Hating Canadian TV — it’s fun, easy, and requires no rational thought

So I was idly perusing a few editorials at the conservative website, Huffington Post – Canada, when…

Sorry…what’s that you say? Isn’t Huffington Post considered a liberal website? you ask.

No, no, you’re thinking of the American Huffington Post. Some months back a Canadian version of Huffington Post was started up, and all access to the U.S. Huffington Post blocked from Canada (at least, when I tried typing in its URL…I immediately got re-routed to Huffington Post – Canada). And it has a decidedly more right wing slant. At least, just as the original Huffington Post featured both right and left leaning op-ed pieces, yet is generally perceived as being “left”, so Huffington Post – Canada does post pieces from figures that are perceived as being more left (David Suzuki, among others) but the lion’s share of the writers…and the opinions expressed…tend to tilt right, with regular contributors including the likes of David Frum, Peter Worthington and Conrad Black (who recently wrote a piece defending Richard Nixon…’cause, y’know, nothing says you’re innocent like having Conrad Black come to your defense).

To be fair, maybe this reflects less an editorial bias at Huffington Post – Canada and more simply that the right mobilized faster to take advantage of it as a forum. (Certainly it hasn’t been quite as completely one-sided as it was a few months ago). (*I’ve added a COUPLE of post-scripts to this point at the end of this post).

Anyway, so in this context, there have been the occasional pieces attacking the CBC…and Canadian film and TV in general.

And added to that is this recent piece  (“Less Canadian Content at CBC would be a Good Thing”) by Yoni Goldstein. Whether Goldstein would consider himself to swing right or left, I dunno. I deliberately didn’t bother looking up his other columns because I prefer to focus on his arguments, rather than the man. Although certainly, he begins bashing the CBC which given — as he freely acknowledges — his point has very little to even do with the CBC specifically, is probably telling.

He also decries the CBC’s “holier-than-thou intellectualism” which is ironic given his post is pretty elitist, all about him slamming Canadian TV for not living up to his creative and intellectual standards.

Goldstein’s target, you see, is broader than the CBC…being the entirety of Canadian television (and, we can infer, movies). Over the course of his piece he says Canadians aren’t very good at making “compelling” TV, that not one English-Canadian show would “pass muster” when compared to something made anywhere else. And that all the shows are “bland” with “cheap production values” and “sophomoric acting”.

Now part of me wonders if I read his piece too seriously. Whether he kind of intended it as a Swiftian satire, meant to galvanize the very people he seems to be criticizing. Either way, I’m not sure he quite kicked the hornet’s nest he was hoping — mine is the only piece I’m aware of that has responded to his (and, let’s face it, that’d be like a boxer stepping into a ring, itching for a bout, and the only one who can be bothered to face him…is the spit bucket boy).

But I have trouble when anyone speaks in absolutes of “all” and “every”. It kind of makes you wonder if the facts fuelled his opinion…or whether his opinion is shaping his view of the facts. I mean, I get it…Goldstein doesn’t like anything on Canadian TV. Fair enough. But one has to be able to separate your personal opinion from any kind of “objective” truth. As I’ve said before, there are plenty of shows I don’t like…but I freely acknowledge others do. And vice versa.

Personally, I’m often amazed — giving the relative paucity of Canadian productions (compared to Hollywood) — at the proportion of them that I do enjoy. I tend to make the effort to try most (English) Canadian shows…and quite a few I end up sticking with, even after I’ve seen enough to post a review. And even some shows I don’t watch regularly I still regard as well done and worth a look-in from time to time. And not as sloppy seconds compared to American or British series…but as good as those non-Canadian series I also watch (which include things like The Good Wife, Revenge, The Walking Dead and even the guilty pleasure that is Ringer). So that’s just me, my opinion…but you can understand my skepticism when Goldstein blithely concludes that all Canadian programs suck and that’s just an unarguable fact of life.

Even his criteria can leave me scratching my head. He dismisses Canadian shows as “bland”…but I’m not really sure what that means. Like with entertainment value itself, “blandness” is subjective…and also depends a lot on how you define the term. Little Mosque on the Prairie certainly offered up a fairly mild, innocuous style of sitcom humour. Yet the subject matter alone made it an international news story! Is blandness defined by style (or lack of) or by actual content? Indeed, a number of Canadian series focus on settings, subjects, and even characters (of race or gender) not represented much in American TV.

