Brits give us the best pirates and dowagers

TV viewers don't expect much on Saturdays ... except on Starz. That's the cable channel that has given us "Da Vinci's Demons," "Dancing on the Edge," "Boss" and, especially, "White Queen." Now it has "Black Sails," a pirate epic.

If you miss the Jan. 25 debut, don't fret. That will rerun Feb. 1, right before the second episode; it also has several more reruns before that. Here's the story I sent to papers, with the various times listed at the end:


Each weekend now, the British give us opposite viewing

Pirates slash, rage and plunder; dowagers sip, snack and
ponder. And a mother-son duo does both.

Maggie Smith is the tart matriarch in “Downton Abbey”
(Sundays on PBS); Toby Stephens is the fierce Captain Flint in the new “Black
Sails” (Saturdays on Starz). Smith has drawn praise and awards, but her son
seems happy with his messier role.

“I appreciate ‘Downton Abbey’ for what it is,” Stephens
said, but “I don’t regularly tune in. It’s not the really the kind of show that
I enjoy.”

He’s played some classy costume dramas, but says “Sails” is
“like going on an exotic vacation.” Which depends on how you vacation. “The
show is sexy; the show is violent,” said writer Jonathan Steinberg.

It’s set in 1715, as the maritime world was changing. For
years, pirates were merely “privateers”; the British government seemed happy
when they disrupted French or Spanish ships.

Now that was starting to change. “People who had been authorized
by the British Crown (to) loot on the open ocean suddenly were criminals,” said
Carmi Zlotnik, the programming chief for Starz.

But as “Black Sails” begins, this is still what Stephens
calls “the golden age of piracy.” Pirates even have their own island, where
rules are scarce. “It’s a world where sexuality and boundaries have completely
broken down,” said Hannah New, who plays the bisexual beauty who runs the

Steinberg’s script mixes several real-life pirates with key
characters from “Treasure Island.” We see the formative years of John Silver
(Luke Arnold) and we see Flint cling to his power.

“It’s a playground for costume designers and everyone,”
Arnold said.

Especially for the actors. Stephens professes a fondness for
high-stakes adventure.

“My mum is great in” costume drama, he said. “I’ve done it.
I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life. (‘Black Sails’) has a fantastic
character, phenomenal production values and a fantastic story.”

And it lets him play pirate, big-time.

“Black Sails,” 9 p.m. Saturdays, Starz; opener, Jan. 25, reruns at 10:10 and 11:20.

First episode (Jan. 25) reruns at 7:50 p.m.
Feb. 1, in front of the second episode.

Between those two, other reruns are: Sunday (Jan. 26), noon and 3, 8 and 9:10 p.m.; then 10 a.m. Monday, 2:09 and 10 p.m. Tuesday, 7:50 and 9 p.m. Wednesday, 3:50 p.m.
Thursday; and 10:45 p.m. Friday.

Raking through a messy (and funny) TV life

This is a busy time in the TV and cable world, as mid-season shows arrive. "Rake" (Thursday on Fox) is an amiable one, with Greg Kinnear as a sharp lawyer with a messy life. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Greg Kinnear’s new shot at TV stardom began years ago and
several continents away.

It would become “Rake,” opening Thursday in a cozy slot
behind “American Idol.” Kinnear plays a smart and charming lawyer whose life is

“He makes sizable mistakes” without changing, Kinnear said.
“He isn’t built like a typical television protagonist. That was kind of what
appealed to me.”

The roots for that began with Australian actor Richard
Roxburgh. “He had a friend at university who was a brilliant guy,” writer Peter
Duncan said, “but every Friday and Saturday, he’d get in a fight with someone
and he would be beaten up.”

 Duncan pondered that
until he read about a messy crime trial. A former lawyer himself, Duncan
decided to make this self-destructive character a lawyer.

So “Rake” began in 2010, with Roxburgh starring. The U.S.
version includes two Australian actresses who weren’t in the original series,
but remember it as fans.

“It just felt like such an intelligent, funny show,” Miranda
Otto said. “Such a grown-up show.”

Adds Bojana Novakovic: “It was a really great thing to see
so many amazing female characters.”

These sharp female characters surround a mess of a guy. Otto
plays his ex-wife, Novakovic plays a prostitute who is his sort-of mistress,
Tara Summers plays an office assistant who rarely gets paid. “She’s here
illegally, … so he’s the only one who will pay her,” Summers said.

This may be the messiest TV life since the troubled fireman
Denis Leary played in “Rescue Me.” To create the American version, Duncan was
paired with Peter Tolan, who led “Rescue Me” with Leary.

The U.S. pilot went too far, Tolan said, with a sadness
overload. They pushed that episode back and started with brighter ones, “to
sort of get an audience comfortable with a guy who’s this much of a

Retained from the Australian version was the title: “Rake”
isn’t the character’s name; it’s an obsolete word for a sort of loose party
guy. “We’re trying to pull in the highly coveted viewership of people who were
alive during the Elizabethan times,” Tolan joked.

