Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Hills Are Alive

Big news of the TV season was the return Mondfay night on MTV of The Hills but without star Lauren Conrad.
Everybody over the age of 25 must be asking "What the hell is the Hills?"
Well, it's the reality epic on MTV which is so watched by preteens and teens that these same viewers ignore such fictional fare as This Beautiful Life and even Gossip Girl.
The Hills is for voyeurs of the young in heart. Every week teens pine over theantics of a bunch of twentysomething living loving and laughing in modern day L.A.
Lauren Conrad as herself played a high school grad who was soon adviser to a top fashion designer and lived in a million dollar mansion with two best buds.
Lauren's penchant for bad boy lovers was documented in absorbing detail. But Conrad who became herself a millionaire off the show which supposedly does not have a script got bored with playing herself and left.
This season she's been replaced by an old adversary from her previous reality series Laguna Beach, Kristin Cavallari. Where Lauren was sweet and demure, Kris seems foul mouthed and sexually aufacious.
Is this going to go over with its predominantly teen audience. I'm thinking no way.
Girls don't like to see themselves portrayed as sexual predators. I just get the feeling this season is it for The Hills.
With puppy love gone, the formula has been stretched too much., that's it.

Back For A Seventh Season

Had a chance to chat up Rick Mercer at the CBC fall launch weeks ago. Mercer returns for his seventh season on CBC. Unlike RCAF which unceremoniously got the boot because its audience was considered too mature, Mercer's ratings which hover just under 1 million weekly are high among the twentysomethings CBC needs to attract sponsors.
But the question remains how long Mercer will stick with this show after walking away from his first two --This Hour Has 30 Minutes and Made In Canada.
So far he reports he isn't bored. "Maybe it's the opposite. With Made In Canada the challenge was in writing the scripts and I still do have nightmares about that process. Here the challenge is to react to the headlines and get out and do the show on the road every week. Physically this one is very strenuous.
And he's thinking about the segments already filmed including an arduous bout of bungee jumping with Rick Hanson.
"That's right he's in a wheelchair and we dangle over a precipice. It was --scarey."
Mercer is also scheduled to visit Mississauga's feisty mayor Hazel McCallion and join Simon Fraser University's Frosh Week celebrations. But most of the rest of the season isn't firm as yet because he likes to react to the headlines.
Also returning is This Hour has 22 Minutes with Geri Hall, Gavin Crawford, last original Cathy Jones and Kathleen Phillips.
Rick Mercer returns to CBC Tuesday night at 8 with This Hour Has 22 Minutes at 8:30 and the second installment of Being Erica at 9. Got that?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nuggets Of Truth About The New TV Season

From the cluttered files of your friendly, neighbourhood TV critic come four select pearls of wisdom about the new TV season:
1. It seems Ron James just might make it after all as the replacement for the venerable RCAF Friday nights on CBC. His debut half hour grabbed 803,000 viewers which is perfectly acceptable. Hopefully, he'll build on that number.
2. My favorite reality series The Hills comes back on MTV next week. Ever wonder what the stars of that epic are making these days for not memorizing scripts but instead ad libbing scenes from their lives? I hear Audrina makes $100,000 a pop, the hated Spencer Pratt takes home $65,000 just to be nasty and newcomer Kristin Cavallari pockets $90,000.So there.
3. For several seasons the whisper has been that CBS's power house Sunday lineup was in need of a fix. Yet its debut Sept. 27 saw the venerable 60 Minutes notch up its best ratings in years while The Amazing Race which CBS once considered canceling because of declining interest showed 7% increases over last year. However TAR still placed fourth in intense competition which isn't the place any network likes to be.
4. Last season viewers stuck with the tried and true. This year new series are being sampled. CBS's says its NCIS spin off is already considered a hit and right behind is The Good Wife. ABC says Cougar Town and Modern Family are the network's biggest half hour premieres in years. Biggest worry at CBS is the continual drooping away of CSI which began when star Bill Peterson took a hike.
In a category all its own: the quick flop of The Beautiful Life.
Got all that?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A New Season For Little Mosque

