Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Explaining The Experts.

It's unfortunate Josh Freed's latest documentary The Trouble With Experts is coming on CBC TV's Doc Zone so early in the season.
Viewers frantically trying to sample all the new series shouldn't overlook this entertaining look at how we seek out self styled experts in almost every walk of life.
I was thinking of this the other night when I watched a 1968 Walter Cronkie news broadcast that originally ran on CBS.
It seemed so weird --it was wall to wall news with no opinionators whatever. Until the end when Cronkite offered his opinion that the War In Vietnam was not winnable.
Contrast this with Anderson Cooper who uses banks of experts in faux fights every night of the week.
At one point we're told there are so many TV experts these days because TV has expanded to all day news and experts are needed to fill up the air time because they're cheap to hire.
And maybe the real problem isn't with all these confident experts who frequently dole out information that's just plain wrong.
The fault may be with ourselves --we're trying too darned hard in today's rush of a society that we try to get experts to tell us what to do. And sometimes it just doesn't work.
Freed's response is light hearted. He's got a knack for making us laugh uneasily at our foibles. And here he's got a lot of ammunition to work with --I think he could have tackled TV's political experts as a separate subject.
These pontificators analyze everything and they're on all day. I was watching a pair go at each other onCNN in the mid afternoon. Then at night I caught one of the guys ranting again on Cooper.
In fact Freed even uses other experts to grade the experts he's profiling particularly science writer David Freedman author of the book WRONG.
One of the best segments is on talented painter John Myatt who began replicating paintings by famous master painters and doing so well he sold them as authentic works to the great museums of the world.
These days he still does forgeries but only on commission and with the understanding the buyer knows he's getting a bogus painting.
Most pompous are the incredibly snobbish wine experts who in one test couldn't even tell red wine from white wine that was dyed red.
I liked the work of Berkeley professor Phillip Tetlock who studied 300 experts in politics over a rwo decade period and studied over 82,000 predictions for a 2005 study. He found their prognostications only slightly better than random guesses.
On TV shows one expert says that verbal battles are encouraged because it makes for exciting TV.
That segues into a great bit at a college where experts are trained in the art of seeming authoritative --how to dress, talk slowly and deeply. There's a course that takes several days of training."
The Oxford doctor Ben Goldacre tells us about the bad scientific information being dispensed on TV health shows.
But the real kicker is a look at a prison expert who counsels white collar criminals who are entering jail about what to expect behind bars.
If anything The Trouble With Experts suffers from a bit of information overload. It's so jam packed with necessary stuff you really should tape it to watch again a few months from now when TV experts are getting on your nerves.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I'll Watch A "New" 1943 Movie

I'm going to play hokey Wednesday night for a few hours.
Starting at 8 p.m. I'll be watching an old movie that's new again.
I've watched enough of those bad new series currently flooding TV networks.
The film is The Constant Nymph and it hasn't been seen since its release in 1943.
Nobody has seen it because the author of the book Margaret Kennedy insisted that upon her death the film could only play in museums and libraries.
The one time I interviewed its star Joan Fontaine she said she hadn't viewed it either since 1943.
Well, Turner Classic Movies which owns the rights later arranged a private screening for Miss Fontaine.
She told the press she staggered out into the light and felt she needed a drink.
The Constant Nymph was directed by Edmund Goulding and besides Fontaine the cast includes Charles Boyer, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty and Charles Coburn.
What a cast! Miss Fontaine garnered an Oscar nomination, she was that good.
And she journeyed to sister Olivia de Havilland's home studio Warners to make it. Could that have been the start of a sisterly feud that sizzles and crackles to this day?
"It certainly didn't help," laughed Fontaine with glee.
The one time I was at Alexis Smith's Hollywood home I asked her about the film and she shrugged.
"I was 22 playing a sophisticated 35-year old and it was my best performance. But nobody but nobody has seen it in decades."
Smith has passed but Fontaine, now a feisty 94-year old, must be in heaven about this coup.
But The Constant Nymph is only one of a number of long lost films TCM is trying to find.
Sunday night I watched the 1941 version of Back Street styarring Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer --it hasn't been on any Canadian TV station since 1970.
The one phone interview I ever had with TCM's master historian Robert Osborne I asked what other forgotten films he was hoping to re-discover,
One title he gave me was the all star 1933 drama Night Flight.
WEll, Here's the cast: Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Helen Hayes, John Barrymore, Robert Montgomery.
Warners has just released it on DVD for the first time after years of negotiating over the rights..
TCM owns the TV rights.
So how about it TCM?
POST SCRIPT: I saw the film which was a box office failure in 1943 although Joan Fontaine received an Oscar nomination. It's of a high style of glossy film making that passed from the scene a long time ago. The accoutrements are lavish including a town home in London overstuffed with antiques. Being out of view for 70 years means the film has a reputation it can't really live up to. But it's a lot of fun rev-siting such stars as Alexis Smith, Charles Boyer, Dame May Whitty, Charles Coburn all of whom have passed in the intervening decades. Only Fontaine at 94 is still with us.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Some things just don't mix.
Like Steven Spielberg and American TV.
Way back in 1984 the world's most successful movie director (in box office terms) decided he'd conquer TV in the form of an ultra expensive series Amazing Stories which he made for NBC.
The drumbeat of publicity was so huge that CBS got scared and suddenly imported Angela Lansbury into its fall preview sessions with visiting TV critics held that year in Phoenix.
Because Spielberg was confident he'd take Lansbury's time slot away from her --Sunday nights at 8 p.m.
But he couldn't budge Lansbury and her series Murder She Wrote,
Because Lansbury had a character viewers took to and wanted to watch week safter week.
And while some of Spielberg's episodes were OK others were just a little too precious for the vast TV audience.
And NBC blinked and twice moved the show in its second season before finally canceling the whole misjudged experiment.
It took almost a decade but an unbowed Spielberg was at it again with the simply silly sci fi show SeaQuest DSV which ran for two shaky seasons on NBC starting in 1993.
Once again the special effects were supreme and the story lines so dorky assembled TV critics laughed in all the wrong places at the special preview.
And once again the show flopped in the ratings --and what was the CBS series that sank this leaky vessel?
You guessed it --once again it was Murder She Wrote with Angela Lansbury.
Spielberg must be happy that his third series encounter comes after Lansbury's retirement from series TV work.
Instead of actors to basically deal with Spielberg has his computer generated dinosaurs --at least they won't talk back.
I never heard of a family sitting around the TV set to watch the special effects.
the story line here is so rudimentary it makes the screenplay Avatar look like Pulitzer Prize material.
The premise borrows liberally from that old hit Lost In Space and adds a mixture of Lost.
I remember interviewing the star Jason O'Mara when he was in Toronto promoting an earlier flop series In Justice (actually it was pretty good dramatically). He then made another flop, the U.S. version of Life On Mars.
Every nuance on Terra Nova gets telegraphed with such obvious dialogue that watching made me squirm at times.
And so much dough was tossed at the two-hour premiere I'm betting subsequent hours will not be half as dinosaur friendly.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pan Am Still Might Make It

