Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Schitt's Creek: A Welcome New CBC Hit

A very demure friend of mine in Ottawa told me she'd just have to phone me back.
"Right now I'm watching my favorite series Schitt's Creek," she said before hanging up.
And then there was the check out girl at Sobeys who said she adjusted her hours "So I can get home, make dinner and watch Schitt's Creek."
In a season where CBC-TV has been pounded by falling revenues from the federal government as well as the future loss of NHL hockey there's been one bright shining ray of hope.
Yes, It's Schitt's Creek.
You'll either love it or loathe it, there are no in between positions with this one.
Look, I go a long way back in the art of TV criticism.
And I know how hard it is to craft a local Canadian situation comedy.
I once sat through the taping of a new CBC sitcom titled Delilah and it was very, very painful let me tell you.
The audience actually trickled out before the taping was over.
CTV tried its darndest with Excuse My French (1974-76)  taped in Montreal but the frail little story faltered and quickly.Yes, there was King Of Kensington's success for CBC.
But it was followed by Hangin' In (1981-87)  which festered for six seasons despite the inspired presence of Lally Cadeau.
We were always told by CBC types that Canadian comedy could only thrive in sketch form --hence the huge success of RCAF, 4 On The Floor, Kids In The Hall and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
So the huge success of Schitt's Creek is a sheer delight as far as I'm concerned.
It brought back to Canadian TV those great SCTV players Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara --aided by Eugen's equally gifted son Dan who is co-creator.
The premise is just plain wacky --Levy, O'Hara  and their two kids, formerly among the richest people in the land, lose everything and wind up in a seedy hotel in a run down town they just happen to own.
Hilarity ensues to put it mildly.
Dan Levy I first noticed in the hysterically funny MTV shows that followed The Hills where every nuance of greedy twentysomethings was parsed and examined.
He's completely funny here as the befuddled son David and Annie Murphy as the self centered daughter Alexis has gotten better every week.
Ratings have dwindled but that's because CBC lacks a bevy of other hit shows to "hammock" the new show until it gets its bearings.
I don't know how they got Chris Elliott into this as the very dim mayor but he works perfectly. Schitt's Creek is outstanding TV comedy because it creates a parallel universe and within that frame every character works  without overacting a bit.
The show can only get better with Season Two
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, March 27, 2015

TV's Walking The Nile: Simply A Must See

I'm always telling people about great TV series they never knew existed.
So here I go again.
I've just watched a preview of the first hour of the simply stupendous new British documentary series Walking The Nile.
It debuts Wednesday April 1 on Travel +Escape at 9 p.m. and simply stated is a must see.
This one has everything and then some.
American journalist Matthew Power is caught sitting on a log in the middle of the humid African jungle and two hours later he is dead a victim of intense sub stroke (the temperature hit 48 degrees Fahrenheit).
Several times amiable British host Levison Wood tried CPR but it didn't work and by the time army helicopters arrived Power had died suddenly and tragically.
That's one of the life lessons viewers are taught in this magnificent odyssey which took host Wood and his camera crew eight months and 4,250 miles from starting at a mere stream in Rwanda and following the Nile all its winding way.
There are big ticket items to worry about all the way.
In parts of Tanzania fully a third of the population men and women alive and also children have tested  HIV positive.
And there is poverty everywhere. Within days of Wood's travels a civil war broke out and near one town we see a gang pounce on him and demand equipment and clothes so that his life and his guide Boston can be freed.
The series has already premiered on Britain's Channel 4. And inevitably, there's a coffee table book out there, too.
In Part One Wood is seen walking through parts of Tanzania and Uganda.
Tanzania he finds still a police state, suspicious and with the local police convinced the film crew were spies.
In Uguanda he surprisingly finds a more free society --English is the first language and the capital of Kampala seems fairly prosperous.
Of course we're really watching for the animal shots: the menacing hippos are scary until we see one bloated hippo carcass floating in the water --poachers are everywhere.
The images of elephant herds are shot at a distance but a stroll along one sandy beach turns menacing because a mess of crocs suddenly emerge from the shrubbery.
See, the trouble with most TV travelogues is their levity.
Walking The Nile looks at all the problems of an area that is both beautiful and dangerous.
It's an extraordinary TV ournal and former British paratrooper Wood is perfectly cast.
We are living history with him and the mix of jungle and desert remain reminders of the fragility of life.
Here is TV worth watching and talking about.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I Remember Alberta Watson

