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TV,eh? What's up in Canadian television

Preview: TNoT’s “Nature’s Big Year” explores what happens when a pandemic sends humans inside

Do you recall those first few weeks into the pandemic, when humans were told to stay home and animals were seen more frequently outside? I remember the cellphone videos posted on social media of coyotes trotting down residential streets and sheep galloping around neighbourhoods overseas amid jokes of nature taking the land back.

Were these just a handful of coincidental instances, or something that was really happening while we sat inside, looking out the window? And, was nature better off?

“Nature’s Big Year,” airing Friday as part of The Nature of Things, aims to find out.

Writer, director and producer Christine Nielsen and producer Diana Warmé tell an incredible story spanning 11 locations around the globe—during the pandemic—of nature doing a reboot.

In Bighorn Backcountry, Alberta, wildlife ecologist Jason Fisher and his colleagues were delayed by COVID-19 from accessing trail cameras they’d set up before the world shut down. What they saw in the footage was surprising.

Meanwhile, in Juno Beach, Florida, research manager Sarah Hirsch relates how the lockdown helped loggerhead turtles nest more successfully in an area humans usually trampled around in. And, in Nottinghamshire, UK, wildlife biologist Lauren Moore investigates whether or not a drop in traffic during the pandemic would cause the endangered hedgehog to rebound.

And, not surprisingly (I know this first-hand from observing my feeder), birds were more plentiful during the lockdown. What was a surprise for researchers was that birdsong became louder, more varied, and birds were attracted to areas where there were stricter lockdowns.

Beautifully filmed, “Nature’s Big Year” is the well-told tale of what happens to nature when we interact with it less.

“Nature’s Big Year” airs as part of The Nature of Things, Friday at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Image courtesy of CBC.


Jonathan Torrens returns to TV with hilarious Vollies

The television landscape is constantly changing. Where once there were only conventional television stations, now we have streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ opening up our worlds to programs outside of North America and around the world.

Bell has been going the other way, with hyper-local programming on its Fibe TV1 service. There Bell subscribers can access television projects from communities across the country. Vollies, available now on Bell Fibe TV1, is just one of them.

Co-created by and starring Jonathan Torrens and Sarah D. McCarthy, Vollies (a second season has been greenlit) follows the exploits of the Essex-West-Essex Fire Department. This crew has everything a real fire department does, including a shiny truck, baller uniforms, and super-cool nicknames. The only thing they don’t have? Actual fires to fight. But that doesn’t stop them from organizing a series of fundraisers, each more outrageous than the next, to buy a helicopter.

Starring a relatively unknown group of actors alongside McCarthy and Torrens, Vollies is awkward, heartfelt hilarity. We spoke to Jonathan Torrens and Sylvia Beirnes, Vollies writer, producer and partner with Torrens on Canadian Content Studios.

Vollies’ co-creator and star Sarah D. McCarthy

How did Vollies come about?
Jonathan Torrens: We had this meeting with Paul Gardner, who’s our guy at Bell Fibe1 TV, a year or so ago. He said, ‘What is the idea that gets your heart going?’ And I have never, in my 30-plus year career, been asked that question. And it was just a great reminder that there’s no substitute for genuine enthusiasm and passion. That’s how Vollies came about.

I had made a list of the things that I had available to me in my neighbourhood during the lockdown. My father-in-law used to be in the farm machinery business, and he had this empty warehouse. I was thinking about fire specifically and how I’ve never really seen it in a comedic setting. There’s a reason for that, it’s really expensive. And, although [first-responder shows] would suggest otherwise, there’s nothing inherently funny about the work that they do. After realizing that I hadn’t seen that and that we couldn’t afford fires, suddenly the idea of a volunteer fire department that didn’t have anything to do started to come into focus as a great setting for a TV show.

At what point did you and co-creator Sarah D. McCarthy start working together on it?
JT: Sarah was working with us on some other stuff. She’s an actor from here. She was helping with some of that stuff, because Sylvia and I just parse out little things, we need help with. I mentioned to Sarah that I was going to pursue this idea. She grew up across the street from a volunteer fire station in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, her house burnt to the ground when she was nine.

Her house actually burnt to the ground. And she was the one that said they had a DJ Backdraft who did teen dances every Sunday. And she was the one that said they used the vollies to give a curfew siren; that’s when all the teens knew it was time to go home. They’re so woven into the communities here and they do everything. They knock on our door and ask for donations for an auction to raise money, they do highway safety if there’s an accident.

Sylvia, how did the writers’ room on Vollies operate?
Sylvia Beirnes: It was my first one, to be honest. Jonathan and I have been writing things together, so we just tend to rip and jam, but this is the first time we had done something like this. We flushed the idea of the show out with a group of people. And then when it came to actually writing Jonathan, Sarah and Mark Forward were the ones who actually put pen to paper. I was brought in when we were reviewing everything, going through and trying to punch things up, no words came out of my actual fingertips, but it was through those conversations and through being able to brainstorm and go, ‘Is that a funny thing?’ I’m not from a small town, but I’m married to someone from a small town and have seen vollies in action. So you pull from your life references and experiences.

