Saturday, September 26, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: With Andre Braugher of 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'

I don't remember now which of his many series he was representing. Could it have been so long ago that he was still playing the role for which he may be best known, as arrogant, eccentric, irresistible Detective Frank Pembleton on the classic cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street?

At any rate, I was still a relatively brand-new television critic, writing for The Detroit News, and certainly something of an anomaly: even today there are very few people of color writing about TV on a regular basis, and in the early '90s there were almost none.

Perhaps that was the key. I bumped into Andre Braugher in the elevator of the Santa Monica hotel where the Television Critics Association meetings were being held that summer and we began a casual conversation. It floated into the lobby bar where we talked about a variety of subjects – very few related to acting or television, as I recall – over a round or two of drinks. "What a great guy," I think to myself. I've never been starstruck, but neither had I ever spent significant time chatting with a nationally known actor in a non-interview setting. "He's nothing at all like his characters!"

As we get up to leave, Braugher takes a napkin off the bar and pulls out a pen. He writes down his home number and hands it to me. "If you're ever on the coast, give me a call," he smiles. Well, just how cool is this?

I'd like to tell you this is the start of a beautiful, decades-long friendship. But I would be telling you a lie, for I am a doofus. By the time I returned to Detroit from California a few weeks later, I lost the napkin.

I recount this story to Braugher recently over the phone (no, I didn't find the number; a Beverly Hills publicist set up the call), which elicits a laugh. "I'm glad to know I was perceived as being a nice guy," he says.

He's also being perceived now – for perhaps the first time in his long career – as a comedic actor. He has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series each of the two seasons Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been on the air for his portrayal of Captain Ray Holt, the by-the-book, openly gay commanding officer of TV's wackiest precinct.

As Capt. Ray Holt, the Last (Serious) Man Standing. (FOX/Tommy Garcia)
As Season Three arrives on FOX at 8:30 p.m. EST Sunday (Sept. 27, 2015), however, we find Capt. Holt has been transferred – and demoted – to head his former unit in the NYPD's Public Relations Office, the result of his ongoing insult war with the evil Deputy Chief Madeline Wuntch (guest star Kyra Sedgwick). Holt's farewell to his squad at the end of Season Two was the kind of scene from which YouTube legends are made. And now the 9-9 must deal with a new captain: guest star Bill Hader, former Saturday Night Live stablemate of series star Andy Samberg, as the efficiency-obsessed Capt. Seth Dozerman.

What are we to make of all this? For that matter, what does Braugher think of these big changes, I asked him as our one-on-one interview began.

When you received the script for the Season Two finale, were you at all concerned that you were being written out of the series?

I wasn't concerned in the least. I mean, there's always a cliffhanger at the end of a season. Jake (Andy Samberg) left the first year, Ray left last year, and next year who knows?

As a matter of fact, (co-executive producer) Dan Goor gave me a call after the script came out and said, 'Oh, in case you were wondering whether or not you're on the show, we have this whole elaborate thing planned out, blah, blah, blah,' I told him I had no doubts. Other people asked, 'Are you leaving the show? Where are you going?' I said, 'I'm sure they have something planned and they're going to resolve it.' I know these guys (Goor and Michael Schur) to be sharp and funny. They're not crashing their own show.

I think I have a contract that runs six years, and I think they're happy with my work. I've gotten two consecutive Emmy nominations. So I think I'm good.

Did you have any misgivings about playing a gay character?

I wasn't concerned about anything other than the fact that typically, gay characters are the butt of the joke. But I understood these guys (Goor and Schur) have a very good pedigree. I've watched The Office and Parks and Recreation and I know these guys are smart writers who create really rich and detailed universes for their characters. So my only question was, what's your intention with this?

Basically it was a five-minute conversation. Dan said his intentions were ultimately respectful. New York is a city that's incredibly diverse and this cast is incredibly diverse as well. It's his attempt to mirror the world, and I think that's wonderful. Raymond Holt is in a long-lasting, monogamous, stable relationship. He said this is not the kind of show where you're going to be wearing pink hot pants one day and dancing to 'YMCA' the next. No matter how crazy the characters are, they're still going to admirable in their own way. And I took him at his word.

