Louis XIV? Fancy, frilly, fussy ... and an iron grip on a nation

You don't hear much these days about King Louis XIV ... or, for that matter, about cable's Ovation network. But now the two have linked for the lush and involving "Versailles" cable series. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

If you mention King
Louis XIV, all the fanciest notions pop up.

There's the
furniture, the fashions, the fuss and flair. There's the young king
who danced in 40 ballets, propelled an age of artistry and built a
700-room palace. Did he have any time left?

Definitely, said
David Wolstencroft, co-creator of the lush “Versailles” series on
cable's Ovation channel. This was someone who had full power for a
half-century; his official reign (starting when he was 5) was 72
years, the longest for any major country. During that time, he:

-- Transformed the
government. “Any historical moment is just a swirling mass of chaos
that you have to attack,” Wolstencroft said. Louis saw France
emerge from the edge of bankruptcy, fight large wars and establish
colonies, including one (Louisiana) bearing his name.

-- Had vigorous
romances. “I think Louis had 42 kids in all – 21 legitimate and
21 illegitimate.”

-- And kept
expanding that palace, which tops 720,000 square feet. “You can't
imagine the scope of it,” said George Blagden, who plays Louis. “It
is so vast and so excessive. It's breathtaking.”

English-speaking role was more than could be expected by a British
kid who grew up hearing good things about France. “My mom and dad
lived in France for about eight years,” Blagden said. “I would go
there on holiday.”

By then, he was in
thboarding schools, focusing on music (voice, guitar, piano) and
acting. Blagden was in the National Youth Theatre and was singled out
for a master class with Ian McKellan. He landed top roles – as the
captured monk in “Vikings” and the skeptical revolutionary in
“Les Miserables.”

Armed with a lot of
theater training and with a tad of French language and history,
Blagden headed into this role. “The weight of it really hits you,”
he said. “Especially the fact that the French crew would refer to
you as Louis – and would even bow.”

Helping, he said,

-- The costumes.
“The idea of wearing five layers of very heavy clothing in ...
August in Paris is kind of stifling, (but) this just wouldn't be the
role it is without it.”

-- The Versailles.
“It was this amazing decision, to build a large palace in what was
like the Eveglades.”

This had been Louis'
father's hunting lodge, a dozen miles from the French capital in
Paris. It was something Louis cherished, Wolstencroft said. “This
is a young man who hunted.”

He tightened his
control of the country at 23 and at 27, after the deaths of the
Cardinal and of Louis' mother. We meet him at 28, dreaming big things
for Versailles.

Over the next 14
years, it would have four major expansions, reaching its ultimate
size. Also expanding would be Louis' control over economy, art,
religion and ... well, lots of things besides furniture.

-- “Versailles”
10-hour mini-series, 10 p.m. ET Saturdays, cable's Ovation, rerunning
at 1 a.m.

-- First two hours
are Oct. 1; they repeats at 11 p.m. Oct. 8, after the third hour.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

-- 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

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

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)