In a flash (and with a virgin), the CW turns visible again

At their peaks, the WB and UPN networks gave us wonderful shows -- "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Felicity" and "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Everybody Hates Chris" and more. At their low points, they merged into the CW, which almost disappeared.

But now the CW has started a surprising comeback. Here's the story I sent to papers:



The CW network suddenly has two things it’s not used to –
ratings and respect.

Ratings? The debut of “The Flash” drew 4.8 million viewers,
triple what the CW usually gets.

Respect? In a poll, Television Critics Association members
put the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” second (to Fox’s “Gotham”) as the most promising
new series. Gina Rodriguez, who plays Jane, was the overwhelming choice for potential
breakout star … with Grant Gustin of “The Flash” finishing second.

Add other mild successes and the CW seems to have recovered
from a long bout of invisibility.

The network was created in 2006 by merging WB and UPN, but
the sum soon became less than its parts. During the “sweeps” month last May,
the CW averaged only a million viewers; CBS had 11 million. For last season,
one list of 181 shows (some counted twice because of changed nights) saw the CW
with nothing in the top 127 … but 17 in the bottom 21.

“When we lost ‘Smallville’ (three) years back, we lost men,”
said Mark Pedowitz, the network’s programming chief. “So we tried to balance
out and broaden out,” to show “we were no longer (only for) a teenage-girl

“Arrow” arrived two years ago, becoming the network’s top
ratings-getter … and helping launch “The Flash.” The latter show skipped the
usual temptation to cast a beefy, square-jawed hero. Instead, it chose Gustin –
slender, likable, 24 and happy to play the world’s fastest being.

“I actually was very fast as a kid but, ironically, hated
running,” Gustin said. “I quit soccer because I thought it was ridiculous that
we were running back and forth.”

The CW’s other breakthrough star had shown patience. In
2012, “Filly Brown” was nominated for a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film
Festival; Rodriquez, its star, won Imagen Award and ALMA Awards; she signed a
holding deal … then turned down a role in the “Devious Maids” cable series.

“I found it limiting that that was the one that was
available to me,” Rodriguez recalled. “I found it limiting for the stories that
Latinos have, for the stories that Americans have.”

Then came producer Ben Silverman, who has had his best luck
importing shows – “The Office” from England and “Ugly Betty” from a Colombian telenovela.
He pitched several ideas to Pedowitz, who jumped at a Venezuelan soap opera
about a virgin who is accidentally inseminated.

“I wanted it to sort of have a fairy tale, whimsical
quality,” said Jennie Snyder Urman, who molded that into “Jane the Virgin” for
the U.S. “(It’s) somewhere between ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘Gilmore Girls.’”

The central character is an ambitious young Miamian, working
toward her teaching certificate. For Rodriguez, 29 -- who grew up in Chicago, “English
being my first language, Spanish being my second,” with a sister who’s an
investment banker – Jane fits neatly. “I waited for her patiently,” she said.

Rodriquez grew up with “The Cosby Show” and “Growing Pains,”
but her co-stars know telenovelas, the soap-style miniseries that rule prime
time in Latin America.  “I grew up watching
telenovelas in Puerto Rico and … did telenovelas for Telemundo for a while,”
said Ivonne Coll, 67, who plays her grandmother.

Now this series includes a telenovela that Jane watches with
her mother and grandmother. “We have lots of wonderful moments, where we can be
over-the-top funny,” Coll said. “In the real telenovelas, they don’t even know
they’re over-the-top and they’re funny.”

A comedy-drama, English-Spanish, silly-serious show, “Jane”
is sort of the ultimate hybrid. The CW needs that, as it recovers from invisibility.

CW season

“Jane the Virgin,” 9 p.m. Mondays (starting Oct.
13), after “The Originals”; reruns at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17

“The Flash” and “Supernatural,” 8 and 9 p.m.

“The 100” will be 9 p.m. Wednesdays (starting Oct.
22), after “Arrow”; on Oct. 15, that slot goes to a “Flash” rerun.

Also: “Vampire Diaries” and “Reign” on
Thursdays, “America’s Next Top Model” on Fridays.

Mid-season shows are “iZombie” and “The
Messengers,” plus the return of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hart of Dixie.”

