Tuesday, January 31, 2012

American Tiger Is First Class Science TV

I'm told by CBC insiders that it actually happened: a few seasons back CBC senior brass seriously contemplated ending The Nature Of Things after its 50th anniversary.
CBC was then on a youth kick and had already bumped off a precious icon Royal Canadian Air Farce because its viewers were older than Little Mosque On The Prairie's --which had a lower rating. but survived because of youthful demographics.
In the case of NOT wiser heads prevailed or maybe some of those heads departed in the latest CBC management coup.
The result has been a stronger, steadier NOT and more episodes per season. It's as if CBC now recognizes the value of a Brand Name that has stood the test of time for so long.
Witness the first new NOT offering of the Second Season: The American Tiger co-directed by Francis Delfour and Sebastien Tetrault.
The hour looks at the strange status of tiger breeding programs in the U.S. where private owners and companies are still allowed to breed tigers and keep them as exotic if highly dangerous pets.
First we start with the TV news shots --a tiger escapes in a California town in 2003 causing panic and has to be shot down by a tearful police man.
And more recently a private zoo keeper in Zanesville Ohio commits suicide but not before freeing all his exotic pets.
Authorities have to shoot all the rampaging animals and the death toll includes 18 beautiful tigers.
One note: I would have loved a side glance at the situation in Canada and why it is so different here.
In the U.S. it's a question of a welter of conflicting state laws and the disinclination of federal authorities to set national standards for private breeding.
For one thing there's opposition from powerful entertainment sources as well as suppliers of the food tigers eat.
The strange state is this: wild tigers which numbered 100,000 in 1900 now number less than 4,000 and are disappearing fast.
Their habitats are being destroyed with the encroachment of humans and some of the seven species are considered virtually extinct.
But home grown American tigers are thriving as never before. Their population could be as high as 10,000 --according to various counts.
But the scientists interviewed here say these tigers can't quite cut the grade genetically. Many are hybrids of more than one species. At zoos the ancestry of each and every tiger gets scrupulously recorded.
Another thing about the domesticated brand: they haven't been taught survival skills by their mothers. Most do not know how to hunt. The idea that they could be re-released into the wild is ridiculed by the experts.
This hour covers a lot of ground and has some familiar faces. There's Hitchcock heroine Tippi Hedren who devotes herself these days to a big cat sanctuary she runs.
She'd like a complete ban on the private breeding of tigers arguing that tigers can never be pets.
Indeed the case of Siegfried and Roy is brought up --the Las Vegas act was stopped one night when a trained tiger turned and mauled Roy.
This hour passes quickly and is well edited. But it should come with this cautionary note: "No humans were injured in the filming of this documentary." Because the camera gets dangerously close on several occasions to prove the directors' points.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Discovery Opts For Reality TV

I never thought it would come to this --Discovery Canada which is an upscale science specialty channel has gone the way of reality TV.
And the result is kind of fun, I'm admitting.
Titled Canada's Greatest Know-It-All this loopey but entertaining series takes 10 Canadians who think they know everything and pits them against each other.
It's sort of Fear Factor plus brains.
Well, maybe not quite. So far in the DVD preview I've seen there are no death defying acts or incidents of sheer grossness such as swimming in a pool filled with wiggly worms.
This time it's knowledge that is king. They get involved in leadership skills, game playing, problem solving but on a very big scale.
There are 10 contestants but only two women --I'd like to chat to the producer about that anomaly.
How they were selected isn't as precisely laid out as it should be. Apparently there was a contest and aspiring Discovery stars had to submit videos.
We get to know a few of the 10 in the first hour and will probably meet up with the rest later on.
One of the skills in the first outing involved building a shed of plywood, some boards and rope and seeing how it would fare on a cliffside against wind powered machines.
There were two teams of five each and the object was to see who could construct the most durable cabin --a stuffed pig was placed inside both houses.
I'm honor bound not to give away any endings but the conclusion surprised me.
I stayed watching.
The second competition was weird --two of the finalists --in fact the oldest two --were pitted against each other in a series of Boy Scouts achievements and the one who won was a true surprise --it was a battle of an educator versus a blue collar worker.
In subsequent competitions they'll have to determine the correct release of a bomb dropped from a Lancashire bomber, arrange an anatomically correct human skeleton from bones stuck in blocks of ice and construct a trebuchet to play an ultimate game of Trojan Basketball.
And at least one contestant gets voted "off the island" every episode--the first season runs for eight weeks.
But the biggest challenge of all is this: Will you turn in next week after sampling the premiere episode?
It all depends whether you're good at playing games or not.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Farewell To Two TV Actors

