Arts & Culture

Point of No Return

Making Canadian television drama worth watching remains a challenge

by
Illustration by Neil Doshi

• 3,450 words

Illustration by Neil Doshi

Every episode starts much the same way—with yelling, running, and the pointing of guns. In one, a police team arrives at a courthouse as a panicked man in robes hightails it to safety. Cut to: a man with a handgun saying, “Your time is up!” In another, officers storm a house. Cut to: a muttering woman, and a steely-eyed man who tells one of the cops, “I swear to God, I will kill her and I will take you down.” But for straight-up histrionics, it’s hard to beat the one with the young couple in a sedan charging down a Toronto thoroughfare, the police in hot pursuit. An officer trains his rifle on the back of the car. Cut to: a frantic young woman crouching over the baby in her arms. “They’re gonna shoot!” she cries. “They’re gonna kill us!”

In television, it’s called a cold open, a tactic that throws viewers right into a story at the moment of highest intensity. Its importance in any given episode of Flashpoint is emphasized in the show’s very title, a reference to the life-or-death decisions that face not just the people caught up in these crises, but, equally, the members of the Strategic Response Unit (inspired by Toronto’s Emergency Task Force), who have been trained to resolve them. “Those cold open moments have been the subject of much discussion,” says Stephanie Morgenstern, who created Flashpoint with Mark Ellis, her husband and creative partner, after watching news coverage of a real-life hostage taking near Toronto’s Union Station in 2004. “You want to start off with a moment that grips the audience by the collar and won’t let go.”

The device has worked exceedingly well for Flashpoint, the most successful in a new wave of English-Canadian TV dramas that do an awful lot of collar grabbing. When CTV aired the debut episode in July 2008, it was the most watched show both for its Friday 10 p.m. time slot and for the whole evening, with 1.11 million viewers. It’s a rarity for a Canadian-made drama to attract an audience as large as that of a comparable American show, but in its second season, which began in January, Flashpoint’s Canadian ratings hit a high of 1.74 million viewers, placing it ahead of many of the country’s top-rated American programs, including 24, NCIS, and Law and Order: SVU. But what was even bigger news was its reception in the US, where it was aired by CBS in prime time. Only twice before has a Canadian drama series been picked up by a major US network: in the mid-’80s, CBS broadcast a nondescript package of late-night filler that included the cop show Night Heat; and in the mid-’90s, the Mountie-abroad series Due South had a sporadic run in prime time, again on CBS.

The big three networks (now five, counting Fox and the CW) have never had much luck with Canadian shows, although programs like Degrassi: The Next Generation and The Red Green Show have done well on cable. But the disruption caused by the American writers’ strike of 2007 and early 2008 made Flashpoint especially appealing to CBS. And the gamble paid off. During the show’s summer 2008 run and its second season earlier this year, it was among the most watched network shows on Friday night, with audience numbers topping 10 million.

Flashpoint was a gamble for CTV as well. The first thirteen episodes cost $20 million, making it the most expensive series the network ever commissioned. The magnitude of the investment put big pressure on the people who made the series, although Mark Ellis praises his co-producers and supporters at CTV for their commitment to making the show as slick as any potential competitor. “That was really smart on their part,” he says, “because they recognized whether you are a Canadian audience or an American audience or an international audience, we’ve come to a stage now where we demand a certain kind of sophistication on the screen.”

Flashpoint’s stellar ratings have stimulated activity on both sides of the border, with two more CTV shows getting US prime-time berths. The Listener, a frenetically paced but disappointingly drab variation on Medium and Ghost Whisperer, is about a supernaturally gifted paramedic who can read people’s minds, not that there’s much to read. The first episode in June attracted 1.1 million viewers in Canada, but in its NBC time slot it placed last, behind shows on ABC, CBS, and Fox. CTV is also producing The Bridge, about cops contending with organized crime and corruption within their own ranks (former Toronto police union head Craig Bromell helped conceive the show), which will air on CBS. And Flashpoint co-executive producer Tassie Cameron is part of the team behind Copper, a series that Global is prepping for ABC. Billed as “a characterdriven workplace drama about five rookie cops plunged into the high stakes world of big city policing,” it will assuage the feelings of any Toronto police officers who feel that TV producers aren’t sufficiently interested in their lives.

Meanwhile, The Border, CBC’s flagship drama about the valiant men and women at Immigration and Customs Security, a fictional agency dedicated to transborder issues, was attracting a more than respectable 600,000 viewers a week in its second season. It, too, boasts the high production values viewers expect from their American favourites. “It’s a dynamic, fast-paced look,” says series co-creator Janet MacLean. “I tend to resist thinking of it as American, because it’s very much the language of TV in general: the vocabulary is sped up all over.” The show drew interest from several US networks before being sold to Ion Television, a cable channel that also bought The Guard, a Global series about a search and rescue team on Canada’s west coast.

Even with the global recession slowing production (shortfalls forced CBC to cut the number of episodes in The Border’s third season), all this activity would seem to indicate a reversal of fortune for makers of Canadian television. As ACTRA’s Stephen Waddell told Playback Daily, “Canada is ready for the big time. If you look at the programs being produced now, they’re interesting, they’re innovative, they bring a new perspective.” He might also have mentioned that the US networks buy them for a fraction of what it costs to produce their own programming.

But others wonder whether the success of these shows addresses the most significant challenges facing English-Canadian TV production, especially dramatic series. “There’s no question in my mind that Canada has the most difficult problem of any country its size, in terms of supporting local drama,” says Peter S. Grant, a Toronto communications lawyer and author of a wide array of studies on the country’s cultural industries. “If you think about it, English Canada is roughly the same size as or a little bigger than Australia. But Australia doesn’t have all the American services on a little island beaming signals into every household. And boy, does that make a difference—and the US isn’t just an hour or two away, luring all the talent.”

Grant sees Flashpoint’s success not as the product of a bold new strategy, but as a lightning strike. He warns, “You can’t count on that to build an industry.”

CBC broadcast its first television show in 1952. In the years since, there’s never been much agreement about what kinds of shows Canadians should make, or how to get other Canadians to watch them. One strategy, of course, is to do what the new school of Canadian dramas is doing: make shows that look American. With their emphasis on heated confrontations and ticking-clock scenarios, Flashpoint and The Border are imitative of the action-heavy model epitomized by 24 and NCIS.

But emulating the pace and, more important, the production values of American television is something Canadian producers have never accomplished to anyone’s satisfaction—at least not until recently. Perhaps that’s why the Canadian shows that traditionally enjoyed the greatest success on both sides of the border shared one quality: the willingness to deviate from American norms. Think of the sly, self-mocking blend of comedy, drama, and sleuthing in Seeing Things and Due South; or the frank explosion of adolescence in Linda Schuyler’s Degrassi High; or the grubby, low-key realism of Da Vinci’s Inquest; or even the often less-than-rosy nostalgia of Road to Avonlea.

According to Mary Jane Miller, professor emeritus at Brock University and the author of several books on the history of Canadian television, the best Canadian shows have exhibited several distinguishing traits: “a tolerance of moral ambivalence, open-ended narrative structures, a willingness to experiment with the medium itself, and an ironic vision of authoritarian values.” Not surprisingly, she casts a wary eye on the new US-ready genre. “Why would we do anything that looks American? They already do it, and they do it very well.”

Dramas are considered a bellwether for the Canadian television industry, because they’ve always been so difficult to make on the limited resources at the disposal of producers. During CBC’s first few decades, homegrown drama content consisted primarily of filmed versions of theatre productions and anthology series. Not until 1966, when it created Wojeck, starring John Vernon as a tough-nosed coroner, did the network produce a hit in English Canada. (It ended shortly after, when Vernon was lured away to Hollywood.) In the 1980s, the public broadcaster’s signature drama was Street Legal, a prime-time soap that managed to Canadianize an American hit (L.A. Law) with more aplomb than usual.

