On Friday, January 18, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation engaged in an unusual experiment by airing two new comedy pilots; stand alone episodes that might -- only might -- be turned into weekly series. The point was that the CBC aired them, then asked -- no, downright encouraged -- the audience to send in their comments.
The point was to do a test screening, but instead of using the traditional "sample" audience, the CBC was using -- potentially -- the entirety of Canada's English speaking population as its sample audience.
According to the CBC, the experiment was "phenomenally successful".
But was it?
More on the "test" in a moment. First a quick look at the comedies.
"An American in Canada" was about an American TV reporter who accepts a job at a small Calgary TV station. "Rideau Hall" was about an earthy, former pop star who is appointed Governor General by a sleazy Prime Minister who hopes she'll disgrace the position. For non-Canadians reading this, the Governor General is at once supremely powerful (he/she has to sign most Bills before they become law) and utterly powerless (he/she has to sign -- it's purely ceremonial). Both were an hour in length. One assumes any weekly series would be half hour episodes.
Neither was terribly embarrassing, yet neither was that funny, either.
"An American in Canada" was arguably the most professional, well acted and slick of the two, but the humour was pretty low key and the premise didn't really point in the direction of where the series could go. By the end of the hour they had pretty well exhausted their culture clash jokes (while steadfastly ignoring what is surely the most obvious difference between life in Canada and life in the U.S. -- bilingualism!). Still, culture clash humour can quickly become cloying (though some viewers felt they didn't do enough of them), so maybe it's just as well that the main core of the story was more universal. Just a story about this guy -- who happened to be American -- working in a place he didn't want to be -- which just happened to be Calgary. The humour was mostly good-natured, with neither the American nor the Canadians being unduly lampooned or canonized. Matthew Ferguson, as a strung out floor director, was particularly funny, and the cast overall was good...but, as noted above, the pilot didn't really jump up and sing.
"Rideau Hall" had the better concept and was the one for which you could picture future story ideas. O.K., I'm biased. I had once thought of a premise like this, though in my mind it was a drama (you know, an idealistic, Steve Wojeck type Governor General, butting heads with the corrupt system, defending the defenceless, in the ironic position of being, symbolically, the most powerful man in Ottawa...but, in reality, the least able to effect change). But "Rideau Hall" was going for a much broader comedy style than "An American in Canada". With the latter, if you chuckled, you could call it a success, but with "Rideau Hall", if you aren't laughing out loud, it's not working. And I didn't laugh, not once (though I may've smirked once or twice). Nor did anyone else I was watching it with laugh out loud (for the record, I chuckled occasionally during "An American in Canada"). As a technical production, "Rideau Hall" was a bit rougher, the acting not as good, the ideas more clever in conception than execution, and some just antiquated (like a francophobic Anglophone Prime Minister uttering slurs to his Francophone colleague, when in real life the Prime Minister's chair has been occupied by Francophones -- and/or Quebecers -- for the last 30-some years!).
Both series were weighed down by the need to fill an hour with what amounted to half-hour material and would play better tighter and shorter. Though I just had a horrid thought: what if the CBC intends to do them as hour long series? Who does hour long sitcoms?
One final observation before I get to the -- supposedly -- resoundingly successful "test".
Both shows, though comedies, were aired without laugh tracks. This has become a common trend in Canada, seen as a bold, sophisticated move, a refusal to insult the audience's intelligence by trying to con them into laughing along. Laugh tracks have long been regarded as the nemesis of true comedy. That's one view.
I recently heard another view. A friend observed that the absence of a laugh track is a sign of abject cowardice, an indication that the producers don't have faith in their own material. Canned laughter, played at the end of a punchline, says to one and all, "What you just heard was a joke...if you did not laugh, then we, as comedians, failed." Without a laugh track, the producers are refusing to commit themselves, they are refusing to say what, if anything, they intended to be funny. They aren't sticking their necks out to brave the axe man of public opinion.
No laugh track means no confidence in the material on the part of the producers. Fair? No? I don't know. But it's an intriguing theory.
Now on to the test. According to the CBC the experiment was "phenomenally successful", they received thousands of comments and the response was "12-to-1 positive" for both shows. I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but...
Although the responses should not be ignored, and the CBC has a right to be gratified, it doesn't paint a full picture. "Thousands" of respondents doesn't guarantee much when you need hundreds of thousands of viewers every week to make even a moderately successful series. And the impressive ratio of 12-to-1 sounds great, except one would expect the majority to be positive. If you didn't like the shows...you'd just turn them off and go to bed. Particularly when the tone of the CBC's solicitations didn't seem to be asking for people to say whether they liked the shows, merely what they liked most. I may be misremembering, but that was certainly the impression I got the night the shows aired and when I visited the CBC website (and no, I didn't write in -- see my point?)
As well, there's an old scientific axiom that says before you can prove a positive, you first must prove a negative. I would have been more convinced by the significance of the responses if one series rated badly, while the other was more popular. But both received this miraculous public blessing? In an industry where failure far, far outweighs success (even in Hollywood), we are to believe that the CBC hit two home runs in the very first inning? I'm not saying the CBC is lying about the responses, I'm just not sure they've considered all factors.
The decision to do this very public "test" was intriguing, and the CBC has announced it will do it again. If the responses had been overwhelmingly negative, would the CBC still be so enthusiastic about the accuracy of their "experiment"...? Well, you decide. But the point is, although one can admire the "power to the people" philosophy behind such a stunt, there is a danger that it's really just a way for CBC programmers to absolve themselves of responsibility. Previously, when a bad series aired, programmers took the blame. Well, not anymore. When "Rideau Hall" or "An American in Canada" come to our screens weekly, if -- I say if -- they end up under performing, the CBC programmers can smugly wash their hands and say, "hey, it's not our fault, the public told us to make these shows."
Like the missing laugh track, is a public test screening a gutsy, innovative move...or just one more way Canadian entertainers can avoid taking responsibility for their decisions?
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
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