Eeyore-ing the Up-Coming Winter/Spring Canadian TV Season

When it comes to Canadian arts and entertainment, which always seems to be reeling from one body blow in the ring or another, one probably shouldn’t always play Eeyore — y’know, bemoaning this or that, always seeing the glass as half empty.

At the same time, indulging in a certain pessimistic negativity has a value — if only to galvanize those with opposite views. To cause people to think — to really think — about things, even if it’s too conclude they disagree with you. I’ve often thought the point of a review isn’t to automatically convince someone of the validity of your POV, so much as just to put it out there and let them see it if resonates (pre-supposing they are open to genuinely considering what you have to say — as opposed to deciding they disagree with you before they’ve even finished reading your first sentence).

A filmmaker shouldn’t read a negative review of his film and automatically accept it as true — yet neither should he dismiss it out-of-hand (as some artists brag they do about negative reviews). Rather, he should consider it and see if it connects with anything inside him. If not — fine, ignore it. But if the reviewer says the characterization was weak…and the filmmaker kind of knew that the characters weren’t his story’s strong point, then it’s kind of silly for him to disregard that criticism, and not to carry it with him into his next project.

Likewise, if a film (or TV show) both tanks with the audience and receives mediocre reviews, for the filmmaker not to at least consider what the reviews say before starting on his next project would be idiotic…and creatively irresponsible. To say, “I’m an artist — I know what I’m doing!” when both the paying public and a host of critics are telling you don’t would be crazy.

A definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over again and expect a different result. Likewise, if your previous projects have faired poorly and been badly reviewed, yet you refuse to listen to criticism and just charge ahead into your next project, convinced everyone else is wrong…well, it’s crazy.

But, as I say, that doesn’t mean the opposite — that you blindly accept any negative comment directed at your work. Which is what I meant about resonance — seeing if, deep down inside, what the critic is saying is kind of what you knew already.

I’ve read interviews with filmmakers bitterly enraged about negative reviews, angrily convince it’s some conspiracy to bring them down…even as they kind of intimate that all the criticisms were things they were aware were problems even in mid-production. In other words, they aren’t frustrated about unfair reviews…they’re frustrated the reviews were a little too insightful.

Years ago a Canadian film producer made a telling remark when he said of his film: “Compared to most of the $#%$ produced in this country, this film is a masterpiece.” Not exactly a quote to put on the poster, eh?

But this isn’t confined simply to Canadian film. Consider how many Hollywood films and TV series hit the screens — movies with a lot more money, and time, and or preparation behind them — and critics and fans will almost unanimously point out the same plot holes, the same motivation flaws. In other words, the people making the movie must — I say must — have known these problems existed, too, but just blundered ahead anyway, hoping against hope no one would notice it.

Movies — particularly Canadian movies — are plagued by a lot of problems, relating to budget limitations and timing. But the audience doesn’t really care about that. A filmmaker may proudly feel it was a miracle his film even got made given the obstacles, and therefore a testament to his skill and passion…but the audience only cares whether the finished result entertains them.

Excuses don’t sell tickets.

All this is just a preamble to my making a few scattershot observations about some press releases I’ve read relating to up-coming productions. So, yeah, I’m making comments about things I haven’t seen yet — that in some cases haven’t even started filming. But as I say, maybe it’s good to get the ideas out there. As well, there’s a part of me that indulges in a little superstition: that is, if I’m negative ahead of time, maybe the gods that oversee Canadian film will then conspire to prove me wrong. I’ve certainly had other experiences where I’ve pre-judged something negatively (based on commercials or word of mouth) only to then really enjoy it.

No one would be happier than me to have me proven wrong!

Anyway, so one thing that caught my eye was a press release announcing some of the CBC’s up-coming schedule — particularly its up-coming TV movies and mini-series. Now, on one hand — at least the CBC is announcing something. I’m not sure CTV or Global have any Canadian movies or mini-series slatted for the new year. And even in the days when CTV and Global did offer a few home grown movies on their schedule — often it was more about PR than reality, a movie offered as part of the new season might not actually hit the air until a season or two later…or at all (I’m still waiting for the Coco Chanel bio-pic starring Genevieve Bujold that CTV proudly trumpeted as being on its schedule some twenty odd years ago!)