TV is an ephemeral business. Look at the experiences of two TV actors who enjoyed great fame on TV only to vanish for long stretches of time: James Farentino and Robert Hegyes.
Farentino passed last week aged 73 after decades of weaving in and out of such TV series as The Bold Ones, Cool Millions and Dynasty which is where I met and interviewed him.
And then there's the equally strange case of Robert Hegyes who also died this week of cardiac arrest at 60 --he was one of the original sweat hogs on Welcome Back Kotter which is where I first met him.
Farentino first stepped on the Broadway stage in 1961 as one of the beach boys trying to molest Bette Davis in the Tennessee Williams play The Night Of The Iguana.
In 1966 he copped a Golden Globe as most promising male actor in the hit film comedy The Pad And How To Use It.
Along the way came four wives including actresses Elizabeth Ashley and Michelle Lee.
I had lunch with Farentino on the set of Dynasty in July 1981.
The series debuted in January 1981 and ratings sank like a stone. It was intended as producer Aaron Spelling's retort to Dynasty but the casting was off and the ploys lacked tension.
ABC wanted to cancel it but creators Esther Shapiro and Spelling argued rejigging the cast might save the show so Farentino and Joan Collins were brought on in the first full season that debuted in September 1981.
Collin's vixen Alexis saved the show but Farentino seemed lost and only last 20 episodes.
He continued his TV career in such series as Blue Thunder (1984), the miniseries Sins (1986), the sitcom Mary (1985-86) opposite Mary Tyler Moore and the series Julie (1993) and Melrose Place (1998).
I was on the set of the series Welcome Back Kotter (1975-79) before it went to air with other visiting TV critics.
The original pilot shown to press presented Hegyes as the lead sweathog Juan Epstein but I was one of the scribes who said wait a minute it's gong to be the other guy.
That "other guy" turned out to be unknown John Travolta as Vinnie and he's soared ever since.
To my intense surprise I met Hegyes again years later on the set of Cagney And Lacey. It was 1988 and he was playing the recurring part of Detective Manny Esposito.
In later years he guest starred on such series as Diagnosis Murder and Murder Scorpion and even taught drama at Venice High School for several years.
He told me how toxic TV fame can be and only wanted to continue developing as a character actor.
Farentino blamed the bad publicity he received for allegedly stalking girl friend Tina Sinatra that led to his being less than in demand in later years.
Both were gifted actors who discovered on TV there are few if any second acts.
It's the nature of the business as TV series constantly crave new faces over tried talents.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Do Actors Leave Big TV Hits?

Why do actors leave long running series on big TV hits?
Marg Helgenberger is the latest star to defect from a huge TV success story --in this case CBS's CSI which still has ratings strength..
But she's not the first to decamp despite the lure of huge paychecks and lush residuals.
I remember asking Pernell Roberts that very question.
He became a recognizable name on NBC's Bonanza where he played eldest son Adam Cartwright for seven seasons (1958-65) before deciding he wanted to go back to the stage.
Roberts told me co-star Lorne Greene had argued that a few more seasons and he'd have enough money to buy his own theater but Roberts said he had to leave.
We were talking in Toronto where he was co-starring with Ingrid Bergman in a stage production at the Royal Alexander Theatre (of Captain Brassbound's Conversion).
And I met Roberts again years later on the set of Trapper John MD when it started up on CBS in 1979. This time he stayed with the series until it was cancelled in 1986.
He joked he'd learned his lesson, he was older, wiser. "And I really need the money."
When McLean Stevenson exited TV's M*A*S*H after three seasons he told me he was tired of playing second banana to Alan Alda, the reason Wayne Rogers also quit the show,
Stevenson was a talented guy and even won an Emmy nomination for an episode of M*A*S*H he had written.
He felt he could do very well on his own but this was not the case.
The shows he starred were terrible and short lasting: The McLean Stevenson Show (1976), In The Beginning (1978), Hello Larry (1979-80) and Condo (19083).
Stevenson died in 1996 a broken and embittered man.
TV stars often forget it's the character who is the star and not necessarily the actor.
Despite her brilliance in Ordinary People Mary Tyler Moore struggled to become the kind of movie presence she'd enjoyed on TV.
And Henry Winkler found the same thing, later on without Fonzie he hadn't the same presence.
Ann Sothern told me it was her decision to end the popular sitcom Private Secretary in 1957after four seasons. She was brawling with her producer over the number of outside appearances she could make.
So she sold the series' 98 episodes into syndication --it ran for years afterward as Susie.
And in 1958 she jumped back into a TV series for CBS in The Ann Sothern Show.
"It was virtually the same series only I had a different name and career. The public protested until we brought back Don Porter as my side kick from the first show and we lasted for another three seasons and 98 episodes until CBS cancelled us."
I happened to be sitting next to Pamela Sue Martin at an industry function in Los Angrles circa 1990 and I asked the pert actress if she regretted leaving Dynasty.
"Every day," she joked. But was she joking?
When she starred on Dynasty between 1981 and 1984 she became wildly successful as Fallon winding up with 86 episodes to her credit before she walked off to find other acting challenges.
ABC even asked her back to reprise Fallon in the 1985 spin off The Colbys but Pamela Sue refused. She can still be seen in TV guest spots but has so far failed to recapture that Dynasty momentum.
Biggest loser in the departure sweepstakes has to be Shelley Long who copped a best actress Emmy for Cheers the year it debuted in 1982.
She departed five years later for a movie career that never quite panned out although she remains a talented comedienne.
And leaving Cheers may have helped revive that sitcom as Kirstie Alley jumped in as Long's replacement and the sitcom lasted until 1993 (with Long back to say good bye in the final episode).
Helgeberger is going off to start a chain of restaurants. But I'm guessing sometime in the future she may want to return to series TV.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Farewell To Prime Suspect

