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Top 10 from the TV tour

Highlights from a displaced couch potato's notebook

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HOLLYWOOD -- Well, that was interesting.

After two weeks, a dozen fancy-schmancy TV-network parties, more than 100 interview sessions, previews of all the fall's new prime-time shows and an as-yet-unquantified number of overindulgence-added inches to the waistline, the summer TV press tour is over and it's time to head home.

Which means, of course, this is as good a time as any to clean out the press-tour notebook and make a quick list of the highlights of the past 14 days spent with the stars, producers and network executives responsible for the best and worst of prime-time programming.

In no particular order, here are my personal picks for the Top 10 moments of the Television Critics Association's summer tour:


Downton Abbey delivers delirium: PBS is usually the staid-and-brainy network at the TV press tour, but the U.S. public broadcaster's two-day presentation at this year's event ended in full-force rock-star mode, as the cast and producers of PBS's biggest (first?) mega-hit turned up to discuss their show. It was as raucous and joyous as anything the network has ever staged here.


Chiklis turns the table (and camera) on TCA tweeters: TV press-tour interview sessions have gone all a-Twitter in recent years, with a large number of laptop-equipped critics and reporters furiously live-tweeting news nuggets and snarky commentary during press conferences. Actor Michael Chiklis took it a step further this time, live-tweeting iPhone pictures of the Twitter throng as he settled into his place onstage to discuss the new CBS drama Vegas. Pretty soon, tweeters were reduced to tweeting about tweets. Weird, but fittingly funny.


Palin's poolside parade: What might otherwise have been a pretty ho-hum NBC party (thanks to the network's decision not to including any returning-show stars on the guest list) turned into a media-frenzy spectacle when Todd Palin, a contestant on the post-Olympics military-themed reality/competition show Stars Earn Stripes, turned up at the event with the missus -- a.k.a. former vice-presidential candidate and current in-demand political pundit Sarah Palin -- in tow. She arrived without fanfare, but within minutes was the focus of pretty much everyone's attention.


Touchy terminology sends critics into a Mid-wife crisis: The session for PBS's upcoming Brit-import drama Call the Midwife -- which last year ranked as BBC's highest-rated drama debut ever -- included cast members, who play 1950s midwives in East End London, offering rather detailed descriptions of the medical equipment used back then. Obvious cringes and audible gasps accompanied the utterance (probably a first in press-tour history) of the term "glass rectal tube." Beyond that, however, a preview of the series looked fabulous.


A dusty tale: PBS sessions involving filmmaker Ken Burns are never less than fascinating, mostly because the acclaimed documentarian (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz) is such an eloquent and captivating speaker. But at the session for his next PBS project, The Dust Bowl, Burns was upstaged by one of the film's subjects, Calvin Crabill, a survivor of the 1930s Dust Bowl storms on the Colorado plains. His boyhood recollection was chilling: "The dust cloud started coming up. We didn't know what it was. (The teacher) said, "Go home, children." But I had to get the cattle in ... and as I'm trying to get the cattle rounded up, this thing came, and I just said to myself -- I was a little boy who had gone to Sunday school, of course -- "It's the end of the world." I just assumed, as a little boy, it was the end of the world."


Russell's Brand X-rated interview: Just like he did last January during his first press-tour appearance to promote his FX-network talk show, Russell Brand delivered the most animated, intellectually challenging and blunt-force funny session of the entire two weeks. Filled with literary references and esoteric rants, it felt more like a standup-comedy set than an interview session. And Brand almost got out of it unscathed, until the very last questioner asked him something about Sarah Palin and he offered a coarsely worded contention that the public's indulgence of her ongoing celebrity has something to do with a bizarre sexual-conquest fantasy: "That's why you tolerate the other stuff -- you think, OK, that is a mad thing to say about seeing Russia out your window, but the (private bits) don't lie." You could almost hear the FX-executive spit-takes from the back of the room.


When the power goes out, a local star shines: It was interesting, and kind of fun, to watch local product Tracy Spiridakos take her first step into the major-network spotlight when she joined producers and castmates to discuss NBC's new J.J. Abrams-produced drama Revolution. If the show, a near-future fantasy about a world without electrical power of any kind, becomes a hit -- and the thinking here is that it has a better-than-even chance of doing so -- Spiridakos could make a pretty quick jump from unknown Canadian to big-time TV star.


A night at the (TV geek) museum: It was a quick trip to couch-spud heaven for a bunch of TV critics when Warner Bros. Television invited press-tour types to its new TV-history exhibit, Television: Out of the Box, at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. On display were costumes and artifacts from dozens of WB-produced shows ranging from The Thorn Birds to ER to Friends to The Big Bang Theory, as well as animation cells and drawings from classic Warner and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Warner also invited stars from some of its classic-TV catalogue to attend, so the evening included an opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of Michele Lee, Donna Mills, Robert Conrad, Marg Helgenberger, Joe Regalbuto and Ed Asner. Cool.


Showtime sizzles, today and tomorrow: U.S. cable's Showtime network usually takes a back seat to HBO when it comes to press-tour presentations, but this time around, the specialty-net home of Dexter, Weeds, Homeland and The Borgias had the most engaging set of sessions during the cable portion of the TV-press marathon. In addition to intriguing interviews with the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Claire Danes and Michael C. Hall, Showtime also provided sneak previews of two great-looking projects in its future-schedule plans: the dark, violent Hollywood scandal-fixer drama Ray Donovan (which stars Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight), and the sex-researcher biopic Masters of Sex (which stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan).


Hedren gets Hitch-ed (and not in a good way): Speaking of HBO, the pay-TV channel's upcoming movie The Girl, which chronicles suspense director Alfred Hitchcock's twisted sexual obsession with former model Tippi Hedren (whom he cast in The Birds and Marnie), looks like a riveting but deeply disturbing yarn. The 82-year-old screen star (played in the movie by Sienna Miller) spoke frankly about Hitchcock's unwelcome sexual advances and continuing harassment, which included refusing to release her from her contract after she declined his overtures, thereby preventing her from working on other films. "I think he was an extremely sad character," Hedren said, describing the director as having "a brain that (was) unusual, genius, and evil, deviant almost to the point of dangerous."

However, Hedren added defiantly, "He ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life."

Twitter: @BradOswald


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 G1

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