Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bea Arthur Was Something Else

I was saddened but not surprised to hear of the passing of Beatrice Arthur at 86.
The last time I saw her was in her one woman show as she passed through Toronto in 2003 and she seemed somewhat diminished.
Our first meeting was in a freight elevator at CBS Television City in Hollywood --I was there to interview Bill Macy who was about to co-star with the formidable Arthur in the new situation comedy Maude.
"Quite frankly I'm terrified of her," giggled Macy who knew Arthur was standing right behind us.
"That's because I'm taller!" she retorted as she jumped off the lift and rushed into the rehearsal hall.
Arthur later told me she was delighted to "suddenly" be a star at age 50. 
It was in 1970 when she was visiting husband director Gee Saks in Hollywood. On a whim she accepted producer Norman Lear's invitation to guest star in an episode of All In The Family playing a very liberal relative of the Bunkers.
The episode tested so strongly CBS offered her a spin off titled Maude. When I visited the set to interview Macy  it was July 1972 and the half hour sitcom had yet to debut (on Sept. 12, 1972).
It proved to be an almost instant hit. Arthur's character, Maude Findlay, had been several times divorced, was currently wed to Walter, an appliance salesman. Also living in the home was Maude's 27-year-old divorced daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau) and her nine-year-old son Phillip (Brian Morrison).
And what about Maudie's housekeepers --there were three of them starting with Florida (Esther Rolle), then Mrs. Naugatuck (Hermione Baddeley) and finally Victoria Butterfield (Marlene Warfield).
And let's not forget the next door neighbors : Dr. Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain) and wife Vivian (Rue McClanahan).
Maude was a feminist., One episode even had her contemplating an abortion (she decided to have the procedure), Then she had a face lift, confronted menopause and Walter battled alcoholism. With ratings drooping in 1978 Lear decided to have Maude run for the U.S. congress but Arthur wisely bowed out with the show still near the top.
I interviewed Arthur on the set of her next sitcom Amanda's --remember that stinker? It ran on ABC for five tortured months in 1983 and was --get this --a remake of Fawlty Towers (although unacknowledged).
Arthur then thought she could rest on her laurels but suddenly Golden Girls was on for a seven year run (1985-92). 
Arthur was perfectly cast as Dorothy Zbornak opposite Betty White, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan. Arthur always said it succeeded because of the brilliant writing of Susan White but it was mostly Arthur's show. With her deep voice and arched eyebrow she could get a laugh off the most mundane line.
But characteristically it was Arthur who begged off after seven seasons. The rest of the cast soldiered on in the sequel The Golden Palace which only lasted a season.
Richard Kiley who acted opposite Arthur in the 1998 dramatic TV movie My First Love said she was a worrier who was always unsure of herself. Betty White said it was Arthur who had stomach aches just before each week's taping before an audience.
In real life Arthur wasn't formidable but kind and considerate, doting on her two son and helping out dear friends. When the late Brian Linehan came to L.A. to visit he'd stay with her although his immaculate image often proved irksome. She'd joke she would stagger out of bed in the morning and Linehan would already be up wearing his customary blazer.
Arthur came to L.A. with a proud stage career that included huge roles in Fiddler On The Roof and Mame which she repeated in the 1974 movie version.
Way back on live TV days she was seen to advantage in skits starring Canadians Wayne and Shuster on Ed Sullivan's CBS variety hour.
So Bea Arthur really had two big careers. Her later, huge success on TV was richly deserved, the icing on the cake.

The Sweeps Get Swept Away

Whatever happened to the May sweeps?
The month of May was traditionally the hottest TV month of the season. Dozens of series farewells and cliffhangers, specials every night, new miniseries and TV movies. But all that has changed because of the competition from cable TV networks.
Sure, there are going to be some dandy cliffhangers like who gets married and who dies on Greys Anatomy.
But other shows have already said farewell like ER. Other shows like Life simply vanished without a formal ending.
And what about the magnificent miniseries we could watch like The Winds Of War which was on two or three nights every other night?
Well, my U.S. sources are admitting the traditional networks are really hurting these days. Unlike the 1980s when the Big Three routinely took 90 per cent of the American TV audience these days it's a close fight between traditional webs and cable weblets.
With revenues crashing due to the recession networks no longer have the luxury of ordering up buckets of pilots. ABC seems to buy many of its new shows from parent company ABC while CBS plays "homer" with Paramount series and NBC shops from parent Universal.
Unlike the old networks cable fare goes on right through the summer without resorting to reruns.. Mad Men became a big hit precisely because it started up in August.
And as far as "minis" and TV movies go when was the last time you saw anything of them on the BigFive (I'm adding Fox and CW)?
And industry observers like Variety have also complained it no longer really matters because there are few daily newspaper critics left to comment on any possible rivalry. TV critics are an endangered breed --just like the traditional U.S. networks.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

