Monday, August 31, 2009

Life After Thirtysomething

It was a bitterly hot July morning, July, 1987, as I tiptoed out of the boring TV critics tour at the Radisson Universal hotel and ordered a taxi driver to get me to MTM Studios in Studio City.
I couldn't take any more of those mass interviews at the Radisson.
I had to be where the action was --I wanted to be the first TV critic to get on the set of the incoming series thirtysomething which although a MGM TV production was shooting on the MTM lot.
And so within half an hour I was in the offices of the executive producers, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz chatting up the two hottest producers of the moment.
This was the same studio block where I'd hung out with the Hill Street Blues gang and next door were the old offices of Lou Grant.
I could also spot the corner office of Grant Tinker, founding father of this sprawling empire --later the whole lot was sold off to CBS.
The last time I ventured onto this lot was to visit the stars and producers of Steven Bocho's lamentably short lived series &*&*&*&*&
That day in 1987 I made two new best friends, collaborators Zwick and Herskovitz.
They were yuppies in real life and that's what they wrote about and dramatized.
Herskovitz would sooner talk about the Old English courses he took in university than his show but he was and is an awfully nice guy. And I still say his unjustly neglected 1987 film Dangerous Beauty should be savoured by those who like the Renaissance.
Zwick was smaller, funnier and has amassed an envious ouput of movie hits of his own: Glory, Legends Of The Fall, The Last Samurai, Defiance.
Thirtysomething was a real turning point for network TV. Really, it was about nothing.It concerned the minutae of life.
Ken Olin and Mel Harris played newleyweds Michael and Hope Steadman.
Their best buds were single classics prof Gary Shepherd (Peter Hutton), single Ellen (Polly Draper) and another yuppie couple Elliot and Nancy Weston (Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig).
Was this TV's first depicition of a dysfunctional family?
Now that I'm watching the recently released DVD of Season One, I'm really wondering.
Due to legal sparing it has taken years to get this one out to DVD. A similar fate tied up another Zwick-Herskovitz hit My So-CValled Life for years.
But as I'm enjoying Thirtysomething I'm also realizing how on TV imitation is the highest form of flattery. These days such "family" series as Brothers And Sisters owe a lot to the tone and texture of Thirtysomething. And maybe that's why the first season seems just a little less fresh than I remembered it.
Days after my trip I sat at an official ABC dinner with cast and critics. Horton nervously was at my table and took a lot of critical bantering from reviewers.
Anyone over 50 seemed to positively hate the whole thing --that collective emnity made the show a hit. Viewers simply had to see what all the shouting was about.
At one point Horton passed on the main course muttering "I never eat red meat."
"You wouldn't!" glowered a critic, red faced from too much wine.
Later on another scribe only entreated Horton: "Couldn't you be a little more like Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons?" But Horton couldn't and wouldn't.
But the TV careers of Zwick and Herskovitz were made by Thirtysomething which ran four seasons and 95 episodes.
Next up was My So Called Life which ran one season only (1994-95) but shot its teen star Claire Danes into the spotlight.
The next one, Relativity, didn't even finish the 1995 season: it ran 17 episodes on ABC and just disappeared.
Then came Once And Again which had a 48-episode run in three seasons (1999-2002).
And there I was again tiptoeing out of another TV critics gang banger and onto the set to hang out with the guys as well as series star Sela Ward.
But I do recall asking Hershkovitz "This is really Fortysomething, isn't it?' And he nodded "yes".
I've never seen their next opus Quarterlife which ran on the web and managed two episodes on NBC.
And what about the other stars?
Ken Olin,29 when Thirtysomething started, is a bit stout at 55 but can still be seen on Brothers And Sisters which he also executive produces. Wife Patty Wettig is now 57 and also on Brothers And Sisters as the perennial bad girl.
I caught up with Peter Horton when he was directing episodes of the Toronto made series Class Of '96. And I interviewed him again when he co-starred in The Gena Davis Show (2000) --his first acting job before a live audience.
Timothy Busfield has recently been on Entourage and co-starred on Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip (2006-07) and directs episodic TV.
Melody Mayron who played Melissa has been active as a director while Pat Kalember who was Susannah was on was in the short lived Toronto medical series Kay O'Brien opposite Jan Rubes and also in the more successful Sisters (1991-96).
And for a time Thirtysomething had Paul Haggis as one of the writers --he later wrote and produced superb but short lived EZ Streets (1992) which lasted nine episodes on CBS but starred --you guessed it --Ken Olin.
So let's welcome Thirtysomething to the wonderful world of DVD.
And ask how much longer it will take to clear the music rights so we can finally buy The Wonder Years on DVD?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Paradise Falls Is Finally Back

