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Americanizing the Canadian Sitcom

08/12/2013 08:37 EDT | Updated 10/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Potential for big success matched with the fear of cringe-inducing failure means Canadian sitcoms tend to experience drought and flood periods.

The new tsunami hitting shores are Canadian sitcoms bragging they are just like Hollywood comedies. Partly this is a dig at the perceived inferiority of past Canadian sitcoms -- and partly a sign these new comedies are eschewing the creative pretensions of sitcoms as stylistically diverse as The Newsroom, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays which practically boasted that you wouldn't see their like on American networks.

This new breed insists it's precisely the sort of sitcoms you'd see on American networks!

The first of these -- Seed -- struggled with poor ratings on City TV, but has secured a renewal. Satisfaction is currently on CTV. City TV gave the Package Deal pilot an advanced airing, though the rest of the series won't come till fall. And CTV is still waiting to unleash Spun Out -- fronted by ex-Kids in the Hall-er Dave Foley (star of the Hollywood sitcom NewsRadio).

In some cases the creators have been working in Hollywood and have now returned to the Land God Gave to Cain as though conquering heroes. The subtext, in many of the interviews, is these are going to be better, slicker, and certainly more commercial than the "usual" Canadian sitcoms.

This has always been a problem in Canadian entertainment -- a deliberate lack of respect for what has come before, or an ignorance of it entirely.

Canadian sitcoms Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie -- at their peak -- were bringing in a million plus viewers. Seed I think averaged less than 200 000. Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays had some critics calling it the best comedy on TV. Even people who like Satisfaction I'm not sure would ever claim that about it.

So by all means pursue the dream of an American-style Canadian sitcom. But wait till you've pulled it off before you call dibs on bragging rights.

Based on some of the nicer reviews of these new sitcoms some viewers were feeling a bit left out by past Canadian comedies -- and so welcome these new urban middle class white twentysomething comedies as something that, finally, speaks to them.

But the problem is that instead of Canadian comedies with an American professionalism, some end up with the worst of both worlds -- like a mermaid with a fish head and human legs.

An "American" style seems to mean being coy about being Canadian. Seed does everything but sing the Star-Spangled Banner to imply it's set in the U.S. While Satisfaction and Package Deal occasionally make vague *cough* Canadian allusions so long as it's not, y'know, too obvious, while making far more obvious American references. In Package Deal, the lawyers didn't wear legal robes. In an episode of Satisfaction the characters mention winning money on a "Canadian game show." An indication the series is set in Canada? Or deliberately letting the viewer infer it's the U.S. since, after all, why would characters specify it as a "Canadian" game show if they're in Canada?

Doing an American-style sitcom means, apparently, doing a sitcom that is hard to pin down as being set in Canada!

Maybe the creators have just spent too long in Hollywood. Satisfaction's "Canadian" gags -- beaver-costumes or a nightclub called the "Seal Club" -- seem like jokes someone would come up with who knew nothing about Canada except international cliches!

Yet the humour itself can reflect the worst of Canadian comedies of yesteryear.

Sitcoms often start out a bit rough as it takes a few episodes for the characters to get established. So early episodes can lurch about on generic gags and contrived plots until the personalities and interaction can start dictating the stories. The first few episodes of the classic U.S. sitcom Friends were surprisingly bland because its strength only fully emerged once the characters gelled.

So watching the earliest episodes of any sitcom doesn't always tell you how good it might become.

But a unifying theme I find connecting these series is a kind of contrivedness to the plotting, as though the creators had simply found a book called "101 Sitcom Plots" and mined it for inspiration. In the case of Satisfaction, their edition seems to have been published in the 1970s, given the swingers episode!

Modern American comedies (y'know, the things these are supposed to be resembling) generally milk comedy out of recognizable situations that we can identify with. Yet these Canadian comedies seem too much like the characters exist in some parallel sitcom reality. Maybe that's the problems with setting out to do an "American-style" sitcom. A sitcom is already an imitation of life. So now they are doing an imitation of an imitation, and like any multiple reproduction, it's started to degrade.

There's a broadness to these comedies. Mugging, double takes, and characters who couldn't be more obviously identified as comic figures if they sported rubber noses and floppy shoes. Often in modern American sitcoms there's a thread of realism -- a sense these characters could exist in the real world. I wrote about this idea earlier, specifically looking at Seedand the logic of comedy.

There are even echoes of past Canadian sitcoms in these supposedly improved American-models. Satisfaction's Ryan Belleville previously co-starred as a similar arrested adolescent third wheel in Almost Heroes (I think they even recycled a gag where his roommate is trying to make out with a girl while he's in the room).

Personally, I don't like most of the characters -- kind of loathe many of them, to be honest. And yet a series is kind of counting on you wanting to hang with these people from week-to-week. Part of this antipathy stems from my point about cardboard characters. Part, I'll freely admit, is ideological, and therefore entirely personal. I find these sitcoms can often seem old fashioned and conservative (I wrote previously about my perception of Satisfaction's sexism) -- even Seed, despite its theoretically "liberal" dynamics!

Maybe instead of thinking an American-stye sitcom means cartoon characters in generic North American cities, while peppering the scripts with contrived plots and Old School one-liners, they should really study what goes into a successful American sitcom -- the characters, the timing, the plots -- and marry it with a Canadian sensibility and sense of place.

Then maybe the occasional comedy flood can settle into a sustainable reservoir.