ABC's Fall Line-Up Almost In Place

ABC is the first American network out of the gate in announcing most of its fall lineup.
It's a huge relief to report Ugly Betty is coming back --the network had been worried over a ratings free fall this season.  Ugly Betty was taken off for several week and sitcoms tried out in its slot but they fared much worse in the numbers race.
And also back is Private Practice which only seems to thrive when it follows Grey's Anatomy.
Other ABC hits getting early season pick ups include Desperate Housewives, Brothers & Sisters, Dancing With the Stars, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Bachelor, America's Funniest Home Videos, Supernanny and Wife Swap.
Missing from the list I've seen: The Unusuals, Scrubs, Cupid and In the Motherhood. Also missing are the new shows Cupid, Samantha Who.
ABC will only agree to renew Desperate Housewives one season at a time meaning executive producer and creator Marc Cherry does not get a renewal for four more seasons as he wanted.
And where is Lost? That one already has a renewal slip from ABC for at least one more season.
ABC's formal announcement of its new season doesn't happen until next month before potential advertisers in New York city.
ABC also says it will program aggressively this summer with fewer reruns than usual. On Sunday May 24 and Tuesday May 26 ABC has the miniseries Diamonds with Judy Davis (already on CBC)  which was partly filmed in Canada. And June 21 and 26 there's another "mini" called Impact with Canadian expatriate David James Elliott. the mational Spelling Bee is on May 28 as well as a slew of ABC news documentaries.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

CBC-TV's Fall Schedule

CBC-TV's fall schedule looks suspiciously like the one just ending. Why? Because the cash starved publicly underfunded Corp hasn't the means to mount the bold new season needed to attract viewers.
Back are two hour long dramas The Border and Heartland but the third dramatic hour Wild Roses is out after drawing anemic ratings. In other seasons when CBC was flush Wild Roses would have won a reprieve for a second season.
There'll be another "unreality" outing pitting hockey players as gitzy professional pairs skaters called Battle Of the Blades, While other networks are starting to bail out of the discredited reality mode CBC is storming ahead. Don't ask me to explain this.
The sole piece of good news has veteran Ron James returning in a new comedy. Now James is as funny as all get out in those wonderful one man comedy specials he makes. And hopefully he's learned from the mistakes made in mounting the ill fated 2001 sitcom Blackfly.
In another new series Canada's Super Seller Evan Solomon plays game show host as 12 great young spellers battle it out to become Canada's Super Seller.
The winter season will see the debut of an hour drama The Republic Of Doyle set in St. John's, Newfoundland. Also new will be a domestic comedy titled 18 To Life.
There are no new TV movies listed, no new Canadian miniseries. 
I can't find any mention of the arts which has sent many upscale viewers scurrying to PBS for their cultural fix.
Such staples as Little Mosque On The Prairie, Rick Mercer, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Tudors, Dragons' Den, Being Erica are back but some with a reduced number of episodes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Tale Of TV's Teen Hunks