What I'm hearing from friends is that the premiere episode of Pan Am just didn't make it for them.
Call it Mad Men Lite so far.
The new ABC series has a bad time slot --it runs Sundays at 10 p.m. opposite CBS's venerable but still potent CSI:Miami and NBC's powerhouse NFL football.
I met the four actresses playing the stewardesses during the CTV fall launch.
Best know is Christina Ricci but the others are just as talented: Margot Robbie, Karine Vanesse, Kelli Gardner.
Set like Mad Men in 1963 the serial follows the lives of the four girls in the Golden Age of travel.
"It was when people actually dressed up to travel in an airplane. It was very exclusive and glamourous," Robbie told the TV critics that day.
All the accoutrements of life almost 50 years get developed --this a very expensive series to make.
But unlike Mad Men it can only go so far --remember this is network TV.
CTV has gone all out to promote the new show even going as far as to send me a PAN AM flight bag complete with all sorts of goodies.
And this is the one TV critics everywhere have been hailing as among the season's best new shows.
The pilot failed on most counts --it was disjointed and diffuse but that often happens when a new series debuts. It should improve over the next few weeks.
Pan Am gals back there had to be educated and very beautiful. One gets demoted for not living up to the wardrobe standards. Another has her girdle snapped by a superior --girdles were part of the look back then.
I can see this one developing as a bout of escapism but it needs a lot of work to get up to scratch.
Since the 1960s terrorism and the high price of oil have made air travel less an adventure than a strenuous ride filled with problems.
Mad Men was a dazzlng recreation of a past time but it was filled with nuance and blistering criticisms of its characters. Pan Am is all surface cuteness. It's not at all compelling --so far.
So far it's more Charlie's Angels than anything else.
However on the first night out Pan Am did OK in the ratings bolstered by the overrun of CBS football.

MY RATIONG: **1/2.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The New TV Season: Flops And Hits

Some of the brightest new series are already on life support.
NBC's Playboy Club is a huge stinker but NBC doesn't have anything else waiting in the bull pen so this one might simply sink slowly over the next month or so.
Playboy Club comes across as a particularly bad reworking of Mad Men.
Also dead is NBC's comedy Free Agents but again it's a case of nothing available as a back up.
That excellent drama Harry's Law is already in trouble I've been told. and may be moved to another night.
Law & Order: SVU was third in its time slot first week back and NBC sources confirm this is its final season.
But The Office held up well with a new boss which is good news for NBC.
Three CBS vets How I Met Your Mother, NCIS and NCIS:LA all bounced back with higher ratings than last season. Go figure.
And the huge numbers for Two And A Half Men was astonishing --but how many viewers will tune in for the second new episode?
Huge expectations were dashed when The X Factor limped forth with extremely anemic ratings. But Night Two held on to almost all of the original viewers.
My conclusion? Simon Cowell's schtick is getting tougher to stomach.
But this is one reality series that's very expensive to make and probably can't long continue after one season.
Young viewers weren't having anything to do with Charlie's Angels which is a very ineptly made show any way you look at it.
But oldies can be golden: Ted Danson was very low keyed but effective on the revamped CSI and guarantees this venerable show at least one more full season, perhaps even two.
And Hawaii FIVE-0 debuted for its second season behind Castle meaning brand awareness doesn't sell if the product in this case is so humdrum.
I'm told the mood at CBC was one of astonishment that the ambitious new comedy series Michael got creamed by The X Family
and quickly repositioned the show to Tuesdays.
But why did CBC open its big shows against such juggernauts as the Emmy Awards and with minimal publicity?

Boardwalk Empire Comes Roaring Back

Last Sunday night the wonderful new TV series Boardwalk Empire which had 18 Emmy nominations walked off with eight wins including best director (Martin Scorsese).
And boy am I one lucky TV critic.
I've just watched the first two new episodes of this great series on a preview DVD and it's every bit as great and as dark as the first year's episodes.
To get it in Canada you must subscribe to HBOCanada but believe me there's nothing else quite like it anywhere else.
At the end of Season One Atlantic City's honcho and City Treasurer Nucky (Steve Buscemi) was battling a coalition of forces against him although his companion Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) did decide to return to him.
Battling him all the way is the Commodore (Dabney Coleman) who is arraigning all his enemies into a super force.
Season Two starts with real force as a gang of black bootleggers are involved in a pitched battle with a gang of Klu Klux Khan --and there are deaths on both sides. The scene is horrific with bodies piling up, blood spattering and the white supremacists even taking hits as they run away from the carnage.
Charismatic. That's the only word to describe these characters. There's the proud black criminal Chalky played in marvellous fashion by Kenneth Williams.
If the series looks like no other that's because each hour episode costs more than $5 million to make. And all the period details are just right from the lavish Atlantic City mansions to the classy whorehouse with the pianist languidly playing favorites of the clientele.
The very rich women sport all the appertances from the furs to the giant limousines. The men who are very rich have three piece suits and gorgeous tie. All the faux glamour of the era is well presented but peel that back and it's a sordid saga of the rise of big time crime due to Prohibition and the free sexuality that few writers of the time dared write about.
Themes continue to percolate: the racism of the time contrasted with the sudden freedom and the power that Prohibition gave outcast blacks. And there's the continuing corruption of municipal and state government and the culture of kickbacks that dictated huge payouts to politicians in power.
Real characters drift in and out of the sprawling narrative--Al Capone was the young, vicious punk the first season and early this year Arnold Rothstein makes his intentions clear.
The big theme is how much the Volstead Act which made the selling of any liquor illegal (including beer) totally totally unsettled American society. But it wasn't just booze, in the second new episode Michael Pitt's character is advised by the Rothstein gang to move into heroin.
Performances are unifiormly excellent. In the first few new shows we'll learn about the strange marriage of Agent Nelson Van Alden (played by Nelson Van Alden). Then there's the bold decision of Great War veteran Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). And Sheriff Elias (Shea Wigham) is ambivalent about loyalty to older brother Nucky.
I also like Vincent Piazza as Lucky Luciano, Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein, Stephen Graham as Al Capone. And Steve Buscemi has the role of a lifetime and is showing how great character acting can be endlessly fascinating.
In a tepid new TV season filled with remakes and clones of clones Boardwalk Stands alone as a must-see.
MY RATING: ****.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Farewell To All My Children

