By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s been a big year for high-quality TV series and an even bigger one for first-timers.
That’s why hitfix.com asked more than 50 of the nation’s TV writers, including your friendly content provider, to compile two Top 10 lists for the website’s second annual survey.
The categories are Top 10 shows for 2013 and the year’s 10 best new shows. Here are my lists, with the consensus hitfix.com choices posted below each compilation.
MY TOP 10 TV SERIES
1. Breaking Bad (AMC)
2. Game of Thrones (HBO)
3. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
4. Mad Men (AMC)
5. Justified (FX)
6. The Americans (FX)
7. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
8. House of Cards (Netflix)
9. The Middle (ABC)
10. Homeland (Showime)
Hitfix Consensus List: 1. Breaking Bad; 2. Orange is the New Black; 3. Game of Thrones; 4. The Good Wife (CBS); 5. Masters of Sex; 6. Mad Men; 7. The Americans; 8. House of Cards; 9. Broadchurch (BBC America); 10. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel
My Top 10 New Series
1. Masters of Sex
2. The Americans
3. Orange is the New Black
4. House of Cards
6. Rectify (Sundance Channel)
7. The Returned (Sundance Channel)
8. Getting On (HBO)
9. Vikings (History)
10. Legit (FX)
Hitfix Consensus List: 1. Orange is the New Black; 2. Masters of Sex; 3. The Americans; 4. Broadchurch; 5. Orphan Black (BBC America); 6. House of Cards; 7. The Returned; 8. Rectify; 9. Top of the Lake; 10. Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
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By ED BARK
My first summer in Dallas turned out to be blazing hot on two fronts -- the then record-setting string of 100 degree days and the worldwide guessing game over "Who Shot J.R.?" on the cliffhanger night of March 21, 1980.
Because of a Screen Actors Guild strike, the answer would have to wait until the night of Nov. 21, 1980, when Dallas set an all-time ratings record that held until the M*A*S*H finale broke it on Feb. 28, 1983.
But these are pretty well-known facts about the most popular serial drama in TV history. As TNT prepares to fire up its new Dallas series on Wednesday, June 13th, here's a top 10 list of odds and ends that you'll likely be reading about for the first time. Reference points are my personal experiences and the extraordinarily comprehensive 25 Years of Dallas book by Barbara A. Curran.
10. Victoria Principal is conspicuously absent from TNT's Dallas re-do, which marks the full-blown returns of Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy in addition to recurring cameos by Ken Kercheval, Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly.
In fact, Principal has made just one return to an official Dallas project since leaving the series after the May 15, 1987 episode. She participated in CBS' Nov. 7, 2004 Dallas Reunion: The Return to Southfork, made for the network by Henry "The Fonz" Winkler's production company.
In a telephone interview back then, Principal said she had distanced herself from Dallas because "I felt confined by the role of Pam Ewing . . . It was necessary for me to leave in order to have a career."
She hadn't returned to the city in 17 years. "I really did not fully appreciate what was going to happen to me emotionally when I agreed to do the reunion," she said. "When we landed, I wanted to drive through the city. And I was startled to find myself crying. I didn't know that I had missed Dallas. I didn't know that the skyline was so firmly imprinted in my heart . . . Most of the cast knows I'm not a weepy person, but I cried at the drop of a hat. It was just a flood of wonderment and memories. And finally for me, something I didn't know that I needed. Which was closure."
9. Jim Davis, who played patriarch Jock Ewing, died in his sleep on April 26, 1981 at age 65. Larry Hagman was unable to attend his beloved TV daddy's funeral when his plane was detained by a London airport strike.
8. Hagman's second liver is now more than 16 years old. Without a transplant he would have died. On location at Southfork Ranch in March 1996 for the CBS movie Dallas: J.R. Returns, he pronounced himself clean, sober and ready to celebrate the six-month anniversary of his $350,000 surgery.
"See those little white capsules? A hundred bucks apiece!" he exclaimed before downing another handful of his mandatory medication.
Hagman estimated that his pills alone cost $90,000 annually, and are paid for by the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild.
"But there are lots of little ancillary things that you have pick up," he noted. "I guess it costs me about 10 grand a year, tops. What do poor people do that don't have any coverage? I mean, they just die, I guess."
7. A then unknown Brad Pitt guest-starred in four episodes during Season 10 as frisky teenager Randy. Here's a clip of him getting a talking-to from ranch foreman Ray Krebbs:
6. Dallas, originally billed as a five-part miniseries, premiered on the night of April 2, 1978 opposite two Sunday night movies, Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter on ABC and Love's Dark Ride on NBC. The latter was a made-for-TV throwaway about an advertising advertiser who sought to rebuild his life after being blinded in a gun accident. The principal stars were Cliff Potts, Jane Seymour and Carrie Snodgress.
5. Hagman's strikingly candid 2001 autobiography, Hello Darlin', reveals that he took his first LSD trip with singer David Crosby. And he liked it very much.
"You lose your ego" while on acid, he told me during a stop in Dallas to promote the book. "It led me into having no fear of death, because you've been there, done that on LSD. And it ain't so bad. Matter of fact, it's wonderful."
