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Post Mortem:
Sifting through the remains of Canadian TV shows


Okay, last time I sort of promised we’d take a look at some of the recently cancelled CBC TV series, as well as some of the not (yet) cancelled series, and ask: what works and what didn’t work? And since I promised...that's what we'll do.

Why? You ask.

Well, because maybe a post mortem is a healthy thing from time to time. You see, everyone generally agrees that the audience numbers are usually terrible for Canadian series (and ticket sales even worse for movies) yet no one really tries to roll up their sleeves and ask: "why?" Okay, scratch that. They do ask why, but usually the answers range from “the show’s terrible” -- which isn’t constructive -- to “the show’s great -- it’s the fault of _____ (fill in blank with “audience”, “programmers", “gremlins”)” -- which is unproductive and somewhat delusional.

Many of these shows I haven’t yet gotten around to posting formal reviews in the main body of the site, and those that I have, well, such capsule reviews don’t necessarily lend themselves to these kind of considerations.

So, just to recap: in one fell swoop, the CBC cancelled Da Vinci’s City Hall, This is Wonderland, and The Tournament…leaving intact (so far) Getting Along Famously and Hatching, Matching & Dispatching (as well as assorted topical sketch comedies). What no one generally disputes is that the cancelled series had terrible ratings -- less than 400 000 viewers (what I haven't heard is what the ratings are for the surviving shows but one suspects they probably aren't much better).

Instead of telling you what was good about the cancelled series, and how we’re all going to miss them, and how Canadian culture is poorer without them (as most pundits seemed to be doing in the immediate aftermath), I’m going to do something radical. I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate. I’m going to assuming they were right to be cancelled, and ask why.

Let’s start with This is Wonderland -- a series I did like, certainly at first, and therefore my criticisms will, hopefully, smack a little more of being well-intentioned. This is Wonderland was a raw, edgy, very, very dark comedy-drama where most of the action took place at a Toronto court house and its surrounding environs. Many of the lawyers were crazier and more eccentric than their clients (and it could be argued the series might’ve influenced the US series, Boston Legal, but -- shhh, we aren’t supposed to suggest Americans might be ripping off Canadian series, ‘cause that might lend legitimacy to Canadian programs)


A problem was that the stories were often written more as set pieces, to present a situation, or to provide a venue for an actor to deliver a rant. But the cases tended not to be strong as "plots" -- y'know, a beginning, middle and end, with some surprise twists and revelations. The result was a series which might be interesting as a whole, but where there were few individual episodes that stood out as great storytelling.

Chief writers George F. Walker and Dani Romain also seemed to write a limited number of character types, with most of the characters angry, slightly crazed, and yelling a lot. No doubt, a common type in a courthouse, but as a weekly series, it got increasingly shrill and grating...and repetative.

It wanted to be plot driven, focusing on the characters at the courthouse, but -- perhaps under pressure from executives to make it more "conventional" -- then tried to throw in soap opera-y elements involving the characters' personal lives. But it did so in such a "we don't really care" way that it often seemed pointless. The result was that it lost the edge of being this snappy paced, court focused dramedy...without evolving into an affecting, human drama about the regular characters.

And there was a sense the creators got bored with their ostensible lead character, Alice (played by Cara Pifko), marginalizing her as they focused on the quirkier, neurotic and, yes, shrill characters (the same attitude is presumably why Yanna McIntosh's also level-headed character never really seemed to get off the ground). But as much as quirky characters can be fun and intriguing, I think an audience likes to have a core character they can identify with. Or, as I learned years ago watching Star Trek: Spock and McCoy are great characters...but Captain Kirk can carry an episode.

So...could addressing those problems -- seriously and sincerely (as opposed to in a half-hearted way) -- have saved the show? Maybe not. And maybe it would've lost its unique flavour if they had (though I think there could be a middle ground). But the point is: it was cancelled due to bad ratings. So it's not enough to say it was a great show and not try to ask how it might've been improved

I was not a fan of DaVinci's Inquest, but I decided to give the spin-off DaVinci's City Hall a try and, after sticking with it for a few episodes, liked it a bit better. Stylistically it suffered from the same flaws as DVI, but by shifting to a more political milieu it seemed more unique. Still, it was cancelled with bad ratings (and, despite claims to the contrary, DVI apparently never exactly boasted hit numbers anyway). So...problems with DVCH?

Like TIW, DVCH wanted to be a procedural more than a character drama...many of the characters we never even knew if they were married or what they did on their off hours. To me, story telling is, fundamentally, about the Human Condition, and human beings are more than just the sum of their office hours. With that being said, if a series is going for a "procedural" style (ala Dragnet or CSI), then, no, you don't want to devote chunks a screen time to their home lives...but you'd like to believe the characters are well enough rounded that the filmmakers could if they wanted to.

