Sunday, August 10, 2008

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

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.

Definitive Canadian TV show of the past decade...what do you think?


morjana said...

Hi, Will.

Wow...only for the past decade?

I admit freely, I'm hampered by the fact I'm writing from Calif., and have had access to just a few Canadian TV series that have been syndicated in the US.

My first Canadian TV production love was 'Due South.' What a charming, lovely, entertaining series that was.

However, I was fascinated with DaVinci's Inquest. I think DaVinci's (especially the earlier seasons) were more superb than even CSI's earlier seasons.

However, my favorite series are Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. They truly are an example of the quality that Canadian production is capable of -- especially given the smaller budgets they work compared to American TV series.

Thank you for an interesting topic!

Best wishes, Morjana

Anonymous said...

I believe there is one show out there that sums up Drama, comedy and the Canadian woes of fitting in, that show is Kenny Vs. Spenny. Ad libbed like Train 48, low life like Trailer Park and way funnier than Corner Gas. It really embodies all the shows only better and somehow struggles on. I can't wait for Christmas when Season 4 comes out on DVD and I'll have time to watch the show again.

RixelStudios said...

You Wrote:

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 some ways since then, please?

I write:

The more things change the more things stay the same.

DMc said...

Yes, and a rolling stone gathers no moss.

Also, Will, and I believe this sums things up with even more piquance:

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.

twice on the pipes, if the answer is no.

Now that is wisdom.

Ken said...

I couldn’t agree more, Will. Train 48 is the definitive “Canadian” drama of the decade. It is also exactly what the CRTC (read: broadcasters) wanted. At a DGC AGM in Ottawa some years ago a panel discussion among some industry principals was held. Among the VIP's, the CRTC's Andre Wylie. Her comment on the state of Canadian drama (this is five or so years ago), 'Train 48 is the kind of show we're good at. We can't hope to compete with big-budget American dramas. We should play to our strengths.' I paraphrase her, but her prophetic notions of what Canadian drama would become are borne out in your appraisal. Woe is us.

wcdixon said...

Thanks Ken...and Tony Orlando rules.

I really thought this post would get more suggestions than 'Kenny vs. Spenny', or at least inspire some good debate/discussion.

No one cares.

Anonymous said...

You said it Will the sad reality of Canadian TV "No Body Cares". Maybe Train 48 is the best example. Ouch. Maybe you can answer my questions, why would we settle for this? Do we blame broadcasters and the CRTC for making us lame and unable to grow? If we have the talent and resources how many shows would get made in a year? Why can't we make something great and cheap?

DMc said...

Sorry, Will -- I hate to say it but there's part of me that thinks you're right, but the other part of me has another candidate, or two:

Corner Gas -- because I think it's Canadians as they like to see themselves. A little corny, silly, but good natured and deadpan in the face of ridiculousness. Nobody hurting anybody, people just getting along.

DaVinci's Inquest, especially in those early years (even though you disqualify it a bit for starting in the 90's) showed Vancouver as we feared it.

And Intelligence is fiercely defended by the Canadian equivalent of WIRE viewers because it's exquisitely cynical about the machinations of the "good" guys.

But I think you can also make a case for Mercer. Jocular, folksy, seemingly naughty but also kind of safe.

At least he's a bonafide TV star. That's a start, right?

wcdixon said...

Thanks Denis for playing...yeah I mentioned Corner Gas, but for comedy's the dramatic series that's a harder nut to crack.

But thanks for mentioning Mercer (The Rick Mercer Report)...I had forgotten him and 22 Minutes (though 22 M has been around too long to qualify) - but hoped Farrell would chime in and beat his drum.

Have to disagree with 'Intelligence'...good but just not around long enough to count as definitive for the decade - that'd be sort of like honouring 'Firefly', which only ran 16 eps or something but everyone still has a hard on for.

And thanks for the questions 'm'... will mull on them.

DMc said...

there's also the interesting structural problem you raise...the early oughts, being the decade to come right out of the 1999 drama-killing CRTC giveback to the nets hasn't really had enough long running shows to challenge Train 48.

That show might have been cynically executed (from the network side I mean, not those who worked on it) but if there aren't challengers, it's because the CBC took the step of turfing a couple of "didn't catch fires" along the way.

There's two years left in the decade. So time to see. I would boldly predict, though, that if Little Mosque Ran Two More years, you could make a case for it, too. Still not a drama. Therein lies the rub, eh?

wcdixon said...

The rub indeed. Think back to some Cdn dramas that have defined other decades: 'The Beachcombers' or 'The Littlest Hobo' in the 70's & 80's; 'Night Heat' or 'Street Legal' in the late 80's; 'ENG' or 'North of 60' or 'Traders' or 'Psi Factor' (note the tongue in cheek accompanying that last one) in the 90's...that's what I'm looking for. And forgoing some show like those programs, 'Train 48' and all it symbolizes still wins, IMO.

Diane Kristine Wild said...

It's so hard to wrap my head around "definitive" and separate it from "best" or "most popular."

For comedy it seems easy - Corner Gas or Trailer Park Boys would get my vote too. I never saw Train 48 but it's hard to argue with your reasoning. For drama I'd have said Da Vinci's Inquest at first, except you ruled it out as not really being of this decade ... and on further reflection it's perhaps the most pervasive, but it stands out for being the popular, quality exception to Canadian drama rather than defining the genre.

