By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, July 19, 2007
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 18
The important thing to know about a CBS executive Q&A session at Summer TV Press Tour 2007, if you wish to make it meaningful and prosperous, is to ask as many Mandy Patinkin questions as possible.
Just a few days ago, Patinkin, at his request, was written out of CBS's hit pervy crime drama "Criminal Minds," citing "creative differences." The producers, in their statement, said firmly that in this case "creative differences" is not a euphemism for "wanted a lot more money."
The development left CBS scrambling to replace the star of one of its more important series. "Criminal Minds" clocked nearly 13 million viewers in its first season and more than 14 million in its second, even though for part of the TV season it aired in the teeth of Fox ratings monster "American Idol."
This was the second time Patinkin has pulled out of a CBS drama series. Back in the '90s he left "Chicago Hope" in mid-season, though he came back to the show toward the end of its run.
About four questions into Wednesday's Q&A session with Nina Tassler, president of CBS's entertainment division, an eczema of Patinkin queries erupted.
I started with, "I just wanted to ask a question with two words: Mandy Patinkin. What happened?" Which, technically, is four words.
"Oh, a Mandy question," Tassler said.
"First of all, Mandy . . . came to me and asked to be released from the show, and we were able to accommodate that request. . . . Right now it's a personal issue and I think the show is accommodating his needs."
Tassler said she was sure the show would be okay without Patinkin.
"The 'creative' on the show is very strong. . . . People come to that show for that white-knuckle ride that they're going to get every week."
In the same way "ER" and "Law & Order" have survived cast changes, "the show will go on," Tassler said, which we didn't think ever happened except in Broadway musicals.
Had Tassler not followed NBC's new co-chairman Ben Silverman, who really wowed the crowd of TV critics by doing his Q&A session in the happy-chatty manner of a slightly high undergraduate, they might have accepted her non-answer answer.
But she did, and they didn't.
"This is the second time Mandy Patinkin has done this to CBS. . . . Is this it for him as far as hiring for a series at CBS?" asked one critic.
"It's probably not the answer you want from me right now, and I do not want to sound like I'm avoiding the question," Tassler said, avoiding the question.
"It's a personal issue, and at some point, I hope in the near future, Mandy will be able to answer some of these questions," she said.
"I thought the [news] releases said 'creative differences,' and you're saying it's personal issues. Which is it?" another critic wondered.
"Well, I think 'creative differences' is a euphemism for 'personal issues,' " Tassler said, winking at the critic, which, again, we didn't think ever happened except in Broadway musicals.
"Can I ask you what the wink means?" wondered the critic -- one of those annoying persistent types.
"I think you get it," Tassler replied.
Reports that Patinkin was out of the series first surfaced earlier this month when he failed to show up to read a script with the rest of the cast. An executive producer was quoted as saying Patinkin had assured the studio and the network he was returning right up to the day before they started to shoot the first episode and he was a no-show.
Last week, Patinkin also was a no-show for a Q&A session on PBS's new project "The Jewish Americans," in which he'd participated. The executive producer told critics Patinkin was ill.
"I'm just wondering, if 'creative differences' is a euphemism for 'personal issues,' can you help us with what 'personal issues' is a euphemism for? . . . Is it workload? Is it health? Is it scripts? Is it Dave Chappelle?" asked still another critic.
"I don't want to be a pain, but I really hope and I believe in the very near future Mandy himself is going to address a lot of those questions. I really believe that," Tassler replied.
"There's nothing you can give us as a subtopic without violating confidences -- is he okay physically?" another critic asked.
"You know, I just don't think it's the forum to discuss it," Tassler said. "This is not the answer you want from me -- I know that -- but I'm just telling you that that's the answer I'm going to give you."
So many questions, always the same answer. How would Silverman have handled this? we wondered, our mind starting to wander. Why wasn't Patinkin cast on "Friday Night Lights"? Life is so unfair sometimes.
"Nina, last Mandy question . . . A 'yes' or 'no' can suffice . . . Were these personal issues?" another critic asked. "Had you any inkling of them? And were they . . . un-serious enough for you to try to talk him out of them? . . . Did you anticipate any of this?"
"When he approached us and said 'I want to be released' and we talked about it internally, we realized that this was the moment in time where we had to address it, and we did, and we're able to accommodate it," Tassler said.
It was an exhausting exchange. And yet, when it was over, the critics, strangely, wanted more. So when Hector Elizondo came onstage with the rest of the cast from CBS's new drama series "Cane" -- in which he plays the patriarch of a very wealthy Latino family in Florida -- one of them asked what his thoughts were years ago when "the rug was pulled out from under you and everyone else at 'Chicago Hope' when Mandy departed."
"I'll take the Fifth," Elizondo responded, doing his best to sound like Marlon Brando in "The Godfather."
"I'm not my brother's keeper. I wish him well."
* * *
Not since "Amish in the City," the series in which young Amish questioning their lifestyle were lured to Los Angeles, have TV critics lavished so much hate on a reality series during a press tour Q&A session as they lavished on CBS's new "Kid Nation."
For the show, which is on the network's fall schedule, Tom Forman, executive producer of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," took 40 kids ages 8 to 15 out of school for 40 days, put them up in a ghost-town-turned-movie-set in New Mexico and let them try to forge their own "nation" without adult supervision.
Most of the hate stemmed from an article in TV Week that reported that the show makers had declared the production a "summer camp" instead of a workplace and took advantage of New Mexico child labor laws, which were lenient when it came to television and theatrical productions, but which the trade magazine said were changed not long after production on the reality series wrapped.
Forman insisted they picked New Mexico only because it had "the right location."
That's where he lost the critics.
"Does it trouble you at all that, if I follow this story correctly, the way you filmed 'Kid Nation' would be illegal in a number of states in the United States?"
"Is it something I think about? Of course," Forman responded. "I think we made the decision early on that we were going to give these kids an incredible experience. . . . I don't know that this is that different, at the end of the day, from what may go on at an Eagle Scout camp somewhere in the United States."
Show host Jonathan Karsh made the mistake of making comparisons to the documentary series "Seven Up," in which a group of British children were interviewed every seven years.
"It would be fascinating to do it like the 'Seven Up' series and, every seven years, see how these kids are doing," he said.
One critic responded: "I don't know if you've seen the recent installments in that documentary series, but those people are all adults now and, almost to a man and woman, they have unbelievable regrets that they allowed themselves to be filmed when they were 7 years old or 14 years old. They really, really despise that it happened. . . . I'm wondering what your reaction is to that."
Forman and Karsh appeared to be unaware of that latest installment. Karsh tried to recover, saying that "Kid Nation" shows children's leadership skills and that he believes all the kids will look back and be very proud of what they did, though he can't speak to what they'll think 20 years from now. But Forman said he could see how years down the road one of the kids might say, "I can't believe I wore that shirt or wore my hair like that" or "Oh God, I looked dumb," but "that's about as intense as it would get in this situation."
"It's not a joke about clothes -- they're very scarred," the critic said testily.
"The 'Seven Up' series is not my production," Forman responded.