Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How to win friends and influence people

Believe it or not, I have a reputation among my coworkers for being highly diplomatic. Not so much now that they’ve seen the latest Macleans magazine.

At least I didn’t call him smug. I just called him absurd, ridiculous and desperate. Why do I think I’m not going to be on Canadian Idol executive producer John Brunton’s Christmas card list?

Jaime Weinman's latest article, Nothing More than an Idol Threat?, isn’t online yet, but my boss brought it in to the office today, with all my venomous glory highlighted in yellow. I'll link to it when (if) it's online, but for now here’s my part:
But Diane [LastName], who runs the Canadian TV news site, says that Brunton’s statement is “absurd” for urging Torontonians to support their own; this implies that voting “should be based on civic pride instead of merit.” She also takes issue with Brunton’s belief that Toronto isn’t getting enough contestants in the mix: “Toronto was left with ‘only’ three of the top 18 spots, which, to get nerdily mathematical about it, is pretty much exactly in line with its population in relation to the rest of Canada.”
Caroline and I talked about this in the TV, Eh? podcast, too. She was definitely more pointed in that discussion than I was. I think it's fair to say I was the more diplomatic one. Anyway, my final quote in Macleans wraps up my thoughts diplomatically:
[Diane] is one of a number of critics who think that Brunton’s complaint was aimed at “invoking civic pride in an obvious attempt to boost ratings.” All that was accomplished, she says, is that “Brunton made himself and the show look ridiculous and desperate.”
Oh. Um, well, as a friend of mine said, “Diplomacy is for the birds. And, I suppose, the diplomats.” And while my coworkers think I'm a diplomat, my friends know that I love to call them on their bullshit. See, I'm being a friend to Brunton.

Weinman makes an interesting argument, so I’ll link if the article eventually makes its way online (gotta say I’m not loving the redesign or the -- ha! -- timeliness of the site). Oh, it’s also in the July 30 issue if you're into hard copy. He points out that the voting pattern of American and Canadian Idol follows the same trend as the federal elections. Stephen Harper was elected with minimal support in Toronto and other major cities … the cities that don’t watch Canadian Idol, either. “If people outside the big cities can pick who runs the country, why shouldn’t they decide who gets to stand on the stage with Ben Mulroney?”

Of course Brunton got his publicity, and there's still a contestant from Toronto in the top 9, and last week's Canadian Idol episodes were numbers one and five in these summer doldrum ratings. Except in Toronto. There, it had to settle for 7th and 11th spots.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Forget 'Save our Shows' - Save our Critics instead

When I wrote about The (Non) Influence of the TV Critic, I was relaying a panel discussion about whether critics have the power to make or break a show, and whether they even should. As far as my opinion went, I was questioning their focus, not their existence.

On Thursday, Variety printed an article about the diminishing ranks of TV critics at newspapers across the United States. Out with the old, in with... nobody: Newspapers phasing out veteran critics enumerates the TV reporters and critics who have been phased out, replaced by wire service copy or nothing at all.

Time's James Poniewozik hesitantly picked up on the Variety article and points out there hasn't been much discussion, maybe because of the awkwardness of critics writing about the threat to their jobs. There's no way for them to do it without being self-serving and therefore not terribly credible. But I'm a blogger, one of the mass of amateur voices accused of helping to supplant professional critics, so I've got nothing at stake when I say it's shortsighted at best for newspapers to eliminate local TV critics.

I think we're further down that road in Canada than the Americans are. We have national TV columnists at the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Macleans magazine, and unique voices at the Toronto Star, with Vinay Menon, Jim Bawden, and Rob Salem covering the TV beat, and at the Vancouver Province with Dana Gee, whose online columns are, unfortunately, generally behind a subscription firewall.

But CanWest News Services, Sun Media and the Canadian Press supply the majority of television coverage here, which means I can pick up the Vancouver Sun and get the same coverage as I'd get in the Calgary Herald or the Edmonton Journal. Alex Strachan is a fine writer, but he's one man with one opinion on any given topic. I didn't even realize he was based in Vancouver until I looked up that hyperlink.

Besides that, most of what I can find in my local papers -- Gee usually excepted -- I can find online, along with much, much more of the same, of varying qualities and varying opinions but all filling the same role, because it's all meant for a mass audience.

Even our niche papers, the alternative arts and entertainment weeklies like the Georgia Straight, don't cover TV with anywhere near the same frequency or devotion as they cover film, music, theatre, visual arts, dance, food, books, fashion, politics, good grief, even crafts and sex shops get more coverage. I might as well call them the "arts and entertainment except television" papers.

