TV really does remember (sometimes) how to make clever comedies

Over the next few blogs, I'll be previewing the new TV season. We'll start gently, with the comedies:



Yes, TV still knows how to craft a clever situation-comedy.

This fall, three networks each have one new gem.  CBS sticks to its specialty – sharp dialog,
taped before a studio audience. ABC and NBC have romantic comedies filmed in a
rich, movie style.

Oddly, most networks (CBS excluded) also manage to make
awful comedies. Here are this year’s nine new sitcoms, rated on a 0-10 scale:

“Selfie” (9)

Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) has 263,000 friends in social
media and zero in real life; human interaction perplexes her. Now she wants to
be coached by Henry (John Cho), a calculating public-relations guy. Yes, this
is the “Pygmalion”/”My Fair Lady” theme for a new era. It’s brilliantly written
by Emily Kapnek (“Suburgatory”) and perfectly cast. Gillan (“Doctor Who”) shows
Lucy-esque comedy skill.

(8 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC; debuts Sept. 30)

 “The McCarthys” (8).

Brian Gallivan grew up in a vibrant Irish family, surrounded
by people who loved him and all Boston sports teams. The latter instinct escaped
him; now he’s written a fast, clever comedy with Tyler Ritter (John’s son) as
the family anomaly and Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”) as his mom.

(9:30 p.m. Thursdays, CBS; debuts Oct. 30, after CBS ends
its Thursday-football stretch)

“A to Z” (8)

Andrew and Zelda are opposites. He’s a romantic who works at
a dating service; she’s a lawyer who’s given up on romance. Are they destined
to be together? Have they met before? They aren’t sure, but it’s a fun ride.
After playing Mother on “How I Met Your Mother,” Cristin Milioti gets a fresh
shot at destiny.

(9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC; Oct. 2)

“Black-ish” (5). Dre and Rainbow (Anthony Anderson and
Tracee Ellis Ross) have grabbed the American dream. He’s an advertising
vice-president, she’s an anesthesiologist, their four kids are comfy. Still, he
frets that those kids have no feel for black culture … especially after his son
wants a bar mitzvah. The result tends to get one-note, but has its fun moments.

(9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC; Sept. 24)

“Manhattan Love Story” (5)

New to New York, Dana is optimistic about work and life.
Peter grew up here; he’s mostly optimistic about one-night stands. These
opposites are sort of interesting to watch; there’s more fun in his mismatched
family and her chaotic workplace.

 (8:30 p.m. Tuesdays,
ABC; Sept. 30)

“Bad Judge” (4)

Maybe this is what we fantasize when we watch “Judge Judy”
and such: Kate Walsh plays an acid-tongued judge who drums in a friend’s band
and views life as a party. We also see a warm side with a troubled kid, but
that may not be enough to keep us watching.

(9 p.m. Thursdays, NBC; Oct. 2)

“Marry Me” (3)

On “Saturday Night Live” and beyond, Casey Wilson has been a
likable comedy actress. Here, she confuses shouting with humor. Her longtime
boyfriend (Ken Marino) hasn’t proposed yet; she screams so stridently that she
doesn’t hear him when he does. This was created by David Caspe, who recently
married Wilson (yes, after waiting years). There’s potential, but it’s not
there yet.

(9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC; Oct, 14)

“Mulaney” (2)

A former “Saturday Night Live” writer, John Mulaney is young
and lean and likable. As this show starts – brief stand-up comedy, then his
story of three friends, one of them (Nasim Pedrad) female – we’re tempted to
think of “Seinfeld.” Alas, that thought vanishes with the show’s scatter-shot,
erratic humor.

(9:30 p.m. Sundays, Fox; Oct. 5)

“Cristela” (1)

The real-life story of Cristela Alonzo is a gem. Raised by a
single mom who held two full-time jobs, she spent her first eight years in an
abandoned diner and soared as a comedian. Somehow, this sitcom version fails.
The writing is flat and blunt; so are the performances, including Alonzo in the
title role.

(8:30 p.m. Fridays, ABC; Oct. 10)

Seth Meyers is retro? Maybe at Emmys monolog time

The Emmys are coming Monday and I'm semi-excited. TV's two best shows are always there --  "The Big Bang Theory" never quite winning for best comedy, "The Daily Show" almost always winning for bet variety show. This year's most brilliant dramas were "Fargo" (which will probably win for best miniseries) and "True Detective" (which will probably lose to "Breaking Bad" for drama series). The movie category will be dominated by HBO's "The Normal Heart" this year, in the same way it was ruled by "Behind the Candelabra" last year.

