Sunday, December 28, 2008

Train In Vain... (Or How Canadian TV Drama Got Derailed Over The Past Ten Years) (Reprint)

This post was from back in August, and probably stirred the pot as much as Uninflected Images is capable of doing. Definitive Canadian TV drama series since 2000...what do you think?


I have been following with interest the thread that began at Anthony Strand's Live Journal and then continued at Weinman's TV Guidance where they've been discussing...what is the definitive TV show of the past decade?

First off, how do you define definitive? Does that mean greatest, most popular, coolest, hippest, most influential...? I suppose it's a bit of 'all of the above, and as Weinman explains, that doesn't necessarily mean best show, but one that best embodies TV and TV trends over the past (almost) 10 years.

Between Strand/Weinman and the commenters I would say they've covered all the possible candidates pretty well. Strand chose one drama and one comedy...and singling out Arrested Development as the definitive comedy of the 2000's(?) made a lot of sense (though I would award a tie between it and the UK's The Office). And while I'm not sure if Angel stands up as the decade's 'definitive' drama, Strand makes a solid case. Lost, House, 24, CSI, and The Sopranos all deserve consideration, and I still wouldn't exclude Survivor or American Idol (they may not be drama drama, but they sure come very close to 'defining' the TV decade as far as I'm concerned).

At any rate, one thing I took away was the lack of one show standing out...a single program/ series from the past nine years that was entertaining and popular yet also managed to encapsulate the mood, mindset, ambiance, and personality of the decade --- like The X Files or Buffy or Seinfeld or Friends did in the 90's.

Perhaps it's due to there being so many good series out there of late. Or that viewer fragmentation has expanded to such a degree that it's almost impossible for one show/series to stand out. Anyway, go check out those posts --- what I wanted to put on the table is....

....what might be the definitive Canadian series/show of the decade?

Again, comedy seems to be a little easier to nail...a toss up between Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys in my opinion. They both were popular enough to be known by most people of this country (whether you 'liked' them or not isn't really part of the equation)...but they also in their own way defined us as gentler simpler and slightly snarkier people/neighbours to the north of the monolith that is the USA.

But drama...not so easy.

In trying to determine a shortlist, I searched long and hard. Series like The Eleventh Hour or This Is Wonderland or Intelligence were quality but didn't quite attain the necessary 'popularity' factor. Cold Squad and Divinci's Inquest were popular and ran well into the 2000's, but both began airing in 1998 (and one of the criteria seems to be that the series began airing by or at least roundabouts 2000).

Stargate: SG1 or at least it's spinoff Stargate: Atlantis were certainly long-running and popular enough to warrant consideration. And as far as 'defining' us, service producing US programming is certainly high on the list of things we do as an industry...and the Stargates' definitely fall into that category (which is kind of an unfair rap against them because even though the vast majority of cast, crew, writers, showrunners are Canadian, it's primary investors and broadcasters have been American - MGM and US's Showtime and then SciFi channel). Thus, most people up here don't perceive them as distinctly 'Canadian' shows, so I moved on.

Degrassi: Next Generation has been around most of the decade, so it should be a nominee...but it's a half hour drama and the second incarnation (or is it 3rd?) of a series (Degrassi Jr. High) that probably defined us in the 1980's....tell me we've come at least some ways since then, please? In fact, the whole teen/tween/kids arena could certainly define recent Canadian TV to a large extent...there have been countless series/programs of that ilk quite successful in their own right in this category. But the defining show? Nope, can't go there.

Slings & Arrows, Regenesis, Durham County, The Collector, Blood Ties, Mutant X, Blue Murder, The Border, Whistler, Falcon Beach...were all either too new or short-lived or too niche/genre to be serious contenders (but feel free to disagree with me).

All in all, I said "damn!"'s been a pretty miserable run for Canadian dramatic TV.

Which leads me to my choice for definitive Canadian TV show/series of the decade... Train 48.

Now I know I'm probably going to get called down for naming this show...but for me, Train 48 encapsulated all that Canadian TV has for the most part been since the devastating CRTC decisions of 1999. You know, the changes that decimated the indigenous industry and killed a lot of dramatic TV production by allowing broadcasters to fulfill its Canadian content mandates and quotas with news magazine, arts and entertainment, lifestyle, and reality programming.

A quick recap. The time was 2002/2003. I'd just moved back from LA to Canada, and sussing out what was going on and getting made up here...and truth was, not very much. And then I heard about this new series from CanWest Global. Under pressure to start producing more homegrown TV, specifically drama, and in order to fulfill it's conditions of license and meet CRTC mandated expectations, the network bought into an Australian soap format called Going Home and transplanted it to Toronto. Set entirely on a Go Train, it told the story of a group of commuters each day returning to the suburbs and surrounding communities from downtown Toronto. Largely improvised from outlines (so full writer/script fees wouldn't have to be paid), it was notorious for it's bargain-basement production values and mediocre performances. Shot on the episode a day - it was, in short, embarrassing.

And it ran for 3 years.

EDIT: H/T to Weinman for finding a clip (and don't take this whole write up as a knock against the crew or actors or creatives on the show as much as to hammer home the sad fact that this was considered acceptable drama by the network)

Check out some of the negative comment threads on for starters, just to get a taste of the disdain people had for this program. And the WGC had a 'behind the scenes' piece on the program HERE, which helps give the lay of the land. From the article:

Global denies picking up the series to meet Canadian content obligations on the cheap. "It costs less per episode, but the volume makes it more expensive," says Loren Mawhinney, vice president of Canadian productions. "Sixty-five episodes cost over $6 million, compared to $3.25 million for all 13 hours of Blue Murder."

Mawhinney calls Train 48 an "out-of-the-box way of creating drama," and says Global hopes to use it to lure advertisers in an increasingly fragmented marketplace. The network also wants the independence of making shows without any direct government funding.

Most of us called 'bullshit', not that it really mattered what we said. From the same article:
Tim Woods of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting says Global has no excuse for not investing in high-budget dramas. "Simultaneous substitution–putting Canadian commercials on popular American shows–is worth an enormous amount of money to broadcasters. It's a gift in exchange for investing in Canadian shows," he says.

Woods suggests broadcasters hoodwinked the CRTC by establishing a "trust policy" in 1999 that leaves it up to them how to fill time allotted for Canadian programming, rather than requiring them to invest a revenue percentage in Canadian shows.

Also true. Not that it mattered what the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting said.

For me, Train 48 embodied Canadian TV and TV trends of the past decade....cheaply produced programming with the primary mandate to fulfill quotas and mandates, NOT to make popular and entertaining hits of high or at least decent quality. The network, and the government and regulatory bodies overseeing the networks/industry really didn't seem to care. And it had a profoundly negative effect on the industry, at least in my in, if this was the kind of crap that a major broadcaster wanted to throw its weight and energy and money (pittance that it was) behind...was there any point? Was there any hope for us?

From friends, relatives, American colleagues, I heard more negative comments about Train 48 than any other Canadian show produced over the past decade...and every conversation went the same way: have you seen it? did you work on it? isn't it, laughable? And then the that the best you guys in Canadian TV can do?

It was tough to argue with them. And the resulting feeling was really demoralizing and depressing...not so much because we couldn't do better for the networks, but because the networks didn't really appear to want 'better'. Train 48 was 'good enough' it seemed, and we've been paying for and trying to live that down for the past four years.

That said, there has been a recent trend to at least try to return to more engaging quality dramatic TV (though having the US as a partner seems to be a necessary criteria). And, even if just through pilots, there's also been an attempt to make more of it...drama, that is. But still...

...we were off the rails for quite a while.


goooooood girl said...

i like your blog......

Will P said...

I had done a lot to forget this show. Unfortunately you reminded me of it's existence.