As a country, Canada has a lot to be proud about. Our Prime Minister has the heroic wavy locks of a young Sampson, for Christ’s sake. We have ketchup potato chips, you troglodytes. Our money is made of plastic strips. But then there’s our television programming.
Canadian television has always felt kind of embarrassing to me. Oh, sure. We have legendary children’s programming. And great television documentaries. Solid journalism. But when I sit down to watch a Canadian drama or comedy program and I say “Ohhh… this feels really Canadian…”, that ain’t me signing the show’s praises.
This distinct vibe of Canadian-ness speaks to a general feeling of low production value, often stilted writing & acting, and an overall hokey veneer that prevents one from ever really becoming immersed in a program. There are times when this vibe can work for the show, as was seen in the case of Corner Gas – a show that doubled down on hokiness so hard, it wound up becoming some sort of surrealist doofus paradise. Then there are times where you just hope that the show’s cast and creators somehow get lured into a Tim Horton’s rigged up with explosive apple fritters. You know, like Mr. D.
There have been shows that buck the whole vibe and manage to feel fresh and inspiring, but these are generally outlying anomalies. They’re short-lived and then the system corrects itself and releases three dramas about girls that ride horses. I’m thinking of Bruce MacDonald’s & Don McKellar’s brilliant 90s quirk-fest Twitch City, and more recently the criminally ignored comedy Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It’s a bummer. There’s actually piles of high-quality television getting made in Canada. It’s just usually made with someone else’s money, with American leads. And while some Canadian films also fall into the “this feels Canadian” trap, there’s enough great Canadian cinema to cause one to think that maybe there isn’t an overarching problem, and those are just lame movies. But the television? It’s really got a weird vibe for the most part, right?
I’ve recently seen a few episodes of some Canadian shows that people have recommended to me by friends. Friends with opinions that I trust. The fact that they all will defensively throw in qualifiers like “No, really, it’s good” or “I thought it was going to be terrible, but…” is evidence enough to me that my feelings about Canadian Television aren’t mine alone.
Fighting my natural impulses to avoid this stuff, I dove in and took a gander at the first episode of Orphan Black and the first few episodes of Schitt’s Creek.
I had always intended to give this show a shot, but had never gotten around to it. Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy are both legitimate geniuses of comedy, and absolute legends. Chris Elliott, another comedy legend, is also a featured in this show. I suppose I was just putting off watching it because I kept forgetting that it existed. I may also be worried that all of that talent might be squandered on another too-Canadian, eye-rolling-ly quaint snoozefest.
Well, I needn’t have worried. This show is totally okay and occasionally very funny. The whole cast is sharp and funny. A sardonic Emily Hampshire is a treat as the “concierge” of the shitty hotel that Levy & O’Hara find their family relocated to following the seizure of their wealth. Chris Elliott is at his disgusting best. Both Levy & O’Hara do an admirable job in sending up deplorable wealthy snobs, as do the actors who play their children.
Where this show succeeds where a lot of Canadian shows would fail is in its uncompromising cynicism toward its wealthy protagonists’ ability to change and grow. Sentimentality would dull the comedic edge of the show, which relies heavily on pointing out that rich people are dummies who think that they’re smarter than everybody (a message that I heartily endorse). As long as the show continues to exhibit this kind of witty nastiness, it should be able to avoid falling victim to the Canadian curse.
First of all, I’ll get it out of the way and mention that I’m aware that this is a BBC co-production. So get off of my back. It is, though, Canadian enough for my purposes here. It is billed as a Canadian show on Wikipedia, and that is quite good enough for me, friends!
It’s essentially unheard of for a Canadian television show to get recognition in the US, let alone acclaim (and awards). So I’ve been pretty curious about what all the fuss is.
It turns out that, for the first episode at least, Orphan Black is a solidly put together, well-acted and compellingly scripted crime drama. I understand that it gets to be a bit of a sci-fi thriller, but that isn’t heavily covered in the first episode. What is covered is Tatiana Maslaney’s character(s) and the fact that there a veritable army of Maslanies running around apparently. Little is explained, which is to the benefit of the series, because I’m actually really interested in getting around to having this explained. The only thing that seems clear is that watchers of Orphan Black are in for a great deal of Tatiana Maslaney.
For many shows, and with many actors, this could be a real worst-case scenario, but Maslaney is an actor of considerable talent. She has a compelling onscreen presence and sells her disparate “orphans” pretty well, so far. I’m curious as to how this all manages to remain interesting, but given that she’s recently won an Emmy award for her work in the show’s latest season, it seems apparent that Tatiana Maslaney’s performance has done much of the heavy lifting in terms of this show’s success.
I’m a little weirded out by this show’s confusing sense of place. I couldn’t pin down where it was supposed to have been set, as it’s clearly filmed in Toronto, but is not trying to be Toronto. This is a small complaint, but I’m hoping that there’s some definitive mention of where they are and that they don’t just set the entire series in “Anytown, North Amerington”.
I plan to finish out the first season of Orphan Black and see how I feel about it. So far it’s been a reasonably entertaining watch.
Watching a couple of reasonably entertaining time-killers isn’t enough to turn around my overall opinion about Canadian TV. This would have been a very different post if I had just selected two new CBC series at random.
That being said, I think that it is right to try to seek out examples of quality programming on the Canadian television landscape. If for no other reason than to just feel a little bit less embarrassed about the whole thing when people bring up the subject.
Also, the Canadian-made revival of The Outer Limits in the mid-90s totally ruled.