Here's the truly big news of the week.
Forget those terrible new prime time TV series currently spewing forth. Most will be toast by season's end.
The biggest TV story out there is the demise of All My Children Friday on ABC.
Did it have to happen? No way. ABC is killing off one of the staples of daytime TV to make way for cheap lifestyle programming.
Take a look at how CBC has been putting new life into its evergreen British import Coronation Street.
CBC runs a new episode every weeknight (except Friday) at 7:30 to jump start its prime time programming. And that same episode is on late nights and at 2 p.m.
Then the four episodes are packaged for Sunday mornings as Sunday brunch with Coronation Street and different audiences watch every time.
ABC could be doing the same thing --re-building the audience base eroded by the multiplicity of choices. Instead the network has sold off the rights and a new version will debut in January on the internet although key cast members will be missing.
What happened to daytime soaps?
Well, first of all more and more women are working these days so the base of traditional support is no longer there.
I remember taking tea once with Agnes Nixon in her New York hotel suite and she was one of those who energized the genre by creating Another World and then One Life To Live.
Soap companies including Procter And Gamble owned the original TV shows outright.
When ratings started to topple these were the vulnerable soaps --CBS has kept on the air soaps it owned outright.
ABC had a controlling interest in the U.S. cable network SOAPnet but has divested itself of that cable web. Thus it no longer needs All My Children.
in the 1950s I'd watch two soaps every afternoon before heading back to school: Search For Tomorrow at 12:30 and The Guiding Light at 1 p.m.
Both were live and each ran 15 minutes (including the commercials which were filmed).
The day I spent with Nixon she explained the fight to get All My Children up and running. It debuted Jan 5 1970--originally Nixon and husband Bob owned it outright but sold all rights to ABC in 1975.
When I visited the set in 1974 it was taped at ABC Television studios at 101 West 67th Street which is now a 50-story apartment complex.
Nixon told me that day the audience was over 30 per cent male and it also attracted a huge audience of college kids.
Lunch on set with grande dame Ruth Warrick was fun especially when she said "I started out in Citizen Kane, the greatest film ever made, and now I'm in a soap. I see no diminution of my status. In fact I've got a lot more fans these days."
The final episode was taped in L.A. on August 11. Its not known when the first Internet episode will run.
But one thing is clear: a phenomenon of American culture has departed from TV forever.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

New Prime Suspect Just Doesn't Make It

Why would NBC do it?
Remake that near perfect British series Prime suspect, I mean.
Yes, I know that way back when such successful American shows from All In The Family to Sanford And Son to Three's Company were remakes of Brit hits.
But in those long ago days American TV viewers had no chance to view the originals.
Since then the going has been tough.
Consider the fate of the U.S. version of Cracker which came and went faster than you can say "ratings bomb".
The British version(1993-96) was superb with Robbie Coltrane as the flawed but brilliant sleuth.
The American version (1996-97) lasted 16 hours and starred the fine actor Robert Pastorelli but we'd all seen the original and anything that was diluted just wasn't going to make it.
Then there was the U.S. version of Life On Mars which lasted 17 episodes in 2008 and 2009.
Again it was mostly a failure --we'd seen it all done so much better by the BBC in the original.
And right now I'm re-sampling Prime Suspect which vaulted Helen Mirren to the top of favorite actresses of the time. The originals ran over many weeks as Det. Inspector Jane Tennison tried to solve very complicated murders. As a commentary on the underbelly of contemporary British society this was tops.
The new version stars Maria Bello, an actress I've admired in the past.
Here she's given a new names (Jane Timony) and a boss who's as strong as she is (Aidan Quinn).
OK, so she's brilliant. Resolute. But she's also unsympathetic, hard boiled in the least appealing sort of way. We can't root for her. She wouldn't want us to.
The discrimination she suffers from male colleagues is brutal. But I would have thought that kind of behavior went out at least a decade ago.
Story lines are solved too patly here, everything is rushed. On the original the crime was analyzed and explored over a month's worth of episodes.
The show is jam packed with talent. Toby Stephens (his mom is Dame Maggie Smith) plays her live-in boyfriend but he has very little to do. One scene does stand out as Jane negotiates visitation rights for his son with the ex-wife during a restaurant encounter.
All the darkness of the original has vanished. What emerges is a well made police show but one that too often invites invidious comparisons with the Helen Mirren version.
Maybe NBC should have used a new name for the series as well as the character.
Thursday nights has been CBS's domain in recent years and I can't see it changing this season out.
However, others are saying I'm wrong. Global TV's head Barb Williams predicted this would be the breakout series of the season during the fall TV press event.
But on U.S. network TV it doesn't matter how great the show is if people are watching the opposition.
And PS's opposition is formidable: CBS's top-rated The Mentalist and NBC's still popular Grey's Anatomy.
MY RATING: **1/2.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Fall Season: Ratings Winners And Losers