You say you missed the last two episodes of NBC's Prime Suspect?
That was the point.
NBC killed off these last two episodes Sunday night by plopping them against football on Fox.
And as usual next to nobody watched.
That was the problem with PS since its debut in September.
Nobody really cared about it.
I was asking a veteran TV producer about PM's decline and fall and he merely shrugged.
"NBC got it all wrong," he drawled. "I mean when PS with Helen Mirren debuted on British TV in the 1980s it was about a talented female finding her footing in a virtually all male environment.
"That story line doesn't work 20 years later so what was the show all about? Nobody seemed to know what the show's main theme was."
NBC wasn't the only network that completely misread the pilot.
Global's chief programmer Barb Williams told TV critics in September she thought it was going to be the Number One new U.S. series.
As if. It never even cracked the Top 30 in either Canada or the U.S.
Trouble is the producers traded heavily on the aura of the Helen Mirren original. And how can compete with a nearly perfect show still in reruns late nights on PBS.
Many younger people never even heard of the original. And stlll they quickly tuned out in record numbers. Why?
Because terrific actress Maria Bello played the part completely unsympathetically. That hurt efforts to build an audience.
Another question was tough competition from CBS. And NBC hasn't had a drama hit in some time and the PR on this effort from L.A. was very feeble.
The last two shows were among the best as the writers were slowly finding their own way. I know this means nothing because the series is gone.
It only proves a new show has to hit the air with all flags flying. There's no room in today's crowded TV market for a show to work its way toward excellence.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Teaching The Life Of Music Worth Watching

This is the TV year when Canadian TV became virtually extinct on Canadian Networks.
Most Canadian channels have simply become simulcasting outposts for the American fare already available on border U.S. stations.
And then along comes a perfect example of what Canadian TV should be.
Produced on the proverbial shoestring budget the hour documentary Teaching The Life Of Music is to use an old phrase --pretty swell.
I hesitated to plop in the DVD screener because of the unfortunate experiences I had as a budding cello student with a maniac of a high school music teacher.
However, I persevered and watched and the more I saw the more I liked it.
It follows the concepts of El Sistema, a successful campaign to teach the rudiments of music to poverty afflicted students in the slums of Venezuela who must work together to achieve their goals.
And the Canadian angle comes at Toronto's Rogers Centre when El Sistema's Simon Bolivar Orchestra (SBYO) plays for a capacity audience of Canadian students.
Founded more than 35 years ago by a charismatic teacher Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, it is wide ranging and ambitious in its scope. It begins naturally enough profiling the now aged music leader and the great success he has enjoyed --and how playing music together teaches the young.
The footage expertly blends interviews with the orchestra leaders in Venezuela with a look at the Canadian attempt to jump start an El Sistema program of our own.
We get to meet some of the Canadian children who are just beginning to study and play. And they get to meet leaders of the Simon Bolivar orchestra and rehearse a bit with them.
There's also a look at the decline of music in Canadian schools. as school boards cut programs to balance their budgets it's apparent music classes are the first to be dumped --instruments are costly to purchase and maintain.
Directed skillfully by David New, produced by Filmblanc,it has Canadian Cory Monteith as narrator. And it's highly recommended. I think you will learn from it but also be entertained.
Teaching The Life Of Music demonstrates to me indigenous Canadian TV production may not be as down and out as I feared.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Alcatraz Could Be TV's Next Big Hit

I'm ready to predict the midseason replacement series Alcatraz could be TV's next breakout hit.
I've just watched the pilot and this beautifully shot thriller has all the characteristics of a J.J. Abrams-made TV show.
The plot if fantastic to say the least.
Abrams (Fringe) would have us believe that on the day the famous prison in San Francisco's bay was officially closed (March 21, 1963) over 300 prisoners and guards simply vanished.
Just like that.
The first hour starts with two guards arriving on the rock on March 20 at midnight to find that every single person has disappeared. And as they search the catacombs something happens to them, too.
Then we flash forward to today as feisty Frisco police officer Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Joners) is jumping rooftops in hot pursuit of a baddie. He escapes --but not before she gets a good look at his peculiarly boyish face.
Later on she's investigating a murder when a mysterious FBI agent named Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) tells her to get lost --any homicide involving an FBI officer is his territory. But he's not listed on any FBI rolls.
But Rebecca is nothing if not determined. Her uncle Ray (Robert Forster) just happens to be an ex-guard himself --which would make him much older than he looks.
And then she just happens to bump into the world's leading aiuhority on Alcatraz, a pot bellied genius with two PhDs --named Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia from Lost).
Watching the pilot proved a gripping experience. A ton of dough was plowed into the fabulously photographed chase scenes, the San Francisco location work and the unbelievably scary recreation of the Alcatraz prison (on studio sets in Vancouver),
But I'm not sure how the story line will evolve over time. It sports such an unique look it could blossom into a hit every bit as big as say Abrams's Lost which went on for seasons with few people ever understanding what was going on.
But there are also mysterious sci-fi strands to the story and the promise of unlocking a huge mystery. As in the hit Twin Peaks.
It satisfies as a detective show. But it's much more than that.
In Alcatraz it seems the guards were almost as brutish as the prisoners. The central character of the first hour, an escapee named Jack Sylvanne, is out to punish the assistant governor who tortured him and kept him confined in the hole for months on end.
Sylvanne is played by charismatic actor Jeffrey Pierce with such passion he overshadows the series regulars.
Fox is known to have had some questions about the pilot and there were industry stories the network might pass on the project.
Among the actors Neill is outstanding as the rapidly aging FBI agent. Sarah Jones doesn't seem mature enough to be a crack police officer --her character's motivations have still to be explained.
The pilot was made with great verve and there are no dull spots whatsoever.
If Alcatraz gets its opportunity to grow its audience it could become the huge dramatic show Fox desperately needs right now.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Who Cares About The Golden Globe Awards?

Back in the Seventies when I was the kid TV critic at the Hamilton Spectator I never had to cover the Golden Globe awards.
They were a joke then and still are today.
Back then no self respecting TV network would carry the ceremonies.
Instead a tape of the show would get bicycled from station to station in the middle of the night weeks after the actual ceremony.
I mean this is an awards show that gave statuettes to the likes of Pia Zadora and Esther Williams.
The show sprang up in the 1940s from the obscure Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a group of 98 journalists many of whom have day jobs as taxi drivers and waiters.
Jack Nicholson appropriately once mooned the ceremonies in a defiant gesture.
But telecasting the ceremony brings in big bucks in advertising even if many of the actors have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the ceremonies.
Unlike competing ceremonies the nominees are seated at tables very close to the TV cameras so you can watch every twitch and nuance.
Ricky Gervais who insulted stars left and right will be back at it again as host which means the Globes had trouble getting somebody more main stream.
But look the Oscars get things all wrong, too. How could a film as tame as last year's The King's Speech win as best picture over the challenging The Social Network?
Golden Globe acting honors in movies are divided into dramatic and comedy categories which really makes more sense.
Having just caught The Iron Lady I'm curious to see if Meryl Streep will win as best drama actress. Or will it be Viola Davis for The Help?
And sometimes the Golbes are very right when Oscar went horribly wrong.
After all the Globes gave Francis Ford Coppola the award as best director for Apocalypse Now when Oscar chose Robert Benton for Kramer Vs. Kramer.
However, there are also stories of studio largesse being bestowed on the 98 journalists resulting in some bizarre nominations like The Tourist getting a whole heck of nominations in 2009.
I'll be watching just to see the celbs up close who've had more than a couple and are caught with their guard down ever so slightly. And also to catch Ricky Gervais's zingers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

CBC Finally Has Something To Shout About

Here in Canada we have the only television system that openly discriminates against home grown shows.
The villain is called "simulcasting" which allows the cable TV giants to black out incoming American signals and substitute Canadian ones proving the show is exactly the same.
That means practically every U.S. import on the Canadian TV dial gets simulcast so it can enjoy a huge double rating.
The Big Bang Theory, an import from CBS that I enjoy, routinely draws over 3 million viewers a week because of this form of reverse discrimination.
It also means you are paying for hundreds hours of American TV every week from the Buffalo stations or other border affiliates that you actually aren't getting which I think might be illegal.
Simulcasting is the reason Canadian TV drama has deteriorated to the point it s now an endangered species.
And many of the Canadian series you might watch are cagily constructed for resale to the States. Either they're set in the U.S. even if made in Toronto like Global's new series The Firm (which I favorably reviewed) or they're deliberately set in some blurry city never mentioned like Rookie Blue or CTV's Flashpoint.
So there's some case for celebration when CBC's new all Canadian saga Arctic Air nabs 1.1 million viewers its first time out.
CBC has always maintained a series is a "hit" if it attracts over 1 million viewers --for a TV movie or special the bench mark is 1.5 million.
There's been deep slippage this year for Rick Mercer who goes on Tuesdays at 8 --he attracted only 887,000 viewers whereas last year he was averaging well over that million mark.
The Halifax made This Hour Has 22 Minutes by contrast only got 666,000 viewers which is a real cause for concern.
But both shows would be big hits if they were on two channels at a time like the American competition.

