Friday, December 26, 2014

Ron James: Back on TV And Wildly Funny


I usually get to interview Ron James once a year when  his TV series comes back on CBC.
And once is enough for me --the guy is wickedly funny and once my ribs hurt a bit after a nonstop telephone chat filled with his joking.
This year it's different.
James's well liked series is gone from CBC-TV because a new administration is trying to remake the schedule to its own liking.
So the only opportunity you'll have to catch him is in a New Year's eve special on CBC-TV Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
I just watched a preview and it plays like one of the funniest hours I've seen on TV in quite awhile.
Yes, I did like his series which ran five seasons although it was moved all over the dial and fans continually groused they never knew where to find him..
I think it took James some time to find the right metier for his skits which really rocked in his final season.
At the beginning he was trying to integrate them into one seamless half hour but later on spent time honing them and retaping bits until he was satisfied and only then would he edit them into each show.
But the stand up hour format works even better for James.
The guy must be the most traveled Canadian comic out there.
It really all came together in his first big hour Up And Down In Shaky Town which garnered huge ratings and the recognition here was authentic Canadian humor that spoke to every one of us watching.
I think the new one coming up is just as startling good --From Fallsview Casino --Ron James --The Big Picture.
James knows how to trap an audience in his stories, draw them into his unique take on anything and everything and then let them explode in laughter.
"This one was taped in October," he tells me on the phone. Meaning the jokes could be topical but not too topical. There's some distancing  because it comes on two months later."
James says on the phone that from the first time he played Fallsview "they treated me so fine. And the theater is so welcoming, it's huge but the audience isn't that far from you either. It's perfect to tell my stories, test the waters, let the audience get involved with me. I got a such a great feeling from that crowd, I think it shows."
Great camera work makes the hour seem to fairly rush by --the camera operators seem to be almost running at James for some super camera angles that induce a feeling of momentum.
"But if the audience isn't with you it's all over," he says. "And they really wanted me to say some of that stuff."
I'm not going to step on Ron's lines which he carefully crafted with assistance from Paul Pogue and Scott Montgomery (Lynn Harvey co-executive produced).
But as James admits "Yeah, I do go after Harper and he deserves it and the audience gets right into it. Same with the CBC. They get a bit of a licking, too. And they deserve it."
James says he remembers a decade ago when the Harper band wagon was building "and I'd say something and the audience would make a kind of whooshing sound. Like they were a bit ticked off. No longer. I give my two cents and they were laughing heartily.
Also talking a verbal licking: Burger King, Mike Duffy, Gwyneth Paltrow, oil spills, you name it.
With James's show gone and RCAF down to a special a year the great Canadian CBC tradition ok sketch comedy seems about to disappear.
Only the venerable This Hour Has 22 Minutes still holds down the foor while 4 On The Floor and Kids In The Hall are but dim memories.
"Oh, there's so much to satirize these days,"laughs James. "The oil spills, the crazy TV reality shows, texting. It's a never ending source. And I find audiences are generally just as fed up as I am ."
Says James "This was the year we had two Fords running for mayor. Who could have seen what would eventually happen? Now we're back bombing Iraq again. I couldn't have asked for more pungent material."
James thinks this hour is right up there with Shaky Town as among the best he's ever delivered.
"Then I'll' go back on the road, reminding Canadians of all the ups and downs of this great country country we live in."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, December 22, 2014

I Actually Liked Corner Gas: The Movie

I made a silly resolution not to watch Corner Gas: The Movie because I really liked the TV series.
For a few bright seasons it seemed as f Canadian TV comedy was about to sparkle.
Then came the duds Hiccups and Dan For Mayor and Canadian TV was back again to square one.
Eventually I relented and plopped in my DVD preview and I could not stop watching.
The problem is a successful half hour TV comedy series does not easily translate into a successful 90-minute motion picture.
And I kept thinking of all those bad TV reunion shows along the way which made for gruesome viewing.
I have no idea why star Brent Butt decided to stop production after six years --I think he wanted to prove himself in other ways.
The second series he created, Hiccups, was a case of being too funny.
Co-star (and wife) Nancy Robertson was loud and great but a half hour of this every week was too much for viewers to handle.
It's like the problem I always had with Phyllis which was a spin off from Mary Tyler Moore.
Phyllis as a secondary character and as played by Cloris Leachman was a barrel of laughs but when one had to deal with her in every scene it was enough already!
Anyhow here we all are back in Dog River and if the slender plot seems a bit stretch out so what?
It seems the sleepy hamlet is facing bankruptcy "thanks" to the incompetent mayor (Cavan Cunnigham).
Brent decides to bankroll the decrepit hotel bar while Hank (Fred Ewanuick) courts a loathsome donut chain  and Wanda (Nancy Robertson) opens an illegal casino.
Hilarity ensues. For most of the time.
I once asked a CBC chief programmer why he never favored CBC TV reunions.
And he said it would only remind viewers how weak the current fare was!
But I mean a TV movie of Street Legal would certainly have made sense. Or how about one of Nick Campbell in a DaVinci TV movie get together?
In the case of Corner Gas why not follow up with a stage presentation that could tour the auditoriums of small town Canada?
And how about another Corner Gas TV get together or as soon as it can be arranged?
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I Remember, I Remember

 I lost a whole heck of famous friends and acquaintances this past year.
Of all the celebrity deaths of 2014 I was most affected by the passing of Jim Garner.
Maybe that's because I found him the most honest and down to earth of the TV stars I ever interviewed.
We ate stale ham sandwiches in his trailer one day in 1977 when he was at the height of his star power on TV's The Rockford Files.
His producer Meta Rosenberg was also present --later in a dispute over finances Garner would forever cease talking to her.
That's the kind of upfront guy he was.
With Robin Williams I'm totally surprised he lasted as long as he did.
I met him first on the set of Happy Days in 1971 when he was as high as a kite.
Later interviews would find him troubled and sad, never very funny, but increasingly preoccupied by life's ironies.
I only met Max Schell once in passing when he was promoting an awful Peter The Great TV Miniseries.
He later made a memorable documentary about his sister Maria's descent into madness --I've never quite gotten over seeing it.
Martha Hyer once welcomed me to her lavish Rancho Mirage mansion which she shared with great producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca).
There was a rueful quality about the talented blonde actress who was forever typed as a second string Grace Kelly.
Mickey Rooney was just a handful in his late 70s as he embarked on a dinner theater engagement in Mississauga, a far cry from his heyday as America's most popular movie actor.
Harold Ramis I met just once on the set of his SCTV series --he only played on that series for a season. I always wondered why he quite so soon. I guess movies beckoned.
Polly Bergen was in T.O. to promote her cosmetics made from turtle ingredients.
 I always thought she was a better actress than huckster. Anyone else out there remember The Caretakers?
When I interviewed Efrem Zimbalist at CBC's Radio building on Jarvis St. he was preparing for a concert of his own compositions.
But his biggest thrill he said was meeting Glenn Gould in the corridor --it brought tears to his eyes.
I remember spending an afternoon with Joan Rivers in her Toronto suite. Also present: her 80-year old boyfriend.
In person she was bright and opinionated and we later went across the street to the Book Cellar where she bought an armful of books she said she'd devour before leaving the city after a weekend.
Backstage at the Ford Theater with Elaine Stritch was fun. She was co-starring as Parthy Ann in a revival of Show Boat and was in constant competition with Bobby Morse for laughs.
At a celebration of the Sid Caesar Show in L.A. I got to sit next to the great comic himself at lunch and found him contemplative and downright fussy.
Sir Donald Sinden I saw in a play at the Royal Alex--a play by Dion Boucicault --forever after I'd watch for his star turns on Masterpiece Theatre.
When I had to interview Bob Hoskins on the telephone all he wanted to talk about was the half a movie he'd made in Montreal once.
It collapsed for lack of funding and I can't even remember the title.
And talking Eli Wallach and wife Ann Jackson out to lunch in T.O. was a thrill. They were starring in a revival of The Diary Of Ann Frank.
He point blank refused to answer my questions about The Misfits (1961). "It's not a jinxed movie, after all I'm still alive."
And then there was an interview of sorts with Shirley Temple who was determined to catch the next plane out of T.O. as fast as she could.
 About her autobiography she scoffed "I saved America from the Depression . Then I was washed up aged 12."

