Yes, teaching can be funny ... from a distance


OK, maybe it doesn't seem funny at the time to have a hapless teacher ... or to be one. But the new show "Teachers" is great fun ... and the upcoming "Those Who Can't" is promising. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA -- Let's
say you're looking for fresh troves of comedy material.

It helps if you've
been a student ... or, even better, a teacher. Consider two new cable
comedies:

-- “Those Who
Can't” focuses on three men who are inept teachers. “Before I
started standup comedy, I was a really, really bad substitute teacher
for about a year and a half,” Adam Clayton Holland said. “So that
definitely inspired me.”

-- “Teachers”
focuses on six women, all of them inept. Its cast also has an
ex-teacher – a serious on.

“I had a master's
degree and I loved being a teacher,” Caitlin Barlow said. “I
taught 4th grade during the day. And then at night I would
do improv (improvisational comedy) shows.”

She saw lots of
diligent, talented teachers – plus a fewwho provided great comedy
material. “When their students were doing independent work, they
would be on Tinder, trolling for their next date.”

Holland also saw
lots of bad behavior – some of it his own. “There were moments
where I would ... just totally lose control. I would be like, 'I'm
just going to shut the door and hope no administrators hear what's
going on in here.'”

Then there are all
the memories from their student days – lots of good teachers, plus
some who triggered comedy inspiration, One , Barlow said, “would
talk to us endlessly about her divorce.”

The “Those Who
Can't” guys have similar memories; there were “a lot of day
drinkers,” Andrew Orvedahl said. Adds Ben Roy: The realization that
your teachers showed a movie because they were dealing with a
crippling hangover was kind of an amazing insight.”

For comics, this is
gold. Each show started with video shorts, then landed a cable deal:

-- In Denver, three
guys formed a comedy troupe called the Grawlix. For “Those Who
Can't” (debuting Feb. 11 on TruTV), they added Maria Thayer as the
librarian.

-- In Chicago, the
first version of “Teachers” (debuting Wednesday on TVLand) was
created by the Katydids ... which is a sort of Kate collective.

“Caitlin actually
notriced this trend,” Katie O'Brien. “She just knews a lot of
funny Katys and so that's how the group started. It really was just
the common name.”

Not a single stray
Debbie or Dawn or Peggy Sue broke the circle. The Katydids has women
whose real names are Kate and Cate, Katy and Katie, Caitlin and
Kathryn. They did years of Chicago comedy.

“I taught fourth
grade during the day,” Barlow said. “And then at night, I would
do improv shows and write stuff with the Katydids .... It was like my
dark secret.”

Many of her
co-workers remained in the dark, even as the group began doing
popular little “Teachers” videos on the Internet. Then came the
cable deal.

“She let her
principal know,” O'Brien said. “And at the end of the year, the
principal announced to the staff: 'A fond fairwell to Caitlin, who's
moving to Hollywood to become a movie star.' Everyone looked at her
like she was very delusional.”

For now, the
Katydids still aren't stars; one overheard the parent of a child
actor saying, “I don't know who anyone in this show is.” But
“Teachers” is linked to people with winning records:

-- In its TV Land
slot, it follows “Younger,” the series from Jason Star, creator
of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Melrose Place” and “Sex and the
City.”

-- Two former “Key
and Peele” producers are its show-runners.

-- And Alison Brie,
the “Community” actress, is a producer. She's also in an early
episode, dressed as the “Bully Goat” character. “If anyone
could make me dress as a goat,” Brie said, “it's these ladies.”

Who would make their
boss wear a goat costume? Katies did.

-- “Teachers”
debuts at 11:02 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 13) on TV Land, rerunning at
12:30 and 2:02 a.m., plus 8 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 16). The opener is
simulcast on Nickelodeon at 11:02 p.m. Wednesday.

-- Then “Teachers”
takes the 10:30 p.m. Wednesday slot, starting Jan. 20.

-- “Those Who
Can't” debuts at 10:30 p.m. Feb. 11 on TruTV.

