“As Canadian as… Possible under the Circumstances”: Canadian Youth Television in the United States 
 Nafissa Thompson-Spires / Vanderbilt University  



As Canadian As Possible…
 
 
Both the United States and Canada have “drunk enough from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid to render our differences virtually indiscernible.”1

Because of longstanding U.S. penetration in other Canadian cultural industries, the Canadian government essentially structured television as a medium for building national identity and a counterforce to U.S. influence.((Serra Tinic, On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market, (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005) 7.) An alternative to “unbridled” U.S. commercialism, 2 Canadian television would educate viewers with tasteful programming, documentary realism, and a public-service/ publicly funded model.3 But as Canadian television has become increasingly commercial, increasingly dependent on selling exports to the United States and on importing U.S. television series, these changes have, predictably, complicated the Canadian Radio and Television Commission’s creed for national identity building and televisual distinctiveness.

This is less the case in youth television, however — as Michele Byers writes, Canada’s marginalization from the production of adult-aimed texts has allowed it to excel at the “(over)produc[tion]” of youth television in at least three areas: series with universal settings that are easily assimilated into international contexts; those, like Degrassi and Road to Avonlea, that are successful in spite of their Canadian aesthetics; and those that are simply too different for exportation.4 I am most interested here in the first two categories, which provide the bulk of Canadian youth exports to the United States. With these texts, U.S. “viewers are less likely to notice the Canadian mark… because of their production values or unfashionable, chubby, acne-riddled actors.” 5 But while they may not notice a negative “Canadian mark,” they are likely to notice other characteristics that mark them as Canadian.

In this discussion I juxtapose what we might call “distinctively Canadian” texts with those that attempt to pass, arguing that Canadian series are more likely to succeed in the United States when they are attentive to Canadian places, people, and aesthetic traditions. Of the several Canadian series that have recently fallen in and out of the U.S. youth market, those that attempted to “pass” for U.S. productions failed much faster than did those that were obviously Canadian. By “Canadian” I do not suggest an essentialist, unified identity, but characteristics that stem from Canadian institutions, literary techniques, and aesthetics. In youth television, Canadian differences—documentary realism, pedagogical entertainment, ironic distance—are what make Canadian series useful commodities.
Both Life With Derek, a “tween” comedy airing on the Disney Channel, and Instant Star, a teen drama broadcast by The N, fall into the category of distinctively Canadian. Both series are clearly set in Ontario, and both include lighthearted pedagogy through characters’ experiences.


Life With Derek
 

More importantly, each series utilizes irony and deadpan humor in ways that are more in keeping with Canadian traditions than those of the United States. As a sitcom, Life with Derek is an uncommon Canadian export (live-action Canadian series are usually dramas or comedy-dramas, while most U.S. live-action youth series have shifted towards sitcoms). But Derek immediately stands out against comparable Disney-Channel and Nickelodeon fare, where laugh tracks and crescendo guide humor: When characters from That’s So Raven, Hannah Montana, and iCarly usher the audience towards laughter, they generally do so by shouting (“Oh Snaaap,” “Oh no you didn’t,” “Because I said so!”). The comedic pacing in Derek, conversely, relies on situational, rather than verbal, irony. Derek uses cutaways—extraneous moments that highlight absurdity, humor, or stress—and non-diagetic sounds such as records scratching, guitar riffs, etc. to create punchlines. The result is programming in which viewers can expect to do more analytical work to “get” the jokes, but in which the nuanced humor is more satisfying because of it. Given that Derek has outrated the highly visible Hannah Montana, something in this difference appeals to U.S. viewers.

At the narrative level, distinctively Canadian dramas traditionally deal more with real-life issues—another byproduct of a documentary tradition that called for “difficult programs for disciplined audiences” —without the sensationalism of Gossip Girl or 90210 (old or new). This gives the sometimes issue-driven but often “everyday” narratives an authenticity in which drama is not extracted from context but is central to character development. Instant Star deals with “issues” as well as Jude Harrison’s attempt to find herself after winning an American-Idol-esque contest. The series adds a Canadian context for music production in which the star system is milder, Paparazzi are scarce, and commercial success is not as satisfying as independence. To that end, the show’s view of pop-stardom focuses much more on the psychological than the salacious. We might even read Jude’s continued struggle for self-definition, self-differentiation, and independent production as symbolic of the historical struggle for producing Canadian cultural products and identity. Like Derek, Instant Star has garnered an intense U.S. following and a lamented cancellation after four seasons.


