Amid St.Patrick's frenzy, the Weather Channel makes its big push

The more I see the Weather Channel, the more I realize these people do a really good job. This is not some cut-rate operation (like the one that inexplicably replaced it on DirecTV). It does its job well ... and sometimes entertainingly. Now it makes its big morning push Monday (March 17). Here's the story I sent to papers:


As a new week begins – mixing Monday gloom with St. Patrick’s
Day frenzy – the Weather Channel makes its big push.

That’s a morning show that David Clark, the channel’s
president, calls “the most ambitious programming initiative in our history.” He
figures the channel is ready for such things: “We have 220 meteorologists and
climatologists on staff and … we’re all pretty much weather geeks.”

Then there’s the irony: Almost everyone there is a
meteorologist … except the show’s anchor.

“I’m just a guy who started in this business 30 years ago,
when my family couldn’t afford to send us to a school that had lots of degrees,”
said Sam Champion, 52. “I worked my way up through this business.”

He went from his home-town station in Paducah, Ky., to New
York City – WABC in 1988, “Good Morning America” in 2006. Now he’s moves to
Atlanta, leading a key day:

“Wake Up With Al” remains at 5:30 a.m. from New
York, with Al Roker and Stephanie Abrams. At 7, Roker moves to NBC’s “Today,”
with Abrams sometimes doing Weather Channel reports. On Monday, she’ll be at
the morning show’s premiere party on Times Square.

“AMHQ with Sam Champion” is 7-10 a.m. In the
Atlanta studio. Champion will be with Mike Bettes, Maria LaRosa and Anaridis

Field reports will be taped (Alexandra Cousteau
starts a five-day report on the Colorado River) and live. The opener eyes St.
Patrick’s Day in New York, Chicago, Savannah and Hot Springs, Ark.

All of that glitz will be nudged aside, Clark said, when there’s
fierce weather to report. “(We have) boxes and boxes of letters from families …
who say, ‘You saved our lives.’” During those times, the channel is back to basics
– climatologists surrounded by charts, field reporters surrounded by fury.

Champion has been in those storms, under circumstances that
were civilized – when Hurricane Sandy belted New York in 2012, “all of my
friends had evacuated the downtown area and had moved to my apartment, which is
on the Upper West Side, where they had power and wine” – and not.

Back in 2008, he said, Hurricane Dolly far exceeded
expectations. “I’m laying in the tub in the bathroom in the (Texas) hotel that
is being shredded. Broken glass and insulation and everything are flying under
the door …. And I’m like, ‘This is not supposed to be happening with a storm of
this strength.’”

Sandy caused an estimated $68 billion in damage; Dolly did
about $1 billion in the South, his home turf.

Champion was born in Paducah, the son of a Vietnam-veteran
Marine who became a lieutenant colonel. After finishing high school in
Virginia, he went to Eastern Kentucky University. Like Roker, he majored in
broadcasting, not meteorology, but soon immersed himself.

“Learning weather along the way,” he said, “I took it
seriously …. I basically lay out everybody’s forecast and do my own. I want to
see why they agree, why they disagree, and I want to tell the audience that.”

Now, for three hours each weekday, he has a national
audience to talk to.

Paycheck to paycheck, Katrina finds hurdles, help and survival

This is a splendid time for beautifully crafted documentaries. The "Chicagoland" series (see a couple blogs back) has just started, PBS has upcoming "American Masters" and "American Experience" films and HBO has its slate. Leading the way is "Paycheck to Paycheck," a compelling HBO film (debuting March 17), profiling one woman's efforts to raise three kids on $9.49 an hour. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Like many people, Katrina Gilbert finds herself occupying the
wrong life.

She’s 30 now, a milestone of sorts. By now, she said, “I was
going to have a college degree and a really good job and do a little travelling.”

Instead, she’s been supporting three kids (ages 7, 5 and 3) with
a $9.49-an-hour job at a nursing home. She gets by … unless anything happens,
like “having a flat tire or the car breaks down or one of the kids gets sick
and I have to miss a day of work …. There are a lot of surprises. You say, ‘No,
not this!’”

