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11 posts from April 2009

April 25, 2009


ParkerBy Kevin P. Taft

When CBS decided to air a summer series about swinging couples in the mid-'70s, many in the television industry were nonplussed. What does a network that usually steers its programming toward the gray-haired set have in common with key parties? It was a risk for sure, until you remember that those older folk were actually in the age group that HAD key parties, so perhaps they’d tune in. That wasn’t necessarily the case, as evidenced by middling ratings and the small turnout at the PaleyFest’s closing-night celebration of the critically acclaimed series "Swingtown." With a core audience of rabid fans, the show struggled to find an audience until it was finally canceled late last year, much to the dismay of the creative team and the viewers who loved it. Said executive producer and director Alan Pool, “This reunion tonight is really very, very special in our hearts. It’s the most fun funeral ever. It’s the chance for us to celebrate something that was an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience in all of our lives.”

"Swingtown" revolved around a genial couple with two children who move to a new neighborhood and meet another couple who open their eyes to the world of “swinging,” or as some call it, “partner swapping.” But what seemed like a lascivious premise was anything but. The swinging was a character in itself and served as a catalyst into the lives of three couples and their families, and how in 1976 the world was going through a massive change, much like it is today. Pool explained, “The swing of 'Swingtown' isn’t just about the idea of ‘swinging’ but also about the swing of the cultural pendulum. And that '76 seemed to be a point where it had swung as far in one direction as it could in terms of people legitimizing their own search for personal liberation. And looking ahead to what was coming in 1980 and beyond we could see it was about to swing back in the other direction and that was one of the things that made this moment so unique and interesting and also have parallels to today.”

In addition to Pool, much of the main cast was present including Molly Parker (Susan Miller), Grant Show (Tom Decker), Lana Parilla (Trina Decker), Miriam Shor (Janet Thompson), Shanna Collins (Laurie Miller), as well as the series creator and head writer Mike Kelley.  Shor, who played uptight and proper Janet, said she had done research for her character by reading periodicals from the time period such as Ladies Home Journal. What she found surprised her. “I was sort of shocked at the lack of cynicism. There was something that happened in the '80s … There was just this shift and like a darkness and a cynicism that kind of infused the culture that I feel like wasn’t there in the magazines that I was reading.” She added that there was an article about how to relax in the bath that prominently featured a naked woman, and she was stunned at how that sort of ad would never be seen today. “You can’t see a naked woman that’s not sexualized in Cosmo right now.”

What became apparent was that despite 30-plus years having passed since the time the show is set, there is a conservative permutation that has stifled the freedom of expression in this country, even in a time when many feel like people in our culture express themselves too openly.

Collins, who played the teenage daughter Susan, also had an awakening in that her character was in a place of not only rebellion but openness and freedom. This afforded an interesting dynamic between her character and her character's mother, because in many ways the roles were reversed. “I was the one who was looking at my mother and saying, ‘How can you let dad treat you like this? How can you not stand up for yourself? How can you want to do something and not go do it?’ ”

To understand her role, she asked family members who came of age in the '70s how things were different then for teenagers. “[They] said that when they were growing up, if they wanted to go across country and wanted to go see a band, they would. If they wanted to go to a party and they met a boy and they liked the way that he looked, they would go and sleep with him. There weren’t the taboos. And I think it was interesting to be able to have the dichotomy … in this way the younger generation … was able to stand up and say, ‘Look at yourself,’ rather than having the adult say, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

The casting process was an interesting challenge. Pool said that actors would come in to read and brought their own baggage to it. “A lot of people read the script and thought that Mike (Kelley) had intended something more arch and more winky-wink about the '70s. And so they thought the Deckers were this predatory couple that was licking their chops and seeing images of roast chicken when they saw the Millers. It was never the intention.”

Originally conceived for a network such as HBO or Showtime, the spec script was written as much more explicit. When CBS stepped up, they were forced to tone it down. However, this afforded the ability to create a show with more depth and meaning than it might have first turned out to be. “In the end, toning it down without betraying any of the ideals of the show,” explained Pool, “made it a more challenging proposition in terms of having to be creative in our storytelling and more ground-breaking.”

