September 18, 2003

The B List

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Canadian TV strikes back

Highlander, Degrassi High, DaVinci’s Inquest, Cold Squad: these names might not be familiar to you, but north of the 49th parallel, everyone will know exactly what you mean. That’s right folks, I’m talking about Canadian TV, or, more specifically, pretty bad Canadian TV. It’s okay, I’m allowed to say most of it is horribly cheesy, melodramatic, and obviously shot on low quality film as I’m Canadian, and rather fond of these crappy shows. I’m willing to bet that quite a few of you have seen some of these programs really late at night, so late it’s actually very early in the morning. They do make for rather fulfilling late night selections, especially Highlander. Sigh, good old Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, doing battle with evil immortals, swashbuckling, having gratuitous sex with female gueststars (who never seem to live out the episode), and spending a good amount of time training with his shirt off. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But I digress. It’s fairly simple to separate Canadian TV shows from American ones, and I don’t mean the American shows that just happen to be shot in Canada because it’s cheaper. No, those aren’t Canadian; they just have a pretty background. The real Canadian shows have certain qualities that distinguish them from their American counterparts. Let me take you through a listing of these said qualities.

Weather

It looks like no one has had a nice, sunny day ever on that show. And since most Canadian TV shows are shot in Vancouver, it’s probably true. With all the rain that falls on the Pacific Coast of Canada, it’s a rare day when you can see the sun and not have a constant little drizzling downpour. Take for instance DaVinci’s Inquest, a show about a coroner in Vancouver. Every time I watch that show, everything is grey and rainy. Somehow the American shows shot in Vancouver seem to be able to bribe the weather into being sunny for them, like on Smallville. That’s what having an actual budget does, I guess.

Colour

No one wears any. Perhaps it’s to match the weather patterns, but it seems that on Canadian TV, no one wears anything other than black, black, and the occasion off-black grey. Since the budgets for these shows are so abysmally small compared to American shows, I think that they probably have a very limited wardrobe and figure that we won’t notice if characters are wearing the same clothes week after week if they’re all black and look the same anyway. Like on Highlander. Maybe Duncan really did have a pair of tight black jeans for every day of the week, but I’m betting probably not.

Actors

You see the same ones popping up everywhere. Peter Wingfield played Methos, the oldest known immortal on Highlander. After that, I saw him as a regular on Cold Squad and a slew of made-for-TV movies, like The Miracle of Cards, a gag-inducing, heart-warming affair starring reborn Christian Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame. It’s not even that these actors are particularly famous or anything, because though I can recognize them on TV, I sure don’t know their names. But the same group of about 20 seem to get the lead roles in almost everything. I guess that’s what comes from having a small population base: not a lot of shows to cast, and not a large variety of actors to cast in them.

It Just Feels Wrong

There’s no sense in denying it, there’s just this cheap, slightly off quality that clings to Canadian TV shows. You just know when you’re seeing one. Mostly it’s experience that lets you hone this wonderful super power, years and years of watching glossy, fast-paced American TV shows as compared to slower, dull Canadian shows. Cold Squad, a cop drama about the investigation of decades old cases, has been on Canadian TV since 1998 enjoying a small but faithful following comprised mostly of my Mum. This fall, one of the big new American shows being hyped for it’s semi-CSI plot is Cold Case, put together by Jerry Bruckheimer is pretty much a carbon copy of Cold Squad. I’m willing to bet that the plots of some of the episodes of Cold Case will be exactly the same as Cold Squad, but everyone will be dressed better, the actors will be younger and hotter, colour will be rampant, and the sun will shine down on them all.

None of this is to say that Canadian shows are better than American shows or vice versa. Rather, Canadians and Americans make TV shows that are very distinguishable from each other. Americans have cop dramas like Law & Order dealing with the gritty realities of life in New York City, and Canadians have cop dramas like Due South where we get to see Paul Gross dressed up as a Mountie. Americans have FBI dramas like Without a Trace where we see experts in action tracking down missing citizens, and Canadians have Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, based on the true story of a deaf woman who joins the FBI and all the wacky situations she gets into having a guide dog.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Canadian TV that sets it apart from its American counterpart is a self-deprecating sense of humour that permeates everything. It’s all tongue in cheek, knowledgeable of its shortcomings, but trying valiantly nonetheless to be a good show. It’s like the movie you made with your friends in high school: you knew it was crappy, you knew that the main basis of its appeal was novelty, but you loved it anyway. And that’s how it is with Canadian TV.

Archived article by Sue Karp

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