Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wendy Crewson Shines In Saving Hope


 While waiting for Wendy Crewson to phone in I tried to think of all the times I'd ever interviewed her.
I'd seen her from afar on the set of Mazes And Monsters, a 1982 Toronto made TV movie where I was interviewing the lovely Anne Francis about her autobiography.
Others in that cast included Vera Miles, Chris Makepeace, Chris Wiggins and, oh, yeah, the star Tom Hanks as a twentysomething prankster.
But our gabfests certainly started when we met on the set of Night Heat in 1985 --Crewson was co-starring as prosecutor Dorothy Fredericks and she'd decided to ditch the hit Toronto made series to try her luck in L.A.
But her U.S. series Hard Copy tanked after only six episodes.
I certainly remember interviewing her for the hit CBC-TV movie Getting Married In Buffalo Jump (1990) opposite Paul Gross.
Later still I covered her remarkable work as Canada's queen of TV movies in The Sue Rodriguez Story (1998)  and Hunt For Justice (2005)-- she was perfectly cast as Madame Justice Louise Arbour.
"We last talked on the set of ReGenesis," figures Crewson--that series ran 2007-2008 and sold well in American markets.
All of which is a long winded but necessary explanation that when it comes to covering Wendy Crewson's long TV career I'm your TV critic.
Now Crewson is on the line to strum up support for the last fall episode of the fall-winter season of Saving Hope, CTV's popular medical drama that goes on hiatus until the spring.
The last episode revs up WEdnesday December 17 at 10 p.m. Got that.
"Getting the right role as one gets older is tough on an actress," she says, sounding plaintive. "But this show is female friendly. It  deliberately has strong women characters right up there with the men."
Comparisons with the long running Grey's Anatomy are inevitable.
Erica Durance stars as plucky surgeon Dr. Alex Reid and she's had an on-again, off-again romance with Dr. Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) --yeah he's the one who keeps seeing ''ghosts''.
About the "ghosts" Crewson acknowledges it gets to some viewers while other love it.
"It's the peg to make the series different from other medical shows."
Then there's the matinee idol Dr. Joel Goran (Daniel Gilles) --and all sorts of romantic entanglements may ensue whenever he's taking off his short.
Crewson describes her character Dr. Dana Kinney as "a veteran, far, she's seen everything" and  she figures heavily in the cliffhanger --there's a real concern Dana's daughter now working at the hospital may be stealing drugs.
Also in the last episode is an amazing turn by actor Currie Graham as a world famous surgeon who may be something of a charlatan.
And Dr. Goran gets involved in a horrendous case that rings down the curtain --now this is a real cliffhanger.
To CTV's credit the network kept Saving Hope going even after it was quickly cancelled by NBC.
Ratings have perked up considerable and the production details are comparable with any competing American drama series.
"People ask me what hospital we shoot at." Crewson laughs. "It's simply the biggest TV set I've seen --the atrium is huge and the corridors go everywhere so we can shoot those long tracking scenes."
Crewson hedges when asked if she'd ever consider another U.S. series try.
"It would have to be special. Right now I love doing this one and the way they've written my character."
Crewson says she's past being surprised by the way Canadian TV has evolved.
She once starred in a hugely popular series of TV murder mystery movies featuring the character of Joanne Kilbourne.
No expense was spared in grabbing such big co-star names as Sally Kellerman, Simon Callow and Robert Hays.
"It should have been turned into a series but back then we were fixated on getting into the American market with TV movies."
But if Canadians aren't supposed to be all that interested in Canadian series why is Saving Hope such a fan based hit?
Says Crewson: "Telling a strong, compelling story is what it's all about with characters you'll want to watch week after week."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bryan Baeumler Has Yet Another TV Renovation Show

