The “Game Changers” of Canadian TV

I keep drafting essays I intend to post — but then a random comment in one will kind of drag my thoughts off in a whole new direction for a different piece altogether. This post ended up morphing out of something I was thinking of writing about the CBC’s recent TV movie adaptation of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — and I might get to posting that. But I got hung up on reading a comment from one of the actors in that movie, Peter Keleghan, who was proud of the film and suggested it was a “game changer” for Canadian TV.

Keleghan’s point, I think, was that the movie was (in his mind) so good, it was re-setting the bar for Canadian productions. Now, whether or not you liked Sunshine Sketches, I’m not really sure I would call it a “game changer” — indeed, if anything, it seemed like a bit of a throw back to the kind of period pieces the CBC used to do regularly. Sunshine Sketches was certainly relatively expensive, with a huge cast…but I’m not sure I saw it as re-setting any bars…or, indeed, what exactly that bar might be even if it had re-set it.

But it got me thinking — what were the “game changers”?

Looking back through Canadian TV, were there things we can point to that arguably influenced the productions that came after them? I don’t just mean they were good productions, or entertaining — heck, in some cases they might only be okay, in and of themselves — but you could make a strong case that if they hadn’t existed, the shape of future productions would’ve taken on a different form…or not existed at all. In some cases they might have influenced simply their particular era, in other cases, their influence might be on-going.

And that, too, springs out of a few other essays I was working on (and may still post) musing on the nature of Canadian culture, and pop cultural history — of acknowledging the present owes a tip of the hat to the past.

So here is a rundown of, arguably, 11 of the most influential productions in Canadian TV.

1) Wojeck — this mid-1960s CBC drama about a crusading coroner was important both as being one of the first hour-long dramas attempted on Canadian TV, but also in its blatant earnest-ness. Oh, sure, it did let its hair down with occasional “lighter” episodes that were more straight forward crime/mystery dramas, but there’s no doubt Wojeck saw its dramatic framework as an excuse to tackle hot button issues of the day. As such it arguably set the tone for many “social”-dramas that came after it — from McQueen, Sidestreet, The Manipulators, all the way up to Street Legal, DaVinci’s Inquest and even, possibly, the 1980s cop drama Night Heat which veered into “social issue” plots in a way that wasn’t altogether common for the U.S. cop series it was ostensibly emulating. (It should also be pointed out that most people would argue Wojeck also influenced the U.S. series, “Quincy“) Now, to be fair — “issue” dramas were not unknown before Wojeck, either in Canada or the U.S. and Britain. Indeed, an earlier CBC series, R.C.M.P., though I’ve only seen a bit of it, also seemed to have a kind of Wojeck-ian “gritty” edge, too. In fact, that attitude of drama having to be more than just entertainment was itself a product of the Canadian film tradition which had evolved out of a documentary more than a fiction background. What’s equally interesting is that Wojeck didn’t seem to inspire imitations of its “style” — its episodes often experimental, playing around with chronology, and flashbacks. Many subsequent Canadian series may’ve been inspired by Wojeck’s social earnestness…but tended to be done as more conventional TV dramas.

2) Street Legal (CBC) was arguably one of the first true populist TV drama successes in Canada. A lawyer series initially arising out of that Wojeck-mould to which I alluded, it premiered around the same time as the hit U.S. series L.A. Law — and though still keeping a toe on its socially earnest roots, it was gradually re-shaped more in the style of that Hollywood series, with a greater emphasis on the soap opera of its characters, and faster-paced plots, with multiple stories per episode (as opposed to the first season where each episode tended to focus on a particular partner in the firm) and it became more and more popular and ran a number of years. And I can’t help thinking its success led to subsequent ensemble dramas and “professional” drama series inparticular (ie: series about professionals in a work place) — most notably CTV’s ENG (in which we also had an “ensemble” that was fronted by a woman — a rarity in the 1980s — and in which a sub-plot had her romantically involved with a “younger” hot headed Italian-Canadian hunk…just like Street Legal had done). And, of course, in its turn ENG may have influenced The Eleventh Hour.