Meanwhile, American programming dominated private networks like CTV, which was launched in 1961. Throughout the 1970s, the CRTC expanded its subsidy and quota system to foster domestic production and programming, and as a consequence the proportion of Canadian content (including comedy) on English-language television rose, from 2 percent in 1984 to 17 percent in 2001. But it was not an easy battle. In 1979, the regulator refused to renew CTV’s licence, after the network repeatedly ignored orders to include weekly Canadian drama on its schedule. CTV appealed the decision, but in a ruling three years later the Supreme Court upheld the CRTC’s right to impose such conditions.

Peter Grant outlines the problem in his 2004 book, Blockbusters and Trade Wars: Popular Culture in a Globalized World. “Left to their own devices,” he writes, “private broadcasters will respond to a vaguely worded local-content quota that fails to distinguish between program genres by providing the least-expensive local fare possible.” That was made evident in 1999, when the CRTC’s decision to expand Canadian content regulations to include reality programming and entertainment “news” shows devastated dramatic production. (Launching the career of eTalk co-host Ben Mulroney was another unfortunate side effect.) Janet MacLean, co-creator of The Border and a veteran writer for shows such as Road to Avonlea, recalls how “Canadian series disappeared overnight. We went from having a substantial number of Canadian dramas down to two within a very short time—it was extreme.”

One of the survivors was Da Vinci’s Inquest, the CBC series starring Nicholas Campbell as a Wojeck-like city coroner. “The regime at the CBC was very progressive,” says creator Chris Haddock. “They supported me and kept their hands off.” He was less fortunate with a subsequent regime, which cancelled his series Intelligence in 2007. In the ensuing war of words, CBC brass took the position that at 350,000 the show’s viewership wasn’t strong enough to warrant further support. Haddock accused them of burying the show. “If they had worked as hard to promote it as they did to erase it, it would have been a miracle.”

As the number of dramas on the conventional networks waned, the CRTC and the Canadian Television (now Media) Fund compelled the specialty, pay, and cable networks to spend more on domestic production. This created an opportunity to make programs using the shorter-run BBC model rather than the open-ended style preferred in the US. One such show was Slings and Arrows, which aired between 2003 and 2006 on the Movie Network and Movie Central, and on Showcase in Canada. “The brass ring in American network television is to create something that can last forever, until it dies a humiliating death,” says Bob Martin, who co-wrote the show with Mark McKinney and Susan Coyne. “It’s a different way of conceiving a product. It’s more about setting and character than story, because it has to be open ended. You can have little arcs within a long run. With Slings and Arrows, because we knew it was going to be limited we really could concentrate on story.”

A deftly rendered theatre-world satire that doubled as a keen-eyed workplace comedy and a passionate celebration of Shakespeare, Slings and Arrows won the Gemini Award for best dramatic series for two of its three seasons. When it aired on the Sundance Channel in the United States, it attracted an ardent following and reams more good press—the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan called it “charming and complex and lovely.” (It was paid an even stranger compliment by director Fernando Meirelles who remade the series for Brazil under the title Som e Fúria, or Sound and Fury.) In Martin’s view, Canadians should take pride in the fact that so many American reviewers said a show like Slings and Arrows could never have been made in America. “That’s what’s great about Canada,” he says. “Because the market is smaller, we can take chances.”

Maybe so, but it’s telling that neither Martin nor Haddock, the forces behind two of Canada’s best dramatic series, is part of the post-Flashpoint wave of production. Although Martin is in early talks with Showtime about a new series, he’s busier in the theatre world: The Drowsy Chaperone, which he developed with his friends in Toronto’s comedy scene, went on to become Canada’s most successful export to Broadway, and he’s now preparing for the New York debut of a new musical comedy called Minsky’s. As for Haddock, having burned his bridges in Canada following the ugly demise of Intelligence, he is now writing and pitching in Los Angeles in the hope of making a new US-backed series (possibly an Americanized version of Intelligence), which he wants to shoot in Vancouver.

To call attention to the scarcity of Canadian drama on the domestic private sector networks, a contingent of actors, including Gordon Pinsent and Wendy Crewson, staged a protest outside Toronto’s Massey Hall, where Global was premiering its 2007 season for the media. “Our airwaves are now filled with American shows, 24-7,” said Crewson. “It’s time Canadians were given a choice in what they can watch in prime time.”