Let's see, I was on the Toronto set of Little Mosque On The Prairie a month before it actually premiered on CBC-TV.
I remember that day well because creator Zarqa Nawaz had just concluded via satellite TV an interview with TV right winger Glen Beck that wound up with Beck being awfully nice to this talented writer-producer.
The most daring thing about this charming little sitcom was always its name.
Deep down it's alaways been a saga of love thy neighbours even if they are darker and of a different religion than you.
The unexpected success of LHOTP was a welcome boon to CBC-TV and all of a sudden the sprightly comedy is about to launch its fourth season. Time sure flies for successful series.
Me? I thought the third year flagged a bit and became a tad complaisant and self-congratulatory.
But I'm happen to report cast and writers thought so. too.
A little creative tinkering never hurt a show. And if Little Mosque's ratings no longer hit the million mark that was to be expected in the 300-channel TV universe of today.
"Changes are being made," reports Zaib Shaikh who plays Iman Amaar, the Toronto-bred lawyer who gave it all up for his religion.
"More comedy tension was needed so the premise is getting opened up."
The trick is to make enough changes to attract new viewers but not damage the core fans.
And so talented and very tall Brandon Firla (Billable Hours) is being imported as the new Anglican minister in Mercy, Saskatchewan.
"Is he manipulative?" chuckles Firla. "Very much so but in a broad comedy way."
First off the new reverend is shocked to find the dwindling band of parishioners sharing quarters with a flock of Muslims.
In Billable Hours the contrast between Firla and co-star Fab Fillippo who is short was part of the fun. And here Shaikh always seems to be looking up at the minister.
This season Shaikh reports the sitcom has 18 episodes and thus escaped the ruthless paring of episodes on other CBC series.
When Rev. Thorne arrives he asks how far it is into the town of Mercy?
"This is the town," says the Iman (Shaikh).
And later the reverend says "I just love our little brown Muslims" with great condescension. He plands every trick to evict them.
Shaikh says his TV presence helps boost his other life as a stage actor and director. Some fans remember him from the OMNI serial Metropia which is still running late nights and gave him the most ever exposure --all the cast had nude scenes.
At the CBC TV launch I also saw other cast regulars Sheila McCarthy, Carlo Rota and Debra McGrath who is noticeably missing from the last season of Paradise Falls.
In LMOTP's first new episode Jayne Eastwood is the guest star as a busy body who serves treats to the Muslims who praise the taste but spit out the contents when she says it's the lard she uses in each cookie.
So yes, Little Mosque, is back as irreverent as usual.
LMOTP's fourth season debuts on CBC-TV Monday night Sept. 28 at 8:30 P.M.

First Casualty Of The New TV Season

And my annual Stinker Of The Year award goes to --The Beautiful Life which turned out not to be beautiful at all but actually quite squalid.
The CW has confirmed production shut down Friday of the hourlong new drama making it the first of the new TV season to get the axe. On its second and final night TBL notched just 1.1 million viewers for the entire U.S.A.
Based on Ashton Kutcher's experiences as a model, it was made by CBS Studios and starred Mischa Barton, Corbin Bleu, Benjamin Hollingswoth and Elle MacPherson.
Barton had been receiving bad publicity for months including a public breakdown in L.A. she blamed on a rotting wisdom tooth and scary appearances on the set where her beauty was not to be seen at all.
The former star of The O.C. wasn't forceful enough in her role and looked perpetually dazed.
And in related news A&E has cancelled the series The Cleaner with Benjamin Bratt after two seasons of so-so ratings.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Fall TV Race Heats Up

The battle for the hearts and minds of Canadian viewers is once again being won by American series.
On Wednesday night the return of Criminal Minds at 9 p.m. on CTV (simulcast with CBS) took in 2.97 million viewers which the network says is its best ever rating.
CSI:NY at 10 on CTV took in 2.64 million viewers and bested Global's Melrose Place by 146 per cent or so CTV says.
And nobody's talking about Jay Leno these days, right? CTV says America's Next Top Model with 1.27 million viewers bested Bones over on Global in the all important teens and the 12-34 demographics.
And Thursday night CTV's season premiere of Grey's Anatomy took in 3.3 million viewers, a surge of 38% over last year.
Got that?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Big Challenge For Ron James

