Feel out of place? Eddie Huang can relate to that

Eddie Huang is sort of an expert on feeling out of place. He felt that way as a kid in Orlando; he may feel it now, as a tough, hip hop chef, watching his oft-angry book be turned into a genial ABC comedy. That show -- which debuts twice Wednesday (Feb. 4), then moves to Tuesdays -- is an amiable creation ... albeit sharply different from Huang's book. Here's the story I sent to papers:


On a map, the move
from Washington, D.C. to Orlando seems modest. It's 847 miles
straight down; you never even switch time zones.

But to Eddie Huang,
this was like going to another country, another planet, another
century. “You are very alone and isolated,” he said.

It's the stuff of
tragedy and/or situation comedy. And it's the core of ABC's new
“Fresh Off the Boat.”

Back in 1993, when
he was 11, Huang says he savored the neighborhood feeling of
Washington, D.C. “I had three sets of cousins within a
quarter-mile. I could ride my bike to their house.”

But his father had
already been in Florida, taking over a restaurant. It was time to go

“Moving to Orlando
was really weird, to not have my (extended) family around,” Huang
recalled. And in Florida, “kids weren't really listening to hip hop
that much.”

His new life seemed
limiting, Huang said. “Suburbia's weird for a kid, because you're
trapped. You don't have modes of transportation. You go to school and
you come home. The kids in the neighborhood, you have no reference to
communicate with them. You are very alone.”

And then there was
the other factor: The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he was the only
Asian kid in his class. One kid derisively called him a chink. “I
put his arm in the microwave and closed the door.”

That was one of many
violent outbursts. Huang eventually had his own hip hop-style
friends, quick to strike. His memoir (also “Fresh Off the Boat”)
says his one felony conviction – driving a car into a crowd to save
a friend – wasn't his fault ... but there was plenty more he could
have been convicted for.

He was a shoplifter,
a large-scale drug dealer, a little guy who delivered savage
beatings. He also has an extraordinary mind – the top one-quarter
of one percent in test scores – and was in the schools' gifted
programs. He became a lawyer, then a chef, restaurant-owner,
food-show personality and comedian. He wrote a blog that became a
book (Random House, 2013, now Spiegel & Grau paperback, $15).

And now that's been
turned into a sitcom, no easy process. The book – filled with rage
and sarcasm – is far from sitcom turf. In a New York Magazine
essay, Huang seemed to take aim at ABC and at Nahnatchka Kahn, the
show's producer.

“The network's
approach was to tell a unversal, ambiguous, corn-starch story about
Asian-Americans, resembling moo goo gai pan,” he wrote, “written
by a Persian-American .... It wasn't that I hated the show. It
genuiniely entertained me, but it had to be more.”

Still, that essay
concluded by praising the pilot film for including a variation on the
“chink” incident. “For all the (crap), I felt some truth in it
for those three minutes.”

Khan – who grew up
in Hawaii, with parents from Iran – says Huang's book captured her
quickly. “What I really related to was the immigrant experience
.... You take somethingfrom the source material that is such a strong
voice and you try to develop it for a broader audience.”

Still, Huang said,
broadening can go too far. “People are really sick of watching
universal things that are just for the middle, like mass-consumption
things. People want specific stories.”

In the first
episode, at least, he figures “Fresh” did that. “To deal with
the word 'chink' in the pilot episode of a comedy on network
television is borderline genius and insane at the same time.”

-- “Fresh Off the
Boat,” ABC

-- Debuts at 8:30
and 9:31 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 4); then 8 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays


It's time to talk Super Bowl and Al Michaels' Katyoke

On Super Bowl Sunday, it's easy to get distracted from the game itself. Don't feel bad about that; even Al Michaels, the play-by-play man, will be distracted by Katy Perry. Here's the story I sent to papers:



As the Super Bowl
nears, we might stumble into a false assumption.

Surely, we'll
assume, sportscasters will avoid distractions. They'll use spare
moments to digest facts.

Or not. “The
halftime shows are so big and entertaining,” Al Michaels said. “I
remember the Bruce Springsteen one” on NBC in 2009.

And this year,
especially, he'll forget about football for 12 minutes: It will be
Katy Perry at halftime.

Flash back to the
summer of 2011, when Cris Collinsworth was talking about life in the
NBC broadcast booth. “The thing that I look forward to, most of
all, is hearing Al Michaels singing a Katy Perry song,” he said. “I
think that is the true highlight of the entire season.”

Indeed, Michaels
says he's been a Perry fan from the first moment he heard her. “I
guess I was ahead of my time; I was ahead with Taylor Swift, too.”

Now others can catch
up. Perry – with help from Lenny Kravitz and maybe others – does

Such things are
important for supersized ratings. “The vast majority of the
audience is not going to be hard-core (football) fans,” said
producer Fred Gaudelli.

