Henry Ford: A life of fierce contrasts

Lots of lists came out last month, offering TV's 10 best shows. They had the usual suspects -- cable dramas, mostly, plus (on the wiser lists)  "Big Bang Theory." What they overlooked, however, were three PBS shows that are consistently top-quality -- "American Masters," "Frontline" and "American Exprience."

Now "Experience" is off to a great start. Its good, three-part "The Abolitionists" is followed by two really great documentaries -- "Henry Ford" on Tuesday (Jan. 29) and "Silicon Valley" a week later. Here's the story I sent to papers about the Ford film:


A swirling life was summed up
concisely: “There's no such thing as not-fascinating in Henry
Ford,” biographer Douglas Brinkley said.

That becomes clear in an “American
Experience” portrait on PBS. “He was kind and generous at times,”
filmmaker Sarah Colt said. “But then he could be cruel. He was a
complicated person.”

Here was someone who retained the
values of growing up on a Michigan farm. “He could live with Clara,
his wife, in a small quarter and be just as happy as to have had a
huge mansion,” Brinkley said.

Ford was a tinkerer, Brinkley said,
toying with watches as a kid and vehicles as a young man. “He was
known as Crazy Henry, because he had his contraption … and it was
scaring all the horses.”

He was working on something, Colt said,
that others thought was a luxury. “The automobile was considered a
plaything, like yachts.” Instead, this small, mass-produced car
could be bought by the working man – including Ford employees, who
received a then-impressive $5 a day.

At a time when many places were
segregated, Brinkley said, the Ford factory was integrated. “Detroit
today is heavily African-American, because (of) Henry Ford …. If
you listen to old blues songs from the 1920s, they'll say, 'I'm going
up to the promised land and work for Henry Ford (for) $5 a day.'”

Other minorities prospered in his home
town, Brinkley said.. “Dearborn today is like 90 percent Arab
because Henry Ford paid all of the Arabs, particularly people from
Persia or Lebanon, equal wage.”

And for a time, Colt said, Ford seemed
to work well with everyone. “It would have been absolutely so
exciting and stimulating to have been in Henry Ford's creative team
in those early years.”

Then came the dark side. “Like
everyone else starting a business, he's beholden to his investors,”
said Mark Samels, the “American Experience” chief. “He has some
very rough run-ins. (That) sets off a lifelong anger and resentment
toward anybody controlling him …. And he starts to generalize

Like Walt Disney, Ford disliked
bankers; unlike Disney, he turned that into anti-Semitism.

“Here was a guy who was a genius at
machinery,” Brinkley said, “and suddenly, we're asking his
opinion on world events … and he was an ignoramus about it, a
bizarre ignoramus … He bought the Dearborn Independent and was
starting to promote the worst kind of anti-Semitism.”

Ford considered himself an expert on
everything, including how his workers should live. .This was,
Brinkley said, “a warped version of the Puritan work ethic ….
You're not allowed frills. You're not allowed to have … alcohol or
tobacco …. He became a bit of a scold.”

This was, Colt said, “what happens to
somebody when they sort of gain too much power and control.”

When executives started a project on
their own, he smashed a prototype and dumped the idea. When his son
started construction of a building, Ford halted it … and kept the
hole in the ground, as a reminder.

Gradually, Ford retreated. “He spent
a lot of his later decades trying to (go) back to a rustic, rural
beginning,” Brinkley said. “The only time he went to Congress was
to testify on behalf of birds.”

After spurring an industrialized world,
he re-created the past with Greenfield Village.

“Ford would buy Stephen Foster's home
and move it there,” Brinkley said. “Or a laboratory of Edison or
the Wright Brothers' (bike shop). So he created this kind of
Disney-like village of history.”

That's still thriving in Dearborn,
nestled alongside the Henry Ford Museum, which ranges from early
gadgets to symbols (including Rosa Parks' bus) of the civil rights
era. Combine them, add some nasty edges, and you have the life of a
man who was never not-fascinating.

– “American Experience: Henry
Ford,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 29), most PBS stations


Mama knows best: The making of a scare master

If you missed the taut debut of Fox's "The Following" on Monday, don't fret. That episode reruns tonight (Friday, Jan. 25, 10 p.m.). The second episode runs twice next week ... then the first two get a cable rerun on Feb. 8.

The show is worth catching, despite moments of wretched, gory excess. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Some moms might take their kids to
Candyland, Disneyland and other comfy lands.

Kevin Williamson's mom took him to the
world of tell-tale hearts, gouged eyes and a creepy raven. She
introduced him to Edgar Allan Poe and new possibilities.

