The CBC's Best Laid Plans is a backroom at the top
By Scott Stinson
National Post; January 1, 2014
When the crew filming The Best Laid Plans arrived on Parliament Hill, lead actor Jonas Chernick explains, it didn't take long before he realized how the political satire novel on which the CBC miniseries is based had such currency with the knot of people that work at the nation's capital.
"We were setting up," says Chernick, sitting on a white couch at the CBC headquarters in Toronto, "and this lady who worked on Parliament Hill came up to me with stars in her eyes. Not because she knew me from any of my previous work, but she just said, 'You were exactly how I imagined Daniel Addison would look.' "
Addison is the protagonist and narrator of the novel by Terry Fallis, which was originally self-published but then picked up by a major house and went on to win Canada Reads in 2011 and the Stephen Leacock Award. It tells the story of a backroom Ottawa operator who is tired of the backrooms, but who agrees to find a cannon-fodder candidate to run in a no-hope riding before exiting politics for good. The book was quite a hit among the actual backroom Ottawa crowd.
"We're tasked with living up to their expectations," Chernick says. "I feel like we've done our duty."
That's certainly true in some ways. I agree with the observant Hill staffer who suggested that Chernick makes for an excellent Daniel Addison, a character who can be described in two words: fumbling earnestness. Kenneth Welsh, meanwhile, is a good fit for Angus McClintock, the fiery engineering professor who becomes the unlikely federal candidate, even if his Scottish accent seems to rise and fall like the tides. A fan of Best Laid Plans, the novel, is at the least likely to be satisfied by how the series presents the two central characters.
In other ways, the series wobbles. While generally faithful to the book, the producers decided to expand the world Fallis created — the six-part CBC series covers only the first half of the novel — which means lots of extra padding. It's not Peter Jackson deciding to blow out The Hobbit into three epic films, but The Best Laid Plans also has added material where the existing source work was just fine, thank you. At times, the writers, when developing scenes that are outside those depicted in the novel, seem to have forgotten how people speak entirely. While Addison searches for an apartment near the University of Ottawa campus, he's approached by a student who is looking for a roommate. The student informs Addison that he has "a totally ill crib down in Orleans" and when Addison politely passes on the proposal the student offers him good cheer by saying "peace out, bro." It's as though someone Googled an urban slang dictionary and didn't realize they were viewing a cached entry from 2001. Later, when the chief of staff to the opposition leader is issuing one of many threats he delivers to Addison, he ends with a capice? Thanks for that, Fredo.
Where the series hews closest to the book is in the moments where Angus, newly widowed, deals with his loss. These scenes are touching and sweet, and like those of the book, they are somewhat unexpected: moments of tenderness that add weight to what is mostly a political farce.
Readers of the book will notice another notable change: where Daniel Addison was once a loyal Liberal, he's now been rendered a member of an unnamed opposition party, which hopes to regain power from a governing party that is conspicuously not Conservative blue (nor NDP orange). This has presumably been done to insulate the series — and the CBC — from partisan sniping, particularly since the book involves a Tory finance minister who is beset by an embarrassing personal scandal, but it's a shame that one of the show's strengths, its real-life setting — and the familiarity of scenes filmed in our actual halls of Parliament — is counterweighted by the decision to use make-believe parties.
These are, quite obviously, good days to be producing a series that aims its satire at the notion of political spin and whether parties are motivated by the public good or simply their own self-interest. Whether in Ottawa or more recently in Toronto, viewers have plenty of recent examples of shameless spinning to compare against the imagined events of the show.
"It's good timing," Chernick allows. "A comedic show about the absurdity of politics is timely, I think."
The Best Laid Plans premieres Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. on CBC.