Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Charlie Brown Christmas - Nov. 25, 2006



'Tis the season

A Charlie Brown Christmas is still the holiday special by which all others are measured. It didn’t start out that way.

By Eric Kohanik

Maybe it’s a sentimental thing – you know, something you’ve grown up with and still look forward to every year.

Or maybe it’s just the fact that they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

In either case, when it comes to Christmas TV specials, there’s only one that readers ask me about every year: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Never mind that you can rent or buy the DVD and watch it any time. It’s that traditional over-the-air TV broadcast that still prompts parents to gather the kids around the tube to watch.

It’s comfort television.

It was back on Thursday, Dec. 9, 1965, that viewers got their first look at A Charlie Brown Christmas. And when cartoonist Charles M.Schulz had good ol’ Charlie Brown and the rest of his Peanuts pals seek out the true meaning of Christmas, little did he know that the result would be a holiday special by which all others would be measured.

It’s funny how a mid-1960s saga of a little bald-headed kid and his animated friends still captures everyone’s imagination today. In fact, it didn’t look that way at first.

Network executives at CBS, where the show originated, were mortified by the final product that was delivered to them. They were convinced it would bomb.

The fact that the debut telecast was going to pre-empt Gilligan’s Island didn’t please them, either. Nevertheless, A Charlie Brown Christmas was an instant hit and would become the first of many more Peanuts specials. And, although it may not be the most polished of the bunch, many say it’s the best.

What makes A Charlie Brown Christmas continue to twinkle is more than its simple storyline or its crudely animated characters. Schulz had recruited an American jazz musician named Vince Guaraldi to come up with the soundtrack for the special.

Guaraldi created memorable arrangementsof such songs as Christmas Time Is Here and wrote what would become a signature Peanuts tune, a jazzy little piano number called Linus and Lucy.

As for the TV production itself, that was digitally remastered to spruce it up for a 40th-anniversary telecast last year. The result was a surprisingly vibrant reawakening.

For many years, it was an annual fixture on CBS in the United States and CBC in Canada. That all changed a few years ago, when ABC managed to grab the broadcast rights in the U.S., while YTV snagged the Canadian ones.

This year, viewers will actually have several chances to catch A Charlie Brown Christmas. ABC rolls out its telecast Tuesday night. YTV will wait a little longer, airing it Dec. 17 and then again on the 20th.

And, of course, there’s always the DVD.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Seinfeld - Nov. 18, 2006




Gone, but not forgotten

It’s been more than eight years since the Seinfeld gang said goodbye. But the show’s impact is still significant on the air– and on DVD.

By Eric Kohanik

Here’s a little something to makeus all feel a little older.

It has been eight years and six months – plus a handful of days – since NBC and Global aired the final original episode of Seinfeld.

It was Thursday, May 14, 1998. And although Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and his offbeat pals – Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer (Michael Richards) – officially “left” the air that night, they’ve been on TV ever since.

Ironically, Seinfeld was only on the air for eight years, which means the series has already been in syndicated reruns for longer than it spent as a primetime network fixture.

I’m reminded of all this because the seventh season of Seinfeld hits the DVD world on Tuesday, courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. It’s a four-disc boxed set that includes all 24 episodes from that season.

Squabbles over money between Seinfeld and his co-stars had prevented the series from making a DVD debut until 2004. They have all made up for lost time since then. There are two seasons to go after this.

The seventh season was noteworthy on a lot of fronts. It started with the engagement of George and Susan (Heidi Swedberg) and ended with Susan succumbing to the effects of bad glue on envelopes.

The season’s episodes featured such classics as The Soup Nazi, The Sponge, The Rye, The Calzone and The Bottle Deposit. The mere mention of those episode titles easily brings smiles of recognition to Seinfeld fans.

In many ways, though, the seventh season had a big cultural impact. It popularized the phrase “No soup for you!” and it made such terms as “spongeworthy” and “Schmoopie” part of the popular lexicon of the day.

The season was the final one for executive producer Larry David, who then concocted Curb Your Enthusiasm. The season’s SoupNazi episode was written by Spike Feresten, now a Saturday-night talk-show host on Fox.

But the season also featured some onscreen guests who would later make an impact on the TV landscape. There was Jerry’s car-stealing mechanic, for instance. He was played by Brad Garrett, who would go on to star in Everybody Loves Raymond.

There was a guest stint by Debra Messing, playing an estranged wife on whom Jerry set his sights. Messing, of course, would later set her sights on Will & Grace.

And, of course, there was Elaine’s bitter rival, a “braless wonder” named Sue Ellen Mischke. She was played by Brenda Strong. Relatively unknown to viewers back then, Strong has now found a different niche –and plenty of fame – as Mary Alice Young, the narrator who guides viewers through each episode of Desperate Housewives.

So, even though Seinfeld is long gone, its impact is definitely not forgotten. And its influence is still felt in many ways.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Product Placement - Nov. 11, 2006




Marketing madness

Product placement is bad enough. Now, TV shows are dancing around with product removal, too. How much more are viewers willing to swallow?

