Steve Levitan is trying to get Train 48 back on track, and now seems like the perfect time to do it.
“The format that, at the time, I thought was innovative today is even more strategically smart,” Levitan says.
For those who don’t recall, Train 48 was an anomaly on the Canadian TV landscape. Broadcast on Global from 2003 until 2005 and based on the Australian series Going Home, the soapy series followed the daytime commute of a small group of characters from Toronto to Burlington, Ont. Before cell phones became the norm, folks would travel on the train and talk about the day’s events, often amongst the same four people sitting together. Levitan and his writers mirrored that for Train 48, mapping rough conversations and then letting the cast go, free forming the discussions to make them more real. Among the cast on Train 48 were Krista Sutton, Paul Braunstein, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Joe Dinicol, Raoul Bhaneja, Amy Price-Francis and Lisa Merchant, who filmed an episode every weekday for two years.
“I sort of vaguely remember getting up at 4:30 a.m. to drive into the set,” Merchant, who played Brenda Murphy, recalls. “We’d get into costume and have a meeting with the producer, have breakfast, and then it was time to get rolling. We’d be finished by 2:30 p.m. and then would do it all over again the next day.”
“Even though those of us who did it have done a lot of things in our careers, we’ve haven’t done anything like it again,” Bhaneja, who portrayed Pete Subramani, says. “It was such a unique journey. We’d be picked up in a van convoy, climb into our fake GO Train set, film and then what we did would be on TV that night. It was crazy.”
As a daily commuter into Toronto myself at the time, I totally got what Train 48 was all about. Aside from being tonally different from what was on television at the time, Train 48 broke new technological ground as well. Levitan recalls how Global wanted to drive traffic to its fledgling Canada.com website; the show placed Pete on the phone his bookie betting on that night’s Toronto Blue Jays-New York Yankees game. Viewers were urged to visit the website to vote who they thought would win the game; Canada.com crashed for days.
So, why the attention for Train 48 after 13 years? Because episodes are rolling out on the show’s YouTube channel. The show’s distributor, Syndicado (a deal structured through Farrago Media Inc.), suggested they be posted online and Levitan said yes. Train 48 certainly works airing on YouTube, but it would be a perfect fit for Canada’s streaming channels CraveTV and shomi. Levitan thinks so too, but no broadcaster has been interested. He also believes the format is the perfect formula for television today. Levitan points to Orphan Black, which attracts 250,000 viewers for Space every week at a cost of millions per episode versus his show, which attracted 250,000 viewers or more every night of the week at a cost of $40,000 per instalment. The model, he says, still works today.
“There are lots of ways to keep doing Train 48,” Levitan says. “And there are lots of ways to update or change the creative focus of that format, depending on who your network or audience is.”
Check out all of Train 48’s episodes as they roll out on YouTube.