Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year

As 2006 folds into 2007, I wish you a year full of happiness, with just enough challenges to help you appreciate it.

A quote courtesy of Caroline:

"We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day."
- Edith Lovejoy Pierce

(Picture courtesy of Google Earth)

More wacky Bolivian prison hijinks

When I wrote the post about my Bolivian jail tour, I'd looked for the journal I kept at the time, and couldn't find it. Today I stumbled across my journal stash and thought I'd post the account I scribbled at the time, unfiltered by memory and not intended for public consumption (in other words, not particularly well written). Remember, this is all from this inmate's mouth, and not necessarily anything to base a research study on.

Feb. 6 [I think this was 1999 - note to self, write years in journals]

La Paz

I can't believe I forgot to write about one of the strangest, most interesting excursions we went on in La Paz. Yesterday, Justin, Critoval, Graham, John, Megan and I went on a tour of the La Paz jail [I only remember who half those people were]. An inmate named Fernando charges 40 bolivianos [approximately ... not much, Canadian] to show tourists around.

What an amazingly odd place. There are no guards inside, just outside, and the inmates run the place like it's their own country. To survive, they have to be entrepreneurs. Fernando is a drug dealer who spent time in a New York jail [I'd forgotten he told us that - I thought I just inferred the drug connection because he seemed to be still on them]. He talks English with a New York accent and a mile a minute too. It wasn't hard to guess he was in there for drugs even before he told us. He's a skinny, jittery man with a Michael Jordan baseball cap. It was hard to know how much he was bullshitting us, but it was obvious this was unlike any prison I've ever heard of.

When he arrived, he was told it would cost him to enter the prsion. When he said he had no money, they put him to work in the kitchen. Saying he's never worked a day in his life, he paid the fee. The prison rents out its cells - from 50 bolivianos to 300 bolivianos depending on size, location, and how far away from the bathroom. The prisoners all have jobs to earn money - Fernando owns two nightclubs [ah, I'd forgotten he was also the nightclub owner], deals drugs, and does the tours. He hopes to be released next month at an appeal hearing ... if he can raise the $25,000 US bribe fee for the judge. First he wants to find someone to take over the tours, but it has to be someone who can fight, to protect the service and the security of the tourists. In the prison for 2 years, Fernando claims to be the #4 man because he's broken a lot of bones to get there.

Other prisoners run snack shops, make souvenirs out of tin, act as loan sharks, etc. The guards turn a blind eye in order to get a cut.

Fernando claims the prison food is laced with tranquilizers to keep the inmates calm, so they don't eat the prison food. There are rules about when they can fight (not during the daytime) and a strange code of ethics. Fernando says there is no rape, since women and children can live in the jail with their man, and girlfriends can visit ... for a price. Fernando's nightclub can provide prostitutes, male or female, so he says there is no need for rape, and if someone were to attempt it, they would be dead instantly. When a rapist or child molester enters the prison, he says the inmates offer their own punishment by sticking 6 halves of chili pepper up their ass, or rubbing chili peppers on their penis.

The inmates were very well behaved towards us gringo women - not even as much leering or rude comments as on the streets of Lima. Many seemed stoned and many just plain mean, but the tourists have some protection from Fernando's buddies.

I felt as though I was close to having a panic attack the whole time, finding it hard to breath. This is not a place just anyone could survive, and I definitely couldn't.

Travel is great to help you discover things about yourself, like that you wouldn't survive in a Bolivian prison. Good to know. Unless they put you in for jaywalking, I'm probably pretty safe anyway.

I might post other stuff from my travel journals as the spirit hits. The whining I did when hiking the Inca Trail's gotta be worth some humility points.

My book of the year

The books editor of Blogcritics asked some of us for our book of the year. The whole list is here. Here's my pick:
This was a tough call, since Anne Tyler is one of my favourite writers and released a book this year, but I'm going to go with Lori Lansens' The Girls. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up this book about conjoined twins, but I found myself sucked into a life story I had to force myself to remember was fiction, and felt like I'd lost a friend when I finished reading it. It's mostly told from the perspective of Rose Darlen, with occasional chapters from her sister Ruby, with whom she's joined at the head. Lansens makes these women both astonishingly real people and a metaphor for the distance that separates us and the bonds that unite us. It's fascinating, poignant, funny and beautifully written. The two sisters have vastly different writing styles, and the structure forces us to travel along with Rose's version of her life until Ruby gives us context we're missing and forces us to re-examine Rose's tale.
In a strange case of synchronicity, days after I read and reviewed the book, a woman in BC was reported to be pregnant with twins joined at the head. Conjoined twins are rare, but craniopagus twins (see, I learned a new word from the book and now I can use it in a sentence) are incredibly rare. The woman's since given birth and the real-life twins - girls - just went home for the holidays.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The other California Stars

I'm not much of a radio listener. Not because I don't appreciate music, but because I don't appreciate DJs. You could say I dislike them, even. You could say they inspire murderous rage in me, but that might be taking it a bit far.

But when I lived in Calgary, there was one station I not only listened to, I volunteered with. It was a public radio station, CKUA (which I can still listen to online), with a small but devoted listenership. So small that my chances of getting free tickets to various events they sponsored were pretty high.

Once, I got tickets to a Billy Bragg concert. It was around the release of Mermaid Avenue, the album he collaborated on with Wilco. They took lyrics by Woody Guthrie and put them to music, with Jeff Tweedy and Bragg sharing vocals. At the time of the concert, I hadn't yet heard the album, just a song or two played on the station.

I hadn't heard California Stars yet, so Bragg's performance there was my first taste of it, and the one that lingered long after the concert. I was disappointed when I got the album and it was the perfectly fine downtempo Tweedy version instead of the funkier Bragg version. That loss festered for years, until ... well, OK, I suddenly thought of it again after several years, and checked the Internet to see if it might be somewhere out there.

Now, I've finally got that live Billy Bragg version - free and legal, even - thanks to the Internet archive. It's perhaps not the holy grail of music, but it's almost as fun as I remembered.

This Internet thing is pretty cool.

Links 'cause I'm lazy

I have three book reviews and a DVD review I need to write and I can't seem to face them. With the DVDs I have an excuse - I haven't finished watching - but by the time I get around to the book reviews I'm going to forget which book was which and puzzle readers completely when I talk about the Toronto ER docs and crabby Hollywood writer in the book about a Victorian writer and his pet project.

Anyway, I'm at the start of a four day weekend, following my six day Christmas weekend. If I'd worked things out differently I could have had one 10 day weekend (or, as some would call it, a week and a half off) but instead I got a lot done in the office yesterday, all by my lonesome self.

So instead of tackling those book reviews or doing something else more productive, I'm doing some housecleaning on the computer (or, as some would call it, computer cleaning) and ran across some e-mails people have sent me containing links I'd had some vague thought of posting at some point. That point, my friends, is now. This will be pretty random. But it's an easy way to make a blog post with little effort.

  • Cinema Sequence trivia game. It's addictive to a certain point, but if you play too much, the questions start repeating themselves. Not that I would know.
  • Virtual Hip Surgery from For the medical show lover who's too squeamish to start operating on people in real life. It's kind of hard. I think I'll leave the surgery to doctors. It even has video of a real hip surgery, but I won't be checking that out.
My Cubicle, with apologies to James Blunt

2 1/2 year old prodigy tabla player

And if you're in Vancouver, here's a potentially interesting event coming up:

Director's Workshop with Carl Bessai and the feature presentation of Emile

On Sunday January 7th First Weekend Club is offering a special one-hour workshop with renowned director and cinematographer Carl Bessai. This workshop will precede our next Canada Screens event and showcase of Emile, Carl Bessai's third feature film. The workshop offers a great opportunity for aspiring and emerging directors, actors, film enthusiasts and the simply curious who are interested in learning from one of Canada's brightest filmmakers. Carl will provide an overview of the directing process: working with actors, the DOP, the editor, shot lists/storyboards, and how to manage creative relationships. Following the workshop, participants will have an opportunity to see one of Carl's films come to life on the big screen and experience his award winning film Emile, starring Sir Ian McKellen, Deborah Kara Unger and Ian Tracey.

The workshop and film is part of FWC's Canada Screens, a monthly screening and talkback series of the best Canadian cinema. Canada Screens offers a unique movie going experience that includes conversations with filmmakers and special guests.
They don't seem to have all the info up on their website, but ... contact them for details, I guess. I'm not reprinting the entire bloody e-mail.

