Special Report: Gemini Nominees: Madison: praised but fighting to survive

There's a saying in the American television business that good reviews don't always mean good numbers. My So-Called Life won raves but disappeared from the screen when it didn't generate enough audience to draw advertisers....

There’s a saying in the American television business that good reviews don’t always mean good numbers. My So-Called Life won raves but disappeared from the screen when it didn’t generate enough audience to draw advertisers.

The phenomenon holds true in Canadian television too, where Vancouver’s high-school drama Madison – despite earning six nominations at this year’s Gemini Awards, including best youth series – has not yet been renewed for a fourth season.

Its quality notwithstanding, the 30-minute, issues-driven show has been juggled from broadcaster to broadcaster, placed in rerun limbo, and jostled from one time slot to another only to find itself airing in Vancouver on Saturday night at precisely the time when its prime audience is starting to cruise up and down fashionable Robson Street.

Gillian Lindsay, one of the four partners behind producer Forefront Productions of Vancouver, puts a brave face on it. Maintaining momentum with such adversity has been the biggest challenge, she admits.

The saving graces are the show’s writing (which starts with focus groups of teens to develop relevant, timely story ideas) and Madison’s talented cast. Three of its actresses are nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role: Sarah Strange, Enuka Okuma and Joely Collins (daughter of rock ‘n’ roll superstar Phil Collins) join Tina Keeper and Tracey Cook of North of 60 and Catherine Disher from Forever Knight in the competition.

The concentration of talented barely twentysomethings is remarkable, says Lindsay, who adds that industry insiders have often commented that Madison boasts some of the best acting talent in Canada.

Gary Harvey – Madison’s production manager and part-time auteur nominated in the Best Director of a Dramatic Series category – describes the ensemble cast of 10 as ‘fresh, focused and talented.’

Strange is last year’s Gemini winner for Best Guest Performance by an Actress in a Dramatic Series playing a heroin-addicted prostitute in Neon Rider. She plays bright and rebellious Carol who gets into trouble in Madison’s second season for focusing too much on her music and doubting her sexuality when she develops a crush on a female band member.

‘Every year, the show gets better,’ she says. ‘The show has grown up, as has the ensemble cast. It was the first gig I ever got and I learned everything on the set.’ Her other credits include tv guest roles on The X-Files and The Marshall and a part in the feature Little Women.

Her success at last year’s Gemini Awards has opened no doors, however.

‘It’s a real honor, but you go to Toronto, collect your award and you still have to come home and sell your cds to pay your rent.’

Collins, in a telephone interview from l.a. where she is auditioning for pilot season, says she plays Rachel, a younger Madison character who has yens for the wrong kind of boyfriend.

In her Gemini-nominated episode, Rachel seduces a ‘bad boy’ and has sex with him only to have him dump her for his old girlfriend. Through the episode, Collins portrays elation, guilt, anger, hate and humiliation.

Collins, who has principal acting credits in the tv series Poltergeist and mow In the Lake of the Woods, says a Gemini would be ‘very exciting’ but wouldn’t have a lot of pull with u.s. casting directors. While in l.a., she auditioned for the lead role in a new Nancy Drew series to be shot in Toronto, a job that will go to a Canadian citizen to satisfy Cancon rules.

Okuma, a nominee last year, has another nod for her portrayal of Sheri, a straight-a student who is involved in a mixed-race relationship and finds out she’s pregnant in the second season.

Okuma, who is also in l.a. auditioning for pilot season, credits her noteworthy performance to sensitive direction by director Jane Thompson. ‘Working with a woman was a godsend,’ she explains, referring to the range of emotions Sheri experienced in deciding whether or not to keep her baby. ‘Only another woman could have brought out those emotions in me.’

Okuma’s other credits include a regular role on teen soap Northwood and an appearance in The Commish.

But while the show is recognized for its acting, Okuma says she’s frustrated by its problematic airing schedule, ‘since we have such a good product.’

‘Not enough people see it because of the inconsistent time slots,’ she explains.

So while Madison is recognized as one of the most nominated Canadian-made programs, its fate hangs in the balance.

A successful night in Toronto, netting a lot of Gemini hardware, will help cement the show’s relationship with its broadcaster, provide some good press, bolster the egos of its actors, but not much else.

‘The bottom line is selling the show around the world,’ says Lindsay. ‘To that end, we have sold Madison in 12 countries, and we’re close to a deal in the u.s. We’ve spoken to mtv and the (American) syndicated networks.’