Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Laugh It Up With Ron James

It's going to be a busy time on CBC New Year's Eve with both The Ron James Show: New Year's Edition and the first annual reunion of RCAF (see below).
"I'm pretty pleased with it," reports James whose first season on CBC Friday nights just wound up to be followed by this hour special.
"I was doing a mini tour of the Maritimes and got to squeeze this one in. It took about three days back in Torontoincluding two nights of tapings."
The best of both nights are being combined and James managed to corral some of his favorite funny people into the mix: Eric Peterson, Peter Keleghan, Patrick McKenna, Linda Kash and Christian Potenza and Daniel Kash.
"We didn't want it to be a retrospective. There'll be enough of those. It was just a way of working with some of the people who helped me so much. The show has been intense and demanding but in a completely different way from the other (the sitcom Black Fly). There's a strong writing room bunch and we had to find all kinds of costumes to get this one up and running."
Some CBC types have whispered this is one series that could go on tour with different tapings in different cities --after all Front Page Challenge travelled that way for decades.
"The problems would be too much," insists James who goes on tour as a one man band with only his manager in tow. Don't ask me how but he somehow managed to squeeze in a stint as host of the annual Gemini Awards --in Calgary yet.
New Year's Eve segments include bits of James' standup which are always welcome, a few of his "L'il Ronnie" cartoons and Ron in drag as that Cape Breton senior Aunt Vivian valiantly struggling with her Christmas gout.
Best skit finds James and Kash as struggling Bethlehem inn keepers --after he turned away a certain couple and child who go on to make the inn down the street the place to be.
But James is most partial to the yuletide samplings onboard Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition of 1846. Cannibalism anyone?
James acknowledges the rapacity of TV in eating up material he used to take months of concerts to hone to perfection. "Now we need new material every week."
Ratings for James started high at 830,000 a week, dipped a bit and then zoomed back up to the high 780,000 or more--quite a feat on a night when many of James' crowd are out grocery shopping. So renewal for next season seems a certainty.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


This is the time of the year for scribes to compile lists on just about anything.
So here goes.
1. Biggest surprise of the year: American network TV made a mighty comeback. Some pretty good new U.S. series debuted including The Good Wife, Glee and NCIS: L.A. And cable continued to deliver with Dexter and Mad Men. Yes sirree so far it's been a greatish season.
2. TV sitcoms began staging a mini-comeback. I blame the original decline on Seinfeld which destroyed the traditional four-camera sitcom shot before a live audience. But The Big Bang Theory last season stirred renewed interest in the whole genre and this year I'm watching and enjoying Cougar Town and now really like Parks & Recreation which stumbled badly its first season only to become must-see this year.
3. Scripted Canadian TV continued to disappear. Neither CTV nor Global TV have so far debuted any new Canadian hour dramas. But goodies are being promised for the New Year. CBC's dramas including Being Erica and The Border battled for viewers hooked on expensive U.S. shows. But Heartland has become something of a minor hit thanks to its teen audiemce.
4. American network news is changing. The old line U.S. networks now have two female anchors in CBS's Katie Couric and ABC's Diane Sawyer (plus NBC's Brian Williams. And Peter Mansbridge now has to stand on CBC in a set that ressembles a disco bar. Is nothing sacred any more.
5. Reality TV became ever more unreal. First Kate and Jon split up in an angry dispute and neither one seemed to mind about the emotional turmoil they were causing their kids. Then Octomom failed to land her own show and mentioned she'd like to date Jon. It seemed only PBS was steering away from cheapie reality series.
6. CBC took the low road and ditched its high end quality arts shows and viewers declined to vocally support it when more cuts from federal funding loomed. To most of us CBC had become just another network.
7. Many viewers including yours truly thought the "Save Local TV" campaign was a parody. After all what local TV does CTV or Global have outside of the news? CTV abandoned its own talk shows years ago for U.S. imports. I'm referring to Mike Bullard, Dini Petty and Vicki Gabereau.
8. Best Canadian show of the year so far was director Sudz Sutherland's miniseries Guns which CBC ran off before the official start of the new TV season. Go figure that out.
9. Jay Leno was forcibly relocated by NBC to prime time and promptly lost all his comedic oomph. He seems to be merely marking time until he can be safely returned to his 11:30 p.m. timeslot. And Conan O'Brian who inherited the Tonight show has never seemed as fragile and uneasy.
10. Biggest disappintment of the season was the simply blah new series Eastwick starring a very diminished Paul Gross --if he'd been allowed to rewrite it the thing might have enjoyed a big success.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Remembering Jennifer Jones

Yes, I actually did meet Jennifer Jones, the iconic movie star who passed away last week, aged 90.
I said I met her, not interviewed her and there's a whole lot of difference.
It was in the summer of 1974 when I was covering the TV critics tour at the Century Plaza hotel in Century City once the backlot of Twentieth Century-Fox motion pictures.
A bunch of us --I think four or five --were invited during the lunch break to visit the set of the disaster movie currently shooting, the star studded The Towering Inferno.
So we ducked out of a boring lunch Q and A and literally tip toed down the corridor, sprinting out the back door and onto the sound stages of Fox.
And that's when I spotted the great actress who was always one of my faves. Jennifer and Fred Astaire were dancing in a scene complete with extras.
At 55 she still looked snazzy, all dolled up with a beehive hairdo and a sparkling smile. Astaire, 75, looked immaculate as he dipped and swayed his leading lady.
And director Irwin Allen bawled "Cut!Print! And he guided Jones and Astaire over to our small group of observers to say hello.
The mere mention of press being present caused Jones to emit funny gurgling sounds and dash for her dressing room. However, the always amiable Astaire stayed for a nice, long chat before waving goodbye and disappearing for lunch.
And that's how I met Jennifer Jones. And did not interview her.
To say the great star was reclusive would be an understatement.
She never gave interviews and generally kept to herself. And The Towering Inferno was her last picture even though it was a huge hit.
For years she and billionaire husband Norton Simon tried making a movie version of Terms Of Endearment but they eventually gave up, selling the rights --the movie that finally came out starred Shirley MacLaine who won an Oscar for it.
Jones never appeared on a TV talk show but fans could glimpse her at various industry functions. She was an Oscar presenter and made appearances at AFI salutes to Lillian Gish, Gregory Peck and John Huston.
And there's her substantial body of film classics many of which hold up. She won her Oscar in 1943 for The Song Of Bernadette playing the dewey eyed saint with great fervour.
She was also Oscar nominated for Since You Went Away in 1944, Love Letters in 1945 and Love Is A Many Splendored Thing in 1955.
Many felt she would have gone even farther without the obsessive control of second husband Davd O.Selznick--after he made Gone With The Wind in 1939 his projects became ever bigger and bloated. He positively forbade her to star in the 1944 classic Laura which turned Gene Tierney into a huge star.
Some of the films Jones made way from Selznick are among her best including Cluny Brown (1946), Madame Bovary (1949), Beat The Devil (1953) and The Man In The Grey Flannel Suite (1956).
For Selznick she also made the overblown Portrait Of Jennie (1949), Ruby Gentry and the 1957 version of A Farewell To Arms where she was badly miscast as the older nurse to Rock Hudson's young lover.
And she was simply too old to star in 1962's Tender Is The Night.
After Selnzinck's Death in 1961 her career faded away.
Jones married industrialist Norton Simon in 1971 and became chairman of his great art museum after his death at 86 in 1993.
She leaves a son by her first marriage to the late actor Robert Walker but Robert Walker Jr. hasn't had the success his father had.
What we have left are a pretty impressive bunch of movies featuring one of the last great stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. With Jones' passing only sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are left among Oscar winners from the 1940s --plus Luise Rainer from the 1930s.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

RCAF Is Back!