Now on to other projects, like ... cleaning out the fridge.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Diane's New Year’s resolutions

  1. Start harassing TV writers for interviews again and quit using the lame excuse that I'm too busy with actual work.
  2. Find a way to win the lottery without ever having to buy a ticket so I can retire, travel the world and do whatever I want without being too busy with actual work.
  3. Plan a vacation that lasts more than a week and crosses more than 1 time zone. See resolution number 2.
  4. More fluffy kitties. Fewer debates with irrational people.
  5. Maintain low expectations for awards shows.
  6. Spearhead a revolution if Hugh Laurie does not win an Emmy.
  7. Try not to use the word “smug” when describing my country’s psyche. At least not in public.
  8. Don't thank cops who give me tickets. Don't apologize to people who bump into me. Don't be smug. Find other ways to be patriotic.
  9. Latch on to some random industry I know little about and launch a website to promote it.
  10. Stop making New Year's resolutions.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

At least Donald Faison can sing

January 4, Scrubs "pays homage" to House (which I'm guessing means "skewers, but good naturedly"). Hmm, I wonder who Dr. Cox will be playing? But January 18 is the long-anticipated musical episode, and NBC is putting some previews on YouTube. The first explains JD and Turk's unusually close relationship.

Guy Love

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Present presents and journeys past

I wanted speakers for my iPod. I got speakers for my iPod.

I turned into a total kid when I spotted it in its gift bag, bringing back nostalgia for the days of pure silly joy at opening a present.

Another Christmas gift made me nostalgic for my time in a Bolivian prison.

No, I'm not kidding. But obviously there's more to the story. I'm so far from being anywhere near that interesting.

My friend picked Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign out of travel writer Pico Iyer's other fascinating-sounding books because the back cover mentions a tour of a Bolivian prison, among many other destinations, and she already knows the story of my Bolivian prison tour.

There's a jail in La Paz where a jittery prisoner, who I assumed was in on drug charges, conducts tours to earn money for his keep. Bolivian prisoners must pay their way, renting their cells and buying their meals so as not to be a burden on the already burdened government.

According to him - and why wouldn't I believe a coked-out criminal who earns his living entertaining thrill-seeking tourists? - one guy with a scar from ear to ear had the job of protecting the tour groups, and one ran a "night club," smuggling alcohol into the prison and playing music in their cells.

He also told us prisoner rape is unheard of in that particular jail, since some wives and girlfriends choose to live inside with their mates, and others regularly visit with their kids. There was a strangely domestic air to the place, which felt a lot like a poor - but not too poor - Bolivian neighbourhood.

According to Iyer:

The place was said to be a microcosm of the society around it: some people lived in "cells" that were as well appointed as five-star hotels, while others were squeezed, by the hundred, into spaces originally intended for twenty-five.

Five star is stretching it by about four and nine-tenths stars, but there were bi-level individual cells with televisions and cell phones next to tiny holes in the wall with maybe a blanket next to those overstuffed dormitories.

Iyer's experience was quite different from mine, most notably in that he never did take the tour. Finding himself in a pen waiting for entrance, he got spooked, and since he travelled shortly after 9/11, while my trip was a couple of years earlier, he had even more reason to feel a sense of potential danger.

There must be something I had done, I thought, on which they could have me up; there were any number of irregularities of which I could be accused.

He'd had his passport taken away with no explanation at a customs check the day before, which caused problems for him when he tried to exit the jail prematurely - they suspected him of being a terrorist, and strip searched him - and would certainly have caused problems if he'd tried to go beyond the holding pen before the tour.

I had to surrender my passport to the guards (to ensure I didn't decide to stay inside?) who apparently got a cut of the entrance fee in exchange for allowing the tours. Giving up your passport to crooked prison guards is an unwise move, of course, and one the Canadian passport people would frown on. In fact, the friend who gave me the book works for the passport office and frowned when I told her. But this tour was in Lonely Planet, so I figured it must be OK.

I've never had a panic attack, but whatever I felt during the tour must be close. My heart was racing, and I could only take shallow breaths as the guide showed us around the terrifying place that, except for the scary looking men roaming around, and the knowledge that the prisoners seemed to have more control than the guards, appeared incongruously unterrifying - a frightening idea in itself, that something so beyond normal could seem almost normal.

Despite my fear, it was one of the highlights of my travels not only to Bolivia, but anywhere, for both the novelty and the peek at a world I would never have dreamed of seeing up close.

Or maybe that shouldn't be "despite," but "because of." To quote Iyer quoting Albert Camus: "What gives value to travel is fear."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Merry Christmas

I'm leaving on a jet plane ... posting will be light to non-existent until mid-next week-ish. Happy holidays!

File under D for Duh

In one of those studies that make you think researchers have the best access to obscure mind-altering substances, doctors at the University of Barcelona discovered that surgeons are more attractive than other doctors. They used film and TV actors who played doctors as their "control," and discovered this shocking news:
Film stars who played doctors or surgeons were significantly better looking than their real counterparts.
Yes, they discovered that George Clooney is better looking than the average doctor. Note to researchers: he's better looking than 99 percent of the men on the planet. No offense, other men. You're just fine in your own special ways.

(In fairness, that study was published in a "lighthearted Christmas edition" of the British Medical Journal.)

In other surprising news, small cars apparently do worse in crash tests against large vehicles.
"The laws of physics simply dictate in a crash between the two vehicles, smaller cars get the worse end of the deal," David Zuby of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told CTV News.
Wait, you mean if my baby Toyota Echo crashes into a Hummer, that would be bad? Oh well, it's good on gas.

Have a very smuggy Christmas

Apparently smug is my new favourite word. I think I first used it on Will's blog to say that I bet Intelligence will do well in syndication and then we'll act like we loved it all along despite the fact that few are watching. Then I used it in my little rant about the CRTC for Blogcritics, which is the article that prompted the Canadian Press reporter to call me for that other article, which quotes me using the word smug again.

I'm reminded of that because the same reporter just published another article that quotes my Blogcritics post ... and again picks the part that has me calling us smug (but, er, I mean it with affection. Yeah, that's it). We'd talked about the CRTC stuff in the interview, but not surprisingly, I was probably far more coherent in print so that's what she quoted. I'd completely forgotten I used it in that post.
The blurb I'm talking about:

Diane [Real Last Name That's a Funny Adjective That Caused Me Ridicule and Torment as a Child and Now I Kinda Like But Don't Want Linked to This Blog], who runs the TV, Eh? blog on Canadian television (, is irked by what she calls the failure of the CRTC to view Canadian content as a priority.

"I don't understand what the CRTC is for if not to protect the public interest in the use of our airwaves," [Diane] wrote in a recent post on the Blog Critics site ( "And I don't understand how allowing Canadian broadcasters to make money duplicating the content we get on American channels and burying Canadian series is in our best interests."

[Diane] adds she's confronted regularly by people who think, without even seeing it, that Canadian television is substandard and so balk at the idea of rules forcing private broadcasters to produce more of it.

"Why, when we're talking about the most prominent expression of culture available to us, (is it) OK with us that we're becoming the 51st state?" she says. "We're so smug about what makes us different, even better, than Americans, yet we let ourselves be assimilated to the point where we loudly reject even the need to develop our own cultural product."

That CRTC post I wrote released the festering that was happening at the time in my wee little brain, which is why there's that running theme through my comments, which were all made in the same time period. I think I've moved past smug. It's Christmas. Maybe I'll start calling us sanctimonious.

I kid. I kid because I love.

The future is almost now

A Wired News writer gives up television for Internet video, and has some interesting things to say about the experience. It sounds like way too much work as a life choice, but a fun experiment.
He talks about networks streaming entire episodes online (which sadly often don't make it to Canada) and their potential as a revenue source and addition, rather than subtraction, to ratings:
Yet, rather than feel threatened by the internet, the television networks are excited about the traffic. The video streams have single-ad slots about every 10 minutes, far fewer than TV, but still lucrative for the network.

"It is already paying for itself," Dana McClintock, spokesman for CBS, told me during an interview in early December. "The cost is very small. And the advertisers are very excited about this."

The networks are not finding that the internet cannibalizes their audience on TV, at least not yet. Jericho, CBS' post-apocalyptic serial drama, has become a popular clip on YouTube, is available on iTunes, and can be seen free on the web. The multiple means of watching the show has contributed to its success, not undermined its TV ratings, said McClintock.

