Vesace story: An epic tragedy reaches TV

To me -- and to many people -- "Versace" was just a name on upscale fashions. Now we'll know much more; a beautifully crafted mini-series starts Jan. 17 and continues for eight Wednesdays; here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- When “The People
vs. O.J. Simpson” arrived, it caused a stir.

Here was a
confluence of quality – 22 Emmy nominations, with nine wins – and
a familiar subject.

Two years later,
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” has the same producers,
network (FX) and umbrella title (“American Crime Story”). The
quality is there; the familiarity is not.

Versace? Many people
know he was a prominent designer whose brand persists, 20 years after
he was killed in Miami Beach. There is much more, people say, in his:

-- Work. “He
combined sexiness and glamour and opulence, like no one has ever done
before,” said Edgar Ramirez, who portrays him. “He could see the
sexiness of the '70s and then all the opulence of the '80s and ... in
the '90s he combined it and everybody went crazy.”

-- Social views.
This was the first major designer to acknowledge he was gay, said
producer Ryan Murphy said. That was when his company “was about to
go public, and he was terrified of anything coming out negative about
his personal life .... It was a huge thing to announce that he was

-- Relationships.
This was a family guy, Murphy said. “His relationship with (his
sister) Donatella is particularly moving. And I think his
relationship with Antonio was very moving.”

Antonio D'Amico was
Versace's lover for 15 years. “Gianni was surrounded by 'yes'
people,” said Ricky Martin, who portrays him. But “Antonio would
say, 'I'm sorry, but you're wrong.' (He) would push him to live to
the fullest.”

Yes, that's the
Ricky Martin who's a music superstar. Another singer – Darren
Criss, who co-starred in Murphy's “Glee” -- plays Andrew Cunanan,
who shot Versace.

“Andrew was so
many different personalities to so many different people,” Criss
said. “We see him at his best, we see him at his worst. We see him
at his most charming; see see him at his most hurt. ”

Cunanan had grown up
near San Diego, with a genius-plus IQ and a reputation for lies.

“A lot of people
close to him absolutely knew he was lying, that he was an inveterate
liar,” said Maureen Orth, a reporter whose book (“Vulgar Favors”)
was the basis for the mini-series. “But they didn't care, because
he was very witty about it; he was able to charm people.”

Orth was writing
about him in Vanity Fair, before he shot Versace. He was already
accused of killing four people, starting with friends and lovers.

For a potential
high-achiever, life had gone wrong. When Cunanan was 19, his dad was
accused of embezzling and fled. Later, his mom fought with him after
learning he was gay.

Cunanan was also
making no impact on the world, something he wasn't used to. “In his
high school yearbook, he was named 'most likely to be remembered,'”
Orth said.

Now the killings
began and he was on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list. Still, Cunanan
“was able to make his way across he country and pick off these
victims – many of who were gay – because of the homophobia of the
time .... Police organizations refused in Miami to put up 'wanted'
posters, even though they knew (Cunanan) was probably headed that

Miami Beach was
Versace's new world. He had grown up in Southern Italy and didn't
move to the Milan fashion center until he was 26. He was 45 when he
moved to Miami, turning the Amsterdam Palace apartment house into his
spectacular estate. He “lived outrageously and daringly” in his
leisure time, Murphy said, but not in his work.

“He was rather a
quiet person (who was) extroverted but shy at the same time,”
Ramirez said. “He would got to bed rather early and had more the ..
life of a craftsman.” It was a busy life, which was ended suddenly
when he was 50.

-- “The
Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story – The Man Who
Would Be Vogue”

-- 10 p.m.
Wednesdays, FX; the Jan. 17 debut reruns at 11:14 p.m. and 12:26 and
1:39 a.m.


Black Lighting arrives as a much-needed superhero

Here's another interesting story I sent ti papers from the TV Critics Association sessions.

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- In
the old days, comic-book heroes had simple TV lives.

They were quite
super, kind of spider-y and bat-like and hulky. They beat up bad

And now? We're in an
era when even Archie Andrews has depth. This is clearly the time for
“Black Lightning” and black hero, Jefferson Pierce.

“Jefferson is
already a community-based superhero,” said producer Salim Akil.
“He's already a (school) principal; he's already a father. It gave
me the opportunity to talk about things that are personal to me.”

