Monday, February 15, 2016

Mediocre "Letterkenny" headlines a frustrating experience with Crave TV

The cast of the new Crave TV comedy "Letterkenny".
Photo Credit: Bell Media
(A caveat: I feel the need to preface this anytime I write about a Canadian series, particularly one about which I have a negative opinion : I do not begrudge any Canadian television show for being made; in fact its existence in at least one aspect makes me happy. More Canadian television needs to be produced outside of the CBC. I don't care right now if the programming is not top notch. I'm just happy someone is putting in the time, money, and resources to make it exist at all. More please, and stat.)

It was around last Christmas when my brother asked me something to the effect of, "so I guess Shomi is the new Rogers thing now?" I really had no idea what he was talking about - somehow I had missed being inundated with television commercials for Rogers and Shaw's joint streaming video venture that had launched a month prior. It didn't help that my mother seemed convinced that Shomi was actually a rebrand of the Rogers On Demand service (it isn't, though Rogers sure did a good job of burying their VOD platform in service of Shomi).

Before long though, commercials for Shomi and it's competitor, the Bell-owned Crave TV, popped up everywhere and it became all too easy for me to compare and contrast the services even without actually subscribing to them. Crave offered a deeper program catalogue even before signing deals for the HBO and Showtime libraries, for less than half the cost of Shomi, whose commercials seemed to always feature the same five popular series in every single commercial (i.e., the only ones they had streaming rights to). Neither service seemed "necessary," even as I recognized that I was basically spouting the Canadian version of, "but I already have Netflix, why do I need to subscribe to Amazon?". But they seemed harmless, and if the existing daily schedules of Bell's network and cable channels was deemed insufficient as an on-demand "Big Bang Theory" delivery system, Canadians were welcome to pay $4 a month for their hit.

That is...until Shomi started airing ads touting themselves as the exclusive Canadian home of CW programming like "Jane the Virgin" and "iZombie". Now leaving aside the ridiculousness of that concept given our household has at least three CW affiliates in its existing Rogers cable package, I was irritated that shows available on over-the-air broadcast television in the United States were trying to be sold to Canucks as part of a $9 per month SVOD service. It brought back PTSD from the days when the obscure Canadian premium cable multiplex Superchannel held hostage some of the most popular American basic cable shows, namely FX's "Sons of Anarchy" and TNT's "Rizzoli and Isles".  If Canadian television was going to insist on coughing up a bastardized experience of watching American television rather than produce original content, all I was asking for was 1:1 distribution and release dates on programming. A TNT drama should air on a Bravo or Showcase, not The Movie Network or Superchannel. "Transparent" rights were sold to Shomi and I didn't think twice about it - streaming to streaming is fine by me. It reminded me of what is allegedly one of the CRTC's rules about simultaneous substitution: that Canadian feeds replacing American ones must be of equal or better quality than the original American feed. Canadians should not have to pay more for their entertainment just because someone arbitrarily decided that we would.

It only annoyed me further when Crave TV decided certain shows that Bell Media had acquired the rights to would become exclusive to the service, in the same way that Yahoo Screen renewed "Community" to try to get people to be aware of the existence of Yahoo Screen. Crave's hilariously misguided first foray into this sort of exclusivity was the Showtime dud "Happy-ish," which was so dull, tired, unlikeable, unfunny, and so threatened to be a black mark on the resume of Philip Seymour Hoffman that it couldn't even make it to the second season that 99.9% of all premium cable shows that don't kill horses for the sake of realism are awarded.

Given that TMN had firmly established itself as Showtime Canada anyway by airing just about every Showtime original series ever made up to that point (side note: how Superchannel managed to snatch the legitimately zeitgeisty-for-fifteen-minutes "Homeland" away from them is mind-boggling), it seemed like a bizarre way to annoy the handful of existing TMN and HBO Canada Subscribers who just wanted to watch Steve Coogan be the most boring sad white British man of all time. Crave now seems to be trying a modified version of this with "Billions," another Showtime property that is at least still getting linear broadcasts on the primary Movie Network channel in its Sunday 10pm timeslot - but whose episodes Crave is making available to subscribers the next day, perhaps as a way to encourage binge-watching. I've heard virtually nothing about "Billions" since it premiered save for a piece Emily Nussbaum wrote for The New Yorker today comparing it favourably to HBO's new 70s rock drama "Vinyl," so it remains to be seen if Crave will get any visible bump from this.

It was around the time of the "Happy-ish" debacle, however, that Crave announced their first actual original series, and the first scripted series produced for a Canadian SVOD service: an adaptation of "Letterkenny Problems," a series of web shorts produced by Canadian actor Jared Keeso satirizing the small town hick life he experienced first hand growing up in Listowel, Ontario. The half-hour Crave series, simply "Letterkenny," was green-lit for six episodes with much of the cast reprising their roles, and the entire first season premiered on Super Bowl Sunday (February 7).

While Bell promoted "Letterkenny" in ample fashion, I'm not sure any of their advertising was very effective. Every ad I saw for the show featured entirely different characters in what appeared to be vignettes free of any context (turns out they are scenes taken directly from the series). I had no idea what the show was actually about, being unfamiliar with the web shorts, and nobody I asked seemed quite sure either - my dad was aware it was a satire of small-town Ontario life based on the creator's upbringing in Listowel, surely something he had read in the newspaper, but I had also gotten misinformation that "Letterkenny" was a sketch show.

