Strange Empire (airing Mondays) is arguably intended as the jewel in the crown of the CBC's fall season. Yet its ratings were around 300,000 and, according to some reports, have actually dipped below 250,000.
Why is it struggling? And can something be done?
Those invested in a struggling series will blame everything except the show itself. Those who dislike it will blithely say: it sucks, man!
Strange Empire is set in a small, embryonic town in southern Alberta circa the 1800s (in a twist on the "Canada never had a wild west" cliche, it's the neighbouring American Territory that represents law and stability). When the men folk are murdered or otherwise vanish it leaves mainly women and children, the region under the sway of a gangster/entrepreneur who has two main interests: his mine and his brothel. The series was marketed both as a female-driven western and as a dark, cable-TV style series.
One could argue the CBC has been interested in creating a "female" western for years -- from the family dramedy, Red Serge, to the modern-day western, Wild Roses (a series I kind of liked).
At least the "female western" means the series has a gimmick to market. But is it enough of a gimmick? Or is the western fan-base by nature rather stodgy? In truth it's a minor point because, from a modern perspective, it's less a "female" western so much as it just isn't an exclusively "male" western like most westerns are.
The early marketing seemed more about assuring me (as a viewer) it was going to be good -- rather than convincing me why.
With that title I half hoped Canada might finally be attempting a horror series of the kind popular these days. But it ain't. (It flirts with the supernatural in a half-hearted way.)
The early press releases seemed to imply it was about women who are forced into prostitution. And my initial reaction to that was: "So I'm supposed to tune in every week to watch our plucky heroines be abused and degraded?" As it turns out, that's not (quite) what the series is about (though there's some of that). Still, I could imagine a lot of potential viewers -- both women seeking a "feminist" drama and men looking for some high noon showdowns -- might have found that impression disincentivizing (I think I just made up a word!).
The dark n' grittiness is a "damned if you do damned if you don't" dilemma for the CBC. It doesn't matter how many times the CBC presents edgy material, people react with condescending surprise. While, equally, it alienates the squeaky clean crowd.
The series was marketed as being from a co-creator of Durham County. And though it's nice that a previous Canadian TV credit is used to market a current project, I don't think Durham County was ever a big ratings success. For that matter, Strange Empire could be compared to the American cable series, Deadwood (including similar character archetypes) -- yet I'm not sure Deadwood was, itself, a big ratings success.
My point being that I'm not sure the promotion for Strange Empire really zeroed in on the hook to entice a casual viewer.
Which brings us to the show itself.
Strange Empire can feel a bit like an idiom in search of an idea. Other than skewing toward female characters, and an atypical ethnic pluralism, there's not a lot in the basic premise to distinguish it from any other western. As I mentioned, I half-wondered if it would be a supernatural series -- but it isn't too any significant extent.
Though it did, briefly, redeem the use of the title when a character remarks on the various ethnicities and how it's the beginning of a "strange empire," turning the title into a Romanticized allusion to Canada itself.
It's basically a soap opera -- individual episodes may have kernels of a plot, but it's really about the ongoing threads. Unfortunately, I'm struggling to find any plot thread that rivets my interest. The series desperately needed some sort of central mystery (or "strangeness") to hook us until the characters themselves can be what lure us back week after week. The series begins with many of the men folk disappearing into the night, supposedly killed by Indians, but we infer killed by the local white boss-man, Slotter. But that's not really an intriguing "mystery." Previous Canadian series have tried the on-going storyline/mystery idea (Paradise Falls, Whistler) and likewise failed to provide a puzzle that was actually intriguing.
Episodes ramble about and climaxes feel anti-climactic, as if even the writers lose track of the thread. Some scripts feel like they need another draft. In one episode a plot involved trying to bamboozle some investors -- yet that plot is resolved off-screen (almost as if the actors had another gig and couldn't shoot their final scenes).
The top-billed character in the ensemble is Kat (played by Cara Gee). But the writers have trouble figuring out what to do with her. Dressed for a Spaghetti Western, Kat's a quick-drawing bad ass when the scene calls for it -- and ineffectual when the scene calls for that (rarely having a "plan" and needing rescuing by a third party). In the pilot she is shown fingering a Marshall's badge as though, symbolically, taking on the role of hero and protector -- yet she hasn't really emerged as a pivotal figure in the town's dynamic. Her main focus is on looking for her missing husband (preventing her character from developing) and looking out for her two adopted girls (without the writers providing convincing bonding scenes).
So far the episodes are kind of sluggish and meandering, evoking something like Deadwood, but without the sharp dialogue.
It's a soap opera, but the characters (so far) lack the dynamism to drive the action.
It's a western, but without becoming exciting or suspenseful.
I'm not faulting the actors. Cara Gee, Tattiawna Jones, Aaron Poole and the rest deliver solid turns. Though it's some peripheral characters that engage my attention most, such as Marci T. House as the good-hearted maid, or Terry Chen as the taciturn manservant. The series has a reasonable degree of atmosphere, and enough budget to erect its backwater on the frontier. It's teetering on the edge of being good.
Are my comments valid? Invalid? Do the problems lie with marketing, or the series itself?
With audience numbers dropping below 300,000, it's worth asking these questions. If not for its sake, then for the sake of the next series down the line.