Thursday, January 23, 2014

Catching Up: Inside Paradise Is Warm Weather TV

Like many of you out there I went south last week.
But, alas, I haven't much money these days so my southward trip extended to frigid Buffalo where I was visiting a friend.
That means I missed the first episode of the new series Inside Paradise.

You and I can both catch the second new episode  of Inside Paradise which premieres on Travel + Escape on Thursday January 23 at 10:30 p.m. Got that?
Of course this one is a reality show --what other kind of series is there these days.
But the catch is different.
This one is from the perspective of the islanders who must make their yearly incomes during the four extreme months of the year. The other eight moths together bring in only 10 per cent of the total tourist dollars.
It's all set on the tiny island of St. Martin --I'm completely unfamiliar with this one but it sure looks like a nice place to visit.
And the participants are a nicely selected gaggle of entrepreneurs.
First up there's gregarious and much married Jeff who owns among other things a $5 million yacht which he rents out for $45,000 per excursion.
One of our first sightings of Jeff is at a fancy dinner party where he tries to drum up trade with two of the island's more influential real estate brokers.
One keeps riding him with her demands (which are not that outrageous considering the fee he demands) --she want to know if a certain billionaire can bring along his own chef on board and dispense with Jeff's.
Well, we all travel with our own chefs, don't we?
There's profound silence for about a minute before Jeff says flatly "No!" There's a point at which loyalty to his staff kicks in.
Then we meet property manager Jennifer who runs eight properties on the island and must ensure all are occupied during the prime months --that means literally being on call 24/7.
She checks everything out even a local underwater event which involves feeding ravenous sharks.
Then there are Dimitri and Ottie who run the beach rentals on Orient Beach --one day one of the rides malfunctions and they're about to lose a day's take.
Danika is an event planner and weddings here can be stupendous --after all captains can arrange weddings at sea.
Roel is the young and swaggering distributor of most of the liquor on the island and we watch as he tries to get one resistant pub owner to instal draft beer.
Dino is one of the island's most important chefs and one night a highly rich and influential couple simply walk out. He must woo them back or risk losing a huge chunk of change.
Executive producer Mitch Azaria (for Toronto's Good Earth Productions) has been quoted as saying no Caribbean island is as wholly dependent on tourism as St. Martin.
Of course some of the simulated cliff hangers are hokey. But I watched the first three preview episodes and can recommend this one.
It may not cure me of my fixation with all things Buffalo but it comes pretty close.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Can The Following Keep Its Following?

Last midseason the biggest new hit was The Following starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy,
And it's b-a-ck --as bloody and violent as ever which is good or bad news depending on how your stomach handles blood and gore.
A one hour return is being advertised as a "preview" of coming attractions to run after the NFC Championship game Sunday night at 10:30 p.m. on CTV.
The first new episode comes up Monday January 27 at 9 p.m. on CTV. Got that?
The serial crime drama originally hit home with its Odd Couple teaming of Kevin Bacon (new to series TV) as veteran and dedicated detective Ryan Hardy who was determined to bring down mad cultist leader Dr. Joe Carroll played with exquisite elan by the ultra handsome Janes Purefoy.
It's funny but just a few years back I chatted up Purefoy in Toronto as he was making an oddball Canadian mini-series.
He was the one who brought up the fact he was a serious candidate to play James Bond and lamented he wasn't getting the toughie roles he wanted.
That was before his steamy antics in the miniseries Rome and certainly before his mad doctor outing in The Following.
And as an extended clip of highlights from last season's finale demonstrates Carroll seemed to perish in blazing glory. Nobody could withstand such a firestorm.
Or could Carroll still be out there somewhere? I'm just asking mind you.
Last season The Following started strong and rapidly devolved into an extended exercise in torture and violence.
I think it was the first X rated (for violence) series seen on network TV. If you thought Criminal Minds was tough to sit through what about this one?
The new season starts on a peaceful note as Ryan seems adjusted, he's teaching, trying to build himself up, haunted but looking to the future.
Then comes a bloody massacre on a New York subway with the crazed attackers all wearing Joe Carroll masks as they slash and kill about a dozen passengers very late at night. Only one woman is lucky to escape with her life.
The chant is all about the second coming of Carroll and Ryan Hardy's name gets mentioned with taunts to the effect even he can't stop what's coming.
If you aren't creeped out by now what about another murder, this one singular by two crazy twins --they even plant Carroll's book to make sure police know who they are.
Also back is FBI agent Mike Weston played by young Canadian Shawn Ashmore and trying to solve the new murders. He need's Ryan's expertise which is at first refused and this is something Mike cannot understand.
The problem is The Following might be slipping into a routine. Will it just be the first season all over again?
How can Carroll come back when we thought we saw him engulfed in a horrendous blaze?
Let's get this straight, others all around them are perishing in great quantities while Hardy and Carroll keep popping back for the next atrocity? It jusn't make sense.
What it does make is for eye popping terror where the body count keeps expanding and blood flows like water.
The action is so busy and well orchestrated just try turning away.
I know I couldn't.
 So let's give due credit to cinematographer David Tuttman and production designer Tim Galvin for making it so compulsively viewable.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Secrets In The Bones: A Mediaeval Mystery

So far it's been a strong season for CBC-TV's venerable The Nature Of Things but I feel this week's edition Secrets In The Bones is so far the best of the bunch.
The hour plays like a mediaeval mystery that finally gets unlocked.
And it zooms far, far back to the Black Death that ravaged Europe peaking in the years 1348 to 1350 and resulting in the death of almost half the population.
This fast paced documentary finds a Canadian angle in the work at McMaster University of evolutionary biologist Hendrik Poinar who served as point man on an international team trying to unlock the secrets of this rampaging pandemic.
His father George Poinar was one of the scientists who inspired Michael Crichton to write Jurassic Park --the elder Poinar was able to pluck out the DNA of insects captured in amber.
And to make all this immediately relevant there's the horrid saga of an Oregon man who last year contracted bubonic plague after he was bitten by a cat who had killed a rodent infected with the disease.
The clips show his toes and fingers rapidly blackened and had to be cut off and he was put on life support and very near death. His recovery is tentative --he can never return to his welding job.
Poinar says the plague is constantly mutating --hence his desire to isolate it in the bones of victims who died over 600 years ago.
The subject is terrific but it needs visuals or we'd just be stuck with a bunch of talking heads.
Great footage has Poinar journeying to a site in a once thriving mediaeval Italian village and finding a cache of victims long ago buried in the hospital's underground caverns.
That helps personalize the statistics and so does a visit to another cache in London that was unearthed during excavation for a modern structure.
The charnel house has upwards of 20,000 victims of the plague and these vivid shots show us how widespread the suffering was.
The idea was to take teeth from these victims and try to discover the secrets of the plague --it takes a year of hit and miss testing before the DNA of the plague can be isolated and studied.
Of course there are other mysteries to be solved. If up to 50 per cent of the population survived why were they spared?
What differentiated them from the victims?
Because Poinar seems sure the deaths were caused by more than one pathogen.
And why did the plague suddenly subside? It's another mystery still needing answers.
Liam O'Rinn wrote and produced it for Infield Fly Productions (executive producer Dugald Maudsley).
O'Rinn has done an outstanding job of finding just the right visuals to illustrate this 600-year old mystery story.
In fact as I watched I kept thinking all the ingredients are here for a big budgeted theatrical movie.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Close Encounters Takes UFOs Seriously

