TV movie savors llamas and llove and good wine

Even on our most serious days, TV has room for light-hearted (and, sometimes, light-headed) fun. On Sunday, when most people are watching the presidential debate (or football, or HBO), the Hallmark Channel has alternatives. On the East Coast, where the debate starts at 9 p.m., it's the season-finale of "Chesapeake Shores"; on the West Coast (6 p.m.), it's the second half of a light movie called "Autumn in the Vineyard."

That one also airs at 9 p.m. Saturday, complete with romance, anger and a llama. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Starring in a TV
movie can be a mixed blessing, Rachael Leigh Cook found.

On one hand, you're
in the beauty of wine country.On the other, one of your co-stars is a

“The phrase
'trained llama' is really misleading,” she said.

In “Autumn in the
Vineyard” -- which the Hallmark Channel debuts Saturday and reruns
Sunday – she buys a friend's vineyard. It comes with great grapes
and an errant llama.

Yes, that was her
first time acting with a llama; “I hope it's not my last,” Cook
said. She found the critter to be friendly and charming ... but
disinterested in doing what the script said. Some scenes required her
to improvise -- “it really forces you be be alert” -- and some
had to be thrown out.

“Vineyard” is
the sort of confection Hallmark prefers: Cook, 37, plays someone who
has devoted her life to wine country. Now she and her nemesis (and
ex-boyfriend) both claim they own the farm.

Yes, that fits a lot
of the standard romantic-comedy rules. Then again, that's a form Cook
has mastered. In this week's episode of “Superstore” (8 p.m. Oct
6, NBC), its heroine says she just wants to see old movies: “I'm
thinking mid-90s rom-coms, like Freddy Prinze Jr. takes the nerd to
the prom, because underneith her glasses, she's really beautiful.
She's beautiful!”

That's a reference
to “She's All That” (1999), with Cook as the bespectacled beauty.
Nowadays, she seemed delighted to hear it's become a pop-culture
reference. “I had no idea that it would be as popular as it was,
(but) it was one of my favorite characters to play.”

As a kid, she had
some things in common with the nerdy character. “I wanted to be
popular and I was not,” Cook said. “I felt I was different than
everyone else.”

Her plan was to
“sort of skip over childhood” and become a performer.
Fortunately, she was in the right place (Minneapolis, which has a
vibrant entertainment scene), with the right parents. Her dad (a
social worker and former comedian) and mom (a cooking instructor and
weaver) went along with her plan.

Cook modeled at 10
for Minneapolis-based Target and others and auditioned for acting
roles at 14. The next year, in Disney's “Huck and Finn,” she
played the classic character Becky Thatcher ... a distinction she's
shared with Jodie Foster, Melissa Benoit (the current Supergirl) and
Kirsten Dunst.

Four years later
came “She's All That” and then the title role in “Josie and the
Pussycats.” Her TV roles ranged from “Perception,” which ran
three seasons, to “Fearless,” which was yanked before it aired.

Recently, Cook
starred in “Summer Love” for Hallmark and was impressed.”The
speed with which they can make a movie is unparalleled,” she said.

So she wanted to
make another one, this time through her production company. Adapting
a series of “Vineyard” books seemed to fit her tastes. “My
husband and I actually got married in Napa Valley.”

The movie was filmed
in a British Colombia area that looks like Napa. Soon, she was
traveling again.

As she was talking
by phone, Cook was in Atlanta, where her husband (Daniel Gillies) is
in “The Originals,” playing good-guy vampire Elijah. They had
just finished their daughter's 3rd birthday party, an
intimate one that included their 1-year-old son.

All of this is fine
for now, she said. But when the kids reach school age, “our nomadic
lifestyle will have to change.” She'll want to find something
that's steady and, perhaps, llama-free.

-- “Autumn in the
Vineyard,” 9-11 p.m. Saturday, Hallmark

-- Repeats at 5 p.m.
Sunday, 7 p.m. Oct. 15, 1 p.m. Oct. 16

Technology delivers some bloody,messy fun

TV -- especially cable-TV -- is not the domain of pregnant pauses and subtle undetstatement. It goes for big, splashy fun ... and few shows splash quite as vigorously as "Ash vs. Evil Dead." The second-season opener arrives Sunday (Oct. 2) and reruns often; here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Technology is doing
wondrous things for our lives, you know.

It's delivers
information, hope, packages and babies. And it delivers more and
better fake blood.

“They have more
nozzles this year on the blood-deliverysystem,” said Bruce
Campbell, whose “Ash vs. Evil Dead” cable series starts its
second season. “They can do a wider spread of blood, down to a very
find jet of blood. We've all felt the sting ... but we know that our
suffering is your gain.”

