Network Equation & Special Challenges: The TCA CBS/CW/Showtime Summer 2013 Press Tour – Feature

Equating the ideas of major networks as well as their cable spinoffs and genre casings poses special challenges as creating edgy fare comes with its own contrivances about how to make things but economically and creatively viable. CBS though seems up to the task.

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The Arsenio Hall Show”, which brings back the once stalwart cool man of late night who abruptly fell off the scene, comes with an interesting delight: how to make this older man who epitomized the 90s into the fold two decades later. He told us two years ago at a cable function in a small group that he was planning this. What is interesting is that he is doing it with the same people as before and by extension the same company with a couple extras. Arsenio himself notes the change in times with the technology saying “Debbie Gibson [back in the day] sent me a FAX that she wanted to sing on my show. That was my text”. Another example he gives is “I remember Barbara Streisand calling me with a Bill Clinton question. Now she can tweet”. Sounding a little too much in the play, he speaks that “with a joke, you are able to Google now”. One of the things that he thinks gave him the confidence to return to this specific fray was his win on “Celebrity Apprentice” because “I have been Number Two at anything I have ever done” so “it was nice to win”. The aspect that also promoted it was the enticement of his son. He relates that he left the late night show he had at the top of his game but it was to spend more time raising his son. He explains “I needed balance in my life” and “the compliment from me to Paramount was that they don’t want you on the air if you know you’re going” which was the reason for the show’s abrupt end. Now that his son is older, when the finale of “Apprentice” came along, his son told him “we could win it!” This showed to him that his son had some investment in what he was doing. Arsenio was known in breaking music acts back in the day but the actuality is that “the stats point that music doesn’t get as good numbers as the talk”. He points that someone who has been supportive is Jay Leno, whom he says many people think as combative but he explains that this is true only when they are in direct competition with him. Jay, Arsenio explains, just wants to win, making the comparison that “Ali & Frazier didn’t get along initially”. His end game is that “at the end of the day, I am a stand up comic and I am there to get laughs” but “I just need to be funny in the way that I do it”.

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The Good Wife”, continuing its much ballyhooed run on CBS, recently received a watercooler boost with the campaigning of the infamous Anthony Weiner back into the New York mayoral race. Robert King, who exec produces the show with his wife Michelle, says that “there is a certain demand in telling the story” but “sometimes the audience is [only] inches ahead of us [and] sometimes yards ahead of us”. In comparison to the real life reflections with the recent Weiner situation, he says “we are the happiest people since we have so much to write about” saying “the Weiner thing hit it right on the head” though “Julianna [Maguiles] creates a good temperature on set”.

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Mom”, a new series starring ever blonde Anna Faris and Alison Janney, seems like an interesting mix especially with its addiction background of the story thrown in the comedy mix. After having her baby with husband Chris Pratt (from “Parks & Recreation”), Faris says “I wasn’t ready to get back to work” but he read it and pushed her to do it. Of her character, Faris admits “She’s so dimensional and a mess…basically like me”. Addressing her longevity in the business and getting that first job, she explains “I slowly came to realize that getting your first job is hard but not as hard as the second one” because “you have to peddle yourself around town”. At this point in her career, she says “there is a difference in that you graduate as a woman into a different element in your 30s”. Asked to what her mom might think of her portrayal on-screen in this series, Faris jokes that “my mom is a prude but half the time she doesn’t know what the vocabulary means” adding that “she says she’s never seen a condom”. Chuck Lorre, who continues to build his empire here after the successes of “Two &A Half Men”, “Big Bang Theory” and recently “Mike & Molly”, concludes with the admission that “I once asked Norman Lear what he did [with all his shows] and he said you go where the fire is burning the brightest and where you are most needed”.

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Showtime swoops with interest into the battle with the return of “Homeland” and the texture of how you change up the show with two red hot Emmy winners on the roll. Claire Danes, whose lead character is always on the verge of exploding, says that “Carrie is always sitting on her own personal ticking bomb” adding that “it is an impossible dilemma”. In terms of the recent progression, she continues that Carrie “is not great on the meds and she is even worse off them” posing that “it is pretty bleak”. When asked about her recent quotes about having trouble finding work after her lauded performance as “Temple Gradin” for HBO before she started “Homeland”, she explains that after the former, “I think I emerged energized and emboldened” and “I wanted a similar type of challenge” but “there wasn’t any roles like that” adding that “I didn’t have patience for the regular old stuff”. She says that she guesses “there was a dirth of material in general at that moment” but, for her, “to do a job for the sake of it is a really bad idea”. She postulates that ”we are freelance, dare I say, artists”. Despite the bent of this series, she says “I have not become a political creature” though, for this season, “I have returned to my bipolar books” admitting “they are right near the bed” because “it is our job to interpret the heavy lifting the writers do”. Damian Lewis, for his part as Brody, is not seen for the first two episodes of the new season, which is unusual for the most recent Emmy winning Best Actor – Drama, but he says “it is a function of the story that we have to see Brody”. He explains with a little chicanery that “he disappeared into a tunnel system” because “he is the most wanted criminal in the world so he has to lay low”. Asked whether he sees his character’s bleak end coming in droves, he jokes that “these guys [the creators] have been trying to kill me since Episode One”.

