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Live from L.A.: ‘Prison Break's’ road show

Plus: ‘Dance’ fever; ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ ‘Nip/Tuck’

• July 27, 2006 | 6 a.m. PT

‘Prison Break’ takes the show on the road

Intermingled with panels on new shows, FOX presented some discussion of certain current shows, including the hot drama “Prison Break” and the summer reality hit “So You Think You Can Dance.” Longtime victims’ advocate and crime-show host John Walsh showed up to discuss “America’s Most Wanted,” and a producer and three stars from FX’s “Nip/Tuck” came by as well.

You can read my entries straight through, or click on your favorite show titles to get that update first.

• July 26, 2006 | 6 a.m. PT

FOX has ‘Idol,’ and they know it

FOX has arrived, and other than PBS, they’re the final network scheduled to present to the TV critics’ summer press tour. They’ve differentiated themselves from the others in numerous ways — providing tall lit tables around the breakfast buffet, hanging plasma screens in the presentation room, spicing up the beverage selection with A&W products and orange-pineapple Cactus Cooler. And for some reason there are small fountains encased in glass at the end of the breakfast table. “Sprinklers in boxes!” said one of my colleagues.

FOX’s pages are perhaps the most casually dressed to date. Gone are the suits and ties of NBC’s pages, these folks are clad in khakis and white polo shirts. They either work at FOX or are planning on going golfing right after this.

First I’ll tackle the network president’s presentation along with panels about the new shows FOX presented. Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the returning favorites. You can read straight through or click on the links that interest you the most.

• July 25, 2006 | 7 a.m. PT

What ‘Deal or No Deal’ is looking for

In addition to its slate of new shows, NBC offered a few panels updating critics on some of its current successes. Fans of “Deal or No Deal” can read on to get tips on how to make it on the show (and a sort-of explanation of how the banker’s offer is determined). “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf was here with a cast member from each of his three shows. And a star-studded if wacky panel that included Brandy, Regis Philbin, and “The Hoff” himself, David Hasselhoff, showed up to discuss “America’s Got Talent.”

You can read my entries straight through, or use the links provided to skip to your favorite shows.

• July 24, 2006 | 7 a.m. PT

NBC: Two ‘SNL’ shows on one network?

As each network comes here to the TV Critics’ Association press tour to present, they bring in their own varied amount of logo paraphernalia and their own style of signage.

When I left for dinner Thursday night, I thought that NBC was falling down on the job. But when I returned later that night, I was all but blinded by colorful neon peacocks everywhere — outside the building, in front of the room where lunch is served, in the entry to the ballroom.

And perhaps the peacock is once again fitting, after some embarrassing ratings years, NBC has one of the most talked-about new shows for the fall in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” and most of its other new offerings look downright respectable. (MSNBC, as you probably know, is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

You can read the column straight through, or use the links below to jump to the topics that interest you.

• July 21, 2006 | 7 a.m. PT

Visiting ‘Shield, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ sets

When I was a kid, I took a writing class at our suburban library, taught by a local children’s author. I don’t remember much of what we did in the class, but I’ll always remember one thing the teacher said. Being a writer, she said, was carte blanche to go anywhere; for example, to gather research for a book or article, a writer might sit in an emergency room for 24 hours straight, observing what went on.

I have yet to do that, but being a writer today took me to a similar place: A Hollywood studio, where I and the other critics at the TV Critics’ Association summer press tour visited the hospital set of “Grey’s Anatomy” and the police set of “The Shield.” Both were places I never thought I’d be, and both were fascinating.

Click on either “The Shield” or the “Grey’s Anatomy” headline to read about my visit to the set, or click on “The Shield” first and read straight through.

• July 20, 2006 | 7 a.m. PT

ABC, day two: Killing trees, taking names

Wednesday is day two of the ABC presentation, and the network offered up panels from its four remaining new shows — hitting us with the comedies in the morning, and the dramas in the afternoon.

I’ve committed the journalist’s cardinal sin and not brought enough paper. I ripped through the brand-new notebook I brought and am coming up on the last pages of the only legal pad in the hotel gift shop. I have now been reduced to scribbling notes on the back of BBC press releases. Thank you, my British friends, for only using one side of the page, leaving the other blank for my use. Perhaps the trees do not thank you, but I do.