I miss them all, some more than others.
A few I was surprised even made it to 2014.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wendy Crewson Shines In Saving Hope


 While waiting for Wendy Crewson to phone in I tried to think of all the times I'd ever interviewed her.
I'd seen her from afar on the set of Mazes And Monsters, a 1982 Toronto made TV movie where I was interviewing the lovely Anne Francis about her autobiography.
Others in that cast included Vera Miles, Chris Makepeace, Chris Wiggins and, oh, yeah, the star Tom Hanks as a twentysomething prankster.
But our gabfests certainly started when we met on the set of Night Heat in 1985 --Crewson was co-starring as prosecutor Dorothy Fredericks and she'd decided to ditch the hit Toronto made series to try her luck in L.A.
But her U.S. series Hard Copy tanked after only six episodes.
I certainly remember interviewing her for the hit CBC-TV movie Getting Married In Buffalo Jump (1990) opposite Paul Gross.
Later still I covered her remarkable work as Canada's queen of TV movies in The Sue Rodriguez Story (1998)  and Hunt For Justice (2005)-- she was perfectly cast as Madame Justice Louise Arbour.
"We last talked on the set of ReGenesis," figures Crewson--that series ran 2007-2008 and sold well in American markets.
All of which is a long winded but necessary explanation that when it comes to covering Wendy Crewson's long TV career I'm your TV critic.
Now Crewson is on the line to strum up support for the last fall episode of the fall-winter season of Saving Hope, CTV's popular medical drama that goes on hiatus until the spring.
The last episode revs up WEdnesday December 17 at 10 p.m. Got that.
"Getting the right role as one gets older is tough on an actress," she says, sounding plaintive. "But this show is female friendly. It  deliberately has strong women characters right up there with the men."
Comparisons with the long running Grey's Anatomy are inevitable.
Erica Durance stars as plucky surgeon Dr. Alex Reid and she's had an on-again, off-again romance with Dr. Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) --yeah he's the one who keeps seeing ''ghosts''.
About the "ghosts" Crewson acknowledges it gets to some viewers while other love it.
"It's the peg to make the series different from other medical shows."
Then there's the matinee idol Dr. Joel Goran (Daniel Gilles) --and all sorts of romantic entanglements may ensue whenever he's taking off his short.
Crewson describes her character Dr. Dana Kinney as "a veteran, far, she's seen everything" and  she figures heavily in the cliffhanger --there's a real concern Dana's daughter now working at the hospital may be stealing drugs.
Also in the last episode is an amazing turn by actor Currie Graham as a world famous surgeon who may be something of a charlatan.
And Dr. Goran gets involved in a horrendous case that rings down the curtain --now this is a real cliffhanger.
To CTV's credit the network kept Saving Hope going even after it was quickly cancelled by NBC.
Ratings have perked up considerable and the production details are comparable with any competing American drama series.
"People ask me what hospital we shoot at." Crewson laughs. "It's simply the biggest TV set I've seen --the atrium is huge and the corridors go everywhere so we can shoot those long tracking scenes."
Crewson hedges when asked if she'd ever consider another U.S. series try.
"It would have to be special. Right now I love doing this one and the way they've written my character."
Crewson says she's past being surprised by the way Canadian TV has evolved.
She once starred in a hugely popular series of TV murder mystery movies featuring the character of Joanne Kilbourne.
No expense was spared in grabbing such big co-star names as Sally Kellerman, Simon Callow and Robert Hays.
"It should have been turned into a series but back then we were fixated on getting into the American market with TV movies."
But if Canadians aren't supposed to be all that interested in Canadian series why is Saving Hope such a fan based hit?
Says Crewson: "Telling a strong, compelling story is what it's all about with characters you'll want to watch week after week."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bryan Baeumler Has Yet Another TV Renovation Show

A recent but long sickness left me spending my afternoons catching up on all those TV fix-it shows that dominate the cable web schedules.
I can instantly spot the American versions because the atmosphere is hysterically "sell-sell".
The Canadian ones are ore relaxed and friendly and offer more how-to-do things tips.
I used to like Propery Virgins when it was Canadian based but the trek southward has brought a real frenzy to the attempts to get first time property owners to buy anything anytime.
For humor I'll watch Love It Or List It which has two versions one from T.O. and one from Vancouver.
I was having tea with a friend recently when the fabulous female contractor Hillary Farr walked by the coffee shop and he almost swooned --she's both lovely and completely knowledgeable.
Some of the Canadian TV vets seem to have a new season every season.
There's Scott McGillivray whom I've interviewed up close and personal.
People are always insisting to me he wears a wig!
Not So I can report --he just has a low brow line.
And then there's reno master Bryan Baeumler who has yet another new series House Of Bryan: In The Sticks which follows the guy and his drop dead gorgeous wife as they sell their old house and renovate a new one.
Let's see how many Baeumler series I can recall.
First there was Disaster DIY and then the inevitable Cottage Edition, Leave It To Bryan which everybody watched, the Canada's Handyman Challenge things.
And looking up his credentials I see he has his B.A. from University of Western Ontario in of all things Political Science.
Maybe that's what makes him appear to be such a laid back kind of guy --I've never seen him get angry at least when the cameras are turning.
I watched the first new episode of House Of Bryan but I couldn't really figure why the couple are moving again --the wife is pregnant but they'll soon have four children which means they need more bedrooms.
The house they fixate on seems more like a great big cottage than a suburban dwelling. And it only seems to have a bedroom or two.
But the renovation realities are endless and in a 16-episode series one must have enough projects or there will be nothing to argue about and film.
The "new" house seems like one big block of cedar --and the location is way, way out there. Bryan says he grew up on a farm and wants the same experience for his growing family.
I'm guessing he picked this one because it has good bones. The wife is properly skeptical --the last was a bungalow.
So we see them packing for the move --she says she's dad because it was supposed to be a forever home.
I always thought Bryan told us to stay away until a reno is complete.
But the entire family moves in as the construction goes on --maybe it makes for better TV.
The resulting comedy/drama made me think of that old Cary Grant flick Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
And that mixture of home tips and the personal story makes House Of Bryan pretty watchable --until the next time when they decide to move back to the city and make another series out of that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Noah's Ark: Very Close To A Holiday TV Special

I positively loathe Christmas as celebrated on TV.
Every December the networks trot out those 40-year old animated specials featuring the voices of such dear and departed stars as Jimmy Durante and Burl Ives.
The same TV movies roll every season and the same old movies.
And then along comes something as sprightly as Secrets Of Noah's Ark. It premieres on History Saturday December 13 at 9 p.m.
OK, I know it's a very long stretch to say this is a holiday special.
But it is in a strange way as it celebrates one of the enduring stories of the Bible: Noah and the flood.
Made by Canada's yap films and Britain's Blink Films, this co-production stars a 3,700 year old clay tablet a British soldier bought in Iraq during World War II duty.
He kept it literally under wraps until son Douglas Simmons  brought it one day to the British Museum as a donation in the name of his late father.
There was only one expert at the Museum who could read the inscriptions --Dr. Irving Finkel, and he emerges as the exhuberantly wonderful hero of this documentary Secrets Of Noah's Ark.
With his white flowing beard and look of amazement Finkel could pass for a biblical prophet come back to life any day of the week.
This scholar was made for TV stardom. He's all giggles when given big scale 3-D glasses.
I gulped when he told how refugees from Israel were skinned alive by their Babylonian captors.
He tells us he immediately recognized the clay tablet as telling the story of the flood but from the Babylonian perspective.
This story predates the Biblical one but is presumably the same flood only with other characters.
One part of the tablet gives the precise measurements for building the ark which would have measured 65 meters in length.
I don't think the Bible got into measurements, am I right?
And so off viewers are taken on a merry race from the British Museum to desert landscapes where we can still spot traces of ancient floods to excavated Babylonian sites and even to India.
There's a fascinating group of experts who weigh in on the mystery with Finkel as our irrepressible guide tho thinks this cuneiform must have been composed hundreds of years before Noah's adventure was written down.
And Finkel figures when the Jews were transported to Babylon for their anguished captivity a lot of the sophisticated Babylonian culture must have been absorbed by them into their own traditions and writings.
Then we're off to India where the building of such boats still exists --the tradition has died out in Iraq.
Surprise One: discovering the boat was round and not exactly an ark in any shape.
I mean it could float but not go any where in particular.
That detail goes unresolved as does the either-or question: was Noah's Ark real or mythic?
Floating around in a round boat made of bullrushes can't have been humanity's way of escaping that flood, right?
Secrets Of Noah's Ark is fun right up to the unresolved ending (Nic Young wrote and produced it with yap films' Elliot Halpern as co-executive producer).
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Message To CBC: Don't Let Republic Of Doyle Die!