It also brings up a point confirmed in every bit of research I've read on the possibility of the Internet actually replacing TV any time soon:

But pushing content to a larger number just wouldn't work, said Jupiter's Laszlo. The internet isn't architected for it. "Streaming and downloading work well right now, in part because they are not super-popular," he said. "However, the entire internet might be threatened, if everyone in the U.S. woke up one day and started consuming video over the internet."

I meant to write something post-Banff about the potential for the Internet to replace broadcast TV - a green paper on The Future of Television in Canada was presented that quoted research on that topic - but never did get around to it. Maybe someday. From that green paper:

The Internet will not dominate high data rate television programming distribution. The Internet is ultimately an expensive way to distribute and access HD and other television programming that would tax its capacity. Television distribution by satellite, cable, fixed wireless, and wireline (through IPTV) is quite efficient, and will remain the dominant distribution system for TV programming. However, there will be the “new television” of video content that will circulate increasingly via the Internet. ... If 1% of European households ordered a program, say “Desperate Housewives,” it would use up all the backbone capacity that was installed in the heyday of broadband backbone builds in the 1990s.

Technology is changing, of course. I barely understand what this is, but the Internet 2 project is an example of ways technology is changing to allow for increased bandwidth. I have no idea if the intention is to spread that beyond campuses and research labs. I'm not that much of a geek. (And no, this isn't the same as the buzzword "Web 2.0" that means everything and nothing depending on who you talk to).

(Hmm, on an unrelated but top-of-mind topic, that green paper also says: "In a study of 18 Western countries plus Canada conducted by Nordicity for Canadian Heritage in 2003 but using 2001 data, it found that in all cases except Canada, indigenous programming dominated the top-rated programming.")

Why yes, I'm having a bout of insomnia - why do you ask?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Poor old Stanley

The wind gods hate us here in British Columbia's south coast. Another wind storm's coming, after a few over the past month. The only one to really affect me was the first one I whined about, that caused traffic nightmares and a week-long boil water advisory, but even that didn't touch me nearly as much as some.

None of the storms have knocked out my power for longer than a few minutes; some people spent days waiting for it to be restored, some are still waiting. A couple in Burnaby, my 'burb, died after using a gas-powered generator indoors to stay warm during a powerless night.

And I don't live under the trees in Stanley Park. Vancouver has a huge homelessness issue, so some people with no homes had some even more hellish nights and just lost their makeshift tents.

From the National Post:
Wind gusts of up to 115 kilometres an hour left entire swaths of the 1,000-acre park bald on Thursday night, uprooting -- and in some cases even tossing -- 130-year-old Douglas fir, hemlock and red cedar trees across the forest floor.

From the Vancouver Sun:
Landslides resulting from the massive windstorm that battered the city last Friday have undermined the seawall around Stanley Park and will keep the popular walking and jogging route closed well into next year.

Stanley Park is such a huge part of life in Vancouver, this is all so heartbreaking. They say 20% of its trees - thousands of trees - have been lost. They're starting fundraising campaigns to replace them, but you can't really replace trees that are a hundred years old. Mayor Sam Sullivan is asking for provincial and national help to restore the park.

However, from CBC:
Suzanne Simard, an associate professor at the University of B.C.'s department of forest sciences, said storms are natural, even necessary, to help forests regenerate and much of the fallen wood should be left on the ground.

"Think, too, about a forest that hasn't been disturbed," she said Tuesday. "Trees will grow and they'll age and they'll die and they'll fall to the ground. And again, they will be used by other organisms for their habitat. They will also decompose and they become part of the carbon cycle and part of the nutrient cycle. They play a really important role in healthy sustainable forests."

Nature sucks sometimes, but maybe we should let old Stanley live through his natural life cycles. Again from the National Post:
A hurricane in 1962 toppled about 3,000 Stanley Park trees, but many Vancouver residents may not have lived in the city long enough to remember.

Despite all this, Stanley will flourish and outlive us all.

Best twisted Christmas present ever

From a fellow House fan:
It's a Wheel O' Wisdom: "Are friends sick of your complaints? Doctors no longer returning your calls? If you're absolutely certain life is terminal, 'Yes, You're Probably Dying' is for you. By matching a common symptom to its worst-case medical scenario, you can efficiently indulge in health panic. Say you have a headache - why not assume you've got a brain tumour, contact the appropriate specialist, then begin worrying about imminent hair loss?"

My favourite example?
Joint Pain
You may have: Lupus
Which is: Chronic autoimmune disease
Specialist to see: Immunologist
In the meantime, obsess about: Heart strain
But it's probably just: Knuckle cracking
Second-runner up has to be cough - could be tuberculosis, probably just a cold. Or lethargy - could be leukemia, probably just laziness.

Thanks Lizzim!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Canadian TV makes me bitchy

I wish I could link to John Doyle's column today in TV, Eh? but it's behind a subscription firewall and not available on Google News. I had to hunt down the office copy and get my fingers dirty to read it today.

He's got good things to say about Degrassi, though he gave me pause by saying Intelligence is doing well abroad. Unless he knows something I don't (and, let's face it, he probably does) the series hasn't yet been sold abroad, though it's being shopped.

Anyway, he's got a counterpoint to the Canadian Press article – you know, the one where I called Canadians smug: "Ah, for goodness sake, can't we just report on achievement and triumph without noting that some Canadians don't care about Canadian TV? The eye-rolling is all relative, you know. I roll my eyes at the style of delivering good news while simultaneously stabbing in the back."

Which is fair enough, except the Canadian Press dutifully reported the happy sale of Corner Gas to international markets earlier. This was a feature piece about the larger issue that had a slant designed to provoke. Unlike calling CBC's military coverage "creepy." Oops. Bitchy.

I actually really like John Doyle, but as I've mentioned before, I don't like the idea of treating Canadian TV like a poor sad puppy being kicked. I understand the exasperation with the scrutiny from people who hear it all the time, but I wish that article had provoked more, not less, outrage, from readers.

There was one lone commenter on the TV, Eh? post linking to that article. I’ll call him Hal. Because that’s his name. Hal was outraged, and we had a brief comments exchange originally which the CP reporter innocently reignited into the monster it became today.

I really need to just shut up, but when I think there’s been a misunderstanding rather than simply a difference of opinion, I can’t seem to stop myself from trying to make myself understood. I think there is a lot of talking at cross-purposes between Hal and I in that exchange and I’m not sure either one of us ever really got what the other was saying. But though I think his argument is unpersuasive, I actually don’t blame him for protesting, and wish he’d done it better.

Even though my quote in the article is supporting the premise of the article, I can’t really vehemently defend the premise, either. I don’t exactly disagree, but the article doesn’t represent my thoughts on the issue overall, and there’s no reason it should – it’s not my article. Because of our strange Canadian inferiority/superiority complex, I think international sales are part of what helps overcome the Canadian TV stigma at home, and that annoys me as much as it does when someone claims Tom Cruise is Canadian because he passed through here in high school. But I think that tendency to underappreciate our own culture until we get external validation is only a part of the equation. It’s just the part that was selected for a quote.

So I actually think it’s a valid point to make, that the external validation angle isn’t as large a factor as the article suggests, or that it isn’t a factor at all. It’s opinion, not fact. But I can’t take anyone seriously who doesn’t believe there’s a lingering bad taste in the mouths of many Canadians when it comes to Canadian TV.

From a 2004 article on the season opener of Da Vinci's Inquest by John Doyle, who would never give good news with one hand and bad with the other:
An angry man was calling to ask me why Canadian television programs existed at all. They are, said the man, supported by taxpayer dollars, they’re not very good and nobody watches them. He pursued his theme for some minutes. When there was an opening, following another exclamation that Canadian TV programs are inferior, I interjected with a few words -“Da Vinci’s Inquest” This halted his gallop. “that’s the exception, it’s very good, it’s world class.” he said. So I said to him, “well there you go.”
Canadians will and do watch Canadian television programs, though there’s still an attitude of “Canadian TV sucks, but Da Vinci’s Inquest/Corner Gas/Mercer/Slings and Arrows/name-your-exception-here is great.” Of course that's not an absolute - we're all talking generalities, or it's hard to make any sense at all.

Corner Gas’s distribution deal gets people excited and proud – as they should be – but where’s the excitement over the CRTC hearings that have the potential to help or harm the industry? If we know about a show, and like a show, and it happens to be Canadian, we’ll watch it, sure. But we don’t take pride in our industry as a whole until it makes waves outside our country.

