Made in Manitoba
Legal drama Burden of Truth proudly wears its Canadian heart on its sleeve, and is rewarded by success at home and south of the border. Farewell, inferiority complex!
Screenwriter Brad Simpson had a hunch: if he could make a show that wasn’t afraid to look and feel Canadian, audiences would not only forgive it, they would embrace it.
Simpson, a writer on shows like Rookie Blue and King, was well acquainted with the imposter syndrome afflicting many Canadian shows—the desire to let the locale fade into the background and pass itself off as Anywhere, USA. “We’ve used 20-dollar bills on shows, because they’re green,” he laughs. “I guess nothing jars the potential American audience more than coloured money.”
Meanwhile, in the writers’ room, when he and his colleagues would talk about the shows they loved, “invariably, they were shows that opened us up to something, showed us a new world. They were always very specifically from a place.” Breaking Bad in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example: “That was a great and well-written show, but the place mattered.”
His hunch, it turns out, was right—at least judging by the reviews out of the US, where the first season of his show Burden of Truth debuted on The CW Network in July 2018. The second season will air this summer (here in Canada, season two hit the CBC in January). The series’ first season follows ambitious attorney Joanna (Kristin Kreuk, Smallville) from the big city back to her small Manitoba hometown, where a group of girls are suffering from a mysterious illness.
The Boston Herald called Burden of Truth “a show by and for adults looking for something a little challenging.” The Los Angeles Times praised the way the show “cleverly plays with expectations, our willingness to run ahead of it a little, toward the usual suspects, before jerking the narrative hard to the side and sending things off in another direction.” Most revealingly, Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter gave the “very Canadian” show points “for simply owning its Canadian identity and not masquerading as something generically North American.” He noted that he prefers “this geographic candor to The CW’s normal ‘Vancouver can be anywhere’ ethos.”
Kreuk, the star of the series, credits the show’s Canadian identity as a contributor to its early success. “I think that specificity in storytelling is very important, and I’ve always been kind of frustrated that we’ve been so hesitant in our country to be specific,” says the Vancouver-born actor, who now lives in Toronto. “There’s been a discomfort around saying, ‘This is Canada,’ and a disbelief that people are actually interested in what happens here. We are getting over that slowly.”
When Brad Simpson saw “the love for Winnipeg seeping out of the crew down there,” he was inspired to add in even more local references and really root the show in small-town Manitoba. He is convinced that both Canadian and American audiences appreciate the local references. “They are energized by them,” he notes enthusiastically. “So I had to ask the writers to go back and put in those details, because we’ve trained a generation of writers not to do that.”
Eagle Vision’s Kyle Irving, a producer on Burden of Truth, also believes that Canadian content shouldn’t wear a disguise: “I think audiences are always searching for different worlds, for something new. And since our show is specifically about this small town in Manitoba, with characters in it that people can relate to, audiences are drawn to it.”
Also specifically Canadian: storylines about Indigenous peoples and how colonial systems have affected them. While American shows have long tackled issues of race, Burden of Truth offers a different angle. The show gets into “issues around systemic racism that are similar to what goes on in the States, but related to our Indigenous communities, which are much more specific to our country,” says Kreuk. Simpson elaborates: “Indigenous issues are finally a front-page story in Canada, but they’re so far down the list in America. They are not getting any airtime there, so I think it’s such a huge success to have gotten them on The CW and in front of those viewers every week.”
The show’s focus on Indigenous issues—which only intensifies in season two—is one of the reasons Eagle Vision was thrilled to join eOne and ICF Films to make it in the first place. Eagle Vision has a two-pronged philosophy: one, to make commercially viable content; and two, to use its position within the industry to create socially responsible content that gives a voice to Indigenous peoples and the challenges they face. “Doing both at the same time is really the best-case scenario,” says Irving. “Doing something that has a lot of market appeal, but that’s also going to talk about issues that are important and make the audience think about those things—then we’ve really accomplished something.”
Alongside other markedly “Canadian” shows like Letterkenny and Cardinal, which have also found devoted international audiences, Burden of Truth is a sign of, hopefully, more to come. Simpson certainly anticipates this: “I think some projects had to get out there and be Canadian and be successful in order to show that there’s an opportunity there.”
Opportunity and then some, according to Irving. “When you run the numbers, we make more TV here than anywhere else in the world. When we have the sophisticated infrastructure and the talent and the resources that we do, we need to start exploiting our own intellectual property more,” he says. “Canadian storytellers have a tremendous amount of opportunity, in this vast nation with people from so many different backgrounds. Within that cultural mosaic are so many individual stories that are interesting to a broader audience.”
Then he puts it as plainly as possible: “We’re sitting on a virtual gold mine right now.”
Let’s get digging.