A recent but long sickness left me spending my afternoons catching up on all those TV fix-it shows that dominate the cable web schedules.
I can instantly spot the American versions because the atmosphere is hysterically "sell-sell".
The Canadian ones are ore relaxed and friendly and offer more how-to-do things tips.
I used to like Propery Virgins when it was Canadian based but the trek southward has brought a real frenzy to the attempts to get first time property owners to buy anything anytime.
For humor I'll watch Love It Or List It which has two versions one from T.O. and one from Vancouver.
I was having tea with a friend recently when the fabulous female contractor Hillary Farr walked by the coffee shop and he almost swooned --she's both lovely and completely knowledgeable.
Some of the Canadian TV vets seem to have a new season every season.
There's Scott McGillivray whom I've interviewed up close and personal.
People are always insisting to me he wears a wig!
Not So I can report --he just has a low brow line.
And then there's reno master Bryan Baeumler who has yet another new series House Of Bryan: In The Sticks which follows the guy and his drop dead gorgeous wife as they sell their old house and renovate a new one.
Let's see how many Baeumler series I can recall.
First there was Disaster DIY and then the inevitable Cottage Edition, Leave It To Bryan which everybody watched, the Canada's Handyman Challenge things.
And looking up his credentials I see he has his B.A. from University of Western Ontario in of all things Political Science.
Maybe that's what makes him appear to be such a laid back kind of guy --I've never seen him get angry at least when the cameras are turning.
I watched the first new episode of House Of Bryan but I couldn't really figure why the couple are moving again --the wife is pregnant but they'll soon have four children which means they need more bedrooms.
The house they fixate on seems more like a great big cottage than a suburban dwelling. And it only seems to have a bedroom or two.
But the renovation realities are endless and in a 16-episode series one must have enough projects or there will be nothing to argue about and film.
The "new" house seems like one big block of cedar --and the location is way, way out there. Bryan says he grew up on a farm and wants the same experience for his growing family.
I'm guessing he picked this one because it has good bones. The wife is properly skeptical --the last was a bungalow.
So we see them packing for the move --she says she's dad because it was supposed to be a forever home.
I always thought Bryan told us to stay away until a reno is complete.
But the entire family moves in as the construction goes on --maybe it makes for better TV.
The resulting comedy/drama made me think of that old Cary Grant flick Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
And that mixture of home tips and the personal story makes House Of Bryan pretty watchable --until the next time when they decide to move back to the city and make another series out of that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Noah's Ark: Very Close To A Holiday TV Special

I positively loathe Christmas as celebrated on TV.
Every December the networks trot out those 40-year old animated specials featuring the voices of such dear and departed stars as Jimmy Durante and Burl Ives.
The same TV movies roll every season and the same old movies.
And then along comes something as sprightly as Secrets Of Noah's Ark. It premieres on History Saturday December 13 at 9 p.m.
OK, I know it's a very long stretch to say this is a holiday special.
But it is in a strange way as it celebrates one of the enduring stories of the Bible: Noah and the flood.
Made by Canada's yap films and Britain's Blink Films, this co-production stars a 3,700 year old clay tablet a British soldier bought in Iraq during World War II duty.
He kept it literally under wraps until son Douglas Simmons  brought it one day to the British Museum as a donation in the name of his late father.
There was only one expert at the Museum who could read the inscriptions --Dr. Irving Finkel, and he emerges as the exhuberantly wonderful hero of this documentary Secrets Of Noah's Ark.
With his white flowing beard and look of amazement Finkel could pass for a biblical prophet come back to life any day of the week.
This scholar was made for TV stardom. He's all giggles when given big scale 3-D glasses.
I gulped when he told how refugees from Israel were skinned alive by their Babylonian captors.
He tells us he immediately recognized the clay tablet as telling the story of the flood but from the Babylonian perspective.
This story predates the Biblical one but is presumably the same flood only with other characters.
One part of the tablet gives the precise measurements for building the ark which would have measured 65 meters in length.
I don't think the Bible got into measurements, am I right?
And so off viewers are taken on a merry race from the British Museum to desert landscapes where we can still spot traces of ancient floods to excavated Babylonian sites and even to India.
There's a fascinating group of experts who weigh in on the mystery with Finkel as our irrepressible guide tho thinks this cuneiform must have been composed hundreds of years before Noah's adventure was written down.
And Finkel figures when the Jews were transported to Babylon for their anguished captivity a lot of the sophisticated Babylonian culture must have been absorbed by them into their own traditions and writings.
Then we're off to India where the building of such boats still exists --the tradition has died out in Iraq.
Surprise One: discovering the boat was round and not exactly an ark in any shape.
I mean it could float but not go any where in particular.
That detail goes unresolved as does the either-or question: was Noah's Ark real or mythic?
Floating around in a round boat made of bullrushes can't have been humanity's way of escaping that flood, right?
Secrets Of Noah's Ark is fun right up to the unresolved ending (Nic Young wrote and produced it with yap films' Elliot Halpern as co-executive producer).
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Message To CBC: Don't Let Republic Of Doyle Die!

