Select Page
Coffee, TV or Me

Coffee, TV or Me


Two unrelated features in the news have been swirling around in my brain like, say, a cup of hot coffee. That somehow entered my brain. Never mind.

1. The New York Times is running a fascinating series looking back at stories in the news and how they were reported — and misreported — at the time. Scalded By Coffee, Then The News tells the familiar tale of the woman who got rich by suing because hot coffee was hot (there’s a documentary called Hot Coffee too but the NYT video is like the Coles Notes version). Only she didn’t get rich and that wasn’t the point of her suit. The media at the time got facts wrong and didn’t present some facts that changed my mind later: the horrific pictures of the 79 year old woman’s injuries and the history of McDonald’s callousness. She wanted her medical bills paid — mere coffee money to the company, who knew about and ignored other such injuries, and only took action, as companies will, when it became a legal and financial obligation. Some of you will watch the retro report or documentary and still believe the suit was frivolous. But think about how simple facts were distorted and others not reported at all.

2. A couple weeks ago I was asked to be part of a panel discussion on CBC’s The Current about a controversial column by The Globe and Mail‘s TV critic John Doyle, in which he claimed the “golden age” of television (think Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men) had bypassed the Canadian TV industry.  I was on the side of “maybe, but …” in the half-hour discussion, hosted by the respected Anna Maria Tremonti and including Doyle, former Toronto Star TV critic Rob Salem and the CBC’s Sally Catto.  I think the four of us on the panel — and any knowledgeable listener — would agree that we barely scratched the surface of the issues with Canadian TV and with Doyle’s column. (OK, Doyle wouldn’t agree with the second part of that.) And we had four reasonable, non-shouting-each-other-down people talking for half an hour with a skilled moderator. Think about the average amount of time the news generally spends on an issue in one stretch and how many times panel discussions are presented simply as two polar opposite opinions shouting at each other.

3. Now think about whatever story has you hot and bothered in the news right now and wonder if we know all the details and nuances. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

I have no remedy for this limitation of the news, of course, except to believe that awareness is the first step toward us digging beyond the headlines before we get our pitchforks out.

Vancouver Writing Seminar with Larry Kaplow (House, Body of Proof)

Vancouver Writing Seminar with Larry Kaplow (House, Body of Proof)


Before TV, eh?, I wrote about television for other sites. American television (gasp) for American sites. That’s how I learned that I wasn’t learning about homegrown shows and a website was born. At the time I was writing an awful lot about House, so really you could credit an American show created by a Canadian for the existence of this website dedicated to Canadian TV. If you want to ignore a lot of other factors.

My first interview with a TV writer was with Larry Kaplow, who had just written House’s second-season episode “Autopsy,” which went on to win the Writers Guild of America Award for episodic drama. And as one of the House producers he would later be nominated for a few Emmy Awards for best drama. I take all the credit.

He’d also go on to be a friend who allows me insight into the creative process of writing for television, a warts-to-wonders view I hadn’t seen clearly from simply researching and reviewing books on the subject. When he was giving a week-long writing seminar in Kiev, Ukraine recently (after talks at USC, NYU, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and the National Association of Broadcasters, among others), I took advantage of our friendship and his jetlag to ask him to conduct a one-day seminar in Vancouver on May 6. Aimed at aspiring and emerging TV writers, it’s for people who, unlike me, can put his hard-won experience into practice.

“I’ll show people how to do it, how to write for television in the real world,” he told me about the seminar, which will cover topics such as breaking in, pitching, story structure, the writing room, dealing with notes, writing for production, and the development process. “There are a ton of great books out there. Best of luck to you. I only understand them now because I’ve spent the past however many years doing it.”

That however many years started with assistant gigs on Clueless and Chicago Hope before writing for Family Law, Hack, House and Body of Proof as well as developing his own projects.

He explained his glamorous path to show business: “I went to undergrad for English, grad school for creative writing, then wrote a shitty novel and a bunch of scripts that got options, then I got lunch for writers on the lowest-rated show in the business, then a kindly upper-level writer named Marjorie David basically begged David Shore (Canadian) and Stephen Nathan (not Canadian) [editor’s note: but who now works with Hart Hanson (Canadian)] to hire me as a researcher. I worked my ass off for Paul Haggis (Canadian) and I got my first script, and miracles of miracles I’m still here writing.”

“Passion and commitment are everything — because if you’re willing to let things go, then you’re not right for this business. And believe me, this is something I still have to learn.” In fact, he cites the most important thing he’s learned over his career as “I’m here to learn.” (He’s also here to teach; he’ll be giving a couple of class talks at local schools while he’s in Vancouver.)

