Is Canadian TV Getting Some Much Needed Rain?

Looking at recent Canadian TV ratings, one can get an inkling of how farmers must feel. I mean, farmers toil away, month after month, season after season, doing the same thing, the same way, every time…and due to factors they often have little control over, one year they’ll get a bumper crop, and another the crops’ll wither in the fields. An unexpected cold snap, or a dry spell, or, on the other hand, moderate weather and even rains, can decide the yield regardless of what the farmer does.

I mean, recently, Canadian TV had some hits…but also an inordinate amount of misses. More to the point, as I’d mentioned in an earlier post, most of the “hits” tended to be co-productions with American networks. While purely domestic Canadian series were often struggling, even those reaping great critical reviews like Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays.

Those eager to pounce on and dismiss Canadian productions in general (yes, there are those people) and the CBC specifically, were rubbing their hands with glee over the seeming inevitable, and inexorable, slump in ratings. Of course, some of it was just optics. I mean, for all that the CBC was struggling to justify keeping Michael, Being Erica, and others on the schedule, series like Heartland and Republic of Doyle were certainly delivering consistently solid audience numbers (as usual, my focus tends to be on scripted narrative series — but the CBC also had successes with Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes and some news programs).

But at a cursory glance — it seemed like Canadian producers couldn’t deliver a “hit”…at least without partnering with a big U.S. network, which arguably compromised the “Canadianness” of a show…and even its long term success (Combat Hospital was cancelled, despite great Canadian ratings, because its U.S. partner pulled out).

Yet every drought ends in rain.

This week saw the premier of a bunch of new Canadian series — and the ratings, frankly, saw my jaw hitting the ground, as almost all of them cracked the 1 million mark, and most by a comfortable margin. Global’s The Firm might not be too big a surprise, since it is one of those aforementioned U.S. co-productions, having been heavily hyped and promoted for weeks (and even then, some articles suggested its numbers have been disappointing compared to what was expected).

But it’s the all-domestic 100% Canadian series that have proven even more interesting.

CBC’s Arctic Air, Mr. D, and the third season premiere of Republic of Doyle all opened above the million mark. As did Global’s period drama/mini-series Bomb Girls. Even those with lesser ratings have been unusually solid. Little Mosque on the Prairie began its final season with ratings, I believe, comfortably higher than it’s had for a while. Global’s second window airing of the police-drama King (it had previously aired on the cable station Showcase) was up above 400 000 (double King’s Showcase numbers…and also better, I believe, than the numbers for Global’s second window airing of Haven, a heavily marketed U.S. co-production it had shown on the same night a few months back) — all the more remarkable because, unlike all the other series mentioned here, King received next to no promotion from Global. I won’t say it categorically received “no” promotion — I’ll just say I don’t recall seeing a single commercial for it (unlike Bomb Girls and The Firm whose ads were in heavy rotation). One wonders what numbers King might’ve been able to achieve if Global had actually bothered to hype it!

So…wot happened?

After a year or two of Canadian producers and programmers seeming to be running into a brick wall of audience indifference, where glossy commercials, critical praise, and even “name” recognition (the Corner Gas alumni’s sitcoms) seemed to be unable to blossom and grow fruit…suddenly everyone seems to be enjoying good numbers.

It’s problematic to lean too much on my farmer analogy — suggesting it’s just a result of capricious weather patterns and not the programs. After all, maybe it just is the shows. Maybe the networks and the producers just came up with a crop of shows that caught people’s attentions in a way the last batch didn’t. Maybe they just did a better job of promoting them, or the commercials were better crafted to entice viewers. Maybe it’s a “critical mass”-thing — the success of Combat Hospital, Rookie Blue, and Flashpoint (as well as Republic of Doyle and Heartland) finally just coalesced to create a climate where Canadians were once more willing to approach Canadian shows with an open mind.

Maybe the premieres were well timed. Most of these series premiered within about a week of each other — just after Christmas, when a lot of the big American series are still temporarily in re-runs but, unlike the summer hiatus, the audience is still indoors, turning on the TV. That may be part of it — a soft competition. But that’s certainly not the whole story, because although, yes, some U.S. series are still airing re-runs…a lot aren’t, and the Canadian series have still carved out a healthy chunk of the market place (even going up against “event” programming like sports events and entertainment awards shows).

