DAVE DAVIES, host:
Last weekend, HBO premiered the "Game of Thrones" a new fantasy series that drew enough interest and viewers to earn a second season renewal after one telecast.
This weekend, HBO continues its rollout of fresh April programming by presenting three different types of TV shows in as many days. A new comedy special, a new dramatic telemovie, and the return of a continuing HBO drama series.
TV critic David Bianculli has seen all three.
DAVID BIANCULLI: Coupled with last week's "Game of Thrones" premiere, this weekend's HBO lineup really demonstrates the wide range of programming this premium TV service is capable of providing. On Friday, there's a new special called "Talking Funny," in which four top comics spend an hour sitting around, talking comedy.
On Saturday, there's a new made-for-TV movie called "Cinema Verite," which recreates the making of the landmark 1973 PBS documentary series, "An American Family," which essentially marked the birth of reality television.
And on Sunday, there's the second-season premiere of the ambitious, evocative, very musical drama series "Treme," about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Three types of programming, and all are done very well, indeed.
"Talking Funny," the comedy special premiering Friday, is like shows done earlier for other networks by David Steinberg and Paul Provenza. It's nothing more and nothing less than comedians talking casually about their art, their senses of humor, their inspirations and their lives. One difference with "Talking Funny" is that it's done without a studio audience, so the comics are playing to no one but each other. And there's no moderator, just a conversation.
The other difference - the one that makes this special so strong - is the all-star caliber of its four guests, all of whom share the spotlight for the entire, entertaining hour. Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais. Need I say more? I didn't think so.
Saturday's telemovie, "Cinema Verite," is a very interesting animal. It's a dramatic re-creation of the filming of what is widely considered television's first reality series: a PBS experiment in which a camera crew filmed the daily lives of California's Bill and Pat Loud and their children, and turned it into a national TV series.
Tim Robbins and Diane Lane play Bill and Pat, whose marital problems eventually are revealed during filming, and Thomas Dekker plays Lance, their openly, proudly gay son, whose appearance on TV in the early '70s was groundbreaking and controversial in and of itself.
The filmmaker behind the project, Craig Gilbert, is played by James Gandolfini, distancing himself completely from his iconic HBO role as Tony Soprano.
Here in an early scene, he presents his sales pitch for the series to skeptical New York TV executives, using a giant projection of the family Christmas card portrait as a visual aid.
(Soundbite of movie, "Cinema Verite")
Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI (Actor): (as Craig Gilbert) Gentlemen, meet the Louds. You had some hardworking, Nixon-supporting dad, a smart and sultry mom. She's a little too late for women's lib, but too young to be a discarded housewife. A 16-year-old daughter, who is experiencing her first, serious boyfriend. The little one, who's in love with her horse. And two boys, who will think they're the next Rolling Stones. And the other (unintelligible) moved to Manhattan to make it. I have yet to meet him. Why no applause, here, gentlemen?
Unidentified Man: For what? Five hours of pass the salt? I don't get the point.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (as Craig Gilbert) The point is we've gone to the moon and beyond, but we have yet to get past the American front door. And when we get past that door, what do you think we're going to find? The smiling faces on the Christmas cards? The cute little jokes with the laugh tracks? No. Now, no one has ever done this before. So if anyone should be asking what the point is, it should be me, of having to beg to finance what could be the most groundbreaking 10 hours of TV ever put on the air.
BRANCULLI: As dramatized by writer David Seltzer and directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, even this early experiment in reality TV had all the hallmarks and drawbacks of the genre. Its subjects jockeyed for screen time and acted out for the camera. Its producer manipulated results not only by clever editing, but by setting up confrontations while filming. Lane and Robbins, as the often-feuding couple, succeed in making you care for their characters, even as they're shown making one poor decision after another.
But the most powerful moments in "Cinema Verite" come near the end, when play-acting gives way to the real thing. And the telemovie includes vintage clips of the real Loud family, being interviewed on "The Dick Cavett Show" and elsewhere, talking about their time in the TV spotlight.
Oh, and don't change channels early. The updates at the very end, filling us in on what happened to the drama's various real-life characters, are well worth the wait.
Finally, there's Sunday's "Treme," the second-season return of the show about post-Katrina New Orleans. It's by David Simon and Eric Overmyer from "The Wire," so it's not a simple snapshot. In fact, in this new season, which begins 14 months after Katrina, the focus is broader. Janette, the talented cook played by Kim Dickens from "Deadwood," is now working for a dictatorial chef in New York, and she's not the only central character who has fled to another city.
But some have stayed, determined to rebuild the city and their own lives. Horn player Antoine Batiste, played with such seeming ease by Wendell Pierce, continues to slide from gig to gig, but has dreams of starting his own band. So does DJ Davis McAlary, played by Steve Zahn.
And perhaps the most emotional story line as this second season begins is that of Toni Bernette, played by Melissa Leo, who won an Oscar between seasons for her supporting role in "The Fighter."
In last season's finale, her professor husband, played by John Goodman, committed suicide, but their daughter Sophia still thinks his death by drowning was an accident. The mother knows better, but has other problems to confront, like the concerns of people she represents as a lawyer, trying to make sense of all the red tape, missing records and overworked police force.
David Morse, as police lieutenant Terry Colson, represents all three, as in this scene, when he meets Melissa Leo's Toni for a quick meal at a local diner. At first, it's all business. But before long, it's all personal.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Treme")
Ms. MELISSA LEO: (as Toni Bernette) When are you going to stop harassing me on (unintelligible) on Jackson Square?
Mr. DAVID MORSE: (as Terry Colson) Oh, are we going to fight about that, too? How's Sophia?
Ms. LEO: (as Toni Bernette) Depressed, angry, anxious. Aren't we all?
Mr. MORSE: (as Terry Colson) Everybody is out of their minds.
MS. LEO: (as Toni Bernette) How are yours?
Mr. MORSE: (as Terry Colson) Fine. I guess. (unintelligible) as you get them on the phone, it's always monosyllables and, you know, multitasking. I can always tell. Yeah, oh. Sure, dad. What?
Ms. LEO: (as Toni Bernette) Sounds familiar.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MORSE: (as Terry Colson) It's been six months.
Ms. LEO: (as Toni Bernette) Seven.
Mr. MORSE: (as Terry Colson) Things getting any better?
Ms. LEO: (as Toni Bernette) (unintelligible)
Mr. MORSE: (as Terry Colson) Talk about it.
Ms. LEO: (as Toni Bernette) It was an accident. She knows.
BRANCULLI: I love that scene, in part because it pairs two of my favorite actors from two of my favorite series: Leo from "Homicide: Life on the Street" and Morse from "St. Elsewhere." But it's also because, as with everyone else in "Treme," I believe these characters. I root for them. I worry about them. And boy, do I love the music they play.
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