Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bernie Zuckerman and Canadian TV Drama

My taxi is speeding through southern Etobicoke and the driver poses this question.
"They make TV series down here?" he asks with a more than a tinge of skepticism.
Indeed they do --specifically the terrific police show King currently running on both Showcase and Global TV.
I'm on my way to interview executive producer Bernard Zuckerman for what must be the umpteenth time. For those of us who cover Canadian TV he is a symbol of survivability in a precarious business --making Canadian television.
Comfortably ensconced in an office that seems like a set right out of Mad Men --everything is so Fifties --Zuckerman ponders and says "We must have first met when I made And Then You Die in 1987."
"You see I always wanted to do Canadian TV movies and when they disappeared I had to switch to series. And here I am."
Brilliantly directed by Francis Mankiewicz, And Then You Die established Zuckerman as an incisive producer of reality drama --he'd come out of CBC-TV's current affairs department.
In 1990 he hit a home run with Love And Hate which was a rare CBC-CBS co-production that shone in the ratings on both side of the border and starred Kate Nelligan and Kenneth Welsh in the story of Colin and Joanne Thatcher.
Another big one was Dieppe (1993) starring Victor Gerber as Lord Louis Mountbatten, a Canadian saga if ever there was one --Prince Charles is said to have shuddered when he watched Garber's immaculate acting performance.
With Million Dollar Babies (1994) Zuckerman hired Beau Bridges as Dr. Allan Dafoe in the saga of the Dionne Quintuplets and once again CBS stepped for the American market.
"These days I wouldn't know who to reach at CBS," Zuckerman chuckles. "It's the same as at the Canadian networks where TV movies are out of style."
I remind Zuckerman of the time I was on the set of Savage Messiah (2002) and met the real victim whose arm was amputated by maniac //////////.
"That was a British co-production. We had to use Polly Ward in the lead and edit the film in London, England, which was quite pleasant."
With the two TV movies Chasing Cain and Chasing Cain: Face (2002) (starring Alberta Watson and Peter Outerbridge) Zuckerman used the plot of an older female partnered with a younger male detective.
Isn't this the basic plot of King, I innocently enquire?
"No! We should have sold that one to CBC as a series. But they had too many hour dramas right then."
Over at CTV Zuckerman did some of his best work: The Death And Life Of Nancy Eaton (2003), Murder In The Hamptons (2005) with David Sutcliffe and The Many Trials Of One Jane Doe (2005) with Wendy Crewson.
In 2004 he switched to series with CBC's This Is Wonderland starring Michael Riley. "It was often a complicated shoot," he says delicately of his often tumultuous relationship with creator George F. Walker.
After three seasons CBC cancelled the show calling it a 10 o'clock show "but they didn't have drama at 10 but news. We were on at 9 and that was simply too early in the evening for such fare."
CBC has yet to put out a boxed DVD of the third season --an example of the Corp's often lackadaisical approach to promoting Canadian content.
With King Zuckerman finds himself at Shaw Media which is revving up its Canadian production.
But why did the series go to air without an American co-producer (like Firewall or ()()()()()()).
"We did no pilot. I felt we didn't need one," Zuckerman says. "But that's what the U.S. networks want. They want to see a pilot and then make changes so they'll feel in charge. I'm still convinced we'll get an American pick up sooner than later."
Zuckerman says he had five strong choices for the lead of veteran detective Jessica King. "Amy Price-Francis was always the first choice for looks, acting ability and above all experience --she'd been in the first season of Californication."
Gabriel Hogan stars as her younger husband and Allen Van Sprang is her partner on the beat --I first interviewed hjm on the set of Earth: Final Conflict.
Co-executive producer Greg Spottiswood is the show runner and Zuckerman says "He's a real details man. He likes that kind of thing and it shows on camera. The show can only get better in the second year."
Joining the cast this year are Rossif Sutherland (ER) as joking hot shot detective Pen Martin and Karen Robinson as Ingrid Evans, one of Organized Crime Unit's most experienced members.
"We found ourselves very quickly in Year One," Zuckerman boasts. "In Year Two it's time to really shine."
And just to keep in the TV movie business Zuckerman produced the two hour TV movie John A. starring Peter Outerbridge as George Brown and Shawn Doyle as Sir John A. Macdonald.
"I was hoping for a string of movies like PBS's The Adams Chronicle. But ratings were low. So we'll see. In the Canadian TV business one must be an optimist."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Oscars are Coming Up

Here's my chance to tout my own horn. If you want to learn more about the upcoming Oscars then google where editor Ron Miller has a right-on column about his ace predictions.
And yours truly contributes something I've been working on for a long time: Oscar's 10 Biggest Mistakes.
It all started in 1932-33 when Oscar voters picked Cavalcade as Best Picture o ver King Kong! And all these year's later which picture has slipped into obscurity and which picture continues to entrance audiences to this day?
It winds up with last year's blooper: the very nice, undemanding The King's Speech winning as best picture over The Social Network, a huge mistake if ever there was one.
And editor Miller has a dandy second column on a new category he wants to instigate: Noirscars --the best thriller or murder mystery of years past and present.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Neverbloomers Is Sheer Delight!