Obviously, the real story will be in the weeks to come, and whether these series can hold onto these numbers. Let’s face it, lots of series — including American series — open bigger than what will end up being their season average (The Guard, Hiccups, Dan for Mayor and other Canadian shows wowed people with solid premier ratings…that they were unable to sustain). Right now, these strong openings have proven that people are ready, willing, and able to watch Canadian shows. And that’s half the battle — more than half, really. The good numbers prove that Canadian shows — domestically produced, without U.S. partner — can grab an audience. But now it’s up to the shows to prove they can hold them.

Based on one or two episodes (and so not enough to form a legitimate review) I’ll be interested in seeing what happens.

The first episode of the CBC’s bush pilot drama, Arctic Air (Tuesdays, CBC), was a solid, slick, entertaining drama, with a few minor lapses (Brian Markinson’s guest starring role was a little too cartoony a villain — as written, no fault of Markinson). I liked the use of the “ethnic” angle (star Adam Beach, and some other cast members, are Native Indian) — not ignored, yet not belaboured. It has a good cast (including, in that peculiar way of Canadian productions, some top notch performers languishing in supporting and minor guest starring roles, like Timothy Webber, Carmen Moore, Michael Hogan, and Lexa Doig). I had earlier in a post suggested the commercials looked good, but I questioned whether the night time soap/drama premise could sustain itself in a TV landscape of crime and medical dramas. I still wonder, but that’s a thought for down the line. As it is, based on that one episode, Arctic Air comfortably takes its place as the centre piece, not simply of the CBC’s winter schedule — but the Canadian TV schedule in general. Good on ’em.

Global’s Bomb Girls (Wednesdays, Global) I’m more mixed on. Presumably inspired a bit by the mini-trend of American period dramas (Mad Men, Pan Am, and the Playboy Club) but it’s set even earlier, in the 1940s. It’s okay…but maybe tries too hard to find conflict, playing up not just gender prejudice, but ethnic and class schisms where the constant sniping and snapping can get exhausting. And the desire to confront the sexism of the time has kind of led to a series where almost all the men are one note sexist pigs, making a lot of the characters (and character conflicts) kind of cartoony. Actually, I’m not sure what’s worse — that almost all the men are obnoxious pigs…or that I’m not entirely sure if the makers realize just how obnoxious they are (given we are sometimes supposed to sympathize with them)! And for all that it sort of wants to tackle the prejudices of the day with a modern eye…so far it’s still an all white cast of characters (the “ethnic” angle is Anglo-Saxon vs. Italian-Canadian). Actually star Meg Tilly is, in reality, Eurasian…but her character doesn’t seem to be. Still, it’s certainly a “concept” premise…and being marketed as a mini-series, it doesn’t have to worry about sustainability.

As the big American-style (and co-produced) drama on the schedule, I’m finding The Firm (Thursdays, Global)…problematic. It’s not horrible. And as a lawyer series, the first two episodes seem to want to deal with dilemmas and legal ethics more than simply winning the cases, which could be interesting. But some TV shows (and movies) you can just lose yourself in, completely buying into the characters and their situations…and some you can find yourself just too self-conscious of the actors, of the scenes, like watching a marionette show where you find yourself distracted by light glinting off the wires. I don’t know if it’s a problem with the production, or simply once my mind starts in that direction, it’s hard to turn it back…but I’m just conscious of a lot of clumsy and corny dialogue, of scenes where I’m watching actors hit their marks and, well, act…as opposed to believing in the characters and their actions. Scenes which seem like heavy handed imitations of subtler scenes in other shows where they seemed more organic (the testy judge, the prosecutor who objects as soon as the hero opens his mouth). Honestly…I’m starting to chuckle at scenes that aren’t meant to be funny! It’s still a fine line, and it’s not impossible that with a few more episodes it will win me over, as the writers, actors, and directors get more comfortable with what they’re doing (though I still feel the actors/characters themselves are a bit bland).

