Rare TV Satire Tweaks Taboos In Canada


Canadian television has never been much good at situation comedy. Scripts are vetted by committees to ensure they don't insult anyone: no racial slurs, no nastiness, and they often end with an earnest, moral message, which usually turns out to be saccharin sweet.

Now along comes a Canadian comedy that is so irreverent it's hard to imagine how it ever got on the air. It is called "The Newsroom", and it mocks the network that shows it, the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

The setting is a local newsroom in Toronto. The first episode, which aired last Monday night, showed three newsmen arguing about whether to lead the newscast with a local story or an air crash in the Congo.

The news director wants the writers to use a line about a "piranha-infested river." When someone questions whether there are piranhas in the Congo, the news writer is told to say "piranha-like fish" and lead with the angle that there was a Canadian involved.

"We're hoping there was a Canadian on board," says the writer. In this newsroom, they never let the facts get in the way of good story.

"The Newsroom" is written and directed by and stars Ken Finkelman, a Canadian who once wrote situation comedies and movies in Hollywood such as Airplane II.

Newsrooms long have been popular places for comedies, from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," popular on re-runs in Canada, to CBS's "Murphy Brown," still a hit here.

Canadians haven't fared well at producing homegrown TV comedy. Prime-time television here is filled with American sitcoms. But the CBC is trying to "Canadianize" itself. On the night "The Newsroom" debuted, the CBC lineup was all Canadian.

Mr. Finkelman has set up special rules for his new comedy: no laugh track, no corny gags, and no earnest, politically correct messages. The show savages the television news business with vicious satire. It portrays the anchors as shallow airheads only interested in themselves, not the news.

"All I ever asked for was a German car, a cottage, and the right to enjoy them both without thinking about anything," says the anchor, with not a hair out of place.

The boss, played by Finkelman, is a selfish character who spends most of his time on office politics and trying to get other people to run errands for him.

When he interviews a well-educated black woman for a job as a researcher, he asks her if she skis. She doesn't. He then hires a beautiful white woman who has never done any research and can't use a computer. She, however, does ski.

"I don't know how they got on the air," says Peter Rehak, who has worked at CBC News and is now an executive at the commercial Canadian network CTV. "It's a revolution for the stodgy CBC, where everything had to pass the political-correctness committee."

The CBC receives almost all of its funding from the federal government but recently has taken some sharp cuts in its budget. That means many local newscasts, such as the one portrayed in "The Newsroom", are about to disappear.

The show portrays the executives scrambling for their jobs while promising to protect the people who report to them.

"I give you my word," promises the news director to the airhead anchor. "You know how the corporation works. I don't have final say, so my word is essentially irrelevant. But I want to make sure you're happy."

The anchor then reads about losing his job in a newspaper gossip column.

Another episode deals with hiring a news anchor. The choice is either an intelligent black woman or an aggressive blonde from a local station in Edmonton.

An "anchor consultant" (they really do exist) assures the news director that the black woman is so light-skinned she is only "subliminally" black. "In a test in Regina [Saskatchewan] most people couldn't tell what race she was," the consultant assures the news director.

Race is usually taboo stuff on Canadian television. But in "The Newsroom" the "hero" (the news director played by Finkelman) is a racist creep. Even he, however, is smart enough to rationalize not hiring minorities.

"A black anchor right now reads 'equality,' " he reasons. "And 'equality' reads 'social spending.' And a social-spending message in this deficit-reduction climate looks like we're taking sides, and we have to be objective.

"A white anchor, on the other hand, reads 'deficit reduction.' "

The anchor consultant shoots back: "Blonde doesn't intimidate." The blonde gets the job.

So far, reviewers have raved about the program. A group that monitors images of women in the media says there has been no negative comment. But CTV's Mr. Rehak worries the satire may be lost on people outside journalism.

"People in the news business will love to hate it," Rehak says. "But the show is so 'in' it might not appeal to the viewing public. We'll see."

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