Monday, February 21, 2011

Flipping Channels: CSI's Laurence Fishburne Takes the Other Side of the Bench in Thurgood

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2011 at 6:50 AM

Laurence Fishburne has survived a shaky start to establish himself as a regular on CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a show that became television's dominant procedural when it began in 2000. William Petersen tired of series television's grind in 2008, and Fishburne was the producers' choice as a new cast addition. Fishburne's character Ray Langston was a heralded college professor personally chosen by Petersen's Gil Grissom to join the staff. The first year chronicled his quest from staff rookie to full-fledged investigator.

Unfortunately, Fishburne's time on CSI hasn't been a complete success. He's been dogged by constant (and inaccurate) comparisons to Petersen, whom he never was supposed to replace. Fishburne also took plenty of heat last season when CSI's ratings dipped to their lowest levels since the program began in 2000.

Audience levels have improved this season, though the show's days atop the CBS lineup seem over. They're now often not even top dog on Thursday night, as The Mentalist frequently gets bigger ratings, especially among the 18-49 crowd. Yet the program still leads the CSI trilogy, and the rumors of possible cancellation have waned. Fishburne's gotten comfortable and fans are resigned to the fact Petersen (who made a cameo earlier this season) isn't returning as a regular.

But while he makes a very good living on CSI — he's reportedly the second highest paid actor on a regular network show behind CSI: Miami star David Caruso — Fishburne's real passion remains theater. Though he's also certainly made his share of successful films, Fishburne's done his finest, most memorable acting on the stage, especially in August Wilson's plays Fences and Two Trains Running (for which he won a Tony). Two years ago he returned to Broadway for the triumphant one-man show Thurgood, celebrating the life and times of America's first black Supreme Court Justice. The 90-minute play won a Drama Desk award, garnered Fishburne another Tony nomination, and was revived last year for acclaimed runs at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Thursday night Thurgood comes to HBO at 8 p.m. Written by award-winning author and playwright George Stevens Jr. and directed by his son Michael, the play was taped at the Kennedy Center. It spotlights the venerable Supreme Court justice giving a fictional lecture at Howard University. Over the course of the play, he takes the audience on a trip back to his early days growing up in Baltimore and college years in North Carolina. He was also involved in almost every pivotal civil rights case as an attorney, particularly Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the case that ended legal school segregation in America.

Thurgood isn't exactly the kind of fare the broadcast networks, or for that matter even some basic cable outlets, is interested in presenting. It's a static, exposition-heavy work with only one actor, no action or sex scenes, and a lot of period references and dialogue. But it's also the kind of vital special you'll mostly only see these days either on PBS or HBO, and it's a perfect show for Black History Month — plus an ideal program to display Laurence Fishburne's complete skills as an actor.

Reality spectacle returns
There was a time when the programming on Bravo rivaled that of Ovation in terms of variety and excellence. For many years Bravo championed the arts, and featured jazz and classical concerts as well as foreign and independent films. But that menu only earned them niche status. Like A&E, another network once known for distinguished artistic programming, Bravo's bosses decided it was time for a change in direction. Suddenly the concerts, music and dance shows were abandoned, and a horde of reality programs took their place.

Today, Bravo's top-rated show is its Real Housewives brand. The franchise's newest edition, The Real Housewives of Miami, debuts Tuesday night at 9 p.m. The cast includes Larsa Pippen, NBA hall-of-famer Scottie Pippen's spouse, and Christy Rice, ex-wife of former Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers star Glenn Rice. Others are a magazine editor, art gallery boss, PR executive and the wife of a big-name defense attorney. The producers boast that this latest program will provide a window into how Southern Florida's elite operate.

The CW's most popular reality show remains America's Next Top Model, which returns Wednesday night at 7 p.m on CW-58. The latest twists include makeovers and seeing how the competitors adjust to the demands of constant travel and on-call modeling. The network's latest attempt at finding a compatible program for Top Model is a variation on NBC's The Biggest Loser. Shedding For The Wedding (that's actually the title) pits nine overweight engaged couples in a battle to drop pounds and win a dream wedding. It's first show is Wednesday night at 8 p.m.

Oscar awards
A few weeks ago The Social Network was deemed a sure-fire winner of the Best Picture award. But then as the various trade and guild award shows began, The King's Speech got a tilt in momentum that has now established it as the favorite among the 10 Best Picture nominees at Sunday's 83rd annual Academy Awards. Things get underway at 6 p.m. with the red-carpet ceremonies, followed by the actual program at 7:30 on WKRN-2. Underground campaigns are in full force for True Grit and Winter's Bone, but neither seem to have realistic shots at the big prize.

The King's Speech led with 12 nominations, and if it starts racking up awards early in the program it could pave the way for Colin Firth (considered front-runner in the Best Actor category) and Tom Hooper (not the favorite among directors). But there's considerable sentiment for Javier Bardem (Biutiful) and James Franco (127 Hours) in the actor category and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) in the Best Actress field respectively. There's also the usual concern over whether the Oscars can give ABC the boost the Grammys recently provided CBS, something they could use in a year when they are running third behind CBS and Fox in both total audience and the 18-49 demo.

Tune in Sunday — or watch from The Belcourt's Oscar Night America gala — and see if upsets prevail or things go strictly as anticipated.

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