A sweeping saga -- from searing Africa to sub-zero Antarctica


(The newest "Planet Earth" series is, like the previous ones, a masterful creation. It also has some key differences. The series runs Saturdays on four cable channels and reruns Wednesdays on one; here's the story I sent to papers.)

By Mike Hughes

From the start,
British TV has been different.

Americans watched
cops and cowboys, comics and clowns and cartoons and such. The
British did that, but they also had ambitious nature sows – many of
them done by David Attenborough.

“I was at the
university when his 'Life on Earth' came out,” producer Mike Gunton
said. “I thought, 'One day, I'd like to do a show like that.'”

Now he has – often
– with Attenborough, as narrator. The latest is “Planet Earth:
Dynasties,” a sprawling series that covers a huge range in
temperaments (from lions to penguins) and temperatures (from 111
degrees to minus-40).

When Attenborough
started doing TV in 1954 (four years before Gunton was born), shows
were basic and black-and-white. He's now 92 and hosting/narrating
“Dynasties,” with its epic look. “In some ways,” Gunton
said, “we are more cinematic than even cinema is.” It:

-- Uses better
equipment. Everything– “the optics of the cameras, the power of
the lenses” -- has improved, he said. Earlier, most filming was
done on tripods; now it ranges from hand-held to drones.

-- Has a new focus.
Unlike previous Gunton/Attenborough projects, most “Dynasties”
films start with a single animal as the central character. “Some
people said, 'You're making a mistake. It's too risky,'” Gunton
said. The main character could die or disappear or simply be dull.

There were close
calls, but it mostly worked out. “It's worth the risk,” he said,
“if you do the right research” and find the right animal to
feature.

-- And raises a
fresh debate on whether filmmakers should ever intervene. .

The basic rule is
solid: “You see animals in peril all the time,” Gunton said, “but
you don't do anything to change the balance of nature.”

That assumes that
nature caused the problem. In one of the “Dynasties” films, the
central character was brutally attacked by other animals and left for
dead. There was no rescue effort; the story wobbled.

But when the crisis
is man-made, that's another matter. When animals were poisoned by
local farmers, a medical team was quickly called in.

Then there was the
crisis that tested all the rules: A sudden cave-in left penguins and
their babies trapped in a ravine. One somehow climbed the wall, using
her bill as an ice pic; the footage is remarkable. The others,
however, were still at the bottom, facing sure death.

That's when the film
people made a major decision. Grabbing shovels, they built a ramp
that let the penguins shuffle out of the ravine, saving their lives.

Yes, Gunton grants,
that broke the usual rules. But he sees that cave-in as a freakish
event, counteracted by an unusual step. “We weren't changing the
balance of nature. (And) imagine if we had just stood there and
watched them die.”

It was a tough year
for that crew. Others faced blistering heat in Africa and India, but
spent nights in hunting lodges (or, for a wolves film, in tents). But
the penguin crew slept in an Antarctic research station, with no one
nearby to help.

They created a
fascinating film ... but, unlike the others, not one built around a
central character. Penguins, alas, really do look the same.

-- “Planet Earth:
Dynasties,” Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America and IFC and 9
p.m. ET/PT on AMC and Sundance.

-- BBC America
reruns each at 9 p.m. ET Wednesdays, repeating ar 1:30 a.m. This week
(Jan. 23), that's a rerun of the opener, on lions.

-- Next (Jan. 27)
are chimps. That's followed by tigers, painted wolves and emperor
penguins

 

Rumbling through rock music are American Indian riffs and stars


From the opening power chords -- a riff created 65 years ago by Link Wray -- the PBS film "Rumble" offers an intriguing look at American Indian rock stars. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Rock fans knew all
about Taboo. “I was the Asian guy from the Black Eyed Peas,” he
said.

Except that 's not
really true. Taboo – that's Jaime Luis Gomez – is partly Mexican
and partly Shoshone; he's one of many rockers with American Indian
roots.

Some are well-known,
from Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee) to Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) of The
Band. Others should be.

That includes Link
Wray (Shawnee), whose 1954 “Rumble” provides the title and the
spine of a documentary in PBS' “Independent Lens” series.

“He's the king of
the power chord,” said Stevie Salas (Apache). “He's the king of
heavy metal.”

Some were in
previous eras -- including guitarist Charley Patton (Choctaw) and
jazz singer Mildred Bailey (Coeur d'Alene) -- but brought early hints
of what would be rock.

Salas – who
provided the guitar riffs for Mick Jagger's solo shows – feels the
native roots are no coincidence. “Taboo was super famous, selling
60 million records. And ... he wondered why he danced the way he
danced. It was different than all his hip hop friends.”

The dancing and the
rhythms were deep in the native traditions, Salas said. “The rhythm
was something that was a unique thread in the indigenous musicians
that we all talked to.”

Taboo agreed. “I
was very kind of blown away that Jimi Hendrix was also native,
because he had the flair and the persona that spoke to me.”

In some cases, the
family roots weren't clear. Salas said his birth certificate lists
his parents as white. “Nobody was wanting to be an Indian. You were
better off if you were ... Hispanic or something else.”

The film talks about
people who would “pass for black” in New Orleans. From the
Neville Brothers (Choctaw) to the Mardi Gras traditions, the native
influences rumbled through.

-- “Independent
Lens: Rumble,” 10 p.m. Monday (Jan. 21) on most PBS stations

Booming new mini-series captures the internet -- idealism, insanity and all


"Valley of the Boom" is the best new show of the year.

OK, that isn't saying much, because the year is less than two weeks old. But it's also the best new show of the season, nudging out "The Romanoffs" and others. It's a wonderfully weird look at three ventures in the ealy days of the Internet. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In its frantic early
stages, the Internet was a grand goulash.

It was, screenwriter
Matthew Carnahan says, “a hybrid of science and tech and art ...”

And something else?
“I was going to say insanity,” said Tara Hernandez, who was in
the midst of it.

Now that's captured
in “Valley of the Boom,” a dazzling mini-series that starts
Sunday. “It's the true story of the boom and bust of the 1990s
Silicon Valley gold rush,” said Courteney Monroe, president of the
National Geographic Channel.

That was before big
money took over. “The internet was completely optimistic,” actor
Dakota Shapiro said. “None of the cynicism existed yet. (It had)
the ideas and the idealism.”

He plays Stephen
Paternot, co-creator of theGlobe.com. And yes, the real guy agrees
about idealism.

“There was a
purity to it, to create the global village where everybody would be
connected,” Paternot said. It was “a sort of Utopia.”

Carnahan points to
one of the boldest actions by the Netscape people. They “pushed
their source code out onto the 'net,” letting anyone use it and
improve it. That led to Mozilla Firefox, which is free, “It was
heroic, what they did.”

But what about the
“insanity” that Hernandez, a Netscape programmer, spoke of? That
included the financing flurry. “You need capital to marry
creativity, so that things can be invented,” Paternot said. The
mini-series “shows the double-edged sword of the capital corrupting
the original vision.”

As the “gold rush”
set in, caution was abandoned. Billions were invested in companies
that had never shown a profit ... and, in at least one case, in a
product that didn't work.

Pixelon was a
streaming service created by Michael Fenne. It gathered $28 million
in financing, promptly spending $16 million of it on a launch party
that ranged from Faith Hill to KISS to a reunion of the Who. It was
big and splashy ... but the technology – and “Fenne” – were
frauds.

“It's truly one of
the favorite characters I've ever played,” said actor Steve Zahn.
“We just made like a fat suit and we put on a wig and I felt like I
was in some play in high school. It was insane.”

Fenne's real name
was David Kim Stanley. The son and grandson of Appalachian preachers,
he had been convicted of more than 50 fraud-related charges. A judge
let him stay out of prison for a while, so he could pay people back;
instead, he drove west.

In that pre-Internet
era, Zahn said, “you could actually be a guy who maybe was running
away from something, you know, be reborn in a way, change your name
and be someone new.”

Stanley dyed his
hair blonde, put on massive amounts of weight and became Fenne. He
told everyone he had a great new way to stream. Except that even his
early demonstrations were fake, using other technology. And in that
massive party – meant to show off Pixelon – the technology didn't
work.

