Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Humble & Fred: open for cash business

The H&F gang (l-r): Sweet Phil, "Humble" Howard Glassman, Eileen
Ross, Fred Patterson. Four people, Five Hours worth of energy
Got up early Wednesday to chat with my old pals "Humble" Howard Glassman and Fred Patterson over at Humble and Fred The "best radio show not on the radio" can be heard on SiriusXM as well as on-line. The boys like to check in on the TV scene every few months and were nice enough to invite me back into their cozy Five Hour Energy Studio in beautiful downtown Etobicoke.
Howard says he's getting pulled into Game of Thrones big time and showed me a cool place to watch TV on the Internet. Shouldn't I be showing him that? We talked everything from Hill Street Blues to The Graham Norton Show, to well gout. You can listen in to the entire show here or jump ahead 53 minutes to catch my segment.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Campbell spins out into two guest roles

Canadians. They're sneaking into TV shows again.
Sunday, for the second week in a row, a Canuck was stealing scenes on Mad Men. That was JAG lead David James Elliott as David Wooster, Don Draper's luncheon date near the beginning of the episode. Elliott was disguised behind those horn rims, unlike Neve Campbell, who was more recognizable when she flew with Draper in last week's opener.
Tuesday night on the second episode of Fargo (10 p.m. ET, FX and FXX Canada), Shawn Doyle (Endgame) gets some face time as Vern Thurman. Rachel Blanchard (Clueless) also grabs a role in the second episode of this shot-in-Calgary series.
The busiest Canadian actor of them all this week is Paul Campbell. Besides playing the lead role of Beckett Ryan on CTV`s Spun Out (Fridays at 8), the Vancouver native can be seen Wednesday at 9 on Global`s comedy Working the Engels and on Thursday as a killer in a new episode of CTV`s Motive.
Were there no guest star opportunities for Campbell this month on Seed? Speaking of Motive, the second year CTV police drama enjoyed a nice bump in the Live+7 Total ratings released by BBM Canada. It added 19.5% more viewers since the overnight tally, settling at 1,216,000 viewers for the April 10 episode.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Super Channel launches When Calls the Heart

Michael Landon, Jr. (right) directs Erin Krakow in tonight's pilot episode
Looking for a little family entertainment? Wednesday night at 8 p.m., Super Channel premieres When Calls the Heart. Shot in a village set on farm land not far from Langley, B.C., the series has been running since January Stateside on the Hallmark Channel. Michael Landon Jr.--son of the actor/writer/director behind such family-friendly fare as Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven--is very much a part of this new series.
I sat next to Landon at the Hallmark TCA dinner last January in Pasadena. Told him I was one of the last reporters to interview his dad. That was back when I was at TV Guide Canada and Landon was working on a new series called Us. He finished the pilot and was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer. I'll never forget our chat--he was full of stories about Bonanza and goofed all over Lorne Greene's horse riding abilities. Sad that he went so young.
Junior says When Calls the Heart is that kind of show his dad would make. "One of the joys for me growing up was the idea that for one hour a night, once a week, we’d actually come together as a family and we would experience a story that would touch all of us," said Landon. "And we would laugh together, we would cry together. And I personally – I miss that. And so, I’m hoping that this gives families a chance to actually come together for an hour."
Set in 1910 in a coal town on Alberta, the series stars Australian Daniel Lissing as a newly-assigned Mountie and Erin Krakow (Army Wives) as a novice school teacher. It's hate at first sight--but we know that won't last.
I wrote about Landon and the series last week for The Canadian Press, you can read that article here. Below is a report from the set I posted here last December:

Welcome to Coal Valley, pardner
LANGLEY, B.C.--This week I took a trip about five hours west and 100 years back in time. This happened Tuesday on location with the cast and crew of When Calls the Heart. The family drama, set in a Western Canadian coal town circa 1910, will premiere late winter/early spring on Super Channel and in January in the U.S. on the Hallmark Channel.
