The war against disease: Big victories and then (oddly) a surrender

Forgive me for being a huge fan of vaccinations. That's on a small level -- in decades of annual flu shots, I've only had the flu once -- and on a bigger level: In one generation, I saw polio go from a terror to virtually an unknown.

Still, there are vaccination resisters. The issue will be raised Wednesday (Sept. 10), in a compelling documentary on PBS' "Nova." Here's the story I sent to papers:


This was a modern triumph: In the U.S. and elsewhere, major
diseases dwindled or disappeared.

Science found ways to vaccinate against more and more diseases
… until the sheer quantity became a complication.

Kids, Dr. Paul Offit said, are expected to have as many as
26 inoculations in their first few years. That includes “as many as five shots
at one time, to prevent diseases that most people don’t see, using a biological
fluid most people don’t understand. It’s not surprising that there is pushback.”

The effects are harsh; with some parents resisting
vaccinations, diseases make a comeback. “In 2012, there were nearly 50,000
cases of whooping cough in the United States, which killed 20 people,” said
Michael Rosenfeld, whose company’s documentary airs on PBS’ “Nova” Wednesday. And
in the first half of this year, he said, “measles had reached its highest level
in the U.S. in 20 years.”

Typical resisters, Offit said, are college grads “who have
the kind of jobs where they’re used to being in control.” They feel they can “Google
the term ‘vaccines’ and now as much” as their doctors.

He is a doctor, head of the Vaccine Education Center at the
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Alison Singer isn’t a doctor and knows how
perplexing the Web can be. “On the Internet, every page is equal,” she said. “The
Mayo Clinic’s page comes up as often as Autism ‘R’ Us.”

Her autistic daughter, now 17, was 1 when Dr. Andrew
Wakefield linked autism to vaccinations. His report was published by “a highly
reputable medical journal (and) I took that very seriously.”

Eventually, the report was ruled fraudulent and Wakefield was
banned from medical practice in his native Great Britain. Even if it had been honest,
said Sonya Pemberton (writer-director of the “Nova” film), it was a miniscule
study with no control group. “It was 12 kids …. We have (studies) with 1.8
million kids, 500,000 kids, 400,000 kids, all over the world,” none of them finding
a link.

Her film does include two examples of vaccinations creating
trouble. A boy with Dravet syndrome had a seizure. (“Going on a trampoline
triggers his seizures; vaccines happen to be one of the triggers.”) An oral
polio vaccine (no longer used) “had a 1-in-2.4 million chance of actually
causing the disease.”

By comparison, Offit said, resisting vaccination risks not
only that child’s health, but society’s chance to eradicate a disease. “It’s a
terrible decision that can have terrible consequences.”

“Nova,” 9 p.m. Wednesday, PBS (check local listings).

New TV season: For a while, at least, the networks resume control

In the three previous blogs, I rate this fall's 24 new fall shows. Before reading those, however, catch this overview:


Each September, TV people pretend their world hasn’t

Cable retreats (briefly); broadcast networks introduce
20-some new shows and say these will change everything. Occasionally, they do.

Now the season is ready. One series (the “Utopia” reality
show) starts Sunday (Sept. 7); two arrive Sept. 17. Most wait until the week of
Sept. 21 or later. It adds up to 24 new shows; trends include:

First, NBC forfeited its “must-see” comedy stronghold on Thursdays.
(This year, it starts the night with “The Biggest Loser.”) Now CBS – the night’s
new comedy champ – is temporarily putting football games there; for eight
weeks, Thursdays will be almost mirthless.

There’s more: For a quarter-century, CBS has had four
comedies on Mondays; this fall, it has two.

SITCOM SLICE: That means fewer new comedies, There’s only
one each on CBS (a good one) and Fox (a bad one), only nine overall.

Still, networks do sometimes achieve a goal aimed at young
viewers – creating slick, movie-style comedies filled with youthful romance and
irony. ABC’s “Selfies” and NBC’s “A to Z” hit the mark.

IT’S A MARVEL-OUS/DC WORLD: The future of TV seems to be
sitting on comic-book shelves.

ABC and Marvel Comics (both owned by Disney) already have
“Agents of SHIELD”; coming next, at mid-season, is “Agent Carter.”

Now DC Comics has “The Flash” on CW (its usual stop) and
“Gotham” – a lush look at life before Batman – on Fox. And NBC has
“Constantine,” based on a Vertigo Comics tale.

