"Futurama" is back; life is good


"Futurama" is always with us, in one way or another, but now it has a fresh batch of new episodes. The season starts at 10 p.m. Wednesday, so I wanted to put two stories here.

The first is a new one I sent to paprs. It's about the season-opener, Bender's sex life and series creator David X. Cohen; the second simply repeats the story I sent a year ago, focusing on series star Billy West. First, the new one:

By MIKE HUGHES

When it comes to having a zestful sex
life, TV tells us, there are surprises.

Sure, it's nice to be a rock star or a
secret agent. Still, there's lots of action for physicists (consider
Leonard in “Big Bang Theory”) and for robots.

Yes, robots. “Bender has had some
interesting love affairs,” said David X. Cohen, whose “Futurama”
opens its season Wednesday with the latest liaison.

One of Bender's previous lovers was
Femputer, voiced by Bea Arthur; another was a space ship, voiced by
Sigourney Weaver. “A soda machine is just a natural extension of
that,” Cohen said.

She's a beverage dispenser named Bev,
actually, and she's voiced by Wanda Sykes. She berates Bender and
pins him, before rage becomes lust, Hollywood-style. Soon, Bev is
dispensing a mini-Bender.

Two things soon seem obvious:

– “Futurama” has no limits. The
“CSI” characters never have sex with drink dispensers.

– And writing it must be
approximately the best job in the world.

Cohen, 45, mostly agrees. “We did
have a few rules at first,” he said. “We said no time-travel.
(But) now time-travel has given us some of the best episodes.”

The show's one remaining rule is that
every episode has a character connection. The season-opener is about
fatherhood; Bender is inept, but gets the hang of it. The second new
Wednesday episode, a take-off on Mayan predictions of disaster, views
Philip Fry's efforts to be heroic.

Fry was the central character back in
1999, when “Futurama” was created by Matt Groening (the
“Simpsons creator) and Cohen. He was a pizza-delivery guy,
inadvertently frozen and then thawed 1,000 years later. The result
merged comedy and science fiction, which co-exist in Cohen's mind.

Both his parents were scientific, he
said, but his mother was also a sci-fi buff. “I would read the
books she had lying around. I remember reading 'Dune' when I was very
young.”

He majored in physics at Harvard, added
a master's degree in computer science at Berkeley and was accepted
for a doctorate program. But he had also been writing humor since
high school and was president of the famed Harvard Lampoon; Cohen
decided to give comedy a try.

He joined the “Simpsons” staff in
1995. When Groening asked him to help create a sci-fi comedy cartoon
three years later, the wild ride began.

“Futurama” ran five seasons on Fox,
before being canceled in 2003. Cohen retreated; he did some
uncredited rewrites … wrote some rejected pilots … and saw
“Futurama” come back to life on the Cartoon Network. “All of a
sudden, we were big on 'Adult Swim' at 11 at night.”

So four new ”Futurama” films were
created; each sold in video stores as a movie, but also ran as four
half-hour episodes on cable. Comedy Central bought them and more;
after a seven-year pause, “Futurama” was back as a weekly series.

So far, Comedy Central has ordered 52
more episodes, to air over four seasons. Wednesday's episodes launch
the start of the third season.

That gives “Futurama” 140 episodes
in its winding, 13-year existence.“If you had told me when we were
starting that we'd get 140 , I would have been delighted,” Cohen
said. “Of course, once you compare it to 'The Simpsons' and 550 or
so, it's not so many.”

– “Futurama,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays,
Comedy Central, rerunning at midnight

– Hour-long opener, June 20, has two
episodes; it reruns at 9:27 p.m. Friday, 2:22 and 11:24 p.m. Sunday,
then 9 p.m. next Wednesday, June 27, leading into the next new
episode.

– Many other episodes rerun on Comedy
Central, including ones at 8:51 and 9:27 p.m. June 20. Others are at
3:01 and 3:36 p.m. Thursday and Friday (June 21-22), then 3:25 and
3:56 p.m. weekdays and 6 p.m. June 25. Also, WGN has reruns at 3 a.m.
weekdays.

(Now here's the story I sent a year ago, focusing on West.)

 

By MIKE HUGHES

“Futurama” is back, for a summer
filled with twisted tomorrows.

This is the cartoon show that died and
was reborn. Now it's 12 years old and in its sixth season.

That's a minor detail, of course. “Our
characters never get any older,” said co-creator David X. Cohen.

Besides, this was orginally set in the year 3000.
It will be a while before it seems dated.

“Futurama” had a pizza guy fall
into a machine and emerge 1,000 years later, meeting a hard-drinking
robot, a sexy alien and more. “I thought the characters were so
cool,” recalls actor Billy West.

