Thursday, March 17, 2016

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6 Reasons to Watch and Love Canadian WWII Drama "XCompany"


We history geeks sure do love a good costume drama, but these days *good* costume dramas seems harder and harder to find. It might have good costumes but a terrible plot; it might have terrible costumes and a great plot; it might have terrible costumes, terrible plot, great acting; or it might just be terrible.

I'll admit I'm picky. Nearly all of the period dramas I watch are European, English, or Canadian, each with their own cultural flavor in how they portray historical events.

One of my favorites is "X-Company", a World War II "behind enemy lines" spy thriller, and it's Canadian. The story follows a tight-knit unit infiltrating and sabotaging Nazi operations in occupied France while also helping Jews escape and training French resistance.

And it's awesome.

Evelyne Brochu as Aurora, commander of the spy squad.
Here are 6 Reasons I'm obsessed with X-Company:

1. Good Writing
X-Company is incredibly well written, with multiple story lines happening simultaneously. Some stories begin and end in one episode ("blow up the depot; steal the secret plans"), some are over-arching the whole season, and then within that there are the individual character's development. Since X-Company is an ensemble cast with no lead character, we the audience get insights and information about all of them, which humanizes these fictional people and adds depth to what could otherwise be a predictable show.

2. Good Costuming
Watching a costume drama can be painful (zipper up the back, are you kidding me!?), but the mark of a great historically-set show is when the costuming does not distract but supports.

In X-Company we see plenty of uniforms, both German and Canadian, but also French city and country clothes. Clothing plays an important role tied to what the spies are doing, whom they are meeting, where they are going, etc: commander Aurora wears a well-tailored suit for a specific mission in Paris; Tom wears a pin-striped suit to meet with a doctor; Neil and Harry are in tweeds and flatcaps to blend into provincial townships and not raise suspicions.

The clothes themselves are often real vintage and always well-patina'd. Nothing is too new, shiny, or bright. The color palette uses muted, natural tones that extend through to the locations, lighting, and post processing of the film. Everything visual works together.

Aurora (Evelyne Brochu) targets Sabine, Nazi wife, in an effort to turn her.
3. It's Exciting and Dramatic Without Being Silly
No episode of X-Company allows me to drift off to my smartphone. It's just too exciting. Things are blowing up, people are captured and then escape, there's peril at every turn.

But you know what isn't happening? Nobody is flying through the air in a slow motion kung fu kick. Nobody's is bending over backwards dodging bullets with otherworldy yoga positions. Nobody is wearing leather pants.

It's not silly, which makes it believable. I genuinely believe these events could have taken place and I care about the characters. It's good acting, complicated human emotions, relatable and realistc action that glues me to the screen, not an excess of blood, out-of-place sex scenes, or superhuman MMA fighting skills.

Aurora and Oberfuhrer Franz Faber (award-winning German actor Torben Liebrecht) come face to face after a season and a half of parallel storylines.
4. It's Canadian
As an American, I love this aspect of X-Company because I know *nothing* about Canada's role in WWII. Nothing. Naturally, I have the American perspective. I know the American history. I know the before, during, and after of America in the War.

But Canada? Not a bit.

X-Company is a dramatization, sure, but what we can take away from it as American viewers is as much about how the current Canadian culture thinks of this period of history as the story itself. (Think about how WWII is portrayed in American TV shows and movies...what does this say about our culture/entertainment/storytelling/expectations/view of history today?) I notice a pretty big difference between the Canadian shows (Bomb Girls is another one you might enjoy) and the American ones, and it reminds me that though we speak the same language and share a border, Canada is an entirely different culture with its own history, pride, beliefs, struggles, humor, and identity.

Harry (Connor Price), Neil (Warren Brown), and Alfred (Jack Laskey) scoping things out in the bushes
5. Languages and Subtitles
X-Company deals with three different languages - English, French, and German - which are cleverly used to sculpt the story and characters. When the spies speak as themselves, it's in their normal accents (flat Canadian/American sound), but when they're posing as French nationals, they speak English with a French accent.

However, the German characters speak subtitled German, and when our valiant spies are speaking to the Germans....yup, they're speaking German. My theory on why the show runners did this is to create a feeling of division in the audience between the good guys and the bad guys - the good guys are like us, they speak English, we understand them; the bad guys are "alien."

