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How Canadian Are Your Favourite Shows? An Investigation

Ranking the Canadian-ness of Hollywood North’s current TV output.

by Frederick Blichert
Jul 22 2019, 2:54pm

'Handmaid's Tale', 'Paw Patrol' and 'Schitt's Creek' —all Canadian, to a certain degree.

“Wait, is this a Canadian show?” is a question I find myself asking often. A quick glimpse of a familiar storefront onscreen might inspire the question, or a suspiciously high number of Canadian actors popping up in supporting roles.

There’s plenty of Canadian content on our screens. Even as the streaming revolution hits its stride, platforms are making room for locally-produced fare that used to be confined to the world of public broadcasting. Mainstays of the Canadian public broadcaster the CBC, like Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience, and Workin’ Moms, have even found success in the U.S. via sites like Netflix and Hulu.

But how do we know a show’s Canadian? If you live in Toronto, you might have heard Syfy/Amazon’s The Expanse is shot locally. Or maybe you’ve spotted Vancouver’s Fable Diner in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, or just happened upon a show on CBC with all the funding body logos to grant it immediate CanCon cred. In any case you could be right to assume each series is Canadian, but their respective degrees of Canadian-ness aren’t immediately obvious.

The Canadian-ness of TV is a thorny subject. The Writers Guild of Canada Tweeted a response to my recent Canadian TV explainer, taking issue with my claim that the specific measures of Canadian-ness in TV are up for debate. Canadian film and television “are powered by stories written by & for Canadians,” the trade organization wrote. “No debate there.”

Fair enough, but series can cycle through writers, directors and showrunners at incredible rates. Do they all have to be Canadian? And what about all of the other creative roles on set that can contribute to a production’s Canadian-ness?

So below is a breakdown of some categories of Canadian TV, parsing the grey areas of production that don’t always leave shows with an obvious homeland.

The Overachievers

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'Kims Convenience'. Photo via CBC

If you’re Canadian, overachievers include the shows you likely grew up on: shows like Degrassi Junior High, Road to Avonlea, Mr. Dressup, The Red Green Show, and The Littlest Hobo.

Our national industry has a few buoys keeping it afloat and giving it a fighting chance against foreign imports. Tax incentives and government grants do a lot of heavy lifting, but the Canadian broadcasting act also mandates that a certain percentage of the programming from Canadian broadcasters is certified Canadian content, meaning it checks off enough boxes on a list of criteria—a Canadian writer, director, main actor and more can help a production wrack up the requisite points, and the money involved needs to stay primarily in Canada.

The above-mentioned CBC shows are great examples of series that are indisputably Canadian, through and through.

Kim’s Convenience, for example, is produced by the Vancouver-based Thunderbird Films. It’s based on a play by Korean-Canadian actor and playwright Ins Choi, who developed it for TV with Canadian screenwriter Kevin White. It’s shot in Toronto’s Moss Park neighbourhood, and its producers and main actors are Canadian.

Other CBC shows with similar claims to Canadian-ness include Schitt’s Creek, Workin’ Moms, Heartland, Murdoch Mysteries, Baroness Von Sketch Show, Coroner, and Frankie Drake Mysteries.

Letterkenny is another good example, this time hailing from outside the national public broadcaster. Letterkenny, which started as an indie YouTube web series titled Letterkenny Problems in 2015, was later picked up to series by Bell Media-owned Canadian subscription streaming service Crave. It takes place in the fictional town of Letterkenny, Ontario, and with a population of 5,000, feels a bit like every Canadian small town you’ve ever been to, complete with that “fuckin’ eh right, bud” accent and cadence that’s hard to place with any specificity.

It’s shot in Canada (Sudbury, Ontario, to be exact), set in Canada, features Canadian actors, is co-produced by Canadian production companies, airs on a Canadian platform, and employs local Canadian crew. Creator and star Jared Keeso is Canadian, and he developed and writes with Canadian Jacob Tierney, who directs most of the episodes. It’s hard to find anyone associated with the production who isn’t Canadian.

Similar examples include Private Eyes and Mary Kills People on Global, Frontier on Discovery Canada, and billion dollar a year-making PAW Patrol on TVOKids.

Trailer Park Boys muddies the overachievers category a bit. While it started as a no-holds-barred Canadian series on Showcase in 2001, it went through some changes, eventually being co-produced by American streamer Netflix, until Showcase backed out entirely and it became a Netflix original. The production remained the same, with Canadian producers remaining in charge of the Nova Scotia-based comedy. As-such, it ran through three phases of Canadian-ness, challenging the categorical divisions often boiled down to where the funding is coming from, despite creative choices remaining in Canadian hands.

Les Québecois

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'Faits divers.' Courtesy of Radio-Canada.

Quebec has a thriving industry that exists essentially separate from the rest of Canadian TV by virtue of being primarily in French for French-speaking audiences. I grew up on classic titles like La petite vie and Une gars, une fille, which don’t run the risk of being mistaken for anything but Quebec programming. Québecois TV is steeped in Québecois culture. Even the sci-fi comedy Dans une galaxie près de chez vous couldn’t (and clearly didn’t want to) escape dialects, mannerisms, and a sense of humour you don’t find anywhere else.

It’s harder to just drop an American show into la belle province to be watched as-is. It’s either glaringly anglo or conspicuously dubbed, neither of which is ideal in a fiercely independent region where language is a lightening rod for broader discussions around culture and its protection from outside forces.

And what better way to protect both language and culture than to have a provincial industry that prioritizes both? In 2016-17, the value of film and TV production in Québec totalled $1.8 billion. Nationally, the industry spent just over $7.5 billion in the same period. That means Quebec alone represents almost 25 percent of the industry.

Unlike the English side, Québecois shows are rarely co-productions or foreign outfits coming for the tax breaks. They’re titles like Faits divers, produced by the French arm of the CBC, Radio-Canada. The police procedural is set in Quebec, and the whole production team is Québecois. Other Radio-Canada titles include District 31, Ruptures, Lâcher prise and 19-2.

Outside of Radio-Canada, Québec has similarly home-grown series like sex trafficking drama Fugueuse on TVA, police procedural Mensonges on AddikTV and TVA, and sketch comedy series Like-moi! on Télé-Québec.

As independent as the Quebec TV industry is, it’s not as insular as one might expect. Fugueuse is broadcast in France on TF1. Mensonges airs on France 2, dubbed by French voice actors, and in Germany on ZDFneo, also dubbed.

Many of these shows have also been adapted in different regions, including in English Canada. 19-2 ran until 2015 in French but was adapted into English on Bravo in 2014, where it aired for three seasons before moving to CTV for its final season.

The Dual Citizens

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'The Handmaid’s Tale.' Courtesy of Hulu.

The dual citizens are one of the looser Canadian TV categories. They’re Canadian-made, but with some outside influence, usually in the form of foreign financing, as with the later seasons of Trailer Park Boys. Travellers similarly started out as a Showcase production, co-produced by Netflix and shot in Vancouver, but it also went on to lose Showcase and become a Netflix original.

Other co-productions similarly retain a great deal of Canadian-ness, as with the CBC/Netflix shows Anne and Alias Grace, both written, produced, and directed by Canadians, based on Canadian novels, and shot in Canada with Canadian actors.

Outside of Netflix co-productions, we have series like Orphan Black, shot in Toronto as a co-production shared by the Canadian cable network Space and BBC America. Van Helsing is co-produced by the Calgary-based Nomadic Pictures (and shot in Alberta) for the American channel Syfy. Wynonna Earp is a property split between Space and Syfy, and it’s similarly shot in Alberta.

An outlier that’s difficult to categorize is The Handmaid’s Tale. While it’s a Hulu original—making it American-produced—it’s shot in Toronto, with numerous Canadian directors, Canada-centric plotlines, and, importantly, it’s based on a famous novel by Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s most acclaimed and recognizable authors. It’s not a co-production, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an American production simply transplanted onto Canadian soil.

The Tourists

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'The Umbrella Academy.' Courtesy of Netflix.

The tourists aren’t from here, but they stick around, mingle with the locals, and spend lots of money here. They can’t help but be at least a little Canadian by virtue of using Canadian crews, locations, extras, even writers and directors sometimes. Their money comes from south of the border though, and generally their profits go there too. They’ll usually cast American actors for name recognition, and they’re usually set in American cities despite being shot elsewhere.

Vancouver and its surroundings sub in for Riverdale, Seattle, Star City, Central City, and Greendale in the CW’s Riverdale, iZombie, Arrow, The Flash, and Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, respectively, for example.

Similar examples include Syfy and Amazon’s The Expanse, the CW’s The 100 and Charmed and Supernatural, Netflix’s Altered Carbon and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and Syfy’s The Magicians.

These are shows where Canadian culture and stories take a back seat, allowing our country to instead take on an anonymous, everyplace quality.

Vancouver has an especially chameleon-like quality, as illustrated in a viral YouTube video by Every Frame a Painting from a few years ago.

CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery is shot in Toronto, for example, though most of the series is shot on sound stages, using sci-fi interiors and green screen backdrops for space and alien planets. The series is part of a storied American franchise, features primarily non-Canadian actors, writers and directors, and is funded with American cash.

The striking architecture of the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic and Iranian art and Muslim culture serves as a backdrop for scenes on the planet Vulcan, but otherwise, most of Toronto remains hidden from sight, making Discovery a largely American production, despite some Canadian talent behind the scenes and a presence on the ground.

Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is slightly more conspicuously Toronto-set, in addition to featuring Canadian actors like Ellen Page and Colm Feore among its main cast.

You don’t have to look too hard to notice scenes shot in the Lilian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (including some featuring the library’s bombed out interior). The recurring donut shop is also unmistakably the grungy little abandoned diner at the corner of Queen and Sudbury, formerly the near-perfect 24-hour hole in the wall The Gladstone Café—If you ignore the narrative for a hot second and look through the windows, you can spot the Gladstone Hotel across the street.

But none of this makes the show feel particularly Canadian for anyone not familiar with Toronto geography.

The fact of being set in Canada isn’t always just superficial though. The X-Files provides a great example of how central location can be to a show’s mood.

The Fox supernatural police procedural infamously moved production to L.A. after five successful seasons in Vancouver, when star David Duchovney requested to work closer to home. The show’s look and feel changed immediately. Where Vancouver’s grey weather and ample forests provided a sombre mood and great rural settings, L.A. felt suddenly bright and dry, with storylines taking place in new parts of the U.S.—like the Nevada desert—that Vancouver couldn’t quite mimic.

Of course the series’ crew changed almost entirely too, meaning Canada had a voice in creative choices made specifically in the early seasons. With American showrunners, American funding, American stars, and American themes and settings, it couldn’t really be called anything more than Canada-adjacent, and yet that can mean a lot from a creative standpoint.

Not many people will go to bat for these titles as Canadian shows, but the fact they’ve been here, had a look around, got to know the locals, and took a piece of Canada home with them certainly registers on the Canadian TV metre.

The Barely There Honorary Mentions

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'Killing Eve.' Courtesy of BBC America.

What do we do with TV shows with just a passing connection to Canada, a soupçon of Canadian-ness?

An initiative called Made/Nous, supported by The Canada Media Fund, Telefilm Canada, and industry partners, seeks to make the Canadian media tent a bit bigger so that content with a more tenuous link to Canada isn’t overlooked just because it hasn’t met broadcast quotas or grant requirements. Canadians who go to work on foreign projects aren’t suddenly less Canadian, after all.

In a previous interview with VICE, Beth Janson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, summed it up quite nicely: “In some ways it's a little bit disrespectful to say that because you're working on a service production as a DP or a grip or whatever, you're not contributing as much to it as a writer.”

In the spirit of inclusiveness, let’s tip our hats to shows like BoJack Horseman, Killing Eve, FBI, House of Cards, and Kidding, that feature Canadian actors like Will Arnett, Sandra Oh, Missy Peregrym, Molly Parker, Neve Campbell, and Jim Carrey.

ABC’s The Rookie, and Castle before it—both thematically very American cop shows—star Edmonton native Nathan Fillion, who has a goofy/charming boy-next-door energy that is so patently Canadian that his American stardom following his cult sci-fi turn in Fox’s Firefly feels like nothing short of a Trojan horse of Canadian-ness, reversing the influx of American identity on our screens—if only a tiny bit.

Behind the camera, Graham Yost, who was born in Etobicoke and attended the University of Toronto, created and produced Justified, and he produced The Americans, both for FX. He currently produces Amazon’s Sneaky Pete and has served as writer on three episodes. Against all odds, those three series are maybe, kind of, slightly Canadian.

The list of shows with blink-and-you’ll miss it connections to Canada is overwhelmingly long and speaks to the Canadian industry’s impressive reach. Whether that Canadian element is enough to qualify for funding, tax incentives, or awards reserved for Canadian productions is another question.

Canadians get around, and if you look for us, you’ll see us popping up, in some form or another, in most of the media you consume. For all our self-effacing underdog attitudes, we Canadians actually take up a fair amount of space on the world stage.

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