Back in 1977, the
character debuted in a comic-book world that was mostly white. “I
did love superheroes,” recalled Cress Williams, who plays him now.
“Unfortunately, I was 'po,' so I didn't buy a lot of comics,
because that's a lot of money. So I relied on television.”

There, Black
Lighting appeared occasionally, voiced by Bumber Robinson, Blair
Underwood, Khary Payton and LeVar Burton. Now it's his time. “I
think it's beautiful that we have 'Luke Cage,' that we have us and we
have 'Black Panther,'” Williams said.

The other two are
Marvel Comics characters; this year, “Cage” has its second
Netflix season and “Panther” reaches movie theaters. Meanwhile,
“Black Lightning” is from DC Comics, which fills half the CW
network schedule; it's from the married duo of Salim and Mary Brock

He started in drama
(“Soul Food”), she started in comedy (“Moesha,”
“Girlfriends”), but they've combined for both the comedy “The
Game” and the drama “Being Mary Jane.”

A key was finding
the right star. Williams, 47, has ranged from “Nash Bridges” to
“Hart of Dixie,” in a long career, “When you walk down the
halls of Warner Brothers, there are pictures of their shows,” Akil
said. “Evey time I would (see) Cress, he would be on a poster with
all these white people.”

Now he's the star,
with two more heroes coming. The first two episodes – with Pierce
reluctantly returning to crimefighting – hint at the powers his
daughters don't realize they have.

One (played by
Disney Channel star China Anne McClain) is still a teen looking for
fun. The other is an intense teacher and activist; she'll become
Thunder, TV's first black lesbian superhero.

Tougher to cast was
the albino villain who emerges in the second episode.“I was
surprised to see how similar my life is to Tobias Whale ... being a
black man with albinism,” Marvin Jones III said.

Jones grew up in
South Central Los Angeles and turned to rap when he was 18. “It
allowed me to really be myself, with a platform,” he said.

In 2003, the group
SAS (Strong Arm Steady) emerged, gradually sifting to three people –
Krondon (Jones' stage name), Mitchy Slick and Phil Da Agony. It's
done well, but Jones tried to get into acting. He landed exactly one
role – a guest shot on “Harry's Law,” six-plus years ago.

Then came a role
that may be his exact opposite. Tobias is fiercely evil; in person,
Jones seems gentle and friendly. “Everyone has a villain inside,”
he said. “It allows me to exorcise that.”

Besides, he's used
to contrasting images, as an albino who's proud of his African
heritage. “It goes back to what Dr. (Martin Luther) King said about
not being judged by the color of your skin.”

-- “Black
Lightning,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, CW; the opener airs Jan. 16, then
reruns at 8 p.m. Jan. 19

This version of Chicago is tough and lethal ... with a promise of joy ahead

The opening hour of cable's "The Chi" was a tough ride, but underneith the tragedy were great characters ... and a promise of better things ahea. You can still catch the opener (which reruns almost every night this week) and stop reading when you get to the spoiler alert. Or read the whole thing and start with the second episode, at 10 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 14) on Showtime. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The opening hour of Showtime's “The Chi” was a rough ride for

Two promising teens
were killed ... one for mysterious reasons, the other mostly by
accident. Now there's more talk of revenge and retribution.

But the people
involved have a quick promise: There's also a lot of joy – in the
fictional “Chi” and in the real-life Chicago.

“I look at my
youth as a joyful time,” said Common, the rapper-actor who's one of
the producers. “Chicago is a place where ... there may be some
violence, but there's so much spirituality. It's barbecues, block
clubs, skating ... just spending time with friends.”

The good parts
prevail, said Lena Waithe, who created the show. “Black people are
masters at finding joy in the midst of pain and sorrow. Because we
have seen our fair share of (sorrow) in this country. So I think we
know how to find a smile.”

She grew up copying
the people around her in some ways -- “I was cursing like a sailor
at 8 and 9, because ... I grew up in a house with a lot of women who
cursed” -- and not in others. Last year, she co-wrote a “Master
of None” episode, based on her own coming-out experience with her
mother; that script made her the first black woman to win an Emmy for

Now, at 33, she's
finding new black actors. There's Tiffany Boone, who grew up in
foster homes in Baltimore, where her dad was killed when she was 4 or
5 ... Alex Hibbert, who's from Miami, where he landed a role in the
Oscar-winning “Moonlight” ... and Jason Mitchell, who is busy.
Waite calls him “a black Tom Hanks”; Common adds: “It's like
having LeBron James in his prime.”

