As the cameras point east

As always, when beginning a column about our public broadcaster, I’ll point out that I’m a freelance contributor to the Cape Breton edition of CBC Radio One’s Information Morning program.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to focus on CBC-TV’s recent launch of two series that offer viewers an up-close-and-personal view of the Maritimes – even if one of those shows delivers the East Coast through a fun-house mirror.

That would be Cavendish, a half-hour comedy that just wrapped up its eight-episode run. As its name implies, the series is set in small-town Prince Edward Island, where two seemingly-incompatible siblings help their ailing father run his Museum of the Strange and Fantastic after spending their previous years in Toronto, the home of their divorced mother.

With a premise like this, you’d be right to assume that the standard PEI clichés apply – one episode sees the brothers haplessly stumbling into an Anne of Green Gables cult, while another involves an ill-fated road trip to Charlottetown.

But it’s not all potato puns, Cows Ice Cream, red dirt and Raspberry Cordials for tightly-wound would-be novelist Andy or happy-go-lucky free spirit Mark, played by series creators Andrew Bush and Mark Little. It’s a much broader and infinitely more subversive comedy than the title and setting of Cavendish would suggest. (The third episode features straight-laced Andy falling under the spell of a wax statue of Fred Penner, who then appears in a dream sequence that could be the single funniest thing the long-running children’s entertainer has ever done.)

I’d like to think that Bush and Little, both Nova Scotians and both members of the Halifax-based sketch-comedy troupe Picnicface, approached Cavendish with some genuine affection for the Maritimes. Bush cut his TV teeth as a co-host of the CBC youth consumer show Street Cents and a regular on Rick Mercer’s Made In Canada, both shot in Halifax, while Little grew up in B.C. but has frequently trod the streets of Nova Scotia’s provincial capital as a cast member for both Picnicface and the recently-wrapped CBC comedy Mr. D, which was filmed at Halifax’s Citadel High School.

Just as Cavendish wrapped up its debut season, CBC unveiled another new series whose Nova Scotia overtones are hard to miss. The legal drama Diggstown is drenched in shots of scenery that even those of us that don’t live in, or frequently visit, the Halifax Regional Municipality will recognize. You can’t miss the MacDonald and MacKay Bridges, the watering holes (the pilot episode makes frequent references to Bearly’s House of Blues), the Water Street law courts, the “Welcome To North Preston” signage, and the waves crashing into the Nova Scotia coastline, where main character Marcie Diggs frequently grabs her surfboard to forget her troubles.

Played by Toronto-born actress Vinessa Antoine, who recently put in four years as the police chief on General Hospital after regular roles on such CBC series as Heartland and Being Erica, Marcie is back in Nova Scotia to head up a ragtag crew of legal aid lawyers. They include a surprisingly-familiar crew, including Degrassi alumnus Stacey Farber, one-time sci-fi star Natasha Henstridge, and C. David Johnson, who apparently opted to play a grizzled-veteran part on Diggstown rather than try to relive the ‘80s with his former Street Legal co-star Cynthia Dale in that show’s recent reboot.

Cathy and I caught the debut episodes of Street Legal and Diggstown last week, and they couldn’t have possibly been more different. Diggstown serves up a cast full of complicated but believable and realistic characters, and I would have come away with the same assessment even if the series wasn’t set in Nova Scotia. The new Street Legal, with Dale as the only returning cast member, feels stylized, fake and forced. Perhaps that’s a production problem more than a location problem. Either way, I don’t think we’re going to stick around to find out.

Will other viewers give these shows a try? The overnight ratings for the new legal dramas give Street Legal the edge over Diggstown, with the reboot drawing 376,000 viewers and the original taking in 338,000. Meanwhile, Cavendish’s pilot episode took in 503,000 viewers, which is even enough to out-draw CBC’s The National on most nights. (I try not to think about the idea that the season premiere of Big Brother Canada drew over 800,000 viewers to Global on the night of Diggstown’s launch, or that the shows crushing Street Legal two nights earlier included CTV’s broadcast of the new-look Magnum P.I., at 881,000 viewers.)

Whatever happens to Diggstown and Cavendish, I’m just glad to see the national CBC cameras willing to point eastward every once in awhile. We’ve got a lot more to share with the rest of the country than we, or they, might realize – and not just pretty scenery, either.