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.

Those startng-out years -- no money, no work, no problem (sort of)

After a shaky start, Freeform formerly (ABC Family) has had some surprisingly good shows. Despite occasional flaws, "The Bold Type," "Good Trouble" and more are first-rate. They share a common theme -- new places, new jobs, new friends and/or loves. And that's something their actors understand. Here's te story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

One chunk of life keeps fueling TV shows.

That's when kids
nudge into their grown-up years. It's key to many shows ...
especially Freeform ones.

“When you're 18,
you don't realize the challenges you're facing,” Maia Mitchell
said. “You look back at it in hindsight and say, 'That was tough!'”

These days, her life
seems breezy. She's starring in her second series on the Freeform
network (“Good Trouble,” spinning off “The Fosters”) and has
done two “Teen Beach” musicals for Disney.

But things sputtered
for a while. “I ran out of money and moved back home” to
Australia, she said. “That wasn't so good, because my friends had
left for college.”

Her “Good Trouble”
colleagues know the no-money feeling. “If someone ever gave me a
gift card, I would sell it for the minimum value,” Sherry Cola (who
plays Alice) said.

And Josh Pence, who
plays Dennis? “I lived in an RV in the streets” of Venice,
Calif., he said.

He was a Lyft driver
until filming started. Others on the show also flailed at day jobs.

Emma Hunton (who
plays Davia) was a nanny; so was Zuri Adele (Malika), among other
things. “I enjoyed teaching yoga a lot,” Adele said.

Cola was on a
“street team” for a radio station; Katie Stevens – who stars in
Freeform's “The Bold Type” -- had a sweeter job: “I worked at
Sprinkle Cupcakes in the Grove (shopping center).”

Stevens was 16 when
she auditioned for “America Idol,” 17 when she tied for eighth
and went on the “Idol” tour. She moved cross-country (from
Connecticut to Los Angeles) ... “and then nothing for four years,”
before starring in “Faking It” and “The Bold Type.”

Hunton had a similar
gap: At 16, she moved cross-country to take over the role of Ilse in
Broadway's Tony-winning “Spring Awakening.” It was a
life-changing time, in an apartment with a chaperone.

“I didn't know how
to do my laundry,” she said. “I had to learn how to make

It was fun. (“In
California, I didn't have a driver's license, but with New York's
subways, you can go anywhere.”) But the show ended a year later and
little else followed. Hunton lived communally in a converted
warehouse, “with some trailers that we rented as Airbnb.” Then,
ironically, she got the job on “Good Trouble” ... where
characters live communally in a converted movie theater.

Some people were
prepared for lives in transit. Adele alternated between parents on
each coast ... went to Spelman University in Atlanta ... and then to
UCLA for grad school. Pence went from Santa Monica to the Ivy League
(Dartmouth) to backpacking in Germany, then to the vagaries of

He had a big role in
“The Social Network” ... sort of. Pence, who's 6-foot-4, played
one of the towering Winklevoss twins ... aware that Armie Hammer
would later be digitally edited into both roles.

Kevin Costner –
who once was the “Big Chill” corpse -- sympathized. “He said,
'Don't be in a rush.'”

They met when Pence
played the hot-shot quarterback in Costner's “Draft Day.” Four
years later, the unrushed Pence has a regular TV role; others have
also found steadier lives:

-- Hunton, who
wasn't great at macaroni-and-cheese, now has a house and a husband
who's a chef. “At least, I'll never go hungry,” she said.

-- Stevens films
“The Bold Type” in Montreal, but spends much of her time in
Nashville with her fiance, Paul Digiovanni. (He wrote “How Not To,”
which reached No. 1 in country airplay for Dan + Shay.) The former
teen singer is now surrounded by other people's music. “I love
being around it.”

-- After retreating
to Australia, Mitchell was asked to send a “Fosters” audition
tape. Instead, she borrowed money, flew back to California, blew the
first audition (“it was a trainwreck”) and landed the second. For
a time, she shared an apartment with another Aussie actress.

“We called it an
Australian embassy,” she said, because fellow counrymen crashed
there. “I would try to sneak out to work without waking anyone up.”

It was hectic and
fun and sort of like an episode of many Freeform shows.

