Saturday, September 26, 2015

Great News: Sunnyside Is Back


 Best news of the new season is the return to form of the often brilliant Canadian sketch comedy show Sunnyside which revs up Sunday September 6 on City-tv at 8 p.m.
City is using a technique called "hammocking" meaning the newbie sketch series get hammocked between two ratings winners.existing
First up at 7:30 there's the sixth season premiere of Bob's Burgers.
And then at 8:30 it's Andy Samberg's returning third season hit Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Sunnyside is made in Winnipeg and reverts to a form that long used to dominate Canadian TV: sketch comedy.
When it first premiered last January I was able to chat up co-creator Gary Pearson (This Hour Has 22 Minutes) --he teamed up with comedy veteran Dan Redican (The Kids In The Hall) and the result was serendipitous.
The show has a very strange logic --nothing makes sense but then everything does.
And the cast of up and coming comics are tops --all play multiple roles and boy are they hilarious at times.
My own personal laugh meter was buzzing through the two new episodes which I previewed.
The sketches are shot in a Winnipeg neighborhood called Sunnyside --instead of studio decor the reality of the surroundings adds depth to the comical proceedings.
The stars are Pat Thornton (satisfaction), Patrice Goodman (Platinum), Alice Moran (Too Much Information), Kevin Vidal  (Second City Mainstage) and Rob Norman (Versus Valerie) , all of them capable at sketch comedy which isn't the easiest form to master.
The entire show is certainly scripted but the improvisational skills of the co-stars often shred these playlets to shreds.
Premiering at mid-season the series was able to build some momentum --the initial order was for six episodes and this season there'll be all new episodes.
Look, I have no idea why the networks allowed that Canadian staple, sketch comedy,  to perish.
Here was one of the most inexpensive of series concepts.
Sure, I was on the set of Royal Canadian Air Farce which CBC moguls should never have allowed to die off as a series.
And then there was SCTV.
And The Frantics.
And Kids In The Hall.
None of them were exceedingly expensive to make. But when CBC closed down RCAF that meant the end of CBC-TV's fabled costume department which was sold off by pieces.
Costumes are a must when one is piloting a new sketch comedy series.

I'd agree with other reviewers that Sunnyside sports great potential --there's more than a little bit of  Monty Python.
In one new skit a goofy dad keeps pranking his son even after he manages to kill himself in one stunt but come back as a ghost  --and the kid is infuriated his dog crossed over, too.
A skit about a punch drunk priest works precisely because it makes no sense.
Then there's the guy who has to say to each new female patient: "Just because I'm a male nurse I'm not gay."
At a party guests watch the couple of the home battle over possession of a beautiful but dumb lizard.
My favorite line so far:"Look do you want a ride to dialysis or not?"
After watching these two new episodes I only haver opne additional commernt.
More please!
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

 Last season's finale on CTV's Saving Hope literally ended with a bang --and the death of one of the stars Dr. Joel Goran played by charismatic actor Daniel Gillies.
On Thursday September 23 at 9 p.m.  CTV 's Saving Hope returns for its fourth season.
When I chatted on the phone with the other two personable stars, Erica Durance and Michael Shanks, they swore they did not see the shocking death was coming.
In a statement released to press at the time wily executive producer Ilana Frank said that deciding to kill off Dr. Joel was "an incredibly difficult decision to make."
On series TV death is a way of life.
My old Toronto friend, the late great actress Susan Douglas told me of the time in 1952 when she was starring in the daily CBS soap The Guiding Light and she rushed in to tell show creator Illana Phillips. she was pregnant and might need some time off.
"She was mortified and send my character to her death under a bus the very next week."
After six on M*A*S*H Maclean Stevenson decided in 1978 he wanted to jumpstart his own career as a TV series star.
So the producers arranged for his character Lt. Col. Henry Blake  to be helicoptered out in the last episode of the second season.
What they did not reveal to Stevenson was the additional of a final bumper --informing viewers Henry had crashed to his death.
That way Stevenson could never return to M*A*S*H --and by the way he made several stinker series that quickly flopped.
"We never saw it coming. Nobody did. Daniel certainly did not know in advance," Durance is telling me.
But that's series TV --the show goes on and the Durance-Gillies love affair was beginning to pale.
The new fourth season will see several new doctors introduced.