John Doyle, essentially Canada's premiere TV critic, writing for the Globe and Mail, recently left his Toronto confines and wrote a series of columns from Vancouver, where he interviewed the people behind shows such as Intelligence, Robson Arms, Sanctuary, and the upcoming JPod and About a Girl. I loved those articles. Loved them. Partly, it was because I'd met some of the people he talked to. Mostly, it was because this was insight into television from my hometown perspective: what's filming here, who the players are, and how the city makes it onscreen in subtle and obvious ways.

He focused on shows filming here, but you only need to look to someone like the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan or New Jersey's Alan Sepinwall to see how their hometown perspective often seeps into their coverage of what they're watching.

Besides the fact that John Doyles don't grow on trees, why don't I read articles like that regularly in the Vancouver Sun or the Georgia Straight? Why would I go to the Vancouver Sun for TV coverage when I can read its generic content in a hundred different places?

Newspapers are facing an uncertain future, partly from competition with the Internet's free-flowing information, where everyone's a critic and every critic is answerable to their readers. The solution from the news divisions is often to find ways to steal a page, so to speak, from the Internet -- to interact more with their readers, create a sense of community and two-way conversation, and above all, to fill a local niche. (Interactive journalism professor Jeff Jarvis talks a lot about this kind of thing on BuzzMachine.)

And yet newspapers are doing the opposite with their television coverage, despite the immense reach of television and fans' seemingly insatiable appetite for discussion of TV. Instead of creating community around TV coverage, they're diluting it. Instead of finding a local niche, they're outsourcing and genericizing it.

Matt Roush of TV Guide sums it up in the Variety article:

"It seems to me a newspaper with the resources to nurture local voices and personalities can't afford to be without someone who is interpreting both the local and national TV scene," he says. "The idea you can have the same impact just by picking up wire copy and replacing your local columnist with those stories diminishes the role of the local newspaper in my eyes."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Jezebel's Photoshop of Horrors

What the hell is wrong with us that we need a gorgeous nearly-40-year-old celebrity to look 20? Jezebel got ahold of the original from the July Redbook cover photo of Faith Hill, and contrasts it with the eerily dehumanized final version:
Read why Jezebel's pissed, and add a "me too" for me in there.

This sounds familiar

At the television critics tour, apparently many reacted harshly to the premise of an upcoming CW sitcom, Aliens in America.
"I'd like to ask what is it that you interpret in the American psyche, or appetite for entertainment, that will embrace a show in which Americans are depicted as bigoted and stupid to be shown the way by a young man from the Middle East?" one critic asked.
After recounting several questions to the show's panel participants indicating that reporters were offended by the premise that a Muslim character could teach Americans anything about tolerance, Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post ends by relaying this doozy:
"You are dealing with people . . . from a part of the world that aren't always very tolerant, you know — the Danish cartoon thing and everything. Do you have a technical adviser to keep you from getting Salman Rushdied?" another critic said.

We'll pause here so you can reread that question.
In Canada, we went through this kind of debate earlier this year, before Little Mosque on the Prairie launched on CBC. Except in Canada, critics were kind — I'd say too kind — to Little Mosque. It was generally the ugly corners of the Internet, many not even Canadian, not even exposed to the show, who fretted about the "glorification" of Islam, or questioned the wisdom of risking religious tensions ... through a sitcom that's no edgier than According to Jim, I have to say. I heard from people who hated the way small-town Canadians were portrayed, though the critics seemed to treat it as no different from any other conflict exaggeration in any other sitcom.

John Doyle of the Globe and Mail recently explained Canadian television to TV Quarterly, the journal of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — the nation being the US, the organization the people behind the Emmys. He had this to say about how Little Mosque reveals a key difference in our cultures:
Little Mosque on the Prairie made the American media curious because it has a comic premise that’s outrageous in the context of mainstream U.S. network TV — it finds comedy in the lives of a group of Muslims living in a small prairie town where many of the locals are suspicious of them. The locals, including the police and the town’s media, tend to think of all Muslims as terrorists and see the Mosque as a place were suspicious activities occur. The humor arises from both the exaggerated prejudices of the locals and the fact that most of the Muslims aren’t as devout as they’d like others to believe.

