The Canadian Identity Conundrum (Part 2)…from Seeing Things to King (and Johnny Depp, too!)


Continuing from my last post, and musing about the notion of how some Canadian movies and TV shows are desperate not to admit they are Canadian (the filmmakers practically peeing-in-their-pants scared of the occasional “eh?” slipping from an actor’s lips) let’s delve into the opposite…and why it can be important to storytelling to root your story in a place.

Back in the 1980s there was a CBC series called Seeing Things. It’s a fascinating cultural touchstone for a number of reasons. One — it was sassy and clever at a time when not too much on Canadian TV would be described that way (one American critic at the time was quoted as likening it to Woody Allen). Two — it’s a series that has different facets. As a younger person first watching it, I would’ve described it as a comedy…about a mystery solving psychic. Yet then when I saw it again years later, I wondered if it might more accurately be described as a mystery/detective series…that was very funny. (If you see the difference). It’s also interesting because it was kind of cheap and clunky looking — not as slick as the American series it was airing against (though as time goes by, and even American series from that era can look cheap and clunky by modern standards, Seeing Things perhaps seems more part of the pack). BUT — and here’s the thing — I loved Seeing Things. And this was before I really fully got into my interest (and advocacy) for Canadian films & TV. Indeed, I think Seeing Things was a major part of my cultural evolution in that direction. I didn’t watch Seeing Things out of patriotism, or to support Canadian content…I watched it because it was a great show and, in some ways, was unlike anything else airing on TV (even as it was comfortably part of a familiar mystery-comedy genre — arguably anticipating the snappy tone of the Bruce Willis/Cybill Sheppard U.S. series Moonlighting). It affected an almost cinema verite style of acting and directing to the point where a lot of bigger, more expensive U.S. series could actually seem almost painfully mannered in the acting and delivery by comparison.

This is why even to this day I can quibble a bit when people belittle (some) Canadian programs for their smaller budgets…because good writing and clever scenes can trump budgets, even to a young, feckless youth as I was.

But the other thing about Seeing Things was that it loved its topical references, its snappy patter firing out references to politics, history, and pop culture as though from a Tommy Gun. And a lot of them were Canadian. There was no doubt where Seeing Things had its roots — and it wasn’t apologizing. Yet, interestingly, it would also make American and other references. In one episode dropping quips about The Pentagon Papers…and the assassination of D’Arcy McGee! In a way, maybe the Canadian references seemed more natural because they were just a part of the “hip” tone of the dialogue, rather than because they seemed self-consciously inserted. But the sheer indulgence in such references meant Seeing Things was atypical — not just by Canadian standards, but even by American standards. But as I say — it rooted the series, and it seemed to send a message to its audience that “we’re smart…and we believe you’re smart, too!”

In one episode of Seeing Things, the series’ hero (played by Louis Del Grande) crashes a party where he spies co-star Janet Laine-Green in the company of…Pierre Trudeau (well…a guy seen from the back dressed in Trudeau’s signature cape and broad hat). To me that was a funny gag — playing off topicality and Trudeau’s (a “celebrity” politician if there ever was one) reputation for being a lady’s man. (Actually part of the joke, I think, was that they don’t confirm it’s Trudeau…Del Grande says “isn’t that Trudeau?” as he slips out the back, but Laine-Green doesn’t respond).

Seeing Things was a refreshing series for its time — as I was becoming aware of the world around me…but never had even a hint of that world in the populist movies and TV I watched which were all American. And then came Seeing Things…in which heroes sometimes wore parkas, occasionally bumped into Canadian celebrities (or facsimiles), and made references to Canadian issues and events — yet was equally rooted in the global world, doing memorable stories about Nazi war criminals and South African apartheid even before apartheid had become the trendy cause celebre in Hollywood movies and TV shows!

Yet Seeing Things was an example of a series where (some) people just don’t like any Canadian allusion. As I say: it made American references, too. But someone once related an anecdote to me about their having watched an episode (with some college friends) and many of these young “hipsters” were appalled by the Canadian references, even deeming it embarrassing. Something about their reaction is embarrassing…but it wasn’t the TV show.

