It's the Big Top, the big show, the big lie ... and epic Americana

For all of its flaws, the circus tends to deliver epic Americana. It's has dazzle, daring and a sense of sheer fun. Much of that is also delivered in the season-opening "American Experience" documentary, Monday and Tuesday (Oct. 8 and 9) on PBS. It does capture the flaws and quirks of a circus, but it also reflects centuries of invention and ingenuity. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Johnathan Lee
Iverson, the important advice came straight from the top.

He had just joined
the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, he said, when its
CEO told him something essential. “He said, 'There's the truth and
then there's circus truth.'”
Then again, Iverson already knew
that ... ever since 1985, when Ringling claimed it had a unicorn. “I
was about 9 and I'm ready to see a unicorn .... And this little goat
comes out.”

Later, reporters
pieced together the story: A ma had found a way to alter young goats,
so a single horn grew; he took them to Renaissance fairs; then the
Ringling people bought them and bought his silence.

Iverson was
recalling that, while telling the Television Critics Association
about PBS' new “Circus” documentary. For four hours, viewers will
hear about dazzle, sparkle, skill ... and, alas, lies.

“The tendency
toward exaggeration is absolutely a part of what (P.T. Barnum took)
to another level,” said Janet Davis, a University of Texas
historian and author.

For Barnum, that
started in 1835, when he bought an exhibit supposedly involving
George Washington's former nursemaid, now 161 years old. (She died
the next year, at about 79.) He would continue his museum, Davis
said, “predicated upon all of these incredible falsehoods .... When
he enters the circus business in 1871, He's all-out with the

But alongside the
lies, she said, there were people with true talent. The circus has
had the “funny juxtaposition of extraordinary exaggeration with ...
viscerally real entertainment.”

The first American
circus, in the pre-hype days, was in 1793 Philadelphia. An
Englishman, Davis said, was “riding a horse and doing incredible
acrobatics .... A lot of death-defying skill goes into that.”

Washington went
there on his birthday. In the centuries that followed, other
Americans were dazzled.

“I tasted life,”
Emily Dickinson wrote of the circus. “It was a vast morsel.”

“It enables us to
lose ourselves, to dissolve in wonder and bliss,” Henry Miller

Others agreed, said
Sharon Grimberg, director of the PBS film. They include writers
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.B. White, Walt Whitman) and a dour president.
“Calvin Coolidge loved the circus.”

In a sprawling,
young nation, Barnum and others perfected the traveling show. A drab
town would have spectacle, Dominique Jando said ... then would be
back to normal “and it's boring again.”

His own experience
was in France, where circuses were stationary. He was 5, he said,
“when my father took me to see Buster Keaton at Cirque Medrano in
Paris. It's why I became a clown.”

Jando was performing
in circuses at 18, married a trapeze star and later became a circus
historian and, at one point, associate artistic director of the
low-hype, high-skill Big Apple Circus.

American circuses
seemed to reflect this country's virtues – imagination, innovation,
daring – and its flaws. There was the exploitation of animals
(especially by the people who sold them to the circuses) and of
outsiders. And there were biases, Grimberg said.“Very rarely did
African-Americans get to perform in the Big Top in the 1950s.”

Much of that had
changed by 1999, when Iverson got a surprise phone call, asking him
to audition for the Ringling show. He had sung with the Boys Choir of
Harlem, attended the “Fame” high school in New York and aspired
to opera, but had given no thought to the circus. “I was 22 at the
time. I just kept hearing 'ringmaster,' and (thinking), 'Man, that's
a great pickup line.'”

He promptly became
the first black ringmaster of a major circus and kept the job until
the Ringling show closed last year – ending its 146-year tradition.
“The minute we made that announcement, suddenly, it was 'Oh my
gosh, Santa Claus is going away.' .... Everything was sold out, all
of a sudden.”

It was the end of
the mega-circus ... but not of the concept. “A lot of small
circuses (are) popping up, regional circus,” Jando said. “So it's
a revival of a different sort.”

-- “The Circus,”
9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, PBS; season-opener for “American

Her patients are big and hairy ... or small and creepy ... or others

Like many people, I've never wished I was living in the Yukon, dealling with bears and bison and such. But that life seems to work fine for Dr. Michelle Oakley and her daughters; they are bright and likable people whose show -- "Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet" -- returns Saturday (Oct. 6). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Dr. Michelle Oakley
never planned on this career, you know.

“I didn't know
there were any wildlife vets,” she said.

There aren't many,
but there's Oakley – based in Haines Junction, a Canadian town of
589. Her patients include wolves and wolverines, bears and bison and
bald eagles and more; they're all part of “Dr.
Oakley, Yukon Vet,” on NatGeo Wild.

For Oakley and her
family, this is an uncrowded life. There are about 80 kids in the
school district; a typical graduating class has six. “There are
some years when no one graduates,” Sierra Oakley said.

The older daughters
– now in Canadian colleges – seem happy with their lives. Sierra,
21, plans to be a Yukon vet like her mom; Maya, 19, is studying
criminal justice, which she may do elsewhere. “I can't handle the
cold,” she said.

Their mom wasn't
expecting to be there, either. It all started during a summer as a
field assistant for a ground squirrel ecology study. “When they
said it was in the Yukon, I thought, 'Oh, is that in Mexico?'”

She had grown up in
Indiana, with strawberry fields nearby and a fondness for nature and
the people who study it. “I met Jane Goodall when I was 11 years
old (at a Chicago zoo event). “I said, 'I want to go into the
wildlife and do what you do.' And she said, 'I believe you will.'”

Oakley assumed she
would focus on research, as Goodall does. At the University of
Michigan, she “spent so much time in the natural history museum”
that she wasn't overwhelmed by the mega-campus.

Then came the field
study in the Yukon, where she met Shane Oakley, who kept calling her
“squirrel girl.” He's a wildland firefighter, rooted to the
North. “At the end of the summer, he said, 'Please stay.'”

She couldn't; she
had to do her senior year, so the romance was probably over ...

... Except he soon
surprised her by visiting. “He had never been on an escalator
before,” she said. “But he flew into Detroit .... He said, 'There
are no mountains; I don't know how to tell where I am.'”

After she graduated
with a zoology degree, they married. She got her veterinary degree in
Canada in 2000; after nine years as a government vet, she set up her
unique practice.

At her clinic,
Oakley can see the standard dogs and cats and such; other work has
been for the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, the Alaskan Wildlife
Conservation Center, the American Bald Eagle Foundation ... and even
for special programs in Scandinavia and Sri Lanka.

The TV series –
now in its sixth season – is filmed from April to October, when the
weather is warm. (“It's not ever warm,” Maya corrects.) That has
allowed the girls to take part during summers.

“That was probably
hard for a teenage girl,” Oakley said, “to be on TV and be
working with her mom .... They'd be like, 'Could you not say
“testicles” on TV?'”

One assignment had
mom and daughter in a tree, observing a hulking bear. That required
total silence, not a skill all college kids have. “I love it,”
Sierra said. “You sit there, with nothing else to do.'”

There were potential
problems that day, Oakley grants. “He could have gone up the tree
after us.”

But he didn't ...
and Oakley isn't especially wary of large animals; instead, “I'm
afraid of spiders.”

That was one of the
first things she confronted while interning at the Calgary Zoo. “It
was a tarantula that was trying to shed its skin ... and they're
like, 'Ewww!'”

-- “Dr. Oakley,
Yukon Vet,” 9 p.m. ET Saturdays, NatGeo Wild, rerunning at midnight

-- Opener, Oct. 6,
is surrounded by reruns fron noon to 3 a.m. ET

He's a warm, unicorn-loving hitman

Maybe I was destined to like "Mr Inbetween," the quirky series that airs late-night Tuesdays on FX. After all, my sons are named Scott and Ryan ... and this show is written by and stars a guy named Scott Ryan. Anyway, I also like the show because of its offbeat tone. And I marvel that it's based on a movie that few people noticed when it was in Australian theaters, 13 years ago. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Every now and then,
a mega-movie becomes a TV series. After all, it already has the fans
and the buzz.

But “Mr Inbetween”
is in a category by itself. It's based on a movie that was seen by
virtually no one.

“I can't tell you
how much I love this series,” said John Landgraf, FX's program
chief, who gave it a cozy spot after “Mayans MC.” Like “Mayans,”
it has bursts of violence; unlike that show, it's had a sweet,
father-daughter chat about unicorns.

“I thought about
what it would be like to be a hit man who was a regular guy,” Scott
Ryan said.

So in film school in
Australia, he starred in “The Magician,” which he wrote,
directed, produced and edited. “That was the first thing that I
acted in .... There were no professional actors, no crew.”

It only cost about
$3,000, but an early version showed up at a film festival and
intrigued Nash Edgerton, a stuntman/actor whose younger brother Joel
is a movie star. Edgerton helped land $330,000 in government funding
to give it some technical zing; it reached theaters in 2005 ... and
only made $182,000, scuttling Ryan's dreams.

“It came and went
and it didn't change his life,” Landgraf said. “He went back to
being a taxi driver.”

Well, there were
also some close calls, Ryan said, with projects that almost happened.
Then, 13 years after the movie, two FX Australia executives pushed
the idea of turning it into a series.

All six half-hours
are directed by Edgerton and written and star Ryan ... putting him in
fresh turf. “This is the first time I'd ever acted ... with
professional actors and with a crew and all that sort of stuff.”

Even less
experienced is Chiki Yasumura, who plays his daughter. She's
Edgerton's daughter ... and inspired a dandy scene in the second

In real life, her
dad shattered all the myths – from Santa to the Easter Bunny – in
one conversation. Ryan adapted that for the series, adding a twist:
After spoiling everything else, he couldn't get himself to debunk

The result was slow,
sweet and funny. The the dad was back to beating and/or killing
people. He's sort of an in-between guy.


-- “Mr Inbetween,”
Tuesdays on FX, after “Mayans MC”; that's 11:32 p.m. Oct. 2,
11:30 p.m. Oct. 9

-- Six half-hour
episodes, with two per week; started Sept. 25

News staffs get smaller; political money gets bigger and darker

We really don't expect great documentaries at the start of a TV season, but three of them were set in the first weeks. Last week it was HBO's "Jane Fonda in Five Acts" and PBS' "Mayo Clinic"; now it's PBS again, this time with the compelling "Dark Money," Monday (Oct. 1). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Right now, opposite
forces are tugging at democracy:

Political budgets
get bigger; newspaper budgets get smaller. Voters keep seeing louder
ads and claims ... with fewer reporters to probe them.

One Montana newsman
had his own solution to the jobs crisis: “I spent some time living
in a cabin in the woods,” John Adams said.

Then he became a
strong force in probing invisible influences in elections. The result
is probed in “Dark Money,” which premieres Monday (Oct. 1), under
PBS' “POV” banner.

The issue began
after the Supreme Court's 2010 decision allowed unlimited political
spending. Montanans found their mailboxes stuffed with political
pieces, many of them fiercely negative; most had no hint – except
for vague committee names – who was behind them.

“If we have all of
this money coming into our politics, trying to change policy ... we
need to know what those dollar influences are,” said Kimberly Reed,
the “Dark Money” producer-director.

She's a
fourth-generation Montanan who studied film in California and
returned home to do two films. “Prodigal Sons” (2008) was about
her return as a transgender woman to her 20th high school
reunion; “Dark Money” asks what happened to a state once known
for its strict election laws.

Eventually, Reed
said, some of the deluge was traced to one source: “A national
organization actually had a plan it was running in five other states.
(It was) the National Right to Work Committee. I'm still trying to
figure out where their money is actually coming from.”

Much of this was
uncovered by newspaper reporters ... before the jobs crisis hit. The
Lee Newspapers closed their capitol bureau in Helena, Montana. The
Great Falls Tribune – the Gannett paper where Adams was a capitol
reporter – took a different approach, he said. It “rewrote the
job descriptions for new positions and they they asked us, all of us,
to re-apply.”

Instead, he quit,
sometimes living in his truck or in his friends' cabins. He did
free-lance work in Montana and in his home state of Wisconsin. And in
2016, he started the Montana Free Press web site. “It's not in
print, but ... we give away our stories to traditional newspapers,
who do print our stories.”

The impact has been
solid. In Montana, a powerful legislator faced a trial and was
defeated in the primary. In both Montana and Wisconsin, staffers
leaked key details about dark-money projects.

People became wary
of the negative ads they were barraged with, Adams said. “That
basically took their power away.”

That's as close as
“Dark Money” comes to having a happy ending, he said. “People
started tuning out these dark-money groups, and I think they really
lost their effectiveness.”

“Dark Money,”
10-11:30 p.m. Monday (under the “POV” banner), PBS (check local

"Murphy Brown": 20 years later, it's alive and well

For weeks, CBS has had a barrage of ads, reminding us how good the original "Murphy Brown" was. Now the new one is ready to debut Thursday (Sept. 27); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In the TV world,
we've found, dead isn't dead and done isn't done.

So it seemed logical
when a TV executive suggested that Diane English revive “Murphy
Brown,” 20 years after the show ended.

“As the months
ticked by, it started to feel like we had maybe a real reason to come
back,” English said. Then the executive “said, 'What if I pay you
to write a script?' And that go my attention.”

And it got “Murphy
Brown” back, with most of the original cast. “We all got tears in
our eyes” when the old sets were re-created, Candice Bergen said.
“''Murphy' was so important to all of us.”

The show spent four
straight seasons in the Nielsen rating's top 10, finishing as high as
No. 3 in 1991-92. Bergen won five Emmys in seven years, then withdrew
from competition. She was praised by critics ... which was definitely
something new.

“I'd mostly been
reviled in my acting career,” Bergen wrote in her second memoir (“A
Fine Romance,” 2015, Simon & Schuster). “I'd given many bad
performances in many bad movies.”

Here was a beauty
with a sophisticated background (the daughter of radio star Edgar
Bergen) and a sharp mind. She was the equivalent of Anderson Cooper
or Diane Sawyer -- bright, telegenic, verbal. “60 Minutes”
offered her a job when she was 25; there were rumors she'd be a
“Today” regular.

Instead, she kept
acting. Movies like the soapy “The Adventurers” (1970) battered
her prestige.

There were hints
that she could do comedy. “Saturday Night Live” people called her
one of their favorite hosts; she received an Oscar nomination for
“Starting Over” (1978). But when English's “Murphy Brown”
script drew a buzz, she wrote, “no one at my agency thought to
submit me for it, except for one lowly agent.”

She delayed reading
it for a while, finally did on a cross-country plane trip ... and
then quickly called – via pay phone from the plane – to say she
wanted it.

It was a stretch. “I
had rarely watched a sitcom in my life, much less shot one,” Bergen

Here was blistering
dialog about a recovering alcoholic with a passion for journalism. “I
never wanted it to end,” she wrote. “Doing 'Murphy Brown' was
insanely fun. When the writing was good – as it was for the first
years of 'Murphy' and on and off after -- it was a giddy, joyous

Eventually, the show
did sag in quality and in ratings. It stayed in the top-20 through
its eighth season, then fell out of the top 30 and ended after 10

The urge to bring it
back came partly because of the new politics, English said, and
partly because of another comeback. “The success of 'Will &
Grace' was encouraging. (They) almost didn't skip a beat.”

The others – Faith
Ford, Joe Regalbuto, Grant Shaud – signed on, then waited. “Two
weeks would go by,” Ford said. “I would get a text from Joe:
'Well?' (I'd say) 'She's writing, Joe.'”

She dawdled for nine
months on the first script, then boomed ahead. The new version has
Murphy starting a cable morning show. “Free press is under attack
like I've never seen before,” English said. “The press is not the
enemy of the people and our characters are the press.”

A few people weren't
available. Charles Kimbrough, 82 and retired, will return for three
episodes as Jim, the former anchorman. Pat Corley died in 2006 at 76;
he played the owner of Phil's, the favorite bar, now run by Phil's
sister (Tyne Daly). Robert Pastorelli died of a drug overdose in
2004, at 49.

That leaves a cast
ranging from 44 (Ford) to 72 (Bergen). To add some younger actors,
Nik Dodani plays a social-media expert and Jake McDorman is Murphy's

“I hadn't seen any
'Murphy Brown' before I read the script,” McDorman, 32, said. Many
people haven't; “Murphy Brown” will have to gather some new
people, alongside its past faithful.

-- “Murphy Brown,”
9:30 p.m. Thursdays, CBS; debuts Sept. 27