Friday, October 30, 2009

Welcome Back V, The Remake

They're b-a-c-k!
The pesky reptilian aliens from V, I mean.
Way, way back in 1984 there was a super sci fi miniseries on NBC called V. Its popularity faded with a sequel and a brief running series because the more the aliens were explained away the less mysterious and interesting they became to viewers.
After a quarter of a century there's an expensive looking remake which may suffer that same fate of familiarity breeding contempt.
The first hour is pretty terrific thanks to the brilliant new special effects which are the equal of any current movie blockbuster.
But at the end of the hour there's the inevitable explanations and poof the tension starts evaporating.
Perhaps the first 10 minutes or so stand alone as a supteme act of TV story telling.
The events will surely remind you of all the scare tactics of 9/11 as inhabitants of New York city feel the rolling effects of a strange earthquake and looking up see a gigantioc spaceship parked overhead their skyscrapers.
All sorts of weird rumors are spread in the ensuing panic.
In 1984 the plot served as a none too subtle metaphor for battling Communism.
Today the FBI agents headed by Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost) are battling domestic terrorists and wondering how many terrorist cells have already been planted through American society.
Meanwhile the aliens who prefer to be called "Visitors" present a perfect representative of their order in the pert figure of one called Anna (Morena Baccarin of Heartland). She is an Audrey Tantou look alike.
Let's see, there's a dissafected American teen (Logan Huffman) who is smitten with the teen Visitor called Lisa (Laura Vandervoot).
And there's a patient Anglican priest (Joel Getsch) who is momentarily delightred when his congregation swells with so many new parishioners.
And there's a newleywed (Morris Chestnut) who may already have crossed over. And a TV anchor (Scott Wolf from Party Of Five) lets himself be used by the aliens with disastrous results.
The updated V plays off contemporary issues and initially it scores some hits. One thing the aliens are promising is universal health care which should please Democratic U.S. viewers.
But the aliens may be more than they seem. And if their creepiness is too soon unmasked the new series may quickly falter just as the original V did.
ABC (and CTV in Canada) are running only four episodes before a break for the Winter Olympics. There are industry reports about production delays and reshoots and the return of V with nine more episodes is still to be decided.
Of course if you're like me and remember the original V you'll have trouble working up a sweat.
But V is cleverly targeted for the younger generation and could score hugely if it stays on track.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Must See Look At Candidate Obama

Check out HBO's new two-hours plus documentary By The People, a mesmerising documentary on the rise of candidate Barrack Obama through the 2008 political campaign from the cornfields of Iowa to his dazzling electoral win as President of the United States.
It's jam packed with anecdotes and high tension but what makes it a strange viewing experience is the calm at the center of the political storm and that is Obama himself. Never does he blow up to let off steam. Never is he less than friendly and hospitable.
While others all around him are upset, cranky, visibly distressed he remains a still smiling, friendly optimistic figure, completely convinced this is his moment to become the first African American president.
The film keeps us interested because directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams enjoyed unprecedented access to the Obama team. We sit in on strategy meetings, watch as Hilary Clinton's seemingly unassailable lead in Iowa gets whittled away and follow the candidate on what seems like a never ending procession of picnics and small town meetings where he is never less than affable.
Heroes of this movie are Obama senior advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe who start out in Iowa as decided underdogs. After all Obama had only two years in the U.S. Senate and several years in the Illinois legislature before making his audacious run for the presidency.
We get to know the advisers better than we ever know the candidate. What makes Obama run? His wife Michelle is equally hard working. Neither seemed surprised at how quickly the campaign took off.
By contrast Clinton never really found herself in Iowa and was never able to reclaim first place status.
What propelled Obama was the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of idealistic , young staffers, some of whom are profiled here. They are undeniably naive politically but their enthusiasm propels the campaign --take Ronnie Cho, son of Korean immigreants, who labors day and night and breaks into tears when things finally start going right.
We see how young speechwriter Jon Fabreau is able to authentically replicate the Obama vision in speech after speech, how media adviser Robert Gibbs keeps the press on Obama side. And there are the great dramatic moments which could have toppled any Obama nomination: the racist rantings of Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright, the friendship with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers coupled with the death of a beloved grandmoather the day before the election.
Through it all the Obamas come across as eager to please, confident, not easily ruffled. Whether this will make for a great presidency remains to be seen because the new President's lack of experience has already been apparent on many issues.
But finally it all comes down to chance: before the stock market meltdown Obama and Republican rival John McCain had been neck and neck. An economic crisis propelled the first black president to victory and a year later still taunts him every day.
By The People is recommended for more than just political junkies. As a group portrait of how a candidacy is managed, sold to the people and propelled to the presidency it's a marvel of filmmaking techniques.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.
BY THE PEOPLE premieres on HBO CANADA Tuesday NOV. 3 at 9 p.m.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Now I Answer Some E-Mails

