Sunday, October 19, 2014
No doubt about it --Murdoch Mysteries would be battling Heartland for the coveted title of longest running CBC hour drama.
Heartland hit episode 803 on Sunday night to be followed by Murdoch Mysteries Monday night at 8.
But Murdoch's first five seasons ran on Citytv which ditched the Victorian cop drama several seasons back because the cost got too pricey.
CBC then did something it rarely if ever has done --it picked up a rival's series and has seen ratings increase every season since.
I can't think of another series that started elsewhere only to later flourish on CBC.
I well remember when Global TV floundered in 1973 and all sorts of fine new shows got cancelled.
When I asked CBC's Knowlton Nash, then head of news and current affairs, he was aghast CBC would deign to pick up series from other networks.
By contrast when CBC axed Don Messer's Jubilee in 1969 enterprising CHCH-TV picked it up for the next season.
And CHCH also picked up the CBC show Fighting Words with the late, great Nathan Cohen.
As far as star Yannick Bisson goes I've been covering him since he was a remarkably poised 17-year old on the set of the 1984 CBC TV flick Hockey Night starring Megan Follows.
On Monday's episode he not only stars but directs it with remarkable verve.
Bisson, of course, isn't TV's first Inspector William Murdoch.
Peter Outerbridge got there first in a series of TV movies shot in Winnipeg.
But Outerbridge was busy making another TV series for Shaftesbury Films --ReGenesis--when City decided to pick up the concept as a weekly series.
"We play the part completely differently," Bisson told me last time we chatted at CBC-TV's fall preview affair.
Bisson added a welcome dash of comedy and plays Murdoch with insouciant charm. Outerbridge was darker, a tortured Catholic, brooding, compelling but I'm not sure this would have worked in weekly installments.
I was on the set before the series actually debuted --there have been several location pit stops in later years --originally it was shot on studios at Eastern Avenue which no longer exist.
I'm also told there's a fair bit of shooting in neighboring Hamilton which sports more nineteenth century architecture than Toronto.
Obviously this is a very expensive series to shoot --period costumes can't be purchased off the rack, horses have to be hired, many of the accoutrements of Toronto circa 1900 have to be leased.
Tonight's episode titled Glory Days is even directed by Bisson.
It cleverly incorporates details about his upcoming wedding and contrasts the policy of gun control already in effect in Toronto with the shoot 'em up philosophy of a Yankee carpet bagger.
The Yankee in question is none other than Bat Masterson (nicely over played by Steven Ogg as a dare devil writer coasting on his past fame).
Bat is convinced that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are in town and planning an elaborate train robbery.
Bisson gets to direct action scenes where he's also involved as an actor, a hard job that.
But the action swirls ad there are some pungent looks at a Toronto house of ill repute and also the color bar in the Victorian city --a black boxer is bitter about the way he's treated.
After eight seasons Murdoch Mysteries changes just enough to attract new fans while retaining its regular base of loyalists.'
EPISODE 803 OF MURDOCH MYSTERIES TITLED GLORY DAYS PREMIERES ON CBC-TV MONDAY OCTOBER 20 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
Sunday night marks a big anniversary for CBC-TV's perennial family drama Heartland.
That's because with its 125th episode it will finally surpass CBC's Street Legal as the network's longest continuing hour TV drama.
It still has quite a ways to overtake Beachcombers which ran for 17 seasons but in a half hour format.
And there are CBC anthology dramas from the Fifties which notched just as many episodes.
TV critics including this one have long been fixated on what's wrong with CBC-TV.
But there a lot of bright spots, too including The Nature Of Things which is well over the 50 season mark as well as the still delightful Murdoch Mysteries which CBC grabbed away from Citytv.
Some of us out there still believe CBC made a mistake in canceling the iconic Front Page Challenge which I think could be brought back to life with a panel that included Marty Short, Wendy Crewson, Don Cherry and as moderator Peter Mansbridge.
CBC sells Heartland to 119 other countries.
And it fills perfectly its niche in the schedule --as "teacup drama"
Past CBC teacup dramas included The Road To Avonlea and Wind Up My Back in extolling the virtues of family.