First surprise about the new series Close Encounters is how well made it is and relatively gimmick free.
Second surprise is that it is made by Toronto-based Newroad Media.
So mark it as quality Canadian content outer space style.
The first two episodes air back-to-back on Friday January 10 at 10 p.m. on Discovery Canada and you won't be able to turn away once you start watching.
Each episode has two stories to tell. Packing in each encounter at a tight 11-12 minutes is a mighty editing feat in itself.
Dramatic recreations are a big part of each story and are told from the view of the people who sighted the phenomenon. But also incorporated are the reports by veteran experts like Leslie Kean, Nick Pope and Kevin Randle.
Lets' take the first episode: the first true story Northern Lights took place on December 11 1996.
Two cousins Billy and John Smith were zooming along the Klondike Highway in the Yukon when they saw what seemed to be a tremendous space ship so huge it was the size of three football stadiums.
More than 30 other people in the area that snowy night also saw it  including a couple on the other side of the lake.
Technical details are excellent here and the reports from the experts indicate something troubling indeed happened in the sky that night.
The second story is just as intriguing --Faded Giant, March 24 1967 which looks at the strange events at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Deputy Commander Robert Salas received the alarm from guards on duty who spotted a huge YFO overhead. At the same time the base's ICBMs went out of commission and could not be re-activated.
It is a story that the U.S. Air Force later refused to confirm or deny.
Episode 2 starts with Fire In The Sky, December 9 1965 when rural volunteer fireman Jim Romansky is called out late at night to investigate a plane crash.
Near Kecksburg he discovers a huge object in an acorn shape that glowed mysteriously. Later that night U.S. military officials cordoned off the site and ordered all participants not to discuss the case.
And the last Arizona Objects, March 13, 1997 happened on the night the Hale-Bopp comet was circling the night skies.
Many observers saw V-shaped objects in the sky and some of these craft flew extremely low over the suburban homes. Those who watched felt strangely peaceful as if the mysterious strangers were sending down thought waves telling them not to worry.
The four stories are all expertly recreated by actors. But there's nothing here that sensationalizes the first person accounts.
Rather viewers must make up their own minds.
And you can do further research into the cases at Encounters. Got that?
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Spoils Of Babylon Often Hysterically Funny

Too much of prime time TV might be deemed "cookie cutter" --meaning one  type of hit series usually spawns a dozen imitations.
But the blazingly different new comedy series The Spoils Of Babylon is something completely different and original.
The premiere on Thursday January 9 at 10 p.m. on The Movie Network  has the first two half-hour episodes.
Will Ferrell is in top form as an Orson Welles type genius named Eric Jonrosh who introduces the TV version of his greatest work.
And right behind are such talents as Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Tim Robbins and Haley Joel Osment.
What emerges is an often inspired spoof of all those greatish TV events of the 1980s like Masada or Winds Of War. A presentation of the Funny Or Die Factory this one has some misses along the way but enough moments of huge merriment to keep viewers entertained.
Farrell with a mountain of a beard is the utterly pompous self proclaimed genius introducing his masterwork Spoils Of Babylon which ran 22 hours in its first cut before being whittled down for TV consumption.
We first meet Jonrosh in a deserted restaurant as he tastes from three glasses of red wine --immediately Orson Welles' campy wine commercials come to mind.
The bizarre story finds Devon (Maguire) adopted by kindly farmer Tim Robbins and raised with  sister Cynthia  (Wiig) who gets more amorous with the passing of the years.
Obviously Jonrosh had to film everything on the cheap --the sprawling landscapes of Texas and the big cars Texans drive are really only cheap miniatures.
This parody of melodramatic cliches from such clap trap as The Thord Birds might not work for younger viewers who do not remember these memorable stinkers.
Others may tire of the dull patches. But I just liked to wallow in the impossibility of these melodramatic situations.
Also around for the fun areVal Kilmer, Jessica Alba, Haley Joel Osmont and they try to act quite serious indeed. The material is so risible it needs no prodding from the actors.
As critics have said the result seems like an over extended skit from Saturday Night Live --which means a fair number of comedy misfires along the way.
I'm not the only one who immediately thought of Airplane. If one bad joke doesn't make it for you don't worry there's another one on the way.
In fact I found Spoils trailer to be even better than the finished product as it contains many of the comedic highlights and none of the low moments.
Anyway this TV comedy is completely different from any thing else you may see during the midseason or any other time for that matter.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Intelligence Has A Future


Big news about the premiere of Intelligence is the reemergence of Lost's Josh Holloway as an American cyber-crime intelligence operative.
The first hour gets a special preview on Tuesday Jan. 7 at 9 p.m. on CTV (and CBS).
Holloway shot to TV stardom on the mega-hit Lost for six years playing the lovable con man James "Sawyer" Ford.
Then he jumped to such movie hits as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Paranoia and Battle Of The Year.
And in this smart, sassy techno hit he's perfectly cast as Gabe Vaughan who has had a super-computer microchip implanted deep in his brain.
This connects him to the worldwide grid of American computers continually monitoring terrorism. And the series comes on just as the debate over spying on ordinary U.S. citizens has hit the news.
It comes as a surprise to me that the new show is made by ABC at the Disney Burbank lot but it is running on CBS which is trying to break out of its mold as the network of older audiences.
Holloway who is now 44 is obviously very buff as he butts heads with all sorts of terrorists and baddies and effortlessly mows them down without blinking an eye.
For sheer violence this one seems to be better suited to a more macho network than the very genteel CBS. But the first hour is also well written as it tries to frame the current debate about the conflict between computer technology and simple humanity.
Production details are terrific except for the opening which is set in the Himalayas but unconvincingly resembles the American Northwest forest.
This is also another Odd Couple pairing as the rash and often unpredictable gets a female officer to lead him in the right direction.
As played by Meghan Ory the character of Riley Neal is super smart in her own right but when placed with Vaughan they together make a team dependent on each other.
Gabe is an action man who wade into tough situations while Riley is trained in the legalistics of what government agents can and can't do. And because Gabe's wife has been kidnapped by the enemy that means no imminent hanky panky between these two. Or does it?
One familiar face is provided by Marg Helgenberger (CSI) as the veteran head of this intelligence unit.
As is normal on a Disney production the technical aspects are super including a fantastic set with all the requisite bells and whistles. But I felt there were too many gimmicky and this fixation threatens to ruin the story line.
The challenge ahead is not to turn Intelligence into a rehash of other spy shows. Already some critics have dubbed it a new $6 Million Man.
And there's the problem of fitting into the usually staid CBS schedule. I'm wondering if Intelligence better belongs on Fox or even one of the cable weblets?
The second episode moves to its regular time slot of Mondays at 10 p.m on January 13. Got that?
And just to make the point, yes, there was a wonderful CBC-TV series called Intelligence shot in Vancouver, running 2006 to 2008.
Both CBS and Fox tried to make U.S. versions and both failed.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Motherload: Life As Working Mom

So there I was channel surfing very late at night trying to find a really boring program to put me to sleep.
Mistakenly I thought I'd found it in the televised debate on the topic "Are Men Necessary?"
But this was a Munk debate and it was lively and funny at times and I was more awake than ever --debater Camille Paglia's thesis that feminists can't have it all and are concentrating too much on careers rang very true.
Now completely awake I plopped on the screening copy of The Motherload which made great sense after watching these feminists preparing to duke it out.
Director Cornelia Principe later told me on the phone that it's "certainly" partly based on her own experiences.
With an enviable 15 years in the documentary business plus a five-year old to look after she was frequently caught balancing the needs of motherhood and career.
And just at that point the cute five-year old interrupted and had to be told mom's going to be busy for the next few minutes.
Convinced she had a topic under explored on TV Principe set out search parties to find women stuck in the same situation as she found herself.
Most of the women she approached readily agreed to be interviewed --a very few were hesitant that male bosses might take criticism the wrong way.
And that's one of Principe's major points --in terms of top jobs women are stuck at 14 per cent, just about the same statistic for the past decade.
In terms of being able to work as long in a day as they want men still seem to have it all. Women at a certain point must race home and get supper ready.
"Yes, I did get some big names on camera," Principe laughs. "But I had to show the whole picture. And I also tackle the blue collar dilemma of women who simply can't afford much in the way of day care."
One well paid working mom says day care eats up half her salary a figure I found astonishing. But the woman also says that's the price for keeping things on an even keel at home.
In terms of marquee names Principe has former U.S. foreign affairs adviser to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Anne-Marie Slaughter who explains she weighed the consequences and felt she had to be home with children at this particular moment. She went back to a family and life as a university professor because being on call for long periods during a crisis simply wasn't possible --she was worrying too much.
Slaughter's article in The Atlantic Monthy"Why Women Can't Have It All" touched off a storm of debate on the issue.
Also corralled is Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook who talks about the dynamics of heading a world famous phenomenon as well  but also wanting to excel as a mother and knowing that at a certain time in late afternoon it's time to get home.
"I felt I betrayed my inner self" is a hugely revealing statement. But out of that comes a recognition there never will be a 50-50 world in terms of family responsibilities.
The road is even harsher for single mothers. And it's the worst ever for blue collar moms as more and more husbands get laid off from jobs which simply are not going to come back.
One delightful moment has a stressed mom  (Emilie)talking over the situation with her mom  via Skype. Mom who also worked outside the home happens to be former Canadian Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour --she now toils in Switzerland.
And an even more Canadian moment looks at the situation in the House of Commons where women M.P.s now constitute 25 per cent of all MPs --the highest ever.
The hour is jam packed with information --I was unaware how bad U.S. laws on maternity leave really are compared with Canadian laws.
Principe tells me she'd experienced the same feelings as the moms she interviewed --her cameraman on this shoot happens to be husband Matt Gallagher.
By the way men are not perceived as "the enemy" here --making The Motherload must see viewing for both sexes --and older children if they are still up at 9 p.m.
Principe produced, wrote and directed it for her company Border City Pictures. A U.S. sale might be iffy because a central thesis is we have it better in Canada in social services than our envious U.S. cousins.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

