Nothing huge, just a small thing about HBO . . .

April 1, 2012

TRAGEDY and COMEDY:  Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones,” left) and Warwick Davis (“Life’s Too Short”) have ’em covered for HBO. (Photos: HBO)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, April 1, 2012 — Who else but your humble TV Howl correspondent would notice that, as one dwarf actor leaves the “stage” at HBO, another arrives to take his place?

The two little people in question: Warwick Davis — 42, 3’6″ star of “Life’s Too Short,” the seven-episode comedy from Ricky Gervais that ended its first season last Sunday on HBO; and Peter Dinklage, also 42, 4’5″ star of “Game of Thrones,” the drama about warring factions in something resembling England in the Middle Ages that returns for its second season this Sunday night (April 1) on HBO.

Why point out this unique and no doubt coincidental “changing of the guard” (as it were)?  No reason except that it gives me a chance to give “Life’s Too Short” some ink here.  And, to a lesser extent, “Game of Thrones” too.

I have no idea how many people tuned in for all seven episodes of “Life’s Too Short,” but I did and I loved every jaw-dropping moment of it.  This show was so “wrong” in its political incorrectness that I found myself wondering if Gervais had merely proposed it to HBO almost as a joke to see if they would say yes, simply because the folks at HBO like being in business with him.

And then the joke was on him because they did say yes.   So he and Stephen Merchant then had to actually produce this thing.  What they made was a “reality” spoof that had Davis starring as himself in a mock documentary about his life as a dwarf actor who had appeared in a number of movies with famous titles (parts of “Star Wars” and the “Harry Potter” series, to name two of them).

But in the show, he was seen struggling to find work despite those credits, while also trying to make his way in a world configured for bigger people.  If you missed this show, you missed incredible cameo appearances by Liam Neeson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sting (especially him) and Johnny Depp (especially him too).  (What are you waiting for?  Go watch it on On Demand.)

And you missed Warwick — a dwarf,  mind you, who’s making fun of what it’s like to be a dwarf — doing the kind of slapstick, physical comedy that hasn’t been seen since the silent era: Stumbling out of his SUV, climbing a bookcase to reach a trophy in one unforgettable scene, falling backward in his chair onto the floor of a restaurant and taking the tablecloth and dishes with him.

Much of “Life’s Too Short” was so painful to watch that you just sat there and thought, How on earth are they getting away with this?  In the season’s final scene, Warwick, penniless and homeless, was seen bunking in a friend’s dresser drawer.  I can’t wait for season two — if there is one.

Meanwhile, along comes Dinklage, who steals every scene in which he appears in “Game of Thrones.”  I’m a latecomer to this baffling, sprawling series about various factions of warriors and their kings who are all maneuvering into clashes with one another like some giant chess game.

But in the season premiere airing Sunday — which I got to see in advance the other day — Dinklage emerged as the most riveting character in the whole thing.  And that’s saying a lot because this is the kind of series that’s well-populated with serious actors — the kind of people whose bearing and voices suggest some sort of classical training on the British stage.

Not Dinklage, though.  He’s from New Jersey.

OK, so HBO has two dwarf actors appearing in consecutive series.  Does this mean anything?  How should I know?

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

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Derailed: ‘Community’ run over by Subway

March 29, 2012

Joel McHale (Photo: NBC)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 29, 2012 — You’ve heard of a subway hijacking (at least in the movies)?  Well, in this case, the shoe’s on the other foot: Subway has hijacked “Community.”

Or maybe “hijacked” is too strong a word because this wasn’t exactly a hostile takeover.  It was a business deal, with NBC agreeing to give the omnipresent sandwich chain an omnipresence in tonight’s episode of the Joel McHale sitcom.

It’s one of the most grandiose “product-placement” arrangements ever staged.  This one is so long, and so sustained — establishing a presence, and a plotline, for Subway throughout the entire half-hour — that it actually goes way beyond categorization as a mere “product placement.”

If that’s all it was, maybe we’d see a student or two in the Greendale Community College cafeteria tucking into a couple of foot-longs.  But in this Subway hijacking, the sandwich chain opens a shop smack dab in the middle of the cafeteria.  And the “owner/manager” is a guy who legally changed his name to Subway.

That way, the sandwich shop’s name — already visible on a huge sign stretching across half the cafeteria — can be mentioned in practically every scene.  And when the Subway name isn’t being uttered, various characters are fondly fist-bumping each other and wryly reciting the two-word slogan for Subway, “Eat fresh.”

While Subway dominates the episode, two other corporations get on-air script mentions as well —  Bed Bath &  Beyond, and Brita, the water filter company.

On the latter “opportunity”: This one was probably inevitable because it plays on a character’s name, Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs.

Subway is emerging this season as a kind of champion of in-show advertising.  In January, three characters in “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS took a break from police work to have a lengthy conversation about the health benefits of Subway sandwiches.  This Subway scene stopped the episode in its tracks, though it’s reasonable to assume that CBS made a lot of money on it.

And a friend mentioned the other day that Subway also had an in-show presence on Tuesday night’s “Biggest Loser” on NBC (though this kind of sponsorship has long been a staple of unscripted shows — from “Project Runway” to “The Apprentice”).

But this Subway hijacking of “Community” is the most blatant such thing I’ve seen.

When these things arise, the question always is: So what’s wrong with it?

It really comes down to this: TV is already overrun by commercials that come in ever-greater quantities and with increased frequency these days.  With so many commercials to deal with already, do we really have to have them within the shows too?  I mean — really?

This episode of “Community” airs at 8 p.m. eastern, Thursday (March 29) on NBC.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

‘Mad Men’ new-season shocker: It’s boring

March 20, 2012

‘Mad’ men (l-r): Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) (Photos: AMC)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 20, 2012 — Here’s a surprise about this Sunday’s season premiere of “Mad Men” that might spoil the show for you: It’s terrible.

Yes, I know — it’s a shocker.  It might even be the first time any critic anywhere has ever used the word “terrible” to describe “Mad Men,” but there it is.  Sorry.

I hate to spoil a viewing experience for anyone, especially for a show whose return (after more than 18 months away) seems so highly anticipated.  But I can’t help myself: For the first time in my own personal history with this show, stretching back to its glorious beginnings in summer 2007, I was bored stiff watching the two-hour premiere that AMC sent over for preview.

The DVD came with a “letter” from the show’s creator and executive producer, Matthew Weiner, who requested, politely, that critics who view the preview DVD please refrain from revealing various plot points and other developments that might spoil the experience for the show’s fans.  Well, Matt, your secrets are safe with me because nothing much happens in these two hours anyway.

I’ll tell you what happened to me when I was watching it, though:  Some time during a lengthy party sequence (yes, there’s a party in the show — I hope that revelation doesn’t spoil the “experience” for anyone), I realized that I couldn’t have been more bored, and have rarely been so bored, in the process of watching a TV show.  And since it was “Mad Men,” which once upon a time was one of the finest, most electrifying TV series ever produced, this surprising onset of extreme ennui came as a huge shock.

I was so disappointed in what happened to this show that I started contemplating some of the words I might eventually use to describe it in this blogpost.  And besides “terrible” and “boring,” another one came to mind that is even worse: “Disaster.”

Before continuing, here’s a caveat: By all means, watch the two-hour premiere (it starts at 9/8c on Sunday, March 25, on AMC).  And you are more than welcome to enjoy it too.  You just might love it.  But I have a feeling many will not.

And that’s where the word “disaster” comes in.  The last thing an arty TV series like this needs is to come back on the air after an 18-plus-month absence and then bore its core audience to death.  However, that outcome is a distinct possibility.

Why? Well, to delve fully into those reasons might involve revealing details and plot points that Matthew Weiner might not want divulged.  So I’ll try and work around them.

Generally speaking, the whole thing seemed listless, sloppy and predictable.

In the listless department, the aforementioned party is exhibit A.  At just about the time I looked at my watch for the first time ever in the viewing of “Mad Men,” I realized that this party had begun to resemble an old Dutch still-life, with the guests standing or sitting around doing nothing.  At such times, you rely on a literate series such as “Mad Men” to entertain you with dialogue.  That didn’t happen either in this scene or any other in the two-hour show.

