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Monday, September 07, 2009

Laurie Finstad's dark thriller/drama DURHAM COUNTY has finally made it to the States, on the new Ion network, so it's finally got a New York Times review. And a nice one too. But I thought the lede was interesting:
Any lingering illusion that Canada is a milder, blander version of the United States is dispelled by “Durham County,” a Canadian-made crime series that begins on Monday on the Ion network.
Countries make culture in part to bind themselves together. Countries without a strong sense of themselves through culture will fall apart. But another reason for nations to fund their own culture is international relations. If you don't export movies and TV, no one will have any idea who you are. Other countries might know what you can make, and if you have guns they'll respect those. But at a basic level, exported popular culture is how we learn about each other.

So everybody has a very good idea who Americans are, if it's slightly distorted by a million crime dramas and all those reality shows. And Americans have a very good idea who the British are, if it's slightly distorted by highbrow fare like UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS and PRIME SUSPECT and THE TUDORS and ELIZABETH. Oh, and Ricky Gervais and Simon Cowell. And Americans know who the French are from Truffaut films. And Americans have a sense of the Australians from CROCODILE DUNDEE and Peter Weir films

But relatively few people outside of Canada have a clue what Canadians are like, because Canada exports a lot less popular culture than it ought to, given it's a nation of 22 million English speakers, roughly on par with Australia. Americans think that Canadians are milder, blander white people but otherwise just like them. And yes, life in Canada is milder, except for the weather, because Canada has a functioning health care system and America has madness, and Canadians don't shoot each other nearly so much in spite of owning just as many guns. But Canadians aren't particularly white anymore, and we're not bland, and we're just as capable of being atrocious to each other as Americans are.

When you don't know someone, you tend to make assumptions about them, and assumptions have consequences. How can Canada expect America to take it seriously as a nation -- over, say, the Northwest Passage, or softwoods, or border crossings -- if Americans have no idea who Canadians are as a people?

Shows like DURHAM COUNTY are worth making just because they're fun, scary, creepy detective shows; and if you like the dark, Laurie Finstad and director Adrian Mitchell ladle out darkness enough for any appetite. But, together with FLASHPOINT and CORNER GAS and the other exports, they go a little way towards giving the rest of the world a sense of who we've become. And that's a value in its own right. Okay, Steven Harper?

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10 Comments:

One thing I've always noted is that there seems to be a huge number of comedy voices from Canada who began there and made their way to America ... first, of course, would be Lorne Micheals, but the list goes on and on (from Dan Ackroyd to The Kids in the Hall to Mike Myers to Jim Carrey and a whole lot more than I can really list) ... it's also made me wonder if there was something in the air up there that made wit and humor come more easily to comedians in Canada.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 1:35 PM  

Well, we still tend to operate in some vacuums.

A lot of exported Canadian culture is in the form of novels and there you might be able to say Canada exports more culture than it should. And quite varied and original, too.

Even in the movies there's a kind of "Canadian-look" in that Cronenberg-Egoyan cold distance that lots of Canadian filmmakers seem to aspire to.

It's mostly just TV where we're pretty far behind.

By Blogger John McFetridge, at 1:46 PM  

Canadians don't like to admit it, but we're NOT that different from Americans. And I get tired of Canadian content that promotes this bullshit view of a radically different country. As if we all watch Corner Gas and haven't heard of the Simpsons.

Part of the problem with Canadian art in general is that it tries so hard to differentiate itself from American content, and it shouldn't. The reason the Brits make such great television, especially crime thriller television, is that they focus on making the shows great rather than hammering home the point that they're not CSI.

Wallander, the Kenneth Branagh show, got shit because it wasn't British (or Scottish) enough. But the Mankell novels are great source material, and why wouldn't someone adapt them? Who cares what nationality they originate from? if we focused more on quality, we'd all be better off.

Anyway, Durham Country looks badass.

By Blogger Sam, at 2:04 PM  

There are 18 million English-speakers in Canada. See “Population by mother tongue and age groups, 2006 counts, for Canada, provinces and territories – 20% sample data”:

English: 17,882,775
English and French: 98,625
English and a third language: 240,005
English, French, and a third language: 10,790

∑ = 18,232,195

By Blogger joeclark, at 2:30 PM  

@joeclark:

Wikipedia: "English and French are the mother tongues of 59.7% and 23.2% of the population respectively, and the languages most spoken at home by 68.3% and 22.3% of the population respectively. 98.5% of Canadians speak English or French (67.5% speak English only, 13.3% speak French only, and 17.7% speak both). English and French Official Language Communities, defined by First Official Language Spoken, constitute 73.0% and 23.6% of the population respectively."

There are 33 million Canadians, so at 73%, the English Language Community is about 23 million folks, and there are about 27 million English speakers available to watch English TV and movies if they are so inclined.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 3:15 PM  

@Sam:

"Canadians don't like to admit it, but we're NOT that different from Americans. And I get tired of Canadian content that promotes this bullshit view of a radically different country."

As an American immigrant to Montreal, I can tell you that Canadians individually may be quite a bit like Americans, but Canadian society is quite different from American society. Conflict is handled quite differently. Americans love to rise to the occasion in a crisis; Canucks like to order things so there isn't a crisis in the first place. Americans seem to like being outraged. Canucks are embarrassed about it. I could go on.

I don't think Canadian TV has any agenda. CORNER GAS is just Brent Butt trying to make you laugh. FLASHPOINT is Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis trying to show what it's like to be a sniper. But because Brent and Stephanie and Mark live in a different society, their shows are different than American shows.

