The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Robert Picardo (“China Beach”)

Some know Robert Picardo for the time he spent playing the Emergency Medical Hologram on “Star Trek: Voyager,” while others remember him more fondly for his work as Coach Cutlip on “The Wonder Years,” but at the moment, the TV show on his resume that more people are talking about than any other is “China Beach,” which is – after way, way too long a wait – finally on DVD. Picardo took a few minutes to chat with Bullz-Eye about the release of “China Beach: The Complete Series,” his reminiscences of working on the series, and if viewers are wrong to see a touch of his Dr. Dick Richard turning up in the aforementioned EMH.

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Bullz-Eye: From what I understand, it sounds like we’re both on the same page as far as being unable to refresh our memories on “China Beach”: they tell me my copy of the complete-series set is due to arrive tomorrow.

Robert Picardo: Oh, good for you! But I did already get mine. [Laughs.] They got it to me yesterday, and I devoted some time to it. I watched a couple of the bonus features. There are 10 hours of bonus features, and I guess I watched about two hours of them, or thereabouts. And then, even though I had to get up very early this morning to do these interviews, I thought, “Well, I’ll pop in the pilot and just watch the first five minutes to see the quality of the transfer.” And, of course, I watched the entire pilot. I couldn’t turn it off! So that was a good thing. The fact that I was so captivated was a good sign.

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I’m really happy to see that the show, which was a period piece to begin with…I mean, we made it in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it was set from ’68 to ’71, principally, and then the last season we kind of skipped into the future as late as 1987. But basically it was a period piece to begin with, so in that respect it hasn’t aged. It’s still a great time capsule and doesn’t feel dated, and I’m so proud of the work in it. Dana is extraordinary, Marg Helgenberger is extraordinary, but the whole ensemble is just great. You know, it was a very special time in my career, and I know and I’ve heard Dana and Marg and pretty much all of the actors say the same, so to have it reach a new audience is really very gratifying and exciting.

BE: What do you remember about your first read of the pilot script?

RP: I remember reading it and thinking it was great. And important. It felt like an honor to be part of something like that, which was really about something, I mean, obviously, you’d…I guess you’d say the success of the movie “Platoon” led to the possibility of major television networks doing Vietnam dramas. And, of course, “Tour of Duty,” our sister show… [Laughs.] Well, that was really more about “Platoon” and about the soldiers fighting. What was unique and special about “China Beach” was that the point-of-view character was a woman, an Army nurse who served there. So it gave the show a special perspective. It wasn’t about combat, it was about saving lives. It was about supporting and helping soldiers. The war was like an offstage character.

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We were the support group there—the nurses, the doctors, the USO people—to sort of support and patch the guys up and either send them back or, if they were too injured, send them home. And more often than not, if they were dead, you’d offer the last gesture of respect to them. That’s what Michael Boatman’s character did, the guy who ran the grave registration. What a terrific role, and an extraordinary performance for a 24-year-old guy. I mean, to have so much…what’s the word? He created such a character who had seen everything, and he was totally believable as a guy who…that was his life, just all of that death and loss. And what that had turned him into was sort of a 24-year-old old man. Anyway, it’s just great writing. William Broyles, who served in Vietnam and who co-created the series, said that he feels it’s the best war drama that’s ever been on television. And, well, yeah, you could say that he’s a little partial, since he co-created it. [Laughs.] But you know what? I agree with him.

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The Light from the TV Shows: Magic City is a Must-Buy

I really don’t have much of a clue who reads what around here—I mean, I’m just sayin’, but…we do have a comments section, you know—but if you happened to have caught my column from April 25, then you already know a little bit about how I felt about Starz’s “Magic City” when it first hit the airwaves. At the time I wrote about it, however, I’d only seen the first three episodes, so I couldn’t really offer much in the way on incisive commentary. Indeed, to save you from clicking on the above link, the bullet points of my brief discussion of the series were…

1. It looks great.

2. The second episode rehashed too much of the pilot, but the third episode was much better.

3. As far as the cast goes, Danny Huston makes a great bad-ass, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is in fine form as well, and although Alex Rocco’s storyline was a bit schmaltzy for my tastes, he’s still Alex Rocco, which means his scenes are worth seeing simply because he’s in them.

