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JONATHAN STORM

 
 
 
 
 
TCA's Winter Press Tour -- The Cable Networks
January 22, 2018  | By Roger Catlin
 

PASADENA, Calif. — Cable is the cornucopia of the TV Critics Association press tours, showcasing some of the most serious dramatic offerings alongside some of the most preposterous reality shows. And more often than you would think, there are puppies.

The winter session in Pasadena stretched on five full days — with other cable networks from FX to Showtime to USA popping up on days adjacent to their attendant broadcast networks (Fox, CBS, and NBC respectively).

The cable portion of the tour now includes streaming services of various sizes. Hulu was among them this time but not Netflix or Amazon. It was the first time hearing from the British-heavy streaming service Acorn, as well as the competing BritBox, an offering from BBC and ITV that described itself as “unapologetically 100 percent Anglophile” (Acorn may have a couple of Aussie shows in its mix).

And there were sessions in the cable portion that are better known as apps, such as YouTube and Snapchat.

In fact, the addition of Snapchat meant that over the course of two days, there were panels from Snap, Crackle, and Pop — the app, streaming service and cable network, respectively (and one of them handed out Rice Krispies Treats to drive home the point).

The biggest stars in cable, alas, came via satellite, from Al Pacino talking from New York about his role as Joe Paterno (top) for an HBO movie, to Benedict Cumberbatch speaking from Atlanta to tout his Showtime turn in Patrick Melrose.

Cumberbatch would return via satellite 11 days later from London (or at least with a London backdrop behind him) to promote a PBS movie, The Child in Time, on the event’s last day (Press tour has been going on a long, long time).

But, as I say, there are puppies — ostensibly to promote Animal Planet’s impending Puppy Bowl XIV and yapping all through a luncheon to promote a two-part special on the Westminster Dog Show.

******

Hulu as a streaming service in demand came into its own with the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale last year, which swept awards shows and critics’ lists even as its tale of oppressed women presaged the current political and social climate.

So there was plenty of interest in where the Tale would go when it returns for season two April 25.

“One difference,” said producer Warren Littlefield, is that Elisabeth Moss’ character Offred, who has retained her name June, “is on the run. And you haven’t seen that before, so that narrative is where we begin the season and then lots of surprises.”

Margaret Atwood, whose book is the basis of the series, described the Colonies in her novel, though its protagonist never gets there, Littlefield says. “And in episode two, we go to the Colonies, and it’s an expansion of our world.”

That’s also the episode where Marisa Tomei guest stars.

“So much of the season is about motherhood,” Moss says. That was also the case in season one, but in two, her pregnancy is “a bit of a ticking time bomb, and the complications of that are really wonderful to explore.”

The success of the show has resulted in a bigger budget, Littlefield says, “Part of it is the expansion of our world and creating the Colonies, and also, using the narrative approach with multiple timelines, we’re able to see: How did Gilead come about? How did it all happen?”

******

Hulu chairman Joel Stillerman says The Handmaid’s Tale helped the streaming service have its biggest year to date as it approaches its 10th anniversary in March. He also presented a panel on a terrific looking The Looming Tower (left), a drama based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the rivalry of the FBI and CIA running up to 9/11. Directed by Alex Gibney, with a cast that includes Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard, it starts Feb. 28.

Also coming: A British import about quarreling cops at the end of the world, Hard Sun, that starts March 7.

Stillerman also announced a new limited series based on Joseph Heller’s classic Catch 22 from “a dream team led creatively by director George Clooney, who will also play a supporting role.”

He announced a series from Jason Blum and Blumhouse Television of The Purge and Get Out! fame of 12 standalone horror stories — “each relating to a holiday or a specific time of year.”

There will also be a horror series from J.J. Abrams and Stephen King titled Castle Rock about King’s fictional town in Maine.

A second season of the import National Treasure April 4 will focus on the abduction of a young black girl who is soon to be adopted by a white foster family. A second season is also on its way for Marvel’s Runaways, which he called “Hulu’s No. 1 title over the holidays.” The fourth and final season of Casual comes on July 31 and a second season of Future Man is on its way.

Plans for 2020 include a reboot of Animaniacs that includes Pinky and the Brain, and upcoming documentaries include the sequel March of the Penguins 2 on March 23.

Besides the original content, Hulu remains committed to obtaining its TV series library, most recently adding ER to what it puts as 75,000 episodes of available TV — twice the number, he said, of those on other streaming video on demand services.

******

Al Pacino nails the physical appearance of longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno  (left) in the upcoming HBO movie Paterno by Barry Levinson. Kathy Baker plays his wife; Elvis granddaughter Riley Keogh plays the reporter who broke the story.

Just as he portrayed Roy Cohn, Jack Kevorkian, and Phil Spector in previous high-profile HBO films, Pacino seems to specialize in these transformations. In New York, he sported big brown hair in preparation to portray Tennessee Williams on Broadway.

Pacino said he works with a makeup artist to get the right look. “We don’t make a replica, but we try to see if we can come close to a sense of the character,” he said. “We discuss it and go over it sometimes for many weeks until we come up with something that hopefully conveys something.”

And then there is the research. “For me, anyway, it’s important to channel these people, and that takes a while. But at the same time, there’s always footage on them. There are so many interviews on them.”

Focusing on a two week period in 2011, it appears that Paterno reserves judgment on whether the coach knows knew about the abuse occurring by one of his coaching staff.

Pacino said he made a decision for himself, but added, “I’m still learning about this character, believe it or not.