My open letter to CBC re the impending demise of Republic Of Doyle is short and sweet.
It's just three words: "Don't do it!"
Other CBC administrators over the decades have merrily cancelled such CBC hits as Tommy Hunter, The Beachcombers, Front Page Challenge and King Of Kensington promising long suffering viewers that newer and better shows would result.
But it never happens that way.
When Juliette was drawing three million viewers a week CBC bureaucrats fearful of the star system pink slipped her for a couple of folk singers.
And CBC never again had a hit in the time slot immediately following Saturday Night hockey.
When Gordon Pinsent said he was weary of making the hit drama series A Gift To Last CBC meekly acquiesced to its disappearance.
All Pinsent needed was a bit of back slapping for mounting such a tremendous show ad he would have returned for a few more episodes I'm sure..
And when Al Waxman complained he didn't even have a window in his airless cubbyhole of a dressing room CBC let King Of Kensington slip forever into reruns.
An American company would have wheeled a trailer into the parking lot for Waxman but CBC was adamant about promoting stars.
Latest hit to get the corporate cold shoulder is Republic Of Doyle which wraps up its final and abbreviated season Wednesday night at 8 with two hour episodes which are as good as any I've ever seen on this show.
The twin titles say it all: Judgement Day and Last Call as Doyle is on the lam fighting off a murder charge and he's all over the place and generously giving up a lot of  time to his splendid band of co-stars all of whom are now out of work.
I talked about this act of leaving a wildly popular series.
I know Hawco wants to go on to other things --he told me so at the last CBC launch.
But honestly the new CBC band of programmers should have signed him up for a few TV movies.
It's not as if anybody can sit down and craft a hit TV series --look at the experience of Cracked last year which had talent galore behind and in front of the cameras.
I'm thinking something as good as Doyle can not be easily re-created and certainly not by Hawco or at least for a while.
His Doyle characterization is going to be with him for the next few years as reruns pound CBC at all sorts of hours.
So I felt a bit sad watching all the regulars strut their stuff for the last time (until the inevitable TV reunion TVmovie): Leslie (Kryustin Pellerin), Des (Mark O'Brien), Tinny (Marthe Bernard) And all the rest.
And CBC once again needs a few good series from Atlantic Canada besides This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Black Harbour didn't make it. Hatching, Matching And Dispatching came up short.
You see where I'm going don't you --CBC really should not have let Republic Of Doyle end so abruptly.
MY RATING: ***1/2.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Welcome To TV's Cancellation Valley

December is the saddest month of the year for  U.S. TV network series.
Its the time when the pink slips are issued.
Instead of the bright fanfare of the new fall TV season the cancellations are done with as little publicity as possible.
For example I had no idea Franklin And Bash had just been cancelled until a U.S.publicist  blurted it out at the end of a phone call about something else entirely.
I sort of expected that one because of continuing disappointing ratings.
But what about the new John Stamos series Members Only?
ABC has dumped that one even before its official premiere.
ABC sources say the network has also cancelled Manhattan Love Story.
Revenge, a show I like, is right on the cusp --only a surge in the audience can keep it going after this season.
Over at CBS the monster hit Big Bang Theory has been renewed for two more seasons, it's that hot.
I'm surprised CBS is hedging on Elementary which has slipped a bit in the ratings.
But the Millers has officially been dumped as has Reckless.
The seventh and positively final season of The Mentalist premiered on Nov.   30 with the series finale set for Feb. 18.
 At FOX Gag Related is officially gone along with Kitchen Nightmares and Utopia.
But I think we all knew that.
The fate of Gotham interests me with network sources saying a pick up is coming but with some story tinkering.
NBC sources say Bad Judge and A To Z are officially over.
The final 13-episodes of Parenthood are being filmed right now.
The final 13 episodes of Park And Recreation premiere in January.
But it's to soon to tell for About A Boy and  Marry Me.
But I do know filming on Constantine shut down after 123 episodes and probably won't resume.
Conclusion: it's been an awful season for the main line networks so far.
This is all I know. Most of the cancelled shows won't be missed at all.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Generation War: German TV Confronts World War II

When TV first popped up some sixty years ago it was hailed as a sort of  widow on the world.
In recent years it's been a window on dismal and mediocre American series.
The rest of the world gets decidedly ignored.
Even so it's a shock to remember the last great German TV miniseries I watched was Heimat way back in 1984.
In fact even BBC which used to promote such fare hasn't had a foreign language show on since 2001.
So welcome to Generation War which recently won an International Emmy in the miniseries category --the three parter debuts Wednesday December 3 at 10 p.m. on Super Channel.
First hurdle for most Canadian viewers will be the subtitles which I submit are far preferable to ghastly dubbing.
Generation War is a sprawling account of five friends in Berlin starting out in 1941.
It is beautifully acted and gripping in its depiction of war on the eastern front, photographed in mostly  sepia and filled with challenging moments.
The three parter tends to romanticize some events while trying to portray these five as often misguided but certainly not hated Nazis.
The anti-hero Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch)  has a close Jewish friend back in Berlin whom the gang truly love.
But left alone on the cold and cruel Russian front and his sense of being a better man quickly crumbles.
One devastating scene shows German officers forcing Russian partisans to run across a marsh which they know has been mined --we see and hear the explosions in the distance and witness the look of horror on Wilhelm's face.
Then there is, the pert volunteer nurse Charlotte (Miriam Stein) , who makes friends with a Ukrainian prisoner of war who she suspects of being Jewish.
The Gestapo are informed and drag the pathetic prisoner off to certain torture and death.
Also depicted is Greta (Katherina Schuttler), a talented pop singer who wants to be the next Dietrich but she is in love with Jewish Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) and she might be betrayed at any time and lose her position in society.
I think I understand what is going on here --the reality of all-out war forced most Germans to do things they would rather have avoided. This may be true but its a sort of historical plea bargain.
The Wehrmacht are shown time and time again as the ones committing atrocities.
A little Jewish girl who Wilhelm wants to save is cruelly shot in the back of the head by an army officer who dares Wilhelm to do something (and he does nothing).
I understand one point of the miniseries' popularity in Germany was to portray average people as victims just like the peoples who were being prosecuted.
But I think this is the wrong way to go and some scenes do not ring as true.
When brother Friedrich Winter  (Tom Schilling) refuses to put out his cigaret while on guard duty in a trench that flame is spotted by Russian bombers who dive bomb the encampment.
The survivors treat Friedrich cruelly but surely in such a system he would have been shot on the spot?
In fact what emerges is a German take on The Winds Of War --a lot of individuals getting caught up in an historical storm over which they have no control.
Technical aspects are very well handled and the young actors are sensitive and well cast.
Obviously the lavish production was made for a younger German generation for whom the war is a fading memories of parents and grandparents.
The five main characters get swept along even though they know by 1943 that the war is lost.
But this war and the holocaust can never really be over for Germany. Never.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, November 28, 2014

TVO's The Polar Sea Breaks All Boundaries


Way  back in 1970 when I started out as the kid TV Critic for The Hamilton Spectator things were so much easier.
For one things even a paper as small as The Spec boasted its own TV coverage. Today most papers have long since dumped all TV columnists and rely on wire copy.
And then there was the TV medium itself --only 10 channels, no  competing cable weblets at all..But do you know what? TV programs were so much better because of the scarcity of competition.
I was thinking of all this as I hunkered down to watch the 10-hour 10-part new series from TVOntario called The Polar Sea.
It reminded me of the old days when CBC-TV would mount a show called Quarterly Report with Knowlton Nash and Barbara Frum four times a year and cancel all regular programming to get it on during an entire night of prime time.
The Polar Sea is like that.
It challenges one to drop our addiction to bite size bits of TV nothing and  proudly shows the medium is more than mindless reality shows and 24/7 hysterical TV news coverage.
The Polar Sea initially shocked me because it is deliberately slow moving and purposeful.
It follows a bunch of amateur sailors as they attempt to make a treacherous voyage through the Northwest Passage.
That's the first image retained --the utter peace of the sea followed by violent storms that seems to come from nowhere.
And of course the irony is there from the start --this voyage of discovery could only be made because of global warming..
The brilliant 10-hour documentary was made by Primitive Entertainment with TVO  (Kevin McMahon wrote, directed and produced it) and follows Swedish amateur sailor Richard Tegner and his crew as they set off in what is basically a rather small sailboat from Iceland.
That's the second shock : the island is warming up and vegetation sprouting up all over and temperatures are rising much to the delight of some local inhabitants.
But is that good or bad for the rest of us?
On board it isn't all harmony and friendship --being in such close, cramped quarters sets off often surly rages as the crew quarrel about picayune matters.
But theirs becomes a voyage of discovery from Iceland to Greenland to Baffin Island.
They meet the different cultures affected by these sea changes, they show us up close the great whales, the huge blocks of ice which are crashing into the sea at a ferocious intensity.
We meet the inhabitants of Pond Inlet  who against all odds are calling this terrain home.
There's the hip-hop talking Inuit youth who is fresh and funny.
There's the explanation of how everything from water to fuel has to be trucked in.
Food costs  in the stores is astronomical. The Inuit must still hunt for survival but with global warming they encounter strange new patterns of animal migration.
By personalizing the problem The Polar Sea manages to make us understand the enormity of the situation.
We get to meet Terje Isungset who makes music with glacial ice he sculpts, National Geographer Ulla Lohman, Inuit story teller Michael Kususak and throat singer Tanya Tagaq.
For the first time gigantic tourist ships can make it to Pond Inlet bringing tourists and wealth.
But the inhabitants are not quite sure how much tourism is a good thing.
What emerges if an odyssey of discovery for both the sailors and the TV viewers.
Made on a mammoth scale, the Polar Sea is instead an intimate look at the changing world of the north, beautifully photographed and crisply edited.
The Polar Sea has its North American premiere on TVO as part of a special two-week event starting Monday December at 9 p.m.
There's a companion website at which officially launches December 1 and has articles and behind-the-scenes video.
All of which indicates to me TVO has seized the initiative from CBC in showing and celebrating where public television should be headed.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Twins Documentary Gets Double The Exposure

