The Watsons take a journey for the decades

This one is of particular interest to Michigan people: Tapping into his Flint roots, Christopher Paul  Curtis has created award-winning books; now one of them will be a cable movie Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


It’s been a long trip, taking the Watsons from Flint to
Alabama to our TV sets.

Fictionally, the trip started in 1963. As literature, it began
in 1995; the TV idea began a few years later.

“It’s been a 10-year journey,” producer Tonya Lewis Lee
said. “We have pitched it to many places.”

They found an unlikely one: “The Watsons Go to Birmingham”
debuts Friday on the Hallmark Channel.

Hallmark is a feel-good channel, as cheery as a birthday
card; is this any place for a story with a civil-rights theme? “’The Watsons’
is first and foremost a film about a family,” said producer Nikki Silver.

In this case, the family’s journey south accidentally
collides with the last stand of segregation. And the story represents a giant
journey for its Michigan author.

Christopher Paul Curtis grew up in Flint, with blue-collar
roots. For 13 years, he worked in an auto plant, just as his dad did. But there
were other influences: His mom was an educator, one grandfather was a bandleader,
the other was a Negro Baseball League pitcher.

So Curtis grew up with an artistic side. Fresh from high
school, he was in the Lansing-based Suitcase Theatre. At the auto plant, he
wrote during breaks. Later, after working in Windsor, he took a year off and
wrote “Watsons” by longhand in the Windsor library.

The result won a Newbery Honor, one of the highest prizes
for children’s literature. (Curtis would go on to win the top prize, a Newbery
Award, for “Bud, Not Buddy.”) The New York Times listed it as one of the year’s
100 best books, the only children’s book on the list.

Curtis, 60, is now a fulltime author and speaker, living in
the Detroit area. The notion of filming his book was boosted by timing, Silver
said. Hallmark has started a Friday-family-film project with Walden Media and
others; key dates arrived this year. “It’s the 50
th anniversary of
the march on Washington, the 50
th anniversary of the (Birmingham)
church bombing …. Maybe it was just meant to be.”

The film drew some top people, including director Kenny Leon
(who made the TV versions of “Steel Magnolias” and “A Raisin in the Sun”) and
Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose. It also had some quirks:

There is a key Michigan man in the cast (David
Alan Grier of Detroit), but he plays a Southerner.

 The whole
thing was shot in Atlanta, including scenes of a frigid Flint winter. “I
thought we did a pretty good job … on an 80-degree day,” Leon said.

What emerged, he said, is a film about heroics. “Ultimately,
this is a film about love. It’s about family love and … loving and embracing
our history.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” 8-10 p.m.
Friday, Hallmark

Repeats at the same time a week later.

It's never "Sunny" at awards time

You'll hear plenty this week about the big Emmy nominees on HBO and AMC and such. Instead, let's look at the oft-overlooked. Here's a story I sent to papers:



As Danny DeVito tells it, he knew
pretty early that his show would stick around.

“We never got nominated for
anything,” DeVito said. “And we never got any awards …. So I
always figured that's really good sign … we were going to be a
long-running show.”

He's joking, perhaps, but there's also
some truth behind it:

– DeVito's first series (“Taxi”)
won 18 Emmys – including three straight as best comedy series. It
lasted only five years and was canceled by two networks.

– His second, “It's Always Sunny in
Philadelphia,” is in its ninth season and has been renewed for its
tenth. It's a key element in the new FXX cable channel. The Emmys
have ignored it … and vice versa.

“I didn't even realize that the
nominations came out,” said Kaitlin Olson, one of the stars. “I
think a couple days later … I was like, 'Oh, right. It's a shame
again this year.'”

Had she checked, she would have found
that “Sunny” has its first nomination – for best stunt
coordination in a comedy. This isn't one of your high-profile

Now comes a “Sunny” response
Wednesday, just four days before the Emmys. “It's called 'The Gang
Desperately Tries to Win an Award,'” said Charlie Day, one of the
writer-stars. “They realize that all these other bars win awards
and they've never won any award. So they go to the other bars (and)
try to change themselves to fit in that formula.”

Other bars have bright lights and
cheery music. There's a black friend and an unspoken love and …

What this soon becomes, of course, is a
satire of shows that actually get awards.

The “Sunny” people seem to really
want to be at the Emmys … even if DeVito – who already has an
Emmy and a Golden Globe from his “Taxi” days – feigns

“There's the traffic,” he said.
“And then you've got to put the suit on. It's a pain.”

  • “It's Always Sunny in
    Philadelphia,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, FXX

  • The awards episode is Sept. 18,
    rerunning that night at 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.; it also reruns at 11
    and 11:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 p.m. Sept. 24

  • The actual Emmys are 8 p.m. Sunday
    on CBS; most categories are lumped into the Creative Arts Awards, at
    9 p.m. Saturday on FXX

  • Previous seasons of “Sunny”
    rerun at odd times on Comedy Central and WGN America.

