Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Laugh It Up With Ron James

It's going to be a busy time on CBC New Year's Eve with both The Ron James Show: New Year's Edition and the first annual reunion of RCAF (see below).
"I'm pretty pleased with it," reports James whose first season on CBC Friday nights just wound up to be followed by this hour special.
"I was doing a mini tour of the Maritimes and got to squeeze this one in. It took about three days back in Torontoincluding two nights of tapings."
The best of both nights are being combined and James managed to corral some of his favorite funny people into the mix: Eric Peterson, Peter Keleghan, Patrick McKenna, Linda Kash and Christian Potenza and Daniel Kash.
"We didn't want it to be a retrospective. There'll be enough of those. It was just a way of working with some of the people who helped me so much. The show has been intense and demanding but in a completely different way from the other (the sitcom Black Fly). There's a strong writing room bunch and we had to find all kinds of costumes to get this one up and running."
Some CBC types have whispered this is one series that could go on tour with different tapings in different cities --after all Front Page Challenge travelled that way for decades.
"The problems would be too much," insists James who goes on tour as a one man band with only his manager in tow. Don't ask me how but he somehow managed to squeeze in a stint as host of the annual Gemini Awards --in Calgary yet.
New Year's Eve segments include bits of James' standup which are always welcome, a few of his "L'il Ronnie" cartoons and Ron in drag as that Cape Breton senior Aunt Vivian valiantly struggling with her Christmas gout.
Best skit finds James and Kash as struggling Bethlehem inn keepers --after he turned away a certain couple and child who go on to make the inn down the street the place to be.
But James is most partial to the yuletide samplings onboard Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition of 1846. Cannibalism anyone?
James acknowledges the rapacity of TV in eating up material he used to take months of concerts to hone to perfection. "Now we need new material every week."
Ratings for James started high at 830,000 a week, dipped a bit and then zoomed back up to the high 780,000 or more--quite a feat on a night when many of James' crowd are out grocery shopping. So renewal for next season seems a certainty.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


This is the time of the year for scribes to compile lists on just about anything.
So here goes.
1. Biggest surprise of the year: American network TV made a mighty comeback. Some pretty good new U.S. series debuted including The Good Wife, Glee and NCIS: L.A. And cable continued to deliver with Dexter and Mad Men. Yes sirree so far it's been a greatish season.
2. TV sitcoms began staging a mini-comeback. I blame the original decline on Seinfeld which destroyed the traditional four-camera sitcom shot before a live audience. But The Big Bang Theory last season stirred renewed interest in the whole genre and this year I'm watching and enjoying Cougar Town and now really like Parks & Recreation which stumbled badly its first season only to become must-see this year.
3. Scripted Canadian TV continued to disappear. Neither CTV nor Global TV have so far debuted any new Canadian hour dramas. But goodies are being promised for the New Year. CBC's dramas including Being Erica and The Border battled for viewers hooked on expensive U.S. shows. But Heartland has become something of a minor hit thanks to its teen audiemce.
4. American network news is changing. The old line U.S. networks now have two female anchors in CBS's Katie Couric and ABC's Diane Sawyer (plus NBC's Brian Williams. And Peter Mansbridge now has to stand on CBC in a set that ressembles a disco bar. Is nothing sacred any more.
5. Reality TV became ever more unreal. First Kate and Jon split up in an angry dispute and neither one seemed to mind about the emotional turmoil they were causing their kids. Then Octomom failed to land her own show and mentioned she'd like to date Jon. It seemed only PBS was steering away from cheapie reality series.
6. CBC took the low road and ditched its high end quality arts shows and viewers declined to vocally support it when more cuts from federal funding loomed. To most of us CBC had become just another network.
7. Many viewers including yours truly thought the "Save Local TV" campaign was a parody. After all what local TV does CTV or Global have outside of the news? CTV abandoned its own talk shows years ago for U.S. imports. I'm referring to Mike Bullard, Dini Petty and Vicki Gabereau.
8. Best Canadian show of the year so far was director Sudz Sutherland's miniseries Guns which CBC ran off before the official start of the new TV season. Go figure that out.
9. Jay Leno was forcibly relocated by NBC to prime time and promptly lost all his comedic oomph. He seems to be merely marking time until he can be safely returned to his 11:30 p.m. timeslot. And Conan O'Brian who inherited the Tonight show has never seemed as fragile and uneasy.
10. Biggest disappintment of the season was the simply blah new series Eastwick starring a very diminished Paul Gross --if he'd been allowed to rewrite it the thing might have enjoyed a big success.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Remembering Jennifer Jones

Yes, I actually did meet Jennifer Jones, the iconic movie star who passed away last week, aged 90.
I said I met her, not interviewed her and there's a whole lot of difference.
It was in the summer of 1974 when I was covering the TV critics tour at the Century Plaza hotel in Century City once the backlot of Twentieth Century-Fox motion pictures.
A bunch of us --I think four or five --were invited during the lunch break to visit the set of the disaster movie currently shooting, the star studded The Towering Inferno.
So we ducked out of a boring lunch Q and A and literally tip toed down the corridor, sprinting out the back door and onto the sound stages of Fox.
And that's when I spotted the great actress who was always one of my faves. Jennifer and Fred Astaire were dancing in a scene complete with extras.
At 55 she still looked snazzy, all dolled up with a beehive hairdo and a sparkling smile. Astaire, 75, looked immaculate as he dipped and swayed his leading lady.
And director Irwin Allen bawled "Cut!Print! And he guided Jones and Astaire over to our small group of observers to say hello.
The mere mention of press being present caused Jones to emit funny gurgling sounds and dash for her dressing room. However, the always amiable Astaire stayed for a nice, long chat before waving goodbye and disappearing for lunch.
And that's how I met Jennifer Jones. And did not interview her.
To say the great star was reclusive would be an understatement.
She never gave interviews and generally kept to herself. And The Towering Inferno was her last picture even though it was a huge hit.
For years she and billionaire husband Norton Simon tried making a movie version of Terms Of Endearment but they eventually gave up, selling the rights --the movie that finally came out starred Shirley MacLaine who won an Oscar for it.
Jones never appeared on a TV talk show but fans could glimpse her at various industry functions. She was an Oscar presenter and made appearances at AFI salutes to Lillian Gish, Gregory Peck and John Huston.
And there's her substantial body of film classics many of which hold up. She won her Oscar in 1943 for The Song Of Bernadette playing the dewey eyed saint with great fervour.
She was also Oscar nominated for Since You Went Away in 1944, Love Letters in 1945 and Love Is A Many Splendored Thing in 1955.
Many felt she would have gone even farther without the obsessive control of second husband Davd O.Selznick--after he made Gone With The Wind in 1939 his projects became ever bigger and bloated. He positively forbade her to star in the 1944 classic Laura which turned Gene Tierney into a huge star.
Some of the films Jones made way from Selznick are among her best including Cluny Brown (1946), Madame Bovary (1949), Beat The Devil (1953) and The Man In The Grey Flannel Suite (1956).
For Selznick she also made the overblown Portrait Of Jennie (1949), Ruby Gentry and the 1957 version of A Farewell To Arms where she was badly miscast as the older nurse to Rock Hudson's young lover.
And she was simply too old to star in 1962's Tender Is The Night.
After Selnzinck's Death in 1961 her career faded away.
Jones married industrialist Norton Simon in 1971 and became chairman of his great art museum after his death at 86 in 1993.
She leaves a son by her first marriage to the late actor Robert Walker but Robert Walker Jr. hasn't had the success his father had.
What we have left are a pretty impressive bunch of movies featuring one of the last great stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. With Jones' passing only sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are left among Oscar winners from the 1940s --plus Luise Rainer from the 1930s.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

RCAF Is Back!