Mitchell plays
Brandon, a guy trying to beat the odds. He's a cook, with dreams of
opening a restaurant with his girlfriend (Boone); he's focuses on
beating the odds ... an impulse Mitchell understands.

“Like Brandon, I
had the inner hope,” Mitchell said. “I could look around me and
see a bunch of beautiful people in a bad situation.”

That was in New
Orleans, where, he says, he went to one of the “four worst schools
in the nation.”

Then his life
transformed. “When I was 22, my best friend was killed,” Mitchell
said. “After that, I was just like, 'Well, maybe making new friends
might be the way to go ....

“I went to this
random acting workshop that was only, like, eight weeks and was just
passing through New Orleans, and I just loved it.”

An agent visited,
Mitchell said, and told the class: “'This young man's life is about
to change.' I was sitting there, like, 'Me? I can't believe this!'”

It quickly became
true. Mitchell drew praise and nominations as Eazy-E in “Straight
Outta Compton” and as a World War II veteran in “Mudbound”; at
30, he's at the core of “The Chi.”

those who still plan to see the “Chi” opener should skip the

In the opener,
Brandon's younger brother happened to see and loot the body of a
slain teen. He was arrested and released ... but then was
accidentally shot by the father of the first victim.

Now two people are
dead and Brandon is looking for revenge. There are dark possibilities
ahead ... but Waithe and Common promise they're headed for something
more joyful.

-- “The Chi,” 10
p.m. Sundays, Showtime.

-- Opener (Jan, 7)
reruns often, including 10 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 9); 9 and 11:32 p.m.
Wednesday; 10:30 p.m. and midnight Thursday; 7:15 p.m. Friday; and 8
and 11 p.m. Saturday.


Victoria is young again, dealing with babies, horses and Aghanistan

Amd all the new, fancy touches on TV, there are stil the dependable standbys. At the top of the list is PBS' lush "Masterpiece," with the second "Victoria" season startoing Sunday, Jan. 14; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Queen Victoria keeps
returning to entertain us.

The old Victoria is
in theaters (in Judi Dench's “Victoria & Abdul”), with more
movies coming; and the young one is back on PBS.

“One of the most
interesting parts of her reign is the early years,” said Daisy
Goodwin, producer-writer of the “Victoria” series on

The first sesson saw
her as an ill-prepared teen-ager, thrust onto the throne, This second
season catches her at 21. She's “the most powerful woman in the
world,” Goodwin said. “She's got this really tempestuous
marriage. They're like the Taylor and Burton of the 19th

And yes, Goodwin
said, they had sex often. “She was a woman desperately in need of

Well, Victoria did
try one contraceptive method from that era: “You jump up and down
10 times,” said Jenna Coleman, who plays her.

That didn't help. As
this season begins, she has a baby and is about to learn a second is
on the way. There will be nine in all.

During and after
each pregnancy, advisors tried to take over many of her duties. So
did her husband, Prince Albert. “There's a very strident,
inquisitive nature to him that (suits) the early onset of the
Industrial Revolution,” said Tom Hughes, who plays him.

Usually, she
retained the power, Coleman said. “As Albert begins to try to take
any form of Victoria's role initially, she completely flips .... The
clash of wills is really interesting and shifting.”

People tried to
shield her from tough issues, Goodwin said. “You will see her
dealing with some pretty seismic political events.”

One of them – in
the season's first minutes – would later be repeated by Russians
and then Americans: Tangled warfare in Afghanistan.

“They thought,
'Yeah, we'll just go knock out those Afghan rebels. We'll take
control of Afghanistan and then we won't be in any danger of being
invaded by Russia,'” Goodwin said.

The result? “They
make this terrifying and disastrous retreat through the Khyber Pass
and basically, they all get slaughtered.”

And that crisis is
plunked onto the lap of a new mom, 21, with no political education.
Still, there's also lots of room for fun here ... including

Coleman had four
weeks to learn to ride. She had to do it sidesaddle, on a show pony
who does tricks, including bowing. “He's an absolute diva (who
sometimes) decides to take me off for a walk and actually
Spanish-walks, which makes me look rather skilled. But I'm afraid I'm
ot the leader.”

Hughes also was a
novice. “I couldn't ride at all,” he said. “And I had a bit of
a rude awakening to horses. But it's good now. I think we're finding
our groove. I've bonded.”

