Friday, December 26, 2014

Ron James: Back on TV And Wildly Funny


I usually get to interview Ron James once a year when  his TV series comes back on CBC.
And once is enough for me --the guy is wickedly funny and once my ribs hurt a bit after a nonstop telephone chat filled with his joking.
This year it's different.
James's well liked series is gone from CBC-TV because a new administration is trying to remake the schedule to its own liking.
So the only opportunity you'll have to catch him is in a New Year's eve special on CBC-TV Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
I just watched a preview and it plays like one of the funniest hours I've seen on TV in quite awhile.
Yes, I did like his series which ran five seasons although it was moved all over the dial and fans continually groused they never knew where to find him..
I think it took James some time to find the right metier for his skits which really rocked in his final season.
At the beginning he was trying to integrate them into one seamless half hour but later on spent time honing them and retaping bits until he was satisfied and only then would he edit them into each show.
But the stand up hour format works even better for James.
The guy must be the most traveled Canadian comic out there.
It really all came together in his first big hour Up And Down In Shaky Town which garnered huge ratings and the recognition here was authentic Canadian humor that spoke to every one of us watching.
I think the new one coming up is just as startling good --From Fallsview Casino --Ron James --The Big Picture.
James knows how to trap an audience in his stories, draw them into his unique take on anything and everything and then let them explode in laughter.
"This one was taped in October," he tells me on the phone. Meaning the jokes could be topical but not too topical. There's some distancing  because it comes on two months later."
James says on the phone that from the first time he played Fallsview "they treated me so fine. And the theater is so welcoming, it's huge but the audience isn't that far from you either. It's perfect to tell my stories, test the waters, let the audience get involved with me. I got a such a great feeling from that crowd, I think it shows."
Great camera work makes the hour seem to fairly rush by --the camera operators seem to be almost running at James for some super camera angles that induce a feeling of momentum.
"But if the audience isn't with you it's all over," he says. "And they really wanted me to say some of that stuff."
I'm not going to step on Ron's lines which he carefully crafted with assistance from Paul Pogue and Scott Montgomery (Lynn Harvey co-executive produced).
But as James admits "Yeah, I do go after Harper and he deserves it and the audience gets right into it. Same with the CBC. They get a bit of a licking, too. And they deserve it."
James says he remembers a decade ago when the Harper band wagon was building "and I'd say something and the audience would make a kind of whooshing sound. Like they were a bit ticked off. No longer. I give my two cents and they were laughing heartily.
Also talking a verbal licking: Burger King, Mike Duffy, Gwyneth Paltrow, oil spills, you name it.
With James's show gone and RCAF down to a special a year the great Canadian CBC tradition ok sketch comedy seems about to disappear.
Only the venerable This Hour Has 22 Minutes still holds down the foor while 4 On The Floor and Kids In The Hall are but dim memories.
"Oh, there's so much to satirize these days,"laughs James. "The oil spills, the crazy TV reality shows, texting. It's a never ending source. And I find audiences are generally just as fed up as I am ."
Says James "This was the year we had two Fords running for mayor. Who could have seen what would eventually happen? Now we're back bombing Iraq again. I couldn't have asked for more pungent material."
James thinks this hour is right up there with Shaky Town as among the best he's ever delivered.
"Then I'll' go back on the road, reminding Canadians of all the ups and downs of this great country country we live in."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, December 22, 2014

