Friday, July 23, 2010

Just What Is Canadian TV?

In a terse but fair review of the new police saga Rookie Blue The Boston Globe's TV critic Matthew Gilbert wonders "why Rookie Blue would use the word 'blue' in the title,begging comparisons to NYPD Blue. This is a Canadian production filmed in Toronto and the nameless city in which it's set feels as blandly generic as the characters.There is absolutely no texture in the world of Rookie Blue."
And so it has taken a perceptive American TV critic to spot one of the key problems of the Canadian TV world.
Let's start with the stats: Canada has only one tenth the population of the mighty U.S.A.
Any Canadian TV series has to be sold to the American market or it just won't make much of a profit.
It's an eternal quest --to make it on American TV.
Yes, Rookie Blue is a disguised Canadian show. The police force are never named (but remember Hill Street Blues never named its location). In the backdrop one can spot key Toronto locations but these are never actually named. The actors do not chase around in Toronto police cars but in generic cars.
And it's the same situation on Flashpoint, another generic cop series made for both CTV and CBS.
But it's always been like this.My first assignment as a kid TV critic was to cover the premiere of CBC's first big TV miniseries --Jalna (1971), a sprawling saga starring Kate Reid and dozens of others including Blair Brown.
The producer was the respected Fletcher Markle and he told me he was off to New York to peddle the show to the Americans.
First up was Masterpiece Theater's producer Joan Wilson who watched in a darkened screening room beside Markle and then passed.
She didn't think her viewers would warm to a Canadian epic, she told him. And that was the same reaction at the Big Three TV networks. Jalna was deemed too Canadian.
In the ensuing decades Canadian producers became TV chameleons.
A miniseries like I'll Take Manhattan (1987) was made almost entirely in Toronto with name U.S. actors in the leads and Canadians in support.
And this was the way of Canadian TV right up to the point TV movies disappeared because of increasingly high costs. I remember being on a Liberty ship on Lake Ontario on the set of the minidseries Haven (2001) watching such fine imported talent as Natasha Richardson and Anne Bancroft dramatically battle it out while such Canadian talents as Colm Feore quietly stole scene after scene.
Canadian made series from A Gift To Last (1976) to This Is Wonderland (2004) never made it to American TV because of their unique Canadian qualities.
There were exceptions: Road To Avolea (1989) thrived on the Disney channel as teatime family drama. And Queer as Folk thrived because it was pinpointed to a specific audience.
The wonder to me is that Flashpoint and Rookie Blue have even made it to prime time U.S. TV --albeit in summer time schedules. And that ABC quickly picked up Rookie Blue for a second season.
Canadian producers will continue to make generic shows because they sell to the U.S. and specifically Canadian series do not make it.

No comments: