Thursday, December 30, 2010

Try Canadian Comics On New Year's Eve

CBC has a three hour laugh marathon scheduled for New Year's Eve: Just For Laughs at 7 p.m. followed by RCAF at 8 and Ron James at 9.
James is revving up his fifth straight New Year's Eve hour and I can say it is the one to watch because it's the only one I've previewed.
First up I'm noticing how much better he seems in the hour format (which after all is only 46 minutes). His show has been up and down in the ratings all year and that's because Fridays is the least watched night for TV fans.
But the show this season has truly improved in content. The monologues are more focused, the sketches sharper. And maybe I'm thinking James deserves a weekly hour next season?
James' guests are Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies, Kim Mitchell and Scott Thompson from Kids In The Hall.
What else is on tonight?
Glad you asked. I'd pick the wonderfully talented Tracy Morgan whose Black And Blue special is on HBO Canada at 12:40 a.m. following Bette Midler's Las Vegas shtick called The Showgirl Must Go On at 9 p.m.
Sketches that work include Aunt Vivien getting her New Year's message to the queen, The Newfie Vampire, Buddy, searching for the gal who lit his flame a mere 118 New Year's ago and Larry Garibaldi going up against a shopper who wants all foreigners shipped home.
Canadian Content fans will be glued to the Corner Gas marathon going all night on the Comedy Network. Unfortunately, Brett Butt's next sitcom effort will never make it to marathon status --it plays not as comedy but as an irritant.
Turner Classic Movies retorts with a night of the Marx Brothers at 8 p.m. The guys were really funny when there were four of them but even side splitting during their MGM tenure.
Which means I'll watch early for Animal Crackers at 8, Monkey Business at 9:45, Horse Feathers at 11:15, Duck Soup at 12:30. But just one question: What about The Coconuts (1929)? Or The Big Store (1941)?
Look, I'm not being crazy but there even is going to be a Three Stooges marathon if you're lucky enough to get the Boston superstation WSBK.
House Hunters runs until the wee hours on HGVT --it's a fav of mine.
Space has a bunch of Star Trek flickers but I'd rather watch the old Star Trek TV episodes wouldn't you?
A&E counters with a night of reruns of Criminal Minds.
At 9 PBS offers us staid quality with The Nutcracker and the New York Philharmonic.
Global has ET Canada's New Year's Eve with Barenaked Ladies and Great Big Sea.
Now we get to the witching hour of midnight. For Torontonians that can only mean the Citytv Bash with a live concert starring Shawn Desman, Danny Fernandes, Those Kids wear Crows and Divine Brown and Blake McGrath.
Dick Clark no less will be around for Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' but Ryan Seacrest will front it from Times Square starting at 10 p.m.
New Year's Eve With Carson Daly on NBC has U2's Bono and The Edge in Times Square plus Spider-Man survivors from that ill fated Broadway smash-up.
CNN retorts with New Year's Eve with a decidedly Odd Couple Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin who are together again for the second time and naturally coming from guess which square in New York city.
Or take my other suggestion. Read a good old fashioned book. You know --with actual pages. Currently I'm reading Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming, a look at the old statesman who got turfed out of office in 1945 only to rise again as the western world's elder statesman.-30-

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Who Really Deserves A DVD Collection?

So here I am in one of the downtown Toronto DVD outlets.
And I'm trying to discover what big stars get DVD Collections and what ones do not.
"Do you have a Robert Taylor Collection?" I ask hopefully.
"Sorry. He made most of his movies for MGM and while some single titles of Taylor's like Ivanhoe are out most haven't made it as yet to DVD," responds the clerk.
Susan Hayward?
Charlton Heston?"
Irene Dunne?
"Well she made movies for almost every studio so getting together her best titles would be impossible. Individual Dunne titles like Roberta are out."
But I persevered. "But Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle had a collection. So does Don Knotts. So does Bela Lugosi. And Boris Karloff. "
But some of the biggest movie stars around just aren't there: Jean Arthur, Loretta Young, Rosalind Russell, Ronald Colman,Robert Donat are missing in action.
Ditto a whole gaggle of British stars like Anna Neagle, Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, George Formby.
Some are represented by British collections not for sale in Canada except by special order.
Claudette Colbert's is now out but many titles are ones which I already bought on VHS (you remember VHS don't you).
Cary Grant deservedly has two collections out: the RKO and Warners titles on WB Video (including Destination Tokyo, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) and The Bachelor And The Bobby Soxer).
And Grant's Columbia work is collected by Columbia DVD including such titles as The Awful Truth, Holiday, His Girl Friday and Talk Of The Town.
Fox has a lush Tyrone Power Collection but other Fox stars like Dana Andrews and GeneTierney just aren't there although I'm hearing Fox's greatest ever female star (yes it's Janet Gaynor) may be saluted soon.
I told one clerk it seems to me collections are getting smaller and more select.
For example The Rita Hayworth Collection just out is restricted to four titles.
And Busby Berkeley's new WB collection is just four titles whereas the WB collection of Berkeley just a few years back had seven titles.
Ditto Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who also have a four-film set out from MGM.
Fox is repackaging films already out into four-film collections. The one I'm watching now includes Leave Her To Heaven and The Sun Also Rises.
Well, that's because DVD buying is seriously down --people think they can tape anything off Turner Classic Movies or AMC.
So the prices of these four film collections hovers around the more affordable $19.99.
In fact I can now relate the downtown DVD outlets seldom seem very busy any more --Towers has already vacated its prime Queen at Yonge location.
In desperation the WB Archive which includes Warners, MGM and RKO titles has started selling directly to customers with many rare or obscure titles that probably would never make it to store shelves.
They're not available directly to Canadians --I had to order some through an American friend.
But call up and you can order this way. The titles include The Douglas Sirk Collection , the three-movie collection saluting a great team, Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert.
And there's a three-film collection of early Cary Grant Paramount titles: The Last Outpost, The Devil And The Deep and The Eagle And The Hawk.
The Warner Archive Collection is even more impressive. Titles include Plymouth Adventure (1952), Susan Slept Here (1954), Joan Blondell as Blondie Johnson (1933), From Headquarters (1933), Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady In Red (1935), Paul Muni in Black Fury (1935).
In fact there are so many Barbara Stanwyck titles you could make up your own collection including The Man With The Cloak (1951), B.F.'s Daughter (1948), Cry Wolf (1947), The Secret Bride (1934.
Also well represented in the WB Archives: Joan Blondell, Kay Francis plus from MGM Lana Turner and Robert Young.
So go for it.,

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas And Gene Lockhart

Christmas time on TV must mean one thing --it's Canadian actor Gene Lockhart's yearly chance to shine.
I was thinking of this remarkable character star only last night as I watched for the umpteenth time 1947's Miracle On 34th Street.
That was the black and white comedy that won Edmund Gwenn his sole supporting Oscar and he deserved it --he's most convincing as Kris Kringle.
Forget the dreary TV remake of 1973 that featured Sebastian Cabot as Kris. And don't bother with the terrible widescreen remake with the usually reliable Richard Attenborough.
Born in London, Ontario in 1891 Lockhart was only 56 when he made Miracle in 1947 although he looked at least a dozen years older.
The year 1947 was a busy one for Lockhart --he also made Her Husband's Affairs, The Foxes Of Harrow, Cynthia, Honeymoon and The Shocking Miss Pilgrim all in the same year.
Seventh billed as the seemingly stern Judge Henry X. Harper, Lockhart shares wonderful scenes with Bill Frawley (later on I Love Lucy) as he convincingly portrays the judge who keeps getting reminded he's up for reelection.
In fact this one is chock full of scene stealing veterans: Porter Hall, Jerome Cowan, and in uncredited bits such talents as Jack Albertson, Jeff Corey, Mae Marsh and even Thelma Ritter in a great movie debut.
Then I caught the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. Granted it's not quite up to the standards of the Alastair sim British edition. But it still tops TV's multiple remakes.
This lush MGM version was supposed to star Lionel Barrymore who'd spend every Christmas Eve reading the story live on radio.
But Barrymore was ill so Reginald Owen was deputized and fares right well.
The talented cast also includes Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim, another Canadian Ann Rutherford as the Spirit of Christmas Past, Leo G. Carroll as Marley's Ghost and Lynne Carver as Bess.
And to add to my delight Gene's wife Kathleen appears as Mrs, Crachit and daughter June Lockhart is around, too, as Belinda Crachit.
Wait! I'm not through with Gene and Christmas.
Saving the most popular of the holiday films for last I must cite Going My Way (1944) starring Bing Crosby in his Oscared performance.
And right in there's Lockhart steady and assured cast as the money man Ted Haines Sr. It may be a small part but Lockhart was no small actor, he gives the role his all.
Other Gene Lockhart performances I admire were in Abe Lincoln In Illinois (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Meet John Doe (1941) and Joan Of Arc (1948).
Heck I even sat through Bedtime For Bonzo (1952) just to catch a Lockhart performance.
But I sincerely believe Christmas on TV belongs to Gene Lockhart, one of three gifted actors to emerge from London, Ontario, around the same time.
The others were Alexander Knox and Hume Cronyn.
And I enjoyed talking about her father the sole time I met up with June Lockhart in Los Angeles. And if you want to know more about June and her famous papa then simple google that great movie magazine Classic Images for the current edition.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

So Why The Golden Globes?