That Canadian Press article and my comments in it aren’t exactly an effective public service announcement for supporting the domestic TV industry, unless it’s to get people annoyed enough at us to show that support. (Then again, as I keep saying, the media is not a charity, it's a business.) I’m sure Hal and Doyle are not the only ones to be irritated after reading it, but one guy arguing against the point is a little sad (I'm not counting Doyle, who doesn't argue against the opinion, but argues the opinion shouldn't have been expressed).

I was expecting hate mail. At least the equal but opposite reaction to what we got on the article that said Canadian TV suffers from a lack of publicity, where many commenters suggested quality, not publicity, is the problem. Nope, this gets one guy, whose argument is vague and all over the place, defending the honour of the Canadian TV industry at home.

Oh well, it's just as well, since I can’t vehemently defend the entire premise of the article and I imagine the CP reporter is, unlike me, smart enough to back off a fruitless discussion. It would just be nice to see more evidence of grassroots support from the audience so that some day, when unicorns and fairies rule the world, the CRTC and the funders can see it as their mandate to support the industry.

Monday, December 18, 2006

TV Review: Intelligence - "Things Change"

If I trusted CBC's Intelligence to telegraph its intentions, I'd think the tide has changed in Mary's favour and against Jimmy in "Things Change." But because the next episode could conceivably be titled "Things Change Again," I wouldn't count Jimmy out or lay any bets on Mary's smooth sailing.

But for this episode at least, Mary Spalding seems in full command of her empire. She discovers she has support from Ottawa to take over the Pacific Region of CSIS and to pursue her plan to topple Director Richard Royden, who she finds out has been investigated before. Escort boss Katarina is enlisted to seduce a willing Royden, who seems particularly interested in her "party planning" skills.

Mary's even playing puppet master to Roger Deakins, the man whose job she's about to take, and who had been working to topple her. It's not clear that he's abandoned his association with the devious Ted, but he's now working with Mary against Royden to save his own reputation.

With more flexing of her muscles, she put the screws on stock broker and informant Randy Bingham, who's shocked to learn that not only does she know about the arms deal he tried to hide from her, but she knows something he doesn't - that the DEA is on to him, and in on that deal. She even makes her friend, freelancer Eddie and his ex-CIA friend happy by coating with cash her refusal to let them snag Falcone, their prey and Bingham's contact, until she's learned all she needs.

Recalcitrant stripper Tina is even made to start producing some useful intelligence when Mary reminds her that her visa depends on details, not vagueness. Tina manages to get alone with Reardon's banker's locked briefcase, and summons Mary.

Seemingly at the height of her powers, Mary's imminent appointment to CSIS forces a change in Ted's game plan - though that's a plan she's still not aware of, and which is poised to jeopardize her future job, her relationship with informant Jimmy Reardon, and her credibility.

While the DEA stalls in getting more pot to pass off to Reardon and tries to unload cocaine, which Jimmy refuses, Ted decides they should move in on Reardon's US distribution immediately instead of waiting for the additional shipments. Though Winston the undercover DEA agent has made a couple of missteps in his dealings with Reardon, Jimmy can't see past his need for a supply of pot to spot the dangers.

The noose tightens a little more, with Jimmy getting in bed with the bikers in a couple of ways. He unintentionally sets the DEA on to them by referring the coke shipment to Dante, and very much intentionally offers his planned offshore bank as their money laundering solution, and the key to getting rid of the disputes over the "penny-ante" ATM business.

When his lawyer asks about ex-wife Francine's previous implied threat, and reminds Jimmy how damaging it would be to have her spill about the Reardon empire, Jimmy replies that he's taken care of it with a confidence I have trouble believing is completely justified.

Almost as if he were actually smart and business-like, Mike buys the bar his slasher was stabbed in, without brother Jimmy's help - for now. And the episode closes on that upbeat - for now - note. But I'm completely confident Mike's going to find a way to screw it up for himself and for Jimmy too.

Ian Tracey, who plays Jimmy Reardon, directed this episode, showing mastery of the shadowy, shaky handheld style of the series - and giving me the opportunity to recycle some more unused quotes from when I'd interviewed him just before he was prepping to direct.

He explained his affinity for throwing himself into the show behind the camera as well as in front of it. "When I'm not working I don't know what to do with myself," he laughed. "I have a lot of experience, 30 years of acting, a decade or so of lighting, so I've got a lot of technical understanding, the understanding of how things are shot, especially at that pace."

Chris Haddock, creator of both Intelligence and Da Vinci's Inquest, gave Tracey his first crack at directing on Da Vinci's. "I loved it, I was afraid of it, I did it anyway. I felt the pressure was on given the success of the show, but at the same time I felt like part of the family already," the actor said. "A couple of years later Chris gave me another opportunity, and now it's come up again. I'm going to take the opportunity every chance I get."

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

All the way to the grow-op

Intelligence review is coming tonight, but in the meantime, it sounds like CBC's holiday programming will fill the gap it's leaving in the schedule nicely.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Stumbling onto the best ... and worst ... and most indifferent ... of the web

I was just named Time's Person of the Year. Before you congratulate me (or assume I'm joking) - so were you. For its annual honour, the magazine chose all Internet users. I'm still working on my acceptance speech.

Despite that, and despite the fact that I've obviously embraced the Internet as a hobby and partly as a career, I've never been much of a web surfer. Nowadays, I generally keep track of my favourite sites through RSS feeds, only regularly visiting those without easy RSS access or whose comments are part of the fun. My favourites evolve gradually, but it tends to take a lot for a new site to enter my consciousness and, more importantly, my news reader.

I still haven't even really jumped on the YouTube bandwagon, because I don't have the patience to navigate the site to find the gold hidden in the dross. Friends and my favourite sites are my own personal filter to the madness that is online video, which means I see the videos everyone on the planet has already seen first.

Because of that, or in spite of that, I was happy at the news that StumbleUpon has introduced the new StumbleVideo. The beauty of StumbleUpon is that you can rate the random sites you land on and it learns your tastes in order to refine the sites it shows you. I think it uses magic. Or it compares your tastes to other users' tastes.

Like the original StumbleUpon for websites, with StumbleVideo you can narrow down the categories you're most interested in, or stumble across all of them. You'll still end up sorting through a lot of mind-numbingly bad videos, but a quick thumbs down and stumble can rescue you from boring videos and improve future results.

While my addiction to StumbleVideo is likely to be as brief as my addiction to the original flavour StumbleUpon, for now it opens up a whole new world - but a targeted world - that my relatively small cyberworld wouldn't normally expose me to. Have you seen the one about Diet Coke and Mentos?

Friday, December 15, 2006

So, so wrong. But educational.

The year in review, as sung to the tune of Jingle Bells by music hall cartoon kids.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

TV Review: House - "Merry Little Christmas"

(Excuse the delay on this week's review. I was out having a merry little Christmas on Tuesday. A real one, not the House kind.)

Take one cup Vogler and two cups "Detox," sprinkle with a case of the week that for once I wish had taken more airtime from the character drama, and we have "Merry Little Christmas."

That might not be a very generous description, not fitting for the holiday spirit, but there is an air of familiarity to the Detective Tritter/withhold the Vicodin/define House's addiction storyline the last few episodes have been milking. The patient story and the more-stunning-than-usual performance by Hugh Laurie redeemed this one for me, but only after I shut off the logic centres of my brain that were challenged by the rest of it.

This episode starts with House striding to his office to the cooler than cool sounds of "Zat You Santa Claus?" and jolly Detective Tritter (David Morse) starting things off with an ominous "Merry Christmas." "And a happy go to hell," is House's rejoinder. Wilson and Tritter are bestowing a lovely gift on House: a two-month stint in rehab in exchange for a guilty plea for that thing he's guilty of, with no jail time and no sanctions from the medical board.

"I did this to help you," Wilson insists. "Next year, get me a sweater," House replies.

Tritter tries to sell the deal with the choice: "Your principles or your life," but I can't quite figure out what those principles might be. The principle to break the law, implicate his best friend, not take responsibility for any of it, and then decide on the one means of reparation that will ruin the career that means everything to him and will still result in withdrawal from Vicodin. Unless they hand out unlimited pills in prison? But in any case, at least he'd have his principles. Whatever they are.

