If you’ve never lived in Canada, you probably don’t understand the odd relationship we have with Canadian culture. There’s very little of it, you see, and it’s frequently not very good. American programming tends to drown out Canadian entertainment, Hollywood draws in a lot of Canadian talent, and the few Canadian TV shows tend to look like American TV shows shot on half the budget.
The CBC, being the official national public broadcaster, tends to do things a little differently. They often go the other way and produce TV shows about the experience of being Canadian. They, too, are often shot on a relatively low budget and don’t end up being very good, but at least they’re trying. And sometimes the come up with a real gem: The mid-90s brought the wonderful Twitch City and the brilliant satire The Newsroom. A few years ago there was the amusing This is Wonderland, though I’m not sure if anyone other than my family and I watched it. And now, perhaps, CBC has created another unique, if somewhat flawed, series in Being Erica.
(Observation: The producers put together a nice site leading up to the show with Erica’s blog and video diary, but it appears to have been abandoned since the show actually started. That doesn’t seem like a great idea.)
The premise is that Erica is 32 years old and leading something of a disappointing life. Unsatisfying job, non-existent lovelife, surrounded by people who are doing the things she wished she could be doing. Then she meets a mysterious therapist who, though unexplained means, offers her the opportunity to go back in time and re-live some of the key moments in her life that led to her current predicament.
The good news is that Erin Karpluk is wonderful in the title role. She’s smart, sympathetic, and witty, and while she’s certainly a bit of a fuckup, she’s not so much of one that she becomes a complete loser. At times she’s incredibly self-aware and observant, and at other times… not. She hasn’t so much ruined her life as she thinks she has, which is the sort of sentiment I can get behind. (Though I’ll come back to that in a moment.)
She’s also terribly attractive, though I have problems lusting over a woman with the same name as my sister.
But the flip side of that is that the writers seem to have crafted a star at the expense of the supporting cast. Barely any of the supporting characters are at all interesting, most of them existing only to serve plot points or counterpoints to Erica’s life. Some are just there to be successful and intimidating: Her mother frequently expresses disappointment in one way or another, her best friend is a lawyer, her sister is a doctor, her former best friend is a successful newspaper columnist.
And those are the best examples. The lesser half of the cast consists of characters whose sole purpose is to be mean to Erica. Her sister’s fiancée has no redeeming features whatsoever, which stands out even worse because her sister seems like a nice, reasonable person. Her boss is a bitch and a bit of a ditz. Her old professor yelled at everyone. She joins a super-secret fraternity run by super-jerks. Most of her ex-boyfriends turn out to be shallow jerks.
One or two such characters would be fine, but the continued parade of People Who Are Mean to Erica robs the show of potential conflict. Erica is almost always right, and far too many episodes run with the theme of a) Erica taking revenge on the mean people, or b) Erica realizing the mean people were mean and she didn’t really care what they thought in the first place.
Sometimes, this works, largely because of Karpluk’s charm: We love Erica, and hate the people who are mean to her. And she’s just really, really good sometimes: The mild overdose of high school nostalgia in the pilot is wisely countered by Erica’s diatribe, to a slightly baffled teacher, that teenagers are just really stupid.
The formula can get predictable at times: Erica has a problem in her life. She goes back in time to revisit a moment that somehow relates. She learns a valuable lesson, which she then applies to her current problem. Sometimes the lesson involves making out with a lesbian.
But every now and then, the show breaks out of the formula, or at least maximizes its effect. Til Death focuses on Erica’s sister’s wedding, and the regret in question is that Erica helped her sister get back together with her (still really a jerk) boyfriend after a fight several years ago. When given the chance to fix her mistake, events unfold differently yet still remain the same, and the life lesson isn’t applied nearly so smoothly. It’s an extremely strong episode, in no small part because of its unpredictability; for the first time, we get the sense that it might not work out in the end.
The preceding episode, Adultescence, also works quite well, though for different reasons: It’s a fairly simple character piece, with Erica reliving her Dirty Dancing-themed Bat Mitzvah after suffering an embarrassment at a baby shower. She goes back, toughs out the embarrassing party, and puts down the local bully, only to have her mother tell her not to worry and that she certainly won’t be single and unsuccessful by the age of 32. And it’s all pulled off by Samantha Weinstein, standing in for the 12-year-old Erica.
Michael Riley’s Doctor Tom remains an uneven character: His excessive reliance on famous quotes is funny at times, and grating at others. He’s at his best when he’s being a relatively stoic sounding board for Erica, and can be downright annoying when he shows up to explain the moral lesson of the episode. Similarly, the show can be prone to excessive narration from Erica the beginning and end: If you really need the main character to explain what the show was about, you’re probably doing something wrong.
Being Erica can be incredibly frustrating to watch at times. It’s so good at times, and shows such potential, that it’s all the more infuriating when they trot out another cliché plot twist or yet another one-dimensional supporting character. It needs to be bold and daring to work, it needs to take some chances and not be afraid of failure. There are some encouraging signs: The next episode features Erica travelling back to the events of a previous episode, which could be fascinating or may just turn out to be pseudo-clever navel-gazing, and the finale will apparently deal with the as-yet-unexplained death of her brother.
I want it to succeed and be the show it could be. I want Erin Karpluk to be a star, and I want the CBC to have a genuine quality hit and something to show for being one of the few sources of unique Canadian entertainment. But mostly, I just want to really love it and look forward to it every week, instead of wondering if it’s going to be a good episode or a bad episode.