They're b-a-c-k! Those wacky denizens of Royal Canadian Air Farce, I mean.
Exactly a year after getting the cancellation boot from CBC, RCAF has regrouped and come forward with its 17th annual New Year's Eve salute.
It's a must see for all supporters of Canadian TV.
In the name of journalistic fairness I trudged down to the cavernous and now largely empty CBC headquarters on Front St. E. to watch a Friday night taping of the whole shebang.
I thought I was in the wrong place because the RCAF tapings I always attended were next door --still on the 10th floor but down the hall.
Then I was told that studio which is actually named after RCAF is now the home of Don Cherry and Dan McLean's shenanigans for Hockey Night In Canada. The RCAF special was being taped next door.
An initial taping had taken place the night before and the best scenes from both shows will get combined into one 46-minute special (plus 16 minutes for commercials).
It was quite a chore sitting in those bleachers and waiting and waiting for the scenery to be set up so the next skit could go forward.
But I wouldn't have missed this for the world --and neither should you when it all revs up on CBC-TV on Thurs. Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. with a midnight rerun.
My first impression: why oh why did the current batch of CBC programmers try to kill off one of their best franchises?
I keep hearing RACF ratings held up pretty well --at least better than the trendy Being Erica.
But RACF audiences were growing slightly older and are no longer targeted by the big sponsors (outside of Polident and Viagra).
It took three hours to get this thing taped but there were so many laughs I had to ask veteran director Perry Rosemond how he'd manage to fit in all the great material.
"We need 90 minutes or even two hours," he grinned. "There's such a richness. I don't know what to cut."
Some of the skits really hit home. Like Penelope Corrin's savagely funny take on a befuddled Sarah Palin.
Or a parody show called Luck Of The Puck with Battle Of The Blades winners Jamie Sale and Craig Simpson who obligimngly battled on ice to the consternation of Craig Lauzon as Don Cherry..
Luba Goy did her Nancy Wilson shick to perfection. Another parody had Alan Park expertly taking on Sham-Wow pitchman Vince. A Save Local TV gag ad was nastily right on.
It was strange but we never even saw Don Ferguson until the second hour --his take on a mad scientist was vintage Ferguson. And what about the new device called the iPolanski?
I honestly would not want to have the job of cutting out almost half the material performed that night.
I reminded Rosemond I've been covering RCAF since 1975 when they were exclusively on radio.
One big let down was the absence of regular Jessica Holmes who was on the stage in Christmas panto and couldn't make it.
I kept thinking original founding father Dave Broadfoot might pop up in a cameo but it was not to be. We can't have everything. Maybe next year?
In short I'm arguing CBC TV still desperately needs this often brilliant Canadian comedy institution.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Can Obama Save The Planet?

A new British made TV documentary Can Obama Save The Planet? is brilliantly positioned to explain the impending failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change.
Cheeky is exactly the right British catch phrase to sum up this hour as roving BBC reporter Justin Rowlatt (in his TV role as "Ethical Man") moves across the U.S. in search of Americans who actually support the climate change philosophy.
Not unsurprisingly he finds few citizens willing to give up their standard of living to help President Obama save the planet.
Rowlatt's odyssey starts in Muskegon, Michigan, where he ice fishes with the citizens and finds most of the family members in one typical cluster need cars to get to work --public transportation is that bad.
It was Rowlatt's decision to use public transport to get around until he's told the average train of today produces almost as much pollution as an airplane.
At the U.S. Congress he finds Democratic senator Barbara Boxer battling the Republicans over a bill to cut carbon emissions --the bill certainly will not be passed in time for Copehagen.
In Texas he finds wind machines are gradually taking over as sources for electricity --it was all due to a former Texas governor. That's right the much maligned George W. Bush.
In West Virginia 30,000 blue collars have jobs in the coal extraction business and some tell Rowlatt they're are loathe to support the Obama plan for reducing greenhouse gases.
And when Rowlatt goes on a local radio talk show he's bombarded with screaming callers and a host who shouts him down.
The hour has entertaining visuals but the conclusions are very pessimistic.
Americans are just not willing to substantially pay for reducing emissions even though the U.S. remains the world's leading polluting nation.
Can Obama Save The Planet? is on The Passionate Eye Mond. Dec. 14 at 10 p.m. on CBC News Network.
My rating: *** 1/2.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The World Will No Longer Turn

Maestro, a little organ music if you please.
It is with deep personal sadness I have to announce the imminent cancellation of CBS's venerable (54-years old) afternoon soap opera As The World Turns.
The last episode will run on September 7, 2010.
Me and The World we go way back. I was a sick, little boy (the measles) when ATWT premiered live on CBS on April 2 1956 in blazing black and white.
Then there was the time when I toiled for The Hamilton Spectator and got to interview one of the first actors on air and somebody still continuing, that most excellent of ATWT stars Don Hastings who played Bob Hughes.
Hastings holds the record for playing a character the longest on TV: a mere 48 years.
Helen Wagner who played his mom Nancy Hughes McClosky was the one series original still with the show but she wasn't there the day I ventured on set because of a long standing contract dispute. It wasn't settled until years later to permit her return.
And, yes , it was Hastings and Wagner who were interrupted that fateful day in 1963 as Walter Cronkite burst on and announced President Kennedy had been shot dead in Dallas.
ATWT was TV's most watched afternoon soap from 1958 through 1978. The show did not switch to color until 1967 and became an hourlong soap in 1975.
AS of Dec. 8 the count was an amazing 13,661 episodes. But who's counting.
Its demise marks the end of Procter and Gamble soap operas--originally these dramas ran live on radio and were owned by the soap companies.
The Spec once sent me off to New York city --it was around 1977--for an amazing week of going from TV soap set to soap set.
I interviewed the Canadian actress Tudi Wiggins who was co-starring at the time in the early bird soap opera Love Of Life.
She told me to whisper because the actor playing her son was sleeping on the couch in the living room set. He had to fly back and forth from Boston every day to make the show and the Katharine Hepburn play he was in at the same time. It was Christopher Reeve.
Love Of Life ran at 11:30 every weekday morning and I sat in on a live broadcast --yes, it true --a little man dressed in black stepped forth to the organ and began playing the theme music.
There was no canned music on any of these sets.
A visit to Brooklyn and a day on the set of Another World was a great experience. Stars on tap that day included Eric Roberts (Julia's big bro) and Christina Pickles and Gail Brown (Karen Black was her sis).
But the highlight was a visit to the penthouse suite of soap maven Agnes Nixon who had Another World an One Life To live running but whose first job was as a writer on As The World Turns.
It was the first half hour soap, a daring innovation in its day and the creator was the legendary Irna Phillips who also created The Guilding Light (cancelled three months ago) and Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.
Phillips set her saga in a fictional American Midwest city peopled by an all white cast. Original mom Wagner stayed home and seemed to be always baking. She once remembered her horror during a live broadcast when the beeper on the stove wouldn't shut off.
On the ATWT set during my last day in New York I met the CBS head of soaps, Darryl Hickman and such ATWT luminaries as Eileen Fulton and Chris Hughes. They traded jokes about the bloopers that happened on air during the days of live telecasts. At the time ratings were running sky high and continued for the next 25 years.
Stars who got their first breaks on the show include Meg Ryan, Courtney Cox, Parker Posey, Julianne Moore and Lea Salonga.
So what went wrong?
In recent years ratings plummeted and running original scripted dramas proved too costly for the Big Three network which can substitute a cheaply made talk thing like The View or a game show fin which five episodes are taped in one day.
Mothers never worked back in the Sixties --that was a real social stigma. And soaps flourished in a three network TV universe.
Soaps got too racy for many of its staid supporters. ATWT's gay themed love affair didn't attract the numbers as intended.
Soaps are still there but in other forms. Night soaps still work --look at Brothers And Sisters, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice.
And what about the Tiger Woods saga with his multiple mistresses which the TV tabs are currently playing for all its worth. That sad saga is a true life soap all by itself.
ATWT ends in September and there are plans to try to sell it in syndication. Reruns will be on the U.S. soap channel which we don't get up here.
Next to go is ABC's fragile One Life To Live. Or so I'm told.
That means only five soap operas could be around by the end of the current season. The end of an era? Yeah. But the live organ accompaniment ended decades ago.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Scheduling Snafu

Tuesday is Ernest Lehman's birthday.
There will now be a pause for you to squirm and say Who the heck is Ernest Lehman anyway?"
Only one of the greatest of the movie screenwriters, that's who.
So it's entirely appropriate for Turner Classic Movies to honor him --he would be 94 (but died at 89 in 2005).
But how crazy is this: the tribute revs up Tuesday at 9 a.m. when most of us are out working or going to school.
However, it's better than nothingn so here goes: The wonderful drama about the business world, Executive Suite, is on TCM at 9. It's followed at 11 a.m. by Paul Newman in Somebody Up there Likes Me.
At 1 p.m. there's Lehman's personal fave: North By Northwest. At 3:30 p.m. it's the Prize. And at 5:45 there's Family Plot.
I once sneaked out of those deadly dull TV critics press tours in L.A. for tea with Lehman at his spacious Bel Air residence.
He regaled me witth witty anecdotes about the writing of such classics as Sweet Smell Of Success, Hello, Dolly, Dr. Doolittle and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. All delightful but none of these films gets included in this TCM salute.
And remember Lehman is the only screenwriter to have been awarded an honorary Oscar.
Maybe TCM is saving the big titles for a future prime time salute? One can only hope.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Brits Are Coming --Yet Again!

A veteran U.S. industry observer has just told me to stop fretting about the current TV season.
"The (American) networks certainly have. They're already lining up to shoot pilots for next season."
And the search is on for the next Hugh Lawrie. He's the fantastically talented British star (Wooster And Jeeves) who turned himself into an American doctor and made House such a smashing success.
Now word comes that David Tennant, 38, yes , that's right Dr. Who is the next one to jump across the pool to American TV.
NBC reports it has signed Tennant to star in the pilot for a new legal drama series series to be shot in Chicago titled Rex Is Not Your Lawyer. Tennant's term as the 10th Dr. Who closes with several holiday specials.
Co-starring in the venture is Jeffrey Tambor from the fondly regarded Arrested Development.
Other Brit stars have faced a tougher challenge in getting U.S. audiences to care.
Let's see, Alfred Molina has made two short-lived attemps both on sitcoms: Ladies Man ran for 30 episodes (1999-2001) but ultimately vanished but it was infinitely better than 2002's Bram And Alice which lasted eight episodes.
And what about Johnny Lee Miller whose stint as Eli Stone ran 26 episodes on CBS (2008-09).
Linus Roache has so far lasted 51 episodes as Michael Cutter on NBC's Law & Order (2008-09).
And there are stories John Barrowman (Torchwood) may guest star on some episodes of Desperate Housewives next season --it has to be renewed first and he has to be free of his Torchwood obligations.
But Barrowman who endured successive flops on U.S. TV (Central Park West, Titans) surely knows better than most that being British doesn't automatically spell success in an American TV series.

A Fond Farewell For Monk

So far it's been quite a season on U.S. TV for such new hits as NCIS:Los Angeles and The Good Wife.
But it's also going to be the last season for some maturing hits.
First one to drop off (this Monday) is Monk.
Gee, how I liked that show in its first season when it shot right here in T.O
The policier about an obsessive-compulsive detective jumps to Rerunland after eight seasons and 125 episodes.
When it started on USA it was part of a "New Wave" of cable TV dramas that seriously challenged the ascendancy of the old line networks.
Queer As Folk another T.O. hit was already up and running on Showtime (and Canada's Showcase). And then came The Closer on TNT which premiered in 2005. And these days it's Mad Men on AMC which is arguably the best U.S. drama series around.
The critic for the L.A. Times, Scott Collins, has just noted that maybe Monk deserved to be on conventional TV all along since it was relatively free of nudity and cussing. He points to CBS's CSI franchise as far more threatening to the conventional family values.
I remember hearing it had been shopped at ABC and finally turned down. One irony: when the show became an unexpected hit ABC ran the reruns in 2001 and again in 2002.
But what won over early viewers such as yours truly was Tony Shalhoub's magnificent portrayal of an unkempt, muttering, nervous but utterly brilliant private eye. After suffering a nervous breakdown from his wife's unsolved murder, Monk becomes an even more obsessive seeker of facts and truth.
And it has just been announced the last hour will appropriately deal with and solve the murder of his wife. At last! Redemption!
But here's where I admit I'd stopped watching much in recent seasons when the show seemed to outstay its welcome and became ever so slightly dull and repetitive. Moving back to L.A. from Toronto gave it a far more conventional look than before. Like so many network dramas, I guess

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Don't Shoplift!

I asked CBC for a preview copy of the new documentary The Secret History Of Shoplifting simply because frankly that title intrigued me.
And after watching it I'm ready to admit it's a surprisingly topical look at the phenomenon of shoplifting as seen from all sides.
First of all there's the coming holiday and the realization many people have been severely hit by the recession. So shoplifting is currently on the rise.
This well made TV study opens by telling us there are 600,000 shoplifting incidents every day in North America.
And the cost of replacing all that pilfered merchandice costs approximately $40 million every year in the U.S. and Canada.
The footage we're shown is pretty amazing from security cam stuff of actual incidents to all the latest gadgets designed to thwart the thieves.
Some of the people we meet are pretty amazing,too. They include a formerly compulsive shoplifter who helps others beat the addiction. And there's a Southern U.S. sheriff who is real down on "lifters" and acts strongly to scare them out of the practice. Grrrr!
I did not know that much of the shoplifting can be inside --employees who feel they're being misused strike back. And there's the increasing involvement of professional crime: shoplifting has become a big business.
The hour was directed and written by Andy Blicq and is recommended before you run off to the malls for your Christmas shopping. Blicq warns those supposedly irresistible bargains often offered by some unscrupulous discounters could really be contraband.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF SHOPLIFTING premieres on CBC-TV Thurs. Dec.3 at 8 p.m. with the repeat on CBC News Network Frid. Dec. 4 at 10.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why Did Paul Gross Do It?

Biggest mystery of the current TV season remains this burning question: Why did Paul Gross jump to U.S. TV?
I've been trying to figure that one out since I previewed the pilot of Gross's new series Eastwick. To say I was disappointed with the show would be an understatement.
On paper the ABC series must have looked great. It was a spin off from the Jack Nicholson movie hit The Witches Of Eastwick and Gross got the Nicholson part of the horny ole devil.
But something changed in the movie from screen to TV. The movie isn't that well remembered but it had a certain quotient of naughty suggestions namely the one that had Jack romancing and bedding three nubile lovelies in the shapes of Michele Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher.
But on TV it came out as a slightly stale reworking of Desperate Housewives.
Now comes the press report ABC is "declining" to order any more episodes of the show after it hits 13 hours. And fans are properly incensed.
It will leave the plot just hanging there. The TV version follows the antics of Rebecca Romijn, Lindsay Price and Jaime Ray Newman but the cast apparently heard of the cancellations in the trade papers.
Executive producer Maggie Friedman told EW "None of us can believe this is happening.We do not get a chance to wrap things up in a bow. Which is killing me."
Excuse me but other ABC series received pick up orders more than a month ago. Eastwick's ratings have been terrible to put it mildly so why the surprise?
The biggest mystery is the affable and talented Gross's decision to particip[ate in the first place. He usually has a key eye for quality material.
In recent years he has emerged as Canadian TV's "Captain Canada".
Let's pause to reconsider Gross's thriving Canadian TV career.
I first interviewed him on the set of the 1988 miniseries Chasing Rainbows along with two other unknowns Michael Riley and Julie Stewart.
Getting Married In Buffalo Jump (199) got him noticed but then he defected to Disney for the dog awful flick Aspen Extreme (1993).
Then came the CBS-CTV series Due South (1994-1999) as Constable Benton Fraser whch made him a big TV star. I once went out to the set to interview him and he was busy writing dialogue --he was that talented.
The came Canadian movie hit Men With Brooms (2002). A more ambitious recent movie Passchendaele (2008) did not get U.S. distribution which I know disturbed him.
And several hit Canadian miniseries followed: Slings And Arrows (2003-06) and Trojan Horse and sequel H20 (2008-2009).
Gross was creator, executive producer, script writer --the whole shebang. And a lot of deserved critical praise followed plus public popularity.
I've learned CBC nixed yet another sequel to H20 causing the Gross defection to the U.S.
So my point is this: If Canadian TV can't retain such a talent then maybe there is not future for home grown talent, right?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Great Canadian TV Documentary

Just when my faith in the future of Canadian TV documentaries was fading along comes the challenging hour Carbon Hunters. And surprise! It gets pride of place on CBC-TV Thursday night at 8 (repeated Friday at 10 p.m. on CBC News Network).
The very title is catchy. I kept thinking of big game hunters until I realized this prey was far more profitable.
Guess I'm behind the times but I never realized one of the biggest growth industries around involves carbon credit training --this year it's a $100 billion industry. And it was all started as we see via a news clip with a suggestion by Canada's former U.N. ambassador Maurice Strong.
From a struggling beginning the industry now involves over 200 international companies which sell carbon credits in an effort to thwart global warming.
At least that's what they claim. Critics maintain a market-driven policy is really no solution at all with polluters buying up carbon credits while continuing to pollute the atmosphere.
The visuals will keep you interested: cows in India give off tremendous amounts of methane gas which can be trapped and piped into homes as fuel.
An entrepreneur buys million of acres of Amazon rain forest and offers them to a Canadian businessman to sell as carbon credits.
And so it goes from the Alberta Tar Sands to a British funeral director to Indian peasants out in the fields. They're all buying and selling carbon credits.
But director Miro Cernetig is quick to point out the differences between going green and getting greedy.
And many supporters have been stung by the highly unregulated industry including the rock band Coldplay who urged fans to invest in tree plantings in India --but most of the trees did not survive.
And a Canadian who invested in an Air Canada plea for tree plantings visits the site where the saplings will probably not thrive.
There's lots to think about here and both sides get chances to explain their strategy. A balanced documentary doesn't have to be dull.
Carbon Hunters keeps continent skipping, showing us the losers in the game (Philippine peasants living beside a huge garbage dump) and some early winners (Vancouver entrepreneur Shawn Burns).
It's literally all over the map but still with a Canadian point of view,a feast for the eyes and with things to think about later.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Watch This Show! Please!