CBC Really Needs Republic Of Doyle

Boy does CBC need Republic Of Doyle.
This has been the TV season when Canadian dram series edged toward extiction --on Canadian networks.
In one flash the return of Republic Of Doyle for its third season shows how important CBC is to telling Canadian stories with Canadian talent.
And Repubic Of Doyle has gotten better with each season.
Not that it ever was a dog but I noticed the polished cinematography of Malcolm Cross and the script packed with one liners from star Allan Hawco and co-creator Perry Chafe..
And for once CBC is banging the publicity drums to get people watching.
The guest appearance of Hawco's buddy Russell Crowe should be a big selling point in the ratings.
Crowe filmed his scenes last summer and everything about this episode exudes warmth.
Getting the buff Australian to do TV was a huge coup --he's currently preparing for the lead as Jean Valjean in a new movie version of Les Miserables.
He appeared only with three of his buddies from his Robin Hood epic: Alan Doyle, Scott Grimes and Kevin Durand.
Truth to tell his part is rather easy and he hardly hogs the TV screen. The story is all about Doyle trying to track down a killer and get gal pal Leslie reinstated in the police force.
Crowe seems to be the beefy head of a gang of extortionists who are out to snatch a mysterious briefcase filled --with what?
Sporting a as shaggy beard and clothing that looks second hand Crowe steals scenes with his slow deadpan delivery.
The biggest character on ROD is St. John's itself from the initial sweeping shots of the harbor and those rows of brightly painted houses.
In fact I though Canadian actor Daniel MacIvor has a better part which he expertly mines for twitchy laughs. I've liked McIvor's work since seeing him in that CBC gem Twitch City.
Stories seem a strange cross between the A Team and Rockford Files. It's a point of view that takes some getting used to but for once with a CBC drama I'm hooked.
The supporting cast remains strong: Sean McGinley as dad Malachy, Lynda Boyd as his fiancee Rose, Kristin Pellerin as Const. Leslie Bennett. Marthe Bernard as Tinny left for education abroad but Mark O'Brien as Des is now studying psychology at university..
Also scheduled for guesting duties is Reality TV star Shannon Tweed who is a proud born and bred Newfie. And I'd really like to see Gordon Pinsent back again.
Republic of Doyle is that rarity, a well made indigenous TV series that's a delight to watch.
And by the way this isn't the first CBC series to ever be made on The Rock. Anybody else out there remember Hatching, Matching And Dispatching?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Arctic Air Is CBC's Latest Regional TV Series

Regional TV --it's always been the buzz phrase when CBC fashioned dramatic TV series.
Getting out of its cramped Toronto studios and into the various regions has always been CBC's quest.
Hey, it worked wonderfully well for seven seasons and 91 episodes on CBC's Vancouver-based DaVinci's Inquest (1988-2005) didn't it?
But not so well at another series shot in Vancouver, Intelligence (2005-07) which only lasted two seasons.
Another CBC West coast series These Arms Of Mine (2000-01) faded even faster.
It didn't work in Nova Scotia for the short lived CBC venture Black Harbour (1996-99) which lasted three seasons or 39 episodes.
And am I the only one who remembers the one season notched by CBC's Edmonton drama Tom Stone (2002-07)
?And now comes another CBC regional venture Arctic Air clearly patterned after the History TV reality series Ice Pilots --and made by the same production company, Vancouver's Omni Films.
But CBC is hoping to snare that same armosphere that made its North Of 60 such a long running hit.
What emerges in the first episode is an old fashioned sort of adventure series with some side glances at modern life in the north.
Kevin McNulty co-stars as Mel, a gnarled old pilot whose rickety airline Arctic Air still flies with DC-3s that are almost coming apart at the seams.
Nobody wants to fly them so the latest recruit is an adventurous East Indian recruit (*)()() played by Stephen Lobo (Godiva's) complete with a convincing accent.
And who should wander in but one of the absentee co-owners, Bobby (Adam Beach), who has graduated into a top businessman who wants to show his partner the location for a diamond mine.
Then there's Mel's comely daughter Krista (Pascale Hutton) who happens to be the best pilot around. And. of course, she used to be one of Bobby's girlfriends in high school.
It was about then that I sat up and shouted "Whoa!"
The attempt to cast Beach as a suave ladykiller type just ain't gonna make it. I'm hoping it can be downplayed in future episode because the dude looks mighty uncomfortable.
Most of the first episode is very tentative. And that's to be expected until the series finds its legs.
So far it succeeds as mild adventure fare --a pregnant wife has to be airlifted by pilot Mel during turbulent weather --Mel also has heart problems and shouldn't be flying at all.
Although the series is shot on sets about a mile out of Vancouver it's supposed to the North West Territories.There are the standard sets up for the conversation intervals between the action scenes.
Beach did not appear all that at ease in his last TV series, Law And Order: SVU. Here he hopefully can grow into the part but on TV these days series must hit the air running with precious little time allowed for tinkering.
With many of its "regionals" CBC gave understandings the shows could last two seasons because CBC's promotion budget is low compared to the cutthroat American TV competition.
You'll stay watching at the beginning for the dazzling arial photography and the suspense of the plot.
Whether you stick with Arctic Air over the long haul of 10 episodes depends on the writers delivering tauter scripts and the actors becoming completely engaging in their parts. And that hasn't happened yet.
But in a TV season almost devoid of home grown hits I'm rooting for Arctic Air to succeed.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Good News: Californication Is Back

