Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole
August 3rd, 2010
I am not surprised to learn that critics, as a whole, are not jumping on the bandwagon for 18 to Life, the Canadian comedy which was recently purchased by The CW to fill out part of its summer schedule and which debuts with two back-to-back episodes at 9/8c. I watched and more or less enjoyed the show’s first season when it aired on CBC, but I did it without much emotional attachment, and certainly without any critical analysis (which is why reviews never materialized beyond the pilot). I appreciate some of the series’ choices, and am intrigued by the show it developed into, but it is unquestionably a simple pleasure rather than a complex reinvention of television comedy.
However, I was a surprised to see how many critics have been stuck on the series’ premise, and disappointed to see how many critics are unable to get past the stereotype of Canadian television and summer television as lesser entities in expressing their dislike of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve read pre-air reviews of a series which I’ve seen in its entirety, but most of the series’ reviews ignore the show itself and instead focus on attacking either its origins, its scheduling, or the apparent offensiveness of its premise – while I understand that these are all part of the series’ impact, that these critics have not bothered to watch closely enough to see the kind of show which 18 to Life is becoming seems a disservice to a show which is just trying to be an old-fashioned traditional sitcom.
Which doesn’t make it brilliant, but does make it something that doesn’t deserve this level of scorn.
“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.
When I was on the train home from Montreal, I had with me screeners of the first five episodes of a Canadian show, Showcase’s Cra$h & Burn, that had never particularly been on my radar (primarily because I don’t actually get the channel in question). The reviews had been lukewarm upon its release, to the point where I had not included the show in my drive to watch more Canadian television.
However, watching the show on the train proved to be an interesting experience. If you had told me going in that the show would present itself as part Better Off Ted (Workplace Satire!), part The Wire (Corruption, and Clark Johnson!), and part Six Feet Under (People Die in the Cold Open!), I probably would have raised my eyebrow faster than ever before, but Crash & Burn is an interesting little dramatic experiment which plays with elements from all these shows. It is not as successful as any of them, struggling early on with the weight of having its hand in so many cookie jars, but it gets a lot of points for going for it, and achieves a sense of dramatic weight and purpose around the midpoint of its first season which makes me anxious, at some point in the future, to finish it.
Unfortunately, the period where I was putting my life back together after my 21-hour train ride took the life out of me, so I nearly neglected to write about the show in time for this post to seem, well, timely: the show’s first season finale airs on Thursday, February 18th, at 10pm ET. However, being a heavily serialized drama, I would suggest, if you get Showcase, you could perhaps wait and see if they start repeating episodes (or check them out at Showcase.ca), because in the end I think it’s worth seeing from the beginning.
Narrative Pollution in HBO Canada’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
January 8th, 2010
I like to consider Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, a short-form Canadian series debuting on Sunday, January 10th at 8pm ET on HBO Canada, a show made just for me. This is selfish, I know, but I studied the book as an undergrad so it sort of feels like Vincent Lam’s work is following me on my academic/personal/critical journeys. In fact, I even gave a presentation on the short story composite’s (I’ll explain that term in a second, although not in as much detail as I might be tempted to) relationship with television narrative (in a class which had nothing to do with television, by the way) during my time at Acadia University, so the long-gestating adaptation announced soon after the book won the prestigious Giller Prize in 2006 has been of great interest to me.
And while I’ll spare you (most of) the more academic consideration of the series that’s floating around my head after watching the opening episode (which, for Canadians, can be streamed on TheMovieNetwork.com), I will say that this is one example where having first-hand knowledge of the text at hand has largely ruined the series for me. This is not to suggest that Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a failure, or that what has been put on the screen is of low quality – there are some solid performances here, and the characters from Lam’s book remain compelling.
The problem is that in a text, and a medium, defined by its presentation of various time periods, executive producer Jason Sherman simply got it backwards – the parts of the story which have the most weight are relegated to flashbacks, and instead of allowing the narrative to unfold on its own time the series creates a melodramatic and unnecessary “present” which keeps it from engaging with the complexities of Lam’s story, complexities that seem perfectly suited to a new generation of serialized storytelling. I do not mean to suggest that there is only one way to adapt this series (after all, any adaptation will skew the original source text based on the writers and directors involved – I’m not THAT guy), but I will argue that the changes made reflect a reductive view of the short story as a medium and are unnecessary measures meant to kow-tow to genre stereotypes the producers are actively trying to avoid, resulting in a series that (while solidly made) fails to capture what made the original text so compelling as both a short story composite and as a potential television series.
Watching the premiere of Republic of Doyle, a new private investigator series from CBC set in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I came to a conclusion: Burn Notice is a really great show.
Now, it may seem anti-nationalist for me to suggest that a Canadian series only made me conclude how great an American show is, but there is something very frustrating about Republic of Doyle that makes me respect the way Burn Notice has a very clear sense of its identity and doesn’t feel overburdened by either character drama or weekly cases that feel too generic by half. Doyle is not a terrible show, but what it struggles with is feeling like it actually knows what it is: numerous shots of the St. John’s harbour and the colourful houses of the downtown aren’t enough to give the show any sort of distinctive Newfoundland identity, and the show doesn’t bother to get onto its feet before throwing us into a bland procedural structure that needed to be more in order for us to come to care about these characters in any capacity.
There’s a show here somewhere, one where a group of relatively engaging people work together to solve crimes. However, the show has yet to find its own identity to the point where the pilot represents a definitive misfire, especially when you’ve seen Burn Notice negotiate the same types of problems which plague the show with some compelling dramaturgy.
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.