This didn’t mean that some of the actor’s families weren’t unsure about what show their loved ones were a part of. Parilla said that her grandmother slapped her, and that one aunt “called me something in Spanish” and another didn’t continue to watch the series. Molly Parker was surprised. “I feel naïve, but I remember at the beginning thinking, ‘This is so tame. What could possibly upset people in this?’ ” Shor agreed. “I find it interesting that people have such a hard time watching consenting adults… “ Walking seductively out of the room to music?” joked Parker.

But Shor made a serious and pointed observation. “But [these people] have no problem with a lot of procedural shows that show an incredible amount of violence and sexual violence. And violence towards women.”

The fixation by some conservative groups regarding the swinging aspect of the show did cause the network to lose advertisers. “That’s why,” said Pool, “for those of you who watched the show in real time, suddenly it was that Peter Fonda Flower Power CD commercial that seemed to go on for seven minutes. That’s because [a major advertiser] was not buying time.” Shor leaned back and smiled. “It was a great album.”

April 23, 2009


Fringe cast By James Hibberd

The TV industry's perception of Fringe still runs behind the reality. When Fox debuted the paranormal drama last fall, the early consensus was that Fringe was creatively okay (but not great) and considerably aided by its powerful House lead in.

Fox kept the show off the air whenever a strong lead-in wasn't available, protecting it, so when Fringe returned with the best lead-in on television, American Idol, and drew strong ratings once again, some thought: Of course Fringe is successful -- Idol props up the show.

Except Fringe has gotten better since its early episodes. Much better. And even though Idol has softened the past couple months (as it always does this time of year), Fringe has maintained strong numbers. At some point, one has to accept that after 17 episodes, Fringe viewers are not merely House or Idol fans who keep forgetting to turn off their TVs. Give the Fox series the credit it deserves: Fringe is a hit.

“I would rather be a part of a show that aims for best-ever and comes in second-best-ever, than aims for mediocrity and achieves its goal and I think that’s what a lot of television does,” declares Fringe co-star Joshua Jackson, drawing applause.

At PaleyFest, producers screened February’s “The Transformation” episode (check out its pitch-perfect opening scene below and compare it to the opening of the show's pilot -- very similar ideas, vastly improved execution) and took questions from the audience. The cast and producers seem completely comfortable with each other, often derailing the conversation with jokes. No major revelations, but there's a few items of interest:

Continue reading "'Fringe'" »

'Big Love'

Jeanne Tripplehorn (Getty Images photo)

By Marlayna Slaughterbeck

Notwithstanding the spring in Harry Dean Stanton’s step as he crossed the stage at Wednesday night’s PaleyFest panel event, Roman Grant, his character on HBO’s “Big Love,” is dead. This time for good.

While the audience might have been taken aback by the directness of the show’s co-creator in answering arguably the most important question regarding next season’s lineup, none seemed more surprised than Stanton, who immediately began pitching his next potential role to the packed room.

“Well, they should come up with something -- another series or reprise the role from the dead,” he said. “You know, ‘Where do you go after you die?’ or ‘Where were you before you were born?’ ”

Stanton went on to suggest that in such a series, religions would be represented by gangs and he would be the ultimate gang leader.

The audience clapped wildly, but series creators Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen seemed less receptive.

“Roman is definitely dead,” Olsen said, to which moderator Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times posited, in a nod to another HBO hit, “In Treatment”: “Maybe we can get Roman in therapy. Is Gabriel Byrne in the house?”

And later, in an attempt to finally put an end to Stanton’s many disruptions, McNamara drew laughs when she referred to yet another HBO series and offered that perhaps where Stanton really belonged at this point was “Six Feet Under.”

None of this seemed to deter Stanton, however, and he chimed in with various non sequiturs -- ruminating on what he saw as his character’s unfair demise and other topics such as religion and its ultimate futility -- for the remainder of the evening.

