Recently, there's been some of that recurring soul-searching that occurs in Canadian entertainment. Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle got people talking after penning a piece decrying the mediocrity of Canadian TV.
Now word is the CRTC is inviting the public to weigh in on the whole topic, from the programs to how they are transmitted. The website TV, Eh? is offering its own sidebar forum to the matter.
On one hand, that's good. A complaint in Canada is that no one making decisions in the entertainment biz listens to what the public is telling them. On the other hand, it reminds me a bit of the rebels in Monty Python's Life of Brian constantly debating what they should do instead of actually doing anything!
But before I chime in on the topic (maybe for my next post) I wanted to get back to something that I touched on last time regarding Doyle's piece. Namely, the whole idea of "quality" when it comes to entertainment.
We all fixate on different things -- individual aspects that float our particular creative boats.
In his piece, Doyle refers to the current CTV undercover cops drama Played as "awful" and "falling below a minimal level of competence." Phrases like that can remind me of posters on the IMDB who hysterically declare something the WORST THING I'VE SEEN IN MY WHOLE LIFE!!!!!
Think Played is bland? Fine -- I can respect that. But to call it "awful"?
I'm actually kind of enjoying Played -- albeit as nothing more than an agreeable way to kill an hour.
But this is what I mean about us each having different criteria for what's quality. I'd argue that Played (in the few episodes I've seen) usually manages to zig a couple of times in the hour when you thought it was about to zag -- moreso than a lot of higher profile TV crime-dramas.
And there's a lot of acting with eyes.
See, that's the thing about me: I like actors who give "good face" as it were. There's a lot of both the series' regulars and the guest stars trying to convey nuance and emotion just with a squint, or a facial tick. A lot of cop shows are fast and slick, but I like Played because it realizes the real drama is in the emotion, not the car chases -- it's willing to linger on a close up, to let the actors...act.
The American TV series Game of Thrones boasts lots of sex and violence -- but some of the best scenes are just watching actors like Peter Dinklage or Charles Dance squint at each other.
This got me thinking about the history of Canadian TV. Detractors and naysayers of Canadian TV are happy to blithely dismiss it all, or to laud certain isolated series that have received the Critic's Stamp of Approval. Yet sometimes it's the unexpected series that sticks with you. Sometimes there are scenes that have an impact you barely acknowledge until you realize it still echoes in your mind years later.
Critics will tell you Chris Haddock produced brilliant Canadian TV with his dark, gritty crime series DaVinci's Inquest, DaVinci's City Hall, and Intelligence. Not too many fans will refer to an earlier series he worked on -- Mom P.I.: a half-hour comedy-drama about a single mom (Rosemary Dunsmore) and her kids who did part time work for a low-rent private eye (the great Stuart Margolin). I don't think it's on DVD nor has it been rerun in years.
In one episode Margolin gets her kids to sneak into a suspect's apartment -- and slapstick ensues. Then Dunsmore's character shows up -- and the jokes stop. She's furious! How dare he risk her kids like that?!? She storms off with the kids, leaving Margolin standing alone in the final shot watching them go. That scene stuck with me. The way it pulled the rug out from under us by taking a comic scene and turning it serious. The way it didn't patch things up tidily by the end, but closed with lingering tension between the two leads.
I don't recall a single scene in any of Haddock's later, critically revered series that ever had quite as much bite as that minor scene in a largely forgotten comedy called Mom P.I. Maybe it was the way it played with expectations, clashing the dark with the light. The problem I had with a lot of Haddock's other series is the way they established a style, a mood, a character-type -- then just hit replay for the rest of the series.
If we traipse back through Canadian TV, will we surprise even ourselves at the scenes, or pithy, quotable lines, that continue to linger with us?
In the 1960s TV series Wojeck, there was the moment in the episode "The Last Man on Earth" where the coroner hero coldly asks a drunken business man in jail whether he owns a belt. Honestly? You can't forget that line.
I still chuckle when I think of Brook Palsson's introductory scene in the 3rd episode of Less Than Kind.
Murdoch Mysteries is a popular series, but I wouldn't necessarily suggest it's creatively ground breaking -- basically Canada's answer to Murder, She Wrote. Yet there are moments. One that sticks in my mind involved the murder of a gay man (in Victorian times) and in revealing the true motive the story cleverly -- and subtly -- managed to suggest the villain was not the killer, but society itself. Ambitious stuff.
The 1980s crime-drama Night Heat was summarily dismissed by critics at the time as just a generic cop drama, but in the way it tried to be both a realist drama yet, at the same time, often had the vibe of being almost surrealist parables, I'm not sure I can think of another series quite like it. And even today, scenes will pop up in my brain.
Everyone will have their own personal touchstones. Perhaps whenever a main character is killed off in some modern, edgy American series it causes them to flashback to Carrie's death in Street Legal.
Maybe when complaining about what's wrong with Canadian TV, we can also take a moment to ask what worked. Sometimes it can be a single scene that blew your mind. Or a powerful performance. Or an actor squinting his eyes.
Because it's from the individual parts that the greater whole arises.
What are your most memorable scenes or performances in Canadian TV?