Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reassuring Failure: CBC's Being Erica


Countless biographies, movies, and television programs celebrate the successes of great writers and literary figures. These odes track the lives of precocious and unique authors seemingly fated to brilliance, even when the poet protagonist does their best to throw it all away. Being Erica is not such a series. We meet Erica Strange, an English MA-holding call-centre employee in her early 30s, on the eve that she is fired, stood up by an internet chatroom date, and hospitalised after accidentally eating nuts, to which she is extremely allergic. While in the hospital, Erica meets Dr. Tom, a psychiatrist who asks her to make a list all her greatest regrets. After scribbling a long list of her biggest mistakes, Erica is sent back in time to fix them, giving her the chance to do the right thing. Her tasks range from helping out a drunk friend at a high-school dance to not picking sides in her parents divorce. What interests me most, however, are those stories that have to do with Erica’s failed attempts at writing, or at finding a career that suits her English major passions.
While the show’s premise of time-travelling psychotherapy sounds a bit goofy, Being Erica offers an honest look at the disappointments and tribulations that most writers face. Having failed to find a career in the literary field, Erica lusts after an old rival’s position as fiction editor at a Toronto publisher, and then goes back in time to try to steer her career more deliberately. Though Erica fails to rewrite her past into a successful present, she does manage to nail down a job as an editorial assistant at the fictional River Rock publishing house, where she makes coffee, files papers, and is bullied by her boss. Erica’s boss publicly mocks the overwrought stories Erica wrote as an undergraduate student, prompting Erica’s therapist to send her back in time to confront her overbearing poetry writing professor. Erica does not come back to the present a brilliant writer, but she does gain the confidence she needs to confront her new boss.
While Erica quickly settles in to her new job and even manages to get promoted to junior editor, in the second season of the show, the book she was responsible for editing and promoting turns out to be a flop. For this failure and some other workplace shenanigans, Erica gets the boot. She is subsequently sent back in time to see if she could have been a great novelist had she had the money and leisure to write instead of working, only to discover that money can’t buy writing chops or motivation. Erica also goes back to fix a major blunder that landed her in hot academic water, and to see if her MA could have been turned into a PhD and a career in academia. Turns out, Erica wasn’t meant for academics either. However, Erica finally decides a career in publishing is her real calling, and picks herself up to start her own small company in the third season of the show, which has yet to appear.
Erica Strange is an endearing character because while she is not fated to literary greatness, she isn't a total failure, either. Aside from the cutesy, fluffy entertainment that this show offers, Being Erica also provides realistic assurance for the average writer. This programs suggests that you don’t need to have published a book, landed a great literary job, or proved yourself to be a literary genius by the time you’re twenty-two in order to eventually find your stride as a writer and to find an interesting literary job that makes you happy. Like most of us, Erica is still getting there. It’s both fun and comforting to watch. Also, you can watch the whole two seasons free online through CBC.

Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, Rampike, and Matrix magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.

3 comments:

John Lofranco said...

I like this show because it is filmed around the neighbourhood where I grew up (the house she lives in is on Palmerston Ave, a very nice street with fun lamp posts). I also enjoy the literary aspects of it. Most of all though, the time travel. So cool. I love time travel.

Ross McKie said...

The show's inadvertent theme speaks more to a burgeoning dystopia than to the self-actualization of some half-baked Goethe Super(Wo)man. It's cutesy apocryphra bespeaks of the story of a wanderer, who knows that not even the lessons of time can silence (at best they mute) the nagging reality of utter alienation, first from one's tribe and then, through juvenile (sitcom, it's true) psychoanalysis, from one's self.

This is a popular theme more boldly tackled by the likes of Douglas Coupland than Erica creators. Sure, it's just TV, but this theme is there and the show--for the sake of both drama and comedy-- would be better served to embrace more this sad aspect of the present condition of twenty and thirty-somethings (et al?).

She is not alone. She chooses to isolate and concentrate on only her goals. She is self-absorbed and a boob (Sanch Panza?). She is mildly hysterical about trivial matters. Now, this can be good drama but it's no celebretory social commentary that enlightens us to the struggles of the New Woman. (It's not gender specific, actually. She could easily be Being Eric.)

Again, it's sad what she represents. The show would do well to think about this darker, somewhat buried theme and bring it out into the light. Let her struggle with Self through a more literate struggle with Other.

Ross McKie said...

Pardon me. That's "Sancho Panza."