The CBC has made an exciting new TV show. It’s violent, it’s dark, stars three badass women and deals with topics of sexual abuse, racial prejudice, mental health, the history of gender inequality, and our country’s tradition of ignoring cultural genocide. I understand it’s strange to read, but everything I just wrote is true. It’s on the CBC.
Strange Empire is like nothing that you’ve ever seen from the public broadcaster, and a move that’s perfectly designed to make the struggling network more competitive with some of the majors. An historical drama set in 1869 at the Alberta-Montana border, the new show from creator Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik (Durham County) is a western that promises to shed light on a major blind spot in popular culture: the female experience in Canada’s old west.
“Honestly, I was skeptical at first, myself.” the creator told our Film and Arts Editor, Andrew Parker, in a separate interview. “I really expected that I would have had to go to cable or someplace like that to get something made and get it made in the way that I wanted to make it. But CBC turned out to be really supportive, and it helps that [the people in charge of] creating dramas for them are now artists and not just executives. They really understand what we’re doing, and I’m grateful for that.
High production value, sharp writing and a trainload of portentous tone brings cast members Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, Tattiawna Jones and Aaron Poole into conflict as their characters strive to achieve something close to civilization along the 49th parallel (otherwise known as Rupert’s Land). Exiting during a time of Westward expansion where towns didn’t really exist yet, the settlement was a lawless land made up from people who were looking for better opportunities than the east could provide.
Native genocide, the treatment of women and the racial prejudices of the time are all being dealt with in directly Strange Empire, and these topics are being addressed with style, panache, sex and violence normally reserved for late night viewing in the US, not necessarily prime time Canadian dramas. Which isn’t to say that Strange Empire feels American. A major strength of the show is that you can’t take Canada or it’s tricky sense of history out of the equation.
Strange Empire feels like a mix of Penny Dreadful, Deadwood and that Heritage Minute where Louis Riel gets hanged. After being introduced to the cast and creatives behind CBC’s most exciting show of the Fall ( and possibly ever) at a press launch for the show, I realized is that this might be the Canadian drama I have longed for my entire life: a period drama that gives me a chance to nerd out about Canada’s fucked up history.
Already I can hear you saying, “Wait. CBC? As in the Canadian Broadcasting Company? As in the people that brought us The Best Laid Plans and Murdoch Mysteries? That CBC?”
I know, I’m surprised too. As a TV dork, the letters CBC generally conjure up memories of hockey games, George Stroumboulopoulos and The Red Green Show. The last thing that I ever expected to say about the company is “I’m really excited about their edgy new drama.”
The small miracle of Strange Empire’s potential cool factor is not lost on the minds behind its existence. During the Strange Empire preview Q&A, Finstad-Knizhnik described what brought her, a writer with a very strong vision of the story she wants to tell, to the CBC.
“It’s been really good,” she said, “because they have wanted to go out on a limb and I really want to tell the stories that I want to tell. I’m perfectly happy to sit down and write a novel. I’m not going to make a television show I don’t want to make.”
CBC is also aware of its reputation for staying away from controversial material, but Strange Empire is apparently the first in a line of dramas it wants to use to break that trend.
“We do have boundaries as a broadcaster,” added Helen Asimakis, CBC’s senior director of drama, “but we’re trying to allow Laurie to go just a little bit beyond our comfort zone. We’re taking new risks.”
Representation is the easy Canadian identifier when you first look at Strange Empire. Three women of black, white (who is also brilliant and autistic), and metis heritage make up the primary characters who act as a lens for exploring the era, a problematic genre when it comes to gender stereotyping, and a pethora of things our nation’s not so proud of.
Jones plays Isabelle Slotter, based somewhat on historical figure, politician, and spin doctor Victoria Woodhall. Isabelle has a background in grifting and uses spiritualism as a way to navigate her white male dominated world while acquiring her.
Isabelle’s husband, Jon Slotter, played by Aaron Poole is a railroad heir, who wears the black hat, having to carry the burden of representing male oppression of the era. That said, many promises have been made that, true to modern drama conventions, no charcater is simply evil on Strange Empire.
“I think that you’re going to want to give the show at least five episodes before you formulate any thoughts about where these characters might be headed.” Poole said. “They start off in one place and then through time and circumstance, that will change to a great degree.”
Farman is Dr. Rebecca Blithely is an autistic woman from Quebec who doesn’t understand social cues and embodies Victorian womanhood within the show. She was rescued from her childhood sanitarium by her adopted father and used as an experiment to corroborate the controversial theory of female ability.
Cara Gee plays Kat Loving, a Metis woman forced to hit the road after shooting a government surveyor sent by Prime Minister MacDonald. When describing the darkness inside of Kat Loving, Finstad-Knizhnik was overtaken with tears. It’s through Gee’s character that Strange Empire is going to get into the history of how Canadian aboriginal peoples were treated.
“It’s kind of the role I was born to play,” said Gee, whose face adorns most of the cryptic billboards and posters that promote the film on city streets. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more honoured and humbled to play a role like this, but it’s also a ton of fun to play a badass.”
Lest I paint too dark a picture of Strange Empire, it’s worth noting that the characters exist in a world of revisionist genre storytelling. There will be horseback riding, there will be gunslinging, there will be iron, and eventually as the story unfolds, elements of magic realism will start to creep in. Strange Empire will be controversial, it will be diverse and it will be of such high caliber that you probably won’t believe the watermark on the bottom of your screen telling you to #FallForCBC.
But we’ve had westerns before, and that’s why the most exciting thing about Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik’s new TV series. It will finally give audiences a reason to geek out about Canadian television.