Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Worst Ever TV Season

Believe me when I tell you this is turning out to be the worst ever TV season.
And I should know. This is my 40th anniversary as TV critic and of the hundreds of bad TV series I've so far previewed some of the very worst are popping up this year.
Believe you me it was so much easier in 1970-71 when there were only 10 channels to cover.
That year I made my first trip to L.A. and got on the sets of such instant classics as Mission: Impossible,The Brady Bunch, Here's Lucy and Emergency.
I remember the day an NBC publicist drove me out to Sherman Oaks for high tea with Julie London. Her beauty was dazzling up close, I can report.
I also had lunch in the Paramount Commissary with Peter Graves who remained a dear friend over the decades.
In 1972 I interviewed Bill Macy on the set of Maude just before it went on the air.
And CBS ace publicist Betty Lamm had me go to a Belgian restaurant on the Sunset Strip to interview Loretta Swit just before her new series M*A*S*H debuted to become an instant classic.
This year what's new and exciting and different? Beats me.
And what TV stars would I rush to interview in L.A. these days? Sorry, I can't think of a single name.
My conclusion: American network TV has lost it.
Canadian TV never had it. Let's be frank about that.
Now the American sources I talk to say the overnight ratings are pretty meaningless these days unless DVD viewers get factored in.
Don't get me wrong --dismal overnights for Lone Star were bad enough to sink that terrible series.
You see the overnights are tracking an audience that is disappearing. One day only old viewers like yours truly will sit down to watch network TV.
The rest, the significantly younger, will watch at their leisure because they've recorded it.
And don't forget something like Mad Men gets multiple viewings during its first week. That's why overnights for many trendy cable series from Mad Men to True Blood are so anemic. In some cases a majority of viewers watch later, in some cases weeks later.
One geek up the street has a device that gives a false internet address so he can tune into Hulu which so far is supposedly banned in Canada. Only it isn't if you now how to get in the back door.And Hulu is doubling its viewership every six months.
Does this explain why network TV is now so dog awful?
Not really. But the shift in audience to cable means old line networks take fewer risks. There are no more TV movies on U.S. network TV and a successful TV movie could be spun out into a series. No more --presentations are the norm meaning more bad series get on the air.
Now the rush is on to forecast the next new series to crash and burn.
Will it be ABC's My Generation --network sources hint it is toast.
Another ABC series The Whole Truth is going, I think, it lost half the audience of Cougar Town and Wednesday night faces off against NBC's new Law & Order: Los Angeles.
Others destined to collapse into the TV sink hole: Fox's Running Wilde, NBC's revamped The Apprentice, NBC's Outlaw, CW's Life Expected.
You'll notice not a single CBS title is out there. But CBS also has the oldest viewer base (average age is 57 years and counting).
Like I say, worst TV season ever.

Monday, September 27, 2010

ABC'S No Ordinary Family Worth Catching

People don't believe me when I tell them it really doesn't matter if a new series is bad or good.
A series will succeed or fail based on its time slot.
Don't believe me? I have all the ammunition on my side.
Consider Seinfeld, one of the most successful ever TV situation comedies, right?
Wrong. Because Seinfeld in its first full season (1991) ran Wednesdays at 9:30 and was one huge rating flop.
The time spot was out of joint and NBC was about to cancel it but executive producer Rob Reiner begged for one more chance and so from April to July, 1991, Seinfeld was plopped into Thursdays at 9:30 and roared into ratings success.
It was a case of right night, right audience, get it?
Another example: In August, 1972, I was in the Warners office of Earl Hamner,creator of the new series The Waltons, and he was bemoaning his time period: Thursdays at 8 on CBS smack dab against ABC's The Mod Squad and NBC's Flip Wilson, then the number two rated series (All In The Family was number one)..
By season's end The Mod Squad got cancelled after its fifth season and Flip Wilson flipped out of solid ideas to land well down in the ratings
And The Waltons by September 1973 was number two and growing.
That's a long winded attempt to explain my uneasiness at the situation of the new ABC series No Ordinary Family debuting Tuesd. Sept. 28 at 8 p.m..
Over at CBS there's NCIS which just keeps on attracting huge numbers. And there's Fox's Glee which every critic around is big on.
So expectations for No Ordinary Family are hardly optimistic.
Yet, maybe, just maybe it might be the next Waltons and destroy all others ratings wise?
This is a family splintering apart. Jim (Michael Chilkis) is Jim Powell, a dedicated sketch artist for the police department, sees his family slipping away from him.
Wife Stephanie (Julie Benz from Dexter) is a dedicated scientist who spends every waking hour at her lab or so it seems.
Daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) can actually read minds which she feels is really weird.
And son JJ (Jimmy Bennett from Star Trek) is actually a genius but he scores very low on tests.
Then the family take quality time to the extreme by visiting the Brazilian rain forest where their plane crashes into a phosphorescent lake. They return, well, they've changed.
Jim thinks he can fly and jumps off a skyscraper to test his theories.
Wife Stephanie can outrun anything and starts speeding all over the place.
This pilot is chock full of possibilities but it's almost overstuffed with ideas. It never stops for a moment leaving viewers confused.
What kind of a show is this going to be? Stay tuned, the possibilities are endless.
And if enough viewers are tiring of NCIS or Glee, then maybe just maybe No Ordinary Family can make it.

