Make Canoe my Homepage

The more the Mary-er (or “marry her?”), says Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery

- January 3rd, 2013

Maggie Smith (left) and Michelle Dockery

Michelle Dockery was asked why, seemingly against all odds, Britain’s Downton Abbey has become a pop-culture phenomenon in North America.

“It’s really difficult to pinpoint why,” said Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley. “You tell me.”

Well, I’m not sure I have a better answer than you do, Ms. Dockery. But it’s a good thing for both of us, don’t you think?

Downton Abbey returns to North American TV with its third season, starting Sunday, Jan. 6 on most PBS stations. Set early in the 20th century, the lush period drama follows an aristocratic British family and the servants in their massive house, known as Downton Abbey.

As season three begins, it’s the spring of 1920. What later would become known as World War I finally is over and the long-awaited wedding of Lady Mary and Matthew (Dan Stevens) is nearing.

But as one would expect, all is not tranquil at Downton Abbey, as world-altering social changes, romantic intrigues and personal crises pulsate through the majestic English country estate.

What of poor, wrongly imprisoned Mr. Bates, played by Brendan Coyle? Will the scheming Thomas (Robert James-Collier) be rewarded or punished for his continued malevolence? And how will a visit by Lady Mary’s American grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, shake things up?

It certainly isn’t usual for North American audiences to get caught up in a British series such as this. But Downton Abbey somehow has hit upon the right mix of eye candy, class tension, romance and quality story-telling to grab the attention of a continent otherwise obsessed with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Honey Boo Boo.

“But it feels like kind of a steady process,” said Dockery, who was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2012 and is pictured at right in the above photo, with Maggie Smith at left. “The first (season), people were just kind of catching on. It was the second (season) that seemed to really take off over here.

“So it feels like it has been a steady progression. At home (in Britain) it was quite an explosion right away, millions of people tuned in for the very first episode. And it has just grown from there, it’s wonderful.”

In many ways the fate of Lady Mary has been at the centre of Downton Abbey‘s story. So from the vantage point of the 21st century, does Dockery view Lady Mary as a sympathetic character, or as something of a brat?

“I think Mary started out as a bit of a brat,” Dockery said. “I mean, she was certainly far colder in the beginning.

“Initially I thought she would be the Kristin Scott Thomas type of character in Gosford Park, when I read those first few scripts. And then, you know, I realized she actually becomes far more sympathetic and sensitive, and I’ve really enjoyed that journey, which I wasn’t expecting.”

Not that Lady Mary becomes Mother Teresa or anything. Lady Mary certainly is not interested in anything resembling a diminished lifestyle, even as significant factors threaten the Crawley family’s stature in season three (watch for a Canadian connection in that regard!).

“Every year it gets better, actually,” Dockery said of Downton Abbey. “This year is even better than the last.”

Literally, the world is watching.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv

Manage your expectations when watching Saturday Night Live

- September 16th, 2012

seth macfarlane and seth meyers

I don’t expect Saturday Night Live to be good.

I guess that’s the difference between me and other people.

SNL is a live TV show, pre-taped bits notwithstanding. I expect it to be largely bad, with flashes of brilliance. That’s what it always has been, which will be shocking news to those who watch only “best of” DVDs, or seek out selected clips on the internet.

A lot of the comedy on SNL should be experimental, and as such, much of it probably will miss the mark. It’s when the show doesn’t try that it really deserves to be criticized. It should be swinging for the fences, which often means a high strikeout percentage, but the home runs stay in our memories forever.

Which brings us to the debut of the 38th season of SNL, which occurred this past weekend on NBC and Global. With Seth MacFarlane serving as host, were there any home runs?

Well, SNL is at its best when it’s daring, and the most daring moment came during Weekend Update. Anchorman Seth Meyers referenced the film Innocence of Muslims, which has caused violent and deadly protests in the Middle East.

With a picture of a riot in the background, Meyers said, “This week the new film Innocence of Muslims was released, and so far, the reviews are not great. You guys know YouTube has a comments section, right?”

There were some nervous, uncomfortable murmurs from the live audience. But those almost always are a good sign, if you ask me.

The ballyhooed new blood never got flowing. With the likes of Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott gone this season, rookies Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon virtually were invisible.

High points included Vanessa Bayer’s Honey Boo Boo, MacFarlane’s Ryan Lochte (pictured above left, with Meyers at right) and a cameo appearance by Korean rapper Psy, who probably got the biggest cheer of the night.

