5 Canadian Shows That Are Worth Your Time (Even if You're Not Canadian)
Happy Canada Day! To celebrate, I thought I might share some Canadian heritage. We produce a heck of a lot of TV in both official languages, much of it for ourselves (as opposed to all the Hollywood stuff shot in Vancouver and Toronto), much of it still undiscovered outside our borders. My 5 recommendations aren't meant to be a "best of" (in fact, I'll list them alphabetically), and are definitely not exhaustive; they are just meant to be 5 favorites you may not have investigated yet and if you're anything like me, would likely find enjoyable. I haven't gone back too far in time (sorry Beachcombers fans), made sure the episodes are at least partially available on DVD, and since I write the blog in English, so are the selections. As usual, your additions to the list are more than welcome in the comments section. Ready? Let's go, eh?
Due South (4 seasons, 1994-1999). This is my most (and perhaps only) "obvious" selection, but I don't think it had the same market penetration as, says, SCTV, Kids in the Hall, Orphan Black or whatever else I'd put in this category, so here it is. This fish-out-of-water story follows the classic "buddy cop" formula with the "odd one" being a Mountie from the Northwest Territories who works out of the Canadian Embassy in Chicago, liaising with an American cop (David Marciano, and later, in a strange bit of meta-text, Callum Keith Rennie). Constable Benton Fraser (Paul Gross) becomes an iconic figure, part Sherlock Holmes, part "brave savage" new to the world. The show had a romantic and magical bent, with the awesome Gordon Pinsent playing the ghost of Fraser's father (for example). It was big on quirky comedy (those Leslie Nielsen appearances are pretty damn great), but also quite touching when it needed to be. Sure, Benton Fraser was a kind of Canadian stereotype - an impossibly polite policeman who loathed guns and hung out with a supernaturally intelligent sledding dog, AND wore the Mounted Police uniform at all times - but they made sure he came from the Far North, so would be strange even to us. (The proof is in the poutine: Other Canadian characters on the show are not usually as nice.) As for the rest, it's the Mountie as superhero, and I have absolutely no problem with that.
The Newsroom (3 seasons, 1996-1997, 2005). Not the Aaron Sorkin HBO show, obviously, but a sardonic comedy about a CBC news show. Years before Ricky Gervais had his hit with The Office, The Newsroom was doing "the comedy of discomfort", with a boss behaving badly in a semi-improvised, docu-cam format. And like The Thick of It, which also came later, it's got a nice layer of political (and in this case, media) satire on top of the office banter. And as a media guy... I've seen too few episodes of this, but found they were out on DVD. So I'm taking my own advice, and ordering those to see the whole thing. I'm particularly curious about how the show and its handling of the media will change between the initial 90s seasons, and its return in 2005.
Republic of Doyle (6 seasons, 2010-2014). This private eye/cop show filmed in St.John's, Newfoundland, just ended (which means I have one season left to sample; maybe I'll even start it today) and it's a nice spiritual successor to Due South, I think. It doesn't get "magical", nor does it try to cross over into the American market, but it's still a fine crime drama/comedy with engaging characters and certain folksiness that's entirely Canadian. If there is fantasy here, it's that it paints St.John's as having an improbably high crime rate, but the Newfoundland flavor abounds. These are not your urban Toronto or Vancouverites. They're Atlantic Canadians with strong Irish roots and a fierce independence from having been in the Confederation less than 70 years. A fun action show in a unique locale, not ground-breaking, but certainly very pleasant.
Slings & Arrows (3 seasons, 2003-2006). My very favorite from this list, it's a compact series of 3 seasons of 6 episodes each about a fictional Shakespeare Festival in Ontario (based on the one in Stratford). It again stars Paul Gross (he's a national treasure), this time as a theater director/actor who went mad during a performance of Hamlet and has the Festival thrust upon him when his mentor dies. Each season, not only does the troupe struggle to put one of Shakespeare's major plays, but the seasonal arc takes its cues from that play (Hamlet, MacBeth and King Lear each get the treatment). If you've been around theater people at all, you'll recognize that world immediately, and the comedy feels very true to life, which still resonating emotionally and making great points about Shakespeare's oeuvre, AND art as product. I love this thing to bits and watch it often. And while there are actors recognizable to international audiences in everything I'm recommending today, S&A has more than its share, including Rachel McAdams, Colm Feore, the Kids in the Hall's Mark McKinney (who is one of the writers), Warehouse 13's Joanne Kelly, and Sarah Polley.
Traders (5 seasons, 1996-2000). If you like intense and immersive workplace dramas like The West Wing and ER, may I recommend this underrated gem that takes place in an investment firm on the Canadian equivalent of Wall Street, Bay Street? If you don't know anything about stocks or finance, and I really don't, the show at once teaches you the basics and makes it all exciting, though absolute comprehension isn't required, because like all these shows, the on-point chatter is only meant to create a sense of verisimilitude in the world where the soap opera and office politics take place. Traders was slightly too modern for its own good, with docu-style camera work and a video look, but that quickly dissipates as you get into the world and the characters. Sadly, only the first season is out on DVD, a great shame I'm not hopeful will be remedied. Write your MLA!
And that's my Canadian Content for the day. Like I said, I'm sure you have other ideas. Let us know!