"Empire" has it all: Macbeth and Cookie and Othello and rap and fur noodles

"Empire" is not one of those shows that you watch casually. The seaon starts (9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept, 21) with a thunderbolt, then doesn't really slow down. It's all very operatic ... or Shakespearean ... or Empirical. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Leaping to the top
of the Nielsen ratings, “Empire” has merged worlds.

This is
Shakespeare-meets-soap-opera, with a musical beat. It's a world of
big schemes and big characters. “It's what brought me back to TV,”
Taraji Henson said.

On “Person of
Interest,” Henson played a typical TV cop; “I literally did not
ever want to do television again,” she said. Then came this role as
Cookie Lyon, encased in flashy clothes (“I was a bit overwhelmed by
the fur noodles”) and rage; it has already brought her a Golden
Globe and two Emmy nominations.

And for Trai Byers,
who plays Andre, the show merges everything. He's done soaps and he's
a Yale School of Drama alumnus who knows Shakespeare ... which helped
him land the role.

At that point, his
career was still sputtering. He'd been Mookie (“a hoodlum, but an
interesting one”) on “All My Children” and nerdy Alec on
“90210.” He'd tried out a lot; “I must have had 300 auditions.”

At the “Empire”
audition, he compared Andre to Iago in “Othello.” Danny Strong,
the show's creator, was happy to hear that; he was planning to make
“Empire” very Shakespearean in plot and in tone. “I like the
fact that the stakes are so high,” Byers said.

His own background
had been mobile, in a military family that ranged from Kansas to the
Philippines. “It's the gypsy complex, to not be able to stay in one
place too long.”

He learned to adapt,
which is what the “Empire” characters keep doing, particularly:

-- Cookie, who went
to prison so her then-husband Lucious could build their record
company and raise their sons. “She was locked up for 17 years,”
Henson said. “She has a lot of catching up to do.”

-- Andre. On the
surface, he was the most together, a Wharton School of Business grad
and the CEO of his dad's company. Still, he has a bipolar disorder,
something he shares with his grandmother. “The gist of this is
really identity,” Byers said. “It's hard to be something when you
don't know who you are.”

Also, Andre is the
only non-musical one, in a family built on music. “Trai Byers has a
beautiful voice,” show-runner Ilene Chaiken said. “But he's not
going to sing in the show, because Andre doesn't.”

Providing some
counterpoint is Rhonda, who was Andre's college sweetheart. Now she's
his wife and, Byers said, his Lady Macbeth. As last season ended, she
was fighting with the pregnant Anika (whom Lucious had just married,
to keep her from testifying against him) on a balcony.

That leaves viewers
wondering which woman (if any) will survive. This “gets answered in
a fabulous and heart-stopping way” in the first minute of the new
season, Chaiken said, accurately.

For Byers, it was a
balcony battle between his two wives – his fictional one and his
real-life one.

He and Grace Gealey
met on the show and married. The wedding, on her native Cayman
Islands, was in April; a month later, viewers saw her character
(Anika) marry his character's father (Lucious).

So now Trai Byers is
married to his fictional mother-in-law ... who is fighting his
fictional wife and carrying his fictional half-brother or half-sister
or (if Hakeem is the real father) his fictional niece or nephew. By
now, even Shakespeare would be boggled.

-- “Empire,” 9
p.m. Wednesdays, Fox; season starts Sept. 21

This grandma had a fascinating tale of lives saved

Yes, Ken Burns sometimes tackles sweeping subjects -- world wars, Prohibition, baseball and such. But he can also help break out small slices, individual heroes. One such tale is recounted in an excellent documentary that reaches PBS on Tuesday (Sept. 20); here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

It was the sort of
assignment many kids get: Interview someone who has shown moral

And it led to one of
life's great understatements. As Artemis Joukowsky recalls it: “My
mom ... said: 'Talk to your grandmother. She did some cool things
during World War II.'”

Yes, some very cool
things. Using deception and determination, Martha Sharp and her
husband (Rev. Waitstill Sharp) got Jewish kids out of Nazi-held
countries. “They were the most giving, responsible, courageous
people I have ever known,” said Amelie Diamont-Holmstrom, one of
the hundreds saved.

Joukowsky was 14
when he heard this. “It changed my life,” he said. Almost four
decades later, he's linked with Ken Burns for a fascinating
documentary (“Defying the Nazis”) that debuts Tuesday.

