A (very) slow flame ignites; crook-catchers are in love

TV shows, it seems, are a little like kids, quarterbacks and best-man toasts: You just can't predict how they'll turn out. Now "The Mentalist" starts its final season Sunday (Nov. 30), looking very different from the show that began in 2008. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Back in 2008, the
“Mentalist” people were explaining the basics of their show.

Bruno Heller, the
show's creator, was with his stars, Simon Baker and Robin Tunney.
Some reporters astutely noticed that one is male and one is female.

“Bruno, Simon and
I all swore up and down: There is no way these two would ever be
together romantically,” Tunney recalled.

Now flash ahead to
the seventh and final season. It starts Sunday, with the lead
characters in love.

What happened? A
friendship evolved, Heller said, allowing a “sort of Jane Austen
type of romance ... between two people you've known for years (and
are) made for each other, not in a fiery kind of crazy way.”

Not fiery at all.
“At that press conference,” Tunney recalled, “Bruno said ... we
would have all the sexual chemistry of The Clintons. So the bar is
really low.”

Baker credits Heller
for sticking with the show and developing the story over about 150
episodes. Networks, he said, “are not necessarily story-friendly.
(They think:) 'We've got a hole that we would like to fill with

As the show started,
Patrick Jane (Baker) was a former charlatan who had used his
observation skills while pretending to be a psychic. When his wife
was slain by a serial killer named Red John, he worked with the
California Bureau of Investigation, with Teresa Lisbon (Tunney) as
his stern boss.

“I was so worried
I wasn't going to seem like an officer of the law if I smiled,”
Tunney recalled. “(I thought:) 'I want to be taken seriously. I am
supposed to be authoritative.”

Things evolved. Red
John was killed. Jane and Lisbon moved to the FBI, with a new boss.
One colleague, Kimball Cho, is still with them. Others, Rigsby and
Van Pelt, are gone.

A newcomer –
played by Josie Loren of “Make It or Break It” -- arrives in the
opener. Over these final 13 episodes, Heller said, “there is a bit
of a love triangle going on.”

But the big change
is with Jane and Lisbon, no longer worried about Red John or about
being the boss.

“It is a bit of a
relief,” Tunney said, to feel “light and natural in scenes when
the stakes aren't so high all the time. And you can sort of smile.”

Sort of. “Jane
and Lisbon are private, self-contained, protective people,” Heller
said. “So it is not a very conventional love story, ... because
they are not fiery, passionate, crazy people.”

Still, they're a lot
warmer than anyone had imagined back in 2008.

-- “The Mentalist”
opens its 13-hour final season Sunday, Nov. 30.

-- Sunday spot is
about 9:30 p.m., but could be later with football overruns; it's 9
p.m. PT.

-- “The Good Wife”
will reclaim that slot on Jan. 4; “Mentalist” then takes 8 p.m.
Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 7; the two-hour series finale is Feb. 18.


Maybe we should all be sleeping

First, a few personal confessions: 1) I used to average five hours of sleep on weeknights, thinking this was a good thing; 2) I was once awakened by my air bag, after striking six cars; we were all very lucky this happened at a slow speed, while they were at a stoplight; 3) Ever since, for 13 years, I've used a sleep-apnea machine nightly.

After seeing a compelling new documentary and talking to some of its people, however, I'm suddenly focusing on sleep. You should, too; "Sleepless in America" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 30) on the National Geographic Channel; here's the story I sent to papers:


In odd corners of
Silicon Valley, some work pull all-nighters. Sleep is considered an
outmoded luxury.

“We thought we
invented that phrase, 'I'll sleep when I'm dead,'” Mark Rosekind
said. “Actually, Ben Franklin said that” more than two centuries

Frankin was setting
an early – and dangerous – pattern for a go-getter nation. “This
has been the American way for a long time,” Rosekind said. “It's
a badge of courage to go without sleep.”

Rosekind --
appointed last week (pending Senate approval) to head the National
Traffic Safety Administration -- has specialized in studying sleep.
Now that's the subject of a cable documentary.

