At last: "This Is Us" gives Beth problems, a story and a mom

By Mike Hughes

For two seasons of “This Is Us,” troubles seem to ricochet
everywhere (almost).

The three siblings
had plenty of them. So did their parents ...and Randall's biologic
dad ... and Kate's husband ... and most of the people along the way,
leading to an obvious question: What about Beth?

“I was constantly
hearing: 'When are we going to get a backstory episode about Beth?'”
said Dan Fogelman, the show's creator.

Now we get one
Tuesday (Feb. 19), after a careful set-up. Beth finally has her own
set of problems.

At first, she was
the near-perfect one, juggling a big career while forever being there
for her husband Randall and their kids. Now she's lost her job,
argued with Randall, felt adrift ... and become more interesting.

“With me (Beth)
going through my own struggles, (we're) uncovering the character and
discovering more about her,” said Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays

That makes it an
ideal time to learn more about her.

“A lot of people
were yearning for a Beth backstory, just because everybody really
loved the character,” said Eboni Freeman, who wrote Tuesday's
script. She came up with the idea by “pulling from Susan's dance
background and my dance background.”

After her mother has
a fall, Beth drives to see her, joined by her cousin Zoe. We soon
learn about Beth's early obsession wit ballet ... and about the
intense mother who had her doubts about it. The key step involved
casting Phylicia Rashad, “Cosby Show” fame.

That was imposing
for Watson, said Melanie Liburd, who plays Zoe. “She was like, 'Oh
my God, I grew up watching you on TV! You'rre amazing!'”

Then they locked
into scenes that ranged from rage and regret to warmth and nostalgia;
Beth finally had her backstory.

-- “This Is Us,”
9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC

-- The key Beth
episode is Feb. 19

TV discovers that some convicts might be innocent (really)

"Presumed Innocent" is a pretty good show with a very good message: Some of the people in prison simply aren't guilty. That idea is also part of an upcoming HBO documentary series; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- On
TV, the prosecution side clearly has a winning streak.

That's been true in
fictional shows and, especially, in the surge of true-crime tales.

“True-crime has
focused on the whole law-and-order watch,” said Susan Simpson, a
defense lawyer. “The prosecutors – the good guys – solve the
crime and win the day.”

But what about the
flip side – people who are exonerated after years (or decades) in
prison? “There are people who have lost 15-20-30 years of their
lives,” writer-producer Danny Strong said.

Now he's part of a
modest backlash. It includes:

-- “Proven
Innocent,” which debuts Friday on Fox. Produced by Strong
(“Empire”), it's the fictional tale of a young woman, freed after
a decade, who works as a lawyer, seeking other exonerations.

-- Occasional
documentaries. On March 10, HBO has “The Case Against Adnan Syed,”
a four-parter focusing on a young Muslim man who was convicted of
killing his former girlfriend.

“Systems protect
themselves,” said Rabia Chaudry, who's been working with Simpson
and others, in an effort to free Syed. That's especially true, she
said, in a high-profile case. “Any time a wrongful conviction seems
to be getting successfully challenged, the system closes down.”

Or, at least, it
stays out of the way. It's rare, Strong said, for officials to
re-investigate. “They feel they already have the guilty party. It's
up to the (defense) lawyers to prove them wrong.”

In the fictional
world of “Proven Innocent,” one quirky investigator must try to
find a flaw in a mountain of convincing police evidence.

He's played by
Vincent Kartheiser (Pete on “Mad Men”), linking Strong's worlds
as an actor and writer.

These days, Strong
is known for writing tough, topical scripts; he's received two Emmys
for “Game Change,” a nomination for “Recount” and praise for
“Empire.” But he's also an actor, who does prestigious shows
(currently, “Billions”), but started on the “Saved By the Bell”

Stone, who's
5-foot-2, easily played a teen-ager on that comedy. “I was just out
of college and I couldn't believe it, to be on a show.”

So yes, the guy who
once played Noogie is now producing taut, issue-oriented dramas. When
writer David Elliott pitched some ideas, Strong jumped at the one
about a defense lawyer.

In real life, there
are some large efforts in this. (The Innocence Project says that in
its 27 years, it has brought the exoneration of 362 convicted felons,
20 of them on death row.) But this would be smaller.

Madeline (Rachelle
Lefevre) spent a decade in prison, before she was exonerated. Now she
has a law degree; linking with the lawyer who freed her, she defends
other convicts.

That requires a
stretch in logic: Each week, she's supposed to ponder the case she
was convicted for, while also solving another one. Audiences, Strong
said, have “become used to that on TV -- a nine-year case is
settled in 43 minutes.”

These cases are
especially tough because she faces a slick prosecutor, Gore Bellows.
After the pilot film was shot, the network wanted the role to be
recast with Kelsey Grammer.

Strong admits to
opposing the change ... but now says Grammer fits perfectly. Bellows
“is a passionate prosecutor .... He believes he is serving the

He puts people in
prison ... just as TV often does. This time, however, some of them
will be proven innocent.

-- “Proven
Innocent,” 9 p.m. Fridays, Fox; debuts Feb. 15

-- “The Case
Against Adnan Syed,” four-part documentary starts March 10 on HBO

These sorta-twins are busy saving (or destroying) the Earth

"Miracle Workers" is one of the best comedies I've seen in a while -- a clever concept, neatly played by newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan, not-newcomer Daniel Radcliffe and more. It starts Tuesday (Feb. 12) and reruns almost daily. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

These guys seem like semi-identical cousins.

There's Daniel
Radcliffe, of “Harry Potter” fame; and Simon Rich, who created
“Miracle Workers,” Radcliffe's new cable comedy. For starters,
they look alike.

“He's a lot
taller,” Radclife said. Not a lot; Radcliffe is 5-foot-5, Rich is
5-8, both have cherubic faces.

They also share a
sense of humor. “I respond to comedy when it takes chances,”
Radcliffe said.

That's Rich's style
– witty satire, punctuated by sudden jolts. “We probably have the
highest body count of any (romantic comedy) in history,” he

And he's created an
expansive world to put those jolts in. As Rich explains the new show:

“God, in the midst
of a full-blown, midlife crisis, announces to his company – Heaven,
Inc. -- that he's going to blow up the Earth and retire and open a
novelty restaurant. Now they've got two weeks to get these two humans
to kiss, or else the world explodes.”

At first, that
responsibility falls on the unassuming Craig. “There's one guy, in
charge of answering billions of prayers,” said Radcliffe, who plays
him. “He does three or four a day.”

They're small ones,
mostly – finding a key or a glove or something. He would give up
...but his new co-worker, Elizabeth, is intent on saving the world,
even if they keep flubbing.

Together, Rich said,
they keep getting it wrong. “Terrible things are happening to
innocent, undeserving people .... So it's superficially defeatist,
but ultimately kind of sweet.”

That combination is
what makes “Miracle Workers” fun. “It's really a very delicate
balance,” said Geraldine Viswanathan. “It's sharp and cynical,
but also has a lot of warmth to it.”

As Elizabeth, she
adds to a project that seems to span continents. It has:

-- Radcliffe, the
Englishman who can be anonymous, even after his movies made billions.
“I'm 5-5, so I can put a cap on and no one will notice me.”

-- Rich, who grew up
at the epicenter of American show business: Broadway (his dad, Frank
Rich, now a columnist, was the New York Times' theater critic) ...
the Harvard Lampoon ... and then “Saturday Night Live.” He wrote
quirky sketches, which producer Lorne Michaels tended to put at the
end of the show. “I've always had a great relationship with him
.... Lorne likes the last 15 minutes of the show.” Michaels became
a producer of Rich's first series (“Man Seeking Woman”) and
“Miracle Workers.”

-- And Viswanathan,
who savors both countries' humor. “I've always loved British
sitcoms,” she said, but she also grew up as a “Friends” fan.