Californication is back for its fifth season starring David Duchovny as the wasted but talented script writer whose amatory adventures would try a man half his age.
Some of my friends dig this show. Some are repulsed.
There's a lot of nudity here and simulated sex scenes and many of these shots are of actors and actresses past their prime. So no ways is Californication soft core TV eroticism.
Yes, I laughed out loud during the first new episode because Duchovny's deadbeat delivery is supreme. Being a writer Hank always has the perfect line to explain any embarassing stuation.
Seeing his friend and agent Charlie going at it he remarks "Any naked friend of Charlie's is a naked friend of mine."
Remind me to say that when I happen upon a naked friend which I've never done as yet.
All sorts of words usually never heard on television including cable are bandied about. But after five seasons the shock factor has long disappeared.
Quite frankly when it comes to TV I think Mad Men sexier by far.
Too much sex is too much of a good/bad thing. That's why I started tuning out Nip/Tuck after the second year. Been there, seen that, I guess.
Californication was created for Showtime in 2007 all about a sexy writer named Hank Moody (get it) who has writer's block. At 28 minutes it's a rather long situation comedy.
As I watched I wondered if an "Airline Version" was being made at the same time.
That ruse was tried on The Sopranos and means the elimination of most swear words as well as most nudity. But if all that were snipped what would be left?
Creator Tom Kapinos agreed with critics a fresh approach was needed for the fifth season. I agree but it's not immediately apparent in the first new episode which I've previewed.
So the narrative takes place two years after Season 4. Madeleine Martin and Natascha McElhone are back as Hank's daughter and ex-girlfriend. But his ex-wife is now married to her professor. But that's all the plot I'll reveal here.
I find Californication has lots of male fans but not so many females. Hank's misogyny is part of his makeup. He hasn't so much grown wiser with the years but he's certainly grown older, sadder, he looks very tired and no wonder.
I keep watching for its malicious take on the entertainment industry. Duchovmy gives a dead on performance but it's hardly in the leading man mold of Scully.
Moody is self destructive and he knows this and can't do anything about it. Usually we wouldn't care about such a character. The brilliant writing makes us care.
Nothing much seems to happen in the first new episode. But there's a lot of catching up to do. I guess I'll stick with it to the bitter end. I'm still worried how Hank Moody will finally turn out, for better or worse.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Citytv's Tough Choices: Must See TV

The virtual disappearance of TV news specials from Canadian TV is one of the most disheartening trends of the new television season.
Citytv's hour documentaries titled Tough Choices aim to buck that disheartening trend.
First up there's Gord Martineau who I've been covering ever since I became a TV critic for the Hamilton Spectator in 1970.
With Lloyd Robertson's retirement from daily reporting Martineau becomes Canadian TV's dean of anchors despite a still youthful appearance.
As he says in his introduction he brings to the table 40 years of experience and 20,000 newscasts --but whio's counting?
With Tough choices Martineau not only reports but co-writes the shows and this time out it's a most timely report on the pressures facing Canada's public sector unions.
It involves not only Ottawa civil servants but garbage collectors and firemen all of whom are tainted with the same right wing accusations that they're living high while the rest of us suffer through this economic downturn.
Martineau gets to personalize the issue by looking at the life style of one veteran Toronto fire fighter and how he carefully must marshall his economic resources.
And he shows us the historical context --the 2009 strike by Toronto garbage collectors undoubtedly turned the public against them and may have contributed to the subsequent election of Mayor Rob Ford.
We get to hear from a number of experts that public sector wages and pensions are just a bit too pricey these days --Ottawa employees can retire at 58 on comparatively high end pensions many in the private sector are denied.
But union officials rightly point to the protection given us by the police and fire fighters.
Martineau journeys to Stockton, California, to a city under siege facing bankruptcy where fire and police services are back to the staffing levels of 1950 which has meant a vast increase in crime and a response time from fire fighters that could endanger lives.
Ford campaigned for office on a proposal to "Stop The Gravy Train" but very little gravy has been found and all sorts of public services including TTC and library hours are being affected by his cut backs.
Unions are fighting back arguing they've fought for better benefits with the hope the private sector could also benefit down the road. But Martineau says almost 12 million Canadians are set to retire with only CPP benefits --their high taxes are making union benefits seem out of whack in these tough times.
Well shot and edited Labour Pains is ripped from the headlines. As I watched I remembered current newspaper stories stating the Harper government was planning a frontal assault on Ottawa civil servants.
Labour Pains was directed expertly by Karen Pinker who produced and wrote it with Martineau. Its success vaults Citytv to the front rank of Canadian networks in the race to make cutting edge documentaries.
MY RATING: *** 1/2

