Shandling: Comedy and kindness blended in a busy life

When I first met Judd Apatow -- 25 years ago, when he was a writer-producer for "The Ben Stiller Show" -- I could tell he was special; he was a good guy, with a sense for other people. Now we find that he had a good example to follow -- his mentor and friend, Garry Shandling. Apatow's richly detailed profile of Shandling debuts Monday on HBO and reruns often; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

A generation ago,
these friends-to-be met.

Both followed the
Jewish tradition of comedy, but that was all they had in common.

Gary Shandling was
34 and had just guest-hosted Johnny Carson's show; Judd Apatow was
16, interviewing comedians for the radio. Shandling had grown up in
Arizona, Apatow in Long Island. Shandling was spiritual; Apatow ...

“My parents didn't
believe in God,” he recalled. “I wasn't Bar Mitzvahed. The only
religion in my house was every once in a while, my mom would go,
'Nobody said life was fair.'”

Shandling would
later be his mentor and friend. Now, two years after his death (at
66, of myocardial infarction), he's remembered in Apatow's two-night
HBO biography.

This was someone
with a deep view of life, Apatow said. “He talked about Buddhism
and he gave me a book (by a Buddhist monk). That really changed my
life. He was a great friend .... He liked to talk a lot about being
kind and trying to be a loving person.”

In that long-ago
interview, Shandling discussed his early obsession (“I had a total
interest in comedians when I was 10”), his detour (at first,
majoring in electrical engineering), his success as a TV comedy
writer and his abrupt change: “I was sitting at my typewriter one
day and I realized this was not what I wanted to do the rest of my
life. I had a mid-life crisis at 28.”

He did stand-up,
then cable comedy for Showtime (“It's Garry Shandling's Show”)
and HBO.

“'The Larry
Sanders Show'” kind of lit the way for what HBO could be, (with)
very high-quality work,” Apatow said.

Apatow would
continue that, producing HBO's “Girls” and “Crashing,”
alongside movie hits from “40-Year-Old Virgin” to “Trainwreck.”
Now he's using HBO to recall a philosophic friend.

-- “The Zen
Diaries of Garry Shandling,” two-part, four-hour documentary, HBO

-- First part is 8
p.m. Monday (March 26). The two parts together are 6-10 p.m. Tuesday,
2-6 p.m. Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, 3-7 p.m. April 5.

-- Also, first part
reruns at 11:15 p.m. Wednesday, second part Thursday night at
midnight; more reruns are on HBO2

-- Apatow's
interviews with Shandling and other comedians are in “Sick in the
Head” (Random House, 2016)

Here are outer-space views -- tears and all -- of our planet

"One Strange Rock" is definitely not your ordinary TV series. The opener (10 p.m. ET Monday, March 26) has gorgeous visuals and music, smart writing ... and the perspective of astronauts. Several of them were at a Television Critics Association session; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

It's tough enough to
float in space, tethered to a ship. Now try it when you're
(temporarily) blind.

That happened to
Chris Hadfield, one of the astronauts commenting in the “One
Strange Rock” series.

“There was
contamination in my suit,” Hadfield recalled. “It's going in one
eye. But without gravity, your tears don't drain out of your eye. So
the tear got bigger and bigger, until it ... contaminated both my
eyes. I was outside, blinded.”

The solution?
“Mission Control said, 'Open up the valve in your spacesuit and let
your oxygen hiss out to space, and maybe that will evapoate your
tears faster.'” It did.

Hadfield recalled
this in a calm way that seems very astronaut-like or very Canadian.
He's both, actually, the first Canadian to command the International
Space Shuttle. “We train ... in preparation for things to go
wrong,” he said.

But often, things go
right. Peggy Whitson said the space experience is like “I've lived
my whole life in a semi-dark room, and somebody turned on the

Jeff Hoffman echoed
that. “It was that moment in 'The Wizard of Oz,' when Dorothy opens
the door and black-and-white turned into color.”

Added Nicole Stott:
“It's colors like you've never seen before, that brightness.”

She became the first
person to paint in space, Whitson had the most days in space (665),
Hoffman and Mike Massimino – who later did six “Big Bang Theory”
episodes -- fixed the Hubble Space Telescope.

Now “One Strange
Rock” views facets of the planet, aided by host Will Smith, lush
music and the spectacular visuals of director Darren Aronofsky
(“Black Swan,” “Pi”).

Then there are the
astronauts; Aronofsky feels that they bring a unique perspective.
“When we went to the moon, we actually discovered the Earth for the
first time.”

-- “One Strange
Rock,” 10 p.m. ET Mondays, National Geographic Channel.

