Friday, May 22, 2015

Jeremy Wade Is Really Into River Monsters

"We  definitely are not a fishing show!"
Jeremy Wade's laughter rings out --he's phoning from Seattle where he's working on the eighth season of one of TV's most unusual shows --River Monsters.
Canada's Discovery Channel is showing the sixth season right now capped Monday night at 8 with the two hour special River Monsters: Prehistoric Terror.
So why is Canadian TV so far behind?
Wade sighs audibly. "In Britain it will soon be time for season eight, in the U.S. they're on the seventh season, your Discovery is in the sixth. That's all I know!"
Wade sounded sleepy but he explained he'd been diving the day before and that requires some exertion.
"If anyone had told me when we began we'd still be at it I would not have believed it."
The show's description may sound bland on paper --a genial British chap fishing in remote rivers around the world --but Wade says that's only the bare bones premise.
Really the show is an ecological series about rare fish which have grown into monsters.
"The locations have to be far flung because these places are untouched by creeping civilization.
"We've shot in a lot of strange places from Manchuria to Bolivia. China is one location which still eludes us. We were once going to shoot in Iraq but can't these days for obvious reasons."
Wade agrees many places have tall tales about fishermen being dragged into the depths by unseen monsters.
"Filming that sort of thing can be dangerous. And, of course, some of these are simply tall tales."
The film company travel light but each hour has a set of talking points which must be met or there's no story.
Monday's special on Prehistoric Monsters could mark a new direction for the series.
"I mean we are close to the bottom of the barrel. This one doesn't take place on rivers. We try and find remains of prehistoric fish and show how their ancestors could be out there.
"And this meant fishing off the B.C. coast for two very strange species. One is called the hagfish so primitive I'm not sure it even is a fish. It has no spine, lives on dead fish and secretes a slimy ooze to keep away predators. I'm told scientists are studying that ooze and think they can find applications for it.
"The other is the ratfish --you've seen the special --it is one of the strangest fish I have ever seen."
One thing about these adventures: he is always shown gently placing the captured fish back in  the water if he can.
"I do eat fish on occasion but not these ones which are extremely rare. We're practicing conservation which is one of the big themes of the show."
Wade's adventures have taken him into blinding rain storms but he fishes away "because the budget isn't big enough to sit around waiting for good weather. It would take more than a  swarm of mosquitoes to stop us."
What Wade likes best about the show is its unpredictability. It doesn't have a script because who knows what he might be pulling from the river?
Favorite catches include a goliath tiger fish caught in the Congo and a 150-pound arapaima caught in Brazil;.
The show will go on for awhile longer but Wade says the number of potential subjects is finite. "We're at the stage we find just enough new rarities to keep going a bit longer."
Another problem is climate change meaning fewer river fish everywhere.
"Sadly, there  has been a marked decline in fish sizes and that means the monsters at the top of the pyramid are declining, too."
MY RATING: ****.

Is David Letterman Really A Jerk?

The column by The New York Post TV Critic Don Kaplan says it all.
"To most reporters David Letterman was kind of a jerk!" writes Kaplan.
And sadly I must agree with him.
In my 38 years of writing about TV for The Globe And Mail, The Spectator and The Toronto Star I only met Letterman once.
Whenever I was in New York city I'd dutifully try for an interview only to be rebuffed by publicists.
Letterman generally stayed clear of TV critics and only gave a mass interview once and that was when he jumped from NBC to CBS.
As Kaplan notes Letterman's behavior was very strange indeed given the fact that at CBS he routinely was number two in the late night ratings behind NBC's Jay Leno.
Once when I had lined up Letterman's sidekick Paul Shaffer for a Toronto Star profile it was arranged we'd lunch and then go back to Shaffer's office inside the Ed Sullivan theater to continue the talk.
But Shaffer had to pull out the day of the lunch and a CBS publicist said it was all because Letterman did not want a TV critic on the premises.
But Letterman was not alone.
All those years covering the Tonight Show and I only met Johnny Carson twice.
He also avoided the press and only appeared once before TV critics --and that was as executive producer of a new sitcom starring Angie Dickinson (the show quickly bombed).
Then there was the time out at the Burbank studios when I was interviewing Tonight's director, legendary Freddie de Cordova.
We were chatting away and all of a sudden Carson slipped into the easy chair next to me.
We talked a bit about de Cordova and then Carson left just as quickly.
"That's Johnny for you," de Cordova nervously laughed.
By contrast I interviewed legendary Bob Hope a half dozen times including several telephoners --he was already available.
I spent hours with Dick Cavett in his New York office after a grueling day of taping.
And I was welcomed on the sets of The View, Alan Thicke in Hollywood, heck even Chevy Chase had time for me during his ill fated Fox TV talk show.
Both Carson and Letterman rarely talked about their personal lives.
Carson was touchy about the number of wives he'd had.
Letterman was forced by events to recount his version of a sex scandal that ballooned into a blackmail attempt.
But he blamed newspaper reporters for blowing it all out of proportion.
When a truly huge star was booked as guest Letterman would routinely ban all press from even standing in line for tickets.
And on Wednesday night he blew off reporters from all major outlets --they assembled in his publicist's office to watch the first cut of his last show early so they could file reports before their deadlines (at midnight).
Finally came an edited version of the monologue and Top Ten guests but the rest of the show was deliberately with held.
The final guest list was indeed impressive (including several Presidents, a star studded Top Ten but Letterman seemed listless lest emotion overtake him.
By contrast Johnny Carson's farewell was an emotional roller coaster and remember Johnny was always unchallenged as king of late nights while Letterman's audiences were far smaller.
After NBC ditched Jay Leno it meant Letterman would have to go --a new generation of comics had taken over.
And in Canada we are still waiting for our first successful late night TV talk show.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men's Ambiguous End

