hit even on an outside network outweighs any competitive drawback. That's why Universal Television, the studio sister to NBC, has recommitted itself to producing series for others than the Peacock, having already reaped the benefits of examples like "House," which is winding down a lucrative run over at Fox.
But with "House," at worst NBC is conceding a time slot to a competitor. With Netflix, CBS could accelerate the rise of a whole new tier of competition.
If CBS' studio sister, CBS Television Studios, is the entity to which Moonves is alluding to regarding producing for Netflix, it would be odd considering that division has been very conservative about producing for any company in which it doesn't have at least partial ownership. And it's not like CBS Corp. has struck the bottom of the barrel in terms of catalog content it could sell; Moonves has said the company has barely scratched that surface.
It's probably no coincidence that CBS is the only content company talking about producing originals for Netflix. Three of its fellow conglomerates, News Corp., Disney and NBCUniversal, have a vested interest in making sure its own entry in the subscription VOD space, Hulu Plus, doesn't see its competition get too powerful. And Time Warner is probably even lesser inclined to produce for Netflix given its been so protective of crown jewel asset HBO that it recently stopped even selling DVDs of the pay cabler's content to Netflix at a discounted rate.
Maybe CBS is the victim of its own success here. The network is so strong in primetime right now that its studio is probably capable of producing more new product than the Eye might actually need. But if the company isn't careful, it could be greenlighting a whole new horror show off the air, too.
Even before the second season of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" completed its three-episode(!) reunion special, the rumors were already flying about who from the cast is in or out next season: Camille won't have her contract renewed! Lisa is getting her own show! These casting decisions won't be easy for Bravo; while the multi-woman wipeout the network performed on the New York edition excised that series’ most toxic cast members like a cancerous lesion, Beverly Hills will require trickier surgery. Maybe these unsolicited recommendations will help Bravo figure out who should stay and who should go.
Camille Grammer: Either Camille the Chameleon is saving her multiple-personality disorder diagnosis for next season or she decided to become a completely different person this time around. Gone was the ice queen whose steely facade was put to the test last year as Bravo cameras captured the dissolution of her marriage to Kelsey Grammer. In its place was the sympathetic martyr who was unfailingly genial all season--and totally boring. Guessing which Camille is real is besides the point; she has become so self-conscious about how she's depicted that there's no point to her continuing anymore. The one interesting thing that happened to her at the very end of the season--she got a boyfriend--played out entirely off camera; if not even that is fair game, she truly has nothing left to offer.
Lisa Vanderpump: She's the show's nucleus, but does she really have Bethenny-like breakout potential on her own? Doubtful. What makes Lisa so compelling is the way the other women in this cast orbit around her as she vacillates between regal condescension and den mother. To pull her out would be like replacing a planet with a black hole, destabilizing the entire production. That said, let's hope Bravo finds a better storyline than the excruciating detail to which viewers had to experience the planning of Lisa's daughter's wedding. It was only amusing when kooky wedding planner Kevin Lee was on air--now he's someone who should get his own show.
Adrienne Maloof: She continues to be exceptionally consistent when it comes to acting sensible, smart and grounded--so what business does she having being on a reality show? You could make the case that Maloof no longer belongs on Bravo but there's two reasons you're wrong: 1) Perhaps the wisest move the show made this year was to increase her husband Paul's screen time because their Lockhorns-like dynamic is hilarious 2) The reunion made clear that her bond with Lisa is getting shaky, and watching that relationship unravel as Lisa seems to be forging an unlikely friendship with Brandi is the kind of love triangle on which you can build an entire season.
Kim Richards: This is a tough one. She was the consummate train wreck this season as she futilely tried to hide her addiction problems, acting erratic at every turn, which was highly entertaining. But now that she's been through rehab, you could argue that she's going to be as boring as Camille. That's not going to happen though. As the reunion made clear, even a sober Kim is not exactly stable. Her return to the show would bring an element of suspense given there's no way her effort to stay on the wagon is going to go smoothly no matter how hard she tries.
Kyle Richards: Kyle is essential because the story of the "Housewives" seems to be filtered more through her sarcastic observations than anyone else in the series. She also seems to cry on camera more than anyone else, but therein lies a weakness in her appeal: If for some reason the main source of her tears, sister Kim, doesn't return, that makes Kyle about 50% less interesting. Perhaps after making Kyle out to be Ms. Perfect for the past two seasons, Bravo can find some cracks in the facade and shake things up a bit in her life.
