Friday, March 29, 2024

The Best TV Canadian Series - Drama Edition

We are pretty hard on Canadian entertainment whether it is music, theatre, television or movies. Being next to an entertainment goliath like the U.S. which has ten times the population and churns out English production in every field of entertainment far beyond it's borders sometimes means Canadian material is lost in the avalanche. And even today Canada acts as a service provider creating material for the U.S. pretending to be American. This is very much true for Hallmark Christmas movies where everything might be Canadian from cast to crew to writer to director but the setting will be Colorado.

When CBC created The Beachcombers in 1972, it was for the home market with no real thought but entertainment for Canadians, particularly family viewers. Given the budget CBC had, it didn't have a piles of money so a lot was riding on it. Previous drama series like Wojek and Quentin Durgens m.p, in the 1960s were very much for an older audience so CBC was looking for something for the family to watch. The Beachcombers became a staple of the family audience along with the Wonderful World of Disney on Sundays. It showed there was a market for Canadian production in TV but the only way to grow it was to fund it and put rules in place to ensure it would get made and shown in Canada.

Private networks repeatedly said there was no market for anything Canadian whether it was news, sports, drama, music or comedy. Certainly there was nothing they wanted to pay for when broadcasting ready made material from the U.S. was so lucrative.

So was the Beachcombers one of the best shows in Canadian history? By the standards of the time, it ranked as one of the most watchable programs of the 1970s and 1980s. Bruno Gerussi became a star of Canadian TV and even had a celebrity cooking show that lasted years. Our family watched it regularly. I would have to categorize it as one of Canada's best and I still think fondly of it. Still, I see a list of Canadian drama production from the 1960s and 1970s and realize that so much of it was shown once and never repeated. And never syndicated. Why don't we have Wojek on any platform? I'd love to see older stuff somewhere. I know they tried for a few years on YouTube and then gave up. That is sad.

CBC learned from making family productions and building the teams of people to perform and make them. Danger Bay (1984-1990), a 30 minute drama series also filmed in Vancouver and partnered up with Disney followed that same format and lasted years in the process. I watched less of that series but then family shows have a time and place. CBC more or less perfected the family show with Heartland which is the longest running drama it has ever produced from 2007-2024. Heartland is also a show that has U.S. partners but there hasn't seemed to be a compromise on the Canadian aspect of the story.

CTV often tried to create programming that could be sold elsewhere after to recover their costs. It was that type thinking when Starlost was created in 1973. The show was sold in syndication to American markets. It was a fascinating experiment in sci-fi but ultimately, the budget and lack of drama, kept it to a one year outing. It was repeatedly for decades afterwards. In almost all cases of CTV created drama, the network has looked how it can leverage U.S. partnerships.

A year later, CTV created Swiss Family Robinson along with ABC which ran for one season with 26 episodes. It repeated for decades after that on Canadian television. It was okay entertainment but CTV often treated their shows like an obligation rather than an opportunity. It wasn't until the 1980s that CTV began to put some Canadian effort into production as well as storylines. Still, you ended up a lot of times with shows like Sue Thomas, FB Eye (2002-2005) which was about American law enforcement but otherwise a completely Canadian show,

English Canadian production even when unique culturally is a small percentage of what is generated in North America. It is easy to get overwhelmed and often the production in Canada is criticized as inferior or low budget. Quite a bit of what is made, even when high quality, can be generic to sell to American and world markets. As noted above, some are American shows but completely Canadian in cast and crew. In recent years, a few very Canadian productions have broken through in ratings both in the U.S. and Canada. In some cases, an American production becomes more Canadian in terms of the production team and actors while receiving funding that is largely American. Such a series might be Stargate SG-1 which saw Canadians take over more and more of the writing, directing and acting in the series. It can be confusing because a show about Americans largely is a Canadian show in every other way.