The Stargates I didn't know for the longest time WERE Canadian, which maybe shouldn't disqualify them from being my choice but I can't wrap my head around how something most Canadians don't think of as Canadian defines Canadian drama. That doesn't seem to represent what the decade was about either - there were a lot of attempts to do shows that were definably Canadian, if not far from US models.

Maybe the sad fact is the sample size of Canadian drama in the 2000s is too small for any one show to be definitive of the trends of the decade. It's hard to spot a trend when you only have a few disparate things in front of you. Since I have no alternative and haven't heard a good one, I'll give you Train 48, Will ... just don't make me watch it.

RixelStudios said...

For clarification for those too polite to ask:

Degrassi: TNG hasn't changed from its predecessors, that much is obvious, but then again you also have to look at its target demographic. Regardless of who actually ends up watching the show, the show is aimed at teenagers who are going to go through the same physical/emotional/spiritual problems, regardless of what year we are in. So, then, if one is making the claim that Degrassi Junior High defined the 80's in Canada then I think it would be useful to ask someone twenty or thirty years your senior if they considered Degrassi to have defined the television generation of the 80's. If they said yes then, given who Degrassi is aimed at, I would take a stab and say it does define Canada today as well as it did then - or at least one of the so-called key demographics.

As far as that goes though, perhaps a more likely candidate is Canadian Idol. Again, if the argument is made that American Idol is a proper representation of American television then it isn't a far reach to say Canadian Idol represents Canadian television, especially given the current (general) trend where everything the US does on television Canada attempts to copy (and, in the case of Canadian Idol, with some decent success).

The final point then, if Train 48 is what represents Canadian television, the only thing I can find wrong with your arguments is that it is distinctly from an insiders perspective. The most the Canadian film and television industry has received attention, from the public eye, has been with Bill C-10 which has largely faded from the limelight at this point. Otherwise from the Canadian public point of view, all your arguments (particularly about quality programming) are sidetracked by the general argument that Canadian programming has never been good and not because of recent decisions by the CRTC which ended up screwing the Canadian film world. In which case, does Train 48 still accurately represent Canadian TV in the '00s? From the perspective placed forward in this entry, I have no specific reason to disagree. From the average "office Glenn" perspective, I'd argue more likely Canadian Idol, which is really sad because having Canadian's defined by a form of reality TV is disheartening...

Brandon Laraby said...

Well, speaking from a Canadian Viewer standpoint - I was actually into Train 48 for about 2 months when it first started up.

Yes, it was cheap and limited, but I liked some of the subjects it covered at the time (of course it seems horribly dated now). The fast turn around time was a neat gimmick, so what happened in the news yesterday could be on the show the next day.

Unfortunately, the novelty wore off rather quick. A slow news day meant that we'd get a 'character' episode and those were hard to watch...

For 'definitive' Canadian shows, I dunno.

But here's the shows I loved when I was growing up:

Puttnam's Prairie Emporium
Edison Twins
Littlest Hobo
You Can't Do That On Television
Fraggle Rock

Perhaps the problem is that there HASN'T been a definitive Canadian TV show yet this decade (or there was but it didn't live long enough to become definitive)?

wcdixon said...

Thanks Rixel...point understood, and the argument for 'Canadian Idol' and the Average Joe is convincing - was trying to find a scripted drama, that's all.

Thanks Diane...your opinion and thoughts are always welcome here.

And you're probably right Brandon...there probably either hasn't been one yet or the possible candidates didn't last long enough to qualify. But I would still argue that the reason for that is that the desire wasn't there from the networks to have that definitive drama in their was easier and more profitable for Global (for example) to define themselves by a show like 'House' say, "Only on Global", and get away with the minimum for homegrown drama.

maggiemay said...

I'm surprised Denis didn't make any comments about Blood Ties. We in the States loved the show for the fact that it was well written, comedic, and dramatic when it had to be. Our problem was with the network that it was telecast on. Lifetime didn't know what they had. Their garbage about it not having the ratings is strictly that, it had the same ratings as that idiotic excuse of a show How to Look Good Naked which they renewed and expanded to an hour.

And its impossible for fans to shop the show to other networks, although we would have done whatever we could to have brought the show back. We paid for an online ad in and have been able to get a little buzz for Kyle Schmid in Vanity Fair. The said thing about it is NETWORKS don't care about the viewers, they don't listen. It doesn't matter how good the quality of the show is, whether its Canadian or American. They just don't listen.

Maybe Blood Ties was before its time but with Tru Blood coming out on HBO, the remake of Dark Shadows with Johnny Depp and other genre based shows coming out maybe Lifetime will release they blew it. One thing for sure-they never listened to the viewers. (And although I appreciate your advice Denis I am boycotting their sorry network).

Mef said...

Hey Will
Summer's not a good time for staying in touch with blogs for me.

Does DaVinci's Inquest count or is that too early?

I rliked Wonderland. Not loved but liked. I would have grounded the characters more. But it was well-written.

They did like forty eps right?

and what's with the font with the word verification? I can't read it and i'm human.