When 2009 began, I didn’t know that I intended for this to be the year that Cultural Learnings lived up to its Canadian heritage by covering more television from my home and native land. Sure, it’s really only been Project Runway Canada, but I was really going to give ZOS: Zone of Separation a try before it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to watch it weekly, and I have been watching another show under the radar. My decision to not yet blog about Being Erica, CBC’s drama series starring Erin Karpluk, has been largely because I knew this day was coming: tonight, Being Erica makes the leap south across the 49th Parallel, and begins airing on SoapNet in the United States.
The fact that I’m still watching seven episodes into the show’s run is probably enough of an endorsement itself, but I really do find Being Erica a charming diversion, the kind of show that occassionally boils down to romantic comedy cliches but more often than not transcends its generic boundaries to prove quite resonant. Yes, this is the first time I’ve watched a show that airs on SoapNet but, even more than most shows on the “prestigious” CBC, the story of Erica Strange has achieved something approaching a sense of balance: the show can take Erica from pratfalls to tragic remembrances of her less than glorious past, and what could be a gimmicky “time travel” mechanic is used less to place Karpluk in period fashion and more to actually question the role of time, and memory, in one’s life.
There are signs that the show’s pickup by SoapNet has begun to impact its equilibrium, but I feel as if there is a foundation here that won’t be able to be corrupted by partial male nudity and a few more potential mates for our title heroine. None of those elements are present in the show’s pilot, airing tonight on SoapNet at 10/9c, but the show has proven capable of evolving with grace and hijinx both.
The show’s plot is actually quite simple, and you can see why CBC and SoapNet would both gravitate towards the story: young woman, entering her 30s, finds herself without a boyfriend, without a job, and without any direction. It’s a logical period of transition to find a character in, and Karpluk brings to Erica a very likeable quality that gives the show some room to breathe. When the show wants to make light of her struggles, she’s got the comic chops to pull it off, but more importantly she brings to the character a sense of realistic sense of regret and philosophical struggle. When she is suddenly visited by Dr. Tom (Michael Riley), a psychiatrist who asks her to list off the things in her life she would like to change, the show twists and turns into a sort of My Name is Earl meets Twice in a Lifetime, as Erica is transported back to high school in order to rewrite an event that she believes may have been her life’s turning point.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a show if this was in fact the only part of her life that needed fixing, and over the first set of episodes creator Jana Sinyor uses this effect to investigate various points in her life, varying in both period and purpose. While it would be easy for the show to devolve into a different romantic escapade, like the rather baudy and suggestive investigation of the day that Erica lost her virginity, it is not afraid to be far less scandalous and instead actually quite subtle. There’s always a message to be taken from them, but often times those messages are less solutions and more complications for Erica’s contemporary concerns: her search into her past for an answer on how to keep her sister from marrying the wrong guy doesn’t break up the happy couple, but simply shows her enough evidence that she realizes she needs to say something before it’s too late.
And she really is capable of altering the past: although the show has established that there are certain things that can’t be changed, that for all of Erica’s efforts aren’t just going to go away, there are other scenarios where she is able to shift the course of time. Her adventures are often spurned by a need-based scenario, sometimes approaching selfishness, but Erica is always grounded in a desire to achieve, rarely devolving into one of those cliches that suck the fun out of a show like this. The time travel mechanic has yet to get old, partly due to the writers’ work and also due to Riley, who bring to Dr. Tom a philosophical grounding with a dry humour that makes his interactions with Karpluk the highlight of most episodes.
The rest of the supporting cast fits into most of the expected roles: Tyron Leitso (Wonderfalls) shows up early in the show’s run as Erica’s close male friend who recently left his wife and moves in next to Erica, while she is also surrounded by a pregnant friend with her things together, a sister who is a source of some anxiety, a boss who is a total control freak, a couple of zany parents, and eventually Dillon Casey (CBC’s previous SoapNet property MVP) as heartthrob Ryan, who seems to have misplaced his shirts in the show’s attempt at appealing to a soap-driven audience. The show never feels overpopulated, and while this is no doubt Karpluk’s showcase you don’t begrudge the show for spending time with the supporting characters (albeit almost never without Erica).
Like any show with a time-based element, such as Lost’s flashbacks as an example, there is going to come a point where they won’t be able to so heavily rely on parts of her past. The character will eventually have to transcend her past life in some respects, and if the show were to run for too many seasons things could get tired. But in the short term, the show has a nice floatiness to it that keeps it easy to swallow, while having things like her brother’s tragic death and some darker periods in her life in order to remind us that the show is also delving for something deeper. And as long as the show follows the usual storylines, new relationships and events in her life drawing on past experience, there is plenty of life left in this show.
So, if you’re an American viewer who is interested in checking out a Canadian import that has some charm to it, check out SoapNet tonight at 10/9c. And if you’re a Canadian who expresses the usual self-doubt that something from our own country is worth checking out, maybe give Being Erica a try – it airs at 9pm on Wednesdays on CBC.