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Global's The Firm Is New And Worth Watching

I've got a new term for you --"Hybrid TV".
You've heard of hybrid automobiles, heck, maybe you even own one.
But what about Hybrid TV --what the heck is that.
Check out Global's new series The Firm if you want to find out.
Global TV is bringing the John Grisham novel to TV seriesdom with support from NBC, Sony Pictures and Paramount.
Remember the smash 1993 movie with Tom Cruise? Well, that was a mere 19 years ago, a pretty long time for a TV sequel to come along.
In truth CBS had been dickering with the concept for a few years with Lukas Reiter listed as creator. When CBS finally passed Reiter shopped it to Global and NBC and it became a Hybrid with Global's participation.
So enthusiastic were the partners that 22 episodes were ordered, a rarity in today's crowded TV landscape. And novelist John Grisham was involved in the initial batch of stories --another Grisham novel The Client got badly mangled in the TV transition.
Filming started in Toronto in August with Entertainment One listed as the production company.
To qualify for Canadian content most of the cast and crew had to be Canada-based.
But American import Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama) came in for the lead as U.S. lawyer Mitch McDeere and another talented American Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers) co-stars as his chain smoking secretary Tammy Hemphill.
The Canadian contingent includes Callum Keith Rennie as Mitch's brother Ray and Molly Parker (Driftwood) as Mitch's ever loving wife Abby McDeere.
I spotted a lot of familiar Canadian faces among the supporting contingent. David Straiton (House) directed the pilot but multi-talented Helen Shaver is set to direct many later episodes. And among the writers there's Canadian Allyson Feltes who produced the Canadian legal show The Associates for CTV a few seasons back.
The TV series hops forward 10 years after the movie where Mitch and his wife have spent time hiding out under the U.S. Witness Protection plan for bringing down the mob-controlled law firm.
The opening scenes are taut as Mitch is shown escaping through Washington D.C. including a stint through the reflecting pool and away to anonymity.
In Mitch's return to law his practise is located in a deliberately small family firm with one secretary and a leg man. The entire family has endured unbelievable stress. When their 10-year-old daughter catches the family in a meeting in the kitchen she assumes they're going on the run again and breaks down sobbing.
The premiere episode is all confusion. There's the exciting chase followed by convoluted talk about whether Mitch should join a high priced law firm. There are flashbacks within flashbacks. I was uncertain for a bit just where the story was taking us.
After the chase the first two hours settles down to a fairly detailed description of a case of a young man who shot a taunting school mate in a rage. In its exploration of the leal points it came across as pleasantly old fashioned and without the usual gimmicks of today's legal shows.
Lucas is a fine actor who can play Mitch as a decent man without making him boring. Parker and Rennie are something of a team --other TV series they've co-starred in include Twitch City and Global's recent show Shattered. Parker seems determined not to play Abby as just another stay-at-home housewife. I mean what other series around would have the action stop and the wife explain the merits of the classic American novel Native Son to her husband?
Rennie's tough, threatening private eye seems a character who has stepped out of some old film noir thriller but that's OK too.
The Firm has enough of these authentic moments to make one want to revisit it several times before passing final judgment.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Digging For Britain Is Smart TV

