Monday, June 18, 2012

Being Erica: "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity"

Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well. --Buddha

 There's something I've been meaning to do for a while, but I kept putting it off, for one reason or another. Actually, that's not true: it was for a single reason, that I didn't want to the show to end. I'm talking about Being Erica, the CBC drama series that ran 49 episodes, from  January 5, 2009, to December 12, 2011. I finally watched the last episode last night, half a year after it originally aired, and I'm ready to talk about it. And I hope you're ready to talk about it too, because I'm about to open up the metaphorical scotch and pour it over the figurative grave in toast to time travelers in therapy everywhere.

Being Erica is probably my favorite hour-long drama of the past few years.  Given the contenders, that's not a particularly difficult height to reach; Breaking Bad is great, but a little too dark for my tastes, Game of Thrones is essentially an alternate reality take of a book I've already read, and Gossip Girl and True Blood, love them as I do, are admittedly ridiculous.  And while all those shows are fine, none of them has hit the same emotional resonance with me as Being Erica did.

For those unfamiliar with the series, I'll recap its starting premise: Erica Strange (Erin Karpluk) is 30 year old woman living in Toronto.  She's the daughter of two Jewish parents, with her sister being an established doctor about to get married, and she is not looking great in comparison.  She's just lost her job, and her current boyfriend has decided to break off a date with her to go on the gym and work on his core.  So when Doctor Tom (Michael Riley) offers her some free therapy, she takes him up on the offer.  The catch is that, in this show, therapy consists of traveling back in time to your past, and reliving the moments that once caused you regret.  It's kind of like Quantum Leap meets This Is Your Life.

The operating metaphor of the show is that personal therapy is time travel.  And it works, on a number of levels.  The way it works is that Erica's consciousness is sent back in time and relieves the general period where she made some mistake she regretted.  In the first season, they make a few attempts with child actors, but for the most part, we're supposed to squint and just accept the 30 year old Karpluk is a teenager (she's pretty, so it works.)  It's quickly established that Erica can't actually change the past, or rather, the changes she makes don't actually make a difference.  She'll prevent one fight with a family member that she regrets, only to have that fight happen again in a different way, later.  Or she'll fix the past issue, and it'll have no visible effect on her current life.  And that, I think, syncs up nicely with what life is really like, for an ordinary person who gained the ability to go through time with the intention to just change your own life.  With the exception of a few accidents, there's few things in our lives that really hinge on a single moment.  A huge argument brings to bear forces that have been bubbling for a long time; a major mistake is an expression of emotional turmoil that will just find another outlet.

 So what's the point of time travel, then, if you can't change your past actions in a meaningful way?  Well, besides creating interesting paradoxes and ethical problems (my favorite is Season 1, episode 3, where Erica relives the day she lost her virginity at summer camp.  Is it ethical--or legal--for a thirty year old in a sixteen year old's body to make love with a sixteen year old?  I'll let the time cops decide), the one thing that can change when you go back is your current perspective on life.  Usually, thanks to the discerning powers of Dr Tom, Erica goes back to just the memory that helps her cope with something in the here and now.  And again, that feels true to how real life works, and therapy (ideally) as well.  We dwell on the things that we think we did wrong, and because of that, we keep reliving the same failures and patterns in our present day.  Therapy, when it works, should be about uncovering that baggage and dealing with it, in a manner that prepares you to handle today.  And that, in a nutshell, is what happens over the course of the series.  As you may have guessed, it's a very positive portrayal of therapy:the therapist is a caring, devoted person, and the therapee is an ordinary person who's made some bad decisions and wishes for some clarity.  I think we can all relate to that.  (As a near thirty something with no girlfriend and not great job perspectives myself, I certainly can.)

One of the things I really like about the series is that keeps its focus firm.  A pet peeve of mine is that drama shows that are centered around one character should have to stick to that one character as much as possible.  To offer another example of a show that was heralded (probably wrongly) for its positive female lead, Ally McBeal shifted from a focus on its lead to a focus on the ever-increasingly zany and expanding cast, to the point where each episode was a one-up(wo)manship in ridiculousness.  If they had kept the focus narrower and more grounded, I think the show would have benefited.  My favorite example of the single character focus is Life on Mars (UK version) which had a grand total of one scene in the entire series that didn't have Sam Tyler in it. Being Erica doesn't go that far, as we do see scenes Erica isn't present for.  But for the most part, the focus is firmly on her, and her relation to the family and friends around her.  For the most part, her friends don't even notice when something in her past has been changed; the big, embarrassing moments she dwells on barely registered for them.  And her attempts to alter someone else in the past always fails, as their action resurfaces in a different way.  And yet again, I think that's very true to life, in that people can't really know what events really mattered to you, and you can't change them--you can just change how you respond to them.
It's ironic that I was so reluctant to view the ending--or perhaps it's the opposite of ironic, entirely appropriate.  Because the focus of the final episode is what it means to accept endings, and let those that have to go their separate ways move on with their lives, as you move on with yours.    The show knows its thematic resonance, you've got to give it that.