I Actually Liked Corner Gas: The Movie

I made a silly resolution not to watch Corner Gas: The Movie because I really liked the TV series.
For a few bright seasons it seemed as f Canadian TV comedy was about to sparkle.
Then came the duds Hiccups and Dan For Mayor and Canadian TV was back again to square one.
Eventually I relented and plopped in my DVD preview and I could not stop watching.
The problem is a successful half hour TV comedy series does not easily translate into a successful 90-minute motion picture.
And I kept thinking of all those bad TV reunion shows along the way which made for gruesome viewing.
I have no idea why star Brent Butt decided to stop production after six years --I think he wanted to prove himself in other ways.
The second series he created, Hiccups, was a case of being too funny.
Co-star (and wife) Nancy Robertson was loud and great but a half hour of this every week was too much for viewers to handle.
It's like the problem I always had with Phyllis which was a spin off from Mary Tyler Moore.
Phyllis as a secondary character and as played by Cloris Leachman was a barrel of laughs but when one had to deal with her in every scene it was enough already!
Anyhow here we all are back in Dog River and if the slender plot seems a bit stretch out so what?
It seems the sleepy hamlet is facing bankruptcy "thanks" to the incompetent mayor (Cavan Cunnigham).
Brent decides to bankroll the decrepit hotel bar while Hank (Fred Ewanuick) courts a loathsome donut chain  and Wanda (Nancy Robertson) opens an illegal casino.
Hilarity ensues. For most of the time.
I once asked a CBC chief programmer why he never favored CBC TV reunions.
And he said it would only remind viewers how weak the current fare was!
But I mean a TV movie of Street Legal would certainly have made sense. Or how about one of Nick Campbell in a DaVinci TV movie get together?
In the case of Corner Gas why not follow up with a stage presentation that could tour the auditoriums of small town Canada?
And how about another Corner Gas TV get together or as soon as it can be arranged?
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I Remember, I Remember

 I lost a whole heck of famous friends and acquaintances this past year.
Of all the celebrity deaths of 2014 I was most affected by the passing of Jim Garner.
Maybe that's because I found him the most honest and down to earth of the TV stars I ever interviewed.
We ate stale ham sandwiches in his trailer one day in 1977 when he was at the height of his star power on TV's The Rockford Files.
His producer Meta Rosenberg was also present --later in a dispute over finances Garner would forever cease talking to her.
That's the kind of upfront guy he was.
With Robin Williams I'm totally surprised he lasted as long as he did.
I met him first on the set of Happy Days in 1971 when he was as high as a kite.
Later interviews would find him troubled and sad, never very funny, but increasingly preoccupied by life's ironies.
I only met Max Schell once in passing when he was promoting an awful Peter The Great TV Miniseries.
He later made a memorable documentary about his sister Maria's descent into madness --I've never quite gotten over seeing it.
Martha Hyer once welcomed me to her lavish Rancho Mirage mansion which she shared with great producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca).
There was a rueful quality about the talented blonde actress who was forever typed as a second string Grace Kelly.
Mickey Rooney was just a handful in his late 70s as he embarked on a dinner theater engagement in Mississauga, a far cry from his heyday as America's most popular movie actor.
Harold Ramis I met just once on the set of his SCTV series --he only played on that series for a season. I always wondered why he quite so soon. I guess movies beckoned.
Polly Bergen was in T.O. to promote her cosmetics made from turtle ingredients.
 I always thought she was a better actress than huckster. Anyone else out there remember The Caretakers?
When I interviewed Efrem Zimbalist at CBC's Radio building on Jarvis St. he was preparing for a concert of his own compositions.
But his biggest thrill he said was meeting Glenn Gould in the corridor --it brought tears to his eyes.
I remember spending an afternoon with Joan Rivers in her Toronto suite. Also present: her 80-year old boyfriend.
In person she was bright and opinionated and we later went across the street to the Book Cellar where she bought an armful of books she said she'd devour before leaving the city after a weekend.
Backstage at the Ford Theater with Elaine Stritch was fun. She was co-starring as Parthy Ann in a revival of Show Boat and was in constant competition with Bobby Morse for laughs.
At a celebration of the Sid Caesar Show in L.A. I got to sit next to the great comic himself at lunch and found him contemplative and downright fussy.
Sir Donald Sinden I saw in a play at the Royal Alex--a play by Dion Boucicault --forever after I'd watch for his star turns on Masterpiece Theatre.
When I had to interview Bob Hoskins on the telephone all he wanted to talk about was the half a movie he'd made in Montreal once.
It collapsed for lack of funding and I can't even remember the title.
And talking Eli Wallach and wife Ann Jackson out to lunch in T.O. was a thrill. They were starring in a revival of The Diary Of Ann Frank.
He point blank refused to answer my questions about The Misfits (1961). "It's not a jinxed movie, after all I'm still alive."
And then there was an interview of sorts with Shirley Temple who was determined to catch the next plane out of T.O. as fast as she could.
 About her autobiography she scoffed "I saved America from the Depression . Then I was washed up aged 12."