So non-football
things matter. There's Perry ... And Idina Menzel with the National
Anthem ... And John Legend with “America the Beautiful” ... And
Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski at the tailgate party, interviewing
stars and catching more music. There's Savannah Guthrie interviewing
President Obama, Jimmy Fallon doing comedy; after the game, there's
“The Black List” and more Fallon.

And yes, there's

This match has
classic quarterbacks (Seattle's scrambling Russell Wilson, New
England's pocket-passer Tom Brady), a top runner (Seattle's Mashawn
Lynch) and more. It has the sportscasters' attention.

The guys doing NBC's
pre-game show have a combined seven Super Bowl victories – two each
for Tony Dungy (a coach), Hines Ward (a receiver) and Rodney Harrison
(a safety), plus one for John Harbaugh, a current coach and guest

But what about the
guys in the broadcast booth at game time?

Collinsworth was in
two Super Bowls, combining for seven catches, 147 yards, a fumble and
no wins. In the 1989 game, on the final play of Collinsworth's
career, Boomer Esiason lofted a desperation pass toward him; it was
broken up and the Bengals lost to the 49ers, 20-16.

And Michaels? He did
the first Super Bowl, he said – but as a spectator. “I was there
with my brother ....We had great seats, because there were about
35,000 empty” ones.

That was 1967 in the
Los Angeles Coliseum, which could hold close to 100,000 people; the
game drew 61,946. It would be two more years before the “Super
Bowl” nickname began ... and many more before this became a
national institution.

Michaels was 22 when
he saw that first game. This year's game will be his ninth as
play-by-play man, plus one time doing a pre-game show.

He'll never come
close to the game's superfans. Three men have seen every Super Bowl;
this will be their 49th and they'll be featured in the
pre-game show.

Last year, Michaels
recalled, he didn't even finish the game. He had flown to Russia to
prepare for the Winter Olympics. “About a hundred of us gathered in
the hotel lounge in Sochi with, I believe, one cocktail waitress. Not
enough .... We were all so exhausted, by halftime, we all went to

We'll never know
what would have happened if there were more waitresses. Maybe he
would have stayed; maybe he would have done some Katy karaoke. This
year, Perry can do that herself.

-- Super Bowl, NBC:
pre-game show, noon ET Sunday; kick-off, 6:30 p.m.; Katy Perry,

-- “The Black
List” follows at about 10:30 p.m. ET; Jimmy Fallon has “Tonight”
at about midnight.

This show needed skill, fortitude and imported snow

"Fortitude" is a rare combination of British talent and Icelandic vistas. Visually impressive and dramatically strong, it's an impressive show for the emerging channel called Pivot. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Dramas are supposed to sweep us away to other places and other moods.

Still, few have
taken actors – or viewers – as far as “Fortitude,” the
ambitious new cable show:

-- Actors were swept
to Iceland -- “beautiful country, beautiful people,” Luke
Treadaway said.

-- And viewers will
be taken to an Arctic village called Fortitude, where the thawing ice
holds secrets. “We needed to find a place where hidden things could
emerge,” said Simon Donald, the show's creator.

Yes, this is a
fictional town; still, it's modeled after a real one. Midway between
Norway and the North Pole is Longyearbyen, with fewer people (2,040)
than polar bears, fewer cars than snowmobiles.

Its coal mines are
almost gone, Donald said. “The industry that sustained this place
for 100 years is fading. They need to find some way to make the place
viable. Tourism and scientific research” help.

That real-life
Longyearbyen has a hotel, library, movie theater, sports hall,
school, mini-college and research station. The make-believe Fortitude
is similar, letting opposite worlds collide – rugged miners vs.
abstract scientists, tourist development vs. environment.

Employment is full,
crime is scarce and no one is sure if the sheriff is skilled. “He's
definitely a good cop,” said Richard Dormer, who plays him.
“Whether or not he's a good person is another question.”

Now, for the first
time, it has a big crime – so big that a British police detective
is sent to help. He's played by Stanley Tucci, an Oscar-nominee and
two-time Emmy-winner; a nature photographer is played by Sir Michael
Gambon, a four-time winner of the British equivalent of an Emmy.

Still, they're in
support. The core of the show is actors viewers aren't familiar with:

-- Dormer as the
sheriff – a classic role for an Irishman who grew up on “Kojak”
and “Hill Street Blues” and such. “I grew up idolizing
America,” he said.

-- Treadaway as
Vincent Rattrey, a scientist. In a town full of outsiders, he's the
latest newcomer. He's uncomfortable – the notion of a both-sexes
nude sauna is beyond him – and, by the end of the opener, in
trouble. “I'm taken in handcuffs to the police station,”
Treadaway said.

