Thursday, May 28, 2015

CBC Does Have A Future

I wasn't sure about attending the 2015 CBC Fall Press Preview because I'd been hearing from employees inside the Corp that the public network was facing dire days.
After all I've been covering these CBC shindigs since 1970 when as a summer student I subbed for The Globe And Mail's late great critic Blaik Kirby.
In those days CBC was riding high and the studio where Front Page Challenge was shot was decorated as a Parisian cafe.
Juliette was warbling away under a rose spotlight as thousands of guests mingled and muched on goodies.
And 45 years later?
Well, CBC's stature is shrinking --the loss of revenues from Hockey Night In Canada was a severe blow.
In recent years the few critics remaining were supplemented by hordes of CBC employees all eager for the free food.
But this time the mood was anything but sombre.
After years of reeling CBC seems in a fine and feisty position to mount a strong counter attack.
CBC will surely miss the departed Republic Of Doyle but Murdoch Mysteries is back for an unprecedented ninth season.
I was able to chat up MM's newest cast member Mouna Tratore who is drop dead gorgeous, a fine, budding actress who knows how lucky she is to get on Canadian TV's most popular drama series.
Then there's the newseries When Calls The Heart, shot in B.C. and set in the Canada of 1910.
And I had the opportunity of meeting and talking with the two personable co-stars Erin Krakow and Daniel Lissing.
She's an Eastern school marm and he's a trusted Mountable and, of course, love ensues.
This on started up as a Hallmark cable series, switched to Showtime and should be a dandy addition to  Heartland as a CBC teacup drama.
Other summer series include Banished, an Australian pick up about the penal colony set in 1787,
Love Child, another Down Under drama series, is set in a Sydney hospital for unwed mothers in the midst of the cultural revolution of the Sixties.
The fall Canadian drama series This Life is set in contemporary Montreal as an accomplished columnist must face a terminal cancer prognosis.
Raised By Wolves will follow the lives of six socially-isolated, home schooled siblings.
Then I had a chance to talk to famed Canadian producer Chris Haddock whose series DaVnci's Inquest and Intelligence truly set the bar for excellent in TV drama.
Now he's back at it again in The Romeo Section stars Tom Bateman as a naive, sensitive young man finding his place in the world.
New comedy series include Will Sasso (MADtv) in Fool Canada using hiddden camera devices.
Canadian comic Jonny Harris (Murdoch Mysteries) does his stand up shtick across Canada in small towns to much hilarity in Still Standing.
Australian comic Please Like Me stars in Please Like Me which starts in July for a summer stand.
And Bruce McCulloch (Kids In The Hall) is back on Canadian TV with yjr vp,edy Young Drunk Punk.
Factual TV will include Keeping Canada Alive which looks at Canada's health care system during one 24-hour drama.
And Hello Goodbye hosted by Dake Curd looks at touching relationships at Toronto's Pearson Airport.
Documentaries are being reorganized under the umbrella title First Hand.
I still say high arts needs its own platform although there will be half hour arts series Crash Gallery and Exhibitionists.
But I would like to suggest CBC think about reviving its old series Rearview Mirror which took gems of ballet and opera from its archives and ran them Sunday afternoons with host Veronica Tennant.
And CBC is also jumpimng into digital productions such as Erik Karpluk band Tahmoh Penikett in Riftworld: Chrionicles.
Also, I see no CBC TV movies on the schedule and music specials which once ran weekly as Super Specials seem to be missing.
Still, it's apparent CBC is fighting back as best it can and with declining resources.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sugar Coated Hits A Home Run

"Sugar is the new tobacco," says Gemini award winning documentarist  Michele Hozer.
"When I realized this I had the makings of my new production --it was as simple as that."
Indeed the 90-minute film Sugar Coated which premieres Wednesday night at 9 on TVOntario is any thing but sugary sweet.
Hozer has produced a very bitter riff on how the sugar industry has consistently wiggled off the hook in taking blame for a host of society's ills including obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
"I think a lot of people know bits and pieces but not the full story. The degree of manipulation by the sugar lobby is pretty shocking"
And Hozer very neatly ties in the current debate over refined sugar with the debate 40 years ago about the effects of tobacco smoking.
She has even unearthed a clip of tobacco giants presidents testifying before the U.S. congress. and all saying practically in unison that nicotine is not habit forming.
But how did the big sugar interests escape scrutiny for decades?
"Brilliant public relations," she laughs over the phone --she was speaking from her Toronto home.
In fact nobody from the sugar industry would speak on camera for her film --she insists she gave them every opportunity.
But rather than emerge simply as a diatribe Sugar Coated has layers of meaning.
First up Hozer presents her heroes.
There's childhood obesity doctor Robert Lustig who emerges as such a kind and compassionate man.
Hozer has added to her story by filming him in conversation with one of his teenage subjects, a lovely girl who swirled vast amounts of fruit juice and ballooned into an over weight and very unhappy teenager.
Breaking forth from the statistics makes Sugar Coated a must see study in compassion.
There's also the compulsive athletic who in his twenties discovered he was Type II diabetic because of all the sugar he was eating --and this despite a strict regimen of exercising.
Another hero is Ottawa-based obesity expert Yoni Freedhoff who practices at the Bariatric Medical Institute.
It was Stats Canada which pointed out sugar consumption has jumped to catastrophic levels with male teenagers now consuming an average of 41 teaspoons daily compared to just 26 teaspoons a decade or so ago.
"There are many different names for sugar," Holzer tells me."So it can become confusing even if you try to read food labels."
Hozer's method is to draw in viewers, hope they'll get riled up but also she offers solid reasons why the sugar industry is so far holding its own.
And the best evidence she was able to produce lies in the archives of the Western Sugar Company which went bankrupt and donated all its papers to the public archives.
"And it's all there," Hozer says, "The manipulation techniques, the campaigns never to give an inch, and done with such brilliance it usually convinced most people.
"All this has been known for decades," Hozer says with some resignation. She obtainsclips from old CBS 60 Minutes shows from the Seventies showing Dan Rather was not able to make the sugar giants budge at all.
Far more scary is the reaction of academics including a Harvard president whose own research was being funded by the sugar institute.
Most shocking of all is how the Heart and Stroke Association regularly backed sugary foods completely wrong for young kids.
If Sugar Coated were just a rant against sugar it wouldn't be effective --Hozer has added the personal touches to warn over consumption of processed sugar affects us all.
MY RATING: **** (OUT OF ****).

Friday, May 22, 2015

Jeremy Wade Is Really Into River Monsters

"We  definitely are not a fishing show!"
Jeremy Wade's laughter rings out --he's phoning from Seattle where he's working on the eighth season of one of TV's most unusual shows --River Monsters.
Canada's Discovery Channel is showing the sixth season right now capped Monday night at 8 with the two hour special River Monsters: Prehistoric Terror.
So why is Canadian TV so far behind?
Wade sighs audibly. "In Britain it will soon be time for season eight, in the U.S. they're on the seventh season, your Discovery is in the sixth. That's all I know!"
Wade sounded sleepy but he explained he'd been diving the day before and that requires some exertion.
"If anyone had told me when we began we'd still be at it I would not have believed it."
The show's description may sound bland on paper --a genial British chap fishing in remote rivers around the world --but Wade says that's only the bare bones premise.
Really the show is an ecological series about rare fish which have grown into monsters.
"The locations have to be far flung because these places are untouched by creeping civilization.
"We've shot in a lot of strange places from Manchuria to Bolivia. China is one location which still eludes us. We were once going to shoot in Iraq but can't these days for obvious reasons."
Wade agrees many places have tall tales about fishermen being dragged into the depths by unseen monsters.
"Filming that sort of thing can be dangerous. And, of course, some of these are simply tall tales."
The film company travel light but each hour has a set of talking points which must be met or there's no story.
Monday's special on Prehistoric Monsters could mark a new direction for the series.
"I mean we are close to the bottom of the barrel. This one doesn't take place on rivers. We try and find remains of prehistoric fish and show how their ancestors could be out there.
"And this meant fishing off the B.C. coast for two very strange species. One is called the hagfish so primitive I'm not sure it even is a fish. It has no spine, lives on dead fish and secretes a slimy ooze to keep away predators. I'm told scientists are studying that ooze and think they can find applications for it.
"The other is the ratfish --you've seen the special --it is one of the strangest fish I have ever seen."
One thing about these adventures: he is always shown gently placing the captured fish back in  the water if he can.
"I do eat fish on occasion but not these ones which are extremely rare. We're practicing conservation which is one of the big themes of the show."
Wade's adventures have taken him into blinding rain storms but he fishes away "because the budget isn't big enough to sit around waiting for good weather. It would take more than a  swarm of mosquitoes to stop us."
What Wade likes best about the show is its unpredictability. It doesn't have a script because who knows what he might be pulling from the river?
Favorite catches include a goliath tiger fish caught in the Congo and a 150-pound arapaima caught in Brazil;.
The show will go on for awhile longer but Wade says the number of potential subjects is finite. "We're at the stage we find just enough new rarities to keep going a bit longer."
Another problem is climate change meaning fewer river fish everywhere.
"Sadly, there  has been a marked decline in fish sizes and that means the monsters at the top of the pyramid are declining, too."
MY RATING: ****.

Is David Letterman Really A Jerk?

The column by The New York Post TV Critic Don Kaplan says it all.
"To most reporters David Letterman was kind of a jerk!" writes Kaplan.
And sadly I must agree with him.
In my 38 years of writing about TV for The Globe And Mail, The Spectator and The Toronto Star I only met Letterman once.
Whenever I was in New York city I'd dutifully try for an interview only to be rebuffed by publicists.
Letterman generally stayed clear of TV critics and only gave a mass interview once and that was when he jumped from NBC to CBS.
As Kaplan notes Letterman's behavior was very strange indeed given the fact that at CBS he routinely was number two in the late night ratings behind NBC's Jay Leno.
Once when I had lined up Letterman's sidekick Paul Shaffer for a Toronto Star profile it was arranged we'd lunch and then go back to Shaffer's office inside the Ed Sullivan theater to continue the talk.
But Shaffer had to pull out the day of the lunch and a CBS publicist said it was all because Letterman did not want a TV critic on the premises.
But Letterman was not alone.
All those years covering the Tonight Show and I only met Johnny Carson twice.
He also avoided the press and only appeared once before TV critics --and that was as executive producer of a new sitcom starring Angie Dickinson (the show quickly bombed).
Then there was the time out at the Burbank studios when I was interviewing Tonight's director, legendary Freddie de Cordova.
We were chatting away and all of a sudden Carson slipped into the easy chair next to me.
We talked a bit about de Cordova and then Carson left just as quickly.
"That's Johnny for you," de Cordova nervously laughed.
By contrast I interviewed legendary Bob Hope a half dozen times including several telephoners --he was already available.
I spent hours with Dick Cavett in his New York office after a grueling day of taping.
And I was welcomed on the sets of The View, Alan Thicke in Hollywood, heck even Chevy Chase had time for me during his ill fated Fox TV talk show.
Both Carson and Letterman rarely talked about their personal lives.
Carson was touchy about the number of wives he'd had.
Letterman was forced by events to recount his version of a sex scandal that ballooned into a blackmail attempt.
But he blamed newspaper reporters for blowing it all out of proportion.
When a truly huge star was booked as guest Letterman would routinely ban all press from even standing in line for tickets.
And on Wednesday night he blew off reporters from all major outlets --they assembled in his publicist's office to watch the first cut of his last show early so they could file reports before their deadlines (at midnight).
Finally came an edited version of the monologue and Top Ten guests but the rest of the show was deliberately with held.
The final guest list was indeed impressive (including several Presidents, a star studded Top Ten but Letterman seemed listless lest emotion overtake him.
By contrast Johnny Carson's farewell was an emotional roller coaster and remember Johnny was always unchallenged as king of late nights while Letterman's audiences were far smaller.
After NBC ditched Jay Leno it meant Letterman would have to go --a new generation of comics had taken over.
And in Canada we are still waiting for our first successful late night TV talk show.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men's Ambiguous End