4. Only two cast members stayed with the original Dallas series for its entire 356-episode run -- Hagman and Ken Kercheval, who has a recurring role in the TNT re-do as the oft-beaten but never bowed Cliff Barnes.
"Cliff loses, but Cliff is not a loser," Kercheval insisted during one of the show's two-month summer sojourns in Dallas. "He is the most resilient human being in the world. To take the punishment that this guy has taken, and be willing to come back and face the most formidable foe on television. That's not a loser -- not in my book!"
3. Linda Gray and Dallas' late executive producer, Leonard Katzman, often didn't see eye to eye on the show's treatment of women.
Katzman lamented the direction of the 1985-86 season, which he sat out because of creative differences with co-executive producer Philip Capice.
"J.R. was totally dominated by every woman in the show," he told me in an interview. "He walked around with his hat in his hand and said, 'Yes ma'am.' Strong men don't necessarily mean weak women, but I certainly don't think we can have any of our men dominated by the women."
Gray, whose Sue Ellen was a besotted mess in Dallas' formative seasons, returned fire when offered the chance.
"Dallas has always been a male-oriented show, and yes, I was dissatisfied when our producer said it was a show about strong men, " she said. "My problem with Sue Ellen was that she had become a victim. She drank, had an affair, sobered up and then drank and had another affair. Meanwhile, all of the women in the world were struggling to drop that image and get out of that perpetual hamster-in-a-cage role.
"Even though we were doing make-believe on Dallas, there came a time for me when I was bored with that role. I told them that, and I met with a little resistance. But they made some changes, and Sue Ellen was no longer a one-note character."
2. With filming pushed back by another actors' strike, the original Dallas shot its last on-location scene in Dallas at the Million Dollar Saloon in November, 1988. It was for Season 11, with the final two seasons shot entirely in Los Angeles.
Hagman's J.R. mostly was called on to ogle a topless dancer who shook her hardware in close proximity during multiple "takes." Duffy had the day off, but showed up anyway to twit his old pal from a balcony on what a "giving" actor he'd become for these particular scenes. Hagman seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself, as did the crew. Subtitled "The Switch," the episode eventually aired on Feb. 3, 1989.
1. In that crazy "Who Shot J.R.?" summer of 1980, Hagman and his wife Maj hosted a mega-gaggle of TV writers at their beachfront Malibu home. It proved to be a night for the ages, with Hagman rushing out to save a Texas flag from a close encounter with a fire pit during one of the rare times he could extricate himself from an air-tight circle of questioners.
Later in the evening, next door neighbor Burgess Meredith offered the use of his toilets after the Hagmans' commodes began suffering from over-use. It's now a long time ago, but still a very easy night to remember. "Who shot J.R.'s septic tank?" Sometimes those lead sentences just write themselves.
By ED BARK
Well, it happened again. Keith Olberman got fired Friday (March 30th), this time by Al Gore's little Current TV.
The network basically said it just couldn't take him anymore -- in a letter on Current's website from Gore and the network's co-founder, Joel Hyatt. Olbermann quickly issued a stream of tweets in which he pledged to sue Current while also apologizing for being foolish enough to sign on with the network in the first place.
Olbermann's bridge-burning track record mitigates against him. And he'll certainly get no sympathy here. But really, could you do anything worse than hire Olbermann to do anything? We're going to try to come up with 10 things that in fact probably would be worse. But it's a daunting challenge.
10. Keep a rhinoceros as a house pet.
9. Name Geraldo Rivera as the new spokesman for the United Negro College Fund.
8. Pitch a reality competition series titled America's Next Great Yodeler.
7. Market a new cauliflower-flavored soda.
6. Devise a college course dedicated to re-appreciating the timeless music of the Ray Conniff Singers.
5. Join a Gravy Boat of the Month Club.
4. Announce that Hugh Hefner will be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention.
3. Sign Phyllis Diller to host the next Academy Awards.
2. Trim your fingernails with a hacksaw.
1. Induct Chan Ho Park into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jon Hamm is still "The Don" of Mad Men. AMC photo
By ED BARK
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner always takes pains -- and therefore can sometimes be a pain -- to protect his signature series from any and all "spoilers."
He's outdone himself this time in the days leading to Mad Men's long-awaited Season 5 premiere on Sunday, March 25th after a 17-month absence from AMC.
In a letter to TV critics, Weiner even asks them to refrain from revealing the year in which the series resumes. It's all purportedly to ensure the audience's maximum enjoyment, although Weiner's obsessions with secrecy can make it difficult to review the two-hour opener sent earlier this month. After all, what can one really say?
Here, though, is a Top 10 countdown of elementary Mad Men reveals that I'm reasonably certain won't betray any confidences or ruin your Sunday night date.
10. The entire two-hour episode originates from planet Earth.
9. It's a talkie, and English is the predominant language.
8. It's presented in living color.
7. Alcohol and cigarettes are consumed.
6. Don Draper is in it.
5. There is sexual activity.
4. Events still occur well before Justin Bieber's birth.
3. Some of the scenes take place within a Manhattan advertising agency.
2. No one is mowed down by a machine gun.
1. There are no guest star appearances by the judges from American Idol.
The TV world again turned on its head in 2010. Let's get right to our annual countdown of what had viewers buzzing.
10. Hotsy totsy -- Eighty-eight-year-old Betty White became the year's Golden Girl at an age when most formerly able-bodied Americans are gumming creamed corn. A determined Facebook campaign led to her becoming the oldest-ever host of Saturday Night Live, for which she won an Emmy. White also returned to prime-time in the TV Land sitcom Hot In Cleveland while guest-starring all over the place. Throw in a heavily replayed Snickers Super Bowl commercial for good measure.
9. Here a Palin, there a Palin -- Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin warmed up for a likely presidential run with a TLC reality series -- Sarah Palin's Alaska -- that found her allegedly roughing it alongside expert guides and a camera crew. Meanwhile, her daughter, Bristol, unaccountably hoofed and puffed her way to the finals of ABC's Dancing with the Stars while Mama Grizzly beamed from the studio audience.
8. Bush book tour hooks networks -- Former president George W. Bush returned to the public eye in a big way with his nationally televised book tour on behalf of Decision Points. He began with NBC's Matt Lauer before getting comfy with Oprah Winfrey and downright chummy with Fox News Channel's sycophantic Sean Hannity. CBS, ABC and CNN also bit, with Bush snubbing only MSNBC. Which was to be expected.
7. Ends of days for a pair of Jacks -- Two of prime-time's all-time string-alongs ended their long and winding roads in May. On Fox's 24, Kiefer Sutherland's physically and emotionally battered Jack Bauer was last seen heading overseas (from where a big-screen movie is supposed to originate). And on ABC's Lost, Matthew Fox's physically and emotionally battered Dr. Jack Shephard expired on the island before ascending to a heavenly reunion with his former plane-mates. The Lost finale was shredded by some acolytes for failing to tie up a wide variety of loose ends. 24 simply ran out of even remotely plausible new ways for Jack to save the world.
6. He's sorry, so sorry -- Tiger Woods at last came out of seclusion in February via a closely controlled nationally televised mea culpa attended by his mother and assorted friends. "I brought this shame on myself. It's up to me to start having a life of integrity," he said as part of a lengthy prepared statement. Then it was on to the Masters tournament, with TV analyzing and covering virtually every swing and expression.
5. LeBron-athon -- "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach," LeBron James told interviewer Jim Gray after making a spectacle of himself on an elongated ESPN special that was ripped by just about everybody. James' decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers was deemed understandable by many. But the manner in which he announced it took his image straight into the toilet. Or so the pontificators said.
4. Juan is the loneliest number -- NPR's knee-jerk dismissal of Juan Williams for comments he made on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor ignited a firestorm of criticism from virtually everywhere except MSNBC. In short order, two of its hosts, Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough, received hand-slap two-day suspensions for making contributions to political candidates. FNC immediately signed Williams to a new contract after his comments about feeling uneasy when on a plane with passengers in "Muslim garb." FNC personalities predictably called for an immediate end to all taxpayer funding of NPR. But by the end of the year, that argument had seemingly lost its punch.
3. King abdicates throne on sinking CNN -- Larry King ended a quarter-century run on CNN with his December 16th sign-off on Larry King Live. The once dominant all-news network, which also recently dismissed president Jon Klein, has fallen behind both Fox News Channel and MSNBC in the prime-time Nielsen numbers. Its new Parker Spitzer hour, which premiered in the fall, has been widely panned and little-watched as the network almost desperately seeks to re-invent itself. King's replacement, Britisher Piers Morgan, is due in January. He'll also keep his other job, as the alpha judge on NBC's hit summer series, America's Got Talent.
2. Idol adds and subtracts while ratings retract -- The most powerful series in TV history, Fox's American Idol, had a bruising year that began with judge Simon Cowell's January announcement that he'd be leaving the show after May's finale. With its ratings and relevance slipping, Fox responded by re-hiring former executive producer Nigel Lythgoe while sacking judges Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi. Their replacements, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, eventually signed on after protracted off-and-on contract negotiations. Host Ryan Seacrest and charter judge Randy Jackson are the only constants as Idol nears the Jan. 19th start of a very pivotal Season 10.
1. Late night tilt-a-whirl -- The year began with Conan O'Brien leaving NBC's Tonight Show behind rather than succumb to the network's plans to have a half-hour Jay Leno comedy show precede him after late night local newscasts had ended. Leno's prime-time debacle and O'Brien's slipping Tonight ratings had prompted another ham-handed attempt to somehow restore order. No one expected O'Brien to wind up at TBS, with Fox seen as his most likely new home. But Conan surprisingly became a TBS reality in November while the network's incumbent Lopez Tonight went quietly to a later hour. Leno's Tonight re-do lately is falling flat after an initially strong start while CBS' Late Show with David Letterman has drawn even. But both are being beaten by ABC's Nightline. So who's laughing now?