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?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jayne Eastwood And I

Jane Eastwood And I, we go way, way back in Canadian TV.
I was a very young summer student reporter for The Globe And Mail in July, 1970, when entertainment editor Donn Downey despatched me to the wilds of west Toronto to interview someone he described as a "bright, new starlet.
"Her name is Jayne Eastwood," he barked "and she's in that hot new Canadian flick Goin' Down The Road."
Wait a minute! A new Canadian "flick" that was hot?
Well, I went to the cinema that night to catch Eastwood and company and boy was she mesmerizing in this brilliant movie directed by Don Shebib.
And all of a sudden critics were talking about the birth of Canadian cinema.
It never happened but that didn't stop Eastwood from sashaying into one of Canadian TV's biggest stars.
I remember how hot it was that day and the bareness of her apartment --the only piece of furniture she had was a lumpy mattress on the floor.
I seem to recall a cat named Frank although that might be from a later visit.
She was funny, she was sassy and willingly posed on the back porch waving a bottle of beer as if still in character as GDTR's Betty. It all added up to a great story although stodgy Globe editors remained unimpressed.
Only later was I to learn Downey's brother was her agent. But no matter. She made for a delicious interview and fopr a few years after that she was much sough after.
I interviewed other starlets in those years and most of them were never heard from again.
But Eastwood persevered. She became ever more busy with the passing of the years.
She was the original choice to co-star with Al Waxman in the CBS sitcom King Of Kensington but was pregnant with her first child and only got onto the show in its last years (1978-80) after original star Fiona Reid decided to quit.
I definitely remember a reunion with Eastwood who was rehearsing for a live drama at CBC with expatriate Canadian actress Allyn Ann McLerie but it is not listed among her credits. Hey you guys at IMDB look out!
I definitely caught up with her again on the promising CBC sitcom Material World (1990-92). Her dressing room was next to Chris Potter who would be her co-star on Zoe Busiek: Wild Card (2003). a decade later.
When she was later dropped from the show the series started to tank.
Of course there were dozens of other credits:guest spots on Friday The 13th, Mom P.I.,Ray Bradbury Theater, Night Heat. It's a virtual who's who of Canadian TV.
One time I sat with Jayne and her delightful brother at the Gemini awards.
And thank goodness she finally received the prestigious Earle Grey awards for her contributions to Canadian TV.
Family commitments kept her from defecting to Hollywood decades ago. She could have been a big star down there.
Her career most closely resembles Barbara Hamilton's. Both had a firm commitment to country and with their verisimiltude they could always find quality work here.
In recent years Jayne, 65, has had a choice recurring role on Little Mosque and two more projects are in post production (Dark Star Hollow, The Story Of Luke).
It couldn't happen to a more talented actress.
And TV and movies have only been part of her career. Check her out in person in the revue Women Fully Clothed where she more than holds her own.
Sorry!Have to ring off now. I'm off to see Down The Road Again, the sequel that only took 41 years to come together.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A New Canadian Series On Canadian TV! Wow!

