No ski slope will stop Hannah/Alison from catching killers


The strange thing about Minnesota stereotypes is that they're basically true. Garrison Keillor and "Fargo" are only exaggerating by a tad; "Minnesota nice" is a real thing, as is that sense of calm. And somehow, Alison Sweeney seems perfect for the role of Hannah Swenson in "Murder, She Baked" movies. Sweeney may be a California blonde with an Irish background, but she projects a Swedish sense of calm ... even when recalling a ski accident. Her new film arrives Sunday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

This is the true
sign of a show-business professional:

You've just had a
skiing injury; now your life should be flashing before your eyes.
Instead, you wonder if this will disrupt the filming schedule.

“It's the first
thing that occurred to me, as I was laying in the snow,” Alison
Sweeney said.

After all, she's not
just a hired hand in the “Murder, She Baked” movies. Sweeney
produces them and stars in them as Hannah Swenson, a small-town
Minnesota baker, strong of will and warm of heart; Sunday's film,
“Just Desserts,” will be her fifth in less than two years.

That's the one that
has a hobbled Hannah. “It really came out of necessity,” Sweeney
said. “I didn't want to write it in, but it would be hard to work
around it.”

She couldn't have
predicted her first accident in 36 years on the slopes. “I've been
skiing my whole life,” Sweeney said. “My parents took me up when
I was 4 years old.”

The latest movie has
someone stalking the judges in a baking contest, so the rewrite was
basic: Now Hannah is the first one stalked. She's injured, bringing
some humor and a limp: Her action-hero moment – pursuing a villain
down the school hallways – becomes a very slow-speed chase.

These movies require
a merger of three key talents:

-- Joanne Fluke,
whose novels the films are based on. She's written 36 novels under
that name and others under six pseudonyms, but Hannah may be her
alter ego. Fluke is a lifelong baker who grew up in Swanville, a tiny
town – its population plunged from 351 in 2000 to 350 in 2010 –
in Minnesota.

-- Kristoffer
Tabori, a veteran actor, directing his fourth Hannah movie. He
sometimes uses the name K.T. Donaldson, which makes sense: His
initials are K.T. and he is Donald's son; his dad, Don Siegel, was a
highly regarded director who made four Clint Eastwood films,
including “Dirty Harry.”

-- And Sweeney, who
fits the role neatly. Yes, she grew up Irish in California and Hannah
grew up Scandinavian in Minnesota; still, they seem to share a
practicality.

For Sweeney, that
comes from more than 20 years (and 1,785 episodes) in the “Days of
Our Lives” soap opera. “When you're working crazy fast,”
filming a movie in 15 days, it still seems workable, she said.
“Nothing compares to when you have 120 (script) pages a day on a
soap.”

She was 16 when she
started playing Sami. By then, she'd been acting for more than a
decade, ranging from a well-known “Tales From the Darkside”
episode (as the little girl who knew when people were about to die)
to a pair of short-lived situation comedies. Later, she also hosted
“The Biggest Loser,” getting insight about weight loss and about
people.

“The biggest
take-away was the importance of the human side,” Sweeney said.
“Ultimately, believing in yourself is No. 1.”

Lately, Hallmark has
believed in her. After she did the first “Murder, She Baked,” she
was directed by Tabori in the clever “Love on the Air.” Since
then, she's hired him for the “The Irresistible Blueberry Farm”
and the next four Hannah films. “He's not afraid to tell you,
'You're playing it too safe now.'”

Often, life can't be
safe. That's true of skiing or chasing small-town killers.

-- “Murder, She
Baked: Just Desserts,” Hallmark Movies and Mysteries

-- Debuts 9 p.m.
Sunday, preceded by the other Hannah Swenson films at 1, 3, 5 and 7
p.m.

-- Also: 5 p.m.
Monday, 7 p.m. Friday (March 31), 5 p.m. April 2, with other Hannah
films at 1 and 3

-- The
Sweeney/Tabori “Irresistible Blueberry Farm” airs at 5 p.m.
Tuesday (March 28)

 

We can spend the weekend on Osborne's great movie ride


There was a gentle, time-capsule feeling to Robert Osborne. He had a feel for old Hollywood; during at least one awards ceremony, he waited outside with his friend Bette Davis, because she couldn't spend that much time without a cigarette.

Osborne died recently at 84 and Turner Classic Movies will devote the entire weekend to him. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Robert Osborne was a
man of persistent elegance.

He made every
suitcoat seem like a tuxedo, every sentence seem like a gracious
invitation. He reflected an era that he caught the final years of –
old Hollywood at its best and brightest.

Now Turner Classic
Movies will spend the weekend watching him celebrate that era. For 48
hours, it will show Osborne – who died March 6, at 84 –
interviewing stars – Peter O'Toole, Debbie Reynolds, Liza Minnelli,
Alan Arkin, Kim Novak, a 92-year-old Ernest Borgnine and a
101-year-old Luise Rainer.

