"Zen" and the art of mystery maintenance


A new "Masterpiece Mystery" character is arriving, bringing mixed blessings. The "Zen" stories are mixed -- excellent on July 17, impenetrable a week later -- but the settings and characters are terrific. Here's the story I sent to papers.

By MIKE HUGHES

For most of its three decades,”Mystery”
was geographically limited.

Englishmen kept killing each other.
More English folks (with occasional exceptions) caught them.

Lately, however, that has spread out.
First were the “Wallander” mysteries, with Swedish characters,
settings and attitudes; now “Zen” takes the same approach in
Rome.

Aurelio Zen is a cop with a reputation
for honesty. “I don't think he's particularly honest,” said
Rupert Sewell, who plays him. “I think he's ... perfectly capable
of kicking a man when he's down.”

Still, he's better than his colleagues
on Rome's police force. Vincenzo Fabri, for instance, “has no
redeeming features whatsoever,” said Ed Stoppard, who plays him.

Zen is a decent chap in a tricky
system. “He never makes the right political decision,” Sewell
said.

In the opener, one boss tells him the
suspect must be found guilty; a higher-up secretly tells him the same
suspect must be found innocent. Then – on a wholly different matter
– there's an ex-con who wants to kill Zen … and an office beauty
(played by Caterina Murino) who wants to love him.

“He's always in a bad situation,”
Sewell said. “He's always one step behind.”

It was a tough role, he said, modified
by the fact that he was working in a gorgeous place. “Just to …
walk back through Rome at the end of the evening was one of the great
pleasures.”

For Stoppard, who usually plays good
guys, this was a fresh experience. “It was really good fun to just
sort of spend my day either leering at Caterina or sneering at
Rufus,” he said.

The two men have one important person
in common. That's Tom Stoppard, Ed's father, an acclaimed writer who
has won Tonys for four of his plays and an Oscar for “Shakespeare
in Love.”

Sewell has been in many of those plays.
“Rufus has been (my father's) surrogate son for about the last 20
years,” Ed Stoppard quipped. “I'm working through a lot of
issues, actually.”

Indeed, he says it was seeing Sewell in
his father's “Arcadia” that made him realize he wanted to be an
actor. His mother – Miriam Stoppard, a physician, author and member
of the Order of the British Empire – was not happy about this; his
father had mixed feelings.

“He'd spent most of his adult life
auditioning very, very good actors (who gave) very, very good
auditions and watching them walk out of the room without the job,”
Ed Stoppard said.

Now his son has joinied that
overcrowded field – and is getting hired. This season, he's been in
all three “Masterpiece” strands – Contemporary (“Any Human
Heart”), Classic (starring in “Upstairs, Downstairs”) and now
“Mystery,” as one of the creeps who makes Zen seem noble by
comparison.

– “Zen,” on “Masterpiece
Mystery”

– 9-10:30 p.m. Sundays, July 17, 24
and 31 (check local listings)

 

A gifted "newcomer" ... who's been in show business for 20 years


You might have noticed my total lack of comment on the Emmy nominations or Wednesday's "So You Think You Can Dance."

That's because I'm currently trapped in a world in which the average age is 5.5 (or 6.7 if you count a golden retriever). My outside contacts have been limited.

To compensate, partly, here are a couple stories I sent to papers about exceptional shows airing this Sunday (July 17). Here's one:

By MIKE HUGHES

For “Leverage,” this was a chance
to leap generations.

Sunday's episode has a World War II
veteran tell his story of love and loss. The young actors (Aldis
Hodge and Beth Riesgraf) then re-enact it, via flashbacks.

“We had a dynamic guest star, Danny
Glover,” Hodge said. “With someone as great as that, you want to
sit and hear him tell stories all day.”

Here was a a four-time Emmy nominee,
who turns 65 on July 22. Playing him in those flashbacks was Hodge,
25 and sort of a newcomer.

Or not. “I'm not new at all,” Hodge
said. “I don't feel new, because I've been doing this for 20
years.”

Really. By the time he was 10, Hodge
had done TV (“Sesame Street”), movies (“Die Hard With a
Vengeance”) and Broadway (the “Showboat” revival).