My CBS sources are doing the twist over the huge ratings for the revamped Two And A Half Men.
Just a minute, fellows! That was a huge number, I'm granting you, but what will it be the next week when the reality sets in. Most of the people I talked to who saw the premiere didn't like it very much at all.
But the wave also hit CBS's How I Met your Mother at 8 which had its best ever season premiere.
At 8 NBC's Playboy Club really tanked and since it is a serialized drama it's unlikely more viewers will tune in for next week's episode.
And at 9:30 the amiable new sitcom Two Broke Girls also on CBS attracted 19 million curious viewers giving it a great sampling.
Against this ratings juggernaut there was ABC's Dancing With The Stars which still attracted a more than respectable 18 million viewers.
Viewers seemed most curious about Chaz Bono who showed that with parents Sonny and Cher he certainly has inherited dancing steps.
At 10 p.m. CBS's Hawaii Five-0 got stomped on by NBC's Castle which attracted an additional million viewers over its weak CBS rival.
CTV sources are saying Two garnered 4.9 million viewers which may be a new high for a sitcom. It's bigger than even Big Bang Theory gets.
On CBS the number was over 27 million which was once what a hit like Beverly Hillbillies would be pulling in.
In fact I'm willing to bet Playboy Club might be the first prominent new series to get toppled.
More ominously for the future of the U.S. networks Business Week reports a decline in the number of actual viewers this fall tuned into satellite or cable TV.
The phenomenon is called "cord cutting" and means an increasing number of younger viewers are declining to pay exorbitant monthly cable or satellite bills and are watching their programs solely online. The college crowd watch online in their dorms and when they go out on their own decline to hook up to conventional TV services.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sheen Really Missed On The Revamped Two And A Half Men

So there I was talking to a Grade Six class about the new TV season.
And I didn't get a single question about the new shows which is par for the course'
No one but TV critics have seen them yet.
The talk was all about Charlie Sheen's departure from Two And A Half Men and whether he could be replaced.
And having just finished watching the first new episode on CBS and CTV the answer is simply: No.
Sheen was 90 per cent of the show. We watched because this guy was really dangerous.
He wasn't playing a character. He was being himself and it worked for an awfully long time.
The show was already losing steam, it was repeating old plots, the kid was growing up but CBS was hoping to get a few more seasons out of it before the inevitable departure to Rerun Valley.
Then Sheen sort of blew up and started acting very strange and got fired.
And there he was on the Emmys the other night looking rather subdued and just a little diminished.
That's also my verdict on the sitcom CBS is trying to resuscitate. Diminished
CBS made every mistake in the book in the first new episode.
When stars depart series in a huff the thing is they must be quickly killed off and never mentioned again.
CBS did it right when McLean Stevenson was unceremoniously dumped from M*A*S*H --his character got killed off and the show continued with a better actor as replacement (Harry Morgan).
When Valerie Harper refused to return to the sitcom named after her the character was killed off and she was quickly replaced by Sandy Duncan and nobody really minded.
But on Two And A Half Men the episode opened with Charlie's coffin as if CBS could not resist one more dig at the guy.
Then a steady stream of gal pals reminisced about the baddie.
"He gave me herpes!" gushed one former lover.
"...vaginal warts..."said another.
"He used my panties to make tea..."
"He loved to be spanked..."
Already viewers were missing the guy. In a bad way of course.
Then came the only good moments of the half hour.
The beach house had to be sold so in walked one potential buyer --played by John Stamos. Did you know he was first choice to replace Sheen and turned CBS down because it was a losing proposition.
Then came the co-stars from Dharma And Greg:Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson.
Another cute touch.
Then replacement Ashton Kutcher sauntered in and this sitcom sank like a stone.
He played a would-be suicide who's a billionaire and he buys the property complete with the two occupants. Sure he was nude (to the studio audience) but the zingers suddenly stopped.
This became an aging sitcom in desperate need of life support.
Here's how CBS should have handled Sheen's departure.
1. Repackage the show with the two remaining regulars going off and meeting up with Kutcher in a completely different environment. No mentioning of Sheen after the initial credits.
2. Re-title the show and shop it to the public as a spinoff. As in Frasier which ran forever with Kelsey Grammer in a new situation.
3. then CBS would have a hit and not a re-warmed show where we'll fiorever be wauting for Sheen to return in someway or other.
Stuck against FOX's House and the second half of ABC's Dancing With The Stars and this old show doesn't seem to have much of a chance.
Sure, ratings will be big the first week out. But don't forget House doesn't return until Oct. 3.
And just as important there's going to be no ratings flow into Molly & Me which starts its sophomore season Sept. 26.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

John A: A Resolutely Canadian TV Drama

People have been asking me when the Canadian TV season starts.
They're not thinking of those well made series shot in Canada but set in some unknown place --the ones that are made to sell to American TV networks.
They're thinking of Canadian Canadian shows.
Well, Monday night at 8 on CBC-TV comes a two-hour drama that's as relentlessly Canadian as maple sugar.
The title says it all: John A: The Birth Of A Country.
And the cast reads like a who's who of Canadian TV stars.
Shawn Doyle (The Eleventh Hour) plays John A. Macdonald back when the future prime minister was just another member of a faltering Canadian coalition. Canada in those days comprised an uneasy union of Upper and Lower Canada.
Set against him there's another future Father of Confederation: Peter Outerbridge (ReGenesis) as George Brown, editor of the Toronto Globe.
Aidan Devine (The City) plays another Macdonald, John Sanfield Macdonald, erstwhile leader of the Liberal party and the future first premier of Ontario.
Also there's David La Hayne (George Etienne Cartier), Jean-Michel Le Gal (Antoine-Aime Dorion).
Veteran producer Bernard Zuckerman (This Is Wonderland) made it and veteran Jerry Ciccoritti (Death And Life Of Nancy Eaton) directed it with some class.
The meaty script is by Bruce M. Smith from Richard Gwyn's recent Macdonald biography.
As a former history student at University of Toronto I wish there was more insights from the biographies of Macdonald and Brown by Donald Creighton and Maurice Careless.
The saga opens in 1861 with the union of Upper and Lower Canada going nowhere fast. Governments fall regularly because of the animosity between English and French.
A lot of the story is personal --comprising dual biographies of Macdonald and Brown, ironically both Scotsmen but fiercely loyal to the British crown.
As the American Civil War heats up there's deep concern President Lincoln will one day turn his armies --numbering over a million men --northward and consider Canada easy pickings.
We see Macdonald as first a political opportunist saddled with an ailing wife addicted to opium for her pain.
And Brown is so violently anti-French he cannot cobble together a majority because he has no seats in Quebec.
Now making a drama set in 1861 to 1864 in today's Toronto is a real challenge --there are so few authentic buildings left.
But the on-location photography takes us to University College and Osgoode Hall for some exteriors. Production designer Tim Bider and Costume designer Mary Partridge-Raynor have created alchemy in recreating those Victorian times.
I'm not sure Doyle is quite right as John A. --he's too serene. I think the real Macdonald was more charismatic , mercurial, and certainly a heavy drinker.
Outerbridge complete with thick Scottish accent has the juicier part and with his whiskers in place shows how passionate and volatile Brown could be in his love of the emerging nation of Canada.
Much of the "action" centers on the historic debates between the two antagonists and to me these moments seemed exciting helped by Ciccoritti's directorial touches and the fluid camera work of Michael Story.
At one time CBC was all into dramatizing Canada's past.
I remember being on the set of CBC's big 1978 hit The National Dream. And I was on the set of a companion 1979 mini-series Riel.
And later there were dramatic recreations of the lives of Laurier, Rene Levesque, Tommy Douglas with diminishing returns.
I'm hoping there is still a place to tell uniquely Canadian stories on CBC.
If that is so the future of the public network is justified.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

So Who Cares About The Emmy Awards?

Here are my predictions for Sunday night's Emmy Awards. As I think this out i see few of the Top Ten U.S. shows are listed. Instead a lot of shows from cable weblets few people watch seem oce again to be dominating the nominations.
For Outstanding U.S. Comedy Series it just has to be Modern Family. I'm thinking the only other contender is the Office which is losing Steve Carell.
For Outstanding Drama Series I'd pick Friday Night Lights which has been consistently ignored by Emmy over the years and has finished its run.
Best Supporting Drama Actor should be John Slattery (Mad Men) because it was his best season.
Best Supporting Drama Actress should be Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire) although Christine Baranski (Good Wife) is right up there.
Best Drama Actor should be Kyle Chandler (FNL) although Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) is a close contender.
Best Drama Actress should be Kathy Bates (Harry's Law) but probably Juliana Margulies (Good Wife) will win.
Best Comedy Actress should be Amy Poehler (Parks And Recreation) but some sources say it's Laura Linney (The Big C).
Best Comedy Actor should be Steve Carell (The Office) just because he's leaving after a great run.
Best Comedy Actor should be Ed O'Neill (Modern Family) --he wasn't even nominated last year.
Best Supporting Comedy Actress should be Jane Lynch (Glee)--I see no other contenders.
So do you agree with me or not?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ron James Returns For His Third Season

So here I am wandering through Toronto's increasingly decrepit subway.
And I can't help but noticing the multiple posters for new CTV and Global TV series debuting this fall.
It's strange but I can't find a single poster promoting a Canadian series.
And both CTV and Global are Canadian networks.
That leaves the heavy lifting to CTV and the cable weblets.
Which means it's important to welcome back Ron James for his third season of comedy capers starting on CBC Friday Sept. 16 at 8 p.m.
I've watched the preview DVD and am liking what I see.
Ever since I first interviewed James for his short lived Canadian sitcom Blackeye I've been a fan. And in my estimation he truly honed his craft through hundreds of one night stands across Canada in the past decade..
When his show debuted I had mixed feelings --after all the estimable RCAF was just then getting cancelled.
But James wisely refused to stray into political commentary --CBC already has Rick Mercer and This Hour Has 22 Minutes for that.
His sketch pad is all of Canada, He doesn't overly dwell on Toronto but goes out touting the advantages of all kinds of Canadian locations.
"This year I'm starting out by saluting Kingston," he chuckles on the line from his comedy offices. And James really gives it to the denizens, mentioning the area has nine prisons for starters.
"I'm going to take on Owen Sound. Look Out!" he laughs. "Then Kelowna, then Banff. There's lots of comedy material in all these towns."
For me the first episode seems tightly edited, better written, a seamless mixture of a funny monologue and competing sketches.
Says James: "The first season it was all touch and go. We actually did the skits as we were taping each show, it was real pandemonium for me. "
This year James's team wrote the monologues and commentaries first and then stitched in comedy sketches that completed James's ramblings.
So he begins with his ideas about weekend fanatics who dress up in period gear and prance around recreating battles or sci fi encounters.
And then on comes a very lively, well researched skit about a group of Southern Confederates in costume headed by a bearded James going up against various wizards and dragons headed by guest Kids In The Hall's Kevin McDonald.
I won't give away too much except to say it certainly works and is well edited and fast paced.
Remembers James :"It was shot in Summerhill Park and the call time was for 6 a.m. Temperature was boiling hot. I had a fake beard glued on and the glue ran and it was very itchy. It all had to be staged with the extras and it just worked out so nicely."
There's also time for a L'il Ronnie segment about head lice that had me itching --I noticed the voice of mom was supplied by the talented Linda Kash.
"I think what we're doing is breaking down the fourth wall, making everything flow as one and it's a great feeling when it happens. Later we'll venture to PEI and examine the twin phenomena of potatoes and Anne."
The show is working more the way James always hoped it would work and he's always generous in giving guests their fair share of the laughs.
And BlackFly is even running on a cable network --I recently caught one episode at around 3 a.m. and it still makes me laugh.
I tell James I recently heard a lady asking in a downtown DVD store where the DVD for Ron James's show was. The sales clerk merely shrugged.
Season 3 deserves a DVD release, I tell you. Better pass that word along to the CBC bureaucrats.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering Cliff Robertson

What I liked about the late Cliff Robertson was his sheer ordinariness.
Sure he was handsome in a square jawed sort of way.
But he never scaled the heights of super movie stardom as happened to such contemporaries as Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon.
Robertson who died on Sept. 10 a day before his 88th birthday once told me he'd survived for decades in Hollywood because "I looked so American to the casting directors I guess."
But what a range of famous Americans he played: John Kennedy, Hugh Hefner, Buzz Aldrin, Henry Ford, Cole Younger.
A group of us shared lunch with Robertson in 1984 in Phoenix, Arizona, where CBS was having its fall TV preview for visiting critics.
Robertson by this time was doing mostly TV --where he'd started in the 1950s--and had signed for a year of guest appearances on the CBS night time soap Falcon Crest at $50,000 an episode..
And why not?
"The money's good, the exposure is tops and people of my generation sit home watching TV these days," he said with a relaxed laugh.
He was born Clifford Parker Robertson in 1923 in La Jolla, California, the son of wealthy parents. He studied English Literature at Antioch College and later worked as a reporter for the Springfield Daily News and served as a merchant marine in World War II.
He joined a repertory company in the Catskill Mountains and he then landed a small role in the touring company of Mister Roberts and another in The Wisteria Trees. In 1955 he signed with Columbia Pioctures and debuted in Picnic opposite Bill Holden and Kim Novak.
"My big break came with my second picture, Autumn Leaves (1956) starring the great Joan Crawford. I know what people say about her but she was entirely professional and saw to it that I was promoted by Columbia."
in 1957 came his first lead in The Naked And The Dead. then he had his biggest ever hit in Gidget (1959) which he hated but which made him a top box office attraction.
In 1963 he was cast as young John Kennedy in the wartime film PT 109 (1963) --"President Kennedy saw it, liked it but mentioned I had my hair parted on the wrong side of my head! Then he was assassinated and nobody had the stomach to see it after that."
In 1968 Robertson won the Oscar for Charly but he was filming in the Philippines and couldn't make the awards ceremony.
In 1977 while routinely reviewing all his earnings for income tax purposes Robertson noticed a check for $10,000 that he did not remember cashing.
He discovered his signature had been forged by Columbia executive David Begelman
Robertson was warned by studio heads not to press charged or he'd be blackballed --he refused and Begelman went to jail for forgery.
"And I did not work again in that town for seven years," Robertson told me.
Robertson who remained a very charming guy --I later got a hand written note of thanks from him for the story I wrote about his joining Falcon Crest.
He was married twice --first to Jack Lemmon's ex-wife Cynthia and then to actress Dina Merrill.
I always liked him in whatever he did.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The One Anniversary Of 9/11 Special You Must Catch

I certainly do remember 9/11.
I was working away at my desk at the Toronto Star that afternoon and went to the window to see what every one was shouting about.
I looked out at Lake Ontario and saw the sky was clogged with American jumbo jets --every U.S. flight east of the Mississippi had been ordered out of American air space --to Toronto or Montreal airports.
So I get bad vibes watching all these anniversary specials.
Until I popped in a Canadian made one that offered insights and hope --and a truly unique twist.
It's titled Hero Dogs Of 9/11 and amazingly the hourlong documentary offers a twist on that day I had never heard of --the canines that tirelessly worked the field of carnage. And some of them even perished in the line of duty.
The hour is seamless which is astounding because producer Tanya Kelen of kelencontent only started working on it in July.
I had no idea over 300 dogs were involved in search and rescue missions that day and the days after. Some were involved in search and rescue missions and doing outstanding work. Others offered solace to tired and despairing crews who were fighting against time to search the ruins for survivors.
Individual dogs get profiled including the security dog Sirius left in a basement cage in the World Trade Center as his owner walked upstairs to try and offer help.
The resulting collapse of the towers meant Sirius was a casualty --mourned by the officer to this day.
And there's the seeing eye dog , Nikki, who calmly and methodically guided her scared and blind owner owner down flights of stairs to safety, stopping occasionally to allow firemen to walk up the stairs --they would never come down alive.
We see how many dogs succumbed to the same ailments as humans and needed medical care --over 100 dogs would be treated in the next few weeks. Many had to be fitted with canine dog pads because of the smoking heat emanating from the fallen steel beams.
And we see how arduous the training is to turn a dog into an expert search and rescue dog--it takes a good 18 months.
Some are cadaver dogs trained to sniff dead bodies in rubble. Others can catch the scent of living people who need to be helped. And some are simply there as therapy dogs.
There's Nikki, the Golden Retriever, who guided the scared blind man out of the towers. And there's a marker for Sirius who also gave his life.
Producer Kelen has expertly recreated many scenes interweaving actual footage with recreations so masterfully I couldn't spot any seams. Some of it is so scarey viewers seem stuck right there in the stairwells. And she's also highlighted the true saga of one of the few humans who actually survived and might have died in the rubble had not search dogs located her. Incredibly she has gone on to have two beautiful children.
We also visit with a reunion of the search dogs and the introduction of new dogs --many of the canine heroes have passed away in the subsequent decade. Nikki died in 2004.
I came away from this wonderful hour not depressed but uplifted by its life affirming message. Hero Dogs Of 9/11 is simply stated the best 9/11 special I've seen tso far and is highly recommended.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Christine Cushing's Fearless In The Kitchen Moves To OWN