"This is going to be a big challenge," allows Ron James who is taking over CBC-TV's Friday night comedy slot long held by Royal Canadian Air Farce.
A huge challenge, sure, but not an impossible one or so CBC programmers figure. James' track record on the road and his TV specials demonstrate his huge audience base.
It took some nerve canceling one of the linch pins of Canadian content --RCAF had been on TV for over 17 years and before that was a long running staple on CBC Radio.
And ratings had held firm at over 630,000 a week with the series being refreshed in recent years with new talent.
But RCAF viewers were --gulp --older and staid and at CBC "youth" is the current buzz word needed to attract sponsors.
So enter Ron James who is best known as a stand up comic on traveling one man shows which eventually wound up as these high rated TV specials every year or so beginning with Up And Down In Shaky Town, an hysterically funny account of his years as a struggling actor in Los Angeles.
"Well, I have been in TV series before,"James quips and he's right. I distinctly remember him as Raymond in guest appearances on the Rick Mercer sitcom Made In Canada. (1998).
And there was James' own sitcom Blackfly (2001-02) as Benny "Blackfly" Broughton which to me always seemed like a Canadian take on history in the same comedy mode as F Troop.
"Not enough Canadians knew their history," is James' reason why the series only lasted 26 episodes but it did demonstrate his comedy instincts can be refashioned for TV.
And now comes The Ron James Show which will certainly be part stand up but also incorporate skits with such visiting funsters as Peter Keleghan and Linda Kash.
"I'm thinking of the old Carol Burnett Show," James says. "Guests every week who can handle that kind of comedy."
Shows will be taped before an audience at CBC's Broadcasting Centre and there'll be 10 half hours culminating in an hourlong New Year's Eve special.
"We've done some scenes and it felt really good," James reports. Of course he's been doing sketches since his years with Toronto's Second City.
No doubt about it James can reduce a live audience to stitches. It remains to be seen if he gets as much leeway on weekly TV.
In interviews the Cape Breton native has said he doesn't go for quick laughs but lets the mood build. Let's hope TV doesn't try to condense what on stage takes some time to build and grow to funny fruition.
James says the situations will be very Canadian --after all he's been touring the country for 15 years always gathering material as well as performing.
The show will even have an animated segment titled L'il Ronnie about growing up in Cape Breton.
The premiere is on Friday night Sept. 25 at 8:30 on CBC-TV.
For studio tickets contast tickets@enterthepicture.com. Got that?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The New Canadian TV Season Has Started

Now we know why CTV forks out a fortune for prime time U.S. imports.
Monday night marked the official start of the fall TV season and a new episode of CSI: Miami on CTV simulcast with CBS drew 3.05 million viewers.
There's no way any Canadian series can compete with those figures.
By contrast Global's Heroes notched a disappointing 597,000 viewers.
And for comparison Citytv's Jay Leno Show was down to 462,000 viewers, an indication it will be trounced by CBS's procedurals every time there's a new available episode.
And CBS:Miami is the reason Lloyd Robertson's 11 p.m. newscast reached 1.43 million viewers.
Got all that?

Being Erica Returns

Few Canadian series make it to the sophhomore year so let's welcome back Being Erica which survived an uneven first season and might yet thrive.
When I first saw an episode last season I instantly thought of Quantum Leap because time travelling is an important theme of this dramedy. Also there's a dab of Ally McBeal from creator Jana Sinyor --a series from the female perspective is still a rarity.
Erin Karpluk (Godiva's) returns as the well named Erica Strange who gets more chances to relive old experiences and all at the hands of her mysterious therapist Dr. Tom (Michael Riley).
Ah, but the title of the first new episode is "Being Dr. Tom" meaning it's time for the good doctor to reveal parts of where he is coming from --the first year ended when he decided to simply walk away and end the relationship.
"But he's returning" cautions Riley. "And, yes, I sometimes felt frustrated the first year because we couldn't reveal much of him."
Riley, 47, knows all the ins and outs of making Canadian TV. After all I first interviewed him on the set of 1988's CBC miniseries Chasing Rainbows --he'd done a few episodes of the Edison twins and not much more.
Cast on Chasing Rainbows as one of the three bright young TV stars of tomorrow he's still around 21 years later as are his co-stars Paul Gross (Due South) and Julie Stewart (Cold Squad).
Riley graduated to off film projects for awhile (like Mustard Bath) and character parts in such TV flicks as Butterbox Babies (1995).
But he was back in the TV series groove for 25 episodes as fast talking Brett Parker in Power Play (1998-2000), a series that was vastly popular but got cancelled after two seasons.
"I saw the end coming despite denials --the second season finale was titled What It All Meant."
The semi-superb legal series This Is Wonderland followed (2004-06) and as Elliot Sacks he once again was completely different, actually often brilliant.
In 2007 two TV projects came out almost simultaneously --as the increasingly distraught astronaut in Race To Mars (2007) as Rick Erwin and stealing all his scenes in CBC's miniseries St. Urbain's Horseman (2007) as creepy, grubby Harry Stein. "At home I still have the false teeth I had to put in every day."
Look, this actor thrives on homework, likes to pin up the script pages all over his dressing room to contemplate the story flow. And this was difficult the first season because he didn't have that much backup material.
Signed first, Riley says he tested with several actresses up for the lead. "Only Erin had the goods, and she's still getting stronger. It's quite a stretch for a young actress, she has to work all day every day."
Because of CBC budget restraints Being Erica is down by one episode this season --to 12. However CBC audience research indicates the series starched strongly with young women Erica's age, the very audience sponsors hope to reach these days.
Riley has been in enough "hit" series that didn't last as long as they might not to venture a guess about Being Erica's longevity.
"But I feel stories are consistently getting stronger. We all know our characters that much more."
The season premiere is on CBC Tuesday September 22 at 8 p.m.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Emmy Awards Or Mad Men?

