January 23, 2013

Part 2: How all-Canadian Package Deal is tweaked for U.S. invasion

Etan Vlessing / Playback

Sibling rivalry in sitcoms usually means competing for parental affection, as in Family Ties and Modern Family.

But in Package Deal, now being shot in front of a live studio audience on a suburban Vancouver sound-stage for City and Thunderbird Films, sibling rivalry comes from the differences and sameness that keep parent-less Danny, Ryan and Sheldon White together as brothers, and a family.

Randal Edwards, who plays the youngest White family member to stand-up veterans Harland Williams and Jay Malone as his older brothers, says the brotherly ranking on screen is reflected among the cast.

“I don’t think that’s by coincidence. In our personal relationships, there’s a pecking order too: I’m the butt of the jokes,” Edwards insists with a grin. He is clearly reveling in working with and learning from seasoned Los Angeles comedy veterans Williams and Malone after mostly cutting his teeth on sci-fi dramas like The Killing, Smallville and Supernatural shot in Toronto and Vancouver.

Julia Voth, who plays Danny’s girlfriend, competing against older brothers Sheldon and Ryan for his affections in Package Deal, says her male colleagues are similarly like big brothers to her on set.

“I grew up on a farm with older brothers. So, like Kim, I can kind of hold my own in a group of guys and don’t take crap from anyone,” Voth tells Playback.

But while Edwards and Voth know their place on set, along with Williams and Malone they are working their way up another pecking order, this time in Hollywood.

Saskatoon-born Voth, who left at age 14 to model in Tokyo before moving to Los Angeles to act, is working in Canada for the first time.

“This is going to show the world what Canadians can do,” she says of Package Deal, an all-Canadian production aiming at an American broadcast deal.

“Coming from Canada, people are going to be pleasantly surprised at what a great product we put out,” Voth adds.

Here’s the new paradigm in action.

Canadians that long bubbled up under and around Hollywood’s orbit by mostly working in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are now rising up the pecking order in Los Angeles by working both sides of the border.

That comes as innovation and impetus for Canadian comedy is no longer coming just from Burbank.

Canadians, long raised on King of Kensington, Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family episodes, are making their own four-camera sitcoms again, and, in the case of Package Deal, with a distinctly Burbank feel and look.

All of which has Orenstein unfailingly calm and confident on set.

Package Deal is just another day at the office for Orenstein, the University of Ontario graduate who set out in 1992 on a road trip across North America and a few weeks later found himself in Hollywood.

“My mother is American, so I was always able to work in the States. It never occurred to me to do so, but it (Los Angeles) was warm, so I stayed,” he recalled.

Two decades later, you can see why Thunderbird Films and City bought into Package Deal, and why Tim Gamble and Michael Shepard at Thunderbird Films will sell the series in Los Angeles largely on the strength of a show-runner known and trusted on studio lots.

Orenstein has written and produced in Hollywood around 350 sitcom episodes, including 3rd Rock from the Sun, Malcolm in the Middle and Everybody Hates Chris.

Package Deal is not the first Canadian show he’s worked on, but nearly.

The 2008 Hollywood writers strike got him a gig on 18 to Life, from indie producers Galafilm and Sound Venture.

“My agent called and said, you are Canadian, right? Because I know you like hockey,” Orenstein remembers.

18 to Life was early on in development with ABC, which felt the homegrown comedy was too Canadian.

“They couldn’t put their finger on it,” Orenstein insisted.

So he executive produced the first 13 episodes of 18 to Life, not coming on set, just helping the series’ writers better find their plot structure and its pivot points, and dealing with ABC execs in Los Angeles.

It didn’t stop there: 18 to Life turned Orenstein’s gaze back to Canada just as the Hollywood writers strike was blowing up the traditional U.S. network model.

That’s why he talks about Canadian with honesty and affection, even though Los Angeles is where he most feels at home.

“I don’t feel like I’m coming back at all. And I wasn’t setting out to do a Canadian show. This is just a show I’m passionate about and I’m fortunate to have found a home for it,” Orenstein says of finding himself on a Vancouver sound-stage making Package Deal.

“I’m thrilled that it’s in Canada. But I don’t feel like it’s me coming back. It’s nice to be in Canada. After 20 years in Los Angeles, you don’t lose it. I still root for Canadian teams,” he adds.

And that’s why in the last of our three-part story of Package Deal we’ll see on both sides of the border it’s increasingly no longer “Are you Canadian?” or “Are you American?” but instead “Is it, or is it not, a funny sitcom, ready for prime-time?”