Click on the topics you’re interested in to go directly there, or start with the first topic and mosey on through.

• July 19, 2006 | 6 a.m. PT

ABC, day one: Hunks, babes and a drinking game

Here at the TV Critics’ Association summer press tour, today was officially the first day of the ABC presentations. Unofficially, it was Hunks and Babes Day. Taye Diggs, Vanessa Williams, Salma Hayek and other actors who really, really look good dropped by to discuss their new shows. Jimmy Kimmel also showed up to grill burgers made from his own recipe, and I’m pretty sure his secret ingredient is too much soy sauce.

I’ve also started developing a press tour drinking game, a.k.a. Catchphrase Bingo. This will likely be added to throughout the remaining week. When I hear the following oft-repeated phrases, I feel a desire to slug one back, even if “one” is just a shot of Diet Coke.

Drink when:

  • A critic asks if there are too many serial dramas
  • An actor says he/she moved from movies to TV because “I follow the writing”
  • A new show is compared to “Lost” (I may be guilty of this myself)
  • An exec claims their network is an underdog but no one believes it
  • A critic admits he/she hasn’t watched the pilot of the show
  • Someone asks about an actor’s hair

Click on any of the topics below to jump directly to them, or click on the first and keep reading straight through.

• July 18, 2006 | 6 a.m. PT

CW is new network with new, old shows

What’s a CW?  Country western? A computer programming language? Online roleplaying game? An abbreviation for Colonial Williamsburg? That guy who sang “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass”?

Well, maybe, but now it’s also the network born out of the ruins of UPN and The WB. Taking the “C” from CBS and the “W” from Warner Brothers, the show cherry-picked the top shows from both networks for its new venture.  The CW hosted its first-ever press tour day this Monday, and I attended all the panels. Here’s the scoop on new and surviving shows.

Use the links below to skip right to the information about the shows in which you’re interested.

• July 17, 2006 | 6 a.m. PT

Warning: Possible spoilers for the new 'CSI' season ahead

Sunday at the TV Critics' Association press conference in Pasadena, CBS wrapped up its presentations. Saturday focused on new shows; Sunday on old standbys and some familiar faces on new ventures. Use these links to skip right to the topics in which you're interested.

Sunday:

  • : Couric packs the house
  • Munching mini-burgers with
  • Digging up dirt on

Saturday:

Live from L.A.

Welcome to this special version of Test Pattern, coming to you live on location from the TV Critics’ Association summer press tour in Pasadena. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be attempting to update both this Weblog and , in which we’ll continue our hunt for the year’s best and worst commercials.

Here at press tour, commonly referred to by participants as the Death March with Cocktails, critics from all around the U.S. and Canada gather and each network shows up for a day or more, offering up network executives as well as writers and stars from its new (and sometimes old) shows. I’m a press-tour newbie, so what’s old hat to many critics will be new and possibly exciting to me. Like the fact that I just barely avoided colliding with star Peter Bergman, whom I’ve known as Jack Abbott on that soap since the late 1980s. (In person he looks even tanner than on TV, if that’s possible. And his co-star Tracey E. Bregman (Lauren Fenmore) looks even tinier.

I'll be offering up the choicest tidbits and some erratic sidebars about the panels I attend. Sometimes there's real television news that comes out of these sessions, but other times we leave the ballroom saying to each other "Did you SEE ?" Or maybe that's just me.

Only interested in certain shows or topics? I'll provide a handy table of topics each day so you can jump to your favorite. Here's CBS' day one:

  • Leaving fans hanging with .(Ahem -- "Reunion" -- ahem.)
  • James Woods, Jeri Ryan's shoes, and
  • Your questions answered (well, some of them)
  • Still
  • is in session, and damaged jeans get an A from Jason Ritter
  • when the walls came a-tumblin' down. Also, 'Skeet' is fun to say.
  • and main characters don't all have to be Ned Flanders

Serialized dramas: The reality shows of this year, a.k.a. "some of us are still mad about 'Reunion,' "
In her panel, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler proudly proclaimed that "network TV has reclaimed the water cooler," bragging that the cast of one of CBS's new shows, is the kind of "cast you'd see in a feature film." (Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen are among those players, the show revolves around Liotta's criminal gang and their heists as well as his private life; Madsen plays his wife, who has a few secrets of her own.)

Critics got in a few questions about schedule changes and the like, but the unquestioned topic of the hour was network TV's rush to copy the success of serialized shows such as "24" and "Lost," churning out more and more shows that your average viewer needs to be tuned in from the beginning to be able to follow. CBS's in which a small Kansas town is apparently cut off from the world by nuclear explosions, is one of those shows.

Questioners wanted to know if Tassler felt the networks were loading up too much on this kind of show, requiring too much of a commitment from viewers, and essentially, if it would backfire. Regular readers of regular Test Pattern know I was a big booster of FOX's "Reunion," and tried to ferret out plot details when that show was canceled well before its murderer was revealed. Critics wanted to know if the networks weren't afraid of turning off viewers by getting them hooked on a show and then never satisfying their need to know what happened. Tassler kept repeating that the good shows would make it, that they'd find audiences. Someone asked if she was saying that the "Reunion" fans really didn't care who the murderer was, and she backtracked a bit, saying she was "sure it was important to them," but basically that "the show would still be on the air if people cared." I cared, Nina! As did many  MSNBC.com readers, who even wrote in with their own theories as to who killed Sam.

Nothing was essentially answered to critics' full satisfaction in the Tassler session, but one thing is clear to me: Serialized drama is the reality show of this season. It's popular, some have done quite well, and now we're seeing everyone trying it, and there's bound to be a bit of a downside. I wish Tassler had talked more about ways in which the networks can keep viewer goodwill -- there are numerous ways to do it. If unaired episodes exist of a serial, release them as downloads. Sell them as extras on the DVD. Devote part of your Web site to letting the show's writer talk about what would have happened and why. That, to me, is the way to keep fans happy, even if you can't keep the show they liked on the air.

Jumping the "Shark"A panel of cast and creators from CBS' new legal drama "Shark" was up next. James Woods plays a high-priced defense attorney who switches sides and joins the DA's office after a client he defends does something that shocks and deflates him. Woods leads a ragtag panel of young lawyers while butting heads with Jeri Ryan, who plays a DA he's long fought with, but now has to work with. One imagines more than a few "Star Trek" geeks will follow the show, at least at first, to see Seven of Nine, Esquire.

Woods was asked why he's willing to do TV, with such an established movie career -- a theme that would return later, most notably with Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen in the panel. Woods defended his choice, saying he's not a snob about television. He went on to suggest that "movies seem to be scared" these days, while "television seems to be like a teenager feeling his or her oats." Woods is a fan of "Arrested Development" and "Family Guy," pointing out that some of the lines on the latter  areas "as funny as anything I've seen in movies." (No one asked about the recent "South Park" episode suggesting that "Family Guy" is penned by manatees. I kind of wish they had.)

Another topic that was raised in the "Shark" panel and brought up again at the "Smith" panel kind of mystifies me. Writers seem somewhat fixated on the idea that Woods' "Shark" character isn't that likable, that he is kind of a moral mess and is no Atticus Finch. It was vowed that the "theme of redemption" would be reflected in every character, which is fine so far as it goes, but I for one don't feel our characters need to be sugarcoated in order for us to watch a show. Was J.R. Ewing redeemed? Tony Soprano?

I think I stopped taking notes for this panel when someone asked Jeri Ryan, whose character seems destined to inevitably sleep with Woods' character, if she was afraid of "jumping the Shark." Yikes.

Randomness:

  • Woods, fumbling with a microphone that wouldn't stay hooked: "Hard to believe I've done 120 movie, isn't it?
  • Drinking game points: I'm betting that Woods, who attended MIT before dropping out to act, is the only actor of the conference who will manage to discuss both "Aristotelian logic" and "moral relativism."
  • Jeri Ryan wore an intriguing pair of what looked like beige peep-toe heels with bright red soles. None of the men I mentioned the shoes to had noticed them, but the first woman I mentioned it to brightened up instantly and was willing to animatedly discuss them. By the evening's CBS party, however, she'd changed outfits and shoes, this time to a bright green pair. Seven of Shoes?
  • Most popular Web sites being surfed by critics at the "Shark" panel, from my very informal survey: #1: IMDB.com #2: Google. #3: Personal (or work) email.