Meanwhile, the makers of Flashpoint and The Border were preparing to launch shows that presented, at least in their minds, a brand of television entertainment that retained Canadian values but would attract the same viewers who flocked to US shows. Ironically, the creators of both found inspiration in 24, notwithstanding its bent for right-wing paranoia, and Jack Bauer’s indefatigable confidence in the harshest of interrogation techniques. In promoting The Border, co-creator Peter Raymont took to describing it as “24, but with a conscience.” According to Mark Ellis, the original pitch for Flashpoint promised a show with “the look and style of a csi and the pace of a 24.”

Ellis points to Flashpoint’s “core Canadian values” as a big reason for its success. “This is a show about a SWAT team,” he explains, “yet its motto is ‘Let’s keep the peace.’ That motto is bound into our identity; we Canadians think of ourselves as peacekeepers. So it’s really gratifying that it has gone out into the world and into the US market, and that people have responded to it.” The weapons on Flashpoint are ubiquitous but, as he says, fired “very selectively. We never shoot first and ask questions later—we always ask questions first.”

As for The Border, Janet MacLean thinks viewers are responding to the ways in which it presents Canadian-specific subjects—from the illegal dumping of toxic waste, to eco-terrorism in Alberta, to the smuggling of child brides for a polygamist sect—in a more compelling manner. “I really wanted to present these issues as being played out in Canada with the same urgency that they are played out anywhere else,” she says. “Canadians are used to feeling like they’re not part of the world stage, like the exciting stuff all happens somewhere else, when it’s really just how the stuff is framed.”

Although both shows peer into the private lives of their characters, they allow little room for introspection, and action inevitably trumps talk. “The problem with Flashpoint and, to some degree, The Border is that the resolution is almost always guns,” says Mary Jane Miller. “That simply isn’t a reflection of either Canadian life as it is lived, or of Canadian television drama’s history.”

Proponents of the new programs might counter that Canadian TV drama has entered a new era—although the negative response from CTV and Global to the CRTC’s recent suggestion that the private networks should spend as much on Canadian programming as they do on American imports does not instill confidence for the long term. Nor does history suggest that the private networks will remain enthusiastic about producing new Canadian shows if they fail to attract Flashpoint-like ratings.

This could once again make CBC the only game in town, albeit in an ever-more-weakened state. Heritage Minister James Moore recently decreed that the corporation would now have to compete with private broadcasters for access to the Canadian Media Fund. “It’s an eternally complex business,” says Miller. “To me, the most basic point of all is that there is no stable, multi-year funding. That’s what the CBC has requested for the past 60 or 70 years, and it’s never gotten it, and that’s unique in public broadcasting around the world.” According to a 2006 study, the BBC—which Peter Grant rightly calls “the envy of all public broadcasters around the world”—receives approximately $124 per citizen for its services; the CBC gets $33.

Grant remains skeptical about banking the industry’s future health on the emergence of more Flashpoints. “The key thing here,” he says, “is that in a scenario where you essentially have an unpredictable demand for a series, you want to have a lot of bets at the table. And honestly, you want a volume of different kinds of drama. Flashpoint represents a certain kind of drama: it’s a police procedural; there are lots of those on the air, and they seem to do very well. But there’sroom for many other types of shows.”

Chris Haddock is more pessimistic: “CBS is getting these shows for a song. It’s very sad. It’s like back to the days of Night Heat, back to the days of doing American shows in Canada.” Having started his career writing for Night Heat, he remembers the period well. “It was a model that provided work to people, but it was service work, really. Having said that, there are a lot of good people who are working, and I’m not knocking them or their choices. But in an industry like this, when you raise your voice and complain, they shove you off the cliff.”

Exciting as it may be, watching someone get shoved off a cliff is a sight best reserved for a cold open.

Jason Anderson teaches film criticism at the University of Toronto, and is the director of programming for the Kingston Canadian Film Festival in Ontario.

Neil Doshi, a regular Walrus contributor, has designed products for threadless.com and Poketo.