Monday, August 27, 2012

History Is Back With Its Companion H2

This is the week specialty channels roar back into action to get a beat on the competition.
Not only is HIstory Television back it's been rebranded simply as History and there's a new companion channel H2.
The big new Canadian entry to catch is Bomb Hunters which looks at teams of explosive experts who defuse or detonate caches of bombs right across Canada.
Wait a minute here. Did we say bombs in Canada, this peaceful kingdom?
The first hour looks at two hot spots,  Wright's Cove in Nova Scotia just outside Halifax and Lac St. Pierre in Quebec.
In Nova Scotia there are perhaps thousands of unexploded World war II bombs that were manufactured for the conflict in Europe and then dumped all over the place at war's end.
In Quebec the lake was used as a shooting target by the Canadian army from 1950 through the Cold War.
As a map indicates thousands of potential unexploded bombs may exist or some may indeed just be rusted parts but a bomb squad has to carefully sift through the area which is increasingly becoming a popular tourist destination.
A "bloody mess" is how one expert in the field sums up his work. Indeed at the lake site one old man talks about how his brother was killed when a buried suddenly bomb went off some 40 years ago at a picnic site.
For every 25 bombs that exploded there may be one stuck in the mud which needs to be detonated. At the Nova Scotian site we get to know disposal expert Steve Donovan who admits he has rarely worked so close to public beaches and housing developments.
"When you do find one your chest sticks out like a rooster."
Working for Gemtec Ltd. he has a been allocated a certain number of days to clear the property and declare the area safe.
As a piece of Canadian history Bomb Hunters is exciting stuff, highly recommended even if it does contain too many faux climaxes conveniently located to herald each commercial break.
By contrast Serial Killer Earth (Tuesday at 10 p.m. on H2) takes a broader vision of history.
These are recent historical disasters --in this day people facing such adversities usually record it as their lives are being threatened.
Like the 2011 tornado at Joplin which was one of the largest ever destroying a large swath of the city and causing over $3 billion in damages.
Some of the folk lie huddled in a refrigerating cooler in a store while one guy uses his cell phone to record the screams and moans.
Or there's the avalanche in northern B.C. started by a young skier who sets it off and is buried alive only to be saved by friends using sensing devices that pinpoint his location --he's freed after 16 minutes under all that heavy snow and still miraculously alive.
The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean was recorded by one guy looking down from his hotel balcony as others at the resort get washed away --people thought one wave was it and did not realize it's usually the third wave that is largest.
Shark Wranglers (Wednesdays at 10 on History) could be the most exciting of all as American scientists journey to South Africa's Cape Of Good Hope in a bold program to target great white sharks.
Why the urgency? Chinese and Japanese ships are killing the sharks by the millions for soup and so successful are they these ferocious creatures may soon be placed on the endangered species list.
Scenes of the young scientists wrestling with 400 pound sharks to get the tagging devices locked on fins are shot in such a way as to cause wonderment.
I'm not entirely convinced the subject matter belongs on History ( should it not  be on National Geographic?) but the execution is so brilliant I'll be watching anyway.
MY RATING: ***1/2
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Intervention Canada Returns To Slice

