January 23, 2013

Part 1: What City’s Package Deal teaches us about the 2008 Hollywood writer’s strike

Etan Vlessing / Playback

As Los Angeles convulsed during the 2008 Hollywood writers’ strike, Canadian TV producers faced a massive opportunity.

The result was a series of small wins as Canadian-made shows like Flashpoint and The Listener, initially regarded as strike-proof series, made it onto U.S. network schedules.

Five years later, the Canadian industry and Hollywood have truly joined as talent that went south for better opportunities have come back home to shoot a series with cross-border sensibilities.

On a soundstage in Burnaby, British Columbia, far way from the major studios in Los Angeles, Canadians are at work for Thunderbird Films and City on an episode of the first season of the sitcom Package Deal.

Watching the coming and goings of cast, crew and production and network executives is Andrew Orenstein.

The Toronto-raised TV scribe is doing what Hollywood has been doing since Desi Arnaz and I Love Lucy, and what Canadians have hardly done for a generation.

Orenstein dreamed up and wrote Package Deal — a four-camera, studio-audience comedy about three overly-close brothers and the woman who comes between them — at his local Starbucks in Los Angeles and sold it fully-formed to a Canadian broadcaster.

“I didn’t set out to write an American show, versus a Canadian show. I just wrote a show, and they liked it. And I said that’s good, let’s make it,” Orenstein says of the original pitching process for Package Deal.

But what Orenstein has done is buck convention. As a Hollywood player in Vancouver, he is helping forge a new Canadian TV model increasingly upending how U.S. network shows are made in Canada, using mainly or solely local talent.

Orenstein’s job as head writer and the one in charge of every detail on set, alongside the director Steve Wright, at first glance has him showcasing the trials and tribulations of the White family in a Canadian comedy.

Enter Danny White, the youngest heartthrob brother played by Randal Edwards.

His character is an Ivy-league trained defense lawyer with an expensive loft in Toronto, a fully-loaded BMW and a boyish grin.

What’s not to love for new-found girlfriend character Kim Mattingly, played by Julia Voth, a Saskatoon-born model-turned-Los Angeles-based actress?

Kim will find out when she’s introduced to Danny’s two protective older brothers.

Putting Danny into the role of the straight man is Sheldon, the bossy, goofy oldest brother played by Toronto-born and Los Angeles-based Harland Williams, and the uptight middle brother Ryan, ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and played by Victoria, B.C.-born and Nova Scotia-raised Jay Malone, who arrived in Hollywood in 2005.

The built-in conflict in Package Deal comes from Kim having to compete with Sheldon and Ryan for Danny’s affections.

Danny’s protective brothers want her to go away, and she doesn’t.

And Kim keeps having to ask Danny why his intrusive two brothers are always around, and don’t just go away.

“That’s the world this comedy lives in,” Orenstein explains.

It’s no coincidence Danny’s character is closest to the series’ creator heart.

Package Deal, where Kim has to take Danny and his protective brothers as a package deal, is really about Orenstein and his step-brother, to whom he remains close.

Orenstein recalls first dating his future wife 17 years ago, and forever talking about a brother he idolized.

“I’d say, you’ve got to meet him. He’s a star and he’s a salesman. And I was always asking him for sales advice or dating advice,” he recalls.

Then the step-brother was to come down to Los Angeles for a visit, leaving Orenstein’s new girlfriend nervous to meet the family star.

“And then she met him and said, ‘don’t get me wrong, I love him,'” he remembers.

The big “but” was she saw an overweight bottled-water salesman, and someone Orenstein was taking financial advice from, even after lending him $2,500.

Orenstein, blind to his older step-brother, defended him, even as his girlfriend questioned why he took dating advice from someone who married the first woman he courted.

The veteran sitcom writer insists he sees the same dynamic in his own two sons, aged 7 and ten years.

The younger one looks up to the older brother, no matter what they do.

“He keeps getting beaten up, but he always comes back for more,” Orenstein insists.

You get the sense if Package Deal is to succeed, Orenstein and his four leads will need to capture something potent: sibling rivalry, disciplined by the demands of TV, yet still close to the emotion of brothers and sisters in the viewing audience.

Here is the challenge that Orenstein brought from his local Starbucks to this Vancouver soundstage.

In part 2 of a three-part series on Package Deal, we’ll see, bound up together, the lessons of the 2008 Hollywood writers strike and the laughter it has unleashed on Canadian sound-stages.