Tuesday, October 31, 2006

TV Review: House - "Fools for Love"

After the evil trick of taking House off the air in order to show some trivial sporting event, Fox finally gave us a Halloween treat with the first new episode in over a month. And call me a fool, but I loved it.

"Fools for Love" provided a sustained dose of witty dialogue that made me realize how unique this drama's particular comedic tone is, and how much I miss it when it's gone. There were some misses ("What?" "It's got an ass. Technically that makes it a who."), but the quantity of jokes, and the average that hit their target, was incredibly high. Even the often neglected Chase got in on the fun, with some great lines, like "Give it up. Foreman and Cameron are too ethical. And I'm too scared of being sued."

The fools of the week are 20-year-old Mr. and Mrs. Dawson, who start the episode by being victims of an armed robbery and attempted rape, which Jeremy risks his life to stop, then starts bashing the attempted rapist's head in. When Tracy start to gasp for breath, he turns his attention to his wife.

House, on the other hand, has some trouble paying attention to his new patient. While Cameron desperately tries to keep the conversation focused on Tracy's throat swelling, House spots Wilson talking to a babe in the hallway and is obsessed with finding out the differential diagnosis on Wilson's love life.

After using his famous people repelling skills to get Wendy the Peds Nurse Babe to flee, House chastises Wilson about moving on to another bad relationship after three failed marriages and an affair with a patient. Wilson denies any interest in Wendy the Peds Nurse Babe, and also accuses House of wanting Wilson to fail at relationships so he's always available to hang out. I'm not sure House needs an ulterior motive to want someone else to be miserable, but anything's possible.

With step one of his plan to torment Wilson complete, House finally listens to his minions, determines a possible diagnosis, and decides to test Tracy for stress-induced anaphylaxis. While she's panting away on a treadmill, her husband starts to exhibit the same abdominal pain she had and becomes patient of the week number two.

House meets patient number three in the clinic, but this one seems immune to House's anti-charms, which are in full rude force. Michael Tritter (guest star David Morse) insists on being tested for an infection on his, er, private parts, after House makes one of his possibly brilliant, possibly lazy diagnoses based on the fact that the patient is chewing nicotine gum, which dehydrates him, which means friction does, um, bad things to the private parts. "Try a lubricant. Or foreplay, if you're cheap," is House's prescription.

People who hadn't gone near a TV listing in the past month, or read an article about David Morse joining the cast for a six-episode arc, might have had some delayed gratification on this, but those of us who knew the character was a cop could have seen it as a bit of clever dialogue:

Tritter: You're rude.

House: Wow, you're like a detective or something.

Tritter: And you're smart. And you're funny. But you are bitter, and you're lonely, so you treat everyone around like they're idiots, and you get away with it, because of your cane.

See, if House paid attention to the signs, like the fact that the interrupted dialogue gives a clue that he is, in fact, a detective, or the subtle hint of the guy's profession being written in his chart, House might have realized he's pissing off a cop.

Tritter even trips the poor, crippled doctor, and House's surprise that his cane isn't his get out of jail free card this time is evident on that expressive Hugh Laurie face.

Morse plays the role with a quiet menace, which so far is a much more effective contrast and antagonist to Laurie's often-theatrically acerbic Dr. House than the caricature board chair Vogler, played by Chi McBride in the first season, or last season's ex-love Stacy, played by Sela Ward - though that was largely because it's hard to buy into an antagonist when you know they really want to jump each other.

And I know he's had a million roles since then, but it's a bit of a shock to someone who remembers Morse fondly as the sweet Dr. Boomer. Tritter is not what I would call sweet, but it's hard not to think that House deserves a little of the sweet revenge the cop threatens after House "forgets" to remove the rectal thermometer he inserts following the reluctantly administered swab test. If "No Reason"'s Moriarty couldn't get House to be nicer to patients permanently because it's the right thing to do, maybe the threat of getting the crap beaten out of him will do it.

Of course it won't, and it would ruin the show if it did, but we've got the promise of a very interesting battle of wills here, at least. Though Cuddy makes House promise to apologize, and Tritter confronts him to bully an apology out of him, House the bully naturally refuses.

When Foreman and Chase find condoms in the young couple's apartment, Chase and House think Jeremy must be cheating on his birth-control-taking wife. Foreman's belief in their devotion to each other is vindicated when it turns out they really did just want to be extra cautious, and test negative for STDs. When Tracy lapses into a coma and scans show she has lesions on her brain, House wants to do a risky brain stem biopsy with the husband's consent.

Cameron decides that the husband has a conflict of interest, since the dangerous biopsy could also benefit his case, so he shouldn't be involved in making the decision. Of all ethical stances to take, that one seems pretty far over on the side of playing by the rules for someone lets House get away with far worse, and who crosses ethical lines herself.

It feels like a contrived plot point, with Cameron the victim of the necessity for an obstacle. But it passes relatively quickly when the husband makes an unexpected choice: he wants to stop treatment so he'll deteriorate, they can biopsy his brain instead, and still have time to save her. Don't think Foreman, determined to believe in love without being sappy about it, doesn't gloat a little at that evidence.

But when House finds out the couple were childhood sweethearts, next door neighbours who eloped because Jeremy's father objected to their relationship and got violent, the clues finally add up for him. Their symptoms fit those of a rare genetic disease, the couple share striking green eyes, and the father might have been upset about something entirely different than the fact that Jeremy is white and Tracy is black, like the fact that his son and illegitimate daughter were getting on a little too well.

Once you get over the fact that it's a classic soap opera reveal, it's an effective plot twist for a medical case, and, though I may be clueless, one I didn't see coming. The red herring of racism throughout the episode was a nice touch, adding a little depth without simply providing an excuse for a mini ethical debate about the subject. And with mistaken paternity rates estimated at 5 to 10% - meaning up to 10 percent of us think our biological fathers are someone other than the real DNA donor - it also seems no more far fetched than any other bizarre case that would come before House and his team.

Foreman argues that they should withhold the information about the genetic connection, an argument that's slightly compromised when House points out that they'd have to keep them away from doctors, the Internet, and people who aren't idiots. Plus, Foreman - ick.

"Tell them or I will," House says, and Foreman recognizes that as the horrible threat it is. Remember how House told the model in "Skin Deep" that she was a he, then think about how he would be likely to tell this husband and wife that they're brother and sister.

Last season's two-part "Euphoria" was Omar Epps' showcase episode, but it's the more subtle empathy coupled with the casual arrogance of an episode like this that better shows his acting chops for me. He tells them gently, and watches helplessly at their despair and disgust when his attempts to reassure them they're not brother and sister in any way that matters fail.

In a musical montage, we discover that poor sad Wilson is staying in a hotel, and poor sad Cuddy is testing negative, and therefore heroically putting up with House's taunts about being pregnant without gouging his eyes out. Before that, we discover that it's Foreman, not Wilson, who's dating Wendy the Peds Nurse Babe, and so he wins the $200 bet House put on Wilson lying about the affair. Way to go Foreman - on both counts.

It's only at the end of the episode that House learns what his revenge-seeking clinic patient does for a living. Tritter pulls him over for speeding on his motorcycle, and having done his own deductions about House from their encounters, decides to search him on suspicion of narcotics possession.

Of course there's a stash of pills in House's jacket pocket. Proving he's got freakish insight into House's character after two brief meetings, Tritter dismisses House's suggestion that a cripple working in a hospital wouldn't have any trouble getting a prescription. "Arrogant son of a bitch like you, I bet you didn't bother." That pretty much sums up House's MO for a lot of his actions, and from a few episodes back, we know Tritter is right.

While House's over the top moments are usually highlights of an episode, the subtlety of Hugh Laurie's "holy crap I'm in trouble" face at the end proves again that sometimes the most effective acting comes from the quieter moments.

I can't imagine how House's is going to get out of this. Apparently, neither can he. I doubt we'll find out the answer next week, but Tuesday, Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. on FOX is our chance to see Morse and Laurie go toe to cane again.

Monday, October 30, 2006

How cheap is my love?

Guess what tomorrow is?

Halloween, you say? Who cares. It's the day House finally returns after the baseball hiatus. Not only that, but it's the start of a guest run by Dr. Boomer, one of my early crushes. (Though I have to admit, the less obvious charms of David Morse in St. Elsewhere had some slight competition from that show's Mark Harmon and Denzel Washington.) I worry about what the new House competition might do to CBC's Intelligence, but I can only do my part by watching them both. I know, I'm a hero.

Coincidentally, in today's mail I got a couple of House reminders. First was my Amazon order of the first two seasons of A Bit of Fry and Laurie on DVD, which I absolutely did not illegally download a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed and was therefore eager for the official DVD release. No sirree.

Second was a 3 lbs screener from CBS, in a much fancier package than normal, with a cool picture of a brain scan on the cover. I may be squeamish about the blood and guts, but I'm all about the brain. Plus it came with a present: a brain squeezy ball. I love CBS.

Yes, my affection can be bought for the price of a 10 cent squeezy ball. Fox never gives me presents. Except, I guess, a show I love more than my brain tells me is reasonable.

There's no guarantee I'll love 3 lbs as much as the cool present. While I tend to like medical shows in general, I'm both curious and a little wary of just how House-like this one sounds, focused as it is on a cranky, troubled, but brilliant neurosurgeon. There was room on my schedule last season for both House and Grey's Anatomy because of how different they are. I don't know if I could watch a show that feels like House-lite, and I don't think any show could do what House does better.

