Although many an article has begun over the years declaring "The one thing Canada does well is comedy!" the evidence of such comedy proficiency, at least in scripted form, is scarcer.
Sometimes even when English-Canadian sitcoms succeed, they can still lack the polish of American sitcoms with their bigger budgets. There are exceptions, like the critically acclaimed Less Than Kind, which is as polished as anything south of the 49th (though it perhaps leans toward being a comedy-drama).
Which brings us to the glossy-looking Satisfaction on CTV. An unapologetically American-style sitcom. If one were to come upon it channel surfing I doubt you'd think it "looked" Canadian. Sure, so far the hit to miss ratio of the gags may favour the misses, but it looks sleek.
If only it wasn't so darn misogynistic.
Ooh, got your attention, didn't I?
Pop culture is torn between two masters. The creative desire to challenge and the commercial need to placate. A lot of my blog posts have revisited this theme. I write about Canadian film and TV makers who won't set their stories in Canada. I write about the conspicuous preponderance of white faces in lead roles. Why do filmmakers do these things? Because it's safe and they claim it's what their audience expects.
All the regulars in Satisfaction are white. And though we can infer it's Canada, I'm not sure it explicitly indicates it isn't the U.S.
One of the leads, Leah Renee, plays a waitresses who, in the second episode, is forced to wear T-shirts at work with the slogan "ask me about my jugs" across her breasts. That's supposed to be funny. Equally supposed to be funny is that she finds it demeaning. You could see this as a criticism of sexism, except the message seems to be she should just ruefully endure it and even her friends and her boyfriend (Luke Macfarlane) happily patronize the pub.
I was probably sensitive to the plot because I'd recently been talking with a female acquaintance who had suffered a hostile work environment. I couldn't help picturing her sexist boss guffawing uproariously watching that episode.
The other plot in that episode involves Mark (Ryan Belleville) who has landed what to him is the perfect woman (guest star Natalie Lisinska) -- a sex partner who demands so little in terms of a relationship they barely know each other's names. Complications ensue when they start going on dates and meeting her friends. The humour is that once she expects more than just sex Mark starts losing his individuality.
Except, he doesn't really have anything else going for him. He's the quintessential sitcom protagonist, an arrested adolescent slacker -- he could be the younger brother of Harry from another Canadian sitcom, Seed. (Only in a sitcom conceived by a man would such a character land a woman like Lisinska in the first place!)
Societal pressure that people settle down and have 2.5 kids has led to a lot of bitter marriages. So, no, someone shouldn't endure a relationship just for the sake of being in a relationship. If it happens it happens, if it doesn't, buy a goldfish. But Satisfaction's message seems to be: run away from a relationship even if it crawls into bed with you.
So viewed one way, that episode of Satisfaction implies: women are spiritual death, and it's okay and even funny to sexually demean them.
Now, obviously, I'm making a philosophical mountain out of a comedic mole hill. Satisfaction isn't doing anything that a hundred other sitcoms haven't done -- even moreso. Look how popular the US series How I Met Your Mother is and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) is supposed to be a lovable rogue. But in reality he's a misogynist sociopath.
Yet the very conventionality of Satisfaction is my point. If it was atypical one might even applaud its quirky and wacky take on gender and relationships.
Whenever people analyze meaning in pop entertainment (and a lot of Huffington Post bloggers do that) usually the response is that the criticism is off-base and the commentator a humourless stick-in-the-mud. But that's usually coming from people who implicitly agree with whatever message is inherent in the program. It reminds me of stand up comics who make their living ridiculing others but scream censorship when someone criticizes them.
Pop entertainment should get us talking, thinking, and debating. The point isn't that the makers of a sitcom shouldn't tell the stories they want to tell -- but equally, we can ask just what those stories intend. Was Satisfaction satirizing the objectification of women, sensitizing the viewer to the issue -- or was it legitimizing exploitation by saying "it happens so just go with it, dude"? Are we laughing at Mark's aversion to commitment -- or are the viewers (particularly the men) nodding sagely and thinking he's dodged a bullet?
Only the individual viewer knows their own reaction.
Writers, directors, producers, actors -- all make narrative choices, reflecting points of view. Either their own, or the point of view they assume the audience expects. Defining what we accept as "normal" whether it be attitudes toward race, gender, or education (sitcom protagonists tend to hang out in bars, not museums).
Another plot in that Satisfaction episode involved unpaid interns, just at a time when some recent news pieces suggest people are questioning the ethics of that practice. But many film and TV productions use unpaid interns, putting the show's subliminal endorsement in an interesting light, don'tcha think?
Satisfaction didn't cross any lines. I suspect most people watching it -- male or female -- didn't think about any possible undercurrents. That's kind of my point. Just because we accept it as the norm, doesn't mean it's not worth asking why we accept it as the norm.
Satisfaction is telling the people it thinks will be watching what it wants then to hear -- or what it thinks they expect to hear. Reinforcing their beliefs -- and the status quo.
But is that all entertainment should aspire to do?