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Why Are TV Shows Ostensibly Set in Canada Viewed as Unmarketable?

09/30/2013 05:40 EDT | Updated 11/30/2013 05:12 EST

In my previous post I referenced a comic strip that spoofed (for political reasons) the U.S. series Breaking Bad as being uniquely American in perspective.

This got me thinking.

I write about Canadian culture and identity, and how it's often not represented in Canadian movies and TV. Because I write about this (a lot!) I've heard all the counter arguments. Including that a Canadian setting should only be used if a story has to be set in Canada (otherwise, apparently, it should be set in the U.S.) -- as though you must decide ahead of time that the plot will hinge on Canadianness. (And if it does, then the writer will be told the story is unmarketable -- Catch 22).

Setting is a part of storytelling -- it can subtly influence plots, characters, motivation, but sometimes in ways you couldn't anticipate until you actually do it! It isn't that you want to make a story that is parochial. People and emotions are pretty universal. But milieu takes a generic plot and makes it individual.

I remember years ago watching an episode of the Canadian crime drama Night Heat, a TV series using an "Anytown, North America" setting. In one episode, a guy needs an operation for his daughter and is blackmailed by the doctor into committing a crime. I'd seen plots like this before in American dramas, usually involving a guy needing money for a medical procedure. Yet Night Heat was trying not to admit whether it was American or Canadian. So for its plot the father was coerced into the crime in order to have his daughter moved up on the donor list. How they approached the plot was influenced by the fact that they were trying to make it compatible with a Canadian setting.

I think I learned some of my love for setting from American dramas. Which is ironic. When people insist that a story shouldn't be set in Canada, because it's a "universal" plot, they don't realize just how rooted in their time and place are so many American movies and TV shows.

Consider the cult American TV series, Veronica Mars -- recently in the public eye over its successful kickstarter campaign to launch a big screen version.

Veronica Mars, for those as don't know, was about a scrappy teenage girl who investigated crimes with intelligence and a caustic tongue. And its setting was almost a character in the story.

Veronica lived in an archetypal (albeit fictional) California town called Neptune (the importance of the setting to the creators perhaps reflected in the idea of twinning the heroine's name with that of the town). A Southern California microcosm sharply divided between the uber-rich of movie stars and dot com millionaires and the working poor of maids and gardeners, between the Anglos and the Latino underclass.

Remove Veronica Mars from Neptune, Calif. -- and you'd have to do a lot of rewriting on scripts. I'll risk the ire of Mars fans by saying that's why the final season was the series' weakest -- it relocated to a university campus and lost touch with its raison d'etre (though even then the new setting was a shaper of plots).

Yet Veronica Mars was universal. No one watching it would fail to understand the themes, the motives, the human emotion -- or the wisecracks! Being specific to a time and place doesn't make a story inaccessible -- it makes it more vivid and authentic.

You could imagine transplanting the series to other climes.

A British version of Veronica Mars? The class struggle would feature old money vs. factory workers and lorry drivers. And this new setting could suggest different plots -- more emphasis on union strife, perhaps, and mysteries about penniless gentry living on airs and pretences.

What about a Canadian Veronica Mars? Perhaps some northern town built on natural resources. The upper class mining moguls and lumber barons. Instead of a Latino underclass of immigrants and their children, perhaps Native Indians whose families have lived there for generations. Which then opens plot avenues involving land claims and old world/new world clashes.

You could plop Veronica Mars in a different setting, and it would still deal with the same themes and issues -- yet each setting offers fresh story possibilities.

Yet I suspect if you asked a lot of Canadian writers what they can learn from Veronica Mars, they'd ignore the themes and subtext (and wit!) and respond: "Um, always set your series in California?"

We can watch American or British (or whatever) programs and take the setting so much for granted we don't even think about how it influences the narrative. Is the reason the classic sitcom Fawlty Towers has never successfully made the transition to an America version (despite two attempts) is because there's a fundamental Britishness to it?

It could be an interesting creative exercise at the Canadian Film Centre (or similiar institutions) to ask the students to imagine relocating popular American series (or movies) to Canada and ask how they would reshape the plot -- not by disguising the Canadian setting, but by accepting it.

Consider another American series, Arrested Development. It could be set anywhere, in any country. Yet because it's set in Los Angeles, Tobias aspires to be an actor, while Gob dates a Latina actress, a plot complication evolving out of the fact that he doesn't speak Spanish. So many aspects of Arrested Development were a part of their time and place (including the Iraq War).

Perhaps in an imaginary Canadian Arrested Development Gob's Spanish-speaking girlfriend would be French-Canadian (or English-Canadian if the series was French) allowing for a similar plot involving a mistranslation. Or perhaps an Asian or South-Asian actress shooting a production in Canada intended for overseas distribution.

If you think about many of your favourite American series, you'll realize how much the sense of place seeps into the story (U.S. series often put a place name in the opening credits montage). From Breaking Bad's premise arising out of the American health care system to True Blood with its southern drawls and back woods voodoo.

Though there are Canadian filmmakers who are so out-of-touch with Canadian reality they can't even imagine a Canadian setting beyond cartoon stereotypes (I remember a Canadian producer once insisting he couldn't set stuff in Canada because he didn't want to make movies about maple syrup harvesters!)

Now before someone chastises me for ignoring the obvious -- there are Canadian series that acknowledge their environment: Arctic Air, The Murdoch Mysteries, Hard Rock Medical, Blackstone and Republic of Doyle for example. These are series that benefit from their sense of place -- yet remain universal.

2012: The Year In Canadian TV