“The Return of Wheel-o”
June 28th, 2010
While it may not be the best comedy on television, I’d argue that Dan for Mayor makes a strong case for being one of the most confident. While some shows spend their first seasons in a state of becoming, the series seemed to spring fully formed from the minds of Mark Farrell, Paul Mather and Kevin White – the initial premise had potential which played out throughout the season, and from the beginning it was intertwined with the interpersonal relationships which make the series more than a clever premise. The notion of a lowly bartender running for Mayor as a way to impress his ex-girlfriend offers plenty of potential for humour, but the series has evolved into something much more than that: “The Return of Wheel-o” reflects a season which didn’t shy away from plot development, constantly changing the stakes of the race to the point where the finale gives Dan everything he wanted only to twist once more.
And yet, for a show which refused to rely on stability to tell its stories, Dan for Mayor has been remarkably consistent. It’s an extraordinarily clever show, but it never felt like it became too clever for its own good, its material always working in tandem with its cast in order to present a far more cohesive world than seems possible when presenting three different campaigns along with a number of personal lives. It never seemed like the show struggled under the weight of this challenge, capable from the beginning of managing both political satire and character development without breaking a sweat, and so I figure I should spend some time discussing what was a really enjoyable season of television.
Which, you know, 99% of you haven’t seen.
I thought it would be a fun experiment to go through the entire introduction without mentioning that Dan for Mayor is a “Canadian show,” both because I wanted to entice you to read this far to figure out what the heck I’m talking about and because it isn’t really relevant to the show’s quality: the show is funny regardless of where it was produced, and so the claims I make above are in relation to television in general as opposed to other current Canadian sitcoms (where it would be more remarkable, although I thought CBC’s 18 to Life came together quite well this past season). The show is very much Canadian, but it’s more of an intangible quality than a content-driven observation: Wessex is a fictional city, and the central political satire is perhaps less emotionally charged than one would expect in America (fiscal irresponsibility is about as far as they took the various scandals) but is nonetheless generalized in its focus. This is a comedy for anyone who enjoys things which are funny, which is how any comedy should operate.
While the show is generally quite funny, what impressed me the most as a critic was how the season-long election was actually quite dynamic: rather than simply doing a season of episodes about Dan embarrassing himself during his campaign, the show focused enough on the other two candidates that the show never felt like it was just phoning in a logline. Every storyline had multiple dimensions: Dan didn’t just struggle to pick a symbol for his campaign, but he had to contend with the other two candidates doing the same, along with the ways in which his personal life intersected with those campaigns (as both his ex-girlfriend and more recent ex-girlfriend were directly involved with his competitors). And despite all of this, it never felt like the stories were getting too big for their own good: the joy of an election campaign is that it’s a series of small battles as opposed to an all-out war, which the series wonderfully captured as all of the candidates were swept up in particular issues in the way that candidates would actually be swept up in particular issues (albeit likely slightly more serious issues than the ones presented).
And the campaign didn’t remain the same race throughout the season: while Anita was always the most respectable candidate, Alan Duffy’s flame-out – sorry, implosion – went further than I would have expected, and the decision to quite literally pull him from the race was a really intelligent bit of writing. The character doesn’t need to be a candidate in the election to be part of the election, his sheer enthusiasm translated wonderfully into his attempts to help Dan and Anita on their campaigns so as to be closer to the electoral process, so why not shake things up a bit and create some new comic dynamics? The show was completely willing to shake things up, whether it’s pairing Fern and Anita romantically (which never really amounted to anything but was still a nice bit of shading) or having Mike and Claire’s engagement come to an end. In the latter case, it gives Benjamin Ayres some truly great material as both depressed Mike and vengeful Mike, giving an already funny character some new dimensions to play which seem like logical extensions. Despite shaking things up quite a bit, I never felt like the show was placing a character into a situation where they didn’t fit, or where the show had to awkwardly adjust to their new role, a feat which is worthy of recognition.
