Yes, Fridays can be saved

Fridays were once a perfectly fine time to watch television. Really

At various times, you could find "X-Files" or "Miami Vice" or "Friday Night Lights" (appropriately) or a pile of adequate ABC comedies. Not lately, though.

Now Friday is where reality shows live and "Chuck" died; now it may be the death spot for "Fringe." The show has a key episode tonight (Feb. 24), takes a month off, then has eight more episodes. After that? If this does happen to be the final season, producers promise, it will end at a fairly satisfying point.

Still, there is some good news on the night:

1) CBS continues to have some scripted shows. "Blue Bloods" is solidly crafted.

2) PBS has made it a performance night. Tonight, it's "Memphis," the Tony-winner that has enough great music to make us forgive its clumsy story and hapless central character.

3) And on March 16, cable's USA Network will use Fridays for the final season of "In Plain Sight" and the second season of "Fairly Legal."

Like all USA shows, "Fairly Legal" starts by looking good. Sarah Shahi may be the best-looking star to arrive since ... well, maybe Matt Bomer of USA's "White Collar." She plays Kate Reed, a lawyer who hates the law and became a mediator.

A pretty good show its first season, this is a better one in its second. Kate's marriage is dead; so is her dad. Now the soul of his law firm is being fought for by his young widow ... and Kate ... and a brash newcomer.

These people are opposites, forever having pragmatism and idealism collide. The first episodes of the new season are smart and fun; Fridays might be OK again. 







X Factor has its double search

For "The X Factor," a double search is starting.

On one hand, new contestants can start lining up for the second season. Auditions start March 1 online and March 14 in person. (See

On the other, there's the search for two more judges.Today (Wednesday), Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid said:

-- Both judges will be female; that's "100 percent sure," Cowell said.

-- There will be two hosts -- a man and woman -- instead of one. Chances are, Cowell said, both will be known for something else, not hosting. Also, "it's important there are more Americans on the show."

-- The talk of Whitney Houston judging was promising, but "it never got to that point" of specific talks, Reid said.

-- Other top names have been tossed around, including Britney Spears, Fergie and Janet Jackson. Cowell ducked questions on them; the first step, he said, came when he waited to see who contacted the show.

-- The first-year contestants are lining up record deals. The latest came today, with 14-year-old Rachel Crow signing with most the Columbia radio and the Nickelodeon network.

-- And no, Cowell doesn't expect Ryan Seacrest to jump to his show. "He's a brilliant negotiator. He'll stay on 'Idol.'"





Oscar enigmas: The shorts categories

The categories lurk at the bottom of
Academy Award contests, sabotaging your chances to be perfect.

You're hoping to outguess everyone at
an Oscar party, but the shorts categories – animation, live-action
and documentaries – are enigmas.

Or maybe they don't have to be. Right now, some movie theaters are running three separate packages of the Oscar-nominated shorts.

I caught them at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor; you can find all the show times at the end of this story or at If you live elsewhere, look around for a theater near you; anyway, here's my shorts overview:


Here's the happy surprise, bursting
with fresh approaches and sharp craftsmanship.

Only “Raju” is dead-serious. It's
an OK drama about a German couple adopting a boy in India.

“The Shore” does start seriously,
as a man (Cieran Hinds) returns to Ireland with his American-born
daughter (Kerry Condon). It bounces into broad comedy, then returns
to warm drama.

The others glow with whimsy.
“Pentecost” is a beautifully filmed tale of an Irish altar boy.
“Time Freak” is an American comedy about a guy and his time
machine, with a great final scene. “Tuba Atlantic” is a Norwegian
delight about an old man with six days to live and the young woman
who may or may not help with his final wish.

– My favorite: “Time Freak,” but
“Shore” and “Tuba Atlantic” are also great.

– Prediction: “Tuba Atlantic,”
with “Time Freak” as a possibility.


As usual, Canadians were big
contributors here. “Wild Life” is the droll tale of an
upper-class Englishman on the Canadian frontier; “Dimanche” is
one lad's odd Sunday with relatives.

The British “A Morning Stroll”
deftly leaps between three time periods – with a different
animation style for each. Americans made the feel-good “La Luna”
and the offbeat “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris

– Favorite: “La Luna,” by a
smidgen. Still, none of these was nearly as good as “Skylight” –
a Canadian delight that isn't nominated, but made the short list and
is included in the Ann Arbor package.

– Prediction: “La Luna” –
unless there's resentment for a mega-company (Pixar) in this
category. Then “Morning Stroll” or “Lessmore” could win.


This is the tough one to watch. “Saving
Face” – about acid-scarred Pakistani women – is wrenching;
“Incident in New Baghdad” and “The Tsunami and the Cherry
Blossom” are difficult.

All are important; none is particularly
well-crafted. (A fifth film, “God is the Bigger Elvis,” isn't in
the package because of licensing issues.) That leaves one stand-out;
“The Barber of Birmingham” is a soaring view of one man's
passion, from the early civil rights days to the election of Barack

Favorite and prediction: “The
Barber of Birmingham.”

And if you'r near Ann Arbor, Mich., here are the show times:

– Before the Oscars: Wednesday (Feb. 22) -- animated, 5 p.m.; live-action, 7:15; documentaries, 9:30. Thursday -- docs, 4:30; animated, 7:15; live, 9:30. Friday –
docs, 4 p.m.; animation 6:45; live, 9. Saturday –
docs, 4:15; live, 7; animation, 9:15. Sunday (Oscar day, Feb. 26) – live, 3:15;
Animated, 5:45; docs, 8,

– Afterward: Monday (Feb. 27) – live, 4:45;
animated, 7:15, docs, 9:15. Tuesday – docs, 4:15; live, 7:15;
animated, 9:35; Wednesday – live, 7:30, animated, 9:45; Thursday –
docs, 4:15; animated, 7:15, life, 9:30.

– Also: Oscar-nominated “Pina”
continues through March 1; “A Separation” (nominated for script
and foreign-language film) starts March 2; “Rango” is 1:30 p.m.
March 4-5. See

Larry David: The power of positive quitting

For most of the "Seinfeld" years, reporters never even got to see Larry David. We talked to Jerry Seinfeld (often) and his co-stars; David was back at the office, presumably fretting or grumbling.

Now he's moved, reluctantly, into the spotlight. Here's a story I sent to papers about a David appearance Thursday on cable's Showtime:


You could call it “creative
quitting.” It's worked wonders for Larry David.

The “Seinfeld” co-creator talks
about that – and much more – on the latest round of Showtime's
“Inside Comedy,” with his friend David Steinberg. “He's the
kind of guy who you just want to confide in,” David told reporters.
“You want to tell him secrets.”

The men share the Jewish tradition of
verbal wit. “They seem to have a look at life that is totally
different than we Irish people,” said Tim Conway, another “Inside
Comedy” guest this year.

That humor can seem natural. “My dad
and my uncle were always funny at dinners,” Steinberg said.

For Larry David, however, the process
was tougher. “It doesn't occur to me that anything I can do would
be successful,” he says on the show.

His mother suggested he be a mailman.
David had few options – his only skills, he said, are whistling and
parallel parking – and tried comedy. He spent two years on
“Fridays” (ABC's “Saturday Night Live” clone) and a year as
an “SNL” writer, getting only one sketch on the air.

After one of his sketches was pulled,
David angrily told “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels he was quitting.
He later realized he couldn't afford to; he came to work, pretending
nothing has happened.

Quitting became a career move after he
co-created “Seinfeld.” He quit after NBC insisted a veteran
producer work on the pilot; he quit again after NBC disliked most of
the plans for the first season.

Both times, Seinfeld stepped in. The
problems went away; David un-quit. “This saying-no thing is so
powerful,” he tells Steinberg.

David stayed (quitting often) for all
nine years of “Seinfeld”; he's done eight, so far, of “Curb
Your Enthusiasm,” a show he does his way. There are short seasons –
10 episodes last year – and no scripts; Steinberg directs some of
the episodes. HBO makes no rules; if it did, David might just quit.

– “Inside Comedy,” 11 p.m.
Thursdays, Showtime; reruns at 1 a.m.

– Larry David episode debuts Feb. 24;
it reruns at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and then Wednesday night at midnight
(technically, 12 a.m. Thursday)


"The Simpsons" turn 500

Twenty years ago, Matt Groening was walking around the Twentieth Century Fox lot with a grin and an air-freshener.

It was a Bart Simpson air-freshener. For Groening -- who had known the quiet existence of an offbeat cartoonist -- this was new.

Now "Simpsons" keeps thriving, with its 500th episode Sunday (Feb. 19). Here's the story I sent to papers; also, please read the preceding blog, which has updated the list of Whitney Houston coverage, including expanded funderal coverage.


Back in 1989, two young comedy writers
were hired to help turn short cartoons into a TV series.

“The job was only two days a week,”
Al Jean recalled. “It was turned down by several people.”

Still, this was decent part-time
employment – and turned out to full-time. Now – more that 22
years later – Jean is the show-runner of “The Simpsons”; on
Sunday, it airs its 500th episode.

No, he didn't expect that back then.
“If I (had) said I'd be here answering questions about Episode 500,
they would have locked me up.”

That episode includes some offbeat
touches – an odd guest voice (Julian Assange of Wikileaks), an odd
story (Simpsons banished from Springfield), long opening credits
reflecting the 500 episodes and a terse closing note. Still, in many
ways it's sort of like the other 499.

“I've jokingly said, 'Why not 1,000?
Why not 2,000?'” Jean said.

The lone hurdle appeared last year. Fox
officials said the show's budget had crept too high and insisted on a
cutback for the voice actors. “Had they not signed, we would've
stopped the show,” Jean said.

A final episode was written, viewing
the Simpson family in the future. “Had we ended the series, that
would have been the last episode,” Jean said.”We were prepared to
do that, but … I don't think it ever really got close to that.”

The actors signed and “The Simpsons”
seems semi-eternal. That didn't seem likely in 1989.

Matt Groening, creator of the “Life
in Hell” comic strip, had created short “Simpsons” cartoons for
“The Tracey Ullman Show.” Now he and James Brooks – a star
writer-producer since the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” days – wanted
to expand that to a series.

“I liked 'Life in Hell' very much and
it was a chance to work for Jim Brooks,” Jean said.

He and Mike Reiss began working on the
adaptation. Former Harvard roommates, they were in their late 20s and
had written for several other comedies. Reiss went on to other shows;
Jean helped create others, but now is the “Simpsons” executive
producer, alongside Groening and Brooks.

Why has the show lasted? “It is just
such a rich universe,” Jean said. “(And) the fact that the
characters don't age is key. I think if Bart was really 40 and living
on his parents' couch, it would be too sad.”

The toughest parts, he said, have been
thinking of:

– The basic stories. “Once you get
the idea, we have 20 great writers and you can really develop it in a
way that I think is funny and emotional.”

– Things for Bart Simpson to write on
the chalkboard. If the story runs long, that is skipped.

Still, Bart has chalked some important
things. When “The Simpsons Movie” finally came out in 2007,
making a fortune, he wrote that the show wouldn't take as long for a
second one.

“The first movie came 20 years after
the shorts began,” Jean said. “We still have about 15 years

– “The Simpsons,” 8 p.m. Sundays,

– 500th episode is Feb. 19

– Also, frequent reruns on individual
stations; the movie and past seasons are at video stores