ABC rises, with ambitious gay-rights mini-series


There was a time -- really -- when broadcast networks did steeply ambitious things with their movies and mini-series. Now ABC is trying anew; "When We Rise," which starts Monday (Feb. 27) is a sprawling, four-night, eight-hour mini-series; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Dustin Lance
Black, this was a pleasant revelation: ABC was actually looking for a
project tracing the history of gay rights.

It's usually the
other way around. You ask; networks (and movie studios) listen and
then say no.

“Eight years ago,
when I was doing 'Milk,' I couldn't sell it ... to save my life,”
Black said. “I had to finance it on a Capital One Visa card.”

That movie did fine
at the box office; it also piled up eight Academy Award nominations
(including best picture) and won two – for Black's script and Sean
Penn's performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected
official. Almost a decade later, gay-history projects remain rare.

“All of a sudden,
here was ABC looking to do something in that area,” Black said. “So
I jumped.”

It was a long, slow
jump. Before writing the “When We Rise” mini-series, which debuts
Monday, he spent a year looking for real-life people to build the
story around.

One was obvious:
Cleve Jones, 62, has seemed entwined in every phase of the story. “My
mom called him the Forrest Gump of the gay movement,” Black said.

A Quaker from
Arizona, Jones had been Milk's aide and launched the idea for the
AIDS quilt, creating its first square. Black had worked with him on
“Milk”; he decided to focus on him alongside people who had
previously worked on rights for women (Roma Guy) and blacks (Ken
Jones).

In real life, those
three have sometimes prevailed. “The fact that I have to explain to
my children what homophobia is is a result of the work that these
people did,” said Mary-Louie Parker, who portrays the older version
of Guy.

Some of their
victories might seem elusive now. “I see a very divided country,”
said Michael Kenneth Williams, who portrays the older Ken Jones, “a
country in pain. And we need to be reminded that there are a lot of
stories of triumph, of courage.”

Those affect people
who don't fit any gay stereotype – including Black, who had a
Mormon childhood.

“I grew up in the
South, I grew up in a religious home, I grew up in a military home,”
he said. “I grew up in a conservative home. My family is still
religious and Southern and conservative and I ... treasure what I
learned and how I was raised in that world.”

Black, 42, was born
in Sacramento, but was about 4 when his family moved to San Antonio.
By 6 or 7, he's said, he suspected he's gay; he became withdrawn,
with suicidal thoughts,

Then it all changed.
“When I was 12 years old,” Black once wrote, “I had a turn of
luck. My mom remarried a Catholic Army soldier who has orders to ship
out to Fort Ord in Salinias, Cal. There, I discovered a new family –
the theater. And soon, San Francisco.”

He did theater as a
teen-ager and at UCLA, then wrote and directed some small, gay-themed
films, before moving to the big budgets – HBO's “Big Love” (as
the only Mormon writer for a show about a Mormon family), “Milk”
and (for Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio) “J. Edgar.”

Now he's created a
mini-series that could have a large impact. Rachel Griffiths (who
portrays the older version of an activist named Diane) was 8 when
another ABC mini-series debuted.

“I watched 'Roots'
on the other side of the world,” she said. “I was a little gitl
in Australia, (a) white, Irish Catholic girl, (but it) affected me
for the rest of my life.”

-- “When We
Rise,” 9-11 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (Feb. 27 to
March 3), ABC

-- The Thursday
chapter will be preceded by a documentary about the real-life people
portrayed

 

Look out: Kate (Cate, Katy, Katie) is taking over the world


There are plenty of things that people might notice about "Teachers," including its brash humor and its fresh look at the world of education. But most of all, history might celebrate it as TV's first all-Kate show. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Right now, the world
seems overrun with clever Kates. They're strong, smart, sometimes
excessive.

You can find them in
all shapes (from Moss to Upton) and images (from Middleton to
Gosselin). The latest to draw attention is Katie Rich, who was
suspended from her “Saturday Night Live” duties after tweeting a
joke about Barron Trump.

But to fully grasp
the Kate monopoly, envision this: Five years ago in Chicago, Katie
Rich did a comedy show with Kate Duffey; opening for them were the
Katydids – six women named Kate, Cate, Katie, Katy, Caitlin and
Kathryn.

“It really was
just the common name. (We) knew a lot of funny Katies,” said Katie
O'Brien, a Katydid founder. And now that group has its own cable show
– eccentric, excessive, funny – called “Teachers.”

Each of the stars
fashioned an eccentric teacher; at least two were a tad
autobiographic:

-- Caitlin Barlow
spent her teen years in the Chicago-area town of Rolling Meadows,
then for five years was a real-life teacher – in Japan and in
Chicago for 4th-graders and for after-school teens. “I
loved it,” she said of the latter. “It was probably the best time
I've ever had.” She created Cicilia Cannon, an upbeat sort, forever
pushing liberal cases.

-- Kathryn Renee
Thomas grew up in the Detroit-area cities of Southfield and Livonia,
the pensive daughter of a therapist and a writer. “I started to
think, 'What if that character never grew out of it?'” She became
Mrs. Deb Adler – fond of eye shadow, un-fond of bullies, protector
of the oppressed. “She's very angst-ridden, imperfect, but she's
not mean.:

None of the
characters are. “Teachers are human,” Thomas said. “Everyone
has imperfections.”

Cate Freedman says
her character (AJ Feldman) is an “accidental teacher, so she's not
great at it.” Katy Colloton says Chelsea Snap is “really
superficial and self-involved.” Katie O'Brien says Mary Louise
Berrigan “has her own faith-based message that she's desperately
trying to get across.” Kate Lambert says Caroline Watson “didn't
think she'd be teaching this long. She just wants to be a wife and
mom.”

That's the opposite
of the Katydids, who have had a long-time career focus.

Barlow was a
freshman when she starred in the high school musical, “Once Upon a
Mattress.” She continued doing acting and improv through college
and beyond, even in a bilingual troupe in Japan.

Thomas went far
beyond comedy at the prestigious University of Michigan theater
school. She even starred in a portion of “A View From the Bridge”
-- in front of its author, Arthur Miller.

But she did comedy
at the Second City branch in Detroit and then in Chicago, the center
of the improv universe, where she met other Kates. “Matt Miller (a
director) told us we all look like teachers.”

So the Katydids did
a “Teachers” show for the Web – 24 shorts, most of them ranging
from 30 seconds to two-and-a-half minutes. TV Land gave them their
first own half-hour show, with 10 episodes in the first season and 20
in this second one.

Two men (fresh from
“Key & Peele”) join them as producers and various guys are
guest stars, including Haley Joel Osment as Thomas' drifting husband.
“He was so funny,” she said. Still, this is mostly all-female and
all-Kate.

Yes, that name has
been around a while. St. Catherine was martyred in 305 AD; King Henry
VII married two Catherines and a Katherine; a short time later,
around 1590, William Shakespeare named his “Taming of the Shrew”
heroine Katherina, or Kate.

Shakespeare's Kate
was fierce and firm. Five-plus centuries later, the world would be
swallowed up by Kates and Cates and such – Bosworth and Beckinsale,
Couric and Capshaw, Winslet and Mulgrew and Hudson and Spade ... and
an entire teachers' lounge stuffed with Katydids.

-- “Teachers,”
TV Land

-- 10 p.m. Tuesdays,
rerunning at 1 a.m.; also, Friday night (technically, early Saturday)
at 2 a.m.

-- Previous episodes
available at www.tvland.com.

 

Maya Angelou's life was filled with eloquent transformations


Near the end of a brilliant Maya Angelou profile (Tuesday, Feb. 21, on PBS), there's a moment that brings things full-circle. A young, black hotel employee, in elegant uniform, tells Angelou about the speech cotests she's won by reciting Angelou's words.

Flash back to the beginning of the dilm, when Angelou described her father as a black man whom Southerners considered "too grand for his skin"; he moved to Los Angeles and became a hotel doorman in elegant uniform. Now his daughter's words had propelled another elegant hotel person. The world changes, lives end, but Maya Angelou's words linger forever. Here's the story I sent to papers.

 By Mike Hughes

Maya Angelou had one
of the world's great voices.

It's a voice that
propelled poetry at Bill Clinton's inauguration, that sang on stage
and on film, that offered love and rage from podiums and pulpits. And
for five years, it was totally silent.

That was when she
was 7 and told about the man (her mother's boyfriend) who had raped
her; the man was soon killed and she decided her voice was lethal.
The silence seemed tragic – and maybe wasn't.

It was “combined
with great intake of knowledge, of writing, of reading,” said Colin
Johnson, her grandson and one of the advisors to a compelling
“American Masters” film on PBS.

And it was the
opposite of our overbusy era, when kids have little time to reflect.

Spurred by a
neighbor, the little girl read every book in the black-school library
and every one her grandmother could borrow from the white school. She
memorized Shakespearean plays, 50 sonnets, the great works of
American and foreign authors.

“Her mutism to me
is central to who she is,” Johnson said. “She had a level of
peace and calm.”

And then came
another transformation. Tis deeply pensive person becane an imposing
physical force. Six feet tall, she danced – first at a strip club
(keeping her tiny costume on) and then as a Calypso star.

“A lot of us
didn't know the story of her as a Calypso singer, a dancer,” said
Bob Hercules, co-director of the PBS film, which incluces clips from
the 1957 “Calypso Heat Wave” and 1959 “Porgy and Bess.”

That phase may seem
out-of-sync with her life, but her friend Lou Gossett sees a
connection. “What strikes me about her life is her consistency in
growth .... I remember her dancing the Calypso. I remember her at the
United Nations.... She grew and grew.”

Her childhood was
split between cities (St. Louis, Los Angeles) and Stamps, a tiny
Arkansas time (now with 2,100 people) where her grandmother had the
only black-owned store. She toured as a performer. She met an African
activist and spent years as a towering figure, tooling around Ghana
in a tiny Fiat.

Before and after
that time, she was part of the artistic scene in New York. Gossett
met her doing Jean Genet's “The Blacks,” which bended reality and
gripped playgoers. “Every now and then, they'd faint,” he said.
“I remember a man had a heart attack, because he thought it was
really real.”

He learned she had
strong artistic and political sides; in New York, she communed with
activists, artists and authors. When Malcolm X was killed, she slid
into a week-long funk. Then her friend James Baldwin forced her to a
congenial dinner with cartoonist Jules Ffeiffer and others.

There, Angelou
charmed guests with stories. Ffeiffer's wife called a publisher and
insisted this woman should be writing books. Angelou resisted ... and
then wrote seven autobiographical books and more.

“Here is a woman
who penned 36 books,” said Rita Coburn Whack, who co-directed the
PBS film. “We went over, I'd say, 4,000 photographs (and) upwards
of 150 hours of videotape.”

It was a sprawling
life that included performances ranging from “Roots” to “Sesame
Street,” from a Butterfinger commercial to bringing Tupac Shakur to
tears on the “Poetic Justice” set.

“She was the best
grandmother that ever lived, ... the grandma that had your favorite
dish in the kitchen,” Colin Johnson said. Before her death (in
2014, at 86), she re-connected with everyone.

“My grandma's life
is a call to action,” Colin said. The PBS films “tells a story
about someone who hasn't give up on herself or humanity.”

-- “American
Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”

-- 8-10 p.m.
Tuesday, PBS

Cush Jumbo and "The Good Fight" fit TV's new-normal world


At any time, Cush Jumbo would be interesting. You don't meet many people who have played both Josephine Baker and Mark Antony. Or, for that matter, many named Cush. But now she's also part of an interesting change in the TV world. "The Good Fight" -- which starts Feb. 19 on CBS, then moves to CBS All Access -- is her second series to reach American viewers mainly via streaming. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In one swoop, Cush
Jumbo summarized her odd, trans-Atlantic life:

I never do anything
in the normal way,” she said.

Then again, normal
is hard to find these days ... even on CBS, TV's last refuge of
normality. Her new show (“The Good Fight”) has exactly one
episode there, then moves to a streaming service.

That's CBS All
Access, where it joins a mountain of reruns -- “we now have over
8,500 episodes” said Marc DeBevoise, head of CBS Interactive –
and, eventually, “Star Trek: Discovery.”

Consider it the new
normal. Using computers or apps, viewers try streaming services; some
are free (YouTube, Comet), most aren't. They range from Netflix, Hulu
and Amazon to specialties: Seeso has comedy; Acorn has
British/Australian TV ... which is how some Americans found Jumbo.

For two-plus
seasons, she was with Oscar-nominee Brenda Blethyn -- “I've been
lucky to work with my heroes” -- on “Vera,” a cop show that
reaches the U.S. via Acorn; in between, she did all her other
abnormal things ... including an all-female production of “Julius
Caesar.”

Even her name is
unusual. “Cush” is usually a boy's name, she said; “it's a
hippie name.” (It also was the Nubian kingdom, south of Egypt.) And
“Jumbo” is the surname of her father, who's Nigerian.

Jumbo grew up in
England, her mother's homeland, as the second of seven kids. She took
dance lessons from ages 3 to 15, started theater school at 14, and
worked constantly in TV and theater. In 2011, she won an award for
her work in Shakespeare's “As You Like It” as Rosalind, a heroine
who'd previously been played by Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave.
“On stage, I can be any color.”

Or any gender. She
was nominated for England's top award (the Olivier) for her work as
Mark Antony – a natural for her, because she warms up by reciting
Antony's speech. “It's very muscular,” she said.

Jumbo reached New
York with that show ... and her one-woman Josephine Baker show ...
and “The River,” on Broadway with Hugh Jackman. Casting people
spotted her for a “Good Wife” audition.

“I'd been watching
the show from the first episode, on its first day in England,”
Jumbo said. When she was cast, she feared being “geeked out on it
so much, because it's embarrassing to come to work and know too many
things about the judges or get excited by elevator doors.”

Her character, Lucca
Quinn, did the final season and now moves to “Good Fight.” She
joined an all-black law firm that now adds three white women –
veteran lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), newcomer Maia
Rindell (Rose Leslie) and whip-smart aide Marissa Gold (Sarah
Steele).

That's three “Good
Wife” transplants – Baranski, Jumbo and Steele – with more in
guest roles. “There was a real reluctance on my part to let go of
what was a great job (with) great writers,” Baranski said..

And now those
writers are unfettered. The new version has more time (49 minutes on
All Access, 42 on CBS) and more freedom. “Our issues with
standards-and-practices (censors) have been reduced to nil,” said
Robert King, who produces the show with his wife Michelle.

It's an abnormal way
to work ... which is sort of normal for Jumbo. “I'll be Hamlet one
day,” she said.

-- “The Good
Fight” opener is 8 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 19) on CBS and CBS All Access.

-- The season's
other nine episodes will be available on the next nine Sundays at
www.cbsall-access.com.
That's $5.99 a month, or $9.99 commercial-free. All-Access has reruns
of other current and past shows, plus “Big Brother: Over the Top”
and the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery

 

After 65 years on the job, Attenborough worked on a fresh triumph


"Planet Earth II" may be the best TV series of this season ... or of most seasons. It's a brilliantly crafted documentary series ... as good, perhaps, as the original was a decade ago. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When it comes to
wildlife, you'd think that David Attenborough has seen it all.

He started working
for BBC television 65 years ago – back when he didn't own a TV set
and had only seen one show. He became an on-camera “presenter” 61
years ago, traveling the globe.

But here is
Attenborough at 90, narrating the spectacular “Planet Earth 2”
and talking passionately about its details. There's “that fox,
going after its little rodent, which is down beneath the snow.”

The rodent seems
safe there, but the fox tracks it with precise hearing. “The only
way it's going to get down there quick enough to catch it is to dive
headfirst into the snow,” Attenborough said. “And it's a very
effective technique – quite risky, I would have thought.”

Such moments keep
refreshing a genre that Attenborough and his British colleagues have
perfected.

The original “Planet
Earth” was an 11-hour marvel. It won four Emmys (including
“outstanding nonfiction series”) and a Peabody Award; the
Television Critics Association gave it the group's top awards for
news and for movies or miniseries.

A decade later, this
seven-hour sequel is coming to the U.S., after similar success in
England. It “was a ratings phenomenon and cultural event, ...
reaching over half the (United Kingdom) population,” said Sarah
Barnett, president of BBC America, which debuts it Saturday.

The key question was
whether a sequel could find fresh material. It could, said producer
Mike Gunton, because of improved technology. Drone photography has
soared in the past decade -- “the skill of the pilots has
exponentially increased” -- and motion-sensor cameras thrive.

As a result,
Attenborough said, filmmakers are “doing things we thought were
quite impossible up to about five years ago” -- including getting
the most elusive of subjects, the snow leopard.

“Only two can
exist in about a hundred square miles of the ... Himalayas,”
Attenborough said, but filmmakers were “able to get the amazingly
intimate shots .... I think it's magical.”

At times, sheer
persistence is needed. One example was filming the penguins of
Savodovski Island.

That's “1,200
miles away from the Falkland Islands,” said producer Elizabeth
White. “It's an epic trip. You have to fly down there; you then
join a very small yacht and you sail through the roughest ocean on
Earth for seven or eight days, to (reach) this little spot of land
that's actually an active volcano.”

Attenborough said he
was surprised they did it. “I thought they were barmy.”

This project brings
many surprises, from unpopulated islands to overpopulated cities.
“New York city has the highest density of breeding peregrine
falcons of any place in the world, “ Attenborough said.

Really. The world of
Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the Yankees also has falcons swooping
down.

“Skyscrapers
replicate the conditions under which the peregrine falcons evolve –
places where then can exploit the updraft of the air and where they
can find good prey, which are pigeons,” Attenborough said. “I
thought that that sequence shot in New York was really a sensation.”

This is the tone of
someone who still seems to savor his work after 65 years ... and who
does it well. A decade ago, the American version of “Planet Earth”
stripped off Attenborough's voice and replaced him with Sigourney
Weaver. “I never understood why,” Gunton said.

This time (with Hans
Zimmer, a nine-time Oscar-nominee doing the music), Attenborough does
the narration for both countries. “It is like a virtuoso
performance,” Gunton said. “It's one take ... the enthusiasm, the
passion, the dynamic storytelling cannot be replicated by doing
retakes.”

-- “Planet Earth
II,” 9 p.m. and midnight ET (6 and 9 p.m. PT) Saturdays, BBC
America

-- Seven weeks,
starting with “Islands” on Feb. 18 and “Mountains” on Feb. 25

-- The opener will
also be shown at 9 p.m. Feb. 18 on AMC and Sundance; BBC America will
rerun it Thursday, Feb. 23, at 9 p.m. and midnight ET.

-- Reruns from the
original “Planet Earth” will fill the rest of the BBC America
time, from 6 a.m. ET Saturday to 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 18-19..