Mad Men has wrapped for another year, leaving the enigmatic Don Draper apparently contemplating more adultery. But fans of great TV will be glad to know that Season 5 of Breaking Bad starts up again next month, picking up right where we left off in the life of Walter White, chemistry teacher turned meth dealer. It will be next winter before we find out what’s up with the Granthams at Downton Abbey, but the Prohibition-era crooks on Boardwalk Empire should keep us suitably entertained all fall.
With a seemingly unending parade of lush period pieces and dark crime dramas, the golden age of television continues to shimmer brightly.
Just not in Canada.
The rise of the cable drama, expanding episodic television into long-form narratives that represent the most sophisticated audiovisual storytelling the culture has to offer, has no Canadian equivalent. Here, network television produces a handful of more-or-less successful procedural dramas (Republic of Doyle, Flashpoint, Rookie Blue), co-produces a few high-end European entries (The Tudors, The Borgias); and often relegates what little distinctive fare it does produce (in particular, unusual comedy, such as Ken Finkleman’s Good Dog and Good God; and the nasty Less Than Kind) to the relative obscurity of the Canadian specialty channels.
Canada isn’t playing television’s game of thrones. That’s partly because it doesn’t have the big audiences and big money to compete; but also, more sadly yet more reversibly, because its risk-averse television broadcasters are failing to back talent in a culture that too quickly turns to airing U.S. television rather than demanding better from its own.
And yet, an increasingly transcontinental trade in TV shows has created a rising group of Canadian writers and directors poised for success on one side of the border or the other.
They will create great Canadian shows – if the system doesn’t get in their way. “If somebody decides to let someone with a vision have a go, every shoulder has to be behind it,” says Chris Haddock, who created Da Vinci’s Inquest, Da Vinci’s City Hall and Intelligence for the CBC, but is currently writing for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire in New York. Adds Haddock: “Every show that has succeeded has had people who stuck by it.”
The notoriously expensive 2010 pilot for Boardwalk Empire cost $18-million (U.S.) according to Variety. Of course, American budgets are bigger, typically $2.5-million to $3-million an hour-long episode versus $1-million in Canada. While Canadian series can access more money through international co-productions, especially for historical dramas, such productions aren’t visibly Canadian. Bigger budgets provide the money to pay for the fancier costumes and big-name stars that lure viewers – a Joseph Fiennes on Camelot or Jeremy Irons on The Borgias – but, more importantly, they pay for more writers, and more time to shoot.
The real difference between the two countries, however, is that the wealth of the Hollywood system has created a niche in cable drama where producers can afford big budgets on the one hand yet largely ignore ratings on the other.
Mad Men is one of the most talked-about shows on TV, yet its ratings are modest; it averaged fewer than a million viewers in its debut season in 2007, and is now averaging a more respectable 2.6 million. In Canadian terms, that is an audience in the 100,000-to-300,000 range – just enough to get you cancelled on the CBC. Haddock’s Intelligence, the internationally recognized CBC secret-service drama of 2006-07, was averaging fewer than 200,000 viewers when it got the axe, making it the Avro Arrow of Canadian television. Similarly, after a single season, the CBC has just canned Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, the much-discussed comedy by Bob Martin and Matt Watts, which had also dropped below the 200,000 mark.
Industry insiders say shows such as Mad Men on AMC or, previously, The Sopranos on HBO are considered loss leaders: What they deliver is critical buzz and Emmy nominations that will build a channel’s reputation and its subscription base. While Canadian specialty channels can also afford to be less ratings-driven than the networks, the space for high-quality Canadian drama in what is already a small niche in a small market is getting increasingly cramped.
Distinctive Canadian voices do find a place. HBO Canada has recently aired those self-referential satires of Finkleman’s; The Movie Network/Movie Central originated the theatrical satire Slings & Arrows in 2003 and the dark and cynical Durham County in 2007, both of which were well-received on U.S. cable. But, lacking big promotional budgets and prime spots on the schedule here at home, the shows seldom get much attention from Canadians.
Consolidation in the industry – Bell Media, which owns CTV, is just waiting for government approval of its purchase of Astral, which owns The Movie Network (TMN) and operates HBO Canada in Eastern Canada – may threaten that already-scarce diversity as broadcasting conglomerates look for programming they can use across different platforms. That’s a development that will only be encouraged by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s new TV policy, which allows the broadcasters to spread some of their Canadian-content requirements across a chain of channels. Meanwhile, the small number of players and the private broadcasters’ dependence on a business model based on buying American programs rather than producing domestic ones makes Canadian TV much more risk-averse than the best examples in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the small number of players and the private broadcasters’ dependence on a business model based on buying American programs rather than producing domestic ones makes Canadian TV more risk-averse than the best U.S. examples.
“Networks executives [in the U.S.] live or die by their programming decisions; they are hired for their taste. If they are fired, there are lots of other places they can go,” notes Michelle Marion, former head of production of TMN and HBO Canada. “The problem in Canada is that there are so few networks, it’s hard to stick your neck out and make shows that are unconventional.”
Programmers often look to procedural dramas – always a favourite with audiences – which may explain why Canada has had a fair amount of success in that field in recent years, with U.S. partners signing on for shows such as Flashpoint, The Listener and the new medical drama Saving Hope. And yet, for the most part, the talked-about U.S. cable dramas are not programs that fit recognized genres; they’re character-driven shows created by individual visionaries.
Indeed, Canadian TV writers, directors and producers say the thing that is most lacking here is the commitment to get behind individual creators and let them pursue their ideas – the way Matthew Weiner did with Mad Men and Julian Fellowes did with Downton Abbey (an American-British co-pro that aired on PBS and ITV, Britain’s commercially owned public-service channel, and surpassed expectations for a period drama in proving a huge ratings hit.)
Instead, Canadian broadcasters are often making TV by committee. “It’s about passion,” says producer Christina Jennings of Shaftesbury Films, explaining why she is backing two writers – Esta Spalding and Daphne Ballon – who want to make a new series based on Jalna, the Mazo de la Roche family saga published in the 1920s. The concept is now in development with Shaw Media. “They came to us and said, we want to remake Jalna, and the lightbulb went off.” Viewers with long memories may be put off by dusty recollections from 1972 of CBC’s convoluted Whiteoaks of Jalna, but Jennings feels a new generation should lap up the soapy story.
If it succeeds, it will be an example of exactly what the system should be doing – letting the creators currently toiling on procedurals and sitcoms follow their muse: Spalding has previously written for Flashpoint, Rookie Blue and Being Erica; Ballon was the creator of the family sitcom Life with Derek.
Meanwhile, filmmaker and TV director Clement Virgo is developing a six-part adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s bestseller The Book of Negroes for the CBC, and is hoping that South African and European partners will sign on. If that works, it would create an international co-production that, for once, would be identifiably Canadian; but it also raises the question why Canada does not turn more often to its esteemed literary writers rather than merely adapting their classic novels. The urban sensibility of thriller writer Andrew Pyper, the immigrant perspective of novelist David Bezmozgis (who is also a filmmaker), or Miriam Toews’s eye for character – to pick but a few examples – all suggest writers who could do interesting things on the small screen.
Of course, the surest route to success is to hand a project to someone who has already produced a winner: Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, who had quit screenwriting after she wrote Durham County, now has a project in development with the CBC.
She says she wants to work in Canada. The same goes for Haddock; and for Martin, who created Slings & Arrows and Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays. But the latter two are now pitching directly to U.S. networks: In an increasingly globalized TV market, the writers can easily bypass Canadian broadcasters.
Haddock’s current pitches to HBO in the U.S. include a show that would be set in Vancouver, which is where he really wants to be. If it succeeds, the series would prove a triumph of Canadian talent – yet an indictment of Canadian TV. This country seems unlikely to produce a Mad Men, but a Canadian just might.