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Is Canadian TV Stuck With 1970s Attitudes?

10/09/2014 05:30 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST

Sundays the CBC is airing a new primetime reality/game show called Canada's Smartest Person. Various contestants compete to prove their overall intelligence. But instead of it simply being a test of knowledge (bzzztt! Winston Churchill!), it embraces the notion that "intelligence" entails a range of aptitudes. People can be smart in different ways. Apparently this is a new-ish theory but surely common sense told us that years ago (a lot of farmers couldn't shut down a nuclear reactor -- but a lot of physicists would starve if you left them in an open field with a bag of seeds).

It's a breezy program where cheery contestants compete at things from math skills to fashion accessories to musical exercises. And audiences can play along at home using apps on their computer or, more informally, from your couch if you're not entirely sure what an "app" is.

But that's not what I want to write about.

Rather, something happened part way through the first show that reminds me of a line from the Elizabethan-era set British sitcom, Blackadder II, in which a character looks disparagingly on a dimwitted character and says: "To you the Renaissance is just something that happened to other people." Though in this case it was more: "To you the 21st century never happened, right?"

Part way through the first program a test involved a model parading by wearing specific clothes, then the contestants must dress their models in the identical wardrobe from memory. Now given current debates about objectification and gender issues I thought it was an iffy subject for a category -- but I figured I was being overly sensitive. And, after all, the test could be argued actually favoured the female contestants who were probably more likely to be attuned to the intricacies of female fashion than the men.

But then the banter started up, delivered by the female host of the show, peppered with comments on the physical appearance of the models (who were relatively demurely dressed in one-piece bathing suits) and how the contestants might be distracted by their subjects. Finally capped off with the host delivering the old line: "We hate to see you leave, but we'll enjoy watching you walk away!" A gag so old I suspect even vaudevillians would've been embarrassed to use it.

Maybe the fact that it was a female host was supposed to put a different spin on the innuendo. Though that can be equally sexist -- turning a female presenter into a blind for a male attitude. Maybe it was supposed to be deliberately kitschy. Maybe there had been a momentary time warp and pages written in the 1970s were loaded onto the teleprompter.

Was it "inappropriate"? Overly objectifying? Pesenting the sequence through an exclusively heterosexual male gaze? Who knows? Everyone will have a different reaction to that, shaped by their generation, background and gender. I could imagine a 20 year old guy saying it was inappropriate and a 70 year old grandmother saying it was funny.

That's not really my point.

Instead, what I wonder is what the people making Canada's Smartest Person were thinking. Because whether it bothered you or not, given issues revolving around gender and objectification, surely it was questionable. Not the dressing-the-models idea, per se, but the leering commentary delivered with forced cheeriness by the host.

I assume there were really only two scenarios to explain that dialogue.

One: no one working on the show thought there was anything questionable about it.

Two: they did, and decided to take a stand against the tyranny of "political correctness" and showing they weren't going to be cowed by a bunch of over-sensitive feminists and liberals.

Either scenario is telling.

The former explanation shows a level of ignorance that is truly astounding (particularly from people making a show called Canada's Smartest Person). I mean these are filmmakers whose very profession is predicated on being tuned into the zeitgeist. And they're conjuring up images in my mind of a bunch of guys in plaid suits and bad hair pieces, smoking cigars (in a No Smoking room), slapping their secretaries on the behind and planning expense account liquid lunches at the nearest strip club. Yeah -- not a pleasant image. How does Canadian TV -- and the CBC -- expect to survive in the years to come if the programmers are still stuck in a 1970s mentality?

What's more, if they genuinely didn't think for a minute there was anything odd about the script, what does that say about the entire environment in which they exist? It's like when you read reports about people dressing in black face as a "gag" and then protesting they had no idea it was considered offensive. Really? So no one in your circle suggested it was a questionable costume? And suddenly it's not just about an individual's bad judgement, but lifting up a rock to reveal a whole enclave of like-minded people.

Did no one working on Canada's Smartest Person say: "Just to float an idea out there -- but are we sure this is the way we want to go with this bit?"

No one?

But if someone did, well, does that bring us to option number two? That it was deliberately thumbing its nose at modern mores. And that seems kind of hostile to me. I mean, we aren't talking some drama series that might reasonably argue its job is to push the audience out of their comfort zone (or, conversely, would argue the opinions of the characters aren't necessarily the opinions of the filmmakers). We're talking a game show. Is that really the forum for making a political statement? They could've done the same sequence with the contestants dressing pretty models and just leave it at that. But they chose not to.

Now I'm no boy scout. I enjoy a gratiuitous R-rated shower scene in a movie as much as the next guy. But there's a difference between salacious and just, well, crass.

And it seems to me I've been noticing that a lot lately on Canadian TV. Particularly recent sitcoms that seem as though the scripts are decades old -- including with a leering sexism I don't necessarily associate with modern American or U.K. sitcoms.

Maybe the 21st century really did just happen to other people.

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