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From Wojeck to Flashpoint: The CanCon Roots of TV's Motive

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Part of pop culture is trends, narrative echoes -- the tangled skein of culture. Yet in Canadian TV it's rare for people to say: "Hey -- you know what this reminds me of?"

Critics are quick to identify American trends, both mini (the modern Gothic of Revenge, Ringer, Deception, and a few others wherein a pretty gal enters the mysterious world of the rich like a 19th Century governess discovering strange doings on the moors) and long-term (sitcoms that define the style of comedy for the next decade). But Canadians recycling Canadian series?

The absurdity! they'd say.

I was thinking about this watching the new crime drama Motive. It approaches the hoary police procedural from an off-beat angle. It tells you right in the opening scene who the killer is. And while part of the episode follows the detectives investigating, we are also treated to flashbacks, filling in the back story. Some reviews made a comparison to the classic American TV detective Columbo, in which we see the killer in the first act, although Motive is less about the cat and mouse battle of wits so much at the heart of Columbo.

But one can also see Canadian influences in Motive.

Flashpoint, for instance, would begin with a crisis... and then rewind to show what led up to it. And casting back further there was the 1960s coroner drama Wojeck. Some episodes used a jumbled chronology format that was pretty "artsy" for an audience more accustomed to Bonanza. Wojeck was often about social dramas where the "criminal" was society itself, but Motive utilizes a bit of the cinema verite style that evokes Wojeck (stylistically, the opening scene at the football game in Motive's pilot put me in mind of a specific Wojeck episode about football).

None of this is meant to take away from the creative efforts of the Motive people. Far from it. It's just about digging for roots.

Wojeck may well have shaped the tone of Canadian TV drama for the next couple of decades, as many English-Canada TV dramas affected a social earnestness. But that may equally have sprung out of the documentary tradition of the National Film Board (see what I mean about a tangled skein of influences?) .

One could even speculate about whether Wojeck influenced the U.S. series House -- injected a streak of moral indignation into Dr. House's in-your-face misanthropy... and he could be the brother of the equally contumacious Dr. Wojeck? What makes such speculation intriguing is that House was created by David Shore... a Canadian!

The Murdoch Mysteries chronicles the exploits of a Victorian detective with a (female) coroner confidante. It immediately put me in mind of The Great Detective from some thirty years ago, also of a 19th Century detective, with a (male) coroner confidante. Where this becomes intriguing is that The Great Detective, though fiction, was inspired by the real life John Wilson-Murray. And Murdoch creator, Maureen Jennings, cited Wilson-Murray as an inspiration for Murdoch.

Getting back to Motive, the lead character is a woman. That's nothing too unusual. But given the relative paucity of Canadian productions over the years, the ratio of female led Canadian cop dramas is interesting -- before Motive we had King, Blue Murder, Cold Squad, and North of 60 (at least after the first season or two). And that's not even touching on the controversy as to whether the American series Cold Case was ripping off Cold Squad.

I don't remember too many critics remarking on the similarities between the CBC's hit 1980s drama Street Legal and the CTV drama that followed on its heels, E.N.G. Both professional work place ensembles with a woman in the centre seat (with sub-plots where she was dating a guy several years her junior)... while American ensembles at the time tended to give a man top billing.

Were the makers of the ranch-for-delinquents drama Higher Ground inspired by Neon Rider? Cracked and Shattered -- coming from the same head space? Quebec's Trauma and English-Canada's Saving Hope -- reading from the same medical chart? And what was going on with that brief trend of "least likely to be elected mayor" comedies Dan for Mayor, She's the Mayor, and Majority Rules?

Sometimes Canadian critics are too quick to snidely claim Canadian series are ripping off American ones.

When the seminal 1980s Canadian cop drama Night Heat premiered, some reviewers dismissed it as a Miami Vice wannabe. But other than the dance beat theme song (sing it with me now: "I feel the niiiiight heat, I hear your heeaaart beat!") I'm hard pressed to see how a series about detectives in off the rack suits on the graveyard shift prowling a drab northern metropolis echoed the mega-trendy music video-like U.S. series about vice cops in designer duds in Florida. Well, other than Clark Johnson (equally well known today as a director) as an occasionally recurring narc who did, indeed, dress like Miami Vice's Crockett and Tubbs. But that seemed more like Night Heat was ribbing Miami Vice... not emulating it.

A more convincing comparison might have been to the earlier Canadian cop drama Side Street, also focusing on an older veteran and a younger partner. And Night Heat tended to tackle social issues, bringing us full circle to Wojeck!

So what's the point of this whimsical romp down memory lane?

There can be a feeling there's a kind of deliberate amnesia, or a scorched earth policy toward Canadian TV... every creative generation wants to pretend they sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus.

(Although Corner Gas did a funny episode spoofing The Littlest Hobo.)

American film and TV makers admit to being inspired by past efforts -- they even brag about it, of how that fuelled their professional career.

Maybe part of the key to having a pop culture is admitting there was a culture before you took the stage. Otherwise, the makers of Bomb Girls and The Murdoch Mysteries and, yeah, Motive might find that the next generation of Canadian TV makers and critics will pretend they never existed, either.

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