3) Night Heat (CTV) may have influenced the direction of Canadian TV in a number of ways. Although initially dismissed by some critics as just an American-style cop drama…maybe that was the point. Despite a certain social earnestness (that maybe lingered from the days of Wojeck) it was a fast-paced, hard-boiled mystery-drama of wailing sirens, and occasional shoot outs that shook off the stodgy image that Canadian TV had and maybe more than anything before it proved Canadians could do pulpy entertainment when they put their minds to it, and could pull it together — in terms of writing, editing, direction, etc. It was also probably the first successful Canada-U.S. TV co-production (there had been others, but usually only lasting a season or two) even proving a programming centre piece for CBS in the States when they were airing a series of first run dramas in a post-primetime slot (their Crime Time After Prime Time block) and so it proved the viability of such efforts and it could be argued essentially paved the way for every co-production since then. Ironically, Night Heart was an all-Canadian production in terms of the stars, the scripts, the directors, whereas many later co-productions would hire American actors to star, and often with scripts (or at least script editors) hired from Hollywood.

4) Due South (CTV) took Night Heat’s ball and ran with it by taking the co-production template and moving it to the next level of prime time U.S. network TV. And just as Night Heat arguably proved Canadians could make credible American-style crime-dramas, likewise, Due South took it one step further by offering an “expensive” American style action-drama, with car chases, stunts, leaps from windows — not to mention slickly presented comic banter and interplay. I’m not sure Canadian TV had seen anything quite as professionally slick as Due South before. Previous series had proven Canada could make things as good as the Americans, as long as they stayed within certain parameters — Street Legal as basically a talking head drama, Night Heat which made a certain low-budgetness a necessary part of a its gritty, street-level atmosphere. Adderly was an action-comedy with stunts and fights…but it had a certain low-budget look to it. But Due South was pure Hollywood panache — and done about a guy wearing red serge! And it became a true international success, with a fandom to this day. And, if you want to talk about “game changers”, it basically re-positioned Paul Gross (already a leading man, but in parochial Canadian productions) as a populist star, who has gone on to be a significant film actor and director in Canada…stuff that probably wouldn’t have happened for him if he hadn’t starred in Due South. Admittedly, Due South’s influence on actual programs was more limited — the short lived action-comedy, Taking the Falls, and the TV movie would-be pilot, Love on the Run, being examples of programs that were probably inspired by it (mismatched-buddy action/comedies). But they weren’t successful, and Due South ultimately did not kick off a trend of similar series.

5) North of 60‘s (CBC) influence is, in a sense, almost more culturally profound than any other production on this list. I mean, sure, it was a slick, night time drama — arguably building on the ensemble drama tone of Street Legal, but anticipating the Hollywood-style gloss and confidence of Due South. And for a number of years after it went off the air, it was maybe beginning to look as though it would also be remembered as the last successful all-Canadian TV drama (but the current crop of drama series are finally starting to show healthier ratings). It wasn’t the first Canadian drama set in the wintery north (the high school drama 9B was there ahead of it) but one could argue it helped show that Canadian drama didn’t all have to be set in American-style big cities. But that’s not why I say it was culturally profound. No, arguably its biggest influence was being a drama set on an Indian Reserve. In a way, maybe the fact that we almost don’t think of that as being so significant is a good sign…but make no mistake — it was astonishingly unprecedented. North American Television had seen nothing like it before. Certainly I don’t think there had ever been something like it on U.S. TV, where Native roles were rare. Critics initially compared North of 60 to the U.S. series Northern Exposure, but Northern Exposure was about white characters with a few token, quirky Indians flirting about the peripheries. So in that sense, maybe North of 60’s roots date back to the days of The Forest Rangers, Adventures in Rainbow County and The Beachcombers which helped establish the idea of Native characters as being a legitimate part of Canadian drama in a way they weren’t in American TV. And there was the precedent of a predominantly Native cast with the youth-aimed series Spirit Bay. But an adult-aimed, expensive, prime time network drama about Native Indians? And even though North of 60 introduced us to the setting through the eyes of a white character (a mounty transferred to the area), it was an ensemble cast, the Native characters driving their own storylines, as much the leads as any of the (few) white characters. It helped make recognizable stars out of Tom Jackson, Tina Keeper, and the late Gordon Tootoosis. Perhaps equally it helped break Native Indian roles out of the archetypes of “wise old shaman” and “angry young renegade” and just let them be people in all their grey shade permutations. Would there have been The Rez, or Moccasin Flats, or Cashing In, or Blackstone, or even the current CBC drama, Arctic Air (with its large contingent of Native characters) without North of 60? Heck, would the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network have gotten off the ground if North of 60 hadn’t both galvanized the Native audience with an enthusiasm to see themselves on TV, and equally proving that Native-focused dramas could grab even a white audience? Well, consider this: since North of 60 aired, there have been, as mentioned, a number of Native dramas on Canadian TV, and Arctic Air boasts not just a number of Native actors in its mixed cast, but even as its top billed star. In that same time period…has there been even one comparable American series? Of course, CTV and Global haven’t really stepped up to the plate, either.