It's entirely right that filmmaker Leora Eisen's new must-see documentary on  identical twins should get a double exposure on both CBC-TV and the Documentary channel.
The shorter 42-minute version is on first --on The Nature Of Things CBC Thursday night at 8.
Then there's a longer, more substantial version running on the Documentary channel starting November 30 --it's on during a free preview week.
I'm not giving away too much by saying Eisen is herself a twin and she documents meticulously her relationship with her twin Linda Lewis who was suffering from leukemia during the filming.
"I think we looked very much alike" she says over the phone. "Friends could spot each of us but newcomers might be perplexed a bit.
"We certainly had different personalities. Intellectually we were the same but Linda was shyer than me. I always felt like a big sister to her."
The more Leora got into her subject the more she was surprised how different twins can be while remaining on another level quite the same.
"Only three births in 1,000 result in truly identical twins. Its when one egg splits in two. Identical twins have 100 per cent the same DNA but they might not look completely the same. In some cases one will be right handed, the other left."
Leora digs deep into the psychological relationship. She finds one set of twins who have never been separated for more than four hours.
She also interviews two British male twins who are star acrobats with Cirque du Soleil --they seem very similar except one is straight, the other gay.
"Yes, I admit it, the looking at the differences, that fascinated me."
When leukemia struck Linda Leora says she was already well into production of the story.
But it shifted a bit because she needed to know more about the "why" --why Linda had contracted a disease and she had not although they shared the same DNA.
Was it a case of "nurture" or "nature"?
Her discoveries elevate these twin documentaries into the "must see" category.
For one thing the production seems so expensive as she treks both to England and Australia in search of world authorities on twins.
"Ah, yes, I went," she laughs. "Had to! But I couldn't afford to take my standard camera crew. I had to pick them up in both places you see. "
What Leora finds is a complicated world --she finds identical twin girls, both adopted by Canadian parents in China and brought back to Canada.
"The girls live quite a ways apart but get together as an extended family. They are quite alike with the same likes and dislikes."
Leora talks about separated twins growing in teeth at the same time "it's so orchestrated,so close."
She says of her twin "We lived on different streets, we did have separate lives. But we never could be mad at each other."
Leora accomplished everything in "just 20 filming days." Planning ahead was everything.
As Linda's disease progressed Leora discovered "It was both our stories. And it deserved to be told."
And as a viewer I think Linda would approve of the choices. made.
I saw the 42-minute version first which is tightly edited but rewarding viewing and highly recommended.
And if you do have the time for a second journey into "twindom" check out the feature length version on Documentary Sunday November 30 at 9 p.m. --it's almost like watching a completely different but equally moving TV account.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Missing: TV At Its Best

The opening of The Missing, the new British miniseries, is exquisite and totally horrifying.
An average British couple are on vacation in rural France when their five-year old goes completely missing.
There are no clues, no one saw him vanish, he has just ceased to exist.
In other words here is a parent's worst ever nightmare and as the continuing stories over the investigation of Madeleine McCann prove that search may never be over.
This immaculately made eight-hour miniseries is so well done you'll want to watch it even if the subject matter is so very terrifying.
Part One is on Super Channel Wednesday November 26 at 10 p.m. Got that?
But how much is enough?
British TV has recently been hit with a rash of accusations about an unmistakeable to the sordid.
And there are times I wanted to turn away from the first two episodes which I've premiered.
The story is simplicity enough: Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily Hughes (Frances O'Connor) and adorable Oliver (Oliver Hunt) are stuck in rural France after their rental breaks down.
The location is Chalons du Bois and it is during the World Cup fever of 2006.
Tony loses sight of Oliver in a crowded bar --he releases the boy's hand to clap for victory and the child simply disappears.
The French police are a lumbering lot and it is not until Chief Inspector Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) arrives by train from Paris that the investigation gets into high gear.
The timeline is a bit blurry because it hops and skips from the present to the past of six years ago --Olivier would now be 12.
Tony has arrived back in Chalons du Bois and he tries to entice the inspector out of retirement --the little boy's scarf has been found and traced back to a used clothing store proving there may be hope.
The miniseries was written (beautifully) by Harry and Jack Williams, sons of playwright Nigel Williams and was directed by Tom Shankland with the emphasis on nuance.
Filming was mostly done in and around Brussels and the sunsets are beautifully caught, the laid back lifestyle of the locals a counter point to what is happening in the hearts and minds of the principals.
But let us not forget The Missing is a thriller.
Everything is geared to put that knot back in your stomach as often as possible every hour.
There is the screeching soundtrack that really got to me.
It's like a jigsaw puzzle that you can't completely solve.
And at the center of the action there's Nesbitt who is quite remarkable in holding everything together.
I couldn't turn away even when wanting to which is the mark of great TV.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Next Step :Must Viewing for Teens

Every year I venture onto the set of The Next Step.
Never heard of this Toronto made TV series?
Then I'm afraid, my friend, you are definitely out of it.
A few days ago I was visiting a Grade Six class across the street from where I live and I asked for a show of hands for anybody who watched this terrific dance series.
A forest of hands went up --far more than when I asked who was watching Degrassi: The Next Generation these days.
"I think we've got Degrassi on the run," laughs creator and director Frank van Keeken (of Temple Street productions).
I look at him closely because he's that familiar.
Way back when he wrote for The Kids In The Hall. But I'm remembering him as an actor on Maniac Mansion and Seinfeld.
When I visited the TLS set in late August van Keeken was shooting all the dance finale scenes one after another at cavernous O'Keefe Centre.
And just to prove his point real life kids from across the city were forking out $5 each to sit in the audience for two hours and just enjoy themselves.
"We shoot a new half hour episode every 1 1/2 days," he says. Take that Degrassi which takes 2 1.2 days for the same effort.
One big plus is the presence of five cameras recording every scene --I've been on L.A. sitcoms where there were three or four cameras but never five.
"The kids have talking points for each dramatic scene," Vvn Keeken  explains. "But there's no memorization of lines. It's what they feel comfortable saying.  Basically they're playing themselves, they know what their character would say."
But since this is the saga of a dance troupe some new members must appear each season and some others must depart.
"It's sad seeing them go," he acknowledges. "But they come back from time to time. And hopefully we've instilled in them a passion for acting which mixed with their great dancing might take them to other heights."
I got to spend some time with the incredibly gorgeous Victoria Baldesarra who is one of the youngest cast members but also just about the prettiest.
She says "it was strange playing the character all last summer and then going back to school and everywhere I'd look the younger school kinds would be looking up at me. My peers tried to have me believe they were above that. But even some of them were awe struck."
When I met her in the summer she has thinking of going the home schooled route this season --I still wonder if that happened.
The past two years have been largely filmed out at Scarborough's Timothy Eaton Technical School which is slated for demolition shortly.
"Any big empty school will do," chuckles van Keeken. "We need a real large gymnasium and a spacious auditorium. Empty classrooms become loading stations for props and scenery."
I remember last year when I ventured up to the school it was lunch break and I watched in awe as some of the guys were involved in a competition out on the front lawn to see who could jump the highest from a standing position.
Not only is The Next Step a TV hit here it also plays to high ratings in England. and Australia.
"That's why we've imported an English girl, this season she's our villain and she's delicious.
"We went over to the U.K. and held auditions and had huge turnouts. I picked Ella because she's lovely but she can
also dance really well".
And as if on cue Gilling steps up and we chat. Working 10 hours a day in humid Toronto weather wasn't her first option for a summer vacation.
"But I'm learning so much. The dancing --every day --it's the best possible training for me. My parents are here for me but as far as visiting and seeing the Toronto sites: too busy!"
She says before she's back on a place for home "I just have to visit Niagara Falls. It's a must!"
Then I had a chance to chat up Lamar Johnson who everyone on set predicts will be the big break out star.
Self taught as a dancer, he later jumped into acting before rediscovering his roots on TNS.
"But this dancing bug didn't desert me. I taught myself hip hop and now I'm into ballet, I really am. The other guys in class were out doing sports, I was always dancing instead.
A graduate of the Wexford school for the Arts he says "Now I can combine acting and dancing and not have to make that choice at least not yet."
Says van Keeken:"The biggest learning curve for these kids is seeing that acting and dancing can mix --just being a dancer is very restrictive in terms of job opportunities. Here we let them explore both sides of their personalities."
The third season of 30 new episodes premieres in Spring 2015 on Family Channel.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Secret Life Of Pigeons: Timely And Moving

I previewed a brilliant new CBC documentary the other day and then I rushed out to feed the pigeons at the parkette near where I live.
I swear there is a connection!
The CBC documentary I watched  titled The Secret Life Of Pigeons is director-writer Scott Harper's often moving take on the plight of urban pigeons.
Of course I feed the birds in my area when I can remember to which is often not enough during these chilly November days.
Harper's take is quite compelling. I know a lot of my neighbors think pigeons are just nuisances and certainly among the dirtiest of urban critters out there.
"Winged rodents!" is one of the nicer comments I've heard recently.
Not so says Harper on the telephone.
"They're just about the smartest animal around --look at the way they can find their way back home from distant places."
Indeed in some experiments we watch scientists try to figure out the amazing homing tendencies of these birds.
Is it scent? Do they use familiar landmarks or fly by the sun and the stars?
I'm told it's a TV first but a miniaturized camera is trapped onto the head of a pigeon --don't worry the animal doesn't suffer --and off we go getting a bird's eye view of how it travels home!
I never knew these were the first animals to be domesticated by early man --there are references to these birds right back to ancient Egypt.
"They certainly intrigued me," Harper says. "There's the public image and then reality. They form tight knit families although the males are not always monogamous.
Sounds like some human families I know.
"But both parents help in the baby rearing."
We see the kinds of shelters they prefer in the urban landscape to escape from predators including hawks.
Says Harper: "Their lives are very short, they frequently starve to death in brutal winters. They manage to mate and bring up the next generation and then they die."
Harper tells me today's city pigeons are the ancestors of domesticated pigeons brought over by immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Somehow the genteel European traditions of breeding them got challenged in the tough environment of the modern city.
"The birds either escaped or were deliberately set free and then adapted fairly quickly to the harsh new realities.
Here's where I must declare a potential conflict of interest.
Relatives of mine have bred and shown pigeons over the years --my favorite has always been the fan tail which Harper also likes.
I'm confessing all this because I really liked the section on the wonderful world of pigeon fanciers who take their birds to fairs and even release them in pigeon races.
One thing Harper stays clear of and I must thank him for that: a certain European craving for pigeon pie and like delicacies is never mentioned here.
This pigeon profile is well scheduled --just before the wintry bursts which deprive all outdoor birds of food supplies.
One Quebec professor shows us how pigeons evenly distribute themselves over a city so there are never too many pigeons to feed at any one park.
This one is tightly edited and cleverly shot and I tell Harper he could make a big sale to U.S. TV with the addition of a few shots of pigeons in Central Park.
And he says he's already working on it.
But The Secret Life Of Pigeons will have really succeeded if it gets you to cut up your stale dated bread and feed it to man's best friend in the winged category.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Brilliant TV Plea For Justice

Tommy Ziegler has spent more than half his life in prison, convicted of murders he could not have possibly committed.
He stares out at us in his orange prison jump suit. The big glasses make him seem even more frail and lost.
Now 68 Tommy has spent more than half his life in a Florida jail for killing his wife and her parents.
But forensic experts have been saying for decades he could not have done it.
Now there's renewed interest to free Zeigler based on a brilliant new Canadian documentary titled A Question Of Innocence.
It runs on Investigation Discovery channel Sunday night at 8 and is a must see for anyone interested in truth and justice.
Zeigler was convicted of the Christmas Eve murders in 1975 and has been fighting for a fair trail ever since.
But he has exhausted virtually every means of appeal and the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, just re-elected has a fast track program  titled "Death Ready"to speed inmates of Death Row to their executions.
"It was the kind of story I've always been interested in," says veteran producer Christian Bruyere.
"I started investigating in 2011 and all the pieces effortlessly fell into place.
" I first met Tommy on his 67th birthday,a kind, sweet guy, resigned to his fate, but not the mass killer depicted by the state".
Bruyere's company Mystique Films is renowned for these type of films going right  the 2001 TV movie scorn which copped an Emmy as Best TV picture.
I remember 2005's Children Of The Tsunami, a look at Sri Lankan orphans.
His latest CBC documentary Naked garnered the highest audience of any one hour documentary on CBC Newsworld.
"Obviously during the recent Florida gubernatorial race I was hoping Scott was not going to make it but he squeaked through. It just makes it that little bit harder."
The motives for killing Zeigler family members has never been clearly stated.
"Even today he still loves his wife," Bruyere says.
"He loved walking the dog with her. They were in the furniture store late that night to pick out a gift for her visiting parents.
"State made much of the insurance policies taken out on Mrs. Ziegler's life but that was legally necessary as she was joining the firm as a partner."
Bruyere approaches the evidence already gathered and lays it out for us --he meticulously reconstructs  everything that is known about that fateful night.
One big question is: who was the other man whose corpse was also found that night --he had the DNA of another man's blood also on his jersey.
"The fourth victim --who was he? Was he perhaps the perpetrator , the hired killer along with another man? "
And then there's the conduct of Judge Whitehead during the trial --he and Zeigler had previously clashed and on every piece of evidence the judge ruled against the defense.
Bruyere advances a dazzling theory who had ordered the deaths --watch the hour and see if you agree with me that this theory fits perfectly.
Superb editing and the inclusion of well staged dramatic bits makes this a compelling hour, a very model of how to present evidence.
I couldn't turn away and neither will you.
Instead I now firmly believe in Tommy Zeigler's innocence.
MY RATING: ****.

See No Evil: Reality TV Worth Catching


 I admit I hesitated just a bit when it came to previewing the first installments of the latest TV reality series titled See No Evil.
But the show is Canadian after all so I decided to go with it.
The first hour premieres on Slice Friday November 7 at 9 p.m.
Well, I was never as pleasantly surprised --this one is expertly stitched together from actuality, recreated scenes, comments of the main participants.
I ended watching both hours and understanding that the tension never lets up.
Quite a few of these recreations of true life murders are readily available these days on American TV.
This one has a very different angle --it's the thesis that in today's world we are constantly being monitored whether we like it or not.
In both cases the crimes are cracked with the help of surveillance cameras plus some pretty fancy footwork by local police.
The first episode is truly a stunner as a well respected man and his wife are viciously gunned down by assailants right in their home. --it is July, 2009.
Their extended family includes adopted children who scatter to hide but the killers are not interested in them.
The Billings family seemed exemplars of Christian family virtues in their neighborhood of Pensacola, Florida, until their grisly executions.
I can understand the local cops wanting to get on camera and explain everything but also interviewed is a next door neighbor and even the grown Billings daughter.
The family had 16 surveillance cameras everywhere except in the bedrooms where the killings took place.
Police are able to spot the two vehicles the killers used but not the license plates.
Dressed in military garb with masks, the killers thought they'd get away with it.
But gradually police begin honing in, looking for one of the vehicles as a starting point.
Then a local convenience store supplies its own video of the same car and the chase is on.
The second hour is if anything even more bizarre as a well liked teenager disappears from her bedroom one night in Star City --her door was locked but the window is wide open.
Again I'm stunned the parents would be willing to be interviewed during a time of grief.
But the girl had run off to party before and they thought she'd surely return home within days.
Says the mom "I knew something was bad wrong."
Her two best teen friends are distraught and then their stories begin changing.
Surveillance video at the housing estate captures teen Shuyler running into a parked car and whizzing off but it is so dark the car cannot be identified.
Police take us through their interrogations of choice suspects but the solving of this one will leave you completely stunned and upset.
Of course my TV critic's oath of honor prevents me giving away either ending.
This one is a co-production between Canada's Saloon Media and the UK's Arrow Media.
It really works because in both cases there is a ton of "actuality" and the puzzle pieces are expertly stitched together proving that in our Brave New World society surveillance is everything.
See No Evil premieres on Slice Friday November 7 at 9 p.m.
My rating: ***1/2.