Sleeplessness, said
Courteney Moore of the National Geographic Channel, is “an epidemic
that can best traced to health issues ranging from obesity to
cardiovascular disease to mental-health disorters. (It) costs
American businesses more than $100 billion a year.”

Then there are the
accidents. Sleeplessness has been considered a factor in the Exxon
Valez oil spill, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear
disasters and several car, plane, ferry, truck and bus crashes.

Still, many people
resist sleep. Researchers say adults need 7 to 8 hours, but in his
autobiography, Franklin listed a daily regimen of five hours; Thomas
Edison had even less.

Edison created part
of the problem for the rest of us, historians say. Americans were
quick to go to bed when it turned dark ... until his improved light
bulbs prolonged the day.

More inventions
followed. With the :technology invasion into the bedroom (and) longer
commute times in the morning, the thing that people shortchange most
... is sleep,” Matthew Walker said.

Walker heads the
sleep lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Last year, Moore
said, the lab published a paper saying sleep deprivation causes
“metabolic changes in the gut and fat cells (and) alters the brain
to stimulate appetite for unhealthy foods. “

Others found similar
results. At the University of Chicago, Eve Van Sauter restricted
student volunteers to four hours a night for six nights. “We
expected the result, but the magnitude was enormous. Those were
young, healthy men. (After) six nights ... they were pre-diabetic.”

propels other problems, she said. “Your cancer will spread more
quickly if you don't sleep well or enough. Your diabetes will be more
severe. (You) are at greatly increased risk of obesity and
cardiovacular diseaase .... It is very serious.”

She averages 7-8
hours a night; “I protect my sleep ferociously.” Hoffman averages

And Rosekind – who
once led the Stanford sleep lab, near sleepless Silicon -- said he
does 7-and-a-half to eight. His wife is also a believer, he said.
“Our kids may be the only ones (who) got their nine-plus hours of
sleep until they were in their 20s.”

-- “Sleepless in
America,” 8-10 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel

-- Repeats at 11
p.m.; also, at 9 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7


Brooke Burns: An immensely lucky/unlucky person

One of life's easier chores is interviewing Brooke Burns. She's quick, bright and has an interesting life to talk about -- ranging from ballet and "Baywatch" to her current duties hosting "The Chase" on the Game Show Network. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Brooke Burns may be
one of the luckiest – and unluckiest – people on Planet Earth.

The luck is obvious
in her busy existence. “I've always lived life full-speed-ahead,”
she said. “I've been wing-walking; I've swum with the sharks.”

She has the look
that got her all the right jobs early – modeling in Europe and
acting on TV, including two series filmed in Hawaii. Barely out of
her teens, she was tooling around the island in a BMW.

But she also has a
quick mind that works well for hosting. “The Chase” -- a brainy
game that's one of the top ratings-getters on the Game Show Network –
has just started a new season.

Then what about the
bad luck? Take your pick:

-- A skiing accident
ended her ballet dreams. “I was devastated,” she said. “All I
wanted was to dance.”

-- A
diving accident almost ended her life. Quick thinking by a friend –
floating her in the pool, with her neck supported, until the
ambulance arrived – saved her.

-- And,
on a much smaller scale, a car accident this May totaled both cars.
“It was so near my home that my husband got there before the police
did,” she said.

simply said a man in flannel pajamas comforted her. Actually, she
says, it was husband Gavin O'Connor, who had been at home, working on
a script.

gets back to the positive side, which includes romances.

is a producer of “The Americans” cable series and directed its
pilot, which critics praised. Earlier, Burns was engaged to Bruce
Willis and married to Julian McMahon (“Nip/Tuck”); their daughter
(Madison, 14) has visited his homeland ... where her late
grandfather, Billy McMahon, was once the Australian prime minister.

also grew up comfortably. That was in Dallas, where her dad was in
the oil industry. “My dad also does a lot of mission work,” she
said, and religion continues to be a key part of her life.

first, her own focus was on dance, a long-shot. Burns reached
5-foot-9, which many ballet people consider OK for a star, but too
tall for any other role.

became a moot point after she tore a ligament skiing. “My mom had
told me not to go .... I got too confident. I thought, 'What could go

followed quickly. As a teen, she was working in Paris, Milan and
Munich. Then came acting, as a regular on “Baywatch” and other
series, including “Miss Guided,” “Pepper Dennis,” the
“Melrose Place” revival and “North Shore” ... which was
(after “Baywatch”), her second Hawaiian show.

likes to put her in swimwear, but Burns, 36, also does fine at
competitions. She hosted “Dog Eat Dog” and “Motor City
Masters,” co-hosted “Hole in the Wall,” then found her niche
with “The Chase.”

On one
level, this is a standard quiz show, with fast-based questions in
far-flung categories; the key comes in the second half, when
contestants (given a slight lead) try to top “The Beast,” Mark

at 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, he
out answers. "
How much
he knows is amazing," Burns said.

she could only beat him if she chose
the subject
s. "Maybe
ballet .... He is definitely a guy; he does get more engaged in some

after looking at him, people don't usually expect brainpower. Burns
is used to that, too.

The Chase," Game Show Network

New episodes at 8 p.m. ET Tuesdays, rerunning at 11; also, reruns at
8 and 9 p.m.
ET Saturdays


Niorth of the border, there's still danger and death

"The Real Death Valley" is a tough documentary about a sort of border war, far from the real border. You can catch it Tuesday (Nov. 11) on the Weather Channel; here's the story I sent to papers:


The immigration
story we might expect is simple: Mexicans slip across the border,
hoping to find financial prosperity.

The story we get in
a new documentary is jarringly different. For instance:

-- It's not even on
the border. “The Real Death Valley” (9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11, on
the Weather Channel) finds hundreds of people dying in Texas
ranchland – 70 miles into the U.S.

-- This story is far
more global. “Many of the people are from Central America,” said
John Carlos Frey, the film's reporter. “They're fleeing out of

-- And this is not
the ethnic clash you might expect.

Other places may
have border battles between Latino immigrants and Anglo officials,
but that's not what Frey found. At times, he said, Brooks County
could pass for anywhere in Latin America.

In the film, Justice
of the Peace Oralia Morales describes her own pain when seeing
bodies: “You can almost picture your own familty laying there.”

Adds Chief Deputy
Sheriff Benny Martinez: “The border will never be secure.”

Brooks County, with
just 7,500 people, didn't volunteer for this. But the U.S. Border
Patrol set up a highway checkpoint at Falfurrias, 70 miles north of
the border. Many illegal immigrants try a daring detour-- a 40-mile,
four-day walk in fierce heat and humidity. “It's brutal,” said
Frey, who tried it.

He's older (50) than
most of the walkers, but in good shape. He had excellent gear, but
gave his water to some parched walkers before the final day ... then
started to break down. “I was probably in the preliminary stages of
renal failure .... My kidneys were giving out. I was mentally

Some people do phone
for help. “If someone is going to call 9-1-1, that means they've
given up,” Frey said. They may have spent their life savings,
“somewhere upward of $10,000, to get that far.”

Many feel they can't
turn back. One man told Frey his younger brother was beaten nearly to
death by El Salvador gang members, because he'd refused to design
their tattoos. They fled north.

That man did apply
for legal admission, Frey said, but it took a while. “The only way
to do it is to set foot in the U.S. first .... The immigration system
is so broken.”

Born in Tijuana and
raised in San Diego, Frey is Mexican on his mother's side and speaks
fluent Spanish. He began to hear about the problems in Brooks County
... which doesn't qualify for extra federal support, because it's not
on the border.

A partnership was
set up between The Investigation Fund and two of NBC sister networks,
the Weather Channel and the Spanish-language Telemundo. “The issue
of immigration is on the news almost every night” on Telemundo,
Frey said.

He dug into records
and found despair: The county generally only has one deputy
available, so it asks feds to rescue people who call for help. A
typical wait is more than two hours; that El Salvador man and his
dying brother waited nine hours.

