Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cracking Cancer: Must-See TV

The future of Canadian TV is bright --I make this statement after watching the brilliant new homegrown documentary Cracking Cancer which premieres on CBC-TV's Nature Of Things Thursday night at 8 on CBC TV.
The subject is daunting enough --the advent of POG or Personalized OncoGenomics but this new technique in battling cancer is personalized by the true tales of patients.
We first get to know and admire Zuri who is 33 and a new mother.
She battled breast cancer shortly after giving birth and endured a mastectomy, radiation, chemo and hormone therapy.
But 18 months later her cancer came back with a vengeance spreading to the liver and lymph nodes.
Her long term prospects seemed bleak until she was given a standard drug for diabetes --it was hardly a new drug--but because of POG Zuri is currently cancer free and thriving.
The director of Cracking Cancer , Judith Pyke, says the personalized approach was used to define what a breakthrough POG is for cancer survivors.
"We started in December 2015," Pyke tells me on the phone from Vancouver.
"Originally a letter was sent out to patients we wanted to film. It was a lot to ask but we found people who did want to tell about their condition. We filmed ten but only use seven here --we were looking for different aspects you see."
Pyke and her camera crew filmed the patients not only during hospital visits but also at home with families..
"And we also filmed the oncologists specifically Dr. Janessa Laskin who is co-founder of the trial at Vancouver's BC Cancer Agency."
The documentary opens with Zuri who Pyke salutes as "quite a fighter, so optimistic. And she has fared the best."
Nori's cancer came from a mutation that caused rapid growth.
 The POG team used decades worth of scientific discovery --the goal was to isolate drugs which might block the growth of Zuri's cancer.
Zuri was given a diabetes medicine combined with hormonal treatment and five months later her cancer seemed to have become virtually undetectable.
We also meet Trish who is battling colorectal cancer and has multiple nymph nodes--she needs an eight-hour operation to eliminate a tumor on her spine.
Katya is in Styage Four for breast cancer and needs help quickly.
Then there's Marcy who is battling lung cancer and thinks she has found the right drug for her condition.
Karl has liver cancer. which was diagnosed very late.
And there is a wonderful little boy Sagar who has a unique condition which mimics cancer.
"Of course we didn't know in adevance what would happen to any of them," Pyke explains. "Of course you get emotionally involved. It was an incredible journey."
But how to explain all this to the average viewer?
Luckily NOT's long time host. Dr. David Suzuki joins the team to do exactly that. Now based in Vancouver Suzuki more often these days fronts the weekly hours. But here he uses his experience as a geneticist to ask the tough questions.
Suzuki interviews Dr. Marco Marrra, one of the leading genome scientists, who explains the procedure in terms anyone can understand.
Pyke thinks the hour is basically a study in courage. The outcomes can't be revealed here but there's sorrow as well as triumph.
Today's TV hour is actually 42 minutes--meaning heroic editing was needed to preserve the content but keep the pacing.
Pyke credits ace editing (Alan Flett) and her director of photography (Todd Craddock). Pyke wrote it with Helen Singer and Sue Ridout produced for Dreamfilm Productions.
The result is a model of how to engage viewers without sacrificing quality.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Showcasing The Bugs In Your Home!