Monday, November 3, 2014

King Tut UnMasked

It's only taken 3,000 years but the secrets of the boy pharaoh King Tut have finally been unmasked.
And as revealed in a new TV documentary it's not a pretty sight.
Catch it all in the new Discovery special King Tut UnMasked which revs up Sunday November 9 at 8 p.m.
After an hour of previewing this one I felt right sorry for the troubled teen who hobbled around with a club foot --he also had a cleft palate.
Basically this is an hour long virtual autopsy performed in high tech style by Egyptian antiquarian expert Dr. Zahi Hawass. assisted by surgeon Hutan Ashrafian and radiologist Dr. Ashraf Selim.
Contributing historical nuggets is Canadian Egyptologist Gayle Gibson.
First up there are complicated procedures to identify his father and mother. Try extracting DNA from such mummified remains!
It can only be done these days and the results are startling.
Of course we know all about the Curse of King Tut --his mummy was discovered in 1922 by British archeologist Dr. Howard Cain in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.
Dr. Carter's benefactor Lord Carnaveron died suddenly after the tomb was opened leading to all sorts of story.
First Hawass must establish that deceased pharaoh Akhenaten was actually Tut's father and that is done.
But the surprise here is Tut's mother was a sister of Akhenaten --her mummy is discovered. Nefretri was Akhenaten's official consort.
But after all at the age of 10 Tut married his half sister. Incest ran rampant in the royal family because pharaohs were believed descended from the gods.
Inbreeding destroyed the young boy's health --there are over 100 cames left for him in his tomb to help him in the after life.
All this is played out as an engulfing mystery.
One thing is debunked: the hole at the back of the head was probably made by Carver in trying to dislodge the golden mask from the mummy.
This of course means the assassination theory of his death is not true.
More intriguing is a leg fracture that may have resulted from malaria and caused sudden death.
The tomb was so hastily constructed the paintings were made while the plaster was still moist causing mold to form.
What evolves is an intriguing guide in ancient Egyptian history with visits to the Valley of the Kings and the Sphinx.
Tut became pharaoh aged just 10 in 1333 B.C. and he died just nine years later, the last of his dynasty.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

War Story: One Of Canadian TV's Best !


I usually don't herald TV shows so early but in the case of the third season of War Story on History the entire six new episodes are worth cancelling all outside plans.
War Story is all Canadian, real life stories told by physically feeble veterans of the D-Day landings.

Their bodies may be frail but their encounters are riveting and told with compassion and tears making this must-see TV.
This season the focus is on battles in Europe and series director and co-executive producer Barry Stevens says sadly it will be the last season.
"We're talking events of 70 years ago. Even if a guy was 18 back then he'd be very old today. And this we forgot as the cameras were on them because they were pitch perfect in memory.
"Events like that stayed with them, never leaving. Then at the end of the interview session we'd have to help them get to their feet. Our oldest vet was 99 so...."
And Stevens is right --how remarkable it is for the viewer to share these defining moments in our nation's history by the actual participants and as they disappear they will be our last contact with  such nation building moments.
As with the first two seasons there is no omniscient narrator. The veterans themselves tell everything with an occasional prompt from an unseen interviewer (Stevens).
Stevens (partnered with David York) also got to the exact locations of the landings and the battles and also discovered contemporary Europeans who witnessed these epochal days.
First Up  Saturday November 8 at 8 on History is the magnificent Dieppe Survived.
All I knew about this defeat was watching the British commander Lord Mountbatten being very cross with CBC's Laurier LaPierre on TV at the time his memoirs came out.
The Dieppe assault on August 18, 1942 was one of the blackest days in Canadian military history. Participants interviewed call it a massacre and it certainly seemed doomed from the start.
In a bizarre way it showed the Russians the  western Allies were not yet ready for a full scale invasion.
But in just eight hours over 900 Canadian soldiers perished. The 2,000 captives were shipped off to Nazi camps where they describe simply surviving as acts of heroism.
Stevens says the mission may have planned all along to capture an Enigma cyphering machine.
 Sunday November 9 at 8 there's D-Day Plus One which looks at what happened to Canadian soldiers as that fateful day progressed.
"We talk to Canadian tank commander Bill McCormick who by all estimates was the Allied soldier who got furthest into France that day," Stevens tells me.
"But he's so danged modest we could never get him to admit this on film!"
Brilliant inter-cutting between French, German and Canadian combatants makes this one enthralling.

A second episode, Whistle For A Tiffy, follows at 8:30 p.m.
It examines the Tactical Air Force through exceptional POV aerial footage --Hawker Typhoon bomber fighters were pivotal in the Allied success.
Monday November 10 at 8 comes Falaise: The Corridor Of Death looking at the battle in August 1944 between Polish and Canadian forces and German forces who were being encircled in Normandy.
I knew almost nothing about this bloody encounter which is told by combatants in great detail.
It is followed at 8:30 with  by Canadians Jim Wilkinson and Lawrence Levy (describing how he changed his dog tags so the Nazis wouldn't know he was Jewish if he got captured) and German participants Erich Bissoir and Edgar Vogel.
Best of the bunch at 8:30 is Where The Hell Is The Leopold and Scheldt as the Germans in the fall of 1944 fought viciously in canals that assisted them in hiding. Canadian endured huge casualties described in painful detail by survivors.
Finally on Tuesday at 8 p.m. there's Liberation an hour long recreation of the fighting in Holland as Canadian forces liberated the starving country.
The key account comes from Betty Laron who was a Dutch Jewish girl around the same age as Anne Frank.
Her family was hidden by Dutch friends but in a house with paper thin walls where conversations could be heard by neighbors.
This one looks at the acts of collaboration by many young Dutch men who were unemployed and the meticulous recreation of events is sensational --this story could be re-told in a feature length film, I feel.
The newsreel shots of Liberation Day are amazing, so much so that Stevens wondered if they had been staged later. Then he concluded such spontaneity could not be replicated.
"It was a sad day when we were wrapping up the interviews," Stevens says. Many of the participants were reached just in time to tell their stories
Expert cross cutting between archival shots, interviews and new footage of the areas covered makes each story spring to life --there isn't a wasted moment.

Stevens says "It's important we don't forget them. They left Canada as kids, returned as heroes, 70 years later the horrors they witnessed are still with them."
I agree --if we ever forget these sacrifices then Canada will be diminished --that's what I took away from this anecdotal history.
It's important young people watch particularly in public and high schools where teaching history has become a slap dash affair.
I watched all the episodes in one marathon preview sitting. I just couldn't stop.
I  felt that pride --hat it must have been like to be young and Canadian 70 years ago.
MY RATING: ****.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Degrassi: A Canadian TV Success Story


Linda Schuyer and I, we go way, way back.
I first met her when she was producing her first series The Kids Of Degrassi Street in 1979.
I was still with The Hamilton Spectator in those days and Linda had until recently been a senior public school teacher at Earl Grey school in Riverdale.
The Kids Of Degrassi ran over five seasons (until 1984) for a grand total of only 24 episodes.
It was a different series for kids, filmed on the menacing streets of south Riverdale and starring a gaggle of young amateurs who were well nigh irresistible.
The episode titles tell all: Jeffrey Finds A Friend, Rachel Runs For Office, Cookie Goes To Hospital and my all time fave Noel Buys A Suit --the tyke went to Moores to get a suit for his father's second wedding.
Degrassi Junior High was the inevitable sequel and it ran for three seasons and a total of 42 episodes. It was mainly filmed in an abandoned high school named after Vincent Massey.
And this one spawned some stars: Nicole Stoffman, Pat Mastroianna, Amanda Steptoe and Stacie Mistysyn  and Stefan Brogren all subsequently had acting careers elsewhere.
Schuyler made it with her partner Kit Hood for Playing with Time productions.
Schuyler still ribs me about the first time I visited her production company then located on Queen Street East --I think the building had once been a veterinary hospital.
I got lost in the maze of office and shouted for help at one point.
When Schuyler sold the next series Degrassi High to PBS for U.S. TV she journeyed to the U.S. TV Critics Association--it was held at Redondo Beach that year as I recall.
Up on stage she brought two of the young actors with her and said one had been in a bit of trouble and was staying with her.
I heard critics around me in the audience buzzing. They featured it had to be dark featured Pat Mastroianni but Pat enjoyed a secure family life.
The troubled teen was blond Neil Hope who subsequently disappeared before news leaked out about his tragic early death.
Then came five seasons of the inevitable Degrassi High and at the end Linda phoned me to say "That's it. I have other stories to tell."
And she produced a pilot titled X-Rated all about an apartment complex inhabited by bright twentysomethings.
She was very careful not to populate her story with Degrassi veterans but instead cast Gordon Michael Woolvett in the lead --others in the cast included Richard Chevolleau, Kate Lynch, Billy Merasty (partner Kit Hood directed).
It morphed into a different series titled Liberty Street which starred Joel Bissonnette, Billy Merasty, and Katherine Ashby.
This one had teething problems but it suddenly clicked at the end of its second episode (with 26 episodes).
Indeed Schuyler sent me the last two episoides as she embarked on a trip to Italy saying "We've finally got it."
But CBC declined to pick up the series for another season.
So it was off to Riverdale, an hour long soap which Schuyler figured had it made.
And the show was terrific if doomed from the start --to jump start an audience Schuyler needed it to run for five episodes a week instead of just one which was all CBC could afford to bankroll.
The cast had some big Canadian names in there: Lynne Griffin, Jayne Eastwood, newcomer Kris Holden-Reid.
For Linda I agreed to my most bizarre interview ever.
Co-star Marion Gilsenan had been stricken with bile duct cancer and wanted to prove she could still work in season two.
So we gathered at Bistro 990 and Marion demonstrated she could still drink wine, carry on a conversation and Linda brought her back although a cot in her dressing room was brought in for Marion's bad days.
Riverdale perished after two seasons.
But Marion had made it through season two before her sad death,
And so in 2001 Schuyler returned to her roots with Grassi: The Next Generation.
CBC passed claiming money problems and it's been a booming hit on Bell Media ever since.
And this version really took off in the U.S. as well.
Story lines are still carefully told, young people love the show as much as ever.
And I got to see a preview of the first new episode --these half hours are filmed in 2 1/2 days I'm told.
I've made a steadfast promise not to divulge any of the latest plot details but it all worked for me although I'm hardly part of the core audience.
Technical details as usual are just fine.
Why? Because it remains authentic as well as realistic. There's no talking down to the audience.
Degrassi received its third Emmy nomination over the past four years. I think the total number of episodes hit 350 awhile back.
Which makes Linda Schuyler Canada's most productive and successful TV producer.
And it couldn't happen to a nicer, more talented Canadian.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Canada's Worst Driver: I Was Wrong