The party took place at a new Manhattan apartment apparently purchased between seasons Four and Five by Don Draper (Jon Hamm).  And at this point in this blog post, I was tempted to reveal what happened with Don and his new love, Megan (Jessica Paré).  Remember her?  She was a secretary in the ad agency in Season Four.  As that season came to a close way back on Oct. 17, 2010, she and Don were in love and he asked her to marry him.  (Forgot about that?  That’s understandable since it was 18-1/4 months ago.)  In his letter to critics, Matthew Weiner asked that we not divulge what happened there.  And like the good sport I am, I humbly acquiesce.

Anyway, like so many of the settings in this marathon “Mad Men” fifth-season premiere, Don’s new digs look more like a stage set than a New York apartment.  And so does the office of the ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce.  It’s immaculate, like it’s a display at Ikea or one of those Design Within Reach stores, where they sell knockoffs of iconic mid-century furniture designs.  One thing it doesn’t look like: A Manhattan office where work is performed.

It doesn’t sound like one either.  If you watch the show, try and observe the sound made when people walk around — most notably in the SCDP offices.  Even petite Elisabeth Moss (who plays Peggy Olson) can be heard clomping around like she’s wearing army boots.  That’s because the floors give off a sound like they’re hollow, like a stage set, but not at all like the floors in a Manhattan office building.  They’re usually concrete.

Speaking of architecture, one character refers to an architectural feature in one of the SCDP offices as a “beam” when it is actually a column.  That’s sloppy writing.  Rule of thumb: Beams go across ceilings; columns are those things that go up and down.

And as far as this show’s predictability goes, that can be a problem when a series such as this — one that is about 95 percent character development and about 5 percent plot — has been around for four seasons and is starting its fifth.  We already know so much about the personalities of the principal characters — warts and all — that everything they do in this two-hour premiere seems old hat.

In his “letter” to critics, Matthew Weiner implored us not to divulge plot points that could ruin any surprises for those tuning in on Sunday to herald “Mad Men’s” return.  The thing is: The only surprise I experienced in the season premiere was my own disappointment.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

‘Luck’ creator has uneven track record at HBO

March 18, 2012

Kevin Dunn in HBO’s “Luck” (Photo: HBO)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 18, 2012 — Is David Milch out of luck?

Well, HBO keeps going back to him, despite the pay-cable channel’s uneven track record with the critically acclaimed producer/writer of TV shows people either love or hate.

Milch’s latest creation, the HBO horse-racing series “Luck,” made television history last week when it was abruptly cancelled due to the deaths of three horses during the filming of the show.  The latest, an accident in which a horse fatally injured itself while being walked back to its stall (it was euthanized), happened last Tuesday.

A day later, HBO made the stunning announcement: Production on “Luck” was being shut down for good.

The show was in the midst of filming one of the early episodes in its second season, even as the first season was still underway.  “Luck,” airing Sunday nights at 9 on HBO, has its second-to-last episode on Sunday (March 18) and its final, first-season episode — now its last episode ever — the following weekend (March 25).  Only nine episodes were made for the first season, and HBO was so excited about the show (for, among other reasons, it had succeeded in luring Dustin Hoffman to star in his first TV show) that the cable channel renewed it for a second season almost immediately after the very first episode aired back in late January.

Now, that’s not going to happen as “Luck” goes into the history books as the first TV series ever cancelled due to the deaths of animals used in its production.

In the wake of this week’s cancellation announcement, two subjects to contemplate: (1) Will “Luck” be missed?  And (2) what of David Milch, the bard of Buffalo (the New York city where he was raised), for whom “Luck” was his fourth go-round with HBO (that we know of)?

First, on the merits of “Luck”: Like Milch’s other shows, this one was an acquired taste.  And according to at least one report we read the other day, “Luck” drew more than a million viewers for its premiere and then, eventually, the audience fell to about half that.  The story even suggested HBO was seeking an excuse to cancel “Luck,” and the unlucky horses provided the reason the channel needed to pull the plug.  That’s just conjecture, but my take is: That’s not a far-fetched scenario at all.

Why’d so many people abandon the show?  For the love/hate reason suggested above.  The thing people love about Milch’s shows, primarily, is the intriguing, highly literate dialogue he writes for his characters.  Lovers of great writing appreciate when his characters engage in his trademark verbal sparring, even when they go off on irrelevant tangents, such as last week’s out-of-left-field conversation in which two characters debated the details of the Three Stooges’ “Niagara Falls” comedy bit.

The unusual tone and tempo of the dialogue is also why millions get turned off by Milch.  For one thing, it’s not what they’re used to hearing on TV shows.  For another, his shows often suffer from an action deficit.  Often, you go entire episodes without much happening.  Instead, the hour is sucked up by dialogues that, yes, are very creative, but also stultifying.

That was the thing with “Luck”: The acting was great, for the most part  (Hoffman, Michael Gambon, Jason Gedrick, Joan Allen, Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy and all the rest), the horse-racing scenes were electrifying, and the cinematography was beautiful.  Still, not much happened.  And that’s a turn-off for many.  (Why include the phrase “for the most part” above?  Because the one cast member I didn’t care for was Nick Nolte, who played a gravel-voiced horse trainer.)

As for Milch, his track record with HBO is fascinating: First, there was “Deadwood,” everyone’s favorite Western series and the one that changed forever our perceptions of how the Old West should be portrayed from here on out.  Well, that series got cancelled suddenly before Milch had planned to end it, and fans howled in protest.  HBO promised some future “Deadwood” TV movies, but no one believed that, and indeed, they never happened.

Then there was Milch’s one-season series about a dysfunctional family of southern California surfers and their interactions with a godlike alien – “John From Cincinnati.”    For most people, that show was even less accessible than “Luck.”  (But again, like with all Milch shows, opinions vary widely.  I happened to love “John From Cincinnati” and consider it to be one of the finest TV shows ever produced.  Go figure.)

He then tried his hand at another cop show (he’d long been associated with “NYPD Blue” on ABC) called “Last of the Ninth” (referring to the Ninth Precinct of the NYPD).  He produced a pilot for HBO, but the network declined.  Then they said yes to “Luck” and that show bit the dust because of dead animals.

Will HBO take up any new business with Milch after all of this?  Well, it’s not his fault the horses died, but on this question, as with all Milch questions, there are two camps: Those who love him hope HBO will try again with him.  Those who can’t stand his shows won’t mourn the passing of “Luck.”

If you’ve been following “Luck” up to this point, I suggest you carry it through to the end, even though the March 25 finale does not serve as a series ender.  Truth is, you only really have to expend two more hours with this star-crossed show.  And then it’s good-bye and good luck to “Luck.”

“Luck” airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO (for two more weeks, alas).

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

In HBO’s ‘Game Change,’ Palin’s a blithering idiot

March 10, 2012

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change.” (Photo: HBO)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 10, 2012 — Let’s try and set the record straight on this HBO Sarah Palin movie called “Game Change,” which you’ve no doubt been reading about lately.

TV critics are hailing the movie, in which Julianne Moore plays Palin, in much the same way that they reacted to a previous HBO movie about another presidential campaign — the 2008 made-for-TV movie called “Recount” about the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000.  Both movies were written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach.  Then, as now, the critics are enthusiastic about “Game Change” and, in particular, Moore’s performance.

Of course, any TV movie that purports to portray Sarah Palin will come to TV laden with controversy.  And that rule of thumb certainly applies to “Game Change,” which premieres on HBO on Saturday night (March 10) at 9/8c.

As with any TV dramatization adapted from real events (or, as in this case, a non-fiction book about real events), your enjoyment of “Game Change” might depend on whether or not you accept its portrayal of Sarah Palin.  And this movie’s depiction of Palin is downright brutal.

It’s the Sarah Palin of summer and fall 2008, when she skyrocketed to instant fame as John McCain’s surprise pick to join his ticket as the Republican candidate for vice president.  The movie focuses primarily on three characters — McCain (played by Ed Harris), Palin, and McCain campaign advisor Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson with his usual intensity).

In the movie, which I watched the other day on a preview DVD provided by HBO, Harris puts his own usual intensity on hold to portray McCain as an F-word spewing candidate who seems to prefer that his staff do most of the heavy lifting in the management of his own presidential campaign.

Harris doesn’t really try for out-and-out mimickry in his portrayal of McCain, but that wasn’t the case with Moore.  She nails Palin in all the crucial areas — her voice, her body language, her hair, makeup and wardrobe.  Moore’s portrayal of Palin is the great performance of this movie, and the primary reason to watch it in the first place.  She’s almost certain to be nominated for an Emmy and she’ll probably win it.

Her transformation into Palin was so complete that I couldn’t help but think of Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”  That was a richer role, but the two challenges were essentially the same: How to become another person so completely that you forget about the actress.  Among many great moments in “Game Change,” one of our favorites was when Moore, costumed as Palin, watched Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” playing Palin.  It is a great moment in television.

Having said all that, the portrayal is savage.  This movie posits that Palin the candidate was an uneducated, inarticulate, head-strong egomaniac who knew next to nothing about history, geography, international relations or domestic affairs.  Moreover, according to the movie, when the pressures of running for national office mounted, she caved emotionally.  Basically, the movie depicts Palin as a blithering idiot who couldn’t take the heat.

Is the portrayal true?  Well, it is based on a book – “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin — and it’s the kind of book you assume is factual.

The book was about the Democratic and Republican campaigns that ended with Barack Obama’s victory — and all the people involved in the many dramas that took place that year.  And yet, the movie focuses only on the Palin/McCain drama.

“That book had several movies in it,” says executive producer Gary Goetzman in a video HBO produced to promote the movie.  “So we picked a piece of the book to make this movie.”   You can interpret that statement in any of two ways (or possibly more): (1) For the sake of producing a tightly focused two-hour telemovie, the producers had to pick one of the book’s many stories and restrict the movie to telling that tale, or (2) the producers have it in for Palin.  I suspect there’s more to item (1) than item (2) here, but just the same, both interpretations are probably valid.

Sarah Palin herself has said recently that she hasn’t seen the movie and doesn’t plan on watching it (though I expect she won’t be able to resist giving it at least a wee peek Saturday night, assuming she subscribes to HBO).

Love it or hate it, this movie is too fascinating to dismiss, or miss.

Remember when . . . Sarah Palin became a reality TV star on TLC?  I loved writing about “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” so much that I made 18 columns out of it.  Relive the experience HERE, with all 18 of those columns collected in one special place — only on TVHowl.com.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Billy Crystal ‘blackface’ controversy is baloney

February 28, 2012

Billy Crystal (left) and Sammy Davis Jr.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Feb. 28, 2012 — Billy Crystal is being criticized for appearing in costume as Sammy Davis Jr. in the elaborate pre-produced bit that opened the Oscar telecast Sunday night on ABC.

What are the critics complaining about?  His face — specifically, the dark makeup Billy used to complete his impersonation of Sammy.

In the aftermath of the Oscars, the makeup is producing accusations that Billy was doing a racist, “blackface” impersonation of the late, legendary entertainer, who was African-American (and also Jewish).

The Hollywood Reporter has a rundown — here — of the “controversy” and the handful of critics whose Tweets appear to have ignited this mini-firestorm.

For example, a blog identified as “Feministing” declared, “Blackface is not okay, ever.”  And from this thin gruel are “controversies” made these days.

My own opinion is that this “firestorm” doesn’t hold water, but more on that in a moment.

First, the background: Billy turned up in costume as Sammy Davis in the portion of that opening bit that spoofed the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris.”  “Sammy” appeared in a vintage limousine with Justin Bieber (the real one).

The choice was apparently made to include Billy’s “Sammy” character simply because it’s a character he was famous for doing on “Saturday Night Live” when he was a cast member in 1984-85.  Back then, as now, the characterization required dark makeup.  (It’s also worth noting that Billy impersonated Muhammad Ali and Prince on “SNL”; in fact, it was his impression of Ali that made him famous as a young comedian in the 1970s.)

In the wake of Sunday’s “Sammy” appearance on the Oscar show, these “critics” have dealt Billy the “blackface” card.  “Blackface” refers to a practice with roots in 19th-century forms of popular entertainment in which white stage performers blackened their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish to portray African-Americans in ways that often weren’t exactly flattering (and if that’s an understatement, then unlike the Twitterers, I admit right up front I’m not an expert on this subject, though there are plenty of places to learn about it in books and on the Internet).

The “blackface” practice probably reached its zenith when Al Jolson, considered by many to be one of the most electrifying entertainers who ever lived, donned the dark makeup in the early decades of the 20th century to sing songs such as “Mammy,” which certainly wouldn’t fly today.

Cut to the present day: And now, Billy Crystal is being accused of racist “blackfacing” as if he’s been caught barnstorming the country in a minstrel show.

I happen to think this mini-controversy is baloney for several reasons.  For one thing, Billy Crystal has never demonstrated any sort of bias against African-Americans or anyone else, as far I can recall.  In addition, when it comes to Sammy Davis Jr. in particular, he seems to have adored the man — as I learned earlier this month when Billy talked at length about Sammy on Showtime’s “Inside Comedy,” the show on which David Steinberg interviews top comedians about their craft.

Billy told an incredibly affectionate story about Sammy from the days when Billy opened for Sammy in Lake Tahoe (and probably other places).  You could tell that Billy had nothing but love and respect for Sammy.  Certainly, how Sammy felt about Billy’s impersonation of him on “SNL” remains an open question (one biography of Sammy that I own – “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.” by Wil Haygood – doesn’t report on Sammy’s reaction but speculates that he may have felt forced to accept it because of his own history of doing impersonations; Davis died in 1990).

The last thing I’ll say about this is: I think the people criticizing Billy for “blackfacing” are being awfully selective here.  I’m pretty sure Fred Armisen has to tint his face a bit to play Barack Obama on “SNL” (and, in a recent sketch, Prince), but we haven’t seen any “blackface” accusations thrown his way.

In addition, Robert Downey Jr. was criticized by some for applying dark-face makeup for the 2008 movie “Tropic Thunder.”  But that “controversy” died down and was soon forgotten.

My prediction: The same thing will happen with this Crystal controversy too.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

And the winner is: Reliable Billy Crystal

February 26, 2012

Billy Crystal at the Oscars Sunday.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Feb. 26, 2012 — There’s something to be said for reliability.  And that’s what Billy Crystal brought to the Oscars Sunday night when he hosted the show for the ninth time.

What’s so great about reliability as opposed to, say, unpredictability?  The main thing is this: In the hours and days after the telecast, few will complain about the host this year — even those who don’t particularly care for Billy Crystal.  A year ago, the majority of the post-Oscar talk was all about how Anne Hathaway and James Franco flopped (especially him).  And in other years, “unpredictable” hosts such as David Letterman and Chris Rock were panned too.

But with Billy Crystal, you get a guy who takes on one of the hardest jobs in show business and then makes it look easy.  He’s a consummate entertainer — he sings (not perfectly, but good enough for a comic), he dances (sort of) and he knows how to get off jokes and one-liners that are neither too soft nor too sharp.  Instead, Billy tends to bowl ’em right down the middle, which is what this telecast demands and, seemingly, only he can deliver.

And deliver he did for a ninth time, starting with one of his trademark, pre-produced bits — an epic retrospective that opened the show, in which Billy turned up in scenes from all nine of the Best Picture nominees.  The most memorable moment in this bit: When George Clooney kissed him tenderly on the lips in a spoof scene from “The Descendants.”

After his grand entrance, which also included an elaborate song-and-dance routine in which Billy sang lyrics poking fun at all the nominated movies, he appeared at various times throughout the evening, got off a joke or two and then made himself scarce.  That’s also a talent he possesses: Knowing when to get on and off stage before the audience tires of him.

I loved his constant jabs at the theater the telecast was coming from — the former Kodak Theatre that no longer carries the name because the revered company is bankrupt.  I counted at least three references to Kodak’s plight when Billy renamed the venue “the Chapter 11 Theater,” “the Your Name Here Theater” and “the Flomax Theater.”

And I loved the way this veteran comic delivered his jokes.  “So, tonight enjoy yourselves,” he said near the beginning of the show, “because nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues!”

Later, he introduced presenter Christian Bale this way: “A dark knight, an American psycho, a charismatic crack addict [referring to some of Bale’s best-known roles] . . .   You’ll get to choose one on super Tuesday!”