All the madness of the November sweeps is fast crumbling away. Now it's time for TV of the soul and brain. I mean something demonstrating how TV can still impart information even in this age of Tabloid Journalism.
And there's one to watch, a new Australian documentary with the catchy title Catching Cancer.
But does it mean you can catch cancer?
Well yes and no. Director Susan Pemberton begins in the newsroom of the Auustralian Broadcasting Corporation which ressembles a hurricame-hit zone of clutter.
Everything has been dissembled, torn apart. Over a few years 16 women in the newsroom came down with breast cancer and doctors are still trying to find a link.
Pemberton uses this dramatic event to find out whether cancer can be caused by infections. And it seems at least 20 per cent of all worldwide cancers are caused by infections or viruses. But scientists on camera muse that it could be as high as 50 per cent or even higher.
We get the opinions of several Nobel Laureates plus world experts both inside and outside Australia, and front line investigators. We visit twins, little boys who are identical except one has leukemia and the other doesn't. How did that happen?
One British scientist even uses a slot machine to factor in our probability of catching cancer --it's a lethal lottery.
We all catch infections that can trigger cancer but relatively few of us actually come down with the disease.
Unlike many talking heads shows this one is filled with images that inform and information that's understandable. In short here's TV for the brain as well as the eye.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Equalizer Is Dead

Just a quick post to note the passing of TV's The Equalizer, Edward Woodward, at 79 after a long bout of illnesses.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview him in 1988 in his trailer on Front Street for lunch. "Do you want a bran muffin or a banana?"he bellowed in mock outrage.
He'd just suffered the first of several heart attacks and doctors had put him on a healthy diet.
At the time he was experiencing a huge revival as CBS's The Equalizer (1985-89) although I first noticed him in the British series Callan (1967-92).
He was doing a two-part Hitchcock show filmed in Toronto because writer Michael Sloane had once used him in a student production --without pay.
"And now I'm getting a big pay check," he laughed.
And later Woodward temporarily moved to Toronto to co-star in episodes of Nikita (2001).
He was one of those British actors who could play any part --I remember how wonderful he was as Sir Sam Hoare in the 1981 TV series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.
And I'm not forgetting such movies as Breaker Morant; Woodward remembered one trek in the Australian desert for some scene and a man appeared from behind a bunch of bushes."He had the same name:Edward Woodward!"
The 87 episodes of The equalizer are still running somewhere. Back in Britain he starred in the series Over My Dead Body (1990-1), Common As Muck (1994-7), and C15:The New Professionals (1999) and as late as last year was popping up on The Eastenders.
He leaves second wife Michele Dotrice and several grown acting children.
And I'm missing him already.

Luke Kirby Has A News Series

My first glimpse of Luke Kirby finds the talented star of the new TV series Cra$h & Burn chain smoking outside a Mississauga high rise office complex where interior scenes are filmed.
I get it. He doesn't much enjoy interviews. Plus being the front and center attraction of a new show means lots of stress.
And the buzz in this new 13-part hour drama premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Showcase is pretty high.
"The series' creator Malcolm McRury originally pitched it for HBO in the States," reports executive producer Frank Siracusa (H20). "We (Whizbang Films) were lucky to get it and make it as a sort of first --a dramatic series set in Hamilton and actually made in Hamilton."
Kirby is perfectly cast as Jimmy Burn, a cocky yet harassed insurance investigator whose misadventures with a rogue's gallery of claimants constitute the core of the adventure.
Also cast to advantage: Leela Savasta (Battlestar Galactica) as his live-in gal pal named Lucia and Clark Johnson (Homicide) as a shrewd veteran investigator.
"We shoot mainly in Hamilton," says Siracusa (Slings And Arrows). "What a wide variety of locations, it's wonderful. Then we found this complex now empty so we've set up the set for the office and one for Jimmy's apartment. The only downside is the travel time coming in from Toronto."
On set I'm watching Kirby and Savasta mine comic gold out of a scene finding Leela trapped in a horrendous Seventies bridal frock while Kirby complete with hangdog expression is noncommital about the whole event --for his list of friends Jimmy offers only an adopted mother who might come. Talk about being a loner.
I first watched about Kirby on the set of Slings And Arrows where newly graduated from Montreal's National Theatre School was playing a movie star determined to play Shakespeare to prove he was more than a pretty face. Kirby perfectly captured the sadness and sweetness of Jack Crew who suspected peers were laughing a bit at him behind his back.
And it's a route Kirby, now 31, has plainly decided to avoid. He could be co-starring in any one of a half dozen U.S. series if he really wanted to but knows it would mark the end of his development as a serious actor.
And he also recognizes the irony of winding up back in Canada after embarking for Brooklyn and stage jobs in the U.S.
"Yeah, I was born in Hamilton. I'm back," he laughs. His American parents lived outside Guelph, used McMaster Medical Centre for the birth.
"I'm now seeing all parts of the city."
Kirby had relocated to Brooklyn but came home "because the scripts aren't a formula like most TV work. Jimmy isn't entirely the hero, he's not all nice. Stories are funny but also very dark. Who wouldn't be attracted to such scripts?"
And what about the pressures of being a TV series star?
"It means 14-hour days, I'm not really afraid of that. The stories are the attraction here. Being in the insurance game is like being in a vice. The clients need their money, the company can't pay too much or it won't make a profit. Jimmy is learning about the system. It's very real to life."
Siracusa says Canwest asked the scripts be acceptable to both cable and regular networks so a bit of toning down was done. But the opening hour uses words not normally heard on TV as well as graphic images calculated to shock.
When Kirby says "dark and edgy" he's right: one character in the first episode is about to expire from prostate cancer and keeps tinkling right on camera. Jimmy and his gal make out in a car complete with the kind of groans network TV avoids. But at the same time the quirkiness often seems hysterically funny.
People who think Kirby can only do comedy should check out his 2006 TV series Northern Town--the wry comedy was quickly buried by CBC.
Although I watched Kirby acting on Slings And Arrows I chose on that day to interview his on screen partner --Rachel McAdams whose next project (The Notebook) vaulted her into movie star status.
"I'm happy for her, it's deserving," Kirby says.
Other leading ladies have included Sarah Polley and even Lindsay Lohan --in a pretty decent TV flick from last year titled Labor Pains.
Kirby's growth as an actor has been more measured than McAdams' stardom sprint: I've spotted him in TV guest roles on Law And Order and Eleventh Hour but he's also done New York stage work.
What comes next depends on how Cra$h & Burn fares. It's the first hour drama solely commissioned by Showcase without U.S. pickup (as with Queer As Folk). An American sale would surely guarantee a second season.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Life Is A Life Saver