I've always approached the experience of reviewing a first film by a fledgling director with some trepidation.
If I go lightly with my criticism then I'm not serving the reader.
If I'm too heavy I could scare off the film maker and unwillingly abort a promising career.
So I approached the first feature by Montreal director Sharon Hyman with my usual anguish and palpitations.
A few minutes into it and I was feeling just fine, I need not have worried at all.
Called Neverbloomers: The Search For GrownUphood, it's all about a generation who feel stuck in perpetual adolescence.
Approaching 40 and they get all hot and bothered because of the perception they haven't really done anything with their lives.
Hymans ays at one point that at 40 she wanted to re-assess her situation and try calling forth the adult within her.
She's not a late bloomer as yet because she feels she's never quite bloomed at all.
And so she takes viewers on a journey that's both serious and comically wonderful.
She goes around filming the philosophies of those close to her: there's her mother who is a serene beauty, her next door neighbor who could be termed a real character, her Hassidic rabbi, doctors, a mentor, taxi idrivers , even strangers--over 30 of them and each has a nugget of philosophy to impart.
At one point she's chatting away to the camera and her friend seated across at the table is saying interesting things so Sharon simply pivots her camera and concentrates on her.
She's finding out that all of us never quite feel grown up and those of us searching for life's purpose are never satisfied with what we've achieved.
As Hyman finds out "My inner child is my outer child". Her Orthodox upbringing has certainly shaped her --she seems like a nice person to be friends with.
But does being an adult mean she has to be less nice, open and friendly? We all have our anxieties, she's told. But does she really want to go back to being a kid.
Tightly edited, the hour passes quickly because the content is both comical and deep. To get to this point in film making Hyman first got a Master's Degree in Educational Technology from Concordia University and was mentored by the NFB's documentary master Wolf Koening.
On Neverbloomers she wrote, edited, directed, produced and for all that I know also provided the catering services. Hyman jokes on the phone that she got partial funding from Quebec --being an English speaking director in Montreal almost constitutes an endangered species.
But like other young directors she is finding there are few spots left on Canadian TV for individualistic films like hers.
When CBC Newsworld morphed into CBC News network it abandoned quirky POV documentaries altogether.
TV Ontario buys fewer documentaries each year it seems and network series from W5 to Nature Of Things only commission films that suit their specialized needs.
Let's hope Hyman continues to grow as a director and gets her films aired. Neverbloomers is a strong beginning and highly recommended. It looks like it was made by a veteran with a dozen features to her credit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Well Why Not Here?

Talking to friends about town and we're all unanimous: the best program on TV in the past few weeks?
The Clinton Presidency on PBS's American Experience.
And once again I'm being asked why Canadian TV can't come up with such excellence?
Remember the two best specials on Canadian history this season have both come from PBS: The War Of 1812 and The Underground Railroad.
Why can't a channel like History --our Canadian version--occasionally match with something brilliant about home grown history.
Don't get me wrong I dig shows like History's Canadian PIckers although I'm not quite certain it should be on History. It really belongs on OLN I'm thinking.
And once upon a time we did have history programming that great. And it was on CBC.
Just as I began my long career as TV critic --I was at the Hamilton Spectator then --along came CBC-TV's mesmerizing The Tenth Decade produced by Cameron Graham.It examined the exciting decade from 1957 to 1967 when John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson battled it out daily in the House of Commons.
Cameron found a mighty treasure trove of archival material in CBC dungeons. And he had full cooperation of Pearson and Diefenbaker themselves who sat down for extensive interviews.
At eight one hours this was one of CBC's biggest ever triumphs. I'd drive into Toronto every week just to preview the next episode --there were no VHS copies in those days.
And Graham got so much material left over he fashioned two additional series --one on Pearson (First Person Singular) and one on Diefenbaker (One Canadian) that proved if anything anti-climactic.
So one would expect CBC would order a sequel to be titled The Eleventh Decade? Right?
Well, not quite, Prime Minister Trudeau refused to cooperate and without Trudeau it was impossible.
So CBC dithered until Trudeau left office and then CBC fashioned a series about his years as PM that was highly non-critical.
(First Person Singular). It bombed critically because he had control over content.
CBC has had a series on the Mulroney years that's been running on low for years and apparently can't be completed until Mulroney's legal problems are resolved.
I've heard nothing about a series on Jean Chretien's three terms as a majority prime ministership.
I also klnow Peter Desbarrats had a series ready to shoot on Robert Stanfield, leader of the Opposition when Trudeau was PM. After much dithering Global TV cancelled the project on the issue of money. The netwotk had none at that time.
In the meantime we'll all continue receiving our history lessons from PBS until future notice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hollywood Suite: Four New Canadian Movie Channels