Now, obviously — Seeing Things was a kind of unique example. Being both about a reporter, and affecting an almost Howard Hawks-esque penchant for off-the-cuff banter, its tendency to name drop and make allusions (Canadian, American, or whatever) was a part of its style. Most TV series — American or Canadian — don’t tend to go for that as much (interestingly, British series tend far more often to utilize such a technique, with British TV series and movies more likely to make references to current affairs and celebrities). As such, it’s not something you would necessarily expect — or even want — all series to emulate. The writers have to “feel” it in their bones, and it has to stem logically from the characters — because the hero was a journalist, it was natural that he would be well read and prone to such references. If the writers of, say, Republic of Doyle suddenly started shoe horning in “hip” references it might, indeed, seem a bit awkward.

Now I don’t want to suggest that Seeing Things was the only banner carrier for Canadiana for years. Although such shows were usually restricted to CBC productions (as opposed to Global or CTV) there were other series that, if in not quite as wisecracking a way, rooted themselves in the Canadian reality, like Street Legal and North of 60.

The type — the sub-genus, if you will — of Canadian allusions can very.

CTV‘s sitcom, Corner Gas was a huge hit in Canada and was unapologetically set in its milieu of a small prairie town, with a Canadian flag or two in the background. Yet it was kind of a curious beast. Because on one hand, the actual number of “Canadian” references could be kind of few — I suspect a viewer could watch quite a number of episodes back-to-back and have no idea whether it was set in Saskatchewan…or Kansas. The “pop” references tended to be to American movies and TV shows (yet seemed organic to the writers and their characters…because they tended to revolve around 1970s touchstones like Kojak and Battlestar Galactica, as opposed to self-consciously modern things meant to appeal to the hip crowd). Yet…Corner Gas also liked to work in joke cameos — whether a celebrity dropping by the town or, more often, a surreal dream or flight of fancy. And they were Canadian celebrities, ranging from celebrity contractor Mike Holmes to at least two sitting prime ministers! The idea of utilizing Canadian celebrities also fuelled the ribald cable sitcom, Rent-a-Goalie, which called upon real life ex-hockey pros more than once for cameos…though, again, in other ways its Canadian allusions could be few and far between.

Personally, I tend to be mixed on the idea of celebrity cameos…it can often be too distractingly self-conscious particulary if, as is often the case, the celebrity isn’t much of an actor, and it can tend to stop the story, rather than add to it. Perhaps one of the best uses of a celebrity cameo was media personality Ben Mulroney in the Canadian film The Trotsky — it was funny and nicely self-depecrating (the joke was hero Jay Baruchel’s reaction to Mulroney’s presence). Actually, just as an aside, one of the all time best uses of a celebrity cameo was Tom Petty’s appearance in the post-apocalyptic Hollywood drama, The Postman…because it really did add to the story, or at least articulated the nature of a post-apocalyptic civilization when Petty shrugs and says he “used to be” famous.

But Canadian dramas can go through phases, periods of greater — and lesser — willingness to be, well, Canadian. As I say, right now there are still plenty of series set in the United States, pretending they are American, and others that are decidedly soft, either not quite admitting they are Canadian, or where you could watch a lot of episodes and not realize it was set in Canada, or where they conspicuously avoid Canadian phrasings and colloquialisms. But there are also a few others that are unapologetically rooted in their environments. Republic of Doyle makes no effort to hide its Newfoundland setting or accents; Arctic Air, as mentioned in my previous post, is very much a part of its Northern Canadian reality. The Listener is an interesting example, because it was a far “softer” Canadian series in its first season, when it was airing on American prime time, than in its second season, when it was more willing to wave the maple leaf.

The crime drama King (which, yes, I refer to far too much on this blog, and I’ll try and curb that) is an interesting case, because being about cops in the metropolis that is Toronto, it could so easily be fairly generic — yet in some respects it is one of the more unself-consciously Canadian series around. And it can be in the little, matter-of-fact things: referring to distances in terms of “klicks” as opposed to “miles”, referring to the prosecution as “The Crown” as opposed to something generic like, well, “the prosecution”, and referring to Canadian cities by name. Even the lead character, Jessica King (played by Amy Price-Francis), is often referred to as “Staff”…as in Staff-Sergeant, a rank that I believe doesn’t exist in any American police department. (Which I think is the series’ effort to bend over backwards to work in a Canadian reference…as I’m not sure King really is, technically, a Staff Sergeant! — but ya gotta love them for it)

