Canadian TV series can fly under the radar -- ignored by the Canadian press in favour of the latest Hollywood series (Zero Hour received more press coverage than many Canadian TV series!) and the plethora of channels out there means you might never stumble upon some by accident.
TV Ontario's new medical drama, Hard Rock Medical, hasn't slipped under the radar entirely. And Huffington Post has re-posted a few blog pieces about it -- albeit by those involved in its production! Still, I'm guessing a lot of potential viewers are unaware of it, and those aware of it probably cynically decided to give it a pass, sight unseen.
Which is too bad, 'cause it's actually pretty good.
Maybe even surprisingly so.
I say "surprisingly" because it's being presented as the first-ever ongoing series commissioned for TVO -- the Ontario PBS station (though co-partners include APTN and Australia's SBS).
TVO's past forays into scripted dramas have sometimes smacked a little of overt earnestness, but Hard Rock Medical eschews that "it's good for you" pretension. Oh, it's certainly dealing with ethical dilemmas -- but so does any medical drama. First and foremost it's a human drama mixing comedy and pathos. I was presuming they had a tight budget but -- honestly? -- that may have just been my preconception.
In truth it looks good, it's well acted. If they had a bigger budget I'm not sure what they would use it for. An extra crane shot or two?
The cast has a some familiar faces including Patrick McKenna (The Red Green Show), Andrea Menard (Rabbit Fall) and Angela Asher (18 to Life), and the acting is strong across the board (including familiar guest stars like Ron Lea), the actors feeling connected to their roles, and to the dynamics within the ensemble.
The writing is sometimes -- and nicely -- subtly obvious. Obvious enough that you can understand the underlining motives, but subtle enough that you can feel you're getting there on your own. (Though the scene where McKenna's character waxes nostalgically about outhouses kind of makes you suspect the writers have never been in an outhouse!)
And it offers some twists on the medical drama -- not easy to do given medical dramas have been around almost since the medium was invented.
The setting is a medical school, the characters even more green than the inaugural cast of Grey's Anatomy. It provides a spin on the old formula, maybe allowing the audience to identify a bit more with the characters' actions. Of course, in the name of dramatic license, this seems like the summer school version of a medical course as they're doing field work within a few episodes! (But if they didn't deal with living patients and real dilemmas, I suppose the plots would lack gravitas).
The other fresh twist HRM offers is its setting.
I've written often about Canadian filmmakers setting (or rather, not setting) their stories in Canada. With Saving Hope, CTV's medical drama, it's unclear if it's even supposed to be Canada! HRM hides behind no such ambiguity.
And you know what? Who cares if it admits it's set in Canada? Who cares if it presents a more diverse cast than a lot of series (as co-star Angela Asher mentions in this blog piece). The point isn't that it grudgingly, or even patriotically, admits it's set in Canada.
The point is: the series would be poorer dramatically if it didn't.
Setting is part of storytelling. It shapes and influences the stories. From the Los Angeles of Arrested Development to the Yellowknife of Arctic Air, from the Louisiana of True Blood to the Newfoundland of Republic of Doyle.
In the case of Hard Rock Medical, the series draws upon its Northern Ontario setting, stylishly reflected in the title sequence where modern medical texts morph into ancient forests (reminding me of Arctic Air's title sequence). The producers modelled their TV school after a real Sudbury medical school that doesn't just churn out new doctors, but trains them to understand the idiosyncracies of regional medicine, where crises might take you to Reserves or the bottom of a mine shaft. A world the manicured Docs on Saving Hope barely know exists!
They could have set Hard Rock Medical in an anonymous big city at a generic university. And the result would probably have been pretty derivative: Grey's Anatomy-lite. (In HRM, some of the regulars are Native Indian and the series has touched on themes relating to Native communities because of the setting -- I'm not sure but that Saving Hope has yet to have any Native character appear in any episode).
The selection criteria for the school is also unorthodox. Some of the students are young and fresh faced, but others are older and starting a second career. People more willing to commit themselves to the community, rather than head to Toronto or Montreal to pursue a career.
A big part of any TV series is assembling a cast of engaging actors playing interesting characters, and the premise allows just that, a slightly eclectic group. So the new students range from a 40-something ex-nurse (Asher) to the rumpled family man (Stef Paquette, looking a bit like Paul Giamatti) to the young, pretty ones (like Tamara Duarte) more typical of such series. With a collection of stalwart mentors to guide them, most notably Christian Laurin who brings a gentle sagacity to his role.
Hard Rock Medical puts me slightly in mind of Jozi-H -- a Canadian-South African co-production that aired a few years ago. It too was a comfortably familiar medical drama (utilizing the standard environment of a big city ER) given a novel spin by its setting: Johannesburg, South Africa, utilizing similar themes of the urban rubbing shoulders with the rural. Come to think of it, in Jozi-H, Vincent Walsh played a white Canadian doctor who was hiding his Native Indian heritage, while in HRM, Mark Coles Smith plays an Australian dealing with some ambivalence toward being part Aborigine (What can I say? I likedrawing connections between Canadian series).
With half-hour running times, the episodes are tight and efficient and if you are a fan of Grey's Anatomy or Saving Hope (which is enjoying million plus viewers per week on CTV) you should check out a couple of episodes of Hard Rock Medical (also available on the TVO website). You might even decide to enroll for the whole semester.