You can celebrate 50 years of James Bond this weekend starting with the original Bond Sean Connery in Dr. No, from Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball.
The action revs up Friday Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.
On Saturday Feb. 25 there's Roger Moore in For your Eyes Only at 8 followed by The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy and A View To Kill.
On Sunday it's Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and License To Kill.
There's just one catch. All you have to do is subscribe to Canadian TV's latest movie package called Hollywood Suite.
The fledgling service launched in December and is slowly building and available to subscribers of Bell, EastLink, TELUS Optik, SaskTel MAX, MTS Ultimate and Westman.
Missing so far are cable giants Rogers and Shaw which are famously hard bargainers.
A Toronto-based company Hollywood Suite was launched by cagey industry veterans Jay Switzer (as Chairman), Jeff Sackman, Michael McLaughlin, Catherine Tait and David Kines (as President)and is slowly but surely growing its subscriber base.
"I had to switch to Bell to get it at home," jokes programming vice president Ellen Baine who along with Switzer was once formed Citytv's powerhouse team.
Is there room for yet another movie package on Canadian TV?
"We obviously think so. There are four channels: the MGM Channel, WarnerFilms, Hollywood Storm and Hollywood Festival.
"There are no commercial interruptions although there could be commercials between the films. And all are going to be shown in HD. We're making a play for film buffs who want to watch beautiful copies of favorite films on their giant screens."
Every month upwards of 450 films will be unspooled, uncut and unedited.
The competition, of course, includes Turner Classic Movies and American Film Classics. Turner tends to go with older films and AMC which does have commercials has lately been switching to such series as Mad Men and The Walking Dead.
Getting the packages together has so far been the main preoccupation of Baine and her team.
Under license regulations 15 per cent of content must be Canadian.
"It's really been hard to get Canadian movies in HD. We have to order them specially. You'd think Atom Egoyan, his films must all be available in HD. Because that's the way to truly appreciate them. But, no, so we're creating a market for them but it will take time. At first not every Canadian title will be in HD."
Baine has extensive knowledge of Canadian movies from the days she toiled at Citytv which made showing Canadian features a priority.
To get the James Bond flicks Baine had to go back to the original contracts with the estate of Cubby Broccoli. "Of course they said yes. It's just that they just like to be in control of things."
"Watching them one after the other I realized how terrific Connery was but also how Roger Moore was a hit because he was very different in the part. You can be a fan of both their styles."I
She's now planning other similarly themed evenings. "Like a salute to Robin Hood --we'd start with Kevin Costner." Other contenders would include Russell Crowe, Errol Flynn, Cornel Wilde, Sean Connery, Cary Elwes and even Canadian Robin Dunne. and then have the others."
In between the movies she'd like to run movie related interviews --getting some of the best interviews done by the late, great Brian Linehan from city would certainly be a coup. How about running a Jane Fonda flick and then showing the original interview she made with Linehan to promote the feature?
Maybe one day there'll be a weekly movie review show?
"We've been working on getting an HD of A Hard Day's Night --that's coming soon."
For example on Tuesday I noticed WarnerFilms had High Sierra (1940) and The Maltese Falcon (1941) running in freshly struck HD.
The MGM Channel had a pristine print of The Pink Panther
On Hollywood Storm it was Varian's War and The Karate Kid. And Hollywood Festival had Driving Miss Daisy and Bird.
Hollywood Suite has a free preview running until Feb. 19 for those who can already receive the four channels.
The rest of us can only wait --and hope.

Monday, February 20, 2012

David Suzuki Journeys To The Disaster Zone

"This is one of those Nature Of Things programs I felt compelled to do, no question about that," says David Suzuki.
On the line from Calgary where he's making another NOT program, Suzuki is energetically pushing Journey To The Disaster Zone" Japan 3/11 which examines the after effects of the tsunami which wiped away thousands of coastal homes and thousands of lives and triggered a potential nuclear disaster that still haunts the nation.
Disaster is the first film made by Michael Allder since leaving NOT after 14 seasons as executive producer and one of the finest I've seen in recent years.
It hits all the buttons as it examines the strange Japanese reaction to these twin disasters.
"That's what floored me," Suzuki says. Although born in Canada he has deep roots in Japan --his grandparents returned to the country after World War II.
"What I witnessed was a degree of acceptance not seen in western countries. If this had happened in Canada there'd be demonstrations, outrage. In Japan there's resignation and acceptance. I think it comes from the postwar period of occupation and the reverence for all things American."
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake slammed into the northeastern shore of Japan followed a half hour later by a monster tsunami with waves as high as 30 meters that washed away everything and everybody in its wake. And it also triggered a nuclear meltdown that still affects crops and fishing in this area --and will for decades to come.
Allder has come away with real finds in terms of footage unseen outside Japan. In one scene we're at a gigantic bridge that joined two mountainous regions --on that day school children were encouraged to congregate there and watch the tides which swept right over them killing all the children and teachers.
"If those kids had gone up the hill they could have been saved. The teachers thought it was too steep. We show the school which is no vacant, a chilling sight."
The consequences of the nuclear meltdown are just as chilling. "The local fish --inedible, it's a huge area and the Japanese are reliant on fish.The irony isn't lost on those who remember Hiroshima. Why would a country with that history ever believe in nuclear energy?"
We see Suzuki visiting with old friends and surveying the new technologies which can record up to 300 tiny earthquakes a day in the country. "And yet six nuclear plants (out of 56) are still going strong, the long term consequences we just don't know."
"The quake should be a lesson for us all. It shows the limitations of science when dealing with natural disasters. I was glad we came and think this one is very important. as you know for some seasons CBC only wanted us as a series to start in January. Now with the cuts coming up we'll have to see, nobody knows what is coming."
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Descending: Must-Watch TV!

