Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why Did Paul Gross Do It?

Biggest mystery of the current TV season remains this burning question: Why did Paul Gross jump to U.S. TV?
I've been trying to figure that one out since I previewed the pilot of Gross's new series Eastwick. To say I was disappointed with the show would be an understatement.
On paper the ABC series must have looked great. It was a spin off from the Jack Nicholson movie hit The Witches Of Eastwick and Gross got the Nicholson part of the horny ole devil.
But something changed in the movie from screen to TV. The movie isn't that well remembered but it had a certain quotient of naughty suggestions namely the one that had Jack romancing and bedding three nubile lovelies in the shapes of Michele Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher.
But on TV it came out as a slightly stale reworking of Desperate Housewives.
Now comes the press report ABC is "declining" to order any more episodes of the show after it hits 13 hours. And fans are properly incensed.
It will leave the plot just hanging there. The TV version follows the antics of Rebecca Romijn, Lindsay Price and Jaime Ray Newman but the cast apparently heard of the cancellations in the trade papers.
Executive producer Maggie Friedman told EW "None of us can believe this is happening.We do not get a chance to wrap things up in a bow. Which is killing me."
Excuse me but other ABC series received pick up orders more than a month ago. Eastwick's ratings have been terrible to put it mildly so why the surprise?
The biggest mystery is the affable and talented Gross's decision to particip[ate in the first place. He usually has a key eye for quality material.
In recent years he has emerged as Canadian TV's "Captain Canada".
Let's pause to reconsider Gross's thriving Canadian TV career.
I first interviewed him on the set of the 1988 miniseries Chasing Rainbows along with two other unknowns Michael Riley and Julie Stewart.
Getting Married In Buffalo Jump (199) got him noticed but then he defected to Disney for the dog awful flick Aspen Extreme (1993).
Then came the CBS-CTV series Due South (1994-1999) as Constable Benton Fraser whch made him a big TV star. I once went out to the set to interview him and he was busy writing dialogue --he was that talented.
The came Canadian movie hit Men With Brooms (2002). A more ambitious recent movie Passchendaele (2008) did not get U.S. distribution which I know disturbed him.
And several hit Canadian miniseries followed: Slings And Arrows (2003-06) and Trojan Horse and sequel H20 (2008-2009).
Gross was creator, executive producer, script writer --the whole shebang. And a lot of deserved critical praise followed plus public popularity.
I've learned CBC nixed yet another sequel to H20 causing the Gross defection to the U.S.
So my point is this: If Canadian TV can't retain such a talent then maybe there is not future for home grown talent, right?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Great Canadian TV Documentary

Just when my faith in the future of Canadian TV documentaries was fading along comes the challenging hour Carbon Hunters. And surprise! It gets pride of place on CBC-TV Thursday night at 8 (repeated Friday at 10 p.m. on CBC News Network).
The very title is catchy. I kept thinking of big game hunters until I realized this prey was far more profitable.
Guess I'm behind the times but I never realized one of the biggest growth industries around involves carbon credit training --this year it's a $100 billion industry. And it was all started as we see via a news clip with a suggestion by Canada's former U.N. ambassador Maurice Strong.
From a struggling beginning the industry now involves over 200 international companies which sell carbon credits in an effort to thwart global warming.
At least that's what they claim. Critics maintain a market-driven policy is really no solution at all with polluters buying up carbon credits while continuing to pollute the atmosphere.
The visuals will keep you interested: cows in India give off tremendous amounts of methane gas which can be trapped and piped into homes as fuel.
An entrepreneur buys million of acres of Amazon rain forest and offers them to a Canadian businessman to sell as carbon credits.
And so it goes from the Alberta Tar Sands to a British funeral director to Indian peasants out in the fields. They're all buying and selling carbon credits.
But director Miro Cernetig is quick to point out the differences between going green and getting greedy.
And many supporters have been stung by the highly unregulated industry including the rock band Coldplay who urged fans to invest in tree plantings in India --but most of the trees did not survive.
And a Canadian who invested in an Air Canada plea for tree plantings visits the site where the saplings will probably not thrive.
There's lots to think about here and both sides get chances to explain their strategy. A balanced documentary doesn't have to be dull.
Carbon Hunters keeps continent skipping, showing us the losers in the game (Philippine peasants living beside a huge garbage dump) and some early winners (Vancouver entrepreneur Shawn Burns).
It's literally all over the map but still with a Canadian point of view,a feast for the eyes and with things to think about later.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Watch This Show! Please!

All the madness of the November sweeps is fast crumbling away. Now it's time for TV of the soul and brain. I mean something demonstrating how TV can still impart information even in this age of Tabloid Journalism.
And there's one to watch, a new Australian documentary with the catchy title Catching Cancer.
But does it mean you can catch cancer?
Well yes and no. Director Susan Pemberton begins in the newsroom of the Auustralian Broadcasting Corporation which ressembles a hurricame-hit zone of clutter.
Everything has been dissembled, torn apart. Over a few years 16 women in the newsroom came down with breast cancer and doctors are still trying to find a link.
Pemberton uses this dramatic event to find out whether cancer can be caused by infections. And it seems at least 20 per cent of all worldwide cancers are caused by infections or viruses. But scientists on camera muse that it could be as high as 50 per cent or even higher.
We get the opinions of several Nobel Laureates plus world experts both inside and outside Australia, and front line investigators. We visit twins, little boys who are identical except one has leukemia and the other doesn't. How did that happen?
One British scientist even uses a slot machine to factor in our probability of catching cancer --it's a lethal lottery.
We all catch infections that can trigger cancer but relatively few of us actually come down with the disease.
Unlike many talking heads shows this one is filled with images that inform and information that's understandable. In short here's TV for the brain as well as the eye.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Equalizer Is Dead

Just a quick post to note the passing of TV's The Equalizer, Edward Woodward, at 79 after a long bout of illnesses.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview him in 1988 in his trailer on Front Street for lunch. "Do you want a bran muffin or a banana?"he bellowed in mock outrage.
He'd just suffered the first of several heart attacks and doctors had put him on a healthy diet.
At the time he was experiencing a huge revival as CBS's The Equalizer (1985-89) although I first noticed him in the British series Callan (1967-92).
He was doing a two-part Hitchcock show filmed in Toronto because writer Michael Sloane had once used him in a student production --without pay.
"And now I'm getting a big pay check," he laughed.
And later Woodward temporarily moved to Toronto to co-star in episodes of Nikita (2001).
He was one of those British actors who could play any part --I remember how wonderful he was as Sir Sam Hoare in the 1981 TV series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.
And I'm not forgetting such movies as Breaker Morant; Woodward remembered one trek in the Australian desert for some scene and a man appeared from behind a bunch of bushes."He had the same name:Edward Woodward!"
The 87 episodes of The equalizer are still running somewhere. Back in Britain he starred in the series Over My Dead Body (1990-1), Common As Muck (1994-7), and C15:The New Professionals (1999) and as late as last year was popping up on The Eastenders.
He leaves second wife Michele Dotrice and several grown acting children.
And I'm missing him already.

Luke Kirby Has A News Series

My first glimpse of Luke Kirby finds the talented star of the new TV series Cra$h & Burn chain smoking outside a Mississauga high rise office complex where interior scenes are filmed.
I get it. He doesn't much enjoy interviews. Plus being the front and center attraction of a new show means lots of stress.
And the buzz in this new 13-part hour drama premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Showcase is pretty high.
"The series' creator Malcolm McRury originally pitched it for HBO in the States," reports executive producer Frank Siracusa (H20). "We (Whizbang Films) were lucky to get it and make it as a sort of first --a dramatic series set in Hamilton and actually made in Hamilton."
Kirby is perfectly cast as Jimmy Burn, a cocky yet harassed insurance investigator whose misadventures with a rogue's gallery of claimants constitute the core of the adventure.
Also cast to advantage: Leela Savasta (Battlestar Galactica) as his live-in gal pal named Lucia and Clark Johnson (Homicide) as a shrewd veteran investigator.
"We shoot mainly in Hamilton," says Siracusa (Slings And Arrows). "What a wide variety of locations, it's wonderful. Then we found this complex now empty so we've set up the set for the office and one for Jimmy's apartment. The only downside is the travel time coming in from Toronto."
On set I'm watching Kirby and Savasta mine comic gold out of a scene finding Leela trapped in a horrendous Seventies bridal frock while Kirby complete with hangdog expression is noncommital about the whole event --for his list of friends Jimmy offers only an adopted mother who might come. Talk about being a loner.
I first watched about Kirby on the set of Slings And Arrows where newly graduated from Montreal's National Theatre School was playing a movie star determined to play Shakespeare to prove he was more than a pretty face. Kirby perfectly captured the sadness and sweetness of Jack Crew who suspected peers were laughing a bit at him behind his back.
And it's a route Kirby, now 31, has plainly decided to avoid. He could be co-starring in any one of a half dozen U.S. series if he really wanted to but knows it would mark the end of his development as a serious actor.
And he also recognizes the irony of winding up back in Canada after embarking for Brooklyn and stage jobs in the U.S.
"Yeah, I was born in Hamilton. I'm back," he laughs. His American parents lived outside Guelph, used McMaster Medical Centre for the birth.
"I'm now seeing all parts of the city."
Kirby had relocated to Brooklyn but came home "because the scripts aren't a formula like most TV work. Jimmy isn't entirely the hero, he's not all nice. Stories are funny but also very dark. Who wouldn't be attracted to such scripts?"
And what about the pressures of being a TV series star?
"It means 14-hour days, I'm not really afraid of that. The stories are the attraction here. Being in the insurance game is like being in a vice. The clients need their money, the company can't pay too much or it won't make a profit. Jimmy is learning about the system. It's very real to life."
Siracusa says Canwest asked the scripts be acceptable to both cable and regular networks so a bit of toning down was done. But the opening hour uses words not normally heard on TV as well as graphic images calculated to shock.
When Kirby says "dark and edgy" he's right: one character in the first episode is about to expire from prostate cancer and keeps tinkling right on camera. Jimmy and his gal make out in a car complete with the kind of groans network TV avoids. But at the same time the quirkiness often seems hysterically funny.
People who think Kirby can only do comedy should check out his 2006 TV series Northern Town--the wry comedy was quickly buried by CBC.
Although I watched Kirby acting on Slings And Arrows I chose on that day to interview his on screen partner --Rachel McAdams whose next project (The Notebook) vaulted her into movie star status.
"I'm happy for her, it's deserving," Kirby says.
Other leading ladies have included Sarah Polley and even Lindsay Lohan --in a pretty decent TV flick from last year titled Labor Pains.
Kirby's growth as an actor has been more measured than McAdams' stardom sprint: I've spotted him in TV guest roles on Law And Order and Eleventh Hour but he's also done New York stage work.
What comes next depends on how Cra$h & Burn fares. It's the first hour drama solely commissioned by Showcase without U.S. pickup (as with Queer As Folk). An American sale would surely guarantee a second season.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Life Is A Life Saver