Discovery Science Launches

Boutique TV: If you're wondering what that means tune in to Discovery Science which launches Monday Sept. 27.
Phone your local cable TV provider to find out the exact channel.
When I started writing on TV for The Hamilton Spectator in 1971 there were 10 regular network channels and no cable channels.
These days something like 959 channels are available if you have the money to pay for all of them --and the money.
Narrowcasting is now the rage.
For old movies it's Turner Classic Movies. For breaking Toronto news it's CP 24. For golf The Golf Channel.
And someday there may be The Bowling Channel, The Ferret Channel and The Curling Network.
Discovery Science is a new cable service operated under the umbrella of CTV and is a fact-based channel with a wide panorama.
It's the third of three new Discovery-branded channels. Discovery World HD and Investigation Discovery launched in August.
The first show sent to me on a preview DVD is Meteorite Men.
At first glance it's about these two guys who go around digging up meteorites.
At second glance it's an explanation on how our universe came together and why a rock that crashed into earth thousands of ytears ago may hold all kinds of answers about our planet's past and future.
Geoff Notkin and Steve Arenold are the well matched explorers and we watch them as the dig all over the place. In one Kansas farm field their equipment indicates something big and buried lies beneath the prairie soil.
But it turns out to be a rusted farm implement.
They demonstrate how their equipment works --many of the gadgets they had to build themselves.
And when they do hit it big the rocks are transported to an Arizonan university campus where scientists are able to tell us all kinds of things about the iron-rich meteor.
I found the hour went by in a fash and the ruminations of the intrepid explorers was thrilling at times.
Meteorite Men premieres Monday night at 9.
On Tuesday at 9 there's another new series Sci Fi Science Woth Michio Kaku. I found this onme less enthralling and a bit too technical for your truly.
Also debuting (and unseen by me) are Science Of The Movies (Monday), Popuylar Science's Future Of (Wednesdays at 9) and Humanology (Thursdays at 9).
For more information go to
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Heartland Returns To CBC

"Fine teatime drama!"
That's what one English TV critic said of the family saga The Campbells which ran on CTV way back when (1986 to 1990).
Teatime drama --it's a genre Canadian TV networks have always been making with some success.
Think The Beachcombers which seemed to run on CBC forever and a day (actually 1972 to 1990).
Think Road To Avonlea and Wind At My Back which Sullivan Films made for CBC.
Now it's the turn of Heartland which starts its fourth season on CBC Sunday night at 7.
The time period is perfect for a family saga --Road To Avonlea enjoyed success in exactly this spot.
And the saga mixes in the superb vistas of Alberta with a family story centered around a girl and her horse.
I have to admit I wasn't all that thrilled with Heartland when it first aired. I thought the teen angst on Falcon Beach was better realized.
But after a wobbly start Heartland has ambled into a pretty convincing demonstration of the strength of a rural family.
The log cabin home the members inhabit could have been furnished from a Lee Valley catalogue --all faux rustic like but still looking freshly painted with pictures up along the hall ways.
The cast of young actors are beautifully scrubbed and made up, dressed like they just shopped at Eddie Bauer and instead of country bumpkins they play caring, feeling twentysomethings --sort of a Dawson's Creek ensemble transferred west.
I talked for a couple of minutes to the two young stars at a CBC bash a few days back.'mber Marshall is drop dead gorgeous but very sincere about explaining her character, cowgal Amy Fleming.
And Graham Wardle has been described in one recent Calgary Herald profile as a Tiger Beat-type sex symbol.
Both seem astonished at the success of their show whose popularity has sort of snuck up on everyone. CBC is saying the third season averaged more than a million viewers a week.
In Season Three's last episode Wardle as Ty Borden decides to hit the road to try to find himself and after months away begins getting homesick.
And Amy was getting ready to ride in a series of championship competitions.
But what I wanted to ask Amber was how many horses are actually used --after all when I covered the series Katts And Dog it seemed there were more canines on set than people.
"A lot," she volunteered. "One horse for stunts, one for close ups, many more. And the main one has been doing it now for so long he starts acting the moment the director says action."
And, of course, horse actors never drink and carouse the night away and don't sport hangovers the next day. And they never ask the director what's the motivation in the next scene.
Amber told me she got the nod over the competition partly because she could already ride while Graham was a city slicker, Vancouver based when he won his role.
Am I giving away too much plot by revealing Ty returns in the first new episode but with a gal pal riding on the back of his Norton Commando?
And we'll also see Amber's older sister Lou (Michelle Morgan)who has been living in Dubai. Grandpa Jack (Shaun Johnston) is beginning to feel the creaks of advancing age.
And Amber's dad (Chris Potter) also gets home --when I told the two young actors I'd first interviewed him on the set of the CBC series Material World in 1982 they giggled. He was about their age then, I reckon.
The predominantly teen audience supporting Heartland can rest assured there'll be the usual quotient of puppy love and scenes with horses. That's why the series clicks, really.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tom Selleck Is Back On CBS

