Is Strange Empire good enough to save the CBC?

Is Strange Empire good enough to save the CBC?

The CBC’s new feminist western is as gripping and gritty as any premium cable drama. But can it help reverse the beleaguered broadcaster’s fortunes?

The Argument: The Final Frontier
Melissa Farman as the unlikely doctor, Tattiawna Jones as the enterprising madam, Cara Gee as the Métis sharpshooter and Aaron Poole as the murderous pimp (Image: courtesy of the CBC)

The new series Strange Empire is a richly produced western set in 1869 on the unkempt Alberta terrain. It kicks off with a dark, propulsive premise: when the men in a small frontier camp are mysteriously slaughtered, their once-helpless wives and daughters are forced to buck up and take control. Every shot is a swirl of artfully dusty browns and tans, every costume and set piece a bedraggled beauty. The plots are full of brothels, sex and violence. The show bears every trademark of a premium cable drama, with morally ambiguous characters and an irreverent point of view. The strangest thing about Strange Empire? It’s on the CBC.

And it arrives at a pivotal moment for the public broadcaster. Last year, the CBC lost Hockey Night in Canada after the NHL negotiated a $5.2-billion deal with Rogers that awarded the telecom giant exclusive national and digital rights. Not only had HNIC been a ratings titan, attracting an average of 1.7 million ­viewers per game, but it also regularly brought in $200 million worth of ads—up to half of the CBC’s annual revenue. To compensate, the network was forced to slash more than 650 jobs and $130 million from its budgets. Even before the loss of HNIC, the CBC’s ratings were slipping: in 2012, viewership plummeted by more than 40 per cent. The situation is so dire that in September, a team of CBC executives told the CRTC that the network could no longer afford to be free. Jean-Pierre Blais, the regulator’s chairman, volleyed back a challenge: would ­Canadians, many of whom see access to the CBC as a constitutional right, ever be willing to pay for the public broadcaster?

Right now, the answer is a resounding no—not because Canadians feel unduly entitled to free CBC, as Blais suggests, but because the network has rarely produced content worth paying for. Its lineups are a relic of an era where most households owned a single TV set rather than a suite of personalized screens. The blanket programming directive on every network was to appease as many age, wealth and regional brackets as possible. The CBC, in thrall to taxpayers and its own conservatism, has continued to produce pleasantly geriatric titles like Heartland, a simpering drama about horse whispering, and Murdoch Mysteries, a tea-and-crumpets detective procedural set in Victorian Toronto. These shows are blandly sweet and innocuous, but have never hit critical mass—they’re background TV, not appointment TV.

Today’s audiences have been spoiled by Shakespearean dramas like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, shows that have spawned an online water cooler culture, where viewers live-tweet and hashtag shows while they’re watching. The so-called second-screen market will be worth up to $255 billion by 2017, as brands pull their ad dollars out of networks and pour them into promoted tweets, banners and videos on social media sites and streaming apps.

In its desperate throes, the CBC is trying to cash in on the buzz machine—and with Strange Empire, they’re finally targeting those sophisticated new viewers. The series comes from Laurie Finstad Knizhnik, the showrunner whose smart, disturbing murder mystery Durham County aired on the Movie Network from 2007 to 2010, outpacing the TV serial killer trend by three years. Last year, she began developing Strange Empire with Jeff Sagansky, a former executive at CBS and Sony Entertainment, and one of the suits responsible for The Cosby Show, Cheers and St. Elsewhere.

Sagansky suggested they pitch their western to the CBC, but Finstad Knizhnik wasn’t sure the network’s safe, sanitized lineup was the right fit. “I try to write realistically, to use the drama in the best possible way to serve the idea. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to represent the violence and sexuality,” she explains. She agreed to give it a try anyway. It turns out the CBC brass loved the idea—and they were willing to take the risks necessary to realize her moody, sometimes graphic vision. They approved every controversial detail. “I don’t feel constrained at all,” she says. “I would be perfectly happy to submit any of these scripts to a premium cable network.” The CBC has also signed off on two more cinematic cable-style dramas: Camp X, a spy thriller shooting in ­Budapest, and an adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes, which will air in January.

Strange Empire is set on the border between Alberta and Montana, an area that travelling settlers called Whoop-Up Country for its illicit whiskey market. In 1869, it was less a physical boundary than a political contrivance, a fuzzy division that existed only on maps. The region was lawless, unprotected by any police force or political institution. The RCMP wouldn’t be formed for another 35 years, and the white frontierspeople, Métis and Blackfoot tribes stoked a violent atmosphere of racial and colonial strain. Finstad ­Knizhnik immersed herself in diaries, letters and histories of the period to navigate the knotty relationships between competing factions. She’s out to spin a Canadian myth, documenting a hostility between ­Aboriginal people and Europeans that feels both primitive and disarmingly modern.

She’s also hoping to reinvent a genre. The last time the Gunsmoke-style western got a makeover was in 2004, when the gleefully profane David Milch drama Deadwood premiered on HBO. Just as that series was a product of its time—a ­testosterone-jacked tableau of amoral anti-heroes—Strange Empire typifies its own TV landscape, one dominated by gutsy women and complex female friendships. Finstad Knizhnik applies that trend to the old-fashioned western, excising the macho cowboys and ranchers and empowering female characters—women of colour, no less—to take on new agency. She’s positioned them as entrepreneurs, leaders and warriors who must balance self-defence with moral responsibility in an environment without male protection. In a way, the show has more in common with Orange Is the New Black than Deadwood, trapping its women in an isolated feminist dystopia where they have to create their own power ­hierarchies and alliances. By commissioning the series, the CBC has made an audacious statement: that Canadian television can have as much cultural cachet and artistic merit as our literature and music.

They just need to convince the viewers. At the CRTC hearings last September, the CBC begged the regulator to turn off their free signals so they could charge distributors like Rogers and Bell for including CBC in basic cable packages—a cost that would inevitably trickle down to cable subscribers. To Canadians, the idea of paying for a public broadcaster sounds ludicrous, but it’s not so radical an idea. We’re used to paying for good content, whether on premium cable, Netflix or Amazon Prime. In countries like Denmark and the U.K., anyone who owns a television set pays the government a licensing fee that provides their public broadcasters with a healthy piggy bank for quality programming. In return, Denmark’s DR and the U.K.’s BBC are providing their viewers with some of the finest series on the planet—on DR, the political drama Borgen and the original iteration of The Killing; on the BBC, critically beloved series like Sherlock, Doctor Who and The Fall. These countries—and their audiences—have invested in television as a cultural institution; their shows make for terrific entertainment, but they’re also national monuments, works of art that say something about the country’s character, history and future. Strange Empire is operating with the same mission statement. Maybe, if it succeeds, the CBC will finally be a network worth paying for.

Strange Empire
Mondays at 9 p.m.