(Editor’s Note: Following the four-day extravaganza that was Cable TCA, Mike slipped into a brief coma and spent that time of blissful unconsciousness organizing his thoughts about the star-studded event. He awoke with greater insight, a sense of inner peace and—strangely—the ability to predict Anthony Michael Hall’s future).
Cable TCA – DAY ONE (July 12)
6:30 a.m. – Rise. Look out the window of the Beverly Hilton (Merv Griffin’s experiment in higher consciousness through pastels) and see a tarred roof that extends into an air conditioning duct and eventually the Hollywood hills. Ah, the city of dreams. And today, the celebrities will all come to us, bowing down before this bizarre menagerie of rejects and wannabes known as… the television critics. These celebs never talked to us in high school. Now they HAVE to talk to us. It’s in their contracts!! Ha ha ha HA HA HA!
9 a.m. – Lifetime kicks off TCA with a couple of new shows. The first is Side Order of Life starring Marisa Coughlan (most recently seen in Boston Legal) and Jason Priestley (most recently seen hanging out at a bar on Sunset). On the show, Coughlan’s character ditches Priestley faster than America did after Beverly Hills 90210 ended (only by ditching Jason Priestley can one find oneself). The show features “magical realism,” made even more fantastical by the simple fact that Priestley has a regular acting gig again. All kidding aside, Priestley does a nice job. The only question is whether viewers will overlook Coughlan’s seemingly nonsensical life decisions based on bizarre signs from the universe. They probably will. She’s just too adorable to hate. Next up is “State of Mind” starring indie film goddess Lili Taylor as a psychoanalyst with her own issues (yes, this one has been done before… but hey, it’s Lili friggin’ Taylor… let’s give it a chance). Critics ask about whether plots about therapy have simply run their course, which leads to a larger discussion about therapy in general. Lili’s stand: “A hundred bucks, and you feel a little better when you leave… why not?” Fair enough.
10:45 a.m. – The cast of FX’s Nip/Tuck takes the stage to talk about the next season of the hit show, which takes a major plot turn by transplanting our two favorite plastic surgeons from narcissistic and image-obsessed Miami to the completely different environment of… uh, Beverly Hills? My idea: Move these guys to Idaho and watch them try to convince the locals to spend their corn seed money on liposuction. Now that would be a show! Unfortunately, the highlight of the panel is when star Julian McMahon’s cell phone rings in the middle of it. Most of us might… oh, I don’t know… hit “ignore” in such a situation. Not Julian. “Yeah, I’m on a panel,” he says. “Yeah. I’ll call you back.” McMahon went on to tell the critics that one of the kinkiest, sex-drenched shows on cable isn’t nearly kinky and sex-drenched enough. In fact, Julian wanted to “do something out of Silence of the Lambs” at a recent shoot, but the director wouldn’t let him. “I feel like we have to notch up the kink level a little bit,” he says. And maybe notch down the cell phone volume. Then it’s on to Glenn Close, who stars in new series Damages about a cut-throat litigator who snarls at underlings and charms TV reporters—all in an attempt to torture a billionaire played by Ted Danson. The show looks like a thrill ride with plenty of twists and turns. Believe it or not, Close’s first husband taught me to play guitar when I was in high school (they met at William & Mary, which is located in my hometown of Williamsburg, VA). After the panel, I try to introduce myself, but I’m foiled by a phalanx of rapid critics who have descended upon her. Her publicist finally screams, “You have to let her out!” and is summarily ignored by everyone. I leave before finding out whether she made it out alive, but I assume she did as I saw no news reports to the contrary. And yes, she’s still beautiful up Close. Sorry.
12:15 p.m. – National Geographic Channel holds a working lunch to show off new shows like Inside the Human Body, Incredible Human Machine and Taboo, which explores such topics as body modification/mutilation and other yummy pursuits. NatGeo shows it to us on a big screen as waiters bring out meat platters. Mmmm, mmmm good! The shows look extremely interesting if not very appetizing. The highlight for me comes at the end when the Dog Whisperer himself, Cesar Millan, takes the stage with a couple of his dogs. I pet his pit bull as I ask him questions, clearly making no secret of my fandom and probably sounding just as bad as the other critics swooning over him. At one point, Cesar declares of his success. “It’s America… I love this country!” And judging from his ratings, America loves him too.
1:30 p.m. – I trudge up to my room to write and work on CableFAX (oh yeah, we’re still trying to put out a daily publication despite my La La Land excursion). The ghost of Merv Griffin mocks me from the corner as I hunch over my laptop. I’m missing the Hallmark panel. Drat. Anything involving Henry Schleiff, Dick Van Dyke and Ernest Borgnine in the same session has GOT to be entertaining. (I later live vicariously through my colleague Seth Arenstein, who was able to attend). More writing. More editing. More polishing. And CableFAX is out the door.
3 p.m. – The highlight of the day is the much-anticipated HBO session, which starts out with the legendary Kenneth Branagh discussing his new adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It—this time set in 19th Century Japan. Pretty high-brow stuff, which makes the next panel even more bizarre as executive producer Cynthia Mort defends the graphic sex scenes in her new series Tell Me You Love Me. At this point, I haven’t yet managed to watch the first few episodes that were sent to all of us before TCA. But it quickly becomes apparent that most of the critics have indeed watched them—most likely several times just to be absolutely sure they could digest the many, um… plot points. The first question apparently speaks for everyone in the room, declaring “we’re all distracted by the sex” and asking Mort if she worries the audience will be as well. She says no but admits the sex is “getting a lot more attention than I thought it would.” The sex questions continue. One guy asks the actors, “did anyone actually do it.” Stunned silence before actor Michelle Borth reminds the critics that “we are not porn stars. We’re actors.” Someone else asks whether they used prosthetics or CGI. OK, now I gotta see this thing! Exec producer Gavin Palone busts in to save his thespians from the grilling. “I don’t think you need to get into it.” More reporters pile onto Mort, asking her whether she could seriously say she was surprised the sex scenes have gotten so much attention considering that show pushes the envelope so much. She reiterates that she’s surprised. Nobody’s really convinced. Gee, could all the graphic sex (and completely predictable controversy surrounding them) be part of a plan to gain more publicity for the show? Oh, no. We’re sure that’s not the case.
If that panel was almost laughable in its obsessive nature, the next panel was as solemn as its subject matter, when Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, gets up on stage with several Iraq war veterans who are missing limbs or suffering mental trauma from the war to promote Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. In the documentary, Gandolfini interviews war veterans about their experiences. Unlike the often loopy answers you get from actors, these folks can’t be more authentic. “The man I thought I was is still living in me, and he got blown to crap,” says veteran Jay Wilkerson, who is missing parts of both legs. Even more stunning is the fact that he and the others are grateful. “We died,” he says. “We got extra lives. We’re good.” Gandolfini repeatedly deflects questions from the crowd (although no one has the audacity to ask about The Sopranos finale). And he blows off a political question as well. “I have plenty of personal views on Iraq that don’t have a place here today.” T
he next panel is a major contrast, featuring the lively (and somewhat psychotic) Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame. The hit show obviously doesn’t need any pumping, so I can only assume HBO brings in David to entertain us… and burn us like ants cowering against his billionaire-bespeckled magnifying glass. “Shut up, that’s enough of you!” he barks at one reporter who dares ask a follow-up. When another writer asks why he always plays schmucks, David says, “I’m portraying you, Schmuck-o!” before giving his “serious” answer: “I’m Jesus Christ. I’m sacrificing myself for the betterment of humanity.” He goes on to deride his own childhood (“My mother told me, ‘You’re not special’”) until the press finally lets him leave.
Then it’s those Flight of the Conchords guys—Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie—deadpanning their way through the panel. Admittedly, they’re dry brand of humor plays much better in their show than at TCA, but at least these zany New Zealanders know how they made it in America: “If it wasn’t for YouTube, we wouldn’t be popular at all,” admits Bret. Bottom line: The show is hilarious, especially if you’ve ever been in a band that’s gig-challenged (I have).
6:30 p.m. – My colleague Seth Arenstein and myself head out to dinner with a high-powered TV exec (I’m not releasing his name in order to protect his reputation, which would be soiled if anyone know he went to dinner with Seth and I). Our attempts to get him to give us dirt on various industry topics are derailed by his attentive PR people at the table (and we could tell he wanted to tell us… we just know it). As it’s L.A., our waitress is of course in show business—not an actress but a musician. She gives us a handbill for her upcoming CD release show at the Whiskey a Go Go. I point to our TV executive dinner companion and tell her he’s the guy who can help her career. Oh man, that was cruel. Sorry, dude.
9 p.m. – It’s off to the HBO party at the W Hotel. As they say in L.A., “everyone was there.” I’m surrounded by the likes of James Gandolfini, the cast of Entourage, those quirky Conchord guys and other assorted celebs. There’s a ring of fire in the middle of the pool. Seriously. At one point, I’m hanging momentarily with Ed O’Neil, who gained fame as Al Bundy in the old sitcom Married with Children but now plays a character in HBO’s mind-bending new series John from Cincinnati (“Mind-bending” is a nice way of saying, “No one knows what the hell is going on”). Ed and I share the same alma matter (Ohio University), but I don’t mention it. I see him later at the bar looking to change a twenty so he can pay the valet, but hey… this is HBO. It’s an open bar. Nobody’s got cash. If I had any small bills on me, I would jump at the chance to help him out. But alas I don’t. As Seth and I leave, I realize that Luke Perry, who has worked slightly more than Jason Priestley since 90210, is yapping about something to a friend of his right behind me. Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame happens to be standing near the exit and decides to just start handing out HBO gift bags to people as they leave. Garlin hands one to me, Luke Perry and Seth at roughly the same time. “Here you go,” he says jokingly. “Thanks for coming.” I hate to use an overused term like “surreal” but…
11 p.m. – Oh, the TCA Hospitality Suite on top of the Beverly Hilton. Some fading scribes tie a few on with various network PR contacts. I head down to Trader Vic’s by the hotel pool to see who is hanging out. The Conchord guys are drinking with a few friends at a corner booth. I decide not to go over and bug them (lest I get mistaken for the obsessed-fan character in their show). With that, I head up to bed. Day one over.