"Downton" is back; alert your VCR

"Downton" Abbey returns Sunday, as elegantly tangled as ever. Here's the story I sent to papers:


For the once-cozy folks in “Downton
Abbey,” life is almost normal again.

The war is ending, a marriage is
beginning. “This season, in a way, is about the recovery from the
war,” said Julian Fellowes, the “Downton” creator.

Except these folks seem to find new
problems. Last season Bates – the earnest, honest servant – was
convicted of killing his ex-wife. That shocked viewers … and
shocked actors when they read the script.

“There was a real thud in my chest,”
said Brendan Coyle, who plays Bates.

“I literally gasped …. I was like,
'No, no.'” said Joanne Froggatt, who plays his new wife.

So the season starts with Bates in
prison and his wife scrambling for new evidence. The usual
mini-crises arrive, some minor – the new footman is simply too
tall, people insist – and some not.

As Lady Mary prepares to marry her
distant cousin Matthew, problems include:

– The possibility that her sister
Sybil won't make it. She lives in Ireland with her husband, an Irish
zealot who used to be the family chauffeur.

– The fact that Mary's grandmother,
Martha Levinson, will be there. She's American and thereby blunt.

– New financial woes that are, at
first, approached quietly.

Those issues and others bounce back and
forth quickly. As Shirley MacLaine, who plays Martha, sees it, that
“fits the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge.”

That's what Fellowes had in mind. He
wanted the approach “of 'West Wing' and 'ER' and all those, with
lots of plots going on – big plots, little plots, funny plots, sad

Most of PBS “Masterpiece Classic”
films are tied to old-time novel. Fellowes skipped all of that by
creating something new.“There is a liberation in it being original,
because you can go into areas of the period that (an older) novel
would not have done,” he said.

That drew high ratings and honors. Last
season drew 16 Emmy nominations (including six for its cast) and won
three (including Maggie Smith). It also won the Golden Globe for best
movie or mini-series.

Modern storytelling goes alongside the
old-time elegance. “The corsets were demanding,”MacLaine said. “I
realized, 'Of course, there's class system. You can't get dressed
without them.'”

At the core is the Crawley family. It

– Robert,who inherited the property
and makes it his life's work.”He was born to pass on this estate to
the next generation,” said Hugh Bonneville, who plays him. “That's
been his sole driving force.”

– His wife Cora, an American. She has
“an old-fashioned idea of women's strength, (being) extremely
flexible and strong in a quiet, more self-effacing way,” said
Elizabeth McGovern, who plays her.

– Their eldest daughter. “Mary
started out as a bit of a brat,”said Michelle Dockery, who plays

She had the confidence of a bright and
well-born beauty. Then came her one-night fling with a Turkish
diplomat, who promptly died in her bed. “The risk of scandal makes
her vulnerable,” Fellowes said.”

Now that's been hushed and she's ready
tor a marriage of love that conveniently saves the estate.

Such a convenient combination happened
to her parents, Bonneville said. When “Cora and Robert were
married, it was a business transaction. He needed the cash and her
family was quite keen to have a British title. It so happened that
they fell in love.”

The would go on to have three
daughters, some joy and constant crises – as minor as an overly
vertical footman or as major as the threat of financial failure.

– “Downton Abbey,under the
”Masterpiece Classic” banner

– 9 p..Sundays , PBS (check local
listings), with two-hour opener Jan. 6

– Concludes Feb. 17


Here's New Year's Eve, TV-style

This is the day when TV nudges us into the new year. Here's the story I sent to papers, listing TV choices. The two previous blogs profiled this year's "New Year's Rockin' Eve" (the first since Dick Clark's death) and Greyson Chance, 15, one of that show's performers:


As the new year nears, TV viewers will
have no trouble finding someone to count down, party down and cheer

Over the years, one network (ABC) has
expanded its show to almost six hours, while others (CBS, CMT, MTV)
have dropped out. Still, there are plenty of choices; here's a
sampling, all times ET:


– When: 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

– It is: From Las Vegas with Carmen
Electra; cutaways to Times Square.

– Includes: Lighthouse, Carmen Electra
and Phillip Phillips, the current “Amercan Idol” champion.


– When: 10-11 p.m., 11:30 p.m. to
12:30 a.m.

– It is: From New York. Carson Daly
hosts; Angela Kinsey (“The Office”) is at Times Square.

– Music: Cassadee Pope, the new
“Voice” champion; also, Train does “Mermaid” and “Imagine.”

– Retrospective: A look at the year's
music has clips of Madonna at the Super Bowl, the Spice Girls at the
Olympics and more, including Adele, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Coldplay,
David Guetta and Psy.

– Also: Comments from NBC people,
including Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, Donald Trump and the

Fox News Channel

– When: 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

– It is: From Times Square. Bill
Hemmer and Megyn Kelly host, with other FNC people are included.

– Music: Pat Benatar, Neil Giraldo, Sarah Brightman
and the cast of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the recent Broadway
musical about a recording session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash,
Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.


– When: Almost constantly. It goes
form 8 p.m. to 2:12 a.m., pausing for local news from 11-11:30.

– It is: The first “New Year's
Rockin' Eve” since the death of its founder, Dick Clark. Ryan
Seacrest hosts, with Fergie doing the California party and Jenny
McCarthy working the Times Square crowd.

– Music: Live in New York are Taylor
Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Neon Trees and Psy. The recorded party is in
California has Brandy, Pitbull, Karmin, One Republic, Greyson Chance
and Flo Rida.

– Also: Prime time looks at the past
year – and much further back. The first two hours are called “New
Year's Rockin' Eve Celebrates Dick Clark.”

And more

– BET's music show, “106 &
Park,” is billing itself as “106 & Party,” from 11 p.m. to
1 a.m.

-- CNN again has Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin  hosting, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

– Fuse, the music channel, has a
dance party from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

– The Disney Channel's “Austin &
Ally” repeats its special, “Austin & Jessie & Ally All
Star New Year,” which is set at Times Square. It starts at 11 p.m.
and ends just before midnight.



From a simple start, Clark's "Rockin' Eve" has soared

Forty years after the start of "New Year's Rockin' Eve," the show has its first Eve since Dick Clark's death. Here's the story I sent to papers. The previous blog profiles Greyson Chance, 15, one of this year's performers. The one that follows will be an overall list:


For “New Year's Rockin' Eve,” the
start was quite modest. It was Dick Clark on a restaurant roof.

“Dick stood on a ladder,” producer
Larry Klein recalled, “while his wife Kari held the cue cards ….
We had to go through an Iranian restaurant's window to get there.”

Now, 40 years later, “Rockin' Eve”
is taken for granted. “I think it's always been there,” said
Greyson Chance, born 25 years after that first one. “We always have
it on and wait for the ball to drop.”

Along the way, the show has grown in
length and ambition. This year, it will be almost six hours long,
mixing live performances at Times Square (Taylor Swift, Carly Rae
Jepsen, Neon Trees, Psy) with a taped party that includes Chance,
Pitbull, Flo Rida and more.

One bigger change: With Clark's death
(April 18, at 82), Ryan Seacrest became the sole host.

Clark had missed the 2004 show after a
stroke, with Regis Philbin filling in.”I knew Dick wanted to come
back …. It was something he looked forward to,” Klein said.

Seacrest was the prime host after that,
but Clark did the countdown … which is how this started.

“New Year's Eve was always a night
for big-band music,” Klein recalled. “But when Guy Lombardo quit
doing it, Dick thought there was a possibility for rock music.”

There were two years on NBC, then 38
(so far) on ABC. Only in recent years has the show added live
performances. “We try to get people who are joyful and upbeat,”
Klein said.

Ever since “American Bandstand”
began in 1952, Clark's people have looked for the hot new teen. Swift
was 16 and 17, a songwriting whiz, when she did their Academy of
Country Music and the American Music Awards shows; she was 20 when
she did “Rockin' Eve.” Klein recalls one show when taping stopped
for 10 minutes and someone said, “That's time for Taylor to write
another song.”

Now Chance arrives at 15. He grew up
watching the show, he said, with Clark doing the countdown for what
was only 11 p.m. in Oklahoma. “We'd do it up right and stay up
another hour.”

For Klein – born a year after
“American Bandstand” – this has been a fun ride. He reached
Hollywood in the mid-'70s, fresh from doing concerts at the
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. “I BS'd my way into a job with
Dick ….It was just a little office then, with eight or 10 people.”

The AMA show had just started, he said,
and “they only had one go-fer.” He became the second, then went
on to producing and to a long friendship with Clark.

“Dick was just this everyday guy,”
Klein said. “We'd sit down at lunch and just talk about silly

Clark even felt foolish about the
limousine rides that are part of Hollywood life. “He'd have them
drop us off a block away, in the pouring rain, and we'd walk the rest
of the way.”

