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Good, Bad and Indifferent -- Looking at the TV Season:
From Flashpoint to Being Erica, Wild Roses to Soul (and Monsoon House, too!)



 

Every now and then I like to do these over view pieces, looking at what’s on Canadian TV, offering a few trenchant (in my opinion) comments (inane blatherings in the opinions of people who disagree with me). Obviously, I’m writing about Canadian series -- so when I write a network is airing “x” number of shows, I’m not talking about their whole schedule, merely the Canadian part of it. As well, my focus is on fiction/narrative series, so I’m not including Canadian Idol or the Rick Mercer Report, etc.

Another interesting sidebar is that though most Canadian series struggle in the ratings against imported US series…I was recently surprised to realize the gap isn’t as wide as you might think. We’re used to reading about multi-million household ratings in the context of America and the American population. But when the Canadian numbers are isolated, in fact a lot of US series airing on Canadian networks bring in numbers comparable to, or even lower, than Canadian shows. That isn’t to suggest a lot of Canadian series aren’t struggling to hold an audience, or that somehow a Canadian series bringing in the same numbers as a mediocre US series is something to brag about…but I just thought it was interesting to realize that, after all is said and done, Canadian series are still in the game.

I’ll start off with a bit of a “left field” one, by mentioning the CBC radio sitcom, Monsoon House, is back for a second season. Al Rae’s comedy about the conflicts in a small scale publishing house starring comedian Russell Peters, and Pamela Sinha, Sam Moses and Michael Riley (Being Erica, This is Wonderland) was a true delight in its first season. And I might quibble and say the second season isn’t quite as strong -- but that’s only by comparison. It’s still a very funny, Byzantine, and occasionally incisive comedy. Definitely a high point of the Canadian TV season…even if it’s not, actually, on TV! While I’m talking about radio, Matt Watts’ various science fiction comedies from the past few years, ranging from “Steve the First” to “Canadia 2056” are definitely worth the listen, easily comparable to the king’s of science fiction comedy -- the British, and shows like Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Nebulous. Y’know, funny, yes, but also genuinely creative and really exploring the science fiction potential (unlike the Americans to whom the marriage of science fiction and comedy results in things more like, um, Alf).

Anyway, on to TV…

Currently among the big successes is still Corner Gas, still bringing in impressive million-plus audience numbers after all these years…but also in its final season. CTV is supposedly looking at another project conceived by (though not starring) Corner Gas’ Brent Butt but, still, there’s gotta be a few people, both at CTV and in the Canadian entertainment biz, worried about what happens when Corner Gas shuts off its pumps, being as it was the poster child for Made in Canada Success.

The other inarguable ratings success is also on CTV -- Flashpoint. I don’t know what’s rarer about it, that it’s a liberal cop show (for a genre that tends more often to reflect hard line conservative values) or that it’s a Canadian series airing on a U.S. network and doesn’t hide the fact that it’s set in Canada. But Flashpoint delivers a surprisingly sure footed weekly mix of tension & suspense with thoughtful drama, with some exceptionally good guest star performances in a series that really writes for its guest stars. And this season has even added Jessica Steen to the cast (subbing for regular Amy Jo Johnson whose character was shot and hospitalized in order to explain Johnson’s maternity leave). Yes, all this and the Steen Engine, too. Um, Steen Machine? Okay, so I’m bad at clever nicknames. There have been a few “lesser” episodes (one guest starring Colm Feore and Wendy Crewson in particular struck me as suffering from some glaring implausibility in the narrative -- no fault of the actors, including the underrated Conrad Pla) but it’s actually remarkable how consistently strong the episodes are. Though despite regularly bringing in strong ratings on both sides of the border…Flashpoint has actually been pre-empted the last few weeks. Don’t know what that’s about.

The fact that CTV can boast the only two fiction series with million-plus ratings would seem to be a feather in the cap for those free enterprise advocates who believe that private networks can do it better than the public CBC. At the same time, CTV offers a very limited amount of programs. And indeed, the only other Canadian series it currently airs -- Degrassi: the Next Generation -- is apparently in a curious position. The Degrassi franchise, begat years ago on the aforementioned CBC, is a venerable name, the current series enjoys some critical accolades, and is apparently a big success for a U.S. cable network. But its Canadian ratings are anaemic at best and have been for a while (unfortunately, the audience numbers needed by a cable station and by a national network are rather different).

So CTV enjoys the current season’s two biggest shows…and one of its weakest.

CanWest-Global, on the other hand, seems to have trouble with both quantity and quality (at least as defined by ratings). Currently the only series it’s airing is Da Kink in My Hair. Inspired by a stage play and set at a Caribbean-Canadian hair salon, it’s in its second season and, I’ll admit, remains for me a missable effort -- despite a soild, anchoring performance from Ordena Stephens. But the series is just an unpolished “dramedy” (that is, not funny enough to be a comedy, not dramatic enough to be a drama) with uneven performances. Last season it was shown 7:30 on Sundays, this season it’s in the more “adult” timeslot of 9:30 Thursdays, and continues to bring in ratings that makes Sophie look good by comparison. Now, to be fair, there is some suggestion that that’s a national average and if you regionalize the ratings, Da Kink does stronger in urban centres. But, of course, television is full of number crunchers who can find some arcane mathematical formula or demographic that “proves” a low rated series is, in fact, a hit when viewed a certain way.

Global’s other current series (though not actually airing right now) is The Guard -- the big budget action/soap about a Coast Guard crew. You remember what I just said about how there’s always a way to crunch numbers to make them look good? Well when The Guard premiered last season, it boasted opening night ratings higher than the CBC’s The Border…but after that it sunk significantly below the The Border’s waterline. Yet that didn’t stop Global from continuing to hype The Guard, even into its second season, as last season’s highest rated new Canadian drama! Despite a decent cast, the Guard just fails to be interesting. In fact, I’m not even sure how many episodes even aired this year (it seemed to disappear pretty quickly -- but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention).

Actually Global did have a third series: it was briefly showing re-runs of Billable Hours (originally aired on Showcase). Billable Hours is one of those supposedly “edgy” comedies, where it’s all about the four-letter words and “politically incorrect” humour. When I first saw it, it was the sort of thing that wasn’t really working (despite crackerjack performances, particularly from the two leads) but you held out hope would settle into a successful mix. But I don’t think it ever did. And I’m not sure its run on Global made any impression, ratings wise.

So if in our Canadian TV fairy tale, CTV is the Papa Bear (with some inarguable hits -- albeit not many series) and CanWest-Global is the Baby Bear (with few series and poor ratings) that brings us to our Mama Bear.

The CBC.

As always, the CBC offers the most quantity when it comes to series: Being Erica, Wild Roses, Sophie, The Border, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Heartland. And the only network to, so far, offer new series (CTV and CanWest-Global are just offering new seasons of returning shows).

Little Mosque is an unfortunate victim of its own success. It premiered with an unprecedented two million viewers which then dropped to a more-than-respectable one million. But now in its third season, the ratings tend to waffle around the 600 000 mark, leading more than a few commentators to get it in their critical gun sights as a wounded animal begging to be finished off (this for a series that garnered quite a bit of negative flak right from the get go just for its premise). I don’t watch Little Mosque regularly anymore, largely due to a limitation on my free time, but when I do catch it, it’s still good for chuckles, though like with Corner Gas, it has never quite managed to affect the slickness of a US sitcom. But though there’s no doubt Little Mosque has bled viewers…the fact of the matter is, it’s hardly a dying animal, the numbers still respectable by Canadian standards. In fact, Little Mosque continues to be one of CBC’s higher rated series.

Another modest-but-consistent performer is the family drama, Heartland -- the series that, apparently, Critics-Dare-Not-Speak-its-Name given how little mention and commentary this well produced and acted series about a horse ranch gets in the press.

The Border (which isn’t currently airing, as its short seasons are only about a dozen episodes long) is into its second season and continues to bring in decent if unspectacular ratings (at least when compared to, say, Flashpoint). The Border remains, for me, a problematic series. A cops n’ robbers/espionage series, the sophomore season struck me as more uneven than the first. It’s slick, briskly paced, with good actors, but a lot of the writing strikes me as just lame, the twists and turns amateurish and/or illogical, like they’re shooting from first draft scripts or something. And the characterization seems equally erratic and inconsistent -- like the character of Layla who, one episode is a modestly observant Muslim who doesn’t even drink…and then, in another episode, engages in hot and sweaty one night stands with a guy she’s just met…while on a case, yet! (ironically in an episode airing just shortly after a published interview in which actress Nazneen Contractor emphasized how her character wasn‘t been used to sex up the series). Admittedly, I have no philosophical objection to lovely Contractor in a hot and sweaty love scene, I just wish it stemmed more logically from the character and scenario.

