"Battle Creek" is a different cop world

Yes, I really like "Battle Creek," the terrific CBS show that debuts Sunday (March 1). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

On a network that's
been overrun with cops and crooks, can “Battle Creek” stand out?

Probably. The show
has a comfy time slot – 10 p.m. Sundays, starting this weekend –
and a big build-up. It also has key differences, starting with its

Other cop shows have
focused on big cities; by comparison, Battle Creek, Mich., is a town
of 52,000. “If anything, it's higher stakes,” said
producer-writer David Shore. “Everything is a lot more personal.”

But not typical.
“Some of the crimes you see are ones you wouldn't see on any other
show,” said Josh Duhamel, who stars with Dean Winters.

The second episode,
for instance, is entitled “Syruptitious”; it's about a
maple-syrup ring. The sixth, “Cereal Killers,” starts at the
city's annual “world's longest breakfast table” celebration.

There's droll humor
here, in a variation on the standard buddy-cop show shows. “They're
not buddies – to say the least,” Shore said. They are:

-- Russ, a police
detective, rumpled and skeptical, using faulty equipment and good
instincts. He's played by Winters, who's used to being banged around
as Mayhem in insurance commercials.

-- Milt, a newly
arrived FBI man, blessed with perfection in looks and in technical
back-up. He's played by Duhamel, who fits neatly. “Josh is a pretty
man,” Shore said.

They were envisioned
12 years ago by writer Vince Gilligan. “I was thinking about the
time-honored trope of putting opposites together,” he said.

The Battle Creek
setting was sort of arbitrary, he granted. “I was fascinated by
the name, because it's got the words 'battle' in it,” he said. “And
yet they make cereal there.”

The real-life
“battle” it was named for was minor – four people involved, one
wounded – but Battle Creek has bigger claims to fame. It had the
first headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventists. It was where corn
flakes were created, spawning the Kellogg and Post giants. It was key
to the Underground Railroad; Sojourner Truth spent her final 16 years
in Battle Creek, which has a giant statue to her.

Some of that was
discovered gradually by Shore (“House”) who is in charge, now
that Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) is busy with “Better Call Saul.”
The “Battle Creek” show is filmed in California, but Shore and
some of the actors took field trips to the town they were portraying.

Kal Penn, whose
parents emigrated from India, was “surprised by how diverse it is.”
Duhamel, who grew up in a similar-sized town (Minot, N.D.) was
surprised to find a unit for gang-related crimes.

Both talked about
the overall charm. “It's really beautiful, especially in the
downtown,” Duhamel said.

Shore (who grew up
in London, Ontario) agreed. “I've always loved middle-Americans,”
he said. “They've had hard times, but they remain optimistic, they
remain positive.”

Duhamel, as Milt,
seems to fit that mood; Winters, as Russ, provides counterpoint.
Duhamel calls Winters “a New York City kid who has an edge. He grew
up completely different than me.”

Now they play cops,
with Penn (“House”) and others, including Janet McTeer as the
police commander. “The main reason I'm doing the job, obviously, is
that these guys had all been cast and they said, 'We have to have
someone who's as tall as us,'” McTeer joked.

She's 6-foot-1 and
regal, a British star with two Oscar nominations. Winters is 6-1 1/2;
Duhamel is 6-3 1/2 and married to rock star Fergie. They're big
people, in a fictional version of little Battle Creek.

-- “Battle Creek,”
10 p.m. Sundays, CBS, starting March 1


Cesar Millan keeps transforming dogs, people and himself

The Cesar Millan story keeps unfolding in intriguing ways. Now a new "Cesar 911" season starts Friday and reruns often; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Cesar Millan's TV
shows are about resurrection and revival, about dogs and people
changing lives.

Then again, he's an
expert on that. He changed his life by walking across the border ...
and by taming the toughest dogs in South Central Los Angeles. He
almost ended his own life; and in December, some Web sites reported
that he'd died of a heart attack.

“I was in Tampa,
Fla., at the time,” Millan recalled. “The neighbors told my
mother (they'd heard) her son had died.”

