Football heroes? These guys are post-football TV stars

Last weekend, 31 million people watched a football game between Seattle and Carolina; only six shows that week managed to get even half that many.

And now an even bigger audience is expected for the games Sunday (Jan. 18). That means every show wants to be in the Sunday spot after the game. The winner is "Scorpion," which is on a first-season high. Here's the story I sent to papers:


football players, the ultimate goal may be the Super Bowl; for mere
actors, it's to have the spot after the Super Bowl.

But that spot only
goes to one show a year; this time (Feb. 1 on NBC), it wil be “The
Blacklist.” Before that, the second-best spot – after Sunday's
AFC championship game – goes to “Scorpion.”

And yes, that's part
of a surprising first year for a show that is about computer hackers.
Or isn't.

“The show isn't
just about us doing techie stuff,” insisted Eddie Kaye Thomas, one
of the co-stars. “It's a show about a bunch of people who happen to
be really smart.”

For CBS. “Scorpion”
is sort of the drama version of “The Big Bang Theory.” Again,
there are four people (played by Elyes Gabel, Ari Stidham, Jadyn Wong
and Thomas), strong on tech skills and weak on people skills. Again,
a beautiful waitress (Katharine McPhee) nudges them through life.

The difference?
Paige (McPhee) also has a genius son ... And the FBI keeps asking
them to save the world ... And often, the computer-hacking skills
aren't what matters.

“In the writers'
room, we use the shorthand – 'we'll do a little click-and-clack,'”
producer Nick Santora said of the hacking. “But the really smart,
geniusy stuff is what they do when the're on the run.”

Audiences approve –
last week, “Scorpion” was No. 9 in the Nielsen ratings – and
Thomas is relieved. “I've done enough failed shows,” he said. “It
is so exciting to be on a good one.”

The show has worked
by including large dabs of warmth and emotion. Typical of that was
the episode that was originally handed the post-football spot: Vital
information is locked inside the mind of a memory-impaired former
Secret Service agent. “There's big feeling to it,” said producer
Nicholas Wootten. “They're real people who do big things.”

Except CBS then
decided to flip the episodes. That one was moved to Monday; Sunday's
post-football slot goes to one that includes Paige teaching Walter
(Gabel) how to flirt.

Indeed, Walter's
growth has been key to the show. “We see Pinocchio turn into a real
boy over the season,” Santora said. “The audience is going to
love it; he's going to hate it.”

At times, these
geniuses become action heroes ... albeit reluctantly. “It's hard to
do action when you're a bigger dude,” said Stidham, who plays
Sylvester. “I'm not a runner, sprinter, jumper, parkour guy.”

He was a
serious-theater kid, in a junior Shakespeare troupe from ages 11 to
14. He was also big; at 15, he went to a “fat camp” ... at 17,
he was one of the stars of “Huge,” a praised series set in a fat
camp. And now, at 22, he's on a mainstream hit.

There, Stidham is
typical of a team in which people elude easy stereotypes. He may seem
vaguely ethnic, which he is; his dad is Moroccan. He may look like a
tech whiz, which he isn't; there's “a lot of money that CBS lost
because of (my) actual technological glitch.” he said.

And he sort of looks
like a football lineman, which he's not. On Sunday, however, his show
will be seen by some spillover football fans .

-- “Scorpion,” 9
p.m. Mondays, CBS

-- Also after the
AFC championship game (10 p.m. ET or so) Sunday



For 50 years, "12 Monkeys" has put the world in danger


The Syfy channel wants to give us some pleasant Friday evenings. Beginning this week (Jan. 16), it has a new "Helix" season at 10 p.m., with the threat of a worldwide epidemic. It precedes that at 9 with the debut of "12 Monkeys" ... which has a time-traveler trying to prevent an epidemic that already happened. It's not the Friday-night funnies, I guess. Here's the story I sent to papers:


The “12 Monkeys”
series offers big stakes, big themes, big worries.

The future world has
been crushed by a plague, killing almost everyone. The only hope
involves a semi-crazed time-traveler and a wary young doctor.

That idea seems
timely – Ebola scares and all – but has been around for a
half-century. It started as a 1962 French short, then became a 1995
movie, with Terry Gilliam directing Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and
Brad Pitt.

“We were all very,
very big fans of the original film,” said co-writer Terry Matalas.
Still, this TV version is “a complete sort of re-imagining,”

Producer Richard
Suckle had bought the rights to it; then came a key step: “I got a
phone call from (a) manager,” Suckle said. “He said, 'I have
these clients who wrote this script and it's kind of like “12
Monkeys,” but it's kind of not.'”

It was a time-travel
script by Matalas and Travis Fickett. They were soon hired to take
their ideas and merge them into “12 Monkeys,” for a TV series.

One key line about
time travel -- “it's not an exact science” -- was crucial,
Fickett said. “We lifted it (from the movie) because it's perfect.”
It explains why the traveler can't just keep trying over and over.

The general spirit
of the movie is there ... which is fortunate, because some of the
actors are fans. Noah Bean, who plays the doctor's fiance,
remembers seeing the film in theaters as a teen-ager; he saw it four
more times after hearing that the series was in the works.

Kirk Acevedo, who
plays the time-traveler's boyhood friend, can top that. “I was a
fan of '12 Monkeys,'” he said. “I've seen it 15, 16, 17 times.”

And now he's a
co-star, one of the people trying to save the world from the plague.

-- “12 Monkeys,”
9 p.m. Fridays, Syfy, beginning Jan. 16

-- The opening
episode reruns at 11 p.m., then has a marathon from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday. Also, 11:35 p.m. Monday, plus latenight – Tuesday night
at 2 a.m. (technically Wednesday morning), Wednesday night at
midnight, Thursday night at 1 a.m.


Remember that old network? It just went Pop

We've always kind of known the TV Guide Channel was somewhere on our cable box, waiting to be consulted. With all the ways to get listings, however, we kind of ignored it. So now, logically enough, the channel is going Pop. The change comes Wednesday (Jan. 14); here's the story I sent to papers:


For decades, the TV Guide Network was like a quiet party host,
someone people ignore except when they need directions to the

It was in 80 million
homes, but mostly people used it to find listings. “We were a
channel that told you to go to other channels,” said Brad Schwartz,
the network's president.

Now the makeover
begins. On Wednesday (Jan. 14), this becomes Pop, a channel focusing
on popular culture and its fans. “Fandom is fun,” Schwartz said.
“It's optimistic, it's passionate, it's shareable.”

That may be obvious
on the first day; on Wednesday, Pop will:

-- Obsess on the New
Kids on the Block. Various specials (including one visiting the New
Kids cruise) run from 9-11 a.m., 4:30-6 p.m., 8-9 p.m. and 10-11 p.m.

-- Launch “The
Story Behind,” which each Wednesday will eye a past TV show. That
starts at 9 p.m. (rerunning at 11), with “Everybody Loves Raymond”;
coming are “ER,” “Friends” and more.

-- Air old movies –
“Uncle Buck” (1989) at 11 a.m. and “Kindergarten Cop” (1990)
at 1:30 p.m. Next week brings daytime reruns of “Beverly Hills,
90210” and its remake; “Melrose Place” is next.

-- Continues
“PopSugar” at 6 p.m. and midnight. It's an upbeat entertainment
show that has just added Shenae Grimes Beech (an actress who was in
the “90210” remake) as a host.

Those shows have
modest budgets, which we expect. “As a small, emerging network, we
have to watch our pennies very closely,” Schwartz said.

Still, he's also
landed a scripted comedy. “Schitt's Creek” (debuting Feb. 11) has
Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara of “SCTV” as heads of a
once-rich family, now penniless. There are eccentric (and hilarious)
moments ... sort of what people want from cable channels. “We have
enormous creative freedom .... We've really been left to do the show
the way we wanted to do it,” Levy said.

This is a
transformation for a network that has been around (and ignored) since
1981. Under different names (including Prevue Guide), it often had
primitive shows alongside TV listings.

Then the channel's
parent company bought TV Guide. Prevue became the TV Guide Channel in
1999 and TV Guide Network in 2007; it kept the name, even after it
was sold in 2009 to Lionsgate, the “Hunger Games” and “Mad Men”

In 2013, CBS joined
Lionsgate in running the channel. Now CBS' soaps rerun there -- “The
Bold and the Beautiful” at 6:30 p.m. and “The Young and the
Restless” at 7. A CBS summer show yields “Big Brother After
Dark,” a talk show that does well in the ratings hit.

There's more: CBS
owns “Entertainment Tonight.” Beginning with the Grammys, the
“ET” people will do red-carpet coverage for Pop. “They're the
first spot on the carpet,” Schwartz said.
The TV Guide Network
had dropped out of red-carpet coverage, ceding glitzy turf to cable's
E channel. Now it's back; it also added that daily show from the
“PopSugar” Web site. “We look at the world in the same way
'PopSugar' does,” Schwartz said. “They're fans of everything
going on in pop culture.”

Also on the way are:

-- “Queens of
Drama,” in April. It's a reality show, with former soap stars (from
Vanessa Marcil to Donna Mills) scheming to create a new primetime

-- “Sing It On,”
which follows six a cappella groups, as they prepare for a national

-- And more.
Upcoming shows, Schwartz said, will see celebrities linking with
inventors ... or describing their worst experiences ... or describing
the first time they had sex. “It will be done in a comedic way with
puppets or animation. (But) I don't think there will be re-enactments
of sex with puppets.” Even pop culture, it seems, has its limits.


Whitney's journey: From prom queen to ignored to reality star

For years, Whitney Thore and her friends tried to ignore the weight gain that was controlling her life. Then her "Fat Girl Dancing" video confronted the matter head-on. Now a reality show starts Tuesday (Jan. 13); here's the story I sent to papers:


For Whitney Thore, the second transformation began last year.

She put some “Fat
Girl Dancing” videos online, drawing a quick buzz. “She gets
comments from, last time I counted, 132 countries,” said her dad,
Glenn Thore. And now she has a reality show.

The first
transformation had come a dozen years earlier, when her weight
suddenly soared. “I even used to cover mirrors in my dorm room, so
I wouldn't catch a glimpse of myself,” she said.

Much later, Thore
would learn she has polycystic ovarian syndrome; at first, she only
knew that her life in Greensboro, N.C., had crashed. “Guys who used
to take me out on dates, three months later (would) look through me
like I didn't exist.”

And yes, that life
had been vibrant. “We met doing community theater,” said her
friend, Tal Fish. “Whitney was that dancer who caught your eye. She
has this spark about her .... She was a prom queen, absolutely

Even back then, at
5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, she worried about her weight. “I remember
throwing up my meal in the bathroom before the (prom), because I
thought my dress was too tight.”

In college, that
weight soared. “By the time I got home for Christmas break, I had
gained 50 pounds. By the end of the year, I had gained 100 pounds.
And the next couple years, another 100.”

Some strangers
taunted her; her friends and family said ... well, nothing.

“We were
confused,” said her mother, Barbara Thore. “We were afraid ... to
say anything and I really regret that .... We didn't want to hurt her

Weight is a subject
people avoid, Fish said. “If it was more of a comfortable topic,
I'm sure that we all would have addressed it head-on.”

Instead, Thore
drifed. A theater and dance major, she quit going to her dance
classes. She moved to Korea, returned, lost and re-gained 100 pounds.
“I was in a very dark place.”

The mistake, she
said, was to quit dancing. “When we don't do what we love, it makes
us sad people.”

Yes, she's now
working on her weight, through a Duke Medical Center specialist. “I
know that I'm at a risk healthwise, being this size.”

But the key change
is in attitude. At her job (a radio producer in Winston-Salem), a
colleague suggested she post the dance videos. The result sparked a
discussion of out attitudes toward weight.

Thore faces ones of
the few biases that linger openly, Fish said; he faces another: “Fat
people (and) gay people (are) two groups that it's still (politically
correct) to discriminate against.”

Now she's attacking
this head-on. At age 30, the 380-pound dancer moved back into her
parents' house and started work on her reality show. People will see
his friend in a new light, Fish said. “She is just one of the most
dynamic people that I know. She's intelligent, she's articulate; she
is hilarious.”

“My Big Fat
Fabulous Life”

10 p.m. Tuesdays,
rerunning at midnight, TLC; debuts Jan. 13

Opener reruns at the
same times Monday (Jan. 19) and at 7 p.m. Jan. 20


A semi-incredible, global life of piglets, hedgehogs and cable fame

Up close, Jan Pol is just what you expect -- a big, vibrant Dutchman who became a veterinarian on purpose and a cable-TV star by accident. Now NatGeo Wild has a special about Pol on Saturday (Jan. 10), along with an "Incredible Dr. Pol" marathon. Here's the story I sent to papers:


PASADENA, Cal. -- So
there was this Dutch boy, not quite a teen, with his arm halfway up a

“That was so much
fun,” Jan Pol recalls, 60 years later. “I knew then I wanted to
work with animals.”

What he didn't know
was that he would become a TV star, beloved (often) and berated
(sometimes). Now he has a successful cable series (“The Incredible
Dr. Pol”), plus a new special about his life.

It's a fairly
un-incredible life in many ways. Dr. Pol has been in the same little
town (Weidman, near Mount Pleasant, Mich.) for 34 years; he's been
married 47 years.

But four years ago,
his son Charles (an aspiring TV producer in California) pushed the
idea to his friends and co-workers. “He said, 'My dad is a a
character,'” Pol said.

Others agree;
ratings – more than a half-million viewers for some hours – are
high by cable-Saturday standards. Viewers savor an old-school vet who
ranges from cows and horses to snakes and hedgehogs.

That's what Pol has
wanted to do since he was 12 and was asked to help the difficult
birth of piglets.

The youngest of six
kids in a farm family, he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian ... but
to see the world, too. He became a foreign-exchange student, choosing
Michigan by miscalculation.

“The Netherlands
is so small, you can get anywhere in an hour,” Pol said. Eyeing a
map, he assumed Mayville (in Michigan's “Thumb” artea), is near
Ontario, where his sister lived.

It's not, but he
soon liked his host family, including Diane. As he came off the
plane, he noticed her “towering over the rest.” She was
5-foot-8-and-a-half, he was 6-2; that was a start.

Her first reaction?
“I thought, 'He's not as good-looking as I thought he would be.'”
But by the end of the year, “we were good friends, like brother and
sister.” When she visited Europe, they fell in love.

Pol got his
veterinary degree in the Netherlands, worked for 10 years in the
Thumb town of Harbor Beach and sought the perfect spot for his own
practice; Isabella Counry seemed ideal – lots of horses and cows
... only “three old vets” ... and Mt. Pleasant (home of Central
Michigan University) nearby.

So the clinic
opened, at first focusing on cows and horses. “I never wanted to
quit small animals,” Pol said. Soon, people brought dogs and cats
and more; he figures he's treated a half-million animals.

Things keep growing,
Pol said. “Within five years, we built the clinic we have now. Four
years later, we doubled that. Last fall, we expanded it again.”

Now he employs three
vets, a vet-tech and more. “He is a true hero of his community,”
said Geoff Daniels, a NatGeo programmer.

But a controversial
one. “Dr. Pol may look like the wonderful ol' family farm vet, but
his medicine is antiquated,” Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, a
Massachusetts vet, wrote in, reeling off things she
feels brought excessive pain or danger to his patients. “He
(should) understand that animals have a pain center and surgery
requires clean gloves.”

She wrote that in
2012, the year state regulators fined Pol and put him on probation.
He had misread ultrasound, they said; 10 dead puppies were in a dog
for days, before the owners went to another vet.

Pol defends his
upbeat, old-school approach. “My goal has always been to provide
affordable care.”

That approach is one
reason viewers like the show, Diane said. “It is a true reality

-- “Incredible!
The Story of Dr. Pol,” 10 p.m. Saturday, NatGeo Wild

-- Surrounded by
episodes of “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” from noon to 3 a.m.