Just when I was getting depressed about the terrible state of today's TV along comes something as magnificent as BBC-TV's new 10-part series about animal behavior.
Titled simply Life, it stars who else but Sir David Attenborough. Parts 1 and 2 are on Discovery and Discovery HD Sunday night at 8 and constitute must-see television.
I've enjoyed chatting up Sir David for decades both on the phone and in person and he's always remarkably enthusiastic about the next project.
At a time when TV networks are cutting back or regressing to sleazy reality shows it's a pleasure to report Life fully lives up to all expectations.
The photography is simply stunning. The whole thing took four years or 3,000 days of filming to film and edit. This time Sir David narrates but does not pop up in every other shot --after all he now is 83 years young.
Life is the title but there's an awful lot of death included. In one early scene in the segment titled Challenges Of Life we look on as tiny penguins make their first underwater foray not knowing killer whales are lurking for a feast.
And we see the whales attack and kill one penguin who gets savagely ripped to death.
In another scene we see dolphins cooperating together to round up a school of fish by muddying the waters and creating such panic the fish seem to fly right into the dolphins' mouths.
We also see three cheetas hunting as one and able to bring down and kill a sturdy ostrich --alone that task would be impossible.
But we also witness stories of survival: capuchin monkeys learning to use tools to smash open thick palm nuts --the young take years to learn how stones can be used as hammers.
And we see a chameleon trapping a preying mantis by shooting out its tongue which can actually hold its prey.
The second hour is just as exciting --a salute to reptiles and amphibians from poisonous sea snakes to maternal African bull frogs building water channels to protect its young.
I remember once telling Sir Davis that Canadian TV had just reached 100 channels and listening to his thunderous laughter. I wonder what he might think now that we have reached something like 959 cable channels?
The result of all this competition is most conventional networks no longer have the viewership or resources to support such a momentous series as Life.
And in the old days Sir David was on TVOntario and PBS whereas these days he has migrated to Discovery ias his Canadian TV "home".
Once we talked about his reticence to ever stage scenes such as was done regularly on that old series Wild Kingdom.
So I'm simply assuming nothing in Life was staged which must have meant hundreds of lost hours for all the photographers simply waiting to get the requisite shots.
The tales here are told from the perspective of the animals concerned which makes for a different dimension. There are indelible images in every hour and the theme is always the same: simply survival.
The third hour on Thurs. Nov. 19 at 8 looks at "Mammals" with another immediately following on "Fish".
Future episodes include "Birds" (Thurs. Nov. 26) to be immediately followed by "Insects" (Nov. 26).
On Thurs. Dec. 3 starting at 8 it's "Hunters and Hunted" followed by "Creatures Of The Deep".
On Thurs. Dec. 10 there are two episodes on "Plants".
In one area Attenborough was criticized --until recently he avoided stories about pollution and ecological disaster but now he appartently sees the error of his ways.
But back to Life: I've never seen such magnificent photography and the commentary by Attenborough is filled with facts and observations. I hope he's not done yet. But what else is there left to document?
MY RATING: *****.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Does TV News Have A Future?

The news these days is all about the shaky status of network TV news.
On Wednesday CNN lost its last original anchor in feisty Lou Dobbs who started out as a respected host of a business series that morphed into the network's sole right wing take on the day's news.
Dobbs and CNN suits had been sparring since summer when he incessantly questioned President Obama's status to be U.S. leader --it was all about that missing Hawaiian birth certificate.
It's strange but silver haired Anderson Cooper failed to mention Dobbs' decision to instantly quit. However industry insiders are guessing Lou has a future either at Fox News or MSNBC.
Cooper is hardly hot at this moment. As support for Obama droops Cooper's liberal stance has seen viewers deserting him in droves. In the all important 18-54 age group he's now listed as fourth in cable network news --he's even behind Nancy Grace repeats on CNN's sister station Headline News.
Over at CBC's National there's been another format change.
And? Well I still don't like the format which is hardly innovative. After all Peter Jennings became the first Canadian anchor way back in 1962 when he stood as that network's first anchor.
Mansbridge has been around forever and really knows CBC's internal affairs. He'd been fighting a robust rear guard action ever since respected news head Tony Burman was packed off. Burman did much to make CBC News a distinguished entity.
But that was before U.S. consultants were let loose and what has emerged is a melange that often resembles the Game Show network --all glitz and very little substance.
When CBC News was originally moved to 10 p.m. more than 25 years ago I was dubious.
At 11 p.m. CBC News frequently overtook CTV's more stylist telecast starring CBC refugee Lloyd Robertson.
The movement to 10 was to accommodate the fledgling Journal which never really captured the hearts and minds of viewers.
And let's not forget there even was a temporary move to 9 p.m. which was initiated by then CBC head programmer Yvan Fecan now head honcho at CTVglobemedia.
At 10 CBC is up against all those top rated U.S. procedurals which give a huge audience lead in to CTV's Robertson at 11.
TV critic Bill Brioux is the ratings sage these days and he's reporting on Monday Global news at 5:30 with Kevin Newman notched a terrific 1.16 million viewers while CTV at 11 had 1.38 million and CBC at 10 a still respectable 545,000. And that's about all CBC can hope to get at TV's most competitive prime time hour.
CBC lost some terrific reporters for economic reasons in the past few years and all the cosmetic wizardry can't cover that up. More money is needed out in the field with less spent inside the studio which looks like a disco lounge.
And Peter Mansbridge could sit down if he really wants. Standing or sitting he's a mellow, articulate anchor.
And one final point:all three Canadian anchors are seasoned white guys while American TV's three anchors will soon include CBS's Katie Couric and ABC's Diane Sawyer. The times they are a-changin' but I'm still not sure if it's for the better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Explaining NBC'S Fall

I didn't realize all the ramifications of NBC's botched attempt to shore up its prime time lineup until I read the enthralling article "Will Somebody Please Save NBC?"
It's in the Nov. 8 issue of New York magazine available online at nymag.com and is by Mark Harris.
It's Harris's thesis that the failure of Jay Leno at 10 p.m. caused an irreversible ripple effect over the whole NBC schedule.
For one thing NBC affiliates run their late local news at 11 and most stations report declining ratings with the weak Leno lead in.
Then there's the damage the artistic community of L.A. currently feels. When a producer as important as John Wells (ER) sees his latest and lauded series Southland get the boot even before a single second season episode has run, well, he gets publicly ticked off about it.
And there's the question of NBC's impending sale. What other entity would want a huge, old fashioned network that is plainly breaks down every weeknight at 10 p.m. Ever since its inception NBC has been number One or Two in the ratings while these days it only has one series in the Top 10.
And although Harris doesn't directly say this one has to wonder about the hierarchy who let Medium slip away to CBS only to see it record big gains --and on a Friday of all places.
But it all goes back to Leno. I think he's worse than he ever was at 11:30. Everything about the nightly talkfest seems recycled. And it can't help that CBS and ABC are forbiding their stars to appear on the show.
Just this week Leno mused out loud he wouldn't mind going back to 11:30. Excuse me but didn't NBC want to become hip with a younger audience by promoting Conan O'Brien.
I think Conan seems mighty uncomfortable since his move from New York to Burbank. For one thing he has to welcome Leno's rejects, guests deemed too insignificant to flog their products in prime time at 10.
It's all a big mess. And, yes, it does impact on Canadian TV because Canadian private networks use American fodder to fill up on during the prime time hours. With Leno at NBC that's five hours a week less of edgy prime time dramatic series to pick from.
There seems to be a growing consensus that NBC will let Leno last through this season but switch back to dramas in the fall of 2010 and plop Leno back at 11:30. Fine but what does that do to Conan I ask you.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


How's the season faring so far? Glad you asked.so...
1. The Mentalist continues climbing in the ratings to the point it has finally overtaken ABC's Private Practice --a weak show that would flounder without its Grey's Anatomy lead-in. But an hour earlier the venerable CSI's ratings are drooping --the continued absence of former star Bill Peterson really hurts. So don't be surprised if CBS flip flops both series before the New Year. CSI after all really is a 10 p.m. series. So what will CTV do? It runs Grey's Anatomy at 9, the Mentalist at 10.
2. CBS has cut way back on its seasonal order for Number$. The perennial Friday night series is in its sixth season and viewers have really been bailing out this year which could be its last. On tap is the CTV co-production Flashpoint which continues to run up here and has delivered before for CBS. Plus it's relatively cheaply made. as for Number$ that's it --syndication sales are already reported as strong.
3. Wondering why USA Network (not seen here) snapped up syndication rights for the new NCIS:LA so quickly? It won't even be available until 2012. Well, the top six shows on USA last week were all NCIS reruns, that's why. It means the series will be quickly sold in syndication up here, too, I fearlessly predict. And for a similar reason TNT has snapped up The Mentalist.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In Search Of Hockey Canadiana