Perhaps the biggest ratings surprise for me was the teacher comedy Mr. D (Mondays, CBC) — ’cause I’ll admit, I found it kind of painful to sit through. Yet the ratings for the first episode were great. I don’t even know if one can attribute that to comic Gerry Dee having a pre-built following, given an earlier stand up special featuring him only brought in a third of Mr. D’s ratings. Obviously the inspiration for Mr. D is shows like The Office, built around a dimwitted, self-obsessed cad who thinks he’s the cat’s meow and is oblivious to his inadequacies…and his lack of popularity. It’s a genre of comedy I’ve come to call “cringe comedy”, in that the humour is supposed to make you cringe as much as laugh as you watch the character blunder into one embarrassing situation after another (the humour partly because most of the surrounding actors play it straight). The problem is the lead character, so far, doesn’t really have any lovable or endearing qualities (the fact that the pretty, bright lady teacher would seem to gravitate toward him is inexplicable). And Dee is pretty much the whole show (despite a nice supporting cast) — unlike, say, The Office, where the character was part of an ensemble, and so the romantic trials of Jim and Pam could produce a counterpoint to Michael’s narcissism, or where Dwight could steal a few scenes. A lot of modern Canadian series are created by their stars, as vehicles for themselves, but Dee may not be exactly a team player. That is, in Corner Gas, even though Brent Butt was the star…he shared the limelight, other cast members getting their bits. But maybe that’s just a problem with a first episode, and the jokes and plot lines will get spread out among the characters as Mr. D goes.

What’s curious about the (initial) ratings for Mr. D is when you contrast it with the chronically anaemic numbers for Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays. Both series use a realist drama-style of filming (no laugh track, and shot more like movie than a comedy on a sound stage) and a kind of low-key style, yet Michael was infused with a genuine warmth for (most of) its characters whereas Mr. D is more a snide, snarky effort. And Mr. D’s opening ratings pretty much ground Michael’s into the hardwood floor of the character’s basketball court.

Amid these new series, even returning Republic of Doyle (Wednesdays, CBC) enjoyed an extra boost — in part due to the casting coup of landing international movie star Russell Crowe as a guest star. Yeah — not just some two-second cameo, but a genuine guest starring role. Crowe doesn’t normally do TV — even American TV. Don’t expect to see him playing a patient on House anytime soon. (Apparently Crowe and series star Allan Hawco share a circle of friends). To be honest — I’m not a big fan of Republic of Doyle, though Lord knows I want to be. But I just find the plotting kind of, well, half-arsed most of the time — like it’s less a detective series than it is an imitation of a detective series. Granted, it’s as much a comedy as a mystery series, so maybe narrative coherence isn’t big on their priority list, but a lot of episodes just seem to involve the characters running back and forth from point A to point B, often with little logic…and the third season premier was no different. Still, what the heck — I’m happy to see such a Canadian, and such an idiosyncratically regional, series do so well. Though ironically, Crowe’s guest turn was a bit problematic. Crowe’s a fine actor…but watching him in Republic of Doyle it occurred to me that he’s a dramatic actor, usually playing dark and intense roles, and amid the swashbuckling hi-jinks of Republic of Doyle he seemed a bit out of place.

The final premier I want to look at was for the cop drama, King (Fridays, Global). As mentioned, King had already run last year on Showcase, and Global’s just giving it a bigger exposure (prior to its second season on Showcase). Now, full disclosure time: I liked King, and I like its star, Amy Price-Francis. In fact, it may well be my favourite Canadian made series currently in production (certainly it’s up there). And I’m not kidding when I suggested earlier that Global didn’t seem to put much effort into promoting it the way it did Bomb Girls and The Firm — so the fact that it mustered even 400 000 viewers is perhaps remarkable. Likewise, when King earlier aired on Showcase, it seemed not to get much promotion — at least, in an impromptu survey I did of a few people months ago…no one had heard of it! So here’s hoping this time out it can build a bit of word of mouth notice.

Now, as I say — these are just opening numbers. It could well be the audiences will drop off in the next few weeks (undoubtedly they will, if only by a little). Opening numbers just indicate the audience is interested in the premise of a new series…subsequent ratings will determine if they actually enjoy the series itself. But that’s still better, a more hopeful sign, than some recent Canadian series have had, where even their premier numbers were soft.

Don’t know about you, but it looks like that might be rain on the horizon. And we know who that’s good for.

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