The show that's too Canadian for Canada.

The show that's too Canadian for Canada.

The show that's too Canadian for Canada.

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Jan. 21 2003 12:00 PM

The Show That's Too Canadian for Canada

Still from The Eleventh Hour
The Eleventh Hour: Gravity TV

Under a very pale sky, a team of conscience-stricken producers pursues stories for a crusading newsmagazine show called The Eleventh Hour. This is the premise of The Eleventh Hour (CTV, 10 p.m.), a Canadian drama in its first season that, because of middling ratings, CTV (which had high hopes for the show when it premiered) may not renew—an act that would further the surrender of Canadian prime time to American television. If The Eleventh Hour were in fact a news program, its producers would be working on a call-to-arms piece about this indignity.

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The Eleventh Hour deals in scruples. Inspired by the great movie The Insider, the show tells the story behind TV exposés of exhausted social workers, contaminated buildings, and grocery stores in Saskatchewan that sell rancid meat. The senior producers, associates, shooters, field reporters, and anchors may be the most morally serious characters to be on any camera, video or film, since the 1970s. When, for example, producer Kamal Azizi (Jeff Seymour), on board a grounded plane, witnesses a menacing tantrum by a fellow passenger, he determines that he wants to do a show not on terrorism or security, but on the sources of human rage. "Terrorism," he believes, would be gross sensationalism. "Security," furthermore, is a lie, another name for the forces that "treat us like sheep, while criminalizing our frustrations."

Is this television or a treatise by Susan Sontag? If The Eleventh Hour can be discursive, it miraculously never gets ponderous. The air-rage episode, for instance, jacks up suspense by dramatizing in its periphery a series of bureaucratic transactions that makes life a nuisance—a faulty ID card, an hours-long hold time. These inconveniences irritate Azizi, who struggles with his own anger. In the end, he folds to the network, which wants a simpler story; he is then hit by a sharp blow of irony that I cannot bear to spoil. (Get a Canadian friend to TiVo it in reruns.)

In all, The Eleventh Hour is a wonderfully complex, cerebral, and suspenseful show. It runs on gracefully embedded plots and exact, if subtle, emotional run-ins. Yes, it's muted-looking, and it's openly principled. It's a show that some might call "Canadian." But it's clearly a very polished effort by creators Semi Chellas and Ilana Frank to make socially progressive television. Are they the only ones left? The Eleventh Hour should never be canceled. Instead, let it air, season after season, as a lesson to all of us that idealism on television is still possible.