A fraction of Italy becomes an American powerhouse


Over the next two Tuesdays (Feb. 17 and 24), PBS will offer some fascinating looks at Italian Americans. Especially interesting, perhaps, is the way one region -- short on wealth, on education, on trust of government -- would have a powerful impact. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

Over the past
century or so, the U.S. has been energized by people from one small
country.

Or, actually, from a
fraction of that country. PBS' “The Italian Americans” says most
of the surge came from one piece of Italy.

It's “not the
experience of Milan (or) Florence,” said journalist Gay Talese.
“It's not Rome. It's Naples to Sicily, that little area ....
Americans such as me and Mario Cuomo and Joe DiMaggio and Madonna
(are) from that deep part of the South, which is quite isolated in
history and mentality from the North.”

Italy was gradually
unified in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, but some regions didn't feel it. “Southern-Italian
immigrants felt forced out,” said John Maggio, the PBS film's
producer. “They were overtaxed and they were poor. So they came to
America.”

Immigration forms
even required them to specify if they were Northern or Southern. The
latter often found themselves with bad jobs, low pay and limited
opportunity ... plus a distrust of public processes.

“We're from the
Kingdom of Naples, which was eradicated in the 1870s,” Talese said.
It “had a history of isolation .... The country was made up of
villages.”

With one spectacular
exception – New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia – Italian
Americans tended to avoid politics. Then a powerful force emerged in
the old country.

“America was in
love with (Benito) Mussolini, as this kind of antidote to Communism,”
said Maria Laurino, who wrote the show's companion book. “Then, all
of a sudden, that love affair failed.”

As Americans fought
Mussolini's Italy in World War II, an almost-teen Talese scrambled.
“Having an Italian-born father whose brothers remained in Italy
(and) were fighting against the American invasion, .... I felt very
much as if I was a fractured American,” he said.

Biases grew during
the war, said Jeff Bieber of WETA, which nurtured the show. “The
parents of Joe DiMaggio were labeled enemy aliens at the outbreak of
World War II, despite the fact that their son was an American hero
and he and his brothers enlisted in the military during World War
II.”

After the war, the
Italian image was boosted by superstars in sports (DiMaggio),
politics (Cuomo), movies (Brando-De Niro-Pacino) and music. “The
great achievement of Frank Sinatra, as an Italian American, was his
capacity to assimilate,” Talese said.

Alongside that,
however, was the looming image of the Mafia, propelled by the
real-life testimony of Joseph Valachi in 1963 and by the “Godfather”
movie in 1972 and the “Sopranos” TV series in 1999.

Many people objected
to the tarnishing of their image. Still, Talese said, the fictional
characters were often beloved. “They are driving fine cars. They
live well, they dress well, they are not peasants. They are an
element above the beleagured working class. And that is something,
when you think of how little the Italian Americans had by way of
looking at success.”

And then, gradually,
the success and impact grew. We saw Italians on the Supreme Court
(Antonin Scalia), as speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi), as
vice-presidential candidate (Geraldine Ferraro), as several of New
York's governors and mayors. Italy – a fraction of it, mostly –
made its impact.

-- “The Italian
Americans”

-- 9-11 p.m.
Tuesdays, Feb. 17 and 24, PBS (check local listings)

 

Ah, Geraldo and Lorenza -- you guys have too much in common


"Celebrity Apprentice" has its finale Monday (8 p.m. Feb. 16, NBC), with some colorful souls colliding. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Amid all the
shouting, “Celebrity Apprentice” does offer life lessons. Here
are two:

1) Reality shows may
seem hard, but real life – if you have eight kids – is harder. “I
wish I could be in 'Celebrity Apprentice' every day,” Kate Gosselin
said. “It was a lot easier (than) my everyday life.”

2) And it may not be
great to have a lot in common with your co-worker.

Early in the current
edition, Gerald Rivera and Ian Ziering – both intense, both
talkative – were together. “Start with the absolute, firm
foundation that Ian and I don't like each other,” Rivera said.

Ziering (who
disputes that statement) was eventually ousted; Rivera kept
surviving. “Some people aren't so happy with the fact that I didn't
fire him,” Donald Trump said. “But that wasn't because he didn't
do well. They just don't like the guy very much.”

Now he's made it to
Monday's finale, in which each person is making a commercial for
Universal Orlando Resort and organizing a launch party. The finalists
are:

-- Leeza Gibbons,
with her get-along attitude. (“I love the language of business,”
she said.) To help her, Trump assigned the previously ousted Kevin
Jonas, Brandi Glanville and Johnny Damon.

-- Rivera. Trump
assigned Lorenzo Lamas, Vivica Fox ... and Rivera's old foe, Ziering.

This time, however,
it's Rivera and Lamas who may have too much in common.

Both men describe
themselves as being very competitive. Both are in taut physical shape
– Lamas at 57, Rivera at 71. Each has had four divorces.

“I'm a changed
person now,” insists Rivera, who boasted in his autobiography of
having affairs with more than 1,000 women. His fifth marriage has
lasted 11 years; when he visited the Television Critics Association,
be brought along his 9-year-old daughter.

Any late-in-life
mellowness, however, vanishes when “Apprentice” begins. For the
commercial, Rivera chose himself as the star and co-writer; he
assigned Lamas (who has directed six episodes of action TV shows) to
direct ... then started overruling him.

For Lamas, this is
part of a broader picture. He grew up in Hollywood, the son of movie
stars Ferando Lamas and Arlene Dahl. He's a helicopter pilot and
ranges from acting to game shows to reality. “I've raised six
children in my live,” he said. “I've never been in a position to
turn down good-paying gigs.”

In 2003, hw was a
judge on “Are You Hot: The Search for America's Sexiest People,”
one of the first – and most derided – network reality shows. “I
think (producer) Mike Fleiss had the right idea .... It was ahead of
its time,” Lamas said.

Fleiss had also
created “The Bachelor,” which stored big. And in 2008, bachelor
Matt Grant chose Shayne Lamas. Her dad, Lorenzo, was busy then, as a
contestant on the “Gone Country” reality show.

The next year,
Shayne and Grant broke up – she later married blogger Nik Richie
and has a daughter – and joined her dad on “Leave It to Lamas.”
There are, apparently, lots of reality shows out there.

-- “Celebrity
Apprentice” finale, 8-10:01 p.m. Monday, NBC.

 

NBC slaps us with something different


We're used to the TV-drama routine now -- cops, crooks, 22 episodes a year. That's why NBC's "The Slap" feels so differeint; it starts Thursday and runs for just eight weeks, exploring the subtler side of emotions. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For most of TV
history, American networks have had one notion of a drama series.

There should be a
lot of episodes (at least 22 per year) and a lot of seasons. There
should be one of the “franchises” (cops, crooks, courts,
doctors), to provide an ending to each hour.

Lately, that's been
challenged a little by some shows – and a lot by “The Slap” on
NBC.

“We just have to
find ways to eventize things and make them big and break through the
clutter,” said Robert Greenblatt, NBC's programming chief.

His show may or may
not seem like an event, but it definitely isn't part of the clutter.
It runs for only eight Thursdays and is triggered in the first hour,
when someone slaps someone else's son.

“All of these
characters come to the table with a tremendous amount of internal
conflict and struggle about different aspects of their lives and
relationships,” said Zachary Quinto, who plays the slapper.

In short, this isn't
really about that one swipe. “Everyone gets slapped in some way,”
said Melissa George, who plays the slapped child's mother.

The show's short run
helps viewers, who know they won't be left hanging. It also helps the
filmmakers.

“It's
close-ended,” said producer Walter Parkes. It's “an opportunity
for people, both behind and in front of the camera, to really commit
to something a little bit different, a little bit special.”

He's a movie guy who
combined with his wife, Laure MacDonald, to run the early years of
the DreamWorks movie studio, when it had consecutive Oscar-winners
with “American Beauty,” “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind.”
Now they've assembled movie and theater people.

Directing all the
episodes is Lisa Cholidenko, an indie-movie favorite for “The Kids
Are All Right.” Writing them is Jon Robin Baitz, a playwright who
has a Tony nomination, two Pulitzer Prize nominations ... and wrote
bitterly about his earlier experience, creating ABC's “Brothers &
Sisters.”

Its actors have done
big-deal movies – “Star Trek” (Quinto is Spock), “Kill Bill”
(Uma Thurman), “Mission Impossible 2” (Thandie Newton) – and
more. Peter Sarsgaard, who has the central role, is a favorite of
independent-movie fans; Brian Cox, who plays his dad, is a British
award-winner.

And one person has a
deeper involvement with this: Melissa George also played Rosie, the
mom, in the original “Slap,” in her native Australia.

When she heard about
the American project, George said, “I was like, 'Who is going to
play Rosie?' .... I was signing a deal for another job and (Baitz)
called me and said, 'You've got to do it.'”