The 'Amazing' Phil and his sanitary needs"The Amazing Race" panel, featuring host Phil Keoghan and executive producers Bertram Van Munster and Jonathan Littman, was located in a small room that was jam-packed, reflecting the enduring popularity of one of TV's classier reality shows. Yes, "classy" and "reality show" are not mutually exclusive, to many folks' surprise. There was a surprise for me, though: Learning that Phil's last name, which I'd been mentally pronouncing "Key-gan," was really pronounced as if it's spelled "Co-gan."

The 12-team cast of the 10th season of "Race" was officially announced at the panel, and interesting teams abound. Vipul and Arti Patel are the first Indian-American team to run the "Race"; Bilal Abdul-Mani and Sa'eed Rudolph are the show's first Islamic pair; and Dustin Konzelman and Kandice Pelletier are Miss California USA and Miss New York USA, respectively. Readers of MSNBC.com's Ask the Reality Experts column, which I write with Andy Dehnart, know that we've been discussing recently. This "Race" features Peter Harsch and Sarah Reinertsen — Peter is a clinical prosthetist and Sarah is the first woman with an artificial leg to complete the Hawaii Iron Man Triathlon. Host Phil remarked that Sarah's grit and determination reminded him of past "Race" contestant Charla Faddoul, still a favorite with many viewers.

Fans who hated the for its limited travel scope should be back on board this season. Pitstops on this race included China, Mongolia, North Vietnam, Madagascar and Kuwait, 60 kilometers from the Iraqi border. The race dove into the tough countries immediately, the panel spokesmen reported, not giving the teams the usual chance to break into the world travel somewhat slowly.

The "Race" panel was full of juicy tidbits that may end up in an Ask the Experts column down the line, but here are just a few worth noting now.

  • An openly gay couple on "Race" didn't face any extra problems in countries where homosexuality is outlawed; nor did the Islamic team face any extra trouble going through airport security.
  • Phil's still asked if he goes sightseeing or shopping when he's not filming his parts of the show, but since the show is traveling up to 75,000 miles in a short 28 days, taking 2.5 days to complete an episode, he's got no time for that. Sometimes, he confessed, he has literally had to run to the pit stop mat seconds before a team arrives. At least once he's slept on an airport bench while the rest of the crew was "four-starring it," as Van Munster put it, in a nice hotel.
  • Phil's secret to keeping the sweat down? Sanitary pads under his armpits. "It stops the flow, so to speak," he confided. I don't make this up, folks, I just report it.
  • When asked about "Race" veteran claims that the show misrepresented him, Van Munster was blunt. "I can replace all of the footage [that was shown] with other footage and he's the same guy," he said.
  • Ask the Experts readers always want to know: Are elimination and non-elimination legs worked out in advance, or do the producers play fast-and-loose with the rounds? Many found it hard to believe that the victorious hippies of last season lucked into placing last in two non-elimination rounds, but Van Munster and crew positively denied that any trickery, saying whether a round was an elimination round or not was decided well in advance of filming, and to do otherwise would be "a form of manipulation ... we don't do that at all."
  • Fans of the "Survivor" and All-Star editions are eternally curious as to whether "Race" will try that concept. Odds of this happening are "50/50," Littman said, confessing to making up fantasy lists of wannabe all-star casts in his head.
  • Ask the Experts is asked all the time: Where do the eliminated teams go? They can't go home -- that would signal to hometown folks that they obviously didn't win. Yet they don't continue to travel with the show, either. I grabbed Littman briefly after the panel to ask him this very question in private, and he told me that the ousted teams go to "a neutral city," like only "ours is a lot nicer."

