The Obama era -- an 18-month swirl ... and then six years of improvising

.This is what TV should be doing more often -- taking big looks at the mega-events that change the world. Now -- Dec. 7, plus reruns -- CNN's Fareed Zakaria views the Obama era. Here's the story I sent to papers:

(Very interesting TV
story about an Obama CNN special that debuts Wednesday and reruns

By Mike Hughes

How do you ponder
the Barack Obama era? For starters, you could split it in two.

There was that
first, swirling stretch. “It all happened in 18 months,” said
Fareed Zakaria, whose two-hour special debuts Wednesday on CNN.

And then there was
the aftermath – six years of government by executive action. “We
may look back and be surprised by how much was done in small-ball
ways,” Zakaria said.

It was the early
swirl – viewed by Obama as the busiest domestic-policy stretch
since the Lyndon Johnson years – that led to the Republican
takeover of the House and Senate.

During that stretch,
Obama had resisted public opinion. “The auto-industry bail-out was
wildly unpopular,” Zakaria said. “Two-thirds of the people
opposed it.”

Even more unpopular
was the bank bail-out. “David Axelrod (then Obama's senior advisor)
said. 'I've never seen anythig that polled so badly.'”

The Wall Street
collapse had come at the end of the Bush Administration, which made
the same recommendation – bail out the banks, to avoid a total
economic collapse. But the bail-out came at the start of the Obama
years, sparking outrage. Zakaria points to what Timothy Geithner,
Obama's first Treasury secretary, wrote: “We saved the economy
(but) we lost the country.”

That came as the
unemployment rate was climbing toward 10 percent. Preparing a
stimulus package, Obama made the rare move of going to Congress to
push for Republican votes; he got none.

“The Republicans
say his mind was made up .... he didn't want any feedback,” Zakaria
said. They used the phrase “arrogant”; Zakaria falls short of
that. “He tends to be a compromiser, but he's a technocrat” who
prefers to mold his own version of the compromise.

That approach
collided with total opposition, Zakaria said, nudged by “the fact
that it started so early.” On Inauguration Day, 15 Republican
leaders formulated a total-resistance policy. “(Sen.) Mitch
McConnell said, 'Our No. 1 priority was to make sure Barack Obama was
a one-term president.'”

Ironically, he
served two terms, leaving with a fairly high approval rating and low
(under fivepercent) unemployment rate. But the early actions,
particularly Obamacare, led to the Republicans' takeover of the House
and Senate.

With no chance of
getting things through Congress, there was improvising. “Obama's
use of executive action has been very creative.,” Zakaria said.

Some actions (on
immigration, for instance) didn't hold up in court, but most did.
Some – involving climate change and gun-control – may be
susceptible to quick turnover. But others could linger: “We
actually have a very strong clean-energy industry now,” Zakaria
said, due to executive actions.

Also likely to
survive is some form of Obamacare. It may change, Zakaria said, but
Americans now have “the expectation that there will be health care
in one of the richest nations in the world.”

Other presidents
have pointed to mistakes; Bill Clinton, for instance, said he should
have moved more quickly to stop genocide. But when Zakaria
interviewed Obama in September., he found little of that.

There wete some
Obamacare regrets -- “he feels that it got way too complex,” with
key things missing. But even when pondering disasters involving the
Middle East and ISIS, Zakaria said, Obama felt he'd done “the best
he could, with the hand he was dealt.”

This is the Obama
nature, he said. The image -- “the cool, methodical act” -- is
part of his make-up. “He said, 'When things go well, I don't get
that high and when things go badly I don't get that down.'”

That's handy,
because he's wrapping up eight years of extreme highs and lows.

-- “The Legacy of
Barack Obama,” 9-11 p.m. ET Wednesday, CNN; rerunning at midnight.

-- Also: 11 p.m.
Friday, rerunning at 2 a.m.; 9 a.m. Dec. 25; 9 p.m. Dec. 26,
rerunning at midnight.

-- Each could be
pre-empted by news events; all times are ET, three hours earlier PT


Hairspray Live? A new star arrives and old ones surprise

The re-emergence of live TV musicals has been fun to watch. NBC had the safe-and-solid "Sound of Music," then faltered with "Peter Pan" and bounced back with "The Wiz." Fox triumphed with "Grease," then had a so-so (and not live) "Rocky Horror."