And after a soaring performance by Cirque du Soleil (which really was mind-blowing), Billy said, “Wow, I pulled a hamstring just watching that!  Now it’s a party!  We got puppets, acrobats, we’re a pony away from being a bar mitzvah!”

As for the non-Billy moments, my favorite was the pre-produced bit with the 1939 “focus group” that critiqued “The Wizard of Oz.”  That bit’s participants included Bob Balaban, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge and Catherine O’Hara — the tightknit group of comic actors from Guest’s movies such as “A Mighty Wind,” “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman.”  That was a great surprise.

In the moments before the telecast began, ABC’s Robin Roberts caught up with Natalie Portman on the way into the theater.  And Portman, last year’s Best Actress winner for “Black Swan,” probably spoke for many of us when she told Roberts she was looking forward to the Oscar show because Billy Crystal had returned.

“We’re in good hands,” Portman said.  And she was right.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Here comes the judge: Howard Stern on ‘AGT’

December 15, 2011

Howard Stern on NBC? Yes, it’s happening.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Dec. 15, 2011 — NBC finally made it official Thursday morning: Howard Stern’s been hired as the third judge on “America’s Got Talent,” replacing the departed Piers Morgan.  Stern will be seen on the show starting next summer.

There are likely many people who are scratching their heads over this hire, people who don’t see how on earth Howard Stern, the notorious radio personality whose conversations with guests on his Sirius XM radio show are often X-rated, will now be seen on one of our biggest TV networks in a show that, if nothing else, is suitable for the whole family.

Sure, on the face of it, he doesn’t seem compatible with this show at all.  But, in fact, he’s a great choice.  Here’s why and how it happened:

1) Stern’s adaptable: One thing many people other than his most ardent fans fail to realize — Howard Stern is a very gifted broadcaster.  Whether you enjoy the subject matter of his conversations on the radio or not, he is still one of the best there is at talking, which, believe it or not, is a skill that only a few have.  And among his skills is this: Putting the potty talk on hold when it’s necessary to do so — on late-night shows, for example, and also when he used to voice commercials for sponsors of his radio show; those commercials were second-to-none.  On “AGT,” Stern will clean up his act accordingly because, while I know this is difficult for many to believe, the guy is a consummate professional.  Yes, it’s true.

2) NBC needed him: How badly?  Enough to move heaven and earth — and the show from L.A. to New York — to get him.  And it will be worth it too — Stern will not only be very entertaining week after week, but the man is an electro-magnet for media attention.  His utterings on the show will be widely covered, at least initially, and “AGT” will reap the benefits in publicity.  In fact, with Stern on board, there’s little reason, other than timing, why this show shouldn’t air during the regular season on NBC, instead of the summer.  It would certainly do better than “The Sing-Off” or “The Biggest Loser,” competition shows that NBC had on its fall lineup this season that performed terribly in the ratings.

3) Stern “needed” this gig: Not in the sense that one “needs” a job in order to make money to support his family.  Stern’s rich enough to never have to work, but I suspect that an offer like this was irresistible to Stern, if it could be arranged.  Ever since he left terrestrial radio for Sirius, Stern has not been nearly the center of attention he once was in the heyday of his national morning show on old-fashioned broadcast radio.  With this “AGT” gig, he gets an opportunity for exposure in what is probably the most mainstream environment of his career — a G-rated talent show on one of our major TV networks.  Plus, he gets to feel relevant again, a media personality who still has the clout to get a network to roll out the red carpet for him, even though his history on television is mixed at best, and at worst, dismal.

Howard Stern on “America’s Got Talent”?  Our prediction: “AGT” is now poised to become the most talked-about TV show of 2012.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Inside the origins of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

December 7, 2011

Downtrodden Charlie Brown searches for the true meaning of Christmas in the revered holiday special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Photo: ABC).

CBS EXECS HATED SHOW, PREDICTED IT WOULD FLOP

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Dec. 7, 2011 — It went on to become the most popular and beloved of all of TV’s Christmas specials, but when CBS executives first laid eyes on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965, they didn’t care for it.

“They just didn’t like the show when I brought it to them” for the first time, recalled one of the show’s producers, Lee Mendelson, 78, in a recent phone interview from California.  Mendelson was executive producer of the special, along with “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, who died in 2000, and the late Bill Melendez.

“They just didn’t, for whatever reason, like the show,” he said.   “The first thing they said was, ‘Well, it’s going to go on next week.  There’s nothing we can do about it,’ but I remember them saying it will probably be the first and last Charlie Brown show.  . . .  They thought it was too slow, they didn’t like the jazz music so much on a Christmas show – in other words, these were all creative things that they didn’t like.”

In fact, Mendelson and Melendez thought they’d “missed the boat” too.  It was their first network special with Schulz and his Peanuts characters and it was shaping up to be their last.  “When we finished the show, Bill and I were very discouraged,” Mendelson said.  “In fact, Bill thought we had really missed the boat [and] I remember one of the animators stood up in the back and said, ‘You guys are crazy.  This is gonna run for a hundred years!’  We thought he was crazy.”

Mendelson also shed light on a popular misconception about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – namely, that the CBS execs objected to the special’s Christian content.  “They had no problem with the [show’s] religious aspects,” Mendelson said.

In the show’s famous “biblical verse” scene – unique in the annals of holiday TV specials – an anguished Charlie Brown vents his frustration over the commercialism that has overtaken the holiday.  “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” he asks.

Linus then strides to center stage and asks that the lights be dimmed.  He then recites the Bible passage – from the gospel according to Luke, verses 8-14.  “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night,” he says.  “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them . . .  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  . . . ”

If anyone had reservations about the Bible verses, it was Mendelson and Melendez, but not Schulz because it was Schulz’s idea.  Recalled Mendelson, “I remember when we were drawing up the show, Schulz said, ‘We’re going to have [Linus] read from the Bible.’  And Bill and I looked at each other and Bill said, ‘You know, I don’t think animated characters have probably ever read from the Bible.  And I remember Schulz’s response.  He said, ‘Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?’ ”

Despite everyone’s reservations about the special, it was a smash – watched by about half the country (on Dec. 9, 1965).  Among other things, the jazz music – by the Vince Guaraldi Trio – that the CBS execs disliked became world famous.  And it was far from the last Peanuts special produced by the triumvirate of Schulz, Mendelson and Melendez.  They made dozens of others in a collaboration that lasted about 30 years.

This year, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is airing on network TV for its 47th consecutive holiday season.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Joan Rivers’ own tragic history on ‘The Simpsons’

December 5, 2011

Krusty the Clown and agent Annie Dubinsky (Joan Rivers) in last Sunday’s episode of “The Simpsons” on Fox (Photos: Fox)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Dec. 5, 2011 — “The Simpsons” crammed a ton of TV history into that new episode seen this past Sunday night on Fox — not only spoofing Ralph Kramden and “The Honeymooners” and other iconic shows — but also featuring a storyline for guest-star Joan Rivers that cut close to the bone.

It was a story about a top comedy talent headlining a network TV show and the show’s headstrong producer, with whom the comedian has a close personal relationship.  In the episode, the producer — played by Rivers — threw her weight around so much on the set that network execs ordered the comedian, Krusty the Clown, to fire her, or else they would.

The story, no doubt devised with Rivers’ approval and possibly with her input, mirrored her own personal history — with Fox, no less — back in 1987.  That’s when she starred in a late-night show on the then-fledgling network — “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” — while her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, acted as executive producer.  When Fox execs ordered her to fire Edgar, she refused and they were both canned.  Three months later, he committed suicide — the worst tragedy of Rivers’ life.

And yet, there she was on “The Simpsons” spoofing her own tragic history — something only a comedian of her stature and experience would attempt.

In the episode, Krusty’s kids show got cancelled because he was so sadly behind the times (even referring in a meeting with network executives to “Percy Dovetonsils,” a character not seen on TV since the late Ernie Kovacs played him in the 1950s).  So Krusty linked up with Annie Dubinsky (Rivers), who was once his agent and girlfriend in the 1960s until he dumped her.  This past Sunday, she engineered his comeback after the cancellation.  But then, he had to fire her.

The whole episode dealt with the history of television, starting out with a Simpson family outing to the Springfield Museum of Television, which was closing and holding a memorabilia fire sale because no one apparently cared anymore about the early history of TV.  And, as Homer lamented, you don’t need to visit a museum anymore to see clips of old shows when you have the Internet.