“This was like (a
spy) novel, only it was all true,” Burns said. “This normal
couple (is) sitting by their fire and the phone rings. A month
lather, they're in Prague, doing James Bond things.”

It was a huge
stretch for them, said Beth Hoppe, PBS' programming chief. “A
Unitarian minister and his wife embarked on a dangerous journey (to
Prague). Over the next two years, they would take part in dozens of
clandestine missions across Europe, saving hudereds of lives.”

Why didn't their
grandson hear about this until he was 14? There were two key reasons,
he said:

-- This wasn't
something his mother talked about. These missions took her parents
away from her ... and, ultimately, from each other. When the Starks,
who later divorced, went to Europe, they left their children (ages 7
and 2) with parishioners. “My mom,I think, felt a sense of

-- And his mom's
archeology work took them around the world. “I was born in Italy,
lived in Lebanon, lived in Hong Kong .... It wasn't until I moved to
New York that I got to know my grandparents.”

Once he did, he
found his grandmother to be a fierce force. “Her personality was
larger than life – loving, very engaged with people. She was a very
passionate philanthropist.”

And he was meeting
her at a key time. Joukowsky had been diagnosed with a nueromuscular
disorder that eventually put him in a wheelchair. “My grandmother
came to my hospital and said, 'Come on, we're not going to feel sorry
for ourselves. We're going to go help with the Boys & Girls

He's gone on to be
an investor and a disability activist, whileworking on her story. “I
went into the basement of my grandfather's home and found about 800
documents that started this,” he said.

He was able to
identify 200 of the rescued children and interview 30 of them. He
also met Burns; these were friendly chats between two grads (a decade
apart) of Hampshire College.

“I started off
just as a friend ... and sort of an advisor,” Burns said. Then he
was helping to produce it and got his friend Tom Hanks to voice Rev.
Sharp. “These films are made in the editing room.”

The Sharps have been
honored in Israel and in the U.S. But the real symbols of their lives
have been the people they rescued, including the Diamont triplets.

These were the
daughters of a dentist and a violinist-artist. “We have always had
each other,” said Amelie, 89. “We were our own little group.”

That was helpful
when they were slipped out of Austria. Eventually, their parents were
re-united with them in Portland, Oregon. Amelie went on to be an
author, teacher, counselor and grandmother.

That's typical of
many of the people who were rescued, Burns said. “Of the two-dozen
or so people who appear in our film, there's extraordinary

So Joukowsky's
project offers plenty of happy endings. He adds one more: “It was
the only “A” I ever got in high school.”

-- “Defying the
Nazis: The Sharps' War”

-- 9-10:30 p.m.
Tuesday (Sept. 20), PBS (check local listings)


For these artists, ducks are the grand pri

OK, this may be hard to believe: Just as networks are ready to unload their zillion-dollar fall shows, one of the best things on TV is ... well, a documentary about a duck-stamp contest. Really. "The Million Dollar Duck" (9:01 and 10:33 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, on Animal Planet) has warmth, charm, humor and a tad of suspense. Here's the story I sent to papers:  


By Mike Hughes

The world has enough
people who want to be rock stars, too many who want to be president.

It needs something
more important – people who want to win the Federal Duck Stamp

The contest –
featured in a fascinating cable documentary Wednesday – has been
around since 1934. Like many 82-year-olds, it's slowed down.

“In the early
'80s, there were just under 2,100 entries,” Rob McBroom said. “Last
year, it was 157.”

He's one of them ...
and one of the people profiled in “The Million Dollar Duck.”

The title comes from
the contest's peak years. There's no prize money, but some winners
reported topping $1 million for prints and licensing rights and such.

“It's still worth
a substantial amount of money, but not that much,” Adam Grimm said.
“I wish it were.”

Back in 1999, he
became (at 21) the youngest winner ever. That didn't make him rich,
but it did propel his dreams. A few years later, he says, he
“uprooted my whole family from Ohio – my wife and I and our
(1-year-old) daughter. We moved away from all of our family and
friends, to the remote regions of South Dakota, because I wanted to
be in the central flyway.”

Others in the film
are newer to this. They include:

-- Dee Dee Murry,
who was sometimes less successful than her blind dog. Murry did
serious painting; the dog (holding a brush via teeth) did abstracts.
“She raised over $35,000 (and) we donated it all to dog rescue,”
Murry said.