TV continues to evolve into streaming but the majority still watch broadcast and cable TV for now. In a world with so many choices, it is difficult to say where Canadian drama might end up. It seems odd that as a country the population continues to grow as does production but it is so hard to break through as singularly Canadian. In 2024, it sometimes means being part of a U.S. franchise like Law & Order as in the the case of Law & Order Toronto Criminal Intent. Drama is not the only area where we use imports. Variety and game show formats from around the world are adopted into Canadian programming such as Canadian Idol and Family Feud Canada. 

Drama series were a fairly rare thing ever since Canadian TV began in the 1950s. The CBC was generally one of the only sources of drama on English TV. In early the 1970s, a young Canadian could only really get two Canadian channels. Cable only really started to take off in the 1970s. Cities close to American markets could pick up border channels and the selection from the main U.S. networks of CBS, NBC and ABC were overwhelming. However, in Manitoba, only KCND from Pembina, North Dakota could be really be picked up and only with antennas. I remember watching fuzzy broadcasts as we didn't have a rooftop antenna. 

CBC tried to be everything to everyone with educational, variety, news, comedy and drama and in some areas they were outstanding. For a drama series, as mentioned, one of the breakthrough series was The Beachcombers. When it came out in 1972 there was nothing quite like it on TV anywhere. It is for this reason that it lasted as long as it did. It took till 1979 before Littlest Hobo would be debut on CTV. It too had lasting power probably because no one had done a dog series since Lassie.

The picture at the top was a series I thought hit all the marks and that was Due South and it was on CTV and CBS. However, CBS cancelled it after one season but the huge success in Canada and the UK kept the show on the air from 1994 to 1999.

Anyways, I will attempt to make a list of best of Canadian dramas that I've enjoyed. It isn't definitive. Some amazing series have been on the air and I might not have watched because I wasn't drawn to a supernatural story, or a family series or was just too busy. I will attempt to list chronologically.

The Beachcombers (1972-1990)

One of the shows our family watched together on Sunday when everything was truly closed and families were together on that evening. One hour episodes.

I can't list any others for the 1970s as many just came and went so fast and never got repeats as so often happens now on CBC. An honourable mention to The Littlest Hobo for CTV (the second version of it on CTV) from 1979 to 1985. I didn't watch it but CTV stuck with it as their family entertainment and to that end, it served their audience. 

The Kids of Degrassi Street (1980-1985)

I was just entering high school at the time so it wasn't really my age group and that was true for the entire Degrassi franchise. However, it was hard not to see Degrassi as it was CBC Canada's version of Sesame and remains a powerhouse today. Half hour episodes.

Seeing Things (1981-1987)

A fantasy twist to the crime drama story. At the time nothing quite like it on TV when CBC gave this a shot. Was popular in its time and and helped create momentum in later year for more series with a slight twist into supernatural. Louis Del Grande won acting awards for his performance.

The Hitchhiker (1983-1991)

Perhaps one of the better horror anthology shows of the 1980s but not seen by as many Canadians because it was on First Choice/HBO pay channels. Had a secondary life in syndication.

Night Heat (1985-1989)

A generic police show that ran on CTV and late night CBS that was better than average. It was a Canadian show but like Hill Street Blues, did not reference the city it was in. Just a large North American gritty metro. And it won awards for being authentic.

Streel Legal (1987-1994)

Perhaps one of the first guilty pleasure shows for Canadian drama and the longest running series until Heartland came along. A short six episode run in 2015 tried to kickstart the series but didn't work. Truly CBC's best and glossiest drama for many years.

Degrassi Junior High (1987-1989)

Hugely influential continuation of the CBC series and became part of the top rated nights on Canadian TV. Shown on PBS as well. Led to ever more Degrassi later on.

E.N.G (1989-1994)

One of CTV's honest attempts at doing something Canadian and having it be successful. A fictional TV newsroom. At the time, very different from police, medial and lawyer shows. The show did not fair well in the U.S. where in syndication it probably was too Toronto for Lifetime. However, in Canada, it was neck and neck with Street Legal for popularity.

