Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gotham: First New Must-See TV Hit

I have a big problem with the first new TV hit of the Fall 20124 TV season.
Gotham's hour long pilot which revs up on CTV Monday night at 8 is so good it's difficult to imagine that kind of near perfection on a weekly basis.
The best TV pilot I ever saw was for a long forgotten show called Tenspeed And Brownshoe.
All the money was invested in the pilot and the series had nowhere to go but down.
This one is a prequel to Batman with the recreation of Gotham so stupendous you'll wonder what kind of a budget creator Bruno Heller had to work with.
The story line takes place 20 years before the Batman story we're all familiar with --here Bruce Wayne is a scared 12-year-old played winningly by David Mazouz.
He sees his parents killed by a vicious hood but is somehow spared.
Then onto the bloody scene come Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and  veteran Det. Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).
Logue by the way is scene stealing brilliant, reason enough to tune in weekly.
Others include treacherous Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) who has as one particular buddy, vicious Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Taylor) who 20 years on will re-emerge as "The Penguin".
But the biggest star as far as I'm concerned is the sumptuous recreation of Gotham --it's all shadows and rainswept streets and takes place somewhere in the near past.
The cars seem somewhat Seventies as do the fashions but no matter when this is a cesspool of sex and sadism.
Did I mention the time --at 8 p.m., an hour that once was called "the Family hour" is all wrong for the sheer stylized brutality of Gotham?
The bloody Wayne murders are the central plot line of the first hour which is seeped in film noir traditions.
And, yes, there is a Catwoman (Camren Bicondova) but here she's only 14, glimpsed as she scales fire stairs and looks down from towering heights.
So how do we know she'll eventually emerge as Catwoman?
Because she's already stealing milk to feed cats all over town.
Poison Ivy? Here as played by Clare Foley her name has been rearranged as Ivy Pepper.
And Edward Nygma  (Cory Michael Smith) is a young forensic scientist for Gotham's police department although eventually he'll morph into The Riddler.
Jada Pinkett-Smith's character Fish Mooney is a new character created especially for this series and supplying the requisite warped glamour.
Gotham signals a huge change in programming for Fox.
Conventional TV networks are being challenge by cable networks and Gotham would normally be running on a cable weblet.
And the production company is Warners which means profits down the road in terms of DVD boxed sets a syndication won't be flowing into Fox coffers.
There area lot of Batman fans out there but is that enough to turn Gotham into a huge enough hit to offset its pricey production costs?
I remain hopeful. This one is dramatically challenging and a real treat to watch
The Batman franchise has made billions in profits.
But here we have a Batman show without Batman and Robin at all.
But at 8 p.m. it may be too early in the evening for die hard Batman fans.
MY RATING: ****.

Saving Hope: The New Canadian TV Season Begins

There is a new Canadian TV season about to break although you'd never guess it by the waves of American series washing up at Global and City.
The term I'm using is "Pride of Place".
And it's CTV which gives pride of place to its hit returning Canadian series Saving Hope which revs up Monday Sept. 22 at 9 p.m.
CTV is "hammocking" the series right behind the best new American series Gotham and right before the season premiere of  Castle.
And the second installment runs Thursday Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. in a similarly protected spot sandwiched between producer Sondra Rhimes' returning ratings blockbuster Grey's Anatomy at 8 and her latest opus at 10 titled How To Get Away With Murder.
How's that for protected status?
CTV deserves high marks for sticking with the hospital melodrama --don't forget it ran for a few episodes its first season on NBC only to be quickly dumped because of low ratings.
In other days that would have meant quick cancellation at CTV, too.
After all Global axed  Combat Hospital after ABC ran it for a summer and then killed it off.
And the same fate befell Global's legal drama  The Client --which NBC moved to Saturdays and then declined to renew it.
CTV is running six new episodes of Saving Hope this fall and will then run another 12 hours in 2015 with date and time still to be decided.
Last year the show ended literally with a bang as comely lead Dr. Alex Reid (Erica Durance) was stabbed in the heart by a mentally ill patient and seemed about to die.
How do I know this?
Because she had the same out of body experience as experienced by her  boyfriend who kept seeing ghosts all the time after his near death car crash.
I've watched the first two new episodes but my oath as a TV critic prevents me from spilling the deep, dark secrets.
Relationships --that's the key to the show's success which was also the key to Grey's Anatomy.
Here, the personal sides of the docs is examined front and center and what a handsome bunch they are.
Every female doctor is gorgeous and every male doctor sturdy and handsome.
Whereas when I had a recent heart episode I met a bunch of doctors who were balding, obese, distracted and sometimes out of sorts.
I never met a female doctor among them certainly not one as young as beautiful as Durance --my docs were aged 55 and older with decades of experience which somehow comforted me.
And the hospital I was at was crumbling at the seams as opposed to Hope Zion where all the equipment is brand new and funding problems do not seem to exist.
In the first new episode "Heaven Can Wait" Dr. Reid battles for her life aided by her desperate lover Charlie (Michael Shanks) and his ex who also happens to be a surgeon and is played with surly scene-stealing charm by Michelle Nolden.
Let's not forget Daniel Gilles as Alex's former lover Joel. The second new episode introduces new gynecologist Sidney Katz played with wisecracking charm by Stacey Farber.
I remember times spent with producer Ilana Frank on her CTV series The Eleventh Hour which never make that all important U.S. sale.
However, her next Rookie Blue is still with us on both Global and ABC.
She's learned well the lessons of how to build an audience and hold it through many seasons.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Best New American TV Series Already Running

So there I was Monday evening watching the second installment of the best new American TV series.
And it's 9:59 and the telephone rings.
A constant reader of this column has the same question in her mind as has been bothering me all night.
And our conversation goes like this:
She "I just finished the next part of The Roosevelts and it's bloody brilliant."
Me: "I'm feeling the same way."
She: "And you know my inevitable question: Why can't Canadian TV compete with this?"
Me: "It's not that simple. the Canadian commercial networks don't want to compete. They'd rather spend $700 mil on imported American shows, run these at the same time as the U.S. webs and get huge commercial dividends."
She: "Yeah, I know that. And I'm not above catching NCIS when I'm in the mood. But I want to know why CBC or TV Ontario don't do quality long forms anymore."
Me: "Well, CBC is dissolving before our eyes. When I started as TV critic at the Hamilton Spectator in 1970s CBC gave Canadians The Tenth Decade (the Diefenbaker-Pearson years), Pierre Berton's The Last Spike, such miniseries as Laurier and Riel.
"Then there was the brilliant nature series This Land and John and Janet Foster's nature specials, and don't forget venerable Front Page Challenge which  imported everyone from Lord Mountbatten to Martha Mitchell to CBC's uptown studios. Every season CBC had a live broadcast from Stratford and later Shaw. They even commissioned their own operas and ballets.
"Even CTV had a handful of Canadian TV movies every season.
"All have disappeared as the dry rot set in on Canadian culture."
She: "Maybe we just don't have talent like Ken Burns who made The Roosevelts?"
Me: "The talent has always been there.  The wacky way Canadian content works means American shows always get pride of place in Canadian TV schedules."
She: "Why no series on the Trudeaus or on the Mulroney or Chretien years?
Me: "CBC had things planned but the money is no longer there. The private networks won't touch such things. Remember that CBC-TV flick on Don Cherry? It only made one foreign sale: to Finnish TV. The rest of the world is just not that into us."
She:"Will current CRTC hearings on Canadian content help?"
Me:"Nope. CRTC is responsible for the current malaise. Both Liberal and Tory government have slashed and burned at CBCand the CRTC remained quiet. TVOntario has marvelous BBC imports but lacks the financial where with all to make its own miniseries."
She: "So you're suggesting?"
Me: "Watch and savor PBS's The Roosevelts while you can. It is truly great TV."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Canadian TV Content Died A Long Time Ago

Who is the CRTC fooling with its latest regulatory hearings?
Canadian content has been in peril for the past two decades and the CRTC has only hastened its demise.
The CRTC is currently is currently holding Ottawa hearings to determine a number of key issues but basically it amounts to whistling past the graveyard of Canadian TV.
