Sometimes, when it seems the glut of extreme reality shows and contrived sitcoms has lowered TV fare beyond rescue, there comes a show to remind the entertainment execs that simpler is often better. And not just better, but popular as well.
That show is Heartland, and even though some may be surprised at the success of this low-key Canadian hit, they shouldn’t be.
The premise is straightforward. Jack Bartlett (played by Shaun Johnston) is the patriarch of the family ranch, Heartland. When his daughter Marion dies suddenly, Jack is left to run Heartland?and to care for Marion’s daughters, Amy (Amber Marshall) and Lou Fleming (Michelle Morgan).
Complicating matters are the arrival of Ty Borden (Graham Wardle), a new ranch hand with a troubled past; the loss of Lou’s job in New York; and the efforts of the girls? estranged father Tim (Chris Potter) to work his way back into their lives.
If the storylines seem closer to reality than most ?reality? shows, That’s because they are. You won’t find car chases, shootouts, or shrieking celebrities?and That’s the key to Heartland‘s charm.
That, and solid performances from the ensemble cast. All the lead actors hail from Canada, and all have spent time training, studying, and working their way up in the business. And it shows. There’s an understated quality to Heartland that sometimes makes it seem as though the viewer is eavesdropping on real situations. There are no histrionics or overly theatrical gestures. Characters express emotions, sure, but the production is refreshingly free of the exaggerated self-awareness that plagues so many shows (think Private Practice).
In a recent interview, actor Graham Wardle explained that one of the first things that attracted him to the show was that same sense of restraint.
?It was actually during the audition for the pilot,? Wardle says. ?The director who did the pilot, who continues to direct the episodes, Dean Bennett, he gave me a direction. He said ?I want you to try and not show us as much. This character has a sort of a dark past, a hidden past, and I want you to sort of mask it and then slowly reveal it.?? That process of ?getting to know someone, to dig deeper, is part of life,? Wardle adds, ?and I found that was a great aspect of Ty’s character.?
As the show has evolved over its first two seasons, and embarks on the third season, Wardle has found Ty’s character changing in unexpected ways.
?I never thought he would become a vet,? Wardle says. ?But now that his direction is becoming a vet, it makes complete sense to me.? There are several aspects of Ty’s character that have grown, Wardle explains, and he says that Heather Conkie, the show’s head writer and executive producer, ?is really great at keeping me up to date on why [Ty is] doing things and what’s going on in his mind.?
Wardle notes that being part of the show is a truly collaborative effort, and Conkie and the other writers ?are really great with everyone, listening to their ideas and their thoughts.?
Working with an ensemble over several years means that cast and crew can also become as close as their onscreen personas.
?I call them my second family,? Wardle says, ?because you see them every day, all day, and It’s another family. It’s a group of people that I’ve become really close with and we’re all really good friends. It’s really fun to be a part of that.?
Along with acting, Wardle has a strong interest in photography but he says that isn’t always a plus when he steps on set.
It can be helpful, but sometimes ?you have to shut that mind off. If your mind is thinking about what the camera is seeing while You’re in the scene you’ll lose focus. So what I like to do is, when we’re blocking the scene or we’re talking about how It’s going to work, I’ll have that mind running a bit when we’re rehearsing . . . And then when the cameras start rolling and we start to do the take, I have to turn that mind off and focus on being in the moment of what’s going on in the scene.?
While three years of film school gave Wardle an understanding of the technical aspects of the craft, the Vancouver native had to do some prep to get ready for Heartland’s rural setting.
?All my roles before, and pretty much my whole life, has been in the city,? Wardle says, ?so coming out to Heartland and going out on the farm . . . was a completely different experience. And because my character had never done it, I paid close attention to how I was feeling and what was different about Heartland compared to the city.?
Heartland‘s approach is paying off. At the Writers Guild of Canada’s recent WGC Screenwriting Awards in Toronto, Heather Conkie was presented with the 4th Annual WGC Showrunner Award ?to honour her exceptional leadership and creative vision.? The show has also received 13 nominations for the 36th Annual Alberta Film and Television Awards (to be presented May 15), including Best Dramatic Series, Best Performance by an Alberta Actor (both Shaun Johnston and Nathaniel Arcand are nominated), and Best Production Designer.
If You’re already a fan of the show, you’ll know that seasons one and two are available on DVD. If not, you owe it to yourself to check out this homegrown success story.