-- Each hour
includes the perspective of one astronaut; the opener (March 26,
rerunning at 11:01) has Chris Hadfield


Here's Superman before he was super ... and before he was born

A cable series about Superman's grandpa? Yes, I was skeptical; still, the "Krypton" opeer is impressive, both visually and with its sharp story and well-played characters. The series debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday (March 21) on Syfy; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For 80 years,
Superman has triumphed. Part-Krypton, part-Kansas and all-American,
he's stopped bank robbers, rescued passers-by and intermittently
saved the world.

But now it's time to
go further back. The new “Krypton” series goes back to before he
was super; in fact, it goes to well before he was born.

“It's an untold
story,” said David Goyer, the show's writer-producer. And “because
there's a time-travel element, we have a tremendous amount of free

Goyer has written
“Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman” and other movies with DC
Comics characters. He's done some origin stories ... but now he sort
of has a pre-origin story.

On Krypton, we're
told, Superman's great-great-grandfather is a heroic scientist. He's
killed; his family is banished to the lowest order and given the “S”
symbol that would later be viewed so highly. “It actually is this
symbol of shame,” said Geoff Johns, the creative chief of DC

That scientist's
grandson becomes, as “Krypton” producer Cameron Welsh puts it, “a
rankless street hustler.” Then he gets word from time-traveler Adam
Strange: He must protect the future of his not-yet-born grandson, who
will become another planet's greatest hero.

All of this

-- Spectacular sets,
at a Belfast studio. “It's like being on the set of 'A New Hope' or
'Empire (Strikes Back),'” said Cameron Cuffe, who stars. “It's of
that caliber.”

-- Visual effects,
as ships careen through that world. The pilot was shot in 2016, then
waited for whiz-bang touches. “The post-production period is almost
double that of your average show,” Goyer said.

-- Sharp writing. In
“Da Vinci's Demons,” particularly, Goyer showed that's possible
in a weekly series.

-- And the right
actors to say those lines. That's one reason this is being done in
Belfast, Goyer said.

“There's an
incredible history of acting talent over in the UK (United Kingdom).”
He was able to use many of the supporting actors and crew members
from “Da Vinci's Demons.”

For the lead role,
however, he chose a near-unknown. “I started out in London, in
theater and film .... I thought, 'I'm ever going to get this; there's
not a chance,'” Cuffe said.

Then he got the
role, joining the parade of stars – from George Reeves to
Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Dean Cain and Henry Cavill – to
play Superman and his kin.

Goyer even advised
Cuffe to be well-behaved in public, for fear of super scrutiny. Does
that mean he'll avoid drinking and nightlife? “I'm a British
actor,” Cuffe said. “It's very hard to get me out of a pub.”

-- “Krypton,” 10
p.m. Wednesdays, Syfy

-- Debuts March 21;
first season runs 10 weeks

-- Opener reruns
that night at 2:30 a.m., Thursday night at midnight, Sunday at 10:55

-- Opener also
reruns at 10 a.m. Saturday on Bravo and 11:05 p.m. Mondaty on USA

Quality overload: Two top shows debut simultaneously

Since life is never
easy for TV viewers, here's a new complication: Two excellent shows –
maybe the best new ones this season – debut simultaneously.

That's 10 p.m.
Tuesday (March 13). A week later, one moves to 9 p.m., the other
stays at 10. Here are the two short stories I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Auli'i Cravalho,
this is a huge leap – from Hawaiian sunshine to Pennsylvania grit.

Still, she's made a
bigger jump – from obscurity to stardom in Disney's animated

And now? At 17, she
has her first on-camera role, in NBC's passionate “Rise,”
stepping into a world that's far from her own.

She plays a teen
waitress, auditioning for the school musical. Lilette is “an
introvert, quite unlike me,” Cravalho said. She faces a bleak
economy and a critical mother.

That's far from
Cravalho's world, but there are some links. “She grows up in a
single-parent household, as I have,” Cravalho said. “She has big
dreams, but grows up in a small town.”

Many teens are like
that, with mega-dreams about sports or show business.

For Josh Radnor,
that began in a high school “Cabaret” in Columbus, Ohio. “I
had a guidance counselor who pulled me aside and said, 'You are not
allowed to stop acting.'”

Rosie Perez recalls
a field trip when she was about 12, to see “The Wiz” on Broadway.
“I remember ... this young, black girl talking about 'Home,' and it
resonated with me. It was the first time I cried in public and I
wasn't embarrassed. It changed me as a person.”

In “Rise,” they
play a theater director and his assistant, with Lilette as their

This is a small
town, Cravalho said, with bleak expectations. That's “something
(Lilette) doesn't want for herself – but something that she's used
to other people putting on her.”

It's nothing like
Cravalho's sunny childhood. “I've been singing for as long as I can

She was a big reader
(her family didn't have a TV) and occasional performer who was an
understudy in her school musical. Then came “Moana” and a chance
to rise to fame.

(The other story)

By Mike Hughes

In many places,
lawyers might face a blur of dull words and drab cases .