You have to remember most long running TV series never post a farewell episode.
It's bad for the rerun market and so most series simply fade to black.
Except those that come back years later with younger casts like Hawaii Five-0 (a semi-hit) or Ironside (a big flop).
So there I was Sunday night wondering howe all the strands of MM could possibly be summed up in one grand finale.
OK, there was some good news as Peggy and Stan finally declared their love for each other.
And Joan decided to star her own production company which was very tentative because Peggy declined to join up.
Very strange was Peggy and Pete's farewell --they once had an illegitimate baby who has never been discussed in recent years.
And Sally stepped up to become the head of her household as Betty started smoking again as she faced terminal lung cancer --last shot of Sally had he washing the dishes.
People keep asking me if this ending was happy or sad.
Well, it was as ambiguous as the series.
Don seemed to be finding a strange kind of inner peace and then the whole thing ended with a Coke commercial he presumably had produced.
I'll admit that like others out there I was more than a bit confused by what was happening.
Don seemed to re-invent himself and then produced the best Coke commercial ever.
In the past few years the show had been treading water, it was no longer ground breaking because, perhaps, the Sixties were coming to an end.
MM did not give viewers closure, how could it after seven exciting seasons.
The question I'm most asked is why Canadian TV can't produce a series equally brilliant --and inexpensive.
Remember MM had no stars, a few sets and no expensive crowd scenes or action.
Canadian TV producers simply aren't interested in that sort of thing.
On Thursday a very successful Canadian TV series Rookie Blue begins its final season. on Global (simulcast with ABC).
How many critics out there will notice passing?
Rookie Blue like almost all Canadian series was heavily disguised to break in to the lush American market and it truly succeeded.
ABC picked the show up and gave it a summer berth --there was the feeling it was too fragile for regular season contribution.
Canadian viewers didn't seem to care.
We gorge ourselves on American TV even when it gets made in Canada.
Sad to report but the rest of the world is not interested in all things Canada.
The CBC TV movie on Don Cherry was only able to make one foreign sale --to Finnish TV.
No other network wanted to buy into CBC's miniseries on the road to Canadian Confederation and that project died after one TV movie which even Canadians declined to watch.
CTV bought the rights to Mad Men, ran it for two seasons and then dropped it because it wasn't generating much revenue since it was on a U.S. cable weblet.
The Canadian networks like to buy U.S. shows, black out the incoming American signals and simulcast these series to get a double rating.
Which is why Netflix's ongoing success just might be the end of Canadian TV networks as my sources in the CRTC acknowledge.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Death On TV