Brandi Glanville: There's probably a lot of people hoping she doesn't return because of how polarizing a presence she was in her rookie season, but that would be a big mistake; her very divisiveness is the reason she needs to be upgraded to full-time status. The other women put her through hell but her inability to control the passageway from her brain to her mouth made her trial by fire endlessly enjoyable. If there was a weakness to Brandi, it's that she wasn't given much to do beyond being a pin cushion for the other women. What she should be doing is taking on the storyline Camille was meant to have but dodged: the search for a new man after a divorce. Not only will she be back, but she's probably the future of the franchise.
Dana Wilkey: Yes, she provided the season's biggest laughs between her $25,000 sunglasses proclamation and her game-night suck-up to Kyle Richards. But the fact that she barely had any screen time beyond those episodes is evidence enough that the chemistry just isn't there with the other women the way it was for the other woman with quasi-Housewife status, Brandi. See-ya, Dana.
Taylor Armstrong: This is the toughest call of all. Her abusive relationship with husband Russell Armstrong, who went on to draw national headlines by committing suicide before the season began, might seem to make her a magnet for attention, but let's take a closer look. Yes, you could make the case that there will be tremendous interest in seeing how Taylor manages to put her life back together. And she is a compelling character because there's such a paradox at the core of her personality: She's both an extremely emotionally damaged being and a fairly intelligent, articulate person. But there's also huge risk here that Taylor is going to pull a Camille and act so guardedly going forward that it will negate her reason for being on the show. Nevertheless, let's give this poor soul the benefit of the doubt and keep her on another season. But that's just another reason Bravo should shelve Camille: It will send Taylor a message that nursing a victim complex isn't the way to ensure longevity on the network.
Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer have signed on to play Supreme Court justices in “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” an original telepic HBO is developing.
Langella will play Chief Justice Warren Berger in the Stephen Frears-directed project, while Plummer will play Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan II.
Shawn Slovo penned the script, which depicts the machinations of the Supreme Court as Ali pursued conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Ali was convicted by a Houston court in 1967 and spent three years exiled from the ring as his case journeyed to the Supreme Court.
Frank Doelger, Tracey Scoffield, Jonathan Cameron and Frears are exec producing, with Scott Ferguson producing.
CBS has ordered a comedy pilot from Warner Bros. Television that counts “Mike & Molly” star Melissa McCarthy as one of its executive producers.
Ben Falcone, husband of the Oscar-nominated actress (“Bridesmaids”), is attached to star in the untitled half-hour as a 37-year-old man who loses everything he has in the real-estate collapse and finds himself back home in the house he grew up in with his parents. Falcone is also attached as an executive producer along with Larry Dorf (“Mad TV”).
Pilot was based on a spec script. McCarthy and Falcone have a second pilot in consideration at the Eye as well.
NBC is taking a hourlong pilot order based on “The Munsters” franchise out of the running for the fall 2012-13 schedule in order to give it extra attention, according to sources.
Now called “Mockingbird Lane,” the pilot was ordered last November from Universal Television and creator Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies”). Shooting has been pushed to the summer, which means “Lane” will be considered for next midseason.
Sources say the network felt the series needed more time to get the elements just right for what NBC envisions being a key project for them.
Sugar Ray Leonard, Angie Everhart, Adam Levine and Mario Batali will be featured guests on the fourth season of Golf Channel's "The Haney Project," beginning Feb. 27 in a new 9 p.m. Mondays timeslot.
In contrast to previous years, which focused on a single guest over the course of a season such as Ray Romano, Charles Barkley and Rush Limbaugh, golf coach Hank Haney will work with the four different celebrities.
At the end of the season, the four will compete against each other for the chance to win $100,000 for the charity of their choice.
Who can forget the way the fate of Tony Soprano was left up in the air when "The Sopranos" finale abruptly faded to black. But what fans may not recall was the uncertain end to another "Sopranos" character, Silvio Dante, who was last seen in a coma in an intensive care unit after being shot. Whether he lived or died, we'll never know.
Maybe it's our hazy collective recollection of what happened to Steven Van Zandt's character that figured into Netflix's decision to cast him as the star of "Lilyhammer," which premiered Monday on the streaming service. Van Zandt's new role is so close to his old one, it's almost as if Dante woke from his coma, turned government informant and decamped for Lillehammer to escape from the Mafia he betrayed.
