Canadian content. Depending on your views about the broadcasting industry, it’s either an important public policy to ensure Canada has its distinct culture and its citizens consume it, it’s a nationalist protection of cultural sector jobs to prevent talent from moving to Hollywood, or it’s a waste of taxpayer money for poor-quality TV shows that no one wants to watch.
Or maybe a combination of all the above.
This winter and spring saw a bigger than usual crop of new English Canadian scripted series on TV, and with a mix of curiosity and patriotic obligation, I decided to sample each of them.
While funding has always been a challenge for homegrown Canadian TV, discoverability has been an increasingly large one as well. You’re no longer limited to a handful of channels on TV, and even most people with TVs don’t watch a lot of their shows live. Without discoverability, a fantastic Canadian series could be lost to history because no one gave it a chance.
Canadian TV networks are trying. CBC has been pushing its series during Hockey Night in Canada, while CTV has aired endless commercials for its series during more popular programs.
They could do better, though. CTV and Citytv have their series behind online paywalls, requiring TV subscribers to sign in even though CTV and Citytv themselves are available free over the air. And if your TV provider doesn’t have deals with those networks (like, say, Videotron), then you can’t sign in to get access to these series. You’ll either have to wait for reruns or hope they show up on Netflix some day.
Anyway, to help give these series a discoverability boost, I watched a few episodes of each and provide a quick review. Some probably aren’t your cup of tea, and that’s okay, but if some sound interesting to you, and you have access, maybe give them a shot.
Plan B (CBC)
The latest chapter in CBC adapting a Quebec drama for English Canada, Plan B is a six-part series whose premise is someone finding a way to travel back in time to fix his mistakes. That doesn’t sound terribly original (remember Being Erica?), but the way the Quebec original and the faithful adaptation play it has a bit more depth. This isn’t a feel-good story about someone learning that their past mistakes make them who they are and learn to appreciate what they have. Instead, the protagonist is on a pathological quest to have it all, to fix everything by himself, to make his life perfect, and through it all you will get increasingly frustrated that he never considers the fact that he’s what needs to change. The twist ending at the end of the season is gut-wrenching but provides closure.
The Quebec series, which was originally on Séries Plus but then moved to Radio-Canada, features a different protagonist every season.
Where to watch: CBC Gem (free)
Sullivan’s Crossing (CTV)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A pretty young woman with a big-city job runs into some trouble and heads back to her small-town home where she re-connects with her family and meets a pretty young man, and though she’s in a relationship with a big-city guy, the romantic tension between these two is undeniable.
Yeah, it’s a cookie-cutter Christmas romcom but set in the summer. And without the com part.
Based on the books by Robyn Carr (which also got adapted by Netflix into its Virgin River series), Sullivan’s Crossing isn’t bad — I ended up watching the whole season, though fast-forwarding through some parts — but it’s not really great either. After 10 episodes, I can’t really tell you much about plot development, besides the fact that a lot of medical emergencies have happened so far in this small Nova Scotia community, all of which have required the first-aid assistance of our protagonist, whose big-city job is a surgeon in Boston.
There are some good characters who stay just on the right side of cliché, from Scott Paterson’s grumpy-dad Harry Sullivan to Tom Jackson’s wholesome-but-stubborn Frank Cranebear. But once the will-they-or-won’t-they tension breaks, I’m not sure where this series is going to go beyond small-town small-stakes drama.
Where to watch: CTV.ca (all episodes require sign-in)
Essex County (CBC)
Do you like sadness? Do you like dysfunctional families? Do you like watching people looking off into the distance thinking about things without talking? Then boy do I have the series for you.
The five-part limited series based on the Jeff Lemire graphic novel tells the story of a handful of people who are related but not really talking to each other. A dad who refuses to acknowledge his declining health, a former hockey player ex who is a failure as a father even when he’s trying, a child who lives in his own fantasy world that will only hurt him in the end. And so. Much. Staring. I couldn’t make it beyond a couple of episodes. If an interesting plot developed in there, let me know.
Where to watch: CBC Gem (free)
It’s like Abbott Elementary but in a library instead of a school. I’m not sure if that was how it was sold to the network, but it’s definitely how it’s been described since. The nerdy workplace sitcom follows staff at an underfunded public library in Toronto as they deal with the frustrations of their jobs, the library’s patrons and each other. The characters are a bit cliché and the jokes not quite as good as Abbott’s, but at least they didn’t try to lay in a laugh track to cover up their weaknesses. With a little more character depth this could have some potential.
The Spencer Sisters (CTV)
A mystery novel writer stumbles into the amateur detective business, where through a combination of cleverness, charm, connections and unethical or illegal actions solves some serious real-world crimes. A daughter who can’t stand her mother has a relationship and job fall apart and is forced to move back in with her. Two people who don’t get along very well accidentally find that they work great as partners.
While I’m not sure if these clichés have been combined in quite the same way before, The Spencer Sisters (they’re actually mother and daughter, but the mom likes to think they’re mistaken for sisters) is using some well-worn classic building blocks to create its premise.
That said, this is more of a light-hearted comedy than a gripping drama, so while it might not have you up at night wondering about its intrigues, it’s a fine solution when you need something mindless and fun to watch. If you’re a fan of mother-daughter bickering and characters who are just too much, Lea Thompson has a few witty lines for you.
Wong & Winchester (Citytv)
Two women who don’t get along too well work together as private investigators, solving crimes using sometimes unethical or illegal practises, and … boy this is starting to sound familiar.
I hadn’t heard of Wong & Winchester until I put together a list of series for this post. Which is surprising because it’s filmed in Montreal (though not very obviously set here). Rogers might want to rethink how it markets its original series.
Unlike The Spencer Sisters, Wong & Winchester is more working-class. Wong, the PI, is a bit of a grumpy mess and is more likely to throw a punch or two, while Winchester, her new driver who keeps wanting to get involved in the PI part, is an eager beaver who’s smart and well prepared but green as hell. Like The Spencer Sisters, it relies on comedy to make it entertaining, and is more of a get-your-mind-off-your-day series than something requiring a lot of deep thought.
Where to watch: Citytv.ca (all episodes require sign-in)
*Ride (CTV Drama)
I had never heard of this series when I was looking through the ones listed on CTV’s website and found this one listed as a “CTV original.” Turns out “original” is a bit up for interpretation because the series doesn’t really belong to CTV. It’s actually a Hallmark Channel series, but Bell Media is one of the production companies and it’s shot in Alberta (though set in Colorado).
Ride (not to be confused with the YTV series from 2016) is a country drama with lots of cowboy hats and collared jeans and wood decor and just about everything else cliché about rural life. And it plays out like a Hallmark series, with a lot of drama involving people talking to each other, daytime soap style. I don’t blame CTV for doing little to promote this series, that ended up on the CTV Drama channel instead of the main network.
Where to watch: CTV.ca (some episodes free, others require sign-in)