The one area where I thought these final episodes struggled a bit was how quickly Dan and Claire got back together, romantically speaking: while I get that the campaign has shown Claire a new and more mature Dan, and I get that Claire leaving Mike has given her a new perspective on what’s important in a relationship, and I’m aware that Dan has always still been in love with her, I sort of shared Jeff’s reaction to their public displays of affection. It’s not that I don’t think they should be together, but rather that the show sort of rushed them back into a relationship so that they could pull off this cliffhanger. It makes perfect sense: Dan only joined the campaign to win back Claire, but now that he’s done what he set out to do he ends up winning the election, which keeps him from following Claire to Vancouver and plays out as a meaningful conclusion to the campaign and the season as a whole. However, it felt like the season needed another episode in order to really ground their relationship; I wouldn’t say it needed to happen earlier, really, because the pacing of Mike and Claire’s breakup was really solid, so I think it’s just an issue of taking a shortcut to get to a strong conclusion, which isn’t a heinous offense in the least.
Like most television comedies, Dan for Mayor hasn’t radically reinvented itself: while Dan may be more mature, his success is drawn from earnestness which has been present from the beginning, and while we’ve gotten to know the various supporting characters better they’ve become more familiar than softened (Fern remains clueless, Charlie remains sarcastic, but in ways which feel like antagonistic to Dan than they did before). It’s become the type of show where there’s no anxiety from a season-ending cliffhanger: while we wonder whether Claire will still go to Vancouver, and how Dan will perform as mayor, and how the show will handle Anita as Member of Parliament, there is no sense that the community the show has built will be abandoned. I have full faith that they can extend the scope of the series should they decide to, just as I have faith that they could find a way to keep Claire in Wessex that would seem organic to the story. That familiarity is what allowed the show to test out new character combinations in late season episodes (Brianna and Mike, or Jeff and Claire), and one of the many qualities which will personally keep me watching when the show returns early next year.
If you’ve read this far, I sort of spoiled some of the ending for you, but it’s not really a show you can spoil: the show will be out on DVD later this year, and I would highly encourage those south of the border to check it out if any of this sounds of interest to you. It’s sharp, it’s funny, and it just so happens to be Canadian, so you can’t really go wrong.
- Loved the little in-joke about Jeff’s wife at the Election Night party – it is, in fact, strange that we haven’t seen her at any point this season considering how often Jeff has mentioned her, so to see the show call attention to that is always quite fun.
- One scene in the finale I could have done without: Alan campaigning for the MP position at the woman’s funeral. Sure, it’s something that Alan would logically do, but it’s never particularly pleasant (I’m thinking of an example from Gilmore Girls, in particular).
- Not sure if this is an intentional Can Lit connection, but I can’t help it: Anita’s departure to Ottawa brings to mind Mr. Smith’s election in the final stories of “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,” albeit without a mayoral race and the like.
- Interesting to see a Canadian series go through some major scheduling concerns: the show debuted after the Olympics to strong numbers, but was then benched during May Sweeps to get out of the way of House (which is one of the biggest shows in Canada) and other competition. It returned with much weaker numbers, albeit a good couple of months after it was renewed for a 2nd season based on the strength of the initial airings, so it will be interesting to see how it returns.
- I haven’t mentioned its sister series, Hiccups, within this review, largely because I wanted to keep this one positive – I gave up on Hiccups a few episodes in, and struggled to find anything to really latch onto in its central premise or its performances. Just wasn’t as clever or as cohesive for me, and during the busy Spring season I didn’t have the time to wait to see if it got any better. I’ve got the finale on the DVR, and I’ll likely check it out sometime this week to see how the show came along.
- However, the one comparison I’ll make: I had a tough time accepting Brent Butt in a role other than his one on Corner Gas, but I really had no trouble accepting Fred Ewanuick in a different role, although I couldn’t really tell you why.