What inspired that incendiary headline was a recent episode of the Canada-made sitcom, Seed. Now I’ve written about Seed a couple of times before in pieces at Huffington Post Canada (here and here), so let me just say: no, I don’t have some crazy obsession with the series. It just happens to be a convenient, current symbol for things I like to rant about.
Y’see, after seeing a recent — slight — move towards Canadian TV series being a little more willing to admit they are Canadian (after years of pretending they were set in the U.S.)…Seed has come along practically trumpeting with fanfare the fact that it works hard NOT to admit it’s Canadian. It doesn’t actually say it’s set in the United States, but it works hard to give viewers that impression. And both it, and its supporters in the critical media, present this as though it is adhering to higher artistic aspirations than all those — so it’s implied — losers who pathetically set their TV series in the country that actually gave them birth.
In case you missed the subtext — I’m not a big fan of that approach.
Strangely, I almost find it more disturbing than if they just draped American flags over the furniture and retitled it Seed Donor of St. Louis. At least if they pretended it was set in America, then they are pretending it’s set in America — period. But this way, they are pretending there’s no difference between the two countries.
Fans of the approach taken by Seed say Canadian references would be embarrassing. I come at it from the opposite angle. I find myself laughing at — not with — the series everytime they struggle to work in an “Americanization”. Because I find it so obvious and, yeah, embarrassing. Like a recent episode where a character lists an address on “Roosevelt St.”
I mean — seriously? Are you f…..g kidding me?!?
I’m trying to picture the story session as the writers sit around, struggling to figure out what street name the character can use that will give the episode that perfect sense of élan (a word I shouldn’t use since earlier in the series they did an episode insisting French was a “foreign” language).
“Elm St?” No, no, they say. “Main St?” No, that’s not right. And then someone shrieks, “Eureka! — I’ve got it! Roosevelt!!!” And they all cheer and break for lunch, knowing their artistic vision has been preserved for another week. Not that a Canadian street couldn’t be called “Roosevelt”, but out of literally thousands of potential street names…they settled on one that evokes not one, but two, U.S. presidents.
Presumably they’ve tucked “Washington Ave” and “J. Edgar Hoover Blvd” away for later episodes.
The irony is, of course, that they are doing this in order to win a slot in the American marketplace — but at the writing of this, I’m not sure an American TV deal has been landed.
Now it should be pointed out that I can compartmentalize. I can berate a series for its affront to Canadian culture and identity…and still thoroughly enjoy the series as entertainment and recommend it to friends. I actually quite like current Canadian-made series like Being Human and Beauty & the Beast though both are set in the U.S. with a lot of imported actors in the cast (granted, they are international co-productions).
So just because I drag Seed out before the front of the class to scold it doesn’t necessarily coincide with my views of it as entertainment.
Unfortunately, in this case — it does kind of.
Sorry, I’m just not a big fan of the series on the basic level of it’s a comedy and I’m not laughing much. I’ve watched most of the episodes so far, hoping it will win me over. That’s of course the irony — when it aired, a lot of reviewers gushed over it, said it was brilliant and star Adam Korson was charming and winning. They also lamented it didn’t actually seem to be getting good ratings.
Now here we are a few episodes in — and I’m the guy still writing about it, still keeping it in the public eye (you know what they say: any publicity is good publicity) whereas I’m not sure many of those who claimed it was so good are doing the same. I mean: if the show is so good, shouldn’t they continue to write pieces about it like they regularly find some new reason to plug Community? Or is their idea of reassuring us that it’s “good” that they watched an episode, just to show they would…and then they drop it from their viewing schedule in favour of Go On or Parks and Recreation or what have you? Just a thought.
Anyway, back to that cultural identity thing.
I wonder if it may reflect an even deeper problem.
Because one thing (I think) I noticed in Seed is that the American references were more overt in episodes written by the series’ creator, Joseph Raso, than in episodes written by writers who live and work in Canada (including series co-developer, and Canadian sitcom veteran, Mark Farrell). Looking at Raso’s bio, though he’s Canadian, he’s lived in the States for a few years and even though he’s back, one can’t help but get the impression he sees Seed simply as his return ticket to the American market.
I remember a few years ago catching an interview with a Canadian celeb living in the States who innocently asked the Canadian reporter who was Canada’s current “president”! He’d only been living in the States a few years and had already forgotten Canada has a prime minister!
