NBC slaps us with something different

We're used to the TV-drama routine now -- cops, crooks, 22 episodes a year. That's why NBC's "The Slap" feels so differeint; it starts Thursday and runs for just eight weeks, exploring the subtler side of emotions. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For most of TV
history, American networks have had one notion of a drama series.

There should be a
lot of episodes (at least 22 per year) and a lot of seasons. There
should be one of the “franchises” (cops, crooks, courts,
doctors), to provide an ending to each hour.

Lately, that's been
challenged a little by some shows – and a lot by “The Slap” on

“We just have to
find ways to eventize things and make them big and break through the
clutter,” said Robert Greenblatt, NBC's programming chief.

His show may or may
not seem like an event, but it definitely isn't part of the clutter.
It runs for only eight Thursdays and is triggered in the first hour,
when someone slaps someone else's son.

“All of these
characters come to the table with a tremendous amount of internal
conflict and struggle about different aspects of their lives and
relationships,” said Zachary Quinto, who plays the slapper.

In short, this isn't
really about that one swipe. “Everyone gets slapped in some way,”
said Melissa George, who plays the slapped child's mother.

The show's short run
helps viewers, who know they won't be left hanging. It also helps the

close-ended,” said producer Walter Parkes. It's “an opportunity
for people, both behind and in front of the camera, to really commit
to something a little bit different, a little bit special.”

He's a movie guy who
combined with his wife, Laure MacDonald, to run the early years of
the DreamWorks movie studio, when it had consecutive Oscar-winners
with “American Beauty,” “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind.”
Now they've assembled movie and theater people.

Directing all the
episodes is Lisa Cholidenko, an indie-movie favorite for “The Kids
Are All Right.” Writing them is Jon Robin Baitz, a playwright who
has a Tony nomination, two Pulitzer Prize nominations ... and wrote
bitterly about his earlier experience, creating ABC's “Brothers &

Its actors have done
big-deal movies – “Star Trek” (Quinto is Spock), “Kill Bill”
(Uma Thurman), “Mission Impossible 2” (Thandie Newton) – and
more. Peter Sarsgaard, who has the central role, is a favorite of
independent-movie fans; Brian Cox, who plays his dad, is a British

And one person has a
deeper involvement with this: Melissa George also played Rosie, the
mom, in the original “Slap,” in her native Australia.

When she heard about
the American project, George said, “I was like, 'Who is going to
play Rosie?' .... I was signing a deal for another job and (Baitz)
called me and said, 'You've got to do it.'”

One might assume
that off-camera, actors debated the right and wrong of that slap.
George doesn't remember that in either production: “Oh, there's no
argument,” she said. Tthe slap “is completely wrong. There's no
discussion. So maybe (other cast members) talk about it, but I just
walk away.”

Still, there's
plenty of room to argue. Thurman, whose own roots seem thoroughly
non-violent – her father is an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and a
friend of the Dalia Lama, her mother is the ex-wife of Timothy Leary
– says she understands the debate.

“Being brought up
in the '70s, we got hit all the time,” Thurman said. “And friends
were hit and you saw their parents hitting their children ....
Hitting was acceptable.”

And now it's one of
many personal issues that may stir viewers. “There will be
arguments at dinners,” George said. And that's something that
rarely emerges from those cops-and-crooks TV dramas.

-- “The Slap,” 8
p.m. Thursdays, NBC

-- Eight weeks,
starting Feb. 12


The "SCTV" folks are up "Schitt's Creek" (in a good way)

OK, not everyone will love "Schitt's Creek." It has a droll style -- sometimes very quiet, sometimes very Canadian -- that some people will ignore and some will love. I find it hilarious ... and a delight to find on a network (Pop) that, when it was the TV Guide Network, was terribly easy to ignore. Here's the story I sent to papers:


It was almost 40
years ago that young Canadians started a rag-tag TV show.

“SCTV” would
limp along for six mini-seasons (under four different titles),
getting little money and huge praise. Many of its people – John
Candy, Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Martin Short – would become
movie stars; most have stayed in the TV/movie universe.

Now two enter an
unexpected place: Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara star in “Schitt's
Creek” on Pop, which used to be the TV Guide Network and used to be
rightfully ignored.

The network is now a
land of reruns, reality and old movies, mostly aimed at passionate TV
fans. Brad Schwartz, the Pop programmer, admits he wasn't expecting
to have a major series this soon. Then “this dream of a show came
to us and it was a scripted comedy with talent that our audience grew
up with.”

Those two people
were opposites in their “SCTV” days.

Levy was the quiet
one with droll wit. He “would spend a lot of time writing very
focused pieces that usually made a subtle point,” Ramis said in
Dave Thomas' “SCTV” (1996, McClelland and Stewart).