The series stars Erin Krakow (Army Wives) as school teacher Elizabeth Thatcher and Aussie actor Daniel Lissing as Mountie Jack Thornton. Vicki Sotheran and Greg Malcolm are the showrunners with Michael Landon, Jr., an executive producer, along with Michael Shepard, ex- of Thunderbird Films. Veteran director Anne Wheeler put everybody through their paces on a bright and sunny, although surprisingly chilly, Tuesday in December.
A vintage Victrola found in Gowan's office
Production takes place on a 100-acre farm in the heart of B.C.'s wine country. Production Designer Brentan Harron walked a few visiting reporters through an outdoor village created especially for the series. In less than a month, Harron and his team of builders transformed a few empty buildings into saloons, offices, a Mountie outpost complete with jail cells, a grocery store, cafe and several row houses. They even built a mine shaft, trucking hundreds of pounds of ground up tire ash to spread along the ground and walls.
The buildings were all expertly antiqued, rubbed and nicked to look like coal town dwellings. Antique stores were raided for period fixtures, with many nicknack's coming from Calgary including coal oil lamps.
People have told me for years that I belong in the stage
Also from Calgary was an impressive Wild West stagecoach pulled by two large horses, although the wrangler says he can hitch another four up for longer rides. I took a spin with Shepard, publicist Katherine Brodsky and PostMedia's Jonathan Dekel and it was bumpier than the last three weeks of the Leafs schedule.
It truly is astonishing how Harron and his team were able to design, erect and dress so many period buildings in such a short time. The old fashioned paintings on the wall all have to be sourced for copyright infringements, he explained. Even the many labels on the shelves of the grocery store are faked so that no heir to some turn-of-the-century flour manufacturer sends a lawyer letter.
Working the set were the actors and crew members. There were several child actors on this visit, all out in the street playing catch with old leather baseball mitts.
The story finds young school marm Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow) arriving in this coal town to try and teach learnin' to the young 'uns. She has to do this in the town saloon until a proper school house can be re-built. (Much of the place was destroyed in a fire.)
She catches the eye of the local Mountie, Cst. Jack Thornton (Aussie actor Daniel Lissing), and romance ensues.
EP Shepard and scribe Dekel get taken for a buggy ride
Lessing, from Sydney, admits he didn't know much about Mountie's growing up, save for the Dudley Do-Right cartoons his dad was always talking about.
Lori Loughlin (Full House) also stars as Abigail, the local cafe owner.
Ten episodes are slated to run in the New Year on the premium pay-TV service Super Channel, home to such cutting edge U.S. gems as Homeland and Sons of AnarchyWhen Calls The Heart seems to signal a sharp swing toward more heartwarming, family fare for the service.
For more on the series follow this link to the feature I wrote for The Canadian Press.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Billy Bob Thornton puts the "F" in Fargo

Billy Bob Thornton brings menace to FXX's Fargo
Fargo, which premieres Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on FX and FXX Canada, is not Billy Bob Thornton's first time at the TV rodeo.
That came many years ago, before the 58-year-old writer/director/actor won an Oscar and other accolades for playing a string of memorable screen characters in films such as Sling Blade, Bad Santa and Monster's Ball.
"It was either a show called The Judge—one of those things like Divorce Court—or it was Matlock," Thornton told me last January when I asked about his first TV job. Despite his loose cannon reputation, I had a very pleasant chat with the actor at the Fox Network press tour party in Pasadena.
On The Judge, "I was the accused. I was a kidnapper," he recalls.
He was hired in 1987 to shoot one scene on a Matlock episode. Years later, he got a phone call from Andy Griffith congratulating him on his Oscar nomination for Sling Blade. "I said, 'I met you before, I did a Matlock,'" Thornton told Griffith. When the TV legend asked which episode, Thornton told him it was the one titled, The Photographer. (According to IMDb, he played a pawnshop clerk.)
"Oh--I hated that episode," said Griffith.
Thornton was also a regular on the 1992-95 sitcom Hearts Afire, which starred John Ritter and Markie Post. Set in the rural South, the series was created by Linda Bloodworth Thomason and also featured Conchata Ferrell and Ed Asner.
