"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.


She lived like she was dying ... and found she wasn't

When you hear the plot for the new CW series, you might grimace: A young woman lives zestfully, because she has terminal cancer ... then learns she's not dying, after all.

Yes, that could have been clumsy and cheesy; surprisingly, it's not. "Life Sentence" (9 p.m. Wednesdays, starting March 7) skillfully mixes humor and pain, thanks to sharp writing and the luminous presence of Lucy Hale. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Back in 2004, a
country song offered a basic message: “Life Like You Are Dying.”

Now a TV series
echoes that. In “Life Sentence,” Stella (Lucy Hale) has terminal
cancer. With no long-range needs, she swoops through life zestfully.

“It was fun to get
to step in her shoes and take a chance and fall in love in Paris,”
Hale said.

Then comes the
detour: She's been cured; she's facing a life she never expected.

“It is easy to
live like you're dying when you are,” said Richard Keith, the
show's co-creator. “Then when you're not, to continue to live every
moment to its fullest (is) interesting.”

It's also something
for young people to think about. “Everyone (should) take a note
from Stella and do the things that scare you,” said Hale, 28.
“Travel the world, because nothing's guaranteed.”

But this is about
more than her. Everyone in the story is a cancer survivor, said
producer Oliver Goldstick. “The whole family has been through a
seven-year journey.”

While Stella was
gulping up life, the others had lives on hold. Money dwindled,
relationships crumbled. “All of these things were hidden from
Stella,” Hale said.

Emotions peak at the
end of the second episode, as Stella's mom (Gillian Vigman) rages.
It's a scene packed with pain ... and laughter.

Yes, laughter; “Life
Sentence” has a lot of it..

“My dad suffered
through cancer three times,” Vigman said. “During the bone marrow
transplant, I got him laughing so hard. It felt so good that when I
left, I started crying. They are so hand-in-hand, the laughing and
the crying.”

That's what Hale
found when she visited St. Jude hospital in her Memphis home town. “I
was just blown away by everyone, that they're making the best of an
awful situation.”

-- “Life
Sentence,” 9 p.m. Wednesdays, CW, debuting March 7


A deep thinker lived quietly in Fred Rogers' neighborhood

If you scroll down to the previous blog, you'll see a story about Fred Rogers, who's profiled in a dandy PBS special Tuesday (March 6). Friends describe Rogers' sense of play and fun; alongside that, however, was a philosopher and a skilled writer. We once got a sampling of that; here's an account that I sent to papers, recalling the pensive side of Rogers:

By Mike Hughes

This was not what we
expected from a man who talks to puppets, a man who sang while
putting on his sweater and sneakers.

We weren't expecting
him to be pensive and thought-provoking. Fred Rogers kept surprising

That was 20 years
ago, but it seems timely now for two reasons, one good (the late
Rogers is the subject of a documentary Tuesday) and one not (the
topic that day was school shootings).

It was Jan. 7, 1998,
six weeks shy of a landmark anniversary. “For 30 years, 'Mister
Rogers' Neighborhood' has personified a place where caring and
consideration for others instills good feelings in all of us,”
Kathy Quattrone, then PBS' programming chief, said in her

She had brought
Rogers to a Television Critics Association press conference. This was
friendly turf; a year earlier, he'd received the TCA's Career
Achievement Award.

Rogers could have
viewed this casually; instead, he brought a carefully crafted speech.

“Early last
month,” he began, “a small, 14-year-old boy in West Paducah,
Kentucky, said to his classmates, 'Something big is going to happen.'

“A week later,
that boy walked into school with earplugs in his ears and a gun in
his hand, and he shot and killed three people and (wounded five)
more. That was his 'something big.'

“When I hear that
story and others like it, I wonder how much our society has
encouraged children to idolize the big and the flashy and the loud.”

Rogers was saying
this in his usual manner, which was never big or loud. “He was a
very private person .... I don't think he ever screamed and yelled,”
his widow Joanne said 15 years later.

Here, he spoke of
quiet values. “The most holy people of every tradition have always
encouraged us to celebrate the good, the simple, the modest, the
truthful. Because that's what lasts forever.”

He spoke of Mother
Teresa and of one of his musician friends: “Yo-Yo (Ma) is the most
other-oriented genius I've ever known. His gorgeous music comes from
a place which is very deep within his being. There are times when ...
I'm convinced that he is in touch with the very heart of the

He spoke of TV
“programs which encourage people to believe that big is best, that
loud is necessary, and that violence and cruelty are the ways we
human beings must solve our problems.”

And he spoke of
raising kids who know they are loved, “not because they're big and
loud and noisy, but because they're one of a kind .... And being
able to say to their families and friends, enthusiastically and
without a trace of apology, 'Something little is going to happen.'”

-- “Fred Rogers:
It's You I Like,” 8 p.m. Tuesday (March 6) on most PBS stations


Fred Rogers: The quiet neighbor with an impish sense of humor

Here's a fun Fred Rogers story that I sent to papers ... or, actually, that I will send to papers, whenever the AOL mail becomes unbroken. It's about a dandy PBS special Tuesday, March 6

By Mike Hughes

Television has had
plenty of people with big ambitions and big voices. It also had Fred

“He did have a
quiet power,” said JoAnn Young, who produced and wrote a special
that PBS stations will air Tuesday, early in their pledge drives.

There were many
things that separated Rogers from other TV stars. “He was really
such an unusual combination of interests and skills,” said Ellen
Doherty, production head of the Fred Rogers Company, which produced
the special and the animated series “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.”

Rogers -- who died
of cancer in 2003, at 74 -- was an ordained minister, a pilot, a
puppeteer ... and didn't watch much TV. “He went into television
because he didn't like it,” David Newell said.

If Newell doesn't
seem familiar, his TV name might. He was Mr. McFeeley, the postman.
That name came from Rogers' maternal grandfather, Fred McFeeley, who
stirred his interest in music.

Rogers had a thing
for names – some whimsical (Donkey Hodie, King Friday XIII) and
some not.

As “Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood” began, Newell said, a producer handed him a tiger
puppet. “Fred said, 'I'll call it Daniel,' her name was Mrs.
Daniel. And he put it through the canvas hole and he said, 'It's 1492
and that's when Columbus discovered America.' That's the first thing
he said.'”

It was 50 years and
two weeks ago, on a public-TV station in Pittsburgh, near Rogers'
small home town. It was live at first, then was taped ... and almost

“If something went
wrong on the show, like he couldn't do a dance move or he couldn't
put up a tent, he would just let it stay in the program,” Young
said. “Because he felt that children should see that not everything
can be done the first time around. And I love that about him, that

It wasn't what
people might expect. Yes, Rogers' quiet TV image was a lot like his
at-home personality, his widow (Joanne Rogers) said when “Daniel
Tiger's Neighborhood” was launched in 2012. Still, there was that
flip side: “He was whimsical and he loved to be silly.”

This was someone who
saw great value in play, Young said. “The playfulness of his
personality is so integral to the show.”

Newell recalled how
much Rogers enjoyed the crew's humor, from practical jokes to a
sketch that was concocted by the floor cew, including a young
Pittsburgh guy named Michael Douglas.

“Fred came into
the office laughing and he said, 'The crew just did the funniest skit
for me.' And he said, 'You know, that boy is going to be a star.'”

He was right. The
kid – who uses the professional name Michael Keaton, because his
own name was already taken – became a movie star. He also hosts
the PBS special.

That special also
focuses on the serious side. Quietly, Rogers introduced children to
other worlds. He asked Itzhak Perlman about his crutches and sang
with a boy in a wheelchair. Amid a turbulent civil-rights time, he
heard a young black man sing in a Pittsburgh church; for the next 25
years, Francois Clemmons played the neighborhood policeman.

Clemmons also
frequently showed his classical tenor voice. Rogers savored all sorts
of music.

“He was
classically trained,” Newell said. “His major (Rollins College,
in 1951) was in composition. But he appreciated Johnny Costa, our
music director, who was a genius jazz pianist.”

The greats performed
on the show, from Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis to Perlman and
Yo-Yo Ma ... whose son played piano with him on the show twice, at
ages 6 and 16.

Those were the only
times he did duets wth his dad, Nicholas Ma said. “It was because
Fred asked. There was no way I could possibly say no.”

This was, after all,
someone whose peaceful, fictional neighborhood he had grown up in..

