Thursday, October 13, 2016

Shomi Couldn't Show Me

Hot flashes and cool conclusions from the messy desk of a veteran TV critic:
At the recent block party in my neighborhood I asked friends who if any subscribed to shomi or CraveTV.
Nobody seemed to know what I was talking about.
Well, the online Canadian TVservice Shomi fades to black in November after intense competition with Netflix.
Shomi had claimed 900,000 subscribers which I always believed was wildly exaggerated.
Netflix boasts an estimated Canadian audience of over five million paying Canadian customers.
Metflix is seem by more people than any individual Canadian YV network. And it does not have to obey any CRTC Canadian content rules.
From the start shomi which was an uneasy union of Shaw and Rogers seemed on shakey ground.
People were understandably reluctant to subscribe to a service with so many reruns and few hit series like Netflix.
Yes, Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards were welcome but there were such stinkers as Stranger Things and Narcos.
Energetic promotion for the service was nonexistent.
I could never get a preview copy of anything new out of this weblet.
In truth there was fierce resistance from subscribers from the beginning.
And that resistance will surely translate to other Canadian cable networks once the CRTC mandates the freedom of the subscriber to pick and choose what we want to watch.
I've never met anyone who watched OLN --Outdoor Life Network.
Have you?
DYI seems like leftovers from HGTV.
Mystery TV? I can't even get it.
And what about A&E which stands for Arts and Entertainment?
It was set up as a high end cultural channel but these days has stuff like Dog the Bounty Hunter.
I'm fearlessly predicting a whole lot of "Canadian" cable channels will bite the dust as soon as the CRTC orders the three cable giants to give subscribers free choice in what they want and what they'll drop.
Is it just me or is that Kiefer Sutherland voicing those Blue Jays playoffs spots?
It sure sounds like him --and he is Canadian.
Last year when the Jays were still a mediocre team the games had a huge number of public service announcements.
This year with ratings at an all time high?
There are luxury car ads at every commercial break and I'm told the asking price for a one minute spot has hit an all time high for a Canadian TV event.
So maybe the Jays could afford a Kiefer Sutherland as spot announcer?
The most exciting event on TV these days?
I say it's the American election.
With Ronald Reagan the U.S.A got its first Grade B movie actor as president.
Remember mogul Jack Warner's comment?
"No! Jimmy Stewart for president. With Ronald Reagan as best friend."
Now Donald Trump of The Apprentice is getting down and dirty.
The big problems facing this great nation are never discussed.
Instead we turn in to see Trump's temper erupt live on TV.
It's a great show but what does it mean for the future of our neighbor to the south?
With all these revivals of American shows why doesn't CBC try a revival of an olds staple?
Like Quentin Durgens, MP which the great Gordon Pinsent once starred in as a backbencher Canadian member of Parliament.
CBC ran it for four years and 41 episodes from 1965 through 1969.
I'd call the TV movie The Return Of Quentin Durgens and the plot has Quentin retired and his daughter has taken over his seat.
Pinsent's real life daughter Leah Pinsent would be perfect as Jane Durgens.
She gets into political troubles and Quentin has to come pout of retirement and solve the complicated murder mystery and restore honor to the family name.
And I won't even take credit as the TV movie originator.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bugs On The Menu: A Tasty TV Treat

