Opposites could stir fun on new "Pickler & Ben" show

On Monday (Sept. 18), we'll find out if the new "Pickler & Ben" talkshow is good. So far, we know that the hosts, Kellie Pickler and Ben Aaron, are a delight. The show is syndicated to stations, popping up at different times. For instance, it's 3 p.m. weekdays on WCPO (Channel 26) in Cincinnati and WSYM (Channel 47) in Lansing, Mich.; and 4 p.m. on WGBA (Channel 26) in Green Bay. Also, reruns will be at 9 a.m. the next day on cable's CMT. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Take any TV
talk-show duo, from Johnny-and-Ed to Regis-and-anyone.

In each case, things
work best if there's a real contrast. So now comes “Pickler and
Ben,” the daytime talk show syndicated to 38 stations, starting
Sept. 18 (and rerunning at 9 a.m. the next day on cable's CMT), What do these two hosts differ in?

Ben Aaron said. “Kellie's like from Mars and I'm from Earth.”

For starters,
there's the regional difference; it's not planetary, but it is
substantial. Aaron, 36, grew up in New York, where he still lives;
Pickler, 31, grew up in small-town North Carolina and now lives in
Nashville, where she's a country-music star and where the show is

“We are so
different,” she said, in a hardy drawl. “Ben has a funny accent;
he talks funny. We always talk about having sub-titles.”

The differences go
much deeper, Aaron said. “She likes to do things like 'noodling'
.... You stick your hand in a hole and hope a crawfish doesn't bite
you. That doesn't sound like a fun time to me.”

She's only done that
once (so far), Pickler said, but she'll try anything. “I'm an
adrenaline junkie. I love to sky dive; I love to go up with the Blue
Angels (flight squad).”

And Aaron? “I like
to take naps,” he said.

The nature of their
show is hard to pin down in advance. There are no plans for a band
or music – despite the star (Pickler), producer (Faith Hill) and
setting (Nashville). Some of the advance word even skids toward
home-shopping. “You can go Online and buy what Kellie's wearing,”
Aaron said.

Pickler talks about
a regular-folks approach. “We get to shine a light on good people
who do great things in their communities.” Aaron echoes that,
calling it “a show for the Heartland.”

Yes, they're
familiar with the northern extremes of that Heartland; both married
into it. Aaron married Ginger Zee, the ABC meteorologist, who grew up
around Grand Rapids, Mich. Pickler married songwriter Kyle Jacobs,
who grew up in Bloomington, Minn., home of the Mall of America and of
Harmon Killebrew's greatest hits.

This has given her
an instant lesson in language gaps. “I asked Kyle for a 'drop cord'
and he said, 'What's that?'” she said, sounding quite astonished.
“I guess you would call it an 'extension cord.'”

A far more important
factor is her upbeat nature, despite a rocky childhood. Both of her
parents have criminal records – her mother for checks and a forged
prescription, her father for assault. Her mother left her when she
was 2 and later regained custody for a brief and unhappy stretch; her
father was in prison during Pickler's “American Idol” stretch.

None of that seems
to have shaded her outlook. Pickler became a cheerleader and a beauty

“My grandmother
raised me and I was so blessed,” she said. “My husband is my
greatest treasure .... We all have our ups and our downs. It's OK to
cry, but then you get over it and you just go on.”

Aaron's past has
been far less complicated. “I'm a narcissist,” he said. “I love
being on TV.”

He was a DJ by 12
and then a feature reporter in California and New York; he did “Crazy
Talk,” with odd talk-show clips. He met Zee at a charity event and,
he says, promptly vowed to marry her. They like conversaton, TV and
shortened surnames; hers was originally Zuidgeest, his was Colonomos.

For the Nashville
audition, he says, he walked into a room with “25 talented people,
all of them better qualified to do a Heartland show.”

One thing he and
Pickler share (indirectly) is “Dancing With the Stars.” Pickler
was a champion; Aaron was at the sidelines, watching their son when
Zee finished third.

The other is verbal.
“I love the banter,” Pickler said. “We don't have to be careful
with each other,”

Adds Aaron: “Kellie
could talk to a wall and it would be fun.”


It's time for football, talk and lots of alarm clocks

Growing up, I thought Sundays were simple -- church in the morning, Packers in the early afternoon, then outside to play real football.

I was, of course, young and foolish; also, I didn't have cable. Now football is a daylong event; here's the story I sent to papers about Steve Mariucci, part of the NFL Network's marathon effort:

By Mike Hughes

In olden days, there
were large holes in autumn Sundays.

These were
football-free moments. People filled them by going to church, having
family dinners, doing chores and, perhaps, playing croquet. It was a
long time ago.

Now? TV has
double-headers in the afternoon and NBC games at night, plus pre-game
marathons. Back in 1994, Fox dared to have a one-hour pre-game show,
instead of the usual half-hour; these days, cable's NFL Network goes
far beyond that.

“I think it
started as two (hours),” recalled Steve Mariucci. “Then it was,
'We want to go to three, go to to three' .... Our people wanted to be
on first and hold the audience.”

So things start very
early. The NFL Network has a pre-pregame show at 7 a.m. ET from New
Jersey, then the main one at 9; ESPN starts at 10, Fox at 11 and CBS
at noon.

And that's 9 a.m.
Eastern Time -- for a show that's done in California. So “NFL
GameDay Morning” starts at 6 a.m. PT ... producers are there by
4:30 ... and Mariucci sets his hotel alarms for 3:30.

“I can't sleep at
night anyway,” he said. “I've always been like that .... And
there's college football the night before. I have three alarm clocks
and I request a wake-up call.”

After lots of
coffee, he's ready for the show, alongside Rich Eisen, Marshall
Faulk, Kurt Warner and Michael Irvin. “It's kind of a variety
show,” Mariucci, 61, said. “We do some X's-and-O's, but we also
do game shows and anything else.”

They talk to Cynthia
Frelund (analytics) and Ian Rapaport (the “NFL Media insider”)
and even to Hollywood people. He particularly enjoyed Denzel
Washington and Bryan Cranston. Afterward, there are more reports
throughout the day, plus the pre-game shows (6 p.m. ET) on

Football has always
been part of Mariucci's Sundays. That started when he was growing up
in Iron Mountain, a Michigan town at the edge of Wisconsin. He was 3
when Vince Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers, 11 and 12 when
they won the first Super Bowls.

“I was definitely
a Packer fan,” he recalled. “Bart Starr was my hero. On my 60th
birthday, I was able to have dinner with him; it was a great honor.”

Like Starr, he was a
quarterback. That was in high school and at Northern Michigan
University, where he was three-time Division II All-American. As an
assistant coach – ranging from NMU to the Packers -- he often
focused on quarterbacks or receivers.

Eventually, he
became known as a proponent of the “West Coast offense” developed
by Bill Walsh at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, with its
emphasis on lots of movement, quick slants and screens and
high-percentage passes. Mariucci used that approach as head coach of
the 49ers (1997 to 2002) and the Detroit Lions (2003-5).

Today, about half
the NFL coaches use variations on that, he said, and others are
influenced. Completion percentages have gone up, especially with
rules changes involving screens.

Other trends have
come and gone, including the brief return of the running quarterback.
“RG3 (Robert Griffin III) got hurt; he was a terrific quarterback.
(Colin) Kaepernick is a better running quarterback than a passer, but
we remember his 186 years rushing against the Packers.”

Others – Russell
Wilson, Cam Newton, more – have had their moments as runners ...
something that coaches rarely encourage. “Steve Young could have
been a running quarterback,” Mariucci said. “Randall Cunningham
could have.”

But top quarterbacks
are rare and coaches prefer to keep them healthy. “There are 7.3
billion people on this planet and maybe a dozen or so are great
quarterbacks,” Mariucci said.