Still, what I'm looking forward to the most is Seth Meyers' opening monolog. Here's the story I sent to papers:


With his sharp, timely wit, Seth Meyers rarely gets
described as “retro.” Until now.

When he hosts the Emmy Awards on Monday, Meyers, 40, may reflect
TV’s old days. That’s when viewers showed up early, to see what
Billy-Johnny-Bob-Whoever would say in the opening monolog.

Lately, the best hosts (led by Neil Patrick Harris) have had
short monologs and long filmed pieces, but that’s not Meyers’ style. “I have to
tell jokes,” he said. “And the monolog is the best place to tell jokes.”

As the awards unfold, a cloud of disappointment starts to cover
the room. The auditorium “fills up with losers,” joked Mike Shoemaker, producer
of Meyers’ late-night show.

By then, said Emmys producer Don Mischer, “jokes that may
have worked” earlier start to fail.

And writing those jokes is Meyers’ forte. Just ask
Shoemaker, who was a “Saturday Night Live” producer for 19 years, then led the
starts of both the Jimmy Fallon and Meyers late-night shows.

“Seth is probably the best writer that I’ve seen in all of
those years,” he said. When plans for the late-night show started, “I kind of
promised him that … he could write as much as he wanted.”

Yes, Meyers used to try acting. After growing up in New
Hampshire (where his mother was a teacher and his father was in finance), he
went to Northwestern and joined Chicago’s comedy scene; he was hired for the “SNL”
cast in 2001, but that wasn’t what stuck. “I identify as a writer, most of all,”
he said.

In 2006, he joined Tina Fey and Andrew Steele as the show’s
head writers and joined Fey on the “Weekend Update” desk. She soon left, but
their link has continued; Meyers wrote her Sarah Palin sketches and was one of
the writers when she and Amy Poehler hosted the Golden Globes. For the Emmys,
they’ll help write and Poehler will be a presenter.

Meyers hosted award shows (two years of Webbys, two of Espys),
often mentioning whoever was in the audience. “Jon Hamm looks the way every
Republican thinks they look,” he said at the 2011 White House correspondents
event. “Zach Galifianakis looks the way Republicans think every Democrat looks.”

He usually followed a rule he said he learned from “SNL”
producer Lorne Michaels: “Try not to tell a joke about somebody that you then
would want to leave the cocktail party if they showed up.”.

Still, don’t expect him to share many cocktails with Donald
Trump, who drew a cascade of barbs at that 2011 event, including: “Gary Busey
said recently that Donald Trump would make a great president. Of course, he
said the same thing about an old, rusty bird cage that he found. Donald Trump
owns the Miss USA pageant, which is great for Republicans, since it will
streamline their search for a vice president.”

Meyers is like that sometimes. The early Emmy moments could
be worth catching.

Emmy awards, 8-11 p.m. ET, NBC; 5 p.m. PT,
repeating at 8.

Red-carpet at 6 p.m. ET on E, with preview at 4:30.

“Late Night with Seth Meyers,” 12:35 a.m.
weeknights, NBC.

Is real life like a 1980s soap opera? Sometimes, this true-crime series says

Back in the 1980s, primetime TV was filled with pretty people cheating on each other. Now a cable series puts some of the '80s actors into true stories of sex and betrayal. "Heartbreakers" (10 p.m. Wednesdays on Investigation Discovery) gets confusing because of late switches in episodes; still, it's fun in its own, odd way. Here's the story I sent to papers:


For cable-TV, the 1980s are like some of the sillier toys on
a basement shelf. Every now and then, it’s nice to pull them out and play with
them again.

That’s sort of what the “Heartbreakers” series does. “You
have Carol Seaver involved in a tawdry love triangle,” producer Pamela Deutsch
said. “You have Peter Brady doing some really naughty things.”

Well, sort of. One episode has Tracey Gold (Carol in “Growing
Pains”) as a school secretary who had affairs with the principal (Christopher
Knight, who was Peter in “The Brady Bunch”) and the gym coach (Antonio Sabato).
It’s a true story that shattered two marriages and left one person dead.

Other stories also have stars -- Jack Wagner, Rob Estes,
Jamie Luner, Nicole Eggert – from TV’s past. Many, Deutsch said, are from “sort
of the golden age of the primetime soap.”

It was an era of gorgeous people cheating on one another.
That fits the three-week “Heartbreakers,” which Henry Schleiff, Investigation
Discovery’s president, calls “completely over-the-top entertainment.”

The key was to find true stories that feel as odd as an ‘80s
soap. In one, a charismatic pastor had a decade-long affair with the wife of
his finance chairman. In another, a new husband tried to convince his wife that
they weren’t really broke; it was just a ploy, he said, because he worked for
the CIA.

There are re-enactments, plus news footage of the real
people and memories from their friends, relatives, reporters and more. “To see
footage of the real people, it’s really touching,” Eggert said.

That also kept things from getting too silly, Gold said. “It
is real life (with) real people and you don’t want to approach it as a joke.”

Still, the humor comes through because romance is clumsy. Eggert
attests to that from her own life: “Relationships are hard …. I’ve never been
married and I have two kids.”

(Some sources list a brief marriage, but Eggert said it didn’t
happen – further proof that life is strange.)

Now these actors can tackle perverse characters. “It was a
wonderful opportunity to play off-type,” Knight said. “(Or) maybe this is my
type now.”

He’s had scattered roles over the years, but realizes that
Peter Brady dominates. “I’ve reached a peace with it …. He’s always in the room
before I get there.”

Sorbo said he’s happy to have 12 years of “Hercules” and “Andromeda”
overemployment, plus “all these movies over this last decade.” And now he plays
the private-eye who tells Eggert that her husband isn’t really in the CIA; he’s
just another scheming heartbreaker.

“Heartbreakers,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays on
Investigation Discovery, rerunning at 1 a.m. and then at 7 p.m. Saturdays.

The show has been hampered by late switching of
episodes. Current plans have Jack Wagner, Jamie Luner and Rob Estes this week;
Aug. 27 has Nicole Eggert, Judd Nelson and Kevin Sorbo.

All three episodes are scheduled to rerun from
1-4 p.m. Aug. 31; the third is the series opener (Tracey Gold, Christopher Knight,
Antonio Sabato), currently set for 2 p.m.

Post-Potter life for Radcliffe:At 25, he's still the polite little guy

Even before becoming Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe was inhabiting a British classic. He recalled that recently, while discussing a little cable show -- "A Young Doctor's Notebook" -- that returns Tuesday (Aug. 19) and reruns often. The show is small, clever and quirky; the star is small, clever and thoughtful. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Daniel Radcliffe’s first meeting with American TV critics
had its moments of semi-peril.

Not the press conference itself; even back then – as a
10-year-old who shared the title role in PBS’ 1999 “David Copperfield” – he
took that in stride. “I’ve always sort of enjoyed talking to people,” he said.

The trickier part, he said, was getting there. “I remember
the lift (elevator) button always electrocuted you when you went down. So me
and my mom would, like, flip a coin for who had to press the button.”

He survived and went on to stardom in Harry Potter movies
and beyond. Now, 15 years later, he was talking to some of those same critics
about “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” … the sort of offbeat series that only starpower
can generate.  Producers, he said, told
him: “If you want to get a TV show green-lit, tell them you have Jon Hamm and
Daniel Radcliffe for four weeks over the summer.”

Hamm (“Mad Men”) was attracted to the work of Mikhail
Bulakov, a former World War I doctor who kicked a morphine addiction and became
an acclaimed Russian writer. His “Notebook” had the 1935 version of the doctor
(played by Hamm) talking directly to his 1917 self.

“It was incredibly flattering that he … suggested me to play
the young him,” Radcliffe said.

Also eccentric: Hamm stands 6-foot-2, Radcliffe is 5-5. “The
show is so crazy anyway,” Radcliffe said. “If viewers get hung up on that, then
there’s going to be plenty of other logical problems.”

Height (or lack of it) helped him get those early roles. Radcliffe
– the son of a London literary agent and casting agent – was turning 10 when he
played young Copperfield, whose life quaked as he turned 8.