Still, a premise doesn't really say much about how I'll respond to a show. And speaking of crushes, it stars Stanley Tucci. He was just another solid character actor to me until Big Night, a movie that had the distinction of most surprisingly effective use of a former Wings cast member until Studio 60. Tucci co-wrote and co-directed the lovely, sweet (and other less girly adjectives) movie about two brothers, played by Tucci and a post-Wings, pre-Monk Tony Shalhoub, who concoct an elaborate meal in their failing restaurant in preparation for a potentially business-saving visit by Louis Prima. It'll make you laugh, make you cry, make you really, really hungry.

Anyway, I'll write an actual review after I've actually watched 3 lbs (I think CBS wants me to call it 3LBS but I can't quite manage that yet). In the meantime, I've got some Hugh Laurie and Stanley Tucci to watch.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

TV Review: Intelligence - "Don't Break Your Brother's Heart"

(spoilers for the Oct. 24 episode)

In which Michael Reardon breaks his brother's heart and then saves his ass.

CBC's Intelligence is a very different beast from fellow spy shows 24 or Alias. In fact, any comparison to those shows is as ludicrous as Jack Bauer's ability to go an entire day without visiting the men's room (not that I'm hoping for that particular scene). Intelligence builds its characters and intertwined plots slowly and elaborately, without relying on shock value or ever-escalating, super-charged drama. Instead, we're given bits of intelligence on these characters each week, and the tension builds out of their motivations and actions appearing to be on a certain collision course.

What we learn about Michael in "Don't Break Your Brother's Heart" - for example, that he's a junkie and enough of a screwup that Ronnie wouldn't be sorry to see a contract out on him - adds layers to what we already knew. When he's doing any thinking at all, the motivation for his bone-headed actions is to prove himself to his brother Jimmy. Unfortunately, mostly he ends up proving what a menace he is to the carefully constructed Reardon empire.

In this episode, he continues his plan to bring the bikers' pot across the US border, and on his return, tolerates - barely - lectures by both Ronnie and Jimmy. The episode title comes from Ronnie's speech about getting into rehab "before you break your brother's heart any further." Mike guzzles his drink down and vows its his last. Ronnie looks skeptical but resigned.

Later, Jimmy asks Michael to clean up, if not in rehab then by getting exiled to their grandfather's farm on the Island. Mike guzzles his new drink down and vows it's his last. Ian Tracey's simple cocked eyebrow conveys Jimmy's skepticism beautifully.

And proving that they may be a match made in heaven - heaven for stupid people - Rebecca the bartender can't seem to grasp Michael's cunning plan to have his vodka soda served as if it's 7-Up.

Through these exchanges, we learn more about Ronnie, too. Like the fact that he was the owner of The Chickadee until the Reardons bailed him out of financial troubles. He's also more excited than is perhaps warranted about his new purchase, bullet proof vests for himself and Jimmy. (Foreshadowing alert!)

Jimmy isn't quite as impressed as Ronnie by their stylishness, functionality, or comfort. He doesn't want to be in any meeting where he has to wear one, saying, perhaps naively, perhaps arrogantly, "they're not going to bring guns in here."

At first, he's right. A meeting with a couple of Vietnamese guys, and deals made through the front of his lumber company help Reardon make quick money hand over fist, and things seem to go smoothly when Jimmy sets up security for his new bank machine money laundering venture.

We learn things aren't going to go so swimmingly for Jimmy, however. Francine is her usual jittery and pathetic self when she finally visits a lawyer in the custody battle she precipitated. She makes it clear she's not particularly interested in the sole custody of Stella she's asking for, but she is very particularly interested in getting to Jimmy through Stella.

Relying heavily on lawyer-client privilege, Francine is very open about the fact that she was fully aware of Reardon's illegal activities and supported him through the building of his criminal empire. "I know things that would put him away for life," she says, before adding, "I don't want to screw him completely, I just want to let him know that I'm here."

We learn a little more about the ice queen, Mary Spalding too, including flashes of - is that warmth underneath that iciness? Klea Scott plays her with such tightly controlled fierceness that her more human moments reveal there's more going on under the surface than first appears.

She celebrates with her escort agency informant Katarina when the visas for her mother and daughter come through, encourages informant Casey to leave her husband - and therefore lose her source of intelligence - when he becomes abusive, and looks decidedly un-icy in her hotel room while she and Vancouver cop Don Frazer share a post-coital moment where he oh-so-romantically warns her not to piss off too many people in her empire-building quest.

Jimmy gets the goods on Mary from his narc informant, who recites Spalding's impressive achievements and her family status. "I like her. Don't trust her, but I like her," Reardon says, speaking words that could very easily be said by her about him, too (well, with different pronouns).

Mary's weaknesses are spelled out in "Don't Break Your Brother's Heart," too. When she meets with a contractor to bug the house of her wireroom mole - and who calls her by the not-inappropriate nickname Queenie - he reminds her that mole could cause the destruction of the Vancouver Organized Crime Unit she now runs, and damage the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service unit she plans to run.

Her meeting with the CSIS analysts she will soon be running allows her to demonstrate her confidence and strategy, while also demonstrating what she's up against - a roomful of 60+ white men who keenly feel her tactlessness in dismissing their past efforts and are skeptical about her future plans.

But her biggest vulnerability is one she's not yet aware of. Her deputy, Ted, played with admirable oiliness by Matt Frewer, and Roger, the CSIS guy about to lose his leadership role to Mary, are plotting with the American DEA to go after her prized informant Jimmy Reardon and support their efforts to overthrow Mary and install a gosh-golly-maybe-I-would-consider-the-job-now-that-you-mention-it Ted instead. In exchange for intelligence the DEA wants from the Canadian agency, of course, because information is a commodity in this world, after all.

Though the tension in Intelligence tends to build more from the intricate revelation of information, the episode ends with a bang, literally. Mike gets suspicious of a guy who enters The Chickadee and gets his opportunity to prove himself by jumping the guy just as he shoots at Jimmy. Before they can rouse the clubbed shooter to find out who sent him, Ronnie brings news that the police are on their way.

So they, and we, have to wait for more information until at least the next episode of Intelligence, which airs Tuesday, Oct. 31 at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Book Review: A Great Feast of Light by John Doyle

A good book can draw us into a world far removed from our own, or shed light on our own experiences. A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age by John Doyle is a good book that demonstrates television can accomplish the same thing.

Doyle is the television columnist for The Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers, where he writes about his subject with the same degree of affection and analysis.

A Great Feast of Light is a memoir of the social awakening of a boy and a country. Doyle grew up in tiny Nenagh, County Tipperary, where the church and rigid social hierarchy made sure citizens knew their place in the world.

"We were tucked away in a country town that was comfortable, almost entirely Catholic and ignorant of the outside world, and we'd fit into our assigned places as easy as we sat in our assigned desks in the schoolroom."

In 1962, when he was six, Doyle's father brought home their first television set, and suddenly the world expanded, getting even bigger as his family moved to larger towns - finally to Belfast - and his TV got more channels.

The six-year-old Doyle recognized his Irish hometown of Nenagh in the American frontier world of Bat Masterson at the same time as he realized Bat's who-cares attitude and suspected Protestantism would make him an outcast. He watched Gaelic programming that connected him to his country's past and heritage. Talk shows and news reports connected him to the present, and British and American comedies predicted a future when the Catholic church didn't have such a stranglehold on the country.

Most poignantly, Doyle talks of the horror of seeing footage of Bloody Sunday on the television, interspersed with his memories of the anti-establishment bite of Monty Python. It's a technique he uses throughout the book, juxtaposing real-life events with his young self's thoughts on television, until the culmination, when J.R. Ewing and the Pope fight for the soul of Ireland. Doyle isn't exactly on the side of the pontiff.

You can almost hear the lilting Irish accent in A Great Feast of Light, with the eejits and fellas and culchies and acting the cods. The book is specific to Irish history and social conventions. But it's universal in its depiction of television's role in documenting and even precipitating social change, and the wonder of seeing a new world onscreen, or a new take on our own world.

John Doyle is no cousin to Frank McCourt and his brethren. This isn't a tale of hardship and family secrets, and rarely dips into deeply personal matters, creating only the barest sketches of Doyle's family. Instead, it's the portrait of a quiet, studious boy ("I could have been mistaken for a houseplant") and his education at the hands of his schools, his church, and his television.

A Great Feast of Light is available in hardcover or trade paperback.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I don't normally rant, but ...

My post The Worthy Few of the Fall TV Lineup is getting a few comments on Blogcritics, but I'm also getting impassioned e-mails from people saying they read it there and asking me why I'm not watching their favourite show, or begging me to start. First ... a comment I can understand, because other people will read it. That's what this whole blog thing is for - swapping opinions, readers having their say, too.

But to get my e-mail address, people have to search for it - to go from Blogcritics to this here blog - and even in the time it takes them to hunt it down, it hasn't occurred to them that they shouldn't care if I, a complete stranger, personally loves their favourite show or not.

I'm not a Nielsen household. And I'm in Canada, so NBC is not going to save Kidnapped because I start watching or sign a petition. Or if I write a post saying how much I love it, for that matter. Otherwise, Love Monkey and Sons and Daughters would still be on the air.

But more than that, in that post I'm trying to say I don't have time to watch what I want to watch, so chances are slim I'm going to start watching what strangers want me to watch. How I Met Your Mother is OK. I've heard good things about Heroes. Say hi for me.

And here it is, my confession: I think Veronica Mars is fine but way overrated. Just as much as Buffy was. So there. Hate me, I can take it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

TV Review: Intelligence - "A Champagne Payday"

(Spoilers for the episode that aired Oct. 17.)