My open letter to CBC re the impending demise of Republic Of Doyle is short and sweet.
It's just three words: "Don't do it!"
Other CBC administrators over the decades have merrily cancelled such CBC hits as Tommy Hunter, The Beachcombers, Front Page Challenge and King Of Kensington promising long suffering viewers that newer and better shows would result.
But it never happens that way.
When Juliette was drawing three million viewers a week CBC bureaucrats fearful of the star system pink slipped her for a couple of folk singers.
And CBC never again had a hit in the time slot immediately following Saturday Night hockey.
When Gordon Pinsent said he was weary of making the hit drama series A Gift To Last CBC meekly acquiesced to its disappearance.
All Pinsent needed was a bit of back slapping for mounting such a tremendous show ad he would have returned for a few more episodes I'm sure..
And when Al Waxman complained he didn't even have a window in his airless cubbyhole of a dressing room CBC let King Of Kensington slip forever into reruns.
An American company would have wheeled a trailer into the parking lot for Waxman but CBC was adamant about promoting stars.
Latest hit to get the corporate cold shoulder is Republic Of Doyle which wraps up its final and abbreviated season Wednesday night at 8 with two hour episodes which are as good as any I've ever seen on this show.
The twin titles say it all: Judgement Day and Last Call as Doyle is on the lam fighting off a murder charge and he's all over the place and generously giving up a lot of  time to his splendid band of co-stars all of whom are now out of work.
I talked about this act of leaving a wildly popular series.
I know Hawco wants to go on to other things --he told me so at the last CBC launch.
But honestly the new CBC band of programmers should have signed him up for a few TV movies.
It's not as if anybody can sit down and craft a hit TV series --look at the experience of Cracked last year which had talent galore behind and in front of the cameras.
I'm thinking something as good as Doyle can not be easily re-created and certainly not by Hawco or at least for a while.
His Doyle characterization is going to be with him for the next few years as reruns pound CBC at all sorts of hours.
So I felt a bit sad watching all the regulars strut their stuff for the last time (until the inevitable TV reunion TVmovie): Leslie (Kryustin Pellerin), Des (Mark O'Brien), Tinny (Marthe Bernard) And all the rest.
And CBC once again needs a few good series from Atlantic Canada besides This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Black Harbour didn't make it. Hatching, Matching And Dispatching came up short.
You see where I'm going don't you --CBC really should not have let Republic Of Doyle end so abruptly.
MY RATING: ***1/2.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Welcome To TV's Cancellation Valley

December is the saddest month of the year for  U.S. TV network series.
Its the time when the pink slips are issued.
Instead of the bright fanfare of the new fall TV season the cancellations are done with as little publicity as possible.
For example I had no idea Franklin And Bash had just been cancelled until a U.S.publicist  blurted it out at the end of a phone call about something else entirely.
I sort of expected that one because of continuing disappointing ratings.
But what about the new John Stamos series Members Only?
ABC has dumped that one even before its official premiere.
ABC sources say the network has also cancelled Manhattan Love Story.
Revenge, a show I like, is right on the cusp --only a surge in the audience can keep it going after this season.
Over at CBS the monster hit Big Bang Theory has been renewed for two more seasons, it's that hot.
I'm surprised CBS is hedging on Elementary which has slipped a bit in the ratings.
But the Millers has officially been dumped as has Reckless.
The seventh and positively final season of The Mentalist premiered on Nov.   30 with the series finale set for Feb. 18.
 At FOX Gag Related is officially gone along with Kitchen Nightmares and Utopia.
But I think we all knew that.
The fate of Gotham interests me with network sources saying a pick up is coming but with some story tinkering.
NBC sources say Bad Judge and A To Z are officially over.
The final 13-episodes of Parenthood are being filmed right now.
The final 13 episodes of Park And Recreation premiere in January.
But it's to soon to tell for About A Boy and  Marry Me.
But I do know filming on Constantine shut down after 123 episodes and probably won't resume.
Conclusion: it's been an awful season for the main line networks so far.
This is all I know. Most of the cancelled shows won't be missed at all.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Generation War: German TV Confronts World War II

