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September 4, 2015

What Canadian Shows Say About Us

by Stephanie Earp, posted Jun 29th 2010 10:39AM
As Canadians, we are often faced with the embarrassing proposition of either defining our country by the few symbols that are ours alone -- Mounties, beavers, maple leafs -- or leaving it a blur. When travelling or entertaining visitors from abroad, I've struggled to answer their questions about what makes Canada Canada. From food (poutine) to music (Celine Dion) to sports (hockey), the things we're famous for live large in the minds of others, but are only a part of the whole to us.

In some ways it's a lucky thing that we are not even remotely famous for our television shows. It's true that some shows have broken through the border to the U.S. There are Americans who have heard of 'Degrassi' and 'You Can't Do That On Television' and 'Corner Gas', but they are not a defining part of our nation's character -- take that as good or bad. And none of our shows manage to turn around and define Canada either, the way 'Coronation Street' or 'All in the Family', just two examples, have seemed to define the cultures they came from.

The poet Walt Whitman said "I am large, I contain multitudes" -- he could have been talking about Canada. (He was actually talking about himself, like most poets.) But here we have an enormous country, with cities separated by days of driving. We have two official languages, two coasts, and yes, a large number of beavers. We know who we are, but we're not very good at describing it. Hence, we have a very strange and disparate body of television shows to our credit. In honour of Canada Day, I've decided to have a look at the best shows to come out of our country and see what -- if anything -- we're trying to say about ourselves.

"We are witty and urbane."

For a country made up mostly of arctic wilderness, many of our best shows are city-based. Whether clearly Toronto or Vancouver or some fictional amalgam, here is where we find the world-weary Canadians. From the TV execs of 'Made in Canada', the struggling actors of 'Slings & Arrows', the lawyers of 'This is Wonderland' and 'Street Legal' and the sombre coroner of 'DaVinci's Inquest' we learn that Canadians are rich in intelligence, cynicism and sharp retorts.

"We are simple country folk."

And as if to make a fools of their big-city counterparts, another type of show offers a view of Canadians that is decidedly down-home. Falling more frequently into the realm of comedy than drama, shows like 'Corner Gas', 'The Littlest Hobo', 'The Red Green Show' and even 'The Trailer Park Boys' take us into the small towns and rural landscapes of Canada, where crimes can be solved by a German Shepherd, and duct tape is a cure-all. Here we find Canadians who are good-hearted (if misguided) but not the brightest stars in the sky.

"We have a weird sense of humour."

One of Canada's claims to fame is our export of fine comedians, and yet a look at our home-grown fare shows we're keeping the really weird stuff to ourselves. Sketch shows like 'SCTV' and 'The Kids in the Hall' led to mainstream American careers for many, but Dave Foley fans aren't getting the whole picture if they've never seen the Chicken Lady Blind Date sketch from 'Kids in the Hall'. Thanks to Alanis Morissette, 'You Can't Do That On Television' is remembered by some people outside our borders, but can they really understand it? It was a quasi-educational show for teens where the point was to see someone get slime dumped on them. The whole episode existed as a tease for that moment. It was very meta and definitely ahead of its time. More recently, on 'Kenny vs. Spenny', Kenny's constant humiliation of his best friend Spenny further reveals the bizarre and delightful Canadian sense of humour.

"We're really different from Americans."

Another great source of comedy comes from comparing ourselves to our enormous neighbours. Paul Gross' role as a Mountie in Chicago on 'Due South' made hay of such disparities as saying "thank you" and actually listening to people. 'An American in Canada' reversed the idea, landing a brash American character in the Canadian Prairies. But perhaps the best comedy of this sort came from Rick Mercer's Talking to Americans segments on 'This Hour Has 22 Minutes'. Occasionally cruel, Mercer got Americans to admit their ignorance about our country on camera. He dropped the segment after 9/11, proving the rule that Canadians are awfully nice.

"We are a nation of children."

While successful adult shows have been few and far between, Canadians have a rich history of excellence in children's programming. At the Canadian TV Archive, kids programming has more entries than any other genre. 'The Friendly Giant', Fred Penner, and the Fraggles were all Canadian creations. As a kid it was my greatest ambition to land a spot on 'Just Like Mom'. Canada's biggest TV export and greatest success story is also a kids show -- the 'Degrassi' series. Over 30 years old, the 'Degrassi' franchise has gotten glossier over the decades, but then again, so has Canada.

What is your favourite Canadian TV show? Let us know in the comments below!

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The old SCTV, from the 70's, is my hands-down favourite television show. John Candy went on to a monster career in American movies after the series, but it was never quite the same. Catherine O'Hara, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy and Dave Thomas were also hysterical. I miss it. God love Canadian TV.

July 01 2010 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The thing that I appreciate most about our country is there is a general peace here among the people despite the distance between various cultures. I feel safe walking around the streets in most places here, no matter what time of day or night it is. You don't get that luxury in many places. Also our country has dignity that we prefer to be modest about, but we spare the blinding pride, and discrimination is very hard to come by. A fool might quickly label this as a weakness but it's proven itself a strength in more areas than not. We are peaceful, supportive, modest, and short on prideful and spiteful hang-ups. That is something to be incredibly proud of as a country.

July 01 2010 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Well, I have different opinion! We, Canadians, don't have a back bone when it comes to stand up for some values.
We fully accepted gays, police officers in turbans and burkas, half of large cities full of chinese banners and so on.
We (Ontarians) accepted new HST presented to us by liberal provintial government on our Canada day!!!
We need to stand up for our values, we need to learn how to say NO to illigal aliens and muslims!

July 01 2010 at 2:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

First of all, it's thime that Stephanie Earpe learns how to spell - the plural of leaf is leaves. Secondly, that she learns about Canadian geography - we have three coastlines - YES! Thirdly - beavers are not the exclusive domain of Canadians, although they made us famous after the Europeans decimated their own.

Yes, we do have a strange sense of humor that many find hard to understand, but is a great way to train comedians to make it in other countries.
But, we generally make very stupid drama shows - the CBC is not worth viewing at any time. There was a time when we did make good shows such The King of Kensigton, which did define us as we are, but we can't seem to make those shows any more.

July 01 2010 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

CBC Shows like 'This Hour Has 22 Minutes', and other CBC programs star caucasians folks for caucasian folks. It bothers me because I am subsidizing a racist culture at the CBC. One would thing in a multicultural country like Canada you would find a more diverse array of programs that seems more inclusive. Looks like the old boys' network is alive and well at the CBC. Moreover, what I find even more offensive is that the programs they put out are outright garbage! They need to fire Hubert T. Lacroix and Richard Stursberg.
Ps...Since Stursberg is the vice president of the CBC, isn't it a conflict of interest to have his wife, Carole McNeil, work as a CBC news anchor?

July 01 2010 at 1:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We make excellent cop shows - sadly, they're often short-lived despite critical approval and good ratings. There's a mindset that can't seem to resist discarding what ain't broke. (Yes, I'm talking about YOU, CBC!) Some are gritty, some quirky or even spooky, but not even looking at past shows, currently or quite recently there are some really gripping programs. Aside from DaVinci, just off the top of my head there's Flashpoint, The Bridge, The Border, Intelligence, Durham County, Rabbit Falls.... there are lots more but I haven't had my coffee yet!

July 01 2010 at 7:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Did you forget about our fabulous SECOND CITY alumni. They were awesome.

July 01 2010 at 6:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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