And honestly, that’s kind of what we’re taking about sometimes when identifying “Canadianisms” — things that distinguish Canada from the United States. I seem to recall there was some cheeky Canadian TV game show a few years ago that had a category that was “things Americans don’t know!” — in other words, Canadian-centric topics. And because there is an overlap between Canadian accents and architecture and American accents and architecture (hence why so many Canadian movies and TV shows can pretend they are American) that’s kind of what I mean when talking about “Canadian” allusions — the sort of thing that would tell an American if they just flipped on their TV, and had no idea what the show was they were watching, that clearly, North American accents aside, this isn’t the United States.

But as natural, organic allusions that stem logically from the scene.

This is perhaps the irony. I could well imagine a few viewers thinking it kind of heavy handedly “Canadian” to refer to “The Crown” when “the prosecution” would work just as well…but if you want to talk about “realism”, if you want to talk about what life is like…as far as I known, in real life legal circles, “The Crown” is the term of choice. If you eavesdrop on real police officers, real lawyers, real crime beat reporters, they don’t talk about “the prosecution”, they talk about “The Crown”. And that’s why I, for example, find it far more distractingly self-conscious and artificial when I watch a Canadian series referring to “the prosecution”…because I know that’s not true to life, and I know they’re only doing it to try and obscure the story’s Canadian setting. (Imagine if all American crime dramas excised any references to District Attorneys, or DAs).

And maybe these series and their references are starting to nudge and encourage other series. Rookie Blue is a successful Canadian cop drama airing on US prime time, and it is often seen as an example of a “soft” Canadian series…basically trying not to be too obvious that it’s set in Canada so that many American viewers probably just assume it’s an unnamed American city. Yet I’m pretty sure I saw an episode where a police character was also referred to as “Staff” — their thinking presumably being, most viewers won’t find it distracting, or even notice…but it makes its own, quiet little statement.

Drawing upon, and rooting a story, in a Canadian reality can add little quirks to the tried and true, comfortable scenarios. I was thinking about this in a couple of episodes of King where Neil Crone had a recurring part as an affable homicide detective — decked out in a slightly flashy apparel. It was the sort of wardrobe that, I suspect, would have an American or British viewer looking aghast and saying: “WTF?” Yet to a Canadian it was quirky, but not implausible…because he looked like (a subdued version of) TV celebrity Don Cherry. Dressing Crone that way didn’t inherently make his scenes better, but it added a little quirk to them, it took a minor, supporting character, and suddenly made it seem as though he had a life outside of the frame. It took a character…and made him a person. And it suggested someone on King (if only the wardrobe mistress) was actually taking pride in their job, and putting thought into the creative choices.

And that’s the name of the artistic game, baby.

But the point of all this traipsing through memory lane is to say: does it matter? Does it matter if a Canadian program adamantly sets itself in Canada…or just coyly works a flag into a background…or simply out-and-out pretends it’s an American series? Does that affect the heart of the drama? The truth of the emotions on display?

Well, I guess that’s the thing. Storytelling is about taking risks…and if you get the sense the filmmakers are too timid to even admit their story is set in Canada, you’ve got to question their willingness to take risks of any kind. But also as I’ve said before, rooting a story in a time and place is part of how it creates its own sense of identity — the plot itself can be recycled for any setting and milieu, but the environment helps give it it’s own distinctive flavour. Just think of the current international popularity of Scandinavian crime thrillers (from The Girl Who Played With Fire to the BBC Wallander movies). Or would James Bond be James Bond if he wasn’t intrinsically British? Would the Sherlock Homes stories have weathered the test of time if Arthur Conan Doyle had set them in some anonymous big city, excising any references to England?

Place and identity can be part of a story — not an obstacle.

It’s also simply about the notion of reflecting the actual world around you, which is what stories should do — even if in a comedy, or a pulpy thriller.

