Some home truths about Canadian TV by John Doyle

Jun 6, 2010

Some Canuck shows are just great – too bad the networks lack vision

Source: Globe and Mail

In recent weeks, the state of Canadian TV surfaced again. Thanks mainly to considerable attention being given to a protest by ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) outside CanWest Global’s announcement of its new fall schedule. The one that looks about 99.9 per cent American and derived entirely from U.S. network fare bought up in L.A.

Thus it was easy to make Global look ridiculous. All that money spent on buying some U.S. shows of dubious quality, and crowing about it, while some of Canada’s best, most recognized actors (Eric Peterson, Wendy Crewson, Leah Pinsent) stood outside chanting their mockery. The truly illuminating aspect of this farcical situation is that those highly paid Global execs looked incompetent. They’re not. But they know sweet damn all about the basics.

Herewith, some home truths about the Canadian TV racket. Some might hurt.

Promotion matters more than anything. CTV knows this and has benefited enormously. It has promoted the hell out of Hiccups and Dan For Mayor. It made sure that every Canadian knew about Flashpoint and The Bridge. Maybe this was a lesson learned from the launch and success of Corner Gas, but the presence of Canadian shows on CTV is inescapable.

Global does, of course, have Canadian content. Later this month it will air Rookie Blue, a good cop show with a terrible title. Created and made here, it will be simulcast by ABC in the U.S. Still, one gets the impression from Global’s presentation and press releases that it was over-the-moon about airing the coming remake of Hawaii-Five-0. And it’s not just Global that fails to get the message out. CBC, for all the vast amounts of money that it seems to spend on marketing, can go hopelessly awry. Last winter, a screener of an episode of Republic of Doyle arrived just in time to write about. The disc was accompanied by a tiny slip of paper with a teensy plot summary. The summary seemed vaguely familiar. I wondered if it was the one with Gordon Pinsent. It was, but CBC was keeping that info secret.

Canadian TV airs on the U.S. networks. That’s a fact. CTV’s The Bridge and Flashpoint and of course Rookie Blue are airing on CBS and ABC over the next few months. It will be interesting to see the U.S. reaction to Rookie Blue, because it’s a very slick, glossy melodrama, all handsome actors and admirably sharp storylines. Yet it’s true to its Toronto roots. It’s about a group of rookie cops learning the ways of big-city police work together. There’s a stern boss, naturally (Aidan Devine, who is great) and a bevy of cocky but untested youngsters. In the opening episode the first police action scene involves a call to an address in the Parkdale neighbourhood. Anyone in Toronto who sees it will recognize not just the literal but the cultural context of drugs, guns, poverty and desperation.

Dan for Mayor is way better than Hiccups. That’s a fact, too. Dan – there’s a new episode tonight (CTV, 8:30 p.m.) – has a comic groove that’s addictive. It’s weird and whimsical, while Hiccups feels forced and plodding.

Crash and Burn should have been renewed. Another mistake by Global, which owns the Showcase channel, home to this excellent and nutty series. A drama (with doses of black comedy) about the nasty world of insurance fraud and unreliable investigators, it was well written and had a great cast. Precisely the sort of drama for grown-ups that we need. In fact, here’s the most significant home truth: Canadian TV desperately needs a drama for grown-ups right now.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about the World Cup in The Globe’s print and online Sports section. See you there.

Check local listings.

© Globe and Mail