Continue reading "'Big Love'" »

April 21, 2009

'The Hills'

The hills By James Hibberd

Attending The Hills panel at PaleyFest without being a regular viewer of The Hills is like going to a Friday night party at some condo off Sunset where everybody knows each other and none of them knows you. So you stand there amid an attractive crowd and nod and smile and pretend like you get their jokes.

Helpfully, before the panel the producers screen a 20-minute compilation of clips from The Hills that summarizes the first five seasons of the hit MTV docu-soap.

The clips are either perfectly edited, or the series has incredible amounts of filler because when the lights come up you feel like you just sat through every single episode and understand everything that’s happened: A blonde girl named Lauren moved to Hollywood and fell in love with another blonde girl named Heidi. They broke up when Heidi fell in love with a blond guy named Spencer. Each season the girls wore more extensive makeup and Lauren cries a lot. Oh, and at one point Lauren went to France.

But when the cast comes onstage there’s a glaring omission. Heidi, who was billed to be onstage with Lauren, is not here. This is a considerable letdown, even for those of us who just started watching The Hills roughly 20 minutes ago. We’re told she’s planning for a “big event” this weekend, which is rumored to be her wedding to Spencer. Needless to say, The Hills cameras will be there, and three cast members say they are invited, none of which is Lauren.

Some bullets:

Continue reading "'The Hills'" »

April 19, 2009

'Desperate Housewives'

Teri Hatcher, left, Eva Longoria Parker and creator Marc Cherry (Getty Images photo)

By Kevin P. Taft

Unless you're killed off, it's entirely evident that no one wants to leave Wisteria Lane. And if the riotous panel at the "Desperate Housewives" PaleyFest event on Saturday was any indication, who'd want to? The cast and crew of "Desperate Housewives" was in top form, consistently cracking up the audience and themselves.

In attendance were creator Marc Cherry, producer Bob Daly, Kathryn Joosten ("Karen McCluskey"), Kyle McLachlan ("Orson"), Dana Delaney ("Katherine"), Teri Hatcher ("Susan"), Eva Longoria Parker ("Gabby"), James Denton ("Mike"), Doug Savant ("Tom") and Neal McDonough ("Dave"). With the good-natured camaraderie of the cast, it's no wonder why Hatcher has said she would follow the show until the end, no matter how many seasons it runs. "Why would I want to keep a job?" she joked. "And a character that I love? With people that I love? That's so ridiculous!"

 Cherry is on board for at least seven seasons, which gives Longoria Parker reservations on staying. "Marc touches every word of every script, he's on set every day, we rehearse our scenes with Marc there, so to think of another person doing that and touching those words ..."

Cherry responded to her kindness by admitting that she's "the most astounding cold reader in show business. She will open up the script and she won't know where the story is going so she'll read the dialogue and it's hysterical and then she'll go... HA!"

Continue reading "'Desperate Housewives'" »

April 17, 2009

'The Mentalist'

Simon Baker By James Hibberd

I decided I liked CBS' The Mentalist when some thug punched Simon Baker's pretty Patrick Jane square in the nose and he squealed "Assault! Assault!" to nearby officers. Now that's a hero detective I could believe in. Along with Fox's Fringe, the show is the only new hit of the season, and PaleyFest had a panel for the series on Friday.

The first thing you notice is the Mentalist crowd is definitely a CBS primetime audience. The average person in attendance was roughly 72 years old. Some had nurses. The second thing you notice is that Broadcasting & Cable editor Ben Grossman did a fine job warming up an initially sluggish panel that included the show's creator and cast. He asked burning fan questions, not wonky TV industry questions. He asked, for instance, if any of the show's impossibly chaste characters will ever get laid (and we'll get to that answer, as well as eight unanswered burning Mentalist questions, below).

First, Mentalist creator Bruno Heller was asked about his inspiration for the show. He's told this a few times before, but it's worth hearing again. 

