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Where are the Corner Gas Wannabes?:
or If Canadian TV is dying, why is it thriving?



 
 

Last year there was a big fuss within the Canadian film and TV industry about how dire things were looking. Alliance-Atlantis, a major production house, announced it was shutting down its production wing (because it could reap bigger profits simply distributing Hollywood films in Canada) and the broadcasting regulatory body, the CRTC, had softened its Canadian content rules so that broadcasters could count light information and -- get this -- INFOMMERCIALS toward their Canadian content quota. Production was down, ratings were down. It all looked bad. To make matters worse, recently the CBC locked out much of its staff in a labour dispute, further putting on hold various productions in the works. To add insult to injury, not too many viewers seemed to notice, or to care.

So how bad is it?

Doing a quick scan of the TV listings, CTV is offering one hour of Canadian prime time original fiction programming a week -- just one hour! A half hour of Corner Gas and a half hour of Degrassi: The Next Generation. Sure, CTV offers a few token TV movies, usually based-on-the-true-story bio pics (which, though applaudable, kind of shuts the door on any would be storytellers with an original script in their hands). But these are irregular movies at best. As mentioned, looking at a one week TV listing, CTV had no such movie that week, so we're back to one...single...hour in a seven day period.

Over at CanWest-Global things look better...but are actually worse. Global actually has three hours in a week of fiction...but none of it's original. The closest is ReGenesis, an all-Canadian techno-thriller that, though Global is providing its commercial TV debut, had previously aired on cable. The other two hours are supplied by Blue Murder and Zoe Busiek: Wild Card -- both already cancelled series that Global is just rerunning, rather like a medieval warlord, propping up corpses in his castle's windows to fool enemies into thinking he has a viable army.

Perhaps what's worse is that there isn't even much hint of anything on the horizon, no sense that new series are waiting in the wings or anything (save the Mary Walsh sitcom, Hatching, Matching and Dispatching). There may be -- let's hope -- but I haven't come across any reference to them.

So how did things get so bad? How does a G7 nation, one of the richest in the world, reach a point where the two biggest private broadcasters, if combined, could barely fill up one evening a week with Canadian programs? More to the point, how come the CRTC is going along with it? The CRTC was set up to protect Canadian culture and the cultural industry...and instead it seems to have set itself up as dogsbody of the business elite, whose job is to make it easier for them to thumb their noses at every rule and regulation they come across.

The excuse, as it so often is, is one of money -- the networks say they just can't afford to make more Canadian programs. Can't afford? CAN'T AFFORD??? Networks reap millions of dollars in profits every year. CTV alone is so flush with cash that they actually buy more American programs than they can schedule. Which is why it's airing Alias in the bizarre, off-hours time slot of 4:00 PM Sundays, and isn't even showing the West Wing (despite having aquired the broadcast rights) because it literally doesn't have a time slot for it. CTV can afford to literally horde American series, or burn them off in non-peak viewing timeslots...but it can't afford to make its own? Hoggswaddle!

(To be fair: at one point I corresponded with someone involved in one of CTV's current series, and he felt CTV was quite supportive of the show -- so obviously, CTV management isn't all red horns and pitchforks).

Which brings us to Corner Gas -- the little sitcom that could. In a bleak and barren cultural wasteland, apparently Corner Gas has emerged as an unlikely hit. A little comedy about quirky characters in a small town who can get worked up over minor issues, it seems to have struck a bit of a chord with viewers. Perhaps significantly, in Canadian film and TV where everyone's desperate to establish their "edge", their willingness to push taboos, Corner Gas is fairly innocuous. There are a few "ahem" jokes, the occasional sexual reference, but by and large, this is family entertainment, in that the family could sit around and watch it, and no one feel too embarassed or uncomfortable. It's also decidedly low-key, in a industry where too many comedians think mugging is the pinnacle of hilarity.

If this was Hollywood, the success of Corner Gas would spawn a mini-industry, as every network would offer up compareable products (as they did after the success of Seinfeld and Friends). Most would be bad and die quick deaths, a few would be okay, and one or two might rival or even surpass their inspiration. Yes, that's what Hollywood would do. In Canada? In a TV wasteland that coughs up TV shows with all the enthusiasm of a furball?

Nothing. Nada. You can hear the crickets chirp.

Corner Gas is into its third season, and no one has yet to come forward with a rival comedy that tries to mix quirky sharpness, with innocuous, inoffensive humour. To be fair, Walsh's Hatching, Matching and Dispatching may be a belated attempt to emulate it, but knowing Walsh, I'd expect the humour to be brasher and cruder.

So, would we want a schedule filled with Corner Gas knock offs? Probably not. Particularly as Corner Gas is so remarkable because sitcoms have never been Canada's strong point, and the notion we'd see some truly funny Corner Gas knock offs isn't too likely -- but it's worth a try. You see, culture isn't just about the elite telling us who we are, even if we ignore them...culture is about artists letting us tell them who we are, and they shape their product accordingly. And in an industry where executives tell us they can't afford big, glossy dramas, then at least a few cheap sitcoms might stop the leak in the cultural dike.

In the wake of Cold Squad's marginal success, rival networks jumped on the band wagon (CBC's DaVinci's Inquest and Global's Blue Murder); in the wake of the cult popularity of Trailer Parker Boys, we've seen networks go ape for profane, "edgy" shows like Puppets Who Kill, or even Godiva's. Heck, even Due South, playing in the field of big budget action shows, inspired shows like Taking the Falls and Tom Stone. So why hasn't Corner Gas likewise spawned imitators?

I'd like to think it's because it's hard to do, and networks are still in the process of sifting through piles of dreadful comedy script proposals, hoping to find a winner. But there may be something else at work -- an unfortunate elitism that plagues too much in Canadian entertainment. There is a genuine wit and cleverness to Corner Gas (plays on words, eccentric concepts) but the series is unapologetically set among rural, working class folk. And though they are silly and comedic -- they aren't silly and comedic because they're rural, working class (unlike, say, the American sitcom Newhart in which much of the humour was derived from ridiculing the dorky locals). In fact, the big city gal in Corner Gas is just as prone to eccentricity and silliness as the locals. And watching a recent documentary about the popularity of Corner Gas, its audience base looked suspiciously like it comprises a lot of working class folk.

"Dear God!" moan the programmers, "-- not, not...them!"

After all, Canadian programmers have a long history of cancelling series with big ratings, because they weren't the kind of ratings (read: demographics) the programmers wanted. So Rita MacNeil's family-aimed country-folk variety show was cancelled, despite good audience numbers, to make way for the "sophisticated", "urban", "hip" and ratings disastrous Friday Night with Ralph Benmurghi. The long running Beachcombers and the Tommy Hunter show were likewise axed despite strong numbers.

Personally I never watched Tommy Hunter or Rita MacNeil, and was never a big Beachcombers fan -- but, guess what? It's not about me! Nor is it about whether the programmers will look suave among their literati friends at their posh dinner parties sipping French champagne and munching on Russian caviar. It's about providing entertainment that Canadians, in general, respond to. Obviously, I wouldn't want a schedule where there was nothing but Corner Gas knock offs -- even Corner Gas fans probably wouldn't want that. A good schedule should include diversity, everything from the wry humour of Corner Gas to the urban grittiness of This is Wonderland, to a whole lot more besides. But right now, we don't have a "good" schedule -- we barely have anything that could even laughingly be called a "schedule".

In a country where success is generally something programmers have only read about, when a show comes along that apparently is winning an audience, it might behoove programmers to look into it and see if they can learn any lessons it's teaching them.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Oct. 6, 2005

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