Saturday 23 September 2017

Outside the box: Ones to watch with Paul Whitington

Barbara Walters
Barbara Walters
Ray Donovan
Matt Dillon in Wayward Pines
Steve Buscemi and Rosie Perez

Paul Whitington

The View, ABC, Online

An era came to an end last week when US TV legend Barbara Walters finally decided to call it a day.

Things got emotional on the set of ABC's daytime talk show 'The View' last Friday as co-host Barbara Walters made her big farewell. At 84, you'd think she'd be ready to hang up her microphone, but she was clearly finding it hard to imagine life after television.

Ms Walters has been co-hosting ABC's award-winning chat show since 1997, but her TV career stretches back a lot further than that. Because after breaking through as an anchor on NBC's 'Today Show' in the early 1960s, Walters established herself as the best and most dogged celebrity interviewer on American television.

She cut her teeth doing dog food commercials and writing and presenting children's TV shows. In 1961 she landed a job as a researcher on 'The Today Show': she had serious journalistic ambitions, but soon found out that she was a lone pioneer in a macho and misogynistic world.

Walters fought hard for a spot as a roving reporter on the show, and then revealed a special gift for landing 'scoop' interviews and conducting them in an entertaining and sometimes melodramatic fashion.

Over the years she's interviewed every US president since Richard Nixon, and has held her own grilling world leaders such as Fidel Castro, Boris Yeltsin, Vaclav Havel, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin.

In 1977, she engineered a joint interview with Egypt's President, Anwar Sadat, and Israel's Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.

She also hounded down such notorious celebrity recluses as Michael Jackson and Katharine Hepburn, who apparently upbraided Walters for not bringing chocolates.

Walters had her critics: the writer SJ Perelman once called her "the most insincere, brassy nitwit in the business".

But she was an entertainer with an uncanny knack of landing the big story. This was nowhere more true than in 1999, when America ground to a halt as an estimated 70 million viewers tuned in for her two-hour interview with Monica Lewinsky.

"What will you tell your children?" she asked an astonished Lewinsky at one point.

"Mommy made a big mistake," Lewinsky replied, and Walters then ended the interview abruptly saying "that is the understatement of the year".

Ray Donovan

Sky Atlantic, July

Stylish drama starring Liev Schreiber as a gangster turned legal fixer returns to Sky Atlantic in the summer.

Showtime and Sky Atlantic's crime drama 'Ray Donovan' did not impress all the critics during its first season last year – some accused it of being too slow, and portentous. But I think it really picked up after a few dreary opening episodes, and Liev Schreiber is really good in the enigmatic central role.

It returns to Sky Atlantic for a new series in early July, and some fans have even compared it to the holy grail of television dramas – 'The Sopranos'. That might be pitching it a bit strong, but the show does have a lot of fun with its premise.

Ray Donovan (Schreiber) is a former Boston mobster who moved to Los Angeles with his socially ambitious wife after spending 20 years behind bars. He now works as a 'fixer' for a big law firm whose clients are always rich, and often famous. Basically, Ray cleans up embarrassing celebrity scandals using his Boston street smarts and, occasionally, his trusty baseball bat.

In his own way, Ray's trying to get ahead, but his life is complicated by his messy Irish-American family. His younger brother's a junkie, his older brother's a punch-drunk wreck, his sister died in a family tragedy and Ray just doesn't get on with his father (a well-cast Jon Voight) at all.

Ray's not above a spot of murder: in the first episode of season one we saw him shoot dead a priest who subsequently turned out to have been no saint, and at the end of season one he'd ended the nefarious career of Boston mobster, Sully, played by James Woods. That crime will dominate the opening episode of the new run, which will include turns from special guests including Hank Azaria and Elliott Gould.

The series is created by Ann Biderman, who was also responsible for the excellent 'Southland'. And though the first series of 'Ray Donovan' didn't quite hit those heights, this season just might.

Park Bench

aol.com, Online

Steve Buscemi interviews celebrities on park benches in an endearing new online show.

Lo-fi online chat shows are all the rage at the minute. Jerry Seinfeld started it with his jokey internet series 'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee', and Zach Galifianakis has continued the trend with his hilarious spoof chat show 'Between the Ferns', of which more later.

And now it's Steve Buscemi's turn, with his newly launched web series, 'Park Bench'. Most of you will know Mr Buscemi for his portrayals of oddball badguys in 'Fargo', 'The Sopranos' and HBO's recent hit show 'Boardwalk Empire', but in 'Park Bench', which is available to watch on aol.com, he's in much more relaxed form.

A kind of deconstructed chat show, 'Park Bench' features Buscemi and a tiny crew wandering outdoors through Manhattan and Brooklyn and interviewing celebrities who just happen to be passing. They include Billy Connolly, Rosanne Cash and actress Rosie Perez.

Buscemi gently mocks the conventions of prime-time US chat shows, assembling tiny audiences on neighbouring park benches and conducting embarrassing opening monologues.

"Doing a show like this," he says at one point, "it's no walk in the park."

And his 'house band' is an all-female accordion ensemble. 'Park Bench' is eccentric, but fun.

Zach Galifianakis's 'Between the Ferns' is more surreal, and subversive. So-called because the shambolic set is situated between two potted plants, Galifianakis's show features tetchy and grandly nonsensensical interviews with showbiz friends like Bradley Cooper and Ben Stiller, and the occasional US President.

His interview with a game Barack Obama a few months back is priceless, and includes such astonishing questions as "what's the problem with North Ikea?", "what's it like to be the last black President", and "which country were you rooting for in the Winter Olympics?"

'Between the Ferns' is available to watch on funnyordie.com.

Wayward Pines

Fox, Autumn

Director M Night Shyamalan migrates to the small screen with this new thriller set in smalltown America.

Among the various dramas and comedies jostling for position in the American autumn TV schedules, this smalltown thriller stands out as something potentially interesting.

As Brad Pitt has recently proved with his interest in starring in the next series of 'True Detective', moving between TV and movies is now not just respectable, it's hip. But writer and director M Night Shyamalan may not have had a lot of choice. In the early 2000s he was flavour of the moment thanks to clever supernatural thrillers such as 'The Sixth Sense' and 'Signs', but recent efforts, like the atrocious 'Last Airbender', have been less successful.

'Wayward Pines', however, which Shyamalan is co-producing with its writer, Chad Hodge, has a good cast and solid premise that's reminiscent of David Lynch's bizarre 90s masterpiece, 'Twin Peaks'.

Matt Dillon, who's hardly ever done television before either, plays a Secret Service agent called Ethan Burke, who's sent to the idyllic Midwestern town of Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two of his colleagues. But instead of answers he finds more and more mysteries as he burrows deeper and deeper into the life of the town.

An excellent cast includes Terrence Howard as the local sheriff, Juliette Lewis as your friendly local bartender, and Toby Jones as an enigmatic doctor at the local mental hospital. Melissa Leo, who's currently starring in 'The Good Wife', plays a glamorous nurse and potential love interest.

'Wayward Pines' was originally scheduled for mid-2015 but Fox have pushed it forward to this autumn, which is hopefully a good sign.

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