Just when I was getting depressed about the terrible state of today's TV along comes something as magnificent as BBC-TV's new 10-part series about animal behavior.
Titled simply Life, it stars who else but Sir David Attenborough. Parts 1 and 2 are on Discovery and Discovery HD Sunday night at 8 and constitute must-see television.
I've enjoyed chatting up Sir David for decades both on the phone and in person and he's always remarkably enthusiastic about the next project.
At a time when TV networks are cutting back or regressing to sleazy reality shows it's a pleasure to report Life fully lives up to all expectations.
The photography is simply stunning. The whole thing took four years or 3,000 days of filming to film and edit. This time Sir David narrates but does not pop up in every other shot --after all he now is 83 years young.
Life is the title but there's an awful lot of death included. In one early scene in the segment titled Challenges Of Life we look on as tiny penguins make their first underwater foray not knowing killer whales are lurking for a feast.
And we see the whales attack and kill one penguin who gets savagely ripped to death.
In another scene we see dolphins cooperating together to round up a school of fish by muddying the waters and creating such panic the fish seem to fly right into the dolphins' mouths.
We also see three cheetas hunting as one and able to bring down and kill a sturdy ostrich --alone that task would be impossible.
But we also witness stories of survival: capuchin monkeys learning to use tools to smash open thick palm nuts --the young take years to learn how stones can be used as hammers.
And we see a chameleon trapping a preying mantis by shooting out its tongue which can actually hold its prey.
The second hour is just as exciting --a salute to reptiles and amphibians from poisonous sea snakes to maternal African bull frogs building water channels to protect its young.
I remember once telling Sir Davis that Canadian TV had just reached 100 channels and listening to his thunderous laughter. I wonder what he might think now that we have reached something like 959 cable channels?
The result of all this competition is most conventional networks no longer have the viewership or resources to support such a momentous series as Life.
And in the old days Sir David was on TVOntario and PBS whereas these days he has migrated to Discovery ias his Canadian TV "home".
Once we talked about his reticence to ever stage scenes such as was done regularly on that old series Wild Kingdom.
So I'm simply assuming nothing in Life was staged which must have meant hundreds of lost hours for all the photographers simply waiting to get the requisite shots.
The tales here are told from the perspective of the animals concerned which makes for a different dimension. There are indelible images in every hour and the theme is always the same: simply survival.
The third hour on Thurs. Nov. 19 at 8 looks at "Mammals" with another immediately following on "Fish".
Future episodes include "Birds" (Thurs. Nov. 26) to be immediately followed by "Insects" (Nov. 26).
On Thurs. Dec. 3 starting at 8 it's "Hunters and Hunted" followed by "Creatures Of The Deep".
On Thurs. Dec. 10 there are two episodes on "Plants".
In one area Attenborough was criticized --until recently he avoided stories about pollution and ecological disaster but now he appartently sees the error of his ways.
But back to Life: I've never seen such magnificent photography and the commentary by Attenborough is filled with facts and observations. I hope he's not done yet. But what else is there left to document?
MY RATING: *****.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Does TV News Have A Future?

