"Time Traveling" finds history close to home


Brian Unger has a special ability to mix facts and fun. He did that skillfully with"How the States Got Their Shapes"; now he's doing it again with the fun "Time Travelling." It debuts Monday (April 20); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

So let's say you
want to mingle with history.

Don't be so quick to
try Athens or Machu Picchu. There might be something historic near
your home.

“I am shocked by
how little people know about the place where they live,” Brian
Unger said.

He includes himself
in that. Unger lived in New York City for a dozen years, but it
wasn't until starting cable's “Time Traveling” series that he
really discovered the Woolworth Building.

“We've walked by
it many times,” he said. “But as New Yorkers, we're too busy to
notice anything.”

Then the show had
him tour it with local people and tell some intriguing stories.

In an era when most
businessmen were understated, Unger said, F.W. Woolworth was “the
Donald Trump of his time.” With a nickel-and-dime business
(literally), he compiled a fortune and created a building that cost
$13.5 million in 1913. For its first 15 years, it was considered the
world's tallest building; after a century, it was still one of the
country's 100 tallest.

Most of this space
was rented to other people ... including, eventually, a secret office
for the military's “Manhattan Project” atom-bomb effort. But the
building has a grand look ... complete with a sculpture showing
Woolworth counting coins. One booklet-writer called it “the
cathedral of commerce.”

Other spots have
similar quirks. In the two opening-night episodes, Unger also shows
local people:

-- The Golden Gate
Bridge, crafted (in the middle of the Depression) by two brilliant
engineers ... who disagreed so often that one didn't get his name on
the plaque. That was rectified, 70 years later.

-- Las Vegas ranches
where people stayed (often with current lovers) during a six-week
Nevada divorce. These were the temporary homes of Clark Gable, Mickey
Rooney, Howard Hughes and more.

-- And Tombstone,
Ariz., where, he was told, the “gunfight at the OK Corral” didn't
happen at the corral ... probably lasted less than a minute ... and
was in a city where wearing guns was illegal.

“We've embellished
that so much,” Unger said. “The stories get so mythologized.”

Hey, he liked those
myths. Unger, 49. was a “pretty stereotyped” kid with cowboy hat
and toy guns.

That was in
Granville, an Ohio town of 5,400, that seemed to promise bigger
possibilities. Granville has Denison University; Ohio has large
chunks of history. In school, Unger learned the state has been the
home of flight (Orville Wright, like Unger, was born in Dayton, where
the Wright Brothers spent their lives) and of presidents (seven
native Ohioans and one transplant).

So history was big
for him ... as was education. In Granville, his mom was his guidance
counselor and his dad was the superintendent. “When I told my dad I
wanted to be an actor he said, 'No you won't.'”

So he studied
journalism and did some acting, but mainly specialized in light news
reports – ranging from the first version of “The Daily Show” to
the amiable “How the States Got Their Shapes.”

Now the “Shapes”
producers have this new show, again with Unger hosting. These days,
he lives in California -- “the opposite of New York” -- and has
his own horses ... which may be why he looked like a natural while
riding a coin-operated kiddie horse in Tombstone, Arizona.

-- “Time Traveling
with Brian Unger”

-- 10 and 10:30 p.m.
Mondays, Travel Channel, rerunning at 1 and 1:30; debuts March 20

Food is an adventure; lutefisk is a challenge


For a few days there, my Web site was down; sorry about that. Anyway, it's back now and I've added the TV columns I sent to papers in the interim. Also, here's a story I sent; the series debuted April 13, but it reruns almost constantly, so the story still makes sense: 

 

By Mike Hughes

For many of us, food
was never meant to be an adventure. We can always find burgers and
fries.

Then there's Andrew
Zimmern, who says we're missing out. “We are eating from too small
a range of choices,” he said, “especially when it comes to
protein. It's nuts.”

His Travel Channel
show – which has new episodes Mondays, plus reruns on most days –
offers plenty of possibilities. Zimmern talks zestully of:

-- Horse meat. It's
“maybe my favorite red meat. I only hedge because donkey is so
delicious..”

-- More meat. “In
Finland, they know how to prepare bear meat; it's unbelievable.”

-- Proetein
alternatives. “When I'm in the Philippines, eating a whole range of
bugs or reptiles, (it's) an amazing food experience.” Then there
was munching giraffe beetles with tribal people in southern
Madagascar ... or “eating bumble bees in the mountains outside
Taipei and Taiwan.”

-- And something
that sounds like a carnivore's pinata: “They slaughter a sheep
(and) stuff it with every piece of meat from the animal .... They
make a fire out of dried anmal dung and (you) come back later and eat
the stuffed stomach with all the meat and goodies inside.”