Let's all give rising teen hunk Zack Efron some slack. After all the personable young man (actually he's 21) seems poised to make that magical jump from TV notoriety to genuine movie stardom.
Good luck to him, I say. But after viewing his first solo starring venture 17 Again I'm willing to bet he might wind up back on TV in perhaps in a sitcom of his own.
After all that's  exactly what happened to Michael J. Fox: from Family Ties to movies and then back to TV with Spin City.
I'm all too familiar with the trials and tribulations of TV teen hunks. Their actual age may be older --but it's the screaming teen girlies who give them their box office clout only to precipitously take it back to bestow on the next hunk du jour.
TV hunks just don't last very long. It isn't so much that they're growing up it's their fans. Girls who swoon after Efron today will become embarrassed by their emotions a few years from now.
Look, I know what I'm talking about. Way back in 1973 I interviewed the dazzlingly handsome newcomer David Cassidy on the set of The Partridge Family. 
I'd already covered him the year before at a sold out concert at the CNE Stadium before 30,000 screaming fans.
The next year he was back at the CNE but the size of the crowd had dwindled and  by the third year his teen stardom days were fast dwindling. He was promptly replaced by younger brother Shaun who had the same exerience of going from mass hysteria to indifference in just a few outings.
So far Efron is doing all the right things. He came to attention in two Disney High School Musical TV flicks but the third one was released theatrically to a North American gross of over $251 million.  And Efron was also prominently featured dancing again in the theatrical flick Hairspray.
In 17 Again he's plainly the star with Friends' Matthew Perry reduced to playing the square oldster.  Efron not only dances here, he romances, he plays basketball and he takes his shirt off --a requisite for any teen hunk.
What are Efron's chances for survivability? Well, I remember a rather unkept youth who attended a press conference for his series 21 Jump Street and a lady TV critic bawled him out for looking so disheveled.
 Yeah, it was Johnny Depp and that was in 1989. In the next 20 years he has defied all odds to become a bona fide movie star.
And so did Leonardo di Caprio who I once saw on the set of TV's Growing Pains.
I didn't interview him because he was considered a lesser cast member ; instead I wanted to meet red hot Kirk Cameron then riding high as a teen heart throb.
That was in 1991 and today di Caprio is one of movies' most respected actors while Cameron maintains a low profile.
I could name other teen hunks who've gone nowhere: Bobby Sherman, Parker Stevenson, Joey Lawrence, Patrick Cassidy, Ben Savage are a few names that come to mind. But I also interviewed John Travolta before he became a sensation on Welcome Back Kotter and look how long he's lasted.'
That's why I'm rooting for Efron who seems like sane, sensible young fellow. He's wisely decided to withdraw from the remake of Footloose figuring his dancing days are over. 
Efron craves respectability in serious dramatic parts and if he gets the right roll of the dice he could wind up as successful as Depp or di Caprio, two ex-TV hunks who beat the system.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's Time For Cliffhangers!

Those midnight phone calls have started up again. And that means  it's just about time to welcome back TV's cliffhangers.
One familiar voice whispers the denouement of Lost and what he's saying makes sense. Another source has all the news about the finale of Prison Break which is ending its run so it's not technically speaking a cliffhanger.
Another authority gives me the low down on Gray's Anatomy and how that hospital melodrama will end. Yes, there will be a death but I'm honor bound not to give the name out. But I can say there'll be guest stars a-plenty incliding Kaley Cuoco (Big Bang Theory), Liza Weil (Gilmore Girls) and Debra Mooney (Everwood).
Cliffhangers! Where would U.S. TV series be without them?
Well, it just so happens I was in L.A. for the very first cliffhanger. And, yes, it was the infamous "Who Shot J.R. ?" episode of Dallas that climaxed the first season of that prime time slice of Texan ham.
Before 1979 cliffhangers were frowned on by studios and networks alike. Networks felt it forced them into running episodes in a specific order and studios said they were bad for the rerun market.
Here--let me give you an example of the impact of reruns as powerful then as now. In May 1977 the still popular Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its run and star MTM had to insist on a farewell episode despite opposition from CBS. 
In that hugely rated half hour most of the staff except Ted Baxter were fired and Mary got to tell them they were all her family. But CBS and even her own production company were afraid the big good bye wouldn't play in reruns.
It was the same for cliffhangers. Most shows simply slid off for the summer so that studios could package them in any order for the lucrative rerun market. Rerunning cliffhangers meant subsequent episodes explaining all the plot convolutions would have to be run in subsequent sequence.
And then along came Dallas. It debuted on CBS as a short run series in April 1978.
It returned in September 1978 for a full season, still struggling in the ratings because it was on Saturday nights at 10. A move to Sunday at 10 produced no ratings boost. Only when CBS in one final desperate ploy moved it to Friday nights at 10 did it blossom.
But at the conclusion of the 1979-80 season the relationship between star Larry Hagman and the network was deteriorating with Hafgman demanding more salary and critical imput. It's then that CBS decided to have his character of J.R. shot and the last image of the season would show him heavily bandaged.
That way if Hagman balked at resigning CBS could toss in another actor. 
I remember I was in L.A. at the time and heard the rumor Robert Culp (I Spy) had been signed as the replacement. I confronted a surprised Culp during an interview session and he denied it. So I stil wonder who the replacement was.
Of course the "Who Shot JR?" episode wemt through the roof and Hagman returned after all. But the mania for cliffhangers was on.
Worst ever cliffhanger was the one on Dynasty with cast members trapped in a collapsing mine shaft with a hidden Nazi art treasure. That was in 1989 and it was a desperate attempt to stay off series execution but it failed. 
I have no idea how the cast got out of that one because they all were reunited in a 1991 TV movie sequel.
And good luck to the cliffhangers of 2009. I can only hope they're just as ludicrous --and  just as entertaining.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

It's Pilot Season!

Forget about the current TV season. It's toast as far as the U.S. networks are concerned. 
Instead everybody in L.A. is all excited about the new pilots most of which the viewing public will never get to see. 
One surprise: in these recessionary times the networks are splurging on pilots some of which will get green lighted into series for the 2009-10 TV season.
I've canvassed my L.A. sources and here's what I can tell you. Showtime startled everyone by financing four pilots and then passing on all of them including the well regarded pilot by Tim Robbins all about the U.S. pharmecutical industry. Titled Possible Side Effects, it co-starred Ellen Burstyn and Josh Lucas.
CW which used to be the WB and UPN networks before a merger has predictably bank rolled a Gossip Girl spinoff set in the 1980s and looking at a young Lily van der Woodsen. And there's the remake of Melrose Place which tested so high it's a sure bet for a series spot.
CW comedies include a U.S. version of Ab Fab it is said to be high on. Another is Eva Adams which looks at a sexist sports agent finding he has been turned into a woman.
CBS which has few spots to fill (it is No. 1 in ratings) is hot on the sitcom Ace In The Hole with Adam Carolla as a driving instructor. And there's Jason Biggs in the sitcom Happiness Isn't Everything. Drama possibilities include a new medical entry from Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI) titled Miami Trauma and one from directors Ridley and Tony Scott called The Good Wife (the wife of a Washington politico ia a district attorney).
NBC is touting a Kristen Chenoweth drama Legally Mad, Bradley Whitford in the sitcom Off Duty (it's a bromance), Day 1 (a Global catastrophe). But remember NBC is losing five prime time hours --weeknights at 10--to the new Jay Leno comedy-variety outing.
ABC says it likes Patricia Heaton in The Middle--it's set in the American MidWest. And her former co-star Kelsey Grammer is a Wall Street lawyer who lost everything in the recession in Pryors. Remakes include Eastwick (based on The Witches Of Eastwick), V (remember the 1980s miniseries?) and Limelight (set at a New York city performing arts school or shades of Fame).
Now don't get too excited about any of this. the. One of the worst pilots I ever saw was Welcome Back, Kotter  (1975) which initially seemed to be a sort of Blackboard Jungle. But ABC listened to the criticisms and rewrote the show into a hit.
Then there was the strange case of The Good Witch Of Laurel Canyon  (1976) which was sold based on the chemistry of Kim Cattrall and Aret Hindle. CBS promptly retitled it (Tucker's Witch), recast it with Tim Matheson and Catherine Hicks and their lack of sparks doomed the actual series to instant trash can status.
Best ever pilot I ever saw: Tenspeed And Brownm Shoe (1980) but the actual series lasted a few months. All the plot had been used up in the pilot and co-stars Ben Vereen and Jeff Goldblum had nowhere to go.
And just a few years ago there was the brilliant pilot Crazy with David Julian Hirsh and Lara Flynn Boyle which was judged too good for TV and CBS passed on it.
So let's not get too swept away by TV's pilot season until we see the actual new series debuting this September.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Farewell to Dog River!