By Eric Kohanik

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting more and more weary of TV being nothing but one big commercial.

Product placement is a big culprit behind this feeling. Any time a brand nameor company logo pops up in a show, you can bet your grandmother’s pension some company has paid to have it there.

It might be the bottle of beer a character asks for. Or it might be a car that shows up just a little too prominently in a scene.

The sports world has long been a den of such prostitution, of course. Just look at the boards at any National Hockey League game, or the playing surface – and even the players’ jerseys – in a Canadian Football League telecast. The world of auto racing? Don’t get me started on that.

TV dramas and sitcoms used to be above such whoring. But not anymore. The increasing use of PVRs/DVRs that allow viewers to skip through commercials has prompted marketers and advertisers to find “new” and “innovative” ways to rub our noses in their logos during the actual shows.

Product placement isn’t “new” or “innovative,” of course. In the early 1980s, when Steven Spielberg was making ET: The Extra-terrestrial, the script called for the cuddly alien to develop a sweet tooth for a certain candy. Spielberg wanted to be realistic and use M&Ms, but the company that makes them wouldn’t give its permission.

So, Spielberg’s crew went to the folks who made Reese’s Pieces. When the movie came out, sales of that candy skyrocketed.

Now, companies actually PAY to have theirproducts show up in movies and TV shows. Even TV commercials are starting to do some weird double-dipping, placing one company’s product within another company’s ad.

It’s not only the product placements that bug me more and more these days. There’s a product REMOVAL that is also starting to stick out like a sore thumb.

It happens when a producer hasn’t been able to get a company to pay to have its product on a show. And so, familiar-looking beer cans are suddenly altered to just say “Beer” on them; pop cans just say “Cola.”

What’s really bad, though, is how shows are now starting to pixellize logos to make them fuzzy and unidentifiable, just because nobody paid to get that logo into a shot.

This poked me in the eye during an episode of Dancing With the Stars a couple of weeks ago. In a pre-recorded segment, contestant Monique Coleman and a gal pal wereout shopping and cruising around in a convertible Volkswagen New Beetle. But the VW logo on the hood had been electronically smudged to make it look like a no-name car.

Now, this may work on any nondescript car,but a VW Bug? That’s a pretty distinctive set of wheels. Who are they kidding?

I suppose the moral of the story is you just can’t trust ANYTHING you see or hear on TV anymore. But how much more of this marketing madness can viewers really stomach?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Devil's Brigade - Nov. 4, 2006




The Power of The Force

Present-day soldiers setout to experience life in the Devil’s Brigade.What they encountered was a lot tougher than they had imagined.

By Eric Kohanik

They were officially known as the First Special Service Force.

To many people, though, the soldiers who made up an elite Canadian/American military unit during the Second World War came to be known as “The Devil’s Brigade.”

Formed in 1942, the unit was glorified by Hollywood in 1965, in a movie of the same name that starred William Holden, Cliff Robertson and Vince Edwards. The men who made up the actual unit have never cared much for that flick, though, largely because it exaggerated so many of its characters and storylines, the way Hollywood tends to do.

The real story behind the First Special Service Force is much more compelling. And, as Remembrance Day approaches next weekend, it’s fitting for History Television to relive the tale in a project called Devil’s Brigade.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about the First Special Service Force over the years. My father-in-law, Joe Dobrucki, was actually a member of the unit. But the first in-depth stories I ever heard came from his fellow veterans at some of the annual reunions of the First Special Service Force Association.

Getting Joe to talk about his experiences was always much tougher. It wasn’t until the afternoon of one Remembrance Day – back in 2001 – that he really opened up as we sat around the dining-room table.

Spurred on by the aftermath of what happened on Sept. 11 that year, Joe finally spoke in greater detail of the intense training and other gruelling things he and his fellow soldiers endured as young men embarking on wartime missions that were perceived by many others as being impossible.

It turned out to be Joe’s last Remembrance Day; his revelations on that afternoon seemed even more meaningful as a result.

One thing was always certain in my mind all along, however. This was one tough unit.

Its mission was to shock the enemy with quick, lethal strikes. Its members – sometimes nicknamed “the Black Devils” – were skilled in parachuting, mountain-climbing and deadly hand-to-hand combat, often wreaking their havoc on the enemy at night.

Devil’s Brigade zeroes in on 15 present-day soldiers as they go through the paces of the same training endured by the original soldiers more than 60 years ago. Outfitted with the same uniforms and equipment, the men then attempt to execute one of the missions the unit carried out in Europe.

It’s not an easy exercise for them. In fact, over the course of the four-part, two-night documentary series, one soldier almost dies, while four others end up hospitalized. Two more discover they just can’t cut it.

Rounding out Devil’s Brigade are interviews with real veterans and archival footage that retraces the history of the First Special Service Force and its accomplishments. It’s an eye-opening TV journey – and a fitting salute to Joe and the rest of that powerful Force.