The Joys of Canadian TV

kids in the hall

Canada, our neighbor to the North, has a reputation for a few things. Beautiful scenery, a more peaceful pace, and an air of politeness we Americans sometimes lack. But the gifts don’t stop there. Canada also provides some damn good television. It delivers subtle snark and a wealth of absurdist humor with an overlay of heart and good character development, whether in sitcom or sketch form. Here are some Canadian shows worth watching and re-watching. The quality is high, the laughs are abundant.

Kids in the Hall (1988-95)

Five glorious nutcases (Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson) master the sketch comedy format with zest and inspired madness, gaining a cult following as they tackle characters of every gender and genre, holding back little but the hilarity. Much of their comedy would push the boundaries of today’s political correctness, but the spot-on characterizations and fearlessness still hold up. Such is their ongoing popularity that they are currently taking on a reboot, decades after going off the air.

Corner Gas (2004-09)

Ahh, the joys of the tiny fictitious town of Dog River, Saskatchewan, and its goofy inhabitants! Corner Gas’ success lies in the chill humor of the daily doings of Dog River, centered largely around congenial Everyman Brent Leroy (Brent Butt), the owner of the local gas station which serves as the anchor pin for the community. We meet his adorably manipulative pal Hank and his loving/battling folks, who spawn endless laughs. Then there’s Wanda, his co-worker who is high on her intellect and low on ambition and Lacey, the pretty, jittery owner of the coffee shop next door. Lacey retains a “fish out of water” status since she moved in from big-city Toronto, but the town embraces her with fond mockery. Dog River’s inhabitants are quintessentially Canadian and enormous fun to hang out with for 22 minutes at a clip. It’s a show with low plot stakes, just a big heart, and great relatability. Its success led to an animated version of the show and a well-received movie.

Schitt’s Creek (2015-20)

This much-loved, much-lauded series (dozens of awards, including all seven of the comedy Emmy Awards in its final season) charmed the world with its edgy wit and empathy. Created by Dan Levy and his dad, SCTV star Eugene Levy, it begins with the “fish out of water” concept as an absurdly rich, snooty, entitled New York City family (Johnny, Moira, David, and Alexis Rose) lose all their money and are forced to give up their lives of tacky excess and move to a small Canadian town (the titular Schitt’s Creek) that their father once purchased as a joke. They move into a run-down motel in a town whose mayor (Chris Elliott) is a bombastic good ol’ boy and whose inhabitants would seem to have zero in common with the formerly glittering Rose family. But as they stay in Schitt’s Creek they merge with the locals who (for all their small-town earthiness) are the wise angels who accept the Roses and teach by example about kindness and inclusivity. The quirks of the Roses and the locals make for enormous hilarity and its positive LGBTQ+ themes add to the goodwill generated by this uniquely wonderful series.

Kim’s Convenience (2016-21)

Another beloved series that delivers gentle, incisive humor and relatable plotlines. Kim’s Convenience takes place in a general store run by the Kim family, Korean Canadians with great work ethics and quirks up the wazoo. The patriarch, “Appa,” is a curmudgeon with a good heart and an inability to zip his lip. His catchphrases are “Okay, see you!” and “sneak attack!” Mrs. Kim, or “Umma,” is a sweet woman with a meddling heart. Their daughter Janet is a college student who feels hovered over by her parents, as her brother Jung has been estranged from their dad because of his earlier years of mild crime and bad boy-ism. The locals, church members, and friends of the family flesh out the upbeat vibe of his lovely show.

Letterkenny (2016-21)

 “There are 5,000 people in Letterkenny. These are their problems.” So begins most of the episodes that dig into the skirmishes of this tiny Canadian town. More prurient than most Canadian offerings but with a sweet subtext beneath, Letterkenny deals with the adventures of Wayne and Katy, a brother and sister duo who run a local farm stand with their buddies Daryl and Squirrely Dan. Wayne (Jared Keeso, also the show’s creator) is a steely-faced guy who is a combo of tough, tender and loyal. Katy (Michelle Mylett) is grounded and witty. They are a tight pair who take on the goofy locals as they entertain and irk them in equal measure. The townies break down into set groups, straight from their arrested adolescence: the “skids,” “hicks,” “hockey players” and “Christians.” They appear outwardly to be provincial fools, but endlessly philosophize in a Canadian patois that requires close attention at the outset. (What better description of a soft, spineless soul than “10-ply”?) Wayne and Katy are cool sibling heroes and their sitcom existence is richly entertaining.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo: Kids In the Hall (Getty Images)

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4 comments on “The Joys of Canadian TV

  1. How could you leave out ‘SCTV’? There is also: ‘The Red Green Show’

  2. Clarence Goodman

    Helpful article, but why don’t you name the stars/creators of “Kim’s Convenience?”

  3. Don Klees

    A fine list, though, it doesn’t mention some of the excellent dramas out of Canada, such as 19-2 and Slings & Arrows.

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