My dear friend, the excellent writer Denis McGrath
It's cold and I had time on my hands.
Forward this to whoever you like...Thanks.
Be careful what you wish for, Denis...
To Canadjun tv writers I know:
Like the sound of icicles crashing to earth in the midst of a mid-March thaw, the news, of late, has shed its previous hue of obsidian dread. There are rumours of something other than death in the air. At the WGC Christmas soiree at Toronto's Fez Batik in December, the mood was less than funereal. Ontario stepped up with greater tax credits. B.C. followed suit. And people talked, in hushed and disbelieving tones, of projects they had in development…projects that maybe - just maybe…might go this time.
Now, it's still the bleak midwinter, and maybe this thaw of hope is nothing more than a Robert Frost stopping-in-the woods-on-a-snowy-evening moment. We still have an eighty cent dollar to deal with. CBC is still CBC, Global is still Global, and AA hasn't exactly had cause to live down that "permanent downturn" comment. At least, not yet.
But the reason why I'm writing this isn't to rehash the past, but to talk about the future. And whether we have the moxie and the courage to fight all comers and define that future boldly; as boldly as two series that at first glance have nothing in common - except that maybe they're the bulwark against our storytelling powers slipping back into irrelevancy.
I want to paint a couple of scenes for you.
The first happened this past Tuesday night. The Bloor Cinema, for those who don't know it, is a charming, slightly ramshackle second run cinema in the forever-trendy west end Annex neighbourhood in Toronto. The Bloor is a paean to lost glory, to another time when the movies used to play in houses that drew adults, not videogame parlors that tend to induce epilepsy in those over thirty.
On this particular Tuesday, the Canadian Film Centre sponsored a screening and discussion. They do this, the Film Centre does, God Bless 'em. They're called Test Pattern. In the past they've had producers and writers from shows like ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Law & Order, and The Sopranos. They've done their bit for CanCon, too: ReGenesis and Queer as Folk, to name a couple, have gotten the treatment. They attract, usually, the same crowd of persistent Tv-ophiles, wannabe writers and hangers-on. The curious and the insiders; the students and the nothing-better-to-do's – anywhere from a hundred to two hundred souls on any given night.
So imagine my surprise when I turned up at the Bloor on a blustery, blizzardy Tuesday night to find the line stretched down and around, halfway down the next block. This was a sold out crowd: over eight hundred people, with scores more turned away at the door.
They were there to see the Trailer Park Boys.
Half of you just groaned and rolled your eyes, I know. Hang on a moment - I'll get back to you.
To be accurate, they were there to see Mike Clattenburg, the Director/Creator/Producer of the show, Actor/Producer Barrie Dunn, Exec Producer Mike Volpe, Story Editor Iain MacLeod – as well as Ricky, Julian and Bubbles (actors Robb Wells, Jean Paul Tremblay and Mike Smith, who never appear in public out of character.)
The evening went pretty much as you would expect. From my perch way up in the balcony, I detected the smell that launched a thousand Grateful Dead concerts. There were heckles and raucous shout-outs. Usually at these events, I wind up asking one of the first questions: it's the same old story, I'm afraid – in a Q&A situation, most Canadians want to be the one to ask the second question. But this night, the questions came fast and furious: shouted, pitched down from on high and greeted with whoops and laughter. They screened what for many is the series' defining episode: "Closer To the Heart" (the one with Alex Lifeson being kidnapped by Ricky for RUSH tickets.) Once the cast stormed in, the roof nearly flew off. The laughter was deep, the joy genuine, the fanaticism slightly troubling: at least to the stunned (and delighted) representatives from the Film Centre and broadcaster Showcase. For their part, the cast, producers, and Clattenburg didn't seem surprised at all.
Now, back to you eye-rollers. I promised I'd get back to you. Here goes. Yes – there were a lot of people there who you'd expect to see: teens and young men fresh off the GO train from Scarborough and Mississauga. But how to explain the scores of bearded, graying, round-around-the middle fifty year olds, AWOL soccer moms, grad students, and grandpas and grandmas who filled out the venue – a much larger group, in fact, encompassing just about every demographic of Canadian society save little kids?
Simple. Trailer Park Boys is the Holy Grail of Canadian TV. It's a homegrown, bonafide Canadian hit. A hit that reaches across demographics, that actually tickles a cross-section of Canadian society: a cross section that rarely gets to see itself represented in English language scripted TV. Part of me wanted to rent a bus, pack it with executives from the Canadian broadcast networks, and drive past that theatre – a little field trip to prove that it's all possible. Permanent downturn? The show's fifth season premieres in April on Showcase. They're writing the sixth. It's running in the US on BBC America. And next year, Ivan Reitman will direct the movie.
We've been so used in these last years to talking the language of the Restore-Our-Funding protests. I've carried the placards and said the words myself: "we need to tell our own stories!" But what does that mean? How come our own stories have never resulted in this near pandemonium before? What's really going on here?
At a session earlier in the day at the Film Centre, Dunn, Clattenburg, and Johnston, led by moderator Al Magee, offered an explanation to a small audience of CFC Prime Time TV residents and alumni.
Johnston pointed out that Trailer Park Boys struck a chord with working class people. Most people making TV shows, he said, are middle class and tell middle class stories. I think of Canadian shows I admire – and there are such things, believe me, and I have to agree. DaVinci and Eleventh Hour and This is Wonderland use working class Canadians as colour. But we certainly don't make them the main characters. We tell stories that we see Americans do: we try our own legal shows, but make them…less glamourous. We tell political shows…but make them…more Canadian, whatever that means. We think we're making shows for Canadians. But are we really?