Those interviews
were among the many duties Osborne continued into his 80s. He wrote
the lush history of the Academy Awards in 1988 and updated it every
five years (Abbeville Press) through 2013. He also was the official
greeter for celebrities at the Oscar. “All of a sudden, they see
what looks like a mile of red carpet,” Osborne said.

First, they would
see him; it was a pleasant job, he said. “Nobody's lost an Oscar
(yet) and everyone's in a good mood.”

This was far from
his boyhood in Colfax, a Washington town that now has 2,700 people.
Fortunately, it had a movie theater, which he frequented. He went on
to college (journalism, University of Washington) and the Air Force,
where he had time to act in theater. Then came Hollywood.

He became a contract
player with Desilu and landed some small roles – from a 1954 “Death
Valley Days” to playing the banker's assistant in the 1962 “Beverly
Hillbillies” pilot. He also became a friend of Lucille Ball, who
gave him frank advice: His future was in reporting, not acting.

So Osborne wrote
Hollywood books in 1965 and '67, wrote Academy Award annuals and in
1977 joined the Hollywood Reporter. He did some morning-TV work for
CBS and a Los Angeles staton; when TCM started in 1994, he was the
logical one to be its host.

He eventually moved
East, living in New York with his partner of 20 years, theater
director-producer David Staller. Still, he continued to fly to
Atlanta for TCM and to Hollywood, where he hosted the annual TCM
Classic Film Festival, greeted people at the Oscars and has a star on
the Walk of Fame.

Osborne is even the
filmed host and narrator for the Great Movie Ride at Disney World.
That's a perfect fit: For decades, and again this posthumous weekend,
he's taken us on great movie rides.

Profiling Osborne
(all on Turner Classic Movies):

-- Saturday: Alec
Baldwin interviews him (2014): 6 a.m. ET; 1:30 p.m.; 8:05 p.m.; 12:45
a.m.

-- Sunday: Baldwin
interview: 10:30 a.m. ET, 5:30 p.m., 3:45 a.m.

-- Saturday: Tribute
to Osborne's first 20 years on TCM (2015): 9 a.m. ET; 4:15 p.m.'

-- Sunday: Tribute
to Osborne: 4:45 a.m. ET; noon; 8 p.m.; 11 p.m.

-- Also: His TCM
debut – a brief introduction (1994) of “Gone With the Wind” --
is 8 p.m. Saturday.

Osborne interviews:

-- Saturday: Norman
Jewison, 7:30 a.m. ET; Alan Arkin, 10:15 a.m.; Luise Rainer, 11:30
a.m.; Liza Minnelli, 12:15 p.m.; Eva Marie Saint, 3 p.m.; Peter
O'Toole, 5:30 p.m.; Kim Novak, 6:45 p.m.; Debbie Reynolds, 9:30 p.m.;
Betty Hutton, 10:30 p.m.; Liza Minnelli, 11:45 p.m.; Jewison, 2:15
a.m.; Ernest Borgnine, 3:30 a.m.

-- Sunday: Minnelli,
6 a.m.; Saint, 7 a.m.; Novak, 8:15 a.m.; O'Toole, 9:15 a.m.; Arkin, 1
p.m.; Jewison, 4:15 p.m.; Minnelli, 7 p.m.; Saint, 9 p.m.; Rainer,
10:15 p.m.; O'Toole, midnight; Novak, 1:15 a.m.; Arkin, 2:30 a.m.;
Rainer, 5:15 a.m.

 

"Trial & Error": It takes a village (or village fools) to make great comedy


Six months after the TV season started, we get what we'd been hoping for -- a fresh and hilarious new comedy. That's "Trial & Error," which also gets a lush timeslot -- first, following the "This Is Us" season-finale (March 14) and then following "The Voice," in the "This Is Us" slot. Here's the story I sent to papers.

 

By Mike Hughes

It takes a village –
or a very odd town – to make an offbeat, off-center, off-the-road
comedy.

And it takes an odd
collection of actors to make NBC's new “Trial & Error.”
There's a former “View” talker, a former Arby's supervisor, a
gleeful star and lots of Broadway people.

One of them, John
Lithgow, is a theater legend – 22 Broadway shows, six Tony
nominations, two wins. Another has made a quick impact. “Steve
Boyer played a magnificent role in 'Hand to God' .... It was the
performance of the year,” Lithgow said.

That was Boyer's
second Broadway show (and first Tony nomination), playing a sweet
teen and his Satanic hand puppet. A year earlier, in Central Park,
Lithgow was King Lear and Boyer was Fool. “Now it's like (he's) the
king and I'm the fool again,” Boyer said.