One of Canadian TV's biggest hits in recent years was Departures which ran three seasons on OLN garnering big audiences as well as international awards.
Building on that stature Hamilton-based filmmakers Scott Wilson and Andre Dupuis have now turned to another facet of world exploration: the ocean depths. Catch the first episode Sunday night at 9 on OLN.
In the new travel series Descending the twosome have made a hauntingly beautiful series of hours about their dives around the world.
The first episode is a must-see experience as it carefully builds up audience anticipation of what to expect.
First we're introduced to cast and crew: boyish adventurer Wilson we already know about but this time as he explains he is confronted with a whole lot of new challenges.
Underwater photography is a challenge in itself --we see the guys trying out their equipment in a deep community pool. The lights have to be tested and there's some getting used to the glare which in real situations (like murky waters) probably won't seem as intense.
State-of-art technology allows new microphones set right in the helmet so the team can readily communicate with each other.
In the first episode the crew travels to New Zealand to join up with veteran Kiwi co-host Ellis Emmett (from OLN's Don't Forget Your Passport) who takes them to some familiar and some totally new locations for dives off the NZ islands.
We learn only one per cent of the ocean has ever been explored this way and all the dangers that threaten the oceans in this era of mass pollution. The hour was designed to carefully introduce us to this New World, satisfy our curiosity but not completely over whelm us with facts.
We get to know prankster Emmett and see the fantastic house he lives in in the middle of nowhere. The coasts of NZ seem like magical places and once the cameras get down there the amazing images speak for themselves:there are sightless eels, dozens of species of fish most people have never seen, black coral which is actually white, in short the last unexplored world left on planet earth.
By humanizing the journey and showing off the quirks of crew members and letting us see what makes them tick Descending gradually becomes compulsively viewable.
Technical aspects are spectacular with cinematographer Dupuis surely up for many awards for his dazzling scenes of wonderment.
My only regret is the length --I could have watched another hour of this and still not been satisfied.
Wilson and Emmett do not talk down to their audience but rather bring us along as they tease each other and in one case save each other from possible tragedy --it happens when Emmett begins experiencing the bend in fairly deep water.
It was made by Echo Bay Media co-founded by Andre Dupuis asnd Wilson and is produced by Jennifer Howe and Jeff Wilson.
This 13-parter will have you anxious to catch each episode. It builds on the skills developed during the making of Departures and is one of the very few must-see Canadian TV experiences of the season.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Kidnap & Rescue: Our World Of Violence

The world we live in has become so dangerous that a new series called Search & Rescue can premiere and run weekly with its harrowing tales of torture and survival.
Indeed kidnapping is now so common place that there's a growth industry in rescuing the high profile victims --it's one of society's most rapidly growing businesses.
K&D runs for 10 weeks with its dramatic recreations of these often unbelievable takes of abduction and subsequent rescue.
The level of cruelty shown here is terrifying --never before has network TV shown such barbarities. In the first few scenes I watched a kidnapped executive had his nose bashed in and a finger cut off --more might have happened but I had to turn away.
In Episode One HALO quickly intervenes in the bloody abduction of an executive with dual Mexican and American citizenship.
HALO is a private San Diego-based corporation headed by Brad Barker and a team of highly trained Special Ops, National Security and intelligence personnel.
The company was formed as violence erupted along the sensitive Mexican/American border.
The commando team enter the home and find rooms drenched in blood. Their conclusion: the executive must be dead.
They the call comes from the kidnappers demanding a huge ransom and threatening to retaliate in the most gory fashion.We see how the search is conducted using the most intricate of surveillance techniques, in effect turning the heat on the criminals, slowly moving into their territory, making them squirm and fear for their lives.
As bloody as two Rambo movies I couldn't turn away from this bloody but satisfying ending. But I'm not sure if I'd stick around of the victim wasn't properly rescued. Surely some cases go awry?
Barker is a charismatic guy and gives off that aura of knowing exactly how to fight the baddies.
I was determined not to like Search & Rescue. But it's smoothly made and shows me a way of international life virtually ignored by the national TV newscasts.
TV crime and punishment docudramas too often highlight the violence and ignore the larger life lessons. Here the dramatic re-enactments are scary enough but there's also expert integration of real footage however grainy.
Barker is a fountainhead of information, he's seen it all. He calmly shows us the methods the criminals use including forced captivity. Sometimes the abductors succeed all to well, I'm afraid.
This is TV for parents, what you need to know about protecting your kids. Impressionable children shouldn't be watching at all. In fact it will take me some time to recover from some of the graphic images.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

CBC's Sunshine Sketches: Teatime Drama

"Teatime Drama" used to be an industry term denoting family friendly TV dramas that ran in the early evenings.
Think Road To Avonlea. Think Pit Pony. Think The Campbells. You get my drift.
Well, for a long time CBC-TV has been trying to get back into the field of Teatime Dramas.
For one thing these series sell like hot cakes abroad. Road To Avonlea continues to make millions for Sullivan Films.
About the last attempt at Teatime was Wind At My Back which didn't quite make it to super hit status.
So maybe CBC might be having more success with Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town which premieres Sunday night at 8 on CBC-TV.
The cast reads like a who's who of bright Canadian TV stars: Jill Hennessy, Donal Logue, Colin Mochrie, Debra McGrath, Peter Keleghan, Leah Pinsent, Eric Peterson, Ron James and there's the added bonus of Gordon Pinsent as the narrator Stephen Leacock who suddenly appears at the end of the two hour TV movie as a postscript.
If CBC programmers know what they're doing they should order a full season of these stories to be served up in an early hour time slot as perfect Teatime Drama.
The book came out originally in 1912 establishing its author, McGill University economics professor Stephen Leacock, as a literary super star of his day.
Indeed actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr, told me one of his prized possessions was an autographed copy of the first edition that had been presented to his father way back in 1917.
This TV version takes only two of the short stories --there are lots more to chose from and many fine comedic characters to also bring to the TV screen.
Hennessy shines as the dour, put upon wife Agnes Leacock whose carousing husband has deserted the family and gone off to try to start up his own railroad company.
Logue is the merry hotelier Josh Smith who is going to lose his liquor license unless he can get the rules bent.
Peter Keleghan is almost unrecognizable as the aptly titled Reverend Drone whose burps during his sermons are unwelcome.
Caroline Rhea gets real laughs as the slightly tipsy grade school teacher Mrs. Diston who is also a divorcee to boot.
Colin Mochrie is stern Judge Pepperleigh and Debrah McGrath is his wife. Eric Peterson is optimistic barber Jeff Thorpe and Ron James shines as the local undertaker Golgotha Gingham. Observing the proceedings is Owen Best as the young Stephen.
Don McBrearty who directed many of the better Avonlea episodes captures all the eccentricities of a small town Ontario community. The movie was shot in various small town and looks very handsome indeed.
In short CBC has a real winner here which if properly exploited could be turned into a long running classic example of Teatime Drama.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Remembering Ben Gazzara

It's odd how little space was devoted to the passing of greatish actor Ben Gazzara.
He's one of the few actors who got away --in my career as TV critic I've interviewed almost everybody in person.
I did chat up Gazzara once --it was to promote a fine performance in the 2002 TV movie Hysterical Blindness which won him a supporting Emmy award.
On the phone he sounded as he looked --grizzled, impatient, sometimes quite ironical.
Born in 1930 in New York city to Sicilian immigrants. In 1951 he got a scholarship to the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg who became his chief mentor.
At the age of 23 he had Broadway fame in a sizzling adaptation of the novel End Of A Man which he filmed in 1957 as The Strange One. I recently caught it on TCM and Gazzara gives the year's best film performance so far as I am concerned.
Then he created the role of Brick in the original Broadway production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof opposite Barbara Bel Geddes. It still seems strange to me --Dallas's Miss Ellie as Maggie The Cat.
"People always said I whispered my lines. That was to get their attention. Why yell when you can whisper? It's so much more effective."
In movies he scored a home run as the sadistic soldier accused of murder in Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) and the came roles in such films as The Young Doctors (1961) and Convicts 4 (1962).
It's strange but recently I've been watching the DVDs of Gazzara's 1964 TV series Arrest And Trial --an odd series that lasted 45 minutes an episode and was the forerunner of Law & Order. The series was so strange it was quickly cancelled. "When this happens the creators always say it was but in this case it was true."
Then Gazzara had big success on TV in Run For Your Life (1964-68) which was a clever clone of The Fugitive. "we had big all star casts. the first one, I remember we had Celeste Holm, Katharine Ross, Bob Loggia, Jacques Bergerac as guests -- that's pretty fancy for weekly TV."
It's the films he made with director John Cassavetes which will surely survive: Husbands (1970), The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night.
Working with Cassavetes, he said was "Something else. He was completely devoted to his actors. Few directors care the way he did,"
I read his autobiography In The Moment where he writes lovingly of a long affair with Audrey Hepburn.
"We made two movies together and she was as lovely as ever although she'd been away for a long time. Eventually she turned to working with the United Nations and had a bew career."
In movies he continued to astonish: The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and Eve (2008). He has several unreleased titles --it's as if he stepped up his pace knowing he was going to die.
I wished I'd had the guts to ask about his second wife --actress Janice Rule whose work I also count as special.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Deathwatch 2012: TV's Doomed Series

I'm already hearing whispers from my Hollywood sources all about what series will live and which will soon die.
One series already pronounced dead after eight seasons is House which Fox cancelled early despite steady ratings. The network concluded the producers had simply ran out of ideas and I agree --it had become prohibitively expensive to make.
House's departure could mean the resuscitation of Terra Nova for another 13 episodes, I'm told.
More recent shows seemingly doomed include the awful Are You There, Chelsea? which has picayune ratings and the worst reviews of the season.
I was surprised ABC's Cougar Town is still in contention until I realized ABC owns the show and needs more episodes to make it viable in syndication.
ABC sources are saying the Dana Delaney drama Body Of Proof will "probably" get the boot --sinking ratings are one reason and ABC seems to favor Revenge as a second seasoner.
I figured PAN AM had already got the boot but ABC continues to look at this one with hope. Ratings never jelled after a massive campaign of over sell but neither have the numbers tanked. It might hang around if ABC can't find something stronger.
Fox is said to be down on Fringe because of high production costs but it is produced by J.J. Abrams who is revered for his Lost success. I think the Friday night slot is wrong and urge a reboot.
Fox is not likely to renew I Hate My Teenage Daughter which got terrible reviews and a teeny ratings.
CBS continues to tinker away on Unforgettable --it isn't keeping enough of its NCIS:LA lead-in and needs some help --Jane Curtin was recently added to the cast and this may help it gain a renewal slip. Or how about better written episodes?
CBS has three CSI franchises all rapidly aging and one or two of them might be axed. Most vulnerable is CSI:Miami which wilted when moved to Sunday nights. All three series are slipping fast in the same fashion as Law & Order.
Similarly NBC might renew Parenthood just because the fourth network has nothing else half as dependable in the closet.
The Firm has already been cancelled NBC sources are saying unofficially but 22 episodes were ordered and have to be run off in this Canadian co-production.
NBC will also renew Grimm even though it has an unexpected hit in Smash. Critical response was huge but NBC need to try it in a better time slot.
It's the same with Harry's Law which got re-tinkered after the first season and lost its juice and chunks of the audience. NBC needs it as backup I'm guessing.
A big upset would come if NBC killed off 30 Rock. The reasons: ratings are way down and it's very costly to make and why not go out in high style?
30 Rock's powerful executive producer is Lorne Michaels who also controls Up All Night. I'm thinking at least one of these shows will be back and maybe both will givens Michaels' clout..
I hate Whitney, viewers hate Whitney but NBC thinks Whitney Cummings can still shine in this stinker. There's no decision on its fate.
I'm told other new series including Subpurgatory, Person Of Interest and 2 Broke Girls will definitely be back although they haven't received renewals as yet.
Of course all this could change when the next batch of overnight ratings appear. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

