The art of self-defence: the unbearable anxiety of being Ken Finkleman
His shows are nasty, sophisticated, hilarious—and often dismissed as derivative. The unbearable anxiety of being Ken Finkleman
To everyone’s surprise, Toronto television is having a big moment. Shows like Flashpoint, Being Erica, Rookie Blue and Lost Girl are addictive appointment viewing. They get high ratings, ones that are competitive with their American counterparts. What’s most appealing about them is that they’re confident. They aren’t anxious about being Canadian products—they’re past that.
Which is why Ken Finkleman’s new show, Good Dog, feels like a throwback. As with his celebrated series The Newsroom, Finkleman seems preoccupied with how his work stacks up against innovative U.S. shows, particularly Larry David’s HBO juggernaut, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Just as Larry David plays a barely fictionalized character named Larry David, a TV producer and writer in Los Angeles, Finkleman plays a version of himself named George, a TV producer and writer in Toronto. It’s a variation on a character that Finkleman has revisited intermittently since introducing him on the show Married Life in 1995. George is now hooked up with Claire, a much younger model played by Lauren Lee Smith, for what he describes as the kind of “hot May–December relationship” that TV execs love. In a bid to get the green light for a reality show about his life, he asks Claire to move in—along with her two kids, their stern Austrian nanny and the family’s snarling Rottweiler (thus the show’s title).
This time, the show acknowledges, then dismisses, its debts outright. The proposed title for George’s reality show vanity project? Embrace Your Enthusiasm. “I’m going to scoop those asshole critics who are going to say that I’m ripping off Larry David,” snipes George before embarking on a trip to L.A. to secure David’s blessing. His pilgrimage is stymied, as these things tend to go on television, by airport security. George is approached on an escalator at the airport by a drivelling, lazy-eyed stranger who recognizes him. When George explains that his face is probably familiar from The Newsroom, the man insists that he never watched the show. An argument erupts and George, who simply wanted to catch his plane to meet David, is accused of harassment and tossed out.
The pre-emptive hat tip to Curb Your Enthusiasm is a canny manoeuvre. (Of course, Finkleman may also be flipping the bird to those “asshole critics” who raised their eyebrows at the similarities between his recent debut novel, Noah’s Turn, and British author Martin Amis’s The Information.) It’s clever, defensive and slightly hostile. In other words, textbook Finkleman.
Good Dog’s reality-show-within-the-show eventually recedes (the network passes on George’s idea), but only after its premise has taken root. Instead of watching a show about a guy making a show about a guy living with a woman half his age, we’re now watching a show about a guy living with a woman half his age. That matryoshka doll meta-ness is a hallmark of Finkleman’s work—it instantly recalls The Newsroom, which for three seasons between 1996 and 2005 mapped out the machinations of an evening news show modelled after and shot at the CBC.
In his capacity as the writer, director and star, Finkleman alternately skewered and sent up sensationalist, pandering newscasts. As George, he’d spin stories about piranha-infested waters, suicidal writers and, in the first season’s three-part finale, a potential Chernobyl at a nuclear plant in Pickering that mushroomed into a spot-on parody of Fellini’s 8 1/2. He’d also chastise a put-upon intern for fetching him the wrong kind of muffin.
If one criticism dogged The Newsroom—and defined Finkleman’s complicated relationship with creative influence—it was that it cribbed its backdoor look from the brilliant Larry Sanders Show, right down to the title card. Lifting a few elements from HBO had a good chance of going undetected in the mid-’90s, when fewer Canadians had access to American premium cable channels. Not so today.
Like the caricatured version of David in Curb, Finkleman’s George squeezes every possible drop of absurdity out of his role as comic victim. David courts big blowouts that render his character both pathetic and despicable (at one point, he refuses to hand out candy to uncostumed teenagers on Halloween, only to have them vandalize his house and spray-paint the words “bald asshole” on his front door). Finkleman’s schlemiel-against-the-world shtick is of a different stripe. Instead of playing the martyr, he actively attempts to deflect cosmic cruelty. When George finds out late in Good Dog’s first episode that the network has turned down his reality show idea, he begins to resent Claire, who has just moved in. While he’s contemplating a way out, she’s contemplating a religious conversion to Judaism, in a bid to get closer to him. “Mine is not the kind of Jewishness that you convert to,” grumbles George. “It’s more the kind you do an impression of or you get therapy for.” Eager to avoid any firm commitments, George hatches a plan to expose his girlfriend to unappealing Jews, like his wheezing, whiny butcher. The plan backfires when the butcher suddenly becomes a philosophy-spouting, chin-stroking rabbi figure in Claire’s presence, as opposed to the nasal-voiced neurotic who paid $100 to see Susan Boyle. But the premise remains: Finkleman makes every attempt to get the upper hand on a world out to screw him, and at least tries to screw it first.
If it wasn’t already clear by now, Finkleman’s alter ego is one bitter guy. He’s ambitious, narcissistic, arrogant and generally disgusted by the universe (and his girlfriend’s beloved five-by-six-foot painting of Neil Young). And he’s not afraid to show it. That’s what makes him so watchable. Ultimately, Good Dog proves that it doesn’t really matter who did what first. A second season of the show is already in the works. Maybe as the series moves forward, Finkleman’s myriad anxieties—about influence, inadequacy and the world at large—will recede. But probably not. They’re what make him George.
Premiered March 6, HBO Canada