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December 19, 2010

  • Regretting Erica
  • imageIn the series Being Erica, Erica Strange manages to get her life back on track through an unusual form of therapy: she is sent back in time by her therapist, Dr. Tom, to relive past regrets. The wonderful thing about this premise is that this isn’t some Quantum Leap changing of history—changing the regret often makes marginal impact on Erica’s life historically—but rather it’s about the personal growth Erica makes as a result of examining her life through her regrets.

    By the rules of the show, one can only go back to revisit and change their own regrets. Which is a shame, because as a fan of Being Erica, I would love nothing better than to meet my own personal Dr. Tom and change several regrets I have about the past season of Being Erica.

    It’s hard being a fan of a TV series that isn’t quite performing as you’d like it to. It’s like watching a beloved sports team in a slump: you watch, hiding your eyes while they get creamed play after play, desperately hoping something will get the magic going again. And when, for a brief moment, they do get the magic going, you cheer like you never have before. The problem is with TV series, when they hit a slump, they rarely rebound back.

    I love Being Erica. The first two seasons were something I’ve rarely seen on television: a show where you could visibly witness the creators and actors growing more and more confident with its format and potential. The first season was a marvel, as it took a cute premise and made it increasingly dramatically powerful. The second season was a miracle as every episode creators Jana Sinyor, Aaron Martin and the writing team tried new things, stretching the format and taking huge risks in the process but paying off with fun, powerful and moving TV every week. Through it all we had the brilliant highwire performances of Erin Karpluk and Michael O’Riley, as they deftly moved from comedy to serious drama (O’Riley was robbed of a Gemini this year). During the second season, Being Erica became unmissable television for me.  I’ve been disappointed the series hasn’t caught on in Canada, and have been equally gratified by its success on cable in the US. (And, full disclosure here: I’ve even written a Being Erica spec script, though I never did anything with it).

    The third season of Being Erica has been totally frustrating.

    When everything is working, and there have been several instances of it, the show can still be one of the most gripping dramas on the box today. The writing is smart, the soap opera aspect can be addictive, and the leads are still the best actors doing TV in Canada right now. But lately it’s been off about as much as it’s been on.

    If I could break the rules of the show, meet my own personal Dr. Tom and go back and change the regrets I had about this season of Being Erica, there would be a couple of key events I would go back to and try to stop from happening.

    The first is the reformatting of the show that took place. This year, Erica Strange’s time travel therapy became a group therapy with other lost souls who go back to visit past regrets. In theory, this is a great idea. There are more characters to bounce off of and Erica can grow not just from visiting her own past regrets but the regrets of her fellow members of group.

    But in practice, the new format was an epic fail. The show’s creators (or CBC’s network notes, who knows in the end) became gunshy of what the new format could do almost immediately. The ‘group’ Erica was in was hunky new castmember Adam, destined to be this year’s love interest for Erica, and the others were one-line quirks (world weary middle-aged woman; nervous nerd; shy but beautiful girl) who hardly had any screen time. The new format was hardly ever used, except in peripheral ways. And, most damningly, most episodes could have used the old format with Adam simply as another patient of Dr. Tom’s. In fact, many of them just do use the old format.

    Worse, it just added more characters to a show with the biggest supporting cast in Canadian television since DaVinci’s Inquest (this is not necessarily a compliment). Which brings me to my next regret about this past season of Being Erica: the show has way too many characters with plotlines I quite simply don’t care about. Ivan and David, the new gay owners of the coffee shop Goblins, suck all the oxygen out of every episode—they’re characters that seem more amusing to the writers than to the rest of us. Do we really need a new romance for Erica’s sister, Sam, particularly one so banal that avoids any dramatic potential of how it might connect to Sam’s breakup with her emotionally abusive douchebag husband last season? These plotlines are so extraneous they get in the way of much more interesting characters and situations: last year Reagan Pasternak as Erica’s boss-turned business partner Julianne was a reason to be alive (Pasternak is a brilliant comic actress who’s got game with dramatic scenes too). This year, she’s been wasted in B-plots with Ivan and David. They set up interesting conflicts in the therapists’ world and then do nothing with them. Erica’s mother’s cancer had huge dramatic potential but was lost in a needless romance with her ex-husband and, worse, was gotten rid of like a cold.

