APTN’s Guilt Free Zone returns for raucous laughs and rockin’ talent

Guilt Free Zone‘s tagline is “This Show is Ridiculous.” That’s true, but it’s also hilarious, educational and truly unique.

Returning for its third season this Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. ET on APTN, Guilt Free Zone (GFZ) is something I’ve never seen in Canadian primetime. It’s a sketch comedy, variety and musical series that showcases solely Indigenous musicians and talent every week while delivering a humorous take on colonization.

“I remember sitting around, thinking about doing a variety show,” GFZ co-creator, co-executive producer, star and Juno-winning singer-songwriter Derek Miller recalls of his initial idea for a program. “It’s grown a personality and a full vibe since then. It’s been an evolution to see how it goes from an original intellectual property idea to actually stuff happening.”

You can’t talk about GFZ without mentioning its past. Season 1 of the variety program had more of a traditional late-night talk show look, with Miller behind a desk, interviewing Indigenous guests from all walks of life, interspersed with moments of sketch comedy and showcasing a musical guest. Then, in 2015, after watching two episodes of the program, the federal government revoked the program’s tax credit, citing GFZ was a talk show and therefore exempt from receiving money. That forced Laura J, Milliken, the series’ co-creator, executive producer, writer and president and CEO of Big Soul Productions, to do some major scrambling. The result? What GFZ is today. I think the show is better for it, and Milliken agrees.

“That prompted a huge wave of creativity and it was actually a really good thing,” Milliken, the co-executive producer of the Gemini-nominated Moccasin Flats, says. “I kind of paced around my house for like, a month, trying to figure out how we could make it the Guilt Free Zone and keep all these wonderful performances but also give it that comedic feel and also say the things we wanted to say.” To tune into GFZ is to visit a legal speakeasy that Derek has won in a poker game. Derek has no clue how to run a bar and relies on the staff of oddballs who he inherited along with the bar to help him. Those include multiple characters played by Amy Matysio (Save Me), Herbie Barnes (Tipi Tales), Darrell Dennis (Blackstone), Camille Stopps (Killjoys), Craig Lauzon (Royal Canadian Air Farce) and Michaela Washburn (The Thaw).

Those wacky characters—and a writing staff that includes Milliken, Katya Gardiner and Dennis—enables to show to go off in wild, hilarious directions. One upcoming Season 3 instalment, “Dick Trouble,” sees the GFZ crew reminiscing about life pre-cell phone, plunging Derek into a film noir sequence while another, “Whack and Roll,” features puppies and an 80s dance off. There is also an acknowledgement of the taking of sovereign Indigenous lands through the lens of comedy.

“We do make commentary in the comedy about who we are and that we’re still here and we have a sense of humour,” Milliken says. “We make political jabs, social jabs and stereotypical jabs. We fight against the stereotypes that are cast upon us, but really the Guilt Free Zone is a place that’s ours and a place that we have to work together on to preserve and make ours.”

The other half of GFZ‘s weekly episodes are the stellar musical performances. An exclusively Indigenous list of performers—in addition to Miller—takes to the stage this season, including Lee Harvey Osmond, Leela Gilday, DJ Shub, Vern Cheechoo, David R. Maracle, Lacey Hill and Arthur Renwick, introducing viewers to an extensive set of bands, performers and singer-songwriters to take note of.

“In my mind, the performances are so beautiful,” Milliken says. “We’re really trying to show these people in the best way possible. “We’re here. We’re here to stay. We have talent and we have laughter.”

Guilt Free Zone airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on APTN.

Images courtesy of Big Soul Productions.

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and owner of TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from hundreds of television series from Canada, the U.S. and internationally. He is a podcaster, public speaker, weekly radio guest and educator, and past member of the Television Critics Association.
Greg David
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