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How to Make a TV Series More (and Less) Canadian:
Or, with apologies to George Carlin, “8 Canadian things you can’t say on TV”.



 

As mentioned last time, we’re seeing a remarkable new wave on TV these days of Canadian series like “Flashpoint” and “The Listener” (with others in production) airing on American network TV -- even though they are set in Canada.

For a long time, Canadian series aimed at the US market were done to pretend they were American, and in this way the new wave is radically different. The old argument was that the series had to be set in the US in order to win an audience. Now, obviously, we’re seeing that argument crumble away a bit like the sandstone it was always carved from. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s entirely clear sailing. Given how low key the Canadianness is of these series (which we’ll get to in a minute) it’s funny how a number of the US reviews seem to harp on it -- or rather, the more a reviewer doesn’t like the series, the more they harp on its Canadian origin. So…xenophobia? Or simply a US reviewer assuming that if an American network is going the unusual route of importing a series, it must be something exceptionally unique and special?

What struck me as interesting in this vein was a review of “The Listener” (a series which so far hasn‘t fired me up, just to be up front) which harped on the Toronto setting, arguing it didn’t work because Toronto itself was rather bland.

Now taken as inoffensive, it could simply be the American reviewer meant that if he was going to sit down to watch a series set in a foreign clime…he expected it to be exotic. Not looking like any old American city. The irony there is that blandness is, I suspect, deliberate -- the producers, while setting it in Toronto, are trying to make Toronto as innocuous and familiar as possible so as not to alienate US viewers.

But taken as offensive, as the reviewer snidely saying Toronto is bland compared to US cities…puh-lease, whatever he’s smoking, I want some. Big North American cities are bland, and largely indistinguishable from each other (and from a lot of European cities, too). The only reason viewers can tell “Law & Order” is set in New York as opposed to, say, Chicago…is because they label the scene locations! Many US series are actually filmed in Hollywood, with a few stock establishing shots of Washington, or Chicago or wherever inserted just to place it. Heck, in the movie “Spider-Man 2“, set in New York, there’s a pivotal sequence aboard an El train -- except New York doesn’t have El trains! And the producers assumed no one would notice, or care -- not even New Yorkers!

But this raises some interesting points. Most of these new series are a relatively “soft” Canadian -- the Blink-and-You’ll-Miss-It type of Canadiana: a flag in the background, a red post box, a glimpse of the CN tower. Enough to say it’s Canada if you’re looking, but easy to miss if you aren’t. And this is deliberate -- so the series can be “Canadian” without being too threateningly foreign to American viewers. But some American viewers maybe want it to be foreign, complaining if it too obviously resembles their usual Hollywood TV diet. And so Canadian producers remain torn between the extremes of presenting an anonymous Canada, and an aggressive Canada.

(And yes, most of these new series are set in Toronto, as opposed to Montreal, Vancouver, etc. -- but that’s an issue for another day).

Now, one could argue the advantage to the more “soft” Canadiana is that it allows the series, and by extension its Canadianness, to stand on its own. The problem with the earlier US-aired Canadian series, “Due South”, with its overtly Canadian iconography, is that it kind of set the tone that something should have Canadian elements ONLY IF IT’S ESSENTIAL TO THE STORY. “Flashpoint” (and the others) are arguing that they don’t need a justification to be set in Canada, because Canada is just as good a place as anywhere else to set a story.

Now, even a “soft” Canadian aspect is a matter of some backroom negotiating. A lot of producers will be coy about it, but some are more up front. In a recent article about “Flashpoint”, the creators were very open about the memos that get sent back and forth with CBS, the American executives pushing to remove some of the Canadian-isms the series has, the filmmakers pushing to keep them in, and finding some mutually acceptable compromise -- and succeeding in keeping in enough Canadian-isms that “Flashpoint“ is inarguably set in Canada.

From a cultural identity perspective, a “soft” Canadian presence is better than an Anytown, North America setting, and Anytown, North America is better than blatantly pretending it’s set in the United States.

