The new TV seasons -- soldiers, sci-fi and scares from real life


The previous blog took an overview of the current TV world; this one views some of this fall's key trends. These are part of the season-preview package I sent to papers; coming next are separate breakdowns on the new sci-fi, military, comedy and drama shows.

 

By Mike Hughes

What can we expect
from this new TV season? Well ... a lot of everything.

There will be an
overload of scary sci-fi creatures and of scary, real-life killers.
There will be new batches of soldiers and singers and such. And there
will be quirks; for instance:

-- The new “Star
Trek” show doesn't look much like a “Star Trek” ... but another
show (Fox's “The Orville”) DOES look and feel like “Trek.”

-- Most networks are
trying fantasy shows; Fox has three new ones this fall, plus an
“X-Files” return at mid-season. But the CW -- which has been
sci-fi obsessed – has no new ones. It's adding a military show --
“'Valor is extending the CW brand,” producer Mark Pedowitz said
-- and a “Dynasty” remake.

Yes, “Dynasty”
is back; that's one of this year's mini-trends. Here's a sampling:

The old is new

TV keeps
reharvesting its old shows. This fall brings remakes of “Dynasty”
and “S.W.A.T.,” plus the return of “Will & Grace”; by
spring, we'll have “Roseanne,” “X-Files” and “American
Idol.”

Some of that
requires scrambling. “Roseanne” will forget that it killed Dan in
the series finale; “Will & Grace” will also ignore its
finish. “The finale was written when there was no anticipation of
ever continuing the show,” said NBC chief Bob Greenblatt.

Occasionally -- “Lethal Weapon,” “MacGyver,” “Hawaii
Five-0” -- such things succeed, so new ideas

keep popping up.
“You can't imagine the re-dos we're batting back,” said NBC's
Jennifer Salke.

She won't mention
which shows she's rejected, but the mind swirls. So far, no one has
tried remakes of “F Troop,” “My Mother the Car” or “Cap'n
Billy's Mississippi Music Hall.”

True crime prospers

A year ago, “The
People v. O.J. Simpson” gobbled up praise and awards. Hollywood
noticed.

“There's an
audience that loves those true crime, lurid stories,” Greenblatt
said.

There are the quick,
one-time stories. They fill up news magazines (“Dateline,”
“20/20,” “48 Hours”), cable movies and more. Oxygen has
switched over to all-true-cirme, joining Investigation Discovery.

And there are bigger
projects, hoping for O.J.-style depth.

The “Law &
Order” producers will re-tell the Menendez Brothers case over eight
NBC hours, with Edie Falco (“Sopranos”) as colorful lawyer Leslie
Abramson. Writer-producer Rene Balcer, Greenblatt says, has “a
treasure trove of information and research.”

In November,
Lifetime will have kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart telling her story,
in both a movie and a documentary. At the same time, Oscar-nominated
documentary-maker Joe Berlinger retells the story of the Clutter
Family murders – the subject of Truman Capote's “In Cold Blood.”
And in January, the “O.J.” producers are back on FX, with the
lushly filmed “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”

And more

-- After the
failures of its music shows – from “Duets” to “Boy Band” --
ABC will try an “American Idol” revival, spending a fortune for
Ryan Seacrest to host and Katy Perry to judge. Fox, which once soared
with “Idol,” counters with a music show called “The Four,”
but may wait until summer. “I don't anticipate that we'll put it up
against 'The Voice' and 'American Idol,'” programmer Dana Walden
said.

-- Cable and the
streaming channels have already launched strong dramas, including
“Mr. Mercedes” and “Get Shorty.” That was just a warm-up, as
evidenced by the Sept. 10 line-up: HBO starts its ambitious “The
Deuce” ... Starz returns its popular “Outlander” ... and
Sundance launches a compelling, three-night mini-series: “Top of
the Lake: China Girl.”

-- And PBS keeps
swiping attention, peaking Sept. 17 with Ken Burns' epic “The
Vietnam War.” For 10 nights and 20 hours, the best TV will be on a
free channel that doesn't have commercials.