It's all for the
good of the viewers, he said, who want to see their characters

Dana DeLorenzo, who
co-stars, recalls buckets of fake blood set aside, to be dumped on
her. It was “26 gallons just on me .... Mr. Rob Tapert was like,
'Oh, we have a cannon of blood.'”

This was not
Tapert's original goal in life; he went to Michigan State University
to study economics. That's where he met Ivan Raimi and then a key
figure: “Sam was Ivan's impish brother,” he recalled.

From the time he got
an 8-mm camera, Sam Raimi had been making backyard comedies, often
with his brothers Ivan and Ted and his friend Campbell. Eventually,
he became an MSU student and made “The Happy Valley Kid,” a
horror short that debuted on campus.

And then? “Rob was
the first person to go, 'Aah, let's raise money for a movie,'”
Campbell said.

Others may have been
semi-clueless on money matters, but the economics guy had plans,
Campbell said. “Rob would say, 'Well, I've got this crazy uncle.
He's a dentist; let's try him.'”

So “Evil Dead”
was filmed in Tennessee, with Campbell starring.

“Starring,” in
this case, meant being drenched in a fake blood made from Karo sauce.
“We'd shoot all night,” Campbell recalled. “My favorite run
back from the set was getting in the back of the pickup truck,
covered with blood head-to-toe, because I can't get my clothes off
because they're stuck to me ....

“The fun was
riding through rural Tennessee on a Sunday morning as people are
coming out to church ... and I'm waving to everyone like 'The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre,' (and then) go into the shower with my clothes on
to melt the fake blood to get it off.”

For the TV series,
he has plastic clothes that look bloody. “It's the modern world,”
Campbell said.

Actually, much has
changed in the 35 years since “Evil Dead” (then with a different
title) was filmed:

--Sam Raimi switched
to big-budget movies, including a Spider-Man trilogy; Ivan became a
doctor, but still helps write and produce.

-- Campbell became a
cult-movie favorite and also a TV actor, starring in “Brisco County
Jr.” and co-starring in the seven-year run of “Burn Notice.”

-- And Tapert became
the hands-on guy, producing series in New Zealand. They included
“Hercules,” “Spartacus” and “Xena” ... in which New
Zealand actress Lucy Lawless became a cultural icon and now Tapert's
wife. They live in California and workin New Zealand, often with

“I love it,”
Lawless said. “We laugh a lot, which is like it should be.”

But playing Ruby,
her duty is often to destroy her friend. “I've actually found that
Lucy doesn't really like me that much,” Campbell deadpanned. “She
doesn't even want to rehearse. I'm like, 'Lucy, should we run these
lines?' She goes, 'Oh no, No. You're gonna get it live.'”

And then the blood

-- “Ash vs. Evil
Dead,” 8 p.m. Sundays, Starz; Oct. 2 season-opener reruns at 9:05
and 10:10 p.m.

-- First season
reruns from 4-9 p.m. Oct. 2.

-- Second-season
opener – Ash returns to his Michigan home town – reruns Monday at
4, 8:40 and 11 p.m., plus 1:40 a.m.; Tuesday at 6:05 and 9 p.m.;
Friday at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.; Saturday at 12:20, 6:30 and 10:30 p.m.
On Suday, Oct. 9, it's 2:40 and 7:25 p.m., before the second episode,
at 8, 9 and 10.

Louis XIV? Fancy, frilly, fussy ... and an iron grip on a nation

You don't hear much these days about King Louis XIV ... or, for that matter, about cable's Ovation network. But now the two have linked for the lush and involving "Versailles" cable series. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

If you mention King
Louis XIV, all the fanciest notions pop up.

There's the
furniture, the fashions, the fuss and flair. There's the young king
who danced in 40 ballets, propelled an age of artistry and built a
700-room palace. Did he have any time left?

Definitely, said
David Wolstencroft, co-creator of the lush “Versailles” series on
cable's Ovation channel. This was someone who had full power for a
half-century; his official reign (starting when he was 5) was 72
years, the longest for any major country. During that time, he:

-- Transformed the
government. “Any historical moment is just a swirling mass of chaos
that you have to attack,” Wolstencroft said. Louis saw France
emerge from the edge of bankruptcy, fight large wars and establish
colonies, including one (Louisiana) bearing his name.

-- Had vigorous
romances. “I think Louis had 42 kids in all – 21 legitimate and
21 illegitimate.”

