Sunday, January 27, 2008


I'm drifting off to Las Vegas for a few days and I'll try and post a couple of items from the NATPE convention floor on what the future holds for what used to be called television. If you're attending, look me up. Meantime, here's some more drifting from another part of Nevada.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Six major prime time series have debuted in Canada since the New Year. Over at the CBC, that's "The Border", "MVP", "JPod" and "Sophie". Global launched "The Guard" this week, just before "The Murdoch Mysteries" bolted from the CITY-TV stable.

To the surprise and delight of many, all three networks pulled out more stops than they've previously been known to in getting the word out. The word being, "Hey, there's GREAT NEW SHOWS and WE got 'em!" It was incredibly charming and businesslike.

As a rule, I don't review and try not to form opinions until a series has had a chance to work out its kinks. Kinda broke that resolution with a recent post on "The Border" but, so far, I haven't seen any reason to recant.

However, I do have an observation I'd like to share about all of the new arrivals and it's this...

There isn't a "Mad Men", a "Dexter" or a "Breaking Bad" in the bunch. There's no pretender to "The Wire", no series remotely trying to challenge the creative skill of "Jekyll" or anyone even attempting to re-imagine a genre in the manner that "Battlestar Galactica" did.

Now, that's odd, because the creatives of this country (and the audience) have been inspired and invigorated by all of those shows. Their episodes are endlessly dissected, their elements examined and their potential directions spec'd. Chatrooms are aflame with debate and conjecture. High School kids, barely literate, churn out fan fiction in homage at a rate and abundance that would give Stephen King and JK Rowling pause.

Most of these programs quickly found a significant audience and critical acclaim, those little things that networks enjoy and their shareholders prosper from.

These are the series that clearly excite the creative "us" and the hungry "them". They're where "we" want to start in raising the stakes and exactly what "they" need to see to go "All In" in committing their viewing hours.

But for some reason, our Canadian nets have ignored the overwhelming creative drift toward changing the paradigms and trotted out a selection of knock-offs of shows everybody's seen and done before -- in some cases, long before -- and like those eager kids who put on a show in somebody's barn over the summer, they seem quite proud of themselves for doing little more than not forgetting their lines or bumping into the furniture.

"See we made a TV show that looks like a TV show." is fine and dandy but there's supposed to be more to this business than just keeping your pencil inside the borders of the template you're tracing.

Let's be honest. "The Border" does what cop shows have always done and stopping now and then to declaim our sovereignty just isn't anybody's idea of compelling. "MVP" feels like its made by people who've never actually had sex and wouldn't titillate eighth graders. "Jpod" is vacant and "Sophie" isn't very funny.

Those footsteps you hear is somebody coming to repossess my Cancon pom-poms, so I might as well keep going.

"The Guard" is a perfectly acceptable version of "Sea Hunt" (1958) even though it copies Kevin Costner's 2006 Coast Guard film "The Guardian" almost shot for shot at times. Okay, maybe there's only so many ways to shoot a guy alone in the ocean, but think one up! It's kind of a rule.

And "Murdoch Mysteries" (sigh) I assume the pitch was "Murder She Wrote" meets "Road to Avonlea" but did it also have to meet "slow" and "ponderous"?

Look, I know shooting on the water is hard and maintaining a period sensibility is hard and comedy is really hard. But that's the job! The audience doesn't care how cold or budget strapped or bereft of a gag you were when it was time to roll the cameras. They want something to excite them, move them and strike them as funny. They've seen it all, have it on DVD and it's packed into their PVRs or available online. You have to give them something they've never experienced before.

Once they've bought into your premise and like that cranky but benign old Dr. House and the way David Caruso takes off his sunglasses, you can settle back and just keep repeating what worked in the past. But that's not Season One!

Season One is when you grab them by the throat and the imagination and insist they pay attention. Because if you don't -- they won't.

And it appears they already haven't.

The initial ratings for these series are not good numbers, spin or add 'em up any way you want.

Set the arbitrary "IT'S A HIT" bar at a million if that's your safety zone. But not one of these shows even got an "A" on that self-imposed scale. And there were no episodes of "24" to compete with. Viewers weren't coming home eager to find out what any Ghosts were whispering or which Housewife was most desperate because the American nets have no new dramas or comedies. We had a clear road and a full tank of gas, kids. Nothing was in the way. We could've hit Two Million easy.

But we didn't.

And all of us who work in this industry, whether we'll say it out loud or not know why. Those innovative scripts exist in Canada. There are producers who want to tackle challenging concepts and arenas. We have world class directors and actors, more often than not only recognized as world class after they work somewhere else.

