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Press Tour Leftovers: Yummy Bites about Some of Fall's Best TV Offerings
August 11, 2011  | By David Bianculli

Back from press tour, clearing out my notebooks as well as my suitcase -- and happy to share leftover quotes and anecdotes regarding some of the (few) bright spots in this year's fall TV season. Keep reading if you're intrigued by any of the above: TV history, funny comedy, scary horror, intense drama, and television's answer to Nostradamus...

America in Primetime (PBS, premieres Oct. 30)

What a relief.

The last really smart, good TV documentary about television was Michael Winship's nonfiction Television series -- and that was 23 years ago. Every one since then -- and I've seen them all -- has been a disappointment, whether by clips used or omitted or generalizations and conclusions made or overlooked.

But finally, the four-part America in Primetime, examining different iconic types in TV's evolution, gets it very, very right. I've seen only two of the four installments, but they're wonderful.

Executive producer Tom Yellin, whose work the past two decades includes many ABC documentaries fronted by Peter Jennings (including The Century series) and Bob Woodruff, focuses not on TV pioneers, but specific archetypes: "The Man of the House," "The Crusader," "The Independent Woman" and "The Misfit."


A list of just some of the shows touched upon in "The Misfits" hour suggests how intelligent this documentary series' approach to its subject will be. It includes everything from Twin Peaks, True Blood and The Office to The Addams Family, Beavis and Butthead and Freaks and Geeks. Yellin got clips from all of them -- and got them, he explained, because of special dispensation given to a PBS documentary, which drastically reduced rights fees.

"It speaks to the value of public media as a neutral territory that other places can all recognize has a real value in the public discourse," he said. "This program could absolutely not have been done anywhere except for public television."

As part of the Television Critics Association press-conference panel, Yellin and PBS brought along some of the talking heads in, and subjects of, America in Primetime: actress Felicity Huffman from ABC's Desperate Housewives, CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, and Showtime's Nurse Jackie co-creators Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius.

For the final question, one journalist asked the producers on the stage to recall the most memorable network note [of advice] they'd ever gotten. When the Nurse Jackie creators began arguing among themselves about whether or not to tell their story, the same journalist -- okay, it was yours truly -- tired of waiting, and tried to prime the conversational pump by walking to the stage and slapping down a $5 bill.

It worked. Brixius reached down, took the five, and spilled.

Her story had to do with a very highly placed Showtime executive ("You can't get higher than this guy at the network," she said, but recent network turnover at the top gives her some wiggle room). According to Brixius, the note, regarding Edie Falco's character of Jackie, was: "It would be great if she had more sex."

Brixius subsequently discovered, she claimed, that another Showtime show creator, Jenny Bix of The Big C, had gotten the same network note regarding her star: "We'd like it if Laura Linney had a little more sex."


At that point, Rosenthal chimed in with a joke about the Emmy-winning actress who played Raymond's mother on Everybody Loves Raymond.

"I got the same note for Doris Roberts," he said deadpan, getting a big laugh from reporters. Then, just as that laughter died down, Rosenthal added the kicker.

"...From Doris Roberts," he said. The room erupted.

Brixius, acknowledging Rosenthal's clever capper, handed him the $5 bill.

American Masters: "Seriously Funny: The Comic Art of Woody Allen" (PBS, premieres Nov. 20-21)


Another highly anticipated PBS arts documentary is the two-part study of Woody Allen, done with the participation of the notoriously press-shy actor-writer-director. The show's director, writer, producer and co-editor is Robert Weide, whose credits go back almost 30 years to 1982's The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, the PBS documentary that featured, among other interviewees, Woody Allen. Their acquaintanceship began then, and Weide occasionally yet persistently approached him, over the years, to be the subject of his own nonfiction study.

In the fall of 2008, Weide told Allen, "It's time for this." The two men share the same comedy heroes -- W.C. Fields, Mort Sahl, the Marx Brothers -- and the imprimatur of American Masters was a crucial element in signing the deal.

"If we can do this for American Masters, okay," Weide said Allen told him, "but don't be shopping it around."


Weide remains busy in other venues as well: he's the guy who directed the especially outrageous "Palestinian Chicken" episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm last month. But one other project on which he's working, with a very long gestation period, simply has to come to fruition -- another American Masters biography, this one on author Kurt Vonnegut (at right).

"All of my documentaries are about my own cultural heroes, and my personal sort of Mt. Rushmore during my formative years," Weide explained, "and Vonnegut was definitely carved in stone." Weide began shooting interviews with Vonnegut as early as 1988 with seed money from American Masters, then financed his own return sessions for years, until Vonnegut's death in 2007.

"I absolutely intend to, in the next year, get back to that," Weide promised, "and finally finish it."

American Horror Story (FX, premieres Oct. 5)

I've raved about this upcoming series already, based on its riveting, frightening pilot. (Read my original story HERE.) It's the latest from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, of Nip/Tuck and Glee fame, and it's my pick, so far, for best new fall series.

The night FX screened it for critics, Murphy called it "the favorite thing I've done."


When he and Falchuk originally concocted the central character of the wife and mother who moves with her family into a haunted house, Murphy said their approach was, "Let's write a Connie Britton type." Then they went after the real Britton, who was available after the conclusion of Friday Night Lights -- and got her.

"It was one of the best days of my career," she said of the offer to join American Horror Story. In a few months, you'll see why.

Homeland (Showtime, premieres Oct. 3)

Next to American Horror Story, this Showtime series is the new fall series that has me the most excited.

Damien Lewis (from Band of Brothers, NBC's Life and such excellent imported British dramas as The Forsyte Saga remake and Friends & Crocodiles) stars as an American POW just rescued from Afghanistan after being missing and presumed dead for years, and Claire Danes (who just slam-dunked HBO's Temple Grandin telemovie) plays the government agent who suspects he may have been turned by the enemy (both are seen at the photo at the top of today's column).


Also featured are Morena Baccarin, formerly the alien lizard queen of ABC's V, as Lewis' wife (seen at right with Lewis), and the always intense and interesting Mandy Patinkin as one of Danes' bosses.

Asked to compare this new series to their earliest TV jobs, each of the three actors at the press conference (Patinkin, not surprisingly, was a no-show) had a quoteworthy response.

Damien Lewis: "In England, we can't make this kind of TV. We don't have the resources. We actually don't have the writers to write it. Someone is sending this to England as I say it," he added, wincing. "But we just don't. We don't have film and TV language in our DNA in the same way you guys do here."

Claire Danes: "I was 14 when I did My So-Called Life. So it was a very different experience. I'm not breaking out as much as I was then. That's a relief. You know, I'm not being tutored. I also don't have to get a high school degree... It feels similar in that it's really smart, and I'm surrounded by incredibly gifted, dedicated people and artists -- dare I say."

Morena Baccarin: "I'm just excited to be playing a human being."

After the press conference, I spoke to executive producer Howard Gordon, late of 24, and asked him if the unique aspects of the initial premise -- that we don't know, at first, whether Lewis' POW is indeed a double agent, or whether Danes' agent is needlessly suspicious and obsessed -- made it important to get two sympathetic enough actors to play the lead roles.

"Not only important -- vital," Gordon replied instantly. "We couldn't have done it without this level of actor. Seriously. It couldn't happen."

David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation


David Poltrack isn't representing a new CBS show. He is a CBS show - and has been, for many decades.

The first network researcher to really step up and hold his own press conferences, Poltrack has been regaling critics -- the ones smart enough to attend his informal press briefings -- for 28 years now. I was at his first ones, in the early 1980s, when he would extrapolate and explain what might happen with the growth of cable TV and VCRs on what he called, in his earliest presentations, "The Road to 1990."

This year, Poltrack gave another informative and prescient presentation, breaking viewers into such newly minted categories as "Program Passionates" and "Media Trendsetters." My favorite quote came a few hours after his presentation, though, when I ran into Poltrack in the hotel elevator. I told him I still fondly recalled those early "Road to 1990" presentations, and asked him if he were planning an update speech for "The Road to 2020."

His instant response, uttered with the smallest and slyest of smiles, was classic.

"The Road to 2020," he shot back, "heads right to Maui."

And Finally, a Grimm Press Tour Postscript...


Another quick quip worth recounting came between TCA sessions on NBC's day, when an NBC publicist was bridging the gap between the previous press conference, for the comedy Up All Night, and the one to follow immediately, the drama series Grimm.

"The next panel up," the NBC publicist announced from the podium, "will be Grimm."

Jonathan Storm, veteran TV critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, earned extra surly points by shouting back, "They're all grim, Dude."




1 Comment


Eileen said:

Welcome back! And thanks for the terrific recap.

I'm psyched for American in Primetime as well as American Masters' Woody Allen. Everything you reviewed looks just wonderful. I don't get Showtime, so I won't be seeing Homeland, but I definitely will be watching American Horror Story on FX. Interesting how your selections for the upcoming season are either public broadcasting or cable; that says volumes about the current state (I'm being generous here) of commercial tv.

And let my education begin anew with PBS. I especially like the way Primetime will be presented with clips and broken down into specific categories. PBS' 2008 Pioneers of Television was an exceptional show done in the same venue; I've enjoyed it more than once. American Masters' 4-parter on Warner Brothers is an absolute classic. Who knew Rin Tin Tin saved the studio financially?

Seriously, your separating the wheat from the chaff does all of your TVWW readers a significant service. So for that I thank you.

And you're back just in time to weigh in on America's most important topic -- no, not the Debt Ceiling or stock market crash, but rather should Bert & Ernie get married?

[My vote on this one: Keep Bert and Ernie just as they are... but go see Avenue Q as quickly as possible... - DB]

Comment posted on August 11, 2011 6:21 PM
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