It's an especially touchy issue for black actors, no?

You know, African American men in drag or as flamboyant homosexuals is really a very common theme in television, so it was always important for me to stay away from that kind of stuff. So I trusted these guys, and it's proven true. Ray Holt is a very interesting man whose sexual orientation is part of his character as opposed to being his defining trait.

Do you expect that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has impacted your image to the extent that casting directors will think of you now as a comedic actor?

(Laughs.) Possibly. I don't know. I mean, this was so unexpected. I would love to. I would love to take on some comic movies, I'd love to take on some comic challenges. I wasn't born to comedy, but I think there's a place for me. I would love to embrace it wholeheartedly and see where it goes, because I feel rejuvenated as an actor by being involved with this comedy. 
The undeniably diverse (and bizarre) cast of 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' (Scott Schafer/FOX)
Do you have any 'rearview mirror' thoughts about Men of a Certain Age (the short-lived TNT drama co-starring Ray Romano and Scott Bakula, which also earned Braugher two Emmy nominations). It was so good, and seemed to be canceled way too soon.

Well, I guess the numbers weren't good enough. People really had a very strong affection for that show, as did I. And I felt we were telling a really mature kind of comic tale about men in this time of their life.

You know, it's typically true of television that men at this age are the butt of the joke, and this was a show that loved them and understood them. You could see it in the writing. So I was sorry to see it go, but that's been the story of my entire career. It's not my decision. It's not my network. I would have done something different and I would have loved to go on with the show. Ray is a comic genius, period, and Scott is a perfect gentleman. But once again, it was TNT's call. If the numbers don't satisfy them, it's time to go.

They (TV networks) do love to pull the plug too early on the shows, you know? Shows don't get a chance to build. They just yank 'em. If farmers ripped up their crops as quickly as networks rip up television shows, nothing would ever grow. But I went on to Last Resort (the military drama that aired one season on ABC), and right after that I went on to Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So I consider myself fortunate as an actor to have been gainfully employed for five years in a row.

Does anyone still recognize you as Frank Pembleton, or has too much water flowed under the bridge since Homicide?
As Det. Frank Pembleton

Yeah, sure, from people my age (53). Because those are the people who saw the show when it ran on the network or saw it in DVD or boxed sets. But you know, the show doesn't stream, so there's a whole generation that knows nothing about that show. I mean, you can't find it on Hulu or iTunes, you can't buy it. You can see excerpts that people have posted on YouTube, but that's it.

It was a really interesting show, but no one can actually see it anymore. It's going to disappear, because you can't watch it. Test it out. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's the neanderthal in me coming out, but I don't consider myself a novice on a computer. And I don't see any way for an ordinary individual to watch an episode of Homicide. It's going to fade from consciousness.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Horror in Roanoke Evokes Memories of an Old Friend – Tragically

One of the first things I did Thursday morning (8/27/15), after the shock and disbelief and rage and outrage had fallen into place, was to call my dear friend Robin Hardin in Detroit.

I wanted to make sure "Robby-Rob," as I love to call her, was doing all right emotionally. My concern was prompted by of one of those weird, six-degrees-of-separation experiences that you never expect will stretch out to involve you personally – until it does.

Alison Parker and Adam Ward, killed on live TV. (CBS News)
You see, the senseless, nauseating murders of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward and the wounding of their interview subject Vicki Gardner this week during a live TV segment in Roanoke, Va., sent America's media mob scrambling for the archives. As it turns out, the last time a working U.S. journalist was gunned down in this country was back in 2007. The victim was the editor-in-chief of the Oakland Post in Oakland, Calif., a man named Chauncey Bailey.

He was a friend of mine.

And Robin Hardin is his ex-wife.

In the torrent of reportage over the deaths of Parker and Ward, the name of Chauncey Bailey was almost certain to be dropped frequently and mindlessly by the national media. He's a human footnote, a casual point of reference. It's got to be hard enough to carry around an undercurrent of grief over the murder of an ex-spouse, an incessant pain eight years this month and counting, without having to hear his name thrown in your face every time you turn on a newscast. Some people might rejoice over the memory of an ex's demise. Robin Hardin is not one of those people.
Chauncey Bailey was a fighter – and one heck of a journalist.