Hard to believe but it's time to bid farewell to Corner Gas, the marvllously funny, quite cute all Canadian sitcom that accomplished the near impossible. It became a bona fide Canadian TV hit.
Let me digress for a moment by mentioning some of the Canadian sitcoms that preceded it, all of which I had to review as TV critic for The Toronto Star: Delilah, Mosquito Lake, Not My Department, Material World, Excuse My French, Learning The Ropes, and Check It Out!
Now you understand where I'm going. It was a long held belief that Canadians simply couldn't make sitcoms. Sure, we were a funny lot --look at all the comics we exported to the States from Jim Carrey to Howie Mandel to Mike Myers.
And, yes, we could do skit comedy better than anybody what with such hits as SCTV, Kids In The Hall, Royal Canadan Air Farce, CODCO and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
But sitcoms? No way! The last home made sitcom hiy on Canadian TV was The King Of Kensington which expired 29 years ago.
Yes, I know I haven't mentioned CBC's The Newsroom which was a mockumentary or a dramedy but not a sitcom. And besides it never garnered high ratings.
So when Corner Gas came on CTV five seasons back expectations were low. Maybe that's how Brent Butt accomplished such a miracle. His show came in under the radar. But from the very first episode it was a huge hit. The audience average for its five seasons is a hefty 1.7 million viewers.
Butt made all the right decisions . From the beginning he used seasoned comedy talent as writers like Mark Farrell (The Newsroom) , Robert Sheridan, Paul Mather. Butt once told me he always looked forward every year to the story sessions and the way gags would crackle and pop around the writers' table.
He cast actors as leads and not comedians: Eric Peterson (StreetLegal) and Janet Wright were pitch perfect as bickering Oscar and Emma Leroy. Gabrielle Miller was cafe owner Lacey Burrows and Nancy Robertson was retail assistant Wanda Dollard. I can't picture anybody else but Fred Ewaniuk as dim-witted Hank Yarbo. And the police officers were Lorne Cardinal (Davis Quinton) and Tara Spencer-Narin (Karen Petty).
 At first Butt was the weakest actor of the bunch but he learned quickly and like Jerry Seinfeld became a consumate sitcom performer. Some stand ups (Jackie Mason, Margaret Cho) never could make that jump.
Shooting on location in Saskatchewan was another plus. Adding Canadian guest stars made a big difference; one could spot the likes of Adrienne Clarkson, Julie Stewart, Lloyd Robertson. and Shirley Douglas.
 On Monday's final episode Prime Minister Stephen Harper does the honors (Paul Martin was the first PM to appear).
I did several telephone interviews with Butt who remained throughout this experience very down to earth. He only objected once when I wrote he'd shopped the concept originally to CBC. He protested he had not and I duly made a correction. Turns out he had worked at CBC on concepts but nothing ever went on air. A Brent Butt late night talk show? I can see it now.
Butt was so nice he even stood in a Saskatchewan cornfield with the fall TV preview of Starweek in his hand. It made for Starweek's best ever cover and people still talk about it. One elderly gentleman phoned up to protest:"Tell him he can get sunstroke reading The Star in that field. Why doesn't he seek shade?"
Ending after five seasons and 107 episodes was Butt's idea and a good one. Stopping while you're ahead --if it was good enough for Mary Tyler Moore than it's good enough for Brent Butt. But CTV's head office must have had coniptions --Corner Gas is proud proof Canadians will watch Canadian TV if it's good enough. CTV will have real troubles replacing it.
Butt still has a sturdy stand up-career and there are stories he's fashioning a new TV pilot for wife Nancy Robertson. She's the only Corner Gas star I've interviewed in person and she was sweet and modest, instantly likable and totally unlike her Wanda  character.
Maybe with the passage of time there'll be a Corner Gas  reunion movie. But until then there are the DVD collections. Few Canadian series get a DVD release but Corner Gas on DVD deservedly became a best seller.
Monday on CTV is being treated as a day of Corner Gas celebrations with the cast live from the Masonic Temple on Canada AM at 8 a.m. Then E!Talk has a salute at 7 p.m. on CTV and there's a behind the scenes special at 7:30 p.m. The title of the last episode is "Good Night, You've Been Great."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

