Canadian Television Could Be Great & Saving Picnicface Will Help

the cast of picnicface

I cannot sit here in good conscience and tell you that Canadian television is great. Yet, I can tell you with absolute confidence that it COULD be great and it could be great soon.

What I see happening in Canada is a huge disconnect between the community of artists that I know exist and the often rocky, usually anticlimactic programming that ends up on my television set. I know, first hand and from personal experience, that this country is fraught with brilliant writers, hilarious comedians, skilful directors and proficient actors and that a great many of them work in television. So, what is going on?

I will admit to you right now that I am not a television aficionado. There are a few favourite American television shows I try to follow to the best of my ability, but given the choice, I would rather be at the theatre and, for the last four years, usually I am. This means that there have been a lot of Canadian television shows that I didn’t know existed until they had already been cancelled. Unlike in the theatre world where I cannot determine firsthand how effective a publicity campaign for a particular play or musical is since I not only get the press release but am also actively seeking out what is playing, if I know about a Canadian television program it is clear that their advertising campaign has been successful. There was a time when Allan Hawco as Jake Doyle (Republic of Doyle) seemed to be on every single bus shelter in Toronto and I couldn’t watch the news with my grandmother this past year without seeing eight commercials for Mr D. Both of these shows have, reportedly, been picked up for next season, despite cuts to the CBC.

I find the Canadian shows that get really lost and tend not to be marketed as much or as well are the ones that are not on CBC or CTV. I didn’t hear about Slings and Arrows, a really terrific Canadian show, until it was in its last season and I wonder if it would have had a life beyond its three seasons if it had been on a different network or if Movie Central and The Movie Network had done a better job of promoting it. This brings me to Picnicface, which had its first season air on The Comedy Network this year and has just been cancelled by Bell Media, the owners of The Comedy Network. The members of Picnicface did a good job of marketing this show to their fans and I’m sure The Comedy Network was targeting those who already frequent their channel, but it’s clear that in order to be a financial success it is important to reach out to new audiences and to target the TV watching public as a whole.

I grew up in Halifax watching Picnicface emerge from Andy Bush’s early YouTube videos to Picnicface’s international stardom. I think that they are a wildly talented group of comedic artists with immense potential for success and for bringing Canada really high calibre, unique, creative and hysterical comedy on television, in film and in live performance. For me, I felt that Picnicface the TV Show started out rockier than the work I have come to expect from these particular artists. Was that because the network was trying to “play it safe” or was it a learning curve as the troupe adapted to a new medium? Perhaps it was a mixture of both. Yet, the experience that I had with the show, which was mirrored by nearly all the feedback I heard about it, was that the show was getting stronger and stronger with every episode.

For me, that is the answer. When I watched the pilot episode of Republic of Doyle I knew that it had immense potential, but I was nevertheless aware that it didn’t seem quite as strong and grounded as its American counterparts. Three seasons later this show is thriving. Everything about it has solidified and grown to a point that I am not at all surprised that the CBC has renewed its contract, despite the fact that they are facing massive cuts. Television is a cumulative process and the history of Canadian sitcoms and dramas is so filled with fits and starts that a show like Little Mosque on the Prairie, which just ended after six very successful seasons, has become the rare exception rather than the rule.

I see CTV and CBC playing it safe all too often with the type of shows they are willing to invest in, which, in a way makes sense given economic doubt and hardship. Yet, I would challenge them to think about the most successful and artful shows that have shaped the American television: Seinfeld, All in The Family, The Golden Girls, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show and even The Oprah Winfrey Show, and ask yourself, honestly, if these would have been sure-fire sells for the executives of their time or whether these people were all rewarded profoundly for taking a risk? I also see, as in the case with Picnicface, that all Canadian networks, even those more willing to take a chance, don’t allow a show to hit its stride, to reach anywhere near its full potential. The reason that shows like Seinfeld and I Love Lucy were so influential is that they captured the creativity of other artists, who would go on to mirror what had worked in the past, while taking these ideas in a multitude of new and exciting directions. If all we see in Canadian television are a multitude of first seasons, how can we ever hope to grow beyond that? We need our television executives to show faith in our future, to invest not only in making every show that is picked up the best that it can possibly be, but also giving the opportunity for it to spawn new ideas, as SCTV and Kids in the Hall did decades ago. The executives need to stop impeding the progress of Canadian television by continually choosing to bring everyone back to square one every single September.

“Can we afford to?” is always the question, but I think the question should be, “Can we afford NOT to?” Take a minute and think about all the Canadian actors, writers, producers and directors in television who live and work in the United States. What if Canadian television had been so lucrative, so willing to invest in their dreams, their ideas and their projects for more than a single season that they didn’t have to move to Los Angeles? What if Saturday Night Live had started in Toronto? Think of how much money the American television executives have made off Canadian talent. Think of how much money they have made investing in their own artists, assuming the best of them and providing them with the best shot in the world to succeed. We could have that here.

If Comedy Central thrusts Picnicface out onto the proverbial streets, I am quite certain that in the very near future they will be picked up by someone else, probably an American company, who will be willing to invest in them and we will have lost another opportunity to write a Canadian television success story, to keep our artists where they want to live and work and for our Canadian television industry to reap the financial benefits of the brilliantly talented people who live in this country.

As a bit of an aside, but not really, I love the CBC. I think that they are massively important for the cultural, artistic and intellectual well being of this country. I truly believed that if they were churning out five or ten really brilliant Canadian television shows a season, television shows that were as good or better than the ones offered on ABC or NBC or HBO, Stephen Harper, with all the hot air in the world, wouldn’t have a hope in Hell of huffing and puffing and blowing it down.

If you would like to invest in the future of GREAT Canadian television and give Picnicface the best shot possible at a Second Season please sign this petition. If you don’t believe what I am telling you, please listen to Mark McKinney. Thanks.

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