The others are part
of a constant scramble, as teams re-think and re-assemble. That gives
Mariucci a lot to talk about; he has plenty of time to do it, every


"The Orville" gives our future a bright look and some curvy guns

I have mixed feelings about "The Orville." You probably will, too, when it debuts Sunday (Sept. 10), the first show of the TV season. But my feelings are thoroughly unmixed when it comes to the show's look. Carefully crafted by people who love science-fiction, "The Orville" is a visual treat. If you scroll down, you'll see the stories I sent to papers in my season-preview package. Now here's the story I sent about "The Orville":

By Mike Hughes

A stroll through the
future can be kind of pleasant sometimes.

At least, though
this future – the space ship Seth MacFarlane envisioned for “The
Orville,” the first show to arrive in the new TV season.

“Seth's direction
was: 'Make it super cool.'” said Howard Berger, the makeup and
special effects chief.

science-fiction sometime has an ominous look, but not aboard the
Orville. “There's a warmth,” said production designer Stephen
Lineweaver. “The future can't be all dark and noir.”

So this ship has
soft whites and pale blues. It has lots of curves and stairways, plus
a 100-foot hallway. It has lots of room in general. “It took me
about a month to stop getting lost on the ship,” said J. Lee.

Ironically, he plays
the navigator. He and Scott Grimes, who plays the pilot, sit at the
bridge, rarely needing to react to special effects that will be added

“It's really
amazing,” Grimes said, “the money they spent to allow us to
experience something that's right in front of us .... I've
experienced a little bit of motion sickness ... when we go to quantum

MacFarlane was in a
good position to demand this expense. Over the years, he's made Fox a
fortune with “Family Guy.” “American Dad,” “The Cleveland
Show” and the “Ted” movies.

But he's also a
space buff who produced Fox's “Cosmos” revival. And he wanted the
sort of science-fiction he grew up with.

“I missed the
optimism,” said MacFarlane, 43. “I'm tired of being told that
everything is going to be grim and dystopian and people are going to
be murdering each other for food. I miss the hopeful side.”

So he gave this a
“Star Trek” feel. Some of the episodes are directed by people who
were actors in the originals – Jonathan Frakes (“Next
Generation”) and Robert MacNeill (“Voyager”). Some “Orville”
producers also produced past “Trek” editions.

“This is
completely original and yet a return to the kind of storytelling that
I really missed,” said Brannon Braga, who produced the “Next
Generation,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise” editions.

In part, that means
having stories that conclude each week. “The show is not
serialized,” MacFarlane said. “You can watch episodes out of
order and still get a viewing experience.”

The result is almost
an anthology. Its first episode is fairly light, it's third is a
serious drama; the fourth will be fun, MacFarlane promises.

This may or may not
please viewers, accustomed to the fierce visuals and continuing
stories of many shows. They will debate the quality of the “Orville”
stories ... but will be impressed by the rest.

“I've watched a
lot of sci-fi, and I've never seen anything like this,” MarFarlane
said. “The craftsmanship of the props is extraordinary.”

That's echoed by the
people who are doing the work. “I'm a sci-fi nerd,” said Berger,
whose masks and make-up have ranged from “Narnia” to “Walking

So is Bryan Rodgers,
the propmaster. Even the pistols wielded by the Orville crew have
flair, he said. “Everything has a beautiful curve, similar to the
ship itself.”

MacFarlane spent a
day playing with his gun cowboy-style, Rodgers said. Adrianne
Palicki, who plays the first officer, also savored hers. “I've shot
a lot of guns in my life,” she said, “but I've never shot that
one, so it was pretty fun.”

And at times, those
props and masks can go wrong. “There was an ant that crawled into
my prosthetic,” Peter Macon said. “That was pretty horrible.”
Even an optimistic future can have its nightmares.

-- “The Orville,”
8 p.m. Sundays on Sept. 10 and 17, Fox; then 9 p.m. Thursdays.

-- First three
episodes air before the season officially starts Sept. 25. Also,
before “Star Trek: Discovery,” which has two episodes Sept. 24,
one on CBS and one on CBS All Access, its new home.


TV dramas? The quanity is great, quality is (maybe) OK

(This wraps up a six-part
package I sent to papers, previewing the new TV season. This one views the dramas; scroll down and you'll find two overviews, plus round-up of sci-fi, military and comedy shows.)

