It’s one of the coldest winter days of the year, and gathered around downtown Toronto’s Trinity Square is a crew of about 50 people, suited snugly in toques and parkas. They’re here braving the cold to film CBC TV’s legal drama This is Wonderland. It’s only 10 a.m. and the crew has already been out in the cold for three hours. All eyes track the tinfoil-wrapped hot dogs that are being brought out by catering. As soon as the take wraps, the crew breaks, rushing towards the food. Unfortunately, there’s no break for the actors and scattered extras in front of the camera, all of whom have to hold their positions or else they’ll ruin the continuity for the next take. The cast is dressed warmly except for Michael Riley, who plays the eccentric defence attorney Elliot Sacks. He is hopping in place to keep his body temperature up because he insists that his quirky, addled character would only be wearing a tweed jacket, even in the middle of winter.
Yes, welcome to the glamorous (and chilly) world of Canadian television. It’s the kind of environment where hours of shooting in the bitter cold for a minute of screen time is routine. Unbelievably, thirteen hours of Canadian TV is typically assembled for the average cost of one episode of U.S. mega-hit C.S.I.. Yet, even with its relatively small budgets, This is Wonderland stands out as one of the best dramas on television today –- and definitely the best in Canada.
Unlike most legal dramas that have come before it, This Is Wonderland doesn’t feature fabulous lawyers decked out in Armani, rushing to their latest murder-of-the-week trial. Instead, the show is set in Toronto’s Old City Hall and features struggling lawyers whose clients are appointed by the court, and are mostly petty criminals and the mentally ill. Considering the setting, you’d think that Wonderland would be dour, but instead is full of unexpected comedy and affecting human drama.