He jokes often, inserting bright moments into press
conferences and scripts. Like “Rescue Me,” this show juggles big laughs and
high-stakes drama.

Kinnear has done both in movies, but usually not in the same
project. “It’s probably not done very often,” he said, “because it hard to do …
to find that comedic/drama balance.” Now there are funny ways for him to tackle
messy cases and live a messy life.

“Rake,” 9 p.m. Thursdays, Fox; debuts Jan. 23

From the Fallon to the Olympics, this is NBC's time for big moves

PASADENA, Cal. -- NBC is trying some familiar draws – from “Peter
Pan” to Dorothy’s “Oz,” from Katherine Heigl to a multi-tasking Amy Poehler –
in its ongoing comeback attempt.

That won’t be easy, as shown by the decline of its Thursdays
from “must-see” to don’t-see. A recent “Michael J. Fox Show” rerun drew 3.1
million viewers, one-third of “The Crazy Ones” on CBS. “We’re really unhappy we
can’t find an audience for that show,” said programming chief Robert

But on one Thursday in December, a live “Sound of Music”
with Carrie Underwood drew 18 million. Now he’s planning a follow-up musical – “Peter
Pan,” not yet cast – for Dec. 4, from the same producers.

NBC is also believed to be in the bidding for a package of Thursday
pro-football games, moving from the NFL Network to, possibly, broadcast.
Greenblatt said the notion of a four-comedy Thursday – once an NBC power spot –
may disappear.

Still, Jennifer Salke, the NBC Entertainment president, said
the network is likely to have as many comedies as it does now. Greenblatt said
he’s sure Poehler’s “Parks and Recreation” will be back. Poehler – who has just
won a Golden Globe as an actress – has also signed a producing deal; her first
pilot will have Natasha Lyonne as a young woman, working as an aide to
opinionated oldsters.

Also, Greenblatt told reporters:

Heigl – who left “Grey’s Anatomy” to do movies –
may be back on TV. She’s producing and starring in “State of Affairs,” as a CIA
advisor to the president.

Jay Leno – “truly one of the nicest people” in
show business – will have his final late-night show on Feb. 6. Billy Crystal –
his first guest, 22 years ago – will be there, with Garth Brooks. On the two days
before that, guests will be Matthew McConaughey, Charles Barkley, Sandra
Bullock and Blake Shelton.

Just before that, Jimmy Fallon will be on Leno’s
show Feb. 3. Fallon moves into the “Tonight” spot on Feb. 17, airing at
midnight during the final week of the Winter Olympics. A week later, he moves
into the 11:35 p.m. spot, with Seth Meyers at 12:35 a.m.

That night (Feb. 24) will be the key one. It’s
the first day after the Olympics, launching a new round of “The Voice” (with
Usher and Shakira returning) and the return of “The Blacklist.”

Also promoted during the Olympics will be an
all-new Sunday – a reality show (“American Dream Builders) hosted by Nate
Berkus, and two high-stakes dramas, “Believe” and “Crisis.”

The old notion of mini-series is back. NBC has
ordered a 10-episode “Emerald City” (with a 20-year-old Dorothy entering Oz)
and an eight-episode “The Slap,” a family drama from Jon Robin Baitz of “Brothers
& Sisters.”

Even on TV, it's a long, cold winter

OK, I really had no gnawing need for more winter in my life. In the first three official weeks of the season, I'd had an 18-inch snowfall, a minus-13 low and an ice storm that brought four days without heat or electricity. (It turns out that I REALLY like electricity and, especially, heat.)

Still, TV is about to divert us with some serious winter. "Klondike" starts Monday (Jan. 20) on the Discovery Channel and runs for three nights and six hours. Here's the story I sent to papers:


This is just the sort of story Hollywood savors, filled with
action, agony and the distant lure of wealth.

In 1897, word spread that gold had been discovered in
northern Canada. Dawson City (which currently has about 1,100 people) bulged to
40,000. Macho men (and a few enterprising women) collided.

Then why haven’t there been more films about the Klondike
gold rush? Just ask the people who made “Klondike,” a three-night, six-hour
miniseries that debuts Monday (Jan. 20).

“We were on a massive lake,” Abbey Cornish said. “It was
cold; there was snow being thrown into snow machines. Richard (Madden, who
stars) spent the whole day with real snow being blown into his face.

“The hands were cold, the face was cold. It was hard to talk
and there was something very elemental.”

It was hard on the people and the machines. At times, Madden
said, “we can’t shoot because the rain machines are frozen.

That reflects the Klondike ferocity, director Simon Cellan
Jones said. “The story is so sort of brutal.

