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Radio Review: High Definition

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Don McKellar‘s success in the Canadian entertainment industry amazes me. He’s one of the few Canadian actors that has become as successful as he is while remaining an indigenous talent.

Why he chooses the projects he does, though, is beyond me. There’s the Don McKellar that won a Cannes Prix de la Jeunesse for his debut directorial effort Last Night and has become a familiar figure in arthouse cinema. There’s also the Don McKellar that lends his voice talents to Odd Job Jack, one of the most badly written and miserable “adult” cartoons I’ve seen in recent years. He’s a charismatic actor, but he’s essentially played the same low-key slacker character for years – he’s 42 and still plays slacker archetypes – and has a limited range. Still, he’s one of Canada’s success stories, which means he gets series like High Definition almost by default.

High Definition is a radio program trying to explain the relationship between television, its viewers, and the wider world. It’s a good idea – O’Reilly on Advertising recently applied media criticism to the advertising business, and the result was one of the more entertaining CBC Radio programs in recent years. At the same time, programs like Definitely Not the Opera – and keep in mind I’m pitching ideas to this program, for the sake of disclosure – have produced some of the worst pieces on popular culture I’ve ever had the displeasure to witness, airing couldn’t-tax-the-brain-of-a-recessed-hamster segments like “Celebrities on Helium” that prove how funny pitchshifting is. (Hint: it’s not.) High Definition is the middle ground between the two programs.

Taking February 18’s program as an example, the episode description comes across as a typical, condescending DNTO segment given 24 minutes. To wit:

Tune in this Saturday for a special episode of High Definition…On Ice. Host Don McKellar asks “Is figure skating the best soap opera on TV?” CBC Radio One’s new program about television ventures into the dramatic world of figure skating and tries to understand why it’s the most watched television sport after football.

Keep in mind, the previous two programs dealt with the topics of “Is Oprah REALLY saving the world?” and “How does 24 relate to the actual world of terrorism?” These topics are covered in the usual CBC style – the analysis is slight to mildly probing, and McKellar isn’t really explaining how television works like Terry O’Reilly did advertising. O’Reilly’s program gave a true insight into how advertising works, while McKellar plays his usual “detached observer” role.

High Definition‘s saving grace, though, is in the fact that McKellar at least tries for a more intelligent way of answering the questions he’s given. High Definition has less attendant bias than usual for a CBC program, and McKellar proves a natural on radio. His personality is such that he doesn’t come across as stupid for asking the questions he does. It’s obvious that this program is a work in progress – while High Definition is trying to be immediate and more journalistically sound than usual, it’s not nearly as near-the-knuckle as it needs to be. I’m not looking for Undercurrents-esque “investigating the media” pieces on Saturday morning radio, but McKellar didn’t come across to me as digging deep enough into his slight questions to say something truly profound about the television medium. It’s nice to see him interview figure skaters and right-wing media types with equal fervour, but McKellar has done well in the Canadian television industry. He doesn’t seem to be showing enough insight as a successful Canadian director and writer to explain why television influences the world the way it does. Teddy O’Reilly at least lifted the veil a bit and explained the business from his perspective, something Don McKellar needs to do on his program.

Is High Definition bad, though? No, and neither was O’Reilly on Advertising. CBC can do media criticism well when it wants to, and in High Definition CBC Radio One has a program that can analyze the television medium – and possibly the CBC itself – while being entertaining and funny. So far, High Definition has escaped the insipidity of typical CBC pop culture analysis, but the program needs to display more than it has if it hopes to last beyond its eight-week trial balloon.

High Definition has the ball. Now it needs to run with it.

Relevant Info

High Definition
CBC Radio One, 02/04/2006-03/25/2006 (limited-run series)
Saturday, 11:30-11:54 AM EST

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About Cameron Archer