“I felt as though I understood what was going on and what I saw. I mean, to me, the idea that someone was in denial and also at the same time full of a kind of trying to cope with something that never happened to him, being in a position that was untenable for him — [that] he didn’t know.”

******

Of the many HBO documentaries announced for the first half of 2018, two are from a guy better known for comedy, Judd Apatow.

He co-directed the music documentary May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers that debuts Jan. 29, but also the two night, four-hour Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (right), March 26 and 27, about his comedy mentor.

Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show (where he was also hired as a writer) helped define HBO as a place for quality, Apatow said, so the network was very interested in and encouraged his documentary, which contained a wealth of archival footage as well as access to 30 years of his journals. Shandling died suddenly at 66 last March of a blood clot.

In addition to thanking the man who took him under his wing as a young comedy writer, Apatow said his motivation was to follow Shandling’s example, and make a film that “would inspire other people to just be nicer to each other and to themselves.”

As for it being more than four hours, Apatow tried to put it in perspective:  "Well, I always think, you know, O.J. got seven hours, and he murdered people."

******

Other HBO documentaries this year will spotlight Jane Fonda, Arthur Miller and Martin Luther King, and spotlight nuclear waste, the rape kit backlog, and Obama’s final year.

Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Scotty Moore and Red West were all interviewed for Tom Zimny’s three hour Elvis Presley: The Searcher that debuts on HBO April 14. Priscilla Presley is an executive producer; Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready composed its original score.

Among other HBO announcements, The network signed a three year deal with Ronan Farrow to develop and be featured in a series of investigative documentary specials focusing on the abuse of power. A Flight of the Conchords special was announced for the spring.

Both main stars of HBO’s spring adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, were last minute cancellations to TCA.

And while there were panels for the upcoming corporate family drama Succession, the live comedy talk show 2 Dope Queens and Bill Hader’s comedy about a hitman who wants to be an actor, Barry, there were no panels (or mention) of the imminent  Steven Soderbergh series Mosaic, premiering Jan. 22, or Alan Ball’s Here and Now, which starts Feb. 11.

******

After a breezy session discussing the second season of his IFC comedy Brockmire, which returns April 25, Hank Azaria (right) addressed complaints about the longtime character he helped create on The Simpsons, Apu. The fact it’s a representation that is often used against Indian-Americans was the basis of a recent documentary by Hari Kondabolu.

Azaria’s reluctance to be interviewed by Kondabolu became the theme of the film, The Problem with Apu.

But by the time the actor appeared at TCA, though, he was ready to address those concerns.

“The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on The Simpsons, the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing,” Azaria said.

“Especially in post -9/11 America, the idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally. You know, it’s a character that I’ve done for 29 years now, and I’ve done it with a lot of love and joy and with pride. So the idea that certainly wasn’t the intent.”

Azaria said he never thought of the character as one-dimensional, and tried to infuse him with great qualities. He also said the line between funny and offensive can be thin, especially on The Simpsons, which has “over the years has been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals, school principals, Italians — you name it. And they take a lot of pride over there in not apologizing for any of that.

“Over the years,” he said, “they’ve done a really good job of being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful, which is certainly never the intent.”

What happens with the Apu character going forward “is really not just up to me,” Azaria said.” I think it’s really important when people express themselves about racial issues, what they feel is unfair or upsetting or distressing or makes them angry, upset, hurt, the most important thing to do is listen, try to understand, try to sympathize, which is what I’m doing. I know that The Simpsons guys are doing that too. They are giving it a lot of thought. We’ve discussed it a little bit, and they will definitely address, maybe not publicly, but certainly creatively within the context of the show, what they want to do, if anything, differently with the character.”

******

An unexpected star of TCA’s cable days was Marcia Clark, who had generally been out of sight after she prosecuted and lost the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But after Sarah Paulson portrayed her sympathetically in FX’s 2016 The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Clark reappeared, even accompanying the actress to awards shows.

Now, Clark is to star in her own right on her own cable series, Marcia Clark Investigates the First 48, in which she’ll re-investigate a number of notorious cases in the style of A&E’s long running The First 48.

“I would have done this show at any point in time that I’d been asked, that there was the opportunity to do it,” Clark said. “I’ve been a true crime addict since I was four years old. I was a weird kid. So for me, I was always fascinated by this, and I do love to seek the truth, but more than that, more than just looking at these interesting cases, I had a mission.”

She did admit “the FX series was just the most bizarre, unexpected experience.”

“That I would be played by an actress as brilliant as Sarah Paulson, who was somehow, without ever meeting me, able to deliver to you how it felt to be me — amazing,” Clark said. “That was an incredible thing. Could not have anticipated that it would happen, but it certainly did seem to give people a truer picture of what it was like to be there.”

I asked whether she felt the questioning was bringing out new things in the Casey Anthony case, the murder of actor Robert Blake’s wife Bonny Lee Bakley, or the disappearance of Drew Peterson’s wife —to mention three that the series will revisit.

“They do seem to open up more because I’m a real lawyer,” Clark said. “I don’t just play one on TV, and I think it matters. I think they know that. They know that I really care about the case. They know that I know how to investigate a case. They have a certain degree of trust, I’ve found, and are willing to talk and open up in ways that they tell me I’m not guessing. They tell me they have not said things before, have not been willing to talk about before.”

Marcia Clark Investigates the First 48 debuts on A&E March 29, just before the debut of the point-counterpoint style show Grace vs. Abrams, with Dan Abrams squaring off opposite Nancy Grace.

 
 
 
 
 
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