Saturday, April 30, 2005

Funny Women

I've stated before that I don't watch that many sitcoms. It's hard to explain why, but in part the sitcom has become formulaic, and for whatever reason I just can't get interested in shows like Arrested Development or Scrubs which apparently try to break the formula. Maybe I'm just unwilling to find the time for them. That's part of what makes Reba so unusual - I am willing to find the time to watch it.

Reba is the WB series starring Reba McEntire. While the average sitcom usually features a stand-up comedian with little or no acting experience (see Kevin James or Ray Romano) and surrounds them with talented actors with the hope that something will rub off, Reba McEntire is a country singer with more than a little acting experience - the movie Tremors and Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway - who is surrounded by reasonably talented actors in hopes that something will rub off. The result is in truth not as bad as some people seem to think.

Reba plays Reba Hart, a single mom who works too hard, loves her kids and never stops: who she is is who she wants to be - that's from the theme song if you couldn't guess. Actually Reba is divorced and got the typical TV divorce settlement - a big house and enough money that she doesn't actually have to work as hard as the theme song indicates that she does - at least not outside of the house. Not that life is all sweetness and light at home. Her eldest daughter Cheyenne got pregnant and married in her senior year of high school. As she put it "the three months between getting my drivers license and getting pregnant were the freest I've ever felt." Cheyenne married Van the high school football star who did a year of college before turning pro and having a career ending injury. They (and the baby) live with Reba. Middle daughter Kyra is a typical sitcom teenage girl - a smart-ass in other words. In an act of teenaged rebellion she went to live with her father and his new wife. Youngest child Jake is typically sitcom pre-teen cute both in looks and acts. Rounding out the cast is Reba's ex, Brock and his new wife Barbara-Jean who got pregnant with Brock's baby while Brock was still married to Reba.

If most of that sounds like a typical sitcom play book, well throw it out. For one thing the absolute best thing about this show is Melissa Peterman as Barbara Jean. Barbara Jean isn't stupid, but she is more than a bit dense. Somehow she doesn't grasp the notion that Reba might not want to be friends with the woman who broke up her marriage by getting pregnant with Brock's child. She is always showing up at Reba's house behaving as though she is not just a friend but Reba's best friend - which in a bizarre sort of way she is! What makes the character is not just the writing but Peterman's delivery and her rubber-like face. She is a hoot and her scenes with McEntire are some of the best in the show in part because Peterman seems to bring out the goofy side of McEntire. It happens somewhat with the other characters but Peterman and McEntire together just cut loose. McEntire proves that she can mug for the camera almost as well as Peterman and that's saying a lot. For once Christopher Rich as Brock isn't the dumbest person in the cast. He's frequently a little thick but not stupid. The dumb character is Van, played by Steve Howey, and in the grand tradition of comedy he makes dumb funny. Just as one example there's a scene where Barbara Jean says "And what is dog spelled backwards?" It takes Van 15 seconds to figure out that dog spelled backwards is God. It's obviously a scene that plays better than it sounds. Van's interaction with his wife Cheyenne, played by Joanna Garcia, is done to perfection, even though Cheyenne's IQ seems to go down in her scenes with Van. Even Scarlett Pomers (who first appeared as Naomi Wildmon on Star Trek: Voyager) as Kyra manages to make her smart-assed teen character funny even though she's usually given precious little to work with.

Apparently Reba is either a show that people really love, or a show that people really love to hate. For me, while the writing isn't special and most of the characters aren't particularly original, the relationship between Barbara Jean and Reba and (more importantly) the way that Reba McEntire and Melissa Peterman play that relationship makes it a show that I try very hard not to miss.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Does The PTC Really Understand TV?

I got a missive a few days ago in that special little corner of my Hotmail account that I reserve for the PTC's mailing list (it's always nice when the other side sends you their plans). This time it wasn't a "buy our crap" solicitation, or a "we're so great that Time Magazine featured us in what we think is a positive light in an article about TV indecency" self-promo. It wasn't even a "boycott The Shield because it's on a lower level cable network that even kids can see (and just ignore the fact that the put it on at a time when any parent with sense would have their kids in bed dreaming even if it meant slipping tranquilizers into their Oreos) and it's full of the d--k word and the s--t word" e-alert. No this was a "save our show because it ain't indecent" missive, wrapped around a promo for the Highway to Heaven DVD set (because Michael Landon dedicated his life to giving us good wholesome programming). The show they're trying to save is Joan of Arcadia and on April 26 the PTC informed us that CBS has not yet renewed the show. In fact here's what the PTC says: "Joan of Arcadia, one of the most positive, family-affirming programs on television, is broadcasting its last show for this season and CBS has not renewed it for next year. Without a significant outpouring of public support, CBS may decide to cancel this superb show at the end of the season."

Here are a couple of news flashes for the PTC. First, very few shows have been renewed for next year. We won't know the exact composition of the network lineups until the "upfronts" where the networks reveal their lineups from next season - which for CBS happens on May 18. I suspect that the PTC knows this already of course and are just planning to inundate Les Moonves with mail so that he can't possibly refuse to renew. Second - and this is the part that I'm certain the PTC doesn't get - television isn't just about entertainment or providing "positive family-affirming programs". It is was, and always has been a business. The late Roy Thompson, at the time when he put Scottish TV on the air in Britain in 1957, called a television license "a license to print money". The job of television is to make money and the way to make money in broadcast television is to have shows that people watch so that advertisers will give you their money to to run their commercials. Based on the weekly ratings as published in the LA Times, Joan of Arcadia isn't doing that. Finishing 54th for the week of April 18-24 means that the show finished below the ending JAG, below the likely to be cancelled Blind Justice, below the "on-the-bubble" Alias. Most weeks it finishes below its timeslot competitor Dateline NBC. Logic dictates that if people aren't watching the show - and the episode that was seen on April 24 was not just a new episode but the season finale - then the advertising rates for the show are going to be lower. Business logic dictates that serious consideration should be given to cancelling the show if they have something that they think will work better in the timeslot.

I don't watch Joan of Arcadia - I tried to watch a couple of episodes in the first season, but it usually isn't a good sign when I fall asleep while watching a show - but a question that CBS undoubtedly can't answer - and the PTC undoubtedly won't answer - is why a show that was one of the most popular new shows last season and was nominated for three Emmys, is doing so poorly this season that it is being considered for cancellation.

(For the record, my best wild-ass guess is that Joan of Arcadia will be renewed but that there'll be some changes in writing and/or production, and that if it continues to slip next year CBS will drop it, but again I'm guessing.)

Mason Adams 1919-2005

Usually when an actor gets "The Big Break" and becomes famous for a role, you suddenly see him everywhere in series that were produced before the big break. Ed Asner suddenly became visible after he became Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore, and the same thing happened to Sorrell Booke after he put on the fat(ter) suit and became Boss Hogg on Dukes of Hazard. It wasn't the case with Mason Adams. If you look at his IMDB listing, you'll find a mere seven acting credits including two guest appearances in the 1950s, and a 1947 short about Alexander Graham Bell called Mr. Bell in which he played Thomas Watson. So you won't see Mason Adams in much before his breakthrough role as Charlie Hume in Lou Grant. But you'll hear him everywhere because, in the words of Leonard Cohen, Mason Adams was born with the gift of a golden voice and it was only after Lou Grant that we also saw that he had the sort of face that carried a great deal of authority and wisdom.

Mason Adams did a lot of radio work, starting in 1940 and continuing until pretty much the end of network radio in 1959. The was Pepper Young in Pepper Young's Family and played a lot of villains in other radio shows. He was the Kryptonite Man in The Adventures of Superman with Clayton "Bud" Collier (who hosted of course To Tell The Truth on TV). I recall hearing a comedy skit featuring Adams as an increasingly harried baseball announcer. According to the Internet Broadway Database Adams also appeared in six plays, five of them before Lou Grant.

Charlie Hume on Lou Grant was a breakthrough role of course. Charlie started as a sort of weak yes-man for Mrs. Pynchon, but as time went by he grew "a pair" and became more assertive, to the point where you could understand why Lou respected him and why. One episode I remember in particular had Charlie confronting the clueless wife of a Central American dictator about torture in her country - torture that he himself had been subjected to. Charlie was very much a supporting character but he had his moments, enough that he was nominated for the "Best Supporting Actor in a Drama" Emmy three years in a row. His role wasn't as showy as Nancy Marchand's Margaret Pynchon, or Robert Walden's Joe Rossi who ironically was also nominated for "Best Supporting Actor in a Drama" three years in a row; the same three years as Adams (they lost twice to Stuart Margolin in The Rockford Files and once to Michael Conrad in Hill Street Blues).

