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'Seed' and The Logic of the Canadian Sitcom

06/09/2013 11:37 EDT | Updated 08/09/2013 05:12 EDT

I'd written before about the sitcom, Seed -- one of the few contemporary Canadian-made sitcoms (for all that cultural pundits curiously insist that Canadians are champs at comedy). My past comments related to my usual pet peeve: Canadian identity. Seed tries to imply it's American.

The premise concerns Harry, a shiftless sperm donor involved in the lives of the families who benefited from his, um, contribution.

Despite poor ratings, City TV recently announced they've renewed it for a second season! Fans are ecstatic. Equally it reflects the usual debate in Canadian TV: does renewing a low-rated series demonstrate the executives believe in it -- or is it just cheaper than commissioning something new?

A second season offers the filmmakers a chance to figure out what worked and what didn't (because in Canada, getting a second season reprieve is surprisingly easy -- it's avoiding the second season axe that's the trick if there's no upswing in audience numbers).

One on-line reviewer suggested they should drop the kids. But there's no impetus for the adults to be hanging out without the kids.

I don't know if the series needs big changes. Rather, I think it's a fine tuning thing. So I thought I'd dust off some thoughts I had shelved when I assumed the series was going to end after season one. Not simply as a look at Seed but how, and why, sitcoms work.

What surprises me about the acclaim Seed enjoyed is the series strikes me as kind of Old School -- a far cry from the sly comedies popular today like Modern Family and Canada's Less Than Kind. The plots hinge on contrived set ups, the characters are kind of caricaturish, and the punch lines delivered with such vehemence you half expect to hear "buh-dump-bump!" in the background. But the premise, about unorthodox modern families, is very much a part of the new sitcom dynamic.

Though for all the series is supposedly edgy in subject matter, Harry himself is very much a conservative TV archetype. He works in a bar, has one night stands, and lives like a perpetual frat boy (I wish they'd come up with something quirky to make him an individual: maybe he likes opera, or is a history buff).

You could argue the core idea behind most sitcoms is: nice people doing bad things. We have to care about them to get involved, yet the comic misadventures generally arise out of the characters being the architects of their own tribulations. So, y'know, affable hero accidentally spills wine on his boss' carpet, he panics and tries to cover it up. So nice guy + bad thing = comedy.

There are exceptions: from All in the Family to BlackAdder to Arrested Development (though even then, sometimes individual characters were "nice" -- or nicer -- in these series, such as George Michael and, generally, Michael, in Arrested Development).

Yet Seed is, in a sense, the reverse. It's about abrasive people who do nice things.

These are people who, generally, don't like each other, but altruistically sacrifice their time and convenience for each other (though I suspect most real life in vitro families would regard the series as their worst nightmare -- the sperm donor expecting visitation rights!)

Yet many of them are kind of jerks! (The lesbian couple, Michelle & Zoey, aren't bad, and Rose is OK). Yet there's no sense they are meant to be comedic anti-heroes. I think we are supposed to like them.

Now if I was laughing more at the jokes, perhaps I wouldn't care. But my point is, is part of the reason I'm not laughing because I don't care?

Part of the problem is you can practically smell the magic marker aroma issuing off the screen from the story ideas jotted down on bristol board during brainstorming sessions. The jokes are driving the plots and the plots are driving the characters, rather than characters driving plots and the jokes arising out of those plots. The characters act like jerks simply because it's the quickest way to set up that week's scenario.

In one episode, Harry discovers power couple, Jonathan & Janet, schedule periods where they can get together for sex. So Harry, rapscallion that he is, shows up during one of these sex dates -- until Janet realizes that her husband must have told Harry about their sex dates, immediately putting the husband in the dog house. And the plot's off and running.

Except, back track: why did Harry show up to interrupt their sex date to begin with? Even sitcom characters need plausible motives. Why did he give up his own lunch hour to do so? Oh, right...'cause Harry's a dick.

Which reminds me of another episode where Harry and Rose are both trying to weasel out of some joint venture so bar gal, Irene, butts in, conning them into doing the thing they didn't want to do.

So why did Irene butt in? Oh, right...'cause she's a dick, too. That's pretty much the definition of her character: she enters a scene and utters some caustic put down or disparaging remark, then exits scene. Yet she, too, does nice things, like going with Rose on a "girls' night out" sort of thing -- even though we have no sense they would want to hang out! (While Harry and Jonathan have "bro-dates"). Again: scene drives characters, not vice versa.

Where the Irene character becomes interesting is that of all the characters in the series, she's the only one who's supposed to have known Harry prior to the first episode. So you would think in a series where all the other relationships are embryonic, that could be an interesting dynamic: the old pal. Instead, she doesn't really seem to like Harry either. Indeed, and relating to my point about how you can see the ink scratches of the writers, Harry seems an oddly contrived personality. A guy who seems to have no long term friends, yet is apparently so personable he dates models!

Maybe that gets back to my qualm about the series' refusal to admit it's set in Canada. The series refuses to root itself in a real world environment and, by extension, the characters themselves seem somewhat contrived and untethered, existing for the joke, the scene, but not as characters who live outside the frame.

Now, I suspect, fans of the series will disagree. And that's what the comments section below is for. 'Cause it ain't a discussion if I'm the only one talking.