The Television Critics Association press tour, a two-week event in which press conference after press conference parades through a hotel ballroom, is about half over, so it's time for a few stories.
In a room of 250 or so reporters and a rotating set of actors, producers, and executives, there's likely to be a conversation here and there that perhaps doesn't go as everyone involved was expecting. After all, I've already been to 57 panel discussions or presentations (according to our transcripts list), and we have a week to go.
And so, I present to you: Press Tour Tales, The First Week Edition.
1. NBC's first panel was for its new comedy Welcome To The Family, about a teenage couple that decides to marry after an unplanned pregnancy. The girl's family is white and the boy's family is Latino, and the panel got off to a rough start when the NBC executive introducing the actors called Justina Machado, who plays the boy's mother, "Justin." (She later apologized profusely.)
Things got significantly more impressively strange when, mere minutes later, a reporter questioning Ricardo A. Chavira, who plays the boy's father, called him "Richard." "Ricardo, not Richard, but hey, cool, awesome," he said. The reporter apologized. "No, no, you're good. I'll hold it against you for the rest of your life," he said smoothly. Between that and the fact that star Mike O'Malley made some lovely comments about his affection for Cory Monteith, his Glee co-star who died recently, that panel deserves some kind of an award for Gracefully Handling Odd Things.
2. During the panel for Showtime's Masters Of Sex, an upcoming series about the human sexuality research partnership of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, the entire cast was asked, "Tell me in your own words how you interpret your characters." Star Michael Sheen, who plays Masters opposite Lizzy Caplan as Johnson, was invited to go first.
He went on to suggest that the question struck him as perhaps simplistic. He gave the following explanation of the golden age of television, the importance of character depth, and the blessings of nuance:
One of the great things about why I think TV is going through a golden age at the moment is because, in a sort of multi-episodic format now, with also cable channels like Showtime being at the absolute forefront today and saying, 'Off you go. Any subject matter is open to you,' you can take risks. You've got amazing people working on it, and you've got 12 hours, roughly, per season, to be able to tell a story. You can get to the complexity of a novel almost, you know. It's very, very multilayered and complex, and so you can start to treat people and characters with the complexity that they deserve, that we all deserve.
The problem is that, in this modern age and the way we talk about this kind of stuff and the situations like this, everyone wants to reduce people to, kind of, bite size, easily understood chunks. And why I think people are responding so much to television at the moment is that it refuses to do that. It totally flips that over so that people are revealed the being the complex, interesting people that they are and that we can have more and more compassion and understanding and feel more connected to people. So it becomes, then, very difficult to say, "Well, my character is," and then I trot out three lines about it.
Bravo, right? Impressive!
"But ... can you do three lines about it?" the reporter persisted.
What I cannot do justice to is the tone of Sheen's voice as he went on to say, "William Masters was an OB/GYN surgeon who was a fertility expert and a man who liked a lot of control in his life, and in our show, we see him struggle with trying to hold onto that sense of control when confronted by a woman who awakens something authentic within him."
(As the show gets closer, we'll talk more about Caplan on this panel — at one point, she talked about the importance of Masters & Johnson's research in removing guilt from women's sexuality, and ended with, "Before Masters and Johnson, nobody was telling women that. It was always their fault." There was a long, long pause. "And that's some bull----," she finished firmly.)
3. Rupert Friend, who plays Quinn on Homeland, showed up for the panel in suspenders that caused one reporter to tweet that he looked like he was doing a revival of Witness. (Kind of true.) Late in the panel, Claire Danes mentioned that he'd only this year gotten a phone. The next question: "Rupert, you just got a phone this year. Given the way you're dressed..." Everyone laughed, including the entire cast. "Are you Amish, or ...?" Everyone laughed more. "That's by far the best question," Danes said. "He left his pitchfork backstage," offered producer Howard Gordon. And then Claire Danes turned to Friend excitedly and said, "Is this your rumspringa?"
4. Robin Williams is in a new CBS comedy called The Crazy Ones, with Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Wolk. (You may know Gellar as TV's Buffy, of course, and Wolk as Bob "Not great, Bob!" Benson from Mad Men.) At one point, with what seemed to be sincerity, Williams was asked about the mix of comedy and melancholy that the questioner saw in the show. "It reminds us that there's nothing more heart-wrenching than the sad clown."
