It’s a spinoff, a comedy featuring a character familiar from a hit show and it also features cute animals. What could possibly go wrong?
In the case of Strays (Tuesdays, CBC, 8:30 p.m. and CBC Gem), a lot. The central character is Shannon Ross (Nicole Power), the car-rental manager from Kim’s Convenience who has moved to Hamilton and is running an animal shelter. She’s still Shannon-the-goofy, the motor-mouth who gets tongue-tied and behaves awkwardly. Around her are well-drawn secondary characters and the vibe is absurdist.
What went wrong was COVID-19 delays and confusion surrounding the end of Kim’s. Simu Liu, Power’s co-star, seemed bent on burning Kim’s Convenience to the ground. On his way to being the first Asian superhero of a Marvel Studios movie, he made a lengthy complaint on social media, explaining, among other issues, his resentment that “the one non-Asian character” on Kim’s was “getting her own show.” Later, he walked back some of his comments and deleted the social-media post. But damage was done to Power and the show.
Strays is now reaching its third episode and should be enjoyed and examined outside of the context that made it an unlucky cousin to Kim’s. It’s a lightweight bonkers comedy that gets stronger by the week, but still has some occasional weak episodes. Wisely, it doesn’t put Ross at its core. It’s very much an ensemble piece, a workplace comedy that relies on zaniness and gentle satire.
If you’re starting from the get-go, via CBC Gem, the opening episode is probably the weakest and it’s in Episode 2 that the series nails it.
Of course, there’s the inevitable mix-up with the wrong cat given out for adoption when one of the staff, Joy (Tina Jung), who really doesn’t know much about animals, gets confused. But it’s Nikki (Nikki Duval) who emerges as a memorable creation. A slacker foisted on Shannon, she doesn’t want to work and is way more interested in partying. There’s a deftly done bit of nonsense when fellow staffer Kristian (Frank Cox-O’Connell) thinks Nikki is pregnant and she plays along.
This week’s episode doesn’t have quite the same buoyant feel to it, but you can see where the show’s going. Shannon inveigles her neighbour, a reporter for the local paper, to do a story on the shelter. Her well-meaning but daft efforts climax when she’s, well, she’s naked in the wrong bed. Meanwhile, Kristian convinces the shelter’s janitor, Paul (Tony Nappo doing a very credible gruff-but-lovable macho-guy), to give him a tattoo so he appears more manly.
The style is very much chaotic farce, which is difficult to pull off. The mechanics of the comedy, all misunderstandings and mischief, must be well-honed and oiled, and they are.
The sheer energy of Strays is admirable. It’s gags galore and it can be fiendishly clever contrivance, often anchored in the style of that theatrical staple, the British bedroom farce. At the same time, it’s a distinctly contemporary Canadian series, with a diverse cast, and if there’s a tincture of subtext that subtext is tolerance. But you’d hardly notice with all the exuberance on display. Besides, there are cute animals almost everywhere. Some look like breakout stars.
As this reviewer understands things, Strays was meant to air alongside the final season of Kim’s and allow for cross-over characters and stories with the possibility of another character from Kim’s appearing on a different spinoff. You can see the logic behind that plan, but Kim’s finished sooner than expected and there was awkward bitterness wafting around that.
In the way it happened, Strays got impugned and COVID-19 delays meant production started, stopped and started again. Never mind now. Trust me, Strays is fine, escapist fun, and don’t delete that endorsement.
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