I made sure I had my breakfast before clicking on the preview DVD of Bugs On The Menu.
I was afraid the subject matter might put me off food for the rest of the day --the increasing substitution of grilled insects for steak and chicken.
But I didn't have to worry. This 75-minute documentary will have you convinced the future of protein is grilled bugs as tasty treats.
You can check it all out on CBC's Documentary Channel  Tuesday October 11 at 9 p.m.
I'd give this sassy production a five cricket rating, yes I would.
Now I'm not sure I'd ever want to much on grilled crickets but in a powdered form covered with a great sauce who knows?
The Canadian film (from 291 Film Company) has already played to packed houses in Victoria and Edmonton with additional showings scheduled in Indiana and Australia.
I remember once interviewing the bug rangler on the TV series Amazon and he insisted every one of God's six legged critters came equipped with a heart and soul.
The way he patted his tarantulas was heart warming.
I'm not sure how he would react to the scenes of bugs being stir fried or boiled in olive oil.
The thesis of this amazing film is that everything old is new again.
Our cavemen ancestors feasted on insects to survive and today many people from South Africa to Cambodia devour bugs--we see them out on the hunt or in fancier cafes munching away.
Today moving away from a diet of steak and chicken to one that includes bugs seems sensible considering the fact that the world's population might hit 9 trillion within the next 25 years.
All of a sudden insect farms seem to be flourishing. The little critters need very little water compared to cattle and can be farmed in any number of situations --in South Africa we see villagers gathering them from the savannah.
And bug farming has become a big business.
One Louisiana family controlled enterprise has been at it for 60 years --originally the insects were farmed as bait  for fishermen --gradually the business turned over to today's insect farming for human consumption.
Director Ian Toews has discovered some great characters to illustrate his true story.
Like Entomo Farm's Goldin brothers Darren, Jarrod and Ryan who raise cricket protein for human consumption and business is booming.
Like the female entrepreneurs in charge of the insect chip company Six Foods (named after the six legs on a cricket).
Like the wonderfully likable insect chef David George Gordon author of Eat A Bug Cookbook as he prepares dishes for a thiousand hearty souls at New York city's Explorers Club.
And the historical anecdotes ring true --like the Salt Lake City story of the Mormon crickets who saved the first Mormon settlers from certain starvation.
We see future bug entrepreneurs being schooled at Montana State University and Harvard Business School.
And not everything is upbeat --a virus recently decimated the cricket population being farmed and could pose problems for sustainability in the future.
I have mixed feelings about eating insects I must admit. The huge farms growing up are based on the assumption  more and more people will gravitate to insect munching.
But there are signs the big food companies are poised to take over if they see the business flourishing.
Best thing about Bugs On The Menu? I say the 75-minute length lets us sink into the subject and get a real feeling for all sides of the story.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Road To Mercy: Must-See TV

I have to admit I kept postponing watching my screener of the new CBC-TV documentary Road To Mercy.
The subject is mercy killing and I'd lost a dear friend last year  (journalist Eric McGuinness) who fought two bouts of colon cancer and then was told it had spread to his pancreas.
After enduring great pain for months he arranged a termination in Switzerland because under Canadian law any sort of assisted death was illegal.
In a piece written for Canadian newspapers Eric argued persuasively that we deny to humans what we routinely do to terminally ill pets.
But when I finally watched Road To Mercy I was struck by its absolute compassion and balance.
You can check for yourself: Road To Mercy premiers on CBC-TV's FirstHand Thursday October 6 at 9 p.m.
And this was not surprising because I've regularly reviewed the fine documentaries of veteran film maker Nadine Pequeneza of Toronto's Hit Play Productions.
After much debate medically assisted death has been pronounced legal after a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court .
"It remains controversial,"Pequenza tells me on the phone. "And the challenge was to give everybody fair time within the 44 minutes of today's TV hour."
Pequeneza wisely chose to chronicle three cases and give a human face to the issue.
"I wanted to touch all the bases. And there was the actual problem of filming them and respecting the boundaries. I knew when to turn off the camera."
By far the most heart rendering case is that of John Tuckwell of Edmonton who was a vigorous physical fitness buff  until he came down with ALS in 2012 --it;s also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
We watch his grim determination merely to breathe and share the grief of his aged parents and the devotion of sister Cathy.
His ALS physician Dr. Wendy Johnston is deeply sympathetic but can't personally offer such a solution --like many physicians dedicated to saving life instead of snuffing it out.
By contrast Dr. Louis Roy of Quebec City wants to help his terminally ill patient Danielle Lacroix--the Quebec legislature permits physician assisted deaths but only for terminal patients.
In Belgium we meet a brilliant 29-year old woman Amy De Schutter --Belgium is "progressive" in this area and grants certificates for degenerative diseases.
A university graduate, Amy has battled depression and suicide attempts since her teens. Her talks with her mother are particularly sad.
And there's advocate Maureen Taylor who argues for the right to die with dignity and understands the reservations of many people with deep religious beliefs.
Pequeneza has brilliantly captured the essence of each individual with pertinent questioning and tight editing.
"I wanted to show that in Belgium the criteria has expanded.But it was the human element that interested me, how these people were coping."
An hour that I hesitated to watch instead became for me a deeply compassionate study of how society is treating those dangerously ill.
"There is a more comprehensive 80-minute version", Pequeneza says. "And it will be shown and perhaps even get a TV berth someday."
For now this version will do quite well. Here is one hour I want to watch again down the road.
And in a new TV season where Canadian shows seem on life support along comes a Canadian made documentary that is first class all the way.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