But some of the tricks the filmmakers use can be amusing. So what are these “tricks”? (And bear in mind I'm revealing industry secrets -- once you're aware of them, you'll realize just how common they are). Well, as I mentioned, there’s the Blink-and-You’ll-Miss-It technique. And there’s a tendency to focus on minutia -- such as referring to Toronto street names that let Torontonians know it’s set there…even as people not from Toronto won’t notice. Heck, even the obligatory shots of the CN tower can be likened to this, since there are a few cities with needle towers (including American ones like Seattle). What tends to be shied away from is anything too overtly geographical: so references to Toronto (by name) tend to be less common…and drawing attention to Toronto as a non-American city by referring to Canada (or even Ontario) is almost unheard of. In fact, while “Due South” played up the Canada-US dichotomy, most of these others tend to deliberately avoid it. Words like “Canadian” and “American” are verboten.

“The Listener” is a bit less aggressive about its Canadianness than “Flashpoint”, and watching some early episodes is funny spotting the little tricks and touches. For example, in the first episode, at one point a character needs a dollar and the hero hands him a coin -- a Canadian touch, since Americans don’t have dollar coins. But it’s done in long shot, so as not to draw attention to itself. Later, when characters trade some paper money, they do the old “currency fold” so common in Canadian productions…where the money is folded, with the actor’s hand obscuring it, so that you can tell what the currency is -- but not easily. In another episode, the hero looks at a missing person poster with the word “colour” on it (the American spelling is without the ‘u’) and after flashing the word…the actor’s hand then conveniently swings into the frame, blotting it out. So, if ya blinked…

Sounds silly? Am I really suggesting they had production meetings about it, and carefully choreographed that shot, maybe even with an AD with a stopwatch timing how long the word “colour” was in the frame? Um…yeah. I am. Or rather, I’m saying it’s a distinct probability, and anyone in the business who tells you it’s not is, to be brutal, a liar. I’ve heard too many anecdotal stories told by people on the sets of Canadian productions to believe otherwise.

Another trick is to find common terms between Canada and the U.S., which is why a disproportionate number of politicians depicted in Canadian movies and TV shows are senators -- ‘cause both countries have senators (even though they serve different functions). Or in the opening episode of CBC’s “Heartland”, a character refers to a temperature as 35 below and if you check your trusty thermostat you‘ll see that's around where Celsius (what Canada uses) and Fahrenheit (what America uses) briefly match up. (Later episodes of Heartland were more frankly Canadian, so perhaps it was an indication that when they shot the pilot, they still hadn’t settled on how “Canadian” they wanted to make it).

You’ll also notice that when characters come from (or go) somewhere else…that somewhere else is often an American city. So “Flashpoint”’s Sgt. Parker’s son lives in Dallas, while in the CBC‘s “Sophie”, the father of her child was from New York. So even if the story is set in Canada, it creates a subconscious impression in the viewer’s mind of an American setting because the city names that are referenced are often American. (As an example, in “Sophie”, I’m not sure they ever named the city they were actually in).

Obviously, I’m not being too critical. The fact that “The Listener” would throw in a dollar coin, or the word “colour” is, in fact, a dramatic change from most shows just a few years ago, and they probably had to fight to keep them in. So I’m not dissing the filmmakers efforts. I’m just pointing out that even in the context of “Flashpoint” and “The Listener”, there’s a kind of cultural glass ceiling they’re running into.

And in the case of something like “Flashpoint”, from an episode-by-episode basis, there’s not too much more I could suggest. After all, when I use the term “soft” Canadiana, I kind of mean you feel the writers are deliberately avoiding certain things, certain lines, that the story and characters otherwise seem to be drawing us toward, in order to avoid being too blatantly Canadian. And for a series like “Flashpoint”, set in a big city, dealing with the street level crises, there aren’t that many times when I find myself distracted by some narrative gymnastics used to avoid being too Canadian. Sometimes, yes…but at other times, “Flashpoint” seems like one of the more “comfortable in its Canadian skin” series around -- even of those aimed mainly at the Canadian market!

Still, since I’ve talked about “soft” Canadiana, and mentioned the tricks filmmakers will do to avoid being too Canadian, perhaps it behoves us to consider the opposite. What are the sort of things that these sorts of series could do that would bump them up from “soft” Canadian to “frankly” Canadian?

Glad you asked.

Many years ago the US comic George Carlin had a famous routine highlighting the “Seven words you can’t say on TV” -- referring to profanity. Here’s almost the Canadian equivalent: a list of scenes and ideas that seem almost to be as forbidden to modern TV producers as Carlin’s infamous seven words -- a top 8 list of things, references, or scenes a series or movie could include that would make it frankly Canadian. There are others, but I figure we have to put a cap on it somewhere (*). (And the irony is -- these are things that even a lot of series made primarily for the Canadian market avoid, as well).

8) There are some aspects, like Canada’s universal health care system, or its lack of capital punishment, that I wasn‘t going to suggest…simply because it might be harder to throw in nonchalant references, at least without explicitly contrasting Canada and the US which, as mentioned, a lot of these series avoid. I mean, it’s not like when Canadians go to the hospital we verbalize how nice it is not to be billed for it -- but then I thought, actually, there might be ways to allude to it unselfconsciously. SCENE: a character isn’t feeling well, and another character suggests he go to the hospital just to be checked out and casually quips, “that’s why you pay taxes, man.” (I recently was debating whether to go to the hospital over a possible minor issue -- but I wouldn’t know if it was minor until it was checked out -- and the debate in my mind was merely whether I wanted to spend a couple of hours in a waiting room, NOT whether I could afford it, or justify it to my insurance company as, I guess, an American would).

7) Metric. Actually, this is a kind of iffy idea. After all, the metric system is popular in scientific circles, so even US techno dramas, medical shows, and science fiction series use metric…and Canadians themselves use it inconsistently. We measure actual distances (and speed limits) in kilometres, but still colloquially refer to things in miles (“yeah, that house is a few miles down the road, eh?”), tend to think in terms of inches more than centimetres, but tend toward Celsius rather than Fahrenheit with temperatures.

6) Multiculturalism. Canada is, purportedly, one of most multicultural countries in the world, with a greater percentage of its citizenry not actually born here than any other country. Maybe if Canadian series played up this ethnic stew, US reviewers might find them less bland. In this case, “The Listener” does better than “Flashpoint”, in that in “The Listener” three of its seven regular/recurring actors are non-white, though most of the faces in the backgrounds still seem to be white. Though even when the faces are non white, often in these series the notion of the immigrant experience is less reflected.

5) Make references to ubiquitous institutions. “Flashpoint” did once, with a “Timmy’s” reference (coffee & donut shop chain, Tim Horton’s). Admittedly, that can be problematic as where’s the line between “cultural reference” and “product placement”? But I’m specifically thinking of…Canadian Tire. I mean, I know people who practically define their geography by the nearest Canadian Tire store. (And occasional Canadian series not necessarily geared toward the US market have made such references, such as “Puppets Who Kill”). SCENE: a foreign spy/terrorist masquerading as a Canadian has the perfect disguise, the right clothes, the right accent, the impeccably forged birth certificate, the right currency…but the detective becomes mildly suspicious when he notices the spy has no “Canadian Tire” money tucked in his wallet. (Go ahead: check. I betcha you’ve got some tucked away somewhere, even if you’ve forgotten it). There are also cultural and pop cultural references characters could make. SCENE: a techy character maybe gives a particularly complex explanation and another character sarcastically says “Why, thank you, Bob McDonald.” or “thank you, Dr. Suzuki”. Admittedly, the stumbling block here might not be the American network…but CTV, since it probably wouldn’t want to okay references to CBC personalities. But, man, I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where someone began saying: “I was listening to CBC radio and…” or “I heard on Quirks & Quarks…” or “did you hear the Vinyl Café last week…?”