“If it’s what you want to do, don’t give up. That ‘if’ isn’t a small thing. If it’s REALLY what you want to do, you won’t care who you are in the business, because the business is telling stories. And if you can be a part of that in any way, how cool is that? I never thought I was going to write TV. Never. And yet here I am, courtesy of kindly giants — several of them Canadian.”

As for what he wants to get out of his time in Vancouver, that would be “to meet the mad and interesting, of course. Is there anything else?” With these Stanley Cup finals we’ve got mad covered, no question. So come on Vancouver, let’s bring the interesting.

For more information and to register:

More excited than scared for Jeff Greenstein’s directing debut

More excited than scared for Jeff Greenstein’s directing debut

Tonight I think you should watch Desperate Housewives, even if, like me, it’s not a show you regularly watch. Who can resist a Halloween episode (“Excited and Scared”) airing on actual Halloween Day?

But the real reason I’ll watch and think you should too is that it’s the directing debut of the talented and witty Jeff Greenstein, who also wrote it. (Oh and he recorded a commentary track that’ll be available on on Monday, too, though it’ll likely be geoblocked in Canada as usual.)

He apparently moved to LA with the dream of becoming a director, but took a not-too-shabby 25-year digression into writing for shows such as Dream On, Friends, Will & Grace and Parenthood, plus developing his own, including one he’s working on now with novelist Jennifer Weiner.

We barely know each other, but I care because we have an odd history that I get a kick out of and that’s given me an appreciation for his intelligence, humour and talent. And it feels good to see good people succeed.

We’ve never exactly met – though you could say that I’ve met him but he hasn’t met me. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times since and we’ve kept in touch, but our paths first crossed at the Banff TV Fest a few years ago. I was in the audience for a session where he was to be sole speaker, except he brought BBC producer Jon Plowman to help. I wrote a very brief blog post at the time saying that Plowman didn’t need to help much because Greenstein sure can talk, so luckily he was funny and informative.

Almost 2 weeks later, I started writing a full article for Blogcritics that included Greenstein’s session along with House writer David Hoselton’s. Literally as I was finishing the final edits, an email alert notified me that I had a message from a Jeff Greenstein with the subject line “I sure can talk.” It took my confused brain a few moments to sort out the fact that the man I had been writing about for the past hour – a man I didn’t think knew I existed – was writing to me at the exact same time. I know in my head that a world without coincidences would be freaky, and yet the coincidence freaked me out a little.

It was a good-humoured email that saw the genuine if jokey compliment in my original assessment. I don’t regret saying it, either: he really can talk. He also sure can write, and now I bet I’ll be saying he sure can direct. Let’s find out.

Banff World Television Festival 2010

Banff World Television Festival 2010

Barring circumstances beyond my control (i.e., death, dismemberment, or a job interview), I’m headed to the Banff World Television Festival from June 13-16. The TV festival is now combined with the NextMedia new media festival, since the distinction between the two has become so blurred.

It’ll be my fourth time there, which doesn’t mean I’m blasé about it. It’s still the one event that really gets my geek juices flowing. Unlike fan-based events such as PaleyFest – which I also enjoy – Banff is a conference for the makers of television, who pay a lot of money to attend, meaning it’s not tilted towards public relations fluff so much as the nuts and bolts of making and promoting shows. That said, there’s a lot of star power arriving at Banff this year.

At a festival where writers are rock stars, it’s hard to say whether William Shatner and Ricky Gervais will eclipse or be eclipsed by the creators of shows such as Breaking Bad (Vincent Gilligan), Dexter (James Manos), Glee (Ian Brennan), or The Big Bang Theory (Bill Prady, who hates me). They’re all speaking at Master Class or Feature Interview sessions.

Producers for The Good Wife (David Zucker) and So You Think You Can Dance (Nigel Lythgoe) will speak, and attendees will be able to catch a screening for Running Wilde (starring Will Arnett and Keri Russell), a panel on Call Me Fitz (starring Jason Priestley), and previews for Rookie Blue, Shattered, and Haven.

There’s a coterie of Canadian actors appearing to discuss the star system (and, presumably, the relative lack thereof in Canada) and how it can help or hinder a show. Eric McCormack – who I’ll also be seeing at Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre this summer, where he’s performing in Glengarry Glen Ross – is the one who’s made his name in the US, while Peter Keleghan, Kenny Hotz, and Zaib Shaikh are more recognizable as stay-at-home actors.