Like Joe Kennedy, Letscher has his path to world domination

This was a bit of dialog on a TV comedy a few years ago: "Who's that guy?" "What guy?" "The guy who's in every movie." "Oh, Jeff Daniels."

And now Matt Letscher, Daniels' former protégé, seems to be that guy. He's everywhere, from CW to HBO, from ABC to indie movies. Here's the story I sent to papers: 


Maybe this should be a defining question for actors: How
many Kennedys have you played?

Matt Letscher has now done the ones on each end – Joseph
Kennedy Sr. and his youngest son Ted. At 44, he has plenty of time to do more,
in a busy career.

He was Ted in the 2001 mini-series “The Women of Camelot”;
he’s been Joe in three “Boardwalk Empire” episodes, one rerunning this week.
Alongside acting, he’s been a playwright, director and screenwriter. “I have a
mind that always wants to be busy,” he said.

The Kennedy roles could keep any mind busy. “Ted’s entire
life was a public one,” Letscher said. “Joe’s life was not so public, (but) he
definitely had his plan for world domination through his sons.”

Joe brought a mixture of charm, cunning and sheer
determination. “He was constantly the underdog,” Letscher said. “He was a first-generation
Irish-American; no favors were done for him.”

 And that requires
acting; no one refers to Letscher as an underdog.

He grew up in Grosse Pointe, a high-end superb of Detroit.
His dad was a general contractor, his mom taught special education and his only
wayward moments came in his teens. “It’s not like I was cooking meth in Grosse
Pointe,” he said. “But I definitely was making poor choices.”

His parents insisted he find something new. “From the first
audition on stage, I knew I loved acting.”

He studied theater at U-M and landed a spot in a workshop
that Broadway great Uta Hagen held in Detroit. Next came his professional
debut, in a comedy Jeff Daniels wrote for the theater (Purple Rose) he started
in his home town of Chelsea, Mich. “It was one of the best summers of my life,”
he said.

And it led to more: Daniels was about to star in TNT’s
“Gettysburg.” When the director came to talk to him in Chelsea, Daniels asked
him to see Letscher. That led to a small role and the start of a big career.

Letscher has had recurring or regular roles in at least 13
series. Of late, he’s been Carrie Bradshaw’s widowed dad in “The Carrie
Diaries,” Eli’s brother in “Eli Stone,” the vice-president’s chief-of-staff and
campaign manager in “Scandal” … and now Joe Kennedy.

That – and playing sports with his two sons – should be
enough to keep him busy, but Letscher uses Daniels as an example: “Jeff is
always doing something else – writing plays and scripts.”

Letscher has returned to Purple Rose twice – once as actor,
once as playwright-director -- and expects to be back. He co-wrote, directed
and acted in the pilot for the Web comedy series “One & Done.”

And he’s done indie movies, including “Teacher of the Year,”
now heading to film festivals. (“It’s in the ‘mockumentary’ style, very funny .”)
He keeps trying new things; Joe Kennedy would understand.

“Boardwalk Empire.” Letscher’s third Joe Kennedy
episode reruns at 8 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 1), 10 p.m. Thursday and 11 p.m. Saturday on
HBO. Also, 10 p.m. Wednesday and 1:15 p.m. Sunday on HBO2, 11 p.m. Friday and
5:45 p.m. Saturday on HBO Signature.

Also: Movies (most recently, “Her” and “Teacher
of the Year”) and TV guest roles. On Monday (Sept. 29), he was a witness/suspect on “Castle.”

In Shondaland, life is always busy and sometimes controversial

When you go to ABC on Thursdays, you're stepping into Shondaland. All three shows -- "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and the new "How to Get Away with Murder" -- are produced by Shonda Rhimes and have key things in common. But does that make Rhimes a dictator, in the manner of some of her characters? That question bubbled up anew this week and I had a chance to ask about it this summer. Here's the story I sent to papers today:


Just so we’re clear on this, Shonda Rhimes is not,
apparently, an angry black woman. Any similarity to Annalise Keating, the
powerhouse character in her new show, is slight and coincidental.

That question came up this week, after a New York Times
piece tried to praise Rhimes and her “How to Get Away with Murder.” The result
drew complaints and apologies.

But the question also came up in July, when she met the Television
Critics Association. We asked her then if Keating – very much in control,
ruling the room – felt autobiographical. “I didn’t write it and so it’s not
about me,” Rhimes said. “She’s not like me at all.”

Would she like to be like Keating? “I find her … a
fascinating, interesting character who’s writ incredibly complex … There are
aspects of her that we all wish we could be like,” Rhimes said.

What about the younger “Murder” co-stars? On the show, they
play new law students intimidated by Keating, their professor; do they find
Rhimes or Davis intimidating?

“Definitely,” said Karla Souza. “They demand a presence when
they walk in the room. And it’s invigorating to feel on your toes all the time ….
They’re people we obviously admire a lot.”

Rhimes is, after all, not your usual TV producer. She has an
entire night of scripted TV dramas – something that apparently hasn’t happened
since Aaron Spelling in the early 1980s.

It’s easy to envision her as a domineering auteur, molding
everything under her “Shondaland” production banner. Those shows have similar strengths
(vivid dialog, strong visuals and music, award-winning diversity) and flaws
(plot twists that sometimes spin wildly into soap/telenovela turf).

So it’s simple to imagine Rhimes as a real-life Keating or
Bailey (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or Pope (“Scandal”). In the Times piece, Alessandra
Stanley praised her, saying she took “the trite but persistent caricature of
the angry black woman, recast it in her own image, and made it enviable.” She
also opened by suggesting that Rhimes’ autobiography be “How to Get Away with
Being an Angry Black Woman.”

That drew the complaints and the Times apologies.

Certainly, TV has had its auteurs. There were seasons when
Aaron Sorkin and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason each wrote all 22 episodes of “The
West Wing” and “Designing Women,” respectively.

But auteurs usually only do one show; the notion of
producing several shows is better left to an easygoing delegator, in the
Spelling style. Rhimes created “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal,”
but out of 437 episodes, she’s listed as the writer of only 41 and the director
of zero. She didn’t create “Murder”; that was done by Peter Nowalk, a
Shondaland producer-writer.

“Putting normal people in extreme circumstances (is) very
appealing,” Nowalk said. “What’s more extreme than being a first-year law
student who’s kind of innocent and naïve and thrust into a murder?”

Then he created a role strong enough to lure Oscar-nominee
Viola Davis. Her movie roles, she said, are “like being invited to a really
fabulous party, only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”

“How to Get Away with Murder,” 10 p.m.
Thursdays, ABC; debuts Sept. 25

In a new-ish world, "Black-ish" captures life's fun-ish questions

There are wise minds -- none of them mine -- that consider "Black-ish" TV's next big thing. A poll of the Television Critics Association chose it as this fall's most promising new comedy. I have some others above it -- "Selfies," "A to Z," "The McCarthys" -- but I agree that "Black-ish" is an interesting show to watch and to think about. It arrives Wednesday (Sept. 24, just after "Modern Family") on ABC; here's the story I sent to papers:


This is supposed to be a goal in life: You move up, giving
your kids a better world than you knew.

Then you start to wonder what you’ve skipped. “My son was 12
(when) he said, ‘Dad, I don’t feel black,’” recalled Anthony Anderson, star of
ABC’s new “Black-ish.”

So Anderson chatted about his own struggle to give his
family more; his son said he understood. “And then, in the same breath, he
said, ‘OK, Dad. For my 13
th birthday, I want a bar mitzvah’ …. I
told him, ‘I will throw you a hip hop bro mitzvah.’”

That sets the mood for “Black-ish,” which faces the
reactions to a changing world. Just ask:

Kenya Barris, the show’s writer. “My wife’s a
doctor,” he said. “She’ll come home and … I’ll say, ‘I’m hungry.’ And she’ll go,
‘Me, too.’”  

Tracee Ellis Ross, who co-stars as Anderson’s
wife, an anesthesiologist; in real life, she’s the result of upward mobility. A
generation ago, sisters grew up in a Detroit housing project. One (Tracee’s
aunt) became a doctor and the first black female to be dean of a med school; the
other (Tracee’s mom) is Diana Ross, mega-star.

Larry Wilmore. At 52, he finds himself in high
demand – as a “Black-ish” producer-writer, a “Daily Show” correspondent and the
anchor of the show (“The Minority Report”) that will follow “The Daily Show”
when Stephen Colbert leaves.

And Anderson, an expert on upward mobility. “I
grew up in the hood, in Compton, California,” he said. “And the existence that
my son knows is nothing short of privilege, being in private school since the
age of 4.”

For any ethnic group that assimilates or anyone who shifts
financial brackets, Barris said, there are adjustments. He remembers his
daughter going to great lengths to explain which classmate she was talking
about. “I was like, ‘Hold on. Do you mean the only other little black girl in
your class?’ And she was like, ‘I guess so.’”

In the new world, racial identities shift and words get
tricky. Still, it sometimes works out; Anderson said his son’s party was fine.
“His Jewish friend said that was the best bar mitzvah they’ve been to.”

“Black-ish,” 9:31 p.m. Wednesdays (after “Modern
Family”), ABC.

Debuts Sept. 24; the opener will rerun at 9:30
p.m. Friday (Sept. 26) on ABC Family.

"Koch": A life that was big and brash and kind of fun


 Some people and some cities are fascinating because of their sheer audacity. You can put New York on that list ... and you'll find the "Koch" documentary fascinating. Most PBS stations will air it Monday (Sept. 22), on the first day of the TV season; here's the story I sent to papers:


At times, a person and place seem to link neatly. That
includes Ed Koch and his city.

“New York is an in-your-face city,” Michael Powell said. As
a New York Times reporter, he will “often get the feeling that every New Yorker
has been waiting all his life to be asked to give a quote.”

And the late Koch – subject of a new PBS film – was the
extreme. Other mayors might be unavailable for comment; in New York, a newsman
coined the phrase: “Ed Koch was unavoidable for comment.”

He strolled the city, spouting his catchphrase, “How am I
doing?” He was also “hilariously funny,” said Diane Mulcahy Coffey, his
long-time chief of staff. “It was an adventure to work for him.”

That was the surface, but what about the substance of his 12
years in office?

New York “lost a million jobs in the 10 years before Koch
was mayor,” said Neil Barsky, director of the film. “The manufacturing base had
declined to nothing. People were fleeing …. It was very dreary.”

With the city teetering near bankruptcy, Koch made huge
cutbacks. When it could take out bonds again, Coffey said, he went in the other
direction. “He started his housing program for $5 billion. It’s a huge amount
of money …. That (shows) somebody who is daring and somebody who is bold.”

The steps started by Koch brought remarkable changes to the
Broadway district and the neighborhoods. A few years ago, Barsky decided to
show his daughter the city’s underside. “I remembered the rubble and
everything,” he said. “And we drove and we drove and we drove through the South
Bronx …. I couldn’t find it; it has all been rebuilt.”

But amid his frenetic dealings, Koch soon found himself
battling blacks and gays.

During his first campaign (in 1978), he had drawn black
support by vowing to preserve the Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. “Sydenham had
been a place that had hired black doctors when other hospitals wouldn’t,”
Powell said.  “It was seen as a critical
part of the black community.”

Shortly after being elected, Koch closed it. That may have
been necessary, Powell said. Koch could have admitted the promise was a
mistake; instead, he attacked protestors. “That became a real weakness.”

Also in that first campaign, Koch – who never discussed his
sexuality – raged at signs that said: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” For the
rest of the campaign, he and Bess Myerson, the former Miss America, gave the
impression of a romantic relationship. “We were never going to be lovers,” he
said in the film.

That may have been a harmless deception, but critics said
the problem went further: In denial about his own sexuality, Koch failed to
confront the AIDS crisis.

Powell takes a mixed view of that. “Virtually the entire
country was very slow,” he said. “And New York City caught up very quickly ….
His greatest failure in the AIDS crisis was his inability to convey empathy.”

This was a pioneer in banning discrimination toward gays,
Coffey said. Koch championed the common man. “He started with nothing; he was a
hat-check boy in Jersey” at 12.

He savored people but – when confronted by critics – struck
back. “He was a complicated cat,” Powell said” … and a match for a complicated

“POV: Koch,” 10 p.m. Monday, PBS (check local listings).

Filming was completed before Koch’s death at 88,
on Feb. 1, 2013.