By Mike Hughes

The one thing TV has
in abundance this season – and most seasons – is drama.

Cable loves drama
hours; broadcast networks sort of like them. No longer confined to 22
separate stories a year, they can have varied lengths and ongoing
plots. Here's what's new this fall:


-- “The Good
Doctor,” ABC. After “Bates Motel” ended, Freddie Highmore
didn't have to move far. He's still on Mondays and still playing a
pensive guy. Now he's a surgeon whose skill is concealed by youth and
autism. This sometimes feels contrived, but it's led by David Shore,
whose “House” showed he's good with medical stories and troubled
doctors. (10 p.m. Mondays, Sept. 25)

-- “Top of the
Lake,” Sundance. Here's a fine way to start the season – a
three-night mini-series that's complex and compelling. Elisabeth Moss
returns as an Australian cop; Jane Campion (“The Piano”) co-wrote
it, directed it and got great work from two of her favorites: Alice
Englert (her real-life daughter) plays a combative teen-ager; Nicole
Kidman plays the girl's distant stepmother. (9-11 p.m. Sept. 10-12)


-- “Ten Days in
the Valley,” ABC. Jane (Kyra Sedgwick) has awards, a top job
(writing and producing a TV cop show), a nice home and a sweet
daughter. But she's also divorced, overworked, given to propping
herself up with drugs. Then tragedy strikes. That starts a 10-part
mini-series that seems exaggerated at times, but tells an engrossing
story through a gifted actress. (10 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 1)

-- “The Deuce”
(HBO). Back in the 1970s, Times Square was crumbling. There, we meet
an ambitious bartender and his no-account brother (both played by
James Franco); we also meet an independent prostitute (Maggie
Gyllenhaal), a brainy co-ed and more. And we see the start of the new
porn-film world. The result is richly crafted and detailed. (9 p.m.
Sundays, Sept. 10).

THE REST (broadcast

-- “Kevin
(Probably) Saves the World,” ABC. Kevin (Jason Ritter) has failed
at everything, including a suicide attempt. His sister (JoAnna Garcia
Swisher) is a top scientist, widowed, with a somber, teen daughter.
Now they merge ... just as he learns he's one of God's chosen ones.
It's tough to tell where this is going; so far it's sometimes saved
by Ritter's floundering charm. (10 p.m. Tuesdays, Oct. 3).

-- “Dynasty”
(CW). A long-ago hit is remade, cranking up the antagonism. The
sweet-spirited Krystle becomes the conniving Cristal. Her niece
Sammy Jo is now her gay, male cousin. Alexis isn't here yet, but
Fallon is; she's eager to be a mogul. This is big and exaggerated ...
but not as much fun as the original,. 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Oct. 11).

-- “Wisdom of the
Crowd” (CBS). Wouldn't it be great if tech moguls took over other
fields, filling them with slick screens? Networks thought so, anyway.
Last year, CBS' “Pure Genius” and Fox's “APB” failed quickly;
now “Wisdom” has the same flaws – lots of screens and computer
images, but little to get viewers to care. (8 p.m. Sundays, but the
Oct. 1 debut is set for 8:30)

-- ALSO: “Law &
Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” (NBC) will spend eight
weeks re-creating the 1993-4 case, with Edie Falco as lawyer Leslie
Abramson. (10 p.m. Tuesdays, Sept. 26).


-- Two of the best
dramas opened in August. “Mr. Mercedes” is 8 p.m. Wednesdays on
DirecTV/AT&T. “Get Shorty” is 10 p.m. Sundays on Epix; on
Sept. 10, episodes 2 through 4 will rerun at 7:05.

-- Drama from
overseas? “Newton's Law” (arriving Sept. 11 on www.acorn.tv)
is a jaunty series about a lawyer who scrambles as her life wobbles.
“The Halcyon” (10 p.m. Mondays on Ovation, starting Oct. 2) is a
classy series set in an upscale British hotel in 1940. “Masterpiece:
The Collection: (10 p.m. Sundays, PBS, Oct. 8) is set in the fashion
world in post-war Paris.

