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Canada could benefit from alliance with other countries in TV's Golden Age

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DUBLIN - TV columnist John Doyle in The Globe and Mail touched a nerve in the production community last week when he suggested Canada was missing from any discussion of "Golden Age" TV shows.

This Golden Age concept has been the subject of several recent books, including HitFix.com critic Alan Sepinwall's "The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever."

The recent spate of dark, complex dramas such as "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men and "The Sopranos" has been championed as prime examples of "auteur television." The best and brightest filmmakers, frustrated by studios green-lighting nothing but sequels to comic book super-hero fare, are now taking their pitches to U.S. cable TV executives first.

John Landgraf, president of FX (home of such acclaimed series as "Justified," "Louie" and "Sons of Anarchy") says he can't believe the number of feature filmmakers who come through his door each week.

One such filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro ("Pacific Rim"), is behind a dark drama currently shooting in Toronto, "The Strain." That series is one of three new projects seeing FX, partnered with Rogers-owned FX Canada, invest $100 million over the next year in shows shot in Toronto and Western Canada.

Therein lies the answer, perhaps, to Doyle's question. Canada can't go it alone in this Golden Age, but perhaps can with another country as a production partner.

Golden Age TV dramas aren't cheap. They generally draw relatively small audiences in America. Series finales aside, 10 times as many people are generally watching a regular episode of, say, "NCIS" than "Breaking Bad."

While a Netflix or even AMC can use a "House of Cards" or a "Breaking Bad" as a loss leader to drive their brand (and subscriptions), Canadian broadcasters or specialty stations can't make the same investment in a market one-tenth the size of the United States.

A TV alliance between Canada and Ireland may be one path to Canadians being directly involved in Golden Age drama. This is a view championed by Morgan O'Sullivan, executive producer of "Vikings."

With just over six million combined residents, Ireland's TV market is dwarfed even by Canada's. Their airways are flooded not only with American fare but also programming from Great Britain. O'Sullivan, a one-time radio broadcaster who spent years in America working on shows such as "Hill Street Blues" and "Remington Steele," yearned to see his native Ireland play a larger role in TV production.

O'Sullivan was working on movies-of-the-week with U.S. cable broadcaster Showtime when he became involved with the Canadian production company Temple Street. This led to discussions about developing, in O'Sullivan's words, a "mini MTM" — referring to the television studio which produced such prestigious fare in the 1970s and '80s as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Hill Street Blues." The goal was to create a production alliance to service both Ireland and Canada.

The initiative was launched with what O'Sullivan calls "The Tudor Model." The former CBC series "The Tudors" was shot in Ireland using a mix of Irish and Canadian actors and directors. It aired for four seasons in Ireland, Canada and the U.S. on Showtime.

"The Vikings," also written by English screenwriter Michael Hirst ("Elizabeth"), takes the two-nation concept a step further. Currently wrapping production on a second season in Ireland, the series is produced in association with Shaw Media. Besides Australian Travis Fimmel as lead Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, the historical drama features a largely Canadian cast, including Katheryn Winnick, Jessalyn Gilsig, Donal Logue and Alexander Ludwig. Canadian director Ken Girotti was helming his second season 2 episode this week.

As well, while the series is shot over three large sound stages at Ardmore Studios near Dublin, the dailies are sent by satellite to Canada where digital effects are added by Toronto's Mr. X Inc.

"They've done a brilliant job," says O'Sullivan. "I cannot emphasize how much they've brought to our show." O'Sullivan puts Mr. X's special-effects wizards "right up there" with George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic.

Canadians get other benefits from this alliance. The talent appreciate the more relaxed shooting schedules. Shooting days in Ireland typically run 10 hours a day, tops, compared to 14- to 16-hour days in Toronto or Los Angeles. Ireland's generous tax incentives — just increased in this week's budget — are drawing more productions to the area, including "Penny Dreadful," a new Showtime horror series starring Eva Green and Josh Hartnett.

O'Sullivan says he is working hard to pool the resources of Canada and Ireland into future TV projects. Whether this results in any Golden Age TV dramas is hard to say. So far, Canadian audiences are responding to "Vikings." It was the No. 1 new scripted Canadian specialty debut of 2013, premiering to more than 1.1 million viewers. It averaged 942,000 viewers a week on History, where it will return in the new year.

Those numbers beat even Mark Burnett's six-part miniseries "The Bible," provoking Hirst to warily joke — echoing John Lennon's cheeky Beatles boast of the '60s — that his show is "bigger than Jesus."

Canadians will likely forgive Hirst this bit of blarney blasphemy if his efforts help bring our talent into TV's Golden Age.

———

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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