Victoria is young again, dealing with babies, horses and Aghanistan

Amd all the new, fancy touches on TV, there are stil the dependable standbys. At the top of the list is PBS' lush "Masterpiece," with the second "Victoria" season startoing Sunday, Jan. 14; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Queen Victoria keeps
returning to entertain us.

The old Victoria is
in theaters (in Judi Dench's “Victoria & Abdul”), with more
movies coming; and the young one is back on PBS.

“One of the most
interesting parts of her reign is the early years,” said Daisy
Goodwin, producer-writer of the “Victoria” series on

The first sesson saw
her as an ill-prepared teen-ager, thrust onto the throne, This second
season catches her at 21. She's “the most powerful woman in the
world,” Goodwin said. “She's got this really tempestuous
marriage. They're like the Taylor and Burton of the 19th

And yes, Goodwin
said, they had sex often. “She was a woman desperately in need of

Well, Victoria did
try one contraceptive method from that era: “You jump up and down
10 times,” said Jenna Coleman, who plays her.

That didn't help. As
this season begins, she has a baby and is about to learn a second is
on the way. There will be nine in all.

During and after
each pregnancy, advisors tried to take over many of her duties. So
did her husband, Prince Albert. “There's a very strident,
inquisitive nature to him that (suits) the early onset of the
Industrial Revolution,” said Tom Hughes, who plays him.

Usually, she
retained the power, Coleman said. “As Albert begins to try to take
any form of Victoria's role initially, she completely flips .... The
clash of wills is really interesting and shifting.”

People tried to
shield her from tough issues, Goodwin said. “You will see her
dealing with some pretty seismic political events.”

One of them – in
the season's first minutes – would later be repeated by Russians
and then Americans: Tangled warfare in Afghanistan.

“They thought,
'Yeah, we'll just go knock out those Afghan rebels. We'll take
control of Afghanistan and then we won't be in any danger of being
invaded by Russia,'” Goodwin said.

The result? “They
make this terrifying and disastrous retreat through the Khyber Pass
and basically, they all get slaughtered.”

And that crisis is
plunked onto the lap of a new mom, 21, with no political education.
Still, there's also lots of room for fun here ... including

Coleman had four
weeks to learn to ride. She had to do it sidesaddle, on a show pony
who does tricks, including bowing. “He's an absolute diva (who
sometimes) decides to take me off for a walk and actually
Spanish-walks, which makes me look rather skilled. But I'm afraid I'm
ot the leader.”

Hughes also was a
novice. “I couldn't ride at all,” he said. “And I had a bit of
a rude awakening to horses. But it's good now. I think we're finding
our groove. I've bonded.”

He was more enamored
with Albert's creative nature. The prince composed music and had
ideas about military hats and more. He even created a device to lock
the bedroom door from their bed.

There was more,
Goodwin said. “He installed indoor plumbing in the palace .... But
he didn't just do it upstairs. He was the first person to put a
toilet in for the servants in Buckingham Palace.”

And Coleman points
to another invention: “He had an armored parasol.”

Yes, the guy created
a sort of bullet-proof umbrella ... but didn't create contraceptives.
It would be a complicated reign for Queen Victoria.

Victoria,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS, beginning Jan. 14.

Wanna be a pop star? The odds are steep, but Trainor prevailed

I'm at the Television Critics Association sessions now, with fascinating stories everywhere. The previous one was about Dylan McDermott and the goofy "LA to Vegas"; this one is about Meghan Trainor and the dead-serious "The Four." Many more are coming; meanwhile, here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- As “The Four”
booms through its high-stress, high-decibel run, two things become

1) There are a lot
of talented people out there; and 2) Most will never get a shot at

“You could be the
best performer/artist in the world, but ... it's really hard to
break,” said David Friedman, one of the show's producers.

Still, people keep
trying. “There's always a dream,” said Sean “Diddy” Combs,
one of the judges.

And occasionally,
dreams come true. That's one reason why Meghan Trainor is there.

At 23, she's a
certified star, with a Grammy, four top-10 singles and a place in
music history. She's on the panel, alongside record
producer/executives Combs, DJ Khaled and Charlie Walk. Less than four
years ago, however, her “All About That Bass” was being rejected
by music masters.

“I had it for nine
months and played it for many (record people),” Trainor said. “They
told me it was a cute little song about your body and no one wanted

There were good
reasons to give up; she didn't. “One person heard it and turned it
into a global huge song,” Trainor said. “And then my life changed

That was L.A. Reid,
then head of Epic. The song would be No. 1 for eight weeks, topping
Epic's longest previous – seven weeks by Michael Jackson's “Billie
Jean.” And yes, that was a huge jump.

Trainor had grown up
in Nantucket, where her parents were jewelers ... but her dad was
also the organist at a Methodist church.

“I would sit next
to him and watch him perform for church every Sunday,” she said.
“He wasn't that good of a singer, but he just had a great time. And
I saw how the audience loved it.”

She wanted the same
thing. “I thought every pop star was writing their songs .... So I
was like, 'If I'm going to be a pop star, I have to write.'” They
were “terrible songs, but I was writing.”