-- Veronica Echegui
as Elena Ledesma. At the hotel, she's a barmaid, waitress and
receptionist; she brings a foggy past and starts a sexual affair that
spurs tragedy. In short, Echegui said, she plays a consummate
outsider. “The fact that I'm Spanish helped.”

This was a huge
transformation – from growing up in sunny Madrid to filming in
Iceland. That's fine with her, Echegui insists. “I didn't like
being in a place as noisy as Madrid.”

She wanted some
other life and (against her parents' wishes) auditioned for Spain's
Royal School for Dramatic Arts. Only 30 people out of 3,000
auditioners get in, she said; “I thought there was no chance, so I
was not nervous at all.” She got in and launched a busy career.

Similarly, Dormer
and Treadaway were Irishmen who landed spots in drama academies. Busy
careers have followed; Treadaway is one of the only people to have
played a conjoined twin with his own twin.

These actors reached
Iceland, communing with locals -- “incredibly open and generous,”
Dormer said – and with other actors. “I was able to hear Michael
Gambon tell about his audition with (Sir Laurence) Olivier,”
Treadaway said. “He must have told the story 2,000 times, but it's
still wonderful.”

And then they were
outside, portraying Arctic people. “It was quite remote and got
extremely cold,” said director Sam Miller. “And then, bizarrely,
for a couple of weeks we had no snow.”

So they had to
import it; they brought ice to Iceland. Make-believe can be odd

-- “Fortitude,”
10 p.m. ET Thursdays, Pivot, repeating at 1 a.m.

-- Two-hour opener
is Jan. 29, with “Slumdog Millionaire” as its lead-in, at 7:30
p.m. ET.

-- Opener reruns at
10 p.m. Friday (preceded by “Glory” at 7), 10 p.m. Super Bowl
Sunday (preceded by “Winter's Bone” at 7:30), 11 p.m. Tuesday
(preceded by a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” marathon).

-- Pivot reaches 47
million homes by satellite and digital cable. It leans toward movies,
documentaries, foreign shows and such reruns as “Buffy,”
“Farscape,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Veronica Mars.”


"Americans" stars: Opposite routes to a splendid result

This is a terrific time for cable's FX network, with two superb 10 p.m. dramas back-to-back -- "Justified" (which started its final season Jan. 20) on Tuesdays, "The Americans" (which starts its third season Jan. 28) on Wednesdays. There's also comedy -- a pretty good one ("Archer") now on Thursdays, an excellent one (Billy Crystal and Josh Gad in "The Comedians") coming up. Here's the "Americans" story I sent to papers:



PASADENA, Cal. -- As
“The Americans” starts its new season – finding deep emotion
amid sex, spies and violence – we're reminded of something actor
John Shea said decades ago.

Actors can take
different routes to the same spot, he said. Some study intensively,
some learn by doing.

Shea saw that in his
career. He did the studying – Bates College, Yale Drama School
(where Meryl Streep was a classmate), Lee Strasberg's method-acting
classes; then he was stunned by the learn-by-doing talent of Sissy
Spacek (in the 1981 “Missing”) and Farrah Fawcett (1989 “Small

Now that same point
is proven by “Americans” stars Matthew Rhys and Kerri Russell.

“There is just
more than one way to skin a cat,” Rhys agreed. “(We) have very
different ways of working, but we're very like-minded in sort of
taste and temperature and vision.”

He's the product of
a fancy, British-style education – first in Wales (where his mom
was a teacher and his dad was headmaster), then at the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art.

And she? “I think
'The Mickey Mouse Club' was very fancy as well,” Russell

She made her TV
debut at 15, as an “MMC” regular, and stayed for three years.
Subsequent shows – comedies and the teen-angst “Malibu Shore”
-- were undemanidng. Then, suddenly, she was an actress.

Jill Clayburgh
noticed that after playing Russell's mother in “When Innocence is
Lost”; many people noticed it in “Felicity.” Russell won a
Golden Globe as Felicity; for “Americans,” she and Rhys drew
Critics Choice nominations in each of their first two seasons.

There's been much
more: The Television Critics Association has nominated Rhys both
years; it named “Americans” the best new series in 2013 and
nominated it for best series in 2014. Both years, the American Film
Institute called it one of the 10 best shows. This is far from
“Maibu Shores” turf.

Consider it “maybe
the nature of getting older,” said Russell, 38. “Things get more

She and Rhys play
Russian spies, disguising for decades as ordinary suburbanites and
fooling even their own children. At times, they must also pretend to
be other people.

These are not showy
transformationss, Rhys said. “You keep the lie as close to the
truth as possible.”

Still, it's complex:
Actors portray people who are living a lie ... and then those people
portray others.

The key moments are
often the subtle ones at home. The season-opener silently shows
Russell's face as a phone call brings devastating news from Russia.