MS Wars: An In-Your-Face Documentary

I wish TV critics would stop writing obituaries for the death of the TV documentary which seems to be disappearing from many networks.
It's alive and kicking and one need look no further than the quite brilliant hour MS Wars: Hope, Science And The Internet which premieres on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Thursday night at 8.
It's not surprising to me that this one really works --after all it was made by the Regina couple Leif Storm Kaldor and Leslea Mair (for Zoot Pictures) --they last delivered the award winning documentary Remote Control War.
The story could have been torn from yesterday's headlines. Or just look at the Internet where the debate rages about the so-called Liberation treatment which many MS patients swear has worked for them.
Both sides in this debate would agree Multiple Sclerosis is a crippling disease and as yet there is no cure. Its long range symptoms include fatigue and loss of muscle control and increasing debility.
Starting in 2009 an Itallian doctor Paolo Zamboni announced he was advocating a new procedure that could help many patients.
It was Liberation Therapy that unblocked plugged jugular veins to help cope with a condition he called chronic cerebrospinal venus insufficiency.
He published one small research paper which got picked up on the Internet and suddenly patients were bombarding their physicians with demands for information about the treatment. As one doctor grumbles an erroneous headline in her local paper produced a stampede to her door.
It all seemed too good to be true and it was. The Canadian government blocked treatment until the proper research could be concluded --but that would take up to a decade of clinical trials.
MS Wars examines the conflict that broke out between conservative physicians and the often rambunctious Internet sites.
We even visit with certain Canadian patients who journeyed to places like Costa Rica where treatnent is available. Some experienced wonderful results while others were clearly disappointed. By humanizing the controversy MS Wars shows that hope can sometimes be illusory.
But it also highlights the enormous power of our Social Networks in arming people with all kinds of knowledge to challenge a system they no longer believe in.
Shot like a news program this one could just as easily have wound up on CBC's the fifth estate.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The River Is Fun And Scary

Get set for a deluge of new series as the American networks go into overdrive for what's termed "The Second Season".
On Monday night there was Smash which I hope will be a smash for NBC and CTV.
On Tuesday it's The River, a creepy, funny, paranormal adventure series set deep in the darkest stretches of the Amazon.
Both series were executive produced by Steven Spielberg who is a busy boy these days.
The River borrows freely from a lot of other movies and series you're probably familiar with.
Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood plays an intrepid TV naturalist Emmet Cole (think Steve Irwin) who mysteriously disappears while up the river filming his latest series.
He leaves behind a distraught wife Tess Cole played by another Canadian Leslie Hope who is determined to launch an expedition to find his ship --she's convinced Emmet is alive.
Of course they have an estranged son Lincoln Cole (played by Joe Anderson from Breaking Dawn) who was always neglected by a father usually off on another quest or adventure.
When a rescue mission is lauch it's funded by a documentaery film maker determined to turn everything into the latest TV reality show.
And so as the crew set off some of the shots are in grainy video, others handheld reaction takes, with lots of behind-the-scenes tension and drama.
In visual terms The River is spectacular. It was shot not in Brazil but in Hawaii and looks a lot like the hit Lost which cannot be coincidental. Four of the principal directors and producers are from Paranormal Activity.
Special effects abound including one dazzling scene where the ship's passengers are enveloped in a cloud of huge blue dragon flies. What a wonderful effect.
Every scene is exquisitely photographed as if this were a big budgeted movie.
The River is entertaining to watch even if the dialogue is frequently corn pone and some of the plot completely unconvincing.
Will TV audiences want to watch every week or not is all that ABC (and CTV) care about.
Think of this as Alien not in outer space but in a jungle settling with a dash of Joseph Conrad and a touch of The Thing tossed in for good measure. The fact we've seen it before is the most unnerving thing of all.
For Greenwood it's a return to his TV roots. I remember interviewing him as he left his first major TV project, St. Elsewhere in 1988. And I saw him again on the set of Knots Landing in 1991.
In Toronto I interviewed him on the set of Woman On The Run in 1993 --he was having a bit of trouble acting with co-star Tatum O'Neal.
His career jumped notches when director Atom Egoyan used him in the movies Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
The last time I interviewed him he was back in an NBC series Sleepwakers (1997) that that lasted only a few weeks.
He and Hope have come a long way since those days and both deserve to headline a series as expensive as this one. They're now major TV series stars which is an elite category open to very few actors.
It's now up to TV viewers to determine if they want to be scared silly by these jungle antics on a weekly basis. ABC and CTV are hoping the answer is in the affirmative.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Smash Is A Smash

NBC has a lot riding on its new series Smash.
Like the very future of the network I'm supposing.
Remember NBC gambled buckets of dough that its remake of the British TV hit Prime Suspect would be the one viewers would pick in the fall.
It wasn't and NBC ratings crashed again leaving the peacock proud network mired in fourth place.
Just to make sure American viewers are aware of Smash there's been a blizzard of TV ads, online streaming, billboards, you name it.
And after watching the first two episodes on a DVD screener I'm still not sure.
Not that Smash isn't a greatish series. It's all about the making of a Broadway musical based on Marilyn Monroe and its stars include Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing.
And boy does NBC need a hit right about now, any hit will do. Just last week industry trades had NBC in eighth place on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. Remember this is the time when ER would routinely draw 40 million or more viewers.
Now even Jersey Shore beats NBC after Prime Suspect was suddenly cancelled.
That's why I'm relieved to report Smash is almost a smash. But will it succeed? That's another matter.
First of all the show boasts impeccable credentials. Garson Kanin wrote the original novel, the basis for the story. Listed as creator is successful executive producer Theresa Rebeck (NYPD Blue). Michael Mayer directed the first episode with flair.
Original songs are written by Tony and Grammy winner Marc Sherman and Scott Wittman.
Debra Messing stars as Broadway show tune writer Julia Houston married to a high school science teacher Frank Houston (Brian d'Arcy James). Julia's partner is perennial optimist Tom Levitt (played by Christian Borle).
Anjelica Huston is Broadway showrunner Eileen Rand who desperately needs a new hit so she can shove it to her departing husband.
Jack Davenport is the directorial genius Derek Wills who is mounting a first dress rehearsal and must chose between two very different candidates to play Marilyn.
There's busty veteran Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) who has been dancing on Broadway for a decade and dewey newcomer Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) who has a dazzling voice --she lives with City Hall PR head Raza Jaffrey (Dev Sundaram).
A whole heck of dough has been tossed at the first two episodes I saw.
And yet at times the proceedings were so campy I kept thinking of that other Manhattan based dramatic clinker Central Park West with John Barrowman --remember that one?
Everyone here is so bound up with their show bizzy lives that there's not a joke cracked. Anguish and intensity follow this crowd all the days of their lives.
Some TV critics are going to dance in the aisles at Smash but what about the great unwashed audience in middle America? Will they care about a series that's all about putting on a show. I mean Broadway going is an elitist experiment. Let's not forget Smash is up against Jersey Shore which truly does know its audience!
The case against Prime Suspect was that it was irrelevant, using an overly familiar plot that was 30 years old. The buzz about big, incoming series is usually wrong --look at how quickly Lone Star bombed.
Once upon a time (1984 to be exact) NBC was in equal dire straits and one great hit --The Cosby Show--revived its entire Thursday night lineup and allowed such hits as Seinfeld and ER to grow and prosper.
That won't be happening again because of the fractured TV audience.
Smash is different than other network fare, it's well acted (particularly by Messing and Huston), sports recognizable characters and a fair degree of soap opera plotting as well as the requisite beautiful people. It takes itself a bit too seriously but that commitment may work in its favor. The New York locations are beautifully showcased and it could have you rooting for either Karen Cartwright or Ivy Lynn.
Watch Smash. Enjoy Smash. It's as good as a TV serial gets these days. I hope it lasts for seasons to come.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

PBS's Underground Railroad: Great Canadian History

Once again American network PBS has come up with the best Canadian history program of the month.
Last fall it was The War Of 1812 and now it's the gripping story of William Still and his efforts to help black slaves fleeing to freedom.
Underground Railroad recreates those harrowing times in brilliant images and for many fugitive slaves the end of the journey was freedom in Canada.
"Our story has everything and it's all true," says producer Gordon Henderson of Toronto's 90th Parallel Productions which made the exciting hour special for Buffalo's WNED-TV.
For one thing few photographs exist of the harrowing tales because the journeys were made through hostile Southern states where slavery was a way of life. Henderson had to visually recreaet these sprints to freedom and does so brilliantly --fugitives could be shot dead at any time during escaping.
For Southern slave owners its was frustrating to see slaves simply vanish. Founding father George Washington blamed Quaker activists when one of his own slaves suddenly vanished.
"It's a story that still resonates today," says Stratford actor Dion Johnstone who stars in the dramatic portions as black activist William Still who was deemed the father of the Underground Railroad.
Says Johnstone: "Many of us can relate to that feeling of being separated from family --never knowing what relatives are out there."
Indeed the highlight of the hour comes when Still interviews one fleeing slave and realizes he is a long lost brother who he never met before. Dramatically it is a hugely satisfying moment.
Johnstone says all his big scenes were filmed in a week. It's odd but in his appearances as Still he rarely speaks except for moments when he turns and talks directly to the camera.
"We had Still's journals to work with," Henderson reports. "That seemed to be the best way to describe the sprawling story."
Henderson says he knew the broad outlines of the story of the Underground Railroad but not the key part played by Still. "As we researched it was apparent his own journey was the best way to personalize the narrative."
In broad strokes the special examines the economics of slavery and the cruel conditions most of the four million blacks had to endure. At least 100,000 had already escaped to freedom on the North by the time of the passage of The Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. That federal act meant bounty hunters could legally abduct fleeing slaves living in the free Northern states and return them to their masters and made it a crime for any one to interfere in any way.
Henderson had to ensure costumes were historically accurate as well as the houses and paraphernalia of the times. He says the dramatic reconstructions had to be done just right --scenes were shot on "living history" plantations in the South and in period locations in Southern Ontario near historic black communities in Niagara Falls, Toronto, Chatham and Windsor.
Says Henderson: "After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act the fleeing slaves had to cross over into Ontario to ensure their safety. It's estimated at least 40,000 did so. After the Civil War some returned but others stayed and built homes in such areas as St. Catharines and Chatham."
In the 1850s Still travelled through Ontario --he'd heard reports Ontario was snow covered for 10 months of the year and how famine was a yearly occurrence.
When shown this was not so Still could return and route former slaves to a new life where they could own land and farm and even have their children attend public school.
The day I chatted with Johnstone on the phone he was guesting on the police series King. He said he's decided not to return to Stratford where he shone this season but try for more TV work.
Directly addressing the TV audience works because of his Stratford experience.
"I wanted to do justice to Still and all that he did but also to make him seem vital and alive. It's living history, what he did for his people was truly remarkable."
Henderson says he has other ideas for specials about history that criss cross the border --for example the Yukon Gold Rush which waas largely peopled by American miners.
A more recent example I can think of is the Sixties influx of American draft dodgers and how they changed Canadian culture. ia
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

David Letterman's Long Goodbye

The most important event in David Letterman's TV history happened off camera.
It came in 1992 when NBC informed Letterman that he would not be replacing Johnny Carson after years as Carson's heir apparent.
Remember that Carson's company had been producing Letterman's Late Show on NBC since 1982. Remember also that Carson appeared on several episodes of Letterman's subsequent CBS late nighter --but never deigned to go near Jay Leno and the Tonight Show.
In fact Letterman became so bitter about the incident that he still occasionally talks about it.
And he got great malicious glee over Leno's predicament of trying to replace Conan O'Brien after Conan walked out in a bitter NBC contract dispute.
Letterman is like that.
Right now he's been celebrating his 30th year as a late night talk icon. But his current CBS gig is very much different from his NBC show.
Not that he's ever been warm and cuddly.
And despite all the bad publicity Leno received during the Conan stink Leno consistently out rates Letterman to this day.
A lot of guests won't go back on his show --like Shirley MacLaine who blasted him on air and never again appeared on the couch.
But the way I'm figuring it departing NBC and not getting the Tonight Show was the best thing to ever happen to Letterman.
There was no way he was going to keep that huge audience Carson enjoyed.
Indeed in his later years Carson got to musing out loud that he could never have enjoyed such power in a multichannel TV universe.
But Letterman is Carson's heir --just on another network.
He's never been friendly to the press.
Indeed the only time I can think of that he appeared before the Television Critics Association came in 1993 when he jumped to CBS.
My attempts to interview him for the Toronto Star were always rebuffed. When I tried to work though sidekick Paul Shaffer I was told to forget it.
It was the same with Carson. I did meet him, But by accident.
In the late 1980s I was in the Burbank office next to his interviewing Freddie De Cordova who was Carson's long suffering director.
And Carson walks in all agitated, sees me making notes and sits down and listens for a bit. Then he jumps up, shakes my hand and departs.
"That's my Johnny," laughed Freddie.
And that's the same way with Letterman. He can be curt, even dismissive to some guests.
But most of the time he gets it very, very right.
Like his decision to keep going the tragic night if 9/11. He effortlessly switched off the comedy and invited old pro Walter Cronkite on board to muse about the essence of American independence and democracy.
And it really worked. Such a pep talk steadied a nation's nerves. Am I right in terming it Dave's finest hour?
He's about to hit 65, an age to be as curmudgeonly as possible rather than the hipster who dazzled us on NBC.
Funny thing about that NBC show: all the regulars he used so wisely and well like actress Teri and Larry "Bud" Melman were dropped when he jumped to CBS. NBC insisted on exercising "intellectual property" although Melman resurfaced as Calvert DeForest --his real name. I've since heard NBC insisted it had copyright on much of the Letterman shtick --I think the term used was "intellectual property".
NBC once tried to sell all of its Letterman reruns to A&E for afternoon repeats but Letterman (now at CBS) kicked up such a stink the offer was withdrawn.
Garr reappeared in 2008 after successfully battling a brain aneurysm.
Then there was the night in 2009 when he told the world about the blackmail attempts. And what powerful TV it turned out to be.
See, he's not the same Dave we've always known. Like the rest of us he's aging. He's visibly slowing down, getting crankier, balder. But still near the top of his game --witness his recent interview with actor Michael Fassbender whose nude turns in the movie Shame gave Letterman some fascinating material to play with.
CBS sources are saying the network is trying to sign him to a new contract for at least two more years. Last year Forbes put his earning at $45 million. I just hope he won't be fading away as Carson did.
Late nights are hard enough to get through these days. It would be impossible without Dave.