“My mother wanted to be a writer,”
Williamson said. “She gave me a typewriter when I was 10.”

Eventually, he would write scary things
– four “Scream” films, more movies, the “Vampire Diaries”
series …. and now Fox's “The Following,” with its reverence for
fright, gore and Poe.

This surprises people, including its
star. Kevin Bacon says he “thought it was going to be on cable ….
Given the fast-paced, kind of heart-pounding nature ot it, it still
had a lot of great heart.” It has:

– Ryan Hardy (Bacon), a former FBI
agent who crumbled after catching a serial killer.

– Joe Carroll, the killer. He's been
an author, a professor and a charmer; now followers do his bidding.
They “don't need the slightest bit of convincing,” said James
Purefoy, who plays him. “He offers them a … safe place to enact
the things that they want to do.”

– The key women in Carroll's life.
There's his ex-wife (Natalie Zea) and the young follower who spent
two years, under a false identity, as their son's nanny, then
kidnapped him.

The latter role went to Valorie Curry,
who came to auditions with a look – round face, pixie-ish haircut –
that was downright angelic. “Angel of death,” Williamson recalls

And by the second episode, he had her
perform a startling murder, quickly and calmly. “The utter calm
after the act is done – that's the surprise to me,” Curry said.

Such moments seem to leap from
Williamson's mind. He can write teen angst (“Dawson's Creek”) and
what Bacon calls “almost sentimentality,” but he also does
horror, something he was prepared for.

Williamson spent his early years in
Texas and his teens in North Carolina. When he was about12, however,
he had a key year in Virginia.

“My mom took me to Richmond …. Poe
had lived there for a brief period and there was a museum of his
home,” he said. “I remember … they had 'The Raven' written on
the wall. They had these walls of red and it felt like blood …. I
just remember that being the most magical day of my life.”

She soon bought him Poe's collected
works, but he had plenty of access to other stories.

“I was reading every book she was
reading, while she was reading it,” Williamson said. “I would
wait for her to go cook in the kitchen, so I could grab the book and
read a couple of chapters.”

When he was about 10, he was reading
the “Jaws” novel. “The teacher took it away from me (and)
called my mother up and it was a big ordeal. And my mother was like,
'Yeah,I gave it to him.'”

Now “Following” has Poe masks and
Poe's words scrawled on walls and more. Many of the episodes had
already been filmed when news came of the Sandy Hook school

“We were all traumatized by it,”
Williamson said. “It reaches a moment where that just gets too

Still, “The Following” is basically
unchanged. “Some moments, … you have to kind of look away,”
Williamson said. “But it's not the sum of the show. There's also
drama and emotion.” There are all the things that rippled through
Poe at his best and at his nastiest.

– “The Following,” 9 p.m.
Mondays, Fox; debuted Jan. 21.

– Fox scheduled reruns of the first
two episodes for 9 p.m. Fridays, Jan. 25 and Feb. 1; those two
episodes also run at 10 and 11 p.m. Feb. 8 on cable's FX.


"Carrie Diaries": There was fun before sex (and before the city)

Let's forgive 1984 for trickle-down economics, cocaine, "Hawaiian Heat," "Partners in Crime," lingering disco music and "Finder of Lost Loves." It was still a time for optimism; and CW's "The Carrie Diaries" is an entertaining show.

"Diaries" introduces Carrie Bradshaw in '84, when she was merely dreaming of sex and the city. The second episode (rerunning at 9 p.m. Friday, Jan.25) and the third (8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28, rerunning that Friday) are flawed but fun. Here's the story I sent to papers:


After six seasons, seven Emmys and two
movies, people figured they knew Carrie Bradshow.

She's smart, sexy, stylish. In HBO's
“Sex and the City,” she had long-time friends, short-time affairs
and a mastery of Manhattan.

But now CW's new “Carrie Diaries”
shows us a much earlier time. “I wanted to meet her before she had
sex, before she fell in love and before she met Manhattan,” said
producer Amy Harris.

So “Diaries” catches her at 16,
commuting from Connecticut to Manhattan. That's in 1984, a time of:

– Big hair. AnnaSophia Robb, who
stars, finds herself amid a cascade of blond curls. “I do like the
hair (and) it's a really vibrant time,” she said.

– Flashy fashions. Freema Agyeman,
who plays Carrie's zesty guide to city life, recalls the first time
she saw some of the radiant clothes she'll wear. “It looked like an
explosion in a fabric factory.”

– Upbeat sounds. “We have some Wham
in there,” said Robb, 19. “And the Bangles and Madonna.”

