Plans for political parody laid long before recent scandals
OTTAWA — Has there ever been a better time to air a political satire in Canada? Between the Senate scandals and Toronto’s bobblehead mayor, Rob Ford, Canadian politicians provided more laughs and shocks in 2013 than The Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad combined. Enter The Best Laid Plans, a six-part series premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC before moving to Monday nights at 9 p.m.
Late last fall, on location inside a centuryold, wood-panelled estate, director/producer Peter Moss stepped away from the camera to explain how the series came together. The spark was Terry Fallis’s awardwinning novel of the same name, based on the author’s own adventures as a Parliament Hill speech writer. “One night I was reading the book and I was laughing my head off,” says Moss. Producing partner Phyllis Platt asked what was up. Moss told her he’d found their next project. The idea was pitched to CBC, and six episodes were ordered. The story centres on Daniel Addison, a young political backroom operative played by Winnipeg’s Jonas Chernick (star and screenwriter of the festival hit My Awkward Sexual Adventure). Addison is sickened by the Ottawa power game after catching his girlfriend in bed with a political foe. He wants out, but is dragged back in for one last power play by his boss, the less-than-charismatic leader of the opposition, George Quimby (Mark McKinney). The two know they’re going to get hammered in the next election by the sitting prime minister (Sonja Smits). Addison’s assignment is to woo a local, past-his-prime professor to stand in a riding election the party will lose. Kenneth Welsh plays loose-cannon candidate Angus McLintock and grabs the part with gusto, as does another Canadian TV veteran, Eric Peterson (Corner Gas). Chernick says Peterson came in and basically “took an extended cameo and turned it into a great character role, stealing scenes left and right and ad-libbing like a mad man.” He points out that both Petersen and Welsh are Order of Canada members. “I’m learning a lot from both these guys,” he says. Welsh joked a month or so later at CBC’s winter program launch in Toronto that “I’ve been in this business 50 years and nobody knows who I am.” Chernick disagrees, but concedes “that’s the curse of Canadian television.” Welsh, in fact, has played several politicians before, including presidents and prime ministers. He did a memorable turn as notorious Saskatchewan MLA Colin Thatcher and also once played Alberta’s Peter Lougheed. He never had any actual political ambitions, “probably because I played so many and I realized how absurd it is.” Certainly Moss, Platt and fellow producer Brian Dennis were well acquainted with Welsh’s long and distinguished resumé. Moss, who directed him several years ago in the TV-movie External Affairs, calls him “a giant.” The producers were happy to gather several familiar faces they’d worked with before for this project, including Ron Lea, Barbara Gordon, Tom Jackson, Peter Keleghan and Leah Pinsent. Jodi Balfour (Bomb Girls) also stars. Susan Coyne (Slings and Arrows) and Jason Sherman (The Listener) adapted the script from Fallis’s novel. Platt was a programmer at CBC back when Street Legal was the broadcaster’s top drama, and so reuniting with Peterson and Smits was extra sweet. She says the producers are all well aware there is tremendous talent in Canada “to be mined and brought back into a great vehicle.” Sometimes actors who headline a Canadian series “don’t necessarily hop to something else that keeps them employed the same way,” points out Platt, diplomatically addressing an odd reality not seen south of the border: Canadian series stars seem to get just one shot at a homegrown success.
If this is his shot, Chernick couldn’t be happier. He has co-starred, guested and been a regular on dozens of Canadian TV shows, including The Border, but sees his part in The Best Laid Plans as “the role of my life, for sure. I’ve never had this much of a presence in a series before.”
It’s a challenging role as the series swings from comedy to drama, sometimes in the same scene. A long take inside the stately manor finds Chernick’s Addison being chewed out by Quimby’s acidic chief of staff, played by Raoul Bhaneja. Their extended, rat-tat-tat-dialogue is reminiscent of the old screwball comedies of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder. That’s no accident, with Moss coaching cast members to check out the classics. Chernick took the tip to heart, screening both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story. Bhaneja, a busy stage and screen actor, sees The Best Laid Plans more as a cross between Yes, Minister and the British House of Cards, an apt comparison given Addison’s penchant for confiding directly into the camera. Also in the cast is Sarah Allen, who will be seen in Global’s upcoming medical drama Remedy. Allen was doing double duty this fall, shooting The Best Laid Plans in Ottawa and then flying to Toronto to shoot scenes opposite Enrico Colantoni and Dillon Casey on Remedy. “I’ve come to realize you can’t always be working in this game,” says Allen of being actress. Still, if these best laid plans work out, 2014 could be a better year to play a Canadian politician than to be one.
Kenneth Welsh, left, and Winnipegger Jonas Chernick team up to battle for a can’t-win riding in The Best Laid Plans.