I'm being constantly asked this fall why some Canadian TV networks have virtually no Canadian shows save for the obligatory national newscasts.
Well, there are new Canadian series out there, you only have to dig a bit to find them.
Like the brand new series Extraordinary Canadians which premieres Sunday night at 8:30 on Citytv.
The premise made me hesitate for a moment: Canadian authors talking about their subjects for half an hour. The series is a TV adaptation of the Penguin Canada series of books which going to paperback this fall.
I feared it might be another talking heads thing and we've got several of those around where one feels obligated to listen in as academics churn about and drone and drone.
So I plopped in the first DVD --Mark Kingswell on Glenn Gould and --surprise --I learned something and was fascinated all over again with this true eccentric.
And here's my Glenn Gould anecdote --the day of his death (Oct. 4, 1982) all the entertainment critics at the Toronto Star (all save the classical music critic who was cruising down the Mississippi on a junket) got lists of sources to phone to get quotes and reaction.
First on my list was famed pianist Artur Rubinstein and the agent even gave me his direct telephone line in Paris.
The Star operator dialed and Mr. Rubinstein, 94, answered the line.
And for several moments he gave me a precise description of the way he liked to play the piano (with an audience) and how Glenn Gould prefered a solitary recording styudio.
Kingswell plays on this oddity --a star pianist who seemingly shunned the spotlight and even played up his oddities.
Kingswell visits Gould's well worn chair now in the National Archives, we see the Toronto Beach house where he grew up, the summer cottage.
All this is accompanied by TV clips, newsreels, old interviews and various yellowing clippings.
I liked it all and was very disappointed it only runs half an hour.
So I chose the second DVD: Adrienne Clarkson on Norman Bethune.
This could be Clarkson's first sustained TV work since she exited Adrienne Clarkson At Large to become Governor General.
She seems scarcely changed at all, still in command of a medium she dominated for decades.
And the catch is she was born in Hong Kong the same year as Bethune died in China as he was saving soldiers on the battlefield.
Again Clarkson does a fair bit of traveling from Bethune's Gravenhurst family home (now a museum) to Montreal where he became a surgeon to various statues of him in his some country.
The catch is visitors to the museum are mostly Chinese tourists to Canada, his own country doesn't know him as well as his adopted land of China where he is revered as a saint.
PMS Productions Producer Kenneth Hirsch is quoted as saying the series took five years to execute. I like everything about it save the regrettably short running time --the only half hour shows left these days are sitcoms.
Upcoming are episodes on Mackenzie King, Emily Carr and Pierre Trudeau.
There'll be an instant rerun on The Biography Channel on Sat. Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Conspiracy Theory Filled With Conspiracies

If I were a sceptic I'd think there might be a link between the Wall Street protests and the new TV documentary Conspiracy Rising.
But that would make me a conspiracy advocate, one of many profiled in this must see new CBC program directed and produced by veteran Andrew Blicq for Merit Motion Pictures.
The polls tell us that many of us concoct conspiracies to explain those distressing aspects of this modern age.
I can remember as a high school student being in the middle of a Grade 12 Latin examination when the whisper went around the auditorium that President John Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
Then there were the strange, unexplained circumstances surrounding the car crash and death of Princess Diana in 2008.
And let's not forget 9/11. Around 1 p.m. that fateful day I looked out the gigantic front windows at the Toronto Star and saw the sky filled with American jets circling over Lake Ontario --The World Trade Center had been bombed and all planes in American air space diverted to Canada.
Did I concoct any theories about these unusual events?
Well, I have never believed the lone gunman theory at Dallas. And neither did ex-prime minister John Diefenbaker the one time I interviewed him.
So Conspiracy Rising was made for me. And anybody else suspicious about events in recent modern history.
It's remarkably well put together, mixing archival footage we've come to know (and hate) plus comments from talking heads explaining all this phenomena.
It reminds me a bit of a book I read in my American history course at university: Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoia In American Politics.
Because nineteenth century conspiratorialists tried to explain that John Wilkes Booth hadn't assassinated President Lincoln --and it wasn't Booth's body burned in that barn.
The Kennedy assassination continues to fascinate. A recent new story said widow Jacqueline Kennedy suspected vice president Lyndon Johnson had arranged the killing with Mafia support.
The lone gunman theory was dissected years after the fact by CBS's Walter Cronkite who tested rifles at the site of the Texas School Book Depository and wasn't satisfied a poor shot like Lee Harvey Oswald could have done the deed.
But Blicq goes to the site and finds tourists saying it was anywhere from two to nine shooters participating.
It's so much easier to think Princess Diana was killed by the royal family than the simple explanation someone so gifted and wealthy could fall victim to a drunken driver.
I think the best shots are at the alien museum at Roswell, New Mexico, where the supposed autopsy of an alien who had crashed in the desert is discussed at length --the curator's father was the doctor who did the procedure.
There's even an interview with newly weds who got married and then hurried to the site to spend a night searching the stars for answers. they got none.
The authorities who soothingly explain away most of our fears include human rights activist Chip Berlet, Dr. Patrick Leman, Prof. David Livingstone Smith and Dr. Michael Shermer. All of them are expert at what they do.
But I still have this clump of uncertainty at the back of my brain. Not to worry, I'm told we're all genetically programmed to believe what others keep insisting is the truth.
And I'm not alone.
Conspiracy Rising tells us 16 per cent of Canadians believe the American government had some hand in the 9/11 attacks. And 70 per cent of Americans think Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a larger conspiracy. And a fifth of Canadians believe aliens have visited our planet.
You'll watch CR because it is so well put together.
Will you believe what's said or simply revert to dark theories about the great events of our time?
Maybe my theories have changed after exposure to this hour. Then again maybe not.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Does The CBC Have A Future?

So there I was in the gigantic atrium of the CBC on Front Street. I was there at the invitation of veteran publicist David McCaughna to meet and interview the RCAF gang on the occasion of the publishing of a book of reminiscences.
But I never got near the comedians. There was a long and slowly moving line of well wishers who had purchased copies and wanted their volumes personally autographed.
So what I did was mingle with old friends. And reminisce about the number of times over the decades I've been in this great barn of a building.
It's the last gasp of Trudeau LIberalism based on the theory "Build it And They Will Come". But this barn never worked from the beginning.
When I started out as TV critic of The Hamilton Spectator in 1970 the CBC was in full throttle.
Remember this was in the days of the 10-channel TV universe. CBC had a prominent part although actual production was all over the city in those days.
CBC's Front Page Challenge was telecast from studios way up Yonge street. Other facilities were based at Mutual street.
Everything was cramped: I was once watching Norman Campbell direct a TV ballet and the dancers were huddled on the street in advance. They had to come flying through the open door and bounce onto the stage in one go.
These days CBC has the cavernous Norman Campbell studio atop its building but CBC lacks funds to actually make artistic programs there.
Once taking tea with Campbell in his offices (he has since passed), he mentioned he'd never actually been able to film anything in the studio named after him.
Looking around at the impressive building I was told by one veteran it's more than half empty these days. Live TV is no more outside of the news. Dramatic stuff has been taken over by independent companies who prefer cheaper facilities --usually abandoned warehouses in the fringes of the city.
One veteran told me CBC these days is shell shocked over the huge drop in ratings this fall --shows are down by as much as 30 per cent.
CBC researchers are blaming the end of analog TV and conversion to digital TV --apparently it is being felt not in Toronto but in outlying rural areas and certainly in less populated provinces. Viewers who are elderly or poor or both just have abandoned TV altogether.
Does CBC have a future with a right wing Conservative federal government suspicious of the very notion of public TV? Well, I'd like to point out CBC initially was the brainchild of a Tory prime minister: R.B. Bennett in 1935.
Viewers out there are indifferent I submit particularly those who jettisoned the CBC after it dropped all cultural programs.
Meanwhile the National is experiencing some of its lowest ever ratings after being re-designed by a team of American consultants who added a lot of style and took away a lot of substance.
And by the way I'm stilll waiting for my RCAF book. McCaughna says he'll get it autographed for me and give it to me later.

Friday, October 14, 2011

TV's Ratings Wars: Winners, Losers

"The Bottom Line" --it's an expression American TV programmers use to describe the ratings depths most new series must go before bottoming out.
Well, CBS is saying its new series Person Of Interest improved Thursday night for the first time since it debuted.
That means it has found its bottom and may now indeed bounce back. The improvement was only a tenth of a percent but any improvement is positive.
On Thursday Charlie's Angels also went up a tenth of a point staving off rumors of imminent cancellation.
But ABC sources are saying that may have been due to the guest appearance of Erica Durance. Insiders are saying ABC may indeed wait a few more weeks to decide the fate of this one.
Then there's the sad case of Prime Suspect which simply cannot escape the long shadow of Helen Mirren in the original.
As a vote of confidence NBC has announced a pick up order for six new scripts. I watched the latest Thursday night episode and I'm saying the format is growing on me.
But ratings actually hit a new low and this despite the repeats running on Mondays.
What's working Thursdays? The old reliables. For CBS that means Big Bang Theory and The Mentalist. ABC's Grey's Anatomy is up 10 per cent giving Private Practice a huge lead in --PP is up 14 per cent.
And The Vampire Diaries on CW is up so much it now routinely beats Prime Suspect and Charlie's Angels on the major networks.
So far the biggest new hit is Fox's New Girl which will be off for baseball playoffs.
the X Factor is a big disappointment. Have North American viewers had enough of Simon Cowell?
Terra Nova has a pretty good ratings number but it's the most expensive show out there at $4 million an episode and Fox says it will only run 13 weeks until the inevitable December cancellation.
Pan Am will probably survive for a full season but ratings keep trickling away. This one is one of the biggest busts of the year considering all the hype.
But Up All Night and Whitney have full season pick ups.
Cancelled stinkers so far include How To Be A Gentleman (CBS), Playboy Club (NBC), Free Agents (NBC).
What new show will be next?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Nano Revolution: Definitely Must See TV

It's entirely appropriate that executive producer Michael Allder ends his 14-year stewardship of The Nature Of Things with his most brilliant production.
It's the three part miniseries The Nano Revolution which jump starts NOT's 51st season making it the longest lasting scripted series on CBC-TV.
And it only took five years to get this incredibly complicated co-production between CBC, Japan's NHK and France/Germany's Arte to come together.
The long wait was worth it.
The animation alone dazzles underpinning a provocative look at the important new world of nanotechnology that will soon transform all our lives in many fundamental ways.
"I don't believe in talking down to TV viewers," Allder is telling me in a telephone conversation. "Certainly we didn't do so our last big co-venture and the result was high ratings and pretty wonderful reviews."
The Nano Revolution literally takes us inside the world of the infinitesimally small and let's us listen in to dazzling conversations with the leading scientific authorities in the field on three continents.
the field of endeavor is always shifting from University of Toronto to the Sahara desert to an Edinburgh heart clinic to a medical practitioner in Italy.
Scientists talk routinely of examining matter that is 80,000 times smaller than a human hair and the world they are discovering can be manipulated for mankind's betterment in all sorts of ways.
"I couldn't have done this one without Skype technology technology," Allder jokes. "I communicated almost every day for years with the co-producers in France and Japan. My call time was 8 a.m. but in Japan it would be 10 p.m. It took a tremendous amount of patience and energy just to get us through. Planning was everything."
The first hour, Welcome To Nano City, outlines the scientific breakthroughs of the science of the minuscule and how complicated control of matter can open up a whole range of great possibilities.
Nano technology can control everything and reach areas denied traditional limits. The effect on everyday life could be tremendous. But there are real concerns how much privacy we'll have to give up to enter this brave new world.
"This one was very expensive to do," Allder explains. "And one broadcaster couldn't try it alone. I've done a few other projects that were 50-50 partnerships--the Geologic Journey is an example. But this one had three equal parties. We worked well together. I think we were true to the original objectives. And I just think part of the formula is respecting the audience."
One use of nano technology is seen in a Mexican city where the drinking water is tinged with arsenic. Using the new techniques the injection of nano cells can significantly erase the arsenic and make the water safe for human consumption.
The second hour on Thurs. Oct. 20 really revs up the excitement. Titled More Than Human it looks at the medical revolution that is right around the corner.
Nano technology can deliver treatment directly to afflicted cells which has great importance with cancer victims. Treatment would then become personalized enabling the nano cells top roam freely through a patient's body. And nano technology is leading the way in advanced tissue engineering as well as stem cell therapy.
The third hour Will Nano Save The Planet (on Thurs. Oct. 27) shows how nano technology could battle pollution concerns and help clean up the wastes of the industrialized age.
The images are dazzling but the comments of the scientists are just as remarkable. One British physicist wanders through the ruins of a gigantic British plant in London abandoned because of asbestos poisoning. He says only 80 years ago this was the latest in technology. And he can't say for certain what the world will be like 80 years from now for his grandchildren.
But The Nano Revolution isn't just about new wave science. One amusing segment shows how the intrusion into our daily lives might drive some people crazy. A woman out for a stroll gets bombarded with ads all specifically tailored to her personality. A man can't even get a restaurant reservation because he refuses to wear his nano chip.
"We had to synthesize three different cultures to get this one documentary mini-series" Allder says."The animation came from Japan and right when we needed it to come together the tsunami knocked out production for six weeks. When one has three directors the results can take some time to coalesce. It was quite a jigsaw.
"And I think the ultimate question will be who is going to own things. People owning this information will be powerful. That's the biggest concern of all."
When Allder took over as executive producer of the Nature Of Things 14 years ago he succeeded the near legendary Jim Murray who was definitely a hands on executive. Allder had little trouble holding on to that gold standard of excellence and even taking NOT into a new realm of co-productions that increased its reputation.
Allder he'll definitely continue to make quality co-productions calling on the best from public broadcasters everywhere.
"It's really the only way for this kind of television to go."
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Strange Death Of Canadian TV

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. The decline and fall of Canadian TV, I mean.
But this new season finds Canadian shows hanging on by a thread while American imports we can already catch from border stations get pride of place in scheduling.
Cable operators are instructed by the CRTC to black out incoming border TV signals and substitute the same shows from the Canadian stations thus giving these series a double rating Canadian shows never enjoy.
So American series will always out rate the Canadian competition by huge figures.
Way back in 1977 my greatish predecessor at the Toronto Star, TV critic Jack Miller, started a hell of a firestorm.
For weeks Miller poured over BBG ratings figures and finally announced that Toronto TV fans spent less than 10 per cent of their prime time viewing Canadian shows.
What a political stink that caused! Questions were asked in Parliament. Network heads were relentlessly grilled at CRTC meetings.
And yet it was all true.
Canadian TV in those days was a 10-channel universe. Today there are hundreds of cable channels out there.
But it seems to me the more channels we get the less quality Canadian drama there is available.
Back then the CRTC was setting down the ground rules for the wonderful world of cable TV and the expansion of conventional commercial networks.
Headed by the brilliant, mercurial Pierre Juneau the CRTC envisaged a grand network of new Canadian channels to serve the public with locally grown shows enjoying the best time slots.
At CBC license renewal hearings Pierre Berton who after all starred on CBC's Front Page Challenge told startled CRTC commissioners the Corp deliberately reserved its best slots for American imports because they attracted more advertising revenue. He charged that Canadian material got the inferior time slots and hence lower ratings.
I was covering that particular hearing for The Spectator and I looked over at the bank of CBC executives and all were beet red from anger. But it was true, that's what truly got them going.
When Juneau didn't think CTV was making enough Canadian shows he slapped a one year license renewal on the network despite the protests of CTV president Murray Chercover.
It was Chercover who once explained to me why CTV never had a fall launch: "Jim, our big Canadian show is Littlest Hobo. You want me to promote THAT?"
At CBC's license renewal hearing Juneau went head to head with CBC President Laurent Picard over the long term aims of the CBC. Picard favored a mixed schedule with big rated U.S. shows leading into Canadian shows and thereby juicing up the ratings.
Juneau scolded him harshly --he favored a true Canadian network.
And the irony is when Juneau finally became CBC President and cancelled all American series he found he didn't have the finances to put on many scripted dramas at all. Successive federal cuts had denuded CBC of its greatness.
In 1977 Jack Miller thought Canadian TV on shaky ground. But I'll wager in today's multichannel TV universe that prime time viewing of Canadian shows is way, way below 10 per cent. I think it's closer to five per cent these days.
Look, I remember in 1985 Canadian TV produced 11 prime time hourlong drama series. What a bonanza! Included in the mix were Street Legal, Wind Up My Back, The City, Power Play. Fantastic!.
But by the next season there were only two series left.
What happened? The commercial networks spearheaded by CTV and Global got the CRTC to change the rules and instead of specifically requesting a certain number of filmed dramas the Commission simply lumped all Canadian content into one mass category.
The next season the commercial networks substituted inexpensive documentaries and reality outings. Canadian TV series drama has been dead ever since.
And why not? A seasoned Canadian producer just told me the networks can buy a big American hit for $100,000 an episode. It comes with gobs of publicity --after all most of the morning and afternoon talk shows are American imports, too.
By contrast a beleagured Canadian producer can spend at best $800,000 to a cool million on each episode of his drama series.
Commercial networks exist to make money. Which is why they spend $600 million or more a year on American shows and less than $100 million on Canadian stuff.
Remember that in prime time Canadian content must be 50 per cent.
Remember also that prime time in Canada starts at 7 p.m. --that was a change CTV's Chercover fought for so he could plop in the likes of Stars On Ice and Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour before switching to U.S. imports. And an hour of Canadian content counts as 90 minutes because of another weird CRTC ruling.
This fall CTV has one scripted drama, Global has none right now.
Network sources say some Canadian series are running on their cable networks while other Canadian dramas are expected later in the fall or at midseason.
But this trickling away of Canadian drama has caused no outcry like it did in 1977 after Jack Miller's revelations.
Could it be Canadians no longer care?
Or did they tune away from Canadian TV a long time ago?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Gayest Show Ever?

A new Toronto made series debuts Friday night. The title --The Gayest Show Ever --is pretty provocative.
But is it true?
Mainstream TV has gotten gay with a vengeance in recent years.
Look at all the gay TV celebrities now thriving openly: Neil Patrick Harris, Nate Berkus, Ellen DeGeneres.
And when it comes to gay vibes what about such gayer than gay shows as Desperate Housewives, Glee, Modern Family?
The battle for the hearts, minds and pocket books of gay viewers in Toronto was supposed to start some 10 years ago when Citytv revved up the series QueerTV starring Islamic lesbian Irshad Manji.
Citytv's then reigning guru Moses Znaimer thought the series would guarantee him first prize in the CRTC run off for the first Canadian gay TV license.
But it didn't happen. Another outfit got the license and a bewildering array of name changes followed.
Let's see there was Pridevision which morphed into OUTtv as well as HARD.
And the gay license didn't turn out to be a license to print money after all.
That's because regular TV channels were ramping up the gay content.
For five season Queer As Folk was made in Toronto for Showcase and Showtime.
I remember phoning the producers after the first ratings were out showing a majority of viewers were --straight women. That really threw everybody for a loop.
But none of the engaging cast have gone on to do much. Talented star Gale Harold got typecast and his subsequent series appearances have been dim.
So when a series like The Gayest Show Ever comes along it truly has to deliver.
Which it does. This isn' a gay version of 60 Minutes. It's all over the map with some funny pieces and some suddenly serious reflections.
Host is the talented lesbian stand up Elvira Kurt and she demonstrates some interviewing skills as well as some snazzy one liners. An interview with Cyndi Lauper in the second episode gets to the singer's essence.
In the first show there's a longish bit with John Waters that shows him unready to bend his views to suit the current gay tide of respectability.
Best segment in the first show is a skit starring two drag queens titled Project Dumpster. And a profile of a gay rapper is OK. The look at nude yoga is pretty funny --but some parts of the screen are deliberately blurred.
In the second show a continuing segment called People In The Gayborhood works. But Kurt's encounter with male porno stars who pracise unsafe sex finds her looking embarrassed.
Creator David Walberg executive produced it, Paul Bellini wrote the comedy sketches and Frank Prendergast is the producer.
It just may not be the gayest show on TV these days. But it delivers handily. And that's OK, too,

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Winners And Losers Of The New TV Season

It had to happen. The first casualty of the new fall TV season is --The Playboy Club.
It had to go not merely because it was a terrible show.
Viewers just were not interested in this type of jiggle TV.
So NBC says it will plop in reruns of faltering Prime Suspect until a new series called Rock Center with Brian Williams can begin at the end of the month.
BUT NBC says it will also give full season orders to two somewhat faltering sitcoms: Up All Night starring Christina Applegate and Will Arnett and Whitney Cummings show called Whitney.
Whitney has been a terrible disappointment but NBC simply doesn't have anything else available.
And what new American shows are hits so far?
Well, CBS's Two Broke Girls hit Number 4 in the Top 20 ratings list its first time out but that was because it followed the audience blockbuster Two And A Half Men Mondays at 9.
CBS's Unforgettable tied with another CBS staple Criminal Minds for 12th spot.
CBS's Person Of Interest was number 15.
The X Factor's two showings were tied for 18th spot on Fox --this despite press reports the show had bombed. It didn't but it never garnered anticipated numbers.
And ABC's Pan Am was a sturdy 24th.
NBC's only entry, old or new, was perennial Sunday night favorite.
Conclusion: TV viewers dialed back to tried and true favorites as they almost always do.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The War Of 1812 Is Must See TV!

