No script? No plans? No problem

Less than a year old, Pivot is a fascinating cable channel. It keeps trying fresh, creative things, including a free-form rap comedy special that will air Saturday. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This could be an actor’s nightmare -- standing onstage with no
words, no plans, no expectations.

What’s that like? “It feels like freedom,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Especially when you’ve done a long-running show, eight times a week, saying
the same lines.” He’s known those opposite worlds, with:

“Freestyle Love Supreme,” an improvised rap show
that has a cable special Saturday on Pivot.

“In the Heights,” a Tony-winning musical that
had a three-year Broadway run.

Miranda created “Heights” and starred for the first year;
some people stayed for all 1,184 performances.

Unlike that show, “Freestyle” changes completely each night.
“Anything that comes into my head, I’m allowed to say,” Miranda said. “There’s
no time to censor yourself.”

Well, the special can be edited. It will be trimmed from a
show Miranda and friends did at Joe’s Pub in New York, two days earlier. “We
have certain elements we can cherry-pick,” said director Thomas Kail.

That includes the centerpiece: A random person comes
onstage, to be questioned by Anthony Veneziale about his or her life. Veneziale
seeks offbeat elements to pounce on. (“I’m a little like a comedy shark,” he
said. “I find blood in the water.”) Then Miranda and others do a rap piece
about the person’s day.

The idea started at Wesleyan University in Connecticut,
where Veneziale was doing improvisational comedy. “We were just starting to joke
around and have fun,” he said.

More students were added, including Miranda with his raps.
He was also creating “Heights,” which captures three days in a
Dominican-American neighborhood. “I’d been writing it since I was 19.”

Miranda kept rewriting it after college. He was 28 when “Heights”
opened on Broadway, with Kail directing; it won Tony awards for best musical
and for its score, choreography and orchestration. When Manuel accepted the
score trophy, his comments -- done in rap, half of it improvised on the spot --
remain one of the highlights of acceptance-speech history.

In the five years since then, these men have been busy. Kail
directed “Lombardi” and “Magic/Bird” for Broadway. Veneziale produced five
off-Broadway shows and started a West Coast variation on “Freestyle.” Miranda
acted, including two key “House” episodes and a regular role in “Do No Harm”; he
wrote two songs for a “Working” revival and the Spanish words for a “West Side
Story” revival.

Still, they get back together for “Freestyle,” which could
become a series. Miranda keeps trying unplanned, uncensored things. “He’s like
a rhyming dictionary,” Veneziale said.

That can be handy, when you’re working a pub or accepting an

“Freestyle Love Supreme,” 10 p.m. ET Saturday,
Pivot; repeating at 11:45 p.m. and 1 a.m.

More reruns: Sunday night at midnight, Tuesday
at 11:30 p.m., Wednesday at 11 p.m., more.

The Saturday shows are surrounded by reruns of
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “HitRECord.” Pivot has a youthful focus to its talk show,
documentaries, movies, imports and reruns – “Buffy,” “Veronica Mars,” “Farscape”
and “Friday Night Lights.”


George Lopez spins life's negatives into comedy

You've probably heard the notion of the crying clown, the idea that comedy springs from tortured souls. At times, we're told, that's wrong; from Jerry Seinfeld to Jimmy Fallon or Tina Fey, humor comes from cheery people.

Still ... often enough, it's true; people turn chaotic lives into comedy. George Lopez -- whose cable comedy debuts Thursday (March 6) -- is a strong example; here's the story I sent to papers: 


Back in his school days, George Lopez and teachers didn’t
seem to think much of each other.

There was one guy – a drama teacher and stand-up comedian –
he admired … briefly. “He said teaching me to do comedy would be a waste of
time,” Lopez said. Now, 35 years later, Lopez is:

A hugely successful stand-up star and a fairly
successful TV star.

Playing a teacher in “Saint George,” his new
situation comedy.

“I use negative things” as a starting point, Lopez said. Then
he goes the opposite way; so he plays a guy who made a fortune by inventing an
energy drink, yet still works in the classroom.

There have been plenty of negative things to build on, as he
detailed in “Why You Crying?” (Touchstone, 2004). His mom was “a wild, mixed-up
streak of a girl (with) spectacularly bad taste in men.” …. His dad vanished
when George was two months old …. His grandmother raised him sternly.