I'm getting enough e-mail queries to put them all together in one batch:
Q: I hear NBC Southland is getting its second season cancelled even before appearing. What gives?
A: It's true NBC cancelled the second season of the well received cop show after initially greenlighting a second season. That means six hour episodes have already been filmed with more to come. Now I'm hearing a deal with TNT is imminent which doesn't help Canadian viewers much. So far Canadian cable doesn't pick up TNT so it's over to Showcase and The Movie Network to see if they're interested in picking up Canadian rights.
Q: What's with Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies. The other night he introduced a movie by saying it had Claude Rains in a perfect Hitchcockian thriller. Instead Rains appeared in the Depression era drama Saturday's Children. And last night he promised us Daphne Du Maurier's gothic thriller Rebecca and up came Experiment Perilous.
A: When TCM finally hit Canadian TV there was cause for cheering. But fully seven per cent of TCM's library of classic films can't be shown as yet --Canadian networks have these rights and in some cases TCM won't gain control for years to come. In the case of Notorious and Rebecca CBC currently holds the Canadian rights and CBC has recently shown both of these movies late nights.
Q: Please explain the currently raging controversy over the disappearance of local TV unless cable companies fork over enough dough? These ads are driving me crazy.
A: I just can't because it makes no sense. What local programming is there these days on CBLT and CFTO outside of newscasts?
CBLT used to offer varied local fare from Barbara McLeod's local talk show to a night club show and another featuring Oscar Peterson. CFTO even had a regional director one Yvan Fecan who now runs CTVglobemedia. CFTO had kids shows like Uncle Bobby, Joyce Davidson's talk show, Isabel Bassett's weekly current affairs show. All have disappeared to make way for cheaper U.S. imports. CTV now has no Canadian talk show on its schedule whereas a few years back there was Dini Petty, Vicki Gabereau and Mike Bullard.
If the networks are financially troubled these days it's because of the huge fees they have paid out to import U.S. series --the figure is well over $600 million for this season. These shows just aren't attracting national advertising as they used to before the recession kicked in.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is Leno's Prime Time Up?

Ace Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes has a brilliant story about the ramifications of NBC's sudden change in prime time programming.
It all started on Thursday when NBC Universal entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin said his network would no longer program to profit margins.
And that could spell the end of Jay Leno's faltering prime time talk show.
Simply stated (according to Gaspin): "The to put the best possible programs we can on the air."
NBC's Leno strategy called for the former Tonight Show to host the faltering 10 p.m. lineup because NBC's costly drama series just were not making it in the ratings.
The peacock proud network figured a show as cheap as Leno could still make a profit even when finishing third or even fourth on a competitive prime time night.
But NBC bosses are hating the idea of a fourth place finish.
In fact Leno is getting creamed during the baseball playoffs. On other nights he fares just as poorly.
And NBC affiliates are hollering about the low ratings they're pulling in which impact on their 11 p.m. local newscasts.
Only last week NBC dropped its proposed second season of the low rated police series Southland although six hour episodes had already been shot.
The equally low rated but inexpensive Dateline NBC will instead continue in the Friday night slot.
NBC sources say Leno will continue for this season because NBC needs five hour dramas to fill the 10 p.m. slot.
But what about September 2010. What will happen to Jay then?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The New TV Season So Far

Here's what I'm learning on the phone from L.A. Sources about the new TV season:
1. As predicted here CW's Twilight clone The Vampire Diaries is notching huge numbers among teenaged girls. What is it with sexy, teen vampires anyway. The ratings lift has been so big CW has renewed it for an entire season. But the dog awful Melrose Place is also being picked up (for five more episodes ) which is time enough for Heather Locklear to work her ratings magic.
2. Biggest new hit of the year is CBS's NCIS: Los Angeles. Oh, all right it's a spin off so this is yet another case of TV replicating itself. After all CBS has three editions of CSI while NBC has three of Law & Order. NCIS:Los Angeles as reported in Entertainment Weekly is currently ranked 14th but has a very low percentage of DVR viewers: that's because the audience is significantly older.
3. Insiders are saying the very disappointing Eastwick heads the list of new series which will be promptly cancelled at season's end. Also heading for the executioner's block: Hank, The Middle, Cougar Town and probably from seasons past it's farewell for Ugly Betty and Private Practice.
So tell me what series new and old you are fed up with.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Chilling British Documentary

