Friday, December 30, 2011

Ron James Rolls In Another Year on CBC-TV

A very strange thing is happening on New Year's Day on Canadian TV.
There are actually back-to-back new hour long specials and both are 100 % Canadian.
As far as 2011 goes Canadian content virtually disappeared from some so-called Canadian TV networks. Let's hope happier days are ahead.
But CBC-TV has a new RCAF New Year's Day Special on Monday at 8 pm. that's right welcome.
And at 9 p.m. Ron James roars back with his own take in his New Year's Edition.
Both specials normally run on New Year's Eve but would anybody expect CBC-TV to give up top-rated NHL hockey for even one night? Not me!
James has been fabricating these specials for six years now and has got the format down part.
First of all he's resolutely Canadian from his Maritime twang to his insistence on sending up the mundane details of Canadian lives.
I'm honor bound not to give away his best lines but he goes right after the obesity epidemic in the States and especially that heavily sugard breakfast cereal for kids with the vampire on the box.
Michael Ignatieff diesn't get off Scott free --James jokes that after leading the LIberals to their worst ever electoral defeat Iggy is not teaching political science at U of T.
Joining James are two icons of Canadian TV: Sonja Smits whose feat of three hit Canadian TV drama series in a row must be some kind of record: Street Legal, Traders, The Eleventh Hour.
But since Canadian networks ditched Canadian TV movies and most Canadian TV dramas that couldn't be peddled to the U.S. as American fodder she's been rightly concentrating on stage.
Also on the show but not in the same sketch is her Street Legal co-star Eric Peterson who recently finished dazzling us as one of the prairie funsters in Corner Gas.
James gives Peterson some droll moments as Sir John A. Macdonald in an inspired take off on Murdoch Mysteries set in a beautifully oaken paneled room that also presents Sir Wilfrid Laurier in a funny murder mystery with that comic twist.
James stars as nineteenth century detective Mordecai Moncton--this is such a hoot maybe James should spring out this character into a regular series of his own.
After al;l James one starred in the unhistorical adventures of a British fortress titled Blackfly. Anybody remember that one?
Smits is more to the point garbed in dazzling red and looking more than a little like Lisa Laflamme as she reads the riot act against meek and mild James for shooting up a certain jolly, bearded gentleman whose only offense was riding through the sky.
One reason why these skits work so well: there are many quick cuts to the audience with huge close ups of people laughing heartily.
It's like in the radio days when Jack Benny would strategically place hearty laughters in his studio audience.
Watching other people laugh just makes the rest of us giggle.
James doesn't do just one monologue, he does three artfully spliced throughout the hour.
And, yes, there's also a visit from Aunt Vivien who delivers her annual message to the royal family. She does get quite rude when addressing the problem with Princess Kate's sister's "caboose". And there's a requisite "Little Ronnie" animated bit.
And finally comes a big and bright hugely staged musical number to welcome in the New Year.
In short a Canadian TV show for all Canadians. Imagine that.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Alan Park And CBC-TV's RCAF Back With A Bang

Chatted up talented Alan Park of RCAF fame but because of holiday deadline this was before the actual preview DVD for Not The New Year's Eve Special actually arrived for me to review.
With the DVD running I can now report I'm liking a lot of it. But my suspicion continues CBC made a bad mistake in canceling one of its most valuable franchises.
CBC sources told me at the time the series was pink slipped it had nothing to do with ratings which were actually climbing and even surpassed some shows that got pick ups. It had to do with foreign sales: RCAF with its dead on parodies of the like of Stephen Harper proved a tough sell in foreign markets.
Park was part of a foursome of younger comics imported to beef up RCAF. The others: Jessica Holmes, Penelope Corrin and Craig Lauzon.
Only Holmes is missing from this annual edition which runs a day later than New Year's Eve to make way for CBC's NHL Hockey coverage. Back also are veterans Luba Goy and stalwart Don Ferguson.
I had already journeyed down to CBC's cavernous and mostly vacant Front Street studios to watch a Friday night taping that started at 7 p.m. and ambled on to 10:30. leaving the studio audience in a state approaching lethargy.
However, the actual show all spruced up and tightly edited for TV is lively and often hits marks with great malicious glee.
The funniest sketch I saw was a very bizarre parody of Mad Men which had its three players --Park, Corrin and Lauzon--in stitches and they had to stop several times to regroup.
But surprise! It was one of the pieces that got cut!
"Look, I don't edit the show," says Park. "But it was one of the bits that didn't make it for reasons of length.."
Park also does the dandiest impersonation of President Obama --not only does he look like the president when in nutmeg makeup he catches the guy's odd cadence --Obama always seems to lower his voice at the end of each line.
The skit has Oprah Winfrey --impersonated by guest Arnold Pinnock in the Lincoln bedroom as she suggest she should run for president.
The skit starts off terrifically but winds down clumsily and Pinnock in drag needs more padding to approach Winfrey's girth.
Park is plain terrific in a dead-on if highly exaggerated spoof of the way CBC's Ron James talks to his studio audience --I'm remembering it was James who got RCAF's weekly slot so maybe the malice is deserved.
Other highlights: Luba Goy as Ann McMillan interviewing Princess Kate and another Goy bit that has her facing Green Party leader Elizabeth May.
Lauzon shines as a simpering Stephen Harper and as the Blackberry president who offers customers a free iPhone so they can check for outages.
Corrin scores as the distaff side of the Lang and O'Leary report --even her thick red lipstick matches. The real Kevin O'Leary is present and as obnoxious as ever.
RCAF founding father Don Ferguson has fun with the RCAF timeline and as the world's most important man in a fake Mexican beer commercial.
The skits that got cut can still be seen on the RCAF webpage I'm told.
Also guesting on this edition: Ron MacLean, Adam Beach, wrestler Roddy Piper who is really funny.
This special boasts a new directotr Wayne Moss plus new writers in Rob Lindsay, Wayne Testori and Kevin Wallis.
Park told me there was an inevitable whiff of sadness -RCAF founder Roger Abbott died this year--and appears in a stock shot with the late John Morgan. Members of Abbott's family were in the audience.
Park says the Ron James parody was difficult --he wrote it and watched James clips to get the nuances of Maritimer speech.
"It's strange because a lot of our grips also work on his show. When I saw they got it I knew it was working."
I've always thought RCAF should tour in a format that would have them doing one of their radio broadcasts. I first caught the troupe iat Hamilton Place in 1979 doing such a show to an overflow audience..
Park agrees saying "We did talk about it but then Roger became sick and spent summers getting chemotherapy. He was trying to step back a bit you see."
Park says "I'm terrible at auditions"--one reason you don't see him in guest spots on TV drama series shot in Toronto. "So I'm not on Flashpoint --yet."
Aside from his RCAF TV work I wish Park and Corrin would try their own anti-sitcom --as a quarreling couple always trying to top each other at work and in life. I can almost see it now,
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Worst TV Of 2011

It's been quite a year for TV watchers like yours truly.
Canadian TV virtually disappeared from even so-called Canadian netorks during the fall with the compliance of the CRTC which is supposed to regulate these kind of things.
Reality TV sunk to a new low if that is possible --the relentlessly self promoting Kardashians were found out and how.
And Daytime TV sank like a stone with the cancellation of many soap operas that had been running for decades and the exiting of imperious Oprah Winfrey.
Here's my Ten Worst list of the TV disasters of the year.
1. PAN AM: It was rumored to be the big new hit of the year. Trouble is nobody told the TV audience who tuned in once and then tuned right out. One of the most expensive shows in recent years --I guess all the money was squandered on getting the accoutrements of the Fifties just so. Because $10 million was squandered on the plot. But all the intricate irony of Mad Men was gone and instead we got just another vintage soap. Story lines were underwhelming. The four gals were cute and completely unconvincing. What a letdown!
2. THE PLAYBOY CLUB: Another dopey return to the Fifties. But if you were Hugh Hefner's age then just maybe this one was for you. Eddie Cibrian was hired as the lead presumably because he looked a bit like Jon Hamm. But he couldn't act like Hamm, that was the problem. Seeing those busty young things adorned in their bunny outfits incensed the Parents Television Council but nobody else batted an eye. This one sank like a stone proving the Playboy Years are well past us. Who actually reads Playboy these days anyway?
3. PRIME SUSPECT: Mistake number one was snatching the name of the brilliant British show with Helen Mirren and then mucking around with the story. That excellent actress Mario Bello was left to flounder in a part making no sense. All the nuances of the original were junked and what remained was just another procedural thing. Critics fixated on Bello's masculine hats. Some excellent actors were scarcely used. Shooting in New York city did not help. A huge, boring bomb, this was predicted by Global's head programmer to be the big break out hit. But what a flop!
4. TERRA NOVA: Loved the CGI dinos. For about 10 minutes. Then realized there was no money left over for scripts. The look of this one shot in New Zealand was terrific. The family profiled emerged as simply dull and listless. I couldn't have cared less about their fate. Even the children I know stopped watching early on. This stinker proves tossing money at the screen doesn't make for good TV.
5. X FACTOR: So there he was on the talk shows, Simon Cowell I mean, and he was predicting huge numbers for the latest reality effort which he imported from Britain. But these kind of musical competitions have been copied so often boredom has set in. Even with Paula Abdul back at his side Cowell couldn't make it work. And let's face it the best contestants had already been nabbed by the competition. It emerged as simply predictable.
6. CHARLIE'S ANGELS: A real dog. Watching sweet young things racing around in swimwear no longer cuts it. This one flopped because the original producer Aaron Spelling is dead. And Spelling really believed in such trash, he was TV's great schlock meister. He chose Farrah Fawcett and the show went skyward in the ratings. And Aaron never would have chosen any of the latest batch of Angels. His poor taste meter would have given us far worse talent --hence his success.
7. TORCHWOOD: Moving the classy BBC sci fi show to America ruined it. The final British series, Torchwood: Children Of Earth was pretty wonderful. The U.S. follow up Torchwood: Miracle Day just didn't do it for me, a melange of some bold ideas and bad execution. Charismatic John Barrowman was even moved off center stage to make way for such American stars as Mekhi Phifer. So much of what followed was illogical and just plain confusing. After this mess it's unlikely we'll ever see another Torchwood which is too bad.
8. RINGER: Maybe this one wasn't terrible at all. Maybe it was just plain boring. I thought Sarah Michelle Gellar would have gotten a better vehicle for her TV comeback. But this was soap opera territory and not very well written. She simply looked lost. I simply felt disappointed. Everything about it rang false.
9. PIERS MORGAN: Replacing rapidly aging Larry King with this True Brit has been a colossal mistake for CNN. His show biz interviews are vapid. Larry boasted he never did any research before an interview and it showed --he could cut to the quick and Piers is merely fawning. Also, he has no sense of American politics and when King had politicos foisted on him he was blunt and impertinent.
10. 2 BROKE GIRLS: I thought the pilot had potential. But this one has morphed into a weekly remake of Lucy and Ethel. Or even worse Laverne and Shirley. There may be even worse new sitcoms out there but this one had all the makings of a fun show. I've stopped watching because there's only so much I can take.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Watching TV On Christmas Day

You can't spend all day unwrapping presents can you?
For some there's church in the early morning or at midnight on Christmas Eve.
And a hearty family meal at noon or 4 p.n. depending on the custom.
That leaves plenty of time to hunker down in front of the flickering TV set on Christmas day and night.
Among the highlights:
** The strangest marathon seems to be AMC's salute to Duke Wayne. How that ties in with Christmas I'll never know. But there are chances to catch up with such later day epics as El Dorado, Rio Bravo and that's plenty fine with me.
** HGTV counters with a Holmes On Holmes marathon. Every episode seems the same as the last. Gruff Mike enters a shoddily built new home only to discover dozens of discrepancies the homes inspector simply overlooked. Lots of bleak faces as homeowners are told it's gonna be a virtual redo. And at the hour's end Mike plays kissy face and hugs as he departs another holmes perfect.
** The Queen's Palaces is TVO's marathon --the British made series examines all those monstrous wrecks that constitute HM's homes. Most are old and dusty and however does she afford those heating bills? The look at Henry VIII's ruble was fascinating --spiders seemed to pop out of every crook. No wonder HM is always off to other countries --it's must be to get away from all those bill collectors.
** CBC plays it ultra safe with yet another rerun of Miracle On 34th Street (1947) showing us what a wonderfully civilized city New York was back in 1947 and a rerun of the 2010 TV special A Heartland Christmas.
** CTV dumps three Shrek movies in its prime time package with nothing Canadian about the lineup which is disappointing.
** Global has the 2006 flick Christmas On Chestnut Street but there's a conversation with Premier McGuinty at midnight.
** A&E which was once a real Arts and Entertainment channel has a Parking Wars marathon which really tickles me. See owners fight for the right to get their cars back despite the acres of (U.S.) government red tape.
** Not to be outdone History Channel has a Pawn stars marathon. Hey, this is one of the few reality shows I rather like, at least a bit of history gets mixed in there.
** Comedy has a Big Bang Theory marathon which is all right by me although I'd much prefer a Corner Gas marathon or a King Of Kensington one.
** Space has a Doctor Who marathon --I'm not sure which series this one is all about but it seems to be the latest edition.
** Outdoor L
** National Geographic has a Python Hunters marathon --if you like snakes.
** BBC Canada's marathon is one devoted to Property Virgins which is great but why a Canadian series getting pride of place on our sole British channel.
** But the winner of the best marathon programming is Discovery World HD with has a great marathon --all six hours of the flawless series Human Planet. I started watching the preview DVD and couldn't stop. The first hour, Life At The Extremes, looks at a whale hunter in Indonesia, the Dorobo hunters of Kenya who dare steal meat from a pride of lions, a little girl traveling 50 miles through the frozen mountains to school in Tibet. The photography is outstanding. Why not chose this one to watch?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The 10 Worst Christmas Movies On TV

I accepted a freelance assignment to view every single Christmas movie running on TV this season.
And it's getting me down already.
I've had to sit through some terrible stinkers let me tell you.
And here are the worst ones so far.
1. White Christmas (1954) is just plain awful. Oh, there are a few great Irving Berlin ditties along the way including the title song. But Bing Crosby looks mighty bored and no wonder --he'd done the same story as Holiday Inn just 12 years before. Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are cute when warbling Sisters. But Danny Kaye is completely unfunny and he mugs terribly. The sets are so artificial --like the corn flakes for snow. I liked this one when it played at Toronto's Imperial theater way back when I was just eight. But I wasn't a TV critic then.
2. The Bishop's Wife (1947) has Cary Grant returning to earth as an angel to mend the fractured marriage of Loretta Young and David Niven who is an Episcopalian bishop who wants to construct a new cathedral. When I mentioned it once to Grant he made a face and called it "Among the worst films I ever made." And he wasn't exaggerating one bit.
3. Susan Slept Here (1954) --the title was considered so salacious in 1964 that the Ontario censor balked a bit. Dick Powell's last movie and I can completely understand --he's a Hollywood writer saddled with teenage delinquent Debbie Reynolds for the Christmas holidays. Debbie as a delinquent? She's as phoney as Powell's hairpiece and the movie isn't one bit suggestive. This was 1954 after all.
4. Miracle On 34th Street (1947) like most commercial Christmas flicks contains no references to the "J-" word at all. Edmund Gwenn is a puckish Saint Nick everyone thinks crackers and Natalie Wood aged 8 is a very knowing daughter with divorcee Maureen O'Hara as her mom. Shots of what New York city looked like in 1947 are the only redeeming features.
5. The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942) has some nasty zingers from Monty Wooley but as a celebration of Christmas it's a bust. Joan Rivers was once going to do a modern version and said after viewing it she had to walk away. "These days the patient would be air lifted to a hospital and not spend weeks in the family's living room living high off the hog."
6. Remember The Night (1940) presents Fred MacMurray as an ambitious D.A. who takes shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck home for the holidays where she meets an unbelievable family right out of Norman Rockwell. It just doesn't make sense and the dialogue is pure corn.
7. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) is a cult classic, I'm told. The cult of Satan I'm guessing. Kid sees a guy in a Santa Suit going on a killing spree and after growing up in a Catholic orphanage tries to ape the killer. Released during the holiday season it's pretty terrible on all counts.
8. We're No Angels (1955) casts Humphrey Bogart as a Devil's Island convict who helps a shopkeeper and family in the true Christmas season. Bogey's worst ever film which is saying quite a liot.
9. The Night They Saved Chreistmas (1984) has Jaclyn Smith and Art Carney in something about a mining company threatening to blow up the North Pole in search of an oil field. I watched this mind numbing fantasy almost until the bitter end.
10. Scrooge (1970) is a singin' and dancin' edition of A Christmas Carol with Albert Finney as Scrooge in an over the top characterization. Eleven totally forgettable songs and no relief for the poor viewer. Blah!
I submit the best Christmas movie remains It's A Wonderful Life (1946) because it's very scary and not at all cheerful like most holiday films I've been watching.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Canadian TV Drama Needs A Makeover

The crises in Canadian TV always start with drama.
Consider the evidence: this fall Global TV had zero hours a week of filmed Canadian drama while CTV had a mere hour.
Remember the CRTC dictates that Canadian networks in prime time should have 50 per cent Canadian content which isn't happening right now.
And now on his most excellent TV website TVFeedsMyFamily veteran critic Bill Brioux reveals that Global's high rated but pricey locally made drama series Combat Hospital is probably kaput.
In Canada the summer series notched huge ratings even higher than Rookie Blue.
But ABC-TV has passed on ordering a second season and Global apparently doesn't have the resources to make it without that all important sale to an American network.
This isn't the first time a Canadian show fared well on Canadian TV but got dumped because the American co-producer pulled the plug.
Consider the fate of Falcon Beach (2005-07) which ran for two seasons also on Global but perished when Disney declined to finance a third year.
And Citytv's ratings wow Godiva's (2005-06)--all about life in a trendy Vancouver restaurant--=collapsed after two years because there was no U.S. sale.
It's true CBC's DaVinci's Inquest (1998-2005) lasted for seven seasons and 91 episodes completely without U.S. money although the entire package was later sold to CBS's affiliates for late night showings.
But another CBC Vancouver series Intelligence (2005-07) didn't make it to a third year despite superb reviews because of American disinterest --although both Fox and CBS tried and failed to make an American spinoff.
CBC's Being Erica currently runs on the American Soap weblet and that sale was a factor in CBC continuing to order new episodes of the ratings weak dramatic serial.
I visited the Combat Hospital set out in Etobicoke in the summer along with a gaggle of veteran scribes and later enthusiastically reviewed the series.
But if this means only shows that can be sold to the U.S. will survive on Canadian TV then we have a huge problem.
Flashpoint kept going on CTV because of the CBS commitment which is apparently now over. CTV's The Listener bombed mightily on NBC but CTV is apparently thinking of a later syndication deal on American TV.
It seems only CBC has the financial resources to make Canadian shows that are not set in some kind of hazy never land.
In January Global premieres a new ultra Canadian drama series in Bomb Girl starring Meg Tilly and shot in Toronto's Distillery District. And by the way I think it's smashing.
And then along comes The Firm which is shot in Toronto but stars American import Josh Lucas. It's also on Global.
Canadian TV movies and miniseries have virtually disappeared over the past few years.
And it all makes me wonder if Canadian TV as a separate entity has any fuutre at all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beyond Disaster Worth Catching On Citytv

So here we are almost at the half way point in the 2011-12 TV season.
And everybody I'm meeting up with keeps asks me what's happened to Canadian TV.
It's disappeared that's what has happened: fewer dramas and comedies than I can even remember and even the news specials seem to have ceased.
That's why Citytv's new documentary Beyond Disaster seems so very special. It ditches the false bonhommie of the season to deftly examine the cracks and fissures on our foreign aid.
The compelling hour is part of an irregular series of specials titled Tough Choices With Gord Martineau and with the departure of Lloyd Robertson from reportage Martineau has become Canadian TV news's new iron man.
Citytv plans three more specials co-written and co-produced by Martineau to highlight his expertise in reporting.
And Martineu wisely chose as his first project a look at the Canadian relief organization GlobalMedic which ferries in life sustaining supplies to regions devastated by earthquakes or tsunamis or armed conflicts.
He shows footage from his earlier expedition to Haiti where the devastation was complete and returns to find the conditions still appalling.
These scenes get so scary the crew is advised to stay inside their vehicles. An old woman has died on a dusty main street and nobody bothers to stop and attend to the body.
His tour guide is Toronto paramedic Rahul Singh who first took him around years ago. Nothing on the surface seems to have changed although Singh keeps reiterating it has gotten --slightly --better.
Says Singh on the phone:"I think Gord was startled by how bad it still is. It's quite a sight --sad. Government agencies do not seem to have the means to turn it around."
Martineau and Singh also travelled to Cambodia where the challenges are completely different. A civil war 30 years ago left the countryside pockmarked with land mines. There are hundreds of thousands of them still hidden underground to go off and maim innocent young children.
But Singh also shows how a very simple solution --involving the most primitive technology can be used to clean the dirty river water and make it drinkable for youngsters who are perishing from cholera. The cost is about $50 a family and involves a combination of gravel, sand, some chemicals and cheesecloth..
The theme is that small is better, it can put the initiatives in the hands of the villagers and let them chart their future.
"When Gord asked me to be in this film I wasn't sure," Singh says. "It's difficult walking around with a cameraman following you. It took me some time to adjust to that."
In Haiti hundreds of million of dollars have been pledged but little has been done so far.
"We're saying give us less money than that and we can show you the results. We can cut corners to get things done," Singh says.
Another project underway: "Buying $100 winter coats for the children of the Attawapisket reserve. We're not about to tie up more money but approaching problems from a different perspective."
Maineau (scarcely changed from the guy I first interviewed at CFTO in the Seventies) surely knows what makes an hour of TV riveting and what questions to ask. Beyond Disaster challenges viewers and offers some small solutions and it's a must see especially at this time of the year.
Beyond Disaster was directed expertly by Karen PInker who produced and wrote it with Martineau.--all for 90th Parallel Productions.
It's an impressive start for the occasional new series of specials..
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Harry Morgan: TV's Best Ever Character Star

So there I was in the summer of 1976 taking a tour of the 20th Century-Fox backlot with Harry Morgan of TV's M*A*S*H. as my guide.
"See that soundstage over there," he said as he pointed. " We shot a lot of State Fair (1945) there. And that New York street --we shot Orchestra Wives (1942) along it. And over there at the M*A*S*H soundstage I worked with Hank Fonda on the western classic The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
Harry Morgan who passed this week at the age of 96 had started on the lot in 1942 in the Randolph Scott actioner To the Shores Of Tripoli (1942).
"Played a character called Mouthy," he laughed. "I never forget the character's names.
"I was Ebenezer Burling in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) and I was Henchman Nat in The Oregon trail (1942). I was the bath attendant in Somewhere In The Night (1946) --my part was so small I didn't have a name or even billing.
" In The Big Clock (1948) I was Charles Laughton's masseur and my assignment was to kill off Ray Milland."
Morgan chuckled as he toddled off to his dressing room and we had a pleasant lunch and he kept inviting me back to the M*A*S*H set every summer when I was attending the TV Critics' convention.
It just so happened the Century Plaza hotel had been constructed on part of the old Fox back lot and all I had to do was skip out during a boring mass interview and head for the back doors that opened onto the modern Fox studios.
And I did this every year until the final press conference announcing the end of Fox which was held in 1983. The normally taciturn Morgan was teary eyed on the occasion.
And I met up again with Morgan when he was filming an episode of The twilight Zone in Toronto in 1988 co-starring Canadians Cedric Smith, Barbara Chilcott and Robin Ward.
He talked about retirement then but whispered "But I'm a mere tad of 75."
In terms of TV series Morgan could well boast he'd been co-starred in more than any other actor around.
"I was busy in movies until 1954 when I jumped into December Bride on CBS opposite Spring Byington and it lasted five seasons. We shot before an audience until the last season when Spring and Verna Felton could no longer remember their lines so we had to do it on a soundstage in bits and pieces.
"Then CBS had the idea of a spin off called Pete And Gladys. I had been the next door neighbor who was always talking about his wife in comical turns. But when audiences actually got to see her it wasn't so much fun anymore.
"Then I co-starred in The Richard Boone Show (1963-64) which was NBC's idea for a TV repertory show --same bunch of actors every week but different stories. Audiences just didn't understand that at all.
"Kentucky Jones (1964-65) had Dennis weaver as a vet who adopts an orphan and I was his assistant and it lasted one season. It was full of the cutes.
"I then spent three seasons opposite Jack Webb on the revised Dragnet (1967-70). Jack was a strange character, very protective of his formula but very creative. He wanted me to talk in that staccato style of his and sometimes I just couldn't say the stuff.
"Hec Ramsey (1972-74) was one that Webb specifically hired me to be in..Webb told me it was Dragnet meets John Wayne and the critics picked that up. Richard Boone was the star but he was so cantankerous NBC cancelled us after two seasons.
"After M*A*S*H I did one called AfterMASH (1983-84) but viewers wondered where Alda and Swit were and it lasted one season only.
"I didn't learn my lesson, I was back at it with Blacke's Magic (1986) with Hal Linden from the guy who created Murder She Wrote. NBC panicked after initially bad ratings and we got cancelled too quickly."
Morgan then played Judge Bell in two TV movies opposite Walter Matthau (Against Her Will and Incident In A Small Town) and told me "He is an actor's actor. Listens! How many young actors do that?"
Harry Morgan listened intently every time I interviewed him.
For me and for millions of others he'll always be Col. Sherman Potter.
And I'm missing him already.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Autism Enigma: Must See Canadian TV

Sometimes a promising documentary gets vaulted into the must see category by events that can only be described as serendipitous.
The hour long The Autism Enigma falls into this category . The explosion of autism in very young children began as a Nature Of Things project co-directed by Marion Gruner and Christopher Sumpton.
Guleph based Gruner is a new mother who was only beginning to hone in on the subject when she interviewed the remarkable 90-year old Dr. Sydney Finegold, the world's leading authority on bowel flora.
In 1998 Feingold had a call from a Chicago gastroenterologist who knew a mother Ellen Bolte with a young son who she figured out might have had some form of bacterial infection.
"And we went to Chicago area to see her,"Gruner reports. "And she's a remarkable woman with a background that enabled her to know where to dig for facts and who to contact.
Her theory went something like this: the baby had to have huge doses of antibiotics which seemed to change his very demeanor and she wondered if it had somehow impacted on his central nervous system.
Interviewed on the hour Feingold says that was entirely possible and that when treated with Vancomycin the baby dramatically improved for the six weeks he was on the drug only to regress later.
"It turns out Mrs. Bolte photographed this period extensively and we see how much improved the boy is. And then we see the shocking regression," Gruner adds..
Bolte's remarkable documentation vaults The Autism Enigma into the category of must see TV.
And being able to personalize the story should make all the difference to many viewers. It provides an instant connection.
"It is a vastly complicated subject,"Gruner says.
And to further personalize the story the experiences of Somali children in Canada are documented --many experience similar symptoms when exposed to Western food traditions.
Then we get to know the leading researchers in the field: Dr. Derrick MacFabe, director of autism research at the University of Western Ontario, Laurie Mawlam of Autism Canada, Hassan and Idman Roble of the Somali Parent Support Group, Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe and Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe at the University of Toronto, Dr. Stephen Scherer of the Hospital For Sick Children, Biologist Jeremy Nicholson at London's Imperial College.
As absortbing as all their shared knowledge is it isn't pitched over the heads of an average viewer. And it's not presented in a scarey way either but logically.
Biggest problem Gruner faced was assembling a 44-minute print for NOT but she's done a splendid job here. A longer version has already been sold to French and German TV." It contained a whole segment on the situation in Norway which had to be deleted here for time."
I'd say a sale to U.S. TV should occur sooner than later because of the timeliness of the subject.
The Autism Enigma is the latest first rate documentary running on NOT this season making it one of the venerable series' best.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Yes, I Am Clark Gable's Daughter"

"Yes, I am Clark Gable's daughter. My mother is Loretta Young."
That was the explosive way Judy Lewis introduced herself to me in 1994 when she was on a promotional tour for her autobiography.
The thing was in 1986 I'd scored a major scoop in Toronto by being the only Canadian reporter allowed on the set of Loretta Young's TV movie comeback called Christmas Eve.
Getting Young to agree to a one-on-one interview had been difficult but on the very last day of shooting she relented.
The head of NBC International which was making the movie simply told her the film had not yet been sold to a Canadian network "because people don't know who you are anymore."
At first Young said she'd give me 15 minutes but seven hours later she was still talking and reminiscing about her great career.
At 73 she was indeed still gorgeous and enviably wrinkle free.
And finally as she prepared for her last scene of the movie I took my leave but not before she offered this compliment: "Thank you for not asking the usual question."
And I said "If I had what would your answer have been?"
Young: "That if true it was the most romantic moment in Hollywood history."
The story was that Young and Clark Gable had an affair on the set of Call Of The Wild (1935). When the deeply religious Young learned she was pregnant she refused to use the studio abortionist but instead went to Europe for months returning anonymously on a ship that docked at Montreal.
From there she proceeded by train via Toronto and Chicago and then had what turned out to be a lovely daughter who was born in a private home in Venice, California. She then arranged to formally adopt the daughter so no one in Hollywood would ever suspect.
To be an unwed mother in 1935 Hollywood would have meant banishment by the studios all of whom had morality clauses in their contracts.
Gable offered to divorce his wife and marry her but Young simply refused.
When I told all this to Judy Lewis, her daughter, eight years later she briefly burst into tears.
Lewis had been told she was adopted and lived with her mother who subsequently married producer Tom Lewis. Young subsequently had two sons by Lewis.
"Growing up I longed to find my real mother. Little did I know she was right beside me."
Judy Lewis talked about the loneliness of growing up thinking she was adopted. But one day in 1949 when she came home from school there was Clark Gable waiting for her in the living room.
"He held my hand, asked all kinds of questions for over an hour. And then he left and kissed me on the forehead. I never saw my father again."
But Lewis joked "I had his dumbo ears, so big I later had to have an operation to reduce them."
Only when she was about to be married did Judy Lewis learn "from my husband" that she indeed was the daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable.
"My mother would not admit it to me until 1966. She called me a mortal sin which truly angered me."
In 1994 Judy Lewis was already 59 and had been through several careers as an actress and later soap opera producer. She was studying to be a therapist dealing with traumas of adopted children, she said.
Her book titled Uncommon Knowledge caused a three year rift in her relationship with her mother. They were reconciled before Loretta Young's death from cancer at the age of 87 in 2000.
But when I asked Young for another interview when she was back in Toronto in 1987 making another TV movie she defiantly said "Never!" That movie had already been pre-sold to CTV and she turned down all interview requests.
Judy Lewis died on Nov. 25e of lymphoma at her Pennsylvania home.
She was 76 and is survived by a daughter and grand children.
I remember her saying "Sometimes the real stories of Hollywood are far more interesting than the movies." And how right she was.

Friday, December 2, 2011

TV Talkers See Ratings Drip Away

The November Sweep ratings are in and the news isn't great for tsome of TV's biggest talkers.
First, Piers Morgan who was plopped into Larry King's coveted CNN talk slot after King's ratings began a downward slide.
Well, it turns out Morgan's numbers are even worse.
Morgan is crazy about himself but few American viewers seem to be.
The November ratings give him an average of just 154,000 viewers a night in the 9 p.m. slot.
Far from stemming the slide Morgan has started his own avalanche.
He's down 4 per cent among the key demographic of viewers 25 to 54.
By contrast MSNBC's Ed Schultz averages 201,000 nightly although he has dropped 35 per cent over the year.
I just don't think Americans cotton on to Morgan's Britishness. His interviews with American politicians have been all over the place. Arts interviews seem a whole lot better.
King thrived for 20 years because he was the voice of the people and took pride in the fact he never studied up for an interview.
Also, Morgan's shows are taped and look it --he apparently didn't have the experience to go llve as King did after decades as a radio talk show host.
Morgan has stepped down from America's Got Talent in order to better prep for each night's CNN show. That's an indication he knows he's in serious trouble.
There's a similar trouble with Anderson Cooper's day job.
The personable CNN news host also has a daytime chatter show plagued with low ratings since its fall debut.
I'm thinking Anderson is just too serious for the fans of daytime who much prefer hyped, confrontational shows than the low wattage discussions his show projects.
As is typical on a show in trouble there's been movement at the top: executive producers Cathy Chermol and Lisa Morin are departing and Terence Noon who did a great job in rebooting Dr. Oz into a TV celebrity is coming in.
Apparently things came to a head during an edition on the Penn State scandals when the executive producer asked the audience no to hold back and Cooper disagreed with her. Tempers flared.
Good for Cooper not wanting to be exploitative but such seriousness does not grow ratings.
And then there's the strange case of Rosie O'Donnell now installed as the celebrity talker on Oprah Winfrey's new TV weblet OWN.
So far ratings have been disastrous --there's been a 49 per cent drop since Rosie's debut in October.
Look, I liked "Rosie Lite" when she had her daytime syndicated talk show and did mostly show bizzy interviews.
Then she got all feisty as part of The View and finally left in a huff --but let's face it veteran Barbara Walters was not going to be sideswiped by anybody.
Here she's a disappointment. The other night she snagged Phytllis Diller and incredibly the show just sagged --Diller in her 90s was quite funny.
Rosie isn't getting the big, competitive guests most nights because her ratings are so low. Like Conan she's been relegated to a network few peopled know exists.
Update: I just caught Rosie with stand up Brett Butler and it was a terrific show. Maybe Rosie is going to turn her show around.

I'd predict a quick cancellation here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Waking The Green Tiger Is Great TV

With all the chatter in Ottawa these days about the future of the CBC along comes a brilliant new documentary that fully justifies the Corporation's continuing existence.
Directed by Vancouver film maker Gary Marcuse and narrated by David Suzuki Waking The Green Tiger has its TV premiere on The Nature of things Thursday night on CBC-TV at 8 p.m.
It's quite unlike any other recent documentary on China in that it penetrates beneath the official government censorship to show how peasants in a southern part of China stopped the construction of a gigantic dam in "Tiger Leaping Gorge" in the Upper Yangtze River.
Marcuse's team enjoyed incredible access to the beleagured peasants of the valley and to the green activists who were egging them on to try to stop construction.
The hour blends in perfectly with Marcuse's two other films on environmental concerns. The first Nuclear Dynamite copped a Gemini with its look at the wacky idea of building a new Panama canal using nuclear explosives.
The second Arktika: The Russian Dream That Failed looked at the emerging Russian green movement sparked by fears of nuclear contamination from submerged Russian submarines in the Arctic.
"I was surprised at the level of government cooperation we got on this one," Marcuse tells me on the phone from B.C.
"I think it's because the green movement is seen not as a political problem but as a source of genuine concern for everyone. The premier had even expressed misgivings several times about the plan to build so many new dams on the Nu River and the Upper Yangtze.
"The passing of new green laws encourages people to express their concerns which certainly was not the case just a few years ago."
The production has already won an award as Best Canadian documentary at Toronto's Planet In Focus film festival and was listed as one of the Top Ten Canadian films at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Marcuse says the Canadian contingent was small --just him and cinematographer Rolf Cutts-but he needed the cooperation of key Chinese green activists in telling the story correctly.
Some of the images are breathtaking --of the lush river valley and the industrious farmers.
"The landscape is simply stunning,"Marcuse says with some awe. "It's a big tourist center."
Government plans called for the displacement of 100,000 people and the complete flooding of 265 kilometers of the upper Yangtze.
Marcuse has compared it to flooding the Fraser river from Vancouver to Hope.
There are some great moments when local farmers board a bus to visit displaced villagers up the river and see for themselves what "progress" means. All over China a staggering total of 16 million people have been displaced by government dams.
"At first they're just happy to be on this trip, many had never been outside their valley. Then doubts set in by what they see."
Farmers in the relocated region now must root through garbage dumps to recycle glass bottles. They say they can't survive on the meagre compensation packets and many are dressed in rags. The villagers return with a renewed determination to fight the government bureaucrats.
When surveying posts are spotted in their fields the posts are quickly torn down. And the villagers meet and discuss ways for peaceful resistance which eventually does succeed in the delay for many years of the dam.
When I say many villagers do no look Chinese he says "There are many ethnic minorities there, many Tibetans and others. The valley was always a meeting spot for traders from different regions."
Everything the environmentalists are doing today runs counter to the pronouncements of Chairman Mao in 1958 as he urged his Great Leap Forward. What Map was really urging his supporters to do was wage war against the environment.
Archival black and white footage shows enthusiasts killing off the sparrows because Mao said they ate too much grain --but the birds also ate insects and without them great swarms of locusts resulted in massive crop failures in 1958 and 1959.
Marcuse even gets a typical Chinese couple of today who remember the starvation to wonder ironically why Chairman Mao so hated the sparrows --it's a great touch.
Today the green movement booms in China. Marcuse says his official government contact --his "minder"-even arranged an exclusive last minute interview with the former head of China's environmental protection agency Qu Geping who in a remarkable candid talk admits major mistakes were made.
Qu explains how environmentalism was allowed to sweep through the nation and how the government actually cooperated with the acitvists as long as they remained apolitical.
Marcuse says one inspiration was green activist Shi Lihong who graduated from film studies at Berkeley and had made a 20-minute film about the problems in the Upper Yangtze.
She emerges as one of the movement's heroines for sure.
For the moment Marcuse wants to get his film accepted for the Sundance festival. Already copies have gone viral in China and who knows some day might even be shown on government TV.
NOT has a 44-minute version and Danish TV bought a 56-minute one. The movie version runs 78 minutes so Waking The Green Tiger is reaching audiences in all sorts of ways.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Surviving The Grey Cup: A Guide

So the other day as I was addressing a Grade 8 class on the future of TV (I don't think it has one) a pert and sassy 13-year old asked me how I survived adolescence in the old world of a 10 channel universe.
I thought it was a funny line and tossed back an equally funny retort.
But now I'm thinking about it because The grey Cup is on Sunday night at 7 on TSN.
It doesn't carry the buzz it used to have.
Not on CBC. Not on CTV.
In ye olden days there'd always be a tussle about which of the nation wide networks would show The Game.
CBS always got there first with big bags of dough --remember this was before Quebecor started asking all those pesky questions about The Corp's finances.
One year I even remember CTV and CBC shared the broadcast so no one would be left out --in those days CTV's coverage was significantly less than CBC's
But these days?
The Game is live on TSN and that's that. The CRTC assumes everybody gets TSN these days but little do they know a lot of people are switching back to antennas these days. They're simply fed up with the huge cable fees and the lousy service.
I think the sports casters covering it will do just fine.
But to misquote my old U of T Chaucer professor Marshall McLuhan, the medium really is the message.
And being relegated to TSN, well, it somehow diminishes The Game.
The same thing happened when Glenn Beck was kicked off Fox TV and wound up on some obscure service and nobody ever quotes Glenn Beck anymore.
Same thing happened to Conan O'Brien in the States as he jumped from NBC to a service (TN) few Americans bother to subscribe too.
Conan no longer is getting the A list stars.
Well, we don't have a 10-channel choice anymore, do we?
The cable universe is 959 cable weblets and counting.
There's VHS and DVD to tape the game for future reference. Yo can tape The Game for later.
A guy I was just talking to told me he has 2,000 hours of curling on TV in his video library. And oh how he loves to watch those classic plays in slow motion.
Instead of Grey Cup CBC has three hours devoted to a movie blockbuster: The Chronicles Of Narnia.
Many households have more than one TV set these days so the days of the entire family gathered around watching CFL football is long gone.
Sunday night CTV is wall-to-wall Americana:Once Upon A Time, the Amazing Race and the 2004 flick The Bourne Supremacy.
Global TV continues its unabashed love affair with American imports: the Simpsons, The Cleveland Show, Alleb Gregory, Family Guy and American Dad.
And so it goes. I could pick Sister Wives on TLC. Naw. Or episodes of Suits and Castle on Bravo! Nope!
Buffalo's PBS affiliate WNED has a two-hour salute to the Lennon Sisters. If it were running a new Mystery! or Masterpiece Theater this is where I'd stop.
Also, there's Animal Planet which carries the repeat of the 2011 Puppy Bowl followed by the special When Animals Adopt at 8. Very tempting, very tempting.
There's a House Hunters marathon running on HGTV. But I'm more tempted by The Walking Dead marathon on AMC.
Turner Classic Movies has its premiere of Marilyn Monroe in There's No Business Like Show Business--Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe together again for the first (and last) time.
A baker's dozen of familiar American movie titles also dot the landscape.
And now I'm thinking how did I ever survive in that constipated old 10-channel world.
How did I spend my time?
Than it dawned on me --I actually read a lot of books and magazines back then.
And there was a ton of homework in high school --the government since my day abolished Grade 13 which is the reason record numbers of kids flunk out of university these days.
I made it through the rain OK. I survived on less.
And now with so many chances I just can't make my mind up at all.
Out of sheer frustration I just may watch an old tape or a preview DVD of something I want to review later on.

Friday, November 25, 2011

As My Stomach Churns: The End Of TV Soaps?

Cue the organ music. Cut to a monstrous close-up of a circling globe.
And now dear friends I must report that two of my fave TV series One Life To Live and All My Children are definitely over.
Kaput. Finished. The End.
For months those of use who follow the soaps with any regularity had been reeling at the news All My Children and One Life To Live had been cancelled by ABC.
One Life To Live. of course, continues on ABC but only until its anticipated climax on Jan 13, 2012.
A new venture Online Entertainment had planned to move both soaps to the internet conditional on whopping pay reductions from the unions concerned.
The media and production company would be Prospect Park founded in 2009 by Jeffrey Kwatinetz and Frank Rich (former head of Disney Studios).
But after five months of negotiations the talks have broken off.
Closing with the AMC stars proved impossible. No way was Susan Lucci going to wind up on the internet after her ABC stardom days. So there already was some sort of delay in getting AMC back up and running.
But among the OLTL cast virtually all the stars including Erika Slezak, Ted King, Michael Easton and Kassie DePaiva were on board and raring to go.
The unions wanted too much, initial viewing figures might be negligible and there even was talk of selling second rights to some cable concern.
New series going straight to the internet?
It was a question of too much, too soon.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Is Dr. Jennifer Gardy CBC's Next Big science Star?

Whither The Nature Of Things? Hither? Or thither?
Let me explain --the venerable CBC science series with Dr. David Suzuki almost went under a few seasons back when the CBC management team of the day wanted to cancel it after its 50th season on TV.
Nothing strange about that.
Over the years CBC-TV planners cancelled such CBC icons as Juliette, Tommy Hunter, even the gang on Front Page Challenge.
In each case the replacements proved less than stirling and in time got cancelled as well.
I was thinking about NOT's future when previewing Thursday's new episode Myth Or Science starring Dr. Jennifer Gardy.
Is it not a disguised pilot for a bright new hip science series. Just asking.
The formula is the kind of thing Discovery does so well all the time.
And the knock against NOT these days has been its cadre of aging viewers.
And may I also say i has an aging host --Dr. David Suzuki --the one who put NOT on the map eons ago.
I was around back then as NOT and its mighty rival This Land fought ratings duels week after week.
NOT's executive producer at the time, Jim Murray, told me of his game plan to fight back. Murray reckoned with CBC budget cuts there would soon be space for only one of these series and he wanted it to be NOT.
So he personalized the show, installed Suzuki as host and narrator, and when CBC honcos sat down to decide the fate of the two shows it was the hostless This Land that got dumped.
These days the hour long documentaries that are the hallmark of NOT have fallen out of favor with the head programmers.
Myth Or Science is a very watchable, fast paced look at all those scientific old wives tales we hold near and dear.
And instead of Suzuki fronting the show it's bright and perky Vancouver molecular biologist Jennifer Gardy who gets involved.
She's photogenic, has just the right credentials and is a natural on TV.
I've a feeling she'll be back in a series spinoff of this hour. And she's game for just about anything. Down the road a bit she may even get to step in as host of NOT.
Example: She journeys down to a Gainesville swamp in Florida and a mosquito breeding facility to check out whether anthropods really have an attraction for female over male flesh. the conclusion? Watch the hour to find out.
Or can eating fast cause weight gain? In New York city she goes hot dog to hot dog with Dave "Coondog" O'Karma to check out this myth.
At the University of Manitoba she meets "Dr. Popsicle" who submerges her in a tank of ice water to check the myth that the head loses body heat faster than other parts of the body.
Gardy makes a
She tried in 2008 to land a similar series attempt called the Project. But this time out she may make it.
Dugald Maudsley wrote and produced the hour (Jeff Semple directed) for Infield Fly Productions and as I say it's definitely a series possibility.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Farewell To Regis

It was an event of cataclysmic proportions.
Regis Philbin is the latest TV giant to depart from daytime.
Losing Oprah was a heavy enough blow. But Regis? He's been doing TV forever.
When did I first interview Regis Francis Xavier Philbin I'm wondering.
I had to look it up --it was on a 1975 TV junket in Los Angeles that I interviewed him for an NBC game show called The Neighbors which was a clone of the Newleywed Game.
Even then Regis had quite a history dating back to his years as announcer on Joey Bishop's late night show (1967-69).
Another gig of that time was as co-host with Cindy Garvey of the daily local show A.M. Los Angeles (1978-81).
I'd watch him in my L.A. hotel room and it was there that Philbin perfected his excited delivery style --he had to because he had to writers giving him material.
In July 1985 Philbin joined with Kathy Lee Gifford in New York on the daily national talk show Live With Regis And Kathie Lee --it ran nationwide on ABC stations and in Canada on CTV.
I spent a day on the set in the early 1990s. I sat up in the bleachers with all those darling women who'd been bussed in from small hamlets on the East Coast. Kathie Lee came out during the warmup and went right up to me and said "You don't look like you're having fun."
Later after the telecast I went to her dressing room and she was beside herself with laughter. "I must have known you were a critic!" she hollered.
Regis was nice, too, but preoccupied with catching a limo that would take him to a book signing on Long Islands.
They worked very well together and the whole effort was unscripted --that's what really made it work.
Kathie Lee decamped in 2000 and siap star Kelly Ripa was chosen as replacement in 2001.'In 2004 Regis overtook Hugh Downs as TV's most watched ever host with 15,662 hours to his credit --and counting.
The Guinness Book Of records said in 2009 he was up to 16,334 hours.
Philbin's contract with ABC was worth $21 million a year. When it expired the network declined to renew on such lush terms because of his age --he's 80.
So he now joins Larry King as a TV star emeritus. Kelly will go it alone with some guest hosts until a replacement is announced.
And Regis's departure has given way to a lot of musing about the future of daytime TV.
I'd say he's irreplaceable.
Look, nobody has stepped forward to replace Oprah. Anderson Cooper seems diminished as a daily talk show gabber. I don't dig Dr. Phil at all. Nate Berkin is pleasant but preoccupied with decor.
The point is made that at her peak Oprah attracted 6,5 million U.S. viewers daily. Drs Phil and Oz get just half that as does Ellen.
Waiting to jump in is perky Katie Couric while CBS is planning one with Jeff Probst.
Soaps are being dumped left and right for cost but talk shows are oh so very cheap.
Because of his background Regis was one of a kind.
And I for one am going to miss his professional pep and sassiness delivered at such an early hour.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Nature Of Things Deserves Preserving

Big news of the fall Canadian TV season is the mighty crash in the ratings of most CBC-TV series.
To me it means that more than ever CBC needs to preserve and enrich its crown jewels among which I number The National, Hockey Night In Canada and the Nature Of Things, Canadian TV's longest running scripted series.
A few years back there were rumblings at CBC that NOT's day was numbered and it would fold after its record breaking 50th season.
That didn't happen. Instead a period of benign neglect set in.
And don't forget the competition from such cable channels as Discovery and TLC.
But so far this season the crop of NOT's documentaries has been unusually high.
And that quality continues with the Emperor's Lost Harbour which looks at the unearthing of the lost harbour of Byzantine emperor Theodosius the last emperor to rule over both eastern and western sections of a United Roman Emperor.
The thing is modern historians knew a lost great harbour existed but its exact placement was in doubt --it has completely silted up at least 500 years ago.
Only when the modern city of Istanbul commissioned a new underground railway into the center of the city of 15 million people did archeologists hit upon this vast treasure trove of abandoned ships from another era.
We get introduced to the vast army of excavation engineers and what they're looking for but there's also a deadline because the train service has to be completed on deadline.
And we get a peek at some of the amazing artifacts unearthed --there are nearly complete ships that sank with complete cargoes onboard.
The Canadian geologist Nick Eyles introduces us to the various experts and what they're doing to unearth the past.
Made as a Canadian-French production and
Although host David Suzuki narrates it's clear he never actually visited the site. It's as if Suzuki's great rival David Attenborough were stuck in a London BBC studio instead of getting out on the road.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Murdoch Mysteries Saved --For Now

Murdoch Mysteries has been saved from the Citytv gulllotine at the last minute.
It's so unCanadian.
If you want all the details click on Bill Brioux's always excellent TV blog TV Feeds My Family for his insider details.
Murdoch and I we go way back, all the way to the time the concept was a handful of TV movies starring -=-are you ready for it --Peter Outerbridge.
But Outerbridge was a busy guy in those days.
In the summers he'd toil on the Murdochs which were then being shot in Winnipeg for three outings in 2004.
His main job was as star of ReGenesis, yet another classy show produced by Christina Jennings.
I remember at one Global TV launch when asked which one he'd chose over the other Outerbridge chose Murdoch Mysteries which really gave Global's executives gas pains.
But of course when Murdoch segued into a weekly series shooting at the same time as ReGenesis Outerbridge had no choice whatsoever. He had to stick with the sci fi hit.
Enter Yannick Bisson who was available.
I've been covering him since he was the new guy opposite Megan Follows in the TV movie Hockey Night (1984) when he was just 15 and already a comer.
Unlike most teen beau hunks Bisson did not falter --I covered him when he was c-starring in the 1986 flick Toby McTeague, the 1988 TV series Learning The Ropes, High Tide (1994), Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy (1999), Soul Food (2000), Sue Thomas F.B. Eyye (2002).
The word in the Canadian TV industry is Bisson always delivers.
So far the 52 episodes shot of Murdoch have been his steadies work.
I remember being on the set when the series was being shot in Toronto's east end and interviewing the author ()()()() who weeks later almost drowned off the coast of Florida in a freak accident.
The CBC press release says the network will be picking up Murdoch for a sixth season and I'm wondering if that includes rights to the reruns --with these CBC could kill off Ghost Whisperer, right?
CBC picking up another network's series? In CBC's Golden Age it never happened.
I remember dining with Brian Linehan after he defected from Citytv in 1989 --he supposed either CBC or CTV would pick him up but it never happened.
Linehan was part of the competition and not CBC's style, I was told.
I'm also remembering the stink when the new Ontario network Global TV filed for bankruptcy in 1972.
A lot of good Global product had to be dumped because neither CBC nor CTV wanted to acknowledge a need for product from a competitor.
Bernie Braden told me he'd tried to shop his Global consumer affairs show to CBC and got laughed at.
Anybody out there remember the great stink when CBC dumped Don Messer's Jubilee in 1969?
A determined Messer jumped to CHCH to tape another season which was syndicated station to station.
I can't remember a single CTV Canadian show ever going to CBC, can you?
I mean why would CBC ever have a need for Thrill Of A Lifetime, Stars On Ice, or Police Surgeon?
Wait, I'm on a roll! Wouldn't it have been hysterical if CBC had snatched away from CHC either Ein Prosit or The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein? No way!
But when CBC cancelled Fighting Words with Nathan Cohen, the Toronto Star critic sauntered down to CHCH to keep taping episodes until his death in 1971.
No, CBC and CTV would fight over American imports but never over Canadian content. CTV raised hell when CBC snatched away Laugh In for its second season by doubling what CTV was paying for the show.
And years later CBC smatched up thirtysomething after Global thought it had made the purchase for Canadian rights.So CBC riding to the rescue rto save Murdoch Mysteries is good news.
It's too bad CBC didn't also save Godiva's a few season ago, now there was a youth oriented series with great potential.
Perhaps as retaliation Citytv might pounce on Being Erica?
It's just a thought but worth exploring.

