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September 12, 2014

Vancouver-based series ‘Package Deal’ turns up heat in edgier second season


Bill Brioux / The Canadian Press

So you climbed the Canadian TV mountain, convinced a programming executive to green-light your home-grown comedy and managed, against all odds, to get it on the air for a whole season.

Now what?

It’s a dilemma that faces every creator/executive producer in Canada lucky enough to get an order for a second season. All that initial network promotional love and ballyhoo seems to drift off and you find yourself trying to promote the return of just another show in a sea of clutter.

Which brings us to “Package Deal,” returning for a second season Friday night on City.

The Vancouver-based sitcom stars Randal Edwards, Harland Williams and Jay Malone as three somewhat wacky, close-knit brothers. Julia Voth plays Edwards’ character’s hot girlfriend who accepts them all, for better or for worse; that’s the “Package Deal.”

A few of the stars along with creator and executive producer Andrew Orenstein were in Toronto recently for a local appearance on “Breakfast Television” and other promotional opportunities. Instead of “Package Deal” posters on billboards and bus shelters around town, they were surrounded by a sea of hype for the city’s annual late summer entertainment obsession, the Toronto International Film Festival.

Here’s the message Orenstein wants to get out as his series returns: Season 2 is edgier.

“My nine-year-old can only watch about half of it,” he says. “Last year he watched all of it.”

Sex and dating stories dominate. Characters discuss things such as who slept with more people. One character dates a woman who is into sexual fetishes. “That’s a fairly edgy show,” says Orenstein.

Turning up the heat as you go along, he says, is just part of the normal tinkering one does on a comedy that went straight into production without a pilot. “It takes time to find your feet,” he says.

The network didn’t just go along with the new direction — they encouraged it. “I’ve never been with a network before that said, ‘Go farther,'” he says. “This year they said ‘Go farther.'”

With “Package Deal,” City finds itself competing not just with other network sitcoms for viewers but also against edgier cable fare such as “Girls,” “Louie” or “Episodes.” Then there’s competition from new platforms such as Netflix, Crackle or Funny or Die. All network comedies, as viewers of “2 Broke Girls” can attest, have had to get edgy to compete. “Package Deal” pushes it in Season 2, “but I think we’re still on the side of taste,” says Orenstein.

The Toronto native knows from funny. He took an English major at Western University down to Hollywood and spun it into a comedy career. He’s been a writer/producer on several Canadian and American comedies, including “3rd Rock from the Sun,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and CBC’s “18 to Life.”

“Package Deal” has been part of a Canadian comedy production revival the past two seasons. As the cliché goes, however, comedy is hard. Homegrown efforts such as “Seed,” “Satisfaction” and “Working the Engels” have already come and gone. A deal with Rogers to invest in a second window on CBC’s “Mr. D” has saved that sitcom for a fourth season. New efforts, such as CBC’s “Schitt’s Creek” with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, are premiering later this season.

Like “Package Deal,” CTV’s “Spun Out” is another recent sitcom shot in the traditional “four camera” style before a studio audience. It is a form dating back to “I Love Lucy” but one seldom used with any success in Canada.

Orenstein says he’s stepping back in Season 2 from the live studio audience format. When production resumed this past May in Vancouver, the series switched to a modified version of the “10/90” production plan employed in recent years by such U.S. comedies as Charlie Sheen’s “Anger Management.” Two episodes are shot each week instead of one. Doubling up on set use and studio rentals saves money, says Orenstein, but there are also creative advantages. There’s no time for second guessing — from producers or networks — in the buildup to one live studio production. Some scenes are still shot before an audience, but about half the scenes are not.

“We didn’t want to get rid of the studio audience altogether,” says Orenstein. “Otherwise, why hire (standup specialists) Harland Williams and Jay Malone?”

The more streamlined production schedule also suits the Season 2 creative objectives.

“We really make an effort to keep the show simpler,” he says. “It’s about the brothers and it’s about the girl who comes between them. Simple as that.”

Other Season 2 changes include ramping up Jill Morrison’s role in the tea shop as Nikki, ditching the courtroom set and bringing in guest stars Jason Priestley as a weather reporter and Amanda Tapping as Edwards’ character’s provocative Bay Street law office boss.