Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Terminal City (miniseries) created and written by Angus Fraser (starring Maria del Mar, Gil Bellows, Katie Boland)

Terminal City (2005 miniseries). Episodes directed variously by Rachel Talalay (episodes 1, 2, 7, and 8), Lynne Stopkewich (episodes 3 and 4), Kari Skogland (episodes 5 and 6), and Stephen Surjik (episodes 9 and 10).

Katie Sampson has a lump in her breast. This is going to change her life in more than the expected way. On leaving the hospital following a biopsy, Katie is interviewed by the waning medical reality show Post Op!, and her winning personality and openness reinvigorate viewers. Quickly, the producers retool the show to focus on her as both host and subject, and the newly titled No Show is a huge success.

Much like the fictional No Show, the success of Terminal City lies in Katie Sampson — or, rather, in the actress who plays her, Maria del Mar. Del Mar wins over viewers with her own engaging charm, and she carries this Canadian miniseries (that saw its American premiere on the Sundance Channel) on her shoulders.

Or on her chest, as the case may be. For in many ways, it is not just Katie but also Katie's breasts that are the focus of Terminal City. Creator Angus Fraser (who wrote all ten episodes) and the four directors never let us forget what's at stake, and Del Mar's own toplessness is showcased in different ways. I can't tell if this is meant to be titillating, but that it will undoubtedly be to many viewers is used by the filmmakers to perhaps make us think again, to treat Katie's breasts as just another body part.

However, this is television, a visual medium, and one wonders if lung, bone, or any other cancer would have been as appealing to Fraser as one whose subject can so easily cause such a combination of reactions in the viewer. Also, a good deal of dark humor is present, leading many to compare the miniseries to another dealing with death, Six Feet Under.

In a series of interviews with the cast and crew — the only extra on this three-DVD set — Fraser expounds on his inspiration for the Terminal City (his mother's own cancer scare), and he very specifically wants to make us think. Perhaps the intent is partially to keep us uncomfortable in much the same way that Katie's husband Ari (Gil Bellows) seems to spend the majority of his screen time.

In any case, it is a good thing that Katie's story is so compelling because the supporting plotlines involving the other Sampson family members are simply not equal to it, and often seem like filler. The attempt of daughter Sarah (Katie Boland) to seduce her teacher (Nakul Kupur) is completely predictable, though the young Boland has a certain screen presence. The affair older son Nicky (Adam Butcher) has with a married European woman (Stellina Rusich) seems merely an excuse to feature a different pair of breasts now and then.

The problem Ari's father Saul (Paul Soles) has dealing with his past comes across as an attempt to shock and yet appear additionally "thought-provoking" in addressing Holocaust themes. And younger son Eli (Nico McEown) and his crisis of faith are merely annoying. Someone from Katie's past (inspired by seeing her on TV) also suddenly decides to appear, bringing up memories and at least one genuine surprise (though it's obvious long before it's actually "revealed").

In all, it's just really hard to believe that every member of the Sampson family would be going through these major life events all at the same time. They have hardly any time left to support their dying matriarch. And if this weren't enough, the crew of No Show have their own problems to deal with, especially producer Jane Richards (Jane McLean).

The ten 40-minute episodes are certainly watchable (especially if you don't mind fast-forwarding through the slower parts), and the finale is original and moving, if a little hard for a jaded realist to accept at moments. (It's also only effective once you've seen everything leading up to it, but it's still the best of the set and quite a way to go out.) There are several jabs at the reality-TV phenomenon (an easy target, but still), but the primary reason to watch Terminal City is to discover a potential new star in the fine acting of Maria del Mar, and to watch her grasp this opportunity by the hair and steer it where she wants it to go. The actress gets to embody the full range of emotion, and she never once rings a false note. I definitely hope this leads to further substantial roles for her in the future.

1 comment:

Todd Mason said...

Actually, the finale is pretty effective even if one has only seen about half the previous episodes, which was my situation when I first saw the series on Sundance. And since this is Canadian television, the prurience of US television is teased as badly, but more sensibly incorporated...Maria del Mar's breasts are indeed front and center a fair amount, and they are remarkably nice breasts even by the standards of attractive acresses. I agree with your essentially B+ grade...the series certainly doesn't achieve everything it attempts, and I found the overbearing gramps the most annoying character, but it is a game attempt, and at time quite rewarding.

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