Skip to main content

It was a dark and stormy night. Somewhere, Gary Bettman was seething. All these events being cancelled, and not by him.

On TV, anticipation was so animated it was incandescent and, in the way that television is ghastly in its predilections, the coverage was both ghoulish and foolish. On CNN, it went like this – in the studio, an anchor lady talking to a weather guy who noted, "it will be onshore in less than three hours," at which point anchor lady declared, "and there he is, Ali Velshi!" Cut to Ali Velshi, barely upright and ankle-deep in water in Atlantic City, in a fierce, whipping wind.

"Ali, at any point in time we will yank this, if you are in any danger at all," anchor lady announced helpfully. Then, "what else do you see, Ali?" To which he answered, "There's some siding flying off buildings. Unless you're kinda like us and reporting, there's no reason to be out here."

Too true. On channel after channel, reporters standing in howling winds and pouring rain to illustrate that, yeah, the storm was arriving and it was wicked, just as predicted. In case anyone thought it was a con job.

Then the Hurricane Sandy devastation in New Jersey and New York. Footage of flooded subways, as if massive waves of water finding an outlet in large holes in the ground was a surprise. In Toronto's east end, a tree fell. Power went out. CP24 savoured it all, at last some real, honest-to-God disaster effects.

For all the raw footage and dramatic scenes of flooding, fires, rescue workers waist-deep in water and darkened buildings lashed by wind, television struggles to convey the authenticity of disaster-inducing storms. The fallback position is disaster-movie cliché and panicked voices in a studio commanding viewers to look (just look!) at this footage of flooding! The term "weather porn" doesn't do it justice.

Few live TV shows were taped in New York on Monday. But David Letterman went ahead and one has to wonder, why? The challenge, maybe, of doing a show without an audience and with only one celebrity guest available. Either that challenge, or a strange, terrible addiction to doing the TV show, as if some profound emptiness might result from cancelling it for a day.

On occasion, the footage reminded me of the great miniseries Storm of the Century, written by Stephen King, which played on a community's deep fears of what happens after a raging storm passes. In the series, a stranger emerged from the devastation, the devil himself (superbly played by Colm Feore), saying, "Give me what I want and I will go away."

This led me to think about the U.S. election coverage. On Fox News, there was an air of peevishness that the storm was distracting from its relentless anti-Obama rhetoric. Not to worry, though, no opportunity was wasted. A report from Washington about "how the president is handling the storm crisis" focused, bizarrely, not on disaster relief, but on the president's handling of "the Benghazi crisis." See, as Fox sees it, the devastating weather was absolutely an occasion to compare Barack Obama's attitude during the storm to his alleged mishandling of the attack on the Benghazi consulate. The term "election porn" doesn't do it justice.

The heart sank. Such devastation, such determination to make petty politics of the wreckage of cities, towns, lives. Such emptiness, never empathy, throughout, and across the channels.

Airing Tonight

The Neighbors (ABC, 8:30 p.m.) was supposed to have been cancelled by now. Dismissed by some critics as twaddle – not by me – it has been given a full-season run by ABC. Why? It's a charming and often very, very funny satire of suburban, middle-class life. Aliens in New Jersey try to fit in, is the gist, but at heart it's all about mocking convention. Tonight, annoying alien Jackie Joyner-Kersee tries to help plan a teenager's birthday party.

Cast a Deadly Spell (HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) is a good alternative choice for Halloween. Made in 1991, this cult favourite is a gem I've recommended before, one that goes back to when HBO productions only occasionally turned up on Canadian TV. It attempts to blend several genres – noirish detective story, supernatural sci-fi and magical realism – and it works in a startling, jokey manner. It's 1948 in Los Angeles and our hero, private eye H. Philip Lovecraft (Fred Ward) is hired by a rich wacko (David Warner) to find a rare book of magic spells. Our hero inhabits an L.A. where everyone is involved in black magic and werewolves roam the streets. He's the only guy who is old-school, unimpressed by magic. Still, he does wish for a bit of it with his old flame (Julianne Moore) and he could use it when he gets into scrapes with dangerous witches. The witty script by Joseph Dougherty, who would later write Saving Grace, is full of good jokes about Hollywood.