The good news for Tom Selleck fans is simply that the 65-year old actor is back on CBS in a new police series called Blue Bloods.
The bad news? CBS has plopped it down Friday nights at 10.
So why is this bad news?
Because Friday night has tanked as far as network TV is concerned.
Think of it --as long as I can remember Friday TV was chock full of hits everybody wanted to see.
In the Sixties I can remember rushing home to catch The Wild, Wild West.
The Seventies meant The Brady Bunch and Room 222 on ABC with NBC proffering up Sanford And Son and Dean Martin.
Now CBS is asking Selleck to save Friday nights all by himself and he just may do it.
Selleck has been saying in interviews that when CBS opened Magnum P.I. on Thursdays in 1980 the night was the lowest rated week night. Just like Fridays is now.
But Magnum started a renaissance on CBS. Simon And Simon joined the Thursday night line up in 1982, NBC counted with Cheers the same year and in 1985 NBC's Cosby debuted and by the end of the decade Thursday was the most watched night.
In recent years much of the Friday network fare has been inept. The networks contended families were out grocery shopping and the kids were out at the mall or watching DVDs.
Excuses, excuses.
Oh, the series is very good for network TV, very cagily cobbled together to attract the maximum audience and all of it centered around Selleck's considerable charm.
Behind it are the executive producers of The Sopranos (Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess) and it is all shot in New York city.
Selleck heads a family of cops --he plays police commissioner Frank Reagan who has risen up the ranks from cop on the beat.
Frank has a right wing son Danny, a veteran detective, who wants to circumvent the rule book to catch the baddies --Donnie Wahlberg plays with convincing intensity.
His daughter Erin (Bridget Moynahan from Six Degrees) has a different philosophy and wants to play by the rules at all times.
And son James (Will Estes from Reunion) has ditched a career at Harvard for the same life on the beat that characterized his dad.
And let's not forget Henry's retired dad who was also a cop, played winningly by Len Cariou who's only five years older than Selleck as his son.
It is always dangerous to prognosticate about a new series based on viewing the pilot.
The best pilot I've ever seen was Tenspeed And Brownshoe but it used up all the possible plot and the actual series lasted but a few weeks.
And some long running series sported dog awful pilots. Two examples I can think of: Welcome Back Kotter and Dukes Of Hazzard. The producers listened to the concerns of visiting TV critics and made appropriate adjustments. ensuring very long runs in both cases.
Of course the while set up about an Irish family of cops seems cliche ridden. Certainly the show is not as dark as Sopranos but this is network TV concerned with attracting the largest possible audiences.
We soon learn Frank has enemies in high places and there are those in power who want to bring him down when a diabetic young girl is kidnapped and son Danny has troubles finding her.
Look, the whole thing worked for me, as a melodramatic situation that kept me watching and appreciating the high level of acting.
So I'm ready to pronounce Blue Bloods would be a big hit no matter what night of the week CBS chooses to run it.
I just feel Blue Bloods could hep turn those TV sets back on Friday nights.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

TV's Oldies Are Back --Again

Who says the weekly grind of series TV is for youngsters?
Let those young' sprouts on Gossip Girl and 90210 step aside because this fall belongs to TV's oldsters.
Take the example of Bill Shatner who starts yet another series (actually his sixthg) on CBS Thursday night with S#*! My Dad Says.
Based on the strong best seller and Twitter feed created by Justin Halpern, this one has been turned into a shakey sitcom. Already Shatner's original co-star has been replaced with another young actor now popped into the role of a son returning to visit a father he never really knew.
Then there's Tom Selleck who'll return to series TV Friday night in a new police drama from The Sopranos team titled Blue Blood. Also in the cast is 70-year old Len Carious as his father.
Other golden oldies on the small screen this fall include Jon Voight , 73, in the new Fox TV series Lone Star.
And 79-years young Dabney Coleman has a choice part on the new cable series Boardwalk Empire.
And I guess Gerald McRaney at 64 also qualifies for golden years stardom in NBC's Undercovers.
But back to Shatner, a guy who never ceases to fascinate me.
I first interviewed him in 1973 when I was a very young TV critic at the Hamilton Spectator and he was guesting on CHCH's Party Game.
How low the might have fallen was how I thought about that strange gig --Star Trek had ceased but was not yet a cult hit and Shatner candidly said he had to pay the bills so there he was on the couch acting out words with Billy Van and Jack Duffy and Dinah Christie.
I guess I next interviewed him for the police drama T.J.Hooker in L.A.
And I spent a day with him on the Toronto set of a series Tek War that he actually wrote (but did not act in).
And decades later he had a huge TV comeback on Boston Legal.
So what to make of $#*! My Dad Says?
Well, I actually thought the original pilot was far funnier.
Shatner plays a reclusive, retired doctor who has had a strained long distant relationship with his younger son (played winningly by Jonathan Sadowski.
Also cast: Will Sasso as the older son and Nicole Sullivan as Vince's wife Bonnie.
Sorry,but there are precious few laughs. The show is shot in the old sitcom style, meaning it's one main set and played before a live audience. Old fashioned, yes, but even the studio audience sounds bored.
Incredibly enough Will & Grace's David Kohan and Max Mutchnick are listed as co-creators along with David Kohan and Patrick Schumaker.
Look, Shatner's Denny Crane on Boston Legal was funnier. This character is so far at least merely nasty and why would his very nice son want to be around such a basically depressing guy?
The real dad apparently was a scream with his twittering but none of that comes across so far.
But Shatner has The Big Bang Theory as his lead in and riding the coat tails of TV's best sitcom isn't such a bad thing after all.
In other years the terrible A Different World lasted for seasons behind top rated Cosby and later on Caroline In The City hitched a ratings ride behind top rated Seinfeld.
MY RATING: ** 1/2.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tamzin Merchant Makes The Tudors Worth Watching