None of the jobs were imposing, partly
because of blissful ignorance. “I didn't know what Broadway was,”
he said. “(“Sesame Street”) was just a place where you go to
the set and play around.”

In racial terms, those jobs were
opposites: “Showboat” has a plot reflecting long-ago bias;
“Sesame” is a multi-hued world, where little red Elmo is played
by Kevin Clash, a large black man. Hodge befriended Clash and met a
show-business world where anything seems possible.

He was born in Camp Lejeune, the son of
two Marines. The family soon moved to New York; his brother Edwin
(one year older) also was in “Sesame,” “Showboat” and
“Vengeance.”

There was more; Hodge remembers a
concert at 10. “I thought, man, this is something I want to do.”
He went on to master the clarinet and violin; he also designs
watches, paints and writes.

The acting roles continued, some
elaborate – he was “Voodoo” Tatum, the new quarterback on
“Friday Night Lights” – and some not. Hodge was going to a
21st-birthday dinner with his dad when he told him the
news: That day, he'd landed a regular roles as Alec on “Leverage.”

This lets him work with top directors –
including Frank Oz (Miss Piggy on “Sesame”) – while the
regulars step in and out of scams. It also gives him a budding
romance with Parker, played by Riesgraf.

That relationship has nudged along
slowly – one of the problems with being in a band of scam artists.
“These characters, at their core, are cynical and suspicious,”
said “Leverage” producer Dean Devlin.

But for those flashbacks, Hodge and
Riesgraf play two people in love while facing 1940s bias against
inter-racial relationships. For large chunks of the hour, romance
rules.

– “Leverage,” 9 p.m. Sundays,
TNT; reruns at 11

– The Danny Glover episode debuts
July 17; it reruns a week later, at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

 

"Dance": A growing passion


Ashley Rich had a basic reason for learning to dance. "I was 3," she told reporters today. "It wasn't so much my interest as my mom's."

Chris Koehl had a stronger reason. "It started with me just trying to avoid reading."

From those modest starts, both soared. A few weeks ago, they had the best "So You Think You Can Dance" moment, a sensational jailhouse routine. "I definitely was excited when I got that," Rich said.

This week, they had to do the salsa -- a first-time experience for Koehl. They were soon ousted, as the show trimmed from 14 dancers to 12.

For Rich, 22, dance has dominated much of her life in California. For Koehl, 21, it emerged gradually in the Dallas suburb of Garland.

"I've always been crazy, active Chris," he said. Then his school had limited choices for an elective -- three book clubs, ballet or jazz dance.

His dyslexia limited that further. "I really, really did not want to do a book club."

Already starting to be interested in hip-hop, he added jazz. He became a dazzlign street dancer and auditioned three times for "Dance"; before this year's show started, he tried to learn other styles in a hurry. "It was a cram course. I would take an hour of ballroom every day, for six or seven days."

Unfortuntately, salsa wasn't one of the ballroom styles he studied. This week, "I walked in there kind of blind-eyed."

After the salsa number,  viewers put Koehl and Rich among the bottom three couples; then judges sent them home. Still, neither complained. "I think the judges know best," Rich said.

Besides, Koehl has faced a bigger problem with his dyslexia. "It was a big wall that I wasn't able to conquer for a long time .... Now, with the help of my family and friends, I've finally kind of knocked that wall down."

 

 

 

 

Sci fi flurry: Monday brings quirky fun


As I mentioned a couple blogs ago, this is a fine time for science-fiction fans. A great show ("Torchwood: Miracle Day") debuts tonight (Friday), a good one ("Alphas") debuts Monday -- the same day that two fun ones ("Eureka" and "Warehouse 13") return.

The new ones are dead-serious -- as is "Outcasts," on Saturdays -- but the returning ones add whimsy and charm. Here's a light story that I sent to papers, about those shows:

By MIKE HUGHES

If you like a pat and predictable life,
here's a clue: Try not to be an actor on a Syfy Channel show.

“Sometimes, you open a script and you
go, 'Really? Like, really?'” said “Eureka” star Colin Ferguson.

Allison Scagliotti, the “Warehouse
13” co-star, knows the feeling. “I can be an elf, a mental
patient and a rock star, all in the same episode.”

