French-Canadian TV Makes Hit Shows

Can French-Canadian TV save English-Canadian TV? Producer Moses ZNAIMER thinks it can - if not much gets changed except the language.

The show Rumours, which premieres on the CBC this fall, is an adaptation of a show that's been running on Quebec TV since 2002: Rumeurs, a half-hour comedy about people who work at a gossip magazine. Actually, it's more than an adaptation; it's almost an exact copy. Rumours uses the same scripts as Rumeurs - translated into English - the same behind-the-scenes crew, and the same sets. The producer of Rumeurs, Jocelyn Dechênes, is working on the English-language version too. Only the cast is different.

It's no secret that Quebec has a more vibrant entertainment industry than the rest of Canada; French-Canadian TV has the hit shows and star system that its anglophone counterpart has never been able to beat. So, Znaimer reasoned, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em: take the French-Canadian material and bring it to English-Canadian audiences. "It's next door," he says. "We're sitting next door and we're not using it. So I'm using it."

Actress Sadie LeBlanc, one of the regulars on Rumours, points out an additional advantage of adapting a pre-existing series: the story arcs have already been plotted out, so the actors know exactly how their characters will develop, and they can use that advance knowledge to inform their portrayals. "It's cool that we know what happens by our fourth or fifth year," she says.

But Greg Daniels, who developed the successful American remake of the British show The Office, cautions that it's important for the characters in a remake to grow organically, and not copy what happened in the original: "[We] learned a lot about the cast during the shoot and about the tone during the editing procedure," he explains. "The laughs came from real acting on the part of our cast, not imitating another cast's work."

An exact remake of a show can sometimes work: The Upper Hand, a British remake of Who's the Boss?, managed a six-year run while using the same scripts as its American predecessor. But the American version of the British show Coupling mostly used scripts from the original, and it bombed. When Daniels adapted The Office, he used only one script from the British version - the pilot - and created all-new scripts for subsequent episodes. Daniels feels that in remaking a show for a different culture, it's important to establish a unique style; too many remakes, he says, have the problem of "imitating the end result without taking it apart down to its pieces and building it back for yourself."

Znaimer is taking Dechênes's winning formula and counting on it to work nationwide. And he doesn't buy the idea that Quebec shows are culturally alien to the rest of Canada. "They're North American," he says of Quebecers, "so they share a common culture with us." The themes of Rumours, he continues, are universal: "Everyone's looking for love, everyone wants to make money, and everyone's looking to get laid."

But even with a universal theme, can a show that works in Quebec work just as easily in English Canada? Guy Fournier, chairman of the board of directors for the CBC, has argued that the key to the success of Quebec's TV industry is the fact that Quebec produces a lot of shows, which has allowed actors to become familiar to Quebec audiences. English-Canadian actors don't have that kind of familiarity, and Rumours may not change that. The star of Rumeurs, James Hyndman, had worked for years in Quebec; but the star of Rumours, David Haydn-Jones, has done his best-known work in episodes of American TV shows - another Canadian actor who had to go to the U.S. to get jobs. Rumeurs was a testament to the strength of the Quebec star system; Rumours simply reinforces that the rest of Canada doesn't have a star system.

But Znaimer is confident that Rumours will be successful enough to clear the way for other adaptations. "This is just the first of a number of properties," he says. The next project will be an adaptation of another Dechênes show, Vice Caché, a soapy hour-long drama that Znaimer likes to describe as "Desperate Househusbands."

For her part, LeBlanc is certain that remaking a French-Canadian show will have good results: "It can only get better with time and age, and banging it out for a second time - how could it not be better?"

It could be the biggest thing since the British remake of Who's the Boss?

Maclean's July 31, 2006