After Lou Grant left the air (and I'm one of those who is convinced that the cancellation had more to do with Ed Asner's politics than ratings) Adams went on to a host of appearances in TV movies and miniseries. and a comparatively small number of guest starring roles in TV series. His last listed acting appearance was in an episode of Oz in 2003, although the last part I saw him was as a Supreme Court Justice who takes Bartlett to task for not considering a real liberal as his replacement on the bench. In these roles he usually played a fatherly figure, but someone with a certain amount of authority. An example was his appearance in From The Earth To The Moon as Senator Clinton Anderson, who deflates Walter Mondale's attack on the space program by asking about Gus Grissom. It's a tiny role, but Adams brings the right level of gravity to it to make it believable. But it's as a voice actor that Mason Adams will be best remembered. He was the reader for the books on tape versions of Lillian Jackson Braun's "Cat" mystery novels (and probably many others), and was always in demand as a voice for commercials. For the past 30 years he's been the voice of Smuckers - "With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good."

Minor Addition

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

One Small Victory

You may remember a couple of months ago when there was a furor over The WB's plans to "update" Bugs, Daffy and the rest of the Looney Tunes characters with new designs. I did a piece on it, and so did a lot of people. Someone even did a hilarious if profanity filled animation of the "hip and edgy" version of Bugs Buzz Bunny, for which I don't have the URL. The fans were up in arms.

And it did no good. But THIS did.

It's so obvious of course. No one at The WB cares what a bunch of animation geeks think. Animation geeks will line up to buy whatever action figures and toys the studios throw at us. But animation geeks are getting older and are going to die off without new little animation geeks coming up to fill the ranks. That was the whole reason for coming up with Loonatics in the first place. So having an 11-year-old say that Loonatics sux carries a hell of a lot more weight than having someone like animation writer and historian Jerry Beck say that Loonatics is a travesty. An 11-year-old like Thomas Adams (from Oklahoma yet - don't want to irritate those Red Staters either or they'll sic the PTC on your Hollywood ass) is their target audience.

Thomas is just lucky this didn't happen when he was 13. His opinion would have been irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

TV On DVD - April 26, 2005

Truly a banner week for TV shows on DVD, with MST3K supposed to come out last week but stating that it was actually being released today. A couple of things that TV Shows on DVD has listed for this week won't be out until next week or later.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume 7
- This was a series that I've never seen and probably never will. Not because I'm not interested in it, but because they can't clear it in Canada. The original material is fine, but the various network which might be interested in running the series always had problems clearing the movies that the episodes were built around for broadcast in Canada. And what fun would MST3K be without movies like The Killer Shrews?

Airline: Season 1
- One of the more interesting reality series that A&E has added to its lineup. Based on the British series called Airport instead of focusing on the day to day operations of a single airport, the series spends time with the passengers and ground personnel at Southwest Airlines in Los Angeles and Chicago. Based on the comments from various passengers, it's a wonder that Southwest is still in business based on the number of people vowing never to fly with them again for some problem, real or imagined. It's actually not too bad, to the point where I actually watch sometimes, which is more than I can say for Growing Up Gotti or Dog The Bounty Hunter. Still I remember when A&E actually took the Arts part of their name seriously.

Ancient Mysteries: Bigfoot
Ancient Mysteries: Camelot

- More shows that I haven't seen, these were part of a series of A&E documentaries about various myths and legends. Just how seriously you can take them I leave up to you. Not topics that I find interesting enough to spend money on though.

Crank Yankers: Season 2 Volume 1
- Yeah, I know what you're going to say, but this show isn't currently on in Canada and I don't know if it's ever been seen here by anyone who doesn't have a pirate dish. I don't so I haven't. The concept sounds as though it has the potential to be either very funny or extremely irritating. I guess it depends on whether you've ever been on the receiving end of a a crank phone call. Sorry, but I don't understand the need for the puppets.

ER: The Complete Third Season
- Ah yes, Season 3 of ER. This I saw, back in the days when ER wasn't as much of a soap opera as it became. Susan Lewis left (Sherry Stringfield apparently missed New York or her boyfriend) and Mark gets the crap beaten out of him in the men's room. Oh who do I think I'm kidding - it's always been a soap opera, it just used to be a good soap opera. Apparently not yet available in Canada, hence no link to so the only way to get it in Canada at the moment is to buy a set with all three seasons. That doesn't seem right somehow.

Fraggle Rock: Live By The Rule Of The Rock
- Another series I remember very well. Interesting for kids of course, lacking much of the sophistication of The Muppet Show but there's much to be said for the show. It's fun to watch, particularly the "Uncle Travelling Matt" sequences. Jim Henson managed to get the CBC to part with some money to co-produce the show in Toronto. It's a fun little confection, but releasing it as individual episodes makes the show a potential cash cow for the releasing company.

Highway To Heaven: Season One
- I never "got" this show, by which I mean that I just didn't get it. A lot of people did though, including some members of my family who are on the whole not particularly religious. It was clearly a predecessor for Touched By An Angel which is another series that I just never got. From what I recall it was a rather gentle show with Michael Landon and Victor French. Maybe that was part of it - in a TV landscape dominated by automatic weapons and the people wielding them it was a gentle peaceful show. It didn't hurt that it was Michael Landon who if nothing else was adept at promoting series he was involved with.

Land Of The Lost: The Complete Third Season
- The 1970s original, not the crappy remake. I've never seen either though so don't take my word for it. Why haven't I? Well it was a Saturday morning show in the U.S. which was there and gone years before we had cable from Detroit - or even Williston North Dakota - in Saskatoon. I think about the only Sid and Marty Krofft series I ever saw was The Banana Splits. Oh Uh Chongo!

Quatermass: Set 1
- This was really the classic British science fiction series. It first appeared in 1953, when the BBC head of drama spent his entire budget for acquiring new scripts for the year (a magnificent 250 pounds - and how do I get that symbol in this blog!) on one set of scripts for a six episode science-horror series called The Quatermass Experiment. There followed two more series in the 1950s: Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit.All three were made into movies but the series went no further. Then in 1979 the private network ITV brought out the final story in the series Quatermass starring John Mills (who passed away a few days ago). It's generally regarded as good but not quite as good as shows from the 1950s despite, or perhaps because, of the improve special effects.

Survivor 2: The Australian Outback
- Survivor began back in the days when no one thought that you could sell DVD that were all the episodes of the show with a few special features and "never before seen footage". The original Survivor was released on a single DVD with no fuzzing over naked Richard Hatch (apparently there wasn't much to see) and a few interviews with cast members. The second Survivor got the same treatment and then no more. That was the season of Jerri (the Witch) Manthey, of the phantom beef jerky, the chef who couldn't cook rice, and while Elizabeth Filarski didn't win the show's million she did get the job on The View which over time has probably been more lucrative for her long term.

Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 2
- Once upon a time there was a little independent comic book about some pet shop turtles who were exposed to a radioactive isotope that gave them human-like intelligence and stature. Teenaged humans of course with all that meant in the late '80s. This became a couple of fairly cheesy movies. This in turn became a series of animated cartoons (the ones in this box set) which in turn spawned a comic book in the image of the cartoon series which was so totally alien to the original vision in the independent comics that it was a sin, but the new cartoons and comic series was very profitable for the two guys who created the original comic books so they were crying all the way to the bank because they owned their copyrights while guys like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster didn't.

Trading Spaces: Creative Home Decor With Designer Doug Wilson
Trading Spaces: Great Kitchen Designs and More!
- Basically a set of highlights from past shows, focusing on creative decor and kitchen designs. Call me elitist, but I'm not sure I want decorating hints from people who do some of the "designs" these guys do on the show.

The Waltons: The Complete Second Season
- It's hard to think today about how big The Waltons was. It was a rural show just two seasons after Fred Silverman had "cleansed" the CBS line-up of rural shows, including Jim Nabor's variety show. It was a period piece, and no one watched those unless it was Bonanza or Gunsmoke. Worst of all it was on opposite Flip Wilson, who in the day qualified as a hip urban comic. All The Waltons had was good writing and solid actors. It couldn't last. By the end of the first season Flip Wilson was off the air and The Waltons had won four out of the five Emmys it was nominated for. The simple explanation is that in the days of the Vietnam War, civil protests and Watergate people wanted something they could watch with their kids and look back at what seemed like simpler times.

Wildboyz: The Complete Second Season
- Okay, I'm not even going to hazard a guess about what this could be, and reading the comments on the IMDB, I think I'm glad.

Monday, April 25, 2005

My First Meme!

1. What time did you get up this morning? 10 a.m. thanks to my alarm clock. It's just lucky it's on the other side of the room from my bed.

2. Diamonds, pearls or silver? So boring. I like something with colour like rubies, emeralds or saphires. Still, if I have to choose from this list I'd say pearls, but only if they're the rarer coloured ones. The golden pearls that I saw a few weeks ago on The Apprentice are among the most stunning things I have ever seen.

3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. It's just too much of a hassle to go downtown to a movie and spend $10 or whatever it is here now, particularly when I can buy a movie I really want to see for the same amount of money if I go to the right place.

4. What is your favorite TV show? Currently The Amazing Race. I know it's a reality show but on the whole there isn't the backstabbing that you see on Survivor or The Apprentice. I used to like The Mole as well but it died when they put celebrities on it. Looking back a bit I liked Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Crime Story. Oh yeah, and there's also the new version of Doctor Who.

5. What did you have for breakfast? I so rarely eat breakfast that it's criminal. Actually about the only time I eat breakfast is when I'm traveling which happens less often than I'd like.

6. What is your middle name? Strictly speaking it's Brent. I share - or rather shared - a birthday with my great-uncle Stan. He was born in 1916 (roughly; his birth records were about the worst I've ever seen - for his pension we found that the only record anyone had for his year of birth was a newspaper item for when he enlisted in the army and that could have been 1916 or 1915) so we were about 40 years apart. No one has ever ever called me Stanley or Stan, and they'd better not.

7. What is your favorite cuisine? I don't really have a favourite kitchen (snicker) but as far as styles of food, I'm pretty flexible. (Cuisine - French for Kitchen. High school French strikes again.)

8. What foods do you dislike? Don't like liver and I'm not crazy about any fish that looks back at you, but the absolute worst is Steak and Kidney Pie. I don't mind the steak part but to me the kidneys taste like the end product of what they process.

9. What is your favorite chip/crisp flavor? For potato chips Miss Vickie's Sea Salt and Vinegar. On the other hand Doritos has just come out with a Dill Pickle Tortilla Chip which may be the best chip to cross my lips. Going beyond chips a bit,
Hawkins Cheezies have been a staple with me since before I can remember.

10. What is your favorite CD at the moment? I so rarely use my CD player that I can't really answer. Besides, my taste in music is thoroughly archaic. Just as an example I have the Swing Canada series on a private label that hasn't produced any more.

11. What kind of car do you drive? I don't drive. In the winter or wet weather I take the bus or get a ride with someone. In weather like this I ride my bike when I want to go somewhere. In just about any weather I walk a lot.

12. Favorite sandwich? Corned Beef, preferably on Winnipeg Rye but I'm willing to settle for a Kaiser Roll if that's all I've got. I also like Peanut Butter and Dill Pickle (slice the pickle into thick rounds and put between two pieces of white or whole wheat bread with peanut butter - preferably crunchy - on both).

13. What characteristics do you despise? The combination of greed, selfishness and dishonesty is the worst.

14. Favorite item of clothing? A sweat shirt.

15. If you could go anywhere in the world on vacation, where would you go? I've always wanted to take a cruise around South America. The old Britannis used to do a circumnavigation but she's been gone for a few years.

16. What color is your bathroom? A sort of beigy pink, with some faux white and blue tiles. I need to do something about it.

17. Favorite brand of clothing? I don't really worry about brands.

18. Where would you retire to? The Monterey Peninsula of California - not too hot, not too cold. I hate temperature extremes.

19. Favorite time of day? Evenings, a bit before dusk.

20. What was your most memorable birthday? In truth none stick out. That's really sad.

21. Where were you born? Saskatoon Saskatchewan, Canada.

22. Favorite sport to watch? Curling. I haven't watched Hockey much since well before the strike, and I'm off of baseball since the Expos moved south, but ask any Canadian and he or she will be able to talk about raises and draws even if they've never played the game.

23. Who do you least expect to send this back to you? Did I happen to mention that I'm a meme virgin. I know
Sutpen would ignore it - not sure about his blogging partner Stephen Cooke though.

24. Person you expect to send it back first? No one, but I wouldn't mind seeing answers from
Tim and Ronniecat.

25. What fabric detergent do you use? I don't do the washing myself (my mother lives with me and does it) but I believe the preference is for Tide.

26. Coke or Pepsi? Coke, but the Canadian kind please (it has sugar not - or more likely in addition to - corn syrup). In the U.S. apparently the only way to get sugar in your Coke is to buy Kosher Coke around Passover. Actually I prefer a Double Gulp Dr. Pepper but my neighbourhood 7-11 closed in January and I haven't found a replacement yet.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Canadian Television: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Part 1: The Good

This is the start of a three week series looking at what I think are the best and worst things about Canadian television. Please note that I didn't say Canadian television shows - that would be too specific. My focus is on aspects of the industry. First up: Five things I like about Canadian television (in no particular order of course).

Tits and Cussing: I'm talking about over the air network television here too. While it's not prevalent on the private networks, for reasons I'll get into in a moment, Canadian broadcast regulations are structured in such a way that pretty much anything goes the later you get in the night. CBC may have shown the first bare breast in a drama in North America around 1970, and as far as swearing goes the limits on that have been pushed pretty far back as well. Some years ago the CBC showed the British series The Camomile Lawn, complete with full frontal Tara Fitzgerald, and all the usual swearing. In 2000 CTV counterprogrammed the Sydney Olympics with the first season of The Sopranos - no bleeps, no fuzzed over nipples, everything as it was shot for HBO. There could be a lot more nudity and cursing on Canadian TV were it not for the fact that the private English language networks buy most of their product from the United States, and even when they buy movies they tend to be versions that have been sanitized for the American market. The CRTC (the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission - the Canadian equivalent to the FCC) limits its censorship role considerably, and there is no strong organized pressure group like the Parents Television Council in Canada. We accept it.

Curling: I know it's a silly thing to put down, but I think it's indicative of something that not only do Canadian televisions stations broadcast Curling but that there was controversy when a new broadcasting deal was signed that reduced the number of hours of the Men's and Women's Canadian and World Championships that would be broadcast, forcing rights holder to scramble to find a partner network to show extra hours. Curling is a sport which even it's strongest supporters will admit is lighter on speed and conflict than golf - I tend to liken it to chess played using the Newtonian laws of motion - but the networks indulge the passion.

CBC Kids Programs: I've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating. Since the very beginning, CBC has taken the responsibility of crafting shows for children very seriously. Fred Rogers got his earliest network exposure with a Canadian show called Butternut Square, and morning kids programs have included iconic shows like Chez Helene, The Friendly Giant, and Mr. Roger's former puppet master Ernie Coombs, Mister Dress Up. In the afternoons there was Razzle Dazzle, The Forest Rangers and Drop In. For many years Sesame Street was seen in Canada with Canadian material inserted - something that was actually harmful to children's programming in Canada because the show tended to suck money away from Canadian programs to pay the hefty license fee. Current programming includes both shows from the United States such as Clifford The Big Red Dog and domestic production such as Poko, The Save-ums, and Nanalan in the mornings for pre-school viewers - all shown without commercials - and a variety of Canadian made shows for school aged children and younger teens in the 4 to 5 p.m. slot.

News: This is a bit of tough issue, but all three of the main Canadian networks make a major effort at doing news all day long. This is in addition to two Canadian cable news services CBC Newsworld and CTV Newsnet. There has also been a recent application to the CRTC for a third cable service which would rebroadcast local CTV news programs from each province. These services exist because Canadians say that they want them, and although some politicians on the right may say that the CBC is biased towards the Liberal Party, the general perception is that none of the networks has a particular bias towards any political party.

Comedy: Canadians seem to laugh at different stuff than Americans. How else do you explain that the year it was cancelled in the States, Caroline In The City was the top rated show in Canada? CBC in particular has made a major commitment to Canadian comedy, mostly satire with shows like Red Green, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce. In addition they show segments from the Montreal Comedy Festival Just Pour Rire/Just For Laughs. The Comedy Network has a new original show called Popcultured with Elvira Kurt which is in the style of The Daily Show, and Puppets Who Kill which is difficult to explain. As well they show classic Canadian comedy programming including SCTV, Kids In The Hall, and (though you have to look for it) Wayne & Shuster. Sitcoms have never done as well but last year CTV started Corner Gas starring Brent Butt which has turned into a significant hit for a Canaidan comedy.

And hey, what can you say about a country where The Amazing Race is the most popular show on Tuesday nights (and third for the week) ahead of American Idol and Law & Order: SVU?

Friday, April 22, 2005

It's Earth Day... Happy 97th Birthday to Eddie Albert, aka Carlton Travis (Falcon Crest 1981), Frank McBride (Switch 1975), Larry Tucker (Leave It To Larry 1952) and of course our beloved Oliver Wendell Douglas (Green Acres 1965). Actor, Singer, Inventor, Environmentalist, American Hero at the invasion of Tarawa.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


A few additions to the Blogroll and I give in to the dark side.

As you can see, I've decided to go with the Associates program. I'll try to keep references to the minimum, but if you do want to buy from Amazon I won't object if you use my links. Somehow I feel so dirty ;-) so I think I'll atone by also adding a link to the Blue Ribbon Campaign against Internet Censorship (the Canadian campaign of course).

Additions to the Blogroll:

  • Hearing Loss is my friend Ronniecat from rec.arts.comics.strips. She recently received a Coclear Implant which has restored her hearing after a number of years of deafness.

  • TV Nights is a blog listing nightly schedules from the various American commercial networks in various years. Interesting reading, in a disorganized sort of way.

  • Just Another Blowhard is a blog from a guy in Brooklyn who occasionally posts about the various media, but even when he doesn't is usually pretty funny, in a ranting sort of way.

  • SpeakSpeak News is a major blog focusing on the fight against media censorship in general with special attention to the PTC (thanks to Tony Figueroa for letting me know about this site).

  • Blog Maverick is Mark Cuban's blog. As most of you may know Cuban is an internet multi-millionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks. As fewer of you may remember he was also briefly a faux Donald Trump who starred on ABC's stinker The Benefactor. His blog has some pretty interesting stuff on business and new technology.

  • Respectful Insolence is a blog from "an academic surgeon and scientist" specializing in research about Cancer. He doesn't just focus on medicine, and has some rather interesting thoughts on a variety of subjects, both around science and general politics.

  • Yet Another Journal is an enjoyably light personal blog that sometimes touches on television and fandom.

  • Jim Hill Media is a blog that I just added today. Jim writes about the Disney Organization, particularly the theme parks. He was recently banned from Disneyland for leading an unauthorized tour. He's not particularly hostile to the House of the Mouse, but he's not criticism free either. Thanks for the information Linda (of Yet Another Journal).

CSI -A Tale Of Three Series: New York

In the next to last episode of the second season of CSI: Miami a murder in Miami led Horatio Caine north from the Florida sun to the grey urban canyons of New York. There he met Detective First Grade Mac Taylor, the head of a New York CSI unit. That's how viewers were introduced to the third series in the CSI franchise, CSI: New York.

There had been a lot of speculation among fans when it was announced that CBS and Jerry Bruckheimer were bringing a third CSI series to television. The speculation centred around what city it should be set in and who should star. The feeling expressed by a lot of fans was that the series should follow its predecessors and be set in an "exotic" American city; New Orleans was a fan favourite. Avery Brooks (who had previously appeared as Hawk in Spenser For Hire and Benjamin Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was suggested as the lead actor. Thus there was some hostility when it was announced that the new series would focus on crime in New York - New York had been done to the point where it was thought to be overexposed. There was some surprise that the producers were able to lure an actor of the caliber of Gary Sinise to play the lead role in a TV series.

When series finally debuted it was not initially well-regarded, which in all honesty is a bit surprising. In form it is a lot closer to the original CSI than CSI: Miami is. Although Sinise is clearly the lead in the series, the focus of the show is far less on him than is the case with David Caruso in CSI: Miami. They have surrounded Sinise with a strong supporting cast led by Melina Kanakeredes (previously the star of Providence although for fans of Due South she will forever by Victoria - or "Vile Vicki" - from the episode Victoria's Secret) as the principal supporting character, with Vanessa Ferlito and Carmine Giovinazzo as the younger investigators in his squad, and Hill Harper (from the ill-fated series The Handler) as the chief coroner. In addition producers clearly listened to the fans who were critical of the extensive character development for the character of Horatio Caine on the "Miami" series. What we know about Mac Taylor is that he lost his wife on September 11, 2001 (a development that many viewers felt was highly manipulative) and that as a result he has changed significantly - he doesn't sleep much. Kanakeredes character is single and was raised in an orphanage, and that's all we know about her. The producers seem willing to let any character development stretch out over time far more than was the case on CSI: Miami or even the original CSI.

As with all of the CSI shows, the look and feel of CSI: New York is expressed through set design and the way it's shot. While the offices in the Las Vegas and Miami series are modern and (particularly in the Miami series) pretty dark, the labs in CSI: New York are well lit and seem older. This is particularly true in the morgue. While Doc Robbins operates in a room full of stainless steel and carefully located lights, and Alexx works in a dark autopsy room with a viewers gallery a story above her, Hill Harper's Dr. Sheldon Hawkes resides in a white tiled room in the bowels of a building that was probably built at the turn of the 20th century, complete with Gothic style arches. It effectively creates the impression that New York is much older than either Las Vegas or Miami, but in its own way just as exotic. In terms of shooting exteriors, while Las Vegas is a city best seen at night, and yellow filters are used to create the feeling of heat in Miami, the impression created for the New York series is one of cold. This is done by using a blue filter for daytime exteriors which not only creates the sense of cold but also of gloom.

The unfortunate fact is that CSI: New York is not performing as well as either the original or CSI: Miami and it's difficult to understand why. Certainly it's not the cast. Sinise is probably the best actor of the three leads, something proven not only by his Oscar nomination for Forrest Gump but also as one of the founders of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company (one actor who worked with the company was William Petersen, now the star of CSI). Several of his fellow cast members are also first rate actors. Part of the problem is that CSI: New York opposite the original Law & Order. Another problem seems to be that the subject matter has in some cases been too "down market" and gloomy. Indeed CBS is reported to have told the producers to "lighten" the show up; to show the more glamourous side of New York. The biggest thing seems to be that a lot of viewers - or at least a lot of fans - are being hypercritical of the show, and in my opinion unfairly so. Interestingly, while some people expect CSI: New York to be cancelled an analysis of ratings indicates that on most nights the show finishes second in overall ratings and, when there's a new episode it usually finishes first in the 18-49 age group ahead of Law & Order. (There was a major ratings dip last week apparently based on the high ratings that NBC's show Revelations received and apparently staying on to watch Law & Order. I'm not one of them, and I'm afraid you won't be seeing a review of Revelations in this blog.)

I don't pretend to be the voice of the audience, but I like CSI: New York. In terms of format it tends to be much closer to the original CSI, and corrects the things that critics of CSI: Miami say are wrong with that series. In fact I think that the biggest problem the New York show faces - besides being opposite Law & Order of course - is that some people are either unwilling to accept anything but the original CSI or are unwilling to give CSI: New York the time to develop that they gave CSI: Miami and indeed the original CSI. If the show is cancelled - which I don't expect to happen - because of this it will be a pity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

TV On DVD - April 19, 2005

Another relatively weak week on the DVD front, in part because several things that TV Shows on DVD has listed have been delayed.

But first a word from our sponsors.

Or at least about sponsors. I'd like to run a bit of an informal poll. Money grubbing whore that I am, I am considering becoming an associate. What I'd like to do (assuming that I can) is link the weekly TV on DVD titles to the appropriate site. I know it won't bring in a lot of money - in the time that I've had the Google Adsense ads I've racked up the magnificent sum of $8.40 - but at the very least it will help me next time I want to buy something from Amazon. Still, I don't want to seem overly commerical, and maybe you guys can give me some better advice.

And now, without further ado we return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Blue's Clues - Blue's Room: Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
- Well I'm a little old for Blue's Clues and I don't get to see my two year old nephew nearly enough to know how he reacts to it. Still, what I've seen seems innocuous enough. I just wish that the network weasels at the CBC would reconsider releasing some of their classic kids shows, like The Friendly Giant and Chez Helene as well as Mr. Dress-up. CBC execs contend that The Friendly Giant and Chez Helene aren't active and up to date enough for modern kids, but the audience keeps renewing itself and the shows are amazingly gentle, and way better than a purple dinosaur, a blue dog or a group of guys calle The Wiggles. (BTW this isn't available in Canada yet.)

The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey: The Complete Series
- Captain Cousteau was a staple of my childhood, to the point where teachers would tell us to watch whenever The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was on. His shows were always worth the time in terms of educational value and sheer beauty, so sight unseen this one gets a heartfelt recommendation from me. (Just to let you know, Cousteau's most famous research ship Calypso sank in Singapore harbour in 1996. Carnival Cruises is restoring the ship with a completion date set for the end of 2005.)

Dynasty: Season 1
- From the sublime to the ridiculous. The first season is the one without Joan Collins, so the cat-fight quotient is way down. Actually the first season was almost the last. The series tended to be regarded as a very weak Dallas clone and was on the edge of being cancelled. It was only when Esther Shapiro came up with the idea of bringing on Elizabeth Taylor to play Alexis Carrington that the series was renewed - then they found out that Liz wasn't interested!

Garfield & Friends: Volume 3
- It is accepted wisdom in the rec.arts.comics.strips newsgroup that Garfield has long since stopped actually being funny. The TV series on the other hand apparently seems to get funnier as time goes by. Amazingly enough it ran for six years (which is quite amazing for a cartoon even today) and only ended in 1995.

Miracles: The Complete Series
- I never saw this show but by all accounts I missed something spectacular. When the show premiered it apparently drew large ratings, but was largely killed by the Iraq War coverage on ABC. Six episodes were aired on ABC before it was cancelled, although 13 were made. This set contains all 13.

That '70s Show, Volume 2
- Never watched it. I lived through the '70s (and it wasn't one of my best times - I was 4F in the Sexual Revolution), why would I want to watch a show about it?

CSI - A Tale Of Three Series: Miami

At the end of the second season of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation a case sent Catherine Willows and Warrick Brown from Las Vegas to Miami where they worked with a Miami based CSI unit, Thus was the audience introduced to Lieutenant Horatio Caine and the characters of the new series, CSI: Miami.

The creation of CSI: Miami wasn't as smooth as might have been Hoped. CBS, having found themselves with a surprise hit in the original CSI decided that they could catch lightning in a bottle a second time with another CSI series. Other people weren't quite so sure or quite so enthusiastic. William Petersen, who was credited as one of the original show's producers as well as the leading actor in the series, was particularly vocal. His position was that the series should be allowed to run at least five years before a spinoff was tried. Even today the actors on the original CSI are more than a little disdainful of the spinoffs. Still the executives at CBS and Alliance-Atlantis, as well as Jerry Bruckheimer and series creator Anthony Zuiker, were sure that a second series could work, and so, in September 2003, CSI: Miami debuted as a series.

The selection of Miami as the site for the second series was inspired. The city has always had a stylish, almost exotic image which was reinforced by Miami Vice, a series full of art deco buildings and pastel colours. While CSI: Miami doesn't play up the exotic aspect as much as the older show (probably because most interiors and exteriors are shot in California rather than Florida), it does have its own distinct feel. Use of a yellow tint for exterior scenes is intended to create the psychological impression of heat in much the same way that shooting at night creates an impression about Las Vegas.

It wasn't entirely clear sailing for the new show. Cast as Horatio Caine was David Caruso, an actor best remembered for walking out of NYPD Blue after the first season in the mistaken impression that he had a big movie career in his future. There was a certain amount of antipathy in some fans of the original show directed against him for that. Also retained from the pilot were Emily Proctor as ballistics expert Calliegh Duquesne, Adam Rodriquez as Eric Delko, and Khandi Alexander as Chief Coroner Alexx Woods. Rory Cochrane was also in the pilot as Tim Speedle, but the character of Speedle had been changed considerably between the pilot and the series. In the pilot Speedle had been upbeat and enthusiastic, but as the series progressed he became increasingly downbeat and even cynical. By the time that Cochrane decided to leave the series (to concentrate on his movie career, although
his IMDB biography states that he grew tired of the medical and scientific terminology used in the show) Speedle looked on crime scene investigation as just a job. In an effort to recreate the dynamic between Grissom (William Petersen) and Willows (Marg Helgenberger) that existed in the original series, a new character named Megan Donner (played by another NYPD Blue alumnus, Kim Delaney) was added. This caused more than a little friction on the set and Delaney was off the show after about half a season.

The departure of Delaney was a clear signal that while CSI: Miami may be a spinoff it is scarcely a copy. The dynamic of the show is different from the "mothership". While the original CSI is very much an ensemble show, to the point where there is at least one episode where Willows and Grissom - the leading characters - are absent except for all but one and two scenes respectively, CSI: Miami is very much about Horatio Caine. In fact that's probably a major reason for Delaney's departure; as much as anything her character wasn't able to establish herself alongside Caine. His private life is far more exposed than anyone on either the original show or CSI: New York, and certainly more than those of his supporting characters. Horatio is a former member of the Bomb Squad who became a Crime Scene Investigator, although he's clearly more at home in the field or in the interrogation room. We know that Horatio had a brother, another cop killed while undercover on a drug case (apparently anyway), and that he is in love with his sister-in-law, Detective Yelena Salas (played by Sofia Milos), which complicates their working relationship since she works a lot of cases with him. Complicating matters further is that she is involved with the rather slimy Internal Affairs officer, Rick Stetler, who is Horatio's nemesis within the department. It is difficult to imagine an episode of CSI: Miami without David Caruso being present. Although this is in part because of the way his character is written, it is also because none of the other major characters - and maybe none of the actors - is strong enough to fully carry an episode on their own. Of the investigators, Emily Proctor's character is about the closest to being able to carry an episode but it is difficult to imagine her character as the main one for a whole episode. Certainly the other two investigators - Adam Rodriguez's Delko and Ryan Wolfe, played by Jonathon Togo - don't work as leading characters yet. I think perhaps this weakness of CSI: Miami is a direct result of the decision to make Caine such a dominant figure. The chemistry that exists between the characters on the original CSI doesn't exist as strongly on this show. The problem is that it doesn't exist because it doesn't have to because these characters are only meant to support Caine, not to be anything approaching his equal.

Monday, April 18, 2005

This Old House On Speed

One thing is for sure: viewers of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will never be mistaken for a show where you can learn anything. A one hour commercial for Sears and Disney, yes. An example of a show that is heartwarming well beyond the point of cloying, undoubtedly. An example of bad amateur comedy, almost certainly. But a show where you can seriously learn anything about renovations or improving your home? You must be joking. Who'd watch that?

Originally I wanted to write this as a "compare and contrast" exercise with a show that NBC had aired on Sunday called Home Intervention which featured designer Vern Yip from Trading Spaces but for a variety of reasons (well one actually; I forgot to turn the timer on the VCR on before I had a nap and so didn't tape it - I've been taking a lot of naps lately) I missed it. Still - and despite the fact that Sunday's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was previously aired episode - I decided to press on with the reviewing process. I will admit that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a show that I watch on occasion, usually when Cold Case is a repeat - and I don't feel like having a nap - and I have to admit that the show is entertaining in a "they must be doing this on the cheap" sort of way. Or at least they must be doing the production on the cheap, since I be they run up a big bill for construction materials not to mention labour.

A typical episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition starts with the design team, led by former Trading Spaces carpenter Ty Pennington, in their luxury bus watching a video from the people they are going to help. Somehow it all has the feel of "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to..." from Mission: Impossible mixed with those videos of people in the third world that Sally Struthers used to voice-over. The people usually have some sort of health emergency or a recent death in the family which makes them "worthy" (and believe me I'm not saying they aren't but when you consider how many applications the show must get in season, how do you decide that the mother with two adopted kids - their birth mother was a drug addict - and a contractor that took the money and ran gets a makeover before or even instead of the woman who has cancer). The family story usually prompts some "ahs" from the assembled "design team" and the encouragement of "touching" Ty. Then they arrive at the house and "goofy" Ty takes over. Out comes the bullhorn that has rapidly become Ty's trademark (you just know that if he had more than one he'd try the Bart Simpson trick) and to the shock of the family in question - and presumably the consternation of their neighbours - Ty yells for the family to show themselves. Thus it begins. In the course of the next 30 minutes (adding in commercials will pretty much take it to the right length) of TV time and seven days of real time the show tears out all the bad stuff - or sometimes just tears down the whole house - and builds up what is usually a spectacular new home. Frequently there's some sort of cameo appearance by some celebrity who shows up for a minute or two to talk contribute something to the place. Then in the last 15 minutes they show it to the family who are appropriately appreciative.

The idea of the show is that the design team will come up with a super special design that will not only reflect the family's needs but also their interests (with plenty of products from Sears) but also be able to do it during the seven days that the family is off on an enforced vacation (frequently at a Disney resort or cruise). The whole thing must take tremendous logistical work before hand of course. Ask any builder and he'll tell you that just the process of getting city building permits can take months and we're supposed to believe that Ty and his crew not only assess the family's needs but throw together the design in about a day and get the permits either for massive additions or building a totally new house? Sorry, I ain't buying it. There are other questions of course. How does a family which can't afford to renovate their home in the first place manage to pay the taxes on a newly reconstructed palace, which is frequently better than any other house in the neighborhood? Not to mention the increased utility bills from all the new appliances and plasma TVs (supplied by Sears or have I mentioned them). I don't know that many viewers think of it, but I worry that some of the people who have been forced to give up their new house. Indeed
the Pope Family who were featured in a 2003 episode are facing a property tax bill that doubled to $6,500, and an electrical bill that went more than tripled as well as a potential state and federal income tax liability of $664,500 based on the amount of goods and services used in building their new house.

