TV's top 10: My picks for 2011

This is the time when everyone gets to gripe and grumble about top-10 lists and such. Here's the one I set to papers; later, I'll also put my year-in-review story; let the grumbling begin:


TV critics agree on very little, except
that “Seinfeld” was funny, “West Wing” was smart and “H8R”
was a low moment in civilization.

So any top-10 list is an adventure.
Here's what I saw as the 10 best shows of 2011:

1) “American Masters.” The year
started with a living actor (Jeff Bridges) and ended with dead
designers (Charles and Ray Eames). It ranged from an imposing dance
master (Bill T. Jones) to an unimposing comic (Woody Allen); it had a
nature zealot (John Muir) and musicians – Pearl Jam, James Levine,
James Taylor, Carole King. The approaches varied; the quality didn't.
These were deep, involving portraits. (PBS, check local listings;
Eames is Dec. 19, Taylor-King reruns Dec. 30, Phil Ochs is Jan. 23)

2) “Friday Night Lights.” TV rarely
captures the rhythms of blue-collar or small-town life; this show did
perfectly. It projected deep emotions with a glance, a nod, a few
words. And occasionally, it had some football. (DirecTV, rerunning on
NBC; already concluded)

3) “The Daily Show.” In his 12 year
as anchor, Jon Stewart keeps getting better, reacting to life's
silliest moments. And this year – with presidential candidates
soaring and crashing – he's been in his glory. (Comedy Central, 11
p.m. Mondays through Thursdays)

4) “Big Bang Theory.” Other shows
rise and fall; “Big Bang” remains sharp and funny. Its writers
and actors show a love of the characters, even while knowing their
flaws. (CBS, 8 p.m. Thursdays)

5) “American Experience.” Back in
1961, young people confronted the core of racism. A half-century
later, they recalled the most important moments in their lives, in
“Freedom Riders.” That film – and a musical companion piece,
“Soundtrack of a Revolution” – were compelling, but many other
films were also superb. They ranged from New York's deadly Triangle
fire to consecutive portraits of the Civil War foes, Robert E. Lee
and U.S. Grant. (PBS, new season starts Feb. 20-21)

6) “Rescue Me.” In its seven
seasons, Denis Leary's show ranged from goofy comedy to the pain of
firemen who couldn't connect to the outside world. The finale
included all of that, a rich farewell to great characters. (FX,

7) “Modern Family.” Most comedies
are content with one or two good characters; this show has 10 or
more, each wonderfully likable and wonderfully flawed. All six
grown-ups drew Emmy nominations and the kids are worthy too. They're
part of a neatly textured comedy, (ABC, 9 p.m. Wednesdays).

8) “Downton Abbey.” After adapting
the classics, Julian Fellowes came up with a better idea – original
scripts, set in olden times. He won an Oscar for “Gosford Park,”
an Emmy for this one. “Abbey” also won for best mini-series,
despite some melodramatic touches and a weak ending. That last part
may seem OK when the sequel arrives Jan. 8. (PBS, check local
listings;reruns Dec. 18, Dec. 25, Jan. 1.)

9) “Justified.” The first season
was filled with tersely terrific dialog in the Elmore Leonard style.
The second added a worthy opponent, a crime matriarch in the Kentucky
Hills; Margo Martindale played it to Emmy-winning perfection. (FX,
third season starts Jan. 17)

10) “New Girl” … or maybe “2
Broke Girls” … or “Whitney.” Each of these new shows tends to
be a bit too jokey. Still, they're great fun and (with “Suburgatory”)
part of a wave of fresh, female-focused comedies. (“New” is 9
p.m. Tuesdays, Fox; “Broke,” 8:30 p.m. Mondays, CBS; “Whitney,”
9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, soon movig to Wednesdays; “Suburgatory,”
8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC).

Also 10) Let's give a nod to two others: The year's best TV movie was Lifetime's "Five," a beautiful blend of five separate films about the impact of breast cancer. And on Starz, "Torchwood: Miracle Day" was superb science-fiction, the sort we expect from producer-writer Russell Davies.


For Bell, at least, TV movies are alive and well

TNT's mystery-movie experiment has been worthy (albeit flawed).

The cable network took six successful novels and turned them into TV movies. The result: There have been excellent performances (especially by Michael Cutlitz in last week's "Silent Witness"), skilled directors and -- surprisingly -- so-so stories.

Tonight's film -- "Good Morning, Killer," Tuesday, Dec. 13, with weeend reruns -- continues that trend. The story is flawed, with FBI agents getting easy breaks, but failing to finish things off; the director (Maggie Greenwald) and star (Catherine Bell) do excellent work. Here's a story I sent to papers about Bell:


Large chunks of Hollywood seem to think
TV movies no longer exist.

Still, you can't prove that by
Catherine Bell. “I'm really cornering the market,” she said with
a laugh.

It seems that way. “Good Morning,
Killer” is the third one she's starred in during the past six

Bell has nothing against series, of
course. She's done five seasons of “Army Wives,” nine of “JAG.”

Still, TV movies – basically
abandoned by all the big networks – are key. They're a different
experience for the viewer – “you sit down for two hours and go
through an entire story,” Bell said – and for the actor. This
year, she's been an ex-spy with martial arts skills (“Last Man
Standing”), a sweet-tempered witch (“The Good Witch's Family”)
and now an FBI agent.

“My favorite thing is learning about
all the different jobs,” Bell said.

For “Killer,” she learned about FBI
agents. “They're very cerebral, very intelligent, very methodical
…. The females I met were very strong and fearless, (but) it's more
intellectual than physical.”

That's the case in this film, which
April Smith adapted from her own novel. Ana Grey (Bell) leads an FBI
team, trying to track someone who has been kidnapping young women.

And yes, there could be more. Smith has
written three more Ana Grey movies; Bell – who has already done
four “Good Witch” films for Hallmark – would be glad to return.

In real life, Bell might have had
steady work like her characters do. She was studying biology at UCLA,
hoping to be a surgeon or a biomedical engineer.

Then a quicker route appeared: “I was
tall and skinny, so someone said, 'Hey, you should be a model.'
Then I took an acting class and really liked it.”

She had the basics – tall enough
(5-foot-10) to play opposite David James Elliott in “JAG,” with a
serene face suitable for a good witch. She knows Farsi (the language
of her Iranian-born mother) and martial arts. Now she's equipped to
corner the TV-movie market.

– “Good Morning, Killer”

– 9-11 p.m. Tueday (Dec. 13), TNT

– Reruns at midnight; also, latenight
Friday (12:30 a.m. Saturday) and noon Saturday

– TNT had mystery movies on Tuesdays
and Wednesdays for two weeks; the final two are Tuesdays

– The last one, Dec. 20, is “Deck
the Halls,” by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark; Scottie
Thompson and Kathy Najimy star


On TV, it's Christmas, Christmas and (yes) more Christmas

One of the prime duties of a TV critic, you know, is to watch Christmas specials -- tons and tons of them, approximately.

This year, as usual, they've ranged afar. One new cartoon ("Jingle All the Way") is softly pleasant; two others -- "Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas" and "Prep & Landing: Naughty or Nice" -- have been slick and funny.

And new movies? Hallmark has had plenty, ranging from the awful "Lucky Christmas" (rerunning at 10 p.m. Dec. 14) to the rather fun "Annie Claus is Coming to Town" (debuting at 8 and 10 p.m. today, Dec. 10).

Still, it's no surprise that ABC Family has the best one. The network crafts its films carefully, as part of its "25 Days of Christmas"; most are pleasant and some ("Snow," "Snowglobe") are superb.

This year, ABC Family's only film -- "12 Dates of Christmas," debuting Dec. 11 -- is terrific. Here's a Christmas overview timed to that one:


Poor Kate feels like she's been through
this holiday adventure before. So do TV viewers.

Kate (played by Amy Smart) is the
heroine of a movie that debuts Sunday (Dec. 11), the centerpiece of
ABC Family's annual “25 Days of Christmas.” She's just been
dumped by her boyfriend and spritzed by a perfume saleswoman; next
comes a date with a stranger and a party with her dad's new lady.

Worse, this keeps happening over and
over. That's why the film is called “12 Dates of Christmas.”

Christmas films are like that
sometimes, repeating each other and repeating themselves. Still,
they're often crafted with warmth and skill.

Each year, ABC Family makes only one or
two new films for December, filling its “25 Days” with past
movies, cartoons and more. So “12 Dates” – the network's only
newcomer this year – seems to have been crafted with care.

James Hayman – who molded the lush
look of “Ugly Betty” – directed it. He added new songs from
Jordin Sparks and Michael Buble and got strong work from Smart,
Mark-Paul Gosselaar and more.

ABC Family doesn't have the holiday to
itself – especially this year. Hallmark has made a flood of new
Christmas movies; Disney, Ion, GMC and more have jumped in.

Then there are concerts, cartoons and
more. Here's a look at what's still coming:

New movies

– “12 Dates of Christmas” is 8
p.m. Dec. 11 on ABC Family. It repeats at 10 p.m., then 7 p.m.

– Hallmark has three new films left.
“The Christmas Pageant” (Melissa Gilbert as a stressed Broadway
director, reluctantly doing a community show) is Dec. 11, “Christmas
Comes Home to Canaan” (an earnest sequel, with Billy Ray Cyrus as a
farmer in 1970s Texas) is Dec. 17 , “Christmas Magic” (an
overstressed party planner becomes an underskilled angel) is Dec. 18.
Each is at 8 p.m., repeating at 10.

– Hallmark films rerun often.
Christmas Pageant” will be 8 p.m. Dec. 15, with “Annie Claus is
Coming to Town” – a pleasant-enough trifle, with Maria Thayer as
Santa's daughter – at 8 p.m. Dec. 16.

– Ion, the former Pax Net, is back in
the Christmas-movie business on Sundays. On Dec. 11, it reruns 'The
Christmas Clause” (2008) at 7 p.m. and “A Christmas Kiss”
(2011) at 9.


– “Christmas With the Mormon
Tabernacle Choir” has David Archuleta as its soloist. That's 8 p.m.
Dec. 13 on many PBS stations, Dec. 23 on WKAR.

– “Christmas in Washington” is a
lush event at 8 and 11:30 p.m. Dec. 16 on TNT. Conan O'Brien hosts,
with music by Jennifer Hudson, Justin Bieber, Cee Lo Green, Victoria
Justice and The Band Perry.

– “CMA Country Christmas” reruns
at 9 p.m. Dec. 17 on ABC, with great females – Martina McBride,
Faith Hill, Jennifer Nettles (who hosts), Amy Grant and (with Grant's
husband, Vince Gill) Miss Piggy.

Cartoons, etc.:

– Several new ones or almost-new ones
have reruns coming up.“I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown”
is 8 p.m. Dec. 12 on ABC, with “Ice Age: Mammoth Christmas” at 9
p.m. Dec. 16 on Fox, “Jingle All the Way” at 10 a.m. Dec. 18 on
Hallmark, “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs.Nice” at 8:30 p.m. Dec.
22 on ABC.

– The classics return. ABC has “A
Charlie Brown Christmas” at 8 p.m. Dec. 15; the Cartoon Network has
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at 8 p.m. Dec. 18, 11:30 a.m.
Dec. 19 and 8 p.m. Dec. 21.

– There will be much more in the
final stretch, Dec. 22-25. ABC has cartoons and a parade, NBC has “A
Wonderful Live,” TBS has its “Christmas Story”marathon.



Michigan movies: The low-budget/no-budget side is worthy, too

Over the years, there have been three kinds of Michigan movies:

1) The ones that were made there simply because it's a great backdrop. "Anatomy of a Murder," "Somewhere in Time" and "Escanaba in Da Moonlight" used the settings beautifully.

2) The ones that were made during the brief time when the state was handing out subsidies giddily. Film companies passed through the state like traveling circuses.

3) And some worthy ones that need more attention. With no subsidy -- and often well short of the $50,000 minimum to get one -- they came up with interesting-enough films. You can catch one of them, "The Key," Thursday at Celebration Cinema in Lansing.

Jack Schaberg is a Williamston writer-director whose first films ("We Know Care," "The End of Art") were comedies, clearly done on a shoestring. This one is a drama, more ambitious and (with Robert Kunc as director of photography) solid technically.

The plot gets pretty tangled, especially since key details are parcelled out sparingly to its heroine. Still, it does all seem to add up.

Kaitlyn Giguere plays a young beauty who is being perplexed by the scheming grown-ups (Don Cochran, Christine Marie) in her life. After finding a crucial key, she confronts people who are scheming blackmail and murder and such.

This doesn't get you running to the cineplex the way some films do. (Recently, I've loved "The Muppets" and "Hugo.") Still, it's a solid-enough film that does keep you thinking. And it's a chance to see the filmmaking that continues, after the traveling circuses leave Michigan.

