"Masterpiece" is back, amid high expectations

It's always good news when "Masterpiece" returns, with its richly crafted dramas. Now -- after another long pledge-drive pause -- three minisries will air on Sundays, starting with "Great Expectations" and Gillian Anderson's wondrfully offbeat performance. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Sprawling from the marshes of Kent to
the ballrooms of London, Charles Dickens'“Great Expectations” is
a key part of some British educations.

“Everyone is made to read it,” said
Douglas Booth, who stars in the new PBS production.

He was about 13 when he tackled it.
Vanessa Kirby, his co-star, was younger when her dad read it to her.
“It's very much a part of my childhood,” she said, “as, I'm
sure, everybody's.”

Well, not everybody. Gillian Anderson –
who does spectacular duty as Miss Havisham – didn't read it until
she got the role. But she has an excuse: She's American.

Or, semi-American. Anderson was born in
Chicago, but moved to London as a toddler. She was 11 when her family
moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where her dad made industrial films.

“The fact that I grew up in the UK
(United Kingdom) had sort of an organic effect on me,” she said.

It was partly a good thing, fueling her
British portrayals – including Emmy-nominated work in Charles
Dickens' “Bleak House” and now Emmy-worthy work in his “Great

And it brought problems, as she tried
to blend into Middle-American middle school. “I didn't really fit
in …. I don't think I lost my British accent right away.”

School never really caught on with her;
in retrospect, she figures she may have had attention-deficit
problems. Fortunately, Grand Rapids also has a strong theater scene.

Anderson did community and school plays
as a teen-ager, studied acting in Chicago, then launched a theater
career in New York. “I remember being extremely busy – waiting
tables, hopping on the subway (to auditions), changing clothes in the
rest room.”

She moved to Los Angeles, landing
“X-Files” and fame. Since then, she's spent much of her time in
England, peaking with double Dickens. Rebecca Eaton, producer of PBS'
“Masterpiece,” calls Anderson's “Bleak House” work “one of
the best performances we have ever had,” but calls this latest one
“the performance of a lifetime.”

Booth echoes that. “She made some
really creative choices,” he said. “She is such a brilliant

Like Anderson, he didn't thrive at
school; eventually, he was diagnosed as being dyslexic, requiring new
career plans. “The first thing I thought was, 'OK, I'm going to be
a brilliant musician.'”

He did play the trumpet well, but
eventually discovered modeling and acting. He drew praise playing Boy
George in a British TV film, then landed two mega-roles: Before
turning 20, he had filmed starring roles in “Great Expectations”
and (opposite Hailee Steinfeld) the upcoming “Romeo and Juliet.”

Yes, he had read and admired them, even
with dyslexia. “Great Expectations” is “such a great
roller-coaster ride,” he said.

That ride takes Pip from the marshes to
society, but keeps Miss Havisham in her crumbling gown and crumbling

There were actually three versions of
the gown, Anderson said, reflecting different points of decay. “One
day, I had all three on at different points.”

And there was the giant building that
was used as her mansion. “Over the years, it had been a boys'
school, a girls' school, a sanitarium,” Anderson said.

During the three weeks of filming
there, she said, British crews kept adjusting it.”You would see the
mold, the cobwebs …. You could observe it deteriorate.”

A life was deteriorating, too, ending
in a burst of flames. It was one stop in the Dickens roller-coaster.

– “Masterpiece Classic,” 9 p.m.
Sundays, PBS (check local listings)

– Charles Dickens “Great
Expectations,” April 1 and 8, and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,”
April 15; then Sebastian Faulk's “Birdsong,”April 22 and 29.
“Masterpiece Mystery” returns in May.


Colton -- much more than a dark horse

Some comments after tonight's "American Idol":

1) What's this talk about Colton Dixon being a dark horse? To me, he's always been a front-runner, mixing musical skill with looks and emotional intensity. His performance tonight proved that again.

2) Most years, people have shied away from anything remotely connected to religion. Even when the category was "inspirational songs," all the contestants -- even those with gospel roots -- ducked. Not this week; Colton opened with a contemporary Christian song and Hollie Cavanagh sang "Jesus Take the Wheel."

3) That was admirable, but Hollie's performance was only OK. The same was true of Skylar Laine, who gave us lots of firepower, but not much vocal variety.

4) Remember how judges used to warn everyone (wisely) to avoid big songs by big singers? Now Joshua Ledet has conquered two of them -- first Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" and now Mariah Carey's "Without You." What's more, Elise Testone somehow conquered Led Zeppelen.

5) My own favorites, overall, are Dixon, Ledet and Jessica Sanchez. But what aout tonight? I would send Skyler Laine home, with Hollie Cavanagh in the bottom two; my prediction, however, is that Hollie goes, with Heejun Han in the bottom two. We'll see. 



A one-generation leap -- Bulgarian labor camp to Hollywood fame

Most weekends, you can catch two excellent shows tracing people's roots -- NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" on Fridays, PBS' "Finding Your Roots" on Sundays.

The next couple "Roots" are, as usual, excellent -- Barbara Walters and Geoffrey Canada this Sunday, husband-and-wife Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick on April 8. I haven't seen the next "Who," but I have interviewed Rita Wilson, who has a promising hour Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Two men – each with impressive
accomplishments – have loomed large in Rita Wilson's wife.

One is Tom Hanks, the movie star; he's
her husband. The other was Pomak Ibrahimoff, the bartender; he was
her father and a powerful force.

“My dad overcame extraordinary
circumstances, because he wanted to be a free person,” she said.

Now Wilson has traced some of that on
NBC's “Who Do You Think You Are?” The trip took her to Greece,
Bulgaria and hard times. “We had always known that my dad had been
in some kind of a labor camp,” she said. “We didn't know what
that meant and he didn't talk about it.”

Instead, he said cheery things. “He
was a really happy person.”

Wilson mother was ethnically Greek, but
grew up in Albania. Her dad, ethnically Bulgarian, was born in Greece
and lived in Bulgaria and Turkey.

“We knew we were half-Bulgarian and
half-Greek,” she said, “but my mom had more relatives here, (so
there was) much more of a Greek influence …. We go back to Greece
all the time.”

Wilson knew there were darker stories
from her dad's Bulgarian days, but had few details. For the NBC show,
she went there and met her dad's brother, now 96.

For her dad, she said, immigration was
enormous. “He came to America and didn't speak English and didn't
have a job. Starting as a bartender in New York, he became a
bartender in Los Angeles.

It was a job requiring customer
satisfaction, something his kids soon realized.

“He would bring the tips home in a …
purple felt bag,” Wilson said. “On weekends we would take all
those coins and … put them in the little paper rolls …. My dad
had such an incredible work ethic and … three is something very
tactile about taking a penny and putting it in a roll and taking it
to the bank.”

Her own work ethic has involved show
business. Wilson has been an actress (ranging from Hanks' co-star in
the 1985 “Volunteers” to recent episodes as the fierce lawyer
Viola Walsh on “The Good Wife”), a producer (“Mamma Mia,” “My
Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and now a singer.

In May, Decca Records will release
“AM/FM,” with Wilson, 55, singing the songs of her youth.

“They had the kind of innocence and
an idealized version of romance,” she said. “As a young girl, you
could fantasize about what the guy would be like that you would end
up with.”

Those fantasies – about ending up
with a guy who's charming and handsome and funny – were silly, of
course. Except that for Wilson, they came true.

– “Who Do You Think You Are?'

– 8 p.m. Fridays, NBC; Rita Wilson is
Friday; Edie Falco is April 6

– Still coming: Rob Lowe, Rashida
Jones, Jason Sudeikis, Paula Deen

– Based on a British show, each hour
takes one person to visit family roots

– Using a slightly different form,
“Finding Your Roots” (8 p.m. Sundays on most PBS stations) traces
two people's roots each week. It has Barbara Walters and Geoffrey
Canada on April 1, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick on April 8


Erika's gone;life's unfair

So the new look didn't suffice for Erika Van Pelt; the terrific voice didn't either. She was sent home, reminding us that life is sometimes unfair in the "American Idol" world.

DeAndre Brackensick -- who should have been ousted -- finished in the bottom three. Heejun Han, whose whimsical performance this week deserved better, was in the bottom two. Then Erika was gone.

Next week, the survivors sing songs that were done by their own idols. Also, next Thursday has a song fro Scotty McCreery; he was last year's champion, reminding us that the voters generally do -- after many odd detours -- get it right.

"Idol" singers conquer Billy Joel (eventually)

Let's make something clear right away: "Shameless" is not what Ryan Seacrest said -- "a Billy Joel hit that Skylar (Laine) is giving a country twist."

It is not, as Jimmy Iovine put it, "a big Billy Joel song" that she's giving some twang to. Joel did write it, but he never cut it as a single.

Garth Brooks once told me he liked "Shameless: from the moment he heard it on a Joel album. He waited impatiently, to see if Joel would release it as a single; when he didn't, Brooks adapted it and took it to No. 1 on the country charts.

In short, Skylar didn't do anything revolutionary tonight; she simply sang the song the way she (and most people) have heard it.

Now that I'm done with that, here are my views of this Billy Joel night on "Idol":

-- The best: The final two performances, by Jessica Sanchez and Colton Dixon, were out-of-this-world good. (Dixon may look like a haphazard rocker, but he has immense music ability.) Also, Erika Van Pelt was just about perfect.

-- The worst: It was the second straight weak performance by DeAndre Brackensick.

-- Most fun: After misfiring last week, Heejun Han came up with a smart piece of entertainment.

-- Too much of a good thing: Yes, Joshua Ledet and Elise Testone have great voices. This time, I wasn't sure their runs and riffs fit their songs.

-- Makeovers: Some people submitted to drastic makeovers. Erika looks good in her short, jet-black hair; Elise Testone looks good in red and is (I noticed) ideal for a low-cut dress. Others resisted. Told that grey is dull, Phillip Phillips wore grey on grey; he should have listened.

My prediction? DeAndre ends up in the bottom with Skylar. He should go home, but cuteness gets him by (for now) and she goes home. DeAndre is the new Justin Guarini; Justin was runner-up in a weak field, DeAndre is lucky to be in the top 10 in a strong one.