That said the show is good, entertaining, television. Ty Pennington has a certain goofy, frenetic charisma that works well on TV. The design team is good if a little overly fond of themed rooms for kids. However, for me the real stars of the show are the ones who don't get much credit - the contractors and building tradespeople. It's estimated than on a recent episode in the Phoenix area approximately 1,600 tradespeople were working to build the house. In the case of the Pope Family (mentioned above) the estimated value of labour plus goods in the form of construction materials as well as appliances (from Sears mostly and probably donated) was $1.5 million, and according to
a subcontractor who worked on a show ABC pays for nothing, refuses to allow any logo other than the general contractor's to be shown, and gives only a brief credit to subs at the end of the episode (the kind of credit that runs at 150 mph and generally gets squished for previews of the next show). Clearly it take a lot to rebuild a home in five days and I can't help wondering if it isn't building up unrealistic expectations in more ways than one.

Friday, April 15, 2005

CSI - A Tale Of Three Series: Las Vegas

Nobody gave CSI: Crime Scene Investigation much of a chance when it debuted in 2000. The hot show that year was supposed to be the remake of The Fugitive starring Tim Daly and Mikelti Williamson in the roles played by David Jansen and Barry Morse in the original series. CSI wasn't given much of a chance because it was "science" and conventional wisdom had it that people didn't want "science". As so often happens, conventional wisdom was wrong. The Fugitive was a colossal dud, in part I think because the producers were unable to capture qualities that made the original work and indeed weren't working hard to try, while CSI so dominated its Friday night time slot that CBS decided to try it against NBC's dominant comedy lineup on Thursday night. At 9 p.m. Eastern it went up against Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me on NBC and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire on ABC. It killed Millionaire (although so did overexposure) and eventually pushed Will & Grace into an earlier time slot, while Just Shoot Me was moved to a different night. Not only that, the series was so strong in reruns that CBS has used CSI reruns during the regular season as temporary replacements for series that have been cancelled and for which no replacement is available. In addition they've added two spin off series to the mix as well as a host of imitators. So what made the original CSI so successful? After all, it wasn't apparent in the beginning - ABC rejected the show as being "too confusing" for the ordinary viewer and San Francisco Chronicle reviewer John Carman said that the reason a show with this take on investigating crimes hadn't been done before was that it was "boring". (On the other hand he like Bette Midler's show.)

The biggest thing that the show has going for it is the cast and crew. While William Petersen was scarcely a household name before CSI, he did have fans from movies like To Live And Die in LA and Manhunter. Playing Gil Grissom isn't a major step for Petersen, but playing him with a mixture of laid back humour and quiet thoughtful eccentricity would seem to be a departure for the actor who appeared in those two movies where he played intense characters. Yet the show doesn't really revolve around him. While Marg Helgenberger's Catherine Willows may not be Grissom's equal she is in some ways a more rounded - and grounded - character. She has a personal life and a back story, and it's not clear that Grissom does. Certainly we know more about her past than we do about his, and it's a not entirely savory past either. Of course, Catherine is the exception rather than the rule simply because we know more about her past than that of the other characters. The secondary roles of Sarah Sidle (Jorja Fox), Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), Nick Stokes (George Eads), and police Captain Jim Brass have personal lives that only appear when they have some relevancy to the story being told, and that isn't all that often. In some ways we know more about two of the supporting characters - former DNA expert and now junior investigator Greg Sanders, and Coroner Dr. Albert Robbins - than we do about the others. Indeed, Sanders may give us something of an insight into the younger Grissom if only because Greg is a person of catholic interests and a scientific way of thinking who gives up focusing on a scientific specialty (DNA for Greg, Forensic entomology for Grissom) in order to see the wider picture.

Writing and direction are also important to the series. The show is in essence a police procedural but the procedure is different in that the focus is as much as proving how it was done as it is on proving who did it. While other shows depend on eye witnesses to make their case, on all of the CSI shows the focus is on the evidence because the evidence doesn't lie and more importantly doesn't interpret itself. This brings up a major aspect of the show, the "oh wow" and "oh gross" moments. The producers of CSI don't just explain what the evidence is or what happened, they show it. If a victim has been shot for instance, they won't just explain the damage that the bullet did, they show the path the bullet traveled when it entered the body and the damage that it does. They'll also recreate the crime as envisioned by Grissom or one of the others. As for the "oh gross" factor, they have shown more than a few extremely graphic autopsies; in Thursday night's episode they showed Robbins removing the brain from a corpse, and at various times they've shown considerable amounts of blood.

The final piece of the puzzle for the original CSI is that it's set in Las Vegas on the night shift. In the first episode, Grissom tells a character that the Las Vegas crime lab is the second best in the country. In fact the real Las Vegas crime lab is the second busiest in the United States behind only the FBI lab at Quantico Virginia. This may be why the series was set in Las Vegas, but the city is very much a character in it's own right. It's important that it's the night shift because the perception is that Las Vegas comes alive at night. The city is almost ordinary in the daylight but when the neon shines it acquires a glamour that hides the less savory side. It's a city where the bizarre can happen because the city actively promotes that aspect of it's personality. You expect that almost anything can happen in Vegas and in the end it helps to both set the mood and allow us to suspend our disbelief.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

TV On DVD - We're Back

After skipping the listing of new releases of TV shows on DVD last week for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being that last week's listing was weak, and late thank you very much I'm reviving the feature. From now on however the listings will come from because you might as well go right to the source.

All In The Family: Complete Fourth Season
- People do realize that you were supposed to sympathize with Meathead Mike rather than Archie, right? The problem is that there are a lot more Archies in this world (hard working guys trying to get along in life) than there are Mikes (overeducated guys who have a good theoretical game but aren't in the trenches), and they watch TV... a lot of TV.

The A-Team: Season 2
- I love it when a plan comes together. This was the season where Marla Heasley replaced Melinda Cullea as the female on the show until George Peppard let it be known that girls had cooties and didn't want them on his show. The show was so far away from reality anyway, given all the car crashes and automatic weapons fire which never gave anyone anything more than abrasions and contusions, that not having a regular cast member of the sex that makes up more than half the population manage not to make anyone look gay.

The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete First Season
- Some things are just perfect, and this is one of them. Everything just fit together perfectly, even better than the later Newhart. If you want a diagram for the perfect sitcom, this is it.

Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, Volume 1
- I love this show...whenever I can remember that it's on that is. Full of topical references mingled with self-referencing to the Hanna-Barbera character library and a nearly surreal sense of humour. Fred Flintstone as Tony Soprano - classic.

The Hitchhiker: The Complete Seasons 1 and 2
- I refer you to this statement from TVNorth, the guide to Canadian TV series: "Dreadful, dreadful fantasy series that typified the worst of early pay television. Inane storylines, terrible direction, and overblown acting conspired to sink this to the bottom of the genre. Pointless introductions featured the laconic Hitchhiker, neither mysterious nor frightening, traipsing through an unnamed American desert, offering simple-minded moralizations about the show's goings-on." So of course its on DVD.

The Jeffersons: Complete Third Season
- I hate to admit this but I've always enjoyed The Jeffersons more than All In The Family, and certainly more than Maude (I never watched Good Times). I think that the big thing is that The Jeffersons has more of a timeless quality. Archie going on about Nixon and the war in Vietnam dates the show, but George going on about a business deal or pretending to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson could be 30 years ago or today.

Knight Rider: Season 2
- The genius of the late Brandon Tartikoff is that he could make a dumb joke about creating a series with a hunky leading man who had six lines in each episode and the car does the rest of the talking and turn it into a series with a hunky leading man where the car does most of the talking. Granted David Hasselhof has more than six lines in an episode but the principle holds.

Invader Zim: Box Set
- Okay I've never heard of this one.

Magnum PI: Complete Second Season
- A completely marvellous melding of actors, location and producer. This is the series that Donald P. Bellisario and Tom Selleck are going to be remembered for. There's always talk about a reunion movie but I hope it never happens. I want to remember Magmum as a thirty-ish guy living high off Robin Masters' hog and doing some occassional detective work.

Sledge Hammer: Season 2
- A cult classic, but I never joined the cult. In fact I don't think I ever saw an episode.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast: Volume 3
- I know I haven't seen this and I'm not sure it's ever been seen in Canada. In fact I don't think that I've ever seen the original series that Space Ghost came from.

Teen Titans: Volume 2 Switched
- This does air in Canada but I've never seen it. I think the anime stylizations of the characters - who I know from the comic books of the 1980s - really turned me off so I don't watch. Not a comment on quality though.

Trailer Park Boys: Season 4
- Never watched it. They say it's quite good but from the commercials I've seen I just don't find the characters likeable enough to get me to watch.