Get ready for the fourth and final season of The Tudors, the multilayered portrait of Henry VIII and his multiple wives and lovers.
But this season the naughty merrie monarch must cede space --at least in the first six episodes --to his fifth wife, the impossibly young and beauteous Catherine Howard.
Remember the rhyme "Divorced,beheaded,died/divorced,beheaded,survived?"
Season four examines the second wife to be beheaded, Catherine Howard, and the sixth wife, Catherine Parr, who actually survived Henry.
Catherine Howard may have been one of two wives ordered beheaded by Henry in a fit of jealousy but unlike her predecessor Anne Boleyn is not much remembered by history.
""I sent the producers an audition tape, waited around and nothing happened for months," reports British actress Tamzin Merchant who'll surely zoom to stardom based on her definitive portrait of the impetuous and free spirited young girl.
"I thought that was it. And then when I was on holiday in the States I was suddenly told to report to Ireland where filming was about to start."
Catherine was a mere 19-year-old when Henry proposed and quickly married her after the annulment of his bizarre marriage to Anne of Cleves --contrary to history Anne was not quite as ugly as Henry said she was but. Rather the monarch was experiemcing a bout of impotency and needed an even younger wife to produce a "spare heir" to his throne.
Although she could read and write --still rare for a female of the nobility--Catherine was brought up at the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk where supervision was lax and started a sexual relationship with Henry Manox when she was around 16.
Merchant describes her as "free spirited. She thought going to court would be fun." Scenes in the TV series show her romping with her ladies in waiting and playing games. In another scene all the girls jump in a local river and roll around in the mud for fun.
"I think Catherine never knew what she was getting into to," says Merchant who had flown in from London (with her mother) to promote the series. CBC installed her at the Royal York hotel in an interview suite fit for a queen.
"She was a typical teenager, that was what attracted Henry. She knew nothing of court intrigue. A real breath of fresh air. And since she was so young he maybe felt she'd be an ideal mate for having another heir."
Henry was nearing 50 and weighed over 300 pounds. He suffered from a variety of ailments and had to have an ulcer on his leg drained every day. Certainly he was wearing out fast. What Catherine saw in him is problematic --he was nothing more than a dirty old man --but a powerful one.
I first noticed Merchant In 2005's Pride And Prejudice (nicely cast as Georgina Darcy) where she looked about 12."I was all of 16," she says with a laugh. Now I'm 23 but because my eyes are so wide apart I seem much younger."
You may have caught her in the 2007 American ensemble Radio Cape Cod or in 2009's Barbarian Princess.'
In the spring she graduated from Cambridge but is ambivalent about totally pursuing an acting career. Instead she has secured a spot as a writer at London's prestigious Royal Court theater. and is also writing radio plays.
Merchant praises Jonathan Rhys Mayer's charismatic portrayal of Henry VIII --Mayer lacks both the height and girth but has instead opted for capturing the essence of a man who was descending into madness as he aged --perhaps Henry's syphilis was affecting his brain. Mayer could have donned a fat suit but that would have been a caricature. But he has caught Henry's crazy tension --especially to women.
The production --I've previewed the first new episode --was shot in Ireland where the open vistas still prevail and where shooting is frankly cheaper than in England. Because The Tudors is classed as a Canadian-UK co-production two of the leads are Canadian: Lothair Bluteau as the French ambassador and newcomer Torrance Coombs as Catherine's suitor Thomas Culpepper. And one of the executive producers is the highly regarded Sheila Hockin (Queer As Folk).
Catherine's reign as queen was quickly over. Accused of adultery, she steadfastly denied any infidelities with Culpepper but later said she had been raped by Francis Dereham when only 16 which would have invalidated her royal marriage. No matter she was beheaded in 1542.
"I saw her as a Barbie doll," Merchant says. "Completely childlike. She thought being queen was like playing dress up ."
Meanwhile Merchant has already completed her next project --"It's a very Gothic version of Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska which hopefully will get a release sometime this year. I have a small part as Mary Rivers."
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Being Erica Deserved A Third Chance

Among TV's stranger couples the twosome on CBC-TV's Being Erica strike me as the most inexplicable.
I'm talking about the bizarre relationship between the nicely titled Erica Strange (played winningly by Erin Karpluk) and her psychoanalyst (another brilliant turn by Michael Riley).
I mean what is this, an evolving romance, a relationship between two unequals, a visit to a psychiatrist.
Or all three of the above.
The hour Canadian drama returns for a rare third try at the brass ring Tuesday Sept. 20 at 9 p.m. on CBC.
Given last season's weak ratings CBC sources are saying the series is only back because of its tremendous popularity in the U.S. on the SOAPnet cable channel. CBC took its time in renewing this one but finally the lure of all those American dollars proved too much.
Plus the series is good if starved for Canadian viewers.
I have one American friend wgo is totally obsessed with this series and still refuses to believe it could possibly be made in Canada.
I have another friend here in Toronto who think the time travelling stuff "a bunch of guff" although she continues to watch.
For me the series had a strong second beginning and then got bogged down to the point of ennui. Nobody on the show seemed to be growing, it was the same premise every week.
Viewers noticed by migrating to the strong American competition.
When CBC gave Being Erica a third chance it seemed the series should go off in new directions. And it has although I cannot break my TV critic's oath and reveal plot details here.
Getting a third season out of a series has always been a conundrum for CBC which lacks the promotional dollars to go out and create a blitz of recognition. For that reason CBC series tend to get picked up for a second season in the hope that word of mouth can create a winning formula.
Hey, it worked with DaVinci's Inquest but it didn't work with the excellent Intelligence.
On Riley's last CBC series This Is Wonderland season 3 proved to be the killer --CBC decided it was a 10 p.m. show and since the network had news at 10 the show got cancelled.
The plot does deepen this season as Erica enters Phase Two of her therapy. I'm just asking but why does she think she needs therapy anyway.
She's so danged nice that everybody else around her always beats up on her and Dr. Tom especially likes to play mind games. Being so nice she always defers to his requests.
In group therapy the other patients seem to gang up on her.
And after Phase Two Dr. Tom warns she'll then to Phase Three and become a doctor herself.
Visuals are splendid --Toronto as Toronto is really on display here, the supporting cast is attractive and this is on CBC series that doesn't look stodgy.
But having a great product doesn't guarantee Canadian TV success. If it did The City, Power Play and half a dozen other series would still be running. And most of these aren't even available in DVD boxed sets.
And the fact that Americans really dig Being Erica more than we do is something pretty substantial. If only more Canadians would watch then the series might yet become a deserved hit.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hawaii Five-0 Is The Best New Network Series