But nobody in network development asks for that stuff or those people. Oh, they'll say they want them. But if they're presented, they're quietly shunted aside or watered down to get to "what our audience wants" although the programming supervised by many of these people indicates they don't have the first clue who that audience is.

I recall being at a seminar guest addressed by the head of CBC drama when their big hits were "Beachcombers" and "Seeing Things". Somebody asked which show she most wished had been brought to the CBC first. Without hesitation she named the then current audience sensation "Twin Peaks" and was practically laughed out of the building.

Alter those titles with the present day equivalents and you'll have that conversation with a Canadian TV exec any day of the week.

Unlike most television industries, ours does not require domestic hits or foreign sales to survive or create profits. Government funding and tax breaks cover the lion's share of production and development costs and therefore the bulk of the financial risk. Our broadcasters enjoy an additional safety net of rebroadcast American hits that draw ad dollars and audience. Over at the CBC, the golden goose that is "Hockey Night in Canada" and 3 months of NHL playoffs ensure that nobody there has to wonder where their next meal is coming from.

As I've been preaching since I started this blog, because it's not their money and their future careers don't depend on it, Canadian programming is seen as little more than an unfortunate license requirement by our broadcasters.

There is no passion for the work, and passion is what creates good television.

It's interesting that what we have built is actually the perfect system for taking chances. But that's not what happens. Because that's hard work too. And Hits bring the expectation of more Hits and raise the bar, which makes the job that much harder.

So our nets stick with mediocrity because they're most comfortable at that performance level.

This week, sportscaster Steve Dankoff, in describing the ongoing lack of success that is the Toronto Maple Leafs, coined a phrase that aptly describes the current state of Canadian television -- "The Winning Skid".

Everybody knows what a losing skid is. And like any business with a poor product that isn't selling, when a team's losing skid gets bad enough, ownership is forced to make changes. The coach or manager lacking original ideas is fired. A beloved star who can't cut it anymore is traded. Once the system has been cleansed, the passion returns and the team starts winning again.

But sometimes a losing team doesn't get to the point where changes get made because it goes on a "winning skid".

As Dankoff describes the phenomenon, "Through small victories, everything moves in the wrong direction". And instead of reaching the crisis point where something changes, a take-what-you-can-get mentality develops and the downward slide continues unchecked.

Instead of building our industry, the small victories of "almost a hit" numbers and good reviews by media owned or beholden to the broadcaster or the concept of Canadian drama at any cost extend our winning skid and preclude turning this around.

The unsuccessful managers remain in charge, the uninspired players stay on the first line, the backroom buddy system continues oiling the ATM at the CTF -- while the audience thins further or wears paper bags over their heads.

Small victory by small victory we convince more and more Canadians that we're not really very good at making television. Which, in turn makes it harder to get those innovative shows made and provides more ammunition for those who would prefer that having to pay for Canadian television goes away all together.

Despite my harsh words, the problem in our industry is not with the people who work on any of the series that debuted this month. All of them have bigger dreams, higher personal expectations and a desire to be part of projects that could really make an audience sit up and take notice. They merely lack the supportive spark that could have ignited those possibilities.

That spark comes from the top and it doesn't seem to exist in our executive offices. And that has to change or the winning skid, as all skids inevitably do, will reach a point where recovery is impossible.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


The secret to any good writer's success is the willingness to keep learning. I call it "sponge mode" soaking up enough new stuff so that you have something original to squeeze out when duty calls.

The internet is a phenomenal learning and reference tool, putting virtually anything you want to understand or experience at your fingertips. But none of that is much good if your basic writing skill, your vocabulary, isn't as strong as it could be.

But before you go thinking that means reading the dictionary or hangin' with some boring old grammar lady, let me introduce you to Marina, a teacher who makes understanding words and their meanings almost intoxicating.

Enjoy your Sunday...

Visit Marina anytime at

Saturday, January 19, 2008


I've got a lot of time for Brad Pitt. Despite being one of those DNA sweepstakes winners who could just lay back and enjoy what Hollywood has to offer, he genuinely works at his craft and contributes greatly to expanding the variety of film experiences made available to all of us.

As an actor, he never fails to make interesting choices, from Tyler Durdin in "Fight Club" to Mickey O'Neil in "Snatch". And even as Rusty in the blockbuster "Ocean's --" trilogy, there's always something unexpected either on view or bubbling beneath the surface.

It's also doubtful that films like "Sleepers", "Seven Years in Tibet" or "Babel" would have even been made without his commitment to them, let alone achieved the success they enjoyed.

