For my final Loonie Politics column of 2023, I’m going to attempt to answer an age-old question for some people living in the Great White North. What is the most important TV series in Canadian history?
It’s a subjective question. Specific genres like sitcoms, drama series or animated programs could play a role. Subject matter such as sports, history and mystery/detective fiction could influence the decision of certain respondents. Production could be a criteria, including releases from major TV networks, independent studios, and Canadian companies with international participation and content.
The possibilities are endless.
Canada has produced some top-flight television. Comedy series like SCTV, Corner Gas, Letterkenny and Kids in the Hall still resonate with audiences. Drama series like Slings & Arrows, Da Vinci’s Inquest, Heartland and Road to Avonlea had many regular fans, as did those who watched comedy-dramas like The Beachcombers, Republic of Doyle and Seeing Things. There’s also been some fine children’s programming, including Mr. Dressup, Razzle Dazzle and The Friendly Giant.
What’s my choice? Murdoch Mysteries.
I’ve had a near-annual tradition of writing about this popular show for North American publications. I believe it’s one of the finest TV shows ever produced in Canada. That’s a subjective opinion on my part. What if the discussion was shifted to suggest Murdoch Mysteries has evolved from one of Canada’s most successful TV series to the most important TV series (comedy or drama) in Canadian history? That’s a different topic in which objectivity would largely trump subjectivity.
Murdoch Mysteries is based on Maureen Jennings’s Detective William Murdoch stories, including Except the Dying, Under the Dragon’s Tail and Let Darkness Bury the Dead. Her fictional detective was inspired by John Wilson Murray, who became Ontario’s first government detective in 1875 and reportedly helped solve hundreds of crimes.
Murdoch was largely constructed with Jennings’s vision in mind. Born in late 19th century Eastern Canada, he came from a strict Roman Catholic family and held those traditions and values close to his heart in the then-predominantly Protestant city he lived in. Murdoch, who worked for the Toronto Constabulary at Station House No. 4, was a Polymath with a photographic memory. He used forensic skills and ingenious inventions to solve perplexing mysteries. His techniques of fingerprinting, blood testing, surveillance and trace evidence existed at that time but were rarely employed by most detectives.
The book series was originally developed into three made-for-TV movies for Bravo Canada in 2004, Murder 19C: The Detective Murdoch Mysteries. Shaftesbury Films then created a weekly, hour-long drama series which ran on Citytv between 2008-2012. It was unexpectedly dropped after the fifth season, and was quickly picked up by CBC – where it’s remained ever since.
Murdoch Mysteries has been watched by over 1.4 million viewers per episode starting in 2014, and has reportedly maintained this consistent audience. (The only CBC program with higher viewership is Hockey Night in Canada.) It’s been the number-one rated show on Alibi in the UK, and attracted about 3.5 million viewers per episode on France 3. It’s been carried in Greece, Australia, China, Finland, Brazil and U.S.-based networks Ovation and Acorn TV (which has released each season on DVD and Blu-ray). The episodes are witty, intriguing and thought-provoking. There’s plenty of good-natured humour, along with a few twists and turns until the guilty party has been revealed.
What makes it the most important TV series ever produced in Canada?
Murdoch Mysteries, like most mystery and detective fiction productions, is crafted to audiences who enjoy critical thinking, fact gathering, problem solving and thoughtful analysis. It’s become one of the most intellectually stimulating programs ever created for Canadian television, combining significant historical and educational components with several modern touches.
Several 19th century Toronto landmarks, including the Queen’s Hotel, Royal Alexandra Theatre and Eaton’s department store, have provided a sense of local history and flavour. There have been storylines involving the American Civil War, Klondike Gold Rush, European football, golf, pro wrestling – and more. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, magician Harry Houdini, actress Mary Pickford and inventor Nikola Tesla have made appearances, among others. Former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was also portrayed in the 2011 episode “Confederate Treasure.” He was joined by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fan of the show who made a CBC-only cameo as a hapless police chief who didn’t recognize his national leader!
There have also been several well-placed winks to modern society that are a cross between artistic liberty and pure whimsy. Sly references have been made to dating services, the Internet, Silly Putty, Spam (“meat in a can”) and cellphones (“tiny portable telephone”). A fictional Toronto politician, Robert Graham, even swiped a line from a former U.S. President he would have never met, Donald Trump, when he said he wanted to “make the city great again.”
Murdoch Mysteries has helped expose more viewers to Canadian and world history. It’s subtly championed intellectual study within the guise of entertainment value. It’s also served as a springboard for those clamouring to know more about politics, science, local landmarks and the Victorian era.
It is, therefore, a unique example of a thinking man’s show.
Does this place Murdoch Mysteries on a higher plane than most previous Canadian comedy and drama series of a fictionalized nature? Yes. That’s why, in my estimation, it’s the most important TV series in our country’s long, rich history.
Objectively speaking, of course.
Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.