"Downton" starts its long and stately farewell;


Life, you may have noticed, is not fair. Good shows depart quickly; "Alice" and "Facts of Life" seemed to go on forever. And now "Downton Abbey" is starting its final season on Sunday (Jan. 3) ... three days before "American Idol" doies the same.

These are shows that helped transform their networks; they also remain consistent. This final "Downton" season continues the show's elegance and depth; here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

By now, the “Downton
Abbey” people seem eternal.

They fill our living
rooms on winter Sundays. They're as comfortable as a wine glass and a
smoking jacket ... except, of course, that few of them smoke.

“One thing I've
learnt from the show is that the only people who smoke cigarettes are
up to no good,” said Hugh Bonneville, who plays the family
patriarch.

Now they're leaving
us, with the final season ending March 6. “I never thought this day
would come,” said Rebecca Eaton, the head of PBS'' “Masterpiece.”

It's come quite
quickly. This is only the sixth season, putting “Downton” short
of even “Petticoat Junction,” “The Quiz Kids” and “Life
Begins at Eighty” in seasons.

Still, the impact
has been huge – especially for public-TV.

“It is the top PBS
drama of all time,” said Paula Kerger, the network's president,
“and one of the most-watched dramas on American television.”

It has boosted other
Sunday dramas, airing in front of “Downton” (“Call the Midwife”
returns this spring) and afterward (the Civil War “Mercy Street”
will be at 10 p.m. Sundays, starting Jan. 17).

There have been 60
Emmy nominations so far and 12 wins – two of them for Maggie Smith,
81, as Violet Crawley, the sharp-tongued dowager crafted by creator
Julian Fellowes.

“I think in
another life that Julian would be Lady Grantham,” said Penelope
Wilton, whose character (Isobel) often spars with her. “He seems to
write effotlessly for Lady Grantham ... I am constantly frustrated by
her wit.”

Fellowes seems to
invest each character with depth. “His view on life is that people
have tried to be fundamentally good,” Bonneville said. “They may
do bad things, but he writes from a position that human nature tries
to do good.”

He preserves the
mood of a 1925 manor; only on “Downton” has a character actually
said: “I'm going upstairs to take off my hat.” But he also uses
the speed of modern storytelling.

Things keep
changing, especially among the three sisters. Sybil died ... as did
Mary's husband ... as did Edith's boyfriend, who left her with a
London magazine to run.

“She could have
been the most conventional of the three daughters,” said Laura
Carmichael, who plays her. “I think she wanted a life much like her
parents and grandparents, but because of the ... heartache, really,
she's sort of had to find a different path for herself.”

That included a
secret pregnancy. By now, many of the characters realize that little
Marigold is actually the daughter of Edith and her late lover.

“Mary is still in
the dark about Marigold,” said Michelle Dockery, who plays her.
“Because she just doesn't take enough interest in Edith's life to
even notice.”

Mary has other
things to worry about, managing the estate now that Sybil's widower
has moved to Boston. She also has people trying to nudge her toward a
second marriage.

The sole marriage on
the horizon so far involves the show's stately butler and
housekeeper, Mr. Carter and Mrs. Hughes. They are not the type for
kissing, hugging ... or refering to each other by first name. They
are “Downton Abbey” kind of people.

-- “Downton
Abbey,” 9 p.m. Sundays on PBS' “Masterpiece”

-- Final season runs
Jan. 3 through Feb. 21, then has its finale March 6

 

Steve Jobs: A strange life makes a great documentary


OK, the world doesn't have a shortage of Steve Jobs biographies. (Walter Isaacson's best-seller was followed by two movies, one of them written by Aaron Sorkin.) Still, the newest project -- a documentary that airs Jan. 3 and 9 on CNN -- is compelling. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For a good
biography, you need a life of contrasts and conflicts. For a great
one, you need ... well, someone like Steve Jobs.

Before starting his
Jobs film, Alex Gibney already knew large lives; he'd done profiles
of Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Lance Armstrong and more. Still, Jobs
stands out.

“I was fascinated
by his interest in Zen Buddhism .... He always came across as this
counter-culture figure,” Gibney said.

Here was a
long-haired guy in bluejeans, sometimes barefoot. In his parents'
garage, he had started Apple, battling IBM and drawing admirers
worldwide. “He was, for them, a combination of James Dean, Princess
Diana, John Lennon and maybe Santa Claus,” Bill Belleville, a
former colleague, wrote after Jobs' death (at 56, of pancreatic
cancer) in 2011.

Jobs encouraged such
images, Gibney said. “He talked about values as if he was embodying
those values.” Still, he often seemed to emulate the corporations
he'd fought. The film talks about Jobs:

-- Hiding millions
in income, via backdated options.

-- Hiding billions
in Apple profits, through overseas corporations, one of which had
zero employees.