6) In a similar vein, was the CBC’s Codco. On one hand, it was just another sketch comedy series — arguably a little influential, and lasting longer than many sketch comedies that came before. But it certainly wasn’t the first sketch comedy on Canadian TV, nor even the first controversial one (heck, back in the 1960s, I think Nightcap raised a few eyebrows). But like North of 60, it perhaps changed the game by virtue of its ethnicity — by being a Newfoundland sketch comedy. Prior to it, I don’t think there had ever been a Canadian TV series set on the East Coast, and precious few motion pictures. And bear in mind, this was still around the time of “Newfie” jokes — so to have a bunch of Newfoundland comics blast on to prime time with their accents intact and proving as biting, and caustic, and edgy as anyone else, perhaps re-set people’s perceptions of the whole East Coast (I think it was actually shot in Nova Scotia). Not only did it, of course, lead to the long running This Hour Has 22 Minutes, but I’m pretty sure it helped establish the East Coast as a viable production centre for TV and motion pictures, directly and indirectly clearing a path for everything from the sci-fi drama Lexx, to the Trailer Park Boys, to the current action-comedy, Republic of Doyle.

7) Anne of Green Gables was a cultural touchstone long before its early 1980s TV mini-series, but still that particular CBC production set the style for the next few years. Writer/director Kevin Sullivan had already made one or two family dramas, with little wide impact, before he adapted L.M. Montgomery’s classic to the small screen, in the process making lead Meghan Follows a minor star. And for the next few years Sullivan was a giant of Canadian TV, with series like Road to Avonlea, Wind at My Back, and even limited series like By Way of the Stars, even gaining emulators (that surest sign of influence) with series like Emily of New Moon. In fact, family dramas seemed to be one of the CBC’s surest ways to ratings success for a number of years. But times change, executives get replaced with new guys with new vision, and the Sullivan school seemed to fall out of fashion a bit, but that doesn’t deny the significance Anne and Sullivan had for a number of years. Indeed, although the current CBC drama, Heartland, isn’t stylistically cut from the same cloth, the fact that the CBC is once more airing a hit “family” drama in the 7:00 PM Sunday timeslot once held by those old shows maybe suggests an influence still.

8) 8) The Degrassi series (CBC/CTV/MuchMusic) — and no, I have no idea why there’s a smiley face there, but I can’t get rid of it! — are perhaps the most significantly influential un-influential productions in Canadian TV. I mean, the series began in the 1980s as The Kids of Degrassi Street, went through various variations as the cast aged (climaxing in Degrassi High), before stopping…but remaining memorable enough to even warrant references in American films (like those by Kevin Smith). Then the series was revised — this time shaking off the on-the-cheap, cinema verite style of the originals for a slicker, more American style Beverly Hills 90210 vibe and is still going a decade or so later. I mean — you can’t argue with that, a series (at least in name) that has run, off and on, for over three decades! And certainly, there are few Canadians who if you refer to “Degrassi” wouldn’t know it was a teen-aimed TV series. Yet the reason I suggest it may not be that influential (after all, the point of my list) is because I’m not sure how much it affected other shows — but certainly there have been other Canadian teen dramas, ranging from Madison, Edgemont, Northwood, and Renegade Press. Would they have existed without Degrassi to set the tone? Maybe not. And Degrassi was certainly edgy and controversial, some episodes dealing with such hot button topics that they were dropped from airing in markets in the United States (though it rarely caused a fuss in Canada) and that “edgy”-ness might well have influenced other Canadian teen dramas to stray outside the safety zones in which comparable American series play. So Degrassi is a significant pin we can put in the map of Canadian TV.

9) Flashpoint (CTV) follows in the path of Night Heat and Due South, so in that sense one could quibble about its significance — but I think it still warrants its own place as a “game changer”. Initially greenlit as simply a Canadian cop-drama, American executives came sniffing around during a Hollywood writers strike, hoping to find some new shows that they could produce that wouldn’t violate union rules — and Canadian writers and crews weren’t part of the American strike. So a co-production deal was struck. But where Flashpoint was different from most previous Canada-U.S. co-productions was that they were either set in the U.S., or set in an anonymous Anytown, North America, or worked the dual nationality into the story, either about an American in Canada, or a Canadian in America. But Flashpoint was set in Canada with no especial effort to work in some kind of American presence into the story. And unlike almost all those previous series (with the exception of Due South) it found a spot on American network primetime. It proved a ratings success, and immediately led to a number of subsequent primetime co-productions, many, like it, more-or-less admitting they were set in Canada with Canadian actors, writers, directors, etc. One could even make the argument that the ratings success of many of these Hollywood-backed shows, in Canada, helped revitalize the Canadian TV industry, leading to the recent crop of Canadian dramas — even those without U.S. partners — winning solid audience numbers.

10) The irony about The Newsroom (CBC) when it premiered was that a few naysayers simply dismissed it as a “rip-off” of the U.S. cable series, The Larry Sanders Show. And there’s no doubt it shared a stylistic similarity — but I’m not sure I would call that a rip-off. I mean, in film and TV (and art in general) that’s how mediums evolve, someone does something first, and others pick up on it. If they didn’t…we’d still be watching black & white silent movies shot from still cameras. And though the two series shared a similar style — no laugh track, and shot like a drama — and both were media satires, they weren’t the same idea. Larry Sanders was about the apolitical behind-the-scenes antics of a Tonight Show-like celebrity interview series, with the main character the host. The Newsroom was about a TV news show, making it a far more provocative political satire, with its main character the behind-the-scenes producer. You might as well claim Republic of Doyle is a “rip off” of Magnum PI because they’re both about private eyes who live on an island (and believe me, there are people who will claim that — but to most of us, you need a few more specific parallels to cry rip-off). And at that point, I’m not sure network TV in either Canada or the U.S. had seen anything like it (Larry Sanders being a cable series) — I suppose an advantage to the fact that the CBC, and to a lesser extent even Canadian private networks, are often a little more open to off-beat programming than U.S. networks. And it seems funny to accuse the Newsroom of ripping off The Larry Sanders Show…when nowadays it seems half the sitcoms out there use a similar drama/pseudo-documentary style. Anyway, The Newsroom proved a surprise commercial and critical hit at a point when Canadian sitcoms had become an endangered species and it ended up shaping the look, tone and even subject matter (many comedies set within media organizations) of many Canadian sitcoms that followed. Creator/star Ken Finkleman himself became his own little mini-factory, churning out a number of subsequent series. One could even argue it influenced even less stylistically similar series — like Corner Gas, which though a conventional sitcom in tone, nonetheless was shot without a laugh track and on location, rather than before a studio audience. Now to be fair, that had already been tried earlier — with the later seasons of the sitcom Material World. But Material World didn’t really seem to have any immediate influence on the programs of its era, whereas the post-Newsroom series followed quickly on its heels. Granted, many of these series didn’t last too long, but I can’t help thinking that without The Newsroom, there wouldn’t have been a lot of subsequent Canadian sitcoms (from Made in Canada to Twitch City to Big Sound)…or they’d have been done in a significantly different style (including recent shows like Mr. D, Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, and even InSecurity). The Newsroom may also have started the trend of actors creating vehicles for themselves, as many subsequent sitcoms (and even some dramas like Republic of Doyle) are created by their stars…in a significantly greater proportion than, for example, American series. Again, The Newsroom wasn’t the first (Seeing Things was created by its star) but it was the first that was so clearly at the front of a trend.