CBC's The Best Laid Plans : Worth Watching

For decades Canadian TV programmers were told to stay away from Canadian politics as a source for drama.
The only CBC series I can think of way back was the fine 1966 series Quentin Durgens, M.P. starring reliable Gordon Pinsent.
I fact when I once suggested a sequel that would have Durgens returning to Ottawa to help his cabinet minister daughter (to be played by Leah Pinsent of course) CBC forces were properly aghast.
Later on came the "comedy" series Not My Department  (1987)  which had terribly producing problems and that was that.
When Arthur Hailey published his first novel In High Places (set in Ottawa) he told me there was absolutely no interest from any Canadian producer about securing TV or movie rights.
Later on Dick Nielsen skewered the politics of separatism in the TV movie Quebec Canada 1995.
And last but not least there was Paul Gross's fine two season mini-series H20 --CBC turned down Gross's proposal for a third season on the grounds the material was too difficult to peddle to any U.S. broadcaster.
So when I watched the first hour of the latest TV venture into politics The Best Laid Plans I was properly skeptical about its success.
But this time, happily, I was wrong.
The six-parter might best be described as "Mr. Smith Goes To Ottawa".
The premiere is on CBC-TV Sunday night at 9 with the second episode on Monday at 9 p.m.
Jonas Chernick is just fine as bumbling political  neophyte  Dan Addison who wanders into the office of Opposition leader George Quimby played with absent minded charm by Mark McKinney.
Addison is the bookish type who has high moral standards in a profession inhabited by low lifes --think of how the super brilliant Nigel Wright is being treated by the Tories of today.
Addison catches his gal pal (well played by Sarah Allen) in bed with a political enemy and promptly decides to ditch politics for good and get back to the academic life of the University of Ottawa.
But to extricate himself fully he first must sum up one more feat of help to Quimby --he must find somebody to run in a bye election against the most popular hack in Commons history.
It's while he's busy finding a new pad that Addison happens to stumble upon such a candidate: an aging professor of engineering  named Angus McLintock and played to the hilt by veteran Kenneth Welsh.
I haven't spoken to Welsh since his brilliant turn as Watson in several Canadian made TV remakes of Sherlock Holmes but he's perfectly cast as the bombastic professor.
What ensues reminds me of that fine series Ed --everyone here is just a bit larger than life.
And Chernick emerges as a Jimmy Stewart for our age.
And for once Canadian politics doesn't seem as dull as a stack of dirty dishes.
For one thing the screenplay from Susan Coyne (Slings And Arrows) and Jason Sherman (The Listener) is quite respectful of Terry Fallis's sensational best seller.
Director Peter Moss and producer Phyllis Platt have peopled this comical saga with some of the best Canadian names around: Sonja Smits as the cagey prime minister, Ron Lea, Peter Keleghan, Lea Pinsent, Raoul Bhaneja.
Shooting in actual locations really helps --the actual corridors of the Commons can be glimpsed more than once.
With the Wright-Duffy scandal unfolding and the Rob Ford fiasco at Toronto's City Hall Canadian politics has never seemed as lively and comically relevant.
Mark down The Best Laid Plans as the first big new Canadian TV hit of the winter season.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Four Rooms: CBC Counter Programming