"It's funny, honey, but I've been in this crazy business for 30 years and here I am now in the lead!"
And Alberta Watson let out with a cannonading cackle that hushed all spectators.
There I was in a church basement on Roncesvalles Avenue interviewing Watson, her co-star Peter Outerbridge and producer Bernie Zukderman who were shooting the pilot for a new CBC-TV series called Chasing Cain.
It was the summer of 2002 and the first cut of the TV movie showed a sharpness and story line bound to succeed --except CBC pulled the plug solely for budgetary reasons and Alberta Watson never got her crack at top TV stardom.
I'm thinking of Alberta who has passed aged 60 days of lymphoma --I met her all over the place over the years.
"We go all the way back to In Praise Of Older Women (1969)"  I told her that day in 2002.
"Not that I was one of the older women," she laughed.
Indeed, she was the one lover who was a near contemporary of the hero played by Tom Berenger.
Just for the record his older conquests included Karen Black, Susan Strasberg, Helen Shaver and Marilyn Lightstone
But In Praise failed to make Watson hot in her own country and like so many others she drifted to L.A.guesting on such shows as Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, The Equalizer  as well as miniseries like Kane And Abel (shot back in T.O.).
She did get co-starring duty in the 1987-88 series Buck James (well cast as Dr. Rebecca Meyer).
One big break came in the 1994 independent movie Spanking The Money as the woman who sleeps with her own son (played by Jeremy Davies).
"It was considered very naught. People were always asking me about it and assuring me they'd only heard about it not actually watched it.
She returned to T.O. in 1997 for the series La Femme Nikita well cast as the spy agency honcho Madeleine.
The sight of Watson all dolled up in a pink Chanel suit and matching high heels proved just how sexy she could be.
And she was back for nine more episodes in the instant TV remake (2011-12) with Madeleine now a powerful U.S. Senator.
Watson also shone as a regular on The Newsroom (2004), Show Me Yours (2004), 24 (2004-05), At The Hotel (2006), Angela's Eyes (2006) and The Border (2008).
But it was the irony of Chasing Cain slipping away that floored her.
First diagnosed with lymphoma in 1998 she asked me to keep it secret or she'd lose out on jobs and I was happy to oblige.
In person she remained drop dead gorgeous, hilarious when discussing the start of the Canadian TV industry or when she instructed the Star photographer during one shoot how to light her eyes.
When he chose another less than flattering shot she phoned me at The Toronto Star and raged "The next time he'll have to shoot me through linoleum!"
Then she cackled her wonderful way and hung up.
I remember her best quote to me: "I'm a working Canadian TV actress and there are few of us around at the best of times."
And already I'm missing her.

Many Canadian Cable Channels Could Disappear

For years I've been trying to find someone else who watched the lowly Cable channel Outdoor Life.
I'm still trying.
I rather like the oddball service which has Ghost Hunters as well as various editions of Storage Hunters as its main fare.
But I fear it will be one of the first Canadian cable channels to go as the CRTC orders the "unbundling" of current consumer choices.
It's not as if Canadian TV is overflowing with goodies as far as cable choices are concerned.
Bravo TV got its license as a high end channel for the arts including ballet and opera. That has not happened-- reruns of American series plus some interesting TV series seems to be its main fare.
After all the Arts And Entertainment channel which once had a night every week devoted to various high arts now sports mostly reality series.
Same with The Learning Channel which went lowbrow years ago abandoning its prestige series for bridal shows and the like.
On Canadian TV sports channels are at the top of the profit heap which is why Rogers paid big bucks for the rights to all NHL games in Canada.
Also, home renovation channels seem to be thriving beginning with HGTV as in Home and Garden TV. Pardon me but when was the last time you saw a "gardening" show on that channel.
In Canada the first cable channel to ever fail was the C Channel --the "C" being for culture which most Canadians apparently were not willing to pay extra to get.
Other Canadian cable channels that failed: Fashion TV, Talk TV, Drive-In TV.
When Canadians can pick and chose what they want look for a lot of peripheral cable channels to likewise go black.
The CRTC made a bad decision at the dawn of Canadian cable in allowing certain American cable signals priveleged positions on the dial including A&E and TLC.
Certain "Canadian" Channels have not lived up to the promise of performance including Bravo Canada and BBC Canada which seems to consist of reruns of Top Gear with the insufferable Jeremy Clarkson.
I'd like to see a CBC Rerun Channel with jewels from the vaults --but CBC sources say this would merely show how mediocre the current CBC fare has become.
I was sad to see the plug pulled on Sun TV --it offered another political viewpoint not often heard on the conventional news channels
How about an Arts channel --it could be pay TV --with live performances from Shaw and Stratford.
 CRTC isn't dealing with content in its latest loopy decision.
I know I'll miss Pawn Stars and Dog The Bounty Hunter if the number of cable choices continues to wither.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Vietnam: Canada's Shadow War Redefines Our History