I’ve always loved Illeana Douglas, who went from quirky actress to quirky web series pioneer. Her latest is Easy to Assemble and she’s part of a panel on Webisodes vs. Episodes.

I’m especially interested in what Matt Mason has to say (not THAT Matt Mason, those who know me from OBS). He’s the author of The Pirate’s Dilemma– How Youth Culture Invented Capitalism, and he’ll talk about how “illegal forces within the entertainment industry have always contributed to its development and that the best way to deal with these forces is to compete with them head on.” Unfortunately he’s speaking at the same time as James Manos of Dexter, so if my cloning project doesn’t pay off soon I’ll have to make a choice.

I’ll be writing about topics that come up at the festival and interviewing some of the participants for TV, eh? and Blogcritics so stay tuned for more rambling.

Not the timeliest of posts: In defence of Friends

Not the timeliest of posts: In defence of Friends

So, that Lost finale. Didn’t it make you think about Friends and how it was cleverer than it’s generally given credit for?

Just me then? Let me explain before you call me crazy.

I gave up on Lost sometime while watching the season one DVDs. Nothing against the show, just not my thing, and I was far too spoiled from casting news by the time I could catch up with it. But I know enough to know that it inspired some spectacularly clever thinking in fans who analyzed and followed its twists to an end that, by some accounts, paid off emotionally if not intellectually. I can’t and wouldn’t argue that Lost wasn’t clever, but some argue that the complex mythology equals an intelligent show. I could and would argue that Byzantine does not equal intelligent. The show’s themes were as big as you can get, though: the meaning of life and death and smoke monsters.

So that’s what got me thinking about how we evaluate whether a show is “smart” or not. That label is usually, unfortunately applied to failing shows as a way to justify why the masses aren’t watching: Arrested Development, The Wire. Because calling people stupid is a great way to get them to look favourably on your pet show. Both shows were great – The Wire arguably the greatest of them all. But saying a television show is too smart for the masses is like a guy saying he can’t get a date because he’s too nice. There’s always so much more to the explanation, and the excuse just reeks of the pathetic.

No one watches it though critics love it? Smart show. Big themes? Smart show. Educated protagonists? Smart show. Those indicators are actually pretty decent. But they’re not exclusive. And they lead to the fallacy that if a show is popular, focuses on the minutia of life, and has working-class protagonists, it’s not smart.

I was never a big fan of Frasier, though given the endless reruns and my fondness for Niles’ should-have-been-futile pining for Daphne, I’ve probably seen nearly every episode. I thought Frasier was an arrogant, annoying gasbag. Some people thought that was his charm; I didn’t. A coworker once gave me permission not to like it by saying it was highbrow and so not to everyone’s taste. Sorry, but a joke about Freud where you don’t actually have to know anything about Freud other than what Niles thinks of him doesn’t make that joke too intelligent for popular consumption. Frasier was well-written, but there was nothing intellectually inaccessible about it. But it was about a highly educated, pretentious character with highbrow interests, so it’s safe to consider it intelligent.

Friends, on the other hand, was about six people who hung out in a coffee shop. Other than Ross and possibly Chandler – who the hell knew what he did anyway – none of them had jobs requiring higher education. Joey was really, really dumb (except sometimes when the joke depended on him being not quite so dumb). The plots often revolved around sitcomized familiar situations, like splitting the cheque in a group with disparate incomes, or what happens when a friend dates someone you don’t like, or revealing that your father is a drag queen. During its long, too long run, it was incredible the number of times I’d be talking to my actual friends and someone would say “remember that Friends episode where…” to explain something that happened in their real life.

It’s not cool to love Friends. It’s not smart to extol its intelligence. Yet its ability to craft a 22-minute character study that spoke to everyday life is an under-appreciated art. Jane Austen and Anne Tyler are often dismissed by those who can’t see depth in the quotidian. I say the same’s true of Friends, on a popular sitcom scale. It managed to be frequently laugh out loud funny – the real life kind, not the LOL internet kind – with cleverly constructed jokes on which Jane Espenson could base a joke-writing textbook.

I’m not at all saying Friends is more intelligent than Lost or Frasier. I am saying that our own intelligence is often blinded by the trappings of cleverness – complication, or highbrow name dropping, for example – and we often can’t see brilliance in simplicity. Friends was deceptively simple, deceptively clever. As sitcom after sitcom has proven since, that’s not at all easy to duplicate.

Now you can call me crazy.

Battle of the FOX iPhone applications: House versus Glee

Battle of the FOX iPhone applications: House versus Glee

In these early-ish days of cell phone applications, it’s easy to give points just for showing up. Remember the birth of the world wide web when sites were little more than the company brochure slapped online? If you had one, though – however rudimentary or animated-GIF-encrusted – you were part of a vanguard that revolutionized the Internet.

