Thursday, October 31, 2013

Darknet: A TV Series Not On TV

The best TV series on Halloween night isn't even on TV.
Have I got your attention yet?
It's called Darknet and if I have to explain that term to you you'd better turn to something else.
The highly anticipated horror anthology series from executive producers Vincenzo Natali and Steven Hoban will actually premiere on Showcase on January 24 2014.
In yee olden days which was just last week a TV network would never allow such a prerelease but at 12:01 on Friday November 1 Darknet will actually premiere on
The current thinking is for multi-platform,s to rev up excitement in a new series.
and I'm thinking a lot of young viewers have to be coaxed to watch any "regular" TV at all.
I just watched the first episode which is predictably terrific given that it was written and directed by Natali. himself.
I remember once at least 10 years ago my assignment from The Toronto Star was to meet and interview Natali  then in town for the Toronto Film Festival.
He'd directed Cube (1997) to great acclaim and was then stuck in development hell.
I teased him he could stay busy by directing such Canadian TV fare as Degrassi and Ready Or Not.
He looked genuinely shocked until I hastened to admit I was only kidding.
After watching the first full episode of Darknet I though of its U.S. equivalent American Horror Story.
There are a number of intertwining stories all set in the trendy parts of downtown Toronto.
Indeed the city is one of the main characters.
The story starts with a young girl reading her emails on the subway. She gets off and sits at a bus bench unaware the other passengers have fled because a slasher is loose in the neighborhood.
The second story with its intimations of Hitchcock's Psycho finds a modern Marion Crane (newcomer Michelle Alexander)  coming home late after a yoga class and discovering her toilet seat has been pushed up --something she would never do.
The next day with a girl friend over for dinner she opens the fridge and discovers a veggie wrap has been half eaten.
Looking out the window she thinks she sees a stalker and looks again and he is gone.
Another vignette finds Natali's favorite actor David Hewlett  (he has been in at least six Natali features) cast as a businessman  who goes down to open his locker and finds one key to another locker containing a bag of $50,000 and another key to a bicycle locker in the basement containing the body  of a young guy with drug paraphernalia.
The press release says Darknet contains "bite sized servings of fear". Bite sized? I was watching in the dark and had this urge to turn on every light in the house.
As usual Natali shoots everything in a flowing style that here only ups the creepy factor.
There are six half hours that seemingly interweave into each other.
If the preview idea was to get potential viewers hooked early on then it should be a big success.
More please.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Steven Page Becomes A TV Foodie

I couldn't figure out why I was so nervous meeting Steven Page.
One of the founding fathers of Barenaked Ladies, he's reinventing himself as a traveling food  critic in the new series The Illegal Eater premiering on Travel + Escape Tuesday October 22 at 9 p.m.
And he's very charming.  ingratiating, comical and thoroughly at ease.
Was it because my taxi driver deposited me at the Drake instead of Gladstone hotel and I had to high tail it down Queen street West to make the appointment?
Or was I trying to figure out how to get Page to open up about his very public split from Barenaked Ladies four years back.
But there was Page with his signature bow tie and natty suit sitting placidly in the bar and looking more like a TV interviewer and less the music star he was for almost 20 years.
"It's not such a big stretch," he told me.
"I like food and when we were touring I'd try to take in places off the beaten track to dine. Foodie is actually not the right word because while I like food I'm hardly an obsessed expert."
But how did Page become so relaxed before camera. I guess I was expecting some early season jitters.
"I had a summer interview series with CBC Radio a few years back," he says. "I learned there how to interview people and get them to talk. And all the times I did TV talk shows there'd always be a pre-interview."
Page says he jumped at the chance to host the new show which runs 13 weeks and includes two segments per every half hour.
"We look at out-of-the-way places. We learned about them through gossip, friends, it was an exciting way. Illicit sometimes means illegal or just plain underground.
"Besides the food stuff I get to talk to the chefs and they are an eclectic mix. "We started off shooting more than we could ever use on air. Sometimes I have to calm the subject but most are just plain eager to talk about their cooking. We were looking for the unusual but it also had to be good stuff."
In the first episode Page starts off in Los Angeles accompanied by old buddy (and fellow Canadian) Jason Priestly and they go to the Green Bar Collective which serves organic liquor that can only operate because of state regulations at special occasions.
Then it's on to a chef who prepares Indian food called Uncurry not in a restro setting but for large parties in individual homes. Her aim is to show Indian cooking is far more than curried dishes.
Page discusses the food but also gets to clown around with a gigantic Jerome giraffe for the patrons.
The second segment is set in Charleston described by Page as "where ugly and beauty meet." The ugly is the location of the old slave market where human beings were bought and sold. The beauty is the amazing architecture.
The guerilla cuisine here is composed equally of pork bellies and moonshine plus guns.
Forced to brandish a revolver for the first time in his life and Page bleats "This is freaking me out."
There are just as many comedy moments as cooking moments and Page even sings here.
Page says when he was traveling with the band "I got to know the places to eat everywhere.  It's one way of surviving the monotony of the road. It sort of kept me sane."
Page says he was up for most of the sight gags although he looks pretty uncomfortable shooting off that gun and refuses outright to fire a repeating rifle.
"Not all segments were shot in sequence and I had to be careful not to soil the suit. We couldn't afford a wardrobe person."
I carefully asked Page who very publicly disengaged himself from Barenaked Ladies in 2009 if it was a truism that all bands eventually break up.
"Unless you're a Rolling Stone," he laughed. "But the dynamic seems to be always there."
Page has since followed a successful solo singing career and even has plans for  recording a new album.
I point out that being highlighted on the boutique network Travel + Escape is a plus because the network can carefully publicize the series and grow the ratings week by week.
"We traveled light, two cameras and a sound man. I think I got better at it. We didn't stage anything, that kept me on my toes. I enjoyed it. I think a second batch would be even better."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Ice Pilots NWT: True North TV, Eh?