He would soon play many of them. West
is the central character (Phillip Fry), plus Prof. Herbert
Farnsworth, Dr. John Zoidberg and more – including Bill Clinton's
head in a jar.

The series began with Matt Groening,
whose “The Simpsons” was already almost a decade old. He talked
to Cohen, who says he was “the nerd of the staff – something
there was a lot of competition for.”

Like many “Simpsons” writers, Cohen
was a Harvard grad and a former Harvard Lampoon editor. Unlike most,
he also had a master's degree in theoretical computer science from
Berkeley.

So Groening started talking to him
about stories with weird, sci-fi twists. “Pretty soon, we had 10
stories ready to go and 10 or 20 characters,” Cohen said.

The possibilities were endless, he
said. “It's almost too much; you have to rein yourself in …. We
want it to be about human behavior – even when the characters
aren't human.”

That requires voice actors who can find
both the humor and the humanity. “They are fabulous,” Cohen said.
“They've even yanked a tear or two.”

West comes from the opposite of a
Berkeley background. A cruel father, he says, dominated his
childhood. “It was horrific growing up in that home …. I had a
tendency to vaporize.”

He would ignore the commotion and
obsess on TV – from science fiction to the Sid Caesar shows, with
their emphasis on accents. When he was 11, his mom decided they would
escape to Boston; soon, he had his own escape, playing rock 'n' roll.
“I wanted to get out of school; I didn't fit in.”

His band did fairly well; his odd
voices when he talked to the audience did better. Soon, West was
doing comic voices for radio shows – first in Boston, then Howard
Stern in New York. That led to cartoons – new characters (Stimpy,
Doug), revived ones (Elmer Fudd, Woody Woodpecker) and “Futurama”
oddities. “Billy absolutely runs with that,” Cohen says. “He
can do anything.”

After five seasons and 72 episodes, Fox
canceled “Futurama” in 2003. It was a temporary death.

With its reruns thriving on cable, the
show made direct-to-video movies were split into four TV episodes.
Ratings prospered and Comedy Central ordered a new season.

Technically, this summer is the second
half of the 26-episode sixth season. Still, it feels more like the
seventh or (counting those movies) eighth. When you span millennia,
numbers get odd.

The show's stars rarely get recognized,
but there are moments. John DiMaggio – the voice of Bender the
robot, was getting a tattoo, Cohen said; “there was a guy there
right then getting a Bender tattoo.”

Think of it as a permanent tribute to a
show that never stays dead.

 

 

 

A gun-toting history prof helps save the world


On Sunday, cable-viewers might obsess on farewells. That night brings the sason-finales of "The Killing," "The Borgias," "Nurse Jackie," "The Big C" and "Girls."

Still, try not to miss "Falling Skies," a sharply crafted show with Noah Wyle as a history professor, helping lead a rebel army on an Earth overtaken by aliens. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By MIKE HUGHES

Noah Wyle's high school years should
have been a sign.

“My favorite subject was history,”
he recalled. “Math and science were my worst.”
Clearly, he
shouldn't be an electrical engineer (like his dad) or a nurse (like
his mom); he shouldn't even play a doctor on TV.

Except, of course, that he did quite
skillfully. For 15 seasons, 254 episodes and five Emmy nominations,
he was Dr. John Carter on “ER.”

Now he's back on his own turf in
“Falling Skies,” the high-octane series back for its second
summer. Wyle plays a history professor who helps lead a rag-tag
guerrila force, on an Earth overtaken by aliens. One moment, he's
arguing with an alien leader about Earthlings' own conquest; the
next, he's exploring the unique nature of people under stress.

“That's one thing we've talked about,
using (the Sept. 11 aftermath) as an example – the nobility of the
characters,” Wyle said.

And on many of the moments, of course,
he's doing the basics – running, ducking and shooting.

Wyle has had preparation for outdoor
action. He's been a ranch-owner. He attended the Thacher high school,
a boarding school (alumni include Howard Hughes and Thornton Wilder)
that emphasizes horsemanship and camping. And he spent time with his
grandfather, “the Jewish cowboy.”

That paternal side of the family –
artists and a sometimes-cowboy – was interesting; so was Wyle's
mother (the head nurse) and step-father (who led the restoration of
“Spartacus” and other films). Wyle leaped directly from high
school to acting; by 23, he was playing a doctor on TV.

Afterward, he chose carefully. “You
know how the audience wants to see you, (but) you don't want to have
to do the same thing all the time.”

