Are Canadian Showrunners an Endangered Species?

A bunch of Canadian showrunners sat down with the Globe & Mail newspaper and shared their worry that they are becoming a dying breed in the TV biz in the Great White North:

They see production companies and network executives interfering endlessly and pointlessly in the direction of certain shows. They say that a series might begin as a drama with occasional moments of comedy, and then, thanks to battles and conniptions in distant offices, by the fifth episode the series has morphed into a comedy.

They worry that hardly anybody in the industry, apart from themselves, understands what the term "showrunner" means (a senior writer with some executive responsibilities). They point out that the best television in recent years – The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, The Shield and, in Canada, Intelligence, have been driven by writers who control almost every aspect of a production, but in Canada a writer is almost never allowed to follow through on a storytelling vision.

That may be why so much Canadian TV is — to be blunt — plodding and dull. Or, as a Canadian commentator put it back in 2003…

Why can't Canadians make a decent cop show? It's not as if they don't have examples to copy. You can't turn on the television without finding a cop show on somewhere. […]Like most Canadian TV dramas, Cold Squad is directed as if it were a stage play. The actors emote as if they were trying to make sure buddy in the back row can follow the play. To buddy on the couch, though, the overacting is just annoying.

[On Canadian cop shows] the characters are usually less than persuasive, for example. The characters on Blue Murder articulate as if they were playing Shakespeare.
[…]The actors of course are not helped by scripts which often seem to have been written by people who've been living in monasteries since birth – monasteries with vows of silence, too. The dialogue and situations are often artificial and beyond any help the actors can give them. Canadian scripts also tend to be short on action and plot twists, preferring long, long over-explained scenes. 

I couldn't agree more, at least based on the Canadian dramas that I've seen.

I've produced two U.S. series in Canada — COBRA in Vancouver and MISSING in Toronto — so I've watched a lot of Canadian TV while looking for directors, production designers, and actors. It's no secret why Canadian TV series aren't as marketable or popular worldwide as U.S. or U.K. crime dramas.  It's because they are bland, devoid of strong conflicts, sharply-drawn characters and compelling narrative drive. They just can't compete against U.S. or U.K. drama on any level.  

I know that's a broad and very unfair generalization, and that there may be Canadian shows that are terrific…but I haven't seen one yet.  On the other hand, I've seen a LOT of fantastic British crime dramas, though. It's not that Canada doesn't have the writing talent…it does…but I suspect that their best TV writers head to the U.S. as soon as they possibly can (at least that's what I've been told by my friends toiling in Canadian TV). The Globe & Mail worries about that, too:

What I take away is that they want to stay, to live and write on the
West Coast, and tell their stories there. Given their worries and
horror stories, I fear that, sooner rather than later many will be in
on the West Coast, but in Los Angeles, and they won't be telling
Canadian stories.

Back when I was a writer on MURPHY'S LAW, which we shot up in Vancouver in 1989, I endured some episodes of STREET LEGAL, a wanna-be L.A. LAW that was the "crown jewel" of Canadian TV at the time. It was a series that seemed utterly devoid of conflict. There were shampoo commercials with more gripping storylines and more at stake for their characters.  I couldn't understand how anyone could write a TV show that was so bland…or why anyone would want to watch it.

NIGHT HEAT, made around the same time, managed to make TJ HOOKER look like NYPD BLUE by comparison. MOM PI, TRADERS, DANGER BAY, NEON RIDER, NORTH OF 60, ENG, and DIAMONDS, while not all cop shows, I recall as being mind-numbingly dull.

I've been told many times that DAVINCI'S INQUEST is the best cop show ever made on Canadian TV. I've only seen some early episodes of the series, and one episode of the DAVINCI'S CITY HALL sequel series, and if that is the crown jewel of Canadian crime drama today, it's not saying much for the genre up there.

More recent Canadian cop shows like BLUE MURDER and COLD SQUAD were unbearably ponderous, musty and flat, not even remotely in the same league as U.S. or U.K. dramas. Simply compare COLD SQUAD to the similarly-themed U.S. series COLD CASE or the U.K's WAKING THE DEAD and you'll see what I mean…or compare the Canadian MURDOCK MYSTERIES to the U.K.'s INSPECTOR MORSE, REBUS, or LEWIS. The Canadian stuff feels desaturated, sanitized of color, emotion, drama and energy.

To be fair, I haven't seen INTELLIGENCE, FLASHPOINT or THE BORDER — but I have heard
very good things about them. They may represent a significant
turning point in Canadian episodic crime dramas. I certainly hope so.

Perhaps the problems with Canadian episodic drama all comes down an unwillingness by Canadian networks to commit to the showrunner system, to allow writers with a strong, consistent, artistic vision to run their series. If so, it's a damn shame.

Best Crime Movie in Ages

Add me to the chorus of people who are raving about THE LAST LULLABY, a terrific, l0w-budget indie crime movie directed by Jeffrey Goodman and starring Tom Sizemore as an insomniac hitman on his last assignment. It's based the novel THE LAST QUARRY by Max Alan Collins, who co-wrote the script with Peter Biegen.  It isn't yet another in a seemingly endless spew of pop-culture-referencing, amped-up, martial-arts, dizzyingly-edited action montages masquarading as movies. This is the real deal, a genuine, character-based noir tale that packs a surprising punch. No bells and whistles. No CGI. No explosions. But plenty of mood, atmosphere, emotion and startling, unromanticized violence. And a touch of romance, too. This is a crime movie for adults who don't have A.D.D.  Goodman says:

"I guess Lullaby is a smattering of things I like," explains its director Jeffrey Goodman.  "If I have combined them in a way that feels fresh I will be happy.  There's a dose of playfulness from the French New Wave, a bit of slowness of some art films, the naturalistic style of early seventies American film, and a strong commitment to narrative taken from film noir.  Yet, in all honesty, more than anything, I just wanted to get away from irony and cynicism and try to put something on screen that was sincere."

