Why Blackstone on Hulu raises the bar for Canadian TV

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I have never been in a prison. So there was no escaping the chance to visit the set of Blackstone, the Canadian drama about a fictional First Nation reserve, shooting its fourth season inside Edmonton’s infamous old Remand Centre.

Prisoners held there until 2013 are gone, as is the smell and sweat of their former presence.

But a pall of gloom still hangs over sprawling prison blocks where remand prisoners – innocent until proven guilty – were confined in twos or threes to cells no bigger than your bathroom at home.

Still, the eerie hollowness and silence of the infamous jail, still disconnected from the outside world as it doubles as a set for the APTN drama, suits Ron E. Scott, Blackstone‘s creator, writer and director with Prairie Dog Film + Television.

After three seasons where Blackstone was largely treated like Canada’s First Nations communities – overlooked or just ignored on APTN – the homegrown drama is suddenly a match for dramas like Rookie Blue or Motive after Hulu acquired the first three seasons of the one hour drama for the U.S. market, to start streaming in July.

“Of course we want to be in the U.S., obviously we want as many people to see [Blackstone] as possible,” Scott told Playback during an on-set interview in Edmonton.

The new U.S. home, which traditionally provides the making of a Canadian drama owing to the faith and pressure of a giant American viewership, will see Hulu stream the fourth season of the edgy drama about a fictional First Nation reserve later this year.

“Anytime you have a desire by the U.S., it is a confirmation,” Scott says of Canadian viewers who often wait for a U.S. lead before following a local series.

The Hulu deal with PPI Releasing also underlines the increasing off-network options available to Canadian producers digital platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, especially if their serialized dramas have small, but loyal audiences.

“Canada still wants to know that it is doing something that is accepted in the U.S. If they like it, it must be good,” Scott added of Canadian audiences.

Scott also welcomes in Hulu the capacity for binge viewing of Blackstone after the streaming service’s viewers discover the Canadian drama by word of mouth, thanks to social media.

“A lot of core viewers in Canada say the same thing: they can’t watch the next show. That’s eliminated,” he said.

Scott is also eyeing additional foreign sales of the scripted Canadian drama with Hulu now on board.

“From every indication, a sale in the U.S. means the world starts to take notice,” he insisted.

And so too might Canadians.

Hulu isn’t yet available in Canada, but TV viewers here are used to Netflix Canada, iTunes and other new platforms where they can watch series like like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that they may not have seen on AMC, for example, before the series landed on a video streaming service.

The new international attention for Blackstone, however, stands in contrast to the decidedly indigenous roots of the homegrown drama.

Back on set, Scott and DOP Jonathan Benny are busily blocking scenes for eight new episodes of the Aboriginal drama.

In the upcoming fourth season, disparate and individual storylines are combined to produce a revealing look at how Canada’s former residential schools system, and its legacy of drug and alcohol abuse and incarceration today, has demoralized and devalued native communities and prompted attempts at healing and reconciliation.

As the cameras are moved into place, Benny makes ample use of steadicam cameras for shaky camerawork to lend dramatic tension. Benny also has the cameras peer around corners and through foreground furniture, or through door slits, so the TV audience feels they are intruding on jailhouse conversations between characters as semi-voyeuristic viewers.

For Scott, it’s about expanding the universe of Blackstone from a rookie season that focused on First Nation reserve politics and corruption to an upcoming fourth season where key characters are in and out of jail.

“In season four, you get to a place where you understand so many more things, and there can be a maturity on some levels to expound on ripped-from-the-headlines storylines,” he insisted.

Those grim storylines include continuing issues of political corruption, oil and gas exploration and human trafficking.

“They (viewers) are being taken on a journey through the headlines in a fictional way,” Scott explained.

But here Blackstone poses a crucial question for the Canadian TV industry: beyond minority dramas and local versions of global franchises that have performed for producers in recent years, are homegrown original series the next hot properties best placed to engage Canadian audiences?

This is the first of a two-part series: read “How Canadian TV is getting serious in tough times” here.