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..

 

 

Suddenly, broadcast TV discovers transgender actors


"Doubt" -- which debuts Wednesday (Feb. 15) -- is an ambitious series that tries to do everything and botches some of it. One thing it does right, however, is having an interesting cast, led by Katherine Heigl, Elliott Gould and Laverne Cox ... who happens to be one of two transgender actresses with key roles in shows this Wednesday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

TV trends seem to
know only two speeds – stagnant and fast-forward.

Now that's true of
transgender actresses. Once invisible on broadcast TV, they suddenly
show up back-to-back Wednesday (Feb. 15) on two networks; they are:

-- Amiyah Scott. On
“Star” (9 p.m., Fox), she's Cotton Brown, whose mother (Queen
Latifah) disapproves of her ongoing transition to female. Tonight,
their pastor may step in.

-- Laverne Cox. On
“Doubt” (debuting at 10 p.m., CBS), she's Cameron Wirth, a
lawyer for a top-tier defense firm in New York. Tonight, she pushes
for a defendant to get an insanity verdict.

Last summer, CBS
programming chief Glenn Geller said Cox would be “the first
transgender actress ever to play a transgender series-regular
character” on a broadcast network. “I mean, that is huge.”

Except she's sort of
the second one. “Star” reached the air two months before “Doubt”;
Scott's role was tiny at first, but becomes more important this week.

Both actresses grew
up in the South – Scott in New Orleans, Cox in Mobile, Ala. --
about 15 years apart. Both had early moments in (or almost in)
reality shows.

Cox, 44, was a
contestant in the 2008 “I Want to Work for Diddy,” then was asked
about doing her own show. The result was “TRANSform Me,” with
three trans women providing makeovers. It had an eight-episode season
on VH1, hardly enough to provide financial comfort.

“In February of
2012, I was standing in a housing court in New York City, with an
eviction notice in my hand, trying to avoid eviction from my
apartment,” Cox said. The next year, she would be co-starring in
“Orange is the New Black” and receiving an Emmy nomination.

Then came “Doubt,”
from the husband-wife team of Tony Phelan and Joan Rater. “They
worked with Shonda Rhimes,” Cox said, “so they understand
diversity.”

They wrote for
Rhimes' “Grey's Anatomy” for a decade. They also have a
transgender son and, Phelan said, are passionate about Cox's
character. “She's a lawyer, brilliant, who happens to be trans.”

Adds Rater: “She
has the most sweeping love story of the season.”

And Scott? She's
been a model and is in her first TV job ... after a previous one
crumbled. She was hired for “The Real Housewifes of Atlanta,” but
(versions differ) quit or was fired. Instead, her TV debut is in a
small (usually) role in “Star,” a show that reflects its
producer.

“I'm a 57-year-old
black man who came to Hollywood with $7 in his pocket,” Lee Butler
said. Lately, he's created the hit “Empire” and now “Star,”
with its thorough diversity -- “putting a white girl (with her)
sister who is half black, with ... a very rich black girl, with a
transgender who is beautiful.”

That's Scott, who
began the change about a dozen years ago, at 17, facing some
resistance.

“I was (my
mother's) only child,” she said. “My father has daughters, (but)
I was his only son .... It was something difficult (for him) to deal
with.”

But he did. “Now
he calls me Princess .... Things can change.”

-- “Star,” 9
p.m., Fox. Cotton meets with the pastor, hoping to mend the rift with
her mother

-- “Doubt”
debut, 10 p.m., CBS. Laverne Cox co-stars as a defense lawyer

-- Both this
Wednesday (Feb. 15)

 

Their lives merged (briefly) during the Texas-tower sniper ordeal


To the rest of the world, this Tuesday (Feb. 14) is Valentine's Day; to PBS, it's a day for truly compelling documentaries about tragedies. At 9 p.m. is a superb "American Experience" on the Ruby Ridge stand-off; at 10 is an even better "Independent Lens" on the Texas tower sniper. Here's the story I sent to papers, about three of the key people from that Texas day.

 

By Mike Hughes

In the searing
August heat of Austin, Texas, these strangers shared an ordeal. Then
their lives went in opposite directions.