For a compelling HBO documentary, filmmakers stepped inside her
life, off-and-on, for nine months. Shari Cookson recalls one cold day in a
house trailer in Chattanooga, Tenn. “She didn’t want the kids to go outside,
because she was afraid they’d catch a cold …. I felt the claustrophobia.”

This is a life many people know, the film says; 42 million American
women and the 28 million children who depend on them live near or below the poverty
line. It’s something Gilbert struggles with, filmmaker Nick Doob said. “She’s
really trying to break out of it, trying to get a better deal.”

Then fresh obstacles appear. When she moved a few miles, she
crossed into a new state and lost (for now) food-stamp eligibility. When she
missed some college classes because the kids were sick, she lost (for now) her
financial aid. “My mom said, ‘You’ll figure it out,’” Gilbert said. “And I

That’s part of what drew the filmmakers, Cookson said. “She’s
such a vibrant person.”

Their film is part of Maria Shriver’s project to focus on
American women. At the Chambliss Center, which provides subsidized day care in
Chattanooga, they noticed Gilbert, who resists any stereotypes of the working
poor. “She’s personable, she’s young, she’s funny,” Cookson said.

Nursing-home residents seem to savor her; friends joke with
her about having the same name (Katrina) as a fierce storm.  “Sometimes they just call me Hurricane,”
Gilbert said. “I’ll answer to that.”

Gilbert did well in high school, academically and socially,
she said. “I was friends with everybody.”

She married at 19 and still speaks well of her ex-husband,
Jeremy Gilbert: “He’s really caring. He’s a great dad …. Sometimes, we’ll take
the kids together somewhere, like the county fair.”

But his pill addiction ended their marriage, she said, and
drained their bank account. He recovered and was happy to watch the kids … but until
recently had no job and lived with his mother, two hours away.

In some ways, Gilbert is luckier than most people. She has
help from her mother (who watched the kids when she trained as a certified
nursing assistant) … and Jeremy (now living closer and working) … and a new
boyfriend (with four kids of his own to worry about) … and the Chambliss

“I didn’t even know it existed until someone told me about
it,” Gilbert said. “They do an amazing job. My son was saying the ABC’s when he
was 2 years old.”

Her pay finally went up to $9.63 an hour, the first raise in
two years; she expects to get by. “Katrina has a real sense of living in the
moment,” Doob said. “She just takes things as they come.”

“Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of
Katrina Gilbert”

Debuts 9-10:15 p.m. Monday (March 17) on HBO.

Reruns March 20 at 4:45 p.m. and that night at
12:30 a.m.; also, 10:30 a.m., March 23; 11 a.m., March 26; 4:45 p.m., March 29.

Also on HBO2: 8 p.m., March 19; 11:05 a.m.,
March 22; 7:50 a.m., March 25; 2 p.m., March 31.  

No script? No plans? No problem

Less than a year old, Pivot is a fascinating cable channel. It keeps trying fresh, creative things, including a free-form rap comedy special that will air Saturday. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This could be an actor’s nightmare -- standing onstage with no
words, no plans, no expectations.

What’s that like? “It feels like freedom,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Especially when you’ve done a long-running show, eight times a week, saying
the same lines.” He’s known those opposite worlds, with:

“Freestyle Love Supreme,” an improvised rap show
that has a cable special Saturday on Pivot.

“In the Heights,” a Tony-winning musical that
had a three-year Broadway run.

Miranda created “Heights” and starred for the first year;
some people stayed for all 1,184 performances.

Unlike that show, “Freestyle” changes completely each night.
“Anything that comes into my head, I’m allowed to say,” Miranda said. “There’s
no time to censor yourself.”

Well, the special can be edited. It will be trimmed from a
show Miranda and friends did at Joe’s Pub in New York, two days earlier. “We
have certain elements we can cherry-pick,” said director Thomas Kail.

That includes the centerpiece: A random person comes
onstage, to be questioned by Anthony Veneziale about his or her life. Veneziale
seeks offbeat elements to pounce on. (“I’m a little like a comedy shark,” he
said. “I find blood in the water.”) Then Miranda and others do a rap piece
about the person’s day.

The idea started at Wesleyan University in Connecticut,
where Veneziale was doing improvisational comedy. “We were just starting to joke
around and have fun,” he said.

More students were added, including Miranda with his raps.
He was also creating “Heights,” which captures three days in a
Dominican-American neighborhood. “I’d been writing it since I was 19.”

Miranda kept rewriting it after college. He was 28 when “Heights”
opened on Broadway, with Kail directing; it won Tony awards for best musical
and for its score, choreography and orchestration. When Manuel accepted the
score trophy, his comments -- done in rap, half of it improvised on the spot --
remain one of the highlights of acceptance-speech history.

In the five years since then, these men have been busy. Kail
directed “Lombardi” and “Magic/Bird” for Broadway. Veneziale produced five
off-Broadway shows and started a West Coast variation on “Freestyle.” Miranda
acted, including two key “House” episodes and a regular role in “Do No Harm”; he
wrote two songs for a “Working” revival and the Spanish words for a “West Side
Story” revival.

Still, they get back together for “Freestyle,” which could
become a series. Miranda keeps trying unplanned, uncensored things. “He’s like
a rhyming dictionary,” Veneziale said.

That can be handy, when you’re working a pub or accepting an

“Freestyle Love Supreme,” 10 p.m. ET Saturday,
Pivot; repeating at 11:45 p.m. and 1 a.m.

More reruns: Sunday night at midnight, Tuesday
at 11:30 p.m., Wednesday at 11 p.m., more.

The Saturday shows are surrounded by reruns of
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “HitRECord.” Pivot has a youthful focus to its talk show,
documentaries, movies, imports and reruns – “Buffy,” “Veronica Mars,” “Farscape”
and “Friday Night Lights.”


George Lopez spins life's negatives into comedy

You've probably heard the notion of the crying clown, the idea that comedy springs from tortured souls. At times, we're told, that's wrong; from Jerry Seinfeld to Jimmy Fallon or Tina Fey, humor comes from cheery people.

Still ... often enough, it's true; people turn chaotic lives into comedy. George Lopez -- whose cable comedy debuts Thursday (March 6) -- is a strong example; here's the story I sent to papers: 


Back in his school days, George Lopez and teachers didn’t
seem to think much of each other.

There was one guy – a drama teacher and stand-up comedian –
he admired … briefly. “He said teaching me to do comedy would be a waste of
time,” Lopez said. Now, 35 years later, Lopez is:

A hugely successful stand-up star and a fairly
successful TV star.

Playing a teacher in “Saint George,” his new
situation comedy.

“I use negative things” as a starting point, Lopez said. Then
he goes the opposite way; so he plays a guy who made a fortune by inventing an
energy drink, yet still works in the classroom.

There have been plenty of negative things to build on, as he
detailed in “Why You Crying?” (Touchstone, 2004). His mom was “a wild, mixed-up
streak of a girl (with) spectacularly bad taste in men.” …. His dad vanished
when George was two months old …. His grandmother raised him sternly.

Lopez turned that into comedy, both successful and bitter.
“I was the angriest, most depressed man alive, … drowning my sorrows in
alcohol,” he wrote.

Some of that may have resurfaced recently: On Feb. 27, Lopez
was briefly arrested for public intoxication, at the Windsor, Canada, casino
where he had just performed. “I tried to sleep it off,” he said the next day,
through his publicist. “Unfortunately, it was on the casino floor.”

But four days later, Lopez, 52, was talking cheerfully about
his life and his ongoing place in TV history. “There hadn’t been a successful
TV show with a Mexican-American star,” he said.

“George Lopez” reached ABC in 2002 for a six-season,
120-episode run, then thrived via reruns. “Lopez Tonight” followed in 2009; “the
talk show was probably the hardest thing you can do,” he said. The second
season was nudged back an hour to make room for Conan O’Brien; there wasn’t a

Afterward, Lopez did a lot of stand-up, plus voice work in
animated movies. He had some movie acting roles, which weren’t his favorites. (“You’re
in your trailer, waiting for Jackie Chan to beat 15 people up …. Maybe that
wasn’t the best thing for me.”) It was time for his second sitcom.

In a deal similar to Charlie Sheen’s, “Saint George” got a
10-episode order from cable’s FX. If the ratings hit a target level, it will
automatically get 90 more, taped over about two-and-a-half years.

The show mirrors real life by having Lopez play a recently
divorced dad. The difference is that his real ex-wife is Cuban; in the show,
she’s played by Jenn Lyon, a willowy blonde.

“When I was in high school, there were very few white women,”
Lopez said. “When we saw them, they would gleam …. I didn’t have any success
with white women. Or with any women, actually.”

The other key roles -- his mother, boss, cousin and uncle –
went to Latinos. The uncle is played by Danny Trejo, who’s usually serious in
life (a decade in jails) and on film. “He said usually he would just stand and
scowl at the camera and say, ‘I’m gonna kill everyone here,’ and then go back
to his trailer.”

Now he’s doing a comedy and being a friend. “I didn’t have a
father figure,” Lopez said. He figures Trejo, who “hasn’t had a drink in 45
years,” may be ideal for that.

“Saint George,” 9 p.m. Thursdays, FX; debuts
March 6.

Opener reruns that night and Saturday night,
each at 12:30 a.m.; also, 3:30 p.m. Tuesday

"Chicagoland" brings fresh depth to documentaries

"Chicagoland," a terrific series, opened March 6 on CNN and continues -- Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays -- for eight weeks. Here's the story I sent to papers.


As Marc Levin sees it, this is a fine time for
documentaries. “I think there is a renaissance going on.”

That includes the one-hour films PBS and cable prefer and
the movie-length ones that reach the Oscars, film festivals and CNN. And now it
includes his eight-week “Chicagoland,” with a broader canvas.

“It’s not just an episode,” producer Laura Michalchyshyn
said. “You’re on this journey.”

The idea goes back to when Levin and Mark Benjamin directed
“Brick City” for the Sundance Channel. Over 11 hours, it traced a troubled city
(Newark), from the police chief to an intense defense attorney, from street
protestors to then-Mayor Cory Booker.

The result drew a Peabody award, a sequel (“Jersey Strong”)
and a decision to link “Brick City” people with Sundance Productions, created
by Robert Redford and Michalchyshyn. A new city was chosen.

Chicago shares Newark’s problems – shrinking blue-collar
jobs, expanding gangs and murders – and even has Newark’s former police chief
(Garry McCarthy). But it also has the optimism of a place where sports, music, theater
and commerce thrive. “It’s a mirror of the world today,” Michalchyshyn said.

Still, there was a catch: In one way, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is
Booker’s opposite. “He is notoriously suspicious of all media …. He said, ‘You
guys are all cynics,’” Levin said. “We said, ‘Look at our work.’”

He did and ended up letting cameras into his car and his
inner office. Landing a cable home came quickly, Michalchyshyn said. “It was
the fastest turnaround we’d ever seen.”

CNN had started an emphasis on documentaries, via series
(Morgan Spurlock, Anthony Bourdain) and movies (led by “Blackfish”). Now it was
ready for the next step, an eight-week series.

“Chicagoland” would be more accessible than “Brick City,”
adding narration (by Chicago reporter Mark Konkol), music and a brighter look.
But it would keep the approach of catching a city from all sides.

“That’s the beauty of long-form,” Michalchyshyn said.
“You’re not just flying in for a day. These guys stayed there for nine months.”
And they found key people.

They taped Emanuel and some of his strongest critics – including
Asean Johnson, a 4
th-grader whose speeches stir grown-ups. They
found “Chance the Rapper,” reacting to the violence around him … and Dr. Andrew
Dennis, an emergency-room surgeon who also has a police badge and is the medical
director for two SWAT teams. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is a superman,’” Levin

At Fenger High School, they met one student soaring (as a
chef) and another crashing. They were also nudged to the office. “I said, ‘I
think I’m being sent to the principal’s office again,’” Levin jokes.

This was not like any principal who might have darkened his
New Jersey boyhood. Young (36) and bi-racial, Elizabeth Dozier is the daughter
of an ex-nun and an ex-convict. Now she seems to be everywhere – the hallways,
the neighborhood, the mayor’s office; she encourages and cajoles the kids, even
driving one home from jail. Persistent and passionate, she’s a Chicago kind of

“Chicagoland,” 10 p.m. ET Thursdays, CNN,
started March 6

Each episode repeats at 1 a.m., then at 8 and 11
p.m. Saturdays and 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Sundays.

Runs for eight weeks; subject to pre-emption by
breaking news.