"When I was coming up in the ‘80s, if you did television, that means that there was something wrong," said Thornton. "Now if you do television, it means something’s right."
He cited Matthew McCaunaghey in True Detective as proof the talent pool is tipping TV's way. "They come after us now--television is coming after film actors."
Fargo, inspired by the Coen brothers film from the early '90s, is a 10 episode anthology series. Once this season is done, a whole new cast will tackle a second season. True Detective, which had McConaughey for eight episodes, was built on a similar model.
"When this one was offered to me, I sad, 'Ten episodes, the Coen brothers, it feels like a ten episode movie—why wouldn't you do that?'"
Well, maybe the weather for one thing. Fargo, which co-stars Colin Hanks, Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”), Bob Odenkirk and Kate Walsh, shot in Calgary over the winter and Thornton says it was bloody cold.
Thornton did thaw out long enough to become a CFL fan. Attending a Stampeders game, he was blown away by the sight of Green Rider fans in the buff wearing watermelons on their heads.
On his transition to TV, Thornton said the usual thing certain film actors have been saying lately. That he's "not the guy who stars in Spider-man and things" or a "25-year-old model who's a vampire." Benjamin Bratt said virtually the same thing last month on London on the set of 24: Live Another Day--another limited run series, with 12 episodes taking the place of the old 24-episode order.
"I tend not to do broad comedies," added Thornton. "Those are the only three things you can do [in big budget Hollywood movies these days]. That's sad in a lot of ways."
Thornton says he doesn't watch a lot of series TV--he mainly watches sports--but had seen The Wire, which he views as a game changer.
When he was offered the part of Lorne Malvo--a devilish stranger in town--on Fargo, he felt he better catch up with all the buzz TV shows he'd heard about.
"Saw Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos, Homeland…I could tell it’s a whole different world now," he says.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mad Men 7 opener--brought to you by Accutron

The best moment of Sunday night’s seventh season Mad Men opener was when eye patch-wearing Ken (Aaron Staton) went to throw that earring back to Joan (Christina Hendricks)—and missed by a mile. 
That one bit of physical comedy stood out in an otherwise dark and unsettling episode. Even Mister Comedy Gold himself, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), was off his game Sunday night. The trippy free-love scenes had their moments—especially when he used the phone as a codpiece—but the scenes with his daughter in the restaurant were just odd.
It was, however, hilarious seeing Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) in that preppy tennis shirt with his polo sweater tied around his shoulders. What a dweeb.
So much seemed upside down at the end of the previous season. Creator Matthew Weiner seemed determined to show on Sunday night's episode that life goes on even in the midst of change.
Don (Jon Hamm) was still in career limbo, playing Cyrano to some lumpy marketing dude who keeps bringing him sandwiches. He's sort of back with his wife Megan (Jessica Pare), flying out to the West Coast and congratulating her on getting a call back for the pilot of Bracken's World.
Here Weiner has all the recappers diving back into Wikipedia. Bracken's World was an obscure NBC drama which lasted a season-and-a-half back in 1969-70. It was about Hollywood and starlets and aspiration, so Megan seems well cast. A pre-Airplane! Leslie Neilsen eventually played the title character, the powerful head of Century Studios.
TV is used symbolically throughout Mad Men and it was a big part of Sunday's opener. Don buys Megan a big console TV, which just seems to piss her off. We see him watching Richard Nixon's inauguration speech, placing the start of the season in January of 1969. There's a glimpse of the Joey Bishop Show, ABC's attempt to program in late night opposite Carson. Another time a wide awake Don and Megan are in bed, watching a fairy tale.
There were some inspired music choices. Introducing Don with the Spencer Davis Group's “I’m a Man” blaring was cool. [Originally I had the band misidentified as Chicago, who also covered this song.] Who wouldn’t want to shave (although an electric razor?) and hit the moving sidewalk to that soundtrack?