To her credit, she
was hesitent to believe it, he said. “She said, 'Wouldn't someone
have told me?'”

Eventually, it was
found to be a hoax ... or a botched (and misunderstood) fictional
piece. Either way, Millan found himself retreating. “I spend more
time than ever with dogs .... Dogs stop and smell the roses. They
wouldn't do anything as cruel as a hoax.”

On camera with dogs,
Millan seems endlessly at peace. Five years ago, however, he was
overwhelmed by events – his wife filed for divorce, his favorite
pit bull died and he learned of financial trouble; he took an
overdose of pills ... but was discovered in time.

“I decided it was
not my time yet,” Millan said. “When I got out of the hospital, I
was going to do it my way, with my people.”

So now he dominates
the NatGeo Wild cable network with his new show (“Cesar 911”),
his old show, his Las Vegas special and more. It's the latest
transformation for Millan – who's had many.

He spent his
pre-school years on what he calls his grandfather's farm. “It's not
like you think of a farm in America,” he said. “It's more of a
village,” with different responsibilities for each family. “What
we did was to herd the cattle for the wealthy people.”

He learned a little
about dogs and a lot about people. “What I learned was to be quiet
and observe.”

When he reached
school age, however, “we moved to the city .... That was
challenging for me. Until then, I was always outside; I always had my

Eventually, he knew
what he wanted to do (work with dogs) and where: “In every movie
you see in Mexico, Americans are the heroes.”

So he became an
illegal alien at 21 (later getting his citizenship) and worked jobs –
from dog-grooming to chauffeuring – while learning English. He
found support from people ranging from actress Jada Pinkett Smith to
tough guys in the barrio. “Here was this Mexican guy, walking a
pack of German shepherds and rottweilers .... That's when one guy
called me 'the dog whisperer.'”

That became the name
of his show that started in 2004. It would run for nine seasons,
drawing three Emmy nominations for best reality series; it would also
be the key piece the National Geographic Channel used to launch its
second channel, NatGeo Wild.

There, Millan has
followed with “Leader of the Pack” and now “Cesar 911.” He's
shown that dogs can change their lives – and he can, too. At 45, he
lives with Jahira Dar, 30, a Dominican native whom he calls his
almost-fiance and with his teen son Calvin, who, he says, is getting
a Nickelodeon show. And he continues to train dogs,

“Dogs from Beverly
Hills are rehabbing in South Central L.A.,” Millan said. “Who
would have imagined that was possible?”

-- “Cesar 911,”
9 p.m. ET Fridays, NatGeo Wild, rerunning at midnight; new season
starts Feb. 27.

-- Season-opener
reruns at 10 p.m. March 3 and at 2, 8 and 11 p.m. March 6,
surrounding the second episode.

-- More Milan
reruns: “Dog Whisperer,” 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays; “Love My
Pit Bull,” 1 p.m. Feb. 27; Las Vegas special, 2 p.m. Feb. 27, 2:30
p.m. March 4; also, episodes from the first “911” season, 7, 8
p.m. and 11 p.m. Feb. 27


Tough guys collide in America's mid-section

"Sons of Anarchy" achieved a small miracle, getting us to care about both the cops and the crooks. Can a reality show do the same? We'll see, when "Outlaw Country" debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday (yes, that's the old "Sons of Anarchy" spot), Feb. 24, rerunning often. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For anyone mourning
the end of “Sons of Anarchy,” this may be consolation.

In the same slot (10
p.m. Tuesdays), with the same moods (tough and tougher) is “Outlaw
Country.” Cops and ex-cons battle for control of small-town

The difference: This
one is a reality show.

In Missouri (the
exact center of the American mainland), next to Independence (Harry
Truman's old home town), near Kansas City, is Buckner. “It's
American flags and picket fences and football games on Friday night,”
said producer Jason Hervey. “People are very friendly; they wave,
they talk to you.”

And some of them
beat each other brutally. Cops say “The Alliance” controls the
region's drug traffic.

In the cowboy
tradition, this has brothers. Mike and Steve Cook are cops, chasing
John and Josh Monk.

In some ways, both
sides – tough and terse – fit their expected image. In others,
they don't.

John Monk, Hervey
says, is “a great father” (after being a bad one at first), about
to become a grandfather. His younger brother is the “invite coach”
at Maywood Baptist Church; “to listen to him preach for an hour (to
a men's group) is mesmerizing.”

These people don't
always look like cops and crooks ... and Hervey doesn't look like a
TV producer. He kind of looks like the mean older brother on “The
Wonder Years” ... which he was.

For six “Wonder”
seasons, Fred Savage was Kevin Arnold and Hervey was Wayne. Both
still act, but they mostly moved to the other side – Savage as a
busy comedy director, Hervey as a producer.

The change began
during a guest stop at World Championship Wrestling. Hervey met
producer Eric Bischoff; they formed a production company that went
from wrestling specials to reality shows featuring Hulk Hogan,
Chicago pawnbrokers, former teen idols and Hervey's friend Scott

Along the way,
Hervey met a guy simply called Chucky, a “Sons of Anarchy”
protege. Chucky pointed him toward Buckner; they flew there, met with
the mayor and police chief ... and promptly got a call from John
Monk, setting up a meeting in the basement of Monk's tattoo shop.

“It was 2 or 2:30
in the morning,” Hervey recalled. “It was dark in the basement,
which can be a little eerie .... Chucky and I went down this long,
narrow hallway.”

Downstairs, they saw
a boat, a hot rod, a motorcycle, some tattoo equipment, two Monks and
others. This can be imposing company for a sometimes actor, 5-foot-6,
who is overshadowed (literally) by Chucky or the cops or the Monks.
“As long as you go in with integrity and confidence, I feel like
you can look anyone in the eye,” Hervey insists.

The message that
night was basic, he said. “John Monk said, 'Look, no one can tell
our story as well as we can.'” Soon, camera crews were following
both the Cooks and the Monks.

“Outlaw Country”
actually sprawls over a broad area. For instance:

-- The tattoo shop –
which the task force raids on-camera -- is in Gladstone, a suburb of
28,000, north of Kansas City and about 20 miles from Buckner. It's
large, with a Web site promising a “super friendly staff” and
“highly fashionable tattoos.”

-- The church is in
Independence, population 110,000), midway between those two. Its Web
site displays Josh Monk's knuckles, still dangerous-looking but now
tattooed with “Jesus saves.”

-- The task force is
federal, combining jurisdictions. Steve Cook, a detective with the
police force in Independence, is its liaison to Buckner, a town of
3,000, where his brother is police chief.

Still, “Outlaw
Country” focuses on Buckner, just as “Sons of Anarchy” did on
the fictional California town of Charming. Amid picket-fence charm,
tough men collide.

-- “Outlaw
Country,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, WGN America, repeating at 11 p.m. and

-- Opener, Feb. 24,
also reruns at 10 and 11 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 26) and 10 p.m. Sunday
(March 1)


August Wilson let his words and his characters soar

Rhetoric seemed to flow splendidly from August Wilson's notebook and from his character's mouths. He was, perhaps, the great American playwright; now PBS' "American Masters" has created a splendid profile, which airs Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

It was easy for the
world to ignore August Wilson. He was the guy in the corner of a bar
or cafe, with an open notebook and an open ear.

“He was a quiet
man,” said Sam Pollard, who directed the new PBS portrait of
Wilson. “He was always writing, they would say, just paying
attention, listening to people talk.”

Then he surprised
people with his 16 plays. “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,”
won Pulitzer Prizes; 10 of them became “the Pittsburgh cycle,”
depicting the black experience in each 20th-century

Wilson had lived
some of those decades – born in 1945, died of liver cancer in 2005
– but it wasn't his life he was portrahying.

