Storming into chaos, they save cats and dogs and such

Some TV people strain hard to get you to like them; some don't have to strain at all. The "Animal Storm Squad" folks are good-hearted souls who are instantly likable. Smart and fit, they use their brains and energy to try to rescue animals after a storm. Their show debuts Friday (March 11) on NatGeo Wild. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

As wildfire ripped
through Northern California, lives and homes were endangered.

The “Valley Fire:
sprawled across 76,000 acres last September, killing four people and
destroying 1,281 homes. At the evacuation camp, Laura Kennedy was
sure she'd lost her home and more.

“There's a lot of
chaos ... and a lot of communication all around the camp of what's
existing, what's no longer existing,” she said. “I wasn't
expecting to find my cats again (or) they would be horribly burnt.”

And then, she said,
“I found these amazing people.”

Those are the people
in the new “Animal Storm Squad” cable series. While others focus
on people and property, they search for pets.

The public was still
barred from the fire area, but the squad – complete with
storm-chaser vehicle and medical expertise – was allowed back in.
It was surprised to find Kennedy's house had survived.

“We let her know
that her house was still standing,” said Karissa Hadden, the team's
founder, “and that we were there to look for her cats. And we set
up a couple traps.”

The traps worked;
the cats were rescued before being damaged by heat, hunger and

For Haddad, such
tasks are vital. “Her heart is bigger than anyone's I've ever
known,” said Erik Fox.

Also, her weatherman
is bigger than anyone else's. That's Fox, a former Army sergeant who
stands 6-foot-6, weighs 265 pounds and is shaken by the job's
extremes. “It can be bittersweet,” he said.

Haddad, 32, lives in
Whitney, a tiny town near a massive provincial park in central
Ontario. There, she has dogs, cats, hamsters and more, plus a husband
and a job as a veterinary assistant.

That's a job she
leaves often. Nine times in the past couple years, she's left for
10-14 days of animal rescues, through her group, Never Stop Saving.

“Thankfully, the
veterinarian that I work for is on my board of directors,” she
said. “So he fully supports this. He's been there with me to help
me get this off the ground.”

The idea started,
she said, after a tornado hit Moore, Okla., three years ago. A friend
had found five kittens that survived after their mom died.

“I made numerous
calls for hours, trying to find a safe place for these cats,” she
said. “Unfortunately, the next day three of the five kittens ended
up passing away. It just made me think that I never want that to
happen again to somebody's family.”

So she created the
squad, including people she'd met during previous storm-chasing.

-- Fox, who spent 14
years in the Army and became a storm-chaser for a Texas TV station;
he's also a weather expert. “I can look about 10 days out (and see)
where we need to be,” he said.

-- Dustin Feldman, a
lifelong animal guy. “To my mother, I always seemed to have a small
zoo,” he said. He later worked for large zoos (in Chicago and
Kenya) and started an adventure-travel business.

-- Leigh Ann
Bennett, a physician's assistant. She can patch up the people and
help with the animals, including finding temporary homes near Red
Cross shelters or beyond. “If it's a hurricane or a flood, there
are veterinarians' offices or even the local animal-control center,”
she said.

They urge more
preparation, including having emergency pet rations and medication.
“Microchip your pets .... That makes our job so much easier,”
Haddad said.

And people need help
too, Fox said. Experts “really want people to wear helmets. If ...
a tornado hits your house, it's really going to protect your head.”
Even a giant Army guy wears one.

-- “Animal Storm

-- 10 p.m. Fridays,
NatGeo Wild; debuts March 11


Hasselhoff has a clever new show ... no, really, he does

Every now and then,
a TV show surprises you in a good way.

It was no surprise
that “People v. O.J. Simpson” (10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX) or “American
Crime” (concluding at 10 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, on ABC) are
terrific. They're from producers and networks that often do great

But here's one you
don't expect: A David Hasselhoff show on AXS TV is lots of fun to

AXS is the network
that Mark Cuban started in 2001 as HDNet, switching its name four
years ago. It has lots of music shows, plus Dan Rather interviews and

And Hasselhoff?
Well, you probably know him from huge successes -- “Knight Rider,”
“Bay Watch,” big popularity in Germany, where he did a rock
concert at the Berlin Wall when it fell – and huge failures,
including two divorces, a stalled career and bouts with alcoholism.

Wisely, however,
Hasselhoff knows how to mock himself. The clever “Hoff the Record”
pretends that he's had five divorces and bankruptcy. He tries to
rebuild his career in London, surrounded by people who may be even
more dense than this imaginary version of himself.

And yes, this
fictional Hoff is a dense dolt. Full of himself over past
accomplishments, he now wants more. He brought down the Berlin Wall,
he insists, and now he can bring down the Wailing Wall and the Great
Wall of China.

All of this is done
with a straight-faced, droll approach. This is witty material that
sneaks up on you, then surprises you with a neatly offbeat moment.
“Hoff the Record” debuts at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) March 31 and
runs for six weeks. It's worth catching.

The race to freedom was perilous and heroic

Sure, there are plenty of TV moments that are petty, silly, bland and vacant. Also, kind of trivial.

But there are also shows that attack important subjecgts with passion and skill. One is "Underground," which debuts Wednesday (March 9) and debuts daily, focusing on the underground railroad that tried to get slaves to freedom. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Back when Joe
Pokaski was a teen, this wasa just a little blip in schoolbooks.

“All I saw about
the 'underground railroad' was this little square in my
social-studies book,” he said.

Decades later,
co-creating the “Underground” series, he started to grasp the full
story. “The more we learned about it, the more exciting and
dangerous and brave and heroic” the notion seemed, he said.

Here were slave and
ex-slaves planning routes to freedom. “It's impossible,” said
series co-creator Misha Green. “It's 600 miles. (And) I can't point
to north .... You had to be the bravest person.”

And, at times, the
smartest. “They could use the stars,” said Jurnee Smollett-Bell,
one of the show's stars, “the way the moss hung on the tree, the
footprints in the mud or markings on trees.”

Slaves created songs
that subtly included directions. One man shipped himself in a box; a
woman, Smollett-Bell said, “disguised herself as a white man, put
her arm in a sling and went on a train.”

Now “Underground”
catches the roots of that, in a story set in 1853 Georgia. It was
filmed on a preserved plantation near Baton Rouge, La., where the
cast could absorb the full impact.

“The first thing
you think of is defeat,” said Aldis Hodge (“Leverage”), who
plays the escape leader. “You think of all the things that can kill
you -- the heat, the snakes, the alligators, the slave-catchers.”

The heat alone is
overwhelming, said Chris Meloni (“Law & Order: Special Victims
Unit”), who plays an enigmatic white man. He grew up in the heat of
Washington, D.C., but plantation life added more.

“A cotton plant
(is) the most unfriendly, unforgiving thing I've ever seen,” he
said, “It's worse than a cactus .... Then you see the bags ...
they're dragging along. It was so hot and so humid and (working) 12
hours a day in this heat? I mean, I get to go back to my trailer.”

Then there are the
constant reminders in the slave quarters, said Alano Miller (“Jane
the Virgin”). “It's heavy – the scratch marks, the blood
stains, the chains -- you see it all. It's there and it's real.”

He plays Cato, a
collaborator who works with the white owners. Smollett-Bell (“Friday
Night Lights”) plays one of the house slaves, with a close-up view
of the horrors.

“There is a scene
when I'm protecting my brother and taking his punishment,” she
said. “Afterward, it took me maybe seven or eight minutes to stop
crying. (The others) just came and huddled around me and just let me

Amirah Vann, who
pays the chief house slave, was one of the actresses viewing that
scene from the plantation porch. There, she saw the reaction of an
actress who plays an uncaring slaveowner.

“Andrea Frankle
plays Suzanne and she and I are dear froiends,” Vann said. “We
both struggled watching .... We had to take pause and just kind of
like hold each other.”

Amid this backdrop
of horror, people make daring plans. Should they run? How?

“When we were on
one of the plantations, we saw the treeline,” Hodge said. “Was it
seven miles away? So from the plantation to get to the forest, they
had to run seven miles to even find some shelter to hide.

“It's amazing, the
capacity of mental strength one can achieve, once you realize this is
either life or death. This is survival.”

-- “Underground,”
10 p.m. Wednesday (March 9), WGN America, debuting March 9

-- Opener reruns at
11 p.m., midnight and 1 a.m.; then at 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday
(March 10-11), 11 p.m. Saturday (March 12) 10 p.m. Sunday (March 13),
11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (March 14-15)


He's sweet Charlie, killer Norman and more

By one line of thinking (mine), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was the best movie of 2005, a peak moment for director Tim Burton, composer Danny Elfman and actor Johnny Depp. And in the title role was the thoroughly likable Freddie Highmore ... the same actor who now brings shivers as Norman Bates in "Bates Motel." The show starts its season Monday (March 7); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Freddie Highmore has
already been pure good and pure evil. The rest of his career should
be easy, just filling in the in-between stuff.

The good came first.
At 13, he starred in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005),
playing the only kid worthy to enter Willy Wonka's wonderful world.

And the evil is
right now. At 24, he's starting the fourth season of “Bates Motel.”

This is the “Psycho”
prequel. It's the show that asks, as producer Carlton Cuse has put
it: “How does Norman Bates become the guy who's in that movie?”

At first, he did it
slowly, as a shy and teen; now, however, “Bates” is gathering
speed. “It sort of races toward that end point now,” Highmore
said. “He's becoming more like the Norman Bates that we kow.”

As last season
ended, Norman (who had temporartily transformed into his mother)
committed murder. There's more horror ahead; fortunately, Highmore
has also seen the pleasant side of life.

Born on a Feb. 14 --
“at least, you know you'll always have something to do on
Valentine's Day” -- he grew up in British show business. His dad,
Edward, is a successful actor; his mom is an agent whose clients
include his friend, Daniel Radcliffe.

Freddie is three
years younger than Radcliffe, which he says was enough to avoid any
sense of competition. “When you're young, the difference between a
13-year-old and a 16-year-old is big.”

Highmore was only 9
when Radcliffe landed the Harry Potter role. His own breaks came four
years later: He did “Finding Neverland” with Johnny Depp, who
then recommended him as his “Charlie” co-star. “What's so
amazing about Johnny is that he doesn't see himself as a star,”
Highmore said.

There were other
movies, big (“August Rush,” “Spiderwick Chronicles”) and
small. And then “Bates.”

This season, that
leads into a new show (“Damien”), in which Damien Thorn learns
he's the antichrist. These sound like demanding roles, but Bradley
James (the “Damien” star), insists he enjoys the work. “I had a
lot of fun” making the pilot, he said.

But “fun” is
relative; “Bates” films in Vancouver. “It rains the whole
time,” Highmore said back in the show's first seasion. “It's
almost quite nice for the show, because you have that darkness.”

Highmore insists his
child-star days were pleasant enough: “You're always around other
children .... It's anything but lonely.”

But as a young
Englishman in Vancouver, he could easily become lonely. Fortunately,
Vera Farmiga, who plays his mother, has a home there. “I guess
we've become best of friends in Vancouver,” he said. “Her husband
and their kids let me go out with them.”

Those kids, ages 7
and 5, are lucky to know the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
guy. Knowing Norman Bates may be another matter.

-- “Bates Motel,”
9 p.m. Mondays, A&E.

-- Season-opener is
March 7. That day, there will be reruns from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,
plus a “Bates” recap at 8:45 p.m.; “Damien” debuts at 10.

-- The “Bates”
season-opener reruns that night at 12:16 a.m.; also, at 3 p.m.
Tuesday and 4 p.m. Sunday (March 8 and 13)


Loretta Lynn? She's 50 years a grandma, 55 a star ... and still hard at work

The Loretta Lynn story has fascinated people for generations. Now it's back -- with a few revisions and lots of new steps. On Friday (March 4), she has a new album and a terrific PBS special; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Loretta Lynn carries
large chunks of human history.

She's been a
grandmother for almost 50 years, widowed for almost 20; she's been
cutting records for 55. You might expect her to slow down; on Friday,
however, she has a new PBS film and a new album.

“I work all the
time,” said Lynn, 83. “I couldn't sit down and quit working ....
If I go home and I sit down, I say, 'I can't wait until I get back on
the road.'” So she has:

-- Her first studio
album in a dozen years, with a mixture of traditional songs and Lynn
classics, plus duets with Elton John and – via separate track --
Willie Nelson. “I didn't even know he was on there,” she said. “I
was listening to it and here was Willie.”

-- An “American
Masters” profile, stuffed with old clips and new comments.
“Everybody wanted to participate,” said producer Elizabeth
Trojan. The result lets people see what's happened in the 36 years
since the movie “Coal Miner's Daughter” ... and adds some

Fans had memorized
the basics: Lynn was married at 13, a mother of four at 18, a
grandmother at 32. Except in recent years, her birth-certificate was
located; the real numbers are 15, 20 and 34.

At either age, it
was a sudden swirl for a kid from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky ...
especially when her husband landed work in the state of Washington.
“When we got out there,” Lynn said, “I really didn't like
Washington that well, because it rained so much.”

Then her husband
bought her a $17 guitar. In the PBS film, country historian Robert
Oermann says Washington was a blessing; homesick for her roots, Lynn
threw herself into the music of her childhood.

Soon, she said, “my
husband pushed me out onstage and made me sing.” She made $12 every
Saturday at his favorite bar. When she cut a single (“I'm a Honky
Tonk Girl”) in 1960, they drove all over the South, where the shy
country girl would show up at radio stations unannounced.

“I think some of
the disc jockeys thought I was crazy,” Lynn said. “They would say
they had played my record and I would ... say, 'No you didn't playit,
because it's down here in the garbage can.'”

Often enough, she
prevailed. “Me and my husband would be driving the car (and) hear
the record. And then we'd just pull over and stop unti it got through
playing. It was something; it was great.”

“Honky Tonk”
reached No. 14 on Billboard's country chart. Soon, Lynn had some key

When Patsy Cline was
hospitalized from a car accident, Lynn did a Cline song on a
Nashville radio show. “I sang 'I Fall to Pieces' for Patsy,” she
said, “Now, if I had any sense, I wouldn't have sung that song,
because ... it looks like she fell all to pieces, you know .... I
didn't have much sense at the time.”

Cline heard it and
sent her husband to fetch Lynn. Soon, she was Lynn's friend and

Another was producer
Owen Bradley, who walked out when she wanted to do a “Blueberry
Hill” cover. “He said I needed to be cutting something country
and something I wrote .... He said, 'Don't you come back in here
without your songs.'”

Fortunately, she was
a skillful writer whose husband kept inspiring her
drinking-and-cheating soings. “Every time I'd write a song and it
would be about him, he would look at me and grin, you know. He knew I
was writing it about him.”

It was a merger of
strong souls, their son says in the film. Once, she knocked out two
of her husband's teeth; another time, he passed out at the table ...
waking to find she'd dumped a pot of beans on him.

But when his health
crumbled (due to drinking, diabetes and heart problems), she slowed
her career for more than a decade. Since his death (1996, just shy of
70), she's resumed her career.

“I ain't going
nowhere for a long time,” Lynn said. “I feel good; I feel great
.... I've never drank or smoked, you known, never mistreated my body
in any way. So I'm in great shape.”

A 2004 album
produced by Jack White reached No. 2 on the country chart and won two
Grammies. This new one is produced by Johnny Cash's son (John) and
Lynn's daughter (Patsy). “(What) I found so amazing is the real
tight relationship she has with her children, ... especially Patsh,”
Trojan said.

That closeness
wasn't always available. In the film, Patsy and her twin (Peggy) talk
about months of being raised only by their dad, with their mom
working constantly.

Now the family
focuses on the town (Hurricane Mills, Tenn.) that it bought. It's a
tourist attraction – museum, former family home and more -- and the
site of an offbeat moment in the film:

The plan was to
schedule no visitors while interivews were being done in the house,
Trojan said, but there was a mix-up and a “bus full of tourists
burst in as we were filming. And what happened next was so
unpredictable: They sang 'Coal Miner's Daughter' to Loretta.”

-- “American
Masters: Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl,” 9-11 p.m. Friday
(March 4), PBS (check local listings)

-- Also, “Full
Circle” album will be released Friday, Legacy Recordings