Seeing Megan pop out of that sporty black convertible Triumph just screamed ‘60s cool. (Loved the clunky big Eldorado parked behind them.) They are, as Megan’s agent tells them later at the LA restaurant, the favourite couple of the moment.
Although they’re not, and both know it. Draper admits as much to the stranger on the plane, played with panache by Mad Men’s latest Canadian, Neve Campbell. Another time, another place, there two renew their membership in the Mile High club.
The scene is so heavy with symbolism it is a wonder the plane was able to get off the ground. She tells of a dead husband and ashes spread not at Pebble Beach but at his second choice, Disneyland (Tom Sawyer Island, to be specific--at least it wasn't "It's a Small World."). He says his wife knows he’s a terrible husband then blurts, “I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel.” 
Campbell with Hamm: Party of Two
The choice of words seem too telegraphed and false. Draper finally bares his soul and he sounds like a character from “As You Like It”? Her earlier pronouncement that her hubby “died of thirst” also seemed a reach. Maybe people just were that much more eloquent in the ‘60s.
What was interesting was how Don took (and offered) comfort to a stranger in a whole new emotional way. When she comes right out and offers to make him happy in the good old fashioned way he says he has to work and declines the opportunity. He then opens a window—ending turbulence. All that was missing was his good angel on his shoulder reflected in the window giving him a thumbs up and a wink.   
It was fun seeing dude from Cougar Town, Dan Byrd, get a little face time as the marketing exec giving Joan fits. 
Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), who seemed poised to takeover Sterling Cooper at the end of last season, instead is being marginalized by the gruff new bosses. She and Don are both in tears at the end of Sunday's opener, hammered home with Vanilla Fudge's psychedelic take on "You Keep Me Hanging On." Symbolism, man, heavy.
The episode was titled, "Time Zones" and even opens with (Don's) copy for Accutron watches. "It's time for a conversation," is the pitch. 
Time is of the essence for Mad Men, beginning its final season (although broken up into two parts, with the real final episodes airing in 2015). Time seems to be running out for several key characters, too, especially Don, Peggy and Roger. I still find the series compelling to watch, for the acting and for the writing. This end game is ramping up expectations which will be difficult to deliver on--just ask the makers of Accutron, or, for that matter, Bracken's World.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Public broadcasting at the crossroads--an open letter to CBC president Hubert Lacroix

This camera--and network--has seen better days
Dear Mr. Lacroix.
I'm not sure this open letter will reach you before some CBC middle manager deletes all links to TV Feeds My Family--if they haven't already. But here goes.
It's the day after, and CBC has taken another shot to the nuts.
The news you had to deliver Thursday in those town hall meetings was terrible. CBC will eliminate 657 jobs over two years and get out of the sports TV business in order to address a $130 million budget shortfall. Ouch.
The reality, as you know, is CBC is already out of the sports TV business. With no dedicated sports channel, it cannot compete with CTV/TSN or Rogers/Sportsnet for big events, big league coverage or, most important of all, viewers. No league nowadays wants to settle for Sunday afternoons on CBC when the other guys have openings 24/7.
The bad news for viewers is the impact this will have on CBC's already slender schedule of regular, prime time, entertainment programming. Your new CBC programming VP Heather Conway calculated that 334 of those full time jobs would come out of her English Canada program branch. CBC News will take the biggest hit, with 115 full time jobs being cut. Another 38 jobs will be lost at Sports--about 40% of that crew. (CBC still has one more Olympic Games to cover--if Korea happens. You says future Olympic bids are still on the table.) Regional cuts will hit 100 staffers. Communications and marketing will chop another 34. Notices will start going out in a month with most employees getting word by August. Severance costs have been factored in, amounting to over $33 million.
Thursday you candidly admitted CBC worst kept secret--your shows skew old. Even good news hits like Murdoch Mysteries are not exactly pulling in the A25-54-year-old audience advertisers covet.
