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D.K. Latta

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Canadian TV Shows Set in Ambiguousville, North America

Posted: 05/27/2013 4:20 pm

Canadian TV has been enjoying some international notice within the fantasy/SF genre, from the (defunct) Sanctuary to the up-coming Bitten and currently including Lost Girl, Continuum and the newbie, Orphan Black. They are cut from similar cloth (all feature a white female in the lead) and generally enjoy good notice on the international front.

And though some are, technically, co-productions, they are generally created, written and directed by Canadians, mainly acted by Canadians, and filmed in Canada.

Where they are supposed to be set -- well, that's a fascinating topic.

Now I'll be honest: despite the popular acclaim both Continuum and Orphan Black have received, I'm more ambivalent about them. I keep waiting for them to surprise me. But that's neither here nor there (just thought I'd put my cards on the table).

Let's start with Orphan Black.

Canadian series have a history of pretending they're set in America. But there's also the so-called Anytown, North America setting (Canada sharing many characteristics with America, in terms of geography, architecture, accents). But in recent years we've also seen what could be called the "soft" Canadian setting. Series which admit they are set in Canada but in a way that a lot of viewers probably wouldn't pick up on. The TV cop show, Rookie Blue, is set in Canada, but I suspect a lot of American viewers (where it airs in the summers on ABC) don't realize that.

So the question is: where is Orphan Black set?

The filmmakers are working overtime to make it ambiguous. Currency -- an obvious "tell" -- is often obscured. Stacks of bills are filmed from the side. Other times, the actors keep their hands folded around bills, or it's kept deliberately out of the frame. Place names tend toward American. The series' opening scene took place on a train platform with a voice announcing "New York" as the next stop -- subliminally planting in the viewers' mind an American locale. There's a police "lootenant" (pronounced the American way) when I'm not sure lieutenant is even a common police rank in Canada. And the series deliberately doesn't name the city it's in (even when showing municipal documents or city maps).

For that matter, going back to that train platform scene -- I'm pretty sure train announcements are bilingual!

Yet one can point to Canadian things -- usually falling under the category of "blink and you'll miss it." Ontario driver licenses and plates, albeit blurry and in a quick shot. And though the series doesn't refer to "Toronto," the characters have referred to the Toronto suburb of "Scarborough." But Scarborough isn't a uniquely Canadian name. An international audience doesn't hear "Scarborough" and immediately think "Canada" like they would if the characters referred to "Toronto."

None of this is happenstance. These are cynical decisions made by the producers.

How successful are they in obscuring the setting? Just look around the Internet and you'll find American reviewers who refer to the series as being set in America and discussion threads at the Internet Movie Database of fans struggling to figure out where it's supposed to be.

From a cultural point of view it's depressing, precisely because Orphan Black is enjoying good reviews. Had it been more openly Canadian it could have helped establish a "brand" for Canadian productions internationally.

Which then brings us to Continuum.

Continuum kind of broke a glass ceiling by acknowledging it was Vancouver. Although Canadians have been involved in various SF series over the years, it was quite possibly the first time such a series actually acknowledged its Canadian setting. Sure, the producers hired an American actress to star. And the series implies Canada and the U.S. will merge into one nation in the future. Still, it admitted it was Vancouver.

But Continuum becomes a fascinating look at another aspect of this "let's pretend it's America" mentality. Namely, how much is it in response to market pressure (real or imagined) and how much because the filmmakers themselves just don't know any better?

Watch Continuum as it struggles to grow comfortable with its setting.

In the very first episode, a character referred to CSIS -- the Canadian security service. Except he referred to it by its initials, as C-S-I-S. Which isn't how Canadians refer to it. And then something astonishing happened. A few episodes later, the same actor once again referred to CSIS...this time as the more colloquially authentic "Seesus."

In the first episode, a police officer was identified as a "lootenant" (the American pronunciation)...then a few episodes later, he was called "leftenant" (the Canadian pronunciation). Yet as I said, I'm not sure lieutenant is a rank in most Canadian police departments. And then the series' second season premiered and that same character is now an "Inspector"!

Holy maple syrup!

Could it be the makers of Continuum are sincere? That they really do want to set the series in Canada and, through trial and error, will gradually correct the gaffs and faux pas? In the second season premiere, in one scene there's a door in the background marked: "exit / sortie." And bilingualism often seemed like it was the biggest taboo in Canadian productions because it would reveal this wasn't the U.S.! (Remember my point about Orphan Black's unilingual train announcement?)

As much as I'm grudgingly beginning to give the makers of Continuum some respect, I'm still not sure they are prepared to refer to Crown Attorneys, premiers, Ottawa (as the seat of government) or even mounties. (They referred to CSIS, but not that the "C" stands for "Canadian"). Y'know, anything too obviously "foreign" to an American audience.

But why is there a learning curve?

If the makers of Continuum are trying to fix problems and alter the scripts to more accurately reflect the Canadian reality...why did the mistakes crop up to begin with? You wouldn't expect an American cop show to mis-pronounce lieutenant, would you? You wouldn't expect Kevin Bacon in The Following to need a few episodes before he realized FBI wasn't pronounced "F'bee"!

Who are these Canadian entertainers who present themselves as the voice of Canada...but have to learn Canadian culture? Or is it maybe they've just spent too much time making series like Orphan Black?

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