"When I started my research on the War of 1812 six years ago I had to cross the border, naturally," remembers American executive producer John Grant.
"And when I told the Canadian border guard my reason for entering Canada he said 'Oh, that's the war where we whipped you guys'.
"But when I returned the American guard merely shrugged and said to proceed. For her it wasn't something she really was aware of."
Grant's long awaited production The War Of 1812 finally appears on PBS stations Monday Oct. 10. He's surely hoping to change the opinions of both guards he met that day.
Becuse this was a most important war for both sides. It changed both sides for good and bad.
For the U.S. it determined that the new republic needed a standing army. The militia that fought these battles under aged and incompetent generals from the Revolutionary days were completely incompetent.
Canadians began to think of themselves as a separate people and not just sparsely inhabitated colonies of Great Britain.
It's strange to think that here is the best TV production about Canada on TV this fall. Because it comes from an American station.
The War Of 1812 is simply enthralling. It's got everything from superbly staged sea battles to bloody conflicts along the Niagara frontier to an unforgettable cast of characters.
Thrill as Laura Secord trudges through the forests to alert British soldiers to an impending attack of American regulars.
Cheer as First Lady Dolly Madison rolls up a portrait of the American Union's first President George Washington and beats a hasty retreat just before the arrival of British soldiers who promptly burn the White House down.
"I've heard there have been other TV films on the war,"Grant allows. "But ours had to reflect sentiment on both sides of the border." What follows is artful threading as myths on both sides get exploded.
There have already been two Canadian versions, one a CBC effort and one a CTV TV movie produced by Tom Gould but both were deemed too pro Canadian to ever make it south of the border.
"We tried for balance,"Grant says "but we definitely are not dull." Buffalo's WNED-TV made the film with PBS backing --there even are some Canadian finances involved.
The war defined the combatants --it was the last time the U.S. was successfully invaded and it was a defining moment for the beleagured colonists of Upper and Lower Canada.
The two hour production looks very luxuriant with elaborately staged battle recreations.
Of course there's no existing battle footage. There even is a complete lack of still photgraphs --it all happened 28 years before the arrival of the first photographers.
The War Of 1812 seems to have a cast of thousands but that's movie making logic . "Make that a cast of dozens," Grant jokes. "Our intrepid production designer Peter Twist was constantly adjusting buttons on the costumes of the volunteers for authenticity's sake. A lot of these scenes are shot in tight close-ups to show the stark fear of the troops. The Americans were rightly petrified of being scalped by England's Indian allies. The British were treated just as roughly."
Night time shooting and plumes of fake smoke disguise the fact there only were 20 soldiers on each side re-enacting a battle scene.
Two period vessels the USS Niagara and The Pride Of Baltimore were hired for the splendid sea battles which were fought at close range. Many sailors on both sides were killed not by cannon balls but exploding shrapnel or gigantic splinters from the timbers.
Grant says "We had the diary reminiscences of two soldiers and use them to personalize the conflict." One was a Kentucky refleman William Atherton who was captured by the British and spent several years in a stinking Montreral prison. The other was British foot soldier Shadrach Byfield. who survived and died decades later in poverty back in Britain.
"The canvas was huge," Grant says. There were pitched battles in the Northwest, the Niagara Corridor, Lakes Ontario, erie and Champlain, and in Chesapeke and New Orleans.
"All the while the English were concentrating on defeating Napoleon. In fact that's where General Brock would have preferred to be. Consequently it was hard locating British experts to talk saout the war although we did find a few."
Experts pop up throughout but these are not the usually boring talking heads. "It's a real diversity of opinion out there."
We get precise character studies of the important subjects.
President Madison is portrayed as a dwarfish individual entirely under the control, of his more forward looking wife Dolly.
General William Hull is shown cowering in a corner rather than leading his troops into battle.
One of the greatest figures is the Indian warrior Tecumseh who accurately forecast the demise of the Indian nation should the Americans win.
We learn that black soldiers fought courageously on both sides. The British used black soldiers to strike fear into the hearts of slave owning Southern whites.
Laura Secord? Her image increased with the passage of time until the Prince of Wales asked to see her when he visited Canada in 1860. She died at 93 a year after Confederation but her fame continued to grow.
If you want to know about military medicine it's all here --surgeons had but a few minutes to amputate limbs crushed by cannon balls or the soldiers would bleed to death.
Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey directed and Ken Chowder wrote it and they're likely to be nominated come Emmy time.
The War Of 1812 has everything --true life adventure, superb winners and tragic losers (like the great warrior Tecumseh), and a story line that explains how Canadians began developing as a separate people.
It's one of the few recent TV programs I watched and thought it should go on and because it's so chock full of information and excitement. And it's all real.
Grant says he's already working on another history documentary that criss crosses the Canada-America border. "It'll be on the Undergground Railroad. Americans know about the U.S. side but we'll also look at the experiences of fleeing ex-slaves once they reached Canada."
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