There's also some Mr Rogers episodes and three episodes of Goosebumps coming out today as well as something called Viva La Bam that I not only have never heard of but undoubtedly don't want to know about.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Series That Came In From The Cold

Canadian TV drama series don't have that good a reputation, and in many cases they don't deserve a good reputation. Still there's one thing that Canadian producers do that is surprising. They come up with ideas first. Before there was Crossing Jordan there was DaVinci's Inquest, based in part on the true story of former British Columbia Chief Coroner Larry Campbell (Campbell ran for and won the office of Mayor of Vancouver; there are rumours that his fictional counterpart will become the mayor of the fictional Vancouver). Before that there was Quincy M.E. on NBC in the 1970s, but before that came CBC's Wojeck in the 1960s starring John Vernon as a character based on the real Toronto Coroner Dr. Morton Schulman. Before there was CSI there was a little known Canadian show from the early 1970s called The Collaborators focusing on forensic scientists working for the Ontario Provincial Police in Toronto. And then there's Cold Case.

Cold Case is a direct steal of the Canadian series Cold Squad. In Cold Case you have a squad of detectives, led by Detective Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris), who investigate previously unsolved cases in Philadelphia. In Cold Squad you have a squad of detectives, led by Sergeant Ali McCormick (Julie Stewart), who investigate previously unsolved cases in Vancouver. Cold Case is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who is a partner with Alliance-Atlantis Productions on CSI. Cold Squad is produced by Alliance Atlantis Productions. Bruckheimer claims never to have seen Cold Squad, and I suppose it's possible, but the structural similarities are close enough to be scary.

None of this is to say that Cold Case is a bad show - it's not. Indeed it's usually compelling entertainment. It's also far more stylish than it's Canadian counterpart (although Cold Squad has it's moments as in a recent episode where Stewart wears an assortment of gaudy wigs apparently as a device to show us how the suspect views her). The show tells a portion of each story through flashbacks, accompanied by the music of the day - or a close approximation. Another of the show's conceits is introducing a character, suspect or witness, as they appeared at the time of the crime and then as they appear today. From time to time after that they'll snap between the way the character looks today and the way they looked at the time of the crime. Each episode begins with some aspect of the discovery of the crime and then the file box with the evidence being put into storage. It ends with Rush, or one of the other detectives in the squad putting the box back into storage with the word "Closed" written on it. Once the crime is solved we see see a montage of the people still living who were involved in the case, as they were and then as they are. Finally there's always the image of the victim, usually smiling now that their case has been solved. As I said, very stylized.

None of this would work if the writing wasn't good and the cast solid. A show like this is usually dependent on the quality of the mysteries and for the most part they're solid if at times predictable. The initial suspect will usually be the wrong person and lead us to a surprising conclusion. The writers seem a little heavy handed when dealing with the personal lives of the various characters, and while I'm one of the few who would like to see a bit more of the characters on CSI away from work, I could do with less of the personal stories for the people on Cold Case. The emotional roller coaster that Scotty Valens (played by Danny Pino) has been on over the last little while has been distracting, and I guess I need my hand held a bit because I don't really get the reason for the coldness between Rush and Valens after Scotty slept with Lilly's bar waitress sister.

The actors in Cold Case are well chosen. Kathryn Morris's Lilly Rush is suitably unglamorous, with a hair style that can charitably be described as haphazard, but with a first class mind and a strong ability as an interrogator, qualities she shares with her Canadian counterpart (well except for the hair). Pino's character is younger and I suppose a bit of a hunk (although I'm not qualified to judge). He's also impetuous and sometimes a bit of a loose cannon. Administration is in the hands of Lieutenant John Stillman, who is respected by his people but not afraid to use discipline if needed. Perhaps the most interesting supporting character are the ever calm veteran Will Jeffries, played by Thom Barry, and the tough but funny Detective Nick Vera who works hard when interrogating a suspect. Of the four main supporting characters, we know the least about Jeffries, but not knowing about him is somehow appropriate for his character.

Cold Case is definitely a keeper on Sunday night which used to be a poor night for good TV. Indeed Sunday is becoming overcrowded with good shows as every network in the US except CBS and UPN are programming new shows instead of theatrical or made for TV movies. It's sometimes a hard choice between Cold Case, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and Charmed, and that's just at 7 p.m. Central. I just wish that someone in charge of Cold Case would acknowledge a bit of a debt to the real innovator, Cold Squad.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

I Love Franny

Let me start out with a disclaimer. I was predisposed to like Living With Fran, and that's largely because I like Fran Drescher. If The Nanny was a retread of I Love Lucy with different accents (and think about it: Max and Fran as Ricky and Lucy, Niles and C.C. as Fred and Ethel) it was still funnier than a lot of shows of the same period. Besides, Fran Drescher made me laugh during one of the darker periods of my life and for that I am eternally grateful. That said, I will now state that I am somewhat disappointed with Living With Fran. The WB aired two episodes of the show tonight (separated by an episode of Reba, a show which is a guilty pleasure of mine) and while it's not the worst comedy currently on the air, it doesn't live up to the standards set by The Nanny, at least not yet.

Drescher plays Fran Reeves. Fran has been divorced for a couple of years and of course lives in a typical TV divorcee's house - big and with lots of rooms that are in the process of expensive renovations - that indicates that she took her ex to the cleaners in the divorce. What sets Fran apart from her time slot neighbour Reba is that not only is she sexually active but she's living with a much younger man. How much younger? Well it's not explicitly stated in the episodes that aired tonight but at one point he was supposed to be younger than Fran's son, although that concept seems to have been abandoned. Riley - or "R-dog" as he suggests the son can call him - is a 26 year-old contractor played with a certain charming density by Ryan McPartlin, formerly of the soap Passions, while the son, Josh, is played by new comer Ben Feldman. In the pilot episode Josh returns home after being expelled from Medical School (he suffered a nervous breakdown after 72 hours and 46 cups of coffee, and attacked a male nurse with a bone saw). Josh has issues, and they aren't improved with the jock who is now sleeping with his mother, or that they've changed his old room into a home gym (based on the equipment in that room she must have hit the jackpot in the divorce). To top it off there's a bass player named Duane (Branden Williams) living in Josh's old closet. About the only thing stable is that - like all sitcom siblings - Josh and his sister (Misti Traya) couldn't agree on what colour the White House is.

Originally called Shacking Up the show probably should be more ground breaking than it actually is. Except for the fact that Drescher's character is in her 40s and living with a man almost half her age, this could be just about any current sitcom, the elements are all there. It's a good idea, particularly in a world where people are wondering if Ashton Kutcher is going to make Demi Moore a mother again, but the execution may not be up to the job.
The writing, particularly in the pilot episode felt weak and consequently the laughs seemed forced. Misti Traya is good as the teenaged sister, but the character is the typical sitcom rebellious teen. Feldman is quite good as the neurotic son, but has to contend with writing that at times makes him seem like an obnoxious jerk. In the two episodes screened on Friday, Branden Williams played a minimal role in the first episode, and was totally absent in the second. Actually the writing seemed to improve in the second episode shown, which happened to be the tenth episode shot. It also benefitted from the presence of Marilu Henner as Ryan's mother, who is as set against the relationship as Josh is, although she softens her objections when she hears the story of how the couple came together.

Of course the series will live and die on Fran Drescher's portrayal of Fran Reeves. At various times she's a woman at her sexual peak with a younger man to make love to, a very Jewish mother (she almost seems to be channelling the Sylvia Fine character played by Renee Taylor in The Nanny), and a woman who is finally happy with her life. As Fran describes her life she went from her parents' house directly to her husband's house and only now has found happiness in her life. Her son even notices it - he says that he's never really seen her smile during her marriage, to which she replied that the only time she'd smiled was when she threw her husband out. Drescher has to sell us on that and also that she's the sot of woman who can attract and keep a man almost half her age. It's not just a question of looks - at 47 Drescher is gorgeous - it's also a question of attitude. I think she carries it off but the question is how long she can carry it. In The Nanny she had a strong supporting cast most notably the extremely versatile Daniel Davis and Lauren Lane to work off of. In the new series her supporting cast is much weaker meaning that the show is even more of a potential showcase for Drescher than The Nanny was. I expect that I'll keep watching if only to see Fran work, and hope that the show improves around her. For now it goes on the guilty pleasure list.

Friday, April 08, 2005

This Old Show

I think I've mentioned that I like home renovation shows. The grand-daddy of all home renovation shows in North America is This Old House. Through twenty five years and three very different hosts, the show has been a standard on most PBS stations with some, such as WTVS Detroit (which serves eastern and central Canada including Saskatoon) airing the show in prime time, along with its much newer companion show Ask This Old House.

