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Julia Voth and Randal Edwards star in Package Deal, a rare Canadian multicamera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience. (Jeff Weddell Photography)
Julia Voth and Randal Edwards star in Package Deal, a rare Canadian multicamera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience. (Jeff Weddell Photography)

John Doyle

This slick Canadian comedy is only slightly funny Add to ...

Big night in the Canadian TV racket, such as it is. A new show, a returning drama and a returning-but-revamped drama. First, the new show.

Package Deal (CITY-TV, 8:30 p.m.) is a sitcom that arrives after considerable delay. The series got some promotional backing from Rogers, owner of the CITY channel, and was announced for an early May start, but then was postponed to June. What happened in June was only a sneak-peek look at the pilot. Now, at last, the series starts tonight.

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What is it? Well, rare for a Canadian comedy, it’s a multicamera show. That is, it’s shot with a live audience and a laugh track. This puts it in the company of ultra-familiar U.S. network sitcoms – Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls etc. – and far from what most Canadian comedies look and feel like. A Canadian series such as Mr. D is made with one roaming camera, no laugh track and a sense of humour that’s goofy and off-kilter, not relying on the dependable beat of banter followed by uproarious guffaws on the laugh track.

In the right hands, this kind of sitcom can be exceptionally funny. The Big Bang Theory is an example of high-grade, well-crafted comedy relying on a familiar template.

Package Deal isn’t Big Bang, nor was it meant to be. Made in Vancouver but set in Toronto, it’s about Danny White (Randal Edwards), a lawyer with a nice life, a new girlfriend and two overbearing brothers. Everything revolves around the girlfriend coping with the overbearing brothers and Danny really hoping that she can manage that.

So things open with Danny having impressed girlfriend Kim (Julia Voth, who is great but in an unforgiving role as a cookie-cutter babe/girlfriend type) with his cooking skills, and he’s getting smoochy with her on the couch. The door opens and in walk his older brothers Sheldon (Harland Williams, who is also good, but you know he can be a lot funnier) and Ryan (Jay Malone). Instantly it’s established that Sheldon is the older, weirder guy who deals in meat. And that Ryan is the middle brother, whiny and neurotic, still recovering from a divorce. “What are your intentions with our brother?” is the moot question. Kim is kind of appalled by them. But, once it’s explained that the brothers raised Danny and feel very protective, Kim tries to get along with them.

Comedy ensues. Much is made of Sheldon’s meat-selling. Yes, you can make “chuck steak” sound funny in the right context. Kim, of course, is a vegetarian. Hilarious. Ryan is suspicious of all women and thinks that because Kim drinks a glass or two of wine, she’s got a drinking problem.

You probably get the picture – very slight humour. Package Deal, on the evidence of tonight’s first episode, is no disaster. It’s funnier than another new Canadian sitcom, CTV’s Satisfaction, which was less a comedy than a cry for help.

But Package Deal is missing an ingredient: a scintilla of poignancy. In order for the show to hold together, the affection between the brothers has to seem genuine. Instead, Danny’s vulnerability is mocked. “He made us watch Eat Pray Love. It made me puke my lunch,” Sheldon says. Which is unkind.

The show was created and is run by Andrew Orenstein, a Canadian who worked on such network sitcoms as Malcolm in the Middle and 3rd Rock from the Sun. One imagines that the idea of doing a conventional, network-style sitcom in Canada appealed to the broadcaster, but what emerges here is a conclusion that we make Canadian-style comedy better than we make U.S.-network-style comedy. In coming episodes, Pamela Anderson will appear in a recurring role. That may liven it up, but watching the opening episode makes a person long for Corner Gas. Now that was funny.

Also airing tonight

Murdoch Mysteries (CBC, 8 p.m.) returns, all charm and gentle fun. Oh yes, there’s a mystery – a “shipping magnate’s daughter is kidnapped and a body is discovered aboard a ship.” Mind you, the trip out on Lake Ontario is more an excuse for repartee in a confined space than it is a delicious puzzle to be solved. And the lady characters look fabulous in their frocks as they take to the water. As usual, Jonny Harris manages to steal several scenes as Constable Crabtree and, as usual, Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) and Dr. Ogden (Hélène Joy) appear to be pining for each other without doing much about it.

Cracked (CBC, 9 p.m.) is also back and, for its second season, revamped. It appears it is now more about mental illness than it is a standard procedural about a fictional police unit that specializes in cases involving mental health. An ungainly mess at first, it still seems to be finding its feet. David Sutcliffe is fine as the lead cop, and tonight’s story – a hostage-taking at a psychiatric hospital – plays out in unexpected directions. But it’s too early to tell if this revamp is too little, too late.

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