What intrigued the U.S. media was the very idea of distilling comedy material from tensions between Muslims and others in the community, from jokes about terrorists and Islamic fundamentalism. This was not material that could be mined for comedy on mainstream American television. The idea was avant-garde. But, in a nutshell, that is the strength of Canadian television — the best of it, by instinct or design, rejects the common ingredients for comedy or drama on American TV and cooks up a distinctly indigenous television culture.
Despite the arrival of Aliens in America, Doyle's right that Little Mosque represents a distinction between the two countries. In Little Mosque, the characters are predominantly Muslim, and they are as Canadian as the other townspeople. The humour derives as much from within their community as from how the non-Muslim townspeople view them. In Aliens in America, there is one Muslim character, and he's a complete outsider — a foreign exchange student. It'll be interesting to see where the humour lands, with that balance. De Moraes calls it Freaks and Geeks-ish, which bodes well for quality if not quantity.

But critics here either liked Little Mosque or objected to it on the grounds that it wasn't funny — not that it was offensive. It also became one of our highest rated comedies, following close on the heels of homegrown Corner Gas.

So the real test will come with the audience reaction to Aliens in America, and even how much of the press tour objections make it into the critics' reviews. Even then, there's the bigger question — what does it mean? Do Canadians simply have less political baggage over religion, or are we truly more tolerant, or is it more acceptable in the US to voice intolerance?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Book Review: Send

My latest for Blogcritics is a book review of a guide to proper email use. I don't get into this in the article, but my day job partly involves electronic communications, which partly involves things like creating an enewsletter to compile the all-staff emails in order to reduce email clutter, and coordinating an email etiquette campaign to tell people things like "stop hitting 'reply all' or I will rip your face off!" So anyway, that explains why I asked to review this one from Random House:

The Machine is Us/ing Us

Very cool video by a cultural anthropologist, explaining the evolution of the Internet to what the geeks are now calling Web 2.0.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Familiar themes

Here's some weekend reading on topics I've touched on lately:

When I interviewed Gregg Spiridellis of JibJab, he hinted at new projects for the company coming soon. CNN now has a sneak peek video, The Disrupters, featuring one of those projects -- "Starring You." I can see these kinds of videos popping up all over the Internet once they launch this thing.
"JibJab Media made its name with its political cartoon spoof a few years back. Now they are disrupting the media business again by allowing users to send in their pictures and star in their own JibJab film. Business 2.0's Erick Schonfeld gets a sneak peek."

Jon Wilde of Guardian Unlimited gives his top 9 reasons why The Wire is the greatest TV drama ever: The Wire is unmissable television.
"No other television drama comes close to the scope of its ambition. As co-creator and executive producer David Simon says: 'Our model when we started doing The Wire wasn't other television shows. The standard we were looking at was Balzac's Paris or Dickens's London, or Tolstoy's Moscow.' Over four seasons, the show has never flinched from that ambition and managed to realise it consummately. got it spot on when they described the show as, 'a Homeric epic of modern America'."

Devin Gordon of Newsweek, in Tony says gimme that Emmy, starts with The Sopranos vs. Lost to make some of the same points I did in my reasoning for why a show like House does so much better than a show like The Wire at the Emmys, but he goes further -- and in the end, I'm not sure there's much more point than "the Emmys don't make sense."
The Emmys' odd, single-episode nominating process does put serialized dramas such as Lost in a tricky spot. It's impossible to appreciate an episode like "Through the Looking Glass" if you missed everything that led up to it. That's why so-called procedurals—programs with self-contained story lines that wrap up in an hour, such as Law & Order, CSI and, more recently, House—have tended to fare well at the Emmys. But the process's natural bias against serialized shows didn't hurt The Sopranos, or Grey's Anatomy.

And here's the weird thing about this year's Emmys: it didn't exactly hurt Lost, either. "Through the Looking Glass" earned well-deserved nominations in both the writing and the directing categories, but the show still failed to earn a nomination for best drama series. In other words, the academy decided that Lost was beautifully written and directed, but other than that, they weren't impressed. Boston Legal and Heroes, meanwhile, earned only a directing nomination. And House was shut out of both writing and directing honors. Yet all three were nominated for best drama.

Emmy flaws

My Emmy meanderings at Blogcritics focus on why it's not surprising a deserving - but low-rated and serialized - show like The Wire gets snubbed, using House, of course, as the comparison:

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Every Wednesday at pretty much 9:01 p.m. Pacific time - my time zone - I get an e-mail from CityTV, a media release with the latest elimination on Canada's Next Top Model. That's 9:01 p.m. because that's when the show finishes airing in this last time zone. 9:01 so they're not spoiling the show for anyone, no matter where they live.

Today, the evening of the finale, I was set to have dinner and then curl up on the couch watching the rain and my guilty pleasure, Canada's Next Top Model. Shut up, it's fun. So I open my e-mail at 6:45 and there it is - the CityTV e-mail. The subject line blares the winner's name. I can't avert my eyes in time. It's 6:45 p.m. 6:45, dammit! This is the curse, I guess, of getting sucked into a trashy show when I should be simply dispassionately posting information about it.

Oh well, I guess I have more discs of The Wire to watch. It was really a Canada's Next Top Model kind of day, though. Yup, that brain-draining.

It's small consolation that I picked the winner, at least.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

TV, Eh? podcast

It's finally here:
  • The first TV, Eh? podcast (the link takes you to the TV, Eh? post with show notes and a link to the podcast - your computer will make no sudden sounds by clicking on it)

The podcast feed is at:

powered by ODEO

Thanks to everyone who participated and offered support along the way. Actually I'll post part of the email I sent them:
It's longer than I'd intended, and in fact longer than it was before I destroyed the thing and decided not to edit as rigorously as I had the first time in order to get it up before *everything* Caroline and I talked about was out of date. And, like the site, it's a grassroots effort, so don't expect perfection. And I'm restraining myself from adding more disclaimers and neuroses.

Anyway, thank you so much to those of you who participated, but also to those who supported the project in spirit if not actual words. Feel free to link from your sites, or post the podcast and/or show notes on your own site, and/or distribute at will. I'll be submitting to podcast directories and otherwise publicize but for now I need to get some sleep.

Don't cry for him, Argentina

I love this article about the failure of Studio 60. It's an interview with Aaron Sorkin by admirer but not apologist Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times. TV Tattle's hilarious link to it is headlined: "Aaron Sorkin attempts to blame himself for Studio 60's failure," and it's apt. He takes total and absolute responsibility for the failure until he starts laying the blame elsewhere.

But until it ends heavily on a dissection of our celebrity obsessed culture, Goldstein packages it all up in a way that rings true to me as a person who still admires Sorkin's writing despite the mess that Studio 60 became, but has had enough of hearing about him as a person.

Goldstein outlines the top 100 ways to deal with failure in Hollywood (though I have to say if I were editing the article, I'd have pointed out that he seems to be conflating ways of dealing with failure and reasons for failure):
  1. Take responsibility. "I don't know how to emphasize this enough that I'm not disappointed or upset with anyone but myself," says Sorkin ... "There are only two possible reasons for 'Studio 60' failing — it was either my fault or it was just one of those things. On some shows, you can make mistakes and still survive. But with this one, I made too many mistakes for it to survive."
  2. Schadenfreude: "Rightly or wrongly, Aaron got a reputation as holier than thou," [Bernie] Brillstein explains. "When you put yourself out front in the media, like Aaron did or Judd Apatow is right now, everyone is lying in wait for you. That's the psychology of the town. Once you're anointed, everyone wants the king to fail."
  3. Insularity: "When you're doing a show, you're living entirely in that world, only trying to deal with all the issues in your show," says [Paul] Haggis [about The Black Donnellys]. "But then the show goes into people's homes and it becomes their show. Suddenly you have no control over what happens. And when you discover that the stories you're telling don't have the same meaning to other people that they did to you — wow, it's a real smack in the face."
  4. to 100. Laying blame: "When all everyone does is try to draw personal connections between your characters and real people, you're not really watching a play or a TV show anymore," [Sorkin] says. "It becomes a tabloid experience."
I loved, loved, loved Sports Night and The West Wing. I have great fondness for The American President and A Few Good Men (yes, in that order - I know, I know, but I'm a sap). And while I tend to know more than I care to about celebrities' private lives, pre-Studio 60 I knew very little about Sorkin other than the drug bust everyone knew about. So when I started reading all these parallels between the characters and plots on Studio 60 and his life, it ruined the magic a little. It made me like Harriet Hayes a little less, to see that she might be Sorkin's answer to issues he had when dating Kristin Chenowith. Knowing about his kerfuffle with Internet fan sites made the scenes where he denigrates them a little less interesting. The sanctimonious diatribes against the state of TV started to feel a little like Sorkin's manifesto, rather than the show's point of view. So Sorkin's not completely wrong about that, though he's not blameless in that either.

The reason I'm not as enamoured with the article when it gets into the issue of his celebrity is that all that only affected my enjoyment of the show a little. It certainly didn't make me think, by the end, that it had as long a run as it deserved. Mostly, Goldstein hits it squarely with this:
He is a rare breed of writer today who uses both humor and a bracing moral seriousness to wrestle with the complexity of the real world. But "Studio 60," as good as some individual episodes were, never seemed to find a consistent voice, a must for must-see TV. It was, in hindsight, a bad idea, if for no other reason than it tried to graft Sorkin's fascination with social issues onto a story about career crises in the rarified world of TV comedy writers. But that made the show only more irresistible — we got to see a brilliant writer try to breathe life into a doomed premise.
And Sorkin hits another point squarely with this:
"Expectations were high and I couldn't come close to meeting them, so you'd have to say our show failed in a big way," he explains. "But when you get to write 22 episodes and have them produced exactly the way you want — well, as someone I know once described it, 'Things are OK when the things you complain about are the things you used to dream about.' "

Monday, July 16, 2007

The good, the bad, and the funny

Good: I'm working on a podcast for the TV, Eh? site and it's been both fun and a huge learning experience.
I completely ruined the podcast while completing the last production step, and had to redo it all from the original files.
Good: The redo went much faster because I've had practice.
Bad: Forget the Pollyanna attitude, I lost a week's worth of work.
Good: I'd originally scheduled two weeks to figure all this out, and I'm at one week plus a day since getting all the pieces I needed.
Bad: I'm weeks behind on the original schedule already.
Good: No one cares.
Bad: No one cares.
Good: I'm almost finished.
Bad: The "almost" is because my microphone doesn't play nice with Audacity.
Good: I think I came up with a solution.
Bad: I'm tired and grumpy and will see if it worked tomorrow.
Good: It can wait until tomorrow.
Bad: I want to throw my computer off the balcony but am afraid of killing someone.
Good: I am apparently not homicidal.
Bad: I really need a laugh.
Good: My stupid Maclean's magazine RSS feed finally kicked in again and I got to read stuff like this while I contemplated the futility of life, or at least computers:
A survey has found that 18 per cent of adults in our country -- in excess of four million individuals -- do not know the name of Canada's prime minister. ...

On the upside, while we may not be book smart, or knowledge smart, or actually-knowing-things smart, it's still entirely possible that we are street smart. Unless you expect us to remember the name of the street, in which case, no, we're not.

(Further proof of our national not-smartness: on the same day the Dominion Institute announced its findings, Coors Light released its first batch of Cold-Certified cans -- which feature "temperature-sensitive thermal chromatic ink technology" that changes the colour of the can when the contents are "ice cold and ready to enjoy." My fellow Canadians, it has come to this: we no longer possess even the rudimentary intelligence required to determine when our beer is cold. Next up: Timbits stamped with the words Cram Into Mouth.)

I've told you to read him before, but then he disappeared and was ostracized from my sidebar. But that was from Scott Feschuk's new, improved blog. Don't get too attached.

That led me to his last Maclean's magazine column, which made me nearly explode. Just to be clear: with laughter.
Good news, everyone: at long last a pharmaceutical company has come up with a drug that combines all the health benefits of losing weight with the unforgettable thrill of soiling yourself in public! ...

Unlike certain weight-loss drugs, Alli (pronounced "ally," as in: if you want to lose weight and all your friends, Alli is your ally!) does nothing to reduce your desire to eat. Instead, it stops the body from breaking down and absorbing fat -- a remarkable scientific achievement, really, if you take away the whole crapping-your-pants thing. In fact, GlaxoSmithKline claims Alli is able to block about 25 per cent of the fat you eat while simultaneously grossing out 100 per cent of the people sitting next to you on the bus.

But really -- how common can these so-called "treatment effects" be? Well, the actual makers of this actual drug actually advise users to "bring a change of clothes to work," and suggest that it's probably a "smart idea" to wear dark pants.
He's not kidding. I mean, he is, but the makers of Alli apparently aren't.

Ah, nothing like laughing at mass stupidity to make me feel better about my own.

Digging for "Way Down in the Hole"

I've got the last two discs of season two of The Wire out now. One good thing abut a low-rated show is that I don't seem to be fighting anyone else at the video store for it -- it's always been in stock. Turns out they're not getting season three for another few weeks, and who knows when season four will be available, and the fifth and final hasn't even started airing yet, so I guess I'll have some waiting to do soon enough.

But in the meantime, I've got another Wire-related project: tracking down the theme song in all its incarnations. It's always the same song, "Way Down in the Hole," written by Tom Waits, but always a different version.

The first season, it's covered by The Blind Boys of Alabama, and immediately on hearing it, I had to get the bluesy tune from iTunes. Second season, it's Tom Waits himself, and it took me a few episodes to realize I wouldn't be satisfied until I got that version, too. It appears I have The Neville Brothers and a Baltimore Boys Choir to look forward to, and there's rumours that season five's version will be by Steve Earle.

Check out snippets of the first four below (closing theme is "The Fall" by The Wire's music supervisor Blake Leyh).

Season One - Blind Boys of Alabama

Season Two - Tom Waits

Season Three - The Neville Brothers

Season Four - DoMaJe

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Are you smarter than a TV executive?

This looks fun. Television Without Pity, now under Bravo's wing, is launching TV Bigshot, an online game modeled after those fantasy baseball leagues I've mocked guys for obsessing over. From a news release posted at Futon Critic:
The game will allow players to create, name and program their own fantasy television networks using both new fall shows and returning series from the five broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and CW). Anyone can play and it's free.

Starting with a budget of $300 million virtual dollars, each player must purchase shows for their daily primetime lineup. The user-created networks will earn points based on the success of their chosen rosters and will compete against each other for the top spot. At the end of the 2007-08 season, the player whose network has accumulated the most points based on actual ratings for the programs, ratings growth, and "buzz" measured by press coverage and awards garnered will win the $100,000 grand prize. ...

Points are lost when a show declines in ratings, or worse, gets cancelled. Players have the power to call the shots, making executive decisions to sell shows in order to purchase others.

I can't get on board with fantasy baseball, but fantasy TV network? Sign me up. It doesn't look like you can get started right away - they take your name and e-mail and say thank you very much for now - but I'm so there when it gets going.

I'll be dismal at it, I'm sure, because I'll go with what I want to watch rather than what I think the majority will want to watch, but what a great way for all of us who complain about networks' idiotic decisions to see if we could do any better. In my case, I fully expect the answer to be: nope.

Book Review: Chart Throb by Ben Elton

My latest from Blogcritics is a not-overly-positive book review of Ben Elton's soft satire of American Idol-like shows - a book that has approximately the entertainment value of an episode of American Idol:

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eclectic tastes. Yeah, that's it

I had such plans for the evening, possibly involving figuring out my issues with Audacity, preparing for my move next month, or, I don't know, curing cancer. Instead, I've decided to die of heat prostration.

But I'm going out in style, watching The Philadelphia Story on Turner Classic Movies (wait ... don't I have that on DVD?) . Cary Grant is so dreamy for a dead guy.

In case that's too classy, though, I'm flipping over to Canada's Next Top Model, too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

These fan campaigns are nuts

I seem to be channeling the cranky lately. So my latest Blogcritics post is:
(Blogcritics has changed the rules so now we have to post things there first. That doesn't mean I couldn't also post here once they've published an article, but I'll probably just link to them now.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Even better in the US

I’m going to point out something here, but I don’t really have a thesis to go along with it. It’s going to sound like I’m saying that Canadian critics are harder on Canadian shows than American critics are, but I haven’t found that to be the case in general. In fact, I often feel as though Canadian critics soft-pedal reviews of Canadian shows, because they’re grading on a curve, or they’ve had it up to here with the post-negative-review whining of “but we worked so hard, and it’s so difficult for us, and I hate you hate you hate you.”

Phew. Is that enough of a disclaimer to prove that I’m not using this example to prove a rule?

The point is this: there’s a definite geographic split between the Canadian critics and US critics of The Best Years.

The show, a co-production between the N network in the US and Global in Canada, started airing on Global about a month before hitting US airwaves. The reviews at that time were nearly universally lukewarm to negative. The most positive Canadian review I found was by Dana Gee of the Vancouver Province, who tried to put herself in the shoes of the intended audience — teen girls — and decided they’d overlook its flaws.

When the show was about to premiere in the States, on the other hand, the reviews were nearly universally positive. Sure, there was a review or two that sounded a lot like Gee’s. And even the positive reviews didn’t consider the show flawless. But from the New Jersey Star-Ledger to the Hollywood Reporter, American reviewers liked the show.

The New York Times even wrote a baffling piece about The Best Years’ take on the class divide that didn’t actually get into whether the show was good or not, but you have to assume they wouldn’t have put out that many polysyllabic words on a show that wasn’t worth the effort.

(You can see all the reviews at TV, Eh? At that link, you’ll be seeing everything on The Best Years from newest to oldest, so the American reviews will be first, Canadian reviews towards the end.)

The Best Years is one of those shows that isn’t discernibly Canadian to the viewer. Now, I haven’t seen it, so I’m not even talking about production values, which sometimes separate the American wheat from the Canadian chaff. I mean, it’s set in Boston, stars an American, and has a predominantly American cast — apparently, it was commissioned by the N in the first place. It’s considered a Canadian show in that Global co-produced it, the creator, Aaron Martin, is Canadian, it was shot in Toronto, and whatever other behind-the-scenes details give it the CanCon stamp of approval.

In at least one early article — an interview with a cast member — the journalist didn’t seem to realize that it was Canadian. But the later reviewers knew. Is it possible there’s a subtle bias against a show that seems Canadian in name only? Or that the sample size north of the 49th is too small, since with growing syndication and shrinking numbers of TV critics, the same negative reviews played in many major papers? Or that Martin hit on something that appeals to American sensibilities but not Canadian ones? Or maybe it’s a coincidence that there’s that definite Canadian-American critical divide?

I don’t know. I don’t even know which side I’d agree with. I keep meaning to catch the show, but it’s not aimed at me and so I have no real interest, other than thinking vaguely that I “should” sample it because it’s one of the very few Canadian shows on right now. But it doesn’t really matter what I think of the show anyway, because I’m not the target audience for it.

I’d like to think if I were reviewing it, I’d keep that in mind.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Volunteer me

Here's a bit of a "found post" (in other words, a lazy way to post something in the summer downtime). Last year, when I was their volunteer web editor, I was named volunteer of the year by my professional association. So recently, when promoting the nominations for this year's awards and introducing me as a new board member, they did a Q&A with me for their members-only publication. They'd actually done one before the awards, too, and the questions were nearly identical, so I tried to answer differently this time while still in the realm of truth. Anyway, here's the interview, with a few boring, identifying details cut out to preserve my illusion of privacy:

During work time what do you do?
I sit at a computer an awful lot, managing the employee newsletter and the website among other things.

In your spare time, what's your claim to fame?
I created a website called TV, Eh? What’s Up in Canadian Television to promote homegrown programs, which has led to some great experiences, including meeting some people in the industry virtually and in person, being interviewed for my thoughts on the state of Canadian TV, and, a Canadian TV geek’s biggest thrill, having the site mentioned in John Doyle's column in the Globe and Mail.

Why do you choose to volunteer your time?
I think it's important to have a broad variety of activities in life to keep things interesting, so I always try to have a volunteer activity on the go. This is a great way to use my professional skills while working with a fun group of people.

Any funny stories to share from your volunteer experience?
Nothing outrageously funny - mostly I sit by myself at a computer so there's not a lot of scope for comedy - but recently I was editing the website and ran into a technological glitch that caused all the navigation on the site to disappear: no menus at all, no easy way to get from one page to another. That’s not generally considered a good thing. I had to send a frantic e-mail to our web sponsors saying “Help! What did I do?” Turns out it wasn’t my fault (really) but I had several hours of thinking I broke the Internet.

I guess that’s not funny so much as sad.

Volunteer wisdom to live by:
I think the most important thing for me is to have fun with volunteering but take it seriously, too.

Inspirational book/movie/song:
I recently read Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign by Pico Iyer and found it inspiring, though that's likely partly because I have serious travel lust right now. I love what he says about forcing ourselves to look outside of our own perspective: “The physical aspect of travel is, for me, the least interesting; what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don't know, and may never know.”

Who is your mentor/hero:
I shy away from thinking of people as mentors and heroes, but I admire a lot of web geeks talking about things relevant to communications, people such as Steve Rubel, Robert Scoble, Jeff Jarvis, Shel Holtz, Mark Cuban.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

High expectation alert

Everything I've seen, everything I've read about Pushing Daisies makes me think I'm going to love it. Of course, that was true of Studio 60 last year, too, but don't remind me of that while I'm in the first blush of anticipation.

Creator Brian Fuller (of the wonderful Wonderfalls) might not be too happy to hear that, though. Bill Carter in the New York Times has an interview with him in the article A Touching Romance, If They Just Don't Touch, where Fuller tries to shrug off the high hopes. But if he didn't want my sky-high expectations, he should never have mentioned Amelie.
Marked by a candy-colored palette, characters as sweet as freshly baked pie and a story line based on a touching (or in this case, no-touching) unrequited romance, “Pushing Daisies” is a dish that networks always promise but seldom serve: something completely different. ...

The script for “Pushing Daisies” struck nerves all over Hollywood, ultimately spawning a bidding war between ABC and NBC. ABC had some advantages. For one, coincidentally, ABC was looking for material reminiscent of the French film “Amélie,” a story about a young woman’s fantastic world. Mr. McPherson said that he loved that movie, and that ABC hoped to find a show that could strike the same chords of “whimsy and spirit and magic.”

As it happens, “Amélie” is Mr. Fuller’s favorite film. “All the things I love are represented in that movie,” he said. “It’s a movie that will make me cry based on kindness as opposed to sadness.”

Can't. Wait. I've been missing a romantic comedy-type show in my rotation. I thought Love Monkey was it a couple of seasons ago. Wonderfalls might have been it a couple of seasons before that. May Pushing Daisies last a lot longer than those, and live up to its promise.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Down to The Wire

It's the Canada Day long weekend, so beyond BBQs, daytrips, and marvelling at the fact that my Mexican friends are about 100 times more patriotic than any of us born and bred Canadians, I've been watching season one of The Wire.

I'd heard it was great - one of those best shows you're not watching - but figured it wasn't my thing. I was into St. Elsewhere over Hill Street Blues, ER over Homicide: Life on the Street, House over CSI. Plus we don't get HBO up here, and I don't get Movie Central, so it wasn't on my radar.

I'd heard the complaint that it isn't on anyone's radar, much, even the media that salivated over the underworld of The Sopranos. Creator David Simon threw out the theory that white people don't want to watch a show full of black faces. It would be naive to say that isn't a factor at all, but having seen some of the show now, it seems like a flimsy explanation on its own. It's disingenuous to create a show so defiantly non-mainstream and then complain that it didn't hit the mainstream.

It's a dense narrative with complex characters that requires empathy for both flawed cops and drug dealers, that requires an acceptance of hopelessness. It also requires getting used to dialogue with slang and accents and phrasing unfamiliar to my ear. Plus, if I hadn't been following from episode one, I can't imagine expending the effort to figure out who's who and what's what. This isn't the show to kick back with after a hard day. This is a show that demands attention.

It's also a show that rewards that attention. It really is brilliant. It's been largely ignored by the Emmys, but listen to the Peabody Award:

Probing the full range of human behavior, The Wire has the depth and intensity of a complex novel. Both cops and criminals face dilemmas where boundaries of right and wrong, honesty and dishonesty are continually blurred.

I'm watching it five years after it aired, but it's an interesting post-9/11 narrative. The cops here are fighting the war on drugs - except "wars end" - at a time when the war on terror has made that particular battle unfashionable. They're lucky to get computers or surveillance equipment from this century, because the people they're after aren't named Osama.

The Wire vividly evokes a place I've never been, but feel like I've touched and smelled, now. I know Anne Tyler's genteel Baltimore, which is a very different city from creator David Simon's Baltimore. In his, the drug dealers aren't heroes, but they're not demonized, either. They're kids from the projects gaining power from an underground economy built on quicksand. The worse their product, the more they sell; the customer is always despised; violence is the first resort; their money doesn't buy their way into "respectable" society.

There's a beautiful scene of D'Angelo, the nephew of the kingpin, teaching two of this subordinates how to play chess. As he goes on, they all get the metaphor. They get that they are the pawns in this game they're playing. One clings to the possibility, however unlikely, that he'll make it through to the other side to achieve a position of power.

That's one of two scenes that by themselves would make watching The Wire worthwhile. The other is a scene where two of the cops examine an old crime scene and discover new evidence. It's about five minutes long, and the only dialogue is about 40 variations on the word "fuck," each conveying nuance and meaning as they piece together a murder. It's Simon and writing partner Ed Burns (no, not that Ed Burns) revelling in the freedom of cable, obviously, but it's also character appropriate, dramatic, and funny as hell.

There's a lot more surrounding those two scenes to recommend the show. The beauty of DVD is that those of us who missed out when it aired get a second chance now to catch up, and to watch it at a pace that lets us appreciate instead of be intimidated by the complexity.