There is no doubt Canadian series struggle against their American competition — and if that’s the bee in Goldstein’s bonnet, fine. And I don’t object if he wants to deride various series — even ones I like. But as I say, it’s the absolutes that seem weird. And his failure to consider things in their context. Even he says top American series often plateau around 2.5 million viewers (out of about 20 million in English-Canada) whereas top rated Canadian series don’t usually go much past a million. Which means, out of any random selection of twenty Canadians, a top rated Canadian series might be watched by one person…and a top rated American series by two. I guess you can decide for yourself how big a spread that really is.

And how do we define that not cutting the mustard idea? Canadian series like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue bring in perfectly respectable ratings even on U.S. networks (Rookie Blue even seeming to have inspired an American rip-off…the recent NYC 22) and series like The Lost Girl are what is known as a “cult” hit, even internationally. Indeed, many of these series that Goldstein argues can’t stand up to international series…are in fact shown in foreign (and American) markets.

Whatever he (or I, or you) think of any individual series, it seems kind of ridiculous to suggest that Canadian series, across the board, are all bad and inferior to all other series.

Indeed, as often happens in such debates, Goldstein is a being a bit coy — even disingenuous. I mean, he says Canadian shows suck compared to non-Canadian shows…but then describes TV itself as an “idiot box” spewing “contrived tales”. Is a guy decrying the blandness of Canadian series really a devoted follower of, say, Downton Abbey? Of Two and a Half Men? Of Grimm? Or, if pressed, would he grudgingly admit he thinks they’re pretty bland, too? And if he did admit that…would he suddenly find that a lot people who thought they were agreeing with him…would realize they weren’t? And that’s because, as long as you are negative — everyone will agree. Not just about Canadian TV, but even American TV. Go into any room full of people and say: “TV sucks!” and odds are, everyone in the room will nod in agreement. But then if you say, “TV sucks…except ___ (fill in the blank)” suddenly everyone will be arguing over what shows are the exception.

And then we get to the most disturbing aspect of his piece. And yes, I mean disturbing. And it relates to that point about “sophomoric acting”. He goes on to boldly state that Canada’s best talent moves to Hollywood and that any one working in Canada “can’t make it in Hollywood, plain and simple.” I say it’s disturbing because this has been a stigma that has long lurked like a foul odour around Canadian talent that stays home…though usually not stated quite as boldly as Goldstein does. And it smacks of the attitude that used to be used to try and scare actors away from playing homosexuals in movies — that they would be perceived as being one if they played one. (Until the braver actors realized they wouldn’t be…and the even braver ones realized they didn’t care how they were perceived by homophobes anyway).

It apparently doesn’t occur to Goldstein that there might be other things motivating someone in life besides Hollywood money. A person might pursue a career in Canada simply because they like it here, they think it’s a good place to raise their kids. And maybe, just maybe, they stay home because they hold out a dream of helping to build a Canadian entertainment industry. “It’s not for money alone that a man spends a life building a business…it’s to preserve a way of life,” as Fezziwig explained in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol.

By Goldstein’s thinking, any American actor who chooses a career in the theatre, rather than pursuing the big money in Hollywood, is a talentless hack. And all those British actors who populate all those critically acclaimed British films and TV shows…losers.

And let’s not forget the flip side of his thesis. That Hollywood, therefore, rewards talent — and that only the best and the brightest rise to the top. So, to cite NCIS (an American series Goldstein references, apparently approvingly) that means that an ex-rapper and an ex-Robin, the Boy Wonder are better actors than anyone appearing on Canadian screens. And maybe Goldstein believes that. Fair enough.

But do you?

(Added Apr. 25: And as a commentator below pointed out: technically, my rapper/Robin reference is to the spin-off, NCIS: LA, as opposed to NCIS).

What adds to the irony is that there isn’t a wall between Canada and the U.S. and the same actors cross back and forth all the time. Enrico Colantoni, currently starring in Flashpoint, was also in U.S. series like Veronica Mars and Just Shoot Me. Arctic Air’s Adam Beach has a bunch of American credits under his belt. Heck, Bomb Girl’s Meg Tilly was once nominated for an Oscar! There are critically acclaimed American series like the revived Battlestar Galactica which were shot in Canada and which featured a lot of Canadian actors in the cast. If Goldstein thinks all these people are bad actors — fair enough. But I’m sure he’d get an argument from their fans.

For my part, I actually do like a lot of Canadian actors, and can find myself watching things as much for the performers as for the material they are performing. That doesn’t make me right and Goldstein wrong…but you can understand why I regard his comments with bemusement.