I tried watching every last minute of the incredibly dull Emmy Awards Sunday night, I really did.
But it was very hard, let me tell ya.
After all an awards show is an awards show is an awards show. Nothing happens but speechifying
And the presence of funny Neil Patrick Harris didn't really help that much. I mean the speeches were of the Dale Carenegie type.
And lert's face it Emmy's glow is rather tarnished. Series win awards after being cancelled --the award has no clout unlike an Oscar which usually means more money in the bank.
There were eerie reminders that the TV universe is changing. Neil promised at the end that Emmy would be back on broadcast TV next year. Wanna bet?
And Julia Louis-Dreyfus said viewers were witnessing "the last official year of broadcast TV." Maybe she was right. Ratings have been plunging.
But I know I'm not the only one who noticed that just after a dazzling new episode of Mad Men was over on AMC that darned series won yet another Emmy as best series of the year.
Yet readers of this electronic column keep telling me they can't see it since CTV cancelled the Canadian rights (not everybody up here is as lucky as me to get AMC).
But there were few surprises: 30 Rock deservedly took its third Emmy in a row as best comedy series. Mad Men just had to win, too.
Glenn Close won as best dramatic series actress --she's 62 so hurrah for us oldies. And Jessica Lange who is a dazzling 60 won as best drama actress for Grey Gardens. Bryan Cranston once again won as best drama series actor.
Best line of the night came from Alec Baldwin who said of presenter Rob Lowe: "I''ll be honest, I'd trade this to look like him --no I really mean it."
Meanwhile I'm wondering if omnibus awards shows haven't had their day. I mean we can You Tube the good parts, right? And Jay Leno is going to be fighting You Tube for ratings gold and not CBS or ABC.
So as long as another great episode of Mad Men was just a click away I was not watching this awards show. Sorry.

Friday, September 18, 2009

First Hit Of The New Season

Make time in your schedule Sunday night at 9:30 for the premiere of the new half-hour TV comedy Bored To Death starring Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson.
The reviews are mostly raves and they're deserved as Schwartzman engagingly plays a 30-year-old New York writer described as one of those "self-hating New York Jews" who gets ditched by his girl friend because he refuses to stop smoking pot.
The comedy here isn't of the raucous sitcom variety but is the comedy of self realization. The more I watched the more I felt like this character, Jonathan Ames who somehow can't seem to get his life together.
Photographed on the streets of Brooklyn and New York, the 25-minute opener follows Schwartzman around as he tries to put meaning into his life.
And how does he do this? It's by deciding to pose as a private detective by advertising on Craigslist. And before long he has his first client, a distressed twentysomething who is trying to locate her lost older sister.
She keeps asking "Are you a real detective? So he has to prove himself by going out and solving the mystery.
The first episode consists of wonderfully selected scenes of bizarre encounters with eccentric and raffish New Yorkers.
There's his magazine editor, underplayed by a white haired Ted Danson. One encounter in a men's room at a party is truly droll as Danson begs for some marijuaa and finds the writer keeps it stashed in an old Viagra bottle with the editor's name still on it.
Then there's the hunt in a seedy hotel as the writer hones in on the woman who isn't really missing but merely sexually role playing with her boyfriend.
Schwartzman is alternatingly silly, hapless and pretty winning as the private eye who is in way above his head. Watching the first episode will have you watching the other eight when they come on.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is A Movie Station Still Viable?