In short, he's a guy who sets out to surprise -- and always in a good way.

In an era where Hollywood stars would apparently rather champion causes like Global Warming or Darfur that are almost impossible for the average person to comprehend, let alone address; Brad Pitt has taken hold of one problem and set about using his wealth, influence and charisma to fix it. And he's done this in the same quiet, unassuming and yet surprisingly bold way he approaches his career.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history, hit New Orleans with maximum winds clocked at 175 mph. Katrina devastated 90,000 square miles along the Gulf Coast, causing $82 Billion in damage and untold human suffering as it flooded 80% of New Orleans.

The city's suffering was magnified when the US Government and disaster relief organizations failed to adequately respond and, more than 2 years later, New Orleans still has less than half its pre-storm population, with many of its inhabitants still struggling to rebuild their once unique and vibrant way of life.

Adding to these difficulties is what author Naomi Klein and others have described as a well laid plan to grab valuable real estate from poverty stricken Black families, implemented nothing less than a sophisticated scheme to ethnically cleanse the city.

Enter Brad Pitt and the "Make It Right" project. Starting with $5 Million of his own money, a sum quickly matched by philanthropist Steven Bing, Pitt commissioned 13 architects to design affordable, environmentally friendly housing and contracted suppliers, effectively launching the project.

Now he needs your help.

The first stage of the MIR project, scheduled to be completed over the next two years, will see 150 homes built in the completely devastated Ninth Ward of the city, proving that New Orleans can be rebuilt for those who have always lived there.

But plans are afoot to expand to other neighborhoods and build thousands of homes, basically whatever it takes to make New Orleans whole again.

It's a job that could have easily been done by Government or by the corporations who profited from the city. But it appears they developed other, more selfish agendas, with one of the city's Congressmen even praising Katrina for accomplishing the "clean sweep" the city's power elites could not.

But it's one thing to bulldoze poor and powerless people. It's quite another to attempt the same tactics against a charismatic movie star willing to stand up to the powers that be.

So far, online donations have ensured that 66 of the initial tract of 150 homes will be built. That's an average of one home for each day the campaign has been running.

If you're interested in helping or simply in purchasing one of the slouch caps Brad has made his trademark, you can do so by logging on here. Every dollar you contribute will go toward building someone a home and returning a great city to the vibrancy it once enjoyed and shared with the world.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I've been sticking close to home for the last few days, waiting for the call to come. Y'know, the call from the Maple Leafs asking me to come back and run the team again.


Yeah, you read that right. I even got rid of a coach and turned around what was looking like a losing season. And I did it all in one night.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

To understand how all this happened, you have to realize that I've been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team since they were winning Stanley Cups on a regular basis (and that hasn't happened in over 40 years).

They were my boyhood dream, my teenage passion and a reliable alternative when I couldn't get a date on a Saturday night.

I'm often fond of saying, "If Life was fair, I'd have Captained the Leafs to two Stanley Cups by now." Yet we all know that Life is not fair.

But it still could be.

After I moved to Toronto, I even lived in the shadow of Maple Leaf Gardens, where the team won most of those Cups. And when I couldn't afford the price of admission, I cadged ducets from scalpers after the first period when they were officially worthless, or watched the games in the bar across the street with the other locked out die-hards.

The Maple Leafs were often as unbearably awful as the spelling skills of whoever first picked their name. But they were my team and you never give up on your team. There's always next year -- and most often with the Leafs -- next year is all you've got.

Like me, much of Toronto lives and dies with the Maple Leafs and for the last couple of years we've mostly been dying. Now, we're well on our way to missing the playoffs for the 3rd straight year, something that has never happened in the entire history of the venerable blue and white. Careers and legacies are on the line. Leafs Nation is in panic mode.

But back to what's important here -- reviving my sports management career.

I exhibit all those skills necessary for the modern general manager of a professional sports franchise. I'm honest and trustworthy, tight with a buck and loyal to a fault to my team, be they made up of actors and writers or hockey players.

If you work for me, I go to the wall for you and everybody from network note-givers to refs and opposing players has to crack my impenetrable shell to get to you. Because I know that your talent is the only reason any of us are here, so I make sure that nothing disrupts that talent from finding the path to success.

Did I mention that I can also cuss out officials like a sonovabitch -- and know that actor's trick so they can hear me no matter how many other guys are yelling?

