Skip to main content

One approaches every new Canadian comedy or drama with trepidation. So many mediocre shows, so many outright failures and so few excellent series.

Second Jen (CITY-TV, 8:30 p.m.) is a new comedy and it falls into the mediocre category. Nice try, though. As in trying too hard to be nice. It's a very slight comedy, and on the evidence of the first two episodes it's a one-note idea that is beaten to a near-pulp of puerility through endless repetition of the same theme.

And in the matter of new Canadian TV, it is especially important to have trepidation when approaching a show that's billed in advance as groundbreaking. Nobody has actually broken ground in Canadian TV for years.

In this case, the advance publicity is awash in praise for the fact that Second Jen features two Asian main characters and deals, through comedy, with the status and anxieties of second-generation Asian youth. Yes, the title is a double pun. It has second-generation characters and both lead characters are named "Jen." In case, you know, you might be dumb enough to miss the point.

No doubt it is important to some viewers that Asian characters are front and centre. No doubt it matters to some that the show is emphatically set in contemporary Toronto. And no doubt it matters that sexuality comes up often and there are gay or lesbian characters.

But, in the end, one has to ask, after all the worthiness of the premise, is it any good? Actually, it's light, slight, silly and only occasionally outright funny.

Second Jen falls into the coming-of-age category as it depicts best friends Chinese-Canadian Jennifer (Jen) Wu (Samantha Wan) and Filipina-Canadian Jennifer (Mo) Monteloyola (Amanda Joy), who are twentysomethings.

Mo decides to act on a pact she made with Jen that they move out of their family homes and live together, after her family decides to return to the Philippines. Stuff happens. Stuff such as finding an apartment, dealing with two guys who are their new neighbours and, mainly, Jen dealing with her mom. The overprotective mom thing goes on and on . Or so it feels.

Even before the move to an apartment is broached, Jen's mom (Janet Lo) declares, "Jenny good child, not move out until married. Then mommy and daddy live in Jenny's basement." Jen's dad, Harold (Richard Tse), doesn't say much. That's part of the joke: He doesn't say much. Which isn't very funny after two episodes. Her brother Eric (Timothy Lai) mainly smiles and giggles occasionally.

There is an attempted bit of comedy business with the two guys who are their new neighbours and, of course, see the young women as dating material. There's nice, nerdy Nate (Munro Chambers) and wannabe cool dude Lewis (Al Mukadam). Both are from central casting and neither character is particularly funny at all.

Even though the series is about young adults and the characters joke lightly about sex and sexuality, Second Jen has the look, feel and tone of a concoction made for a mid-teen audience. The only point at which it comes alive is when Jen's cool, sharp-tongued lesbian cousin Naomi (Melissa O'Neil) enters the situation and commands it with sarcastic detachment. It's in these scenes that one understands what Second Jen (co-created, co-written by Wan with Amanda Joy) could actually be.

This is not to be hard on Wan or Joy. Both are good actors and both can write. Joy in particular seems to be holding back something – some inner fierceness – in order to accommodate a slight, by-the-numbers comedy about dealing with Asian heritage and family expectations.

It's good there's more diversity in Canadian TV these days. There's Kim's Convenience, on CBC, about a Korean-Canadian family. And there's OMNI's Blood and Water, a multilingual crime drama set in Vancouver's Chinese-Canadian community.

But playing the diversity card only gets a show so far. Second Jen is notable for having two female Asian lead characters but it is not notable, nor funny, as a comedy. Pity about that.

Also airing Thursday

The Brain's Way of Healing (CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) is another session with Dr. Norman Doidge who specializes in brain ailments. Mostly, the program is about new advances and techniques in dealing with brain injuries and, essentially, it amounts to inspiring stories and colourful characters. Some of the revelations are indeed fascinating, especially in the matters of Parkinson's disease and autism. While there's heavy insistence on "astounding progress," it's good pop-science storytelling.

Interact with The Globe