On the surface CBC-TV's newest series Four Rooms seems like the kind of typical afternoon fare found on competing cable channels.
Think again.
Four Rooms comes from the producers of Dragons' Den --hence a certain slickness and close editing that keeps the pace percolating.
It can best be described as Dragon's Den Meets Pawn Stars. At least there's no Duck Dynasty in it!
I actually like Pawn Stars despite its "shlockiness" because it mixes in huge dollops of history.
Four Rooms stars Reshmi Nair as the beauteous hostess who introduces us to four dealers in antiques chosen because they're so markedly different from each other.
I'm not quite sure how the contestants are chosen but they've imported from all parts of Canada to present precious items before the four experts.
The catch here is they can chose the order of seeing the experts who are each ensconced in separate rooms.
At the end of some chatter each dealer puts forward his best offer and the guest must take it or go on to the next room --there's no turning back. The fun lies in the deal making that is going on.
The dealers are Jessica Lindsay, Phillips, Scott Landon, Derreck Martin and Eddy Rogo. Sometimes they go after each other which is naughty but nice.
None of them know until the conclusion what the others have bid.
Dragon's Den is a huge CBC hit although it seems to be made for $1.99 an episode.
No matter --it delivers a huge ratings sting that some of CBC's priciest TV dramas have failed to do.
I'm assuming Four Rooms is replacing CBC's spin off of Antiques Roadshow. I'm not sure why that one faltered or was it simply considered too costly because of the travel arrangements.
The first hour has a guy trying to sell Ronnie Hawkins' sofa. There are no stomping marks on it I can assure you.
And a woman has a precious letter written by reclusive author J.D. Salinger for which she asks a cool $60,000. Turns out Salinger often wrote to impressionable young things.
A guy has two books owned by Marilyn Monroe which are authenticated. But did the stunning MM really read all of Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln as well as The Brothers Karamazov?
It's often fascinating fun watching the different styles of the buyers as well as their techniques to soften up the clients.
But at an hour the pace can dawdle at times. I'd suggest cutting each segment to a half hour and running two of these back to back as is done so successfully on Pawn Stars.
It's no use ranting against reality TV.
It's here and Four Rooms is near the top of the reality TV market.
And it should get you to wondering what you have in your home that might bring in top dollar.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I Remember, I Remember

Some famous friends of mine passed in 2013.
Among the biggies that I wish to saute there's:
Van Cliburn , 78-- I was late to a lush PBS reception in Los Angeles and I got the last chair beside the shy Van and his cackling mom. Their Texan repartee entertained me for several hours.
And on another TV critics tour I sat up late at night in the hospitality suite listening to the reminiscences of the gal I thought the best movie actress of the Seventies: Karen Black who passed at 74.
I told her just a month earlier I had been on the New York set of Another World interviewing her actress sister --Gail Brown.
And then there were two encounters with the tough and acerbic Joan Fontaine who had won an Oscar for Suspicion and when we met up was the loveliest movie star around in her seventies. She died days short of her 95th birthday still feuding with older sister Olivia de Havilland.
Julie Harris I met and interviewed on the set of Knots Landing --the star of countless Broadway hits estimated that one showing of KL attracted more viewers than all the plays she'd ever been in. She was 92.
And there was the night under the stars at Disneyland in 1971 when Disney trotted out all his old stars to have dinner with visiting TV critics. I selected Annette Funicello was was radiant and talkative although she'd spend later decades battling the effects of multiple sclerosis. She was 71.
I listened in awe in a Toronto restaurant as Dennis Farina told stories about the days when he was a real cop on the beat. He was then tub thumping for Law & Order and just before his death at 69 made the sensational cable TV series Luck with Dustin Hoffman.
Yes, I once visited the set of One Day At A Time and met the effervescent Bonnie Franklin who battled pancreatic cancer before passing aged 69.
In her dressing room on the set of All In the Family the wondrous Jean Stapleton talked about creating one of TV's most lovable characters: Edith Bunker. And later I visited with Jean when she starred on stage in Toronto in the play Mornings At Seven. She died at 90 after a long illness.
I watched Canadian Cory Monteith rehearsing on the set of Glee, that's as close as I ever got to him. His death from a combination of cocaine and liquor was a real tragedy.
I never met her in person but I enjoyed two long telephone chats with the legendary Esther Williams. "Don't call me an actress," she joked. "I'm just a swimmer." It reminded me of  Fanny Brice's great quote: "Wet she's a star, dry she ain't." Esther was 94.
I saw the way Chicago film critic Roger Ebert was feted by all talent at the movie junkets I'd occasionally attend. When offered a muffin he refused because it hadn't been properly buttered. He was 70.
I met James Gandolfini early on at an early press conference for The Sopranos. Nobody ever thought it would be that huge a hit and such huge success tended to obscure Gandolfini's other great performances. He was just 52 when he died.
I sat with Conrad Bain at an NBC all star function and found the gentle Canadian actor to be thoughtful and whimsical. He enjoyed two TV monster hits in Maude and  Diff'rent Strokes and enjoyed a long retirement from the rerun royalties of both. He was 89.
I once interviewed Sir David Frost when he was in Toronto attempting to set up a Canadian version of his TV talk show. It didn't work and he went on to bigger things --like interviewing disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon.
Jeanne Cooper of The Young And Restless fame came to Toronto many times to promote her causes at the Hospital For Sick Children. She was always the soap opera diva. She was 84.
But nobody ever got close to Winnipeg legend Deanna Durbin who retired at 27 and died aged 91.

