Television

WORLDS OF WONDER

A lawyer chases legal rabbits, refugees strive for Canada, an angel comes calling

SHANDA DEZIEL January 12 2004
Television

WORLDS OF WONDER

A lawyer chases legal rabbits, refugees strive for Canada, an angel comes calling

SHANDA DEZIEL January 12 2004

WORLDS OF WONDER

Television

A lawyer chases legal rabbits, refugees strive for Canada, an angel comes calling

SHANDA DEZIEL

IMAGINE if Showcase decided not to run the second season of Six Feet Under— or CTV and Global said they were going to use the money they usually spend on U.S. dramas like CSI, The Sopranos and 24 to fill the schedule with new Canadian shows. Viewers would be up in arms. Digital-service and satellitedish sales would go through the roof.

But that’s not likely to happen. The way things look, Canadian programs will never rule our airwaves. Besides the fact that buying U.S. shows is much cheaper than creating homegrown ones, in the past year the government has drastically cut funding for new programs. And it has put in place new criteria for doling out money to “ensure funds are directed to productions that stand the best chance of attracting Canadian audiences.” In other words, bring on the Canadian Idol clones. Actors and directors dedicated to working in the medium in this country are speaking out, but the audience is oblivious—or, at any rate, indifferent.

As a result, the only new one-hour Canadian dramatic series debuting on a major network this season is CBC’s This is Wonderland (premiering onjan. 12), a lawyer show co-written by Governor General’s Awardwinning playwright George F. Walker. The main character, Alice (Cara Pifko, from CBC’s teen drama Our Hero), is a defence counsel who bounces between bail court, plea court and mental health court, trying to usher a spectrum of clients through a seemingly ineffectual legal system. Wonderland tries for a combination of Law & Order and Ally McBeal, but comes across as a darker version of the ’80s sitcom Night Court—complete with the requisite cheap laughs involving transvestite streetwalkers.

Nonetheless, some of the cases Alice is assigned do pull you in. In the pilot, a man named Orsos has been jailed for stealing his cousin’s car—turns out he was just borrowing it. Before that can be cleared up, Orsos is mistaken in court documents for a prisoner being held on brutally violent assault charges, named Orkos. Since it’s Alice’s first day in “wonderland,” she can’t get the right person to fix the spelling mistake, and Orsos is penalized for the wrong crime. Cases with that much emotional impact are rare in the series. More often hysterical family members hassle Alice in the halls, or she gets marooned in mental health court, where second-rate actors pretend to be crazy—a challenge for even the most skilled thespians.

The biggest problem is not, however, these one-time guests, but rather the key cast—or lack thereof. For the first three episodes the same lawyers, aides and judges surround Alice, but we’re told nothing about them. A Crown attorney viciously mocks her in court, and later tells her in all seriousness and seeming good nature that she needs a hair-

cut, and he’d be willing to do it. That’s intriguing, but it goes nowhere. Viewers are capable of investing in more than one character. There’s a good chance you won’t like the rather bland Alice, but you might be interested in the tall, cute attorney who gives her advice in the courtroom, then runs into her eating a hot dog outside. But does he have a name? Why does he help her? Why ketchup and not mustard? After three episodes of wondering, you just might stop caring.

CBC does get it right in Human Cargo, a dramatic miniseries on air this week (Jan. 4 to 6). Set in Vancouver and Burundi, it’s a fascinating fictional analysis of our immigration system, and has a roster of excellent Canadian actors, including Kate Nelligan, Nicholas Campbell, R. H. Thomson, Leslie Hope and Pifko, the actress from Wonderland. With ripped-from-the-headline plots, the series tackles flawed immigration policies, terrorism and political agendas. It also flips to the other side of the world and Burundi’s 10-year civil war, focusing on Hutu teacher Moses Buntu (Bayo Akinfemi) and his sister, Odette Kaba (Nthati Moshesh). Relevant, smart and Canadian in its focus on minorities, Human Cargo presents Canada as a dark, complex wonderland.

ANGELS IN AMERICA, running on The Movie Network on Jan. 11 and 18, is a sixhour, two-part miniseries adapted from a Broadway hit—and it defies synopsis, or at least a short synopsis. Even the play’s Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe, Tony Kushner, has resorted to a vague, although fitting, explanation: “It’s like a bunch of atoms in a cloud chamber, crossing, colliding, and changing each other.” These atoms include two reallife characters, Republican power-broker Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) and Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep), the woman he helped send to the electric chair during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. When the drama catches up with them, it’s Reagan’s heartless America of the mid-’80s, and Cohn is in hospital with AIDS. The ghost of Rosenberg keeps death watch. Under the direction of Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Pacino and Streep meet on screen for the first time, and they are wicked sparring partners. Streep’s reserved poise forces Pacino to go for something more real than the frothing, over-thetop shtick that got him through the ’90s.

ANGELS is like a bunch of atoms in a cloud chamber, crossing, colliding, and changing each other’

Also colliding are two unhappy young couples, Mormons Joe (Patrick Wilson) and Harper (the always-exquisite Mary-Louise Parker) and gay pair Prior (brilliant newcomer Justin Kirk) and Louis (Ben Shenkman). As both relationships disintegrate, AIDS-stricken Prior and Valium-popping Harper meet each other in a shared hallucination. Meanwhile, in real life, Louis and Joe—one an openly gay liberal, the other a closeted homosexual Republican, and both self-loathers—abandon their sick significant others and start an affair.

Barging into this dysfunctional foursome is Joe’s mother (Streep, in one of her four roles), who comes to New York after Joe calls and says he’s gay. She ends up having the greatest affect on Prior, who affectionately refers to her as “my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother.” Prior is also touched by another visitor, a wild-haired, strikingly attired, vengeful and horny angel (Emma Thompson), who comes crashing through the ceiling in order to give him an erection— and a mission.

This hodgepodge of melodrama and debate on religion, justice, politics, AIDS and American ideals is completely overwhelming. But force yourself to pull back at times during the six hours, and just enjoy the incomparable performances (with special attention to Jeffrey Wright, who reprises his Tony Award-winning role as gay nurse Belize), the gorgeous sets, the funnier moments and the random acts of kindness. For all the despair, sickness and political confrontation, there is joy in nearly every scene. lifl