Canadian TV producers have definitely demonstrated that ice sells.
As in Ice Pilots NWT which returns for its fifth season of frigid fare Wednesday Octtober 23 at 10 p.m. on History.
Now don't you dare confuse this one with Ice Truckers or Highway To Hell, eh?
"I'm not going to comment on the competition," laughs Mikey McBryan, the loquacious son who has it all figured out why his series is such a hit.
"My dad and I are here in Toronto and for us that's an adventure. Just as for you in Toronto all that ice must be something new."
Mikey was relaxing in a board room at Shaw Media along with his father who doesn't talk as much but sports a gigantic presence: "Buffalo Joe" McBryan.
Says Mikey: "We are completely surprised to have hit 65 episodes this new season. And maybe 20 years from now we'll sit down and watch them all and remember."
Together the McBryans are front and center of  every episode.
"But we tend to ignore the cameras and sometimes I don't even know when they're filming me," says "Buffalo Joe".
"We got used to all that very quickly," Mikey says. "So we're comfortable just being ourselves. What's hard for me are the interview segments where I'm plopped down and I have to look directly at the camera. Now that's difficult."
Mikey swears nothing is made up. "They just film and film and send all the material back to the editors marked 'Stuff Happens'".
I'm honor bound not to give away much new plot but in the first new episode a fierce storm threatens to ground the air carrier and then there are mechanical problems which seem very threatening.
"Something like that couldn't be planned," Mikey says. "We had all kinds of problems including human. You know how close we were to not flying --you've seen the first episode.
"The chief mechanic felt terrible about what happened.There was no faking his emotions."
"Buffalo Joe" says the airline gets as many as 100 British visitors a year.
"They come to see the planes. We fly DC-3s and these fans want to look at the serial numbers. They'll say 'that one flew in the Berlin airlift'. Or 'That one got refugees out of Hungary during the 1956 revolution.'"
In fact Buffalo Airlines is just about the only company left still flying DC-3s.
"One thing is the dependability. They were used by the U.S. air force and I bought up as many parts as I could when I knew the air force was easing them out. We became our own Walmart.
"But, sure, the time will come when we simply can't fly them. But for dependability in our conditions they still are number one. In 1978 there were still 115 registered. Now I figure we're the last batch flying. regularly.
"We're lost in time, we never moved on."
This year "Buffalo Joe" will go on a buying mission looking for modern planes. He'll also take his first ever helicopter lesson.
As far as the future of Buffalo Airways goes Joe says "We could have become a corporation. I'd be upped to chairman. It just wouldn't be fun anymore."
What keeps us watching are the very human elements -- the young pilot who brought his family to such an isolated place, the outbursts of "Buffalo Joe", the daunting problems eery time a plane creaks off.
"You people complain if you have to travel two blocks to get a Starbucks," jokes Mikey.
The series is a hit in the oddest places.
"They love it in Ireland because it's not American," Mikey explains. "Our hard core audience is in Alberta because every one has a cousin up here. Australians love it because they never get to experience such winters."
"Buffalo Joe" says he gets few fan letters these days. "It's all emails. Do I know a brother in Whitehorse?  People searching for long lost relatives. And questions about the planes, a lot of those."
Says Joe : "We're the lifeline for a dozen tiny communities. I keep thinking of that every time we have to fly in -40 weather."
In Episode Two some NHL stars drop by for a hockey game --they were on strike when this was filmed. And Joe rides along in a CT-114 Tutor jet. He also glides along Great Slave Lake in a 1940s "snowplane" --a prototype of the snowmobile.
And , yes, you are correct --the fictional Arctic Air is loosely based on Ice Pilots (and also made by Omnifilm Entertainment).
A sixth season seems just as likely as the next winter's  cold front.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, October 18, 2013

When TV Goes To The Dogs

Some of them are photographed wearing the very latest fashions.
Another casually plays the piano. Still another only eats gourmet dinners.
All are canines of the four legged category and in the merry new documentary For The Love Of Dogs we're asked to eavesdrop on their completely captivated owners.
One lady agrees she seems to be married to her dog. A childless couple lavish all their attention on their tiny dog
An archaeologist of some renown admits she even took her daschund on her digs --everything seemed OK until she started finding bones she had to hide from the dog.
One familyt's idea of a real treat is to cuddle up with their dog and watch a movie on TV.
We get to go to a bark mitzvah where guests dance all around and the center of attention gets to much on all sorts of meaty delicacies.
We peek in on "doga" classes where dogs and owners chill out in heavy mediation moments.
And what abut a different take on pyjama parties --here called, of course, paw-jama parties.
The new hour documentary could have energed as simply enjoyably silly.
But it has depth and resonance  --it's basically a riff on the modern problem of lonliness.
Many of the owners only have their animal.
Pampered doggie Millie gets to dress up and go to parties where she recognizes other dogs. Yes, there is a dog named Elvis profiled here. What would "The King" think about that?
 Sure, they go overboard but the dogs don't seem to care much of the time. They get pampered and petted and it's better than a cell at the local dog pound.
One couple's idea of heaven is to cuddle with their pooch and watch a movie on TV.
"She's our only child!" they admit.
It would be very easy to make fun of these people.  Instead producer Dale Burshtein and director Sarah Goodman (for Omigod Productioons and Portfolio Entertainment)  accept their subjects for what they are. They're not there to poke fun but to join in the celebrations.
And that's what makes For the Love Of Dog so fascinating. The dogs don't ask anything of their human "masters", they are completely of the moment. When one dog dies of lymphoma the female human survivor is distraught and begins studying up on reincarnation.
One dog, Princess, has five new outfits every day. The Queen never wears the same dress and neither does this Princess. I like the quote "Dogs are more human than humans are" because it sums up the group philosophy of the hour.
The holy muttrimony ceremony was mostly done with complete reverence.
And as one lady says her dog has "been the little fur baby I needed."
So for For The Love Of A Dog I dutifully dole out  ***1/2 barks.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Myth Or Science: A CBC-TV Winner

"Yes, I'm back again," giggles Dr. Jennifer Gardy on the line to promote the new TV special Myth Or Science: The Quest For Perfection.
It runs on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Thursday October 17 at 8 p.m.
Viewers are excused for wondering if the format seems more than a little familiar.
"We did one of these two seasons back," Gardy reports. "It got one of the highest ratings of the year on NOT and was especially popular with young viewers."
For whatever reason CBC took its time in ordering a sequel. But in this case the wait was worth it.
The second hour is even better made and so tightly edited you won't be able to turn away.
And it's such an attractive package CBC could have a popular spin off series if it wants.
I've caught Gardy on TV before --she sometimes guest hosts on Discovery's science shows. She's mighty attractive with a way of engaging audiences without talking down to them.
And in Myth Or Science she makes each experiment spring to life because she's game enough to get physically involved.
In one test she's put up against a slightly chubbier girl to test who is more physically fit. Gardy is leaner and more muscular and the endurance matches are fun to watch.
"In our society it's a case of thin is in. But that's a body ideal. We get to test the reality of being fit."
"The idea is to confront popular myths, test them and see if they are true or not. I was astonished several times and I'm in the myth busting business."
I'm honor bound not to reveal the ending but it was a huge surprise to me.
To film episodes Gardy travelled to various Canadian universities to interview medical scientists about their latest work. This melange of talking heads could have turned deadly dull except that Gardy talks their language and manages to get the academics at ease.
""I talked a lot to them before we filmed anything. I had to get them completely at ease and that sometimes took time. We wanted to capture their enthusiasm."
Gardy says the crew (Jeff Semple directed from a script by executive producer Dugald Maudsley for Infield Fly Productions) started with a long list of "20 to 30 myths and that got boiled down. But certainly there's enough material for a series. For example: are tanning beds addictive?"
But is it just me or does McMaster University get pride of place this time out --I'm speaking as an old Hamiltonian.
"Certainly there's a lot of great projects going on there right now," laughs Gardy. "Which is pretty impressive for a medium sized university."
One experiment looks at whether exercise can reverse the aging process, a relevant topic in a society where the number of people over 60 will triple by the year 2050.
And , yes, the study does start with sedentary mice before turning to people.
Says Gardy: "Everything here is grounded in good science--that's what makes the hour."
Gardy willingly volunteered for the experiment to show short, intense workouts are just as good as longer endurance trials. "I think this will make everybody rethink the physical fitness thing. As will the thesis that fit means thin.
"You see science is hard to film. I think we got it right here with the challenges I had to undertake."
I tell her surely the toughest moment must have come when she is ordered to chew a raw brussels sprout but she says "No, it was the indoor snowboarding --that really threw me."
I first spotted Grady as a co-host on the short lived CBC series Project X.
"We ran Thursdays at 7:30 and CBC cancelled when the network bought the rights to Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy."
Other myths confronted include the story that cooking foods destroys nutrients, that coffee is good for you and the segment I felt worked the best --that music can repair brain damage.
I chatted up Dr. Gardy on the phone the day before she left for a conference in Europe. Her day job finds her leading the Genome British Columbia research lab at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver.
"I spent a total of about 3 1/2 weeks on this one. In my job there's a lot of delegating if I have to be away for several days at a time. TV is something I like doing in sort bursts. For me it's all a balancing act. .
"I'm hoping there's more installments of Myth Or Science --I think the topics are there. I get to do a lot of heavy lifting, that's the challenge for me."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Now Let Us Praise Jack Miller

When I telephoned the Toronto Star's news desk to report the passing of Jack Miller aged 85 there was an awkward silence.
"I don't think my generation would be interested," the temporary reporter said and then hung up.
But once upon a time Miller was the nation's most read and influential TV columnist.
He'd started at it in 1954 at The Hamilton Spectator and lasted 16 years on the beat --he was one of the first reporters to write exclusively about TV along with The Telegram's Ron Poulton and The Star's Gordon Sinclair.
I was a kid way back then but when I started reading papers I always gravitated to the entertainment sections.
Our family devoured all three Toronto dailies day and later I grew to appreciate the TV columns of Jon Ruddy and Bob Blackburn in The Tely, Roy Shields and Patrick Scott in The Star and Dennis Braithwaite in The Globe And Mail.
This was the Golden Age of TV criticism --these guys believed in the CRTC, they believed in the CBC, they wrote daily about the enfolding Canadian TV scene.
When The Star's Patrick Scott retired from the beat in 1971 he told management only Jack Miller at The Spec could replace him --Scott personally subscribed to the Hamilton paper just to read Mller.
"It was a big break for me," Miller once told me. "I was very scared at first because of the calibre of talent in that section.
"Then I realized I was probably the oldest guy in the room and I had the most experience."
Miller remembered early on Star management had him driven in the dark of night to an old warehouse in Scarborough.
"On the stage were all the members of the Star's board of directors. Chairman Beland Honderich  had ordered this secrecy because he wanted to purchase Peterborough's Channel 12 and move it to Toronto.
"I patiently explained this was impossible. CHEX had gotten its license precisely to serve Peterborough. And there was a Channel 12 also in Rochester. Its signal would be compromised by moving CHEX into the Toronto area. It wasn't the answer the board expected. They never proceeded with the proposed sale."
As it turned out I replaced Miller at the Spec --I was 24 --he was 44-- and he did his best to bring me up to speed. He went everywhere with his wife Helen --they were known in the trade as "Meet The Millers" --a reference to a current show on Buffalo's WBEN-TV.
Somewhere I have a delightful photo of Helen swimming with Phyllis Diller in the swimming pool at Manulife Centre --the Millers lived there high up in some luxury.
Another memory is of a joint interview with Hugh O'Brien and the fact that even when I was asking Hugh a question he was looking at Helen's beautiful long legs.
During CRTC sessions I noticed the Commissioners would invite Jack back into their private room to explain some arcane regulation. I can still see Jack chatting away and commission member Northrop Frye taking notes.
Jack became so good at this the CRTC asked him to join but he refused saying journalism was always his first love,
In 1980 Jack asked to transfer to the science beat (I replaced him once more) where he shone with his ability to explain complex subjects in easy to read prose.
He retired in 1992 and looked after Helen as she battled cancer making sure he drove her back to their home in St. Catharines every night after treatment at Princess Margaret hospital.
Last time I talked to him was a few months ago and he was all excited about his latest phone gadget.
One thing's for sure --the art of TV criticism was much the poorer when he left the beat.