Consider the latest statistics.
Canadian content is supposed to be 50 per cent during prime but when have you ever seen half that amount?
And still the CRTC will make no move.
On Global TV 16 of the network's 18 hours of prime time are simulcast American imports.
Where are the quality Canadian dramas, sitcoms, even current affairs shows? Nowhere.
Some will appear later in the season I'm told but never at the 50 per cent mark.
One of the loopiesrt CRCT regulations says an hour of Canadian content shall count at 90 minutes!
Over at Rogers Media which programs Citytv stations there'll be wall to wall NHL hockey Saturday and Sunday nights which counts as Canadian content.
City felt so emboldened that it has cancelled its sole Canadian scripted sitcom --Seed --which failed to find a permanent U.S. home.
I remember in 1985 there were 11 quality domestic scripted TV series on the Canadian networks as well as a host of locally made scripted TV movies.
Somehow the CRTC was persuaded by the networks to drop its quota on scripted dramas.
The next season only two were left. The CRTC was directly responsible for this artistic catastrophe.
CRTC is now saying in the new Ottawa hearings it wants to kill off the bundles whereby the three big TV providers --Bell, Shaw and Rogers --offer their wares to Canadian customers.
It's strange but I've yet to meet many people who ever watch the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) which seems to consist of variants on Pawn stars and Storage Hunters.
Nobody these days talks to me about the american Import which has such treasures as Hoarders and used to run Dog the Bounty Hunter.
When I took a straw poll at a recent block party in my neighborhood BBC Canada got many votes and so did the various sports webs.
But nobody seemed aware there was a Documentary Channel since it is so high up the cable dial.
Attempts to control streaming on home computers is too little too late.
The teen nerd who is my neighbor has devised a gimmick that gives him a false American address --hence he has access to such services as Hulu which are restricted to most Canadian viewers.
Trtying to impose a Canadian content regulation on Netflix won't work at this stage. Besides such American imports as FX Canada and Opra Winfrey's OWN network have such low content requirements (usually 15 per cemt of content) that they merely purchase reruns to fill their requirements.
We're getting near the moment when customers will be dropping their dependence on cable TV altogether and opt for computer services only/
One "millenial" I know has done just that --no conventional Canadian TV for her only Netflix and whatever she can get on her computer.
The CRTC is moving in its usually lumbering fashion but the train has left the station.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Remember Joan Rivers

I'm trying to recall the year I was assigned by The Toronto Star to profile great stand up comedienne Joan Rivers.
Rivers was in town promoting her jewelry on the Home Shopping Network --a task she would later abandon when she became hot again on TV's Fashion Police.
And one of her best buds, Brian Linehan, was still around because we talked about his great ordeal in coping with the recent suicide of his partner.
So I'm guessing the time was somewhere in 2002, in the summer and at Toronto's Four Seasons hotel.
Linehan had given me a lot of background information on Rivers but I still was surprised how nice and open she was to me.
And there was the almost complete lack one line liner zingers --Rivers instead emerged as bright and articulate --and very well read.
She kept glancing at a pile of new books she had just bought from Yorkville's Book Cellar and predicted she'd be through reading them by the time she left Toronto after a wild weekend of appearances promoting her baubles and beads.
From time to time she'd wave at her "toyboy" who actually was a sedate gentleman with snow white hair who looked way over 80. He dozed in a recliner only occasionally listening into our conversation.
First up Rivers calmly and precisely talked about husband Edgar's suicide in 1989 and said she'd never seen his depression coming.
"That's what I told Brian who was naturally distraught. There are no symptoms unless one is earnestly searching for them."
Around this time, Rivers, then 69, was what she frankly called a "downswing in my career. When I pass all the obits will describe me as a Borscht belt stand-up."
These days younger viewers know Rivers best of all for her stint as host of Fashion Police (produced by daughter Melissa) --Rivers' one liners were not spontaneous but written for her by her talented team of writers.
Rivers would have them typed on index cards and be madly flipping the cards during each hour special.
A young kid who once wrote a humor column for the Sunday Star subsequently moved to L.A. to become a top comedy writer for Bob Hope and Joan Rivers.
