By Simon Gadke - Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - 0 Comments
It’s hard to imagine Philip Roth, the now-retired American novelist, browsing the aisles of Lee Valley looking for a woodworking project to pass the time. Try picturing him at an RV dealership, contemplating a long-distance road trip. Envision him on a golf green, working on his long putt. On its “How to Stay Busy During Retirement” entry, wikihow.com recommends restless retirees write an autobiography, advice that would surely give Roth a chuckle.
On the occasion of Roth’s 80th birthday, PBS’s American Masters will air the 90-minute documentary, Philip Roth: Unmasked. While the film offers no clear answers to the question of What will he do now?, it does provide an intimate look at the life and work–over 30 books in a career spanning over 50 years–of one of America’s most enduring voices.
Because Roth has so relentlessly pursued himself as a subject, fans of the author might not be surprised by the documentary. Roth states outright at the opening of the film that he has two great calamities awaiting him: death and a biography. “Let’s hope the first comes first,” he says.
By Patricia Treble - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 11:17 AM - 0 Comments
Be honest: how many of you knew something awful was going to happen to Matthew the moment the dowager countess crowed about the happiness of the Crawley family? I wasn’t sure the dastardly deed was going to strike, then he got into a fast convertible and I knew it would be an accident. And since in this season Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes was incapable of making anyone take the blame for anything, it was the winding road, not Matthew’s reckless speeding that seemingly was the guilty party in the crash. And that wishy-washy attitude was why this was a was a dud season devoid of soap opera angst and tension. I love Downton and enjoyed moments and vignettes from this season. But the problem is no Downton fan I’ve talked to has enjoyed the entire season.
So here are some suggestions from a concerned fan:
By Patricia Treble - Monday, January 21, 2013 at 7:24 AM - 0 Comments
The cast’s costumes are ever-evolving, on set and off
In an episode that screams “set up for future dramas,” I found myself drifting away from the plot–oh, why was Lady Sybil talking in code on the phone?–to look at the clothes worn by the characters. If Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey, is considered a leading character for its sheer beauty and imposing grandeur, then the clothes deserve equal billing.
They are sumptuous.
And ever-evolving. While Season 1 featured restrictive pre-First World War costumes–long dresses, elaborate designs and tightly bound construction–and Season 2 highlighted utilitarian wartime clothing, Season 3 is back to full-on luxury. Reflecting, but not mimicking the era, the fashion is that of fluid silks, sinuous satins and light wool crepes. Everything flows and gathers. Waistlines are loose and hemlines are inching up. (Check out this Pinterest page by Simone James featuring Downton characters.) Sure, some have been used on other period dramas. This isn’t a big budget Hollywood movie but a TV production. Yet no one can accuse them of skimping when it counts. Lady Mary’s wedding dress was exquisite, made by hand and carried a $6,000 price tag.
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, November 12, 2012 at 10:54 AM - 0 Comments
In conversation with Brian D. Johnson
Ken Burns, 59, has been chronicling America’s history on film for three decades. Weaving archival photographs and footage with oral history, he has directed and produced documentaries on epic subjects for PBS—notably The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. His latest opus is The Dust Bowl, a four-hour film to be released on DVD following its two-night PBS premiere Nov. 18 and 19. It documents the worst man-made ecological catastrophe in American history. It was caused by the “Great Plow-up,” an industrial wheat-farming boom that tore up the arid grasslands of the Great Plains. Turned to dust by drought, millions of acres of America’s breadbasket blew away in killer storms during the 1930s, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Burns’s film mixes images of horrific devastation with interviews with elderly Americans who were children during the Dust Bowl. They tell of “black blizzards” that charged over the horizon like moving mountain ranges. The dust storms buried barns, suffocated animals and children, and caused fatal “dust pneumonia.” Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, June 8, 2012 at 10:56 AM - 0 Comments
Warning: once you hear his gentle voice singing ‘Garden of Your Mind’ you may want to listen to it all day
Remixing old TV clips into songs: it’s not just for students and frustrated musicians anymore. Now it’s an official, legal part of a network’s operation. This video, “Mister Rogers Remixed,” is a production of PBS Digital Studios, remixing one of PBS’s flagship kids’ shows – and its famously gentle-voiced host, the late Fred Rogers – into a soothing song.
