Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Grading Erica - Being Erica closes in on the end of her first season

Looking back on Being Erica so far...

After my excitement over the premiere of CBC and Soap TV's Being Erica dramedy in January, I have been watching it regularly. It’s one of those shows that I can enjoy and share with my wife, and such opportunities are welcome in our house.

Last night, the show rounded the corner toward its final few episodes of the season so it seems like a good time for a bit of a report card. In its virgin run the show has been moved, dipped and recently surged again in ratings. It also has had varying degrees of success in exploiting its concept and characters and maintaining dramatic focus. But I think it can be said that the growing pains suffered by Being Erica are the same challenges being faced by most of the Canadian comedies currently airing on our non-cable stations. And the kind of growth suffered by any new series.

Little Mosque on the Prairie is holding its own, having had several seasons to work out its unique rhythms. It seems to have abandoned the more free-wheeling funny of the second season in order to spice the current crop of episodes with social commentary and satire-based humour. It's rare for a show to see such success with new story departments on each season but the dust has now settled. The show is at its peak when it utilizes their bevy of comic character actors like Carlo Rota, Sheila McCarthy, Neil Crone, Deb McGrath, and my personal favourite character, Boyd Banks' delightfully loopy Joe Peterson.

The meaner and naughtier Less Than Kind has thankfully been renewed. It gets much mileage from the essentially unlikable Blecher family surrounding our sweet, put-upon lead, played by Jesse Camacho. I can't get enough of Linda Kash's fed-up, no-nonsense doctor. Mark McKinney and Gary Campball lead a strong writing room so the show should only get better as it goes along.

Perennial favourite, Corner Gas staked out its own niche, combining well-observed characters who are slaves to their natures with sublimely ridiculous plots. There will be much hype when his new show, Hiccups, begins starring his wife and Corner Gas co-star, the hilarious Nancy Robertson.

J-Pod is all quirk, requiring a bit of a commitment to learn the show's rhythms. But I'm glad I stuck around to meet characters like Alan Thicke and Sherry Miller as David Kopp's Grow-Op running, movie-extra parents. And Colin Cunningham makes a good villain as Steve, the tech company's mercurial and self-loathing "Vice President In Charge of Vision".

The English version of Sophie is the current show most like Being Erica. It boasts a talented, likable lead in Natalie Brown, but the show still struggles to find a light touch, with many comic moments overplayed and a heavy seriousness to the dramatic moments. There are flashes of fun ideas though, such as Sophie sending her mother to spy on her baby's father at the park and reporting in so she can know the baby is safe (and not being stolen by her Daddy). The scene has all the elements needed for great comedy, a ridiculous situation under lined with a darker side. The show needs to embrace and combine these elements more effectively. In any given scene, it feels like several shows are fighting each other for the spotlight.

As you can see, the thing that stands out in a comedy is inevitably the characters. If an audience comes to know your character well enough, you can put them in any situation and viewers will begin to imagine the comedic potential before the scene even begins. There is much to learn from what Erica is doing well (a lot). But there is also much to learn from the ways in which it can still be improved. Being Erica is a at heart, a romantic comedy but the need for solid characters still holds true. And it has a lot of characters to work with.

So here we go. Remember, I’m a fan. I write this out of looooove.

Being Erica continues to walk a lovely balancing between the serious and comic, anchored by the still-delightful Erin Karpluk in the lead. She manages to both ground the show and keep it light and frothy all at once. Two weeks ago, Bill Harris of the Toronto Sun had some good insights into what the show was doing well in his column here. You can find another version of the article here.

Harris’ comments are bang on. Erica doesn't seem have any significant problems, many of the characters she interacts with are a little on the cartoony, one-dimensional side and her main problem seems to stem from being surrounded by inconsistent friends.

It's interesting how well the preview webisodes (posted online before the series premiere) showcased the series’ potential. Erica was in a dead-end, cubicle job and her frustration with her co-workers and her life were palpable. Karpluk's closest friend lived in another city and she seemed helpless to change her life. She was funny and charming and we could relate to her life.

You can view them all on the preview blog (abandoned after the premiere in favor of a Facebook profile, which is both an inexpensive and brilliant way to keep up a web presence and sad that they abandoned something they worked so hard to establish at the same time. The character’s lonely blog still sits there, a cold dead thing on the web. I can imagine this is very off-putting for potential viewers seeking info on the show.

Here’s the first of the video blogs so you can see how they helped the character connect with her future viewer-ship.

Lovely performance, understand and natural but funny. We have a lovely office enemy established and we know Erica’s job is not exactly making her do cartwheels on the way to work every morning. Later she joins an on0line dating service and has a first date with a hunky guy. Then the premiere arrives and all that groundwork is thrown away as Erica gets fired by the first commercial and dumped by the new beau.