-- And kept
expanding that palace, which tops 720,000 square feet. “You can't
imagine the scope of it,” said George Blagden, who plays Louis. “It
is so vast and so excessive. It's breathtaking.”

English-speaking role was more than could be expected by a British
kid who grew up hearing good things about France. “My mom and dad
lived in France for about eight years,” Blagden said. “I would go
there on holiday.”

By then, he was in
thboarding schools, focusing on music (voice, guitar, piano) and
acting. Blagden was in the National Youth Theatre and was singled out
for a master class with Ian McKellan. He landed top roles – as the
captured monk in “Vikings” and the skeptical revolutionary in
“Les Miserables.”

Armed with a lot of
theater training and with a tad of French language and history,
Blagden headed into this role. “The weight of it really hits you,”
he said. “Especially the fact that the French crew would refer to
you as Louis – and would even bow.”

Helping, he said,

-- The costumes.
“The idea of wearing five layers of very heavy clothing in ...
August in Paris is kind of stifling, (but) this just wouldn't be the
role it is without it.”

-- The Versailles.
“It was this amazing decision, to build a large palace in what was
like the Eveglades.”

This had been Louis'
father's hunting lodge, a dozen miles from the French capital in
Paris. It was something Louis cherished, Wolstencroft said. “This
is a young man who hunted.”

He tightened his
control of the country at 23 and at 27, after the deaths of the
Cardinal and of Louis' mother. We meet him at 28, dreaming big things
for Versailles.

Over the next 14
years, it would have four major expansions, reaching its ultimate
size. Also expanding would be Louis' control over economy, art,
religion and ... well, lots of things besides furniture.

-- “Versailles”
10-hour mini-series, 10 p.m. ET Saturdays, cable's Ovation, rerunning
at 1 a.m.

-- First two hours
are Oct. 1; they repeats at 11 p.m. Oct. 8, after the third hour.


Norman Lear's just your usual 94-year-old investigative reporter

Remember when Walter Cronkite felt obligated to retire at 65. Norman Lear is still going strong -- doing some investigative reporting, no less -- at 94. He's part of a passionate cable show that debuts Sept. 30; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

After almost a
century, Norman Lear might have been considered an expert on life and
on cities.

Then he took a
reporting assignment. “I was horrified at how little I knew,” he

Lear, 94, the “All
in the Family” producer, emerged with a grim view: Even “a
doctor, a lawyer making a reasonable living, with two (college-bound)
kids, can no longer afford to live in New York City.”

His report starts
Friday and continues a week later, in the new “America Divided”
cable series. Other reports Friday have actress Rosario Dawson
viewing the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and rapper-actor Common
returning to his Chicago home town to eye cops, crime and

No, these aren't
your usual softball subjects; upcoming ones range from immigration to
addiction. “People are really focusing on these kind of critical
issues,” said producer Solly Granatstein.

And these aren't
your usual reporters; in the weeks ahead, there will be actors Amy
Poehler, America Ferrara, Jesse Williams, Peter Sarsgaard and Zach

Granatstein, who
spent decades at news magazines, finds this approach logical. “A
lot of the reporting that happens, even at a place like '60 Minutes,'
is actually done by the producers. So (we're) kind of used to dealing
with sort-of famous, talented people who are great on camera, who are
smart and engaged,” but need to have the advance work done.

The key, Lear said,
is simply to care. “I was extremely interested (and) my interest

The same was true of
Dawson, Granatstein said. “She's an activist. She's really tough;
on the other hand, she's a very warm, empathetic person, and that
really came across ... with the Flint residents.”

The financially
troubled city is run by a state-appointed emergency manager. To save
money, the city switched to a different source of its water ... then
ignored complaints about the result.

“It's this
unbelievable story,” Granatstein said, “about how a government
poisoned its own people .... Just 30 days later, people were already
complaining about the brown water and the ill effects. And it just
went on for months (before) anybody was able to admit there was a
real problem .... Kids have been poisoned and are still suffering
from the lead in the water.”

Dawson's efforts to
interview Gov. Rich Snyder were rebuffed, but Lear was successful for
his story. “I had a long interview with Mayor (Bill) de Blasio,”
he said.

The New York mayor
was eager to talk to Lear, Granatstein said, “because Norman is

Lear grew up in
Connecticut, sometimes lived in New York, then created the classic
New Yorker. Back then, Archie Bunker's loading-dock job was enough to
buy a good home in Queens.

And now, Granatstein
said, “70 percent of New Yorkers are actually renters.” They face
gentrification, with a twist: In other countries, people buy New York
apartments but rarely live in them, using them as a way to keep their
money secure.