-- Freeform,
formerly ABC Family; several shows eye early-adult lives of new
places, jobs and friends

-- “Good Trouble,”
8 p.m. Tuesdays; “Grown-ish,” 8 p.m. Wednesdays; coming are a
“Pretty Little Liars” spin-off, a “Party of Five” reboot and
the return of “The Bold Type”

-- Freeform also
does youth-oriented supernatural shows -- “Siren” is 8 p.m.
Thursdays; returning later are “Shadowhunters” and “Cloak and


Mason jars us with her dancing/acting/knitting life

So far, "Roswell, New Mexico" has been a fairly good series, somehow juggling soap, sci-fi and serious drama. For one next episode (Feb. 5), it has an added advanage, in some time zones, as an alternative to the State of the Union address. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- Nine years ago, a
Miami teenager had a burst of fame.

Jeanine Mason became
the “So You Think You Can Dance” champion, raising the question
of where she would go from there. Las Vegas? Broadway? Oblivion?

Well, she does
sometimes work in Las Vegas ... but the one in New Mexico. She stars
in “Roswell, New Mexico,” spending her workday pondering
outer-space aliens. Her spare time is spent:

-- Knitting.
“Jeanine knitted hats for Lily (Cowles) and I, with little aliens
on them,” co-star Heather Hemmens said.

-- Or dancing. “I
do all the time,” Mason said, “particularly when we're out and
about in Santa Fe.”

Dance is how it
started for her. At 3, she was studying ballet and – reflecting her
Cuban roots – flamenco. She added jazz, hip-hop, modern and more;
in 2009, at 18, she became the fifth person (and the first Latina) to
win the “So You Think You Can Dance” title.

And then? She mostly
switched gears, graduating from UCLA and auditioning for acting roles
... a frequent route for dancers. “I grew up admiring the showmen –
the Rita Morenos and the Sutton Fosters,” she said. But “I will
always be a dancer at heart.”

Her first major role
(“Bunheads,” starring Foster) linked acing and dancing; other
roles didn't. Mason was an Israeli princess in “Of Kings and
Prophets” and Dr. Sam Bello in “Grey's Anatomy.”

In the “Roswell”
books, the central character is Liz Ortecho, Mason said. “There was
a big part of this story that was about this woman's Latin-ness.”

But when he first TV
version arrived in 1999, she became Liz Parker. TV was like that.

Now the reboot
restores her Latin roots. Liz is a medical researcher, returned to
the town where her dad has a diner. He's undocumented, a story that's
important to Carina MacKenzie, who wrote the reboot.

“My mom's
Egyptian,” MacKenzie said. “I was ... the blonde, blue-eyed girl
who was going to Islamic school on Sundays.”

After the Sept. 11
attack, she found herself overhearing anti-Muslim hatred “from
people who didn't know that they were talking about me. So (the show
is) a little bit of a story about passing, about not looking like the
enemy that people are looking for.”

In this case, three
people belatedly hatched from pods left by a 1947 UFO crash. They've
worked to assimilate. “We've got a cowboy, a housewife and a cop,”
MacKenzie said. “They look like the most ethnically cleansed
version of America, (but) they're holding a secret.”

The cop has loved
Liz since high school, thrusting the show into multiple worlds. It's
partly a soap, partly a serious drama and partly fun for UFO buffs.
The New Mexico settings provide:

-- Romantic
backdrops. “You point a camera toward the sun and two people kiss
and you're Steven Spielberg,” said producer/director Julie Plec.
“You can ... shoot a vista that you would get in 'Lawrence of

-- A chance to take
field trips to the real Roswell. Most of the actors have done that.
“It was vast and open and there was a UFO museum,” said Cowles,
who plays an alien. “I had a sublime time.”

-- The small-town
feel of this fictional Roswell. Most off the filming is done around
Santa Fe, but the show's downtown is 65 miles away in Las Vegas, a
town of about 14,600. Frequently used for filming (including “Wyatt
Earp” and “Longmire”), it has a folksy feel, MacKenzie said.
“It's like the hat store, next to the boot store, next to the book
store that's called 'Tome on the Range.'”

Adds Mason: “And
there is a knitting store for me.”

Hey, that's
important if you're a dancer-knitter-actress in a UFO drama.

-- “Roswell, New
Mexico,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, CW

-- In some time zones, that gives it an extra edge on Feb. 5: It's the only entertainment show on a broadcast network, going against the State
of the Union address.