No more Canada jokes, eh?
According to our hero, “A zine is a handmade publication made purely out of passion.” More specifically, a zine is a small, four to eight page black and white booklet, hand copied and stapled, containing Xeroxed cutouts from books and magazines, various doodles, and the creator’s own writings about…anything and everything. Our Hero is about a girl with a zine, in which she lays out all the details of her life, both the embarrassing moments and the inspiring ones. This hit Canadian TV series is now out on DVD—all 26 episodes of it, in a four-disc set. Here’s what it looked like.
High school senior Kale Stiglic (Cara Pifko, The Unfolding) has had enough. Her father Joey (Robert Bockstael) is a popular humor columnist who often uses his daughter’s misadventures as fodder for his writing. To retaliate, Kale creates her own zine, detailing the ups and downs of her life for the entire world to see.
And what busy a life it is. Kale’s friends at school include Mary E. (Jeanie Calleja), who is both a devout Catholic and a party girl; Ross (Justin Peroff), a jokester who may or may not be gay; and Dalal (Vic Sahay), the cool-headed voice of wisdom. At home, Kale’s dad and mom (Mimi Kuzyk) try to give their daughter what guidance they can, and Kale’s adult brother Ethan (Michael George) moves back in after a messy divorce, with hopes of pursuing a new career as a stand up comedian.
Question of the day:
What is this show really about? “Funny high school girl with a zine” makes for a nice log line, but this is actually a busy show, with a lot going on in each episode. Prepare to have a long list of characters and side characters to keep track of, and story arcs that go on for several episodes at a time. As this set contains both the first and second seasons, viewers will also be able to follow narrative threads that last throughout each season, making for some nicely structured storytelling. There are laughs galore, but there’s also romance, sadness, and the struggles of daily life. The titular zine is merely the framework with which to tell the story of one girl’s life.
Watching this show is kind of like watching a tennis game, with a constant “back and forth” between comedy and drama. At one second, it’s clever, surprising, and gut-bustingly funny. Then, a second later, suddenly it’s saccharine and preachy. Then, sometimes within the same scene, it’s back to being flat-out hilarious. I’m sure some viewers will get wrapped up in the big tear-jerky emotional moments, but for me, the show is at its best when it’s making with the laughs. Kale is a fun character, and some of the witticisms she makes during her various misadventures are good ones. Her friends and family, likewise, are similarly witty, making for a lot of great, quotable lines in each episode. When the show then starts to turn serious, it occasionally pulls at the heartstrings genuinely, but more often than not, it takes the easy way out, relying on trite sentimentalism. But, to continue the tennis game metaphor, whenever this happens, we’re very quickly hit back over the other side of the net for more comedy. Each episode moves along at such a brisk pace that neither the humor nor the dramatics overstay their welcome.
In the bonus features, the creators state that one of their goals for the series was to find humor in even the saddest of situations. In one very funny scene, Kale and Mary E. commiserate over the many problems in their lives, after which one of them, in search of a silver lining, says, “At least we’re cutely self-aware.” This bit made me laugh, but it also sums up what’s enjoyable about this series and these characters.
Some things I know:
It’s a rare and wonderful treat to find a TV series that gives you the same feel as watching hip, independent filmmaking. Okay, sure, this was a network show in Canada, but it had a tiny budget and an even tinier schedule. The commentaries reveal that although most TV series complete one episode per week, the creators of Our Hero were forced to get two episodes in the can every six days. This hectic timetable, combined with only four sets and no funds for any location shooting, would have crushed some less imaginative or dedicated writers and directors. Instead, like good indie filmmakers, the heroes behind Our Hero made the most of what they had, using a number of creative and amusing shortcuts to get their story told.
Chief among these are the animated scenes, created in a rough-looking zine style. Using some low-rent paper cut animation—not unlike the classic Monty Python toons—almost every animated bit is a winner. Not only does it give the storytellers a chance to show what happens when the characters are away from the standing sets, but they can do it with abandon, getting as creative and silly as they want, and the audience still buys it.
The now gal’s guide to everything:
Although Our Hero is mostly light and breezy, know that it deals with some pretty heavy topics. How tactfully (or not) it deals with these topics will depend on what you bring to the series with you. First among these is the big stinker that’s not far from most people’s minds: sex. Kale does have sex, and it’s treated in a somewhat straightforward manner. Sure, nothing graphic happens on screen, and there are consequences to deal with, but it’s such a tightrope that some viewers will nod and say, “I’ve been there,” while others will be shocked and wonder where Kale’s parents went wrong.
If sex isn’t enough for you, then how about some drugs? One entire episode is devoted to marijuana use, which of course leads to both stoner jokes and serious “gateway drug” worries. Also, alcohol use is frequent among the high school-age characters, to the point where they head off to drink every weekend like it’s no big deal. Again, this is done in a straightforward manner, so it’s up to you whether you’re shocked by this.