The musical guest was Frank Ocean, who was wearing a hockey-style sweater that looked as if it had been purchased in a casino gift shop. John Mayer played guitar for Ocean.

Significantly as the U.S. plods toward a presidential election, all the moaning that people used to do about Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama impersonation finally can stop. Cast member Jay Pharoah is the new Obama, with Jason Sudeikis back as Mitt Romney.

You knew SNL would have to reference the infamous Clint Eastwood performance talking to a chair at the Republican National Convention, and it did so with a pre-taped bit. Bill Hader played Eastwood in an ad promoting Eastwood’s tour with the chair, with the tag line, “No script, no set tour dates, no predetermined theatres.”

Hey, didn’t Charlie Sheen do that already?

Overall, the return of SNL can be described as steady. It was an okay start, provided your expectations are properly aligned.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv

Clint Eastwood and chair, the newbies nowhere; review of SNL 38th-season debut

- September 16th, 2012

Frank Ocean, Seth MacFarlane, Fred Armisen

The new blood on Saturday Night Live never really got flowing as the 38th season began with a reasonably clot-free episode Saturday night on NBC and Global.

Host Seth MacFarlane served as an able utility player in a series of skits that had good energy, which is a key consideration on SNL. Notably, for a guy with basically normal hair, MacFarlane had more wig changes than Lady Gaga in concert, for some unknown reason.

But with the likes of Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott gone from SNL this season, new featured players Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon virtually were invisible. The only extended contribution came from Strong, playing a Dominican voter with a bad accent in a Weekend Update segment that never quite took off.

The most edgy line during Weekend Update surfaced when anchorman Seth Meyers referenced the film Innocence of Muslims, which has caused violent and deadly protests in the Middle East. With a picture of a riot in the background, Meyers said, “This week the new film Innocence of Muslims was released, and so far, the reviews are not great. You guys know YouTube has a comments section, right?”

SNL leaned heavily on returning cast member Bill Hader early in the show, and heavily on returning cast member Kenan Thompson later in the show.

You knew SNL would have to reference the infamous Clint Eastwood performance talking to a chair at the Republican National Convention, and it did so with a pre-taped bit. Hader played Eastwood in an ad promoting Eastwood’s tour with the chair, with the tag line, “No script; no set tour dates; no predetermined theatres.”

Hey, didn’t Charlie Sheen do that already?

High points included Vanessa Bayer’s Honey Boo Boo, MacFarlane’s Ryan Lochte and a cameo appearance by Korean rapper Psy, who probably got the biggest cheer of the night.

The musical guest was Frank Ocean, who was wearing a sweater that looked as if it had been purchased in a casino gift shop (that’s him, and it, at far left in the above photo, with MacFarlane in the middle and Fred Armisen at right). John Mayer played guitar for Ocean.

Speaking of Armisen, as the U.S. plods toward a presidential election, all the moaning that people used to do about Armisen’s Barack Obama impersonation finally can stop. Cast member Jay Pharoah is the new Obama, with Jason Sudeikis back as Mitt Romney.

Pharoah’s Obama posed a question to America: “Stick with what’s been barely working, or take your chances with that.”

The “that” referred to Romney. But the jab had unexpected resonance on an evening when Saturday Night Live leaned heavily on its veterans and left the newbies to dream of future glories.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv

Satan collects hefty tolls on Highway Thru Hell

- September 3rd, 2012

Highway Thru Hell

TV sure has gone to hell lately.

There’s Hell’s Kitchen, Hotel Hell, Hell on Wheels, not to mention Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which doesn’t have hell in the title but sure makes you feel like you’re in hell while you’re watching it.

Which brings us to a new show on the Discovery Channel called Highway Thru Hell, which debuts Tuesday, Sept. 4. It’s about driving to the mall with your family. We kid, we kid. It’s actually an eight-part Canadian series focusing on a small group of steel-willed “heavy rescue” specialists who are called upon to help truckers in trouble.

And the truckers in this case face a unique type of trouble, since Highway Thru Hell is centred on the Coquihalla Highway, a.k.a. 100 treacherous kilometres that cut through the heart of British Columbia’s Cascade Mountains. Steep slopes, deadly drop-offs, random rock-slides, awe-inspiring avalanches and all-around wicked weather combine to make this economically important route anything but a smooth ride.

While much reality-TV fare obviously can be frivolous, this show actually is not for the faint of heart, as it deals with some life-and-death situations.

Apparently hell hath no fury like a hungry highway.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv