Monday, February 16, 2015

CBC's X Company: True Life Canadian Exploits






Thank goodness few Canadian rely on TV for any knowledge about their country's past.
Canadian TV dramas these days are carefully crafted to seem as American as possible when exported to the U.S.
So it's with a cheer that I herald CBC-TV's new Canadian spy series X Company which dramatically details the exploits of our spies during World War II.
The new hourlong drama which debuts Wednesday February 18 at 9 p.m., is exciting stuff. And it's all true, too.
Set on the shores of Lake Ontario between Whitby and Oshawa Canada's Camp X was a high quality spy facility that trained operatives to operate behind Nazi lines in France and other occupied territories.
Hundreds of well trained spies graduated from the camp and many were parachuted into danger zones where they might be tortured and killed if their true identities were ever known.
Starring is Dustin Milligan (90210) as American advertising executive Tom Cummings --his expertise in manipulation makes him a prime member of any operating team.
Co-starring is Evelyne Brochu (Orphan Black) as Aurora Luft --she is a Jewish French Canadian who joined the French Resistance first and only later received training at Camp X.
Youngest agent of the bunch is Harry James (played by Connor Price) who is both an explosives expert and crack radio operator.
Hugh Dillon (Flashpoint) plays Duncan Sinclair the tough leader of the camp.
Lara Jean Chorostecki plays the leader of the telecommunications center --all young women.
Shot in three months in and around Budapest, the series was created by Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern who are responsible for the must see Canadian show Orphan Black.
First of all X Company is shot in a seamless style that does not portray the Nazi as all unfeeling.
We see the psychological results of  being defeated on the faces of the French villagers.
If they do not cooperate they could lose their children --the young French girls servicing the German officers at the occupied chateau do not know what to do, they are caught in the middle.
We see this ambivalence perfectly in a French family temporarily captured by the Canadian spies --the father is willing to go to any lengths to cooperate with the Nazis even to the extent of "naming" possible neighbors who may be helping the spies.
Some ket scenes are done from the German perspective --the Nazis are aware they're without many supporters in a village that may be crawling with partisans.
Some try to make friends with the pretty  maids while others vow to shoot little children if that will get them the necessary information to survive.
The Canadian saboteurs have been dropped in to disrupt supply lines by bombing key bridges. They understand that only by working as a team do they have any chance of survival.
And yet picked for a key role is Alfred Graves (well played by Jack Laskey) because he has the uncanny skill of instantly remembering everything he has read.
X Company crackles with tension and the professionalism of a finely made series --David Frazee directed the first episode with some elan.
Here's something rarely seen on Canadian TV: homegrown drama you'll actually want to see.
X COMPANY PREMIERES ON CBC-TV WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 18 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.




Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bosch: Compelling New Cop Thriller





