This one is a true epic

(Here's a story I just sent to papers, about a terrific mini-series that starts Monday. I'll add to this note later.)


We all know that “Moby Dick” –
the book, the movies, the fictional whale itself – is terribly big
and important. It takes a while, however, to figure out why.

“I started it (Herman Melville's
novel) about three other times and I didn't get it,” William Hurt
said. The next time stuck, he said. “It changed my life.”

Now he's starring in a new mini-series
as Captain Ahab, an epic hero-villain. Playing Starbuck, his first
mate, is Ethan Hawke, another latecomer to the novel. “My wife and
I picked a book to read while we were apart,” he said. He was
finishing it when the “Moby Dick” script arrived; “I took that
as a sign.”

Soon, the men were stepping into epic
roles, in classic settings. Some scenes were filmed on Nova Scotia;
others were on a real ship, near Malta. “The greatest acting I've
ever seen,” Hawke said, was Hurt delivering a seven-page monologue
with precision and passion, while the boat rocked.

Nigel Williams grins semi-sheepishly
about that. He's the one who wrote these near-impossible scenes that
Hurt mastered. “I got very lucky with the casting,” he said.

This was a story well ahead of its
time, Williams said. That started with the fact that the fictional
ship was in a Quaker town in Massachusetts, “one of the few places
where racism was not as endemic.”

And it was “an incredibly modern
novel,” he said. At a time (1851) when most novels focused almost
exclusively on plot, it dug into the characters.

At the center is Ahab, whom Hurt sees
as “a perfect tragic hero, in the way (publisher Rupert) Murdoch
is.” He obsesses on the giant whale that already took his leg.

But the story is also about the people
around him, especially Starbuck. “He really doesn't do the right
thing,” Hawke said. “His inability to stop the inevitable”
fuels the novel.

Some people do try to stop Ahab. His
wife – only referred to in the novel – tries to talk him out of
the voyage, yet realizes she can't. “She knows him so well,” said
Gillian Anderson, who plays her.

That whole subject is fascinating, said
Anderson, who has read about historical “women who are married to
geniuses.” In real life, she said, she was once married to a genius
– she won't specify, but has divorced journalist-producer-activist
Julian Ozama and production designer Clyde Klotz – and finds it
fascinating “what an impact it is, living with such a person.”

For Ahab, the influence ripples across
everyone on board. This is epic drama, often delivered on the ocean.
“Fourteen people were heli-ported out” when they became sick,
Hurt said.

Later, he said, word came that a ship
that had once been docked alongside them in Malta had sunk at sea.
“And that was bigger than ours. That still happens; ships still

In Melville's day, it happened a lot –
especially when a crazed genius was in charge. Ahab's fictional crew
rushed toward a classic destiny and lots of movies and mini-series.

– “Moby Dick,” two-night
mini-series, Encore cable channel

– 8-10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Aug.

– Both parts air together at 10 and
11:40 p.m. Aug. 11; more reruns coming

"Diva": A key episode Sunday

Sunday is a busy day for TV shows, large and small.

The TV column -- press, logically enough, the thing above that says "TV column" -- emphasizes some of the larger show. An OK "Same Name" debuts on CBS ... an exceptional "Castle" reruns on ABC ... a terrific "Falling Skies" is on TNT.

There's more, though, so I've put here a couple of the Sunday stories I sent to papers. The previous blog deals with an interesting guy who hosts "Man Caves"; this one looks at a topical "Drop Dead Diva." Here's the story:


At its core,”Drop Dead Diva” drifts
far from reality.

This is, after all, a show about a
slender beauty who is transported to the body of an overweight
lawyer; that rarely happens in real life. Still, Sunday's episode
blends fact and fiction with:

– The story, dealing with a lesbian
couple barred from attending the prom. “It's based on the famous
Constance McMillen case from Mississippi,” said Devon Sanceda, a
“Diva” spokeswoman.

– The timing. The episode airs
Sunday, the day when gay marriages begin in New York.

– The casting. This hour includes
several people – singers Clay Aiken and Lance Bass, comedian Wanda
Sykes, actress Amanda Bearse – who are openly gay.

Most of them are in other story lines,
unrelated to the prom issue. Still, Aiken sees a symbolic value in
being there. These are “people who are living happy lives and are
very comfortable with themselves.”

Bass took the McMillen story
personally. “I am from Mississippi, where this happened,” he
said. McMillen “kind of spiked a whole revolution down in the

Aiken isn't ready to brand it as a
regional issue. “It's not a Southern thing,” he said, by phone
from his home near Raleigh, N.C. “I know plenty of people here who
are open-minded.”

He grew up in the Raleigh area and
faced abuse, little of it was because people thought he was gay.

“I was bullied all the time in high
school for plenty of reasons,” Aiken said. “I was picked on for
being a nerd, for being skinny, for being awkward.” Unless he's
blocked the memory, however, there were only one or two times when
anyone threw gay phrases at him.

All of that was submerged. Aiken once
an estimate that 10 per cent of people are gay. He brought out his
old yearbook and stared at 350 classmates; “I could not find one”
gay person.

He took a girl to the prom and his
coming-out was much later – at 25 to his mother, at 29 (after the
birth of the baby he fathered via in vitro fertilization) to the rest
of the world.

Now he admires people who stand up
early for their rights. “Teen-agers are being persecuted for
something as silly as who they want to go to a dance with.”

McMillen is a strong focal point for
the issue, Bass said. “She's a great girl … and she's a wonderful
speaker …. With Constance kind of being the whistleblower, everyone
really has jumped on board.”

And this may be a logical show to tell
the story. “The heart of 'Drop Dead Diva' is about identity,”
said producer Josh Berman. “We have a woman who grew up feeling
entitled, a size zero, beautiful, never having many challenges. (Now)
she's in a new body and suddenly not getting all the attention.”

She's starting to understand the effect
of identity. Now she sees how that affects a teen's life.

– “Drop Dead Diva,”
9 p.m. Sundays, Lifetime, rerunning at midnight

The prom episode airs
July 24


A do-it-yourself life -- from the wilderness to New York stardom

Anyone who thinks America is overcrowded should visit some of my haunts -- the northern parts of Michigan and Wisconsinh. Which brings me to this story of cable star Jason Cameron -- who grew up in a Republic, a town of 614 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

I've never been there, but I've been to nearby Amasa, a tiny place I liked instantly because: 1) It has a Packer bar; and 2) It's where my grandparents (a miner and a teacher) met, back when Amasa still had a school and mines.

Now it's a pleasure to see someone go from that sort of distant place to cable stardom. Here's the story I sent to papers:



Jason Cameron is living an overcrowded,
urban-style life.

He hosts two cable shows, one of which
(“Man Caves”) has its 100th episode Sunday. He's a
fitness trainer and a speaker who travels the country, but lives near
New York City.

“There's so much energy in New York,”
Cameron said. “It just draws you in.”

And it's the opposite of his roots.
Cameron sometimes tells New Yorkers about life in Michigan's Upper
Peninsula. “In most towns, you have a gas station and a grocery
store and a post office and 15 bars.”

That last part is an exaggeration, but
Upper Peninsula bars are important social centers. “When you've got
nine months of winter, you need them.”

He grew up in Republic (population 614
people), which is near … well, smaller places. The Camerons had
moved there from Toledo, partly because of his childhood asthma;
soon, they were in a place with few people and much firewood; the
three boys would cut and haul enough to heat the home all winter.

“Living up there really does mold
you,” Cameron said. “You get a work ethic and responsibility.”

So much so that when the family moved
to Fort Dodge, Kansas, he became a 13-year-old entrepreneur, cleaning
windows for several stores. About 18 months later, after their
parents divorced, the boys retreated with their mom to Republic.
That's where Cameron did high school in a graduating class of 20, too
small for any sports except basketball. Then came Northern Michigan
University (with a criminal justice degree) and college-town work in
a flooring store.

The rest happened by accident, he says
– a modeling search, a few jobs as a fitness model and an actor, a
lead-carpenter job on “While You Were Out” and then steady work
on the DIY (short for Do It Yourself) cable network. “I like DIY
because they know who they are.”

Now he races between jobs and the
Hoboken, N.J., condo he shares with his wife, who is in New York
finance. Life is too busy, he said, but “it's another honeymoon,
whenever you get home.”'

Cameron hosts “Desperate Landscapes”
and “Man Caves,” a show that fashions rooms for guys. The latter
tends to follow expectations; “we're pretty simple, actually,”
Cameron said of men.

There are always exceptions –
including the guy who wanted a design that emphasized air rifles –
but most men want a sports feel. Tucked away in suburbia, many want a
room that feels like the hunting cabins Cameron knew as a kid.

– “Man Caves,” 8 p.m. Sundays,
DIY, rerunning at 3 a.m.; the 100th episode is July 24

– Also July 24 on DIY, “Desperate
Landscapes” episodes from 1-3:30 p.m.; the show reruns often


Ousted from "Dance": Fun, frustration, friendship and (almost) Gaga

It was disappointing to see Mitchell Kelly ousted Thursday from "So You Think You Can Dance." In his solos, especially, he almost matched the magnificence of Danny Tidwell, years ago. Here's the story I sent to papers, after interviewing him and Clarice Ordaz today:



After being dumped from a reality show,
young dancers and singers often insist they have no regrets.

Well, Mitchell Kelly granted today
that he has one regret: “I really wanted to see Lady Gaga.”

He missed that by a week on “So You
Think You Can Dance.” Gaga will be a guest judge Wednesday (along
with Oscar-nominated “Chicago” director Rob Marshall) and will
perform Thursday.