Now comes what seems like the most promising one. "Hairspray" has vibrant music and -- unlike most of the others -- a good story. It plans to sprawl across a movie-studio lot, just as "Grease" did (with the same person doing the TV directing). And it has starpower; here's the story I sent to papers, with glimpses of Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson and, especually, newcomer Maddie Baillio.

By Mike Hughes

When a live
“Hairspray” reaches TV Wednesday, we'll see stars doing some
familiar (or not) things.

Jennifer Hudson and
Kristin Chenoweth will belt; Harvey Fierstein will rasp. We expect
that. But then:

-- Ariana Grande
will mostly be acting, not singing. We don't expect that, but she
says this is the role that pleases “my theater geek inside.”

-- Derek Hough will
often be singing; we don't expect that either. Before “Dancing With
the Stars” brought him back to the U.S., Hough did star in the
“Footlloose” musical in London. “Hairspray,” he said, lets
him “re-ignite that sort of musical passion.”

-- And Maddie
Baillio? We don't expect anything from her ... mostly because we've
never heard of her. She's never had a TV role ... or a professional
theater role. Now she's the star.

Baillio came from
nowhere ... or from League City, Texas, which is just north of
nowhere. “This was my first audition, outside of school .... There
were over 1,300 girls and I was No. 344,” she said.

Still, this is her
second time at winning big. Two years ago, she won Michael
Feinstein's search; she sang at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center,
even Carnegie Hall. Now it's national TV, working live.

How daunting is
that? Even Jennifer Hudson – an Oscar-winner who's done Broadway
and “American Idol” – said she's nervous. “Just doing the
first (Broadway) opening night was traumatizing to me,” Hudson
said. “So now I'm like, 'Are you crazy? Are you really going to do
this on live television?'”

Now imagine Baillio,
barely out of her teens and following a life-long goal.

“I started doing
community theater and voice lessons when I realized that I wasn't
good at sports,” said Baillio, who grew up in a suburb between
Houston and Galveston. “And I just loved singing.”

She does it well, as
people can find by checking the Internet for Madelyn Baillio. There,
they can see her sing a couple classics ... and can even buy her
single, a lush “Can't Stay Away From You.”

Baillio was named
the 2014 Youth Ambassador for Feinstein's group, the Great American
Songbook. She went to Marymount Manhattan College for two years and
tried the long-shot audition. “I decided at like 3 a.m., the night
before the big open call in New York City, that I was going to go out
and do it.”

She was called back
for four more auditions and then for what she thought was yet
another, with director Kenny Leon and writer-star Harvey Fierstein.
This time time, there was a camera there.

“They told me that
they were doing a behind-the-scenes thing .... Kenny walked into the
room and said, 'Hey, Harvey asked me to give this to you so you can
read it. Project and look into the camera.

“And so I pulled
the paper out and it said, 'Maddie Baillio will be Tracy Turnblad in
NBC's “Hairspray Live!”' And I was so excited and I had to call
my mom immediately.”

This is clearly
worth calling mom about. As Robert Greenblatt, NBC's programming
chief, explains it, “Hairspray” is “a really joyous and funny
show set in Baltimore about a young girl who just wants to dance on
television – and then she unwittingly becomes an advocate for
inclusion and diversity.”

Greenblatt is the
one who brought musicals back to TV with the “Smash” series and
with live shows – triumphing with “Sound of Music,” faltering
with “Peter Pan,” then rebounding with “The Wiz.”

Now he has an ideal
vehicle: “Hairspray” was a 1988 movie, transformed into a 2002
musical by the same songwriters who did “Smash.” It won eight
Tonys, including best musical and ones for Marissa Winokur as Tracy
and Fierstein (in a tradition started by the '88 movie) as her mom.

Grande remembers
being awed by the show when she was 10 or 11. “Every time Harvey
speaks, my heart burts.” At 15, she was on Broadway in “13,” an
all-Broadway musical. “Theater is like everything to me,” she
said. “Pop music is so fun, but this is way much more fun.”

At least,this
version could be. Following the lead of Fox's “Grease” (and using
the same TV director), it will sprawl over the Universal Studios lot.
Mixing in new songs from the 2007 movie, it will let familiar stars
soar and give a new one a chance to emerge.

-- “Hairspray
Live,” 8-11 p.m. Wednesday, NBC; live in Eastern and Central time




Tinker pushed TV to new (and, alas, temporary) levels


Grant Tinker's approach was both basic and logical: Hire really good, really creative people ... and then get out of their way.

