Saturday, January 31, 2015

I Remember Don Harron

I was fortunate to meet and interview Don Harron on several occasions during my decades long run as a TV critic.
Harron died age 90 on January 17 after a great career as a noted satirist.
He occupied a special berth: here was a bona fide Canadian TV super star but one who frequently
worked on American TV in the hugely popular long running hit Hee Haw.
The last time we met was about two years ago at salute to the late great Roger Abbott co-creator of RCAF.
Harron was part of a mob of fans who thronged into the old TTC barns on St. Claire Avenue West to pay his respects. Then he was forced to stand for several hours of tributes --for some reason no chairs were provided.
And this was a very elderly crowd --it was also the last time I spotted Knowlton Nash and there were many other "grey hairs" among retired CBC publicists and backstage support.
Harron then in his late 80s was bright enough to remember the first time I'd interviewed him in person,
It came right after his debut program as host of CBC Morningside which he ran beautifully for a five years stint before Peter Gzowski took over.
I remember at that interview way back in  1977 I kidded Don I'd just interviewed his old movie co-star Martha Hyer in Los Angeles.
Don Harron as a movie matinee idol?
That's what 20th Century-Fox had in mind by pairing Harron and Hyer as office lovers in the 1959 movie soap opera The Best Of Everything.
But the movie was so jam packed with stars including Joan Crawford, Suzy Parker, Louis Jourdan, Diane Baker and even Robert Evans (later a top producer) that one segment had to be considerably trimmed.
"If you blink you'll miss me," joked Harron when I reminded him of his strangest ever credit.
Another strange Harron credit: in 1973 he was one of the stars and creators of the TV satire Shh! It's The News which Global TV picked up when it went on the air.
When the network faltered all its Canadian shows were cancelled --Harron was starred in this merry satire with Barbara Hamilton, Jack Duffy, wife Catherine McKinnon and he later told me it contained some of his best work.
The second time we met was maybe 20 years later when Harron was planning a summer theater tour of the play. Mass Appeal.
"People don't know I really can do drama," he groused at a lunch that included the proposed director-producer John Aylesworth.
Aylesworth created CBC-TV's most popular ever series Front Page Challenge but never received the credit because he was an in-house producer at the time.
But together with his regular partner Frank Peppiatt he created Hee Haw which starred Harron and was a top ratings getter for CBS for two seasons before going into decades of first run syndication.
"What those two did was meld the farm humor of Petticoat Junction with Laugh-In and the profits just rolled in," laughed Harron.
"It ran for 585 episodes over 22 years. I'd be mobbed every time I stepped off a pane in any U.S. city"
Each season was made in about three weeks. "I'd do Charlie Farquharson stuff for days on end and it would all be cut into snippets and it looked like a million dollars. Everybody had to be on it: Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Roy Clark, Buck Owens, Lulu Roman, and my Canadian pal Gordie Tapp."
When I told Harron I liked almost as much another of his comedy creations Valerie Rosedale he clapped his hands and said "Me too!"
Perhaps most lasting of all there is the continually running (every summer) revival of the musical hit Anne Of Green Gables which Harron co-wrote with Norman and Ekaine Campbell and Mavor Moore.
Harron said when friends grumbled about being stuck in old age mode he'd yell at them "Get a walker and get on with it."
Which is precisely what Don Harron did his whole career : he got on with it.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Fortitude Is A Crack New British TV Thriller