This week, Kelly, 20, faced Neil
Patrick Harris, who resisted the feel-good style of most guest
judges. On Wednesday, Harris said he just didn't get the Broadway
number that Tyce Diorio had choreographed for Kelly.

Viewers promptly put Kelly in the
bottom two, alongside his friend Ricky Jaime. (“He's like a little
brother of mine …. I want to see him soar,” Kelly said.) On
Thursday, judges sent Kelly home.

That means no Gaga for him, but the
timing was perfect otherwise: By making the top 10, he and Clarice
Ordaz, 19 had already landed spots on the show's tour.

“I feel bad that for two weeks, we
won't be able to get up and just rehearse every day,” Ordaz said.
But then “we'll all be back to rehearse for the finale” and the

Dance has filled up most of her 19
years. She started at age 2 in Whittier, Cal., and says, “I grew up
in a studio.” Along the way, she learned every style, from ballet
to hip hop.

Well, almost every style. She had never
done Bollywood dance until “Dance” – first in a group number
and this week in a duet. “I was really nervous that Bollywood
wouldn't be as popular,” she said.

It seemed to be popular with the studio
audience and the judges, but not with the voters. Ordaz was in the
bottom two with Jordan Casanova; the judges sent her home.

That's a problem, Ordaz said. “The
more out-of-the-box styles are harder to pull through for viewers.”

Kelly agreed. “Everyone loves
hip-hop, jazz (and) contemporary, but the others just have them
saying 'OK.'” That includes his style this week: “Broadway is a
really hard genre; it's not all leaps and jumps.”

Originally from Chicago and now in
Atlanta, Kelly didn't start lessons until he was 15. His inspiration?

“Basically, children. You look at children dancing around and …
having a great time.”

Kelly reflects that sense of joy – so
much so that judges criticized his smiles during Wednesday's
performance. “I am very happy,” he said. He's just not happy
about missing Gaga.

– “So You Think You Can Dance,”

– 8-10 p.m. Wednesdays: Dancers
(eight remain) each solo and duet with an “all-star”; viewers

– 8-9 p.m. Thursdays: Bottom two men
and bottom two women solo again; judges oust one of each


"Zen" and the art of mystery maintenance

A new "Masterpiece Mystery" character is arriving, bringing mixed blessings. The "Zen" stories are mixed -- excellent on July 17, impenetrable a week later -- but the settings and characters are terrific. Here's the story I sent to papers.


For most of its three decades,”Mystery”
was geographically limited.

Englishmen kept killing each other.
More English folks (with occasional exceptions) caught them.

Lately, however, that has spread out.
First were the “Wallander” mysteries, with Swedish characters,
settings and attitudes; now “Zen” takes the same approach in

Aurelio Zen is a cop with a reputation
for honesty. “I don't think he's particularly honest,” said
Rupert Sewell, who plays him. “I think he's ... perfectly capable
of kicking a man when he's down.”

Still, he's better than his colleagues
on Rome's police force. Vincenzo Fabri, for instance, “has no
redeeming features whatsoever,” said Ed Stoppard, who plays him.

Zen is a decent chap in a tricky
system. “He never makes the right political decision,” Sewell

In the opener, one boss tells him the
suspect must be found guilty; a higher-up secretly tells him the same
suspect must be found innocent. Then – on a wholly different matter
– there's an ex-con who wants to kill Zen … and an office beauty
(played by Caterina Murino) who wants to love him.

“He's always in a bad situation,”
Sewell said. “He's always one step behind.”

It was a tough role, he said, modified
by the fact that he was working in a gorgeous place. “Just to …
walk back through Rome at the end of the evening was one of the great

For Stoppard, who usually plays good
guys, this was a fresh experience. “It was really good fun to just
sort of spend my day either leering at Caterina or sneering at
Rufus,” he said.

The two men have one important person
in common. That's Tom Stoppard, Ed's father, an acclaimed writer who
has won Tonys for four of his plays and an Oscar for “Shakespeare
in Love.”

Sewell has been in many of those plays.
“Rufus has been (my father's) surrogate son for about the last 20
years,” Ed Stoppard quipped. “I'm working through a lot of
issues, actually.”

Indeed, he says it was seeing Sewell in
his father's “Arcadia” that made him realize he wanted to be an
actor. His mother – Miriam Stoppard, a physician, author and member
of the Order of the British Empire – was not happy about this; his
father had mixed feelings.

“He'd spent most of his adult life
auditioning very, very good actors (who gave) very, very good
auditions and watching them walk out of the room without the job,”
Ed Stoppard said.

Now his son has joinied that
overcrowded field – and is getting hired. This season, he's been in
all three “Masterpiece” strands – Contemporary (“Any Human
Heart”), Classic (starring in “Upstairs, Downstairs”) and now
“Mystery,” as one of the creeps who makes Zen seem noble by

– “Zen,” on “Masterpiece

– 9-10:30 p.m. Sundays, July 17, 24
and 31 (check local listings)