Still, the CBC’s roster of up-coming programs, even if better than what CTV and Global are offering, is still wafer thin — when there was a time the CBC would have a dozen or more TV movies and mini-series ready to air. So according to the press release, there’s a comedy movie based on Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, and a sequel to an earlier Don Cherry bio-pic — which, I’ll admit, I have some ethical issues with…a CBC bio-pic about a still living, still working CBC employee, written by his son (yeah, now that’s objectivity)…but it did good in the ratings, so I guess I’ll just lump it. The CBC also announced it’ll be showing the hockey-comedy Breakaway — which isn’t an original TV movie, but the network broadcast of a theatrical release…that, I’m guessing, bombed. (added Dec. 2: actually an e-mailer pointed out Breakaway has so far apparently earned 1.8 million at the box office — whether that means a profit or not, I dunno, but it’s definitely decent by Canadian film standards.)

Not exactly a robust schedule with something for everyone, is it? (Of the three announced, two are hockey movies, two are comedies, and only two are original, never-before-seen productions).

Admittedly, sometimes it’ll turn out there are other things in the offing that just get left off the promos, so there might be more stuff coming. Let’s hope. Certainly when the CBC aired the historical-drama, John A: Birth of a Country a short while back (starring Shawn Doyle and Peter Outerbridge) it seemed to me it was with next to no promotion — which was a true tragedy, because it was pretty freakin’ good.

Still, that miserly schedule of movies and mini-series doesn’t exactly get me looking forward to curling up before the TV in the coming cold winter months. But, as I say — it’s still better than what CTV and Global are offering which seems to be precisely…nothing.

The CBC is also offering two new weekly series — the drama Arctic Air and the comedy Mr. D.

Mr. D I guess could be funny…but the commercials haven’t been inspiring. But funny comedies can sometimes be hard to capture in a 30 second clip — unfortunately, that’s equally true of unfunny comedies. So…we’ll see.

Arctic Air is clearly meant to be the new year’s centrepiece drama — a big budget soap about northern Canadian bush pilots. I’ll admit though — I’m a little dubious. Rather, it actually looks like it could be good and exciting, starring dashing Adam Beach, reliable Kevin McNulty, and Pascale Hutton — an actress I haven’t seen in enough to really make much impression (she currently co-stars in the sci-fi drama Sanctuary — which is maybe a problem with Canadian TV: hundreds of talented, out-of-work actors…and instead, the same actor stars in two series concurrently). But the thing is — Arctic Air looks like it could be genuinely good and exciting…as a one-shot TV movie or mini-series, with its clips of high drama and planes skimming perilously through the air.

But as a weekly series, where I’m guessing the air-action will have to be curtailed a bit for budget reasons…? And even if it wasn’t…can we really get excited week after week over presumably the same sort of crises? Didn’t that sink — pun intended — Global’s The Guard?

I appreciate what Arctic Air — and by extension the CBC — is offering: something different. That is, the CBC is clearly trying to offer variety with its schedule of series that include Republic of Doyle, Being Erica, and Heartland (not to mention its comedies like InSecurity, Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays and Little Mosque on the Prairie) — variety in regions (east, west, central, and north) and variety in genres…unlike CTV and Global which, it could be argued, are sticking to very narrow formulas (CTV’s Flashpoint and The Listener are both Toronto-set crime-mystery series, while Global’s Rookie Blue and Combat Hospital are both ensemble dramas set in a para-military workplace).

But Arctic Air strikes me as the kind of premise that seems like a neat idea in theory…but not so much in execution, watched week after week. I’ve often commented that there’s a reason many dramas tend to revolve around cops, doctors, or lawyers…because the audience likes to watch series about nominally altruistic heroes dealing with important dilemmas. An hour long drama essentially about the ins and outs of running a small business sounds a bit dramatically dubious to me. Which is why Global’s much ballyhooed car dealership drama (starring Tricia Helfer and William Devane) I’m not sure ever even made it to air!

Still, in the case of Arctic Air — nothing I’ve seen or heard makes me think it won’t be a perfectly good series. I just worry that it’ll be a good version…of a problematic premise. This season’s Wild Roses — a series I actually liked, but failed to ensnare a large audience.

And for my final Eeyore look-in on “things to come” is a press release announcing an up-coming Canadian-made sci-fi series called Out of Time. Out of Time is apparently going to be about a female cop from the future who’s come back to modern times in pursuit of fugitive criminals from her era.

So, there’s no reason this can’t be a perfectly good series — but there are a few red flags that pop up and of which those working on the series might do well to be wary.

I worry a little about a series that they are already promoting, that is supposedly scheduled to air in just a few months…and yet apparently they haven’t even cast yet!

Also, the premise of the series is, of course, one you use when you don’t have any money but you want to do something with a sci-fi/fantasy spin — so you set it in modern times (no worrying about sets or funky costumes) with the fantastic element just a transplanted hero/heroine. Unfortunately, the danger is it will be too fantasy/SF for those who don’t like fantasy/SF…and not enough of it for those that do.

But more to the point, the premise has kind of been done a zillion times before — otherworldly hunter chasing otherworldly fugitives on modern earth. There was Brimstone (hell cop hunting fugitives from hell), the Canadian-made Tracker (alien cop hunting alien fugitives), even the Canadian-made The Collector (another hell cop), and others that have probably slipped my mind (not to mention series that aren’t quite the same…but close, like Something is Out There, Life on Mars, the Canadian-made Codename: Eternity).

And the premise of Out of Time quite literally evokes the TV series Time Trax.

But where this becomes significant is that — none of these series did particularly well (Time Trax mustered two seasons, the Collector three…most of the rest only one…if that).

Now, just because a premise has been tried many times before, with problematic results, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it — but it does mean you should be aware that it’s clearly not a slam dunk, and you should work hard to make sure you identify and avoid the flaws that brought down your predecessors. You remember what I said about insanity being repeating the same action but expecting a different result?

Sure — times change. Maybe the makers of Out of Time figure fantasy/SF/horror is more mainstream than it was when those other series aired. In other words, they figure they don’t have to worry about falling into the same traps as those other series…because they figure there was nothing wrong with those series, except bad timing. A risky assumption. But then again — honestly, I’ve seen a few fantasy/SF things in recent years that, though not bad, just struck me as bland, and derivative, and trite, and failed to hold my interest…yet proved hits with the audience in ways that more clever, or innovative, fantasy/SF didn’t. So, maybe there’s something to be said for a familiar, vaguely generic premise.

The irony is, just as I say the premise sounds familiar (particularly as regards Time Trax) I could just as easily believe the creators of Out of Time are completely unaware of the antecedents. That’s the funny thing about fantasy and SF — it often flies below the radar of mainstream culture enough that writers new to the genre will be completely unaware of how clichéd a story idea is to those more familiar with the genre. At the same time, because of this below-the-radar phenomenon, it can also lead to writers claiming an idea is original, because they know no one in the mainstream press will call them on it.

But the point is, I can easily understand why someone might come up with the premise for Out of Time. As mentioned, it’s a way of doing a SF series without needing a significantly bigger budget than any regular cop/drama. And the idea of hunting fugitives allows for an instant premise that can direct the various episodes. But that can also be a problem. As the other series I mentioned maybe indicate, it’s a little too formulaic a premise — not really allowing much room for variety in plots and tones. The very reason it seems like a good hook for a series when you first hear it…is precisely why it might grow whiskers very quickly. Now — maybe they’ve factored that in. The press release refers to her pursuing nine fugitives…and the season is slatted to run ten episodes, which suggests maybe they have planned it as a specific arc, and if they come back for another season, they’ll move on to a new idea.

Just as I’m writing this, and thinking about the premise, I can’t help wondering if a better idea might be to imagine, say, that people have been transplanted from the future into our time to escape the future (kind of like the old Star Trek episode “All Our Yesterdays”) — not escaped criminals, just regular folk (instead of escaping an apocalypse, as in the Star Trek episode, which might make the series too pessimistic, maybe it’s that a disease has broken out in the future that only people with a certain gene are susceptible too — so these people have been allowed to emigrate into the past to before the disease existed). And our cop hero isn’t there to specifically hunt fugitives, merely to police the refugees — to make sure that they don’t interfere with the time stream. So, you’ve got basically the same idea…but with broader scope to the stories and dilemmas (as some episodes could, indeed, involve tracking down hardened criminals…but others could involve less formulaic crises, like a non-villain who, nonetheless, is doing something that might damage the time stream…or our hero could investigate the murder of a future refugee, etc.) Seems to me, a premise like that retains all the desired elements of the original concept, but with more flexibility to the stories, a greater range of plots and emotions available to the writers…and, as such, more material to last multiple seasons.

There’s another, final point I want to address, that relates to an earlier post about “Canadianism” in Canadian programs. According to the press release, Out of Time will, indeed, be set in Canada (now whether that will be true, or whether they simply mean it’ll be Anytown, North America, we’ll just have to wait and see). The concept, as described, is that she’s hunting fugitives from the future…who have escaped death row. And, again, I find myself going…huh.

See death row/capital punishment/execution is a useful story idea — it provides a sense of permanence, a point of no return. I can understand its narrative appeal. But as I’ve pointed out before — Canada has no capital punishment and hasn’t for decades. Indeed, most western democracies (excepting the U.S.) have abolished capital punishment. So to do this sci-fi series in which in the future there is capital punishment seems to be doing one of two things. It’s either deliberately pushing a pro-execution agenda (by suggesting in the future the world will logically have reverted to using capital punishment when extrapolating from the trends over the last few decades the opposite scenario would seem more likely — or will the series’ makers also indicate we have returned to racial segregation and denying women the vote?) But that’s perfectly fine, if that’s the agenda they want to push — but it is an agenda. Or — as relates to my earlier post — is it because once more we have a Canadian series, made by Canadians…that isn’t really comfortable with (or aware of) the Canadian experience/reality and would much rather just emulate American culture? In other words, they aren’t really envisioning her coming back in time from a future Canada…but a future America.

Now as I say, this is all me just looking at a few words in a press release — maybe when Out of Time hits the airwaves I’ll become its biggest fan, and the creators will have taken a problematic premise with a poor track record and shown how it can be done right! Maybe the capital punishment idea will be logically, plausibly justified in the scenario. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of actors, so the very fact that casting hasn’t been announced will kind of leave me on tenterhooks for the next little while. Will it be some actress I’ve long been a fan of and finally — finally! — gets the break I’ve always felt she deserved? Or will it be some actress I’ve long felt was an albatross around the industry’s neck but inexplicably keeps getting the top roles? Or will it be some unknown face and I’ll just have to wait for the first episode to see if she clicks for me?

The Eeyore in me can’t help but anticipate the worst from the months to come — but the Tigger in me is always hoping for the best!

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2 Responses to Eeyore-ing the Up-Coming Winter/Spring Canadian TV Season

  1. cindy says:

    Another time travel series that wasn’t very successful was Timecop.

    • Administrator says:

      I didn’t reference it because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of generalizing too much (like when people suggest something is a “rip-off” of something…when it bears only a passing similiarity). My understanding is that in Timecop he went to different eras (a true “time travel” premise), whereas I was drawing a connection between series set in a modern locale about an outsider (time traveller/alien/etc.) chasing others of a similiar kind.

      Mind you, true time travel series themselves, excepting Dr. Who (which is only sometimes about time travel), also have a poor track record (including Time Tunnel and Voyagers) — but that’s a whole other essay!