Then there is this current ad market. Things were supposed to bounce back this far away from the 2008 economic meltdown. The relentless tilt towards digital viewing, however, has all networks scrambling to prove their fare is being consumed across many platforms. This new game where half the country banks shows on PVRs and watches them up to seven days later is not one you want to be in with an older audience still traumatized by that flashing "12:00" on their old Batamax machines.
You are exactly right when he says the public network has to re-imagine itself in this changing media landscape. My hope is that this may finally be the time when CBC is forced to re-imagine itself with far fewer middle managers.
This army of lieutenants has been sucking the life out of the place for years. When your billion-dollar head start is almost entirely swallowed up by mangers and vice presidents, there's not a lot left to compete with in the ruthless and expensive world of programming.
There was a decision made at CBC over the past seven or eight years to compete and behave like a regular network. I always applauded that, because, despite all the political shackles, you're either in the TV game or you're not. CBC, however, never should have been trying to staff up its executive suites like it was NBC. It never should have been in the business of commissioning dark cop shows or lifestyle shows.  It needed to behave like an enlightened cable network, in a lean, efficient and savvy programming way, but with fare that was unique to public broadcasting.
CBC needs its own show with an open bar. Paging Rick Mercer
On recent trips to Scotland and London I was fascinated by all the chat shows on BBC services--one is even called The Michael McIntyre Chat Show. There's a lot of emphasis on personalities and less on over-the top production costs. There are game shows hosted by brilliant entertainers such as Stephen Fry. It's no wonder shows like Top Gear and The Graham Norton Show are so compelling here on BBC Canada and BBC America. They feature top name stars all having way too much fun.
Hell, I've been saying for years--bring back Front Page Challenge and put the SCTV greats on the panel. They're all coming back anyway to shoot comedies on the private networks. Put them in red chairs and use the old Strombo set.
CBC will have to take intermediate steps as it transitions into this "re-imagining." In the scripted arena, one could be to provide a second window on shows currently running on Canadian premium Pay-TV stations.
Could the Mountie from When Calls the Heart come to the rescue?
There's a new family drama coming up next week on Super Channel called When Calls the Heart. It is shot in Langley, B.C., employs a lot of Canadians and is based on novels from an Alberta author. The series is set in 1910 and even features a damn Mountie (although he's played by an Australian).
When Calls the Heart would look right at home paired with CBC's horsey drama Heartland on Sundays. It's already a Hallmark co-production so CBC--desperate now for content at cheaper prices--can acquire something original and Canadian at a fraction of the cost of developing it themselves. You're welcome.
My 21-year-old son Dan is finishing up his third year studying Radio and Television at Ryerson. He and his buddies are cooking up their own web shows and pitching them at profs and beyond. Some of their stuff is well past Just Four Laughs funny.
The future is just down the street from CBC broadcast centres in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and all across Canada. A regular, slotted broadcasting liaison with the university crowd would a) provide original content and a cheap price, b) help lower CBC's median viewer age out of its codger ghetto and c) help me get back some of that damn tuition money.
This isn't, as you are sadly  all too aware, the first time hundreds of jobs have been slashed at CBC. In 2009, 800 positions were cut. In 2012, another 650 lost their jobs.
Almost as big a shock, however it that there are still 6,994 permanent, 859 contract and 329 temporary CBC employees. That's an army. Despite all this talk of cutting way past the bone, could there still be too many chiefs?
Needs a home: the sad, lonely, CTV lobby cam
The other week I was asked to appear on CTV News Channel to comment on David Letterman's announcement that he was leaving The Late Show. It had been quite a while since my last trip to Agincourt.
When I got there I was shocked at how deserted this once vital broadcasting hub had become. Save for one guy on the security desk, the wide lobby area was deserted. There was on old CFTO colour camera against one wall and a new flat screen on the opposite side. Otherwise it looked like the tenants had moved out and the place was for sale.
A staffer met me and led me into the old CTV News bunker. The sterile cement walls and whitewash paint job give the place a not-so-warm bomb shelter vibe.