  • “Sunny” has had a few
    nominations elsewhere – two People's Choice (favorite cable
    comedy) and four Satellite (two for best comedy, plus ones for
    DeVito and Day). It's lone win was a 2011 Satellite Award for best
    comedy series.


One more time: Here are the "Dance" champs

In a late -- and wise -- move, Fox has decided to rerun its "So You Think You Can Dance" finale tonight (8-10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13).

The finale offers a terrific, two-hour stretch of dancing, then picks instantly likable champions. Alas, I'm about to spoil the surprise on that; here's the story I sent to papers, interviewing the winners:


Sometimes, reality-show producers really do get it right.

That happened this summer, when “So You Think You Can Dance”
was linking strangers to form 10 duos. One combination paired Amy Yakima, 19,
and Fik-Shun, 18.

“We have the same work ethic,” Yakima said. “We’re

And now they’re winners. On Tuesday, they each won $125,00
as the show’s male and female champions; that finale reruns Friday.

“Dance” creates duos for a few weeks, then splits them up
and has them dance with “all-stars” from previous seasons. The Amy-Fik duo
seemed to click quickly.

That could involve the Midwest work ethic. She’s from
Michigan; he’s originally from Kansas.

Or it could be that they’re similar physically (he’s 5-foot-6-and-a-half,
she’s 5-3, both are cherubic) and emotionally. “We’re both happy-go-lucky,”
Yakima said.

Indeed, the two fit so well that some viewers hoped they
were dating each other. “That’s not really happening,” Fik-Shun said. “She has
a boyfriend.”

Other things could have become obstacles to their dance
partnership. His specialty is hip-hop; hers is jazz. “My boyfriend’s a hip-hop
dancer,” Yakima said. “I’ve just grown up taking a lot of classes.”

That’s the other big difference: Yakima has been taking
classes since she was 3. Now she could pass some of that on, Fik-Shun said. “She
explains it in a way I can understand …. I’m a visual learner, so when I see
it, I have to mimic it.”

Yakima said she also learned from him. “He taught me how to …
actually listen to the music and not just do the steps.”

Both pushed hard to make an impression onstage, Fik-Shun
said. “Amy always drilled that into my head to go big … because we’re small

Yakima, a doctor’s daughter, grew up in Northville (near
Detroit), surrounded by people – cousin, sisters, mother – who loved to dance.
Fik-Shun started in Wichita, where he was dancing at 2. He was in 6th
grade, he said, when his family decided to move to Las Vegas, so he could have
more dance chances. (His dad started a martial-arts school there and
occasionally does security work.) He was in 9th grade when a friend
suggested  “Fik-Shun”; that replaced his
given name (Du-Shaunt Stegall) on stage.

Both are taking some Online courses – Yakima in computer
graphics, Fik-Shun in communication. “I figure, if I’m not dancing I’m probably
talking,” he said.

There may not be time for that now; Yakima, for instance, has
quite a to-do list:  “I want to do
(dance) companies, I want to do music videos, I want to go on tours – I want to
do it all. I just want to dance.”

--  “So You Think You Can Dance” finale, reruns 8-10
p.m. today (Friday, Sept. 13) on Fox





Re-tooled "Latifah Show": This time, she's ready

Monday (Sept. 15) is phase two of the battle for daily attention in non-network time slots. Last week brought Arsenio Hall (the opener was OK, but not great) and Bethenny Frankel; Monday brings Queen Latifah, who could quickly catch on. Here's the story I sent to papers; scroll down a ways and you'll find the ones last week on Hall and Frankel, plus an overview. In between is my TV-season preview:



Let's think of this as a very long
retooling process.

The original “Queen Latifah Show”
began when its host was 29. It ran two years and drew shrugs.

Now, 14 years later, “The Queen
Latifah Show” is considered this year's strongest daytime newcomer.
Latifah's become a star whose guests will be older (the first is John
Travolta) and younger.

Pop star Willow Smith, 12, has already
put in her name. “She said to me, 'I want to go on Auntie Latifah's
show,'” said her mom, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Jada is one of the show's producers,
along with her husband Will Smith (another of the first-week guests)
and others. “One of the things I love about Latifah is that she's
fearless,” she said. “So I just want her to have fun, to have a
good time.”

This was already an interesting person
back in 1999, when the original show debuted. She was born in Newark
(as Dana Owens), went to Catholic schools there, lived nearby and
went to Irvington High School, where her mom taught. She kept
conquering new worlds – basketball in high school, rap at 18, then
the “Living Single” situation comedy at 23.

