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The difference between good, great and magnificent TV

There's a difference between good TV and great TV. Oh yes there is. And then there's an entirely different level of television.

Last Thursday's epistle, asserting the complete creative failure of Canadian TV at that highest level, stirred up a wee fuss in the Canadian TV racket. Under the headline "Where is Canada in the golden age of TV?" the column declared that while there is now a long list of profoundly good TV – all those great series that have aired between the debut of The Sopranos and the series finale of Breaking Bad – Canada has contributed little or nothing to this area of excellence.

The response was interesting and intense. A reader suggested that CBC's cancellation of Intelligence was the cultural equivalent of killing the Avro Arrow program in 1958. A fair point. It underlines that CBC's dereliction of duty in airing quality, challenging TV had changed the landscape here, for worse and possibly forever. In other responses, blame was laid at the feet of Canadian TV execs, a point already made in the column.

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Two shows were cited often in replies that contradicted my assertion: Durham County and Orphan Black. First let's deal with the latter. Orphan Black is a great show. Love it, seen every episode. Smart and entertaining and depending very much on an astonishing performance from Tatiana Maslany, who plays multiple characters. Everyone involved deserves praise. But for all its merits, Orphan Black hardly belongs in the canon of this Golden Age of TV.

Durham County, from 2007, written by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, directed by Adrienne Mitchell and Holly Dale, and executive produced by Janis Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell, was superb TV, often scintillating in its first season, a disturbing thriller full of finely tuned, adult melancholy. In part it succeeded thanks to a predominantly female perspective on male rage and hurt. Its second and third seasons mea-ndered, but I'll grant that season one of Durham County was at the level of the best of this Golden Age.

Slings and Arrows was cited too. In its three seasons, the black and often daft comedy/satire was immensely clever, lively and literate. But its setting, at a Stratford-like theatre festival, limited its worldview and scope. A truly fine Canadian series, but not at the level that the best TV dramas have achieved in the last 15 years.

Long-form TV drama is the most significant storytelling form of our time. The most magnificent examples transcend mere storytelling or entertainment. They reach for and grasp sociological importance and psychological depth.

We're not doing that in Canada. We make good, sometimes great TV here. No matter where the blame is laid, the fact is we're not making magnificent TV here. In this Golden Age, we're losing out.

Airing tonight

Crossing Lines (CBC, 8 p.m.) is a short-run international crime drama series that aired this past summer on NBC. Some Canadian involvement in making it merits a CBC airing, one assumes. And Donald Sutherland is in it. The gist is this: Top cops, profilers and investigators from across the euro zone pursue various no-goodniks around Europe. Culture clashes and grisly crimes. It's so-so, a tasty not brilliant euro pudding.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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