 Here is where I get to confess that I once was wrong.
How often have you ever seen that confession from a TV critic?
All I can say in my defense is that it was a very long time ago.
Say 10 years.
I was then writing the daily TV column for the Toronto Star and I watched a preview of a new series on Discovery titled Canada's Worst Driver.
It was hatred at first sight.
I loathed the first episode because I misunderstood it.
I thought it was somehow extolling drivers who were dangerous both to themselves and other drivers on the road.
I couldn't have been more mistaken as a ton of readers told me at the time.
And since then yearly installments of this popular series on Discovery had been racking up record numbers.
For Season 5's Finale in 2009 the rating was over a million viewers. For a Canadian reality outing that's phenomenal.
I watched the first new episode of the 10th season and I now see the error of my ways.
The new drivers profiled here are pathetic cases. They deserve their time in Driver Rehab.
In fact some of them should never be permitted to drive again.
In the past decade the producers have received 7,000 nominations --the thought that so many incompetents are out there simply scares me.
I'm not sure why these incompetents deign to even show up. Are they that desperate for their 15 minutes of fame?
They should rightly be embarrassed but some seem simply slap happy to be captured on camera in all their glorious ineptitude.
First up there's Calgary's Chanie who takes 15 to 20 selfies while she's driving and simply ignores most traffic signs.
Sudbury's Jason is simply too blind to see signs anyways --current legislation says he doesn't have to have his eyes tested until he turns 80 which is four decades from now.
Siham has "course anxiety" problems and has been involved in a four car pileup.
Tyler from Notre Dame is so cautious he stops before green lights.
Santana, the first Newfoundlander, chatters away on his cell phone while hitting cars all over the place.
Tyler, a taxi driver from Kingston, has had two cars completely written off.
Mariah laughs loudly as she goes the wrong way and rear ended a cop car recently.
George is a road bully who watches TV shows on his phone as he drives around.
Are they kidding? No. They're all just plain awful.
I simply think Canada's Worst Driver is the scariest series on TV.
I got it all backwards when I first watched.
Andrew Younghusband who I recently interviewed for his other series Don't Drive Here is the host and producer.
In subsequent episodes we'll see how much if anything these awful drivers learn at rehab.
Just keep them away from me, please, I think this series can go on forever there are so many atrocious drivers on our roads these days.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Murdoch Mysteries Welcomes Bat Masterson

No doubt about it --Murdoch Mysteries would be battling Heartland for the coveted title of longest running CBC hour drama.
Heartland hit episode 803 on Sunday night to be followed by Murdoch Mysteries Monday night at 8.
But Murdoch's first five seasons ran on Citytv which ditched the Victorian cop drama several seasons back because the cost got too pricey.
CBC then did something it rarely if ever has done --it picked up a rival's series and has seen ratings increase every season since.
I can't think of another series that started elsewhere only to later flourish on CBC.
I well remember when Global TV floundered in 1973 and all sorts of fine new shows got cancelled.
When I asked CBC's Knowlton Nash, then head of news and current affairs, he was aghast CBC would deign to pick up series from other networks.
By contrast when CBC axed Don Messer's Jubilee in 1969 enterprising CHCH-TV picked it up for the next season.
And CHCH also picked up the CBC show Fighting Words with the late, great Nathan Cohen.
As far as star Yannick Bisson goes I've been covering him since he was a remarkably poised 17-year old on the set of the 1984 CBC TV flick Hockey Night starring Megan Follows.
On Monday's episode he not only stars but directs it with remarkable verve.
Bisson, of course, isn't TV's first Inspector William Murdoch.
Peter Outerbridge got there first in a series of TV movies shot in Winnipeg.
But Outerbridge was busy making another TV series for Shaftesbury Films --ReGenesis--when City decided to pick up the concept as a weekly series.
"We play the part completely differently," Bisson told me last time we chatted at CBC-TV's fall preview affair.
Bisson added a welcome dash of comedy and plays Murdoch with insouciant charm. Outerbridge was darker, a tortured Catholic, brooding, compelling but I'm not sure this would have worked in weekly installments.
I was on the set before the series actually debuted --there have been several location pit stops in later years --originally it was shot on studios at Eastern Avenue which no longer exist.
I'm also told there's a fair bit of shooting in neighboring Hamilton which sports more nineteenth century architecture than Toronto.
Obviously this is a very expensive series to shoot --period costumes can't be purchased off the rack, horses have to be hired, many of the accoutrements of Toronto circa 1900 have to be leased.
Tonight's episode titled Glory Days is even directed by Bisson.
It cleverly incorporates details about his upcoming wedding and contrasts the  policy of gun control already in effect in Toronto with the shoot 'em up philosophy of a Yankee carpet bagger.
The Yankee in question is none other than Bat Masterson  (nicely over played by Steven Ogg as a dare devil writer coasting on his past fame).
Bat is convinced that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are in town and planning an elaborate train robbery.
Bisson gets to direct  action scenes where he's also involved as an actor, a hard job that.
But the action swirls ad there are some pungent looks at a Toronto house of ill repute and also the color bar in the Victorian city --a black boxer is bitter about the way he's treated.
After eight seasons Murdoch Mysteries changes just enough to attract new fans while retaining its regular base of loyalists.'
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Heartland: A CBC Winner For Sure

Sunday night marks a big anniversary for CBC-TV's perennial family drama Heartland.
That's because with its 125th episode it will finally surpass CBC's Street Legal as the network's longest continuing hour TV drama.
It still has quite a ways to overtake Beachcombers which ran for 17 seasons but in a half hour format.
And there are CBC anthology dramas from the Fifties which notched just as many episodes.
TV critics including this one have long been fixated on what's wrong with CBC-TV.
But there a lot of bright spots, too including The Nature Of Things which is well over the 50 season mark as well as the still delightful Murdoch Mysteries which CBC grabbed away from Citytv.
Some of us out there still believe CBC made a mistake in canceling the iconic Front Page Challenge which I think could be brought back to life with a panel that included Marty Short, Wendy Crewson, Don Cherry and as moderator Peter Mansbridge.
CBC sells Heartland to 119 other countries.
And it fills perfectly its niche in the schedule --as "teacup drama"
Past CBC teacup dramas included The Road To Avonlea and Wind Up My Back in extolling the virtues of family.
And every year I get to chat up the personable co-stars Amber Marshall and Graham Wardle.
I just wonder how they'll fare when the series finally closes --after all they are so closely identified with their TV characters.
When I spoke with the twosome at CBC's fall launch they seemed as remarkably untouched by their TV fame as they'd ever been.
Marshall has a Twitter account with over 35,000 dedicated followers and she got to host the Canadian Country Music association awards because of her ascending fame.
She told me the show has to be careful not to recycle old themes.
"This new season Amy gets back from Paris and her family thinks she has changed some what," she told me. "Amy has to realize that she can't go back --everything is a bit different."
Now 26, Marshall lives on her own ranch outside Calgary with her husband, photographer Shawn Turner."
"I'm not Amy although I admire her so much. And I realize that I'll have adjustments to make when the series finally leaves the air --I'm hoping we can stay a bit longer."
Marshall collected some some small roles before Heartland came along eight years ago.
"I love that it teaches life lessons about caring for animals. So many kids see that and get inspired to help animals, too."
And she is very defiant in saying "I know for me there will be an acting life after Heartland".
When I screened my preview copy I could immediately spot the quality.
For one thing Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) gives virtually every cast member quality time as he intercuts the various stories.
Heather Conkie wrote the script which has no dull patches at all.
Story lines include the return of Ahmed well played by dashing actor Jade Hassoune.
Then there's the quandary of Tim (Chris Potter) who is asked by an old girl friend to join her on a rodeo tour.
And Lou (Michelle Morgan) and Peter (Gabriel Hogan)  take daughter Katie for an assessment --she seems slower than some girls her age.
As Marshall told me "Whole families can watch our show and not get embarrassed."
Looks like Heartland has a few more seasons worth of stories to tell --with Republic Of Doyle faltering CBC needs Heartland more than ever.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bargain Brothers: Great Canadian Reality TV