With prices going
up, Lear found, some landlords try to drive out current tenants.
Others target blacks.

“Norman goes
undercover with a hidden camera, to expose racial discrimination in
housing in New York,” Granatstein said. “We particularly expose
one landlord's discriminatory practices.”

That seems like an
issue from when “All in the Family” began, 45 years ago. “It
amazes me that we haven't moved faster,” Lear said.

By comparison, he
said, LGBT (gay rights) issues have advanced quickly. “Racial
harmony wants to be moving as far forward as quickly in the next
decade or two as the LGBT issue did.”

-- “America
Divided,” 9 p.m. Fridays, Epix, starting Sept. 30

-- Opener has a full
report by Common and the start of reports by Norman Lear and Rosario


Yes, TV shows get second chances (sometimes); now it's "Code Black"

A year ago, "Code Black" had one of TV's best pilot films ... then sort of faded from view. But now, in a TV rarity, it's getting a major makeover as its second season stars Wednesday (Sept.28). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At times, TV
networks seem like frantic football coaches. Promising rookies are
praised, played, then promptly forgotten.

So it's refreshing
to see a show get a chance to reboot. This year, that's “Code

A year ago, it was a
hot prospects. CBS' Andrea Ballas called it a “heart-pounding
medical drama.”; Dr. Ryan McGarry, a writer-producer, compared
making the show to soing at a real emergency-room shift: “You leave
as someone else.”

McGarry had made a
documentary about the Los Angeles County Hospital emergency room.
Producer Michael Seitzman took it from there, filling the show with
stars – Marcia Gay Harden, Bonnie Somerville, Luis Guzman, Raza
Jaffrey – and energetic camerwork. This seemed promising.

Then ratings
slipped. CBS ordered 18 episodes, instead of 22, and wasn't expected
to renew it.

But now “Black”
is back, with a major overhaul. Somerville and Jaffrey are out; Rob
Lowe and Boris Kodjoe are in. Three first-year residents arrive,
partly nudging last year's newcomers aside.

Seitzman talks
cautiously about the departures, which may not have been his idea. “I
liked these people; it might seem like they failed, but they really

The other changes,
he insists, weren't last-minute scrambling. That included:

-- Adding Kodjoe in
the dual spot as chief of surgery and the emergency room ... making
him the boss -- and sometimes nemesis -- of Dr. Leanne Rorish
(Harden). “We always knew he was going to be a series regular when
we brought him in on Episode 15.

-- Bringing in the
new residents. The plan, he said, had always been to duplicate a
hospital's routine of adding new ones each year. “I pitched three
characters I really liked” ... including one who went through
medical school after being a child-star actress.

--And adding a key
outsider. The idea began, Seitzman said, with a call from Dr. Todd
Rasmussen, who has been both an Air Force surgeon and head of the
military's Combat Casualty Care Research Project. “He said, 'We
imbed our doctors in city hospitals' .... I thought that is a
delicious nichefor a character.”

So he created Col.
Ethan Willis. “We had to cast a TV star .... Then “Grinder' was
cancelled and Rob Lowe was available. He didn't want to jump into
another show, but when he saw this, he decided to.”

In the
season-opener, he's even taking a helicopter ride to save shark
victims. Like “Night Shift” (a summer success on NBC), “Code
Black” adds a sorrt of military macho medicine.

Lowe is 52, fitting
alongside Harden, 57, Kodjoe, 43, and Guzman, 60. On the flip side,
Noah Gray-Cabey, who plays one of the residents, is only 20.

Gray-Cabey us used
to being the youngest person in the room; he was a concert pianist in
the Sydney Opera House at 5, a high school grad at 15 and then a
Harvared student. “We like his comedy touch,” Seitzman said. “He
just gave a great audition.”

Another newcomer is
played by Emily Tyra. “I saw her on 'Flesh and Bone” (playing an
anorexic ballerina) and thought she was just extraordinary,”
Seitzman said.

And Nafessa
Williams, 26, plays what may be the most unusual newcomer. “You
hear about so many people who leave acting and go to Yale or
Harvard,” Seitzman said.

Many – Brooke
Shields, Jodie Foster, Kellie Martin – seem to thrive at top
colleges; some range far from show business. Mayim Bialik has a
doctorate in neruo-science; Danica McKeller graduated summa cum laude
in math and has written four books on the subject.

“I thought,
'Wouldn't it be interesting if one went on to be a doctor?'”
Seitzman said. So now “Code Black” has a child-star doctor,
alongside an action-adventure surgeon. That's a major makeover.

-- “Code Black,”
10 p.m. Wednesdays, CBS; season opens Sept. 28