It's subtle but has a profound psychological impact on the viewer. For instance, the first time we hear one of the German characters speak in English (with a French accent) is when daring spy Aurora begins to turn her. I'm willing to bet that the first time we hear Oberfuhrer Franz Faber speak in English will be when he starts to turn to the good guys too (at least that's what I hope is going to happen!).

The Germans speak German. What a revelation!
6. Everyone In X-Company Is Hot
Seriously. I don't think I've ever seen a cast this big that looks this good. Evelyne Brochu (Orphan Black) opposite Francois Arnaud (The Borgias); English super-talents Jack Laskey (Endeavor) and Warren Brown (Good Cop, Luther). Torben Liebrecht, Connor Price, Dustin Milligan. Crikey. Even if you watch it on "mute," it's worth it.

Tom (Dustin Milligan) and Neil (Warren Brown) doing secret spy things on Parisian rooftops, and looking lovely in waistcoats.
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I don't think I need to convince you further. If you'd like to learn more about X-Company, check out the CBC website, and follow @xcompany on Twitter. Season 1 is available on DVD on Amazon. Enjoy!

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17 comments:

  1. I recently discovered this show and loved it. I am beyond irritated that the CBC won't let me watch it online. Waiting for Season 2 on DVD is going to be very hard indeed!

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    1. Yes, I am bummed about that too. The stills from Season 2 look *intense*

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  2. S2 DVD is available to pre order on amayon. It will be released May 3rd.

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  3. Ooo, I'm going to have to search for this in the UK. I love Warren Brown and wondered what he was up to now. This looks very interesting indeed.

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    1. I do believe it is airing in the UK. Warren Brown is my favorite too - after seeing him in this role I've been working my way through his filmography (which is a LOT). Good Cop rather blew my mind. Epic!

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  4. I love this show. It is so good, so intense, week by week. It always leaves you wanting more. Episode 8, (Fatherland), season 2 is by far the best yet! This would be a terrific series to binge watch.

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  5. I have been following your blog for a few years now, and I am so excited that you have been watching X Company! As a Canadian, it is very nice to have a show about our history that is really good. Canada actually played a really large role in both WW1 and WW2 and its great that something shows that, and shows it well. And the costumes are fabulous too! Thank you so much for putting this show in the spotlight so that we can maybe get another season:)

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    1. Absolutely! I would be gutted if there wasn't another season, too!

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  6. Love this on many levels. Like Kate Funk, I am a Canadian and when I was a kid, you could tell Canadian television at a glance. Something about the video style. And it was terrible. I'm happy we have moved up a notch! I also love that Americans can see our history and culture because we truly are different! And because of American television, I feel we are more aware of the history and culture of Americans than Americans know about us! As close neighbors we really should have better understanding of each other!

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    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. American TV, at the moment, is so "loud." It's so overdramatic and shouty and always, always tied to politics, one side or the other. I watch so little American TV these days that it's a shock to the system when I do, and not in a good way.

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  7. I'm so so happy your post convinced me. Binge-watched the first season yesterday and it's hands down one of the best shows I've ever seen (and I'm a devoted Game of Trones watcher, so my expectations are high). Each episode is like a good thriller, the characters are interesting and the portrayal of ww2 seems realistic to me. I mean, obviously the group's inability to fail seems suspicious, but at the same time the show accentuates some important moral issues and choices - it's a nice change compared to ww2 themed series where the good guys just run around shooting the bad guys. I really love how the show highlights the fact that the good guys aren't crystal clear and sometimes they too have to kill innocent civilians in order to get things done.

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    1. I'm so glad you like it! I feel exactly the same. :-)

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  8. I will watch this show. Looks like it's right up my alley! You also got me turned on to Miss Fisher! Thanks.

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  9. Ooh, I'd been wondering about this show; the ads on public transit here in Toronto are very bland -- I wasn't even sure if it was a period piece because they made it look so slick and modern and gave absolutely no information about the series. Good to read a positive review from someone who knows their stuff! Being Canadian, I *loved* Bomb Girls, even if it was a little cheesy and had atrocious "swing dancing" scenes. Definitely have to add X Company to my list of shows to watch! Thanks for the review :)

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  10. Here's a precision about language and subtitles you may want to read. It explains that the characters are "speaking french" when using french accent. The actors don't in reality or else 50% of the show would be subbed.

    http://www.cbc.ca/xcompany/m/dispatches/inside-the-writing-room-accents-in-x-company

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