Showtime gives us drama twists by the billions

During the rare, blessed times when cable gives us something for free, it tries to show off its best stuff. Now it's Showtime's turn, with a free weekend Jan. 15-17 ... and this time, it definitely has good stuff. The movies "Imitation Game" and "St. Vincent" are first-rate, but the real gem is "Billions," debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday. I have zero interest (or less, if possible) in Wall Street, and I don't even pretend to understand the characters' techno-speak. But I love great drama and the "Billions" episodes I've seen -- six so far -- are terrific. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA -- As our techno-TV
world gets more complicated – and more expensive – there are
temporary pauses.

One is coming now:
“We're making Showtime available to over 70 million households for
a free preview weekend,” said David Nevins, the channel's

That's on most cable
systems Friday through Sunday (Jan. 15-17). It's a stretch that was
chosen to display the channel at its busiest, led by the “Billions”
debut. At night, it has:

-- Movies at 8 p.m.
Friday (Bill Murray's quirky comedy-drama “St.Vincent”) and
Saturday (the Oscar-nominated “Imitation Game”).

-- Boxing, with
Deontay Wilder defending his WBC heavyweight title against Artur
Szpilka at 10 p.m. Saturday.

-- “Shameless,”
the ragged comedy-drama. It reruns its sixth-season opener at 8 and
10 p.m. Friday, then has the second episode at 9 p.m. Sunday.

-- “The Circus,”
a weekly look at the political season. It startts at 8 and 8:30 p.m.

-- And “Billions.”
It debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday, with Wall Street titans colliding.

On one side is the
district attorney, who keeps putting people away for insider trading.
“I actually looked at this guy and thought, 'Wow, I play the guy
who wins a lot,'” Paul Giamatti said.

And on the other is
Bobby Axelrod, a Wall Street trader who may be unbeatable.

“Bobby is a
blue-collar guy who ... lives by a code of honor, a set of street
rules, if you like,” said Damian Lewis, who plays him. He's from
“communities where loyalty is fiercely protected and people are
dispatched with ruthlessly.”

His wife shares
those roots. “The money wasn't given to them,” said Malin
Akerman, who plays her. “And they fight fiercely for it.”

This may remind
viewers of Lewis' “Wolf Hall” role last year, as an English king,
battling a sharp lawyer. “The defining difference ... is that Henry
VIII was born into quite a lot of power,” Lewis said.

And power is
something these characters lust for. “You think about money,”
said Andrew Sorkin, a “Billions” producer. “But I think, at
some level, it's as much about power and really about pride.”

Sorkin knows that
turf; he's a financial reporter whose “Too Big to Fail” book
traced the Wall Street collapse. Now he has two very big forces who
assume they're too big for failure.


Dan Rather: A political pro does Willie and Benicio and such

At 84, Dan Rather seems basically unchanged -- a solid, sturdy Texan who ended up at all the power points. Now he's doing cable interviews and seeming like he's happy there. The other day, I had a chance to interview him close-up; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

presidential-election year begins, Dan Rather is back on TV.

“I think this is
some of the best work of my career,” he said. “Although some
might say that's damning it with faint praise.”

But no, he's not
talking about anything political. These are interviews with Willie
Nelson, Benicio Del Toro, John Fogerty and other names we wouldn't
link with Rather.

“I've interviewed
Saddam Hussein,” he said. “I've interviewed every president since
Harry Truman -- but I've also done other kinds of interviews. So, for
that matter, did Ed Murrow.”

Murrow crafted CBS'
reputation for sturdy, serious reporting; he also did “Person to
Person” interviews with Dean Martin, Liberace, Harpo Marx and
beyond. Rather has ranged from Vietnam to Iraq, but he's also
interviewed plenty of actors and musicians and more.

“The difference is
that even in a '60 Minutes' interview, I would only get eight or 10
minurtes,” he said. Now cable gives him an hourlong slot, for one
person. “It's a privilege,” said Rather, 84, “and I take it
seriously ... I don't know if anyone else gets to do that, except
Charlie Rose.”

Rose – whose
interviews air latenight on PBS – shares that enthusiam: “I hope
we never lose a long-form, one-on-one conversation, because I think
it is revealing .... You have time to explore.”

And for a Willie
Nelson interview, Rather would seem to be ideal. He's been known to
offer country songs and Texas folk-isms. Many modern news anchors
have white-collar, suburban backgrounds, but Rather (like former NBC
anchor Tom Brokaw) has blue-collar roots. “I've worked in an
oilfield,” he said. “I know what it's like to do manual labor.”

A ditch-digger's
son, Rather put himself through what's now Sam Houston State
University, then became a TV reporter. He drew attention for Texas
coverage ranging from a hurricane to the John Kennedy assassination.
Soon, he was a key CBS reporter in the Vietnam and Watergate era,
then took over as anchor in 1981.

His grip on the job
faded after complaints that a memo on George W. Bush's military
record couldn't be verified. Rather left the anchor job in 2005 and
left CBS a year later, writing that he wanted “to once again do
regular, meaningful reporting.”

But where? Rather
describes what he thought would be a casual chat with the man who
owns the Dallas Mavericks and the cable channel now called AXS: “Mark
Cuban is as blunt as a pimple on your nose. He asked me, 'What do you
want to do?' I said I wanted to do more investigative reporting.”

So “Dan Rather
Reports” aired on the network from 2006-13, then was followed by
“The Big Interview,” which he says suits him neatly. “I've
always considered myself a curious person.”

Some interviews are
easier than others. “Willie Nelson, I think, I could interview in
my sleep .... Benicio Del Toro? Of course I knew his work (including
an Oscar for “Traffic”), but I didn't know much about him.” For
both, he said, he did elaborate research – just as he does for
political interviews.

And what about
poltics? Rather still writes about it, but now that's Online,
including and the Huffington Post. Like any political
“expert,” he said, he's been wrong, but likes to point to the
times he was right: “When Donald Trump got into the race, I said it
would be a mistake to underestimate him. Whatever else you might
think of him, he's smart.”

In one essay, Rather
wrote about retiring baseball star Derek Jeter: “What must this
past season have been like for a man with still so much life before
him? (Now) he will have to redefine his life.”

That can be done, of
course. Rather keeps redefining his own life in his 80s.

-- “The Big
Interview,” 8 p.m. Tuesdays, AXS TV (formerly HD Net)

-- John Fogerty was
Jan. 12; next are Benicio Del Toro on Jan. 19 and Willie Nelson on
Jan. 26


The new name is strange, but Freefall offers zestful potential

Sure, it seems odd to hear network people use their corporate-speak.The ABC Family people call their target audience "becomers"; on Tuesday, they'll start calling their channel Freeform. People get paid to think of these things. Really.

But amid all the verbal silliness, there's a pleasant surprise: ABC Family has tended to make good dramas, led by "Switched at Birth"; its new ones -- "Shadowhunters" and "Recovery Road" -- are youthful and well-made. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

forgive cable-viewers for feeling perplexed. There are approximately
three zillion channels out there ... and some of them keep switching
their identities.

Court TV became
TruTV, the TV Guide Channel became Pop, the Nashville Network became
The National Network and then Spike.

And now the biggest
name-switcher: On Tuesday (Jan. 12), ABC Family -- formerly Fox
Family, The Family Channel and the Christian Broadcasting Network --
becomes Freeform.

Why Freeform? Well,
why Pop or Spike? Tom Ascheim, the channel president, says the name

“'Freeform' evokes
a mood, a sense of spontaneity, of creativity,” he said. “It's a
place where the parties are better.”

Teens and young
adults do like a good party. The old name didn't seem to promise one.

In surveys, people
who don't watch ABC Family were asked which words describe it. “We
overindex with them in only two attributes,” Ascheim said. “And
they are 'family friendly' and 'wholesome.' (That's) not particularly
representative of who we are.”

Well, it is
sometimes. The Disney-owned channel still has animation marathons. It
still has “25 Days of Christmas” (albeit, failing to have any new
holiday projects last month). But “wholesome” doesn't fit:

-- “Pretty Little
Liars,” which returns on the first day of the Freeform name. The
show jumps ahead five years, with its young women finding new
problems in their post-teen lives. “Somehow, there's a murder,”
Ascheim said. “It's amazing what can happen in that small town.”

-- “Shadowhunters,”
which debuts Tuesday, after “Liars.” Its lead character, Clary,
has a lot in common with the channel's target viewers. “They're
figuring out who they are and who they love,” said Katherine
McNamara, who plays her. “And they're falling in love for the first
time and sort of becoming who they're going to be.” Unlike most of
them, Clary does it while fighting deadly demons.

-- “Recovery
Road,” the second new Freeform show. It has a steel-willed teen
commuting between high school and her drug-recovery center. “It was
pitched to us as 'Romeo and Juliet in rehab' .... It's not just a
bunch of sad people in bathrobes with coffee cups,” said producer
Bert Royal.

-- Or any of the
comedies, new (Nicki Minaj is producing a pilot about her youth) or
returning (“Baby Daddy,” “Young & Hungry” and possibly
“Kevin From Work”).

The title “Young &
Hungry” neatly suggests the channel's target viewer. The show's
lead character (played by Emily Osment, 23) is a chef with ambition
and optimism. She also slept with her employer a few hours after her
job interview. “Family-friendly” and “wholesome” are not

That's what producer
Ed Decter found when pitching “Shadowhunters” to the Freeform
people: “I said, 'The show is going to be darker, sexier, you know.
It's got some racy content.' And they said, 'Bring it.'”

He did; Clary
becomes the symbol of young dreams and fears. With radiant, red hair
-- “she is a very fiery ... individual” McNamara said -- and
glowing face, she's soon surrounded by death and demons.

For other shows –
including returning dramas “The Fosters” and “Switched at
Birth” -- the crises are less violent. They involve love and loss,
rejection and rehab, new careers and old murder charges. They
involve people with freeform lives, trying to avoid freefall despair.

-- “Pretty Little
Liars” has the winter half of its season at 8 p.m. Tuesdays,
starting Jan. 12 ... preceded by a rerun marathon, from 11 a.m. to 8
p.m. Jan. 12.

-- “Shadowhunters”
is 9 p.m. Tuesdays. The Jan. 12 debut reruns at 11 p.m. that day and,
among others times, at 10 p.m. Wednesday and 10 p.m. Friday.

-- “Recovery Road”
debuts at 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25, after the 8 p.m. return of “The

-- Other returning
shows, not yet scheduled, include the drama “Switched at Birth,”
the sci-fi series “Stitchers” and comedies “Baby Daddy” and
“Young at Heart.” Coming this summer (appropriately) is “Dead
of Summer,” a horror series from the “Once Upon a Time”


Yes, teaching can be funny ... from a distance

OK, maybe it doesn't seem funny at the time to have a hapless teacher ... or to be one. But the new show "Teachers" is great fun ... and the upcoming "Those Who Can't" is promising. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

say you're looking for fresh troves of comedy material.

It helps if you've
been a student ... or, even better, a teacher. Consider two new cable

-- “Those Who
Can't” focuses on three men who are inept teachers. “Before I
started standup comedy, I was a really, really bad substitute teacher
for about a year and a half,” Adam Clayton Holland said. “So that
definitely inspired me.”

-- “Teachers”
focuses on six women, all of them inept. Its cast also has an
ex-teacher – a serious on.

“I had a master's
degree and I loved being a teacher,” Caitlin Barlow said. “I
taught 4th grade during the day. And then at night I would
do improv (improvisational comedy) shows.”

She saw lots of
diligent, talented teachers – plus a fewwho provided great comedy
material. “When their students were doing independent work, they
would be on Tinder, trolling for their next date.”

Holland also saw
lots of bad behavior – some of it his own. “There were moments
where I would ... just totally lose control. I would be like, 'I'm
just going to shut the door and hope no administrators hear what's
going on in here.'”

Then there are all
the memories from their student days – lots of good teachers, plus
some who triggered comedy inspiration, One , Barlow said, “would
talk to us endlessly about her divorce.”

The “Those Who
Can't” guys have similar memories; there were “a lot of day
drinkers,” Andrew Orvedahl said. Adds Ben Roy: The realization that
your teachers showed a movie because they were dealing with a
crippling hangover was kind of an amazing insight.”

For comics, this is
gold. Each show started with video shorts, then landed a cable deal:

-- In Denver, three
guys formed a comedy troupe called the Grawlix. For “Those Who
Can't” (debuting Feb. 11 on TruTV), they added Maria Thayer as the

-- In Chicago, the
first version of “Teachers” (debuting Wednesday on TVLand) was
created by the Katydids ... which is a sort of Kate collective.

“Caitlin actually
notriced this trend,” Katie O'Brien. “She just knews a lot of
funny Katys and so that's how the group started. It really was just
the common name.”

Not a single stray
Debbie or Dawn or Peggy Sue broke the circle. The Katydids has women
whose real names are Kate and Cate, Katy and Katie, Caitlin and
Kathryn. They did years of Chicago comedy.

“I taught fourth
grade during the day,” Barlow said. “And then at night, I would
do improv shows and write stuff with the Katydids .... It was like my
dark secret.”

Many of her
co-workers remained in the dark, even as the group began doing
popular little “Teachers” videos on the Internet. Then came the
cable deal.

“She let her
principal know,” O'Brien said. “And at the end of the year, the
principal announced to the staff: 'A fond fairwell to Caitlin, who's
moving to Hollywood to become a movie star.' Everyone looked at her
like she was very delusional.”

For now, the
Katydids still aren't stars; one overheard the parent of a child
actor saying, “I don't know who anyone in this show is.” But
“Teachers” is linked to people with winning records:

-- In its TV Land
slot, it follows “Younger,” the series from Jason Star, creator
of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Melrose Place” and “Sex and the

-- Two former “Key
and Peele” producers are its show-runners.

-- And Alison Brie,
the “Community” actress, is a producer. She's also in an early
episode, dressed as the “Bully Goat” character. “If anyone
could make me dress as a goat,” Brie said, “it's these ladies.”

Who would make their
boss wear a goat costume? Katies did.

-- “Teachers”
debuts at 11:02 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 13) on TV Land, rerunning at
12:30 and 2:02 a.m., plus 8 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 16). The opener is
simulcast on Nickelodeon at 11:02 p.m. Wednesday.

-- Then “Teachers”
takes the 10:30 p.m. Wednesday slot, starting Jan. 20.

-- “Those Who
Can't” debuts at 10:30 p.m. Feb. 11 on TruTV.


Real-life cops: Passion and a downhome drawl

One person told me that as he watched the new "Killing Fields" show, he simply assumed this was an actor in a scripted series. The central character was a police detective, sitting in his undershirt in his Louisiana yard, talking in a deep drawl; he seemed like perfect casting. Except that this isn't an actor at all: It's Rodie Sanchez, a real-life cop tackling a real-life murder case. "Killing Fields" has new episodes at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on Discovery; here's the story I sent to papers:  

By Mike Hughes

third day at an upscale, California hotel, Rodie Sanchez was

“This is the
second or third time I've ever traveled out of Louisiana in my life,”
he said. “If I'm not there, I'm not happy.”

“There” is
Plaquemine, a southern Louisiana town of 7,000. The “Killing
Fields” cable series shows him there, re-opening a 1997 murder

An outsider might
grumble about the area's heat and swamps and such ... and might
prefer this air-conditioned Pasadena hotel, complete with swimming
pool. Sanchez, however, just wanted to go home. “I love the people
of Louisiana,” he said. “I love the hospitality. It's a beautiful
place to see.”

He grew up there and
knew his career choice. “I watched TV a lot when I was young. I saw
how much law enforcement meant. It's a job where you're ready to help

He retired a year
ago, then heard a surprise: Working with a TV crew, the department
was ready to re-open one of its old murder cases; the investigation
would unfold on cable, with no guaranteed outcome.

The Eugenie
Boisfontaine case was chosen, bringing Sanchez out of retirement. He
picked Aubrey St. Angelo – the son of a former colleague – as his

As a kid visiting
the police station, St. Angelo would see a photo of Boisfontaine on
Sanchez's wall. “Never really thought about it,” he said. Now,
“every time I flip through those crime-scene photos (I see) how
horrific it was. Now I carry the picture.”

Boisfontaine was 34,
a Louisiana State University student (Baron Rouge is just 15 miles
away), trying to put her life back together after a bad break-up. Her
body was found in an Isabella swamp.

“I put my heart
into it,” Sanchez said. “And I made law-enforcement's biggest
mistake when I started this case. I made a promise to this young
lady's mother that I would find out ... who murdered her daughter. I
shouldn't have done that; cops don't do that.”

The photo stayed on
his wall for 17 years, until he retired. “I think of Eugenie every
day, almost.”

Even though it's
non-fiction, “Killing Fields” sees to have classic casting.
There's the old police detective, 61, a big guy who's had many
problems (five divorces and kidney cancer); now remarried, he has an
easy, downhome drawl. There's the younger cop, 37, with one divorce
and a steady relationship.

“I wanted to be a
medical professional,” St. Angelo said. “But there just wasn't an
opportunity for that.”

So he followed the
career route of his dad (“a great cop,” Sanchez said) and now
savors the newer options of crimesolving. “Technology has grown so
much since I started in 1973,” Sanchez said.

TV technology has
also grown. The Discovery Channel took an idea from a documentary
company and added two producers who usually work in fiction: Barry
Levinson and Tom Fontana have Emmys (as director and writer) for
“Homicide”; Levinson also has an Oscar for directing “Rain

As cameras follow
the investigation, the producers must mold a weekly hour, with no
guaranteed ending. “If the crime is solved, it is,” Levinson
said. “If it's not, it's the journey of the two men.”

Don't expect either
detective to be content with a journey. The case will stick with him,
Sanchez said; so will the job, even when he's retired. “I'll always
be a cop, for the rest of my life.”

On the third and
final day of doing interviews in Pasadena, Sanchez got an E-mail
about a fresh tip. “I can't wait to get home,” he said.

“Killing Fields”

-- 10 p.m. Tuesdays,

-- Second episode
(Jan. 12) reruns alone at 12:02 a.m.; also at 11 p.m. Sunday (Jan.

-- In addition, the
first two episodes rerun togther from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday (Jan.
15), 9-11 a.m. Sunday and 3-5 p.m. the next Tuesday, Jan. 19


, Diverie Bois