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New home, sweet home

Winnipeg-set sitcom changes neighbourhoods to premium cable's HBO

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Just when it looked as if the TV fates were going to be more than cruel to Less Than Kind, the producers of the shot-in-Winnipeg sitcom got an offer that was absolutely, positively just right.

After spending its first season in promotionally starved obscurity on Citytv, and while looking toward a second campaign in which it wasn't clear how the show fit into the Canadian broadcaster's prime-time plans, Less Than Kind suddenly found itself a new home, on premium (pay-TV) cable's HBO Canada, where it will air Fridays at 7:30 p.m.

And given Less Thank Kind's sophisticated and sometimes maturely scripted approach to comedy, the move suited the series' producers just fine.

 

"I think Citytv was trying to define itself as a network, and they weren't sure how we fit in with their branding," said Marvin Kaye, Less Than Kind's Winnipeg-born co-creator and executive producer. "Then this opportunity came up at HBO (Canada); we wanted that security, and Citytv was good enough to say 'This is a great show; we're not sure what we want to do with it, but if it's got a second home, then here you go.' It was a lot of generosity on their part.

"I think HBO feels like the right place. They're allowing us to go wherever we want; there's no concerns about censorship issues or time constraints or subject-matter concerns or time slots. We can say what we want and the story can organically go where it needs to go. We feel free to be creative; we don't have to hold anything back."

For the benefit of those unlucky enough to have missed Less Than Kind's first season, the show concerns itself with the middle-class misadventures of a Winnipeg family struggling to make ends meet while running a home-based driving school.

At the centre of the storyline is Sheldon Blecher (Jesse Camacho), a whip-smart but rather overweight teenager who's trying to make sense of his North End existence while sheltering his friends -- and, for that matter, himself -- from the daily madness of his at-home life.

His father, Sam (Maury Chaykin), is a quintessential Winnipegger who's always looking for another way to cut a corner or make a deal; his mother, Anne (Wendel Meldrum), is an emotionally overburdened spouse who exhibits occasional pyromaniac tendencies.

Sheldon's sole connection to sanity exists in the form of his friendship (and budding romance?) with Miriam Goldstein (Brooke Palsson), a bright but brace-faced girl whose inner beauty seems to have no limit.

When Less Than Kind's first season ended, the accumulated stresses of home life, business struggles and tax-law transgressions had driven patriarch Sam head-on into a heart attack; as the new campaign opens, he's in hospital, very much at death's door, and Sheldon and his family are being prepared (by an impatient doctor played brilliantly by guest star Dave Foley) for the worst.

The season première is both dramatic and dizzily funny -- the deftly written story shows that this is a sneaky-smart comedy that has really found its stride.

"With this show, as with most shows, the first season was a season of exploration, of the show finding its legs," said Kaye, whose growing-up experiences in Winnipeg were the inspiration for the show. "I think the last four or five episodes of the first season really set the emotional keystones for the second season. It progressed in a really organic way, and in the second season, I think it's really the show it was meant to be."

For Chaykin, a veteran actor who has only dabbled in series television once before (co-starring with Timothy Hutton in the short-lived A&E series Nero Wolfe), Less Than Kind offered a chance to play a character that felt very close to home -- which is interesting, considering that the job required him to relocate temporarily to Winnipeg, in wintertime.

"I never have chosen the material I work on lightly, particularly if it's a television series, because that's a big commitment," said Chaykin, whose big-screen credits include My Cousin Vinny, Whale Music and Dances With Wolves. "I don't think in terms of 'It's good money,' or 'It's a wonderful location'; I think it's much wiser to make a decision based on the material and the character.

"I loved this material... The pilot never tried, as so many do, to whitewash the ethnic aspect of this family. I was very attracted to that. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a middle-class Jewish family, which gave me a lot to draw on and explore with Sam and his family."

Perhaps the greatest revelation in Less Than Kind's first season was the rapid rise of local actor Palsson from bit-part player to Gemini Award-nominated star. Cast in the role of Sheldon's friend and fellow nerd Miriam, Palsson's performance in what was intended as a brief guest spot quickly convinced the show's producers that the character needed to become a full-time presence.

"It's an amazing feeling," says Palsson, now 16. "I was only supposed to be a one- or two-time character... but she just kind of fit in, and gave Sheldon that romance part of his life."

As the new season progresses, Sheldon and Miriam will take their relationship to a place that's much more complicated than friendship -- a journey that forced Palsson to explore emotions and behaviours she hasn't yet encountered in real life.

"In the second season, Sheldon and Miriam explore the whole music, sex, rock 'n' roll kind of thing," she offers. "I think that's something every teenager goes through, and it was very exciting for me to explore something beyond just the nerdy stuff.

"I can't say that I've ever actually been in love, so playing that was kind of difficult."

As it embarks on a second season filled with big themes, big questions and great, big changes for its characters, Less Than Kind seems to be a show determined to explore the darker corners of family life in pursuit of deeper, richer comedy.

"We feel really good about it," says Kaye. "I think the show has evolved into what it was always meant to be, which is sort of a hybrid drama/comedy. If we can get the audience to laugh and cry in the same episode, I think we've done our job."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Meet the Blechers

 

Sam (Maury Chaykin) -- Head of the family. Believer in the barter system, up to and including tax evasion. Currently on death's door.

Anne (Wendel Meldrum) -- The long-suffering, ever-overburdened matriarch. Stress makes her do the strangest things. And there's a lot of stress these days.

Sheldon (Jesse Camacho) -- Sixteen. Overweight. Smarter than many, nerdier than most. Not looking for love, but it may have found him.

Josh (Benjamin Arthur) -- Jesse's older brother. Struck out in the big city, so he's back home trying to become a big-time actor in small-town Winnipeg.

Aunt Clara (Nancy Sorel) -- A woman of a certain age. Single. Redefines the parameters of "cougar" behaviour with every botched first date.

Miriam Goldstein (Brooke Palsson) -- Nerdy. Brace-faced. Shy. Smart. Sheldon's best friend... until things get more complicated.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2010 E10

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