There's a new Canadian police show making its debut Sunday night. It revolves around the murder of a junkie in a Vancouver park; his young widow is eight-months pregnant but his wealthy family wants nothing to do with her because they blame her for his drug use. Meanwhile, the female detective who is investigating has just been diagnosed with cancer.
If none of that drama sounds particularly remarkable for a TV cop show, get this: The characters in Blood and Water speak English, Mandarin or Cantonese, according to their situations, and the whole series, which airs on the Canadian multicultural channel OMNI, is subtitled for both English-language and Chinese-language viewers.
Here is a show in which various recognizable figures in Canadian society – a wealthy Chinese businessman, an old white cop, a younger Asian cop, a Downtown Eastside drug dealer – swim alongside each other in a realistic linguistic soup. Television's pretense that North American cities are conveniently unilingual places is discarded.
Kudos to OMNI, on which original programming usually means cheapo talk shows, for commissioning the series from producer Breakthrough Entertainment. Multicultural television is the great missed opportunity of Canadian broadcasting, something that the unusualness of Blood and Water serves to underline.
This may be a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism but you wouldn't know it by watching Canadian television, where content that is not in English or French is mainly ghettoized on OMNI or Telelatino and is mainly low-budget – unless it's been imported from abroad. You can watch a current-affairs show in Punjabi or a documentary about Italian weddings, if you understand those languages, but you aren't going to encounter much South Asian or Italian content if you only speak English or Cantonese. Small silos rather than broad cross-cultural dialogue is the norm.
Although the CBC has a mandate to reflect Canada's multicultural nature, its onerous bilingual agenda – by law, it must strive to produce content of equal quality in the two official languages – plus the need for aboriginal-language programming trumps multiculturalism. The result is that the area has been left mainly to the commercial broadcasters – OMNI is owned by Rogers; Telelatino is partly owned by Corus Entertainment, which in turn is owned by Shaw Media – where the reality of serving multiple niche audiences on secondary cable channels has kept programming ambitions low.
Oddly, considering how many U.S. channels are broadcast here, Canadians used to argue about letting foreign "third-language" channels into the system even as viewers were accessing them via grey-market satellite: In 2005, after much debate over whether the Italian public broadcaster RAI should be allowed into Canada, where it would compete with Telelatino, the CRTC finally revised its policy and opened the gates.
Today, how many of these services can be found on the upper cable tiers matters a lot less, since many viewers can find their way to foreign-language programming online if it's not on TV. Still, what is legally available or accessible to older and less tech-savvy viewers should not be overestimated and there's no curation happening online or on TV: Canadians can hardly be said to have easy access to what national public broadcasters sometimes call "the best of the rest."
Wherever people find their content, the rise of Internet television and the loss of TV ad revenue are not making these easy times for commercial broadcasters: After job cuts at Rogers last May, OMNI refashioned its money-losing foreign-language newscasts into current-affairs shows with less original reporting and more chat.
That makes Blood and Water, which may eventually air on Rogers's mainstream CityTV stations, too, all the more remarkable. In a competitive market already cluttered with U.S.-style programming, a show targeted at both Chinese- and English-language audiences looks like a strong way not merely to beef up OMNI but to distinguish Canadian commercial television in general. Similarly, this weekend OMNI is also launching Sudden Master, a Web series in Mandarin and English about a young woman who inherits her father's kung fu studio.
Sudden Master is a pretty familiar kind of ethnic comedy that gets a lot of mileage from identity issues: The first episode includes a joke about the heroine's boyfriend not being able to distinguish between her many aunts. "I get it, all Asians look the same," she yells in exasperation, before he explains he's not wearing his contacts.
Whatever critical or popular success Blood and Water eventually achieves, one of the things that makes it particularly refreshing is that it neither condescends nor panders to Chinese ethnic pride: This is not a show about cultural identity for the most part, nor does it insist that all Chinese people are sympathetic and colourful. By episode two, that wealthy family is looking just regularly snotty. They are characters in an international melodrama that should have emerged in Canada years ago. For multicultural television, it's better late than never.