Her own roots? She's
your typical Swiss-Indian-Aussie.

Viswanathan's dad,
who has roots in India, is a doctor. After medical school, he studied
ballet in Paris – yes, he could have become a toe-dancing physician
– where he met his wife, an actress from Switzerland. They moved to

It's a background so
varied that Viswanathan's first words were in Tamil (from her
paternal grandmother), she speaks fluent Swiss German, but she sounds
American Midwest in conversation.

Back in Australia,
she did the third season of the “Janet King” series. Auditioning
by video, she landed roles in three American movies (including
“Blockers”) and then entered Rich's vision of Heaven.

“We got to shoot
in a semi-abandoned fiber-optics factory in the middle of Georgia,”
Rich said. There, they created “this ramshackle, decrepit,
industrial vision of Heaven.”

That's where these
two hold Earth's fate. Craig is “a very diligent, hard-working
angel,” Radcliffe said, but “frightened and panicky ....
Elizabeth is extremely ambitious and driven – everything Craig is

They may save the
world; we won't spoil any surprises. And they'll inadvertently kill
some Earthlings.

-- “Miracle
Workers,” 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays, TBS, rerunning at 11:30; for seven

-- First episode
(Feb. 12) reruns at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday; 4 and 11:30 p.m., Thursday;
8:30 p.m., Friday; 11:30 p.m., Saturday; 11 p.m., Sunday; 5 and 10:30
p.m., Monday.

-- Second episode
(Feb. 19) reruns at 7 p.m., Feb. 20; 11:30 p.m., Feb. 21; 11 p.m.,
Feb. 22; 11:30 p.m., Feb. 23; 11 p.m., Feb. 24.

-- TNT reruns the
first episode at 7:30 p.m., Saturday' and 10:30 p.m., Sunday (Feb.
16-17). It reruns the first two at 4:30 and 5 p.m., Feb. 20; and
11:15 and 11:45 p.m., Feb. 24.


The "Queen of Soul" will be the genius of TV

The first two "Genius" mini-series piled up 16 Emmy nominations and lots of praise. Now comes an interesting switch: The third one will profile Aretha Franklin. That's expected to be in the spring of 2020, but we can get in the mood with a tribute concert next month. Here's the story I sent to papers:

Already the queen of soul, the late Aretha Franklin adds another
title: She's officially a genius, alongside Albert Einstein and Pablo

The National
Geographic Channel's “Genius” mini-series profiled Einstein in
2017 and Picasso in 2018. Now – in a switch that delays the third
round until the spring of 2020 – Franklin is next.

“That was
(producer) Brian Grazer's idea,” said Courteney Monroe, CEO of the
National Geographic Channel. “It was too exciting to pass up.”

Grazer and Ron
Howard had planned to focus on Mary Shelley, the “Frankenstein”
author. That's still being developed, Monroe said, but Franklin fits
key points with:

-- Impact. “Aretha
is widely considered to be the greatest singer of her generation.”

-- Time. The series
doesn't profile living people; Franklin died Aug. 16, at 76.

-- And a dramatic
life. “There has to be a great story,” Monroe said. “She was a
mother at age 12 ... and she went on to be a great star.” She was a
gospel prodigy and “an outspoken civil rights champion.”

Franklin was born in
Memphis, lived briefly in Buffalo, but would always be linked with
Detroit. Her family moved there before she was 5 and her father was
pastor of the biggest church in town, with a capacity of 2,500. The
greats – from Sam Cooke to Martin Luther King Jr. -- visited her

Franklin did have
two of her four sons at 12 and 14, but went on to music fame. She
lived in California and New York, but spent her last 36 years in

Rolling Stone's list
of greatest singers puts her at No. 1, topping Ray Charles and Elvis
Presley. Now two of them have TV tributes – Presley on Sunday (Feb.
17) on NBC; Franklin on March 10 on CBS.

