Best Laid Plans a homegrown satire worth watching: Jonas Chernick and Ken Welsh make a delightful odd couple in CBC satire, which could yet prove to be a hit
By Martin Knelman
Toronto Star; January 10, 2014
Canadian television has a delightfully hilarious new odd couple — 40-year-old Jonas Chernick as a crafty political speechwriter with a PhD in English lit and 71-year-old Ken Welsh as a nutty professor and unlikely political candidate carefully chosen by the Opposition party for a riding in which defeat is virtually guaranteed.
On the first Sunday and Monday of 2014, CBC Television aired the opening two episodes of The Best Laid Plans, a six-part series based on the award-winning comic novel by Terry Fallis. The result is an astonishingly enjoyable and talent-filled show that, with careful handling, could develop into a hit.
Chernick knew from the start that the part of Daniel Addison was perfect for him. And unlike the nerdy, sexually inept accountant he played in last year's surprise hit movie My Awkward Sexual Adventure, this was not a role he had to write to provide a good part for himself. (Chernick divides his time between acting and writing.)
Playing opposite the great veteran Welsh was a bonus.
"We bonded immediately," says Chernick. "The chemistry between us was instant."
The actors and their characters both seem to have a father/son relationship, with the quirky twist that Chernick plays the guiding, parental character, and Welsh plays the wildly unpredictable and uncontrollable childlike one. His Angus has a penchant for outrageous behaviour, and he acts on sudden impulse — as when he suddenly decides to strip and go for a swim at an unlikely moment.
"Angus McLintock is one of the most interesting characters I've ever played," says Welsh, who has done excellent work for half a century in scores of plays, movies and TV shows. Angus is as compelling as another Canadian politician portrayed by Welsh in the 1989 TV film Love and Hate. He is just as entertaining but a lot less scary as Angus than he was as the real-life Colin Thatcher, convicted after having his ex-wife murdered in a Regina garage.
Making the perilous leap from the printed page to the TV screen is the latest development in the saga of how The Best Laid Plans keeps managing to overcome the odds. In the manner of a political candidate who gets voted into office after being given no chance by pollsters, this material has a history of confounding expectations that the public won't go for a humorous tale about the absurdity of Canadian politics.
When literary agent Beverley Slopen was first approached by Fallis years ago, he was asking her to represent him and sell this first novel to a Canadian publisher. She gave him bad news: "Political satire doesn't sell."
Undeterred, Fallis forged ahead by self-publishing his book, promoted it with free podcasts, and managed to get on the short list for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. So he tried approaching Slopen again, hoping now he might have a chance.
After meeting him for lunch, Slopen accepted the job, and sold the book to McClelland & Stewart. It was published in 2007. And after winning both the Leacock Award and CBC's Canada Reads competition, The Best Laid Plans became a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 100,000 copies.
But TV is a different world from literature, so there was no guarantee when producers Peter Moss, Phyllis Platt and Brian Dennis bought the rights and made a deal with CBC that the result would be a treat for audiences.
In terms of eyeball numbers, things got off to a rocky start with the Sunday premiere — drawing only 234,000 viewers. But the next night when the show went into its regular Monday slot immediately after the hugely popular Murdoch Mysteries, Best Laid Plans attracted 430,000 viewers.
Now the question is how many of them were hooked and will keep watching for the remaining four episodes. There's reason for optimism, given the witty quality of the script (adapted by Susan Coyne and Jason Sherman) and the riches offered by the cast — featuring many of Canada's most talented actors, including Eric Peterson, Mark McKinney, Peter Keleghan, Barbara Gordon and Leah Pinsent.
So far the feedback has been largely positive.
"The show has really picked up steam on social media," Chernick says. "It's trending as a popular topic on Twitter."
If momentum continues to build, the initial six episodes could be followed by another six, since the current series covers only half the book.
If that happens, Best Laid Plans could become the most successful home-made satirical confection we've had since the cult hit Slings and Arrows.
And if the CBC is looking for a way to reinvent itself, this entertaining and distinctively Canadian production could serve as a model.