It was a mere 55 years ago that Sam Hebscher joined Ontario's second TV station --feisty CHCH which was just on the air.
Hebscher was already fabled in Steel City for running the two largest movie theaters, The Palace and The Capitol as well as managing the Barton St. arena.
But his mandate from visionary owner Ken Soble was a true challenge: turn CHCH into the movie station of the world.
And Hebscher did exactly that. He had the contacts and the moxie to go after the biggest titles.
Gone with The Wind? Hebscher's CHCH was the first TV outlet anywhere to run that one even before NBC ran it over two nights to huge American audiences. NBC had to change its newspaper ads stating it had a world premiere.
"Got them all," says Hebscher chuckling on the phone as he runs over other titles that premiered on CHCH: "The Ten Commandments --we had that one first. Two Women. First. the Godfather. First. Everything was first."
Hebscher won't divulge all his secrets but being known in the movie business helped. "I had a Hollywood friend who knew Howard Hughes so I asked him to ask Howard if I could buy the RKO package. And back came the word from Hughes: Done."
Hebscher used to peer through the entertainment pages of the Toronto papers. "I'd search the Drive-Ins. Once a movie hit that market I knew it was ready to be sold to TV. So I'd make a bid and usually win."
Hebscher says there remains a big market for films but "it's very competitive. In 1954 there were two Buffalo stations, CHCH and CBLT. That was it. Now there are 300 channels.
"Nowadays there are cable channels like Turner that show pristine prints and no commercials. CHCH has so many commercials these days that I can go in the kitchen, make a sandwich and I don't miss anything."
And many of CHCH's prints are public domain copies: all fuzzy images and burred sound. Recent examples: Penny Serenade and The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers whch have been seen to better advantage on Turner.
Hebscher remains a fountain of film lore and CHCH managementshould be using this classy gentleman in the current drive to regain promence as the movie channel.
And I've just obtained Hebscher's new Toronto telephone number if anybody over there ever wants to give me a call.
Hebscher still knows what films to buy and what ones to ignore. TV's "Mr. Movies" should prove an invaluable resource for his old station.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Fall CBC TV launch is as predictable as the first signs of autumn frost.
I should know --I attended my first CBC launch in 1970 as the kid critic for The Globe And Mail substituting for Blaik Kirby who disdained such things.
CBC's Studio 7 was transformed into a mock set from The $64,000 Question and the critics placed in soundproof booths to test their knowledge of TV.
Alas, that was then.
Now a very shrunken presentation seems to be the norm and I only spotted a few genuine TV critics from the press left --The Globe's John Doyle, The Sun's Bill Harris, CP's workaholic Bill Brioux.
CBC has also changed from an all purpose web (competing in a 10-channel universe) to a much more focused network concentrating on ratings which executive vice-president Richard Stursberg saying ratings had actually gone up the past season.
Kirstine Stewart, general manager, lauded CBC's great success over the past season. I should have asked her why two superior CBC miniseries (The Iron Road and Guns) were shown before the new season officially opens.
And was it a mere coincidence that as I rushed into CBC's cavernous Front St. studios one of its biggest news stars Wendy Mesley was glimpsed hustling out?
In the old days she would have been in attendance duly cheering on her side.
Not much news emerged and the presentations consisted of clips of new and returning shows plus quips from a few of the co-stars.
Host Ron James whose new comedy takes over from RCAF joked that the crowd was there for free liquor and sandwiches.
But if there were sandwiches I never saw them.
And it would have been nice to see some of the vaulted CBC old timers invited in if only to say hello --I did spot former variety head George Anthony in the throng but few other grey hairs.
In many areas CBC has simply jumped ship. There are no more TV movies, no more ambitious miniseries, no more high arts programs all of which used to define the publicly funded network. But these are all to expensive to make after CBC's budget cuts.
CBC's new breed of series are cagily crafted to appeal to younger audiences, the ones sponsors wish to reach.
On Little Mosque On The Prairie I was introduced to the new character played by Brandon Firla who'll add a bit of an edge to a series that became a bit too self congratulatory last season.
Rick Mercer joked that "I've already been in three safety harnesses" in segments filmed for the new season.
Being Erika is getting a slight revamp with Michael Riley's character getting more screen time.
On the Tudors Alan Van Sprang (Metropia) and Colm Wilkinson (Phantom Of the Opera) are going to provide much needed Canadian content.
The Border is back, The Hour keeps going,so does Dragons Den, Heartland.
And saving the big news for the last Battle Of The Blades has announced its pairings: Bourne and Victor Kraatz, Isabelle Braseur and Glenn Anderson, Marie-France Dubreuil and Stephane Richer, Jodeyne Higgins and Ken Daneyko, Christine Hough-Sweeney and Doug Ladret and Kristina Lenko and Bob Probert.
Got all that?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Prime Time Leno Could Be The New King

I've finally glimpsed the future. And it's Jay Leno as Larry King.
Monday night Jay Leno made a graceful bow as the new 10 p.m. host of a revamped Tonight Show (on both NBC and citytv).
The sole difference: The Jay Leno Show comes on 90 minutes earlier than its old timeslot as NBC fights for its very existence.
NBC's slate of 10 p.m. hour dramas bombed out and the peacock proud network needed something cheaper to toss into the mix.
By dumping its expensive, quality dramas at 10 NBC is acknowledging that it's a new TV universe out there.
No longer do the Big Three (NBC, CBS, ABC) rule the ratings waves. In the old world the Top Ten Show would be something like The Beverly Hillbillies commanding the allegiance of 60 million fans a week.
Leno had three months to prepare for his new show and there were no major bloopers. But he can't get such great guests every week.
The set looked much like his old show. The monologue was about the same --not as provocative as a Letterman might have been.
Leno got old pal Jerry Seinfeld as first star guest who was relaxed and funny. There was a reasonably funny sequence of comic Dan Finnerty warbling away in a car wash. Funny headlines was back.
And then out came Kanye West who almost sobbed when Leno mentioned his mother. And then it hit me.
If Leno gets that calibre of headline provoking guests then he'll be taking over from Larry King. And we'll be watching.
Just as long as there isn't a new episode of CSI: Miami over on CBS that night Leno could do very nicely indeed.
But on vastly competitive nights this fall and winter I'm wondering what rating Leno will be getting.
And there's one other hazard looming out there. It's You Tube. I've just rewatched the Kanye West bits on You Tube and that's what a lot of fans will be doing.
There's nothing to prevent dedicate bloggers from plopping the best Leno bits on You Tube so we can all watch the highlights and still catch our favorite scripted dramas at 10?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Larry Gelbart Laughed All the Way To the Bank