The clipped nature of the show, and the fact that some subsets of characters basically exist in their own confined universe, sure make it seem like a sketch show at times, but "Letterkenny" unwisely formats itself as a narrative sitcom largely focusing on farmers Wayne (Keeso, probably better known to Canadians as the star or Bravo's English-language adaption of the French-Canadian police drama "19-2") and Darryl (Nathan Dales, whose face you will recognize if you watch any of the American sci-fi shows that film in Vancouver for the tax breaks). Supporting characters include Wayne and Darryl's bar companions, a pair of dudebro hockey players, local churchgoers, and some weird goth teens known as "skids".

It was abundantly clear after watching just the first episode that "Letterkenny" was without a question a show that was going to be for "somebody". Small-town Ontarians are going to see themselves in this show and laugh at it, hence the success of the web series. It just so happens that I am not one of those people, however, and thus "Letterkenny" is pitched at a frequency a little too high for me to really understand. Sure, I understand what's supposed to be funny in this - the monotonous dialogue and the mildly unsettling "whatever happened to real men" type of jokes (in one of the show's "Letterkenny Problems" sequences that comprised the web series, Wayne describes a scenario where he's sharing a tent with a friend named George who decided that's the right time to tell him he wants to be called "Geo" from now on). It just doesn't happen to be funny to me.

But regardless of that, there is a lot of laziness and sloppiness abounding in this, even for a show priding itself on being authentically crass. The first episode alone contains about two dozen uses of the word "fuck" and most of the time, the use of the word seems to be the sole joke of that particular line of dialogue. There's no letup to the language at all in the five episodes to follow, and eventually the swearing for the sake of comedy becomes the show's white noise, leaving it devoid of humour.

Lowbrow writing carries into the third episode, the worst of the six and not coincidentally the longest of them at an excruciating 29 minutes, which is just one big fart joke with some references to "The Social Network" mixed in. Even as someone who loves that movie and was amused to recognize how spot on some of the line readings "Letterkenny" takes from the film are, it wasn't enough to save an episode too childish for its own good that really just droned on and on and on, with even the show's main character calling attention to how stupid and pointless everything happening was. And by the way, Keeso gets no points for allowing himself to say that on screen because the episode still happened.

Perhaps most tragically, "Letterkenny" is at its funniest in short, two-minute post-credit sequences that have nothing to do with the 20-25 minutes that precede them. From a rapid-fire web-series style delivery of "Letterkenny problems" including a very funny joke about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the hockey dudebros' audition tape for "The Amazing Race," they constitute two of the only three times I can recall laughing at jokes in the show. And therein lies the problem for this show: it exists in the grey area between the kind of bad show that is offensive and painful and you wish would die (this is in no way that) and the kind of show that is innocuous and harmless but you're not sure why anyone bothered. I know exactly why people bothered to make "Letterkenny," but Keeso and co. needed a much clearer vision of who these characters were and what they would look like in a long-form narrative before expanding it from some silly little web shorts.

So yeah, "Letterkenny" is not an especially funny show, and it troubles me to think that a not insignificant percentage of its audience will be upscale, urban Canadians who have $8 a month to throw at a SVOD service that isn't Netflix that will be laughing at the hicks rather than with him. And I can also say with certainty that "Letterkenny" was not a show worth the hassle of subscribing to Crave TV. I signed up for my free month shortly after midnight last night looking forward to finally figuring out what the hell the show was about, only to try to stream the first episode and have nothing happen. Between Safari, Chrome, and Firefox I could not get any episode of anything to actually start playing on my Macbook Pro (which I should admit was purchased in December of 2010, perhaps not that long ago but in terms of computer years means it's probably eligible to start collecting its pension soon).

After trying to delete browsing history and cookies, turning off any adblocking or VPN extensions I had in any of these browsers, with no luck, I eventually admitted defeat and downloaded Crave's iPhone app, watching the first three episodes of "Letterkenny" on my phone before bed. The next morning, I still couldn't get anything to work so I decided to call Crave's technical support line. In a call that lasted 53 minutes, the first 20 of which were spent on hold waiting for a representative (which I'm chalking up to the fact that today is a holiday in most of the country, otherwise eeeesh), I was only able to determine that whatever was causing the problem was the result of my crappy computer's processor, as a newer Windows laptop streamed the episodes just fine. Oh, and that logging in to the site on all three of the aforementioned web browsers in Crave's opinion constituted authorizing three of up to five devices on my account, so I had to boot my Firefox and Safari logins to be able to try streaming on the Windows laptop.

Crave's tech support representative was fairly helpful (I believe his name was Edward?) and I appreciated that he understood I had at least an iota of technological acumen, but his solution was basically that I should go to Best Buy and spend $45 on Chromecast. It's a purchase I've been considering for a little while, but I'm not sure if I would feel good about the principle of spending that much money for a device that as of right now has only presented itself necessary for this one instance. Even if I'd run into the same problem trying to watch Netflix on my computer (I don't), Netflix has an app on my Sony Blu-ray player, as well as on Playstations and Xboxes and a myriad of other devices I might conceivably own. As far as I know, Crave has an Apple TV app and can be accessed on some newer Samsung smart TVs and that's about it - nothing for Roku, which a lot of people are choosing as their streaming entertainment center.

Sigh. It was a weird afternoon. As Wayne himself of "Letterkenny" would say, this show and Crave TV as a whole ain't nothin' to get excited about.

All six episodes of the first season of Letterkenny are streaming now on Crave TV. The show will also eventually air on The Comedy Network, but no premiere date has been announced.

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