The first half of the second season struck me as downright bad at times -- worse, it struck me as kind of stupid. But it did pick up a little toward the end of the season, partly if you just accept it as just a goofy action series (the season finale cliffhanger, when they open the back of the truck, being a good example of something which was both cleverly unexpected…and jaw droppingly stupid -- I actually laughed, for both reasons). It also, I think, did benefit from the addition of Grace Park to the cast. No, no, I’m not some Battlestar Galactica fan boy (or GINO fan-boy, if you prefer), nor do I really think Park is a “name” that will boost the ratings as some fans assumed (Galactica is a “cult“ success more than a mainstream hit). But Park does have an on-screen personability (even aside from her obvious beauty) that does her in good stead. Note to producers: give her work before she drifts south to Hollywood (or west to Asian cinema) permanently like so many others have done.

Sophie, meanwhile, is chronically the lowest rated series on the CBC’s schedule and is basically the critics’ whipping boy -- or girl -- (though, funnily enough, I think it does marginally better than Degrassi and Da Kink). But frankly, I can’t offer too much in its defense. I didn’t like it to begin with (yes, back when most critics were heralding it as smart and sophisticated!) and I still don’t like it, though I think it’s actually improved a bit this season, toning down some of the mugging. (At the writing of this I just learned Sophie has officially been cancelled).

Which then brings us to the two new series: Being Erica and Wild Roses.

Let’s start with Wild Roses, largely because it’s getting the more negative reaction. Intended to be nothing more than a shamelessly pulpy night time soap echoing old series like Dallas. Now the problem when CBC series let their hair down, is they can let it down too far, as Wild Roses follows on the heels of last season’s MVP, also marketed as unapologetically, unpretentious sudsy fun (or The Border this season with its over-active libido and incessant lurid -- but PG -- sex scenes). There’s a fine line between racy and unpretentious…and just plain cheesy. And the whole problem with the Dallas analogy is that, well, maybe that dog has had its day -- I mean, it’s not like there are too many US series that are begging comparison to a series that went off the air years ago. And critics have been quick to point out Wild Roses’ lacklustre ratings.

But what that misses is that Wild Roses is actually…pretty good.

The story of the dynamics between a ranching family locked in a feud with an oil baron is hardly ground breaking. Even what maybe was the gimmick -- that the ranchers are a family of women -- isn’t that unique (Red Serge, McLeod’s Daughters). But if you stick with it for an episode or two, and can forgive the more Hollywood excesses (a family that is so poor they can barely make their payments…but wander around in $700 dollar boots), the series grows on you. The actors are good, the characters boast shading, the interpersonal dynamics reasonably interesting (including the idea that the oil baron may be feuding with the women…but his sons are actually friends with them). Sure, the oil baron and his scheming, sex kitten daughter are too one-dimensional (no fault of the actors). Remember what I said about Dallas having had its day? I think the time of the “villain you love to hate” may be passing by. Not that they can’t be the villains…but even villains deserve shading and humanizing motivation -- even Dr. Doom was once a persecuted Gypsy boy. The oil baron has some of that -- at least he’s pushed to desperation by the financial fragility of his company -- and the daughter, too, is supposed to have a few facets…but too often is just a vamp cliché, though Amy Ciupak Lalonde does have an attractive upper back (as the person who cut the title sequence montage clearly recognizes).

As someone who tries to watch a few episodes of Canadian series just to “sample” them, the fact that I regularly tune into Wild Roses long after I’ve seen enough sample episodes seems to indicate I’m now watching just ‘cause, well, I want to. More to the point, the fact that I’m watching, despite my initial reservations, would seem to indicate what I said: it’s a series that, given a few episodes, can win you over. But the problem it faces ratings-wise, I suspect, is that it doesn’t have anywhere to go. It is what it is. Unlike some series, which can build an audience through word-of-mouth, and can gain viewers who were initially disinterested by friends assuring them “it’s not what you think” (such as, say, the U.S. series Buffy the Vampire Slayer which won devoted viewers who were initially skeptical of the concept), in the case of Wild Roses, well, it is what you think. It might be somewhat less cheesy than the hype indicated, but if you aren’t the least bit interested in the basic premise then there’s not too much in the execution that’ll change your mind. It’s better than you might think…but it is what you think.