TV tie-in iPhone applications are still rare. Some day, House and Glee will be proud to be the animated GIFs of the app age. Today, they are the leading edge.

InHouse (Free)

This app looks cool, and has some nice touches, but after using it for a few weeks it seems as though it was rushed out the door with only hard-core fans in mind. That said, I’m not one anymore, yet it caters to the behind-the-scenes geek and former rabid fan in me.

Fresh episode-specific content is released Mondays at 8 pm to coincide with the show’s airtime. Fun and/or informative video interviews are offered in the Writers Room and Media Room (the latter featuring actors and crew members), and are the main source of my affection for this app. Actually, the app had me at Writers Room – I’m fascinated by that process and my fondest memories of my time writing about House are of interviewing the writers.

I enjoy some of the backstage photos under Dark Room, but many of them mean nothing to me. That non-actor walking on the studio lot? Is she a key grip? Gaffer? Other title I only know from watching credits?

The Music Room is slightly odd. Instead of a track listing, there is minimal information and an iTunes link to one or more “music considered for scenes” pages. If you actually want to know what song is playing when, I guess you can use Shazam (aka Best Application Ever).

[Alex Solether, Publicity & New Media director’s assistant for House, told me via Twitter that they’re looking into implementing photo captions and in-episode music, so perhaps they should have launched without the not-so-meaningful content.]

Free Clinic offers giveaways to US residents, and the Houseisms section is a small selection of quotes (presented via the most awkward navigation possible, but it looks cool).

Star Hugh Laurie is noticeably absent so far other than vocal snippets used to introduce each app section. (Writers Room = “Schmucks with laptops.” And while those bits are funny the first time, thankfully the app allows you to turn them off.) It’s not surprising that he’s got other things to do, but star power or the wow factor is what draws less-than-devout fans to content. I’m possibly not in the majority in thinking that writers are also stars of a show, or that interviews are a wow item.

Weekly “appisodes” launch May 24 when the show is on summer hiatus. Centred around Nurse Jeffrey (also known as Who?), the three-minute episodes promise to “explore the world of the hospital that exists beyond the regular characters.” Again, likely only die-hard fans – and not all of those – will end up watching Houseless House (or more to the point, No-Characters-You’ll-Recognize House).

More importantly, there’s nothing that uses iPhone functionality to make this a good match of form and function. There’s no social networking tie-ins, no community building, no user interaction. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t fit perfectly on, which has all those nifty things. And hey, that way iPhone users could have browsed a mobile site along with those plebeians who use Android devices or BlackBerries or – god help them – computers.

Glee (99 cents)

I almost called foul when I saw this was a paid app – come on, it’s marketing for a TV show – but it is cheap and you get a fun product beyond the marketing tie-in, so I’ve changed my tune. Pun intended.

The app has one simple purpose: karaoke. It allows you to sing along with songs from the Glee soundtrack. It’s preloaded with a few and new ones to purchase are added weekly. And just like those crazy kids on the show, your voice will benefit from the built-in pitch correction.

You can share your recording with the world, connect to Facebook, join a club of fellow users, or realize that no human ears should be subjected to your singing voice and delete. The best part? Listening to recordings by people from around the world who didn’t have the sense to pick that last option.

I’m not a gadget freak or an Apple disciple, but I got an iPhone because it was the fun choice. The Glee app understands fun. Not my kind of fun, mind you, but it’s a terrific blend of game, social networking, and show awareness … that nonetheless makes me want to throw my iPhone off the balcony. But that’s me. And if the audience for the House app is House freaks, the audience for the Glee app is Gleeks plus anyone who might want to sing karaoke. I’ve seen those inexplicably packed bars.

Glee gets major points off for offending my grammar geek sensibilities with a home page massacre of the “sing” past participle. (“Have you sang duet with Finn yet?” No but I have SUNG a duet with Finn.) But that’s not really a reason to withhold your 99 cents. I guess.

And the winner is …

Which app will I use the most? InHouse, no question. That’s an idiosyncratic choice. Should you get it? It’s free; if you don’t like it I’m sure they’ll give you your money back. There’s bound to be something that will catch your interest, though I’d put money on this app seeming quaint in the not too distant future, like those basically-a-brochure websites.

I sing horribly and don’t enjoy listening to others sing horribly and will never again use any karaoke-like app. However, for best use of the medium and reaching out to an audience beyond the highly devoted, I gotta go with Glee.