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What’s up with Canada’s Coronation Street obsession?

One of the most significant changes in the Canadian TV landscape begins unfolding today. Coronation Street is back to 30-minute episodes (CBC, 6:30 p.m.). Yes, daily on weeknights. On Monday, Sept. 17, Coronation Street moves to 7:30 p.m., following George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight at 7 p.m. No more Wheel of Fortune. No more Jeopardy! But just Corrie.

It's significant for several reasons. CBC will probably take a beating in the ratings in the pre-prime time hours without the two American game shows. That makes it more difficult to attract viewers to its 8 p.m. series and beyond. Thus a lot depends on Coronation Street. It's the building block for CBC's weekday schedule. It might work and one can't blame CBC for sticking with Corrie. Earlier this summer, on a Sunday, CBC ran one of its Coronation Street marathons in the morning hours, which had 320,000 viewers. On a weeknight it draws about 700,000 viewers. And Corrie fans will be delighted to know that soon the show will only be a couple of weeks behind the new episodes airing in Britain.

But here's the thing – Coronation Street is a cult show. Frankly, I don't think that most of the people who watch it are interested in any other TV show. They are addicted, junkies hooked on this one show and nothing else matters.

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Tonight's events on the show are summarized as this: "Tommy goes on the hunt for Kirsty. Rob takes action to woo Stella. Owen apologies to Anna." Tomorrow this is what happens, "Tyrone gets unwittingly roped into Dev's big date. Katy starts her surrogacy journey. Sally and Kevin reminisce about their early years at No 13." I have no idea what any of this means. A cursory search for info about big storylines on Coronation Street led me to conclude that the main shenanigans involve a tramp named Sunita having a thing with a chap named Karl. If I have it straight, there's also much ado about Tyrone, a nice bloke, and his girlfriend Kirsty, who is a "bossy copper." If I've got it wrong, there's no need to write and fill me in. I. Don't. Care.

Why so many Canadians do care so deeply about Coronation Street is a question as old and as tedious as, "whither Quebec?" A couple of years ago CBC aired a special which featured Debbie Travis trying to discover why so many people here are devoted to it. There was no plausible explanation.

Fans tend to talk about "believable characters" and "real people in real situations." With respect, this is nonsense. Coronation Street is not realistic. For all the craft that is obvious in the continuing and intertwining storylines, it is tin-pot television, ludicrously melodramatic, mannered and corny. Sure, it's true that many of the actors look like regular British people and bear little resemblance to the cookie-cutter handsomeness one sees on U.S. network TV. There was a time when Corrie was groundbreaking in its depiction of working class life, especially in its portrayal of strong women, but those days are long gone.

Corrie is common or garden escapism. Part of its appeal in Canada is rooted in the peculiar mix of the familiar and the exotic that it offers. We are colonially familiar with much of Brutish culture and, simultaneously, the texture of that culture is not ours. Thus when Canadians look at the show, they see something at once known and foreign. And watching it here is a ritual that has little to do with the show's quality as TV drama. It's a habit, a routine that is comforting because it brings entry into a familiar world that isn't ours.

There is no point in trying to explain further, to intellectualize the appeal of Corrie. Any evaluation of the show, by anyone except a fan, is bound to find it lacking. To anyone except a fan, there is nothing there.

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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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