Gulf-TV; it's a great week


The twin Gulf disasters -- Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill -- were made-for-television events. They were on a human scale, on ground level, happening to real-life, blue-collar, average-Joe people. That helps explain why this is such a great week for TV.

The previous blog includes a full list (Aug. 22-29) and a story, interviewing Spike Lee and some Gulf people. (Some of these have already aired now, but Lee's wonderful documentary reruns from 7-11 p.m. Friday on HBO.) Since posting that, I've had a chance to see a couple of the things listed; a few comments:

-- "Frontline" airs from 9-10 p.m. Wednesday on most PBS stations. (Lansing viewers, alas, will have to wait until October to see this one, because WKAR has classical Wednesdays in the summer; the only solace I can offer is that Renee Fleming is luminous in the opera show that night.) It singles out one wretched case in which New Orleans police apparently let a man die, then burned the evidence. It also views the effect of rumor and fear: In the days following Katrina, the mayor, police chief and deputy chief spread rumors that turned out to be false. Some cops felt, incorrectly, that martial law had been declared.

-- "Forgotten on the Bayou" soars on the wondrous personality of Rockey Vaccarella. This is a 2007 documentary that airs from 8-10 p.m. Friday on the Weather Channel. It follows Vaccarella's quixotic attempt to take a FEMA trailer to Washington, D.C., and dine there with George W. Bush. In other hands, this might have been silly; with Rockey, it becomes a mad mixture of optimism, idealism and buoyant humanity. It typifies the best in Gulf coverage. 

Katrina coverage keeps growing ... and then growing some more




As the Katrina anniversary nears, TV's
coverage keeps growing – and then growing some more.

I sent a preview story – included
here – which some papers have already run. During that time:

– The list of TV and cable coverage
kept growing. I'll include the updated, expanded list here.

– And I just had a chance to see a
splendid example. “Forgotten on the Bayou” – following one
man's quixotic effort to take his story from New Orleans to the White
House – is fascinating. Definitely catch it, at 8 p.m. Friday (Aug.
29), the fifth anniversary of the day Katrina touched land in the
Gulf.

Anyway, I'll put both here -- first the expanded TV list, then the story:

(Here's the list, chronologically)

– “Hurricane Katrina: The First
Five Days,” 7-8 p.m. Aug. 22, on NBC's “Dateline.”

– “In America: New Orleans Rises”
vuews actor Wendell Pierce (“Treme”), who is working on the
rebuilding of his New Orleans neighborhood; 8 and 11 p.m. Aug. 22,
CNN.

– “Storm Stories” has “Katrina:
Animals” at 8 p.m. Aug. 22 on the Weather Channel, followed by
“Katrina: Dolphins” at 9:30.

– “If God is Willing and Da Creek
Don't Rise,” Spike Lee's superb two-parter; 9 p.m. Aug. 23-24, HBO.

– “Witness Katrina,” a raw film
assembled from homevideos; 9-11 p.m. Aug. 23, National Geographic.

– “Storm Stories” has “Ride It
Out,” a look at people who stayed in New Orleans during Katrina, at
8 p.m. Aug. 23 on the Weather Channel. That's followed at 8:30 by “In
His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina.”

– “Frontline” probes the New
Orleans police; 9 p.m. Aug. 25, PBS (check local listings).

– “Anderson Cooper 360” has a
three-day stay in New Orleans, 10 p.m. Aug. 25-27, CNN.

– “Katrina: Where Things Stand”
begins at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 26 on the ABC News, with Bob Woodruff
reporting. It continues the next morning on “Good Morning America,”
which Robin Roberts – who grew up in that area – hosts from Pass
Christian, Miss.

– Brian Williams anchors the NBC news
from New Orleans, Aug. 26-30. He also anchors a “Meet the Press”
there, Aug. 29.

– Rachel Maddow anchors hosts her
show from New Orleans, 9 p.m. Aug. 26-27 on MSNBC, which anchors its
daytime coverage there, Aug. 27-29.

– CBS anchors its morning shows in
New Orleans, Aug. 27-29; also, Russ Mitchell hosts the evening news
there, Aug. 29.

– “The Gulf is Back,” 8 p.m. Aug.
27, CW. Highlights of a concert with Lonestar, Ricky Skaggs, Terri
Clark, Brian McKnight and “American Idol” alumni Taylor Hicks, Bo
Bice and Ace Young.

– The Weather Channel has live
reports from Jim Cantore and Mike Bettes, Aug. 27-29. Also, the
channel debuts “Forgotten on the Bayou,” a stirring, 2007
documentary, at 8 p.m. Aug. 27.