The courier was banging and banging on my door with a rushed DVD. And I'm glad I answered because it turns out to be one of the best history lessons Canadian TV has turned out this year.
Because Hunting The Last Hamilton Tiger is about more than searching for the last sweater of the famed Hamilton Tiogers hockey team.
The hour long documentary uses that premise as the focal point for a look backward at what a progressive city Hamilton was in the 1920's and contrast this with the city's present dire state.
It's also a look at the NHL during an era when players were paid a pittance. One old hockey jersey is displayed for the camera complete with dried seams of blood. Players battered and bruised each other using heavy sticks to maim the opposition and played on ice filled with cracks and crevices.
The film follows one obsessed collector, Hamilton investment executive Russ Boychuk on his seemingly never ending quest to find the golden grail of hockey memorabilia --the missing last sweater of the only NHL team to play in Hamilton.
If Boychuk ever had found the sweater --and it's apparently still out there somewhere --then the story would end, the quest would be over and we'd lose an expertly told story of how Hamilton and NHL hockey got from there to here.
Of course it helps to have known that Hamiltonians never quite recovered from losing the coveted franchise to Americans way back in 1925. In a way they've been trying to wrestlecontrol of another franchise ever since and almost succeeded in getting the beleagured Phioenix franchise to relocate this year.
Back in 1925 Hamilton was prosperous, thriving, with an increasing population and an NHL team that went all the way to the playoffs. Then the players went on strike for more money and team owner Perc Thompson everything to a New York businessman who rechristened the team the New York Americans.
I know all about that deal. In 1971 as a fresh faced journalism graduate I arrived at The Spectator as the 24-year old TV critic. Everywhere I went I heard about the legendary Tigers. One aged resident remembered how citizens would pelt Thompson with rotten fruit whenever they saw him on the street.
The 1925 still photographs at the top of the hour show a city that looked much the same in 1971: the Right House department store was still there, the movie palaces, the Palace and Capitol were still standing.
Cameras follow Boychuk on his never ending quest --he finds a Hamilton dealer who claims he sold the elusive woolen jersey in the early 1990s.
But this becomes more than an hour about a sweater. It's about the mindset of collectors. Back then who could have figured a sweaty, woolen jersey would one day be worth upwards of $100,000?
A lot of famous sports guys have their say and we even visit with "The Sweater Detective", a guy who can buys and sells historical hockey sweaters for six figures.
The sweater stuff fascinates but this is also a glimpse of recent Canadian history and why so much Canadiana including a prized hockey franchise got gobbled up by wealthier Americans.
Or am I over reacting because I once lived in Hamilton?
And here's my conflict of interest note: director-executive producer David Wesley once succeeded me as The Spec's TV critic although I haven't seen him in years.
He's produced an instant classic of Canadiana that should have a long shelf life on Canadian Sports channels I believe.
I really don't want that Tiger sweater to ever be found. I much prefer the excitement of the chase and the hunt to any happy ending.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Welcome Back V, The Remake

They're b-a-c-k!
The pesky reptilian aliens from V, I mean.
Way, way back in 1984 there was a super sci fi miniseries on NBC called V. Its popularity faded with a sequel and a brief running series because the more the aliens were explained away the less mysterious and interesting they became to viewers.
After a quarter of a century there's an expensive looking remake which may suffer that same fate of familiarity breeding contempt.
The first hour is pretty terrific thanks to the brilliant new special effects which are the equal of any current movie blockbuster.
But at the end of the hour there's the inevitable explanations and poof the tension starts evaporating.
Perhaps the first 10 minutes or so stand alone as a supteme act of TV story telling.
The events will surely remind you of all the scare tactics of 9/11 as inhabitants of New York city feel the rolling effects of a strange earthquake and looking up see a gigantioc spaceship parked overhead their skyscrapers.
All sorts of weird rumors are spread in the ensuing panic.
In 1984 the plot served as a none too subtle metaphor for battling Communism.
Today the FBI agents headed by Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost) are battling domestic terrorists and wondering how many terrorist cells have already been planted through American society.
Meanwhile the aliens who prefer to be called "Visitors" present a perfect representative of their order in the pert figure of one called Anna (Morena Baccarin of Heartland). She is an Audrey Tantou look alike.
Let's see, there's a dissafected American teen (Logan Huffman) who is smitten with the teen Visitor called Lisa (Laura Vandervoot).
And there's a patient Anglican priest (Joel Getsch) who is momentarily delightred when his congregation swells with so many new parishioners.
And there's a newleywed (Morris Chestnut) who may already have crossed over. And a TV anchor (Scott Wolf from Party Of Five) lets himself be used by the aliens with disastrous results.
The updated V plays off contemporary issues and initially it scores some hits. One thing the aliens are promising is universal health care which should please Democratic U.S. viewers.
But the aliens may be more than they seem. And if their creepiness is too soon unmasked the new series may quickly falter just as the original V did.
ABC (and CTV in Canada) are running only four episodes before a break for the Winter Olympics. There are industry reports about production delays and reshoots and the return of V with nine more episodes is still to be decided.
Of course if you're like me and remember the original V you'll have trouble working up a sweat.
But V is cleverly targeted for the younger generation and could score hugely if it stays on track.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Must See Look At Candidate Obama

Check out HBO's new two-hours plus documentary By The People, a mesmerising documentary on the rise of candidate Barrack Obama through the 2008 political campaign from the cornfields of Iowa to his dazzling electoral win as President of the United States.
It's jam packed with anecdotes and high tension but what makes it a strange viewing experience is the calm at the center of the political storm and that is Obama himself. Never does he blow up to let off steam. Never is he less than friendly and hospitable.
While others all around him are upset, cranky, visibly distressed he remains a still smiling, friendly optimistic figure, completely convinced this is his moment to become the first African American president.
The film keeps us interested because directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams enjoyed unprecedented access to the Obama team. We sit in on strategy meetings, watch as Hilary Clinton's seemingly unassailable lead in Iowa gets whittled away and follow the candidate on what seems like a never ending procession of picnics and small town meetings where he is never less than affable.
Heroes of this movie are Obama senior advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe who start out in Iowa as decided underdogs. After all Obama had only two years in the U.S. Senate and several years in the Illinois legislature before making his audacious run for the presidency.
We get to know the advisers better than we ever know the candidate. What makes Obama run? His wife Michelle is equally hard working. Neither seemed surprised at how quickly the campaign took off.
By contrast Clinton never really found herself in Iowa and was never able to reclaim first place status.
What propelled Obama was the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of idealistic , young staffers, some of whom are profiled here. They are undeniably naive politically but their enthusiasm propels the campaign --take Ronnie Cho, son of Korean immigreants, who labors day and night and breaks into tears when things finally start going right.
We see how young speechwriter Jon Fabreau is able to authentically replicate the Obama vision in speech after speech, how media adviser Robert Gibbs keeps the press on Obama side. And there are the great dramatic moments which could have toppled any Obama nomination: the racist rantings of Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright, the friendship with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers coupled with the death of a beloved grandmoather the day before the election.
Through it all the Obamas come across as eager to please, confident, not easily ruffled. Whether this will make for a great presidency remains to be seen because the new President's lack of experience has already been apparent on many issues.
But finally it all comes down to chance: before the stock market meltdown Obama and Republican rival John McCain had been neck and neck. An economic crisis propelled the first black president to victory and a year later still taunts him every day.
By The People is recommended for more than just political junkies. As a group portrait of how a candidacy is managed, sold to the people and propelled to the presidency it's a marvel of filmmaking techniques.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.
BY THE PEOPLE premieres on HBO CANADA Tuesday NOV. 3 at 9 p.m.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Now I Answer Some E-Mails

I'm getting enough e-mail queries to put them all together in one batch:
Q: I hear NBC Southland is getting its second season cancelled even before appearing. What gives?
A: It's true NBC cancelled the second season of the well received cop show after initially greenlighting a second season. That means six hour episodes have already been filmed with more to come. Now I'm hearing a deal with TNT is imminent which doesn't help Canadian viewers much. So far Canadian cable doesn't pick up TNT so it's over to Showcase and The Movie Network to see if they're interested in picking up Canadian rights.
Q: What's with Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies. The other night he introduced a movie by saying it had Claude Rains in a perfect Hitchcockian thriller. Instead Rains appeared in the Depression era drama Saturday's Children. And last night he promised us Daphne Du Maurier's gothic thriller Rebecca and up came Experiment Perilous.
A: When TCM finally hit Canadian TV there was cause for cheering. But fully seven per cent of TCM's library of classic films can't be shown as yet --Canadian networks have these rights and in some cases TCM won't gain control for years to come. In the case of Notorious and Rebecca CBC currently holds the Canadian rights and CBC has recently shown both of these movies late nights.
Q: Please explain the currently raging controversy over the disappearance of local TV unless cable companies fork over enough dough? These ads are driving me crazy.
A: I just can't because it makes no sense. What local programming is there these days on CBLT and CFTO outside of newscasts?
CBLT used to offer varied local fare from Barbara McLeod's local talk show to a night club show and another featuring Oscar Peterson. CFTO even had a regional director one Yvan Fecan who now runs CTVglobemedia. CFTO had kids shows like Uncle Bobby, Joyce Davidson's talk show, Isabel Bassett's weekly current affairs show. All have disappeared to make way for cheaper U.S. imports. CTV now has no Canadian talk show on its schedule whereas a few years back there was Dini Petty, Vicki Gabereau and Mike Bullard.
If the networks are financially troubled these days it's because of the huge fees they have paid out to import U.S. series --the figure is well over $600 million for this season. These shows just aren't attracting national advertising as they used to before the recession kicked in.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is Leno's Prime Time Up?

