Here’s a program that will probably not be of interest to much of my readership, yet it is one of my favorites. THE REZ is a 19 episode Canadian TV series focusing on some First Nations (or as they’re known in the US, Native American) teenagers living on an Ottawa reservation. It is in my view the finest show of its kind, depicting the trials and tribulations of First Nations people in a seriocomic manner that’s more relatable than other similarly themed programs (such as SPIRIT BAY), and with a quiet, unassuming charm—it is, short, very Canadian.
We here in the US tend to vastly overrate Canadian television, much in the same way we do British small screen fare. The thinking tends to be that, with the lack of FCC regulations (in Canada and the UK people can actually say bad words on network television) and advertising revenue upon which US television depends, non-US TV simply must be good.
A colleague of mine made that assumption during a business trip to the UK, the first day of which he cancelled all his appointments and turned on the BBC, settling in for a marathon viewing of what he figured would be transcendent, award-caliber television. Needless to add, it wasn’t long before he wished he’d kept those appointments!
I had a similar experience upon moving to Canada in the mid-1990s. Like my friend I had a grass-is-always-greener notion of non-US television, and like my friend found the reality diverged quite markedly from my expectations. It’s a fact that the nineties were television’s not-so-golden age, although I’ll admit that, based on what I’ve seen, I’m not overjoyed with Canadian television in general. “Classic” Canuck programs like THE KIDS IN THE HALL and SLINGS & ARROWS did little for me, and nor did the epic snooze-fest that is STRANGE PARADISE.
This isn’t to say there’s no worthwhile Canadian TV, just that finding the good stuff takes some doing. Case in point: the program under discussion, which doesn’t generally turn up on listings of great Canadian television and is all-but unknown outside Canada’s borders, yet is well worth searching out.
THE REZ was spun off from the 1994 feature DANCE ME OUTSIDE, directed by Bruce McDonald and executive produced by Norman Jewison. Adapted from four stories in a 1977 collection by the late W.P. Kinsella, DANCE ME OUTSIDE is a funny and warm-hearted, though also gritty and hard-edged, account of Silas Crow (Ryan Black), a precocious First Nations teenager growing up on an Ottawa reservation, together with his troublemaking chum Frank Fencepost (Adam Beach) and politically-engaged girlfriend Sadie Maracle (Jennifer Podemski).
The film, I feel, is one of McDonald’s best, but it wasn’t as well received as it should have been. W.P. Kinsella is said to have especially disliked it (and nor was he too jazzed about THE REZ), although it’s a generally faithful adaptation of his writings that adroitly replicates their distinct funny-tragic tone, as elucidated by the quote “Any oppressed people survives by making fun of its oppressors, and this is what my characters do. There are only two universals, laughter and tears, (and) I want my readers to laugh and I want them to cry.” The film was also slammed for the fact that its creators, including Kinsella, McDonald, Jewison and co-screenwriter Don McKellar, were all palefaces, thus inviting charges of cultural appropriation (see this blog entry for my feelings on that subject).
As I recall, around the time of DANCE ME OUTSIDE’S initial release there was talk of a series of First Nations themed films being made in its wake. That didn’t happen, but we did get THE REZ in 1996.
Executive produced by Jewison and McDonald, THE REZ sees Ryan Black returning as Silas Crow and Jennifer Podemski as Sadie Maracle. Frank Fencepost is also back, and still up to his troublemaking ways, although he’s played here by Darrell Dennis, with Adam Beach, who played Frank in DANCE ME OUTSIDE, relegated to a supporting role. The series centers on a lakeside hotel located at the outer edges of the Rez, run by a middle aged white woman named Eleanor (Patricia Collins) who hires Silas and Frank to work for her.
The series’ happenings include an attempt at dividing up the bar along aboriginal property lines; a disastrous stripper routine Silas is roped into performing; the drama that ensues when Silas’ mentally challenged little brother Joseph (Herbie Barnes) is shipped off to a mental institution; the return of Eleanor’s long-lost daughter (Kari Matchett), who’s grown into a leather skirt-wearing seductress; a party thrown by Silas in which Frank behaves inappropriately; Sadie’s unexpected elevation to first-in-charge by the tribal chief (Gary Farmer); and the intercession of latter’s wayward son (Beach), who causes many rifts in the community.
It’s all quite compelling in a low-key and very true-to-life manner, with unerringly well-rounded characters and striking rural scenery. THE REZ may not be as hard-edged as DANCE ME OUTSIDE, but it doesn’t shy away from confronting some of the more unsavory aspects of reservation life (poverty, unemployment, rampant superstition), and contains the requisite “they’d never do that on American television” elements that it seems every worthwhile non-US TV series must have to recommend it. Somehow I don’t think Silas’ brother Joseph’s compulsive masturbation problem, which is presented here with admirable forthrightness, would make it into an American TV show, and nor, for that matter, would the overall conception, which even with the presence of a white woman in a leading role seems far too ethnic for risk-averse Hollywood studio execs.
If I have a complaint it’s with the final two episodes, wherein Silas, Frank and Sadie leave the rez and somehow end up in Toronto. There they undergo a thoroughly implausible set of misadventures, including a hokey declaration of true love and enrollment in a creative writing class taught by David Cronenberg(!).
THE REZ was released on DVD by Video Service Corp in 2009. That DVD is still in print, and reasonably priced–a situation I don’t foresee lasting much longer. It seems the show has also been uploaded to YouTube in its entirety, a situation that likewise probably won’t be in effect for much longer. In other words, if you have any interest in THE REZ and haven’t acted yet you’re urged to do so ASAP. I promise you’ll be glad you did.