For years CBS has been the U.S. network ratings leader, loathe to drastically change its schedule.
But recent survey's indicate the Tiffany of the networks is servicing an increasingly older audience --the average age of a CBS viewer is now 57 years.
So in May CBS cancelled seven faltering series and introduced three new dramas and two new half hour comedies to its lineup.
CBS is making changes but not radical ones. Old pro Tom Selleck returns to series TV in a police saga Blue Bloods while Jim Belushi plays a lawyer in the hour series The Defenders --the title was once the domain of a famous CBS series starring E.G. Marshall.
But the best of the bunch is the restructured Hawaii Five-0.
Jack Lord is dead, James MacArthur no longer acts. But the surfs still up and there are baddies running everywhere on these islands.
And CBS has placed its trust in young hunk Alex O'Loughlin who may not exactly sport the coiffure of Lord but is steel jawed and manly.
CBS sees something in O'Loughlin that viewers must have missed. The Aussie import has twice starred in CBS shows that tanked in the ratings: first there was Moonlight (2007) followed by Three Rivers (2009).
CBS has to realize there are troubles inherent in the restructuring of such a classic as Hawaii Five-0.
Recent remakes from The Bionic Woman to Knight Rider were lifeless remakes that added nothing but subtracted mightily from the originals.
I remember CBS once tried to refloat Perry Mason with the colorless Monte Markham and paid heavily for that effort.
The new Hawaii Five-0 does have the music. It does have the same splendid locations. And once a week you'll hear the familiar "Book 'em Dano."
That's about where the resemblance ends.
In this version Garrett doesn't work for Honolulu Homicide but heads a special agency established to battle crime funded by the state's governor (played by Jean Smart).
Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did the successful 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise and are aware of the pitfalls. Here they've made McGarrett a vengeful ex-Navy SEALS who roughs it up, soots it out and performs some pretty spectacular stunts whereas Jack Lord in his day would never get his pompadour touselled.
It's sidekick Dano (played by Jimmy Caan's son Scott) who supplies some of the humor. These two guys hate each other at first sight but by the end of the first hour a bromance clearly is brewing.
Ad the role of Kono has been modernized. Grace Park turned a former male character on Battlestar Galactica into her own female version now does the same here. Kono is now a recent police academy grad with strong kick ass tendencies.
And jumping over from Lost there's Daniel Dae Kim as another member of the elite force named Det. Chin Ho Kelly.
Look, this is basic entertainment. You want sometghing brooding and challenging try Mad Men on cable.
CBS knows its audience and knows procedurals sell mightily in the mass TV ,arket.
Some of these reboots have worked, others have failed spectacularly.
But Hawaii Five-0 could make it big as CBS looks to the past for its ratings future.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Boardwalk Empire: A Huge New TV Hit

