Aaron Poole, who plays Strange Empire’s Captain John Slotter, coined the hashtag #CBCnsfw – as in, Not Safe For Work – to promote the dark, serialized western on Twitter. This isn’t the public broadcaster’s attempt to groom a Heartland replacement, in other words. It’s more Deadwood and Hell on Wheels than Wild Roses or Road to Avonlea.
“It’s a big departure for them. It’s huge. It really looks like cable,” said creator Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, whose last series was the cable drama Durham County.
The first episode brings the main characters together in the barely-a-town, mostly-a-camp Janestown on the border of Montana and Alberta circa 1869. The story centres on Kat Loving (Cara Gee), Dr. Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman) and Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawna Jones), though men aren’t quite as scarce as some of the publicity materials suggest. It’s a brutal existence as these seekers of a new life fight for survival just north of the newly significant 49th parallel, where the wild west is even wilder.
“Popular opinion might have it that I want to kill everyone but no, I really don’t, I want to tell a story,” said Finstad-Knizhnik of her TV career, which included a start with Cold Squad. “I like to be able to tell the truth of it, and the truth of that time – 1869-1885 – is a pretty big turning point in Canadian history.”
She acknowledges there’s a lot riding on the first episode, but she seemed more blasé about the marketing and ratings than I did during a recent afternoon at the Aldergrove, BC, set.
CBC needs higher ratings than those of us excited to see what comes next from the brain behind Durham County, and if viewers don’t stick around after Murdoch Mysteries tonight – a series that’s vastly different in tone and structure – they may be reluctant to catch up with the story.
This is the kind of show I want on my public broadcaster, the kind of risk I’d love a broadcaster to be rewarded for, and yet I know placing too much weight on one show’s ability to turn the broadcaster’s ship around is a fool’s game. The show’s creator isn’t letting that weight crush her.
“My father (George Finstad) used to read the national news so I’m one hour from his timeslot with this. Watch out Peter Mansbridge,” she joked.
Strange Empire marks her return after Durham County ended unexpectedly in 2010. A wrap-up movie was announced and written but never filmed. Besides the atmospheric world-building, complex characterizations and darkness, a Western seems like a departure for her as well.
“I like genre a lot. It’s a great way to say something because nobody realizes you’re saying something.”
She used Durham County to subvert the serial killer drama and reveal what lies beneath the everyday violence of our world. She uses Strange Empire to explore ideas of intelligence, morality, and power.
She also does some genre busting with her three Strange Empire female leads: “the Indian princess — the Pocahontas –the madame and the doctor. I’m putting a twist on those three and fooling around from that point to turn them inside out.”
Kat Loving (Cara Gee) is Metis, belonging to neither the Indian nor the white worlds, protecting what’s hers (and adopting what’s not to place under her protection). Dr. Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman), travelling with her much older and creepier husband, is literally an experiment in feminine intelligence. And Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawna Jones) is Captain John’s whore turned wife and madame.
“It’s about the people you never hear about – the women, the Chinese, the Negro,” said Finstad-Knizhnik. “Their stories aren’t written. Ling is a great character. I didn’t want a town that had a Chinese laundry in it – I don’t want those stereotypes – so we have a Chinese cowboy.”
The focus on the women’s stories doesn’t make this the kinder, gentler Western. Or the less sexual. “I got really tired of blow jobs on Deadwood,” Finstad-Knizhnik said. “How many blowjob soliloquies can you really have? I thought OK, maybe you can have three but it turns out no, you can just keep going and going. So this is cunnilingus on CBC. Stay tuned for episode 5.”
Saying that writing is an excuse for reading, she delved into the real history of the time to create her strange world. She modelled Isabelle on Victoria Woodhull, a “wild American suffragette prostitute” who ended up running for president of the United States, married a banker and died in a country house in Britain. Woodhull was also a spiritualist, as is Isabelle.
“The suffragettes used the idea of ghosts and spirits to further their agenda, so it was Plato and Ben Franklin telling you you should give the vote to women and reform marriage rights,” she explained. “It was also about deep human feelings. People lost so many people then. Mothers losing babies, whole towns wiped out by plagues.”
Strange Empire is wonderfully intelligent and bold storytelling, and I’m trying not to worry about how much of a CBC audience will gravitate toward it and have the patience to get sucked into its ongoing story without the gimmick of a cliffhanger. CBC was willing to take the leap; I hope viewers will too.
“I started it with this idea that I could finally do stand alones,” Finstad-Knizhnik said. “‘You can do it,’ I said. ‘You can close the story.’ ‘Maybe the A story you can close and leave the other two open.’ And then I looked in the mirror and said ‘no you can’t, you’re never going to be able to close a story.’ And CBC went with it.”
Strange Empire debuts tonight at 9pm on CBC. Watch for episode reviews and interviews with Cara Gee, Melissa Farman and Aaron Poole here in the coming weeks.