-- Ducking even tiny
amounts. He avoided buying license plates by getting a new lease
every six months; he fought in court, before agreeing to pay $500 a
month in child support ... shortly before becoming worth almost $200
million.

-- And rarely
spreading his good fortune. “He torched the philanthropy program
(at Apple),” Gibney said. “That was when they were in financial
trouble, but he did nothing to bring it back” afterward.

Still, Jobs saw
himself as a counterculture hero. “He could convince himself of
things that weren't necessarily true,” former colleage Ave Tevanian
says in the films.

When Jobs was a
teenager, for instance, his friend Steve Wozniak created a variation
on the “blue box” devices that tricked phone-company computers
into giving free, long-distance calls. Later, Gigney said, Jobs would
say: “When Woz and I invented the blue box.”

Woziak was the prime
inventor of many Apple innovations. Jobs also had tech smarts, but he
added something more. “He was like a generation's storyteller,”
Gibney said.

Others worked with
machines; Jobs told how they were part of a changing world. He
sometimes offered a version of a quote from Polaroid founder Edwin
Land, that photography is “the intersection of art and science.”
This is the sort of intersection that Jobs inhabited.

As a teen, he had
two main friends – Wozniak, the techie, and Crissann Brennan, an
artist. “She was the one who continued trying to become
enlightened,” Gibney said.

They would split
(and battle over child support), but Jobs continued to thrive on both
art and science. The iMac, Gibney said, was “just an old machine
that they put a beautiful package on.”

Jobs pushed its
image (and his own) powerfully. “He was a rock star,” Gibney
said,

And he maneuvered
workers, Belleville said, in a chaotic workplace. “He's seducing
you, he's villifying you, he's ignoring you.” And convincing you to
join him (at least temporarily) in changing the world.

-- “Steve Jobs:
The Man in the Machine,” 9 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, CNN

-- Also, 9 and 11
p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 9

 

 

 

TV is a multi-Margo experience


One of TV's great series, "Justified" peaked when Margo Martindale brilliantly played a marijuana matriarch in the Kentucky hills. The role had rich layers ... and she's almost matched it subsequently, Now Martindale has "The Good Wife," "The Americans," two Sundance films and more. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

For a couple of
generations, Margo Martindale led the patient life of a supporting
actress.

She did a lot of
plays, some movies, some TV shows. Eventually, she would be Meryl
Streep's sister, Hilary Swank's mother, Miley Cyrus grandmother; she
was Susan Sarandon's colleague (often) and Leonardo DiCaprio's
doctor. People almost sort of recognized her.

And then it all
broke loose. In her 60s, she's won two Emmys and played classic
characters on “Justified,” “The Americans,” “The Good Wife”
and more. “It's just been joyous,” she said.

And now the rush
continues. “The Good Wife” returns to CBS in January ... the same
month that Martindale has two movies at the Sundance Film Festival and is nominated for a Critics Choice Aeard.
“The Americans” returns in March; on the way are more movies and
an Amazon series.

These roles cover a
huge swath ... which Martindale's life has prepared her for. Consider
when she made the leap from small-town Texas to the University of
Michigan.

“I didn't have any
idea what I was getting into,” she said. “We got a U-Haul trailer
and hooked it up to the car and drove north .... My accent was so
strong then.”

She had grown up in
Jacksonville, an East Texas city of 14,000. Her dad had the local
lumber yard and showed dogs; her older brother Billy was an all-state
quarterback and then a noted golf-course designer.

It sounds idyllic,
but the tough part involved wearing a brace. “I had it for six
years,” she said. “It was 24 hours a day for two years.”

When it came off,
she leaped into ... well, everything. She golfed, was a cheerleader,
was named “football sweetheart.” She did theater, including a
high school role as the faded Southern belle in Tennessee Williams'
“The Glass Menagerie”; even at 16, she says, she was playing
60-year-olds.

After starting in a
hometown college, Martindale made the big move to Michigan. People
there shared her passion for football and theater, but didn't always
speak the same language.

“The word for a
soda was 'pop,'” she recalled. “I didn't know that. (In Texas),
we said 'Coke' for everything: 'I want a Coke.' 'What kind?' 'A
Pepsi.'”

She would learn to
adjust her accent and her life; the move to New York City went
smoothly. “I knew everyone on my block,” Martindale said. “We
celebrated together; we mourned together.”

She's been married
to musician William Boals since 1987, has one daughter and often had
the life of many New York actresses – off-Broadway shows, day jobs
(spa consultant, background checks for job applicants) and occasional
roles in movies or TV shows, sometimes alongside big stars.

“I was always shy
around Paul Newman,” she said. “This was the guy from 'Hud'; that
was the most nervous I'd ever been.”

He was shy too, she
said, but a quiet friendship evolved over two movies. In 2004, she
finally got her first Broadway role, in Williams' “Cat on a Hot Tin
Roof”; Newman – who had starred in the movie version, 46 years
earlier – came backstage to praise her.

She got a Tony
nomination and, that same year, drew praise in Clint Eastwood's
“Million Dollar Baby.” More followed, including two series, “The
Riches” and “Mercy”; then came the “Justified” role.

“They wanted a
Kentucky druglord and wanted me to audition,” Martindale said. “I
said, 'Can't you just show them my (acting) reel?' But they really
wanted me to come in. I'm glad I did.”

This became a richly
layered performance, one that Robert Bianco of USA Today called
“smart, chilling, amusing, convincing and unfailingly
entertaining.”

Martindale won a
2011 Emmy (at age 60) for that role, then drew three nominations in
“The Americans,” winning in 2015. Now she adds a Critics Choice nomination for “The Good Wife,”
as a fierce political schemer.

“People keep
saying these women are evil,” she said with a laugh. “They're
just really good at what they do.” And so, of course, is Margo
Martindale.

Margo everywhere

-- “The Good Wife”
returns Jan. 10 on CBS. That episode finds Martindale on a crowded
campaign bus in Iowa with her candidate (Peter) and the guy she
replaced as campaign chief (Eli).

-- Critics Choice Awards are 8 p.m. Sunday on cable channels A&E, Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network.

-- Two of her movies
are at the Sundance Film Festival. “Sophie and the Rising Sun”
and John Krasinski's “The Hollars” will both be there Jan. 29-31;
the latter will also be shown Jan. 22-23.

She's finished two
other independent films.

-- “The Americans”
returns to FX in March; she plays the handler of Russian spies in the
U.S.

-- “Sneaky Pete”
has its pilot film on Amazon Prime, which will launch the series this
year.

 

In space, our border issues persist


This is a busy time for the Syfy Channel, with a three-day stretch (Dec. 14-16) that has a major mini-series and launches two series. My previous blog talked about the "Childhood's End" mini; here's the story I sent to papers about "The Expanse," which accompanies it on the first two nights:

By Mike Hughes

In the expanse of
space, it seems, our border issues won't really vanish.

At least, that's
what “The Expanse” -- part of an ambitious Syfy Channel surge –
tells us. Set 200 years from now, it starts with people on a space
transport.

“It's kind of the
equivalent of being on an oil rig or at a deer camp,” said co-star
Cas Anvar. “You're working with people who you'd never know
otherwise.”

His character, Alex
Kamal, is the pilot, “a very laidback guy” who wears a stocking
cap when he's flying. (“You don't think it's cold in space?”
Anvar asks.) Soon, his tiny crew has what Syfy chief Dave Howe calls
“a race across the soloar system, to expose the greatest conspiracy
in human history.”

There's much to sort
out, from three forces:

-- The Earth, still
in power and the only place where humans can walk outside without
helmets and suits. Still, it has far more people than jobs and is
dependent on colonization. Its United Nations leader (played by
Shohreh Aghdashloo) is an elegant host and a gracious grandmother who
tortures terrorists.

-- Mars. For a
century, people have tried to make it livable. They're still in domes
or underground, but the effort has its benefits: A drawing point for
scientists and engineers, Mars now leads in technology.

-- The asteroid
belts, where people mine material crucial to both planets. It's a
dark, tough world and a detective there (Thomas Jane) reflects its
cynicism.

Tensions are high
between the three groups, known as Earthers, Martians and Belters.
The Outer Planets Alliance – considered terrorists by some – is
stirring Belter dissent.

It's a complicated
world ... which Anvar is used to. He grew up as an English-speaking
kid, in a French-speaking city (Montreal) with Persian-speaking
parents. He's learned all three of those languages, plus bits of
Arabic, Hindi and Spanish.

His roots are
Iranian, which wasn't easy in the time after the 1979-81 Iranian
hostage crisis.

“Being
dark-skinned was challenging enough,” he wrote in an Online essay,
“but being from the country of 'hostage takers' was impossible to
talk your way out of in a school tyard. So one tended to introduce
oneself as Persian, then Middle Eastern and finally East Asian.”

Anvar aimed toward a
professional career like his parents had ... then was diverted after
playing Hamlet in high school. “My parents said, 'If you're going
to do this, you might as well do it right.'”

So he studied at the
National Theatre School and then ran a Shakespeare company in
Montreal for a decade. He moved to the U.S. -- “it's really hard to
make a living as an actor in Canada” -- but many of his jobs
(including “The Expanse”) were filmed in Canada.

Those roles have
been diverse. “If you're going to be ethnic, it's best to have a
look that's ambiguous,” Anvar said. He was Greek (Xerxes) in the
“Olympus” series, Egyptian (Dodi Fayed) in the “Diana movie, a
suspicious Iranian guard during the hostage crisis in “Argo.”
He's been Indian often ... and now he's a guy who grew up on Mars and
flies the universe.

This first, 10-hour
season was mainly filmed “on three massive stages, some 80,000
square feet,” Anvar said. At times, he may have felt like the
Martians or the Belters, living in a world without fresh air or
sunshine. That was fine with him; “it was in the middle of the
Canadian winter.”

Outside, the
temperature sometimes neared minus-30, he said. Inside, he had the
warmth of a make-believe world and a real stocking cap.

-- “The Expanse,”
Syfy; first two episodes air at 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesdays (Dec.
14-15), after the first nights of “Childhood's End”; each reruns
at 1:03 a.m.

-- Those two eisodes
rerun together Friday from 8-10 a.m. and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.; also,
latenight Saturday (technically, Sunday morning) from midnight to 2
a.m.

-- The remaining
eight episodes then run at 10 p.m. Tuesdays.

 

Childhood ends ... and a busy sci-fi screak begins


Sure, cable seems to have a deluge of mediocrity. Still, there are fine exceptions -- channels that are suddenly trying bigger, more ambitious projects. That explains National Geographic's "Breakthrough" (see previous blog); it also explains a Syfy Channel push that starts Monday (Dec. 14). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

“Childhood's End”
arrived in 1953, in a world not yet saturated with science fiction.

Readers approved.
C.S. Lewis praised it, Stan Lee called it one of his favorite books,
the New York Times printed two rave reviews. An adaptation would
follow ... slowly.

Now, 62 years later,
a miniseries is finally debuting on the newly ambitious Syfy Channel.
“We're taking the biggest swings in our history,” said Dave Howe,
Syfy's programming chief.

Coming later are
projects from Steven Spielberg, Gale Anne Hurd (“Terminator”) and
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; first is a big start: “End” runs for
three nights and leads into the debuts of two series.

Many people had
tried to adapt this Arthur C. Clarke story. When Stanley Kubrick
couldn't get the rights, he compromised and made Clarke's “2001: A
Space Odyssey.”

That leaves the
current producers with a high profile: “As people who love the
book, ... we talked about feeling a pressure to do it the right way,”
Michael De Luca said.

That's minor
compared to the pressure on the main character, Stormgren: He's the
Earth's only contact with Karellen, who represents the new alien
overlords who plan to end poverty, pollution and more.

“In the book,
(he's) like a 60-year-old head of the UN,” said Mike Vogel, 36, who
plays him. Now Stormgren is a Missouri farmer, pushed into a vital
role. He “is rejecting the idea, (saying) 'I'm not your guy. I'm
not worthy.'” Vogel said. “And he all of a sudden finds himself
in the forefront.”

This is a
straight-shooting guy, someone Vogel says he can imagine easily. He
conjures “memories of my grandfather and great-grandfather.”

Vogel grew up as a
plumber's son near Philadelphia; two grandfathers were World War II
veterans and one of them had a farm nearby. “There wasn't a lot of
fanfare about him,” he said. “He would look you in the eye .... I
just found myself drawn to him, listening to his stories of the Great
Deptresson.”

The kid had picked
up some work ethic by helping his dad, but he also commuted to New
York for modeling and acting. He starred in an MTV variation on
“Wuthering Heights” and other roles followed, including ABC's
“Pan Am” as a romantic pilot ... a role that met some
disapproval: “My daughter said, 'Why is Daddy kissing someone who's
not Mommy?'”

Vogel lives near
Nashville with his wife and three kids and is currently on a
science-fiction streak -- “Under the Dome” and “Childhood's
End.” The latter was filmed in Melbourne, Australia, where “I was
dumbfounded by how much they could create.”

That ranged from
planting corn for the farm scenes to using Melbourne government
buildings for officialdom. There was also lots of work on sound
stages – especially for talks with Karellen, who remains unseen
until the story's mid-section.

Charles Dance (the
commanding Tywin in “Game of Thrones”) voiced Karellen. For the
early scenes, Vogel was just playing against his recorded voice ...
which sufficed, he said. “When Charled Dance just says, 'Excuse
me,' you stand at attention.”

And when an overlord
speaks, the world listens. A sci-fi classic is belatedly reaching TV.

-- “Childhood's
End,” 8-10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday (Dec. 14-16), Syfy.

-- First two episode
reruns at 11:03 p.m.; Wednesday one reruns at 10:53.

-- Also, first
episode reruns at 6 p.m. Tuesday and 4 p.m. Wednesday, with the
second at 6 p.m. Wednesday; all three also air from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sunday (Dec. 20).

-- “The Expanse”
has its first episodes at 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, then stays at
10 p.m. Tuesdays.

-- “The Magicians”
debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday, then returns in January.