O'Hara was the zesty
one, sometimes showing up without sleep and creating a comedy rush.
“Other than Marty Short, no one else on the Second City stage made
me laugh so much,” Joe Flaherty said in Thomas' book. “(She had
a) twinkle in her eye and a wit that was as unpredictable as a
tropical storm.”

These contrasting
souls didn't share many “SCTV” sketches, O'Hara said. “We
didn't really work together as a team until the Chris Guest movies,
and then we played husband-and-wife a few times.”

They'd been in in
big-money movies – O'Hara in the “Home Alone” films, Levy in
the “American Pie” ones – and in obscure ones. Guest cast them
in at least four eccentric films, including “Best of Show.”

Then the new idea
came from Eugene's son. “I've known Danny as a baby,” O'Hara

He was born in 1983,
when “SCTV” was in its final incarnation, and performed often in
school. “I would offer my help ... and he would say, 'No, I got
it,'” Eugene recalled.

Dan went on to host
talk and comedy shows for MTV Canada. Then, he says, he “started
thinking about ... a wealthy family losing its money. I felt like
this could go in two directions, (a noisy comedy) or it could be
played very real, and that's when I thought of my dad.”

Understated comedy
seems to be a Levy specialty. “We had never worked together,”
Eugene said. When they finally did, “it dawned on me that he is
exceptionally talented.”

The show starts
after the Rose family's accountant has vanished without ever paying
taxes. Soon, the Roses are stripped of everything ... except what the
government doesn't want, a deed to a town the dad bought because he
thought the name (Schitt's Creek) was funny. Now they must move

Predictably, Eugene
Levy and O'Hara play the parents, with Daniel as their son. Less
predictably, Daniel's sister is played by Annie Murphy; his real-life
sister Sarah plays a local waitress. Other locals are led by Chris
Elliott as Roland Schitt, the mayor.

Backed by a big
Canadian network (CBC) and a small American one (Pop), they spent two
months in a Toronto studio and a month in Goodwood, an Ontario town
of 600. They were sort of on their own.

“A lot of writers
have sold pilots,” Dan Levy said, “and they go through the system
and suddenly what comes out is not what they had intended. (But)
we've made the show that we intended to.”

This was a little
like the old days, O'Hara said. “It felt like we had great

And four decades
ago, that type of freedom created an eccentric comedy classic.

-- “Schitt's
Creek,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, Pop (formerly TV Guide Network)

-- First two
episodes air Feb. 11, rerunning at 11 p.m.; they also run at 11:30
a.m. Thursday; Friday night at midnight (technically 12 a.m.
Saturday); Saturday night at 12:30 a.m.; Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

-- On Feb. 18, those
two episodes air at 9:30 and 10:30 p.m., surrounding the third



Want a romance writer? This one is 450 years old

For a guy who died almost 400 years ago, William Shakespeare keeps stirring interest. Now this year's final chapters of "Shakespeare Uncovered" ponder three classic love stories -- an appropriate subject as Valentine's Day nears. Here's the story I sent to papers:


As Valentine's Day
nears, people might debate which writer created the ultimate romance.

Here are three
possibilities – Shakespeare, Shakespeare or ... well, Shakespeare.

His passionate
“Othello,” “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Romeo and Juliet”
are pondered in the final shows of this season's “Shakespeare
Uncovered” series, on PBS. “Any other playwright would have been
happy to write one of those love stories,” said Richard Denton, who
created the series. “This man wrote all three (and more) --
profoundly different love stories.”

Well, the three do
have one thing in common – a grim ending. Sorry for the spoiler,
but five of the six lovers commit suicide (albeit sometimes due to
false information); the sixth is smothered by her lover.

Beyond that, the
tales contrast sharply, as the “Uncovered” hosts (who have
starred in the plays) attest:

-- Romeo and Juliet
were teens. “It's a young person's play,” said Joseph Fiennes
(who also starred in “Shakespeare in Love”). “It's all about
sex and violence and young generations seem to be into that.” And
no, he said, this isn't just puppy love. “The language itself is so
grown-up, so explicit, so sexual.”

-- Mark Antony was,
by standards of the time, an old man. In real life, he was 43 when
Cleopatra (then 29) bore his twins, 53 when the lovers died. “Antony
was over,” Kim Catrall (“Sex and the City”) said. “In 'Julius
Caesar,' he's still this verile man, this leader, this hero. But
(now) it's past him.”

-- Othello and
Desdemona were somewhere between the extremes – recently married
and in love ... up to the moment he (stirred by his aide's lies)
killed her. “It is the love that makes him extremely vulnerable,”
David Harewood (“Homeland”) said. “This is a man of war who has
never experienced tenderness .... It is a beautiful love story that
goes horribly wrong.”

For some of the
plays, the love is still being debated. Catrall was startled to hear
that Vanessa Redgrave – who has frequently played Cleopatra or
directed the show – feels her “love” was merely political.

Cattrall agrees that
Cleopatra was capable of schemes. “She was a brilliant, brilliant
woman. She spoke over seven languages, was the only Ptolemy (the
Greeks who ruled Egypt) who actually spoke Egyptian .... She brought
libraries to Alexandria. She was truly a pioneer.”

Still, Cattrall
insists, “she did love him in my interpretation of playing

Other debates have
spanned the centuries. They include:

-- Whether one man,
of modest education, could have written 37 plays – many considered
masterpieces – in 21 years. There were occasional bits of
collaboration, Denton said, and historical works were used as
sources. Still, “there's not a shred of evidence” that someone
else wrote the plays. That was “a weird 19th-Century
idea started by a disappointed religious man with a lovely name of

-- Whether Othello,
an African general in the Venetian army, could be played by whites.

Many have tried.
Orson Welles' 1952 film won the top Cannes Film Festival prize;
Laurence Olivier's 1965 performance received an Oscar nomination.
Olivier used jet-black make-up and an exaggerated walk, Harewood
said. “He tried to become this animalistic black creature and it's
just ridiculous.”

It wasn't until 1997
that Harewood became the first black to play Othello at the National
Theatre in London. “Just before I went onstage, the enormity of
what I was about to do kind of hit me,” he said. “I completely
forgot my lines. And I had to compose myself and just walk on there.”

He was stepping into
one of the world's eternal love stories.

-- “Shakespeare
Uncovered,” 9 and 10 p.m. Fridays, PBS (check local listings)

-- Feb. 6: Morgan
Freeman on “The Taming of the Shrew”; David Harewood on “Othello”

-- Feb. 13: Kim
Catrall on “Antony and Cleopatra,” Joseph Fiennes on “Romeo and

-- Previously, Hugh
Bonneville on “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Christopher Plummer on
“King Lear”; for past episodes, including the first season, see



Feel out of place? Eddie Huang can relate to that

Eddie Huang is sort of an expert on feeling out of place. He felt that way as a kid in Orlando; he may feel it now, as a tough, hip hop chef, watching his oft-angry book be turned into a genial ABC comedy. That show -- which debuts twice Wednesday (Feb. 4), then moves to Tuesdays -- is an amiable creation ... albeit sharply different from Huang's book. Here's the story I sent to papers:


On a map, the move
from Washington, D.C. to Orlando seems modest. It's 847 miles
straight down; you never even switch time zones.

But to Eddie Huang,
this was like going to another country, another planet, another
century. “You are very alone and isolated,” he said.

It's the stuff of
tragedy and/or situation comedy. And it's the core of ABC's new
“Fresh Off the Boat.”

Back in 1993, when
he was 11, Huang says he savored the neighborhood feeling of
Washington, D.C. “I had three sets of cousins within a
quarter-mile. I could ride my bike to their house.”

But his father had
already been in Florida, taking over a restaurant. It was time to go

“Moving to Orlando
was really weird, to not have my (extended) family around,” Huang
recalled. And in Florida, “kids weren't really listening to hip hop
that much.”

His new life seemed
limiting, Huang said. “Suburbia's weird for a kid, because you're
trapped. You don't have modes of transportation. You go to school and
you come home. The kids in the neighborhood, you have no reference to
communicate with them. You are very alone.”

And then there was
the other factor: The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he was the only
Asian kid in his class. One kid derisively called him a chink. “I
put his arm in the microwave and closed the door.”

That was one of many
violent outbursts. Huang eventually had his own hip hop-style
friends, quick to strike. His memoir (also “Fresh Off the Boat”)
says his one felony conviction – driving a car into a crowd to save
a friend – wasn't his fault ... but there was plenty more he could
have been convicted for.

He was a shoplifter,
a large-scale drug dealer, a little guy who delivered savage
beatings. He also has an extraordinary mind – the top one-quarter
of one percent in test scores – and was in the schools' gifted
programs. He became a lawyer, then a chef, restaurant-owner,
food-show personality and comedian. He wrote a blog that became a
book (Random House, 2013, now Spiegel & Grau paperback, $15).

And now that's been
turned into a sitcom, no easy process. The book – filled with rage
and sarcasm – is far from sitcom turf. In a New York Magazine
essay, Huang seemed to take aim at ABC and at Nahnatchka Kahn, the
show's producer.

“The network's
approach was to tell a unversal, ambiguous, corn-starch story about
Asian-Americans, resembling moo goo gai pan,” he wrote, “written
by a Persian-American .... It wasn't that I hated the show. It
genuiniely entertained me, but it had to be more.”

Still, that essay
concluded by praising the pilot film for including a variation on the
“chink” incident. “For all the (crap), I felt some truth in it
for those three minutes.”

Khan – who grew up
in Hawaii, with parents from Iran – says Huang's book captured her
quickly. “What I really related to was the immigrant experience
.... You take somethingfrom the source material that is such a strong
voice and you try to develop it for a broader audience.”

Still, Huang said,
broadening can go too far. “People are really sick of watching
universal things that are just for the middle, like mass-consumption
things. People want specific stories.”

In the first
episode, at least, he figures “Fresh” did that. “To deal with
the word 'chink' in the pilot episode of a comedy on network
television is borderline genius and insane at the same time.”

-- “Fresh Off the
Boat,” ABC

-- Debuts at 8:30
and 9:31 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 4); then 8 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays


It's time to talk Super Bowl and Al Michaels' Katyoke

On Super Bowl Sunday, it's easy to get distracted from the game itself. Don't feel bad about that; even Al Michaels, the play-by-play man, will be distracted by Katy Perry. Here's the story I sent to papers:



As the Super Bowl
nears, we might stumble into a false assumption.

Surely, we'll
assume, sportscasters will avoid distractions. They'll use spare
moments to digest facts.

Or not. “The
halftime shows are so big and entertaining,” Al Michaels said. “I
remember the Bruce Springsteen one” on NBC in 2009.

And this year,
especially, he'll forget about football for 12 minutes: It will be
Katy Perry at halftime.

Flash back to the
summer of 2011, when Cris Collinsworth was talking about life in the
NBC broadcast booth. “The thing that I look forward to, most of
all, is hearing Al Michaels singing a Katy Perry song,” he said. “I
think that is the true highlight of the entire season.”

Indeed, Michaels
says he's been a Perry fan from the first moment he heard her. “I
guess I was ahead of my time; I was ahead with Taylor Swift, too.”

Now others can catch
up. Perry – with help from Lenny Kravitz and maybe others – does

Such things are
important for supersized ratings. “The vast majority of the
audience is not going to be hard-core (football) fans,” said
producer Fred Gaudelli.

So non-football
things matter. There's Perry ... And Idina Menzel with the National
Anthem ... And John Legend with “America the Beautiful” ... And
Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski at the tailgate party, interviewing
stars and catching more music. There's Savannah Guthrie interviewing
President Obama, Jimmy Fallon doing comedy; after the game, there's
“The Black List” and more Fallon.

And yes, there's

This match has
classic quarterbacks (Seattle's scrambling Russell Wilson, New
England's pocket-passer Tom Brady), a top runner (Seattle's Mashawn
Lynch) and more. It has the sportscasters' attention.

The guys doing NBC's
pre-game show have a combined seven Super Bowl victories – two each
for Tony Dungy (a coach), Hines Ward (a receiver) and Rodney Harrison
(a safety), plus one for John Harbaugh, a current coach and guest

But what about the
guys in the broadcast booth at game time?

Collinsworth was in
two Super Bowls, combining for seven catches, 147 yards, a fumble and
no wins. In the 1989 game, on the final play of Collinsworth's
career, Boomer Esiason lofted a desperation pass toward him; it was
broken up and the Bengals lost to the 49ers, 20-16.

And Michaels? He did
the first Super Bowl, he said – but as a spectator. “I was there
with my brother ....We had great seats, because there were about
35,000 empty” ones.

That was 1967 in the
Los Angeles Coliseum, which could hold close to 100,000 people; the
game drew 61,946. It would be two more years before the “Super
Bowl” nickname began ... and many more before this became a
national institution.

Michaels was 22 when
he saw that first game. This year's game will be his ninth as
play-by-play man, plus one time doing a pre-game show.

He'll never come
close to the game's superfans. Three men have seen every Super Bowl;
this will be their 49th and they'll be featured in the
pre-game show.

Last year, Michaels
recalled, he didn't even finish the game. He had flown to Russia to
prepare for the Winter Olympics. “About a hundred of us gathered in
the hotel lounge in Sochi with, I believe, one cocktail waitress. Not
enough .... We were all so exhausted, by halftime, we all went to

We'll never know
what would have happened if there were more waitresses. Maybe he
would have stayed; maybe he would have done some Katy karaoke. This
year, Perry can do that herself.

-- Super Bowl, NBC:
pre-game show, noon ET Sunday; kick-off, 6:30 p.m.; Katy Perry,

-- “The Black
List” follows at about 10:30 p.m. ET; Jimmy Fallon has “Tonight”
at about midnight.