He was more enamored
with Albert's creative nature. The prince composed music and had
ideas about military hats and more. He even created a device to lock
the bedroom door from their bed.

There was more,
Goodwin said. “He installed indoor plumbing in the palace .... But
he didn't just do it upstairs. He was the first person to put a
toilet in for the servants in Buckingham Palace.”

And Coleman points
to another invention: “He had an armored parasol.”

Yes, the guy created
a sort of bullet-proof umbrella ... but didn't create contraceptives.
It would be a complicated reign for Queen Victoria.

Victoria,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS, beginning Jan. 14.

Wanna be a pop star? The odds are steep, but Trainor prevailed

I'm at the Television Critics Association sessions now, with fascinating stories everywhere. The previous one was about Dylan McDermott and the goofy "LA to Vegas"; this one is about Meghan Trainor and the dead-serious "The Four." Many more are coming; meanwhile, here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- As “The Four”
booms through its high-stress, high-decibel run, two things become

1) There are a lot
of talented people out there; and 2) Most will never get a shot at

“You could be the
best performer/artist in the world, but ... it's really hard to
break,” said David Friedman, one of the show's producers.

Still, people keep
trying. “There's always a dream,” said Sean “Diddy” Combs,
one of the judges.

And occasionally,
dreams come true. That's one reason why Meghan Trainor is there.

At 23, she's a
certified star, with a Grammy, four top-10 singles and a place in
music history. She's on the panel, alongside record
producer/executives Combs, DJ Khaled and Charlie Walk. Less than four
years ago, however, her “All About That Bass” was being rejected
by music masters.

“I had it for nine
months and played it for many (record people),” Trainor said. “They
told me it was a cute little song about your body and no one wanted

There were good
reasons to give up; she didn't. “One person heard it and turned it
into a global huge song,” Trainor said. “And then my life changed

That was L.A. Reid,
then head of Epic. The song would be No. 1 for eight weeks, topping
Epic's longest previous – seven weeks by Michael Jackson's “Billie
Jean.” And yes, that was a huge jump.

Trainor had grown up
in Nantucket, where her parents were jewelers ... but her dad was
also the organist at a Methodist church.

“I would sit next
to him and watch him perform for church every Sunday,” she said.
“He wasn't that good of a singer, but he just had a great time. And
I saw how the audience loved it.”

She wanted the same
thing. “I thought every pop star was writing their songs .... So I
was like, 'If I'm going to be a pop star, I have to write.'” They
were “terrible songs, but I was writing.”

By 12, she was
singing with a family band. Between 15 and 17, she cut three
independent albums.

Still, she saw no
future as a performer. “What kept me going was my songwriting,”
she said. “Because I didn't believe that I was an artist. I didn't
believe that I looked the part.”

And then ... well,
not looking the part became key. “Bass” included such lines as:
“Yeah it's pretty clear, I ain't no size two/But I can shake it,
shake it like I'm supposed to do.”

After several
rejections, she took it to Epic. “I didn't know how to sing to
tracks, so all I had was my ukulele (which) I learned the night
before .... I was terrible, like three chords.”

The result? “They
kind of looked at me and said, 'You're the only person that could do
this, because it's so real coming from you.'”

Yes, Trainor is
bigger than a size-two ... but not really bigger than average.
(Various accounts put her at 5-foot-4, 150 pounds and size-12;
government reports put the average American woman at 5-4, 168 and 14
or 16.) But compared to the Britney/Whitney pop world she grew up in,
she's a plus-size superstar.

Now she's on a panel
with industry giants. Walk is at Republic Records; “I'm the
president of the No. 1 label in the United States,” he said. Khaled
heads Def Jam South, plus other duties. “I feel I'm also one of the
greatest producers that ever did it,” he said.

And Combs has been a
performer (as Puff Daddy) and label owner, propelling the hip hop
revolution. If all four approve, a contestant can choose one of four
singers to challenge. “It's like 'Game of Thrones,'” Combs said.
“You get to challenge, if you want to chop somebody's head off to
get a seat.”

A breakthrough can
be like that sometimes, bold and brash and sort of head-chopping. Or
it can be Meaghan Trainor, strumming three chords on a ukelele.

-- “The Four,”
8-10 p.m. Thursdays, Fox; began Jan. 4 and continues for six weeks