 

Real-life cops: Passion and a downhome drawl


One person told me that as he watched the new "Killing Fields" show, he simply assumed this was an actor in a scripted series. The central character was a police detective, sitting in his undershirt in his Louisiana yard, talking in a deep drawl; he seemed like perfect casting. Except that this isn't an actor at all: It's Rodie Sanchez, a real-life cop tackling a real-life murder case. "Killing Fields" has new episodes at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on Discovery; here's the story I sent to papers:  

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA – In his
third day at an upscale, California hotel, Rodie Sanchez was
squirming.

“This is the
second or third time I've ever traveled out of Louisiana in my life,”
he said. “If I'm not there, I'm not happy.”

“There” is
Plaquemine, a southern Louisiana town of 7,000. The “Killing
Fields” cable series shows him there, re-opening a 1997 murder
case.

An outsider might
grumble about the area's heat and swamps and such ... and might
prefer this air-conditioned Pasadena hotel, complete with swimming
pool. Sanchez, however, just wanted to go home. “I love the people
of Louisiana,” he said. “I love the hospitality. It's a beautiful
place to see.”

He grew up there and
knew his career choice. “I watched TV a lot when I was young. I saw
how much law enforcement meant. It's a job where you're ready to help
people.”

He retired a year
ago, then heard a surprise: Working with a TV crew, the department
was ready to re-open one of its old murder cases; the investigation
would unfold on cable, with no guaranteed outcome.

The Eugenie
Boisfontaine case was chosen, bringing Sanchez out of retirement. He
picked Aubrey St. Angelo – the son of a former colleague – as his
partner.

As a kid visiting
the police station, St. Angelo would see a photo of Boisfontaine on
Sanchez's wall. “Never really thought about it,” he said. Now,
“every time I flip through those crime-scene photos (I see) how
horrific it was. Now I carry the picture.”

Boisfontaine was 34,
a Louisiana State University student (Baron Rouge is just 15 miles
away), trying to put her life back together after a bad break-up. Her
body was found in an Isabella swamp.

“I put my heart
into it,” Sanchez said. “And I made law-enforcement's biggest
mistake when I started this case. I made a promise to this young
lady's mother that I would find out ... who murdered her daughter. I
shouldn't have done that; cops don't do that.”

The photo stayed on
his wall for 17 years, until he retired. “I think of Eugenie every
day, almost.”

Even though it's
non-fiction, “Killing Fields” sees to have classic casting.
There's the old police detective, 61, a big guy who's had many
problems (five divorces and kidney cancer); now remarried, he has an
easy, downhome drawl. There's the younger cop, 37, with one divorce
and a steady relationship.

“I wanted to be a
medical professional,” St. Angelo said. “But there just wasn't an
opportunity for that.”

So he followed the
career route of his dad (“a great cop,” Sanchez said) and now
savors the newer options of crimesolving. “Technology has grown so
much since I started in 1973,” Sanchez said.

TV technology has
also grown. The Discovery Channel took an idea from a documentary
company and added two producers who usually work in fiction: Barry
Levinson and Tom Fontana have Emmys (as director and writer) for
“Homicide”; Levinson also has an Oscar for directing “Rain
Man.”

As cameras follow
the investigation, the producers must mold a weekly hour, with no
guaranteed ending. “If the crime is solved, it is,” Levinson
said. “If it's not, it's the journey of the two men.”

Don't expect either
detective to be content with a journey. The case will stick with him,
Sanchez said; so will the job, even when he's retired. “I'll always
be a cop, for the rest of my life.”

On the third and
final day of doing interviews in Pasadena, Sanchez got an E-mail
about a fresh tip. “I can't wait to get home,” he said.

“Killing Fields”

-- 10 p.m. Tuesdays,
Discovery

-- Second episode
(Jan. 12) reruns alone at 12:02 a.m.; also at 11 p.m. Sunday (Jan.
17)

-- In addition, the
first two episodes rerun togther from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday (Jan.
15), 9-11 a.m. Sunday and 3-5 p.m. the next Tuesday, Jan. 19

 

, Diverie Bois

Here's science non-fiction at an epic scale


I don't claim to know a lot about physics ... or, for that matter, anything about physics. My high school teacher gave me a B-minus, but admitted it was only that high because he liked my story about him as a football coach. In college, alas, none of my teachers coached football. But the good thing about "Particle Fever" -- which debuts Wednesday (Jan. 6) on PBS -- is that it requires no special knowledge. It tells about an epic project, but does it skillfully, on a human scale. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Think of this as
stealth science – massive in size and scope, yet out of sight.

That's the Large
Hadron Collider, in Switzerland. “You go there and you just see
this little village,” said Joey Huston, one of the physicists
working on the project. Then “an elevator drops you 300 feet.”

Now, he said, you're
staring up at the Hadron. “It has as much steel as the Eiffel Tower
... Your jaw just drops.”

In “Particle
Fever” -- which reaches PBS on Wednesday – one physicist (David
Kaplan) calls it “the biggest machine ever built.” Another
(Monica Dunford) calls it “a five-story Swiss watch.”

Using some animation, “Particle” make this accessible to people who know
nothing about physics.

Kaplan co-directed
it with Mark Levinson, a Hollywood sound editor who also has a
doctorate in physics. To edit it, thety hired Walter Murch, who has
won three Oscars (including editing “The English Patient”) and
been nominated for seven more (including “Apocalypse Now”).

“He got 500 hours
of footage down to about an hour-and-a-half and did a really
incredible job,” said Huston, a Michigan State University
professor.

The result explains
a project created by CERN, a coalition of scientists from more than
100 countries. Construction began in 1998 and lasted a decade, with
the cost variously reported at $5 billion to $10 billion. Then
experiments began, probing nature of matter and the creation of the
universe.

All of that gets a
human touch from “Particle Fever.”

We meet veteran
physicists, some with their lives' work teetering on the results.
Peter Higgs, for instance, is 86; the results would support or refute
the “Higgs boson” -- dubbed the “God particle” -- that he and
five other physicists theorized a half-century ago.

And we meet young
people like Dunford, a post-doctoral student who grew up on a
California farm. Now she zips around the Swiss village on her bike,
heading to her role in mega-science.

-- “Particle
Fever” (2013), 10 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 6, PBS (check local
listings)

"Downton" starts its long and stately farewell;


Life, you may have noticed, is not fair. Good shows depart quickly; "Alice" and "Facts of Life" seemed to go on forever. And now "Downton Abbey" is starting its final season on Sunday (Jan. 3) ... three days before "American Idol" doies the same.

These are shows that helped transform their networks; they also remain consistent. This final "Downton" season continues the show's elegance and depth; here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

By now, the “Downton
Abbey” people seem eternal.

They fill our living
rooms on winter Sundays. They're as comfortable as a wine glass and a
smoking jacket ... except, of course, that few of them smoke.

“One thing I've
learnt from the show is that the only people who smoke cigarettes are
up to no good,” said Hugh Bonneville, who plays the family
patriarch.

Now they're leaving
us, with the final season ending March 6. “I never thought this day
would come,” said Rebecca Eaton, the head of PBS'' “Masterpiece.”

It's come quite
quickly. This is only the sixth season, putting “Downton” short
of even “Petticoat Junction,” “The Quiz Kids” and “Life
Begins at Eighty” in seasons.

Still, the impact
has been huge – especially for public-TV.

“It is the top PBS
drama of all time,” said Paula Kerger, the network's president,
“and one of the most-watched dramas on American television.”

It has boosted other
Sunday dramas, airing in front of “Downton” (“Call the Midwife”
returns this spring) and afterward (the Civil War “Mercy Street”
will be at 10 p.m. Sundays, starting Jan. 17).

There have been 60
Emmy nominations so far and 12 wins – two of them for Maggie Smith,
81, as Violet Crawley, the sharp-tongued dowager crafted by creator
Julian Fellowes.

“I think in
another life that Julian would be Lady Grantham,” said Penelope
Wilton, whose character (Isobel) often spars with her. “He seems to
write effotlessly for Lady Grantham ... I am constantly frustrated by
her wit.”

Fellowes seems to
invest each character with depth. “His view on life is that people
have tried to be fundamentally good,” Bonneville said. “They may
do bad things, but he writes from a position that human nature tries
to do good.”

He preserves the
mood of a 1925 manor; only on “Downton” has a character actually
said: “I'm going upstairs to take off my hat.” But he also uses
the speed of modern storytelling.

Things keep
changing, especially among the three sisters. Sybil died ... as did
Mary's husband ... as did Edith's boyfriend, who left her with a
London magazine to run.

“She could have
been the most conventional of the three daughters,” said Laura
Carmichael, who plays her. “I think she wanted a life much like her
parents and grandparents, but because of the ... heartache, really,
she's sort of had to find a different path for herself.”

That included a
secret pregnancy. By now, many of the characters realize that little
Marigold is actually the daughter of Edith and her late lover.

“Mary is still in
the dark about Marigold,” said Michelle Dockery, who plays her.
“Because she just doesn't take enough interest in Edith's life to
even notice.”

Mary has other
things to worry about, managing the estate now that Sybil's widower
has moved to Boston. She also has people trying to nudge her toward a
second marriage.

The sole marriage on
the horizon so far involves the show's stately butler and
housekeeper, Mr. Carter and Mrs. Hughes. They are not the type for
kissing, hugging ... or refering to each other by first name. They
are “Downton Abbey” kind of people.

-- “Downton
Abbey,” 9 p.m. Sundays on PBS' “Masterpiece”

-- Final season runs
Jan. 3 through Feb. 21, then has its finale March 6

 

Steve Jobs: A strange life makes a great documentary


OK, the world doesn't have a shortage of Steve Jobs biographies. (Walter Isaacson's best-seller was followed by two movies, one of them written by Aaron Sorkin.) Still, the newest project -- a documentary that airs Jan. 3 and 9 on CNN -- is compelling. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For a good
biography, you need a life of contrasts and conflicts. For a great
one, you need ... well, someone like Steve Jobs.

Before starting his
Jobs film, Alex Gibney already knew large lives; he'd done profiles
of Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Lance Armstrong and more. Still, Jobs
stands out.

“I was fascinated
by his interest in Zen Buddhism .... He always came across as this
counter-culture figure,” Gibney said.

Here was a
long-haired guy in bluejeans, sometimes barefoot. In his parents'
garage, he had started Apple, battling IBM and drawing admirers
worldwide. “He was, for them, a combination of James Dean, Princess
Diana, John Lennon and maybe Santa Claus,” Bill Belleville, a
former colleague, wrote after Jobs' death (at 56, of pancreatic
cancer) in 2011.

Jobs encouraged such
images, Gibney said. “He talked about values as if he was embodying
those values.” Still, he often seemed to emulate the corporations
he'd fought. The film talks about Jobs:

-- Hiding millions
in income, via backdated options.

-- Hiding billions
in Apple profits, through overseas corporations, one of which had
zero employees.

-- Ducking even tiny
amounts. He avoided buying license plates by getting a new lease
every six months; he fought in court, before agreeing to pay $500 a
month in child support ... shortly before becoming worth almost $200
million.

-- And rarely
spreading his good fortune. “He torched the philanthropy program
(at Apple),” Gibney said. “That was when they were in financial
trouble, but he did nothing to bring it back” afterward.

Still, Jobs saw
himself as a counterculture hero. “He could convince himself of
things that weren't necessarily true,” former colleage Ave Tevanian
says in the films.

When Jobs was a
teenager, for instance, his friend Steve Wozniak created a variation
on the “blue box” devices that tricked phone-company computers
into giving free, long-distance calls. Later, Gigney said, Jobs would
say: “When Woz and I invented the blue box.”

Woziak was the prime
inventor of many Apple innovations. Jobs also had tech smarts, but he
added something more. “He was like a generation's storyteller,”
Gibney said.

Others worked with
machines; Jobs told how they were part of a changing world. He
sometimes offered a version of a quote from Polaroid founder Edwin
Land, that photography is “the intersection of art and science.”
This is the sort of intersection that Jobs inhabited.

As a teen, he had
two main friends – Wozniak, the techie, and Crissann Brennan, an
artist. “She was the one who continued trying to become
enlightened,” Gibney said.

They would split
(and battle over child support), but Jobs continued to thrive on both
art and science. The iMac, Gibney said, was “just an old machine
that they put a beautiful package on.”

Jobs pushed its
image (and his own) powerfully. “He was a rock star,” Gibney
said,

And he maneuvered
workers, Belleville said, in a chaotic workplace. “He's seducing
you, he's villifying you, he's ignoring you.” And convincing you to
join him (at least temporarily) in changing the world.

-- “Steve Jobs:
The Man in the Machine,” 9 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, CNN

-- Also, 9 and 11
p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 9