Norman Lear's just your usual 94-year-old investigative reporter


Remember when Walter Cronkite felt obligated to retire at 65. Norman Lear is still going strong -- doing some investigative reporting, no less -- at 94. He's part of a passionate cable show that debuts Sept. 30; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

After almost a
century, Norman Lear might have been considered an expert on life and
on cities.

Then he took a
reporting assignment. “I was horrified at how little I knew,” he
said.

Lear, 94, the “All
in the Family” producer, emerged with a grim view: Even “a
doctor, a lawyer making a reasonable living, with two (college-bound)
kids, can no longer afford to live in New York City.”

His report starts
Friday and continues a week later, in the new “America Divided”
cable series. Other reports Friday have actress Rosario Dawson
viewing the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and rapper-actor Common
returning to his Chicago home town to eye cops, crime and
punishment.,

No, these aren't
your usual softball subjects; upcoming ones range from immigration to
addiction. “People are really focusing on these kind of critical
issues,” said producer Solly Granatstein.

And these aren't
your usual reporters; in the weeks ahead, there will be actors Amy
Poehler, America Ferrara, Jesse Williams, Peter Sarsgaard and Zach
Galifianakis.

Granatstein, who
spent decades at news magazines, finds this approach logical. “A
lot of the reporting that happens, even at a place like '60 Minutes,'
is actually done by the producers. So (we're) kind of used to dealing
with sort-of famous, talented people who are great on camera, who are
smart and engaged,” but need to have the advance work done.

The key, Lear said,
is simply to care. “I was extremely interested (and) my interest
showed.”

The same was true of
Dawson, Granatstein said. “She's an activist. She's really tough;
on the other hand, she's a very warm, empathetic person, and that
really came across ... with the Flint residents.”

The financially
troubled city is run by a state-appointed emergency manager. To save
money, the city switched to a different source of its water ... then
ignored complaints about the result.

“It's this
unbelievable story,” Granatstein said, “about how a government
poisoned its own people .... Just 30 days later, people were already
complaining about the brown water and the ill effects. And it just
went on for months (before) anybody was able to admit there was a
real problem .... Kids have been poisoned and are still suffering
from the lead in the water.”

Dawson's efforts to
interview Gov. Rich Snyder were rebuffed, but Lear was successful for
his story. “I had a long interview with Mayor (Bill) de Blasio,”
he said.

The New York mayor
was eager to talk to Lear, Granatstein said, “because Norman is
Norman.”

Lear grew up in
Connecticut, sometimes lived in New York, then created the classic
New Yorker. Back then, Archie Bunker's loading-dock job was enough to
buy a good home in Queens.

And now, Granatstein
said, “70 percent of New Yorkers are actually renters.” They face
gentrification, with a twist: In other countries, people buy New York
apartments but rarely live in them, using them as a way to keep their
money secure.

With prices going
up, Lear found, some landlords try to drive out current tenants.
Others target blacks.

“Norman goes
undercover with a hidden camera, to expose racial discrimination in
housing in New York,” Granatstein said. “We particularly expose
one landlord's discriminatory practices.”

That seems like an
issue from when “All in the Family” began, 45 years ago. “It
amazes me that we haven't moved faster,” Lear said.

By comparison, he
said, LGBT (gay rights) issues have advanced quickly. “Racial
harmony wants to be moving as far forward as quickly in the next
decade or two as the LGBT issue did.”

-- “America
Divided,” 9 p.m. Fridays, Epix, starting Sept. 30

-- Opener has a full
report by Common and the start of reports by Norman Lear and Rosario
Dawson

 

Yes, TV shows get second chances (sometimes); now it's "Code Black"


A year ago, "Code Black" had one of TV's best pilot films ... then sort of faded from view. But now, in a TV rarity, it's getting a major makeover as its second season stars Wednesday (Sept.28). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At times, TV
networks seem like frantic football coaches. Promising rookies are
praised, played, then promptly forgotten.

So it's refreshing
to see a show get a chance to reboot. This year, that's “Code
Black.”

A year ago, it was a
hot prospects. CBS' Andrea Ballas called it a “heart-pounding
medical drama.”; Dr. Ryan McGarry, a writer-producer, compared
making the show to soing at a real emergency-room shift: “You leave
as someone else.”

McGarry had made a
documentary about the Los Angeles County Hospital emergency room.
Producer Michael Seitzman took it from there, filling the show with
stars – Marcia Gay Harden, Bonnie Somerville, Luis Guzman, Raza
Jaffrey – and energetic camerwork. This seemed promising.

Then ratings
slipped. CBS ordered 18 episodes, instead of 22, and wasn't expected
to renew it.