NBC Makes Big Changes

Look, things could not be any more dire for the fourth rated U.S. network, peacock proud NBC.
So the network is rearranging the deck chairs.
And the biggest concern is the sudden disappearance of Prime Suspect.
When Global TV rolled out its all American prime time the proud boast was the acquisition of the U.S. version of the Helen Mirren hit Prime Suspect.
Well, that just didn't happen.
Those of us who remembered the PBS original were aghast at the re-tinkering. And new viewers couldn't get around the basic unsympathetic heroine now played by Maria Bello.
In NBC's revamped lineup Prime Suspect is conspicuous by its absence. NVC oiurces say no decision has been made on its future. I don't think it has a future, it's as simple as that.
NBC ran the show in all kinds of days and times to try to build up an audience. It didn't work. Viewers simply were not interested
Another show "disappearing" is low rated Community --but here NBC assures us it is merely being benched.
30 Rock is coming back plus a new comedy based on the exploits of Chelsea Handler.
Starting Jan. 12 a TV version of John Grisham's The Firm replaces Prime Suspect Thursdays at 10.
Harry's Law is getting relocated to Sundays but not until March.
And I know everybody is really excited Celebrity Apprentice is returning Sun. Feb. 12 at 9 p.m.
And NBC says two reality series --Who Do You Think you are? and Project Runaway are also debuting in the New Year.
NBC had been highly touting a new drama series Awake but I don't see it anywhere on the schedule so far.
CBS which has a vast array of hits is replacing Rules Of Engagement (which goes on hiatus) with a new Rob Schneider comedy called imaginatively Rob.
Got all that?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Meet Jon Lajoie

Poor Jon Lajoie, there he was in Los Angeles in co-starring in a bright new TV sitcom The League.
Only trouble was his friends back in Quebec couldn't get the channel FX until last month it suddenly appeared on Canadian cable TV systems.
"But when I'm out on the road with my act Canadians everywhere come up and say how much they're enjoying me in The League."
Either a lot of cagey folk out in the sticks have illegal satellite dishes or they're on the Internet and can watch Lajoie's saucy song parodies.
When told kids on my street were singing one of them Lajoie is momentarily silent. I guess he's hoping it's not one of the salacious ones like Mel Gibson's Love Story.
"We try to be naughty, not dirty," he then explains. "And of course very funny. But these are not for children."
Lajoie talked to me from Toronto (by phone) as he's about to embark on another road trip to parts of Canada rarely traversed."It keeps me sharp and I use the experience to hone my routines and stories. There's nothing like a live audience."
Which mkes being funny on the League especially challenging as it's photographed in real homes outside L.A.'s core.
"We have to figure out in advance what will work. The only audience really? Ourselves I guess."
Lajoie was born in St. Hubert, Quebec but raised in Montreal. His father is French Canadian, mother English hence his total bilingual ability to be funny in both official languages.
When I tell him how much I liked him in the Radio Canada drama L'auberge du chien noir as a character fantasically named Thomas Edison he thanks me but says it was tough to leave the hit series which is still running strong in the ratings.
"I played a bad father who deserts my child. So maybe if the series ever winds up I guess I'll come back to Montreal and finish it. But I had to follow my comedy expectations."
Every actor comes to L.A. armed with a DVD of best scenes. The fact Lajoie's was in French made some L.A. agents hesitant.
"I took meetings, I think that's the term. I met over 100 people." Quebec actors don't exactly flock to L.A. although a few headed by Genevieve Bujold have done well.
"And Cirque du Soleil." Yes, but they don't really perform in English.
On The League Lajoie plays perpetual stoner Taco MacArthur who blames his condition on the fact he was introduced to marijuana at age 8.
"I've written songs specifically for him to do on the show. I can only report all the guys on the show get along and we try to support each other. My character makes a lot of ringtones, that's the best way to describe him. But I'm the only Canadian in the group."
Filming finished for the year on Nov. 3 and now it's time to travel.
"I like to meet the people. Different areas of Canada have different senses of humor. It's always challenging."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I'm Dreaming Of A Canadian TV Christmas

It's been a rough fall for Canadians who actually like to watch Canadian TV.
Wall to wall American series prevail even on nominally Canadian networks.
But a friend at a party this week told me she's going to retaliate by buying books on Canadian TV and Canadian DVDs as Christmas presents this year.
Good luck!
I've been trying for years to get our local networks to put more stuff up on DVDs.
Hear me out. I've always advocated a DVD package of the "Best Hits" from CBC's iconic Front Page Challenge.
In a three disc set one could get all the news makers from Martha Mitchell to Lord Mountbatten to prime ministers St. Laurent, Diefenbaker and Trudeau. Every high school would want a box set.
For years I pestered CBC to do up a DVD collection of Juliette's best programs. Too expensive I was told --the grainy kinescopes would have to be remastered.
But I still think it could be done --I'd add Brian Linehan's hour interview with her done about 15 years ago and I'm betting nostalgic viewers would snap it up.
CBC bureaucrats would always sniff and state they were not in the entertainment business.
Why aren't Norman Campbell's superbly staged TV ballets available? And what about those "Raskymentaries" --the 90-minute profiles of greats from Chagall to Raymond Massey --offered up every year or so by Emmy winner Harry Rasky.
I've also tried to get Elwood Glover's best ever interviews from Luncheon Date out there. No luck so far but remember Glover interviewed every great who was touring in a play --Helen Hayes, Virginia Mayo, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. At the time his live series came from the basement of the Four Seasons hotel on Jarvis St. across from CBC's Kremlin.
One CBC dramatic gem was the series A Gift To Last with Gordon Pinsent --it's not on DVD but I once saw it being rerun in Ialian on Telelatino.
I've long been convinced CBC's current team are not even aware of the TV jewels hidden away in their musty vaults.
In recent years Intelligence got a DVD release and remains a must-see. And the first two (of three) seasons of This Is Wonderland came out on DVD.
Current CBC product including Heartland and Little Mosque On The Prairie are available,too.
The same can be said of CTV. When Lloyd Robertson retired as anchor CTV should have produced a best moments compilation which could have sold in all the supermarkets where I see mediocre American shows relentlessly hawked.
Here's a list of the CTV series I covered with on-set interviews: Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour, Stars On Ice, Headline Hunters, Definition, The Pat Paulsen Show, Pig "N Whistle, Rolling Down The River, Simon Locke M.D.
Do you really want to see any of these oldies? I 'm just asking.
But later on CTV had some respectable hits including ENG which has never gotten a DVD release.
When TVO first came on in 1971 I sat down and reviewed its first big new series --a homage to Shaw featuring choice interviews with the likes of Dames Wendy Hiller and Sybil Thorndike. I've never been able to find it since.
One CHCCH oldie is out there and selling like hot cakes and I'm proud to report I was the only TV critic crazy enough to go on the set of The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein.
But what about the CHC series I'm most asked about? Sorry, folks, but only a few choice episodes of the immortal Party Game remain --most of the tapes were recycled at season's end and the originals lost. But I do know player Billy Van did ferret out some of his favorites and these bootleg copies abound.
A later CHCH effort The Palace was tapped at Hamilton Place with Jack Jones as host and it might warrant a DVD release --guests included Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers. At the end of each taping day the Canadian talent trotted out to do their acts which were spliced into the Canadian content version of the show.
One DVD owner told me he's even had requests for such cable fare as Paradise Falls and Kink.
And he does stock and regularly sells DVDs of Trailer Park Boys believe it or not.
Canadian books on Canadian TV are even harder to find.
There's been no biography of Juliette who at her heyday was drawing three million loyal viewers every week.
Ever big U.S. series seems to inspire an anthology with all the episodes duly rated and rated. But Canadian TV doesn't get that kind of exposure. Our entire system is stacked against home grown talent I'm sad to report.
But there is on Canadian book on Canadian TV that miakes a great Christmas present.
It's Air Farce: 40 Years Of Flying By The Seat Of Our Pants by Don Ferguson and the late great Roger Abbott who died before it could be completed. Veteran TV critic Bill Brioux has contributed some of the most interesting chapters and the whole thing has just been published in time for the Christmas rush.
Why can't other Canadian TV success stories be equally celebrated? I just don't get it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

New Series Tanked Doesn't Tank on Discovery

I've really got to stop ranting about moronic reality shows. My solution: just don't watch them.
But then I got a DVD preview screener of another new reality show and it seemed so odd I just had to check it out.
It's called Tanked and is all about a family owned aquarium business set smack dab in Las Vegas where water is at a premium.
I mean I do know a guy up the street and he actually says he likes watching the Aquarium Channel. So there are all sorts of TV viewers out there.
And we've head reality shows about a family who own a funeral parlor, American and Canadian pickers, you name it.
And finding out some of the stuff about the aquarium trade is pretty interesting.
Wade King and Brett Raymer are profiled --King is married to Raymer's sister Heather who also works in the emporium.
They build all sorts of tanks to specifications and the weird orders don't seem to faze them: in one episode a phone booth gets transformed into a tank, one Vegas casino wants a gigantic tank with a mob theme. Go figure.
In all these reality things there are deadlines to meet to keep us watching. And the participants get endlessly interviewed about the tensions they must surmount before the finish. There's the clash of egos. And the owners can get testy sand demand revisions. It's the same when buying a coffin or buying a tank.
When I talked to Wade on the phone he agreed getting used to the cameras and mikes in his face took some adjusting. That's because he's the dedicated, determined worker while Brett plays the lovable goofball role.
"But we've been doing it a long time (14 years) and we have really surmounted a lot of obstacles. I just have to learn to talk more."
An aquarium business set in the sand dunes of Vegas? It seems, well, strange. But maybe it's the perfect place because these people have a visceral need for some water in their lives even if its only in a tank.
"We cater to all people,"Wade is saying. "Yes, the huge projects are interesting. But we have a lot of average customers, too."
And the boys hope someday to come up to Toronto. But when I mention the near freezing temperatures I'm sure I can hear Wade's teeth c;attering. He says maybe later.
After all there's been this bizarre proposal to turn the CBC's gigantic white elephant of a building into the world's biggest aquarium. Now that would be a project of all projects.
Of course the wonderful world of aquariums has all changed with the substitution of acrylic for glass which can scratch a bit.
One website says Wade's most expensive project was a tank that held 3,000 gallons and cost $150,000 because it needed a strong foundation. I should have asked him about that one.
But in the episode I saw there was some weird construction going one. One rich dame wanted a huge tank stuck inside a car. The car was tripped to the frame and painted and a custom built tank set up complete with a painted backdrop.
In another sequence a very rich couple had a series of tanks built on top of each other to fit into the recesses of a living room wall. These custom builds had to be made twice before they were satisfied.
And both of these good ole boys had to don wet suits to dress up a huge casino tank so that the dancing girls could prance underwater with the fish looking on.
We also get some pointers on how the fish have to be quarantined for 30 days before being introduced together in a new tank. Wade is very insistent on providing the necessities so the fish thrive.
Alrady a hit on U.S. TV, Tanked is the latest Vegas business to get its very own series.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Massimo Capra's New Series Gourmet Escapes