I miss them all, some more than others.
A few I was surprised even made it to 2014.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wendy Crewson Shines In Saving Hope


 While waiting for Wendy Crewson to phone in I tried to think of all the times I'd ever interviewed her.
I'd seen her from afar on the set of Mazes And Monsters, a 1982 Toronto made TV movie where I was interviewing the lovely Anne Francis about her autobiography.
Others in that cast included Vera Miles, Chris Makepeace, Chris Wiggins and, oh, yeah, the star Tom Hanks as a twentysomething prankster.
But our gabfests certainly started when we met on the set of Night Heat in 1985 --Crewson was co-starring as prosecutor Dorothy Fredericks and she'd decided to ditch the hit Toronto made series to try her luck in L.A.
But her U.S. series Hard Copy tanked after only six episodes.
I certainly remember interviewing her for the hit CBC-TV movie Getting Married In Buffalo Jump (1990) opposite Paul Gross.
Later still I covered her remarkable work as Canada's queen of TV movies in The Sue Rodriguez Story (1998)  and Hunt For Justice (2005)-- she was perfectly cast as Madame Justice Louise Arbour.
"We last talked on the set of ReGenesis," figures Crewson--that series ran 2007-2008 and sold well in American markets.
All of which is a long winded but necessary explanation that when it comes to covering Wendy Crewson's long TV career I'm your TV critic.
Now Crewson is on the line to strum up support for the last fall episode of the fall-winter season of Saving Hope, CTV's popular medical drama that goes on hiatus until the spring.
The last episode revs up WEdnesday December 17 at 10 p.m. Got that.
"Getting the right role as one gets older is tough on an actress," she says, sounding plaintive. "But this show is female friendly. It  deliberately has strong women characters right up there with the men."
Comparisons with the long running Grey's Anatomy are inevitable.
Erica Durance stars as plucky surgeon Dr. Alex Reid and she's had an on-again, off-again romance with Dr. Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) --yeah he's the one who keeps seeing ''ghosts''.
About the "ghosts" Crewson acknowledges it gets to some viewers while other love it.
"It's the peg to make the series different from other medical shows."
Then there's the matinee idol Dr. Joel Goran (Daniel Gilles) --and all sorts of romantic entanglements may ensue whenever he's taking off his short.
Crewson describes her character Dr. Dana Kinney as "a veteran, far, she's seen everything" and  she figures heavily in the cliffhanger --there's a real concern Dana's daughter now working at the hospital may be stealing drugs.
Also in the last episode is an amazing turn by actor Currie Graham as a world famous surgeon who may be something of a charlatan.
And Dr. Goran gets involved in a horrendous case that rings down the curtain --now this is a real cliffhanger.
To CTV's credit the network kept Saving Hope going even after it was quickly cancelled by NBC.
Ratings have perked up considerable and the production details are comparable with any competing American drama series.
"People ask me what hospital we shoot at." Crewson laughs. "It's simply the biggest TV set I've seen --the atrium is huge and the corridors go everywhere so we can shoot those long tracking scenes."
Crewson hedges when asked if she'd ever consider another U.S. series try.
"It would have to be special. Right now I love doing this one and the way they've written my character."
Crewson says she's past being surprised by the way Canadian TV has evolved.
She once starred in a hugely popular series of TV murder mystery movies featuring the character of Joanne Kilbourne.
No expense was spared in grabbing such big co-star names as Sally Kellerman, Simon Callow and Robert Hays.
"It should have been turned into a series but back then we were fixated on getting into the American market with TV movies."
But if Canadians aren't supposed to be all that interested in Canadian series why is Saving Hope such a fan based hit?
Says Crewson: "Telling a strong, compelling story is what it's all about with characters you'll want to watch week after week."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bryan Baeumler Has Yet Another TV Renovation Show

A recent but long sickness left me spending my afternoons catching up on all those TV fix-it shows that dominate the cable web schedules.
I can instantly spot the American versions because the atmosphere is hysterically "sell-sell".
The Canadian ones are ore relaxed and friendly and offer more how-to-do things tips.
I used to like Propery Virgins when it was Canadian based but the trek southward has brought a real frenzy to the attempts to get first time property owners to buy anything anytime.
For humor I'll watch Love It Or List It which has two versions one from T.O. and one from Vancouver.
I was having tea with a friend recently when the fabulous female contractor Hillary Farr walked by the coffee shop and he almost swooned --she's both lovely and completely knowledgeable.
Some of the Canadian TV vets seem to have a new season every season.
There's Scott McGillivray whom I've interviewed up close and personal.
People are always insisting to me he wears a wig!
Not So I can report --he just has a low brow line.
And then there's reno master Bryan Baeumler who has yet another new series House Of Bryan: In The Sticks which follows the guy and his drop dead gorgeous wife as they sell their old house and renovate a new one.
Let's see how many Baeumler series I can recall.
First there was Disaster DIY and then the inevitable Cottage Edition, Leave It To Bryan which everybody watched, the Canada's Handyman Challenge things.
And looking up his credentials I see he has his B.A. from University of Western Ontario in of all things Political Science.
Maybe that's what makes him appear to be such a laid back kind of guy --I've never seen him get angry at least when the cameras are turning.
I watched the first new episode of House Of Bryan but I couldn't really figure why the couple are moving again --the wife is pregnant but they'll soon have four children which means they need more bedrooms.
The house they fixate on seems more like a great big cottage than a suburban dwelling. And it only seems to have a bedroom or two.
But the renovation realities are endless and in a 16-episode series one must have enough projects or there will be nothing to argue about and film.
The "new" house seems like one big block of cedar --and the location is way, way out there. Bryan says he grew up on a farm and wants the same experience for his growing family.
I'm guessing he picked this one because it has good bones. The wife is properly skeptical --the last was a bungalow.
So we see them packing for the move --she says she's dad because it was supposed to be a forever home.
I always thought Bryan told us to stay away until a reno is complete.
But the entire family moves in as the construction goes on --maybe it makes for better TV.
The resulting comedy/drama made me think of that old Cary Grant flick Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
And that mixture of home tips and the personal story makes House Of Bryan pretty watchable --until the next time when they decide to move back to the city and make another series out of that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Noah's Ark: Very Close To A Holiday TV Special

I positively loathe Christmas as celebrated on TV.
Every December the networks trot out those 40-year old animated specials featuring the voices of such dear and departed stars as Jimmy Durante and Burl Ives.
The same TV movies roll every season and the same old movies.
And then along comes something as sprightly as Secrets Of Noah's Ark. It premieres on History Saturday December 13 at 9 p.m.
OK, I know it's a very long stretch to say this is a holiday special.
But it is in a strange way as it celebrates one of the enduring stories of the Bible: Noah and the flood.
Made by Canada's yap films and Britain's Blink Films, this co-production stars a 3,700 year old clay tablet a British soldier bought in Iraq during World War II duty.
He kept it literally under wraps until son Douglas Simmons  brought it one day to the British Museum as a donation in the name of his late father.
There was only one expert at the Museum who could read the inscriptions --Dr. Irving Finkel, and he emerges as the exhuberantly wonderful hero of this documentary Secrets Of Noah's Ark.
With his white flowing beard and look of amazement Finkel could pass for a biblical prophet come back to life any day of the week.
This scholar was made for TV stardom. He's all giggles when given big scale 3-D glasses.
I gulped when he told how refugees from Israel were skinned alive by their Babylonian captors.
He tells us he immediately recognized the clay tablet as telling the story of the flood but from the Babylonian perspective.
This story predates the Biblical one but is presumably the same flood only with other characters.
One part of the tablet gives the precise measurements for building the ark which would have measured 65 meters in length.
I don't think the Bible got into measurements, am I right?
And so off viewers are taken on a merry race from the British Museum to desert landscapes where we can still spot traces of ancient floods to excavated Babylonian sites and even to India.
There's a fascinating group of experts who weigh in on the mystery with Finkel as our irrepressible guide tho thinks this cuneiform must have been composed hundreds of years before Noah's adventure was written down.
And Finkel figures when the Jews were transported to Babylon for their anguished captivity a lot of the sophisticated Babylonian culture must have been absorbed by them into their own traditions and writings.
Then we're off to India where the building of such boats still exists --the tradition has died out in Iraq.
Surprise One: discovering the boat was round and not exactly an ark in any shape.
I mean it could float but not go any where in particular.
That detail goes unresolved as does the either-or question: was Noah's Ark real or mythic?
Floating around in a round boat made of bullrushes can't have been humanity's way of escaping that flood, right?
Secrets Of Noah's Ark is fun right up to the unresolved ending (Nic Young wrote and produced it with yap films' Elliot Halpern as co-executive producer).
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Message To CBC: Don't Let Republic Of Doyle Die!

