Lewis Carroll’s original Wonderland, Alice, a bored young girl, follows a white rabbit down a hole and ends up in a topsy-turvy world where, among many other weird, wonderful and dark characters, she meets a Mad Hatter. The Mad Hatter happens to be a crazy rabbit wearing a tall hat. But there is also a deep, dark and wonderful logic to this. Hatters – that is, men who made hats in England at the turn of the 19th century – sometimes displayed symptoms of madness because of the glue fumes they inhaled while making the hats.

In George F. Walker and Dani Romain’s unique television series This is Wonderland, we follow a young lawyer named Alice into the chaos of Canadian justice in Toronto’s Old City Hall and meet madness in three senses of the term: crazy people, angry people and the weird inner workings of justice itself gone “mad.” In this world, everyone has a place on the crazy merry-go-round.

But in February 2006, after three seasons and three Gemini awards, the CBC announced it was cancelling the series. In the eyes of many devoted fans, the CBC too had gone mad. It was a simple matter of ratings, we were told: CBC dramas were henceforth to be more “audience friendly.”1 So this article, originally intended to introduce Inroads readers to an important series, now becomes a kind of requiem, a lament for a real loss to Canadian viewers. At the same time, it is a reflection on whether This is Wonderland could have been more “audience friendly,” to use the CBC’s terminology.

I wanted the show to succeed. And I am uncomfortable with a decision that can only discourage innovative Canadian television where writers and directors take risks rather than relying on the tried and true formulas beloved by accountants and bureaucrats. But I wonder it may have been inevitable.

George F. Walker is a veteran Canadian playwright who, in 1972, submitted a short play to the Factory Theatre when he saw a billboard soliciting scripts while driving a cab in Toronto. Walker went on to win eight Chalmers, five Dora and two Governor General’s awards for his subsequent plays. His plays have been translated into six languages and performed on Canadian, American and European stages. He is the Margaret Atwood of Canadian theatre – English Canada’s most important contribution to world theatre. His work appears consistently on Canadian drama course lists and critics speak of him in reverential terms.

The concept for Wonderland grew out of a chance visit Walker and Romain made to the Ontario provincial courts on a particularly chaotic day. Following that, Walker and Romain spent 18 months percolating the notion, hanging out most frequently in Mental Health Court – “because the stories there were so powerful,” Romain says. The show employed legal consultants to ensure that the law was portrayed accurately and had a researcher observing ongoing cases in the Old City Hall courthouse, mining the rich material for story ideas.2 Competing with big-budget American dramatic TV shows, it is remarkable that the show succeeded to the extent that it did. Here was an unmistakably Canadian series, filmed unabashedly in Toronto, that was making a mark in the world.3

For all its madness, This is Wonderland aimed its arrows directly at underlying truths. Out of Toronto’s multiethnic and diverse demographic soup, the writers created characters trapped in the absurdities, vagaries and human follies that end up in our court system. There were no heroes and villains in This is Wonderland, just the mad and the disaffected trapped in a mad system while others in the legal profession tried to do their jobs, or at least survive another day.

17 Michael Riley in This is Wonderland Photo by Russ Martin1Wonderland showed ordinary and extraordinary people in endless battles with our helping institutions. Legal Aid and Children’s Aid, centres for mental health, abused women and the homeless – all suffer from inadequate funding, while angry, needy, mentally fragile people bang on their doors. We can all relate to this world in some way. Some of us have even felt the urge to strangle the person behind the disembodied call centre voice when we contact them again and again over a problem that never gets resolved. All we want is to be heard, to be given a chance, to be treated with dignity.

We met sons and daughters at war with parents suffering early-onset dementia; homeless people fighting for the right to sleep where they feel safest, even if it happened to be a public park or a subway vent; and the mentally ill, “freed” from mental institutions, no longer hidden away. Wonderland presented their stories with grit and humour. We met lawyers and judges – again, not heroes or villains, but ordinary people up against impossible situations.

