A Call to Arms for Creative Talent
By ALEXANDRA GILL
Monday, July 11, 2005 Page R3
VANCOUVER -- It's a lonely Friday night in Vancouver and I'm hunkered down in front of the TV, watching a show about a quirky bunch of misfits even lonelier than me. They're all tenants of Robson Arms, a fictional apartment building set in my very own neighbourhood, that's even more miserably rundown than mine.
In this week's episode, the character played by Margot Kidder is seducing a sweet young pothead who lives upstairs. Oh, that crazy Mrs. Wainwright. She shoplifts, drinks too much and is slowly driving her curmudgeonly husband around the bend. Between bursts of laughter and an unexpected swelling of tears, I realize I'm not feeling so lonely any more. As a matter of fact, I think I'm madly in love with this series.
You might have heard about Robson Arms, the new CTV series that is winning critical raves for its bittersweet comedy, sophisticated writing and gutsy themes. You might also have heard that the show has been a ratings success -- well, a relative success for a Canadian series. The June 17 premiere, which featured the first two half-hour episodes back-to-back, drew about 700,000 viewers. By comparison, Corner Gas, Canada's top-rated home-grown comedy series, attracts an average of 1.6 million viewers each week.
Still, Robson Arms managed to beat out CBC-TV's The National in their shared 10 p.m. time slot and proved to be CTV's major draw that night, garnering more viewers than the much-ballyhooed season openers of Punk'd, Pimp My Ride and Beauty and the Geek.
The ratings were impressive, given all the recent moaning about Canada's inability to make a domestic series decent enough to compete with U.S. productions. And the numbers were strong enough to persuade CTV programmers to continue airing two episodes every Friday night.
Of course, CTV has a lot riding on this show. Because what you probably haven't heard -- and what makes the show's success even more exceptional -- is that the series was conceived as a training project to give emerging writers and directors their first shot at working on a prime-time episodic network series. It originated as one of those boring spending requirements designed to foster new talent and fulfill a myriad of regional programming obligations.
"The plan worked," says Louise Clarke, CTV's head of western independent production and chief architect of the show.
Well, truth be told, it did take eight years to come to fruition. The genesis of Robson Arms dates to 1997, when CTV (then owned by Baton) won the much-coveted licence for a new Vancouver TV station by promising to spend $72-million on Canadian production over seven years. Independent B.C. producers were promised half that money and 95 hours of programming each year. Part of the deal included a weekly anthology series, The Storytellers, which would feature half-hour dramas by local independents.
About a dozen episodes of the series were produced and they proved to be great calling cards for emerging filmmakers. A few even won awards. But without the promotional heft of an episodic series to hold it together and generate buzz, they were mostly lost as lonely half-hours in the station's sea of programming and ignored by viewers.
Clarke, a widely respected champion of the local industry, decided a few years ago that the remaining half-hours needed to be tied together under the cohesive banner of a series. Doing that with newcomers, however, was no easy task. She approached Brian Hamilton, a veteran documentary producer with Vancouver's Omni Film Productions to produce his first prime-time series. And together, they decided to bring in Susin Nielsen (Degrassi Junior High) to develop the series and act as head writer.
At the time, Nielsen says she felt like a racehorse with two broken legs. "I remember having a meeting with Brian and Louise, and they were talking about their expectations for the show, and CTV's expectations, which were big," she told Canadian Screenwriter. "They were saddling me with new writers . . . and still expecting me to win the race."
But when the call went out and the luxurious 18-month development process got under way, she soon realized that "emerging" didn't have to mean inexperienced. With the help of BC Film, they were soon inundated with scriptwriters and directors -- more than 100 in each category.
"Everyone and their brother wanted to direct this show," says Hamilton, who can't stress enough just how hard it is to get your first crack at an episodic series on television. The competition was so intense, CTV and BC Film decided to collaborate on a DVD training manual for up-and-coming directors so that those who couldn't participate might still learn something from the process.
Nielsen and Hamilton eventually whittled their lists down to eight writers and 13 directors, many of whom had lots of experience in feature film, but none in TV. They brought in David Moses, the Prince Edward Island playwright, as senior story editor, and Gary Harvey as lead director. Then, the writers all sat down for several intensive group sessions, with plenty of time afterward to finesse the scripts and weave the stories together before casting began.
Kidder was just one of many acclaimed Canadian actors in the ensemble, which includes Megan Follows, Mark McKinney, Shirley Douglas and William B. Davis. Kidder jumped on the project because she was so impressed with the scripts.
"I think the series is incredibly unique in that it's not hammer-on-the-head comedy, and it's not let's-wring-your-heart-out tragedy," Kidder says. "It's very specific moments of human behaviour that can be seen either as funny or as sad, and often both at the same time."
Some of the writers are still agape at the gift they were given. "I can't believe they took the risk," says Sioux Browning, a writer of two episodes whose prior TV credits included a few episodes of Alienated, the faux-documentary sci-fi series that airs on the Space Channel. "Let's face it -- none of us had much experience in television. They had to take us by the hand and say this is how it works. It must have been like herding cats."
But Nielsen, who is feeling more like a triumphant thoroughbred these days, attributes the success of the show to Clarke and CTV, who were willing to take that risk on new talent.
"That's why the series has the energy it does. We weren't just using tired old hacks like me. We really wound up learning a lot from these people, who didn't have the time or depth of experience to get into all our bad habits."
Back at CTV, Clarke says that, sure, the show was a risk but one she and the broadcaster saw as an opportunity, not a chore. "Any creative venture is a risk, and if you try to minimize the risk, you end up in the middle of the road."