It is the strange case of Strange Empire – the female-led Western series, critically-acclaimed and fan-supported, cancelled by host network CBC, and now discovered and enjoyed by thousands of viewers after ending. While this site followed and reviewed each episode of the show’s first season, it is worth commenting on the continuing “echo” of Strange Empire and how this phenomenon occurred.
Created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and launched in October 2014 by the Canadian national broadcaster, CBC, Strange Empire is set in the Alberta-Montana region of 1869 and features three female lead roles. Cara Gee is Kat Loving, a Métis woman from the area of what is today Manitoba, Melissa Farman plays Rebecca Blithely, a scientifically-curious young woman from Toronto, and Tattiawna Jones is the ambitious Isabelle Slotter, wife to coal mine and brother owner, John Slotter (Aaron Poole). Despite the disparate backgrounds, events in the first episode will bring the three women together.
Within a framework of strong writing, nuanced ensemble acting, and an inspired setting for production (the show was filmed in British Columbia), Strange Empire explored a number of challenging and important ideas in its first season. Those ideas included the expansion of settler society in the 19th century North American West, the rights of women, Indigenous peoples, and non-Europeans, and quite significantly, notions of gender roles and expectations.
In preparation for the October 6, 2014, debut of the series, CBC advertised the show as an example of a new direction for the broadcaster, one that was more adult, complex, and in line with the major offerings of US cable networks. Promotional videos were released, the actors provided numerous interviews, and the show was publicized strongly across various platforms. Here is one trailer for the series debut:
So it began. As the episodes were rolled out, Strange Empire was celebrated by a number of media outlets, audiences took to social media to express admiration for the show, and the actors themselves interacted with those viewers via Twitter. A solid base of critical and fan support was building for the series, and given that networks will often give a show time to grow, a second season was anticipated.
Then, on March 2nd, 2015, one month after the first season’s conclusion, CBC announced that it was not renewing Strange Empire. Media outlets and fans were dumbfounded. Was this show not the type of series that CBC previously declared it wanted? Did the CBC not lay out a significant budget for its very creation and promotion?
For this writer and others, CBC failed to give clear reasons for the cancellation. The network stated that ratings were not an issue and that it was more a question of scheduling and programming type, which to this writer, infers an executive decision to move away from the specific content of show. In addition to stepping back from important historical issues with contemporary connections, the CBC also removed a leading example of strong and complicated female characters from the TV landscape. From my perspective as a college instructor, I can share that within the Western genre courses I teach, many college students, particularly young women, have been excited to learn about Strange Empire. The show itself has expanded the idea of what a Western can be.
A SECOND LIFE
By spring of 2015, despite the CBC cancellation, Strange Empire began to find a “second life”. On May 29th, the series debuted on The Lifetime Network sister network LMN and featured a new tagline – “Rise of the Women”. This was a major development in terms of audience, as over 80 million US households have access to LMN.
By June, the series had also been picked up by Netflix Canada and in August, by Netflix in the US. The American Netflix currently has some 42 million subscribers. With Amazon Instant Video recently listing the show, the CBC continuing to offer online streaming of the series, and a DVD of the first season also now available, access to Strange Empire has significantly grown in the half-year since its last new episode.
Ironically (and disappointingly), however, it is at this new peak of popularity that many viewers, particularly in the US, are learning of the show’s much earlier cancellation. One only need view the discussion via the Twitter hashtag #StrangeEmpire to see that there is widespread support for continuing the show, and that the support connects to the issues and characters featured. On this Westernsreboot.com site itself, a number of like comments can be found at Comments1 & Comments2.
The question still remains as to whether Strange Empire will be picked up for future production or if it will conclude as an important – but too brief – contribution to television. Can a streaming network like Netflix do for the series what it did for the Western mystery series Longmire, rescuing a show after cancellation by the original host network? Does the production team of cast and crew wish to return to the show and if so, would schedules now allow that? Supporters of the show, such as this writer, can take some consolation in the moment, as the important impact of Strange Empire continues to echo across the digital world into the lives of many.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)