House runs to Cuddy, who's examining the patient who will distract him momentarily from his outrage - so you know it must be an interesting case. Abigail is a young dwarf recovering from a collapsed lung. Cuddy has no idea what caused it, and after a snarky sparring match with 4'1" mom Maddy (Meredith Eaton-Gilden), which involves many short jokes from House, take-no-guff sass from her, and a whole lot of sexual innuendo that ends with House proposing they "go for a spin," House determines to find the cause. That was fun. This episode could have used a little more fun and a lot more Maddy.

Cuddy is not impressed with her "best doctor," but she's possibly even more unimpressed with Wilson, pointing out that House will never take the deal "because he's a child." Wilson's solution, since there's no way to undo the past, is to treat him like a child and take away his candy until he takes the deal. Cuddy warns that House needs the pain medication to function. "That's the point," says Wilson.

I feel like I need an Excel spreadsheet programmed with some highly complex formula to make sense of the characters' ethical stances, so I'm not even going to try to untangle them with my tiny little brain. Yeah, yeah, he needs pain medication to function. We get it. We got it two years ago. But is that the point? If he's out of control, which the forged prescriptions and every one of the other doctors' suggestion that he's taking too much Vicodin suggests, and no one did anything that made any difference, the outrage at Wilson now seems pretty hypocritical.

Cameron and Foreman debate the merits of withholding the pills to force House into rehab instead of jail.

"It might not work, but it's not wrong," Foreman says.

"Just because it's effective doesn't make it right," Cameron counters, saying the ends don't justify the means. Huh? Was that a non-sequitor or did I miss something there?

All the moral outrage in this episode was pretty outrageous. Jennifer Morrison in particular hits the tone of moral superiority waaaay too hard for my taste. When Cameron aired her grievances with Wilson, the logic centre of my brain just about short circuited.

"It was the right thing to do," Wilson says about telling the truth to the cops and forcing House's hand.

"You pretending your motives are pure is why I have a problem," Cameron says in that voice dripping with superiority.

But ... wait. Isn't the stronger argument that she doesn't think it was the right thing to do? Let's hear that argument, because that's what's missing in this episode. Why on earth are his motives the most important question to her, and not the question of what's best for House, whatever she thinks that is?

Wilson later tries to back out of testifying, since no one is allowed to have the courage of their convictions in this episode.

Wilson: No matter how much of an ass he is, statistically, House is a positive force in the universe. The pills let him do that.

Tritter: Vicodin does not make House a genius. Whatever he does on the pills he can do off.

Tritter menacingly informs him that he'll be subpoenaed and his statement admitted, so not testifying isn't going to make House's choice go away, and could result in House and Wilson being cellmates.

The show, not usually known for playing it safe, is particularly brave to write a story arc where there's no one to root for. As much as I want to appreciate the daring, I prefer it when I can root for House at least on some level. While he continues to insist "I've done nothing wrong" despite forging prescriptions on his best friend's pad, I continue to think rehab or jail is the place for him.

This episode definitely proves House is out of control now, if he wasn't before (but, c'mon, he was). Cuddy cuts off his Vicodin completely and cuts off his privileges at the hospital until he agrees to rehab. While Abigail gets sicker, the team operates as usual, bickering over the differential diagnosis and breaking into the patient's home.

In addition, the ghosts of Christmas detox visit House to get information on the case. Foreman trades a medical clue for breaking into Cuddy's desk drawer, which sadly doesn't end up holding his precious pills. Cuddy visits him in desperation, pleading for the patient's life, only to have House slam the door in her face. Cameron wrings a clue out of him and bandages up the arm he's been cutting to relieve the pain of his leg and the detox.

Cameron gets the diagnosis of Still's Disease from him, but after a brief period where it looks like he's solved it, Abigail gets worse. The team argues whether it's cancer or an autoimmune disease. Maddy wants House on the case because she recognizes that idiot though he is, he's the one doctor who can solve the mystery.

Her saviour, however, is insulting Wilson and a grieving widow so he can steal pills from the body of her dead husband. When that doesn't work, he steals that patient's OxyContin prescription from the pharmacy, signing the log book in a scene that screams "bad move, House."

Vicodin might not make House a genius, but Oxy apparently does. Cuddy confronts him while he's bantering with a little girl who has spinal muscular atrophy - hey, it's the disease House writer/producer Garrett Lerner has raised awareness and money for, finally making an on-screen appearance.

The little girl's insistence that her stuffed bear is a dog results in House's epiphany. Calling a bear a dog doesn't make it a dog, and calling a girl who has cancer and an auto-immune disease that results in suppressed growth doesn't make her a dwarf. Not only can they cure her illness, they can give her growth hormones and allow her to grow to near-average size.

When Abigail balks at taking the hormones out of fear of losing her identity and what makes her special (shades of House earlier this season), House and Maddy have their long-awaited sparring reunion.

House: You and I have found out that being normal sucks, because we're freaks. The advantage of being a freak is it makes you stronger. How strong do you really want her to have to be? You told her what you had to tell her. Now you tell her you lied. Even if you didn't.

She does a great job of convincing her daughter that she'll always be special and will be able to have what Maddy didn't, and the adorably rueful smile she gets from Abigail makes me wish we'd seen more of actress Kacie Borrowman in this episode too.

After that heartwarming scene, we get the anti-heartwarming scenes of Wilson inviting House for some "people over pills" on Christmas Eve, House calling his mom for an uncharacteristically nice "merry Christmas," and then downing some pills with a very large chaser of alcohol.

Wilson still cares, and still knows House pretty well. He storms over after not getting an answer to three phone calls. When he finds his friend half passed out on the floor next to an empty pill bottle, he walks right out again. Cold. But I suppose the pile of puke and the fact that House was conscious were his clues that he wasn't in imminent danger. Maybe he even did some math to figure out how many pills House would have ingested, since it was his patient's prescription, after all. And it's not like House hadn't put him through enough to earn his disgust. I can come up with many justifications for him walking out with his friend dazed on the floor next to an empty pill bottle and a pile of puke, but still. Cold.

That finally does seem as low as House can go, inspiring him to go to Tritter to accept the rehab deal. Only, what a surprise, Tritter wasn't really acting in anyone's best interests, he was after an eye for an eye all along. The deal is off the table now that he has the pharmacy book evidence of House's narcotics theft.

"Jesus walks, huh?" he smirks. And as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" plays ironically in the background, he ends as he began: "Merry Christmas."

Merry frickin' Christmas to you too, depressing House people. Not that I'm complaining about that. The year the show tries to do a House version of A Christmas Carol is the year I root for the original Scrooge to prevail.

House is scheduled to return Tuesday, January 9.

Did I say Wednesday? I meant Thursday

I decided to have a nap after work before writing my House review and woke up at 1:30 a.m. Now I have to go to bed.

No, the party wasn't that fun. Just tired.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Well, I have nothing to lose ...

You know, most people who know me in the real world wouldn’t say I have a big mouth. I’m actually known to be reasonably quiet and diplomatic unless I'm chatting with friends. But yeah, I called Canadians smug in public now. Merry Christmas.

A quibble: I actually argued against the idea that Da Vinci's Inquest was cancelled tragically before its time, having a run of seven years in that incarnation and one as Da Vinci’s City Hall. Though her point still stands.

She also took out my naming names so I’ll do it now. I said, as I’ve mentioned here before, that it was Wayne Clarkson of Telefilm Canada who said that maybe shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys are too Canadian for the international market. Of course I’m worried about that kind of spurious objection from someone who has that much power in the Canadian industry.

While the ending might seem to set it up as if the Thunderbird Films distributor guy and I are disagreeing, I think he comes to the same point from the opposite side, without throwing around words like “smug” and “crazy”:

"It's well-known now that we deliver ratings," he says, adding that it's the very Canadianness of the shows he sells that appeals to American buyers. "We make no apologies for our shows being shot in Canada. All our shows are proudly produced in Canada, and it's never been an issue."

Well known in the US. The Canadianness appeals to American buyers. The Canadianness of the shows has never been an issue in the US. So why do our networks do everything in their power to get away from having to broadcast more Canadian shows? Why do our funders even think about the exact amount of Canadianness in our shows? Why do Canadians think our own shows suck? Until they hit it big in the US. Sure, we embraced Cold Squad. When it became Cold Case and those ugly Americans ripped off our superior homegrown product, then embraced the original themselves.

My annoyance on this subject lately is coming out of the CRTC hearings, and the “Canadian TV sucks” refrain I often hear when people find out about the TV, Eh? blog. Soon I will be Zen Diane again. So wipe that smug smile off your face before you drive me crazy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My Charlie Brown Christmas and Illeanarama

Awwww, the cast of Scrubs meets classic Peanuts. Word is it was done for a cast Christmas party a few years ago. JD is Charlie Brown, Turk is Schroeder, Carla is Lucy, Elliot is Sally, Cox is Linus, Ted is Pigpen, and, um, Rowdy is Snoopy.

I'm feeling kind of Charlie Brownish (or is that JDish?) myself.

I had a sad-sack cat named Charlie once, named after the sad-sack Christmas tree.

Yes, House review tomorrow night. Saw it, still want to throttle House.

And hey, another "TV show" on the web, Illeanarama with Illeana Douglas and Justine Bateman. Sounds like more episodes are coming.

Monday, December 11, 2006

So many doctors, so little time

Christmas comes early: I got a little something in the mail today for review purposes, and I'm hap-hap-happy. Look how adorable David Morse looks when he's not a psychotic House-hunting cop.

No, this isn't my review. That'll be when I say something about how smokin' Denzel Washington is, even though I don't think his role in the show quite justifies how prominent he is on the cover, and how I forgot that dreamy Mark Harmon isn't in the first season until I saw he was missing from the cover, dammit.

No House review on Tuesday, either, since Christmas festivities will interfere. I'll try to get it done Wednesday night, but it depends how festive things get on Tuesday.

TV Review: Intelligence - "Cleaning Up"

When the folks on Intelligence clean up, things get pretty messy. In "Cleaning Up," an episode where Jimmy's revenge supposedly comes full circle, a lot of loose ends remain. Good thing, because the season's still got four episodes left. With all these spies, informants, and criminals relying on trust and loyalty in this episode, it's even harder to believe things are getting cleaner.

Picking up from the dead body lying on the pavement at the end of last episode, Phan and friends take off from the botched currency exchange as he says in the flattest voice possible, "This is a real drag."

Jimmy thinks it's a bit of a drag, too, as does biker boss Dante, whose nephew is the dead body on the pavement. Mary thinks it could be a drag, fearing escalating violence, but she's reassured by her prized informant that what went around came around. The revenge circle closed - supposedly - when Jimmy finds out that the nephew was carrying the gun that killed Colin, Reardon's distributor on the Island, added to the fact that Mike's attacker was one of Dante's Disciples. The score is settled, Jimmy insists.

Mary's machinations get a little messier, too. Her friend Eddie and his ex-CIA partner (Stuart Margolin, who also directed the episode) help her get intelligence on the cocaine dealer they're tracking, Luiz Falcone, in exchange for her go-ahead for them to take him on her turf, despite the fact that under DEA protection. That leads her to stockbroker Randy Bingham, who's supposed to be one of her informants, and another gun deal.

Plus, her supposed CSIS supporter James Mallaby lets her know Roger Deakins is finally out and her appointment to take his place is just a matter of Ottawa giving the okay. In the meantime, Mallaby'll be taking over. And he has a bridge he'd like to sell her, too. She's not buying, though, and continues to marshal support from a senator and her underlings, Martin and sneaky Ted, whose jaw must ache from all the talking through clenched teeth he does in this episode.

Mary suspects Richard Royden, the CSIS director, of being the high-powered leak, and even enlists Deakins help to expose him. Deakins is apparently on board to preserve his own reputation, but he points out "you do this and fail, they'll have your head and mine on a stick."

In another "devil you know" deal that means she's playing with fire, Mary's attempt to swap her old job for Ted's loyalty starting now only results in sneaky Ted suspiciously fiddling with items on Mary's desk - spying on the spymaster, maybe? - and accelerating the plan to snare Reardon in the DEA's trap.

That plan seems to be working, too. Winston the undercover DEA agent managed to escape arrest by invoking Ted's name, allowing Reardon to walk away from a potentially messy situation. Despite Ronnie's protests that Winston obviously isn't someone they want to get into business with, Jimmy is desperate enough for the supply that he continues with the deal. Some day Jimmy will have to hear a big "I told you so" from his partner, but for now the deal is done and the DEA plan to trace the shipment across the border.

While he unknowingly gets deeper into trouble, his banker and lawyer encourage him to go a little more legit (is that like being a little pregnant?) so he can invest in his own offshore bank.

Ex-wife Francine is causing deeper troubles as well, going into a jealous coffee-throwing fit when she discovers he's sleeping with another woman while daughter Stella's in the house - though the jealousy trigger is that she thought they were getting back together, not so much the impressionable Stella. The deluded woman implores Ronnie to help her get back in the family, leaving him with a threat of trouble if she's left to "drown" on her own.

She's got good reason to want back in, and not just because she's still obsessed with Jimmy. Reardon is loyal to his family, so when a shaky Mike calls after running into his attacker in the nightclub he's hoping to buy, Jimmy and his henchman Bob rush down to take care of business. So much for that closed circle and settled score. It's all part of the job for Bob, and another glimpse into Reardon's frightening underworld in a series that doesn't judge Reardon any more harshly than Spalding. Neither of them are possible to fully root for, but it's impossible to root against them, either.

The next episode of Intelligence - directed by star Ian Tracey - airs Tuesday, Dec. 12 on CBC at 9 p.m.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Naughty or nice?

It's time to make a year-in-review list and check it twice, to find out who's been naughty and nice in the world of entertainment.


Borat: I laughed a lot, I admit. But I cringed a lot more. He's making a whole lot of money off innocent people he's duped, including dirt-poor villagers in Romania. I can laugh guilt-free at the boors and racists, but many of those he encountered were open-minded and gracious to him, and were rewarded with ridicule. The woman who taught him how to use a toilet at the dinner party should be sainted. And then she should give him a swirlie.

The Emmys: It's too strong to say that TV's preeminent awards are slipping into irrelevance, but each head-scratching year that rewards mediocrity and snubs the actual best shows and performers on television brings them closer to being a broadcast of just another bunch of pretty people in pretty clothes.

FOX: Despite being the home of quality shows like House and 24, they more than regressed back to their days of trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, only they misjudged how low is too low. The sleazy, cynical premise of the OJ Simpson special, If I Did It - and not the public outcry - should have been their first clue that the project should never have gotten off the ground.

CBC: Canada's public broadcaster makes shows I want to see, like Intelligence and The Rick Mercer Report, and some I really, really don't, like Rumours, and doesn't do a very good job of letting me know about the existence of any of them even though I run a website that tries to promote Canadian TV. And they scheduled Intelligence against House, which also happens to be a top five show here in Canada. And Executive Vice-President Richard Stursberg set the network up for failure by publicly stating the ridiculous target of a million viewers per show, which none of their regular series have managed to achieve.

TV's regulatory bodies: The alphabet soup of the FCC in the US and the CRTC in Canada have a mandate to protect the public interest in the use of our airwaves. What does that mean? For the FCC, protecting us from so-called smut at the urging of organized complainants who don't represent the majority of viewers, and with a system of regulations that make little sense. For the CRTC, it seems to mean protecting the Canadian broadcasters from the inconvenience of doing too much more than providing us with shows we can already get on our American channels and burying our own cultural product.


House: I wasn't thrilled with the leg’s-fixed-oh-no-it’s-not storyline, or the way the Tritter storyline has been playing out lately. But House is still my one TV obsession. I complain, I criticize, I adore. Star Hugh Laurie and creator David Shore lead the magic makers who take a cantankerous doctor and witty scripts and turn them into insights into character and ethics.

NBC: The peacock ordered full seasons of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Friday Night Lights despite ratings that wouldn't have justified their existence at another major network. I don't watch Friday Night Lights, but it's a worthy show with devoted fans. Studio 60 goes into the Christmas season on a high note creatively, if not in ratings - and though Danny's speech to Jordan was probably grounds for a restraining order rather than breathtakingly romantic, I choose to get sucked into the romance.

Little Miss Sunshine and Thank You For Smoking: These two hysterically funny, cleverly thoughtful independent films revived my interest in movies this year after a long dry spell, and served as entertaining exposes on beauty pageants and the tobacco industry without clobbering us with a moral.

Anne Tyler: Our era's Jane Austen regularly pumps out consistently fine novels, including this year's Digging to America. Her prose is deceptively simple and profoundly beautiful, and delves into the inner lives of characters who could be friends, neighbours, family, self.

Nerds: Ugly Betty's Betty Suarez proves that brains are beautiful, even hidden behind a monobrow and the fashion sense of an exploded laundry basket. Hiro the hero of Heroes comes from a show I don't watch, but I'm still thrilled he's the sweet star getting all the attention in an ensemble drama, and not because of his ripped abs or chiseled features. The two freshmen series have captured audiences with style, even if their breakout nerds have none.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Canadian TV embracing irrelevance?

Since covering the Banff World Television Festival and hearing the town hall there on the future of Canadian television, and since starting the TV, Eh? What's Up in Canadian Television website, I've taken more of a personal interest in the state of Canadian television today. But now that the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) is undertaking a review of the industry that could profoundly affect the quality and quantity of Canadian programming, I find myself incapable of writing anything intelligent about it. Because I don't get it.

I don't understand what the CRTC is for if not to protect the public interest in the use of our airwaves. And I don't understand how allowing Canadian broadcasters to make money duplicating the content we get on American channels and burying Canadian series is in our best interests.

If I can watch House on FOX, why should I care if Global's got it? You know what I can't see on my American stations? The Jane Show. Falcon Beach. How sad is it that those are the only two Canadian series I can think of on Global, our #2 Canadian network? And neither are currently airing.

The broadcasters want to increase our cable bill so the formerly free channels like CTV and Global get a piece of it. They want to get rid of the 12 minutes per hour limit on advertising, a proposal even advertisers don't support. None of this will improve the quality or quantity of programming for the public.

Creative groups want networks to increase the amount they spend on Canadian drama to a "whopping" 7% of their advertising revenues, an increase that will help get more and better homegrown programming on the air without adding to the taxpayer or cable bill burden.

One member of the CRTC, a man some are apparently saying will soon lead the regulatory body, dismisses the suggestion that they should mandate how much money and airtime is budgeted for Canadian content:

"You know, I know the purposes for all those recommendations and, you know, I see the happy coincidence between your members’ interests and the Canadian public interest," said Richard French, "but I submit to you that there is not a hell of a lot left for a programmer to do after you or we have told them to do all those things, is there?"

There is no brain cell in my head that can make sense of that. Does that mean he sees no problem with the Canadian television industry as it currently stands, or that the CRTC shouldn't be in the business of fixing it? Remind me again what their purpose is - to protect the interests of broadcasters? Wait, no, "communications in the public interest" is the slogan they trumpet on their website.

It's not just the CRTC or the broadcasters I can't figure out. It's the audience, too. If one more person tells me, even in jest, that Canadian TV sucks - someone who hasn't seen a Canadian show since The Beachcombers - I'm going to club them over the head with a piece of driftwood.

Over the last year we've seen Intelligence, Corner Gas, The Rick Mercer Report, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Trailer Park Boys, Slings and Arrows, Dragons' Den, Canada's Next Top Model, Canadian Idol, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Instant Star, Whistler, Kenny vs. Spenny, ReGenesis, Robson Arms, and Alice, I Think, among many others. I don't love them all, haven't even seen them all, but if there's nothing on that list that appeals to you, you should not be allowed to handle a remote control.

We make fewer shows, which means the stinkers really stand out. And good lord, there are stinkers. Fewer shows also means our homegrown talent has fewer opportunities to gain experience and get better attuned to what works for the Canadian audience. But you know what? Most American shows suck too. There's just far more of them, so odds are a few more will stick.

What I don't understand in that complete dismissal of Canadian television I hear so often is why, when we're talking about the most prominent expression of culture available to us, it's OK with us that we're becoming the 51st state. Us Canadians, we're so smug about what makes us different, even better, than Americans, yet we let ourselves be assimilated to the point where we loudly reject even the need to develop our own cultural product. Is that really in our best interests?

I get why the audience is content to let ourselves be invisible in this CRTC process: we'd need an MBA in Canadian TV to figure out what the hearings are all about. The media aren't doing a very good job of translating what's going on, very possibly because keeping us in the dark is in their own best interests.

At least, I prefer to believe we just don't get it, than that it's really OK with us to decide we don't care about having the expression of our own culture reflected on the small screen, that we don't care what's in our best interests any more than the CRTC does.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Jazz hands

Will over at Uninflected Images Juxtaposed poses a question about why Canadians don't get jazzed over their own shows. And I can't shut up about it.

A very special episode of House

Here's some perfect synergy of my favourite TV show and my day job in health care PR - This Hour Has 22 Minutes does House confronting the Canadian medical system.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Following the trend

A Tuesday without House? What am I supposed to do now? And why didn't the repeat fall next Tuesday, when I have my office Christmas party? I guess this means I can watch Mercer and 22 Minutes without scribbling a House review at the same time. And I can watch Intelligence in real time. And do things not related to television.

And I can steal an idea from DMc and post my responses to that intrepid journalism student who's writing a paper on Canadian TV. I'll resist the urge to edit, and spare you the initial back and forth where I try to impress on her that I don't actually know much about the industry.

What trends have you seen recently in Canadian television?

I haven't been paying attention carefully enough for long enough to feel confident talking about trends, but in some ways I feel like Canadian television is anti-trend. It seems to be doing the same thing now as it did when I was a kid – some bad knock-offs of American shows, some shows with almost stereotypically Canadian sensibilities, and some great shows that deserve a wider audience.

If we look at American programming trends, we usually see each season trying to repeat the successes of the previous seasons. This year that meant a lot of heavily serialized dramas to capitalize on the success of shows like Lost and Prison Break. Some years its procedurals, or single-camera comedies, or some other genre or theme that reproduce like bunnies. Canadian programming doesn't seem able or willing to respond to audience reaction.

When they try, it feels more like they're trying to model themselves after successful American shows that have been around for a while, which only puts them even more in competition with the higher-priced, better-publicized American fare and at a time when that particular trend might be waning. For example, I don't think a show like Whistler is responding to the success of similarly teen-themed Degrassi – I think they're responding to the previous success of shows like The OC, and missing the mark a little on what makes Degrassi a successful show not just in Canada, but in the US and other parts of the world.

In your opinion, would more Cancon regulations hurt or help Canadian programming? explain...

I'm in favour of broadcasters putting more of the money they make from broadcasting American shows I could see on other channels anyway into Canadian programming, and they're not going to do it voluntarily. I don't know how to make it work logistically speaking, but putting more money into development and production and publicity is a huge start.

I have some difficulty believing the networks are actually fulfilling the existing Cancon regulations, given the dearth of Canadian television shows on the air. I don't know whether that's because the regulations are so loose that they're somehow fulfilling them with a half an hour of Entertainment Tonight Canada and the news, or if the regulations aren't enforced. I'm often confused about Cancon regulations — I often have to dig to find out if a show qualifies as Canadian, to know whether to put it on the TV, Eh? site or not.

Whats, if there is one, is the biggest problem with Canadian programing in your opinion?

One? Just one? How about I cheat and say it's the fact that most shows get so little publicity that audiences have to work to find out about them, and yet there have been too many bad shows for too long that there's a perception that Canadian programming isn't worth that
effort. So that means publicity, quality, and stigma are the biggest problems I see.

What do you think needs to be done to fix this?

Money and time. I think we need more money put into each show, more money put into having more shows, and more money put into publicity so we don't spend all that money on shows no one knows about. With an increased number of good Canadian shows gaining more attention, the public will slowly come around to seeing that the proportion of bad Canadian TV is probably no worse than the proportion of bad American TV. It's hard to get that point across when the total number of shows is so small that you can count the good ones on one hand. Sometimes one finger.

What prompted you to start your cite?

I hadn't thought about how little Canadian programming I was watching until I started reading the blog of a Canadian TV writer (Denis McGrath at Dead Things on Sticks), who was discussing current shows I'd never heard of. I realized I wasn't even hearing about all these Canadian shows that were stealthily coming and going. I wasn't even getting the chance to decide if they were bad or good, because it was nearly impossible to accidentally stumble across any information on them, and incredibly difficult to find information about them even when I tried.

The mainstream media focuses on shows their readers or viewers are already watching, and in most cases that isn't Canadian shows. I couldn't even find a lot of information on the networks' own sites, and there was no one-stop information site like TV Tattle or the Futon Critic for Canadian programming. I wrote a post saying all this and someone said, well, why don't you start a site like that? I dismissed the idea at first but it kept percolating in my brain.

