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The Problem With Ranking the "Best" Canadian TV Shows

11/18/2013 01:26 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Recently Huffington Post presented the results of a reader's choice of the "best Canadian" TV series ever. Such surveys can be fun -- seeing what selections are made, and encouraging people to participate in the discussion.

They also can have practical value -- for the producers, the broadcasters, and the funding folks to get a sense of what worked and what has lasting resonance.

On the other hand, to quote Simpsons' TV anchorman Kent Brockman in one episode: "I"ve said it before and I'll say it again -- democracy simply doesn't work."

The problem with such surveys is, of course, it's impossible to know who's voting, what criteria they're using (and so what conclusions to draw from the choices) -- and who's just pissing in the pool and giggling as they figure no one will notice. Or, to use the internet term: who's just Trolling.

One of those series that made the top 25 was an early 1970s sitcom called The Trouble with Tracy, dated even when it aired as, apparently, it was using scripts first written in the 1950s! I've never seen the series, so I'm not offering any personal opinion. But generally when I've seen it referenced it's in the context of it being one of the worst Canadian series. So the fact that it muscled its way onto a "best" of list seems a bit curious.

Now, maybe those who voted for it were sincere -- they really do recall it as a beloved sitcom. Fair enough. One man's trash is another man's treasure.

Or maybe they enjoyed it as a kind of "so bad it's good" sort of experience. But, to be honest, that's not really what one is looking for when trying to assemble a list of "great" Canadian TV series. You can't build an industry, or develop an audience, around celebrating things that are "so bad it's almost good" -- despite what a multitude of B-grade filmmakers tell themselves. Plan 9 From Outer Space (popularly known as the worst American movie ever made) has a devoted cult fandom who revel in its ineptitude -- but no one would expect its inclusion in the AFI's list of 100 Greatest Films. Hence my point about defining "criteria."

The third possibility is more problematic -- people voting for it because they thought it was a bad show and figured it'd be a giggle to see if they could mess up the final results. Like a kid who sees other kids building a sand castle at the beach and, since he has no interest in building sand castles himself, petulantly decides to come over and kick down their sand castle.

Maybe I'm being overly cynical, but having written about and discussed Canadian film and TV for many years, I'm aware of the ways the discussion can be diverted, or hijacked. People whose main objective is just to see it all shut down. People who, as I suggest, are basically trolls, jumping into the debate just for the sake of seeing what mischief they can create. Or people who hysterically insist that anyone discussing the topic is "insane" -- though surely that includes them since they are, after all, now discussing it. Personally, if a topic doesn't interest me I politely excuse myself and leave it to the people who do have an interest in it to get on with their conversation -- or sometimes I stay and listen to their opinions because I like to broaden my horizons.

Another thing you notice in the list is a preponderance of children's shows -- from pre-school series like Mr. Dress-Up to family dramas like Danger Bay and The Littlest Hobo (another series which, like The Trouble with Tracy, I suspect is just as liable to pop up on a "worst" Canadian TV list).

An indication that Canada does good kids shows? Or simple nostalgia? Voters choosing series they have warm, nostalgic feelings toward simply because they saw them at an impressionable age -- but, in most cases, haven't actually seen in years.

So, again, there's a criteria dilemma. One could argue it's a bit awkward to lump together kids shows, adult shows, news shows -- even Hockey Night in Canada! -- when these are the proverbial apples and oranges. That'd be a bit like doing a list of the greatest books and including works by Richard Scarry, Margaret Atwood and Stephen Hawking.

Another problem is, of course, that you aren't really sure what people might be choosing from. If someone votes for a particular series as the "greatest" -- is that simply because that's about the only Canadian series they've actually seen? Like a politician who wins an election by default simply because no one knew who the other candidates were.

I'm reminded of a Star Trek DVD collection that was labelled "The Fan Collection", featuring episodes of all five Star Trek TV series voted for by the fans. Included on the Star Trek: Enterprise disk was the series' finale, "These Are the Voyages" -- which, so I understood, many Enterprise fans regarded as one of the series' worst episodes! But presumably Enterprise-specific fans were out-voted by fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation who perhaps voted en masse for that episode because characters from The Next Generation guest starred in it, not because it was a good Enterprise episode.

I once did a Canadian TV survey among friends and family, just for fun, but included in the questions was what series had they actually seen, or even heard of? Needless to say, that extra info provided an additional insight into the results.

Any time someone compiles a "best of" survey, everyone will have their contrary opinions -- things that should've been included, but weren't, or were and shouldn't have been. But at the same time, you are trying to get a picture of the cultural landscape -- of what people are thinking, what they liked. And if people are voting, troll-like, to ruin the results, it's frustrating. If people who have only seen three Canadian series vote for the "greatest" it has a different weight than if someone has watched 40 Canadian series and is opining on which is superior. And if people are drawing upon dim memories of half remembered series they haven't seen since childhood, well, that also impacts on the results.

Which is actually a good segue for me. Because prior to being distracted by this topic, I had been drafting another post entirely -- one that relates to the availability, or lack thereof, of Canadian TV shows.

So -- stay tuned. Same time, same channel.

Greatest Canadian TV Shows