Get set for Boardwalk Empire the best new TV series of the fall.
The series might just as well be called Prohibition. It begins in 1920 with passage of the Volstead Act that outlawed the sale of liquor and spawned a vicious new breed of American gangster.
The opener on HBO Canada Sunday night at 9 is virtually a must see.
If it looks and sounds like a Martin Scorsese movie then guess what? It was directed by Scorsese who also serves as executive producer of the series.
Steve Buscemi moves from his lauded status as a great supporting actor to front and center star of this rambling, violent saga. He persuasively plays Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Thompson who gets a kickback from everyone from cops to liquor salesmen.
Buscemi predictably captures all the weasel-like attributes of Nucky but he's also suprisingly funny, wisecracking his way through situations that might defeat a lesser hood.
The first scene shows him addressing a ladies Tenperance Union meeting and reducing his captive audience to tears with tales of how as a young boy he fed his family by shooting rats for dinner.
But competition is threatening to hone in.
There's the suave fixer of the 1919 World Series Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his depraved sidekick Lucy Luciano (Vincent Piazza).
Watching his every move is his protege ex-doughboy Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitts) whose first heist results in five bloody corpses and the immediate attention of the newly formed FBI led by a Christian chain smoking agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
The opening 70-minute installment directed by Scorsese is chock full of artmosphere. The whole boardwalk gets recreated complete with shops and beer halls. And Biuscemi's Nucky inhabits a whole floor of a grand hotel that positively reeks of Twenties overindulgence.
But Nucky also has a softer side. When an indigent admirer Margaret Schroeder drops by to plead for a good job for her German immigrant husband Nucky goes all out --and her husband suspects somehing is going on.
There's corruption at every level --Nucky passed off his old job as sheriff to another brother who obligingly dumps one of Nucky's enemies right into the ocean.
At times the plot will remind you of such classic crime movies as Public Enemy, Scarface and The Roaring Twenties. But Scorsese's vision is far more fierce: in one midnight rendezvous out on a rural road there's a cacophony of shootings accompanies by deer from the forest bouncing through the images.
In another scene a crime boss is shot in the head in his own restaurant and as he slumps to the floor pools of blood clash with the white tiles.
HBO is clearly culling this historical crime scene for a possible follow up to The Sopranos. But will a contemporary audience be fascinated by events now 90 years in the past?
If you think the first episode is violent be forewarned the next two segments are even more vicious. A young punk named Al Capone (Stephen Graham) enters the scene as one of Darmody's hired thugs and beats and maims his way up the crime ladder.
The similarities to The Sopranos are very evident. Sopranos was now, Boardwalk was then. Terence Winter, creator and executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, was also an executive producer on The Sopranos.
He knows a new series has to instantly grab its viewers and hold them. And he does so with brilliant dialogue, snatches of nudity, and a completely brilliant recreation of a former era that closely ressembles contemporary life.
Boardwalk Empire is must see TV, believe me.
ALSO ON: Congratulations to OMNI for running a new Canadian made documentary on one of the most competitive nights of the year --just as the new U.S. TV season comes trickling on.
It's called For The Love Of Horses and is very well made, the saga of the Allard family who are completely dedicated to the art of horse racing.
We see them at Woodbine racetrack --there are four brothers Joe, Tino, Sid, Larry and they are persevering at a time when horse racing is under competitive pressures --the disappearance of Greenwood racetrack says it all about the business. we learn what makes them tick and how they acquired their impressive skills. Their strong ties to the Maltese community are shown as well as all the steps taken for their present command of horses.
And the program is worthwhile --I watched the English version --Maltese language dates follow.
And it seems to me OMNI does a lot of this worthwhile programming which the mainstream media completely ignores.
Although I'd like to see OMNI get back into production with a second season of Metropia. How about that. folks?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ivan Fecan Isn't Finished --Yet

Believe me I know Ivan Fecan. Or at least I did.
The charismatic CTV president and CEO of CTVglobemedia has confided to staffers he's leaving his beloved empire sometime next year.
That's because CTVglobemedia is no more.
In a complicated deal BEC is buying the CTV portion which includes dozens of specialty channels as well as CTV. And David Thomson is buying back control of The Globe And Mail, the last of literally hundreds of papers his father Lord Thomson once owned.
Make no mistake about it Ivan Fecan isn't going to ride happily into the sunset, not at a mere 57 years of age.
Besides CBC-TV is now in turmoil. Why not let the once and future wunderkind go back "home" to repair all the damage recently done to the publicly owned Corporation.
I must have met met the guy (I think) when he was a unit producer for CBC Radio's Sunday Morning under the equally charismatic producer Mark Starowicz.
I definitely remember him when he jumped to CITY-TV as a most charming and trendy news producer --he got so excited one night at a breaking event in Oakville that he tried to jump a fence and wound up instead breaking his leg. Moses Znaimer was his CITY boss.
Any guy who can beat Starowicz and Znaimer at their peak certainly deserves respect.
Then it was on to CBC where he wound up as station manager of CBLT.
This was at a time when CBLT actually still made programs and one of the best Fecan made was a musical series with Oscar Peterson.
He then jumped ship again to NBC in Los Angeles --renting out Znaimer's garage down there to live in (so I'm guessing there were no hard feelings).
Every where he went he had a mentor. At NBC he had two: Grant Tinker and the late, great Brandon Tartikoff and Fecan's resume included a stint helping to cobble together the comedy series Kids In The Hall.
He was enticed back to CBC with the promise of running the entire English network and jump started such hits as Road To Avonlea, Degrassi and Air Farce. Flops included Material World and Not My Department.
Certainly he was cocky --he had a right to be and he was very pugnacious concerning rival CTV. He even bought away from CTV rerun rights to the network's current running hit ENG and ran the repeats afternoons on CBC.
His CBC mentor was Denis Harvey but when Harvey retired Fecan's CBC job was in peril.
Fecan's CBC downfall came after clashes with CBC President Gerard Veilleux weho at one point moved The National to 9 p.m. Undaunted, Fecan came up with the bold idea of two prime times, one before and one after the news.
But when Veilleux exited so did Fecan to CTV.
CTV was then a non-network. Affiliates contributed series --Ottawa made Kreskin and The Galloping Gourmet while Toronto produced Stars On Ice and Littlest Hobo and Montreal had Pardon My French.
As a cooperatively owned entity it had never worked because Baton Broadcasting in Toronto --owned by the Bassett and Eaton families-- virtually ran the show.
All that changed with Fecan's appearance. I was never sure if Baton absorbed CTV or was it the other way around but Fecan wound up running a fully fledged network. He made CTV news completely competitive (helped a bit by CBC news moving back to 10 p.m.)
When he hit CTV Fecan was very pro-Canadian: he programmed three new and very good hourlong Canadian dramas Saturday nights on CTV, hoping to fight back against CBC's Hockey Night In Canada.
The three were Power Play, Cold Squad and The City and they collectively flopped. But Cold Quad lasted for years in various slots. Today CTV airs American reruns Saturday nights.
Fecan also revived the Canadian TV movie format-- Wendy Crewson starred in a series of Joanne Kilbourne murder mysteries and other stars included Paul Gross and Kelly Rowan and Fecan usually ran these TV movies before the new season officially started to big ratings.
But as the years went on he became more of a conservative planner. The bulk of CTV's programming schedule budget was spent on buying U.S. imports and then simulcasting these against the U.S. border stations. In effect this meant shows like CSI and The Mentalist had double ratings and Canadian shows couldn't possibly compete.
But in recent years CTV has been edging back into quality Canadian stuff: Corner Gas was a huge success, Firepower is one series that thrived (and even been sold to CBS).
Mistakes included hiring journalist Kirk LaPointe to head up CTV News --LaPointe was quickly replaced by veteran Robert Hurst.
And as a hands-on executive one can bet Fecan played a major hand in appointing Lisa LaFlamme as the new CTV News amchor over the obvious choice veteran Tom Clark.
In recent years the model Fecan so assiduously built up started to crumble.
Old line networks attract older audiences and Fecan made a brilliant move in acquiring the hipper Citytv franchises like MuchMusic and MTV to bolster sagging audience numbers.
When Fecan also tried for the City stations he was humbled by the CRTC which also balked at Fecan's idea for CTV to get a carriage fee from cable operators.
Fecan's downfall came with the deepening recession which hit just as CTV's Winter Olympics opened to huge audiences but not the expected ad revenues. The Olympics were the best produced of any seen on Canadian TV and the numbers higher than ever.
In a memo to staff he says "I've had a great run."
And knowing Fecan's history as I do and his sheer competitiveness I can say without qualification it's not Fecan's nature to retire. Here is the guy who has successfully run both public and private Canadan networks, surely he knows the business like no one else because he built the models.
And who else am I going to write about. Canadian TV without Ivan Fecan. It's impossible.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