There was a time not so many years ago when nobody cared to notice the Golden Globe Awards.
When I was TV Critic at The Hamilton Spectator in the 1970s I never wrote about such shenanigans.
No network bothered to carry the awards --instead an independent network of peripheral stations like Hamilton's CHCH bicycled one lowly tape of the ceremonies from station to station and CHCH would run it Sunday nights around midnight weeks later.
My, how times have changed. And all for the worse.
I blame everything on all those ersatz entertainment shows which are packaged as a screaming stew of sleazy headlines and not much else.
And all of a sudden the Golden Globes are being noticed.
This year both The Toronto Star and The Globe And Mail got into the act although The Star was careful to note the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is comprised of just 90 "journalists".
I met one the last time I was in L.A. He was my taxi driver. Another time a waitress told me she was a member but I'm not sure I trusted her.
This season the Golden Globes have chosen to include among the nominees two films which have bombed with critics and audiences.
First up there's Cher's musical stinker Burlesque which is up for best picture (Musical).
And also nominated for best picture (comedy) is that dud The Tourist.
Golden Globe judges were apparently flown to Vegas for a freebie that included interviews with the film's star, the enduring Cher.Now this isn't the first time the Golden Globes have been under intense critical scrutiny.
Would you believe that the one and only Pia Zadora once got a statutette as best newcomer?
So why does NBC insist on telecasting such trash? Because by forking over $6 million for the TV rights NBC can rake in as much as $25 million in advertising revenues, that's why.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bad Ratings Killed Off CNN's Larry King

Anemic ratings are the real cause CNN's Larry King bid a teary adieu to his TV audience Thursday night after an incredible reign of 25 years.
And once again the TV universe is changing.
It certainly changed when Johnny Carson signed off on the Tonight Show in 1992. Sure there still are late night talk shows --in fact there are more of them than ever. But with the ratings divided among so many contenders it just isn't the same.
And King is getting displaced by a younger guy in the person of British import Piers Morgan and however well he does it can never be the same.
Last night's farewell was stacked with big names and why not? Larry made all his friends look good.
In my one encounter with him on a TV critics tour sometime in the late 1980s, he visited the Universal Hilton hotel and mused on what made him such a surefire TV talk show host.
Oh, he said all the usual things --don't ask long questions, never interrupt the guest, don't be confrontational.
But he also admitted he never studied notes in preparation for an interview. He'd just wing it.
And that was the key --he became one of us. He wasn't trying to be smarty pants like Anderson Cooper. He never hogged the spotlight. Decades of training in talk radio had taught him how to effortlessly pace a show.
And really all he ever was was a radio talk show who had wandered onto a TV set.
Hey, it worked for decades until the competition started horning in and over the last year King's ratings have shriveled disastrously.
During the famous 1983 debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot King attracted 23 million viewers. I'd guess he got his biggest ever ratings during the 1986 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
In the last few months he was down to about 700,000 viewers a night.
Still for the last show he managed to snag Presidents Obama and Clinton and the three 6 p.m. anchors (Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams and Ryan Seacrest.
Ironically, Couric was King's own personal choice as his replacement. plus California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger plus Barbara Walters and both Bill Maher
As usual King was completely unprepared and it sometimes showed.
Indeed in recent years there were signs he might be losing it. Like his recent interview with tax evader Wesley Snipes who never did get a chance to detail what he did that merits jail time.
Years ago the cast of the Toronto-made Queer As Folk went live on Larry and several of them later told me he didn't seem aware of what the show was about.
Other talk show rivals are more than eager to bare their fangs and remember Larry set up shop well before those obnoxious entertainment series which follow minor Hollywood celebrities all over town and eagerly dish the dirty on anyone without even checking facts.
King's bizarre marital difficulties --he's been married eight times to seven different women--may have prompted CNN to start searching for a replacement.
But I'm not convinced the very British Morgan is that guy. Look at how poorly former New York governor Elliot Spitzer is faring in the CNN series right before King. Both Morgan and Spitzer lack that all essential common touch.
Larry King always had it and he'll take that quality to his new CNN assignment as host of specials and good luck to him.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TV's Fascination With Mordecai Richler

Mordecai Richler was made for television.
The arguably greatest Canadian writer of his generation, his rumpled nastiness could really shake up any TV program he was on. He challenged every assumption, took no prisoners and TV helped him sell thousands of his books.
Now TV repays the favor with an incisive and surprisingly affectionate portrait of the late, great novelist titled fittingly Moredcai Richler: The Last Of The Wild Jews.
The premiere is on Bravo! Sunday Dec. 19 at 8 and is especially welcome in this festive season of perennial TV reruns.
Veteran Quebec filmmaker Francine Pelletier (whom I once interviewed on the fifth estate set) really captures the essence of Richler's personality by firmly placing him in the context of his volatile upbringing in Quebec in the Thirties and Forties.
Pelletier and Charles Foran co-wrote the script which jams in a whole lot of information in its hour format.
Context is everything here as Pelletier sees Richler (1931-2001) as part of a Canadian branch of strong North American Jewish writers who flourished after World War II and included Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer (and on stage Lenny Bruce).
She has really combed the archives to come up with some essential old black and white TV documentaries made when Richler was beginning to be famous in England where he wrote screenplays for a time.
And these clips while interesting are the jumping off point for a discussion of the real Richler who in private was a devoted husband and father. The most intensely personal revelations come from his devoted wife Florence who had to endure his often painful silences.
She provides the key to his personality by saying he stopped smiling when he was a young boy.
Also interviewed: Margaret Atwood, Adam Gopnik, and fellow Canadian Ted Kotcheff who directed the fine version of Richler's classic novel The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz. Montreal cartoonist Terry Mosher tells how often he gleefully used Richler's bulking presence in playful newspaper illustrations far more than the big politicians of the day. However, there's nothing from his sons --maybe they are busy making their own tribute?
All the archival stuff is fun but the biggest bang comes when Richler revisited his old high school Baron Byng in 1980 for a reunion and viciously attacks the quality of the entertainment. Then he goes back to his chair and continues drinking.
Where Pelletier falters, I think, is in misjudging Richler's reaction to the Quebec separatist movement. He clearly saw racist elements present and wrote about it in the New Yorker which became the book O Canada! O Quebec!. The way he skewered Quebec's often absurdist language laws surely mortified nationalists who howled in outrage. But he had seen through their pretensions.
Maybe he over-reacted but he had a right to be concerned because of the way Montreal's Jewish community had historically been treated under premier Maurice Duplessis.
Richler convincingly argued that he was just as Quebecois as anybody else although he was Jewish and wrote in English and he had a point.
Is it a coincidence that this flavorsome biography is going to air just days before the new movie of Barney's Version comes out.
Richler mostly used his TV appearances to sell his books. So I'm hoping this profile gets more younger Canadians interested in his novels. Watch this hour and you'll certainly want to read Foran's recent biography Mordecai: The Life And Times.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Blowout: Canadian TV At Its Best

The new Canadian TV documentary Blowout is about as good as Canadian TV gets.
It's the kind of challenging, in-your-face news treatment that fully justifies the continuing existence of public broadcasting.
The hourlong account of oil blowouts and the impact on the environment is subtitled Is Canada Next?
Producer-director Nadine Pequeneza says the team at Up Front Productions originally thought of a follow up study of the gigantic spill in the Gulf of Mexico but "American channels including National Geographic were already doing that."
That spill on April 5, 2010, unleased five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico
CBC bought the concept by adding an insistence the inquiry be expanded to include possible Canadian disaster sites.
And the one many scientists say is an accident waiting to happen is the drilling off the coast of Newfoundland in water far deeper than the coast of Louisiana.
Located 430 kms from shore, Chevron's well is twice as deep as BP's Deepwater Horizon well and six times further out to sea.
"We got no cooperation from oil executives," Pequeneza says, "and that was expected." Other employees had to sign confidentiality agreements."
But there is a startling clip of Prime Minister Harper saying nothing like that can be permitted here. Ordinary fisherman are filmed saying their objections don't seem to matter.
The look at the cleanup of the oil operations in Louisiana is the most concise I've yet seen. Marine biologists say the oil simply did not disappear --it's still out there. An oyster fisherman trolls along a favored bed and comes up with a cloth filled with oil stains. Another says he wouldn't dare sell fish from this region for fear somebody might get sick.
The underwater plumes so prominent in the first days of the spill are still out there, maintains one environmentalist, but it takes longer to find them as they've drifted out of the main area.
Pequenza also used animation to show how deep water drilling works. "The pressure is tremendous and what's called mud is being transferred into the hole to prevent blowouts. They call it mud but it's really a mixture of chemicals."
Fisherman say the squalls in the region off Newfoundland are something fierce and in the event of some disaster it would take up to 11 days to even reach a distant spill.
One official remembers the Ocean Ranger disaster where an oil rig was toppled in near hurrican weather costing 24 lives to be lost.
The point is made that both fishing and tourism would suffer in a catastrophic situation. The ability of fish to reproduce on the Grand Banks would imperil fishing industry. Plus marine birds could not be cleaned off after a spill for the photographers and returned to their habitat --they'd swiftly die in the subArctic climate.
Blowout is scarier than any horror movie I've recently seen. And it's all true as Pequeneza builds a solid case for more safeguards before drilling presents us with a made-in-Canada nightmare scenario.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mark Daley Will Be Missed

Certain anchors in Southern Ontario were at it so long they acquired iconic status.
Mark Dailey was one of those instantly recognizable faces and he was only 57.
He died yesterday at the Sunnybrook hospital from kidney cancer and I miss him already.
His whole career as anchor was spent at Citytv and boy did he witness a lot of changes.
I started covering TV in 1970 so I had almost a decade on him as I'd tease him whenever we met --he didn't hit Citytv until 1979.
The station back in those days was Toronto's first independent channel and it instantly challenged the old 10-channel universe I'd been covering in the 1970s.
When Mark joined Brian Linehan was the big daily star with his City Lights show biz stuff. And Morton Shulman had a weekly investigative series second to none.
The fledgling station was run by former whiz kid Moses Znaimer and the brains behind the whole operation was Phyllis Switzer.
Citytv was lively, irreverent and totally muse-see. Its signal was initially so low I didn't list it in the Hamilton Spectator's TV Times because nobody got it.
But I heard some Hamiltonians actually drove into Toronto Friday nights to catch the Baby Blue movies. Sweet City Woman was another one-of-a-kind City show. And in the afternoons Gene Taylor introduced old movies so bad Elwy Yost would have nothing to do with them.
Mark was an importantpart of that mix. That's his impressive baritone announcing you are watching Citytv.
In turn he became an assignment editor, crime specialist and respected news anchor (along with Gord Martineau).
He deservedly got all kinds of awards. But I remember the guy who's pass me the latest info on what was happening behind the scenes at Citytv.
Once I bumped into him in Eaton Center about 8 at night. He took me behind a pillar to recount the latest then blurted out "Holy cow, I've got a newscast in less than an hour and ran down the aidsle."
His loyalty to the station and what it stood for was impeccable.
To many longtime viewers he was Citytv.
And so a lot of loyal fans will miss him, that's for sure.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Aaron Spelling's Hotel: Some Memories

I found a used DVD copy of the first season of Aaron Spelling's series Hotel in one of those store bins and gladly paid the $4.99 price for the chance to re-see this "gem".
Maybe it's because I was on the set of the show several times that I'm nostagic about this one. It doesn't seem to enjoy the same concerted fan base as the others.
I remember a long cocktail party where the great Bette Davis held court for the press.
I'd interviewed her several times before so she instantly spotted me and shouted "Canada! Get over here!"
But she didn't look at all well, one hand shaked visibly and she started nodding off. I suspected something very serious was wrong with her.
A few weeks later after the party she booked into a Boston hospital to have a double mastectomy followed days later by a serious stroke. And that meant she had to borrow out of her series commitment. It would have marked her series debut but she was simply too frail for sustained work.
Her replacement was Anne Baxter! Surprise! Once again Margo Channing would be replaced by Eve Harrington --just like in their great movie together All About Eve (1950).
Davis had played a character named Laura Trent who ran the prestigious St. Gregory hotel. And Baxter was her cousin named Victoria Cabot. Zimbalist was yet another cousin Charles Cabot.
The Davis pilot had run at the end of the 1982-83 season as a TV movie that included stars James Brolin, Connie Sellecca and such co-stars as Michael Spound and Heidi Bohay (they later married in real life), Shari Belafonte-Harper, and Shea Harper.
"Bette was volatile," Brolin once told me. "Very hard to act with. Then Anne came in and it was 'Champagne for all' after every good take. We truly loved her."
And thentragedy struck on a New York street in 1985 when Baxter suddenly keeled over and died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 62.
In turn she was replaced by Efrem Zimbalist who lasted with the show until its demise in August, 1986.
I remember at one of our interviews Brolin had wanted the series to be a bit more hard hitting. But this was not executive producer Aaron Spelling's style --after all his other series included Love Boat and Charlie's Angrls.
By the way the real hotel that served as the model was the ultra posh Fairmont hotel at Nob Hill. But all exteriors were filmed on Spelling sound stages in L.A.
Watching the series again, I'm aware of small virtues. Spelling liked to cast TV veterans and Jane Wyatt gets a juicy role early on and one episode is all about a romance between Victoria and the man she met in the Second World War --played in dashing fashion by Stewart Granger.
I still haven't gotten to the most famous episode --when Liz Taylor and Roddy McDowall checked in for an episode.
And not everybody was a Spelling fan: Alexis Smith once told me she turned Spelling down when he offered her an episode based on the shooting of Lana Turner's lover by her teenaged daughter.
Nobody on this series went on to better things. The last time I interviewed Brolin he was peddling his latest TV movie appearance. Farrell now works behind the scenes as a producer. I spotted Heidi Bohay on an infocommercial with Victoria Proncipal.
And I seriously doubt Hotel would make to a network berth these days: it's too staid, slow moving and deliberately non-confrontational.
But it was certainly worth the $4.99 I paid for Season One.

Robert Hurst Remade CTV News

Robert Hurst's decision to step down after some 38 years at CTV News simply means the CTV universe is unfolding as expected.
I always enjoyed my pep talks with Hurst who took over the helm of CTV News at a difficult time.
the chosen heir, Kirk Lapointe, hadn't worked out at all and morale was seeping away.
Hurst was well known for all his jobs at CTV and took over as CTV News President and redefined the operation in ten hectic but successful years.
I remember one call when I disagreed with Hurt's call to move the flagship current aiirs show to Saturdays at 7 p.m. from its traditional Sundays at 10 p.m. slot.
I told Hurst he was fiddling with a name brand and he disagreed with me.
And he was right. W5 got better ratings than it would have Sunday nights against top rated U.S. dramas like Brothers And Sisters.
As far as the late news with Lloyd Robertson Hurst has to be more than satisfied with the high ratings at 11 which consistently beat out CBC's National at 10.
And in 2011 Robertson will step aside for new anchor Lisa LaFlamme chosen over the veteran CTV newsreader Tom Clark who exited the network after that surprise decision was announced. My CTV sources say Hurst was a key player in the decision to go for LaFlamme.
But big changes are coming down the pike for CTV.
Network news everywhere is under the gun as the tabloids cable casts make significant dents in viewership.
And at CTV there's going to be an executive change at the trop: Ivan Fecan is resigning to be replaced by Bell executive Kevin Crull once an ownership switch at CTV receives CRTC approval.
I always liked Hurst and he always returned my calls promptly when I had questions.
And his commitment to CTV was total --he started on Canada AM in 1973 and became CFTO news director in 1976 and later reported for CTV from both Beijing and Moscow.
He'll be missed at CTV and with all that hands on experience very tough to replace.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Remembering Leslie Nielsen

So there I was chatting up Canadian comedy legend Leslie Nielsen just a few short years ago when he was filming a stint as host of a CBC salute to Canadian comedy legends.'
He remembered the first time I interviewed him in the early Seventies he was a dead serious actor.
"Airplane changed all that," he chuckled. "Nobody takes me seriously any more."
"No, Les," I interjected. "One line turned you into a class funnymam."
The line?
In 1980's Airplane Nielsen wonderfully cast as Dr. Rumack was told "Surely, you can't be serious."
And he retorts: "I am serious and don't call me Shirley."
Nielsen died from effects of pneumonia in Florida at the age of 84.
Credits indicate he was still working with one completed movie Stonerville ready for release and another The Waterman Movie in production.
Way back in the Seventies he was one of the staples of American TV. He mentioned a recent gig as Barbara Stanwyck's lover in the 1973 TV flick The Letter. And he'd costarred during the 1970 season as John Bracken in the series Bracken's World.
Born in Regina, he'd lived in the Northwest with his RCMP constable father and a mother who often had to look after three obstreperous young boys. The senior lad grew up to be Conservative cabinet minister Erik Nielsen.
Nielsen had originally studied acting and TV announcing at Lorne Greene's Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto but in 1950 aged 26 decided to venture to New York where he worked constantly in the pioneering medium of live TV.
"We'd open and close in a production the same night, it was the greatest experience possible fpr a young guy."
In 1956 he'd been signed by MGM to a star contract and made his debut opposite Glenn Ford in Ransom. But his second feature Forbidden Planet was a wild success as was 1957's Tammy And the Bachelor opposite Debbie Reynolds.
"That was it, MGM was quietly going to seed. I stayed in L.A. to do filmed television and I always worked. Occaasionally I'd come back home for a CBC TV production like Death Of A Salesman because I've always remained a proud Canadian."
Nielsen made multiple appearances on The Fugitive, Wagon Train, The Defenders, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Peyton Place.
"It's easier to list the few series I never was on."
After Airplane his movie career soared: Prom Night (made in Toronto),The Naked Gun, Dracula: Dead And Loving It, Mister Magoo.
But here he was in a Toronto TV studio at 80 doing pratfalls with abandon and loving all that attention. A icer guy I've never met and totally talented.
"Nobody told me comedy was so much fun. But I'm still loving every time I'm back in my home country."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