That's the basic storyline to "Lilyhammer," only now the Mafioso played by Van Zandt (seen above with former "Sopranos" cast mate Tony Sirico) is Frank "The Fixer" Stagliano, who heads for Scandinavia after ratting out the mob.
It doesn’t feel coincidental that Netflix chose Van Zandt to anchor its first original series. Company founder Reed Hastings has been very public about his desire to position Netflix as the next HBO, with original programming at the heart of its brand proposition rather than the catalog content that dominated its first decade.
What better way to recast consumer perception of Netflix than in the mold of both an actor and a role unearthed from HBO. It's a strangely paradoxical notion, beating the "Sopranos" channel to the future by seizing a piece of its past.
That said, it's not really a new strategy. Robert Greenblatt essentially did the same thing in his remarkable turnaround of Showtime, where as programming chief he launched several of the service's most successful series on the backs of HBO-bred talent including "Dexter's" Michael C. Hall ( "Six Feet Under") and "Nurse Jackie's" Edie Falco ("Sopranos").
Granted, Van Zandt is nowhere near their echelon; think of him as a low-budget version for a company that isn't spending more than 5% of its billion-plus programming budget on originals. It would even be a stretch to call Van Zant a character actor; he's more a caricature actor, sticking to such a stereotypical rendering of a Mafioso that he'll probably never get the chance to play anything else.
Sure, Van Zandt isn't depicting exactly the same character he played on "Sopranos"; HBO isn’t about to license a spinoff to an aspiring rival. But "Lilyhammer" is something of a crypto-spinoff in that the actor's character is so similar to his "Sopranos" incarnation that it might as well be the same part. Hell, Kelsey Grammer displayed more of a character evolution moving from "Cheers" to "Frasier" than Van Zandt does from "Sopranos" to "Lilyhammer."
Shamelessly derivative? Sure. But “Lilyhammer” is also a shrewd bridge strategy for getting viewers to shift their sense of Netflix as a pay-TV service that just happens not to be on TV in the strictest definition of the medium.
Which isn’t to say there’s anything inherently innovative about "Lilyhammer." The witness protection agency is among the hoariest plot devices in comedy, and the series doesn't do anything to put a particularly new spin on it. We watch Frank build a new life in his frozen city with the same bluster and verve he negotiated life as a gangster despite the fact Lillehamer feels like Mars to him--and vice versa.
But the newly rechristened Giovanni Henrisken has barely been in town more than 24 hours before he attempts to bribe a Norwegian official. The series thrusts its protagonist into his new environment so fast you would have assumed Netflix feared “Lilyhammer” would be canceled midway through the first episode.
In an interesting departure from TV standard operating procedure, Netflix puts all eight episodes of "Lilyhammer's" season on the service at once. It's not the kind of series you'll want to plow through in one sitting, though chances are you won't push it too far down in your Netflix queue, either.
"Lilyhammer" is no "Sopranos" in either the artistic or commercial sense but that doesn’t remotely mean Netflix failed here. The real takeaway is that the series isn’t bad. That might sound like the faintest of praises, but it's actually a compliment the TV industry should take heed of because there's a new programming alternative in town making the kind of sensible choices that could lead to future success.
Given Netflix's recent track record, competence wasn't necessarily a safe presumption. The calamitous pricing decisions the company made in late 2011 indicated it was capable of wild miscalculation on any front. And on paper, "Lilyhammer" could be interpreted as another missed swing: Financing a heavily subtitled series about a mobster in the witness relocation program produced in that hotbed of TV creativity we call Norway? Really??
If this sounds like a broad comedy, "Lilyhammer" actually plays with a little more subtlety than you might expect. The local yokels aren't the usual assortment of oddballs that populate these fish-out-of water tales; no one in Lillehammer seems stranger than Fra--sorry, Giovanni--and there's no laugh track to underscore the biggest yuks. My favorite moment was a small joke when a gruff old man puts down an injured sheep but not before telling Giovanni to avert his gaze. "You better turn away, you being a city boy," he says, oblivious to Giovanni's mob past.
It’s a joke that underscores a pretty big difference between Van Zandt’s new character and his old one, who was the polar opposite of a turncoat: Silvio Dante was the guy Tony Soprano often ordered to whack the snitches in their own midst, from Adriana La Cerva to James Altieri.
Now if Netflix can use him to kill old notions of its company brand, he’ll have truly made his bones.
Inside of three weeks comes the Super Bowl of entertainment: the Oscars. Sometimes bashed, somewhat broken, the Oscars still command by far the most attention of any award show. Last year's Oscar broadcast drew 37.6 million, compared with 12.4 million for their smallscreen counterpart, the Emmys.
But if you mixed film and television in the same awards competition, you might find that TV is more deserving of accolades. Call me biased over here at Variety On the Air, but if I were putting together a personal film-TV top 20 from the past year in under 10 minutes, it might look something like this. (TV shows in italics.)
The Oscaremmys 1) "Breaking Bad" 2) "Friday Night Lights" 3) "Beginners" 4) "Parks and Recreation" 5) "Downton Abbey" 6) "The Artist" 7) "Moneyball" 8) "Justified" 9) "Louie" 10) "The Hour" 11) "50/50" 12) "Martha Marcy May Marlene" 13) "Hugo" 14) "A Separation" 15) "Treme" 16) "Homeland" 17) "The Big Bang Theory" 18) "The Descendants" 19) "Boardwalk Empire" 20) "Community"
Don't get too caught up in the line-by-line rankings. Like I said, this was a quick-and-dirty list, and I already want to start tinkering. In any case, we all have our idiosyncracies, so no one's picks would be the same as these.
The point is: TV more than holds its own, taking 12 spots in the top 20, seven in the top 10 and four in the top five. Overall, I'd think many connisseurs of both film and TV would have similar balance, whichever projects they picked. I have trouble seeing the case that film had a better 2011 than TV.
Am I comparing apples and orangutans? Perhaps. TV gets hours and hours to tell its stories, film gets two, three at most. But what we're talking about with these award shows, really, is appreciation. And so when you think about it, it's more than a little weird, or at least unfortunate, that TV is so much less appreciated than film by awards viewers.
Through its subject matter and NBC's all-in promotional effort for its premiere tonight, "Smash" (reviewed by Brian Lowry of Variety here) is going to inspire a lot of passionate love-it-or-hate-it reaction. So let me be the one to stake out the territory of mixed feelings.
That ambivalence isn't out of lack of interest in the show. This is a show that I very much want to like, set in a world that I'd be very happy to spend years being a part of. That being said, based on the first two episodes of the show, "Smash" is a program filled with winning moments one minute and clunkers the next.
The performances are strong across the board. As was clear based on the preview clips screened at last year's network upfronts, "Smash" gives Katharine McPhee her Jennifer Hudson moment. This is the last time anyone's going to call her "former 'American Idol' finalist" as opposed to "'Smash' star." (Hopefully, as far as NBC's concerned, "former 'Smash' star" doesn't come for a while.) But it's not just McPhee — in the large ensemble, there isn't anyone who isn't convincing in his or her role.
The storytelling, overall, succeeds in that each episode ends leaving you eager to see the next. But within in each episode, there are groaners.
Category 1: Cliche. There are some characterizations and plot devices that you can see coming a mile away. They aren't fatal to the show, but they're disappointing. Some of them are too familiar, but at least ring true. Others are not only familiar but seem completely phony — that's when you risk fans tuning out.
Category 2: The music. The way that song is integrated into the show is first-rate. The songs themselves ... I'm not so sure.
There are showpiece numbers in each of the first two episodes that I could see Mel Brooks parodying in the 1970s — in other words, they would have seemed dated 40 years ago. The show's premise of a Broadway show on Marilyn Monroe makes total sense, but right now, the musical itself looks like it would be pretty bleah. (This is a milder form of the "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" problem that NBC had in 2006, when the characters kept insisting how brilliant their latenight show was, yet could provide no evidence of that.)
It's particuarly important, even as it celebrates traditional Broadway, for "Smash" to feel original and inventive. It's in those moments that millions of viewers won't be able to turn away, and NBC's major investment in the welfare of this series will be justified. The first two episodes offer enough of this to keep viewers intrigued — at this point, "Smash" is a welcome complement or alternative (depending on your point of view) to "The Voice," "American Idol" and "Glee." And frankly, even if the show isn't worthy of blind love, its qualified creative success should be enough to launch the show for a multiyear run, even on a network that has had as much trouble launching scripted hours as NBC.
Between Facebook filing for IPO and the hacker activities of Anonymous, it's a good time to be Charles Koppelman. The filmmaker has had a documentary crew stationed at Facebook headquarters on and off since May 2011 filming the company's security team as it protects the social network from cyber-attacks and other invasions for his upcoming docu "Zero Day."