This is the second season for Intervention Canada which is back on Slice Monday evening at 9.
the series is a Canadian spin off from the highly regarded U.S. series Intervention which runs on A&E and deservedly won an Emmy.
The American show has been a staple for a decade. The Canadian version is relatively new but no less potent.
Both series are often grouped under the umbrella title of "Reality TV" which is not helpful.
In recent years that term has meant watching Kim Kardashian stage and then depart from a sham marriage or watching those Jersey Shore kids get into all kinds of silly shenanigans.
Intervention Canada is something very different, it's completely real and none of the incidents seem staged to this observer.
In the first new hour we meet up with Tammy who is 26 and a crack cocaine addict.
Once the prettiest of little girls she grew up with two drug addicts as parents. As a pre-teenager she was all about protecting her two younger sisters from these abusive people. One sibling remembers being left in the cellar for a week with little food.
This is not an easy hour to watch. Tammy has been spiraling downwards. We actually see her smoking her coke pipe on multiple occasions and visiting and staying at a crack house for days on end.
She's lost control of her own children because of her addictive ways. But she has a boyfriend who is trying to help her.
The interviews conducted with her parents and sisters and best friend show the type of atmosphere that contributed to her problems. Both mother and father are addicts and have made little attempt to go straight.
And interspersed are shots of Tammy sliding lower and lower --she no longer looks after her appearance and descends frequently into screaming rants. Long term coke use has damaged her ability to think rationally. To make money she has been stripping which she considers just one step above prostitution.
I guess at its most basic level Intervention is a kind of self help program. Because the addict has to want to get better. Tammy faces a descending fate of malnutrition, death by heart attack or stroke or even a sort of drug induced madness.
The first half hour introduces us to the family. Then interventionist Andrew Galloway comes in and convenes a full family mass interview. The recriminations are fast and furious.
But Galloway is a soothing presence --he's been in recovery for a decade and knows the hard work being sober entails.
The series is very difficult at times to watch, there's no tacked on happy ending.
Tammy is later shown at a treatment centre but her problems will be with her for the rest of her life.
The stats say one in ten of us has an addictive personality.
Tammy's addiction is shared by thousands of young people in Canada's huge urban centers and Intervention Canada shows us the step-by-step method used to help ease her into recovery.
Prescription drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities as the leading cause of accidental death.
It is made by Open Door Co. and Insight Productions and is highly recommended. Just don't call it Reality TV.

Copper: First New TV Series Of The Season

The fall TV season revs up earlier every year. First up is a new British made series filmed in Toronto and set in New York city circa 1864 titled Copper.
Got all that?
It's the first scripted drama series made exclusively by BBC America --although in Canada it will be premiering on Showcase (Sunday night at 9).
Filming was done in Toronto, hopefully not at the same time as that other period drama, Murdoch Mysteries.
BBC America has high hopes for the series which it is tossing up against such U.S. cable heavy weights as Political Animals and The Newsroom.
Judging by the look of the show I immediately concluded it could only have been made by veteran producer Tom Fontana. It combines very neatly themes he's previously explored in  Homicide, Oz and The Borgias --the conflict between good and evil.
That's why the series with its emphasis on the sex and sadism of the day plays very much like an American show with precious little of the intellectual finery we often associate with British teacup drama.
So far the series has yet to find itself --there are several themes fighting for dominance.
Don't get me wrong: Copper is never less than interesting and sometimes it's riveting. But the task at hand is very ambitious --to marry social drama with a gun totin' protagonist well played by Kevin Corcoran as Civil War vet Tom Weston-Jones who functions as an investigator for the corrupt New York police department.
And it's just plain fun spotting the Toronto actors who people the cast including Ron White as the police captain and Rick Roberts as a lascivious robber baron.
If you peer intently you'll notice in passing such city landscapes as Union Station and Victoria College and you'll also admire the fine CGI that recreate gaslit streets just as they might have seemed during the Civil War.
In tone the series most reminds me of the late lamented Deadwood with its attention to period detail and the running undercurrent of violence.
Corcoran is already getting into his character --"Corky" has saved lives on the battlefield and also seen friends die. Now he's set adrift in a morally disreputable world --his wife and daughter have been killed and he's trying to find the killer while sorting out various sundry murders.
One central theme is race --the free blacks of the city are being strung up by immigrant Irish gangs who fear their presence drives down the wages of unskilled labourers.
And Corcoran finds himself often using the services of a brilliant young black Dr. Freeman (Ato Essandoh) who he entrusts with performing the autopsy on a street urchin he suspects has been murdered.
When Copper finds its proper balance it could be terrific. Judging from the first two episodes that exact delicate dramatic counterpoise is still eludes the veteran Fontana.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Remembering Phyllis Diller