Granted, it also had its down points.  The love interests--from the bland Ethan to the beefcake Kai to the temper-issues  Adam--are all different kinds of meh to me. (I was very, very pleased that the finale focused more on Dr Tom and Erica's relationship than her personal life.)   And the series pushes the metrosexual/homosexual thing a bit too far at times (by which I mean they get some cheap laughs out of it, even while fully supporting it).  And the problem with a show that's based on a didactic message is that it'll occasionally feel like that message is a hammer trying very hard to crack your skull open.  And I go the rest of my life without hearing Julianne offer another "adorable" abbreviation.  But mostly, it's a thoughtful exploration of full-fleshed characters.

It didn't hurt that the show had a pretty stellar cast.  Erica's coworkers and friends are all well played, but the real props have to go to the cast that play her family.  John Boylan, as the father, does a great job as a rabbi who has trouble keeping his personal life together, and Kathleen Laskey does a similar great job as the mother.  And the teenager playing Erica's older brother (time travel spoiler?) does very well in his occasional appearances.  Johanna Douglas plays Erica's overachieving sister, and strikes just the right note for me in every way possible.  (She is also an amazingly attractive woman, and she should totally contact me if she somehow ever reads this, because, as this blog shows, I'm pretty awesome too and we have a responsibility to humanity to put that much awesomeness in the same room. And yes, I just used an internet blog as a measurement of awesome.) And just to be fair, I should say *something* about the rest of the cast, so I'll say that Reagan Pasternak does a great job as Erica's younger boss/frenemy, even if her character is nails on a chalkboard to me.  But the big performances come from Karpluk and Riley.  Karpluk is excellent as Erica--she demonstrates, over and over again, a full gamut of nuanced performances, and has an energy about her, enough that you look at her after a few episodes and start to ask "Why the hell hasn't she become bigger than this?".  But if she had made it big, then she'd be doing some forgettable American drama right now, instead of a perfectly fitting role.  And Riley--I've been following Riley for a long time.  I loved Wonderland, and I loved Powerplay.  (Sadly, judging by their respective ratings, I may have been the only one. )  If you need an actor for a role that requires both quirkiness and gravitas, he's your man.  And he brings it, for the entire series.

Am I gushing?  I am gushing.  Fine.  I was going to end this with a "and you can watch the whole series for free on the CBC website" spiel.  But it's not free, is it?  The CBC is subsidized by the Canadian government, which means the Canadian tax payer paid for it.  And that brings up the other important thing about Being Erica: it's Canadian.  It takes place in Toronto, after all, and every episode is saturated with that physical location.  But more importantly, it's a Canadian show, starting Canadians, made for a Canadian audience, with Canadian tax payers' money (among other sources, let's not take all the credit).  It was never going to be a show that appeals to everyone. Let's face it, it has a female lead and every week, people solve their problems through rational discourse and honest communication.  That's not going to get the Two and Half Men audience hopping.  So if it's all but guaranteed poor ratings, how can you say it's a good investment of our money?  Well, I'd argue it's exactly what the CBC should be doing, and should be supported for doing.  Christopher Bird, at the Torontoist, has argued as much, but I'd like to expand on what he's said.  First of all, and I hope this is clear from what I've written above, it's a show that's remarkably tight in tying in concept with its execution, and presenting an exceptionally positive message about a strong woman who's neither a narcissist nor comically crass (Sex in the City, I'm looking at you).  And it's telling a story that's worth telling, a story that's made a difference in people's lives.  I am not the show's target audience, my predilection for drama aside.  And yet, it's still changed my attitude, towards therapy and how I deal with others. To explain how, I'll turn to my favorite episode, the first episode of season 4.  (spoilerIn her training to become a therapist, Erica's first training patient turns out to be her ex-brother-in-law (spoiler).  Now, Erica has never liked this guy.  He made people she cared about very unhappy, and is essentially an asshole.  But after going over some of her own choices and comparing them to his, she comes to the conclusion that she could have become a person very similar to him, had she chosen differently.  And that's the lesson: sympathy means empathy, and empathy means realizing that we're closer to being the people we despise than we'd like to admit--and they're closer to us. And that really got through to me. In this instance and others, the show has a message that resonates with its viewers, rare as they may be.  And it's a positive enough, useful enough, message that I'm glad it exists.  If the CBC should exist at all (and it should), this is the sort of thing it should be making.

To sum up: Being Erica is a story worth telling, with a cast and crew that deserved a chance to tell it,  an intelligent premise, and a message worth considering.  Give it a watch, and decide for yourself.

Later Days.


Brian said...

I enjoyed watching the series too. Excellent blog observations.

Keri said...

Love Being Erica. I too just finished watching the series last week (watched all season 4 in 15 minute increments on You Tube because I'm in the U.S.). Kept putting off watching it because I hated to face the reality of it's end.