I haven't seen every episode of This Old House. I pretty much missed the fifth or sixth season when the nature of the show changed radically from what it had been and would be later. Until that time the show would buy a property, renovate it and put it on the market. One season they actually built, from the ground up, an energy efficient house that had all of the bells and whistles that, at the time, were expected from an energy efficient property - solar heating, partially buried structure, heavy insulation, and solar cells for power generation. It was a nice house but I gather they had trouble selling it because the next season was spent doing "small" one or two episode projects in and around the Boston area in a style much like the current Ask This Old House. Subsequent jobs have primarily been "sweat equity" projects where home owners have been required to provide some of the labour and more importantly, most of the money.

Over the past 25 years the show has had three very different hosts. The first host was Bob Villa, a Miami born contractor who hosted the show for the first ten years (1979-89). He was selected as host because of his background in journalism and because his work on restoring an Italianate style house won an award from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine. In the beginning he very much was the show, but over the next couple of years carpenter and (at the time) general contractor Norm Abram effectively became the show's co-host and is the only on-air personality who has been with the show since the beginning. The Villa-Abram relationship was at least in part the genesis for the characters of Tim Taylor and Al Borland in Home Improvement. Villa left the show in 1989, reportedly over a conflict over advertising that Villa had done for Time-Life Books and his relationship with Sears. He was replaced by Steve Thomas. Thomas, who had previously worked in the construction industry in various capacities, but at the time probably best known as a sailor who had written a book and made an episode in the PBS television show Adventure about his experience learning about star path navigation from a master navigator in Micronesia. Thomas was with the show from 1989 to 2003, a period which saw Abram secure his position as co-host as well as a start his own PBS show The New Yankee Workshop. This period also saw the emergence of general contractor Tom Silva, plumbing and heating contractor Rich Trethewy, and landscaper Roger Cook as major figures on the show. In Thomas's last year as host a companion show Ask This Old House was started. This show had the This Old House experts travelling around the country (although the country seemed to consist mostly of the Boston area) helping ordinary people with home renovation questions. One of the people who appeared on that show was a young man named Kevin O'Connor. He became the current host of This Old House and Ask This Old House in 2003.

A lot of factors help make the show work. O'Connor is an ideal host because, while he is articulate he is also an every man. A vice president in Sports Finance with the old Fleet Bank, O'Connor isn't a professional in the building trades. As a result there's a feeling that he's learning something at the same time as the audience. He contrasts nicely with master carpenter Norm Abram. Another factor is that the principal trades people are not only proficient in their areas but are actually doing the jobs,because they are. Indeed Villa has said that while he was hosting the show he was also continuing to work as a contractor - the salary for doing This Old House was never great enough that he could make a living from doing the program. While Rich, Tommy and Roger are polished and capable of explaining what they're doing, you are never permitted to forget that they are in fact amateurs in the TV business, and if it went away tomorrow they'd still make a very good living in their respective trades.

Another factor of This Old House is the projects they undertake. One of the complaints about the show is that the projects are bigger than what the average person would undertake. They aren't renovating a $100,000 bungalow or ranch style house, a lot of the projects have renovation budgets larger than that. However big projects allow them to do two things that the show does very well: show the techniques that are used, and show innovative products. In the episode that aired this Thursday on WTVS, viewers not only saw the manufacturing process for polyurethane moldings but also the installation process for installing a window casing using the product. Even failures can be used to illustrate a point. In the same episode it was revealed that the oak lintel that had been intended as a fireplace mantle wasn't approved by the local building inspector despite what the people involved in installing it regarded as adequate protection. To appeal the decision test results were needed that proved that the installation was safe. The testing techniques were explained as were the standards that had to be met. When the tests were completed it was discovered that the lintel was in fact inadequately protected and because of time constraints on the project it would have to be replaced rather than been brought up to standards. It's true that few of us are going to try to turn a 150 year old barn into a home, but it's also true that the techniques for installing a wood laminate floor don't change much whether you're putting down 1000 square feet or 50.

This Old House is an interesting combination of a instruction and entertainment. Most home owners have renovation projects they need or want to undertake - I know I have - and it is also a fact that most guys who have been through a couple of shop classes think that they're capable of at least trying most jobs. What This Old House does is show the wannabe handyman how to do projects and new ways to do projects. They also make clear that there are some projects that the home owner needs to hire professionals for. And in a rather strange sort of way it's sort of entertaining to watch professionals doing their job and trying to explain it.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Nine Days Of the Doctor - Day 9

Here it is finally, Nine Days Of The Doctor - Day 9

Christopher Eccleston: 2005

Companion: Rose Tyler (Billie Piper)

Comments: The first thing I have to say is WOW! The second thing I have to say is that Christopher Eccleston is a bloody idiot for giving up this job, although to be fair a recent report indicates that the BBC was aware when he took the part that he didn't intend to go beyond one year.

The first episode focusses on Rose Tyler. Rose is a clerk in a department store who starts out having a not so bad day. She's got a good job and a boyfriend and so what if she quit high school. But when the security guard gives her the money to take to the guy who buys the group lottery tickets things start to go a bit badly. "Wilson" is supposed to be in the basement but instead of finding him she finds a bunch of living shop dummies, and an odd sort of bloke in a black leather jacket and tight jeans who proceeds to get her out of the department store and then blows the place up, but not without telling us that he's called The Doctor. Rose is so intent on getting away that she doesn't notice an odd blue telephone booth.

The first episode is very much structured as a way to introduce new viewers to the show while still keeping long time fans involved. By focussing on Rose and her attempts to deal with what she's experiencing the viewers get a comprehensive introduction to the characters. Besides her boyfriend Mickey, Rose has a rather eccentric mother who brings more than a little comic relief to the situation. Through a character named Clive Finch the mystery nature of The Doctor is brought into focus. Clive's an Internet conspiracy nut but he's got a real one this time, full of cryptic mentions in ministerial diaries and of course pictures. Pictures of the Ninth Doctor at the Kennedy Assassination, with a family who did not board the Titanic in 1912, and a drawing that washed up on the shores of Sumatra after the explosion of Krakatoa. When Rose asks him what he thinks The Doctor is he says that he thinks The Doctor is an immortal, an alien and that his only companion is Death. Well two out of three ain't bad. The point is that Clive is our introduction to the mystery that is The Doctor, a mystery that Rose is already immersed in and doesn't really know it. This isn't to say that we don't see a lot of The Doctor, but we only see the layers of his character revealed gradually. At first he seems like a "nutter" but in time Rose comes to realize that he isn't crazy and that he really is alien. Unlike previous Doctors, he seems - initially at least - to want to keep his distance from Rose and humans in general. There are lots of nice touches for him as well. It's fairly clear that he's only recently regenerated; when he looks into a mirror at Rose's home he comments on his new face and particularly the ears. His explanation of who he is has all the charm mystery and wonder that you could ever expect from The Doctor telling us about himself and leaving us no wiser than we were before. It's his big thing - he's charmingly mysterious and always has been.

The selection of the villain in the first episode is perfect. The Nestene Consciousness, working through it's plastic agents the Autons (the shop dummies, equipped with guns in their hands) is an old villain, having appeared twice during Pertwee's time in the role. It's familiar a dangerous but not major foe like the Daleks, the Cybermen or even the Sontarans. Better, this time they gave the Consciousness a reason for its actions, which has also provided us with a tantalizing glimpse at what has been going on since the last time we've seen The Doctor, and it's not pleasant. There's been a war and the Doctor fought in it. The war destroyed the Nestene's food planets. Earth is ideal.

The dialogue is absolutely spot on, a mix of technobabble, nice speeches and plenty of sharp banter. Russell T. Davies, who wrote most of this season (he's written 11 episodes; Steve Moffat who create Coupling wrote the other two), got the mix just right. The banter in particular was nice. After telling Rose about all the things the Consciousness will be able to control to attack humanity - the shop dummies, the telephones, the cables - Rose adds "The breast implants." Earlier Rose asks The Doctor why he sounds like he comes from the North (Eccleston has a pronounced Lancashire accent) to which he replies "Lots of planets have a North." In terms of effects the show is a massive step up from the old continuing series. The interior of the Tardis is no longer the old "white room" but looks convincingly alien, and there are plenty of CGI explosions if that's your taste.

I have a few quibbles. First, I'm not convinced that the one episode stories will work as well as the old half-hour serial format. I'd much rather they tried to find stories that will work over a two hour arc with a cliffhanger in the middle rather than forcing them to be self-contained. I understand that there are some later stories are like that, but would rather see that be the norm rather than the exception to the rule. Another problem I have, and I know it will probably affect many North Americans is the accents. Between Billie Piper's East Enders accent and Eccleston's Lancashire voice it can be a bit hard to pick up on what they're saying. Eccleston has a line where he describes Rose as "blonding" into something. It took Close Captioning for me to realize that he meant "blundering" into something. Other than that I pretty much liked the whole thing, even the re-orchestration of the classic Ron Grainer theme. To steal from Ebert and Roeper, two very emphatic thumbs up!