Details are

– “The Key,” 5:15 pm., 7:30 p.m.
and 9:45 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 8)

– Celebration Cinema, Lansing

Peter Pan soars into Syfy's big week

You're never sure what to expect with the Syfy Channel. It can be as brilliant as "Battlestar Galactica" or the best moments of "Eureka"; it can be as silly as some of its Saturday movies ... or as the way it decided to mis-spell Sci-Fi.

Now, however, comes a grand, seven-day stretch:

-- Sunday-Monday (Dec. 4-5): "Neverland" shows what can be done when an old story gets an epic re-telling. The Peter Pan story has great visuals and clever touches; at the end of this, I'll put the story that I sent to papers.

-- Tuesday (Dec. 6): All three series try odd Christmas episodes. "Eureka" is light (a bit too light, actually), "Haven" is serious ... and "Warehouse 13" is both, in a terrific hour at 9 p.m.

-- Saturday (Dec. 10): "Snowmageddon," from 9-11 p.m. Really. Lots of snow-related disasters happen, because of a Christmas snow globe. In its own, daft, way; it's modestly entertaining.

Anyway, here's the "Neverland" story:



As Peter Pan soars anew, we're back to
THAT story.

You know the one, about a regular
British kid who's swept to a new world. That has spanned centuries,
from David Copperfield to Harry Potter.

The story works because so many people
have actually lived it. J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan's creator) was 6 when
his brother's death transformed his family. Charles Dickens
(Copperfield's creator) was 10 when his family moved from the idyllic
countryside to an overwhelming London.

And Nick Willing, the writer-director
of “Neverland,” the ambitious new cable miniseries? He was 12
when his family moved from the Portuguese country to London.

“My 'Rosebud' is Portugal,” Willing
said, a symbol of a childhood that changed abruptly. He went from
rural beauty to a cold urban scene. “It was a bit like Harry
Potter, looking up at these tall towers.”

So it probably shouldn't surprise us
that he likes signs of eternal childhood. “He is (Peter),” said
Charlie Rowe, who stars as Peter Pan. “I just (looked) at how he
was behaving and replicated it.”

Really? “I'm a bit older than Peter,”
said Willing, 50, “(but) I probably am quite a bit like Peter Pan.”

After a childhood that was briefer than
expected, Willing has spent his adult years on playful projects –
music videos and then miniseries about young people in new worlds.
His 2007 “Tin Man” went to Oz, the 2009 “Alice” to
Wonderland. Now Peter goes to Neverland.

There are rich characters there,

– Anna Friel as the pirate captains,
lusty and lethal. “It was kind of like being a child in the most
fantastic dress-up box you could ever imagine,” she said.

– Rhys Ifans as Jimmy Hook – not
yet a captain, not yet short-handed. He's Peter's hero and his
nemesis. He's also a swashbuckler; that took work for Ifans, whose
early training with sworda was so-so. “There were several injuries,
so I wasn't a great swordsman.”

– Bob Hoskins as Smee, the same role
he played in “Hook,” the Steven Spielberg film. “To me, he was
the embodiment of Smee,” Willing said. “I couldn't get him out of
my head.”

– And Rowe as Peter. “He's really
an insecure kid,” Rowe said, “mixed up … all he knows is this
father figure, Jimmy. He still is naïve.”

That requires acting, because nothing
about Rowe suggests naïvete, insecurity or a Cockney orphan. His
dad, Chris Rowe, is a TV host; at 15, Charlie is outgoing, amiable …
and, on this particular day, at least, a snappy dresser. He also grew
up in Willing's neighborhood.

Willing gave him his first acting job
when Rowe, 9, starred in an episode of a British kids' show. Still,
he didn't think of him for the “Neverland” lead. “He was a kid
I knew from around the neighborhood.”

So Willing looked for Pan elsewhere. “I
must have seen 400 kids and then, right at the end, he walked in for
(a smaller role) and I went, 'Ah, (crud). That's Peter Pan.'”

Then the adventure began. Rowe found
himself on a giant ship off the coast of Genoa, Italy. And
re-creating 1906 London in Dublin; “it was a cobbly sort of
historical area.” And re-creating fantasy moments, while standing
in front of a green special-effects screen in Ireland.

“I suppose my least favorite is the
color green,” Rowe said.

Still, that's the color that lets him
star in THAT story about a British kid in a strange world.

– “Neverland,' a two-part,
four-hour miniseries on Syfy.

– Opener, 9 p.m. Sunday, rerunning at
11; conclusion 9 p.m. Monday

– Both parts air together Monday
(7-11 p.m., 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.) and Dec. 11 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)