Colby Cosh: The supreme achievements of English Canadian TV
CBC Vancouver’s Justin McElroy, a hard-working data-minded journalist who lives mostly on social media like the rest of us, . If you’re Canadian, and you’re on Twitter, you’ll probably hear about it pretty soon. Over the weekend, just for a laugh, he organized an NCAA-style tournament bracket of legendary English Canadian TV shows from the past. His original bracket had 16 shows, but readers poured in with complaints about omissions (“How dare you leave out Seeing Things and Being Erica?!!?!1?”).
Sensing he was on to a good thing, McElroy expanded the field to a full 64 shows, ranging in time from The Friendly Giant and Front Page Challenge to quite recent programs. I think the most controversial omission from the of the bracket might be the CBC’s electrifying, short-lived ’60s newsmagazine show, This Hour Has Seven Days.
The bracket provides for an interesting overview—necessarily short-sighted, and skewed toward shows that an online audience has a chance of remembering—of Canada’s English-language television history. McElroy made the choice to organize the “tournament” in thematic quadrants, which created an immediate problem in the small 16-show version of the bracket. Literally all the best English Canadian programs for adult audiences have been comedies, and were packed in with each other in the early rounds.
I am cross with McElroy for setting his tournament up this way, but it is his baby
This is still a bit of a problem in the expanded version, and I am cross with McElroy for setting it up this way, but it is his baby. And when I think about it, I admire the way he made pretty indisputable choices within the comedy category. His original four comedy invitees to the tournament were SCTV, Corner Gas, The Kids in the Hall, and Trailer Park Boys.
That’s… pretty much the Mount Rushmore of Canadian television for grown-ups, isn’t it? I have a special fondness for SCTV, which is part generational and part parochial: if I peep over the top of my desktop Mac right now, I can look down at the plaza where they shot the walk-and-talk sequence in Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’s “Play It Again, Bob.” And I could go have lunch in the restaurant where they wrote it, too.
SCTV’s capture of an NBC time slot, its (now widely acknowledged) out-competing of Saturday Night Live, and its monumental role in the imaginations of today’s influential comedians make it a special Canadian . And it has aged pretty well: people of all ages still laugh at “Count” Floyd Robertson, I think.
SCTV is a special Canadian treasure
But… can SCTV actually survive this quarter of the bracket on pure merit? In retrospect, The Kids in the Hall—who were a little more Monty Python than SCTV, and a little less SNL—are of almost equal comedic stature, and the quality of their show might have been more consistent. Corner Gas was a knockoff of Newhart (itself an offspring of Green Acres) that, at its best, was funnier than Newhart: that is an unbelievable, almost sacrilegious thing for me to type, but it is true.
As for Trailer Park Boys—well, any comic world constructed with such obsessive-compulsive intricacy is bound to have a long afterlife with audiences. We almost can’t get enough: TPB overspilled its original ambitions to become the kind of thing to which you attach the suffix “-iverse.”
These shows all did what is often thought to be nigh-impossible for Canadian TV: they found devoted, permanent international fans. Nearly all the shows in the other brackets are mere schlocky Canadiana, of no enduring interest to anyone else on the planet. The Degrassi franchise is perhaps the major exception—and even it might be called schlocky Canadiana, if we’re being frank with one another. Its reputation in the U.S. depends heavily on the social-realist adventurousness that the Canadian broadcast environment permitted: for Americans it seems to be almost like watching another country’s weird porn.
These shows did what is often thought to be impossible for Canadian TV
When I was a kid they used to tell us that people were crazy about The Beachcombers in Japan, or what have you, but I never believed it, and I defy anyone under 40 to sit through a full episode of that show now. (You can watch ironically if you like: I bet you still cry “Uncle.”) McElroy’s number-one seed in the “Drama Bracket” is The Littlest Hobo, which is notable mostly for Tommy Wiseau-level acting, and for providing an early pre-YouTube hint of how much time you can kill watching cute animal videos. (Answer: “all of it.”)
Meanwhile, flip back to the big version of McElroy’s “Comedy Bracket” and you remember that the Rushmore of Canadian TV didn’t have room for Ken Finkleman’s CBC show The Newsroom—an astonishing act of comic lèse-majesté that flashed brilliantly across our screens, and is now in danger of being forgotten because some American gave a much worse show (with inferior dialogue) the same name.
So, er, is there any reason this Mount Rushmore couldn’t have five heads? These seem to be the supreme achievements of English Canadian TV however you slice it: no Canadian drama series has ever earned anything like the esteem that The Kids In The Hall enjoy in the field of sketch comedy. Probably this is obvious, but Justin McElroy’s fun meme has really driven it home to me in a way he did not intend.