Tuned In: National Geographic tests waters of scripted programming with 'Killing Lincoln'


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National Geographic Channel sticks its pinky toe into the waters of scripted programming with this weekend's premiere of "Killing Lincoln" (8 p.m. Sunday), based on the book by Martin Dugard and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly.

Although the book was criticized for some inaccuracies -- a reviewer for the official National Park Service bookstore at Ford's Theatre initially recommended the book not be sold at that site due to inaccuracies that Mr. O'Reilly says have been corrected in subsequent printings -- the Nat Geo movie is a thoroughly entertaining, exciting docudrama.

"Killing Lincoln" is not a typical cable movie. Although it is scripted and largely a dramatization of the assassination of the nation's 16th president, it also has a narrator, actor Tom Hanks, who occasionally appears on camera. Mr. Hanks brings both gravitas and a personal track record of quality dramatic movies about historical events ("Apollo 13," "Saving Private Ryan," "Band of Brothers") that make him a thoroughly credible narrator.

Actor Billy Campbell ("The Killing") stars as a quiet, gentle Lincoln, a less cunning figure than the master politician played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film, "Lincoln." Jesse Johnson, son of actor Don Johnson, plays assassin John Wilkes Booth as a scenery-chewing racist who plots to assassinate three high-ranking government figures.

"This country was formed for the white man and not for the black!" Booth declares in one of many soliloquies (a disclaimer at the start of the film warns of "racial slurs in historical context"). Mr. Johnson's performance comes off as overdramatic, but perhaps that's what writer Erik Jendresen ("Band of Brothers") and director Adrian Moat (the 2011 TV documentary "Gettysburg") intend.

Regardless, viewers also may see parallels between Booth and the more rabid detractors of America's current president, particularly when Mr. Hanks notes, "The hatred toward [Lincoln] is extreme, even by today's standards."

Ultimately, politics play a small part in "Killing Lincoln," which uses lesser known details to tell an engaging story whose broad strokes are well known.

'Body of Proof' back

ABC's "Body of Proof" (10 p.m. Tuesday, WTAE) gets a makeover for its new season, including the departure of cop characters played by Sonja Sohn and John Carroll Lynch.

Medical examiner Megan Hunt (Dana Delany) now interacts with a cop (Mark Valley) she shares a past romantic relationship with.

"We started thinking about how we can bring Megan's personal life in the A case, the investigation," said series executive producer Christopher Murphy at a January press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "The way we decided to do that was to introduce a detective she had a past relationship with, and then the relationship could play in the course of the investigation."

Ms. Delany joked the addition of Mr. Valley to the cast is intended to give closure to fans of the late little-watched 2001 Fox soap "Pasadena," which both actors starred in.

"I know a lot of you feel like you didn't get to see those lost episodes of 'Pasadena,' so we brought Mark on the show so we could re-enact them," she teased.

"Body of Proof" has a new music composer, a new editor and new writers in ABC's ongoing effort to make this procedural a hit, following a similar, slow-build path that yielded success with "Castle." Not that the action scenes always makes sense.

"It's a little silly in the high heels, I have to admit," Ms. Delany said. "I've had a gun in my hands a couple of times, which medical examiners don't normally do. But I think you guys will like it; there's a lot more action. It's fun."

The season kicks off with a two-part episode producers see as a thriller. They also sought to mix up the conflict.

"We're not fighting over the same man," Ms. Delany said of the maturing relationship between Megan and her boss, Kate Murphy (Jeri Ryan). "I think we have mutual respect for each other."

Executive producer Evan Katz said the goal was to find new sources of conflict and drama.

"We had lots of conflict between Jeri and Dana's characters, and now there's less so," he said. "And that's been replaced by [the character played by] Mark Valley. It's a conscious effort to redesign who was butting heads with whom."

NBC's decline

At the end of 2012, NBC seemed to have risen from the dead, thanks largely to ratings for "The Voice" and freshman drama "Revolution." But neither has aired since Jan. 1, and NBC now finds itself in a more familiar position: bottom of the heap.

The network rolled out several new programs -- "Deception," "1600 Penn" and "Do No Harm" -- and all three have been ratings flops. After two episodes, NBC executives pulled "Do No Harm" from the schedule late last week. (Late Thursday NBC announced writer Bryan Fuller's drama "Hannibal," featuring the Hannibal Lecter character from "Silence of the Lambs," will take over the 10 p.m. Thursday time slot on April 4.) The low-rated comedy "1600 Penn" was benched but is expected to return.

The absence of "The Voice" and "Revolution," which return March 25, also has hurt NBC's Tuesday shows. Without "The Voice" as a lead-in, "Go On" and "The New Normal" have fallen to series lows. "Smash" returned last week with ratings so low that unless there's improvement, the show seems destined for cancellation.

