No surprise here: "Hairspray Live" was a gem

Let me pause to state the obvious: NBC's "Hairspray Live" tonight was sensationally good.

It was a tad better than Fox's "Grease Live" ... which was, until now, the best TV show of 2016.

Like "Grease," it had an uptempo, oldies-rock sound and a production that sprawled all over the studio lot. Unlike it, it also had a good story.

The production was dazzling, from the opening moments. I was convinced I was seeing a ceiling view of Tracy in bed; then the set dissolved and I saw that she was vertical, on a city street. From there, the camera work and choreography were superb.

"Hairspray" did sag a little in the middle -- shows do that sometimes; so do people -- but it bounced back sharply. Yes, newcomer Maddie Baillio was perfect as Tracy, but that was just the start of a superb cast. With one exception -- Garrett Clayton was so-so as Link -- this was an amazing group. Jennifer Hudson and Kristin Chenowith were amazing, as expected, but there was also the happy surprise of Derek Hough's singing and Ariana Grande's acting.

And in a cast filled with stars, I was impressed by Ephraim Sykes, a relative newcomer. He's been confined to the ensemble in five Broadway shows (including "Hamilton") and played Marvin in "Vinyl"; here -- as the dancer who taught Tracy her moves and then integrated a TV dance show -- he was terrific. 

For Picasso, art and love and lust entwined

We don't always understand Pablo Picasso's work, but the human dimension behind it is -- for good or bad -- universal. In a cable special Thursday (Dec. 8), his grandson takes an intriguing view of the loves that shaped Picasso's life and work. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For most artists,
there are two stories to tell – the art and the life.

For Pablo Picasso,
his grandson insists, there's only one. “His life as an artist and
as a man were exactly the same,” Olivier Widmaier Picasso said.

Some men wear their
hearts on their sleeves, but Picasso wore his on his canvasses and
sketch pads. Examine any period, said Olivier (as we'll call him to
avoid confusion) and you'll know which woman was his lover-and-model
and how he felt about her.

That emerges in
“Picasso, The Legacy,” a cable documentary that Olivier
co-produced and co-wrote. It includes experts and grandkids, plus two
remarkable women:

-- Francoise Gilot,
an artist who was Picasso's lover for almost a decade. “She is (95)
years old and I was absolutely astonished by her energy,” Olivier
said. “She met him when she was 21” and he was 61.

-- Maya Widmaier
Picasso, 81, Olivier's mother. She told the stories she had heard
from her mother, Marie-Therese Walter, one of the profound forces in
Picasso's life.

By then, there'd
been others – eight years with the bohemian Fernande Olivier; three
with Eva Gouel, before she died of illness at 30; then marriage to
Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina and sophisticate.

Nine years into his
marriage, Picasso saw Walter enter a Paris department store. “He
waited outside for her for a long time; it was fortunate that he
waited,” said Olivier, who owes his existence to moment his
grandparents, then 17 and 45, met.

“She was very
young and athletic,” Olivier said. “She didn't know who he was
... To him, it was starting over.”

Picasso's wife, the
ballerina, had shown him a cosmopolitan life, Olivier said. “Pictures
then showed him dressed up in a three-piece suit. He was not very

With Marie-Therese,
the mood was different, he said. “It was seaside and bathing suits.
Everything was easy.” Or semi-easy, considering that the
relationship was kept secret from Picasso's wife.

Olga found out when
Marie-Therese became pregnant with Maya (Olivier's mother). She left,
but didn't divorce; Picasso spent almost a decade each with
Marie-Therese, Dora Maar and the remarkable Gilot.

Gilot was the
opposite of an easygoing teen-ager. “Francoise had ideas about
raising children and many things,” Olivier said. “She told me
that he said, 'No one leaves me.' She said, 'We'll see about that.'”

She left, took their
two children, wrote a book and later married Dr. Jonas Salk. Picasso
moved on. At 79 and a widower, he married Jacqueline Roque; they
would be together until his death at 91.

“I always remember
the moment my mother said, 'Your grandfather is dead,'” Olivier
said. “She was devastated.”

Olivier was almost
12 then and had never met the man. Still, Picasso's paintings lined
the walls of his home. “That was normal to me .... I had to get
used to seeing my mother and grandmother with their nose and both
eyes on the same side of their face.”

At the time, he and
his mother were using his dad's “Widmaier” surname. But the
French had just revised their laws, legitimatizing children born out
of wedlock; Maya became one of five heirs.

Since then, Olivier,
55, has studied Picasso's life. “He was not a womanizer,” he
insists. He was someone who loved women passionately, but not
permanently. “He was not aiming to hurt them.”

But many were hurt
and two committed suicide – Jacqueline at 59 and Marie-Therese
(Olivier's grandmother) at 68. Both outlived Picasso and have
permanent roles in art history.

Ultimately, Olivier
said, Picasso's work was his strongest attachment, “He said his
life was spent alone in the studio. But there was always a woman
outside the door.”

-- “Picasso, the
Legacy,” 7 p.m. ET Thursday, Ovation Channel (via cable or






The Obama era -- an 18-month swirl ... and then six years of improvising

.This is what TV should be doing more often -- taking big looks at the mega-events that change the world. Now -- Dec. 7, plus reruns -- CNN's Fareed Zakaria views the Obama era. Here's the story I sent to papers:

(Very interesting TV
story about an Obama CNN special that debuts Wednesday and reruns

By Mike Hughes

How do you ponder
the Barack Obama era? For starters, you could split it in two.

There was that
first, swirling stretch. “It all happened in 18 months,” said
Fareed Zakaria, whose two-hour special debuts Wednesday on CNN.

And then there was
the aftermath – six years of government by executive action. “We
may look back and be surprised by how much was done in small-ball
ways,” Zakaria said.

It was the early
swirl – viewed by Obama as the busiest domestic-policy stretch
since the Lyndon Johnson years – that led to the Republican
takeover of the House and Senate.

During that stretch,
Obama had resisted public opinion. “The auto-industry bail-out was
wildly unpopular,” Zakaria said. “Two-thirds of the people
opposed it.”

Even more unpopular
was the bank bail-out. “David Axelrod (then Obama's senior advisor)
said. 'I've never seen anythig that polled so badly.'”

The Wall Street
collapse had come at the end of the Bush Administration, which made
the same recommendation – bail out the banks, to avoid a total
economic collapse. But the bail-out came at the start of the Obama
years, sparking outrage. Zakaria points to what Timothy Geithner,
Obama's first Treasury secretary, wrote: “We saved the economy
(but) we lost the country.”

That came as the
unemployment rate was climbing toward 10 percent. Preparing a
stimulus package, Obama made the rare move of going to Congress to
push for Republican votes; he got none.

“The Republicans
say his mind was made up .... he didn't want any feedback,” Zakaria
said. They used the phrase “arrogant”; Zakaria falls short of
that. “He tends to be a compromiser, but he's a technocrat” who
prefers to mold his own version of the compromise.

That approach
collided with total opposition, Zakaria said, nudged by “the fact
that it started so early.” On Inauguration Day, 15 Republican
leaders formulated a total-resistance policy. “(Sen.) Mitch
McConnell said, 'Our No. 1 priority was to make sure Barack Obama was
a one-term president.'”

Ironically, he
served two terms, leaving with a fairly high approval rating and low
(under fivepercent) unemployment rate. But the early actions,
particularly Obamacare, led to the Republicans' takeover of the House
and Senate.

With no chance of
getting things through Congress, there was improvising. “Obama's
use of executive action has been very creative.,” Zakaria said.

Some actions (on
immigration, for instance) didn't hold up in court, but most did.
Some – involving climate change and gun-control – may be
susceptible to quick turnover. But others could linger: “We
actually have a very strong clean-energy industry now,” Zakaria
said, due to executive actions.

Also likely to
survive is some form of Obamacare. It may change, Zakaria said, but
Americans now have “the expectation that there will be health care
in one of the richest nations in the world.”

Other presidents
have pointed to mistakes; Bill Clinton, for instance, said he should
have moved more quickly to stop genocide. But when Zakaria
interviewed Obama in September., he found little of that.

There wete some
Obamacare regrets -- “he feels that it got way too complex,” with
key things missing. But even when pondering disasters involving the
Middle East and ISIS, Zakaria said, Obama felt he'd done “the best
he could, with the hand he was dealt.”

This is the Obama
nature, he said. The image -- “the cool, methodical act” -- is
part of his make-up. “He said, 'When things go well, I don't get
that high and when things go badly I don't get that down.'”

That's handy,
because he's wrapping up eight years of extreme highs and lows.

-- “The Legacy of
Barack Obama,” 9-11 p.m. ET Wednesday, CNN; rerunning at midnight.

-- Also: 11 p.m.
Friday, rerunning at 2 a.m.; 9 a.m. Dec. 25; 9 p.m. Dec. 26,
rerunning at midnight.

-- Each could be
pre-empted by news events; all times are ET, three hours earlier PT


Hairspray Live? A new star arrives and old ones surprise

The re-emergence of live TV musicals has been fun to watch. NBC had the safe-and-solid "Sound of Music," then faltered with "Peter Pan" and bounced back with "The Wiz." Fox triumphed with "Grease," then had a so-so (and not live) "Rocky Horror."

Now comes what seems like the most promising one. "Hairspray" has vibrant music and -- unlike most of the others -- a good story. It plans to sprawl across a movie-studio lot, just as "Grease" did (with the same person doing the TV directing). And it has starpower; here's the story I sent to papers, with glimpses of Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson and, especually, newcomer Maddie Baillio.

By Mike Hughes

When a live
“Hairspray” reaches TV Wednesday, we'll see stars doing some
familiar (or not) things.

Jennifer Hudson and
Kristin Chenoweth will belt; Harvey Fierstein will rasp. We expect
that. But then:

-- Ariana Grande
will mostly be acting, not singing. We don't expect that, but she
says this is the role that pleases “my theater geek inside.”