The series drew us into this cacophonous melting pot, this shouting, writhing, seedy, angry overflow of people. There were no murders or big heists, the bread and butter of standard cop-and-lawyer shows. In Wonderland the crimes were petty: a prostitute entrapped by a cop; a feud between two dentists, one of whom ended up tied to a dental chair stripped to his underwear; two black men accusing each other of racism; the child in the body of a grownup who freed chickens because they “look sad.” And as befits Toronto, characters came in all colours, shapes and sizes, and from all educational and socioeconomic backgrounds – reaching deeper and wider than we’re used to.

Walker and Romain tackled the incredible complexities of the justice system and the stories interwove at the choppy pace of a character with attention deficit disorder. Each episode featured multiple stories having to do with bail hearings, plea court, Mental Health Court and more, all at the same rapid-fire pace. Just as in the court in the Old City Hall, everyone was rushed, frantic, angry or demented and demanded to have their day.

At their best, Walker and Romain could break our hearts while they made us laugh. My favourite stories were about real but zany characters and how they coped. In one episode, Fred was in court charged with assault on his wife’s new husband. Frannie, in the early stages of senility, forgot she had been married to Fred for 48 years. Fred was naturally incensed and we found him in bail court for trying to assault Frannie’s new husband: “I’m an aggrieved man. I’m a goddamned cuckold.” In the end, Fred, the forgotten husband, was granted bail, while Frannie negotiated terms for a three-way relationship.

Another episode I enjoyed was about two brothers, Greg and Tim, and Greg’s hilarious transvestite wife Consuelo, who barely spoke English (“a marriage of convenience,” according to Greg). Greg had burned down Tim’s shed because, he claimed, Tim had killed their mother. Tim became intrigued with Consuelo once he met her/him: “She doesn’t want to be here. I can tell. She wants to come with me. Look. It’s just like Mom, Greg … It’s like Mom all over again … She likes me better. I can’t help it.” In the end, the lawyers tramped up to cottage country to uncover the truth. It turned out that the mother was indeed long dead – but that the brothers were not willing to admit it until they were confronted with the truth at the bail hearing.

None of these characters were pretty or handsome or particularly likeable, but they hit at a truth. The lengths to which we go to preserve our self-esteem or hide things from ourselves were poignantly illuminated and very funny. The vignettes gave us a glimpse of the lawyers’ efforts – despite heavy caseloads – to get at what was behind the delusion or the schizophrenic episode or the explosive incident. Wonderland deserved its Schizophrenia Society of Canada’s media award in 2004 for its portrayal of the mentally ill.

Wonderland was also unusual in the demands it made on production. It was an immense and frantic undertaking. Anne Wheeler, a director for a block of shows in the first two seasons, said, “The casts are huge. The stories are complex and surprising. There is a lot of story packed into each hour … It’s fast and twisted … The pace is unrelenting.” Scott Smith, another director, commented, “To direct a block of Wonderland is to immerse yourself in a sea of actors … there were over 70 guest roles cast in three episodes.”4

To write a show like this week after week is a brave undertaking and a major feat. Walker’s plays have been described as “grim, absurdist, yet socially oriented, tragicomedies.”5 He uses language as if it were a car chase,6 and he cares about people’s struggle to fight back even when it seems hopeless. Walker has said, “There is definitely hardly any justice in the world.”7 Definitely hardly. I like the juxtaposition of those two words. It gets at his slanted yet unflinching view.

Still, despite all this, I wasn’t entirely satisfied. Despite my love affair with some of the characters and subplots and the overall concept of the show, and my appreciation of the often fine and comic writing, I found something missing. I wanted more, in terms of plot and character, than what Walker and Romain’s black comedy was willing or able to provide. I came to question whether the structure, as unique and wonderful as it was, bore the seeds of its own destruction – whether it could sustain our interest and loyalty over the long term.

Walker has been quoted as saying that he and Romain had “no map” about the interaction of the characters, “only intuition,” and that they chose to let things happen whenever they happened.8 There may have been no map, but there seemed to be a guiding principle: Wonderland focused on the people caught up in the justice system – its victims, or the “oppressed” if you will – and they took precedence over the lawyers and judges they encountered. This is what made Wonderland innovative and unconventional. Think of any successful dramatic or comedic TV series: the focus is on a handful of continuing primary and secondary characters. Compare Wonderland with M.A.S.H. Both combined sanity and insanity and humour in a world gone mad. But Koreans and the wounded were never more than a backdrop to M.A.S.H.’s continuing characters. Wonderland kept the wounded front and centre.

Unfortunately, a steady diet of the disaffected – the crazy of the week mumbling in court, the shouting street person, the “in your face” juvenile – no matter how clever the writing, gets tiresome. After a year or two, it gets hard to remember whether you’ve seen this particular episode before.

Walker and Romain made some effort, especially in the final year, to allow their continuing characters to grow and evolve. Unfortunately, they did not do this very effectively. Admittedly the challenge is a daunting one, since the structure set limits on the time and range they could be allowed. Having said that, and also suspecting that no changes along these lines would have made the show “audience friendly” enough for the CBC brass, I cannot help but express my overall disappointment with the character development in the third season.

The main feature was the transformation of the main male lawyer, Elliot Sacks (Michael Riley). He was first projected into the realm of the absurd by having him try out a Goth look complete with makeup. A great concept in principle, but it never felt like a genuine character development coming out of what we knew and understood about a specific person. Elliot’s transformation from womanizer to protector and then lover of a woman who shoplifted while using her two children as decoys to distract attention because she couldn’t afford a decent suit to wear to a job interview was more successful. But his constant search for himself didn’t cut it. We already had another lawyer, James Ryder (Michael Healy), who searched for himself right into character deconstruction.

Fortunately, a third male lawyer, Jack Angel (Ron Lea), joined the cast. Unlike the others, we learned about his past: he had spent time in jail for doing something underhanded but had been reinstated as a lawyer. I enjoyed watching his antics when he was on screen: the sleazy appearance, the raised eyebrows, the infectiously sly grin and wise-ass attitude when he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, his ability to pull rabbits out of a hat at the last minute to get his clients off the hook.

An intriguing episode toward the end of the third season had a quick sex scene between Jack Angel and Zona Robinson (Yanna McIntosh), a black female lawyer. Fast, drunken, frenzied. With that amount of heat coming so fast it made me wonder where else it could go. Embarrassment? Avoidance? Lasciviousness? Something to tease us with and lead us on? But by the following week the heat was gone. Even though Jack Angel was trying to set up another assignation with Zona, he looked grim rather than interested.

Last among the males was Vik Sahay as the rookie legal aid lawyer, Anil Sharma, the new boy at the bottom of the legal aid machine. In one hilarious episode he ended up looking for his lucky tie in the large garbage container outside the building because Zona, his office mate, had gotten tired of him keeping his things in garbage bags and had thrown the whole works out.

Especially disappointing were the women lawyers and supporting female characters. Perhaps inevitably, as the pillar of harried sanity, Alice de Raey (Cara Pifko) was given no personality at all beyond her legal aid lawyer persona. Unfortunately, none of the other female lawyers filled the vacuum. Nancy Dao (Siu Ta) stood out at the beginning as the crass, scheming, outspoken intern, but then she mellowed into little more than an assistant to Alice. Jayne Eastwood was funny as Elliot’s mother, but there is just so much one could do with her forthright interest in younger men.

In the end, Wonderland was a brilliant but dangerous concept. It was brilliant because it turned the usual assumptions about heroes and heroines upside down, and because two accomplished writers took chances with structure and plot and character. But it was dangerous because, if your goal is to compete with CSI and to keep the series going year after year, you’re doomed to failure.

Ever since I can remember, I have loved Alice in Wonderland. The topsy-turvy absurdity of it was inspiring. But Lewis Carroll didn’t write book after book about Alice and the Mad Hatter, nor did anyone turn Alice in Wonderland’s absurdity into a continuing series. No one considers Alice in Wonderland’s “limited run” a sign of failure.

It’s unfortunate that This is Wonderland’s demise is being seen as an indication of its failure. This is how Walker himself seems to be taking it – he has said he will stop writing for the CBC if the show is cancelled. But This is Wonderland ran for three years and kept thousands of people watching (and many thousands more will see it on DVD). It would have been great if, at the same moment it announced the end of This is Wonderland, the CBC had celebrated the show’s many innovative features and announced the next major Walker-Romain project. Walker, Romain and Canadians deserve no less. n

Continue reading “Chasing After the Mad Heart of the Hatter”