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New sitcom combines law and laughs

Andrea Martin drawn to depth of characters

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/3/2014 (1260 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With a career that spans more than four decades and has included television, feature films and Broadway plays, there must have been something special about Working the Engels that attracted Andrea Martin back to the small screen.

It's a sitcom. A Canadian sitcom. Clearly, this can't have been a career move motivated by money.

"I think the money is actually pretty good," says a laughing Martin, who plays matriarch Ciel Engel in this new Global TV comedy about a family-run law firm, which premières Wednesday at 8 p.m. "But the real incentive was that the script was great. That was the biggest thing, and then everything else fell into place. I had just finished a show (the Broadway production of Pippin) in September, and this started in October, and I have a house in Toronto, which made it convenient.

"But mostly, it was the script. I spoke to (series co-creator and executive producer) Katie Ford, and I loved that she was willing to be so collaborative, and then I met the cast... and I thought, 'Whoa, what part of this is wrong?' Everything just seemed to come together."

Working the Engels is a single-camera comedy that follows the struggles of a slightly dysfunctional family forced to work together after the patriarch dies and it's revealed his storefront law-office operation has left them thousands of dollars in debt.

The situation seems hopeless until youngest daughter Jenna (Kacey Rohl) decides to abandon her pursuit of a partnership in a big-city law firm and moves home to run the family business. Ciel declares that the best way for the office to succeed is for everyone to pitch in -- which is awkward, because Jenna's the only one qualified to practise law.

Ciel slots herself in as the firm's paralegal; older daughter Sandy (Azura Skye), an avid (former) user of prescription drugs who has never held down a full-time job, signs on as receptionist; son Jimmy (Benjamin Arthur), a low-level con artist and general ne'er-do-well, decides he can help out as the firm's in-house investigator.

Wackiness, of course, ensues.

Working the Engels starts out as something of a hit-and-miss affair, laughs-wise, but its family-first attitude and smarter-than-it-looks approach to comedy inspire immediate comparisons to Less Than Kind, the beloved shot-in-Winnipeg sitcom that enjoyed a four-season run on Citytv and HBO Canada.

Martin says the depth with which the show's characters are written made the scripts stand out.

"I loved the fact that Ciel was not a clichéd mother," she explains. "So much of what you see on TV these days is either crazily narcissistic or drunk or constantly putting the kids down. With this, I just felt there was great potential to make a character that had some depth -- I was impressed by the fact that even though she's self-involved and neurotic, she's also enormously loving and protective of her children. Her heart is in a very real place.

"That was the basis of it, and it's a great base -- once you have that, you can put flourishes of comedy on it. This isn't superficial. In some ways, this felt less like a sitcom and more like a little independent movie."

For the show's other cast members, who are all too young to have followed Martin's early career on SCTV, having such a veteran performer on set was like beginning an extended master class in comedy.

"Even though I wasn't around when (SCTV) aired, my mother raised me on the comedy greats, and Andrea is obviously one of them," says Rohl, 22, whose previous TV credits include The Killing and Hannibal. "The first day on set, I immediately went into sponge mode, trying to absorb as much of her process and how she lives her life as possible. It probably got a bit creepy at times, because there was a bit of hero worship happening.

"She's amazing, really. She's very inspiring. And what I've learned from her is that you have to go 110 per cent or not at all -- you have to fully commit and put your back into it, which she does every day. She comes in fully prepared, she brings really great stuff to the table, she's incredibly collaborative and she makes it a great space to create and have fun in. She was a fantastic leader."

For Arthur, last seen as Less Than Kind's less-than-bright older brother Josh, working with Martin reminded him of toiling under the watchful eye of LTK's show-runner, Kids in the Hall veteran Mark McKinney.

"They're both masters who make you feel very comfortable and completely at ease," he explains. "They really set a tone that makes you feel safe; they create this amazing little playground in which you can just run around and be crazy.

"After a while, you get kind of addicted to making Mark McKinney laugh behind the monitor or making Andrea Martin laugh on the set. It's an amazing feeling."

Twitter: @BradOswald

Read more by Brad Oswald.


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