Instant Star
 

Some of these distinctive qualities remain in Canadian series that attempt to pass as U.S. products, but their combination of noticeably different storytelling with fake U.S. locations and characters makes for precarious texts that fail to impact any market. Many of these series are co-produced for dual audiences, with Canadian settings for Canadian viewers and vague or “New England” settings for U.S. viewers. 6 Falcon Beach, for instance, which aired on ABC Family, was set in a New England beach town for U.S. viewers and Winnipeg for Canadians, and scenes with national markers were shot differently for each respective audience. The setting itself, however, is not as problematic as the attempt to adapt Canadian series for U.S. aesthetics. Falcon Beach’s less-traditional multiracial casting and its initial storytelling marked it as different. But it eventually relied on similarity to The O.C., making the series a Northern copy of the same California tale. It lasted only two seasons.

In a similar vein, The Best Years includes a Boston setting for both Canadian and U.S. viewers. Its casting, ensemble narration, and Degrassi-esque topics are fittingly Canadian, but the series relies on episode-by-episode shocks that resemble U.S. drama—temporary characters that die or leave quickly, bizarre love triangles, catfights—and undermine its believability. 7 Some viewers recognize this, arguing that the series and its actors fail to pass. One writes, “I know the actors are Canuck’s, and this is shot in Canada but you mean to tell me they couldn’t hire a few Boston natives to make it more authentic? [….] even the producers of Friday Night Lights knew their show would not work unless it was shot in Texas, and not some LA, or Vancouver backlot.” 8 After one season, The N stopped airing The Best Years, and though it still airs in Canada, it is unclear whether it will return to U.S. television. About a Girl, another comedy broadcast by The N, utilized similar techniques and met a similar fate.

Meanwhile, Life with Derek and Instant Star overtly make Canadian elements part of their narrative and aesthetic strategies—or at least they do not mask them—and they have met unprecedented success in the United States. The best Canadian television series, then, those that do not assimilate their origins, remain as Canadian as possible under the circumstances—of globalization, commercialization, etc. Difference is what allows Canadian television to fill important gaps in U.S. programming, where sameness traditionally dominates.

Admittedly, not all of these differences inspire appreciation: The realism with which Canadian youth series handle issues often causes anxiety for the U.S. networks that import them, making Canadian television susceptible to censorship, editing, and U.S-ification once it crosses the border. Ready or Not and Naturally, Sadie, for example, both Canadian series that aired on Disney Channel, became less distinctive and differently motivated as Disney became more involved in their production. And the Degrassi series have endured infamous U.S. censorship. The more “Canadian” Canadian series are before they get to the United States, then, the better chance they have of retaining their characteristics after U.S. modification.

Image Credits:  
1. As Canadian as Possible
2. Life with Derek
3. Instant Star
4. Front Page Image

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. Bruce Deachman, The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, 19 Aug. 2007) B.4. The expression “as Canadian as… possible under the circumstances” originated as the winning response to a contest that solicited the Canadian version of “as American as apple pie” and is a common title for scholarship on Canadian identity. Phillip Resnick, The European Roots of Canadian Identity (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2005) 38. []
  2. William Boddy, “The Beginnings of American Television,” Television: An International History, ed. Anthony Smith (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995) 52. []
  3. David Hogarth, Documentary Television in Canada: From National Public Service to Global Marketplace (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002). []
  4. Michele Byers, “Youth, Representation, and the Contemporary History of Canadian TV,” Flow < http://flowjournal.org/?p=832> (27 Oct. 2007). []
  5. Byers. []
  6. Co-production need not imply this structure, however, as other co-productions, including Road to Avonlea, include overtly Canadian characters and settings. []
  7. The series’ creator, in fact, is Aaron Martin, head writer for Degrassi: The Next Generation, but unlike Degrassi, which is a fully Canadian production, The N commissioned The Best Years. []
  8. Original emphasis, punctuation, and spelling. “Really Lame,” Internet Movie Database, 23 May 2007, . []

6 comments

  • This article is well written, reader friendly, and very informative.

  • This is a very strong analysis of one side of this phenomenon, but the other side is just as interesting: what do Canadian viewers make of these shows which are “distinctly Canadian” in some way or another? While it is possible with adult-oriented television to presume that we are aware of when a show is attempting to co-opt parts of our culture, that isn’t as obvious to young viewers. Are they consuming enough Canadian programming to be able to view it as the “standard” for viewership – for example, is Degrassi different enough from the rest of the youth television for them to start to view everything in comparison, or is it just another example of that particular genre in their eyes?

    I don’t know if young viewers in Canada are at a point where they view Degrassi as a Canadian show – considering how vague they often leave its location (from my admittedly very limited viewership (I grew cynical too quickly) of the Next Generation series, the only time I remember it being a big deal was when Kevin Smith came to town and lampooned the setting for “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Canada”), I don’t think that young viewers are aware of the national divide. While there are subtle differences in the types of comedy or drama being portrayed, and I’ll agree that there needs to be more of a Canadian voice coming out of these shows, I worry that the viewers on this side of the border (being the Canadian side) aren’t as aware of this as they could be.

    How to solve this problem is pretty well out of reach: with Family Channel dominated by Disney Channel imports and High School Musical being considered the watermark for youth entertainment, it is impossible to expect to be able to explain to young viewers what makes a show distinctly Canadian and why that’s “good.” And as the export market continues to grow, especially as the youth programming market surges due to interest in the Hannah Montanas of the world, more and more Canadian production dollars could be flowing into markets that could wipe away any remaining mark of the maple leaf by the time they filter through the cable networks responsible.

  • Myles,

    Thanks for your comments, and I think you’re correct on a lot of points: It is difficult to tell whether young viewers actually recognize these differences. But from what I’m finding in my larger work on this topic, many viewers recognize and argue about the differences between U.S. and Canadian television. While the anonymity of message boards makes it difficult to tell both where these viewers are from and whether they are telling the truth about their ages, I’m finding that (self-professed) young teens and tweens can point out some differences, particularly between Canadian programs and standard Disney fare.

    Degrassi:TNG is also increasingly bold about its Toronto setting and Canadian roots–with strong iconography (the CN Tower and red streetcars, for example)–in establishing shots, and verbal references to Canada in many episodes. So while the increased flow of U.S. youth television into Canada (and vice versa, which is my major interest) is likely blurring the boundaries between the two television industries, it is also making the differences between them seem more important.

  • Nafissa, you make a good point as it relates to what many consider to be a lower form of discourse, that being the internet message board chatter, actually serving as an important cultural discussion. I guess the concern would still be, then, that “Canadian-ness” is being discussed on the same level as what it is often seen as the internet equivalent of high-pitched squealing.

    However, I think that the whole message boards phenomenon has to be seen as a lossless venture – people who participate might be there for what could be considered superficial reasons, but they have the potential to be exposed to more cogent thought whether through older posters or even young posters who notice certain things (and it is unlikely that those with a more sophisticated perspective are going to devolve immediately upon entering). As soon as one of them chooses to venture into a thread discussing the Canadian side of the show, there is potential for them to be exposed to that difference.

    I guess the question now is whether or not any greater effort could be made from the Canadian perspective to emphasize this difference without compromising the existing relationships with U.S. broadcasters: would it be possible, or even advantageous, for these shows to test the waters with more Canadian-driven content? Should the goal of broadcasting in general, to spread a distinct Canadian identity, be slowly integrated into youth television, or does the competitiveness of the industry require these sacrifices to be made?

  • You raise some very interesting points here, which inspire the following comments from me, some coherent, some not so much.

    One thing that I’ve always found fascinating about Instant Star is the way it combined several elements of CTV’s overall corporate strategy to manufacture a Canadian-ness. By this I mean that the lead character is clearly modelled after a recognizable Avril Lavigne-type (another Canadian export), and also that the lead-in show to this one in the programming schedule was CTV’s Canadian Idol broadcast.

    I also wonder what role Telefilm (Canadian Government) funding played in the genesis and eventual cancellation of the show, as per Canadian Radio and Television Commission guidelines. I wonder if you could expand the tole of CTV (and BellGlobemedia’s) current position as the the country’s largest producer of content, and speak to the transformation of Degrassi specifically as it migrated from the public broadcaster CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) to the private network CTV.

  • What is funny about this article is its essentialism around canadian-ness and its associated hierarchy of values around these aesthetic choices. Thus the incredibly loaded notion around realism – documentary realism – is quaint in its rapid dismissal of the aesthetics produced by copycat Canadian productions and the American youth television itself. It is a bizarre moral high ground in an industry that circulates commodities with rapidity and blinding indifference to these techniques. So, is there a difference between its production and showing on a major commercial network in Canada and in a youth oriented network in the States ?- yes. Is there a need to de-essentialize the contrived differences in production? -yes. Are there American examples of realism as equally essentialist aimed at youths? – yes ( the highly constructed aesthetic of independent film for one- which has the added quirky aesthetic embedded in its commdoity status).

    There is something valuable in this study, but i agree with Miles that an investigation of its dual origins shapes its production patterns and needs to be explored. As well, it must be understood that the economy of youth television demands the surplus production that Canadian producers provide precisely because of its uncanny resemblance to America ( in the same feeling of uncanny that envelopes the viewer when you watch Toy STory or Shrek – it is almost real, but not quite and you oscillate between these two poles). The uncanny may describe the aesthetic described here.

    I’ll stop there.

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