The hourlong documentary Terror In The Skies originally ran on BBC-TV's Panorama series in September 2008.
It's a chilling but brilliantly documented study of how three members of a radical cell based in Britain plotted to blow up transatlantic jumbo jets using home-made liquid bombs.
Three members were subsequently found guilty of conspiracy to murder. Panorama reporter and al-Quada specialist Peter Taylor takes us through the tortured lives of these men --the jury failed to reach a verdict on four other defendants.
He revisits the childhood haunts of the men, even interviewing the teachers they had as boys. Remember they grew up in Britain and seemed relatively unaffected by international news until they reached their teens and then became radicalized.
We see how both British and American intelligence worked tightly together to unravel the plot and identify and arrest the suspects.
All this would not have been possible save for increased British spending on terrorism after the attacks in the London subway system. And there was the random killing of a delivery driver and the subsequent flight to Pakistan of the main suspect --the dead man's nephew.
The terrorists were closely followed by a British team who tapped phones, planted listening devices in various houses as they watched and waited.
The strangest aspect involved the bulk buying of hydrogen peroxide and the removal by a syringe of soft drink containers so a new deadly mixture could be poured inside the bottles. The bottles would then be carried onboard the jets and detonated in the washrooms while the planes were over the Atlantic.
The program seems to imply American authorities intervened with their British counterparts to arrest the suspects before the evidence could be completely compiled and so some of the suspects got off.
But the frightening aspect is how teens from seemingly placid families can be quickly radicalized to the point they'll desert families in their quest for revenge.
The visuals are simply amazing. Don't miss this one. It runs on CBC Newsworld's The Passionate Eye Monday Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. Got that?

CTV's New Fall TV Series, Part 1

It's strange but I don't recall the 1987 movie The Witches Of Eastwick as being anywhere near one of my favourite Jack Nicholson mocies.
But the flick obviously has resonance. There was a 2002 TV movie starring Marcia Cross, Kelly Rutherford and Lori Loughlin that was an obvious busted pilot.
Does anybody out there remember it?
Heck, does anybody remember TV movies?
ABC's new series Eastwick stars Canadian TV icon Paul Gross and co-stars Rebecca Romijn, Jaime Ray Newman and Lindsay Price.
It is pretty much a clone of Desperate Housewives with a dash of Charmed tossed in. The three lead characters are poorly written and poor Gross sports an ugly hair job that makes him look older than his 49 years.
Question: in the seasons since Due South exited Gross must have had any number of U.S. TV offers. Why he picked this semi dud which doesn't play off his acting charms beats me.
This is a gimmicky, badly executed show. We keep hoping Nicholson and his original stars Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon might pop up and they never do.
CTV's A Channel is running it simulcast with ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
My rating: **
The Vampire Diaries is as close a copy to Twilight as I could ever imagine. So far most reviews are saying it lacks bite --ha, ha!
But what do I know? It has already garnered a huge audience of female viewers under age 34 so sponsors are flocking to buy time on it.
So shoot me but I have yet to read the books. The show is brilliantly made, however, with lots of well executed effects and since it's from Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek) the teens speak like Haervard graduates.
Nina Dobrev plays 17-year-old high school student Elena who is quite a hunkette. Back at school she meets new boy Stefan (Paul Wesley) and yes he's another misunderstood teen vampire.
He's also got an older brother vampire Ian Somerhalder who tries to rejoin the family after a 15-year absence.
Where have I seen Wesley before I asked myself before searchiong on IMDB. Oh, yeah, he was a werewolf on Wolf Lake and a half angel in Fallen
Of course there's a sexy bad girl played to the limit by Candice Accola.
What I did not enjoy about this one was the artsy voice over narratives as both love stricken teens read from their diaries. Oh, I see, that's why they call the thing Vampire Diaries. Now I get it.
Will I watch again? Yes, but only on nights where reruns are on the competing channels.
My rating: ** 1/2.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Jay Leno Is Bringing NBC Down