Walk The Walk: Stories Of Hope

It's the new season and already I'm being inundated by angry TV viewers who want to know where the great new Canadian series might be.
Well, I've got one for you that is chock full of surprise and hope.
Titled Walk The Walk it's a six part documentary series that celebrates illustrious Canadians and gets them interacting with "ordinary" Canadians who have big dreams.
So kudos to Global for showing such a series even if the time slot is a bit off putting: Saturday nights at 10 beginning October 12.
The greatish Canadians profiled here are Nelly Furtado, Rush, Tom Cochrane, George Chuvalo, Kurt Browning and Sonia Rodriguez.
They share nothing in common talent wise but all are concerned citizens out to make society a better place to live.
There are two half hour profiles on each week.
First up there's Neil Peart, drummer with rush, who gets connected with Karl Sloman, drummer and music teacher who leads a band of disabled musicians called Train wreck.
I haven't previewed that one but the second profile I saw and can really recommend as Walk of Fame star Kurt Browning is asked to secvrety drop in on a Special Olympics skating club called Rising stars to offer encouragement and support.
We first visit with Browning at his kitchen table and the talk reaffirms what a basically nice guy he is despite all that fame.
He's off to a skating rink to accidentally on purpose drop in on the dedicated coach Nancy Eastman who has devoted her career to mentoring Special Olympics skaters including three Champions.
I'm honor bound not to give away more of the show but it contains heart warming moments including the profile of a young skater who won't let her epilepsy keep her down.
And there's also a special guest appearance from another Canadian skater and a proud Olympian. Guess who!
In the second week the first segment looks at Tom Cochrane who visits with Angus Ronalds who reated "Riley's Walk"  to honor his seven-year old son who died of cancer.
I haven't seen it but I did catch a preview of the second part which pairs ballerina Sonia Rodriguez with occupational therapists (and sisters) Mallory and Jade Ryan who created a dance troupe for young girls with disabilities.
The camera first lingers over their coaching sessions and then there's a visit from Rodriguez during a master class.
Speaking on the phone Rodriguez (who happens to be married to Browning) said "It was something I just had to do. So very inspirational. But obviously the surprise was hard to make happen. Luckily it came on a night when I was not dancing."
"I tell you the reception...I felt overwhelmed. Rodriguez liked the emphasis on what the girls can do rather than talking about their obvious limitations.
"People who watch will be touched. I sat there and applauded everybody I was enjoying myself so much.
"Of course it was a different environment for me. But dancing should make everybody feel good. These girls gain confidence. And I could see it meant so much for parents.
"The kids? They have blossomed truly."
The third (and final week pairs George Chuvalo with boxing coaches Miranda Kamal and husband Ibrahim as they teach boxing to at-risk youths followed by Nello Furtado visiting budding poet Mustafa Ahmed.
Walk the walk delivers a wallop of emotions and should appeal to young audiences --better record this one in case the youngsters in your family drift off at such a late hour.
Sergio Gallinaro and Alex Kane produced and Maureen Riley directed for Toronto's Enter the Picture Productions.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Deadly By Design On Doc Zone

I know it's fun sampling all the new American series before some get pink slipped.
But save just an hour for a real novelty: TV for the mind.
The new documentary is titled Deadly By Design and reveals that one of Canada's top exports is the often deadly drug called Ecstasy.
The hour is expertly directed (and written) by Jaime Escalion-Buraglia and produced by Linda Stregger.
Its calm, matter-of-fact approach got to me after awhile. Rather than sensationalize the subject it builds a case meticulously through interviews and on-site investigations.
I probably have heard of Ecstasy but aside from the name I was completely ignorant.
"So are 75 per cent of Canadians," explains Stregger. "But it is fast becoming a drug for teenagers because of its cheapness --one pill costs $5.
"It's synthetic --the chemical name is methylenedioxymethamphetamine --commonly called MDMA."
The film crew went underground to show how it is made. In one riveting scene they tag along with an RCMP  ResponseTeam who burst into a normal looking suburban home only to discover a house filled with the chemicals which are "cooked" to produce the substance.
The saddest scenes are interviews with a pert, young user who recounts the harrowing saga of how her best friend Daniel overdosed on a bad supply and died. He'd only been on drugs a short time --his parents paid him $2,000 if he remained drug free until he hit age 16.
"Because she's a teen her mom was right there during the interview," Stegger says."Yes, her youth is shocking but that's the point, Ecstasy is so easy to get. She was using her allowance to get her pills."
And Stegger sadly says she is hearing the shy, vulnerable teen may have relapsed in recent months and needs more treatment.
But what makes Canada one of the world's leading producers of this drug?
The statistics say 75 per cent of Japan's Ecstasy gets produced here  and 65 per cent of the stuff in Australia comes from our plants.
One of the biggest problems Stegger and crew faced was the necessity for anonymity. The most important person -- one of the "master chef" who cooks up the potions --is seen only in darkness --he says everyone else his own age who started with him in the production racket has died.
The cooking mechanism is dangerous and often produces deadly explosions. And there's the reaction of the Mob who will countenance nothing short of complete submission --after one botched batch he was beaten severely and his jaw broken as a warning.
To me the most terrifying moments come when we see how the residue gets tossed into rivers to pollute our drinking water. Homes have to be dug up because the water table has been severely compromised. The costs are huge and these clean ups go on for months.
Maybe Breaking Bad's end might have educated some viewers into the evils of Ecstasy.
The current crisis began in 2011 when 30 drug takers died in the ERs of western  Canadian hospitals signaling that the drug was increasingly being tampered with --some pills even contained talcum powder as an additive.
It would have been easy to sensationalize this material. But the filmmakers step back and let the story unfold even as they are educating viewers. Yes, there are the requisite talking heads but their talk I found fascinating.
I'm more upset by that teen talking about how unfair it is now that her best friend has died --it's a terror ride so easy to get into and sometimes impossible to survive.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The New TV Season Lays An Egg

