What is that line from The Godfather? “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…”
Mainly I’m down here in California to encounter and write about big-ticket or interesting upcoming TV from the U.S. cable and streaming services. You know, sizzling dramas and documentaries sure to be talked about in the coming months, from the likes of HBO and AMC. The day-to-day of Canadian TV isn’t on the radar.
All of this media tour – which is not a junket – unfolds in a lovely luxury hotel. Dinner for two in the signature restaurant would be a down payment on a condo in Toronto. Me, I exist here on granola bars and tap water. Ask the CBC and they will tell you they exist daily, weekly, annually on that diet. But I haven’t been thinking about the CBC.
Then one recent morning here, I found I was witnessing the little Ovation channel present both Murdoch Mysteries and Frankie Drake Mysteries to the assembled critics. Both are CBC staples, and I’m pulled back in.
How do you sell this Canadian content to a U.S. audience and media? Well, Ovation took the tack of adding a propulsive rock-music beat to it all. Honestly, you haven’t experienced Murdoch or Frankie Drake until you’ve seen a sizzle reel of the shows with fast and furious rock ‘n’ roll to propel the characters and the action. Ovation gave the impression that both shows are all mayhem, guns and fast and furious chase scenes.
A fairly full room of critics was mildly impressed. The handful of Canadian critics here looked on with mild amusement. An Ovation exec introduced the shows. Murdoch Mysteries is a long-standing fave on the channel (it is in about 50 million U.S. homes), but until recently it had the awful U.S. title of The Artful Detective. Ovation sees itself as an arts channel, you see. Frankie Drake Mysteries is new to the channel and was summarized as a show “where the city’s only female private detectives take on cases others won’t touch, and in a time when their gender is their biggest advantage as they defy expectations and rebel against convention.” Well, there’s truth in that.
Yannick Bisson from Murdoch and Lauren Lee Smith and Chantel Riley from Frankie Drake were the talent on hand to talk up the two series.
What attracted the interest of U.S. critics was the feminism aspect of Frankie Drake, and Smith rightly played that up:
“These are women who, in the 1920s, are sort of going against all odds and opening up the very first female private detective agency, and doing things that women at that time weren’t necessarily doing, like working and riding motorcycles, and solving cases and crimes, and shooting guns.” The reaction to that can be summarized as “Sold!”
Chantel Riley smartly emphasized this theme when asked about similarities or differences between the two shows. “It’s different time periods, we’re in the 1920s, it’s a little more progressive and women are the forefront. We’re wearing sleeveless dresses, women are fighting to vote, we’ve got guns and stuff. So, it’s just like a whole different era that just kind of makes us slightly different from what’s going on with Murdoch.”
There arose some questions best summarized as “What’s so interesting about old Toronto that these two shows are set there?” Yannick Bisson tried manfully to play up the fact that during the Murdoch period and the slightly later Frankie Drake period, Toronto was a major city. “It was a hub. It was along the Great Lakes, so all the major cities, the industrial cities there, were booming. A lot of it remains if you go just outside of the urban centres, a lot of it is still there. So, we’re very lucky in that respect. It’s less that we have to paint in or digitally remove.”
This was met with some silent skepticism and I waited for somebody to point out that for a very long time the place was “Toronto the Good,” a boring Protestant city. Nobody said that, mind you. Phew.
The fashion sensibility of Frankie Drake intrigued several critics. Both Smith and Riley talked up the fun of 1920’s fashions for women, and mentioned a funky 1920’s-style party to launch the show. Riley also made a decent point about the danger of being attracted to that era, “Well, when it comes to fashion, also music – the jazz era was huge back then – I’d love to enjoy that. However, there was still racism and bigotry and all the other stuff that went on. So, part of me would not want to be in that era for that reason.”
It went well, this sales pitch for the two CBC shows. Ovation is relatively tiny, though. Independently owned, it doesn’t have the heft of niche channels owned by major broadcasters or cable outfits. On a really good night Ovation might have one million viewers for a show. Its biggest hit was the period drama Versailles, which hit three million. Still, it has a loyal audience and Frankie Drake looks like it will succeed with the channel’s viewers, especially if the feminism and fashion aspects are played up in coverage.
I can see why Ovation added propulsive rock to the sizzle reel, emphasizing action and gunplay. But, knowing that the episodes will unfold with less mayhem than suggested here, there’s another line from The Godfather that came to mind: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”