I've been hearing whispered rumors from my U.S. sources and now The New York Times' ace TV critic Bill Carter (an old buddy from TV press tours past) has taken the Jay Leno story public.
Simply stated Carter's story says Leno's bad ratings performance is dragging NBC down in many ways.
I've already noticed the erosion in ratings of Conan O'Brien's revamped Tonight Show. I still state this is due to Leno's departure and not the repositioning of Leno at 10 p.m.
But Carter also notes a downturn in NBC's top rated Law & Order: SVU which was switched from 10 to 9 p.m.
I'd agree it is a 10 p.m. show and does not work as well an hour earlier.
Leno's ratings most nights are indeed anemic but are actually better than the bad numbers posted last season by NBC's wilting dramatiuc hours.
Some NBC sources say there'll be a dramatic upswing once CBS drama hits go into reruns.
Anyhow Carter's story "Debate Over Effects Of Leno's Show" should be read by all TV addicts. It ran in the NYT on Oct. 11. Got that?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

TV's Tenuous Fall

First series to get the cancellation axe was the dreadful The Beautiful Life.
Now it's Southland's turn.
After completing six new episodes the police show with Benjamin Mckenzie was pink slipped even before a single new episode got to air. The ratings anemic (but cheap to produce) Dateline will continue running Fridays at 9.
The series was critically acclaimed but NBC has fewer dramatic slots to fill now that Jay Leno is on weeknights at 10.
Warner Bros. intends shopping the critically lauded series to various cable weblets.
Over on Thursdays at 10 CBS's The Mentalist easily outstrips ABC's Private Practice which only retains 2/3 of the audience of Grey's Anatomy.
Look for PP to get moved by midseason at least.
And over at that weblet CW they're ecstatic over the large Thursday night female audiences for The Vampire Diaries. Yes, I know it's a TV reworking of Twilight: teen vampire in high school falls for alienated young thing.
But the vampire soapera is starching first in its timeslot among women 18-34, the very audience sponsors want to reach.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Crowing About Crows

One can quickly forgive filmmaker Susan Fleming for crowing about her new documentary.
Because it's titled A Murder Of Crows and is all about a much maligned bird who turns out to be one of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom.
"Murder" is the word used to describe a crow gathering but comes with a double meaning as crows get shot at and stomped on all the time in big North American cities.
It's the well chosen premiere attraction on CBC-TV's returning The Nature Of Things Sunday night at 9.
But first a personal observation. I've always liked crows. As a kid on summer vacation at Belmont Lake I'd get up at dawn to bicycle the dusty trails and because I fed the crows one day with a dried out bologna sandwich I was always followed by the black birds.
According to Fleming they had the ability to pick out my face and know I was a supplier of food and not an enemy.
But other people either detest them or fear them. And many get them mixed up with ravens.
"I don't know why people hate them so much," Fleming chuckles on the line from her Uxbridge residence.
"Perhaps its that cawing in the early morning that wakes people up. And there's the history of crows beause they're black and seemiungly malevolent which they're not.
"They really are a lot like humans."Crows live in packs and are monogamous save for a few adulterous ones. Their "kids" can stay with them for up to five years and relatives help tend and feed the youngsters.
"And the more I read about crows the more I needed to make this film."
Her travels took her to Seattle university expert John Marzluff, to the far off Pacific islands of New Caledonia, to downtown Tokyo and to the Australian Alps all in search of the weird and wonderful life of crows.
One thing --don't call them bird brained. Crows have the larghest brain mass of any bird group and seem to behave like primates much of the time. Some scientists have taken to calling them "feathered apes" because only crows, chimps and elephants among animals have the capacity to make and use tools.
So Fleming pitched The Nature If Thing's executive producer Michael Allder who financed her photography excursions here and there.
There included a remote island off New Caledonia "which took forever to get to. There's a New Zealand scientist in very primitive conditions who has found ravens there can make tools to extract insects from trees or get at food not otherwise reachable.
"To shoot that was a challenge. Crows hate changes so we first had to get them used to our photography equipment. And then we had to hope they'd do what was promised."
In this case it involved three intricate moves by a crow to extract a bit of food and required considerable preplanning on the part of the crow.
In Seattle we peer into the secret lives of crows. Tiny radio transmitters planted on fledgling crows bring back signals showing the range of a young crow which can be quite startling.
"One of the subjects sadly was hit by a car. But this wasn't unexpected --only 50 per cent of young crows reach maturity."
In Tokyo Fleming shows how crow nesting on hydro installations can plunge an entire city district into chaos. And crows can also spot one human face in a sea of thousands as is demonstrated in a crowded Seattle park. A guy with a mask on (as in the movie Halloween) had previously rattled them and when he returns the birds emit danger signals.
Fleming had exclusivity on all her shoots. She produces a ton of great visuals to support her theories of how smart crows really are.
"All this is real science, not stunts. It's not a bag of tricks it's an invitation inside the world of crows. And I'm really happy how it all worked out."
But Fleming's persistence is already well known --her TV series The Secret Life Of Gardens used endoscopy photography to take us inside our backyards and see what we had never seen before.
A Murder Of Crows does the same type investigative work on crows. And it's a virtual must see, the first greatish Canadian documentary of the new TV season.
Crows is on The Nature Of Things on CBC Sunday night at 9; repeated on CBC NewsworldThursday Oct. 15 at 10 p.m. Got that?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Chris Potter : Canadian TV's Busiest Actor

