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What Were the Makers of <i>Cracked</i> Thinking?

11/11/2013 05:18 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

There have been recent discussions about Canadian TV, where it's at and where it's going. One element that could warrant some focus is -- anger.

I was thinking about this watching a recent episode of CBC TV's crime-drama Cracked.

Cracked is about a police unit that investigates cases with a mental health aspect. It's in its second season and it's a rare example of a Canadian series where the off screen antics may be more dramatic than the on screen stuff. There's been a behind-the-scenes shake up and pretty, blonde co-star Stefanie von Pfetten has been replaced by pretty, blonde Brooke Nevin -- rumours blaming everything from tepid ratings to the male star's ego.

That Cracked was uneven makes it hard to decry any shake ups -- but (so far) the second season isn't much better.

Anyway, a recent episode dealt with a killer targeting First Nation women. Given recent news stories about missing Aboriginal women and accusations of police indifference it's all very topical stuff.

But the episode seemed a bit unfocused and cautious, almost as though put through an editorial meat grinder by skittish executives before it hit the screen.

I'm the first to acknowledge that TV dramas are entertainment, and you must be careful about what kind of a soap box you stand on. Hence why so much television bravely stakes out the middle ground on controversial issues.

But in the case of that Cracked episode, it's a plot that seemed to want to tackle racism -- yet I'm not sure ever overtly refers to racism. Toward the end of the episode, when a reluctant Native Indian witness (Tamara Podemski) angrily explains that she doesn't trust the cops -- you might be forgiven for not being entirely sure why.

Part of the problem is maybe one that has plagued TV police dramas over the years -- a reluctance to bite the hand, and all that. Cop dramas are often unwilling to criticize the police themselves (one rare exception being the Canadian crime-drama King in which the stalwart heroes sometimes butted heads with less-than-admirable colleagues).

So even though there's an undercurrent of racism -- it's more an unvoiced subtext as some characters are unprofessionally quick to want to close the case and presume the suspect's guilt. And perhaps reflecting another thing you tend to notice in modern dramas: the white heroes are the first to come to the Native guy's defense, leaving the (implied) racism to the mostly non-white characters.

Maybe the script was going for subtlety, letting the audience infer the message, or maybe it was just mishandled. On one hand, all the cops use the respectful term First Nation -- yet a sympathetic character dismisses a Native language as "gibberish." A sly illustration of racism, or did it not occur to the filmmakers that it might seem offensive?

(Quick sidebar: according to my dictionary, "gibberish" can be defined as an "esoteric" or "obscure" language. I would argue the common meaning of gibberish is words that are "meaningless", but I suppose it could be scriptwriter Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik is more erudite than I am and meant it in the non-derogatory sense of simply "obscure." Just mentioning that in the name of full disclosure).

One thing that can distinguish Canadian movies and TV from American -- and, indeed, Canadian culture from American culture -- is that the First Nations are still part of the discussion, socially, politically, culturally. Canada has movies and TV shows starring First Nation actors -- while Hollywood still thinks it's okay to paint white guys. And TV series like Cracked will do episodes involving First Nation characters -- while in America such episodes often seem few and far between, usually involving mysticism as though American Indians are only slightly less mythical than leprechauns!

Indeed, when the Cracked episode flirted with a supernatural undercurrent I cringed a little.

I find Cracked an uneven series. Some decent episodes. Some unconvincing, poorly developed episodes. This episode I definitely found a weaker effort, but whether that was because it was trying to bite into difficult, controversial issues but had all its teeth pulled, Bumble-style, before hand, I don't know.

But one of the things that seemed to me to be missing was genuine outrage -- being mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Instead it felt like a slightly affected anger. Like the makers of that episode had read an article about missing Aboriginal women, clucked their tongues, sipped delicately at their lattes, and said: "Gosh!"

I've always been a big fan of the American screenwriter Rod Serling. Serling wrote some great scripts. He also wrote some not so great scripts. But what Serling always seemed to have going for him -- good, bad or indifferent -- was that he always seemed genuinely pissed off about something.

Maybe it's just me. It's easy to look back nostalgically and believe old dramas were more passionate, more committed -- more angry. There were more taboos back then, so it was easier to be outraged. And everything seemed a little fresher -- I could believe in the creative passion maybe because I didn't realize the writers were already just recycling story ideas.

But often modern Canadian TV series will tackle issues (if at all) with a certain bourgeois indignity, as though trying to seem mad but not really sure about what, or why. Some series I've seen will work themselves up over seeming non-issues, or like the writers don't really know much about their topics.

Maybe Rod Serling's secret was that his outrage was always driven by compassion. He wasn't outraged by "issues" -- he was outraged by the way issues impacted upon people.

("Compassion" and identifying the character/emotional core of a story could fill up blog post on its own. For example, if we assume that Cracked episode was, fundamentally, about the plight of First Nations women, shouldn't the guest starring actress -- Podemski -- have had more scenes and lines?)

Still, the opposite extreme has its own failings. Too much self-important outrage can lead to cartoon villains and simple minded explorations of complex issues.

But I do wonder if, when we're talking about how to find the Yellow Brick Road to quality TV, we should look at outrage. Making movies and TV shows that are passionately about things -- while still being entertaining cop shows or sci-fi thrillers.

I don't doubt the makers of Cracked were mad.

But were they mad as hell?

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