Like Dr. John Carter on “ER,” Tom
Mason on “Falling Skies” is decent and thoughtful. Unlike him,
he's a good shot, a clever strategist and a widowed father of three.

That fatherhood led to the stunning
moment at the end of the first season: Eager to learn what happened
to the son who had temporarily been a prisoner, Tom Mason volunteered
to go on the ship. “It let us explore the character's one big
vulnerability,” Wyle said.

This was not a popular idea with fans –
or a unanimous one on the show. “We were kind of going by the seat
of our pants at the end of the season,” said Wyle, who is one of
the show's producers.

And it set up this season's fresh
contrasts. Mason is haunted by what he saw on the ship – and by
others' questions about why he remained intact.

Throughout it all, Mason is optimistic
that life on Earth can be re-built – just as Noah Wyle's namesake
was. “I always liked the name,” Wyle said.”Except on rainy
days, when people would say,'Hey Noah, when are you going to build
your ark?'”

– “Falling Skies,” 9 p.m.
Sundays, TNT.

– The two-hour opener, June 17,
reruns immediately at 11 p.m.; it also airs from 9:30-11:30 a.m. the
following Sunday, the day of the next episode

 

The new "Dallas": Grandma's favorite is back


The new "Dallas" is back tonight (Wednesday, June 13), with more of everything. It has bigger visuals, bolder plot moves and (at times) a brash excessiveness. Here's the story I sent to papers, followed by a box outlining the show, the characters and the times it airs:

By MIKE HUGHES

Sure, everyone seems to know “Dallas,”
the show that roars back Wednesday. It's just that some people –
including the new stars – know it in an ancient-artifact kind of
way.

It was “my grandma's favorite show,”
said Josh Henderson, who now stars as young John Ross Ewing.

He's 30, born a year after the fuss
about “Who Shot J.R.?” So is Julie Gonzalo,who plays the
sweet-looking fiance of Christopher Ewing, John Ross' cousin.

“My mother used to kick us out of the
room to watch 'Dallas,'” said Gonzalo, who was in Argentina at the
time. “It was in Spanish and it was a huge hit down there.”

It was also big in Panama, where
Jordana Brewster, 32, spent her early years. “It did have a huge
impact on me …. the theme song is so iconic” she said.

Now she's part of the show fourfold:
She's Elena Ramos, a brilliant scientist … and someone who grew up
in the Ewings' Southfork Ranch, where her mom is a housekeeper …
and the former fiance of Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe, 33) … and the
current girlfriend of John Ross.

Yes, the stars from the old days are
back. Larry Hagman, 80, is J.R. Ewing, John Ross dad; Patrick Duffy,
63, is Bobby Ewing, Christopher's adoptive father.

They propelled the original show. Bobby
“was the heart … of the family,” said Brenda Strong, who plays
his new wife. “A lot of people saw him as the pure goodness and the
counterpart to J.R.”

They're back, along with Linda Gray as
Sue Ellen (J.R.'s ex-wife, now a politico) and – briefly –
others. Still, this is not your grandma's (or Henderson's grandma's)
“Dallas.” That's clear in:

– Visuals. The original did much of
its work in Hollywood studios, only occasionally getting to Texas and
the family ranch. The new version uses large-scale shots from the
beginning. “Shooting the show all in Texas now, (we) really embrace
the epic size,” said producer-director Michael Robin.

– The pace. Years' worth of schemes
and twists flash through the first two hours.

– Diversity. This is Brewster's first
chance, in primetime TV, to play the Latina half of her own roots.

– All those young actors, with
Henderson as a prime example: Dallas was where he was born; it was
also where he returned after high school, to audition for the
“Popstars” singing competition .

“For a lot of people in Texas, this
('Dallas') was their favorite show,” he said.

It was also big in Oklahoma, where he
spent much of his childhood with his mother and her family, the
“Dallas” buffs. “I literally would run around the TV and be
told to shut up while they were watching.”

None of that made him think of being an
actor. “I thought I was going to be a baseball player,” he said.

Or a rock star. He studied piano and
guitar; at 19, he auditioned for “Popstars 2” and was one of the
winners. Henderson was one of two men in Scene 23, a five-person
group.

Elsewhere, “Popstars” groups had
No. 1 records – six in England, 10 in Germany. The American
version, however, flopped; the record company went bankrupt and Scene
23's single wasn't released.

Henderson became more famous for his
romances – Ashlee Simpsons for two years, Kaley Cuoco – and his
acting. In Steven Bochco's “Over There” he was Bo Rider, a tough
Texan recovering from war wounds; in “Desperate Housewives,” he
was Austin McCann, Edie Britt's nephew.

Two other “Dallas” people were on
“Housewives.” Metcalfe was the hunky lawn boy, seduced by
Gabrielle; Strong was Mary Alice Young, the dead neighbor who
narrated the show.

Now they're on “Dallas,” which also
has schemes and affairs and such, with a key difference. “The
intensity of ('Dallas') is much greater,” Metcalfe said. “It's a
straight-up drama.”

And it has its bigger-than-life
moments. For Henderson, that has included:

– Being slapped by Hagman, in his
iconic role of J.R. “It was an honor, actually.”

– Filming a scene with two actors
are dwarfed by a giant Texas football stadium. “There's so much power
there. It can make a man feel like a child and put a smile on his
face.”

Looking for the new “Dallas”?
Here's a quick guide:

– First two episodes: 9 p.m. and
10:15 p.m. Wednesday, TNT; rerun at 11:13 p.m. and 12:28 p.m.

– More reruns: They air together at
10:30 and 11:30 p.m. Friday; also, at 11 a.m. and noon Saturday.

– After that: The show settles into
its slot at 9 p.m. Wednesdays, rerunning at 11. The third episode
also airs at 11 p.m. Friday (June 22) and noon Saturday (June 23).

– The original series: Catch it at
video stores or on the Internet; also, on cable's CMT, which, among
other times, has a “Dallas” marathon from noon to 8 p.m.
Thursday, the day after the new show debuts.

– Who's on both: Larry Hagman as J.R.
Ewing, the schemer; Patrick Duffy as his brother Bobby, the good guy;
Linda Gray as J.R.'s ex-wife Sue Ellen, now a political powerhouse.
Also, others briefly.

– Who's new: Key people are:

Josh Henderson as John Ross Ewing, the
manipulative son of J.R. and Sue Ellen.

Jesse Metcalfe as Christopher Ewing,
Bobby's adopted son.

Jordana Brewster as Elena Ramos. She
grew up at the Ewings' ranch, where her mom is a housekeeper. Brainy
and beautiful, Elena is a scientist who almost married Christopher
and now is with John Ross.

Julie Gonzalo as Rebecca Sutter; she's
marrying Christopher, after catching him on the rebound.

Brenda Strong as Ann Ewing. She's
married to Bobby, whose first wife Pam left him (in the original
series) after a disfiguring accident and later married her plastic
surgeon.

 

Sharks and Jersey Shore: How could it miss?


The Saturday Syfy films tend to be fun ... and there will be new ones for four straight weeks.  That starts June 9 with "Jersey Shore Shark Attack," which is pretty close to mandatory viewing. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By MIKE HUGHES

As soon as the title was announced, it
was clear the Syfy Channel would grab attention.

“Jersey Shore Shark Attack”? This
would have everything Syfy savors – taut torsos, cruel creatures,
severed limbs, fountains of blood … and businessmen and politicians
saying everything is fine.

Now the channel goes further: This will
be the first of four straight Saturdays with original movies.

“School's out and people want the fun
stuff,” said Thomas Vitale, Syfy's production chief.

That's a word that pops up a lot. “I
thought it would be a fun kind of idea,” said Jeremy Luke.

He stars in “Shark Attack” as TC
(also known as The Complication), whose girlfriend Nooki is small in
stature and large in hair, breasts and voice. They seem a lot like
the real people from MTV's “Jersey Shore” – except they also
will display nobility and lifesaving heroics.

And that's all part of the Syfy plan.
“We took that B-movie format and updated it,” Vitale said.

The original format flourished more
than a half-century ago, filling double features and drive-in
theaters. Back in the 1950s, Roger Corman produced “Teenage
Caveman,” “Hot Car Girl,” “Attack of the Giant Leaches,”
“The Beast With a Million Eyes” and many more.

Vitale recalls watching some of them as
4:30 p.m. movies on his local TV station. Luke recalls Lloyd
Kaufman's 1988 “Troma's War” as a favorite. “It was so
ridiculous and fun.”

Most nights, Syfy – formerly Sci Fi –
prefers to be serious (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Stargate”) or
slyly whimsical (Eureka, Warehouse 13). On Saturdays – B-movie time
– it gets much looser.

But how loose? Looking at films that
were already completed and being pitched to the network, Vitale saw
some that went too far. He recalls a heroine moaning: “It killed
all my friends and I broke a nail.”

Syfy decided to be involved in
producing films from the start. Yes, it would keep the loose tone and
wild titles. (Lately, Corman, now 86, has supplied “Sharktopus,”
“Dinoshark,” “Supergator” and more; other producers ranged
from “Alien Tornado” to “Zombie Apocalypse.”) Still, it would
insist on:

– Diversity, including gender.
“Jersey Shore Shark Attack” is an exception, but many of the
films have action heroines, strong and decisive.