Ace Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes has a brilliant story about the ramifications of NBC's sudden change in prime time programming.
It all started on Thursday when NBC Universal entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin said his network would no longer program to profit margins.
And that could spell the end of Jay Leno's faltering prime time talk show.
Simply stated (according to Gaspin): "The goal...is to put the best possible programs we can on the air."
NBC's Leno strategy called for the former Tonight Show to host the faltering 10 p.m. lineup because NBC's costly drama series just were not making it in the ratings.
The peacock proud network figured a show as cheap as Leno could still make a profit even when finishing third or even fourth on a competitive prime time night.
But NBC bosses are hating the idea of a fourth place finish.
In fact Leno is getting creamed during the baseball playoffs. On other nights he fares just as poorly.
And NBC affiliates are hollering about the low ratings they're pulling in which impact on their 11 p.m. local newscasts.
Only last week NBC dropped its proposed second season of the low rated police series Southland although six hour episodes had already been shot.
The equally low rated but inexpensive Dateline NBC will instead continue in the Friday night slot.
NBC sources say Leno will continue for this season because NBC needs five hour dramas to fill the 10 p.m. slot.
But what about September 2010. What will happen to Jay then?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The New TV Season So Far

Here's what I'm learning on the phone from L.A. Sources about the new TV season:
1. As predicted here CW's Twilight clone The Vampire Diaries is notching huge numbers among teenaged girls. What is it with sexy, teen vampires anyway. The ratings lift has been so big CW has renewed it for an entire season. But the dog awful Melrose Place is also being picked up (for five more episodes ) which is time enough for Heather Locklear to work her ratings magic.
2. Biggest new hit of the year is CBS's NCIS: Los Angeles. Oh, all right it's a spin off so this is yet another case of TV replicating itself. After all CBS has three editions of CSI while NBC has three of Law & Order. NCIS:Los Angeles as reported in Entertainment Weekly is currently ranked 14th but has a very low percentage of DVR viewers: that's because the audience is significantly older.
3. Insiders are saying the very disappointing Eastwick heads the list of new series which will be promptly cancelled at season's end. Also heading for the executioner's block: Hank, The Middle, Cougar Town and probably from seasons past it's farewell for Ugly Betty and Private Practice.
So tell me what series new and old you are fed up with.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Chilling British Documentary

The hourlong documentary Terror In The Skies originally ran on BBC-TV's Panorama series in September 2008.
It's a chilling but brilliantly documented study of how three members of a radical cell based in Britain plotted to blow up transatlantic jumbo jets using home-made liquid bombs.
Three members were subsequently found guilty of conspiracy to murder. Panorama reporter and al-Quada specialist Peter Taylor takes us through the tortured lives of these men --the jury failed to reach a verdict on four other defendants.
He revisits the childhood haunts of the men, even interviewing the teachers they had as boys. Remember they grew up in Britain and seemed relatively unaffected by international news until they reached their teens and then became radicalized.
We see how both British and American intelligence worked tightly together to unravel the plot and identify and arrest the suspects.
All this would not have been possible save for increased British spending on terrorism after the attacks in the London subway system. And there was the random killing of a delivery driver and the subsequent flight to Pakistan of the main suspect --the dead man's nephew.
The terrorists were closely followed by a British team who tapped phones, planted listening devices in various houses as they watched and waited.
The strangest aspect involved the bulk buying of hydrogen peroxide and the removal by a syringe of soft drink containers so a new deadly mixture could be poured inside the bottles. The bottles would then be carried onboard the jets and detonated in the washrooms while the planes were over the Atlantic.
The program seems to imply American authorities intervened with their British counterparts to arrest the suspects before the evidence could be completely compiled and so some of the suspects got off.
But the frightening aspect is how teens from seemingly placid families can be quickly radicalized to the point they'll desert families in their quest for revenge.
The visuals are simply amazing. Don't miss this one. It runs on CBC Newsworld's The Passionate Eye Monday Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. Got that?

CTV's New Fall TV Series, Part 1

It's strange but I don't recall the 1987 movie The Witches Of Eastwick as being anywhere near one of my favourite Jack Nicholson mocies.
But the flick obviously has resonance. There was a 2002 TV movie starring Marcia Cross, Kelly Rutherford and Lori Loughlin that was an obvious busted pilot.
Does anybody out there remember it?
Heck, does anybody remember TV movies?
ABC's new series Eastwick stars Canadian TV icon Paul Gross and co-stars Rebecca Romijn, Jaime Ray Newman and Lindsay Price.
It is pretty much a clone of Desperate Housewives with a dash of Charmed tossed in. The three lead characters are poorly written and poor Gross sports an ugly hair job that makes him look older than his 49 years.
Question: in the seasons since Due South exited Gross must have had any number of U.S. TV offers. Why he picked this semi dud which doesn't play off his acting charms beats me.
This is a gimmicky, badly executed show. We keep hoping Nicholson and his original stars Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon might pop up and they never do.
CTV's A Channel is running it simulcast with ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
My rating: **
The Vampire Diaries is as close a copy to Twilight as I could ever imagine. So far most reviews are saying it lacks bite --ha, ha!
But what do I know? It has already garnered a huge audience of female viewers under age 34 so sponsors are flocking to buy time on it.
So shoot me but I have yet to read the books. The show is brilliantly made, however, with lots of well executed effects and since it's from Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek) the teens speak like Haervard graduates.
Nina Dobrev plays 17-year-old high school student Elena who is quite a hunkette. Back at school she meets new boy Stefan (Paul Wesley) and yes he's another misunderstood teen vampire.
He's also got an older brother vampire Ian Somerhalder who tries to rejoin the family after a 15-year absence.
Where have I seen Wesley before I asked myself before searchiong on IMDB. Oh, yeah, he was a werewolf on Wolf Lake and a half angel in Fallen
Of course there's a sexy bad girl played to the limit by Candice Accola.
What I did not enjoy about this one was the artsy voice over narratives as both love stricken teens read from their diaries. Oh, I see, that's why they call the thing Vampire Diaries. Now I get it.
Will I watch again? Yes, but only on nights where reruns are on the competing channels.
My rating: ** 1/2.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Jay Leno Is Bringing NBC Down

I've been hearing whispered rumors from my U.S. sources and now The New York Times' ace TV critic Bill Carter (an old buddy from TV press tours past) has taken the Jay Leno story public.
Simply stated Carter's story says Leno's bad ratings performance is dragging NBC down in many ways.
I've already noticed the erosion in ratings of Conan O'Brien's revamped Tonight Show. I still state this is due to Leno's departure and not the repositioning of Leno at 10 p.m.
But Carter also notes a downturn in NBC's top rated Law & Order: SVU which was switched from 10 to 9 p.m.
I'd agree it is a 10 p.m. show and does not work as well an hour earlier.
Leno's ratings most nights are indeed anemic but are actually better than the bad numbers posted last season by NBC's wilting dramatiuc hours.
Some NBC sources say there'll be a dramatic upswing once CBS drama hits go into reruns.
Anyhow Carter's story "Debate Over Effects Of Leno's Show" should be read by all TV addicts. It ran in the NYT on Oct. 11. Got that?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