I Remember Agnes Nixon

Agnes Nixon, one of the most powerful women in American TV, has just died, aged 93.
There will bow be a moment for you to ask "Who was Agnes Nixon?"
She was so big it took me months to negotiate an exclusive interview with her when I was in Manhattan in 1974 for a week devoted to visiting the daily soaps.
Let's see I started on the set of the CBS soap Love Of Life which came on at 11:30 on CBS every morning.
I remember interviewing the Canadian actress Tudi Wiggins who had a big part and she introduced me to the unknown actor then making his TV debut --Christopher Reeve.
I visited the sets of Another World, The Guiding Light, Search For Tomorrow. 0n Another World they were testing a new actor --Julia Roberts' brother Eric.
And then came an afternoon tea with Mrs. Nixon in her fancy all white suite at the Carlyle hotel.
Nixon had written As The World Turns for years and she honed all the skills and then helped restructure Another World for NBC.
"My father got me an interview with Irna Phillips in 1951 --Irna created the first soap operas in Chicago for radio --The Brighter Day and The Guiding Light. I had sent her some samples and she simply looked up and said 'Why not come and work with me?' And a few weeks later I was the key writer on Search For Tomorrow."
Nixon told me the world of radio soaps was vastly different from the TV offspring.
"Oh, there was a huge dosage of morality back then. The star of The Brighter Day was a Protestant pastor. We wrote in broad strokes. There were bad girls and good girls. The women heroines stayed at home."
Once she moved to her own soaps --One Life To Live  and All My Children--Nixon injected huge doses of reality. I introduced black characters over the objection of the network. I dramatized AIDS at a time when it wasn't even talked about on the newscasts. I dramatized teen prostitution and the dilemma of a wife who discovered she was a lesbian."
Nixon helped Phillips launch As The World Turns on CBS in 1956,
"It was the first half hour show and later the first to go to tape. The Guiding Light was still 15 minutes and live. I'll tell you Another World's heroine one day was supposed to be taking a cake out of the oven and the buzzer wouldn't stop and she had never actually used the oven and started sobbing on camera."
On another Another World episode in 1063 while still a live show --CBS interrupted with Walter Crpkite telling audiences President Kennedy had been assassinated. The actors kept on for several more scenes unaware the show was no longer running."
In 1968 Nixon was asked by ABC to create One Life To Live and she asked her husband Robert to form a production company and syndicate it to other countries.
"Canadian networks get into a bidding war to get our shows I'm proud to report."
When her husband died in 1996 Nixon took over the writing of All My Children which she said was her therapy. In her den she showed me she had the story line she had blocked out for the next year.
"Now all I have to do is write it!"she laughed.
In 1970 Nixon created All My Children "and I hired Susan Lucci as the vixen" --the daily soap ran until 2011.
I last talked to her about 10 years ago and she was saddened by the decline of the popularity of soaps and predicted a swift decline for most of them.
"I guess women these days are too busy to suffer every afternoon," she joked.
 "There are so many networks out there these days that the huge audiences of the past have simply disappeared."

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Undercover In ISIS: Great "Canadian" TV