He succeeded. Brilliantly. I loved it. Best indie crime movie I've seen since, oh, DIAMOND MEN.

Putting on your Comedy Hat

Earl Pomerantz has posted another wonderful anecdote from his days writing and producing Major Dad.

I meet with McRaney and his manager to discuss the problems McRaney’s having with the scripts. At some point in the discussion, McRaney’s manager, coincidentally a former Marine, says, “Now, putting on my ‘comedy hat’….”

I, internally, hit the roof, and bang my head against it a few hundred times. I’m not a Marine. I don’t claim, and never have claimed, to have a “Marine hat.” McRaney’s manager had never been involved in a comedy. Where the heck did he get a “comedy hat”!?

If you love tv, you should be reading Earl's blog.

Amazon is taking over the world

Publisher's Weekly reports that Amazon has purchased Abebooks, the online used bookstore.

AbeBooks, which has over 110 million books for sale listed by independent booksellers, will continue to function as a stand-alone operation based in Victoria, British Columbia.  AbeBooks will maintain all its Web sites, including its Canadian Web site, and all sites will continue to have country-specific content.

On the Road with Mr. Monk

For a while now, people have occasionally sent me pictures of themselves in far-flung places with one of my MONK books in their hands. If you're out and about, and happen to have one of my MONK books with you, please send me a photo (to Lee AT and I will post it here. (That's me with the Naked Bookseller of Quartzite, AZ)

Mr. Monk has a Bookgasm

Alan Cranis at Bookgasm has given MR. MONK IS MISERABLE a rave review. He writes, in part:

Goldberg realizes the obligations he must fulfill in writing tie-ins, and successfully recreates the rhythms and nuances of the television characters on the printed page. But he never cheats his readers. The scenes are well-researched, and the plot is as inventive and vivid as any original story. Additionally, the author adds just enough interior emotion to give the story depth without sacrificing the energetic pace.

His biggest challenge, as always, is Monk himself. For those with only scant knowledge of the TV series or the characteristics of OCD, Monk might seem like an insufferable asshole. But while staying true to these traits, Goldberg manages to bring our sympathies to Monk, first with the humorous observation of his ever- patient assistant and finally when we see Monk fully involved and secure in what he does best: solving murders.

Goldberg also manages to have some fun with a few traditional mystery techniques. Monk’s sharp-eyed observations and detached explanations are positively Holmesian. And one scene recreates a classic “locked room” murder right out of John Dickson Carr.

But like most tie-ins, the bottom-line mission is to entertain. And Goldberg expertly succeeds here as well. Series fans will find much to enjoy and celebrate. And for everyone else there is a neat, surprisingly literate and well-written mystery starring a most unlikely crime solver.

Thanks, Alan!

Mr. Monk is Miserable Today

My seventh original "Monk" novel, MR. MONK IS MISERABLE, hits the shelves of bookstores nationwide today. It picks up where my last book, MR. MONK GOES TO GERMANY, left off. And I think you should rush out RIGHT THIS SECOND and buy it…or click here.   Here's how the publisher describes the book:

Monk already ruined a trip to Germany for his long-suffering assistant Natalie. The least he can do is accompany her on a detour to France—and try not to ruin that too. In fact, Monk stuns Natalie by announcing that he wants to visit the sewers of Paris. The historic underground maze of pipes and tunnels is famous for making the City of Light sanitary, and to Monk, that’s worth paying tribute to.

The only problem is that their explorations lead them to another hidden world below the Parisian streets: the catacombs, filled with aging skulls and bones. Monk’s sharp eye catches sight of one skull that’s not so old—and that shows evidence of murder—pulling them into a case more twisted than the catacombs themselves. 

I hope that you enjoy it!

Saintly Diversions

  Over the holiday, I read Roger Moore's delightful memoir MY WORD IS MY BOND and I watched the documentary THE SAINT STEPS IN…TO TELEVISION. Both are a "must" for any fan of THE SAINT. But if I had to pick just one to recommend, it would be the book.

Moore's good humor and engaging personality comes through on every page of his memoir. Although the book is a fairly superficial skimming of his life and career, there's still plenty of amusing anecdotes and production details for die-hard MAVERICK, SAINT, PERSUADERS and Bond fans (the stories about THE PERSUADERS are particularly entertaining).  But readers looking for scandalous details about his love life, or those of other Hollywood personalities, will be disappointed.  Overall, it's a fast, informative, and fun read.7952968med

Many of the stories Moore tells about the Saint in his memoir are repeated in the documentary, only not as well. The documentary, narrated by Roger Moore and Ian Ogilvy, is bloated, plodding and unbelievably repetitive. That's not to say there isn't some real gold in there for SAINT fans and students of television in general…but you have to pan through a lot of  gravel to get to it.

I enjoyed the interviews with the SAINT writers (and interviews about the writers), the
discussions about script troubles, and the nasty script notes from author Leslie Charteris…but even that got extremely tiresome after
a while, since they basically kept repeating the same anecdotes, or
variations of the same anecdotes, over and over, long after the points were made. That's true of every subject the documentary tackles (it felt like an hour was spent just talking about what a nice guy Roger Moore is). And there's a long section about going from black-and-white to color episodes that can be marketed as a cure for insomnia.

The section on THE RETURN OF THE SAINT moves much more briskly, but the whole project feels needlessly padded … which, in fact, it was. The documentary is actually two shorter films made as "DVD extras" for the series boxed sets that were combined and expanded to fill a standalone release. I'll bet that the shorter versions play much, much better…and are every bit as informative.