A New Zealand chap suddenly becomes the god of gods

This is the beauty of the Television Critics Association tour: One moment, you're talking to people from an epic-scale Hollywood production -- a "Gotham" or "Sleepy Hollow" or such. The next, you're talking to an amiable guy who stars in the first New Zealand series to jump straight to American TV. "The Almighty Johnsons" is a clever show, at 10 p.m. Fridays on Syfy; here's the story, about its star, that I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- Emmett Skilton’s home town seemed designed
for make-believe.

This was a bayside spot in New Zealand. There was nowhere
else to go – “only one road in and one road out of town” – and no reason to
want to leave, he said. “It was beautiful -- sunshine, crystal-clear water ….
as a kid, I liked to play outside all day.”

He could pretend to be other people in other worlds. Still,
he never pretended to be Odin, the ultimate Norse god; now he’s playing him on

In “The Almighty Johnsons,” Skilton is Axl Johnson, an
ordinary lad who learned on his 21
st birthday that his brothers and
uncle are Norse gods … and he’s Odin, the leader of all gods. That odd notion

Bridge international gaps. “Almighty Johnsons”
is reportedly the first fully New Zealand series to run on an American network.

Resist Syfy Channel trends. Whimsical shows
(“Eureka,” “Warehouse 13”) are gone; serious, rich-looking ones dominate. Dave
Howe, the channel president, talks of having “the smartest, cutting-edge and
provocative science-fiction.” By comparison, “Johnsons” is pure whimsy.

Fit neatly into Skilton’s world.

Like Axl, Skilton grew up in small-town New Zealand, with
three brothers. Axl is the youngest; Skilton is the second-youngest. The
difference, he says, is that none of his brothers is mean – “we had a very female
influence from our mother and grandmother” -- and none is, to his knowledge, a
Norse god.

Their dad is a psychiatric nurse, their mom is a kindergarten
teacher and Skillton grew up with a sense of fun. At 13, he was chosen for an
improvisational theater group; then came the New Zealand Drama School, some
theater and small TV roles and the “Almighty Johnsons” try-outs.

“At the final auditions, the actors (playing Axl’s brothers)
were extremely short,” recalled Skillton, who’s 6-foot-3. “I thought, ‘Well,
I’m not getting that role.’”

He did, though. (Hey, why can’t Odin tower above all other
gods?) “Almighty Johnsons” was cancelled after its second season, was revived
after fan protests, then was buried for good after the third season.

By then, it was ready for international sales, with 36
episodes, muted accents and one familiar name: Keisha Castle-Hughes – who in
her teens was an Oscar nominee in “Whale Rider” and Mary in “The Nativity
Story” – is 24 now; she plays Gaia, Axl’s friend and platonic housemate.

The show was sold to Australia, the United Kingdom and even
Russia, Skilton said. The U.S. was a tougher market to crack. “Acquisitions
tend to not do as well in the ratings” as original productions do, said Howe,
the Syfy chief. Still, he has some and couldn’t resist this one. “We liked the

That encouraged Skillton to move. Now he lives in the Hollywood
Hills and has meetings and auditions. He’s also picked up a new hobby: “I had
no idea that you could go snowboarding right here.”

Well, almost anything’s possible in Los Angeles, especially
for someone who’s been a Norse god.

“The Almighty Johnsons,” 10 p.m. Fridays, Syfy;
rerunning at midnight.

Third episode is July 25; before that, the first
two rerun Tuesday night (technically, Wednesday morning) at 1 and 2 a.m.

He's funny now, famous (maybe) soon

For three foolish summers, NBC had some silly summer shows while a better one ("Last Comic Standing") had been cancelled. Now "Comic" is back on Thursdays, bringing us some excellent stand-up comedians. Here's the story I sent to papers about a terrific one, Lachlan Patterson.


LOS ANGELES -- 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?’”

OK … except he really should be famous. Like many stand-up
comedians these days, he’s clever; unlike most, he’s also 6-foot-4 and

On this summer’s “Last Comic Standing,” one judge (Keenen
Wayans) compared him to a store manikin; another (Russell Peters) said: “You
have the look that makes guys want to hate you.”

But they like him as soon as the comedy begins. Then they
ask why he isn’t famous.

Maybe it’s because he’s a quiet Canadian, not the type to
sell himself. Or maybe he just needs one big break … which is a “Last Comic
Standing” specialty. The show has “been an incredible talent-search vehicle,” said
Paul Telegdy, head of NBC’s alternative and late-night shows.

None of the seven previous winners has become a big star
(the most successful may be Alonzo Bodden), but many contestants have become
cable or TV fixtures. They’ve included Amy Schumer, Gabriel Iglesias, Ralph
Harris, Kathleen Madigan, Gary Gulman and Ralphie May.

