Stay Tuned

January 2, 2008

The guy catching the sex toy,” says the publicist, pointing to the monitor, “he’s our lead.” The guy is David Kopp, 29, and in the television adaptation of Douglas Coupland’s novel jPod he plays Ethan Jarlewski, computer game designer, “gore specialist,” and straight man in the book’s offbeat cast of characters.

It’s the final week of filming, and the scene with the toy (“rubber dick,” Kopp specifies after a take) is from the 13th and final episode in jPod’s first season, which premieres January 8 on CBC. Set in Vancouver, the series chronicles the misadventures of Ethan and four other programmers at a fictional video games company called Neotronic Arts—along with his weed-growing mother and his father, an aspiring actor (played by Alan Thicke, of Growing Pains fame). It’s also about Vancouver, pushing, in a mix of drama and sitcom, the city’s hot buttons (condos, drugs, and immigration—that’s in the first episode alone). It’s quintessential Coupland, and has the heft to become CBC’s next hit.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better than where I’m at right now,” says Kopp, who’s appeared in 20 TV shows and six films since moving here from Calgary in 1998. “This is one of those parts you really click with as soon as you read it.”

The sex toy toss is shot again from different angles. Larry Sugar, one of the executive producers, comes over to the monitors to take a look and embraces one of the writers who’s dealing with on-the-fly script changes. “Have you met Daegan Fryklind?” Sugar asks, before launching into a debate with Fryklind on the difference between American and Canadian ketchup.

At 62, tall and hefty with thick blue-rimmed glasses and short white hair, Sugar is a father to the cast and crew, and to his son, J.B. Sugar, an executive producer, writer, and director on the show. It was Larry who won the option for Coupland’s hotly contested novel—perhaps partly because of a mutual passion for art. “I was excited just to go to Doug’s house,” Sugar says, recalling their second meeting in the spring of 2006. “It’s a treasure trove of his and other artists’ works. I knew a lot of the things that he owned and he liked that. Two-thirds of the way through the tour of his house, I turned to him with a thumbs up and thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to get the option.’” Three months later they were shooting the pilot.

After 37 years in film and television on both sides of the border, including four seasons of The Collector, Sugar knows how difficult it is to create original Canadian content and then compete with American shows for viewers. “For the most part, Canadian shows do not compete,” he says. “We don’t spend enough money on them. Canadian broadcasters will pay $600,000-plus in license fees for an hour of a U.S. network show and make a huge deal of paying us $150,000 or $300,000.” The CBC is the exception, he says, and though he won’t be specific, he’s confident that jPod is one of Canada’s most expensive shows.

If a larger budget has somewhat evened the playing field, it’s jPod’s potential to connect with viewers that may give it a fighting chance against the likes of Grey’s Anatomy and CSI. With Coupland involved from the beginning as an executive producer and writer, the show retains much of what makes his novels popular: likable, three-dimensional characters; an effortless back-and-forth between comedy and pathos; and the sense that despite the occasional outlandish situation (looking for a place to hide a corpse, for example) these characters inhabit the same world the viewers do.

Still, jPod’s success will depend on how aggressively the show is promoted. Viewers, says Sugar, will watch a smart show that educates or entertains, but they have to know it exists. “If you look at an advertising campaign on another, non-CBC network for a big Canadian show versus a big U.S. show, there’s no comparison. They put all their money behind a U.S. show. That shouldn’t be okay.”

With just a few days of filming left, parts of the 12,000-square-foot set—which includes fully-formed interiors of an office, a house, and an apartment—are already being struck. Since most of the source material is covered in the first season, it’s fair to ask where the characters will go if there’s a second season. Sugar says they have ideas, then pauses to correct the question. “When there is a second season. Not if.”

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