Lopez turned that into comedy, both successful and bitter.
“I was the angriest, most depressed man alive, … drowning my sorrows in
alcohol,” he wrote.

Some of that may have resurfaced recently: On Feb. 27, Lopez
was briefly arrested for public intoxication, at the Windsor, Canada, casino
where he had just performed. “I tried to sleep it off,” he said the next day,
through his publicist. “Unfortunately, it was on the casino floor.”

But four days later, Lopez, 52, was talking cheerfully about
his life and his ongoing place in TV history. “There hadn’t been a successful
TV show with a Mexican-American star,” he said.

“George Lopez” reached ABC in 2002 for a six-season,
120-episode run, then thrived via reruns. “Lopez Tonight” followed in 2009; “the
talk show was probably the hardest thing you can do,” he said. The second
season was nudged back an hour to make room for Conan O’Brien; there wasn’t a

Afterward, Lopez did a lot of stand-up, plus voice work in
animated movies. He had some movie acting roles, which weren’t his favorites. (“You’re
in your trailer, waiting for Jackie Chan to beat 15 people up …. Maybe that
wasn’t the best thing for me.”) It was time for his second sitcom.

In a deal similar to Charlie Sheen’s, “Saint George” got a
10-episode order from cable’s FX. If the ratings hit a target level, it will
automatically get 90 more, taped over about two-and-a-half years.

The show mirrors real life by having Lopez play a recently
divorced dad. The difference is that his real ex-wife is Cuban; in the show,
she’s played by Jenn Lyon, a willowy blonde.

“When I was in high school, there were very few white women,”
Lopez said. “When we saw them, they would gleam …. I didn’t have any success
with white women. Or with any women, actually.”

The other key roles -- his mother, boss, cousin and uncle –
went to Latinos. The uncle is played by Danny Trejo, who’s usually serious in
life (a decade in jails) and on film. “He said usually he would just stand and
scowl at the camera and say, ‘I’m gonna kill everyone here,’ and then go back
to his trailer.”

Now he’s doing a comedy and being a friend. “I didn’t have a
father figure,” Lopez said. He figures Trejo, who “hasn’t had a drink in 45
years,” may be ideal for that.

“Saint George,” 9 p.m. Thursdays, FX; debuts
March 6.

Opener reruns that night and Saturday night,
each at 12:30 a.m.; also, 3:30 p.m. Tuesday

"Chicagoland" brings fresh depth to documentaries

"Chicagoland," a terrific series, opened March 6 on CNN and continues -- Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays -- for eight weeks. Here's the story I sent to papers.


As Marc Levin sees it, this is a fine time for
documentaries. “I think there is a renaissance going on.”

That includes the one-hour films PBS and cable prefer and
the movie-length ones that reach the Oscars, film festivals and CNN. And now it
includes his eight-week “Chicagoland,” with a broader canvas.

“It’s not just an episode,” producer Laura Michalchyshyn
said. “You’re on this journey.”

The idea goes back to when Levin and Mark Benjamin directed
“Brick City” for the Sundance Channel. Over 11 hours, it traced a troubled city
(Newark), from the police chief to an intense defense attorney, from street
protestors to then-Mayor Cory Booker.

The result drew a Peabody award, a sequel (“Jersey Strong”)
and a decision to link “Brick City” people with Sundance Productions, created
by Robert Redford and Michalchyshyn. A new city was chosen.

Chicago shares Newark’s problems – shrinking blue-collar
jobs, expanding gangs and murders – and even has Newark’s former police chief
(Garry McCarthy). But it also has the optimism of a place where sports, music, theater
and commerce thrive. “It’s a mirror of the world today,” Michalchyshyn said.

Still, there was a catch: In one way, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is
Booker’s opposite. “He is notoriously suspicious of all media …. He said, ‘You
guys are all cynics,’” Levin said. “We said, ‘Look at our work.’”

He did and ended up letting cameras into his car and his
inner office. Landing a cable home came quickly, Michalchyshyn said. “It was
the fastest turnaround we’d ever seen.”

CNN had started an emphasis on documentaries, via series
(Morgan Spurlock, Anthony Bourdain) and movies (led by “Blackfish”). Now it was
ready for the next step, an eight-week series.