Or he's a
foolish-seeming guy who's smart in his own deceptive, small-town way.

“Trial &
Error” is set in little East Peck, where Larry Henderson (Lithgow)
is on trial for killing his wife. His in-laws called a big-time law
firm, which sent a novice to do advance work. That creates a
“Northern Exposure”/“Doc Hollywood” vibe -- city guy meets
wonderfully daft small-towners.

One of the most daft
is Dwayne, the lawyer's detective. He's played by Boyer, who grew up
in a smallish town. “Westerville, Ohio,” he said, “which is the
birthplace of Prohibition.”

Westerville is now a
Columbus suburb of 36,000, with a history of righteousness. It was a
key spot in the Underground Railroad and was the home of the
Anti-Saloon League,

“I kind of lived
in between the city and the corn fields,” Boyer said. “You drive
five minutes outside the suburbs and it's all farm in Ohio. So I knew
Dwaynes .... guys who had never left their small plot of land. Dwayne
has a brilliance that people have yet to really notice.”

Boyer moved to an
opposite world (New York City), where he studied at the prestigious
Juilliard School, conquered Broadway and joined the quirky cast of
“Trial & Error,” including:

-- Nick D'Agosto as
Josh, the lawyer. “Gotham” fans know him as Harvey Dent or
“Two-Face”; Omaha people may remember him as an Arby's kid. “The
first hard food that I got as a child was a blended roast beef
sandwich,” he joked. His dad, the son of a railroad worker, started
working early and became Omaha's main Arby's franchisee. Starting at
15, Nick spent seven summers working in the restaurants.

-- Jayma Mays as
Josh's opponent, the assistant district attorney. She usually plays
sweet and quirky types, including Emma on “Glee,” but this
character is different. “She wants to be DA of this small Southern
town,” Mays said, “and she's going to do whatever she can to get
Larry Henderson to fry.”

-- Sherri Shepherd
as Josh's secretary. She's known for her decade on “The View,”
but she's also been a secretary, a stand-up comic and an actress who
now plays Annie Flatch. “She's loveable,” Shepherd said, “but
she has all of these disorders.”

-- Krysta Rodriguez
as Larry's adopted daughter. She's known for musicals – six on
Broadway, plus playing Katharine McPhee's roommate in NBC's “Smash”
-- but now she plays a true believer. “She's so fiercely devoted to
her dad .... He is, in (her) mind, completely innocent.”

-- And Lithgow,
towering above the others in size (6-foot-4), age (71) and awards.
This is a guy who can do itr all -- comedy, drama, singing,
banjo-playing – except roller-skate.

“I did try and ...
it was so pathetic,” he said.

Larry Henderson
obsesses on “skatercising,” so Lithgow thought he should do the
same. “I used to be able to roller skate,” he said. “I don't
know what happened.”

The insurance
company intervened and a stunt double was hired. Larry has enough
trouble in this town, without having the actor who portrays him
experience a skatercise disaster.

-- “Trial &
Error,” Tuesdays, NBC

-- Opener (March 14)
is 10 and 10:30 p.m., after the “This Is Us” finale; then takes
the 9 p.m. spot

-- Also, the opening half-hour reruns at 8:30 Thursday (March 16), when the competing CBS comedies are replaed by basketball

Putin's power: An unchecked, unbalanced life


Vladimir Putin has found power in Russia, in the world ,,, and, perhaps, in American politics. Now CNN's Fareed Zakaria has a news special -- tentatively set for March 13 -- tracing Putin's power; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The phrase is used
casually: A U.S. president is dubbed the world's most powerful
person.

But is he? Americans
– as Donald Trump has learned – have checks and balances and a
free press and other annoyances. Russians don't.

So Fareed Zakaria's
new Vladimir Putin profile for CNN is called “The Most Powerful Man
in the World.” That title depends on how you weigh two factors.

“One is how
powerful your nation is,” Zakaria said. The other: “How much
unconditional power do you have?” For Putin, 64:

-- The first part is
iffy, because of Russia's economic woes. Still, Zakaria said, it's
not a weak nation. “It's a nuclear power, it has a huge army and it
spans 10 time zones.”

-- The second part
is more clear. Even Chinese leaders face some Politburo opposition,
Zakaria said; Putin has amassed virtually total power. “He has
found ways to very effectively leverage what he has .... As Robert
Gates told me: 'He's played a weak hand very effectively.'”

Gates was Secretary
of Defense for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and led the CIA for
George H.W. Bush. He's one of the key people interviewed, along with
reporters and authors (Masha Gessen, David Remnick, Julia Ioffe) and
Henry Kissinger ... who seemed in fine form at 93.

“He's had 15
one-on-one meetings with Putin,” Zakaria saaid, “and he can
remember them all in detail .... I wanted to say, 'Whatever you're
eating, I want to eat it too.'”

