The new Canadian cop series Played (CTV, 10 p.m.) is simultaneously familiar and peculiar. It’s familiar because it’s yet another generic Canadian cop show, and peculiar because, even as a generic cop show, it’s awful, falling below a minimal level of competence in keeping viewers engaged.
There’s a prevailing sentiment in the culture that we’re more than a decade into a new Golden Age of television. The starting point was the arrival of The Sopranos in 1999 and the most recent marker in the ongoing evolution of excellent TV was the series finale of Breaking Bad. What has Canada contributed to this? Pretty much nothing. Look at the last 14 years of Canadian TV and what you see is almost complete creative failure.
The use of “almost” is necessary because there are two figures whose work stood out for inventiveness. Chris Haddock and Mike Clattenburg are the only two figures in Canadian TV who could be called “auteurs.” Haddock was, if anything, a head of developments in American cable drama when he made Da Vinci’s Inquest, a series less interested in slickness and the predictable beat of a police procedural than in an elliptical, truthful portrait of a city in all its vices. Then he made Intelligence, a crime drama which asked the question, “Are the bad guys morally superior to the good guys?” CBC cancelled Intelligence and that was the end of that.
Clattenburg’s creation, Trailer Park Boys, made some people uncomfortable. It wasn’t about middle-class, professional people in crisis. It celebrated the hoser lifestyle of ordinary, decent, happy losers, welfare bums and career criminals. It was funny, inventive and dealt with working-class life with clarity and sympathy. Best of all, it was utterly original. Clattenburg went on to make some exquisite low-key movies and eventually handed over Trailer Park Boys to the Boys themselves so they could mine it as a Web-only series. And that was the end of that.
Several fundamental problems bedevil Canadian television and account for its vast and pointless investment in mediocrity. Most of them are self-created.
The paucity of creative ambition is stunning. Canadian TV executives favour gimmicks over originality. CTV’s Played is, like Global’s Rookie Blue and CBC’s Cracked, a cop show with an alleged “twist” that is meant to makes a series a little different from the common template. This is a ludicrously limited mindset, one born of laziness and indifference to originality.
The emblem of worth in Canadian TV is having a series picked up by a U.S. network. The asinine premise is a belief that a series has more stature if a U.S. network deigns to air it. The production values, storytelling and acting are good enough for an American audience, so the Canadian makers feel free to congratulate themselves. This situation – mainly of Canadian series airing during the summer on a U.S. channel – began with a fortuitous circumstance. Panicking during the writer’s strike in 2007, CBS looked north and picked up CTV’s Flashpoint. Now, Flashpoint turned out to be better than a mere schedule-filler, but the U.S. networks made a habit of finding stop-gap shows in Canada.
Whatever pride the Canadian industry might take in Flashpoint, Rookie Blue, The Listener and Motive, the truth was put bluntly by Les Moonves, the CBS boss, this past summer. Speaking to TV Critics about summer programming strategies these days, he referenced the habit of using “cheap Canadian exports” to fill holes in a schedule. That summarizes the worth of those shows as far as the American industry is concerned.
And then there is the depth of arrogance and delusion in the Canadian industry. A cabal of loud-voiced complainers, mainly those who write TV series, spend less time on originality in storytelling than on whining about press coverage and undermining each other. The truth of the latter point is underlined by the near shut-out of popular shows Murdoch Mysteries and Republic of Doyle in the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards. The shut-out suggests organized in-fighting and the result, another failure of the industry, is an awards system that is unreliable.
Republic of Doyle is, like Murdoch Mysteries, a charming, well-crafted series. Its creator, Alan Hawco, doesn’t strut about Canada claiming to be the Vince Gilligan or Matthew Weiner of the Great White North. His modesty is this regard is at variance with the egotism of many of those who make generic, workmanlike TV here and expect to be worshipped for it.
The CBC is partly to blame for the amount of bland, uninspiring TV made here. Long before its budgets were cut, it scorned the original and challenging in favour of the tame and innocuous, which is what Murdoch Mysteries is, no matter its ratings. Further, the Canadian grouse that this Golden Age of TV rests upon the freedom afforded U.S. cable channels, while most Canadian TV is made by commercial networks, is redundant. Commercial TV here is much less burdened by restrictive regulations on content than U.S. counterparts. The Sopranos aired uncut and uncensored on CTV in Canada.
Even when our cable and premium-cable channels invest in original Canadian content, the result is deflating and inadequate. Super Channel is airing Forgive Me, a serious-minded drama with admirable performances. But the gist is a bunch of 30-minute episodes so small-scale they literally comprise, in the main, a priest talking to a parishioner in a confessional. Super Channel’s other fray into alleged original programming is a documentary series amounting to a marketing campaign for the online service Naked News. Paucity of ambition defined.
In this Golden Age of TV Canada has offered almost nothing. Of that the Canadian TV industry should be truly ashamed.