Made in Canada?: The Art of Mimesis in Global TV

Curator's Note

Globally speaking, English Canadian television dramas are often best known for their capacity to imitate the grammar and aesthetics of American series. In somewhat disparaging terms, television critics have long railed against “industry” or “generic” productions that increase their international sales value through disguising their “Canadianness” by setting stories in American cities despite being actually shot in Toronto or Vancouver. In many respects, the recent continental success of CTV’s police drama Flashpoint can be seen as a coming of age story for English Canadian television production.

Flashpoint, which draws on the ‘true stories’ of Toronto’s Strategic Response Unit (SRU — equivalent of the American SWAT), was initially produced for CTV but was subsequently purchased by the CBS broadcast network as an insurance policy during last year’s WGA strike in the United States. CBS eventually ran the series as a summer replacement series simultaneous to the show’s premiere in Canada. Flashpoint took both national industries by surprise when it handily won its night in both network markets. The series also made domestic broadcast history by being the first series set in an actual Canadian city to air in prime time on an American broadcast network. Consequently, to address the current economic crisis in the industry, CBS and NBC have both purchased more Canadian crime dramas for the 2009-10 season.

A qualification is in order here. Although the series is set in Toronto, the city is not deliberately invoked (although it is not erased). In fact, the producers claimed to have downplayed the location so that it did not “scream” Canadian and was better able to speak to the universal themes of any large urban center. Thus Flashpoint’s American success may be attributed to its ability to anticipate audience expectations of conventional Hollywood police dramas “despite” its location. In an interesting example of what Jonathan Gray describes as the ‘extratextual,’ this clip illustrates CBS’s objective to seamlessly integrate/domesticate Flashpoint with another crime procedural Numb3rs in the Friday night “kiss of death” timeslot.

Flashpoint presents an interesting conundrum for Canadian television. First, Canadian producers are no different from domestic audiences — they are fully immersed in the world of American televisual storytelling and this will, undoubtedly, inform their craft. Second, Flashpoint plays into the objectives of the recent CRTC recommendation to split the Canadian Television Fund (CTV) into private and public streams whereby the former will require a “hit factor.” The questions remain: what defines a hit? in which market? Can a ‘hit’ be defined solely in domestic terms or must it sell globally (read continentally)?

  

Comments

Jonathan Gray's picture

I've become quite the fan of

I’ve become quite the fan of Flashpoint. I think its look, structure, and genre are all very comfortable for the American audience, but I’m intrigued by how it plays with the genre.

Most importantly, each episode spends considerably more time examining the "perp" and getting inside his or her head. On one hand, this bucks a trend in American cop shows of portraying perps as unmitigated badguys who need to be "taken down", as instead a more Canadian sense of crime and punishment seems to guide the show’s interest in relatively good people pushed to an edge where they make really bad decisions (after all, it’s a show about snipers where nobody ever wants to use their weapons. What would Jack Bauer or Horatio Caine think?). The "release" of tension for the audience at the end of each episode usually comes not when they’re arrested and brought to justice, whether in a hail of gunfire or a clever forensic trick, but when the hostage situation ends safely, and thus the show is just as (or considerably more) suspenseful and narratively intriguing as many American cop shows, but we’re asked to hope for a safe resolution, not a cathartic comeuppance.

On the other hand, this allows the program to showcase some really good Canadian acting talent, since playing a perp on Flashpoint gives one a chance to shine, rather than a chance to sneer a lot, then simply give an "I’ll tell you why I did it" monologue at the very end. Henry Czerny, for instance, did a good job in his episode, and I’ve discovered several other good actors while watching the show.

I don’t think I’m answering your question of whether it’s a hit for others, but it is for me. And in a way that imprints a bit of what I like to consider a Canadian ethos on a seemingly very American genre

Michele Byers.'s picture

Like Jonathan, I've become a

Like Jonathan, I’ve become a fan of Flashpoint. As someone who lived in Toronto for several years, I’m always aware of the city as a player/character on the series, but one whose specificity might not be visible to everyone. I also hadn’t considered it in relation to Numb3rs, although I think they both play with ideas about masculinity and law & order. On Numb3rs, this seems linked to family and ethnicity (see Will’s note on my post from Monday), and on Flashpoint this translates into something we might call "Canandianness" that keeps coming up this week.

