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Law & disorder: Inside CBC TV’s ‘This is Wonderland’

An exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Canada's best and quirkiest TV drama

It’s one of the coldest winter days of the year, and gathered around downtown Toronto’s Trinity Square is a crew of about 50 people, suited snugly in toques and parkas. They’re here braving the cold to film CBC TV’s legal drama This is Wonderland. It’s only 10 a.m. and the crew has already been out in the cold for three hours. All eyes track the tinfoil-wrapped hot dogs that are being brought out by catering. As soon as the take wraps, the crew breaks, rushing towards the food. Unfortunately, there’s no break for the actors and scattered extras in front of the camera, all of whom have to hold their positions or else they’ll ruin the continuity for the next take. The cast is dressed warmly except for Michael Riley, who plays the eccentric defence attorney Elliot Sacks. He is hopping in place to keep his body temperature up because he insists that his quirky, addled character would only be wearing a tweed jacket, even in the middle of winter.

Yes, welcome to the glamorous (and chilly) world of Canadian television. It’s the kind of environment where hours of shooting in the bitter cold for a minute of screen time is routine. Unbelievably, thirteen hours of Canadian TV is typically assembled for the average cost of one episode of U.S. mega-hit C.S.I.. Yet, even with its relatively small budgets, This is Wonderland stands out as one of the best dramas on television today –- and definitely the best in Canada.

Unlike most legal dramas that have come before it, This Is Wonderland doesn’t feature fabulous lawyers decked out in Armani, rushing to their latest murder-of-the-week trial. Instead, the show is set in Toronto’s Old City Hall and features struggling lawyers whose clients are appointed by the court, and are mostly petty criminals and the mentally ill. Considering the setting, you’d think that Wonderland would be dour, but instead is full of unexpected comedy and affecting human drama.

Siu Ta (left) and Cara Pifko spar in an episode of CBC TV’s This Is Wonderland (Supplied publicity photo, 2005)

Unfortunately, high-quality programs like This Wonderland don’t always instantly generate huge audiences, especially on the CBC. Despite a solid first season following the hit Rick Mercer’s Monday Report, the show was moved to Wednesday nights and ratings for the second season have been disappointing, with an average episode attracting around 500,000 viewers.

“Lots of people don’t watch the CBC just because it’s the CBC,” admits actor Michael Healey who plays one of the leads, lawyer James Ryder. “There’s an incredible bias when it comes to the CBC. But even though the show is still trying to find an audience, there’s a lot of momentum behind it.”

Viewership isn’t yet on par with the show’s quality, but This is Wonderland is still holding its own against stiff American competition and an unflattering CBC lead-in. Any other show would have been dead in the water against CTV’s simulcast of The Amazing Race, which sometimes draws over three million viewers a week in Canada.

Ironically, while the show may be struggling on the ratings-deprived public broadcaster, on paper, This is Wonderland is a show only the CBC would take a chance to broadcast.

“That’s probably true,” says executive producer Michael Prupas. “The show reflects values that are endemic in Canada: multi-ethnicity, tongue-in-cheek humour and minor human foibles. We’re not doing murders, we’re dealing with fights with neighbours.”

On the ‘This is Wonderland’ set with director Anne Wheeler (left) and actor Michael Riley (far right) (Supplied publicity photo, 2005)

It’s this unique concept that attracted top Canadian talent like Michael Riley to the show, who was reluctant to do series television again, after starring in CTV’s Power Play from 1998 to 2000.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another series,” Riley says. “However, the quality of the writing was just undeniable. Wonderland is such an anomalous piece of TV. It’s like nothing else on the air.”

The show’s indescribability has cultivated a loyal following from its audience.

“Writing is truly what drives the show,” Prupas adds. “It doesn’t fall into the traditional TV mode and doesn’t try to mold into the current trends of what viewers are watching, which can be seen as a disadvantage. But our audience is made up of a lot of people who are not regular TV watchers and who say this show is the reason why they came back.”

Series co-creators and writers George F. Walker and Dani Romain are travelling through one of Wonderland‘s maze-like sound stages at 940 Lansdowne, located in a lonely, industrial-looking part of Toronto. They strategically weave through hallways, turning many corners until they hit a set of stairs to get to the lunchroom. It’s one of the few places where a conversation can take place without a director yelling, “Quiet on the set!”

Walker and Romain first conceived of Wonderland after curiosity led them to check out Toronto’s Old City Hall three years ago. Once inside Canada’s busiest courthouse, they caught a glimpse of the fascinating microcosm hidden inside, filled with average, everyday people dealing with and working within the judicial system the best way they know how. The writing partners saw series potential in Old City Hall and pitched their concept to executive producer Bernard Zukerman (The Many Trials of One Jane Doe) who set the wheels into motion to bring their vision to prime time TV.

Walker, 57, and Romain, 31, had previously worked together on plays before their work on Wonderland. Of the pair, Walker is the best known. He is an acclaimed play-wright who has previously dabbled in series television, writing for Due South and CBC’s The Newsroom.

The pair’s writing has drawn approving notices from real-life workers at Old City Hall. Authenticity was important to Walker and Romain, so they and a team of researchers spent eighteen months in court before the show went to air. Since then, they have become fixtures in the courtrooms.

“We’re in there all the time looking for ideas,” admits Romain.

Ironically, stepping into the real Old City Hall now feels like stepping onto an episode of Wonderland. Unfortunately, the show’s trademark humour is noticeably missing. Gruff security guards run visitors through a security checkpoint and lawyers and their clients sit solemnly on benches outside of courtrooms. Hidden within the grandeur of the Romanesque Revival-style building is clearly a very unhappy place -– and it’s hard to see it as an obvious setting in which to base a TV show.

So what was it about Old City Hall that attracted Walker and Romain?

“Pain. We were attracted to pain,” Romain says half-jokingly. “George and I like writing about people who get ignored, who are shunted to the side.”

Indeed, many of the show’s reoccurring characters include marginalized types who have never been explored on prime time television before, including crack addicts and delusional mental health court defendants. However, people in the real mental health court are anything but entertaining and their stories are heartbreaking. Wisely, mental health court is one of the few settings intentionally toned down on Wonderland.

“There is another side to mental health court,” says Walker. “You could write a whole other show based on it. However, it’s not our job to debilitate the audience and it’s not our job to depress them. The mixture of comedy and drama is essential.”

Downstairs on the sound stage set, actress Cara Pifko is filming a gut-wrenching scene in a re-creation of the aforementioned mental health court. Pifko, 29, plays defence lawyer Alice De Raey and is required to cry on cue in this particular scene. Still, she zigzags back and forth from filming to be interviewed for Popjournalism. She’s startlingly chipper, considering the scenario.

“We’re in the business of emotion,” Pifko shrugs when her demeanor is commented on. “Some days are harder than others. I like to say I work on two shows — one on screen and the other on set.

“Sometimes I’m not sure which is real,” she laughs.

Her comfortable and relaxed attitude is widespread on the Wonderland set.

“There’s no tension on the set at all,” co-star Michael Healey confirms. “Usually, there’s a great tension on set with U.S. and Canadian crews. And then there are the games of which star will come out of their trailer first. Here, there’s none of that. People are a joy to work with.”

Significantly, the show’s focus changed this season, a move that could have created disharmony between the cast and crew. During the first season of Wonderland, the show revolved around Pifko’s character, but in the second season, the show became more of an ensemble. Understandably, most stars would be up in arms about the switch, but when the topic is brought up with Pifko, she is genuinely affable about the situation and says she loves the show even more this season.

“The show is always forward-moving,” Pifko says. “It’s all because of the writing. We don’t have chase scenes. Language is the action — our race car if you will.”

If that’s so, then Pifko’s character Alice is in for quite a ride as the season winds down. In one of the chilling final scenes in the second-to-last episode, Alice is physically assaulted. It’s a meaty performance that should look good for Pifko during awards season in December.

Pifko’s convinced that the show will eventually find a larger audience to follow its acclaim.

“We get a lot of feedback from our fan base at Old City Hall,” Pifko says. “People, like social workers who work there, are touched by the show. They feel validated by the portrayals. Even my lawyer friends talk to me about it. Some even call me right after the show airs.

“At least they’re better than my dad, who calls me to comment during every commercial break.”

It looks like those calls won’t be stopping anytime soon. This Is Wonderland has just been renewed for a third season.

Content Creator
Robert J. Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star

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