11) And what about CTV’s Corner Gas? Its artistic influence is a little harder to quantify (though the setting of a small prairie town was recycled for the subsequent Little Mosque on the Prairie) but it was probably the biggest, most successful Canadian series of its day, and pumped a shot of adrenaline into the failing heart of Canadian comedy (that had begun to fade away again after The Newsroom briefly kick started it). One could argue the fact that we even have had recent Canadian sitcoms is partly attributable to Corner Gas’s success. Not just that, but writers who worked on Corner Gas have gone on to show run subsequent sitcoms. Though its long term influence is yet to be determined — many of the sitcoms not doing that well, with even those fronted by ex-Corner Gas stars being cancelled after a couple of seasons.

Now as I said at the beginning, I was trying to suggest “game changers” — series that shaped and influenced Canadian TV. I wasn’t necessarily saving these were the “best” series, or that there weren’t equally good, or even better series…but they might not have been as influential. So what are some honourable mentions?

Well, the 1970s sitcom King of Kensington was probably English-Canada’s first successful sitcom, and star Al Waxman was probably recognized as “Larry King” to the day he died. So it was culturally significant…I’m just not sure it had much influence, in the sense of paving the way for other shows, or starting a trend within Canadian comedy. Although there are always behind the scenes influences, in that a story editor on King of Kensington was writer-actor Louis Del Grande…and one assumes Del Grande’s efforts on King of Kensington led to CBC brass okaying him to create and star in the subsequent Seeing Things. Now there’s a worthy honourable mention — Seeing Things was arguably one of the best and brightest Canadian series of its era, a witty mystery-comedy about a psychic reporter. It was a great show…I’m just not sure it had much impact on later series (although the number of subsequent Canadian mystery series about some sort of special, or even super powered, detective — in a country not always prone to “fantastical” TV — maybe owes something to Seeing Things…including the current The Listener about a psychic medic!)

Little Mosque on the Prairie may well go down in Canadian history as a cultural milestone — a sitcom about small town Muslims in North America, and where they were the main characters (as opposed to being about, say, a WASP hero befriending some “alien” Muslims) it smashed ratings records with its premiere and garnered international attention. Like North of 60 before it, it perhaps showed Canadian audiences were more open to pluralistic heroes and environments than you might expect…or might expect on an American network. But its creative influence is less apparent — in themes, or style, or diverse ethnicity. Sure, its brown heroes might have led Global to experiment with its black sitcom, Da Kink in My Hair, but in general, the jury’s still out on whether the future of Canadian sitcoms will be influenced by Little Mosque.

There have been series that ran for a few years, and have their fans — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were “game changers”. Made in Canada ran years…but it was just following The Newsroom’s lead. The big city drama, Traders, has its fans, and certainly it had some technical influence in that for a while after it, directors and writers would often heavily reference it in their resumes…but it arguably was just reading from the Street Legal play book, without any particular signature moves of its own that we can definitively say shaped future series. Trailer Park Boys was certainly a cult hit, and even spawned successful motion pictures — but I don’t think it has especially influenced or re-shaped Canadian TV (maybe its coarse, profanity laden scripts pointed a direction for Rent-a-Goalie and others…although even then, Canadian series with coarse language had been around before).

