TCA Diary, July 15: “I came to the kicking ass naturally”

Yesterday morning I arrived in Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association summer press tour, an annual rite of passage for TV critics nationwide. Basically, we gather together at the Beverly Hilton for two to three weeks of nonstop press conferences for pretty much every TV show currently on the air. I wasn’t able to make it to the first week of press conferences, but I’m here for the next eight days to cover the networks and their affiliated cable channels, and as long as I don’t pass out from too much off-the-cuff interviewing of random TV celebs, I’ll be reporting my findings here every day. (To catch up on last week’s gay-related TCA news, check out Michael Jensen’s stellar blog posts at AfterElton.com.)

What happened on Monday? Here’s the short version: Mia Michaels, Anna Torv, Lena Headey, Summer Glau, Olivia Wilde, Eliza Dushku and Joss Whedon, oh my! For the long(er) version, read on.

Left to right: Cat Deeley, Mia Michaels, Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe

Today was the first of two days devoted to the Fox television network, and the morning kicked off with a press conference for the unscripted dance competition So You Think You Can Dance. Mia "hot damn she looks like a lesbian (too bad she ain’t)" Michaels got grilled on why she’s "being so mean" on the show these days. Here’s what she said:

I don’t think I’m being mean. I’m
just being very honest, and we’re in the fourth
season, and I think as we go, we become more — our true selves come out, and we’re comfortable.
… I’m not any different if I’m in a
rehearsal studio with my dancers, and if they’re
not pulling up, they’re going to know, and it’s
very much about tough love. …

I’m Mamma Mia, and they look to me for that tough
love actually. So when I say it, America might
go, “Oh, my God, that’s so harsh.” They’re cool
with it. They know. They know I only want them
to be brilliant.

I have always been an on-again, off-again viewer of SYTYCD, because it seems to repeatedly hammer home traditional gender norms through the judges’ commentary that typically derides male dancers who are not macho (not to mention only having opposite-sex dance partners). This is particularly the case with judge Nigel Lythgoe, who always puts down men when he senses the least bit of "effeminacy" in them, while (excessively) praising women who are feminine and submissive. AfterElton.com talked with him after the panel, and Lythgoe essentially confirmed that he’s stuck in the dark ages in terms of gender norms. Wake up, Nigel! It’s 2008! Seriously, the guy kinda gives me the creeps.

Anyway, after SYTYCD was a panel devoted to the new series from creator J. J. Abrams (Alias), which is called Fringe. It stars Australian actor Anna Torv, whom British readers may remember from her stint playing a lesbian on the BBC’s Mistresses. Torv unfortunately was in New York and therefore had to join the conference by satellite, so the stage was populated entirely with men — a theme that quickly came to define the day.

Anna Torv as Agent Olivia Dunham in Fringe

Photo credit: Michael Lavine/FOX

I caught a screening of most of the 90-minute pilot during lunch, and though it started off very promisingly with a mysterious plane full of dead people (think Lost meets The X-Files), around the 40-minute mark it started going off onto a seriously sci-fi tangent. Now, I’m a big sci-fi fan, but this just seemed odd. Like, things didn’t connect up. I’m hoping that the pilot will be retooled before it hits prime time this fall to smooth out the rough spots.

On the plus side, Torv delivered what might be the best line of the day when asked to elaborate on her ass-kicking role as Agent Dunham: "I came to the kicking ass naturally."

Then followed a series of press conferences for shows about white men, by white men, yet sometimes claiming to speak for women and people of color. I kid you not! First up was a panel from Fox News featuring both right-wing Karl Rove and left-wing Howard Wolfson. Sue me: a panel full of white middle-aged men automatically makes me doze off.

Next was Do Not Disturb, a sitcom created by gay executive producer

Abraham Higginbotham that includes a lot of bad Asian accents along with stereotypical jokes about Chinese people circa 1950. I turned off the screener when I was watching it because it was offensive. It also includes a swishy queen who is obsessed with sex, but according to AfterElton.com, Higginbotham will be developing the character further. Too bad I won’t be watching.

Other all-white, almost all-male panels (except for one woman, the wife of one of the men) included Fox’s new reality series Secret Millionaire, in which actual real-life millionaires become poverty-stricken in order to seek out worthy people and then give them free money. Uh, heartwarming or exploitative? You decide. And then there was the panel full of producers from Fox’s animated series, including The Simpsons. You guessed it: all white men, even the creator of The Cleveland Show, which is fall’s only scripted series with a lead black character (and he’s animated and voiced by a white actor).

The male producers of Fox’s animated series

Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

My favorite question of the day was directed toward this panel and began this way:

"This is a question for the women and the people of color up there …"

Thankfully, there was a moment of respite from this gloomy planet of heterosexual male privilege in the form of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, featuring Summer Glau and Lena Headey.

Left to right: Actors Summer Glau, Thomas Dekker and Lena Headey

Although the actors and producers were very cagey while they were onstage, afterward I joined a group of reporters who mobbed Summer Glau, and she leaked a few more details about the next season. "I can tell you relationships do change this season," she said. "I can’t say how, but everything is changing. … [Cameron]‘s growing quite a bit, I think people are going to be surprised."

When asked if she finds doing all the action scenes empowering, she answered, "It’s a lot of fun, I’ll say that, and what makes me confident is being on a TV series that really puts women in the driver’s seat." That to me sounds like a graduate of the Joss Whedon School of Television — you get an A+, Summer!

Summer Glau

Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Then, last night at the Fox all-stars party at Santa Monica Pier, I had the chance to sit down with Lena Headey in a photo booth, where she said some really lovely things about AfterEllen.com and all her lesbian fans, which you will hear more about this Friday in Best. Lesbian. Week. Ever.! Suffice it to say that yes, Lena deserves her spot at No. 10 on the AfterEllen.com Hot 100 — if not higher!

I also chatted with Joss Whedon, whom I interviewed about the Buffy Season 8 comic book as well as his new series Dollhouse, which will premiere in January 2009 on Fox. I have to admit I was a bit awestruck by being able to talk to The Man Himself, so here’s hoping I didn’t make a fool of myself! Tune in later this week for more details from the Fox party, where I also talked with House‘s Olivia Wilde about the mysterious Thirteen and her mysterious bisexuality.

Last by not least, I also got the chance to meet Eliza Dushku, the star of Dollhouse, and she was just about the most professional, polished and polite person I talked to all night.

Left to right: FOX Entertainment President Kevin Reilly,
actor Eliza Dushku and FOX Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori

She talked about how she bought Joss a gouda pizza to bribe him to write a show for her, which turned into Dollhouse. "Joss really gets women," she said. "There’s a woman somewhere deep inside of him!" Next week we’ll be visiting the set of Dollhouse, so look for many more details about this show on AfterEllen.com in the near future.

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