At the museum, the family encountered an exhibit devoted to an old — and fictional — black-and-white show from the ’50s called “Fatso Flanagan,” which bore more than a resemblance to the old “Honeymooners.”  Homer and Marge even mimicked the famed “Baby, you’re the greatest!” scenes from “The Honeymooners” as Homer described how almost every comedy ever made for TV was based somehow on “The Honeymooners.”

It was an incredibly rich episode, and one that ought to put to rest, at least for now, rumblings from some critics lately that “The Simpsons” ought to be put out to pasture.  All we can say to that is this: Not yet, Fox — not yet.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

How’d Herman Cain do on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’?

November 9, 2011

The many faces of Herman Cain — four of ’em, at least! — as he appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” Monday night.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Nov. 9, 2011 — Jimmy Kimmel made the most of a guest who was a rarity for him and his ABC late-night show — an exclusive appearance by a prominent newsmaker and leading candidate for president who just that very morning had been accused for the fourth time of sexual harassment.

The appearance was no less of a triumph for the candidate himself — Herman Cain — who demonstrated strength and great humor in the face of adversity and, in the process, probably gained support — at least among the roughly 1.5 million who watch “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Why we admired Jimmy’s performance: He handled the candidate with just the right combination of seriousness and humor.  These kinds of guests are a challenge for late-night hosts, who feel much more comfortable kidding around with showpeople such as actors or fellow comedians.

But when a guest appears from outside the world of showbiz, some late-night hosts — such as David Letterman and Jay Leno, for example — tend to put a brake on the comedy and the segments have a way of falling flat.

Not so with Jimmy Monday night.  Even with Cain waiting backstage, Jimmy spent about half his monologue talking about the latest sexual harassment allegations leveled by Sharon Bialek with help from publicity-hound attorney Gloria Allred — probably because Jimmy knew the audience had to be well-informed on the topic before he could talk about it with his guest.

And that’s exactly what he did.  “So how was your day?” Jimmy asked Cain casually to start the segment.  “All things considered, I’m still alive,” Cain said with a smile.

“Have you considered hiring Gloria Allred as your attorney?” Jimmy asked.  “Let me put it to you this say,” Cain fired back, “I can’t think of anything that I would hire her for, OK?!”

Why Cain gets an A-plus from us: Sure, Jimmy Kimmel’s not a hard-nosed journalist, so some might say Cain got off easy with this opportunity to answer questions on national TV from a comedian who’s not a newsman.  But Jimmy pitched him all the relevant questions and Cain knocked them out of the park.  Plus, we give Cain props for showing up in the first place.  Under the circumstances, we were betting he wouldn’t.

For those of us who hadn’t really paid attention to Cain, the performance was very impressive.  He flatly and forcefully denied this latest sexual harassment charge, told Jimmy that his own wife instantly disbelieved it, and then found more than one opportunity to hammer home the goal of his campaign — to fix the economy.

He laughed at all the appropriate moments too.  In other words, his appearance didn’t have the effect of deadening the whole show, as these things often have on the late-night shows.

“I know to you, it’s a distraction,” Jimmy said of the sexual harassment accusations.  “But to me, it’s my life!”

And Herman Cain just laughed and laughed.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

‘Entourage’ series finale: A Hollywood ending

September 12, 2011

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’: Adrian Grenier in “Entourage” (Photo: HBO)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Sept. 12, 2011 — That was a dirty trick – ending the final episode of “Entourage” with “Going to California,” Led Zeppelin’s iconic song about the lure and promise of southern Cal.

The song framed a finish full of elaborate happy endings for the show’s principal characters – four of whom were once boys from New York who followed their dreams to California and, by the looks of it Sunday night on HBO, attained them.

The Led Zeppelin song came as they were gathered in an airplane hangar preparing to take two separate private jets on trips abroad – and at least three of the five were embarking on new lives representing a newfound maturity that was not much in evidence in this fun-loving, free-wheeling show’s previous seasons and episodes.

Why was the Zeppelin song a dirty trick?  Because it happens to be a beautiful song, and thus elevated a series that was never long on sentiment to something with meaning – at least for its final moments.

Of course, the neat tying up of all the show’s loose ends in one 35-minute final episode was as much of a fantasy as the way the show’s various storylines were wrapped up for each of the characters:

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier): After one 24-hour date with the new love of his life – the journalist Sophia Lear (Alice Eve) – Vince declared they would marry that very evening in Paris, bought a ring for more than a million dollars and lined up a private jet to whisk everyone abroad.

Eric “E” Murphy (Kevin Connolly): Thanks to Vince’s largesse – not to mention his charismatic powers of persuasion – Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) agreed to meet E at the airport for their own private jet flight anywhere in the world.  With Sloan already pregnant with their child, we’re left to assume they will live happily ever after.

Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven): Ari did the unthinkable: He threw over his job as co-owner of the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood – the occupation that always seemed as vital to his survival as the blood coursing through his veins – in order to reconcile with Mrs. Ari (Perrey Reeves).  With the help of a young trio of Italian opera singers, the gambit worked and Mr. and Mrs. Ari joined the group for the trip to Paris.

Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon): There were no marriages or new loves for these two – their happy endings were sealed a week earlier, with Drama getting the TV-movie role of his dreams and Turtle becoming a multimillionaire thanks to Vince’s safe-keeping of Turtle’s investment in the tequila company.

Lloyd (Rex Lee): We were glad to see that a consideration of Lloyd’s future was included in the “Entourage” finale.  He was a great character and, in the end, when he fretted about what he would do at the agency without Ari to guide him, Ari told him, rightfully, that he possesses all the tools now to go in there and make his mark in the firm – and not as an Ari clone either, but as his own man.

“Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams . . . ”  “Going to California”?  Why not?  I wrote back when “Entourage” began in 2004 that, at its heart, it was a series about California – specifically, southern California (by which we mean L.A. and Hollywood) – about the fantasy and the reality of the place, and how the two are sometimes difficult to distinguish.

As for the series finale, whether you buy into the neat and tidy happy endings that creator Doug Ellin and his team conjured for the episode, as a time capsule of life in La La Land in the years 2004-2011, “Entourage” got it right.  And we’ll miss it.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

‘Rescue Me’ finale: Leary series goes out on top

September 8, 2011

R.I.P. Lt. Lou Shea: John Scurti in “Rescue Me” — his character was eulogized, hilariously, on the series finale Wednesday (Photo: FX)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Sept. 8, 2011 — Tommy Gavin didn’t die.  Instead, it was Lou, his best friend and perhaps the most likable of all the characters on “Rescue Me.”

A tragedy to end the firefighters’ series run?  Yes, but not completely.  Though Lou’s death was certainly tragic, leaving all of his surviving colleagues to question their futures in the New York City Fire Department, most of the one-hour series finale seen on FX Wednesday night played like a comedy.

That happened to be this show’s signature: Premiering in July 2004 and ending its run this week as the nation prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “Rescue Me” at its heart was a drama about one New York firefighter’s reaction to the loss of 343 FDNY brethren in the collapse of the Twin Towers that day in 2001.  That’s a weighty subject, to be sure, but since that firefighter, Tommy, was played by comedian Denis Leary (who also co-created, co-wrote and co-produced the series), much of the series was given over to Leary’s dark sense of humor.

Such was the case in the finale Wednesday night titled “Ashes.”  The ashes in the title were all that remained of sweet Lou (played to perfection for all seven seasons by John Scurti) after he was killed a week earlier in a warehouse fire (the location recognizable to all who ride the New York subway system’s elevated No. 7 train through Long Island City in Queens).  The collapse of that building left the survival of any of the firefighters in question leading into the finale.

And as the final episode began, it seemed as if at least five of them had succumbed.  But no — it was a dream conjured by Gavin, a dream in which Lou was seen eulogizing the five men with a rousing speech about the nature of firefighting — a grand piece of screen-writing, by the way, as was much of this final episode.

Certainly, it had been speculated that Tommy himself would be among the dead — a novel and striking way to end a series: Having the all-important main character, who’d been seen in virtually every scene of the show for seven years, get killed off.