Then there's the
setting for ABC's “For the People” -- the federal court for the
Southern District of New York.

Its real-life cases
have ranged from the sinking of the Titanic to the deflating of
footballs, from treason and terrorism to the Watergate and Teapot
Dome scandals. Its defendants have included Bernie Madoff, Martha
Stewart, Bess Myerson, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.

And now we see it
through the eyes of young lawyers on both sides. “It's a very, very
personal show,” said Rege-Jean Page.

Three young actors
(including Page) play prosecutors; three play public defenders. They
are smart, but inexperienced, thrust into a big-stakes arena.

They “are doing
their best to run the machine right,” Page said. “I think seeing
people struggle to serve ... justice is hugely inspiring to me.”

And to others.
“Every episode, halfway through I'm thinking, 'Maybe I'll quit
acting and become a public defender,” Jasmin Savoy Brown said.

She plays Allison, a
public defender with a tangled personal life. As the show starts, she
shares her apartment with another defender (Sandra, played by Britt
Robertson) and a prosecutor (Seth, Ben Rappaport).

Seth is Jasmin's
lover, of course. That happens a lot in shows from Shonda Rhimes.

Other producers may
shy away from sex-in-the-workplace issues, but not Rhimes. “I think
it's very clear what's OK and what's not,” she said.

In her “Grey's
Anatomy” and “Scandal,” doctors and politicians are romantic
and lustful, but they approach their work diligently. So do the
“People” lawyers.

That reflects
reality, said Hope Davis, who plays a supervisor. She followed some
real-life public defenders, who are often outmanned and outspent.
“They're fierce and they're fighters .... They're so passionate
about it.”

-- “Rise,” NBC;
and “For the People,” ABC.

-- Both debut at 10
p.m. March 13; a week later, “Rise” moves to 9 p.m., “People”
stays at 10.

"Idol" is back -- Simon-free, good-hearted and still kind of fun

The first "American Idol" was a phenomenon -- sometimes nasty, always interesting. The new version -- starting Sunday and Monday (March 11 and 12) on ABC -- has lost its venom, but not its entertainment value. I found the opener -- click "TV column" above -- to be breezy and fun; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

“American Idol”
is back – sort of.

This new version
–talented singers, warm stories, pleasant judges – is a distant
cousin to the “Idol” that caused a sensation in the summer of
2002. That one was partly propelled by venom and failure.

And now? “We want
the humor,” said showrunner Trish Kinane. “But we don't want the

The original was
something Americans hadn't seen before – a caustic Englishman,
telling young singers just how awful they were.

“The tone of my
comments is part of the entertainment,” Simon Cowell wrote in “I
Don't Mean To Be Rude, But ...” (Broadway Books, 2003). “Without
it, 'American Idol' wouldn't be half as much fun, either for me or
the viewers.”

The show was
supposed to reflect reality, he wrote, “and trust me – the music
industry is not nice.”

Viewers approved. On
a network (Fox) that rarely pierced the top-20 in the annual Nielsen
ratings, “Idol” was No. 2 in its third and fourth seasons, No. 1
after that.

It drooped a bit
after Cowell left in 2010 and a lot after “The Voice” caught on.
Fox dropped it two years ago, but ABC has revived the show, keeping
its host (Ryan Seacrest) ... but not its original tone.

“There is only one
Simon Cowell,” Kinane said, “and he was 15 years ago.”

And the new judges?
“I'm blunt,” said Katy Perry, who calls Cowell her favorite
judge. “But I can't be mean, because I'm a woman.”

That last part was,
presumably, in jest. In the opener, it's clear that the others are
more lenient than she is. Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie override
Perry and send a singer to Hollywood, based far more on his back
story than on his current talent.

Strong stories fill
the opener. One singer was 11 when she was mocked as the worst
National Anthem singer since Roseanne; she's now talented. Others
survived tough childhoods in Philadelphia and in the Congo. We meet
lots of teen outsiders, from an affable farm kid to a guy who talks
like a cartoon character and sings like Sinatra.

“We need those
beautiful stories right now,” Perry said, “to help lift us up,
inspire us.”

Bryan – an
easygoing guy who grew up on a Georgia peanut farm – quickly gets
involved. “I'm in there on the emotional ride with these kids,”
he said.

Richie -- who's been
described by his adoptive daughter Nicole as “the happiest person I
know” -- is also into that emotional ride.

“These kids are
showing up at 15 years old,” he said. “At 15 years old, I can't
tell you what I was thinking, except it certainly wasn't standing on
a stage in front of millions of people, being critiqued”

-- “American
Idol,” 8-10 p.m. Sundays and Mondays, ABC, beginning March 11.

-- Tentative plans
have the Monday episodes continuing through April 23; then “Idol”
will be Sundays-only, until the finale May 20-21.