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Is French the Answer for English-Canadian TV?

02/03/2014 12:53 EST | Updated 04/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Bravo TV (Canada) has started airing a new cop drama called 19-2. It's an English-Canadian series -- based on a pre-existing French-Canadian series.

English-Canadian film and TV producers have long looked to their more successful French-Canada brethren with something akin to pop-culture envy. But I've wondered if the reality is a wee bit more ambiguous than some cultural observers claim.

Often pundits will cite (approvingly) the fact that Quebecers are much more culturally passionate than other Canadians, much more supportive of their entertainment industry. But as such, do (some) Quebec films and TV shows do well simply because they are playing to a more sympathetic, forgiving audience?

An audience whose only alternative is to watch dubbed or sub-titled English programs, or European-French programs with their foreign accents and different culture. Whereas English-Canadian film and TV producers are struggling to distinguish themselves while competing with Hollywood.

Speaking as a guy who has watched a lot of Canadian film and TV, English and French both (the latter, admittedly, filtered through subtitles), there's mediocrity to go around on both sides.

The original 19-2 was apparently a popular, award-winning series in Quebec. Yet based on the pilot for the English-language version it seems rather generic and cliched. That doesn't mean it's egregiously bad (Denette Wilford's review here is quite positive). Just not really something that jumps out at me. I haven't seen the original, so perhaps something got "lost in the translation" (a common fall back when remakes under perform). But from what I can glean, it's hewing pretty close to the original -- same characters, same dilemmas. It's not like, say, Sherlock and Elementary which take their shared inspiration in different directions.

The remake brings up another interesting aspect. Previous French-Canadian/English-Canadian transfers like Rumours, Sophie and the up-coming movie, The Grand Seduction, re-set the scenarios among Anglophones. But in 19-2 we are supposed to infer the characters are still speaking French -- except played by Anglophones, speaking English. Not unlike the earlier CBC TV mystery movie, Still Life.

The British have produced various TV detective movies set in non-English climes, but where the dialogue is spoken by English actors with their normal accents -- notably the Wallander films (starring Kenneth Branagh). The point is to present these foreign settings as they would be experienced by a local (a Swede doesn't hear a "Swedish" accent, so why would the characters in Wallander put on mock Swedish accents when supposedly speaking their native language?) It is meant to break down geographic barriers by reminding us of our commonality. When detective Hercule Poirot is portrayed with his exaggerated Belgium accent, part of his appeal is being the quirky outsider. But Branagh's Kurt Wallander is just an average Joe.

So one can understand and even appreciate the intent of the anglicized Francophones of 19-2 -- in theory.

But in reality, it has problems.

For one thing, with all due respect to Quebec nationalists and separatists, maybe there isn't as much that separates Anglophones from Francophones in this country. Without accents, it's hard to even realize these characters are supposed to be French-Canadian rather than English-Canadian. Of course that may also be because the filmmakers themselves have chosen to sand off the rougher cultural edges that might stick out to an Anglophone audience. They may not have (as I say, I haven't seen the original) -- but they may have (looking at the respective casts, the English-language 19-2 seems more ethnically pluralistic than the French version).

As well, if all the Francophones are speaking unaccented English -- how would the series portray an Anglophone? I'm guessing they just won't. So instead of a drama drawing upon the cultural vibrancy of Montreal, it could end up just being a generic big city only one where the characters sport a preponderance of French-sounding surnames.

And this gets to one of my pet peeves -- the lack of cultural crossover in both English and French productions. Currently there are hardly any Francophones in English-Canadian TV series (Hard Rock Medical being one exception that comes to mind). And sub-titled sequences? Fuggedaboutit! And I'm not sure things are any better in French-Canadian programs (though it's improved somewhat from the days when Anglophones were only cast as villains).

Yet the bilingual action-comedy Bon Cop, Bad Cop was a huge hit -- and though most of that was in Quebec, it performed decently in English-Canada (particularly given its biggest name -- Colm Feore -- though a respected actor, is hardly a box office powerhouse). While a few years back, the mob-biker drama, The Last Chapter, enthusiastically embraced the two languages and was a ratings success. That isn't to say it's a sure thing -- the bilingual motion picture comedy French Immersion fared poorly (at least in English-Canada). But, frankly, it wasn't that great.

But instead of English-language producers re-making French series with Anglophones speaking English, why not come up with a project that embraces Canada's linguistic vivacity? A series with a mix of Anglophone and Francophone characters, and a mix of English and French scenes (with appropriate subtitles)? American series like Lost and movies like Inglourious Basterds have shown audiences are willing to sit through a few subtitled scenes -- as long as the scenes hold their interest!

The result might be a series that could actually play across the country for English and French alike, a shared evening's entertainment. Of course the trick would be to find a concept that is universal in its appeal. The hockey soap opera He Shoots, He Scores/Lance et compte performed better in French than English -- but hockey dramas and night time soaps are a tough sell in English-Canada (just ask the makers of Power Play and MVP!) While a Rene Levesque miniseries had poor ratings in English-Canada, apparently it not occurring to the producers that a paean to a separatist could face an indifferent reception outside of Quebec! (And in both cases, these weren't bilingual productions, but unilingual productions shot in both languages).

Still, something with a little more universal appeal? An action series? A trans-Canada espionage thriller? Who knows? Maybe even Bon Cop, Bad Cop: The Series.