-- Derek Hough will
often be singing; we don't expect that either. Before “Dancing With
the Stars” brought him back to the U.S., Hough did star in the
“Footlloose” musical in London. “Hairspray,” he said, lets
him “re-ignite that sort of musical passion.”

-- And Maddie
Baillio? We don't expect anything from her ... mostly because we've
never heard of her. She's never had a TV role ... or a professional
theater role. Now she's the star.

Baillio came from
nowhere ... or from League City, Texas, which is just north of
nowhere. “This was my first audition, outside of school .... There
were over 1,300 girls and I was No. 344,” she said.

Still, this is her
second time at winning big. Two years ago, she won Michael
Feinstein's search; she sang at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center,
even Carnegie Hall. Now it's national TV, working live.

How daunting is
that? Even Jennifer Hudson – an Oscar-winner who's done Broadway
and “American Idol” – said she's nervous. “Just doing the
first (Broadway) opening night was traumatizing to me,” Hudson
said. “So now I'm like, 'Are you crazy? Are you really going to do
this on live television?'”

Now imagine Baillio,
barely out of her teens and following a life-long goal.

“I started doing
community theater and voice lessons when I realized that I wasn't
good at sports,” said Baillio, who grew up in a suburb between
Houston and Galveston. “And I just loved singing.”

She does it well, as
people can find by checking the Internet for Madelyn Baillio. There,
they can see her sing a couple classics ... and can even buy her
single, a lush “Can't Stay Away From You.”

Baillio was named
the 2014 Youth Ambassador for Feinstein's group, the Great American
Songbook. She went to Marymount Manhattan College for two years and
tried the long-shot audition. “I decided at like 3 a.m., the night
before the big open call in New York City, that I was going to go out
and do it.”

She was called back
for four more auditions and then for what she thought was yet
another, with director Kenny Leon and writer-star Harvey Fierstein.
This time time, there was a camera there.

“They told me that
they were doing a behind-the-scenes thing .... Kenny walked into the
room and said, 'Hey, Harvey asked me to give this to you so you can
read it. Project and look into the camera.

“And so I pulled
the paper out and it said, 'Maddie Baillio will be Tracy Turnblad in
NBC's “Hairspray Live!”' And I was so excited and I had to call
my mom immediately.”

This is clearly
worth calling mom about. As Robert Greenblatt, NBC's programming
chief, explains it, “Hairspray” is “a really joyous and funny
show set in Baltimore about a young girl who just wants to dance on
television – and then she unwittingly becomes an advocate for
inclusion and diversity.”

Greenblatt is the
one who brought musicals back to TV with the “Smash” series and
with live shows – triumphing with “Sound of Music,” faltering
with “Peter Pan,” then rebounding with “The Wiz.”

Now he has an ideal
vehicle: “Hairspray” was a 1988 movie, transformed into a 2002
musical by the same songwriters who did “Smash.” It won eight
Tonys, including best musical and ones for Marissa Winokur as Tracy
and Fierstein (in a tradition started by the '88 movie) as her mom.

Grande remembers
being awed by the show when she was 10 or 11. “Every time Harvey
speaks, my heart burts.” At 15, she was on Broadway in “13,” an
all-Broadway musical. “Theater is like everything to me,” she
said. “Pop music is so fun, but this is way much more fun.”

At least,this
version could be. Following the lead of Fox's “Grease” (and using
the same TV director), it will sprawl over the Universal Studios lot.
Mixing in new songs from the 2007 movie, it will let familiar stars
soar and give a new one a chance to emerge.

-- “Hairspray
Live,” 8-11 p.m. Wednesday, NBC; live in Eastern and Central time




Tinker pushed TV to new (and, alas, temporary) levels


Grant Tinker's approach was both basic and logical: Hire really good, really creative people ... and then get out of their way.

He did that while developing a show for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore ... And while building their company into a cauldron for smart comedies and (with "Hill Street Blues" and beyond) innovative dramas ... And then while taking NBC to the top.

Tinker's death at 90 (Monday, but confirmed on Wednesday) causes us to recall how much he pushed TV forward ... then saw it slip a bit.

At the semi-annual Television Critics Association sessions, NBC felt different during the Tinker era. Even the dress code was new; ties disappeared, the look and the approach was casual. People talked about good TV. Led by Brandon Tartikoff (Tinker's programming chief), they found a little fluff and a lot of greatness, from "Cheers," "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show" to "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law" and "Miami Vice."

It was easy at first, because NBC was the only place that seemed excited about giving creative people full control. Eventually, other networks tried that a little. Then cable was able to lure the best people by offering fewer episodes and fewer restrictions about content and commercials.

A lot of people have been at the top of NBC since Tinker and Tartikoff left. The current one, Bob Greenblatt, clearly is trying hard; this year, he's given TV its best new broadcast-network drama ("This is Us") and comedy ("The Good Place"); he's also propelled the new passion for live musicals, with "Hairspray" coming Dec. 7.

Still, such highlights are often outnumbered by sorta-adequate shows with "Chicago" in the title. TV can do much better; Grant Tinker proved that.