– And optimism. Vietnam was gone and
Iraq was ignored. Wall Street was rich; no bubbles had burst.

Set against that is the wide-open
feeling that comes with a first visit to New York.

Robb remembers that vividly. She was 11
at the time, a Denver kid who had starred in the TV film “An
American Girl Holiday” and the movie “Because of Winn-Dixie.”
Now she was at a New York hotel to promote the latter. “I was just
so enamored with the chandeliers,” she said. “I remember just
sitting, not being able to sleep, trying to count how many cabs went

Katie Findlay, who plays Carrie's teen
friend Maggie, was 14, “an angry Goth kid” from Windsor, Canada,
when she visited New York on a school trip. “They told us to
sleep,” she said, “but I couldn't.”

Brendan Dooling, who plays their friend
Walt, grew up as a Long Islander who was awed by New York. “My dad
lived in the city and every other week, we would visit him.”

Even for Agyeman, who's from London,
New York is a jolt. “It's so overwhelming and fast-paced …. I
feel like a wide-eyed Carrie Bradshaw when I'm there.”

That's the feeling “Diaries” wants
to convey. (“This is a coming-of-age story, with the heightened
experience of Manhattan,” Harris said.) It could be universal
enough to draw an audience.

A typical CW show draws 1.8 million
viewers; a typical show for a big-four network has 8.7 million.
“Carrie Diaries” drew only1.6 million for its opener, but has the
potential for many more.

For grown-ups, there's nostalgia. “We
have a whole story around a Rubik's Cube,” Harris said.

And for teens, there are eternal
stories. “High school, for me, (was when) all these firsts
happened,” Harris said. “They really do shape who you become ….
That's a fascinating story to tell.”

It's especially interesting when it has
a big change. “The story of a young person moving to the big city
is (in) so many classic novels … Flaubert, for instance,” Candace
Bushnell said. “It's always fresh.”

Back in 1840, a teen-aged Gustave
Flaubert moved to Paris to study law. That was reflected in his final
novel, “ Sentimental Education.”

In 1978, a teen-aged Bushnell moved
from Connecticut to New York, promptly becoming a writer, college
student and socialite. Much later, in 1994, she was still
socializing; she wrote about people like her, “single women in
their 30s in New York City …. They all thought that they would be
married and have kids by the time they were in their mid-30s.”

So she wrote her “Sex and the City”
magazine column, which was turned into a book and a TV hit. Novels
followed:“Lipstick Jungle” became an NBC series; “Carrie
Diaries” – with the teen years of someone a lot like Bushnell –
tries to bring fresh hope to CW.

– “The Carrie Diaries,” 8 p.m.
Mondays, CW (began Jan. 14), with reruns at 9 p.m. Fridays


For good or bad, drones rule the sky

I'm back from Hollywood now and stuffed with interesting information.

One good thing about the Television Critics Association sessions is that it lets us meet all the key people in a hurry. This year's Hollywood (well, actually Pasadena) sessions were fascinating. Here's a story I sent to papers, about a PBS documentary Wednesday (Jan. 23):


As “drones” patrol our war zones –
and non-war zones – people have mixed emotions.

These are unmanned planes, operated by
remote control. They have duty that's:

– Frilly and silly. “The head of
one pararazzi agency said (they) will, 'Strike fear into the heart of
any celebrity thinking about having an outdoor birthday party,'”
said the Brookings Institute's Peter Singer, one of the experts
featured in a PBS report Wednesday (Jan. 23).

– Life-saving. “If we had these
drones functional, we would not have had the catastrophic chain of
events after Fukushima,” Vijay Kumar, a scientist developing
drones, said in referring to the meltdowns after an earthquake and
tsunami. “We would know exactly what's in those reactor buildings.”

– Deadly. Drones have been credited
with decimating al-Qaeda and criticized for killing civilians who
were mis-identified as terrorists.

– And fun. For all of their ability
to save and destroy, drones also appeal to game-players. “There is
an attraction (that) people who grew up using computer technology and
games will find of interest,” said David Deptula, the retired Air
Force lieutenant general who oversaw the first Predator strike in

Now “Rise of the Drones,” a “Nova”
special, looks at the issue from all sides. It has experts, including
Abe Karem (known as “father of the Predator”), plus Kumar,
Deptula, Singer and more.

It views the ethical issues, but
doesn't obsess on them. Producer-director Peter Yost says he decided
“to put technology first and foremost in the center, (which is
what) 'Nova' does best.

The technology, after all, keeps
changing. “We are today … where we were in the 1920s with manned
aircraft,” Deptula said. “We're at the beginning stages.”

