"X Factor" wobbles, while Fox booms


On Wednesday, "American Idol" starts a new and cheerier season. At the same time, however, Fox is still pondering the fate of its other music show, "The X Factor." Here's the story I sent to papers:


By MIKE HUGHES


PASADENA, Cal. -- “The X Factor” – the show Simon Cowell promised
would bring huge ratings – faces a wobbly future.


“We’re going to blow through the option date,” said Kevin
Reilly, the Fox programming chief. Instead, a decision could follow in the next
month, with nothing definite.


Critics had argued that the show mostly duplicates “American
Idol” – which made Cowell famous – and leaves both shows damaged. In the last
year, “Idol” ratings have dipped; “X Factor” has crashed.


Still, a bigger obstacle comes from elsewhere: “I wish (NBC’s)
‘The Voice’ would go away,” Reilly said.


Why not definitely ditch “X Factor”? In other countries,
Reilly said, the show is huge; “this is a No. 1 brand.” And in some, it dipped
and revived after tinkering with the format; he expects to talk to Cowell about
possible changes in the weeks ahead.


That comes at a time when Fox – which does an hour less than
other networks each night – is starting to be overcrowded. Reilly told
reporters:


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Fox has a development deal with Lonely Island,
the trio (Andy Samberg and two longtime friends) that made offbeat films for “Saturday
Night Live.” The results could range from the Internet to Fox or its cable
channels, FX and FXX.


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Samberg’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – fresh from its
Golden Globe for best comedy series – will add guest stars, including Fred
Armisen and former quarterback Joe Theismann, for the episode on Super Bowl
Sunday, Feb. 2. So will “New Girl,” which will precede it that night, right
after the post-game show. It will whisk the characters to a mansion party
thrown by Prince.


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The traditional gap between the real season and
summer continues to fade. “24: Live Another Day” – a reboot of the “24”
concept, spread over 12 hours of airtime – will start May 5; it will sprawl
over the summer, as will “Gang Related,” a tough cop show that starts May 20.


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For that matter, most of the usual patterns are
being broken. Networks often wait until May to make commitments; Fox will soon
have new 10 shows in the works, ranging from “Grace Point” (an American version
of the British series “Broadchurch,” expanded from eight hours to 10, with a different
ending) to a series about ancient Egypt.


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And when everything is set, shows will have
fewer disruptions. “Sleepy Hollow,” for instance, is back now for its final
episodes of the season. “Next year, we’ll have 13 (weeks) in a row.”


Yes, snow is good for something -- making eerie TV


Right now, I'm not feeling that cheery about snow. That may be because 18 inches of it plopped onto me in a day or so, requiring lots of shoveling. Still, I have to admit that snowy settings can help a TV show. The latest example is "Helix," which debuts Friday (Jan. 10) on Syfy. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By MIKE HUGHES


Snow, of course, is like children, dalmatians or wind chimes
– very pleasant, but only in the proper place and quantity.


“I love the snow because I grew up with it,” said “Helix”
star Kyra Zagorsky.


Now she plays the opposite – too much snow and cold and
fear. Also, a deadly virus and former friends who want to tear you apart.


“Helix” imagines a private research facility, Arctic
BioSystems, where something has gone terribly wrong. The Arctic setting is key,
said producer Steven Maeda. “It lends itself to a very claustrophobic situation.”


There’s nowhere to run, no quick way to call
re-enforcements. The doctors in a Centers for Disease Control team are on their
own, not even sure what research was being done here.


That eerie, Arctic feeling is created in a studio, where
even outdoor scenes are filmed. “We have a room we call ‘The Freezer Room,’”
Zagorsky said. “It IS cold in there and we have these huge Arctic coats on.”


That’s in Montreal, giving the cast a neat blend. There are
a few Americans (including Billy Campbell, who plays the CDC team leader, the
ex-husband of Zagorsky’s character) … and many Canadians (including Catherine
Lemieux, who makes a quick impression as the blunt Dr. Doreen Boyle) … and
Zagorsky, who strides both worlds.


She grew up as an outdoor kid in small-town Colorado, is
married to a Montreal actor (Patrick Sabongui) and splits her life between
Montreal, Vancouver and Los Angeles.


Along the way, she’s done lots of scares and sci-fi; “Helix”
has many of the key elements, minus one: “Our watchword was, ‘Not zombies,’”
Maeda promised.


Instead, there’s intrigue – “everyone’s got an agenda,
everyone’s got secrets,” Maeda said – and a virus that can make even the heroes
turn fierce.


The resulting effects can be scary, Zagorsky said. “Especially
when you’re at lunch and sitting across from someone who’s in make-up.”


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“Helix,” 10 p.m. Fridays, Syfy


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The first two episodes will run as a 90-minute
film (with limited commercials) at 10 and 11:30 p.m. Jan. 10.


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Then those episodes run as separate hours, from
1 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11; the first hour reruns at 10 p.m. Jan. 14,
both rerun from 6-8 p.m. Jan. 17   


This big little brother finally has his day


Geoff Stults may be big on TV -- starring in a new series that starts Friday -- but he's not that big a deal in his own family. After all, George Stults is also an actor and has big-brother status. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By MIKE HUGHES


Stepping into “Enlisted,” Geoff Stults was sort of on
familiar turf.


No, he’s never been a soldier; he’s never led an assault
team or an effort to pull a skier with a tank. But he is a brother, which is
sort of what this comedy is about.


Stults plays Pete, the first-born, idolized by one brother
and tolerated by the other. In real life, George Stults (also an actor) is the
elder brother.


“I’m about 40 pounds bigger than him and much taller,” said
Stults, 6-foot-3-and-a-half. “But he’s still my big brother and he reminds me
of that …. This is the first time in my life I’ve felt like a big brother.”


The idea started with someone who is one. 


“My relationship with my two younger brothers is the longest,
best relationship of my life,” said producer-writer Kevin Biegel. “They’ve been
there with me through really difficult times and really great times. And we’re
still kind of locked into that 16-year-old mentality.”


So Biegel thought of a way to throw brothers into an odd
situation.


All are in the Army (as was their dad), but only Pete thrives
on combat. Then he makes a tactical mistake, slugging a colonel; he’s assigned
to a Stateside unit full of bumblers … including his brothers.


“It’s this kind of (Land of) Misfit Toys or ‘Bad News Bears’
in a rear unit …. If you cherry-picked the worst of the worst, they’re in this
unit,” Biegel said. But “they’re surrounded by people who are competent.”


One is the master sergeant, played by Keith David, who’s
done “Platoon” and other dead-serious military films. “I served with their
father,” David said of the character. “And I promised I’d take care of them if
anything ever happened.”


Now he tries to control them and Pete tries to ignore him
while doing big-brother duty.


The Stults boys were born in Detroit and grew up in
Colorado. George, now 38 and 6-foot, had a college wrestling scholarship;
Geoff, 36, was a football receiver, even playing a little pro ball in Europe.
Both were in “7
th Heaven” (as brothers, logically); Geoff has gone
on to regular roles in six more series.


This time, he said, the filming was done in a spot that
“used to be an insane asylum and is now a college … with open spaces and a lot of
things that looked like barracks and things.”


There, actors found that any day could bring a new
assignment, including tank-skiing.  “For
most of us,” Stults said, “it’s like, ‘Hey, this is going to be a great day.’
For one of us, this is the best day of his life.”


-- “Enlisted,” 9:30 p.m. Fridays, Fox


-- Debuts Jan. 10


Here's who's-who in the Abbey


The previous blog is a story I sent to papers, previewing the new "Downton Abbey" season. It's a well-crafted show, but sometimes a tough one to join in progress, with its swirl of changing characters and titles. With that in mind, I also sent papers this character guide:

 

By MIKE HUGHES


As “Downton Abbey” returns – 9 p.m. Sundays on PBS, under
the “Masterpiece” banner – it provides an evolving set of characters and
positions. Here’s a quick guide to the start of the season:


Upstairs


Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, has devoted his life
to running the estate. He’s still partly in charge, but with no male heirs,
control went to his nephew Matthew Crawley.


Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham, is an American. When
she married Robert, she brought the cash infusion the estate needed.


Lady Mary Crawley, their eldest daughter, restored the
family prospects by marrying her cousin Matthew. He died in a car crash shortly
after their baby son was born.


Lady Edith Crawley, the middle daughter, seemed destined for
spinsterhood. Then she started writing columns for a London newspaper … and
dating the editor. This season, she has big highs and lows.


Tom Branson is the former chauffeur, a socialist who married
the Crawleys’ youngest daughter Sybil. She died of an illness; he remains in
the mansion, raising their toddler. Matthew made him the estate manager, as
part of modernization efforts; now management wobbles between Robert, Mary and
Tom.


Violet Crawley, Robert’s mother, is the widowed dowager,
with an acerbic wit. She alternately feuds and bonds with Isobel Crawley,
Matthew’s mother, who is a force for modernization.


