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 Duchess of George”
January 20th, 2010
Shows like Republic of Doyle may present themselves as fairly straightforward, but in reality there is a lot of nuance to how they portray their characters and their stories. The exact same story could be told in very different ways, and the same characters could interact with that story in completely different ways. The characters could remain detached from the story, largely observing the behaviour of others, or they could become wrapped up in the story to the point of being placed in harm’s way.
There is no “right” way to make a show like Republic of Doyle, but “The Duchess of George” has the show the closest it has come so far. The show still has some problems in terms of its characterization, but there is a sense of clarity and direction this week that was lacking in weeks previous. It may not initially seem to be a different show, but the show has replaced narrative burdens with character burdens, simplifying its storytelling while complicating its characters to counterbalance.
The show still has some room to grow, but I think it actually delivered something of substance in its third week out, which is at least one step in the right direction.
“The Return of the Grievous Angel”
January 13th, 2010
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking with Angela Antle of the Newfoundland and Labradour Weekend Arts Magazine on CBC Radio One in order to offer some mainland perspective on CBC’s new series, Republic of Doyle. My review of the show was quite critical, although Angela was more interested in my reading of the show’s cultural depiction of the province as opposed to my frustration with its formulaic 80s throwback structure. You can download the interview in podcast episode form at this link (Opens in iTunes), and hear how I spent about fifteen minutes discussing my way around a central question: what kind of cultural statement does a show make when it proves that St. John’s is just as capable of Toronto of housing a generic procedural private investigation series?
My argument is that it isn’t a cultural statement at all. I’ve written thesis chapters on how Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie can be read as cultural statements in regards to the position of both rural communities and Muslim populations within Canada’s national identity, and this is achieved through stories that challenge and question stereotypes. The problem with Republic of Doyle is that it has no such cultural statement: while I don’t think the show needs to scream Newfoundland every episode, right now it’s not actually saying anything at all.
While I would argue that part of the reason for this shallow representation of place is inherent in the show’s genre, I think the show’s execution is only exacerbating these concerns. By focusing on, and convoluting, the show’s procedural structure, the characters aren’t coming into focus, and whatever chance the show has to actually say anything substantial about St. John’s, Newfoundland, or even Canada as a whole remains absent beyond a Great Big Sea theme song and some pretty scenery.
And that’s not a cultural statement. Or, speaking more critically, a statement at all.
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.
January 4th, 2010
It’s not a huge surprise that ABC (likely through ABC Family), which already has a show about teen pregnancy, would be interested in acquiring the rights to 18 to Life (Mondays at 8 on CBC), a show which investigates teen marriage (as has been pointed out to me now, that co-production deal eventually fell apart). However, the Canadian series is not the same type of moralistic investigation that The Secret Life of the American Teenager wants to be. While it may not necessarily be offering an endorsement of kids who marry on an impulse at a young age (there’s a cautionary tale, here), it has no interest in taking the premise beyond its sitcom roots: this is a show about the madcap hijinks that face two kids trying to start a life together before their parents believe their lives have actually started, and the lack of moral aspirations is perhaps its strongest quality.
If you’re looking for something to break down sitcom expectations, you’re not going to find it here: of course the young couple have secrets that complicate their relationship, and of course their parents represent polar opposites, and of course they don’t think everything through before committing to their marriage. However, the pilot captures enough of the charm the premise is capable of evoking that I’m willing to endorse the show as a light-hearted negotiation of life, youth, and holy matrimony.
“The Importance of Being Erica”
December 8th, 2009
Going into its second season, Being Erica was a show about one person. But, with a slight expansion of its universe, the show had the potential to become about people beyond Erica, for her journey to become less about her own problems and more life’s problems. The show’s therapy conceit, driving characters to revisit their past in order to offer perspective on their lives, isn’t something that is isolated to one character, and in some ways Erica revisiting her greatest regret (her brother’s death) meant that the show would need to find its emotional core elsewhere. Erin Karpluk will always be very charming, and the show’s structure is a nice procedural element to drive the show forward, but Erica no longer had a “purpose” all season, and at times it felt as if the season was actively ignoring the expansion of its universe (which I found really intriguing) in favour of telling stories that, well, didn’t matter.
The season’s solution to this problem was to introduce Kai, a futuristic barista with a deep secret, and to spend two episodes delving into Dr. Tom. And while the latter resulted in a real tonal shift for the show that worked to its advantage, Kai didn’t work in the beginning like the show wants to believe it did at the end. Sebastian Pigott is a decent actor and a solid singer, able to pull off the role in a way that makes us invested in Kai’s journey, but the show was never consistent on what that journey meant. The show never let us see Kai’s journey through a perspective other than Erica’s, never allowed us to relate to him in a way that makes his story stand separate from his relationship with Erica. And yet, until the end, Erica never felt logically connected to Kai beyond their shared therapy strategies, and the story just never clicked in the way it could have.