“Boom” puts the
madness of Pixelon alongside the earnest intentions of the others.
The Globe preceded Facebook by a decade and faced the extremes of the
rush – first wildly overvalued, then undervalued. Netscape
prospered at first, then was overwhelmed and absorbed by AOL.

The insanity and
idealism were blotted out. Instead, Paternot said, we had “the
power assimilation by a handful of companies, net neutraliy being
pushed aside so those big companies get even richer.”

It's a wild story,
told with a mixture of scripted scenes and other touches, including
talking heads and more. “I think it's safe to say that National
Geographic has never made a show that features a rap battle, a flash
mob and an interpretive dance,” Monroe said. “It's bonkers and we
couldn't love it more.”

-- “Valley of the
Boom,” six-part mini-series, 9 and 10 p.m. ET Sundays, National
Geographic Channel

-- Two-part opener,
Jan. 13, reruns at 11 and 11:58 p.m. ET that day, then at 9 and 9:58
a.m. ET on Tuesday and on Jan. 20

Queen Victoria is surrounded by luxury, strife and children


Over two seasons, "Victoria" (via PBS' "Masterpiece") has taken us a decade into the reign of a young queen. As the third season starts, she's in a time of tumult and overthrow. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The kingdom is
wobbling, the masses are fuming and ... well, the monarch is having
another baby.

It's a tangled time
in England, in the third season of “Victoria.” That starts in
1848, when “the whole of Europe is falling apart,”
writer-producer Daisy Goodwin told the Television Critics
Association.”There are French kings being thrown off the throne.
The Austrian emperor's been deposed.”

Lest we worry, we
can peek into the history books. In 1848, Queen Victoria was only 29;
she would live and reign until 81, with the Victorian Age nudging
into the 20th century. Her 63-year reign would top the
first Queen Elizabeth (44 years), but be surpassed by the second (67
years, as of next month).

And the baby
arriving amid tumult? It's only her sixth; there will be three more.

At this point,
however, revolution seems to be overtaking Europe. “Victoria and
Albert are terrified that it's going to come to England,” Goodwin
said.

The queen is
perplexed, she said. “Victoria just wants the love of her people.”

Eventually, she
would have it. “When Victoria comes to the throne, the monarchy has
power, but it isn't loved. And by the end of her reign, it doesn't
really have so much power, but it is certainly loved.

“The idea of ... a
fabulous royal soap opera to entertain the nation is something that
Victoria – wittingly or unwittingly – created. Because she had
all these children (and) this famously happy marriage.”

It definitely seemed
to be a loving (and lustful) marriage, even if it did become
complicated when her husband, Prince Albert, tried to find a role in
government. “The clash of wills is really interesting and
shifting,” Jenna Coleman, who plays Victoria, told the TCA.

The perpetual
pregnancy was also a complication, Coleman said. “She didn't enjoy
being pregnant, that's for sure. I read something where she said,
'It's the only thing I dread' .... But I do think she's very, very
much in love with her children.”

They would have a
long-range impact, Goodwin said. “She married her children to every
single royal family in Europe,” creating the tangles that led to
World War I.

Joining the
complicated story at the start of the season are:

-- Feodora. Her
widowed mother remarried, Goodwin said, and had Victoria – then
(when the girls were 16 and 9) sent Feodora to marry a penniless
prince. “There she is, living in a sort of crumbling, drafty castle
in the middle of Germany with a kind of drunken husband and lots of
(sick) children.” That's when Feodora returned to England to live
with her half-sister the queen.

-- Lord Palmerston,
a potent force. He would change parties twice, becoming prime
minister (twice) and a foreign minister known for intervention. He
“invented gunboat diplomacy,” Goodwin said, and built popularity.
“He worked incredibly hard, but he had terrific swagger.”

Both were imposing
distractions for a young monarch who was surrounded by protests and
children.