By 12, she was
singing with a family band. Between 15 and 17, she cut three
independent albums.

Still, she saw no
future as a performer. “What kept me going was my songwriting,”
she said. “Because I didn't believe that I was an artist. I didn't
believe that I looked the part.”

And then ... well,
not looking the part became key. “Bass” included such lines as:
“Yeah it's pretty clear, I ain't no size two/But I can shake it,
shake it like I'm supposed to do.”

After several
rejections, she took it to Epic. “I didn't know how to sing to
tracks, so all I had was my ukulele (which) I learned the night
before .... I was terrible, like three chords.”

The result? “They
kind of looked at me and said, 'You're the only person that could do
this, because it's so real coming from you.'”

Yes, Trainor is
bigger than a size-two ... but not really bigger than average.
(Various accounts put her at 5-foot-4, 150 pounds and size-12;
government reports put the average American woman at 5-4, 168 and 14
or 16.) But compared to the Britney/Whitney pop world she grew up in,
she's a plus-size superstar.

Now she's on a panel
with industry giants. Walk is at Republic Records; “I'm the
president of the No. 1 label in the United States,” he said. Khaled
heads Def Jam South, plus other duties. “I feel I'm also one of the
greatest producers that ever did it,” he said.

And Combs has been a
performer (as Puff Daddy) and label owner, propelling the hip hop
revolution. If all four approve, a contestant can choose one of four
singers to challenge. “It's like 'Game of Thrones,'” Combs said.
“You get to challenge, if you want to chop somebody's head off to
get a seat.”

A breakthrough can
be like that sometimes, bold and brash and sort of head-chopping. Or
it can be Meaghan Trainor, strumming three chords on a ukelele.

-- “The Four,”
8-10 p.m. Thursdays, Fox; began Jan. 4 and continues for six weeks

After all that nastiness, McDermott is a funny pilot

There's a light, loopy quality to "LA to Vegas." It's the sort of thing you expect to see on Fox ... and the sort you don't expect to see with Dylan McDermott as one of the stars. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Dylan McDermott has spent decades in TV's darkest corners.

He saved murder
suspects on “The Practice,” caught killers on “Stalker” and
“Dark Blue.” As a cop in “Hostages,” he schemed to kill the
president; as a psychiatrist in the first “American Horror Story,”
he lived and worked in a haunted house.

So what's he up to
now? In the Fox comedy “LA to Vegas,” he's a pilot known for his
mustache and his ego.

“This is a great
way to go to work,” McDermott said. “After doing so much dark
stuff for so long .... They feed me, they pay me, I get to laugh.”

And they worry about
life's little questions, including: 1) How do you haul a body down an
aisle? And 2) How do you tell Dylan McDermott from Dermot Mulroney?

“LA to Vegas”
was created by Lon Zimmet, recalling the days when he would fly to
Las Vegas for quick poker weekends. “You just kind of get used to
the rhythms of that flight,” he said. “And you start seeing the
same sort of people.”

One time, he said, a
fellow passenger helped him when he had a coughing fit. He happened
to ask her why she'd been to Vegas and she casually mentioned it was
for a quick weekend of making porno films. “She was the sweetest,
most unassuming girl in the world, and she (mentioned) it like it was

So this version
includes a sweet-spirited stripper, played by Olivia Macklin. “I
tried to do research,” she said. “(But) there really are not a
lot of comedic strippers out there.”

And it includes
crises that are sheer fiction. In the second episode (Jan. 9), a
passenger quietly dies. The flight attendant (Kim Matula) asks a
regular passenger (Ed Weeks) to help casually move it.

“I remember
saying, 'Just cast a little guy, (because) we're going to have to
believe they can move him around,'” said producer Steve Levitan.
“And then somebody was friends with Tim Stack and they cast him.
And he shows up and he's like 6-3 and 210. I mean, he's a big guy.”

Eventually, the crew
concocted a way to hide a small gurney under a large man covered by a
sheet. Stack – the former “Son of a Beach” star – was
“stellar at playing dead,” Levitan said.

And for the third
episode (Jan. 16), the show had an inside joke: The pilot (Dylan
McDermott) was unable to fly that day and his replacement was his
nemesis ... played by Dermot Mulroney.

People have been
confusing those two names almost forever; there was even a “Saturday
Night Live” sketch about it. “It's been 30 years,” McDermott
said. “It's a very long joke .... When I would do a bad movie or
bad show on television, I would blame him.”

And now?. “Here we
are for the first time on-camera together ... and we had the best
time,” McDermott said. Pleasant things can happen, when you exit
the dark corners.

-- “LA to Vegas,”
9 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox

-- Debuted Jan. 2;
the dead-guy episode is Jan. 9, the Dermot Mulroney one is Jan. 16


This Amazon epic had danger, discovery ... and an ex-president

My own bucket list has never included a trip through the Amazon, where even the sloths are dangerous. But then again, I'm no Teddy Roosevelt. On Tuesday (Jan, 9), PBS has an ambitious film about Roosevelt's adventure in 1914. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

We all know what
ex-presidents do. Some paint, some para-sail, all write books and
give speeches ... but only one went on a deadly journey down an
uncharted tributary of the Amazon.

