Pop Culture Pet Peeve: Canada is the land of ambiguous cities
I get it: Tax breaks are good, taxes are the devil. Everyone knows that. Hollywood likes to take advantage of any and every money-saving tool in the movie and TV magic toolbox. This includes shooting features and shows in Canada. Shows such as Fringe, Psych, and Being Human are set in U.S. locations but filmed in Canada — the first two in Vancouver, and the Syfy show in Montreal. Canada also has a healthy film and TV industry, including many shows set and shot in America’s northern neighbor that gain U.S. distribution such as Degrassi and Rookie Blue.
Canadian-shot series have varying degrees of success in transforming the Great White North into the Home of the Brave. The Killing manages to pull off making Vancouver look like Seattle, as both are in the Pacific Northwest, whereas Being Human‘s “Boston” is laughably inauthentic, as the series is actually shot in Montreal. (Montreal is a cool city! Why don’t they just set the series in Montreal? The fact that the Syfy series is set in Boston manages to be the most baffling part of a show in which a vampire, werewolf, and ghost are roommates.)
What is even more baffling and exasperating are Canadian-set shows that refuse to acknowledge whether they take place in the U.S. or Canada. Instead, these series are set in Ambiguous North America, a state of limbo that avoids any definitive landmarks, all the while completely and utterly infuriating me.
Two current series that fall under this category are Orphan Black and Lost Girl. Both are sci-fi/fantasy Canadian series starring a raven-haired, morally ambiguous heroine. They also share a similarly nondescript urban setting in Ambiguous North America or, as Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson described, “Generica.”
In inadvertently posing questions regarding setting, these high-concept shows throw off the already fragile suspension of disbelief. I don’t have time to worry about the location of the program — and the societal consequences of the setting — when I’m trying to work out the other rules of the show’s universe.
I legitimately stopped watching Lost Girl in part because of the not only ambiguous but bland setting. The Fae underground world is interesting, but the gray generic alleyways in which much (too much) of the action takes place aren’t. (Plus, I got a bit bored with Bo’s inconsistent mood swings, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Orphan Black is perhaps more frustrating than its Syfy crime-series counterpart since, as a whole, the BBC America drama exceeds expectations of what a Canadian sci-fi series can offer. It’s good, really good, and as such, the parts that aren’t up to par are that much more glaring.
What is also frustrating is that these shows have the opportunity to shoot in a real location as opposed to a Hollywood backlot, yet refuse to use their setting to full advantage. (For as much as I love How I Met Your Mother, the show’s version of New York is so false, it makes Friends look authentic.)
American distributors and Canadian productions need not fear “alienating” American audiences with Canadian settings. If I’m already watching a show about a Succubus or a horde of clones, then I think it’s safe to say that a Canadian locale isn’t going to throw me for a loop.
Oh Canada, don’t be afraid of turning away viewers in acknowledging when shows are shot within your borders. Be afraid of turning away viewers in ignoring the location issue all together. Be afraid of Generica.
Tatiana Maslany plays half the cast of BBC America’s paranoid clone thriller.