Believe me when I tell you TV is a writer's medium.
Not an actor's medium. And certainly not a director's medium.
And how do I know all this? Because Larry Gelbart told me so one day on the set of his series AfterMASH and I still believe him.
Gelbart died the other day at 81 still in a creative frenzy. He was readying a script about the Bush Administration called SH** Happens. And a movie musical version of his Broadway hit City Of Angels to star Bruce Willis.
I only met him that once on a hot summer's day in 1983 at 20th Century Fox Studios on the set of AfterMASH when he wandered by as I was interviewing old pal Harry Morgan.
Gelbart stopped, listened in a bit, and then took over the interview by sheer force of comedy timing.
I thought he'd started his marvellous career as a writer on Sid Caear's Show Of Shows in 1950 but he vigorously shook his head.
"Double no! I started as a writer on the radio hit Duffy's Tavern. Then I wrote for Jack Benny. then TV came along. And it was Caesar's Hour in 1954."
Years later I watched him on a panel with other surviving Caesar writers including Mel Brooks but not Woody Allen. All were funny yet Gelbart was the standout. He just thought funny, that's it.
He wrote the fabulous Broadway musical A Funny thing Happened On His Way To the Forum (he thanked Plautus for the inspiration) and later rewrote Volpone as the Jackie Gleason hit Sly Fox.
In 1972 he was called upon to write the TV version of M*A*S*H and stayed around for 97 episodes.
Screen credits included The Notorious Landlady (1962), Oh God ! (1977) movie, Movie (1979) and Tootsie (1982) which he co-wrote.
Two of my favorite Gelbart quotes: "If Adolf Hitler is alive I hope he's out of town with a musical."
And: "The experience of Tootsie taught me never to work with an Oscar winner who is smaller than the statue."
The day we talkled he was already convinced AfterMASH would flop because viewers would be waiting to see Hawkeye (Alan Alda) enter and he never would.. Gelbart was dead right --the series was cancelled by CBS after four months.
I'm missing that Gelbart wit already.

Leno: Not Quite Ready For Prime Time?

Is Jay Leno really changing the face of American prime time TV as some of the pundits south of the border are claiming?
The premiere of his new prime time talk show is on NBC and citytv Monday at 10 p.m.
The time change is a mere 90 minutes.
Oh, give me a break. He's not the first late night stand up who aspired to make it earlier in the evening.
I actually remember as a kid debating whether to watch Steve Allen on NBC or Ed Sulliovan on CB when Allen migrated to his Sunday evening timeslot in 1956.
Allen had tired of the late night slot and wanted to do his thing once a week and he spent three years battling it out with old pro Sullivan who akways had the better guests. Finally, in frustration NBC put him on a half hour earlier at 7:30 insteade of 8 and still he was number second.
In fact Allen got Elvis Presley on TV before Ed but Sullivan soon had the rocker contractually all tied up.
In 1958 Allen moved to Hollywood and a Monday night slot and later ABC picked him up. But he just couldn't last in prime time despite an able band of stooges. Remember Louis Nye, Pat Harrington Jr., Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Bill Dana?
Next up was Jack Paar who'd been Tonight Show host for five years (1957-62) and again it was NBC that promoted him to prime time.
I've just been watching (on DVD) some of these hours which ran for three seasons (1962-65) and the guests were very good: Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Richard Nixon. But still he faltered.
And so will Leno.
NBC is trying this gimmick because the once peacock proud web has recently fronted such stinkers as Bionic Woman and Knight Rider remakes as scripted dramas.
Putting Leno on is 90 per cent cheaper and on many nights he masy score with the right guests. How Leno's move this will affect Tonight with Conan O'Brien remains to be seen. Leno can grab the good guests and the audience will be bigger.
Remember it was NBC that replaced Leno with Conan to attract a bigger audience (so far Conan trails Letterman).
Bill Carter in The New York Times says Leno has never gotten industry respect which is true. The guy he displaced, Johnny Carson, later made appearances with David Letterman but never with Leno.
NBC gave Leno the weeknights at 10 slot to prevent him from jumping to another network. Up against ratings hits like CSI or The Mentalist he'll surely falter.
On other nights when reruns are in bloom he may do very nicely thank you very much.
But he comes cheap --the most important thing for faltering NBC.
I'm not going to rain on Leno's Parade. I respect the guy who is a confirmed workaholic. I'll keep watching him no matter what.
But remember NBC is saying even if Leno gets a 1 rating that will be a victory of sorts.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ellen Replaces Paula

