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Still kicking -- both Don Hewitt and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Legendary producer Don Hewitt is reasonably sure he was there at the creation -- of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, that is.

"It's my recollection that my parents took me to the first one," he says in a recent teleconference.

If so, he would have been 10 or 11 years old. Hewitt, who plans to turn 85 on Dec. 14th, now is producing the first-ever telecast of New York's trademark holiday high-kicker, which is in its 75th anniversary year. Show time is on Saturday, Dec. 1, at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC.

"You talk about Dancing with the Stars. That's exactly what this has been (since 1933)," says Hewitt, who views the show's signature Rockettes as the West Point Cadets of show biz.

Hewitt, best known as the architect of CBS' 60 Minutes, has been an advisor to the show for a few years now. Itchy for something to do, he asked Radio City officials whether they'd consider a prime-time TV showcase.

They quickly consented, says Hewitt, who has boiled the 90-minute show down to about half that time to fit a one-hour slot minus commercials. The NBC production was taped on Nov. 12th, and "everything just works like a charm," he says.

Today co-hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira will be tour guides from their balcony perch. With "judicious editing, you lose noting," Hewitt contends. "What you really want to do is make a guy feel like he was actually there."

Hewitt also is producing a documentary on the Rockettes for PBS' American Masters series. It likely will premiere before next year's Christmas Spectacular.

He deployed nine cameras for the NBC effort, being presented in high-definition. Hewitt compares it to capturing the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. That's also on his resume, as are the historic 1960 presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

"This one is going to be an icon," he say of the Christmas Spectacular, which also will have a DVD edition. "Why it was never done before is a mystery to me."

As the stomach turns: Notes from the Underbelly back for more

Scene-stealing Rachael Harris and still expectant Jennifer Westfeldt

ABC's still amusing comedy about budding first-time parents is anything but an early arrival.

It's still in there kicking, though, and prospects look more promising this time around.

Notes From the Underbelly, originally a part of last fall's new lineup, instead premiered on April 12th of this year. Eight episodes aired before ABC seemingly had seen enough. But the network surprisingly designated the series as a mid-season replacement after leaving five completed episodes on the table.

Seven months later, prime-time's record-setting pregnancy resumes, with Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt) still four weeks from her due date. At least that's what viewers are told in next week's episode. In tonight's re-opener (8:30 p.m. central, Nov. 26), Lauren and husband Andrew (Peter Cambor) are only far enough along for the sex of their baby to be determined. That's usually in the cards by the 20-week mark. But do they really want to know?

Underbelly may not be as much under the radar this time. Its lead-ins are the fall season's final performance edition of Dancing with the Stars followed by a new episode of the bonafide hit comedy Samantha Who?.

ABC's rebuilt Monday also includes the return of October Road at 9 p.m. (central) after Thanksgiving night's sneak preview. Both returnees stand to make more of an impression in times when the writers' strike will be reducing most ongoing series to reruns after the November "sweeps" ratings period ends Wednesday.

A six-pack of characters propels Underbelly. Lauren and Andrew have their moments, but the show gets its bite from Rachael Harris as best friend attorney Cooper. She's the chipotle, spicing up scenes without ruining their flavor. It's nigh impossible to imagine her with child. That'd be way too icky for this self-centric commitment-dodger with a tongue sharp enough to cut thick-crust pizza.

Also included are new, hyper-enthusiastic parents Julie and Eric (Melanie Paxson, Sunkrish Bala), whose "Baby Perry" just won't sleep worth a damn. A resident doofus named Danny (Michael Weaver) fills out the cast. Every network sitcom's gotta have one of those, but he's at least tolerable.

Absent a laugh track and infused with dead-catchy organ music, Underbelly is just amusing enough to get by. So maybe Lauren at least can finally make it to full term before ABC gets any other ideas?

Grade: B

Made-for-TV movie review: A Grandpa for Christmas (Hallmark Channel)

Ernest Borgnine hits it off with co-star Juliette Goglia.

Yeah, I kind of thought he was dead, too.

On the contrary, Ernest Borgnine remains very much in life's batter's box. At age 90, he's the oldest living best actor Oscar winner for his title role in 1955's Marty. And on Saturday night (Nov. 24), Borgnine makes the most of a starring role in the Hallmark Channel's A Grandpa for Christmas (8 p.m. central.