I was terrified to say a word at the beginning. When you’re in a writers’ room with the likes of Jonathan and Mark and Sarah, that’s only intimidating because I made it, not because they’re not wonderful people. But the minute I raised my hand for the first time it was received with warmth and yes, all the great things you would hope would happen to you. And it was just, it was awesome. I never dreamed in a million years that if I ever got to work on a scripted comedy, it would be our own. And the fact that I got to see my name and credits for writing something that I think is really funny and pretty sweet.

JT: Sylvia is selling herself short. She contributed lots of words and jokes and sentiments and promises.

Vollies’ James Faulkner

Jonathan, was it a Zoom writing room?
JT: It was. I’ve discovered about myself with age that there are certain things I’m not good at. And it’s as important to know what you’re not good at as it is to know what you are good at. Story is probably not my strongest suit, I’m a great character guy, good dialogue guy. I’m a good person to run a room because everyone feels like they can speak up and it’s warm and squishy.

But the math of story is probably the thing that I find the most tedious, the least sexy, the less fun. I’m like, let’s get to the jokes. I’ve learned through shows like Trailer Park Boys and Letterkenny that even though it’s a comedy show you still want to know what your characters are rooting for, what they want, what their goals are. And then your job as a writer is obviously to put obstacles between them and their goals. And inch them closer to it, back them away. So I brought in some heavies, Andrew De Angelis, Mark Forward, Steve Dylan, Alice Moran.

People who are funny, but also are quick to say, ‘Hang on a sec, that doesn’t really make sense.’ The first nut that we cracked was that, I think it was Andrew’s idea, everything is opposite world. So, if these people might not be super cool in normal society, here they’re ballers. And in fact, these volunteer firefighters think the town guys that do it for a living have sold out because they fight fires for money, whereas the vollies do it for the love of fire.

Once we cracked that, then it was like, ‘OK, I know exactly who these people are and what this world is.’ They think they’re cool, cooler than anyone. The other thing I’ve learned is that the stories don’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to make it, the power goes out during the snowstorm at the Halloween dance … that’s a whole season. When we had the idea to make it a series of fundraisers, that felt both something we could easily execute. And best of all, I think sometimes you lose a lot of resources you don’t have by doing unit moves all over the place.

Writing happened fast. Sylvia, what about production?
SB: It was the same. It was all happening at the same time. We are maybe gluttons for punishment, as far as that goes. But we also, one of the things we really pride ourselves on at CCS, is that we can make great things happen quickly. While Jonathan was wrangling the entire world, I was helping wrangle all kinds of other things in the background. It was a race to the finish line, navigating a pandemic was no small feat either. I was in isolation for two weeks in Nova Scotia, which actually proved to be the best thing ever because I just turned inwards and we just got it done.

Vollies’ Brian George

One of the things that I’ve loved is being exposed to folks that I don’t know. So, James Faulkner, I Googled him right after watching the first episode and I’m like, ‘I don’t know who this guy is.’ The same thing with Brian George. Jonathan, talk a little bit about pulling this group of people together that don’t necessarily have a ton or any IMDb credits to their names.
JT: One of the biggest kicks for me in this business is seeing it through the eyes of people that haven’t been exposed to it much. James Faulkner is the voice of the Truro Bearcats. He’s also the news guy on Pure Country in town, so I hear him every day. If you live in Truro, you can’t escape James Faulkner, he’s six foot nine.

But I just had a sense he would be a good performer and he really is. Brian is an accessibility advocate in Halifax and pretty funny presence online as well. He’s done some stand-up, sit-down comedy. I thought it was really powerful of seeing that type of main character without it being central to his character at all. In fact, one of the things I like about the pilot is you don’t know till they get back to the station that he’s even a wheelchair user.

Mary Austin is a Dal opera student, she plays Lil, she’s someone that we’ve worked with a fair bit. We kind of have this little Christopher Guest-style pod of people that we like to use and reuse that just bring us joy and are nice people.

Sylvia, the industry has changed a lot. You don’t have to pitch to the big broadcasters because there’s TV1 out there.
SB: I think it’s one of the most important opportunities that we’ve uncovered, to be perfectly honest. We did not know about it until we knew about it.

And you can go and create and make your dream shows, it’s CRTC funded. They have an obligation to support local filmmakers and television makers across the country. And you get to go and shop it around, so if another network wants to buy Vollies as a 22-minute piece, it’s a completely different contract. For us, it’s the opportunity to fund pilots and to be able to make things we love with really amazing people. We’re building a business show by show on it already.

Season 1 of Vollies is available on Bell Fibe now.

Images courtesy of Canadian Content Studios.


Brooke Lynn Hytes presides over a panel of her queers in the Crave Original Series 1 Queen 5 Queers

From a media release:

All tea, no shade! CANADA’S DRAG RACE judge and the Queen of the North, Brooke Lynn Hytes, leads open, honest, and no-holds-barred conversations about all things queer in the new Crave Original series, 1 QUEEN 5 QUEERS. The eight-part series, which is also available to French audiences with subtitles, premieres with two episodes on Thursday, Dec. 9, with subsequent new episodes dropping Thursdays on Crave.