Way, way back in the Sixties when I was a lowly undergrad at the University of Toronto there was something called the Vietnam War raging half a world away.
But the conflict very definitely impinged upon U of T's usually serene campus.
There were angry demonstrations when Dow Chemicals came recruiting prospective graduates.
And mass demonstrations soon became a regular occurrence plus the definite possibility the university might even be shut down or the administrative buildings occupied.
All this turmoil is brilliantly captured in the latest must-see documentary from veteran filmmaker Andy Blicq in the riveting hour long history Vietnam: Canada's Shadow War
You can catch it on CBC-TV's Doc Zone Thursday March 26 at 9 p.m.
"I was amazed it hadn't already been done," Blicq says on the phone. "It had everything. But today there is amazement so many Canadians were caught up in this war in some way or another."
Blicq tells me there's a huge archive of newsreel footage that was just waiting to be explored.
He even shows clips from CBC reporters including a very young Peter Kent who interviewed more than 40 years later can still recall the difficulties in covering the war.
"We thought we were avoiding this war," says Blicq. "But it caught us up in its controversies."
I'm totally amazed --and I thought I knew something about Vietnam --at the number of young Canadian men who volunteered to fight.
"The figure is over 3,000," Blicq reports "although it may be a lot higher. One source says 12,000. Why did they do it? Some were there for the adventure. Others wanted to defeat communism. One boy who died over there was the son of a Canadian general.
"In addition to the inevitable casualties as well as the return of others who were broken in spirit."
Blicq thinks the time is just right to think back. "A re-assessment is underway in the U.S. I think there should be one in Canada, too."
One statistic Blicq discovered truly surprised me --he says of the draft resisters who came to Canada almost half were women of conscience.
He's gotten some great stuff with photographer Laura Jones who left the U.S. with her husband because of her conscience. Her meticulous photographic record of this community is utterly fascinating.
Blicq says CBC's archives are a treasure trove --the news reports have all been preserved. By contrast CTV's Michael Maclear told me a lot of footage shot on videotape had started to wattle and was no longer of broadcast quality.
"We think Canada wasn't involved but it was," Blicq says. Canada shared military information with the U.S. and Canadian factories produced war materials for use in Vietnam including deadly napalm gas.
"Prime minister Pearson clearly wanted to stay outside the expanding war," Blicq says. But in one confrontation at the Texas ranch of President Johnson Pearson was told in no uncertain terms to stop butting in.
I certainly remember when I started covering TV at the Hamilton Spectator in 1970 there were a number of "draft dodgers" on staff and they were intelligent and highly respected reporters.
Most chose to stay in Canada even after a mass presidential pardon and they've succeeded in many different walks of life.
When I tell Blicq I think he's amassed enough material for a dramatic miniseries he says "That's exactly what I was thinking."
There's a longer version I'm suggesting he could sell to the U.S. particularly PBS because this is a true story that skips across the border.
Made by Merit Motion Pictures: Vietnam, Canada's Shadow War is a virtually must-see experience.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Songbirds SOS Is Must-See TV