You have to remember most long running TV series never post a farewell episode.
It's bad for the rerun market and so most series simply fade to black.
Except those that come back years later with younger casts like Hawaii Five-0 (a semi-hit) or Ironside (a big flop).
So there I was Sunday night wondering howe all the strands of MM could possibly be summed up in one grand finale.
OK, there was some good news as Peggy and Stan finally declared their love for each other.
And Joan decided to star her own production company which was very tentative because Peggy declined to join up.
Very strange was Peggy and Pete's farewell --they once had an illegitimate baby who has never been discussed in recent years.
And Sally stepped up to become the head of her household as Betty started smoking again as she faced terminal lung cancer --last shot of Sally had he washing the dishes.
People keep asking me if this ending was happy or sad.
Well, it was as ambiguous as the series.
Don seemed to be finding a strange kind of inner peace and then the whole thing ended with a Coke commercial he presumably had produced.
I'll admit that like others out there I was more than a bit confused by what was happening.
Don seemed to re-invent himself and then produced the best Coke commercial ever.
In the past few years the show had been treading water, it was no longer ground breaking because, perhaps, the Sixties were coming to an end.
MM did not give viewers closure, how could it after seven exciting seasons.
The question I'm most asked is why Canadian TV can't produce a series equally brilliant --and inexpensive.
Remember MM had no stars, a few sets and no expensive crowd scenes or action.
Canadian TV producers simply aren't interested in that sort of thing.
On Thursday a very successful Canadian TV series Rookie Blue begins its final season. on Global (simulcast with ABC).
How many critics out there will notice passing?
Rookie Blue like almost all Canadian series was heavily disguised to break in to the lush American market and it truly succeeded.
ABC picked the show up and gave it a summer berth --there was the feeling it was too fragile for regular season contribution.
Canadian viewers didn't seem to care.
We gorge ourselves on American TV even when it gets made in Canada.
Sad to report but the rest of the world is not interested in all things Canada.
The CBC TV movie on Don Cherry was only able to make one foreign sale --to Finnish TV.
No other network wanted to buy into CBC's miniseries on the road to Canadian Confederation and that project died after one TV movie which even Canadians declined to watch.
CTV bought the rights to Mad Men, ran it for two seasons and then dropped it because it wasn't generating much revenue since it was on a U.S. cable weblet.
The Canadian networks like to buy U.S. shows, black out the incoming American signals and simulcast these series to get a double rating.
Which is why Netflix's ongoing success just might be the end of Canadian TV networks as my sources in the CRTC acknowledge.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Death On TV

On television death can come at any time," my friend Toronto actress Susan Douglas once told me.
And she should know.
I remember telling her that as a young kid I'd run home from Withrow public school for lunch and then I'd catch the two 15-minute soap operas on CBS: Search For Tomorrow and The Guiding LIght.
Douglas had started on that show on CBS radio in 1944 and switched to TV with the rest of the cast.
And then she married opera star Jan Rubes without asking the permission of the show's creator, imperious Irna Phillips.
"She was livid," Douglas told me and when I subsequently had to take time off to have a baby she became so distraught she had my character of Katy killed under a bus the very next week."
On TV death is one way of silencing a recalcitrant actor as Grey's Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey discovered just the other week.
His character dubbed "McDreamy" by creator Shonda Rhimes was quickly and efficiently dispatched  in a car crash.
Leaked stories from the set implied Dempsety was forgetting his lines and making all kinds of trouble.
Fan backlash has been strong
In fact Julie Plec creator of Vampire Diaries is already saying she must now rethink the impending exiting of the character Elena (Nina Dobrev).
Nina has been saying she's done but the show's executives are still trying to get her to change her mind.
Death on TV is never easy.
When Pernell Roberts left NBC's Bonanza in 1965 the series still did fairly well ratings wise.
But the sudden death of Dan Blocker in 1972 caused a ratings slide that was irreversible.
As star Lorne Greene told me: "The show lost its heart and soul. People just tuned out. Dan couldn't be replaced and we got cancelled the next season."
When Maclean Stevenson decided to leave M*A*S*H (in 1976) to get his own series the producers were so irate they killed off his character Lieutenant Henry Blake in a midair plane crash.
When Stevenson subsequently bombed in several sitcoms but of course could never return to his M*A*S*H roots as Blake was dead.
When Jean Stapleton decided to leave All In The Family in 1979 where she had shone as Edith Bunker CBS simply felt she was irreplaceable and Edith's continuing absence could not be explained.
The 1980 season began with one of the best ever episodes titled "Edith's Death" which had Archie (Carroll O'Connor) trying to come to grips with her passing.
Of course some TV characters seemingly died only to later come back.
On Dynasty Pamela Sue Martin cast as recalcitrant daughter Fallon supposedly died in 1984 when Martin left the series.
But she returned complete with a British accent in 1986 in the person of Emma Samms.
It all proves that McDreamy could still return someday to Grey's Anatomy perhaps as his long lost twin brother.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