There's Hope For Saving Hope

By current standards of Canadian TV the medical drama series Saving Hope should have been cancelled after its first season.
The show aired on CTV and was picked up by NBC. But the peacock proud network dropped it after a lackluster summer showing and CTV usually would have done the same.
After all the superb Canadian made series Combat Hospital suffered a similar fate when it flourished on Global but was cancelled by ABC because of low ratings.
It's always been an "unproud" Canadian tradition that a big budget home grown drama needs an American partnership --and if that fails the show is over.
But wiser heads prevailed at CTV. The show was not only renewed for a second season but the episode order was ramped up from 13 to 18.
And so CTV ran part of the second season last summer to constantly growing ratings.
And now Saving Hope is back for its second second season with a winter run of nine more fresh episodes.
CTV apparently has confidence in this show and is even giving it the important time slot of Thursdays at 9 --yes it's the traditional spot for Grey's Anatomy which is going on hiatus.
And need any one say it but Saving Hope is very much in the tradition of Grey's Anatomy. The stars are super handsome, the hospital setting very slick indeed and the concentration is on the romantic entanglements of the principals.
Erica Durance stars as the beauteous Dr. Alex Reid --I've never met a female doctor in my life who was half as drop dead gorgeous.
Her fiance Dr. Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) is also handsome --he's the one who came through a near  death experience and now sees ghosts in every episode.
And there's the staff lady killer Dr. Joel Goran (Daniel Gilles) who was getting all hot and heavy with guest star Erin Karpluk of Being Erica fame.
I vehemently disagreed with the producers' decision to downgrade dependable Wendy Crewson who used to be veteran chief of surgery's Dr. Dana Kinny in favor of more time for Julia Taylor Ross (as Dr. Maggie Lin) and Kristopher Turner as Dr. Gavin Murphy but what do I know.
This second season Eric Johnson is being imported as a super sexy gynecologist --he used to toil on another series made by executive producer Ilana Frank --Rookie Blue which still runs summers on Global and ABC.
What Saving Hope has going for it is a certain professional smoothness --just a few years back a Canadian TV drama had a distinct look about it and could be spotted a mile away. One of the reasons is the steady hand of  house director David Wellington.
If Gillies seems familiar he's also starring in the spin off of The Vampire Diaries called The Originals --there is an overlap so he some days must play two very different parts in two very different series.
My only problem with Saving Hope is the ghost angle --I hope it gets down played as much as possible. Several loyal viewers I was taking to told me they wish it would eventually be dropped for good.
And just to indicate its continuing support for Saving Hope CTV has already renewed it for a full season three ghosts or no ghosts.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top Ten Canadian TV Stories Of 2013

