A while ago, I wondered what I'd be watching if the US writers' strike were to continue much longer. British TV? Don't be daft. How self-loathing do you think I am?
The obvious answer was to give Canadian TV a try. Okay, not necessarily the most obvious, but far less painful than Australian TV, even if you occasionally do get a reasonable show like The Surgeon.
Now Canadian TV had something of a bad rep for a while. After messing up shows like Airwolf during the 80s, most of its original output hasn't got any further than Canada's borders, unless it's been about vampires (cf Forever Knight, Blood Ties) for some reason. Yes, Canada has pretty much been the shooting location for every low budget US TV show of the last two decades, but shows made by Canadian networks with Canadians not pretending to be Americans? Less common.
That has been changing over the last couple of years, though. As well as co-financing shows such as Doctor Who, Canada has also started to make shows intended to appeal to the rest of the world as well as Canada, that have high production values and quality scripts.
The first real hint of this was Intelligence, which came out in 2006. A sort of Canadian Miami Vice about an undercover cop, it had moody lighting, decent direction and some good scripts. Unfortunately, in common with most Canadian TV, it also starred that bloke who played Huck Finn back in the 80s so I didn't watch much.
Now though, there's a bumper crop of world-worthy Canadian shows, some of them good, some of them… not so good. For your consideration: JPod, The Border, The Guard and Sophie.
JPod is one of the few works of modern fiction I've read, since it's by one of my favourite authors, the Canadian Doug Coupland. I didn't really enjoy it that much, since it felt like “Coupland by numbers”, a retread of most of the themes of Generation X and Microserfs but updated for the new millennium.
jPod is a mini-series (although who knows, maybe it could become a full series in time) adaptation of JPod that has Doug Coupland both writing and exec producing. And it's actually pretty good.
Despite the loss of at least one major character (Evil Mark), the mini-series is otherwise resolutely faithful to the book, bar the libelling of various brands such as McDonald's in the original. It also manages to keep in all the various major plot strands and does a good job of including those medium-subverting interstitials of Coupland's.
But it's somehow better than the original: the characters seem more like real people than the lifestyle-stereotypes of the book and it's pretty funny, although it lacks something in the subtlety department. The first episode is a bit rubbish, but the episodes since have been great – bar the daftest, Queen-loving English stereotype you could ever imagine who pops up later on.
I have no idea if Doug Coupland will be appearing as “Doug Coupland”, but so far, none of the “doesn't this all feel like a Doug Coupland novel?” comments have been included so I'm guessing not. I also have to confess to having developed a little bit of a crush on 'Kaitlin' (the American character who's actually played by a Dane, surprisingly). How dismal.
Here's a YouTube trailer
There is a rather iffy stereotype about Canadians: that they have a great big inferiority complex and tend to be envious and deferring as well as resentful towards the US and the UK. And, as if by magic, up pops The Border to prove it. Sort of.
The Border is essentially a mix of Spooks, 24 and NCIS, all given a Canadian twist. It's about the country's immigration services and their tireless attempts to protect Canadian borders from… Well, have a guess. Consider what countries Canada borders, first. It's... Muslims! Well, Muslims and Americans.
Rather than being about visas and the like, The Border is a shaky-cam series about Islamofascist terrorists, drug dealers and others who might otherwise be safely in other countries if Canada weren't such a desirable country to do business in.
Most of the drama, however, comes from the head of the ICS - who could get a job anywhere as a Victor Garber impersonator - and his tussles with Sofia Milos, who you may remember from that modern classic of US TV, CSI: Miami. Here, she represents the forces of evil… sorry, America, as the Department of Homeland Security's liaison with Canadian authorities. Whatever can go wrong in Canada is usually down to America, apparently, whether it's because they're conducting renditions of Gitmo prisoners over Canadian territory, letting US drug dealers into Canada because of poor intelligence, firing missiles into Canadian forests or just being American.
The characters are the usual array of action sorts: the rugged outdoors guy, the computer geek, the stern boss, the black guy with a minimal speaking part, etc. To this mix is added a female Muslim agent, just to show it's Bad Muslims the show doesn't like, not patriotic Good Muslims, as well as a couple of unglamorous older agents, which makes a nice change.
Despite its somewhat derivative nature, it does have some originality and does at least maintain some of its Canadian identity. Without resorting to stereotypes (again), the agents are all much more polite than their counterparts in US shows; it's also far more circumspect in its consideration of political matters, and Sofia Milos's constant catchphrases “Canadians. Unbelievable” and “You Canadians are so naive” at least give some kind of balance.
It's also quite unwilling to explain Canadian affairs too much to the world audience. The third episode dealt with the interesting issue of Quebec, with much of the cast having to venture into the ever-amusing Quebecois French dialect, and there was little explanation for that, unsurprisingly. The show also bandies around terms that people like me raised on British, US, Australian (and just a smattering of French, German and Spanish) TV won't have a clue about: know who the JTF2 are? No, I didn't until I looked it up (they're the Canadian version of the SAS/Delta).
Interesting, nothing too surprising, but worth watching in its own right if Spooks and 24 are your kind of show.
Here's a YouTube vid about it:Now for some real clunkers:
This one's about Canada's Coast Guard and stars most of the cast of Andromeda, by the looks of it. It's absolutely terrible. It's filled with manly men saying things like, “We do this by the book!” “If we do this by the book, that man will die!” Attempts at later stages to provide some kind of character drama and emotional depth are largely wasted.
Here's a YouTube trailer for what it's worth
If you have a bad idea of Canadian TV, always remember it could get worse. It could be French TV - if you ignore Engrenages, aka Spiral, that's almost universally bad. So quite why Canada decided to invest in adapting this French sitcom, I don't know.
Woman (Sophie) gets pregnant and has a terrible time of it. It's a comedy, don't you know? Aimed at girls. She has the campest gay best friend in history. She has pink wallpaper. If you reach the 10-minute point of episode one without cringing once, I can only assume you've never watched television before or read anything more complicated than Sweet Valley High novels. Avoid. I can't even find a YouTube trailer for this, it's so disliked apparently.
Anyway, it's clear that Canadian TV is on the up, there are shows that the rest of the world can enjoy. Now all we have to do is convince the relevant authorities to buy them.
- February 4, 2008: Monday's traffic news
US networks are thinking about buying up The Border and Sophie
- July 14, 2008: Review: Flashpoint 1x1
A review of the first episode of the CTV/CBS show Flashpoint
- October 7, 2008: Review: Sanctuary 1x1
A review of the first episode of Sanctuary, airing on ITV4 and SciFi
- October 2, 2008: Review: The Border 2x1
A review of the first episode of the second season of CBC's The Border
- November 4, 2011: Review: Braquo 1x1
A review of the first episode of Braquo on FX
- November 19, 2012: What did you watch last week? Including Argo, Bomb Girls, Redfern Now, Twilight: Breaking Dawn 2 and Men in Black 3
What I watched on TV and at the movies in the last week