Latest bundle from British TV is Fortitude a scary thriller set in a world of perpetual darkness.
The classy miniseries revs up Thursday January 29 at 10 p.m. and stars Michael Gambon from The Singing Detective plus Stanley Tucci  of The Lovely Bones, Richard Dormer of Game Of Thrones and Danish Star Sofie Grabol plus Dr. Who's Christopher Ecclestone.
The research station of Fortitude is set high in the Arctic with a total population of 713 --outside menacing polar bears prowl and there are 3,000 of them.
One early scene has hunters off in the icy exterior being stopped by the sheriff because they have no rifles aboard.
A ravenous polar bear has just eaten one of the citizens who ventured out without a gun.
Inside the community there's a feeling of claustrophobia engendered by the constant darkness and the cramped quarters of most of the scientists and researchers.
The very setting is a character unto itself: threatening, frigid, giving the people lots of time to harbor deep thoughts and resentments.
We get introduced to the main inhabitants as the tension mounts and this feeling of unease basks every scene.
Dormer is outwardly amiable sheriff Dan Anderssen who is immediately enmeshed in a grissly new murder case.
He lacks the forensic experiences so a London detective Eugene Morton  (Stanley Tucci) flies in within 12 hours of the killing to supervise the autopsy which he thinks has ritualistic tones.
We begin to see the community through Morton's eyes--he is amazed peope can remain sane in such an atmosphere of gloom.
Created by and written by Simon Donald (Low Winter Sun) the 13-episode Fortitude was originally a co-production between Starz and Sky Atlantic that continued production after Starz pulled out.
Grabol has some fine moments as the town's beleagured mayor who is trying to jump start a new hotel enterprise for vacationers who truly wish to get away from it all.
And Gambon has moments as the aged and terminally ill wild life photographer Henry Tyson who has lived in such demanding conditions for longer than anyone else but now faces death within weeks or months.
Also co-starring are Luke Treadaway as the youngest scientist Vincent Rattrey, the head biologist Charlie Stoddart (Cristopher Eccleston),  and Jules Sutter (Jessica Raine) who is married to Frank Sutter (Nicholas Pinnock), Fortitude's chief rescue pilot.
The Guardian best described Fortitude as "Twin Peaks Set In Ice". In fact there are so many characters introduced in the first two episodes (which I've seen) that it's hard to figure out who's who.
The setting is brilliant --exteriors were shot in Iceland--but the story is, if anything, too ambitious.
There's the discovery of the remains of a mammoth carcass, a little boy who either has contracted measles or polio and may have to be flown out,a fling by Sutter that ends in tragedy..
Fortitude is nothing if not ambitious --production costs are estimated at 25 million British pounds.
Iceland was in the middle of a snow drought when filming began --so fake snow had to be imported at considerable cost.
Later on real snow was transported from mountain tops via an old Russian missile launcher.
What makes Fortitude the town unique? There are no poor people hence no welfare system, no criminals before this strange killing and women can't give birth here because there is no hospital operating room.
Let's just call Fortitude the series for what it really is: a Nordic noir.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Fond Farewell For Justified

The best thing about the wonderful U.S. cable drama Justified is how deliberately slow the dramatic proceedings usually are.
One of my favorite American imports begins its sixth and final season on Super Channel Tuesday January 27 at 10 p.m.
Of course if you watched last season you could spot the finale coming as U.S. marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) goes after his best bud from childhood ace criminal Boyd Crowther (Walton Goggins).
Well, I'm not giving away much by saying Sam Elliott no less is the new danger to be faced but he won't amble into place until the third episode.
See, that's Elmore Leonard's style story telling.
Every episode is jam packed with the craziest characters you'll ever expect to meet and all of them played by actors who seem right at home in the land of sagebrush and coyotes.
I just  happen to consider Justified FX's most satisfying hour drama which is saying a lot.
But nobody connected with this one is simply out to garner publicity --they're all assembled to tell the story as well --and as slowly-- as they can.
I once sat down with Oyphant in a Toronto screening room to talk about his greatish work on HBO's Deadwood.
And there he was starring in the most talked about new Tv series of the season and he didn't really want to be there.
He'd walk down a Toronto street and heads would turn because everyone was watching the show.
But nobody seemed to know his name and that's the kind of priceless anonymity an actor craves if he wants a long career.
Besides Elliott there's Garret Dillahunt as his menacing surrogate. And just what is Mary Steenburgen up to anyway--she seems to want to help Boyd rob a bank or two.
No wonder a Southern family I know positively hate this one --it mocks every facet of deep fried Southern gentility.
Of course the real shocker here is the "executive producer" credit given to the late great Leonard. He passed away two years back leaving a magnificent legacy.
And I'm also watching because the show runner is Graham Yost, son of the first guy I ever interviewed when I became a TV critic in 1970--the late, great Elwy Yost.
If I had a beef with season 5 it had to be the plot got too twisty.
And that's perfectly OK in a conventional TV drama but this one is special. The simpler Justified is the better.
If anything Season 5 had too many baddies --the atmospheric details tended to get lost in the background.
This time out it's back to Plan One: Raylan versus Boyd which is fine by me.
Look for some great scenes from Joelle Carter early on as Raylan's informant but one stuck on Boyd-- she shines in all of them.
All of which has me wondering why Justified has to die off after this season.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

