"Five": The best TV movie in years

OK, people have had some good excuses lately for not watching TV. The weather has been perfect in many places. It happens.

Now, however, it's time to start watching. Tonight (Monday, Oct. 10) is big, with:

-- A makeover for the struggling Oprah Winfrey Network, starting at 7 p.m. with Rosie O'Donnell's new talk show (see previous blog).

-- The departure of "The Playboy Club," a dark and dreary show that didn't deserve to live (see two blogs ago).

-- Lots of sports, as usual. In Michigan, where I live, people are giddy about a double-header of storts -- the Tigers in the play-offs (4:20 p.m., Fox), the undefeated Lions hosting the Bears (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

-- And much more, including "Five" -- which is very simply the best TV movie in years. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This is the sort of starpower that's
rare for TV – Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore and Alicia Keys.

The catch: None of them are on-camera
in the movie “Five”; instead, each makes her directing debut.

“Great actors do often make great
directors,” said actress Patricia Clarkson.

The idea was hatched in a meeting the
Lifetime cable network had with Jennifer Aniston and her friend,
producer Kristin Hahn: Combine five mini-films about breast cancer.
“We call it a film in short films,” said producer Marta Kauffman,
who came up with a way for all of them to be related.

Then the powerhouse people converged.
In order, the films are directed by:

– Moore. Her film is set on the night
of the moon walk, with a little girl shielded from the fact that her
mother (Ginnifer Goodwin) is dying. Jennifer Morrison and Annie Potts

– Aniston. Clarkson plays
someone who rants at her own advance funeral. “It was so emotional
and physically so brutal at times,” she said. “(Aniston)
understood the humor of this character.”

– Keys. An in-control lawyer (Rosario
Dawson) finds herself still sparring with her sister (Tracee Ross)
and mother (Jenifer Lewis). “When a woman who is diagnosed with
breast cancer still has to deal with her mother, it can be funny,”
Kauffman said.

– Penelope Spheeris, best known for
directing “Wayne's World” and rock 'n' roll documentaries. Her
film has a young stripper (Lyndsy Fonseca) who may need both breasts
removed. Unlike the other films, this has a gritty, blue-collar
setting. “I know that territory,” Spheeris said, “so it was perfect
for me.”

– Patty Jenkins, who directed
Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning work in “Monster.” Her film has
an oncologist (Jeanne Tripplehorn) facing her own crisis. “We knew
it was new territory for everybody, and that sort of gave it this
freshness and excitement on the set,” Tripplehorn said.

Many of these women are best known for
comedy – especially Kauffman, the “Friends” co-creator and
co-producer – and Aniston, one of the “Friends” stars. So humor
emerges in surprising places.

“When we are in the most
extraordinary circumstances,” Kauffman said, “we react in one of
two ways. Either we completely freak out or we go toward humor.”

The film has both, Spheeris said. “You
cry and you laugh and you do so many different emotions.”

At the core is Lifetime's ongoing push
for women to get mammograms. “There are currently 2.5 million
breast-cancer survivors in the U.S.,” said Nancy Dubuc, president
of the cable channel.

This film could stir some more.
Tripplehorn said Keys asked her to be at a script-reading. “I said,
'You know, I'm a professional and I want to be (there). But frankly,
I'm getting a mammogram.'”

– “Five,” 9 p.m. Monday,
Lifetime; repeats at 1 a.m.

– Also, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday,
Oct. 15-16; repeats at midnight each time




Rosie O'Donnell: The Oprah makeover begins

For the Oprah Winfrey Network, this is sort of Launch Day II.

The cable network started on Jan. 1, with high expectations and low ratings. Looking at this sea of talk and reality, viewers shrugged.

But today (Monday, Oct. 10), it sort of starts over -- Rosie O'Donnell's  new talk show at 7 p.m., "Oprah's Lifeclass" (built from 25 years of "Oprah" reruns) at 8, reruns of Lisa Ling documentaries at 9, "Oprah" reruns at 10. A lot more new shows, including the start of Ling's new season, start this weekend.

It's a major makeover and it all starts with O'Donnell. Here's the story I sent to papers, about her show.


Not long ago, Rosie O'Donnell says, she
told her youngest kids about her upcoming talk show.

“They both had this look of
confusion. 'Do you think people are going to listen to you just

She's seen that look on grown-ups'
faces. When “The Rosie O'Donnell Show” started in 1996, there was
more confusion. “I had to convince people I was not going to do
another Jerry Springer show.”

O'Donnell had six seasons of
mostly-light talk, then quit while ratings were still strong. Now
she's back, as a key in giving the sputtering Oprah Winfrey Network a
second spurt. And she's still trying to explain to people – her
youngest kids (11 and 8) and grown-ups – what she'll do.

There were rumors that O'Donnell would
be dead-serious, with single-subject hours. Winfrey described it in
only vague terms: “She will cover current events, hometown heroes,
showcasing the arts, celebrating kids and families, as well as
feature ... talent and do her Rosie things.”

OK, but just what are “her Rosie
things” these days? Gradually, O'Donnell has defined the show:

– Yes, it will often have only one
guest. Most will stay for three segments, for what she calls “a
really lengthy, sit-down, insightful” conversation.”

– At their liveliest, those portions
might be like the hours Dick Cavett spent with comedians or actors.
O'Donnell's first hour will have Russell Brand, the eccentric British
actor and comedian; “I find him fascinating.” Other early guests
include Carrie Fisher, Fran Drescher, Kevin Bacon and Wanda Sykes.

– It's not all talk, though. There
will be a band led by Katreese Barnes, who has been the “Saturday
Night Live” music director and received three Emmy nominations for
co-writing Justin Timberlake songs for that show, winning for
“(Bleep) in a Box.”

– That band brings other
possibilities. Gloria Estefan will sit in with it for a week,
O'Donnell said. Early on, a Broadway cast will fly to Chicago to do
the show.

– There will be an opening monolog –
yes, she now has joke-writers – and audience interaction.

– And the closing bit will bring
someone up from the audience. “We're gonna end with a fun … game
every time, because you know my goal in life was to host 'The Price
is Right.'”

This is a show from someone who has
encased herself in pop culture. O'Donnell was 10 when her mother died
of cancer. Surrounded by quiet males – “there wasn't a lot of 'I
love you,' typically Irish” – she focused on TV as a kid. That's
remained an obsession, including all 25 “Oprah” seasons.

“Half my life, I've watched her on
television,” O'Donnell said. “She's a woman who has spent her
life trying to inspire, encourage and teach.”

So yes, O'Donnell will sometimes get
serious. There will be moments that reflect her life as an adoptive
parent, a lesbian and gay-rights advocate, someone who's outspoken
against wars and guns.

Still, she's mellowed at 49. She's less
sure of some views – “I really thought I was an amazing parent
until I had teen-agers” – and she regrets a 1999 interview with
Tom Selleck. “It was a week after Columbine and I was pretty raw
emotionally. (I regret) that this really kind man will, for the rest
of his life, be associated with (that hour). He's a nice man; he
really is.”

– “The Rosie Show,” 7 p.m.
weekdays, Oprah Winfrey Network; reruns at 11 p.m., 9 a.m., 5 p.m.

– The opener (Oct. 10, with Russell
Brand) will be simulcast at 7 p.m. on TLC and Investigation Discovery
and at 11 p.m. on TLC.

– Part of a face-lift for OWN, which
replaced Discovery Health on Jan. 1. It will be followed by “Oprah's
Lifeclass” (hosted by Winfrey, using “Oprah” reruns) at 8 and
then reruns of Lisa Ling documentaries at 9 p.m. and “Oprah” at

– Face-lift continues that weekend,
Oct. 15-16. Saturdays have reality – “Welcome to Sweetie Pie's”
(restaurant) at 9 p.m. and “Don't Tell the Bride” (groom plans
the wedding) at 10. Sundays have “Ask Oprah's All Stars” at 8,
new Ling documentaries at 9, “Visionaries” (starting with Tyler
Perry) at 10.



"Playboy Club": An unfond farewell


So NBC has officially cancelled "The Playboy Club." This is good news (twice) and bad:

-- Good, because it was a bad show, monotonely dark in emotion and in visuals, with characters who were hard to be interested in.

-- Good, because NBC is replacing it with a serious news program. On Oct. 31 (oddly), it will start a magazine show anchored by Brian Williams -- a real, "60 Minutes" kind of show, not just a "Dateline" collection of true-crime tales.

-- Bad because vigilantes feel it was canceled because of naughtiness. It wasn't; it failed because of poor execution, which is the ultimate Hollywood sin.



Anchoring the Onion: A Brooke-worthy performance

Somewhere at the pinnacle of comedy -- up there in the Monty Python and "Daily Show" stratosphere -- is  the Onion. Anything it does -- weekly newspaper, books, cable show -- is terrific.

Now "Onion News Network" returns Tuesday. Here's the story I sent to papers, profiling Suzanne Sena, who is perfect as Brooke Alvarez, the full-of-herself anchor:



At first, Suzanne Sena's career seemed
rather random .

Fresh from college, she was an actress,
a PR person, a newscaster, even an infomercial star. Was this leading

Yes, actually. It prepared her to
become Brooke Alvarez, the most powerful newscaster in the world.

Brooke is fictional, the anchor of the
satiric “Onion News Network,” originally Online and now on cable.
Portraying her requires someone who can act and who knows the quirks
of TV news.

“My two years at Fox News Channel
definitely prepared me to play Brooke, … just seeing some of the
large personalities there,” Sena said.

Brooke is the largest personality of
all. She may be reporting on the end of the world – which, indeed,
she does in the season-opener – but she maintains perfect hair,
diction and self-awareness.

TV seems to fit Sena, 48. “I've
always felt at ease, sitting around talking to people,” she said. A
college friend always tried to bring her to any party, because she
could start conversations with strangers.

In her high school days (Dearborn,
Mich., where her dad was a mechanic for Ford), she starred ub
musicals – “Mame,” “Carousel,” “Oklahoma.” Then came a
communications degree from Michigan State University, focusing on
public relations. She even started a PR company in Albuquerque. “I
was doing dinner theater on the side,” she said.

One night, after playing the young
lover in “The Fantasticks,” she met someone who pointed her
toward acting jobs. “I had a full career going, for a while, as an
actress,” she said.

More switches were coming. At the E
cable network, she did celebrity interviews – visiting the homes of
Dustin Hoffman, Michael Douglas and such – and worked the red
carpet. She became a serious news anchor at a Dallas station and then
at Fox. There was Sena, anchoring coverage of a mine collapse in
Utah, a terrorist attack in London, the funeral of the slain former
prime minister in Pakistan.

Then she went from serious news to a
mock version.

The Onion is a fake newspaper with a
dry, dark wit. Headlines announce: “Law gives all mistreated
Americans right to open casinos” or “Justin Bieber found to be
cleverly disguised 51-year-old pedophile” or “Tea Party
congressman calls for tax break to put out raging wildfire in

It's now based in Chicago and New York,
but its staffers reflect the Onion roots in Madison, alongside the
University of Wisconsin. “They look like a bunch of kids,” Sena
said. “But they bring this tremendous wit and great vocabularies ….
And they do have a real Midwestern sensibility.”

It's the ability to write darkly funny
things in a dry, matter-of-fact way. And it works well when those
things emerge from the mouth of the fictional Brooke Alvarez.

– “Onion News Network,” 10 p.m.
Tuesdays, IFC (Independent Film Channel), repeating at 1 a.m.

– Season-opener – reporting on the
imminent destruction of the world via giant asteroid – also airs
three times Friday night (11 p.m., 1:30 a.m., 2 a.m.) and twice
Sunday (11 and 11:30 p.m.)

– Online version – including some
“Brooke Alvarez” reports – at www.theonion.com



"Prohibition": Ken Burns toms himself

Ken Burns seems to keep topping himself. "Prohibition" -- Sunday through Tuesday on PBS -- is another masterpiece. Here's the story I sent to papers:


For 14 noisy years, Americans had their
social experiment. They banned alcohol; they turned collectively

Well, not quite. Even leaders found
ways to duck the law:

– Herbert Hoover, then the Secretary
of Commerce, had a routine, says Dan Okrent, an author (“Last
Call”) and a consultant on PBS' “Prohibition” miniseries. “He
would stop at the Belgian embassy, where he could legally have his
martini every night before going home.”

– Others didn't bother with legality.
Ken Burns, the “Prohibition” producer-director, savored one man's
account: “His father was a bootlegger and delivered his wares to
the United States Capitol.”

– In many cities, the “Prohibition”
people say, attitudes were the same. San Francisco's biggest
bootlegger was the district attorney; Seattle's was an ex-cop. “I
remember talking to Ruth Proskauer Smith, who was 100 years old,”
said producer-director Lynn Novick. “Her father was a New York
state Supreme Court judge and they had a bootlegger come to their
house every week.”

– Those pro-drinking views were even
stronger overseas, Burns said. Rum was shipped from the Bahamas, then
a British protectorate. “The home secretary of Great Britain, named
Winston Churchill, refused to lift a finger to stop the flow of rum.
He thought Prohibition was an insult to civilization.”

As these stories swirl by, it's easy to
dismiss Prohibition as an absurdity. At its core, the filmmakers
point out, there were great intentions.

Back in 1830, Okrent said, “the
average American drank three times (the amount of alcohol) that we
drink today.” That was “the equivalent of 90 fifths of 80-proof
liquor (annually). If you consider there were people who were not
drinking at all, those who were drinking were really, really

Families were shattered, lives were
destroyed. Carrie Nation wasn't the cartoon-ish character some
people depicted, Burns said; she'd seen her first marriage destroyed
by alcohol.

Nation used an ax, other women used
sheer will and a movement began. Then came the Anti Saloon League,
which Burns calls the “most powerful lobby of all time.”

It linked with people on both sides.
Prohibition was backed on the right by the Ku Klux Klan and on the
left by the Industrial Workers of the World; it became law in 1919..

Enforcing it was another matter.
Alcohol arrived by land, from Mexico. It arrived by boat from the
Bahamas and Canada. It was also easy to make.

When their factories were shut down,
Burns said, brewers sold the raw material. “Augustus Busch said he
was the largest bootlegger in the country.”

Others also were helpful, Burns said.
“They sold grape concentrate with a thoughtful warning: 'Do not add
sugar (and) leave in a dark room or it will ferment and turn into

The brashest stories may have come from
New York City (where, before Prohibition, half the city councilmen
owned bars) or Boston. Still, the country's once-quiet mid-section
was also quaking.

There was Busch in St. Louis, working
within the law. And Al Capone, working outside it. “He took over
Chicago when he was 24 (or) 25,” Okrent said. “And he was gone
before his 30th birthday.”

There was the brutal Purple Gang in
Detroit. And a Cincinnati lawyer who worked the system. “George
Remus was one of the most successful and sort of flamboyant
bootleggers in the Midwest,” Burns said.

Most would fall; Remus did
spectacularly. Prohibition itself ended in 1933, but its impact
lingered. Indirectly, it had stirred the women's vote, the income
tax, even the first wiretapping case. It slowed down drinking, Okrent
said. “We did not get back to pre-Prohibition drinking levels until

For a half-century there, Americans
were at least a bit more sober.

– “Prohibition,” 8 p.m. Sunday
through Tuesday, PBS (check local listings)

– Many stations will rerun it at 9:41
p.m. Sunday and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday