If you’re anything like me, you’re only real knowledge of Canadians growing up was Dudley Do-Right. But looking back on it, it’s amazing how many Canadians infused my childhood TV-watching experience – and how many continue to do so today. I mean, just look at some of the Canadian actors who’ve made it big on television: Michael J. Fox, Joshua Jackson, Anna Paquin, Kim Cattrall, Matthew Perry, Evangeline Lilly, Eric McCormack, Nathan Fillion, Ellen Page, Will Arnett, etc. That’s a lot of famous Canucks! So in honor of Canada Day, let’s take some time to celebrate the Top 5 Canadian Moments in Television! (Sorry Dave Coulier – you didn’t make the cut).
5. You Can’t Do That On Television
If you still duck a little when you say “I don’t know” for fear of being slimed, then you’re with me on this: You Can’t Do That On Television was the best! The show first premiered on Canadian TV back in 1979. But it wasn’t until 1981 that America discovered it, airing on Nickelodeon as the network’s first breakout hit. The premise was simple: a half-hour comedy sketch show centered around a common theme (“Choices,” “Dating,” “Popularity,” etc), starring a rotating cast of unknown pre-teen actors (see: a baby-faced Alanis Morissette!) and two mainstay adults (the amazing Les Lye and Abby Hagyard), The comedy was mostly slapstick (remember Barth, who’s sole role was to scream “IIIIIIII heard that” and then smack someone over the head with a frying pan?). There was also the aforementioned sketch of getting slimed every time you said “I don’t know,” or water poured over your head every time you said ‘Water.” But my favorite skit each week, hands down, was the locker sequence. I was totally fascinated with it (which locker will they come out of next!?!). I also had major crush on Christine “Moose” McGlade, who looked like a cross between a young Shannen Doherty and Three’s Company-aged Joyce DeWitt. Hubba hubba.
YCDTOT lasted in new episodes until 1990, and reruns until 1994. Nickelodeon attached themselves so closely with the show that the green slime became part of the network’s signature branding. Even today, celebrities still get slimed when they say “I don’t know” at The Teen Choice Awards – though no mention of YCDTOT is ever made. If only Barth where still alive to smack some sense into them.
4. THE KIDS IN THE HALL
Right around the same time kids were getting slimed on YCDTOT, another group of Canadian kids came to television with their own brand of sketch comedy. The Kids in the Hall was yet another sketch comedy show, but this time for a more adult audience. The group was made up of Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and Scott Thompson, all hysterical apart and brilliant together. The show aired on Canadian TV from 1988-1994, and hit HBO in the states from 1989-1995, where it was welcomed with critical praise and tepid commercial success. Still, The Kids in the Hall stood out by pushing the envelope in just about every sketch. They were sort of the edgier SNL (see: season 1’s controversial “Dr. Seuss Bible”). Over the years, the show has maintained a strong cult following, mainly due to its recurring sketches and characters. Fran and Gordon. The King of Empty Promises. Cabbage Head. 30 Helens Agree. Buddy Cole. Gavin. And my personal favorite, Dave Foley as The Axe Murderer. I never caught these characters on their first run, but have learned to love the show on DVD. You should do the same!
3. ROBIN SPARKLES’ “LET’S GO TO THE MALL”
When Barney set out to uncover the secret reason Robin hated malls on Season 2, Episode 9 of How I Met Your Mother, I’d wager a whole lot of money that no one saw that coming. In a true “I can’t believe they’re doing this” moment, HIMYM revealed Robin’s big secret: she was a teenage pop star in Canada named Robin Sparkles, who toured malls with her one minor hit, “Let’s Go to the Mall.” It’s like the writers were talking directly to the kids of the 80s – calling back to a time when Tiffany ruled the charts, and Saved by the Bell was essential Saturday morning viewing (okay, so that was in the 90s, but as Robin herself said, “The 80s didn’t come to Canada until 1993”). Of course, fans of the show know that “Let’s Go to the Mall” wasn’t the last time we saw Robin Sparkles. She showed up again in season 3, with the revelation that Ms. Sparkles had a filed follow-up single: a soft-love ballad called “Sandcastles in the Sand.” Oh, and again in season 6, when we caught the Canadian TV show “Space Teens” from which Robin Sparkles was born (what’s up Alan Thicke cameo!). But the true greatness is really in that original “Let’s Go to the Mall” video. From the references to Wayne Gretzky, the “cameo” by Prime Minter Brian Mulroney, and the shout out to Canada Day (hey hey!), the video has all the makings of a Canadian classic. I liked it so much, I bought the damn t-shirt.
