In my previous post I was talking about the background that had led to Canadian fantasy/SF TV series like Orphan Black and the recently premiered Bitten. Arguing that the foundations were laid in the 1990s by a bunch of Canadian fantasy and science fiction series, often co-productions with American companies.
But it was often hard for the viewer to identify them as Canadian because they almost invariably were set in the United States, about American characters, with the lead roles usually reserved for an American (or other international actor) to star.
There's a blurry line of Canadianness with these various series, from mainly Canadian series, to co-productions, to simply American series shot in Canada. The North American version of Being Human is a Canadian co-production, yet the SF series Defiance, though shot in Canada with many Canadians prominently in the cast, I think is technically American (though I could be wrong). Hemlock Grove was shot in Canada, with a number of Canadians in the international cast, and looking at the fine print in the end credits, I suspect it's a co-production.
Sometimes identifying "Canadian" productions gets down to what you want to believe. I know people who will identify a co-production as "American" if they like it, and dismiss it as "Canadian" if they don't.
Digression aside, those earlier Canadian-shot productions provided work where like-minded creatives could get together.
Which then led to Sanctuary -- created and made by Canadians (who had worked together on the Canadian-made StarGate series), and with an all-Canadian cast. Sanctuary starred Amanda Tapping -- a Canadian actress who had been one of the secondary stars in StarGate: SG-1. With that under her belt, Tapping was seen as enough of a "name" among the target genre audience to occupy the centre seat.
(An interesting illustration of the multi-cultural Canadian identity: many of the regulars in Sanctuary were not born in Canada -- yet it was a Canadian cast.)
But the makers of Sanctuary remained skittish in one area: actually admitting it was Canadian! The series was about a monster hunting Englishwoman (a cross between Mary Poppins and Lara Croft) who operated out of the United States.
If Canadian entertainers could ever find a way to bottle self-loathing, they could corner the global market!
Still, Sanctuary demonstrated to sceptics that an all-Canadian series could do OK internationally. And it helped cement a creative template for many subsequent Canadian series.
One where it's set in modern day, the fantasy a finite, introduced element -- a tempting premise for budget conscious producers.
And more significantly -- Sanctuary was about an ass-kicking (white) female lead. Female heroes in what was once assumed to be a "boy's own" genre of fantasy, SF and horror had been around before -- Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But even today, most American genre series still feature (white) male leads.
Sanctuary was soon followed by female action heroines in The Lost Girl, Continuum, Orphan Black, and most recently Bitten. And with Killjoys (by The Lost Girl's creator) in the works. As well, there's Haven and Beauty & The Beast. Even the Canadian-made version of Being Human, though more gender balanced, is just that -- gender balanced.
But trends demand an artistic price. Namely a lack of creative verve. Am I the only one who wouldn't mind seeing a fantasy/SF series utilizing a fantasy/SF environment?
And the programmers' favouritism toward female-led series isn't a problem -- not when, for decades, it was quite the opposite. (Though the fact that these heroines are mainly white indicates not all the glass ceilings have been cracked). But the gender bias can be an issue when considered as one of a number of factors reflecting creative conformity.
Some reviewers of the new werewolf series, Bitten, complained that (so far) it's not putting a new spin on the cliches. But that's what the programmers are demanding and often what the audience wants (many popular American genre series aren't exactly pushing the creative envelope. I mean -- Grimm? Almost Human?)
The other issue is, of course, the old Canadian identity thing.
There has been an interesting progression since the days these series were set in America, fronted by an American star. Now Canadians actually get to star in Canadian series, and occasionally identify Canadian cities by name.
But often a big "taboo" in these shows is acknowledging Canada and the United States are separate nations. So in Bitten the heroine refers to being in Toronto, but the only flags seen in the pilot were the Stars n' Stripes. There's no border that has to be crossed. I don't suppose we'll hear too many references to the metric system. Canada is allowed to exist as place names and shots of the CN Tower so long as it doesn't exist as something other than a chilly 51st State.
Which brings us to -- Borealis.
Borealis was Canadian-made SF TV movie pilot that seemed to be pushing a bit away from the current template (a kind of mash up of Casablanca, Deadwood, and Babylon 5) and it wasn't just a Canadian show -- set in a thawing Arctic it was a Canadian show. But the broadcaster (Space) pulled the plug on any series before the pilot had even aired -- this despite the fact that most reviews were good. One suspects the executives were scared off by its Canadianness.
But if Canadian productions are going to thrive in the international market place, they're going to have to establish an identity -- a brand. You want to cultivate an audience that doesn't just grudgingly acknowledge a series is "filmed in" Canada, but actually likes "Canadian" programs.
Still, each effort opens the door to the next.
StarGate (and its ilk) demonstrated Canadians could assemble genre programs competently.
Sanctuary demonstrated Canadians could do it with an original premise and without American stars.
The Lost Girl showed it could be edgier (with its bisexual heroine) -- adding "street cred" in the increasingly cable dominated TV landscape. And it showed it could do this without explicitly pretending it was America.
Continuum, although featuring an American lead, admits it's set in Canada.
Orphan Black showed it could be a critical darling, and that its greatest asset could be its Canadian star who blew the critics away.
Bitten? It's an interesting culmination: made by Canadians from a Canadian concept, with a little bit of cable-approved "edginess" (occasional bare backsides) and which makes some nominal acknowledgement of Canada as a setting.
Who knows what the future holds for Canadian genre TV? Maybe on the horizon is a Canadian genre series that isn't just grudgingly set in Canada, but unapologetically so.
And isn't that what fantasy and SF is about? Wondering what lies just beyond our imagination?
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
It all begins here, as baby-faced rookie Officer Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) is assigned to an elite squad of young undercover cops -- Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson Peete), Doug Penhall (Peter DeLuise) and Harry Truman Ioki (Dustin Nguyen) -- to infiltrate high schools and fight crime. All 103 episodes are available on Hulu and Hulu Plus.
If you're only used to seeing Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean and Hugh Laurie as Dr. House, prepare to look at them in a whole new light in this critically-acclaimed British comedy. Set in significant time periods from the Dark Ages through World War I, "Blackadder" recounts the adventures of Edmund Blackadder, the most despicable and brilliant rogue ever to pursue a coin or a pretty woman. All four self-contained seasons are available on Netflix.
"Braquo" follows a squad of Paris cops who exist in the blurred boundaries at the very edge of the law, often using violence and intimidation to get the job done. The lives of these officers change radically when their squad leader, falsely accused of corruption, commits suicide. The first two seasons are available to Hulu and Hulu Plus viewers.
You still have time to catch up before the end! A high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer teams with a former student to manufacture and sell crystal meth to secure his family's future. Seasons 1-4 and the first half of currently-airing Season 5 are available on Netflix.
Before "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "The Crazy Ones" debut in September, see where it all began for Joss Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar with the beloved cult hit about a teenage girl who fulfills her mystical calling as a Slayer by protecting humankind from vampires, demons and other malevolent supernatural creatures. All seven seasons are available on Netflix.
Jump on the bandwagon and find out what everyone's buzzing about. From the creator of “Weeds” comes a heartbreaking and hilarious new series set in a women’s prison. Piper Chapman’s wild past comes back to haunt her, resulting in her arrest and detention in a federal penitentiary. To pay her debt to society, Piper trades her comfortable New York life for an orange prison jumpsuit and finds unexpected conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric group of inmates. Season 1 is available exclusively on Netflix, as are other Netflix original series "Arrested Development," "House of Cards" and "Hemlock Grove."
Ellen Pompeo stars in this Emmy-winning medical drama as Dr. Meredith Grey, a young surgical intern (and eventual resident) who's caught up in a swirl of personal and professional passions with fellow doctors at Seattle Grace Hospital. Seasons 1-9 are streaming on Netflix.
Disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) enrolls in a local community college. While there, he forms a study group who eventually learn more about themselves than their course work. Hulu Plus subscribers can watch all 84 episodes of Dan Harmon's quirky, critically-acclaimed comedy, while regular Hulu users can watch the last five episodes of Season 4.
The Emmy-winning series about a scientist caught in a time warp, catapulting from the past to the future within the bodies of different people. Hulu Plus viewers can watch all 97 episodes, while Hulu users can check out 56.
When the Belfast police are stalled in their investigation of a spate of murders, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is drafted to investigate. Under her lead, the team uncovers an intricate web of lives entangled by the killings. Season 1 is available on Netflix.
This highly successful comedy series follows the unique Keaton family as their views on politics and life clash to give us humorous family moments. One of the most popular sitcoms of the '80s, the show launched Michael J. Fox into superstardom. All seven seasons are available on Hulu and Hulu Plus.