There's a grassroots organization called First Weekend Club that supports Canadian film by trying to get people out to that crucial first weekend in the theatres, but there seemed to be no one championing Canadian TV except for people who had an economic interest in it. I love TV, I love to support the creative arts, and I love being a pseudo web geek. I can't do much, but I figured I could do this site.

What is your current occupation? or anything you have done in the tv. industry

I have no experience or interest in working in the TV industry itself. I enjoy its product, and I've enjoyed writing about it for online publications. Now with the TV, Eh? site I help publicize it by using the tools I use in my day job. For actual employment, I work in what other people call public relations but we call communications — I write and edit for employee publications and websites.

Monday, December 04, 2006

TV Review: Intelligence - "Clean and Simple"

(Spoilers for the episode that aired Nov. 28)

Clean and simple is not a phrase I'd use to describe CBC's complex crime drama Intelligence, with so many characters and plot threads that I'm almost expecting the characters to start wearing nametags in addition to appearing in those title cards. Even the dialogue and acting style is only deceptively simple, like we're eavesdropping on snippets of conversation that are being steadily assembled into an intricate tapestry. An intricate audiovisual tapestry. Damned mixed metaphors.

However, "Clean and Simple" the episode is representative of the eye for an eye philosophy that underlies both Jimmy Reardon's and Mary Spalding's worlds.

Knowing the bikers were behind brother Michael's throat slashing, Jimmy finally agrees with Ronnie that they should exact revenge to send a message that he's not to be messed with. He wants and gets assurances that no one will be hurt, and of course when you 're combining guns, drugs, money, and bikers, I can think of no reason not to feel reassured.

Jimmy's man Bob helps plan an interruption to the bikers' currency exchange with a little robbery. After his cohort provides a detailed, complicated proposal, Bob gets clean and simple: "Why don't we just steal the car?" "Or we could just steal the car," the other guy nods, like that's a pretty good plan B.

Mary eventually finds herself in an eye for an eye position as well. Her confidante and sometime lover, Vancouver cop Don Frazer, spells things out, pointing out that the old boys are never going to let her in, so she'll have to kick the door down. "They fuck with you, you fuck with them. ... That's the only thing those guys understand." Sounds like Don and Ronnie would get along well. It is definitely getting harder and harder to tell the difference between the bad guys and the good guys.

Ironically, the woman who's selling her promotion to CSIS as an opportunity to build a spy agency that doesn't rely on American intelligence must rely on a disgruntled former CIA agent to find out how intricately involved CSIS is with the Americans and other countries. The simple answer she gets to that convoluted question is: very. Ex-CIA guy uses a few more words, like telling her that CSIS bigwig Dick Royden, who we see coaching Roger Deakins on how to explain spilling the beans to the Chinese about Lee the mole, worked for the Americans.

In exchange for giving her bad news, ex-CIA guy wants to give her news she doesn't want to hear: he's on the trail of a cocaine importer, Luiz Falcone, and along with Mary's friend Eddie, intends to capture him and bring him back to Mexico. She cautions him against getting caught with Falcone's body in his car. "It's not my car," he says in one of the surprising laugh-out-loud lines that populate but never pierce the tension of the series.

Mary is covertly steering the homicide investigation into Lee the mole's death, and discovers that others, up to the Minister responsible for security and his staff, know the contents of her secret files. Her biggest CSIS supporter, James Mallaby, encourages her to back off. (How did I not know Mallaby is played by the lead singer of Spirit of the West, John Mann? I guess because I'm clueless and it's not mentioned anywhere on the website or press materials. Is it just the show rubbing off on me, or do I sense the work of the witness protection program here?)

Mallaby shows his teeth in a supposed smile as he tells Mary it's time to start pushing her upstairs to that coveted CSIS role she's been promised, while telling her she'll need to hand over summaries of all her cases. After asking for support from an unseen senator and starting to secure the files for her prized informants, Katarina and Reardon, Mary is subtle but steely as she asks Mallaby when Deakins will be suspended, then refuses to pass on files until she gets an assurance that Deakins won't see them. And Mallaby's teeth suddenly look a lot more like a snarl. She also confronts Deakins head on with another subtle but steely challenge to expose himself with a public statement or prepare to slip away quietly.

If that weren't enough, Mary finds herself roused by a 2 a.m. phone call from Eddie and ex-CIA guy, who think her unit is working an operation on their target Falcone. She lets them know the man with the coke importer isn't one of her agents, but a DEA agent - meaning Falcone is protected, much to their annoyance.

Jimmy's got additional problems, too. As we saw a couple of episodes ago, ex-wife Francine gave a lawyer the complete history of the Reardon empire, and now he's contacted Jimmy's lawyer to warn him. The lawyer, who'd earlier advised Jimmy to open his own offshore bank account to streamline his ATM business, now tells him they can direct that lawyer to take Francine on as a client, sealing that lawyer-client privilege, possibly containing Francine's big mouth, but also showing Jimmy's disturbing level of control.

Francine's indiscretion gets Jimmy even more antsy over getting a safe house to stash their truckloads of ATM cash, which leads to an appallingly insensitive Ronnie offering Sweet a luxury condo. Only when it's hit her that he's making an enormous gesture does he burst that bubble and let her know it's business. She negotiates to get her name on the deed instead of one of Reardon's holding companies, which she explains as insurance - if she's going to take the risk she wants the reward. I'm not so sure it's much of a reward to have her name tied to the illicit dealings, but I'm no expert in illicit dealings and plausible deniability.

Mary's undercover stripper seems to be causing her more problems than Jimmy, since she's avoiding Mary's calls again, despite overhearing his plot to hit the bikers. Her silence causes Mary to pass on a message through Katarina: another warning means a deportation order. Martin's casual observation about helping with visas to one of Katarina's girls, who's working with him on the case of the biotech engineers who are trying to sell secrets to one country while unknowingly having them stolen by another, is a demonstration of that team's disturbing level of control in those women's lives.

The final minutes of the episode ratchet up the tension through the driving music and short scenes cutting from the currency exchange hit to Jimmy accepting that drug shipment from the undercover DEA operator. The eye for an eye in the biker wars results in the loss of another eye as the robbery goes wrong, shots are fired, and a man lies - dead? wounded? - on the sidewalk. At the same time, the car carrying Jimmy, the DEA operator, and a trunkload of pot catches the eye of the police, who arrest DEA guy and confront Jimmy as he sits waiting for his day to get even worse.

Who's calling it easy?

The Easy Bake Oven was inducted into the toy hall of fame recently, a fitting tribute for the toy that helped teach me the appeal of the miniature and the thrill of creation, and still inspires nostalgia for baking dubious, tiny cakes through the magic of an ordinary light bulb.

My first memory of baking something full-sized is of chocolate chip cookies.They became my specialty growing up - something of an enforced specialty, since my brother used to request them: plain, unembellished chocolate chip cookies, none of this experimentation I liked to do with oatmeal or coconut or raisins or almonds or what have you.

That's the beauty of baking. It's part chemistry, part artistry. As long as you get the proportions of the important stuff right, the rest is open to interpretation. I've heard cooking is supposed to be like that, too, but tell that to the people who've had to eat my savoury experiments.

My friend who we call the nice Martha Stewart had a card making party and cookie exchange on Saturday. (A few of us also went cross-border shopping today, which means I think I've exceeded my girlie quotient for the month already). So I'm baking seven dozen cookies for the exchange, thinking, well, it's not that many, really, since I'm giving six dozen away. Yes, and getting a dozen each of six different kinds of cookies in return. Math was never my strongest subject.

There's a lot of cookies in my freezer. Guess what I'll be bringing to any Christmas gatherings this year?

I stayed away from my old specialty and went for something a little off the wall, since I figured chocolate chip cookies would account for at least two of the seven dozen. Everyone else figured the same thing, so we ended up with none.

I'd never be mistaken for a Martha Stewart of any disposition, but this is the recipe I brought:

Pumpkin Cookies

1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup canned pumpkin (or fresh cooked and mashed)

2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp ginger
1 cup raisins
1 cup chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugar together well. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Add vanilla and pumpkin.

Stir remaining ingredients together and add. Mix well. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto greased pan. Bake in 375oF oven for about 15 minutes until lightly browned.

Makes about 4 dozen.

Invite me for a Christmas gathering and maybe you can try them. Along with shortbread, cranberry and walnut drops, snickerdoodles, peanut butter balls, macaroons, and Mexican wedding cookies.

Mmm. I'm hungry. Time to raid my freezer.