And then there's the beleaguered "Up All Night," which NBC announced last fall would be retooled, segueing from a single-camera comedy to a multicamera sitcom filmed before a studio audience. After that news, one executive producer left the show, then its creator and last week star Christina Applegate bowed out. Deadline.com reports NBC is going ahead with the production of one multicam episode -- essentially a pilot for a reworked series -- but it's not clear who the star of the show will be.

Renewal dance begins

Broadcast networks slowly are beginning to issue early fall renewals. The CW gave new season orders for 2013-14 to "Arrow," "The Vampire Diaries" and "Supernatural."

Routine renewals and cancellations continue on cable, too. IFC renewed "Comedy Bang! Bang!" for a second season.

The BBC will end the original "Being Human" after its fifth season. The show airs in the U.S. on BBC America. The BBC also canceled "The Hour" after two seasons. E! has canceled its Whitney Cummings talk show, "Love You, Mean It."

In daytime, another talk show bites the dust: Freshman talker "The Jeff Probst Show" has been canceled.

And a schedule change doesn't bode well for ABC's "Happy Endings." Late Wednesday the network announced "Happy Endings" is booted from its Tuesday time slot, effective immediately, and will play out its remaining episodes at 8 and 8:30 p.m. Fridays starting March 29 after "Last Man Standing" and "Malibu Country" complete their seasons. ("Celebrity Wife Swap" moves into the 8 p.m. Tuesday time slot on Feb. 26 with reality competition "The Taste" moving to 9 p.m. that same night.)

'Lovestruck' debuts in April

In fall 2011, cast and producers filmed the then-titled cable movie musical "Elixir" in Pittsburgh. On Thursday ABC Family announced the film, now called "Lovestruck: The Musical," will premiere at 8 p.m. April 21.

Jane Seymour stars as a Broadway dancer-turned-choreographer who drinks an elixir that makes her 30 years younger (Chelsea Kane assumes the role at this point), allowing her to attempt to thwart the wedding of her daughter (Sara Paxton) effectively in disguise.

A digital-only soundtrack from the film will feature the cast covering pop hits, including Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" and Madonna's "Like a Virgin."

WPXI special

Channel 11's new Black History Month special, "Jackie Robinson: Crossing the Color Line" (7:30 p.m. Feb. 23), tells the major league player's story through a one-man stage show featuring Pittsburgh actor Greg Kinney as Robinson.

"Crossing the Color Line" will be rebroadcast on WPXI at noon Feb. 24 and on PCNC at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 and 26 and on ME-TV at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25.

Channel surfing

Sunday's midseason premiere of AMC's "The Walking Dead" drew 12.3 million viewers, the show's highest rating and considerably more viewers than tune in for many broadcast network TV shows these days. ... The third season of mun2's "I Love Jenni," starring Jenni Rivera, who died in a northern Mexico plane crash late last year, will debut at 9 p.m. April 14 and include footage shot before the singer's death and after, as her family copes with the loss. ... New CNN recruit Jake Tapper gets his own show, "The Lead," at 4 p.m. weekdays next month, cutting an hour off Wolf Blitzer's "The Situation Room." ... Actress Virginia Madsen ("Hell on Wheels") has been cast as Eloise McCoy, whose husband is murdered, prompting her family to seek vengeance on the Hatfields in NBC's Pittsburgh-set pilot, "Hatfields & McCoys." ... "Good Morning America" host Robin Roberts will return from medical leave Wednesday. ... Trade publication Kidscreen named "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," produced by the Oakland-based Fred Rogers Company, the best animated series of the year at the 2013 Kidscreen Awards last week. ... In April cable channel G4 will be renamed Esquire Network, after the Hearst magazine, and will expand from coverage of video games and gear to "reflect the broad range of interests, passions and aspirations that define men today," per a network release this week. ... Xfinity Streampix now carries the first two seasons of PBS's "Downton Abbey," and the current season is available via Xfinity On Demand. The show's 90-minute third season finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on WQED. ... Candice Spotti of Carnegie will appear on CBS's "The Price Is Right" (11 a.m. weekdays) Thursday. ... WQED's "WQED Cooks" series has two new programs in the works: "Cookbook Favorites VI" (10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday) includes clips from past cooking marathons, and "Firehouse Cooking" (10 a.m.-1 p.m. March 2) will feature recipes submitted by local firefighters. Firefighters can submit recipes for consideration online: www.wqed.org/tv/cooks/index_full.php.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Smash," TV shows on DVD and "Longmire." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Smash," "Scandal" and "Southland." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "The Americans," "Smash," "Scandal" and "New Girl." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

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A portion of this column first appeared in Tuned In Journal. TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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