First impressions of the new TV season? It's predictable and ratings are flat.
But there are a few good new shows to catch including The Blacklist and S.H.I.E.L.D.
This was the TV season NBC was expected to crash and burn.
Instead the peacock proud network has strongly bounced back and actually looks likely to win the first two weeks of the new season.
On Mondays The Voice beats back competition and the new James Spader drama The Blacklist is holding its first week's audience.
But Thursdays remains a problem --despite the nice reviews for Michael J. Fox his ratings are a disappointment so far. But NBC has given him a full season pick up.
Moving last year's hit Revolution from Mondays to wednesdays resulted in a deep dip in ratings. Ironside is a badly made remake of the old Raymond Burr hit and I predict the axeman will cometh very quickly.
Over at CBS those aging procedurals are starting to buckle ever so slightly.
CBS only has nine new shows which is a bad move for a network that wants to remain number one.
However Robin Williams in The Crazy Ones really took off --it happens to be very funny if you can stand Williams.
That comedy about flatulence The Millers also did better than expected.
We Are Men bombed and should get axed shortly while Hostages is a huge disappointment--competition from NBC's Blacklist is killing it.
ABC had the highest rating for a new series with the much anticipated Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.  but it also had the season's first cancellation with Lucky 7. And ratings for S.H.I.E.L.D. fell the second week out.
However, The Goldbergs did well among new series. Returning faves like Grey's Anatomy and Modern Family held up. Betrayal should be axed soon. Neighbors got moved to Fridays and ratings tanked.
Fox's new drama Sleepy Hollow has the makings of a hit and has gotten a season renewal.
The Simpsons got renewed for its 26th season. Dads seems terminal and Fox has to be worried about the continued ratings decline of those musical talent shows.
Stay tuned for ,ore reports.

