You know what people like? I'll tell you what people like: nostalgia. The sentimental hunger for the past is a powerful thing. There is, in the broad sense, a curiosity about previous eras. Even more powerful is that keen interest in events, periods and experiences that have a profound personal resonance.
This is generally known and accepted, but I'm not sure that the strength and breadth of intense interest in personal nostalgia is understood. An insight into this hit me in a squall of knowledge a few years ago.
I was in another Canadian city, stuck for a couple of days. There wasn't much choice of TV channels to watch where I was staying, so I ended up spending a lot of time watching a border PBS station. It was the weekend and the public broadcaster was in fund-raising mode.
What unfolded on TV was hour after hour of music from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Music acts I thought had long since disappeared were performing live at concerts organized by PBS. People had paid to attend these concerts, and they were wildly enthusiastic. There were CDs and videos for sale. And PBS was raising money at the same time.
What I saw was a multi-million-dollar entertainment industry thriving on the fierce interest of people who want to connect with their youth. And the thing is, they don't just want a brief reminder of that past. They want to talk about it, reminisce and connect with others who have that shared past.
It occurred to me that this nostalgic urge gets ignored in a media age dominated by frantic searching for the latest thing, the trend, the technology, the new fad. Newspapers, magazines and websites devote intense energy to informing people about the latest when, in reality, a lot of consumers love to wallow in memories of the old, the nearly-forgotten. There's money in the memory racket.
This brings me, in a roundabout way, to the Canadian Football League and its championship game. The 100th Grey Cup takes place November 25, and it is an occasion for nostalgia and deep reflection. The Grey Cup is always about us as we are – three-down football, beer, East versus the West, iconic Canadian singers or bands performing during halftime shows.
In the small passel of events and rituals that are truly, madly Canadian, the Grey Cup looms large. A history of the Cup is a history of who we are and how we got to here from there.
Engraved on a Nation (TSN, 7:30 p.m.) is an eight-film original documentary series to mark the 100th playing of the Grey Cup, and it is wonderful. TSN is to be congratulated on this production, which is far from being the cheaply made, superficial material that so is so often presented as in-depth coverage on sports channels.
With this project TSN has some of our finest, award-winning documentary filmmakers doing substantial short films about the history of the Grey Cup. They are beautifully made, nuanced and often deeply cogent.
The 13th Man opens the series tonight. Directed by Larry Weinstein (of Rhombus Media, who made the remarkable Ravel's Brain and Inside Hana's Suitcase), it's about the intensity of the connection between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their fervent fans. In the main, it's about that 2009 Grey Cup loss to the Montreal Alouettes. The Riders lost that game because, with time running out, they were penalized for having 13 players on the field instead of 12. The Als took advantage and won 28-27 on the game's last play.
Thing is, Rider fans are usually called "the 13th man" because of their raucous support. The 2009 Grey Cup brought a crisis that illuminated the astonishing depth of affection for the team, and it's a great story, nicely delivered. It's about the growth of the team, the province and its people.
Later programs in the series include The Kid from La Puente, made by Shelley Saywell, about quarterback Anthony Calvillo's journey from the tough barrios of East L.A. to Montreal. And the truly excellent Playing a Dangerous Game, directed by John Walker, examines the 1969 Grey Cup in Montreal during the time of the FLQ, with protests on the streets and widespread unease. CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur invited Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to perform the ceremonial kick-off, which just added to the tension. This program is an incisive look at a period that bears close examination . To see it all in the context of the Grey Cup is to see it in the complexity of a people's history, not a political history.
The series isn't pure nostalgia. It transcends that. It doesn't fetishize memories of the Grey Cup. What it does is remind us that this history unites us. It will inspire nostalgia, though, and bring more pleasure to some people than any amount of attention to the hottest, latest trend.