With greater choices, it is harder to find the gems
In television circles these days, “fragmentation” is the buzzword. With the explosion of cable offerings over the past decade (along with the more recent incursion of cable’s competitive sister, satellite TV), network execs have had to contend with the new realities of the multi-channel universe— shrinking audiences who can switch from the broadcast nets to any number of specialty stations, their channel allegiances as fickle as the fingers on their remote controls. Now, with the beginning of another season and the upcoming launch of as many as 16 new channels on cable, the Canadian TV landscape is about to experience fragmentation in spades. And therein lies a challenge for viewers. Sure, once stations like The Comedy Network, Home & Garden Television and Teletoon hit the dial, there will be a lot of choice. But there will also be plenty of confusion. What should viewers watch, in this mishmash of sitcoms, cop yarns, cooking programs, home-renovation guides, adventure-travel half-hours, documentaries and talk shows?
The sad fact is, even with the addition of new channels, it is a lacklustre TV season, delivering (to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen) 57 channels and nothing much on. Still, there are some valuable offerings, even if they seem as hard to find as gold in the BreX mine. Here, then, is an assay of the new TV season—the overhyped and the not-to-be-overlooked.
COMEDY: Most of the new American sitcoms are beneath criticism, and only one seems a sure hit—for little apparent reason beyond its positioning by the network. Following up Seinfeld in NBC’s Thursday lineup, Veronica’s Closet (Canadian independents) has the cushiest time-slot in television. But despite the overwhelming hype, the show is middling fare at best. Starring Kirstie Alley of Cheers fame as the doyenne of a Victoria’s Secret-style lingerie company, Closet promises a naughty take on celebrity and sex, but delivers only fat jokes, scantily clad models and sitcomworkplace clichés. Much better, though underrated, is The Gregory Hines Show (CBS and Global), a warm and entertaining vehicle for the dancer-actor, who stars as a widower struggling with loneliness and fatherhood. The script is understated and funny, and the supporting cast (especially Wendell Pierce as Hines’s perennial-bachelor brother) is great. It is a smart, funny, middleclass sitcom—The Courtship of Eddie’s Father meets Cosby.
Some of this season’s funniest programming is homegrown. Most surprising is Double Exposure, a satirical take on current events featuring Vancouver’s Bob Robertson and Linda Cullen, which debuts in November on The Comedy Network and BBS. The heart of the show is the former CBC Radio duo’s voice-overs of news clips, which sounds like a pretty stale and sophomoric routine—but it works, thanks to crisp writing and an irreverent attitude. Go Girl! (WTN), a new sitcom from the creators of The Red Green Show, is less biting and more homespun. Starring Lisa Merchant and Janet Van de Graaff as hosts of an all-female talk show, it relies on cheap gags and lowbrow observational humor. But like
the macho-dumb Red Green, it could well attract a cult following.
The Comedy Network’s flagship show is Open Mike, a live program produced in Toronto and featuring the offbeat comedy of Mike Bullard, a buck-toothed jokester whose scathing irony is undercut by a real sense of warmth—a purely Canadian reversal of Jerry Seinfeld’s threatening politeness. Heck, the guy even looks like a beaver. Also worth checking out on The Comedy Network is The Dish Show, hosted by Brigitte Gall and Maureen Holloway. A talk show with edge, Dish promises to be fascinating TV: the women’s frank discussions (one episode is about bisexuality) are brash, funny—and completely uncut.
Also well worth checking out is The Comedy Network’s adult cartoon Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, a post-neurotic exploration of modern-day insecurities à la Woody Allen. And with the entry of Teletoon into the channel lineup in mid-October, adults can look forward to a host of funny, cutting-edge animation. Best of a good bunch is Captain Star, a Canadian-produced mockheroic space epic revolving around a character who is at once “the greatest hero the universe has ever known”—and an intergalactic pitchman for T-shirts, coffee mugs and other useless paraphernalia. It is a biting, understated take on corporate culture and the scifi genre, featuring the perfectly cast voice of Richard E. Grant.
DRAMA: Out of the States comes the usual assortment of cops-androbbers stuff, led by Steven Bochco’s Brooklyn South (CBS and Global). Focusing on the travails of police officers in a tough, racially divided neighborhood, the show is kind of a Hill Street Blues for the ’90s. It tries hard to shock by being ultraviolent. But with NYPD Blue, Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street still going strong, does anyone really need another crime drama? The same might be asked of Michael Hayes (CBS and Canadian independents), the much-anticipated return to TV of David Caruso. The show, which stars the carrot-topped former NYPD Blue star as a politically ambitious DA and co-stars David Cubitt of Canada’s Traders as his ne’er-do-well brother, is well-produced and has a consistent brooding atmosphere. The trouble is Caruso, who in trying to be intense, comes across as so uptight that it is hard to care about his character—or about the show.
The dearth of creativity among crime shows is best exemplified by Cracker (ABC and CTV), an Americanized version of the brilliant British mystery program starring Robbie Coltrane. The irony is, the show is good. As the womanizing Fitz, Robert Pastorelli is convincing and capable. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, and the story lines so far have been faithful to their British cousin. It would be easy to hate the American Cracker for being a ripoff, but at least its producers had the sense to rip off a terrific program.
Thankfully, this season is short on the drippy X-Files and Star Trek clones that have cluttered network lineups for the past few years. But three new shows on the paranormal get top marks for ambition—and imagination. The least successful is Earth: The Final Conflict (BBS), based on an idea from Gene Roddenberry, late creator of Star Trek. Set in the near future, the show revolves around William Boone (Kevin Kilner), an ex-cop working for aliens who have come to Earth to save humanity—but who may have ulterior motives. Shot largely in Toronto, Earth treads familiar territory to sci-fi fans, but good special effects and solid casting may keep them interested. The Visitor (Fox and Global) should have a broader appeal. Starring John Corbett (Northern Exposure) as an alien abductee who returns to Earth to save humanity (sound familiar?), it is sometimes overly sentimental. But Corbett has a naïve attractiveness, and his quirky handling of well-worn material makes for something different. Closer to home, the Canadian-produced Deepwater Black (YTV) is aimed at a younger market. But the wellwritten tale of youthful space colonists Oed by Gordon Michael Woolvett) merits a peek even from older sci-fi junkies.
The outlook for adult-oriented dramas would be truly depressing were it not for a couple of worthy entries. One is Ally McBeal (Fox), which none of the major Canadian networks saw fit to buy. Created by David E. Kelley—whose Picket Fences was a cult hit—the namesake character is a young, somewhat scatterbrained lawyer (Calista Flockhart) juggling her career and her complicated personal life. It’s occasionally dumb and often overthe-top, but on balance the show creates convincing characters and takes them seri-
ously. The same goes for Nothing Sacred (ABC and CTV), a gritty drama about an innercity priest (Kevin Anderson) trying to keep his soup kitchen and his parishioners on the straight and narrow. With strong writing and a contrarian attitude, the show’s focus on social-justice issues is timely and refreshing. Unfortunately, it came in last in the ratings when it debuted last month—and it may now take an act of God to save Nothing Sacred.
LIFESTYLES/DOCUMENTARIES: so much of
the lineup is crowded with specialized programming—with Home & Garden Television and Outdoor Life joining the established channels—that any taste and interest is bound to find its TV reflection. But a couple of self-help and do-it-yourself programs stand out. One is Foodessence, which debuted last week on Life Network. Hosted by energetic East Coaster Andrew Younghusband, it is not a cooking show, but rather a lively anthropological exploration of food trends and history. Another useful entry is Savoir Faire (Home & Garden Television), with Nik Manojlovich as a kind of male Martha Stewart who walks viewers through the minutiae of tasteful entertaining.
On the serious side, high-quality documentaries abound. History Television weighs in with Faces of History, a weekly biography show about Canadian personalities past and present, and Timelines, a weighty series from telejournalist Michael Maclear. The leadoff program—a rerun of a documentary about Gen. Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar— is excellent. On Discovery, the most-talkedabout new show is Exhibit “A”, a look at the way forensic science—blood analysis, fingerprinting and ballistics, among other techniques—is used to solve crimes. Hosted by a brooding Graham Greene, Exhibit “A ” comes across as a slicker, upscale America’s Most Wanted, complete with B-level actors re-creating real-life crimes. Still, it is quick-paced and informative, and delivers vicarious chills.
Often and unfairly dismissed as a soapbox for assorted televangelists, Vision TV has added a host of international films and documentaries that offer a reprieve from the tedium of typical TV fare. The U.S.-produced, fourpart series Death: The Trip of a lifetime traces attitudes and rituals surrounding the sweet hereafter from Mexico to India and Australia; it is beautifully filmed, enthralling television. Grittier—and more outright entertaining—is Extreme Asia, a British-produced, six-part video journey through the arts and youth culture of Asia. The show is sometimes unsteady, but its occasional misses make the hits—on such topics as the throat singers of Siberia and the rebirth of Mao Tse-tung as a Chinese pop icon—all the more fascinating. Amateurish, offbeat and exotic, Extreme Asia won’t win any ratings battles. But it remains a much-needed reminder of what the medium can achieve when it dares to take chances.
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