I just knew I had to get a preview copy of the new Canadian made TV documentary Undercover In ISIS when I spotted the filmmaker's name: Martin Himel.
I remember him way back in 1983 when I was TV critic at the Toronto Star and he was CTV's man in the Middle East.
I remember meeting him at one CTV news launch in those days when CTV was fully competitive with CBC and the big American TV networks.
And I so watched Undercover In ISIS in one sitting totally amazed at this must-see production.
You can see for yourself Sunday September 25 at 8 p.m. on Documentary Channel.
This one plays like a Hollywood spy flick but it's all true.
The effect is like watching an entire season of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier Spy at one sitting.
TV is often and truthfully accused of trivializing the big events of our world and nowhere is this better illustrated in the  ongoing TV network coverage of ISIS.
I'll wager most of us who get our news from TV are completely ignorant about what ISIS is and how it operates.
If you're feeling this in the same way I am then Undercover In ISIS comes as a huge revelation.
I'm sick of the network coverages of the latest bombing. massacres and atrocities.
And I simply want to reset my lack of knowledge.
Filmed between March 2015 through June 2016 the approach is simplicity itself.
First Himel hires two young people who are will go undercover as ISIS recruiters and entice sympathizers to share their experiences with them.
It sounds dangerous and it is and it's inconceivable that nothing could happen. I have to be very careful here in not giving away too much of the story.
We first meet the two operatives "Theo" and "Sarah" and as the true story envelopes what really surprises me is how ISIS operatives truly understand the modern means of communications and how they can quickly bond with sympathizers.
This for me truly explains how ISIS can operate over such wide fields. In the old days of cumbersome long distance telephoning and perhaps FAX ISIS would never have been able to spread its network  of supporters across many continents.
"Theo" gets a meeting with a terrorist cell in Belgium on the pretense he wants to join up as a fighter --remember this is six months before actual attacks in Belgium.
And "Sara"begins a long distance conversation with a Swedish recruiter turned ISIS supporter and her son-in-law, also Swedish via Facebook. Twitter and eventually into such encrypted audio apps as Skype and Wickr.
She is soon asked to join the Swedish boy in Syria to become his second wife and gets detailed instructions how to hide her intentions from Swedish authorities and go to Turkey ostensibly on a vacation and slip over the Turkish border and into ISIS territory.
Almost 300 Swedes havce become ISIS supporters which is surely a shocker.
And then comes the kicker as Himel locates the original ISIS recruiter who has slipped out of Syria and returned to Sweden. Using a hidden camera we get to see the small apartment where she hides out and her defiant rejection of the terrorist label.
Getting inside the heads of these ISIS activists is a fascinating but scary journey. So much of their daily lives remain mundane but the fanaticism once turned on is dangerous for those opposing them.
Himel has sticked this all together with meticulous care.
Undercover In Isis was made by Vigilance Productions and is shining example that in the documentary field Canadian TV still leads the way.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Migrant Dreams: What Canadian TV Is All About

The new Canadian TV season really kicks off Wednesday night  at 9 with the TVOntario premiere of Min Sook Lee's brilliant and deeply disturbing documentary Migrant Dreams.
It also debuts Thursday on Got that?
This is what Canadian TV is really all about at its best --the film challenges our basic conceptions about the kind of nation we live in.
And it shows the dark underbelly of racism that permits the exploitation of migrant works in such a way that robs them of their basic dignity.
I was completely ignorant of this scandal ---the only migrant workers I ever met way back in the 1960s toiled in the apple orchards of Simcoe for a month or so during the harvest and then went back to Mexico.
These days migrants work all year long in the huge greenhouses of Leamington where the labor is backbreaking, the pay minimal and the changes of getting ripped off by unscrupulous employees are abundant.
I knew as soon as I spotted the name of the director Min Sook Lee that I had to watch this one.
She's a mesmerist all right --her look at gay and lesbian Toronto police in the documentary Badge Of Pride was outstanding and she earlier documented the plight of migrant workers in the documentary El Contrato.
"At first nobody wanted to be on camera," she tells me on the phone. "Their situation is so precarious they feared retaliation by their employers. I had to gain their trust and that took time."
The system set up by the Liberal governments and vastly extended by the Harper government is at its core fundamentally corrupt --it demeans the workers and allows them to be ripped off at so many levels.
"I got these workers to talk about their plight because they were near breaking point," she says. "They had very little to lose by then. The fear of deportation was ever nearer. "
I was staggered by the statistic there are a half million workers now in Canada under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.
"The program has been expanded as so-called normal immigration has been slowed down," explains Lee.
Exploitation? Twenty-six laborers are seen living stacked up in a converted garage.
At another location the cockroaches slither all over the bleak kitchenette.
One valiant mother who is on a four-year permit talks plaintively to her children back in Indonesia --she needs money to get them into schools but is being ripped off by unscrupulous employment services.
One individual known here only as "The Recruiter" scams the system by demanding paybacks every month for services not even provided.
The workers shop in bulk stores for the soiled food no ordinary Canadian would want.
We listen in to a Leamington radio talk show where local callers demean the workers in racially offensive terms.
"Their humanity comes under question," lee says. "And that's so wrong."
Lee is such a persuasive interviewer she does get some of these frightened people to come on camera and talk about their fears for the future.
It turns out they have the same dreams as all of us --to see their kids get ahead and have that brighter future denied to them.
And a wedding of a transgender couple turns into a celebration of life that is both poignant and deeply emotional.
Migrant Dreams plays like a living nightmare. I had no idea greenhouse food production is now a billion dollar industry in Canada. Employers ruthlessly manipulate the system--seizing passports, imposing curfews, adding a housing tax even when housing is not provided.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Some workers are fighting back determined to seize their basic human rights.
"Yes, I was honored they trusted me," Lee says. "Some cases are going to court. All they really want is the chance to succeed as immigrants, that's all."
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Peter Mansbridge: Hail And Farewell

