Years: 2003-2006, 3 short seasons, 18 episodes
Creators: Mark McKinney, Bob Martin, Susan Coyne
Stars: Paul Gross, Mark McKinney, Martha Burns, Rachel McAdams
The Concept: Three epic years behind the scenes at the so-called “New Burbage Shakespeare Festival” (but any similarity to Ontario’s actual Stratford Festival is strictly intentional.) Many years ago, an actor went mad onstage playing Hamlet. Now he returns as the new artistic director, a job that turns out to contain equal parts bawdy comedy, piercing tragedy and endlessly-repeating history.
How it Came to be Underrated: Not only have most Americans never heard of this show, they well-and-truly believe that there’s no such thing as 'Canadian TV'. That’s a shame, since this is one of the greatest shows that the medium has ever produced, anywhere.
Sample Episode: 1.1, Oliver’s Dream
Writers: Susan Coyne, Bob Martin and Mark McKinney
The Story: In this pilot episode, all the pieces are still waiting to fall into place: The festival is awash in money but it’s lost its soul thanks to a sloppy artistic director and a rapacious financial officer. Meanwhile, the only man who can save it is barely eking out an existence, assuring himself that “The best things happen just before the thread snaps.”
Why It’s Great:
- Why are most TV shows about cops, doctors and lawyers? Because drama demands life-or-death stakes, and the easiest way to ‘up the stakes’ is to give your protagonist a job where they literally make life-or-death decisions everyday. So how do you make a show where the only thing at stake is the quality of a theater? You have to write really, really well. The lower the stakes, the more of a challenge the writer has. The audience is not going to automatically care, no, so the creators have to work twice as hard to make them care. They succeed beautifully here. Given that every movie and TV episode has a director, it’s surprising that this is the only time I’ve ever see someone successfully dramatize the challenges of that job.
- Case in point— this episode starts with what we’re told is a painful situation: a poor staging of A Midsummers Night’s Dream. But the first time I watched this episode, I didn’t fully feel how bad the direction of the play was. I understood that I was supposed to find it bad, but I wasn't entirely sure what was so bad about it. By the time I’d spent 18 episodes watching Gross struggle with the joys and pains of the art of direction, my reaction was quite different. Watching it again, I cared so much more, and I was now able to empathize fully with the characters who pour their lives into the theater.
- Two of the co-creators are also actors in the show, but they gave themselves two of the most thankless parts, at least initially. Coyne and McKinney’s characters seem like artless funcionaries in this pilot episode, and it’s hard to believe they wrote themselves into these parts. Of course, they knew and we didn’t that each character on this show contained hidden multitudes, which would slowly unfurl through three beautifully-structured seasons.
- After watching hundreds of hours of ‘American’ TV shows that were actually shot in Vancouver, in which all the day players are ordered to choke down their Canadian accents, it’s great to see an truly Canadian show where they’re finally allowed to let the ‘aboot’s fly. It’s especially notable with Burns’s wonderful diva character, whose favorite word, after each of her tantrums, is ‘sore-ee’.
How Available Is It?: All three seasons are available on disk through Netflix.
But Don’t Take My Word For It: