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Why Canadians Should Be Watching 'Bomb Girls'

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BOMB GIRLS
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I believe that stories work best when they are rooted. That if you watch a movie set in New York...you want to be believe the filmmakers know New York. If you watch a TV show set in England, you appreciate dialogue peppered with a few English colloquialisms.

I tend to revisit a theme about Canadian identity in pop culture, usually in the context of criticizing Canadian movies and TV shows for either blatantly pretending they aren't Canadian, or for admitting they are Canadian but in an indistinct, vague sort of way.

But there are those that buck the trend, unselfconsciously rooting their stories in the world their characters live. I'm not actually a big fan of the private eye dramedy, Republic of Doyle (CBC) -- but I'm the first to say that what gives it a flavour and tone all its own is its Newfoundland setting.

And a series can embrace its cultural idiosyncracy without losing universality. It's easy enough for those of us not on the east coast to infer that when the characters refer to the "RNC" they mean the police...even if it might take us a bit to realize it stands for "Royal Newfoundland Constabulary."

I was thinking about this catching a recent episode of Bomb Girls (Global) after it came back from a mini-hiatus.

Bomb Girls is the World War II drama-cum-soap opera focusing on the Canadian homefront and the gals (and guys) working at a munitions factory. And I'll stick my neck out and say Bomb Girls is probably the best Canadian series being made right now, at least when you consider its different elements.

It works as simple pulp entertainment -- it's got a diversity of almost archetypal characters you like and can get caught up in their dramas. But it's also a little bit offbeat from most of the stuff on the dial...even as it falls within a familiar period drama niche (shared by Mad Men and Downton Abbey). And despite being called Bomb "Girls" a guy can get just as involved in the drama (this ain't, say, Sex and the City which, so I understand, counted the majority of its fanbase as female).

And it pulls it all off with a certain deliberate style -- but not to the point of camp. So it conjures old movies in cinematography, colour schemes, fashions, colloquialisms, and scenes of guys wandering around kitchens in undershirts and suspenders -- while grafting on very contemporary, provocative themes of race, gender, and sex.

The shame of it is that Canadian producers are quick to try and shop internationally series that are fairly generic -- such as CTV's cop drama Motive (which will apparently be airing on ABC in the States) and the sitcom Seed (City TV). Yet Bomb Girls is a series I could easily see developing a true cult following abroad, precisely because of the way it straddles being familiar and accessible (many nations shared similar homefront experiences) while being a little offbeat and atypical.

And part of the formula is how they work in period details with the soap opera drama.

In the recent episode, a sub-plot involves Lorna (Meg Tilly) trying to get a phone at a time when a home telephone was almost a luxury. Yet instead of seeming like a frivolous B-plot with gags about "party lines" (where different homes share a single line), they were smart enough to tie it into an actual human drama aspect of the story. Lorna secures a phone even as she worries about the fate of her sons overseas...the phone going from being a treasured prestige to a nightmarish shriek every time it rings, as Lorna fears it will be the call telling her her boys are dead.

Cleverly handled.

Likewise, the use of the Dieppe landing serves as an effective backdrop to the episode. Dieppe being a notoriously ill-fated assault (though some cited it as an important learning step to victory). Canadian troops did much of the fighting and suffered most of the losses (I'm guessing an American war time drama wouldn't use Dieppe as the backdrop for an episode).

But it's also cleverly handled because we see the story from the POV of the people at home, initially excited about this major invasion, then getting a bit more uncomfortable when reports seem to be sketchy, until finally, by episode's end, it is confirmed that the invasion failed.

There was another intriguing reference in the episode that probably a few viewers missed. At one point, Lorna chides the pessimism of her husband (Peter Outerbridge) by suggesting he is the "Voice of Doom." To a modern viewer the line makes enough sense: he says things that seem gloomy.

But to Canadians in the 1940s, the Voice of Doom had a specific meaning...and identity. Namely, broadcaster and actor, Lorne Greene.

The man who to later generations would be a cowboy in Bonanza, a space man in Battlestar Galactica, and our guide to the New Wilderness, started out as a news reader for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And during the dark war years became known as the "Voice of Doom."

Knowing that, the line in Bomb Girls takes on an extra resonance as a historical "pop cultural" reference.

I suspect the makers of Bomb Girls had to be a bit coy using the reference. Canadian networks are somewhat notorious for their territorialism -- refusing to acknowledge each other's existence in their dramas. I'm cynical enough to think the makers of Bomb Girls were only able to slip in the "Voice of Doom" (and CBC) reference because they knew no one at Global TV would catch on to it.

Part of the strength of Bomb Girls is the fact that it seems un-selfconscious and unapologetic about its Canadian setting. It isn't like the writers are struggling to cram in some awkward Canadianism just to say they could...but because they're trying to be true to these characters and their world.

And that's what storytelling is all about.


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