Shelved is Canada’s answer to Abbott Elementary, Quinta Brunson’s Emmy-winning sitcom about teachers championing their students against all odds in the American public school system. Brunson’s blueprints are all over the new CTV series about librarians doing their best to protect a nurturing community space in their west-end Parkdale neighbourhood.
The chirpy positivity in Brunson’s Abbott character Janine is right here in Shelved’s lead character, Wendy (Lyndie Greenwood), head of the local library branch. And both series share an episode about needless improvements resulting in a plumbing disaster. But, after a rough start feeling out the grooves between its characters and space, Shelved comes into its own, largely on the strength of its snappy, funny dialogue and a game, eclectic cast.
The series is created by Anthony Q. Farrell, a former writer on NBC’s The Office who has since been working in family television: The Thundermans, The Parker Andersons, Overlord and the Underwoods and Run the Burbs’ second season. Some of the childishness in that earlier work carries over in Shelved, as it awkwardly tries to grow into its Office-style comedy, with the camera anxiously looking this way and that, punctuating gags with quick zooms.
Farrell and company lean into the location. Parkdale is an immigrant hub where local organizations do community work beneath the crush of international conglomerate-backed gentrification.
The social environment informs the characters who populate the library. There are people who just need access to a computer, those who use the building’s meeting rooms for community discussions and those looking for a safe space, such as Wendy (yes, Shelved has two Wendys), an unhoused woman played with joyous and proud petulance by SCTV veteran Robin Duke).
Another amusing presence is Varun Saranga’s Alvin, an eager beaver offering catch-all consulting services for whatever it is that people need consulting on. He saves on his own overhead costs by hogging up library rooms as office space.
Shelved’s dynamic is set instantly in the first episode’s prologue. We meet library head Wendy, a mirthful woman who occasionally has uncharacteristically daft moments. She’s holding a meeting, trying to push past the latest news that the library has been denied appropriate funding and supplies, which are often redirected to the branches in more wealthy and demanding neighbourhoods. The group immediately moves on to their choices for the “staff picks” shelf.
Jaq (played by Indigenous comic Dakota Ray Hebert with a hilariously dry delivery) chooses the latest YA fantasy Transform Menstruation. It’s “terrifying, angsty and so necessary,” she says. This immediately rattles Paul Braunstein’s Bryce. He’s a men’s rights activist-type who listens to a podcast called “Lamestream Media” and tries to sneak a right-wing pamphlet into the staff picks. Shelved is at its best when the breezy antagonism between Jaq and Bryce adds to the chaos in a public space where so many contrasting personalities collide.
This series would easily agitate the likes of Bryce, especially because Farrell makes a point to represent every community, from straight white male to racialized drag performers. The intentional diversity doesn’t feel forced as it often does on shows where representation is limited to tokenism. Instead, it feels just like Parkdale itself, especially with the easygoing dynamic among the cast.
There is a lack of sustained tension, though, which holds Shelved back. The show has such a generous and likeable vibe, where even Bryce’s redeeming qualities are immediately apparent, making genuine drama just out of reach at times. Still, the learning opportunities afforded to Bryce, the willingness to dig into conversations with someone we would be inclined to block on Twitter, are what makes this inviting show a standout. It may not be set in school like Abbott is, but it’s still about public education.
Shelved airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m. on CTV.
Special to The Globe and Mail