Monday, October 7, 2013

William Fichtner Scores Again In Crossing Lines

"Admit it," challenges a friend.
"Would you be at all interested in the new  TV series Crossing Lines if William Fichtner wasn't the star?"
"But he is," is my response. And as far as I'm concerned after watching the first two hours of this new European made thriller he's reason enough to keep watching.
The first year of Crossing Lines  starring William Fichtner premieres on CBC-TV on Tuesday October 8 at 9 p.m.
When I reached the affable Cheektowaga native in Prague where he's busy filming the second season I reminded him I'd first interviewed him in Toronto at CTV's fall 2005 launch for a much heralded sci fi series (made by ABC) called Invasion.
Fichtner was nothing short of sensational as the curious and evil alien romancing and marrying Canadian co-star Kari Matchett in what I still consider one of the best TV pilots.
"The network kept asking 'When are the aliens coming?'," laughs Fichtner. And indeed after eight very spooky episodes the concept was watered down to yet another aliens in America tale.
With Crossing Lines Fichtner doesn't have to worry about network interference --this one is an all star European series with a gaggle of stars including a Canadian (Donald Sutherland), a French leading man (Marc Lavoine) plus imports from Italy (Gabriella Pession), Ireland (Richard Flood), Germany (Tom Wiaschiha) and France (Moon Dailly).
Together they have formed a crime fighting unit organized by the International Criminal Court tussling with bureaucrats in various jurisdictions.
We first glimpse Fichtner's character, the ruined and twitchy ex-New York cop  Carl Hickman, picking up garbage in a run down Amsterdam circus,
Physically he is a ruin --one hand is completely worthless, pain from various beatings renders him hooked on morphine patches.
As one expects with Fichtner this character is compulsively watchable with his shambling gait, the hoarse, drugged voice, the look of complete ruin.
And yet the determined French leader of the unit Louis Daniel (Lavoine) needs this ex-NYPD  cop badly because he remains a brilliant, intuitive detective.
 Quickly recruited he is after a ruthless mass murderer who specializes in the torture and sadistic killings of vulnerable, young woman not just in one country but all over western Europe.
Look--this isn't another CSI episode --all neatly wrapped up in 42 minutes.
Crossing Lines is very European in never giving us what we want --a quick resolution.
Fichtner says "I fought at first not to do this because it would mean uprooting my family or even worse leaving them in America for months.
"But the creator Ed Bernero who is a former Chicago cop kept at me and I had to admit the character was completely captured --an American living in a different society. I mean this guy is so fractured, yet he still is among the best in his business."
Fichtner finally agreed and for Season Two which he's currently filming in Prague he brought his family over five weeks early so his son could start school on time.
When I told Fichtner it seemed to me that Lavoine had been expertly dubbed he chuckled. In such an acting smorgasbord it's essential North Americans unused to European actors understand one of the leads.
Fichtner says the same basic crew travels wherever the cast goes although there are tighter restrictions in France. "So far the second year we've filmed in Sofia. Now we're back in Prague."
Fichtner, 56,  says he also gets to act with Donald Sutherland."Now that's something else. We talk a lot about the Montreal Expos although I insist on also talking about the Buffalo Sabres."
After Invasion ended Fichtner went right into another series and this time it was one of the most talked about of its time --Prison Break. Cast as the fugitive pursuer, the much misunderstood Alexander Mahone was right up Fichtner's alley of characters with many complex characteristics.
He's also made a habit of scene stealing in such films as Go (with Sarah Polley), Black Hawk Down,
Armageddon, Crash, Date Night and this season's The Lone Ranger.
And, yes, that was Fichtner without the aid of a stunt guy making a very dangerous jump from a moving train to a horse. "We wanted to do that without an edit so you'd know it is not faked."
"Yeah, I'm a character guy. I want to find that good journey. When there's the challenge I make a commitment. Which explains what I'm doing  right now living in Prague."
MY RATING: *** 1/2.


Cloudstreet: Something Different On TV

When people talk about the new TV season they usually refer to new American TV series.
Well, when TV began it was supposed to open a window to the world.
So how about sampling just one new Australian TV saga in the middle of all those U.S. imports?
I've just been watching and enjoying a preview DVD of the six parter from Down Under titled Cloudstreet. It's based on a popular Aussie novel from 1991 by Tim Winton.
The first part is on Super Channel Monday October 8 at 9 p.m.
Starring are two very diverse families, the Lambs and the PIckles.
They find themselves sharing an old dark house in Perth in 1943 and the saga unwinds at a pleasing leisurely pace until the finale set in 1963.
The story begins with brilliant visuals as the deeply devout Pickles family sing hymns down at the beach while the males of the family toss nets into the sea to catch fish.
One of the nets gets intertwined with one of the young sons --and young Fish Lamb (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) seems completely gone but his hysterical mother won't give up banging on his chest.
She does revive him seemingly from the dead but he is completely different --brain damaged for life.
And soon the Pickle parents (Geoff Morrell and Kerry Fox) determine to desert their farm ravaged by dust storms and head for Perth.
On the one side there's habitual gambler Sam Pickles (Stephen Curry) --he lost all the fingers on one hand as the result of a fishing accident and really detests all forms of work.
His deeply unhappy wife Dolly (Essie Davis) drinks far too much and takes young lovers on the side as consolation.
Indeed she hears about Sam's accident by the banging on her bedroom door of daughter Rose (Laura Robinson) who finds her mother with another man.
The acting is top notch but beware this one doesn't play at all like a Hollywood soap. The camera lingers over seemingly insignificant details as character portraits are built up and an atmosphere of Australia deep in the Great Depression is forged.
Winton wrote the screenplay with Ellen Fontana so while some scenes seem slow moving they are achingly real to the problems of these two very different families.
Costumes, period details, it's all like watching an Australian version of Masterpiece Theatre.
Cinematographer Mark Wareham and director Matthew Saville have fashioned a real winner which obviously won't be for everyon.
But for one it's a delicate and poignant window on this world.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Heartland Still Has Its Heart