What is it about those Canadians and their sketch comedy shows? Must be their great sense of humour (see what I did there?). Regardless, no list of the greatest Canadian TV moments would be complete without mentioning SCTV – the groundbreaking comedy show from Toronto’s Second City troupe that ran between 1976 and 1984. The show centered around an independent TV station called “SCTV,” located in the made-up American city of Melonville. Each episode presented a sampling of the station’s programming (my favorite being the dramatic soap opera, “Days of the Week”), with a few made up commercials spliced in for fun. Every now and again, we’d get a view of life behind the scenes at the fictional SCTV – providing a narrative thread unseen in sketchy comedy shows (thinks 30 Rock if we actually saw TGS sketches.). But the real fun was in the sketches themselves. The format allowed for a lot of creativity in parody (previews of shows that never aired, a full episode centered on the fictional People’s Global Golden Choice Awards, etc). Oh, and did I mention the cast? John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty, Robin Duke, and Tony Rosato. Yeah. Ridiculously talented.
The US got SCTV when NBC aired it’s fourth season in 1981. It ran as a 90-minute show on NBC for two seasons, through 1983, and then as a 45-minute show on Cinemax for it’s sixth and final season. It would later lead to another cult-spinoff: Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you’ve never seen SCTV, I’d Netflix those DVDs – stat.
I’m sure I’m going to get some flack for placing the Degrassi franchise at the top of my list, but let me ask you this: what other Canadian TV franchise has permeated American culture more than Degrassi? Starting with The Kids of Degrassi Street (1979-1986), Degrassi: Junior High (1987-1989), and Degrassi High (1989-1991), and going to the still-running Degrassi: The Next Generation (which started in 2001 and now just goes by Degrassi), I can’t possibly imagine anything topping it. If you haven’t seen the show (which would be hard since it’s basically been on for over 30 years), you shouldn’t be confused by the premise: the show follows the lives of a group of students attending a school named Degrassi. Degrassi: Junior High and Degrassi High followed the same core group of kids – one which was a girl named Spike, who got pregnant and decided to keep the baby. Degrassi: the Next Generation picks up when Spike’s daughter Emma, now 13 or so, is entering Degrassi school. Old friends from the original series came back (Snake! Joey! Caitlin!), while we were introduced to a whole new gang (Manny! J.T.! Toby?).
What makes the franchise stand out from the typical high school life usually portrayed on television, however, is that Degrassi. Gets. Real. The cast is made up of undiscovered actors playing parts their own age – the kind of kids you wouldn’t see on 90210 or Gossip Girl. They deal with serious issues and serious consequences – everything from substance use, child abuse, sexual abuse, and suicide, to eating disorders, homophobia, racism, and abortion – in a mature way that you wouldn’t see on Dawson’s Creek or Pretty Little Liars. (Seriously, everything. Recent plotlines included LARPing, sexting, hoarding, and Degrassi High’s first transgendered student.) It’s basically real life, only in 30-minute chunks.
Plenty of well-known folks have come out of the Degrassi school – the most notably rap-star Drake, who played the basketball star (and eventual wheelchair-bound shooting-victim) Jimmy Brooks. There’s also Vampire Diaries star Nina Dobrev (who played the single-mom model, Mia) and 90210 star Shanae Grimes (who played the Jesus-loving roofie-victim, Darcy).
But the power of the Degrassi franchise isn’t in it’s celebrity actors. It’s in the impact it’s had on an entire generation of kids. For those of us who watched Degrassi: Junior High and Degrassi; High as kids on PBS, having exposure to that sort of real storytelling was invaluable. Sure, was it cheesy at times? Yes. (It still is, by the way. That LARPing episode was ridiculous.) But ultimately, it helped us grown by showing us the truth – free from all that usual TV melodramatic nonsense. And for those of us still watching Degrassi: The Next Generation on TeenNick (new episodes premiere July 18, ps), then you’ll know that no matter how hard anything can be in life, you can make it through. Whatever it takes, eh?