In a more TV-related vein, one of the less-remarked-on revelations from the WikiLeaks cables that came out last year concerned Canadian television. American policy analysts expressed concern about the negative views of Americans being shown in Canadian shows like 'The Border' and 'Little Mosque on the Prairie.' Apparently, the border guards and customs officials seemed kind of mean, and this had ramifications for American homeland security.
Frankly, I was more surprised that anyone was watching 'The Border' that closely.
I stumbled across that old news story the other day and it got me thinking about how Americans and Canadian views each other, and how those views have changed over the years, and where TV fits into this picture. The idea that an American intelligence-gatherer thinks 'Little Mosque' is a window into the Canadian soul is pretty damning of US intelligence.
Canada, the theory goes, was Niles to the USA's Daphne. Smart, accomplished, and right in front of you, for years and years and years. Back then, if a TV character was Canadian, it was usually disguised or ambiguous. Carla's husband on 'Cheers,' for example, was a hockey player with a French accent named Eddie LeBec, but he was never officially declared Canadian. Meanwhile, on 'NewsRadio,' Dave Foley's character was raised in Wisconsin, but turns out to have been born in Canada. Basically, his birth certificate is sort of an inside joke for fans who know Foley is a Canuck. As far as the writers are concerned, being from Wisconsin is pretty much the same as being from Canada -- nothing happens in either place.
For a while, making a character Canadian was just a way emphasizing their fish-out-of-water status, or to make viewers realize how isolated they are. Think of Wolverine from 'X-Men': the ultimate loner, the man with no home. Of course there's another kind of early Canadian character, like Dudley Do-Right from 'The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,' the naive good guy that has become the basis for characters from 'Due South' to 'South Park.'
But things have changed between the US and Canada, or at least it sure feels like it. Canada isn't just a country in miniature anymore. We've got big cities, big oil, even big riots after hockey games. If there was a turning point in the way Americans view Canada, I think it came after John Kerry lost the 2004 election. Disappointed Democrats threatened to move north en masse. (I wonder where we Canadians are supposed to go when similarly disappointed. Iceland, maybe?) Slowly, Canada went from being a slow backwater to a mythical place -- America without Republicans. Anyone who actually moved here seeking such a utopia was, I'm sure, disappointed.
But it's been good for fictional Canadians.
The stand-out, of course, is Robin Scherbatsky from 'How I Met Your Mother.' Played by former model (and genuine Canadian) Cobie Smulders, Robin is pretty amazing. She's gorgeous, smart, funny, ambitious, worldly -- she is clearly a romantic lead, not a set-up for a laugh. And Robin's Canadianness is openly declared. So is Danny Baker's on '30 Rock.' It feels like a long time since the reign of Canadian comedians in Hollywood, so it's very nice of Tina Fey to throw us a bone in the form of a 'TGS' cast member originally from Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Canadian television has become a kinder place for Americans too. After 9/11, Rick Mercer decided not to continue his 'Talking to Americans' specials. (Presaging the fake news explosion, Rick's show got real-life Americans on camera being ignorant about Canada.) At the time I thought it was hilarious, but I have hard time imagining myself laughing at it now. Have I grown up, or am I right? Has something really changed between the US and Canada over the last decade?
One thing is for sure, whatever change is happening hasn't really hit the airwaves yet. There are few cross-border characters to focus on just yet, and considering the increase in joint productions on shows like 'Rookie Blue' and 'Flashpoint,' it seems inevitable that it's a category that will grow.
Maybe one day, a US series will feature a Canadian who doesn't care for hockey, and CBC will bring back 'The Friendly Giant,' only this time the giant will be a happy-go-lucky border guard.