CBC's InSecurity Returns For A Second Season

Surprise! CBC's situation comedy InSecurity is returning for a second season.
And chatting with creator and show runner Kevin White he says wasn't concerned for a minute the show might not be picked up.
"We all saw a lot of potential," White says. "And there's a lot of fine tuning that has taken place. It's a very different kind of comedy this time out. The plots are more organized. And it's funnier.
"This new season there's more concentration on office work and that kind of atmosphere and less on how bumbling the team can be out on assignment."
In fact the badinage at times in the first new episode which I've sneak previewed makes it seem these bungling spooks would be right at home working at Dunder Mifflin.
White agrees with me the first batch of 13 episodes was often a tad disorganized and rough around the edges.
The sitcom is shot in Regina (for economic reasons) although set in Ottawa and two episodes are block shot every eight days.
The rhythm just wasn't there the first time out but the new batch seem smoother and better modulated.
CBC is desperately seeking a ratings strong successor to Little Mosque On The Prairie which has been wilting away and surely won't be back next season.
CTV is just as desperate for a new hit to replace Corner Gas. Dan For Mayor was obviously not that show (White worked on that one too) and has already been cancelled.
That still leaves hiccups --the decision is still out.
InSecurity isn't the only sitcom to ever get retooled in its sophomore outing.
The same thing saved Seinfeld and Parks And Recreation.
It's clear that the workplace is going to be the real field of conflict. InSecurity has a huge, high tech wokrk place --the set was kept up in Regina on the chance CBC would order another batch. But the order was scaled back to 10 new half hours because of budget constraints.
Also, the focus has been switched so that blonde and beautiful Natalie Lisinska is solidly front and center as the headstrong but slightly daffy head Alex Cranston.
"All of them are more competent and focused on the drudgery of office politics," explains White. "I mean now the actors know each other and they can interact better, they're more at ease."
Returning characters include the director Peter McNeill (played by William deVry of The Bold And The Beautiful), veteran agent Claude Lesage (Remy Girard), team player Burt Wilson (Mathew MacFadzean), forensic specialist Grace Lynn Kung (Grace Lynn Kung from Being Erica)and unpredictable agent Benjamin N'udu (Richard Yearwood).
CBC notes say while the first season played like a CSI parody in the second batch branch out and we'll get to know more about the office romances, the bad clothes some wear and the mistakes common to any disorganized office.
In the first new episode Burt flunks a lie detector test because he's concealing an office romance and Claude comes dressed up in Seventies duds to show he's with it. The best stuff. however, happens out of the office as Alex faces off against an iffy Russian double agent beautifully played by ()()()()().
"On Corner Gas we had an instant winner, it just all came together," says White. He worked on that one as well. "There's no formula. Except maybe hard work and luck. It rarely happens that easily."
Indeed many hit U.S. sitcoms go through multiple pilots before hitting the air, an option that's too expensive for Canadian TV.--InSecurity had two pilots however.
"We had tons of good ingredients the first season. We're going where the show leads us. It's evolving and it is getting consistently better.
"Bringing in personal details from Alex's life --some friends and relations --that will help. It's a very tough atmosphere to launch a new show. But Ron James did it. We have a second chance and we're taking full advantage."
0 forgot to ask if the set is staying up in anticipation of Season Number Three.