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.

13 thoughts on “Are Canadian Showrunners an Endangered Species?”

  1. Have you ever seen SLINGS & ARROWS? It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and it’s Canadian… and sort of a comedy/drama. They made 3 six-episode seasons, sort of like the British do.

  2. Canadians do better with comedy as a rule (see Trailer Park Boys, Corner Gas), but I do remember, back in the day, CBC doing some very witty, compelling things drama-wise. I think things changed because Canadian TV began mimicking, badly, American TV.

  3. I’ve seen the first four or five FLASHPOINTs and I’d say it nails the American model of concept, staging and pacing, to the extent that (to a Brit’s eyes at least) it looks exactly like an American show, with VERONICA MARS’s dad in a lead role to reassure the audience. I’ve wanted to sample INTELLIGENCE but haven’t been able to get my hands on it.
    THE BORDER largely succeeds in combining American style with Canadian identity. But after the viewing figures you quoted recently — top audiences of no more than three quarters of a million — I don’t understand how the economics can support any drama production at all.

  4. True, true, all of it, except that STREET LEGAL was really good in the early seasons.
    The reason the drama shows are dull and plodding is that Life is dull and plodding in Canada. Life very seldom, if ever, gets intense. Here’s an example:
    I went to a steak house in the U.S. It was packed, to the rafters. There was a line-up and a forty-minute wait. The staff was whizzing around. The persons in the line-up were rowdy and loud and debates were breaking out all over the place about the issues of the day. It was, in essence, a great display of persons leading their lives. The energy crackled in the atmosphere.
    CUT TO: Any Canadian restaurant on a Saturday night.
    It is large. It is half-full. It is purposely large so there’s no waiting. There’s no line-up. The staff plods around. There’s only hushed conversation. The characters eat and then they leave. Period. Nothing happens. No drama.
    So how can a drama show grow up within this kind of tepid hothouse? It can’t.
    On the other hand, documentary can. By far, the best Canadian shows are documentaries. They take the viewer through, say, some kind of industrial process, or financial process, or exploration process. The challenges are all MAN VERSUS NATURE. And MAN always wins, so there’s no drama here either, but you do get a good understanding of the process being detailed.
    In a bizarre twist out of the ordinary, the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT is currently fighting for it’s political life. Drama can’t get much higher than a life-or-death struggle. I’ve never seen such drama in Canada before. It seems that scripted drama often grows out of a great non-fiction book. So I’m wondering if a TV SERIES or feature might grow out of this current political crises when the book comes out. Stay tuned! And in the meantime, watch U.S. drama!

  5. Lee, Cold Squad, DaVinci’s Inquest and Intelligence are really great shows with a quality close to what UK delivers…
    (By the way, I was a fan of Cobra when I was younger. Cool show, a friend of mine offered me the pilot in VHS a couple of years ago. Good memories…)

  6. Thierry,
    I have to respectfully disagree with you about COLD SQUAD and DaVINCI. I haven’t seen INTELLIGENCE. I don’t think those two shows come close to anything in the UK now…they can’t even compare to reruns of the THE SWEENEY, and that series is 30 years old (and still packs a punch).
    Have you seen REBUS, TRIAL & RETRIBUTION, THE COMMANDER, LEWIS, SILENT WITNESS, WIRE IN THE BLOOD or WAKING THE DEAD for example? These shows, at their worst, are better than any episode of COLD SQUAD…and the handful of DaVINCIs that I have seen.

  7. Ratings for Canadian dramas continue to be anemic. Here’s an excerpt from this week’s ratings from the TV Feeds My Family blog…
    The Border sank to 546,000 against a stronger episode of Heroes on Global (913,000). The Fifth Estate did 447,000, with Global’s rescue series The Guard struggling at 306,000.

  8. I could never put my finger on it…but years ago I realized there were two things that gave away “Canadian Television”…the ‘sound’ ..and the many..many lines of dialogue. The background sound has always been hollow, vaccumish..but at the same time it echoes. Why can’t we make it sound warm and buffered like U.S. T.V.?
    Canadians do love to articulate…maybe that’s our new accent.
    As far as new shows go..MURDOCK MYSTERIES has been growing on me….quite interesting to see the beginnings of CSI stuff..and DIAMONDS..gosh I forgot about that series..I used to love the playfull bickering between the ex’s.

  9. Years and years ago Canadian TV threw out a chest-burster of a show called WOJECK that rocked my younger self on his heels — it starred John Vernon as a crusading Toronto coroner and was shot up-close and handheld with a style and intensity of engagement like nothing else on TV. I’d never seen anything like it before and it was a long time before I saw anything else that came close.

    The Federal Government survived! But it wasn’t easy. The Prime Minister, Steven Harper, got parliament shut down for seven weeks to avoid being defeated and replaced by a coalition of parties. He now will plan a budget and deliver it to the House of Commons around January 24th, or so. Then he faces the vote that could still defeat him. Meantime, all political parties are fighting tooth and nail for public opinion. Stay tuned!
    I’ve just finished re-watching Season One of KNOT’S LANDING. The pilot was much too busy with far too many plot lines, but the other 12 episodes were quite good. The issues between the characters go much deeper than in Canadian scripted drama. In Canada, if a Gary-figure went to a bar, the Val-figure would shrug and go watch (American) TV. No drama!


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