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The CBC needs to polish its Gem, not bite into Apple
For Canada's broadcaster to set itself apart against a bevy of deep-pocketed streaming services, it must cast a narrower net, not a wider one
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, April 13, 2019 – Page R6

On March 25, as the eyes of the world were on Cupertino, Calif., for the splashy launch of Apple TV+, Apple's new streaming service, I was at home watching the CBC's streaming service, Gem. (Full disclosure: I co-host a talk series, The Filmmakers, which is available there.)

Apple trotted out Oprah, who explained that she brought two documentaries and a book-club series to the new platform in order to "serve this moment, illuminate consciousness and bring positive change."

Meanwhile, I decided to concentrate on Gem Originals: tiny web series, four to six episodes apiece, nine to 15 minutes an episode.

I began with True Dating Stories. Accompanied by tongue-in-cheek recreations, comely young people describe their worst encounters. Phelisha relates how her first date with a seemingly nice bartender nosedived when he got her name tattooed on his inner lip. Glenn, a personal trainer, disses a 'roid rager who kicked him out of his car. Cory recalls how a hot older woman, a "Stifler's Mom" type, seduced him with macaroni salad. I'm not sure these tales illuminated my consciousness or brought positive change, but they did serve about 30 moments, er, minutes, of my time.

Apple had Steven Spielberg. He appeared in its serioso black-and-white promotional video about creators (TV ones, not celestial - although if you watch the video you may think they're the same thing), alongside J.J. Abrams, Ron Howard, Sofia Coppola and M. Night Shyamalan.

And he appeared live on stage, where he promoted Amazing Stories, his reboot of an old NBC series.

I then switched over to The Neddeaus of Duqesne Island, another Gem original. It's a droll, 1970s-era mock-doc about a Northern Ontario family ("Quit that or it'll be you tied to the dock again," the dad warns one of his daughters), and it's a pitch-perfect send-up of the serioso docs the CBC used to make.

Apple reportedly spent more than US$1billion on its 30 new series, which include The Morning Show with Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, about the backstage shenanigans at a breakfast TV show; Dickinson, a fresh look at the 19th-century poet, played by Hailee Steinfeld; and See, a fantasy epic starring Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard in fetching caveman furs.

Yet, that spending pales next to Netflix, which invested US$8-billion in original programming in 2018 alone. For the first time in its history, Netflix is launching more of its own stuff than it is acquiring others' stuff. Although that's a boon to creators (again, the TV kind), Netflix isn't doing it out of the goodness of its heart. It's doing it because Disney has announced its own streaming service, which means the entertainment giant will no longer be selling its stuff to Netflix. Ditto Warner Media, which is expected to launch its new streaming service in a few months.

Gem, by contrast, appears to have spent one crisp $50 bill on its original series Talent Drivers, about a perpetual screw-up who briefly lands a job driving actors on a film shoot. It's so low-fi that its selection box on the Gem homepage doesn't even have a photo, just a black square. I would not be surprised to learn that someone shot this series between takes on some other production.

I don't know what the thinking behind these Gem originals is - if they've been kicking around the CBC webverse; if their creators made them for free and won their placement in some kind of contest. I'm coming to them fresh; not as a TV reporter, just as a viewer.

They are somewhat baffling.

There's plenty of splashier stuff on Gem, of course. There are current hit series such as Baroness von Sketch Show, Workin' Moms and Diggstown. There's good stuff that you might have missed, such as Pure, Anne with an E and The Book of Negroes. There are international shows that fit the CBC's vibe, including Luther, Wallander and - one of my favourites - The Durrells, a witty ball of sunlight set in 1930s Corfu. I also had a lovely time watching two imports that will drop April 1: Pen15, sort of Broad City in middle school; and Season 2 of The A Word, which reminded me of Parenthood, if that show were set in a tiny English village.

The CBC is never - I repeat, never - going to have the money the U.S. giants have for original programming. But here in Peak TV, viewers don't give a toss about a network's financial challenges; they just expect good shows. Gem is free (unless you want to watch without ads, in which case there's a small monthly fee), but the audience is still spending something invaluable: its time.

Last year, nearly 500 scripted series aired in the United States, which some pundits are moaning is too many. I say, bring it on. This is a golden age for creators precisely because of the sheer volume; it means that money people are willing to finance voices we don't typically hear, such as Lena Waithe and Donald Glover, Mindy Kaling and Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani and Tig Notaro. As Witherspoon says in the Apple video, "Everyone deserves to have their story be told." At this moment, there's more opportunity for that than has ever been.

But grab it quickly, because who knows how long it will last? The danger I see isn't that there's too much stuff; it's that the stuff is spread over too many platforms. People are already complaining about paying for Hulu and Netflix and HBO. Will audiences buy into three more streaming services? How quickly will some master aggregator arise and win by making life simpler?

The only way I can see for the CBC, and Gem, to set itself apart from this too-muchness is by casting a narrower net, not a wider one. Their model is not Netflix or Apple - throw everything at the wall and see what sticks - but F/X: fewer shows, higher quality, clearer point of view.

They already have a brand: kindness.

Don't scoff. Let other streamers do anti-heroes. Only we can do Schitt's Creek, which gets better and funnier the more humanized the Roses become. Or Still Standing, where comedian Jonny Harris visits a town in trouble, talks to the residents and then crafts a stand-up show for them. It won a Canadian Screen Award last month, and, in his acceptance speech, Harris proudly told the crowd that it's successful because they vet the jokes, and ditch any that are too mean.

I'm not talking about sappiness. I'm talking about kindness the way Parks and Recreation or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt were kind. Kindness as a comedic or dramatic point of view. Many of the Gem shows I mentioned earlier, including The Durrells, Pen15 and The A Word, are onbrand, kindness-wise.

So is the nutty little Gem original Farm Crime. I whisper the title to myself with the bold dramatic flourish Jack Webb would use: Farm! Crime! But Farm Crime is no "lunatic shoots friend in the head," Jinx-type extravaganza. Nor is it a dark, "the system is so broken" show, à la Making a Murderer.

No, no, no. Farm Crime describes ultra-Canadian heists: $100,000 worth of blueberries hijacked from a truck yard in Hamilton. Five million bees, worth $200,000, stolen from a Quebec apiary. Some dude poaching from his neighbour's oyster beds in Prince Edward Island while the owner is nursing his ailing wife.

The crimes resolve in an ultra-Canadian way: They're either solved simply, or remain unsolved. Either way, we learn valuable social lessons. The blueberry trucker loses his insurance. That's not good. The bee owners fear for the future of an Earth without enough bees. That's not good, either. (In my notes, I wrote SAD next to every brief episode.)

Farm Crime is the opposite of salacious.

It's sober. It's about responsibility, about doing the best we can with what we're given and not dicking each other over. The oysterman's wife dies, for Pete's sake. But he's "glad she lived long enough to see that fella convicted." And he's keeping his oyster beds "as secure as possible." Jennifer Garner will not be sexing up Farm Crime at Apple HQ. But its pure Canadiana cuts through the clutter.

Associated Graphic

True Dating Stories, in which young people describe some of their worst encounters, is among the series available on the CBC's Gem.

Huh? How did I get here?
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