Still 'Young,' still 'Restless'
Admittedly, some critics passed on "The Young and the Restless" panel, since the 33-year-old show is still going strong, and not every TV critic covers soaps. (I've met a writer from Soaps In Depth here, and teased him about how he'd better rule this panel.) But I admit, I've been watching the show on and off since 1983 or so, so I was not about to skip.

"Y&R" has made some news of late, with über-villain developing a pleasing personality that's about to be attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy. (Victor couldn't be mooning over a puppy just out of the blue, now, could he? The man who once locked his wife's lover in his cellar?) New head writer Lynn Marie Latham explained that a friend's daughter suffered from the condition, and that at least in part inspired Victor's predicament. She also confided that the plotline won't be discarded easily, seeing it carrying on for a year or more.

No one was willing to reveal the show's biggest secret -- who's the father of Phyllis Abbott's baby, her husband Jack (his portrayer, Peter Bergman, was on the panel), or young upstart Nicholas Newman, Victor's scion. But here are some other tidbits soap fans may appreciate.

  • When asked for favorite storylines, Tracey E. Bregman, who plays Lauren Fenmore Baldwin, confessed that she enjoyed her early days, when she played a definitively witchy character (didn't she once dump a milkshake or some other food on the head of Traci Abbott, her plumper rival for Danny Romalotti? I've got to check that with my new Soaps In Depth pal, but that's how I remember it.) But Bregman also says her current storyline, where she's sharing a new marriage and later-in-life pregnancy with the character Michael Baldwin, is a favorite.
  • Don Diamont, who plays Brad Carlton, the pool boy turned executive, also said his current storyline is his favorite, and for good reason. Brad's past life has been a blank slate on the show until recently, when it's turned out that his name's not really Brad Carlton and nothing else about his past is as it appears, either. His favorite past storyline, however, was when he was locked in a cage by his kooky ex-wife, Lisa of the pre-Raphaelite curls. Hey, who hasn't had that happen? We can all relate, right?
  • The cast members on the panel all had high praise for new head writer Latham, especially appreciating how she's thrown herself into studying up on the show's tangled past and resurrecting some plotlines (Brad's mysterious past) that longtime viewers remember. But they're also thankful to her for adding a basketball court set to their show. "Someday, somebody's gonna get hurt," Bergman warned. And Diamont confessed that when Latham innocently said to him that she'd heard that Joshua Morrow (Nicholas) was a good basketball player, he had to proudly report on testing Morrow's skills on the court. The result? "I smoked him," Diamont claimed proudly.

'Class' is in sessionCBS' only new comedy this year is "The Class," starring John Ritter's son, Jason, as a man who decides to get his third-grade class back together for a party. The party backfires, but the connections made at the bash create relationships that weave together and are the basis for the series.

Work and life partners David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik created and executive-produce the show. You'll remember Crane's name from "Friends," and Klarik from "Mad About You," among others. The inspiration for the show, Klarik confided, came from cleaning their basement and finding Crane's third-grade class photo, which sparked a conversation wondering about what happened to the long-lost classmates. (One male classmate is now a woman, though a character modeled on him/her has yet to make it into "The Class.")

The cast has eight main classmate characters at the moment, but unlike Crane's "Friends," he says they won't all have a main gathering place, a Central Perk-type place to hang out together. Some storylines will intersect, others won't, and unlike with "Friends," each character won't have the same amount of plot each week.

As of the pilot episode, the entire "Class" is Caucasian, a choice its creators say was not deliberate, and perhaps wasn't a choice they'd make again. The show was written without race in mind, the creators say, and plans are already on the canvas to add Korean, Hispanic and mixed-race characters.

Will people start talking about a "Friends" curse, one writer asked, pointing to the failed "Joey" as one example? "Probably," Crane said. "We just try not to let that happen"

  • Completely unrelated, but because it's the kind of thing I would want to know: From a distance, Jason Ritter doesn't appear to resemble his famous father, but up close, especially around the eyes, it's very clear whose son he is.
  • And at CBS' evening party on the Rose Bowl field, a colleague and I cornered Ritter to ask him about the unusual style of pants he was sporting: A pair of Mogg jeans in which both legs had been split completely up the back of each leg, then pinned together with a marching row of safety pins. He'd done the tearing himself in a stressful moment, confessed Ritter, mimicking how he tore the jeans with a gesture resembling .
  • We weren't the only ones curious: As we spoke to Ritter, "Numb3rs" star Rob Morrow jumped into the conversation to needle Ritter gently about the denim damage. Should this style of pants catch on, you heard it here first.

