He Said/She Said: What decade is Canadian TV’s best?

Join Greg and Diane every Monday as we debate what’s on our minds. This week: What decade is Canadian TV’s best?

He Said:

There have been several decades that have been important to me personally when it comes to television. The 1970s brought me Sesame Street, Polka Dot Door, Looney Tunes, The Flintstones, Mister Rogers, Eight is Enough, The Electric Company and The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. My 80s were consumed by The A-Team, V, Knight Rider, Miami Vice, Police Squad and Magnum PI. Those shows helped define my likes and dislikes and what I look for in television.

But, to me, when it comes to Canadian TV, the 2000s really resonate. That decade may not have been technically “the best” with regard to content, but they were memorable because I was covering many of these shows for TV Guide Canada.

An American in Canada was my first-ever set visit for the magazine, and I learned a lot about the writing process from showrunner Howard Busgang as he described the story of American news anchor Jake Crewe, who hosted a low-rated Calgary morning show and the fish-out-of-water experiences he had. Leads Rick Roberts and Hélène Joy couldn’t have been more patient with my then-rookie questions.

I experienced Corner Gas‘ meteoric launch to become this country’s biggest comedic hit, Flashpoint‘s cross-border success, and a little show called Murdoch Mysteries that launched without much fanfare on City and now brings in killer numbers for CBC. I also caught the last five seasons of DaVinci’s Inquest and its spin-off, DaVinci’s City Hall, programs that introduced me to Chris Haddock’s exceptional writing.

Cable-esque comedies like Rent-a-Goalie, Billable Hours, Kenny vs. Spenny, Godiva’s and Slings & Arrows were very different from the Canadian comedies of the past and pushed boundaries. None of them had the staying power of Corner Gas, but they certainly broke new ground with writing and opened doors to new ways of writing laughs.

The Border, Across the River to Motor City, Durham County, The Line and This is Wonderland contained gritty storylines, dark drama and characters that straddled that oh-so-thin line between hero and villain. Season 1 of Durham County in particular resonated, but they were all so, so good.

And who can forget Canadian Idol? Many mock it now, but Ben Mulroney’s weekly songfest was appointment viewing for those who tuned in to hear what judges Sass Jordan, Jake Gold, Farley Flex and Zack Werner had to say about eventual winners Ryan Malcolm, Kalan Porter, Melissa O’Neil, Eva Avila, Brian Melo and Theo Tams.

She Said:

I keep trying to forget Canadian Idol, Greg. You mean the show that copied a no-brainer format from another country, whose producer sent out a press release begging Torontonians to vote for Torontonians, and that died due to declining ratings and difficulty securing watchable talent? The show whose audition episodes could count as documentaries for the purpose of CanCon regulations? Please let me forget.

Apart from that, some of my still-favourite shows were from the 00s and 10s, though that’s somewhat a factor of my own maturation as much as  the Canadian TV industry’s. I can’t say I’d have appreciated Slings & Arrows, Durham County, or Call Me Fitz as much when I was a teen.

Greg and I of course have an age bias, growing up in the 70s and 80s. You’ll notice kids shows stop dominating our picks as the decades go on. Who knows, maybe the best Canadian TV came in the 40s (spoiler alert: no). But I’m going with the 80s as the time Canadian TV came of age along with me.


The Anne of Green Gables/Anne of Avonlea mini-series were the first Canadian productions to truly excite me as Canadian productions. Books I had loved, had literally read to death (the books’ death, not mine), were onscreen. My Canada was on screen — not that I’d been to Prince Edward Island (that would come in the 1990s, when I included a pilgrimage to Green Gables and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s grave). But the world of my childhood was onscreen, and my county was named and pictured onscreen.

That was before I cared about the state of the Canadian industry or gave a thought to why it was important to have our own stories in the mix along with Hollywood productions. But I knew it was special to see something so personal to me finally appear on my TV.

Danger Bay, Street Legal, Check it Out, Seeing Things, Street Cents, Smith & Smith and Bizarre were shows I watched sporadically (in that era pre-PVR and streaming) because I liked them, without giving a thought to where they were created or set, but that felt like they were talking to me just a little bit more than similar American shows.

I was (or felt) a little old for Fraggle Rock, Inspector Gadget and The Edison Twins but Canadian children’s programming  boomed in the 80s.

SCTV ended and CODCO and The Kids in the Hall began in the 80s, and  “Canadians are funny” became ingrained in me and the Canadian and US media (to be filtered out later on realizing per capita maybe we’re just normally funny?)