The news these days is all about the shaky status of network TV news.
On Wednesday CNN lost its last original anchor in feisty Lou Dobbs who started out as a respected host of a business series that morphed into the network's sole right wing take on the day's news.
Dobbs and CNN suits had been sparring since summer when he incessantly questioned President Obama's status to be U.S. leader --it was all about that missing Hawaiian birth certificate.
It's strange but silver haired Anderson Cooper failed to mention Dobbs' decision to instantly quit. However industry insiders are guessing Lou has a future either at Fox News or MSNBC.
Cooper is hardly hot at this moment. As support for Obama droops Cooper's liberal stance has seen viewers deserting him in droves. In the all important 18-54 age group he's now listed as fourth in cable network news --he's even behind Nancy Grace repeats on CNN's sister station Headline News.
Over at CBC's National there's been another format change.
And? Well I still don't like the format which is hardly innovative. After all Peter Jennings became the first Canadian anchor way back in 1962 when he stood as that network's first anchor.
Mansbridge has been around forever and really knows CBC's internal affairs. He'd been fighting a robust rear guard action ever since respected news head Tony Burman was packed off. Burman did much to make CBC News a distinguished entity.
But that was before U.S. consultants were let loose and what has emerged is a melange that often resembles the Game Show network --all glitz and very little substance.
When CBC News was originally moved to 10 p.m. more than 25 years ago I was dubious.
At 11 p.m. CBC News frequently overtook CTV's more stylist telecast starring CBC refugee Lloyd Robertson.
The movement to 10 was to accommodate the fledgling Journal which never really captured the hearts and minds of viewers.
And let's not forget there even was a temporary move to 9 p.m. which was initiated by then CBC head programmer Yvan Fecan now head honcho at CTVglobemedia.
At 10 CBC is up against all those top rated U.S. procedurals which give a huge audience lead in to CTV's Robertson at 11.
TV critic Bill Brioux is the ratings sage these days and he's reporting on Monday Global news at 5:30 with Kevin Newman notched a terrific 1.16 million viewers while CTV at 11 had 1.38 million and CBC at 10 a still respectable 545,000. And that's about all CBC can hope to get at TV's most competitive prime time hour.
CBC lost some terrific reporters for economic reasons in the past few years and all the cosmetic wizardry can't cover that up. More money is needed out in the field with less spent inside the studio which looks like a disco lounge.
And Peter Mansbridge could sit down if he really wants. Standing or sitting he's a mellow, articulate anchor.
And one final point:all three Canadian anchors are seasoned white guys while American TV's three anchors will soon include CBS's Katie Couric and ABC's Diane Sawyer. The times they are a-changin' but I'm still not sure if it's for the better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Explaining NBC'S Fall

I didn't realize all the ramifications of NBC's botched attempt to shore up its prime time lineup until I read the enthralling article "Will Somebody Please Save NBC?"
It's in the Nov. 8 issue of New York magazine available online at and is by Mark Harris.
It's Harris's thesis that the failure of Jay Leno at 10 p.m. caused an irreversible ripple effect over the whole NBC schedule.
For one thing NBC affiliates run their late local news at 11 and most stations report declining ratings with the weak Leno lead in.
Then there's the damage the artistic community of L.A. currently feels. When a producer as important as John Wells (ER) sees his latest and lauded series Southland get the boot even before a single second season episode has run, well, he gets publicly ticked off about it.
And there's the question of NBC's impending sale. What other entity would want a huge, old fashioned network that is plainly breaks down every weeknight at 10 p.m. Ever since its inception NBC has been number One or Two in the ratings while these days it only has one series in the Top 10.
And although Harris doesn't directly say this one has to wonder about the hierarchy who let Medium slip away to CBS only to see it record big gains --and on a Friday of all places.
But it all goes back to Leno. I think he's worse than he ever was at 11:30. Everything about the nightly talkfest seems recycled. And it can't help that CBS and ABC are forbiding their stars to appear on the show.
Just this week Leno mused out loud he wouldn't mind going back to 11:30. Excuse me but didn't NBC want to become hip with a younger audience by promoting Conan O'Brien.
I think Conan seems mighty uncomfortable since his move from New York to Burbank. For one thing he has to welcome Leno's rejects, guests deemed too insignificant to flog their products in prime time at 10.
It's all a big mess. And, yes, it does impact on Canadian TV because Canadian private networks use American fodder to fill up on during the prime time hours. With Leno at NBC that's five hours a week less of edgy prime time dramatic series to pick from.
There seems to be a growing consensus that NBC will let Leno last through this season but switch back to dramas in the fall of 2010 and plop Leno back at 11:30. Fine but what does that do to Conan I ask you.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