One might assume
that off-camera, actors debated the right and wrong of that slap.
George doesn't remember that in either production: “Oh, there's no
argument,” she said. Tthe slap “is completely wrong. There's no
discussion. So maybe (other cast members) talk about it, but I just
walk away.”

Still, there's
plenty of room to argue. Thurman, whose own roots seem thoroughly
non-violent – her father is an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and a
friend of the Dalia Lama, her mother is the ex-wife of Timothy Leary
– says she understands the debate.

“Being brought up
in the '70s, we got hit all the time,” Thurman said. “And friends
were hit and you saw their parents hitting their children ....
Hitting was acceptable.”

And now it's one of
many personal issues that may stir viewers. “There will be
arguments at dinners,” George said. And that's something that
rarely emerges from those cops-and-crooks TV dramas.

-- “The Slap,” 8
p.m. Thursdays, NBC

-- Eight weeks,
starting Feb. 12

 

The "SCTV" folks are up "Schitt's Creek" (in a good way)


OK, not everyone will love "Schitt's Creek." It has a droll style -- sometimes very quiet, sometimes very Canadian -- that some people will ignore and some will love. I find it hilarious ... and a delight to find on a network (Pop) that, when it was the TV Guide Network, was terribly easy to ignore. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

It was almost 40
years ago that young Canadians started a rag-tag TV show.

“SCTV” would
limp along for six mini-seasons (under four different titles),
getting little money and huge praise. Many of its people – John
Candy, Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Martin Short – would become
movie stars; most have stayed in the TV/movie universe.

Now two enter an
unexpected place: Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara star in “Schitt's
Creek” on Pop, which used to be the TV Guide Network and used to be
rightfully ignored.

The network is now a
land of reruns, reality and old movies, mostly aimed at passionate TV
fans. Brad Schwartz, the Pop programmer, admits he wasn't expecting
to have a major series this soon. Then “this dream of a show came
to us and it was a scripted comedy with talent that our audience grew
up with.”

Those two people
were opposites in their “SCTV” days.

Levy was the quiet
one with droll wit. He “would spend a lot of time writing very
focused pieces that usually made a subtle point,” Ramis said in
Dave Thomas' “SCTV” (1996, McClelland and Stewart).

O'Hara was the zesty
one, sometimes showing up without sleep and creating a comedy rush.
“Other than Marty Short, no one else on the Second City stage made
me laugh so much,” Joe Flaherty said in Thomas' book. “(She had
a) twinkle in her eye and a wit that was as unpredictable as a
tropical storm.”

These contrasting
souls didn't share many “SCTV” sketches, O'Hara said. “We
didn't really work together as a team until the Chris Guest movies,
and then we played husband-and-wife a few times.”

They'd been in in
big-money movies – O'Hara in the “Home Alone” films, Levy in
the “American Pie” ones – and in obscure ones. Guest cast them
in at least four eccentric films, including “Best of Show.”

Then the new idea
came from Eugene's son. “I've known Danny as a baby,” O'Hara
said.

He was born in 1983,
when “SCTV” was in its final incarnation, and performed often in
school. “I would offer my help ... and he would say, 'No, I got
it,'” Eugene recalled.

Dan went on to host
talk and comedy shows for MTV Canada. Then, he says, he “started
thinking about ... a wealthy family losing its money. I felt like
this could go in two directions, (a noisy comedy) or it could be
played very real, and that's when I thought of my dad.”

Understated comedy
seems to be a Levy specialty. “We had never worked together,”
Eugene said. When they finally did, “it dawned on me that he is
exceptionally talented.”

The show starts
after the Rose family's accountant has vanished without ever paying
taxes. Soon, the Roses are stripped of everything ... except what the
government doesn't want, a deed to a town the dad bought because he
thought the name (Schitt's Creek) was funny. Now they must move
there.

Predictably, Eugene
Levy and O'Hara play the parents, with Daniel as their son. Less
predictably, Daniel's sister is played by Annie Murphy; his real-life
sister Sarah plays a local waitress. Other locals are led by Chris
Elliott as Roland Schitt, the mayor.

Backed by a big
Canadian network (CBC) and a small American one (Pop), they spent two
months in a Toronto studio and a month in Goodwood, an Ontario town
of 600. They were sort of on their own.

“A lot of writers
have sold pilots,” Dan Levy said, “and they go through the system
and suddenly what comes out is not what they had intended. (But)
we've made the show that we intended to.”

This was a little
like the old days, O'Hara said. “It felt like we had great
freedom.”

And four decades
ago, that type of freedom created an eccentric comedy classic.

-- “Schitt's
Creek,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, Pop (formerly TV Guide Network)

-- First two
episodes air Feb. 11, rerunning at 11 p.m.; they also run at 11:30
a.m. Thursday; Friday night at midnight (technically 12 a.m.
Saturday); Saturday night at 12:30 a.m.; Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

-- On Feb. 18, those
two episodes air at 9:30 and 10:30 p.m., surrounding the third
episode.

 

 

Want a romance writer? This one is 450 years old


For a guy who died almost 400 years ago, William Shakespeare keeps stirring interest. Now this year's final chapters of "Shakespeare Uncovered" ponder three classic love stories -- an appropriate subject as Valentine's Day nears. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

As Valentine's Day
nears, people might debate which writer created the ultimate romance.

Here are three
possibilities – Shakespeare, Shakespeare or ... well, Shakespeare.

His passionate
“Othello,” “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Romeo and Juliet”
are pondered in the final shows of this season's “Shakespeare
Uncovered” series, on PBS. “Any other playwright would have been
happy to write one of those love stories,” said Richard Denton, who
created the series. “This man wrote all three (and more) --
profoundly different love stories.”

Well, the three do
have one thing in common – a grim ending. Sorry for the spoiler,
but five of the six lovers commit suicide (albeit sometimes due to
false information); the sixth is smothered by her lover.

Beyond that, the
tales contrast sharply, as the “Uncovered” hosts (who have
starred in the plays) attest:

-- Romeo and Juliet
were teens. “It's a young person's play,” said Joseph Fiennes
(who also starred in “Shakespeare in Love”). “It's all about
sex and violence and young generations seem to be into that.” And
no, he said, this isn't just puppy love. “The language itself is so
grown-up, so explicit, so sexual.”

-- Mark Antony was,
by standards of the time, an old man. In real life, he was 43 when
Cleopatra (then 29) bore his twins, 53 when the lovers died. “Antony
was over,” Kim Catrall (“Sex and the City”) said. “In 'Julius
Caesar,' he's still this verile man, this leader, this hero. But
(now) it's past him.”

-- Othello and
Desdemona were somewhere between the extremes – recently married
and in love ... up to the moment he (stirred by his aide's lies)
killed her. “It is the love that makes him extremely vulnerable,”
David Harewood (“Homeland”) said. “This is a man of war who has
never experienced tenderness .... It is a beautiful love story that
goes horribly wrong.”

For some of the
plays, the love is still being debated. Catrall was startled to hear
that Vanessa Redgrave – who has frequently played Cleopatra or
directed the show – feels her “love” was merely political.

Cattrall agrees that
Cleopatra was capable of schemes. “She was a brilliant, brilliant
woman. She spoke over seven languages, was the only Ptolemy (the
Greeks who ruled Egypt) who actually spoke Egyptian .... She brought
libraries to Alexandria. She was truly a pioneer.”

Still, Cattrall
insists, “she did love him in my interpretation of playing
Cleopatra.”

Other debates have
spanned the centuries. They include:

-- Whether one man,
of modest education, could have written 37 plays – many considered
masterpieces – in 21 years. There were occasional bits of
collaboration, Denton said, and historical works were used as
sources. Still, “there's not a shred of evidence” that someone
else wrote the plays. That was “a weird 19th-Century
idea started by a disappointed religious man with a lovely name of
Looney.”

-- Whether Othello,
an African general in the Venetian army, could be played by whites.

Many have tried.
Orson Welles' 1952 film won the top Cannes Film Festival prize;
Laurence Olivier's 1965 performance received an Oscar nomination.
Olivier used jet-black make-up and an exaggerated walk, Harewood
said. “He tried to become this animalistic black creature and it's
just ridiculous.”

It wasn't until 1997
that Harewood became the first black to play Othello at the National
Theatre in London. “Just before I went onstage, the enormity of
what I was about to do kind of hit me,” he said. “I completely
forgot my lines. And I had to compose myself and just walk on there.”

He was stepping into
one of the world's eternal love stories.

-- “Shakespeare
Uncovered,” 9 and 10 p.m. Fridays, PBS (check local listings)

-- Feb. 6: Morgan
Freeman on “The Taming of the Shrew”; David Harewood on “Othello”

-- Feb. 13: Kim
Catrall on “Antony and Cleopatra,” Joseph Fiennes on “Romeo and
Juliet”

-- Previously, Hugh
Bonneville on “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Christopher Plummer on
“King Lear”; for past episodes, including the first season, see
www.pbs.org.