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D.K. Latta

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When Can We Expect a Canadian Fantasy That Admits it's Canadian?

Posted: 01/23/2014 4:10 pm

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?

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