Tuesday, October 14, 2008

For Your TV-Viewing Pleasure

Last month marked the 7th anniversary of the premiere of Essex Hall, the critically-acclaimed series that followed a group of mostly handsome young men in their early 20s as they embarked upon their university careers at Western. Over the course of its record-breaking 4-year run, viewers came to know and love characters such as the sullen Andrew, the pensive Adam and the shy, meek Rory. (Whose catch-phrase “Aww, why’s it gotta be me?” became a national sensation in the summer of 2003.)

After the final episode aired in April, 2005, viewers wondering what might happen to the stalwart gang were pleased to hear that while Essex Hall had been cancelled, a series of spinoffs would take its place. Join us as we take stock of these shows, three years after they premiered.

That’s Rory!: In a bid to cut costs, Essex Hall’s London setting was retained for Rory’s spinoff. Low ratings (attributed, by producers, as viewer unwillingness to accept the Rory character in a leading role) at the program’s outset were reversed with the addition of an attractive female character to the cast. Following Rory as he pulls teeth, carves chalk and finds love, viewers are left wondering if the lovable elf will ever leave London.

Producers have indicated fan-favourite Cato may return for a slate of episodes during February sweeps, a treat sure to please longtime Essex Hall fans eager to see the riveting sexual tension between the two on display once again.

In addition to That’s Rory!, the character appears in yearly travelogues across Europe. Panned by most as “formulaic” and “boring,” Rory’s Europe nonetheless has an avid following among viewers aged 65 and older, who find the show’s bus-based format comfortably predictable.

Andy’s Antics: Many were unsure if the “morosely withdrawn” Andrew could sustain an entire show. In response, he was given a trial miniseries in which producers sent him globe-trotting in the hope that the exotic European and Australian locales would allow the character room to develop. It wasn’t until the miniseries’ final installment, featuring a guest appearance by Mike, that ratings were high enough to commission a full slate of episodes for Andy’s Antics. Bizarrely, the series is set in Windsor, and follows Andrew’s adventures as an unlikely, accidental Law school student. Critics have praised the show’s “whimsical” supporting cast, while noting the main character still suffers from the “stilted, wooden delivery” that plagued him in Essex Hall.

Mike at Large: It was thought a radical change of setting would endear the character of Mike to whole new audience while retaining those viewers who viewed him as the “emotional anchor” of Essex Hall’s cast. To this end, producers developed Road to Sandy Bay, a comedy/drama set in a remote Native community in Saskatchewan’s far north. Praised by critics as an uncompromising look into the breakdown of both the Canadian reservation system and the human soul, audiences were put off by the program’s exploration of the darker sides of isolation, sexual deprivation and alcoholism. Unable to find an audience, Road to Sandy Bay was cancelled after just one season. Undaunted and still under contract, Mike was placed in a second spinoff, Mike at Large.

Mike at Large chronicles the trials and tribulations of a man approaching 30 who is without a job, a girlfriend, or a life beyond his parents’ basement. Unsure of whether the program is a dark comedy or a drama, audiences have been slow to pick it up. Nevertheless, fans continue to enjoy Mike’s appearances in the various Essex Hall spinoffs’ 2-hour specials.

Hammer & Sweets, MDs: Virtually unheard-of in English-speaking Canada, this production by the Société Radio-Canada follows fan-favourite Nathan and 4th season addition Nick as they grow moustaches, root through bins of dismembered limbs, and – in one memorable episode – examine each other’s prostates. A unique hook in the pilot episode’s closing moments indicates via flashback from 2009 that only one of the two main characters will finish their degree.

Believed unable to garner significant audiences separately, the unlikely duo of Nathan and Nick was formed in order to take advantage of Nathan’s appeal among manly men and Nick’s among pre-teen girls. The show has been a wild success for the SRC, with talk that an English-language version is in the works.

The show has not been without its setbacks. A controversial statement made by Nathan in the show’s fifth episode regarding the Greek-Canadian community nearly led to the show’s cancellation, though this was smoothed over by the revelation that Nick did, in fact, once date a Greek girl.

A subplot introduced in Essex Hall’s final season involving Nathan’s rapid loss of hair and the atrophying of his once-proud biceps continues to rivet fans in Hammer & Sweets, MDs, even as they are repulsed by Nick’s antics with cadavers – many of them not donated to medical research.

One notable absence has been Adam Kowalsky, who refuses to this day to take part in even the two-hour TV specials occasionally broadcast over the years. His sole television appearance since Essex Hall was the baffling Kowalsky of Kensington, a non-sequential black and white documentary profiling his exploits – such as they are – variously running a soup kitchen, Cambodian immigrant drop-in centre and hot dog stand in Toronto. After a disastrous premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the documentary sat forgotten on a shelf at the NFB for two years until it was finally picked up by TVOntario. Kowalsky of Kensington has the dubious distinction of garnering the lowest ratings for TVO’s long-running Saturday Night at the Movies, and nearly led to the cash-strapped public broadcaster’s demise.

What’s next for the cast of Essex Hall? The only way to find out is to tune in!