“The Importance of Being Erica” is a strong finale that wants to pretend that the show figured all of this out, and that the season worked in a way that led to Erica’s emotional and career realizations. That’s stretching too far, but it’s another sign that even in its occasional problems there is a very good show that occasionally comes to the surface here (and that, if the show learned its lessons, could dominate in the third season).
“A River Runs Through It…It Being Egypt”
November 17th, 2009
Ever since I stopped receiving screeners for Being Erica, I’ve been falling off from covering the show. It isn’t that I haven’t been watching, but with a busy life and a busy TV schedule I haven’t been getting to episodes with any sort of timeliness.
But the show has continued to be quite engaging, although in some ways it has reneged on some of its potential. The show has done a lot of work to expand its identity in order to introduce some new dynamics between characters, but for the most part the show hasn’t really delved into them. In recent weeks the show has thrown Erica into the future, and in the process has created a scenario where the show itself is in some ways an enormous therapy session.
But rather than complicate the show’s basic premise, it’s effectively been folded into the already existing construct that the show is as much a therapy session for Erica’s present than it is a therapy session for the past. The show’s storylines present complicated moral and ethical scenarios that it wants to play for both comedy and drama, and it is avoiding the supernatural storylines on a broad level to be able to follow those goals. “A River Runs Through It…” continues a storyline (Kai and Sam’s relationship) that is really frakked up when you really think about it, but it doesn’t really want to talk about the metaphysical ramifications so much as it does the personal ones. And, so long as it keeps telling strong stories within this structure, that’s fine, but I do sort of want the show to look beyond interpersonal relations to the overall premise being peddled here.
October 13th, 2009
I think what I find most interesting about this, the fourth episode of Being Erica’s second season, is that it has largely moved away from any sort of “change” resulting from its missions. There was a point before where what Erica did in her trips to the past would actually change the future, not always in ways as dramatic as in “Leo” but in small ways like sleeping with the nerdy poet at the Lake instead of her jock boyfriend. Those kinds of changes are something the show isn’t actually interested in so much, primarily because Erica’s life has largely stabilized and there is accordingly less of a need for fundamental change.
It does mean that “Cultural Revolution” is anything but revolutionary, positing a “What If?” scenario less to see how it would change the present and more as a test run for a current life’s dilemma. The episode suffers slightly due to a lack of suspense as to what decision Erica is going to make, but overall it’s another solid entry that sticks to the show’s formula in a pleasing fashion.
October 6th, 2009
I’m in New York at the moment (my Twitter account likely reflects this), but I had a chance to catch this week’s Being Erica before I left. It’s, again, a return to the first season’s structure, hesitating to “open up” the show’s universe as much as the season premiere seemed to indicate. However, at the same time, the episode also reminds us that Judith as a character still exists, a problem with a show that deals with sending a character back to her past when some of the people in her life weren’t actually involved.
So, in many ways, the reason that Judith and her newborn haven’t been around Erica are quite similar to why they haven’t been on the show thus far this season, and “Mama Mia” does well justifying her absence and adding a few more shades to their relationship. The episode had a few hiccups, but it followed one of my favourite patterns for the show so it’s ultimately another enjoyable hour for the show.
When it comes to U.S. cable series making their way to Canadian airwaves, there’s always a problem. For the most part, Showtime and HBO (and even FX, AMC, etc.) don’t tend to follow a traditional schedule. They debut shows when they want to, often “out of season” in an effort to draw viewers from the main networks. They’re some of the few channels to run shows during the summer, which the networks shy away from, which means that Canadian networks airing the shows in simulcast would need to disrupt their schedules and promote the shows independently to be able to deliver strong numbers (by comparison, Showtime and HBO tend to lump their premieres together to launch a particular slate).
This reality is why Weeds, for example, is airing its fifth season on Showcase in Canada while American viewers have seen the entire season, and why CBC is starting its airing of the third season of their (and Showtime’s) The Tudors (starting tonight at 9pm) six months after its April debut in the States. It’s an awkward position for the network to be in, as hardcore fans of the series have likely done their best to seek out the episodes already, and even if they aren’t the type to take part in such illegal activities there are reviews and episode summaries available for one and all. Plus, the Season 3 DVDs (distributed by separate companies in the U.S. and Canada) will actually release in this country a week ahead of the finale’s airing on CBC, which makes the show seem that much more “late” in internet terms.
However, there is logic in keeping all of the fall debuts together for the network, and it’s not as if The Tudors has become any less interesting as an historical soap opera in the last six months. While the show isn’t quite my cup of tea, delving too far into that soap opera element and relying too heavily on its costumed, it is unquestionably well-made, and undoubtedly a boon for CBC. While there’s a place for schlocky fare like The Border, the network has always felt most prestigious with something of this calibre, and their co-production with Showtime (the show is co-produced by a Canadian company) has earned them 11 Gemini nominations.