Apparently having an everyday job didn’t seem interesting enough. So why waste so much energy establishing such a strong environment and situations people can relate to only to drop it" The likely answer is the videos were done after most of the shooting; after they knew their characters well. I do hope we see them revisit that location so we can see some of that potential used to better effect.

So okay, the series starts and we’ve traded one problem (without mining any of the story potential it presented) for another challenge: finding another job. Despite the disappointment at losing the things about the show which I had already invested in, the premiere was a fun, comic, ribald and sometimes dark romp, introducing the concept of the series and its main characters solidly.

After the premiere, I found myself having many discussions with fellow industry types about the show. this is a good sign. People are still talking about Erica. Some colleagues admired the obvious budget the series basked in. The location specific shooting certainly makes Toronto positively glow with warmth and hip-ness. But several of my friends wondered if the series had "legs". Meaning, did the show have the potential to remain as fresh and entertaining over 65 episodes as it did over 13?

Many were concerned with Erica learning essentially the same lessons each week: that she shouldn't have regrets and shouldn't assume she knows everything. We were, however, intrigued enough by Dr. Tom, Erica's time-travel facilitating shrink played with such aplomb by Michael Riley, to already begin speculating on the nature of the character and unique form of therapy. All agreed the show had a lot going for it but the jury was still out.

I had faith that creator Jana Sinyo could go take this show places, arguing that there was much fertile ground to be mined so long as Sinyor let the basic concept develop and the ramifications of Erica's time travel slowly build. Another colleague suggested that she'd be more interested if they spent more time in the present and really followed Erica’s life, allowing us to invest in the character. That way, the time travel would provide much needed insight without weighing down the show under its concept.

It turns out we were all right.

It’s not that Erica is spending too little time on the present. She just spends all her time in the present rushing headlong through plot that should be developing at a slower pace. Erica’s relationship with her separated but so-perfect-he’s-kinda-not-interesting, best friend Ethan (Tyron Leitso, Wonder Falls) is the kind of thing that needs time to breathe and develop. My initial fears they were going too fast (story arc-wise) came in the third or fourth episode when the pair shared a kiss. But when Erica returns in the next episode to explore their newly elevated relationship, she finds Ethan completely at a loss as he holds his divorce papers; the overwhelming reality of his divorce overtaking him at last. Erica holds Ethan in her arms and we know they are not taking anything to the next level for a while. Not a lot of dialogue, but real. I was hooked again.

That’s good television. But we accelerate the story line again and again. Ethan tries getting back together with his wife, then drops the idea just as quickly as Erica goes out with a succession of men who look exactly like him (Hello casting? There are blonde and redheaded actor hunks in Toronto as well, Just saying.) It feels a bit like the producers knew they were getting these first thirteen episodes with no guarantee for more, so they’re dying to cram as much of their storyline in as possible.

The show has fallen into a few predicable tropes: Erica is quick to judge or misunderstand. Her friends overreact or behave in an over the top manner. Erica feels guilty, learns something in the past and apologizes. And somewhere in the course of an episode something will happen to add adult "edge" to the show, such as Erica shaving her hoo-hah on camera, someone throwing up, near or implied nudity both male and female, a lesbian-bisexual kiss, even public peeing. My wife predicts we may see bestiality by the end of the first season and I kinda hope she's right. I certainly wouldn’t bet against her.

Despite this, Erica is still buoyed by its strengths. A show lasts on the backs of interesting characters and Being Erica has some great ones. It shines best in its depiction of her family unit. John Boylan and Kathleen Laskey pull off Erica's parents at various stages of their failed marriage with aplomb, never failing to play the reality of a scene but also giving the comedic moments a light touch. The pair never feel the need to prove their character's familial link to the lead character with fake theatrics, preferring instead to underplay their scenes and let the chemistry take care of itself. The recent Yom Kippur episode in which Erica meets her parents around the time they met and discovers a hidden secret, was the strongest, most focused episode yet.

Joanna Douglas, as Erica's sister Sam, fills her character with great depth, whether she’s playing the strident emotions and whining of Sam as a teenager or the weary woman trying to make the best of her life in the present. Erica’s brother, Leo, is still a question. Since he is dead in the present, he serves more as a metaphor of loss and recaptured moments than a full character. He also always seems younger than Erica though he’s supposed to be the bug brother. But perhaps that’s just a case of boy’s maturing at a slower rate. And poor Leo never got a chance to do that.

Erica’s friends are harder to peg. As they are often there simply to react to Erica, goad her into an outburst or be petulant. When Erica finally comes to terms with her frenemy, (Sarah Gadon of the Border and voice actress on the animated series Ruby Gloom and Total Drama Island), Katie’s sudden maturity doesn’t change the fact that she’s been played like a bragging, bitch for most of her previous episodes. Still, the show is trying to show characters in a new light each time Erica’s journeys back in time and that is commendable. Still, we have yet to see the best out of friend Erica’s friends Vinessa (Judith Winters – best friend, Soul Food) and Paula Brancati (Dark Oracle, Degrassi:The Next Generation).