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Masters Of Sex” continues the predilection with an piercing view into taboo and science in the late 40s with a kind of voyeurism that apparently pushes the boundary. Michael Sheen, who plays the lead character Bill who is studying the science of human sexuality in a conservative time, says that, with the series, it is about seeing the time as “prudish” but more about seeing it as a journey about “a sense of control in this man’s life” since “he is a mystery to himself”. The idea for him of this man is that “he has a locked-down desire to keep control”. In comparing the sense of sexuality to our perception of sex today, he explains “the same problem of intimacy applies now”. The key is “with the sexuality of the piece, it has to be realistic” but “your have to find a way to set the tone with all the right things” adding that “you discover through experimentation”. In terms of his relationship with his study partner Jane (played by Lizzy Caplan), he says “you find your way with the chemistry” because “the humor comes out of the situation” because (let’s face it), “it is interesting how sex is done on-screen” but “there is an awkwardness”. From his perspective, in “Masters Of Sex”, “there are a lot risks, not just the nudity”. What he likes about this character and the challenge is that “in the multiple episodic format, you can get to the complexity of a novel”. The disconnect for Bill, he says, is that “he tries to keep sex and attraction separate”. As for his view on sex after doing the series, he says “I found myself talking about relationships more” because “the more you are doing [or watching] a show about sex, you are finding more how you connect with human beings”. The take-away is that “sex is a conduit for any area you feel shame about”.

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Lizzy Caplan, from her point of view playing a period woman after she had played many outspoken modern women, says “when you are telling a story in present day, you can [show the modern woman] with clothes and a strategically placed tattoo”. With all the sex and nudity floating throughout the series, she says “some of the situations were ridiculous but accurate” but “there are moments of levity”. She says “the idea of Jane is that every step of the way she is a contradiction” using the comparisons that “she is a secretary but she is also a partner” and that “she is sexually adventurous but she is a mother of two” and most specifically “she becomes close with Liddy [Bill’s wife] but she is also the other woman”. What throws her is that people were told different underlying falsehoods about sex (like masturbation) and, as she puts it, “you just needed to tell people that what you were doing was normal but people weren’t doing that…and that is some bullshit!”

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CW closes out with the consideration of “The Tomorrow People” which is based upon a series that Greg Berlanti (who also produces the CW’s “Arrow”) saw as a kid. He speaks of it with glee saying “Julie [Line, the exec producer] and I have been talking about this show since we were in college” adding that “the originals played in reruns on Nickelodeon”. Mark Pellegrino, recently of “Lost” as Jacob, returns to genre here with a multi-facade character teasing that “I don’t consider myself the hero of the story right now” but explaining that “I am protecting the human race and you have to do dirty things”.

The triumvirate in CBS, Showtime & CW continues to show that the separation of brand and knowing the angle at which to engage the audience is decidedly important in facilitating bigger and bigger ratings.

Playing The Field: The HBO Winter 2010 TCA Press Tour – Feature

Using their presumption for accurate and relevant perceptions while still highlighting the genre crossing that always begets an audience, HBO, with the growing intensity of “True Blood”, is playing through into the game balancing both films and new outlays of series and miniseries allowing for the ability to truly play the field.

“Temple Grandin”, which follows the life of a mentally challenged woman whose autistic tendencies gave her the edge to become one of the most successful businesswomen in her arena of ranching, comes on the perception of director Mick Jackson, best known for his 90s tomes “L.A. Story” and “The Bodyguard”.

Jackson says that the script interested him from the get-go though, from the title, he thought it was something based in religion. When he looked closer he saw that it was indeed “not the subject of everyday life”. Claire Danes, who took on the role of this woman who was constantly at her shoulder, says that “autism” as a condition “manifests itself differently” in every person “as it does through Temple”. She said that the performance had to be broken down into two major chapters of life and took much time and practice. The risk, she says is always of getting it wrong or underplaying it. Danes said that she felt protected in her approach but knew she had to be very specific which she usually achieved through music on her headphones.

Temple herself found the entire experience surreal at times. She described it as “like going into a weird time machine” where she would ask Clare “do you think that is you?”. She describes autism as “a big spectrum” in that the more and more you learn, the less you act “autistic”. In terms of what allowed her to make her way in the beginning when no one wanted to talk to her, she said she just whipped our her schematics on how to make the machines that now are essential to her business proudly admitting that the drawings in the movie are hers.

Next, “Treme” from the creators of “The Wire” is a motley vision of the residents of New Orleans, mere months after Katrina told from a dramatic point of view as a narrative series.

David Simon, who previous exec credits also include “Generation Kill” and “Homicide”, says “Treme” is about New Orleans but they are using the music as a hook and something to be valued. In terms of the marketing which shows the funeral procession, he admits that there is an undercurrent of darkness. What makes Orleans great in one sense, can make it problematic in others, hence the irony of making a funeral resounding and fun. The aspect of shooting of course begets insurance issues for sure in The Big Easy especially during incumbent hurricane season. What interested him in terms of behavior was that, in terms of the aftermath and consequences, the vestiges of crime started in 2006 but got worse by 2007. The question becomes what the lack of response did or how it perpetrated itself.

