TORONTO – Canadian-born TV writer Andrew Orenstein had been working in Hollywood for well over a decade by the time he was invited to work on his first Canuck series, but it wasn’t his northern roots that got him the gig.
The veteran writer from “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Malcolm in the Middle” was tasked with injecting “a U.S. feel” into CBC’s newlywed sitcom “18 to Life,” about a teenage couple and their overbearing parents.
Apparently CBC’s partners at ABC feared the show skewed a little too Canadian.
“The U.S. portion felt that the show, while good, didn’t have a U.S. feel, whatever that is. And so I came up and I executive produced the first 13 (episodes),” says Orenstein, who struggles to define what the difference is.
“Canada seems to have a great history … of children’s programming and sketch comedy and dramas. But the sitcoms by-and-large either feel too broad maybe, for U.S. audiences, or too sketchy. Or fall somewhere in between a dramedy and a comedy. None of which by the way is bad — it’s not a judgment — it’s just, if they wanted us to go on after ‘Scrubs,’ it didn’t (work).”
This was back in 2008 at around the time of a bitter Hollywood writers’ strike, he notes, and while opportunities dried up south of the border Orenstein says a new world for writers opened in Canada and he fell in love with working in his homeland.
Nearly five years later, he’s bringing his cross-border sensibilities to Citytv with “Package Deal,” about three extremely close brothers and the woman who comes between them. Orenstein says it’s based on his own crazy family dynamics.
It’s one of several new homegrown series joining the winter lineups, along with CTV’s new detective series “Motive,” CBC’s crime drama “Cracked” and Citytv’s comedy “Seed.”
“Package Deal” is notable for being a multi-camera show shot in front of a live studio audience — a uniquely American format little seen in Canadian television since the ’70s laugher “King of Kensington.” As its name implies, the style employs more than one camera to cover several angles as a scene plays out, in this case on a Vancouver soundstage. Notable U.S. examples include “The Big Bang Theory,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two and a Half Men.”
That’s opposed to the single-camera format of “Mr. D” and “Modern Family,” where only one camera is used and there is a greater variety of off-set locations.
“It’s very, very specific,” Orenstein says of the multi-cam style.
“(It affects) everything from how sets are designed to the lighting, how jokes are written and it’s the closest thing to doing live theatre…. To do that you need to have a writing staff, so there’s a fair bit of investment in having five writers full-time on staff. And it’s very specific in the jokes.”
Multi-cam shows were the standard through the ’80s but fell out of favour in the past decade as single camera shows like “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Modern Family” took over.
But Orenstein, who moved to L.A. four days after he graduated from Western University at age 21, says the pendulum is swinging back. He notes that NBC’s “Up All Night” is switching from a single-cam format to a multi-cam one and that many of today’s biggest smashes are multi-cam shows.
“People are tired of the cynicism and want to laugh. A lot of the shows that are coming out of the States I’m liking have more family involved and heart and stuff that I think has been missing in TV. When I watch shows now, even ‘2 Broke Girls,’ there a real heart in the middle of it.”
The biggest reason the style hasn’t taken off in Canada is that Canadians have little experience with it, suggests Orenstein, whose favourite Canuck series include “Mr. D” and “Call Me Fitz.”
“There’s not a lot of homegrown writers who know the medium (of multi-cam),” he says.
“So because they don’t do them and they haven’t done them, there are writers who don’t know how to do it. And then there are directors who are not familiar with how to do it. And so it all just sort of feeds on itself.”
Orenstein says he stacked “Package Deal”‘s writing staff with Canadian-born writers who cut their teeth on U.S. prime time shows including “Murphy Brown,” “Frasier” and “Roseanne.”
But he struggles to answer whether he thinks the series has that “U.S. feel.”
“I didn’t set out to do an American show or a Canadian show,” he says. “This is a show I always wanted to do because it’s personal to me and I find it honest and observational and real. And I think it would work in any country, I hope.”
Over on CTV, hopes are high that “Motive” will fill the void left by the recently concluded cross-border smash “Flashpoint.”
CTV executive Phil King bemoaned the loss of the beloved Toronto-set procedural, admitting they are on the hunt for more homegrown smashes to repeat its success.
“We don’t want (just another) ‘Flashpoint,’ we want five of them,” King says.
“Motive,” about a feisty female homicide detective who each week chases a killer that has already been revealed to viewers, will get a post-Super Bowl timeslot on Feb. 3. It stars Kristin Lehman (“The Killing”), Louis Ferreira (“SGU Stargate Universe”) and Lauren Holly (“NCIS”).
Meanwhile, CBC is betting on the psychological crime series “Cracked,” about a damaged detective who joins a unit specifically concerned with mental health cases. David Sutcliffe (“Gilmore Girls,” “Private Practice”) stars as Det. Aidan Black while Stefanie von Pfetten (“NCIS,” “Battlestar Galactica”) is his partner, psychiatrist Dr. Daniella Ridley.
And Citytv’s original series “Seed” centres on Harry, an underachieving bartender who learns that sperm donations he made years ago have resulted in kids — a lot of them.
Harry reluctantly begins a relationship with three families — a laid-back lesbian couple with a nine-year-old son, a neurotic single mom-to-be, and an uptight, upper-class family with a rebellious teenage daughter. “Seed” starts Feb 4.
Canadian TV will also get real with a raft of ambitious reality series on the way, among them Slice’s “The Real Housewives of Vancouver” on Feb. 5, and Slice’s “Big Brother Canada” and “Big Brother Canada After Dark,” both premiering Feb. 27.
Meanwhile, CTV is gearing up for a spring launch of “The Amazing Race Canada,” based on the globe-trotting elimination-style CBS series.
Also kicking off next month is the Canada/France co-production “Transporter: The Series,” which follows the adventures of trained transporter Frank Martin, an ex-Special Forces operative who never quits until he’s reached his final destination. The series premieres Jan. 4 on HBO Canada with two back-to-back episodes.
Other new shows include History’s documentary series “Yukon Gold,” with its look at a modern day gold-rush. Four mining crews battle mechanical breakdowns, the elements, and 18-hour days under the midnight sun in Canada’s wild Yukon to earn one big payday.
Over on OWN, “Life Story Project” is a half-hour documentary series where passersby on the street are encouraged to share deeply personal life stories. It debuts with back-to-back episodes Jan. 2.
And returning shows include season 2 of Global’s wartime hit “Bomb Girls,” about a group of women who work at a Toronto munitions factory. Special guest stars will include former talk show maven Rosie O’Donnell. It returns Jan. 2.
There will also be a new season of “Undercover Boss Canada” on W Network, where the country’s top executives go undercover to join their frontline employees. Some of the new season’s CEOs include Gary Muldoon of Orkin Canada, Rick Smiciklas of Wild Wing and the mother-daughter team Gail Souter and Kristine Hubbard of Beck Taxi Limited. It returns Jan. 17.
And a second season of Discovery’s “Canada’s Greatest Know-it-all” includes 10 new players and 23 new challenges on Jan. 14. Challenges include learning to defuse an underwater bomb and destroying a coffee truck nearly a kilometre away with a bowling ball cannon. Contenders include a 52-year-old “Jeopardy!” star, a 40-year-old champion hang glider and a 23-year-old physics student.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version wrongly said “Seed” premiered in January