E! Comes Back To Canadian TV

Another Canadian cable channel switches titles --this time it's poor, unfortunate Star! which began its short, ratings anemic life as a CHUMCity-tv weblet that was supposed to focus on Canadian television.
But come Monday it metamorphoses into E!
And, yes, you're right if you think you've heard that title before --CHCH used to be E! at one time in its rapid ratings descent.
A bunch of preview DVDs landed on my doorstep featuring E! product --E! seems to be a mostly reality channel dedicated to celebs we've never heard of.
Among E!s highlights:
Keeping Up With The Kardashians answers all our questions about these brawling sisters. I'm still not sure who they are but I certainly know what they are: insatiable publicity hounds who dominate the supermarket tabloids but never seem to have accomplished much.
Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami runs Sundays at 10 p.m. and follows two of the sisters to the sunny city where they're supposedly opening a new clothing store.
Kim happens to arrive which results in a four letter barrage from ever loving sister Kourtney.
This is reality TV in the style of The Hills. I can't believe anything here is spontaneous. The talk can be dirty and the making out is always within camera range. Every Sunday night there are two half hour episodes.
On Mondays Keeping Up With Kardashians shows us her "colourful blended family" and the sisters are always at odds. It runs in a huge three hour time block of six half hour episodes.
Not to be undone on Tuesdays at 10 there are back to back episodes of Kendra. Girl watchers this is for you.
Another unknown celebrity, ex-Playmate Kendra Wilkinson, was once shacked up with octogenarian Hugh Hefner who is deep into his anecdotage.
Now Kendra is all married and anticipating the birth of her first child. She's still an extrovert, showing off her baby tummy, letting her hubby make a plaster cast in full front of the cameras, going to see her doctor with viewers in tow.
This is entertainment? It turns us all into voyeurs which is its sole purpose..
On Wednesdays True Hollywod Stories promises the latest on Justin Bieber, 15 Hottest Bods, Jersey Shore Unleashed. If you're anticipating Masterpiece Theater this is not for you.
On Fridays come the two series that are the strongest. First up there's The Soup, an hilarious take on all those trashy TV reality things with clips of the most outrageous stuff of the week leeringly presented by Joel McHale.
In the first episode I previewed he went after aged Regis Philbin plus clips from such currently running TV trash as Swamp People, Sister Wives, plus a segment called Chat Stew that sent up CNN's current diva Nancy Grace.
Is this what entertainment reporting has become on TV. Well, it wouldn't flourish without viewers taking it all in would it.
E! promises 40 per cent Canadian content in prime time but what could that be? Specials like Friendly Giant: The Truth or perhaps The Hidden Juliette?
For once I'm thankful there isn't more Canadian content on this "Canadian station".

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Letters, I Get Letters

Here's a compenium of recent "Dear Jim" stuff you've been asking my way:
1. "Dear Jim: I'm just watching DVDs of that wonderful series All In The Family. As we all know it was a spinoff of a British hit. Just wondering if there ever was a spinoff of a Canadian show that made it to American TV?" G.T.,Thornhill.
Dear G.T.: Actually The Plouffe Family became a very short running series titled Viva Valdez. And I can report both Fox and CBS had the rights to that fine CBC series Intelligence but passed on remaking it. there was also a U.S. series based on Pierre Berton's Klondike. Does that count?
2. "Dear Jim: Been watching the Gillers and wondering how you rate them against the Geminis?" L.Z, Vancouver.
Dear L.Z.: First of all the Gillers had a better time slot! You know I worked next to the late, great Doris Giller at the Toronto Star and we marched together on the picket line in 1992. I know she'd be delighted with the actual presentation although apparently it's tough getting the book that won! As far as the Geminis go I'd like to propose going back to the format of the old ACTRA awards which I first attended in 1971. Make the whole evening a celebration of the many wonders of Canadian TV. Make it high on talent with comedy spots and a few songs here and there. And you'd have a hit, I fearlessly predict.
3. "Dear Jim: Tell me it ain't true --that Medium has been cancelled." H.B, Sarnia.
Dear H.B.: I checked with my CBS sources and the series has yet to receive an official cancellation slit but it doesn't look good. The network scaled back its order this season from 20 episodes to just 13. Is that a vote of confidence or what?
4."Dear Jim: What new series are you actually going out of your way to watch?" L.T., Ottawa.
Dear L.T.: Blue Bloods is one I'm following and enjoying very much. It hasn't been that great a year, has it? Other shows I watch like CSI:NY are old shows with new cast additions --I watch because of the presence of the ever beautiful Sela Ward.
5 Is CHCH's new/old policy of running vintage movies gonna make it?" L.R., Russell.
Dear L.R.: Well, it's up against freshly minted prints of classics on Turner. And the other night the Hedy Lamarr flick running on CHCH was so fuzzy it was hard to make out the images. So, better prints are needed right away!.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Is Network TV Finished?

Check out the brilliant story on simply titled "Why are People Abandoning TV?"
It sums up quite accurately what I've been feeling for some time.
You see I live in Toronto's Riverdale area quite close to spacious Riverdale Park and the Don Valley.
And over the last few months people have been telling me they're switching off cable TV and going back either to rabbit ears or antennas.
In fact when I bought my new TV set in the summer the salesman offered to toss in an antenna and told me the name of the neighbourhood guy doing the connections for a minimal fee.
To put it bluntly viewers are fed up with the high cost of cable TV.
"Why am I paying for Buffalo TV when the good stuff gets blacked out and the Toronto signals are substituted," one lady told me at a summer's block party.
She said with her "new" antenna she got the Buffalo stations clear as a bell as well as the Toronto stations from the CN tower.
She misses CNN, BBC Canada and Turner Classic Movies but so far is adjusting to her loss.
Movies? She orders them up from Netflix which ship directly to her new Apple computer, the one with the 29 " screen. Ditto movies she gets from her Apple store.
She can also rent DVDs and run them on her computer an that's fine, too.
She also watches stuff on and other internet services run by conventional TV networks.
And she's thinking of buying a gadget a local nerd recommended that substitutes a faux U.S. email address so she can tune into services like hulu which is currently blocked out in Canada.
The techland story says there have been significant disconnects in the U.S., too, and this is certainly due to increased viewer sophistication about the other ways to watch TV shows than on a TV set via expensive cable services.
Hulu Plus is currently running at $8.00 (U.S.) a month and offering hundreds of new programs every month.
American cable giants are saying they intent to cut prices to compete with hulu but so far the disparity in prices remains very high.
Hulu is sure to reach Canada someway either through the back door or as part of a package offered by Apple, I believe. And that means the over priced Canadian cable brands will be in big trouble.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Digital Dummies A Must See

So there I was in a taxi roaring down Toronto's busy University Avenue when I spotted the driver of a roaring Mercedes that passed me.
The elegant blonde was texting with one hand, eating a ham sandwich with the other and tenuously holding the steering wheel with --get this --her knees.
And that's why I couldn't get enough of the new CBC documentary Are We Digital Dummies?
The answer in my case is pretty much in the affirmative. You'll have to take a look and make up your own mind.
The fast flowing documentary packs a whole lot of information in its 47 minutes. And that's one reason why I'm still watching TV when I could spend my time googling, tweeting and Facebooking.
Other minds more profound than my own have been wondering for years whether this great burst of technology is producing a dulled populace. The statistics used here are mind numbing: 12 billion text messages sent daily (but who's counting).
An amazing 13 million Canadians are Facebook users.
The number of personal computers used around the planet will double in the next five years.
As a newspaper TV critic for 38 years I can attest to the dwindling resources of the old fashioned newspaper.
Once upon a time every commuter in Toronto seemed to be reading a Toronto Star or Globe in the morning transit.
On the GO train recently to Oakville I could count on one hand the old codgers reading a hunk of newsprint. Other, younger passengers were twittering away, reading on their Kindles, or chattering away on their cell phones.
Look at the experiences of U.S. president Barrack Obama who was the first of his kind to communicate with a blackberry.
He has just been soundly trounced in midterm elections by a volatile electorate who demand quick answers to a lingering recession-- they get their news on cable or even on their iPods.
And the computer horizon changes daily --Facebook is now out to eat up the email world.
As a laugh I'm including the horrendous machine I used to lug around when reporting from Los Angeles. No wonder I wound up with a sore back.
Digital Dummies shows us everybody wants to get into the instant communications act including our Queen who's shown visiting Waterloo recently and getting her own personal blackberry.
Experts tell us the digital revolution means there no longer is a hierarchy --everyone is an authority. But many of us want to communicate all the time. Some people set their blackberry to send out messages at 3 a.m. just to assure their bosses they're always on top of things.
Studies indicate people with blackberries work longer than those who don't because they can never relax, never shut down.
Internet addiction is the next big medical problem. We visit a Washington State facility where blackberries are turned off and participants allowed to become whole once more.
Children seem especially affected --many no longer read books and have trouble with personal interaction. Their attention spans are shrinking.
One hidden camera shows a bus driver texting instead of looking at the road --the inevitable accident rattles his handicapped passengers.
And a plane from San Diego to Minneapolis overshot the runway because pilots were busy texting.
Director-writer Andy Blicq (The Secret World Of Shoplifting) has done an exceptional job in marshaling the evidence, visiting the right experts and producing a blast at the technological revolution that is chock full of fascinating scenes.
So stop your texting for an hour, will ya--and watch what is certain to be a Gemini nominated best documentary entry for the next awards ceremony.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I Admire David Thomson's Film Dictionary But...