 

As the new season nears, networks grope for viewers ... now or later


This is the start of the TV-season preview that I'm sending to papers. I'll get to the shows in the stories that follow; first, let's take an overview of the changing TV world:

By Mike Hughes

Whether we're ready
or not, the new TV season is here.

It starts Sept. 10
(a little bit) and Sept. 25 (a lot). It's packed; it gives us too
much of a good thing ... and too much of a bad thing ... and way too
much of a mediocre thing.

“There's probably
still more great TV ... than the year before,” said John Landgraf,
head of the FX networks. But even that quality “doesn't seem quite
as special or as joyful (in) the glut of oversupply.”

He's seen the number
of scripted series go from 216 in 2010 to 455 last year, possibly
hitting 500 this year. Some of that, he implied, involves
loss-leaders – the strategy (copied from Silicon Valley companies)
of losing money to build a dominant company that will eventually make
a fortune.

But what does that
say for the old networks, the ones that splash their new seasons each
fall?

Fewer people watch
their shows when scheduled. Still, said NBC chief Bob Greenblatt,
“delayed viewing and digital are not only keeping us afloat, but
actually going pretty strong.”

NBC's “This is Us”
pilot was eventually seen by more people than the powerhouse “ER”
pilot, he said. The difference: “ER” did it in one splendid
night; “This is Us” needed 10 months to top it.

In five years, he
said, the “platforms on which you can watch our content” have
gone from one to 14. In two years, the number of people downloading
an NBC app has almost tripled.

Others follow that
pattern. ABC (or its parent company, Disney) owns most of its shows,
said network chief Channing Dungey, getting revenue at every step,
from streaming to international sales. “We make money in a lot of
different ways.”

That peaks with
shows that appeal to young people or fantasy fans. Still, older shows
also get around.

“'NCIS' was
recently named the most-watched show on the planet,” said Kelly
Kahl, the CBS chief. There's more, he said: “One series we know of
has all of its previous seasons airing on all three major streaming
services – Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. (That's) 'Blue Bloods.'”

When Tom Selleck
reached CBS in “Magnum, P.I.,” viewers had few alternatives at 9
p.m. Thursdays. They could watch “Barney Miller” on ABC, try a
movie on NBC or maybe go to PBS.

Now, 37 years later,
his “Blue Bloods” is in a crowded world of streaming, cable and
networks ... whose new shows are stretching for our attention.

Linklater: His slacker-free life creates impossible movies


At times, Richard Linklater makes a movie that delights the masses. "School of Rock" is great fun; "Boyhood" is a masterpiece. But beyond that, he keep making interesting movies in interesting ways. Now a documentry (9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1, on most PBS stations), profiles him. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

A quiet calm seems
to encase Richard Linklater.

It's like he doesn't
understand that what he's trying is impossible. Maybe that's why he
gets it done.

In an era of
mega-million-dollar movies, Linklater made his first one for $3,000,
editing it at the public-access studio in Austin, Texas. He made his
second (“Slacker,” 1991) for $23,000; it got national
distribution. A decade later, he made “Tape” -- with three movie
stars, no less – for $100,000.

“People used to
obsess about that more,” said Linklater, subject of a PBS
documentary. “I don't think anyone talks about budgets anymore, in
the low-budget realm. They just figure it didn't cost much.”

Still, stories about
his work spread. Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) says “Slacker” is
what got him started.

Those skills let
Linklater do other impossible things – including “Boyhood,”
filmed over 12 years as the actors (including kids, one of them his
daughter) aged. It beat the mega-movies at awards time.

And they let him
resist taking outside offers. Only twice, Linklater said, has he make
a movie “that I didn't originate, that was probably going to get
made with or without me.” Both had special appeal:

-- “School of
Rock” (2003) drew him, he said, because of the “music and the
Jack Black character.” It became a huge hit, spawning a Broadway
show and an Emmy-nominated Nickelodeon series.

-- The unsuccessful
“Bad News Bears” remake (2005) drew him because of “the
baseball-ness.”

Baseball, after all,
was a prime force in Linklater's youth. “We really thought he would
be a sportswriter,” his stepmother says in the film.

He was born in
Houston, but spent much of his youth in Huntsville, Texas. That's the
home of Sam Houston State University, where his divorced mother
taught and where Linklater had a baseball scholarship. But a heart
condition in his sophomore year forced him to quit.

That led him to what
he calls, in the film, “my best semester ever.” Linklater, who
had won a high school literary competition, spent much of it in the
library, absorbing the classics.

He then worked an
offshore oil rig, spending his off-time in Houston movie theaters. He
took the money to Austin, where he started the film society, bought a
camera and made movies.

“Austin, I found
very pleasant – and all of Texas, I found very easy to make movies
in,” said Linklater, 57. And the city seemed to savor him. Already
known for its music, it became an indie-movie spot.

Karen Bernstein,
co-director of the PBS film, arrived in 2001, a decade after
“Slacker” opened. “I saw ... this sort of clamor to have any
kind of place in Rick's movies or Rick's work with the Austin Film
Society,” she said.

Louis Black, the
other co-director, has covered Linklater from the beginning, as
co-founder of both the Texas Chronicle and the South by Southwest
festival. “Rick has developed so many artists,” he said, citing
Texas natives Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke.

Hawke had already
been a teen star when he worked with Linklater and Julie Delpy to
develop the intimate story of strangers who met on a train. Few
people saw “Before Sunrise” (1995), which Linklater calls “the
lowest-grossing film ever to spawn a sequel.”

More would see the
sequels; “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013)
both drew Academy Award nominations for their collaborative scripts.

In between those
successes, Linklater had a string of five straight box-office
failures – none of which seemed important when the world discovered
“Boyhood.” It won an Oscar (for Patricia Arquette) and was
nominated for five others, including best picture and Linklater's
direction and script. The Golden Globes named it best drama; most
other groups named it best picture.

Linklater did the
awards circuit ... then was back to business. “Rick is a very
practical man,” Delpy says in the film. He is, McConaughey adds,
“so Buddhist he doesn't even know he's Buddhist.”

He's calm and
efficient, getting things done. Which lets him keep making impossible
movies.

-- “American
Masters: Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny,” 9 p.m. Friday, PBS;
check local listings

"Snowfall": A drug drama adds depth and female ferocity


TV shows often start well and then sag in quality; it's kind of a tradition. Lately, however, some have gone in the opposite direction. One example is "The Bold Type" (9:01 p.m. Tuesdays on Freeform), one of the year's happiest surprises; another is FX's "Snowfall," closing its first season with strong episodes on Aug. 30 and Sept. 6; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When “Snowfall”
began, the scenes seemed familiar:

Tough young men
battered each other for control of drugs in Los Angeles. They keep
doing that in movies, on TV and (one assumes) in real life.

But as the series
nears its powerhouse season finale, there's extra depth, Now women
are involved.

“It's very rare
that you get to see women portrayed as villains,” said Emily Rios,
who plays Lucia. “So that's the exciting part .... She gets to be
her own antagonist.”

Also emergng
fiercely is Cissy Saint. Her view is more traditional – the mother
trying to save her son.

“You're seeing
your family fall apart,” said Michael Hyatt, who plays her. “You
can't help but fall apart a bit yourself.”

This is 1983 Los
Angeles and she thinks her son Franklin is a pot-dealer; instead,
he's bringing the crack that will shatter their neighborhood.

Stories of the Los
Angeles drug war have been told often. John Singleton, the “Snowfall”
producer, fueled the trend with his first movie, “Boyz n the Hood,”
in 1991.

But “Snowfall”
steps back to the start, before crack took over. Ironically,
Singleton said, “it's a nostalgia show .... These were the best of
times and the worst of times.”

Franklin is a
college-bound kid who sees the potential to make a fortune. On Aug.
30, his mother rages. “You've got to pray that you have created a
strong enough, healthy foundation that when your child trips, he can
pick himself up,” Hyatt said.

A week later -- in
the finale, directed by Singleton -- Lucia has her turning point.

“I was was very
surprised as the scripts came,” Rios said, “to see where she was
going ... She gets to be her own hero and her own savior (and) her
own worst enemy.”

-- “Snowfall,”
10 p.m. Wednesdays, FX.

-- Aug. 30: Crises
for Franklin, for Lucia and for Teddy, a CIA agent doing the
Contra/cocaine deal.

-- Sept. 6: Season
finale, including a drastic move by Lucia.

"Elian": In Cuba, Miami and beyond, the story still stirs passions


As the new millennium began, there were fierce arguments about the future of young Elian Gonzalez. Now, 17 years later, an intriguing documentary has re-visited the people on both sides. Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Clearly, this wasn't
your usual TV interview.

Elian Gonzalez had
once been the best-known child on Earth. Now he was being asked to
recall a controversy that had drawn cascades of emotion.

Many people had been
discussing it – loudly and passionately – for decades ... but not
him. “My father and I tried to almost never talk about it,” he
says in “Elian,” which debuts Thursday on CNN.

Trevor Birney, the
documentary's producer, could sense that. Watching his son being
interviewed, he said, Juan Miguel Gonzalez reacted like someone who
had rarely heard the story. “Juan Miguel cried for most of the
three hours.”

There were also
strong emotions on the other side of the issue,Birney said. “What I
hadn't factored in was how much trauma remains.”

Certainly, this was
an issue that seemed designed to rip emotions:

Donato Dalrymple was
fishing off the coast of Florida, on Thanksgiving week of 1999, when
he found Elian, almost 6, in an inner tube. “It was definitely a
miracle,” Dalrymple says in the film.

The boy had left
Cuba with his mother, her boyfriend and others, but their boat sank
and most of the people drowned. In Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's
great-uncle, was given temporary care; Lazaro's daughter Marisleysis,
21, became a prime caregiver. The the fights began.

Miami's
Cuban-American community – with a deep dislike of Castro's Cuba –
wanted Elian to stay; his father wanted him returned to Cuba. Courts
ruled in the father's favor; in a pre-dawn raid, on the day before
Easter, federal authorities seized Elian and returned him to his
father.

In Miami, that
brought rage against the Clinton administration – strong enough to
tip votes in the state that decided the Bush/Gore election. “Had
the Elian event been handled better, we might not have had the Iraq
war,” former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, says in the film..

Birney can relate to
that intensity. “I come from an area of conflict – Belfast, North
Ireland – and I understand how this can happen,” he said. So he
proposed a documentary, looking back at the situation. CNN agreed
immediately, he said; the key people hesitated ... then agreed to do
interviews.

There was
Marisleysis, who had been in an emotional whirlwind. She was a key
spokesperson and a loving surrogate mother ... then saw Elian
snatched away after five months. “She was a young, 21-year-old
woman and suddenly it was all gone,” Birney said. “It was a
struggle to get on with her life.”

She started a hair
salon, married and had children, Birney said. “She's a very busy,
proud woman” who still would like to see Elian some day.

Elian's own life is
also crowded. He had a normal-enough boyhood, Birney said, except for
the fact that he sometimes met Fidel Castro. “The family did
benefit from knowing Castro.”

Elian, now 23,
graduated from college and has an engineering job at a factory,Birney
said. “He has a girlfriend and wants to start a home.”

In the film, he
speaks glowingly of Cuba and harshly of Americans ... except
Marisleysis: “I think she tried to give me the love I didn't have
at that moment .... She was just a girl.”

And she was
surrounded, Birney feels, by well-meaning forces who dug in too
deeply. “They overplayed their hand. It was a no-win situation.”

-- “Elian,” CNN;
debut from 10 p.m. to midnight Thursday (an hour later than
originally scheduled), rerunning from 2-4 a.m.

-- Also 10 p.m.
Saturday, rerunning at 2 a.m.

-- Part of an increased schedule for CNN Films; plans call for "The Reagan Show" on Sept. 4, a "9/11" rerun on Sept. 10 and "Legion of Brothers" on Sept. 24.