"Mentalists seem to be in a very interesting moral position," he said. "They're essentially performing the function of a psychoanalyst or a priest, but at the same time they're lying about their powers -- at least that's my opinion. Half the country will say they're charlatans and the other half will say, 'They said truthful and profound things about me.' And it's that line the mentalist walks on -- using their natural skills of empathy and observation in ways that are hopefully therapeutic and helpful."

For more on the show's inspiration, the producers recommend you watch this Darren Brown video to see mentalism in action.

Go ahead, check it out. This post will still be here when you return.

Baker (delicate, distracting glasses) gamely tackled the Mentalist vs. Fox's Lie to Me comparison. The Lie to Me cast, you'll recall, slammed The Mentalist as a "scam." Naturally nobody on the panel admitted to having watched the rival show (they never do), but Baker managed to take a shot anyway.

"The problem with high-concept is you get backed into a corner," Baker said. "So I was interested in seeing how Lie to Me, which is more finite -- I shouldn't say 'finite,' that's arrogant of me [a couple cast members chuckle knowingly at this]. But you say a guy is a human lie detector. And I was interested to see how Lie to Me would deal with that concept after five or six episodes."

Heller: "He lied. So what?"

Asked about the show's mysterious and as-yet-unseen villain Red John, Heller said, "What I was trying to do was create a show that was positive and light and optimistic about the world but was anchored in the reality of everybody's life -- which is dying."

The crowd goes silent. The CBS audience is closer to death than most.

Continue reading "'The Mentalist'" »

April 16, 2009

‘The Big Bang Theory’

By Lesley Goldberg

Big Bang Theory The creators and cast of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” discussed the show’s evolution from its “failed first attempt” as “Lenny, Penny and Kenny” to why the sitcom’s geeks resonate with fans during Thursday’s Paley Center for Media PaleyFest panel at the Arclight.

Co-creator Chuck Lorre said that the initial pilot “failed” and that the network knew it had two stars in series leads Johnny Galecki (Leonard) and Jim Parsons (Sheldon) and encouraged him and fellow creator Bill Prady to retool the Penny character from a dark party-girl neighbor.

“The audience hated her because they were protective of them (Leonard and Sheldon),” Lorre said. “CBS gave us another chance, and we reworked Penny and added Raj and Howard.”

Kaley Cuoco said she first auditioned for the party-girl neighbor and didn’t fit the bill but was later called back to play the sweet neighbor who helps the science geeks learn about life outside of the lab.

“The characters are so lovable, and you want these guys to do well,” she said. “It’s a show about brilliant people, not just geeks.”

Simon Helberg (Howard) believes “Big Bang” — which gained viewers during the 100-day writers strike — has become such a breakout hit because he doesn’t “think that there are that many cool people in the world, really, so I think everybody has got this inner nerd that sort of feels inactive in certain ways.

“I think all the cool people from high school sneak home and watch it and say, ‘Wow, this is me!’ and then go back to school and beat up those nerds,” he added. “I think everyone knows what it’s like to try and fit in and not succeed.”

Continue reading "‘The Big Bang Theory’" »

April 15, 2009


Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku

By Lesley Goldberg

PaleyFest continued its “obsession” with Joss Whedon on Wednesday, honoring the writer-director for the second night and year in a row, this time for his rookie Fox series “Dollhouse,” which despite its behind-the-scenes drama brought out some of Whedon’s devoted fans.

Following a screening of Episode 8, “Needs,” Whedon (who was part of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reunion panel at last year’s PaleyFest) said talks with the network and studio about the fate of the freshman bubble series are ongoing and that the show is not canceled.

“They’re waiting to see what happens,” he said, adding Fox has said the “numbers have been solid and the demographic is wonderful and the DVR ratings have been great.”

“So right now I’ve gone from a sort of place of ‘You don’t even care, nobody loves me’ [laughs] to a place of God, I can’t believe I’m saying this ... hope.

“We might actually get the chance to do what we’re dying to do, which is tell more of these stories with these crazy people because we have so many more yet to come,” Whedon said of the series in which Eliza Dushku (“Buffy”) plays an “active” whose memory is wiped and replaced to suit various “engagements.”