The tragedy –
described in a compelling PBS film Tuesday – was a half-century
ago, when a sniper began shooting from the tower at the University of
Texas. The people included:

-- Claire Wilson
James, then a pregnant teen-ager who was one of the first people hit.
Lying on the concrete, she heard someone say she couldn't be saved.
“I thought, 'Maybe that's it for me.'”

-- John “Artly”
Fox, who carried her to safety. “It was the most horrifying moment
of my life,” he said.

-- Ray Martinez, who
raced past her, something he's often thought about. “I didn't stop
to help her,” he said, “because I had a bigger mission.” At the
top of the tower, he and another cop killed the sniper.

That ended an ordeal
that left 14 people dead – 15 counting James' unborn son, 17
counting the wife and mother the sniper had killed the night before –
and 31 wounded. And then ... well, life went on.

“It happened on a
Monday,” Fox said. “The University of Texas was closed on a
Tuesday, to clean away the blood and classes started on Wednesday
.... It was just, 'Don't think about it; go on with life.'”

So they did ... in
very different ways.

Martinez, 80, kept
his life on track. He became a narcotics agent, a Texas Ranger, a
private eye and a justice of the peace. “I learned to really
appreciate life,” he said, “because I had survived.”

Fox, 68, stayed in
Austin, becoming a key part of its fun spirit. One friend called him
“a happy clown,” a guy who linked with an offbeat rock band,
doing everything from mime to puppetry. “If I've made somebody
smile, to me it's a good day,” Fox said. “I've seen the dark
side; I'm drawn to the light.”

James, also 68, did
try to return to college life after her three-month hospital stay.
“We just went on,” she said, “and never a word.”

She bumped into
James Love, one of the two men who carried her to safety, but he
seemed disinterested. The other rescuer (Love's friend, Fox) remained
a mystery to her. “I actually had thought he was an angel for a
long time,” she said, “because I couldn't find him anywhere.”

Soon, she left
school and began a cross-country existence. “I like my life,”
James said. “I've been many places. I get to teach; I know God
now.”

That last part may
have surprised friends who knew her as a free-thinking, skinnydipping
teen.

Growing up in a
liberal Dallas family that fought for civil rights, she had worked
with Students for a Democratic Society and had spent the previous
summer in Mississippi, registering black voters.

After the shooting,
her life gained fresh focus with the Seventh Day Adventists. She
taught at their schools, before and after graduating as an education
major at 35. Her boyfriend had been killed by the sniper; she married
and divorced twice and adopted a 4-year-old Ethiopian refugee.

James was busy ...
and, in a way, lonely. She admits to feeling envious of people after
the Columbine shooting, “because I felt that those people had more
of a community and they could talk to each other.”

During that tower
ordeal, she did have one person to talk to. Rita Starpattern –
later, an artist, activist and administrator -- threw herself on the
ground and kept her talking, to keep her alive. Others, hiding behind
cover, didn't budge. “We've gotta help the ones there's still hope
for,” she heard someone say.

Recalling that
moment now, James said she accepted the notion that her life was
ending. “I believe in the resurrection of the just.”

Fox and others were
hiding behind cover. As the temperature neared 100 degrees, he says,
he “suffered a mild case of heat stroke .... That's when I thought,
'What's it like out there for her?'” He grabbed Love and dashed to
the rescue.

It was a daring
move, but workable. The sniper “was shooting out of all four sides
of the tower,” Fox said. “So we had a three-to-one chance.”

They carried James
to safety; when the sniper was killed, Fox simply walked away.
“There's an inexplicable guilt inside me,” he said, “for not
doing more. We were all broken in some ways.”

-- “Tower,”
10-11:30 p.m. Tuesday, PBS; under the “Independent Lens” banner

-- Previously, it
won awards at six festivals and from four critics' groups.
Nationally, the Critics Choice Awards named it “most innovative
documentary.”

-- Director Keith
Maitland combined brief news footage with a “rotoscope” technique
that transforms actors (saying words the real people did in
interviews) into animation; he deliberately made no specific mention
of the sniper, Charles Whitman.

Grammy time: Here are the basics

Keywords

This is part of the two-piece package I sent to papers, previewing the Grammy awards. Earlier (see previous blog), I sent a story about James Corden, the host; now here's a summary of the night:

By Mike Hughes

Here's a quick
glance at the Grammy Awards.