Outside of the family and friends, many of the characters surrounding Erica are more broadly drawn. That's the tightrope walk for a show like this. Sam's husband Josh is cartoon villain, all swagger except for brief glimpses of what could have been during his wedding to Sam. The storyline of Sam’s poor marriage and her not speaking to Erica after her sister badmouthed Josh at the wedding, is partially dealt with in on or two episodes. In my experience, even the worst marriages start off seeming pleasant for the first while. But Sam’s hubby is so cartoony, they don’t bother to play the charm that could fool a smart girl like Sam. We’re not shown any redeeming qualities in Josh so it makes the otherwise deep character of Sam seem stupid for sticking by him. As Josh, Leitso is game but the direction and the script lets him down.

Erica's workmates at River Rock publishing are also drawn in broad strokes. It's hard to believe her bitchy boss Julianne (Reagan Pasternak, In A Heartbeat, Doc, Blue Murder, CSI) could get away with such serious snark. The whole set and vibe of River Rock screams “night time soap opera” job as opposed to working publishing house. But now that I have gotten t used to this, I am liking the casts’ comic energy. Erica’s work is a slightly different reality than the rest of her experiences, grounded as they are in real Toronto.

The biggest problem Being Erica is dealing is creating a dramatic arc. Only a few episodes feel like they’re always driving us forward. The trips back in time too often disrupt the story flow, especially when they are not well integrated in the present-time problem, as with the Lesbian kiss of two weeks ago (which paid off in ratings according to Bill Brioux, if not in story cohesiveness).

That story really could have dealt with caring about someone on a level that borders on romantic, despite them not being the right choice for other reasons. But since Erica’s lesbian next-door neighbour is nowhere to be seen in the present, any depth the episode could have are lost and the kiss did indeed feel gratuitous. It's a shame too, the lovely Fredericton lass Anna Silk brings real emotion to her role and was compelling in every scene. She made you want to see more of her. Silk has been a guest star staple for years and is always interesting to watch in comedic and dramatic roles. But her most famous work so far is...

See? Silk is totally real and utterly hilarious. And in Being Erica... totally wasted. Thanks to Mike's Bloggity Blog for posting this. He's also from Frederecton and a big booster Silk booster.

Last night's episode was the series first attempt to go back into a previous episode. That sort of things generally needs to be planned ahead so it makes sense they built it into these first thirteen episodes. The story idea was for Erica not to kiss Ethan and though it had much to enjoy the fact that Erica (and therefore, the audience) left Katie, the friend she'd just reconnected with, stuck onstage with a loon and ran off to sort out her love life created a disconnect. Why run away fromt he compelling immediate problem for the less less interesting story. We know she's gonna talk to Ethan later, so we wonder why she isn't helping her dang friend!

So Erica spends twenty minutes solving the less compelling, arc-related issue while the immediate problem is left to fester.. And by fester I mean left to be completely forgotten by the increasingly uninterested viewer. By the time Erica returns to the present, Dr. Tom literally has to fill usall in on what’s happening at the Author’s Festival so Erica and Brent (Falcon Beach’s Morgan Kelly in a fun supporting role) can save the day. When I recapped what happened at the end for my wife, who had fallen asleep by this time, she too couldn’t understand why they ignored the more interesting problem for so long.

The other thing that seems to have gotten lost a little bit as the season progressed is Dr. Tom himself. He was quite intriguing over the first few episodes, displaying passion and frustration at times and a gentle assurance when playing opposite pre-teen Erica (perfectly played by Samantha Weinstein). What is it about Erica that draws this concern, anger and support from Dr. Tom? The humanity Riley brings to his living deux ex machina is lovely but we need to see some hints as to what, or who he is soon or we risk losing interest. It's important to drop some Dr. Tom elements to take better advantage of the very real chemistry at play between Michael Riley and both the actresses who have played Erica so far.

My current theory is that Dr. Tom is actually the spirit of Erica's deceased brother Leo, as he would have been had he grown up. It nicely explains his knowledge of Erica’s life and being dead, how hard could it be to manipulate time of at least, Erica’s perceptions of time?

I shared my Dr. Tom theory with the productions’ Erica Strange Facebook page and was told the reality is even better. Much like the show, the best stuff is still waiting to be told. I hope I get to find out all of it.

ultimately, if I didn't really like Being Erica, I wouldn't spend nearly as much time figuring out what it needs to be even more successful. I still make an appointment to watch week after week. And that's high praiie indeed. Being Erica is solid entertainment and deserves a chance to spread its wings. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the final episodes and a second season order .

Live the adventure.