By Graeme Stewart for TV, eh?
In an attempt to drum up interest, or perhaps just to test the waters, CityTV aired the pilot episode for its new sitcom Package Deal this week — though it doesn’t officially premiere until fall. For a new Canadian sitcom, the show boasts an unusually recognizable cast with the likes of Harland Williams and Eugene Levy offering their talents. Creator and showrunner Andrew Orenstein, whose previous work includes Malcom in the Middle and 3rd Rock from the Sun, sets the tone for the program with the utilization of the multi-camera, laugh-track style so frequently displayed in American sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and, apparently a favourite of Orenstein’s, 2 Broke Girls.
It’s difficult to judge a show by its pilot. As always, a series has to find its particular voice. The writers, directors, and actors need time to acclimate to their new position. They need time to develop identity and style, in the ultimate hopes of producing something that is both unique and of high quality. Unfortunately, despite the comedic talents of its cast and the strong track record of its creator, I have a hard time imagining that Package Deal will hit that balance of quality and originality.
When your pilot is dependent on a tired sitcom trope in the way Package Deal‘s first episode is, you’re not exactly setting the tone for ground-breaking work. When main character Danny protests a pros and cons list about Kim (Julia Voth), written by his intrusive brothers, what comes next is painfully telegraphed to any viewer who’s seen a sitcom. She finds the list, she gets upset, and the brothers must do something charming to fix their mistake. They succeed, and she enters headfirst into a relationship with Danny that is intrinsically linked with his problematic siblings. A new gang is born, yet they’re oddly familiar. Main character Danny (Randal Edwards) is a bland, handsome 20 something, so of course he’s the centre of the show’s main relationships. Older brother Sheldon (Harland Williams) has a goatee and wears leather jackets, so you know he’s the politically incorrect one who’s probably going to get the trio into trouble. Younger brother Ryan (Jay Malone) wears glasses, so he’s probably got some great insights into geek culture.
Ultimately, it’s another example of a Canadian series that attempts to use a successful American formula for a hit show. In the process, it strips all culture and Canadian identity from the series, aside from the odd shot of the CN Tower peering over a transitory skyline or a brief mention of the University of Toronto (oddly, Package Deal is filmed in a Vancouver-area studio). It feels like it would fit right into a timeslot with 2 Broke Girls — and indeed it has landed the fall timeslot between that show and How I Met Your Mother — and maybe that’s all the network is really interested in here. Why bother with a show that feels Canadian, when Canadians tend to prefer American shows?
In an interview with the Canadian Press‘ Cassandra Szklarski, Orenstein delves into what initially brought him back from Hollywood to work in Canadian TV. Szklarski notes: “The veteran writer from 3rd Rock from the Sun and Malcolm in the Middle was tasked with injecting ‘a U.S. feel’ into CBC’s newlywed sitcom 18 to Life, about a teenage couple and their overbearing parents. Apparently CBC’s partners at ABC feared the show skewed a little too Canadian. ‘The U.S. portion felt that the show, while good, didn’t have a U.S. feel, whatever that is. And so I came up and I executive produced the first 13 (episodes),’ says Orenstein, who struggles to define what the difference is.”
He tells Szklarski, “people are tired of the cynicism and want to laugh. A lot of the shows that are coming out of the States I’m liking have more family involved and heart and stuff that I think has been missing in TV. When I watch shows now, even 2 Broke Girls, there a real heart in the middle of it.”
Orenstein’s “American” sensibility apparently struck a chord with networks, leading to the development of Package Deal, now seeing a series order commitment and a strong show of faith by airing it in the fall season in a coveted timeslot. The show’s multi-camera, laugh-track format skews far from current Canadian comedies, like the single cam Mr. D, and brings with it the monotonous phoned-in jokes made so popular in the slew of similar American sitcoms, like the aforementioned juvenile and racially insensitive 2 Broke Girls. Apparently, that show has the kind of heart that Orenstein feels Canadians are missing. Perhaps, later in the season (after Pamela Anderson’s upcoming guest stint as a wacky therapist concludes) Orenstein can bring the ludicrous racial stereotypes from that show to Canadian audiences so we can finally laugh.
This kind of thinking is emblematic of one of the Canadian industry’s largest pitfall: its reliance on risk-averse programming. Originality be damned, ratings over quality any day of the week. Or, am I wrong? It is, after all, a scripted original series in an industry that seems content with tacking “Canada” on the end of any reality concept in order to meet CRTC requirements. Is an original sitcom, transplanted American focus or not, good for Canadian TV? Should our focus be on an emulation of American success stories, or should CanCon mean just that? Canadian content. Canadian identity. Canadian style. Does such a thing even exist? Would you prefer a show that stretches the limits of a sitcom’s potential with Canadian flair, or are you simply looking for something that might, as Orenstein puts it, make you laugh?
What did you think of Package Deal?
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