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04/06/2014 01:22 EDT | Updated 06/05/2014 05:59 EDT

The Trouble With Canadian Sitcoms

Canadian sitcoms are a problematic beastie -- often unfunny and poorly reviewed. In recent years Corner Gas and the critical successes of Call Me Fitz and Less Than Kind are among the few peaks. But Canadian networks seem convinced comedy is the future. In the last couple of years there's been Seed, Satisfaction, Mr. D, Package Deal, Spun Out and Working the Engels.

One might wonder if this faith in the funny is simple economics. The CBC has scrapped two of its hour-long dramas -- Cracked and Arctic Air (the latter an entertaining drama) -- and will be replacing them with a half-hour comedy.

Satisfaction was cancelled after one season. I'm not sure about Package Deal's future. Seed had weak ratings and mixed reviews (transparency alert: I wasn't a fan) yet it's coming back for a second season -- emboldened by having landed a spot on American TV (the CW). That was its goal all along given Seed's makers bragged in interviews that you wouldn't be able to tell it was Canadian. But landing a spot on an American network and keeping it are two different things.

Meanwhile Spun Out and Working the Engels have recently premiered.

Working the Engels (Wednesdays, Global) could be viewed as Arrested Development -- if Arrested Development had been done as a mainstream sitcom. A level-headed gal takes over the family law office and, grudgingly, employs her wacky family -- her self-absorbed mom, her flaky sister, and her small time crook brother.

It started out tepid, but is improving week-by-week. With the most recent episode (the one about the sister dealing with her divorce) I found myself chuckling pretty consistently. I'd argue the secret weapon in their comedy quiver might be Less Than Kind's Benjamin Arthur who injects a sympathetic innocence into the brother.

They may well have accomplished the task of delivering a competent sitcom (assuming they keep on track) but in the Thunderdome of TV ratings is competent enough? And are laughs everything or, like with a drama, is the audience supposed to like hanging with the characters (or the actors)?

It'll be interesting to see how it develops.

Spun Out (Fridays, CTV) has echoes of an earlier Canadian sitcom, The Jane Show (a failed writer belatedly joins the 9-to-5 crowd at a company with his best friend). It's an office-based concept that allows for story ideas and guest star characters. In a way, Beckett (Paul Campbell) is our lead and straight man. Yet the series is equally trying to be an ensemble, and he's a comic figure.

Personally I'd think they should focus on one or two "main" characters, while building up the supporting players. And many sitcoms generally feature a lead character who is the sensible anchor -- from Andy Travis in WKRP to even Leonard in The Big Bang Theory.

Dave Foley is more the straight man (while still getting the laughs) and maybe he should've been the central protagonist. At the very least I'd have suggested more emphasis on the relationship between the two. But that relates to my earlier point about how much are we supposed to care about the characters beyond the gags?

Still, they seem to recognize the need for heart -- even when the characters bicker and fight they usually make up by the end.

But Spun Out can seem a bit like a series that wants to act like a sitcom, more than one that always succeeds.

Then I started watching the fourth episode (in which Beckett gets a stalker) and I found myself chuckling. It was actually working! Then a few minutes into it I saw that the episode was written by Dan Redican (a funny guy and formerly of The Frantics). I don't know if Redican's script alone was responsible for the increased laughs (or maybe guest star Lauren Ash), but it was a solidly amusing half hour.

Unfortunately the next episode back slid a bit -- a few chuckles, but not maintaining the upward trend. And with its emphasis on gay and lingerie jokes, you might wonder if the writers had spent a weekend binge watching old Carry On films. The most recent episode was on the fence -- some chuckles, the actors seeming increasingly confident, though with a dubious premise, and the comedy built around how many times "penis" can be said in 22 minutes.

Part of the marketing for these new comedies is to insist they are "just like American sitcoms." Which can be code for "obscuring it's Canadian."

Working the Engels -- despite being sold to an American network -- has tossed in Canadian references (though with Arthur dressed in a loin cloth & sash in one sequence I think they missed the opportunity for a The Mighty Hercules gag). Though perhaps more significant: it isn't shoe horning in incongruous American references.

Which brings us to Spun Out.

I had alluded to Spun Out in a previous post and received an angry response from someone claiming to be involved in the production. He/she insisted Spun Out was proud to be Canadian but good comedy wasn't measured by how many Canadian references they squeezed in.

Guess I got schooled, eh?

Except -- then the series aired. The CN Tower is featured in a few establishing shots, but the dialogue tends to use American references and colloquialisms. Still, as the anonymous poster said: comedy isn't about forcing Canadian references.

Then in the 3rd episode, involving a reclusive writer (Will Sasso), one character asks him to sign the Cliff Notes of his novel.

I had never even heard of Cliff Notes until I was an adult because Canadian bookstores sell Coles Notes (not that I ever used 'em, y'unnerstand). But because I'm willing to accept I could be wrong, I decided to google it -- and I discovered not only was I right, but Coles Notes actually predate CliffsNotes.

So this "proudly Canadian" series avoided the logical Canadian reference for an inauthentic American-only one, pissing on a bit of Canadiana to boot. The character also referred to going to "college" which is another American/Canadian distinction -- Canadians refer to "university" (which is why it was kind of dumb in an episode of Saving Hope that a doctor referred to his "college pal" -- if the guy about to cut open your chest only has a college degree, you might want a second opinion).

Interestingly, the only Spun Out episode (so far) to make a Canadian reference was the Dan Redican scripted one -- y'know, the funny episode.

Maybe the lesson is that comedy can't be based on forcing American references just to hide the fact that it's Canada.

Still, Working the Engels and, to a lesser extent, Spun Out may well be comparable to an average American sitcom -- but the ultimate goal is emulating an above average one.

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