There’s not a decade I’ve been alive that I couldn’t pick some excellent Canadian programming. But the 1980s will always be special for creating big-buzz shows that stood toe-to-toe with American shows, and for opening my eyes to the power of having my own culture reflected back at me, before I was aware of the eat-your-vegetables mythology about CanCon.


23 thoughts on “He Said/She Said: What decade is Canadian TV’s best?”

  1. Nice. I did my own pilgrimage to L.M. Montgomery’s gravesite and Green Gables when I was 16 in 1999. I was a big fan of all her books and of the Anne of Green Gables and Road to Avonlea tv series. I remember dragging my dad and uncle through there and making them take a hundred pictures of me everywhere we went.

    The 90s was my big decade for tv. South of the border it was shows like Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, Fresh Prince, Full House, Home Improvement and Roseanne that held my interest. In Canada it was shows like North of 60, Road to Avonlea, The Odyssey, Breaker High, Catwalk and Neon Rider that I was all into.

  2. 70’s wins for sure! Canadian TV has never been better than The Trouble with Tracy!

    1. Everything I’ve read about The Trouble with Tracy has suggested it was terrible (I’ve never seen it and I’d never even heard of it until a few years ago) – yet then it keeps getting mentioned for polls like this (Huffington Post did a “great Canadian TV” poll and it was on it). So is that because there are genuine fans of it (which is fine) or is it just Trolling – the on-line equivalent of kicking over a sandcastle other kids are building? A way of scuppering any discussion about Canadian TV by deliberately promoting bad shows? As I say: I’m curious.
      I don’t know about others, but I’m genuinely interested in people’s opinions about Canadian TV shows…but they kind of need to be sincere opinions.

      1. The Trouble with Tracy makes these lists because it was so bad that it was good. It’s purely a fondness. Not sure about other polls, but mine is “favourite,” rather than “best” or “well-made” because it simply wasn’t. I loved The A-Team and Gilligan’s Island, but they weren’t well-made or critically-acclaimed by any means.

        As for sincere opinions about Canadian TV shows, we do that every day on our site, as does Amber and her team over at TheTVJunkies.com. And Bill Brioux. And Bill Harris. And John Doyle.

        If you’re referring to everyday Canadians being more critical about homegrown TV, I agree that should be happening. Again, it’s something we and the others do every day. I encourage our readers to leave comments and opinions because I want them to be thinking about and analyzing both what they watch and the industry in general.

        1. If someone likes a series, for whatever reason, that’s fine. What troubles me as someone who has written and talked about CDN TV a lot over the years is dealing with the, for lack of a better word, haters. And I’m guessing you’ve encountered them too. People who anytime you try to start a discussion going about the topic are there just to ridicule (and usually to say that Canada sucks, too).
          I think if a poll of “favourite” American series had people championing, say, My Mother the Car, we would question the motives behind the votes. (Out of curiosity: does anyone know the last time TTWT was aired, even in reruns?)
          I’m genuinely interested in reading other opinions – yours, Diane’s, AliciaO’s, etc. If “Pat” or anyone genuinely loves TTWT – great! I’m happy they are standing up for it. But if it’s just a prank to throw off the discussion…
          I realize I take this stuff sort-of seriously, but if I didn’t take it seriously…I might as well do something else with my time :)
          (Funnily — I had a whole other comment I was going to post about the main topic, but got sidetracked by TTWT lol)

        2. It’s trolling. But I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s just that the kind of work people like Greg & TV-eh are doing is a drop in the bucket, instead of a large buffet, so those lazy nostalgia mentions loom a lot larger. If nobody wrote about US tv except for a few people, and articles that did get written mentioned “Manimal” a lot, people might naturally assume that Manimal was actually good and awesome.

          I remember Trouble With Tracy because it was rerun in the late 1970s in daytime, in the lunch hour, in fact, when I would come home from school. On CFTO in Toronto, they would air The Flintstones at 12 noon and TWT at 12:30. Even as a little kid riding his bike home from school to catch Flintstones with my sandwich, I would watch the first few mins of TWT and think, “this is TERRIBLE.” It was fascinatingly, jaw-droppingly AWFUL. Three’s Company reruns would air afterschool, and I watched those too. And Three’s Company made TWT look like, I don’t know, Hamlet.

          A lot of the love the Littlest Hobo gets is the same thing – -it’s nostalgia based, but the nice thing about nostalgia is that you can feel it and it doesn’t drag on your time. If you had to watch reruns of The Littlest Hobo for a week you’d probably want to open a vein.

          These “distorted views” are all part of any cultural discussion…but the point is that the rest of the discussion also has to happen. And in a false way before the last few years, that discussion hasn’t happened in the Canadian media. There’s been this willful decision that it’s not to be covered. I’ve personally had interactions with an entertainment editor of one of the major Toronto dailies where the guy espoused 30 year old attitudes about Canadian TV. It’s no wonder with that being acceptable that you have this distortion: you get Beachcombers jokes, but Heartland fans get utterly ignored. And shows that get 10 and 20X the viewers as Canadian Books or CD’s that continued to get reviewed — there’s a bit of a hole there.

          Which is why the rise of Twitter and sites like TV-eh, and more engaged Canadian TV journalists who want to cover Canadian TV JUST LIKE American TV are so important.

          None of us want primacy of place, we want an end to the omerta. And it’s easier to demand that when you see fans of shows who are no longer invisible, because they can tweet and speak for themselves.

          1. In defence of one commenter/Tweeter who mentions Trouble With Tracy all the time … he’s joking. It’s been a running joke with us for years. It’s no more trolling than me constantly telling Anthony Marco that he’s making Frightenstein up – there’s no such show – or he isn’t Canadian because he hasn’t seen Degrassi (ok, I’m trolling him too but he knows it’s a joke). Let’s allow some room for a sense of humour.

            And this is exactly what I was trying to say before, only a little less graphically: “A lot of the love the Littlest Hobo gets is the same thing – -it’s nostalgia based, but the nice thing about nostalgia is that you can feel it and it doesn’t drag on your time. If you had to watch reruns of The Littlest Hobo for a week you’d probably want to open a vein.” I do think that type of show could have a place for kids today but as a non-kid today, ugh. Yet I will fight to the death (or at least make one comment) for its place on a best of the 70s list.

          2. I can probably come across as a humourless hardcase at times. Just put it down to my cultural war scars acting up when it’s about to rain and making me grumpy :) The problem with discussing CDN film/TV is everyone has their different focus and perspective, so that it can be like blind men arguing over the shape of an elephant. And I realize there’s a distinction between someone posting a joke-comment for a show and actually voting for it. But we’ve all probably been in a situation where we’re trying to talk about something that is important to us and the listeners (kith or kin) start making wisecracks and we realize they’re just not interested in the discussion.
            I find it interesting when people defend shows (I actually feel a bit guilty now dismissing Littlest Hobo after reading all the comments by people who remember it fondly!) But that was part of my initial point. Do some people actually like TWT, despite its rep? Do they like it as a guilty pleasure? Or as “so bad it’s good” (a genre I’ve never really subscribed to – if I like a bad movie/TV show it’s usually because I’m seeing the good lurking inside)? Or do they think it’s awful but that’s the joke? Or is their joke they think it’s the best CDN TV can do?

          3. I thought Greg explained why he put it on the list well. What further justification are you looking for? It definitely has a cult “so bad it’s good” audience who remember it fondly, who would probably gouge out their eyes if they had to watch it today. But who cares? You seem to have had far more of a problem with “haters” than I’ve had in almost 10 years of running this site, but why try to invent them in a civil discussion?

          4. I think I see the point you’re making here, Diane. Are you saying that

            haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate

            And that we should just shake it off, shake it off, shake it off, shake it off?

          5. I know you can get a bit prickly, and have with me in the past, so I don’t take it to heart. My previous comment was my attempt to walk things back by essentially apologizing if I came across as too humourless and grumpy. Though I’m uncertain what I wrote that undermined the “civil” tone of the discussion. I guess I’m a bit too academic and obsessively analytical, interested in the why as well as the what. My hope – as an observer – is that TV, Eh? could act as a nexus for discussions and debates around CDN TV, simply because it’s the main game in town. But I’ll sit down for now and leave the floor to others. No worries. :)

          6. Calling me prickly is a good way to discount an argument but I think you should take to heart that you deflected discussion from the shows themselves to this straw dog argument that haters are everywhere.

  3. Age and generations obviously shapes one’s perspective, and different decades have their significance (I once wrote a post for my blog about series that I argued were “game-changers” in CDN TV – English-Canadian TV that is, and generally scripted dramas).
    The ‘60s were thin, but gave us The Forest Rangers and Wojeck, arguably the first series with lasting impact. The ‘70s I’m not sure had much significance (individual shows excepted, I just mean as an overall era). The ‘80s I’d argue was the first stirrings of a “populist” industry with a number of series that ran a few years with broad appeal (and Street Legal, arguably, inspired a succession of series). The ‘90s could be thought of as the decade of the co-production (though co-productions had been around since before Seaway) – and many of these co-pros were genre (ie: sci-fi/fantasy). Combine that with runaway U.S. productions (like The X-Files) and I think it gave the industry a newfound technical confidence and paved the way for more Canadian-ized co-pros like Rookie Blue, Flashpoint and the whole plethora of sci-fi/fantasy series today.
    Different shows and different decades are all links in the chain. But I do think the ‘80s – if not empirically the “best” – was arguably the most important in terms of unblocking a creative stream as opposed to simply isolated oases, just thinking of all the shows from then (including youth and family ones you remind me were so influential, like Anne of Green Gables).
    Others will doubtless consider different shows and trends of greater import :)

  4. When it comes to the 80s, other than cartoons and the Anne of Green Gables miniseries, I can’t think of any Canadian tv series that I really like except Degrassi High and that’s not for lack of trying. Try as I might, I just don’t click with most of the shows. That can be said of 80s and earlier tv in general, on both sides of the border, with the exception of a few good American comedies like Golden Girls, Cheers and All in the Family which I think still hold up well.

    I think nostalgia helps a great deal in considering a show a favourite. I’m not old enough to be nostalgic about any 80s tv, other than the cartoons and for the most part, most shows do not stand the test of time well. What was funny then is not funny now and television has evolved considerably. I recall really liking The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie when I was a teenager but now I cringe at the some of the writing when I see a rerun. TV has gotten much better.

    To me, the 90s were the age tv improved dramatically (literally), in large part because it was then that the serial drama really evolved. I’m much more of a drama person than a comedy person and its not because I have no sense of humour–I actually quite like the dramedy genre. The half-hour comedy genre, I think is past its prime. I am finding half-hour comedies, in general, quite formulaic and staid and I’m finding myself watching less and less of them each year. The current cancellation rate of new network comedy series is astounding and I find it funny that most of the series nominated in the comedy category for the various awards shows are hour-long dramedies or cable series that don’t have to work around commercials. I can’t even tolerate most half-hour comedies now, be they from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s.

    90s tv

    1. I will say somewhat immodestly that Madison, a show no one really ever saw from the 90’s was a great show. Cast included Chris Martin who ended up a lead in a TV series, Sarah Strange an actress who remains an undiscovered treasure, Jolie Collins a force of nature, Will Sasso, a man on the cusp of greatness, Barry Pepper someone people know and admire, peter Stebbings a true talent as both an actor and director, Enuka Okuma a series lead many times over were all a part of it. Along with them are writers still working today including a GG winner and directors who now helm a list shows. Since it was on in the 90’s it makes it the best decade

      1. I forgot all about Madison. I recall really liking it but I didn’t remember it until you mentioned it in your comment. Just like I forgot all about Catwalk until someone mentioned it here.

  5. I will actually second Madison. Madison is forgotten now but it was way ahead of its time. It was great.

    1. Thanks D. I will never work on a show with so little money and so many weapons – a show where ego never entered into the equation and a show that every week the actors inspired us to be better. It has also disappeared and it makes me so sad that I can’t access it and will never get to see it again.

  6. I remember when we were putting it together the first time. We didn’t want to be Degrassi (no offense) we wanted to emulate adult TV. We talked about the literacy of the audience and how we could rely on their knowledge of tropes to accelerate the story telling process – if we presented a scene the audience knew the next logical scene so we didn’t need to show it – we could move ahead it time in a story and the viewers would know that the scene they had expected to see next had obviously happened off screen. It must have because they were now watching was the scene that would logically follow the scene they hadn’t seen. We did this because we wanted an hour of content to fit into half an hour. Three stories an episode. Rotate a ten person cast in and out. The full ten never had to appear in each ep but six or seven did.

    When we got tagged as the NYPD BLUES of teen shows we knew that someone had got it

    The scared thing was the first episode we did when it was a series (the first Madison’s were a linked anthology) was a disaster! It was jumbled, confused. Three stories in 24 minutes. They didn’t link. WTF are we watching? And that was when I learned about post. I learned that what worked on the page didn’t always work on the screen. ..

  7. BTW Greg, thanks for mentioning “ACROSS THE RIVER TO MOTOR CITY.”

    In true Canadian TV fashion, I’ve had queries from people about me asking, “I don’t know, can he write serialized?” And I have to remind them that, in fact, I won an award for doing just that.

    This is why institutional memory through sustained Canadian TV coverage is so important. So thanks.

    1. Hey Denis, you are totally welcome. As a newbie TV critic covering Canadian content, I was blown away by Motor City and everything else in that genre. I had a lot of fun going through the cast and crew on all of these shows and seeing your name pop up on this was a treat.

Comments are closed.