Thursday, April 16, 2015

TV's Mummies Alive Decodes The Dead

Boy was I surprised --I got a three episode preview of the new TV series Mummies Alive and figured it would all be set in ancient Egypt.
But the opener, The Gunslinger Mummy, premiering Sunday April 19 on History at 10 p.m. looks at the mummified remains of a n old west American gunfighter with a bullet hole through his chest.
And the episode on April 26, Buried In A Bog, solves the mystery of two Iron Age mummies retrieved from an Irish bog.
The third hour on May 3 tries to solve a truly cold case murder --the death of a Neolithic warrior buried in the Ice of the Italian Alps for 5,300 years.
I'm not at all surprised this series is so terrific --it was made by Canada's Saloon Media (in co-production with UK's Impossible Factual) in association with Shaw Media.
Saloon Media made the eight-part series Miracles Decoded which people are still talking about as well as See No Evil which ran on Slice.
Mummies Alive runs for six weeks and is narrated by Jason Priestley (Steve Gamester is the series producer).
The Gunslinger Mummy looks at the mummified remains of a gunslinger that was on display in several western saloons --he is nicknamed Sylvester but he is stunningly preserved for his time and was last on display at Ye Old Curiosity Shoppe.
The amount of information learned about Sylvester from CG animation is amazing. His life as a con man can be ascertained and we also learn about nineteenth century embalming techniques which used arsenic as a preservative.
Mummies were often displayed at funeral parlors as examples of the undertaker's art.
In fact this individual may even be the same mummy captured in a vintage photograph.
Researches show how me must have died, how the "bullet hole" was made and the real cause of death.
I'd say this is one of the most fascinating TV autopsies I've ever seen, a brilliant stitching together of interviews, reconstructed drama and superb expert analysis.
Episode 2 Buried In A Bog starts with the discovery of an almost perfectly preserved but headless torso discovered in an Irish peat bog.
At first foul play is suspected and the police called in only to discover that after carbon testing that a murder was certainly committed but it was 2400 years ago.
Experts take us back to an Iron Age civilization and explain the importance of the artifacts scattered near the body --and this corpse is compared to a similar corpse from the same date at another nearby peat bog.
The climate of the time, the desperate search for food, the role of Druids in worship of the sun, the bad harvests --all contributed to these double murders which get solved through modern CG animation.
Episode 3 Otzi The Iceman looks at the mummified remains of a Neolithic warrior murdered high in the Alps some 5,300 years ago.
I think this the best of the bunch --a way of life in the lower pastures is re-created, the contents of the man's stomach are even examined as well as his unusual murder.
We see his strange shoe, his bearskin cap, his copper axe which was left where he was killed, even the fact he suffered from arthritis in the knees --all explained by forensic pathologist Dr. Richard Shepherd.
And Global warming means more such bodies may be recovered in the future.
Mummies Alive is not only the most unusual documentary series of the season I think it is also the best.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Emergency Latest Canadian Reality Outing


Don't get me wrong --there are some reality shows I wouldn't miss: Dog The Bounty Hunter, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars.
And a few even are Canadian or at least Love It Or List It (Hillary Clinton's favorite show) was until it returned last week with episodes made south of the border.
The latest Canadian entry is the finely made Emergency which premieres Thursday April 16 at 9.
It has nothing to do with the old fictional series Emergency --I remember visiting the set of that one to interview Julie London.
I never quite like visiting an ER department even when the trip is necessary.
It's more "fun" to watch other patients and see how they are treated by real life doctors and nurses.
Emergency is a pretty interesting Canadian take on emergency visits and is helped a whole lot by the narration of musician Jann Arden with production from Force Four Entertainment.
Each episode runs a half hour which I think the logical time --an hour of this might provoke phantom pains in squeamish viewers.
The setting is Royal Columbian Emergency department  or Fraser Health as it is called --the hospital is in size a middle range place certainly not huge as some downtown hospitals.
The three patients chosen for the opener are all interesting and completely different from, one another.
I can't give away the endings or you won't watch but I'm wondering how consent was given at such a dangerous time.
One similar U.S. show I loathe concerns itself with only re-enactments and seems forced and phoney.
But Emergency convinces one that what we're watching is the unvarnished real things.
One patient, 67-year old Deborah, has come in with a racing heart.
We learn her back story and also the fact she forgot to take her heart pills two days in a row.
Deborah is jocular and chatty but there's no describing her condition as other than very serious.
Through the nurses and doctors we see what procedures could be used and which one is chosen to steady her racing heart.
Then there's twentysomething Jordan who comes in with his mom --he has a deeply embedded abscess in his armpit --it is stinging and could be massively infected.
A different doctor tackles this one and the result can't be disclosed here.
Finally there's a gentle old soul who arrives with his wife and son and is plainly experiencing excruciating back spasms.
A whole lot of causes are explored and there is some fear he might have a heart attack if the wrong diagnosis is used.
Cross cutting between the three true stories keeps our attention clock ticking away.
A second episode follows immediately at 9:30.
Force Four sure  knows how to do this kind of reality show --hits have included Border Security, The Cupcake Girls and Shannon And Sophie.
Emergency already has me hooked as long as I don't have to go there in person..
MY RATING: ***1/23.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Game Of Thrones Back For Fifth Season

 Until a few months back I'd never seen a single episode of Games Of Thrones.
There. I've said it.
To me the HBO drama was merely another cable show I promised myself I'd one day sit down and watch.
Well, I have yet to play complete catch up but already I'm hooked and just in time for the fifth season which debuts on HBO Sunday night at 9.
With preview DVDs to help me I'm now madly trying to assimilate all that happens in the first new four hours.
Trouble is the TV creators have almost run out of material from novelist George R.R. Martin --his sixth installment has met with repeated delays meaning show runners  David Benioff and D.B. Weiss must go it alone and risk the fury of all those TV Thrones junkies everywhere.
Says one TV critic (Joshua Alston) :"Their tweaks could make Thrones a far better show than they could have produced through slavish devotion to the source material."
To me the story seems bloodier and more ruthless than ever before.
As I watched away I was aware this is the future of TV --far removed from the constraints of aging networks preoccupied with their procedural crime thrillers.
In the new episodes I was particularly taken with the acting of Aidan Gillen and Stephen Dillane.
The odd couple relationship of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and bodyguard Bronn (Jerome Flynn) continue to delight.
The one missing star is Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who is in a cave being tutored by the Three-Eyed Raven.
This season seems the bloodiest so far but also the most thoughtful if that seems possible.

I can understand friends telling me they've ditched network TV for what cable these days is offering.
That's why Game Of Thrones is HBO's most popular ever series.

MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why There Are Few Canadian Sitcoms

So here I am watching the preview DVDs of two hit HBO sitcoms.
Both Veep and Silicon Valley are returning with news seasons Sunday night although you'd never know it because the focus is relentlessly on the return of Game Of Thrones.
Both these half hour comedies are sheer fun to watch.
Both are made for a nickel and a dime with what money there is going to the writers and actors.
Veep, of course, is the bigger hit after three glorious past seasons but I'm not giving much away by saying Veep is now misstated.
At first it was a one joke premise about how degrading it is to be vice president of the United States --one former v.p. said it was about as important as a pitcher of warm spit.
Silicon Valley in its return turns a real life tragedy into a central situation that's as laughable as the time Chuckles the clown died on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I'll start with Silicon Valley because it's on first on HBO Canada Sunday night at 10.
When I watched the first season I thought all the actors were droll.
The laughs are deliberately small, no big chuckles here.
But the more episodes I watched the more involved I became in this sad sack firm.
Above all I thought the wonderfully talented actor Christopher Evan Welch simply great as the impossibly demanding tech mogul Peter Gregory.
Sadly Welch passed away during the hiatus so the series creators (Mike Judge, John Alschuler and Dave Krinsky)  incorporated that tragedy into the theme of the first new episode and as with every segment it has a droll, earnest feeling I think entirely right.
Silicon Valley takes the world of high tech and shows how even that far up there are a bunch of zanies not quite sure what they've invented.
The talented cast are true ensemble comic actorts: Thomas Middleditch (Richard), Aly Maewji (Aly), Josh Brenner (Big Head).
I'm so glad it's back.
Veep follows at 10:30 on HBO Canada.
Of all the Seinfeld gang Julia Louis-Dreyfus remains the one still gainfully employed constantly on TV and that's because she's so good.
She had to go through moments of great mortification as VP and now as President Selina Meyer she's determined to treat her VP just as comically shoddy.
This one is definitely not a room com. The gifted actors do not shout out funny lines to a studio audience and then wait for the laughs.
Rather they are always on the go --hand held cameras follow them dashing through the corridors of the White House which is one great continuous set.
But I like best the quiet moments of reflection which put into perspective what the team means to each other.
Phil Reeves as the new VP is terrific. But Louis-Dreyfus is at the peak of her game --she's brilliant in one scene where her character delivering a first speech to Congress discovers that her speech prompter has stuck.
And what a grand back up cast of comics feeding her lines and situations: Matt Walsh as Mike, Anna Chlumsky as Amy, Reid Scott as Dan, Gary Cole as Kent.
Amy sums up the scattered response to crises the best:"I feel like I'm on a life support system and they keep unplugging it to charge their phones."
A friend who watched with me yjen wondered why Canadian TV can't compete this way --after all Veep is made for cable TV costs.
And I had to explain that we did have a short term sitcom about a bundling but retired ex-prime minister titled EX-PM but CBC made two episodes and then fearful of Ottawa's reaction cancelled it.
Right now there's only one sitcom surviving on Canadian TV: Schitt's Creek on CBC. Citytv's Seed won't be back because it failed to sell to a big U.S. network.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