Both shows illustrate some of that
Monday, in their season-openers.

There is Scagliotti, wailing away on
what is supposed to be Jimi Hendrix's guitar. At the very least, that
should put her several steps ahead of any of her friends who play
“Guitar Hero.”

And there are Ferguson and Salli
Richardson-Whitfield, with a quirk: On this episode of “Eureka” –
the most imaginative, high-tech show on TV – they're riding horses.

For Richardson-Whitfield, who had done
some riding in a couple previous roles, that was OK. “Luckily, I
was supposed to look ridiculous on the horse.”

Stunt riders did most of it anyway,
Ferguson said. “I did have the mean horse. He kept biting on me.”

Those shows now link with the new
“Alphas,” filling primetime Mondays with new science-fiction
drama. “Alphas” is dead-serious, but the others bring a quirky
humor.

“I love seeing what the props people
come up with,” Scagliotti said. Her warehouse, after all, is
supposed to be keeping everything from H.G. Wells' time machine to
Pandora's box.

And “Eureka”? That's a town filled
with science geniuses, with Allison Blake sometimes in charge.
“Somehow, through osmosis, I know every bit of science that
everyone else seems to know,” said Richardson-Whitfield, who plays
her.

Ferguson plays the sheriff, in a show
where anything is possible. “They went in to the network and said,
'We want to go back in time, and then come back and change everything
and never address it.”

That offbeat approach also propels
“Warehouse 13” and was one of the appeals for Scagliotti.

She was still a teen-ager at the time,
fresh from a cable comedy, “Drake & Josh.” But she was also
“a big reader, always a bit of a geek.” Scagliotti (now tackling
“Atlas Shrugged”) knew some of the classic stories the warehouse
refers to.

She auditioned with the “alternative
clothes” that Claudia Donovan – computer geek with a dry wit –
would wear. When she got the role, bigger changes followed.

“I'd always had very boring and very
pedestrian brown hair,” Scagliotti said. “There are whole board
meetings on the south end of the NBC building, to deal with how an
actress' hair should look.”

Hers was clipped, given a quirky style
and dyed red. It's a look she's used to for half of each year.

That's when the cast is in Toronto for
filming. “It's hard for some of the people who have families,”
Scagliotti said, “but I, being an unattached 20-year-old, am happy
with it. I'm not No. 1 on the call sheet, so I usually have plenty of
time to myself.”

And when she does work, she might get
to wail a guitar or save a pyramid. It's a fun job.

Syfy Channel Mondays

– “Eureka,” 8 p.m; “Warehouse
13,” 9 p.m.; “Alphas,” 10 p.m.

– The “Alphas” opener, July 11,
is 90 minutes; after that, everything is 60 minutes

Sti

Dance: Another fine hip hopper is gone


Luck and life can change quickly on "So You Think You Can Dance."

Two or three weeks ago, Chris Koehl and Ashley Rich had the week's greatest dance number -- maybe the season's greatest. He was in jail, she was visiting and the bars became the ultimate dance prop.

And this week? They were voted to the bottom three by viewers, then ousted by judges. A few comments:

1) Voters have been unkind to alternatives this year, dispatching them to the bottom three. Before tonight, that included the only ballroom dancer, only tap dancer and half of the four hip-hoppers. Tonight, they did the rest, sending both surviving hip-hoppers (Koehl abd Tadd Gadduag) to the bottom.

2) That shouldn't be a problem, because hip-hoppers shine in solos. Judges, however, have seemed to simply ignore the solos. Koehl was great (as was Guaddag), but was ousted; on the female side, Jordan Casanova was merely OK, but was spared.

3) Maybe I should quit griping. There will only be one more week like this one, trimming the field from 12 to 10. Then the finalists get paired with "all-stars" and things get interesting.

4) I thought the opening number and the guest ballet number were so-so. However, the music act (Florence and the Machine) was great.

5) Now we know that Dance Day will be July 30, with three routines -- hard, medium and easy -- to choose from. Nigel Lythgoe feels that means there will be something for everyone. Alas, there really should be four -- hard, medium, easy and Mike.