– “Dr. Sanjay Gupta,” revisits
the now-closed Charity Hospital; 7:30 a.m. Aug. 28-29, CNN.

– “Brian Williams Reports: A Return
to New Orleans,” 10 p.m. Sept. 10, MSNBC.

– Two documentaries view the oil
spill aftermath; Sept. 28, National Geographic

.

(Now here's the story)

By MIKE HUGHES

LOS ANGELES – Like any good
storyteller, Spike Lee was searching for a strong ending.

He figured he had one for his HBO
documentary, marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina: The
New Orleans Saints would win the Super Bowl.

“The Saints were going to win that
game,” Lee said. “We knew it; the Saints knew it.”

They did and the parties started, with
cameras rolling. “We thought we'd filmed the ending,” Lee said.

Ten weeks later, the British Petroleum
oil spill brought new chaos. Now that spill flows through some of the
documentaries on cable and broadcast.

“We went from Katrina to the
recession to the oil spill,” said Cheryl York, whose videotapes
(from Gulfport, Miss.) are included in National Geographic's “Witness
Katrina.”

Others felt that same frustration.

The Super Bowl was definitely sweet,
said Eric Tiser, a Louisiana fisherman who will be featured in a
National Geographic Channel special next month. “My friends and I
partied for a month.”

When he talked to reporters recently,
he happened to be wearing the Saints jersey of Jeremy Shockey. He had
three more Saint jerseys at home; “I'm still proud of them,” he
said of the Saints.

But that win no longer offers a happy
ending for any of the films. “We had to rethink everything,” Lee
said. “(We) made another seven trips down to New Orleans.”

His first Katrina documentary –
which won three Emmys and a Peabody Award – eyed government
inaction. His new one rages at New Orleans actions that have closed
Charity Hospital and the housing projects. “I think the plan was to
get these poor black people out of the city,” Lee said. “People
are still in exile who want to come back.”

He also fumes about failures of the New
Orleans levees and the British Petroleum containment system.

“The connective tissue is greed,”
Lee insisted. “(The) Corps of Engineers cut corners in the
construction of the levee system …. It was greed again that reared
its ugly head with BP.”

The twin disasters battered fishermen
like Tiser, an American Indian (with Houma roots). His home was
destroyed by Katrina, he said; his job was destroyed by the oil
spill.

Desperate for work, he tried to be
hired by BP for the clean-up. “We'd go down there and wait in front
of the building …. And it would just be so hot. We'd be soaking
wet, waiting, trying to get a job. And they said they would hire us,
but we never got hired.”

Kindra Arnesen (also featured in the
September film) said her husband was hired, but many others in
Venice, La., weren't. “At least 50 per cent of our fishermen have
not worked one day, while people from all over the United States have
been allowed to come in and work.”

That has shattered Venice, a Gulf Coast
town on Mississippi River, Tiser said. “We got about 5,000 people
in our community. Now we got about 40-, 50,000 people in and out ….
It's not home no more.”

Arnesen said she kept pushing BP to
hire Tiser and others. “I brought them list after list of locals.”

Outsiders were hired and the local
economy sputtered, she said. “What's become a windfall for (some)
people … has become a community divider. Half of our community is
working; the other half is not.”

The Kids are back; it's comedy time


Cable-TV keeps filling in the edges, giving us things that big networks overlook. And now it bringa the Kids in the Hall back to American TV.

"Death Comes to Town" is inconsistent, but the parts that work are wonderful. And the notion of a comedy mini-series -- eight half-hours over four Fridays -- lets the humor build.

If you get the Independent Film Channel (via satellite or digital cable), you're in luck. If not, you'll have to check the videostores; anyway, here's the story I sent to papers:



By MIKE HUGHES

For decades, The Kids in the Hall were
masters of short-burst comedy.

They did sketches on stage, on HBO and
beyond. They did one movie and zillions of short bits.

Now, after 26 years, they have
something larger, an eight-week comedy mini-series. “Death Comes to
Town” is on the Independent Film Channel (via satellite or digital
cable) and at video stores.

The notion started, Bruce McCulloch
said, when a single image popped into his head – “Death getting
off a Greyhound bus in a small, hick town.”

He talked up the idea when the group
was on tour in 2008. Last summer, everyone was available.

That included Scott Thompson, who was
wedging this between successful treatments for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
“I finished the chemotherapy, then did the series and then went
into radiation,” he said.

In between, the Kids – now ages 47 to
51 – had their adventure in fairly big-scale filming.

The idea was to use a real town as the
backdrop for their fictional one. It was a chance, McCulloch said,
“to make the biggest-looking show for the least amount of money.
You can have the old hospital for $500, as a location. (You) could
phone the fire department and say, 'We need a fire truck.'”