I Confess: Full House


This is the time and place for me to 'fess up to one of TV's Unsolved Mysteries.
But first a little background regarding TV's planned reboot of Full House.
When I told the checkout cashier that Full House --her fave show when growing up--was coming back as Fuller House she let out a whoop that reverberated through the Loblaws store.
The popular sitcom from way, way back  (it ran on ABC 1987-1995)is being revived on Netflix courtesy of executive producer John Stamos who was one of the stars of the original.
But already there's controversy and my friend's grin instantly drooped when I told her the Olsen twins were not coming back.
'The action this time centers around the recently widowed DJ Tanner (Candy Cameron Bure) who is raising her two boys in San Francisco.
So to help her sister Steph (Jodie Sweetin) and best friend Kimmy (Andrea Barber) are also moving in to help out.
Now stop just a minute!
My friend wanted to know all about the Olsen twins and why they turned down a second chance on TV.
Gulp, I had to tell her they hadn't even been asked.
Also absent are regulars Bob Saget, Lori Loughlin and Dave Coulier.
Lori Loughlin has already taken to twitter to moan the absence of an invite.
Things are getting kinda ugly out there.
Now the press is calling the reunion "Half-Full House".
And Stamos and those Olsens are ducking it out in e-mails.
I mean why not a new version of Full House?
Although I'd like to point out the reboot of Boy Meets World as Girl Meets World hasn't done much in the ratings.
Anybody else out there notice how quickly Ironside flopped its second timer out?
Now there's even talk of a Broadway parody musical to run weekends starting September 7 --from the same folks who created a Saved By the Bell parody --one suggested song will be "This House Is Too Full."
And Lifetime now says it will proceed with an unauthorized Full House TV movie set behind the scenes.
Well, if that is true why doesn't somebody from Lifetime call and question me.
That's my secret.
I was on the set twice as a matter of fact.
One lunch time in 1988 I journeyed over and spent an hour with Bob Saget who was anything but the meek dad he portrayed on TV.
He was wildly funny, more than a little bit blue with his humor and confessed he couldn't figure out why his show was so popular.
Then he answered the question by mentioning all the letters from kids in single family situations who wished life could imitate Full House.
The very next year I was back chatting up Dave Coulier who was the funny one on the show and as nice a guy as one could find in show biz.
So right now I'm wondering why Saget and Coulier are not being included in the new Full House mix?
I don't think the remake can work without them.
And I should know --because I was there. Twice.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Discovery's Mankind From Space: Smart TV Is Back


Smart TV is back.
It used to exist in such dazzling TV creations as Civilisation and any number of David Attenborough nature series.
But lately "Smart TV" has been in decline as increasingly dumb reality shows take over.
And then there's the compelling new Discovery special Mankind From Space, TV that will challenge you as well as enthrall you with its dazzling images.
The two-hour special premieres on Discovery Canada Sunday night at 8 and is virtually a must see.
The Canadian-U.K. co-production (Montreal's Handel Productions and UK's Darlow Smith Productions) artfully employs dazzling shots from space as well as magnificent CGI images to fashion a look at the last 12,000 years of mankind and how we've emerged into today's technological driven society.
I enjoyed talking on the phone to the British executive producer Iain Riddick who acknowledges the same inventiveness first graced 2012's Earth From Space TV special as a way of explaining how all of the world's nature could be shown to be interconnected.
"I was having a pint in the local pub," Riddick says. "And I was watching rain drops splash on the windows."
And Riddick wondered where the rain had come from, perhaps from around the world and where it was going.
Then he started thinking of all the ways we humans are interconnected although we may not know it.
And surely the Internet has brought us closer together as never before.
But what about all the other inventions that were equally ground breaking?
What then emerges is a step by step description of everything that has made us what we are today.
"We look at the huge change when our ancestors switched from being hunters and gatherers and began farming.
"Then there are the development of cities although until about 100 years ago cities remained comparatively small."
The invention of steam power by James Watts was another big moment but the modern inventor most honored is Tomas Edison who built the first power grid in New York city.
The matching of inventions with great images makes this one a must-see and tight editing means you must watch every minute or you'll lose the complicated thread.
It's all there from the first great trade routes --the Silk Road --to the cargo container revolution to the way coal still drives many modern economies.
In fact I had a problem with the length --I could have watched for another two hours because all the information is so compacted.
When have I ever complained that a TV production was too short!
But what really go me was the look at the present and insistence with all the problems mankind currently faces from over population to global warming that we can invent ourselves out of most current dilemmas.
"Our ingenuity has gotten us this far," says Riddick. "And we show where new farming techniques can save us as our global population lurches to nine million before settling down.
"We show how interconnected everything is --from trade to all the dazzling electronic connections.We should be able to conquer the future just as we have been challenged in the past and always succeeded."
Riddick has words of praise for Discovery Canada's commitment to the costly production. A different version will air on PBS "--"it is 16 minutes longer but most of that is composed of the experts talking."
This is the second high  quality Canada-UK production I've watched in a week --the other was Mummies Alive and Riddick says with such costs "co-productions are the only way to go.
"We are co-partnered with Handel Productions who have an enviable track record and the CGI comes from Toronto's Intelligent Creatures Inc. and is of exceptional quality."
Think of it! TV that doesn't talk down to you but engages and is breath taking to behold.
MY RATING: ****.