He did that while developing a show for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore ... And while building their company into a cauldron for smart comedies and (with "Hill Street Blues" and beyond) innovative dramas ... And then while taking NBC to the top.

Tinker's death at 90 (Monday, but confirmed on Wednesday) causes us to recall how much he pushed TV forward ... then saw it slip a bit.

At the semi-annual Television Critics Association sessions, NBC felt different during the Tinker era. Even the dress code was new; ties disappeared, the look and the approach was casual. People talked about good TV. Led by Brandon Tartikoff (Tinker's programming chief), they found a little fluff and a lot of greatness, from "Cheers," "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show" to "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law" and "Miami Vice."

It was easy at first, because NBC was the only place that seemed excited about giving creative people full control. Eventually, other networks tried that a little. Then cable was able to lure the best people by offering fewer episodes and fewer restrictions about content and commercials.

A lot of people have been at the top of NBC since Tinker and Tartikoff left. The current one, Bob Greenblatt, clearly is trying hard; this year, he's given TV its best new broadcast-network drama ("This is Us") and comedy ("The Good Place"); he's also propelled the new passion for live musicals, with "Hairspray" coming Dec. 7.

Still, such highlights are often outnumbered by sorta-adequate shows with "Chicago" in the title. TV can do much better; Grant Tinker proved that. 




Wanna brighten Christmas? Try 250,000 lights and a band

Right now, TV is busy with its Christmas cascade. If you go two blogs down, you'll find a Christmas mega-list; it's edited to trim shows once they air and add new ones when they're scheduled. Above that is a look at Sofia Carson, who had three new shows on Thanksgiving weekend and will be back for the Disney Parks special on Christmas morning. And here's a look at one of the cheeriest (or, at least, brightest) of the shows: For three straight Mondays, ABC's "Great Christmas Light Fight" celebrates sheer spectacle; here's the story I sent to papers. 


By Mike Hughes

Many towns might
have a few families that brighten up the holiday – literally.

They loads up on the
lights, sounds and images of Christmas. For kids (and
spectacle-inclined kids), they inject extra “wow” into the

Now multiply that by
a kajillion, approximately, and you have the families in “The Great
Christmas Light Fight,” which fills three Monday on ABC.

“Some of them have
this amazing pyrotechnics,” said Carter Oosterhouse, one of the
show's judges. “One had a live jazz band that was timed to the
light show.”

And there's more.
“One has animatronics, like you'd see at 'A Small World,'” in the
Disney parks, said Taniya Nayak, the other judge.

Yes, these have size
and spectacle. One has 250,000 lights; another has a train ride
through many acres.

Still, Oosterhouse
said, this isn't sheer overkill. “The design sense is quite

One family has
engineers, emphasizing precision; another has a retired Navy pilot,
with a salute to servicemen. And a New York man began his display as
tribute to his wife, who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

These are displays
that go up every year ... but started earlier this year, so they
could be judged for the show. In October – while many Americans
faced election rage – Oosterhouse and Nayak found themselves
encased in Christmas cheer.

“We get there, not
knowing what to expect,” Nayak said. “All of a sudden, there's
this big reveal.”

Both grew up around
Christmas spectacle ... but not neccesarily design requirements. “I
don't think there was any rhyme or reason to where we put the
lights,” Oosterhouse said.

And both grew up
with links to celebrations in other countries.

Oosterhouse, 40, is
Dutch on his father's side and Mexican on his mother's. He grew up in
Traverse City, Mich., and recalls classic Christmases -- “very
Midwestern-Mexican, with big family dinners.”

A rugby star in
high school and at Central Michigan University, he went to California
to be an actor and model. Instead, he thrived on his carpentry
skills; he did “Trading Spaces,” “Three Wishes” and several
HGTV shows, where he also developed a designing sense.

He's married to Amy
Smart, an actress who's had recurring roles in “Felicity,”
“Shameless,” “Justified” and more. They have houses in her
home state (California) and his, but Traverse City wins at
Christmastime, he said. “We want to get back to where there's

Nayak, 43, was born
in India, but moved to the U.S. with her family as a baby. Her
Christmases in Boston were fairly quiet, she recalls, because few
family members lived there. But during visits to India, she saw the
grandness of Christmas and Diwali celebrations.

Design was a family
thing -- her dad is an architect – and she became a designer on
“Restaurant: Impossible” and other TV shows.

Nayak likes to throw
Christmas parties, with one catch: “My husband is a restaurant
proprietor, so people seem to expect more. I'm not going to lie; I've
called on his chefs to rescue me sometimes.”

And life is
different from the old days, she said. “When one light went out,
they all went out. You'd have to figure out which one it was.” Now
try that with a 250,000-light display.

-- “The Great
Christmas Light Fight”

-- 8 and 9 p.m. on
three Mondays (Dec. 5, 12 and 19), ABC.

-- Each hour has
four families, with the judge awarding $50,000 to one. On opening
night, Carter Oosterhouse judges the first hour, Taniya Nayak the

Disney dreams? For Sofia Carson, they became reality

Righrt below this, you'll see the Christmas mega-list -- an attempt to compile all (well, most) of the holiday TV specials. But first, let's pause to meet one of the stars. Sofia Carson has Christmas specials Thursday and Friday (Nov.24-25) and then stars in a cable movie Sunday; in between, her "Descendants" movie reruns. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Step into Disney
World and you might see wide-eyed girls, staring at a stage. They
imagine themselves up there, singing and dancing as Belle or Elsa or
Sofia Carson recalls that feeling, from her Miami
childhood. “We went to Disney World every year,” she said. “And
I had some Cinderella pajamas I never wanted to take off.”

Yes, she envisioned
herself in the stage shows; now, however, she's leaped past that.
When Carson stars in a cable movie Sunday, it will wrap up a
remarkable weekend on three Disney-owned networks:

-- Thanksgiving
(8-10 p.m., ABC), co-hosting a Disney parks party with Derek and
Julianne Hough.

-- Friday (8-9 p.m.,
Disney Channel), at a similar special with her colleagues from

-- Sunday (8-10
p.m., Freeform), starring in “A Cinderella Story: If the Show
Fits.” She plays Tessa, a mechanic who dons a wig and auditions as
a flashy diva.

The mechanic part
was an extreme stretch, Carson admits. “My family cracked up at the
thought of me putting together an engine. I'm a total klutz.”

But the diva part?
That's been most of her 23 years. “My mom says I was singing before
I was talking.”

She started dance
classes at age 3. There were lots of competitions (often at Disney
World) and more. She had the same performing passion as Tessa ... but
a much easier route.

Her parents grew up
and prospered in the U.S., where they're in property management, but
both were born in Colombia. Her mother is Irish on one side, but
related on the other to the Char family that is prominent in
Colombian business and politics.

Christmases were in
Colombia ... but were also done Irish-American style with her
grandmother. Sofia spoke (and sang) in English and Spanish ... and
was minoring in French at UCLA. Then came Disney.

The company has a
habit of spotting young acresses – Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez, Demi
Lovato – and propelling through guest roles, movies, series,
specials and its Hollywood Records label.

For Carson –
that's her mother's maiden name – it's been on hyperdrive. She had
guest roles in three TV episodes in 2014 ... then was one of the
stars of TV movies for 2015 (“Descendants”), 2016 (the
“Adventures in Babysitting” remake and “If the Shoe Fits”)
and 2017 (“Descendants 2”). She also cut her first singles (“Love
is the Name” and “I'm Gonna Love You”) and sort of entered

In Disney's “Hannah
Montana” series, Miley Cyrus played a pop star who would remove her
wig and be an ordinary teen-ager. In “If the Shoe Fits,” Carson
dons the wig and poses as a pop diva. It's a role that required quick
transformations, spectacular dance moves and a month of rehearsals.

Then it was back to
being Evie, daughter of the Evil Queen. In the “Descendants,” the
young characters are the children of classic Disney villains. That
explains why they combine to sing “Rotten to the Core” ... which,
for the Christmas special, becomes “Jolly to the Core.”

Carson also gets to
do some serious singing. “Silent Night has always been one of my
favorite songs,” she said, “so that's what I really wanted to

She ended up taping
two versions of it at Disney World, once for Friday and once for
Christmas morning on ABC. She sings one at the Tree of Life and the
other , the other at Cinderella's castle ... sort of fulfilling all
those little-girl daydreams.

So much Sofia

-- ABC special, 8-10
p.m. Thursday; Freeform movie, 8-10 p.m. Sunday

-- Disney Channel
has the “Descendants” movie at 6 p.m. Friday, 3:20 p.m. Saturday
and 4 p.m. Monday; the “Descendants” special is 8 p.m. Friday and
7 p.m. Sunday.