-- Rebekah Nastav,
who loved painting, but needed a career nudge. She's now 25 and
married, but when filming began (in 2013), she was living with her
parents and working as a mail-carrier in rural Missouri. “I really
didn't start painting ducks until after I started entering the Duck
Stamp contest.”

-- Tim Taylor, 54, a
commercial painter in New Jersey. “A lot of the year, I paint
things like Santa Claus and store windows and Easter bunnies and
stuff like that,” he said. “So I'm happy to go back to ducks.”

-- And McBroom, 42,
Taylor's nemesis.

In Minneapolis,
McBroom makes his living as the office manager of a small record
company and as a part-time art-galley security guard. But his real
passion involves painting flashy abstracts.

As the only abstract
painter in the contest, he drew amusement (“they called me 'the
sequin guy') and scorn. When Taylor wrote scathing reviews, McBroom

“He started making
copies of my paintings and putting in pictures of myself and my
ex-wife and all kinds of stuff,” Taylor said. “Every Facebook
picture I put up, it was in the breast of the bird.”

McBroom prefers to
call these “parodies”; he says Taylor was not amused. “He went

That much, Taylor
agrees on. “I was spitting mad, I'll tell you.” He soon bought
all the Website names with “Rob McBroom” in them, just to
frustrate his nemesis.

That's a quirky
sideline to a contest usually built around good intentions and
beautiful ducks.

The stamps –
originally $1, now $25 – are required for duck hunters, but are
also bought by collectors. So far, $800 million has been raised and
5.7 million wetland acres have been preserved.

“Almost every
animal (relies) heavily on wetland habitat .... It benefits all
wildlife,” Grimm said.

So he lives in the
central flyway, where he can study and photograph the ducks. “I'll
spend several months out of the year, just doing nothing but working
on this painting.”

Taylor does the
same. “I devote about two months of the year to my painting,” he
said. He sometimes moves from New Jersey to South Dakota. There, he
lives with the Grimm family and becomes Uncle Tim to the three girls
... one of them now a Junior Duck Stamp champion.

At times, Grimm
said, life has a strong focus: “I never get tired of painting

-- “The Million
Dollar Duck,” 9:01 p.m. Wednesday, Animal Planet; reruns at 10:33.

The eras mix as Shatner keeps on trekkin'

Fresh from the 50th-anniversary commotion for "Star Trek," William Shatner also has the odd success of "Better Late Than Never," which concludes Tuesday; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

For William Shatner,
this was an odd blend of past and present, of star-trekking and

He was talking about
“Better Late Then Never,” the offbeat ratings hit that ends its
four-episode season Tuesday. But this phone call was on the 50th
anniversary of the day “Star Trek” debuted.

No, Shatner said, he
never saw the “Trek” success coming. “We were doing a middling
successful program for three years. Everyone thought that was it and
moved on.”

Even with the movie
revivals, he said, confidence was low. “Every one of the movies I
made, .... they burned the sets afterward, because they figured it
was the last one.”

A half-century
later, “Better Late” also gave him no reason to expect success.
“I was so hot and miserable and hurtin', I just never gave it a

Here is a sort of
reality show, with four guys of retirement age – Shatner, Terry
Bradshaw, Henry Winkler and George Foreman – visiting Japan, Korea,
Thailand and more. It was way too hot, said Bradshaw .... who, after
all, comes from Louisiana. If there's a second season, “we're gonna
go somewhere cold.”

And yes, a second
season seems likely, because the ratings have been high. “It's
seriously funny .... And it reaches my people,” Bradshaw said.'

These old guys –
accompanied by young comedian Jeff Dye – knew little about each
other before the show started, Bradshaw said. In fact, he only came
up with the phrase “beam me up, Scotty” because his wife found
“Star Trek” on Google. “I hadn't watched the show.”

They soon found a
contrast: Bradshaw, Foreman and Winkler are known for their outgoing,
gregarious manner; Shatner is not. “I'm pretty much a loner,” he
said. “Very few people get into my life.”

Instead, Bradshaw
said, Shatner seems to be well-read. “How could anybody know that
much about monks or Thailand? .... Me being uneducated, it pretty
much got to me.”

Shatner was also in
good physical shape for someone who's now 85, foiling one plan
Bradshaw claims: “Our bets were on: 'Which country will Bill pass
away in?' ....That would have been a ratings-grabber.”

-- “Better Late
Than Never,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC.

-- The Sept. 13
episode – the last of four this season – visits Thailand.

Somewhere in that TV landscape, there are some fine choices

OK, now we can get serious about the new fall season. The stories I previously sent to papers (see blogs below) previewed drama, action-adventure, sci fi/fantasy/horror and comedy; now here's the main story:


By Mike Hughes

As a new TV season
nears, network people might seem like storm-trackers, tracing their
own demise. Just ask:

-- John Landgraf,
CEO of the FX networks. There were 417 scripted series in 2015, he
said, and there might be 500 in 2017. “We're ballooning into a
condition of oversupply.”

-- Alan Wurtzel,
research chief at NBC. A typical viewer, he said, spends 1.3 hours a
day watching some sort of video-on-demand; smart phones and other
devices abound, competing with the networks. “This is no longer the
province of early-adopters, 25-year-olds who wear black .... It's

With so many
choices, the sorta-OK show will get overlooked. “Don't try to end
up in the middle,” said Jennifer Salke, the president of NBC

Only CBS can put out
middle-of-the-road shows and expect an audience. Others have to take
chances, to try shows some people will hate and others will like a
lot. Trends this season, which officially starts Sept. 19, include:

-- Comedy stacks –
four shows, from 8-10 p.m. -- are back. CBS strayed from that during
its “Supergirl” experiment, but now it will have stacks on
Mondays and Thursdays ... surrounding ABC ones on Tuesdays and

-- That doesn't mean
“Supergirl” has died, though. It simply moved to the CW, where
seven of the 10 hours are science-fiction or fantasy, four of them
from DC Comics.

-- Fantasy is key in
the search for specific audiences. Marvel will have three shows on
Netflix (“Luke Cage,” “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil”)
with a fourth (“Defenders”) on the way ... plus “Agents of
SHIELD” on ABC. Two time-travel shows arrive this fall, with a
third (ABC's “Time After Time”) waiting. Some people “are like
'ick' on time-travel, (but) you can't be for everybody,” Salke

-- The obsession
with serialized stories may have peaked. “There's something about
serialized dramas that really compel people,” said Channing Dungey,
ABC's new programming chief. Still, she grew up enjoying zesty shows
in the era of “Rockford” and “Magnum”; this year, she
cancelled “Castle,” but inserted “Conviction” in its spot. “I
would love to see more closed-ended procedurals.”

-- One compromise is
the mini-series, wrapping up a story in 10 weeks or less. “If you
put (ABC's) 'American Crime' in that category, (FX's) 'Fargo' in that
category, I do think that is a great way of storytelling,” Dungey
said. She has a new “Secrets and Lies” mini this fall; coming
later are a new “American Crime” and a Kyra Sedgwick mini, “Ten
Days in the Valley.”

-- Networks can't
resist recycling movies and TV shows. CW has “Frequency,” CBS has
“MacGyver,” Fox has “Lethal Weapon” and “The Exorcist”
this fall, “Prison Break” and “24” later, with “X-Files”
next season. With lots of shows vying for attention, Fox programmer
Dana Walden said, “taking a recognizable title... to build
awareness” makes sense. Still, she insisted, there's some
self-control: “We have a rich and extensive library at the studio;
we could have all reboots.”

-- The key addition
to non-network daytime is “Harry.” Like other shows, it aims for
easygoing talk; unlike others, it will have the talented, nine-piece
band that Harry Connick Jr. tours and records with. “Music's going
to be done in a whole bunch of different ways,” Connick said, “in
spontaneous ways.”

-- PBS will be busy
as usual – intense non-fiction (including political coverage) in
the fall ... arts shows – including a new “Gypsy,” violinist
Joshua Bell and a profile of the “Hamilton” musical – on
Fridays ... and lots of “Masterpiece,” from “Poldark” on
Sept. 25 to “Victoria”taking over the “Downton Abbey” slot in
January. This will be a season of young queens – Victoria, 18, on
PBS and Elizabeth II, 25, on Netflix's “The Crown.”

-- And much more ...
possibly too much. “Audiences are having more trouble than ever
distinguishing the great from the merely competent,” Landgraf said.
“I do this for a living (and) I can't come close to keeping track
of it all.”