Television is getting edgy. Admittedly, I don’t follow a lot of shows (blame it on the honours BA), but I do know what people are watching. Orange is the New Black, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, and Girls are all vying for top place. And here’s the thing: all of these shows deal in some way or other with material that is previously unexplored or feature content not usually seen on television.
And then I think about the kind of content CBC has produced in the past few years: Heartland and Mr. D hardly seem artistically competitive with Girls. But then Strange Empire happened. Still in its first season, Strange Empire first aired in October 2014, and in doing so opened up a whole new playing space for Canadian actors and TV aficionados.
I suppose Strange Empire technically qualifies as a Western, though at the same time actively takes down anything a Western is supposed to be. The lead roles go to three strong, independent women: Cara Gee plays Kat Loving, a no-nonsense, pants-wearing, pistol-shooting woman taking care of her adopted children and searching for her lost husband; Tattiawna Jones is Isabelle Slotter, married to a terrifying tyrant husband and mourning the death of her child; and Melissa Farman plays Rebecca Blithely, a young doctor obsessed with science and the workings of the human body.
The conversation around casting and race is not an easy one to follow or participate in. Period theatre tends to blind-cast very easily, especially in plays where a character’s race has nothing to do with the plot. In contrast, any kind of film or TV work relies on realism to such a degree that blind-casting is impossible. These days, the trend is still that white actors get romantic leads and everyone else is reduced to stereotypes. This is partly due to the speed at which plot and characters have to be established, especially in a 20- or 30-minute pilot episode. In utter defiance of this, however, the script of Strange Empire writes into the problem, setting the show in an environment nearly exploding with tension around the dynamics between black, white, Native American, and Chinese. Kat is Métis, Isabelle is black, and neither character is a stereotype.
And it doesn’t stop there. Kat Loving shoots a gun and rides a horse better than most of the men. She has more authority than the power-hungry John Slotter, and no one can pull the wool over her eyes. Similarly, Rebecca Blithely has an affair with a man who works in Slotter’s coal mine, and who (spoiler alert) is in fact a hermaphrodite.
Unless I am mistaken, Canadian TV is catching up with the trends set by American and British counterparts—and carving a place for open-minded casting and writing as it happens.