It's time for spy master of (really) the Revolutionary War

On Sunday, our cable-TV attention turns back -- way back -- to spies in the Revolutionary War. Here's the story I sent to papers:


In his English school days, Jamie Bell’s knowledge of the
Revolutionary War was limited, but accurate.

“They taught us that we lost,” he said.

Then teachers returned to kings and such, ignoring talk
about the irritable colonies. “I don’t think to this day it’s something we look
on particularly fondly.” That’s fine, because:

He had bigger things to worry about. Bell was
the young star of “Billy Elliot,” the soaring movie about a blue-collar kid who
wants to be a dancer.

And now he’s getting a crash course in the war.
In the “Turn” series, ironically, he plays an American spying on the British.

That starts with an essential problem: “George Washington …
was being massively outspied,” said Joel Stillerman, AMC’s programming chief.
Then he found “the Culper Ring, a small group of young men and women who risked
everything to (match) the British army’s very sophisticated espionage program.”

Soon, historian Alexander Rose said, the general was
savoring the mental adventure.

“We always tend to think of Washington as this solemn sort
of figure on a one-dollar bill, who’s completely and utterly humorless,” Rose
said. “But … he took this very deep interest in the goings-on of this very
obscure bunch of people on Long Island.”

Rose had come across a brief reference to the spy ring; he
went to libraries to learn more … and found almost nothing. Soon, he was in the
Library of Congress. “If you search very carefully, you find the entire
correspondence that Washington had with the Culper Ring. (In spy matters,) you
never find that, ever.”

What Rose found were the first steps of a sort of art form  He wrote a non-fiction book, which producer
Craig Silverstein saw as ideal for scripted drama: “The birth of modern trade
craft was worked out here through trial and error – aliases, cover stories,
dead drops … a lot of cryptography. These things were invented by the Culver
Ring, out of necessity.”

Now that has been turned into TV drama, with Bell as a
farmer who reluctantly gets tugged into the revolution. And yes, that sometimes
mean evil Englishmen. “They used to stable their horses in … a Presbyterian
church,” Rose said. “So it was just sort of adding insult to injury.”

It got worse, Silverstein said: “The British tore up the
gravestones in this town and used them to fortify … as kind of extra shielding
against a musket shot.”

Two sides with common ancestry split. “It really was more of
a sibling rivalry,” Bell said. And now he gets to play someone on the winning

“Turn,” 9 p.m. Sundays, AMC; 90-minute debut
April 6, then an hour

Opener reruns at 10:30 p.m.; then 2:30 p.m. Tuesday;
10:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. April 12; 7:30 p.m. April 13, before the second
episode at 9 and the “Mad Men” debut at 10


Small-town Southerner conquers Broadway; PBS is next

Trust me on this: Patina Miller is one terrific singer. In January, I heard her soar effortlessly from Broadway to jazz and beyond; now she'll do that Friday (March 28) on "Live From Lincoln Center." It's been a busy time for someone who's just a decade removed from small-town South Carolina. Here's the story I sent to papers:



Patina Miller might be getting used to being a big-time,
big-city star. She has:

Revived a Broadway role that Ben Vereen made
famous. “On opening night of ‘Pippin,’ he sat right behind my mom,” she said. “No
pressure; it was really crazy.”

Won a Tony Award for that role, on an historic
night. “There were four African-Americans that won the Tonys, all in the same
year,” said Leslie Uggams, who was once the only black star of Broadway
musicals. “That really showed that there are more shows that are opening up for

And prepared for Friday’s big moment, a PBS
concert from the prestigious Lincoln Center. “It’s going to be inspired by some
of my favorite music – Broadway, R&B, gospel, jazz,” Miller said.

This city success is happening to someone who grew up in
Pageland, a South Carolina town of 2,500.

“There weren’t a lot of artistic opportunities,” Miller, 29,
said. “So the things that I found were watching movies … and watching programs
on PBS.”

This was a single-parent family, short on money but long on encouragement.
“My mom and my grandmother were both very strong women,” Miller said. “And my
mom always said, ‘They can tell you no, (but) somebody’s going to say yes.’”

