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Is Canadian TV Too Safe, Or Too Sexy?

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Canadian TV can reflect the ambiguity that is Canadian culture.

Canadians have long struggled with defining themselves...and suffering the definitions of others. Some have suggested, pejoratively, that Canadians are simply the "un-Americans", defined by an absence of identity.

Equally Canada has been defined as the bridge between Europe and the United States, with European aspects (from its parliamentary democracy to the BBC-like Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for which The U.S. has no real equivalent) even as it exists in a North American society. Canada has tougher gun laws than America...but looser than Europe. Canada is seen as more secular than America, but more religious than many Western Europe countries.

What one chooses to focus on depends on ones agenda. There is often a desire by some to promote the idea of dull, timid Canadians...and to embrace the mystique of the edgy and fearless American. Canadian would-be hipsters quick to sneer at Canadian TV as inherently tame compared to the shiny bauble that is American TV.

In this recent interview, Adam Korson, star of the new Canadian-made sitcom, Seed, takes special aim at Canadian repressed conservatism, as though that's the main obstacle in his series' quest for ratings -- a series about a sperm donor (with animated sperm dancing across the title) and featuring single moms and same sex parents. (The fact that I don't think the series has landed American distribution at all seems left out of the equation).

Canadian TV, like Canadian society, has long oscillated between American standards...and European mores.

A few years back you couldn't escape the American controversy that erupted during a football game when pop singer Janet Jackson accidentally-on-purpose popped out of her costume. Headlines were made. The American network's switchboard was afire with outraged viewers whose retina had been, apparently, irreparably damaged by the sight of a woman's breast. The FCC (the American CRTC) got in on the act, warning fines, even criminal charges, might be in the offing.

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In Canada, according to the Canadian network who had broadcast the exact same impropriety...they hadn't received a single complaint.

I was thinking about this recently, catching an episode of the highly popular The Murdoch Mysteries on the CBC. The Murdoch Mysteries is generally regarded as the epitome of a "safe" TV series. It's popularly assumed a large part of its audience is comprised of blue-haired grannies and kids not old enough to be sat down before the grisly doings of Criminal Minds.

In a recent episode, Murdoch investigated a murder near a nudist colony. And this genteel crime-drama...spent the next hour guilelessly parading around an assortment of bare bottoms. I'm pretty sure if an American network tried something similar, it would be all entertainment reporters would be writing about for the next month, and probably the subject of an FCC investigation or two.

This was hardly the first time Canadian network TV has seemed a little more, shall we say, European than American?

Indeed, over the years, sometimes American series made for "edgy" cable stations, like The Sopranos and Nip/Tuck, have aired on mainstream Canadian networks.

There often seems little consensus, and therefore little rhyme or reason, to how Canadian networks approach adult material. Presumably because half the people behind the scenes think Canada should follow American broadcast guidelines...and the other half say, um, why? I've seen programs where they seem to bleep out some swearing, and not others...all within the same show! When the CBC aired The Tudors, apparently some of the sex and nudity was cut...yet some was left in.

In the first season of CTV's The Eleventh Hour it was comparable to any similar American drama. Then, in the second season, it was sexed-up with some gratuitous nudity. As you might imagine, coming up with justifications for nudity in a workplace drama wasn't easy (I seem to recall a dream sequence or two). But with no appreciable (ahem) rise in ratings, the nudity was dropped for the third season.

This "are Canadian standards American...or aren't they?" dilemma dates back years. In the 1960s, the CBC drama Wojeck enjoyed big audience numbers, despite a gritty "cinema verite" directorial style unlike most American series, and some pretty edgy subject matter for its day.

The CBC's current Arctic Air is a mainstream, primetime drama-adventure series...but I don't suppose it could find a berth on an American network without bleeping out the occasional saltier phrase.

Significantly, it has often seemed as though nudity is more permissable than violence (in contrast to the American cliche). More than a few CBC movies over the years have included the occasional nude scene, while I've seen some theatrical movies on commercial TV edited for violence, but not always for skin.

Yet there seems to be this weird eagerness to promote the myth that Canadian TV (and by inference, Canada) is bland and conservative in comparison to American TV.

Some years ago I read a piece about the comedy troupe, The Kids in the Hall. The reporter made the dig that the CBC edited some of the Kids' more controversial bits, unlike the Americans (where their show aired on HBO)...instead of making the equally interesting point that the edgy Kids were airing on network primetime in Canada...but were only deemed acceptable for American sensitivities on cable.

I remember a few years ago having a conversation with someone where she blithely dismissed the conservativeness of Canadian TV compared to American programs...at a time when the CBC was airing J-Pod, a good-natured comedy so rife with cable-style vulgarity it would make the current cul-de-sac crew of Cougar Town blush with embarrassment.

Of course the line between what is acceptable and what isn't is blurring, as R-rated cable series like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have become almost "family" viewing. And as people watch TV series on DVD, or internet streaming, the broadcast origin of a series can get lost on the casual viewer (cable v. network). But it's when you contrast the standards of "mainstream" American networks with Canadian ones over the years that a slight difference emerges...reflecting a slight difference in mores.

Now whether having bare skin and four letter words on commercial primetime is a good, or a bad, thing...well, that's a whole other discussion.