My open letter to CBC re the impending demise of Republic Of Doyle is short and sweet.
It's just three words: "Don't do it!"
Other CBC administrators over the decades have merrily cancelled such CBC hits as Tommy Hunter, The Beachcombers, Front Page Challenge and King Of Kensington promising long suffering viewers that newer and better shows would result.
But it never happens that way.
When Juliette was drawing three million viewers a week CBC bureaucrats fearful of the star system pink slipped her for a couple of folk singers.
And CBC never again had a hit in the time slot immediately following Saturday Night hockey.
When Gordon Pinsent said he was weary of making the hit drama series A Gift To Last CBC meekly acquiesced to its disappearance.
All Pinsent needed was a bit of back slapping for mounting such a tremendous show ad he would have returned for a few more episodes I'm sure..
And when Al Waxman complained he didn't even have a window in his airless cubbyhole of a dressing room CBC let King Of Kensington slip forever into reruns.
An American company would have wheeled a trailer into the parking lot for Waxman but CBC was adamant about promoting stars.
Latest hit to get the corporate cold shoulder is Republic Of Doyle which wraps up its final and abbreviated season Wednesday night at 8 with two hour episodes which are as good as any I've ever seen on this show.
The twin titles say it all: Judgement Day and Last Call as Doyle is on the lam fighting off a murder charge and he's all over the place and generously giving up a lot of  time to his splendid band of co-stars all of whom are now out of work.
I talked about this act of leaving a wildly popular series.
I know Hawco wants to go on to other things --he told me so at the last CBC launch.
But honestly the new CBC band of programmers should have signed him up for a few TV movies.
It's not as if anybody can sit down and craft a hit TV series --look at the experience of Cracked last year which had talent galore behind and in front of the cameras.
I'm thinking something as good as Doyle can not be easily re-created and certainly not by Hawco or at least for a while.
His Doyle characterization is going to be with him for the next few years as reruns pound CBC at all sorts of hours.
So I felt a bit sad watching all the regulars strut their stuff for the last time (until the inevitable TV reunion TVmovie): Leslie (Kryustin Pellerin), Des (Mark O'Brien), Tinny (Marthe Bernard) And all the rest.
And CBC once again needs a few good series from Atlantic Canada besides This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Black Harbour didn't make it. Hatching, Matching And Dispatching came up short.
You see where I'm going don't you --CBC really should not have let Republic Of Doyle end so abruptly.
MY RATING: ***1/2.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Welcome To TV's Cancellation Valley

December is the saddest month of the year for  U.S. TV network series.
Its the time when the pink slips are issued.
Instead of the bright fanfare of the new fall TV season the cancellations are done with as little publicity as possible.
For example I had no idea Franklin And Bash had just been cancelled until a U.S.publicist  blurted it out at the end of a phone call about something else entirely.
I sort of expected that one because of continuing disappointing ratings.
But what about the new John Stamos series Members Only?
ABC has dumped that one even before its official premiere.
ABC sources say the network has also cancelled Manhattan Love Story.
Revenge, a show I like, is right on the cusp --only a surge in the audience can keep it going after this season.
Over at CBS the monster hit Big Bang Theory has been renewed for two more seasons, it's that hot.
I'm surprised CBS is hedging on Elementary which has slipped a bit in the ratings.
But the Millers has officially been dumped as has Reckless.
The seventh and positively final season of The Mentalist premiered on Nov.   30 with the series finale set for Feb. 18.
 At FOX Gag Related is officially gone along with Kitchen Nightmares and Utopia.
But I think we all knew that.
The fate of Gotham interests me with network sources saying a pick up is coming but with some story tinkering.
NBC sources say Bad Judge and A To Z are officially over.
The final 13-episodes of Parenthood are being filmed right now.
The final 13 episodes of Park And Recreation premiere in January.
But it's to soon to tell for About A Boy and  Marry Me.
But I do know filming on Constantine shut down after 123 episodes and probably won't resume.
Conclusion: it's been an awful season for the main line networks so far.
This is all I know. Most of the cancelled shows won't be missed at all.