There's a theory that journalism lost its way when reporters started thinking of themselves as professionals, and not the hard bitten, Jimmy Breslin-like voice of the people. I think that's probably true. And if that's true, then the question presents itself: as Canadian TV writers - comedy or drama - who are we the voice of? Our voice should be heard north of the Bloor Cinema, beyond Yaletown or Toronto's Front Street or outside NDG or Westmount in Montreal. I think we can do better. I think we must do better.
Too often, we subscribe to the easy prejudices that clearly irked Barrie Dunn in his session at the Film Centre. He spoke with great anger about those who described the Trailer Park Boys as "Trailer Trash." It's an interesting point. The more I get into the series (and getting the vibe of the humour did take a while for me) the more I realize that the truly, insanely subversive and ultimately Canadian thing about the show is its tolerance: Ricky will always be immoral, but Julian will always protect him. Yet, Ricky is a caring father. (People have more than one shade.) Bubbles' love and loyalty to his friends is unconditional. The trio will always hate Randy and Mr. Lahey not because they're gay – they couldn't care less about that. They hate them because they're dicks.
Canadians love American TV, and probably always will. That's fine. But let's track the trend in other countries… In Great Britain, Italy, Germany - western countries where US fare once dominated prime time, these days those shows are moving to fringe slots. In Prime Time, it seems they're starting to prefer their own stories. Is Canada really that different? Are we the all-special exception? Or have we just not given our audience shows to love? Not admire, not appreciate – but love. To the broadcasters, who make their millions on simulcasting, that is not a question that needs to be answered. For us, it should be the query that occupies our every waking hour.
Are we creating the shows we should be creating? Are we doing enough to tell the broadcasters they're wrong, when they're wrong about what Canadians want? Remember when the CBC didn't renew Ron MacLean's Hockey Night in Canada contract? The most telling thing about that incident to me was the fact that the CBC was caught completely off guard by the reaction. They had no idea it would be such a big story. Well, why? I wasn't surprised. Ron Freaking MacLean? The end of the Cherry-MacLean show? Why would that not be a big story?
As out of touch as we are - I think the people making the decisions at our broadcasters are more out of touch. But we can't throw blame. We're the ones fighting the blank page. And when talk turns to how this won't work and that won't work, isn't it important to remember that all successes are accidental in Television?
At another session, just today, up at the Film Centre, Anil Gupta, Producer of The Office, painted the scenario by which that show made it on the BBC: Let me reduce two hours of very entertaining discussion for you. It was a fluke. There were no kind, helpful, supportive development executives. It was a fluke. Desperate Housewives. Lost. Seinfeld. Flukes. Watch the commentary on the pilot of E.R. - the number one show on TV for how many years? Total. Freaking. Fluke. Right now, CBS has a hit with Cold Case, a show that Canadians did first. Fluke.
How do these flukes happen? Well, on some level, it has to do with belief. Having gone eyeball to eyeball with them, I have no doubt that Clattenburg et al believe in the Trailer Park Boys. And look how it's paid off. Now… Can we all say the same about what we're writing? If we don't have that level of passion; the level that says we are saying something true that could be popular, then what are we doing? How can we hope to sell network suits? How can we counter the "permanent downturn?" We are TV writers. We don't have the luxury of calling ourselves auteurs. I think the Alan Ball and David Chase slots are full up for the moment. We toil in the popular art. I have seen with my own eyes Canadian product that can be popular. That can be loved. It can be done.
I think winter in Canada is a time when we all come up with crazed and crazy schemes. Mobility is restricted, life is tougher, so we dream of what we're going to do when things are better. When the sun shines and the mercury rises and we find forward motion not quite so difficult. I've always thought it was interesting that the Canadian funding system was geared toward people finding out if they're going forward in the spring. To my mind, January's when we all really, really, really need to know if we'll have something to live for. This year, it's even more fraught and traumatic. The lack of Hockey has reduced many of my colleagues to sullen, listless automatons.
Me too. Except I drink more.
This year, assuming the bleakness is breaking and spring is coming, while we have the time, can we ask ourselves if we're really being true to our country, to the people watching TV out there? Are we not judging them, calling them trailer trash, but simply telling stories about them, with affection and with respect - even if they're foul mouthed reprobates, like the Trailer Park Boys?
I said I wanted to paint a couple of scenes. Here's the second one.
During that raucous Trailer Park Boys session at the Bloor, someone yelled out "Corner Gas Sucks!" There was laughter from some quarters. But two things shook me. First, everyone recognized the name of another Canadian TV show. But second – at least from my section of the balcony, there were many murmurs, shouts, and exclamations of disagreement. Amidst the wide and diverse mob, there was a strong, stubborn defense of that other Canadian TV success. The one that pulls in a million viewers or more every week, that sells DVDs by the case, because it's on a bigger network. The one, that like Trailer Park Boys, is about real, working class Canadians, presented with love -- and without an ounce of judgement.
I think it's something to think about. I think CBC, Global, CTV, Showcase, CHUM, CORUS and Alliance Atlantis should all be listening to the rumblings of laughter coming from the Bloor Cinema. But then again, so should we all.
For fun, compare the rant on Senses Working Overtime