To hear Andrew MacIver tell it one day we was watching his favorite Canadian TV network --BNN --and there was a call for potential stars of a new reality series that would be all about a Canadian owned company.
"And I followed up and here we are --our series Bargain Brothers starts Tuesday October 21 on BNN."
The other brother is Doug and together with their extended family they run a very successful used car dealership in Winnipeg.
"In fact we have two lots," Andrew is saying.
"I thought we'd get an item on BNN but instead we're a whole show," jokes Doug.
The boys were interviewed on Skype by a producer who thought their merriment combined with sound business practices would indeed make a show and signed them up.
Together they operate Ride Time used cars along with mom Evelyn who is president of the company, Doug's wife Meagan and sis Alex.
It's quite an extended family --the boys (and Meagan) even live together although both in the first episode are supervising construction of two new homes which are going to be side by side.
Megan is so fed up she sputters in one scene that  it's almost like polygamy --only, of course, it isn't at all.
Dad Doug Sr. started the company --if he seems familiar he enjoyed a nine-year stint in the CFL that included time with the Toronto Argos. He also helped Winnipeg win its Grey Cup in 1984.
The two sons grew up in and around Toronto. Andrew studied automobile management at Barrie's Georgian College while Doug played hockey for nine seasons before being sidelined with a bad knee.
Now they're TV stars?
"We are ourselves," Andrew says. "It was tough at first getting used to the cameras and the TV crew. But after awhile I forgot they were there."
Doug explains that in a hit reality TV series like Pawn Stars "somebody comes into the store and tries to sell something that's considered unusual --but here every story is different. We just couldn't script it even if we wanted to."
Some of their TV ads are pretty wacky but these are designed to get the attention of viewers.
The brothers really are dedicated to getting their customers full service. In one scene they refuse to buy a car that on the surface looked fine until their mechanics discovered cracks in the wheels.
"Used cars -that's a bad image," says Doug. He says many customers simply refuse to pay the outrageous prices for a completely new car.
"A used car might be a rental with little mileage. We already have a 2015 car we're selling as used right on the lot."
I think viewers will stick with this one because of the honest portrayal of the family dynamic.
The conservative mom controls the purse strings and in the first episode frets a new commercial the brothers have done makes them seem too silly.
Then there's Andrew's quest to mount a huge inflatable gorilla on the roof --he never checked city by-laws to see if this could be done.
Doug has continuing spats with his kid sister whose job is to photograph the latest acquisitions on the company's web page.
One revealing comment from Andrew: "Doug and I share a brain."
On the phone Doug told me the company has to sell approximately 45 cars a month to begin making a profit.
So it's a volume business, he says. "We get them at auctions, some are bank repossessions, trade ins, others the lease has expired. "
And there are many return customers because the company is famous for its quality control.
So far BNN has ordered up six episodes with more to come depending on the ratings.
"It's a big step up for us," acknowledges Doug.
"But the old image of a used car salesman no longer exists. If we didn't deliver on our pledge of quality then the customers would go elsewhere,it's all because of the Internet, I'm sure of that."
Toronto-based Smashing Pictures made it (Linda McEwan directed) --the company also made The Big Flip and Great Taste No Money.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Last Chance To Catch Republic Of Doyle

"This is it. Doyle's end. I'm sad but I'm proud --you know, all at once."
Star and creator Allan Hawco told me he'd decided to end CBC-TV's quirky hit Republic Of Doyle during the middle of last season.
Doyle not only acts in them he also writes the scripts with a paertner and supervises editing.
The last season revs up on CBC-TV Wednesday October 15 at 9 p.m. Got that?
"I thought we should end on a creative high," he said when we talked at CBC's fall junket in Toronto.
Yes, putting that much effort into a series can be tiring. And this will be Season Six after all, a huge milestone for any Canadian series.
But the wonder is CBC's new management team let him get away with it.
Fashioning a new hit TV drama series isn't done every day.
Look at the tangled history of CBC's Crack'd starring David Sutcliffe which sputtered along for two seasons despite the talent before and behind the TV cameras.
And CBC-TV has been desperate for a popular series from Newfoundland for like forever --any one else out there remember all the effort that went into the series Hatching, Matching And Dispatching.
One of the times I chatted up Gordon Pinsent he remarked he was wrong in exiting his hit CBC series A Gift to Last (1976-79).
But nobody at CBC encouraged him to stick around for a few more seasons.
In terms of Republic Of Doyle I think it would make a dandy TV movie every year or so --just like James Garner's occasional returns to The Rockford Files.
In order to make the show the provincial government had to fork out millions in subsidies but Hawco told me he's sure it will eventually be paid off.
Gradually the series is being sold abroad. It even has started popping up on Buffalo's FOX TV affiliate Channel 29.
"And there's a steady stream of tourists who see the city in all its glory and decide to come and take a look," he told me.
Don't get Hawco started on the perils of being a Canadian celebrity.
"We see so much TV from the U.S. then along comes a show about Canada and viewers really clicked. They stop me everywhere. It's very gratifying."
This year there'll be just 10 episodes --down from orders that went as high as 16.
Jake gets jailed for the murder of William Cadigan Clarke and we'll see him try to get out of that.
In other seasons such big ticket names as Russell Crowe, Pinsent and Due South's Paul Gross have made guest appearances.
Since I met up with Hawco he's been announced as the star of yet another new CBC series titled Caught based on the novel by Canadian Lisa Moore. It will be a co-production between his company Take the Shot productions teamed with eOne.
He'll play David Slaney, a convicted drug-runner who escapes from a Nova Scotia prison after five years of incarceration and is set in 1978.
Of course I wish him well just as I'm wishing for more ROD stories on TV in the near future.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Royals & Animals: Makes Horse Sense

The very title Royals & Animals almost put me off this great new Canadian made documentary.
But then I saw it was made by Montreal filmmaker John Curtin so I let my horse sense make my decision and I'm happy to report I couldn't turn away.
True, there are the requisite shots of Queen Elizabeth and her snappy corgi.
But there's also a deep note of pessimism --her dogs and horses are the only ones in this sycophantic world who take her for what she is --a slightly lonely old lady who desperately needs time away from a closely observing public.
The tightly edited hour begins in silly fashion as we see the preparations that go into feeding HM's dogs --only the best and freshest chicken and steak will do and then Elizabeth adds a dash of her own mixture which is a closely guarded state secret.
The dogs are with her on most occasions-- one even travelled with her on her honeymoon with Prince Philip.
The little dogs are so collectible but heir apparent Charles will have none of them, he prefers his Jack Russell while Kate has a cocker spaniel she even goes to bed with when William is out flying his planes.
Staff universally dislike the corgis who are not house trained --their moist moments must be cleaned up with soda water and a stiff brush. Then there was Princess Anne's dog who jumped his leash in Great Windsor Park and bit an infant.
The magistrate sternly ordered anger management courses for the transgressor --any ordinary mortal might have seen his dog put down in a similar circumstance.
We learn the royal horses get equally fine treatment. One chef shows how the carrots must be washed and then sliced just so before Elizabeth pops the morsels into the horses' mouths.
The dark side of royalty? Princess Diana loathed all the animals at Balmoral Castle and tried to learn to ride but eventually gave up.
She was horrified to go out with Charles on a stag and pheasant hunt and emerge from the bushes covered in blood.
Philip may be a great conservationist but he also shoots up game with all the passion of a big game hunter.
Best part of the hour is the look at the Queen's close relationship with her mount from Regina, Burmese who she was riding the day in 1981 when a crazed man shot at her.
We see Burmese flinch but remain ever steady so confident was the queen that he would not panic.
When he died he was buried on the grounds of Windsor castle.
There are bits on British swans still technically owned by the royals --when the swans leave the Thames then the monarchy will collapse or so the legend goes.
And the royals and race horses is another saga --the kindly old Queen Mum left debts of four million pounds much of due to her compulsive gambling on horses.
Curtin uses animals as a metaphor for all that's sad and mixed up in the life of the royals, a clever and compelling device. He wrote, produced, directed and edited it for Kaos Productions (Michael Wees was cameraman).
The other three hours including After Elizabeth II and Chasing the Royals did right well in the ratings.
As will Royals & Animals: 'Til Death Do Us Part I fearlessly predict.
MY RATING: ***1/2.