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The Almost Sitcoms
Or: TV executives would like to be excused now


A couple of years back the CBC tried a marketing experiment where they broadcast two sitcom pilots, An American in Canada and Rideau Hall (which I detail here). The idea was to test the waters and invite the viewers to comment and to vote for which series should actually be made. Announcing the experiment a rousing success, the CBC put both shows into production. At the time, I expressed qualms about the process...and history would seem to have proven me right. Neither series was very good, and Rideau Hall was cancelled after one season. One suspects the only reason An American in Canada limped through a second year before being shut down was because the CBC was too embarrassed to admit their mistake by cancelling both series at once.

So why are they doing it again by airing pilot episodes of three possible shows: Walter Ego, Getting Along Famously, and Hatching Matching & Dispatching? And why does the banner at the CBC website proclaim that their original experiment (with Rideau Hall and An American in Canada) was a success, and invite viewers to help choose the next "hit" series.

"Success"? "Hit"? One and two season respectively are considered "hits" now? Oy vey! Worse, CanWest-Global is getting in on the act with a one-off episode for The Jane Show.

The notion of creating a stand alone pilot isn't an unusual idea. The Americans used to do them (though not so much recently). Of course, those tended to be TV movies that, if ratings and reviews warranted, would then be turned into weekly series. That was the process that led to the successful Canadian TV series, Due South. What that meant was that if the TV movie didn't result in a series, well, you at least still had a movie that could be put on video, or air in a late night movie spot. Of course, other than Due South, and John Woo's Once a Thief (which spawned a one season series) most TV movie try outs that come to mind in Canada tend not to have led to anything.

But doing a half hour or hour long episode that might never become a series seems like it has limited prospects for future airings. Not that it's that new an idea (other than asking the audience to vote). In the past the CBC has occasionally dumped one-shot half hours in odd time slots, promising a series that never happened (a Don Francks/Lisa Langlois show called The Rainbow Bar and Grill, which I seem to recall liking, and I have vague memories about a sitcom about a minister and his family).

But why, after the pretty obvious failure of An American in Canada and Rideau Hall, is not only the CBC, but now CanWest-Global, repeating the process?

Well, they might think it makes a certain marketing sense. The CBC aired the shows over three weeks, and perhaps was hoping to create a kind of Canadian Idol/Greatest Canadian sort of momentum as the audience is encouraged to vote in (though, if that were the case, they'd need a fourth night where the "winner" is announced). But really, one suspects it more smacks of cowardice, of an unwillingness on the part of programmers to make a decision. By greenlighting the pilots, but then letting the public vote, they can absolve themselves of responsibility if it fails. In fact, one could even infer the programmers are already evincing a lack of confidence in the projects, since the CBC felt no such need to test the waters with, say, The Tournament. Some series get produced...and some they wave before the public to see if anyone charges.

That's even assuming the public's opinion influences anything. After all, both the previous series were produced, and there were no obvious changes made to the programs between the pilot and the regular series (if you're asking for viewer feedback, doesn't that imply you're inviting them to suggest ways to improve the program before it goes weekly?).

Perhaps the CBC has already decided to make all three of the current proposed series and is using the public voting simply as a publicity stunt (much as they announced the "overwhelming" success of An American in Canada and Rideau Hall when, it seems, the whelming must have been less so). Of course it might be the opposite. I could well imagine that CanWest-Global has no intention of proceeding with The Jane Show, but by tossing it out there, they can fool cultural critics (who notice the derth of Canadian programs on their schedule) into thinking that they're actually doing something. By holding out the promise of a series, CanWest-Global executives might be hoping people will overlook it if they never deliver on that promise. But maybe I'm cynical.

The problem is, can a sitcom really work in a one-off, stand alone format? The Jane Show and Getting Along Famously (the only ones I saw) were not unfunny, but hardly riveting. Had they been a series, I might have tried the next episode or two, just to be kind. But there was nothing about them to make me wait eagerly for a year or more to visit with these characters again. A series can build audience enthusiasm slowly, but they need to maintain momentum. And, at the same time, neither the Jane Show nor Getting Along Famously were that funny, either (though the latter, a period piece about 1960s TV variety stars, at least had a concept).

As an aside, there used to be a complaint that in Canada there was no support to create or nurture stars. Actors who had been in hit shows found there was little enthusiasm from networks to try and fit them into new vehicles (as often happens in the U.S. -- with mixed results). The problem, though, with relying on "stars" is: what if those stars didn't interest you the last six times you saw them? The new CBC shows were all marketed emphasizing their various stars like Peter Keleghan, Diane Flack, Mary Walsh, and Colin Mochrie -- none of whom, personally, exactly makes me sit up and shout, "Yay, team!" Of course, The Jane Show was fashioned around a fairly obscure stand up comedienne...and that didn't really excite me either. So maybe I'm just an old grouch. (Comedies revolving around stand up comics often rely on the supporting actors for polish. Corner Gas's Brent Butt is funny, but, particularly at first, the supporting cast definitely shored up the weak spots. In The Jane Show, supporting character Polly Shannon was over-the-top, but I did like Keram Malicki-Sanchez and John Ralston)


What's perhaps even more frustrating about this new trend of "testing" the waters, is that they seem to be doing it with relatively cheapo sitcoms. I mean, if you're going to do a publicity stunt, or hold a kind of contest, saying to the audience "only one of these shows will be made", surely the implication should be that only of of these shows will be made 'cause the network couldn't afford to do all three. Surely we should feel we have to choose because the final selection will be something super special. Instead of making us choose between three low-budget sitcoms, the CBC should offer up pilot episodes of, say, a science fiction space opera, a globe hopping spy-adventure series, and a historical epic. Something where we can feel that there's a reason there's only enough in the coffers to make one.

Acting as if greenlighting a few low budget sitcoms should be a matter of major national enthusiasm -- particularly when the last two such sitcoms failed -- is just downright depressing.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Feb. 2, 2005

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