-- “Fred Rogers:
It's You I Like,” 8 p.m. Tuesday, many PBS stations (check local

-- Most stations air
“Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” at 9:30 and 10 a.m. weekdays; PBS
Kids airs it at 4 and 4:30 p.m. weekdays. “Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood” is available online


Here's a guide to Oscar night

If you scroll down one, you'll find a fun look at Jimmy Kimmel, the Academy Awards on Sunday (March 4) and the tricky matter of having movies that people have actually seen. Here's a sidebar that goes with it, offering lots of specifics:

Here's a round-up of
this year's Academy Awards:

When (all live,
three hours earlier PT):

-- 8 p.m. ET Sunday,

-- That's a
half-hour earlier than usual, but, don't expect an early bedtime.
ABC's estimate of an 11 p.m. finish is optimistic.

Before and afterward

-- “Countdown to
Red Carpet,” 1-5 p.m. ET, E.

-- Red-carpet
coverage, 5-7 p.m., E; and 6:30-8 p.m., ABC.

-- “After party,”
11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., E.

Who's there

-- Host: Jimmy

-- Music: Performing
the nominated songs are: Mary J. Blige, “Mighty River” (from
“Mudbound”); Common and Andra Day, “Stand Up For Something”
(“Marshall”); Keala Settle, “This is Me” (“The Greatest
Showman”); Sifjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love” (“Call Me By
Your Name”); Gael Garcia Bernal, Natalia Lafourcade and Miguel,
“Remember Me” (“Coco”).

-- Presenters: They
range from Zendaya, 21, to Rita Moreno, 86, and Eva Marie Saint, 93.
The list is strong on diversity, but weak on people who have brought
comedy to past years. Hope for something from Dave Chapelle, Tiffany
Haddish, Kumail Nanjiani or Lin-Manuel Miranda. Others include the
stars of superhero movies (Gal Gadot, Mark Hamill, Tom Holland,
Chadwick Boseman), outspoken people (Jane Fonda, Ashley Judd, Jodie
Foster) and more, including Jennifer Garner, Viola Davis, Armie
Hammer, Emma Stone, Emily Blunt, Margot Robbie, Greta Gerwig, Wes
Studi, Gina Rodriquez, Helen Mirren Daniela Vega, Kelly Marie Tran
and many more.

Some TV preparation

-- Turner Classic
Movies continues to have best-picture winners at 8 p.m. ET nightly --
“An American in Paris” (1951) Thursday, “Annie Hall” (1977)
Friday and “Gandhi” (1982) Saturday.

-- The Independent
Spirit Awards are 5-7:30 p.m. Saturday on IFC, rerunning at 10 p.m.,
then at 6:30 and 11 a.m. Sunday, with Nick Kroll and John Mulaney
returning as hosts. It honors modest-budget films ... and this year
has much in common with the Oscars. Its best-picture nominees are
“Get Out,” “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name,” plus
“The Florida Project” and “The Rider.” Surprisingly, “Three
Billboards” and “I, Tonya,” nominated in acting categories, are
omitted for best-picture; “The Big Sick” is nominated only for
best first script.

The key categories

-- Best picture:
“Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “The Post,” “Lady Bird,”
“Darkest Hour,” “The Shape of Water.” “Phantom Thread,”
“Call Me By Your Name,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,

-- Best animated
feature: “Coco,” “Ferdinand,” “The Boss Baby,” “The
Breadwinner,” “Loving Vincent.”

-- Actress: Sally
Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”; Frances McDormand,” Three
Billboards,” Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”; Saoirse Ronan, “Lady
Bird”; Meryl Streep, “The Post.”

-- Actor: Timothee
Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”; Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom
Thread”; Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”; Gary Oldman, “Darkest
Hour”; Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

-- Supporting
actress: Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”; Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”;
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”; Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”;
Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water.”

-- Supporting actor:
Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”; Woody Harrelson and Sam
Rockwell, “Three Billboards”; Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of
Water”; Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World.”

-- Director:
Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”; Jordan Peele, “Get Out”; Greta
Gerwig, “Lady Bird”; Paul Thomas Anderson, “Phantom Thread”;
Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water.”

-- Original script:
“The Big Sick,” “Lady Bird,” “The Shape of Water,” “Get
Out,” “Three Billboards.”

-- Adapted script:
“Call Me By Your Name,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Molly's
Game,” “Logan,” “Mudbound.”