Many readers think the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour in Southern California is just a good time, an excuse to hobnob with celebrities and to enjoy the 75 degree weather while the temperature hovers around zero at home.
OK. The last part is true.
But it also is a learning experience for every critic from a small market who gets to talk to television celebrities and executives who aren’t usually available to them to discuss the TV business.
Here’s a list of things – some serious, some not so serious – I learned in my five days in Pasadena. (I learned so much I might have a sequel next week.)
TV is insane: There were 353 scripted original series on American TV in 2014: That nugget came from FX executive John Landgraf. He added that there are 180 original cable series, double what there was in 2010. “The amount of competition is just literally insane,” said Landgraf. Agreed. Please remember this statistic the next time you ask me if I have seen the latest episode of your favorite series. Or wonder why I may go insane.
Henry the VIII is funny: Not him, but the actor, Damian Lewis, who is playing him in a PBS April miniseries, “Wolf Hall.” I think Henry is a capricious, mercurial man and a man who I hope, in this rendering of him, isn’t the simply the syphilitic, philandering Elvis,” said Lewis to laughter.
J-Lo is beautiful: This wasn’t a shocker. I saw Jennifer Lopez at a Fox party. I couldn’t get near the “American Idol” judge, but I was close enough to see that she didn’t need to dress as provocatively as she did at the Golden Globes to get all eyes focused on her.
Buffalo native has PBS series coming: John Maggio, the writer of a February PBS series, “The Italian Americans,” is from Buffalo. This surprised me because he’s written so many other things, including “Billy the Kid” and “Looking for Lincoln” for “American Experience” and a few other things for Frontline and nobody has alerted me to his roots here until now.
It pays to have a dad as a critic: Sometimes anyway. Simon Rich, the creator of the funny FXX comedy series, “Man Seeking Woman” in which the lead had a blind date with a troll and there is a Japanese penis monster named Tanaka, is the son of New York magazine critic Frank Rich. Asked what it is like having a dad who’s a critic, Rich said he was helped a lot by his exposure to art, theater, books and television. But apparently dad doesn’t look at his son’s writing. “We do pretty different sorts of writing, because he writes about things like presidential politics and the fate of the free world, and I’m more of a Japanese penis monster sort of guy,” cracked Simon. “Hopefully he’s not too embarrassed by the path that I’ve chosen.”
Keith Urban is a diplomat: The “American Idol” judge saw his wife, Nicole Kidman, appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and mention that Urban had performed in Niagara Falls on New Year’s Eve. That led to Fallon creating a furor here by slamming the American side of the Falls. After a news conference here, Urban told me he played on an outdoor stage on the Canadian side in 17-degree weather. “It was tricky for a guitar player,” he said. And what did Urban think of the American side? “I’ve been on both sides. It’s all good. The Falls is beautiful.”
Billy Crystal is all business: I’ve always been a huge fan of Crystal, who plays himself in an upcoming FX series, “The Comedians.” We’re the same age, we grew up a few miles from each other on Long Island, I was a Mickey Mantle fan in my childhood and my family also had roots in Russia. I brought all that up and then tried to warm him up further by asking how he thought the New York Yankees would do next season. He smiled and said, “Let’s stick with the show.” So we did. He told me a lot about it. I’ll tell you what I learned about it in a future column.
Annie Lennox rocks: The Scottish singing star will be featured in an April 3 Great Performances Special, “Annie Lennox: Nostalgia,” so PBS flew her in to give a preview with a mini-concert of four American standards. She rocked the small room. Two critics next to me immediately began downloading the album or whatever you call it these days.
Pittsburgh is the place to see “Kinky Boots”: PBS also brought Billy Porter, who won a Tony playing Lola, the drag queen who saves a British shoe factory in “Kinky Boots,” in front of critics to promote his appearance “Live from Lincoln Center” on April 3. He also impressed. I know “Kinky” is coming to Shea’s in April. I’m sure the touring production will be very good, as is the current edition of “Motown: The Musical.” But I saw Porter in “Kinky” on Broadway and there’s no way anyone on a road tour can be as good. He is from Pittsburgh and plans to be part of the tour there in August because he loves his hometown. It might be a good idea to see it there with Porter in the summer, too.
Cancer has roots from Greece: With Jim Kelly, Rick Jeanneret and Jacquie Walker all being treated for cancer in the past year, the illness repeatedly has been in the headlines. But do you know why it is called cancer? In a session for the three-part miniseries premiering on March 30, “Ken Burns Presents: Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies,” the filmmaker explained its name. “Well, the Greeks, who called it ‘karkinos,’ noticed that aggressive cancers almost reached out and were so omnivorous like the pincers of a crab,” explained Burns. “So as the Latin world overspread the Greek, the ‘karkinos,’ which is still the root of ‘carcinoma,’ becomes ‘cancer.’ ”
Bills fans are everywhere: During a break in between interview sessions, a guy got the best seat in front of a TV set up to watch Green Bay’s NFC title game with Seattle a week ago. He told me he was from Toronto and a Buffalo Bills fan. I quickly realized it was Graham Yost, the creator of “Justified.” As I left the game to return for a session, Yost said, “Go Bills.”