BIG-SCREEN LOOK: Last season, “Sleepy Hollow” brought a
lush, movie look to TV screens. This season, “Gotham” does the same; when those
two are back-to-back Mondays on Fox, viewers will be dazzled.

There’s also a big look to “Constantine,” “Flash” and ABC’s
“Forever” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” TV may or may not be better, but
it will look wonderful.

GLOBAL TV: Two of the four networks (ABC and Fox) now have
an Englishman in charge. So it probably shouldn’t surprise us that there’s an
international feel. Fox turned a British series into the richly detailed,
10-week “Gracepoint.” It also has the American version of the Dutch “Utopia.”
And the CW has turned a Venezuelan telenovela into the jaunty “Jane the Virgin.”

There’s also more diversity, including progress for black
producers. Shonda Rhimes has ABC’s entire Thursday, with “Grey’s Anatomy,”
“Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Larry Wilmore is working on ABC’s
“Black-ish,” before his “Minority Report” takes over the spot after “The Daily

Wilmore’s new show, incidentally, will be on cable (Comedy
Central) in January. By then, some of the 24 new broadcast shows will be gone
and cable will be back to seizing our attention.

Somewhere between comedy and drama, other TV worlds exist

Here's the third piece of the TV season preview, ranking some hybrid shows. The previous blogs list the comedies and the serious dramas:



There really is an in-between world that TV keeps trying to

On one end are the heavy-duty, cable-style dramas; on the other
are c­­omedies. Somewhere between are dramas that add youthful bursts of humor,
romance or boom-bang action.

Now the CW network – which is rarely best at anything –
seems to have found that spot. Here are some of this fall’s hybrids, rated on a
0-10 scale:

“Jane the Virgin” (7)

For the first time since “Ugly Betty,” someone has found a
charming, witty way to adapt a Latino telenovela. The story is broad – a doctor
accidentally inseminates a virgin. Still, “Jane” makes it almost believable,
while adding extra touches. Gina Rodriguez – unknown outside Sundance Film
Festival circles – is wonderful; other characters, especially her mother and
grandmother, add humor and emotion.

(9 p.m. Mondays, CW; starts Oct. 13)

 “The Flash” (6)

After a childhood of trying to outrun the bullies, Barry
Allen is struck by lightning; he’s soon the world’s fastest human. Some scenes
– including a motivational speech by The Arrow – get in the way; also, super-speed
tends take the fun out of chases. Still, there are spectacular effects and
strong emotions, some of it centered on Barry’s dad, played by John Wesley Shipp,
who was the TV “Flash” in 1990.

(8 p.m. Tuesdays, CW; Oct. 7)

“The Red Band Society” (5)

Hollywood has a fresh interest in youth and mortality, via
movies (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “If I Stay”) and TV (“Chasing Life”). Now
comes a sort of medical “Breakfast Club”; in a hospital ward, mismatched teens
have nothing in common except illness. They argue, laugh, party, cope, aided by
a sharp-tongued nurse (Octavia Spencer) and a kindly doctor (Dave Annable). The
result is erratic, but interesting.

(9 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox; Sept. 17)

“The Mysteries of Laura” (5)

In the TV tradition, Laura (Debra Messing) is a smart cop
with a crumbling personal life. Her sons are nasty, and not in a TV-funny way; her
estranged husband is oblivious. It would be easy to dismiss the show, but “Laura”
has a charming star and a talented producer-director. As he did with “Chuck” and
“Human Target,” McG gives the show a jaunty feel.

(8 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC, starting Sept. 24; but debuts at 10
p.m. Sept. 17)

 “Scorpion” (4)

CBS is already Genius Central, thanks to “Big Bang Theory
and “Elementary.” Now it has high-IQ sorts who are hired by a Homeland Security
to occasionally save the country. In the “Big Bang” tradition, there’s also a
beautiful waitress (Katharine McPhee) to explain life to them. Created by the
people who did “Fringe” and “Sleepy Hollow,” it’s a good concept that strains
believability during its first hour.

(9 p.m. Mondays, CBS, Sept. 22)

ALSO: Alongside the 23 new scripted series, the commercial
broadcast networks have exactly one new reality show. “Utopia” dumps 15
eccentric strangers in the wilderness and gives them a year to build a
civilization. Fox debuts the sow from 8-10 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 7; then, for a
while, gives it one-hour spots at 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays.

New-season dramas: Cable-envy occasionally pays off

My previous blog looked at this fall's new broadcast-network comedies. Now let's scoot in the opposite direction; here's a list, rating the serious dramas:


In their dream world, broadcast networks deliver what cable
does best – richly crafted drama series that look like movies and think like

And in real life? Occasionally this fall, they’ll pull it
off. “Gotham” looks as good as any movie; “Gracepoint” is even better than the
cable series it adapts.

At other times? Well, two dramas about Washington, D.C.,
women feel like “Homeland Lite.” Here are the most serious new dramas, rating
their pilots on a 0-10 scale; we’ll list the lighter hybrids separately:  

“Gracepoint” (9)

A compelling British miniseries called “Broadchurch” has
already aired on BBC America. Is it logical to remake it in an American
setting, with the same star (David Tennant) and a new ending? Yes, actually. As
good as the original was, this is even better. It gives a brighter look to a seaside
town where something awful has happened. Then it adds the pain and the human
quirks that pull us in.

(9 p.m. Thursdays, Fox; starts Oct. 2)

“Gotham” (7)

Sure, the opener is all style and no substance. Still, that
style is stunning. We’re in Gotham City, when Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed.
He won’t be Batman for a long time; for now, Detective James Gordon (Ben
Mackenzie) seems like the only honest man in town. The opening story is
monotone, but the look, feel and actors (especially Jada Pinkett Smith) are

(8 p.m. Mondays, Fox; Sept. 22)

“Forever” (7)

The trouble with eternal life is that it’s often accompanied
by vampirism. But Henry (Ioan Gruffudd) simply and inexplicably keeps returning
to life. He’s a medical examiner, Jo (Alana De La Garza) is a cop; he brings
time-tested wisdom to help her solve crimes, but only his friend (Judd Hirsch)
knows his secret. The result mixes rich visuals and smart storytelling.

(10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC; Sept. 23)

“How to Get Away With Murder” (6)

Clever and confident, Annalise (Viola Davis) teaches a
law-schoo class on her specialty – helping a defendant who may or may not be guilty.
Each year, a few students work with her directly; this time, they’ll end up in
ethical and legal tangles. The bad news is that “Murder” plans to stretch one
case over a season. The rest is good: This has the same sharp writing, casting
and filming that producer Shonda Rhimes delivers in “Grey’s Anatomy” and

(10 p.m. Thursdays, ABC; Sept. 25)

“NCIS: New Orleans” (6)

Forget the sleek, high-tech stuff in the main “NCIS” office.
This bureau is in an old building surrounded by the music and people of New
Orleans. Two NCIS people (Scott Bakula, Lucas Black) are Southerners who love
their roots; the third (Zoe McCellan) is a no-nonsense Northern who will need
time. If the pilot (which aired as two “NCIS” episodes) is a good example, this
will be solid and sometimes fun.

(9 p.m. Tuesdays, CBS; Sept. 23)

“Constantine” (5)

An expert on the black arts, Constantine really doesn’t like
his work. He’s already been condemned to Hell; he gives up … until an emergency
lures him. Sometimes fierce and gory, the pilot has its best moments when he’s
with a bewildered young Liv. Oddly, producers decided they’ll soon dump her.
Zed (Angelica Celaya), from the “Constantine” comics, will indirectly take her

(10 p.m. Fridays, NBC; Oct. 24)

“Madam Secretary” (4)

Once a top CIA analyst, Elizabeth (Tea Leoni) is happy
teaching and raising horses. Then comes a tragedy, with the president begging
her to be secretary of state. His chief of staff (Zeljko Ivanek) is less
enthusiastic. Give this show credit for dropping the good-at-work/bad-at-home
cliché; “Madam” gives her a smart, caring husband (Tim Daly). Still, Leoni is
so-so and the opener rarely stirs viewers.

(8 p.m. Sundays, CBS, Sept. 21)

“Stalker” (4)

Stalking – usually of regular people, not celebrities – is a
high-volume issue for a Los Angeles police unit, we’re told. “Stalker” focuses
on its no-nonsense boss (Maggie Q) and an enigmatic but brilliant transplant (Dylan
McDermott). Created by Kevin  Williamson
(“Dawson’s Creek,” “Vampire Diaries”), this makes flailing tries at humor; it’s
better at showing how troubled these cops are in their own lives.

(10 p.m. Wednesdays, CBS; Oct. 1)

“State of Affairs” (2)

A top CIA analyst (Katherine Heigl) prepares a daily
briefing for the president (Alfre Woodard) … and manages to dabble in foreign
policy. (It helps that she and the president have a personal connection.)
“State” wants you to believe that someone sought by police can take a cab to
the White House and casually enter the Oval Office. Harder to believe is that
this is on the former “West Wing” network.

(10 p.m. Mondays, NBC; Nov. 17)

TV really does remember (sometimes) how to make clever comedies

Over the next few blogs, I'll be previewing the new TV season. We'll start gently, with the comedies:



Yes, TV still knows how to craft a clever situation-comedy.

This fall, three networks each have one new gem.  CBS sticks to its specialty – sharp dialog,
taped before a studio audience. ABC and NBC have romantic comedies filmed in a
rich, movie style.

Oddly, most networks (CBS excluded) also manage to make
awful comedies. Here are this year’s nine new sitcoms, rated on a 0-10 scale:

“Selfie” (9)

Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) has 263,000 friends in social
media and zero in real life; human interaction perplexes her. Now she wants to
be coached by Henry (John Cho), a calculating public-relations guy. Yes, this
is the “Pygmalion”/”My Fair Lady” theme for a new era. It’s brilliantly written
by Emily Kapnek (“Suburgatory”) and perfectly cast. Gillan (“Doctor Who”) shows
Lucy-esque comedy skill.

(8 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC; debuts Sept. 30)

 “The McCarthys” (8).

Brian Gallivan grew up in a vibrant Irish family, surrounded
by people who loved him and all Boston sports teams. The latter instinct escaped
him; now he’s written a fast, clever comedy with Tyler Ritter (John’s son) as
the family anomaly and Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”) as his mom.

(9:30 p.m. Thursdays, CBS; debuts Oct. 30, after CBS ends
its Thursday-football stretch)

“A to Z” (8)

Andrew and Zelda are opposites. He’s a romantic who works at
a dating service; she’s a lawyer who’s given up on romance. Are they destined
to be together? Have they met before? They aren’t sure, but it’s a fun ride.
After playing Mother on “How I Met Your Mother,” Cristin Milioti gets a fresh
shot at destiny.

(9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC; Oct. 2)

“Black-ish” (5). Dre and Rainbow (Anthony Anderson and
Tracee Ellis Ross) have grabbed the American dream. He’s an advertising
vice-president, she’s an anesthesiologist, their four kids are comfy. Still, he
frets that those kids have no feel for black culture … especially after his son
wants a bar mitzvah. The result tends to get one-note, but has its fun moments.

(9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC; Sept. 24)

“Manhattan Love Story” (5)

New to New York, Dana is optimistic about work and life.
Peter grew up here; he’s mostly optimistic about one-night stands. These
opposites are sort of interesting to watch; there’s more fun in his mismatched
family and her chaotic workplace.

 (8:30 p.m. Tuesdays,
ABC; Sept. 30)

“Bad Judge” (4)

Maybe this is what we fantasize when we watch “Judge Judy”
and such: Kate Walsh plays an acid-tongued judge who drums in a friend’s band
and views life as a party. We also see a warm side with a troubled kid, but
that may not be enough to keep us watching.

(9 p.m. Thursdays, NBC; Oct. 2)

“Marry Me” (3)

On “Saturday Night Live” and beyond, Casey Wilson has been a
likable comedy actress. Here, she confuses shouting with humor. Her longtime
boyfriend (Ken Marino) hasn’t proposed yet; she screams so stridently that she
doesn’t hear him when he does. This was created by David Caspe, who recently
married Wilson (yes, after waiting years). There’s potential, but it’s not
there yet.

(9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC; Oct, 14)

“Mulaney” (2)

A former “Saturday Night Live” writer, John Mulaney is young
and lean and likable. As this show starts – brief stand-up comedy, then his
story of three friends, one of them (Nasim Pedrad) female – we’re tempted to
think of “Seinfeld.” Alas, that thought vanishes with the show’s scatter-shot,
erratic humor.

(9:30 p.m. Sundays, Fox; Oct. 5)

“Cristela” (1)

The real-life story of Cristela Alonzo is a gem. Raised by a
single mom who held two full-time jobs, she spent her first eight years in an
abandoned diner and soared as a comedian. Somehow, this sitcom version fails.
The writing is flat and blunt; so are the performances, including Alonzo in the
title role.

(8:30 p.m. Fridays, ABC; Oct. 10)