TV Recycles Nikita

One must never accuse the CW of overestimating the tastes of its fans.
Last season the weblet tried to reinvent that old series Melrose Place only to fail miserably.
This year CW is back at it with a new interpretation of the much travelled Nikita.
The enigmatic female spy first appeared in the French movie La Femme Nikita, then was reinterpreted by Bridget Fonda in the quickie American remake Point Of No Return.
Then it was Toronto's turn --I journeyed to the west end set to watch some serious butt kicking.
Australian import Peta Wilson was the suddenly blonde spy and Quebec's Roy Dupuis was the mass murderer she loved, Michael. Also in the cast and the sexiest by far was the controller played by Alberta Watson.
The Canadian cast included Matthew Ferguson, Eugene Robert Glazer and Don Francks.
Warners made this one for the USA network but finally jettisoned everything after four violent seasons. Fan reaction brought it back for a brief fifth season.
The new Nikita isn't quite up to the standards of the first series in terms of atmosphere and ambiance. It exists for its cartoonish violence --after a baddie has been despatched we never withess his corpse or even his body. The kids who play all those video games will dig it, older viewers may feel squeamish.
The storyline is strictly formulas but it's a formula that's worked in the past. And compared to CW's other new series, Hellcats, Nikita is almost Chekovian in its plot developments.
I still feel the first Toronto version was the best in terms of style. This one is very gloomy without that note of self mockery that made the first series so much peverse fun.
CW sources are claiming Nikita is right in there with its other shows in appealing to a young, hip and female audience who'll presumably drag their boyfriends into warching, too.
But as a stepping stone to stardom? Forget it!
Whatever happened to Wilson who was once so hot she got to appear on the Letterman show? And Dupuis retreated back to Quebec made projects. Star editors forced me to venture out to an auction of the series artifacts where eager fans purchased Dupuis's clingy leather pants for hundreds of bucks. Go figure that one out.
The stars of the new one are Maggie Q who looks too thin to really kick butt plus Shane West and Lyndsy Fonseca as the newest assassin around.
MY RATING: ** 1./2