I once got on referee Don McCreary after he'd failed to take action as some nameless and best forgotten San Jose Shark abused Leaf Captain Wendel Clark. I mean, I gave it to McCreary for so long that Wendel actually stared over the glass at me in what I'm pretty certain was amazement. Could've been bewilderment, but...

Anyway, I sat down and smiled proudly at my wife, who was suddenly deep in conversation with the drunk she'd been ignoring all night. I looked to my other side, into the faces of a stunned 11 year old who'd just learned a whole bunch of new words and his very displeased father. I glanced down at the kid, figuring I should say something. He beat me to it -- "Way to go, man!"

See -- Leafs Ownership -- in me, you have somebody with a passion fans can really get behind.

Yessirree, I am the proverbial extra man out there. I've always got a vision and a plan. And I don't care who knows it.

Which brings me to the night in question.

February, 1996. I'm in LA and the Leafs are arriving soon to play the Kings. I've been in sunny California for weeks and I'm missing my guys. The newspapers never have any hockey coverage beyond day old scores and finding a game on television is about as likely as not tuning into a live police pursuit.

Even though the Kings have Wayne Gretzky, I can't bear the thought of making them my temporary home team -- and especially not after Gretzky's unpenalized high stick on Doug Gilmour ("Dougie" to true Leafs fans) cost us a chance at the Cup in 1993.

But I ask around about getting tickets and discover a writer friend knows Gretzky and can get his seats. We'll be right behind the Kings bench.

I'm in heaven. And I start getting excited about seeing Dougie play again. For you non-hockey folks, Dougie (pronounced Dug-eeeee) is the quintesential Maple Leaf. He arrived in a trade in the 1991-92 season and almost single-handedly brought the team back to its former glory, threatening to end a then only 25 year drought through sheer force of will. He scored, he fought and he had enormous heart, never giving up and always finding a way to win.

I remember first seeing him in person in a restaurant as a table of grown men suddenly transformed into squealing 12 year olds when he came over to shake hands and say "Hello". Doug was just the best, on and off the ice.

I also got to know him a little when his wife's sister came to work on "Top Cops". She'd often bring the family dogs to the production office and Doug's favorite, a tiny little terrier named "Harley" would sack out on the couch in my office. On days when Doug picked up the dogs after practice, he'd invariably wander in, knowing exactly where Harley could be found.

Okay -- so it's game night in LA. The Leafs aren't doing well and I don't have any idea why because I'm bereft of hockey news and haven't even seen an entire game on television all season.

We arrive to catch the pre-game skate and my writer pal is waving to "Gretz" miming "Thanks" and I'm noticing that this rink has menus and waitresses serving sushi in the seats. I'm also sitting behind some bonehead in a CAA golf shirt explaining the rules of the game to his hot date and not having the first clue what he's talking about.

This is not what I'm used to in an arena. Nobody's smoking. Nobody's smearing your sleeve with hot dog mustard and absolutely nobody is drunk before the first puck drops. I almost start feeling sorry for Gretzky having to play here. Almost.

The only time anybody gets excited is when some Sitcom star comes out to sing the National Anthems and a bunch of guys looking like Scientologists in Kings blazers fire T-shirt bazookas into the crowd.

The Kings owner, Bruce McNall, has just been convicted of Fraud and is doing time. People said it had something to do with rare coins, but I'm thinking it was for telling people this is how you watch a hockey game.

But the puck drops and things get going and right away I can see my guys are in trouble. They're not gelling. Passes are being missed. Plays keep getting broken up or fall apart all on their own. My pal is rambling on about some deal he's got at ABC while my fine hockey mind is ignoring him and sussing out the problem here.

The Leafs have been losing a lot lately and now Coach Pat Burns is juggling lines and line combinations so often nobody knows who's supposed to be where or what the hell the play is.

Since I'm only two rows back and the place is like a mortuary convention, I easily get Burns' attention and point out the error in his game plan. He gives me a dismissive look since I'm obviously sitting in the Kings' private section and he's not about to take direction from there.

But I persist and pretty soon I'm being noticed by Cliff Fletcher, the team's then manager, who is seated nearby with a very hot blonde, who I'm not sure is Mrs. Fletcher or the stewardess he left her for shortly thereafter.

Anyway, Cliff is hearing what I've got to say as well and I can tell it's making some sense to him, because these continuous line changes are really screwing up Dougie's game.

See, Doug's a little guy for a hockey player. Barely 5' 10" and 160 in a game where the average is bigger by a head and heavier by 50 pounds. So his great skill is being able to outskate the opposition, get behind the net with the puck and then control the play by firing it to a charging winger who puts it in the net. Bang. Bang. Red Light. Cue the Foghorn.

Only this night, because Burns keeps changing who he's playing with, Dougie is being repeatedly mashed into the boards before he can get rid of the puck.

By the second period, the Leafs are down by about three goals, I am riding Burns relentlessly and as the buzzer sounds, he glares and gives me the finger as he heads to the dressing room.

By the start of the third period, my friend has moved down a row to schmooze with the CAA agent and his date and Fletcher is having a heated discussion with Burns by the bench and gesturing in my general direction, so obviously he knows my suggestions have merit.

Some might say Cliff is thinking, "If somebody in this sea of inexperienced neophytes can tell we have a problem, we must really have a problem." But I'm pretty sure he was struck (as many are) by my sincerity and my certainty.

In fact, I know that was it, because less than 48 hours later, he fired Pat and a couple of weeks later, the team had turned around enough to make the Playoffs.

Now, don't feel badly for Pat. All coaches get fired. That's just the way it is. And although the Leafs still haven't won a Stanley Cup in the intervening years, Burns led the New Jersey Devils to one in 2003. So he's okay with what happened. In fact, I'm sure he'd tell me how much he appreciated what I did for him if he had the chance.

And if this damn phone would ring, I might even give him another shot at the Leafs. He's a pretty good coach and he'll be coming in having experience with the nimble hockey mind he'll be dealing with.

I might bring Dougie back too. He might have a bum knee now, but hey, he's got two of them right? Bobby Baun scored a Cup winning goal on a broken leg, so Doug'll be just fine.

And you can't imagine how many shirts and bobbleheads we'd sell with good old "93" on them. The fans would just eat that up, especially up in Woodbridge. Talk radio would be raving non-stop. The Buzz would be incredible. And don't let anybody kid you, making money and creating Buzz are part of the manager's job too.

I could totally do this!

All they need to do is call.

I can hear the cheers now...

Dug-eeeee -- Dug-eeeee -- Dug-eeeee

Sunday, January 13, 2008


When I was a kid, the CBC had a series entitled "Fighting Words" which ran from 1955 to 1962. It might've been around when you were a kid too since the CBC kept reviving it in the 1970's and again in 1982 in their ongoing attempt to force some damn culture down our throats whether we wanted to watch or not.

Back in my day, it was harder to avoid. Where I lived we had two TV stations and one of them spent a lot of time with Oral Roberts and the Billy Graham Crusades.

"Fighting Words" had about the most insular and elite format ever contrived for television. It was a program completely riveted on its own navel as Toronto Star Drama critic and moderator Leonard Cohen would explain in each opening:

"Fighting Words is a program in which four people of assorted activities and temperaments are invited, without any preparation or rehearsal, and often without knowing one another, to identify the authorship of quotations which they must then discuss. Each week the program either deals with a new issue, or a phase of some subject never discussed before."

The panelists were well known writers and thinkers of the time, who all spoke in the same plummy tones as Cohen, working hard to impress each other, and those of us who couldn't bear to watch Oral heal one more deaf guy, with just how fricken smart they were.

99.99% of it was completely over my head. Until one night.

The quote they were discussing was "When it's one man against a corporation, the corporation always wins." And I knew that. Because I'd just read it in the newspaper. In the comic section. It was a sentiment voiced by Charlie Brown in a four panel strip in "Peanuts".

I was stunned. One of the guys who made me giggle had been elevated to this platform of higher thought. Other people knew who Charlie Brown was. Smart people. Surely this was the proof my parents needed that my life plan of becoming a famous cartoonist was not frivolous!

And then I was further stunned. Because none of those smarty pants panelists had a clue who had made such a profound statement. It wasn't Karl Marx or John Keynes or any of the other possibilities they postulated. They kept associating it with struggles for workers rights or against the military/industrial complex, completely unaware it had more to do with Lucy and Linus and a lemonade stand.

And then stunner of stunners, when the buzzer sounded and the quotee was revealed, not one of them knew who Charlie Brown was nor had any inkling of the artist behind him, Charles Schultz.

I think that was the day I realized that being smart doesn't actually mean you know anything important.

Later in life, I would give up medical school to become an actor and Leonard Cohen would write a review of the first professional production I was in. But that's a story for another time.

What I've been trying to get to is this Sunday's diversion. And, despite the title, it's unrelated to the one from last Sunday.

"When it's one man against a corporation, the corporation always wins" still applies, at least it appears to, in the case of Randy Taylor, a self described "Texas Man" who has sparked a so far unsuccessful consumer revolt against the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company.

But here at the Legion we sympathize with the little guy -- and those over 200 pounds as well...

Enjoy your Sunday.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I usually give a TV series 4 or 5 episodes before commenting on it. That's a professional courtesy since virtually every series I've been involved with didn't fully discover what it was until we were 4 or 5 episodes in.

So I watched "The Border" on Monday, felt it was a little predictable and contained elements that gave me pause. But I reserved judgement until it had the opportunity to find itself, change my mind or surprise me.

Basically, my approach to life is to try everything at least twice -- once to get over the shock and a second time to see if I like it.

But Tuesday, I watched CNN's coverage of the New Hampshire Presidential Primary and decided that something needed to be said about "The Border" and maybe Canadian television in general.

If you haven't seen "The Border" yet, you should check it out here before reading any further.

Cause I don't want to pre-influence anybody and -- there's Spoilers.

Up to speed? Okay...

The rules of engagement committed to in "The Border" pilot are essentially this -- Americans, Bad -- CSIS (Our version of the CIA and therefore apparently identical) Bad -- politically correct guys who guard our border, Good.

To some, this might exemplify the oft voiced adage that CBC ceaselessly reflects a liberal left agenda. Whatever. Although I wouldn't be surprised if upcoming episodes replicate the message and tone of the last year or so of "CBC Newsworld" documentaries on sex slaves, human smuggling, organ smuggling, etc.

The story is a riff on the truly tragic Mahar Arar affair, a Canadian of Syrian descent who became an innocent victim of American rendition and Middle Eastern torture. But this version loses the immense impact of that story by being painstakingly earnest and politically correct at every turn.

I'm not saying that I wanted to see the rescued from rendition Muslim school teacher come home and strangle his wife for not wearing a Hijab to make our heroes reconsider their preconceptions. But something unexpected or different from the steady drumbeat of gratuitous politeness that typifies Canadian television would have been refreshing.

More to the point, while I'd been assured "The Border" signified a new dawn for Canadian TV, what I saw was the same smug "we really are better than Americans" cant that I've endured from Canadian programming all my life.

I've written about the Canadian Superiority Complex before and despair that we can't finally cough up that vile hairball and get on with defining who we are instead of constantly reminding everybody of what we're not.

But, no, the message from CBC drama and comedy is always the same. We're nicer than they are. We're smarter than they are. We're more compassionate and caring and accepting.

But we're not. No more than Canadians are better than Australians, Swedes, Afghans or anybody else. And pretending that we are is one of those obscene lies that reveals just how immature and uncertain of ourselves we really are.

I like Americans -- and for good reason. Americans gave me an entree into a very lucrative and successful career and invited my stories into their homes by the millions when Canadians wouldn't even return my phone calls. And to use our other official language for a moment, "Plus sa change, plus la meme chose".

I've lived and worked all over the USA and yeah, all those stereotypes exist, their issues are huge and nobody's perfect. In fact, nobody's probably better than Americans at being imperfect.

But reiterating that we're not them and portraying Americans (or any Canadians of a "conservative" bent) as two-dimensional cliches doesn't forward our cause either. In fact, it makes us appear just as two dimensional.

Quite simply, it's the difference between Bruce Willis confronting the bad guys in "Die Hard" and Chuck Norris doing the same thing in a dozen direct-to-video knock-offs. Three dimensional characters with shades of grey and relatable motivations make all the difference.

As America and Americans careen down Life's highway, in one ditch before correcting course and then veering directly into the other, one thing about them becomes obvious. They learn from their mistakes (or at least try to) and then move on. If there's a problem they try to fix it. If they screw up again, they try to be better next time.

Canadians, not so much. Change is anathema to us. In fact, we're still chanting the same "We're not like them. We're so much better than them" mantra we've been mewling for generations while progressing little if at all to becoming something of our own.

Now, I realize that "The Border" was conceived and this episode filmed almost 2 years ago, at the height of the Bush Administration's power and all the soul rending depression that went along with that. And maybe the writers and other creatives who've come aboard since will be able to broaden the terribly blinkered world-view exhibited on the first episode into something "new".

Which brings me to Tuesday.

And perhaps the video below is the best example I can offer at what sets Americans apart from us.

I defy you to find a similar oration by any Canadian politician of any stripe that exhibits such passion, positive energy and desire to create something worthwhile.

With all our diversity, I defy you to show me an Afro-Canadian, an Asian Canadian or a Muslim Canadian who could be in the position to do what this man is doing within our own society.

Mostly, I defy you to convince me we're "better" than this.