So there I was with a gaggle of TV columnists at Hollywood's famous Comedy Store up on the Sunset Strip.
It was exactly 20 years ago --July 1992 --and we'd all been invited to join in the festivities of celebrating Phyllis Diller's 75th birthday party.
That's the only time I met the legendary Diller and I discovered up close and personal what a fine person she was.
The joint was packed and Diller was in great form as she took to the stage and began unleashing her trademarked one liners.
But then there was a disturbance near the door. A horribly dressed old woman had stomped in and was making her way to the stage.
Everybody froze until Diller took a second look at this feisty senior citizen.
Who was it? Milton Berle in drag that's who!
Diller was convulsed with laughter and Uncle Miltie did his shtick. And that was so very pleasant about her --she loved it when other comics got laughs too!
The repartee between Diller and Berle was among the funniest moments I've ever watched. And afterwards I got to interview Diller, too, who was a pioneering female comic.
Was there anybody before her, I innocently asked.
"Sure, Martha Raye, Joan Davis, Lucy Ball, they were all what I call physicals. My style was stand up and that was hard to get into."
She'd been born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Peru in 1917. She studied piano for three years and in 1939, aged 22, married the perpetually unemployed Sherwood Diller. They had five children and Diller toiled as an advertising copywriter to make ends meet.
"See, I always thought I was funny and I finally started doing comedy clubs. Jack Paar was the first to use me on TV in 1959 but I'd already been a contestant on Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life."
Soon she was a staple on TV variety hours with her raucous laughter and dead pan delivery.
"I was the mystery guest on What's My Line and they guessed me after three questions. It was my voice that gave me away."
Bob Hope became a prized mentor and Diller was a frequent guest on his specials and in such movies as Boy Did I Get A Wrong Number (1968) and Eight On The Lam (1967).
"But you see Bob was the star and I wound up feeding him one liners."
TV series stardom eluded her. When I mentioned her 1966 series The Pruitts Of Southampton she dismissed it as a "real dog".
"You see I could act, really, look up the movie The Adding Machine (1969). I do not play the Phyllis character there."
In recent years Diller battled health issues. after a 1999 heart attack she was fitted with a pacemaker and had it replaced in 2005. She supposedly retired from stand up but as recently as last year was interviewed on both Anderson Cooper and Rosie O'Donnell's TV series.
I really liked her that night when she ceded center stage to aged Milton Berle and later was seen escorting him to his limousine. Phyllis Diller proved to be both immensely talented and very nice.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nerve Centre Back On Discovery

It's time to welcome back Discovery Canada's Nerve Center for a second spectacular season. This finely made show takes us behind the scenes for thrills and chills which are completely unrehearsed.
The first two hours rev up on Discovery Sunday night at 7. Got that?
But this is no reality outing with everything made up.  In one sequence somebody crashes with tragic results --I'm not giving anything away when I report this.
First up is an hour examination of all the logistics involved in mounting the Cirque du Soleil spectacular KA" in Las Vegas. At first I though I was seeing a repeat --then I remembered that last season there was a similar excursion on the set of a Cirque du Soleil water extravaganza titled O.
Both hours have the sameness of exploring the technical minutiae that goes into these shows.
But the Ka episode, I humbly submit, is very different indeed.
With KA we go inside production central to meet the gifted technicians and engineers who keep the huge enterprising spinning along. There's a race to introduce a key new actor but during rehearsals everything seems to go wrong and the amount of smoke manufactured means one technician cannot drop the heroine through a small hole and onto a safety cushion --they're also engaged which makes the feat even more fraught with tension.
Then there's the slow and steady drip of oil from a hydraulic lift which could conceivably stall the whole enterprise if not fixed immediately.
This race against time is fascinating enough.
 But it is dwarfed by the sheer terror engendered in the second hour which looks at the Indy Car Championship racing that also occurred in Las Vegas.
Again the first shots are deceptively simple as we get to know the all star cast of drivers plus the mechanics who get the cars into shape. The accumulation of details is impressive --mechanics can change a sputtering wheel in four seconds, any more time and the race might be lost.
Scenes with the  track safety inspector are particularly chilling because this one was photographed during the fiery car crash which caused several cars to burst into flames and champion Dan Wheldon's car to fly more than 100 meters in the air before hitting a wall and bursting into flames. And he subsequently died.
It's such a stunning moment that it sucked all the oxygen out of me. Suddenly this was no mere TV program but a portrait of one man's courage who dared death and failed to overcome adversity. And the images are equally stunning right down to the track mechanic who hears the news and then takes one last puff of his cigaret before trying to help in the rescue.
In fact up to that moment Nerve Center was focusing on two other drivers and their teams: Scott Dixon and Oriol Servia. But at that second none of them matter anymore, the plot has changed and deepened. It becomes an epic about survival and then death on a raceway in Vegas.
As usual production details from camera work to editing are impeccable --Kathryn Oughtred is the executive producer for Exploration Production Inc. (EPI).
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Remembering Welcome Back Kotter

I have to admit this --Welcome Back Kotter was never one of my favorite series.
But this week's sad news of the death of co-star Ron Palillo at 63 from a heart attack hit me real hard.
And then I had to realize WBK was a long, long time ago.
American TV was so much more fun back then. And simple.
WBK was another reworking of the dumb school class theme that went right back to Our Miss Brooks.
It starred Gabe Kaplan as teacher Gabe Kotter who returned to his old Brooklyn high school where he had graduated a decade before. His devoted wife was played by Marcia Strassman.
Gabe's class was composed of the dumbest, funniest kids in the school, the so-called "sweat hogs"
I remember watching the pilot along with other visiting TV critics in June 1975 at L.A.'s Century Plaza hotel. The consensus was this: the show stank.
And there was a furious interview session with the creators and stars which resulted in some fine tuning of the humor and a switch away from it becoming a funny version of Blackboard Jungle.
Next day the critics went on the set and finally got to interview the cast  individually at a lavish ABC party.
Third ranked ABC was then riding the crest of a ratings wave with such dumb but essential fare as  Happy Days (which preceded WBK Tuesdays at 8), Barney Miller, Streets Of San Francisco, Baretta, Starsky And Hutch and Six Million Dollar Man.
ABC fare was rough hewn and deliberately skewered to the teenagers who were being ignored by upscale CBS and NBC.
I remember at the cast party I was told by the veteran ABC publicist  Tom Mackin that the big, emerging star was going to be heartthrob Robert Hegyes who played Juan Epstein.
"No, you're wrong," I simply told him, "It's that guy over there." And I pointed to the equally unknown John Travolta cast as Vinnie Barbarino.
I could see it, ABC could not. And Travolta within a few years emerged as a major movie star.
I could see it then but ABC could not.
Palillo played Horschack who had the most wonderfully braying voice. But he had typed himself with his bravura interpretation and after the series' end four years later had trouble getting work.
For most of TV's instant new stars there is no second act.
But I bumped into Hegyes many years later when I was hanging out with old pal Al Waxman on the set of Cagney And Lacey.
It was 1986 and I found myself talking to Hegyes who was nicely cast on the cop series as Det. Manny Esposito.
It had been seven years since WBK had expired and after some lean times Hegyes told me he wanted to try re-climbing the ladder to TV stardom.
But Hegyes was typecast all over again and the pickings were slim. He finally wound up teaching at Venice High School. He died of an apparent heart attack, aged 60, in January of this year.
I never met Palillo again after the 1979 interview but in subsequent news stories he said he felt marginalized and type cast.
Like Hegyes he taught high school --in West Palm Beach and was prepping to return to classes in the fall when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
And Travolta vaulted to movie stardom based on such runaway movie hits as Saturday Night Live and Grease. Just as I fearlessly predicted that June night in 1979.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dallas 2: I was Wrong

Skeptical best describes my mood when the DVD preview of the new/old series Dallas arrived.
TV Reboots generally do not work.
After all I'd patiently sat through several new versions of Charlie's Angels. I'd tried to warm to the Melrose Place remake, the Brady Brides nonsense, the horrible reunion of Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper.
On TV it seems there's no room for a second act and before you mention Hawaii 5-0 all the resemblance I see is in the location.
But after a hiatus of 21 seasons Dallas made it back after a few missteps --a few years back John Travolta was all set to play J.R. Ewing in a movie version before wiser heads prevailed.
But TNT and Warners which holds the rights from Lorimar did make the attempt. And Dallas 2 has been somewhat of a success during the lean summer months.
I've just watched the last episode of the first season and not to fret --a second season is on the way.
In the finale titled Revelations every melodramatic cliche is trotted forth and it's a satisfying brew --maybe viewers out there are getting tired of all those awful reality TV things parading as drama.
The series new writer and producer Cynthia Cidre latched onto the Dallas style which is confrontational. Back from the original are Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy.
Although the years have not been altogether kind this threesome can still growl and strut on cue and all know a little something about scene stealing tricks such as the rolling of eyeballs, the whispered confrontational, talking so slow to throw every body else off their game.
Dallas is out and out melodrama. The only concession is a more modern and fluid shooting style --the original was flatly lit with buckets of close ups. This one is mainly scenes of two to five characters shaming each other, posturing, threatening.
With afternoon soaps almost gone Dallas is a delightful throwback to a style of acting that seems almost lost.
Incidentialy the newer characters are all lookers: Jesse Metcalf, Josh Henderson, Jordana Brewster, Julie Gonzalo plus Brenda Strong as Bobby Ewing's new wife. The women are immaculately made up and coiffed in every situation. The guys tend to take their shirts off a whole lot.
And the theme remains the same: the dysfunctional family that conspires together stays together.
The only other series currently running to give competition is The Borgias.
When I first watched Dallas 2 back in June I wasn't sure it would last. But I was making a big mistake -comparing the old with the new.
I remember several press visits to Larry Hagman's Malibu pad where he entertained TV critics in his living room hot tub as his mother Mary Martin served canapes on the balcony.
That was the old --ostentatious and quite a bit vulgar,
The new Dallas still exalts wealth but in a far more casual way. The young heroes and villains have learned from JR's mistakes --they keep their emotions better hidden.
 If Dallas 2 were on a regular network like CBS ratings would do it in. But 6 million viewers on TNT guarantees hit status and renewal. No need to mention the old Dallas hit 25 million fans on occasion.
And now I'm wondering what other TV staple will be the next resurrection candidate: Perry Mason, Falcon Crest, Owen Marshall?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Nature Of Inspiration: Inspiring

"A vast wasteland."
Remember when American TV was so described by Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minow?
These days the phrase could equally describe Canadian TV which has become a vast wasteland of imported American shlock where quality Canadian programs are few and far between.
And then along comes the sparkling new hour special The Nature Of Inspiration which is so well made it gives me some hope all is not lost with that most Canadian of creations, the quality TV documentary.
The premise is simplicity itself: director Ian Toews got to spend quality time with a fine group of Canadian artists who are inspired by the great Canadian landscape around them.
They are: David Alexander (painter), Dempsey Bob (Carver), Edward Burtynsky (photographer), John Chalke (ceramics), Marlene Creates (mixed media), Aganetha Dyk (sculptor), Takao Tanabe (painter), Peter von Tiesenhausen (mixed media), Robert Wiens (sculptor).
Shot in batches over a period of six years this one is must see viewing because it reaffirms the importance of the Canadian landscape in the hearts and minds of our most prominent artists.
The hour really works for me and some of the artists are well known, others significantly under the radar.
Outside of Canada there's a tremendous segment about photographer Burtynsky journeying to Chile to photograph the awesome Chuquicamata mine where the art of extraction mining creates a scary landscape that might be more suited to moon launches.
For Wiens it's all about the trees as he paints life sized versions both swe inspiring and filled with minutae of brush strokes.
John Chalke makes pottery from the clay formations he discovers which are transformed into flowing works of pottery.
 Aganetha Dyck uses Manitoba honey bees as co-artists in her sculpture --the bees obligingly provide the wax for articles she presents inside their hives.
Feisty Takao Tanabe, 86, paints awesome landscapes that he humorously adds that if you've seen one of his landscapes you've seen them all.
For David Alexander inspiration comes from B.C.'s Purcell mountains. For Marlene Creates it's the combination of her poetry and her photography. For Dempsey Bob it's the creation of stark wooden masks that he says at some point take over and dictate the final form.
For Pieter von Tiesenhausen it's unity with the world around you that is the touch stone of art.
Toews tells me he first interviewed the artists for his 51-episode Bravo series Landscape As Muse. Scenes originally shot in 16 millimeter were transferred to HD. The Interview scenes are all new except for Tanabe's segment.
"Revisiting them was a pleasure but we still had a lot to talk about," says Toews.  "We had kept in touch and coming together again was a real pleasure because they're still at it."
Basically Toews is showing that the very essence of Canada forms the basic inspiration for the artists to interpret their surroundings.
In normal times The Nature Of Inspiration would get a pride of place showing on the Nature Of Things. But these are not normal times and CBC is desperately fighting for ratings. First casualty has been high art programming.
Still, it's encouraging The Nature Of Inspiration is on CBC Documentary and in a fallow month where the competition seems mainly to consist of wall-to-wall American repeats.
For Toews it's an important time as he prepares to move his boutique film making 291 Film Company from Regina to B.C. because the provincial Conservative government is canceling tax shelter programs which fund regional film making.
"They'll fund construction companies but not the arts, it's their peculiar political philosophy."
Toews should thrive wherever he works but for Saskatchewan it will be a real loss of prestige not easily regained..
MY RATING: ****.