-- “Masterpiece:
Victoria,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS, starting Jan. 13

Scott Grimes pilots his way through a man-child life


Some people know Scott Grimes from the old "Critters" movies or the new Seth MacFarlane shows, from cartoons to "The Orville." But the first thing I remember was "Frog." That was when PBS had terrific family films under the "WonderWorks" banner; in this one (and its sequel), Grimes had a talking frog. Now, more than three decades later, his career continues to be busy; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Some people might
argue that Scott Grimes' childhood ended the day he auditioned for
Broadway.

He was an
11-year-old kid who'd done some shows back home in Massachusetts.
Then came the “Nine” try-outs. “Three weeks later, we were in
the show,” Grimes said.

He's been working
ever since, so you could say he's had a shortened childhood ... or a
lengthened one.

Ever since, he's had
childlike fun. He's talked to frogs and a supercomputer; he's been
Robin Hood's pal and the farmboy who battled critters. He's voiced
Pinocchio, a midget assassin and Larry the Donut.

His main fun these
days involves piloting the spaceship in “The Orville,” which has
just started its second season on Fox. It's a dream job for anyone
who grew up on science fiction.

“I've always loved
it,” said Grimes, 47. “The first movie I saw was 'Forbidden
Planet.' My dad loved science fiction and he'd take me.”

And “Orville”
makes it easy to get into make-believe, with its realistic sets. “You
can turn 360 degrees and it all feels real to you.”

Others share that
feeling. “You're completely submerged into the world,” Mark
Jackson, who plays Isaac, said before the first season. “When I
first walked onto the set, I felt like a 10-year-old boy.”

That's the
approximate age when Grimes entered the world of grown-ups.

He was 9 when he did
a regional musical, 11 when he auditioned for Broadway director Tommy
Tune. “When I was leaving with my family, (director Tommy Tune)
said, 'Where are you staying?' We said the Sheridan and he said,
'You'd better get a place here, because you're in the show.'”

Grimes soon took
over the role of the boyhood friend of the central character.

At first, music
seemed to be his thing. At 14, he sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
on a Bob Hope special; at 15, he sang on a Carpenters record. “I
believe young Scott to have quite a future in music,” Richard
Carpenter wrote in the liner notes.

Actually, Grimes has
had a modest music career: He had an album when he was 18; a second
one, almost two decades later, included a song he co-wrote (“Sunset
Blvd”), which spent 10 weeks in the top 20 of Billboard's
adult-contemporary chart. He also has a band with Russell Crowe and
others.

But it was acting
that took off; like Ron Howard, this was a likable redhead who was a
natural for the camera. At 13, he starred with Mickey Rooney in the
TV film “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

His parents made the
move, first to New York City, then to Los Angeles, where his dad (a
business engineer) sometimes sang in folk clubs. “I have a real
good family,” Grimes said. “They taught me that if you have a
little bit of talent and do a lot of work, it will work out.”

Friendships helped.
When Corey Feldman was unavailable for “Frog” on PBS, Grimes
said, “he said, 'Hey, I have this buddy who can do it.'” It was a
clever talking-frog movie that even had a sequel.

Grimes has tended to
repeat work with a varied bunch of people. They've included:

-- Steven Spielberg.
First was “Band of Brothers,” with Grimes and Damian Lewis both
dying their red hair for the roles. Spielberg produced, “directed a
bunch of scenes,” and was on set a lot. “I love talking about
movies and so does he,” said Grimes, who later spent six seasons in
Spielberg's “ER.”

-- Crowe. Grimes has
been in three of his movies and they have that band, The Indoor
Garden Project.

-- Seth MacFarlane.
For 13 years, Grimes has done voices on his cartoons -- Steve in
“American Dad,” Kevin in “Family Guy,” other people or
doughnuts. “It's my kind of humor, my kind of writing.”

And yes, he always
knew MacFarlane wanted to do a space show. “He talked about it for
years.”

It finally happened
last season. MacFarlane captains The Orville, with Grimes as his
pilot and best friend. They fly between planets and zip between
drama, comedy and shoot-em-up adventures. They seem to have an
extended childhood.

-- “The Orville,”
Fox; second season began Sunday, Dec. 30, then moved to 9 p.m.
Thursdays