But what about Dr. Joel returning as a ghost?
It's that ghost theme that attracts some viewers and irritates others.
Meanwhile the first two episodes of the fourth season are as usual well plotted and acted. I'm honor bound by my TV critics' oath never to betray plot details.

Durance was pregnant last season in real life as was her TV character.
Both Shanks and Durance are B.C. based meaning their families are 3,000 miles away.
Shanks says he has young children in school so he flies home some weekends (he shoots most of the summer anyway).
Durance says she has an understanding family--but work is work.
One thing about this duo --they actually like each other which is rare on long running TV series--they met when Durance was a guest star on Shanks' Stargate series.
When I was on the set of Remington Steel I notice the two co-stars never spoke to each other.
"I know all about the rigors of series TV," Shanks tells me.
He served 10 years of various Stargate series shot in Vancouver.
Durance made a name for herself on Smallville also shot in B.C.
I also like Shanks' turn in the Gordie Howe TV movie --but he didn't sport the facial scars of the real Gordie.
Durance made a name for herself on Smallville nicely cast as Lois Lane (also shot in B.C.). Will she make a guest appearance on the new Supergirl series? I hope so.

Another problem faced by series veterans: keeping the stories fresh. Medical shows also run out of diseases.
Last season Saving Hope notched an average of 1.34 million viewers a week making it in Canadian terms a sturdy hit.
"We do make suggestions about plot lines," Durance says and there are friendly chats with the writers.
I remember being on the Matlock set and watching star Andy Griffin rewrite scenes with a pencil because he felt his character deserved more.
When NBC quickly dumped the show in the U.S. there was a feeling CTV might do the same.
Instead the network offered support and was rewarded with a sturdy perennial that might even last beyond this season.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Up In Arms: A Gem Of A Documentary

When a copy of a new TVO documentary was sent to me in late August I somehow found reasons not to watch it.
Then I noticed the name of the film maker --Nadine Pequeneza (15 To Life, Bomb Hunters)  --and curiosity got the best of me.
I can now report Up In Arms, a stinging commentary on the ominous transition to a gun culture in Canada is must viewing.
One of its strengths is the unusually long length --for contemporary Canadian television.
At 75 minutes it is by far too long for a CBC hour long slot (44 minutes plus 16 minutes of commercials).
So although I believe it is deserving of a national TV network slot I'm still grateful for TVOntario for showing it completely uncut.
You can watch it on TVO Wednesday September 23 at 9 p.m. Got that?
After watching I now believe this is the most important TV show to watch before deciding how you'll cast your ballot in the upcoming federal election --forget those silly and staged leaders' "debates".
My first reaction was one of complete surprise.
I had absolutely no idea the gun lobby was so powerful here --and it is growing by leaps and bounds.
First shock: there are 10 million privately owned guns in Canada.
I had to stop the tape and think about that for a few moments.
Pequeneza has done her homework, yes, and she has a definite point of view.
There's none of that balanced on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand.
At the same time she's very fair to everyone concerned.
She goes to gun shows and gets the points of view of the militant gun fanatics. She paints them as concerned and often very loquacious in defense of what they consider their rights.
She follows Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association who is very well versed and hardly a fanatic.
We see how he is trying to get the new gun control act Bill C-42 through Parliament --ironically it is due tro come to a crucial debate just as Parliament is hit by a mad gun man.
Just as compelling is John Evers, Ontario Regional Director for the CSSA.
And considerable time is spent at the gun store run by grandmotherly Pauline Langois whose store Al Simmons Gun Shop has been in the same location for 40 years.
Balanced against these scenes are the ominous feelings of police chief Bill Blair who makes some great points about getting local initiatives started to keep teens off guns.
We get to know 18-year old Alex who grew up in Regent Park, did drugs in the lobby and on stairwells, in a gun culture made possible by illegal guns imported from the U.S.
Strangest scenes? The comments of a convicted U.S. gun smuggler now in a U.S, penitentiary who describes how he got his gun cargoes across an increasingly porous boundary.
The best thing about Pequeneza's approach is her slow, methodical style that gets us right into the debate and her refusal to go for quick fix answers.
She keeps us watching with fine editing and camerawork and her instinctive feeling for what makes the best camera shots.
The new TV season is only just beginning but I'm betting Up In Arms will be a contender for all kinds of awards by season's end.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gotham Is Back For Season 2


Big news Monday night is the return of Gotham for its second season.
You can catch all the action on CTV Monday September 21 at 8 p.m. Got that?
Whether Gotham is better than season one is another matter.
One TV critic wisely noted that in this series the villains appear to have all the fun.
Remember this is a Barman prequel and the action is seen through the eyes of an increasingly precocious Bruce Wayne.
It seems to me that the dominating presence of Ben Mackenzie as James Gordon is deliberately dimming as villains pop up all over the place.
I liked the original pilot with its great atmosphere --the whole thing was shot like a Thirties thriller and art deco artifacts imbued ever scene.
But splendid  atmosphere can only get one so far and the series seemed to be lumbering along.
Ratings predictably plummeted and Fox then announced the second season would be themed "Rise Of The Villains".
Indeed the first new show looks at a crazy plot organized by the thugs to discredit Gordon and have him discharged from the police force.
Now it seems the great new anti-hero played persuasively by a wonderfully menacing James Frain as Theo Galavan is the new focal point.
Season Two's premiere titled "Damned If you Don't"  is still chock full of atmosphere. But the storytelling seems to be more of the same from the First Year.
I was a bit disappointed --I believed the PR turn about a new vision for a new year.
Here it is a month after Season 1 ended with Bruce trying to break into his father's secret bunker. The new season has Gordon demoted to traffic cop duty.
I'm not the only one out there who finds the series getting campy instead of letting the tension built --I can watch new co-star James Frain snarl all the time and be amused but it's not enough to build a show around.

I'd prefer a lot more character development mixed into the atmosphere. Sure, this is based on a comic book but that won't work for long in building a respectable TV audience.
Or am I wrong in taking it all too seriouskly --it's still stylish and well acted.
Beside Frain I liked Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma and his character's second mirror self. And Cameron Montague as The Joker is peerless.
Maybe I just wanted more. I know I'll keep watching, at least for a few more episodes.
Any show with great acting turns from Robin Lord Taylor and Donal Logue deserves every consideration,rigt?h.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Introducing Mitchell Kummen

It was sheer coincidence but there I was just sitting down to watch vimeos of the new CBC-TV series When Calls The Heart and the opportunity came to interview the young co-star of the show Mitchell Kummen.
I'd been hearing about When Calls The Heart for several years --it's a Hallmark TV series shot in B.C. with a Canadian theme.
There's a stalwart Mountie played by Daniel Lissing (he's actually Australian), there's Lori Loughlin who I first met decades ago on Full House and the recreation of turn-of-the century recreation is pretty impressive.
So why has this show already been seen in the U.S. and Britain but not on Canadian TV?
When I chatted up Lissing and co-star Erin Krakow at the CBC TV launch they seemed pleasantly surprised it was finally coming to Canadian TV.
Mitchell Kummen has the choice role of Gabe Montgomery on WCTH --the third season currents airs on US and UK TV.
Which means in the scenes I've caught him in he's more than two years younger than he is today, right?
He also has a strange resume in that he's played younger versions of big stars --he was the younger Daniel Radcliffe in Horns.
And he was a young Callum Keith Rennie in the TV series Shattered.
And he played Don Cherry as a young kid in the TV movie The Don Cherry Story.
Kummen says for WCTH a cool million dollars worth of nineteenth century era sets were built and the series certainly looks handsome.
When I met up with Lissing and Krakow both they were boldly predicting future seasons of the show and CBC reports initial ratings are sturdy.
Kummen says he has no problem memorizing the dozen pages of dialogue regularly needed for a TV series --he manages to read them with his mom and is a pretty quick study.
And if his acting career isn't enough Kummen reports he just might study quantum physics at university.
I was the very first TV critic on the set of Kids Of Degrassi Street in 1979, visited that series and spinoffs every year since then and note that some of those young actors grew up to become directors and screen writers in their own right.
Kummen reminds me of the teen star Andrew Bednarski who I used to interview on the set of the hit CTV series Katts And Dog (1987-1993) --he was 12 when he started and 17 when he"retired"  from the series to attenmd Queen's University.
His parents were both high school teachers who  provided expert home study and he sailed through Cambridge University ( PhD. in archaeology) financed by his salary which his parents banked and currently is on a dig in Egypt.
Getting that first big break is very important --one must also be tough enough to withstand rejection.

Then there was the twentysomething blonde on the 1980 TV set of B.A.D. Cats who was devastated when her show folded after 10 episodes.
And that's how Michelle Pfeiffer started in the biz --and is still around 35 years later.
Kummen is smart enough to have observed the work ethics of Radtcliffe who was friendly with everyone on set but also one of the hardest workers around --that kind of attitude works wonders on a busy production.
And currently Mitchell is also filming a second series (for UPtv in the U.S.) in B.C. titled Ties That Bind with Kelli Williams cast as his police detective mom and Jonathan Scarfe as his dad.
A Canadian sale is pending.
Did he say Jonathan Scarfe?
I first interviewed Jonathan Scarfe as a shy 19-year old for the high school series Madison in 1994.
So believe me based on what I've seen so far I expect to be interviewing Mitchel Kummen for years to come.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Discovery Canada's Fool's Gold Is Sheer Fun

I have this thing for Canadian TV reality shows.
Which is why I was excited to chat on the phone with Atikokan's Todd Ryznar who leads a rag tag bunch of prospectors in the often funny reality series Fool's Gold.
It revs up for a second season Monday September 8 on Discovery at 9 p.m.
Twelve half hour episodes were filmed --Discovery is running two of them back to back. 
This is the second season debut for these ingratiating reality stars and Todd says his new found fame gets a lot of getting used to.
Fans contact him on Facebook and they come not only from Canada but such countries as Sweden and Iceland where the show is also as hit.
The second season was made last summer --if it gets high enough ratings a third season just may be offered but it would have to be filmed next summer.
"We have to shut down operations come fall ," he explains. "It all depends on water pressure to get at the gold and there's a big freeze up starting in November."
Another season would certainly be welcome, Todd says, because all the money made from the show gets plowed right back into the business.
He purchased his mine in 2005 and has been working it "off and on"  ever since.
The mine at Straw Lake --which is near Fort Frances --was in full operation from 1933 to 1941 and then ceased production after some 11,000 ounces of gold were extracted.
In this year's shows Todd sets a goal of getting 10 ounces a week from the production --you figure out the prices with gold currently selling at $900 an ounce.
"I always thought I had the makings of a TV show," Todd says.
In fact he was such a believer he even shot a pilot himself in 2012 and took the material to the Banff TV Festival to try to get producers interested.
Essential Media Canada is the production company.
For one thing there's the strange line of work --the fact there still are gold prospectors out there in the wilderness is fascinating in itself.
And then there are the cast of characters.
"Characters --that's right," laughs Todd. He insists nothing is made up.
"We just go about our work while the TV crews shoots all day," he notes. "The second season it was so much more smooth. They even used a drone one day. We sort of forgot about them because we had so much work to get done."
Some of the boys have gold mining experience, others have none. What they all have is enthusiasm to get rich as quickly as possible which hasn't happened as yet.
This past year, says Todd, "the crew is scattered all over the place. I'm still there though and I'm still hopeful."
The company, Shotgun Exploration, is cash strapped to say the least.  The equipment is primitive until Todd invests in an expensive  rock blasting machine that can pulverize rocks a--the gold is inside and must be thoroughly washed at high speeds before it collects in buckets of water.
The crew even took to connecting via walkie talkies to be sure they're around for the dramatic or comedic highlights.
In one scene a haphazard wooden bridge is built to get a huge part of the equipment over a gulley --when it crashes hilarity ensues.
The cast includes Roj who seems to know something about metallurgy. And then there's Matt and Mikey, complaining they are expected to work hard but for a lesser stake of the profits. Their Mutt and Jeff routines are hilarious.
From time ti time Todd can be heard over the loudspeaker shouting at the boys: "Work!Work!"
And in another scene one of the boys hot from exerting takes a swim in the water supply --I'm hoping it isn't the drinking water.
Todd says he likes such reality outings as Duck Dynasty and also the Canadian made Yukon Gold "which isn't at all like our show."
I'm honor bound not to reveal any more plot but each half hour is tightly edited and very funny --viewers will be bond with these guys and hope they make it.
And if enough of us watch then there' can be a third season with the profits going back into the mine.
"I'd like it to continue," says Todd. "I think we've got lots more stories to tell."