Hard to believe but the promising young actor I first interviewed on the set of Material World has matured over 19 years to become Canadian TV's most productive actor.
The way Chris Potter figures it he's done hundreds of hours of episodic TV on both sides of the border including seven series beginning with Material World (1990-92) and continuing through Top Cops (1990-92), Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1993-97), Silk Stalkings (1993-07), Queer As Folk (2001), Wild Card (2003-05) and now Heartland which begins its third season on CBC-TV Sunday night at 8.
Plus he's guest starred on everything from One Tree Hill (2005) and Law & Order: SVU (2004-95) to such TV flicks as Sex TRaffic (2004) and two Hallmark TV flicks The Good Witch (2008) and a sequel.
"My secret is I like to work," he laughs on the phone --when we talked he was doing preproduction on an episode of Heartland which he'll also direct.
"But I also have to work --I have four kids."
And when I ask why I didn't see him at the CBC fall TV launch he jokes "I guess I wasn't inmvited!" The CBC family drama is stressing the teenagers on the show to rachet up ratings with young femaler viewers.
"I did the Heartland pilot --I was in an extended cameo and I thought it just might fly. Adults tell me they can watch it with their teens and not fall asleep. I'm the dad this time but the role feels right and it's grown in the story."
And CBC feels so strongly about the show as a bridge to younger viewers who normally are not attracted to this networks fare that 18 episodes have been ordered this season.
Does Potter remember much about our first interview in 1990? At that time he was still living in London, Ontario, unsure about continuing his acting career, worried it wouldn't provide steady employment.
I remind him he proudly showed off his first dressing room which was the size of a cubbyhole and he says "That I remember."
Silk Stalkings was up next and shot in San Diegfo where he relocated his growing family. He thought he might stay south but an offer came to play David Carradine's son in the Toronto sequel to Kung Fu.
"It was quite a ride. I phoned him from Calgary two days before he passed --he was in Bangkok. David was a magnificent eccentric. When he died I mourned him and went to his funeral attended by 500 friends. Three ex-wives were there, grandchildren were there, we all went back to Jane Seymour's Malibu pad to pay our respects. He had hundreds of friends."
Initially Potter was signed for only six episodes of groundbreaking Queer as Folk shot in Toronto and nicely casting him as gay chiropractor.
"They asked me to stay the season which I did but I was commuting back to San Diego and the money was very poor. So I asked for more the second season and they declined so I left ."But he received his best acting notices to date and made several pilots including Astronauts (2002) that never sold.
Back in Toronto he co-starred with Joely Fisher in Wild Card. He agrees with me the first year was pretty good but a change of producers meant a dumbing down of story lines and viewer decline.
"But one of the original producers got me on Tge Young And The Restless for 12 episodes. She told me she wouldn't kill off my character (Ewan Owen) but put me into a coma. So I'm still in that coma, I guess because I never went back!"
Potter started directing on the set of Silk Stalking, says he wants to do more of it in the future.
But he'll continue acting, too. "In November I'll do the third installment of the Good Witch TV movies for Hallmark. They say they will be getting out of the TV movie making game after that because costs are so high."
But he'll also hopefully continue at least a few more years on Heartland. "The stories are still fresh, the scenery is magnificent and these kids have great energy. What's not to like about this family saga?"