All The News About CBC

Let's get real about the supposed slashing of jobs at the CBC. 
Sure, 800 positions must go to cover anticipated budget short falls but a CBC mole has just told me internal figures suggest as many as 780 people qualify for lush early retirement because they have hit the magical 85 figure. 
That means their age plus the number of years worked at CBC must equal 85.
Perhaps a few of them won't want to depart but others are said to be ready and eager to desert the ship. I've just been told about one producer who hasn't really produced anything in years but still hangs on. 
I knew her years ago and she always joked she remained because of the CBC cafeteria. But the CBC cafe was closed years ago so what's her excuse these days?
I do know as many as 12 positions are being slashed from the Communications Department which now farms out most of its publicity assignments to outside free;ancers.
Only a few straglers are left in the Royal Canadian Air Faerce department --that comedy series has closed for good leaving a lot of dressmakers and wi
And one point about the CBC's supposedly fabulous $1 billion  annual subsidy. Turns ot according to my CBC sources that amounts to $34 a year per Canadian --Or just $3 a month far below the subsidies BBC receives in the United Kingdom. 
And on that CBC must sustain nesides CBC-TV: Radio Canada,, Newsworld, Radios One, Two, Three, RDI. Premiere Chaine French and English in 5 time zones and eight aboriginal languages plus foreign journalist bureaux. 
The result is one of the lowest resourced public broadcasters in the world. I rest my case.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Farrah On My Mind

These days I'm thinking hopeful thoughts about Farrah Fawcett, the TV icon bravely battling a recurrence of cancer.
I first spotted her on the wonderful (but short-lived) detective show Harry-O(1974-76)  starring David Janssen. She was a beauteous girl-next-door and she certainly stood out.
That was in 1976, the same year she burst forth as Jill Munroe on the prime time caper Charlie's Angels.
Let's face it that show was all glitter. Who cared about a sensible plot with three such lovely ladies cavorting in bikinis or running up and down the beach in their shorts? Besides Farrah there were Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson.
Once when chatting up Jackson she grudgingly admitted without the Farrah explosion, Charlie's Angel's would have been toast. 
In a brilliant publicity coup engineered by agent Jay Bernstein posters of Farrah popped up everywhere --eventually 12 million copies were sold.
Farrah-mania was on and it was so strong Bernstein persuaded Farrah to jump to movies even though she had a contract with TV mogul Aaron Spelling.
Eventually a lawsuit settled the matter: Farrah returned to CA in a few guest spots and Cheryl Ladd took her place as younger sis Kris Munroe.  On Ladd's first day on the set she wore a T-shirt that read "Farrah Fawcett Minor". Oh, dear!
Later substitutes includes Shelley Hack and Tanya Roberts but neither made much of a splash. Spelling was TV's greatest schlockmeister. He tried a variant of CA with the pilot Jo's Boys with Barbara Stanwyck as a female Charlie and three male bimbos. It was no sell.
See, a movie career never really materialized for Farrah. She was all hair and no real personality of her own. TV fame had frozen her in a time capsule. As far as basing a cviabke areer on poster art: it can't happen.
Farrah lived off her 15 minutes of fame with TV movies and in later years could be quite impressive in such teleflicks as Margaret Bourke-White and The Beate Klarsfeld Story. Just for the record she made two flop attempts at TV series comebacks: Good Sports (1991) and Chasing Farrah (2005).
I wish her well. But I'm thinking back to the emerging TV goddess who was presented to TV critics at the 1976 launch party for Charlie's Angels. Boy was she nervous that night. She giggled a lot, ate nothing, autographed stills and talked about life with Lee Majors. She was Farrah Fawcett-Majors by then and later ran off with Ryan O'Neal and shortened her name.
I'm guessing she never knew what was in store for her. She achieved great fame but it wasn't the kind of popularity she could really do much with at the time.
 It took several more decades before she had any respect as an actress. And like so many TV stars of that era she never really made it in movies.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Heading For the Hills

The fifth and probably final season ofThe Hills comes up Monday night and it's a generational thing. "I've never heard of any of these people!" a dear middle-aged friend told me. But for the teenagers down the street this is something akin to The Second Coming.
How to explain The Hills? It takes the concept of reality TV and boldly goes where no reality show should ever go. Because of its vast teen viewership a comparable series like the scripted Gossip Girl seems even more trite and silly than it really is.
Starring as herself is fashion wannabe Lauren Conrad who previously perked up another reality offering called Laguna Beach.
Make no mistake, she's the front and center star. MYV has tried other clones without her and all flopped --like Newport Harbor and Twentyfourseven.
On The Hills she's moved to L.A. and found herself smack dab in the fashion industry which is where most young girls would like to be. The show is supposed to be completely unscripted but those cameramen on TMZ have shown us the partipants doing scenes over and over again.
And we also see scenes shot from several different camera angles meaning Cionrad and pals must match dialogue completely or everything would be ruined.
Lauren is very pretty in a vacuous way. She's had loads of crummy boyfiends and we just shake out heads at her poor choices.
I maintain younger gals watch because of the friendships Lauren finds among women her own age. First and foremost there was the delightfully screwy Heidi Montag who later hooked up with irrepresible bad boy Spencer Pratt.
Then there was Lauren's galpal from high school and later her room mate and look alike named simply Lo. And scheming Audrena who had her own toy boy problems with Justin Bobby who very sensibly avoided all commitments.
Last season Lauren briefly considered hooking up with Doug who is now dating Paris Hilton --but who hasn't dated poor l'il Paris? And there was slack eyed Brody Jenner who even got his own short lived show called Bromance.
The Hills is so popular it even spawned a sequel of sorts titled The City with Whitney Port off to New Uork city and romance with an Aussie singer with lots of teeth. Port lands in the Big Apple and gets a big job after a five-minute interview plus a dreamy apartment in days, how realistic is that?
Playing herself has made Conrad a very rich girl but her own line of clothing tanked and a second line of her duds has been cancelled due to the recession. Without the show she may well drift back into well deserved anonymity.
I had a pleasant conversation on the phone with her when the show originally debuted and she seemed spunky and funny quite unlike her demure TV self.
On TV we never see her reading a book or watching TV. We do see her and the gals eating a lot at various cafes, hanging out at bars and gyms, even plotting against each other --I guess that reflects the lifestyles of Hollywood's rich and famous.
Would MTV dare to continue the Hills without our Lauren? There are rumors Spencer and Heidi could take over the show but it may be retitled.
I've been sworn to secrecy about the final batch of plots but what the heck. Brody and Audrina who once hated each other may get together and Lauren and Heidi have a teary reconciliation.
And then what? Reality stardom is fleeting as the faces who've drifted through American Idol and The Amazing Race can tell anybody willing to listen.
A year from now everybody will be fascinated by the new faces on The City. The Hills favorites risk becoming trivia questions.

Diamonds In The Rough

Whatever happened to that TV staple, the miniseries? Glad you should ask because a rare miniseries, the Canadian-South African co-production Diamonds is on CBC Sunday night at 9.
And it's very satisfying, a dual look at the world diamond trade photographed on actual locations in South Africa and Churchill, Manitoba.
James Purefoy (Rome) stars along with Judy Davis (Me And My Shadows), Sir Derek Jacobi (Cadfael), plus Canadians actors Stephen McHattie, Kris Holden-Reid and Joanne Kelly.
British director Andy Wilson helmed it and the main production company is Canadian, Sierra Films.
But I submit Diamonds won't be getting as much of a bang in the ratings as it deserves because Part II comes a week later, next Sunday (April 12 also at 9). 
In today's world of hundreds of competing channels, the conclusion should come right after --Monday or Tuesday at the latest.
The story will remind you a bit of a Dynasty among the diamond fields. Jacobi  is Piers Denmont, head of a vast diamond empire but is usurped from control by his wastrel son Lucas (Purefoy).  Davis is bitter U.S. senator Joan Cameron whose daughter was killed as she filmed exploits at one of the company's Angolan mines.
In charge of the expedition was geologist Stephanie Dresser (Joanne Kelly) who is later given an assignment to find diamonds in Canada's North.
Watching Diamonds will test whether viewers are ready to hunker down for two solid hours on a  very competitive Sunday night.
After all it's been a while since a major network offered a new TV movie or miniseries --the genres were considered terminal not only because of the expense but also the change in viewing habits. Younger viewers seem to watch faster paced material mostly in the shape of reality shows.
Diamonds is worth your time. The barrative (David Vainola wrote it)  effortlessly skips back and forth from Washington to London to South Africa and the piece is chock full of violent, disturbing incidents.
But it's not just about diamond mining --it's about greed, the corruption of  petty dictatorships, the ruthlessness of the diamond cartel. There are some romancing scenes but they are interspersed with chilling reminders of the cheapness of human lives when millions of dollars are at stake.
The majority of urban scenes were filmed in seven weeks in Johannesburg with Natal standing in for west Africa, Sierra Leone and the Congo. Then came the second remote location in Churchill, Manitoba. 
It just so happens I took high tea with the amiable Purefoy last year when he was filming another Canadian miniseries The Summit.
At 44 he really was as dazzlingly handsome in person as on camera so much so that he'd just played Beau Brummel in a British made TV movie. The writer of the Daily Telegraph piece referred to his "bimbo image" and his  nickname of "Puresex" but in person he is well versed in politics and the international situation.
Certainly his turn as Mark Antony in the series Rome added to his sex appeal: we first spotted him naked in a field humping a bewildered shepherdess. But because of Rome he couldn't play James Bond (he had a five year TV contract that only lasted two years) so Daniel Craig got the coveted part.
He swore on that particular day he'd never do another TV series and certainly wasn't looking for work in L.A. like a lot of other Brit pack actors but I'm told he is currently shooting the new series The Philantropist for NBC.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Guiding Light Bows Out