I started out as the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator in 1971 and jumped to the Toronto Star in 1980.
So I knew Peter Mansbridge before he actually became Peter Mansbridge.
I mean before he became a TV anchor he was a bright and aspiring TV reporter.
Let's see-- the first CBC TV anchor I interviewed was Earl Cameron.  He wasn't allowed to change a comma on the scripts which were written by others.
And he was forbidden by labor regulations from interviewing anyone at all. He was a news reader and that was that.
And I was in the audience of TV critics in 1977 at the CBC fall launch when Knowlton Nash stood up and said "I've lost my Mr. Clean."
Knowlton was referring to the defection that day of Lloyd Robertson to CTV to co-anchor with Harvey Kirck.
Lloyd --who I still talk to--died CBC anchors a huge favor. He was tired of being just a talking head and when he left the rules changed to make the anchor a true news reporter.
Peter Kent stepped in and later left for NBC before turning up again on Global TV.
And then Nash --then head of CBC news and current affairs--virtually chose himself as Kent's replacement.
And then --28 years ago--it was Mansbridge's turn --he was threatening to jump to the CBS Morning News until Nash graciously stepped aside.
That run of almost three decades will never be surpassed I'm willing to bet.
And I hail Mansbridge as a wily survivor of the CBC--the bureaucratic wranglings behind-the-scenes defeated many another CBC reporter.
Whj will replace Mansbridge?
Well, CBC did have two hot contenders a year ago but both Amanda Lang and Evcan Solomon jumped ship after controversies.
I'm hearing CTV's Kevin Newman is in the mix as is CBC veteran Ian Hanomansing.
Some of the departing notices were downright rude --The Globe And Mail's  TV writer  John Doyle was particularly nasty.
I had some notable run ins with Mansbridge.
I hated CBC's The Journal when it debuted and a phalanx of CBC vice-presidents visited star Managing Editror Ray Timson to have me fired.
He kept them waiting for an hour and then sent the message:"I don't talk to flacks."
But when I retired in 2008 Mansbridge attended my farewell and said some very nice things. Because at heart I always was a CBC supporter.
The biggest mistake in those years was the change of times --CBC TV News debuted in 1952 at 11 p.m. because that was the earliest film from Washington and Ottawa could be air freighted to the Toronto headquarters.
When CBC moved it to 10 p.m. it disrupted the TV viewing habits of millions and ratings suffered,
Also, at 10 p.m. all the big hourlong dramas on U.S. TV were on --it was far too competitive an hour for CBC News to survive.
For years Mansbridge had to share his hour with the likes of Pam Wallin and Hana Gartner who told me he was hardly a collegial co-host.
In recent years he's done it all with startling professionalism.
Ratings have shrunk as the number of TV channels expanded.
But I have to say I never ever heard Mansbridge flub a line or name.
Who will replace him?Ian Hanomansin
Mansbridge says he'll stick around for other chores as Nash remained for years afterward.
Mansbridge has survived a lot --he has been the face of The National for 28 years during some very trying times.
When I started covering CBC in 1970 there were 10 channels and no cable competitors.
So hail and farewell!