Bosch is a terrific new U.S. cop series whose first series can be streamed on the new service CraveTV.
The fictional star is the slightly jaded and weary Los Angeles detective Hieronymus "Harry:" Bosch who has been featured in 17 best sellers written by Michael Connelly.
I started reading the first titles ever so long ago and Harry has aged in real time to the point he can be played effortlessly by that fine actor Titus Welliver --it's just that I keep thinking of Harry as much younger because I have a lot of recent titles still to read.
Creator Michael Connelly and executive producer Eric Overmyer have taken this first season from three specific Bosch titles: The Concrete Blonde, City Of Bones and Echo Park.
Others prominent in the cast include Jamie Hector  (The Wire) as Harry's partner Jerry, Lance Reddick as LAPD detective Irvin Irving, Amy Aquino (from E.R.) as Harry's commanding officer Lieutenant Grace Billets and Annie Wershing as beat cop Julia Brasher, the mature woman a divorced Harry suddenly finds himself interested in.
The series really works for me because it is shot out on the streets of Los Angeles in areas almost never covered in TV dramas.
I enjoyed seeing parts of L.A. I've never visited --that's one of the constant pleasures of the series.
A lot of the first episode is set up in the Hollywood hills where the dog of a retired medic (wonderfully played by Scott Wilson) brings back a human bone --it turns out to be the leg bone of a young boy who was beaten mercilessly for years before his ultimate death.
The opener is a terrific race through the city's meaner streets at night as Harry races to catch the suspected murderer of prostitutes --the geography of darkened streets and alleys has never been as frightening.
We get to see what motivates Harry to the point he may have deliberately killed the suspect who may or may not have killed any of the dead women.
In the books Harry has aged up to 62 --here for dramatic purposes he's a little younger maybe 45 or so with a teenaged daughter in high school --in the books he served in 'Nam, here he is a disillusioned veteran of the Gulf conflict.
Of course TV has run the gamut of aging, brooding tough cops. But Bosch works because this guy refuses to bend to authority even if it means early retirement.
His discovery of skeletal remains deep in the urban forest brings out memories of his own unhappy childhood and the fact his own mother was a prostitute.
There are some cliches inherent in every cop show: the superior officer has to be shown up as smirking and devious.
The clues have to be spelled out several times so we know what's what.
But the producers have enlisted some capable performers to populate the scenes including Mimi Rogers as an avenging D.A. and an almost unrecognizable Jason Gedrick as a suspected multiple killer.
The second episode's procedural details seemed a little implausible but the tension was right there and the ploy fairly whizzed along.
And watching all 10 hours of Bosch at one sitting isn't so unusual these days at all.
BOSCH RUNS ON CRAVETV STARTING ON FEBRUARY 14.
MY RATING: ***1/2.



Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hard Rock Medical: Welcome Back





A British friend of long standing was recently visiting me so I asked her after a week what Canadian TV drama series she particularly liked.
It was, of course, a trick question and she wandered right into my trap.
"I didn't see any," she said quickly confused by my line of attack.
But she had.
Sh had watched and liked Saving Hope, Rookie Blue and Motive, hadn't she?
"Or are those shows Canadian?" she blithely shot back.
Well, they are and they aren't.
These series are shot in such a cunningly deceptive way as to be quickly exportable to U.S. TV networks.
But try and fin examples of Canadian Canadian TV dramas and the hunt is far more difficult.
That's where TVOntario's super hospital series Hard Rock Medical comes in --the second season revs up Sunday February 15 at 8 p.m. with the first two new back to back half hours.
Everything about this show shouts "Canada" from the fetching cast of Canadian actors to the location of Sudbury to the drama of medical students studying to practice medicine in our Far North.
Now, I've been covering TVOntario since before it was ever conceived.
I started out as a TV critic at the Hamilton Spectator in 1970 and sat in on many of the early planning sessions as TVOntario was formed in 1972-73.
From the start there was embarrassment that TVO could simply not afford high priced original Canadian drama and this mantra continued to be repeated by ever programming chief I ever interviewed.
But it was palpably false all along.
Look at the audiences drawn to the low rent antics of the various Degrassi series and the more recent teen fave Step Up.
When the first season of HRM premiered on TVO in June 2013 I could sense a great barrier had been broken down.
The medical show follows the lives of eight prospective medicine students who decide to study in Subury with the understanding they will continue practicing medicine in the Canadian north.
I interviewed the savvy creator veteran producer-director Derek Diorio --I had first interviewed him when he played the character Haggis Lamborgini in the TV series The Raccoons.
Later on Dorio was making a series for TVO's French arm TFO which has even less production funds called Meteo+. He then made a second TFO hit: Les Bleus De Ramville (20123) and perfected a technique of making Canadian drama at lffordable costs.
I've just previewed the first two new episodes and can report the second season is even better than the first --scenes are smoother, better edited and the crisp photography is up to the standards of any prime time drama.
Among the actors there isn't a weak link. Patrick McKenna (Red Green) continues to shine as the alcoholic Dr. Healy.
 Nancy (Angela Asher) has moved in with him, adopted some of his bad habits and must now confront the reality her soon-to-be ex-husband has sustained a massive stroke and is now in a vegetative state.
Charlie (Stephane Paquette) is told his wife is expecting for the third time meaning he'll have to sell his beloved Harley Davison to payt the bills.
Instead of gloss HRM peddles grit and realism. It's so toptally different from any other Canadian TV drama --that's why it is so welcome.
Other fine actors include Mark Coles Smith, Christian Laurin, Kyra Harper,  Jamie Spilchuk , Rachelle Casseus and Danielle Bourgon.
Hard Rock Medical is hopefully pointing the way to a new kind of Canadian TV drama.
HARD ROCK MEDICAL'S SEASON 2 PREMIERES ON TVO SUNDAY FEBRUARY 15 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1./2.


'



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Great Human Odyssey: TV To Shout About






The latest Nature Of Things mini-series The Great Human Odyssey is about as good as TV gets.
It's the kind of broad spectrum show that TV networks once used as prestige items before ratings erosion began eating away at the very existence.
So watch this one as an example of how demanding as well as entertaining TV can be when all caution is thrown to the winds.
Because this three-episode "mini" was photographed all over the place from the Kalahari desert to Papua, New Guinea to the frozen Siberian wilds.
Never once in previewing of the first two hours did I ever want to turn away for even a second.
In fact I'd like to watch a second time if only I had such a permissible schedule.
I'm thinking of TV events of the past like Civilisation when I say this one has sweep, scope and some of the best photography you'll ever watch.
The amiable host is pop anthropologist Niobe Thompson who has the ability to take great themes and make them understandable with spectacular images to accompany each thought.
The theme is simply this: where did homo sapiens come from and how on the verge of extinction did our ancestors  evolve and persevere to populate the world.
Whew! What an undertaking. But I watched in awe as Thompson again and again met his goals
 and did so with such charming enthusiasm.
Thompson says these modern humans adapted to totally different environments and were able to reproduce fairly rapidly as opposed to their arch enemies the Neanderthals who got swept away in Europe by the Ice Age.
In the first hour Rise Of The Species Thompson has to explain why the species survived a particularly horrid set of climactic changes and were able to vault out of the Kalahari desert and into new regions .In others words why are we the last apes standing?
So he hangs out with Kalahari bushmen to see how they can survive in a region where iy does not rain at all for nine months of the year.
On the very edge of Africa he finds clues why our brains were growing --it might have been all that seafood consumed.
And what about the evocative rock paintings some 90,000 years old --already we were communicating with each other or so it seems.
Highlight of the episode is a visit to the remote Badjao tribe of the southern Philippines --how they live off the ocean floor makes for some of the greatest underwater photography I've ever seen.
In next week's episode The Adaptable Ape there's a simple explanation for how early humans got past the Sahara to colonize Europe.
Thompson travels deep into Papua New Guinea's Upper Sepik tio find a tribe virtually immune to malaria --perhaps our ancestors mated with Neanderthals and survived similar European plagues.
Look ---this is a very ambitious series, a scientifically impeccable study of how primitive cultures of today can offer clues about the survival of the human race.
It is also brilliantly shot by Daron Donahue, aAron Munson and tightly edited (Clearwater Documentary Inc. made it).
Yes, there are talking heads here but they are not allowed to meander, what they're saying is frequently exciting.
Omnce TV events like The Great Human Odyssey used to be commonplace on CBC and PBS but these days are endangered species themselves. Costs are prohibitive and there are so many competing channels offering cheap, stupid programming.
Here's an example of how great TV can be when it rises to the occasion.
PART ONE OF THE GREAT HUMAN ODYSSEY PREMIERES ON CBC-TV THURSDAY FEBRUARY 12 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.




Thursday, February 5, 2015

Manhattan: Must See TV






Just a month after its launch and CraveTV --the new premium subscription service --presents a mini-series that is virtually a must see.
Manhattan directed by brilliant nine-times Emmy Award winner director Thomas Schlamme is a meticulous recreation of the top secret Los Alamos project that gave the United States and the world the first Atomic bomb.
The story begins as the tease tells us "766 days before Hiroshima:" as a young married couple with a fidgety child drive at break neck speed through the parched and dusty Utah desert,
The husband is one of the young scientists enlisted by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer but everything he does is so top secret even his wife must be kept in complete ignorance.
Early shots of the vastness of the desert give way to a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere as cars and trucks are lined up at a military checkpoint --nobody gets in or out without major scrutiny.
The latest recruit Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) does not know at the beginning what he is expected to produce --he must even lie to his impressionable young wife (Rachel Brosnahan).
Charlie's superior is lead scientist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) who never gives up hope that a break though can substantially alter the appalling daily casualties inflicted on American soldiers in combat.
But he lacks all social graces --when his lonely wife Olivia Williams) invites new neighbors Charlie and his wife for supper Frank storms around and then departs in a huff.
Although Oppenheimer is around he is only occasionally glimpsed --the scientists spend most of their time figuring out how to impress him.
There's a lot of secrecy in this desert site and more PhDs than at any big U.S. university town.
I've previewed the first two hours and one topic seems to be how marriages survive in such an environment.
The young wives with their children live in prefabricated bungalows and cope with the bare necessities.
They gossip among themselves about what their husbands are doing and most make do. Frank's wife Liza happens to be a first rate botanist and she's slowly going crazy from boredom.
Frank has his own set of parameters --he can only spill everything about what he's doing to the native American house keeper because she doesn't understand a single word of English.
One TV critic summed it up best: "Manhattan has to be all about the journey" because we all know the bomb did get invented --and used.
The set up of the first episode is tricky because a dozen different characters have to be introduced. So much gets crammed in that it's difficult following some of the characters.
But Manhattan springs to life in the second hour as the military harass the civilians, the wives begin to get antsy cooped up out in the desert, and everybody is keeping secrets from everybody else.
As characters acquire shading they become more interesting. The big picture isn't really the creation of "the Gadget" (as the A-bomb is called here).
Instead it's the complicated structure of secrets, lies and relationships all accomplished by bright people keenly aware they were making history.
MANHATTAN IS CURRENTLY RUNNING ON CRAVETV.
MY RATING: ***1/3.





Saturday, January 31, 2015

I Remember Don Harron




I was fortunate to meet and interview Don Harron on several occasions during my decades long run as a TV critic.
Harron died age 90 on January 17 after a great career as a noted satirist.
He occupied a special berth: here was a bona fide Canadian TV super star but one who frequently
worked on American TV in the hugely popular long running hit Hee Haw.
The last time we met was about two years ago at salute to the late great Roger Abbott co-creator of RCAF.
Harron was part of a mob of fans who thronged into the old TTC barns on St. Claire Avenue West to pay his respects. Then he was forced to stand for several hours of tributes --for some reason no chairs were provided.
And this was a very elderly crowd --it was also the last time I spotted Knowlton Nash and there were many other "grey hairs" among retired CBC publicists and backstage support.
Harron then in his late 80s was bright enough to remember the first time I'd interviewed him in person,
It came right after his debut program as host of CBC Morningside which he ran beautifully for a five years stint before Peter Gzowski took over.
I remember at that interview way back in  1977 I kidded Don I'd just interviewed his old movie co-star Martha Hyer in Los Angeles.
Don Harron as a movie matinee idol?
That's what 20th Century-Fox had in mind by pairing Harron and Hyer as office lovers in the 1959 movie soap opera The Best Of Everything.
But the movie was so jam packed with stars including Joan Crawford, Suzy Parker, Louis Jourdan, Diane Baker and even Robert Evans (later a top producer) that one segment had to be considerably trimmed.
"If you blink you'll miss me," joked Harron when I reminded him of his strangest ever credit.
Another strange Harron credit: in 1973 he was one of the stars and creators of the TV satire Shh! It's The News which Global TV picked up when it went on the air.
When the network faltered all its Canadian shows were cancelled --Harron was starred in this merry satire with Barbara Hamilton, Jack Duffy, wife Catherine McKinnon and he later told me it contained some of his best work.
The second time we met was maybe 20 years later when Harron was planning a summer theater tour of the play. Mass Appeal.
"People don't know I really can do drama," he groused at a lunch that included the proposed director-producer John Aylesworth.
Aylesworth created CBC-TV's most popular ever series Front Page Challenge but never received the credit because he was an in-house producer at the time.
But together with his regular partner Frank Peppiatt he created Hee Haw which starred Harron and was a top ratings getter for CBS for two seasons before going into decades of first run syndication.
"What those two did was meld the farm humor of Petticoat Junction with Laugh-In and the profits just rolled in," laughed Harron.
"It ran for 585 episodes over 22 years. I'd be mobbed every time I stepped off a pane in any U.S. city"
Each season was made in about three weeks. "I'd do Charlie Farquharson stuff for days on end and it would all be cut into snippets and it looked like a million dollars. Everybody had to be on it: Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Roy Clark, Buck Owens, Lulu Roman, and my Canadian pal Gordie Tapp."
When I told Harron I liked almost as much another of his comedy creations Valerie Rosedale he clapped his hands and said "Me too!"
Perhaps most lasting of all there is the continually running (every summer) revival of the musical hit Anne Of Green Gables which Harron co-wrote with Norman and Ekaine Campbell and Mavor Moore.
Harron said when friends grumbled about being stuck in old age mode he'd yell at them "Get a walker and get on with it."
Which is precisely what Don Harron did his whole career : he got on with it.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Fortitude Is A Crack New British TV Thriller




