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Courage and Cowardice in Canadian TV

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Read a book or article about your favourite TV show or movie and you'll read about the innumerable obstacles that had to be overcome.

It's all about the creatives fighting for what's important, compromising on what isn't -- and recognizing the difference. A filmmaker who fights over everything soon gets a reputation as "difficult".

Things we take for granted were often fought for (or slyly slipped in) by the creative types. In the 1960s American TV series, Star Trek, creator Gene Roddenberry coyly got the executives to sign off on more "colour" on the starship, supposedly without telling them he meant skin colour, not wardrobes.

His initial idea had a woman 1st Officer and an alien -- but the executives balked at both. Roddenberry fought for the alien, seeing greater potential in an allegorical outsider. Right call? Wrong call? Would female roles on TV have been advanced if Star Trek had gone with a woman 1st Officer? Or was the alien metaphor the right call given Mr. Spock became one of the most iconic figures in pop culture?

Even then, executives were so dubious of Spock's appeal that early press photos were air-brushed to make him look human!

During the making of the Hollywood comedy Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder argued with director Mel Brooks in favour of the now-classic music hall scene for an hour. Abruptly, Brooks said okay. Surprised, Wilder asked what changed Brooks' mind. Brooks' response? Apparently it was Wilder's willingness to fight for the scene -- perhaps more than his argument itself -- that convinced Brooks it was worth keeping.

Johnny Depp's make-up and mannerisms in Pirates of the Caribbean apparently resulted in more than a few nervous memos behind-the-scenes.

It's all about picking your battles.

When is an executive edict an ultimatum, and when are they just testing to see what the creatives are willing to fight for?

People who have read some of my other posts will notice I tend to revisit the idea of how Canadian filmmakers often pretend their story and characters are American, or deliberately obscure the setting (I have other post topics waiting in the wings -- honest).

My hope is that by drawing attention to it, I make it ineffective and, therefore, unappealing to filmmakers. Because anything that distracts from the story is bad (in the case of the new Canadian TV series Orphan Black, a number of reviews have commented on the confusing setting).

One reason I focus on this is creativity. At heart, every story has probably been told, so it's in the details it's kept fresh. Shift characters around, add quirky dialogue, and a trite plot becomes new and edgy. When Canadian filmmakers refuse to set their productions in Canada, the are basically announcing: "We have no intention of doing anything fresh with this material."

Now a lot of Canadian filmmakers argue they have to obscure the Canadian setting because they had to appease executives, and they are simply the innocent victims.

In this Globe and Mail piece (which a commentator on a previous blog post of mine drew my attention to), co-creator of Orphan Black, Graeme Manson, admits the series' deliberately unclear setting was the "price you pay." (Orphan Black has characters with U.K. accents and frequently shows a sign proclaiming "Minnesota" and identifies other characters as French, German, Ukrainian and South African. So it's merely obscuring Canada that is the "price", apparently).

A few years ago I saw a TV interview involving three Canadian mystery novelists. One writer said she had been asked by her publisher to set her story in the US, and she did. Another set her stuff in Canada and claimed it had never been an issue. The third author said he had been asked to set his stuff in the US and he had refused. And the publisher published him anyway.

They asked, he said no, and they said okay. Perhaps not unlike Gene Wilder arguing for the music hall scene, or Gene Roddenberry holding on to a pointy-eared Vulcan.

It's all about what you're willing to fight for.

The makers of TV's Flashpoint claimed in interviews there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the American executives. Yet in the end, Flashpoint ran a number of years on American prime time set in Toronto.

Part of the reason I harp on the, well, cowardice, if I can use the term, of being unwilling to set stories in Canada is if the creators aren't willing to fight for something as rudimentary as the setting, can we really expect them to fight for other things? Is the fact that so many of these filmmakers are unwilling to set their stories explicitly in Canada part of the reason why there are so few Canadian series and movies fronted by non-white actors? 'Cause that might be a fight with executives, too.

Which brings us to another interesting part in the Globe and Mail article. Lost Girl, a popular Canadian fantasy-adventure series, also makes sure no one can say where it's set. Yet in the interview, executive producer Jay Firestone suggests it was a fight to make the heroine bisexual -- that American producers were skittish and the series went into production without them (the American executives coming in later once they realized frogs weren't going to rain down from the sky).

The makers of Lost Girl thought her sexuality was worth fighting for, they stuck to their guns, and it paid off.

Now, sure, the American TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess, with its lesbian subtext, and even Buffy The Vampire Slayer, with its lesbian supporting characters, had clearly hinted there was a niche to be filled. A fantasy series with a bisexual heroine could appeal to general fantasy fans more interested in the monsters she was fighting than the lovers she was wooing, but also to gay and lesbian viewers.

So the creators fought for her sexuality, partly for artistic reasons...and partly because they gambled they could tap a market the nervous American executives didn't realize existed.

But they weren't willing to fight for a Canadian setting. Why? Because they felt it was more socially important to have a bisexual heroine than a Canadian bisexual heroine? Or was it because, in the end, making her Canadian was seen as far more controversial than making her bisexual?

And they just didn't have the courage for that fight.