It was Clark's route to a long and
rockin' career.


He's 25 years younger than the show he's on

"New Year's Rockin' Eve" was already 25 years old when Greyson Chance was born. Tonight, he's on the show. Here's the story I sent to papers; right above this are two other stories, a TV-Eve overview and a list:


It might seem easy to plunk Greyson
Chance into a familiar category.

He's a pleasant-faced, pleasant-voiced
kid from Oklahoma. He was famous before he was a teen-ager; it's
convenient to see him in a line that runs from Bobby Sherman and Davy
Jones to David Archuleta.

Or not. “I was a really rebellious
kid in school,” said Chance, one of the performer on this year's
“New Year's Rockin' Eve.”

Sure, he was snatched from mid-America
at 12, when Ellen Degeneres saw a tape of him doing a Lady Gaga song
at a school talent show. But he also professes a fondness for the
Johns (Lennon, Legend and Elton); and at the MTV Music Awards, he did
a Gnarls Barkley song.

“I'm a major vinyl-records
collector,” Chance said. “I love going around and finding old

School held less interest for him, he
said. “I really like learning about new things and finding out
about things, but some of it didn't hold my attention.”

Instead, there was music. Neither
parent – a nurse and an insurance salesman – is musical, but his
siblings are.”My brother is into a lot of alternative music; my
sister is into weirder music.”

As the youngest, he absorbed some of
this. “There was always this rinky-dink piano around the house,”
he said. He started piano lessons at 9; after a couple years, he
decided to be on his own. “I just liked to play whatever I really
liked at the time.”

That led to the talent show, with
Chance singing Gaga's “Pararazzi” and his dad holding a video
camera. His brother sent it to DeGeneres; a month after the talent
show, Chance was on national TV.

“He's amazing,” said Larry Klein,
the producer preparing for the first “Rockin' Eve” since Clark's
death. “I saw him on 'Ellen' and was very impressed.”

Others were, too. By June of 2010, a
month after “Ellen,” Chance had had more than 30 million YouTube
views. By the end of the year, his first single was on Degeneres' new
record label; his album followed, reaching No. 29 on the Billboard

Reviewers didn't dismiss Chance as
kid-pop. Entertainment Weekly called him “surprisingly mature
vocally”; People magazine said his sound is “as much Coldplay as
Bieber.” Klein seems to agree. “You hear that and look at a
15-year-old and you're really surprised.”

Chance switched to classes-by-Internet
and toured. He had 20-minute sets as the opening act for Miranda
Cosgrove, which was a tad frustrating; “I had to put so much into a
short time.” He did 40 minutes as co-headliner with Australian teen
Cody Simpson and did club dates on his own.

There have been four more stops with
Degeneres and three acting roles in “Raising Hope” flashbacks as
the young Jimmy – including one in which we learned Jimmy was once
a musical whiz. And there's new music; the five songs on his upcoming
EP are ones he wrote, Chance said.

First, he'll do “Sunshine & City
Lights” on “Eve,” visiting some music traditions. Chance was
born 25 years after “NewYear's Rockin' Eve” began … 45 years
after “American Bandstand” began … and 67 years after the birth
of Clark, who started both shows and began this notion of teen stars
on TV.


Classy start, solid show

In an unusual move, NBC will have two "Saturday Night Live" reruns on Dec. 22, the first in prime time.

That one, at 10 p.m., is a shortened version of the excellent Dec. 15 episode. (It will be followed at 11:29 p.m. by the Bruno Mars episode.) Here's the mini-review I wrote after it aired:


It's not easy to do loose comedy the day after a national tragedy. Tonight's "Saturday Night Live," however, was a classy effort.

The show started with a kids' choir doing a beautifully uncomplicated rendition of "Silent Night." Then, after going dark for a second, "SNL" boomed ahead with its usual nonsense.

"SNL" has always been erratic, but last week's show (with Jamie Foxx) was one of its best and this one came close. Martin Short had a  zestful song that saw him meet Tom Hanks, Tina  Fey, Kristin Wiig and Samuel L. Jackson. Sir Paul McCartney did three songs (instead of the usual two) and appeared in a sketch as Short's triangle player.

There were some so-so sketches (there always are), but one was masterful. A British protocol expert visited Kate Middleton's gynecologist to inform him of proper procedures. If you forget its poor finish (please do) this was a superb sketch, comparable to when Hugh Laurie played a palace representative, setting up the queen's requirements for her hotel stay.