Tough guys collide in America's mid-section

"Sons of Anarchy" achieved a small miracle, getting us to care about both the cops and the crooks. Can a reality show do the same? We'll see, when "Outlaw Country" debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday (yes, that's the old "Sons of Anarchy" spot), Feb. 24, rerunning often. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For anyone mourning
the end of “Sons of Anarchy,” this may be consolation.

In the same slot (10
p.m. Tuesdays), with the same moods (tough and tougher) is “Outlaw
Country.” Cops and ex-cons battle for control of small-town

The difference: This
one is a reality show.

In Missouri (the
exact center of the American mainland), next to Independence (Harry
Truman's old home town), near Kansas City, is Buckner. “It's
American flags and picket fences and football games on Friday night,”
said producer Jason Hervey. “People are very friendly; they wave,
they talk to you.”

And some of them
beat each other brutally. Cops say “The Alliance” controls the
region's drug traffic.

In the cowboy
tradition, this has brothers. Mike and Steve Cook are cops, chasing
John and Josh Monk.

In some ways, both
sides – tough and terse – fit their expected image. In others,
they don't.

John Monk, Hervey
says, is “a great father” (after being a bad one at first), about
to become a grandfather. His younger brother is the “invite coach”
at Maywood Baptist Church; “to listen to him preach for an hour (to
a men's group) is mesmerizing.”

These people don't
always look like cops and crooks ... and Hervey doesn't look like a
TV producer. He kind of looks like the mean older brother on “The
Wonder Years” ... which he was.

For six “Wonder”
seasons, Fred Savage was Kevin Arnold and Hervey was Wayne. Both
still act, but they mostly moved to the other side – Savage as a
busy comedy director, Hervey as a producer.

The change began
during a guest stop at World Championship Wrestling. Hervey met
producer Eric Bischoff; they formed a production company that went
from wrestling specials to reality shows featuring Hulk Hogan,
Chicago pawnbrokers, former teen idols and Hervey's friend Scott

Along the way,
Hervey met a guy simply called Chucky, a “Sons of Anarchy”
protege. Chucky pointed him toward Buckner; they flew there, met with
the mayor and police chief ... and promptly got a call from John
Monk, setting up a meeting in the basement of Monk's tattoo shop.

“It was 2 or 2:30
in the morning,” Hervey recalled. “It was dark in the basement,
which can be a little eerie .... Chucky and I went down this long,
narrow hallway.”

Downstairs, they saw
a boat, a hot rod, a motorcycle, some tattoo equipment, two Monks and
others. This can be imposing company for a sometimes actor, 5-foot-6,
who is overshadowed (literally) by Chucky or the cops or the Monks.
“As long as you go in with integrity and confidence, I feel like
you can look anyone in the eye,” Hervey insists.

The message that
night was basic, he said. “John Monk said, 'Look, no one can tell
our story as well as we can.'” Soon, camera crews were following
both the Cooks and the Monks.

“Outlaw Country”
actually sprawls over a broad area. For instance:

-- The tattoo shop –
which the task force raids on-camera -- is in Gladstone, a suburb of
28,000, north of Kansas City and about 20 miles from Buckner. It's
large, with a Web site promising a “super friendly staff” and
“highly fashionable tattoos.”

-- The church is in
Independence, population 110,000), midway between those two. Its Web
site displays Josh Monk's knuckles, still dangerous-looking but now
tattooed with “Jesus saves.”

-- The task force is
federal, combining jurisdictions. Steve Cook, a detective with the
police force in Independence, is its liaison to Buckner, a town of
3,000, where his brother is police chief.

Still, “Outlaw
Country” focuses on Buckner, just as “Sons of Anarchy” did on
the fictional California town of Charming. Amid picket-fence charm,
tough men collide.

-- “Outlaw
Country,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, WGN America, repeating at 11 p.m. and

-- Opener, Feb. 24,
also reruns at 10 and 11 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 26) and 10 p.m. Sunday
(March 1)


August Wilson let his words and his characters soar

Rhetoric seemed to flow splendidly from August Wilson's notebook and from his character's mouths. He was, perhaps, the great American playwright; now PBS' "American Masters" has created a splendid profile, which airs Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

It was easy for the
world to ignore August Wilson. He was the guy in the corner of a bar
or cafe, with an open notebook and an open ear.