I don't think I've ever seen Robin Williams try to avoid going off before, but that seemed to be what happened. He immediately looked like he might crack up, and then he held it, trying to really answer the question, and then he started laughing, which he turned into theatrical crying. "Please don't say that. Thank you for the cards you sent." And then it was on. He leaped up and made his way to the edge of the stage. "I'm a sad clown. Help me God, please." Gellar reeled him back to his seat by his microphone cord. After that, he actually gave a very thoughtful answer about the mix of comedy and seriousness, which ended up with another reference to the sad clown — or, as he said, "the melancholy mime, which sits next to the sad clown. He's in a box by the window, looking out."
5. Michael J. Fox got a lot of questions about Parkinson's during the panel about his new NBC comedy. How was his health, how is it different now, did he consult with "the Parkinson's community," that kind of thing. But he mined it for comedy during the panel just like he does on the show (where the character also has Parkinson's). At one point, he was having the same experience a lot of actors have where they have trouble figuring out where, in the giant room, the question is coming from, since the stage is so brightly lit they can barely see us. "Around your 11 o'clock," the questioner said, waving. He looked back and forth, back and forth, whipping his head around. "I have Parkinson's," he said. "I'll see all of you sooner or later." (The transcriber has "I'll be seeing double of you sooner or later," but I'm pretty sure I have the joke right.)
6. MTV has a reality show called Nurses coming up, which we haven't seen yet but which their promotion suggests you can think of as Jersey Shore with traveling nurses. (Of course, the nurses on the show are all hot, but stress that they are also serious people. WOOOOOO!) At one point, one of the nurses, a guy named Chris, was asked what he'd like to share with people as they think about their interactions with nurses. He stressed that patience is crucial — in the ER, you may have a different sense of an emergency than the nurse does. They may not be able to get to you right away. You have to understand how overloaded they often are.
Then he said, "The nicer you are to us — we determine what size needle we use. You know what I'm saying? Like, that's true. I just have to say that. It's true. There's no guidelines for size on an IV or gauge to use for IM injection and stuff like that, so we do figure out what size catheter you need and stuff like that." One of the other nurses immediately started to object, at which point he claimed to have been kidding. Despite having said "that's true" and "it's true."
7. Some questions seem to have something that they're trying to be about, and they get weird anyway. Jerry O'Connell is in the new comedy We Are Men, in which he plays one of several guys living in an apartment community kind of like the one Milhouse's dad went to on The Simpsons, if that means anything to you. O'Connell spends a lot of time in a very small bathing suit, so somebody drew the connection between playing a studly dude now and an athlete in Jerry Maguire, versus having been a pudgy kid in Stand By Me many years ago. He was asked whether it's "fun to see yourself, to say boy, this is what I wanted to grow up to be?" O'Connell blanched a little. "Well, I don't wake up in the morning and go to a full-length mirror and go, 'Oh, yeah. Look at this.'"
I actually ran into him later at the CBS party and asked him about that exchange and whether he found those questions odd, and he assured me that he wasn't — as he put it — waking up the morning and just "taking selfies."
8. The Breaking Bad panels are always great, and this one — largely a victory lap as the show heads into its last eight episodes — was no exception. The highlight was Bryan Cranston purporting to drop the huge spoiler that the ending would be entirely happy and uplifting as Walter White "spreads his joy" over the season. "I think everybody will be satisfied with the ending, where we hug it out." [SPOILER ALERT: Don't e-mail me. They will not hug it out.]
9. Actor Stephen Merchant is really tall, and we haven't seen his HBO comedy pilot Hello Ladies yet, meaning we were pretty much stuck with questions about how tall he is. One, I kid you not, was about whether he ever thought about inviting some of the actors from True Blood to come on the show, since they're also tall. (Moral of the story: Really try to give us screeners if at all possible. Otherwise, it's hard to ask awesome questions.)
10. Patrick Dempsey is going to be in a documentary about his love of racing cars, and as part of that panel, he spoke about how boring it is being on Grey's Anatomy, basically. "And when you're in a long show, there's less discovery and more of an endurance of having to be present and to do your job and find ways to keep yourself turned on in something that you know is going to be A, B, and C. It doesn't change."
Later, he said, "And when you're on a show that's been on for, we're coming up to 200 episodes, it's about surviving, you know. And you find ways to turn yourself on with the material that you're given. But it's like being in a band. You have a specific note that you play, and that's what you do. So you just try to play that as well as you can. So for me now it's much more just discovering in the moment. There's not a lot of homework that goes into it. You learn your lines, and you try to be present and try not to get caught acting. And you, you know, I'm grateful I have the gig, but it's not the same as being in a race car. It's just not."
I just wanted to share that, and if you think it's a little odd that this didn't become a headline-making story, while Katherine Heigl's much briefer comments about the limitations of her material on Grey's still come up whenever people write about her, then you and I think alike.