After 72 years as an afternoon soap opera Guiding Light has been cancelled by CBS. Low ratings are the blamed: in the U.S. the hour soap is down to a mere 2.17 million viewers a day which is far from its glory days of daily audiences around eight million.
What is happening to the soaps? The exiting of GL this September leaves CBS with three soaps, ABC with three and NBC with just one.
What went wrong? Well, soaps have simply run out of contentious issues. Every soap seems to have at least one gay couple and GL has dramatized such issues as AIDS. But there's nothing shocking left to dramatize.
I remember when my family got our first TV set in 1952. I could run home at lunch to watch CBS's Search For Tomorrow at 12:30 and then The Guiding Light at 12:45 --soaps were exactly 15 minutes long back then. They were also live and in grainy black and white.
The Guiding Light was created in 1937 by Irna Phillips as a live 15-minute radio drama on NBC. It was on TV as a 15-minute soap from 1951 and in 1967 went to color. In 1968 it became a half hour and then an hour in 1977. By the time it leaves this fall over 15,700 episodes will have been shown.
And why were they called soap operas? Because Proctor And Gamble owned many of the original series to peddle its various soaps and detergents.
There is a Canadian angle in all this: actress Susan Douglas was one of the early stars and after she married tenor Jan Rubes and moved to Toronto she'd still fly in to New York city every week for additional episodes. She finally irritated show creator Irna Phillips so much that her character of Kathy was killed off --she fell under the wheels of a bus, as I remember. I also remember Zina Bethune played her daughter Robin on the daily soap.
One week in 1977 I spent an entire week on the set of the New York soaps. I interviewed Chris Reeve on the set of CBS's Love Of Life.  I spent a complete day on the set of NBC's Another World. And another day was spent watching how CBS put together a live episode of As The World Turns.
In those days soaps were hugely watched and appreciated and such actors as Warren Beatty, Demi Moore, Robert De Niro and James Earl Jones got their starts on them (Mary Stuart on Search For Tomorrow told me she remembered De Niro as a corpse).
But times changed, it's as simple as that. Women started working and no longer were at home to enjoy these long, leisurely serials. However, college kids continued to dig soaps when they were away at school because they were reminders of life back home.
Every time I get the flu I simply laze in bed and watch soaps. With the number continuing to dwindle that may no longer be possible in my future flu attacks.
 So what am I going to do?
SIDEBAR: Don't let people tell you there have never been Canadian TV soaps. What about CBC's House Of Pride  (1974)? Or how about the soap shot at CTV studios in 1978 called High Hopes (starring Bruce Gray)?  And then there was another one also shot at CFTO: Family Passions (1993) with Jonathan Scarfe. And let's not forget Riverdale (1997)--remember that one?