– Technology. In a cell-phone world,
it's harder for someone to get stranded on a haunted trail. “We
have to make the technology work for us,” Vitale said

– Some sort of explanation. “We
make sure there's at least a pseudo-science involved,” he said.

– And people who make sense in their
own way. “They're consistent as characters,” Vitale said.

That's Luke's part. He can see why
blue-collar Italian-Americans have become TV favorites. “They do
not really care what other people think of them; there's something to
be said for that.”

He's from Staten Island and his friend
Joey Russo is from New Jersey. “We would go to the Jersey shore a
lot,” Luke said, “but the beach was probably the last place we'd
go.”

Back then, he said, the beaches were in
bad shape (“you'd find hypodermic needles”), but the rest
thrived. At 19 and 20, he became a nightclub promoter who studied
acting; in his early 20s, he moved to Los Angeles and got small
roles. He and Russo also made odd videos “about a couple of
morons.”

Now, by coincidence, they're in the
same movie. Luke is T.C., a lusty guy who loves his friends, his abs,
his dad, Nooki and the breezy Jersey Shore culture. Russo is Donnie,
one of those friends.

Then sharks intrude. Soon, they've
taken some friends, a stranger and Joey Fatone of N'Sync. It's time –
in the best B-movie tradition – for hard-bodied Italians to blast
away the killers.

– “Jersey Shore Shark Attack,” 9
p.m. Saturday, Syfy; repeats at 1 a.m.

– First of four straight new movies
on Syfy Saturdays:

– Roger Corman's “Piranhaconda”is
June 16; then Arachnoquake,” June 23; “Big Foot,” June 30,

 

A wild way to find love


No, all reality shows -- even all dating shows -- weren't created equal. Some have been awful, but "Love in the Wild" -- which starts its second season tonight (Tuesday, June 5) -- was quite good last summer. It's even better, now that Jenny McCarthy is the host; here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

Sure, dating looks like fun when you
see it on soap operas and hair-product commercials.

Still, there's a flaw to it. Just ask
Jenny McCarthy, who speaks from what she calls “this wonderful
journey of dating hell I've been on.”

These days, McCarthy hosts NBC's “Love
in the Wild,” which moves romance to the jungles and beaches. In
some ways, she said, that works better than back home, where no one
seems real.

“It takes a long time to kind of
break that fake self,” McCarthy said. “I say you send out 'your
representative' when you first start dating, and that representative
is selling you.”

Such pretenses can vanish on the show
as people start “cliff diving, jumping ropes with snakes, having to
carry tarantulas …. It's like 'Fear Factor' and 'Survivor' all
combined in the same soup.”

Along the way, young singles choose and
un-choose partners. The top two couples from the first season are
still together, McCarthy said; the winners of the second (already
filmed) seem cozy.

McCarthy is sort of an expert on many
issues involving romance and/or sex appeal. She was a Playboy
centerfold at 20, a big stretch for someone from a blue-collar
Catholic family in Chicago. She went on to be Playmate of the Year ….
and has a new photo spread in the edition that comes out June 29,
four months before she turns 40.

She was married for five years to John
Asher, an actor (“Weird Science”) and director (“One Tree
Hill”), then was with Jim Carrey for five years. Lately, she's been
dating Brian Urlacher, the all-pro Chicago Bear linebacker.

During the four weeks of filming
“Love,” however, any romance was on hold. There were words to
memorize. “It's not like I can drag a Teleprompter to the jungle.”

The first season of the show had worked
quite well, but the second brought changes, including:

– Occasional twists. The first
episode, linking strangers, put each woman with two men; after that,
theshow reverts to couples.

– McCarthy taking over as host. “I
wanted to add a little bit more of what I did on 'Singled Out' (her
old MTV show). I kind of messed with them like a big sister would.”

– Prettier settings. The first year
was in the Costa Rican jungle; the second is in the Dominican
Republic, “which is still known for its jungles, but the beaches
there are just breathtaking.”

She lived there for a month with her
son Evan, who is 10 and has shown autism-type symptoms. “Evan fell
in love with the island, I fell in love with the culture and I had a
ball.”

While watching others fall in and out
of love, she avoided romance. “Then I made out with somebody at the
wrap party,” she joked.

Besides, McCarthy said she wouldn't
literally make love in the wild. “I'm a traditional girl. If
there's not a bed there, you're probably not going to get it.”

– “Love
in the Wild,” NBC

10
p.m. Tuesdays, except for the two-hour season-opener at 9 p.m. June 5