Give me an hour of Canadian television that can exhibit this much sense of one's national character or even hold a candle to the promised drama of these 13 minutes and your show will not only be worth supporting, but worth trumpeting from the rooftops.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


For some reason, I equate Sundays with "The Big Breakfast". You see me starting the day with more than OJ, coffee and a bagel, it's Sunday.

Which brings us to Bacon and a comedian I think is one of the best. A year from now Leno will step aside for Conan and don't be surprised if Jim Gaffigan is the guy who slides into Dave's chair when he decides to concentrate on beard growing.

Jim also starts a Canadian tour this week and is magnificent in concert. A certain cure for the winter blahs. Dates listed below -- after another serving of Bacon...

Jim Gaffigan in Concert

January 10 - Theatre Maisonneuve - Montreal
January 11 - Centerpointe Theatre - Ottawa
January 12 - Elgin Theatre - Toronto
January 26 - Jack Singer Concert Hall - Calgary
February 1 - Winspeare Centre - Edmonton
February 2 - Centre for the performing Arts - Vancouver

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Canadians like to shock foreigners with descriptions of the intensity of our winters. The concept of minus 40 degree temperatures, twice as cold windchill and mountains of snow are guaranteed to convince others how tough, stoic and impermeable to pain we must be.

So far, we've had more snow this winter than the last three put together. It's minus something outside tonight, and it's also one of those real frosty ones where the ice crystals in the air turn every streetlamp into a pillar of light that shoots straight up to infinity.

But before you go marvelling at how tough, stoic and high of pain-threshold I must be; I have to tell you that the worst winter storm I've ever experienced was in Grand Island, Nebraska, and I'll take as much as winter can throw at me here before I'll ever venture back there.

About 10 years ago, I was booked to spend the winter in LA, part work, part recovery from filming 4 MOW's in five months. I owned a 12 cylinder Jaguar that I truly loved to drive and decided to make the trans-continental trek in it so I could maximize the road pleasures of the desert and the Pacific coast.

About an hour out of Omaha, however, the Jag and I ran into the teeth of a nasty winter storm. Having grown up in Saskatchewan, I was familiar with the ways of a prairie blizzard and figured I could easily make it to my next scheduled stop in Denver.

The storm had other plans.

As the snow fell more heavily and the wind picked up, I found a big rig to run interference, drafting behind it so I could see the road. Except for that semi and the blacktop between us, everything in every direction went white. Now and then I'd notice a car in the ditch or covered with snow on the shoulder. But I tried to ignore how bad things were obviously getting by concentrating on the tail-lights in front of me, hoping the trucker knew where we were and I could follow him off whatever exit he took into a warm and cozy truckstop.

And then the tail lights slewed and I realized the truck was jack-knifing.

I gently pushed the brakes, hoping I could stop and trying to avoid skidding as well. I also glanced in the rear view. And that's when I saw the truck behind jack-knife too.

I'm not sure how long we slid or what mental calculations I made on the likelihood of becoming the Jag sandwich between those two slabs of semi. But somehow we all stopped without touching each other. There was this elongated silence awaiting the subsequent impact of somebody trailing. But it never came.

The trucker behind bailed with a flare in his hand and quickly had a couple more parked across the highway to warn (anybody as dumb as us to be out here) of trouble ahead. Then we all managed to get pointed in the right direction and onto the shoulder.

The truckers' names were Dwayne and Bobby and we convened in Dwayne's lead vehicle, partly because it was the safest place and partly because he had a stack of these amazing TV dinners that cooked themselves when you pulled a foil tab that triggered some kind of built in heat system.

Bobby had a six pack of V8 and I had most of a bottle of Vodka, so we settled in to make the best of it, listening to truckers up and down the CB band indicating that Interstate 80 was shutting down from one end of the state to the other. Those up ahead were also saying the worst of the storm was still rolling our way and every now and then the Nebraska State Patrol would break in to remind everybody to stay put and not try to get anywhere on foot.

So we talked, drank and listened to Country music until a set of toplights flashed alongside. It was a young State Trooper assigned to make sure stranded motorists were ferried to the nearest motel. For us, that was a Holiday Inn less than a hundred yards away in Grand Island, Nebraska.

We each were allowed to bring one suitcase and piled into the cruiser. The hundred yard drive to the motel took just over two hours and we were hammered by wind that almost bruised it hit so hard in making the final ten feet from car door to front lobby.

We booked into some of the few remaining rooms and made last call at the bar. By that time, the TV newscasters were calling this the 'storm of the century', predicting I-80 could be closed for days.