19-2: Back For A Compelling second Season

I had a bunch of friends over for dinner and asked them to serve as TV critics for the second season premiere of 19-2.
I was floored no one had even heard of the Montreal based series even after it garnered solid reviews for its first season.
"Gritty" is I think the word often used by other TV critics to describe their first impressions.
But 19-2 comes from a Quebec cop show now into its third season.
And the episode we watched is a meticulous reconstruction of a high school shooting --it ran in the first year on the French language Radio-Canada also titled 19-2.
The creator is Daniel Grou who uses the name of Podz for his work.
He directed all episodes of the original Quebec version but did not direct any of the episodes in the first season of the English language 19-2.
But he did direct the first new episode which I saw with my friends --the story was filmed in the same school as it appeared on Radio-Canada but with different characters.
Bruce M. Smith (Cracked) is the executive producer and show runner of the English version.
And it still has that bravura shot that goes on and on without any cuts for over 13 minutes.
The English 19-2 was the top rated new original series ever on Bravo and it garnered 10 nominations at the Canadian screen awards.
The story has the two Montreal cops Chartier (Jared Keeso) and Barron (Adrian Holmes) arriving at a Montreal high school during initial stages of a Columbine-style massacre by one of the students who has gone berserk.
Until very recently TV cop series were regarded as somehow :"unCanadian". One of our national myths is that we don't have a violent culture unlike our American cousins.
I remember one top CBC programmer boasting he'd only green light one cop series and that was about neighborhood police --anybody out there remember that one --it was titled Sidestreet (1975) and starred Donnelly Rhodes and Jonathan Welsh.
these days there are a number of law and order Canadian shows like Rookie Blue and Motive cleverly disguised so they can be resold to American TV networks.
This second season debut plays like a mini-TV movie. It almost all takes place in a real high school.
Kids get blown up on camera, cops freeze in dangerous situations, they have to act on impulse and people do get seriously wounded.
No motive is ever given for the actions of the baby faced killer --this one is more about how the cops who are trained for situations like this must face their inner demons.
I couldn't turn away but several ladies said they'd have nightmares for a month.
In short this is not your average cookie cutter cop show.
CBC had first dibs on an English language version but after watching the violent pilot passed on ordering a full season.
It was a good decision because 19-2 is a bale show --it is far too realistic for network audiences.
And if you cant to catch the original be advised 19-2 is back on Radio Canada for is third season starting Jan. 28.
MY RATING: ***1.2.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Sex, Fame & Murder: Scary And Compelling

There's a lot of anticipation involved in the compelling new documentary Sex, Fame & Murder which premieres Friday night at 8 on Investigation Discovery.
Originally set to air last August the documentary was suddenly pulled when the broadcaster was slapped with a publication ban that also got it withdrawn from the Montreal World Film Festival.
Well, now the ban has been lifted and the trial of Luka Magnotta is over with Magnotta convicted of first degree murder.
The documentary remains compulsively viewable even though those who read about the trial will be familiar with most of the details.
It has already aired in the U.S. and Australia .
Toronto film makers Jonathan and Naomi Hiltz have done a sensational job of finding footage of every aspect of this sordid story.
They begin with the police discovery  in May 2012 of the dismembered body of Chinese student Lin Jun whose body parts began turning up across the country.
And they have accurately documented the meticulous police hunt for suspected killer Magnotta.
The portrait presented here is of a deeply disturbed teenager who gradually descended into madness,somebody who grew up in the same Toronto suburb as serial killer Paul Bernardo.
As a teen Magnotta --his real name was Eric Clinton Newman-- became mesmerized by the sordid exploits of Bernardo and wanted some how to achieve that level of fame.
He tried to become a male model in Toronto but wasn't tall enough or good looking enough. Instead he had to settle for work as an escort and sometime performer in adult films.
Actuality exists of his desperate attempts to get on a Toronto-based reality show but the test shows he wasn't handsome enough or had much of a personality at all.
He started rumors about himself and then appeared at the Toronto Sun to refute those rumors.
Magnotta began fabricating  dozens of Facebook profile pages under different aliases.
He moved on to killing kitten on the Internet and posting these disgusting videos to gain attention.
The documentary might have had more impact if allowed to air back in August.
Now it has a different purpose: the meticulous reconstruction of Margotta's sad life shows that at several points he could have been stopped if law authorities had any inclination.
In fact Naomi and Jonathan Hiltz had even met him when they produced a series for OUT tv called Cover Guy and he auditioned (and failed to make the cut).
If he had possessed any talents would he have gone over the brink?
The fact he came from a troubled home and had a father who deserted the family is played up --but many people have similarly troubled childhoods.
What tipped him over the edge? There are many clues but no simple answers.
I think the best point made is that more attention has to be paid in this Internet world to such monsters who can and should be caught before they tip over the edge.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Schitt's Creek: Far Better Than Its Name