Of course I admire David Thomson's New Biograhical Dictionary Of Film. I rushed right out to get a copy, then hesitated because of the huge mark up in Canadian bookstores so I finally bought it online at pleasantly reduced prices.
I 've been a big Thomson fan ever since I read his magisterial biography of David Selznick.
And I happen to be one of the few journalists who ever met Jennifer Jones. Oh, all right, it was on the set of The Towering Inferno and was purely accidental.
When Fred Astaire told her I was a critic she ran from the set to her dressing room.
I don't completely agree with Thomson on everything but I've read almost every entry. The book is a must read for film enthusiasts.
But I was hoping examples from earlier editions of carelessness would have been corrected.
Take the Jane Wyman entry which I consider pretty fair. Thomson says after Miracle In The Rain (1956) "she went into semiretirement" interrupted only by Polyanna (1960).
Not at all.
In 1955 Wyman jumped to TV as producer, host and occasional star of NBC's Fireside Presents The Jane Wyman Theater (1955-58) for the then incredible sum of $3 million for three years work (no cancellations). She then sold the rerun package of 93 half hours to ABC for a cool million and returned to films in 1959's Holiday For Lovers.
That's not retirement, is it?
Similarly on Barbara Stanwyck Thomson says after 1957 "she then went into reluctant retirement".
No! Instead she she departed for episodic TV work culminating in starring in NBC's The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1960-61) which won her an Emmy award as best series actress of the season.
Ann Sothern's two TV series as star (Private Secretary from 1953 to 1967 and The Ann Sothern Show 1958-61) are not even mentioned. TV made her a star again and her TV movie work in the Sixties and Seventies should have been included --it would have taken a few lines.
One last omission: Walter Brennan was a treasured movie character actor for decades but on TV he finally became a recognizable star with his starring series The Real McCoys and The Guns Of Will Sonnet. Thomson should have listed these titles.
I have this idea these omissions happened because Thomson simply never saw any of these TV series being a resident of England at the time. Not that many U.S. series travelled across the pond in those days.
The next edition should carry these additions, I'm hoping.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where Are All The Canadian DVDs?

For enthusiasts of Canadian TV the battle has already been lost --in the DVD stores.
I've been meandering around Toronto DVD outlets searching for Canadian DVD titles and finding they're few and far between.
In one store I found that great miniseries Slings And Arrows with Paul Gross in the British TV section.
I asked and was told it was an assumption that people who crave Masterpiece Theatre type fare might want to pick it up, too.
And why no Canadian TV section?
I was told at several stores they don't want to ghettoize Canadian TV.
Talking to Michael Riley a few weeks back I reminded him that only Seasons One and Season Two of his series This Is Wonderland have appeared on DVD.
Season Three never made it and nobody seems to know why.
But another great Riley series Power Play has never appeared at all although I used to hear from a farmer in Idaho who had his own VHS set out and claimed they were selling like hot cakes.
Other Canadian hit series never making it to DVD include ENG with Art Hindle and Street Legal with Sonja Smits.
In fact I don't think Smits' subsequent hit series The Eleventh Hour has made it either.
Some Canadian shows are on DVD and still selling briskly: Red Green remains a best seller as does Corner Gas.
CBC's current hit Being Ericka is out and selling as are all seasons of Little Mosque On The Prairie.
Intelligence is out and should be picked up --it's among the best ever Canadian TV dramas.
But I'd love to get a complete run of Twitch City with Don McKellar and I can't.
There are three seasons of Paradise Falls still running on Showcase but no DVD boxed sets as yet.
Metropia currently on OMNI would sell in a boxed set I feel but it still doesn't exist.
Wendy Crewson starred in a series of Joanne Kilbourne murder mysteries for CTV that still appear on the late night schedule. But I can't find them in the stores.
CBC is one of the culprits here.
Years ago CBC had a retro series called Rearview Mirror that showcased past opera and ballets directed by Norman Campbell plus choice episodes of such shows as Front Page Challenge and Periscope.
Then the show suddenly went off.
Why? I heard CBC was embarased at showing such riches compared to its present paltry schedule.
A DVD of FPC highlights might include Martha Mitchell on Watergate, prime ministers from Louis St. Laurent and onward, Sarah Churchill on her famous father, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Mary Pickford in her last public appearance.
But CBC evidently feels it would not sell.
And that lethargy also means there are no DVDs of Tommy Hunter or Juliette or such treats as Edith Evans in The Importance Of Being Earnest --the only time she did it for TV was on the CBC.
I was the one at the Toronto Star who covered the howls of outrage when Emmy winning director Harry Rasky discovered CBC had sold off two of his best documentaries --profiles of Tennessee Williams and George Bernard Shaw --to BBC. And BBC promptly included them in BBC DVD collections!
Rasky's other poifles on the likes of Chris Plummer, Bill Hutt, Raymond Massey, Teresa Stratas sit gathering dust in the CBC Archives. Why not a DVD collection titled "Rasky's Great Canadians"?
CTV has a wonderful DVD collection of the Vancouver Winter Games. But why nothing on Lloyd Robertson reporting on the great political crises he's covered?
Johnny Carson's best Tonight Show episodes are out on DVD. But not Peter Gzowski's --his late night CBC talk show had all the great Canadians on.
And Brian Linehan had several decades of star gazing --just you tube his name and you'll find some great episodes. Linehan had better interviews than currently available on Live At The Actors Studio.
Other Canadian shows can never be out in DVD format.
The wonderfully tacky Party Game placed for 20 seasons but costs were so low the master tapes were wiped every season and new programs recorded over old ones.
A few choice episodes wete kept by Billy Van --the only examples left of an unique Canadian hit.
And that destruction is so very Canadian.
When Pierre Berton went back years later to look up his Vivien Leigh interview done in London he discovered it had been erased by Screen Gems --only the audio remained.
That's show biz, Canadian sty;e.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Conan O'Brien Deserves Another Chance!

Wouldn't it be sweet if Jay Leno becomes Conan O'Brien's first guest on his new talk show?
It debuts on Canadian TV Monday at midnight on Comedy (repeated an hour later on CTV).
Not likely! But just maybe?
Leno and O'Brien haven't been talking much lately.
Spme seven years ago NBC announced Conan would take over the Tonight Show from Leno in the fullness of time and when that happened all hell broke loose.
To keep Leno from defecting NBC president Jeff Zucker gave him the 10 p.m. slot in prime time --for the entire week night, canceling all the expensive hour dramas that were going nowhere.
And Conan finally got his coveted Tonight Show.
But Leno's ratings at 10 predictably tanked and that meant the local newscasts at 11 for NBC affiliates also tanked and the weak lead ins meant the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien tanked.
What a mess!
NBC was forced to pull the plug on Leno at 10 and to prevent him from bolting to the opposition NBC created a new half hour show for Leno smack dab in his old 11:30 p.m. time slot.
That meant Conan was moved back to 12:10.
And then Conan broke ranks and NBC settled $32 million on him to decamp which he did amidst the constant blare of tabloid publicity.
Leno then got back his beloved Tonight Show but ratings have been seeping away and he now draws fewer eyeballs than Letterman.
Conan launched a comedy tour, then signed with TBS. Why TBS? Because Fox's affiliates demurred at the price tag (or so I am told).
Since Canadians don't get TBS we'll be able to see him via the Comedy Channel at midnight Monday through Thursday.
John Stewart and Stephen Colbert will precede him starting at 11 p.m.on Comedy. They were too powerful in the ratings to be slotted any later.
Now it just so happens I've been a big Conan fan from way back when.
When Conan came on NBC in September 1993 I was one of the first TV critics to interview him.
I sat in the audience during a taping at Rockefeller Center and later chatted him up in his rather small and dreary dressing room.
My first impression: he really was freckled, stood taller than I expected and seemed genuinely eager to please.
He'd only been on air for a few weeks but he was improving every night. That initial nervousness was something I found oddly appealing --he definitely was not another stand up comedian.
At first he had troubles attracting guests and joked to me he was interviewing Suzanne Somers too much.
His chubby sidekick, Andy Richter, wandered in, changed in a closet and wandered out only pausing to say "Good night" to both of us.
Then I went upstairs to interview expatriate producer Lorne Michaels who as executive poducer had packaged the show for NBC.
Likeability has always been the key to Conan's success, that and a kind of colleiate humor that grows on audiences.
He's been joking that after pairing down the contestants he has three choices for his first guest: Jack Nicholson, the Sultan of Brunei and Arlene Wagner, curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum.
I don't know, I'm still thinking it will be Jack Nicholson because Conan needs big ratings for TBS to brag about
But I've got bad news for you: all those regular comic bits we loved so much are the intellectual property of NBC.
That means the new Conan must reinvent his shtick and I think that's all for the better. But I'll miss the old standards and I'll miss Max Weinberg who is retiring as Conab's band leader.
So the current late night situation is this: Letterman is actually on top many nights iver Leno but at least they're still on full networks with Conan banished to basic cable.
Maybe Conan should have stayed on the Tonight Show at 12. Who knows?
I'd just like to wish this very nice redhead all the best and let's leave it at that.
POSTSCRIPT: So I've now seen the first episode of Conan. My Opinion: it lacked oomph.
Yes, there were the anticipated pot shots at NBC, some mildly funny. But my advice to Conan is to get over it.
Let's see, you ditched NBC because they wanted to run you at 12:05 and now you're on basic cable and with the time difference thing 11 is really midnight anyway. Oh, well.
Ricky Gervaise was the funniest guest. But Seth Rogen, quite slim these days, wasn't much fun at all. The Masturbating Bear made a very odd appearance. Jack White was a great musical guest. The girl from Glee was nice.
It was all very nice.
But remember in U.S. markets Conan will be competing with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for the same basically hip audience. And he's also on a rather obscure basic cable channel in the U.S.: TBS. So good luck.
The set looked basic cabley. It was a woody exterior with a gyrating moon.
And one more thing about Conan. I think he should shave off that skraggly beard.
Will I watch again? Of course. But will you?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Melinda Shankar Is On A Roll

Melinda Shankar only had time to phone me on Wednesday. And no wonder.
She's the star of two current Canadian TV hits --the durable Degrassi: The Next Generation which she joined in 2008 and the newer How To Be Indie which showcases her as petite and rambunctious 14-year-old Indie and which revs up for season two Thursday evening at 6:30 on YTV.
And she was also preparing for the Gemini Awards --on the first (and untelevised night) she was up for an acting award for Indie as well as rehearsing to be a presenter.
"Normally I'm not quite this busy," she exclaimed.
Did I also mention Melinda is also taking high school credits so she can go on to university?
"I want to study writing" she says. When she's acting she works for two hours a day with a tutor on set.
That's a pretty onerous schedule for any adult but the actress is only 18. On How To Be Indie she plays the title character who is only 14. She's a bit older as Ali Bhandari on Degrassi --she joined the cast in 2008 during the eighth season.
Normally the shows shoot in different times of the year.
"But there was this crazy five-day block when both were going and I had to travel between the two, it was very confusing at times because the two characters are completely different. Degrassi tackles the real issues of going to school."
On Indie she was a scream as a scheming but very well brought up eighth grader who's always getting into tight situations.
On Degrassi as Alli: "I always seem to be crying. Very deep stuff."
But in both parts she's excelling and she reports she's recognized sometimes as Indie and sometimes as Alli.
In fact when we were on the phone she had to stop for a minute to talk to fans who were walking by and recognized her.
I had heard about Indie before plopping on the preview DVD of the second season.
Was I ever surprised --it's very funny and painless for oldsters --anyone not in their teens --to watch.
The comedy style is the comedy of exaggeration. In Indie's tween world everything is a crisis that gets resolved in comical ways.
It was created by executive producer Vera Santamaria(Outsourced) and the executive producing team of John May and Suzanna Bolch (Our Hero) make it for Heroic Television and Sudden Storm Television.
Also starring as her best friend is Marline Yan as Abi. Plus there's Dylan Everett as the boy who's always around then, Marlon.
As Indie's Mom and Dad Ellora Patnaik and Vijay Mehta avoid stereotypes to become quite winning. When Dad does a victory dance to show that he's been right it's the highlight of the first new episode.
And joining the cast this season are Tim Lai as Aiden described as a sporty guy and Cassius Crieghtney as bumbling cook dre.
As the granddad with a strange taste for tofu Errol Sitahal is a scream.
Melinda reports every episode is filmed in just three days, an amazing feat. "We'll tackle 20 pages a day compared to about nine on another series. We shoot on standing sets that look completely realistic. There's no studio audience --the crew help us out as an audience."
Born in Ottawa to Guyanese Canadian parents Melinda credits her father for perseverance. "When I had to go to an audition to Toronto he'd drive me. That meant five hours and sometimes it was a five minute interview. we did it twice in one week."
So far Degrassi is the great Canadian TV success story going out to dozens of countries around the world.
How To Be Indie just might give it competition in important markets like the U.S.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, October 29, 2010

TV's Blah Season

Everywhere I go people are complaining about TV's blah season. They say they're deserting the old line networks in favor of new shows on cable.
Everyone seems to be watching and enjoying the best new series Boardwalk Empire which runs up here on HBO Canada.
New network shows generating buzz are few and far between. But one (female) viewer says she's back to watching series on Friday now that CBS has plopped Blue Bloods on the schedule.
The CBS gamble moving The Big Bang Theory to Thursdays at 8 (CTV simulcasts it) has worked. CBS's Thursday night ratings are up but Fox's ratings are way down overall this seasons.
Fox's House is way off, 17 per cent down from last season. The reason I'm sure: it is certainly NOT an 8 p.m. show and it's also an old show. we've seen everything in the way of boorish behavior from Hugh Laurie's eccentric character.
Fox's two big new shows, Raising Hope and Running Wild are starching at 48 and 64 in the ratings meaning they'll probably wind up as one season wonders.
And at Fox there' should be real concern over the declining numbers for American Idol. Don't forget Sim Cowell won't be back next year.
Bloomberg News is reporting Fox is down 17 per cent among its most loyal fan base-- viewers in the "young adult" category.
Initial ratings for a whole lot of shows are lower than expected because younger viewers tend to watch them later on their DVDs.
When DVD viewing is factored in Modern Family becomes the highest rated show among 18-49ers. That's according to Hollywood Reporter.
Similarly low rated The Event with Jason Ritter on NBC becomes NBC's best new series of the season when DVD Viewing is factored in.
But "must see" new series? I can't think of any network offerings off hand, can you?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Being Human Back For Second Season

They are the unlikiest of room mates.
Think of Being Human, BBC's monster success (in more ways than one) as a weird version of Three's Company.
Only here the twentysomethings living together are a vampire, werewolf and ghost.
Season Two revs up on Space Thursday Oct. 28 at 10 p.m.
And. yes, the concept sounds ridiculous. But imaginative film making and superior acting turns this one into a creepy, funny, sometimes romantic hit.
Lenora Crichlow is sensationally sexy as the ghost Annie who in the new season desires respectability and decides to apply as a barmaid, a job she's always craved.
Of course none of the customers can touch her or poof she disappears but what the heck.
It took a viewers' petition to get Space to carry it where ratings have zoomed. And fans thwarted a BBC-TV attempt to destroy it.
Look, I know there's a glut of supernatural TV shows around right now from the obviously titled Supernatural to the sexy Vampire Diaries.
But where does Being Human fit in?
Well, it's often an interior study of what it means to be different --the feeling of alienation and loneliness is always there.
Each of the mates has terrible problems. Werewolf George (Russell Tovey) goes out an eats an elk every full moon.
Vampire Adam (Aidan Turner) knows if he continues dating he'll want to do more than buss the unlucky girl.
Creator Toby Whithouse (Torchwood, Doctor Who) has done a masterful job of creating characters we can believe in and plopping them down in ordinary situations. Adam and George toil at a local hospital where they wipe up muck and contemplate life and at home they have to attend to all the ordinary household chores.
BBC ran a well regarded pilot in February, 2008, only to initially decide not to proceed with a series. But fan uproar caused the Corp to reconsider and proceed.
I hope I'm not giving away too much plot by leaking that this year trouble comes from a religious group determined to root out the undesirables.
The second series was made in Cardiff, Wales, and the seamy underbelly of the city ressembles sets from Torchwood --another BBC scifier which is also coming back but in partnership with American TV.
What I like is how the writers transcend the silliness of the plot to offers scenes truly stunning for the sheer humanity of the trapped characters. Special effects are down played but are there when needed. The story takes big risks and mostly succeds. We all feel like misfits from time to time but for the protagonists of Being Human they'll be true misfits forever.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ron James : From Stand Up To TV Star