I'll have you know I staggered out of a sick bed (spring flu) to catch a preview of Sue Rynard's dazzling documentary SongbirdsSOS and I'm glad I did.
In fact I feel a whole lot better for having the mysteries of the declining population of North American songbirds explained so brilliantly for me.
You can catch this must-see hour on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Thursday March 19 at 8 p.m.
First of all the photography is splendid (Daniel Grant headed a crew of four) in capturing these splendid birds in dazzling flight often shown in slow motion.
And director Rynard should win every award for her persistence in traveling all over the continent to demonstrate the complex nature of the decline of the song birds which may be irreversible.
Let's start with the human heroes.
There's avian eco-toxicologist Christy Morrissey investigating the buildup of lethal neonicotinoids in the spring water runoff that damages prairie wetlands to the point the birds he is studying seem malnourished.
And there's Dr. Bridget Stutchbury who is equipping northern Purple Martins with micro-chip backpacks revealing their amazing migratory paths to South America and right back to the very nests they occupied last season.
The stats are very scary indeed: since the Sixties Baltimore Orioles are down 42 per cent, Purple Martins down 67 per cent, Canadian warblers down 66 per cent.
Pollution is one vile reason but another might be simply termed "modernity".
In and around the great glass skyscrapers of Toronto are killing fields -- we watch in horror as the nightly culls of dead birds are bagged to be counted up.
About a billion birds are killed this way every year.
Birds evidently can't distinguish between great glass windows and open airspace and that much dazzling light late at night further disorients them.
The images are terrible and ever turning off the lights will not protect all the birds.
In Alberta the whole ecology is under threat from gigantic oil and gas development and warblers need forests with trees at least a century old.
In Saskatchewan ponds and surrounding farms we see delicate ecosystems threatened by new types of pesticides which stay in the water --eventually there will be a great crash predicts one naturalist.
The lessons we learn about these tiny but tough birds are charming --they've survived everything else but are now in danger simply from a modern world which may not care about song birds.
I see from the credits a longer version is planned for PBS's NOVA but CBC-TV got there first.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What If...Veronica Mars Became A Zombie?

For years now I've been demanding equal treatment for TV zombies.
Various vampire TV series star a lot of male beauties but women simply do not get fair treatment.
And then along comes the new series iZombie starring sometimes beautiful Rose McIver.
You can catch it starting Wednesday on the new video streaming service shomi (a joint venture between Rogers and Shaw).
For more information click to shomi.com for a free subscription period.
It's absolutely no surprise that the creator of this adaptation of the Vertigo comic is Rob Thomas who once served the same purpose on Veronica Mars.
In fact McIver looks so Veronicaesque this one might be retitled "Veronica Mars Becomes A Zombie".
We first meet our heroine "Liv" "when she is relatively normal --that is if being 25, great looking and a rising medical resident can be deemed average.
She has everything going for her including a handsome if slightly boring fiancee (Robert Buckley)) who convinces her to go to a medical students party just to prove she's one of the folks.
Like there's this zombie attack that leaves most of the students dead except for our Liv who springs up and discovers she's been turned into a zombie.
Most of the time she simply staggers around looking out of it but then there's feeding time and nothing but munching on a newly dead human's brain can quench her appetite.
But when she nibbles away she also consumes the memory of the dead person she's been chomping on.
The first episode artfully sets up her predicament.
Like she's new to the zombie game so what better reference is there than the antique horror flick Night Of The Living Dead which she watches over and over.
Her life saving career now gone, she opts for a job in the mortuary and becomes the confidante of  bright, young detective  Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) --he doesn't seem to "get" her altered state but how can he remain ignorant for long?
Gag lines resonate such as "You're not dead, you're undead."
Or "Eating brains sucks beyond words." I just bet it does.
A darker story starring David Anders as a sort of mentor zombie is being introduced throughout the first four episodes. That's all I'll say on this matter.
The often wry and satirical plot takes the same tone as the original comic which was written by Chris Roberson and drawn by Michael Allred.
The first person perspective is a real plus and it's definitely interesting we see Liv as a real, caring doctor before she morphs into the zombie girl who by the way still wants to help people.
And she doesn't have time over the long haul to feel sorry for herself.
She begins a very strange collaboration with morgue co-worker Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli) that will be developed in future episodes.
I know it sounds strange but iZombie is really a delicate balancing act --some laughs, some chills.
Whole scenes are rather charming, the heroine certainly is different although in some scenes she looks almost pretty but in other situations spots a complexion filled with holes.
Liv simply determines to get on with helping people and she refuses to crumble away.
I rather like that prescription of surviving her state of "undeadliness".
MY RATING: ***1/2.