-- When: 8-11:30
p.m. ET Sunday, CBS. (In the Pacific zone, it airs live at 5 p.m.,
then reruns at 8:30.)

-- Red-carpet: 6-8
p.m. ET, E; also,7:30-8 p.m., CBS.

-- More previews:
4-6 p.m. ET, E; 6 and 7 p.m., ET and PT, Fuse.

-- Afterward: 11:30
p.m., ET and PT, E.

-- Top nominees:
Beyonce, 9 nominations; Kanye West, Drake and Rihanna, 8 each.

-- Album of the year
nominees: Adele, Beyonce, Drake, Justin Bieber, Sturgill Simpson.

-- Record (single)
of the year: “Hello,” Adele; “Formation,” Beyonce; “7
Years,” Lukas Graham; “Work,” Rihanna, with Drake; “Stressed
Out,” Twenty One Pilots.

-- Song of the Year
(songwriters' award): “Hello,” “7 Years,” “Formation,”
“Love Yourself,” “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.”

-- Best New Artist:
Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Anderson Paak, The Chainsmokers,
Chance the Rapper.

-- Special tributes:
Prince; George Michael; 40th anniversary of “Saturday
Night Fever,” with BeeGees music sung by Demi Lovato, Andra Day,
Tori Kelly and Little Big Town.

-- Other
combinations: Maren Morris with Alicia Keys, The Weeknd with Daft
Punk, John Legend with Cynthia Ervo, Anderson Paak with A Tribe
Called Quest, William Bell with Gary Clark Jr.

-- Other performers:
Adele, Carie Underwood, Keith Urban, Bruno Mars, Metallica, Dave
Grohl, Lukas Graham, Kelsea Ballerini.

 

The universe makes sense: A music-lover hosts the Grammys


By Mike Hughes

For many latenight
hosts, music seemed like an afterthought.

No one expected
Johnny Carson to sing or Jack Paar to wail on the guitar. Many shows,
including Jay Leno's and David Letterman's, had a flat rule – no
songs until the final segment.

So this mini-trend
is a pleasant surprise: CBS' James Corden and NBC's Jimmy Fallon
clearly love music -- and now Corden has taken it further. He
co-starred in a movie musical (“Into the Woods”) ... hosted and
sang at the Tony Awards ... and now will do the same at the Grammys.

“Music, for me,
has always been something that surrounded me in various moments –
whether good or bad, ups or downs,” Corden said. “It's made me
feel like I'm not on my own.”

Yes, he started as a
chubby kid from small-town England, ready to do comedy. But the music
was always in the background, he said. “My father was a musician in
the Air Force. His father was a musician and HIS father was a
musician.”

Back in 2010, Corden
was featured on “Shout,” which became the unofficial anthem of
England's World Cup team and reached No. 1 in England. In 2014, he
co-starred in the movie musical “Into the Woods.” And in between
those was a British charity special; Corden did a bit with George
Michael, singing in the confines of a moving car.

That became “Carpool
Karaoke,” now the most popular bit on Corden's latenight show.
“We've got a huge advantage in this day and age” via YouTube,
producer Ben Winston said. “The next morning you can see if six,
seven, eight million people are watching those bits.”

“Carpool” worked
instantly – and is being turned into a separate series on the
Apple service. On his show, it has let Corden sing alongside Adele,
Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Britney
Spears and more. That should put him at ease at the Grammys.

A talkshow host
who's a musician? In the early days, that was common. Merv Griffin
and Mike Douglas has been band singers; Steve Allen claimed to have
written 8,500 songs, including one (“This Could Be the Start of
Something”) that became a classic.

Much later, Alan
Thicke had a short-lived latenight show. He'd had some success in
music; his son Robin would have much more.

But often, music was
slid to the talk-show background – until Fallon and Corden came
along.

Music lovers

-- Jimmy Fallon,
11:35 p.m. weekdays, NBC

-- James Corden,
12:37 p.m. weekdays, CBS

-- Corden hosts the
Grammys, 8-11:30 p.m. ET Sunday (Feb. 12), CBS. On the West Coast, it
starts at 5 p.m. PT and reruns at 8:30