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Where Are The Canadian TV Talk Shows?

So there I was the other day lunching with two of the most powerful Canadian TV producers in the business.
And as usual these days the talk started with an assessment of the departure of Jon Stewart whose presence late nights redefined the American talk TV landscape.
Here are snippets of what was said:
Me: "I can never understand why Canadian TV has no late night talk shows at all.
"A few years back at the CTV Upfronts Jon Stewart appeared on the screen live from his New York headquarters and began ribbing his hosts about the lack of Canadian shows on their primarily imported schedules! Boy did those executives visibly wince!"
Producer 1: "The only successful Canadian talk show when I was at CBC was Peter Gzowski. And he was continually trounced by the critics. But you know the longer he was on the better he got. Finally near the end he said what-the-hell and came out as battered and rumpled as he'd always been on radio. And that really worked.
Later Comedy had Mike Bullard and the budget was so low he didn't have a cordless mike so he couldn't walk into the audience."
Producer 2:"You see that's why it has always been cheaper to import shows than make our own. And after midnight there are no Canadian content regulations anyway."
Me:"But the fall TV lineups of CTV, Rogers, Shaw have no Canadian scripted shows at all. The claim is Canadian shows would get mowed down in the early on in the new season."
Producer 1: "I can't sell any series that is openly Canadian. Nobody wants it. Canadian TV movies have disappeared. CBC started a series on the Fathers of Confederation and it sank like a stone. It was cancelled after one episode."
Producer 2: "I watch Saving Hope and love it. It's made here with Canadian talent but it might be situated in any America city. I liked Rookie Blue, too, hardly 'must see TV' but still very professional."
Me: "CBC told me the only buyer for its TV movie on Don Cherry was Finnish TV--the fact is the rest of the world does not find us fascinating."
Producer 1: "Canadian TV is disappearing. The more channels we have the less Canadian TV there is."
Producer 2: "Jon Stewart's freedom to really go after politicians would not be allowed up here. Look at all Chretien and Harper did and TV criticism on CTV and CBC news was very muted."
Me: "But isn't American politics more exciting?"
Producer 1: "The love affair of Americans for all things American is very apparent on these shows. How often does Anderson Cooper cover something in Canada? Almost never."
Me; "Who's picking up the check?"
Producer 1: "I can. My new series is going into production --filmed here, of course, but set in the U.S."