So here I am in Ron James's King St. E offices --his own workroom is oddly muted without the expected paraphernalia of Canada's standup king.
"That's how I am," he shrugs leading the way to "a safe chair, the other one tilts ver if you lean back."
It's a cold Monday afternoon out there but James is already knee deep in preparations for the New Year's Eve hour version of his CBC comedy series --separate shows are taped Thursdays and Fridays before the obligartory "live audience."
In person he's friendly but contemplative. Jokes don't roll of his tongue as might be expected. He's like so many top comics, introspective and critical of his own work.
"On the weekend I did the Niagara Falls casino, 2,000 people," he says. "And that calls for a different sort of delivery. You just can't go out and chat up the first row. The guy who paid just as much and is sitting in Row M might get annoyed."
And what about the TV gig, this is season two.
"We're all getting the hang of it," he smiles. "I mean it's a real learning experience. I do stand up at the beginning every week. That means new material every week. On the road I had time to refine the material."
And the sketches. Although I liked a lot of them I sometimes had the feeling James was holding back a bit.
"I'd be doing the opening monologue and wondering how the heck can I change into that shepher'd costume in one minute flat?" he admits with a laugh.
So this season the sketches have been done in advance. "We started in August. And they're shot out on real locations as opposed to the studio sets. We still have a grand gaggle of guests --Deb McGrath is in one, I know that. And we rounded up the greats --I just feel more comfortable. I think we've all found my comfort zone."
That still doesn't mean he'll occasionally sneak out for a live gig. "It's where I'm from and summers I still tour although I took the girls back to the East Coast for a week of dipping my toe in the waters and, well, just thinking."
On Friday nights James continues to struggle for the ratings CBC thinks he deserves --trouble is many fans are out Fridays shopping (the older ones) or clubbing (the younger). Still, last Friday he averaged a not bad 559,000 on the least watched night of the week.
"People are still discovering the show. They get where I'm at. I generally leave the political stuff to Rick Mercer (a guest last week) and This Hour. When I talk politics I'm in a more general frame of mind." Concentrations on the political scandal of the week are downgraded to a riff on paint colors and his desperate search to find simple white paint.
In one sketch he partners with Deb McGrath and Devon Bostick in a hilarious piece about their high school kid caught with a marijuana joint --trouble is the boy had borrowed dad's jacket for the day. You get where the jokes are going?
"We first met on Blackfly," he suddenly remembers. "I was very uncomfortable on that one."
Trouble is the innovative 2001Canadian sitcom was often very funny but it was also all over the place.
James not only starred, he led a ragged team of comedy writers and an ecclectric cast (including Richard Donat, James Klee, Colin Mochrie) all set in an English fort in early colonial Canada. Critics often say a series was ahead of its time when it flops but Blackfly had a cadre of loyal supporters and got better over its 26 episodes.
"With this series I had good feelings from the start. A lot worked in the first year. The L'il Ronnie animation worked from the start. But this season we've added Odes To The Road looking humorously at all the places I've toured in Canada."
And there's James as furniture salesman named Larry Garibaldi who'll be popping up consistently.
Also new in this episode is an historical episode casting James as great PM Wilfrid Laurier and his vision of what Alberta could be (co-starring is Corner Gas's eric Peterson).
About the writers and directors he says "We spent the first year getting to know each other. Now we're raring to be abit more daring. It's a completely different world for me, this TV series. It requires different muscles, to look past the studio audience. Busy? I never really knew how busy."
In fact executive producer Lynn Harvey says the crew has been so busy they haven't had the time to negotiate a DVD release of the first season.
"I'm thinking if this is what it means to be in the trenches then I feel at home.We're getting there week after week, I can feel it. Frustrations? I can't finesse the monologue after taping. But the writers keep surprising me and I trust their opinions. I'm getting camera savvy, I really am. The audience deserve to see a finely honed show and that's what they're getting.Then on Monday it's back into the battlefield."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Has Mad Men Finally Gone Mad?

The Mad Men blogs were going crazy all week.
On one site we were told that perhaps little Sally would be a suicide. Gasp!
On another there was the prediction that Roger had run out of excuses and would surely kill himself.
And then on came season 4's grand finale.
My first impression: this it it?
On season 4 Don dodged a continuing series of career and life pitfalls.
He set up a new agency only to learn the FBI were onto him and may have learned that he had assumed a dead man's identity.
Daughter Sally ran away in one episode and masturbated to a TV episode in another while ex-wife Betty spirlled into continuing depression.
The finale had Don take up with his comley French Canadian secretary after she took care of the kids in a strange California visit.
She's as dopey and dependent as Betty but why does Don always fall for bimbos when there's Peggy at the office who in the episode's only good news lands a new $250,000 account.
Oh, Roger is fine, Betty is moving to a new home with Henry, and Joan has a baby bump.
This is it? This is all there is?
I was expecting much more. How about you?
And season 5 won't be on until next August. Sigh.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Steve Martin Returns To Stand Up

How long has it been since I saw Steve Martin doing stand up comedy?
Must be at least 25 years, way, way back when he was that wild and crazy young guy guesting with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
He's grown up an awful lot since those days.
Did you catch him opposite Meryl Streep in last year's movie hi tIt's Complicated. Most of the laughs were reserved for co-star Alec Baldwin while Martin concentrated on characterization.
And then there are his fine essays for The New Yorker and his must read books.
The only time I encountered him was when he was producing a short lived series with George Burns in the 1980s and he explained he wanted to try it all rather than be limited by just one talent.
On Monday night's Just For Laughs Martin ttempts stand up again and what else can I say he's ingratiating and great. It really was worth waiting for.
Bruce Hills CEO of Just For Laughs has just emailed me:"It was a thrill of a lifetime to have Steve Martin at Just For Laughs this summer. Monday night's show captures one of the most memorable nights in our history. We're excited for people to see it."
Martin says he finally returned to his comedy roots after his pal Martin Short was such a hit the year before.
Look, he even brings in his own band for some banjo music. They've already played together live on the Grammys. Remember?
The Steep Canyon Rangers
TV critics usually ignore the CBC version of Just For Laughs. The actual Montreal festival has been around for 28 years and the TV version still delivers sturdy ratings for CBC.
Martin tells the audience at one point he last played stand up in Montreal some 40 years ago. But who's counting. Also, Martin introduces a selection of up and comers. The best of the bunch by far is Steve Patterson.
Everything Martin does gets applause from a deeply grateful audience. And that's as it should be.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The New Season Really Stinks!

Please tell me why has this new TV season turned out to be the worst ever?
I've been at a few industry gigs in the past few weeks and nobody was talking about any of the new network shows.
Instead people were talking about Boardwalk Empire if they were talking about anything new.
Or people were trying to guess how the best ever season of Mad Men would end. And Mad Men is hardly a new show. And it's not on any standard network but AMC, a relatively new entrant in the series wars.
So what happened?
Well, for one thing the new product was really, really dumb. As in stupid. As in predictable. As in I've seen it all before.
I really enjoyed the reboot of CBS's Hawaii Five-0 and I hope it succeeds but I don't plan my evenings around catching the next new episode.
Nikita was sexy in an old fashioned way --I much preferred the first TV version with Peta Wilson.
And the more the watch of No Ordinary People the more I can see it has the makings of a sturdy hit.
But the one show that all the critics (except me) thought would morph into a cult classic got canned after just two episodes.'
Yes, I'm referring to Lone Star.
Last year Glee took off and became must-see TV and so to a lesser degree did Modern Family.
But this year there was what? Outlaws stank and got creamed by Blue Bloods.
My Generation couldn't get me involved. And it is also gone.
The Event is not going to be the next Lost. Trust me.
And the profusion of law and order shows is just strange. The only one I really like is Law & Order: Los Angeles, a careful retinkering of a decades old formula that works well in a new environment.
A lot of people simple stuck with the old standards. If they weren't watching the cable networks.
A couple of times I found myself tuning to Dancing With The Stars.
Now that'sd true desperation!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Lost JFK Tapes: Practically A Must See!

It was November 22, 1963, and I'd just finished writing my Grade XII Latin paper.
I walked out of Riverdale College (in Toronto's East End) and across to the bank to cash a scholarship check.
Inside there was emotional pandemonium. All the tellers and most of the customers were crying buckets.
"His poor wife..."was the lasting comment I remember.
President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Reports were vague whether he would survive.
I dashed home and watched live coverage from CBS's Walter Cronkite for the rest of that day.
And I thought I'd seen it all until the preview DVD of the "new" two-hour special The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination came my way.
You see back in 1963 there was no satellite transmission available. Cronkite for hours was basically running a radio news program with very few "images" to support him.
But the images do exist. It's just that most of us outside of the Dallas area never got to see them.
It was producer *(*(*(*('s idea to scour the local TV archives to see if any other material besides the network coverage ever got to TV and whether it could be restored and shown --remember videotape was in its infancy.
What he discovered was astonishing: hours of breaking news as reported live by Dallas's three TV outlets. Most of this was never seen outside the Dallas archives. Send to storage for 45 years, the tapes have been restored and edited into an engrossing account of that fateful day.
Crews simply planted their cameras firmly and shot for hours.
The day starts ominously in Fort Worth with a breakfast presentation to President Kennedy and wife Jacqueline where he is presented with a stetson but politely declines to put it on.
The coverage of the arrival at Dallas Love Field is complete. Some of the footage in color came from film crews --all the black and white stuff is videotape.
The most jarring moment comes when the Secret Service make the momentous decision because of the warm weather to disregard the bubble top so well wishers have a better chance to glimpse the glamourous couple. If the bullet proof glass bubble had been up Kennedy would have survived.
There is a ton of new stuff of the couple riding in triumph down crowded Dallas streets. The warmth of the reception is unmistakeable. Mrs. Kennedy in her hot pink suite is glimpsed chatting away to her husband. Both are basking in sheer adulation.
And then the shots --several different views of the shooting are presented. The most dramatic has a Secret Service man jumping onto the back of the car as Mrs. Kennedy shields her stricken husband.
The chaos at Parkland Hospital was fully captured by the news crews --at one point the rumor floats that Vice President Lyndon Johnson has been hit. Then, no, he's had a heart attack.Rumors about the fate of Governor Connelly float around.
There's an amazing amount of coverage of killer Lee Harvey Oswald in a downtown theater armed with a shotgun and many scenes of the press shouting questions as he proceeds into interrogation rooms.
Biggest surprise: in the midnight press conference Jack Ruby, Oswald's eventual assassin, is seen stalking in the background. And days later he darts out of the crowd to mortally shoot Oswald who screams and falls to the ground.
Even when Oswald is pronounced dead at Parkland hospital there's still confusion. One reporter continues calling him "Lee Harold Oswald".
Three funerals are then showcased: the lavish state funeral of Kennedy, the sad funeral of Officer Tippit in Dallas, and Oswald's funeral, barred to the public, where the only available pall bearers are the film crews covering the event.
The tiny human events are noticed: one of the eye witnesses says he heard shots coming from behind him supporting the thesis there was a second killer at the grassy knoll. When the President's death is announced at the luncheon where he was supposed to speak a black waiter breaks down in tears and we watch as the presidential seal is taken down from the podium.
The Lost JFK Tapes is the first must-see TV event of the season, so meticulously stitched together, with the past suddenly becoming alive again 47 years after those dreaded events. Contemporary students should be watching for the history lesson. Others like yours truly can finally see the whole sad spectace meticulously laid out --the first real test of TV's ability to carry a breaking event that truly changed the course of world events.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Stop Simulcasting Now!

Lunch last week with a casual acquaintance who started teasing me by asking: "Oh, is there a new Canadian TV season."
I knew exactly what she was saying. Like everybody else I become fixated on the dozens of new American series and I tend to neglect the Canadian ones.
But it's not my fault.
I blame simulcasting.
Before simulcasting Canadian TV was far more vibrant and competitive.
These days the commercial networks try to simulcast all their American product and I can't blame them.
Simulcasting was a device invented some 25 years ago to stem the flow of Canadian advertising dollars to border U.S. stations and it's been mighty effect.
Before simulcasting Buffalo stations raked in some $25 million a year in advertising from Canadian companies.
These days you'd be hard pressed to find a single Canadian ad on any of the Buffalo outlets.
Simulcasting became possible as more of us in southern Ontario switched to cable.
Under CRTC guidelines Canadian TV stations and networks can direct local cable companies to black out the incoming U.S. signal and substitute a Canadian one of the program being carried is the same.
When you switch on CBS's WIVB in Buffalo to catch CSI you may be completely unaware you are actually watching CTV's signal from Toronto.
You're paying enormous cable bills for services you often aren't receiving because most Buffalo affiliates are being simulcast by one Canadian network or another right through prime time.
By this trick CSI and all other U.S. series simulcast on U.S. stations get a double rating.
There's no way Canadian series can compete, no way.
Before simulcasting Canadian networks certainly stockpiled American fare.
But they would instead prerelease their U.S. shows a few days before the American release date.
Under that system Canadian viewers got two chances to see a new episode of something like St. Elsewhere or Executive Suite.
Simulcasting may reap big bucks for the Canadian networks but it has threatened their programming independence as well as a lot of their identity.
Why not restrict each network to eight hours of simulcasting a week and encourage them to counterprogram more imaginiatively in other time slots?
The winners would be the viewers who are getting ripped off by this simulcasting scam.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

TV Salaries: Up, Up And Away?

Back in the 1980s I published a list of CBC star salaries that created quite a kerfuffle with my loyal Toronto Star readers.
There was great indignity among Toronto Star readers that leading reporters at the Corp were drawing as much as --gasp, gasp-- $90,000 a year.
The nerve! The very idea!
It remained for CBC-TV news honcho Denis Harvey to carefully explain that after all American newshounds could make millions more than that in a year.
These days CBS's Katie Couric pulls in $15 million a year as CBS's chief newsreader, a sum that seems just about right even though her ratings are but a pale shadow of former CBS icon Walter Cronkite.
And ratings for prime time U.S.TV shows went south years ago but that hardly stopped House's Hugh Laurie for demanding and getting $400,000 for each and every one of the 22 episodes of House he'll make this season.
Years and years ago Frasier's Kelsey Grammer racked in an identical salary and his was for a half hour sitcom as against Laurie's hourlong drama.
Other bigtop salaries revealed in The Hollywood Reporter: Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay each draw $395,000 for Law & Order: SVU which isn't even a Top Ten hit.
David Caruso of CBS's CSIU: Miami gets a pay packet worth $375,000 while Castle's Nathan Fillion draws $100,000 as does Jon Hamm of Mad Men (which only has 13 new episodes a year).
These figures pale before Oprah Winfrey's gargantuan $315 million --but her gig is five times a week. By contrast Kate Gosselin must make ends meet at $250,000 while Jersey Shore's Snooki Pilizzi gets small change to the tune of $30,000.
For sitcom actors --heck for TV series actors anywhere --Charlie Sheen is tops, raking in $1.25 million an episode. You do the math: multiply by 22 to see what his yearly earning are.
Jeremy Piven of Entourage gets $350,000 but remember he's on cable as is 88-years young Betty White who draws $75,000 for Hot In Cincinnati.
Now what does this all mean for Canadian TV stars?
What the stats don't tell us are how much the talent gets in "back end" meaning DVD sales. One L.A. producer told me a boxed set of his series can make more money than the actual network license these days. That's what precipitated the last bunch of writers and actors strikes.
And it's why some of your vintage shows have still to hit DVD: there's endless behind the scenes bickering over who gets what and for how long.
But I'm guessing Laurie makes more for an episode of House than he ever made when he was TV's Bertie Wooster.
I guess it merely proves why so much of our home grown talent migrate to L.A. every year for pilot season.
And why Canadian TV can hardly compete in the big bucks league.
I'm not making excuses, just explaining why Canadian TV always has that beleagured look about it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Burn My Mortgage Offers Hope

The economic news these days is dreary and depressing.
So a series titled Burn My Mortgage conjures up images of irate home buyers literally making bonfires of all their financial bills on their front lawn.
But, relax, it's no that kind of show.
Rather the Toronto-made series offers serious tips on how to pay down your mortgage before old age overtakes you.
The premiere is on Tuesday Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. on the W network.
I learned all about the concept last week when I had lunch with the two personable hosts.
Kelley Keehn is the big name, an Alberta based financial expert who every week takes a couple on a voyage of discover to discover how much money they're tossing away on the frivolities of life.
Her sidekick is Waterloo based broadcaster Chad Bisch who came in after an initial pilot was junked --he tested with Kelly and it was a case of "instant chemistry".
Thei human "guinea pigs" in the first episode are a very nice couple Christine and Roman Sharanewych--we visit with them at their tony suburban home that also includes two sons who are into every type of sports.
The shock comes when they realize they spend $17,000 a year just on sports. The equipment is carted from the gargate to a soccer field and --suprise--many of the items have never been used.
Wait! There's more. They spend $1,000 a month juston take out and restaurant meals --the amount keeps creeping even higher because Christine also has a job and often doesn't have time to cook big dinners.
The housekeeper they employ costs. the landscape gardener costs. The dry cleaning costs.
"In this series we selected people who could afford to save," Keehn explains. "First of all there were ads on the Internet and on W. We didn't want people desperately trying to stave off foreclusure --that's another stories. We were after average families who were not aware the huge amount of monthly pay that went into frivolities.
"And the thing is after the economies they can still have some take out. Just not every other night of the week."
But why would Christine and Roman and the other couples profiled in the 13-episode series be willing to give up their privacy to become reality TV stars?
"I think their time was now,"Keehan guesses. "They knew they had a problem but didn't know where to begin."
When presented with their bills for takeout the couple look stunned.
And when faced with the vast litter of all that unused sports equipment they're equally shocked.
Somehow their expenses crept up and up and nobody really noticed until it was almost too late.
Tht's where energetic Chad Bisch steps in. He takes the couples --now contestants --through some fairly rigorous physical challenges that would enable them to win up to $5,000 that can be used to help pay down their mortgage. In Episode 1 the four family members dash about cutting a field of grass, race through obstacles, hunt for prizes at the bottom of a hundred orders of Chinese takeout --it's a real physical challenge.
"It was fun," Bosch grins. "And I think the families sort of enjoyed it although that was a lot of grass to be cut."
When last seen on camera this family of four are brown bagging their lunches, the boys have stopped hanging out at a private golf course and everybody helps in cooking suppers in the kitchen.
Biggest surprise is the revelation Roman is a financial adviser --he was unprepared for the family's spending spree, no doubt about it.
"In all the families we profiled the kids were surprisingly supportive," says Keehn. "They were willing to make some changes to help parents burn that mortgage down. They though it sucked to be worried about making mortgage patyments at 70."
Keehn says the biggest hurdle was making sure each couple had a different set of problems otherwise the narrative would get repetitive. "Different families experience different kinds of financial setbacks."
Bisch says the three challenges per show are different for each couple, too.
The first episode seen was actually the fourth to be shot --at the last minute the third was pulled because the fourth played stronger.'
"We just got along from the start," Bisch says. "And we got better with each episode. Each was shot in four days so that's a lot of footage to be boiled down to 21 minutes. Sometimes the cameras are still rolling and the couple will be way off in the dustance and unaware we're still shooting. The challenge was to make them feel as comfortable as possible and none had been in front of the camera before."
Favorite location was Mississauga because it's the perfect suburban setting and the series is being sold to U.S. TV, too. But there are other locations throughout southern Ontario. "I mostly got to drive home to Waterloo at night,"Bisch says. "Even the days we were in Richmond Hill."
Made by RTR Media the series boasts excellent references: executive Kit Redmond's series include Instant Beauty Pageant and Income Property.