Usually on The Nature Of Things TV fans get to visit tropical rain forests or the frozen Canadian North or laboratories in Oxford University.
But director Roberto Verdecchia had this great idea -- he wanted nothing better than to visit an average Toronto home and report from there.
You can see for yourself on the absolutely original hour The Great Wild Outdoors which premieres on CBC-TV Thursday February 9 at 8 p.m.
Verdecchia's method is simplicity itself --he selected the home of friends and bade them leave while he brought in a team of eager entomologists to track down every insect living uninvited in this home.
"I think we got almost everything we wanted," says Verdecchia. "We simply wanted to show how every house is a fully functioning habitat for a wide variety of insects."
At first we see the TV team bidding the Vettese family goodbye as the home becomes the personal insect fiefdom of talented researcher Michalle Trautwein and her easger beaver crew of insect detectives.
It's "Lights!Action!Camera!" and the stars of this production seem to be everywhere --under rugs, lurking in the darkest recesses of the cellar, even in the clothes closets.
I asked Roberto on the phone what would have happened if none of his guest stars had shown up and he laughed.
Because this hour was shot in the summer and many of the critters simply enter via open doors and windows.
"In deepest winter it might be a bit different but they are still there," he says.
Of course the young children in the family seem not at all enjoyed to be sharing such a nice house with bugs.
But generally speaking the bugs don't bother us much and we're expected to do the same thing I guess.
The press release quotes Roberto as saying :"I'm not much of a bug guy." But he effortlessly captures the enthusiasm of the researchers upon each discovery.
So here we have it --a wild life adventure documentary that resolutely never goes outdoors. How strange is that?
Every home it turns out teems with life and the question here is relevant: who is living with whom? What we have here is a great, unchartered frontier.
Every discovery becomes a joyful moment and specimens are bagged to be sent to the laboratory.We get to know a little about the researchers who seem impossibly young.
There are carpet beetles, clothes moths, the delightful wood louse, all those spiders in the basement.
I know there are spiders because of the mummified remains of their prey. Others such as mites are so tiny they look like dust spots--that's a deliberate cover up.
I could go on: pantry beetles, the ever unpopular stink bug, the house seems chock full of all these critters. The silverfish have been around since the Stone Age. There's one specie who can drop a leg just to fool a predator. And the moth in the luggage -- I was waiting for him.
This reminds me of a past NOT documentary which looked at all the bugs in a normal back yard.
Two names deserve mention: director of photography Derek Rogers and bug wrangler Jim Lovisek.
The Great Wild Indoors was produced by 52 Media Inc.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, January 27, 2017

I Remember Mike Connors

It was my first day ever in Los Angeles as a TV critic, June 10, 1971 to be exact and the CBS publicist had a grueling schedule set out for me.
"We'll start on the set of Mission: Impossible," CBS's Betty Lamm told me. "Then I hand you over to Paramount for lunch on the set of The Brady Bunch. At 1 p.m. I'll pick you up again and we'll go to the L.A. Aquarium where Mannix is filming."
I enjoyed all three encounters but high on my list of best ever interviews was the warm and friendly Mikle Connors.
Mannix ran on CBS for eight huge seasons (1967-1995) and what a surprise it was to find Connors such a delightfully unpretentious guy.
Gail Fisher who played his secretary said to me: "What you see is what you get. No star tantrums. He lines up at the chuck wagon for lunch with the rest of us."
"The show is a hit because of Lucy Ball," Mannix told me. "She signed the personal cheque for $1 million for the pilot because she had a hunch about the show.
"And when initial ratings were disappointing she personally went to the president of CBS and got him to keep us going. It caught on gradually and by season's end we had a hit."
It was Connors who insisted on Fisher for co-star.
"At that time black co-stars were frowned on by CBS which had a huge rural audience. I insisted she be shown in beautifully tailored suits and freshly coiffed and whole episodes were built around her."
I also spent time with the series' creator Bruce Geller who tragically died in a plane crash.
By the way Connors' best buddy was Peter Graves who I'd interviewed that morning on the set of Mission: Impossible --Graves subsequently phoned Connors to alert him and said "Give that kid a break!"
Connors was born Kreker J. Ohanian in Fresno California in 1925. He played basketball at UCLA where he was nicknamed "Touch".
"I played as Touch Connors in the Joan Crawford film Sudden Fear  (1952) and boy what a star she was. The sets had to be frigid because she perspired profusely. By the time she got through with co-star Jack Palance I'm sure he really wanted to kill her!"
Connors had already made as series titled Tightrope for CBS in 1959-69 which he told me "was just average fare. In Mannix my input into every episode is appreciated and we have big guest stars as well."
Connors said he thought the success of the series "can be explained easily. Most TV detectives were seedy up to that time. Joe Mannix was well off, nicely dressed. He sometimes got emotionally involved in the problems of his clients."
For a time Connors also flourished on the big screen.
"I made one mistake and that was to co-star opposite Bette Davis and Susan Hayward in Where Love Has Gone (1964).  These two loathed each other. After Bette's last big scene she took off her white wig and threw it at Susie and it bounced off her forehead. 'Disgusing old bitch!' shouted Susie to the cheers of the crew!"
I remember Connors joking to me that day "When I go to the annual CBS affiliates' meeting I always joke with Jack Lord (of Hawaii 5-0) about who has the best pompadour. I think it's me!"
I kept in touch with Connors and even visited him on his next series Today's FBI  which lasted half a season in 1981.
In later years Connors guested on The Love Boat (1981), War And Remembrance (1989) and on the series Hercules (1998).
I last talked to him on the phone about five years ago and he joked he'd just attended a Hollywood Collectibles Auction.
"So I guess that now makes me a genuine antique."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

