In Toronto's North York sits the Deluxe Suites, a den of showbiz dreams. Young starlets and would-be screenwriters cavort around the swimming pool in the dilapidated apartment building's courtyard. They plead on their cellphones with agents. All are being manipulated by producers and jerked around by competing talent. No one is sure how they will pay the rent.
Of course, this isn't supposed to be Toronto. It's a set for the critically acclaimed TV drama The L.A. Complex, starting its second season on MuchMusic and produced by Epitome Pictures, the company behind the Degrassi franchise.
Although its premise sounds like yet another reality show, The L.A. Complex is a finely tuned character drama about the dark underbelly of the star system. Ratings for the trial-run first season were disastrous, but its producers and networks see potential, even if the show seems to be written by someone determined to dissuade any Canadian kid from moving to Hollywood.
Not so, says the show's creator, writer and director, Martin Gero. "It's a tough city, but it's intoxicating to live down there. You feel like you're so close [to success] all the time, that people end up doing increasingly desperate things to stay," he says.
So far, the show has received more attention for its ratings. Slate summarized it with this headline "Surprise! The Lowest-Rated Show In Broadcast History is Actually Great." Entertainment Weekly reported that the series, which was sold to the CW cable network in the States, scored the lowest rating ever for a broadcast drama's debut, with only a reported 646,000 U.S. viewers tuning in. For its smaller Canadian audience, viewership reportedly fell to 40,000 by the third episode of the first season.
Yet reviewers have largely been raving, with Variety calling the show "one of the best things" the CW has "offered in ages." Other foreign networks have also been buying the show.
"I think it's extraordinary. But the fact that both Much and the CW have doubled the order this year [from six episodes in the first season to 13 in the second] really speaks to their confidence in the show and where they think it can go," Gero says.
Originally from Ottawa and Toronto, Gero came to prominence in 2007 with Young People Fucking, a film more notorious for its title than for its insightful take on romantic-comedy tropes. Also ensemble-based, The L.A. Complex could be described as Young People Fucking redux, rejigged for television and transplanted to Hollywood.
Having spent years in Los Angeles, Gero still feels the pull of the city. "Almost every character's problems could be solved if they said, 'You know? I'm just going to move back to Toronto for a year, get my head right.' But it feels like it's a failure to leave that city, and that's a pretty dangerous thing, I think.
"This might sound crazy, but it's kind of a warning and love letter at the same time. I really love Los Angeles. I think it's an extraordinary city, and I love show business … [But] there are days when I am, like, 'This is the worst business in the world.' It can be really soul-destroying. And that makes for interesting drama."
For instance, Nick (played by Stratford, Ont.-born actor Joe Dinicol) is struggling to make it in comedic writing, while starting a steamy relationship with Abby (Toronto actress Cassie Steele, a regular on Degrassi: The Next Generation), who wins a part with a sordid Christian TV show. And that's one of the show's tamer plot lines. Others include a suicidal rapper and a leading man bent on self-harm.
But how real is L.A. Complex? "I did live in L.A. for four years and have experienced the struggle that a lot of these actors are experiencing," says Vancouverite Jewel Staite, who plays Raquel, an older actress who gets fewer roles (or at least not the parts that she would like) because of her age.
"The truth of the matter is, [acting] is really hard work. There's a lot of downtime and times when you are scared about trying to find the next gig to pay the rent," Staite says.
As Gero adds, "There's certainly no end of conflict and desperation. But there is also no end to huge sudden successes and extreme joy. For me, that's the balance we're trying to strike. It's both aspirational and a warning."