Wendell Pierce, who is one of the series leads as Baptiste, a local musician looking to make his way, says that, as a New Orleanian, he was very concerned about the authenticity of the series. The area is very unique and the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. He knew that David and co-creator Eric Overmeyer had the ability to find the specificity of the culture. The possibility was of making a cathartic moment with life imitating art. He says that someone from “The Wire” told him excitedly that they get to go back to shoot there but Pierce admits that New Orleans still “hasn’t gotten it back together” and that “it is like pulling teeth to get back on your feet”.

Eric Overmeyer follows up these thoughts saying that when they first started talking about doing this series, alot of shows were being shot in New Orleans but never got it right. For example, they initially thought about not introducing John Goodman’s character until the second episode but said they needed someone who could comment in a bigger sense on the political situation that was being explored. This is why they integrated that character immediately. Goodman was a natural choice because he lives in Orleans.

In terms of the naming of show, Overmeyer defines that “Treme” is a neighborhood near the French Quarter where, he says, American music and culture were born. He makes clear that the show is not about that neighborhood but more about the spirit of the town stating that they “figured people would catch up with the title sooner or later”. He sees the New Orleans that they are showing as “the same city but not” because “you can see the scars from the storm” yet “it it is still standing”.

Coming back to the film arena, “You Don’t Know Jack” tells the story of Dr. Jack Kevorkian with only the kind of intensity that Al Pacino can bring to a role.

When asked about moving into this area of cable, Al, in signature style, says “It’s television. It’s HBO” monikering the line. He does state though that television has been doing a lot more in a short period of time. In terms of his character, he says that the film’s title is apt because this is a man who is more than meets the eye which is part of his appeal. Pacino says that not alot of people can say that they know Kevorkian, He himself did not meet Jack when doing the role. He said that there are some characters you do that with. He mentions “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon”. If there are possibilities to meet, it can make for great fodder. Other times not.

Susan Sarandon, who plays Janet Good, a social worker who helped advocate for Dr. Kevorkian in his assisted suicides, says that moving into the HBO arena for this role made sense because “their demographic is different” adding that sometimes “feature work gets watered down”. What truly drew her is that she found the character” mesmerizing”.

Following on the trail blazing between the two worlds of series and films is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ epic miniseries “The Pacific” which, beyond one of the bigger productions of its kind, has a distinct challenge in distilling the essence of a combat theater so huge that many people were unaware of in its vastness.

Hanks approaches the thought of the mini-series first saying that “the main difference is our source material” calling it “almost a piece of scholarship”. He calls Eugene Sledge’s “Helmet For My Pillow” “about as great a memoir that has ever been published” perceiving it more as a “prose poem”. He calls the difference between “The Pacific” and “Band Of Brothers” as distinctive as the two theaters of war themselves. He sees The Pacific War like the ones we have been involved with since. The idea in “The Pacific” was to “take human beings through hell”. He says that there were some people (probably at the development level) who thought “that this context would be a waste of time”. He agrees that “it doesn’t bend to a graceful narrative”. When talking about World War II, the emphasis is that the war in Europe liberated Paris. The Pacific conflict does not fall into the same structure, in his mind, making the story much more individiualized and not as essential in the actual location they were stationed. Hanks doesn’t see World War II as a “finite open-and-close story” but “more as an aspect as the human condition” where “fate and serendipity” come into play. He comments that “there are great moments of face and great moments of despair”. What he finds key is taking these stories of these young men and figuring it out. He distinctifies that if you look at The Pacific as a museum piece, the difference between what 17-year-olds did then versus what they do today is mind boggling. The best they, as the lead creatives, can do is “show the vastness of the horizon reflected in the eyes of these characters”. He says that the nomenclature of “hero” can be branded about easily or as a catch-all phrase but anyone who said “I do” to service is a “hero”

Spielberg’s view works in congruence. He says that he had a sense when they were making “Saving Private Ryan” of some of the aspects of what these soldiers experience. Much of this was informed by the photographs these men saved. He wanted to find “the 24-frame equivalent of the reality without being elegant”. He also points to the fact that “The Pacific” has a very different look than “Band Of Brothers” which had a desaturated tinge to it. “The Pacific” is what he calls “a blue sky war”. What he and Hanks wanted to most to capture “in essence” was “what happens to the human soul through these engagements”. The way the soldiers in the Pacific Theater fought was in a very different way than the European Theater fought the Axis Forces. The view of “when evil and nature conspire against the individual” creates a different intersection of emotional claustrophobia. As a person who has never been in a war, Spielberg’s perception is that from his perspective “you don’t look at a war as a geopolitical endeavor…you look at it more in small pods”.

Ashton Holmes, who plays Private Sydney Phillips, summarizes the vision from the ground up saying that in terms of the character he was playing “the marine corp was all about discipline”. He pontificates that these men “were trained and trained and trained” so that by that perception “everyone would do their job to the best of their ability” and “be ready”.