I Remember Mary Tyler Moore

What a joy it was for this young TV critic to spend a day on the set of the huge CBS sitcom hit The Mary Tyler Moore Show in June 1972.
I got to meet all the gang and even the chief writers and then at lunch in came Mary herself and we spent the next hour in ballet class as I desperately tried to keep up with her.
"I'm a child of TV" she told me. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."
She and her husband Grant Tinker had just bought the old Republic studios out in Studio City and the sound stages were soon all booked with hit MTM TV series.
On Thursday night along with fellow TV critics I attended a filming of the next episode --there was one complete run through at 7 p.m. followed by a second at 9 and I couldn't see any change in the script or basic blocking.
The next night we all went out to CBS Studio City to watch a filming of All In The Family and the atmosphere was completely raucous. There was a 7 p.m. filming complete with much shouting by star Carroll O'Connor and when the cast re-assembled for the 9 p.m. filming the script had been completely turned around.
When I'd asked Mary about the reason for her sitcom success she said ":Oh, the writers. It's always about the writers. I just come in every week and say their beautiful lines."
She was born in Flatbush on December 29 1936 to Marjorie Hackett and George Tyler Moore who was a clerk.
"I think I wanted to be a dancer since I could walk," she told me. "It was a very Catholic household and like a good Catholic girl I married at 19 and soon had a son Richie."
Her first TV appearance?
"I danced on TV commercials for Hotpoint appliances which ran on the series The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harrie. Then I was the answering gal on the series Richard Diamond with only my legs were shown."
Sttardom followed as Laura Petrie on The Dick Vamn Dyke Show.
"In the first pilot a lovely actress Barbara Britton was used but she tested as too sophisticated.  The show's creator Carl Reiner told me to let the others get the laughs and react as naturally as I could.
"Wives back then had certain standards --when I came on the set one day wearing slacks all hell broke loose. The chief CBS censor came running to the set and eventually he relented.""
When Dick Van Dyke folded Moore decided to try for the movies.
"I had the second female lead in Thoroughly Modern Mille (1967) and then I was a nun in an Elvis Presley thing Change Of Habit (1967). Then I did a Broadway musical version of Breakfast At Tiffanys opposite Richard Chamberlain which was the biggest stinker of the season."
Second husband Tinker put together the MTM Show in 1970 but she voluntarily ended it in 1977 when it still was a Top 10 hit.
"Biggest mistake of my life," she later told me. "We could have gone a few more years and made ever so much more money in reruns."
I remember a lavish MTM dinner on the top floor of Chasen's restaurant in Beverly Hills with 25 tables for the 100 TV critics and a separate MTM star at each table: Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman.
Later on MTM went into drama with such hourlong hits as Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues.
I later became good friends with Valerie Harper who said "With Mary what youy see is what you get. No temper tantrums. She was the sane one on the sjhow and let the crazies act all around her."
Bette White told me" "In 1980 mu husband and I had dinner with Mary and Grant one night in 1980. They'd just signed the papers to divorce. I felt so terrible I was in tears but Mary was strangely composed."
When I later asked Moore how closely her own personality had followed that of Mary Richards she said later  "Not much at all. I'm far tougher. Not always nice."
And her personal life was filled with sorrow: both sister Elizabeth and her brother predeceased her.
And in 1981 she and Tinker would divorce.
In 1980 Moore dazzled in the film Ordinary People garnering an Oscar nomination.
"Director Robert Redford says he saw me walking alone down at the beach and saw a side of me the public had never seen. It was a dream assignment but I now realize a lot of that troubled woman was really me."
Moore tried to return to series TV three times but all attempts were flops: a variety hour titled  The Mary Tyler Moore Show, (1979).  and two sitcoms Mary (1985) and Annie McGuire (1986).
We had a grand reunion in the Toronto Star Newsroom in  1984 when she was shooting the CBS TV movie Heartsounds opposite Jim Garner.
As a favor I asked her to pose with managing editor Lou Clancy in the newsroom for a Star photographer and the next day  it was splashed over the front page with the cute caption :" Mary? Lou?"
And I miss her already.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Good News: Jennifer Gardy Is Back On Nature Of Things