TV's Tenuous Fall

First series to get the cancellation axe was the dreadful The Beautiful Life.
Now it's Southland's turn.
After completing six new episodes the police show with Benjamin Mckenzie was pink slipped even before a single new episode got to air. The ratings anemic (but cheap to produce) Dateline will continue running Fridays at 9.
The series was critically acclaimed but NBC has fewer dramatic slots to fill now that Jay Leno is on weeknights at 10.
Warner Bros. intends shopping the critically lauded series to various cable weblets.
Over on Thursdays at 10 CBS's The Mentalist easily outstrips ABC's Private Practice which only retains 2/3 of the audience of Grey's Anatomy.
Look for PP to get moved by midseason at least.
And over at that weblet CW they're ecstatic over the large Thursday night female audiences for The Vampire Diaries. Yes, I know it's a TV reworking of Twilight: teen vampire in high school falls for alienated young thing.
But the vampire soapera is starching first in its timeslot among women 18-34, the very audience sponsors want to reach.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Crowing About Crows

One can quickly forgive filmmaker Susan Fleming for crowing about her new documentary.
Because it's titled A Murder Of Crows and is all about a much maligned bird who turns out to be one of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom.
"Murder" is the word used to describe a crow gathering but comes with a double meaning as crows get shot at and stomped on all the time in big North American cities.
It's the well chosen premiere attraction on CBC-TV's returning The Nature Of Things Sunday night at 9.
But first a personal observation. I've always liked crows. As a kid on summer vacation at Belmont Lake I'd get up at dawn to bicycle the dusty trails and because I fed the crows one day with a dried out bologna sandwich I was always followed by the black birds.
According to Fleming they had the ability to pick out my face and know I was a supplier of food and not an enemy.
But other people either detest them or fear them. And many get them mixed up with ravens.
"I don't know why people hate them so much," Fleming chuckles on the line from her Uxbridge residence.
"Perhaps its that cawing in the early morning that wakes people up. And there's the history of crows beause they're black and seemiungly malevolent which they're not.
"They really are a lot like humans."Crows live in packs and are monogamous save for a few adulterous ones. Their "kids" can stay with them for up to five years and relatives help tend and feed the youngsters.
"And the more I read about crows the more I needed to make this film."
Her travels took her to Seattle university expert John Marzluff, to the far off Pacific islands of New Caledonia, to downtown Tokyo and to the Australian Alps all in search of the weird and wonderful life of crows.
One thing --don't call them bird brained. Crows have the larghest brain mass of any bird group and seem to behave like primates much of the time. Some scientists have taken to calling them "feathered apes" because only crows, chimps and elephants among animals have the capacity to make and use tools.
So Fleming pitched The Nature If Thing's executive producer Michael Allder who financed her photography excursions here and there.
There included a remote island off New Caledonia "which took forever to get to. There's a New Zealand scientist in very primitive conditions who has found ravens there can make tools to extract insects from trees or get at food not otherwise reachable.
"To shoot that was a challenge. Crows hate changes so we first had to get them used to our photography equipment. And then we had to hope they'd do what was promised."
In this case it involved three intricate moves by a crow to extract a bit of food and required considerable preplanning on the part of the crow.
In Seattle we peer into the secret lives of crows. Tiny radio transmitters planted on fledgling crows bring back signals showing the range of a young crow which can be quite startling.
"One of the subjects sadly was hit by a car. But this wasn't unexpected --only 50 per cent of young crows reach maturity."
In Tokyo Fleming shows how crow nesting on hydro installations can plunge an entire city district into chaos. And crows can also spot one human face in a sea of thousands as is demonstrated in a crowded Seattle park. A guy with a mask on (as in the movie Halloween) had previously rattled them and when he returns the birds emit danger signals.
Fleming had exclusivity on all her shoots. She produces a ton of great visuals to support her theories of how smart crows really are.
"All this is real science, not stunts. It's not a bag of tricks it's an invitation inside the world of crows. And I'm really happy how it all worked out."
But Fleming's persistence is already well known --her TV series The Secret Life Of Gardens used endoscopy photography to take us inside our backyards and see what we had never seen before.
A Murder Of Crows does the same type investigative work on crows. And it's a virtual must see, the first greatish Canadian documentary of the new TV season.
Crows is on The Nature Of Things on CBC Sunday night at 9; repeated on CBC NewsworldThursday Oct. 15 at 10 p.m. Got that?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Chris Potter : Canadian TV's Busiest Actor

Hard to believe but the promising young actor I first interviewed on the set of Material World has matured over 19 years to become Canadian TV's most productive actor.
The way Chris Potter figures it he's done hundreds of hours of episodic TV on both sides of the border including seven series beginning with Material World (1990-92) and continuing through Top Cops (1990-92), Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1993-97), Silk Stalkings (1993-07), Queer As Folk (2001), Wild Card (2003-05) and now Heartland which begins its third season on CBC-TV Sunday night at 8.
Plus he's guest starred on everything from One Tree Hill (2005) and Law & Order: SVU (2004-95) to such TV flicks as Sex TRaffic (2004) and two Hallmark TV flicks The Good Witch (2008) and a sequel.
"My secret is I like to work," he laughs on the phone --when we talked he was doing preproduction on an episode of Heartland which he'll also direct.
"But I also have to work --I have four kids."
And when I ask why I didn't see him at the CBC fall TV launch he jokes "I guess I wasn't inmvited!" The CBC family drama is stressing the teenagers on the show to rachet up ratings with young femaler viewers.
"I did the Heartland pilot --I was in an extended cameo and I thought it just might fly. Adults tell me they can watch it with their teens and not fall asleep. I'm the dad this time but the role feels right and it's grown in the story."
And CBC feels so strongly about the show as a bridge to younger viewers who normally are not attracted to this networks fare that 18 episodes have been ordered this season.
Does Potter remember much about our first interview in 1990? At that time he was still living in London, Ontario, unsure about continuing his acting career, worried it wouldn't provide steady employment.
I remind him he proudly showed off his first dressing room which was the size of a cubbyhole and he says "That I remember."
Silk Stalkings was up next and shot in San Diegfo where he relocated his growing family. He thought he might stay south but an offer came to play David Carradine's son in the Toronto sequel to Kung Fu.
"It was quite a ride. I phoned him from Calgary two days before he passed --he was in Bangkok. David was a magnificent eccentric. When he died I mourned him and went to his funeral attended by 500 friends. Three ex-wives were there, grandchildren were there, we all went back to Jane Seymour's Malibu pad to pay our respects. He had hundreds of friends."
Initially Potter was signed for only six episodes of groundbreaking Queer as Folk shot in Toronto and nicely casting him as gay chiropractor.
"They asked me to stay the season which I did but I was commuting back to San Diego and the money was very poor. So I asked for more the second season and they declined so I left ."But he received his best acting notices to date and made several pilots including Astronauts (2002) that never sold.
Back in Toronto he co-starred with Joely Fisher in Wild Card. He agrees with me the first year was pretty good but a change of producers meant a dumbing down of story lines and viewer decline.
"But one of the original producers got me on Tge Young And The Restless for 12 episodes. She told me she wouldn't kill off my character (Ewan Owen) but put me into a coma. So I'm still in that coma, I guess because I never went back!"
Potter started directing on the set of Silk Stalking, says he wants to do more of it in the future.
But he'll continue acting, too. "In November I'll do the third installment of the Good Witch TV movies for Hallmark. They say they will be getting out of the TV movie making game after that because costs are so high."
But he'll also hopefully continue at least a few more years on Heartland. "The stories are still fresh, the scenery is magnificent and these kids have great energy. What's not to like about this family saga?"

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Hills Are Alive

Big news of the TV season was the return Mondfay night on MTV of The Hills but without star Lauren Conrad.
Everybody over the age of 25 must be asking "What the hell is the Hills?"
Well, it's the reality epic on MTV which is so watched by preteens and teens that these same viewers ignore such fictional fare as This Beautiful Life and even Gossip Girl.
The Hills is for voyeurs of the young in heart. Every week teens pine over theantics of a bunch of twentysomething living loving and laughing in modern day L.A.
Lauren Conrad as herself played a high school grad who was soon adviser to a top fashion designer and lived in a million dollar mansion with two best buds.
Lauren's penchant for bad boy lovers was documented in absorbing detail. But Conrad who became herself a millionaire off the show which supposedly does not have a script got bored with playing herself and left.
This season she's been replaced by an old adversary from her previous reality series Laguna Beach, Kristin Cavallari. Where Lauren was sweet and demure, Kris seems foul mouthed and sexually aufacious.
Is this going to go over with its predominantly teen audience. I'm thinking no way.
Girls don't like to see themselves portrayed as sexual predators. I just get the feeling this season is it for The Hills.
With puppy love gone, the formula has been stretched too much., that's it.