All things considered, it’s probably best that I hadn’t yet seen the fourth episode when I wrote about the series, since not only did it prove to be the most disappointing installment of the entire season, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth—I believe the precise phrase I used to describe the series at the time was “infuriatingly inconsistent”—that, if I’m to be honest, I could’ve flipped a coin to decide my thoughts on whether it was going to get better or worse in the coming weeks. Pretty much all of the good will it had built up in the preceding three weeks had been shot all to hell in the span of a single hour.

Thank God it got better. In fact, it got so much better that, now that Magic City: The Complete First Season has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, I have absolutely no hesitation about recommending it as a must-buy. I really can’t speak to what happened behind the scenes to turn the series around in such a dramatic fashion, but it was one of the most impressive TV turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Eric Ladin (“The Killing”)

If you’ve been trying to figure out why Eric Ladin, who plays Jamie Wright on AMC’s “The Killing,” looks familiar to you but can’t quite pin down why, maybe this will help: in addition to being one of the cast members of HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries “Generation Kill,” he’s also turned up in a few episodes of “Mad Men,” playing Betty Draper’s brother. Now, however, he’s back to playing Darren Richmond’s campaign manager on “The Killing,” which – as you may already be aware – returned to AMC for its second season on Sunday night. Unfortunately, the ratings weren’t necessarily what you’d call stellar, but Ladin’s enthusiasm about what viewers can expect during the course of the series’ sophomore year may prove infectious.

Bullz-Eye: So are you psyched that “The Killing” is finally back?

Eric Ladin: I am. It’s about time! I think everybody is.

BE: Of course, you realize that a lot of people are really just desperate at this point to find out definitively who killed Rosie Larson.

EL: I do realize that, yeah. [Laughs.] I’ve been reminded of that quite a lot over the last nine months.

BE: Were you shocked at the outcry about the lack of resolution in the season finale?

EL: I was, a little bit. I knew that there would definitely be some people that were upset, but I didn’t foresee the hatred and…just the pure venom that was spat towards our writers. [Laughs.] Yeah, I was a little shocked by that.

BE: At least there was a small but somewhat vocal group that was reminded people that we didn’t find out who killed Laura Palmer until the second season of “Twin Peaks.”

EL: That’s correct. And if you ask David Lynch, he’ll probably tell you that the biggest mistake he made was telling people who killed her at all. I think he said – this was in an interview I read – that if he was able to do it again, he’d never tell who the killer was. So, yeah, I don’t believe that there was anywhere that said that you were guaranteed to find the killer in Season 1, but by the same token, I think that AMC’s PR probably could’ve handled it a speck differently. With that said, as a TV viewer, I would not have expected to find the killer in Season 1. So I guess there’s that.

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The Light from the TV Shows: “Game of Thrones” begins anew (and so does “The Killing”)

As we enter into the final quarter of the traditional broadcast TV season, where many of the mid-season entries are already beginning to wrap up their runs (“Alcatraz,” for example, aired its two-hour finale on Monday) and most of the series that kicked off way back in the fall are in that depressing twilight period just prior to their last run of new episodes before season’s end, many of your favorite premium cable programs are taking advantage of the semi-lull by coming back with a vengeance.

This past Sunday, of course, AMC brought us the return of “Mad Men,” which you probably already knew, since it managed to pull in 3.5 million viewers, a none-too-shabby increase of 21 percent over the series’ previous season premiere. This Sunday, the network has another series coming back, though it’s probably safe to presume that the numbers won’t be nearly as impressive for this one. But, look, if your excuse for not liking “The Killing” is that they didn’t resolve Rosie Larsen’s murder by the end of the season, go peddle your wares somewhere else, because I’m tired of hearing people whine about that. So what if it hasn’t been resolved yet? A show’s allowed to keep its viewers in suspense, isn’t it? If you didn’t like it because you thought it was boring, that’s one thing. If you’re really complaining because the producers promised “a very, very satisfying ending to Season 1” and reneged on that promise, though, I say that you may be well within your rights to be frustrated, but don’t say, “Ugh, they lied, therefore the show sucks,” because that’s just lame.

I do think AMC must be resigned to the return of “The Killing” being slaughtered both by the critics and in the ratings, however, since even though it’s coming back this Sunday night at 8 PM for a two-hour season premiere, the homepage of the network’s press resource center is still busy trumpeting last week’s return of “Mad Men.” For my part, while I do think the series dragged quite a bit in places and reached the point of ridiculousness with how many times Sarah Linden bailed on her planned departure (if I was Ray McDeere, I probably would’ve broken off my engagement to Sarah somewhere around Episode 1.3), I was perpetually gripped whenever Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton were portraying parental grief, and I am steadfast in my disagreement with anyone who says that Episode 1.11 (“Missing”) was an unnecessary detour away from the case, because that may have been my favorite episode since the pilot. If you didn’t like that episode, you probably also watched “Twin Peaks” and complained about how they spent too much time focusing on Audrey Horne when they could’ve been figuring out who killed Laura Palmer…and I’m here to tell you that you can never spend too much time focusing on Audrey Horne.

