He Said/She Said: How Canadian does Canadian TV have to be?

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?

He said:

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.

She said:

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.


8 thoughts on “He Said/She Said: How Canadian does Canadian TV have to be?”

  1. Wow Diane. You said things perfectly. To me , setting is important. I look at my favourite 20 current shows (Downton Abbey, Orphan Black, Call the Midwife, Outlander, Nashville, Parenthood, Vikings, The Originals, The 100, Empire, Revenge, Finding Carter, Chasing Life, Grey’s Anatomy, Hard Rock Medical, Hart of Dixie, Orange is the New Black, Longmire, Arrow and Mohawk Girls) and only 2–Orphan Black and Finding Carter–don’t have defined settings. However, neither seem to go out of their way to hide their setting; they just don’t clarify it. What I have a problem with when it comes to several Canadian shows is that they seem to go out of their way to hide their Canadianness or they take on an American identity. That aggravates me more than anything else. Americans have enough stories if their own being told on television and we shouldn’t be telling more for them. We have our own stories to tell and our setting isn’t a negative. I go to a lot of U.S. tv sites and I never hear a complaint from Americans if there’s something Canadian in a show. The same goes for British dramas and the British accents: Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Broadchurch and The Fall all get great ratings in the States yet U.S. networks keep trying to remake them as Americanized stories.

    1. Alicia O

      There are a ton of complaints from American about there shows from being there is not enough non whites to shows should be filmed in the States as many as of now are not filmed in ehe States.

      1. That’s the complaint about place of production but not about the story’s setting. That’s something entirely different.

        1. The fact is if you ban all American content all people will do is give up cable and go the free to air route meaning Canadian content would suffer big time.

  2. YAH DIANE !!!

    American shows done in the U.S. and those done in Canada are literally DRENCHED in Americanisms everywhere. So, esPECIALLY when a Canadian show says it’s Canada, then it Must do that too.

    I am sick, literally sick, everywhere I go and have gone in Canada I see more American flags fluttering over my head than Canadian flags.

    Whenever there’s a parade or special public event in Canada – THERE’S THAT STARS AND STRIPES all over the place being carried in that parade and displayed at this event.

    You NEVER see the reverse in the United States. They won’t stand for it.

    Even Canadian companies with offices and plants in the U.S. are not allowed to fly the Canadian flag down there.

    Remember Nortel ? They tried flying the Canadian flag at their U.S. locations and the local people marched in protest and got them taken down, or just ran up and tore them down personally.

    F ‘EM


    please, eh.

    1. Where I live there are Saskatchewan Roughriders flags everywhere (EVERYWHERE) and sometimes Canadian flags. You never see American flags. People on the prairies are extremely anti-American.

  3. Diane covered a lot of pertinent points, so I realize I’m being repetitive. And I apologize in advance for my long-winded rant. But here goes…
    Part of the problem with this discussion is it’s as multi-headed as a Hydra, with everyone focusing on their individual interests, and defining (and re-defining) things to suit their argument, like blurring the distinction between where a show is filmed and where a story is set.
    And personally I’ve never understood this “anti-American” idea, the way some Canadians crow about it with pride, or equally others use it to dismiss the very idea of Canadian “culture.” It’s actually because I thoroughly enjoy American (and other countries’) movies, novels, etc. that I realize how rich all cultures can be, including our own.
    For me the issue has never been about trumpeting Canada in every scene – rather it’s the deliberate refusal to admit it’s Canada even when it is organic to the scene. I have never in my life heard of a Canadian production forcing a red mailbox into the frame, but I have heard of productions that halt filming while the crew removes one from the shot. The fundamental issue is censorship. Producers going over scripts with a black marker, blotting out any Canadian reference, excising every Canadian colloquialism, re-writing scenes so they won’t seem too “Canadian.”
    But let me argue from the creative point of view. Consider that every few months there’s some new public lament that we don’t make quality TV like the Americans or the British. Yet then we act as if this cultural question isn’t part of the equation. But culture provides grounding and a point of reference for the artists. Even Tolkien’s Middle-Earth arose out of a very English sensibility. I would argue the characters in, say, The Walking Dead – Zombie apocalypse notwithstanding – are more real than characters in Motive or Saving Hope because, at the end of the day, the latter characters have no roots, they have no existence the writers and actors can draw upon because they are deliberately meant to be untethered, their background existing in a formless Generica. That doesn’t mean Motive and Saving Hope aren’t well acted or entertaining, but I think it is a stumbling block keeping good from becoming great. Setting is part of storytelling. Even when we think it isn’t obvious, it’s still there in terms of phrasing and dynamics and milieu. Even ostensibly fictional settings like The Simpson’s Springfield are still anchored in the surrounding culture.
    The storyteller’s role is, in essence, to bear witness. To reflect and interpret reality. And yet in Canada our artists are encouraged – even celebrated! – for their ability to excise all sense that Canada even exists from their art. In some cases I think it’s because the artists’ themselves are ignorant of the culture. Many live in Hollywood (many of the recent self-described American-style sitcoms such as Seed and Spun Out feature major creative players who have been living south of the border). And though I don’t begrudge them pursuing their career, I do begrudge them failing to recognize and to compensate for that disconnect. In an episode of Schitt’s Creek a character referred to Target as though a ubiquitous franchise — even as the Canadian wing of Target is imploding. Perhaps if Dan Levy (series’ co-star, co-creator, and L.A. resident) paid attention to what was going on in Canada he might have picked up on that.
    And this can be even more troubling when it comes to social and political issues. If the story won’t admit to being set in Canada, then it can’t very well tackle social issues, can it? Save in the most watered down and unspecific manner.
    If critics complain about the blandness of Canadian TV should we be surprised? If the artists are too timid to even admit something as innocuous as the setting, why would we expect them to have the creative hutzpah to actually do something edgy?

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