British-style drama -- one man, one voice, one complex mosaic

Here are two key things about many cable dramas: 1) You really have to pay attention; they get complex and confusing; and 2) You really want to pay attention; they get compelling.

The latest example is "The Honorable Woman," which debuts Thursday on the Sundance Channel. Here's the story I sent to papers:


There is a difference between Englishmen and Americans, it
seems, that goes far beyond cricket, croquet and tea-time. It involves
(sometimes) how to make a TV series.

“In the U.K., sort of the buzzword of the broadcasters is
always ‘authorship,’” said Greg Brenman, a veteran British producer whose eight-week
“The Honorable Woman” debuts Thursday.

Occasionally, Americans work that way. An Aaron Sorkin (“West
Wing”), Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or David Chase (“The Sopranos”) has
other writers, but keeps strong control. More often, that doesn’t happen;
Roseanne Barr once had so many writers that she gave them numbers.

Now “Honorable Woman” reflects the British approach, with a
tale too complex for a committee to wrangle. Hugo Blick, its sole writer, calls
it a “thriller mosaic”; Brenman compares it to “this kind of Russian doll that
you keep on sort of peeling, peeling, peeling back.”

And Maggie Gyllenhaal views the complexity of the character
she inhabits: “She’s very powerful and graceful and intelligent. She’s also really
childish and broken and hungry and desperate and all of the things … I
recognize in myself.”

Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, half-Israeli, half-British, all-business.
Ever since a girlhood tragedy (shown in the first minutes), she’s been in
public view and in control. She has money, power and now a title; the story
begins as she enters the British nobility, being named a baroness.

The role places demands on Gyllenhaal. Like her character,
she reflects mixed cultures (her father is Swedish, her mother is Jewish);
unlike her character, she doesn’t have a British accent.

“I kind of wish I could talk like that all the time,”
Gyllenhaal joked. “I remember someone telling me, ‘You sound so much smarter’”
with a British accent.

Her character also sounds calm and soothing – until a jolt,
late in the first hour. Filmed in London, that scene starts in splendor and
ends with a desperate Nessa overshadowed by the giant Albert Memorial, which
Blick calls “a huge mega-statue of establishment power.”

Such complex visions spring from Blick, who wrote all eight
hours. “It’s important that it’s authored and come from one angle,” he said.
And that, most of the time, isn’t the American way.

“The Honorable Woman,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, repeating
at 1 a.m., for eight weeks, Sundance.

Opener (75 minutes) also airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday
(Aug. 5).


OK New York, it's time to beware of flying sharks

What do we do during the Television Critics Association sessions in Los Angeles? Serious things, often; during the 16-day stretch that just ended, we chatted with writers and producers and generals, plus Kobe Bryant and Dave Grohl and the Kiss guys.

But things also get silly, sometimes. Like the night we saw "Sharknado 2" at a swimming pool. Or a few days later when -- sandwiched between the PBS president and brilliant filmmaker Ken Burns -- I rushed back to my room for a conference call with the "Sharknado" stars and director. The movie arrives Wednesday on Syfy; here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- For Ian Ziering, this was the movie-star
experience. “I felt like I was a in a big Hollywood premiere,” he said.

Well, sort of. Except the biggest premieres have red carpets
and fancy gowns and movie theaters. “Sharknado 2: The Second One” was shown on
a wall alongside the Beverly Hilton swimming pool, with fake sharks in the
water and real hot dogs on the catering table.

The film – which debuts Wednesday on Syfy – is what the
title suggests. “This is not a deep movie,” Ziering said helpfully. Added Tara
Reid, his co-star: “It’s not like National Geographic or anything.”

National Geographic might say sharks can’t be lifted from
the ocean and flung – still alive and feisty – into New York City. “A shark can’t
do that,” director Anthony Ferrante said, “but a sharknado can.”

Forgive him for feeling possessive. Years ago, he said, he
pitched a different movie which had one character saying: “We don’t want what
happened in that other town. Remember the sharknado.”

Syfy rejected that film, but liked the word. It ordered a “Sharknado”
movie, which Ziering said he originally rejected. “I didn’t have the vision and
foresight to see what they had.”

Fortunately, his wife had financial foresight. A former “Beverly
Hills, 90210” star who divorced a former Playboy playmate, Ziering, 50, is now married
to a nurse and has two kids, ages 3 and 1; his wife suggested he take a job to
remain qualified for Screen Actors Guild insurance.

“I thought, ‘Well, no one’s ever going to see the movie,’”
Ziering said. “Boy, was I wrong.”

Something about the goofy title seemed to capture a
social-media world. The audience went from 1.4 million for the first airing (July
11, 2013), to 1.9 million for the second and 2.1 million for the third, James
Poniewozik wrote in Time magazine. “One in six tweets that (opening) night was
about ‘Sharknado’ …. Everyone from political pundits to Mia Farrow joined in
the ‘Sharknado’-nado.”

The film drew the usual monster-movie audience, Ferrante
said, but it went further. “Somehow, we also captured the mainstream audience ….
It was this fun little film that caught on.”

