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The Unspoken Reason Why Canadian TV Lacks A Canadian Identity

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Continuing my riffing on Karen Burrows' Twitter essay about Canadian TV and cultural identity (and the subsequent Canadaland interview) and my attempt to keep the conversation going:

Another interesting comment nestled in the middle of her tweets is incredibly important and provocative.

This obsessive tendency in Canadian film and TV to set things in the United States can be a way of smugly wagging our finger at our American cousins, at their gun violence, religious extremism, racial strife, and the freakshow-turned-horror-show that is Donald Trump -- without having to acknowledge our own problems.

Hence why some supposedly progressive artists and filmmakers were happy to tweet #OscarsSoWhite a few months ago -- but get awfully huffy and reactionary when questions are raised about diversity and racism in Canadian movies and TV shows.

As well, part of the point of storytelling is to bear witness, to chronicle the world around you. We can look back at American movies and TV shows and often link them to the social and political turmoil of their eras -- but how often can we do that with Canadian movies and TV shows?

"But we can't set our shows in Canada!" insist the filmmakers. "We can't get the financing/distribution/audiences/fill-in-the-blank to support us!"

Can anyone point to a review that went: "Great acting, great storytelling -- but it was set in Canada so I thought it sucked?"

OK -- there is some validity to that. But at the same time, there are a lot of givens that are just assumed -- without a great deal of empirical data backing them up. Over the years I've tried crunching a few numbers (in my layperson's way) and found alternative pictures can be painted.

For instance: most of the Canadian series that have found a home on a major American network have featured some sort of on-screen Canadian signifier: Due South, Flashpoint, Combat Hospital and Rookie Blue to name a few -- whereas few Canadian series that pretend to be American have made it onto one of the big networks' schedules.

In order to say a Canadian setting hurts a film or TV show, you must be arguing it would've been a success if it wasn't set in Canada. But can anyone point to a review that went: "Great acting, great storytelling -- but it was set in Canada so I thought it sucked?" No? Blaming the Canadian setting is like blaming the wallpaper when you can't sell your house -- when it's really the black mould that is turning off buyers.

Then there's the old: "It doesn't matter," argument -- "a story is a story no matter where it's set!" To which my response is: "Um, so if you feel that way, you won't mind setting it in Canada, right?"

And let's not neglect that great contradictory argument: "There's no point in setting the story in Canada because there's nothing distinctive about Canada and, besides, Canada will seem too weird and foreign to my audience."

Where this all becomes interesting is that things have changed over the years. A couple of decades ago Canadian producers insisted Canadian series needed to be set in the States with American stars to succeed. Now we're seeing that's just not true with series featuring mostly Canadian casts and set in ambiguous Generica. So if the old myths were false -- maybe so are the current ones.

Maybe the crux of the issue is this: do the filmmakers themselves -- writers, directors, actors, producers, etc. -- really care? It's all very well to blame nebulous market forces and unnamed Hollywood executives, but at the end of the day, artists fight for what they believe in -- and let slide the things they don't.

Whenever a filmmaker explains the reason he/she didn't set their story in Canada is because it would be a fight with the executives, you've got to wonder. Couldn't that be said about most things involving a production? From casting, to locations, to shooting schedules, to simply getting the plot greenlit?

So what they are really saying is: "It wasn't a fight I was interested in fighting."

Where this whole "I was told to set it in the States and was helpless to refuse" narrative becomes a bit curious is I've also read interviews with Canadian filmmakers who practically boast about how the (Canadian) producers asked them to set it in Canada -- and they refused. So even as some Canadian filmmakers insist not setting it in Canada was an edict from on high, others will brag about not setting their story in Canada despite pressure to do so.

Hmmmm.

So maybe part of the problem is just a lot of these filmmakers don't want to set their stories in Canada. Or more to the point: they don't really have any feel for it.

There's a great deal of art that is, in a sense, regurgitation. A creator of TV shows remembers growing up watching TV. Filmmakers are inspired by the movies that excited them in their formative years.

So if you grew up watching American movies and TV shows, it stands to reason it feels "natural" to you to set your movie or TV series in America (or at least Generica). And Canadian references will feel forced and awkward to you.

As well, a lot of people in the Canadian entertainment biz get a lot of their work in American productions. Many live in Los Angeles. Indeed, for a lot -- particularly the ex-pats who have moved to Hollywood -- being Canadian is little more than a comfortable pair of trackpants they can slide into whenever their American skinny jeans start chafing. They think of themselves as American when it suits them, and Canadian when it doesn't.

You could argue the most telling aspect of this whole "Canadian setting" discussion is the Canadian TV shows that are ambiguous (i.e. Generica) or even that are set in Canada -- and still seem to get things wrong! Actors using American pronunciations, dialogue referring to Fahrenheit or miles, muddled or erroneous terms for Canadian institutions.

Is the problem deeper than faceless executives supposedly redacting Canadiansms from scripts? Maybe too many of the writers and actors and directors themselves don't know any better.

And they don't care.

Which is ironic. They desperately want Canadians to care about their work, but they don't see a need to care about Canada in return -- except as a convenient revenue stream.

And if they don't care, I suspect that's a bigger obstacle to having an on-screen Canadian presence than any executives' memos or myths about market penetration.

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