Deep in the family roots, there's joy and agony

("Finding Your Roots" tends to be a fascinating journey through the lives of people's ancestors. This season's opener -- 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3, on PBS -- is particularly good, finding joy and tragedy in the family trees of Larry David and Bernie Sanders. Other good ones are coming up; here's the story I sent to papers.)

By Mike Hughes

Larry David is not
the sort of guy to be jolly or ... well, enthused.

But during “Finding
Your Roots,” his joviality grew. Here was family history, unfolding
before him. “I'm sure everybody's curious about their roots,”
said David, featured in Tuesday's season-opener.

Well, maybe not
everyone. “That's insane,” said Jeff Garlin, David's “Curb Your
Enthusiasm” co-star. “I'd never want to be on that show.”
jump at the chance, with genealogy pros finding deep details. “I
felt like I had won the lottery,” said Ana Navarro, a CNN and ABC
commentator. “I still don't understand how anybody says no.”

People on the show
do, however, have to be prepared for surprises. David got a big one,
but we won't mention that until after a spoiler alert, at the end of
the story.

One surprise – at
least for viewers – came last season, when husband-and-wife Kevin
Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick learned they're distant cousins. Sedgwick
said she kind of expected it.

“My dad's a WASP,”
she said. “The Sedgwicks are from New England and from England and
his family (is the same). I wasn't surprised, honestly, (but) I had
to act surprised.”

One unsettling
surprise comes when people learn their ancestors owned slaves. Ben
Affleck even convinced Henry Louis Gates (the producer and host) to
scrub any reference. When news of the change reached PBS, the network
said that won't happen again and temporarily halted production.

“We introduced
more fact-checking, a broader range of consultants -- academics and
scientists and genealogists – and made it a better show,” Gates

This year, David
learns he has slaveholders in his family. (“I figured that,”
dead-pans J.B. Smoove, another “Curb” co-star,) And Ted Danson
learns the same.

“Just my luck,”
Danson quipped. “My ancestor had a slave who wrote a tell-all

Not just any any
book. Venture Smith bought his freedom and then wrote a book
(speaking quite well of Danson's kin) that became a key chunk of
history. “All scholars of African-American literature know about
Venture Smith,” Gates said.

On the flip side is
Navarro. Growing up in Guatemala, she said, she had never seen a
black person until she was 7 or 8 ... so she was startled to find her
family tree has two generations of Costa Rican slaves.

Her father was even
more surprised, she said. “My dad was convinced we were going to
find out we were Spanish royalty.”

Janet Mock – a
writer and transgender-rights activist – also learns this season
that an ancestor was a slave. “It was incredibly emotional to see
this young boy – I believe ... my great-great-great grandfather --
was someone's property.”

Gates has been aware
of such extremes, ever since a West Virginia childhood in which his
mother wrote eulogies. “I would go as a little kid and just watch
this beautiful black woman read these stories.”

He delivers dark and
bright news. In this season's opener, Sen. Bernie Sanders hears of
ancestors' deaths in the Holocaust; later this season, Danson learns
that his 10th-great-grandmother fought the Puritans for
women's rights in religion. “I've been surrounded by women all my
life,” Danson said, “and it kind of makes sense that Anne Marbury
would be way back there kind of leading the way.”

ALERT – there was the surprise for David ... and Sanders.

They learn of a DNA
link, suggesting they are third or fourth cousins. David – who
impersonates Sanders on “Saturday Night Live” -- offered uncurbed
enthusiasm. “I love Bernie,” he said.

-- “Finding Your
Roots,” 8 p.m. Tuesdays, PBS; the Oct. 3 opener has Larry David and
Ted Danson

-- Oct. 10 has Carly
Simon, Fred Armisen and Christopher Walken.