So is that what’s going on? Is it neither an artistic “vision”, nor commercial “necessity”…but simply that a lot of people working in the Canadian film and TV biz quite honestly don’t know any better? They either live full time in America, or are sitting slavishly by the mail box waiting for their green card, their dreams and fantasies revolving around Hollywood? So they only watch CNN (and Fox News!) rather than Newsworld. They subscribe to Time, not Maclean’s. And they devotedly read the Hollywood industry paper, Variety, but barely have a clue as to what things are in production down the street from them.
And are they really reflective of most Canadians?
The Rick Mercer Report is a reasonably popular TV show, bringing in somewhere around a million viewers a week (by comparison, I think Seed’s numbers have dropped below 200 000). There was a recent bit of Mercer spoofing the recent (semi-)controversy over how the Hollywood movie, Argo, down played Canadian involvement. So the bit was a mock commercial for a movie about Norman Bethune presenting him as though an American figure. So Mercer (and his crew) figured enough of their million (give or take) viewers knew who Norman Bethune was and had also been paying attention to the Argo debate. And those who didn’t would be astute enough to understand the joke from its context (in other words: they wouldn’t be embarrassed by a Canadian reference).
Now here’s the thing: even though I write a lot about Canadian culture and identity…I’m no expert. Lots of people know a lot more and in a lot more detail. And my knowing about Canada doesn’t preclude me knowing about other countries. Certainly when it comes to the United States I know as much as probably the average person. I have what would probably be considered an average amount of general knowledge about the world.
My knowledge of Canada doesn’t come from some exclusionary fanaticism to artificially boost my knowledge of this country and its history. It comes simply from the same education system any Canadian has had, and then not deliberately sticking my fingers in my ears and saying: “Nyah, nyah, I can’t heeearrr you,” at that world as I get older.
Which is why I find it bizarre watching all these Canadian movies and TV shows made by Canadians who don’t even seem to have the most rudimentary grasp of the world immediately outside their door.
And I was just thinking about people I know, conversations I’ve had.
No one in my immediate family has ever lived or worked or gone to university in the United States. Yet watching Canadian movies and TV shows, you’d swear there isn’t a Canadian alive who doesn’t have a sibling who resides in New York or California. Presumably that’s because if you’re a Canadian actor or filmmaker…many in your circle of friends and acquaintances live, have lived, or are planning on living in the U.S.
I have had relatives who have lived from one end of the country to the other…including the NWT.
Actually, I do have an aunt and uncle who have resided in various countries. They lived in New York…they also lived in London, England. Interestingly, when they tell colourful stories of living abroad…it tends to be of their time in England. Apparently — and this will no doubt shock many-a Canadian filmmaker — New York just wasn’t that interesting!
Which reminds me of a time I was talking to a guy who had vacationed in both Cuba and New York. He remarked that New York wasn’t a culture shock because the New York culture is “a lot like ours.” Get it? He didn’t say: “we’re a lot like America” (which I suspect is how most Canadian filmmakers would phrase it if they wrote such dialogue for a character into a script) he said “they’re a lot like us.” Canada was the baseline to which he was comparing America…not vice versa.
I have a cousin who proudly tells of being at a book signing by Timothy Findley and Findley complimenting the novelty pen she handed him to sign her book. I have a niece who decided to go to university in Nova Scotia simply because she had fallen in love with the landscape during a family visit. I had a neighbour who was working on a project about…D’Arcy McGee’s poetry! My mother hated grasshoppers ’cause she had grown up on the prairies and had bad memories of locust. My grandfather used to tell a story of having to draw upon his limited French while at a hospital because there was a little girl who only spoke French and they needed someone to calm her down. When I was a kid, my brother and I used to play with our action figures (that’s what boys call their dolls) and a recurring character we used in our scenarios was called Pierre Laporte…the name of a Quebec politician murdered in 1970. So, yeah, a bit creepy…but it shows we must have heard the name, subliminally, on the TV news or something. The world in which we lived was subconsciously incorporated into the world in which we lived.
And so on and so on.
None of these people are or were “rabid nationalists”. They could and can equally discuss American politics or British sitcoms. These little nuggets weren’t conjured up by them to demonstrate their Canadianness in some “embarrassing” way. It’s just part of their lives.
Lives lived without embarrassment in the Dominion we call Canada.
When you have Canadian filmmakers who seem to feel the only “right” name for a street is “Roosevelt”…what world do they live in? And are they happy there? ‘Cause, honestly, from my perspective looking in…it seems kind of cold and lonely — and somewhat embarrassing — if you live your whole life isolating yourself from the reality around you.