Far be it from me to join the lineup of pundits offering advice and analysis to Catherine Tait, the incoming CBC president. But, in the matter of CBC English-language TV, there’s an issue: Where’s the great stuff?
This week the legal drama Burden of Truth was renewed by CBC. Why? Seriously, why is this mediocre, generic drama going to go on and on, sucking up money resources and airtime on our public broadcaster? I’m all for fun and entertainment, but this workmanlike series is just that — bland, ordinary stuff.
We are now almost 20 years into this Golden Age of television and Canadian TV is still making baby steps into the area. Now is the time to commit CBC to creating and airing material that belongs on the lists of the best of television. It is time for giant strides, leaving baby steps behind.
Two dramas stand out in the very recent past. Anne, the reboot of Anne of Green Gables, and Alias Grace. Both were done with Netflix. Whatever the complicated financial arrangements, the deal-making seems to have improved the quality. But two shows amounts to thin gruel in an age when startlingly original, vital TV storytelling is appearing almost every week on cable and streaming services. In fact the first season of CTV’s Cardinal was a more significant marker in the ongoing evolution of Canadian TV toward fine, non-generic and non-workmanlike TV than anything CBC has offered.
There is a lot of baggage surrounding CBC TV as a new president is installed. Some of it is created by the Minister of Heritage, Mélanie Joly. Inevitably, when introducing the new CBC boss, Joly talked about “the sea of change from traditional media and communications through to today’s digital world.” Joly is obsessed with the idea that what Canadian creative industries need is a push into the digital age of online, streaming and other contemporary services.
In the matter of television, the issue is not the existence of a cornucopia of digital services. The engine that has driven this Golden Age of TV is, simply, excellence. And ambition is the fuel that keeps the engine going: ambition to make television, especially long-form TV drama, that is the most significant storytelling form of our time. Ambition to make what transcends mere storytelling or entertainment. The ambition is to reach for and grasp sociological importance and psychological depth.
Almost 20 years into this era — using the arrival of The Sopranos as the starting point in 1999 — CBC has been derelict in its duty. It has shown almost no ambition for greatness. Meanwhile, public broadcasters in countries smaller than Canada, especially in Scandinavia, keep on producing dramas that find an audience in countless countries around the world, because they are truly superb, sophisticated television storytelling.
In truth, dereliction of duty doesn’t cover recent CBC TV history. Ineptness is more like it. Two years ago, with much fanfare, CBC aired Shoot the Messenger, a glossy crime drama series. It was, according to the creators, inspired by the sheer weirdness of the Rob Ford era in Toronto. All the grit, grime and surreal nature of that period. What emerged started pleasantly enough as a network-style crowd-pleaser but rather quickly became absurdly silly, with a miscast lead and a storyline that seemed to be copied from a template recipe for a dark, brooding, cable-style, multilayered drama, but was hopelessly applied. It has all the depth of a National Enquirer story.
Also in the past two years, Netflix subscribers had the opportunity to watch Intelligence, a CBC drama from the creator of Da Vinci’s Inquest, that rare CBC triumph of the past two decades. After watching the first two seasons, many readers wrote to me to ask, “Is that it?” I was obliged to reply to all and point out that’s it because CBC cancelled it. One reader told me that the cancellation was the cultural equivalent of the cancellation of the Avro Arrow program.
The issue boils down to CBC’s ineptitude, fear of challenging drama and neuroses about its role. Listen, in television storytelling it’s all very well to talk about telling Canadian stories, and diversity and inclusiveness. First must come a commitment to greatness, to big, brave risky storytelling that Canadians get from other countries and are entitled to expect from CBC TV. It can’t be legislated into existence but telling the TV side to go beyond baby steps would be a useful start by the incoming CBC president.