Our minds at work -- creating fire and (a while later) telepathy


Talking to Jason Silva is a whirlwind experience. Ideas and words swirl through his busy brain and out his mouth. He's a technology guy who makes it all sound exciting ... even to a TV reporter who still uses a stupid phone. And now his new "Origins" series is looking way back. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Jason Silva has
spent years talking about the future. “I'm a big technology
optimist,” he said.

But now he's looking
the other way. In the ambitious new “Origins” series, he talks
about the past – sometimes the deep, distant past.

No matter which
direction you look, he said, humans keep tinkering. So he likes to:

-- Peek ahead a few
years, to improvements in powered exoskeletons, often for medical
uses. “Technology is the thing that helps us overcome limitations.”

-- And look
backward. The “Origins” opener focuses on the development of
fire, which made life easier. “It freed us to use the cognitive
part of our minds.”

Able to cook food
and warm people, ancient man could go on to other things, from art to
agriculture. Much later, he would find bigger uses for fire and
bigger dangers; the opening hour – filled with high-octane visuals
and music – ranges from fire helping the Chinese repel the Mongol
hordes ... to a fire destroying old London ... to the emergence of
rocketry and beyond.

Shows like this are
part of a key makeover for the National Geographic Channel since
Courteney Monroe took over as CEO in 2014.

Not long ago, she
said, the channel “included shows like 'American Gypsies,' 'Church
Rescue' and 'Doomsday Castle' .... I suppose they all served a
purpose at the time.”

But that time seems
to have passed. What Monroe calls “the biggest rebrand in National
Geographic's history” has included such ambitious efforts as
“Mars,” “The Story of God,” the retooled “Explorer”
magazine, “Before the Flood” and the upcoming “Genius.”

Then there's
“Origins,” hosted by Silva, who fits neatly into any “genius”
category. As a teen-ager, he organized “salons” in his home, to
discuss big issues. “I was never good at small talk,” he said.

Or small anything.
Silva, 35, is 6-foot-4, a dynamic speaker who is global and
bilingual.

He grew up in
Caracas, Venezuela, where his mother's family was big in textiles.
Spanish was his first language and Montessori schools were an
influence. “They really build the curiosity and the passion.”

At the University of
Miami, he majored in film and philosophy – two things he used in
films that were presented at TED talks and beyond. Silva was on Al
Gore's now-departed Current channel and then hosted “Brain Games”
on National Geographic.

He seems fascinated
by the games of the brain, past and present. “There's a cyborg
anthropologist named Amber Case, who refers to texting as
'technologically mediated telepathy,'” Silva told the Television
Critics Association before “Brain Games” was launched. “It
allows us to ... send our thoughts brain-to-brain, transcending the
limitations of time, space and distance.”

It's part of human
progress that somehow went from creating fire to having a cyborg
anthropologist.

-- Origins, 9 p.m.
ET Mondays, National Geographic Channel, leading into “Explorer”
at 10

-- Opener (March 6,
about fire) reruns at 11 p.m. ET on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and
Sunday; also at 9 p.m. ET Friday and at 8 p.m. ET on March 13,
leading into the second hour, on “cheating death.”

 

Classic Hollywood: Two giants feuded elegantly


Once you sink into it, you'll find "Feud" immensely entertaining. This is from the "People v. O.J. Simpson" producer, with the same idea -- a high-stakes battle involving high-stakes people. But now, it's Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, in the last days of old Hollywood.

The series opens Sunday (March 5) on FX, (A second "Feud" has already been ordered, this time with Charles and Diana.) Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The movie was small,
but the stars were big.

Back in 1962, there
was a collision of giants in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Between them, Bette
Davis and Joan Crawford already had three Academy Awards, 13
nominations and a cascade of Hollywood headlines. They “were both
larger-than-life figures,” Ryan Murphy said.

So now Murphy's new
series (“Feud”) uses that movie in the same way his previous one
(“The People v. O.J. Simpson”) used a court case – as the
backdrop for spectacular personalities.

And these women were
much like members of the Simpson legal team – high-profile and
high-strung, but total opposites. Set designer Judy Becker found that
while re-creating their homes:

-- Davis was
non-Hollywood. She “was from a town outside of Boston and she went
to boarding school on the East Coast,” Becker said. “She really
was like a Yankee .... She considered herself a very serious actress,
so that was reflected in the way she lived ... She had this kind of
dowdy furniture.”

