Corner Gas is, to me, an amazing show. It is simple, fun, completely unpretentious, and thoroughly Canadian. I also think it sets a high standard when it comes to creating an episodic television series.
Corner Gas is a half-hour TV series set in the fictional town of Dog River, Saskatchewan. It stars Brent Butt, who basically plays himself (purportedly), with an excellent supporting cast. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Any of the characters can, and sometimes do, carry episodes on their own. While Brent is the central character, calling Wanda, Hank, Lacey, Davis, Karen, Oscar, and Emma “supporting characters” does them a disservice. Enough of a digression. Back to the background.
The show lasted for 6 seasons as a live-action program. They then made a feature film (Corner Gas: The Movie), and returned for 4 more seasons as an animated show called (surprise!) Corner Gas Animated. The animated version was sort-of a reboot and sort-of a continuation of the previous movie and live-action show. They weren’t beholden to history, but they also didn’t forget it either.
Each episode is pretty much stand-alone, as is the movie. You don’t have to watch previous episodes to get the story or the humour. On occasion an episode will make reference to past stories, but that is pretty rare (so when it happens, it’s rather fun). You can watch the show in any order, and you’ll be just as entertained.
The stories themselves aren’t exactly deep, and the show isn’t trying to solve the world’s problems. They aren’t exploring contemporary themes or issues, and they tend to stay away from things that were culturally or politically topical, so the show itself isn’t dated even years later. Certainly, the humour isn’t particularly complex, and I’m sure some find it a bit simplistic. For me, I like that the humour is kept simple. Sure, you can see some of the punchlines coming from a mile away. That’s not always a bad thing.
The animated series takes things to another level, albeit not exactly a huge leap. Being animated allows them to explore some humour that gets difficult with live action. There’s more flexibility in the story telling as a result. Again, the animated show continued the trend of staying away from “what’s topical today” stories, which should help keep it entertaining years from now. There won’t be the need to understand the cultural context to get what’s going on.
What I like about the show is the consistency when it comes to the look and feel of the show itself, both live action and animated. The original series used the exact same opening theme and sequence for its entire run (okay, the one Christmas episode had a slight variation on the theme). They didn’t introduce new and wacky characters. The show did start to give some of the secondary characters (Mayor Fitzy, Fitzy’s Grandma, Josh the cook, etc) a bit more prominence.
There were sometimes guests on the show (plus a bunch of cameos by Canadian celebrities and politicians), and some seemed like they might be an attempt to expand the cast. In reality, though, they weren’t. The core cast remained the same throughout the show for the live action series and the movie. Sadly, Janet Wright passed away before the animated series started, and Emma was very-capably voiced by Corinne Koslo for Corner Gas Animated.
You can watch the first episode (Ruby Reborn) and the last episode (You’ve Been Great, Goodnight) of the live action show, and know for certain you’re watching the same show. The look, the feel, the atmosphere is basically the same, unchanged from one episode to the next. They aren’t concerned with world-building. The characters aren’t growing or changing. And those are all good things. It makes it easy to pick an episode, particularly some favourites, and re-watch them.
The Right Length
The live action series ended after 6 seasons, and it didn’t feel like it was missing something. It wasn’t that the show was getting stale, and it certainly wasn’t repetitive. But they ended it at seems like the right time. Comments from Bent Butt indicated that they were concerned they would have to go back to the well, and essentially tell the same stories again. I was so glad they didn’t.
The movie told a nice, compact story, and left it at that. Like the TV shows before and after, you could watch the movie without needing to watch the live action show first. For those coming from the show, the movie was familiar. For those new, it would have been a nice, self-contained story. They didn’t set it up to have a sequel because that’s not how the storytelling worked. A sequel could have happened without issue. The absence of a sequel doesn’t leave you wondering “well, what’s next?”.
The animated series lasted for 4 seasons. While it could have continued for longer, I think at some point it, too, would have been time to wrap it up. As it is, the 4 seasons they made are entertaining and very re-watchable. Again, you can do that in any order.
That’s What Makes It Great
All these things together (the stable cast, the consistent production, the “right length”) makes Corner Gas so great, and so watchable. Too many shows end up tinkering with characters, story, production design, and opening themes. They try to keep the show fresh with the introduction of new characters, or some characters leave, which can detract from the show. They visit new locales, or change locations entirely.
The show also didn’t try to play on “meme of the week” topics. It stayed away from anything that might be considered topical at the type. The result is that you have episodes where you aren’t wondering “why is that funny again?” because they depend on you knowing about some social, political, or cultural event that was happening at the time the show aired. Sure, some elements of the set or props are clearly a product of the time period. But you don’t have to have lived it to get the stories being presented to us.
At some point, most shows seem to jump the shark. In a desperate attempt to keep the show popular or relevant, the showrunners resort to some crazy “this will blow your mind” stunt or episode. Corner Gas never stooped to that level. There were no cliff hangers, and they didn’t hammer us repeatedly with the will they/won’t they thing with Brent and Lacey. Sure, it came up from time to time, when it made sense for the story they were telling in that episode. But it wasn’t an on-going “thing” trying to keep us hooked.
Timeless and Re-watchable
Personally, I find the timeless nature of the show comforting. It also makes it readily re-watchable for me. When I have a little time to kill, I’ll watch an episode of either the live action or the animated series. Watching the movie from time to time is a nice way to spend a relaxed hour and half. I have my favourite episodes for both the live action and animated. But I usually just watch them through in order, and after I’ve finished, queue them both up again.
They kept the show and stories simple. The production and feel of the show remains more-or-less the same from start to finish. I think more shows would benefit from that kind of attention, because then we can focus on the show, and not the stuff that keeps changing (sometimes for no apparent reason). Focus on the story. That’s what we want anyways. And Corner Gas delivers on that.
[Corner Gas, Corner Gas: The Movie, and Corner Gas Animated are streaming on various services in Canada, the US, and globally. They also appear regularly in reruns on various Canadian TV stations and cable channels. All are also available for purchase on iTunes].