They chose North Bay, a northern
Ontario city that has 54,000 people and little commotion. “They had
never had a traffic jam before,” Dave Foley said.

The calm atmosphere fit the Kids, who
grew up watching British sketches, American sitcoms and Canadian
people. “There's a certain English sensibility,” McCulloch said.
“But we're also outsiders.”

He's from the furthest outside, born in
Edmonton. It was in Calgary – at the Loose Moose Theatre Company –
that he met Mark McKinney, a diplomat's son who had grown up around
the world. They did sketch comedy, then moved to Toronto, where Foley
and Kevin McDonald had created an early version of Kids; the two duos
merged.

A “long period of failure”
followed, McDonald said. The guys started doing all the female roles,
because they couldn't afford to hire actresses.

Actually, McCulloch said, the group was
doing fine by comedy-club standards. “We got quite successful,
doing sold-out shows.”

The big step, he said, was when Scott
Thompson became the fifth Kid, bringing a fresh bundle of gay and
straight characters. “Scott came in and added a lot of characters
...He loves to perform.”

This was the quintet Lorne Michaels –
a Canadian and the “Saturday Night Live” boss – discovered.

“Lorne waas obviously pivotal in our
career … He had the option of breaking the troupe up and picking
people off for 'Saturday Night Live,'” Foley said. “(Instead,) he
chose to create a show.”

The Kids spent six years on HBO and
late-night CBS. Afterward, they began finding individual work.

“SNL” had two seasons with McKinney
as an actor and McCulloch as a writer-filmmaker. Other work ranged
from Foley starring in “NewsRadio” to McCulloch directing movies
and creating a series.

That was “Carpoolers” an ABC show
molded in the American style. “You've got a room full of writers,”
McCulloch said. This series avoided that; “we got to do eight
episodes and write them all.”

And they could make instant changes,
without getting studio approval. Doing “Death” was more fun –
illness and all – than doing “Brain Candy,” Thompson said. “It
was tougher to fight Paramount … At least with cancer, you can
win.”

– “Death Comes to Town”

– 10 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays, starting
Aug. 20.

– Independent Film Channel, generally
via satellite or digital cable; also via CBC Home Video

 

 

 

OK, it's TV time again: Laura Linney stars


OK, it's time to get back to my natural state, talking television.

The three previous blogs dealt with the Great Lakes Folk Festival. (Please read them; the event was fun, fascinating and occasionally frustrating.) But now it's TV time.

The fall season is still more than a month away, but cable fills in all gaps. Tonight (Monday), ABC Family has the season's second-to-last "Huge," one of the summer's best shows. At the same time, Showtime starts the new season of "Weeds" and introduces what may be its best series, Laura Linney's "The Big C."

For details, click "TV column" above. Meanwhile, here's the story I sent to papers, about Linney and her show:



By MIKE HUGHES

The Showtime network finds its fun in
dark places.

It's had series about a serial killer
(“Dexter”), a wives-killer (“Tudors”), a drug-dealer
(“Weeds”) and a drug-abuser (“Nurse Jackie”). Clearly, it was
ready for a cancer comedy,

“I didn't know anybody battling
cancer who wasn't doing it with a sense of humor,” said Darlene
Hunt, who created “The Big C.”

That includes Jenny Bicks, who is a
comedy writer (all six seasons of “Sex and the City”), a “Big
C” producer and a cancer survivor. “I didn't tell everybody”
about the cancer, Bicks said. “I bought a Porsche. I did things I
wouldn't have normally done.”

That's the approach taken by Cathy,
this show's central character, who sees her diagnosis as a signal to
change everything. She “doesn't really know who she is,” said
Laura Linney, who plays her. “She has the opportunity to find out
and she's going to take it.”

She tells no one and changes her
relationship with everyone. That includes her teen-aged son, her
homeless brother, her grumpy neighbor and her husband, who is stunned
by this.

“Emotional maturity might not be the
top line of his resume,” said Oliver Platt, who plays him.

He's had Cathy to take care of him. Now
she's thrown him out and cares for herself in whimsical ways.

A teacher, she also tries to help a
student, Andrea – played by Gabourey Sidibe, who understands this
notion of a life suddenly transformed.

“I thought I would be a
receptionist,” Sidibe said. “I'm always middle-of-the-lane, very
normal. I've always wanted a normal life – and this is what I got.”

She had grown up in New York, the
daughter of a Senegalese taxi driver and a street singer (Alice Tan
Ridley) who happens to be a semi-finalist in this summer's “America's
Got Talent.” She worked, studied psychology at Mercy College and
(except for school plays) ignored show business.

Then she auditioned for “Precious,”
landed the title role and received an Academy Award nomination.
Suddenly, at 27, she's alongside the best in the business.

That includes Linney, who has three
each of nominations for Oscars, Tonys and Emmys. She didn't win the
others, but won an Emmy each time – for “John Adams,” “Wild
Iris” and a “Frasier” guest role.

“Some of the happiest experiences
I've ever had” were for TV, said Linney, 46. “'Tales of the
City' and 'John Adams' – I deeply love those projects. It's fast;
it's furious.”

This subject was a natural for Linney,
whose mother was a nurse at Sloan-Kettering, a New York hospital
known for cancer treatment. “What hit me the most was the theme of
time and what do you do with time, what are the choices that we
make.”

Linney became one of the show's five
executive producers. She insisted on filming on the East Coast, where
she lives and where there's a rich pool of character actors. She
personally talked Liam Neeson into doing an episode, as an
alternative-medicine doctor.

And she threw herself into the acting –
surprising herself at one point.

“I'm fairly contained when I'm
working, … but something hit me in that scene and I just started to
(cry). It was a scene that had so much life and had such vim and
vigor and vivacity and great humor.”

At the core of that fun was the
prospect of death. That's a Showtime sort of series.

– “The Big C”

– 10:30 p.m. Mondays, Showtime

– Debuts Aug. 16, after the 10 p.m.
season-opener of “Weeds”

 

 

 

Folk fest fun


"How many of you have never been to one of my shows," Doyle Lawson asked the Great Lakes Folk Festival audience.

Many hands, including mine, went up. Lawson paused before drawling his conclusion: "You people really should get out more."

He's right, you know. Lawson, 66, has been performing professionally for almost a half-century. He's had his own group for 31 years; for six straight years, it won the bluegrass award for best vocal group. By all logic, we should have heard him before.

Many people haven't, though. That evening was the first time Pat Egan -- the gifted singer-guitarist for the Irish trio Chulrua -- heard him. The next day, Egan was at a singing workshop, alongside Lawson and the rest of his vocal quartet. His conclusion: "Hearing that sound ... was a religious experience."

It pretty much was. The Lawson quartet sang beautifully; so did Egan. It was a fine near-conclusion to what was -- despite the unfortunate loss of the Valley Court Park concerts -- a dandy event.

(This blog, and the two previous ones, are about the festival in East Lansing, Mich.; after this, I'll be back to my natural habitat of TV.)

Here are a few random notes:

1) My second-favorite sticker, on the bumper-sticker car: "If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve."

2) My favorite sticker (paraphrased): "Join the army, go to exotic places, meet interesting people, then kill them."

3) My two favorite jokes both flirted with being politically incorrect. My second-favorite was from Paddy O'Brien of Chulrua: When Jesus turned water into wine, the party was a great success. The next morning, Joseph had a hangover. He called down: "Mary, I've got a terrible thirst. Could you bring up some water? And don't let the young lad near it."

4) My favorite was from Lawson. It seems that a guy was depressed and called the suicide hotline. It ended up at one of those Pakistani call centers. The caller said he was feeling suicidal. The call-center guy on the other end got excited and asked if he could drive a truck.

5) Life isn't fair department: At one workshop, Ed Klancnik played the banjo well. He was asked about the extent of his banjo education. "One lesson, one hour," he replied. Next to him, an Iranian musician played a banjo-like instrument beautifully. The emcee asked if he had any music education. Yes -- grade school and high school and music college and grad school and ...

6) One of the festival highlights emerged from the audience. Mariachi Perla de Mexico was performing in its usual way -- a bit too much grandstanding, but incredibly good vocals and instrumentals. Then Marlez Gonzalez -- the spelling and such is approximate -- asked to sing one song. She was sensational. That's not something you expect from your random Michigan State University student, especially one with a 3.7 grade point average. Still, Marlez -- who grew up in East Lansing -- is also a professional mariachi performer, just like her brother and sister. It was a great moment.

7) Some musicians simply picked up the music from their parents and grandparents. Others had much further to go: O'Brien told a long story of the time a peddler came to his home, with all sorts of things -- including an old instrument. He begged his mom to buy it; a music career began. His fiddler, Patrick Ourceau, was a young adult before discovering Irish music. He soon was taking marathon two-day trips by bus and ferryboat, to the countryside of Ireland.

8) And yes, that thoroughly Irish trio has a fiddler named Ourceau, who speaks French as his native tongue -- and speaks English with a rich Irish brogue. Also, Klancnik's Slovenian polka band has an accordian player who's an Irishman (partly) named O'Berry. You meet some surprising people at a folk fest. Maybe next year I'll see you there ... and maybe next year, it will be much better, with a return to Valley Court Park.