Archive for March, 2010

Hard-boiled hicks: ‘Justified’ and ‘Breaking Bad’

March 31, 2010

Timothy Olyphant plays an old-fashioned marshall in a new-fangled world on “Justified.” Photo: FX


NEW YORK, March 31, 2010 — It grows tiresome to watch all the cops, robbers, lawyers and doctors conducting their fictionalized business in the TV shows based in the big cities — L.A., New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, even Philadelphia (“Cold Case”).

So it comes as a relief when TV’s fictional crime wave spreads outward from the nation’s densest population centers to other areas that have long been under-represented in the cops-and-crime canon.

Two examples: “Justified,” which just started its first season on FX, and “Breaking Bad,” AMC’s homely series, now in its third season, about TV’s most unlikely hero, a low-paid schoolteacher with cancer who takes up a new trade as a methamphetamine manufacturer.

The two shows are exploring seamy underworlds rarely visited by TV show-runners and their production crews.  “Justified” (Tuesday nights at 10 eastern time on FX) brings the ethos of old movie westerns to the backwoods of rural Kentucky, where the bad guys are white supremacists involved in the drug trade.  And “Breaking Bad” (Sunday nights at 10 and 11 eastern on AMC) takes place in New Mexico, around Albuquerque, in suburban housing tracts where the primary color is brown — from the houses to the packed dry earth.

Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad.”

In fact, this season, the environs of “Breaking Bad” seem even browner than usual as if a decision was made to affix brown filters to every camera.  If the visuals seem darker, it might be because the show is exploring some dark dramatic territory — setting up the season’s storyline against the backdrop of a horrific airline accident that spread a grotesque debris field of airplane pieces and human flesh over the community where this show’s cancer-ridden anti-hero, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), lives and teaches high school chemistry.

As the season began, Walt’s meth business is on hold and he is estranged from his wife.  In addition, he is in the crosshairs of a pair of tough twin hitmen from Mexico who are apparently on a mission of revenge having to do with the killing last season of their cousin, the drug dealer Tuco.

Who needs big cities?  As they crossed the border into the U.S., the twins murdered an entire truckload of migrants and burned their bodies on a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere — demonstrating that the emptiest geography in the whole world, even baking in the glare of the daytime sun, can be a lot more menacing than a dark alley between city buildings at night.

Meanwhile, the rural Kentucky of “Justified” resembles the semi-lawless towns of movie westerns — the ones that always represented the borderline between unchecked savagery and civilization and were patrolled by a lone soul sworn to establish order.

While the U.S. marshall of “Justified” is not exactly on the job by himself (he’s a member of a well-staffed regional office of U.S. marshalls), he goes about his business as if he’s Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”   In the show, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens gets reassigned, following a fatal shooting in Miami, to the rural region of Kentucky where he grew up.  Timothy Olyphant plays this guy in pretty much the same way he played a marshall on HBO’s “Deadwood” — as a man of few words, who engages his quarries with a piercing stare, and who has a tendency toward maneuvering bad guys into confrontations that usually end with him shooting them.

This kind of show lives or dies on the quality of those confrontations.  And so far, some of the confrontation scenes seem better choreographed than others, which is to say that these key scenes are not always providing maximum satisfaction.  Still, for reasons having to do with this show’s unusual locale and the hard-to-peg magnetism of its star, I have somehow become hooked enough to watch every episode that FX has provided so far.

Contact Adam Buckman:


‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’: The funniest show on TV

March 31, 2010

Peek-a-boo! Debbie Reynolds guest-judging a drag-queen beauty pageant? Only RuPaul (left, with Reynolds) could make THAT happen! Photo credit: Rolling Blackouts/Logo TV


NEW YORK, March 31, 2010 — The funniest show on TV is not a sitcom or a sketch show or a late-night comedy show.

It’s a reality show whose reality, paradoxically, is the art of illusion.  It’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” now nearing the conclusion of a triumphant second season on the gay-themed cable network called Logo.  (Original episodes air at 9 p.m. Mondays; the season finale is April 26.*)

The idea of watching (very) effeminate gay men who are passionate in their adoption of female alter egos might not appeal to everyone, but for those with open or even semi-open minds, watching this show is one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences you can have these days in front of the tube.