-- On cable,
Showtime's “Liar” tells a complex story at 10 p.m. on six
Wednesdays, starting Sept. 27. In streaming, Amazon has “Tin Star”
on Sept. 29 and Netflix has a bunch -- “Mindhunter” (Oct. 13),
“Alias Grace” (Nov. 3), “Godless” (Nov. 22) and Spike Lee's
“She's Gotta Have It” (Nov. 23).

New TV comedies are scarce, but (sometimes) very funny

We're near the end of the six-piece season-preview package I sent to papers. This one looks at the new comedies; the final one will catch the dramas:

By Mike Hughes

TV people still like
comedies. They just aren't sure how to get us to watch them.

“It's hard to
launch comedy right now,” said Dana Walden, co-chairman of the Fox
network. “It's a particularly difficult time for a storytelling
form that doesn't have the urgency of drama.”

Her network prefers
bright, visual comedies; its only new one this fall is “Ghosted.”
ABC also has just one new comedy; NBC has only the “Will &
Grace” revival.

That leaves CBS,
where comedy still thrives. This season's new shows are:-


-- “Young
Sheldon,” CBS. Sure, this sounds easy: Take TV's best comedy
character (Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory”) and show his
boyhood as a 9-year-old Texan entering high school. Still, it's a big
detour: “Big Bang” is a jokey show with a studio audience; “Young
Sheldon” is a softer show, with no audience ... but it works.. Iain
Armitage is a fine boyhood version of Jim Parsons (who narrates); Zoe
Perry is a perfect rendition of his mother ... played in “Big Bang”
by Perry's real-life mom, Laurie Metcalf. The result is a delight.
(Opener is 8:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25; then waits until 8:30 p.m.
Nov. 2, when CBS resumes its Thursday comedies.)


-- “Ghosted,”
Fox. These careers aren't headed in the right direction: Leroy (Craig
Robinson), a former police detective, is a mall cop. Max (Adam Scott)
lost his Stanford professorship after spouting wild theories, now he
works at a book store. Leroy's a skeptic, Max isn't ..and they're
hired to investigate odd events, The result brings solid laughs.
(8:30 p.m. Sundays; Oct. 1)

-- “Me, Myself and
I,” CBS. Think of this as a comedy twist on “This is Us” -- a
time-hopping reminder that the past shapes the present. We meet Alex
as a 14-year-old inventor ... as a 40-year-old, shattered by divorce
and a creative lull ... and as a rich 65-year-old. Forget the fact
that the actors – Jack Dylan Grazer, Bobby Moynihan and John
Larroquette -- don't bear the slightest resemblance; they're still
interesting guys, given some clever moments. (9:30 p.m. Mondays,
Sept. 25)


-- “9JKL,” CBS.
Even for a guy who likes togetherness, this was too much: Mark
Feuerstein and his parents had adjoining apartments; for a time, his
brother lived on the other side. Now that real-life story has been
exaggerated a bit; Feuerstein plays a fictional version of himself,
newly divorced -- in truth, his wfe created the show with him – and
encased in relativity. It's all kind of silly, yet reasonably fun –
especially with Elliott Gould and Linda Lavin as the parents. (8:30
p.m. Mondays, Oct. 2).

-- “The Mayor,”
ABC. Accidents can happen, you know – especially in a democracy. So
this young rapper ran for mayor as a publicity stunt ... and won. For
the first time, he has to be diligent. The result has been praised by
many people; we still think it's blunt and scattered. (9:30 p.m.
Tuesdays, Oct. 2)

-- “Will &
Grace,” NBC. This wasn't yet available for review. But based on the
quality during its original run, we're optimistic. (9 p.m. Thursdays,
Sept. 28)


-- Two comedies
debut Oct. 17 on DirecTV/AT&T. “Hit the Road” (8 p.m.) has
Jason Alexander forming his teens into a pop group. “Loudermilk”
has Ron Livingston feeling cranky.

-- At 10 p.m.
Sundays, Showtime starts “White Famous” (with Jay Pharoah as a
stand-up comic) on Oct. 15 and “SMILF” (with Frankie Shaw as a
single mom) on Nov. 5.