I first started noticing Toronto chef Massimo Capra on City Line where his hearty personality was attracting a wide audience of devoted foodies.
And when he moved over to the Food Network's Restaurant Makeover I started wondering when he'd get his own show.
Well, it's here and exclusive to the revamped Travel +_ Escape network now owned by GlassBOX Television.
Any program with Capra finds the expansive cook front and center but this time he must yield some space every weeks to a guest chef.
I watched the first episode in the new 13-week series and was impressed. Set in Ireland it shows the wide variety of fare available to the connoiseur of local fare.
"Everywhere there's green in many shades,"Capra tells me. "It was a wonderful experience. We shot enough for several more programs, it was hard to stop."
The theme is local cooking so Capra partners with local cooks who show him the insides and outsides of their craft. "I cook beside them, do what they want me to do. But most importantly I ask questions."
"The Irish episode really works. I sample Irish honey, it's so amazingly pure. And when we go for rhubard the stalks are the size of a tree trunk yet when cooked simply sweet and delicious.
"My job is to get these artists to be comfortable on camera. You know my old friend actor Jonathan welsh told me to simply ignore the camera and be myself. That's what I tell all my guests. Oh, sure, I'll play up a little to get them loose but they have a lot of expertise to show us."
Each episode starts with an appeal to the local Tourism board to find the right chefs and the right locales.
"In Italy I won't be doing the obvious places --like Rome. I want to go to Sicily, to Cremona. In Switzerland we are doing two shows. The one in Amsterdam highlights Dutch cooking which few of us know much about. I Wales I've found a food school worth shouting about."
But doesn't all this traveling interfere with his Toronto restaurant Mistura?
"Not really, when I'm here I'm really here and I'm rarely away for more than 10 days. My patrons expect me here and I can't be away more, you see.
"This series is taking a long time but it's the beginning, we want to get everything right.
"I hope the Irish show interests everyone. We go to an island where the only inhabitants are pigs. And our chef poaches a huge pike and I provide assistance with the other courses. We serve it to a large, invited crowd and they were knocked out. It's all in the service of better cooking."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

FX Canada Signs On With American Horror Story

You can tell from the opening credits of American Horror Story that this new series on FX Canada is going to creep you out.
The Credits open with a montage of creepy stills and bloodied surgical instruments. And it's all been created by Ryan Murphy who last gave us Glee!
But American Horror Story has but one purpose: to scare the viewer half to death.
It also helps to know your horror movies and TV series from the past.
At one point in the basement of this old dark house I swear I heard snatches of Bernard Herrmann's score from Psycho.
As a salute to the best of the past it helps that you've seen Bettlejuice, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Rosemary;s Baby, The Shining and about a dozen other classics.
First up there's the old dark house which psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and their daughter Violent (Taissa Fermiga) have moved into in Los Angeles after a move from Boston.
The mansion doesn't look Southern Californian at all but has been lovingly restored from its Victorian splendor.
As in all these stories the family doesn't realize at first the mansion is haunted and has been the site of several grisly murders over the decades.
Next door resides a deliciously evil dumb blonde Constance portrayed in high style by Jessica Lange.
And Ben meets the horriblf burned Chad (Zachary Quinto) who once lived in the house before torching it and killing his wife and daughters. Frances Controy from Six Feet Under plays a strange housekeeper Moira who is attached to the home.
Shot on location in an actual old home in Country Club Park, Los Angeles, the house quickly emerges as the most interesting character of all. Some scenes are filmed at Fox on sets which are exact replica's of the rooms in the house.
Murphy's style has always been to overdo almost everything and here he succeeds. In the horror genre less is considered more --the less you see and know the more creeped out you're going to be.
But on AHS it's all scary scenes without the necessary down moments for the viewers to recuperate.
There's a lot of nudity, blood letting, screaming --you name it.
Jessica Lange understands she must play everything at full throttle to disguise her character's true intentions and she is obviously having a ball. And one line she has in the opener made me sit up straight when she warns the maid: "Don't make me kill you again."
The maid is sometimes Frances Conroy but she morphs into a sexy, young thing when Ben is eyeing her.
But after awhile the profusion of gore got to me. I was no longer shocked by the succession of killings. Too much is too much. At certain points in this story the blood letting gets impossible to top. Certainly you will not be bored although you might have to turn away on occasion.
But logic escapes this story. It ends up not making any sense at all and makes Psycho look like a church picnic. That's when camp takes over. Jessica Lange understands this but Connie Britton tries for subtle touches which are not needed.
AHS emerges as extremely indulgent when what was really called for was a dash of subtelty.
But I effortlessly predict the sales of renovated old dark houses will slip as long as AHS is runs on FX Canada.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Let's Cancel the New TV Season

So far the new American TV season has bombed.
There are only two new unvarnished hits: Working Girls on CBS and New Girl on Fox.
Every thing else could be cancelled tomorrow and who would notice?
According to a brilliant new story on ADWeek this week the rest is just filled with also rans.
My network sources say getting play for the new shows gets more difficult by the year particularly with the advent of so many competing cable channels who premiere their fare at all through the year and just not in September.
Jiggle TV is brain dead: look at those casualties Charlie's Angels and The Playboy Club.
The much hyped Terra Nova isn't getting renewed --its plots are sully,. Who tunes in for a bad story but great special effects.
Some much anticipated series like Pan Am and Prime Suspect might still make it but their ratings are anemic so far.
Would you believe Fox is number one right now --that could also be due to baseball playoffs.
CBS is so close that for demographic purposes it says it has a tie. ABC's audience is down 4 per cent this year while NBC is in free fall and has lost a whopping 14 per cent of its audience. The only show saving NBC from complete collapse is Sunday Night Football, I'm told. All this does matter in Canada because the commercial networks purchase U.S. hits for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But why pay a fortune and get a stinker like Charlie's Angels?
It just doesn't make sense to me.
CBS's big problem remains its rapidly aging schedule of procedurals. This could be the last season for one or two of the very expensive CSI franchises.
ABC says its new shows are performing well and has placed full season orders for the Tim Allen show, Once Upon A Time,
Revenge and Subpurgatory.
NBC says it isn't panicking and has ordered full seasons for Whitney and Up All Night despite their bad ratings.
Biggest headache for Fox is the poorly performing The X Factor: it's so expensive to produce it may well wind up a one season wonder.
With ratings plunging why don't the U.S. networks switch to the Canadian ratings system which claims that ratings on conventional Canadian networks (outside of CBC) are up in the past few years?
Because if you believe that you'll believe anything.

Monday, October 24, 2011

American Networks Sliding In Ratings

The big news of this still young TV season is the drip-drip-dripping away of ratings among most of the American networks. Biggest drop is being posted by NBC which was already in fourth spot when the new season began last month.
Having a whole pack of dopey new shows and some rapidly aging old ones doesn't help.
How does this affect Canadian viewers?
Well, most of the fare on the Canadian commercial networks these days consists of American imports.
According to the Wall street Journal ratings are down across NBC by as much as 30 per cent which is a whopping drop any way one looks at it.
Both Law & Order:SVU and The Biggest Loser lost one of their biggest stars and have posted tremendous declines. NBC's downfall comes after a decade of cutting costs. Remember that stupid plan to cancel all the NBC dramas at 10 p.m. in order that Jay Leno could soar in prime time?
It didn't happen and when the dust cleared Leno was back at 11:30 p.m. in his old Tonight Show berth and decades younger Conan O'Brien had quit the network in disgust.
This year Comcast purchased the ailing web from General Electric with a plan to pump money into bid budgeted new drama series.
Bob Greenblatt who had successfully steered U.S. cable weblet Showtime to ratings success was plopped in. But one of his first new shows the dog awful The Playboy Club has already tanked and is gone.
NBC sources are saying the network is sticking with Prime Suspect which seems to be getting better by the week. NBC has started promoting the heck out of it with multiple runs to pump up audience interest.
And two NBC comedies --Whitney and Up All Night--do how signs of promise. But both poll way below Fox's bright new sitcom hit New Girl.
And the situation at 11:30 just isn't laughable with Nightline on ABC now pulling ahead of Leno.
But The Office is doing OK for a very old show --much better than CBS's Two And A Half Men which has lost half its premiere week audience.
The only thing left in the NBC hamper is the new series Grimm which starts Friday plus Fear Factor waiting in the wings.
But if NBC gets real desperate it could always import a Canadian drama or two as filler, right?