It’s an elimination/competition show patterned loosely on the “Project Runway” model, with RuPaul — perhaps the world’s most famous drag queen — presiding as host, chief judge and Tim Gunn-like mentor for a group of contestants all hoping to be crowned the next drag superstar.

Fierce femme: Jujubee competes on “Drag Race.” Photo credit: Logo

Few episodes of any show airing this year will likely equal the hilarity and camp quality of this past Monday’s show (March 29), in which the remaining four contestants — sweet and sour Tyra Sanchez, devious Raven, clueless Tatianna, audience favorite Jujubee and tender-hearted Pandora Boxx — were challenged to dress five aging gay men in drag and then cavort with them before a panel of judges that included special guests Debbie Reynolds and Cloris Leachman (one-time “Project Runway” contestant Santino Rice is also a judge on “Drag Race”).

At the center of it all is RuPaul, a drag impresario without equal, who handles the proceedings with drop-dead seriousness as if the stakes couldn’t be higher, all the while giving just the right faint impression that he knows deep down this whole pretend pageant is just one big lark.

Among other titles, RuPaul is the queen of the reality-show catchphrase, as when he — dressed in over-the-top drag himself — orders each week’s booted contestant to “Sashay away!”

But before he renders his final verdict, the contestants in the bottom two must compete in a lip-synch face off, a talent for mimickry that is apparently a hallmark of drag performance.  Each episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” achieves a kind of comedy nirvana at the moment when RuPaul adopts the most serious tone of voice he can muster to direct the bottom two to “lip-synch for your life!”   That’s when you know you’ve crossed over to a place TV has never gone before.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Leno fan’s desperate plea: Show us the funny!

March 19, 2010

JAY IT AIN’T SO! Something’s missing from Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” monologues lately — comedy!


NEW YORK, March 19, 2010 — As the unappointed representative of millions of Jay Leno fans, I have to ask NBC: What have you done with our Jay?

Hey, I know no one elected me spokesman for the entire Leno nation, but I’m certain I’m not the only die-hard Leno fan who’s been watching him since his (rightful) return to “The Tonight Show” and wondering if somewhere between losing “The Tonight Show” the first time and then flopping earlier this season at 10 p.m., Jay and his writers have forgotten how to write a funny monologue.

And they’d better relearn how to write one — fast.  Ever since Jay returned to “Tonight” on March 1, I’ve detected that something was off, but I did not pinpoint the problem until this week.  And lo and behold: It’s the monologue, for 17 years the most important and easily the most popular portion of Leno’s “Tonight Show.”

The Leno monologue must be seen as the principal driver of Leno’s dominance of late-night TV at least from 1995 (when he first passed Letterman) to 2009, when Conan O’Brien replaced him.  Here was this mainstream comedian, one of the best-liked personalities on television, whose sole talent lies in the swift delivery of jokes, one after another, with set-ups and hilarious punchlines.  To take advantage of this talent, the Leno monologue became the longest in late-night — 10, 12 or 15 minutes long — and the monologue’s effectiveness would determine whether viewers would stick around for subsequent segments or drift elsewhere.

Well, lately, I find myself drifting elsewhere as Jay offers this weakened version of a monologue that was formerly one of the most dependable things you could look forward to watching on TV night after night after night.

You can tell Leno’s monologue has weakened by listening to the reaction of his studio audience.  Lately, laughter is more often than not supplanted by applause, the reaction by which comedy audiences register their recognition of the situation a comedian has set up or observed.  Such applause — known to comedians as “mercy applause” — shows the audience  politely “appreciates” the attempt at humor and even likes the comedian personally — in this case, Jay — though they don’t find his observations particularly clever, illuminating, surprising or funny.