It's a charming, overtly sentimental film that just wouldn't have a place anywhere else. Hallmark is the last network, cable or otherwise, with any interest in showcasing Hollywood's older crowd. President and CEO Henry Schleiff insists there's still a vital market for traditionally themed movies that dare to "skew older" and spread good cheer.

Hallmark will be making 30 such movies next year, leading off on Jan. 5 with another ancient mariner, Tom "Happy Days" Bosley, in When You Listen.

When you think about it, that's not such a bad thing. Madison Avenue mostly sniffs at this stuff, urging networks to make more and more entertainment aimed at young, impulsive buyers of dumb products they don't need. All but disenfranchised are viewers of a "certain age" who'd rather watch an old favorite than Ryan Seacrest. End of sermon, brought to you by Pennzoil.

Grandpa for Christmas also has a very appealing young kid playing opposite Borgnine and fellow old-timers Katherine Helmond and Jamie Farr.

Juliette Goglia is 10-year-old Becca, granddaughter of Borgnine's Bert O'Riley. He knew nothing of her until his estranged daughter, Marie (Tracy Nelson), had a serious car accident. Now the old song and dance man is entrusted with her care as the Christmas season swings into gear.

Becca's introverted and miserable at first, but chuckling Bert and his young-at-heart pals quickly win her over. The kid is soon respecting and enjoying her elders, particularly perky pianist Roxie (Helmond). They sing Christmas songs together, with Becca then mustering the gumption to try out for her school's annual pageant. Meanwhile, old Bert also must find a way to make amends with daughter Marie, who still resents him for "walking out" on her. Of course she doesn't know the real story.

Borgnine is a vigorous presence throughout, initially cherishing both his daily chess matches and a hole-pocked cardigan sweater that meets an untimely end. It's fun watching him having a good time on-screen again in a role that demands a lot of him.

Farr and Helmond, in little demand since their respective co-starring roles in M*A*S*H and Who's the Boss?, also get a chance to rise and shine in decent-sized supporting roles.

They're all beneficiaries of the one network that still makes them feel wanted -- and at home.

Grade: B+

Even Ernest Borgnine's Oscar has aged beyond the preferred advertiser target audience of 18-to-49-year-olds. He's had it for 52 years and counting. At a recent interview session with TV critics in Los Angeles, unclebarky.com asked him where he keeps it and what it means to him. Here's his answer:

"I get the greatest kick in the world when people come to my home. They spot it up there, up over the television set. It's about the only good place there is, along with my mother and dad's picture, and my sister. And I hand it to (visitors). And it weighs a lot. 'Oh, isn't this wonderful.' They get more of a kick out of it than I do, believe me.

"But I can't ever forget the moment that I received that. I was proud. It hit me. Boy, all I could do was thank my mother and father, and I think I forgot most of the people that helped me along. But I couldn't think of anybody but my mother and father at that moment, and that was it. And I've been living happily ever since."

New series review -- Frank TV (TBS)

Premiering: Tuesday, Nov. 20th, at 9 p.m. (central) on TBS
Starring: Frank Caliendo
Produced by: Frank Caliendo, Matt Wickline, John Bowman, Barry Katz

Your first impression of Frank Caliendo is bound to be, "Hey, that's the guy who does John Madden."

Boom! You'd be right. And the sendup that put Caliendo on the map has now made him the star of TBS' Frank TV. Five of the eight ordered episodes reportedly were completed before the ongoing writers' strike waylaid production.

"I feel like a little kid who just got a TV show for Christmas," he says for starters.

Caliendo reprises Madden (preparing a holiday "Turducken," of course) and throws in 11 other impressions during Tuesday's half-hour premiere, subtitled "Franksgiving." He also includes an ad hoc guest host from the studio audience, proving that Caliendo's a regular guy as well. But the device is awkward at best, as are the star's repeated introductions of himself starring in the show's succession of sketches.

Some of his additional targets are the usual suspects -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, even Jerry Seinfeld. But Caliendo doesn't stop just with Seinfeld. He does an entire 2027 Seinfeld reunion, including Elaine Benes. The latter is more sight gag than mimic, with the portly Caliendo in drag.

"TV adds 10 pounds," he then tells the audience. "And I add another 40."

