When CTV hosted journalists on the Calgary set of its new comedy Jann in October, series star Jann Arden noted that she was just 17 days into her acting career. The Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter has oodles of experience in front of live crowds and has flashed her wicked wit on shows like The Social, but acting in front of a camera—and being No. 1 on the call sheet—is new. And nerve-wracking.
“I’m scared the entire time,” Arden admits during a press conference with the show’s cast and creators. “I think you have to do things in life that scare you.”
Showrunner Jennica Harper (Cardinal, Motive) confesses that she had last-second jitters about her star’s ability to crossover to television as well.
“We obviously were thrilled to be jumping into this project and also knew that it was going to live or die by Jann,” says Harper. “This is who people were going to be coming to see. And so on Day 1, there was sort of a moment where we were all like, ‘Oh, my god….”
“Can she f–king act?” Arden cuts in, causing the room to erupt in laughter.
Once everyone regains their composure, Harper continues, nodding toward Arden, “Then there was the answer, and it was ‘Oh, my god, she’s fantastic.’ It’s gonna be great.”
As that exchange proves, no one had anything to worry about. Arden has natural comedic timing, and as one of the day’s scenes—which journalists were invited to watch on monitors—later demonstrated, she also has impressive dramatic chops.
In Jann, which premieres on Wednesday, March 20, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV, Arden plays a largely fictionalized version of herself. She’s a recording artist who, unlike the real-life Calgary native, is a bit of a has-been, forced to rent out her beautiful country house to Airbnb guests who are more famous than she is. Her sweet but hapless long-time manager Todd (Jason Blicker) is endlessly supportive and books her all the gigs he can, but the payments are inconsistent at best—unless you’re looking to stock up on cheese wheels.
On the home front, younger, more responsible sister Max (Zoie Palmer) is raising three kids and caring for their mother Nora (Deborah Grover), but her surprise fourth pregnancy shakes things up and soon mom is moving in with Jann. Meanwhile, Jann’s ex-girlfriend (Sharon Taylor) is moving on with another woman, and a younger, hipper music manager (Elena Juatco) is trying to push Todd out of the picture and resurrect Jann’s career—situations that are skillfully mined for laughs and cringe-inducing moments of second-hand embarrassment throughout the season’s six-episode run.
Harper and series co-creator Leah Gauthier (Motive), who set up their writer’s room in Arden’s kitchen, readily acknowledge shows like Episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm—where Matt LeBlanc and Larry David played extreme versions of themselves—were heavy influences. And fictional Jann is certainly a narcissist who seems allergic to introspection and good decision making. However, she has a good heart and always manages to remain likable.
“You’re still rooting for her even though she’s making the wrong decisions,” says Gauthier.
And Jann also has a softer centre than those aforementioned shows, which is most evident in the tender and realistic way it deals with Nora’s dementia. Arden’s real-life mother, Joan Richards, suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away in December, just weeks after filming wrapped. Arden wrote about her mom’s struggle with the disease in her best-selling 2017 memoir Feeding My Mother, and some of those experiences appear in the series.
Following the press conference, Arden returns to set to film a scene with Grover that involves an increasingly confused Nora wandering out to the car to find her missing purse and Jann realizing that something may really be wrong with her mom. The pair performed the scene over and over and over again, some takes ending stoically and some ending with Jann in tears. It is here that Arden and fictional Jann seem to merge, and the moment is quietly devastating.
Part of the blending between real and fiction may be related to Grover’s resemblance to Arden’s mother.
“I think she felt I had the right feeling, a certain sensibility, and that seemed to work for her vision of her mom,” Grover says.
As for any emotional toll that filming such scenes may take on her, Arden is matter-of-fact about it.
“I don’t mind tackling the hard stuff,” she says. “That’s life. It’s not a beer commercial, you’re not running down the beach all the time.”
Besides, Arden says living with her mother’s disease made her a better person—something that one presumes might happen to fictional Jann as well.
“It’s a devastating disease, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a better version of myself because of my mom’s illness,” she says. “You know, she put me in a position where I got sober after a lot of years and didn’t hide behind a lot of stuff. I’ve changed so many things about my health and well-being and got out of a really shitty relationship that went on far too long. And I think it gives you a lot of bravery because my mom is like, ‘You gotta be where you are.’”
It also helps to be who you are.
“I’ve made a living being myself, and just being unique to myself,” Arden continues. “That’s how I’ve made my money. That’s as simple as it is. I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best actor, I’m not the best anything. I do what I do, and it’s indigenous to me. So yeah, it’s great for me to have people see that, to have women see someone like me on television that’s not 5’10” and 100 pounds. There are lots of scenes where I’m in f–king boxer shorts and my hair is in a weird ponytail and people laugh before I even open my mouth, and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s reassuring.’
“Just be yourself.”
Or a version of yourself.
Jann airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.
Images courtesy of Bell Media.