Like Parker and Ward, Bailey was shot down outdoors and in broad August daylight, with the ruthlessness of Walter Palmer going after Cecil the Lion. Like Parker and Ward, Bailey was simply doing his job as a journalist at the time, investigating the finances of an Oakland business called Your Black Muslim Bakery when he was assassinated on 14th Street by a masked gunman. (Eventually, in 2011, two men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for their role in the murder.) Unlike anyone I've ever known or worked with, however, Chauncey Bailey was uniquely, absolutely one of a kind.

He and I were contemporaries at The Detroit News in the 1980s and '90s. Away from the office Chauncey was warm, conversational, surprisingly funny. With a keyboard or notepad under his control, however, he could be as abrasive as a Brillo pad. He was aggressive, articulate and fearless, never afraid to ask the toughest question regardless of the consequences. I admired that quality a great deal.

There's a reason I gravitated toward feature writing. Some people shy away from that "going-for-the-jugular" question, fearing vicious retaliation or the bruising of feelings; Chauncey seemed to live for the moment – not so much, I sensed, to be deliberately confrontational or piss people off, but because he had a story to unearth. The truth must be told, and truth was one thing from which Chauncey Bailey never shied away.

In one legendary newsroom incident, a young News reporter named Darrell Dawsey had convinced editors to let him write a neo-hip-hop, urban oriented column called "Buckwhylin';" Chauncey thought it was demeaning, and told him so. Words were exchanged. Fists flew. At some point an industrial-sized wastebasket was used as a weapon. There they were, two brawny black men slugging it out in the middle of a newsroom that was almost entirely white. It must have looked like a prize fight. Even I felt the fallout from that encounter.

Robin Hardin, kissing her ex-husband farewell. (SF Chronicle)
Chauncey and Robin went their separate ways long ago, divided by time and distance. Yet the two remained good friends, a rarity for a long-divorced couple. I wouldn't say Robin continued to carry a torch for him, but she spoke of him often and warmly in conversation. To my knowledge she has had few if any serious relationships since. Because I knew them both well, Robin and I often recounted stories from their happier times.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I am living proof that a man can have a close female friend who is a friend only. I have known Robin – who now, ironically, works for a television station – for going on 30 years, and we never have had a romantic interlude. Not that the thought hadn't crossed my mind, you understand: Robin Hardin is a tall, stunning, exceptionally intelligent and delightful woman. A man would have to be a fool. But God places people in your life in the role they need to play, and in Robin's life I was cast in the part of good friend. I'll never forget the look of shock and disbelief on the face of my girlfriend, Karen (who later would become my wife), when I explained our relationship the first time she met Robin, who had orchestrated a pre-dawn, three-state road trip to surprise Karen on a holiday weekend. "Well, that's a relief!" Karen exhaled. Robin was my "best person" at our wedding.

And now, with no significant movement on gun control since her beloved Chauncey was shot down in the street, two more families have to deal with soul-shattering anguish. This time, the deranged, cowardly scumbag not only snuck up to shoot his unsuspecting victims in the back, but also took time to videotape his actions so he could post the deed on social media.

Several calls to Robin's home went unanswered, which is not unusual. She is a private person, given to occasional periods of reclusiveness, and almost never cleans out her voicemail to accept new messages. I was slightly more worried than usual, however. And then, Friday morning, my phone rang. Robby-Rob.

"WHUZZUP?" I exclaimed jubilantly. We both laughed about 20 seconds before another word was spoken.

"It's been a rough week," she said, as I anticipated. "It's one thing if your relative or friend dies of an illness, or is killed in an accident. But to have someone who is killed like this, just shot and killed, that makes you part of a special club."

A club nobody should ever have to join.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

'The Last Man on Earth:' The Last Show You'd Want to Watch

Will Forte is Phil Miller, Awash in a 10-year-old's Paradise. (FOX/Justin Althaus)
Think of all the money they saved on casting.

The very definition of the one-note gag, The Last Man on Earth, premieres Sunday (March 1, 2015) at 9 p.m. EST on FOX with a one-hour introductory episode, which is at least 41 minutes too long.