But a major part of
the profile was Zakaria's interview with Putin, last July, That
quickly wiped out any possible stereotypes of an outward dynamo.

“He's not
flamboyant in any way,” Zakaria said. “He's not physically
imposing; he's short and balding.”

And calculating.
Before the interview, Putin spent his waiting-room time lobbying the
Italian prime minister. When it began, he made it clear that he'd
been briefed about Zakaria.

This is a careful
man, Zakaria said. “It's difficult to imagine Putin having a
latenight Tweetstorm.'”

Russia has sharp
troubles and imbalances, he said, with 100 billionaires and with
average workers who make less than those in some third-world nations.

But it also has
advantages. “It's a big natural-resources country .... Basically,
it's the second-largest producer of oil and natural gas. He uses
natural gas as a weapon.”

The falling oil
prices have harmed Putin, but he's wedged himself into the U.S.
political picture. The hour will look into his dabbling with the
election and the Trump administration.

These leaders are
opposites in roots (Putin grew up poor) and in approach. One man,
Zakaria said, is “a thin-skinned person ... who always needs to be
the center of attention.” And the other may be the most powerful
man in the world.

-- “The Most
Powerful Man in the World”; 9 p.m. ET Monday (March 13), rerunning
at midnight

-- That's barring
breaking news; CNN has been particularly prone to late change

TV's biggest surprise romance? We'll say it's Jughead and Betty


TV critics are supposed to be immune to any surprise. We've seen the Red Wedding on "Game of Thrones," the fictional election on "Scandal," the real one on the news. Still, my biggest surprise came last Thursday (March 2), when Jughead and Betty had a warm kiss. This week (March 9), they're dating and happy; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Thursday-night
television has delivered some sharp jolts lately.

Doctors kept dying,
lovers kept leaving, politicians kept cheating. Also, the Jets won
big.

Still, this may be
the biggest surprise: Jughead is now dating Betty.

Yes, Jughead Jones.
Fans of the old Archies comics remember him as the goofy guy with a
goofier name and the goofiest hat. Fans of the recent, darker comics
remember him as stridently asexual.

And now Betty Cooper
– Archie Andrews' girl next door (literally) and the nicest person
in Riverdale – is his girlfriend. That's in “Riverdale,” which
CW network executive Paul Hewett calls a “subversive take on the
characters from Archie Comics.”

Fans will accept
such subversion, said Cole Sprouse, the former child star who plays
Jughead, “as long as Archie doesn't die to a bullet, saving Kevin's
life.”

Hey, there have been
bigger changes than that. In 2013, the “Afterlife With Archie”
comic had an alternate universe. “Archie was in the middle of a
zombie apocalypse,” said Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the author of that
story (and chief creative officer of Archie Comics). “He was still
the character we knew. He was still basically a good kid, trying to
do the right thing, often messing up.”

Hey, if we can
accept zombies then maybe we can accept loverboy Jughead. Maybe.

“Riverdale”
offers a darkly pensive Jughead, forever writing in his journal. His
dad compares him to Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye,” but
there might be another literary comparison:

Think of Archie as
Tom Sawyer – clean-cut, optimistic, fortunate. Jug is Huck Finn
without a raft, the homeless son of an alcoholic. He lived in the
drive-in theater until it closed; he's an empathetic guy, helping
Betty find the sister who fled a home for unwed mothers. (No, that
wasn't in the comics either.)

And he's the series
narrator, something Sprouse prepared for. He said he had “a
three-week binge of 'Twilight Zone.' I was trying to channel my Rod
Serling when I went in for the audition. I wanted to kind of fit
myself into a darker, more strange, more broody version of my
childhood self.”

TV viewers be
surprised that there were any dark-strange-broody moments in his
childhood. On-camera, Sprouse reflected Disney-esque cheer.

At first, he shared
characters with his twin brother Dylan. At 8 months, they did a
diaper commercial, then were Brett Butler's son in “Grace Under
Fire” and Adam Sandler's adopted son in “Big Daddy.” Then they
played twins in Disney's “Suite Life” and its sequel. This was
not great television, but it lasted six years and made them rich.
They had their own line of clothes, books, comics and more.

Both graduated from
New York University and Dylan still lives in New York, planning to
open a Brooklyn brewery this spring; Cole was into maps and such.
“For a year, I was in an all-concrete office in New York, doing
archeological cartography.”

That retreat was
deliberate, he said. “I didn't make the choice when I was younger
to act. I needed to discover what it meant to do that and step away
from myself.”

He decided that he's
fond of acting. “It's kind of like an ex-lover to me.”

And it has led him
to a miracle of sorts – Jughead Jones, lucky at love.

-- “Riverdale,”
9 p.m. Thursdays, CW