An update to the MTV Canada hit 1 GIRL 5 GAYS, which ran from 2009 to 2014, the new series presents fierce, fiery, and uncensored discussions about sex, relationships, pop culture, challenges facing the LGBTQ2S+ community, and more. Led by Hytes who moderates a panel that represents a variety of sexualities and identities, each half-hour episode of 1 QUEEN 5 QUEERS is focused on a single topic, and reflects the awareness and values of a new generation of viewers.

Segments featured on the series include: “Let’s Have a Kiki,” which invites queer people from around the world to share their opinions about the topics covered on the show; “Secret’s Out,” where a secret about one of the cast members is revealed and the others must guess who it’s about; “Come Again,” where the panelists are invited to discuss pivotal moments in their lives; and “Quick Shooter,” where one cast member must answer as many questions as they can, in one minute.

Some of the panelists joining Hytes on 1 QUEEN 5 QUEERS include: CANADA’S DRAG RACE guest judge and choreographer Hollywood Jade; Award-winning queer comedian Tricia Black; actor and retired professional hockey player Harrison Browne; model, activist, and multidisciplinary performer Ivory Conover; and lifestyle blogger Myles Sexton. Celebrity guests include: fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi; the first transgender woman to be cast in a transgender role on a daytime soap opera (GENERAL HOSPITAL) Cassandra James; and Peabody and American Film Institute Award-winner Our Lady J; a transgender woman whose credits include producer/writer on series such as TRANSPARENT and POSE.

In association with Crave, 1 QUEEN 5 QUEERS is produced by Bell Media Studios and distributed by Bell Media Distribution. Brooke Lynn Hytes serves as Executive Producer and Host.


Preview: Murdoch Mysteries, “Murdoch Knows Best”

Murdoch Mysteries fans know there are certain things that will happen in a season. An appearance by Terrence Meyers is one of them.

Played by Peter Keleghan, any scenes with Meyers crackle with an energy that I love. So, I was excited to preview Monday’s new instalment, “Murdoch Knows Best,” written by Simon McNabb and directed by Don McCutcheon. And, I have to say, this may be one of the best Meyers-themed episodes ever.

Here’s the CBC’s official synopsis:

After a man’s murder, Murdoch and Brackenreid discover spy Terrence Meyers’ civilian life.

And here are some observations from me after watching the episode in advance.

Terrence Meyers… family man?
You absolutely never know when Meyers is telling the truth. Spies lie. So, is the CBC’s synopsis that we truly go into his civilian life fact or fiction? I had a lot of fun finding out, and think you will too.

Guest stars aplenty
Aside from Peter Keleghan, look for Leah Pinsent (Keleghan’s real-life wife) as Meyers’ spouse. Also, Cynthia Preston, Jim Annan and Nicholas Fry all drop by. Though the episode is titled “Father Knows Best,” a nod to the classic American sitcom and the surnames on that show, I caught a surname attached to another classic series, and the episode’s director; and there is a very clever nod to a certain board game many of us have enjoyed.

Meanwhile, back at the Station House…
Watts and Crabtree are approached by a youth basketball team who are concerned because their coach has gone missing. A bloody hat is their only clue. Speaking of Watts, David Andrew Reid, introduced last week as Mr. Strange briefly returns on Monday.

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of Shaftesbury.


Preview: The Nature of Things goes “Inside the Great Vaccine Race” for Season 61 return

Happy Season 61, The Nature of Things! The series, hosted by David Suzuki has always been timely in its nature, covering top-of-mind topics in an interesting, down-to-earth way that even I can understand.

Returning Friday at 9 p.m. on CBC, The Nature of Things is never more relevant, tackling COVID-19 with “Inside the Great Vaccine Race.” As the title suggests, this is an exhaustive peek at the people who worked tirelessly to help develop a vaccine for COVID-19 and continue to do so.

The episode begins with Dr. Alyson Kelvin (above), a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon, who left her family in Halifax for five months to work on a vaccine. While most people, in the early days of the vaccine, expressed curiosity at what was going on in Wuhan, China, Dr. Kelvin knew that—within months—the disease could be worldwide.

“Despite the sacrifices that I made to come here, I would have felt useless being at home,” she says.

Meanwhile, in China, it takes less than two days for the virus to be mapped and identified as related to SARS. And, able to spread without obvious symptoms by the carrier, it can move undetected around the world.

The Nature of Things also visits Cambridge University, Germany’s BioNTech lab and China’s CanSino Biologics as part of its storytelling, outlining what was being done in each location as the sprint to creating vaccines increased.

Made by Infield Fly Productions (who had their own challenges filming a documentary during a pandemic) in association with the CBC, “Inside the Great Vaccine Race” is tough to watch simply because it’s showing a worldwide event we’re still in the midst of. Those that have lost family members or friends to COVID-19 are going to have a particularly difficult experience. And it’s an excellent education into how science can provide a relatively quick solution to a worldwide catastrophe.

“Inside the Great Vaccine Race” kicks off Season 61 of The Nature of Things, Friday at 9 p.m. on CBC.