But it was Lou who died, and his sendoff was a masterpiece, particularly in the choreography of the sequence in which two windows in Tommy’s SUV were opened simultaneously — because Tommy ordered Franco and Black Shawn to toss out their chewing gum — and the sudden cross-ventilation caused Lou’s ashes to suddenly explode out of their box, covering driver, passengers and the entire interior of the vehicle with his earthly remains.

Then, in a perfectly balanced combination of sentiment and black comedy, Tommy poignantly read a letter left to him by Lou (in case of Lou’s death), and then tossed his “ashes” — actually a box of Betty Crocker cake mix that Lou’s brethren bought at the 11th hour to stand in for his ashes — over a cliff and into the sea (it looked like Long Island Sound).

Other scenes were laden with comedy too, such as the scene where Tommy, contemplating life as an FDNY retiree, battles with a group of parents at a politically correct playground (filmed in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City, about half a block from the World Trade Center site) over the sharing of kids’ toys in the sandbox.  Forget about “Rescue Me” — that was like a scene out of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” only better.

In the end, Tommy didn’t retire, but nor did he assume Lou’s lieutenant’s role, which was his right as senior firefighter in the house.  Instead, he let the promotion go to the gung-ho Franco.

As the episode came to a close, Franco and Tommy were seen exhorting a group of new FDNY recruits on the meaning of belonging to a select group of people of run toward and into burning buildings when everyone else is running out and away from them.

In the show’s touching last scene, Tommy was seen behind the wheel of his SUV having a jovial conversation with an old friend seated in the passenger seat — the ghost of Lou.

This episode was one of the best-written episodes of any single TV show seen in years.  Our hope for Leary and his team is that they get recognized for it.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

9/11 commemorative TV shows? I think I’ll pass

September 7, 2011

BEFORE: In this light-hearted postcard from before 9/11/2001, the World Trade Center was just another landmark on the New York City skyline. (Source: Author’s collection of World Trade Center postcards.)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Sept. 7, 2011 — You can’t escape 9/11 on TV this week, though it would be nice if you could.

Turn on the tube and there it is, all served up on multiple channels so you can have the opportunity to relive the horror of that day:  The visual — as impossible to believe then as it is now 10 years later — of airliners flying directly into each of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the resultant smoke pouring out of the gaping holes after the great buildings seemed to swallow the big jets, the poor souls who chose to jump a hundred stories to their deaths rather than be burned alive, the eventual collapse of each tower and the debris clouds that overwhelmed lower Manhattan and billowed out over the Hudson River.

Want to wallow in the memory of it all?  Go right ahead, but I think I’ll pass.  I have no need to relive that day and the days that followed, though judging from all the special retrospective material now airing in advance of this Sunday’s 10th anniversary, plenty of people seem to have a need to relive it, and also to talk about it, to tell the rest of us where they were when it happened, what they felt then and how they feel about it now, how the terrorist sneak attacks changed “us,” and on and on.

I guess I’m not much of a wallower.  I was at home when the attacks occurred, two miles up Greenwich Street from the Twin Towers.  And that’s all you’re going to learn about what I experienced that day.  If offered a microphone by a roving reporter from a local radio or TV station to relate my experiences for broadcast, I would politely decline.  But plenty of people around here are saying yes to such invitations.  If you live in New York, you’re seeing and hearing their testimony all over the place these days in commemorative segments on all the news shows and cable channel specials.

Local newscasts this week can’t go to a commercial break without a 9/11 interlude — some somber music and the words “Remembering 9/11” on the screen, and a brief interview with some passerby who tells us how he or she was on his or her way to work downtown that day and saw the planes hit or, less dramatically, still soaking in a tub somewhere else, perhaps not anywhere near any of the 9/11 attack sites at all, hearing the shocking bulletins on the radio or TV.

These people seem to find the opportunity to tell their stories impossible to resist — a way of thinking in line with social trends.  Everyone wants to tell his or her own story these days, right?  So they take to Facebook and Twitter and tell everyone they know what they’re eating right now.

Not me, though.  My 9/11 memories are private.  My feelings about that day are too.  Sorry, but it’s just nobody’s business.   I’ll admit this: I’m not big on anniversaries as a basis for TV commemorations.  Maybe it’s because I once had an editor, when I was at a formative age, who prohibited anniversary stories.  It wasn’t real news, he’d say, whenever a reporter came to him with a pitch from a TV network publicist ballyhooing some milestone reached by a TV show — a fifth season, or a 100th episode, or the 20th consecutive week as TV’s top comedy or drama.

As news “hooks,” such milestones were contrivances unworthy of our stations as journalists.  I got his point, and I agreed with it too.  However, you’d be correct to point out that this 9/11 anniversary is more notable than some TV show’s fifth week as the top-rated comedy on Thursday nights.

Judging by all the hours of TV programming that have been produced for the occasion, the people running the nation’s TV stations, broadcast networks and cable channels must believe the public is eager to share in a kind of telethon of national remembrance.  But you also can’t help wondering at times such as this if all the programming produced for the occasion begets all the interest, instead of the other way around.

Or, to put it another way, if TV didn’t pull out all the stops to present you with constant reminders of 9/11 this week, would you miss it?

AFTER: World Trade Center postcard from after 9/11/2001 — the late great Twin Towers draped in elongated American flags. (Author’s collection)

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Last coconut phone call for Sherwood Schwartz

July 13, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz (right) and the character he created, Gilligan, played by Bob Denver.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, July 13, 2011 — Spend enough years as a journalist on the same beat and it’s inevitable that many of the people you met along the way will die eventually.

And if you’ve been around as long as I have, you run the risk of beginning to sound like that scene in “The Sunshine Boys” where the only subject the elderly former comedy partners Lewis and Clark (George Burns and Walter Matthau in the 1975 movie) seem to talk about is the death of someone they knew.  Maybe you remember this pointless conversation — it went something like this: “Where’d he die?”  “In Variety.”

So I try and avoid these kinds of blog posts, but when Sherwood Schwartz died the other day at age 94, I somehow retrieved a dim memory of having lunch with him.  And since cobwebs were forming here on TV Howl (my last post was a while ago), I decided it was time to make a new contribution.

I’m pretty sure it was in May 2000 or thereabouts — at the Waldorf Astoria, in the ballroom, where many a TV industry event is held in New York.  Nick at Nite (or maybe it was TV Land) was putting on some sort of presentation of its then-new lineup of old shows.  The only record I possess of this event is a photo taken backstage of Mr. T and me.

One of the only other memories of this event: Tina Yothers, formerly of “Family Ties,” singing in a rock band.

Somehow, I was assigned to the same table as Sherwood Schwartz and his wife.  I dimly recall engaging him in conversation by asking him about his various shows — “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Dusty’s Trail.”  I was particularly interested in how he arrived at the number of characters for these shows — seven for both “Gilligan” and “Dusty’s Trail” and nine for “Brady Bunch.”

I don’t recall the details, but his answer indicated that those numbers were shrewdly chosen for their versatility and potential for myriad storylines.  For that’s one of the problems the producers of TV shows always come up against: Dreaming up enough stories to sustain the scenario they created through an entire season (which, in the days of “Gilligan’s Island,” was 36 episodes) or multiple seasons.

Judging by his age when he died, Schwartz must have been 82 or 83 when I met him that day.  He was an energetic guy — a funny little old man.  At one point during the presentation that was underway on-stage after lunch had been served and eaten, a “phone” made of coconut halves — like something the Professor would have devised on “Gilligan’s Island” — was delivered to our table.

A single spotlight then cut through the darkened ballroom and shone on Sherwood as the ringing of a phone was suddenly heard.  That was apparently Sherwood’s cue to answer this “phone” and speak into it.   And since the phone had a hidden microphone, Sherwood’s voice was heard over the ballroom’s speaker system saying something about “The Brady Bunch.”

I was delighted to have witnessed this “performance” from the chair right beside him.  All in all, it was a great day, having my photo taken with Mr. T and then sitting beside the creator of “Gilligan’s Island” as he took a call on a coconut telephone.  What more could a TV columnist ask for?

May he rest in peace.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Katie in the afternoon: You be the judge

June 11, 2011

Katie Couric’s coming to daytime but no one knows how she’ll do (Photo: Disney/ABC)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, June 11, 2011 — A lot of people want to know lately: How will Katie Couric do on daytime TV?

My answer?  I have no idea.  It’s not because I’m at a loss for words or can’t quite generate an opinion.  I’ve never had those problems.  Just on the face of it, I think that generally speaking, the odds don’t favor her making a big splash with a daytime talk show.  There are just too many variables afflicting daytime television these days to state with certainty that she’s a slamdunk to emerge with a hit talk show on her hands.

Not that it’s impossible, but this is a time of day that is seriously in flux nowadays as far as television is concerned.  Based on everything that’s going on now in daytime, this new Katie Couric talk show is a huge gamble that could go either way.

Here are the factors at play, in no particular order, as Couric prepares to enter the daytime arena about 15 months from now:

1) What exactly is daytime television?  One thing it’s not: A place where any former network news anchor has ever set up shop and succeeded.  A personality with Couric’s news background might be expected to attract newsmakers as guests, for conversations about stories or subjects in the news.  The problem with that: No one’s ever attempted that in a syndicated afternoon talk show.

2) The cable news channels own that kind of news/talk on weekday afternoons.  They’ve owned it ever since the 1990s, when the O.J. Simpson trials, the Clinton impeachment, and stories such as the Elian Gonzalez saga and the 2000 presidential election recount riveted viewers in afternoons.  Broadcast networks began to notice: These “real-life” soap operas were stealing their audiences.

3) So maybe there’s an opportunity for Couric, a newsperson, to siphon off some of the audience for news/talk in the afternoon.  Maybe, but is that audience really big enough to sustain her show?  That’s doubtful.  It should be noted that Anderson Cooper is poised to do the same thing — start an afternoon talk show.  So it’s clear some people in the TV business think the afternoon is ripe for this kind of thing.

4) But is the afternoon audience ripe for it, whoever they are?  Sure, everybody’s focusing on Oprah Winfrey leaving daytime, and then, theoretically, leaving an opportunity for someone like Couric to come in and grab the “serious” afternoon TV viewer.  But are there really enough of them?  Take a look at daytime TV — Oprah was an exception.  Most of the shows on daytime are low-rent judge shows and talk shows like “Maury” and “Jerry Springer” (and yes, Ellen Degeneres holds on somehow, with ratings are that pretty low, but apparently just enough to keep her show profitable).  Will the audience for all these other shows suddenly flock to Katie Couric?  Probably not.

5) Katie’s no Oprah.  And that’s the crux of the matter.  Even Oprah’s audience was in decline, and she’s Oprah.  That’s probably why she decided to leave daytime syndication and stake her future on cable TV.  Judge Judy was beating her in the ratings and she knew it.  The question is: Do people like Katie Couric?  Once upon a time she was America’s sweetheart at “The Today Show.”  Then, something happened — I don’t know what it was, but nowadays she doesn’t seem as beloved as she once was.  In fact, that’s an understatement.  In some quarters, Couric is so polarizing a personality that she’s on par with Sarah Palin in the kinds of reactions she draws from readers of blog posts like this one.

6) Daytime is so unpredictable these days that even the traditional soap operas — the long-time backbone of daytime TV — are on life-support.  Under the circumstances, it’s just too chaotic to figure out whether Katie Couric can come along and plant her flag on this shaky ground.  Fact is, she’s a very capable broadcaster, but the savior of daytime TV?  Who came up with that idea?

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Business as usual at CBS News as Pelley era begins

June 11, 2011

THE NEW GUY: Scott Pelley takes over as anchorman on “The CBS Evening News” (Photo: CBS News).

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, June 11, 2011 — Scott Pelley didn’t mark his debut as the new anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in any special way Monday evening.  Instead, he chose to anchor the broadcast as if his first day was nothing special.

He made no self-referential remarks, made no speeches about what he’ll do or how the newscast might change in the Pelley era or how honored he is to be installed as only the fifth CBS evening-news anchor since 1948.

The approach was refreshing actually.  It was also unexpected since we’re not accustomed to TV personalities refraining from talking about themselves, especially on days that are very special to them personally.  Certainly, Monday must have been such a day in the life of Scott Pelley, a 53-year-old CBS newsman who had reached the pinnacle of his field, which happens to be one of the most competitive in the world.

And yet, Pelley didn’t mention it.  Instead, he anchored the news – introducing stories (10 of them) and, on occasion, exchanging a few remarks with CBS correspondents.  Perhaps the approach was deliberate.  Maybe it was meant to convey the idea, without Pelley having to spell it out, that he didn’t intend to rock the boat as the broadcast’s new anchor.

Or maybe he’s saving the boat-rocking for some future newscasts.  Whatever he was thinking, he didn’t let us in on it.  Instead, he read his copy flawlessly and, when it was time to end the show, he said simply, “For all of us at CBS News all around the world, good night.”

The Pelley era was under way, and as the week wore on, Pelley continued to underplay his own role in the broadcast.

Personally, I happen to love the old-fashioned CBS approach to news — the attention to detail, the flawless reading of the copy, the care and professionalism with which the stories are presented.  It’s all so fastidious, but in today’s world, do news viewers look for fastidiousness and attention to detail in their TV newscasts?  Other than me, does anyone really care about these qualities anymore?

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Oprah’s farewell: Long good-bye takes three days

May 26, 2011

HASTA LA VISTA, BABY: Oprah Winfrey waves good-bye. (Photo: (c) 2011 Harpo, Inc./George Burns)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, May 26, 2011 — The final “Oprah Winfrey Show” Wednesday consisted of little more than Oprah standing on her stage and talking.

For her millions of loyal fans, this must have been heavenly.  For the rest of us, who tuned in to her final show (the 4,561st, as Oprah herself pointed out) expecting a bit more excitement – perhaps some fireworks, a big cake, a brass band – the show was a bit of a letdown.

On the other hand, as Oprah said repeatedly, this particular show wasn’t really for those of us who didn’t regularly ride the Oprah train to inspiration, validation and self-fulfillment over the last 25 years.  This show was for those who did ride along with Oprah on this “journey” (her word) that began back in 1986.

With the Paul Simon song “10 Years” (the one he converted to “25 Years” in her honor earlier this season) playing as a theme in and out of the show’s commercial breaks, Oprah took her stage at Harpo Studios in Chicago for the last time.  Dressed in a simple pink dress, she stood for the whole hour (though a white chair was there in case she needed it) and spoke to the audience.

“This last hour is really about me saying thank you,” she said when she took the stage.  “It is my love letter to you.”

“I wanted to spend this last hour telling you what you’ve meant to me,” she said, one of many times she would thank her viewers in the course of this hour-long speech (some might call it a sermon), in which she shared details from her life story (as she’s done many times before), imparted various life lessons, and even preached about the meaning of God.  “God is love and God is life!” she exclaimed. “And your life is always speaking to you, first in whispers . . .”

And so it went.  There were no celebrity guests, though Tyler Perry was recognized from his seat in the audience because of his participation in a show earlier this season about men who had been sexually abused in boyhood.  Oprah’s fourth-grade teacher was in the audience too – the one who Oprah still calls “Mrs. Duncan” – and who apparently had a profound impact on the young Oprah.

If there was any central theme to this show, it was nothing less than the meaning of life, which is a lot for any one person to take on.  And yet, Oprah doesn’t shy away from such challenges.  She advised her viewers to “use your life to serve the world.”  She talked about the Golden Rule and the importance of “validation.”

“There is a common thread that runs through all our pain and suffering and that is unworthiness,” she preached, advising viewers to “validate” the ones they love.  Tell them: “What you say matters to me!” Oprah beseeched.

Toward the end of the hour, the commercial breaks came more frequently.  After all, television is a business and the breaks near the end of this particular show were valuable indeed.  Finally, after one last break, the end was near and Oprah said her final words.

“I thank you for sharing this yellow brick road of blessings,” she said.  “I thank you for tuning in everyday . . .  I thank you for being as much of a sweet inspiration for me as I’ve tried to be for you.  I won’t say good-bye.  I’ll just say, Until we meet again.  To God be the glory.”

She then strolled out of the studio, stopping briefly for a few hugs and greetings, then continued walking down a narrow corridor lined with members of her staff.  At the end of this gauntlet, she encountered her small dog Sadie.  Lifting the dog into the air, Oprah declared: “Sadie, we did it! We did it, Sade! We did it!”

And then Oprah, with Sadie under her right arm, disappeared behind a pillar and was gone.  Until we meet again.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Kimmel vs. Fallon: A tale of two Jimmies

April 20, 2011

Jimmy Fallon

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, April 20, 2011 — Someday, all late-night hosts will be named Jimmy.  But until then, we’ll settle for the two we have now – Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, who just happen to be doing the brightest shows in late-night.

And we can’t help but be fascinated that both of these guys are named Jimmy, which is pretty incredible when you consider that there aren’t that many late-night hosts to begin with.

How many?  Let’s count ’em off: Dave, Jay, Conan, Craig (Ferguson), George (Lopez), Jimmy (Fallon) and Jimmy (Kimmel).  That’s seven male late-night personalities hosting “traditional” late-night shows (which is why we’re leaving out Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) and two of them are named Jimmy.  Or, to put it another way, nearly 29 percent (more than a quarter, almost a third!) of all male late-night hosts are named Jimmy.

Moreover, the two Jimmies compete against each other, but only for 25 minutes – which means that, when you’re deciding between the two, it comes down to choosing (roughly) the first half of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” on NBC (12:35-1:35 a.m./11:35-12:35c) over the second half of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC (midnight-1 a.m./11c-midnight).

Jimmy Kimmel

Adding to the vexation: The two Jimmies are eerily similar and yet, at the same time, they’re so so different!

Did you know that both Jimmies were born in Brooklyn?

Kimmel, a Scorpio born on Nov. 13, 1967, is 43.  He and his family moved to Las Vegas when he was nine.  Fallon, a Virgo, is 36.  He was born on Sept. 19, 1974.  He and his family moved to the town of Saugerties in upstate New York when he was little.  And get this: The fathers of both Jimmies worked for IBM (according to Wikipedia).  Coincidence?!  Probably.

Of course, both Jimmies grew up to become late-night talk-show hosts.  And, while Kimmel’s been at it longer, both Jimmies got their late-night gigs at around the same age.  Kimmel was 35 when he got his show in 2003 after ABC enticed him away from “The Man Show” on Comedy Central.  Fallon became host of NBC’s “Late Night” at age 34 in March 2009 after Conan O’Brien left to take over “The Tonight Show.”

Here in the present day, the two Jimmies are scoring very similar ratings.  In the most recent late-night ratings report – for the week of April 4-8, Kimmel had a slight lead, attracting an average of 1.789 million viewers each night, compared to Fallon’s average of 1.675 million.  One reason Kimmel was out ahead: His lead-in, “Nightline,” beat Fallon’s lead-in, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” that week in the nightly total-viewer count.

But that’s where the similarities seem to end.  Kimmel’s rise in show business differed markedly from Fallon’s.  Before co-hosting “The Man Show” with Adam Carolla, Kimmel was Ben Stein’s sidekick on the old Comedy Central quiz show “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”  Fallon, of course, came up via “Saturday Night Live,” where he appeared from 1998 to 2004, then left NBC to star in a string of movies.

The two Jimmies have both coasts covered.  Kimmel’s doing “Jimmy Kimmel Live” from the heart of Hollywood.  His greatest talent – other than affecting a relaxed, unruffled and slightly disheveled demeanor every night – is his ability for making A-list friends in Hollywood and then recruiting them to participate in his most elaborate bits (“The Handsome Mens Club,” “Hottie Body Hump Club,” “The King’s Speech” spoof he did on Oscar night with Mike Tyson, and many others).

Fallon’s hosting NBC’s “Late Night” from the heart of Manhattan – at NBC’s storied headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  He possesses basic performing skills that Kimmel lacks – most notably Fallon’s musical ability and a talent for impersonation (though possessing these skills has never been a requirement for hosting a late-night show).  It’s a matter of individual taste, but we happen to think Fallon’s extremely likable.  And we love the bits he and his writers have developed – “Thank You Notes,” “Robert Pattinson Is Bothered” and many others.  And we love Fallon’s band, The Roots.

So who’s the best Jimmy in late-night?  We reported, now you decide!

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Read my list: The greatest sitcom lineups ever

January 31, 2011

WHICH LINEUP WAS NO. 1? Here’s a hint: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — with Moore and Ted Knight — was a big part of it.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Jan. 31, 2011 — What makes a sitcom lineup great?  It’s a question I’ve set out to answer now that NBC has taken the unusual step of cramming six comedies on to the air in a single night on Thursdays – starting with “Community” at 8/7c, followed by the new “Perfect Couples,” “The Office,” “Parks & Recreation,” “30 Rock” (at 10/9c) and “Outsourced.”

So what are the best comedy blocks ever assembled?  I established my own subjective criteria: For my informal study, a lineup had to have at least four comedies in a row to qualify (before 1962, comedies were not strung together in any number greater than three); preferably, the lineup would remain more or less consistent for at least two seasons; and the shows had to be either high-rated or at least well-remembered, if not beloved.  Here’s what we came up with:

Runners-up: Before I get to my Top 10, some honorable mentions – Fall 1964, Thursdays on ABC: “The Flintstones,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “My Three Sons,” “Bewitched”; Fall 1965, Wednesdays on CBS: “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; and Thursdays on CBS: “The Munsters,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “My Three Sons”; Fall 1987, Mondays on CBS: “Frank’s Place,” “Kate & Allie,” “Newhart,” “Designing Women.”  Incredible, isn’t it?  “The Munsters” and “Gilligan” back-to-back on a single night?  Who wouldn’t love that?

And now, my Top 10:

No. 10: Fall 1986, Saturdays on NBC: “The Facts of Life,” “227,” “Golden Girls,” “Amen.”  Marla Gibbs, Sherman Hemsley, the “Golden” gals, plus “Mrs. Garrett” all in one night?  That’s TV heaven.

No. 9: Fall 1985, Fridays on ABC: Speaking of incredible TV pairings, how about Emmanuel Lewis and Gary Coleman on the same network on the same night: “Webster,” “Mr. Belvedere,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Benson.”

No. 8: Fall 1978, Thursdays on ABC: Another great lineup – future comedy greats Robin Williams (“Mork & Mindy”) and Billy Crystal (“Soap”), plus the beloved characters of “What’s Happening” and the legendary ensemble of “Barney Miller.”

No. 7: Fall 2007, Sundays on Fox: Talk about staying power – it had never been done, or even tried, before Fox strung together these animated powerhouses: “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” “Family Guy,” “American Dad.”

No. 6: Fall 1975, Monday on CBS:  Of these four sitcoms, three were spinoffs: “Rhoda” and “Phyllis” (from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), and “Maude” (from “All in the Family,” which preceded “Maude” at 9 p.m.).

No. 5: Fall 1978, Tuesdays on ABC: “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Three’s Company,” “Taxi.”  ABC definitely had a comedy winning streak going on in fall 1978 (see No. 8, above).  What can you say about a Tuesday lineup that included Richie Cunningham (future director Ron Howard) and The Fonz; Laverne, Shirley, Lenny and Squiggy; John Ritter and Suzanne Somers (plus Norman Fell and Don Knotts); and the whole gang from “Taxi”?  It seems impossible, but all that talent was available on free network TV in a single evening way back when.

No. 4: Fall 1991, Tuesdays on ABC: Many seasons later, ABC struck gold again on Tuesday nights with one of the highest-rated comedy lineups of all time – “Full House,” “Home Improvement,” “Roseanne,” “Coach.”

No. 3: Fall 1984, Thursdays on NBC: This is the comedy lineup that ushered in an era of comedy dominance for NBC that lasted into the early 2000s.  Behold: “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Night Court.”

No. 2: Fall 1993, Thursdays on NBC: Some might quibble with this lineup’s inclusion of “Wings,” but that series emerges as the best of all the sitcoms NBC tried at 8:30/7:30c on Thursdays.  And what can you say about a lineup that also boasts “Mad About You,” “Seinfeld” and “Frasier”?

And the No. 1 TV comedy lineup of all time is: Fall 1973, Saturdays on CBS: Few will argue with our choice for No. 1, particularly those old enough to have watched this incredible, never-to-be-duplicated collection of legendary megahits, four of the most critically acclaimed comedies of all time, followed by the most uproarious variety show ever made – “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show.”  All I can say is, Wow.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com


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