Following drugs and sex, the list is rounded out by the big one: death. A recurring character dies halfway through the series (I’m not saying who) and this has a lasting impact on Kale and the others. Of all the big, important topics here, this is actually the one covered with the most sensitivity and honest emotion. It’s one of the few times the creators actually manage to get the dramatic half of the series right, without it feeling forced, making it the high point of Our Hero. And don’t worry; there are some unexpected but welcome laughs during all this as well.
As Kale, Cara Pifko provides viewers with a girl who is indeed heroic, in her own little way. Kale is a relentlessly positive person, who usually has a bright smile and a kind word for most folks—but never in an annoying, “talk show host” kind of way. She comes across as someone you’d want to hang out with. Jeanie Calleja has a trickier part to pull off. Her Mary E. (never just “Mary”) is both a feisty party girl and a pious Christian. Is she a hypocrite, or a rich dichotomy? This question is never fully answered, but Calleja gives it all her enthusiasm. As Ross, Justin Peroff plays a character that also walks in contradictory shoes. Ross may or may not be gay—even he doesn’t know. Fortunately, Peroff’s easy-going manner comes across just fine on screen, so that his sexual identity issues never overwhelm his role as a supportive best friend.
At home, Michael George is maybe a little too good at playing an unfunny stand up comedian. He and Pifko have some great chemistry, though. It’s when the dealing with Kale’s parents that the show’s writers most often turn to tired sitcom clichés, so we never really get to see Robert Bockstael and Mimi Kuzyk at their best. Overall, though, the cast is a good one, handling the serious and hilarious halves of each story with equal skill.
My interview with me:
Mac: Thank you for joining us in the studio today, Mac.
Mac: My pleasure, Mac.
Mac: So tell me, is it true you have some concerns about the romance elements of Our Hero?
Mac: That’s correct. As much as I enjoyed the series, not all of Kale’s relationship woes worked for me.
Mac: Such as?
Mac: See, in a lot of romantic comedies, the creators spend a lot of time and effort making sure their female protagonist is a well-rounded human being with both positive qualities as well as flaws to overcome. And yet, somehow the guy she falls for is nothing but a Ken doll—all good looks and sharp clothes with zero personality. This always bugs me about romcoms, and it bugged me in Our Hero as well.
Mac: But what about Kale’s first love interest, Perfectly Frank (Mark Taylor), who is revealed to be not so perfect?
Mac: That was a nice twist, but Frank disappears a few episodes in. That’s when Kale meets Bill (Daniel Enright).
Mac: You mean you didn’t like Bill? The abusive, uncaring, stoner boyfriend? I’m shocked.
Mac: It’s more than that. Kale is devoted to Bill, professing her love for him on several occasions, while her friends and family insist that he’s wrong for her. The problem is that we almost never see Bill and Kale together. We only hear about their romance from the sidelines. How can we understand what Kale is going through when we have no sense of what this relationship is like?
Mac: There are other boys wooing Kale, though. What about her second season boytoy, Malachi (Christopher Ralph)?
Mac: Malachi, a world traveler and political activist, does get a lot more screen time and is a slightly more well-written character. Unfortunately he too gets a case of “Ken doll” syndrome at times, when any depth he has gets chucked aside so viewers’ hearts can melt when he and Kale start kissing.
Mac: These are some pretty harsh criticisms, you know. Especially since you say you liked the series overall.
Mac: I just wish that someday, romantic comedy writers will come up with an interesting guy for the interesting girl to fall for.
Mac: Looks like it’s almost time to return to the review proper. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us, Mac.
Mac: No problem, Mac.
Here’s what it looked like:
Our Hero‘s video and audio come across just fine, never once revealing the show’s low budget nature. This series has a lot of bright, vivid colors, and they all come across with clarity. The 2.0 audio is not as impressive as a full-blown 5.1 track would have been, especially considering the music used in some key scenes, but it shows no flaws, with all the dialogue and sharp one-liners coming across nicely. Three episodes get commentaries, thanks to a room full of producers, writers and actors all chatting at once. These cover a lot of ground, from the show’s creation, to origins of certain script ideas, to some hilarious recollections from filming. These are great commentaries, leaving the viewer wanting more. Rounding out the extras are two partially-funny blooper reels, two photo galleries, a TV spot, and some text bios of the cast. It’s also worth noting that the packaging boasts “Eternal Life” as one of the extras. This is one of many little inside jokes hidden all over the box, the inside booklet, and on the discs themselves.
No jury would convict me:
One of my favorite episodes here is “The Gutsy Issue” in which Kale, desperate for interesting material to write about in her zine, sets out to do something gutsy. The spirit of adventure in this one is infectious. Because of this episode—and the series as a whole, really—I felt the desire to do the same. I wanted to put my life out on the world’s stage as a blog or an indie comic or whatever. Kale’s ordinary, everyday life becomes an adventure just by her writing about it and sharing it with others, and it stirred in me an interest to do the same, to be gutsy and turn my own sad, boring life into a funny, touching and unpredictable adventure for others to enjoy. Our Hero inspired me to write. I can think of no higher praise.
Our Hero is easily one of the better teen series you’ll come across. If you can forgive the occasional slip into standard TV sitcom formulas, you’ll walk away with a riotously funny and sometimes touching story about a girl and her zine. Recommended.