By Norman Wilner
CBC’s free streaming service—available in app form, on smart TVs and through your web browser—offers access to live regional feeds, CBC News Network and all the sitcoms, dramas, documentaries and miniseries you can eat.
And it’s not just current television like Anne With An E, Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek; there’s also a wide range of old favourites, new imports and a whack of documentaries and feature films. Here are a few things to get you started.
All five seasons of Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson’s revered sketch comedy series are available on Gem. That’s a total of 100 episodes—and 10 “fan favourites” compilation shows—of groundbreaking genius, and for some reason these appear to be the American episodes, which means every so often you’ll stumble across a sketch like “The Dr. Seuss Bible” that never aired here. I’m thinking it’ll be a while before the Amazon revival gets into production, so maybe parcel these out.
Created by Susan Coyne, Bob Martin and Mark McKinney, and revolving around the flailing efforts of a theatre company to hold itself together after the death of its venerated artistic director, this mid-00s Stratford spoof may be the single finest sitcom this country has ever produced. It’s certainly the one most beloved by people in the industry, both for its smart backstage satire and its unmatched ensemble cast, which includes Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Don McKellar, as well as McKinney, Martin and Coyne, plus a young Rachel McAdams. It also features appearances by Geraint Wyn Davies, Colm Feore, Sarah Polley, William Hutt, Jonathan Crombie, Séan Cullen, Eric Peterson and Jackie Burroughs. Never seen it? Pace yourself: these three six-episode seasons—covering chaotic productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear—are all we’ll ever get.
Gem isn’t just a cornucopia of Canadian programming; CBC’s also licensed dozens of American and British shows, including this super-niche cult delight, produced for IFC in the U.S. From the very first episode—which mashed up Grey Gardens with The Blair Witch Project, and actually made that work—creators Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas have delivered pitch-perfect riffs on the films of Jonathan Demme, Errol Morris, Les Blank, the Maysles brothers, D.A. Pennebaker and others, with Hader and Armisen sharing the screen with guest stars like Cate Blanchett (for the Marina Abramovic parody Waiting For The Artist), Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton (the Wild Wild Country spoof Batshit Valley) and Taran Killam, Richard Kind, Paula Pell, Renee Elise Goldsberry and frequent contributor John Mulaney (the ingenious, endlessly rewatchable Sondheim riff Original Cast Album: Co-Op). Every episode is a weird, twitchy little joy.
Not only is Richard Ayoade’s eccentric travel show—in which the actor and filmmaker crankily visits a city for exactly two days, accompanied by a famous friend—consistently fun (if frantic) viewing, but now every episode looks like a historical document. (Get a load of all those people eating happily in restaurants!) The ninth and final collection of episodes just dropped, including a visit to Dubrovnik with Stephen Merchant, but if you want a good place to start, check out Season 2, Episode 1, in which Ayoade and his old IT Crowd co-star Chris O’Dowd carve a particularly destructive path through Vienna.
I have a love-hate relationship with Neil Cross’s BBC detective series, which stars Idris Elba as a London homicide detective whose personality seems almost as pathological as the murderers he pursues: I love Idris Elba, and I hate the show. Cross captured lightning in a bottle with the first run of episodes, which pits Luther against calculating sociopath Alice Morgan (a brilliant Ruth Wilson), and then forces that dynamic on every successive season, bringing Alice back over and over again to solve whatever problem Luther had created for himself. Also, the show never seems to realize that its hero is truly terrible at his job: his instincts are atrocious, he’s constantly getting people killed and he never once has to reckon with the consequences of his actions. I mean, Dr. House was a dick but he managed to cure people like 95 per cent of the time.
Gem’s movie selection bleeds maple, but in a good way: you can dig back decades and find forgotten treasures, or surf a new wave of homegrown cinema like Deanne Foley’s An Audience Of Chairs, Rebecca Addelman’s Paper Year and Sook-Yin Lee’s Octavio Is Dead! It’s also a good place to find movies you almost certainly missed the first time around, like Gary Burns’s Man Running or Lindsay MacKay’s Wet Bum.
Want a Sandra Oh double feature? Here’s Mina Shum’s Double Happiness and Don McKellar’s Last Night, which are also two of the best Canadian films of the '90s! Rather spend time with people in increasingly awful situations? Pair Denis Villeneuve’s urban alienation nightmare Enemy with Adam Macdonald’s Algonquin survival thriller Backcountry! Looking for small films about two friends working stuff out? Try Pavan Moondi’s Sundowners or Jordan Canning’s Suck It Up. And that’s just a sampling.
Gem is packed with documentaries covering every subject imaginable, and you can spend hours just combing through the options. Organize a musical playlist with Marie Clements’s The Road Forward, Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses, Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni’s Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, and Jessica Edwards’s Mavis!, or dig a little deeper and find unexpected treasures like Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem With Apu or Jamie Kastner’s The Skyjacker’s Tale. Also, there’s a short documentary about competitive balloon sculpture that’s kind of amazing.
Consumer tip: the site’s navigation is… less than perfect, and titles that start with “A” or “The” will be filed under A or T, respectively. Hopefully someone is already working on that (from home).