We need to talk…
This weekend, screenwriters from across the country will gather in Toronto for the Writers Guild of Canada National Forum. A mix of elected representatives, industry experts and committed scribes, they’ll engage in an intense and free-ranging discussion of issues facing the local writing community.
And there’s a lot of important stuff for them to hash out. Recent changes in regulatory policy, impending broadcast licence renewals, transmedia, crossplatform, development funding and much more.
But if they’ve got a moment, I hope they might also ruminate on the creative conundrum that’s bugging me this morning.
How come the rest of the world is making television people want to watch and we’re not?
Take New Zealand.
I kid, Kiwis. Some of you know me and understand how much I like you and your country.
New Zealand, like Canada, shares the geographic misfortune of being right next door to a comparative media behemoth. In their case, it’s Australia. And for years, the best and brightest NZ creatives crossed the Tasman Sea to work in the much busier film and TV world of OZ.
One night in Auckland, a cab driver told me that New Zealanders weren’t all that troubled by the migration as it was raising the average IQ of both nations.
That export of talent began to change when the “Lord of the Rings” cycle filmed there. Every time we took a haitus on “Beastmaster” many in our cast and crew pools boarded planes to pick up a few days on those epics. Many continued to make the trip when Hollywood discovered the unnatural beauty of the place and shipped over more projects.
That has led to one of the unexpected breakthrough hits of the current TV season “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” which, though peopled with creatives from around the world ( including Toronto screenwriter Miranda Kwok) primarily features New Zealand talent.
If you haven’t been watching “Spartacus”, you need to start. Over its first 13 episodes it has exhibited everything a writer needs to learn about creating, sustaining and evolving a television concept.
For its first few episodes, the series clearly showed its raw creative roots in bad gladiator movies and the graphic novel, F/X excess of “300”. But through a combination of inspired writing, committed performers and an unapologetic grasp of its genre, it has quickly found a rabid following.
The twist endings, precisely motivated but still unexpected character turns combined with dialogue that’s part Shakespearean part grindhouse, not to mention sex far hotter than the overly self-conscious “Californication” have resulted in an exhilarating hour of television.
Indeed, I’ll confidently predict that the penultimate episode of Season One will become required viewing for anybody designing a season recap, finale set-up and/or tease for Season Two.
Early on, I began to wonder why “Spartacus” was being shot in New Zealand. The series makes little or no use of the local landscape. In fact, most of it takes place in front of tightly contained sets or a green screen. That means there had to be some kind of a “deal” making the location preferable to others more convenient to the producers.
And since the added costs of working a distant location usually offset any tax credits or currency fluctuations, that means that somebody down there thought “Spartacus” was worth having on the national resume.
How does a country with fewer than 5 Million people have the courage to make that creative decision, when a country 7 times its size (Canada) somehow can’t?
And “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is but one example of our creative reticence and risk aversion. Across the television landscape, Canadian production is falling further and further behind the mainstream.
I've watched the opening episode of "Treme" four or five times now. HBO apparently shared my initial reaction that David Simon has already surpassed his work on “The Wire”, because they picked up Season Two on the basis of public reaction to the pilot.
Here’s a show that doesn’t make the smallest attempt to provide you with any character background or dramatic frame of reference and leaves you an hour later with a complete understanding of who its people are and why their future journey is imperative to your own life.
And Khandi Alexander, all I can say is: I don’t know if you already have a husband or a boyfriend. But if you want another one, my email’s in the top right corner of this page.
Meanwhile "Justified" just keeps taking the rules of building a series world and fucking with them. Every single scene crackles with fresh approaches as familiar images, character types and reliable cop show stories are reworked into something you’ve never seen before.
I swear there are moments where lead actor Timothy Olyphant does a perfect imitation of Clint Eastwood for the first half of a line and then with what’s becoming a trademark smirk transitions through “Smokey and the Bandit” to “Deadwood” and beyond.
This is a series that knows exactly what its audience has come to see --- and will get around to that when it damn well feels like it.
A few years ago, shows like these would have been defined as “pushing the envelope”, examples of the concepts you can get away with on pay or cable services that the rest of television can’t do.
But we’ve rapidly reached the point where they’re not somewhere in the stratosphere, they’re the basic audience bar of expectation.
Toss in "Breaking Bad", "United States of Tara", "Weeds", "Mad Men", "Big Love","Pacific", “Sons of Anarchy”, "Burn Notice" and others and you quickly get to 20 or 30 shows we can't even run promos for in one of our dramas without being embarrassed by the comparison.
You can't go by a few weeks of ratings but, on average, more people are watching one of those series in Canada than "18 to Life" or "Dan for Mayor".
And that’s despite the fact that they are broadcast on networks with a tenth of the audience reach of CBC or CTV.
We're getting left in the dust and there isn't one local buyer of content who communicates any desire to attain that new basic level of execution.
This week the Banff Television Festival, perhaps the world’s most respected annual conference on the state of television, announced the nominees for its “Rockie” awards, celebrating excellence in World television.
The only Canadian nominee in the Comedy category is “Little Mosque of the Prairie”, a show that has seldom even tried to be funny, let alone succeeded at it.
In the Drama category, our lone nomination is that "Blood Diamond" rip-off, "Diamonds" -- which was really a co-pro we enabled as the minority partner.
In one of the new web categories, the best face we can show the world is apparently -- “The CTV Olympic Torch Cam”.
And while there’s a “political” element to most awards, enticing some to attend with a trophy or nomination or there’s horse-trading among juries to give everybody some recognition they can trumpet at home; more and more it appears we’re on the nominee list because we’re the host.
Banff has in the past also honored some of the true geniuses of television. But this year the Lifetime Achievement award and Award of Excellence will go respectively to William Shatner and the guy who invented "So You Think You Can Dance".
For me this only confirms where our problem lies.
From the point of view of those who make the green light decisions, Canadian television is not about serving an audience, creative originality or even producing content that can compete equally with the rest of what’s out there.
For the most part, Canadian TV has become doing the least that’s expected as cheaply as possible while maximizing access to a complex web of Public funding.
There is no thirst for national success, no hunger to acquire major international sales, no willingness to risk.
If there is going to be any future for any of those screenwriters gathering in Toronto this weekend, we need some kind of "Own the Flatscreen" campaign. And without the Public, government or network will to get behind that idea, we’re going to have to find some way of triggering it ourselves.
The kind of great television being made elsewhere can only be replicated here if we become the first ones demanding that better work be done.
And if that doesn’t happen, it really won’t matter what transmedia models and licencing policy we come up with.
Because the audience will be watching something else.