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Television John Doyle: CBC needs to make room for original, ambitious TV dramas

CBC's cancellation of Strange Empire is more than disappointing. It's a disgrace, an abnegation of responsibility.

That responsibility – indeed it's a promise made by CBC executives – is to make CBC-TV the home of serious-minded, provocative, cable-quality programming. Strange Empire is the only series in recent years to even approach that level. Now it's gone.

CBC had to be provoked into acknowledging the cancellation on Monday. At first, the network declined to confirm or deny that the series is cancelled, asking me to await a press release about renewals and new series that is coming some time this week. But it is cancelled. I knew that, as did everyone involved.

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We are now back to asking the rhetorical question – Where is Canada in the Golden Age of TV? And the answer is, of course, that it's nowhere.

In Canada we make loads of TV series, good, bad and indifferent. We are happy with "good," is the problem. We are happy with competence. We are well-pleased with mediocrity.

I've asked the "Where is Canada in the Golden Age of TV?" question before. It annoyed a lot of people in the Canadian TV racket. A lot. But that column, like all columns, was aimed at the audience, not at some prickly, thin-skinned Canadian TV types.

One could argue on and on about why we fail to make anything that matches the very best of TV that has been made in numerous countries in the years since The Sopranos began airing on HBO in 1999. We could say that the talent pool is small in Canada. Or that executives are risk-averse. Or that too many people, from executives to writers of TV shows, lack the ambition to make the very best of drama.

But the crucial element in the situation is the failure to deliver quality TV to the audience. The audience is entitled to better than competence. Other countries do better. And not all Canadian viewers are happy to be cheerleaders for mediocrity.

No doubt some viewers disliked Strange Empire. A dark, violent and clearly feminist drama with a hallucinatory quality that led to expectations being upended, it was challenging. It opened with a mass murder, of men, leaving a group of women in a western outpost in 1869. Practically the first words spoken were those of a doleful young woman: "We're to be whores, ma'am." (You can still find it, online, on iTunes.) The ratings were never strong, because it's not populist TV.

There should be a place on CBC's schedule for the serious but low-rated drama. But, apparently, there isn't. The promises made are worthless blather.

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What's happening is, I think, first, a fear of originality. Pathetic, I know, but it's real. There is also some self-serving conclusion that populist is equal to quality. CBC is to some extent on a good run. Schitt's Creek aired to much publicity and 1.36 million viewers. That number has since declined to 688,000, a more than 50-per-cent loss in viewers in a five-week period. Nobody wants to talk about that – a show shedding half its audience. But it will be back. It was renewed for a second season before the first episode aired. The Book of Negroes, a miniseries that started strongly but declined into maudlin, second-rate drama, had more than one million viewers for the episodes of its short run. It was a noble idea to adapt the Lawrence Hill novel, but it resulted in old-school educational TV without verve or zest.

The drama X Company is excellent entertainment – if you like utterly orthodox storytelling. Nothing nuanced about it, nothing plumbing the depths of raw meaning, nothing to make it meaningful at all. It's fine; it is what it is, in its ordinariness.

The success, limited though it is, of these productions has, perhaps, given CBC execs arrogance about the superiority of what they offer the audience. The entire industry here has become desperate to celebrate success. At the Canadian Screen Awards on Sunday, on the televised gala, no less, awards were presented to the most-watched reality and drama shows, as if getting viewers was the same as work of great stature.

Strange Empire was great TV, tonally a universe away from everything else on Canadian TV – mostly procedurals and soapy medical shows. We are back to the paucity of ambition that characterizes almost all TV made here. CBC is supposed to do better, and promised a place for material that would change the sad reality that in this Golden Age of TV, Canada has offered almost nothing. More blather, it seems, from CBC executives on this issue and so much more.

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