Degrassi High (1989-1991)

More of the popular CBC show. It proved to hot for BBC but the Australians loved it and American audiences were captured by it as well.

Road to Avonlea (1990-1996)

Another CBC breakthrough hit on their family night of television. A sweet and strong Canadian story based on the famous work. Anne of Green Gables was a true hit for the network.

Due South (1994-1998)

A CTV guilty pleasure. A drama comedy with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Paul Gross was delightful and the series won fabs overseas but only lasted a season on CBS. It took an international coalition to finance the beloved series till the end. It is hard to believe we have not done more RCMP series in Canada.

The Newsroom (1996-1997...2003-2005)

CBC Newsroom was bang on although it was inspired by British and Australian series of the same vein. The Newsroom aired on PBS which was a turn from their usual British fare. Some said it might have been the greatest series produced in Canada.

Traders (1996-2000)

One of Global's best series that held its own against ER on Thursdays. Appeared on CBC for two years as well because the series was expensive to shoot. I thought it was some of the finest work, acting and direction for anything Global had ever done.

John Woo's Once A Thief (1997-1998)

I loved the show. It started off with high ratings but sank by the end. I found it funny, action packed and loved the episodes. Really thought the show would be super successful but I think some people were not sure what to make of it.

Lexx (1997-2002)

I am adding Lexx from Global because it was truly sci-fi, truly bizarre and right out of left field for Global. I don't think anyone really knows what was going on in this crazy series but they embraced the insanity and ran with it.

La Femme Nikita (1997-2001)

The show oozed cool in a way the movie could never match. This might have been a generic intelligence and action force but the strong Canadian writing, acting and settings made for the coolest thing on TV.

Da Vinci's Inquest (1998-2005)

CBC does another coroner show. If Wojek was a success, why not Da Vinci? And it was. Second mention for Nicolas Campbell who also appears on the list with The Hitchhiker. Vancouver never looked so good and so bad at the same time with activist Da Vinci on the case.

Los Girl (2005-2010)

A supernatural series that found an audience with the queer community and women. The first of a number of Canadian sci-fi series to actively write for an audience that had not been considered before.

Continuum (2012-2016)

An exceptional series on cable Showcase. Canadian sci-fi often focuses on how corporate future is a threat and this series was no exception. It looked good, the action was exciting and the storyline was clever.

 Vikings (2013-2020)

A Canada/Ireland co-production. A ratings blockbuster and although about Vikings, has Canadian writing, acting and locations along with the Irish work. Almost single handedly put some heft in historical storytelling and showing it could be popular.

Orphan Black (2013-2017)

Certainly has to be one of the better sci-fi series out there and acting triumph for Tatiana Maslany. Huge online fan base and a show begging for a comeback which it looks like is this year. This series got a lot of attention in the States and around the world for excellence.

Killjoys (2015-2019)

One of a series of space opera series that appeared on the Space Channel in Canada. This one had the bigger sense of humour. It also had the same anti-corporate message that permeates Canadian sci-fi. A wonderfully fun series.

Dark Matter (2015-2017)

Same year as Killjoys and a little more dramatic but an amazing series nonetheless. Canada was home to sci-fi this much was clear. So much action and fun.

Wynnona Earp (2016-2021)

A supernatural western horror that had a large queer audience. A co-production with the U.S. but with a large Canadian talent team. More indication of just how much sci-fi Canada now does for the world.

Honourbable mentions to Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe that had largely become Canadian over the course of the series in the 2000s. It is that skillset in sci-fi that has attracted so many sci-fi series to Canada. It isn't just about cheaper production but the quality of the acting, directing, production design and so many producers and writers to make a series look good.

Canada has come a long way but the advent of streaming has disrupted so much production that it is hard to tell where things are going. One thing is clear is that the free market doesn't have a clue either.

No comments: