Quiet comedies? Dreary, weary plots? These shows make it work

People keep finding ways to re-invent TV comedies. The studio-audience shows are starkly different from the filmed ones. But if either style is done right -- "The Big Bang Theory," "Modern Family" -- the result is delightful.

And now there's another style, the quiet comedy that sometimes seems to nudge into drama or comedy. One ("Baskets") got way too dreary, but the two shows arriving this week are terrific. "Better Things" (Thursday, Sept. 8) and "One Mississippi" (Friday, Sept. 9) are gems. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

We've always known
what half-hour TV shows are like.

From Lucy to “Big
Bang,” they've been bright and busy. But now there are worthy
exceptions on:

-- The FX cable
network. “Better Things” continues the style that Louis C.K.
started with FX's “Louie” -- a droll, dry look at the life of a
single parent. This time, the focus is on Pamela Adlon, whose world
might seem weary. “I just feel like everything is funny in my
life,” she said.

-- The Amazon Prime
streaming service. “We have a range of tones,” said Amazon
executive Joe Lewis, “all the way from sad to devastating.”

Amazon has already
drawn attention and awards for “Transparent” and “Mozart in the
Jungle”; now “One Mississippi” has a version of what Tig Notaro
calls the time “when my life actually fell apart.” Recovering
from a double masectomy and an intestinal ailment, she rushed to her
mother's deathbed.

No, these shows
don't sound funny ... but they often are. Both are produced by Louis
C.K. (who also directed Adlon;s pilot and co-wrote it with her); both
mix real life with fiction.

“With 'One
Mississippi,'' with 'Better Things,' with 'Louie' – these are all
inspired by real life,” said M. Blair Breard. “But they're not
necessarily real life.”

She's been a
producer for all three shows. “Louie” is now on a long break, but
the two new ones were built around women with interestingly ragged

-- “Better Things”
(10 p.m. Thursdays, FX, beginning Sept. 8):

Pamela Adlon, 50,
grew up on both coasts. In New York, her dad, Donald Segall, was a
producer for Dave Garroway's show, which became “Today”; in Los
Angeles, he scrambled.

“My dad was like a
real journeyman writer and producer,” she said. “He's the
grandson and the son of a junkman. He used to write soft-core porn,
dime-store novels, to get by .... He was just a funny, funny, great
man (who) loved to laugh and be part of everything in the world.”

He wrote some TV
episodes, but his daughter was often busier. Then Pamela Segall, she
did a “Facts of Life” season (as Kelly) and co-starred in “The
Redd Foxx Show.” In “Down the Shore,” she played the one young
woman who argued with the guys; the character was dropped between

As a grown-up, Adlon
has thrived on voice work, including Bobby Hill in “King of the
Hill.” Other acting roles have been inconsistent, but she
co-starred in “Californication” and played C.K.'s wife in his
first comedy series, then helped write and produce his second one.
“There's this kind of antiquated way that we used to all do
television,” she said. “We're all kind of gently shaking (it)

“Better Things”
has versions of her late dad (in a dream scene) and her mom. “My
mother supported the family while my dad was writing. (She's) a
little, 80-year-old English lady from Chishire. I knew that I wanted
to have a real English person (play her), who could be formidable and
then a little fluff.”

-- “One
Mississippi” (any time on Amazon Prime,starting Friday, Sept. 9):

Managing bands in
Denver and Los Angeles, Tig Notaro found that her Southern roots were

“I didn't realize
that everyone didn't have a small town they came from or weird family
members,” she said. Then she would bring people home to
Mississippi. “Friends and girlfriends (were) like, 'Who are these
people? Where am I?'”

Notaro began talking
about her life during stand-up comedy and podcasts. Recovering from
cancer, she gave her stand-up show a personal feel. Louis C.K.
promptly contacted her about an audio recording and now the series.
“I would say (it's) about 85 percent real,” she said.

In real life, her
mother and step-father had moved to Texas. Notaro decided it would be
better to set the show in Mississippi, her home state and the place
she keeps returning to. “I got married in Mississippi,” she said.
“The obvious choice for a gay couple.”

She said that in her
usual tone, which is dry and quiet and ideal for the casual humor or
real life.


It takes a planet (almost) to tell this American story

Growing up in Wisconsin, I knew that cheese is good, the Packers are great and Harley-Davidson motorcycles are omnipresent. What I didn't know is the story behind that Milwaukee company. Now it's being told in a three-night mini-series, Sept. 5-7; here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Here is a classic
piece of mid-Americana.

“Harley and the
Davidsons” is about red-blooded, blue-collar guys who put the world
on motorcycles. It starts in Milwaukee and sometimes sprawls onto the

So, of course, it
was filmed in Romania. And it stars guys from England, Texas and the
Netherlands ... riding bikes that were built in South Africa.

Yes, South Africa.
There, people re-created about 80 bikes from the history of
Harley-Davidson and other companies. “We didn't have any
specfications from 1903,” said Alex Wheeler, who was in charge.

As he talked about
it, Wheeler was in the Petersen Automotive Museum, a Los Angeles
place that shows how humans keep re-inventing transportation. It has
cars propelled by gas, electricity, hydrogen, compressed natural gas
and dreams. And it has a sign with Ferdinand Porsche's prediction:
“Soon, every house will add an automobile room to shield their
horseless carriage.”

Even Porsche might
not have guessed that homes would need a two-and-half-carriage room,
with extra space for riding mowers and skateboards and maybe some
motorcycles. Indeed, alongside all those cars, the Petersen museum
has zesty looking Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles.

The Indian brand
came first, in Springfield, Mass. Then came these mismatched guys
from Milwaukee. “It's a really great example of how three very
different minds can come together,” said Bug Hall.

Hall, a Texas
native, plays Arthur Davidson, depicted as the slick-talking
promoter. Michiel Huisman, a Dutchman, is Walter Davidson, a daring
rider. Robert Aramayo, an Englishman, is Bill Harley, an engineer
with a figure-it-out approach. “There was an enormous level of
creativity – and, I believe, artistry – involved,” he said.

Aramayo hadn't
ridden motorcycles before, but many of the others actors were
enthusiasts. That includes Stephen Rider and Gabriel Luna – who
played pioneering black and Latino racers – and both of the guys
playing Davidson brothers.

Huisman says he
thought he'd stay on motorcycles his whole life. Then “my wife and
I had a child, and I got in a car.”

And Hall? After his
child-star years – including movie roles as Alfalfa and the sons of
Abraham Lincoln and Herman Munster – he took some biker time. “I
spent most of my late teens and early 20s going back and forth across
America on motorcycles,” he said.

Now he and his
colleagues have gone back and forth in Romania.

-- “Harley and the
Davidsons,” Discovery Channel

-- Three-part
mini-series, 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, Sept. 5-7, rerunning at
10:58 p.m. Monday and Tuesday and 11:04 p.m. Wednesday.

-- On Tuesday, the
first episode reruns at 7 p.m.; on Wednesday, the first two are at 5
and 7.

-- And yes, a Labor
Day start is logical. The Harley-Davidson founders are in the Labor
Hall of Fame.

Decades in the making, "Holy Hell" offers insights into cult world


(Earlier this afternoon, I sent papers a story about "Holy Hell," a compelling documentary -- coming to CNN on Sept. 1 and 3 -- from someone who spent 22 years in a cult. As it happens, a short time later, CNN got a belated response to the film from the group's leader, Michel Rostand. The story is here, with Rostand's response now at the end.)


By Mike Hughes

Stepping cautiously
into his grown-up years, Will Allen had plenty of advantages.

He had a passion and
a talent for filmmaking; he also had a film-studies degree. Still, he

“I was confused –
sexually and careerwise – about what I wanted to do,” he

He took a detour,
living communally with some cheeful young people. Now – three
decades later – that's the subject of an extraordinary documentary
reaching CNN.

“Holy Hell” is
rich in footage Allen shot for 22 years with the Buddhafield cult.
Much of it focuses on the leader, who called himself Michel Rostand
and spent much of his time in Speedo and sunglasses.

Still, he says, the
appeal went beyond one odd person. “He wasn't even in the room when
I got there.”

The real attraction,
he said, was friendship and joy. “It was the communal group
experience .... I felt like I was being seen for the first time,
heard for the first time, loved for the first time.”

Allen had grown up
in Long Beach, Cal., where his dad was a corporate attorney. He
graduated from Southern Methodist University and had lived
comfortably, with one key exception: When he told her he's gay, his
mother made him leave home.

He was unsure about
his life when his sister told him of some California people she'd
met. They lived together in apartments and houses, held jobs, shared
expenses and chores “They seemed at peace,” Allen said. “I felt
unconditional love.”

Then there was
Rostand. His original name was Jaime Gomez, Allen later learned, and
he would go on to use other names. He said he had danced with the
Oakland Ballet and acted in many movies.

later, Allen says, he found Rostand in only one film, a non-speaking
role. He also found him in some gay porn films.)

Rostand emphasized
meditation, joy, beauty (including make-up and plastic surgery) and
fitness. Children and pets were non-existent. In the film, one woman
says he made her give away her puppy; another says he made her get
two abortions. “As soon as I heard his voice, I went into surrender

More and more, the
Buddhafield people followed Rostand's image. They would spend a year
rehearsing a ballet, perform it one night (with no outsiders in the
audience) and then drop it. They built a theater after moving to
Austin, Texas ... then moved again, to Hawaii.

Preparing for moves,
Rostand spent as much as six months away from his people, looking for
a new home. “This was when he really had his persecution complex,”
Allen said.

Shaken by the end of
a cult in Waco, Texas, Rostand kept people guessing. At times, Allen
said, some people were told to move to Atlanta, Phoenix or New Mexico
... then had to move again.

This was, one person
says in the film, “an out-of-work actor who stumbled on the role of
a lifetime.”

For Allen, one
disturbing point was seeing Rostand secretly use a small flashlight,
to convince people they'd seen lights. Another was an experience he
says happened to many of the men, straight or gay: During therapy
sessions (required, at $50 a session), they were nudged into having
sex with Rostand.

Still, Allen was
reluctant to leave. Inside the group, he had friends and a home;
outside, he was a guy nearing 40 whose jobs had been as a waiter and
as Rostand's chauffeur and masseur.

Eventually, he did
leave, taking with him 35 hours of finished films he'd shot of the
group. He found work as a film editor and as a masseur ... and found
people interested in his story.

After four years, he
decided to create a documentary, mixing his old footage with new
interviews with others who had left. Many people helped the project,
including producer Alexandra Johnes (“Mea Maxima Culpa”), actor
Jared Leto and Michael Donaldson, an expert of “fair use” in

It took another
three-plus years and Allen was still editing, days before the
Sundance Film Festival in January. There, “Holy Hell” was
nominated for a Grand Jury prize; now it gets national attention.

-- “Holy Hell,”
CNN (barring breaking news)

-- 9 and 11 p.m. ET
Thursday (Sept. 1); also, 8 and 10 p.m. ET Saturday (Sept. 3)

-- Rostand's response: Michel Rostand declined to be interviewed by CNN, but did send the network this response:

is heartbreaking to see how history has been rewritten. Holy Hell is
not a documentary, rather, it is a work of fiction designed to create
drama, fear and persecution;
that is what sells. I am saddened by this attempt to obscure the
message of universal love and spiritual awakening. It is devastating to
see these friends, who were once so filled with love for the world,
become so angry. I wish them only the best, and hold
each one close to my heart. If any of my actions were a catalyst for
their disharmony, I am truly sorry.  May all beings find peace, Michel

It's sex & drugs & fights & more

Even when other networks were ducking into Olympic-time reruns, FX boomed ahead with new episodes of good shows. Now the Olympics are over and people might notice again. There's an excellent "Tyrant" episode Wednesday, the "Strain" season-opener on Sunday and some darkly funny comedies in early September. And "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll" is ending its season sharply, over the next two Thursdays (Aug. 25 and Sept. 1). This week's episode includes a Denis Leary specialty, the big fight scene. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There are certain
things we expect from a Denis Leary show – comedy and chaos, rock
and rage, Callie Thorne and a big fight scene.

Now it's all there,
in this second season of “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.”
Thursday's episode starts by introducing Thorne as the noisy and sexy
ex-lover of Johnny Rock; it ends with a massive fight scene.

“We spent a lot
time with storyboard artists, mapping it out,” said
director-producer Jim Serpico. “Then we brought everyone in the
room and it completely fell apart.”

Fights are a Leary
specialty, both in real life and on TV. “Rescue Me” gave Tommy
(Leary) verbal fights with Thorne (who played Sheila, his cousin's
noisy widow) and physical ones with others. He sent his brother to
the hospital ... which may have beenn foreshadowed by real life.

“I shared a room
with my older broyther for 18 years .... We fought all the time,”
Leary said. “My brother was into (progressive) rock in the early
'70s, which is the worst music in the world, and we only had one
little stereo system to share in the room. So we fought all the time;
I melted his records.

“My brother's
bigger than me and can beat the (bleep) out of me. I was like
0-and-375 against” him.
Later, Leary learned how the other half
lives. On a podcast, comedian Marc Maron told him he doesn't get in
fights; for Leary, 59, who grew up as a hockey player near Boston,
that's inconceivable.

“The Corelli
brothers lived next to me, man,” he said. “They used to get in
fights. Their father used to come out with a hose and hose them down
.... We just expressed our opinions all the time, very loudly.”