X Company Deserves Its Second Season

X Company is CBC's new World War II drama that probably seems even better than it is.
That's because of the sheer lack of competition: the conventional Canadian networks simply will not make anything they cannot sell to the U.S. market
Witness the cruel fate of Global's Combat Hospital --one dazzling summer run followed by a cancellation after ABC pulled the plug in the U.S.
Of course I expected X Company to be greatly entertaining fare.
After all it was created by Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern who created the CTV hit Flashpoint.
But now it's time to look at the last episode of this season and it's a crackling good one all about the Nazi move to exterminate the Jews in war torn France.
The germ of the concept is all true: there really was an X Camp on the shores of Lake Ontario that trained saboteurs to be dropped behind the Nazi lines In Europe.
Canadian, American and British soldiers trained here and were then parachuted into France.
The drama is shot in Hungary which doubles nicely for France --indeed all the architecture seems of another era.
British actor Jack Laskey has emerged as the undoubted star of the series playing Alfred Gates, shy, inward but with a capacity to remember everything about any document he ever reads.
His is an actual condition termed synesthesia.
Hugh Dillon is frequently seen back at the camp trying to rein in his unctuous British superior.
Mean while out in the towns of France these five Allied spies are trying to create a form of mayhem --to startle the Nazis, disrupt production lines, facilitate contact with the French Resistance and all in preparation for D0-Day..
The depiction of the attitude of the French under Nazi subjugation is finely etched. For many collaboration was the only way to survive.
But there are other suyoprises: in the last new episode one Fascist supporter turns out to be an Irish
In this story there are strong females particularly Evelyne Brochu (Delphine on Orphan Black) as Aurora, a true leader of the pack girl whose brother was killed by the British during the troubles --she has jumped onto the German side because she says the Germans plan to give Ireland freedom at the end of the war.
Also outstanding is Lara Jean Chorostecki as X Camp's officer Krystina Breeland.
Of course we've watched World War II heroics before in U.S. and British TV series.
But it's as if Canada's role was b ing deliberately minimized if not plain overlooked.
X Camp redresses the balance and it's so well made you'll want another season which comes up next fall.
The finale clearly sets up where the story is going and is chock full of good old fashioned chases, terse gunfights and the unresolved fate of at least one of our heroes.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Franklin's Lost Ships: Muse-See TV

It's a case of saving the best for the last as The Nature Of Things waits until its final hour of the season to unveil the sensational new dramatic documentary Franklin's Lost Ships.
This one is a model of how to make a documentary come alive even though most of the principals died around 1850.
You can catch it Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things.
How often is a Canadian production simply the best on TV for the week?
Franklin's Last Ships is a co-production with Britain's Channel 4 and PBS's Nova but CBC-TV gets there first.
A little background: in 1845 British captain John Franklin sailed from England and headed for Canada's Arctic determined to locate the long sought after Northwest Passage.
On board his two vessels the Erebus and Terror were 129 men.
Nobody ever saw them alive again --that was the official story.
Nobody but the Inuit.
"There are Inuit stories of cannibalism on the ship," says producer/director Andrew Gregg of 90th Parallel Productions whose masterful recreation will keep you watching --and even hoping against hope.
"Inuit spotted the ship but did not venture on board because the few men left were behaving erratically. Only later when smoke from the stack had ceased and they could see footprints leading away from the vessel did they venture on to the deck and that was to search for metal items they could use --and also wood which was so rare to them."
After Franklin's disappearance many search parties were mounted but no survivors were found and both ships had mysteriously disappeared.
"The scale of the search area is just enormous," Gregg says on the phone. "The Inuit stories were not believed because Victorian heroes simply did not behave like that. Today we know the Inuit were absolutely correct."
Gregg faced immense challenges in laying out the contours of this 170 year old mystery. But he thinks many key elements will be explained for the first time.
And I think he very accurately gets into the mindset of these Victorians --remember in 1845 Britain was the world's most impressive power ruling a quarter of the earth's land surfaces.
"This expedition had all sorts of advantages nobody had ever had before. There were enough canned goods to last three years.  There was indoor heating. But they got stuck in the ice and there was no summer thaw. They finally left in orderly fashion. The elements got these last survivors."
Just as this hour debuts on CBC Parks Canada has announced another dive at the site of the sunken Erebus searching for additional artifacts.
"On camera we catch the initial dive and one diver's comment that it is the most important one he will ever make."
This January in Penetanguishene Gregg filmed his dramatic recreations in appropriately frigid water. These scenes so filled with human conflict are seamlessly stitched into the narrative and really worked for me.
Scenes of Victorian England were filmed outside Newcastle. That recreation shows a collective mindset very much contrary to modern thinking.
Still to be discovered is Franklin's grave. "But one Inuit said an ancestor told him the body was buried encased in what must have been cement which was carried on the expedition."
Gregg says he was surprised relatively few Britons know about Franklin these days whereas the mystery of the expedition is an important part of Canadian historical lore.
In fact I think Gregg has enough material for a long and exciting big budgeted movie which would be powerful stuff because it is all true.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, April 3, 2015

What Will You Watch This Weekend?

So what will it be this Easter weekend?
Jesus Christ or Don Draper?
No, I'm not bering irreligious. The TV choice has never been as stark.
Don Draper is down to his last six episodes as Mad Men winds up a long and critically thunderous six seasons.
But my money is on NBC's A.D. The Bible Continues which started up on History Channel in the U.S.
It starts up Sunday night at 9 on CTV and NBC.
The first portion ran on the U.S. History Channel in 2013 was a huge ratings hit and NBC immediately bought into a sort of sequel that will run 12 weeks as the Apostles battle back against heathen Rome.
In Canada The Bible was up against NHL hockey and guess who was the winner?
The Bible, of course.
The first new episode emerges as a straight forward look at the crucifixion and the denial by Peter (Adam Levy) that he ever knew Jesus.
What emerges is a very prosaic interpretation of the New Testament produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (Touched By An Angel).
They are currently remaking Ben-Hur for TV. Let's just see how they stage that famous chariot race!
I find the British accents more than a little strange and the earnest adaptation takes much of the glory out of the story.
If Vincent Regan playing Pontius Pilate seems familiar you can also currently see him in The Royals playing the King of England.
Richard Coyle is the High Priest Caiaphas who must break the "bad news" that Jesus has risen from the dead.
Downey is not back as Jesus' mother Mary but has been succeeded by British actress Greta Scacchi who is just fine if understandably always anguished.
Most of the story line is there although the sets at time seem to be out of Cecil B. DeMille.
The women sport thick modern cosmetics surely not permitted in that society.
Juan Pablo Di Pace is Jesus in a very understated if completely sincere performance.
CBS already jumped on the religious bandwagon last week with the two-part miniseries The Dovekeepers starring which retold the Masada story but from a female perspective.
The original TV Bible manages deftly to skirt around most of the controversial themes.
The original 10-part The Bible told everything in such a rushed fashion. This "sequel" is far more leisurely.
One critic has said there is a lot of House Of Cards in all this and he's right.
All the big U.S. networks passed on the first series. Now all are scrambling to get on board.
The material is so rich that this thin adaptation was bound to be a bit of a disappointment but it will find its audience.
I was continually underwhelmed or maybe I just naturally expected so much more.
I have nothing against this version except it lacks true passion,.
And, yes, there is a line in there that I immediately thought summed it all up.
It's when Pilate thunders "It's time we shut this story down."
Which couldn't have been said better.
MY RATING: ***1/2.