4) Winter. Snow. Seriously. Most places in Canada (though not all) enjoy more than a few months of winter in a year -- yet that is almost never depicted. Part of that is, I think, practical. The nature of TV seasons is that most series finish filming before winter really settles in, and the cold weather can sometimes impact upon equipment. But still. Winter, man! It’s part of life, and isn’t storytelling about reflecting life? “Flashpoint” did do a couple of episodes where it was obviously pretty darn cold, and I can think of a few other series over the years (“Night Heat” and “Seeing Things”) which did an episode or two where it wouldn’t take a climatologist to tell it wasn’t filmed in California. But think of the SCENE potential: trying to follow a suspect in a parka and hood and, being unable to see his face, the heroes aren’t sure if he’s the right guy. Or a chase through snow, the characters slipping and sliding, the victor not the guy who’s fastest…but the guy with the best traction. Etc. (I remember once seeing a clip from the Canadian TV newsmagazine, The Fifth Estate, in which the investigative reporter was trying to hound his subject, a suspected ne’er-do-well -- and they started slipping on the icy sidewalk, and ended up, despite their opposition, having to support each other down the street!)

3) Refer to political positions and terms that don’t exist in the US. Forget Senators. How about Prime Ministers, Governor Generals, Ministers, Members of Parliament, Premiers, the Privy Council, etc.? And not just political terms, but legal ones. In Canada the prosecution is referred to as “The Crown” and prosecutors Crown Attorneys -- often in “soft” Canadian series, they simply refer to them as “prosecutors”. And with all these crime drama/law and order series, how about some references to the RCMP, OPP, CSIS, etc?

2) Bilingualism. I’ve noted in previous essays that that almost seems to be the biggest taboo in English-Canada programs (and even a lot of French-Canada ones, too). Even series like “Due South” or “An American in Canada” -- shows emphasising the differences between Canada and the US -- seemed to shy away from the notion of bilingualism. And have we EVER seen someone do the ol’ “unilingual twist” in a Canadian program? -- y’know, where you pick up a box to read the instructions/ingredients/contents and have to twist it around because you’re looking at the French side of the label? Or, conversely, deliberately try and read the French side. I mean, surely as kids we’ve all seen in our boxes of Cap’n Crunch a modern Rosetta stone, figuring that if we studied the bilingual box often enough while waiting for the milk to settle, we could become fluently bilingual. SCENE I: next time the characters are at a government building, clearly show a bilingual sign behind them, or when in a train station or airport, have a bilingual announcement on the speaker. SCENE II: have a character be or speak French! In “The Listener”, both Mylene Dinh-Robic and Colm Feore (at least) are bilingual -- so why not a scene where they’re talking together in French? SCENE III: a character pretends to be focused on reading the back of some box or other, but his companion notes he’s distracted, ‘cause he’s looking at the French side (analogous to the same sort of scene where the character has the writing upside down).

1) Same sex marriage! While the US continues a one step forward, two steps back dance toward gay marriage, Canada legalized it a few years ago. And, in that same vein: homosexuals in the military. In the US you can still be kicked out of the military if you’re discovered to be gay! SCENE: a male soldier on leave is wounded, and his next-of-kin is called. Later, another male soldier shows up and introduces himself as the wounded soldier’s spouse. And the other characters take it in stride. (Not only would such a scene be “Canadian”…it might actually give American viewers food-for-thought by showing them another reality than the one they are made aware of -- given that in a US article I read about the gay soldier ban, conspicuously no reference was made to the fact that many other countries don’t ban gays.)

Hey, if you want: copy out the above suggestions and mail them off to the producers of “Flashpoint”, “The Listener”, etc. Maybe someone could start The Great Canadian Cultural Challenge, daring -- no, double daring -- these series to include such concepts. To see which series will be the first to break the “Gay Soldier Barrier”, or the “Bilingual Barrier”.

Now, you might ask, is it important? Whenever I (or anyone else) brings up the topic of Canadianisms in shows, the response is usually quick and vicious. It doesn’t matter! You’re an idiotic, anti-American, Kool-Aid drinking suicide cultist for even thinking about it! Only a fool wouldn’t want to set a TV show in New York!

Sigh.

Usually when I address the issue it’s simply to say it’s good for Canadians to see themselves on the screens. But maybe there are reasons why it’s important to present a Canadian face even on exported series. One reason is, to put it bluntly, counter-propaganda. There’s a lot of negativity that comes out of the US toward Canada, from the simply dismissive (American movies and TV shows in which Canadians are depicted as dorky) to the outright malicious (the new US Attorney General recently repeated the old lie about the 9/11 terrorists having entered the US through Canada -- and though she later said she was misquoted, you got to wonder why that fiction is still floating around almost a decade later). Canadian heroes on US screens provide a slight counter argument. That’s a benefit for Canada. But there’s also a benefit for Americans in seeing more frankly Canadian series on their screens. It provides a peek into an alternate reality. The claim is that, for such a media savvy society…Americans are remarkably insular, and when grappling with profound moral and political debates, have very little awareness of other cultures. Maybe it would enrich US discussions if they saw TV series set in a country with gay soldiers…universal health care…no death penalty, etc. Not to influence the outcome of such discussions, but simply to ad information to their discourse.

Viewed that way, it’s almost disturbing for Canadian producers not to make more overtly Canadian references, like distributing a series to China where you deliberately avoid any reference to democracy, or Saudi Arabia where you excise any hint of gender equality.

So is there any point in suggesting this? If the producers will tell you that even with the minor “Canadian-isms” they’ve included, it can be a fight? Well, yes. Firstly, because “nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight” (as Bruce Cockburn once sang). And a few years ago, the common mantra among Canadian producers was they couldn’t have any Canadian references at all. These new series are proving that was wrong. So maybe they’re wrong to think they’ve gone as far as they can go. Heck, maybe they could throw in Canadian references, and deliver the finished episode to the US network conveniently too late for them to do anything about it (y’know, like The Smother Brothers famously did with their politically controversial material…although, ah, they got fired because of it).

But, y’know, there’s another option. Let the US networks cut something they find too contentious (in much the way I’m guessing the “DaVinci’s Inquest” reruns being syndicated in the US have had some of the swearing bleeped). I read somewhere that the old “Degrassi” series sometimes had whole episodes dropped from American airing because of controversial themes, but that didn’t mean the American stations dropped the series as a whole.

Think about it: in this day and age, network airings are only part of the game, with syndication and DVDs down the line. Played right, these Canadian series could actually boost their profile and notoriety if viewers knew some of the episodes were being edited or if an entire episode could only be seen (in the US) on the DVD collection.

Not that you would want Canadian producers to use this as a sleazy publicity gimmick, to throw in gratuitous scenes they know would be cut just so they could market the DVDs as “uncut”. I’m not arguing for exploitive scenes of “The Listener”’s Mylene Dinh-Robic in an explicit shower scene or anything, or, um, hmm… Weeellll, maybe just one, but only for artistic reasons.

But, seriously, folks…if one of these Canadian series wanted to throw in a scene with a gay soldier, something with genuine social and political significance, and the US network cut the scene (or the whole episode, depending on how integral it was to the plot), then that would be a legitimate thing for the producers to go ahead with, if only to include it with the DVD collection.

It might even quiet those critics who say Canadian series are bland.

* Addendum, July 13th: I mentioned there were other things, but I wouldn't get into them. Then I thought -- heck, why not? So here are just a few others that randomly popped into my head, things that Canadians see/experience every day, but rarely get depicted on our screens. And bear in mind, that often when one thinks of distinctly "Canadian" characteristics, what one really means is "as distinct from the United States". Some things that we think of as "Canadian" are uniquely Canadian...while others are distinctive simply as a European/Commonwealth trait in a North American context. So howzabout...

(9) Kilts! Yup, with Canada's celtic heritage, it's amazing the number of times you'll see kilts (as a formal attire). From military parades, to school bands, to highland game tournaments. Maybe kilts are equally common in the US, but I don't think I've ever seen one on US TV (unless the character was supposed to be Scottish). (10) Poppies! Worn almost ubiquitously in the days leading up to Remembrance Day -- again, common throughout the Commonwealth, but foreign to the United States. (11) Poutine! Mmmm, mmmm, goooood. (12) Caribana! Gay Pride Parade! Since a lot of these current series are set in Toronto, why not use some of the city's street festivals as backdrops? Not that such parades are unique to Toronto, or Canada, but I'm pretty sure I've read that Toronto's tend to be the biggest, with Caribana being described as the largest street festival in all of North America! (13) ...and the list goes on.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

June 26, 2009

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