With a weaker monologue, Leno’s new show is a weaker “Tonight Show” than it was in the era before the insertion of Conan O’Brien interrupted Leno’s flow.  This situation likely explains why Leno has not yet won back the ratings he once enjoyed at 11:35 p.m.  In addition, the studio in which Leno is performing — the one left over from the failed 10 p.m. experiment — lacks the intimacy of his former surroundings on “Tonight.”  This studio was always too big, the stage and audience bleachers so wide that Leno seems a mile away from portions of his audience (and also from his band and Kevin Eubanks, Leno’s nominal sidekick who is now situated so far away that he hardly seems part of the show).  In fact, a similar studio and set arrangement was a problem for Jay in the first years after he took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson.  When NBC designed a more intimate scenario for him, he blossomed.

Job one for Leno and NBC in these first weeks back on “Tonight”: Fix this monologue situation soon or “The Tonight Show” will be permanently damaged.

Contact Adam Buckman:

TV to get more cluttered with hoarders, addicts

March 12, 2010

Does this look like a television star to you? Hoarder “Augustine” was profiled on an episode of “Hoarders” on A&E. (Photo: A&E)



NEW YORK, March 12, 2010 — You’ll know the competition between TLC and A&E has really heated up when A&E starts producing shows about dwarfs.

However, in this contest between cable networks, A&E is not the aggressor — yet.  That title goes to TLC, the Discovery-owned cable channel once known as The Learning Channel and now best known for its emphasis on super-sized families and plucky little people.

Next week, TLC invades territory formerly occupied exclusively by A&E — the world of hoarders and drug addicts.  Representatives of both groups have taken up residence Monday nights on A&E to great acclaim and open-mouthed astonishment.  No one can fail to be amazed (and also somewhat sickened and horrified) by the stories told each week on A&E’s “Intervention,” about addicts and their beleaguered loved ones, and “Hoarders,” about people who fill their homes with junk and then face eviction or condemnation from their local governments.

No rules seem to govern or prohibit the practice of copycatting in the TV business, but TLC’s launch next week of “Hoarding: Buried Alive” (Sunday, March 14, at 10 p.m.) and “Addicted” (Wednesday, March 17, at 10 p.m.) seems particularly blatant.  In fact, “blatant” is the word one A&E source used to describe TLC’s encroachment on A&E’s turf.

Officially, A&E released a statement in response to a TV Howl query about the similarities between “Hoarding” (TLC) and “Hoarders” (A&E), and “Addicted” (TLC) and “Intervention” (A&E).  “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” the A&E statement said — the usual quote companies trot out at times like these when they would rather appear gracious or sportsmanlike than annoyed or even ticked off.

Who can forget the incredible story of “huffing” addict “Allison” on A&E’s “Intervention”? Here, she loads up on the aerosol cans she used to feed her addiction to chemical inhalants. (Photo: A&E)

The real question for TLC is whether there is room on TV for more hoarders and addicts.  For many, one hour spent each week on each of these subjects might be enough.  Some- times, it’s more than enough.  Even the most hardened TV watcher (namely, me) finds it difficult at times to get through an entire hour of “Hoarders” or “Intervention,” so pathetic and upsetting are some of the stories.

“Hoarders” is particularly difficult; yes, these homes are pretty well cleaned out and reasonably cleaned up by the end of each show, but what is usually left are homes in grave states of disrepair and the homes’ residents left desolate and, it seems to a viewer, likely to begin hoarding again as soon as the show’s film crew leaves the premises.

TLC’s entry into the hoarding and addiction categories signals a new ramping up of the competition for reality subjects on cable — particularly between TLC and A&E.  A&E is known for “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels,” the new “Steven Seagal: Lawman,” “Paranormal State,” “Parking Wars” (a personal favorite) and a slew of others, including “Billy the Exterminator” (this is a TV personality on the rise, folks) and the upcoming “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life.”

TLC’s slate is equally diverse, with shows on dressing well (“Say Yes to the Dress” and “What Not to Wear”) and baking (the ubiquitous “Cake Boss”).  However, most people identify TLC with that mammoth Duggar family (“19 Kids and Counting”) or the dysfunctional Gosselins (“Jon and Kate Plus 8”), or all those little-people shows: “Little Chocolatiers,” “Little People, Big World,” “Our Little Life,” “The Little Couple” and others (the other night, there appeared a one-off about another “little” couple seeking to adopt a “little” orphan).

As I write this, there are producers and talent scouts criss-crossing the country and surfing the Internet in search of real-life personalities around which to build reality shows — mall cops, tow-truck operators, various animal “whisperers” and many, many others.  The development of these types of TV shows is becoming  (or has already become) one of the hottest corners of the TV business.    Watch out, hoarders and addicts, the next knock on your door might be a TV producer.

Contact Adam Buckman:

‘Pacific’ war: Spielberg, Tom Hanks get scooped

March 11, 2010

TRUE GRIT: Jon Seda lets ’em have it as United States Marine and World War II hero John Basilone in a battle with the Japanese in “The Pacific” (HBO).



NEW YORK, March 11, 2010 — “The Pacific” just might be the last word on World War II because, really, what more do we need to learn here?

I’m as big a fan of World War II and World War II movies as the next person, but I have a feeling the subject is played, at least for now, and especially as far as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are concerned.




With “The Pacific,” their 10-part miniseries about the war against Japan (premiering Sunday, March 14, at 9 p.m. on HBO), it would seem that the World War II itch that these two have been scratching since “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 has now been sufficiently relieved.

And with this last effort (or so it would seem to be their last since the great war ends at this miniseries’ conclusion), the current era of World War II revivalism, spearheaded mainly by Spielberg and Tom Hanks, comes to a close.  It’s an era that’s been around at least as long as 1998, the year “Saving Private Ryan” was released and Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” was published.  Or you could antedate the era to the 1992 publication of Stephen Ambrose’s book “Band of Brothers,” about the European theater of World War II, that begat the 2001 HBO miniseries of the same name by Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Then, of course, there was Ken Burns’ epic 2007 documentary on World War II, “The War,” that aired for 14-plus hours on PBS.  Talk about the last word on World War II — that documentary was so comprehensive, engrossing and emotionally draining that you would have thought TV would be done with the Second World War for a good generation or two after that thing came along (especially since it already covered some of the same stories told in “The Pacific”).

But no.  “The Pacific” has apparently been long in the planning and production stages, ever since “Band of Brothers” made a splash in 2001 (premiering two days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11) and then Spielberg and Tom Hanks came up with a plan to devote the same kind of attention to the war in the Pacific.

Joe Mazzello plays Marine Eugene Sledge (the real Sledge, below) in “The Pacific.” (HBO)

As it happens, “The Pacific” is a fine piece of made-for-TV filmmaking, and fans of “Band of Brothers” — men, mostly — will likely flock to it.  And they will likely be well- satisfied.  It has all the gore, grit, male bonding and f-words you would expect to find in a piece of filmed entertainment about World War II.  “The Pacific” looks expensive and you can tell that great care and effort went into rounding up vintage vehicles (both American and Japanese), weaponry and other equipment in order to make this production as “realistic” as the producers could make it.

“The Pacific” tells the story of a group of young Marines fighting the Japanese on the remote islands of the Pacific that the allies (the Americans, mostly) needed for the establishment of air and naval bases from which to stage the eventual invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Ashton Holmes (left) posed for this publicity photo with Sid Phillips, the Marine vet Holmes plays in “The Pacific” (HBO).

You’ve likely never heard of most of the fighting men profiled here, but the experiences of two of them — Sid Phillips and Eugene Sledge of Mobile, Ala. — were related in great detail in Ken Burns’ documentary, which means anyone who remembers that miniseries (and no one who watched it will ever forget it) will already know the fates of Sid and Eugene (played in “The Pacific” by Ashton Holmes and Joe Mazzello, respectively).

While that doesn’t exactly spoil “The Pacific,” it does qualify as a scoop for Ken Burns, who gets credit for popularizing the story of Sid and Eugene before Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  As a newspaperman, I know such a situation would rankle me, though I have no idea how Spielberg and Tom Hanks feel about it.

In the end, “The Pacific” might leave you with the same feeling of loss that other high-quality productions about World War II have left you with.  You watch these things — whether fictional or documentary or a combination of both — with a sense of awe over what the United States and its fighting men accomplished in two parts of the world against some of the toughest foes in the history of civilization.  And then you realize we likely aren’t capable of doing that again.  All we really know how to do these days is make great movies about war, though we have forgotten how to actually fight them.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Andy Richter on NBC and Leno: Yes, I’m angry

March 9, 2010

Candid Andy: Andy Richter spoke out about NBC and “The Tonight Show” this morning on “Live! with Regis and Kelly.”


NEW YORK, March 9, 2010 — Andy Richter emerged this morning as the first member of Team Conan to speak out publicly since NBC canned his pal Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.”

Richter’s opportunity came on “Live! with Regis and Kelly,” where Richter was subbing for Regis Philbin, who was on vacation.

Kelly Ripa dove right into the topic of NBC’s late-night debacle at the top of “Live” this morning.

“It’s a big thrill for us to have you here,” Ripa told Richter.  “I feel like you are the ‘get’ of the century right now.”

In reply, Richter, O’Brien’s sidekick and announcer on the ill-fated Conan “Tonight Show,” confirmed this was his first appearance on TV and first chance to speak out on the subject since the show ceased production in January.

“And I actually can be on TV,” Richter noted, “Conan can’t . . . In fact, I’m not even sure I can say his name.  I may be getting him in trouble for just saying his name.”

“Does that mean you didn’t get the big money [referring to the multimillion-dollar severance package reportedly negotiated by Conan’s reps when he exited NBC]?” Ripa asked.

“Conan is putting a lot of his own money out there,” Richter said, explaining that most of the Conan “Tonight Show” staff did not receive generous severance packages.  “[Conan] formed a little corporation just to pay people,” he said.  “All these people moved from New York to California to be on the show and a lot of the people, they’re robbed of their contacts and so even in a downtime like this they don’t have the contacts that they would have here on the East Coast to go get work elsewhere.  . . . Now they’re in Los Angeles with lots of skills in a television town and not really knowing a lot of people there.”

Richter revealed that he’s OK financially, at least for now, because he’s “still actually under contract at NBC for a while — not on the air, but I’m still an employee.”

“So what do they have you do now — cleaning up the office and stuff?” Ripa asked.

“No, in fact it was ‘We need your ID!’ It was like that, yeah,” he said, describing the way he and other show staffers got the heave-ho.  “We had a week or so to pack up and clear out.”

Not surprisingly, Richter said he was as surprised as anyone else on the Conan “Tonight Show” that NBC had decided to halt the program.  Indeed, he felt he was set for life.  “I thought, ‘I’m on “The Tonight Show”!’ That’s as good as it gets in show business.  I’m a tenured professor of show business now!”

Getting to the heart of the matter, Ripa asked him, “Do you have any ill feelings toward NBC and Jay [Leno]? Not that you’re going to be honest . . .”

But Richter was honest.  Said he, “Um, yes!  Yes, I do.  Why wouldn’t I?  NBC, definitely . . .  Everybody said they were going to do something and then they didn’t.  They all said years ago, ‘We’re going to do something’ and then they didn’t.”

Ripa asked him if the difficulty of producing a new “Tonight Show,” starring Conan and his team, was compounded by NBC’s decision to place, essentially, another late-night-style show — “The Jay Leno Show” — at 10 p.m. weeknights.

“It was very difficult,” Richter said.  “I don’t think it was a good plan.  There was a lot of planning that was done that was very short-sighted.”

Ripa also asked Richter about the rumors that a Conan stage show was being organized for a summer tour.  “It’s a possibility, a distinct possibility,” Richter said.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Leno and Palin’s lost question: What about Dave?

March 3, 2010

Sarah Palin goes chin-to-chin with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”


NEW YORK, March 3, 2010 — Jay Leno should have asked Sarah Palin about David Letterman.