The second episode of CBC's Intelligence opens with the mirror image of the previous one. The sunny, soaring plane ride of "Where Good Men Die Like Dogs" makes way for "A Champagne Payday"'s shadowy scenes of Jimmy Reardon's brother Michael pulling up in a car to meet with the people he'd contracted to arrange a hit on Bill, the snitch who caused Jimmy problems and whose death is causing spymaster Mary Spalding (Klea Scott) problems.

Mike presents them with a couple of bottles of champagne for a job well done, and the promise of actual payment next week. Since they weren't planning to offer long-term financing, they aren't pleased with the arrangement.

Michael (Bernie Coulson) is the sibling who makes you wonder if there wasn't an affair with the mailman in Mrs. Reardon's past. Maxine (Sabrina Grdevich) seems to be the practical, financial brains, schmoozing the banker with thrilling stories of her grandfather's bootlegging past and keeping the tax man at bay by preserving the facade of legitimacy over at their shipping business. Jimmy (Ian Tracey) is the underworld brains, setting up a drug production and distribution network, expanding into bank machines to facilitate money laundering. And Mike? Well, Mike's the doofus screwup, which undermines the Reardon family's criminal mastermind trifecta slightly.

To get money to pay for the hit, now Mike takes a job with the bikers, rivals of Reardon's criminal empire who are trying to muscle in on his territory. Mike's actions cause Mary's sneaky underling Ted (Matt Frewer) to suspect the hit on Bill, and therefore the Reardon empire, are possibly tied to the bikers as well. Jimmy's sense of ethics and family responsibility force him to pays off Mike's debt as soon as he discovers it ... which could also have the downside of creating that tie the spies suspected was there to begin with.

While on his drug run for the bikers, Mike is shockingly clever enough to realize he's being watched when the cops tail him down a dead end turnaround point. He sends the drug truck driver away, waits until nightfall, then unloads and hides the contraband while the oblivious cops sit metres away. I have a bad, bad feeling Mike's trying to pull one over on the bikers more than the cops.

Now that Bill's death has raised even more questions about Mary's ability to handle Reardon as an informant, she gets advice from Vancouver cop Don Frazer (Andrew Airlie), who we learn at the end of the show might be more than just a sounding board, in a cozy scene at her hotel room. On his advice, and with the approval of the CSIS higher-ups, she hires one of her escort agency owner and informant's girls to infiltrate Jimmy's strip club, the Chickadee.

Jimmy's partner and Chickadee manager Ronnie (John Cassini) is smitten with the Russian dancer Christina, flirting with her in front of his stripper girlfriend Sweet and sowing the seeds for a possible love - or at least sex - triangle.

Mary tries to keep this undercover operation secret from Ted, but pretty much everyone in Intelligence has secret sources of intelligence, and he finds out from his CSIS source. As Mary says about trying to turn the mole she now knows is in her wire room, "everyone has something to hide," but it seems those secrets are never as hidden as the bearer thinks.

Mary is trying to protect her relationship with Reardon, which she sees as key to getting the CSIS job she's been promised. But Ted, who's been demoted from The Nasty Bastard to The Snake in ads, but who still wants the job Mary covets, and Roger Deakins (Tom McBeath), the CSIS director whose job she's planning to assume, want to destroy it, so they plot to get Jimmy investigated and therefore arrested by the Americans.

Jimmy's got personal problems, too, since his ex-wife Francine (Camille Sullivan) won't let him see their daughter, Stella, and he's determined to win sole custody. The lovely but very messed up Francine is using their daughter as a pawn to try to get Jimmy back. Apparently, though, the best way to reconcile with a guy isn't to get wrecked, bring another man into his strip club, create a scene, and beg him to get back together one more time. Good to know.

Jimmy's lawyer looks about 12 but is canny enough to know that Reardon's custody case is a losing battle. He expresses his doubt that with his background and associations Jimmy could be declared a fit parent. So if he attacks Francine's fitness, the worst case scenario is that neither of them wins - Stella least of all. Ever the decent guy - for a crime lord - Jimmy refuses to consider getting Francine involved in trafficking so she can be caught and deported, and thinks paying her off or coming to an amicable arrangement are futile.

Jimmy and Mary's interests collide in Randy Bingham, a stock broker who's now dabbling in arms shipments, and who owes Reardon money. He's got a cop in his back pocket for these occasions, who lets Bingham know he's being watched, getting him to panic about the deal while leading Mary and her unit to his associates.

This second episode continues to weave the entwined plot and character threads as creator Chris Haddock slowly builds the drama and suspense. Intelligence has a dark, brooding quality to it, with shaky camera shots, often through blinds or other obstructions, but there's moments of unexpected humour, too.

One in "Champagne Pay Day" comes from Bill's friend, who confirms to Jimmy that his brother was involved in the hit after Mike continues to deny it. "You know what Bill's hobby was?" the friend asks, and I prepare for some little humanizing touch about the dead guy, or piece of information that will fit into the intricate puzzle of this show. "Spiders. Now I gotta go take care of them. I'm gonna get bit."

The next episode of Intelligence airs Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Does Chris Haddock have the answers?

I posted this link on the TV, Eh? site, but thought I'd write out some thoughts around it since it's been quite a weekend for Canadian TV posts around here (sorry Americans!) and I keep thinking about DMc's post on Canadian taste vs. American taste. The question he poses - "why don't the networks try making more homegrown hits that appeal to Canadian sensibilities, rather than aping U.S. formulas" - keeps popping up since I started paying attention to my own country's TV landscape. It's easy enough to criticize what does make it on the air up here, but how can the Canadian industry produce more shows the public might actually want to see?

[EDIT: And if I'd waited 2 hours to write this, I would have had the benefit of reading his post on how to fix things first. This is written pre-DMc-brilliance, because I'd given up on his procrastinating butt ... I mean, busy schedule.]

There's obviously no magic formula to producing only hits - if there was, the big bucks of the American system would have discovered it by now - but how can we get to a point where we have more than one scripted Canadian show in our top 30? More that can beat out American powerhouses like ... Jeopardy? (But on a positive note, that one Canadian show, Corner Gas, is just a shade under Lost on the top 30 - that's either not too shabby for Corner Gas, or bad news for Lost.)

Anyway, the link is to 24 Hour's video interview of Chris Haddock, creator of Intelligence and Da Vinci's Inquest, talking about his new show, but also the differences between the Canadian and American industries. I'd asked him the same question, and he mentioned some of the same things, but we were interrupted by filming and production questions while he was answering and he had to go off and, you know, do his job. With 24 Hours, he gets into the reasons Canadian TV doesn't often resonate with Canadians, and in his opinion, it comes down to giving the creative reins to the budget crunchers rather than the writers.

Haddock, who also created the CBS show The Handler, says he has more more creative autonomy in Canada than the US, with less network interference and more freedom in language and subject matter. He points to the US hesitancy to critique American society, such as the Dixie Chicks being blacklisted, saying that atmosphere "makes performers and artists timid," and concerned about the political slant of a character or story.

In Canada, however, he says there's less attention paid to entertainment in general - we don't support or promote our entertainment industry. "That's not nature of Canadian industry and maybe not the nature of the Canadian personality, really, to hype itself beyond existence," he comments.

Contrast that to the US networks, where "if you walk into the room with a good idea, they really back you. ... If this is a goldmine, let's dig."

Haddock, who is one of our country's most successful TV producer/writers, believes it's harder in Canada to gain the confidence of networks, and says "artists don't really have the upper hand here. Up here it's been a battle for me for the networks to acknowledge that the writers are the creator of the product, that it's not the line producer. The mentality up here is it's the number crunchers who should be running the show. I really think that way of thinking has hurt Canadian entertainment. We've produced some really good stuff, but we've produced our fair share of real dreck."

He quotes the Canadian audience as saying "Canadian TV doesn't interest me" or "It looks so Canadian" - that sounds awfully familiar to me, too. He continues, "well, the reason it looks that way is the line producer has cheapened out on it" and the Canadian industry "hasn't yet released the reins to writers and creative people."

Haddock alludes to the fact that the success of Da Vinci's Inquest in the US right now, while great, comes too late to bring attention to the show in Canada. I know CTV's Whistler was launched on the US's N network at the same time as its Canadian launch, and Degrassi's sixth season is even airing in the US before Canada. Riding on the American publicity machine's coattails seems to be a fair attempt to reduce Canadian TV's publicity woes, though of course it's still a crapshoot if a show's going to catch on or get any PR muscle behind it there.

Plus, focusing on the US market too much gives me a flashback to my frustration at the Banff World Television Festival, listening to Wayne Clarkson of Telefilm talk about the need to make shows that aren't too Canadian so we can sell them to foreign markets ... and specifically mentioning Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys as possibly too Canadian, shows that are successes in Canada and have had foreign distribution success.

It seems like a lot of people in the industry have either given up on the Canadian audience, or don't want to acknowledge that a large proportion of the Canadian audience has given up on them. Maybe we need a Canadian TV industry 12-step program, where they learn that acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving the problem. They can say there's no quality issue to worry about, but ask Joe Blow on the street and you'll hear a very different answer. They can say Joe Blow is wrong, but the audience has a funny way of deciding for itself what's good.

That's not Haddock's point, or MO. His shows wear their setting and Canadian sensibility on their sleeve. No one could accuse Da Vinci's or Intelligence of not being obviously Canadian, or of mimicking American hits, or pandering to a foreign market. He's very open about his attempts to make commercial shows, but he's making them in the context of a non-cable network that lets you say "fuck" in primetime and that isn't going to balk at a drug dealer being a protagonist or at the expression of ideas that go against the grain.