    I can’t help but feel the powers-that-be learned the wrong lesson from last season’s expansion into soapier territory with the supporting cast. They’ve forgotten a key thing: on a series like this, we only care about these characters because of their relationship to Erica. I cared about Sam’s marriage and divorce to her douchebag husband because all of it impacted Erica in some way, and Erica’s responses to it had dramatic resonance. I don’t care about Sam’s relationship with Lenin mostly because of the reasons I just mentioned but also because Erica had no connection to it whatsoever. Likewise I cared about her friend Judith’s struggles with new motherhood in the second season because there was blowback in Erica’s life; Judith’s marital troubles this season don’t even hit the radar because Erica has no involvement in it. Barbara’s cancer should have had a huge impact on Erica, and it should have formed the basis of an episode or two, but if Erica was concerned about it, we never saw it.

    And that’s my other big regret with this season of Being Erica: the stories that were great could have been even better with just a little more thought. In one episode this season, Erica discovers while time travelling that the author her fledgling publishing start-up has backed is, in fact, a giant fraud—a revelation that could ruin Erica professionally and leaves her with the dilemma of keeping silent or bankrupting her company. Dr. Tom breaks the rules, goes back in time and prevents the author from signing with Erica. Erica’s present is improved (the author signs with Erica’s rival and the truth gets out and destroys the rival instead). When another therapist tells Erica her past has been altered, Erica confronts Dr. Tom and prevails on him to turn things back.

    It’s a good scenario, but it could have been even better had Erica actually grappled with the moral dilemma of whether Dr. Tom’s interference was right or not. And it could have been outstanding if, after Erica’s timeline was set right, it turned out Dr. Tom’s plan was for Erica to find out her past had been changed all along. If Erica retained the memory of her altered future, she would have learned that the author would be found out no matter what, and keeping silent would never be an option. That would have been a much more interesting—and dramatically weighty—way to intervene that would show Dr. Tom’s character in a different light. The problem is Being Erica has missed tricks like this all season. Stories that are good, didn’t make that extra step to become great.

    And the CBC didn’t help it—regret number four. This season, I can only presume they purchased 12 episodes and a standalone holiday episode. And maybe that might have worked had the season aired earlier or there had been a few weeks gap between the season finale and the holiday episode. But, this being the CBC, they ran it in consecutive weeks, leaving viewers to scratch their heads as the big event in the final scene isn’t followed up the next week. It robbed the season of the impact of a finale, but also robbed it of the promotional impact that comes with the end of a season as well. Especially as the holiday episode was mediocre at best (it’s not their fault: the only person who has been able to write a decent holiday TV episode in the past 15 years is Aaron Sorkin). I know it was an extra episode and it keeps people employed, but it made the series go out on a whimper instead of a bang.

    I don’t want to sound completely negative. There have been some great episodes this season too, (the standouts were “Two Wrongs”, “Wash, Rinse, Repeat”, “Being Adam”, “Physician Heal Thyself” and the finale, “Erica Interrupted”). Michael Riley’s Dr. Tom is still one of the best performances on television—I love the how he plays him with a serenity that belies a man who has been to a lot of dark places—and Erin Karpluk is the sort of fearless actress who will go anyplace whatsoever with her character and make it work brilliantly on screen. And I actually liked the addition of Adam Fergus’ character Adam, who was a great character even if the episodes around him aren’t always the best, and even if I’m not convinced a romance with Erica was frankly necessary.

    The Being Erica season three finale ends with Erica finally joining the ranks of Dr. Tom and his contemporaries and seeking out her first patient as a trainee therapist. And I guess that’s my biggest regret about this season of Being Erica. When season two ended, I thought Erica learning to become a therapist was the next step. What we got instead was a game-changing reformatting that became a distraction at best, an outright stall at worst; characters and plotlines were added more to pad out episodes than to advance characters and their relationship with Erica; and stories with potential that were largely untapped. If there is a season four—and I’m hoping its success in the US will work in its favour to give us another shot—I’m hoping to see this regret rectified as the makers start fresh and hopefully learn from the regrets of the past season.

    Posted by graeme | (2) Comments | Permalink

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    Kevin Zaak  on  12/19  at  07:46 PM

    Good analysis. I agree with all points. The holiday special was a disaster. It seems the writing team wants too much to please to a wider audience.

    Erin D  on  02/01  at  08:43 AM

    Great analysis Graeme.  My thoughts exactly.  My favourite episode (although I don’t remember the name) was I think the final one where they tell her she just hit her head and she awoke in hospital with her life back at the beginning.  Probably because it just focused on Erica and none of the subplots and fillers were there to get in the way.  My regret is that they didn’t utilize Brent enough, he was the one reason I kept watching every week, and I was fascinated by how almost cartoon-like his villainy was.  It was a nice change from the niceness that everyone seemed to be having with each other (the lack of drama between characters in relation to Erica made the show boring).  Anyway, I don’t know what’s happening with this show but if it is picked up by the US networks and starts at the beginning again, I hope they keep this actor.

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