Yes, comedy can get you fame and cupcakes

There's an odd desperation in the title "Please Like Me." The fact is that Josh Thomas is remarkably likable, a breezy and pleasant chap on a new network that's filled with idealism and optimism. The show starts Friday and reruns often; here's the story I sent to papers:


Fame can be a fine thing, when parceled out modestly.

Josh Thomas found that, shortly after returning to the U.S.
“I’ve only been recognized by a few people,” he said, “but they were good ones–
two attractive homosexuals and someone who gave me a cupcake.”

There will be more attention, when his “Please Like Me”
starts its second season on Pivot.

A year ago, Thomas was the face of Pivot – literally. When
the cable channel started (Aug. 1), his face filled the side of some Los
Angeles buses. Few Americans had heard of him or of Pivot. And now?

The channel, launched with 40 million satellite and
cable homes, has an appealing mix. It has reruns (“Buffy,” “Friday Night
Lights,” “Veronica Mars”), an interactive talk show co-hosted by Meghan McCain
and the kind of documentaries and movies that have scored for Pivot founder,
Jeff Skoll, a producer of “The Help,” “Lincoln,” “Fast Food Nation” and “An
Inconvenient Truth.”

Thomas’ show “made quite a few top-10 lists,”
said Belisa Balaban, Pivot’s original-programming chief. At 27, Thomas remains
a key and quirky symbol of this youthful channel.

Other shows are coming up, Balaban said: Oct. 17 brings the
return of the clever rap-improv “Freestyle Love Supreme” and the debut of a
reality show about “the coolest street in Los Angeles” … In January, Pivot’s
first drama series, “Fortitude,” arrives. For now, however, the focus is on two
amiable half-hours.

“Human Resources” is a reality show about a recycling firm. “What
Pivot stands for and what TerraCycle stands for are really similar,” said Tom Szaky,
who has quickly gone from marijuana-growing experiments (“Canada is a little
more flexible with that”) to recycling in 26 countries.

That’s followed by the return of “Please Like Me,” Thomas’
situation comedy. He said it was made “the same as we did Season One, just with
slightly more money, which is nice.”

In the first year, Pivot simply aired the six-episode season
that Thomas made in Australia (where he’s been a stand-up star since he was
17). That portrayed the stretch when he was trying to be heterosexual and when
his divorced mom attempted suicide. “It’s the light stuff,” Balaban joked, “but
it works.”

This second season finds him with a random life of friends, school
and would-be romance. His bi-polar mother boasts about her gay son; in a
fictional addition, his dad has a young wife and a baby.

That led to a season-opener highlight: When the baby fills
her diaper, Thomas takes her in the shower.

“They have a lot of laws about … not drowning a baby,” he
said. “We had to get the shower cleaned, because the house we filmed in wasn’t
clean enough to have a baby in. We had to get permission from the mum (and) put
the baby in nude underwear …. A baby in nude underwear is sort of creepy,

Not this one. “(Bleeping) adorable baby,” Thomas said. “I
mean, that’s television. No matter how bad my writing is, that’s going to be
popular, that scene.”

“Please Like Me,” 10:30 p.m. ET Fridays, Pivot,
rerunning at 1:30 a.m.

Opener (Aug. 8) reruns often, including 4:30
p.m. ET Aug. 13 and 8 and 11:30 p.m. Aug. 14  

Football and Kiss blend into a loud semi-success

"I tend to hype," Gene Simmons told reporters recently, drawing no disagreement. Hype helped build his Kiss rock band into a powerhouse; now it has turned a losing football team (the Los Angeles Kiss) into one of the attendance leaders of the Arena Football League. A reality show about the team's first year starts Aug. 12; here's the story I sent to papers:


Right now, Paul Stanley is a football boss, with a team (the
Los Angeles Kiss) named after his rock group.

Decades ago, however, he was just another teen, playing
sandlot ball.

“I was always a fairly sturdy, strong kid,” he recalled.
“And I was playing football and somebody tackled me. And when I finally ceased
to be airborne and landed on my stomach and knocked the air out of me, I
decided that a guitar was much safer.”

Good choice. He and Gene Simmons – backed by cascades of showmanship,
make-up and music – propelled Kiss to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That fame
helped them start this Arena Football League expansion team and now “4
and Loud,” a reality show that profiles the team’s first year.

The team itself is legitimate (if not yet a winner), in a
legitimate league. “You want to make sure that it’s real football for real
football fans,” Simmons said.

But surrounding that is the Kiss touch. “The band has always
been about bang for buck,” Stanley said. “The band has always been about giving
people spectacle.”

So the goal, he said, was to add spectacle around the games.
“We wanted BMX bike-riders. We want pyro. We want to envelop you and pummel
you.” That ranges from the uniforms (suggesting Marvel superheroes, he said) to
the women on the sidelines.