I was watching King (again!) in a recent episode (titled “Alicia Pratta”) about a university sorority, in which some characters make condescending references to another character’s “kind”. And I was thinking about the different “realities” presented in American and Canadian shows. Because I couldn’t help thinking that an American watching that episode would have no idea what the characters were talking about. The character/actress in question had a vaguely dusky complexion, but she wasn’t black, she wasn’t Asian, she wasn’t stereotypically Semitic or anything that would obviously identify her as “other” than the snooty WASPs at the sorority. But a Canadian watching that episode would probably quickly realize that, oh, I guess she’s Native Indian. Yet even by the end of that episode, it’s never explicitly stated what her ethnicity is — though we can infer it when we later learn her birth surname was Greyeyes (or something equally archetypal). And that’s because the makers of King clearly didn’t feel they needed to spell it out…anymore than they would have to articulate another character was black. But as I say, my suspicion (and maybe I’m wrong) is that an American wouldn’t really get that…because the notion of Native Indians as a visible minority doesn’t really crop up on American TV series and movies…save in stories specifically set on Reservations where there’s usually a lot of talk of elders and sweat lodges and vision quests and all those nifty “Indian” things. But the idea of a Native person as just, well, a person, and going to university in the big city? I just don’t think you’d see that in too many American series.

In much the way Arctic Air, with its multi-ethnic cast, including a sizeable contingent of Native actors, has no mirror on U.S. TV.

(And, to be fair, I’m speaking purely anecdotally: obviously, I haven’t seen every episode, of every American TV series. But I have watched a lot over the years).

In Canada, Native issues remain very much a part of the political landscape. Most Canadians have heard of the lobby group, the Assembly of First Nations, but if there’s something comparable in the United States…it doesn’t really get much press. First Nation and Native news stories often make headlines — albeit not, generally, for happy reasons, often involving poverty, or political clashes. 

References in the King episode to the character’s mother having cleaned up and gone straight, but years before having had a drug problem, subtly acknowledges current affairs news stories and the problems facing some in the Native community (and, indeed, all communities). But it’s part of the reality, part of the socio-political landscape. A landscape that, as I say, doesn’t really get much exposure in U.S. programs…except occasional stereotypical stories where the detective heroes investigate a case on The Rez, where it’s presented as a kind of other world, largely removed from the day-to-day concerns of “real” Americans.

And yet that’s less because it’s not the American reality…so much as it’s just not shown much on American TV. That King episode, ironically, with its matter-of-fact use of Native characters, was probably just as true to American life as Canadian…but it took a Canadian show to put it on television! (I’m reminded of an anecdote told years ago about how on the family drama, Danger Bay — a Canada-U.S. co-production — a writer pitched a Native themed story; supposedly the Canadian producers were fine with it…the American producers balked).

This is reflected in series like Little Mosque on the Prairie (about Muslim-Canadians) or Republic of Doyle (about East Coast Canadians) — they are presenting a world that exists, that we brush shoulders with (even if we aren’t directly a part of it). And a world that won’t get presented if the goal is simply to make anonymous programs that could pass for American. Little Mosque is first and foremost just a gentle sitcom. Republic of Doyle just a light-hearted private eye series. Arctic Air just a night time soap/adventure about love and danger on a frontier. But it’s their willingness to root themselves in their particular cultural — and Canadian — milieus that help given them an identify, that make them a little different from all the other shows out there.

In Canadian series that pretend they aren’t Canadian…these worlds, these characters, these stories, wouldn’t exist. Left to Hollywood, or Canadian filmmakers determined to pass themselves off as Hollywood-lite, there would be next to no Native characters on TV and, by extension, next to no Native actors getting work. I mean, apparently Hollywood is gearing up for a revival of the Lone Ranger…with Johnny Depp as Tonto! I mean…I mean…do I even have to finish that thought?

And that’s why Canadian storytellers should be willing to set their stories in Canada: because rooting your story in the world you actually know (as opposed to one you get second hand watching other people’s movies) can give it an edge, an immediacy. And it can suggest a little quirk, a little twist on the same old same old. As I say: there’s nothing unusual about a lot of these examples I’ve cited. They’re perfectly mainstream, perfectly familiar comedies and dramas, mystery-thrillers and adventure programs. But by setting them in Canada, they can add a little freshness to old scenarios, and old genres, drawing upon “new” archetypes to shore up old plot points.

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