I wasn't even sure I wanted to watch the previews of Schitt's Creek which CBC sent my way.
I mean the title is terribly off putting but eventually curiosity got the better of this TV critic and I watched three episodes one after the other, barely pausing for a cup of tea.
And you know what?
At times this sitcom starring Eugene and Dan Levy and Catherine O'Hara is funny and crazy as hell.
Quirky is the word that I kept popping off in my head.
Yes, it is daring but so was Twitch City which CBC ran for two years and never really understood.
I'm hoping that with Schitt's Creek CBC's new bunch of programmers realize they have a potential hit that needs careful handling and promoting.
It could mark one giant step for Canadian TV which is stuck these days in the ratings doldrums.
You chose for yourself: Episode One premieres Tuesday January 13 at 9 p.m.
CBC used to be in the niche marketing business with Ken Finkleman's  comedic outbursts including multiple seasons of The Newsroom.
I'm sure a lot of the older audience who cling to CBC are going to be pretty perplexed by Schitt's Creek.
Best thing about this "schittcom" is its lack of a laugh track and the fact the cast are playing for characterization ahead of the next anticipated laugh.
After all Levy and O'Hara both come from SCTV and they know what's funny and what isn't.
Not having to strain for every laugh gives this show a wonderfully bent nature --photographed on actual locations is another big plus.
Dan who was one of the stars of the completely silly and hilarious After Show understood all that as co-creator with dad Eugene who I first met on the set of that great TV flick Frontier Rabbi.
Levy Senior plays a disgustingly rich video-store millionaire whose empire has collapsed --in the first scene we watch as the family's mansion and treasures are all repossessed for the creditors.,
Then he's told that leaves him with only one assett: a dirt poor town he once bought because he thought the title was somehow funny.
And so the foursome depart for the decrepit motel at oddly named Schitt's Creek.
O'Hara brilliantly plays the increasingly wacky former TV soap star who is addicted to this and that as she seeps further away from reality.
 Dan Levy plays the narcissistic son David whose only concern is getting his next airmailed batch of under-the-eyes cream.
And there's the flighty daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) who is not sure she can exist in a dingy motel without her accoutrements --she continues to text friends who no longer want to be associated with her.
Each episode looks at very simple experiences that plague this family.
At one point David tries to be a bag boy at the local grocery store to earn minimum scale wages so he can buy more cream.
But he's being constantly paged and finally quits in a huff.
Alexis tries to strike up a friendship with a buff stranger she thinks is the town bum because people are always giving him rotten food --but he's only advancing the cause of composting.
Eugene Levy's best scenes are with guest star Chris Elliott who has a wacky turn as the dim witted mayor who runs everything the way his great grandfather would do.
Does CBC know that Schitt's Creek needs a massive publicity campaign to "sell" viewers on the fact the people's network has the funniest new show on Canadian TV this season.
With Twitch City as a reminder here's hoping Schitt's Creek gets that big chance to succeed.
And by the way SC is so funny it has already been picked up on  U.S.  cable by Pop  the rebranded TV Guide Network.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sunnyside: Bringing Laughs Back To Canadian TV

