Suddenly, Mondays are the promised land for unique (and good) TV


In recent weeks, I've been telling about lots of new TV shows, some of them pretty good and some not. But what about shows that are REALLY good and really different? We finally have them, all on one overcrowded night, That's Mondays, beginning Oct. 12, when "Fargo" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" debut and "Jane the Virgin" returns. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Here's a common
gripe, and a reasonable question:

TV shows are
sometimes good, sometimes bad, but rarely really different. When will
there be something that feels totally fresh and new?

The answer? Monday
nights, beginning Oct. 12. The second “Fargo” mini-series arrives
at 10 p.m., after “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” debuts at 8 p.m. and
“Jane the Virgin” returns at 9.

At first glance,
these have nothing in common – a tough crime story in rural
Minnesota follows sunny tales in California and Miami. The link:
Small networks, willing to let their creators be creative:

-- FX operates like
the best indie-movie studio, with shows (“Sons of Anarchy,”
“American Horror Story,” “Archer”) that don't feel like each
other ... or like anything else. As Noah Hawley, the “Fargo”
miniseries creator, tells it: “I kept waiting for FX to say to me,
'You can't start the second season with a fake, black-and-white
Ronald Reagan movie.'” They didn't; he starts in that wonderfully
inexplicable way, before jumping into the real story.

-- The CW, which had
little to lose, with shows that barely pierce the top 100 in Nielsen
ratings. It handed a spot to Rachel Bloom, who seems stunned by it
all:.“I'm still not convinced that this whole thing isn't a prank
by my middle-school bullies .... Who would give me a TV show?”

Showtime wouldn't;
it rejected the half-hour version of “Crazy.”

The CW, however,
already had “Jane the Virgin,” with big awards, high praise and
low ratings. “We kept thinking ('Crazy') would be the right fit for
'Jane,'” said CW chief Mark Pedowitz.

So he expanded it to
an hour ... a huge task for a show that includes a giant musical
number in its opener. “It took us two days to film that numnber,”
Bloom said. “And we can definitely keep it up every week. Every
episode is going to have two or three original musical numbers.”

She's not kidding
about those bullies, when she was a teenager in Manhattan Beach, Cal.
“I always felt like a neurotic little New Yorker who wanted to be
on Broadway, living in Southern California. And kids were pretty mean
about it. I went through a period of basically, pretty bad

Like a character in
a teen movie, she cut her own hair, wore sweatpants to school and was
the target of a 7th-grade prank, with the most popular boy
paid to ask her out. But she went to New York Univeristy, where she
led the sketch-comedy troupe, savored musicals and began creating her
own music videos.

Those attracted
Aline Brosh McKenna, who had been writing movies, some praised (“The
Devil Wears Prada”) and some not (“27 Dresses”). They crafted a
story that puts Bloom's life in reverse – an intense and depressed
New York lawyer moves to California, home of a long-ago love.

The songs we see are
in her imagination, McKenna said. “It brings this whimsy and lets
you get insde her head. It does all of the wonderful things that we
all love musicals for.”

“Fargo” had an
easier route. The 1996 movie is a classic and the first mini-series
drew raves. Like “Jane,” it won Peabody, American Film Institute
and Golden Globe awards; it also drew 15 Emmy nominations. Now the
same writer (Hawley) has a new story, in a different generation.

We're in 1979
Minnesota. Molly – the sheriff in the first mini-series – is 6;
her father (Patrick Wilson) and grandfather (Ted Danson) are cops,
entangled in a local and visiting gangs.

Hollywood actors
capture the feeling of a different world, which they have links to.

-- Kirsten Dunst
plays a beautician who keeps plunging her husband deeper into
trouble. “A lot of my family is from Minnesota,” she said, with
roots in an old family farm there.

-- Jesse Plemons is
the butcher who is her overwhelmed husband. He grew up in Mart, a
Texas town of 2,400, near Waco. “There's an isolation to any small
town,” he said.

-- And Jean Smart is
the crime matriarch. She's not Scandinavian, but grew up in a
Scandinavian neighborhood of Seattle, similar to Minnesota. “I
didn't know I was tall until I moved to New York.”

Now Smart,
5-foot-10, pushes to control a crime empire, in a perverse place on a
night of odd TV.

-- Mondays: “Crazy
Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin,” 8 and 9 p.m., CW; then
“Fargo, 10 p.m., FX

-- All start Oct.
12; “Fargo” opener reruns at 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Twin triumph: It pays (someitmes) to be yourself

The best strategy for a reality-show contestant is to be yourself ... if you happen to have a nice self. Claire and Shawn Buitendorp seem to; up close, they seem to be upbeat, uptempo and kind of small-town polite; they're also the first winners of a reality show for twins. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

It isn't easy
keeping a secret for seven months, you know.

That's especially
true if you're quiet-town kids, at the edge of fame ... and your
lives are about to change. You've won fame and fortune ($222,222.22)
on VH1's “Twinning.”

But Claire and Shawn
Buitendorp stuck with that secret until the final episode aired Sept.
30. “We enjoyed watching our friends get so excited,” Shawn said.

Now they're ready
for the next phase. They're expanding their fashion line (at ... and preparing to take it to Fashion Week in New
York next February ... and pushing to be the next “Twinning”
hosts ... and even pushing for their own reality show.

“It would be about
small-town girls who go to the big city and deal with celebrities,”
Claire said.

Which is what they
were, even before this “Twinning” adventure began.

The twins had grown
up in Grand Ledge, a town of 7,800, near Lansing, Mich., with
opposite influences. They were:

-- Typical
small-town Midwesterners, says their mother Linda. They were honor
students who cooked, sewed and cared for their grandmother. “They're
like '50s housewives.”

-- Familiar with the
brasher world of their father Geoffrey. A former rock drummer, he's
been the stage manager for rockers (Ted Nugent, George Thorogood,
Lynyrd Skynrd), presidents (Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush, Bill
Clinton) and more. “They've been well-travelled since the were 2,”
he said.

Shawn – with the
short, semi-punk hair, sometimes done in wild colors – reflects the
rock side; Claire reflects the other side.

It's been a
complementary combination. “We feel safe in stepping out of our
comfort zone, because we always have the other person to step back
to,” Shawn said.

They've taken
chances and had success. Katy Perry. Lindsey Stirling and Little Mix
wore their clothes in concert, Joey Cook wore them on “American
Idol.” Betsey Johnson hired them as interns and Teen Vogue featured

Still, their future
was uncertain. They were 25 and living with their parents, when they
got the call to compete in the first “Twinning.”Suddenly, they
were in a competition with 11 other sets of twins, ranging from
physical challenges to trying to give the same answers to questions.
They had no time to prepare ... or they'd had their whole lives to

“We wanted to be
friends with everyone,” Shawn said, “to be polite .... We wanted
people to say we were nice girls.”

This is sort of what
they are anyway ... but it would be more difficult because they were
kept on opposite sides of the house. “Most people have always seen
us attached at the hip,” Shawn said.

Split apart, in
hectic situations, they could stray. Shawn was villified by other
roommates, after doing an intimate act with one of the guys. That
created a problem later, because they usually watched the show with
their parents.

“We told them
about that, because we didn't want them to be shocked,” Shawn said,
“even though our mom is easily shocked .... But fortunately, we
were out of town that night.”

The moment of
victory was much more wholesome: The question was what they would be
most upset about, if someone took away. The answer – for the
victory and $222,222.22 -- was “Bear.”

His full name is
Bear Bear and Shawn's dad assured her he would keep anything scary
from happening at night. “It was my grandmother's,” she said,
“and he gave it to me when I was 7 .... I take it with me whenever
I travel.”

And there may be a
lot of traveling ahead – to New York for Fashion Week and maybe
forever. Bear Bear may have some city life ahead.

Syndicated TV shows? They range from sunny to somber

It's tricky turf, the world of syndicated (non-network) TV. Good people (Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper) can fail; Jerry Springer can thrive. It's also a vast and varied turf -- as indicated by the two biggest new syndicated shows this fall, "FabLife" and "Crime Watch Daily." Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Let's say you want
to color-code this season's new, syndicated TV shows.

“FabLife” would
be yellow. That's the color of the stars' clothes (sometimes) and of
the logo.

“It's like
sunshine,” fashion-designer Joe Zee said of the logo. “To me, it
feels like the beginning of a morning. You wake up; it's like a great

And “Crime Watch
Daily”? It's color could be grey ... or black ... unless there's
something darker.

“I've already
spent much of the last few months in prisons and jails,” said host
Matt Doran. That included “one of the toughest interviews I've ever
done, with a woman who killed both her children.”

Side-by-side, those
shows illustrate the immense range of syndicated TV – a field that
goes from Kelly and Michael to Springer and Povich.

Syndicators aim for
the non-network timeslots that stations control. In recent years,
they've kept trying individual talk-show hosts, with occasional
success and frequent failure; this year, however, the two largest
shows are group efforts:

-- “Fab Life”
surrounds Tyra Banks with another supermodel (Chrissy Teigen, billed
as a cooking expert), a do-it-yourselfer (Leah Ashley) and designers
of clothes (Zee) and homes (Lauren Makk).

-- “Crime Watch
Daily” has Doran – who hosted a crime series in Australia –
working with correspondents (Jason Mattera and Andrea Isom) and with
film from stations around the country. “It's a mash-up of all of
your favorite crime shows and all of your favorite things magazines
are doing in crime (but no one's) doing in daytime TV,” said
producer Lisa Dempsey.

It follows the
“Dateline” and “48 Hours” style, producer Jeremy Spiegel
said, with a difference: “They are focusing on hour-long mysteries
.... On our show, you get four to six stories in an hour.

“You will get the
murder mystery. You will get the con man. You will get the
caught-on-tape. You might even get a light story. Matt interviewed a
family whose dog saved them from two armed intruders.”

That dog might be
the only one Banks is interested in, especially after finishing her
previous talk show.

“My show was
conflict-oriented,” she said. “So I had to take that home a lot.”

On her new show,
nothing clashes ... including the colors. Zee recalled an early
get-together, when someone asked people what their favorite color is.

“Tyra and I ...
both say 'yellow' at the exact same time. I mean, who says 'yellow'?”

The “Fab” folks
did, rather sunnily, Zee said. “It was like a best dinner party you
can actually be invited to.”


Silent Stardom? For "Blacklist" actor, that was a start


Most of us have trouble handling one job. Then there's Hisham Tawfiq, the actor, firefighter and ex-Marine -- a guy who's good at dialog and at silences. He's in "The Blacklist," which has a strong season-opener Thursday (Oct. 1); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Life keeps giving
Hisham Tawfiq new duties.

He's fought fires,
fought soldiers, guarded prisoners. He's been on stage, offering big
bursts of dialog; he's been on TV, saying absolutely nothing.

That's where most
people first saw him – on “The Blacklist” as Dembe Zuma, Red's
silent bodyguard. “There were no lines,” he recalled. “It was
just being a presence.”

These days,
“Blacklist” has lines and emotions for everyone. As the third
season begins, Liz (framed for murders) and Red are on the run ...
and Dembe has a separate crisis.

But even in the
early days, Tawfiq said, he enjoyed the acting exercise of “working
with the silences.” And from the beginning, he said, James Spader
(who stars as Red) seemed interested.

“A lot of A-list
actors don't really have a conversation with you, but he always did,”
Tawfiq said. “We had a really interesting conversation, just about
my background.”

It's definitely a
unique one: Even now, as a regular on a hit show, Tawfiq is a New
York firefighter. Before that, he was a soldier in Desert Storm and a
guard at Sing Sing.

Tawfiq, 39, grew up
in Harlem during its tough years. “In the '70s and '80s, hard times
had taken over,” he said. “It was almost like a zombie town.”

His dad – a Muslim
minister who had worked with Malcolm X – kept a close eye on the
five brothers. At 6-foot and 205 pounds, Tawfiq focused on football
and theater, at least for a while.

“When I was in
high school, my father passed away ... and I lost a little of my
focus,” he said. “I knew I had to get away from there.”

That led to the
Marines, the prison job and firefighting. By combining some of those,
he'll be eligibe for retirement in 2016; in the meantime, he juggles
jobs. “That's the beautiful thing about (being a firefighter); I
have the flexibility to work different shifts.”

Patching together
his vacations and his days off, he's had an alternate life. He
studied with the Negro Ensemble Theatre, steeped in history; “Denzel
Washington came to our graduation.” He acted with the Arkansas
Repertory Theatre and subsequently married the daughter of one of the
“Little Rock Nine” who brought integration to Central High

He did big roles
onstage – including the lead in “A Raisin in the Sun” -- and
tiny ones on film. Then he was cast in the second “Blacklist”
episode; “it was only supposed to be for one episode.”

Instead, he's been
in virtually every episode ... eventually getting lines and a back
story. He juggled his schedule to keep busy. “When I do have a day
or two off, I feel like I should be doing something.”

Maybe he could just
be a silent presence somewhere. He has experience at that, you know.

“The Blacklist,”
9 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, with season-opener Oct. 1


The sloth-ful life is TV worthy

It makes sense, I guess, for a guy who watches a lot of television to write a story about sloths. Now these creatures -- heroes to sofa people everywhere -- have their primetime moment on two Wednesdays, Sept. 23 and 30. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The worlds rarely
speaks kindly of sloths. It considers them slow, sleepy and ... well,

This is the only
animal to bear the name of one of the seven deadly sins. (No, “a
pride of lions” doesn't count.) And Sam Trull – featured in a new
PBS film – says that's a bad rap.

“They are
absolutely not lazy,” she said. “They're efficient. They need to
conserve energy. They have the lowest muscle mass of any mammal and
their diet doesn't bring in a lot of calories.”

In short, they could
be a symbol for many low-muscle-mass humans, needing a good excuse.

Trull is featured in
a two-part “Nature's Miracle Orphans” film, focusing on a surge
in the survival of young animals. “The success rate often comes
down to the tireless work of individual caregivers at animal rescue
centers around the world,” said Fred Kaufman, producer of the
“Nature” series.

Those range afar.
“We have some great characters in Australia,” said Mark Wheeler,
producer of the film. “We have a lady who looks after orphaned
fruit bats.”

But the primary
focus is on Trull in Costa Rica, where she's become attached to
sloths – literally.

There is almost
nothing she hasn't done while a sloth was clinging to her, she says,
and that habit has solid benefits for the sloths. They are:

-- “Getting warmth
... directly toward their stomachs, which is a very important spot
for a sloth.”

-- Becoming secure.
“They need to feel safe and comfortable, in order to learn ... and

-- Building muscles.
“They come out of the womb being able to cling onto their moms.”

This role as a
substitute mom started more than half her life ago. Trull, 34, got
her first animal-care job at 16, majored in zoology at Duke and added
a Master's Degree in primate conservation.

“I'm a little bit
of a traitor, because now I totally work with sloths, who are not
primates,” she said. “But ... the first time I met a sloth, I
fell in love. They're amazing.”

In Costa Rica, she's
worked for privately funded groups – KSTR (Kids Saving the
Rainforest) and now the Sloth Institute. At a typical time she's
raising eight young sloths – many of them orphaned by car accidents
and being prepared toreturn to the wild.

Yes, she has a
back-up sloth-sitter ... which she needed so she could return to the
U.S. and talk to Television Critics Association writers. But mostly,
her days are sloth-centric.

“My entire live is
dedicated to the sloths now,” Trull said, “which can get a little
overwhelming at times, because you want to have fun or actually hang
out with humans.”

Then again, there
are plenty of sloths hanging around (literally), ready for attention.

-- “Nature,” 8
p.m. Wednesdays, PBS (check local listings)

-- Season opens
Sept. 23 and 30 with the two-part “Nature's Miracle Orphans”