"Downton Abbey" keeps surprising us ... and its actors

 "Downton Abbey" returns Sunday, in an episode that's big, ambitious and (as usual) well-crafted. There are surprises ahead ... which, actually, shouldn't surprise us. From the beginning, "Downton" has sometimes managed to startle its viewers and its cast. Here's the story I sent to papers: 



“Downton Abbey”
is back and ready to surprise us ... again.

It does that a lot,
defying the traditions of British costume dramas. “The death of
Mr. Pamuk – in the third episode of the first season – was an
incredibly important storyline,” said producer Gareth Neame. “It
showed that we weren't that dusty old genre that everybody was

The show has kept
surprising viewers ... and its cast; Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna,
has seen that: “Gareth said, 'Well ... there's a really big
storyline happening for Anna in Season 4.'”

She never imagined
how big: Anna (a “lady's maid) was raped by a visiting valet.
Fearing that her husband Bates would take vengeance and return to
prison, she kept it a secret. Then – on a day when Bates had
mysteriously disappeared – the villain was pushed to his death.

All of this caught
Froggat by surprise ... just as Allen Leech (who plays Tom) keeps
being surprised.

“I was hired for
three episodes” in the first season, Leech said, and “was lucky
enough to come back for the second, and thought that might be it. I
was expecting the 'you're fired' papers around the corner.”

Instead, Tom (the
chauffeur) and Lady Sybil (youngest of the three Crawley sisterts)
fell in love, married, moved to Tom's native Ireland and returned
after protests went bad. It was rich material ... that evaporated
when Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Sybil, decided to leave the

“I thought that
might be it for me,” Leech said. Julian Fellowes, the “Downton”
creator, disagreed.

“He actually
embraced it,” Leech said, “and he engaged with what that poor man
had to do.” Sybil died while giving birth. Now Tom is a single dad,
raising his daughter amid his former employers.

“He's still the
guy stuck in no-man's-land, between these two worlds,” Neame said.

But the Crawleys are
gradually accepting him. Even Lady Mary, Sybil's eldest sister, has
warmed up. “Mary couldn't bear the idea of Sybil uniting with (Tom)
in the beginning,” said Michelle Dockery, who plays her. “It's
amazing how their friendship has evolved.”

They have a common
cause now: Like her late husband, Mary feels the estate's farming
must be modernized; Tom agrees – and now that he's estate manager,
he can do something about it. “The character's been on an
incredible journey,” Leech said.

More surprises are
coming, he said. Such as? “Well, the unicorn farm .... Definitely
out of left field.”

Leech is like that,
with a droll humor that stands out in any drab PBS discussion. He's
become the show's social-media star, someone the others would like to
emulate -- within reason.

“I need to just
sort of relax (and) let my personality come out a little bit more
like Allen does,” Froggatt said of social media. “But not quite
as much as Allen does.”

There may be plenty
of time for that. “Downton Abbey” has a large audience and high
interest; it's currently in 1924, separated from us by 90 years and
an ocean.

-- “Masterpiece
Classi: Downton Abbey,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS.

-- Eight-week season
goes from Jan. 4 to Feb. 22; most episodes are an hour, but the
season's opener and finale are longer.

-- Previous episodes
are available at www.pbs.org.

-- The opener is
followed at 10:15 by “The Manners of Downton Abbey,” hosted by
Alastair Bruce, the show's historical advisor.

-- For more history,
“Million-Dollar American Princesses” is 8 p.m. on three Sundays,
beginning Jan. 4, on the Smithsonian Channel. It views people similar
to the show's Cora Crawley – American heiresses who married into
British nobility.

Coppola clan masters filmmaking and (really) classical music

Two things stand out from the time, long ago, when I interviewed Carmine Coppola:

1) Life is not fair. When Carmine wrote a fresh score for "Napoleon,"
the silent-movie classic, he had to create more than two hours of music
-- then conduct it at special showings. David Shire, at that time his
son-in-law, wrote maybe 11 minutes for "Norma Rae," promptly winning
praise and a best-song Oscar.

2) Sure, Carmine's son Francis Ford Coppola was known as the classic New
Yorker; he was also a guy whose hatred of Henry Ford showed in the
movie "Tucker." Still, Francis was born in Detroit ... and was partially
named after Henry Ford. Back then, his dad was a flautist for the
Detroit Symphony; the middle name reflects the hospital Francis was born
in and his dad's fondness for the automaker, a patron who was kind to

I mention that now because Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman have
created a superb series that merges humor, drama, sex and soaring
classical music. The show debuts Tuesday (Dec. 23) on Amazon; here's the
story I sent to papers:


Two powerful forces
– movies and music – ripple throught the Coppola family tree.

Now they've merged
neatly in “Mozart in the Jungle,” the new Amazon series catching
an orchestra in transition. At the core are writer-director Roman
Coppola and actor-writer Jason Schwartzman, who are cousins and
experts on artistic temperament.

“Passionate people
(working) together – and the tempers and the love of the work and
all the drama that goes into creating stuff – comes from our family
tradition,” Roman said.

He's the son of
Francis Coppola; Schwartzman is the son of actress Talia Shire,
Francis' sister. They're in the rock generation; indeed, Schwartzman
was the rock drummer for Phantom Planet and co-wrote a modest hit
(“California”) that later became the theme song for TV's “The

Still, they've been
surrounded by classical music. Their grandfather (Carmine Coppola)
was first flautist under Arturo Toscanini ... their grand-uncle Anton
Coppola (Carmine's brother) was an opera conductor and artistic
director, before retiring at 95.

“My mom loves
classical music ... and I love being with her and watching her love
it,” Schwartzman said. And so he happened to be there that night,
five years ago, when 28-year-old Gustavo Dudamel took over as
conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony.

“It was so
exciting and exhilerating ... There was such a contagious feeling in
the room,” Schwartzman recalled. “And everybody was smiling.”

The cousins had
already been thinking about a series set in the classical world, he
said. They optioned “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical
Music,” the 2005 memoir of Blair Tindall, a journalist who had
spent her early years as a promising oboist in New York City. With
playwright Alex Timbers, they wrote a frothy, fictional series, with
broad swaths of humor, drama and sex.

Hailey, a young
oboist, happens into an orchestra's quaking changes. Its maestro
(Malcolm McDowell) is retiring; its leader (Bernadette Peters) wants
a fresh force. She hires a young conductor, played by Gael Garcia
Bernal, a Spanish-language film star. Chaos ensues, alongside soaring

At times, real
musicians perform; the opening minutes include a blistering solo from
violinist Joshua Bell. Mostly, however, actors must fake it

“I played a
cellist once or twice before,” said Saffron Burrows, who plays one
of the orchestra stars. “(I) didn't keep it up in-between, but at
least I'm a little kind of familiar with it.”

For Lola Kirke, this
is all knew. A virtual unknown until her pivotal “Gone Girl” role
(as the stranger who befriends Amy at a motel), she started taking
oboe lessons and dug into the role of Hailey.

Classical musicians
“are so committed to something and are almost like athletes,”
Kirke said. “You start learning how to play your instrument when
you're a child and you spend hours and hours and hours a day

They are often
passionate and sometimes desperate. They help Mozart thrive in the
modern jungle.

-- “Mozart in the

-- Amazon Prime
Instant Video; www.amazon.com/PIV

-- Subscribers can
catch the first episode now; the 10-episode first season will be
available Tuesday (Dec. 23)


Bing and Bowie? It was just one odd moment in a far-flung life

Each December, Bing Crosby's voice flows back at us, providing images of white Christmases and simpler times. What's interesting, however, is just how complicated Crosby's own life was. A superb "American Masters" portrait is airing Tuesday (Dec. 2) on some PBS stations and later on others; here's the story I sent to papers:


Back in 1977, a
Christmas special offered one of TV's great mismatches.

Bing Crosby was the
host, with David Bowie as his guest. Crosby, 74, was a pipe-puffing,
cardigan-wearing crooner, a Republican father-of-seven with 41 No. 1
singles (led by “White Christmas”) and a laidback image. Bowie,
30, had been a glam-rocker and a punker, known for cross-dressing,
wild make-up, drug addiction and bisexuality.

“You should have
seen the way he was dressed in rehearsal,” Nathaniel Crosby, Bing's
son, said. “It almost didn't happen.”

Mary Crosby, Bing's
daughter, recalls the moment Bowie and his wife arrived: “They're
both wearing full-length mink coats. They have matching full makeup
and their hair was bright red.”

And then, somehow,
the two men clicked. A new PBS profile of Crosby includes their
gorgeous duet of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth.”

That reflects the
range of a man who could pal with golf buddies and/or a glam-rocker:

-- As an actor,
Crosby spent much of his time in silly “Road” comedies with Bob
Hope, offering “just wide-open two hours of improvisation,” his
son Harry recalled. Still, he did some heavy dramas, winning an Oscar
(for “Going My Way”) and two more nominations.

-- He seemed to be
forever at leisure -- golfing, fishing, rooting for baseball's
Pittsburgh Pirates, which he co-owned. (When the Pirates got to the
World Series, his widow Kathryn recalled, he took the family to Paris
because “he was afraid he would jinx his team.”) Yet he was also
a serious businessman whose company produced solid TV dramas “Ben
Casey” and “Slattery's People.”

-- His image was
old-school, but he financed the development of tape-recording radio
shows and of multi-track music. “He was always curious .... He hung
out in the studio,” Harry Crosby said.

Crosby had broad
tastes, technically and personally. He championed under-noticed black
stars; he salvaged Judy Garland's career and had no trouble blending
with Bowie.

“They sat at the
piano,” Mary Crosby recalled, “and David was a little nervous.
And said, 'I only sing in this key.' And Dad's like, 'Don't worry;
I'll get in there somehow.'

“And then you
could just see .... them both collectively relax and then magic was

But what about the
flip side? If Crosby was so easygoing, why did his son Gary write a
book describing physical cruelty?

In some ways, that
also fits into this wide-ranging life. The PBS film says the young
Bing was a heavy drinker who was fired by a bandleader; he overcame
alcoholism, but his first wife (singer-actress Dixie Lee) never did.
Their four sons grew up amid trouble and corporal punishment.

“Bing says it in
his autobiography,” said Robert Trachtenberg, a producer of the PBS
film. “Bing says it in interviews throughout the '50s: 'I
disciplined the kids; maybe I was too hard on them.'”

Two of those sons
committed suicide; the others died at 62 and 69. But the three
children from his second marriage describe a caring father and a
happy home. They say problems were minor ... like having to join him
in the annual TV Christmas specials.

“It wasn't a good
thing for my jock image at school,” said Nathaniel, who became a
champion golfer.

“I was very upset
about the whole thing.”

The last of those
specials was taped in 1977 and shown after Crosby's heart-attack
death. It showed the world what the Crosby kids had already seen –
the quiet beauty of the Bing-and-Bowie music duo.

-- “American
Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered”

-- Aired Dec. 2
on many PBS stations, but that varies with pledge drive; to find it now, check www.pbs.org


A (very) slow flame ignites; crook-catchers are in love

TV shows, it seems, are a little like kids, quarterbacks and best-man toasts: You just can't predict how they'll turn out. Now "The Mentalist" starts its final season Sunday (Nov. 30), looking very different from the show that began in 2008. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Back in 2008, the
“Mentalist” people were explaining the basics of their show.

Bruno Heller, the
show's creator, was with his stars, Simon Baker and Robin Tunney.
Some reporters astutely noticed that one is male and one is female.

“Bruno, Simon and
I all swore up and down: There is no way these two would ever be
together romantically,” Tunney recalled.

Now flash ahead to
the seventh and final season. It starts Sunday, with the lead
characters in love.

What happened? A
friendship evolved, Heller said, allowing a “sort of Jane Austen
type of romance ... between two people you've known for years (and
are) made for each other, not in a fiery kind of crazy way.”

Not fiery at all.
“At that press conference,” Tunney recalled, “Bruno said ... we
would have all the sexual chemistry of The Clintons. So the bar is
really low.”

Baker credits Heller
for sticking with the show and developing the story over about 150
episodes. Networks, he said, “are not necessarily story-friendly.
(They think:) 'We've got a hole that we would like to fill with

As the show started,
Patrick Jane (Baker) was a former charlatan who had used his
observation skills while pretending to be a psychic. When his wife
was slain by a serial killer named Red John, he worked with the
California Bureau of Investigation, with Teresa Lisbon (Tunney) as
his stern boss.

“I was so worried
I wasn't going to seem like an officer of the law if I smiled,”
Tunney recalled. “(I thought:) 'I want to be taken seriously. I am
supposed to be authoritative.”

Things evolved. Red
John was killed. Jane and Lisbon moved to the FBI, with a new boss.
One colleague, Kimball Cho, is still with them. Others, Rigsby and
Van Pelt, are gone.

A newcomer –
played by Josie Loren of “Make It or Break It” -- arrives in the
opener. Over these final 13 episodes, Heller said, “there is a bit
of a love triangle going on.”

But the big change
is with Jane and Lisbon, no longer worried about Red John or about
being the boss.

“It is a bit of a
relief,” Tunney said, to feel “light and natural in scenes when
the stakes aren't so high all the time. And you can sort of smile.”

Sort of. “Jane
and Lisbon are private, self-contained, protective people,” Heller
said. “So it is not a very conventional love story, ... because
they are not fiery, passionate, crazy people.”

Still, they're a lot
warmer than anyone had imagined back in 2008.

-- “The Mentalist”
opens its 13-hour final season Sunday, Nov. 30.

-- Sunday spot is
about 9:30 p.m., but could be later with football overruns; it's 9
p.m. PT.

-- “The Good Wife”
will reclaim that slot on Jan. 4; “Mentalist” then takes 8 p.m.
Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 7; the two-hour series finale is Feb. 18.


Maybe we should all be sleeping

First, a few personal confessions: 1) I used to average five hours of sleep on weeknights, thinking this was a good thing; 2) I was once awakened by my air bag, after striking six cars; we were all very lucky this happened at a slow speed, while they were at a stoplight; 3) Ever since, for 13 years, I've used a sleep-apnea machine nightly.

After seeing a compelling new documentary and talking to some of its people, however, I'm suddenly focusing on sleep. You should, too; "Sleepless in America" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 30) on the National Geographic Channel; here's the story I sent to papers:


In odd corners of
Silicon Valley, some work pull all-nighters. Sleep is considered an
outmoded luxury.

“We thought we
invented that phrase, 'I'll sleep when I'm dead,'” Mark Rosekind
said. “Actually, Ben Franklin said that” more than two centuries

Frankin was setting
an early – and dangerous – pattern for a go-getter nation. “This
has been the American way for a long time,” Rosekind said. “It's
a badge of courage to go without sleep.”

Rosekind --
appointed last week (pending Senate approval) to head the National
Traffic Safety Administration -- has specialized in studying sleep.
Now that's the subject of a cable documentary.

Sleeplessness, said
Courteney Moore of the National Geographic Channel, is “an epidemic
that can best traced to health issues ranging from obesity to
cardiovascular disease to mental-health disorters. (It) costs
American businesses more than $100 billion a year.”

Then there are the
accidents. Sleeplessness has been considered a factor in the Exxon
Valez oil spill, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear
disasters and several car, plane, ferry, truck and bus crashes.

Still, many people
resist sleep. Researchers say adults need 7 to 8 hours, but in his
autobiography, Franklin listed a daily regimen of five hours; Thomas
Edison had even less.

Edison created part
of the problem for the rest of us, historians say. Americans were
quick to go to bed when it turned dark ... until his improved light
bulbs prolonged the day.

More inventions
followed. With the :technology invasion into the bedroom (and) longer
commute times in the morning, the thing that people shortchange most
... is sleep,” Matthew Walker said.

Walker heads the
sleep lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Last year, Moore
said, the lab published a paper saying sleep deprivation causes
“metabolic changes in the gut and fat cells (and) alters the brain
to stimulate appetite for unhealthy foods. “

Others found similar
results. At the University of Chicago, Eve Van Sauter restricted
student volunteers to four hours a night for six nights. “We
expected the result, but the magnitude was enormous. Those were
young, healthy men. (After) six nights ... they were pre-diabetic.”

propels other problems, she said. “Your cancer will spread more
quickly if you don't sleep well or enough. Your diabetes will be more
severe. (You) are at greatly increased risk of obesity and
cardiovacular diseaase .... It is very serious.”

She averages 7-8
hours a night; “I protect my sleep ferociously.” Hoffman averages

And Rosekind – who
once led the Stanford sleep lab, near sleepless Silicon -- said he
does 7-and-a-half to eight. His wife is also a believer, he said.
“Our kids may be the only ones (who) got their nine-plus hours of
sleep until they were in their 20s.”

-- “Sleepless in
America,” 8-10 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel

-- Repeats at 11
p.m.; also, at 9 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7