From thre, Singer said, anything is
possible. “It's a lot like the computer around 1980. It's a
powerful technology. It's moving from the military side over into the
civilian world. We're going to see both incredibly positive uses, but
also negative uses.”

The gamer links are there, Singer said.
“The new generation of controllers for some of the robotic systems
are taking their inspiration from Xbox controllers and PlayStation
controllers …. You've got an entire generation of 18-year-olds that
intuitively already know how to utilize” them.

Still, that's just the start. “This
is military communication, reconnaissance and weapon delivery,”
Karem said. “So a kid with (the) good starting point of using a toy
is not everything you need.”

Even if a gamer runs the controls,
Deptula said, there's more. “For each one of the MQ 1 Predators and
MQ 9 Reapers, it takes about 206, 210 people to operate. The majority
of those are analysts.”

Those analysis can be wrong; in
Afghanistan, civilians were killed when a drone team mistook them for
terrorists. Tragedies happen, Deptula said, whether it's high-tech or
“an 18-year-old with a firearm getting fired at and not necessarily
being aware of the circumstances.”

The drones can range from tiny
surveillance vehicles – so light that they can travel twice as far
as a manned plane – to full-sized bombers. And now they are moving
far beyond U.S. military.

Some 55 countries are working on their
own drones, experts say. And in the U.S., federal rulings will open
up more air space in 2015.

“You've got literally tens of
thousands of local police departments that … are going to use these
small drones,” Singer said.

They'll be joined by researchers,
reporters and more, all taking part in the rise of the drones.

– “Rise of the Drones,” on “Nova”

– 9 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 23), PBS (check local

"Idol": It's a little more country now

This is the last of three stories I sent to papers, previewing the "American Idol" season that starts Wednesday and Thursday, Jan.16-17. The previous blogs offer an overview and a box with details. Here's a story looking at "Idol" changes, especially the fresh interest in country music:


On the surface, the new “American
Idol” season looks suspiciously like the 11 previous ones.

Kids sing; millionaires judge. Results
are greeted by cheers or tears, sometimes simultaneously.

Beyond that, however, the show has had
one big change – expanding beyond pop music, into rock and
(especially) country – and many little ones. Those changes include:

– New audition cities. There were the
usual ones – the season's first shows feature New York on Wednesday
and Chicago on Thursday – but there were also stops elsewhere,
including Oklahoma City and San Antonio … which became a favorite
of producer Ken Warwick. “We shot it in an old railway station,
which gave it kind of a character of its own,” he said. “The
talent was spectacular there.”

– Other efforts to throw out a wider
net. “We (put) a bus tour in, where the producers actually went
around to very, very small towns,” producer Nigel Lythgoe said.

– New judges. Mariah Carey, Keith
Urban and Nicki Minaj join Randy Jackson.

– A slight change in the semi-final
round. This time it will be split, with the top 10 males on March 5
and the top 10 females on March 6; viewers will vote and an overall
top 10 will be chosen March 7.

– And bigger changes that have crept
in gradually.

When “Idol” began in 2002,
contestants were singing to recorded music tracks, with little room
for innovation. Now they're backed by big bands, combos, chamber
orchestras and more. Some singers have their own arrangements; some
play their own instruments.

And the kinds of music has expanded.
Once confined to pop music, “Idol” saw rock 'n' roll soar with Bo
Bice in 2005 and Chris Daughtry in 2006.

Some people have toyed with rap music,
but Minaj (a rapper) has doubts. “I would never go on a show like
this as a rapper,” she said, “and I wouldn't encourage anyone
else to …. I don't think it's authentic.”

And country? “We embraced it right
from the beginning,” Lythgoe insisted.

It was a mild embrace, at best. Simon
Cowell, then the dominant judge, mocked country.

“I've wanted to have country music
for a long time,” said Mike Darnell, Fox chief of alternative
shows. “But the network said, 'No, that's not Fox.'”

He gradually won the battle; Fox now
has the annual American Country Awards. And after barely nodding to
country in its first three years, “Idol” had a transformative

“Carrie Underwood is probably one of
our most successful Idols to date,” Jackson said. “She is truly a
superstar and will have a great career until … she decides to

Underwood won in 2005; the next year,
it had two finalists – Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington – who
went on to make successful country records. After a pause, the burst

– In 2011, two country teens, Scotty
McCreery and Lauren Alaina, finished first and second.

– And this year, Urban became the
first country singer to be a regular on the judging panel. “I lived
in Nashville for 20 years and it ('Idol') has always had a big
country viewership,” he said.

Now “Idol” has country people as
contestants and judge, part of its expanding world.