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Two weirdly wonderful CBC series: time-travelling foodies and a loopy family

Two fine, fascinating and oddball series start on CBC. Things are looking up.

First, an anecdote. The last time I met Carlo Rota in person was a few years ago at the airport in Los Angeles. He was embarking from a plane from Toronto, the one I was waiting to board and return home. A very affable chap, he stopped for a chat. He had work lined up in L.A. The previous time I’d met him in person was also in L.A. at a Fox Network event. At that time, he was playing tech guy Morris O’Brian on 24.

Rota also starred in Little Mosque on the Prairie, but he first became renowned as the host of CBC’s The Great Canadian Food Show, which moseyed across the country to profile varieties of Canadian cuisine. Now he’s back as host of a food-related show, but one that has a nifty twist.

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Back in Time For Dinner (starts Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m.) takes one Canadian family on a time-travelling adventure of sorts. In each episode, they live and, in particular, eat, as people did during one specific decade. It’s an eye-opening experience for the family and for the viewer. You know that quote from L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”? That’s an understatement in this context. Throughout, Rota is the affable host.

The Campus family, from somewhere in Southern Ontario, are the ones embracing the challenge. Mom Tristan, a registered nurse, and dad Aaron, a multimedia designer, and their three teenage kids are rather brave. And you know it’s the adolescents who are going to find this social experiment especially tough.

Living and eating as if it is the 1940s is the first test. Their suburban house is refitted to suit the forties – no TV, fewer gadgets and limited technology. And then there’s the food: It was wartime, so food rations and canned meat are just the start. First, dinner is pan-fried kidneys with a parsley sauce and boiled potatoes. The teenage daughter takes up knitting instead of being on social media.

There is, of course, a gimmicky quality to Back in Time For Dinner, but it has a charm and fascination. At regular intervals, viewers get brief history lessons, and there are celebrity guests explaining stuff, but it’s the day-to-day dealing with a distant decade that’s the real meat of the series.

Crawford (starts Thursday on CBC at 9 p.m.) is very, very fine summer fun. The series comes from Mike Clattenburg (Trailer Park Boys) and sidekick Mike O’Neill and the show’s slogan is, “Weird is the new normal.” (It streamed on cbc.ca earlier this year and now gets the full main-network audience.) And, indeed, it’s weird, but in the most beguiling, sweet way. It has a fine cast and a style and tone that is bonkers but seductive. As with all of Clattenburg’s work, it’s really about getting along, being decent to other people no matter how strange they are, and being kind to animals.

You’ve never met a TV-comedy family like this cast of characters. Jill Hennessy plays Cynthia, the mom and sort-of matriarch. She is also super busy being an executive at a big breakfast cereal company, one that makes the apparently legendary product Sugar Maple Pops. She’s also got a boyfriend, Bryce, and she spends oodles of time with him.

Her husband, Owen (John Carroll Lynch), doesn’t mind about the boyfriend. He’s an ex-police officer who was injured and now can’t speak, communicating only with his smartphone. Kyle Mac plays son Don, a musician who, in the first episode, is deposited at the family home after being on the lam for a while trying to be a rock star. Other son Brian (Daniel Davis Yang) mostly stays in the house because he’s freaked out about going bald at an early age. Daughter Wendy (Alice Moran) drifts in and out, usually in the company of a very unsuitable doofus of a boyfriend.

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One thing leads to another and dad is driving everyone crazy with his belief that he can hear something in the walls of the family home. Turns out he’s right – loads of raccoons live there. And it further turns out that Don has a knack with raccoons. He’s a raccoon whisperer.

The loopiness in Crawford is addictive, if your taste runs to the deadpan and deliriously dry. It’s loopy but all rather comforting.

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