They're b-a-c-k! Those wacky denizens of Royal Canadian Air Farce, I mean.
Exactly a year after getting the cancellation boot from CBC, RCAF has regrouped and come forward with its 17th annual New Year's Eve salute.
It's a must see for all supporters of Canadian TV.
In the name of journalistic fairness I trudged down to the cavernous and now largely empty CBC headquarters on Front St. E. to watch a Friday night taping of the whole shebang.
I thought I was in the wrong place because the RCAF tapings I always attended were next door --still on the 10th floor but down the hall.
Then I was told that studio which is actually named after RCAF is now the home of Don Cherry and Dan McLean's shenanigans for Hockey Night In Canada. The RCAF special was being taped next door.
An initial taping had taken place the night before and the best scenes from both shows will get combined into one 46-minute special (plus 16 minutes for commercials).
It was quite a chore sitting in those bleachers and waiting and waiting for the scenery to be set up so the next skit could go forward.
But I wouldn't have missed this for the world --and neither should you when it all revs up on CBC-TV on Thurs. Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. with a midnight rerun.
My first impression: why oh why did the current batch of CBC programmers try to kill off one of their best franchises?
I keep hearing RACF ratings held up pretty well --at least better than the trendy Being Erica.
But RACF audiences were growing slightly older and are no longer targeted by the big sponsors (outside of Polident and Viagra).
It took three hours to get this thing taped but there were so many laughs I had to ask veteran director Perry Rosemond how he'd manage to fit in all the great material.
"We need 90 minutes or even two hours," he grinned. "There's such a richness. I don't know what to cut."
Some of the skits really hit home. Like Penelope Corrin's savagely funny take on a befuddled Sarah Palin.
Or a parody show called Luck Of The Puck with Battle Of The Blades winners Jamie Sale and Craig Simpson who obligimngly battled on ice to the consternation of Craig Lauzon as Don Cherry..
Luba Goy did her Nancy Wilson shick to perfection. Another parody had Alan Park expertly taking on Sham-Wow pitchman Vince. A Save Local TV gag ad was nastily right on.
It was strange but we never even saw Don Ferguson until the second hour --his take on a mad scientist was vintage Ferguson. And what about the new device called the iPolanski?
I honestly would not want to have the job of cutting out almost half the material performed that night.
I reminded Rosemond I've been covering RCAF since 1975 when they were exclusively on radio.
One big let down was the absence of regular Jessica Holmes who was on the stage in Christmas panto and couldn't make it.
I kept thinking original founding father Dave Broadfoot might pop up in a cameo but it was not to be. We can't have everything. Maybe next year?
In short I'm arguing CBC TV still desperately needs this often brilliant Canadian comedy institution.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Can Obama Save The Planet?

A new British made TV documentary Can Obama Save The Planet? is brilliantly positioned to explain the impending failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change.
Cheeky is exactly the right British catch phrase to sum up this hour as roving BBC reporter Justin Rowlatt (in his TV role as "Ethical Man") moves across the U.S. in search of Americans who actually support the climate change philosophy.
Not unsurprisingly he finds few citizens willing to give up their standard of living to help President Obama save the planet.
Rowlatt's odyssey starts in Muskegon, Michigan, where he ice fishes with the citizens and finds most of the family members in one typical cluster need cars to get to work --public transportation is that bad.
It was Rowlatt's decision to use public transport to get around until he's told the average train of today produces almost as much pollution as an airplane.
At the U.S. Congress he finds Democratic senator Barbara Boxer battling the Republicans over a bill to cut carbon emissions --the bill certainly will not be passed in time for Copehagen.
In Texas he finds wind machines are gradually taking over as sources for electricity --it was all due to a former Texas governor. That's right the much maligned George W. Bush.
In West Virginia 30,000 blue collars have jobs in the coal extraction business and some tell Rowlatt they're are loathe to support the Obama plan for reducing greenhouse gases.
And when Rowlatt goes on a local radio talk show he's bombarded with screaming callers and a host who shouts him down.
The hour has entertaining visuals but the conclusions are very pessimistic.
Americans are just not willing to substantially pay for reducing emissions even though the U.S. remains the world's leading polluting nation.
Can Obama Save The Planet? is on The Passionate Eye Mond. Dec. 14 at 10 p.m. on CBC News Network.
My rating: *** 1/2.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The World Will No Longer Turn

