Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Oh, Canada!

Months after the crash of the American satellite TV system that left thousands of American expats in San Miguel staring at a blank screen--or resorting to desperate measures like reading books or talking to their partners--some are still pondering whether to sign up with SHAW, the Canadian TV satellite. Those undecideds seem apprehensive and keep asking us what is Canadian TV like, I mean, is it really a mixture of eskimo soap operas, ten-hour hockey marathons and French-Canadian chefs gurgling about the latest pot-au-feu using elk meat?

Curiously Stew and I seem to have made the opposite assumption, namely that Canada is a very large suburb of Green Bay, Wisc. and TV fare would be the same old as American TV. Much to our surprise--and delight--Canadian programming is quite different, like peeking into the house of the family next door and discovering they do peculiar things with breakfast cereals and that their furniture is kinda odd too.

A few nights a week now we tune in Canadian instead of American programs, even if occasionally we're left scratching our heads: How can you have a popular talk show hosted by a guy named George Stroumboulopulos? Even Lawrence Harvey Zeiger decided early life it would be easier on himself, his viewers and his several wives-to-come if he changed his name to Larry King. How about Strom, George, and forget the other nine syllables?

Or tuning into a prime-time offering called "Indigenous Circle" in which for about 30 minutes--that was all we could take--a very jittery college student interviewed a representative of the Métis aboriginal people, who I guess live somewhere near Saskatchewan. At times like those it feels Shaw satellite is transmitting from the back side of the moon instead of a country just to the north of the U.S. Then again, sometimes things get kind of slow in San Miguel and we'll watch practically anything.

Because of national pride, or perhaps hard local marketing reasons, a number of shows and networks popular in the U.S. are repackaged and tweaked for airing in Canada. There's a Food Network Canada, which offers rather similar fare as its American counterpart but with some surprises.

One day we discovered "Ricardo and Friends," a cooking show hosted by an effervescent, curly haired guy with an intriguing accent we could not quite place. Ricardo also seemed to be a bit "light in the loafers," if you know what I mean, despite a couple of references to his children. Stew and I wondered, who is this Ricardo person? A gay Puerto Rican with his own cooking show? In Canada? It turns out he is Ricardo Larrivée, a celebrity chef who revealed his origins while speaking French to a farmer somewhere in their home turf of Québec. That explained Ricardo's lilting accent and continental panache.

Another Canadian celebrity chef on the Food Network is Lynn Crawford, an internationally renowned Toronto chef with a mean sense of humor. One show had her wading in a field of cranberries somewhere deep in Canada, probably near the Métis aborigines.

Indeed we'd never associated "Canadians" with "humor" before signing up for Shaw TV. The current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was more our idea of a Canadian zaniness: He's got the spark and charisma of a bucket of cottage cheese.

Then we discovered "The Rick Mercer Show," an hour-long comedy show that's a combination of talk, skits and "Saturday Night Live"-style satire. A lot of the political humor stumps us. For some reason Mercer doesn't seem to like the Bloc Québécois in Parliament and makes occasional references to transfers of money (subsidies?) from the rest of Canada to those latte-sipping, croissant-munching folks clustered in and around Québec.

In recent news, Canada's ouster from the United Nations Security Council seems to have plunged the country into a funk. After holding a temporary seat in the Council for the past 50 years, two weeks ago Canada was thrown out. Why? We could understand the U.S. being kicked out of various international bodies, but Canada? They're such nice people. In news reports conservatives blamed laborites, the latter I believe led by one Michael Ignatieff, and vice-versa, with little clear understanding wafting down to American expats watching in San Miguel.

The national shame reached such a level that the comedy show "22 Minutes" provided some advice for Canadian tourists traveling abroad. One tip was to cover the Maple Leaf on backpacks with a label that simply read "Tourist" and another to buy mouth inserts that would prevent them from accidentally blurting out the telltale Canadian "eh?" while talking to foreigners.

Canadian news broadcasts are no-nonsense affairs. The CBC's star news anchor is Peter Mansbridge, a balding, eternally serious man who couldn't be accused of being a glamour-puss. Katie Couric is perky on CBS; NBC's Brian Williams is so made up he looks practically embalmed; and on CNN Anderson Cooper furrows his brow as if he's forever perplexed by the choice of being either a gay sex symbol or a serious newsman.

Mansbridge instead has the demeanor of a geometry teacher explaining the Pythagorean theorem to a group of high school juniors. You want jokes, fabrications, tendentiousness, vacuous blondes and baseless accusations? Not on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, bud. Look elsewhere, like Fox News, south of the border.

The most curious sight on Canadian TV though has to be aforementioned George Strom, formerly known as George Stroumboulopulos. He is 38 years old, has dark hair and eyes, a buzz cut, rings on each ear, and wears jeans and tennis shoes on the show. Anything but light on his loafers, this fellow. You expect him to come on stage on a Harley Davidson.

The only props on his interview show are two red leather armchairs. The guest sits on one. At the very edge of the other, as if ready to physically pounce of his guest, sits George, a bundle of inquisitiveness. One night he interviewed Margaret Trudeau (who was married to the late P.M. Pierre Trudeau) and had written a book about her battle with manic depression. At the time Mme. Trudeau seemed to be at the manic end of her emotional rope. Between her nervous giggle and Strom's laser-like stare and earnest questions, it was a TV exchange so nerve-wracking it was hard to watch.

We just started flipping channels, looking for something calmer and more recognizably American--like "Desperate Housewives."