One of the best "dramedies" to come along in a long time, Robson Arms is a delightful surprise, a half-hour Canadian series boasting excellent writing and fine performances by some of that country's best and brightest talent. Very much an ensemble piece with character portraits of mostly moderately unhappy residents of a single apartment building, Robson Arms's great strength is its basic honesty about human behavior, especially the interaction among families behind closed doors and between neighbors. It's a very funny, sometimes bittersweet show, one that's gradually, deservedly finding a loyal following south of the border and in Europe.
Each of its 13 Season One shows zeroes in on the residents of a single low-rise apartment in Vancouver's West End, with neighbors featured in other episodes interacting to a greater or lesser extent, especially the building's thoroughly sleazy superintendent, Yuri Kukoc (John Cassini), whose improprieties include using his pass key to enter resident's apartments when their not at home so he can use his tenants' beds for off-duty trysts with various girlfriends and prostitutes. Each episode opens with a neat title montage sung by "the Troubadours" (Tom Saunders and Jason Dedrick), with lyrics that bring viewers up-to-date on the various goings-on in the building.
The teleplays of writers Susin Nielsen (the show's co-creator with director Gary Harvey), David Moses, Jesse McKeown, Daegan Fryklind, Karen McClellan, and Sioux Browning are refreshingly, amusingly honest about the way people give their eccentricities and foibles free reign once safely within the confines of their own private spaces. Sci-fi geek Fred Fochs (Haig Sutherland) shares his apartment with a floating brain-in-a-jar, a cherished prop from one of the films he obsesses over, but once a potential girlfriend he's found on the Internet (sweetly played by Stacy Smith) comes to visit, he's troubled by what she's going to make of this virtual roommate.
Stanley Wasserman (Kevin McNulty) and Geoff McAlister (David Richmond-Peck), a gay couple, make a dinner date with neighbors Elaine and Carlisle Wainwright (Superman's Margot Kidder and William B. Davis, the "Cigarette Smoking Man" from The X-Files) because they seem like such a blissfully happy middle-aged pair, only to discover too late that, after a few drinks, that they can't stand one another. A younger couple very much still in their honeymoon phase, Bobby and Bobbi Briggs (Tobias Mehler and Corner Gas' Gabrielle Miller), share an intimate reunion that barely hiccups when Bobby abruptly announces that he has to "take a dump."
The series' casual but dramatically justified explicitness is like a breath of fresh air when compared to prudish American prime-time shows. Hal Garcia (Zak Santiago) grows pot in a well-stocked closet, but the writers are not judgmental about its use. Indeed, they point to the benefits of marihuana in an episode where young Ricky Tan (Jim Tai), who helps runs an adjacent convenience store with his family, buys some pot for his immigrant grandmother (Helena Yea) who's suffering the effects of glaucoma. In the episode "ICQ," Fred is shown masturbating to a video clip saved from an Internet call to his would-be girlfriend.
The relationship between 50-year-old Stanley and 30-year-old Geoff impressively avoids gender stereotypes while the writers unabashedly show them together as readily as they would the series' heterosexual couples: in bed, touching and kissing one another. The episode highlighting their relationship, "A Certain Vintage," is especially good, dealing as it does with the problems of lovers 20 years apart in age and their reactions to an unexpected health crisis.
The series is quite good at unearthing and acknowledging the problems and misunderstandings the residents of apartment buildings always have with one another, and one suspects many of these were based on the writers' own experiences. In the first (and, oddly, weakest) episode, "Dancing the Horizontal Mambo," newly-separated single mom Janice (Megan Follows, of Anne of Green Gables) is appalled by the constant thumping and grinding of the "sex maniac" living directly above them, a widower named Tom (The Kids in the Hall's Mark McKinney), but later it's revealed that the noises are actually emanating from the lonely man's exercise machine.
Video & Audio
Robson Arms - The Complete First Season presents the shows 13 episodes on two discs, with episode 1-8 on Disc One and 9-13 plus the extra features on Disc Two. The series gets a fine 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation with state-of-the-art audio. There are no subtitle options, though the series is close-captioned, and an alternate French-dubbed track (for native French-Canadian speakers) is included. (The cover sleeve can be flipped for those wanting French cover art.)
Supplements include audio commentary tracks with creators Susin Nielsen and Gary Harvey, and director James Dunnison, along with a TV spots for this and the show's second season, along with a segment featuring Gary Harvey [Discussing] the opening sequence and tone, look and sound.
A terrific comedy-drama made by and for adults, Robson Arms is just about a must-have, and Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is due out in June.