Julianna Margulies ignites the screen as Alicia Florrick, the political wife whose world is shattered when her husband (Chris Noth) is caught in a sex and corruption scandal. Forced to support her family, Alicia returns to work at a Chicago law firm headed by Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and Will Gardner (Josh Charles), a driven attorney with a passion for justice. Seasons 1 through 4 are now available on Hulu Plus, just in time for you to catch up for fall.
Lucy Ricardo is a scatterbrained housewife whose husband, Ricky, is a bandleader at a nightclub. Lucy and Ricky's best friends are landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz who often become unwitting participants in Lucy's get-rich-quick and other wild schemes. 102 episodes of the legendary comedy are available on Hulu and Hulu Plus.
"The Inbetweeners" is a painfully funny British comedy about four teenagers growing up in suburbia. Both seasons are available on Hulu and Netflix, and the sequel movie is also available on Netflix.
Mary Tyler Moore stars in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," one of the most realistic, well written and enduring situation comedies of all time. The show spawned more successful spinoffs ("Lou Grant," "Rhoda" and "Phyllis") than any other sitcom in history, and its creative alumni have created such shows as "The Simpsons," "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers". The first three seasons are available for Hulu and Hulu Plus viewers.
A quirky comedy about 12-year-old Martin Moone and his bearded, sarcastic, imaginary friend Sean (Chris O’Dowd). Martin’s imaginary pal plays the banjo, writes bad love poetry, and helps Martin navigate the challenges of his eccentric childhood. Hulu and Hulu Plus subscribers can watch the first season (a charming and all-too-brief six episodes) now.
Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas and Robert Carlyle star in this fantastical series that follows the travails of a young woman who is drawn to a small Maine town and discovers that it's filled with the mystical elements of the fairy tale world. Both seasons are available on Netflix, while Season 2 is available to Hulu Plus subscribers.
In this droll comedy, an employee with a rural Parks and Recreation department is full of energy and good ideas but bogged down by bureaucracy. Seasons 1-4 are available on Netflix, Season 5 is available in full on NBC.com and Hulu.
Olivia Pope leads a team of Washington, D.C., lawyers who specialize in making scandals disappear. As they secretly handle crises at the highest levels of government, the dysfunctional team must also cope with problems closer to home. Both seasons of the hit ABC drama are available on Netflix, while Season 2 is available to Hulu Plus subscribers.
This gritty drama focuses on the tension between a group of corrupt but effective cops led by Detective Vic Mackey; a captain with the burden of bringing them down as well as reducing crime in her district; and a City Councilman out for his own political gain. Hulu Plus subscribers can watch all 7 seasons, while Hulu viewers can currently watch Seasons 3 and 4.
Before "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End" there was "Spaced," written by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, and directed by Edgar Wright. Slacker twentysomething artist Tim (Pegg) and his brooding writer flatmate, Daisy (Stevenson), do everything possible to avoid adulthood in this surreal sitcom. Both seasons are available on Netflix.
The new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, first charmed British audiences in this biting political comedy from "Veep" creator Armando Iannucci about the inner workings of the British government. Tide yourself over with all four seasons until "Doctor Who" and "Veep" return. The entire series is available on Hulu and Hulu Plus.
When pregnant, 12-year-old Tui tries to kill herself in a freezing New Zealand lake, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) has plenty of questions for the girl. But when Tui suddenly disappears, Griffin finds herself knee-deep in small-town secrets. The tense miniseries is available in its entirety on Netflix.
Rod Serling's seminal anthology series is focused on ordinary folks who suddenly find themselves in extraordinary, usually supernatural, situations. All five original seasons of this enduring classic are available on Hulu and Hulu Plus.
The sensational murder of the high school homecoming queen strips the veneer of respectable gentility from the picturesque rural community of Twin Peaks to expose the seething undercurrents of illicit passion, greed, jealously and intrigue. FBI agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Harry S Truman join forces to investigate the crime and discover a town full of secrets. Both seasons are available on Hulu and Netflix.
Aaron Sorkin's powerful political epic chronicles the triumphs and travails of White House senior staff under the administration of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). The acclaimed ensemble cast features Stockard Channing, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Richard Schiff, John Spencer and Bradley Whitford as members of the president's inner circle. All seven seasons are available on Netflix.