That was Teddy
Roosevelt, in an idea that spiraled. He “had a plan to do some
adventure travel,” Tweed Roosevelt said of his great-uncle. “But
it wouldn't have amounted to anything more.”

Then Brazil's
foreign minister suggested Roosevelt lead a mission to chart what was
then called The River of Doubt. The result – which will be traced
Tuesday in a PBS documentary -- was epic.

“Before it was
over, one member of the expedition had drowned, another had committed
murder and ... was abandoned to perish in the jungle,” said John
Bredar of WGBH, the station that produces the “American Experience” series. “Roosevelt
himself would be bady injured and (almost) left behind to die.”

He survived, but
died five years later, at 60. His widow said the ordeal had robbed
five years from his life; “it probably took more,” Tweed
Roosevelt feels.

But one survivor
seemed unfazed. Candido Rondon would live another 43 years, dying at
92. “TR never would have gone on this without Rondon,” Tweed
Roosevelt said.

This was officially
the Roosevelt Rondon Expedition. It was not the usual white-man
journey into native territory, said Larry Rohter, a Rondon

“Rondon (was)
5/8ths Indian descent ... He was an orphan from the age of 2, poor.
Grew up in what was essentially an Indian village until he was 7 and
went to study in school.”

He was a
“postivist,” Rohter said, believing in the quality of the people
deep in the jungle. He worked with them while bringing power lines
into the Amazon area – and during this river expedition.

The two leaders had
much in common, but also had key differences. Rondon never wavered
from his goal of charting the river meticulously; Roosevelt, however,
soon was more worried about the son who had accompanied him and was
planning to marry when he got home.

Eventually, Tweed
Roosevelt said, the ex-president “only wanted to get his son out
alive. On the other hand, Rondon (was) a tremendously committed man”
who stuck to the charting goal.

The mission would
take more than three months, emerging with the first map of what
became Rio Roosevelt. It was a huge project ... as was the “American
Experience” film.

The documentary
makes rich use of old photos and movies, but also required new
footage on an Amazon tributary, shot in black-and-white. (“The
overwhelmingness of the green ... just felt too much,” said
producer-director John Maggio.) There were the expected dangers, plus

One cameraman,
Maggio said, decided to pose with a sloth. “You think, 'What damage
could a sloth do? They're so slow.' Well, it slowly grabbed his
forearm and it took five (people) to pull the claws off.”

The natives fixed
the gash with the resin of a local bean. These were skilled guides,
Maggio said; the leader, Abhijius, had recently taken David Beckham
on a motorcycle trip through the Amazon.

“Beckham gave him
these designer boots that he wore the whole time. The only thing that
Abhijius could say to me in English was 'Beckham boots.'”

-- “American
Experience: Into the Amazon,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 9), PBS


"The Four" searches for a star ... or, at least, a ratings hit

Do we really need another music-reality show? Well, Fox needs one ... and it's the network that started it all. So "The Four" starts Thursday (Jan. 4); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

music-competition show is upon us..

Fox's “The Four”
has solid roots, a big build-up ... and a network that desperately
needs it.

“There's nothing
like a big, unscripted hit to drive viewership,” said Dana Walden,
Fox's co-CEO. Consider:

-- CBS was the
old-folks network, the place where Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke
solved mysteries. Then “Survivor” debuted in the summer of 2000;
it would spend its first four seasons in the Nielsen top-10, bringing
young viewers who also caught “Big Brother,” “Amazing Race”
and more.

-- In its first 15
years, Fox never had a show in the top 15. Then “American Idol”
arrived in 2002 and soon scored -- fifth, then second (twice), then
No. 1.

-- NBC soon imported
other concepts. “America's Got Talent” arrived in 2006,
dominating summers; “The Voice” followed in 2011, toppling

-- As “Idol”
drooped, Fox decided the 15th season would be the last.
But ABC – fresh from failures with “Boy Band” and “Duets” –
is restarting the show April 11, after it missed only one season.
“The fans have been clamoring for it,” network chief Channing
Dungey said.

And now Fox is back,
with an Israeli concept. “It's really an experiment .... an event,
(so it) has to run across less weeks,” said Rob Wade, Fox's
reality-show chief.

This will be six
Thursdays, during a stretch when “Voice” is resting. Four music
pros – Sean “Diddy” Combs, DJ Khaled, Meghan Trainor and
Charlie Walk – choose four singers. Each week, newcomers challenge
them; on the finale, the four survivors challenge each other. “It's
basically like 'Game of Thrones,'” Wade said, “with better
singing and less nudity.”

Those experts will
try to push the winner to stardom, Walden said. That's “been
missing lately in music competitions.”

For a while, “Idol”
brought superstar winners (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood) and more
(Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee, etc.). Now “Four”
tries to do the same.

-- “The Four,”
8-10 p.m. for six Thursdays, starting Jan. 4, Fox