-- Continues through
Nov. 21; Danson is Oct. 17, Mock is Oct. 24, Navarro is Nov. 14



Togetherness can be a good thing ... sometimes

There are plenty of troubled, tortured souls out there who produce great comedy. But there are also guys like Mark Feuerstein; he talks lovingly about his wife, his life, his parents and more. Fortunately, he also sees some humor in his parents -- portrayed by Elliott Gould and Linda Lavin in "9JKL," which debuts Monday (Oct. 2) on CBS; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When it comes to
family, Mark Feuerstein decided, there can be too much of a good

But maybe not too
much of a funny thing. His personal chaos led to his CBS series,

Back in 2009,
Feuerstein was a grown adult -- 38, married, starring in his fifth
series, “Royal Pains.” But his apartment had his parents on one
side and brother on the other.

“I would wake up
to my father coming in his tidy whities, going, 'Mark, what would you
like for breakfast?” Feuerstein recalled.

Later, after a
15-hour shooting day, his mother was there. “The second my hand
would touch the doorknob, she'd ... go, 'Hi, Mark. Would you like to
come in for a salad?'”

He was well-fed, if
not well-slept. Clearly, this could be a situation-comedy.

Feuerstein's wife
agreed. Dana Klein is a sitcom writer (“Friends,” “Becker”)
who created “9JKL” with him ... and sort of gave her husband a

In real life, he
would fly from New York to California on weekends, to be with his
wife and kids. For the show, she said, “we thought having the
parents next door would really complicate his dating life.”

So Feuerstein has
spent time re-assuring his kids – and his parents – that this is

His real childhood
was quite enviable, actually. His dad was a lawyer; his mom was a
teacher whose skill involves nurturing, not cooking. (“She's good
at making reservations.”) He was a state wrestling champion and
went to prep school and Princeton.

But they are also
funny people. Feuerstein talks of “my father's collection of 600
bow ties”; on the set, he points to a refrigerator covered with
Post-it notes. “That is my parents' idea of an address book.”

They're bright,
caring and odd. That's sicom turf.

-- “9JKL,” 8:30
p.m. Mondays, CBS.

-- Debuts Oct. 2; in
the early weeks, it will start at 8:31, with “Big Bang Theory” as
the lead-in.


Princess power? That's fine in Disney dreams, shaky in Versailles

It's time to jump back into the world of Versailles, which has beautiful people in beautiful places ... doing rather ugly things. The series starts its second season at 10 p.m. ET Saturday (Sept. 30) on DirecTV and AT&T U-verse; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Fueled by Disney
dreams, the world has plenty of people who want to be European

They might
reconsider, after talking to the actresses in cable's lush
“Versailles” series.

“The women at
court spent a lot of their time getting dressed and undressed and
re-dressed,” said Elisa Lasowski, who plays Marie Therese, the
French queen married to Louis XIV.

And in their spare
time, they schemed. There was a lot of that, producer Aude Albano

“Louis XIV was a
womanizer,” she said. But “he would surround himself with
strong-willed, smart, witty women. His mother was, his wife was, his
mistresses were.”

But they were
cautious, Lasowski said. “It was very repressive. There was only so
much you could do.”

This was an
artificial world, created by a king who made love and war, but also
had an eye for the arts. “He had a great sense for culture, a love
of music and ballet,” said Anna Brewster, who plays his mistress,
Madame Montespan. “He had a great sense visually.”

His name lingers
everywhere, they point out, from furniture to the name “Louisiana.”
And Versailles itself persists. Louis took a former hunting lodge, 12
miles from Paris, and expanded it to 721,000 square feet, filled with
grand touches and powerful people, not all of them happy to be there.

It “was a way to
control them,” Lasowski said. “He sort of moved everyone away
from Paris (to) a Las Vegas or whatever. It was a palace of pleasure,
gambling, and a prison at the same time. That was a way he could sort
of control his opposition.”

That stirred the
scheming. These were “young souls, excited by power,” said
Suzanne Clement.

She plays Madame
Agathe, who had potions and poisons. The character is fictional, but
the situation is not: The real Versailles was rocked by poisonings;
in a five-year stretch, they led to 36 executions.

This was a notorious
era, Brewster said, dubbed “'The Affair of the Poisons.' Nowadays,
it would sound so far-fetched.”

Her own character,
the mistress, fit that mood. “She was famous fo her temper,”
Brewster said.

She also was the
king's favorite and had seven of his children. As this season begins,
Albano said, “she has it all. She has love with the king; she has
power. She is the envy of everybody at court. But behind that
strength ... is a vulnerable woman, madly in love and terrified she
might lose the love.”

By the end of the
season's first episode, the poisonings have begun. Early in the
second, we meet an important new force, Elisabeth Charlotte. She was
German and aristocratic, known as Princess Palatine; for political
reasons, she married Philippe, the king's brother, who was widowed
and gay.

This is a meaty role
for Jessica Clark, who expected to spend much of her life in theater.
Her father was a theater photographer and she was in a London show
when someone asked her to audition for Palatine.

“I got onto Google
to catch up on as much history as I could,” she said.

There happens to be
a mountain of it. “She had these letters that she wrote that are a
really amazing documentation of history,” Clark said. “In these
letters, you can see this incredible, ferocious, brilliant woman who
really didn't really want to hold back.”

So she didn't. On a
frigid morning, Clark found herself encased in a huge, blonde wig --
“this doesn't look anything like me, which is helpful” -- and
filming the moment she meets Philippe.

He is crossing a
bridge and she is ... well, urinating. That never seems to happen to
Disney princesses.

-- “Versailles,”
10 p.m. ET Saturdays, Ovation.

-- Season-opener
(Sept. 30) starts the poisonings; it reruns at 2:30 a.m. ET. The
second episode (Oct. 7) introduces Philippe's new wife; then the
first two episodes rerun at 3 and 4 a.m. ET..

-- Ovation is an
arts-oriented channel on DirecTV, AT&T U-verse, Verizon and some
cable channels.

Let's talk Shakespeare, Greeks and a teleporting mega-dog

Yes, this is the new golden age of TV drama, filled with classy stuff. But there's still room for something that's ... well, just odd. "Inhumans" debuts Friday (Sept. 29) on ABC; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As the newest
fantasy show reaches ABC, people discuss the classics. They often do
in Hollywood.

“Inhumans,” says
producer Jeph Loeb, is “about two brothers, in almost a
Shakespearean kind of way.”

These two happen to
be royalty. “We've been fascinated by the royals since the Greeks,
you know,” said Anson Mount, who stars. “It was Shakespeare's
favorite subject.”

But before your mind
is consumed with Bard images, let's remember what else is in the
show. There's “a 2,000-pound teleporting dog,” says co-star Iwan
Rheon. “Which is a little offside for normal life.”

Well, we're sure
Shakespeare would have included one if he'd thought of it. In his
days, he didn't even have GPS systems; in “Inhumans,” you just
say the place, touch the really big dog and you're there.

Shakespeare also
failed to include a queen who had long, lethal red hair that can lash
out like a deadly tentacle. Or a king whose voice is so powerful that
he dare not speak. “One whisper from him and it's (boom),” said
Serinda Swan.

She plays Queen
Medusa, with the mega-wig. “It's very heavy,” Swan said. “You
put it on and everyone is like, 'You have such good posture; you are
so regal.' And I'm like, 'No, my head is being pulled backward.'”

Mount plays Black
Bolt, the wordless king. “It was the only way they were going to
let a redneck play a superhero,” he joked.

He's from Tennessee
and easily fit his “Hell on Wheels” role as a former Confederate
officer. That role was written as a strong-and-silent type; even
then, Mount says he trimmed some words. “More often than not,
there's a lot of dialog ... that's not neccesary.”

Now he reaches the
extreme – zero dialog. And no, that's not really a Shakespearean

-- “Inhumans”
debuts 8-10:01 p.m. Friday, ABC.

-- Then moves to 9
p.m. Fridays, starting Oct. 6; after its eight-week run, that spot
(following “Once Upon a Time” will go to another Marvel show,
“Agents of SHIELD.”


Opposites could stir fun on new "Pickler & Ben" show

On Monday (Sept. 18), we'll find out if the new "Pickler & Ben" talkshow is good. So far, we know that the hosts, Kellie Pickler and Ben Aaron, are a delight. The show is syndicated to stations, popping up at different times. For instance, it's 3 p.m. weekdays on WCPO (Channel 26) in Cincinnati and WSYM (Channel 47) in Lansing, Mich.; and 4 p.m. on WGBA (Channel 26) in Green Bay. Also, reruns will be at 9 a.m. the next day on cable's CMT. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Take any TV
talk-show duo, from Johnny-and-Ed to Regis-and-anyone.

In each case, things
work best if there's a real contrast. So now comes “Pickler and
Ben,” the daytime talk show syndicated to 38 stations, starting
Sept. 18 (and rerunning at 9 a.m. the next day on cable's CMT), What do these two hosts differ in?

Ben Aaron said. “Kellie's like from Mars and I'm from Earth.”

For starters,
there's the regional difference; it's not planetary, but it is
substantial. Aaron, 36, grew up in New York, where he still lives;
Pickler, 31, grew up in small-town North Carolina and now lives in
Nashville, where she's a country-music star and where the show is

“We are so
different,” she said, in a hardy drawl. “Ben has a funny accent;
he talks funny. We always talk about having sub-titles.”

The differences go
much deeper, Aaron said. “She likes to do things like 'noodling'
.... You stick your hand in a hole and hope a crawfish doesn't bite
you. That doesn't sound like a fun time to me.”

She's only done that
once (so far), Pickler said, but she'll try anything. “I'm an
adrenaline junkie. I love to sky dive; I love to go up with the Blue
Angels (flight squad).”

And Aaron? “I like
to take naps,” he said.

The nature of their
show is hard to pin down in advance. There are no plans for a band
or music – despite the star (Pickler), producer (Faith Hill) and
setting (Nashville). Some of the advance word even skids toward
home-shopping. “You can go Online and buy what Kellie's wearing,”
Aaron said.

Pickler talks about
a regular-folks approach. “We get to shine a light on good people
who do great things in their communities.” Aaron echoes that,
calling it “a show for the Heartland.”

Yes, they're
familiar with the northern extremes of that Heartland; both married
into it. Aaron married Ginger Zee, the ABC meteorologist, who grew up
around Grand Rapids, Mich. Pickler married songwriter Kyle Jacobs,
who grew up in Bloomington, Minn., home of the Mall of America and of
Harmon Killebrew's greatest hits.

This has given her
an instant lesson in language gaps. “I asked Kyle for a 'drop cord'
and he said, 'What's that?'” she said, sounding quite astonished.
“I guess you would call it an 'extension cord.'”

A far more important
factor is her upbeat nature, despite a rocky childhood. Both of her
parents have criminal records – her mother for checks and a forged
prescription, her father for assault. Her mother left her when she
was 2 and later regained custody for a brief and unhappy stretch; her
father was in prison during Pickler's “American Idol” stretch.

None of that seems
to have shaded her outlook. Pickler became a cheerleader and a beauty

“My grandmother
raised me and I was so blessed,” she said. “My husband is my
greatest treasure .... We all have our ups and our downs. It's OK to
cry, but then you get over it and you just go on.”

Aaron's past has
been far less complicated. “I'm a narcissist,” he said. “I love
being on TV.”

He was a DJ by 12
and then a feature reporter in California and New York; he did “Crazy
Talk,” with odd talk-show clips. He met Zee at a charity event and,
he says, promptly vowed to marry her. They like conversaton, TV and
shortened surnames; hers was originally Zuidgeest, his was Colonomos.

For the Nashville
audition, he says, he walked into a room with “25 talented people,
all of them better qualified to do a Heartland show.”

One thing he and
Pickler share (indirectly) is “Dancing With the Stars.” Pickler
was a champion; Aaron was at the sidelines, watching their son when
Zee finished third.

The other is verbal.
“I love the banter,” Pickler said. “We don't have to be careful
with each other,”

Adds Aaron: “Kellie
could talk to a wall and it would be fun.”