-- “Aretha! A
Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul,” 9-11 p.m. March 10, CBS.
Includes Smokey Robinson, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, John Legend,
Celine Dion, Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Hudson, Yolanda Adams, Shirley
Caesar and more.

-- “Genius”
mini-series on Aretha Franklin, tentatively set for spring of 2020.

Unmasking Ricki Lake: A goofy show triggers teen memories

Yes, "The Masked Singer" is sort of goofy. You expect that when you're being serenaded by a deer, a rave or a pineapple. But it's also a fun show and, occasionally, a warm one. On Wednesday (Feb. 6), the Television Critic Association saw the episode and then talked to the ousted singer (Ricki Lake) and others. Here's the story I sent to papers:)

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- As
the masks come off, the surprises pile up.

Many people seem
surprised that it was Ricki Lake in the raven costume on “The
Masked Singer.” Or that the show has become a quick ratings hit. Or
that Lake, 50, would remain popular, more than three decades after
her first burst of fame.

“It's nice to
still be here,” she told the Television Critics Association on
Wednesday, shortly after the episode aired.

But the biggest
surprise might be this: Robin Thicke spent his formative years
staring at TV talk shows.

“When I was a
teenage boy, I would watch about five hours of television every day,”
said Thicke, who identified Lake after remembering her long-ago show.

Thicke would later
become a pop star whose “Blurred Lines” reached No. 1 in 14
countries. Fans might suspect he spent his teen years at the beach or
in the nightclub; not so.

“I was a TV
junkie,” he said. “There was Oprah and there was Jerry Springer,
(but) there wasn't much for talk-show hosts going over youthful
problems. And 'Ricki Lake' was one of the only shows like that, so I
enjoyed the show.”

Youth problems can
come in many forms. Thicke was 7 when his parents (singer Gloria
Loring and the late Alan Thicke, an actor and TV personality)
divorced. Lake was about 10 when the grandmother who was raising her
died; she was a 260-pound teen-ager when she starred in the
“Hairspray” (1988) movie.

Later, a
slimmed-down Lake showed a knack for bridging problems. Her talk show
debuted in 1993 and lasted 11 years; a second show debuted in 2013,
lasted a year and brought her a daytime Emmy.

Thicke was 16 when
the talk show began. Some 25 years later, a gesture by “the Raven”
drew him.

“When she put her
hand over her heart,” he said, “it was like a photographic memory
clicked, and I saw her on her talk show.”

Lake was recruited
for “Masked Singe” by the same person (Deena Katz) who lured her
to “Dancing With the Stars” in 2011. “I was like, 'Nah,'”
Lake said. “And then she came back to me and she goes, 'No, no, no.
This is going to be huge and this is going to be a lot of fun.'”

The show had already
been big in Korea and has scored quickly in the U.S. Rob Wade, Fox's
alternative-programming chief, calls it “the highest rating (for a)
launch in seven years.”

And doing it was
fun, Lake said; “it was a blast.”

That was despite her
problems physically -- “I had sciatica (and) could barely walk”
-- and emotionally, involving “my beloved, my husband who had
passed away.”

Christian Evans was her ex-husband. They divorced as his bipolar
problems grew, but then got back together. He committed suicide in
February of 2017.

The silliness of
“Masked Singer” was a welcome release, Lake said. “I had a lot
of nerve singing a Lady Gaga song. It was like doing high-end

Many viewers seemed
to guess who was behind the mask. After “Masked Singer” started
airing, Lake said, “everyone (was) like, 'Hi Raven.' .... It's been
really hard to keep it quiet.”

But the judges
remained baffled ... until one gesture triggered a memory in a former
teen TV junkie.

-- “The Masked
Singer,” 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox

-- Each week, the
singer getting the fewest votes is ousted and unmasked. So far, that
has included two football players (Antonio Brown and Terry Bradshaw),
two comedians (Tommy Chong and Margaret Cho) and two actresses (Ricki
Lake and Tori Spelling); six people remain.