“I think a lot of the cheerleaders … have become rather
sexless,” Stanley said. “We wanted … to have not the girl next door; we wanted
to have the girl we wish was next door.”

Still, Stanley admits, the Kiss guys had “a certain naivety.
We came in believing we would win the championship.” They won 3, lost 15 and
finished 12 games out of first place.

The showmanship, however, worked. This is a league that once
teetered near bankruptcy; it cancelled its season in 2009, the year the
previous Los Angeles franchise folded. With an expansion team that followed a
five-year void, Kiss averaged 10,945 fans per game, second only to Tampa Bay. “We
are trying to … open the league’s eyes to what’s possible,” Stanley said.

At least, what’s possible with help from rock stars. Season-ticket
holders ($99 for eight games) got a free Kiss concert; now there’s the reality
show. “We are the Tiger Woods of (arena football),” Simmons said. “Before
Tiger, you didn’t care about golf; now everybody is going to pay attention to
this new thing.”

Well … maybe not everybody. “I tend to hype,” Simmons said.
“So believe half of what I say.”

A few minutes earlier, he also admitted that “I love the
sound of my own voice.” That may qualify him perfectly for reality TV.

“4th and Loud,” debuts 9 p.m. Aug. 12
on AMC, rerunning at 10 p.m. and 1:30 and 4:45 a.m.

Also, reruns late Aug. 13-15 – technically, 4
a.m. Aug. 14, 12:15 a.m. Aug. 15, 1:30 a.m. Aug. 16.

He's had a lifelong love story with horror

OK, now I know I should have saved all my childhood toys and comics. Here's the story I sent to papers about the fascinating creator of "The Strain":


For anyone whose mom threw away his comic books, Guillermo
del Toro is an eternal inspiration.

He has saved everything and keeps adding more. “At some
point, (I) decided to live the way I dreamt of living when I was 10 years old,”
he said.

If he were an ordinary chap, he would be a hoarder. But he’s
an acclaimed filmmaker, with an Oscar nomination (for writing “Pan’s
Labyrinth”) and a cable series (“The Strain”); so he’s a curator.

“He has a museum, a wonderful museum he calls Bleak House
that he curates himself in a private home,” said John Landgraf, programming
chief of the FX networks. “It’s absolutely spectacular.”

Actually, it’s two homes, del Toro says, side-by-side in
suburban Los Angeles, totaling 11,000 square feet. “I’m the curator, the maid,
the butler, the service man.”

Those houses prove that del Toro was well ahead of TV’s
current interest in all things strange or scary. “I think horror … responds to
the pulse of the world,” he said. “And I think we are in a particularly
paranoid, vulnerable form, where we accept horror back in our lives.”

On broadcast TV, CW has pretty vampires and “Supernatural”
and more … ABC’s “Resurrection” was a late-season success … and NBC has had
Friday-night horrors. “Grimm” will be back in the fall, joined by the new “Constantine”
and, later, the return of “Hannibal.”

But it’s on cable -- home of AMC’s “Walking Dead,” HBO’s
“True Blood” and assorted Syfy shows – that horror thrives. FX, which already
had “American Horror Story,” linked  with
del Toro, who co-wrote the “Strain” novels and produces the series. “He is
really a truly original voice … and he absolutely loves and lives this genre,”
Landgraf said.

Carlton Cuse, the “Strain” show-runner, agreed: “Nobody
knows this genre as well as Guillermo.”

Added Sean Astin, a “Strain” co-star: “Guillermo gives the
best hugs of any director I have worked with.”

Don’t expect “Strain” to be huggable. Landgraf figures there’s
been too much of the “romantic vampire myth.” By comparison, he said, the “Strain”
crisis is a virus, taking over the host-human bodies. “These are disgusting,
parasitic, awful, worm-bearing vampires.”

Filming this can be rough at times. “I didn’t want to go
into my basement after watching the pilot,” said Mia Maesto, who plays one of
the two Centers for Disease Control doctors who grasped the threat.

Still, not everyone seems bothered. Ben Hyland, 12, who
plays the son of a CDC doctor, considers it “really cool …. If I had never come
on the show, I would be scared by the simplest things, but now I’m used to
this, so nothing can scare me now.”

That’s been del Toro’s approach. He’s been saving his toys
since he was 4, he said, and keeps adding books and art, in houses that have “secret
passages, secret book shelves that lead into rooms that are themed, …. with
life-size figures of characters I admire. I mean, it’s truly demented.”

“The Strain,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX; reruns at 11:01
and (after a rerun of the previous episode) 1:03 a.m.

The Aug. 3 episode, the fourth, reruns late Wednesday
and Thursday nights – technically at 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday.

A marathon Aug. 9 has the first four episodes at
10 and 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m.

