In the midst of nowhere, the world was transformed

For its first original drama series ("Salem"), WGN America merely drew shrugs. The second, however, is another matter. Directed and produced by Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing"), "Manhattan" is a stylish look at the early days of Los Alamos, when strangers gathered in an obscure part of New Mexico, to create the bomb that might end World War II. Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- On a stark stretch of New Mexico ranchland, a
makeshift city grew 70 years ago. It was “this very peculiar bubble in the
middle of nowhere,” said Sam Shaw, creator of the “Manhattan” series.

People came to Los Alamos, propelled by a patriotism and an optimism
that may seem distant now.

“We live in such a cynical and bitter time,” said John
Benjamin Hickey, who stars as a physicist. But back in 1943, it all seemed like
“such a great cause, to protect the American way of life.”

Los Alamos soon had 7,000 people, the majority of who didn’t
know what was being created. “Probably 70 percent, at least, found out … when
we dropped the bomb,” said Thomas Schlamme, who is director and producer of “Manhattan,”
just as he was of “The West Wing.”

The atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, quickly
ending World War II. Now the series looks at the two years before that, as the
Manhattan Project rushed along. “It was an incredibly strange moment in
American history,” Shaw said.

But how do you re-create that? A key break, Schlamme said,
was finding an old Army hospital that was “days away” from being leveled.
Carpenters added more buildings and natural New Mexico did the rest.

“This is a verisimilitude that only God could make,” Hickey
said. “We shoot (much of it) outside … on probably 20,000 acres …. As far as
the eye can see, it looks like 1942.”

It’s an odd and distant place … ut actors are used tat.
“Very often, (I don’t) know what I’m going to be expected to do tomorrow,” said
Olivia Williams, who plays Hickey’s wife, a botanist. “(I find) out late at
night and I’m taken to a strange location in the dark and then told to perform
strange acts.”

Now “Manhattan” puts its characters – all of them fictional,
except for Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer – in that same situation.
In a strange place, te tackle strange projects.

Some knew they were building a super-bomb, said Ashley
Zukerman, who plays a young genius. They also knew “there was a team in
Germany, working on the same thing.”

Others had no idea. Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Zukerman’s
wife, met a woman who grew up in Los Alamos and told about her mother’s
reaction: “She had no idea, for all the time they had been there. And (when she
learned of Hiroshima), she became violently, physically ill.”

The world had discovered a fierce force, created amid New
Mexico obscurity.

“Manhattan,” 9 p.m. Sundays, WGN America.

Opener, July 27, reruns at 10:10 p.m.; also,
reruns at 9 and 10:10 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Let's marvel at these musical whiz kids

Sometimes, all you can do is listen and watch in awe. That's what happens when 12-year-old Mae Ya Carter-Ryan opens her mouth and the voice of a powerhouse jazz-gospel song emerges. She and 12-year-old cellist Charlie Zandieh are among the kids in cable's "Young Marvels." Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES -- Young people, TV keeps telling us, are good
at dancing, cooking or singing pop songs.

Now one show, “Young Marvels,” reminds us that there’s much
more. Meet:

Charlie Zandieh, 12, a cellist. “I started
realizing that … my emotions were coming out when I was playing,” he said.

Mae Ya Carter-Ryan, 12, whose little-girl
speaking voice turns into the jazzy sound of a mezzo superstar. “I see myself
being on a big stage, singing in front of millions of people,” she said.

Or the others. Among boys, there’s an opera singer,
11; a blind pianist, 13; and two dancers, ballet, 14, and ballroom, 8. Among
girls, there’s a dancer, 13, and there’s Mabou Loiseau; at 8, she plays the
piano, plays the flute and sings in eight languages.

For some, this is logical. Charlie’s parents and two
brothers are all musical. “I think my dad actually chose the cello for me,” he
said. It was a good choice; this year, he won a Juilliard School competition.

And for others, this is a huge detour in a family with
little music background. Mae Ya was 7 when she asked for singing lessons,
recalled her mother Ina:

“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give you voice lessons.’ And I had no
intention of giving her voice lessons. She was already taking piano lessons,
and I just brushed it off ….

“One Saturday morning, a year later, I heard her singing
upstairs. And she was singing her heart out. And my mouth dropped open and I
said, ‘Oh my God, she can actually sing!’”

Even Mae Ya was surprised. “Everybody would say, ‘Oh, you’re
awesome; you’re great,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And then my
mom started to tape and I heard me and I’m like, ‘Wow!’”

 Others were wowed,
too. With most of the arts programs now eliminated from Chicago’s schools, her
mother says she’s often racing to private lessons. “I am a single parent, so it
is sometimes extremely difficult. A lot of sleep is lost, running to work,
running home from work to take her.”

Kathy Zandieh also knows the drill, taking Charlie to his lessons
at Juilliard. They live in Long Island, where school music programs thrive and
seem to boost other skills.

“It has helped math, science,” she said. “All three of the
kids are phenomenal students …. I think it would be a sin, almost. To take
music away or the arts away from school.”

It happens, often. And despite it all, young marvels keep

“Young Marvels,” 10 p.m. ET Wednesdays, Ovation
(via cable or satellite)

12-part series; the second part airs July 23

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.