Join Greg and Diane on Mondays as we debate a TV-related issue that’s on our minds. This week: How Canadian does Canadian TV have to be?
It’s an argument I have been reading and discussing for years while I was at TV Guide Canada, and has evolved to be weekly (and often daily) for me at TV, Eh? Just how much should a Canadian TV show prove its Canadian-ness on the small screen?
The topic came up again following last Sunday’s Canadian Screen Awards and Orphan Black winning Best Drama. Among the online backslapping were several commenters that didn’t think Space’s drama was in fact Canadian because of the partnership with BBC America. Let’s put that one to rest right now: Orphan Black is Canadian and always will be.
The other discussion surrounded whether or not Toronto was adequately represented in the show, as if the Canadian flag had to be fluttering in the background or a Canada Post mailbox had to be on every corner. It’s a topic that came up during Flashpoint‘s run too. I recall the characters referring to Toronto streets and buildings where standoffs were occurring, and that was just fine with me.
Are we that self-conscious we need to have “this is Canadian!” trumpeted in every scene of a series that is a Canadian production or co-production? I don’t think so. I watch a lot of international dramas and it doesn’t happen there, nor do we see it south of the border. Television is all about the story and characters for me and the setting comes second. I’d never tune into a program solely because it was filmed in a Canadian city. I don’t watch Motive or Continuum because they are filmed in Vancouver. I didn’t watch Corner Gas because it represented the Prairies. I don’t check out Haven because it’s filmed in Halifax. And to argue that that should be part of the show’s selling point cheapens the product.
A great television show is that regardless of where it is being filmed and that’s no different in this country.
If you really want to know if a program is Canadian or not, wait until the end credits roll: a homegrown series will thank all of the funding and grants that ensured it got on the air in the first place.
The rules for what qualifies as Canadian content are fairly arcane, but to me, if it’s written and directed by and starring Canadians, it’s Canadian. Period.
However, specificity of place is important to great storytelling. And our homegrown industry should — but often doesn’t — aspire to be great in all facets. The number of Canadian shows set in Genericville leads to much grumbling about our generic shows.
That place doesn’t need to be Canada. My wishlist for the next Canadian literature to be adapted is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which is entirely set in India. But it’s very decidedly India, and could only be India.
That place doesn’t even need to be our world. Stargate created its own universe, as does Orphan Black to an extent, despite its real-world grounding.
But the lengths some shows go to never revealing a setting — or only explicitly revealing it after the US broadcaster has pulled out — often add a blandness that should make our industry run screaming. With no detailed sense of setting — even foreign, even fictional — a show loses the ability to use the personality of place as part of the story.
And producers can’t have it both ways or I’m going to call them hypocrites. You can’t market a show as “showing Toronto as Toronto” when onscreen you avoid any mention of setting, avoid shooting licence plates and mail boxes, and only people who live in Toronto would recognize the scenery — if that. Either embrace the setting or don’t pat yourselves on the back for it.
What riles some of us up is intention. Our Canadian shows are often shorn of any on-screen identity so that they’ll be more appealing to the US market. That inspires neither national pride nor faith in their own storytelling. Tell a great story — and details of setting contribute to great — and international markets will follow.
How many of us are binge-watching British and even Scandinavian shows on Netflix lately? Happy Valley and Broadchurch might not really exist, but they’re set in defined areas of England and now I feel I’ve been there.
The genesis of this website was me sitting in a Banff TV Festival session on how to create Canadian TV that foreign audiences would want to see, and me steaming that they should focus on creating Canadian TV that Canadians want to see. Start there and the rest will be easier.
One of our most popular shows, Murdoch Mysteries, is also popular in the UK and (on a lesser known channel) the US despite being decidedly set in long-ago Toronto. I’d argue “despite” should really say “because of” — it’s a show that embraces and uses its time and place to enhance storytelling.
If the makers of a show seem embarrassed to be too Canadian, it’s no wonder some Canadians are embarrassed of those shows. I can’t deny they’re still Canadian, but I can wish they wouldn’t deny it, either.