This New CBC Show Is an Antidote to Reality TV

In an era where sensationalism on our screens dominates, In the Making is a venture into authenticity

Photo courtesy of CBC / White Pine Pictures
Sean O'Neill and artist Divya Mehra in Winnipeg during the filming of In the Making.

In late april, in the Indian city of Agra, there was a sea of tourists around the Taj Mahal. Some were taking selfies, others posed rigidly in front of the landmark, and a few even reached their arms up into the air so that, with the cameras strategically angled, they appeared to be touching the tip of the landmark’s bronze finial. In their midst stood Divya Mehra, a thirty-six-year-old artist from Winnipeg. Mehra was not focused on the building, though; her own lens was fixed on the posturing tourists.

Mehra, in turn, was surrounded by a CBC film crew that was documenting her project. The crew was under strict instructions from Mehra that the Taj Mahal itself was not to appear in any of their shots. “I’m not interested in performing this idea of Indianness,” Mehra had explained ahead of the shoot. “If you’re interested in learning more about that or if you’re interested in seeing images of the Taj Mahal, you can Google that.” Mehra was at work on an art piece about how images of the Taj Mahal have been reproduced in Western popular culture. While the team was on board, the request wasn’t met with universal understanding. “Why did we spend so much money, get through this rigorous process, and come here and not show the Taj?” said Ricky Saksana, one of the two Indian fixers helping the CBC team. “I mean, that’s ridiculous,” he added with a laugh.

Mehra first made her request one month prior, during a Skype call with Sean O’Neill, presenter and executive producer of In the Making, a new CBC arts documentary series that launched in September. O’Neill was outwardly supportive, though inwardly, he was worried. To take a crew halfway around the world and fail to capture that quintessential shot could be a hard sell to the broadcaster’s executives. But respecting Mehra’s decision was also essential for the show that O’Neill had set out to create.

The concept behind In the Making is simple enough: find Canadian artists about to embark on a large project and document their process. Its simplicity is also what makes it surprising. Nonscripted television—the broad umbrella that includes reality TV, game shows, and documentaries—has spiralled into so many outlandish configurations over the past twenty years that unless someone is marrying a stranger or on the verge of winning a staggering amount of money, the stakes can feel underwhelming. In the Making is arguing against this flashy and shallow approach to television—the series is wagering that, even when it’s stripped of prizes, interpersonal conflict, and celebrity, viewers still care about art.

In the making’s eight episodes serve unapologetically highbrow fare for a Friday-night audience, and every element of the production seems to have been meticulously considered: New York designer Christy Nyiri, whose clients have included moma, devised the show’s titles; the team forewent the CBC’s music bank and brought in composer Kieran Adams, of the acclaimed Toronto indie band Diana, to score the episodes; artist Amy Lam was hired to conduct archival research; and episode directors include documentary filmmakers Chelsea McMullan and Amar Wala. Viewers might not notice these decisions if they aren’t watching for them, but together, they give the show an unmistakable feeling of aesthetic authenticity; it’s as though, for twenty-two minutes, you’ve climbed inside the artist’s world.

The eight artists profiled are just as carefully chosen—they are all successful and well-respected figures but not exactly household names. There is the musician Lido Pimienta, who won the Polaris Prize last year (she also made news again a few weeks afterwards, when a white concertgoer in Halifax refused to move after Pimienta invited “brown girls to the front” of the venue), as well as artists Adrian Stimson, Shelley Niro, and Curtis Talwst Santiago. Choreographers Dana Michel and Crystal Pite are profiled, as is musician Chilly Gonzales. O’Neill is a constant presence in the episodes: he joins the artists on their travels and prompts them to talk about the subjects they tackle, which include the history of residential schools, racism, and dealing with grief. But the artists themselves remain the focus.

The idea behind In the Making was developed out of an, admittedly, silly show. O’Neill, who is thirty-three, first began working with the CBC as a presenter—not, he notes, a producer—on Crash Gallery, a game-show-style art program that launched in 2015. A former actor, O’Neill has worked for most of the last decade programming events and organizing projects at the Art Gallery of Ontario, making him uniquely equipped to host art-related TV. Crash Gallery didn’t utilize this expertise. In each episode, three artists (the definition stretched to include cake makers and nail technicians) competed in outlandish challenges, such as painting canvases while suspended upside down or smashing plates and turning the shards into mosaics. The show had a slapstick appeal, but it didn’t offer much insight into contemporary art or make for a particularly entertaining game show. But as O’Neill was handing competitors water guns filled with paint and asking them to create a visual representation of “love,” he was also nursing an idea for a different kind of arts program—an in-depth, story-driven series that would focus on artists at the leading edges of their disciplines. “It had been so long since the CBC had done anything really major in terms of covering the arts in Canada, and I thought, ‘Okay, there is a good show that could be made, and maybe if I do Crash Gallery, then the CBC and I will build a relationship and that could lead to something else,’” says O’Neill.

