TCA Summer Press Tour: Torture, Witches, H8Rs, Love Labs and more

By Jeff Pfeiffer

Thursday was my first full day at the TCA press tour,  and the sessions ran the gamut with mostly interesting, and sometimes odd, panels of Showtime and CW programs. Things kicked off with Damian Lewis talking about getting peed on a few days ago, and finished up with talk of Dr. Drew’s Love Lab, if that gives you any indication of the day.

“Homeland” Security
The first panel was for Showtime’s new drama series Homeland, which looks really good. Stars Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Morena Baccarin were here to discuss it, along with executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Lewis plays a prisoner of war recovered from his Middle East captivity after eight years, and Danes is a CIA agent suspicious that he might have been “turned” as part of a terrorist plot against America. The scenes with Lewis being tortured are intense, and the actor — still wearing the same funky hat he had sported at the previous night’s party — explained his thoughts on filming them.

“I have a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old at home. [So] it’s like a morning,” he joked. “I oddly enjoy it. I was being peed on only three mornings ago. I’m kind of enjoying it, is that wrong? This character is so compelling that it feeds the psychology of the piece. … I’ve been hung upside down, I’ve been beaten with a club with barbed wire wrapped around it. We’re keeping it as brutal as those things are. It’s not for shock value.”

There were some awkward moments when a critic brought up some old My So-Called Life questions to Danes, wondering if she remembered the rumors ABC had apparently stated at the time about her (then 14 years old) and her parents being responsible for the series ending. And also asking which of the guy characters on the show were the “jerkiest.” She admitted that her character Angela probably wouldn’t have ended up with either one.

Another questioner wondered if Danes’ endorsement of Latisse eyelash growth treatment would continue given her involvement with this down-and-dirty, less-than-glamorous new series.

“I’m going to track those terrorists with my very long eyelashes,” Danes quipped.

State of Showtime
Next was an executive session with Showtime president of entertainment David Nevins. He announced a new comedy-drama series called House of Lies, premiering Jan. 8 at 10pm (sandwiched between the season premieres of Shameless and Californication.) We saw a brief clip of the series, starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell, but it was hard to get a full feel for it at this point.

Nevins explained that Showtime was on a roll this year, passing the 20 million subscriber mark for the first time in the network’s history, and with 10 major scripted shows in the works (including Homeland and House of Lies). He said that The Borgias would be back for another season in the spring, and addressed a question about the long-talked about Oliver Stone series Secret History of America, which seems to have been mentioned during at least the last two press tours. Stone is working on a film right now, but Nevins does say he thinks the series could finally bow in 2012 with 10 episodes, and says that Stone has created “4 or 5” at this point. He didn’t say that too convincingly, though, and skepticism remained about this show ever reaching the air. It has to be a conspiracy!

CW Gets a “Ringer,” Shows Some “Hart”
After Nevins was an executive session for The CW with Mark Pedowtiz, president of entertainment. Pedowitz says his network is planning on having more original programming than ever, including two reality shows coming in midseason. Also this midseason will be the final episodes of One Tree Hill, the show that has been sort of the TV series equivalent of Abe Vigoda — you always assumed it was gone, and were surprised to learn it was still going.

The next session was Ringer, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return to television. She noted right off the bat that “things have really changed here [at TCA]. You guys all have computers.” So, yeah. It’s been a while since she’s talked to us. Referring to the fans that still obsess over her Buffy days, Gellar says, “If people think I can save the world and kick butt I’m okay with that. I’ve got street cred!”

Gellar won’t do as much butt-kicking in this series, which might be just as well, considering her “advanced age” (a running joke she referenced after one critic thought she seemed like she’s been around longer than to only be in her early 30s. “Do you think I should be 70?” she joked). “We’re cutting down on stunts a little bit because we’re worried about osteoporosis. The trickiest stunt I’ve had is standing very close to the very tall Kristoffer Polata and trying not to look like I’m 7.”

Speaking of Polata, he made a pretty seamless transition from the canceled former CW show Life Unexpected to this show. It’s good to see both him and Britt Robertson (who was at a later panel for another CW show) find other work after the fine LUX ended its too-short run.

After the panel, myself and a gaggle of other reporters gathered on stage to talk to Gellar a bit, but that was short-lived. An overaggressive young CW publicist kept cutting off questions and finally escorted Gellar away after just a couple of minutes.

But you soap opera fans may be happy to know that Gellar did confirm she will be making a one-day guest appearance on ABC’s All My Children before the series ends its TV run on Sept. 23. She doesn’t know what role she will play, but she does know she won’t be reprising her former role of Kendall.

The new Rachel Bilson CW series Hart of Dixie was up next. The creators and producers went to great pains to explain that they wanted to “honor the South” with “respect and reverence,” but it ended up sounding like the Alabama-set series takes place in some fantasy South that exists in their minds.

Meet the Beatle
Following this was my personal highlight of the day, when Paul McCartney made an appearance via satellite to promote the Showtime documentary The Love We Make, chronicling the 9/11 concert that he put together in the wake of the devastating terror attacks a decade ago. The film, shot in black and white, is by Albert Maysles, who documented the Beatles’ first trip to New York in 1964.

McCartney was as witty and insightful as his legendary music and lyrics as he detailed how he was on an airport tarmac at JFK on that fateful September morning when his plane was halted in the wake of the attacks. Afterward, he made his way into the city and began wondering what he could do to help, resulting in the concert that ended up being a cathartic release for a city in pain.