"The people in the trenches there are very dynamic, there's some very interesting personal stories," said Koppelman.
Timely as the documentary could be--no distribution deal yet--it's kept Koppelman plenty busy. His crew has to race to the company's Palo Alto digs every time Facebook security team has to contend with a major threat, as it did last month when the notorious Koobface malware wreaked havoc on the social network. And if there's a hero in the doc, it may be Facebook chief security officer Joe Sullivan, who was previously the first federal prosecutor in a U.S. Attorneys' office working on high-tech crime cases.
Sorry, you won't see much of founder Mark Zuckerberg in the doc though; he literally ducked into a mini-kitchen when the camera came his way during filming one day.
A Facebook spokesman confirmed Koppelman's crew has been granted inside access to the company's operations. But a documentary on cyber-crime has also taken his cameras all over the globe, and the action they've seen has even inspired them to adapt the material into a primetime TV series that they've already begun pitching.
"When these stories go outside of Facebook, and you see what's basically old-fashioned detective work, you see the possibilities," said Koppelman. "That’s why it translates to a series as well."
Over a career that has spanned six decades, Al Michaels has been on the air thousands of times and has always come across to millions of viewers with the coolest of demeanors intact.
Yet, he recalls a moment being on national television where he was a bundle of frayed nerves — an absolute wreck that left him a completely frazzled state.
The irony, however, is that there was no microphone in sight.
Michaels was playing golf with buddy and CBS chieftan Leslie Moonves at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, telecast by the Eye. The camera’s red light was directly on Michaels, who was simultaneously thinking about his shot while hoping not be utterly embarrassed if he happened to whiff at it. Michaels was so nervous, he could barely grip the club, having to eventually step away from ball and asking the crowd, “Anyone have a Valium”?
Nobody did, but the remark calmed Michaels’ nerves enough that he hit a beautiful shot.
Michaels, a member of Bel Air Country Club, is a passionate golfer and can be often be found on the course when he’s not in the NBC booth with Cris Collinsworth. There’s little doubt either of them will have time for a round this weekend as they will be calling the action for Sunday’s super-hyped Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and New York Giants.
The Brooklyn-born sports legend is associated with the NFL as much as Tom Brady, Buddy Ryan or the Lambeau Leap. He’s someone who has not only made a nice living from the game, but clearly loves the sport and gladly calls himself a rabid fan.
On the coaching front, he’s a big supporter of Bill Belichick, calls Tom Coughlin one of the best fourth quarter game strategists around and isn’t quite sure why Norv Turner is still with the Chargers.
As for this Sunday, by all accounts the Patriots-Giants revenge matchup looks to have the makings for a close affair. However, history tells us that might not necessarily be the case. Let the game begin.
“Just don’t let it be 21-0 in the second quarter,” Michaels said at a recent lunch.
He recalled announcing Super Bowl XXII, where the Doug Williams-led Washington Redskins went on an offensive blitzkrieg in the second quarter to ultimately defeat the Denver Broncos, 42-10. A compelling game, in a matter of minutes, became a bloodbath where viewers began tuning out in droves.
“What just happened?” a dazed Michaels remembers saying when the Redskins couldn’t be stopped by a porous Broncos defense.
Once this Super Bowl game ends — and clearly Michaels is hoping it goes down to the last second — he’ll flly back home to his home in Southern California, head to Staples Center to see his beloved L.A. Kings (he’s a longtime season ticket holder), get back on the golf course, find some good restaurants to enjoy with his wife, Linda, and cherish his four grandchildren.
How hot is "Downton Abbey" right now for PBS? It has made the cover of mainstream magazine TV Guide.
How rare is a PBS program on the cover of TV Guide? Very.
According to former Variety reporter Michael Schneider, whom I believe left to become the magazine's Los Angeles bureau chief just so he could help me with this blog post, the "Downton Abbey" cover (headed to newstands and dated Feb. 6) is the first of a PBS primetime show since this "Cosmos" cover in 1980.
Though programs such as "Sesame Street" and "Barney" have gotten cover attention, Schneider believes that "Downton" is only the third primetime PBS cover on the magazine ever.
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Variety's Team TV -- Cynthia Littleton, Stu Levine, Jon Weisman, Andrew Wallenstein and A.J. Marechal -- provides a roundup of stories big and small, as well as opinions and analysis from across the TV dial.