Nor does it seem to have too many friends among critics -- a rather crucial demographic in Canadian TV where real audiences can be elusive. Whether Wild Roses will be back for a second season is uncertain (leaning towards unlikely with the economy the way it is and CBC cutbacks). But the irony about that is that although Wild Roses ratings are consistently lower than the other new series, Being Erica, they aren’t that much lower. In fact, the two are more-or-less within spitting distance of each other (400 000-plus vs. 500 000-plus). Yet Wild Roses seems to be being regarded as an ill-fated failure, while Being Erica is the critical darling.

Now Being Erica is a series trying more vigorously to fall into that “it ain’t what you think” category. With mixed results. The premise is that thirtysomething Erica considers her life a failure and a result of a lot of missed opportunities and bad choices. And through the help of a mysterious psychiatrist, Dr. Tom, each episode she gets to go back to various moments in her life and try to do it different. Initial reviews likened it to the US series Quantum Leap (but it owes more in tone to Canadian productions such as Twice in a Lifetime and the film Fetching Cody -- but God forbid Canadian critics would suggest a Canadian series is reminiscent of other Canadian productions, eh?).

Now as the sci-fi/fantasy proponent that I am, the fact that this is basically the first fantasy-tinged series the CBC has deigned to air since Seeing Things (about 20 years ago!) and mayhap only the third or fourth such series in the CBC’s entire history (going back to Strange Paradise in the early 1970s) I sort of want to boost Being Erica.

But…I’ve been waffling on the series. It’s kind of the opposite of Wild Roses. With Wild Roses, I was critical at first, but have found myself warming up to it, whereas with Being Erica, the more episodes I’ve seen, the less I’m enthused about it. Strangely enough, it seems to have a lot of enthusiastic support from critics, even as they don’t really seem to be enjoying it -- at least, I’ve come across a few articles and blogs in which the commentator is enthusiastically promoting it…even as they’ll then (*cough*) mention they’ve only watched one or two episodes all the way through!

It’s a slick, well acted series but kind seems a bit unfocused. It’s a fantasy/time travel series…that kind of wants to be Slice-of-Life. A comedy-drama for people who find most TV “comedies” too silly and “dramas” too melodramatic. Even it seems a bit unsure of its own concept, as sometimes she goes back in times and doesn’t change things; sometimes she does, but only changes her actions not the results; other times she does change the results -- but it doesn’t actually have any impact on her modern life (which was, y’know, the whole point in her wanting to change things after all). Because it’s a fantasy series that seems a tad uncomfortable with the fantasy label, they don’t go what might’ve been a more interesting route: having it be that she does change her life and then has to deal with those consequences (ie: she goes back in time to improve her job prospects and returns to the present to find herself now a CEO…only with no friends, so next episode, she goes back in time to try and fix her friendships, etc. -- the series could then be about how in her quest for the “perfect” life, she finds there are always imperfections). As I say, it’s a bit as if it’s a fantasy series that is uncomfortable with the fantasy aspect (one could almost have interpreted it as maybe being all in her head…except her psychiatrist occasionally interacts with other cast members, negating the possibility that he’s just a figment of her imagination).

Another problem, I’ll confess, is that the basic concept is both clever…and just obnoxiously self-obsessed. TV for the “Me Generation” as I’m not sure I’ve heard a lead character use the self-reflective pronouns so much in one series (except maybe Sophie!). And she frankly comes across as a bit of a narcissistic whiner. I mean, a lot of people would kill to have her “problems”. And unlike most series, where there can be a surrounding concept to hook you while you grow to like and care about the protagonist, here it really is All About Her from day one. And not to get all sufferin’-is-good-for-the-soul, but as Captain Kirk once said, guilt and pain over past choices are what makes us who we are today. We lose that and we lose who we are! (And yeah, that was my second Kirk quote in as many editorials)

And funnily enough, the filmmakers sometimes express the same ideas…and sometimes don’t. Which is why I say it seems a bit unfocused, like even they aren’t fully sure of what they want to say with their series.

And then there’s just the very fact that dramatically, a lot of the episodes can seem kind of weak. For one thing, Erica seems well aware of her past choices and what she wants to fix, robbing the plots of some intrigue. In Quantum Leap, to use the example other critics did, the idea was that the heroes often weren’t sure why they were where they were and what they were supposed to “fix”. I mean, an episode where Erica has trouble standing up to her mean boss…so she goes back in time to a period where she had trouble standing up to her mean professor? (I couldn’t help thinking it might’ve been more clever to have it be that she remembered the prof fondly, and can’t understand why Dr. Tom sends her back there…only to learn that the reason she remembered the prof fondly was because she had been the “teacher’s pet” and that was because she was, subconsciously, cowed by him and that he was horrible to everyone else). And what do we make of an episode where she goes back in time hoping to join a university secret society? I mean, who needs a whole episode to realize secret societies are just creepy?

Unfortunately, these days my exposure to the smaller, specialty channels is more limited, which is why my comments so have far been limited to the Big Three. But just to be a bit more egalitarian, we’ll take a quick look at some offerings on the specialty channels.

Murdoch Mysteries is a Victorian-era detective series about a Toronto detective who solves crimes with some “cutting edge” forensics. It’s a bit like the CBC’s old Great Detective series (though not as witty) mixed with a hero a bit like CSI’s Gil Grissom (an intellectual with rusty people skills). I’ve only seen a very few episodes of it, but it’s another one that grew on me, going from indifferent to appreciative in just two or three episodes. The historical setting is a nice counterpoint to most TV series, the old fashioned “mystery of the week” plots are unspectacular but engaging. For me, sometimes all it can take is one really good scene, or episode, to really change my perception of what a show’s capable of. In the case of the Murdoch Mysteries, it was an episode about the murder of a gay man that built to a final resolution that managed to take us in an unexpected direction (reminding me of the scene at the end of “Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture” when Roy Scheider starts snapping off photos). With that ending, the Murdoch Mysteries proved it could step up its game in a way that The Border, in two seasons, hasn‘t for me (not that Murdoch, in general, is or should be, “issue” oriented).

Rabbit Fall is in its second season on APTN and is maybe an example of “be careful what you wish for”. I had liked the first season of this series about a police constable in a mysterious small town with its shades of Twin Peaks, but said they needed to ratchet up the supernatural, as it really wasn’t that clear if the town was as “mysterious“ as the promos implied. Well, this season the supernatural is more overt…and I found it a little bit too heavy handed, at times. As well, the running plot of her butting heads with her corrupt superior seems a bit too repetitive (as basically each episode it always turns out he, or a local shaman, or usually both in tandem, are behind the villainy…yet, of course, she can never prove it). It’s still a decent watch, but hasn’t quite jumped up to the next level.

For me, the real pleasant surprise was Vision TV’s Soul, about a young devoutly religious teen girl (her dad is a minister) being wooed by the hedonistic world of pop music, and those around her. Unlike what one assumes (perhaps erroneously) about religious channels in the US, Vision is not a network pushing a particular ideology -- it is the “faith” channel, or the “spiritual” channel, not the “Christian” (or whatever) channel. Although it provides timeslots for specific religious groups, the network itself is more diverse, airing shows that challenge religious dogma as often as shows that support it. And in that sense, Soul isn’t about pushing a particular ideology, it’s about exploring these very human people, religious and atheist, and their sometimes conflicting values in a world that isn‘t black and white. The actors are good, the characters shaded and nuanced -- you can empathize with them even when you don’t sympathize with them. The series’ star, Keshia Chante, is a real life pop singer and I was a bit iffy on her at first. She is appealing, but as the central character -- the anchor -- in an hour long drama, she seemed not to have the necessary chops. But after an episode or two, she seems to be growing into the role nicely. At only, I believe, six episodes, Soul is already on hiatus and whether it will return for another season, who knows? The season formed a reasonable “arc” so that though the characters can be returned to, it still tells a story even if this is all there is. Definitely worth a look in.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Apr. 1, 2009

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