“He was a quiet
man,” said Sam Pollard, who directed the new PBS portrait of
Wilson. “He was always writing, they would say, just paying
attention, listening to people talk.”

Then he surprised
people with his 16 plays. “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,”
won Pulitzer Prizes; 10 of them became “the Pittsburgh cycle,”
depicting the black experience in each 20th-century

Wilson had lived
some of those decades – born in 1945, died of liver cancer in 2005
– but it wasn't his life he was portrahying.

“He spent his
entire life listening ... with his intellect and with his heart,”
said actress-director Phylicia Rashad. “He grew up listening to
older men, some of whom had come through slavery. (He) embodied the
rhythms of speech.”

Other writers chose
the terse style of naturalistic dialog; Wilson let a character soar
with a grand soliloquy. “Some call (him) the American Shakespeare,”
said “Masters” producer Michael Kantor.

Still, this was not
about kings and proclamations. “If you have elderly relatives,
maybe you know: They don't consider it a soliloquy,” Rashad said.
“They're talking.”

And Pittsburgh may
have been the ideal place to listen. “It's the industrial roots,”
said Darryl Williams, programming chief for that city's PBS station,
which produced the Wilson film. “It's the immigrant population ....
He heard the experience of people who had to figure out a way to make

His mother's mother
had walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. His mother, a
housekeeper, was black; his dad, a baker, was a German immigrant who
was often gone.

Wilson grew up with
five siblings in a tiny apartment, then moved to a white neighborhood
when his mother remarried. “He struggled in school,” Pollard
said. “But he had a level of tenacity that he knew there was
something inside of him that he had to get out.”

The breaking point
came when a high school teacher felt a paper he wrote was too good.
Accused of plagiarism, Wilson quit; for years after that, he had
menial jobs and the library was his school.

He eventually moved
to Minneapolis and Seattle, but his characters remained in
Pittsburgh. Nine of his 10 “cycle” plays were set there.

The first, “Jitney,”
debuted in 1982 in Pittsburgh and was rewritten in '96; it's the only
one in the cycle to never reach Broadway. The last, “Radio Golf,”
opened in 2005 in Yale. “He had come to New York after that
opening, and it was then that he was diagnosed with cancer,” Rashad

The show would open
on Broadway in 2007, after his death, getting a New York Drama
Critics Circle award (his eighth) and a Tony nomination (his ninth,
with only “Fences” winning).

His actors also drew
honors, performing the grand rhetoric. This film has monologs by
James Earl Jones, Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne,
Ruben Santiago-Hudson and more.

Some are vintage,
but most were taped new for “Masters.” Rashad again became
300-year-old Aunt Ester, which she's done in four “Gem of the
Ocean” productions, receiving a Tony nomination.

“You skim the
surface a couple of times and you run a little deeper,” she said.
With Wilson, there's usually extra depth to find.

“American Masters:
August Wilson,” 9-10:30 p.m. Friday, PBS (check local listings)


"Men" is leaving, but the Lorre comedy empire lingers

Sure, "Two and a Half Men" has veered wildly, from witty to silly and back again. Still, it's provided a dozen years of big laughs ... and has launched a Chuck Lorre comedy empire topped by the wonderful "Big Bang Theory." Now "Men" has its finale Thursday; here's a story I sent to papers, about Lorre and his shows:


Every now and then,
TV gets a new comedy boss.

It's had Norman Lear
and Garry Marshall and Grant Tinker, each with several simultaneous
hits. And now Chuck Lorre has four successful shows ... a number
that's about to drop to three.

On Thursday, “Two
and a Half Men” ends its 12-year run – one of the longest in TV
comedy history. Lorre is guarded about details... including whether
Charlie Sheen will return, with his character being alive, after all.
“There's going to be an awful lot of folks in the finale,” he
said carefully.

He's less guarded
abpout the impact this show has had on his career.

“None of this
happens without 'Two and a Half Men,'” Lorre said. “(Without it,
we) couldn't have gone into CBS and said ... with a straight face
that we want to do a show about physicists.”

That was “The Big
Bang Theory,” which became broadcast TV's most-watched show. His
others also seem unlikely, Lorre points out: “Mike & Molly”
has “a cop and a school teacher meeting at an Overeaters Anonymous
meeting”; “Mom” is “about a mother and daughter recovering

These shows exist
near each other, on the Warner Brothers lot. “It's 'Mr. Lorre's
Neighborhood,'” said Billy Gardell, a “Mike & Molly” star.

And often, Lorre
goes from show to show, doing minor tweaks. “You're like, 'There's
something wrong with the scene; where is Chuck?'” said Jim Parsons,
the “Big Bang” star. “Oh, he's at 'Mom.'”

When found, he may
have a solution. Melissa Rauch (“Big Bang”) calls him “the
comedy whisperer.”

But all of that has
come fairly late for him. “I was a struggling musician 'til I was
about 35 years old,” Lorre said. “I remember vividly what it's
like to put 38 cents in the gas tank and drive to my second cousin's
house, so they would feed me ....

“I can remember
getting a ticket for making an illegal U-turn. It was a $50 ticket
and I broke down and I sobbed because it wiped me out.”

He'd had some mild
successes as a guitarist and songwriter, including the time he heard
an animation shop needed a song. He became co-writer of the eternal
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” theme.

Still, Lorre was
near 40 before he had comedy success, writing for “Roseanne” and
being a creator and producer of “Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill”
and “Dharma & Greg.” He wrote for strong women ... but also
fought with them. “I could have been nicer along the way,” he
said. “And I regret that.”

He's described
alcohol, anger, drugs and “a dissolute youth until I was 47.” By
then, he was in the middle of his fourth TV show, “Dharma &
Greg.” His bigger successes would follow.

Each of Lorre's
current shows has a separate showrunner and a different quality. The
Television Critics Association has twice given its top comedy award
to “Big Bang” (which also has four Emmy nominations for best
comedy series); crtics have roundly ignored “Mike & Molly.”

Still, they all
reflect Lorre's impact. “Chuck is hands-on on each of his shows,”
said “Men” co-creator Lee Aronsohn. That includes:

-- Sticking to
taping in front of an audience ... but insisting actors not go too
broad to get the studio laughs. “Chuck will say, 'That's too far; I
don't believe it,'” said “Men” star Jon Cryer.

-- Warmth amid
trouble. Ashton Kutcher says Lorre has often repeated a formula:
“They're all built on family. They're all built on these obscure,
broken, beat-up, messed-up families that are just like yours.”

-- Depicting lives
realistically – up to a point. “Men” has a classy beach house,
but the others get by modestly and the “Mom” characters have
moved often ... just like Lorre did in his old days. “Chuck has
been very specific about not being too rundown,” said John
Shaffner, the designer for all four shows.

When the “Mom”
characters hit bottom this season, Shaffner said, Lorre approved some
drab digs ... then changed his mind. “He said, 'Enough with the
depressive look.'”

Now “Mom” has
brighened. So has Lorre's life.

The Lorre shows

-- “Two and a Half
Men” finale, 9-10 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 19), CBS.

-- Other Lorre shows
(all CBS): “The Big Bang Theory,” 8 p.m. Thursdays; “Mike &
Molly,” 8:30 p.m. Mondays; “Mom,” pre-empted this week, then
moves to 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26.

-- Also, reruns of
“Men,” “Big Bang” and “Mike & Molly” persist on cable
and individual stations.

Longest lasting?

With 12 seasons as a
scripted, primetime comedy, “Men” is almost unprecedented. Other
leaders are:

-- Two animated
shows, “The Simpsons,” in its 26th season, and “Family
Guy,” in its 13th.

-- “The Jack Benny
Show,” 15 seasons, but not always as a weekly show.

-- “Ozzie &
Harriet,” 14.

-- “All in the
Family” and “The Danny Thomas Show,” each 13 – but only if
you include “Archie Bunker's Place” and Thomas' extra year, “Make
Room for Granddaddy.”

-- “The Lucy Show”
and “My Three Sons,” 12.

(A source is “The
Complete Directory of Network and Cable TV Shows, Ballantine Books)

Other comedy moguls

-- There have been
several, topped by Norman Lear (best known for “All in the
Family”), Grant Tinker (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Garry
Marshall (“Happy Days”).

-- Also, Sheldon
Leonard produced the Thomas, Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith shows
and more. And, of course, became the namesake of the “Big Bang”
characters, Sheldon and Leonard.




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:


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

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

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

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

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

-- 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

-- 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.