The Lost Art of Being Canadian (Part 2)

Okay…so last time I was revisiting a familiar pet peeve of mine, about the way certain Canadian storytellers tend to pretend their stories (settings, characters) aren’t Canadian…or present Canada in a rather dismissive, even contemptuous way. But that was really just a pre-amble to looking at the notion of whether, after years of this being in many ways the dominant creative vision in much of Canadian film and TV, it’s reached a point where even when Canadian movies and TV shows freely, happily admit they are Canadian…they no longer quite know what “Canada” is.  (And, yeah, I’m re-visiting a topic I pondered a few years ago in this essay — but it’s worth another look-see).

You rarely hear Canadian accents even in Canadian-Canadian series (French Canadian, maritime, even the infamous “eh?”). At least in those angling for an international market.

I was thinking about this because of a few things that blipped across my radar.

The recent crime-mystery TV series Endgame was set in a Vancouver hotel, and when money was occasionally flashed across the screen, it was Canadian currency. Yet in the dialogue itself, you’d rarely realize it was set in Canada — and would probably assume it was set in the U.S. Almost all the place names or points of origins for characters used were American (in one episode the hero engaged in a battle of wits with a villain half-way across the continent in Texas!) So even though it was, nominally, set in Canada…clearly to the filmmakers, they were more comfortable having American terms and place names come out of the characters’ mouths than Canadian ones.

The TV series The Listener started out as a big U.S. co-production, all set to conquer American airwaves, and though set in Canada, it was decidedly a soft, mumble-it-under-its-breath Canadian. Yet it failed to conquer the U.S. and was cancelled by its American network, yet has kept going on Canadian TV — and significantly, its second season has been far more boldly, proudly Canadian than its first. There is no doubt at all that the makers of the Listener are proud to be Canadian and don’t care who knows it.

Which makes it an interesting example of how awkwardly Canadian some things can be. That even when trying to be Canadian — even when they want to be Canadian — it’s a bit as if the filmmakers are no longer exactly sure how. Like a bird that has spent its whole life with its wings tied to its sides, suddenly finding itself free…but with no experience in how to actually fly.

Partly it relates to what I said about pop entertainment being derivative — story and concepts a writer use in his/her story because they saw them in another, previous story. So if you’ve sent your whole life watching American movie set in the U.S., that becomes the template for normal against which you trace your story.

So in one episode of The Listener, the heroes were investigating malfeasance at a political leadership convention — one explicitly set at a Conservative Party convention as opposed to making up some fictional party (told you they were proudly being Canadian). Yet the leadership race seemed to be between just two men — which was kind of weird. When was the last time in Canada a leadership convention only had two candidates? Heck, when was the last time a debate between different parties only had two candidates (there are at least five federal parties)?

Now, obviously, there were narrative and budget factors involved — the story only required two rival characters, and the episode’s budget probably didn’t allow for a bunch of extraneous characters that would only be there to fill out the background.

But I can’t help thinking another factor was that, to the makers of The Listener, two candidates squaring off against each other just seemed — well — right, normal, it had resonance…because they were thinking of the American political system where the defining image is, of course, of two candidates, representing two sides, squaring off against each other. Hence why in an earlier Canadian fantasy series, The Collector, which also admitted it was set in Canada, an episode involving political candidates also involved only two characters — when realistically in Canada you’d expect a race to involve representatives of at least three or four parties. It’s weird seeing just two candidates if your point of reference is Canada…it’s normal if your point of reference is the U.S.

In a later, also politically-themed episode of The Listener, we are introduced to a cabinet minister vehemently debating another politician on a TV panel show. Ah, one thinks, this is a bit more like it — resonating with the Canadian image (shared with America, of course) of all those TV news shows where politicians (and party hacks) debate the issues of the day with opposing party members. Except…then later in the episode, it is mentioned that the opposing politician on the TV show was jealous of the cabinet minister because he wanted her job. But why would a member of an opposition party have expected to get a cabinet posting with the government? Then, it turns out, he’s not from another party — but is a member of the same party as the cabinet minister.

And you’re left saying, um, really? Would a politician go on national television to bitterly debate a cabinet member of his own party? Wouldn’t that be career suicide? Besides, would a TV news show really host a “debate”…simply between two members of the same party?

Again, the obvious reason is narrative and budget. Canadian series, even when they look expensive, often don’t have the same operating budget as US series, which allow for a bigger pool of writers, and time and money to commission re-writes. So in the case of this episode, presumably they liked the idea of a TV debate…and wanted to have a motive for the antagonistic politician (the missed promotion) but didn’t want to have to introduce the character in a separate scene, or budget for more extraneous characters during the debate. In short, that aspect of the story seemed a bit dubious, but they didn’t have time or inclination or money to do any rewrites the way an American series might polish it up with a couple of new drafts.

But I can’t help thinking this is what I mean about Canadian filmmakers…kind of losing touch with the Canadian experience. And maybe drawing too much upon the American experience, where a scenario like that might not be as unlikely (where party loyalty isn’t as strictly enforced, and where cabinet posts, I believe, are drawn from a broader pool of candidates, so you might very well have a debate between two people who, despite their policy opposition, might nonetheless have been vying for the same post in the same administration).

In short, watching The Listener, there’s no doubt the filmmakers are trying hard to be Canadian…even as the series doesn’t always gel with the Canada most of us live in.

Things like this also came to light in press releases for a couple of up-coming Canadian series. Granted, since these are press releases, maybe the mistake lies with the PR people, and will not be reflected in the series’ themselves when they finally hit the airwaves.

But in one case, a new medical drama called Saving Hope is going to be set at a hospital called Hope-Zion, which the press release suggested will be nicknamed Hope-Zee by the characters. But zed is the Canadian pronunciation of the letter Z — zee is the American pronunciation. Why would characters in a Canadian city nickname their hospital Zee? I mean, how many U.S. series have characters refer to police detectives as “left-tenant” (as opposed to “loo-tenant”)?

Another case is an up-coming Canadian sci-fi series called Borealis, set in the Canadian north — this is significant because, as mentioned earlier (in the previous essay), though Canadians have been involved in a number of sci-fi and fantasy series over the years, few have actually admitted they were set in Canada (some fantasy and horror series like The Collector, Forever Knight and Blood Ties but I’m not sure any science fiction series). And in one press release, describing various characters in the ensemble cast, Mayko Nguyen (one of those actors who piques my enthusiasm a bit) is listed as playing a politician, the Secretary of Northern Initiatives. And one kind of goes — huh? I mean, I’ll freely admit I don’t know every in and out of Canadian politics, but I’m pretty sure in a Canadian political context, secretaries are the people you get from the typing pool. A Secretary, as a political high mucky-muck, is more of an American thing — in Canada, she’d be a Minister, or a Deputy-Minister.

Now maybe that was deliberate — maybe, since the story is set in the future, the makers were envisioning Canada as having adopted more American style terms. But then one might ask — why? Why, if you were making possibly the only set-in-Canada sci-fi TV series — ever — and breaking such momentous ground…why would you then choose to imagine a Canada that was more like America? For that matter, maybe there are “secretaries” like that in the Canadian political system (and I’m just ignorant of them) but, again it begs the question, why select that term when “minister” is the one more familiar to Canadians and the Canadian experience? The answer, presumably, would be the same reason so many politicians in Canadian movies and TV shows are “senators” — because it’s a term that is shared with the US. Because it seems…“right” to the makers. And anything too Canadian — that is, anything they aren’t used to seeing, or phrases they aren’t used to hearing, in American movies and TV shows — is “wrong”.

But more likely — the makers of Borealis just didn’t know any better.

Now, as I say — this might all be nothing more than a glitch in the press releases, a typo on the part of the secretaries — the real secretaries. Maybe when Saving Hope hits the air, the characters will refer to their place of business as Hope-Zed; maybe when Mayko Nguyen enters her first scene, she will be introduced as the Minister for Northern Initiatives. Maybe.

We’ll see.

As I say, maybe part of the problem is simply budget — Canadian series don’t have the money to research things the way American ones do, or to commission re-writes on scripts that need a little polishing. But it does seem as though American series have fewer of these sorts of problems than Canadian ones do — as if American writers are a little more familiar with their country than Canadian writers are with theirs. Can you imagine an episode of, say, “Law & Order” where they would refer to a politician as the Premier of New York?

Although — maybe I’m being a bit unfair. After all, American series have their share of mistakes, inaccuracies, and goofs. Like the pilot episode of the new horror series “Grimm” which enjoyed great ratings — but didn’t really make any sense (as it involved a monster/killer who eats a woman in the beginning — then later kidnaps a little girl and hides her in a special room he has pre-built in his basement…not exactly the same modus operandi). Or I recently caught an episode of the new US series “Franklin & Bash” — a kind of light hearted lawyer series. Now it is light-hearted, so maybe that is its own excuse. But the episode I saw, in which their senior partner (Malcolm McDowell) was arrested for murder…ended up being one of the lamest, most implausible plots I’ve seen in a long time, the solution hinging upon the idea that the prosecution went to trial…apparently before they had even finished the autopsy on the victim! (Which defies time as well as logic!) Like with Canadians series, it wasn’t anything that couldn’t have been fixed with a re-write or two. I just mention this to acknowledge that, yeah, American series sometimes seem a bit loosely plotted and unconnected from reality, too.

But it can be frustrating, when contemplating and debating the notion of Canadian identity and Canadian pop culture, that even when Canadian storytellers do make the effort to throw in Canadian elements they do so half-heartedly, contemptuously…or seeming with little understanding of the Canadian reality.

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One Response to The Lost Art of Being Canadian (Part 2)

  1. crispin237 says:

    Your Listener comments are nitpicking. You yourself mention the reasons they might have done them from a plot perspective. But your comments about the in-production series are a little more on-target. And does suggest television makers not entirely familiar with their own country!