He had never acted, but director Simon Curtis later recalled
(in Rebecca Eaton’s “Making Masterpiece,” Viking, 2013) that the casting made
sense: “A director friend told me, ‘If you’re casting a kid, cast a kid you
like’ …. He was a lovely boy to have around (and) he’s become an impressive

He was also a polite kid who wrote thank-you notes and asked
Maggie Smith: “Would you like me to call you ‘Dame’?” She burst out laughing …
and a year later recommended him to play Potter.

First, Eaton wrote, he became the youngest British actor ever
brought by PBS to the U.S. for a press conference. She remembered him “sitting
up straight in his chair, feet hardly touching the ground, as he thoughtfully
and respectfully tried to answer questions about Charles Dickens.”

For “Notebook,” it was more distant. Wrapping up his Broadway
run of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Radcliffe was interviewed by TV critics via closed-circuit.
He reflected on the notion of doing a dark Russian comedy for British (and now
American) TV.

“There’s a certain joy taken in the bleakness of Russia and
of England,” he said, “reveling in the misery of it all …. While I don’t think
that’s a particularly American sensibility, I do think that America loves dark
comedy. I’m doing an incredibly dark comedy on Broadway at the moment, and
people are loving it.”

In short, we’re ready for this dark plunge: “You’ve got the
same twisted sense of humor as I have.”

“A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” 10 p.m. ET for four
Tuesdays on Ovation, an arts-oriented network on cable, satellite and

Season-opener (Aug. 19) reruns at 5 p.m.
Thursday, 1 p.m. Saturday and late-night Monday (technically, 1:30 a.m.

This is the second mini-season. The first reruns
late-night Thursday (technically, 2-4 a.m. Friday).

Last stand for "Last Comic Standing" finalists

Stop me if you've heard this before ... which you might have. A few weeks ago, I sent papers a story about a promising comedian, Lachlan Patterson. Now he's one of the three survivors in Thursday's "Last Coming Standing" finale. Here's the updated version I sent:



Lachlan Patterson gets a lot of questions, but this one tops
(or bottoms) the list.

“I really hate it,” he said, “when people say, ‘How come
you’re not famous?’”

They might quit asking now: Patterson has added a little
fame, as one of three “Last Comic Standing” finalists; if he wins Thursday, he’ll
get $250,000 … and a development deal for a possible NBC show.

As luck would have it, Patterson already looks like a TV (or
movie) star. He’s 6-foot-4 and handsome.

“My initial impression, when he walked out, was, ‘Oh, This
guy looks like a mannequin. What is he going to do?’” recalled Keenen Wayans,
one of the judges. Others probably wondered the same thing, Wayans said: “If
you don’t fit in that (visual) mold, the audience is always going to doubt you.”

 Then, Wayans said,
clever material erased all doubts. “He’s very sly, you know …. And crafty, as

He’s sly and shy, a quiet Canadian whose dad had warned him against
a comedy career. The dad is a high school guidance counselor, Patterson said,
and “has access to all the information on jobs.”

He was also Patterson’s coach in baseball, soccer and
basketball – which dominated after the kid grew five inches at age 16. Later,
after quitting college, Patterson took a stand-up comedy class.

After doing well in Canada, he moved to the U.S. in 2007.
Three years later, “Tonight” people scouted another comic and saw him. “They
said, ‘We’d really like to use you, but we can’t say when.’”

When the call came, Patterson was needed that night. He
savored the experience – “in Jay Leno’s audience, they applaud jokes” – but
didn’t become famous. For a while, he quit working the national comedy-club circuit;
in Venice, Cal., he surfed, worked nearby clubs and was a dog-walker.

Then “Last Comic Standing” returned (after skipping three
summers) and found its final three.

There’s Nikki Carr, a grandmother of four. “Nikki is one …
whose name I didn’t know before the show,” said Russell Peters, a judge and a
stand-up veteran. She “surprised me with every turn she took.”

By comparison, Peters had seen Rod Man do comedy often over
15 years. “I’ve seen him destroy in black rooms, but this is a mixed room and
it’s a very different game.  When he
destroyed the same way, I (thought), ‘Maybe I’ve misjudged him.’”

All three comics are used to being misjudged. And after
Thursday, one of them might not hear questions about not being famous.

“Last Comic Standing” finale, 9-11 p.m.
Thursday, NBC