“He spent his
entire life listening ... with his intellect and with his heart,”
said actress-director Phylicia Rashad. “He grew up listening to
older men, some of whom had come through slavery. (He) embodied the
rhythms of speech.”

Other writers chose
the terse style of naturalistic dialog; Wilson let a character soar
with a grand soliloquy. “Some call (him) the American Shakespeare,”
said “Masters” producer Michael Kantor.

Still, this was not
about kings and proclamations. “If you have elderly relatives,
maybe you know: They don't consider it a soliloquy,” Rashad said.
“They're talking.”

And Pittsburgh may
have been the ideal place to listen. “It's the industrial roots,”
said Darryl Williams, programming chief for that city's PBS station,
which produced the Wilson film. “It's the immigrant population ....
He heard the experience of people who had to figure out a way to make

His mother's mother
had walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. His mother, a
housekeeper, was black; his dad, a baker, was a German immigrant who
was often gone.

Wilson grew up with
five siblings in a tiny apartment, then moved to a white neighborhood
when his mother remarried. “He struggled in school,” Pollard
said. “But he had a level of tenacity that he knew there was
something inside of him that he had to get out.”

The breaking point
came when a high school teacher felt a paper he wrote was too good.
Accused of plagiarism, Wilson quit; for years after that, he had
menial jobs and the library was his school.

He eventually moved
to Minneapolis and Seattle, but his characters remained in
Pittsburgh. Nine of his 10 “cycle” plays were set there.

The first, “Jitney,”
debuted in 1982 in Pittsburgh and was rewritten in '96; it's the only
one in the cycle to never reach Broadway. The last, “Radio Golf,”
opened in 2005 in Yale. “He had come to New York after that
opening, and it was then that he was diagnosed with cancer,” Rashad

The show would open
on Broadway in 2007, after his death, getting a New York Drama
Critics Circle award (his eighth) and a Tony nomination (his ninth,
with only “Fences” winning).

His actors also drew
honors, performing the grand rhetoric. This film has monologs by
James Earl Jones, Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne,
Ruben Santiago-Hudson and more.

Some are vintage,
but most were taped new for “Masters.” Rashad again became
300-year-old Aunt Ester, which she's done in four “Gem of the
Ocean” productions, receiving a Tony nomination.

“You skim the
surface a couple of times and you run a little deeper,” she said.
With Wilson, there's usually extra depth to find.

“American Masters:
August Wilson,” 9-10:30 p.m. Friday, PBS (check local listings)


"Men" is leaving, but the Lorre comedy empire lingers

Sure, "Two and a Half Men" has veered wildly, from witty to silly and back again. Still, it's provided a dozen years of big laughs ... and has launched a Chuck Lorre comedy empire topped by the wonderful "Big Bang Theory." Now "Men" has its finale Thursday; here's a story I sent to papers, about Lorre and his shows:


Every now and then,
TV gets a new comedy boss.

It's had Norman Lear
and Garry Marshall and Grant Tinker, each with several simultaneous
hits. And now Chuck Lorre has four successful shows ... a number
that's about to drop to three.

On Thursday, “Two
and a Half Men” ends its 12-year run – one of the longest in TV
comedy history. Lorre is guarded about details... including whether
Charlie Sheen will return, with his character being alive, after all.
“There's going to be an awful lot of folks in the finale,” he
said carefully.

He's less guarded
abpout the impact this show has had on his career.

“None of this
happens without 'Two and a Half Men,'” Lorre said. “(Without it,
we) couldn't have gone into CBS and said ... with a straight face
that we want to do a show about physicists.”

That was “The Big
Bang Theory,” which became broadcast TV's most-watched show. His
others also seem unlikely, Lorre points out: “Mike & Molly”
has “a cop and a school teacher meeting at an Overeaters Anonymous
meeting”; “Mom” is “about a mother and daughter recovering

These shows exist
near each other, on the Warner Brothers lot. “It's 'Mr. Lorre's
Neighborhood,'” said Billy Gardell, a “Mike & Molly” star.

And often, Lorre
goes from show to show, doing minor tweaks. “You're like, 'There's
something wrong with the scene; where is Chuck?'” said Jim Parsons,
the “Big Bang” star. “Oh, he's at 'Mom.'”

When found, he may
have a solution. Melissa Rauch (“Big Bang”) calls him “the
comedy whisperer.”

But all of that has
come fairly late for him. “I was a struggling musician 'til I was
about 35 years old,” Lorre said. “I remember vividly what it's
like to put 38 cents in the gas tank and drive to my second cousin's
house, so they would feed me ....

“I can remember
getting a ticket for making an illegal U-turn. It was a $50 ticket
and I broke down and I sobbed because it wiped me out.”

He'd had some mild
successes as a guitarist and songwriter, including the time he heard
an animation shop needed a song. He became co-writer of the eternal
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” theme.

Still, Lorre was
near 40 before he had comedy success, writing for “Roseanne” and
being a creator and producer of “Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill”
and “Dharma & Greg.” He wrote for strong women ... but also
fought with them. “I could have been nicer along the way,” he
said. “And I regret that.”

He's described
alcohol, anger, drugs and “a dissolute youth until I was 47.” By
then, he was in the middle of his fourth TV show, “Dharma &
Greg.” His bigger successes would follow.

Each of Lorre's
current shows has a separate showrunner and a different quality. The
Television Critics Association has twice given its top comedy award
to “Big Bang” (which also has four Emmy nominations for best
comedy series); crtics have roundly ignored “Mike & Molly.”

Still, they all
reflect Lorre's impact. “Chuck is hands-on on each of his shows,”
said “Men” co-creator Lee Aronsohn. That includes:

-- Sticking to
taping in front of an audience ... but insisting actors not go too
broad to get the studio laughs. “Chuck will say, 'That's too far; I
don't believe it,'” said “Men” star Jon Cryer.

-- Warmth amid
trouble. Ashton Kutcher says Lorre has often repeated a formula:
“They're all built on family. They're all built on these obscure,
broken, beat-up, messed-up families that are just like yours.”

-- Depicting lives
realistically – up to a point. “Men” has a classy beach house,
but the others get by modestly and the “Mom” characters have
moved often ... just like Lorre did in his old days. “Chuck has
been very specific about not being too rundown,” said John
Shaffner, the designer for all four shows.

When the “Mom”
characters hit bottom this season, Shaffner said, Lorre approved some
drab digs ... then changed his mind. “He said, 'Enough with the
depressive look.'”

Now “Mom” has
brighened. So has Lorre's life.

The Lorre shows

-- “Two and a Half
Men” finale, 9-10 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 19), CBS.

-- Other Lorre shows
(all CBS): “The Big Bang Theory,” 8 p.m. Thursdays; “Mike &
Molly,” 8:30 p.m. Mondays; “Mom,” pre-empted this week, then
moves to 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26.

-- Also, reruns of
“Men,” “Big Bang” and “Mike & Molly” persist on cable
and individual stations.

Longest lasting?

With 12 seasons as a
scripted, primetime comedy, “Men” is almost unprecedented. Other
leaders are:

-- Two animated
shows, “The Simpsons,” in its 26th season, and “Family
Guy,” in its 13th.

-- “The Jack Benny
Show,” 15 seasons, but not always as a weekly show.

-- “Ozzie &
Harriet,” 14.

-- “All in the
Family” and “The Danny Thomas Show,” each 13 – but only if
you include “Archie Bunker's Place” and Thomas' extra year, “Make
Room for Granddaddy.”

-- “The Lucy Show”
and “My Three Sons,” 12.

(A source is “The
Complete Directory of Network and Cable TV Shows, Ballantine Books)

Other comedy moguls

-- There have been
several, topped by Norman Lear (best known for “All in the
Family”), Grant Tinker (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Garry
Marshall (“Happy Days”).

-- Also, Sheldon
Leonard produced the Thomas, Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith shows
and more. And, of course, became the namesake of the “Big Bang”
characters, Sheldon and Leonard.