How's the season faring so far? Glad you
1. The Mentalist continues climbing in the ratings to the point it has finally overtaken ABC's Private Practice --a weak show that would flounder without its Grey's Anatomy lead-in. But an hour earlier the venerable CSI's ratings are drooping --the continued absence of former star Bill Peterson really hurts. So don't be surprised if CBS flip flops both series before the New Year. CSI after all really is a 10 p.m. series. So what will CTV do? It runs Grey's Anatomy at 9, the Mentalist at 10.
2. CBS has cut way back on its seasonal order for Number$. The perennial Friday night series is in its sixth season and viewers have really been bailing out this year which could be its last. On tap is the CTV co-production Flashpoint which continues to run up here and has delivered before for CBS. Plus it's relatively cheaply made. as for Number$ that's it --syndication sales are already reported as strong.
3. Wondering why USA Network (not seen here) snapped up syndication rights for the new NCIS:LA so quickly? It won't even be available until 2012. Well, the top six shows on USA last week were all NCIS reruns, that's why. It means the series will be quickly sold in syndication up here, too, I fearlessly predict. And for a similar reason TNT has snapped up The Mentalist.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In Search Of Hockey Canadiana

The courier was banging and banging on my door with a rushed DVD. And I'm glad I answered because it turns out to be one of the best history lessons Canadian TV has turned out this year.
Because Hunting The Last Hamilton Tiger is about more than searching for the last sweater of the famed Hamilton Tiogers hockey team.
The hour long documentary uses that premise as the focal point for a look backward at what a progressive city Hamilton was in the 1920's and contrast this with the city's present dire state.
It's also a look at the NHL during an era when players were paid a pittance. One old hockey jersey is displayed for the camera complete with dried seams of blood. Players battered and bruised each other using heavy sticks to maim the opposition and played on ice filled with cracks and crevices.
The film follows one obsessed collector, Hamilton investment executive Russ Boychuk on his seemingly never ending quest to find the golden grail of hockey memorabilia --the missing last sweater of the only NHL team to play in Hamilton.
If Boychuk ever had found the sweater --and it's apparently still out there somewhere --then the story would end, the quest would be over and we'd lose an expertly told story of how Hamilton and NHL hockey got from there to here.
Of course it helps to have known that Hamiltonians never quite recovered from losing the coveted franchise to Americans way back in 1925. In a way they've been trying to wrestlecontrol of another franchise ever since and almost succeeded in getting the beleagured Phioenix franchise to relocate this year.
Back in 1925 Hamilton was prosperous, thriving, with an increasing population and an NHL team that went all the way to the playoffs. Then the players went on strike for more money and team owner Perc Thompson everything to a New York businessman who rechristened the team the New York Americans.
I know all about that deal. In 1971 as a fresh faced journalism graduate I arrived at The Spectator as the 24-year old TV critic. Everywhere I went I heard about the legendary Tigers. One aged resident remembered how citizens would pelt Thompson with rotten fruit whenever they saw him on the street.
The 1925 still photographs at the top of the hour show a city that looked much the same in 1971: the Right House department store was still there, the movie palaces, the Palace and Capitol were still standing.
Cameras follow Boychuk on his never ending quest --he finds a Hamilton dealer who claims he sold the elusive woolen jersey in the early 1990s.
But this becomes more than an hour about a sweater. It's about the mindset of collectors. Back then who could have figured a sweaty, woolen jersey would one day be worth upwards of $100,000?
A lot of famous sports guys have their say and we even visit with "The Sweater Detective", a guy who can buys and sells historical hockey sweaters for six figures.
The sweater stuff fascinates but this is also a glimpse of recent Canadian history and why so much Canadiana including a prized hockey franchise got gobbled up by wealthier Americans.
Or am I over reacting because I once lived in Hamilton?
And here's my conflict of interest note: director-executive producer David Wesley once succeeded me as The Spec's TV critic although I haven't seen him in years.
He's produced an instant classic of Canadiana that should have a long shelf life on Canadian Sports channels I believe.
I really don't want that Tiger sweater to ever be found. I much prefer the excitement of the chase and the hunt to any happy ending.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.