Most of the toughest
scenes are personal ... especially now that their bosses want them to
tell Paige, their teen daughter, who they really are and then involve
her in their schemes.

Such things have
really happened, producer Joe Weisberg said. “There are a couple of
historical examples ... where the kids were recruited into the
(Russian) service.”

That brings new
disputes. Philip (Rhys), who flirts with the idea of quitting, wants
to keep the kids out of this; Elizabeth (Russell), a hard-liner,
disagrees and fumes at Paige's interest in Christianity.

“She's this
mother who's watching a daughter being indocrinated (in something)
that is so polar opposite to what she believes,” Russell said. If
Paige is going to be indoctrinated, she feels, “it's going to be by
me. It's not going to be by some kid with a guitar.”

That's complex
territory. And yes, it's a long way from “Malibu Shores” and the
Mickey Mouse Club.

“The Americans,”
10 p.m. Wednesdays, FX

Third season opens
Jan. 28, reruns at 11:06 p.m. and 1:26 a.m.


Ah, the pirates' life for these guys

"Black Sails" returns Saturday (Jan. 24), getting its new season off to a strong start. Here's the story I sent to papers, about the show's stars:


Two powerful forces – the sea and the stage – rippled through the
childhoods of the “Black Sails” stars.

Both are from island
nations. Toby Stephens (from England) is the son of theater stars;
Luke Arnold (from Australia) tried rock 'n' roll. Now comes their
ideal job – playing pirates. “Black Sails” has:

-- John Silver, the
young outsider. “In his mind, he's never going to be part of the
pirate world, so he might as well speak his mind,” said Arnold, who
plays him.

-- Captain Flint.
Unlike his motley crew, he's educated and ambitious. “He is
obviously different from all the others,” said Stephens, who plays

And as the first
season ended, he'd hit bottom. He lied to his men ... killed his
quartermaster, Gates ... and failed to get the treasure. The men
voted him out.

“He's just killed
his best friend,” Stephens said. “The only person he's left with
is Silver – who is the last person he wants to be allied with ....
Where that takes us is quite fun, I think.”

And where the show
has taken the actors is to Capetown, South Africa.

It's a “massive
set that feels so functional,” said Jessica Parker Kennedy, who
plays Max, an ambitious prostitute. “We have 500 extras on any
given day. The set is full of animals. Everything feels so
tremendously realistic. (And) those ridiculously giant, life-sized

This has always been
key for Arnold. He had a pirate party for his fifth birthday; in high
school, his family moved from Sydney to Queensland, where he went to
the exotically named Sunset Beach High School. “We'd go to the
beach three times a day,” he said.

He went to an arts
academy (“the best three years of my life”) and toyed with dreams
of rock stardom ... which he achieved fictionally: Last year, he
starred in an Australian TV movie about the late Michael Hutchence of
INXS singer. Now, at 30, he's playing another epic character – the
young man who would later become Long John Silver of “Treasure

It's a rugged role,
with Silver despised by his fellow pirates, Arnold said. Even in
make-believe, “spending a day being beaten up on set still leaves
you feel like you've been beaten up all day.”

And it's an active
show; Stephens said he's happy about that: “I'm not in a drawing
room, asking people who wants some more tea.”

He's done his share
of tea-time dramas, in his family's tradition. His mother, Dame
Maggie Smith, is a two-time Oscar-winner and a three-time Emmy-winner
(twice for “Downton Abbey”); his father, Robert Stephens, was a
top stage star who stumbled with divorce and alcoholism, then revived
his career with Shakespearean roles before his death at 64.

“I saw a lot of
Shakespeare,” Toby Stephens recalled. “I'd seen half the canon by
the time I was 8.”

Moving around with
his mother, he got the knack of making a quick impression ... but not
of digging into classes. “I wasn't learning anything,” he admits.
So at 7, he was sent to boarding school; two years later, he thrived
at a poetry-reading contest and was on his way.

Fresh from the
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Stephens became the
youngest person to star as Coriolanus for the Royal Shakespeare
Company. At 45, he's done classic roles, from Hamlet to Rochester
(“Jane Eyre”) and Stanley Kowalski (“A Streecar Named Desire”);
he's been both James Bond (on radio) and a Bond villain (in “Die
Another Day”).

Like many actors
before him – William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks –
he's found Shakespeare to be the perfect preparation for playing a
captain. The difference is that they captained noble “Star Trek”
crews; Stephens has a band of pirates, with dark hearts and black

-- “Black Sails,”
9 p.m. Saturdays, Starz; season-opener, Jan. 24, repeats at 10:02 and
11:05 p.m.

-- Reruns the next
day at 11:30 a.m., and 2:50, 8, 9 and 10:10 p.m.

-- Opener also
reruns at 10 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 27), 9 p.m. Jan. 28, 3 p.m. Jan. 29,
10:50 p.m. Jan. 30.