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John Doyle: Television

From briefing notes to black ops in the embassy TV room Add to ...

Hello U.S. diplomats in Ottawa! I have news for you. That CBC show you were so concerned about for its anti-American stereotypes, The Border? Yeah, that one. Much of it was written by an American guy.

Did I hear you say, "Oops"? See, it's true. American guy from the Bronx, named Denis McGrath, comes to Canada, does this show (and some others) as episode writer and co-producer, and then moseys back to the United States. He's now in L.A., cooking up some other stereotypes, presumably.

Now hands up, who remembers The Border? Not many do because hardly anybody paid much attention when it aired on CBC for a couple of years.

A loud, bombastic drama about big issues told in broad strokes, it was mainly about our Canadian Immigration and Customs Security Squad (ICS), an allegedly "elite" team "charged with bringing order amid trafficking, terrorism, human cargo, asylum seekers and political corruption." The ICS people were the good guys, stopping no-goodniks

In the first episode, the Yanks got involved. Homeland Security took a dim view of Canadian attitudes toward border-security issues. Along comes Special Agent Bianca LaGarda (Sofia Milos from CSI: Miami), to be based in Canada and charged with whipping the soft-left-liberal Canadians into shape. When The Border began, I described her character as "all stiletto heels and implausible skank's hair."

I thought that was a good line. But there was a better one - "a cross between Salma Hayek and Cruella de Vil." That was written by a waggish aspiring TV critic in the U.S. diplomacy racket, one residing in Ottawa and keeping an eagle eye on Canadian TV for signs of creeping anti-Americanism. Nice work if you can get it. I should know.

Reading the memo titled "Primetime Images of U.S.-Canada Border Paints U.S. In Increasingly Negative Light" you wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Apparently at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa they spend their evenings scouring CBC shows for signs of anti-American sentiment, wringing their hands about what they find and send reports back to Washington. Among their concerns were The Border, the mini-series H20 ("wildly implausible" says the memo, pithily), Little Mosque on the Prairie and Intelligence. Well, at least they got to see one good show, Intelligence. Otherwise, they must have been going out of their minds with tedium. The boom-boom-boom soundtrack to The Border would drive anyone around the bend.

So that's the laughable part. I mean, honestly. Here are people representing a country whose TV shows blithely stereotype every country and culture in the world. Always have. And here they're writing memos about shows on "state-owned" CBC giving the impression that the forces of U.S. law-and-order might not be entirely trustworthy.

Apparently it came as a huge surprise to the aspiring TV critics at the U.S. embassy that after 9/11, Canadians might be a tad preoccupied with how the U.S.-Canada border is perceived by Canadians, in reality and in fiction, on TV. If anyone saw bolts of lighting strike the U.S. embassy in Ottawa during the run of The Border, that's what was happening - they had this huge revelation. Canadians are worried about the border issue.

On the unfunny side if things, you gotta wonder - how influential are these people? The Border was cancelled, after low ratings took a toll. Little Mosque is still airing, but it has descended into terminal cuteness. Intelligence was cancelled in its prime.

Intelligence is described in the leaked memo as "stinging it its portrayal of U.S.-Canada law enforcement co-operation." It goes on to point out that on Intelligence, a "rogue DEA team actually started selling drugs for a profit." As Intelligence was set in a fictional underworld where criminals and law enforcement sometimes work together to further certain interests, the plotline is hardly surprising. And it is hardly news, in the real world, that law enforcement officials have sometimes been caught selling drugs.

Yet Intelligence did seem to trouble U.S. officials more than The Border's cartoonish melodrama. Little wonder - it was a smart, finely written drama and watched by viewers looking for subtlety and provocative storylines.

A couple of years ago, when it was unclear if Intelligence would be renewed by the CBC, I spoke to its creator, Chris Haddock. He told me he was intrigued but vaguely worried that so many members of the Conservative government were familiar with his show. They knew the plot twists and, during some TV industry event in Ottawa, some had joked about its anti-Americanism. Maybe they weren't joking. Maybe they knew an awful lot about the show because noises were being made about it, noise emanating from sources other than the usual anti-CBC blowhards.

The context of the U.S. memo about Canadian TV is a pervasive U.S. worry, if not outright indignation, about how these shows "feed long-standing negative images of the U.S." So who cancelled Intelligence? The CBC, the minority Conservative government or the U.S. embassy? Or all three?

Call me paranoid. I don't care. The people who need to get paranoid are those U.S. diplomats who failed to realize that an American was stoking the anti-Americanism of The Border. They should wring their hands about that for a while.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle


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