Rogers is even more well-suited to this kind of video than other stars who have been unoffically “songified,” because his cooing, comforting delivery already has a musical inflection.
But now that PBS has done this, the floodgates for other networks to remix the voices of their own stars–instead of letting YouTube amateurs do it for them– should open.
Even PBS should probably get more aggressively into it. Who wouldn’t want to hear the donation-friendly accents on Downton Abbey underscored with a good, strong beat?
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 4:24 PM - 0 Comments
I sometimes talk about how Canada has problems making – or at least getting people to watch – home-grown TV, and what the CBC’s mission should be, and whether certain types of co-productions are really Canadian shows. But it’s easy to sound too pessimistic; the problems are real, but most Canadian networks have been able (sometimes almost by accident) to make shows that Canadians want to see. The CBC has some productions that have been successful; CTV has done some popular shows; the CW just arranged to pick up another Canadian show (albeit one set in the U.S., but that’s not the key to Canadian-ness, any more than an American movie isn’t American if it’s set in another country). The kid-com Mr. Young is doing well both here and on the Disney XD channel in the States. Even Global, which tends to have the least original scripted programming, unveiled the mini-series Bomb Girls this week. The issues with how Canadian networks make and schedule their programs are real enough, as are the issues with providing incentives for Canadian talent to stay in the country, but there has been some improvement.
And if you want to see a network that is really almost completely dependent on foreign scripted programming, you may have to look South. This New York Times article on PBS is about how the network is cool again – something it’s heavily emphasizing at its current Critics’ panel. But the coolness depends mostly on UK shows: the network got more popular because it got the rights to broadcast ITV’s Downton Abbey and BBC’s Sherlock. These are terrific shows. (Sherlock‘s “A Scandal In Belgravia” established it again as one of the best detective shows on TV, a master of that combination of craziness and earnestness that the Americans haven’t quite gotten right lately.) And PBS does a valuable thing by bringing them to North American viewers for free. But the network is still no closer to producing its own shows that could change U.S. dramatic TV, the way Sesame Street changed kids’ TV and its documentaries changed unscripted TV. It’s possible that producing home-grown shows is impossible or impractical for PBS, but without them, it will never be AMC, let alone HBO.
By Patricia Treble - Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 5:05 PM - 2 Comments
A show once dubbed ‘grandparents’ TV’ is rocking the ratings wars
In an era of moribund network ratings, PBS’s Sunday stalwart Masterpiece has done the impossible, becoming TV’s standout program, with a 44 per cent increase in ratings. And the show accomplished it not by dumbing down or skimping on content but by doing the opposite: churning out more and more intelligent, sophisticated series. Everyone in the industry gives credit to one person: its executive producer Rebecca Eaton, 63, who’s had the job for 25 years. But the show wasn’t always flying high. Three years ago, it was floundering, a “dusty jewel,” Eaton recalls. The home of classics such as Traffik and The Jewel in the Crown looked and felt dated. Though it was showing acclaimed dramas such as Bleak House, viewers labelled it their “grandparents’ TV.” Making matters worse was a scheduling schizophrenia: a Brontë period drama would be followed by a contemporary thriller like Prime Suspect and then a Hercule Poirot cozy mystery.
Eaton gambled on a down-to-the-studs renovation. She wiped the fuddy-duddy name “Theatre” from the title. To cure the “head snap” scheduling problem, she divided the show into three seasons: contemporary dramas in the fall, classic fare in the winter, and mysteries in the summer. Each section got a distinct new look and a talented actor as a host. Acerbic Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) eagerly snapped up the Mystery! gig. “I think the whole notion of being a host announcing a drama that is about to unfold is a very rare thing these days, and it just really appealed to me,” he explained.
Ratings increased steadily before soaring this past year—its 40th on air—as Masterpiece pumped out hit after hit, including the acclaimed Sherlock, a new Upstairs Downstairs and the blockbuster Downton Abbey. The latter attracted 12.6 million viewers, with another one million watching it online. The drama about an aristocratic family and its servants was a hit in the prime early 20s age group, a market the show doesn’t target.
By Patricia Treble - Friday, October 22, 2010 at 4:20 PM - 0 Comments
A cheeky new series plants Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the 21st century
“Afghanistan or Iraq?” Mere seconds after being introduced to Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes deduces he is an army doctor, injured on the battlefield. He just isn’t sure which one. Watson is dumbfounded when Holmes continues: the injury is now psychosomatic and though he is in financial trouble, Watson can’t turn to his sibling, an alcoholic, because they are estranged. The sleuth is right, of course. He’s rarely wrong.
That’s the start of the charming and luxuriously complex reimagining of what co-creator Steven Moffat (Dr. Who’s showrunner) calls “the biggest hit in fiction”: Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery stories. In a daring move, Moffat and his creative partner in crime, Mark Gatiss, wrench Holmes from the constricting, archaic world of Victorian London, where he’d become “a dusty relic,” and plant him firmly in the 21st century, all the better to see the “modern, scary, cutting-edge young man” of the early books. Smartphones replace telegrams while an online blog subs for Watson’s journal.
This new Sherlock—which airs commercial-free on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! starting Oct. 24—moves at a speed that rivals Holmes’s frenetic synaptic pace, enhanced by wearing three nicotine patches simultaneously. (“Impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days,” Holmes laments.)
By Patricia Treble - Friday, April 30, 2010 at 6:47 PM - 0 Comments
From books to television, the gentle mystery genre is everywhere these days
While mysteries like Henning Mankell’s Wallander series have received critical acclaim, the traditional “cozy” still sells like hotcakes. Just witness the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which is based in Botswana, or this summer’s line-up on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! In cozies, the detective—often a woman and/or an amateur—solves crimes that defy befuddled small-town authorities. Violence is kept to a minimum and important clues are often accidentally overheard or stumbled on by pure coincidence. Agatha Christie might be dead, but the genre she perfected in the form of Miss Marple lives on.
Today, Alexander McCall Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, is the reigning champ of the cozy. He pumps out a handful of books each year, each more delightful than the last. McCall Smith has four series on the go, though some, like the Isabel Dalhousie novels, are really character essays rather than mysteries in the usual sense of involving bodies and crimes. And in each book, especially his best-selling No. 1 series, the crime is less important than the people who inhabit the pages and their reactions to each other and to the crime.
This is perfectly exemplified in an exchange in the latest book of the series, The Double Comfort Safari Club. Mma Grace Makutsi, the assistant in the Gaborone-based detective Agency tells her boss: “Sometimes wickedness prevails.” She is referring to an old foe, Violet Sephotho, notorious for using her looks to ensnare men. However, Makutsi’s belief is anathema to detective Mma Precious Ramotswe. As McCall Smith writes: “In her short career as a private detective, Mma Ramotswe had encountered relatively few instances of evil, but she had seen some, and in each case she had seen the wings of wickedness clipped. Violet Sephotho had now stepped over a boundary that separated mere nastiness from real wickedness. She could not be allowed to prevail.” And, with the two women on the case, there is no doubt in readers’ minds that Violet Sephotho will get her comeuppance.
That simple reasoning that “might does not make right” is at the heart of a cozy’s appeal. Like a Harlequin romance and its inevitable happy ending, cozy readers know that in their world evil will be vanquished. A different variation of the cozy starts on Sunday, May 2 on PBS when Masterpiece Mystery! begins airing the final three episodes of Foyle’s War.
Set during the Second World War in the ancient British town of Hastings on the English Channel, the series features the most reluctant of detectives, Chief Supt. Christopher Foyle, who must solve crimes that can appear insignificant compared to the cataclysmic events occurring all around him. In these episodes, the war in Europe is over and Foyle is on the cusp of his much desired, much delayed retirement. Though these episodes deal with rather more grand issues than usual, Foyle’s War as a whole is the ultimate cozy.