Whatever it is that makes us Canadians different from Americans might help make Canadians embrace our shows, and it might even be what makes foreign markets embrace them, too. We can't compete in budget or publicity with American shows. But Degrassi is constantly praised in the US as being more real, more gritty than American versions of teen shows. Same with Da Vinci - it's not style over substance, or increasing shock value, like many US crime procedurals. It's marketing 101 - what's different about your product is your selling point.

Connecting both of Haddock's points, perhaps the creative freedom we have in Canada - as long as that freedom isn't cheapened by poor production values - is something that can find a large audience in Canada and also find a significant niche audience in other markets like the US. Audiences who don't subscribe to HBO or Showtime might feel starved for these kinds of shows that aren't mirror images of what they can get on their own networks, shows with a slightly different point of view. Maybe a show like Intelligence where there is no heroic Jack Bauer to save the day against the villains, but instead backstabbing, opportunistic spies pitting wits against cunning, sympathetic gangsters.

The CP reporter asked me the question about how the industry can make better shows, and printed a bit of my attempt to dodge it. My answer was vaguely about giving creative people the reins, too. Still, I don't know enough about the inner workings of the industry to know what that means. Assuming the pot of money available to Canadian programming isn't going to increase, do we give more money to each show and make fewer? But even big-budget American shows have to make hard decisions about how to spend that budget - is the answer giving the creative people, rather than the financial people, final say in how the budget is allocated? Smarter development, so we're making shows we can afford to do well? I have no real idea of how development even works here, but are there ways to do that better?

As usual, I have no answers, just questions. I guess this is where I remind you that I'm not part of the industry, I'm a TV fan. I'm the audience, and my friends and coworkers and relatives are the audience. And I'm telling you, among all the other issues, there is an issue of quality. We've got shows like Intelligence to prove we can make great shows, and creators like Chris Haddock telling us how we might be able to make more, but is anyone listening?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

TV Review: Rent-a-Goalie

I'd started to watch the premiere episode of Showcase's Canadian comedy Rent-a-Goalie when it first aired, and quickly decided I didn't have enough testosterone to stick with it. Then, I received the first three episodes for review, so I ended up giving the show more of a fair shot. Turns out, I still don't have enough testosterone to stick with it past those three. But there's enough to recommend it for those who are more likely to enjoy boys being boys. And lots of fart jokes.

Cake (the show's writer Christopher Bolton) is a reformed drinker and gambler who now has a code for living right, tends the coffee bar of his Italian friend Johnny (Louis Di Bianco) in Toronto's Little Italy, and runs a rent-a-goalie business on the side. Apparently that's not even just a whimsical TV job - Google "rent-a-goalie" and if you're like me, you'll be surprised to see there's actual places that rent goalies for hockey teams. Oddly, most seem to be in Canada.

The show opens with Cake discovering he's accidentally slept with his boss's daughter. I mean, they slept together intentionally, but she claimed to be French and on her way out the country, and he claimed to be a race car driver. Francesca (Inga Cadranel) is furious to find her recent one night stand is about to become a part of her family. While she was in Vancouver running Cafe Primo West into the ground, Cake had been installed in her old apartment over the cafe, and installed in her father's life as something of a surrogate son.

There's a large cast of characters circling Cake, including his goalies who hang out in the cafe. They each have defining ticks: Stuart (Mayko Nguyen) affects a Goth Girl disdain, Joey (Joe Pingue) has an irritating habit of ending almost every sentence with "almost," and Short Bus (Jeremy Wright) has an endearing case of ... what's the opposite of agoraphobia? It's not exactly claustrophobia, but he rarely enters the cafe, prefering to hang out in the alley. Cake, however, is helping him make progress.

There's also the obligatory rival, O'Malley (Oliver Becker), who steals Cake's business name, steals his best goalie - the not-too-bright-but-thinks-he's-pretty Lance (Gabriel Hogan) - and steals Cake's girlfriend, though by that point, Cake's more than happy to have her stolen.

Guest stars have included hockey greats Phil Esposito and Tiger Williams as themselves, but the best reason to watch the show is Bolton's Cake, a decent but flawed guy who tries to take care of his goalies and business while struggling to hold his own life together. He's constantly referring to or writing rules for living right in his notebook, but is faced with challenges like threats to his business, the bad-influence ex-girlfriend he can't resist, and choices to make about friendship and loyalty.

I'm being glib about the testosterone, of course, but it is a show whose comedy relies heavily on juvenile antics of guys joking about and exhibiting homophobia, constant farting, and idiocy as humour. There's more to it than that - there's heart behind many of the jokes and characters, for one thing - but Rent-a-Goalie's brand of comedy isn't universally appealing. Especially to some of us burdened with more estrogen than testosterone.

Rent-a-Goalie airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Showcase.

Lament for Studio 60

This is my second post defending Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which seems like one or two too many, but I find it distressing that my own opinion of the show seems far removed from its critics. Because given the declining, already troubling ratings, its critics are winning.

Much of the criticism is centred around the fact that we're supposed to buy into the comedic genius of Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, who I'm cursing for forcing yet another unexpected TV crush on me), when many viewers don't find the skits we see very clever at all. It's not particularly unusual for me to be the only one in a room to find some random remark funny, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I disagree. I actually think it's clever that we get a glimpse of a skit in rehearsals, where I'm thinking - "Science Schmience? This is painfully bad." Then we see the final version on the show-within-the-show, and I thought it was hilarious. Plus it was cool to see the transition from rough sketch to polished one.

Similarly, the Nancy Grace skit was being rehearsed for some other reason - lighting? timing? - and Harriet ends up trailing off at the end when that reason is fulfilled. Yet the rough glimpse gives us a mockery of an annoying woman obsessed with victimized white girls in foreign countries, and the concept was funny and had a point to make, too.

I don't really need to see the finished skits kill on the show, because that's not the point of Studio 60. The point is that I love these characters and their relationships and their passion and their ideals, and the love story between Matt and Harriet is starting to be a surprising highlight. It's that damn Matthew Perry being all sweet and vulnerable and funny. But I've got a little crush on pretty much every character, including, starting with last episode, Christine Lahti's and - shudder - Ed Asner's.

More criticism of Studio 60 is the fact that creator Aaron Sorkin treats the world of behind the scenes television as earnestly and importantly as the world of politics in The West Wing. But I've worked in the peripheries of health care, where everything's life and death, and in theatre, where nothing is - but to the people on the front lines, their world is wrapped into the life and death of their productions. So the earnestness of Matt and Danny and Jordan has never struck me as overbearing or unusual.

There's also some insider bitching that it doesn't represent what it's really like behind the scenes of a TV show. Excuse me while I ponder the documentary-style reality of House, CSI, The West Wing ... good god, any show. There have been times when I've been surprised to realize, why yes, that character does have the same career as me. It's just cleverly disguised as something that might have dramatic or comedic possibilities, disguised as something people outside the industry might actually give a shit about. Get over it, insiders.

Some TV columnists, like the Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes and TV Guide's Matt Rousch, are saying NBC has too much invested in the show to abandon it early, but no one is holding out much hope of a second season unless ratings start heading in the other direction. There's no indication a timeslot change is in the works, but I hope NBC tries whatever it can to give the show a boost. And if the people speak and still say "yawn" ... well, I'll just add this show to my pile of reasons to be bitter at the people.

The Worthy Few

We're far enough into the TV season that the hard decisions have been made, and what has landed on my must-record list is pretty much final ... until the replacement series pop up, like Scrubs, and 3 Lbs (Stanley Tucci as a House-like neurosurgeon? Gotta check it out at least), and The Black Donnellys (which isn't taking over ER's timeslot after all, but NBC isn't faring well enough to have doubts it will surface somewhere).

Some of the decisions were easy. House gets an automatic pass, of course. Intelligence is not only an intricate, intelligent, and enjoyable show, it's a relief to finally have a Canadian series near the top of my must-watch list. Ugly Betty is kitschy, clever, heartwarming, and silly all at the same time.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip's ratings break my heart, because this was a no-brainer for me, too. Aaron Sorkin returns to television, and I don't love it as wholeheartedly as The Sorkin Years West Wing, or even Sports Night, but that's like saying I don't love chocolate bars as much as chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream.

On the other side of easy was Kidnapped, which I discarded early - not because of any feelings I had about the show, but the ratings foretold its future before I'd watched any. Brothers and Sisters annoyed more than interested me. Friday Night Lights is a fine show that bored me to tears.

Some shows were easy to dismiss but with a tinge of regret. If I was never home to watch a show, and it languished on my PVR for too long, I was ruthless in deciding that it would have to go. Part of the problem is definitely the serial nature of a lot of this season's crop. I gave up on Six Degrees, The Nine, and Heroes because I couldn't make the commitment. Heroes, well, there's still hope. NBC is having a marathon of the first three episodes on Sunday, so I can still catch up. But that ongoing commitment! It might end up my next Lost, which I'm struggling to catch up with on DVD (I'm on disc six of season one - it's not going well).

Some shows are still on PVR probation. The second episode of 30 Rock didn't appeal to me or make me laugh as much as the pilot. Alec Baldwin is hilarious, and I like Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski, but I'm starting to find Tracy Morgan more irritating than funny. It'll probably end up an "I'll watch when I'm home" show if the next episode doesn't grab me.

