Tuned In: PBS to air 'Vicious,' a British sitcom

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PASADENA, Calif. -- In its continuing experiment with bringing scripted fare to Sunday nights outside the "Masterpiece" banner, PBS will air "Vicious," a British sitcom, at 10:30 p.m. Sundays starting July 6.

While PBS stations individually buy and air British comedies, PBS itself has rarely programmed a live-action comedy series. To date there have been few examples besides "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and the six-episode "Trying Times," a comedy anthology from 1987.

"Vicious" stars Ian McKellen ("The Hobbit") as Freddie and Derek Jacobi ("Last Tango in Halifax") as Stuart, a gay couple who have lived together in a London flat for 50 years. They pick on one another and fight constantly, like an old married couple, but do love one another.

PBS president Paula Kerger said PBS has been looking to try different scripted programming on Sunday night, and this title was of particular interest, in part because its stars are familiar to the PBS audience having appeared in past "Masterpiece" productions.

"Being able to mix something up and try different things over the course of the last couple of years, we've tried to look at different content to bring into the schedule," she said. "A lot of our stations love to use British comedies and have found it to be very successful."

"Vicious," which has already been renewed for a second season in England, will air the same night as Mr. Jacobi's other PBS series, the light drama "Last Tango in Halifax," which returns for a second season at 8 p.m. June 29.

The character in "Last Tango" "is the sort of role I'm very rarely asked to do," Mr. Jacobi said. "I'm considered a bit posh, classic, costumed, and in 'Last Tango' I'm an ordinary Yorkshire bloke. It's wonderful somebody had the vision to cast me, because my roots are very, very ordinary. And to contrast that with Stuart, who is queeny and camp, it's wonderful for an actor to be able to do those two things almost simultaneously."

ABC's own 'Fifty Shades'

ABC had clips but no screeners of a complete first episode from its midseason drama "The Black Box" (10 p.m. April 24), which sounds a little like "Fifty Shades of Grey" made for TV with a bipolar protagonist, Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly).

The show has medical stories, but also a relationship builds between Black and Will (David Ajala), a chef. But she's torn between him and a womanizing neurosurgeon colleague (Ditch Davey).

In lieu of a pilot to watch, ABC gave TV critics the script from the show's first episode, which includes a sex scene with biting, slapping and the female protagonist begging, "Hurt me, yes hurt me." Also purring: "Meow."

The premiere ends with the male protagonist expressing how much he enjoyed the rough sex: "Maybe I'm not as 'normal' as you think. What you did to me, that night? I liked it and I want to do it again."

In a press conference for "The Black Box" there was more talk about the character's bipolar condition, which brings to mind Carrie on "Homeland" (Black appears to be hiding her bipolar diagnosis from her colleagues). The show also suggests "House" with its unconventional doctor character who solves neurological medical cases.

"What you may not understand about it is bipolar is one of the most treatable forms of mental illness," said executive producer Amy Holden Jones. "There are people who, when medicated, you would not know they are bipolar."

Ms. Jones, whose father was bipolar, said "The Black Box" is not a show about bipolar illness; it's part of the character but not the focus.

As for the rough sex in the pilot, executive producer Ilene Chaiken ("The L Word") said it's not something the show will avoid.

"We acknowledge hyper-sexuality is part of mania and we portray it as a part of mania in Catherine's life, and it's one facet of what she deals with and sometimes something that becomes destructive in her life," she said. "We don't shy away from it, but we're also not seeking it out. It's just one part of the story we tell."

NBC development

On Sunday NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt announced a three-year producing deal with "Parks" star Amy Poehler, who will executive produce a comedy pilot, "Old Soul," starring Natasha Lyonne ("Orange Is the New Black") as a young woman who works as an aide to elderly people.

NBC will also make a drama pilot, "State of Affairs," starring Katherine Heigl ("Grey's Anatomy") as a CIA analyst who daily briefs the U.S. president.

NBC readies 'About a Boy'

First it was a book by Nick Hornby. Then it was a movie starring Hugh Grant. Next month "About a Boy" comes to TV as an NBC comedy executive produced by Jason Katims, executive producer of "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood."

The series has a preview during the Olympics at 11 p.m. Feb. 22 and moves to 9 p.m. Tuesdays beginning Feb. 25.

The pilot episode basically burns through the entire plot of the film: Will Freeman (David Walton, "Bent," "Perfect Couples") is single and loving it when a needy single mom, Fiona (Minnie Driver, "Good Will Hunting"), and her 11-year-old son, Marcus (Benjamin Stockham, "1600 Penn"), move in next door and disrupt his carefree life.

Mr. Katims said the "About a Boy" pilot was designed to honor the movie and book while allowing room for telling new stories going forward.

"It's a story about a family that will never in their lives admit that they're a family," Mr. Katims said. "It takes a little bit of Fiona and a little bit of Will to make the best version of Marcus, but Will and Fiona will never admit they need each other to raise this boy. I don't see this becoming romantic anytime soon between Will and Fiona."

Mr. Katims said he was drawn to the opportunity to write a half-hour show for the first time and work with a small ensemble while still evolving characters through the season. While uptight Fiona is the antagonist in the pilot, Mr. Katims said that will change.

"What I'm interested in seeing from the Fiona character is to watch her as she slowly begins to accept Will's role in Marcus' life and see a different side of her," he said. "Why I love doing television is you're telling more than one story and the relationships between your characters evolve and change over time, and I'm looking forward to seeing many sides of Fiona."

"About a Boy" exists in the same universe as "Parenthood," and the Will character from "About a Boy" recently appeared on "Parenthood." Mr. Katims said the Crosby (Dax Shepard) character from "Parenthood" will appear in an episode of "About a Boy" later in the season.

Channel surfing

When Jimmy Fallon takes over as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" on Feb. 17, his first guest will be Will Smith and his first musical guest will be U2. ... When Seth Meyers becomes host of NBC's "Late Night" on Feb. 24 his first guest will be Amy Poehler. ... PBS documentary filmmaker Ken Burns will chronicle the history of "Country Music" in a multi-episode series due to air in 2018. ... Fox's "The Following" garnered its highest-rated episode ever Sunday (more than 13 million viewers) by airing after the NFC championship game, but the episode started earlier than programming guides predicted so viewers using DVRs missed the first 12 minutes. That episode will re-air on Fox at 8 p.m. Jan. 27 before episode two debuts at 9 p.m.

A portion of this column originally appeared online in the Tuned In Journal blog. Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. Follow RobOwenTV at Twitter or Facebook. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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