This initially didn't seem too much of a hardship. The place had an indoor pool, a bar and a restaurant, not to mention HBO and ESPN on the channel listings. But by morning, the storm had knocked out the cable feed and a half dozen items had already disappeared from the coffee shop menu.

The phones were down and although the hotel had electricity, we were asked to use as little as possible and radios, any light but your bathroom and the pool heater were among the first casualties. So, to keep from going stir crazy, most of the guests spent all day in the cocktail lounge, playing poker and swapping stories as one-by-one, the bottles arrayed behind the bar disappeared.

Blowing snow cut the visibility so low, you weren't sure if you couldn't see anything or the windows were just caked shut.

The only outside information came from a local cable access channel that featured a lone guy at a desk letting snowbound residents know that "The Kennedy family is staying with the Carsons at their farm" or "Jim Brown has called to say he's found all his dogs". Then around 9 o'clock, there'd be a final weather report and they'd replay a tape of the recent Nebraska victory over Viginia Tech in the Orange Bowl before signing off.

After three straight nights of this, there were still guys in the bar betting on the outcome. Unfettered monotony or running out of beer and having to subsist on Creme de Menthe and Limoncello can do that to a person.

Now, we were never in danger of freezing to death or starving, but the isolation and feeling of imprisonment were palpable. The hotel staff couldn't leave either and fretted about families they hadn't heard from in days while my fellow travellers stressed over meetings they would miss without explanations, cargo freezing and cars that might not be dug out of the snow til Spring.

We were this lost island in the middle of endless Nebraska whiteness. Even after the snow stopped, we knew it could take days to clear the road and who knew how long after that before our vehicles could hopefully be thawed back to functionality. We'd all been dropped into a twilight Zone where our lives and futures were on hold and I began to feel like I'd been lured into a trap at the dead center of America.

I mean I was trapped with some very nice people. This wasn't some traveling salesman circle of hell or "Day of the Locusts" with frostbite. But having grown up in the middle of nowhere, I'd always felt a little like I'd managed to escape to a better life -- and now I was right back in nowhere central with no escape in sight.

So I wrote all day, as if searching for the creative key that had gotten me out in the first place, and wrung stories out of everybody I met in case we were there so long I might run out of ones of my own.

When the coffee shop burned its last slice of bread, I was among the volunteers who waded through drifts to a nearby store to see if we could get supplies. But it was locked and shuttered and we were too numb from the sub-zero temperatures and the cutting wind to break in and knew we also might not make it back if we did and then had to carry anything.

That outing brought home just how bad things were out there and I wondered how other people were coping. The man on the cable access channel did his best to assure us things were getting back to normal. But he was clearly in need of a shave, sleeping in his on air suit and getting by on bad coffee and lunch room oreos.

At night, I'd visit the too cold to swim in pool because it had windows that looked out over the city of Grand Island. I'd try to convince myself that there were more lights on than the night before and more winking farm lights beyond, indicating that life was improving. But you couldn't tell for sure.

Dwayne and Bobby joined me on one of these excursions. All of us either too smart or too stupid to join the endless poker game that had taken over the lounge. I recalled reading a book about Scott's ill fated trip to the South Pole when I was a kid and wondered if this was how he'd felt. Dwayne allowed that I was one "disturbed motherfucker" while Bobby asked if anybody at the motel had a dog we could eat if things got worse.

Next morning, as we learned the coffee shop was down to coffee, corn flakes and prunes, a State Trooper pulled in. The Interstate was open.

My trucker buddies were among the first to be ferried to their rigs to get them out of the way of the plows, while the Jag was towed to a local body shop to thaw. That afternoon, I hooked up with a tickled pink local mechanic who'd "see'd 'em in books but never up close" and tickled him further by paying for a call back to Toronto so he could speak with somebody who knew how to get "em" going again.

Bobby stopped in to say good-bye from him and Dwayne and we made plans to hook up in LA, but we never did. It was dark by the time the car started and I got back to the motel. They assumed I would stay one last night while the highway was fully cleared and even tried to tempt me with the "All You Can Eat" buffet the cook was preparing after finally making it to the grocery store. But I didn't want to risk the window out of limbo closing again and said my farewells.

The highway to Denver felt like an obstacle course, littered with stranded cars and sheeted with ice. The Jag coughed a lot and stalled once. But even it seemed to sense that if we didn't leave now, we never would.

Not that I have anything against Nebraska, but I crossed into Colorado at the stroke of midnight and I've never been back. Even flying over it now, I still get a twinge. It's not that it's nowhere. It's just that it could be, if you let it.