Now if you want to talk about a series that should’ve been a “game changer” we could look at Slings & Arrows, the comedy-drama set at a theatre festival. In terms of sheer professionalism and panache, I’m not sure Canadian TV has ever produced anything to beat it — particularly its first season. A Robert Altman-esque dramady — but Altman at his pinnacle, like Nashville or something — done as a weekly series, Slings & Arrows was refreshing, edgy, sure footed, and deliciously complex and ambitious (though I did think each of its three seasons was a little less effective than the one before). But even though it easily warrants a place as one of the best things done for Canadian TV…I’m just not sure I can point to any obvious influence it has had, so far.

We can point to influences and mini-trends — I was thinking of mentioning the CBC mini-series Love and Hate, which landed a spot on American primetime and begat a brief mini-boom of Canadian made (and set!) TV movies and mini-series on American network TV — including Conspiracy of Silence and Million Dollar Babies. Or there was Douglas Bowie’s various pulpy historical dramas on the CBC in the 1980s — which you can hear an echo of in Global’s current hit, Bomb Girls. And one could argue that the dark Durham County was foreshadowed by the limited series Dice. Then there’s The Lost Girl (an all-Canadian fantasy series) which was arguably greenlit thanks to the success of Sanctuary (another all-Canadian fantasy series) and Sanctuary sprang out of StarGate (the actors and writers using their popularity from that series to get Sanctuary into production) and the various StarGate series totalled 3 live action series (and I think an animated one)…but StarGate itself arose out of the co-production trend that, arguably, began with Due South and, before that, Night Heat. So although we can point to its influence…I’m not sure if “game changer” is quite the appropriate designation. Without StarGate, people like Amanda Tapping (Sanctuary) and Michael Shanks (set to star in the upcoming Saving Hope) wouldn’t have become stars…but I’m just not sure the overall course of Canadian TV would necessarily be any different without it — or whether something else would’ve merely arisen to take its place.

Anyway, so there we have it — a little meander through Canadian TV history and looking at the key players (kind of like Max the 2000 Year Old Mouse — say, now there’s an important Canadian touchstone!) Did I miss some obvious ones? Did I overstate the importance of others. Yeah, maybe — but still, I think it provides some food for thought.

This entry was posted in Canadian film and TV. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The “Game Changers” of Canadian TV

  1. Peter Keleghan says:

    I read your piece here and found it interesting to note that your ‘game changers’ were primarily from the past. My point exactly. What has occured to me is that we have , in recent years, been so dumbed down in programming by lowest common denominator TV (I’m not including specialty channels here) that Sunshine Sketches was, by far smarter, wittier, more thought provoking, and more representative of Canadian sensibilities than anything Snookie or a Bachelor has given us. The latter I like to call ‘fast food culture’ : cheap, fast, glitzy, addictive but ultimately un-nourishing and unhealthy. Sunshine Sketches changed THAT game! Watchable by all, representative of us, and no spoon needed for a little enlightenment.
    Peter Keleghan

    • Administrator says:

      Firstly — thanks for commenting. And I suppose I maybe (mis)appropriated your “game changing” phrase as a segue for my own purposes, tying into some thoughts I’ve had about Canadian pop culture not (to my mind) maybe acknowledging its past, nor always recognizing that the paths that are being walked now were blazed by a previous generation. And in that sense, my examples were in the past because it’s hard to say if something changed the game until time has passed to better access any impact it might have had. Personally I wasn’t as fond of Sunshine Sketches as you (but then, my opinion and a looney will buy a cup of coffee), but it was certainly a perfectly respectable production — however, I just meant that in style or content I didn’t necessarily see it as having radically re-set any templates. And, for the purposes of my essay, “quality” alone wasn’t necessarily what I would define as a game changer (though you’ll get no argument from me about the merits — or lack thereof — of reality TV!)