Something strange has happened to the state of Canadian TV comedy this season.
The laughs stopped coming.
Think of it --the number of brilliant Canadian sketch TV comedy shows which dominated the medium: Wayne And Shuster, SCTV, Kids In The Hall, The Frantics, RCAF, Ron James.
All expired for different reasons leaving only the venerable This Hour Has 22 Minutes to hold down the fort.
Maybe the pendulum is swinging again because a new Canadian sketch comedy series called Sunnyside premieres on City Thursday night at 8,
The good news is this one is very funny from the start.
I've seen the first two half hours and laughed out loud several times --the jokes keep coming from a talented bunch of farceurs.
"We filmed them in Winnipeg --standing in for Toronto," reports co-creator and showrunner Gary Pearson.
"I had pitched a comedy idea to Rogers and so had Dan Redican around the same time. And we just decided to join forces. I was long a favorite of Dan's going back to Puppets Who Kill. And it's been a great fix."
Pearson's solid comedy credentials include a stint on The Chumps once a CBC radio hit. Later he switched to comedy writing for MADtv and then wrote and produced for This Hour Has 22 Minutes as well as Corner Gas. Later still came The Ron James Show.
About the lack of sketch comedies on TV he says "I can't entirely figure that out. RCAF pulled in a huge number on New Year's Eve with the special. I can only say I was told by CBC they are not interested in doing that kind of comedy right now."
At Rogers "we met nothing but enthusiasm. In fact a second batch has been ordered and we're not on air yet."
As Pearson saw it he wanted to get out of the studio and into actual locations.  Originally he was thinking of a weird comedy set in a coffee shop. As for the title Sunnyside, well, some of us out there still remember when Sunnyside was Toronto's yearlong amusement park in the west end.
Shooting on location instead of inside a studio is more time consuming and costly.
"You need performers who know what they're doing --without a studio audience to guide them along."
Pearson chose a cast of accomplished comics headed by Kathleen Phillips (Dan For mayor) and Pat Thornton (Satisfaction).
"We wanted story lines to be centered in a neighborhood like Toronto's Parkdale where rich mingle with poor. So, yes Winnipeg is standing in for Toronto for cost reasons.
"Pat and Kathleen are seasoned at this type of comedy more so than the others, they led the way. We'll have recurring characters as well as introduce others along the way."
And then there's the talking manhole --voiced by none other than SNL's Norm Macdonald.
Says Pearson : "It feels like a sitcom in a way but that's also how it was shot. Dan and I have worked well together, we compliment each other. He was very familiar with what I had done. We have very similar comedy sensibilities."
Pearson says working with Rogers has been a plus. "We said we have an episode coming up where there is an infestation of little ponies in the neighbhourhood. Not rats, ponies. And after some hesitation we were told if we think that can be funny, well, go ahead with it."
Pearson says of the episodes "It's all very Canadian. And the Winnipeg crews are great, I asked Mark McKinney who shoots there a lot for a list and he gave us names of seasoned veterans to work with."
Other actors featured include Alice Moran, Kevin Vidal, Rob Norman, Patrice Goodman..
If given time to grow an audience (CTV's Big Bang Theory is the opposition)  Sunnyside could fill that big black hole in Canadian TV comedy.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Of Negroes: A CBC-TV Event

So far this has been a terrible TV season for Canadian scripted drama.
Each year as more foreign cable networks get licensed the number of Canadian dramas gets a bit smaller.
This year mighty Rogers seems to have all but abandoned any commitment to scripted Canadian stories with its huge ratings roar of weekends plugged with prime time NHL games.
I've been subsisting on such worthwhile CTV Canadian dramas as Saving Hope which offer proof positive cagey veteran Wendy Crewson can steal any scenes she's in anytime she wants to.
And then along comes CBC's must-watch new miniseries The Book Of Negroes.
It's the kind of quality fare Canadian TV should be offering every week.
In fact I once suggested a CBC version of Masterpiece Theater to dramatize the great Canadian novelists we never see on TV.
Lawrence Hill's sprawling saga of kidnapped child slave Aminata Diallo has been turned into a spectacular six-hour CBC-TV event that is virtually a must see.
In fact it plays as a sort of female take on Roots --instead of Kunta Kinte we have Aminata who is stolen from her loving parents in Guinea, west Africa, abducted onto a stench filled slave ship and sold for a pittance to a lecherous slave owner.
Hill adapted his 2007 novel with director Clement Virgo and locations included  South Africa and Nova Scotia.
And before detractors say "But we never had slavery in Canada so what part of the story is Canadian?" --well,  you'll just have to wait and see the unfolding narrative.
Because Diallo must meander all through the American Revolution in New York state before boarding a ship for an isolated refugee camp in Nova Scotia.
Wait a minute! There were black Loyalists who the British transported from revolutionary America to Nova Scotia as the price for their freedom.
I studied Canadian history and I barely knew of the story --here it is told completely and compellingly.
The Book Of Negroes is an actual 150-page ledger documenting the thousands of former black slaves who were granted their freedom by the British government and a promise of safe transportation to Nova Scotia.
Yes, it is an American narrative at first but one that later bleeds into Canada.
It opens brilliantly in London as aged Aminata Diallo (played compellingly by Aunjanue Ellis) narrates her story of being captured as a child in Africa, transported across the great river and landing on a South Carolina plantation.
We think of slavery as something foreign to the Canadian psyche.
Think again --the transported blacks face platoons of Loyalists some of whom had come to Nova Scotia with their own slaves .
And the drama also looks at the plights of the blacks who sold other blacks into slavery --here it includes Aminata's prospective husband Chekura Tiano.
I've been covering director Virgo since he was a window designer for Harry Rosen and watching him climb mightily into the designation as one of Canadian TV's finest film makers.
He now has the experience and maturity to turn BON into a real TV event, chock full of memorable scenes and with great performances along the way.
But this is the kind of spectacular home grown TV Canadians deserve every week and not merely as a once yearly TV event.
We can only hope BON is the first step in a New Deal for Canadian TV viewers..
MY RATING: ****.