On CNN they even interrupted Anderson Cooper reporting live from Afghanistan to tell him the news Ellen DeGeneres was the new judge on American Idol. He thought that was so cool and so do I.
There's nothing like keeping a nation's priorities straight.
President Obama had just finished addressing the U.S. Congress about health care only to be interrupted by a Republican shouting "Lie!"
But that would have to wait for meatier fare: the idolization of Ellen.
Curious but just a few years back she'd been a TV pariah on her Disney originated sitcom titled --at first anyway --These Friends Of Mine.
I was there in 1994 as Ellen was rolled out to tepid public response.
DeGeneres was but one of a gaggle of stand ups trying to benefit from the Seinfeld craze.
Remember Jackie Mason in Chicken Soup. I'm trying to forget that one but I just can't.
What drove fans insane was the Disney dance around the topic is she or isn't she? A lesbian, I mean.
In 1994 that seemed the burning question of the day. But when the season returned it had a name change (to Ellen) and some key characters were dumped. Also, Ellen was no longer interested in nabbing the perfect man but Disney would not as yet let her run after the perfect woman.
I remember interviewing co-star Ayre Gross around this time and he voiced his own confusions about where this sitcom was heading.
Then in 1997 Ellen fell for her boyfriend's producer Susan (Laura Dern). Ratings plummeted. Everybody seemed down on Ellen except her TV therapist played by none other than Oprah Winfrey.
As the credits rolled on the final episode we heard the jaunty refrain "Who's got a lesbian smile? Ellen!"
But now she has rehabilitated herself on her daytime talk show. She's bright, she's funny, she's open, she dances great. Even does cosmetics commercials. People genuinely like her for being who she is without any pretense.
This could be Ellen's time to shine --she's shown that you can succeed just by being yourself.

The Two Versions Of Melrose Place

Like another prime time soap of that era, Melrose Place was two different shows.
The first version was rather sedate and had a bunch of nice twentysomethings struggling to make it in those dingy but rather coolish apartments.
That version quickly bombed and TV's supreme schlockmeister Aaron Spelling went for the down and dirty in a deliberately dumbed down revamp that imported Heather Locklear from Dynasty.
Tarted up, it was something of a hit for the Fox weblet and it's this version that provides inspiration for the remake.
I tried watching just a bit of it but really what a stinker. Katie Cassidy is the new bitch in tresidence and she's also bisexual --is this progress or what?
I just happen to have been dragged kicking and screaming to the original set in 1992. I quickly escaped to go antique shopping on the real Melrose Avenue.
But I grant there were some fine actors lost in that compendium of corn.
A few of them are still working but no real super stars emerged -- nothing to rival Farrah fever in Charlie's Angels..
So why revive MP which was never a Top 10 hit to begin with?
Well, it supposedly worked for the ailing CW on the revival of Beverly Hills 90210 but honestly I've never met anybody who says it is their favorite show. Have you?
Why not revive some of the truly fine shows of the past like The Paper Chase, East Side West Side or Harry-O? Oh, that would cost too much money.
As TV ratings slip cheap shows like MP are revived. And yet the bad dialogue seems particularly coarse after sampling such brilliant current fare as Mad Men or Dexter.
TV has moved on but not the CW still trying to peddle the stale old formulas of yesteryear.
There are poignant cameos from the original stars some of whom who seem strapped for work these days. There's always a reality outing, I guess. But you know I thought Daphne Zuniga had something that would pilot her forward.
But then this version sports Ashlee Simpson who has two expressions and both of them are distinctly unappealing.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

With Guns Blazing, Sudz Sutherland Scores Big Time

It was a warm July day, 2007, when I took the 7 a.m. GO Bus for Hamilton. I just had to be the first TV critic to get on the set of Sudz Sutherland's latest TV miniseries Guns --and I was.
The Star was already faltering financially and I had to pay my own fare but that didn't matter. The location that day was Hamilton's downtown Ramada Inn, specifically the basement ball room converted into a ritzy go-go parlor complete with strippers attired in faux fur.
I wanted to be front and center to observe Sutherland's directing skills and also meet his wife and writing partner Jen Holness who was carting around their newborn daughter.
Well, here it is more than two years later and Sutherland's mightily ambitious production finally gets a much deserved CBC-TV screening Sunday and Monday nights at 8.
It was well worth the wait.
I first latched on to Sutherland as one of the great hopes of Canadian TV when I watched his CTV movie Doomstown made in 2006 and based on the same central theme: the prevalence of violence in a society that's supposed to be vilence freem
One scene I watched that day: in a tight booth two youthful gun dealers played by KC Collins and Gregory Smith duel verbally while Smith's girlfriend played by beauty Elisha Cuthbert waltzes by (she's the barmaid).
It looked fine to me but Sutherland asked for several additional takes, trying to get the young actors more emotionally involved so they'd speed up their dialogue.
And now that I've seen it in the finished preview DVD I can report it works memorably as do so many other scenes an ordinary director might just toss off.
"We just had to make this one," Holness told me that fateful day. "Just had to."
The team had been increasingly intrigued by the growing gun violence on the streets of Toronto, the gang violence that seemed to be spreading, the feeling of disenchantment from many black youths facing bleak futures.
As Sutherland told me "We've had drug trafficking, trafficking in humans and now it's guns. It's already out of control."
Holness said the project could only have come forward with the sustained effort of some very big name Canadian actors.
"Colm Feore took a look at the script and was the first to say he wanted to come onboard. Then I got to Elisha Cuthbert (24) and she just had to do it. Then Gregory Smith (Everwood) wanted in. Then Shawn Doyle...."
And what emerged was a very violent story.
Said Sutherland to me: "There are a lot of guns in it. People die."
Sutherland wanted to explore the origins of that violence and to be truthful about everything.
In a corner I chatted up Cuthbert reminding her I'd first interviewed her for the CTV film Lucky Girl and correctly predicted she'd garner a Gemini. And she beamed at the memory.
"This script just hit me, had to do it. I want to keep coming back for quality work."
Later on when I was lunching with the Sutherlands Cuthbert was back to show off her entire family: mom, dad, younger brother all in from Montreal.
And there was the reaction of another familiar Canadian name, Gregory Smith (Everwood).
I last interviewed him when he was a gangly 18-year-old ready to embark upon the WB prime time soap.
He described his new part as a step to maturity and joked "Look! I grew facial hair."
The shoot included 42 locations including Osgood Hall and a dramatic recreation of a shooting at Dundas and Yonge.
And the marvel is the whole complicated saga works both visually and on an emotional level. There are no one dimensional characters here. The dialogue while visceral at time snaps and crackles with authenticity while Sutherland's restless camera moves and probes, keeping every scene alive and vital.
Feore is restrained and completely credible. A young black actor Sutherland first used in Doomstown. JC Collins, is quite brilliant as a black youth trying to rediscover his roots.
Doyle is the agitated cop whose home life is suffering because of his obsession with getting criminals off the street. And Cuthbert acts in a taut way she's never shown in her glossy Hollywood features.
Sutherland gets real help from his cinematographer Arthur Cooper (Naked Lunch) and production designer Rupert Lazarus.
Guns --the title really says it all --is completely compelling, a must-see, yet it revs up on CBC before the official start of the new season and another big budgeted project The Iron Road got blown off in August.
So much of Canadian TV these days is irrelevant reality shtick.
But then along comes something as completely watchable and yes brilliant as Guns.

Mad About Mad Men

It's the best drama series on North American TV.
That's why I'e been deluged with beefs as Canadians rant about their inability to access this brilliant show.
The drama is on AMC Sunday nights at 10 but this U.S. channel is an additional service you must pay for. That is if your cable company deigns to offer it.
A friend in Hamilton who lives beyond the mighty Hamilton mountain says his service COGECO isn't offering it so he has to beg buddies on the mountain who get ROGERS to tape it for him.
Another constant reader says she's a pensioner and can't afford additional costs.
She wants to know why CTV dumped the show meaning she can't even watch reruns on Bravo!, a sister CTV station.
My answer: CTV says it was to save money but no other Canadian service seems willing to pick it up.
And here's the latest news from L.A.: based on this season's sensational first three episodes AMC has renewed MM for a fourth season. Also MM has just garnered 16 Emmy nominations.
And still many Canadians can't get it.

Beef Of The Month

So there I was Wednesday night hunkering down for a night of Claude Rains movies on Turner Classic Movies.
Don't get me wrong, I like this station and modestly feel thoseToronto Star columns I wrote over the years pleading it be included on the Canadian cable dial were finally acted on by the CRTC.
But what bugs me are the changes TCM must make in its schedule because seven per cent of its schedule has not passed Canadian rights clearances.
Here's what I mean: at 2:45 a.m, I was still at it after a marathon screening of Mr. Skeffington. Then the unctuous host Robert Osborne popped up and said to stay tuned as Rains encounters some Hitchcockian intrigue.
And up popped the stark Depression saga Saturday's Children instead of the anticipated Notorious..
Silly me. I should have checked the Canadian schedule also available on TCM. I keep doing that, anticipating movies that get blacked out on the Canadian feed.
And by the way Saturday's Children (1940) was a superior version of the Maxwell Anderson play with rains co-starring with John Garfield and Ann Shirley.
There. I'm glad I got that beef off my chest.