Robson Arms may not be a real place, in the empirical sense of the word, but it surely feels real to the people who work on the show of the same name, to its pleasantly addicted fans—waiting far too long through an extended hiatus that ends this week—and for the passersby who wander into the ground-floor “convenience store” that anchors the East Side site that is masquerading as a downtown apartment building.
There are large signs everywhere—by the chips and candy bars and crackers—in the Tan family’s crowded shop/set, clearly commanding “Do Not Eat!” The fact that the perishables have sat there for as much as two years and that the place is plagued by mice during downtime isn’t known by some novice crew members and visitors who sometimes rip into a yellowed wrapper or two.
“Whenever we’re working here,” said Julia Frittaion, the show’s publicist, “people always knock on the door, asking if they can buy something. ”˜Hey, all I want is a pack of smokes,’ is the usual thing. And sometimes it’s tempting.”
This may say more about the lack of amenities in the boundary area between Vancouver and Burnaby than about the verisimilitude of the show and its environment. But for the two seasons the program—created and made by local writer-producers Susin Nielsen and Gary Harvey and Omni Films—has been part of CTV’s lineup, the convergence of everydayness and the lopsidedly surreal has been a big part of Robson Arms’s anthological charm.
Think back to earlier episodes, like when Colin Foo, as Bao Tan, practised his tuba in the laundry room, or when the brain in a jar kept in the closet by geeky Fred Fochs (Haig Sutherland) stood between him and true love with his Internet pen pal. These days, as the series heads into a third season starting Monday (April 28) at 9:30 p.m., Fred is happily entwined with pretty Alicia (Jane McGregor), who once earned extra pocket money by cleaning for Dr. Carlisle Wainwright (William B. Davis) while in very short skirts. Well, Lois Lane (or Margot Kidder, anyway) had just left him.
Carlisle is gone now—really gone—but newcomers to the dilapidated apartment complex include Linda Kash as the tough-minded, recently divorced woman in the Wainwrights’ old flat, and Dave Foley as Chuck, the cranky Texan who just bought the building from Terry David Mulligan, as the previous slumlo”¦ I mean, owner.
The show is still grounded by Kevin McNulty and David Richmond-Peck, as one of television’s most realistic gay couples. And most of the way in, there is great funny business with the durable John Cassini as Yuri, the worst super ever. And those cool original songs by Jason Dedrick and Tom Saunders still open each episode.
In the new batch, though, there is not enough stuff with the great Gabrielle Rose, whose character runs the aforementioned corner store, and perhaps too much reliance on Gabrielle Miller’s dim-bulb Bobbi (now a harried single mom) and Fred Ewanuick’s slacker Nick (currently trying to clean up his act), thus inviting comparisons with the grossly inferior Corner Gas, which stars the same twosome. Some may, no doubt, accuse the series of low-key shark-jumping along the way.
It shouldn’t be too much surprise that Foley, the newest member of the crew, came into the fold fairly vague on the show’s history.
“I’m afraid I had never seen it,” the former (and once-again) Kids in the Hall star told the Georgia Straight over tomato-basil soup in an on-set visit last fall during taping. The NewsRadio veteran had been busy with newer Yank shows like Scrubs and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and also with hopscotching reunion tours (the aging Kids hit Seattle May 15 and Coquitlam’s Red Robinson Show Theatre one day later).
“I knew very little about the series, except that Mark McKinney—who was on the first few episodes—told me it was a really great show and the people were cool to hang out with. I read the scripts, and they were good, and also watched clips on-line. I have DVDs of the first two seasons now but haven’t had a chance to watch them yet. I will, I promise,” he called out to no one in particular.
On the other hand, while getting ready to shoot a tense hallway confrontation with Kash’s cynical character, he related some creative advantage to his ignorance of Robson Arms.
“Yes, in a way, it’s better coming in not knowing the people, because my character is basically coming to dismantle the place, in the fine American tradition of sucking all the money out of something.”
In an unexpected twist, Foley plays a former host of a kids's show whom tenants recognize as Captain Bedhead from their own youthful TV watching. “I can tell you that things don’t go exactly right for me. But then, it’s the nature of the show, and most shows, to thwart the villain.”
Actually, time is the real enemy of Robson Arms, both to the crumbling building and to the series itself. Will either survive the calendar’s onslaught? Please stay tuned.