As scholars of the history of great television will know, the absurd title of the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in 1969, was Whither Canada? This was a joke, the Pythons and others believing that the most boring title for anything on TV would involve Canada. Nobody would “care tuppence,” as they probably still said at the BBC in 1969, about Canada.
Not so much these days. Canada and Toronto, where this column is anchored, have been getting attention – and some bad press. Little wonder, with a Trump-era trade war unfolding. This country mystifies some, annoys others and also generates admiration. As for Toronto, two horrific attacks in the span of a few months on innocent citizens going about the business of just living here have made many people around the world wonder what ails us.
Such events and the resulting attention mobilize thoughts about who we are and what we cherish. Our culture, both in the broadest sense and in terms of the art and entertainment we create, reflects who we are, what we believe ourselves to be.
Before the weekend’s horror in Toronto happened, I had planned to write about a simple matter of good news in Canadian TV. Now, it turns out, it is perfectly appropriate to cite this good news as a useful reflection on the pressures that afflict our culture in the broadest sense.
Essentially, there are only two types of Canadian TV: one that mimics American formats and themes and one that is uniquely, distinctly our own. Two Canadian series recently launched into the wider world, and both are getting rave reviews. Both are emphatically of the distinctly Canadian this-is-us genre.
A couple of weeks ago, Kim’s Convenience landed internationally on Netflix. Now, a lot of things land on Netflix around the world. There is a vast amount of content from countless countries, and the shows that rise to the surface with glowing praise are rare. It’s early days, given how recently it launched on Netflix in other countries, but there has already been one short rave review in The New York Times.
“Kim’s Convenience started as a stage play, and it was then adapted into a TV series in Canada – and now it is finally available stateside,” Margaret Lyons writes. “Paul Sun-Hyung Lee stars as the affable father of a Korean-Canadian family that runs a convenience store. The show is single-camera comedy, but it has the gentle warmth and slower pace of a multicamera show. If you miss when Modern Family was good, try this.” Putting it in the category of when Modern Family was fresh, funny and warm is the highest compliment.
An online review by staff at the New York City Education Department arrived the other day, noting that on Kim’s Convenience, “their friends and customers are from various cultures. No one is represented as perfect, and human flaws create character-driven comedy. It’s important to see representation of real people, and I can’t think offhand of an American show that does this remotely as well.”
Letterkenny recently made its Hulu debut and got some ecstatic coverage – literally, the kind of dream reviews that very, very few shows generate. In Rolling Stone, Alan Sepinwall – one of the great U.S. critics and the hardest-working person in the field – devotes acres of space to it. He describes the show’s weirdness accurately: set in rural Ontario and anchored in wonderfully florid dialogue. Then he writes, “This is a strange, simple, delightful show that kept surprising me throughout the two seasons available on Hulu.”
He is astute in spotting the deft TV parody aspects of Letterkenny and the unique dynamic between the main characters, noting correctly that Katy (Michelle Mylett) is the wisest character on the show. He concludes by going all in: “I could extol the virtues of this marvelously goofy show some more, but it’s pert near tilly time, and I need some more pracky. Pitter patter, let’s get at’er. “
In The Hollywood Reporter, chief critic Tim Goodman does a run-don’t-walk to watch this show: “So I’ll start with the obvious – I love this show. Secondly, it’s a highly stylized bit of brilliance.” And he advises readers, “American viewers would be wise to delve into its coarse, hilarious, rural weirdness.”
Here’s the obvious thing: Both series are unequivocally Canadian in tone and style, born out of this glaringly odd environment we inhabit. Neither show was cooked up as a copycat production with a minor American TV star attached to get attention.
Kim’s Convenience is multicultural Toronto without making a big deal of that. It stays away from the pseudo-seriousness that could easily plague a comedy about immigrants and family dynamics. It has hosers and oddballs who really do not exist anywhere else. Letterkenny is bizarrely Canadian in a way that’s shocking – it’s a reminder that what we have here is utterly novel. And not since Trailer Park Boys launched have we heard the salty Canadian vernacular used with such aplomb and abandon. There’s an awful lot of talk and insult because talk and insult are better than violence.
We do best as we are, maddeningly different, no matter the stresses and strains on what makes us different, in every aspect of our culture. It would be absurd to take any other route.