Who, Canada? Five great Canadian TV shows drawn from surprisingly small casting pools

Who, Canada?: five great Canadian TV shows drawn from surprisingly small casting pools

Sarah Polley

Play Canadian Actor Bingo in our pick of the nation's TV

David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Sarah Polley, Patricia Rozema, Denys Arcand and Xavier Dolan. Canada has some seriously good film directors, and those are just six working today. Not to mention another rather successful filmmaker who just happens to have been born and bred in Ontario: James Cameron.

But what of Canadian television? Apart from fondly remembered 80s and 90s imports like Due South and the Degrassi franchise, it's generally less well-known over here. We all know of the 'Hollywood North' phenomenon, in which American production companies use Vancouver as a less expensive stand-in: Smallville, Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica and Fringe were all shot there. But there are plenty of homegrown Canadian TV shows, from comedy to biographical miniseries, which for one reason or another are worth a look.

One of the fun things about watching Canadian TV is its tendency to draw actors from a relatively small pool. In the following, you will notice that certain names and faces have a tendency to recur. And by 'recur', I mean 'how few actors are there in Canada, anyway?' Learn to recognise them, and you can play Canadian Actor Bingo.

The Kids in the Hall (1989-1995)

This comedy sketch show was seldom off late-night TV in the 90s, but is now best-remembered in its own country. A massive hit, it ran on CBC for five seasons and was notable for, among other things, the rampant cross-dressing of its all-male writer-performers Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson. The Kids combined the freewheeling sadism of the Pythons with the silliness of The Fast Show: one recurring character, Dave Foley's Axe Murderer, was a tremendously polite young chap who never lost his surface affability ('The difficult thing about being a mass murderer isn't the, ah, "murdering" part...it's the "mass" part.') In another classic sketch, Foley played a young man who'd seen a film the previous night, which he wanted to describe to his friend McDonald, but even though it becomes more and more obvious that the film in question is Citizen Kane, Foley insists that it wasn't, eventually driving McDonald homicidal with rage.

Canadian Actor Bingo: Give it time.

Twitch City (1998 and 2000)

Twitch City can only be described as a grunge sitcom. Brutish and short, with neither laugh track nor live audience, it was the story of Curtis (Don McKellar), a television-addicted slacker; his simmeringly angry roommate Nathan (Daniel McIvor), and their friends Hope (Molly Parker) and Newbie (Callum Keith Rennie). The storyline, such as there was one, got going in episode 1 when Nathan kills a homeless man with a tin of dog food, and Curtis then has to find a new roommate. The homeless man was Al Waxman, familiar to fans of classic 80s cops shows as Lt Samuels from Cagney and Lacey. Shot on video so grainy you can practically smell the tape deteriorating, Twitch City was true punk.

Canadian Actor Bingo: Who's that as the TV show host? It's Bruce McCulloch of Kids in the Hall! As for Don McKellar, we shall be seeing more of him. A lot more.

Trudeau (2002)

Justin Trudeau, Canada's current prime minister, is everyone's favourite centre-left politician, and rightly so; but his dad Pierre, who held the same job between 1969-1979 and 1980-1984, was a darker and more polarising character. Director Jerry Ciccoritti and writer Wayne Grigsby told the story of Trudeau's political career in a four part mini-series which pleased nobody in Canada who didn't already like Trudeau, so it must have got something right. What makes it stand out from the usual boilerplate political drama was the decision to shoot each part in the style of a different director: the first part, covering Trudeau's rise to power, is giddy and playful like Richard Lester's Beatle films; the part covering the kidnapping by Quebecois separatists of the British Ambassador and the Quebec Minister for Labour, is tense, dark and very Costa-Gavras; the part covering the collapse of Trudeau's marriage to his freewheeling and much younger wife Margaret is all early Bertolucci, etc.

Canadian Actor Bingo: There's McKellar again, as a fictional Trudeau adviser. Colm Feore, who plays Trudeau with all the real man's polished charm and patrician coldness, also appears in…

Slings and Arrows (2003-2006)

The brainchild of writer/actors Susan Coyne, Bob Martin and Mark 'Kids in the Hall' McKinney, this funny and moving dramedy starred Due South's Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennant, the gifted but mad-as-a-brush director of the New Burbage Festival, a repertory theatre festival similar to Ontario's real-life Stratford Festival. The setting was a great excuse to hang each season on the production of a different Shakespeare play, allowing the show to deal with themes of mental illness, grief, desire, fame, illness, aging and death without needing a far-fetched plot excuse. In episode 1, current New Burbage director Oliver, who has long since run out of ideas since Geoffrey, his star actor, had a nervous breakdown and ran off during a production of Hamlet seven years earlier, falls down drunk in the street and is run over by a truck marked CANADA'S BEST HAMS. Geoffrey is hired to replace him, but his mental health, none too sturdy, is further threatened by the repeated appearances of Oliver's ghost.

Canadian Actor Bingo: Eyes down! Don McKellar shows up in a juicy recurring role as insufferable guest director Darren Nichols ('I could tell you stories of my six weeks in a Schwartzfeldt puppet colony that would reduce you to tears.') Rachel McAdams showed her early promise in season 1 as Kate, the actress cast as Ophelia. Colm Feore steals his every scene as Sanjay, a manic advertising consultant. Mark McKinney plays Richard, the penny-counting general manager with ambitions to stage a musical, and actor/director Sarah Polley does superb work in season 3 as Sophie, the actor cast as Cordelia in King Lear. If you saw Polley's 2012 documentary about her parents, Stories We Tell, that's her legal-but-not-biological dad Michael as one of the two gay English actors whose irreverent barroom ditties make up a different theme song for each season.

Orphan Black (2013- )

Sarah (Maslany), a con artist, is standing in a Toronto railway station feeling out of luck, when she sees a distressed young woman who closely resembles her. Next thing, the young woman is under a train, and in the ensuing panic Sarah steals her handbag, only to find that the woman, Beth, was a police detective. With the help of a friend, Sarah fakes her own death and adopts Beth's identity. But when a third young woman who exactly resembles both of them gets into Beth's car, almost immediately realises that Sarah isn't Beth, and is promptly shot in the head, it becomes clear that things are weird. Orphan Black's fifth and final season starts next week in the US, and it's becomes a gloriously paranoid secret-state show about cloning and identity, hanging on Maslany's uncanny, award-winning work as the central character(s).

Canadian Actor Bingo: Not a lot of action here since half the characters are all played by the one actor, but Peter Outerbridge, who plays a villainous scientist, was Colm Feore's secretary in Trudeau.

Bonus round: Don McKellar's directorial debut, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, starred Colm Feore as the titular pianist, and both McKellar and Callum Keith Rennie starred with Sandra Oh (Gray's Anatomy) in McKellar's 1998 black comedy Last Night, which also featured Sarah Polley as McKellar's sister. Finally, Rennie was Gross's co-star in seasons 3 and 4 of Due South. But now that Tatiana Maslany has made it clear that she can play anyone, it will soon be illegal for Canadian TV shows to cast anyone except her.

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