There was the old, multi-chaired make up room where I got powdered by the survivor on duty. I found my way to the grim green room. I thought about the hustle you'd find in the halls in the '80s when besides the News several game shows and talk shows would be fighting for studio space.
I was led to the studio to yak with Dan Matheson. One young dude was cueing up clips behind a laptop. Then it was just me and Dan and the robotic cameras.
Matheson was his usual cool, unflappable self behind his medicinal glass desk and we zipped through the segment but I couldn't help thinking, this is what lean and mean is really all about. A two person news operation, broadcasting nationwide. The place made the Sun News Network look like CNN.
Is this where CBC News is heading?
I hope not, Mr. Lacroix. It's a tough business, as even your private network competitors are finding. There are, however, ways out of this mess but it's going to take those balls you just got kicked in. You need to aim those cuts at more chiefs and less Indians--as they used to say back when CBC was the place where we all wanted to work. You need to get more of what remains of that annual appropriation into the hands of talented Canadians--the public. You need to be a public broadcaster in the best sense of the word.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Colbert: CBS gets it exactly right

Colbert (right) in a 2011 appearance on Late Show with David Letterman
Bill Carter has told me for at least two years that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman. On Thursday, CBS made it official.
As Carter, the author of The War for Late Night as well as The Late Shift, would point out, Colbert has made sure for years that his contract renewal date always lines up with Letterman's--just in case an opportunity at CBS might arise.
Here's Carter's report on the transition--how it went down, whether Colbert will stick with his right wing pundit character (No), if Dave is on board (Yes), the whole enchilada.
It was never going to be Jon Stewart, said Carter, the long-time media reporter for The New York Times. Stewart is too into his kids and already has what he considered the best job in television, host of The Daily Show.
It was always going to be somebody in "Second Position." Colbert is in second Position at Comedy Central behind Stewart. It is always the Second Position guy that moves up, the way Conan O'Brien (briefly) and Jimmy Fallon moved up to The Tonight Show.
It has never going to be Craig Ferguson, although Carter maintains Craigy has a "Prince of Wales" clause in his contract which triggers a payout from CBS should the network pass him over for Dave's job. They have, and they will. Ferguson, at 51, is just two years older than Colbert, 49. He remains, however, an acquired taste best suited to the 12: 37 a.m. slot, at least as far as CBS research can determine, one assumes.
It was never going to be Conan O'Brien, who lost his brief Tonight job after he sunk below Letterman's ratings at 11:30.
It was never going to be Howard Stern. Too old at 60 (although you`d never know it) and too rich from satellite radio, where he can say whatever he wants.
It was never going to be Jay Leno. Never.
Chelsea Handler? A woman at 11:30 would be a welcome change from the parade of middle aged men now in that timeslot. Handler, however, is another acquired taste, a little too tart for CBS. Other women mentioned--Tina Fey, Ellen DeGeneres--probably could not take the pay cut.
Anyone who has ever sat in Colbert's New York studio and heard the thundering rapture from Colbert Nation will not be surprised at CBS' choice. He's a clear alternative to Fallon, a decade older and a lot more intimidating. Colbert`s show will be live and dangerous, which is what Letterman delivered in his prime.
Plus he`s damn funny. Colbert has been hilarious since way back as one of the two Steve's (the other being Carell) on The Dana Carvey Show and later with his old Second City pal Amy Sedaris on the completely wrong cable comedy Strangers with Candy.
Plus he`s smart. Smart enough to say exactly the right thing Thursday: "Simply being a guest on David Letterman`s show has been a highlight of my career," he says on the CBS release. "I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave`s lead."
In making the Colbert announcement now, CBS cleverly avoids having this game of who-will-succeed-Dave hanging over Letterman and Late Show like a year-long bad stink. It is done, and CEO Leslie Moonves--loyal to Dave to the end--provides his host will everything he needs to retire on his own terms and timetable. Nice.
For proof that Colbert will appeal to younger voters I need look no further than my 21-year-old son, Dan. This third year college student can't get enough of Colbert and thinks my guy Dave is a codger. The baton has been passed.