CBC’s Heartland, premiering in the U.S. on 19 September, is set in 21st-century Canada. But its first episode unfolds as if it were scripted by an unimaginative 1950s high school teacher planning a syllabus on issues of the week. There’s divorce, the death of a parent, sibling rivalry, adolescents on the cusp of love, and importunate banks. In fact, it plays like a primer on don’t-rock-the-boat socialization: find what you’re good at, choose a (heterosexual) mate, love the land, always come home, and all will be well.
The series—which is entering its fourth season in Canada—does tackle one contemporary issue, the near impossibility of financial survival on a family ranch in the age of agri-business and economies of scale. The experiences of the central multi-generational family of both blood and choice include adult children returning home and grandparents rescuing fragmented nuclear families. But the creators seem determined to look backward rather than forward, both in characterization and in development.
The script allows each character one note, and one note only. Grandfather Jack (Shaun Jackson) is the gruff and wise patriarch, who tends patiently to his newly motherless granddaughters. The younger, Amy (Amber Marshall), loves horses and the land; the elder, businesswoman Lou (Michelle Morgan), is torn between adventure and her family. Ranch hand Ty (Graham Wardle) is juvenile romance lit’s classic bad boy, with an honest heart and not a clue about rural life.
Throughout the first episode, these family members tell each other information they already know (or would, if the writers had managed to invent a working facsimile of a family), the actors struggling with unflattering camera angles and flat lighting. When Amy fights with Lou over which heritage will dominate the ranch, her mother’s altruism or her long-gone father’s business acumen, or Ty sulks himself into leaving the ranch because no one respects him, the outcome is signaled in advance, making it hard for viewers to stay interested.
Fortunately, Heartland features the spare landscape of high plains Alberta, which needs no explanation. In the first episode, the snow-dusted, winter-browned grass and empty horizons in one direction and the Rockies in the other tell more about the ranching business than any conversation in the show. But the show never realizes the potential of landscape as a subtle character. Instead, it resorts to a quick shot as picturesque filler and badge of authenticity: filmed on location in (the real) Alberta.
Nothing in the specific content or production quality of the first episode suggests why the series is a hit. The show acts as the rock-solid, 7pm anchor to CBC’s Sunday evening schedule, appealing both to young adults and older viewers. Its international exposure, through the running of episodes on YouTube and one-season showings in Europe, has stimulated fan sites, fan fiction competitions, and even an online petition begging Britain’s broadcasters to show the entire run. For younger viewers at least, the throwback genre may actually have some novelty, now that TV has been colonized by cops with guns and geeks with wireless technologies.
Perhaps Heartland‘s appeal of the show lies precisely in its generic rather than specific qualities. The mythic frontier may have fresh resonance for a post-millennial generation. They might see Amy’s autonomy to range across the family land, spend time alone without any supervision, and execute the adult role of horse rescuer and healer as an unattainable ideal. And the show turns ranching on the margins into a kind of rural suburbia with wry jokes about missing breakfast at dawn instead of the reality of falling into bed exhausted at the end of a 14-hour day, seven days a week.
It helps this fantasy that Amy wears Ralph Lauren-style western gear, especially in the key scene where she discovers her power to heal horses. While she supposedly has spent hours in the corral driving the horse, not a speck of dust mars her chic puffy vest. Even Ty’s battered pick-up exudes high-end advertisement cool rather than last-chance transport. Thus the show offers the ranch as an environment free from parental control, but without any of the implacable obligations or unexpected dangers such freedom might entail.