And some shows I've said a sad farewell to. One of my previous favourites, My Name is Earl, I haven't caught at all this season. I blame it on scheduling. I've been watching its timeslot competitor, Ugly Betty, in real time, but I've been recording The Office and could easily set the timer for a half hour earlier. Earl feels expendable because there's no ongoing storyline, no real character progression, and it now seems to me like the perfect show to catch when everything's in reruns.

Other former favourite Grey's Anatomy didn't make the PVR cut this year, though it has no timeslot competition for me, so if I'm home, I have it on ... in the background. How far the mighty have fallen on my TV list. It's more soapy than serial, so I can dip in and out when I'm in the mood and not feel like I've missed anything the show won't hammer me over the head with anyway. Lately, I haven't been dipping in as much because I don't particularly like being hammered over the head or covered in soap.

So with the glut of promising-sounding new series this season, only a few actually made it onto the regular record list. Right now, my PVR is home to House, Intelligence, Studio 60, Ugly Betty, The Office, and is considering evicting 30 Rock but hasn't yet. Given that at least a few of those I tend to watch in real time, the list is much more manageable than I would have guessed at the beginning of the season. It's good to be ruthless.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Kicking puppies

There was a piece on Blogcritics a few months ago I skimmed and dismissed. I thought it posed an interesting question, but one I thought had an easy answer. The writer wondered if it was bad form to write reviews of bad jazz albums. He thought that because the genre gets so little attention to begin with, perhaps to point out poor examples is a wasted opportunity. But also ... just plain mean.

His impetus for writing the piece was receiving unsolicited, unliked review copies, which meant writing a review was optional. But the underlying question was whether any publicity is good publicity - whether writing a bad review of a marginalized genre is harmful to the genre as a whole.

My instant reaction was that it's the price of asking for publicity, the risk of a bad review. And beyond that, worse than receiving negative criticism is being considered unworthy of discussion or debate.

And yet.

I've started thinking about that jazz review piece again, because I'm having pangs about writing not-entirely-positive reviews of Canadian shows. I will, don't get me wrong. I just reserve the right to feel guilty about it. If I've agreed to a screener, I have an obligation, and I can't pretend to like something more than I do.

Where the question really kicks in is when I haven't made a commitment. If I get the urge to write about a show I didn't love, but feel I have something to say about, I don't want to hold back, either. I think it's condescending and patronizing to think Canadian TV is too fragile to withstand scrutiny.

And yet.

It does feel a bit like kicking puppies (er, not that I would know what that feels like), given that many of the shows struggle to get any publicity. Except these aren't puppies, these are fully grown ... oh dear. This metaphor isn't going any place good.

I wouldn't voluntarily write about a show that is an actual dog. You won't see a real post about Rumours, because I'm not going to compound the waste of an hour I spent watching the first two episodes by spending more time writing about it. (Oops ... do you hear yelping?) It's the shows that are worth my time, but not a whole lot of my time, that give me pangs. I'm going to be reluctant to post to Blogcritics or link from the TV, Eh? site. And also reluctant to treat them like hothouse flowers. Or puppies.

I have to believe a respectful review, even if it's negative, at least exposes a show - or an album, or a book, or whatever - to a potential audience who might not have heard of it before, some of whom might see something in the review that causes them to tune in - or buy, or read, or whatever.

Besides, if negative reviews could truly sink shows, According to Jim would not be one of the longest running shows on TV right now.


One show that didn't make my PVR cut, but I'll probably catch when I'm around, is Jozi-H, one of those "pretty good for a Canadian show" shows. Canadian/South African show. Whatever. You know what, Canadian TV industry? Many of us folks in the audience don't really get co-productions, and what's more, we don't care. It ends up being a Canadian show that isn't even set in Canada. Or an obviously non-Canadian show that somehow counts as Canadian content.

Anyway, Jozi-H is an ER-style medical drama, dipping in and out of emergency cases, swerving from one character and case to another, sometimes with bizarre shaky cam effects in an attempt to enhance the pace. But it can't nearly compete in slickness or quickness with ER. That almost-but-not-quite quality makes it feel like yet another poor cousin to a bigger, better American show ... which is what I mean by "pretty good for a Canadian show" show, even though it makes me sound like one of them.

Except ... we're not in Chicago anymore, Toto. Or Toronto or Vancouver, either. And while I might not care about the details of what it means to be a co-production, Jozi-H's biggest advantage is that it is one. Because the most interesting thing about it is its setting, Johannesburg, which gives it a layer of stories and characters and politics - office and national - we'd never see in a US- or Canadian-set show, and which help it rise above the almost-ER-ness of it all. There's different cultures, tribal customs, the scars of apartheid, and many more uniquely South African possibilities to delve into that make it compelling.

I still don't feel any kinship with or understanding of these characters - even the Canadian ones, so I don't think it's anything to do with the "co" part of the production. I'd love to see some exploration of what it feel like to be an ex-pat, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards. And the characters feel a little cardboardy - the love triangle, the feisty doc with a cause, the Man with a Past and an Attitude. It's a large ensemble, so they'll need time to make them all real human beings, but I'm not feeling it so far.

But while I've decided it's not PVR worthy, it's at least home-on-a-Friday-night-and-desperate-to-chill-on-the-couch worthy. And there's definitely a place for that.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Book Review: The Medical Science of House, M.D. by Andrew Holtz

If I had a tendency towards megalomania, I might think The Medical Science of House, M.D. was written specifically for me. It fills such a peculiar niche, I can't quite imagine the broader audience for it.

House happens to be my favourite show at the moment. It's not, however, even the highest rated medical show on the air; that would be Grey's Anatomy. And the book doesn't explore the world of Hugh Laurie's alter ego in any depth. It's mostly a Dummies Guide to the Health Care Industry, with the show as its jumping off point, so anyone reading specifically for real insight into House might be disappointed.

That said, I really enjoyed it. But I'm a nerd.

Author Andrew Holtz, a health journalist with a master's of public health degree, writes with obvious affection for the show and careful recognition that fiction has no duty to strict reality. For the most part, he refers to the show's cases that, while improbable, are possible.

At times, he gently points out where the cases depart from reality, but always in order to make some broader point. For example, the treatment of House's Vicodin addiction in the "Detox" episode is one clear example of the show deviating from medical reality. The episode's proof of addiction - withdrawal symptoms - are no proof at all, say the real-life doctors. But Holtz doesn't dwell on the bent truth except to mention the reality the fiction illuminates; he uses the case to bring up the very real problem of impaired physicians.

The author brings expert testimony, through research and interviews, to a discussion that's often quite unrelated to any specifics of House. Holtz's purpose is not to nitpick the show, or to glorify it as an example of medical realism, but to wrap a discussion of the health care industry and medical ethics in a palatable coating. The lengthy, explanatory sidebars - which are unfortunately confusingly presented in the middle of the main narrative - usually don't even pretend to be connected to the show.

Still, it's an interesting discussion for those who aren't intimately familiar with the system or all the issues. It's perhaps especially so for us non-Americans who might relish an engaging lesson in the US health care system we think we know so much about, usually from fictional sources.

A scan of the table of contents gives an accurate idea of the focus of the book - and what a wide-angle lens Holtz is using. He covers the patient's first presentation, the physical exam, tests, computer analysis, the whiteboard of the differential diagnosis, choosing treatments, bedside manner, and the health care team.

That last one, which discusses nurses among other careers nearly invisible on the television show, is one sign that we're not really talking about House.

Holtz quotes a nurse at an actual hospital in Princeton about how she would deal with House's attitude: "I would have that physician in my office, and there would be a discussion about what appropriate communication is, and how I would not accept that kind of behaviour."

A wordy disclaimer on the cover informs the reader that no one involved with the show authorized or endorsed the book - they might as well have said "they wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole." So I suppose it's futile to hope that creator David Shore might be inspired by that particular quote, because I would pay good money to see how well that discussion would go over with our fictional hero.

The perspective on the character of House is far different in Holtz's book than on the small screen. The renegade hero of fiction is the dinosaur of reality, according to one physician: "In some ways, it is a vision from years past of the doctor as an iconoclastic brilliant, virtuoso free spirit, who does it his own way and the hospital is there to do his bidding."

Fortunately, Holtz's informative book never loses sight of the fact taht an iconoclastic, brilliant, virtuoso free spirit is likely to be far more interesting than the tamed doctors who supposedly exist today. Plus, the glimpse of how well House stays rooted in reality, while taking liberties for dramatic flair, actually highlights the beautiful balancing act performed by the show each week.

The Medical Science of House, M.D. by Andrew Holtz is available from Penguin books.

TV Review: Intelligence - "Where Good Men Die Like Dogs"

(Spoilers for the episode that aired Oct. 10)

The premiere episode of CBC's Intelligence opens with Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey) piloting his float plane above the British Columbia coast, surveying the spectacular landscape below. It's peaceful and idyllic ... on the surface.

But in Intelligence, a little more information usually reveals that things aren't quite what they appear on the surface. When Reardon touches down, it's to collect drug money from his producers, who are feeling pressure from the biker gangs infiltrating the area.

His contact on the ground, Colin, tells Reardon he needs to quit the drug life to spend time with his family, now that his wife is dying of cancer. Jimmy's a savvy businessman, ensuring there's a succession plan, but also shows genuine empathy. Still, as he tells his right hand man Ronnie (John Cassini), he suspects its the biker gangs more than the cancer-stricken wife who pressured Colin to step down.

It feels wrong to like Reardon, and yet impossible not to. He's such a decent, endearing guy. You know, for a drug kingpin who has people whacked. He and Ronnie discuss their plan to get Bill, a grower who turned snitch on Jimmy, out of the country as part of Reardon's own special witness protection program. Then, oh so casually: "In a couple of months, we'll deal with it." "Kill them both?" "Yeah."

But then he goes and shows that his little daughter, Stella, is his priority, answering her phone call in the middle of a business discussion. When strung-out mom intercepts the call, we get a peek at the kid's home life - how sad is it that her stable parent is the drug dealer?

Mary Spalding (Klea Scott) is the head of Vancouver's Organized Crime Unit, and the handler of newly recruited informant Reardon. Her subordinate Ted, barely hiding his insubordination despite repeating "we're all on board," lets her know that their witness Bill has disappeared, and he suspects Jimmy. Mary frets that if Jimmy has Bill killed, that could jeopardize her big opportunity to impress her bosses with the coup of landing Reardon, and therefore her promotion to CSIS, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.

"It would be a major disaster for me," she says to the man who would like nothing better than to see a major disaster befall her.

"A little rough on Bill, too," Ted points out.

Mary is our clearest hero, the one on the right side of the law, the one not designated "the nasty bastard" in the ads, as Ted is. But everyone in the intelligence game, spy or criminal, is in it for themselves. Intelligence makes it hard not to feel guilty for rooting for anyone, since our leads, Reardon and Spalding, are unlikable nearly as often as they are likable.

They're also both concerned with covering their asses, though Mary doesn't resort to ordering hits. As she meets with Roger, the CSIS agent who's job she's about to take, she puts a wire on herself - so it's spies spying on spies, as well as gangsters.

Roger thinks she's inflated Reardon's importance, but Mary points out that the old CSIS way of thinking - Roger's way of thinking - has led to a Canada that's "completely reliant on second-hand, inadequate, unreliable, and irrelevant, from foreign sources not working in the interests of this country." In a time when CSIS is under fire for its mishandling of the Maher Arar case, among others, it's a point that resonates.

Mary and Jimmy stage clandestine meetings throughout the episode. She warns him that Bill's continued existence is crucial to their mutually beneficial relationship, gets him to refuse Roger's request to be his co-handler, and lets him know she needs a juicy tip to prove his worth. It's a balancing act of power between the two, and Mary seems to have the upper hand. At least, it looks that way on the surface ... but remember what we said about those surfaces.

She dismisses his intelligence that bikers are infiltrating the island as common knowledge, and good-naturedly mocks his motivations for revealing that particular bit of information. "We should clamp down on your competition for you, is that what you're saying?" she asks.

"I wouldn't complain," Jimmy smiles.

He ends up revealing that she has a mole in her wire room, a double agent for the Chinese Triads. She reveals this damaging information to a CSIS higher-up, while demonstrating that she has put the situation under control and getting him to agree that Reardon is hers alone to handle.

Our head spy and head gangster get glimpses into each other's personal lives, too. Mary finds her messy marriage seeping through the cracks of her tightly controlled professional life, when her cheating, stroke-afflicted husband returns and gets violent, forcing her out of their apartment. Jimmy gets an earful when he tries to call her, and also an eyeful of the used bedroom in the safe house hotel room she chooses for their rendezvous, where her personal and professional lives suddenly, perhaps unwisely, combine.

Those hotel meetings seem almost like social calls, with the intimate setting and casual drinks from the mini-bar ... except for the fact that they're exchanging information like a commodity and jockeying to be the one with the biggest pile.

In exchange for the tip about the mole, Jimmy chooses to ask for Mary's help in his custody battle. His ex-wife Francine is refusing to let him see her, leading to an intense confrontation between the exes. Though Francine is obviously manipulative and not entirely rational, my sympathy for Jimmy is precarious. We know she's taken away what he values most in life, but we also glimpse his suppressed violence, and wonder at the life they must have had together.

Ronnie isn't just Jimmy's wing man professionally, he takes care of him personally, too. He arranges for a lawyer, plies him with food and drink, and tries to prevent Reardon from acting rashly after his battle with Francine - another hint that Reardon has some violence in him that needs suppressing.

Jimmy's brother Mike (Bernie Coulson), however, is not quite as astute when it comes to acting in Reardon's best interests. Recently released from jail, Mike is humiliated by his position as doorman, and resentful of Ronnie. He's also highly impetuous, going from inviting Jimmy on a fishing trip to planning a trip to Mexico, presumably to bump off Bill, who ends up dead, to Mary's dismay and Ted's glee. Adding to the body count, Reardon's man on the island, Colin, is assassinated.

Knowledge is power in this world of intelligence, and Jimmy desparately needs to tip the balance in his favour, so he asks one of his minions to collect background on Mary - any information, personal information.

In the final scenes, Jimmy is back sipping a drink in Mary's hotel room, where she shows him a picture of poor dead Bill. He tells her the bikers have killed one of his men, asking her pointedly to let him know how that investigation goes. When she asks if a biker war is coming, he says he hopes not. But ...

"What goes around comes around I guess, right?" he asks.

"Yeah," she replies.

This is, of course, just the beginning. This first episode, following the pilot movie that aired last year, sets up the characters, relationships, and plots for what looks to be a slow burn - with threats of flash fires - throughout the season.

Intelligence next airs Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Movie Review: Expiration Date

If I liked milk, I'd say Expiration Date is as frothy, refreshing and satisfying as a tall, cool glass of the white stuff. As it is, I'll just say that it is frothy, but also refreshing and satisfying, and leave the cow juice comparisons out of it.

At one of its Vancouver International Film Festival screenings, co-writer and director Rick Stevenson called it a black comedy, "which means it's filled with totally inappropriate moments for laughs."

While it is a dark comedy, it's also often as sweet as, er, chocolate milk, which makes the humour more grey than pitch black. Its tone is slightly uneven, veering from that black comedy, to pathos, to slightly syrupy, and back again, but it's an enjoyable comedy with a gentle - though not very subtle - message about living life to its fullest.

Expiration Date follows Charles Silvercloud III (Robert A. Guthrie) as he prepares for his imminent death. His grandfather and father were both killed by milk trucks on their 25th birthdays - two of the many scenes that inspired inappropriate laughter. Charlie's 25th birthday is a week away, milk omens are everywhere, and he's got funeral arrangements to make.

Mom Lucille (Dee Wallace Stone) is resigned to her son's fate but despondent that unlike his father and grandfather, he's not leaving a son to carry on the family curse ... I mean, name.

When he meets kooky Bessie (Sacha Knopf), who's making funeral preparations for her mother, Charlie is wary of getting into a relationship with so little time left. But he finds Bessie has her own secrets, and they bond despite impending death. While it's a bit of a tired scenario - off-the-wall girl brings life to staid boy - the leads are charming and the milk curse premise is unique enough to sustain interest when the familiarity breeds boredom.

Supporting characters add some richness to the comedy, with Ben Ratner as Charlie's boss, who's looking for a woman who knows the lyrics to every Jimi Hendrix song, David Keith as an intense soldier wannabe, Brandon Whitehead as a caffeine addict, and, the biggest scene stealer of all, Roadkill the narcoleptic dog. For even more bonus comedy, Richard Sanders - Les Nessman from WKRP in Cincinnati - pops up as a cemetery worker.

Just as another of my festival favourites, Everything's Gone Green, was a love letter to Vancouver, Expiration Date is a love letter to neighbouring Seattle. The coffee culture, the funky neighbourhoods, even some of the music all shine in the background.

The movie is bookended with scenes of a Native teenager waiting for a bus to let him escape life on the reservation, when an old man accosts him and gets him interested in the story of the Silvercloud curse. Nakotah Larance, who plays the young man, is a world championship hoop dancer, and Stevenson said a documentary about him will appear on the Expiration Date DVD, due to be released in March.

The writer and director mentioned that the Native American theme didn't appear until the last draft of the script, and that he chose it when he discovered his independent funding was in place and he had the freedom to cast whoever he wanted. "Out of the specific comes the universal. All of us have a curse that keeps us from living life to its fullest."

But beyond that, he joked, "I felt someone needed to expose the evils of milk. I'm a socially conscious filmmaker."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I'm not even Catholic

Things to feel guilty about:

  • I really liked 30 Rock. It made me laugh out loud several times. I still love you best, Mr. Sorkin. I have room in my heart for two behind-the-scenes-of-SNL shows.
  • I can't stop thinking about how much I hated Rumours. I'm sorry, CBC.
  • I'm supposed to be covering the Vancouver International Film Festival, and I am, sort of, but this cold/flu/tuberculosis is kicking my ass and I haven't been out to see many films. I meant to go to Fido tonight, but instead I drank Neo Citron and watched 30 Rock. And liked it.  A lot.
  • I have two books for review still to finish and instead I sped-read this weird House-related book I was sent weeks after those two.
  • I could be writing a book review or a film fest review or a TV review or a long-overdue e-mail (hi Elizabeth!) and instead I'm writing about how guilty I feel for not writing anything substantial today.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Secret of their success

My fingers got a workout today adding to the TV, Eh? site all the 1,001 (give or take) links to praise-filled news articles about Intelligence, which debuts tonight on CBC. That doesn't count the couple I saw that were behind subscription-only barriers. It's gratifying to see that the Canadian media will write articles on Canadian TV shows. The key to success seems to be ... be Chris Haddock.

If you can't manage that, I'm sure having any successful show in your past helps. But also, not having to rely solely on network publicists is probably key, as is having a sexy subject ("sex, drugs and espionage" - what reporter can resist that?), especially one that hits on current events and issues. And while I've said I don't know what makes a show quintessentially Canadian other than the fact that it's by Canadians, and I don't care where a show is set, and it's often the indefinable things that make it resonate as Canadian for me (well, I might not have said that last part, but I'm saying it now), this show is Canadian.

Of course it's particularly cool for me since I live where it's set, but even if I were still in Alberta or New Brunswick or wherever, I'd recognize the beauty and seediness that coexist in Vancouver, and the very BC-ness of Jimmy Reardon's business. Plus it touches on the issue of Canadian over-reliance on American intelligence and what that means to our country, and that isn't something you're going to see much of on US television. All great fodder to inspire Canadian journalists to write about the show, I'm sure.

The only non-Intelligence item I posted today is actually related, if you squint. The ratings are out for Sept. 25 - Oct. 1, and House is #2 in the country. It's always done better in Canada than the US (the secret to Canadians' niceness - we're all repressed Dr. Houses?) but #2 is better than I've noticed before. That means the last episode before baseball hiatus beat Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and the lesser CSIs.

New episodes of House will air Tuesdays at 9 when it returns. When does Intelligence air? Tuesdays at 9. So while I love House and would like it to air 52 weeks a year, since I have no power to make that happen, I'll be grateful there are no new episodes for the next three weeks to allow Intelligence to build an audience without it as competition. I won't be in a Sophie's Choice position anyway, since I can watch House on the Eastern feed, but very, very occasionally, things aren't all about me.

Speaking of new CBC shows, I watched Rumours last night, and ... well ... maybe it's because I was in a funk after being sick for the long weekend, maybe my brain was still zombie-like after spending most of the day in bed sniffling and feeling sorry for myself, but good lord was that an unfunny comedy. It didn't even make me smile inwardly, not once. The sparring male-female leads is a classic set up, but aren't they supposed to be trading funny banter? "You're a jerk!" "No you are!" is not quite Tracy-Hepburn-esque. Yes, I'm paraphrasing, but still.

I'm going to guess the Quebec version is better executed, or this might be one of those two solitudes examples. Or maybe it's just me. For CBC's sake, I hope so.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Smart, huh?

I may have been too covert about this, but I'm looking forward to the premiere of Intelligence on Tuesday. I'm not usually a crime drama fan but this is, well, intelligent, and the intriguing characters and dense plots hooked me.

But not from its original airing. I'd missed the movie/pilot last year - one of my "Canadian TV doesn't get enough publicity" examples - but then they sent a press release about the start of production for the series, followed up with a screener and an offer of a set visit and interviews, and I happily discovered I was a fan.

They just launched their series website, which will have the usual suspects like videos, bios, recaps, and photos, plus a video mashup, game, and podcasts, some features up there now, some coming soon.

And if you look carefully, under links, there's TV, Eh?, linked to the Intelligence category but of course offering a little visibility to the site as a whole ... and therefore, theoretically, to other Canadian shows. We've got plans to try to collect interesting content, too, and not just leave it at a courtesy link. A bit of cross-promotion between us - isn't cooperation a beautiful thing?

And who knows, maybe more shows and more publicists will take advantage of the site and not leave me to scour the web for information on them, or sift through network media releases on the wonderful American programming they've bought to find the nuggets on Canadian TV. It's only been three months since I launched it, and it's already made progress in that area - even more so in the last week (thanks Canadian Press and CBC) - so I'm optimistic.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Movie Review: Antonio Vivaldi: A Prince in Venice

The 25th Vancouver International Film Festival brings more than 300 films from over 50 countries to the city in a two-week period.

They can't all be winners.

Antonio Vivaldi: A Prince in Venice, in French with English subtitles, seems to be an experiment in making the least interesting storytelling choices possible. As such, it succeeds wildly.

Based on the life of the composer, the film is reverse alchemy, turning potential gold into lead. Vivaldi's life seems at least as interesting as that of Mozart, who inspired the far more successful film Amadeus. But where artistic license must fill in the biographical gaps, writer and director Jean-Louis Guillermou chooses the least dramatic possibility every time.

Vivaldi was acknowledged as a musical genius in his lifetime (1678-1741), but constantly struggled to gain acceptance in Venice and with the church. Poor choices and bad luck contributed to his dying in poverty and obscurity. His works, including The Four Seasons, are now so renowned it's hard to believe he remained largely forgotten until the early 20th century.

Known as the Red Priest, fiery-haired Vivaldi (Stefano Dionisi) was ordained but refused to practice mass. His claim that his health would not allow him to stand long enough for such duties leads to the Bishop of Venice's observation that he doesn't seem to have any difficulties when performing violin, or conducting his appallingly secular operas.

The Bishop, played by Michel Serrault, is a caricature, but at least instills some welcome comic relief to Dionisi's staid and smug and unintentionally laughable Vivaldi. The composer's reputation was tarnished in his home town of Venice because of his seeming to turn his back on his priestly duties, his foreign patrons, and his relationship with beautiful women, including his favourite singer Anna Giro (Annette Schreiber) and her sister. The movie is determined to exonerate Vivaldi from accusations he was unchaste, though he comes across less as naive or noble than manipulative and self-absorbed.

Though the action of the film takes place over a span of three decades, except for Vivladi's hair getting progressively less red, the characters do not age, making the ups and downs of his career appear to take place over a disconcertingly short period of time.

The events compressed into this span are often disconnected, with no overall theme tying them together. Minor characters put a grinding halt to the action - to use too strong a word - by addressing the camera in order to cram even more tedious biographical detail into the movie. All characters are distinguished by stilted dialogue and acting. The one strength of the film is the undeniably sublime music, but even that is nearly ruined by wooden performances that don't synch with the soundtrack.

Antonio Vivaldi: A Prince in Venice is not, however, simply an ineptly made film. It is very much deliberately stilted and disjointed, and some viewers may find that an interesting choice, but the only interest I could find in the stylized biopic was a fascination with how deliberately boring it was.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ian Tracey and Klea Scott ooze Intelligence on CBC

CBC's Intelligence, premiering Tuesday at 9 p.m., isn't your usual crime show.

"In the cops and robbers genre there's a very clear protagonist and antagonist, and that's where this is a bit different," said star Ian Tracey. "The lines are often blurred - there's some questionable characters working in law enforcement and some good-hearted people breaking the law."

Tracey plays Jimmy Reardon, a third-generation crime boss maintaining his family's legacy in shipping and drug smuggling. "He's not a dark, hateful, violent criminal person at all, more of a businessman and entrepreneur," he explained, adding with a laugh, "some of the businesses happen to be illegal."

He's also a devoted father and brother, which makes him both vulnerable and fierce. "The moment the family was involved, all bets were off."

Intelligence is the latest series by Da Vinci's Inquest creator Chris Haddock. "I had been wanting to develop a show for Ian, and got the network on board to support that idea a couple of years ago," he recalled. "They had wanted me to develop a show to replace Da Vinci when it eventually retired."

To complement Tracey's engaging gangster, Haddock wrote the character of steely Mary Spalding, the head of Vancouver's Organized Crime Unit who has one eye on a job at the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and another on her back-stabbing underlings. After a long search, he found Klea Scott to fill the role.

Despite having to move from Los Angeles and temporarily leave her husband, an American theatre director, behind, the Panama-born, Canada-raised Scott was eager to be part of Intelligence.

"The writing was fantastic," she said. "I had not seen a woman's role in the crime genre so well developed, with her personal life as well as her job. Often when they're looking for a native, Asian, or African actor, it's to round out politically correct numbers. Mary's complex and flawed, and that really appealed to me."

"She's fierce and ferocious, with a practical side," she continued. "She has an unapologetic confidence in her abilities, and a singleminded pursuit of ambition. The CSIS job is her focus throughout the season. She's had a taste of power, her kingdom expanding, and she feels this need to be in control."

In the pilot, a two-hour movie that first aired last year, Spalding and her team of spies - including Matt Frewer (Max Headroom) as possibly the most morally questionable character of the show - fabricated an uneasy alliance with Reardon as an informant. Though they're on opposite sides of the law, Spalding and Reardon have something in common, according to Haddock.

"Klea's character is fighting the system that she's within, so she's an outsider trying to upset the status quo. So that's what makes her a bit of an antihero," he said. "Same with Reardon, he's an antihero because he lives outside the law, but even though he lives outside the law he must be honest. He's kind of a good bad guy. He really struggles with some of the things he comes up against."

Tracey has not only worked on both sides of the cops and robbers genre, he's worked with Haddock for years, first on Da Vinci's Inquest, then Da Vinci's City Hall. "For the most part it's the same crew, the same people running the show, so it's comfortable, and I enjoy working with Chris," he said. "It feels like everything I've done was working towards this."

Despite the intense relationship between their characters, the two leads spend little time onscreen together. "It's a delicate recipe," said Scott. "They can't get too close, can't get too far. They have very furtive, secretive meetings. Their worlds are really separate, and they're leaders of their own orbits."

"Both sides are full of shit. No one is playing a fair game, everyone's out for themselves," said Tracey. Scott agreed. "Everybody's constantly betraying each other."

When we talked, Tracey was preparing to direct episode 10, an opportunity he first took advantage of on Da Vinci's Inquest. "I loved it, I was afraid of it, I did it anyway," he said about the experience, which allowed him to focus on another aspect of the work he loves. "When I'm not working, I don't know what to do with myself."

Though he's shifted from supporting character in Da Vinci to lead in Intelligence, Tracey said he doesn't feel that pressure, because of the large ensemble cast and a plot that moves like a "fast flowing river" between the different factions.

Still, expectations are high for the show, which already boasts critical acclaim thanks to a slew of Gemini nominations for the movie that kicked it off.

"If everyone else had been nominated except me, I would have felt really bad," Scott laughed, pointing out that apart from her nod, Tracey, Haddock, director Stephen Surjik, and the movie as a whole were recognized. She had found success in American shows like Brooklyn South, Millennium and the film Minority Report before Haddock lured her back to Canada, so, she said, "the Gemini nomination was a great welcome home."

"All of these nominations let us know up front that, starting out with the pilot, it's already garnered a bit of appreciation," commented Tracey. "Hopefully that means people will be looking forward to what else we have to offer."

"I think it's going to appeal to the same audience that's attracted to criminal procedurals, and also the CBC core audience," said creator Haddock of his new show. "But I think it's going to reach into a male and female demographic. Ian has great sex appeal, and I think he's going to help draw more of a female audience. And I think that the nature of the story, being gangsters, is going to appeal to younger men."

Intelligence airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC, starting Oct. 10.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I need more grass. Or is that roots?

Yikes - 29 comments on the "Canadians don't watch Canadian TV" article. Some of them don't even make me roll my eyes. And for more weirdness, I was a guest on CBC radio in Saskatchewan today, chatting about the same topic. I go into autopilot when I'm nervous, so it's all a blur, but we chatted about the same kinds of things as in the article, plus the stigma thing, and the few callers they had time for were all very supportive of Canadian TV and agreed with pretty much everything the host and I said. I guess - duh - CBC radio listeners are less likely to be CBC TV bashers.

But ... I kind of like being challenged, so it wasn't quite as interesting as the discussion on TV, Eh? And I got asked things like "did Brian get his just desserts on Da Vinci's Inquest?" (There was a Brian?) I guess I did get across that I'm a TV fan, not an industry expert, then.

I got to plug Intelligence quite a bit, since it's my current example of a great CBC show, the pilot/movie is one of my examples of a show I heard about after it originally aired, and it's an example of what I think is poor scheduling (up against House, a Law and Order, and The Unit). Plus the Da Vinci questioner asked what happened to that show, so I mentioned the creator and one of the actors went on to do Intelligence.

We also mentioned the usual suspects, Corner Gas, Trailer Park Boys, Degrassi - none of which I actually watch, but respect as popular, well-done shows that have managed to capture an audience.

A caller lamented the loss of This is Wonderland, and pointed to the Gemini nominations as proof that it shouldn't have been cancelled. Awards don't mean ratings though. And even the kazillionaire American networks can't figure out the formula to make quality=ratings.

If the problems with the Canadian TV industry are basically quality, promotion, and stigma ... well, I can't help with quality, but the TV, Eh? site is trying to help with promotion and stigma. It's just overwhelming, the size of the task versus the limits of my ability to help. Because if I'm the grassroots movement to support the industry? God help Canadian TV. I need to start working on a posse.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

DVD Review: House Season Two

The season two release of House brings the most sublimely misanthropic medical show to DVD in a hugely improved technical package from season one.

This past season didn't hit the highest highs of the first, which skewed the bell curve with the stunning, Emmy-winning "Three Stories." But the series was even more consistently excellent and took more risks, spiraling its main character into darker places than before, and breaking the usual format more often and more assuredly.

A mesmerizing Hugh Laurie completely inhabits the character of Dr. Gregory House. A cynical idealist, he expects the worst in people, then is disappointed when he's proven right. He's insensitive but not uncompassionate. The most moral character to ever have a drinking, gambling, and hooker problem, and the most likeable character to treat people with such utter disdain, House is as reckless with his patients as he is with himself, though with better cause. He gets the cases no one else can figure out, and each episode revolves around his search for the medical truth, which is usually buried in some personal truth.

That may be the show's formula, but it's not entirely predictable. Plot and character revelations are often as surprising as they are logical. Everybody lies, as House says, and the motive for the lies tends to be the key to the case and to the character.

Even on repeat watching, many of the medical mysteries are still a mystery, because the path to the final diagnosis can be so convoluted, it's difficult to remember the specifics of the journey or the destination. The medical case of the week allows for some terrific guest stars, including LL Cool J ("Acceptance"), Ron Livingston ("TB or not TB"), Cynthia Nixon ("Deception"), and Howard Hesseman ("Sex Kills").

The best episodes use the medical case to illuminate House's character in new ways, explore intriguing ethical issues, and take unexpected turns. But it's the ongoing personal stories that offer the additional hook. Even when they aren't completely cohesive or consistent, they are a reason not to miss a single episode of this hybrid procedural-character study.

Season two delves into House's twisted romantic life, as he alternately repels and pursues ex-love Stacy Warner (Sela Ward). Other longer-term story arcs include the marital troubles of House's friend and emotional interpreter, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), and tension and changing dynamics among House's team of doctors.

Need supposedly objective proof of the show's quality? Besides Hugh Laurie's numerous accolades, which include an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe, the show was nominated for best drama at this year's Emmys, earned Peabody and Humanitas awards, and writer Lawrence Kaplow won a Writers Guild Award for the episode "Autopsy."

That was one of a few stand-out episodes of a stand-out show's second season, which showed no signs of a sophomore slump. I'd name format-shattering "The Mistake" and "No Reason" as other highlights. Even the least successful episodes are still entertaining, thought provoking, and witty, and often better than almost anything else on television.

Which isn't to say the show is flawless, and season two captures the weaknesses as well as the strengths. House falls into familiar ruts, particularly episodes that rely on the team or his boss, Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) doubting House's abilities.

While the episodes are largely self-contained, the longer story arcs are occasionally frustratingly paced. At the end of season one, for example, House's ex, Stacy, was introduced as a recurring character, but she was left with little to do in some episodes, and the will-they-or-won't-they felt both drawn out and then rushed.

An even more significant failing is the underdeveloped secondary characters. While they each have defined personalities - Eric Foreman (Omar Epps) arrogant, judgmental and driven; Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer) laid-back and obsequious; Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) dangerously empathetic yet shrewd - they're the most likely to serve the plot at the expense of consistent characterization, often in order to represent all sides of an argument, or to stand in contrast to House's opinion.

Once or twice a season, House's team gets episodes specifically designed to showcase their characters. This season, it was Foreman's turn in "Euphoria," Chase's in "The Mistake," and Cameron's in "Hunting" and "Spin," though she fares better overall than the boys. She is, in fact, set up as something of a moral compass - an idea made overt in "Daddy's Boy" - though the needle can be a little shaky at times, like when she's dismissive and even cruel to a mentally ill patient. But in many episodes, all three are little more than a medical Greek chorus, guiding us through the jargon of the case of the week in sometimes clunky expositional dialogue.

Despite its flaws, House is one of the most entertaining dramas on television ... and one of the funniest comedies, if it weren't faintly ridiculous to classify it that way. Frequently touching, thought-provoking and challenging, the show raises issues such as patient rights, transplant ethics, and the sexualization of teens. In fact, with the focus on illicit sex as a key factor in so many diagnoses, perhaps this season should be played in schools to scare kids into abstinence, despite the parental warning FOX insists on before each broadcast.

Technical Quality

The technical presentation of the season two DVDs are a huge leap forward from last year's season one discs. This time, Universal has splurged for what-should-be-standard anamorphic widescreen, and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.

DVD bonus features

The extras are decent, though not much extra effort was involved in putting them together. Most are reworkings of existing footage, like a silly segment which is short enough not to belabour the joke, which is pretty much delivered in the title: "It's not lupus." They could have easily chosen vasculitis or paraneoplastic syndrome, too, but it's nice to see they have a sense of humour over the trusty standbys in the differential diagnosis scenes.

My extras wish list didn't include hearing Lisa Edelstein and Jennifer Morrison perform two scenes in Valley Girl accents, but they're worth a giggle. I can only imagine it's an in-joke, maybe something the actresses started to do on set to relieve tension, instead of something a DVD producer came up - "you know what would be a GREAT idea?" But you know what? Morrison and Edelstein make it work by being just so charming and committed to the joke, they, like, totally put a smile on my face.

Less baffling and even more enjoyable is a blooper real. After reading interviews where Laurie describes himself as a pain in the ass on set, he demonstrates a more adorably goofy side than anyone playing such a prickly character has a right to possess - but he also swears like only a character on HBO has the right to do (bleeped out, because this is a network show, after all). It's nice to see these lighter moments that aren't simply a flubbed line repeated over and over again, and funny asides from the actors plus some ad libs gone wrong.

More meaty is the "Evening With House" hosted by critic Elvis Mitchell, which gathers the entire cast and the executive producers to talk about the show. While it's got some nice insight and repartee, it's a minor disappointment that it was edited so that occasionally the context of the participants' remarks are not immediately obvious. I'm sure hardcore fans, the ones who pour over things like DVD extras, the ones like, well, me, would have been more than happy to have the uncut version in their hands.

A welcome addition are episode commentaries on "Autopsy," the episode that won writer Kaplow a Writers Guild of America award, and "No Reason," the mind-bending season finale written and directed by creator David Shore. Two commentaries may be paltry, but it's better than last season's grand tally of none. While it may be disappointing that none of the cast were involved, particularly Hugh Laurie, Shore and fellow executive producer Katie Jacobs do a fine job, except when they succumb to the malady of many DVD commentators, of watching the show instead of talking about the show.

To Buy or Not To Buy?

For House fans, season two is a definite required addition to a DVD collection, not just for the high rewatch value of the episodes, but for the glimpse behind the scenes, all packaged in a fine technical presentation.