"Boy, we have some pretty awful cooks this season," laughs Christine Cushing as her cooking series Fearless In the Kitchen moves from W to OWN for its third season premiere.
"It makes for very exciting TV, I predict. And the twist this year is simply we're using more partners than ever before."
In each of the 13 half hours viewers will be introduced to hapless participants who are just plain lousy in the kitchen.
And by the end? "I'm not saying great chefs will be made," Cushing says on the phone from her editing suite where she's still fine tuning new shows. "But viewers will certainly see a big difference, they'll watch as our guests try and confront their fears about cooking."
In this day of specialized cooking series where great chefs are touted or participants cook in a kind of Survivor Kitchen mode Cushman offers a pleasing difference.
"I'm there to help. I can also tease, cajole, get them going. What I don't do is shout, anything like that. Because it's not me. I don't think that stuff makes for enjoyable TV. It is sort of disturbing."
A lot depends on the selection of the right guests.
"And we really get a great couple in the first new show, a father and his son Peter. Like so many we found them at a travel show --we also get some at home shows. And Peter just came up and said he never learned to cook and his dad was just as bad and their jokes and their energy --that half hour really worked!"
To get those precious 21 minutes of actual footage "well, it took 21 hours of shooting. No, I'm not kidding. We never know at the time what we'll be using, how the session will go, and then comes the editing. So much good stuff has to be discarded. After all we're telling a story that is still unfolding."
Front and center of each episode is Cushing's test kitchen which is laid out to accommodate TV lights and cameras. She says her method is to quickly get the guests accustomed to the cameras and crew and hope after a few moments the subjects will simply settle down.
"It worked this time --pretty son Dave and Peter were joking up a storm. I had them busy preparing a seafood soup and they did almost everything wrong. I asked my producer 'Please don't make me taste that!' But he said it was part of the show. How was it. Utterly awful, like dishwater. Blah!"
From the depths it was Christine's job top raise them to the heights. "By teaching a healthy respect for the food, where it came from, how it has to be managed. I want them to explore but I'm also there to teach."
At one point she takes the men to an actual pig farm and orders them to muck up in one pen --it's one way of showing where food comes from but also gets the boys working in tandem.
I won't give away the final elegant dinner they must prepare --it includes rack of lamb --but it's an adventure for both as well as viewers.
Cushing despite her youth and vigour is a ten year veteran of the TV wars. She effortlessly sports the kind of warm personality that makes guests trust her. And she knows what she's speaking about --she's toiled in such Toronto restaurants as The Four Seasons hoteland Scaramouche and has published two best selling cookbooks including Dish It Out.
Made by Fushion Television for Corus Entertainment Cushing's series was quickly snapped up by Oprah Winfrey's OWN network in Canada and there's a deal going on to bring it also to U.S. Viewers.
"The first one works so well, maybe in the next batch I should only do pairs. I want viewers to learn as much as these two are doing on camera."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Scott McGillivray Is Back With Income Property

How do I know the Toronto made Income Property is just about the hottest series currently on HGTV?
Because host/star Scott McGillivray is on the phone telling me that the series has just been picked up for two new seasons (6 and 7).
"And that happened just as we finished Season 5 so that's a vote of confidence."
The fifth season actually debuts on HGTV Thurs. Sept. 8 at 9 p.m. --a new day and time befitting a top rated Canadian cable series.
"We're no longer a new show so things are going to change somewhat this season,"McGillivray promises.
"Big news is we're getting out of the basement. We'll be moving to renovating entire houses as income property --that seemed the way to go."
And with 65 episodes in the can McGillivray's partners can now start selling the show in such markets as Great Britain.
"British TV, they want a lot of episodes, other places we started selling with our first order of 13. So 65 episodes is a big step forward."
A lot of HGTV product needs such refreshening. Some of the more familiar titles have been around for awhile and there's a sameness to the product that inevitably creeps in.
"We're looser in front of the camera, we have some funny moments,"he explains. In earlier segment he often seemed a bit uncertain and that occurred when the series was evolving. These new episodes highlight a more relaxed, genial host who obviously enjoys what he does.
"Some change is good, positive but too much might drive away dedicated fans, that's what I feel anyhow. But with success comes a certain freedom to play a bit with the format."
Indeed in the first new show music gets added to the mix in the demolition segment --what emerges is a sort of fractured rock video.
"I didn't want to tackle the same solutions every week. We still deal with people in emergency situations who desperately need help or they could lose their homes.
"We'll always be about helping."
McGillivray, 33, protests he's still the same guy who went into the series. "Probably I was too trusting, that's all"
He's referring to the lady customer who figured his TV work had made him pretty wealthy and sat in a chair watching as his crew attempted to renovate her home --she demanded something like $70,000 in additional insulation and the experience, he says, was the siole negative experience of TV making.
When I tell him I got a huge number of comments about the feature I wrote on him last year he seems to brighten up.
And I'm still getting comments. I read one received the other day:
"I love Scott and His Show. He has taught me so much about home design. I would like to use his designer on the beach penthouse in Boa Raton. I want them to decorate the 5,000sq ft on the 28th floor."
So what about it, Scott? Interested in branching out from just Toronto?
MacGillivray chortles and says send him the em-ail address.
In fact one of his ventures is as a landlord --he currently owns and/or renovates 20 properties in Toronto but has been slowly converting to U.S. properties.
"In 33 states there are laws encouraging the buying of heavily discounted properties. So I've reduced my Canadian properties by about 50 per cent."
And another correspondent mentioned she'd once eaten in a restaurant he managed and owned in Burlington.
So what kind of food did you serve?
And why did it go under.
"It seems to be the fate of most restaurants these days. They only last six months and then another becomes faddish."
And did you ever think had it succeeded you might have wound up as a host on Food Network instead of HGTV?
"Not really." But he's chuckling.
I ask McGillivray if the burden of being so famous means people can be bothersome on occasion.
"No, not really. The fans are generally great, they like to chat and if I didn't like this I'd be doing something else."

Monday, September 5, 2011

Against The Wall: New "Canadian" Drama On Bravo!

This is shaping up to be the TV Season of the "New Woman"
Yet another cop drama extolling the virtues of an independent female debuts Wed. night at 9 on Bravo!.
Against The Wall is pretty darned good although wholly derivative of other, bigger network series.
Rachael Carpani is well cast as a struggling police woman Abby Kowalski who at 30 finally gets to be a detective --only its in the hated and feared Internal Affairs division.
If Carpani looks familiar she starred for eight seasons on the Australian TV series McLeod's Daughters.
Here she has mastered a North American accent with apparent ease.
She's got a tough cop (Treat Williams) for a father and all three of her brothers are Chicago beat cops.
And if that doesn't somehow remind you of Blood Brothers then you haven't been watching the CBS drama that stars Tom Selleck.
And on the job Abby finds herself coupled with a toughie, a street smart female detective who shows her the ropes. Think Cagney And Lacey and you're getting warm.
Set in Chicago, the series is getting filmed in Toronto and that's not even a first. CTV's past hit Due South was set in Chicago but also filmed here.
It's a tradition that goes all the way back to Night Heat --look for the streetcar tracks, the Ontario plates on the taxis, and in the very first scene is instantly recognizable as Front. Street West. And I also spotted a passerby buying a copy of the Toronto Star from a coin box.
But I digress. Despite its bag load of derivatives Against The Wall works because of some top notch actors.
As Abby's parents there are two experienced actors with hit series under their belts: Williams and Kathy Bates from PIcket Fences
Catch the droll scene where Baker forces Williams to eat cereal for breakfast after he picks a fight with daughter Abby..
And because this is treasured Cancon lots of fine local actors get chances to shine: Steve Byers(Falcon Beach), James Thomas as brother Donnie, Andrew Walker as boyfriend Brody, and Mayko Nguyen (ReGenesis) who's also co-starring in Rookie Blue.
The series is long on character development, short on the usual police histrionics. In the first episode Abby is investigating a charge of police brutality lodged against two officers who were caught in as barroom brawl.
But that part of the hour seems perfunctory. Against The Wall really works by exploring the family dynamics: a disagreement in church between Abby and her mother, the anger of her father who didn't want her to join the department despised by most cops, and Abby's ambivalence about hooking up with an old friend.
Carpani has the sort of personality that makes you want to get interested in her character.
The series was primarily made for the U.S. cable network Lifetime which specializes in stories of the empowerment of women and on this basic level Against The Wall truly delivers.
Technical details are on a par with any network series. Against The Wall will surely find a willing female audience out there willing to watch this thirtysomething detective find her bearings.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Two More Drama Series Return On Sunday

This is the time of the year when Americanseries new and returning inundate Canadian TV networks.
But Sunday night the two returning series coming back with new episodes at least have buckets of Canadian content.
First up is Season Two of Lost Girl. It's Toronto made and stars Kristen Holden Ried, Anna Silk (Billable Hours) and Ksenia Solo in a very appealing blend of sci fi nonsense, sheer whimsy and ancient myths and folklore.
Silk is very beautiful in the lead as the audacious BO who when she kisses somebody kills them just like that.
Then there's the police detective Dyson played with panache by Reid who is actually a Fae --a sort of vampire I'm guessing with a dash of werewolf on the side.
Just to be reassuring this is not Buffy land, nor Twilight time, it has an unique style of its own.
Sets and camerawork are up to movie standards and the three leads are obviously enjoying acting with each other.
Did I understand the plot at all? Nope. But I persevered and watched to the end and never once was bored.
For Reid it's a big step forward since I first interviewed him on the set of the late lamented CBC soaper Riverdale. But the series wasn't made for me --it's obviously been carefully crafted to garner in all those True Blood fans out there.
Because of its obviously derivative nature it's a bit of a challenge to get overly excited about Lost Girl.
But there are no weak points --the plot crackles along and the first week's look at an itinerant circus where the denizens are up to no good was pretty smartly staged.
Bo's attitude to men is ambiguous --nothing here is plain and simple.
Lost Girl premiered a year ago to pretty solid reviews and the second season opener may help grow the ratings. Made by Prodigy Pictures and filmed in and around Toronto the show has a look all its own.
An hour later another Canadian made cable drama, Covert Affairs, also returns for its Second Season.
Made in Toronto for USA cable network Covert Affairs highlights the beauty of Piper Perablo as 28-year old Annie Walker who gets picked right from rigorous CIA training and plopped out to the field as a fully functioning agent.
Walker has all the physical training to acquit herself in dangerous situations but she's also darned attractive. Her technical backup comes from Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty), a brilliant technician despite the fact he's blind. Buit he's awfully funny and supportive.
Kari Matchett returns to Toronto as Walker's CIA assigner Joan Campbell and Peter Gallagher is an ambiguously powerful lawyer. From Heroes as another supportive agent there's Sendhil Ramamurthy.
First new episode has Walker coming to the aid of an Estonian tennis star and she seems to have matured after a first season of battling the baddies.
Covert Affairs is strangely lightly likable despite its serious subject matter.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why Warehouse 13 Is Moving To Showcase

Consider the strange case of Warehouse 13.
The series revved up in 2009 and first ran on CityTV but to weak ratings.
For season 3 it's getting better promotion and a berth on Showcase and why not?
Is it Canadian or American?
Well, it's shot in Canada and the local stars include Aaron Ashmore and Saul Rubinek along with such Americans as Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly.
The show is watchable but wholly derivative. In the U.S. it's one of the staples of the SyFy network. Up here its shenanigans might confuse viewers used to fact based shows.
The premise finds two Secret Service agents transferred to "Warehouse 13" after saving the life of the President. It's a massive structure set deep within the mountains in South Dakota where every object and artifact of magic and even whimsy gets stored.
Rubinek overacts wildly as the eccentric curator of the collection named Eddie.
Pete(McClintock) and Myka (Joanne Kelly) are busy chasing down every and all reports of fantastical situations and supernatural happenings. And naturally the U.S. government officially refuses to admit such a facility exists.
Made by Universal Cable Productions, the series sports high production values but the situations are played more for laughs than thrills. The cast are allowed to mug furiously to cover up plot deficiencies. But just try to stop watching --there's something about this band of sleuths that's entertaining.
I think the series is thriving because of the amiability of the stars particularly McClintock and Kelly who refuse to take anything seriously. He's convinced every female is instantly falling for him. She's a by-the-book agent who at first seems impervious to his charms.
Don't take any of it seriously and you might like this show although I think it really belongs on Space.
And this season Aaron Ashmore comes onboard as a new agent--and a gay one at that -- with the ability to tell whether or not people he's interviewing are actually liars. But the show is so plot oriented there's never been much time to explore relationships.
So watch Season's 3 debut Thursday night at 10 on Showcase and tell me what you think.