Now Patterson – who’s in this year’s final six – could find
fame, belatedly proving his father wrong.

His dad had warned against a comedy career, an opinion worth
listening to. He’s 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.

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

When the call came, it was instant; 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 and was sometimes a dog-walker.

Then “Last Comic Standing” suddenly returned, after missing
three summers. “(Comedian) Wanda Sykes came to say, ‘Let’s do this again,’”
said Bob Greenblatt, NBC’s programming chief.

Patterson – who had been rejected in a previous year – returned
and thrived. “I think you could take this whole contest,” Roseanne Barr, one of
the judges, told him.

He could. He really should be famous, you know.

“Last Comic Standing,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, NBC,
rerunning at 8 p.m. Mondays.

Going into the July 24 hour, it has Lachlan
Patterson, Nikki Carr, Rocky LaPorte, Joe Machi, Rod Man and Karious Miller;
viewers will be able to add one more Online.

These were the heroes (or not) of the Old West

I can, I admit, still recall the words to the TV theme song: "Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave, courageous and bold ..." (Only now do I realize the phrase "brave, courageous and bold" may be a tad redundant.) Such things live with us forever; now Earp and others are getting a fresh cable look. Here's the story I sent to papers: 


These were the heroes – or, often, anti-heroes – of the Old

There was Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James and more.
They killed people, sometimes legally. “They’re on that thin razor-edge between
good and bad,” said Bob Boze Bell, an Old West historian.

Now each is profiled on cable’s American Heroes Channel. But
were they really heroic?

“Hickok’s a hero … but a very complicated one,” said Walt
Willey, who plays him in the series and in a one-man stage show. Even robbers
had their fans, Willey said: “Jesse James, who was a bandit, … had a Robin Hood
kind of feeling to him.”

They were men of a very different era, said series producer
Christopher Cassel. “Today, everybody has an iPhone; in the Old West, everybody
had a gun.”

And some fared better than others. In the opener, viewers

Earp, who seemed immortal. He “survived gun
battle after gun battle, including the most famous gun battle of all (near OK
Corral), without a single scratch,” said Kevin Bennett, the channel’s general

Doc Holliday, his ragged friend. He graduated
from dental school, but was diagnosed with tuberculosis at 22; he moved to the
Southwest, where he drank and gambled heavily.

“He basically wanted to die,” Bell said. “So he went into every
saloon and said, ‘Kill me.’ Now, how would you like to go up against that guy?”

Holliday’s relationships varied widely, Bell said. “He’s a
cold-blooded killer, he’s a card shark, he’s a ne’er-do-well. He hangs out with
all these prostitutes and stuff and he’s rooming with John J. Gospar in
Prescott (Arizona). Well, John J. Gosper is the acting governor of Arizona and
historians want to know: How did Doc Holliday sink so low as to room with (a

That last part is cowboy-style humor. Bell – who edits True
West magazine – knows that cowboys’ lives are a moving target; “we’re still
arguing about them,” he said.

Billy the Kid, reputed to have killed 21 men, probably
killed six or seven, Cassel said.  Earp
was once considered a villain. And Wild Bill? “Hickok was the first media-generated
celebrity,” Willey said.

He had given an interview, Willey said, then went out scouting
for two years. When he returned, he found his story had been in Harper’s Weekly
and in dime novels. It kept growing, a process he didn’t resist. “He liked to
say, ‘Most of what you heard about me has been exaggerated, but all (the
stories) have come out of my mouth a time or two.’”

Now – 138 years after he was killed, at 38, during a poker
game -- cable tries to set the stories straight.

“Gunslingers,” 10 p.m. Sundays, American Heroes
Channel (formerly Military Channel)

Opener, July 20, is Wyatt Earp, followed July 27
by Billy the Kid. Also, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Tom Horn, John Wesley Hardin.

Reality TV: Sometimes simple, occasionally naked

There are some goofy things to fill our Thursdays now, from nakedness to Nicole Richie to LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian. Here's the story I sent to papers:



LOS ANGELES -- For Nicole Richie, “The Simple Life” was
supposed to be a simple breeze.

She was 21 and a college drop-out, a rich kid (the adoptive
daughter of musician Lionel Richie) who grew up in Hollywood comfort. The idea
was to drop her and her then-friend Paris Hilton in a tiny town.

“TV was not my world,” Richie recalled. “And I had Fox
saying to me, ‘Do you want to take this adventure, and it will take up 30 days
of your life?’”

It took up much more. “The show really kind of took a life
of its on,” she said, “and I went along with the ride.” It lasted five years …
or much longer. For good or bad, it transformed Richie and TV.

Today, the genre abounds. “It’s everywhere,” Eddie Cibrian
said. “Everybody has unscripted television.”