Caliendo's Bill Clinton conducts a tour of his presidential library, complete with a stop at a Hooters-like wings and beer joint. "Clinton" also strolls past wall hangings of Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers and Janet Reno. The latter assignation, he laments, was the result of "too many jacks and cokes."

That's very dog-eared stuff by now. As is a sketch that features George W. Bush as an ineffectual father of the bride, namely his daughter, Jenna. An all-business Dick Cheney instead is brought in to do the pre-nup pep talk. It's stern and creepy, of course, with Cheney predicting "darkness and silent weeping" on the wedding night.

A "Caliendo Squares" bit features only Charles Barkley, with the host mastering him to a T. Few even try to do "Sir Charles." Caliendo makes him his own.

Next Tuesday's episode -- "Money in the Frank" -- begins with Caliendo's version of Jack Nicholson in boxer shorts. It goes on too long, but Caliendo recovers nicely by doing Donald Trump at one of his rip-off financial seminars. Step 1 toward attaining wealth: "Make sure your father is rich."

A guest co-host named Jessica at least has a little dish. She tells Caliendo that the real-life Paris Hilton once tried to bum a cigarette from her in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel restroom.

Another George W. sketch follows. This time the befuddled president addresses the country on "our relationship" and pours it a glass of wine. The country eventually responds by throwing it in his face.

Caliendo also brings in Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as hosts of an At the Movies-esque show titled Go Or Don't Go. His Pacino is oddly high-pitched but De Niro is better rendered. We close with a fake Sean Connery doing a commercial on behalf of his "Voice Club For Men."

"If my voice can't get you laid, there must be something desperately wrong with you," he says.

Frank obviously isn't heavy lifting, and it clicks just enough to get by. Its star also is likable as himself, making it easy for the audience to root for the best when he goes into character.

You wonder how long this show could go on, though. Rather than an amateur guest host, why not deploy fellow impressionists to play along with Caliendo? As a virtual one-man show he risks spreading himself way too thin.

Grade: C+

Movie review: More of Me (Lifetime)

Tree toppers: Molly Shannon and co-star Kimberly Huie

Most of Saturday Night Live's star women have gone on to smaller and lesser things.

That lately includes one of the show's best and brightest, Molly Shannon. She'll be on-camera constantly, but not very winningly, in the new Lifetime movie More of Me (Saturday, Nov. 17th at 8 p.m. central).

Numerous SNL males have graduated to lucrative feature film careers. From the very start came Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Bill Murray. The list then goes on and on, including Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and lately, Will Ferrell.

None of SNL's women can say as much, and most can say very little. The Cheri Oteris far outnumber the Jane Curtins, Tina Feys and Janeane Garofalos, none of whom has made any real impact on the big screen. The late Gilda Radner had a shot, but we'll never know.

Shannon, best known from her SNL tour as creepy Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher, doesn't exactly get the role of a lifetime in More of Me. She's Alice McGrath, a do-it-all mother of six-year-old twins who's lately obsessed with saving an historic old tree in danger of being uprooted by a bridge.

Literally out on a limb, she has little time for herself, her city engineer husband (poor Steven Weber as Rex) and offspring Viv and Boone (Abigail Falle, Jake Beale). The son is trained to go "plop-plop," but not yet to wipe himself. Unfortunately, this apparently is viewed as riotous comedy by the film's producers.

Alice eventually magically morphs into three disparate versions of herself -- the environmental activist, the dutiful mommy and the sexpot wife. The latter guise is particularly painful. Meanwhile, the real Alice is rendered invisible to all but her three stand-ins.

More of Me never jells into much of anything other than an overlong trifle with lots and lots of Shannon. She deserves better, but Hollywood isn't particularly kind to aging, plain-faced actresses. Particularly those with SNL pedigrees.

Grade: C-minus

WRITERS' STRIKE: Fox stops the clock on 24, makes a date with Idol

The above premiere date for 24's seventh season is now inoperative.

Jack Bauer can save the world, but a writers' strike renders him impotent.

Fox announced Wednesday that "Day 7" of 24, originally set to launch with a two-hour, Jan. 13th premiere, has been postponed indefinitely so that the series can air uninterrupted in its entirety. Roughly one-third of the show's episodes had been scripted before the Writers Guild of America walked out on Monday.

Fox's bigger gun, American Idol, will flex as usual. Its seventh season starts on Tuesday, Jan. 15th with a two-hour premiere and continues the following night with another two hours.