On television death can come at any time," my friend Toronto actress Susan Douglas once told me.
And she should know.
I remember telling her that as a young kid I'd run home from Withrow public school for lunch and then I'd catch the two 15-minute soap operas on CBS: Search For Tomorrow and The Guiding LIght.
Douglas had started on that show on CBS radio in 1944 and switched to TV with the rest of the cast.
And then she married opera star Jan Rubes without asking the permission of the show's creator, imperious Irna Phillips.
"She was livid," Douglas told me and when I subsequently had to take time off to have a baby she became so distraught she had my character of Katy killed under a bus the very next week."
On TV death is one way of silencing a recalcitrant actor as Grey's Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey discovered just the other week.
His character dubbed "McDreamy" by creator Shonda Rhimes was quickly and efficiently dispatched  in a car crash.
Leaked stories from the set implied Dempsety was forgetting his lines and making all kinds of trouble.
Fan backlash has been strong
In fact Julie Plec creator of Vampire Diaries is already saying she must now rethink the impending exiting of the character Elena (Nina Dobrev).
Nina has been saying she's done but the show's executives are still trying to get her to change her mind.
Death on TV is never easy.
When Pernell Roberts left NBC's Bonanza in 1965 the series still did fairly well ratings wise.
But the sudden death of Dan Blocker in 1972 caused a ratings slide that was irreversible.
As star Lorne Greene told me: "The show lost its heart and soul. People just tuned out. Dan couldn't be replaced and we got cancelled the next season."
When Maclean Stevenson decided to leave M*A*S*H (in 1976) to get his own series the producers were so irate they killed off his character Lieutenant Henry Blake in a midair plane crash.
When Stevenson subsequently bombed in several sitcoms but of course could never return to his M*A*S*H roots as Blake was dead.
When Jean Stapleton decided to leave All In The Family in 1979 where she had shone as Edith Bunker CBS simply felt she was irreplaceable and Edith's continuing absence could not be explained.
The 1980 season began with one of the best ever episodes titled "Edith's Death" which had Archie (Carroll O'Connor) trying to come to grips with her passing.
Of course some TV characters seemingly died only to later come back.
On Dynasty Pamela Sue Martin cast as recalcitrant daughter Fallon supposedly died in 1984 when Martin left the series.
But she returned complete with a British accent in 1986 in the person of Emma Samms.
It all proves that McDreamy could still return someday to Grey's Anatomy perhaps as his long lost twin brother.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

I Confess: Full House


This is the time and place for me to 'fess up to one of TV's Unsolved Mysteries.
But first a little background regarding TV's planned reboot of Full House.
When I told the checkout cashier that Full House --her fave show when growing up--was coming back as Fuller House she let out a whoop that reverberated through the Loblaws store.
The popular sitcom from way, way back  (it ran on ABC 1987-1995)is being revived on Netflix courtesy of executive producer John Stamos who was one of the stars of the original.
But already there's controversy and my friend's grin instantly drooped when I told her the Olsen twins were not coming back.
'The action this time centers around the recently widowed DJ Tanner (Candy Cameron Bure) who is raising her two boys in San Francisco.
So to help her sister Steph (Jodie Sweetin) and best friend Kimmy (Andrea Barber) are also moving in to help out.
Now stop just a minute!
My friend wanted to know all about the Olsen twins and why they turned down a second chance on TV.
Gulp, I had to tell her they hadn't even been asked.
Also absent are regulars Bob Saget, Lori Loughlin and Dave Coulier.
Lori Loughlin has already taken to twitter to moan the absence of an invite.
Things are getting kinda ugly out there.
Now the press is calling the reunion "Half-Full House".
And Stamos and those Olsens are ducking it out in e-mails.
I mean why not a new version of Full House?
Although I'd like to point out the reboot of Boy Meets World as Girl Meets World hasn't done much in the ratings.
Anybody else out there notice how quickly Ironside flopped its second timer out?
Now there's even talk of a Broadway parody musical to run weekends starting September 7 --from the same folks who created a Saved By the Bell parody --one suggested song will be "This House Is Too Full."
And Lifetime now says it will proceed with an unauthorized Full House TV movie set behind the scenes.
Well, if that is true why doesn't somebody from Lifetime call and question me.
That's my secret.
I was on the set twice as a matter of fact.
One lunch time in 1988 I journeyed over and spent an hour with Bob Saget who was anything but the meek dad he portrayed on TV.
He was wildly funny, more than a little bit blue with his humor and confessed he couldn't figure out why his show was so popular.
Then he answered the question by mentioning all the letters from kids in single family situations who wished life could imitate Full House.
The very next year I was back chatting up Dave Coulier who was the funny one on the show and as nice a guy as one could find in show biz.
So right now I'm wondering why Saget and Coulier are not being included in the new Full House mix?
I don't think the remake can work without them.
And I should know --because I was there. Twice.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Discovery's Mankind From Space: Smart TV Is Back