That includes the new Thursday line-up on VH1. Debuting July
17 are:

9 p.m.: “Dating Naked,” which is just what the
title implies. “Once everyone has stripped away their clothes and preconceived
notions about each other, … there is nothing left but their ultimate, honest
selves,” insisted Susan Levinson, the VHI programming president.

10: “Candidly Nicole,” following Richie’s life.

10:30: “LeAnn & Eddie,” with Cibrian, an
actor, and his wife LeAnn Rimes, a country star.

Those last two follow the “Simple Life” mold. There had been
other reality shows (starting with “The Real World”), but mostly competitions. “The
Osbournes,” in 2002, and “The Simple Life,” in 2003, just amiably follow
unusual people in unusual situations.

“Candidly” follows Richie, 32, and her friends. Her husband
(musician Joel Madden) and two children aren’t shown. “My dad’s on the show
because he’s desperate and a celebrity and cannot stay away from the camera,”
she said. “My sister is on the show because she’s just 15 and cute.”

That’s the light approach that made Richie a Twitter and
blog star. Now she’s back in reality-TV.

Rimes is new to that world. “We are really kidding ourselves
with the illusion of a private life,” she said.

After all, Cibrian’s ex-wife Brandi Glanville has a reality
show (“The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”) and comments on him. Now he has
one, too. “They are very different shows,” he said.

The “LeAnn and Eddie: opener does spend a lot of time grumbling
about tabloid coverage of their marriage. Still, Cibrian says, “ultimately,
this is a comedy.”

He grew up in California, the son of a Cuban-American
banker; Rimes grew up in Mississippi and Texas. “Her dad is as Southern as
Southern gets,” he said. “You’ve never seen someone manhandle a horse or a
steer …. He’s so cool.”

And he takes his daughter’s life in stride, Rimes said. “My
dad always knew that I’d end up with a pretty boy from California.”

She did. And that sort of culture class has fueled reality
shows, ever since “The Simple Life.”

MTV discovers virginity. Really

Virgins on MTV? Yes, that sounds like an oxymoron. Still, the people featured on "Virgin Territory" (debuting Wednesday, July 16) are fairly interesting; here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- In an MTV universe filled with high-octane
youth, these people seem unique. They are – openly and candidly – virgins; that
seems to surprise the people who know them.

“My family … honestly didn’t believe that I was still a
virgin, based upon my personality,” said Dominique Sullivan, 22. “I like to go
out and I like to do regular things.”

Now she’s in the opener of MTV reality show “Virgin
Territory,” flirting and dancing and then talking about her virginity. A
subsequent episode has Alec Melger, 21, who also surprised his parents.

“They assumed that I wasn’t a virgin …. I love talking about
sex, (but) I’m not having it,” he said.

By comparison, Lisa Youngerman, 23, (featured in the opener)
says her parents knew she was a virgin. “What father doesn’t love the idea that
his daughter is not having sex?”

They might seem misplaced in a network whose shows imply
that everyone’s having young sex. Sullivan was a “Jersey Shore” fan; Melger
recalls seeing a three-way on “The Gauntlet” when he was 9.

Even Susanne Daniels, MTV’s programming president, recalls
having doubts about some of the shows. “When I first heard about ‘Teen Mom,’ my
initial reaction was that it sounded exploitive,” she said.

Still, there might be a cautionary effect. Sarah Brown, head
of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, points to a
Brookings Institution study: “MTV programs focusing on pregnant teens and teen
moms could account for up to one-third of the decline in teen birth rate.”

Other shows have a different effect. “In our media,” Melger
said, “sex is everywhere …. It does put a lot of pressure on young people to
have sex.”

The “Virgin Territory” people resisted, for varying reasons:

For Youngerman, it was religious; she decided to
wait until her marriage (which is shown in the opener). “I was with Nick for
almost four years (before marriage), and so it was very (difficult) to abstain
from sex when you care so much about a person.”

For Melger, who is gay, it’s been inadvertent.
Sex simply hasn’t happened, he said, a fact that he’s not happy about.
“Abstinence is not for me.”

For Sullivan, it’s learning from others. “People
in my family started having sex at a very young age …. I didn’t want to
continue that pattern. I didn’t want to get pregnant at a young age.”

Often, Sullivan said, she skips serious relationships of any
kind. “It is hard dating someone for a while when you are a virgin …. It begins
to be an issue.”

So she prefers to put on a tight dress, dance zestfully,
flirt with the guys – and then go home alone. “We can still be sexy and we can
still be vibrant,” Sullivan said. “We just don’t have to ‘do it’ to be that.”

“Virgin Territory,” 11 p.m. Wednesdays, MTV.

Opener, July 16, reruns at 3 p.m. Saturday; 11
a.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday; 6 p.m. Monday; and 8 p.m. July 23.