The network's Sunday night cartoon bloc, led by The Simpsons and Family Guy, basically will be unaffected by the strike. This season's new episodes were scripted well in advance before being sent abroad to be animated.

Fox announced a number of other changes for early next year, all of them subject to revision pending any early resolution of the strike. In the case of new scripted series, unspecified numbers of episodes have been completed after Fox announced them in May as either midseason or spring replacements. Here are some highlights:

***Prison Break, shot primarily in North Texas, will end the first half of its season on Nov. 12th. The series then is scheduled to return with whatever new episodes are available on Jan. 14th.

***Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, described as an "exciting reinvention" of the film franchise, premieres on Monday, Jan. 14th following Prison Break. It originally was earmarked for a spring debut on Sunday nights.

***New Amsterdam, the saga of an immortal New York homicide detective, had been part of Fox's fall schedule until being bumped by Don't Forget the Lyrics!. Now the series gets a dreaded Friday night berth, beginning on Feb. 22nd. Fox hasn't had a hit on that night since the early years of The X-Files.

***The Moment of Truth, a big money game show in which contestants are strapped to lie detectors, invades American homes on Wednesday, Jan. 23rd, following Idol.

***The reality series When Women Rule the World is scheduled to premiere on Monday, March 3rd after Prison Break runs its course. Premise: A gaggle of chauvinistic men are duped into submitting to the dictates of "strong, educated and independent" females. Fox says it's set in a "primitive, remote location." Tuscaloosa perhaps?

***Three previously announced scripted series -- Unhitched, The Return of Jezebel James and Canterbury's Law (starring ER alum Julianna Margulies) -- respectively are supposed to premiere on March 2nd, March 7th and April 11th. But don't hold Fox to that.

WRITERS' STRIKE: First casualties are late night talkers

Strike proof: CBS' six-hour Commanche Moon, co-starring Wes Studi (left), is already on DVD discs sent to critics; NBC's announced new version of American Gladiators, hosted by Hulk Hogan, is unscripted.

Hollywood's writers' strike officially is on. First off are original editions of broadcast and cable networks' late night talk and comedy shows.

It's quite a blow, with NBC, CBS, ABC and Comedy Central all making it official Monday. Repeats immediately are in effect until further notice for NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brien; CBS' Late Show with David Letterman and Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson; ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

Daytime soaps will be the next casualties, but prime-time won't be unduly affected in these still early stages of the November "sweeps" ratings period. There are enough completed new episodes of scripted series to last the month before broadcast networks typically go into heavy rotations of repeats and old Christmas specials. That means the first big pinch would be felt in January, with some networks seemingly in much better position than others to withstand a possibly prolonged strike. Here's a quick look at what the Big Four broadcasters have in their arsenals:

FOX -- It's got a little show called American Idol waiting in the wings, and imagine what it might do two or three nights a week against mostly reruns. Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? is no slouch either, and new episodes easily could fill several additional hours a week. And Don't Forget the Lyrics! Fox hasn't.

The network also has Super Bowl XLII in its corner and can fill out the early days of January with BCS Championship college football games, to which it owns exclusive rights. There's this, too. Fox has reality TV maestro Mark Darnell in its executive chambers. He's a whiz at churning out unscripted programming, and there's a bottomless cesspool of it out there. Another advantage: Fox programs seven fewer hours a week than its rivals. That's gonna help a lot if the strike drags on.

The network's biggest unknown is 24, which has only a handful of episodes completed. Do you start it knowing you quickly might have to stop it? Probably not.

CBS -- The six-hour Commanche Moon, a prequel to Larry McMurtry's classic Lonesome Dove, is already completed and in TV critics' hands. It was supposed to air opposite college football games on Dec. 30 and Jan. 1-2. CBS might well have to rethink that strategy if the strike persists.

The network also has the still-resilient Survivor franchise, and perhaps could fire up another edition of Big Brother instead of waiting for summer. That could eat up a lot of prime-time hours, and at a very cost-efficient price tag.

At least two prime-time game shows, the Drew Carey-hosted Power of 10 and a new version of Password starring Regis Philbin, stand ready to be deployed. But CBS is heavily reliant on high-powered scripted crime shows, several of which serve as super-potent lead-ins for late night local newscasts. Knocking then all into reruns would be a serious blow. Then again, the CSI franchise, Without A Trace and other mostly self-contained police "procedurals" repeat far better than serial dramas.

NBC -- Most of its new and returning scripted series are struggling if not dying in the Nielsen ratings. So in a way NBC might welcome the chance to make a big splash with reality programming. Deal or No Deal clearly would get multiple nights, and the Peacock also has a new version of American Gladiators in production.

A celebrity version of Donald Trump's The Apprentice already has been greenlighted, as have new episodes of 1 vs 100. A new Dennis Miller-hosted game show, Amne$ia, was announced last week and likely will be fast-forwarded into production. Also, might NBC execs seriously consider an early return for summer's biggest hit, America's Got Talent? Damn right they would.

Other NBC reality series such as Biggest Loser and Singing Bee have been slumping this fall, but could serve as ports in a strike storm. The Peacock has unscripted football in play on Sunday nights for the rest of this year. Previously announced reinforcements in January are Law & Order, Medium and the new Lipstick Jungle. It's uncertain how many Sundays they could fill before completed episodes run dry.

ABC -- Bring on the celebrity hoofers and hunky single dudes. The Alphabet network profitably could fill lots of prime-time hours early next year with Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor. It also has the previously announced Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann in the wings. In-show promotions on Dancing with the Stars now likely will only intensify.

ABC has at least one big movie, the long-completed Raisin In the Sun, awaiting a late February premiere. Maybe it will move up. And it's still sitting on Oprah's Big Give, a planned eight-episode reality series gifting worthy recipients with lotsa stuff. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and America's Funniest Home Videos also are immune to the strike.

As does Fox, ABC has a big-ticket serial drama in Lost. Sixteen episodes are supposed to air without interruption, beginning sometime in midseason. Again, though, would you start knowing you might have to stop?

The questions will keep coming unless both sides kiss and make up in a hurry. The last writers' strike, in 1988, lasted 22 weeks, though. And as one strike captain has said of this one, "Once it starts, it's going to get ugly."

Williams gets his SNL fix

Gun included: SNL's mock Nightly News open. NBC photo

The above imagery perhaps isn't ideal. It depicts the standardbearer of NBC News at ease with a handgun while a fireball that looks a bit too much like a mushroom cloud flares up alongside him.

Oh well, at least he got it out of his system. After resisting for years, Nightly News anchor Brian ("I know I"m often seen as a stiff") Williams fronted his network's Saturday Night Live over the weekend and showed that he's funnier than any number of previous hosts.

That's not surprising to those who have seen him out of character before. Williams has the performer's touch, whether soberly delivering the news or nimbly tossing off one-liners at industry events or with interviewers.

His best moments on SNL were as "Principal Jeffries" on a mock CW show and as a non-plussed $15 million Publishers Clearing House winner who later got excited when a pizza deliveryman told him that free cheesy bread was included.

(Actually, SNL regular Kristen Wiig made the latter sketch hum as a near-hysterical and hysterically funny Clearing House interviewer. But Williams somehow managed to resolutely stay in character when lesser hosts would have coughed up the bit by cracking up.)

Some parts of his SNL coming-out party were at least a little questionable, though. The mock James Bond-ish open to Nightly News -- "I need something young, yes, but dignified" -- no doubt marked the first time a network newsman brandished a gun in pursuit of laughs and viewers. Williams might already be rethinking that one just a little.

It also seemed that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama got a free pass from SNL in return for a surprise cameo in an opening sketch depicting a Halloween party thrown by a fake Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Williams wasn't a part of that one, but did play himself in a later bit in which he prepped an inept group of Democratic candidates for a debate while telling them that "all of us in the media want her (Hillary) to be the nominee."

The host then left to interview Hillary about, as he put it, "her first first 100 days in office." Obama, said to be "on the way" to the debate, was exempted from a resultant sketch that depicted all of the other remaining Democratic candidates as hapless, pathetically scheming also-rans. Maybe SNL had no one to play Obama? But former SNL player Tim Meadows easily could have been recruited, as was alum Horatio Sanz to impersonate Bill Richardson.

None of this probably matters much anymore, although it's still fair to ask whether Katie Couric could have hosted SNL without being torpedoed. But maybe she should go ahead and give it a shot at this point. Williams apparently has paved the way for any and all newsmen or newswomen to wear lampshades if they please.