Smart TV is back.
It used to exist in such dazzling TV creations as Civilisation and any number of David Attenborough nature series.
But lately "Smart TV" has been in decline as increasingly dumb reality shows take over.
And then there's the compelling new Discovery special Mankind From Space, TV that will challenge you as well as enthrall you with its dazzling images.
The two-hour special premieres on Discovery Canada Sunday night at 8 and is virtually a must see.
The Canadian-U.K. co-production (Montreal's Handel Productions and UK's Darlow Smith Productions) artfully employs dazzling shots from space as well as magnificent CGI images to fashion a look at the last 12,000 years of mankind and how we've emerged into today's technological driven society.
I enjoyed talking on the phone to the British executive producer Iain Riddick who acknowledges the same inventiveness first graced 2012's Earth From Space TV special as a way of explaining how all of the world's nature could be shown to be interconnected.
"I was having a pint in the local pub," Riddick says. "And I was watching rain drops splash on the windows."
And Riddick wondered where the rain had come from, perhaps from around the world and where it was going.
Then he started thinking of all the ways we humans are interconnected although we may not know it.
And surely the Internet has brought us closer together as never before.
But what about all the other inventions that were equally ground breaking?
What then emerges is a step by step description of everything that has made us what we are today.
"We look at the huge change when our ancestors switched from being hunters and gatherers and began farming.
"Then there are the development of cities although until about 100 years ago cities remained comparatively small."
The invention of steam power by James Watts was another big moment but the modern inventor most honored is Tomas Edison who built the first power grid in New York city.
The matching of inventions with great images makes this one a must-see and tight editing means you must watch every minute or you'll lose the complicated thread.
It's all there from the first great trade routes --the Silk Road --to the cargo container revolution to the way coal still drives many modern economies.
In fact I had a problem with the length --I could have watched for another two hours because all the information is so compacted.
When have I ever complained that a TV production was too short!
But what really go me was the look at the present and insistence with all the problems mankind currently faces from over population to global warming that we can invent ourselves out of most current dilemmas.
"Our ingenuity has gotten us this far," says Riddick. "And we show where new farming techniques can save us as our global population lurches to nine million before settling down.
"We show how interconnected everything is --from trade to all the dazzling electronic connections.We should be able to conquer the future just as we have been challenged in the past and always succeeded."
Riddick has words of praise for Discovery Canada's commitment to the costly production. A different version will air on PBS "--"it is 16 minutes longer but most of that is composed of the experts talking."
This is the second high  quality Canada-UK production I've watched in a week --the other was Mummies Alive and Riddick says with such costs "co-productions are the only way to go.
"We are co-partnered with Handel Productions who have an enviable track record and the CGI comes from Toronto's Intelligent Creatures Inc. and is of exceptional quality."
Think of it! TV that doesn't talk down to you but engages and is breath taking to behold.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

TV's Mummies Alive Decodes The Dead

Boy was I surprised --I got a three episode preview of the new TV series Mummies Alive and figured it would all be set in ancient Egypt.
But the opener, The Gunslinger Mummy, premiering Sunday April 19 on History at 10 p.m. looks at the mummified remains of a n old west American gunfighter with a bullet hole through his chest.
And the episode on April 26, Buried In A Bog, solves the mystery of two Iron Age mummies retrieved from an Irish bog.
The third hour on May 3 tries to solve a truly cold case murder --the death of a Neolithic warrior buried in the Ice of the Italian Alps for 5,300 years.
I'm not at all surprised this series is so terrific --it was made by Canada's Saloon Media (in co-production with UK's Impossible Factual) in association with Shaw Media.
Saloon Media made the eight-part series Miracles Decoded which people are still talking about as well as See No Evil which ran on Slice.
Mummies Alive runs for six weeks and is narrated by Jason Priestley (Steve Gamester is the series producer).
The Gunslinger Mummy looks at the mummified remains of a gunslinger that was on display in several western saloons --he is nicknamed Sylvester but he is stunningly preserved for his time and was last on display at Ye Old Curiosity Shoppe.
The amount of information learned about Sylvester from CG animation is amazing. His life as a con man can be ascertained and we also learn about nineteenth century embalming techniques which used arsenic as a preservative.
Mummies were often displayed at funeral parlors as examples of the undertaker's art.
In fact this individual may even be the same mummy captured in a vintage photograph.
Researches show how me must have died, how the "bullet hole" was made and the real cause of death.
I'd say this is one of the most fascinating TV autopsies I've ever seen, a brilliant stitching together of interviews, reconstructed drama and superb expert analysis.
Episode 2 Buried In A Bog starts with the discovery of an almost perfectly preserved but headless torso discovered in an Irish peat bog.
At first foul play is suspected and the police called in only to discover that after carbon testing that a murder was certainly committed but it was 2400 years ago.
Experts take us back to an Iron Age civilization and explain the importance of the artifacts scattered near the body --and this corpse is compared to a similar corpse from the same date at another nearby peat bog.
The climate of the time, the desperate search for food, the role of Druids in worship of the sun, the bad harvests --all contributed to these double murders which get solved through modern CG animation.
Episode 3 Otzi The Iceman looks at the mummified remains of a Neolithic warrior murdered high in the Alps some 5,300 years ago.
I think this the best of the bunch --a way of life in the lower pastures is re-created, the contents of the man's stomach are even examined as well as his unusual murder.
We see his strange shoe, his bearskin cap, his copper axe which was left where he was killed, even the fact he suffered from arthritis in the knees --all explained by forensic pathologist Dr. Richard Shepherd.
And Global warming means more such bodies may be recovered in the future.
Mummies Alive is not only the most unusual documentary series of the season I think it is also the best.
MY RATING: ****.