How to review a series as long lasting as CBC-TV's Heartland?
The family friendly hour drama has been ambling along for seven seasons dishing out dollops of sentimentality and captivating impressionable young female hearts.
The new season premiere revs up Sunday October 6 at 7 p.m. on CBC.
Having what's called a ''tea cup drama'' has always been high on CBC's priorities.
Way, way back there was The Beachcomber which lasted for 17 seasons starring veteran Bruno Gerussi.
Later on came Road To Avonlea which served the same family friendly function.
Later still came Wind On My Back which didn't do quite as well in the ratings.
by contrast CTV's tea cup dramas haven't lasted as long: including The Campbells and Littlest Hobo.
The thing about Heartland is the producers know their audience and know their formula.
To an outsider the scenes are ever so long and dawdle.
But constant viewers relish this family and all the scrapes various members get into.
Add the soaring Albertan vistas and Heartland delivers consistently.
"We're growing old with our viewers" joked co-star Graham Wardle who is a fine actor gifted in the art of under playing a scene.
He co-stars with Amber Marshall and both told me at the CBC fall launch they're hoping for a few more seasons.
The seventh season opener has Marshall as Amy Fleming trying to work with a horse upset by being constantly mistreated by a Saudi prince eager to win an equestrian title.
The story line seems more than a little fantastic but should truly appeal to the show's young female base because the prince is rich and handsome.
I'm honor bound not to say what is happening to Jack who had a serious heart attack last season. That's so you'll have to watch the episode to find out.
The rest of the cast is as amiable as always  and includes Chris Potter as Timothy Fleming --I've been covering him since his days on Material World  (1990) and then on the outrageous Queer As Folk (2001).
Then there's Jessica Steen as Lisa Stillman --I first interviewed her for the wonderful CBC TV movie Small Gifts. (199)
But the scene stealer in Season Six was newcomer Alisha Newton well cast as  the orphan Georgie. In the first new episode she must decide how to approach a school dance for fathers and daughters when she has no father and can't dance.
And if that doesn't tug at your heartstrings nothing will.
Adopted by Lou Fleming (Michelle Morgan) and husband Peter (Gabriel Hogan) she's a solid addition to the cast.
Making some cast changes every year to freshen up the show which is now deep in old age as Canadian series goes really works.
I'm hoping Heartland will be around for seasons to come.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Chandra West Shines In CTV's Played

"Yes, I'm glad to be back," laughs Chandra West who shines in the new Toronto made police series Played which debuts Thursday October 3 at 10 p.m on Bravo.
After all Toronto is the place where the talented West first decided to be an actress.
"I think I made my first appearance on My Secret Identity (1990)," she says on the phone. Her part was so tiny she was not billed.
And today? She's acquired so much acting smarts she headlines the cast of Played as detective sergeant Rebecca Ellis, a poised police veteran who has the experience and savvy to lead an undercover elite force within the Toronto police.
"Who wouldn't want a part like this," she says. "Challenging, demanding, I said yes immediately. Our show runner Greg Nelson created it and the executive producers Adrienne Mitchell and Janice Lundman  were people I always wanted to work with."
West says her long stint back in Toronto and her husband's work in Chicago (he is executive producer Mark Tinker) meant "We were away from each other more than together this year. But that's the business."
In this engrossing saga the members of the Covert Investigations Unit rely on their police experience to ferret out wrongdoings.
In the pilot --"which was the second episode filmed" says West--the emphasis is not on procedural but character. These cops frequently go under cover to catch their prey.
In the first episode about nabbing a drug warlord Detective John Moreland (Vincent Walsh) poses as a wealthy stock broker who desperately needs a drug supply.
Moreland is fearless but apt to get into dangerous situations. "It's Rebecca's job to reign him in so he doesn't put the lives of other staffers at risk," West says.
"She's a very cool customer," West agrees. "But she's also fine tuned to the problems of all the staff she's responsible for."
Others in the unit include detective constable Maria Cortez (played by Lisa Marcos), detective constable Daniel Price (Dwain Murphy), officer Khali Bhatt (Agam Darshi), officer Jesse Calvert (Adam Butcher).
"We'll learn more about Rebecca's character as the series evolves," promises West. "Remember she must make the big decisions based on her experiences."
West says she left Toronto for L.A. "simply because the opportunities were better at that time."
Her film breakthrough happened in 2000 when she played Val Kilmer's wife in the feature The Salton Sea.
From 2003-04 she was Mark-Paul Gosselaar's wife in the hit series NYPD Blue and she shone as Tina Blake in the HBO series John From Cincinnati.
One of the biggest stars of Played is the city of Toronto in all its glory. Toronto is usually heavily disguised to make that all important sale to U.S. TV.
But in Played street cars whizz by and various Toronto downtown locations are out in force.
West says "We shoot two days in an Etobicoke studio where a fantastic set of our unit's location is located. But five days we're all over downtown Toronto. The look of this show is fantastic."
In Episode Two a luxury prostitution ring that preys on teenaged girls is located at a pricey eatery  and hotel which are actual locations.
In those days when she was making home grown TV shows like Forever Knight there was a certain stigma to Canadian TV. But Played with its glistening photography and tight editing can compete with the best anywhere.
The hope is Played on Bravo like Orphan Black on Space can find an keep an appreciative audience and return for a second season.
MY RATING: ***1/2.