“Basically it’s what happens in the next few weeks; we have a new lead-in (replacing 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles'), we have a few more episodes coming up — whether it’s 12 or 13 — they are fierce,” he added. “They are ridiculous; I am so proud of them. We’re going to go out this season with a bang, and hopefully we’ll get to come back for Season 2.”

Continue reading "'Dollhouse'" »

April 14, 2009

'Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog'

Jed Whedon, writer-producer Maurissa Tancharoen, Joss Whedon, writer/exec producer Zack Whedon

By Lesley Goldberg

The Paley Center for Media made history Tuesday when it honored its first series produced specifically for the Internet with Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."

"I really want to thank the Paley Center for acknowledging something not on TV. It's a big deal right now for the artistic community that this got done, that we launched, that we made a profit, and we showed people that we can be that silly and still make it in this town," Whedon said before launching the three-part musical starring Neil Patrick Harris (Billy/Dr. Horrible), Nathan Fillion (Captain Hammer) and Felicia Day (Penny).

Following the screening, which like Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode "Once More, With Feeling" had fans singing in their seats during its screening at last year's PaleyFest reunion event, "Dr. Horrible" writer Zack Whedon said he had only collaborated with brothers Joss and Jed (also a writer on the musical) when they were little.

Writer Maurissa Tancharoen, who will marry Jed Whedon on Saturday, said she enjoyed becoming part of the family while making "Dr. Horrible."

"Firstly, there's too many of them," she said of the brothers. "I think ‘Dr. Horrible' has been nothing but a wondrous, thrilling surprise after another. The way it all came together was over Christmas and we as a family came together and said, ‘Let's do something together.' We had made a ‘Strength' video for Strike TV, and Joss saw that and he said he had an idea for ‘Dr. Horrible.'

"At first it was going to be a family affair: us, no budget, in front of a camera, and then it became something with cameras, and then the next thing you know we have Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan and Felicia," she added.

Joss Whedon said that "Dr. Horrible" would not have been possible without the 100-day writers strike.

Continue reading "'Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog'" »

'True Blood'

Alan Ball, Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer

By Lesley Goldberg

Fans of HBO's "True Blood" showed their undying love for the vampire drama at Monday's PaleyFest panel, and the Paley Center for Media rewarded genre fans by opening the evening with a short clip from '60s fanger "Dark Shadows."

Bypassing the full-episode treatment for the night, attendees were treated to a 15-minute Season 1 highlight reel, followed by a short teaser for Season 2, which bows June 14. The clip, which featured Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Bill (Stephen Moyer) bickering over the newbie vampire he sired at the end of Season 1, offered a glimpse at a new creature from author Charlaine Harris' "Southern Vampire Mysteries" book series on which the drama is based.

Created by Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under"), the writer/director/executive producer said he first picked up Harris' "Dead Until Dark" (Book 1 in the "SVM" series) while waiting for a dental appointment and "went through them like crack. I became a crack addict."

"I thought that this is so not the book that I typically read, but I was so sucked into this world and these characters and their stories; I think this makes a really good television show," he said. "Originally, I wasn't sure if it was going to be TV or a movie, so I called Charlaine and I wanted to buy the rights myself, and at that time the rights were tied up in some sort of feature deal that was going to run out in a few months so when it ran out, I bought them and I basically called HBO and I said that I think that this could be a really great show, and they said, 'OK.'

"I'm starting to realize that just from the viewpoint of being a writer, television is a much more welcoming place than features," Ball said of his decision to return to television after the conclusion of HBO's "Six Feet Under."

Ball later added that he made Paquin read for Sookie five times.

"It wasn't so much auditioning as it was stalking," Paquin said. "I thought it was acting abuse. It's really fun being the only pasty brunette vampire-looking person in the room that's filled with people auditioning for a busty tan blonde person. ... I'm grateful that Alan and HBO were able to see beyond the aesthetic."

Continue reading "'True Blood'" »