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Combat Hospital Breaks the "Poutine Barrier"!
...plus gay soldiers -- are the Canadian taboos coming down?


Ladies and gentlemen, it has finally happened…we have officially broken the poutine barrier, and on no more an unlikely TV show than Combat Hospital!

So what’s the “poutine barrier” you ask?

Okay, let’s back track for a moment.

If you’ve perused this site over time, you’ll notice that a recurring theme I return to is the notion of “Canadianness” in Canadian movies and TV shows. That is, whether a production actually admits it’s set in Canada on screen (or at least about Canadian characters), or whether it doesn’t, often pretending it’s set elsewhere -- usually the United States, with the characters all American, U.S. flags in the frame, and dialogue making overt references to the U.S.

I’ve harped on this for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that if Canadian storytellers aren’t comfortable in their own skins -- if they aren’t willing to admit they are Canadian -- doesn’t that affect their stories? If they haven’t the courage to be Canadian…how can we expect them to have the courage to tackle topics that really are challenging and provocative? And if they are continually setting their programs in the United States, or about American characters, doesn’t that imply mimicry rather than creativity?

As well, what’s the first thing a writer will tell a wanna be writer?

If you want to write, they’ll say, learn to listen -- listen to how people talk around you, listen to what they talk about, and incorporate that into your writing. That’s how you keep it real and immediate, and this applies equally to stories of kitchen sink grittiness…and also to stories of monsters, or alien armadas, or elves (the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings were very much modelled after the small town English country folk J.R.R. Tolkien knew so well). Yet the advice that seems to circulate in Canadian film and TV circles is, if you want to write…imitate what you hear in an American movie.

And this has been the unspoken rule in Canadian film and TV (and novels, even) for decades. Oh, don’t misunderstand -- there have always been Canadian movies and TV shows explicitly acknowledging their Canadianness, but they can often seem the minority (particularity if you remove anything made for the CBC from the equation). And the Canadianness/non-Canadianness of a show seemed to be directly related to how much hope the producers had for distributing it outside of Canada -- the closer they were to inking an international distribution deal, the more likely the black markers would come out to censor any dialogue referring to Canada!

But things seem to be changing in recent years. There seems to be a greater willingness -- a confidence -- on the part of Canadian filmmakers to say, hey, yeah, we’re Canadian…so what? Even in shows aimed at the international market place.

Obviously, there was Due South some decade and a half ago, about a red suited Canadian mountie operating out of a consulate in Chicago, USA. In StarGate: Atlantis -- the second of (so far) three StarGate live action TV series -- a central character was identified as Canadian.

Yet there was often a one step forward, two steps back dance going on (I’m not sure there were any overtly Canadian characters in the third StarGate series, StarGate: Universe).

Then Flashpoint came along -- the Canadian made, and Canadian set cop drama that is in its fourth season on a major American network. It may well have been a game changer, finally putting to rout the lie that Canadian-set stories couldn’t win an international audience. And maybe the fact that it was a nonchalant Canadianness, as opposed to the self-conscious cartoony Canadianness of Due South is part of its significance. Due South had to be Canadian -- the plot revolved around its Canadian aspect. Flashpoint doesn’t have to be Canadian…but is anyway!

Yet though we’ve seen a rise in the number of Canadian series that are a little more willing to admit they are Canadian, the degree to which they are willing to do so is more uncertain. Some are Canadian...but it’s a decidedly soft Canadian. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Canadianness.

Part of this may be the lingering pressure felt when aiming for the international (read: American) market place. CTV’s The Listener in its first season admitted it was Canadian, but often in a “soft”, mumble it under-your-breath way. Yet then the series was dropped by the US network, and when it came back for its second season…seemed far more aggressively, unapologetically Canadian than it had in its first.

Anyway…a while back I wrote a piece somewhat flippantly referring to various things a series could do (and refer to) if it wanted to be more frankly, openly Canadian -- even suggesting these were literally taboo concepts in the minds of most Canadian filmmakers who were willing to be Canadian…just not too Canadian.

Yet funnily, even some of these barriers seem to be crumbling.

As a contrast between two extremes of Canadianness, consider Showcase’s crime dramas, Endgame and King. Endgame is set in Vancouver, yet is very much a “soft” Canadian series. If you watched the majority of episodes, I suspect you’d assume it was set in the U.S. as the majority of references, place names, and characters, are American -- episodes frequently referring to Dallas, and Florida and other U.S. locales.

Now what is an interesting possibility about series like Endgame (and others) is that it’s become so ingrained after years of being told to avoid Canadian references, that the filmmakers can no longer break out of that mindset. They literally no longer know how to write, well, “Canadian”, eh? (Consider Showcase’s current sitcom, “Almost Heroes”, in which a Canadian flag is seen in the opening credits -- clearly they are admitting they are Canadian -- yet in the episodes themselves, in the dialogue, you might assume they were going for an Anytown, North America vibe).

Yet then in contrast we have King -- which seems to be knocking down half the “taboos” I suggested were in place in Canadian productions. Many of the episodes were shot in the winter, with deep, beautiful, glorious Canadian snow crunching under the actors’ feet. They freely, unself-consciously use Canadian terms like “Crown Attorney” and “Staff Sergeant”. They even acknowledge that Canada isn’t the U.S. in an episode where the heroine remarks that confusing Arabic with Farsi is like calling a Canadian an American.

And more to the point, King does it -- to my mind -- quite un-self-consciously. Which is maybe the difference. Endgame, frankly, strikes me as distractingly self-conscious in its efforts to shoe horn in American references…King strikes me as un-self-conscious about its Canadianness.