“Chicagoland” would be more accessible than “Brick City,”
adding narration (by Chicago reporter Mark Konkol), music and a brighter look.
But it would keep the approach of catching a city from all sides.

“That’s the beauty of long-form,” Michalchyshyn said.
“You’re not just flying in for a day. These guys stayed there for nine months.”
And they found key people.

They taped Emanuel and some of his strongest critics – including
Asean Johnson, a 4
th-grader whose speeches stir grown-ups. They
found “Chance the Rapper,” reacting to the violence around him … and Dr. Andrew
Dennis, an emergency-room surgeon who also has a police badge and is the medical
director for two SWAT teams. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is a superman,’” Levin

At Fenger High School, they met one student soaring (as a
chef) and another crashing. They were also nudged to the office. “I said, ‘I
think I’m being sent to the principal’s office again,’” Levin jokes.

This was not like any principal who might have darkened his
New Jersey boyhood. Young (36) and bi-racial, Elizabeth Dozier is the daughter
of an ex-nun and an ex-convict. Now she seems to be everywhere – the hallways,
the neighborhood, the mayor’s office; she encourages and cajoles the kids, even
driving one home from jail. Persistent and passionate, she’s a Chicago kind of

“Chicagoland,” 10 p.m. ET Thursdays, CNN,
started March 6

Each episode repeats at 1 a.m., then at 8 and 11
p.m. Saturdays and 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Sundays.

Runs for eight weeks; subject to pre-emption by
breaking news.

Oscar time? First, the independents have their spirited day

There's great pleasure in finding a low-budget, low-hype movie that is better than the big ones. Many -- including the remarkable "Winter's Bone" -- are at video stores; some are in theaters.  On Saturday, the night before the Oscars, they'll be nominated at the Independent Spirit award ceremony. Here's the story I sent to papers:


For movie people, this is the big-deal weekend. At the
Academy Awards, everything – budgets, profits, salaries, hype – seems big; only
the dresses are small.

But it’s also the weekend to celebrate smaller films in a
smaller way. The Independent Spirit Awards, are 10 p.m. ET Saturday, on the eve
of the Oscars. “This was an amazing year,” said Patton Oswalt, who will host. “The
crop of films they sent me was pretty stunning.”

Those movies fit semi-strict standards. They have budgets
under $20 million, or came close. Most are made outside the studio system, but
studio films are allowed if they have “original or provocative” themes. Except
for one category, all are American-made.

The result, Oswalt said, “digs pretty deep in trying to find
movies that took risks and rolled the dice. It rewards people who are clearly

People like … well, Jennifer Lawrence, three years ago. Fresh
from a cable comedy, she was 20 and starred in “Winter’s Bone,” huge in quality
and tiny in budget ($2 million) and box office ($9 million). She and the film
were nominated for Spirits and Oscars. Neither won (“Bone” got two Spirits in
supporting categories); Lawrence was back last year in “Silver Linings Playbook,”
winning the Spirit AND Oscar.

Those awards do sometimes entwine. “Nebraska” and “12 Years
a Slave” are up for best-picture at both ceremonies. Their actors are nominated
in both; so are ones in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Blue Jasmine.”

That means Matthew McConaughey could continue his awards
sweep. Last year, he won a Spirit for his supporting role in “Magic Mike.” This
year, his “Dallas Buyers Club” work has already won a Golden Globe and a Screen
Actors Guild, with a chance for two more this weekend

“He just kicked his career into this turbo level the past
couple of years …. I’ll be honest, I didn’t see it coming,” Oswalt said. “He’s
like the most vital, best actor … and he’s doing it on all fronts.”

But this isn’t about big names, Oswalt said. “My favorites
were definitely ‘The Spectacular Now,’ ‘Enough Said,’ ‘Computer Chess,’ ‘The
Act of Killing,’ ‘Nebraska,’ ‘Short Term 12,’ ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’”

And there will be fun. At first, Oswalt claimed that instead
of bird-like statues, he would give away real birds. “Little-known fact, they
were personally bred by Robert Redford. He breeds award birds.”

It would have been odd and provocative, sort of like many of
the movies being nominated.

Independent Spirit Awards, 10 p.m. to midnight
ET Saturday, IFC (formerly Independent Film Channel).

Best picture: “Nebraska,” “12 Years a Slave,” “All
Is Lost,” “Frances Ha,” “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Actress: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”; Julie
Delpy, “Before Midnight”; Gaby Hoffman, “Crystal Fairy”; Brie Larson, “Short
Term 12;” Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now.”

Actor: Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Matthew
McConaughey, “Buyers Club”; Chwetel Ejiofor, “Slave”; Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale
Station”; Oscar Isaac, “Llewyn Davis”; Robert Redford, “All is Lost.”

Supporting actress: June Squibb, “Nebraska”;
Lupita Nyong’o, “Slave”; Sally Hawkins, “Jasmine”; Melonie Diaz, “Fruitvale”;
Yolanda Ross, “Go For Sisters.”

Supporting actor: Jared Leto, “Buyers Club”;
Michael Fassbender, “Slave”; Will Forte, “Nebraska”; James Gandolfini, “Enough
Said”; Keith Stanfield, “Short Term 12.”

Director: “Nebraska,” “Slave.,” “All is Lost,” “Mud,”
“Upstream Color.”

“Slave,” “Jasmine,” “Midnight,” “Spectacular Now,” “Enough Said.”

More; see

The Bullochs make tough love seem kind of lovely

Feel-good television is kiRusnd of rare; fee l-good people are not. And the Bullochs tend to make you feel optimistic about the human race. Now the second season of "Bulloch Family Ranch" starts Wednesday (Feb. 26) on cable; here's the story I sent to papers 


Julie Bulloch was a high school senior, working in the
guidance office that day. That’s when, she recalls, “this little, cocky
football player” strolled in.

She had a pleasant, rooted family in Lakeland, Fla.; he was
a tough teen who had moved around Alabama, before reaching Florida. They were
opposites … and, like in the movies, fell in love.

Now they’re married, with two kids, a granddaughter … and 33
young people who, at various times, have lived with them. “She’s super
compassionate and I tend to be the opposite,” said Rusty Bulloch, who manages
to hide his own warmth for a millisecond or two.

That’s at the core of “Bulloch Family Ranch,” a feel-good
reality show on a feel-good network (UP) that seems to fit the family’s
philosophy “There are good people everywhere,” Rusty said.

Especially at their home, where they raised two athletic
kids. Amanda did softball, basketball, cheerleading and more; Brodie
quarterbacked the high school football team to an 8-2 record.

What would happen after they left? “I was actually thinkin’
we’d be out of the kid business,” Rusty said.

Not nearly. When a teen and her mom had tension, they asked
if she could live with the Bullochs. That was 18 years ago and others keep
arriving.  “The maximum we had was three”
at a time, Rusty said.

Everyone lived by Rusty’s tough-love rules and everyone did
chores. “No one wants to clean the horses’ stalls,” Brodie said. “It doesn’t
smell good and it’s not exactly sanitary.”

These two opposites actually have some key things in common.
Both are big on God and hard work; Julie says she “grew up around horses” and
Rusty says he’s a “country cowboy” at heart.

He’s also a farrier (shoeing horses) and a football coach. That
last part has been a big jump for someone who admits he grew up around racial

Many of the guys staying with the Bullochs have been
football players, including some major ones. Bilal Powell, a fourth-round pro
draft pick, has started some games as a New York Jets running back; Claude
Davis also was signed for a Jets try-out, then was dropped after a marijuana

That’s a reminder that life is complicated, “It’s an unending
love …. The door is always open,” Rusty said.

One of the previous guys at the ranch was jailed for
probation violation. In the season-opener, Julie invites his girlfriend and their
daughter to stay at the ranch.

Amanda Bulloch-Masek, who has a 3-year-old daughter and has
had three recent miscarriages, was startled by that. “To have someone move in
with a child that is my child’s age and she’s pregnant was very emotional and
very hard on me,” she said.

Rusty was surprised, too. “Trust me, at (51) years old, I
know why young people have children,” he said. “It’s very trying to go from (taking
care of) 18-to-22 year-olds to a 3-year-old.”

There are also two guys staying with them; there won’t be
any more for now, Julie said, despite all the attention TV has brought. “We’ve probably
had at least 150 children offered to us, as young as 6 and as old as 64.”

“Bulloch Family Ranch,” 9 p.m. Wednesdays, UP
(formerly Gospel Music Channel), repeating at midnight. Season opens Feb. 26.