But now “Black”
is back, with a major overhaul. Somerville and Jaffrey are out; Rob
Lowe and Boris Kodjoe are in. Three first-year residents arrive,
partly nudging last year's newcomers aside.

Seitzman talks
cautiously about the departures, which may not have been his idea. “I
liked these people; it might seem like they failed, but they really
didn't.”

The other changes,
he insists, weren't last-minute scrambling. That included:

-- Adding Kodjoe in
the dual spot as chief of surgery and the emergency room ... making
him the boss -- and sometimes nemesis -- of Dr. Leanne Rorish
(Harden). “We always knew he was going to be a series regular when
we brought him in on Episode 15.

-- Bringing in the
new residents. The plan, he said, had always been to duplicate a
hospital's routine of adding new ones each year. “I pitched three
characters I really liked” ... including one who went through
medical school after being a child-star actress.

--And adding a key
outsider. The idea began, Seitzman said, with a call from Dr. Todd
Rasmussen, who has been both an Air Force surgeon and head of the
military's Combat Casualty Care Research Project. “He said, 'We
imbed our doctors in city hospitals' .... I thought that is a
delicious nichefor a character.”

So he created Col.
Ethan Willis. “We had to cast a TV star .... Then “Grinder' was
cancelled and Rob Lowe was available. He didn't want to jump into
another show, but when he saw this, he decided to.”

In the
season-opener, he's even taking a helicopter ride to save shark
victims. Like “Night Shift” (a summer success on NBC), “Code
Black” adds a sorrt of military macho medicine.

Lowe is 52, fitting
alongside Harden, 57, Kodjoe, 43, and Guzman, 60. On the flip side,
Noah Gray-Cabey, who plays one of the residents, is only 20.

Gray-Cabey us used
to being the youngest person in the room; he was a concert pianist in
the Sydney Opera House at 5, a high school grad at 15 and then a
Harvared student. “We like his comedy touch,” Seitzman said. “He
just gave a great audition.”

Another newcomer is
played by Emily Tyra. “I saw her on 'Flesh and Bone” (playing an
anorexic ballerina) and thought she was just extraordinary,”
Seitzman said.

And Nafessa
Williams, 26, plays what may be the most unusual newcomer. “You
hear about so many people who leave acting and go to Yale or
Harvard,” Seitzman said.

Many – Brooke
Shields, Jodie Foster, Kellie Martin – seem to thrive at top
colleges; some range far from show business. Mayim Bialik has a
doctorate in neruo-science; Danica McKeller graduated summa cum laude
in math and has written four books on the subject.

“I thought,
'Wouldn't it be interesting if one went on to be a doctor?'”
Seitzman said. So now “Code Black” has a child-star doctor,
alongside an action-adventure surgeon. That's a major makeover.

-- “Code Black,”
10 p.m. Wednesdays, CBS; season opens Sept. 28

 

"Empire" has it all: Macbeth and Cookie and Othello and rap and fur noodles


"Empire" is not one of those shows that you watch casually. The seaon starts (9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept, 21) with a thunderbolt, then doesn't really slow down. It's all very operatic ... or Shakespearean ... or Empirical. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

Leaping to the top
of the Nielsen ratings, “Empire” has merged worlds.

This is
Shakespeare-meets-soap-opera, with a musical beat. It's a world of
big schemes and big characters. “It's what brought me back to TV,”
Taraji Henson said.

On “Person of
Interest,” Henson played a typical TV cop; “I literally did not
ever want to do television again,” she said. Then came this role as
Cookie Lyon, encased in flashy clothes (“I was a bit overwhelmed by
the fur noodles”) and rage; it has already brought her a Golden
Globe and two Emmy nominations.

And for Trai Byers,
who plays Andre, the show merges everything. He's done soaps and he's
a Yale School of Drama alumnus who knows Shakespeare ... which helped
him land the role.

At that point, his
career was still sputtering. He'd been Mookie (“a hoodlum, but an
interesting one”) on “All My Children” and nerdy Alec on
“90210.” He'd tried out a lot; “I must have had 300 auditions.”

At the “Empire”
audition, he compared Andre to Iago in “Othello.” Danny Strong,
the show's creator, was happy to hear that; he was planning to make
“Empire” very Shakespearean in plot and in tone. “I like the
fact that the stakes are so high,” Byers said.

His own background
had been mobile, in a military family that ranged from Kansas to the
Philippines. “It's the gypsy complex, to not be able to stay in one
place too long.”

He learned to adapt,
which is what the “Empire” characters keep doing, particularly:

-- Cookie, who went
to prison so her then-husband Lucious could build their record
company and raise their sons. “She was locked up for 17 years,”
Henson said. “She has a lot of catching up to do.”

-- Andre. On the
surface, he was the most together, a Wharton School of Business grad
and the CEO of his dad's company. Still, he has a bipolar disorder,
something he shares with his grandmother. “The gist of this is
really identity,” Byers said. “It's hard to be something when you
don't know who you are.”

Also, Andre is the
only non-musical one, in a family built on music. “Trai Byers has a
beautiful voice,” show-runner Ilene Chaiken said. “But he's not
going to sing in the show, because Andre doesn't.”

Providing some
counterpoint is Rhonda, who was Andre's college sweetheart. Now she's
his wife and, Byers said, his Lady Macbeth. As last season ended, she
was fighting with the pregnant Anika (whom Lucious had just married,
to keep her from testifying against him) on a balcony.

That leaves viewers
wondering which woman (if any) will survive. This “gets answered in
a fabulous and heart-stopping way” in the first minute of the new
season, Chaiken said, accurately.

For Byers, it was a
balcony battle between his two wives – his fictional one and his
real-life one.

He and Grace Gealey
met on the show and married. The wedding, on her native Cayman
Islands, was in April; a month later, viewers saw her character
(Anika) marry his character's father (Lucious).

So now Trai Byers is
married to his fictional mother-in-law ... who is fighting his
fictional wife and carrying his fictional half-brother or half-sister
or (if Hakeem is the real father) his fictional niece or nephew. By
now, even Shakespeare would be boggled.

-- “Empire,” 9
p.m. Wednesdays, Fox; season starts Sept. 21

This grandma had a fascinating tale of lives saved


Yes, Ken Burns sometimes tackles sweeping subjects -- world wars, Prohibition, baseball and such. But he can also help break out small slices, individual heroes. One such tale is recounted in an excellent documentary that reaches PBS on Tuesday (Sept. 20); here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

It was the sort of
assignment many kids get: Interview someone who has shown moral
courage.

And it led to one of
life's great understatements. As Artemis Joukowsky recalls it: “My
mom ... said: 'Talk to your grandmother. She did some cool things
during World War II.'”

Yes, some very cool
things. Using deception and determination, Martha Sharp and her
husband (Rev. Waitstill Sharp) got Jewish kids out of Nazi-held
countries. “They were the most giving, responsible, courageous
people I have ever known,” said Amelie Diamont-Holmstrom, one of
the hundreds saved.

Joukowsky was 14
when he heard this. “It changed my life,” he said. Almost four
decades later, he's linked with Ken Burns for a fascinating
documentary (“Defying the Nazis”) that debuts Tuesday.

“This was like (a
spy) novel, only it was all true,” Burns said. “This normal
couple (is) sitting by their fire and the phone rings. A month
lather, they're in Prague, doing James Bond things.”

It was a huge
stretch for them, said Beth Hoppe, PBS' programming chief. “A
Unitarian minister and his wife embarked on a dangerous journey (to
Prague). Over the next two years, they would take part in dozens of
clandestine missions across Europe, saving hudereds of lives.”

Why didn't their
grandson hear about this until he was 14? There were two key reasons,
he said:

-- This wasn't
something his mother talked about. These missions took her parents
away from her ... and, ultimately, from each other. When the Starks,
who later divorced, went to Europe, they left their children (ages 7
and 2) with parishioners. “My mom,I think, felt a sense of
abandonment.”

-- And his mom's
archeology work took them around the world. “I was born in Italy,
lived in Lebanon, lived in Hong Kong .... It wasn't until I moved to
New York that I got to know my grandparents.”

Once he did, he
found his grandmother to be a fierce force. “Her personality was
larger than life – loving, very engaged with people. She was a very
passionate philanthropist.”

And he was meeting
her at a key time. Joukowsky had been diagnosed with a nueromuscular
disorder that eventually put him in a wheelchair. “My grandmother
came to my hospital and said, 'Come on, we're not going to feel sorry
for ourselves. We're going to go help with the Boys & Girls
Clubs.'”

He's gone on to be
an investor and a disability activist, whileworking on her story. “I
went into the basement of my grandfather's home and found about 800
documents that started this,” he said.

He was able to
identify 200 of the rescued children and interview 30 of them. He
also met Burns; these were friendly chats between two grads (a decade
apart) of Hampshire College.

“I started off
just as a friend ... and sort of an advisor,” Burns said. Then he
was helping to produce it and got his friend Tom Hanks to voice Rev.
Sharp. “These films are made in the editing room.”

The Sharps have been
honored in Israel and in the U.S. But the real symbols of their lives
have been the people they rescued, including the Diamont triplets.

These were the
daughters of a dentist and a violinist-artist. “We have always had
each other,” said Amelie, 89. “We were our own little group.”

That was helpful
when they were slipped out of Austria. Eventually, their parents were
re-united with them in Portland, Oregon. Amelie went on to be an
author, teacher, counselor and grandmother.

That's typical of
many of the people who were rescued, Burns said. “Of the two-dozen
or so people who appear in our film, there's extraordinary
accomplishment.”

So Joukowsky's
project offers plenty of happy endings. He adds one more: “It was
the only “A” I ever got in high school.”

-- “Defying the
Nazis: The Sharps' War”

-- 9-10:30 p.m.
Tuesday (Sept. 20), PBS (check local listings)

 

For these artists, ducks are the grand pri


OK, this may be hard to believe: Just as networks are ready to unload their zillion-dollar fall shows, one of the best things on TV is ... well, a documentary about a duck-stamp contest. Really. "The Million Dollar Duck" (9:01 and 10:33 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, on Animal Planet) has warmth, charm, humor and a tad of suspense. Here's the story I sent to papers:  

 

By Mike Hughes

The world has enough
people who want to be rock stars, too many who want to be president.

It needs something
more important – people who want to win the Federal Duck Stamp
contest.

The contest –
featured in a fascinating cable documentary Wednesday – has been
around since 1934. Like many 82-year-olds, it's slowed down.

“In the early
'80s, there were just under 2,100 entries,” Rob McBroom said. “Last
year, it was 157.”

He's one of them ...
and one of the people profiled in “The Million Dollar Duck.”

The title comes from
the contest's peak years. There's no prize money, but some winners
reported topping $1 million for prints and licensing rights and such.

“It's still worth
a substantial amount of money, but not that much,” Adam Grimm said.
“I wish it were.”

Back in 1999, he
became (at 21) the youngest winner ever. That didn't make him rich,
but it did propel his dreams. A few years later, he says, he
“uprooted my whole family from Ohio – my wife and I and our
(1-year-old) daughter. We moved away from all of our family and
friends, to the remote regions of South Dakota, because I wanted to
be in the central flyway.”

Others in the film
are newer to this. They include:

-- Dee Dee Murry,
who was sometimes less successful than her blind dog. Murry did
serious painting; the dog (holding a brush via teeth) did abstracts.
“She raised over $35,000 (and) we donated it all to dog rescue,”
Murry said.

-- Rebekah Nastav,
who loved painting, but needed a career nudge. She's now 25 and
married, but when filming began (in 2013), she was living with her
parents and working as a mail-carrier in rural Missouri. “I really
didn't start painting ducks until after I started entering the Duck
Stamp contest.”

-- Tim Taylor, 54, a
commercial painter in New Jersey. “A lot of the year, I paint
things like Santa Claus and store windows and Easter bunnies and
stuff like that,” he said. “So I'm happy to go back to ducks.”

-- And McBroom, 42,
Taylor's nemesis.

In Minneapolis,
McBroom makes his living as the office manager of a small record
company and as a part-time art-galley security guard. But his real
passion involves painting flashy abstracts.

As the only abstract
painter in the contest, he drew amusement (“they called me 'the
sequin guy') and scorn. When Taylor wrote scathing reviews, McBroom
retaliated.

“He started making
copies of my paintings and putting in pictures of myself and my
ex-wife and all kinds of stuff,” Taylor said. “Every Facebook
picture I put up, it was in the breast of the bird.”

McBroom prefers to
call these “parodies”; he says Taylor was not amused. “He went
ballistic.”

That much, Taylor
agrees on. “I was spitting mad, I'll tell you.” He soon bought
all the Website names with “Rob McBroom” in them, just to
frustrate his nemesis.

That's a quirky
sideline to a contest usually built around good intentions and
beautiful ducks.

The stamps –
originally $1, now $25 – are required for duck hunters, but are
also bought by collectors. So far, $800 million has been raised and
5.7 million wetland acres have been preserved.

“Almost every
animal (relies) heavily on wetland habitat .... It benefits all
wildlife,” Grimm said.

So he lives in the
central flyway, where he can study and photograph the ducks. “I'll
spend several months out of the year, just doing nothing but working
on this painting.”

Taylor does the
same. “I devote about two months of the year to my painting,” he
said. He sometimes moves from New Jersey to South Dakota. There, he
lives with the Grimm family and becomes Uncle Tim to the three girls
... one of them now a Junior Duck Stamp champion.

At times, Grimm
said, life has a strong focus: “I never get tired of painting
ducks.”

-- “The Million
Dollar Duck,” 9:01 p.m. Wednesday, Animal Planet; reruns at 10:33.