Ottawa backdrop for new CBC comedy

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Director Don McKellar (second from left) and actor Bob Martin (left) work on the set the new CBC comedy “Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays” in Ottawa June 20. Bytown will get to show its hidden charms this year as the setting for the new show. — Photo by The Canadian Press

If ever a Canadian city was pigeonholed, stereotyped and even downright ignored in TV and film, it’s Ottawa.

Shows are either focused on the Parliament Buildings for a political drama (“H20”), or worse, the series or movie purports to be set in the capital, but is actually shot elsewhere (“Snakes and Ladders,” “InSecurity.”)

But old Bytown will get to show its hidden charms this year as the setting of a new CBC comedy, “Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays,” where the politics are in the bedroom and the psychiatrist’s office rather than the Hill. The show premieres Wednesday evening and gives viewers peeks of the Parliament Buildings and the Rideau Canal as part of a city where people actually live, love and work.

The series is a product of two of Canada’s stage and screen uber-creators, BFF’s Bob Martin and Don McKellar. The two swept up five 2006 Tonys for their musical “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and have collaborated on “Twitch City” and “Slings & Arrows” among other successful projects.

Another familiar face in their orbit, TV writer and actor Matt Watts, is also a writer and plays the title character Michael.

“When I first came, I was really excited because I felt (Ottawa) hadn’t really been captured on film that much, not at all really, not to the rest of the country and it has some really unique architecture that really serves the story,”  McKellar says.

Martin quips, “We assume that many neurotic people live in Ottawa. We have no statistical evidence to support that, but ...”

Martin plays one of those neurotics, psychiatrist Dr. David Storper. For 15 years, he’s been using cognitive behavioural therapy to help his client Michael (Watts) overcome a litany of phobias.

“I resent everyone I don’t know for talking to me,” Michael tells David of his fear of small talk in the series opener.

But it turns out that while Michael is growing and tackling his many demons — with a trip to the mall to practice asking for the time, for example — David is sliding deeper and deeper into his own weaknesses and ethical lapses. The theme of the damaged shrink has been explored in other shows such as “Huff” and “In Treatment,” but not with the element of comedy that makes it more generally identifiable.

On a blazing-hot day this summer, Martin and McKellar worked on a scene outside the National Gallery of Canada. David’s ex-wife (Melody Johnson) had arranged a meeting steps away from Louise Bourgeois’s iconic spider statue “Maman.”

David acts like a wounded high-school sweetheart when she reveals she has taken up with her hunky divorce lawyer.

“Who else are you sleeping with? Our accountant? Our foundation guy?” he chokes.

McKellar arrives to coach Martin on the scene, which is shot over and over. The director wants Martin to reveal in his voice that pathetic glimmer of hope that the ex actually wanted to meet to discuss reconciliation.

Although McKellar and Martin have been around the block of Canadian TV, the series is a new challenge. Martin has never played a leading role, and McKellar has never directed a multi-episode series.

The two seem completely in-synch on the set and interrupt each other as they talk enthusiastically about the show. There is no hierarchy here between the writer-actor and the director. They were high-school friends, and plan on attending their reunion together in Toronto this fall.

Says McKellar, “I do think it’s an unusual collaboration in that way because the collaboration extends not just from the writing process, but all the way through. It’s quite unique.”

Organizations: CBC, Jennifer DitchburnThe Canadian Press, National Gallery

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, Toronto

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