-- Crawford was
anti-dowdy. You could sense that in her living room – with a large
painting of herself – or st the vanity table, with a refrigerator
to “keep her witch hazel and her lemons and her ice cubes and her
vodka – all of which were used to help preserve her appaearance,
except the vodka. That was for her mental health.”

It's easy to mock
Crawford, until you remember the odds she faced, especially the bias
against older women. “When I started, (actresses were) over by 40,”
said Susan Sarandon, who plays Davis.

Now Davis was 54;
various sources put Crawford at between 54 and 58. They were clinging
to fame.

For Crawford, it had
been a long fight. There was “the physical abuse, sexual abuse, the
povery,” said Jessica Lange, who plays her. “All of these things
.... She had a 5th-grade education. As she said,
'Everything I learned, I was taught by MGM.'”

Jeanine Basinger, a
professor and author, sees her as the classic archetype.

“Quite possibly
the perfect and most enduring example of Hollywood female stardom is
Joan Crawford,” she wrote in “American Cinema” (1994, Rizzoli).
“She was born poor in Texas and had to fight for everything she
had. With a minimum of education and a maximum of good looks, she
forged her way forward, dancing in the chous and ending up in
California with a ($75-a-week) contract.”

Even her name –
originally Lucille Le Seueur – was flexible. The new one was
decided after a Movie Weekly contest asked readers to choose a name
for this new actress.

Davis was also,
perhaps, willing to play the game a little. “She felt that she was
never going to be anybody unless somebody could impersonate her,”
Murphy said.

In public, he said,
“she rarely turned that off; she felt that was important for her
survival.”

But Murphy also knew
the private Davis a little. “I got to one day spend four hours
talking with her. She was not that person at all. She was not camp,
she was not broad.”

So “Feud” isn't
out to mock Davis or Crawford. (“I do still think ... their
interactions are hilarious,” Murphy granted.) Instead, it captures
women out to conquer the world.

Sarandon, 70,
captured the precision of Davis' voice. “Her speech pattern is the
antithesis of mine.”

Lange, 67, found
Crawford's persona. “She was never not on .... There is that famous
quote of hers: 'I never go out without looking like Joan Crawford. If
you want to see the girl next door, go next door.'”

And the sets
captured the feel of the time. There is the mansion that Crawford
kept transforming ... complete with a plastic cover on the sofa. And
there's the re-created Perino's night spot.

It was “a circular
restaurant,” Becker said, “and I think that was partly so people
could kind of see each other .... They're celebrities; they like to
be seen.”

-- “Feud: Bette
and Joan,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX

-- Opener (March 5)
reruns at 11:12 p.m. and 1:42 a.m.; also, 2 a.m. Tuesday (latenight
Monday), 2:30 a.m. Thursday, 2:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. Saturday, March
11

 

Man seeking comedy: Simon Rich's life plan is succeeding


There's an impish charm to Simon Rich, somewhere between Puck, a leprechaun and Santa's most perverse elf. Beyond that surface lies a neatly off-center comedy touch. Now his cable comedy, "Man Seeking Woman," is nearing its key episodes, March 1 and 8; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Stepping into
America's most prestigious school, you'll find lots of wide-eyed
idealists.

They reach Harvard
with dreams of curing cancer or reaching Mars or being president or
such. Then there was Simon Rich: “My only goal was to be on the
Lampoon,” he said with a grin.

Often, people arrive
with high intentions ... which are transformed by work on the Harvard
Lampoon comedy magazine. “A lot of future science and business
careers are destroyed.” he semi-joked.

But for Rich, comedy
was always the plan. It has worked out quickly.

At 32 – and
looking much younger, in a Michael J. Fox/George Stephanopoulos way –
he's already written six books ... spent four years writing for
“Saturday Night Live” ... spent two writing for Pixar ... and now
has his own cable show, ready for its big moments.

That's “Man
Seeking Woman.” After three seasons, the man (Jay Baruchel) has
actually found a woman (Katie Findlay); coming now are a bachelor
party (Wednesday) and a wedding (March 8).

“Simon kept
saying, 'This is the season we've earned,'” Baruchel said.

They earned it by
putting the characters through epic disasters – which are sort of
fun for the actors. “They want you to go all the way,” Findlay
said, “if you can be bigger, if you can be weirder.”