After hearing her sing at home and in a gospel choir, her
mother looked for more opportunities. Miller recalls being 9 or 10 and “going
to a summer arts program about three towns away …. I would get up in the
morning when all the kids were sleeping and I would go on the little bus.”

Next came a boarding school (South Carolina’s School for the
Arts and Humanities) and a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University. And then
a short-cut to success … almost.

At 21, Miller was one of three finalists to play Effie in
the “Dreamgirls” movie. Jennifer Hudson got the role and an Academy Award;
Miller took a more gradual route.

In New York, she did a soap opera (“All My Children”) and
two non-Broadway musicals; in London, she starred in “Sister Act” and received
an Olivier Award nomination. She also received a Tony nomination when the show
reached New York, but her next Broadway show was the big on

“Pippin” cast Miller as The Leading Player, the show’s
razzle-dazzle narrator. This version would have more dazzle than ever; she
would do the opening number upside-down on a trapeze. That took nerve -- “I’m
afraid of heights; I didn’t tell anyone” – and physical fitness; the fitness
comes in handy in her upcoming movie role as Commander Paylor, a rebel leader
in the third “Hunger Games” movie.

Miller continues to do “Pippin” and has major fans,
including Vereen (who has seen the show several more times), Uggams (who calls
her “quite astounding as a performer” and Andrew Wilk, the “Live From Lincoln
Center” producer.

“Patina is a powerhouse vocalist,” Wilk said. Now he’s
giving her an hour to unleash that power.

“Live From Lincoln Center,” with Patina Miller
in concert;  9 p.m. Friday, PBS (check
local listings)

Da Vinci is back -- a little wiser and (as usual) in a lot of trouble

Television rarely tries anything that is epic in look and tone and subject. Now, fortunately, "Da Vinci's Demons" is back; it's even better than the first year, because its central character (Leonardo da Vinci, no less) has added depth. Here's the story I sent to papers:


The past year has been a big one for Leonardo da Vinci … or,
at least, the TV version of him.

The real da Vinci, dead these past 495 years, has a solid
reputation as a know-it-all and do-it-all. The TV version -- via “Da Vinci’s
Demons” – had some growing up to do in the first season. “He was a little bit
of a scamp,” said writer-producer David Goyer. “He was a little self-centered.”

Or a lot. He was a careless playboy who seduced the mistress
of Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo de Medici. When the second season starts Saturday,
he holds the city’s future in his hands – literally.

“He was an enfant terrible and he behaved appallingly,” said
Tom Riley, who plays him. “In Season Two, we see him (acting like) an
adolescent. And hopefully, in the future, we’ll see him become a man.”

But first, Florence must be saved. Mobs have stormed the
castle. De Medici, a benevolent leader, is bleeding to death. Blood transfusions
hadn’t yet been envisioned … or had they?

Da Vinci did autopsies “which technically were illegal,” Goyer
said, and his drawings were precise. “People have said if there was nothing
else he ever did, he would be known as a great anatomist.”

The first recorded transfusions didn’t happen until 150
years after his death, but Goyer said there were accounts that Muslim doctors pondered
the possibility in the 10
th or 11th centuries. That was ignored
by most, but da Vinci ignored little. He was a genius – a concept that Goyer may
know well.

The only time Goyer’s own IQ was tested (in grade school),
he was just below the genius level, at 136. Besides, he said, he lacked the all-knowing
approach of da Vinci. “There were things I excelled at, but I had a terrible
block in algebra; I couldn’t do it to save my life.”

What he could do was write. And he lived in a college town
(Ann Arbor, Mich.) where such things were noticed. By 6
th or 7th
grade, he no longer had to participate in the English classwork, if he turned
in one short story a week. When he was in high school, a teacher submitted one
and he won a national contest.

Growing up in a modest-income family – his mother, a single
parent, was working on her doctorate -- Goyer hoped to become a Detroit
homicide cop. “My high school teachers thought it would be a waste.” Instead,
he landed a scholarship to study film at the University of Southern California.

His home town had its drawbacks – some classmates had
anti-Jewish bias, Goyer said – but Ann Arbor had top schools and “a strong
signal-to-noise ratio.” He savored comic-book stores, film-society screenings
and more; it was the perfect boyhood for someone who would write about a

First, were movies; Goyer wrote the “Blade” trilogy, “Batman
Begins” and the stories for the next two Batman films, plus “Man of Steel.”
Then came the massive job of re-creating Florence in a Wales studio.

The result is spectacular -- especially in the second season’s
early mob scenes -- but da Vinci soon leaves for South America. That requires a
surge of outdoor settings – some filmed (without the actors) in Peru, some shot
at a spectacular estate created centuries ago by wealthy Englishmen in Cornwall.
That setting “was the inspiration for ‘Lord of the Rings,’” said Blake Ritson,
who plays the evil Count Riario.

Riario and da Vinci head into that lush world, Goyer said.  “I thought, ‘If we can create Florence in
Wales, then we can create Machu Picchu, too.” It’s the kind of brash notion da
Vinci would cherish.

“Da Vinci’s Demons,” 9 p.m. Saturdays, Starz; second season
starts March 22

Opener reruns instantly at 10 and 11, plus other times,
including: 11:45 a.m. and 4:40, 8 and 9 p.m., Sunday; 1:45 and 10 p.m. Tuesday
(March 25); 9 p.m. and midnight March 26; 3:45 p.m. March 27; 11:15 p.m. March
28; 1:15, 4:35 and 8 p.m. March 29.  


Amid St.Patrick's frenzy, the Weather Channel makes its big push

The more I see the Weather Channel, the more I realize these people do a really good job. This is not some cut-rate operation (like the one that inexplicably replaced it on DirecTV). It does its job well ... and sometimes entertainingly. Now it makes its big morning push Monday (March 17). Here's the story I sent to papers:


As a new week begins – mixing Monday gloom with St. Patrick’s
Day frenzy – the Weather Channel makes its big push.

That’s a morning show that David Clark, the channel’s
president, calls “the most ambitious programming initiative in our history.” He
figures the channel is ready for such things: “We have 220 meteorologists and
climatologists on staff and … we’re all pretty much weather geeks.”

Then there’s the irony: Almost everyone there is a
meteorologist … except the show’s anchor.

“I’m just a guy who started in this business 30 years ago,
when my family couldn’t afford to send us to a school that had lots of degrees,”
said Sam Champion, 52. “I worked my way up through this business.”

He went from his home-town station in Paducah, Ky., to New
York City – WABC in 1988, “Good Morning America” in 2006. Now he’s moves to
Atlanta, leading a key day:

“Wake Up With Al” remains at 5:30 a.m. from New
York, with Al Roker and Stephanie Abrams. At 7, Roker moves to NBC’s “Today,”
with Abrams sometimes doing Weather Channel reports. On Monday, she’ll be at
the morning show’s premiere party on Times Square.

“AMHQ with Sam Champion” is 7-10 a.m. In the
Atlanta studio. Champion will be with Mike Bettes, Maria LaRosa and Anaridis

Field reports will be taped (Alexandra Cousteau
starts a five-day report on the Colorado River) and live. The opener eyes St.
Patrick’s Day in New York, Chicago, Savannah and Hot Springs, Ark.

All of that glitz will be nudged aside, Clark said, when there’s
fierce weather to report. “(We have) boxes and boxes of letters from families …
who say, ‘You saved our lives.’” During those times, the channel is back to basics
– climatologists surrounded by charts, field reporters surrounded by fury.

Champion has been in those storms, under circumstances that
were civilized – when Hurricane Sandy belted New York in 2012, “all of my
friends had evacuated the downtown area and had moved to my apartment, which is
on the Upper West Side, where they had power and wine” – and not.

Back in 2008, he said, Hurricane Dolly far exceeded
expectations. “I’m laying in the tub in the bathroom in the (Texas) hotel that
is being shredded. Broken glass and insulation and everything are flying under
the door …. And I’m like, ‘This is not supposed to be happening with a storm of
this strength.’”

Sandy caused an estimated $68 billion in damage; Dolly did
about $1 billion in the South, his home turf.

Champion was born in Paducah, the son of a Vietnam-veteran
Marine who became a lieutenant colonel. After finishing high school in
Virginia, he went to Eastern Kentucky University. Like Roker, he majored in
broadcasting, not meteorology, but soon immersed himself.

“Learning weather along the way,” he said, “I took it
seriously …. I basically lay out everybody’s forecast and do my own. I want to
see why they agree, why they disagree, and I want to tell the audience that.”

Now, for three hours each weekday, he has a national
audience to talk to.

Paycheck to paycheck, Katrina finds hurdles, help and survival

This is a splendid time for beautifully crafted documentaries. The "Chicagoland" series (see a couple blogs back) has just started, PBS has upcoming "American Masters" and "American Experience" films and HBO has its slate. Leading the way is "Paycheck to Paycheck," a compelling HBO film (debuting March 17), profiling one woman's efforts to raise three kids on $9.49 an hour. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Like many people, Katrina Gilbert finds herself occupying the
wrong life.

She’s 30 now, a milestone of sorts. By now, she said, “I was
going to have a college degree and a really good job and do a little travelling.”

Instead, she’s been supporting three kids (ages 7, 5 and 3) with
a $9.49-an-hour job at a nursing home. She gets by … unless anything happens,
like “having a flat tire or the car breaks down or one of the kids gets sick
and I have to miss a day of work …. There are a lot of surprises. You say, ‘No,
not this!’”

For a compelling HBO documentary, filmmakers stepped inside her
life, off-and-on, for nine months. Shari Cookson recalls one cold day in a
house trailer in Chattanooga, Tenn. “She didn’t want the kids to go outside,
because she was afraid they’d catch a cold …. I felt the claustrophobia.”

This is a life many people know, the film says; 42 million American
women and the 28 million children who depend on them live near or below the poverty
line. It’s something Gilbert struggles with, filmmaker Nick Doob said. “She’s
really trying to break out of it, trying to get a better deal.”

Then fresh obstacles appear. When she moved a few miles, she
crossed into a new state and lost (for now) food-stamp eligibility. When she
missed some college classes because the kids were sick, she lost (for now) her
financial aid. “My mom said, ‘You’ll figure it out,’” Gilbert said. “And I

That’s part of what drew the filmmakers, Cookson said. “She’s
such a vibrant person.”

Their film is part of Maria Shriver’s project to focus on
American women. At the Chambliss Center, which provides subsidized day care in
Chattanooga, they noticed Gilbert, who resists any stereotypes of the working
poor. “She’s personable, she’s young, she’s funny,” Cookson said.

Nursing-home residents seem to savor her; friends joke with
her about having the same name (Katrina) as a fierce storm.  “Sometimes they just call me Hurricane,”
Gilbert said. “I’ll answer to that.”

Gilbert did well in high school, academically and socially,
she said. “I was friends with everybody.”

She married at 19 and still speaks well of her ex-husband,
Jeremy Gilbert: “He’s really caring. He’s a great dad …. Sometimes, we’ll take
the kids together somewhere, like the county fair.”

But his pill addiction ended their marriage, she said, and
drained their bank account. He recovered and was happy to watch the kids … but until
recently had no job and lived with his mother, two hours away.

In some ways, Gilbert is luckier than most people. She has
help from her mother (who watched the kids when she trained as a certified
nursing assistant) … and Jeremy (now living closer and working) … and a new
boyfriend (with four kids of his own to worry about) … and the Chambliss

“I didn’t even know it existed until someone told me about
it,” Gilbert said. “They do an amazing job. My son was saying the ABC’s when he
was 2 years old.”

Her pay finally went up to $9.63 an hour, the first raise in
two years; she expects to get by. “Katrina has a real sense of living in the
moment,” Doob said. “She just takes things as they come.”

“Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of
Katrina Gilbert”

Debuts 9-10:15 p.m. Monday (March 17) on HBO.

Reruns March 20 at 4:45 p.m. and that night at
12:30 a.m.; also, 10:30 a.m., March 23; 11 a.m., March 26; 4:45 p.m., March 29.

Also on HBO2: 8 p.m., March 19; 11:05 a.m.,
March 22; 7:50 a.m., March 25; 2 p.m., March 31.