And every year I get to chat up the personable co-stars Amber Marshall and Graham Wardle.
I just wonder how they'll fare when the series finally closes --after all they are so closely identified with their TV characters.
When I spoke with the twosome at CBC's fall launch they seemed as remarkably untouched by their TV fame as they'd ever been.
Marshall has a Twitter account with over 35,000 dedicated followers and she got to host the Canadian Country Music association awards because of her ascending fame.
She told me the show has to be careful not to recycle old themes.
"This new season Amy gets back from Paris and her family thinks she has changed some what," she told me. "Amy has to realize that she can't go back --everything is a bit different."
Now 26, Marshall lives on her own ranch outside Calgary with her husband, photographer Shawn Turner."
"I'm not Amy although I admire her so much. And I realize that I'll have adjustments to make when the series finally leaves the air --I'm hoping we can stay a bit longer."
Marshall collected some some small roles before Heartland came along eight years ago.
"I love that it teaches life lessons about caring for animals. So many kids see that and get inspired to help animals, too."
And she is very defiant in saying "I know for me there will be an acting life after Heartland".
When I screened my preview copy I could immediately spot the quality.
For one thing Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) gives virtually every cast member quality time as he intercuts the various stories.
Heather Conkie wrote the script which has no dull patches at all.
Story lines include the return of Ahmed well played by dashing actor Jade Hassoune.
Then there's the quandary of Tim (Chris Potter) who is asked by an old girl friend to join her on a rodeo tour.
And Lou (Michelle Morgan) and Peter (Gabriel Hogan) take daughter Katie for an assessment --she seems slower than some girls her age.
As Marshall told me "Whole families can watch our show and not get embarrassed."
Looks like Heartland has a few more seasons worth of stories to tell --with Republic Of Doyle faltering CBC needs Heartland more than ever.
HEARTLAND RUNS SUNDAYS AT 7 P.M. ON CBC-TV.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Friday, October 17, 2014
To hear Andrew MacIver tell it one day we was watching his favorite Canadian TV network --BNN --and there was a call for potential stars of a new reality series that would be all about a Canadian owned company.
"And I followed up and here we are --our series Bargain Brothers starts Tuesday October 21 on BNN."
The other brother is Doug and together with their extended family they run a very successful used car dealership in Winnipeg.
"In fact we have two lots," Andrew is saying.
"I thought we'd get an item on BNN but instead we're a whole show," jokes Doug.
The boys were interviewed on Skype by a producer who thought their merriment combined with sound business practices would indeed make a show and signed them up.
Together they operate Ride Time used cars along with mom Evelyn who is president of the company, Doug's wife Meagan and sis Alex.
It's quite an extended family --the boys (and Meagan) even live together although both in the first episode are supervising construction of two new homes which are going to be side by side.
Megan is so fed up she sputters in one scene that it's almost like polygamy --only, of course, it isn't at all.
Dad Doug Sr. started the company --if he seems familiar he enjoyed a nine-year stint in the CFL that included time with the Toronto Argos. He also helped Winnipeg win its Grey Cup in 1984.
The two sons grew up in and around Toronto. Andrew studied automobile management at Barrie's Georgian College while Doug played hockey for nine seasons before being sidelined with a bad knee.
Now they're TV stars?
"We are ourselves," Andrew says. "It was tough at first getting used to the cameras and the TV crew. But after awhile I forgot they were there."
Doug explains that in a hit reality TV series like Pawn Stars "somebody comes into the store and tries to sell something that's considered unusual --but here every story is different. We just couldn't script it even if we wanted to."
Some of their TV ads are pretty wacky but these are designed to get the attention of viewers.
The brothers really are dedicated to getting their customers full service. In one scene they refuse to buy a car that on the surface looked fine until their mechanics discovered cracks in the wheels.
"Used cars -that's a bad image," says Doug. He says many customers simply refuse to pay the outrageous prices for a completely new car.
"A used car might be a rental with little mileage. We already have a 2015 car we're selling as used right on the lot."
I think viewers will stick with this one because of the honest portrayal of the family dynamic.
The conservative mom controls the purse strings and in the first episode frets a new commercial the brothers have done makes them seem too silly.
Then there's Andrew's quest to mount a huge inflatable gorilla on the roof --he never checked city by-laws to see if this could be done.
Doug has continuing spats with his kid sister whose job is to photograph the latest acquisitions on the company's web page.
One revealing comment from Andrew: "Doug and I share a brain."
On the phone Doug told me the company has to sell approximately 45 cars a month to begin making a profit.
So it's a volume business, he says. "We get them at auctions, some are bank repossessions, trade ins, others the lease has expired. "
And there are many return customers because the company is famous for its quality control.
So far BNN has ordered up six episodes with more to come depending on the ratings.
"It's a big step up for us," acknowledges Doug.
"But the old image of a used car salesman no longer exists. If we didn't deliver on our pledge of quality then the customers would go elsewhere,it's all because of the Internet, I'm sure of that."
Toronto-based Smashing Pictures made it (Linda McEwan directed) --the company also made The Big Flip and Great Taste No Money.
BARGAIN BROTHERS PREMIERES ON BNN TUESDAY OCTOBER 21 AT 7 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
"This is it. Doyle's end. I'm sad but I'm proud --you know, all at once."
Star and creator Allan Hawco told me he'd decided to end CBC-TV's quirky hit Republic Of Doyle during the middle of last season.
Doyle not only acts in them he also writes the scripts with a paertner and supervises editing.
The last season revs up on CBC-TV Wednesday October 15 at 9 p.m. Got that?
"I thought we should end on a creative high," he said when we talked at CBC's fall junket in Toronto.
Yes, putting that much effort into a series can be tiring. And this will be Season Six after all, a huge milestone for any Canadian series.
But the wonder is CBC's new management team let him get away with it.
Fashioning a new hit TV drama series isn't done every day.
Look at the tangled history of CBC's Crack'd starring David Sutcliffe which sputtered along for two seasons despite the talent before and behind the TV cameras.
And CBC-TV has been desperate for a popular series from Newfoundland for like forever --any one else out there remember all the effort that went into the series Hatching, Matching And Dispatching.
One of the times I chatted up Gordon Pinsent he remarked he was wrong in exiting his hit CBC series A Gift to Last (1976-79).
But nobody at CBC encouraged him to stick around for a few more seasons.
In terms of Republic Of Doyle I think it would make a dandy TV movie every year or so --just like James Garner's occasional returns to The Rockford Files.
In order to make the show the provincial government had to fork out millions in subsidies but Hawco told me he's sure it will eventually be paid off.
Gradually the series is being sold abroad. It even has started popping up on Buffalo's FOX TV affiliate Channel 29.
"And there's a steady stream of tourists who see the city in all its glory and decide to come and take a look," he told me.
Don't get Hawco started on the perils of being a Canadian celebrity.
"We see so much TV from the U.S. then along comes a show about Canada and viewers really clicked. They stop me everywhere. It's very gratifying."
This year there'll be just 10 episodes --down from orders that went as high as 16.
Jake gets jailed for the murder of William Cadigan Clarke and we'll see him try to get out of that.
In other seasons such big ticket names as Russell Crowe, Pinsent and Due South's Paul Gross have made guest appearances.
Since I met up with Hawco he's been announced as the star of yet another new CBC series titled Caught based on the novel by Canadian Lisa Moore. It will be a co-production between his company Take the Shot productions teamed with eOne.
He'll play David Slaney, a convicted drug-runner who escapes from a Nova Scotia prison after five years of incarceration and is set in 1978.
Of course I wish him well just as I'm wishing for more ROD stories on TV in the near future.
Monday, October 13, 2014
The very title Royals & Animals almost put me off this great new Canadian made documentary.
But then I saw it was made by Montreal filmmaker John Curtin so I let my horse sense make my decision and I'm happy to report I couldn't turn away.
True, there are the requisite shots of Queen Elizabeth and her snappy corgi.
But there's also a deep note of pessimism --her dogs and horses are the only ones in this sycophantic world who take her for what she is --a slightly lonely old lady who desperately needs time away from a closely observing public.
The tightly edited hour begins in silly fashion as we see the preparations that go into feeding HM's dogs --only the best and freshest chicken and steak will do and then Elizabeth adds a dash of her own mixture which is a closely guarded state secret.
The dogs are with her on most occasions-- one even travelled with her on her honeymoon with Prince Philip.
The little dogs are so collectible but heir apparent Charles will have none of them, he prefers his Jack Russell while Kate has a cocker spaniel she even goes to bed with when William is out flying his planes.
Staff universally dislike the corgis who are not house trained --their moist moments must be cleaned up with soda water and a stiff brush. Then there was Princess Anne's dog who jumped his leash in Great Windsor Park and bit an infant.
The magistrate sternly ordered anger management courses for the transgressor --any ordinary mortal might have seen his dog put down in a similar circumstance.
We learn the royal horses get equally fine treatment. One chef shows how the carrots must be washed and then sliced just so before Elizabeth pops the morsels into the horses' mouths.
The dark side of royalty? Princess Diana loathed all the animals at Balmoral Castle and tried to learn to ride but eventually gave up.
She was horrified to go out with Charles on a stag and pheasant hunt and emerge from the bushes covered in blood.
Philip may be a great conservationist but he also shoots up game with all the passion of a big game hunter.
Best part of the hour is the look at the Queen's close relationship with her mount from Regina, Burmese who she was riding the day in 1981 when a crazed man shot at her.
We see Burmese flinch but remain ever steady so confident was the queen that he would not panic.
When he died he was buried on the grounds of Windsor castle.
There are bits on British swans still technically owned by the royals --when the swans leave the Thames then the monarchy will collapse or so the legend goes.
And the royals and race horses is another saga --the kindly old Queen Mum left debts of four million pounds much of due to her compulsive gambling on horses.
Curtin uses animals as a metaphor for all that's sad and mixed up in the life of the royals, a clever and compelling device. He wrote, produced, directed and edited it for Kaos Productions (Michael Wees was cameraman).
The other three hours including After Elizabeth II and Chasing the Royals did right well in the ratings.
As will Royals & Animals: 'Til Death Do Us Part I fearlessly predict.
ROYALS & ANIMALS PREMIERES ON CBC-TV'S DOC ZONE THURSDAY OCTOBER 16 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
So there I was at a lavish pre-Thanksgiving dinner on my street and the talked turned to the supposedly increasingly irrelevance of the struggling CBC.
I begged to differ, of course.
But I now wish I'd already seen Gorilla Doctors, an amazing new Canadian made documentary premiering Thursday October 16 on CBC's The Nature Of Things.
It's the kind of premier presentation only a CBC would dare attempt in this age of amateur singing and dancing shows and wacky realism shows that today clog most TV networks' prime times.
And I can remember only a few years back when The Nature Of Things approached its 50th season and there was talk deep in the corridors of power about dumping it for good simply because it was too expensive to run anymore.
Thankfully the regime proposing that wacky way to balance the budget has decamped and The Nature Of Things seems about the most iconic show left on the Corp (along with The National).
Gorilla Doctors is well of those well made nature docus that is solid in scientific data, excitingly shot and edited and tells a story that is riveting.
It was made by the Toronto team of film makers Bryn Hughes, David York (producers) and co-director and writer Roberto Verdecchia and co-director and director of photography Michael Boland for 52 Media Inc.
Hero of their true story is the Peterborough born veternarian Mike Cranfield who tells us he was an aspiring vet student specializing in diary cows when he spent a summer as the resident at Peterborough's Riverside zoo. And all these years later he specializes in the care and feeding of mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uguanda.
There are about 800 mountain gorillas left and when Cranfield makes house calls he must do so in rugged mountain terrain .
The challenge is to guard against manmade diseases infecting the gorillas while trying to keep them as wild as possible.
We watch as the crew use dart guns to placate one dominant silverback who has been sick and stopped eating.
The question is: are these gorillas who have been vaccinated against disease still wild? In nature some would die anyway. What role should intervention play if any?
In this particular tribe the dominant gorilla has died after a neck infection. Can the next up --a 13-year old take over although maturity usually only comes at age 16 or later?
The hour also studies the civil wars in the Congo which keep impeding on the gorilla territory --game wardens are routinely killed by the soldiers or by poachers.
Having such a huge human population so near by exposes the animals to potential human diseases.
In one shocking scene six female gorillas are discovered killed by jungle Mafia types leaving two babies which must be cared by the wardens. And tests reveal they already carry the herpes virus.
Some solutions seem simple: the ton of human tourists should be encouraged to wear face masts, Cranfield suggests.
And there's the question of who should be deciding what is best for the gorillas.
Some naturalists like Martha Robbins clearly think the wardens are going too far in terms of intervention.
Shot as part mystery story, part jungle adventure Gorilla Doctors already emerges as one of the year's top documentaries --and TV's new season is just starting.
GORILLA DOCTORS PREMIERES ON THE NATURE OF THINGS THURSDAY OCTOBER 16 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.
Monday, October 6, 2014
Make no mistake about it --these are dark days for Canadian public television threatened by government cut backs and dwindling ratings.
And then along comes a special so powerful and forceful it will have you cheering for CBC-TV's survival.
It's an hour titled State Of Incarceration written, directed and produced by veteran Andrew Gregg (We Will Remember Them)--a look at the federal Tories wrong headed determinations to spend billions more on incarcerating criminals.
Gregg tells me he got the idea after reading an article in The Economist about the huge expenditure in building new jails in California and Texas.
"It mentioned crime is at an all time low --for various reasons and yet here was Texas about to built three more prisons at a cost of $600 million."
It was Gregg's ambitious idea to turn the story into a wide ranging discussion of why Canada was trying to imitate a concept of being tough on criminals when the concept was being dropped in Texas and California.
"Justice Minister Peter MacKay had already turned down a CBC network invitation to be interviewed on the subject. He gave us just 10 minutes to ask the tough questions. I found him gracious but unyielding on the points."
Indeed under MacKay and Prime Minister Harper there's been a radical rethink of the customary approach to prison populations.
Mandatory sentencing has been introduced and rehabilitation programs cut back with precious little help for prisoners to train themselves for release into the civilian population.
But Gregg also provides the dazzling visuals to support his thesis --one California inmate takes us on a tour of his facility where overcrowding has reached such heights prisoners exist literally on top of each other.
The U.S. with five per cent of the world's population has 25 per cent of the world's prison population.
We meet one prisoner doing 50 years for robbing a convenience store --without a gun --he was sentenced under the "three strikes and you are out" law.
Says Gregg: "In Canada you have to request a certain prisoner you want to interview. In the U.S. it is entirely different --you can get in easily but you can't request any one but have to wait until you're inside.
"We found lots of inmates who wanted to talk. The guy with the cell the size of a closet is wonderfully animated--he's studying for the ministry and taken courses in public speaking."
The shots inside U.S. prisons make the documentary --most operate at 140 per cent capacity in conditions that can only be called degrading.
Back here Gregg profiles the Lifeline program which was federally funded out of Windsor, designed to give convicts training and skills so they could operate in the free world and not slip back into old habits.
It was cancelled by the Harper government because it was seen as granting favoritism to cons.
And yet the beneficiaries certainly were Canadian civilians saved from future break-ins and other violent crimes.
Gregg gets moving statements from Kevin Page, the former Parliamentary Budget officer and Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, who both argue against the current policy of getting tough on crime.
On the opposite side Gregg has comments from some powerful American conservatives who acknowledge the policy in the U.S. has backfired and become so costly even Texas governor Rick Perry balked at the high cost of building more prisons.
Gregg argues forcefully for a program that is "smart on crime"--retraining convicts to ensure against recidivism.
"I don't think many Canadians are all that aware what is happening because so few of us have a friend or relative in prison --unlike the U.S."
State Of Incarceration is a mini-masterpiece of summoning up all the relevant facts, marshalling the witnesses for and against and presenting vivid images of a system that just isn't working.
And Gregg's film (for 90th Parallel Productions) also points to CBC's continuing relevancy in pretty impressive terms.
STATE OF INCARCERATION PREMIERES ON CBC-TV'S DOC ZONE THURSDAY OCTOBER 9 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.