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One difference between writing about American and Canadian television is that in the latter case one cannot assume one's readers will be familiar with even relatively successful shows, nor, in the absence of such assumed familiarity, can one simply refer to explanatory literature. Because of the sparsity of research north of the border and because most of the work that does exist deals with history or technical developments or social implications or broadcast policy rather than with the texts themselves, few Canadian shows, especially in the serial category, have received any scholarly attention. Following are descriptions of some of the series referenced in my section on television. In order to put the differences into the highest possible relief, I have concentrated on examples whose Canadian-ness is clearly not intentional. With one exception, these show situate themselves squarely within American conventions. In most cases, in fact, they have been designed specifically for an American market. The differences they reveal may therefore be assumed to emerge from unconscious differences in the way their makers perceive and organize the world.

Night Heat: At first glance, this mid-eighties cop show (created by a Toronto production house on contract for CBS Late Night) seems like the epitome of non-Canadian-ness. Everything about it shouts “made in America.” We see it in the constitution and characterization of the squadroom family: the street-wise older detective with his hot-blooded younger partner, the fatherly lieutenant, the token black, the good-looking female rooky, the sleazy narc, the comic snitch. We see it in the implied background ambience of street crime, drug dealers, and gangs. We see it in the clichéed, melodramatic, social-issues-related plots. Read subtextually, however – read structurally – the apparent near-perfect clone in fact nullifies the American aggressive fantasy it seems designed to reproduce. It’s notable, for instance, that in an age of designer T-shirts, these heroes wear ties. In Miami it’s hard to tell the players without a game card. In Toronto – even a Toronto slovened up to look “normal” – we want the bad guys kept separate; the interface marked; the cop, with his license to aggress, institutionally buffered. But sartorial differences are only the tip of the iceberg. The real giveaway is the fact that the program is narrated by a non-combatant. By standing between us and the heroes, the newspaperman not only marks them but marks them off. In doing so, he provides a verbal equivalent to the aforementioned neckties. Just as the violence of the plot is visually contained through the convention of freeze framing the climactic scene in a facsimile black-and-white newspicture, the distancing voice-over in this show symbolically “contains” the violence of the American-style undermyth.

ENG: Despite its kinship with a long line of American precedents, the Canadian-ness of this early nineties ensemble drama about the life and times of a television newsroom is not nearly as deeply buried as it is in Night Heat. The most obviously un-American thing about it is the (no doubt unintentional) unheroic depiction of the characters. Working against conventional expectations of reporters who make news, save lives, solve problems, etcetera, the personae of ENG are notably reluctant to get out from behind their cameras and join the action. This probably accounts for much of the show’s success in its home country. Limning the interface between subject and otherness with frame notations, threshhold markers, and the omnipresent electronic equipment (violence in particular tends to be filtered through either the camera or the video monitor), ENG models a reassuring institutional/technological buffering of private life. Justifying the much-touted Canadian garrison mentality, moreover, is the fact that when the characters do allow themselves to get embroiled in the reality they are recording, they almost always end up in moral dilemmas if not physical danger.

Neon Rider: From its base premise, Neon Rider sounds like an archetypal American primitivistic fantasy. A child psychologist sets up a ranch in B.C. where disturbed youngsters retrieved from the streets or the courts are brought to recondition their psyches. A closer look, however, reveals that first impressions are misleading. As one might predict from the equivocal treatment of nature in Canadian art and life (“In Canada,” says Peter Harcourt, the “pastoral tradition has generally been felt as a lack [or] a debilitating absence” 1 ), the healing experience in this program is not finding one's wild inner child, getting closer to the landscape, or breaking free of social constraints, but just the opposite – learning how to function as part of a community. Walks in the woods are rare on Neon Rider, as, indeed, is solitary action of any description. The flashy and sentimental American-style title sequence notwithstanding, it is not nature but culture – group therapy, structured work programs, and communal living arrangements – that this show holds up as the key to healthy living.