Others show up often. They include, Lady Rosamund Painswick,
Robert’s sister … Lady Rose MacClare, the dowager’s grand-niece, who is
temporarily at the mansion, but would rather by partying in London … and Dr.
Clarkson, whose track record for saving lives is shaky. 


Downstairs


Charles Carson and Elsie Hughes are referred to strictly as
Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. As butler and housekeeper, they run the staff with
unflinching precision. Oddly, Carson was once in show business.


John Bates, the Earl’s valet, still limps from a war injury.
He married Anna Smith, was convicted of killing his estranged ex-wife, then was
cleared.


Beryl Patmore is the good-hearted cook and Daisy Robinson is
her assistant. Young and vulnerable, Daisy falls for men who aren’t interested;
she also bowed to pressure and married a soldier on his deathbed.


Joseph Molesley was Matthew’s valet. He’s still at the
mansion, while looking for work.


Alfred Nugent was hired as a footman, despite objections
that, at 6-foot-4, he’s too tall for the job. Daisy (5-foot-4) likes him, but
he only seems to see Ivy Stuart; Daisy’s life is like that.


"Downton Abbey": A grand structure faces constant change


For decades, PBS' "Masterpiece" delivered high-quality dramas to modest-sized audiences. Then "Downton Abbey" found just the right mixture of classy characters and soap-opera twists. The result has drawn big audiences, lots of awards ... and high interest in the fourth season, which starts Sunday (Jan. 5). Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By MIKE HUGHES


As he began molding “Downton Abbey,” writer Julian Fellows
sent a note that was prophetic.


The first sentence, producer Gareth Neame recalls, described
a stately home in a beautiful park, then added: “It looks as though it will
stand for a thousand years. It won’t.”


The building might last, but the lives inside would keep
changing – sometimes quickly and profoundly. That’s partly by plan and partly
because actors leave … setting up crises for Sunday’s season-opener.


The first three seasons had taken Matthew and Mary (Dan
Stevens and Michelle Dockery) from strangers to marriage and a newborn son.
Then Stevens was leaving to do movies; as the season ended, Matthew was killed
in a car accident.


“I thought, ‘Where can the story go now?’” Dockery recalled.
“We’d spent all this time having this on/off, will they/won’t they
relationship. And then, suddenly, it was coming to an end.”


Others were stunned by the script that ended with the death.
“It was quite shocking to read that,” said Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy, the
young cook. Worse, they had to keep it a secret –- then see the shock of
friends and family who saw the episode on Christmas Day, 2012, in England.


Still, that death seems to typify two things:


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For all of its elegance, this ratings hit is
full of soap-opera twists. There have been sudden deaths for Mary’s husband …
and her sister Sybil … and her one-night lover … and Matthew’s fiancé … and
Daisy’s brief husband … and John Bates’ estranged wife. There have been schemes,
accusations – everything except a rape (which happens this season).


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Beyond those soapy touches, change was inevitable
in this place and this era. So far, the show has gone from 1912 to 1922 – a
time when British lives and estates were transforming.


Downton had started to change when Matthew took over. He
believed in modernizing and got support from Mary and from Sybil’s widower Tom.
Now his death leaves the estate in limbo, with Mary being little help. “She’s
kind of slowly, throughout the season, coming back to life,” Dockery said.


That gives the new season fresh material, Neame said. “There
is Matthew’s death to get over and this whole change of direction for Mary. And
(we see) all of these characters coming into this modern age.”


Downstairs, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes (Jim Carter and
Phyllis Logan) run the staff with even-handed honesty. “We do have a mutual
respect,” Logan said of the characters.


Their workers keep being juggled. O’Brien. Molesley is
jobless, Daisy keeps trying.


“She was wide-eyed and a little naïve” at first, McShera
said; she thrived at work (becoming a cook), floundered at romance. McShera has
only a few things in common with her: Both are small and from Northern England;
also, “I’m as delusional as she is.”


And upstairs, there are big changes ahead for Edith, Mary’s hard-luck
sister. She’s dating the editor of a newspaper she writes for. “I like to think
of her as the Carrie Bradshaw of the ‘20s,” said Laura Carmichael, who plays
her.


No, we don’t often hear “Downton” characters compared to
ones from “Sex and the City.” Still, the shows have things in common – Sunday slots,
short seasons and a big fuss when they return.


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“Downton Abbey,” 9 p.m. Sundays on PBS' "Masterpiece" (check
local listings)


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Two-hour season-opener is Jan. 5