Old Inspector Morse: He's younger (and less cranky) now


"Masterpiece Mystery" starts its summer spurt this weekend on a strong note.

Sunday (July 1) brings "Endeavour," a terrific prequel to all those old "Inspector Morse" mysteries. Then are four straight "Inspector Lewis" films. The first (July 8) is excellent, the second is so-so, the third is quite good. I haven't seen the fourth yet.

For now, however, let's savor "Endeavour," and be glad that more early-Morse filmsare being made. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

A quarter-century ago, Inspector Morse
solemnly reached British and American TV screens.

Like most American crime-solvers, he
drank a lot, scowled a lot, love all the wrong women. “Marriage, in
fiction, is an albatross,” his creator, Colin Dexter, once said.

But unlike Americans, he had a Jaguar,
arcane knowledge and an Oxford beat. He was a “moody, brilliant,
intuitive, crossword-puzzle-loving, opera-addicted loner,” Rebecca
Eaton said.

She knows him well. Her first decision
as the head of PBS' “Masterpiece” and “Mystery” was to
co-produce the Morse mysteries; this summer, she offers the past and
future with:

– “Endeavour,” July 1. It's a
prequel – more will be made – catching Morse's first Oxford case,
in1965. “You see his potential to be all of these things,” said
Shaun Evans, 32, who plays him. “(And) you see the demons that pull
him back …. It's all against the backdrop of a brilliant story.”

– A fresh batch of “Inspector
Lewis” tales, beginning July 8. Now crimes are tackled by the
former sergeant who was promoted after the death of his boss, Morse.

This was never your typical TV cop.
“Morse is often morose and cranky …. He'd rather stare at the
bubbles in his beer than engage in casual conversation,” Ron Miller
wrote in “Mystery! A Celebration” (KQED Books, 1986).

Then he would drink the beer, a trait
not shared by the late John Thaw, who played him. “He hated beer
(and) couldn't do crosswords,” said his daughter, actress Abigail
Thaw.

And Evans? “I like beer and wine,”
he volunteered, “and I'm terrible at crosswords.”

Neither actor had Oxford roots. Both
had working-class backgrounds (Thaw in Manchester, Evans in
Liverpool) and went directly to theater school. “I've always wanted
to be an actor,” Evans said.

He was 22 and 23 when he started
landing good roles. He stepped into a successful British TV series
(“Teachers”) for its second season,then did a movie (“Being
Julia”) with Annette Bening and Michael Gambon. “On a personal
level, they showed how good you could be, if you work hard.”

Complex roles followed. On stage, he
was Kurt Cobain; in a TV mini-series (“The Take”) he was a rather
refined criminal who (“Godfather”-style) learned to assume power
brutally.

Now he steps into Oxford. “The
streets are cobblestone,” Evans said. “There's a very special
atmosphere of learning and intelligence.”

It's an atmosphere Dexter understood.
He studied at Cambridge, taught classics at several schools and in
1966 took an administrative job at Oxford. Nine years later, his
first Morse novel was published, with 13 more following. “I've
killed 71 people in Oxford,” he once said. “So if I went in to
see the police, they'd probably arrest me for making Oxford the crime
capital of the European Community.”

More deaths were added in the Morse
movies. Thaw did his final one in 2000, went on to other TV roles,
then died (at 60, of cancer) in 2002.

The Lewis films began in 2007, followed
by the prequel. “We can do this newer, fresher and still have
something that was obviously very much loved,” said Abigail Thaw,
who has an “Endeavour” scene, as a newspaper editor.

The 1965 era keeps things away from DNA
and computers and such, Eaton said. “There was very little
crime-solving technology, (so) you have to do intuition.”

The young Morse has that and more,
Evans said. “You have someone at the very beginning who is
idealistic – (who) had his heart broken, (but) is still hopeful.”

He would go on to many heartbreaks,
many beers and decades of an Oxford crime wave.

– “Masterpiece Mystery,” 9-10:30
p.m. Sundays, PBS (check local listings)

– “Endeavour,” the “Inspector
Morse” prequel, July 1

– New “Inspector Lewis” films –
focusing on Morse's former sergeant – on the next four Sundays

 

Cable overload: Sheen, Brand, Louie and a guy in a dog suit


Cable keeps finding new ways to dominate the summer. HBO is doing it with quality ("The Newsroom"), TNT and USA with sleek quantity. And now FX has anew approach.

In one overcrowded Thursday, it debuts shows by two eccentric sorts -- Charlie Sheen and Russell Brand -- sandwiching them around the returns of a good show ("Wilfred") and a sometimes-great one ("Louie"). Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By MIKE HUGHES

Imagine a rag-tag army, storming into
our TV sets.

At the front is a Malibu guy who lost
millions and declared himself a winner. At the back is a British
bloke; in between are a solemn New Yorker and an Australian who
dresses in a dog suit.

That's what FX now has on Thursdays –
two hours (two-and-a-half on June 28) of oddness. In some ways,
Charlie Sheen is the most normal guy in the bunch; he shares
Thursdays with:

– Russell Brand, whose verbiage can
be thick. “We have this toxic, sequined wave of vapid culture,
polluting our minds, denigrating our consciousness, distracting us
and removing us from our spirituality,” he told reporters. The
reporters merely nodded.

– Elijah Wood, who plays a guy who
thinks his neighbor's dog is talking to him. In the first season of
“Wilfred,” he got used to doing these scenes with Jason Gann, who
was encased in a scruffy dog suit. “That was my reality, … to the
point where I didn't think it was strange,” Wood said

– And Louis C.K., who stars in
“Louie,” playing a solemn version of himself. “I'm a single dad
and … I work very hard right now, so there's a lot to keep me
depressed,” he said.

Lump these into one sumer night and you
have a turning point for FX. After success with dramas (“The
Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Justified”), the network
finally has a string of strong comedies.

“Louie” came first, a mid-life
boost for its star. “(For) 26, 27 years I've been doing stand-up,”
said C.K., now 44. “I've had two great years, probably, (and) five
good years. So I had 20 years of just kind of uncertainty and
suffering and ego-destruction and poverty.”

After previously stumbling with a movie
and an HBO series, he promised to make “Louie” cheaply, in
exchange for having total control. He was poised for comedy success,
he said: .“An army of failures that have wrecked my life made me
good at this.”

The result soared last summer, in its
second season. The American Film Institute called “Louie” one of
TV's 10 best shows; Time magazine called it the best.

That was the summer FX added “Wilfred,”
even keeping the same guy (Gann) who co-starred in the Australian
version. Wood says he finds the show's concept logical. “If you
have a dog, more often than not, it ceases to be a dog to you.”

The big FX change, however, came this
year, when Sheen and Bruce Helford (“The Drew Carey Show”)
pitched a series about an anger-management therapist with anger
issues. “I walked into the pitch as skeptical as you might
imagine,” said FX programming chief John Landgraf. He bought the
idea without a pilot film, strictly from what he calls “a really
good pitch for a comedy series (that's) funny, complicated and
(with), I think, the character that Charlie” should play.

He also gambled on “Brand X,” with
Brand working to a nightclub audience. Brand, who's British, calls it
“the perspective of an alien, trying to understand this peculiar
time, this peculiar county.”

Don't expect in-depth politics. As the
Republican primaries boiled, Brand said all he knew was that one name
“sounds like 'sanitarium,'” that ” 'Newt Gingrich' is a
ludicrously amphibious, bizarre name” and that Mitt Romney is “so
rich that other billionaires would seem like Dickensian street
urchins.”

His show will not be a font of
political satire. It may, however, be the logical conclusion to a
night that starts with Charlie Sheen.

– FX Thursdays: “Anger Management,”
9 and 9:30 p.m., “Wilfred,”10; “Louie,” 10:30; “Brand X,”
11.

– The first week (June 28) has two
new episodes of “Anger Management”; after that, it's a rerun at 9
p.m. and a new episode at 9:30.

 

Snooki and JWoww: A "chihuahua" and an "OCD" type find fame and friendship


Snooki and JWoww are back on TV, starting Thursday. Here's the quick-turnaround piece I sent to papers, after a story today (Wednesday):

 

By MIKE HUGHES

These two were opposites, thrown
together in the blur of reality TV.

Jenni “JWoww” Farley was 23,
5-foot-7, with her own business; she planned and organized things.
Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was younger, smaller (4-foot-9), more
impulsive.

“I was hooking up with everyone,”
Polizzi said. “I was kissing everyone. I was 21; that's what you
do.”

Some “Jersey Shore” viewers loved
her; Farley hesitated. “I was scared of her,” she said. “She
was like a chihuaha, the kind that will bite you on the ankle.”

Then they became friends and stars of
their own show. “Snooki and JWoww” starts with Polizzi deciding
to move away from her parents' home at 24. She didn't have to, she
grants; her parents hadn't slowed down her fun. “I've been spoiled;
I just wanted to experience being on my own.”

It turned out to be a bigger change
than she'd expected. In the first episode, Polizzi tells her friend
she's pregnant; “I kept thinking she was punking me,” Farley
said.

She wasn't; now shes engaged to Jionni
LaValle. “It's crazy,” Polizzi said.”I definitely didn't expect
it this soon.”

That's clearly not the Snooki that
Farley met three years ago. “She was so amped-up,” she said.

Both are from New York (not New Jersey)
and neither was born into an Italian family, despite the show's
strong Italian-American feel. Polizzi was born in Chile; adopted at
six months by Italian-Americans, she grew up in Marlboro, north of
New York City, along the Hudson River. Farley has Spanish-French
roots and grew up in East Greenbush, near Albany.

Polizzi knew the Jersey shore,
especially from childhood trips. “It's very family-oriented during
the day,” she said. “Then you have the clubs at night.”

Farley was more familiar with the
upscale Hamptons, where she worked and (sometimes) played. Work was
key, she said; she started her graphic-design company at 22.

“I found I was a better salesman
(than designer),” Farley said. “So I hired other kids from
college and I went out and got the business.”

She was also doing promotions for a
night club that held the “Jersey Shore” auditions, then decided
to do try out herself. “It seemed like it would be a month to have
some fun.”