"Joan was smarter and sassier than Bob and she'd take a line I'd written, tweak it and boy was it funny."
She was born on June 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, the younger daughter of Russian Jewish parents. She graduated with honors from Barnard College in 1954 and she worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center.
Her first time on stage? "I was a lesbian in the play Driftwood and I had a crush on an unknown actress named Barbra Streisand. I often wonder what happened to her."
I told her I'd recently watched her first TV appearance on You Tube --it was on the daily show Girl Talk  in 1965 --"oh yes and I told Virginia Graham I was constantly being mistaken for Woody Allen."
Johnny Carson took a shine to her and made her his permanent fill in guest host. Then Rivers did something that caused Carson to angrily hang up on her and never talk to her again.
"In 1986 Fox asked me to anchor my own talk show against Johnny. When I rang him up he was very angry thinking I had double crossed him and cut me off.  I've never been on the Tonight Show since."
The ban was only lifted recently by Jimmy Fallon.
The show was cancelled in 1987 and husband Edgar killed himself  three months later.
In 1989 she tried daytime with The Joan Rivers Show which lasted five years "but I couldn't stand it. Because it was on daytime I was given a book of all the taboo subjects I could not mention."
Joan Rivers, movie director? It happened in 1973 when Rivers directed Billy Crystal in the successful comedy Rabbitt Test.
"I was bored. So many takes. There were no other women directors around.  So I never made another."
A failed TV project was a remake of the classic play The Man Who Came To dinner with Rivers cast in the Sheridan Whiteside role but as a gabby female TV talk show host.
"We got into pre-production and then figured it no longer worked. These days they would air lift the injured star out of the small town and to an emergency hospital."
In 2000 Rivers virtually initiated the "Red Carpet" interviews first for E! and later for TV Guide.
When I met her she said she was making millions a year from her Joan Rivers Fashion Collection.
In 2009 she won Celebrity Apprentice donating all her winnings to charity.
I guess I last talked to Rivers on the phone when pal Brian Linehan died of lymphoma in 2004. She was distraught but said "It was his time."
But as Katie Courioc told her bluntly last season on TV Joan Rivers simply could not retire.
She was front and center on the reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?  The brilliant 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work showed her as a dedicated workaholic who was working as hard as when she was an unknown in the Fifties.
Rivers was always opren about her multiple facial procedures which I felt were excessive. Was she really an addict to plastic surgery, I asked her?
"Hell, yes, I'm just itching to get these drooping eye lids re-done!"
I thought of that conversation when I learned Joan Rivers had died after complications from seemingly routine throat surgery done by a New York city clinic.
I know I'll miss her and I'm glad she got back on top near the end.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tackle My Reno Jump starts New HGTV Fall Schedule

On Canadian TV the fall season starts early.
This week HGTV which is one of the success stories of Shaw Media unveils its new lineup.
At first I thought I'd never even heard of Tackle My Reno starring former CFL star Sebastian Clovis.
But it was announced in the fall lineup as Reno Rookies --the name change is for the better I think.
Clovis grew up in Scarborough, attended Neil McNeil High School and later Saint Mary's University and was a CFL star before retiring to become a reno specialist.
On Global's morning show he said that when he was 15 his parents had a contractor renovate their kitchen with the proviso he give their teenager a summer job.
And from that he learned the building trade from the ground up.
Now there are some HGTV series I like and watch and others I avoid.
Property Envy does nothing for me --I can't relate to the million dollar estates which all seem to be eyesores.
I stopped watching Property Virgins when amiable host Sandra Rinomato decamped.
Her subsequent series Buy Herself was a distinct disappointment and got cancelled after one season.
I wish Mike Holmes would expand his search somewhat and stop his fixation on mold.
Million Dollar LIstings has lot its luster for me although I'll still occasionally visit House Hunters despite its venerable age.
Which brings me to Tackle My Reno starring Clovis, 34, who has an amiable TV personality.
He's picked wisely on the first two half hours which debut Tuesday August 26 at 10 p.m. as a one hour block of programming.
For one thing he makes gentle fun with the rank amateurs who seemingly can't even hammer a nail straight.
Then he shows how a pro would do it.
The first episode looks at a husband who can never finish his basement renovation because he lacks the skills.
Clovis is pretty good at guiding him along and explaining all the processes and stirring things up with the fed-up wife --even the neighborhood children get in on this one.
And I felt the average viewer could relate to the narrative more than a million dollar listing.
The second half hour is even better as Kristine who is heavily pregnant wants a functioning kitchen before she gives birth. Husband Sam is obviously crazy about her but he just does not know how to re-jig the cramped space and provide the finishes in time.
Clovis gets Sam working and provides valuable backup as he provides a running commentary about each crucial decision he has to make along the way.
I'm not the only one who has noticed the crucial difference in HGTV's Canadian made shows and the American imports where selling real estate and closing the deal is the end all.
Canadian handyman offer life lessons in each episode and I know i'll be watching more episodes of Tackle My Reno.
'MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grasslands: A Canadian TV Event

Only a few years ago a new Canadian TV special as important as Grasslands would have enjoyed pride of place on CBC-TV.
But the public network is in free fall and the other "Canadian" networks are busy right now rerunning American programs.
That's why Grasslands debuts Saturday August 23 at 10 p.m. on Oasis HD --the second showing will come up on Citytv stations in the fall.
This is an important reflection on the state of Canadian conservation--it was shot over several years in all kinds of climactic conditions.
The photography is gorgeous but it's the important riff on how we are falling back in efforts to preserve and protect endangered species that should grab you.
"I thought I knew the area since I'd spent much of my life there," Ian Toews, the director and camera man, told me on the phone. "But I kept learning until filming stopped.
"We started shooting in the winter of 2011. I could have gone on forever, well almost. Every time I came back to the project there was another challenge."
Toews wanted to look at the disappearing prairie landscape through the eyes of people who knew it best:
"I felt the way it was going the shrinking prairie would soon become a harsh statistic --and be gone from memory."
He looks at the challenges through the experiences of a number of people passionate about keeping it going: a Blackfoot who is also an academic, a rancher, an American in Montana, even a sound recorder.
Ironically this is the last Saskatchewan documentary Toews will make --the provincial Tory government cancelled its tax subsidies for the arts and Toews and his Regina-based 291 Film Company relocated to Victoria, B.C.
"They give subsidies and help to farmers, the oil interests, the potash industry but not to the arts," he says. "That's sending quite a message."
It was because of the tax credits that CTV's hugely successful  series Corner Gas flourished and helped produce a growing tourist boom in the province.
And it's not as if Grasslands was made with a huge crew --its luxuriant photography was filmed on an Arri Alexa camera, the state of the art 4k camera --the crew was usually just two or three members including Toews who did the photography himself.
"When you're out there it's prudent to only have a few people around or the animals would notice and leave," he laughs.
"But being in a blinder for days in wintry conditions isn't a whole great experience."
The theme of the hour is the relationship of everything to everything else and how it's been this way since the Ice Age re-carved the landscape.
The grasslands need the bison munching away to keep the grasses short. The owls need the old burrows originally made by gophers. Fires can actually be beneficial since they do not touch the root systyem which can quickly reproduce after a conflagration.
Plopping down electric poles gives predators such as owls and hawks unfair advantages --they can perch on the poles and easily pick off their prey.
Winters are especially hard on the larger animals --there are shots of one deer herd as the narrator notices how thin they've become, perfect targets for the coyotes to pick off. Yet mice and voles live under the snow and ice only to re-emerge in spring.
And, yes, there is sadness as we watch the mating habits of the sage grouse and learn their numbers have so declined there are less than 100 left.
The great grasslands harbor as much carbon as huge forests --when disturbed that carbon escapes under the relentless exploitation of oil and gas companies.
A rancher takes us to an abandoned shack with two rooms -- no hydro or running water and says people do not want to live like that these days.
What will happen next? That's what Grasslands is all about.
The fact there's still a place for a uniquely Canadian true story like Grasslands makes me believe Canadian TV still has a future.
And I'm wondering if you'll be as affected by this TV event as I was?
MY RATING: ****.