Big news of the TV week is the return of Jennifer Gardy to CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things with the fifth of her popular Myth Or Science specials.
"The first four were all big ratings hits," reports Dr. Gardy "but I never guessed when we started we'd be doing a fifth installment."
Check it out on CBC-TV Thursday at 8. Got that?
Gardy says the specials have evolved. "But I think we get better with every outing. There's the same director (Jeff Semple) --he's only missed one. And the same camera crew who know what visuals are necessary to sell the story."
And may I add Jennifer Gardy, 37,  is the best looking scientist on TV these days with impeccable credentials to boot --in her day job she functions as assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's School Of Population And Public Health.
Says Gardy "It all starts with an idea. In this case we wanted to look at our senses and see how our brain is wired to adjust to different senses.
"We always start with a basic game plan and our superb research team then goes about compiling as many possible segments as possible. This takes months and then the chosen experiments have to be whittled down to about five or six.
"I mean we have to get just the right images to back each experiment."
Gardy is front and center in each demonstration.
"Yeah, that's right. I'm the guinea pig standing in for the audience. My reactions obviously are not scripted. It's first response and that's fun. Each experiment's filming takes a few days. The challenge is to get these academics fully relaxed in front of the camera.""
So Gardy also gets to travel to other continents to be included in each test as well as pre-interview the researchers and other participants.
"We generally film in May and June because the universities are out by then but the researchers have yet to leave on summer vacation.  So we shoot in Canada as well as Europe and the U.S."
I liked the meeting between Gardy and the English magician turned professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University in London. He shows her sleight of hand tricks which are delightful. In this case seeing is different from believing.
At Oxford University Gardy meets the neuroscientist who uses the potato chip test to determine the freshness of foods. Gardy fails this test is all I can say!
At the University of Leeds Gardy listens in to a faked lecture in which students are shown all sorts of creeping insects. Will they start scratching or what? I know my left arm was itching furiously.
Says Gardy "My favorite was at UCLA's Multisensory Perception Lab where my real arm is placed behind a black curtain and a rubber one substituted. Then the rubber one gets stabbed by a fork. What happens really surprised me.
"It's my favorite test but it wasn't the best in terms of visuals."
In another test passersby are given colored drinks and asked what they are tasting. I felt this one worked best on TV.
Gardy laughs when I tell her when I was at university in the 1960s when one of my professors was told he could no longer be on TV because he was in danger of being too pop.
"I think it's entirely different these days," she laughs. "Universities need all the attention they can get and then some.
"I think here we've done much of what we wanted to do. Boiling everything into an hour always is a real accomplishment. I'm already thinking what else can we do next time."
Myth Or Science was made by Infield Fly Productions (executive producer Dugald Maudsley).

Friday, January 6, 2017

Good News: Hard Rock Medical Is Back

About this time every TV season I begin lamenting the lack of filmed Canadian drama series.
And I start with the inevitable stats: in 1985 the Canadian TV networks supported 11 quality hour long TV filmed drama series.
That was the year the three private webs petitioned the CRTC to back off its insistence on scripted shows promising they'd prefer doing it on their own.
They lied.
Next season there were only two scripted drama series left --both on CBC.
The drought has continued ever since.
These days TV movies have virtually disappeared, too, although the lowly sitcom seems to be making a comeback with CBC's rip roaring dual hits Kim's Convenience and Schitt's Creek.
Independent producers tell me they won't make any kind of fiction based dramatic series unless they are assured of an American sale.
And then there's the strange and unique case of Hard Rock Medical.
It's a scripted medical show that runs on TVOntario of all places.
Over thew decades I've been covering TV it was always the TV mantra that the publicly funded Ontario weblet simply couldn't afford the costs involved.
The show returns for its new season of nine episodes Sunday nights at 8 on TVO.
It works because the 30-minute dramas are shot like the afternoon soaps: quickly and nothing fancy here with a lot of close-ups and the focus on the acting styles of the talented principals.
First and foremost there's Patrick McKenna.
I used to have to argue with TV viewers that McKenna was the same actor appearing on both Global's Traders and CBC's Red Green at the same time. He's that talented.
Here he's well cast as the heart of the show. I like the description of Hard Rock Medical as a "Kind of Grey's Anatomy for Canucks" (the opinion of The Star's Tony Wong).
I'd add that there's a lot of Northern Exposure in there too with emphasis on quirky character development.
Shot in Sudbury it looks at a medical school dedicated to training prospective doctors to work in the north.
I'm not exactly sure of the budget but it must be miniscule compared to something like an NCIS--there are no expensive stars and the scenes seem seamless and fluid without the cross cuts of a prime time U.S. export.
When Hard Rock Medical first premiered in 2013 I interviewed the cagey creator Derek Dorio --I first met him when he was playing the character Haggis Lamborgini in the TV series hit The Raccoons.
Diorio honed the craft of shooting fast at the French language arm of TVO --TFO which had even less funds than the English arm.
 His first series was called Meteo+ and then he made a second hit Les Bleus De Ramville (2012). And he had perfected the technique of making Canadian TV drama at reasonable costs.
This series is thus well edited, crisp photographed and up to the strict standards of American prime time shows.
Other medical shows seem short on substance. HRM is gritty and realistic and I've liked the whole cast including Mark Coles Smith, Christian Laurin, Kyra Harper and Danielle Bourgon.
NOTE: Since I wrote this I've been informed by TVO that major funding comes from the Northern Ontario Heritage Corporation with additional help from TVO's production partner APTN.
MY RATING: ***1/3.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Funny Times With Ron James

