Like a national park whose boundaries are continually under siege, the CBC is a shrinking preserve of what could be called Canada’s oldgrowth TV drama. Providing a shady refuge from the glare of American programming, CBC drama—especially family drama—has become synonymous with nostalgia for homespun values and rural roots.
Although Canada’s population is predominantly urban, the people’s network loves cozy, bucolic settings—its tradition of airing fresh-air fare goes back to The Beachcombers and has continued with such shows as Danger Bay, Anne of Green Gables, Road to Avonlea and North of 60. Now, it continues with two new one-hour,
13-episode family dramas.
Black Harbour is set in present-day Nova Scotia; Wind at My Back unfolds during the Great Depression in Ontario. They are independently produced by different companies, but there are some striking parallels.
Both are about dislocated families coping with hard times in small towns. Both revolve around blond, modern thirtysomething mothers who have minds of their own and collide with stubborn matriarchs. And both shows dramatize the clash between tradition and progress, presenting a moral universe where the bank manager is despicable, the brotherin-law is spineless, children run away from home—and grand ambitions can be made or broken by the local historical society.
Black Harbour (premiering on Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 9 p.m.) is the more serious of the two dramas. Created by Wayne Grigsby and Barbara Samuels, the team behind North of 60, it presents a cultural showdown between the old-world traditions of the East Coast and the new-world presumptions of the West Coast. Katherine (Rebecca Jenkins), a Los Angeles restaurateur, and her husband, Nick (Geraint Wyn Davies), a failed film director, return to her Nova Scotia home to help her ailing mother. In the fictional fishing village of Black Harbour, the couple ride out a soap-opera series of marital bumps, then decide to abandon their Holly-
wood life and make a fresh start Down East.
With visions of selling refurbished lobster boats to affluent Americans, Nick tries to buy the family boatyard from his resentful brother-in-law, Len (Joseph Ziegler), who has his heart set on building a Treasure Island theme park. Caught in the middle is Len’s master builder, Paul (Alex Carter), who is Katherine’s old flame. Meanwhile, her readily bored teenage daughter, Tasha (Melanie Foley), is desperately homesick for Los Angeles.
Black Harbour's pilot episode seems overly freighted with thematic intent. It is hard to see the characters through the thicket of cultural stereotypes assigned to them. And what does emerge seems very cut and dried—Katherine is chronically dour, punctuating her scenes with long sighs; Nick is irrepressibly jaunty; Len is stubbornly selfish; Paul quietly smoulders. But the seasoned cast is eminently watchable, and by the sec-
ond episode the script begins to loosen up. Jenkins (who won a Genie for her starring role in the 1989 movie Bye Bye Blues) has an arresting, edgy presence. And if the script gives her half a chance, she is capable of an emotional complexity that could transcend Black Harbour's tidy little premise.
Wind at My Back (starting on Sunday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.) is the latest offering in Sullivan Entertainment’s hugely successful line of family entertainment. The Toronto-based company, founded by film-maker Kevin Sullivan, is responsible for Anne of Green Gables and the hit series Road to Avonlea, which ended its seven-year run last season. Roughly based on a series of books by Canadian authors Max Braithwaite and Barry Broadfoot, Wind At My Back employs the same formula that made Avonlea so successful. Once again it is a story of children separated from their parents. Each episode unfolds as a hyper-eventful series of adventures on sets that are showpieces of antique decor. And every little wriggle of plot is buoyed along by a lilting sound track of incessantly cheery clarinets and strings.
Sullivan’s saccharine formula may be cloying—he is Canada’s answer to Disney—but it works, thanks to a strong cast. Cynthia Belliveau (from E.N.G) stars as Honey, whose husband loses his job and then his life in the opening episode. Honey throws herself at the mercy of her domineering mother-inlaw, May (Shirley Douglas), the matriarch of a mining company in the fictional New Bedford, Ont. But May turns Honey away, seizing custody other two boys, and sending her young daughter to live with distant relatives. Determined to reunite with her children, Honey looks for work, while her boys find a father figure in Max Clames Carroll), a local bachelor who teaches Grade 5.
With its Depression setting, the series resonates with contemporary issues. The central conflict, after all, pivots on the plight of a working mother with a monumental day care problem. And the homeless appear in the form of persecuted hobos. But what gives the series its appeal is the rhythm of its storytelling, and the strength of its female characters. Belliveau makes a likable heroine. Douglas is suitably imperious. And Kathryn Greenwood brings subtle spark to her role as Grace, May’s timid bachelorette daughter.
Wind at My Back and Black Harbour are gentle backwaters amid the heavy channelsurf of American television. Contrived with an overworked sense of cultural mandate, they reflect a desire to connect with a vanishing heritage—which makes them seem right at home on a vanishing network.
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