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Will a Canadian TV Series Ever Be One of the Greats?

10/14/2013 10:53 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

In a recent Globe & Mail piece, TV critic John Doyle rages against the mediocrity of Canadian TV -- arguing TV is enjoying a creative Golden Age and Canadians don't seem to be a part of that. Another columnist, Bill Brioux, added to the discussion.

There's stuff Doyle gets right, but I think he misses key points.

Part of that gets into that whole notion that we can empirically define what is creative and quality.

A few weeks ago, American commentator Mike Gallay at Huffingpost listed the five greatest series in TV history as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Twin Peaks. So, um, the greatest shows ever are largely about men (mostly white), mainly crime dramas (often focusing on crooks and anti-heroes), and mostly aired in the last decade?

Likewise, Doyle cites The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, and the only Canadian series he can think of that belong in the same article with them were Chris Haddock's assorted gritty crime dramas as well as The Trailer Park Boys (which was essentially a Sopranos-spoof).

A lot of "serious heterosexual guys" shows as writer and professor David Gilmour might define them. (OK -- cheap shot).

If a female critic were to list the "greatest" series as exclusively consisting of, I dunno, Sex and the City, Friends, The Mindy Project, and similar sitcoms -- well, I can imagine the howls of derision from her compeers. Or if a nerd (like me) were to compile a list comprised entirely of fantasy and SF series.

Surely a true "greatest" list should cover a few decades and a mix of genres, sensibilities and character demographics. And it should include a few series that a lot of people would say: WTF?

Which is the irony. If a series enjoys huge ratings -- critics have no trouble insisting that popular consensus doesn't make something "good." Yet if a hundred critics agree something is great -- well, they say, that proves it must be.

Fess up: your personal list of great TV shows (or movies, or books) -- your "if I was marooned on a desert island" wish list -- probably includes a few things a lot of other people would happily see sunk to the bottom of the lagoon.

And part of that gets back to the notion of how any of us define "quality" TV. Is it a unique premise? Is it a familiar premise with a fresh spin? Or is it a standard concept superbly executed? Is it three dimensional characters? Or off-beat characters? Is it about the plot? The themes? Or jump cuts and scrambled chronology? Or R-rated sensibilities? Does it make us laugh? Put us on the edge of our seats? Or is it philosophically provocative? And if we find something provocative and someone else doesn't -- does that makes them dumb or does it indicate we're not as smart as we thought we were?

For every series for which someone can make an argument why it's the greatest TV show ever -- someone else can make an argument for why it isn't. Mad Men fans sneer at the intellectual paucity of their friends who don't like the series -- oblivious to the fact that their friends are sneering at them because they do.

Perhaps because they fall outside the template of macho crime dramas Doyle doesn't give any nods to the Canadian humanist dramedy, Less Than Kind, or the ribald outrageousness of Call Me Fitz. And though it's not current, the Robert Altman-esque comedy, Slings & Arrows, has received praise from commentators in England, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Everyone has their own definition of quality.

Doyle laments Canada hasn't produced series to rival, say, Breaking Bad. But I'm guessing, by his criteria, neither have most American producers.

Ignoring kids series, Canada is currently producing (and co-producing) maybe 20 TV series (not airing simultaneously, but staggered over 12 months) compared to Hollywood which produces probably 100 to 200 series a year (most with budgets Canadians only dream about). And yet critics generally just cite the same handful of American series as examples of "great" TV.

Great, quality TV doesn't occur by waving a magic wand. It's like evolution -- it happens by producing a lot of TV shows and hoping one or two will slither out of the ocean.

Which is why I'm slightly more optimistic than Doyle. Because Canadian TV is producing more shows than it has perhaps in the history of Canadian TV. And the average ratings have rarely been so solid. Oh, nothing record breaking, but a number of series bringing in decent audience numbers.

Get bums on seats, first, then you can start aiming for the brain.

I'd love to see Canadian series as good as The Walking Dead or Buffy The Vampire Slayer (told ya I was a genre nerd). But visionary creators don't emerge full blown from film class. They learn the ropes. They figure out how to tell stories, how to entertain. Then they apply that to exciting, creative concepts. You don't run until you can first walk.

Doyle laments the "loud-voiced complainers" of these Canadian purveyors of mediocrity. But, honestly, that charge can equally be levelled at the so-called creative geniuses. The guys and gals who surround themselves with yes men, and sycophantic critics, telling them how brilliant they are even as their movies tank and their series languish at the bottom of the ratings. Chris Haddock was supported by the CBC through multiple series for years, then when the CBC cancelled Intelligence after two -- count 'em, two! -- low rated seasons, he publicly complained he wasn't being respected and stormed off to the U.S. where he (and his supporters) claimed the Americans knew how to treat talent like him. His American series, The Handler, was cancelled after one season and currently he's a hired hand working on Boardwalk Empire -- I guess it's better to serve in heaven than to rule in hell.

Lack of edgy, American-cable type Canadian series? Arguably the problem in Canadian TV is that too much focus was given to precisely those sort of projects (Twitch City, Dice, Terminal City, the various Ken Finkleman series, the various George F. Walker series) -- it's a hubris that has largely crippled the sister-industry of Canadian feature film. So now the focus is on sturdy workmanship over startling innovation.

I agree with Doyle in one respect: I find some of these current Canadian TV series bland (though I strongly object to his labelling Played "awful"). And I'm more than eager to tear into them when penning a review! But I suspect in terms of long term growth it's better to have popular shows I don't like, than unpopular shows that I love.

If the Canadian TV industry can produce a steady stream of competent time killers, then maybe out of that will arise creative, quality programs.

Whatever the heck that means.

CTV/CTV 2 Fall 2013-14