Being weirder is a
skill nourished by Rich, who was 5 when “The Simpsons” arrived.
“I didn't really obsess on it until I was 11 or 12; then I started
to really geek out, scene-for-scene.”

There were more
laughs, with “Saturday Night Live” reruns, author Douglas Adams
(“Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe”) and even regular TV. “Of
course I watched a lot of 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends' (and then) Jon
Stewart in my college years.”

Writing seemed
logical enough. His father is a columnist who spent 13 years as New
York Times theater critic. Some people might not link Frank Rich with
comedy, but his son points to a review of the “Moose Murders”
play. “Those of us who witnessed (it),” that review proclaimed,
“will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of
survivors of the Titanic.”

Those words were
written in 1983, a year before Simon was born. His dad continued to
do reviews for another decade, sometimes taking his son with him to
the theater.

Eventually, Simon
Rich learned that many of the “Simpsons” and “SNL” writers
had written for the Harvard Lampoon. That became his educational
goal. He eventually became president of the Lampoon and had a book
deal before graduating.

Still, he persisted
with TV. He was at “Saturday Night Live” for four years, often
writing odd pieces with John Mulaney and Marika Sawyer. “Usually,
those were in the last 20 minutes of the show.”

That sort of
segregation was fine, he said, fitting producer Lorne Michaels' “SNL”
view. “It's a variety show at its core. There's political humor,
there's character humor and some of it can be surreal.”

Rich then spent two
years at Pixar and landed a cable deal to adapt his “The Last
Girlfriend on Earth.”

In truth, Rich says,
his own dating life had the usual success and failure, but nothing
spectacular. He was living with author Kathleen Hale, now his wife.

But he put his
character through two seasons of offbeat agony, before giving him a
steady girlfriend.

That's Findlay,
known for playing homicide victims – Rosie in “The Killing.”
Rebecca in “How to Get Away With Murder” -- before this. “Half
(the viewers) are convinced that I'm going to die,” she said.

She's won't,
apparently. Instead, she'll marry, continuing Simon Rich's comedy
path.

-- “Man Seeking
Woman,” 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, FXX, rerunning at 11:30 p.m. and
1:30 a.m.

-- Bachelor party is
March 1, wedding is in the March 8 season-finale

 

Bill Paxton: A true Texan (and TV-and-movie star) dies at 61


By Mike Hughes

Bill Paxton was a
teen-ager when he left Texas to follow his obsession with movies.

Still, his home
state remained a key part of him. “You can't take Texas out of the
boy,” he said in 2015. “We are pretty heavily indoctrinated.”

Paxton died Saturday
at 61, from complications of heart surgery. His career was at a peak
– starring in CBS' currentn “Training Day” and preparing for an
“Aliens” sequel and more.

Even the CBS show –
set in modern Los Angeles – had a Texas feeling. In one episode,
Paxton managed to mention both the 1977 Dallas Cowboys and the Alamo.
The latter, he said last month, is “a reference to a great event in
our history.”

He played some
classic people from Texas and cowboy history – Jesse James'
brother, Wyatt Earp's brother and Sam Houston. He even had a blood
link to Sam Houston: “His mother's name was Elizabeth Paxton. She
was my great, great, great aunt.”

Paxton grew up in
Fort Worth, where his dad was a businessman and museum executive.
Photos show him at 8, on his dad's shoulders to see John Kennedy on
Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was killed.

At 18, Paxton moved
to Hollywood and started the way many did – working for little
money for low-budget Roger Corman films, building sets and more. He
may have been naive then.

When he was 20, he
recalled last month, he met a man and woman having tough luck. He
gave them gas money and invited them home for a meal. “When I was
as work the next day, they came and completely cleared out the
place.”

There were more
troubles in Los Angeles -- “I had my door kicked in twice; I've
been held up at knifepoint” -- and then success. He did “Apollo
13,” “Twister,” the “Big Love” HBO series ... and four
films (from “Terminator” to “Titanic”) directed by another
former Corman-sets guy, James Cameron. “If you're going to hang
out with Jim, you'd better have your life insurance,” he told one
interviewer.

Then came the
“Training Day” series. It's set after the 2001 movie, with a
character who's a little like the one Denzel Washington played in the
movie ... but with a key difference. “I think Bill's character is
more like the old western hero,” said producer Barry Schindel.

It's the type of
role that neatly fit a forever-Texas guy.

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