That would have made for a much more interesting interview, one that would have made more headlines this morning than Palin’s tepid appraisal of “Family Guy.”  She called the Fox cartoon series “lame” in a portion of her conversation with Leno that at any moment could have turned to a riveting discussion of her feud with Letterman.

But if you hold your breath waiting for Jay Leno to conduct an interesting or even mildly thought-provoking interview, then you will surely suffocate.

The moment at which Leno could have handed Palin an opportunity to bash Leno’s late-night rival (or at least engage in a lively conversation about the nature of late-night TV and its treatment of public figures and newsmakers) came in their first segment together (of two) on “The Tonight Show” when Leno addressed the issue of The Media and its treatment of Palin.  It’s an issue on which Palin frequently harps because she knows her fan base of Ordinary People loves it when she attacks Big institutions such as Big Media or Big Government.

“The media does sort of try to get a rise out of you,” Leno said.  “They sort of poke you to get you to react and sometimes your reaction becomes bigger than whatever the initial story was.  Have you sort of learned, maybe, OK,  I’m not gonna comment on that one because I know it will only get bigger?”

Poke you to get you to react?”  Without mentioning Letterman by name, Leno was practically asking her specifically to comment on Letterman, whose feud with Palin started with a clumsily worded monologue joke that seemed (to Palin and her husband Todd) to imply that Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez had impregnated Palin’s 14-year-old daughter.  After Palin blasted Letterman, the CBS “Late Show” host spent the better part of last June hammering her night after night and ratings soared.

“What I would desire is more opportunity to follow up on a comment that perhaps I’ve made,” said Palin, answering Leno’s question.

Then came an even better opportunity for Palin to get into the Letterman dustup.  In fact, Leno’s next question was worded in such a way that you might have thought Leno was actually leading her into a discussion about Letterman, though he evidently didn’t have the nerve to just raise the subject directly.

“Give me an example,” Leno said.  “What’s one where you sort of made a comment and you didn’t get a chance to . . . ?”

“Oh, gosh!  There are so many!” said Palin, who then raised the subject of “Family Guy,” which last month tastelessly poked fun at her son who has Down syndrome and she reacted predictably by condemning the show.  Letterman’s name never came up — a blown opportunity.

Meanwhile, the new/old Leno “Tonight Show” struggled in Night 2 to reestablish its footing.  It’s an interesting thing about Leno — here’s this guy who is (or should be) as comfortable in front of an audience as anyone in the history of show business.  And yet, he can still seem nervous and apprehensive.

He seemed that way Monday night when he delivered his monologue.  The jokes were particularly mediocre (as they have been for a while) and his studio audience reacted more with applause than laughter — a phenomenon, sometimes called “mercy applause,” that’s a sure sign the jokes aren’t funny.

And when the jokes aren’t funny, and Leno knows this, he tends to over-compensate by delivering them more loudly — kind of in the manner of a tourist abroad who cannot speak the local language and believes waiters or shopkeepers will better understand his English if he simply raises his voice.

And on Tuesday night, Leno even faltered in the “Headlines” segment, a bit he’s done thousands of times.  He seemed to rush through it as if he couldn’t have been less interested.

Leno’s new “Tonight Show” seems to have come to the air with minimal preparation other than the creation of a new logo.  NBC had six weeks to design and build Leno a new set or pre-produce a series of very funny, creative, bang-up comedy bits to be featured in the first few weeks of Leno’s return.  But other than the “Wizard of Oz” dream spoof that opened Monday’s show, little seems to have been done, maybe because NBC and its management were so focused on the Olympics that they could not devote any time to this “Tonight Show” business.

Now that the Olympics are over, they had better refocus their attention on Leno.  Right now, the most creative comedy in late-night is being done everywhere else — on “Fallon,” on “Kimmel,” on “Ferguson.”

I wasn’t even a particular fan of Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.”  But the other night, while watching Jay, I thought to myself: I wonder what Conan’s doing tonight?

Contact Adam Buckman:

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