Cougars and leopards and phythons, oh my ... and we're talking about cities

Maybe it's just me, but I have mixed feelings about sharing my habitat. When it comes to deer and raccoon, I'm cheerful, even encouraging; when it comes to cougars and pythons, not so much. Now a fascinating cable special Sunday (Aug. 3) finds wildlife in cities everywhere. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Looking for some wildlife? It may be a lot closer than you

There are coyotes in Chicago, a cable special says, and
cougars in Los Angeles. Bats fill Austin, Texas; leopards rule parts of Mumbai.
And amid the luxury of California’s Tahoe area, there’s a surprise:

“Folks show up for Christmas vacation … and there’s a bear
in the house,” Boone Smith said.

Smith is one of the people who made “Urban Jungle,” a
three-hour, two-network project Sunday. “These animals really have us figured
out,” he said.

The longer they live in a city, it seems, the more they know.
Geoff Luck, the “Urban Jungle” producer, said one scientist told him: “Toronto
(has) the most densely populated raccoons in the world and they are actually
getting smarter than their country cousins.”

Some city-dwellers doubt all this, because they’ve never
seen critters. Steve Winter, a photographer, points to people in a Mumbai
neighborhood, at the edge of a park: “They had lived there for 10 years and
didn’t even know the leopards were there.”

He showed them the photos: “People would do their walking,
exercising, walk their dogs, like we do in parks. And boom, the sun goes down
and the habitat changes. It’s time for the leopards.”

Others have similar patterns throughout the world, Smith
said. “These animals are so adaptive. (They) take advantage of a new habitat
and … live right under our noses, without us even knowing about it.”

They range from Alaska (eagles) and Australia (kangaroos) to
Zambia (baboons), with wildlife adapting to civilized turf. Winter recently
took a classic photo of a cougar in the foreground of the “Hollywood” sign.

In temperament, Luck said, these creatures range from
something “as strange and sweet as sloths in Rio to 14-foot pythons that live
in downtown Bangok.” When you spot them, you know it’s an urban jungle.

“Urban Jungle,” National Geographic Channel and
NatGeo Wild

Debuts 8-11 p.m. Sunday, repeating 11 p.m. to 2

Also, same times Tuesday (Aug. 5), plus 9 a.m.
to noon Aug. 10

British-style drama -- one man, one voice, one complex mosaic

Here are two key things about many cable dramas: 1) You really have to pay attention; they get complex and confusing; and 2) You really want to pay attention; they get compelling.

The latest example is "The Honorable Woman," which debuts Thursday on the Sundance Channel. Here's the story I sent to papers:


There is a difference between Englishmen and Americans, it
seems, that goes far beyond cricket, croquet and tea-time. It involves
(sometimes) how to make a TV series.

“In the U.K., sort of the buzzword of the broadcasters is
always ‘authorship,’” said Greg Brenman, a veteran British producer whose eight-week
“The Honorable Woman” debuts Thursday.

Occasionally, Americans work that way. An Aaron Sorkin (“West
Wing”), Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or David Chase (“The Sopranos”) has
other writers, but keeps strong control. More often, that doesn’t happen;
Roseanne Barr once had so many writers that she gave them numbers.

Now “Honorable Woman” reflects the British approach, with a
tale too complex for a committee to wrangle. Hugo Blick, its sole writer, calls
it a “thriller mosaic”; Brenman compares it to “this kind of Russian doll that
you keep on sort of peeling, peeling, peeling back.”

And Maggie Gyllenhaal views the complexity of the character
she inhabits: “She’s very powerful and graceful and intelligent. She’s also really
childish and broken and hungry and desperate and all of the things … I
recognize in myself.”

Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, half-Israeli, half-British, all-business.
Ever since a girlhood tragedy (shown in the first minutes), she’s been in
public view and in control. She has money, power and now a title; the story
begins as she enters the British nobility, being named a baroness.

The role places demands on Gyllenhaal. Like her character,
she reflects mixed cultures (her father is Swedish, her mother is Jewish);
unlike her character, she doesn’t have a British accent.

“I kind of wish I could talk like that all the time,”
Gyllenhaal joked. “I remember someone telling me, ‘You sound so much smarter’”
with a British accent.

Her character also sounds calm and soothing – until a jolt,
late in the first hour. Filmed in London, that scene starts in splendor and
ends with a desperate Nessa overshadowed by the giant Albert Memorial, which
Blick calls “a huge mega-statue of establishment power.”

Such complex visions spring from Blick, who wrote all eight
hours. “It’s important that it’s authored and come from one angle,” he said.
And that, most of the time, isn’t the American way.

“The Honorable Woman,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, repeating
at 1 a.m., for eight weeks, Sundance.

Opener (75 minutes) also airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday
(Aug. 5).