When TV first popped up some sixty years ago it was hailed as a sort of  widow on the world.
In recent years it's been a window on dismal and mediocre American series.
The rest of the world gets decidedly ignored.
Even so it's a shock to remember the last great German TV miniseries I watched was Heimat way back in 1984.
In fact even BBC which used to promote such fare hasn't had a foreign language show on since 2001.
So welcome to Generation War which recently won an International Emmy in the miniseries category --the three parter debuts Wednesday December 3 at 10 p.m. on Super Channel.
First hurdle for most Canadian viewers will be the subtitles which I submit are far preferable to ghastly dubbing.
Generation War is a sprawling account of five friends in Berlin starting out in 1941.
It is beautifully acted and gripping in its depiction of war on the eastern front, photographed in mostly  sepia and filled with challenging moments.
The three parter tends to romanticize some events while trying to portray these five as often misguided but certainly not hated Nazis.
The anti-hero Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch)  has a close Jewish friend back in Berlin whom the gang truly love.
But left alone on the cold and cruel Russian front and his sense of being a better man quickly crumbles.
One devastating scene shows German officers forcing Russian partisans to run across a marsh which they know has been mined --we see and hear the explosions in the distance and witness the look of horror on Wilhelm's face.
Then there is, the pert volunteer nurse Charlotte (Miriam Stein) , who makes friends with a Ukrainian prisoner of war who she suspects of being Jewish.
The Gestapo are informed and drag the pathetic prisoner off to certain torture and death.
Also depicted is Greta (Katherina Schuttler), a talented pop singer who wants to be the next Dietrich but she is in love with Jewish Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) and she might be betrayed at any time and lose her position in society.
I think I understand what is going on here --the reality of all-out war forced most Germans to do things they would rather have avoided. This may be true but its a sort of historical plea bargain.
The Wehrmacht are shown time and time again as the ones committing atrocities.
A little Jewish girl who Wilhelm wants to save is cruelly shot in the back of the head by an army officer who dares Wilhelm to do something (and he does nothing).
I understand one point of the miniseries' popularity in Germany was to portray average people as victims just like the peoples who were being prosecuted.
But I think this is the wrong way to go and some scenes do not ring as true.
When brother Friedrich Winter  (Tom Schilling) refuses to put out his cigaret while on guard duty in a trench that flame is spotted by Russian bombers who dive bomb the encampment.
The survivors treat Friedrich cruelly but surely in such a system he would have been shot on the spot?
In fact what emerges is a German take on The Winds Of War --a lot of individuals getting caught up in an historical storm over which they have no control.
Technical aspects are very well handled and the young actors are sensitive and well cast.
Obviously the lavish production was made for a younger German generation for whom the war is a fading memories of parents and grandparents.
The five main characters get swept along even though they know by 1943 that the war is lost.
But this war and the holocaust can never really be over for Germany. Never.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, November 28, 2014

TVO's The Polar Sea Breaks All Boundaries


Way  back in 1970 when I started out as the kid TV Critic for The Hamilton Spectator things were so much easier.
For one things even a paper as small as The Spec boasted its own TV coverage. Today most papers have long since dumped all TV columnists and rely on wire copy.
And then there was the TV medium itself --only 10 channels, no  competing cable weblets at all..But do you know what? TV programs were so much better because of the scarcity of competition.
I was thinking of all this as I hunkered down to watch the 10-hour 10-part new series from TVOntario called The Polar Sea.
It reminded me of the old days when CBC-TV would mount a show called Quarterly Report with Knowlton Nash and Barbara Frum four times a year and cancel all regular programming to get it on during an entire night of prime time.
The Polar Sea is like that.
It challenges one to drop our addiction to bite size bits of TV nothing and  proudly shows the medium is more than mindless reality shows and 24/7 hysterical TV news coverage.
The Polar Sea initially shocked me because it is deliberately slow moving and purposeful.
It follows a bunch of amateur sailors as they attempt to make a treacherous voyage through the Northwest Passage.
That's the first image retained --the utter peace of the sea followed by violent storms that seems to come from nowhere.
And of course the irony is there from the start --this voyage of discovery could only be made because of global warming..
The brilliant 10-hour documentary was made by Primitive Entertainment with TVO  (Kevin McMahon wrote, directed and produced it) and follows Swedish amateur sailor Richard Tegner and his crew as they set off in what is basically a rather small sailboat from Iceland.
That's the second shock : the island is warming up and vegetation sprouting up all over and temperatures are rising much to the delight of some local inhabitants.
But is that good or bad for the rest of us?
On board it isn't all harmony and friendship --being in such close, cramped quarters sets off often surly rages as the crew quarrel about picayune matters.
But theirs becomes a voyage of discovery from Iceland to Greenland to Baffin Island.
They meet the different cultures affected by these sea changes, they show us up close the great whales, the huge blocks of ice which are crashing into the sea at a ferocious intensity.
We meet the inhabitants of Pond Inlet  who against all odds are calling this terrain home.
There's the hip-hop talking Inuit youth who is fresh and funny.
There's the explanation of how everything from water to fuel has to be trucked in.
Food costs  in the stores is astronomical. The Inuit must still hunt for survival but with global warming they encounter strange new patterns of animal migration.
By personalizing the problem The Polar Sea manages to make us understand the enormity of the situation.
We get to meet Terje Isungset who makes music with glacial ice he sculpts, National Geographer Ulla Lohman, Inuit story teller Michael Kususak and throat singer Tanya Tagaq.
For the first time gigantic tourist ships can make it to Pond Inlet bringing tourists and wealth.
But the inhabitants are not quite sure how much tourism is a good thing.
What emerges if an odyssey of discovery for both the sailors and the TV viewers.
Made on a mammoth scale, the Polar Sea is instead an intimate look at the changing world of the north, beautifully photographed and crisply edited.
The Polar Sea has its North American premiere on TVO as part of a special two-week event starting Monday December at 9 p.m.
There's a companion website at tvo.org/polarsea which officially launches December 1 and has articles and behind-the-scenes video.
All of which indicates to me TVO has seized the initiative from CBC in showing and celebrating where public television should be headed.
MY RATING: ****.