By Diane Wild of TV, eh?
Someone recently told me the CBC was invented so Canadians could have something to complain about besides the weather. It came up in a series of interviews about what writers want from the CBC, and if I could find any consensus amid the diversity of opinion, it’s that the public broadcaster needs to be doing shows that the private broadcasters can’t or won’t do. Damn the ratings, our CBC should be doing daring, smart, scripted series. A couple even named such a show: Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays.
Matt Watts, writer and star of Michael Tuesdays & Thursdays, didn’t disagree. But no hubris was involved. In an interview for the TV, eh? podcast shortly after the series premiered, Watts admitted his pride in the show but passed the credit largely on to Bob Martin, the head writer and co-showrunner (with Don McKellar) as well as co-star.
In fact, when the modest Watts told acquaintances in Toronto that he was heading to Ottawa to film a series he wrote for, he neglected to mention that he was also in the series. As Michael. The title character. “I sort of downplay that part,” he said.
He doesn’t downplay the fact that Michael is, in the phrasing of the end credits, “based on the neuroses of Matt Watts” – an oddball credit that made me fall a little in love with the show before I even watched it.
I fell all the way down based on the wry-to-ridiculous sense of humour, the unexpected pathos and sense of recognition, and the interplay between Michael and his therapist, Martin’s Dr. David Storper — both sweet and screwed up in their own unique ways.
Michael has been in treatment twice a week for 15 years for a crippling panic disorder, aided by cognitive behavioral therapy. Michael’s fears — and the exposures designed to help him cope — are based on Watts’ own therapeutic past.
“(One) episode’s about vomiting, and that is my biggest fear. I’m still wrestling with that one. I’ve done multiple exposures in therapy for that one … and now there’s a whole episode about it.”
Still, Matt is not Michael, and he thinks Martin’s objective eye was required: “Michael’s a lot sweeter than I am. This is why it’s good that Bob wrote it, because I would have written Michael more like myself: darker, more neurotic, and having relationships destroyed by the disorder.”
And while he’s unwittingly the subject of a book, Michael also doesn’t have his fears broadcast on national television. (Well, ok, he does in our world, but not in his fictional world. Come on, you know what I mean, right?)
So how did coming out as a neurotic on national TV feel to Watts? “It’s terrifying, actually.”
He was reluctant at first, but reconsidered after seeing Stephen Fry’s documentary about living with bipolar disorder (The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive). “I mean, I’m no Stephen Fry, but there are so many people out there who are comfortable discussing their mental issues, and I know there’s a huge stigma attached to that. I don’t rate panic disorder as that severe on the list of issues. I thought, well, I can do this.”
Despite focusing on a character with such extreme anxiety, Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays feels like a peek into my own less extreme brain. I hadn’t heard of cognitive behavioral therapy by then, but at age 20 I’d begun a lifelong campaign to try to shock the shyness out of me, consciously throwing myself into situations far beyond my comfort zone, a rudimentary and self-help version of exposures. If I’d been prone to panic attacks I’d have been completely debilitated. As it was, I found ways to cope because I had to.
Which is to say, the humour of the show often arises from recognition, even to someone who hasn’t been in therapy twice a week for 15 years. To many of us, Michael is an extreme version of our own fears.
“Everybody experiences anxiety, it’s just some people learn to cope with it. Some people, like myself, never learn the coping skills so it became an issue,” Watts pointed out. “Most people can relate to the idea of being shy and anxious, it’s just for most people it’s not a disorder.”
It helps that the show treats Michael — treats most of the characters in the rich ensemble — with such respect. His fears and the exposures are mined for comedy, but not for laughter at Michael himself.
“We try to ground it and show people who wouldn’t understand the phobia that there’s a reason, that this is rational to the people suffering from it,” Watts continued. “Because I’ve lived it and I’m playing it as honestly as I can, I guess that’s why it can be relatable.”
We often see him through the eyes and words of Dr. Storper, who genuinely likes his patient, and who has his own hilarious and heartwrenching problems.
“It’s a show about dysfunctional people. Everyone’s got their issues,” Watts said. “The irony is Michael seems to be the one who seems to have the clearest view on the way the world works. I look at it and I think Michael is a realist and everyone else is living in denial. The world is a big terrifying place. Michael can’t deal with it, but at least he’s acknowledging it. Everyone else is ignoring the problem.”
Watts describes David’s own therapist, played by Ed Asner, as someone who was “at the top of his field in his day so he still has a lot of status and respect but he’s not all there mentally.”
“We like the idea that David is so crippled with his own issues that he sees an incompetent therapist intentionally because he doesn’t want help.”
If there’s one thing I dislike about Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, it’s the ratings. It premiered to a low 321,000, then plummeted from there before slowly rising again. Sandra Oh’s appearance in the November 8 episode should help. Other high-profile guest stars include Samantha Bee and Michael Murphy. Will the ratings increase and critical cachet be enough for a renewal? It’s possible, but I’ve got my appointment booked with Dr. Storper to help me cope if not.
“We’re really proud of the season so whatever happens — and obviously we’d like it to continue, but even if it didn’t, we’re so happy with the way it came together and the response by people who like it,” said Watts. “If it were only to go one year we would walk away from it proud of that year.”
Don’t let them walk away. Watch Tuesday nights at 9 pm so we can all stop complaining that CBC doesn’t make enough smart, scripted series.