The research and
interviews maty have helped, Frey said; recently, 150 rescue
specialists were added in the area. Still, he wishes that had
happened years ago. “In a country where we value life, how could we
let this happen?”


A chatty soul savors life alone in the North

As winter nears, we might start to feel sorry for ourselves ... unless we've met Sue Aikens, who spends each winter alone, in weather that sometimes hits 50-below. And yes, she does it on purpose. She's one of the intriguing "Life Below Zero" people; here's the story I sent to papers:


Sue Aikens might
seem neatly suited for our talky-texty social world.

Once a star student
in suburban Chicago, she talks quickly and cheerfully. “I'm not
exactly known for being shy,” she said.

And her career
choice? Her camp, 197 miles north of the Arctic Circle, leaves her
completely alone, eight to nine months a year.

“My first reaction
when I got there was to be in tears,” Aikens recalled. “It was a
little bit (run down).”

The moping stopped,
she said, when a bear swiped at her. “It was game on .... I'm

That was 11 years
ago; now she owns the camp and she's a reality star. Aikens did one
episode of “Sarah Palin's Alaska” and four of “Flying Wild
Alaska”; then became key to “Life Below Zero.”

The show, returning
after a four-month break, has plenty of other intriguing Alaskans:

-- Andy Bassich, who
spent 20 years as a riverboat captain, “but in my heart I always
knew I wanted to be out in the Bush.”

-- Kate Bassich, who
met her husband while vacationing from Newfoundland. “I went from
diva to ditch digger ... from city life to Bush life. It's been the
best experience I could possibly imagine.”

-- Two men – Erik
Salitan and Glenn Villeneuva -- who work solo, hunting or guiding.

-- And Chip and
Agnes Hailstone and their seven kids. A native Inupiaq, she's the
only adult on the show who was born in Alaska.

The others have
quickly become accustomed. “This is the first time Kate and I have
left the state in (six) years,” Andy Bassich told the Television
Critics Association at a lush Beverly Hills hotel.

The hotel took some
adjustment, Kate said. “It's very difficult to go from complete
silence to noise.”

Aikens savored the
swimming pool. “I got in water and I could stand there and I wasn't
losing body parts. That was exciting. And I flushed toilets! Never
gets old.”

She grew up in a
world where everyone can flush. That changed, she has said, when her
family moved to Fairbanks when she was 11 or 12 and her mom ignored
her; she learned the skills of the North.

Aikens, 50, has been
widowed and had a second marriage last 17 years. She has children and
grandchildren who sometimes visit her in the summer. But mostly,
she's been on her own.

“I had a 400-mile
trap line (and) 32 giant Alaskan malamute (dogs),” she said.“And
that 's how I lived.”

Then a friend asked
Aikens to manage the Kavik River Camp, which she later bought. “Kavik
is like a twisted bed and breakfast,” she said.

During the summer,
it's busy. “If there are 50 people staying, I'm cooking breakfast,
lunch and dinner for 50 people, doing their room, fueling the
airpanes, working the runway .... About 45 minutes to an hour a day
is what I give myself for sleep.”

And during the other
eight or nine months, she usually sees no one. Her job is to keep the
camp safe from freezing up or from being hit by intruders, either
human or bear.

The bears can be
lethal, despite her caution. Aikens had several run-ins with one,
before it surprised her while she was getting water. “The fog came
down, he snatched me .... You can feel where the teeth went into the
skull .... It took 10 days before somebody found me.”

She went to the
hospital for months of repairs ... but not before she found and
killed the bear.

Kate Bassich
understands that: “I walked out of my greenhouse a couple weeks ago
and I almost tripped over a black bear waiting for me outside the
gate. I'm wearing him now on my necklace.”

-- “Life Below
Zero,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, National Geographic; returns with new
episode Nov. 4.

-- That episode
reruns at 11 p.m. Tuesday, 10 p.m. and midnight Thursday, 6 and 8
p.m. Nov. 11.

-- Other episodes
rerun at 7 and 8 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 4), 9 and 11 p.m. Thursday, 9
a.m. to noon Sunday and 3 and 5 p.m. Nov. 11.