So do his
characters. Now Johnny is surrounded by three strong women:

-- Gigi (Elizabeth
Gillies), the daughter he didn't know about. She wants to be a star,
with his mentoring, her mom's money and her own immense talent.

-- The mom (Thorne),
who arrives this week.

-- Ava, his
long-time back-up singer and lover. This season, she's flashed strong
talent as a cabaret singer. “Denis writes women so well and makes
them so strong,” said Elaine Hendrix, who plays her. “And I get
to do comedy and I get to perform. It's this dream moment.”

Then there are the
guys in the band. Rehab (John Ales), the bassist, and Bam Bam (Robert
Kelly), the drummer, are still arguing about Rehab's Broadway
musical. Flash (John Corbett), the lead guitarist, was Gigi's lover;
she rejected his marriage proposal and he ended up with Ava.

That left a father
and daughter feeling simultaneously abandoned. “Johnny and Gigi
really kind of bond together,” Leary said. “He starts to slowly
but surely become a responsible dad.”

Still, Leary's shows
aren't about pouting. Gigi remodelled Flash's apartment with a
chainsaw; tonight, everyone gets involved in thefight scene –
inspired by one Leary once saw, involving rockers: “Nobody wanted
to hurt their hands or their faces, because they all had gigs coming

All of this
commotion is pretty much the opposite of Corbett's real life. He's
had a 14-year relationship with Bo Derek (of “10” and poster
fame), living in rural California.

“If you saw my
life at home, you'd be bored,” he said with a grin. “I might be
to sleep by 9 o'clock and up at 6 to feed the horses.” Then work
beckons; he enters Leary's world of creative chaos.

“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” FX network

-- New episode --
introducing Callie Thorne's character and ending with the fight scene
– is 10 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 25), rerunning at 11:06 p.m., 1:39 a.m.
and then at 10:30 p.m. Sept. 1

-- Previous episode,
with the Broadway opening, reruns at 10:33 p.m. Thursday.

-- Season-finale is
10 p.m. Sept. 1, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 1:30 a.m.


From a flop (this Saturday) to a maybe-hit (next month): It's Justin Hires' rush hour

By Mike Hughes

For Justin Hires,
this is an actor's life in overdrive – a big break, a big bust,
then a new chance.

On Saturday, his
“Rush Hour” series has its finale; it's a good one, he said. “You
get to see some real emotion from the two characters.”

Chances are, most
people will be watching the Olympics, instead. But a month later,
he'll have a supporting role in “MacGyver,” a stronger prospect.
It's “an iconic franchise (that) really fits the time period” of
8 p.m. Fridays, said CBS programmer Glenn Geller.

After the furious
pace of “Rush Hour,” Hires can take it easy. Lucas Till (Havok in
the X-Men movies) is MacGyver, the inventive hero, with George Eads
(“CSI”) being tough and Tristin Mays being tech.

That leaves Hires,
31, as the best friend and roommate “who somehow doesn't know what
I do,” Till said. “When you first meet him, he's making waffles.”

Heroes need friends;
they also need waffles. “I bring a little heart and humor to the
show,” Hires said.

That comes easily to
him. Growing up in St. Petersburg, where his mother is an area school
superintendent, Hires matched some of the traits of his dad, a hair
stylist ready to talk to anyone. “I've always been a natural

By age 9, he was
doing theater. He went on to Clark Atlanta University and stand-up
comedy. Acting jobs, however, were scarce until he got two breaks –
a supporting role in the “21 Jump Street” movie, then a starrig
one with Jon Foo in the “Rush Hour” series.

Here was a role that
Chris Tucker played in four movies. Hires had big bursts of dialog,
humor and action ... a massive undertaking. “When you add giant
explosions and car chases and gun fights and martial-arts fights, ...
it feels relentless,” producer Bill Lawrence said.

And then the show
promptly died in the ratings. Saturday's finale – Hires and Foo go
undercover among gang bosses, hoping to extricate the latter's sister
from a life of crime – may go unnoticed.

After finishing it,
Hires had a six-month dry spell, before the good news: Despite
scheduling “MacGyver,” CBS was scrapping its pilot film. Peter
Lenkov (who did the “Hawaii Five-0” reboot) would write and
produce a new one, with James Wan (“The Conjuring”) directing.
That created last-minute roles for Mays, Sandrine Holt (as the boss)
and Hires.

He'll be working in
Atlanta, where he went to college; he'll be acting without (for now,
at least) doing drastic, rush-hour stunts. “It's the best of
worlds,” Hires said. Occasioally, actors' lives turn out fine.

-- “Rush Hour”
finale, 8 p.m. Saturday, CBS

-- “MacGyver”
debut, 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, also CBS