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"Monsoon House" and "Man, Woman and Child""
...two new sitcoms you've never seen


Two new Canadian sitcoms premiered last week -- sitcoms starring a couple of reasonably well-known stand up comics.

"Wuzzat?" you say. "When? Howcum I never heard of 'em?"

Well (he says cryptically) you might not have heard of them, but you could 've heard them. (Chuckles at his own indulgent joke). Okay, seriously, the reason you've never heard of them, is 'cause they aren't on TV...but radio. CBC Radio, to be precise.

A while back I wrote an essay suggesting that radio drama can be and is a viable forum for telling stories -- and that in a country where money is tight for mounting filmed productions, radio might provide a cost effective alternative. Unfortunately, CBC Radio only offers a very limited number of dramas (and sitcoms) in radio. So to encourage them, I figured I'd follow that up by actually drawing attention to a couple of current offerings. Particularly as the CBC is notoriously bad at hyping its own shows. A day or two before one of the series premiered...there was still no information about it on the CBC website -- even the time slot was listed as "To Be Announced!" (but that's been rectified, I think)

Considered from least to best, we'll start with Man, Woman and Child, starring acerbic comedian John Wing. It's actually more an extended monologue, with Wing reflecting on being a husband and father, interspersed with him interacting with other characters/actors...which then leads to further monologues reflecting on the conversation. Wing was a comedian I first saw years ago and thought was quite funny, and that, if Canada was like Hollywood, where comedians are snatched up to star in sitcoms, Wing should be on a short list. And now here we are -- sort of.

Man, Woman & Child is reasonably amusing but, I'll admit, not necessarily my brand of comedy. It's basically your usual "ball and chain", "war of the sexes", "we're stuck in the 1950s!" comedy as Wing whines, uh, I mean reflects on the trials and tribulations of married life. But that kind of comedy is big on TV (the American The War at Home, for one) so there's clearly an audience for it.

Man, Woman and Child is also a bit of a hybrid, being sort of a mix of a dramatization...and sort of just a monologue. The first episode was rather episodic, and maybe as the series settles down it will offer up more sustained plots.

Still, as noted, it's amusing enough -- and that's all that really counts in a comedy!

Much more impressive, to my way of thinking, is Monsoon House. This is more a full dramatization. Yes, it relies some on comedian Russell Peters' narration to bridge the scenes, but overall, the story is mainly told through the scenes -- and scenes that nicely evoke their environments. In the first episode, the characters attend both a banquet, and go to a crowded restaurant, and in both cases, you fully visual the scene in your head.

The story involves a somewhat hedonistic wanna be film producer (Peters) who reluctantly gets drawn back into the family business -- a small literary book publishing house. The cast also includes Pamela Sinha and Sam Moses (did I mention the family was Indo-Canadian? Nicely acknowledged without being overplayed) and Michael Riley (yes, Riley, star of big and small screen) as a successful novelist.

First episodes can be problematic -- often either better, or worse, than the ensuing series. The first episode of Monsoon House was very good, so let's hope the rest lives up to it. It was funny, but also interesting in its story twists and developments, plus nicely anchored in the reality of the book and entertainment biz. Yeah, it's a kind of smart, literary sitcom. But don't be intimidated. Even dunderheads like you and me can follow it. It's billed as a mini-series, which means there's a story meant to unfold over many episodes (but there should be sufficient recapping, thanks to the narration, that even having missed an episode, you should be able to follow it).

The performances are first rate, with the scene stealer probably being Sam Moses. Moses is one of those character actors you've seen in things, often cast in vaguely "ethnic" roles, but where you maybe have never put a name to the face (I think I just saw him in a TV commercial for Home Hardware or Canadian Tire or something). But as the patriarch of the family, he's wonderful as a character both world-weary and embittered, trying to publish books in an increasingly illiterate age, yet still with some fight in him, sardonic and erudite. Dissatisfied with his wayward son, he dryly praises his daughter by saying she's the son he never had. Funny stuff.

Unlike Man, Woman and Child, Monsoon House is a fully realized narrative, with scene changes and plot progression, and truly does play out like a TV show in your mind.

Monsoon House airs at that well known peak viewing time of 11:30 AM Fridays! Okay, not the best slot, but maybe you could take an early lunch and tune in to CBC Radio One while munching on your sandwich and garden salad. Man, Woman and Child is on Saturdays at 11:30 AM -- again, not a great time, but at least it's not a weekday. (For those outside of Canada, I believe the programs can be accessed via the CBC website, at least at the time they're being broadcast).

And while I'm on the topic, I only recently became aware of The Vinyl Cafe (okay, I was aware of it before, just hadn't listened to it). Not a dramatization, with actors, but nonetheless an amusing series as Stephen Leacock Award winner Stuart McLean tells rambling, low-key, but quite funny anecdotes about the life and times of a fictional family. I also picked up at the library a CD of The Dead Dog Cafe. Written by (and co-starring) popular novelist Thomas King, think of it as kind of the Muppet Show (without, y'know, muppets) as it uses the show-within-a-show formula and just has a lot of hit-and-miss one-liners and manic goofiness, but with a touch of a political bite (did I mention the characters are Native Indian?). Very funny. An example of the absurdist humour is that the show-within-a-show is called The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour...but the show itself is only 15 minutes long (as a character remarked in one episode: "The last half hour just whips by!") I'm not sure if it's currently on the schedule, but a new season is in production (and there's always the library, for both it and the Vinyl Cafe).

Personally, I'd like to see the CBC devote some time to some less comedic faire -- thrillers, adventure, sci-fi. But if you want to sample some new Canadian series on an otherwise Spartan Canadian TV landscape, or you want proof there's still some life (and laughs) in radio -- it's just a twist of the dial away.

Addendum Sept. 17: Caught the second episode of both "Monsoon House" and "Man, Woman and Child" -- Monsoon House was still very good, boding well for the series overall...and I actually enjoyed Man, Woman and Child more than I had the first episode -- just so's ya know.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

September 14, 2006

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