Tuesday, May 10, 2005

I Need Gas

Canadians have never done situation comedies well. We know the basic concepts, and indeed a lot of American sitcoms have involved Canadians both as stars and creators. However making our own sitcoms has never been a strong point. And we've tried too but what's been tried has resulted in a notable list of ignoble failures: The Trouble with Tracy, Excuse My French, and Blackfly to name just a few. Indeed it could be argued that until recently there has only been one truly memorable Canadian sitcom: King Of Kensington. Now however theres a new contender. It is Corner Gas starring Brent Butt, which just recently completed its second season on CTV.

Until recently I hadn't seen Corner Gas. Part of the reason is that I'm normally not home on Monday night - it's my bowling night - and both of my VCRs are busy taping other shows. The end of the bowling season has allowed me to see more shows on Monday nights - when I don't feel the overwhelming urge to have a nap - and one of the shows that I've picked up is Corner Gas. Despite a lot fo rave reviews, I wasn't expecting much. After all it was a Canadian sitcom, but it's produced here in Saskatchewan so I thought I should at least give it a try. After one episode I became a fan.

There's a tendency to compare shows with something familiar. One person commenting on the show in its IMDB listing compared it to Seinfeld because nothing really happens. The truth is, as usual, much more complex. The show has a lot in common with Northern Exposure. Both series have a "fish out of water" character; someone from the "Big City" who has moved to a small town. The town has of course proven to be full of quirky characters. On the other hand, while Northern Exposure made the "fish out of water" the lead character, Corner Gas has made its fish out of water one of the principal supporting characters. Corner Gas has also adopted an aspect of King of Kensington not only by making the lead character a store owner but by making his gas station the place that people come to. All of the important characters show up either at the gas station or at Lacey Burrows' restaurant The Ruby - which conveniently is attached to the gas station.

The quirkiness of the characters is the key point of course. As the show's motto says, Dog River is 40 kilometres from nowhere and way beyond normal. Lacey (Gabrielle Miller), the transplanted Torontonian, is the character that we're supposed to identify with, but everyone in town thinks she's a little "odd". They don't have any trouble putting together a time capsule every year to replace the previous time capsule. They'd rather have "road cookies" - the little packages of cookies that Brent Leroy (Brent Butt) sells at the station - rather than the freshly made cookies that Lacey makes at the Ruby. When she brings in Biscotti they tell her that thos are "so 1997".

The cast is very much an ensemble. Besides Brent and Lacey there are Brent's parents, Oscar and Emma played by Eric Petersen and Janet Wright. Oscar can best be described as a born again grouch (yeah I know but believe me it fits) while his wife Emma moderates his irritability. She bares the brunt of his irascible nature. Lorne Cardinal and Tara Spencer-Nairn play Davis Quinton and Karen Pelly, the two person town police force. (Normally a Saskatchewan town like Dog River would at best have an RCMP detachment for local policing but given what Davis and Karen get up to I doubt that the real RCMP would approve the use of their uniforms and logos in the show.) In one episode Karen is suspended (she took a cold medicine that caused her to fail a drug test) so Davis has to take twice as many naps to make up for her absence. Wanda (Nancy Robertson) works for Brent at the gas station and is the town's resident genius. She has partial degrees in Physics, History, Biology, and Comparative Religion but took the low wage job at the gas station because the last girl quit. Finally there's Brent's best friend Hank. Even for Dog River, Hank is a bit unusual. His mind seems to work in ways not fully understood by anyone but him, and he seems to think that hanging out with Brent is a full time job. His life-long ambition is to be stunned by a stun-gun, but Davis beat him to it (he shot himself with his own stun gun).

Corner Gas is unusual in that it doesn't give obvious clues when it's funny. The actors play their scenes dead straight to the point where, in the episodes I've seen, I've never seen Brent Butt smile. Beyond that, there's no laugh track, the closest they come is a musical sting at the end of scenes. And yet the show is undeniably funny. The show's humour is very verbal. The writing, by Butt, Mark Farrell and Paul Mather, is full of sharp and witty banter but with the exception of Oscar it's not humour based on put downs. The characters are portrayed as both human and absurd, but the writing isn't condescending either to the characters themselves or to the audience. It may be one of the best sitcoms in North America because of it. If you're in Canada, be sure to watch, and if you're in the United States well Corner Gas is out on DVD, and although apparently the transfer isn't as good as it might be, reviewers on Amazon.ca seem more than willing to look beyond that. This show is definitely worth making an effort to see even if you have to buy it.

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