THE ECHO OF STRANGE EMPIRE

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.

Rebecca Blithely (Farman) / Isabelle Slotter (Jones) / Kat Loving (Gee) / John Slotter (Poole) – CBC Image

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. 

Image – 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)

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16 thoughts on “THE ECHO OF STRANGE EMPIRE

  1. This show is far too important and interesting to be cancelled.
    The fact that the show deals with many subjects that people can relate to today as well makes it very interesting. And since its mainly about these women who have to create a new life for themself from day one, many women as well as men around the world symphatize with them. And everyone now wants to know what happens next to the citizens of Janestown.
    I live in Europe and watched the show from day one and have actively tweeted about the show with the cast as well as other fans. When watching I sit like hypnotised and sometimes even forget to breath as I get so caught up in what is happening on the screen. This rearly else happens to me. I easily get distracted by other things and leaves the TV while watching. But not with SE.
    My heart broke when we got the message that the show had been cancelled, but I won’t give up. The show must come back.
    So I’m will continue to tweet about this fantastic show with its talented cast.

    1. Thanks for the time of your comment, Katarina, and indeed you are one of the individuals I thought of when writing about Twitter interactions between the show and viewers (having read a number of your Tweets). All the best,
      Chad

      1. Thanks for the reply, which I failed to notice until today.
        I’m madly in love with the show but some days I feel like I’m harassing Twitter and all the actors with my tweets about Saving Strange Empire. But I try to create as much noise as possible, the show won’t come back by itself so to say.
        I love that people are discussing the show and its cancellation and read all comments here with great interest.
        Regading the reason behind the cancellation I have really tried to think of every possible cause to why it was cancelled. It’s for certain not due to too few viewers, since the CBC created show Heartland has about 200 000-300 000 viewers each episode and Strange Empire had around 400 000 viewers from what I heard. (Heartland is btw on its 9 th season with the same kind of numbers.) When Strange Empire was cancelled I heard from various directions that it was because some people with an political agenda felt uncomfortable with the subjects dealt with on the show. I have however refused to believe that it’s true because in my world what airs on Tv in the Western world is not decided by politicians or people with an political agenda.
        Here in Sweden we have 2 channels that are partly “state-funded” partly funded by fees paid by Swedens citizens (abt 70 $ every third month), but that doesnt mean that the politicians decide what shows the Tv-channels should produce or air. So it feels very strange to me that its allowed to censor what program that should air on CBC. Maybe they do it differently in Canada?

        But now Canada has a new government and a PM that seems to be willing to give CBC more fundings (and also seems to be willing to admit that Canada previously has treated its Aboriginal population very bad.) This makes me kind of interested in if it today would be possible to find the real reason behind the cancelation.
        And also, I think that continuing to tweet CBC about them making a season 2 can be a great thing. They should know that the viewers want it back and that someone within or outside CBC screwed up. They choose to renew Schitt’s creek and other shows that definitly doesnt have the same quality.

        Strange Empire has a solid fanbase around the world thanks to Netflix and I kind of hope they will buy the show from CBC if CBC wont take it up again. (Fans in Latin America has even created E-petitions in order to save the show.) And like I said last year, I’m not ready to let go of this show. I hope the rest of the fans feels the same way!

  2. Chad, thank you for this balanced and well written piece. For lay people such as myself your contextualizing where the show is at in the grand scheme of things is helpful, but I am still both baffled and somewhat angered by the CBC’s strange and rather lame explanation for its cancellation. The language of non-speak was truly at work. I would like to think that the surge of acclamation for the series now being batted around social media would ultimately turn the heads of someone important enough to at least attempt a resurrection! We can but hope!

    1. Cheers for the comment, Bob, and I’m glad to know the article was helpful. Further to your point about support for the show post-cancellation, you might be interested to learn that Strange Empire was in fact trending on US Netflix at the start of September!

      Chad

      1. Thanks Chad, yes I’ve been aware of the U.S. Trending – I’ve followed the activity closely on Twitter. I find it strange that I feel so strongly about this show – it’s not really my nature to get caught up in something like this, but as Katarina says in an earlier comment, this show is too important to be dropped. From its strong writing, strong acting and its perfectly dark ‘mood’, to its dealing with relevant issues and promoting such strength in the female leads, indeed all the female roles, it’s like it all came brilliantly together in this one series. Over time I’m sure this will become recognized for the powerful drama that it is.

  3. Mr. Beharriell,

    It is absolutely mind boggling to me that CBC would can this excellently written and superbly filmed program, not to mention the outstanding acting and proper wardrobe in this series. Why? What was the reason for it’s cancellation? Did the folks running the network simply have a total mental implosion? I have just completed watch Strange Empire for the second time on Netflix and for the network to leave us all hanging like this at the end of season one is just sadistic! Is there any news of uprising against the CBC for being so stupid as to do this to the viewing public? I pray this fine drama does not go the way of Farscape, just leave us hanging. Always wondering, what happens next.

    1. Hello John…thanks for the time of a visit and your comment. In terms of the reasons given publicly by the CBC as to Strange Empire’s cancellation, they were unfortunately quite vague. The state-funded network basically said it was a scheduling issue, in terms of fitting various programs into its prime-time line-up.

      Yes, there has been quite a groundswell of support for the series on social media but we are now approaching almost the one-year mark of its cancellation and it doesn’t appear that CBC will re-visit its decision.
      Thanks,
      Chad

      1. Chad,

        I wasn’t aware that CBC was “State” funded. So this would explain some what why this really thought provoking program was kicked to the side of the road. I’m indeed perplexed that this program has not been brought to the commercial stations, if there is any, for possible continuance. It is a true shame this show and its wonderful cast is being so disregarded wish we could get a e-petition going to save this program.

      2. Thanks for the follow-up comment, John. The issue of taxpayer support is interesting in two distinct ways as relates to Strange Empire. First, some within government circles may not have appreciated the critical lens applied to CDN history. Second, the executives at CBC were not very forthcoming as to the reasons for the show’s cancellation, beyond a vague “scheduling” issue. I personally felt that when you are making decisions with tax dollars, you should be as transparent as possible.

        If you are interested in coalescing support for the show, I would direct you to the Twitter hashtag #StrangeEmpire – a number of viewers/supports continue to discuss the series via that tag. There is in fact an e-petition that has begun for the show’s return:
        http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/bring-strange-empire-back/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=button

        Cheers,
        Chad

  4. Hi John – not sure where you live, but in case you’re from the U.S., it might be worth clarifying that when we say ‘state’ funded here, we mean federal (as opposed to provincial). Not sure if I needed to say that so forgive me if you already knew it!

  5. I think my comment just got sent away without me getting to finish the last sentence. So if the end look strange just cut that part before posting, thanks 🙂
    Hope the whole comment didn’t disapear.

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