The last serious prime-time arts show that most casual viewers remember is likely Adrienne Clarkson Presents, wherein Clarkson, playing both host and coach, interviewed (and occasionally grilled) musical acts, architects, and artists. The program was critically well received and had an impressive run, from 1988 to 1999, ending around the time Clarkson began her tenure as Governor General.

Crash Gallery ended after two seasons, and O’Neill’s long-term planning paid off. According to Jennifer Dettman, who heads up unscripted content at the CBC, the broadcaster was in the midst of a new strategy for covering the arts, and while more traditional favourites won’t be cast aside—“we still do Stratford plays on Sunday afternoons”—there was new room for experimentation.

In the intervening decades between Adrienne Clarkson Presents and In the Making, television has greatly changed, and so has contemporary art in Canada. The latter is certainly more political and much more diverse—something that In the Makingkeenly reflects as it tries to become the new cornerstone of the CBC’s arts programming. “We didn’t sit down and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make a documentary about eight political artists,’” O’Neill says. “But when we looked at the landscape across the country of what artists were talking about and dealing with, there was a common thread of artists looking, examining, questioning, and critiquing.” The directors and O’Neill needed to foster an environment where artists working with fraught subject matter could feel comfortable opening up. “In some cases, these controversial places that the artists were going meant that, on our side, we needed an equally diverse and intersectional set of people on our crews and in our creative positions,” O’Neill explains. The result of these conscious efforts is intimate, and occasionally heavy, television.

The most poignant moment of the series occurs during the episode on Adrian Stimson. Stimson, whose paintings and performances garnered him a Governor General’s Award earlier this year, was working on a project with artist AA Bronson about an unlikely connection in their families’ pasts: Bronson’s great-grandfather John William Tims moved to southern Alberta in the 1880s to work at the first residential school on the Siksika Nation reserve, where he sparred with Chief Old Sun, who was an ancestor of Stimson’s. Stimson’s father and family members would later attend that same residential school.

During a dinner party with friends and colleagues that Stimson hosted as his gender-bending alter ego, Buffalo Boy, he and Bronson talked about their shared past and the wealth of information they’d unearthed during their archival research. Myrna Youngman, a friend of Stimson’s, weighed in on the project, and started to thank Bronson for broaching this history. “It’s really meaningful that you’re acknowledging what your grandfather did,” she told him. “As a residential-school survivor, it means, from my heart,” her voice broke, and she took a long pause before she explained how rare it is to see someone take responsibility for the past wrongs of their family. By the time Youngman concluded, most of the guests were in tears.

It’s a vulnerable scene, and it gives a deeply personal insight into how the artwork that Stimson and Bronson are starting to create has real consequences. “It showed me that these conversations are never going to be pleasant, but we are absolutely capable of having them,” says Amar Wala, who directed the episode.

Whether the average television viewer will forgo cash prizes and cliffhanger commercial breaks in favour of sober self-reflection remains to be seen. In the Making is certainly weightier fare compared with our public broadcaster’s other prime-time programming, and the team isn’t sure who precisely its audience will be. “We weren’t centring at every juncture what one might think of as the traditional CBC Television–watching audience, which tends to be a little older, higher income, a little whiter…maybe a lot whiter,” O’Neill says. The show is also being released online, immediately and in its entirety, when the first episode airs, and it is possible that In the Making will find its audience there.

Still, there are metrics that are more important than eyeballs. Viewers and market-share figures are the bottom lines of commercial channels; public broadcasters, however, should be pushed to consider other factors, such as whether a program informs, innovates, and reflects the people they represent. This is where In the Making succeeds, regardless of its eventual viewership numbers: for perhaps the first time, a television show is trusting artists to present their work as they see fit and, more importantly, trusting audiences to appreciate these works in all their nuances. Rather than contorting art and artists into gimmicks or having a host explicate so intensely that the program resembles a lecture, In the Making makes every small element of the show resemble the subjects it’s documenting and, in doing so, feels like a work of art itself.

Caoimhe Morgan-Feir
Caoimhe Morgan-Feir (@CMorganFeir) is the former managing editor of Canadian Art. She has contributed to Frieze and Toronto Life. She is based in New York.