1. The decline of Canadian TV criticism is the big TV story of the year.
It's happening all over North America and is considered so dire many U.S. networks are seriously thinking of exiting the semi-annual TV Critics junkets in Los Angeles.
I well remember the 1970s when the CBC could count on over 35 TV print critics coming to its press tours in Toronto. The last time out in December I counted about five hardy souls who were left.
Most of the TV books have departed, too, including Southam's TV Times and the print version of TV Guide Canada.
And when my old paper The Toronto Star pulled venerable Rob Salem from the  TV beat, well, it was all just a bit too much.
2. The end of TVOntario's Saturday Night At The Movies could have been predicted for some time.
But when the axe man cameth in September it just didn't seem quite right.
Heck, I was around at the Hamilton Spectator as the boy TV critic when high school teacher Elwy Yost started the ball rolling. on TVO in 1971.
He was able to buy old black and white flicks for pennies and very soon was challenging CBC's Hockey Night In Canada for ratings supremacy every Saturday night.
In sort order his competitors started buying up collections just to make sure Yost didn't get them.
Elwy's yearly jaunts to L.A. produced some priceless moments. Such as the time when Joseph Cotten wandered into the interview room Elwy blubbered "Kane! Kane!" as Cotten took out his hanky and wiped away Yost's tears.
But could the series survive without Elwy?
Apparently not! And switching to more recent flicks angered its core audience.
To save money TVO cancelled the series and substituted classy documentaries which sank like a stone in the ratings.
3. Kirstine Stewart the fairly youngish chief programmer for CBC thought about it and thought about it.
And then she jumped to Twitter Canada.
Getting out of CBC was her chief objective as every year the programming budget was squeezed and the venerable Corp suffered from death by a hundred cuts.
Stewart's sudden departure said it all: public broadcasting in Canada is under the gun and may not last much longer.
4. And then CBC lost Hockey Night In Canada which many weeks is the sole Canadian show in the Top 10 on this country.
Rogers Media snapped it up and who can blame them?
All that lush Canadian content means Rogers can just about wave goodbye to scripted Canadian drama forever and a day if it wants to.
Hockey Night In Canada will continue for now on CBC but the Corp loses about $400 million in advertising revenues from this deal.
Meaning fewer and fewer prestige Canadian CBC shows will be coming our way.
5. The strange death of CBC's National News has been neglected by every writer around including me.
Trouble started when American "fixer uppers" were hired to jazz up the venerable show.
They concocted a set that looks like one of those seedy wine bars in Yorkville that I sometimes inhabit.
Host Peter Mansbridge looks might uncomfortable although he's still one of the show's biggest assets.
A lot of the venerable reporters we've come to respect have drifted off to retirement. Last week it was London correspondent Ann Mcmillan, the classiest TV reporter CBC has had in decades.
And these days without adequate lead ins the ratings some nights at 10 hover around 400,000 --I know the series gets repeated all over the place but it's still a very bad showing.
The show needs a rejuvenation not of visuals but of content although one idea to bring back The Journal just won't happen because the price would be too high.
6. Here's I say I was wrong. I made dire predictions CTV's news at 11 might crash without Lloyd Robertson  who finally retired (he now hosts W5).
I thought Tom Clark should have been uncle Lloyd's replacement and he was not.
Instead Lisa LaFlamme too over and she runs a tight ship keeping the news items percolating as she jumps from story to story.
I had a hard time with her brusque manner on Canada AM but she has improved and become more of a team player. The result: CTV ratings are standing tall at 11.
And having CTV's reporter Bob Fyfe  nightly break the next leak in the Mike Duffy Senate story surely has been the biggest help of all.
7. The persistence of Inspector Murdoch Mysteries proves that with quality material a defiantly Canadian series can certainly persist and prevail. Ratings this year are higher than ever buoyed by the persistent reruns which seem to be on Citytv morning noon and night.
8. So here I am phoning the Prague long distance operator as I try to ring up an old friend. "Toronto?" she squeals. "Rob Ford! Rob Ford!" Seems that Mayor Ford has taken over the political TV landscape. And just a few years back a wonderful CTV comedy series starring a happy imbecile --the title was Dan For Mayor --was dismissed by some critics as implausible. Well, there you have it.
9.  I'm in a classroom talking to six graders about TV. And many of them say they rarely watch. They download everything to their phones, their tablets, their computers. They seem amazed when I tell them I remember when TV came to Toronto in 1948-49 and we had our choice of two flickering black and white images from Buffalo. Which leads me to wonder what will happen to Canadian TV in the future? Or does it have a future at all?
10. And then the ice storm cometh. Talk about relevancy. I kept my TV set on all day. The reporting was tops, the information never ending. and I suddenly realized i needed TV more than ever.