 

The "hit factor" question is interesting. I remember at the "Are we American?" conference at McGill last year, Trina McQueen talking about building a Canadian star system.  The choice to balance the very popular but clearly Canadian star Hugh Dillon with another Canadian, Enrico Colantoni, who most viewers will probably know best from his role as the father of Veronica Mars—I don’t know if anyone has seen (him in) the TMN series ZOS—is another way of slightly hiding the series Canadian roots.

 

I like what Jonathan said about the way Flashpoint plays with genre. We had a lot of years of CSI network domination and those very emotionally truncated characters. Serra, I remember you talking about DaVinci’s Inquest being syndicated in the US and the surprise that it found a following given that it was perceived as being too… rooted in discourses about social welfare for a mainstream US audience. Flashpoint isn’t like D.I., but it does focus a lot less of "truth" and "evidence" than on life circumstances, emotion, consequences, and all this often within the confines of the construction of masculinities and male relationships. 

Serra Tinic's picture

Simultaneous response

I think I was writing as you were posting, Michele. Hence the same comment re. the star system. Trina McQueen articulated a situation that has been a long-standing concern of actors, producers and network execs. Greater celebrity recognition means more viewers which translates into more domestic television and allows actors to stay at home rather than seek success down South (if they so desire). Much of this hesitation to foster a celebrity system might actually be a symptom of the English Canadian sensibility — the reluctance to participate in over the top promotionalism  (seen as so American in character). The result is that many potential audiences have little connection to Canadian actors until they’ve made it in Hollywood. At which point they are proudly reclaimed as national icons.

Serra Tinic's picture

Expat viewing

Jonathan, I agree with your reading of Flashpoint and think it speaks to the politics of Canadian TV production — i.e. the assumption that if a domestic series borrows too many elements from popular American genres it somehow loses that elusive "Canadianness." This type of critique overlooks subtleties of tone, characterization, and narrative (it’s also a huge source of frustration for many producers seeking funding). I’m interested in whether or not your expat positioning affected your choice to watch (and continue watching) the series? That "a ha" moment of recognition, the sense of knowing the place and how the story might progress. Do you have any sense of how its been read by Americans? One U.S. television critic disliked it because he couldn’t tell which city it was.

Showcasing Canadian talent is also an important and overlooked element of the series. The failure to foster an English Canadian celebrity system is often cited as one of the main problems with growing the audience for domestic TV. Flashpoint also exemplifies cross-promotion: Hugh Dillon’s music is incorporated and this introduces him to an audience that doesn’t remember The Headstones or his stint in Hard Core Logo.

The hit issue is contradictory. Many are concerned that it will stifle creativity and encourage the "generic." What’s interesting is the CRTC implies that the public stream doesn’t produce hits. I’m interested in that as I’m also working on comparing co-pros like The Tudors (a global smash hit), which has nothing to do with Canada (beyond colonial imagination, perhaps?)

 

Jonathan Gray's picture

Expat Viewing

To answer your question, I actually came to the show by chance, not design (and the longtime holdover of a boyish fascination with snipers didn’t hurt either), and I was really enjoying it before it struck me that this was Toronto. I also had a deja-vu sense of knowing this series, even though it was the premiere. Then I remembered that I "knew" it because I’d heard you present on it at ICA, I think. Certainly, thereafter, knowing it was Canadian "endorsed" my liking of it, making it both okay to like it, and making me look at it all the closer. I’m sure I read more Canadianness into it when it’s surrounded by Americanness on my television, but perhaps that’s just as much the experience that Canadians in Canada have as Canadians in America have? Maybe, in other words, most Canadian viewers are "expats" in prime time television?

 

I don’t know how it’s been received by Americans. Other than my wife, who also likes it. I try to proselytize, but nobody seems to be listening.

Michele Byers.'s picture

expats in prime time

expats in prime time television… that’s fantastic!

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