Quick sidebar: if you didn’t watch “Twin Peaks,” this is Audrey Horne:

This concludes your moment of Sherilyn Fenn zen. We now return to our regularly scheduled column…provided we can all get our concentration back.

Oh, right, now I remember where I was…

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“Mad Men” cast and crew discuss the upcoming fifth season

“Mad Men” always had the feel of a show that couldn’t go on forever. It’s too smart, too ambitious, too consistent to live forever in a television world so full of subpar material. Basically, it’s too good to last.

So, it was disturbing, but not surprising to hear “Mad Men” cast and creators reveal the show is ready to retire from the advertising business after its seventh season.

For now – to celebrate the show’s fifth season – media joined fans of the show at the 2012 PaleyFest in Los Angeles to see what’s ahead for the most stylish and one of most (mad) manly shows on TV. Series stars Jon Hamm and January Jones joined John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Kiernan Shipka and creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner for a red carpet episode screening and Q&A.

It was heartbreak for many of the male fans in attendance as the voluptuous and witty Christina Hendricks was otherwise engaged and couldn’t attend. Of course, it’s also possible she was laying low following her recent Twitter picture scandal in which said voluptuousness was on display for all the world to see.

Obviously, though still a couple years away, the specter of a series conclusion dominated much of the media’s bombardment of questions.

“As I’ve said, I don’t want to overstay our welcome,” Weiner said. “When I was a writer on “Sopranos,” I thought it was difficult sometimes to come up with stories that hadn’t already been covered on previous seasons or by other productions in the genre – other mob movies or TV shows. The fifth season is finished now, and I’m planning on seven. It’s just really hard to do this show.”

Pushing the idea of a final season aside, the hundreds of fans in attendance at the Saban Theater wanted the scoop on the new season. Last season ended with Don Draper – legally free of ice queen wife Betty and seemingly emerging from the shadow of alcoholism – suddenly getting engaged to Megan. Hamm said the major season-spinning plot twist felt like a shock right up until cast and crew made it official on film.

“(Weiner) and I talked about that ending for weeks before we actually shot it,” Hamm said. “But, even after all of that time, when it came time to shoot the scene, I was left wondering if it was all a fake. Was it just going to be a dream sequence or something?”

“I was just glad to see the season end up on sort of a hopeful, upbeat note,” Hamm added, “because my character had been on such a downward spiral throughout the season.

Weiner made it clear that, on the “Mad Men” set, the talented collective cast stays in character and interacts as a family as the top secret scripts unfold.

Weiner explained, “When I directed the scene where Don told his coworkers about the engagement, we filmed the group’s reaction shots first – a reverse angle. The other actors were mostly frozen – not a lot of reaction.”

“Then, we turned the camera around to see what they were so stunned by, and it was (Hamm) smiling as broadly as he ever has playing the role. That unnerved everyone. There hasn’t been a lot of smiling in (Draper’s life) recently before that moment.”

Hamm added, “I find myself really hoping that this works out for my character – after watching him struggle through the divorce and trying to give up his drinking.”

“We had that episode earlier in the last season in which (Draper) documented his struggles to stop drinking in his own journal. I think that story offered a new glimpse into how (Draper) was examining himself and evolving.”

While Hamm’s character moved on to a new potential relationship, ex-wife Betty Draper Francis (Jones) continued struggling with life as an often stern and unforgiving mother.

“I’m looking forward to see how people react to Betty now,” Jones said. “For a while, people have run away from me on the street all the time because they see how Betty treats her children. I think they’re worried about me becoming a mother myself now because they think I’m really going to be like that.”

“In this new season, I think Betty is still evolving, and I see her improving as a person.”

As the fifth season gets ready to roll on AMC, Hamm is following up on the longtime tradition of a series’ big star taking his shot at work on the other side of the camera by taking on some directing duties. It’s up to everyone else now to catch up to the idea.

“(The rest of the cast) said they’ll never work with me again. Actually, everyone was very supportive, and I got a lot of great advice from the other cast members.”

  

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