Anyway, the thing about idiosyncratic Canadian references (as opposed to more general things like simply waving a maple leaf in the background, or referring to a Canadian city) -- is that there’s more to making Canadian references than simply acknowledging something is Canadian (though that’s part of it). But it’s also about reflecting the Canadian experience, about drawing upon, and channelling your life experiences into your storytelling (again, as Tolkien did with the Lord of the Rings, even though set in a fantasy world).

Which then brings us to Combat Hospital, the new Canadian drama airing on American network primetime. When we are first introduced to our lead heroine (in the ensemble cast) she is identified as Canadian (played by American actress Michelle Borth in a nice little casting turnabout) and I assumed she would be the token Canadian character at this multi-national hospital (much as the Canadian character in StarGate: Atlantis was surrounded mainly by American characters). Yet as the episodes progressed, I realized many of the regular characters sport Canadian flags on their shoulders, and though it is a multi-national hospital (with American and British characters) it’s essentially supposed to be Canadian run, with even the c.o. (played by Elias Koteas) Canadian.

And then we come to a recent episode where the characters are lined up, eagerly awaiting a new x-ray machine to be unloaded from a truck, only to discover its not a machine, but a new fast food franchise -- specializing in poutine!

Yes -- poutine!

So why do I see poutine as a “barrier”? Because it’s an example of an idiosyncratically Canadian dish that I’m not sure is available much outside Canada (at least yet) yet is truly ubiquitous in Canada (certainly in Eastern and Central Canada and moving inexorably westward). Diners in Canada literally advertise their poutine in big letters on their windows -- there are chains that specialize in nothing but poutine. Even American chains like KFC, Harvey’s and others have added poutine to the menus of their Canadian branches. Love it or hate it, most Canadians know what poutine is and have probably tried it.

Yet I do not recall ever -- EVER -- seeing it referenced in a Canadian movie or TV show (at least in English). That’d be a bit like if no American movie ever referred to hamburgers, no matter how many times the characters are depicted at fast food joints, or having barbecues. You wouldn’t know poutine existed watching Canadian movies and TV.

Until Combat Hospital! And now one more barrier has been knocked down, allowing a little more of the Canadian experience to shine forth from your wide screen TV.

(I should point out, of course, that obviously I can’t say if this was the first time poutine has EVER been referenced on Canadian television, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve ever seen it and, as this site should indicate…I’ve seen a lot!)

There are still things that you don’t see enough of in Canadian programs (particularly those aimed at an international market like Combat Hospital, Flashpoint, Rookie Blue, etc.) Often these shows seem most skittish about things that too obviously draw attention to the differences between Canada and the U.S. Showing a Canadian flag is one thing, suggesting Canada is a different culture is something else. I’d dearly love to see some Francophone characters on Combat Hospital, or have Elias Koteas speak French in a scene (wouldn’t a colonel in the Canadian army be expected to be functionally -- if not fluently -- bilingual? And even if Koteas doesn’t speak French, I’m sure he could fake it with a script before him). Heck -- though they’ve had characters with southern American drawls on Combat Hospital, I’m still waiting for one with a Newfoundland lilt.

And then an episode or two later Combat Hospital did something else -- something that also relates to my earlier essay about supposed “taboos” in Canadian film & TV. You see I had commented that one obvious -- arguably controversial -- distinction between Canada and the US is that Canada both permits same sex marriage and allows gays to serve openly in the military…while the US has been dragging its feet on both (it seems every time you open a paper, some new legislation is being drafted, and struck down, on either side). And Combat Hospital broke the gay soldier barrier -- or, maybe they didn’t break it, but they flicked the glass with an intriguing “twonng!”

In an episode, the series’ psychiatrist (played by Deborah Kara Unger) is propositioned by a female Canadian soldier (guest star Christina Cox). Now the reason I say they may not have “broken” the barrier entirely is because the episode was itself a bit coy about the issue -- the “real” issue being (aside from leaving it enigmatic as to whether Unger’s character swings that way) that soldiers aren’t supposed to fraternize…regardless of their orientation. The soldier’s actions were supposed to be inappropriate, so an American viewer could easily watch the episode and not necessarily pick up on the fact that her orientation itself wasn’t the issue -- that is, no one in the episode comments on whether it’s okay to be openly gay or not, or makes a distinction between the “don’t ask, don’t tell” US policy and the open policies of Canada (and many other armies). For that matter, US television has often been quick to promote a liberal face of America (American TV series have had gay marriages for years…without ever admitting that, um, these weren’t recognized by law at the time!) To further add to the muddle, just days before the episode aired, there was (yet another) news report announcing the US gay soldier ban was being struck down, so a viewer up on world affairs might assume the producers were just being timely. (Certainly glancing at the IMDB after that episode aired, there was no threads started by anyone seeming surprised by that storyline).

That may well have been the filmmakers’ intent -- to broach the topic timidly and leave the gay soldier idea open to interpretation depending on your national cultural. An American might watch the episode and instinctively assume it’s “about” the sexual orientation (the two characters discuss it in private, not openly among others) while a Canadian would perceive the character’s orientation as irrelevant.

Still, nitpicking aside, you can’t get away from the basic fact that this series airing on US primetime did a plot line involving an openly lesbian soldier wearing a Canadian flag on her sleeve.

So within weeks, we’ve seen poutine and gay soldiers. Maybe the taboos are coming down…and courage is on the rise.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

July 29, 2011

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