One of my frequent criticisms of Canadian conventional networks is that they’re so risk averse, they would rather create shows generic enough to sell overseas than stand out with anything that hasn’t worked in the American market — or at least, worked there five years ago. And one of my most frequent criticisms of the CBC has been that they were so busy pursuing the same kind of shows as the private networks, they gave me little reason to find solace in our public broadcaster.
Then came a regime change. And a declaration that they were changing direction to pursue more cable-like series. And some rolling of eyes as some of us recalled the low-rated and swiftly cancelled cable-like Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays and Intelligence. I could almost hear them say “honest, babe, this time it’ll be different.”
It’s early days in their attempt to shift direction, and a shift can only be judged over time. But with The Book of Negroes and Schitt’s Creek, they’re finally getting rewarded with ratings as well as the critical acclaim of their first bold new-direction show, Strange Empire.
Schitt’s Creek provides the welcome return of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, so comedically comfortable together, into our homes each week, in a show that mercifully isn’t trying to be either Corner Gas or a Chuck Lorre production.
In an unusual partnership, CBC will air ex-Kid in the Hall Bruce McCulloch’s comedy Young Drunk Punk this fall after its season airs on City, making CBC the new home of edgy comedies from nostalgic favourites.
But it’s the dramas that reveal what the public broadcaster should be able to do but hasn’t done in a while: reveal to Canadians through entertainment a history we often sanitize, from the birth of our country steeped in violence and the sex trade — not just a national railroad — to our unsavory role in the slave trade — not just the underground railroad. Soon will come X Company, centred around Canada’s little-known role in WWII espionage.
There’s innovation with money too. With The Book of Negroes, the risk to their limited budget was mitigated by partnering with BET for the expensive co-production — not an unusual solution, to be sure. But the partnership with City (which will also have Mr. D air on that Rogers-owned network) gives them more programming for less money.
And given that the CBC debate usually circles around whether they should be chasing ratings or edgier fare, it’s a relief to see their risk rewarded both ways this winter. Schitt’s Creek premiered to 1.3 million viewers, while The Book of Negroes bowed to 1.7, dipping to a still-great 1.4 for the second episode.
In a year where it’s been hard to cheer for our public broadcaster, that’s good news for CBC, for the audience, and for a Canadian industry that could use some incentive to take more risks.