Paraduse Falls is back. And it's only taken nine years to hit season three..
That's right it was a mere nine years ago I drove to the shooting site of the new Canadian soap opera Paradise Falls --it was a hamlet just outside Whitby although most of the series had been shot in Muskoka.
In 2004 I was on the set again up at Sullivan Films off Eglinton Ave. where the main street of the Depression-era seriesWind At My Back had been transigured into Paradise Falls's main drag.
Both times I ventured into the strange, crazy, uninhibited world of one of Canadian TV's oddest yet decidedly funniest ever series.
Paradise Falls debuted just as Showcase was coming on the air and it helped define the character of the feisty cable network along with such other locally made series as Queer As Folk, Naked Josh and Billable Hours.
Made for Breakthrough Films by producer Paula J. Smith and writer Alex Galatis, Paradise Falls spoofed the genre of TV melodrama with an often outrageous blend of nudity, wacky characters, murder and mahem, all served up in a campy souffle of cliches and ourageous situations.
The half hour show has been running continuously on Showcase ever since. A total of 54 episodes were shot at break neck speed and then cast and crew retired for a break of three years because of budgetary problems.
A second batch of 26 episodes was made in 2004 and now comes another 26 episodes actually shot two summers back but placed on the shelf after Showcase was sold off to become a Canwest weblet.
"This really is it," laughs producer Ira Levy who has been with the show from the get go.
"We've got 104 episodes and it only took nine years. We're a hit in the U.S. and in Europe but it's the same old funding problems for Canadian series even if they sell abroad."
Back are some of the first season regulars including Art Hindle as corrupt town mayor Pete Braga, Tammy Isbell and Chantal Quesnel as feuding sisters Rose and Yvonne,Dixie Seatle as transgendered bar owner Bea Sutton, Gemini winner Victoria Snow as town drunk Francis Hunter, and Kim Poirier as her daughter Roxy, Michelle Latimer as wannabe witch Trish Simpkin, and Cameron Graham as Pete's gay nephew Nick Braga.
Other actors begged off because they felt scripts obliged them to strip at every other turn.
Constant watchers will wonder what happened to such previous regulars as Joshua Peace, Allen Altman and Robert Seeliger whose characters have simply drifted away.
New to Paradise Falls are Mark Humphrey, Steve Belford, Wesley Morgan and back from season one is Kim Shriner as mad Jessica who wandered into the woods nine years back and now wanders back.
The original cast are at least seven years older and it shows. they have handed on the nudity assignments to the next generation of actors.
Outrageous? Definitely. Shocking? Not really. And certainly not for everyone. But the series looks as great as ever thanks to the sparkling photography of Jim Jeffrey. The lines are funny if you've watched enough TV soaps and understand how the genre works.
I remember first interviewing Hindle on the set of an NBC TV movie called Clone Master (1978) --considered one of the best ever sci fi TV entries it failed to go to series because the network thought it was pitched above most viewers.
And of course I profiled him on the set of his big CTV hit ENG (1989-94).
And Dixie Seatle? We go all the way back to A Gift To Last (1994) and later I was on the set of her CBS late night hit Adderly (1986-87) several times.
Paradise Falls is one of those test cases proving that even if a Canadian series succeeds it really fails.
There simply was no money in the various production funds to keep it going on a yearly basis.
This is one of the reasons Canadian TV often loses some of its best talent to Los Angeles --and in a delicate twist of irony the shows made down there by an army of expats are then sold back to Canadian networks.
Smith went on to make another cutting edge Toronto series Metropia for OMNIA and that one is also re-running years after its demise. It also got an early cancellation slip due to money problems --ratings were high among its expected teen viewers.
Smith is nothing if not loyal to her casts --you can spot a few Metropia actors here.
I'm sworn to secrecy but I can say the show starts up again with a very strange marriage and ambles on from there. Braga is running again for mayor and I dare you to guess his main competitor this time. There's a murder or two out in the dark, threatening forest. Basically, the characters continue existing in their own special world.
Because of the tight budget everything was shot totally out of sequence and this does not seem to have bothered the actors.
Watch enough episodes and you'll see Snow give a bravura performance as a rather nasty drunk and Seatle imbuing her character with warmth and insight.
So is this it?
"I truly hope so," laughs producer Levy whose company Breakhrough Films (with partner Peter Williamson) has been at it for 25 years --their latest production Less Than Kind just garnered a gaggle of Gemini awards.
"I think it has a future on DVD but truly there have been no offers. I can see it clicking there next."
THE FIRST TWO EPISODES OF SEASON THREE OF PARADISE FALLS rev up Wednesday night at 9 on Showcase and Showcase HD.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mad Men Back For Third Season

