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November 02, 2003

  • Can’t Stop The Train
  • imageIt was meant to be a summer fling.

    There are some TV shows you watch because there’s a three-month lull in decent programming and there’s not much else on. It may not exactly be Shakespeare, or even shaky, but you don’t beat yourself up for watching it because, hey, it’s a summer fling.

    And then those summer flings become something steady. Somehow, against all odds, that summer guilty pleasure catches on enough to make it into the regular schedule. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Survivor, American (and Canadian) Idol are all examples of this. And joining these austere ranks, in my books anyway, is Train 48.

    I started watching Train 48 when it debuted last June on Global because it was a novel idea—an improvised soap opera in a single setting (a GO Train headed from Toronto to Burlington) shot on the same day as broadcast. I guffawed at the obvious suspension of disbelief—the train would have to be traveling at 10pm to be that dark at the height of July; GO Trains aren’t that spacious or (speaking as one who commuted from Oakville to Toronto in silent isolation for the better part of two years) chatty. I winced at the most flagrant product placement outside a Bollywood movie (Train 48, at least last summer, was made without any Telefilm money and therefore pushed its sponsorship everywhere—something which has died down to a dull roar now that our tax dollars have started to pay for the ride). I winced even more at the broad characters. But the damndest thing happened to me along the way.

    I became addicted to Train 48.

    I can tell you precisely the moment it happened. It was when the sweet-but-hapless uber-geek Randy Ko was having a bachelor party on the train and, while handcuffed, wearing Klingon garb, and flirting with a stripper, managed to destroy his loveless marriage before it even happened by admitting his deepest feelings…but forgetting to hang up his cell phone.

    It was one of the best television moments of the year.

    I have to admit I was doubtful when I heard that Train 48 had gotten renewed for three times the episodes produced this past summer. As the summer progressed, I had developed the sense that it had ‘jumped the shark’ at least half a dozen times (mostly when Rae Dawn Chong inexplicably decided to commute to Oakville one night) and I wondered if it could sustain the regular grind.

    And yet, here we are six weeks into the new ‘season’ and I find myself enjoying it more than I did last summer.

    I once had a friend who told me that I could judge the quality of a soap (or any TV series) by the amount I yell at the TV screen. Well, Train 48 has me yelling plenty. And that’s no big surprise because Train 48 is a massively entertaining half-hour of television.

    Make no mistake, Train 48 is not the second coming of Eugene O’Neill. It’s a soap opera; in fact it’s a very cheap soap opera with cartoon-like caricatures (the first time I saw Lisa Merchant’s Brenda I couldn’t believe they had gone to the expense to get someone to play Jayne Eastwood when they could probably have hired Jayne Eastwood). But it’s often one of the most entertaining half-hours on television. Not bad for a bunch of actors improvising their hearts out on one set in Don Mills.

    What I love so much about Train 48 (which it likely picked up from its Australian progenitor, Going Home) is that it picked out all the great qualities of British soaps with its bizarre combination of kitchen sink realism and larger-than-life characters and compressed it into a format affordable for Canadians.

    British soaps are supposed to be about ordinary people but they’re not—they’re distortions of ordinary Britons just identifiable enough to stay close to home and just grotesque enough to distance themselves. (Look at Bet in Coronation Street if you don’t believe me).  Likewise, they’re supposed to be rooted in ‘realism’ but in actuality they’re set in Dickensian rural idylls transported to 21st Century urban settings (you would never find anywhere in Manchester like Coronation Street and I lived in the East End and the world of Albert Square in EastEnders simply doesn’t exist). Furthermore, while British soaps claim to be a visual medium, really, for all the scene changing, most episodes are just people sitting down in various settings having a chat.

    Train 48 cuts the basic idea behind British soaps to its essential core: a cast of slightly-recognizable-but-slightly-grotesque caricatures sitting around talking about stuff that’s happened to them.  The genius of this is reducing a soap to its most primal, purest level, which is, frankly, voyeurism—watching people talk about their lives. As a result, Train 48 is the crack cocaine of British-styled soaps.

    But that’s not why Train 48 is so damn entertaining. What makes Train 48 work is an incredibly talented cast who know when to play their broad characters just this side of over-the-top and when to pull at the heartstrings. Paul Braunstein’s character Johnny McLaughlin—who can be best described as the bastard offspring of Charlie Farquarson and Red Green—is, without a doubt, the funniest character on television today. Braunstein clearly revels in the jazz of improv comedy. Every week, Braunstein builds on some loopy detail given the previous week—such as Johnny’s need to include a little person in the TV commercial for his shed-building business—and lets it snowball into something even loopier. And yet, Braunstein grounds the character in an honest, working class, no-bullshit hoser wisdom.

    On the other side of the board you have Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays the aforementioned Randy. Lee may well be the breakout star of the ensemble. He deftly underplays the broadly comic moments and has this wry way of phrasing things. But he knows how to milk sensitive moments for all its worth, and the producers have smartly paired him off with Krista Sutton, an actress equally adroit at such scenes.

    Being able to entertain people thoroughly is a talent. To be able to do it four nights a week is a gift. Train 48 has a talented cast of improv performers (and I particularly have to give props to Raoul Bheneja’s yuppie-scum Pete), and some funny and even thoughtful storylines. It may not be high drama. It may well be a guilty pleasure. But it’s more than a summer fling and I’m so glad about that.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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