Those British TV shows in which Miss Marple solves the case or Inspector Morse fingers the wrong guy are often known as cozies. Even when set in the present, they are nostalgic productions with bucolic settings from which a few not-too-gruesome examples of violence are eventually expelled. Gore, corruption and ambivalence rarely intrude.
The CBC has its share of the same, and while their colleagues on the radio side were busy dealing with a messy sex scandal this week, the folks in TV were enjoying a rather cozy interlude. Republic of Doyle was settling into the final episodes of what has been a successful six-season run devoted to the antics of an incompetent private eye in picturesque St. John's while the network was celebrating the 100th episode of Murdoch Mysteries. That's a rare feat for a Canadian series, and it's only possible because the CBC picked up the show when CITY-TV dropped it in 2011 after five seasons.
Murdoch Mysteries is a classic cozy featuring clever sleuthing in Victorian Toronto. Detective William Murdoch's enthusiasm for the latest technology, from flying machines to fingerprinting, allows the show to continually wink at contemporary audiences while his status as a Catholic in love with a Protestant coroner with a past allows it to raise social issues. For the 100th episode Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogden finally tied the knot – but naturally the pair were much more interested in solving their current case than in getting to the church on time.
Of course, Murdoch Mysteries isn't really set in the past; it's set in the present – or at least in a place seen through the screen of present concerns. While it includes the occasional clunky anachronism, the show generally reflects all sorts of contemporary Canadian attitudes about religious tolerance, pluralism and the equality of women. Similarly, the CBC's latest historical drama, Strange Empire, tells us as much about contemporary Canadian sensibilities toward marginalized peoples as it does about outlaws and prostitutes on the Alberta-Montana border in the 1860s. Strange Empire unfolds from the perspective of three female outsiders – a dark-skinned con artist turned madam, a sharpshooting Métis rancher and an autistic doctor – as it puts a contemporary spin on the macho Western genre by the wickedly simple expedient of killing off the men in the first episode.
But the similarities stop there: Full of blood and turpitude, Strange Empire is anything but cozy. There's lots of aggressive sex and racist violence in the show where Kat the sharpshooter came within inches of being gruesomely hanged last week. For years, the CBC had been wary of historical drama, aiming to distance itself – with some justification – from a stuffy public image associated with nostalgic shows set in Canada's lily white past. Years after the last of the Anne of Green Gables spinoffs aired on Canadian television – on the commercial network CTV, not on the CBC – people could still be heard saying: "The CBC? I never watch that Anne of Green Gables crap."
Strange Empire is to Anne of Green Gables what a madam is to a school girl; the show represents a strong new direction for Canadian historical drama and it's disheartening news that is currently drawing about 300,000 viewers an episode. It's easy to dismiss the cozies – Toronto Life recently called Murdoch Mysteries background TV – but, fact is, more than a million Canadians tuned in live to watch Murdoch and Ogden get hitched. (Another few hundred thousand probably watched later by PVR, but the broadcaster doesn't have those numbers yet.) The series is also a Canadian calling card abroad: It airs in 109 foreign countries, which helps cover its costs. Can the much more dramatically ambitious Strange Empire ever hope to touch this kind of success?
Sometimes the CBC does simply ignore ratings if it feels programming is central to its mandate as the public alternative – on Thursday nights it counter-programs against the commercial networks' top U.S. dramas with Doc Zone and The Nature of Things – but the broadcaster's reliance on television ad revenue also forces it into commercial decisions. Dramas that don't deliver seldom last. The question will become whether Strange Empire, with a brilliant concept but a complex story line that may be hard to follow for viewers who join the season late, can build an audience – and how long the CBC will wait for it to do that. Fingers crossed that Canadians start discovering Strange Empire soon because the CBC needs to succeed at more than cozy.