Instead, it's been three years, five
editions and now a spin-off. It's also been a friendship. “That was
on Day 3,” Farley said. “She got hit in the face and I just fell
for her.”

Towering over her, Farley sometimes
seems like Polizzi's protector. “She's like the little sister I
never wanted,” she said.

Still, she also figures she's learning
from Polizzi. “I'm not as OCD (obsessive-compulsive) now.”

At times, the Snooki-style spontaneity
went too far. Early hook-ups included Mike “The Situation”
Sorrentino – he definitely wasn't the one for her, Polizzi said –
and others. “I made a lot of mistakes, but I wouldn't change any of
it.”

The path led to LaVelle. “He just
doesn't care about this (show-business) stuff,” she said. “He's a
normal guy, living a normal life.”

And that, Polizzi insists, is where
she's heading. “I'm a homebody; I like being home, doing barbecues
… I think I'll be a good mom.”

– “Snooki & JWoww,” 10 p.m.
Thursdays, MTV.

– Opener, June 21, reruns at 11:31
p.m. and 2:01 a.m., then 9:30 p.m. Friday, three times (9 a.m., 1:16
p.m., 7:26 p.m.) Saturday and 11more times.

– Thursday's debut will be preceded
by 13 “Jersey Shore” hours, starting at 9 a.m.

Yes, people do still watch TV together (maybe)


Summers are stuffed with TV choices -- including the year's best show, HBO's "The Newsroom." Still, it's good to see Turner Classic Movies offering an alternative -- movies (billed as "Essentials Jr.") that might be watched as a family. Here's the story I sent to papers, interviewing Bill Hader ("Saturday Night Live"), who hosts:

By MIKE HUGHES

In our fragmented world, people retreat
to alternate TV sets. Families split into separate bubbles of MTV,
Nickelodeon, ESPN, Lifetime and such.

That may be OK, but Bill Hader fondly
recalls movies as a group experience. “This was our No. 1 time to
be together as a family,” he said.

So it makes sense that Hader
(“Saturday Night Live”) has his second summer of hosting “TCM
Essentials Jr.,” on cable. At 8 p.m. ET each Sunday, there's a movie that
families might watch together.

Such as? Well, parents probably won't
be surprised to see that the list includes “Lassie Come Home”
(July 1) or “Wizard of Oz” (it ran June 10). But they'll also
find Hitchcock, horror, action, adventure – and a black-and-white,
silent film.

That's Charlie Chaplin's 1928 “The
Circus,” this Sunday(June 24). “I think it's very funny,” Hader said.
“Visually, it's his best work.”

Others seem to agree. This is “not
the masterpiece of 'The Gold Rush' or 'City Lights,' but still a
gem,” Leonard Maltin wrote in his movie guide (Signet, 2010),
calling it a “hilarious comedy with memorable finale.” The AMC
Classic Movie Companion (Hyperion, 1999) calls it a “lavish
production, ... not only a big-top spectacular, but also a charming
romance.”

Hader chose the film from a list given
to him by the Turner Classic Movies people. “We kind of go
back-and-forth a little,” he said. He OK'd a few films he hadn't
seen before (“The Circus” and both musicals) and insisted on “The
Bank Dick,” from one of his favorites. “I said, 'I'll have to see
some W.C. Fields there,'” he said.

Then there's the 1932 “Invisible
Man.” For Hader, that reflects fond memories of watching “The
Hunchback of Notre Dame” and other horror or sci-fi classics,
bracing for the good parts. “My mother would go, 'Uh oh, here it
comes!' I think her excitement in seeing it was what I liked the
most.”

Growing up in Tulsa, he was a horror
fan. That may explain his “SNL” impressions of Vincent Price, or
the eerie tone he gives to being Julian Assange of WikiLeaks or Keith
Morrison of “Dateline.”

He also liked comedy, which soon took
over. “A friend of mine was in Second City in Los Angeles,” Hader
said. He joined the troupe and was discovered quickly; just turned
34, he's heading into his eighth season of “SNL,” where he ranges
from the too-trendy Stefan to ancient newsman Herb Welch.

Indeed, he seems to fade into the
characters. “When we went to ComiCon in New York, I told a friend,
'Don't worry; no one will recognize me.'” For good or bad, he was
right.

Here's the “Essentials Jr.”
line-up, at 8 p.m. Sundays:

– Already aired: “12 Angry Men,”
“The Wizard of Oz,” “Rio Bravo.”

– Comedies: “The Circus” (Charlie
Chaplin, 1928), June 24; “The Bank Dick” (W.C.Fields, 1940), July
8; “Ball of Fire” (Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, 1941), Aug.
26.

– Doggy drama: “Lassie Come Home”
(1943), July 1.

– Musicals: “The Band Wagon”
(Fred Astaire, 1953), July 29; “42nd Street” (1933),
Aug. 12.

– Sci Fi/horror: “The Invisible Man
(1933), Aug. 5.

– Adventures: “The Thief of
Baghdad” (1940), July 15; “The Great Escape” (Steve McQueen,
1963), July 22; “North by Northwest” (Alfred Hitchcock directing
Cary Grant, 1959), Aug. 19.

"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.