The promos proclaim this comedy is "unlike anything you've seen on television," and that is true. The question is whether that's a good thing.

It's different. It's outrageous. What it's not, as far as I could tell, is funny. I occasionally thought to myself, "Well, that's excessive" or "That's meant for shock value," but I never thought, "Hey, that's hysterical!" I strained to work up a pleasant smile.

The premise – do I even need to explain the premise? – is the title. Will Forte is Phil Miller, a fortysomething ex-temp worker (read: slacker) who appears to be the lone survivor of a devastating virus in 2020 that wiped out the rest of America's 320 million citizens. (Question to God, please: If you were to kill everyone in the United States, why would you spare Will Forte?)

He steals – well, guess it wouldn't exactly be stealing, would it? – a tour bus and criss-crosses the country looking for another survivor, emitting the longest scream of desperation ever heard on TV after he comes up empty. He spray-paints the message "Alive in Tucson" wherever he can, because that's where he's elected to settle.

He's taken souvenirs from his travels to spruce up the mansion he's chosen as his new digs. Babe Ruth autographs. Priceless works of art. Dorothy's ruby slippers. He takes cues from the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away. He talks to God, and admits having the run of the country does have its benefits. "These are Hugh Hefner's actual pajamas," he boasts to the Almighty. "Yeah. I washed them."

Mostly, though, Phil fights boredom by engaging in the kind of childish acts of destruction that would make Jackass fans green with envy. Not to mention, he now has free access to all the alcohol he can drink, and takes full advantage at every opportunity. He flashes back to his last birthday, a joyous party surrounded by loved ones, then contrasts it to this year's celebration: a single candle in a Twinkie – washed down with a bottle of $10,000 wine.

If you had free access to all booze, would you become a human margarita? (FOX)
So socially awkward is Phil that he has difficulty working up the courage to introduce himself to a shapely dress-store mannequin. (No, really.) After vowing to himself that he can keep it together despite the crushing loneliness, by the 16-minute mark of the pilot he's ready to commit suicide by driving an off-road vehicle into a huge boulder he's taken the time to adorn with a red-and-white bull's-eye. Time is one of the many things Phil has plenty of. "I've been through a lot lately, and just realized that having other people around is really what makes life worth living," he acknowledges.

Where do you go from here? This show is sad, occasionally contemplative, maybe even pitiful, all of which flies in the face of classifying it as a sitcom. You won't be tempted to join Phil in ending it all, but I find it impossible to believe you won't want to end Last Man on Earth by jumping off to another channel. There is a development about halfway through the hour that changes the dynamic significantly, but I believe you'll find it more annoying than encouraging.

Since he's really all you've got here, liking this show inherently means liking Forte. My feeling: meh. Did anyone ever really think those MacGruber sketches on Saturday Night Live were funny?

It's hard to fathom that the same people who gave us Empire also could give us this. Different silos for drama and comedy development, no doubt?

Entertainment Weekly tells us nearly 100 new series have been greenlghted for airing already in 2015. If any more of them are as brainless and unwatchable as Last Man on Earth, networks, please, scrap the process and start over.

My rating (1-10 scale): 1 click.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

FOX is 'Empire' Building, a Potential Contemporary Classic

Terrence Howard: Luscious as Lucious in 'Empire' (Chuck Hodes/FOX)
OK, ladies, your attention please! FOX is prepared to offer you the opportunity to gaze week after week at Terrence Howard, he of the velvety café au lait skin and sparkling green eyes, draped in some of the most dashing men's attire currently displayed on network television.

Your vote on Empire? Greatest new show on TV? Gotcha. All right, next review!

But seriously folks, as Lucious Lyon, the suave yet sinister mogul of a music and entertainment megacorp (think Jay-Z, but good lookin'), Howard is the focal point – and, ironically, the eye candy – of Empire, the hip-hop rendition of Dallas premiering at 9:01 p.m. EST Tuesday (Jan. 7, 2015) on FOX.

Lucious knows the president by his first name and waxes eloquent on the role of the Internet in killing his music industry. However, make no mistake: it's Taraji P. Henson, his fellow Oscar-nominated actor, in the role of ex-wife Cookie Lyon that gives this show its hustle and flow.

Cookie is the straw that stirs the drink, the engine that drives the vehicle, the hip that moves the hop. She's just been released from prison for good behavior after serving 17 years on drug possession charges, it was her drug money that financed Lucious' Empire Entertainment conglomerate, and she's back "to get what's mine" – just as Lucious is attempting to take his company public. She is brutally honest, and honestly brutal.

Protect the children.

If this Empire collapses, it will be only because of the weight of its expectations. I mean, look at its name! FOX has mounted a tremendous assault of promotion and hype for this series. It has been handed a desirable, compatible time slot behind the return of American Idol. Joe Buck talked more last Sunday about its premiere than about how the Detroit Lions were getting screwed in the NFL playoff game. And whether you believe the hype or not, at least you can understand the reason why.
He's Lyon, but She's One Tough Cookie. (FOX)

Empire is the creation of super-hot Lee Daniels, basking in the glow of his celebrated work on the films Lee Daniels' The Butler and Precious. Daniels is executive producer, directed the pilot and co-wrote it with his screenwriting partner Danny Strong. He was taking no chances of having his vision altered. So much juice has he that he persuaded his Precious star Gabourey Sidibe to take a brief, sassy guest role as Lucious' secretary. (And one can't help notice that Lyon's henchman, Bunky, who could have used any comparison to voice his discontent, complains that Lucious "treats me like the butler.")

The cast is simply extraordinary. When Malik Yoba, who plays Empire's chairman of the board, is listed fifth among the opening credits, you know you're dealing with some serious star power here. No less a personage than rapper-producer Timbaland, a mini music mogul in his own right, composed the original music for Empire, and much of it is pretty sweet. One wonders, however, if the music doesn't sometimes overwhelm or sidetrack the storyline.

And what a storyline. For reasons that become clear late in the hour, Lucious feels its time to hand down his kingdom to one of his three sons. "What is this, we King Lear now?" asks one. Well, yeah, kinda, if the king could have freestyled. Lucious insists "it's time for one of you Negroes to man up" and claim the throne.

There's the eldest son, Andre (Trai Byers), the polished Ivy League grad who is most qualified to take over the business but lacks the superstar-artist image Lucious wants for his company's CEO. There's middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett), an immensely talented singer-songwriter whose sexual orientation has caused him to be ostracized by his homophobic father. (It has been suggested that this dynamic is patterned after Daniels' own relationship with his police officer father and undoubtedly will generate dialogue about being black and gay in America in weeks to come.) And there's Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), the golden child, a hip-hop superstar in training whose pampered upbringing and wild excesses may derail his career.

Lyon cubs Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) compete. (Chuck Hodes/FOX)
Whoever finally assumes control of the dynasty will have to navigate a tangled web of intrigue and subplots – as will we viewers. Sibling rivalry! Terminal illness! Drug money! Blackmail! Child abuse! Interracial marriage! Men kissing men! Murder! And this is in the first hour! Daniels will have no problem finding plotlines to pursue, but it's a lot to take in and choppy in some places; hopefully the audience can hang on for the wild ride.

A predominantly African American primetime soap opera. Tyler Perry is making it work with The Haves and the Have Nots. 50 Cent, who is almost never at a loss for something to say, is slamming Empire because its marketing images look similar to the ones for his Starz series Power? Negro, please. When a series features a strong male and female lead, it sorta makes sense to picture them together. And while comedies or dramas infused with music haven't made an impact since – well, since Glee (conversely, anybody here remember Smash?), ABC is showing signs of a breakthrough with its delightful Monty Pythonesque romp Galavant, so perhaps the timing is right for Empire to (back)beat the odds.

Here's what we know: FOX is projecting this as its biggest can't-miss hit in years, ordering 13 episodes in an era where usually eight is enough and banking on the show's big names and Daniels' proven storytelling skills to take the day. Win or lose, at least we're guaranteed a few months of great music...and staring at Howard.

On the Big Glowing Box 1-10 remote: eight (8) clicks.