Maestro, a little organ music if you please.
It is with deep personal sadness I have to announce the imminent cancellation of CBS's venerable (54-years old) afternoon soap opera As The World Turns.
The last episode will run on September 7, 2010.
Me and The World we go way back. I was a sick, little boy (the measles) when ATWT premiered live on CBS on April 2 1956 in blazing black and white.
Then there was the time when I toiled for The Hamilton Spectator and got to interview one of the first actors on air and somebody still continuing, that most excellent of ATWT stars Don Hastings who played Bob Hughes.
Hastings holds the record for playing a character the longest on TV: a mere 48 years.
Helen Wagner who played his mom Nancy Hughes McClosky was the one series original still with the show but she wasn't there the day I ventured on set because of a long standing contract dispute. It wasn't settled until years later to permit her return.
And, yes , it was Hastings and Wagner who were interrupted that fateful day in 1963 as Walter Cronkite burst on and announced President Kennedy had been shot dead in Dallas.
ATWT was TV's most watched afternoon soap from 1958 through 1978. The show did not switch to color until 1967 and became an hourlong soap in 1975.
AS of Dec. 8 the count was an amazing 13,661 episodes. But who's counting.
Its demise marks the end of Procter and Gamble soap operas--originally these dramas ran live on radio and were owned by the soap companies.
The Spec once sent me off to New York city --it was around 1977--for an amazing week of going from TV soap set to soap set.
I interviewed the Canadian actress Tudi Wiggins who was co-starring at the time in the early bird soap opera Love Of Life.
She told me to whisper because the actor playing her son was sleeping on the couch in the living room set. He had to fly back and forth from Boston every day to make the show and the Katharine Hepburn play he was in at the same time. It was Christopher Reeve.
Love Of Life ran at 11:30 every weekday morning and I sat in on a live broadcast --yes, it true --a little man dressed in black stepped forth to the organ and began playing the theme music.
There was no canned music on any of these sets.
A visit to Brooklyn and a day on the set of Another World was a great experience. Stars on tap that day included Eric Roberts (Julia's big bro) and Christina Pickles and Gail Brown (Karen Black was her sis).
But the highlight was a visit to the penthouse suite of soap maven Agnes Nixon who had Another World an One Life To live running but whose first job was as a writer on As The World Turns.
It was the first half hour soap, a daring innovation in its day and the creator was the legendary Irna Phillips who also created The Guilding Light (cancelled three months ago) and Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.
Phillips set her saga in a fictional American Midwest city peopled by an all white cast. Original mom Wagner stayed home and seemed to be always baking. She once remembered her horror during a live broadcast when the beeper on the stove wouldn't shut off.
On the ATWT set during my last day in New York I met the CBS head of soaps, Darryl Hickman and such ATWT luminaries as Eileen Fulton and Chris Hughes. They traded jokes about the bloopers that happened on air during the days of live telecasts. At the time ratings were running sky high and continued for the next 25 years.
Stars who got their first breaks on the show include Meg Ryan, Courtney Cox, Parker Posey, Julianne Moore and Lea Salonga.
So what went wrong?
In recent years ratings plummeted and running original scripted dramas proved too costly for the Big Three network which can substitute a cheaply made talk thing like The View or a game show fin which five episodes are taped in one day.
Mothers never worked back in the Sixties --that was a real social stigma. And soaps flourished in a three network TV universe.
Soaps got too racy for many of its staid supporters. ATWT's gay themed love affair didn't attract the numbers as intended.
Soaps are still there but in other forms. Night soaps still work --look at Brothers And Sisters, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice.
And what about the Tiger Woods saga with his multiple mistresses which the TV tabs are currently playing for all its worth. That sad saga is a true life soap all by itself.
ATWT ends in September and there are plans to try to sell it in syndication. Reruns will be on the U.S. soap channel which we don't get up here.
Next to go is ABC's fragile One Life To Live. Or so I'm told.
That means only five soap operas could be around by the end of the current season. The end of an era? Yeah. But the live organ accompaniment ended decades ago.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Scheduling Snafu

Tuesday is Ernest Lehman's birthday.
There will now be a pause for you to squirm and say Who the heck is Ernest Lehman anyway?"
Only one of the greatest of the movie screenwriters, that's who.
So it's entirely appropriate for Turner Classic Movies to honor him --he would be 94 (but died at 89 in 2005).
But how crazy is this: the tribute revs up Tuesday at 9 a.m. when most of us are out working or going to school.
However, it's better than nothingn so here goes: The wonderful drama about the business world, Executive Suite, is on TCM at 9. It's followed at 11 a.m. by Paul Newman in Somebody Up there Likes Me.
At 1 p.m. there's Lehman's personal fave: North By Northwest. At 3:30 p.m. it's the Prize. And at 5:45 there's Family Plot.
I once sneaked out of those deadly dull TV critics press tours in L.A. for tea with Lehman at his spacious Bel Air residence.
He regaled me witth witty anecdotes about the writing of such classics as Sweet Smell Of Success, Hello, Dolly, Dr. Doolittle and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. All delightful but none of these films gets included in this TCM salute.
And remember Lehman is the only screenwriter to have been awarded an honorary Oscar.
Maybe TCM is saving the big titles for a future prime time salute? One can only hope.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Brits Are Coming --Yet Again!

A veteran U.S. industry observer has just told me to stop fretting about the current TV season.
"The (American) networks certainly have. They're already lining up to shoot pilots for next season."
And the search is on for the next Hugh Lawrie. He's the fantastically talented British star (Wooster And Jeeves) who turned himself into an American doctor and made House such a smashing success.
Now word comes that David Tennant, 38, yes , that's right Dr. Who is the next one to jump across the pool to American TV.
NBC reports it has signed Tennant to star in the pilot for a new legal drama series series to be shot in Chicago titled Rex Is Not Your Lawyer. Tennant's term as the 10th Dr. Who closes with several holiday specials.
Co-starring in the venture is Jeffrey Tambor from the fondly regarded Arrested Development.
Other Brit stars have faced a tougher challenge in getting U.S. audiences to care.
Let's see, Alfred Molina has made two short-lived attemps both on sitcoms: Ladies Man ran for 30 episodes (1999-2001) but ultimately vanished but it was infinitely better than 2002's Bram And Alice which lasted eight episodes.
And what about Johnny Lee Miller whose stint as Eli Stone ran 26 episodes on CBS (2008-09).
Linus Roache has so far lasted 51 episodes as Michael Cutter on NBC's Law & Order (2008-09).
And there are stories John Barrowman (Torchwood) may guest star on some episodes of Desperate Housewives next season --it has to be renewed first and he has to be free of his Torchwood obligations.
But Barrowman who endured successive flops on U.S. TV (Central Park West, Titans) surely knows better than most that being British doesn't automatically spell success in an American TV series.

A Fond Farewell For Monk

So far it's been quite a season on U.S. TV for such new hits as NCIS:Los Angeles and The Good Wife.
But it's also going to be the last season for some maturing hits.
First one to drop off (this Monday) is Monk.
Gee, how I liked that show in its first season when it shot right here in T.O
The policier about an obsessive-compulsive detective jumps to Rerunland after eight seasons and 125 episodes.
When it started on USA it was part of a "New Wave" of cable TV dramas that seriously challenged the ascendancy of the old line networks.
Queer As Folk another T.O. hit was already up and running on Showtime (and Canada's Showcase). And then came The Closer on TNT which premiered in 2005. And these days it's Mad Men on AMC which is arguably the best U.S. drama series around.
The critic for the L.A. Times, Scott Collins, has just noted that maybe Monk deserved to be on conventional TV all along since it was relatively free of nudity and cussing. He points to CBS's CSI franchise as far more threatening to the conventional family values.
I remember hearing it had been shopped at ABC and finally turned down. One irony: when the show became an unexpected hit ABC ran the reruns in 2001 and again in 2002.
But what won over early viewers such as yours truly was Tony Shalhoub's magnificent portrayal of an unkempt, muttering, nervous but utterly brilliant private eye. After suffering a nervous breakdown from his wife's unsolved murder, Monk becomes an even more obsessive seeker of facts and truth.
And it has just been announced the last hour will appropriately deal with and solve the murder of his wife. At last! Redemption!
But here's where I admit I'd stopped watching much in recent seasons when the show seemed to outstay its welcome and became ever so slightly dull and repetitive. Moving back to L.A. from Toronto gave it a far more conventional look than before. Like so many network dramas, I guess

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Don't Shoplift!

I asked CBC for a preview copy of the new documentary The Secret History Of Shoplifting simply because frankly that title intrigued me.
And after watching it I'm ready to admit it's a surprisingly topical look at the phenomenon of shoplifting as seen from all sides.
First of all there's the coming holiday and the realization many people have been severely hit by the recession. So shoplifting is currently on the rise.
This well made TV study opens by telling us there are 600,000 shoplifting incidents every day in North America.
And the cost of replacing all that pilfered merchandice costs approximately $40 million every year in the U.S. and Canada.
The footage we're shown is pretty amazing from security cam stuff of actual incidents to all the latest gadgets designed to thwart the thieves.
Some of the people we meet are pretty amazing,too. They include a formerly compulsive shoplifter who helps others beat the addiction. And there's a Southern U.S. sheriff who is real down on "lifters" and acts strongly to scare them out of the practice. Grrrr!
I did not know that much of the shoplifting can be inside --employees who feel they're being misused strike back. And there's the increasing involvement of professional crime: shoplifting has become a big business.
The hour was directed and written by Andy Blicq and is recommended before you run off to the malls for your Christmas shopping. Blicq warns those supposedly irresistible bargains often offered by some unscrupulous discounters could really be contraband.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF SHOPLIFTING premieres on CBC-TV Thurs. Dec.3 at 8 p.m. with the repeat on CBC News Network Frid. Dec. 4 at 10.