Adderly: At first sight this program seems to fall squarely in the precincts of the spy parody that was so popular in the late sixties and early seventies (Get Smart). Its eponymous hero is an international intelligence operative forcibly retired from active service after losing a hand and reassigned to the “Department of Miscellaneous Affairs” where he is cumbered with inept associates and farcical cases. Where the Canadian version departs from the pattern is in making its hero really heroic (hand or no hand, Adderly remains a James Bond act-alike) rather than the predictable bungler of the American prototype. As is the case for many of his literary brethren (as I have discussed elsewhere 2 , amputations and mutilations are frequently associated in Canadian literature with acts or icons of self-assertion), Adderly’s prosthesis is the clearest sign possible of his potency – and of the retribution it invites from the gods. It is also, of course, another domesticating strategy. Like Night Heat’s mediated cop heroes, Adderly is allowed to be an effective aggressor only if he is visibly “qualified.” The lesson carried subliminally in shows like this is that “heroism,” as a form of boundary violation, is by definition problematic, carrying risks both for the bystanders (in this universe, even good guys are likely to suddenly turn berserker) and for the hero himself.

Forever Knight: A somewhat different version of the anti-hero fable. On this surface, this mid-nineties action/SF hybrid seems to be little more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of vampire stories in the U.S. in recent years. Nicholas Knight, however, is a distinctly Canadian rendering of the creature. Domesticated (he works for a police department), reformed (he has foresworn the drinking of human blood), and unhappy in his endless night, Nick’s greatest wish – in marked contrast to Anne Rice’s ruthlessly narcissistic immortals – is to get rid of his powers and become human again. Combining the punished hero with the reluctant combatant, Nick is Canadian-ized as well by his “niceness.” his interiority, and his obsession with the past.

: As one might expect of a show designed for export, this Canadian entry to the international spy genre appears to emulate its American models very closely. Its plots are formulaic and suspenseful. Its themes are topical. Its protagonists (a British ex-Scotland Yard Inspector, an American ex-Navy Seal, and a pretty French journalist) meet all the normal criteria for individualism, effectiveness, and attractiveness. Or appear to, anyway. Again, though, there are important differences. Appearances notwithstanding, in a period when the American popular imagination was embracing more primitive modes and heroes (think Dances with Wolves, Braveheart, and The Unforgiven), 3 it is notable that the Counterstrike team is marked with a high-tech instrumentality (provocatively, echoing ENG, there is much use of electronic communications equipment, to mediate the action) and under the explicit authority of a paternalistic corporate father figure. Like Night Heat, in other words, Counterstrike is double-coded. The deniability of the domesticating strategies makes the characters acceptable to American viewers; the fact that they are there nonetheless, invoking containment, makes them comfortable for Canadians.

Seeing Things: One of the few shows cited in my discussion where one can infer that the departure from convention was deliberate. A rare exception to the critical blackout, this mid-eighties mystery spoof is the program most often cited in the literature as an example of the way Canadian television subverts American genre conventions. 4Clearly intended as an ironic reference to Superman, its protagonist is a pudgy, middle-aged, nature-hating, terminally inept newspaper reporter who is cursed with special powers (clairvoyant flashes) which he can neither control nor understand. Again, as in the last two examples, there are literary precedents for the figure. If Adderly is the magician, however, Louis Ciccone is the naive narrator who happenstantially gets drawn into the action – and pays the price for it. 5Though fortuitously instrumental in solving the mysteries which are continually inflicted on him, Louis – another walking cautionary tale about the dangers of heroism – is continually getting himself in hot water and having to be rescued by the authorities or the more competent women in his life.

  1. Peter Harcourt, “The Canadian Nation – An Unfinished Text,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 2, 2-3 (1993): 13. See also Gaile McGregor, “Re Constructing Environment: A Cross-Cultural Perspective,” Canadian Review of Sociology & Anthropology (special issue on environment) 31, 3: 268-87.
  2. See Gaile McGregor, The Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Langscape (University of Toronto Press, 1985) 289-91.
  3. See Gaile McGregor, “Television in an Age of Transition: Closet Monsters and Other Double Codings,” Canadian Review of American Studies, 23, 2 (1993): 115-47.
  4. See Lianne McLarty, "Seeing Things: Canadian Popular Culture and the Experience of Marginality." In Communication in Canada: Issues in Broadcasting and New Technologies. Eds. Rowland Lorimer and Donald Wilson (Toronto: Kagan and Woo, 1988), 102-109.
  5. McGregor, The Wacousta Syndrome, Chapter 10.