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tom Clark Will Be Missed

Sometimes you can wait too long as heir apparent.
The latest to understand this is Tom Clark who has just quit as second-in-command at CTV News.
Ths is a stunning loss for CTV which had been grooming Clark for decades as its next anchor.
And he'd made all the right moves from CFTO anchor to CTV's man in Beijing to CTV's man in Washington and lately as Mike Duffy's replacement on CTV News Net with a new Ottawa-based series Power Play.
CTV insiders are telling me Clark was understandably shook up when Lisa LaFlamme was suddenly named as successor to retiring Lloyd Robertson as CTV chief Anchor.
My sources say Clark was quite bitter and had always been led to believe that he would logically replace Robertson.
Clark sent out a Twitter with the cryptic message: "Suffice to say there is no more PowerPlay with Tom Clar."
Jane Taber from Question Period was hosting Power Play on CTV Tuesday evening.
The announcement from CTV News head Robert Hurst was a mere eight lines, an indication of the suddenness of Clark's decision to quit.
All Hurst said was simply "CTV is extremely proud of its long association with Tom Clark and wishes him well in his future endeavours."
Which is a bit strange considering Clark's long association with CTV.
Clark is not the first of Robertson's supposed heirs to leave the network.
For years Keith Morison was thought to be the insider until Robertson got tired of the inevitable talk and Morison moved on to NBC.
And certain Pam Wallin also had the inside track for the next few years until she left for a political career --these days she's in the Senate.
I first profiled Clark in the 1970s when I was TV critic at The Spectator and he had taken over from Gord Martineau as CFTO news reader. He was strong from the start, no wobbling whatsoever.
I learned he'd been studying journalism at Carleton University the same time I was there but had left for a news job on Montreal TV.
He was filled with stories of working for the senior John Bassett. And Clark also co-hosted The Bassett Report with Isabel Bassett.
In recent years Clark was a senior correspondent on W5 and his TV reporting included the fall of the Berlin Wall and the srtudent uprising in Tien An Men Square.
As Global anchor Kevin Newman twittered: :"Many memories of working alongside and in competition with Tom Clark. He's tough, smart, and personally kind. We need more of his class."
I also discovered that day over lunch at the King Edward hotel that he was basically a nice guy. True, he was very handsome but he'd worked hard on all his assignments. I thought he had fared best during live coverage of provincial leadership conventions.
He chose the King Eddy because he'd often be there with his great uncle, the legendary writer Gregory Clark. His great-grandfather was Joseph T. Clark, managing editor of the Toronto Star and Saturday Night. His grandfather reported for The Star while his father was the founder of CanadaNewsWire. And I knew a cousin Andy who was a Spec photographer at the time. So journalism ran deep in his family.
Where can Clark go? He'd be a catch for either CBC or Global, of that I'm sure.

Friday, September 3, 2010

All About Scott McGillivray

So here's all the low down about Scott McGillivray, the suddenly famous host and interviewer on HGTV's Income Property which returns for its third season Monday night at 9 on HGTV..
First of all he seems fairly amiable, not full of himself as I rather expected.
After all he has legions of female fans who keep pestering this column with questions about his marital status (he's married) , age (he's 32) and how much is he really worth (he seems well off).
But what has kept Income Property going is his sheer good sense.
"When HGTV first approached me about a series they wanted something about flipping properties," he confides over glasses of San Pellegrino in a downtown Toronto watering hole.
"And I said no way. I'm not a fan of those shows, particularly the U.S. ones. They are made with a false premise --that everyone can become rich just by flipping a few houses. With the housing crash in America we've seen just the opposite. It's not a healthy time to flip."
McGillivray had a different idea. He wanted to show how average homeowners could refix their basements or upper floors into income generating apartments that would help them more quickly pay off the mortgages.
The first season wobbled a bit as McGillivray and his producers worked on getting the format down just right.
"It's pretty hard to set up the situation, have me interview the owners, get a tour of the house, bring in my designs and show the finished project --and all in 22 minutes," he laughs.
Also, McGillivray wasn't used to being the star attraction. He needed to hone his interviewing skills --which came quickly.
"We tell a different story every week. Getting the right combination of owners was our first challenge. We didn't want to do the same thing every week."
McGillivray, 32, got into the renovation racket when he was only 23 and still a student at the University of Guelph. "I saw there was a need for affordable housing for students and I went for it." Within a few years he was buying and selling properties as well as leasing out his own properties and renovating others.
You've seen him on TV on From The Ground Up with Debbie Travis --the second season set in Ottawa cast him as the resident
For Income Property to make money it must notch strong foreign sales. Income Property, Propertry Virgins and Mike Holmes are all the rage on the U.S. version of HGTV and McGillivray's show also sells well in Europe and Asia (but not in Btritain where networks must have 65 episodes or they won't buy into a series).
McGillivray reports HI has just been picked up for two more seasons. Making only 13 new episodes a year is the lot of cable shows --he might have a bigger budget and more episodes on a mainstream networtk. "But there's always the threat of cancellation." With HGTV the fans are used to watching a lot of reruns.
McGillivray says he'll usually be working on at least two episodes at once. "Once we had four going at once and that was too much. We have to have cameras there for every stage and we have to factor in the possibility of unpleasant surprises."
In the first new episode one of the basement walls has a moisture problem meaning the outside foundation has to be dug up and weeping tiles installed at additional cost to thehome owners.
Although McGillivray usually gives the clients two sets of designs there have been times when he'll step in and refuse to let them chose the more expensive option. "I very carefully check their finances. If they're planning to put it on credit cards, well, I won't go that way because they could wind up in additional financial trouble. My job after all is helping them pay down their debts."
In the first year the finished product magically appeared all built to perfection. But the team now understands fans want to see the host right in there banging down walls and generally mucking about.
"I've stayed most of the night on some projects just because I felt I had to for the job to be done right. And there's only been one complaint so far --a lady who had already gone through 17 contractors. We knew we were in trouble when she came with a chair and just sat and watched all day."
Whereas the team had to search for first year distressed home owners "now we get thousands of emails. And this year we go outside Toronto--we were in Texas last week. Those we chose get a 35 per cent discount which is one incentive for getting on the show."
First up is a visit with Jeremy and Angie in Newmarket --they need to fix up their dilapidated basement which they've unsuccessfully been trying to rent for months. If they can't make it Angie will have to go back to work instead of looking after their new baby. And after Scott's team have finished --the apartment is rented for $950 a month.
The day I chatted with MacGillivray he'd been doing press since dawn (on Canada AM). About the onset of celebritydom he remains ambivalent. There's a downside to being recognized wherever he goes.
"Even in Europe people noticed me. I know what I sound like in Spanish but I guess all that comes with the territory."
MY RATING: *** 1/2.