So the sequel follows the same route. “This(had) a very
campy nature,” Ziering said. “The only way to screw it up would be to change
it.” The only key changes involved:

Moving the filming from Los Angeles to New York.
That created some discomfort – filming during a frigid February – Ferrante said,
but “makes the movie look gargantuan.”

Adding cameos. That’s Robert Hays (“Airplane”)
flying the plane, Judd Hirsch (“Taxi”) driving the cab. “They told me I was
going to be eaten by a shark,” Hirsch said. “I said, ‘I’m in.’”

There are many other quirky cameos, plus all the big moments
that an action film requires. The actors, Reid said, were “reacting at sharks
coming at you, but nothing is coming at you.”

Those would be added later, with more than 700 special
effects. The stars didn’t get to see the final result until they joined TV
critics for a poolside evening that was (a little) like a Hollywood premiere.

“Sharknado 2: The Second One,” 9 p.m.  Wednesday, Syfy; repeats at 11:02 p.m.

“Sharknado” (2013) reruns that night at 7 p.m.
and 1:02 a.m.

“Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2” rerun at 5 and 7
p.m. Saturday, leading into “Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda.” That one (starring
Conan O’Brien, produced by Roger Corman, 88, the micro-budget movie master) is
at 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., part of a 20-hour monster marathon from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.

In the midst of nowhere, the world was transformed

For its first original drama series ("Salem"), WGN America merely drew shrugs. The second, however, is another matter. Directed and produced by Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing"), "Manhattan" is a stylish look at the early days of Los Alamos, when strangers gathered in an obscure part of New Mexico, to create the bomb that might end World War II. Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- On a stark stretch of New Mexico ranchland, a
makeshift city grew 70 years ago. It was “this very peculiar bubble in the
middle of nowhere,” said Sam Shaw, creator of the “Manhattan” series.

People came to Los Alamos, propelled by a patriotism and an optimism
that may seem distant now.

“We live in such a cynical and bitter time,” said John
Benjamin Hickey, who stars as a physicist. But back in 1943, it all seemed like
“such a great cause, to protect the American way of life.”

Los Alamos soon had 7,000 people, the majority of who didn’t
know what was being created. “Probably 70 percent, at least, found out … when
we dropped the bomb,” said Thomas Schlamme, who is director and producer of “Manhattan,”
just as he was of “The West Wing.”

The atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, quickly
ending World War II. Now the series looks at the two years before that, as the
Manhattan Project rushed along. “It was an incredibly strange moment in
American history,” Shaw said.

But how do you re-create that? A key break, Schlamme said,
was finding an old Army hospital that was “days away” from being leveled.
Carpenters added more buildings and natural New Mexico did the rest.

“This is a verisimilitude that only God could make,” Hickey
said. “We shoot (much of it) outside … on probably 20,000 acres …. As far as
the eye can see, it looks like 1942.”

It’s an odd and distant place … ut actors are used tat.
“Very often, (I don’t) know what I’m going to be expected to do tomorrow,” said
Olivia Williams, who plays Hickey’s wife, a botanist. “(I find) out late at
night and I’m taken to a strange location in the dark and then told to perform
strange acts.”

Now “Manhattan” puts its characters – all of them fictional,
except for Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer – in that same situation.
In a strange place, te tackle strange projects.

Some knew they were building a super-bomb, said Ashley
Zukerman, who plays a young genius. They also knew “there was a team in
Germany, working on the same thing.”

Others had no idea. Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Zukerman’s
wife, met a woman who grew up in Los Alamos and told about her mother’s
reaction: “She had no idea, for all the time they had been there. And (when she
learned of Hiroshima), she became violently, physically ill.”

The world had discovered a fierce force, created amid New
Mexico obscurity.

“Manhattan,” 9 p.m. Sundays, WGN America.

Opener, July 27, reruns at 10:10 p.m.; also,
reruns at 9 and 10:10 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Let's marvel at these musical whiz kids

Sometimes, all you can do is listen and watch in awe. That's what happens when 12-year-old Mae Ya Carter-Ryan opens her mouth and the voice of a powerhouse jazz-gospel song emerges. She and 12-year-old cellist Charlie Zandieh are among the kids in cable's "Young Marvels." Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- Young people, TV keeps telling us, are good
at dancing, cooking or singing pop songs.

Now one show, “Young Marvels,” reminds us that there’s much
more. Meet:

Charlie Zandieh, 12, a cellist. “I started
realizing that … my emotions were coming out when I was playing,” he said.

Mae Ya Carter-Ryan, 12, whose little-girl
speaking voice turns into the jazzy sound of a mezzo superstar. “I see myself
being on a big stage, singing in front of millions of people,” she said.

Or the others. Among boys, there’s an opera singer,
11; a blind pianist, 13; and two dancers, ballet, 14, and ballroom, 8. Among
girls, there’s a dancer, 13, and there’s Mabou Loiseau; at 8, she plays the
piano, plays the flute and sings in eight languages.

For some, this is logical. Charlie’s parents and two
brothers are all musical. “I think my dad actually chose the cello for me,” he
said. It was a good choice; this year, he won a Juilliard School competition.

And for others, this is a huge detour in a family with
little music background. Mae Ya was 7 when she asked for singing lessons,
recalled her mother Ina:

“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give you voice lessons.’ And I had no
intention of giving her voice lessons. She was already taking piano lessons,
and I just brushed it off ….

“One Saturday morning, a year later, I heard her singing
upstairs. And she was singing her heart out. And my mouth dropped open and I
said, ‘Oh my God, she can actually sing!’”

Even Mae Ya was surprised. “Everybody would say, ‘Oh, you’re
awesome; you’re great,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And then my
mom started to tape and I heard me and I’m like, ‘Wow!’”

 Others were wowed,
too. With most of the arts programs now eliminated from Chicago’s schools, her
mother says she’s often racing to private lessons. “I am a single parent, so it
is sometimes extremely difficult. A lot of sleep is lost, running to work,
running home from work to take her.”

Kathy Zandieh also knows the drill, taking Charlie to his lessons
at Juilliard. They live in Long Island, where school music programs thrive and
seem to boost other skills.

“It has helped math, science,” she said. “All three of the
kids are phenomenal students …. I think it would be a sin, almost. To take
music away or the arts away from school.”

It happens, often. And despite it all, young marvels keep

“Young Marvels,” 10 p.m. ET Wednesdays, Ovation
(via cable or satellite)

12-part series; the second part airs July 23

A New Zealand chap suddenly becomes the god of gods

This is the beauty of the Television Critics Association tour: One moment, you're talking to people from an epic-scale Hollywood production -- a "Gotham" or "Sleepy Hollow" or such. The next, you're talking to an amiable guy who stars in the first New Zealand series to jump straight to American TV. "The Almighty Johnsons" is a clever show, at 10 p.m. Fridays on Syfy; here's the story, about its star, that I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- Emmett Skilton’s home town seemed designed
for make-believe.

This was a bayside spot in New Zealand. There was nowhere
else to go – “only one road in and one road out of town” – and no reason to
want to leave, he said. “It was beautiful -- sunshine, crystal-clear water ….
as a kid, I liked to play outside all day.”

He could pretend to be other people in other worlds. Still,
he never pretended to be Odin, the ultimate Norse god; now he’s playing him on

In “The Almighty Johnsons,” Skilton is Axl Johnson, an
ordinary lad who learned on his 21
st birthday that his brothers and
uncle are Norse gods … and he’s Odin, the leader of all gods. That odd notion

Bridge international gaps. “Almighty Johnsons”
is reportedly the first fully New Zealand series to run on an American network.

Resist Syfy Channel trends. Whimsical shows
(“Eureka,” “Warehouse 13”) are gone; serious, rich-looking ones dominate. Dave
Howe, the channel president, talks of having “the smartest, cutting-edge and
provocative science-fiction.” By comparison, “Johnsons” is pure whimsy.

Fit neatly into Skilton’s world.

Like Axl, Skilton grew up in small-town New Zealand, with
three brothers. Axl is the youngest; Skilton is the second-youngest. The
difference, he says, is that none of his brothers is mean – “we had a very female
influence from our mother and grandmother” -- and none is, to his knowledge, a
Norse god.

Their dad is a psychiatric nurse, their mom is a kindergarten
teacher and Skillton grew up with a sense of fun. At 13, he was chosen for an
improvisational theater group; then came the New Zealand Drama School, some
theater and small TV roles and the “Almighty Johnsons” try-outs.

“At the final auditions, the actors (playing Axl’s brothers)
were extremely short,” recalled Skillton, who’s 6-foot-3. “I thought, ‘Well,
I’m not getting that role.’”

He did, though. (Hey, why can’t Odin tower above all other
gods?) “Almighty Johnsons” was cancelled after its second season, was revived
after fan protests, then was buried for good after the third season.

By then, it was ready for international sales, with 36
episodes, muted accents and one familiar name: Keisha Castle-Hughes – who in
her teens was an Oscar nominee in “Whale Rider” and Mary in “The Nativity
Story” – is 24 now; she plays Gaia, Axl’s friend and platonic housemate.

The show was sold to Australia, the United Kingdom and even
Russia, Skilton said. The U.S. was a tougher market to crack. “Acquisitions
tend to not do as well in the ratings” as original productions do, said Howe,
the Syfy chief. Still, he has some and couldn’t resist this one. “We liked the

That encouraged Skillton to move. Now he lives in the Hollywood
Hills and has meetings and auditions. He’s also picked up a new hobby: “I had
no idea that you could go snowboarding right here.”

Well, almost anything’s possible in Los Angeles, especially
for someone who’s been a Norse god.

“The Almighty Johnsons,” 10 p.m. Fridays, Syfy;
rerunning at midnight.

Third episode is July 25; before that, the first
two rerun Tuesday night (technically, Wednesday morning) at 1 and 2 a.m.