McCartney wonderfully explained the various emotions that New York have instilled in him over the years — from his early visit with the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, to their performance at Shea Stadium, to marrying Linda (whose family hailed from the city), to New York being the place where John Lennon was killed, and to 9/11. He also talked about how music offered healing and escape, not just at that particular moment, but as a general rule, as well.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s magical,” McCartney said. “Music has some kind of property that can be very healing.”

McCartney has seemed to tap into that property throughout his career, and he told some great stories about his days with the Beatles (to make those of us who often struggle with creativity feel inadequate, he related the tale of how one of his most famous songs, “Yesterday,” came to him — fully formed — in a dream. Must be nice!).

But the iconic artistic genius was made a little more human too when he admitted, while answering a question about what he watches on television, “I hate to say, but I sometimes get addicted to the shopping channels.”

Rebirth
Lunch followed, and when we returned it was time for another powerful 9/11 documentary for Showtime. Rebirth examines the stories of various people caught up in the events of that day, either through experience the attacks directly, or by losing loved ones. The film started as a project of director Jim Whitaker, who set up cameras to put a “mirror” on the site, and the people around it. “As it progressed, it became a meditation on the commonality of the two,” Whitaker says. His time-lapse images of the building of the memorial at the site, and the tales of the people, are accompanied by the always powerful music of Philip Glass. There are a number of documentaries and specials coming to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but this looks to be among the best, focusing not only on the rebirths of the people involved, who are slowly but surely healing, but also the rebirth of New York and our country as a whole.

Questionable Therapy
On a lighter note, the next panel was for Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, which started life as a web series and is now going to be airing on Showtime. The show, already airing, is very funny, and the panel was enjoyable, especially Kudrow and the legendary Lily Tomlin, who plays the mother to Kudrow’s questionable “therapist” character. For more about the series, read our interview with Kudrow here.

Secrets and H8Rs
The next panel was for The Secret Circle, from the author who brought us The Vampire Diaries, L.J. Smith. It’s also produced by TVD producer Kevin Williamson. This one is about witches instead of vampires, but it seems like it will draw in the same audience (especially since it’s airing on Thursdays as well). But Williamson said that it is “not just a teen show. It’s going to get very adult very fast.” And with an adult like Natasha Henstridge also playing a main role in it, I might have to check in on it from time to time. I got some quotes from main star Britt Robertson after the session (the CW publicists for this show were more agreeable to reporter gaggles), and I’ll report on that in a later post.

At this point the day was dragging on. TV critics can be a cranky bunch as it is, especially late in the day. So it probably wasn’t the best time to inflict the H8R panel upon us. Part of the CW’s new effort in adding more reality programming to its schedule, this was easily the most despised show of the day. Some critics tweeted (jokingly … I think) that they were boycotting the panel, others joked about the name, coming up with other, similarly titled series of their own (like imagining a show called G8R on Animal Planet — about alligator farmers and their prey getting to know and love each other).

The premise of H8R is that celebrities get to meet fans who, well, hate them. The clip we saw had Snooki facing a guy who really despised her, but it all somehow cleared up after a meeting with his family. The h8 in the room for H8R was palpable, but executive producer Mike Fleiss (who is responsible for infliciting The Bachelor franchises upon us) didn’t look like he cared too much, sitting back casually and puffing on an electronic cigarette. He had an air about him that I imagined if someone had asked him, “How do you sleep at night?” he might have come back with some variation on Rainier Wolfcastle’s famous response to that question on The Simpsons: “On top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.” Host Mario Lopez tried to keep things lighthearted, but if he’s not careful his overexposure might land him on this show.

Lifechangers
For the final panel of the day, we needed Dr. Drew Pinsky to heal us from the H8R session. His new daytime series on the CW, Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers, has its heart in the right place, but it might have to work to distinguish itself from other lifestyle-themed shows that are sweeping the daytime airwaves.

Executive producer Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey (coming out for double-duty after being on the H8R panel; she’s also executive producer of Extra) explained that the concept of a Lifechanger was “something that has been cultivated at Extra for years.”

She also noted that she felt other, similar daytime shows like Dr. Oz and The Doctors “are narrowcasting and more about health. Ours will be about prevention, opening up to every expert in every field” like lawyers, etc. She describes the series as a “hybrid magazine and talk show.

For his part, Dr. Drew said that this new show would feature more of his wife and family involved than any other series he’s been on. He has triplets (two boys and a girl) who are going off to college this year, so this show will sometimes be chronicling how he and his wife are dealing with this new phase in their lives. When working on other couples’ relationships, Dr. Drew will have a Love Lab, as Gregorisch-Dempsey calls it, kind of an expansion of his famous Love Line show.

Dr. Drew is staying with his HLN series, which he says is more based on news hooks of the day. He promises a “more emotional, vivid storytelling experiences” in Lifechangers. Dr. Drew certainly seems sincere in his desire to help people, and he has the credentials to do so, so he may very well succeed in an increasingly overcrowded daytime landscape and continue to keep himself very busy.

Speaking of busyness, it was a long day with Showtime and CW. There was no evening event last night, which was just as well. I went through my notes and rested up after my first full day of sessions. Friday is FOX day, which promises a Gordon Ramsay-cooked breakfast, a Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova) interview, an oxygen bar, a nighttime party at the beach and more.

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Ringer, The Secret Circle and H8R: © 2011 The CW Network LLC. Credit: Joe Magnani

Homeland: © 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Credit: Mark Davis