'Jericho,' when the walls came a-tumblin' downCBS' most-talked-about new show is probably "Jericho," the drama about what happens to a small Kansas town when nuclear bombs apparently take out at least two major American cities and the town is left to fend for itself. The cast, including Skeet Ulrich as Jake, a young ne'er do well who lies about where he's been, and Gerald "Major Dad" McRaney as Jake's dad and Jericho's mayor.

The "Jericho" discussion started with a question about why Jake's vintage car boasted only an AM radio (uh, because it was vintage?) and turned serious quickly. TV Guide's Michael Ausiello has dubbed the show "Everwood: The Day After," and comparisons to 1983's "The Day After," which also featured the effects of a nuclear holocaust on Kansas, are inevitable. (Guess the old pulp novel had it right: "

Comparisons to "Lost" were also inevitable. Both shows, it was pointed out, rely on a small group of people suffering through a disaster and relying on themselves in order to survive. But some comparisons were shot down: "Jericho" won't rely heavily on flashbacks, nor is it likely to incorporate mythical elements, at least "until we run out of ideas," joked an executive producer.

Some viewers and critics will draw parallels, certainly, to the current world situation, but the show's panel was quick to point out that visions of doom have existed in literature going back to "War of the Worlds" and earlier.

I've watched the "Jericho" pilot more than once now, and it never fails to give me a somewhat creepy feeling of dread. I'm still not convinced that audiences want to watch the aftermath of a nuclear attack unfold week after week. One panel member says that she also isn't in the mood to watch a horrible disaster unfold on her TV screen, but notes that she would watch "Jericho" (then again, who wouldn't say that about your own show?). "Jericho," she said, is less about the national disaster and more about "something happening and people rising to the challenge."

  • Fun for this newbie to notice: Reporters inevitably called Skeet Ulrich "Skeet," but referred to Gerald McRaney as "Mr. McRaney," sometimes in the same breath. Maybe it's because McRaney's gravitas just commands respect (that wonderful voice!), but maybe it's just that "Skeet" is such a fun word to say.

Looking for a few good 'Smiths'In "Smith," Ray Liotta plays Bobby Stevens, the leader of a gang of criminals. Yet Tony Soprano-like, he manages to lead his own humdrum-appearing suburban life, with wife and kids, in his off-time.

"Smith" is one intense show, playing almost like a mini-movie, and as if to accent that, the drama's pilot is 90 minutes long. Execs say it's as of yet unclear how they'll handle the abnormally long pilot, but it'll either run commercial-free or in an hour-long slot with no commercials.

Executive producer John Wells, of "ER" fame, took most of the questions for his panel, bemoaning at one point that no one wanted to talk to the stellar slate of actors he'd brought along (Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, and Franky G among them.)

At least one writer wasn't thrilled with the show's bland title, but Wells said he'd never considered calling his show anything else. He'd learned from a law-enforcement officer that they refer to unidentified suspects as "Smiths," and it fit his idea of a criminal trying to live anonymously in the world, hiding in plain sight.

Writers seemed abnormally concerned with whether Liotta's character remains a likable chap or not, considering at least one completely innocent character is bloodily gunned down in the pilot. I confess to not relating to the concept that a main character must always be Ned Flanders (see , above). I suspect most show creators are thinking: Love him or hate him, just watch him.

  • Virginia Madsen's character, Hope, Bobby's wife, has a bit of a Carmela Soprano feel to her: She benefits from her husband's criminal activities (and may have some secrets of her own), but she's willfully in a bit of denial, it seems. She won't remain that way, Wells promised.
  • When questioned about whether the group of criminals in the show met "in stir, or in a fraternity," Wells cracked that they'd met at "the Crime Fraternity at Criminal U."

Next up: Katie Couric, Rachael Ray, and the cast of 'CSI.' Otherwise known as: Who are three people/groups of people who've ?