Latest bundle from British TV is Fortitude a scary thriller set in a world of perpetual darkness.
The classy miniseries revs up Thursday January 29 at 10 p.m. and stars Michael Gambon from The Singing Detective plus Stanley Tucci  of The Lovely Bones, Richard Dormer of Game Of Thrones and Danish Star Sofie Grabol plus Dr. Who's Christopher Ecclestone.
The research station of Fortitude is set high in the Arctic with a total population of 713 --outside menacing polar bears prowl and there are 3,000 of them.
One early scene has hunters off in the icy exterior being stopped by the sheriff because they have no rifles aboard.
A ravenous polar bear has just eaten one of the citizens who ventured out without a gun.
Inside the community there's a feeling of claustrophobia engendered by the constant darkness and the cramped quarters of most of the scientists and researchers.
The very setting is a character unto itself: threatening, frigid, giving the people lots of time to harbor deep thoughts and resentments.
We get introduced to the main inhabitants as the tension mounts and this feeling of unease basks every scene.
Dormer is outwardly amiable sheriff Dan Anderssen who is immediately enmeshed in a grissly new murder case.
He lacks the forensic experiences so a London detective Eugene Morton  (Stanley Tucci) flies in within 12 hours of the killing to supervise the autopsy which he thinks has ritualistic tones.
We begin to see the community through Morton's eyes--he is amazed peope can remain sane in such an atmosphere of gloom.
Created by and written by Simon Donald (Low Winter Sun) the 13-episode Fortitude was originally a co-production between Starz and Sky Atlantic that continued production after Starz pulled out.
Grabol has some fine moments as the town's beleagured mayor who is trying to jump start a new hotel enterprise for vacationers who truly wish to get away from it all.
And Gambon has moments as the aged and terminally ill wild life photographer Henry Tyson who has lived in such demanding conditions for longer than anyone else but now faces death within weeks or months.
Also co-starring are Luke Treadaway as the youngest scientist Vincent Rattrey, the head biologist Charlie Stoddart (Cristopher Eccleston),  and Jules Sutter (Jessica Raine) who is married to Frank Sutter (Nicholas Pinnock), Fortitude's chief rescue pilot.
The Guardian best described Fortitude as "Twin Peaks Set In Ice". In fact there are so many characters introduced in the first two episodes (which I've seen) that it's hard to figure out who's who.
The setting is brilliant --exteriors were shot in Iceland--but the story is, if anything, too ambitious.
There's the discovery of the remains of a mammoth carcass, a little boy who either has contracted measles or polio and may have to be flown out,a fling by Sutter that ends in tragedy..
Fortitude is nothing if not ambitious --production costs are estimated at 25 million British pounds.
Iceland was in the middle of a snow drought when filming began --so fake snow had to be imported at considerable cost.
Later on real snow was transported from mountain tops via an old Russian missile launcher.
What makes Fortitude the town unique? There are no poor people hence no welfare system, no criminals before this strange killing and women can't give birth here because there is no hospital operating room.
Let's just call Fortitude the series for what it really is: a Nordic noir.
FORTITUDE PREMIERES ON SUPER CHANNEL THURSDAY JANUARY 29 AT 10 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.