This was in
Kakakhstan, which he visited for the season-opener. He describes a
“staggeringly beautiful place” where he was able to hunt rabbit
with the help of a golden eagle.

Zimmern sounds
adventurous, which he sometimes is. He's been in a van that was swept
down a Puerto Rican mountain. He's been in a tin boat off Samoa,
“where we did think we were going to die – twice, actually.”
He's been threatened by robbers and beaten by a witch doctor.

Still, don't confuse
him with Indiana Jones. “I'm a frumpy, 53-year-old Jewish guy who
lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis,” he said. “There's nothing
very tough or macho about me when I'm at home. But when I'm on the
road, I'm pretty fearless.”

At home, he doesn't
even use the bus system. “But when I'm in Bolivia, I'll spend 14
hours on a rickety bus being driven by a 12-year-old on a treacherous
mountain road, without any knowlege about where I'm going to get my
next meal or when I'm going to the bathroom.”

All of this started
in New York City, with “two adventurous parents who loved food and
traveled a lot” and a “grandmother who cooked kidneys and
tongue.” As a young man, his travel choices were fairly whimsical,
“pulling bong hits and drinking beer on the couch and (throwing) a
dart at a map.”

There may have been
too many bong hits there; Zimmern was homeless for a year, before
going into rehab at the Hazelden Treatment Center in Minneapolis.

He's been based in
the Minneapolis area ever since, as an award-winning chef. He's a fan
of the city's people and food ... with the obvious exception of a
local specialty, lutefisk.

“It's god-awful,”
Zimmern said of the dish, which takes perfectly fine cod and has it
“rehydrated in water with lye in it. (It's rinsed) for like eight
days and the results turn it into like fish jello. It just destroys a
great product, which is salt cod .... Why this weird pocket of
Scandinavians decided they had to treat it with an animal poison is
absolutely beyond me.”

And that's about all
the food grumbling you'll hear from from Zimmern. Only twice in his
life has he refused a dish, both times because “I knew that it was
going to put me in the hospital.”

A few other times,
he considered skipping something for health reasons ... then took a
chance because he liked the host. Neither time did he get sick.

Even Indiana Jones
is afraid of snakes. On the road, Andrew Zimmern seems to fear
nothing ... except, of course, lutefisk.

-- “Bizarre Foods With Andrew
Zimmern,” 9 p.m. Mondays, Travel Channel, repeating at midnight

-- Season opens with Kakakhstan
on April 13; April 20 has Tapei, with Kakakhstan rerunning at 8 p.m.

-- Many reruns; show times
include: April 13, noon to 4 a.m.; April 14, noon to 5 p.m., 6-7 p.m.
and 8-10 p.m.; April 15, 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 11 p.m.; April 16, 6 p.m.

Pounder is everywhere -- and now at the center of the plot


Even in brief roles, CCH Pounder is a key boost to lots of TV shows. Now -- on the April 7 "NCIS: New Orleans" -- she's at the center of the plot. Here;s the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

CCH Pounder is used
to the routine now.

She walks in, takes
charge, sets the plot in motion. It's what veteran actors do.

She's been the boss
on “The Shield” and “Warehouse 13,” the U.S. attorney on
“Sons of Anarchy,” now a medical examiner on “NCIS: New
Orleans.” It's often important and usually brief ... until now.

On Tuesday's “NCIS:
New Orleans,” a gunman steps into the morgue. “It gets exciting,”
Pounder said.

Suddenly, Dr. Wade
(Pounder) is hostage alongside:

-- Danny Malloy
(Christopher Meyer), a newcomer to the show. “For him, it's just
another day on the corner,” Pounder said. “He's gone through this
his whole life.”

-- Sebastian Lund, a
forensic scientist. He's played by Rob Kerkovich, who, she said, has
mastered the characters tangled verbiage and its humanity. “That
takes him beyond the geeky-guy role.”

Pounder long ago
mastered the art of big-word delivery, after playing a long stream of
doctors, lawyers and authority figures. Still, she did prepare for
this role by sitting in on 23 autopsies in Los Angeles.

“A friend said,
'Don't wear any clothes you'll want to wear again,'” she said.
“'Don't do perfume, because from then on you'll associate it with
that day.'”
But she enjoyed the experience and hearing the
morgue people. “They talked about family .... You thought, 'Oh,
these are people who have a sense of life that the rest of us take
for granted.'”

But what about the
other complications of Pounder's job – moving to New Orleans and
sometimes facing brutal heat? Don't fret about that: Pounder says she
loves the architecture and attitude of a place “where the party is
the work.” She calls herself “a hot-house flower” who has seen
the alternative; and she's spent her life on the move.

She was born in
British Guiana, educated in London; she moved to the U.S. at 18 to
study at Ithaca College. She travels often to Africa, where her
husband is a Sengalese anthropologist. Her theater work took her
everywhere ... including a memorable winter with the Milwaukee
Repertory Theater.

“I was doing
'Mother Courage' there,” Pounder recalled. “On this particular
night, it was freezing. I saw my reflection in a department store
window, with my scarf and coat. Tears were frozen on my eyes, snot
was frozen on my face. I thought, 'Who is this hunchback, this
Quasimodo?'”

She promptly phoned
a friend; as soon as the show closed, she moved to Los Angeles. Now,
decades later, Pounder doesn't plan to complain about the New Orleans
heat.

-- “NCIS: New
Orleans”

-- 9 p.m. Tuesdays,
CBS; the morgue-hostage episode is April 7

 

Annie Lennox brings true Americana ... by way of Scotland


In person or in concert, Annie Lennox is a stunning talent. She performed for the Television Critics Association with a stripped-down band ... even improvising by using her hand as a "hand harp," to replace a guitar solo; then she recorded a stunning PBS concert with full band. Either way, her voice delivered jazz classics beautifully. That PBS special is 10 p.m. Friday (April 3); here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

As Annie Lennox
recalls it, she was just another Motown teen.

“We were dancing
in the dance halls to Stevie Wonder and The Foundations and The Four
Tops and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas,” she said. “The whole
thing.”

Except she wasn't in
the same neighborhood. Hers was a 3,500-mile right turn from Detroit.

Lennox's “Nostalgia”
album is filled with such shimmering classics as “Summertime” and
“Georgia On My Mind”; so is her TV special, which most PBS
stations will pair with a Billy Porter Broadway concert Friday,
creating a night of true Americana.

Yes, that might seem
odd for someone from Scotland. Or maybe it's not.

“American music
has traveled so widely,” Lennox said. “It even came to the
northeast of Scotland in the 1960s .... I was listening to Motown and
Stax.”

She listened to the
radio, but her grandmother also had an old player and some vintage,
78-rpm records. “There were songs like Al Jolson, just weird stuff
like bits of opera and just strange things that I discovered,” she
said. “I would just lie on the floor, keep listening to this music.
(I had) the only-child syndrome that you have to play a lot by
yourself.”

Like many Detroit
parents back then, her dad was a blue-collar worker (at a shipyard in
Aberdeen, Scotland's third-largest city). Unlike most Detroiters, he
also played the bagpipes.

Her own role was
iffy at first. Lennox had a scholarship to the prestigious Royal
Academy of Music in London; she studied flute there for three years,
worked as a waitress and barmaid and shop clerk, even played flute in
a pop band. She linked with Dave Stewart for a band called the
Tourists.

By the time they
created the Eurythmics, their romance had ended but their synth-pop
sound had solidified. “Stewart's studio wizardry provided the
band's foundation,” says the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock &
Roll (Fireside, 2001). “Annie Lennox's theatrical appearance and
beautiful, icy wail ultimately were the duo's calling cards.”

In the U.S., “Sweet
Dreams” hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart, “Here Comes the Rain
Again” was No. 4, “Would I Lie to You” was No. 5.

In the three decades
since then, Lennox has remained vibrant. “I'm proud to say I'm 60,”
she said. “I'm not ageist and I don't think the world should be
.... I haven't had Botox; I haven't done any lifts.

She's had time for a
real life, including three marriages, two children and social
activism -- a tradition that goes back to her paternal grandparents.

“They were going
out and organizing rallies to stop fascism,” Lennox said. “Every
weekend, there would be some kind of gathering. They were very
consicous of the social injustice.”

She's been active on
issues involving AIDS, civil rights and women and children in Africa.
“Annie Lennox is someone I admire tremendously,” said Paula
Kerger, the PBS president.

So it's logical that
PBS' Friday-night performance slot – a Kerger creation – features
Lennox. In this case, it's neatly paired with an hour by Porter.

He's a Broadway
veteran, 45, who finally scored big in the 2013 “Kinky Boots,”
winning a Tony. “There are so many parts of the story that I relate
to personally,” Porter said, “as an African-American gay
Christian man in this world, who was told that everything I was would
never work.”

Sometimes, things do
work out. A kid from the Pittsburgh ghetto conquers Broadway, a
Scottish flutist becomes a pop star, both reach PBS.

-- “Great
Performances: Annie Lennox: Nostalgia Live in Concert,” 10 p.m.
Friday, PBS

-- Follows “Live
From Lincon Center: Billy Porter: Body & Soul,” 9 p.m.

-- Check local
listings; also, look for both on www.pbs.org

"Mad Men" found the perfect time for a long shot


Some evil force must have planned the Easter night TV line-up in an effort to blow out our DVR's. In an overcrowded crunch at 10 p.m., three series or mini-series will debut ("American Odyssey," "Wolf Hall" and "The Lizzie Borden Chronicles") and another will start its season ("Salem"). Yet all four are overshadowed: "Mad Men" -- winner of four Emmys for best drama series -- is starting the second half of its final season. Here's the "Mad Men" story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At first, this
seemed like the longest of long shots.

“Mad Men” was on
a network (AMC) many people didn't know, with a subject (1960s ad
men) they didn't think about. It had, creator Matthew Weiner said,
“not a lot of murder, not a lot of chases.”

But in its own,
subtle way, it scored big. Each of its first four seasons won an Emmy
for best drama series. There have been 15 Emmys in all, plus more
than 100 nominations and an avalanche of praise.

As it returns for
its final seven episodes, actor John Slattery figures the show had
perfect timing. “'The Sopranos' was very influential in allowing an
anti-hero” to be at the core, he said.

Weiner had helped
write and produce three “Sopranos” season, then started “Mad
Men” at an ideal moment. “It was a very rich time in the
television landscape,” said Jon Hamm, who stars. “There were
stories that were driven much more by character than by genre.”

Weiner would create
a classic enigma, a man who seemed to have it all. His name (Don
Draper) and past were lies; so was his warm-looking home life.

As the final
episodes begin, Don is nearing his second divorce and envisioning a
past lover. He's someone who speaks brilliantly about advertising –
then often recedes into silence. He's “alternately an extremely
eloquent character and a man of few words,” Weiner said.

Casting sessions had
better-known actors, plus Hamm. He'd spent three years as waiter --
“I would have taken the job of a dancing slice of pizza,” he said
-- and then a decade as a TV journeyman.

His audition sold
it, Weiner said. “He wasn't playing the person; he made it into
himself.”

Hamm is
quick-witted, but also fits into Don's sense of restraint and
distance. He grew up in St. Louis, with divorced parents who died
when he was 10 (his mother) and 20; he semi-mockingly describes his
“Midwesternness” and his compulsive politeness.

That's Don's
surface, with something else inside. “He's not just an empty suit,”
Hamm said. “He has difficulties and challenges – a lot of those
are his own fault.”

Like Don, Hamm has
had an alcohol problem; he recently completed rehab, TMZ has
reported. Unlike him, he's had a stable romance – 18 years with
Jennifer Westfeldt, a brainy actress-writer-producer – and a genial
approach. Instead of star vehicles, he's taken offbeat roles, usually
comedies, “I've had a chance to work with some of the funniest
people on the planet,” he said.

Other characters
have transformed sharply in circumstance, yet remained consistent.
Peggy Olson has gone from ignored assistant to respected ad director,
yet “she actually hasn't changed in a lot of ways,” said
Elizabeth Moss, who plays her. “Which, I think, goes for a lot of
the characters.”

In the first
returning episode, Peggy and Joan (Christina Hendricks) again face
blatant sexism. For all of its evolution, the '60s era kept plenty of
biases; the episode also finds WASP-y admen taking digs at the Irish,
something Slattery – Irish, Catholic, Bostonian – isn't surprised
by: “It wasn't that long before that when signs said, 'No Irish
need apply,'” he said.

The show also takes
lighter looks at the era, including a mid-century modernism design.
Weiner, born in 1965, finds that appealing. “I grew up in the '80s,
with '50s furniture.”

For others, this is
new. “I never really thought about that decade,” said Hendricks,
born in 1975. “Everything on set was so perfect. We'd see Wite Out
and go, 'When did Wite Out get invented?'”

It was invented and
marketed in 1966, patented in '74. But its predecessor was invented
in 1951 by an artist who was a bad typist, but needed the money to
raise her son. It was marketed (eventually as Liquid Paper) in '56
and sold to Gillette for $47.5 million in '80.

The invention would
change office life in the 1950s ... the son (Michael Nesmith) would
be big in the '60s, in The Monkees ... the fortune would help him be
a movie producer and video pioneer in the '80s. Which is the sort of
the accidental history lesson that accompanies “Mad Men.”

-- “Mad Men,” 10
p.m. Sundays, AMC, rerunning at 11:04 p.m. and 12:08 a.m.

-- Returns April 5,
to start the final seven episodes

-- On April 5, the
sixth season will start rerunning at 12:30 a.m. (latenight Saturay);
the seven episodes from the first half of this seventh season start
at 2:30 p.m.