Like DVI, DVCH was kind of slow moving where the crisises and situations they were dealing with one episode...seemed to the same ones they were dealing with ten episodes later. There's a difference between letting a plot gradually unfold...and just dragging out a story because you can't think of anything new.

And there was very little effort to welcome new viewers (a similar problem plagued DVI). You could watch a few episodes and still not be entirely sure who was who, or what they were arguing about.

Moving on....

The Tournament joined the list of comedies spoofing documentary series, as it followed the lives of the parents of a bunch of junior league hockey players as though a documentary -- in the vein of, say, The Office and others.

I don't have much to say about the Tournament. Didn't hate it, didn't love it. The first time I saw (the American version) of the Office -- I laughed. Ditto for The Newsroom (well, the first season). But I think I had to watch a couple of episodes of the Tournament before I even chuckled much. And I just didn't much care for a lot of the characters (which was, to be fair, the point) and those I did didn't necessarily get much screen time. But characters you care about, which seems to be a problem facing all these series, is soooo important. Critics may wax rhapsodically about how funny Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson are in The Office...but surely, if only subconcsiously, a lot of people tune in week after week because of the romantic tension between the more sympathetic Jim and Pam.

Maybe a lesson we can take from The Tournament, after the past failures of Power Play and He Shoots, He Scores, is: it's hard to woo an English-Canadian audience with a hockey series.

Now let's look at what wasn't cancelled: Getting Along Famously and Hatching, Matching & Dispatching. Both were part of the CBC's "experiment" to air pilots and get the audience to vote on what they liked (see my earlier editorial).

Getting Along Famously has a cute premise -- set in the 1960s about the married hosts of a TV variety show. And it wants to be just an unpretentious comedy. But I don't really get the impression the creators have much affection for the milieu they're spoofing, or much interest in it (other than recognizing it made a good "high concept") which is kind of awkward. Though not outrageously coarse, a lot of the jokes revolve around drug use and sexual innuendo...which seems a bit ill-conceived, since surely their target audience would be older people who look back nostalgically on that innocent period. I can't help thinking they're just alienating the viewers who would like the premise, while the fans who would like the edgier content would have less interest in the concept.

GAF is yet another (!) Canadian sitcom where its stars are the creators. I'm not familiar with Debra McGrath, while Colin Mochrie crops up on Canadian TV every time you turn your head. Personally, I would think if you're doing a show about the hosts of old time television, you'd want the leads to seem a little more...suave, breezily sophisticated. Charles Powell and Myrna Loy or something. Heck, Cameron Bancroft and Fiona Loewi in the Canadian TV movie Breakfast with Dick and Dorothy came (closer) to capturing that flavour. And, though this is no reflection on them as a real life couple, Mochrie and McGrath don't exhibit a lot of the on-screen chemistry the show's counting on.

The bottom line is it ain't very funny...nor very charming.

Before I had seen Hatching, Matching & Dispatching, in an earlier essay I predicted it would be rather coarse and vulgar. Even I didn't realize how much so. This is the CBC's attempt to prove they can out edge, and out shock, upstart stations like Showcase and Bravo. But the curious thing about HMD is that it's not really a sitcom, per se. The episodes I saw seemed less a consistent narrative than a collection of vignettes revolving around an eccentric family who run a combo funeral home, wedding service, and ambulance (told, like The Tournament, as a pseudo-documentary). Moreso than GAF, the cast and writers of HMD seem to have a feel for their characters and the milieu so, in that sense, they're doing their job. And I did find it, occasionally, amusing because of that. But it just ain't very funny (mind you, I've only seen two episodes), nor the characters ingratiating.

I'm guessing HMD will probably more likely find a cult audience than GAF, even as its incessant vulgarity will probably turn off plenty of others...but I just don't think it'll be a big audience.

I could talk about Ken Finkleman's latest indulgence, At the Hotel, but since it technically aired after my previous essay (in which I promised to write this essay), I won't...besides, I'm depressing myself enough already. (Okay, that was catty, and I haven't seen enough of it to form a true opinion yet).

So, in summation, this was a look at what's out there and what was recently cancelled (on the CBC, that is). Ironically, I found myself liking the series that were cancelled more than the series that weren't...but even then, as you can see, I think they were flawed efforts. I can't entirely fault the CBC for cancelling them, nor the audience for tuning out.

But I'm guessing to the makers of those shows, they will fault the CBC, the audience, and, well, me, for saying what we're all thinking. But they won't fault themselves. Never that.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Mar. 16, 2006

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