The brutality is clear in the story, Jones said. “One of the
characters says, ‘You’ve got to go far as you can and then you just keep

Which is roughly how people got to work, including a spot
atop a 9,000-foot mountain. You’d “take a snowmobile as far up the mountain as
you could,” Madden said. “And then you’d hike 45 minutes to get to the top,
(where) there’s no air and you can’t really breathe. And then we’d start

They were telling a massive, macho story that mixes
fictional characters with historical ones, including:

Jack London, who became famous. “His father
abandoned him (and) he took off for the Klondike and ended up writing a bunch
of his material off of his experiences there,” said Johnny Simmons, who plays

Belinda Mulroney, Cornish’s character, who
became a shopowner. “She became the most powerful person in Dawson City,” said
Paul Scheuring (“Prison Break”), the scriptwriter. \

William Haskell, Madden’s character. A college
grad, he ended up writing an account of his two years in the Klondike.

The story puts Haskell in great jeopardy. Some of that was
hard to fake, Jones said, including a wolf chase. “­The wolves were like big,
fluffy pets who’d go and fetch your slippers.”

And some of it took no faking at all, including a scene in
the rapids. “They were real rapids and we were …. trying to achieve something
really difficult and mad,” Madden said.

 Harder than any of
that, perhaps, was replacing one one of the leads. Chris Cooper had suffered a
minor heart attack, producers said; they wanted Sam Shepard, but his remote
lifestyle makes it tough to get a script to him. “He was out fishing …. He
didn’t have Internet, so we couldn’t E-mail him the script,” said producer
David Zucker. “So we had to find a way to (reach) the Kinko’s.”

Shepard – an acclaimed playwright – liked the script and
promptly drove from his remote world to an even-more remote one. There, he
could portray a hectic piece of history.

“I see this as just another piece of American madness,”
Shepard said. “It’s just another chunk of the insanity that we carry around, …
whether we’re involved in technology or … trapping beavers.”

“Klondike,” on Discovery Channel

-- Monday through Wednesday, 9 p.m.

-- Repeats at 11:05 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11:18 p.m. Wednesday

-- Also, the first part reruns at 7 p.m. Tuesday; the first two parts repeat at 5 and 7 p.m. Wednesday


Valerie Harper: Life after death-prognosis can be sweet

Valerie Harper has always had a key place in life -- as a young comedy actress, as a hunger-fighting activist, now as a TV icon who seems to get busier, long after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now she has cable movies, one of them Sunday (Jan. 19); here's the story I sent to papers:



PASADENA, Cal. -- Valerie Harper is getting used to this –
the applause from colleagues, the praise from strangers. Think of it as her
victory lap.

“My brain scans keep improving,” said Harper, diagnosed with
terminal cancer a year ago. “I was supposed to be dead by Easter and here it is
2014, so I am pleased.”

And back to acting, thanks to two cable channels. “The Town
That Came A-Courtin’” debuts Sunday on UP; a Hallmark Channel film is on the

Those follow her “Dancing With the Stars” performances. “My husband
… said, ‘Val, we have to see if you can work,’” Harper recalled.

She can, said Ronda Rich, whose book is the basis for the UP
film. It was “1:30 in the morning and Valerie Harper is sending all of us home
and she’s staying to work.”

That fits the upbeat approach of UP (formerly Gospel Music
Channel) and the film. Rich said the story goes back to a book-signing she did in
Blytheville, Ark:

The people in line “would say, ‘So, you’re not married,
right? … Our mayor isn’t, either. He lives in the biggest house in town … and
we’re trying to find him a wife.’”

She dated him once (“I was so charmed by this town”), then
used that (adding a happy ending) for the novel, which reached UP.

“I had heard … Valerie might be interested in working,” said
Barbara Fisher, the head of UP original programming. “I said, ‘We’re going to
get her.’ I mean, who doesn’t want to have Valerie Harper?”

Within a day, she said, Harper had been hired to play Charlotte,
the innkeeper who nudges a visiting author (Lauren Holly) toward the widowed
mayor (Cameron Bancroft).

Charlotte is a cheery sort, easy turf for Harper. “I had a
very positive mom,” she said, “and just a great, great solid mom and dad … Life
is here to have fun and to meet people.”

Harper danced in Broadway choruses and did comedy on-stage
and on TV. Then she was cast as Rhoda Morgenstern for “The Mary Tyler Moore
Show” and “Rhoda”; she would get eight Emmy nominations in the role, winning
four times.

Harper went on to star in “Valerie,” was fired during a
salary dispute, but filed suit and was awarded $1.4 million plus a piece of the
profits. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and was told last January
that cancer had reached the membrane surrounding her brain.

Still, she pushes ahead. “I’m doing quite well,” Harper
said. “I’m feeling good and I’m moving forward …. It’s incurable and it’s
terminal, but aren’t we all?”

Later that day, she received the only standing ovation at a
gathering for Hallmark stars. And earlier in the day, a woman in the hotel
hallway called her an inspiration.

Harper said she hears that a lot these days. “It’s wonderful.
(I’m) saying: ‘Don’t be afraid of death. Live your life.’”

“The Town That Came A-Courtin’,” 7 and 11:30
p.m. Sunday, UP