Has this year's downright awful crop of new TV shows been getting you down?
Sit tight --hope is on the way.
Season 2 of Digging For Britain arrives just in time.
This is TV for the Smart Set. All those craving moronic reality shows should look elsewhere.
Dr. Alice Roberts wanders far and wide as she visits sites around the tight little island where important archeological discoveries are being made.
In the first new hour, Britannia, she looks at digs where important new information about Roman Britain is being unearthed.
And it's pretty exciting stuff. At Folkestone she shows how the once flourishing Roman port offers fresh clues as to how the Romans first invaded Britain in 43 A.D.
The site of a once flourishing Roman port is being excavated and one huge structure currently being dug up was the vast palace of the commander of the fleet.
At another site graves of 97 baby skeletons are discovered --one expert thinks the whole structure must have been a Roman brothel because of the knife wounds still clearly visible on some of the tiny bones.
But DNA testing indicates something e;se --it could be a Roman birthing center where the midwives attempted interventions to save the lives of the mothers.
In Exter we see an excavation of a small Roman town whose discovery turns history upside down --Roman civilization supposedly never reached Exeter. But the pottery examples show Roman cults flourishing here. Dozens of Roman coins show commerce flourished.
There's an amphitheater at Carleen. And the biggest find is a warehouse filled with art objects --the historian likens it to a modern storage locker--it shows the prsence of Roman culture long after the Romans supposedly abandoned England.
One factory system at Bare Regis shows a tanning site --proving some Roman soldiers chose not to return home but instead turned from soldiering to trade.
Made by BBC (of course) Digging For History challenges us at every turn. It also assumes a fair bit of knowledge and interest. Whereas Reality TV panders to the lowest common denominator, Smart TV like Digging For Britain challenges us at every turn.
Subsequent programs look at sites of Viking colonization, the Bronze Age Britain, and Stone Age communities in the Channel islands.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Meg Tilly Back Acting On Bomb Girls

It was a real treat chatting up elusive actress Meg Tilly who was phoning from her home on Vancouver Island.
I hadn't seen her since she was in Toronto in 1993 as a guest star in the series Road To Avonlea.
She retired shortly after that to raise her three children and is only now returning to acting in Global TV's new six-part series Bomb Girls. In the intervening years she's become a widely praised novelist.
"I said I'd audition to this as a favor to my agent," she laughs. "To humor him I took the ferry with my husband to Vancouver and we ate junk food and had a day of it.
"And I thought, sure, I'll audition but I wasn't looking for work. It's just that I wanted to keep my agent who doesn't get much money representing me."
Tilly tentatively tried acting again in the fall in a Victoria production of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Where she garnered great reviews.
"I always told my husband if I do go back it has to be for the challenge. And Martha was as challenging as it gets. I first had to memorize that huge play. Could I do it? And there was the physical effort --on matinee days I just stopped speaking except on stage to save my voice."
Last year Tilly also did three cameos in the B.C.-made TV series Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica so she could hang out with her old pal Eric Stoltz. They had worked together in the movie Sleep With Me (1994).
"For the Bomb Girls audition I listened to what producer Adrienne Mitchell was saying. She sold me on it. I loved the first script. I immediately hooked onto the part of Laura. I sort of understood her plight as the matron of a munitions factory in Toronto during World War II. I wanted the part. They wanted me.
"I came out of the audition and told my husband " You won't believe this but I think I'll do it. And he looked really startled."
What clinched the deal for Tilly was the promise that this would be a resolutely Canadian production with great attention to period detail.
"When I walked on the munitions factory set ain the Distillery District on the first day I thought oh no it's not ready. This was Sunday and we started on Wednesday. But they made it --the crews worked around the clock. And everything is perfect --the plant, the way the girls dressed, the hair, makeup. It's a very expensive production because the Toronto of the Forties no longer exists."
Tilly shines as the dour Lorna who is plopped from the assembly line to become matron for over a hundred girls assembling bombs for the Allied war effort.
"We gradually learn Lorna's back story and why she's like that," explains Tilly. " You'll understand her better, don't worry. Her husband (played by Peter Outerbridge) was invalided in the Great War and still limps around. She's aware the girls' lives are on the line in this dangerous assignment and indeed one becomes seriously injured early in the story."
And Lorna shows her own prejudice by ranting against an Italian-born young man she views as the enemy.
The other girls are a motley bunch including rich girl Gladys (Jodi Balfour) who the other girls suspect is just slumming around.
And there's Kate (Charlotte Hegele) who uses the job to escape from the fundamentalist preaching of her devout father.
And Vera (Anastasia Phillips) is the saucy one who comes quickly to no good.
"We block shot it," Tilly says meaning all scenes set in the factory for a few episodes would be shot before moving on to the next venue. "The writers made t work, it just flows and we had three expert directors in Ken Girotti, Adrienne Mitchell and Anne Wheeler. I tried to memorize as far ahead as possible because I wanted to get her character. It was a stretch but I like hard work.""
Tilly isn't at all certain how Canadians will take to a completely Canadian TV series, one about an aspect of our history that's almost unknown.
"The women had to grow up fast. And then at war's end the lost their jobs to the men returning from battle. And many wound up in the Fifties out in the suburbs. It's such a sad story in some ways."
She's committed for another season if the show gets picked up. And she continues writing fiction.
"But next I'll be acting again in Toronto at Taragon Theater in a Michael Tremblay play."
MY RATING: *** 1/2.