Starring Michael Kitchen, who’s a delight as the enigmatic Christopher Foyle, the series is really about his quiet, determined refusal to accept the “party line”—that crime in wartime isn’t worthy of the most diligent police work. Of course Hastings plays host to the most amazing crimes, all of which would remain unsolved if not for Foyle, his former driver “Sam” Stewart and his deputy Paul Milner.
And after Foyle’s War ends there are eight episodes by the queen bee of cozies, Agatha Christie, including five Miss Marples and three new Hercule Poirots. For devoted readers of the clever sleuths, it’s enough to send them scurrying for the ideal tipple, perhaps an herbal tea or a Pimm’s, with which to enjoy watching the bonanza.
By Patricia Treble - Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 8:31 AM - 0 Comments
The popular mystery novel series is set in Sweden, but Brit Kenneth Branagh takes on the title role magnificently
The richly detailed series of Wallander mysteries by author Henning Mankell, gets its TV debut, with a three-book adaptation, starting with Sidetracked. (Sundays, PBS, 9 p.m.) Swedish detective Kurt Wallander is “shopworn”—with tired eyes and rumpled clothes. And after years investigating the darkest of crimes, he’s exhausted. And yet, there’s no stopping, this was the job he was born to do.
Sidetracked opens with a seemingly bucolic view of the Swedish countryside, fields of rapeseed gently rustling in the wind. But soon, there is horror as a young girl, mute with terror, sets herself on fire there in that paradise and Wallander can do nothing but watch. What follows is a dark, intense crime thriller that strips away the socialist utopian curtain to reveal the murky depths one doesn’t expect to find in Sweden.
To play the tortured intense Wallander, the BBC producers chose not a Swedish actor such as Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia!, Good Will Hunting) but British acting giant Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Othello). At first Branagh, with his brash acting style, would seem an unlikely fit for the subtly nuanced Swedish detective, but he delivers one of his most subtle effective performances with Wallander. He so completely loses himself in the character that, after seeing the three shows, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
An even more unusual decision by the producers was to fill the cast with a familiar coterie of British actors and plunk them, and their accents, into the Swedish landscape. So one uniformed cop, with the word Polis written across his bright blue uniform, speaks with a Cockney accent as he walks through a distinctively Scandinavian location. Yet soon the dichotomy of Brits in Sweden vanishes and the series benefits from showing just how differently things are done in Sweden.
The locations and landscapes are breathtaking—elegant old mansions coexist with modern homes, and scenes shot through huge windows capture a gloriously picturesque country.
The police station is a modernist architectural marvel while inside everything is high tech and spare. There are no piles of papers and old coffee cups littering desks. Even the office of the perennially shabby Wallander is clean. And while Wallander often works cases by himself, he’s just as often sitting at a large conference table with his colleagues going over the case. There is no hierarchy, no big man at the end of the table, just police working together.
While the most obsessed of Henkell and Wallander fans will doubtlessly pick apart the series for the liberties taken, including the excision of major plot lines from the books, everyone else will discover a wonderfully refreshing series. Though the creators have ditched detail to compress the stories into 90 minutes, the essence of the books is carefully preserved and on display.
So have the best of both worlds: watch the series then get the books.
By Paul Wells - Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 11:23 PM - 29 Comments
From PBS, a dynamite Frontline documentary designed to suit the moment: a new President who has promised to pay more attention to what’s happening in Afghanistan. At the risk of repeating something I’ve said a few times lately, Obama’s attention, while welcome, is certainly insufficient to turn around a declining situation in Aghanistan. A review of the Frontline documentary is here; the whole documentary, an hour’s television cut into more digestible chapters, is here. It is tremendously sobering viewing…(UPDATE)…and especially in the fifth chapter, has unsettling images of extreme violence, so viewer beware.
UPDATE: Watch this and ask yourself whether it portrays a challenge Lawrence Cannon can begin to comprehend. As a handy gauge, recall how much trouble he had deciding who is or is not a member of the Québécois nation.