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Better Than Ever?
..Believe it or not, Canadian TV is in a Golden Age


 

A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral for Canadian television.

The patient went into remission!

For months we've been hearing dire warnings about the death of Canadian television -- legitimate warnings, too. Production was down, ratings were down, and thanks to inexplicable new rules brought in by the broadcasting regulatory body, the CRTC, the networks were being given cart blanche to slash their production of Canadian programs even more. The final nail in the coffin was delivered when Alliance-Atlantis -- the main production house in Canada -- announced it was getting out of production almost entirely.

Things looked bleak, things looked bad. And they are, make no mistake about that. But, surprisingly, there seems to be signs of life in the old girl yet.

In fact, what's kind of been overlooked in all this doom and gloom is that, in the last year or two, Canadian television may actually be experiencing a Golden Age of quality productions. I'm not saying there is necessarily a glut of great shows -- what I am saying is there are a surprising number of watchable shows. Which, to be frank, hasn't always been the case when it comes to domestic series. Sure, we all hope, each year, for one or two decent efforts among the dreck, but recently, the decent stuff actually seems to be out numbering the dreck! To put it more bluntly: I know people who are actually watching Canadian TV series, not because they have to, not out of some patriotic fervor, but because they're enjoying them!

If the lawyer series, This is Wonderland (CBC), isn't the best show on Canadian television, I'd like to know what is (that's a rhetorical question -- I know what else is out there, and, in my opinion, This is Wonderland trumps 'em all). In fact, it's arguably one of the best shows currently airing in North America. Sure, it takes a couple of episodes to start to groove to its wavelength: but as a blistering (if downbeat) black comedy-drama it's fast, it's stylish, it's edgy, it's superbly acted. And it's unlike anything I've ever seen on TV, without being so unusual that it's inaccessible.

Snakes & Ladders (CBC), about a guileless novice bureaucrat learning the ropes on parliament hill, is conceptually similar to This is Wonderland (though not in the same league). It remains entertaining thanks to the charisma of its cast, its sprightly tempo, and its evocative milieu. It's struggling a bit with awkward direction, and scripts that aren't half as clever as they think they are, but it's still an agreeable watch.

Sure, I'll admit I'm going through a phase where many of the shows I watch benefit from a pretty face (Cara Pifko in This is Wonderland, Amy Price-Francis in Snakes & Ladders), but they're still enjoyable shows.

Train 48 (CanWest-Global), an improvisational soap opera set entirely in one location -- a commuter train -- has evolved into a surprisingly effective little sleeper.

The mini-series Slings & Arrows (TMN) was a startling, bracing experience -- simply for its unexpected professionalism! It was a quirky, brilliantly acted, very funny comedy-drama about the personalities and machinations behind-the-scenes at a theatre.

The laid back, small town prairie sitcom Corner Gas (CTV) is more clever than laugh-out-loud funny, but it boasts a sly wit. And I actually know people who are fans -- and meeting a "fan" of a Canadian TV series is no common occurence. And some of the recent episodes (like the one about coffee shop owner being visited by her ex-boyfriend) had me practically on the floor.

Ken Finkleman's return to The Newsroom (CBC) has proven, overall, a disappointment compared to the series' original run...but that doesn't mean that there aren't still enough chuckles and biting observations to make it an O.K. half-hour. While the deliberately old fashioned sitcom XPM (CBC), starring Don Ferguson as an ex-Prime Minister, doesn't really look as though it has what it takes for the long haul....but it can still muster a few chuckles (which for a Canadian sitcom is nothing to sneeze at). Lurking on the fringes is Puppets Who Kill (The Comedy Network) -- a wildly uneven, vulgar, crude, black comedy, that has become even more inconsistent in its sophomore year, but I keep watching because when it's funny, it's very funny. Lord Have Mercy (Vision/Showcase) is another sitcom which, though uneven, brought me back for subsequent viewings.

A while back I wrote a piece about Alliance-Atlantis shutting down its production arm, and I cattily observed that if Canadian TV had developed a bad reputation, then maybe Alliance-Atlantis, as the chief production house in Canada, had to take responsibility. Sure, it was a petty, snide thing to say -- but maybe truer than even I knew. Because one of the weakest links in the Canadian TV schedule is the one produced by Alliance-Atlantis: The Eleventh Hour (CTV). The Eleventh Hour, a drama set at a TV newsroom, has been getting almost universal praise from TV critics ever since it started, last season -- more praise than I'm aware of being showered on This is Wonderland. But the truth is, The Eleventh Hour is not a great series. It's rarely even good.

Of course, there's a vested interest in some quarters in promoting CTV's The Eleventh Hour over CBC shows like This is Wonderland and Snakes & Ladders, and that's because people want to believe in the myth that the private sector can do it better than the public CBC. A recent candidate for the leadership of the right wing Conservative Party has even suggested it's time to shut down the CBC and leave Canadian television to the private networks -- the very same private networks that are slashing productions! No CBC means no This is Wonderland, Snakes & Ladders, Newsroom, XPM, DaVinci's Inquest (not that I'd shed any tears over that one, but critics like it), etc. And we'd be stuck with The Eleventh Hour and a bunch of mediocre cop shows -- actually, we wouldn't even have the cop shows, since both Cold Squad and Blue Murder have been cancelled!

The fact of the matter is, Canadian television remains in a very precarious position, with too little production, and too little interest by the bean counters to make productions. But quality wise, I'm not sure there's ever been a Canadian TV season boasting such a bumper crop of interesting, entertaining, creative -- or simply watchable -- programs. And though some people won't want me to say this: a lot of it's thanks to the CBC.

Canadian TV may be experiencing a creative Golden Age...now if only the critics and pundits would start talking about that!

When: This is Wonderland (Mondays, CBC), Snakes & Ladders (Wednesdays CBC -- on hiatus), Train 48 (weekdays 7:00, CanWest-Global), The Newsroom (Mondays, CBC), XPM (Fridays, CBC), Lord Have Mercy (reruns weekends at 11 AM, Showcase), Puppets Who Kill (Fridays and Saturdays, The Comedy Network), Slings & Arrows (The Movie Network), The Eleventh Hour (Sundays, CTV), Corner Gas (Wednesdays, CTV)

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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