Mad Men has started quite nicely for season three. But it was only available (Sunday night at 10) if you can get the American channel AMC.
All Canadian networks passed on the best show on network TV these days.
Here's why: Canadian networks are losing big bucks these days and it's all because of a heavy reliance on imported U.S. series.
CTV bought and ran the first two seasons of Mad Men, simulcasting the series with AMC: Sunday nights at 10.
But Mad Men plays out of the regular TV season. It begins in August when the competition is mostly reruns. So advertising dollars for it have always been scarce.
So CTV passed and so did all of its Canadian competitors. They far prefer to pay big bucks for silly American realism shows and half baked dramas.
In truth Canadian networks are not interested in content. They'll buy whatever is running big on the American networks so they can simulcast these same series and reap the big ratings.
Mad Men returned where it had left off last season. The time frame was after the Cuban Missile Crisis but before the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
The opening hour was written by creator Matthew Weiner and fairly crackled with tension. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was up to his usual tricks of trying to be a good father while bedding a willing stewardess during a business trip to Baltimore.
In fact the hour began with Don's weird memories of how he was born to a prosttute and given away to another woman --was he told this or was it all a product of his vivid imagination?
Don's wife (January Jones) is pregnant yet again whiule emploees at the agency are being harassed by their new British owners. The chief of accounts gets dumped and two competing heads are assigned presumably to fight over the top job. Also during that Baltimore trip one of Don's colleagues is caught with a --male hotel clerk.
The characters are so well written that this series is better than most new movies out there these days.
But don't tell the Canadian networks who are busily promoting the season debuts next month of American hackneyed reality series and shop worn procedural dramas.
AND THIS JUST IN: Back from my weekly one on one session at Apple's Eaton Center store where I'm told iTunes will be carrying Season 3 of Mad Men starting today. The total season cost for a pass for Mad Men is $39.99 which is the only other way to watch it if you don't get AMC which is a discretionary service.
I'm still waiting for some Canadian network to pick it up or maybe even show it later in the season. Hello out there? CBC, Rogers, Global, E!, hello?
WAIT A MINUTE!: Readers of this column have phoned with an alternate way of accessing the third season of Mad Men. Surprise it's Rogers In Demand.
Turns out if you are a Rogers Cable TV subscriber you can click To Channel 100 and there it is: Mad Men, Season Three and the first episode came up Monday.
So for the next 12 weeks by accessing Rogers a day after AMC's Sunday broadcast of Mad Men you can watch the rerun on Rogers even if you don't subscribe to Mad Men.
Check it out!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

TV's New Summer Series Are Toppling

Viewers prefer reruns of current favorites to new, untested TV series.
That's the conclusion of this veteran critic after sampling many of the new summer series on network television.
I've tested the new si fi series Defying Gravity and find it wanting.
I've tried to watch the new Canadian medical series the Listener but it was poorly made as far as I'm concerned (although star Craig Olejnik was just fine) --NBC has already cancelled it.
And it's blah to NBC's the Philantropist, NBC's classy British import Merlin and such also rans as the Superstars (ABC), Mental (Fox), Hitched Or Ditched (CW), and The great American Road Trip (NBC).
All are getting beaten badly in the ratings by reruns of such faves as CSI and Grey's Anatomy.
Some of these turkeys were dramas, others were reality types. U.S. sources are blaming that writers' strike for churning out shows nobody particularly wanted. Now these shows are getting dumped before the new season begins in September.
I'm also feeling people are turning away from conventional TV networks as never before. A neighbor says she now rents movies from her Macintosh outlet and watches them on her computer.
Now that I'm previewing the fall fare which is unexciting so far I have a sneaking suspicion this erosion will continue into the fall.

TV's Best Series And It's Not On Canadian TV

It's TV's best currently running American series. But where is it on Canadian TV?
I'm referring to Mad Men which returns for its third season Sunday night at 9 with an instant repeat an hour later.
For the first two seasons Mad Men starring Emmy winner John Hamm ran simulcast on CTV which inexplicably cancelled the series. Network sources say it was purely a question of economics --CTV is experiencing deficits in this year of recession and like all conventional networks is facing the prospect of lowered audiences.
One would expect a series as fine as Mad Men to be instantly snapped up by one of CTV's competitors but it's the same story of financial woes at Canwest which operates Global TV as well as at CITY and E or whatever CHCH is calling itself these days.
So you better have AMC (American Movie Classics) if you want to enjoy this Emmy winner on Sunday night.
It's strange but Canadian stations import so much U.S. dross but Mad Men is a cable sgow and it runs aon a night when schedules are already fixed.
I'll have to check with Bravo! But I can't see how this CTV-owned cable weblet would be able to even afford reruns anymore.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

New Mini-Series --And It's Canadian!

It's only a coincidence but I've been thinking a lot lately about the date of TV mini-series.
There used to be a lot of them during sweeps months: Kane And Abel, Centennial, The Winds Of War, Lace.
And then the whole TV form of "minis" virtually disappeared.
TV network executives both in Canada and the U.S. blamed declining audiences plus the sheer cost of the fenre.
In the U.S. the collapse has been almost complete. But in Canada there have been a few shoots of promise.
The latest example is the four-hour two-part mini The Iron Road which premieres on CBC Sunday night at 8 with the conclusion the next Sunday also at 8 p.m.
This one was a long time in the making. CBC announced it as far back as 2006 and production was completed the next year.
The stars are an internationally eclectic bunch: Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole, Luke MacFarlane, Ian Tracey. The Canadian director is David Wu (Snow Queen), the writer Raymond Storey (Butterbox Babies).
The story completely true as it is would rather be forgotten by many Canadians: it's how Chinese immigrants (and Irish ones too) were brutally mistreated in the transcontinental construction starting in 1885 of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
CBC already made an epic on the subject based on Pierre Berton's The lLst Spike way back in 1978 and a little of the story was covered there.
But The Iron Road is the first Chinese-Canadian coproduction in 20 years. The first and last was the TV version of Bethune with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren.
Both Bethune and The Iron Road were made in two versions --an elongated version for TV in mini form and the other as an art house movie.
And that dual purpose prevents The Iron Road from entirely satisfying. It seems to lurch between plots and then contain a fair amount of padding. Perhaps this is the reason CBC is finally running it off in the summer doldrums..
I found the story pretty enthralling and well shot and acted. the presence of O'Toole and MacNeill guarantees some international sales.
And you really owe it to yourself to sit back and learn history from a sprawling mini-series that helps explain a dark chapter of Canada's past.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

CBC's UnCanadian Fall Schedule

Let's see, it was at least 15 years ago that CBC announced with appropriate fanfare its corporate decision for an all-Canadian TV schedule.
Banned were American series one cought already get on incoming U.S. stations. In were dozens of new CBC series including such late night features as small independent Canadian features.
And now?
Well, CBC's fall schedule for late afternoon and early evenings includes reruns of Ghost Whisperer daily at 5 p.m. followed by CBC's regional newscasts.
Then at 6:30 comes the popular British import Coronation Street. At 7 it's Wheel Of Fortune. At 7:30 comes Jeopardy with Alex Trebek.
This is a Canadian schedule?
Meanwhile over at CBC's main competitors there's CTV's Canadian show E! with Ben Mulroney plus Global has Entertainment Tonight's Canadian entry.
In ratings terms it makes sense. Ghost Whisperer will deliver a big audience to the regional telecasts . The question remains if it's the kind of fare the publically funded network should be offering young children and adolescents at that early hour.
And the three imports starting at 6:30 will bring in a lot of much needed revenue much needed in these economically dire times.
At one time CBC used to make special programs for youngsters to run off in these time slots --shows like the Beachcombers and Danger Bay and Rainbow Country.
But CBC is experiencing chronic budget shortfalls.Now is not a good time for creative Canadian TV producers.