Since then, she's kept adding things.
“I really have never looked at things as impossible,” Latifah

She enjoys recalling people's
astonishment: “'So let me get this right: This girl wants to rap in
a male-dominated field and call herself Queen Latifah? OK, now she
wants to act? …. Now you want to make a musical, now you want to do
a jazz album? You want to ... rob some banks?'”

Some of her biggest moves came after
that first talk show died. Some of her movies failed, but “Chicago”
brought her an Oscar nomination. She sang at the Super Bowl and the
Academy Awards, hosted a White House concert, did duets with Tony
Bennett and Stevie Wonder and more.

She accumulated famous friends,
including rocker Lenny Kravitz. He'll be a first-week guest and his
company designed and built the set.

“I call it 'Big Sexy,'” Latifah
said of the set. “It is pretty big and very sexy. (It's)
contemporary. It looks like nothing else on TV.”

It includes chatty spaces, where she
can talk with non-show-business people who hsve uplifting stories.
And it has bigger concert spaces. “We love music, so … we have to
have everybody,” Latifah said.

That even includes country. Latifah
said she hopes to have Garth Brooks; Jada Pinkett Smith mentions
“Toby Keith, who's a friend of ours.”

The list goes on, said Corin Nelson,
another of the producers. “She loves country, she loves pop, she
loves R&B, she loves rap, she loves jazz.” She seems to like a
lot of things and people … which can be very handy when you have a
daily talk show.

  • “The Queen Latifah Show”

  • Weekdays, starting Monday
    (Sept.16), on a non-network line-up; check local listings


TV's fantasy fun keeps growing; the big networks re-discover sci-fi

The best news about the new TV season involves science-fiction and fantasy shows. There are seven new ones -- all of them interesting, most visually stunning, many of them well-made. Here's the story I sent to papers, the last of four previewing the season. Catch the previous blogs for looks at dramas, comedies and a season overview:


For the big broadcast networks, it’s a scramble for the same
targets – young viewers, tech-savvy viewers, international deals. And that
means science-fiction or fantasy.

Such shows have thrived on cable (“Walking Dead,” “True
Blood”) and even on CBS (“Under the Dome”).  Now four more broadcast networks have new ones
for the fall. Most are visually splendid; some are quite good. Here they are,
from best to worst, with their starting dates:  

The best

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Ever since his “Buffy” days,
writer-producer Joss Whedon has known how to blend comedy and adventure, without
diminishing either. His master stroke is to center this show on Clark Gregg (“The
New Adventures of Old Christine”), who has a comic touch. Gregg’s character (Phil
Coulson) has had small roles in the Marvel movies, but now he’s an ordinary
guy, running superheroes. The result is clever, yet filled with slam-bang fun.
(8 p.m. Tuesday, ABC; Sept. 24)

“Sleepy Hollow.” This isn’t something to watch casually on
your phone or computer. It’s a sweeping epic to be admired on a massive screen.
Ichabod Crane has awakened in modern times, plagued by the headless horseman of
old. The result is strange but compelling. (9 p.m. Mondays, Fox; Sept. 16)

Also intriguing

“Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.” The producers of “Once
Upon a Time” have hatched a spin-off that is again gorgeous and (sometimes)
bewildering. Alice is in an old English mental home, insisting her tale is
true. A sampling indicated this could be terrific. (8 p.m. Thursdays, ABC; Oct.

“Dracula.” In a nasty opening, blood revives the corpse of
Vlad Dracula. He re-invents himself as a mogul who challenges (and occasionally
kills) corporate crooks. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Henry VIII in “Tudors”) lacks
impact in the title role, but “Dracula” is sumptuous and interesting. (10 p.m.
Fridays, Oct; Nov. 25)

“The Tomorrow People.” Many teens seem to feel they’re
different and wish they had an explanation. Now Stephen (Robbie Amell, whose brother
stars in CW’s “Arrow”) knows the reason – he has special powers. It’s an
intriguing tale, somewhat deflated late in the pilot. (9 p.m. Wednesdays, CW;
Oct. 9)

Interesting, but …

“Almost Human.” This is TV’s favorite kind of pairing – Kirk
and Spock, Picard and Data, Leonard and Sheldon, the human and the semi-robotic.
Now a crabby cop in 2048 is paired with a flawed android. It has potential, but
the early minutes are messy. (8 p.m. Mondays, Nov. 4)

“The Originals.” Like most good sci-fi, “Vampire Diaries”
eased us into its story through the eyes of an innocent. “Originals” takes no
such precaution: Klaus returns to New Orleans, where people sneer and strut.
Except for “Diaries” fans, viewers will have no one to root for. (9 p.m.
Thursdays, CW; Oct. 3)