I have never had a single conversation on a Canadian show about trying to promote any view of our society at all.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 3:24 PM  

That conversation, if it happens at all, happens entirely at the funder/bureaucratic level. Perceived "Canadian-ness" is not an issue that inspires creativity. We think in terms of story; we are Canadian, ergo, Canadian story, whether the tropes or themes are "visibly Canadian" or not. It's true that sometimes the more obvious stuff gets funding, but blame the bureaucratic ghost in the machine for that.

And the "lots of Canadian comics thing" is as much of a myth as "We are world renowned as peacekeepers" (We're not.)

Comics who go to the states are noticed in cluster because they left. It's interesting to note that most successful comic writers who are still working here and turning out funny material think that stereotype is bullshit.

The reality is that Canada is actually a fairly hostile place to hone your craft as a comedian. A certain inability to laugh at ourselves, a straitlaced or by the book mentality, slightly square vibe and, of course, the physical limitations. (You could tour Canada and go three thousand miles or you could play the Boston comedy circuit, never travel more than 15K in two years and get the same experience.)

It's a nice myth - but it's just that; a myth.

Canadian comics are mainly notable because in order to succeed, unlike musicians, many, many, many more of them have to leave. It's odd that Canadians are so proud of something that doesn't really reflect that well on our society...but there you go.

By Blogger DMc, at 3:46 PM  

I'm not saying there's a cabal of Canadian TV execs trying to put forth a vision of Canada as radically different from the states. I believe that artists who stay in Canada do this simply because most of them are state funded. If you make your living off of "Canadian content" laws, naturally you want to promote Canadian content.

By Blogger Sam, at 10:21 PM  

You're putting the cart before the horse, Sam.

The industry is, first of all, NOT "state funded."

People say things like "state funded" to frame the discussion a certain way.

The majority of TV in Canada is funded by a combination of tax credits against labor, the CTF and the broadcasters.

The CTF (soon to be CMF) is paid for largely by Cable and Sat providers in exchange for regulatory advantages -- that's the compact that was made ten years ago. There's very little in the way of "State Funding" there.

Tax credits are not the same as "giving away money." In fact, allowing an offset of tax you would owe to help stimulate or pay for labor costs, or to allow for an injection of spending into the desired local economy is a time worn and efficient method of stimulating economic development. And if that's your definition of 'state funded' than I would say the overwhelming majority of jobs and industries in Canada are state funded -- because tax credits are promoted in many, many, many industries, not just Canada.

In my experience, artists who stay in Canada do so because it is either directly relevant to their art and discipline, or because of lifestyle issues that I imagine are no different than you or anyone else's.

How ridiculous and sad would it be if the Group of Seven had to go to the USA to paint their visions of Canadian landscapes?

Similarly, there are many Canadian writers I know who'd do just fine in the USA, thank you very much. They have the wit and the smarts and the talent. They stay here either because of the bonds of children and parents, a love for where they live, or an artistic reason besides.

I have two passports. I could have easily gone to the USA years ago. Not only could I work, but I even have skills to fall back on that would make it easy for me to get a job in huge media markets like LA and New York.

But I determined that I didn't want to do that because, as bad as the system is here, there is still a chance -- only a chance, mind you -- to create something here that you could not create in the USA. It won't look like Durham County maybe, or Trailer Park Boys, or Slings and Arrows -- but it might just be my version of the wider-ranging muse that those artists found here -- one that the more restrictive format driven US market could not have easily accomodated.

There are plenty of great Canadian writers who chose another way. Mordechai Richler still wrote about his beloved Montreal while living in London.

But it's only in TV and film, it seems, that we retain this self-hating scourge that you HAVE to go to the USA to be any good.

It's no more true of me or Rob Sheridan or Epstein here or Paul Mather or a dozen other scribes I could name whose names you wouldn't know, than it is for the Tragically Hip or Alice Munro or Douglas Coupland.

By Blogger DMc, at 12:30 PM  

Canadian writers need to be less focussed on who “we” are as a people and more focussed on characters and story. Everyone’s seen North of 60, Due South, Anne of Green Gables, and the Beachcombers. If people want to know who Canadians are they can do some research and learn all about our great land and great people.

The TV and film industry is all about story and characters. That doesn’t always lend itself to stories about Native Indians running around in the woods or about a Canadian Mountie.
We watch shows like Desperate Housewives, CSI, 24, True Blood, Flashpoint, and Intelligence because they have great characters and great stories – not because they express the culture of a country or make a statement about its people. The way you make people take an interest in Canadian culture is by making great shows that have a wide appeal.

Another annoying thing about Canadian shows is the incestuous nature of the industry. I wish they’d STOP reusing the same actors over and over again. That is such a pet peeve of mine. There are thousands of great Canadian actors waiting for an opportunity. Doesn’t every Canadian show feature Sarah Polley? And isn’t Mike Sweeney really Ed Lane after he leaves the SRU?

I watched the first episode of Durham County last night. I enjoyed the atmosphere it created, but the writing was not that impressive. Perhaps the story makes more sense as the episodes unfold, but I kept thinking “that would never happen” or asking myself “why” a lot.

***// SPOILER ALERT FOR DURHAM COUNTY //***


Why did one psycho killer just happen to be watching another psycho killer rape and kill two schoolgirls in the woods?

Why was one of the schoolgirls still alive after having her head crushed with a boulder?

Why did the school teacher meet the psycho killer in the woods to discuss psycho killer’s son?

Why did psycho killer have to get into the water with the dead school teacher to dispose of her body?

Why did Sweeney buy a house opposite psycho killer?

Why does Sweeney’s daughter furiously make out and I assume have sex with a boy she just met?

Why is everyone “damaged” on this show?

For me, it’s all too convenient writing and done for shock value. Does it make me want to watch more? No.

By Blogger Jason, at 12:29 PM  

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