"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:



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:

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).

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

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.

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

Two-hour season-opener is Jan. 5

Parade time: size, stars, spectacle and gladiolas

There's no real way to explain why we watch parades, in real life or on TV. Still, it seems to be fun, especially on a holiday. Now comes the Tournament of Roses parade; here's the story I sent to papers:


This is pure Americana, up-close and old-style:

At times, people sit at curbs and cheer things that go by. A
couple times a year, they watch on TV.

Now comes the 125th Tournament of Roses parade.
It offers “the kind of stuff that you used to see in Middle America or
small-town America,” said Al Roker, who will do the NBC commentary.

Actually, there are still plenty of small-town parades, but
not like this.  The rose parade has:

21 marching bands. They range from this year’s
Rose Bowl schools, Stanford and Michigan State, to high schools getting their
first national attention. Schools “hold these bake sales in high school and car
washes and have never been to California before,” Roker said.

44 floats, including a few with music acts –
Natalie Cole, Daryl Hall, KC & the Sunshine Band, and the new “Voice”
winner. Even before that show’s finale, Hoda Kotb – who will do the NBC
commentary with Roker – correctly said that her favorite would win: “Tessanne
(Chin), singing on that float, is going to be awesome.

16 equestrian units.  “You’ve got horses,” Roker said. “You’ve got
horse-drawn carriages …. Native Americans … doing their dances. Ropers doing
roping tricks – all down five miles.”

And flowers everywhere. That’s what differentiates
this from the parade (Macy’s Thanksgiving) that Roper grew up with in New York.

Everything “visible to the eye has to be covered with some
sort of organic plant material,” Roper said. 
Volunteers do it “petal by petal, gladiola by gladiola …. They are
painting seeds.”

That floral touch is also one reason his network has

NBC – with its tradition of dominating the Thanksgiving and
New Year parades -- used to have this to itself, when it also carried the Rose
Bowl game. Then others jumped in.

HGTV was attracted by the flowers; it began covering the
parade commercial-free, using it to launch a day of specials …. RFD was
attracted by the horses; its first float featured Roy Rogers’ stuffed Trigger
…. ABC joined when it grabbed Rose Bowl rights; it continues, now that the game
is on sister channel ESPN.

Others – Hallmark and Spanish-language Univision – will also
be there. Bouncing between channels, viewers can watch masses of mobile flowers,
horses and tuba players. It’s pure Americana.

Tournament of Roses parade, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
ET, NBC, ABC, HGTV, Hallmark, RFD and (in Spanish) Univision.

Hallmark and Univision have previews at 10;
Hallmark reruns the parade until 4 p.m. ET.

A complete rock life really should include ABC's New Year's Eve

 It has become the show that swallowed New Year's Eve. Some 41 years after Dick Clark created it, "Rockin' New Year's Eve" will be almost six hours long. It's also become a must for any music career; just ask The Fray's Isaac Slade, who talks about it in this story I sent to papers:


At first glance, the guys in The Fray have done
approximately everything.

They’ve had three top-10 singles and two top-10 albums.
They’ve done the late-night shows – Leno and Letterman, Conan and both Jimmys –
16 times. They’ve been heard on a dozen drama series.

What they haven’t done is ABC’s New Year’s Eve show. “It
feels like a bucket-list thing,” said Isaac Slade, the group’s lead singer.

Now they can cross that off. On Tuesday, they’re in a lineup
that includes Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Billy Joel, Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson,
Enrique Iglesias, Florida Georgia Line and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

This is the show Dick Clark created nine years before Slade
was born (and 20 years before Cyrus was born). “It’s become a part of the
culture,” Slade said. As a kid in Denver, he said, he watched it every year;
his bandmate, Joey King, told him about “trying to stay up for the ball-drop,
but not making it.”

Once a 90-minute event, “Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” now covers
almost six hours:

8-10 p.m.: Ryan Seacrest, Fergie and Jenny
McCarthy host “30 Greatest Women in Music.”

10-11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. to 2:11 a.m: Seacrest
and McCarthy are stationed in Times Square for the live portions, which also
include Billy Joel performing in Brooklyn; that’s blended with a tape of a
California party hosted by Fergie and featuring all the rest.

That California party includes Fray doing “Love Don’t Die,”
from its upcoming (Feb. 25) album. To help produce the album, it brought in
Stuart Price (The Killers, Madonna) and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder.

Tedder was logical, musically and geographically. “We only
live about eight miles apart,” Slade said.

Price, however, was a detour, bringing what Slade has called
an “arsenal of electronic antiques.” That supplemented what Slade called Fray’s
“very human, grounded, organic sound.”

This sort of basic approach has worked for Slade. The son of
missionaries, he started singing at 8, added the piano at 11 and played in a
worship band. In college (University of Colorado, Denver) he was in overdrive. “I
had three jobs, had a girlfriend and was in a band …. I didn’t sleep much.”

The jobs ranged from a coffee shop (“I loved it, but I didn’t
like getting up” at 3:45 a.m.) to producing a TV show. Then he met King (an old
Faith Christian Academy schoolmate) and they created The Fray.

The band finally caught on when a Denver station embraced “Over
My Head (Cable Car).” The single went national and reached No. 8 on the
Billboard chart. “How to Save a Life” – featured prominently on “Grey’s Anatomy”
-- hit No. 3; “You Found Me” hit No. 7.

There are still firsts ahead – the first “Rockin’ New Year’s
Eve” and, next spring, the first child for Isaac and Anna Slade. Slade, 32,
feels rock tours will still allow time for family. “My dad, God bless him, got
two weeks of vacation a year. I’ll be able to spend half my time chillin’ with
my wife and kids.”

New Year’s Eve music

ABC: Ryan Seacrest hosts; 8-11 p.m., 11:30 p.m.
to 2:11 a.m.

NBC: Carson Daly hosts, 10-11 p.m., 11:30-12:30
a.m.;  expected to include Train and “Voice”
winners Cassadee Pope and Tessanne Chin.

Fox: Mario Lopez hosts, 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.;
J. Cole, Krewella, New Politics, Panic at the Disco.

Marvin Hamlisch: A lovable talent


Marvin Hamlisch managed to sum himself up in one sentence.

“When I would get frustrated with him,” recalls his widow,
Terre Blair Hamlisch, “he used to say: ‘I know I’m a handful, but I’m a lovable

He was extremely lovable, agreed Dori Berinstein, whose
documentary on the late composer airs Friday on PBS. “I was just blown away by
his giant heart …. Marvin would get in a cab and by the time he was uptown, he
had committed to doing a benefit for the cab driver’s son.”

And he was frustrating, in the manner of … well, the
character patterned after him in the musical “They’re Playing Our Song.” That
character, says “Song” star Lucie Arnaz, was “a little bit neurotic and
high-strung and a workaholic … and maybe hadn’t had a lot of relationships. I
mean, it was Marvin.”

Neil Simon had brought in Hamlisch and lyricist Carol Bayer
Sager for a musical version of one of his plays. He soon decided that a much
better musical would be the clumsily charming romance between those two
songwriters. “I thought (Hamlisch) was one of the most charming, funniest, most
genuinely, organically talented people I’d ever met,” Arnaz said.

The talent is what people noticed first. “When he was a
child,” Arnaz said, “everything he heard sounded like a song to him – the sound
of falling rain.”

Added Blair (as we’ll refer to her to avoid confusion): “If
he heard the wind or a breeze in the trees, he could tell you what note it

He started studying at Juilliard at about  6, trained to be a classical pianist, but
found his love was Broadway and pop. At 19, he was playing the piano for
another young genius: “Barbra (Streisand) was definitely a muse,” Blair said.
“Since the days that he was rehearsal pianist on ‘Funny Girl,’ he always wanted
to write a song for Barbra.”

A decade later, he wrote her gorgeous “The Way We Were.”
That was 1973, the same year he wrote the ragtime score for “The Sting”; at 29,
Hamlisch piled up Oscars.

“After winning three Academy Awards in the same night, he
could have scored any movie in Hollywood,” Berinstein said. Instead, “he got on
a plane and went back to New York to work on ‘Chorus Line,’ which at that point
was an off-Broadway – maybe – show.”

It conquered Broadway and won the Pultizer Prize. Hamlisch
had plenty of successes after that, but never matched the peak he reached in
his early 30s.

“There were lots of times where things did not go well,”
Arnaz said, “and the frustration that happened to his career after suddenly
looking like it was an overnight success.”

His personal life was also filled with close calls. Hamlisch
dated bright and beautiful women, but found nothing lasting. Then, in his 40s,
he met Blair, a Columbus, Ohio, native who had been a reporter for “Today,”
“Monday Night Football,” “PM Magazine” and the “People” series on CBS.

“The lady who came to clean my house was … worried when she
saw the stack of books next to me …. Her concern was that I wasn’t looking to
get married,” Blair recalled

A friend was cleaning Hamlisch’s apartment. A friendship
began that consisted only of marathon (sometimes three hours or more) phone
calls. Blair recalls the night she casually asked where he was. “He said,  ‘I’m in Virginia and I’m buying summer shirts
on sale …. Then I turned on the TV and there he was at the White House and I
thought, ‘Who doesn’t brag?’”

Hamlisch seemed to have his own youthful view of life.

“He was incredibly funny,” Blair said. “His wit was very
quick …. And it came with a childlike enthusiasm and a joy.”

He never matched that three-Oscar/Pulitzer start, but he
savored his other work, including songs (“Nobody Does It Better,” “Through the
Eyes of Love”). Musicals (“Shine,” “Sweet Smell of Success”), film scores
(“Sophie’s Choice,” “The Swimmer”) and more. He savored talk shows and concert
appearances that let him simply have silly fun.

And no, he didn’t seem to think any of this was work. When a
painting was done for the National Portrait Gallery, Blair said, he was asked
what piece of sheet music he should be holding. He chose the one that
represented his life: “What I Did For Love.”

“American Masters,” 9 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, PBS
(check local listings)

So who needs guitars and such?

Once cluttered with reruns, December is suddenly full of new shows and specials and such. That includes "Sing-off," returning Monday after missing a year. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Singers seem to spend their lives with instruments looming

Sometimes it’s just a couple guitars; sometimes it’s a brigade
of strings and horns. One exception is NBC’s returning “The Sing-off,” where a
cappella groups compete.

“A cappella singing has meant a great deal to me throughout
my life,” said Nick Lachey, the host.

It was key when his group (98 Degrees) auditioned. Andre Harrell,
the Motown president, “asked us to sing a cappella in his office and we sang a
Boyz II Men medley …. He signed us on the spot.”

Lachey still gets to sing without instruments … but mostly
to an audience of one. That’s at home, when he and his wife (Vanessa Minnillo,
a former Miss Teen USA who has been a TV personality on MTV, “Wipeout” and more)
croon to their 1-year-old son. “There is a little a cappella happening in our
house every day,” he said. ,It’s usually in the lullaby form.”

Now he’s surrounded by the music again. “Sing-off” is a
quickie competition – seven shows in 15 days – for 10 groups. Shawn Stockman of
Boyz II Men judges alongside Ben Folds and Jewel.

The competitors range from Ivy Leaguers to California
teen-agers. “They kind of reminded me of my own history,” Lachey, 40, said of
the teens. “They come from a performing-arts school in the Bay area. I had a
soft spot in my heart for them, coming from a performing-arts high school

At a time when many schools cut back on the arts, that
background seems important. “It’s a real motivating (factor) in wanting to go
to school every day,” Lachey said. “I never wanted to miss a choir practice,
because I loved what I was doing. I loved the guys I was singing with.”

That led to a summer job at the King’s Island amusement
park, “singing a cappella barbershop music, walking around the park and singing
to guests.”

Without that arts-school background, Lachey feels, “I
wouldn’t have had the courage to jump in my car and drive from Cincinnati,
Ohio, to LA, to sleep on the floor and try to get a record deal.”

Big things followed in record sales (10 million copies of
their second album), high-profile marriages (Jessica Simpson, then Minnillo)
and reality shows … where his arts school was again helpful: That’s where he learned
“Flight of the Bumblebee”; the song – done a cappella – gave the group he
conducted the win in “Clash of the Choirs,” beating (among others) Blake

Then things evolved: “Clash” was followed by “Sing-off,” with
Lachey hosting; it did fairly well for three seasons … Shelton joined NBC’s
“The Voice,” which did so well that the network no longer needed “Sing-off” …
The show vanished for a year and now returns, with “Voice” producer Mark
Burnett taking over.

There are adjustments under Burnett, Lachey said. Jewel was
added … competitors have more interaction with the judges and host … and the bottom
two acts will compete for survival, doing the same song. “If you’re going to
have a show called ‘The Sing-off,’ you probably should have a sing-off.”

And everything will be packed together. Two weeks after it
debuts, “Sing-off” will have a winner.

“The Sing-Off,” 9-11 p.m. Monday, 8-10 p.m.
Wednesday, 8-10 p.m. Thursday.

Same days next week, followed by Dec. 23 finale,
with last year’s winners, Pentatonix, performing,