Here I go again --every Christmas season I get to interview Ron James who has a quirky end-of-year TV special that's been a staple of CBC New Year's Eve.
This year I had to telephone James in Halifax where he was tending to the needs of an ailing father.
And as usual the subject started with the simple question : why is James considered such a delightful comic.
"It's the way I see things, I'm guessing," he says with a nervous laugh. "There's a lot of lightness in my comedy but also some very dark stuff. It's where I come from."
Born in Glace Bay, James is rightly proud of his heritage and he says his "Canadianess" plays well wherever he finds himself across this sprawling country.
"I'm about the same I always was," he jokes. "But certainly there's a lot more political issues discussed these days. These politicians are sure targets."
I haven't see the whole hour but James artfully dices and slices  in his usual hilarious monologue..
Donald Trump is a great target and James has one nugget of advice: "Get rid of the tweets."
Says James to the captivated audience: "How else can you figure he wound up in the White House?"
Explaining the Canadian election James says of course the winner would be Justin Trudeau as opposed to Thomas Mulcair :"Looking badly in need of a rabies shot."
Other targets of James's comedic wrath: Samsung 7, Pokemon, Stephen Harper, North Korea.
These days James tells me he plays some 40 dates across Canada every year.
"The smaller town audiences are so enjoyable. They're delighted just to be included, they know what it really means to be a Canadian."
One place James won't want to revisit: comedy clubs. "I honed my talents there but no more. I like bigger audiences and there are some great theaters across Canada. We did this one in Kingston. I like to go some place different every year."
James first came to attention as a member of Toronto's Second City troupe. He learned how to texture routines for the audience and how to play off them. And he finally got the courager to try Hollywood.
There were guest spots on such TV hits as Wings as well as busted pilots before he realized Canada was his home.
For five seasons James reigned supreme on his own CBC TV comedy show which artfully mixed stand up with sketches.
"The sketches got better. I tried at first to do them as part of the running show. When we filmed them separately they became more fluid and funnier, that's all."
His great 1994 docu-comedy Down And Out In Shaky Town is still a delight when viewed on YouTube.
"At the end I discovered Canada is where it's at for me."
Anyone doubting James' acting skills should search out his outstanding dramatic turn in the series Made In Canada which is now out in a boxed set.
And there's also his first TV sitcom the wild and wonderful Blackfly (2001) which initially ran on Global TV.
When I tell James a video store manager said it was one of the most requested items not yet on DVD he's momentarily stunned.
But I have a new role for James and I'd like CBC to seriously consider this.
Apparently CBC is going to get a cash infusion from the admiring Liberal federal government.
Some of that dough should be used to mount a late night talk show.
CBC once had a late nighter starring Peter Gzowski and later Comedy had one with Mike Bullard.
James has the smarts to front such a Canadian TV effort --in university he was a history major--and if you watch this new special you'll see he's a comedic mesmerist who can captivate a very demanding audience for the better part of an hour with his standup genius.
So how about it CBC?