As I say, his essay struck me as…disturbing.

It was disturbing because it wasn’t constructive. As in: “I think Canadian TV sucks…and here’s how I think it could be made better.” Goldstein doesn’t say: “Ratings are weak…how can we improve them?” He says: “Ratings are weak…so give up.”

His sole point seemed to be arguing for the complete shutting down and dismantling of the Canadian film and TV industry. The old: “if there are Canadian stories worth telling, the Americans will tell them for us” idea. And its corollary: “if the Americans don’t want to tell those stories, then we are wrong to want to tell them”. In Goldstein’s ideal world, for instance, there would be no First Nations actors on TV. And his comments are based on absolutes and broad generalities that even he must surely realize are not shared by all (such as the million or so viewers who watch Republic of Doyle, or Bomb Girls, or Flashpoint, or Rookie Blue). And driven by a seeming desire, not simply to argue a point of view, but to brow beat others into accepting it (by stigmatizing and denigrating anyone who chooses to stay home and work in Canadian film and TV).

One gets the feeling Goldstein (and those who share his views) want this to be true as much as they believe it to be. I mean, surely most of us, even if we arrived at the same conclusion, would do so with a certain sadness, a certain regret. The dream is dead, we’d say, but we tried — alas. Instead, there seems a certain hand rubbing glee fuelling his assault.

I try to be up front — I support the idea of a successful, populist Canadian film & TV industry. Beyond that, I’m open to any and all ideas that might encourage that. Re-think funding? Bring in capital punishment for filmmakers who make lousy movies? Hey — nothing’s off the table. But my end goal is a strong, healthy Canadian industry.

Yet one gets the impression with some other people their end goal is the opposite. They want the industry shut down, period…and they’re not too particular about how or why. By the end of his essay Goldstein is making it pretty clear he doesn’t like or respect TV…even admonishing people to turn off their TVs, and read a book, or listen to music (’cause, y’know, nothing stimulates the intellect and the social conscience like listening to an under dressed pop star sing “Oh, baby, do me! Do me!”). Yet nonetheless he wants us to believe that he’s offering an objective assessment of the relative merits of Canadian TV compared with American TV. That’d be like a guy arguing adamantly that one Indian restaurant is worse than another…and then admitting he doesn’t actually like Indian cuisine.


It smacks a bit of that chronic self-loathing that crops up so often in discussions about Canadian culture…and the right wing agenda that is desperate to tear down or denigrate anything that exists that might foster a sense of Canadian identity and culture removed from the United States.

Indeed, Goldstein’s piece was so bizarre, as I say, I do wonder if I misunderstood it, and that he meant it as a joke, as satire, a call to arms for those working in Canadian TV by offering such an over the top screed.

But then again…he was posting on Huffington Post – Canada.

For a follow-up piece – see my next post.

(*Post-script #1 added a few months later: relating to my passing point about Huffington Post Canada’s left/right bias…yeah, it does seem to be balancing out a bit over time, perhaps indicating, as I suggested, merely that conservatives mobilized quicker to take advantage of the forum than did liberal writers. Though there is an added irony to Goldstein’s argument against Canadian programs and Canadian content when surely Huffington Post Canada is, itself, a protectionist website which, as mentioned, seems to have blocked access to Huffington Post America from Canadian computers. In other words, Huffington Post Canada isn’t competeing on a level playing field with the original Huffington Post, but has artificially made itself the only option. Which makes Goldstein’s sanctimoniousness rather curious…

(Post-script #2, Jan, 2013 – in the name of “full disclosure” I was subsequently recruited to write a few posts for Huffington Post Canada).



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2 Responses to Hating Canadian TV — it’s fun, easy, and requires no rational thought

  1. FannishSunny says:

    That’d be like a guy arguing adamantly that one Indian restaurant is worse than another…and then admitting he doesn’t actually like Indian cuisine. Love this simile.

    I, too, am wary of anyone speaking in absolutes.

    Small point – you might want to change your NCIS reference to NCIS: LA as the actors you cite are in the spin off and, as a big fan of the first, this threw me for a moment.

    • Administrator says:

      Fair enough. I was aware I was lumping the two shows together, but since I’m pretty sure they both enjoy good ratings, I didn’t think it mattered for the point I was making (given I was taking a cheap shot anyway — I’m not really saying the actors are necessarily bad, but I just quibbled about implying they were inherently better than Canadian actors). And as for liking my simile — I try, I try. 🙂